Reservoir 13 – Jon McGregor

Reservoir1313.

Tzameti, lines to a rondeau, chapters in The Art
of War
. Cards per suit, steps to the gallows, loaves in a
baker’s dozen. Diners at the Last Supper, gods at
Valhalla’s banquet, dismemberments of Osiris.
Studio LP’s by The Cure, lunar months every
calendar year, primary members of The Thirteen
Club. Olives, olive leaves, arrows and stars on the Great
Seal of the United States. Players in a rugby
league team; teenagers starring in 13, the Broadway
musical; letters in Bixby, Oklahoma, the city
where Scott Westerfield’s Midnighters trilogy,
gripped by this troublous number, is set. Syllables till
the broken motif of this poem. Lucky for some.
– Stuart Barnes (from “Glasshouses”, UQP, 2016)

Jon McGregor is also obsessed by the number 13 too, his latest novel taking place in a small ex-mining village that is located near Reservoir 13, a region where, on page one, a thirteen-year-old girl goes missing, the book follows the impact of this disappearance and the lives of the villagers (there could possibly be thirteen main players but my mapping couldn’t reconcile to that number) over thirteen years, using thirteen chapters, each containing thirteen sections or paragraphs.

Readers of Jon McGregor’s other works will know his ability to play with shape and form, using the written language as his tool to convey messages that go beyond the simple sentence structure and his latest work is no different.

Using a detached, snappy style, almost journalistic, the short sharp sentences reveal more than what is simply presented on the page, for example, “It was only when they saw the first children on their way to school that Will Jackson remembered he was due at his son’s mother’s house, to fetch the boy for school.” The “son’s mother’s” revealing an ex-partner, somebody removed from Will, not a character in our tale. Each sentence likewise gently crafted, giving you a melancholic and ruminative work.

Winnie’s grandchildren came to visit at the end of the month, and she took them out picking elderflowers in the old quarry by the main road, filling a bin-bag with the foamy white flower-heads and carrying it home on their shoulders. She sat them at the kitchen table and had them zesting the oranges and lemons she’d bought ready, while she picked the flower-heads clean and set them to soak overnight. By the next day they’d lost interest, and refused to leave the television when she added the sugar and fruit juice and heated it gently through. When her daughter came for the children she gave them a bottle of the cordial. IT was still warm and the light shone through it, and Winnie knew it would never be drunk. Her daughter hugged her lightly and kissed her cheek and said they’d see each other soon. The children waved from the back of the car.

The tone and structure lends a lonely air to the whole work, as each sketched character laments their own isolation, all internalised as they move in and out of each other’s orbit. The ghost of the missing girl hovering on the fringes of their world. A desperately sad work, the themes of isolation and internal turmoil bubble along, but never descend into melodrama.

Even though there is a missing child, life in the village continues, returns to “normal”;

The room emptied and the chairs were stacked away. The floor was swept and the lights turned off and Tony went back to the bar.

Throughout this reflective work the ever present changing seasons also feature, nature continues with the birth of badgers, pheasants, foxes and a myriad of birds, also revealed alongside the annual fireworks, cricket match, Mischief Day, harvest display and other recurring community events.

At midnight when the year turned there were fireworks on the big screen in the village hall and the sound of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ along the street. The Cooper twins were out for their first New Year, watching the fireworks from the Hunter place, their mother hurrying them back to bed as soon as the last rocket fell to earth. In the morning the snow was ankle-deep but by noon a hard rain had washed it away. The change came quickly, thick piles of snow falling in on themselves and hurtling away down drains and run-offs to the river, the river bright and loud with it and the streets left scrubbed and darkly gleaming and everywhere the first green tips of snowdrops nosing out of the soil. After the rain there was a quiet, the melting of roof-snow down drainpipes, and the calling of birds on thawing ground, and the whine of a chainsaw up in Hunter’s wood.

A novel that expertly draws on the slow passage of time, the recurring and the constants the features with the insignificance of individuality bubbling along like the local stream. I continue to remain a fan of Jon McGregor’s work, his book being one of the few novels written in English that I have read in the last twelve months, this book not changing my views on his ever-expanding oeuvre, meaning I will be searching out further new releases of his in the future.

The structure around the unlucky number “13” an interesting and haunting approach, with the “paragraphs” not forming a usual expected construction, concurrent events blending into one another as the lunar months pass, the passage of time ever present in the reading.

Longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize, an award that this blog was originally established to follow, it is a book that is a worthy inclusion, and although I no longer follow the award itself it is a book that I would happily include on past shortlists. Given the style differs greatly from your standard “English Literature” fare, I believe it is a work that should go far when the winner of the 2017 award is debated.

 

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Antígona González – Sara Uribe (translated by John Pluecker) – 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry

AntigonaGonzalez

Today more from Mexico, moving from Valeria Luiselli’s latest book “Tell Me How It Ends” back to the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry longlist. Sara Uribe’s “Antígona González” uses the daughter/sister of Oedipus and the tale where she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices who was killed in battle, and transposes the search for a corpse to the present Mexican landscape where numerous people go missing.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching/among the dead for the corpse of my brother. (p7)

A work that is a grieving book, for a missing brother, for nameless bodies, for an uncaring society that allows disappearances to become the norm.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people. (p103)

Our poet’s missing brother is Tadeo and Sara Uribe uses a raft of inputs to explore disappearance, “the verb to disappear”, this is a heart wrenching work gives voice, and life, to the nameless, the anonymous;

 In my dream, I’m certain one of those suitcases is
Tadeo’s. Mamá gave him that name because he was
the one who struggled most at birth. She promised
ninety novenas to Saint Jude if he would save her son.
She prayed those novenas and baptized him in his
honor so that the hope of the hopeless would always
shine on him. So that the smallest of her children
would never forget that from his very birth he had
overcome adversity. (p43)

Through extensive use of space, some pages with central text, others from the top, others from the bottom of the page, the English translation appears alongside the Spanish text. The all-encompassing vastness of the Mexican desert, the missing persons and a fruitless search is relayed through the visual open presentation;

So I head out to my job on an empty stomach and as
I drive I thank of all the gaps, all the absences no one
notices and yet are there. (p81)

The stress, tension of not knowing comes through in the tight language, it is easy to imagine the poet ranting these lines at you, yelling her frustration at you. The book contains fourteen pages of references and notes, a detailed explanation of the resources used to create this multi-layered work, quotes from blogs, italicised text an interloper’s voice, facts including testimonies from victims and family members as compiled by journalists and quotes from other writers, including a sequence of questions by Harold Pinter from the poem “Death”, such as “WHO WAS THE DEAD BODY?” with answers coming from various other sources, the book resembles a performance art piece rather than simply a poetry collection.

All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches
for us, if no one names us.

All of us here will gradually disappear if we just look
helplessly at each other, watching how we disappear one
by one. (p 165)

A book that explores the impacts of people disappearing, the grief that remains behind, the questioning, “the interpretation of Antigone is radically altered in Latin America – Polynices is identified with the marginalized and disappeared” (p23)

Also including seventeen pages of translator notes;

There is a startling specificity to this Antígona. We are in Tamaulipas, a state along the Gulf coast in Mexico and bordering the Río Bravo/Rio Grande in South Texas. It is a time of brutal violence that strains the very definition of the word “war,” as it evades any previous understanding of what “war” might be. A specific moment and a specific horror.

Antígona González is not Sophocles’ Antigone, though Uribe’s book is inexorably tied to the long trajectory of Sophocles’ tragedy. In his version, Antigone could not bear the dictate of Creon to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain. In Uribe’s version, Antígona González is bereft of a body to mourn, a body to bury. (p191)

Including a rationalisation process where the poet wonders what to do with Tadeo’s killers, the various stages of grieving are walked through as you become further and further frustrated at the lack of knowledge, the unknown and the endless missing persons, this is a very complex and moving book. Yet another worthwhile inclusion on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlists.

2017 Miles Franklin Award Longlist

LovingFaithful

The longlist for the 2017 Miles Franklin Literary Award has been announced.

A literature award that was first awarded in 1957, it is presented each year to the novel which if “of the highest literary merit and presents Australian life in any of its phases.”

A first prize of AUD$60,000 makes the Miles Franklin Award one of the most sought after in Australia. The Award was established through the will of the author Miles Franklin (most well-known for the work “My Brilliant Career”).

The winner will be announced in September, with the shortlist to be announced on 18 June 2017.

Here is the 2017 Longlist

Steven Amsterdam “The Easy Way Out”

Emily Mcguire “An Isolated Incident”

Mark O’Flynn “The Last Days of Ava Langdon”

Ryan O’Neill “Their Brilliant Careers”

Josephine Rowe “A Loving, Faithful Animal”

Philip Salom “Waiting”

Inga Simpson “Where The Trees Were”

Kirsten Tranter “Hold”

Josephine Wilson “Extinctions”

 

Instructions Within – Ashraf Fayadh (translated by Mona Kareem, Mona Zaki and Jonathan Wright) – Best Translated Book Award Poetry 2017

InstructionsWithin

In November 2015 Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death for renouncing Islam, his original sentence of four years in prison and 800 lashes in May 2014 was overturned on appeal and a “new panel of judges rules that his repentance did not prevent his execution.” (“The Guardian 20/11/2015 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/20/saudi-court-sentences-poet-to-death-for-renouncing-islam) A further appeal has resulted in an eight year jail sentence and 800 lashes to be carried out over 16 occasions.

“In August 2013, he was detained by the mutaween (religious police) following a complaint that he was cursing against Allah and the prophet Muhammad, insulting Saudi Arabia and distributing a book of his poems that promoted atheism. Fayadh said the complaint arose from a personal dispute during a discussion in a cafe in Abha.” (“The Guardian” 3/2/2016)

His collection of poems “Instructions Within” was published, in translation, by The Operating System in November 2016 and was recently longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award (Poetry).

The first thing that strikes you when you pick up this collection is the binding, right bound, opening to the left, the book comes with an insert explanation from Lynne DeSilva-Johnson, the Founder and Managing Editor;

Each of The Operating System’s books questions design standard in order to dislodge our normative patterning and expectation, with the belief that continuous exposure to diversity on the page – both in content and design – affect not only the cognitive brain by the body as well, in so far as this required the ‘rewiring’ of brain behaviors, essentially getting us out of a ‘rut’ of repetitive reception.

INSTRUCTIONS WITHIN goes one step farther – requiring the western reader to hold and read the book as one would an Arabic or Hebrew volume, that is, by being right-bound. The westerner might find him or herself saying that the book ‘starts at the back’ or feeling vaguely uncomfortable holding the book and/or turning pages ‘backward’ but this is precisely the point: to disrupt the proprioceptic modelling that tells you that the way to do things, your patterning is not only yours but ‘right’ or ‘normal,’ when in fact hundreds of millions of people – billions of people – experience books and texts in directions different from our own.

Reading you are certainly off kilter, with the English versions of the poems appearing on the left page and the Arabic versions on the right, working from “the back”.

Immediately you are struck by the writer as a refugee;

The air is polluted, and the dumpsters,
and your soul, too, ever since it got mixed up with carbon.
And your heart, ever since the arteries got blocked
denying citizenship
to the blood coming back from your head.

  • From “A Space In The Void” (p6)

This opening poem setting the tone, space abounds, on the page, in the text, the loss of personal space, a newborn “child to fill another part of the void” (p14) even sleep is to “go back to your void” (p18). The page lightly peppered with the test, the white page filling the void.

The political is not far from the poet’s pen either with people displaced from their lands for oil, the poem “On The Virtues Of Oil Over Blood” containing;

You tremble now,
so take what there is of your blood
to fill the belly of exile –
to gather the overseers’ oil
and smother their intention to drag away your soul.
Ask forgiveness of the river –
and loudly apologize as your blood seeps into its waters. (p32)

The notes on page 42 explaining, “Almost all of this poem is quoted by the court that ruled for Ashraf’s death sentence.” The themes of the heart, desire, corpses, blood, oil and displacement are the recurring images, poem after poem.

I am looking for a land to love…or to love me
for a homes to shelter all the captives
of a war that didn’t carry any burdens
To lay them down.
I am looking for a ceiling other than a sky,
sick of veiling my shameful history

  • From “A Hired Lover” (p80)

The book also includes experimental works as in “B.I.M.”;

01000101011010101
01000101011010101
01000101011010101
compare and choose what the world accepts of you
I am
10001
I am
000
I am
1

(p 170)

This is activist poetry, poetry of oppression, jail cells, writing on walls, the conditions of being interred, all of this visited in the twenty-page poem “Amnesty”.

Although a 296-page book, the dual language presentation and some of the pages containing a mere two or three lines, it is not a weighty tome. Personally, I found the shorter one or two page poems more coherent, the longer ten to twenty page ones some of the symbolism or references were too obscure or politically specific for me to understand.

Being a refugee means standing at the end of the line
to get a fraction of a country.
Standing is something your grandfather did, without knowing the reason.
And the fraction is you.
Country: a card you put in your wallet with your money.
Money: pieces of paper with pictures of leaders.
Pictures: they stand in for you until you return.
Return: a mythical creature that appears in your grandfather’s stories.
There endeth the first lesson.
The lesson is conveyed to you so that you can learn the second lesson, which is
“what do you signify?”

  • From “The Last Of The Line Of Refugee Descendants” (p 248)

There are a few poems where the number of Arabic lines differ from the English translated lines, something that I found a little strange.

Overall an important work, one bringing to the English-speaking world the work of an activist poet, wonderfully presented to ensure you are always thinking about the original texts, and the process of reading. I will leave this review with a quote from the end notes by the founder and managing editor of “an operating system” Lynne  DeSilva-Johnson; “For it will, indeed, be the poets (musicians, artists, creators of all kind” who “wake up the world”.” An important message for these uncertain times.