Short Story Review – Vladimir Poleganov – The Feather (trans. Peter Bachev)

My last few letters–five, to be precise–went unanswered and the sixth one . . . well, it was certainly not the response I’d been hoping for or anticipating

Without becoming too overblown about such things, a work of literature is a written act of inclusion and exclusion.  It must be – all texts are.  The author writes and not y in service of their intention and their art.  Clearly, clearly.  The author may be dead, but words must still be chosen, and here we are.

A clear example of this is Vladimir Poleganov’s The Feather (Trans. Peter Bachev), which is a series of letters written by the protagonist to ‘X’.  We are not privy to the responses, and indeed know nothing about X other than the details provided by the unnamed protagonist.  While X does not respond to all of the letters, its clear they do respond to some, and we don’t properly learn their perspective on events, read their words, know their side.

So what, then, do we make of such a text?  It is clearly an exercise of bias, and absolutely must be one-sided.  The letter-writer is not well, it seems, vacillating between affection and disappointment, admonishments and lectures on birds and on memory.  There is an ill-defined ‘they’ referred to which reads to me as medical staff, or caretakers.

I am sorry for that time I called you up at four in the morning, to complain, to talk to . . . someone, really, about how the unknown . . . the unknowable bird’s dark silhouette tortured and terrified me every time I closed my eyes: its blackness, the Feather itself–a single bright spot bringing the vortex of void around it into even sharper relief. Here, it no longer holds power over me. I still see it, perhaps not quite as clearly, in the corner of my eye from time to time, like a diorama of death or a small shadow, a haze, rather, of suppressed desire, but it doesn’t jump out at me anymore, from the depths of my subconscious, indifferent to my frantic attempts to pull myself out of its invisible, murderous tide.

The letter-writer defers explanation, defers telling, and prefers instead to tangle themselves with words far more grandiose than their subject requires.  Why?  Well, because they are avoiding talking about that which truly matters to them, a history between X and themselves which is alluded to but never entirely elucidated.  And why should it be?  I would not lay out my life story in a letter I am writing, because the person receiving it should know.

What this means, then, is that we shift from obsessive detail about birds to lamentations of guilt and exhortations for X to be kinder, be better, be faster at responding, be clearer with their words.  The letter-writer is not well.

In the mid-point of the story the letters attain a higher sense of clarity, become more formal and less epic in scope.  They assume the character of two professors discussing their specialty, sparring gently with their words, leaving enough of a barb in to sting but not cut.

At night, on the other hand, be it due to phosphorus residues or by magic, the graveyard bathes in a light that some may call ghostly, but to me looks more sub-­marine. Whenever I come here after dark, I feel like I’ve just sunk to the bottom of a crisp mountain lake. I look up at the stars, barely visible through the greenish light haze, and all I see is the eyes of some predator, come to hunt at the watering place. I once met an old woman, an augur, negotiating her way across the overgrown alleyways, looking for small bones suitable for divination. It is an art well­-preserved in Avinia and people really believe in it still. I didn’t dare ask her anything, even mundane things like whether it is hard to collect enough bones for a whole session, or what birds carry the brightest futures under their feathers and flesh. I just watched her for a while, her feet dancing between the fragile skeletons, collecting the white letters of tomorrow’s histories.

And then the tone shifts once more, and we wonder if these letters are being written to anyone at all, and might perhaps instead be for the letter-writer themselves, used as an act of cleansing, to explain yourself to yourself.  They become too internal, too intimate, too closely hewn to the endless inner dialogue of a person’s mind.  Why write this, if not to determine what it is, exactly, that is inside your own brain?  We are thinking creatures, but we don’t always know exactly what it is we are thinking about until we can hear ourselves.

I think the use of birds as a way to tie the letters together works, though for me – and this is purely a personal aside – I do not care for birds, so some parts fell flat.  But conceptually it is quite clever.  At times, Poleganov is able to be quite academic in his writing, almost scientific in his literary coldness; and at other times birds are metaphors for life, for death, for travel.  These shifts are bracing and rather effective, but.  But.  Again.  I don’t like birds.

Which makes me the problem here.  Just a touch.

Though I do like the way the story ends with an ‘I’m sorry’.

The Feather is a short story by Bulgarian writer Vladimir Poleganov and was translated by Peter Bachev.  You can read the story at The Brooklyn Rail.

Author Vladimir Poleganov
Title The Feather
Translator Peter Bachev
Nationality Bulgarian
Publisher The Brooklyn Rail

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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