Review – Bogdan Suceavă – Coming from an Off-Key Time (trans. Alistair Ian Blyth)

This review was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2011.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

Do you remember the 1990s, with all their mysteries and untold history? Behold the time has now come to write their true chronicle

To this day, the origins of the Teacher from The Tidings of the Lord sect in Romania during the 1990s remain murky and unclear. Anecdotal evidence concerning his birth in the small town of Weissdorf is inconclusive and resists research, though it is said that the midwife who delivered the child, upon noticing that the birthmark on his chest resembled a comprehensive and detailed map of Bucharest, prophesied, “this is the sign of the end of all times or the sign of all times together.” Be that as it may, the first documents confirming the existence of Vespasian Moisa are utterly banal in detail, being a run-of-the-mill hospital discharge sheet.

Romanian author Bogdan Suceavă’s novel Coming From an Off-Key Time takes up the narrative thread of Romania as it lurches out of its lengthy romance with Nicolae Ceauşescu. The story begins immediately after the “off-key” time when the newly dictator-less nation was without a constitution and unsure where to place its feet as the future beckoned. These were not the halcyon days of peace and prosperity perhaps expected by the Romanian people; instead, it was a time when the nation as a whole was forced to turn inward to rediscover itself, to reevaluate what it meant to be Romanian, what the people stood for and were against, and how exactly they were to present themselves to an outside world which knew little of their concerns, hopes, and failures.

In Suceavă’s book, it’s 1992 and Bucharest is experiencing a flurry of religious activity, as self-proclaimed prophets take to the street to (they believe) shed light on Romania and its future. The Romanian Intelligence Service, long accustomed to such figures, is concerned primarily with Vespasian Moisa, a man more charismatic than most of the prophets, more capable, closer to rapture, and willing to eschew comfort, money, and bribes to ensure that his message is heard. Moisa’s initial influence stems from two main advantages he has over the other prophets springing up like so many weeds – firstly, he is quite convincing in his claim that the Romanian language has, coded within it, the secrets of the fundamental meaning of the world; and secondly The Tidings of the Lord Sect has, and is willing to provide for no cost, a complete, permanent and side-effect free cure for baldness.

. . . the sermon hit [the captain sent to spy on the sect] with full force. For him, the fact that his hair was thinning was something more concrete than the Apocalypse. Therefore, the only thing in the world that would have been capable of exciting him was the decoding of the cures concealed in matter, exemplified by the issue of baldness. Let the preachers frighten others with the Apocalypse. It’s baldness that’s nigh.

It was no joke.

Baldness is irreversible.

This entirely successful attempt at humour highlights two of the dominant themes of Suceavă’s novel: that ordinary people, when confronted by equally appealing harbingers of doom, will side with the one that offers the most immediate, material comfort; and that comedy may be found in even the most trying and serious of times. Coming From an Off-Key Time is a novel unafraid to laugh at and with the chaotic and confusing events of 1990s Romania, when it seemed that everything was possible but nothing was actually occurring, and that the dreams nurtured during the dictatorship of the freedom and possibility of a post-Ceauşescu time were in fact ephemeral and unattainable. As the novel progresses, Suceavă gently increases the number and intensity of absurd moments and characters, culminating in perhaps the novel’s most entertaining diversion: the lengthy story behind the Romanian Intelligence Service’s most effective spy, a soldier-turned-cat who had the misfortune to find himself on the receiving end of one of the KGB’s secret weapons. For the most part, the cat-as-spy is received with aplomb and good cheer, with the upper brass of the spy agency recognising his effective qualities as an inside “man” while simultaneously ignoring the absurdity of being briefed by a cat.

Suceavă courts religious language most prominently during lengthy sections of exposition outlining the higher conceits of the sect, its goals, and its desired outcomes. At times the language hews too closely to the slightly mad diction of the fervent prophet and spills into awkward mawkishness, but for the most part the skewering of high-flown pronouncements and unselfconsciously grandiose statements is spot on. As one character tells another with utter sincerity:

In the world there exist vibrations left over from the time of creation, and we can reach these vibrations via a suitable code. And this code, which unshackles and clarifies everything, proves to be the Romanian language. For, if you will allow me, we have not said the Romanian people are a chosen people, but that the Romanian language is a chosen language, a miraculous language, which contains all kinds of key poetic lines. These poetic lines have healing powers, and whenever they occur in everyday speech, who knows where, who knows when, they come to convince, to possess a huge power of persuasion over, those who listen to them.

The rise of Vespasian Moisa’s sect is handled largely through the reports, letters, and conversations of Romania’s elite, as well as eye-witness reports of Moisa and conversations between high-ranking members of the sect. Suceavă wisely keeps Moisa in the background, making him the object of the narrative, rather than its primary narrator. By doing so, the shroud of mystery cloaking the character remains intact, leaving the reader with the uncertainty as to whether the man is a fraud or the real deal. The novel increasingly pitches Moisa as a Christ-like figure, and toward its end the other characters openly discuss the possibility that he may in fact represent the second coming of Christ. The birthmark of Bucharest on his chest also suggests that he represents the Romanians—their chance to speak, coalesced into a man. By making Moisa the observed rather than the observer, the largeness and greatness of the character is preserved, which makes the ultimately tragic and inevitable ending of the story suitably grand in scope and thematically wide-ranging.

But the clergy will have none of this, believing him a fraud and a danger. In a lengthy speech, a high-ranking official declares that:

I must confess that nowadays many things in Romania are in disarray. Among them, things connected to the faith and to those who serve the faith, whether priests or laymen. Matters are complicated. What I find the most disturbing is the huge quantity of madness that holds sway at every social level, at every stratum of this constantly changing world. Yes, there is a strange madness that manifests itself everywhere, and which is all the more strange given that it brings together groups of people with fixed ideas in common, with mental illness in common. Sometimes, by the very nature of the situation, of their trade, such people are brought together within an institution, working together for the common good. When has history seen such a storm, such a dangerous tide of mental maladies?

Quite naturally the media, the military, the government, the clergy and academia, dislike The Tidings of the Lord, and they all, without much success, attempt to influence the sect as it rises to astronomic heights of popularity. A rival though less popular sect, the Stephenists, who claim to follow Stephen the Great (a 15th-century Moldavian hero, venerated in Romania and also, it seems, recently reincarnated), falls under the sway of the warring factions, but the competition goes nowhere. Vespasian Moisa is the Romanian people, and he will be heard.

But power, when confronted, fights back, and it fights dirty and ruthlessly, and to the death:

They gathered around the body. They were all looking at him, as if they were expecting some miracle. He seemed insensate, like a vegetable. Then, Darius looked more closely and saw that the famed Vespasian Moisa was nothing more than a man stooped from birth, who bored on the skin of his chest a hideous scar, like a burn, an ugly welt made of crests and shadows, which in the dim streetlights looked like the skin of a fig. He took aim and began to relieve himself on him. The steam rose from the skin of the prone man. Someone began to laugh. A second jet of urine was heard. Then a third. Soon, there was no longer any room around the supine body.

Coming From an Off-Key Time has the feeling of the compressed creativity of the Romanian psyche bursting forth from its cocoon of so many years where what could not be written about was an important consideration at the forefront of every writer’s mind. Suceavă is endlessly, exhaustively inventive, spinning a myriad of increasingly absurd stories while simultaneously focusing upon the inevitable march of the main narrative thread as Vaspasian Moisa plunges headlong toward the one and only outcome available to a religious prophet popular with the vast majority of the people and not at all friendly to entrenched authority.

The madness of the ’90s becomes the madness of the people, the government, and religion, as bombs explode, people die, martyrs are created, institutions die and institutions grow strong— Bogdan Suceavă has captured this chaos on the page, compressing and transferring an impressive quantity of Romania’s present and its lengthy and complicated past into a narrative that remains cohesive and effective, and should resonate as much with those unfamiliar with Romania and its culture as it did with the Romanian public when first published in 2004.

Review – Rafik Schami – The Calligrapher’s Secret (trans. Anthea Bell)

This review was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2011.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

Hamid Farsi, arguably Damascus’ greatest calligrapher, returns home one night to discover that his beautiful wife, Noura, has vanished. A number of priceless texts containing the secrets of calligraphy have disappeared along with her. Farsi suspects wrongdoing—and accuses the wrong man. In his rage he murders this man and winds up in jail, spending the dying days of Shukri al-Quwatli’s reign completing lavish commissions for the ruler’s coterie of friends, allies, and business associates in exchange for preferential treatment. The calligrapher, arrogant, exacting, and ambitious, seeks to reform Arabic script in order to modernise the language and, hopefully, the culture.

While suitably dramatic, these events comprise the very last moments of Rafik Schami’s 444-page novel, The Calligrapher’s Secret. Much of the text takes place in the preceding years, alternating between the Christian Noura, an ethereally beautiful young woman who wishes to read books and escape her parents, and the jug-eared Muslim Salman, whose naivety sees him exploited by parents, friends, and passers-by. While the two move from child- to adulthood they are introduced to various aspects of life in Damascus, acting as travel-diary surrogates for the reader and allowing Schami to create a selective, though at times effective, panoramic view of the turmoil afflicting Syria during the early and mid-1950s.

Schami’s novel is split into two unequal sections, titled “The First Kernel of the Truth” and “The Second Kernel of the Truth,” with these bracketed by an epilogue and prologue. The first section deals with Salman and Noura, who don’t know each other and hardly meet until near the section’s end, when they fall in love; the second section tells the story of Hamid Farsi, the great calligrapher and Noura’s uncompromising husband. Each section is sufficiently unrelated that, were the names of the characters to change, they could easily function as separate novels, and it is with this realisation that the novel’s shaky foundation begins to crack.

The initial protagonists, Noura and Salman, are defined as neatly and flippantly as above, and though they remain the primary focus for much of the work, Schami’s characterisation of them fails to extend beyond, in Noura’s case, the beautiful, bookish, unhappy newlywed, and in Salman’s the naive, provincial, insipid errand boy. During the 206 pages before the two meet they each go on an extended, decade-long tour through Damascus’ slums, Noura acting as our surrogate for the Muslim areas, and Salman the Christian. The people they meet exist purely within the confines of the paragraph or chapter they are encountered, and their lives and occupations are outlined as pleasantly and non-controversially as a tourist’s guidebook. Behold the poor cafe owner, behold the secretly gay butcher, behold the decrepit fortuneteller, behold the fried vegetable and falafel vendor. Blink and you’ll miss them, and it won’t matter much if you do.

On top of this, Schami takes great paints to drain the novel of any tension by continuously and explicitly foreshadowing the plot’s conclusion, as well as the fate of the characters. Sentences such as, “Later Salman was to say that the turning point in his life, the moment that made him a calligrapher, had been on a certain evening in January of the year 1956,” and “He had no idea how little time he had left,” appear often, occurring either directly before or after a significant event. Schami is unable to write the in-between parts of a novel; when the plot isn’t rushing toward its ill-defined goal it either wallows in endless detail about areas or people who don’t matter to the story and won’t appear again, or it skips years, filling in any important events through flashback. Worse, Schami has a habit of killing off supplementary characters as soon as the conflict they are involved with is complete, either by afflicting them with cancer and despatching them in a paragraph, or having them simply run away from Damascus.

The Calligrapher’s Secret is a literary soap opera without a central conceit. A novel propelled not by characters—for these people are like billiard bills, sent hurtling in a straight line, single-minded in their trajectory and uncaring as to the location or speed of any of the other balls until they collide and spring away from one another – but by events. The characters need a goal to travel toward, some grand ambition that interlocks or conflicts with the desires of the others. Of the three primary characters, only Hamid Farsi has a destination beyond the tip of his own nose, and he doesn’t appear as a proper protagonist until well into the last third of the novel.

The second section of the novel contains its best writing, plotting, and characterization, and it all centres around calligraphy. The art form, we learn, “has a magical effect on an Arab.” It has granted Hamid Farsi great wealth and status, which allow him to rub shoulders with the political and intellectual elite. But Farsi wishes to reform the script, seeking to remove superfluous characters and introduce newer, more modern and flexible additions to calligraphy to ensure that Islam and the Arabic world are capable of keeping up with the increasingly rich and powerful West.

The possession of, and appreciation for, calligraphy is seen as a status symbol and an indication of culture. Schami writes:

If you want to go carefully about making music with the letters, the empty space between letters and words calls for even greater skill. The blank spaces in a work of calligraphy are moments of rest. And as in Arabic music, calligraphy too depends on the repetition of certain elements that encourage not only the dance of body and soul but also our ability to move away from the earthly domain and rise to other spheres.

But the conservative forces of Islam are very powerful, and the school Farsi has recently begun is attacked by “The Pure Ones,” a group unable to accept any changes to the art of calligraphy. Their reasoning is that if the script was good enough for the Prophet, then it should be good enough for Farsi, an infinitely less important figure. Farsi, were he able, could explain to the Pure Ones that the various scripts used had been significantly updated in the intervening centuries; but, as is often the case, it is not logic or reason that prevails here.

With the intrusion of the Pure Ones, Farsi’s disappeared wife, the political upheaval of the late 1950s in Syria and the abrupt inclusion of murder, Schami’s novel slips into a pleasing melodrama. As noted above, a literary soap opera requires drama, tension, and excitement, and it is during this second section that Schami is able to provide the suitable ingredients. Coupled with this, the extended digressions on calligraphy function as a metaphor for Islamic society in general, and it is clear that while Schami harbours a deep love for and appreciation of Islamic culture, he is able to clearly perceive its tendency toward stagnation.

It is an oddity of the text that as soon as Salman and Noura – ostensibly the love story of the novel, and by far its largest focus – have disappeared, The Calligrapher’s Secret becomes quite enjoyable. The trouble of the Christian and Muslim relationship is never adequately dealt with, and it is a testament to Schami’s lack of craft that he is unable to do anything with the pair once they have openly declared their love other than have them vanish from the text entirely (only to reappear in a weakly connected epilogue). But Noura’s disappearance is essential, as it provides Hamid Farsi with the impetus to set events in motion that will allow the author to direct his attention toward the previously buried themes of the novel, explicitly tackling subjects instead of glossing over them.

The Calligrapher’s Secret seems to have been written with both eyes toward the Western audience. Far too much of the text is taken up with travelogue style writing, and the love story flatly does not work. The sections on calligraphy, which increase in duration and frequency as the text progresses, are expertly handled, and the use of the art form as a metaphor for Islam is superb. But this is a flabby novel, poorly told and loosely felt. The only time any of the characters even come close to affecting is when Hamid Farsi bends over his work desk, dips his reed pen into his ink, and writes. The rest is forgettable.

Review – Mirjana Novaković – Fear and Servant (trans. Terence McEneny)

This review was originally published on the Quarterly Conversation website in 2010.  The website no longer exists, so I have decided to extract it from there and publish it here.

In the years since Count Otto van Hausberg last visited Belgrade, the Austrian-ruled city seems to have changed, and not for the better. Fog and mist have settled around the city walls, and everywhere there is talk of murder, rebellion, and death. And in the twenty years since his last visit (or is it thirty? or more? the Count is never quite clear on the matter) the stench of vampires has come to Belgrade. Hausberg is unsure whether these vampires are real, which means the Last Judgement is approaching, or if they are fake, which means that he, Satan, has made a foolish mistake in wasting his time hunting the simple dead.

Satan? Perhaps. In the opening pages to Fear and Servant, Serbian author Mirjana Novaković supplies sufficient evidence to suggest that Otto van Hausberg is Satan. Hausberg possesses intimate memories of Gethsemane and Christ’s fall, he has a certain smell of brimstone, and is accompanied by a seemingly demonic servant. Yet a few pages later this evidence is undermined by Hausberg’s fears, his seeming mortality, his lack of any explicit power, and his shock when others take his Infernal Self seriously. So is Hausberg Satan, or merely man?

Therein lies the rub. Throughout Fear and Servant the question of truth and identity are continually raised. Hausberg is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, demanding and expecting reliability and seriousness from those around him while consistently feeding the reader a series of half-truths, exaggerations, sleight-of-hand stories and, most often, qualifications that seem to shed greater light on a previous topic, while simultaneously clouding others. He refers to himself as the devil and is pleased when others recognise his infernal powers, but when he is required to act or be an immortal figure of evil, he becomes afraid, vacillates, and often flees. He fears being wounded; there is a brief clue, buried in a long paragraph, that indicates he suspects another devil has come to Belgrade as well. But how could that be true? “The time I have spent among the rabble of mankind,” Hausberg says, “has taught me that people love and enjoy nothing so much as their belief that a lie is in fact the truth.”

The early seventeenth century aristocracy in charge of Belgrade welcome Hausber to their city, and invite him to an upcoming ball. Naturally, this ball requires a costume, which adds to the pervading sense of falsehood. Hausberg dresses as the devil, and becomes startled when, again, people take him seriously and refer to him as such.

During the extended ball sequence, we are introduced to our second narrator, who tells us that she is “Maria Augusta, Princess of Thurn und Taxis, wife of Prince Alexander of Württemberg, the former regent of Serbia.” This is true, but much of the rest of her story may not be, for many of the details clash with Hausberg’s perspective of the events. Our two narrators soon travel to Dedinaberg, where there have been indications of vampires killing at night. The aristocracy in Belgrade believe there are vampires yet don’t’ take their existence particularly seriously; their reaction is similar to, say, an attack from a stray wolf. Now that Novaković has brought her narrators together, the essence of the novel becomes clearer. In the complex play of Hausberg’s and the princess’s versions of lie and truth, the story changes from a mere hunt for vampires to an extended examination of the nature of good and evil. As the hunt for vampires continues, Novaković is careful to provide equal amounts of evidence to suggest they are real as not, which feeds into Hausberg’s that, if they are real, the Last Judgement is near and he lacks sufficient power to win against God.

Fear and Servant is Mirjana Novaković’s second published work, and her first novel. This novel, which was shortlisted for Serbia’s NIN literary prize and received the Isidora Sekulić Award. Was followed by Novaković’s second novel, Johann’s 501, a dystopic vision of Belgrade, its citizens drugged and obsessed with the occult. In all of her literature, Novaković struggles with the fluctuating truth of language and its inability to accurately portray reality, due in part to the inherent instability of a world which shifts according to each individual’s perception of it, but also thanks to the inherently unstable nature of language and communication.

Fear and Servant has been published in English Geopoetika’s Serbian Literature in Translation series, though the book is not yet available in most English-reading nations (the United States included). Titles in the series include well-established authors such as Svetislav Basara and Zoran Živković, as well as upcoming and emerging authors.

As Hausberg himself notes, not everything is as simple as its surface would indicate:

Men and women who never blanch at acts of evil cannot bring themselves to face Evil Itself. I’ve often wondered why. Of course they’re mistaken in believing me to be evil through and through, as if there were nothing else to me. They don’t understand, the foolish creatures: if I were pure evil, I would be God. Because God is God so that He might be nothing but good, and that is the same as being nothing but evil.

If all the world is, as Novaković suggests, a composite of varying and disagreeing truths, then the balance of the world is mostly lies and thus belongs to Satan. Toward the end of the novel this concept is made explicit during a parable where God direct his Angels to paint, on the Seventh Day of Creation, a canvas showing how this newly created world should be. Satan (then, of course, still Lucifer) paints the story of the ages, beginning with primeval forces and ending with the locomotive and electricity. In judging the paintings, God takes note of Lucifer’s effort, but ultimately he determines that Michael’s work, which is a blank canvas, is the best, purest and most true representation of the world as it should be. Lucifer, rebelling, becomes Satan, and the world is written into being. Novaković’s suggestion is that Satan is the closest and most knowable deity, while God is too aloof to properly understand the tragedies and failures of mortal existence. This is reflected in Fear and Servant, where Satan is virtually identical to everyone else in terms of power and influence; the primary difference is his memory, which is long and dwells quite often on the sacrifice of “Fishmouth” (his name for Jesus), and his capacity for reasoning and thought, which makes him, as the princess points out, similar to the many philosophers who vie for her attention at court. Satan, then, is us, though slightly enhanced, and, because he is knowable, ultimately more appealing than God.

Much like in José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, which portrayed God as unknowable, uncaring, and willing to sacrifice his son to ensure the ascendancy of Christianity in the coming centuries, in Fear and Servant Novaković makes of Satan a sympathetic figure, putting him forth as the progenitor of the arts, particularly of literature, and also showing him to be the only one of the two who actually has a concern for the acts of mortal man. Hausberg constantly refers to works of literature and art that he could not, as a 17th century Count, possibly know, including Moby Dick, Tolstoy and, most tellingly, Charles Kinbote from Nabokov’s Pale Fire. Hausberg notes that art must have been created by evil, for it purports to present lies as truth, and offers a prism upon the world which by definition must be artificial and thus false. Yet at the same time art provides man with a glimpse of what is beautiful, good and true, in stark contrast to the world around us, darkening our reality while brightening the sublime. How could this complex interplay of truth and lie, argues Satan, be anything but my own creation, and not God’s? Lest the novel come across as a heavy-handed essay on theology, truth and art, however, one should be reminded that, at its heart, Fear and Servant is the story of the hunt for vampires, and the violence and terror that such a hunt brings.

Fear and Servant offers an apologia for Satan while excoriating God. The goodness of God is not, in fact, an achievable aim for a flawed human being; instead, the qualities of both God and Satan must be harmonised. In the end the vampires are as real as one would wish, and so too concerning Hausberg as Satan. Read as though he is, Fear and Servant offers an extended retelling of Christ’s death and the complex relationship between Satan, God, and the world. Read as though he isn’t and Hausberg becomes a somewhat mad Count whose thoughts on art and literature demand attention, and whose beliefs in God have become fractured following the dark history of central Europe during the 17th century.

Short Story Review – Luís Romano – Old Isidoro (trans. Jeff Hessney)

Beware the vengeance of a discomforted priest.

Isidoro is a stinking old man, homeless, a beggar, and perhaps evil.  It is said that

at night he turned into a spirit and that during the day he hid in cliffside caves where no one could come near him. Others swore he stole children’s souls on the seventh day after they’d been given birth.

The rumour of his misfortune and turn to evil is that he was excommunicated by a priest.  An old lady gives the story to the narrator, explaining that Isidoro was once rich and fortunate, but things turned sour on the night of his wedding.

What happened?  Well, he was out at midnight, and so was the priest who was to bless the marriage.  In his enthusiasm, he shot a gun into the air which spooked the priest’s mule, who bolted and fell off a cliff, drowning the priest.

But not before he hurled a curse at the man who had frightened his animal.

And so, because priests have power, Isidoro went from riches to rags, literally cursed via the power of Christ.

“The priest’s body disappeared forever, and to this day his malediction still pursues Isidoro, now a tortured soul, forever doing penance in this world of tribulations because of a curse sworn before dawn by a priest, the rightful representative of Jesus Christ on Earth, at the moment of his death, in the times when we on the Island believed in the Devil’s doings and in the power, art, and cunning of that Beast . . . by the sign of the Holy Cross . . . LUCIFER!”

Romano confuses the power of Christ and Lucifer, and clearly has sympathy for Isidoro, who was punished too much for what was, in effect, a tragic accident.  He doesn’t quite go far enough as to expressly write this sympathy into the characters, leavening the criticism of the priest with hints that Isidoro had learned witchcraft in his travels, and perhaps because of this, somewhat deserved his fate.

Is it fair to be punished so?  Does fairness come into the machinations of good and evil?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps we are unable to understand completely how an act could be good or ill when seen through the prisms of such elemental forces.  The story itself is not long enough to address these concerns, but they are there, and the lack of judgement over Isidoro’s actions, and criticism of the priest’s, sends a pretty clear message.

This is the first short story I’ve read from Cape Verde, and certainly the first translated from the Santo Antão dialect of the Cabo Verdean language.  The footnotes alone suggest that there are layers to this piece that I am unaware of.  This comes from the May 2020 Words Without Borders magazine, and perhaps now will herald the start of more literature arriving in English?  Time will tell.

Old Isidoro is a short story by Cabo Verdean writer Luís Romano, translated by Jeff Hessney.  

Author Luís Romano
Title Old Isidoro
Translator Jeff Hessney
Nationality Cabo Verdean
Publisher Words Without Borders


Short Story Review – Jean Back – European Clouds (trans. Sandra Schmit)

At some point I am going to realise that these stories exist to celebrate or critique the EU, and not necessarily because they possess independent literary merit.  At some point.

Our narrator is off to the supermarket to buy some provisions for a barbecue.  He accidentally locks his keys in his car on the way out, listen to accordion music, hears a racist conversation, then goes home.  This is told in a style that is a mix of onomatopoeia, stream of consciousness, associative thoughts, descriptions.  It’s quick, sharp, short, effective but a bit grating.  The narrator gets on your nerves even though there really isn’t much personality to speak of.  And then there are bits like this –

Two minutes from home with the car. Ordinary, but practical,
that supermarket. Good. It is a clear autumn day. Just like on
9/11 in Manhattan, at eight o’clock in the morning. The sun
had been shining just before. Like now, bright, but not warm.

Yikes, where did that reference come from?  It isn’t brought up again, and nothing in the story itself seems in any way related to 9/11.  I was actually shocked to read it and my mind kind of tumbled over it, tripped.  What’s it doing there?

Out of sheer laziness I stay next to the lamppost, looking and waiting and listening to the man playing the accordion, because I like accordion music, because that kind of music reminds me of René de Bernardi, at the erstwhile dancing club Beim Heuertz: dance parties, thé dansant, smootch slow and English Waltz. And also reminds me of Astor Piazzolla.

Some references are more neatly placed into the text, but as we can see from the above, and the next two quoted paragraphs, what is happening here is the narrator inserting the cosmopolitan nature of the EU into the story.  Back is adding worldliness without putting in the hard work, as these concepts aren’t engaged with, just written down.  I could do it, you could do it – throw in five musicians/writers/cheeses/wine varieties/chemists from around the world.  Five anything.  Are you sophisticated now?  Probably not.  It takes a touch more.  you need to do something with these words.

Don’t do this

What nationality are the clouds? Are they French, when they’re hovering over the Elysée? Spanish, when they’re hanging over Seville? What does a Swiss cloud look like? A Belgian one? Are the clouds
Portuguese when they drift over Dudelange? Luxembourgish,
when they arrive in Porto?

I mean like, maybe they are?  Maybe clouds have a nationality and maybe they are clouds and the idea is a human construct and it is ridiculous to place such an idea on to a non-human aerosol consisting of a visible mass of minute liquid droplets, frozen crystals, or other particles suspended in the atmosphere of a planetary body or similar space (thanks, Wikipedia!).

The above is the kind of thought I would hope a sixteen year old stoner would have, but an eighteen year old stoner would not.  They should have moved on by then to like, how, you know, death affects us all and everyone you can see is a walking corpse.  Man.

Also on today’s barbecue menu: three bottles of Chianti, two
packs of olives from Portugal, one Romanian brandy and at
five o’clock there’s Barça playing against Red Bull Salzburg.

Perhaps I am being unfair.  I wouldn’t mind so much if there was more to the story, but the above paragraphs represent about a fifth of the total story.  There’s not much here, so why this?  What is it adding to the discourse of what it means to be European?  It is true, no doubt, that any one country is unable or unwilling to meet the entirety of its citizen’s needs, and that there are significant benefits to free trade and the movement of good, ideas, peoples.  This is something to explore.

But listing items and attaching a nationality isn’t doing that.  There isn’t enough here for this story.  The clouds aren’t impressed, man – they’re crying.

European Clouds is a short story by Luxembourger writer Jean Back, translated by Sandra Schmit.  

Author Jean Back
Title European Clouds
Translator Sandra Schmit
Nationality Luxembourger
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

Please see also the other stories under review from this series:

Short Story Review – Rubem Fonseca – Night Drive (trans. Clifford E. Landers)

We’ve all been there.  Long day, work that won’t stay at the office, briefcase or bag bulging with papers, reports, briefs.  Things to do.  Maybe you have a wife, maybe you don’t.  Maybe children, maybe not.  Maybe a maid who can serve a meal French style, maybe your maid can only copy the English.  I don’t know.

And maybe you relax by taking the car out late in the night and perfectly executing a hit and run.

Rubem Fonseca’s short story, Night Drive (trans. Clifford E. Landers), is pleasingly banal until it becomes something else entirely.  Fonseca plays it straight, outlining an ordinary evening for our middle-aged narrator, who seems pleasant enough, though he is worn down from work and the needs of his family.  Relatable, I suppose.

The usual house sounds: my daughter in her room practicing voice modulation, quadraphonic music from my son’s room.  “Why don’t you put down that suitcase?” my wife asked.  “Take off those clothes, have a nice glass of whiskey.  You’ve got to learn to relax.”

The evening is built, piece by piece, across two very ordinary pages.  The narrator lets slip no hints as to his later adventure, and isn’t even all that glum or miserable about his life.  A son who asks for money during the coffee course – sure.  A daughter who asks for money during the liqueur course – sure.  These are middle-class issues, but nothing out of the ordinary.

A couple of hundred words later and the narrative shifts.  Details increase and time slows down.  Fonseca takes his time here, luxuriating in the description of the car hitting a woman out running.

I caught her above the knees, right in the middle of her legs, a bit more toward the left leg – a perfect hit.  I heard the impact break the large bones, veered rapidly to the left, shot narrowly past one of the trees, and, tires squealing, skidded back onto the asphalt… I could see that the woman’s broken body had come to rest, covered with blood, on top of the low wall in front of a house.”

Here is a man who takes pride in his work.  Contrast with the quoted paragraph above.  The “usual” house sounds versus the “perfect hit”.  It’s clear as to which part of his life he takes seriously, or where he becomes most alive.  Few people in the world, he muses, “could match my skill driving such a car”.

It’s a fine opening story.  Short enough to keep the reader going, but there’s a lot here.  How this will compare with the remaining stories is something we will find out together, but I leave you with this, a quote from the front cover of the book:

Each of Fonseca’s books is not only a worthwhile journey; it is also, in some way, a necessary one.

From our very own Thomas Pynchon.

Night Drive is a short story by Brazilian writer Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford E. Landers.  

Author Rubem Fonseca
Title Night Drive (from The Taker and Other Stories)
Translator Clifford E. Landers
Nationality Brazilian
Publisher Open Letter Books


Short Story Review – Najwa Binshatwan – The Government Sea (trans. Sawad Hussain)

An enticing concept for a short story can romance me to go just about anywhere the author pleases.  Najwa Binshatwan’s story, The Government Sea (trans. Sawad Hussain), sees a group of mental hospital patients, all old men, as they grapple with the sea near their hospital having suddenly vanished – gone to Malta.

Okay, from there you can take me anywhere and I’m happy to go.

Why, one individual wonders, would the sea have gone to Malta?  It has no relatives there.  Another person marvels at the garbage hidden underneath the water, the wreckages and dead bodies and discard junk.  We were swimming in that?

“Now that the sea’s run away, what we couldn’t see before is now in broad daylight,” added another.
“Dead fish, migrant bodies, and all sorts of garbage. Before, the surface was swollen with jellyfish, sea turtles, and boats abandoned by those who’d decided to travel by foot instead.”


“Of course it drowned, a painful death. Just look at all the migrant bodies that filled it up, and still there was no drainage system installed. Just look at all that trash and sewage.”

There’s a lot to like here.  The narrative is played straight but the people speaking are clearly bonkers.  Has the sea truly vanished, or are they just held back by a sign which admonishes them not to swim in the water?  The sea is “Under maintenance”, which sends the patients into paroxysms of confusion.  What they fail to realise is that signs can be moved from their original place, the classic ‘do not move from here’ written on every cleaner’s wet floor sign – where is here?  Where is the sea?

For me, the story is at its weakest when Binshatwan describes ordinary scenes, such as the below –

Angered, one of the men stomped against the floor, making the stale bowl of spaghetti by the door jump.  Cockroaches scurried out to seize the caked dregs of noodles and sauce that spilled out of the airborne bowl.

This reads clumsy.  The use of “Angered” takes away my own ability to interpret the man’s actions, and bowls don’t jump.  “airborne” doesn’t fit to my ear, and the whole section reads like an unedited first draft.  The flow just isn’t there.  Not so with dialogue, which is excellent; equally pleasing is the description of the vanished sea and the exposed sea-bed.

Through all of the patient’s hijinks and japes there is a strong undercurrent of violence and death.  Everyone is having such a good time (including the dear reader) that you don’t, at first, notice just how many body parts are on display, how many dead, how much violence.  The story floats on blood and flesh but my, aren’t we laughing?

And then everyone dies from a terrorist’s bomb.

With appreciation from M Lynx Qualey for providing the copy of ArabLit.

The Government Sea is a short story by Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan, translated by Sawad Hussain.  

Author Najwa Binshatwan
Title The Government Sea
Translator Sawad Hussain
Nationality Libyan
Publisher Arablit Quarterly


Short Story Review – Gabriela Babnik – Ida (trans. Rawley Grau)

Ah, the immigration story.

An apartment building, the apartments, I suppose, all crammed together.  Enough so that Ida feels bad for those around her, who can hear her small child screaming.  Enough so that she wakes up at night to hear love-making, and she knows, she knows, that it comes from the black man and his partner above her.  She touches herself.

and sometimes, with the lovemaking, even the windows
would move. They would be carried from one end to the other
and at such moments Ida held on to the bed. With one hand.
With the other she reached down to between her legs, parted
the folds, sank into the soft flesh, and went inside.

In the light of day, though, what is fantasy becomes reality.  She visits the young couple. They have a child, ginger-haired, and they aren’t particularly interested in her discussion points.  Ida wishes to better understand why an African – his word – would come to Slovenia.  Was it for money?  For healthcare?  For money?  For money?  For money?  She can’t help herself, continuously steering the conversation back to that point.  Surely, she reasons, that this is why an African would want to come to Europe.  No other reason.

“It’s obvious you haven’t been through any war,” Ida said.
She didn’t know why she wanted to confront him, why she

Muhammed, who comes from Burkina Faso, attempts first to gently dissuade her, but then becomes increasingly frustrated.  Why should he act as the mouthpiece for all Africans, and why should he be forced to admit what isn’t true?  He doesn’t state it outright (he is under no obligation to do so, after all; Ida, for all her masturbation, is a nosy neighbour), but it seems that he is here for love and for adventure.  Fine reasons.

Ida, blaming her menstruation, keeps pushing.  Muhammed is the dominant speaker here but his partner floats in and out of the room, looking after their small child.  At one point Ida touches the boy’s hair and the woman airily observes that they are teaching him to avoid being touched by strangers, especially on his head.  Clever.  Ida understands, and then pushes and pushes.

In the end, the conversation dies.  Ida, the European, is unsatisfied with the black African’s answers.  Ida, the European, makes an offhand comment to the other woman, who knows exactly what she means.  And then Ida, the European, is roundly chastised while Muhammed prays in the other room and then she leaves, defeated.

I suspect the late-night moans will continue from their room, though from now on I expect that Ida will not insert herself into their activities, even if from afar.  Not after that conversation.

Ida is a short story by Slovene writer Gabriela Babnik, translated by Rawley Grau.  

Author Gabriela Babnik
Title Ida
Translator Rawley Grau
Nationality Slovene
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

Please see also the other stories under review from this series:

Short Story Review – Myrto Azina Chronides – A European Story (trans. Despina Pirketti)

The pain comes – labour pain. It tears the pelvis apart, my
loins, my uterus a ball of steel.I can feel him throughout my
entire body. He spreads all the way down to my nails. My
head empties and compresses like an accordion exhaling.“I’ll
go get the midwife” he tells me and uses his handkerchief to
wipe the sweat off my face.

Well, this is a fine way to open a collection of European short stories.  It’s mildly – mildly – on the nose, but given the mission of the book (to highlight the works of EUPL winners and have them write about Europe), well, it can be forgiven.  How else would you start a collection like this?

A European Story (trans. Despina Pirketti) by Myrto Azina Chronides is one grand metaphor for the generation after WWII as it grapples with birthing the new Europe.  Pretty explicitly so.

Mum died: a Jewish woman in Auschwitz, a British woman
during the Blitz, a Greek woman in German-occupied Athens
or perhaps a Trümmerfrau in Dresden, who had survived
the horror and perished amidst the ruins of the war, a Polish
woman, a…

The story shifts between a woman giving birth, and the woman’s life and memories prior to childbirth.  The sentences are short and sharp, and so are most of the paragraphs, running rapidly through European history both recent and ancient, connecting like occurrences and comparing events.  It’s a heady mix.

The childbirth sequences are the strongest from a purely narrative perspective.  It made me glad, not for the first time, that it is an experience I am able to avoid.  The narrator show indications of empowerment here; she notes that her partner is fearful of her power as she gives birth – this is an event of great magnitude, and she is the one who is doing it.

The other parts of the story are good, but they rely on overwhelming the reader with references to European history and concepts.  I like this – I love that kind of thing – but as a narrative it’s a bit disjointed.  The effect is to show the gamut of European history, and it works, but how much of this is truly a story?

I’m sinking; I feel that I’m sliding somewhere until I lose
consciousness. Everything around me turns red. I float upon
golden white clouds. Far away, at the edge of the horizon,
upon a distant hill, soldiers by the thousands are hoisting
their flags simultaneously. They’re not war banners. They’re
filled with blue skies and yellow stars: unity, solidarity, harmony. I melt within feelings of utter serenity.

And in the middle of the red meadow, a tree is born. I tentatively approach it: the tree of life carrying an apple. I come
even closer. But it’s not the fruit of Knowledge, I tell myself.
It is the apple offered to Paris, prince of Troy, by Discord, and
instead of “for the fairest” it reads “for the best”. I’m devastated.

I would say, politely, that this story doesn’t stand up on its own.  Contained within this collection it is fine and an appropriate starting point – but it is clearly a commissioned work, and feels like one.  I’m curious about Chronides and her other works, but this one is perhaps a touch too prepaid.

A European Story is a short story by Cypriot writer Myrto Azina Chronides, translated by Despina Pirketti.  

Author Myrto Azina Chronides
Title A European Story
Translator Despina Pirketti
Nationality Cypriot
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

See also the other titles under review:

Short Story Review – Rasha Abbas – How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile (trans. Fatima El-Kalay)

The central metaphor to Rasha Abbas’ short story, How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile (trans. Fatima El-Kalay) is abundantly apparent throughout the text, but you know what?  That’s ok.  Writing as someone who lives in a peaceful, quiet country (Australia), the message being conveyed is foreign to me, completely so – it is not and could not be a lived experience.  Not for me.  But for the narrator?  And the other people in her country?  Oh, yes.

The narrator has had poor eyesight for as long as she can remember.  Early on, she receives new glasses, and now she can see the city as it is.  As it is, which is to say – bombed streets, ruined buildings, missiles and helicopters overhead.  They were always there, but not for her.  She lived a more pleasant life before attaining clarity.

A few days later I received my new glasses. Things were undoubtedly better, but it was too late to see the city. Instead, all I got to see were very lucid scenes of red missiles, flaring in the night, heading to some unknown place, fired from the bottom of the mountain that overlooked our elevated window. Or the sight of military helicopters slowly hovering in the early morning, on their way to other neighborhoods.

This is, politely, a violent place.  Somewhere that is utterly foreign to me.

On the way, there was a police officer joking with a local child. He pointed his rifle at him and asked him which football team he supported. The boy exposed his belly in defiance before the rifle, proud of his preferred team, even though it apparently didn’t go down well with the policeman.

Ah, my Western sense of what is ordinary and right are in trouble!  Abbas is able to reframe the conflict in Syria to be new to the narrator via the mechanism of the new glasses, which then allows it to be explained to a foreign reader.  Not that she is obliged to do this, of course; writers from far-off countries to myself are under no obligation to serve as teachers or educators.  But it is appreciated nonetheless.

There is a lot crammed into these short pages.  An aside about a butcher’s son, who babbles and burns pictures of the President and gives presents to children, and who may have been vanished along with his father – this is great, evocative, interesting writing.  It contrasts neatly with the more matter-of-fact appreciation of violence and destruction from the narrator, as she finally sees her city for what it is.

 He loved wild birds, and would catch them and place them in cages, and forcefully give them as gifts to the local children.

The ending is very neat indeed.  Swimming in a pool with a friend she has made, the narrator wonders to herself at how miserable it must be to have always seen clearly.  And there’s something to that, there’s something to being forced into an awakening about what is familiar and known.  We must reassess, we must see things with new eyes, and it is hurts us, so be it.  If it helps us, so be it.  Seeing the world afresh each day is an impossibility to which we must at least attempt.  And how wonderful if we can do it once or twice a month?  Revelatory.

With appreciation from M Lynx Qualey for providing the copy of ArabLit.

How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile is a short story by Syrian writer Rasha Abbas, translated by Fatima El-Kalay.  

Author Rasha Abbas
Title How to Swim the Backstroke with a Shilka Missile
Translator Fatima El-Kalay
Nationality Syrian
Publisher Arablit Quarterly