Short Story Review – Akinwumi Isola – The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) (trans. the writer)

Those elderly men and women were skeptical about the new faith, which they only heard about, since they could neither read nor write. They would stand embarrassingly mute whenever hymns were sung from the hymnals or whenever common prayers were read from the prayerbook, in call-and-response fashion. Some of them succeeded in learning the Lord’s Prayer by heart, although they did not believe in it because they knew, by tradition, that they had many fathers, not just one, in heaven.

The Yoruba people are transitioning from their old ways and religion to the new, which is to say, to Christianity.  The older generation are unsure and overall nonplussed, while the children consider Christianity intriguing because it’s festivities are different, revolve around different days and times, and serve different foods.

To us, the main difference between Christian and traditional religious festivals was in the type of food served. At traditional festivals, the smooth pounded yam with delicious vegetable stew and bush meat was paramount. Yam flour paste with ground-bean stew and mutton was also served. At Christian festivals, however, the queen of food was rice, especially white rice with chicken. We children loved rice, because it was not our staple diet. It came only at Christian festivals and was never served during traditional religious festivals. Never.

Akinwumi Isola’s The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) was translated by the author from Yoruba into English.  I can’t speak for the Yoruba language, but much of this story reads clumsy, as though written by someone unskilled in English.  The story revolves around a white, educated, important man visiting the town only to become frustrated at the lack of subtlety of expression displayed by the children, who are knew to English, and knew to Christianity.  The narrator mimics the cadence of the children, using punctuation usually reserved for dialogue within the narrative.  It’s off-putting though thematically sound.  For example –

As he spoke on, the whiteman became increasingly inspired. He had almost forgotten that he was addressing junior primary school pupils in Africa!

This is a matter of taste, but it kept me from properly connecting with the story.  The use of exclamation marks, and to a lesser extent, question marks, served to continuously disrupt my engagement with the text.

Nonetheless the story picks up when, after setting the scene of a people oscillating between two religious and, consequently, two cultures, the newly arrived evangelist attempts to indoctrinate the children further into Christianity.

“Good! But after terrible tribulations, his enemies conspired against him and crucified him! They crucified him! Even then, when Jesus was crucified . . .”

He stretched out his hand to us again, asking us to complete the sentence.

We were now completely confused! We had no rules of grammar to guide us. So we quickly remembered the very last example he himself gave us: ” . . . we lived with him.” And so we naturally shouted: ” . . . we crucified with him.”

The whiteman opened his mouth and couldn’t close it. He could not find words to express his surprise. At last he said “No!” very emphatically. “You don’t say that in English!”

Our headmaster and other teachers became very uncomfortable indeed. They were looking at us threateningly, but what could we do?

The first half of the story describes the food and customs of the Yoruba people, with the second half being much like the above.  The increasingly exasperated Christian becomes harsh and condescending with his words while the children, understandably bewildered, try their best.

But to what end?

Unfortunately, there’s no sting at the end to justify this elaborate back and forth.  The story, boiled down, describes a people, and then has a white Christian become frustrated with young heathens who are trying their best.  I am, perhaps, missing something here, but what I am able to glean from the text suggests a slight story, one that is perhaps instructive in the nature of cultural and religious conflict, but overall fairly limited in its reach.  It feels pedagogic, as though it exists to educate others rather than possess any real literary merits of its own.  The story reads as though it should be read by primary school students in Nigera to help them better understand the cultural and religious transition pains suffered by their parents, their grandparents, their dead.

The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English) is a short story by Nigerian writer Akinwumi Isola, translated by the writer.  

Author Akinwumi Isola
Title The Grammar of Easter (You Don’t Say That in English)
Translator Akinwumi Isola
Nationality Nigerian
Publisher Words Without Borders

Interview – Bogdan Suceavă

This interview 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.

You may also be interested in my review of Suceavă’s novel, Coming From an Off-Key Time.

Damian Kelleher: Your novel Coming From an Off-Key Time was published in January by Northwestern University Press. You’ve mentioned before that this novel is the best thing you have ever written and will ever write. Why? What is it about this novel that makes it more important than your other works?

Bogdan Suceavă: Perhaps because I am still under the strong impression that in Romania in 1990-1996 I witnessed the first years in the devolution of a society. I was a freshman at the University of Bucharest when the anti-Communist revolution from 1989 broke out. My years as an undergraduate student happened to start about the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, which was the beginning of a great period of change. From the outside it looked like Romania was going through a thorough transformation of the whole society from a one-party government to a democratic society where the political leaders are elected in office by free elections, but actually, from our perspective in Bucharest, it was a very unstable environment.

Romania was without a Constitution between December 22, 1989, and December 8, 1991. In all this time there were serious riots in which workers’ unions either supported the provisional government or fought against it, switching allegiance as their interests dictated best at the time. Not only that, in March 1990 there were inter-ethnic clashes in central Transylvania between ethnic Hungarians and ethnic Romanians that threatened the whole society. This was before the civil war broke in Bosnia, so it wasn’t really clear how tragic these events can turn.

DK: How did the political situation in Romania affect you directly?

BS: I saw most of these societal transformations from the streets of Bucharest. I have seen a bloody revolution and I have seen riots. I had high hopes and I failed to find myself a place in that new world. Most probably I will never see something like this again and I can only hope that nobody in Europe will have to witness such a sea of uncertainty. That’s why I felt that turning these experiences into literature could be my best contribution.

I felt the urge to depict in a novel this world as it was falling apart while appearing to the outside world that it was transforming into a stable haven. But it was actually a world without rules, dominated by beliefs in tribal gods and by instincts, where the Orthodox Church played a complicated role, and in many cases encouraged religious extremism. It’s a world where medieval models remained very powerful.

These issues are not specific to Romania alone. Remember how Serbian extremists fought for Kosovo Polje in their pursuit of a medieval idea, and how Hungarian extremists fought for an ideal Hungary that would have, in their minds, the boundaries of a long lost medieval kingdom. In Romania there is also a strong temptation towards some models of medieval glory.

DK: So you used these unsettled feelings as the basis for your novel?

BS: Yes, that was my literary motivation. That feeling of having lost something from long ago inspired quite a few scenes in Coming from an Off-Key Time, since these temptations and ideas resurfaced in the Romanian society after the fall of Communism. I dreamt for years of writing a novel that captured in a relatively short tale (perhaps about 200 pages) the whole local flavor of Bucharest, the colorful world that operates with inconsistent logic and vacuous rules, an eclectic atmosphere where the bohemian youth mixed with old apparatchiks, where fake scholars confuse concepts and ideas, where politicians and religious figures are despicable, and all of them together generate a bizarre political diorama. I can write other stories, but Coming from an Off-Key Time is the novel where I aimed to capture the logic of the world I grew up in.

DK: A key theme in much of your writing is the ability of the characters and, often, the narrator, to laugh at the society around them and their place within it. How important is laughter in literature to you?

BS: Laughing about everything is a very Romanian attitude, perhaps the most characteristic feature of the Romanian world. Most of the people born and educated in Romania have a sixth sense for detecting and elaborating on the ridiculous side of every matter. If we are looking for the literary expression of this attitude, I must say here that the master of us all is the late 19th-century comedy writer Ion Luca Caragiale, whose plays targeted the highly corrupted Romanian political class from the first period of the Kingdom. However, this inclination does not annihilate a fatalist feeling and a pessimistic slant that could be related to latent depression. In several of my works, laughter marks the point where the logic of a society fails, where a culture expresses its serious internal contradictions.

DK: You are now based in the United States, and have been there for a number of years. Has being removed from Romania deepened your appreciation of your country? Are you able to see the state of Romania better now that you are apart from it?

BS: I think that my choice to live in the United States since 1996 meant a lot for my literary work and the consequences have been more complex than I originally thought. I grew up in a world where I had been taught in elementary school and in high school a series of lies, most of them about local history, but not limited just to the remote past. I am talking here about the education system from the communist Romania, thus it’s about the common ground of deliberate misinformation that most people in my generation were forced to take as truth while we were growing up.

We were told and taught impressive lies. They were included in our social sciences and our history and literature textbooks. Additionally, there were many lies by omission. After a few years in the U.S., when I had access to more information, to better libraries and various library databases, I started to read more and more European history. Two of the occurrences concerned me more than the others: (1) the theory that the Romanian nation lived and developed continuously in the geographic territory from around the Carpathian mountains for two thousand years, and (2) Romania’s involvement in World War II, when the Romanian army fought with its full strength on the side of Nazi Germany between the summer of 1941 and August 23, 1944. After this date, Romania switched sides and fought against Nazi Germany until May 1945.

When I was in junior high elementary school, in the 1980s, the first claim was unquestionable and was the fundamental axiom of who we were as Romanians and what we had to do in life. If one grows up with the idea that she/he has to continue a two-thousand-year-old destiny, the government can manipulate and expect any effort from that person. The Romanian government expected work without proper pay, a lot of effort and sacrifices—because all sacrifices are for the good of the nation, aren’t they?

Teaching the new generations to view the world through this two-thousand-year perspective was a key piece in the national communist propaganda and I needed a lot of reading, research, and reflection to take it out of my mind. This vision and its use in education and propaganda made Romanian communism different from Soviet communism or the other versions of the ideology applied in Central and Eastern Europe. My personal cure was long and difficult, it required a lot of effort and was only possible because I had access to information I couldn’t locate in Romania. Thus, it really mattered that I was in the U.S. I read a lot of medieval sources and I had to do some serious library research to convince myself that I had been systematically lied to in school when I grew up.

The second lie mentioned above was even more dangerous, since most of what we learned in school included the Romanian fight against the Nazis. In reality, Romania had a very singular place in World War II. It was the largest neighbour of USSR to harbor a tradition of extreme right-wing ideas, which meant that all it needed was a spark to start a very dangerous fire, a freeway to serial murder based upon ideological grounds—and the international political context from around World War II provided that spark. The Romanian culture in the 1930s was a potential mass murdering machine, relying on the strength of the legend that the Romanian nation has lived for two-thousand years—surrounded by Carpathians and that all the ethnic minorities including Hungarians, Slavs, Jews, or Gypsy, are threatening the Romanian tribe. We were taught that Romania could not develop properly because it was being suffocated by foreigners. This vision was fed by a few writers and artists that helped the extreme right to develop their message.

When Stalin gave an ultimatum in 1940 that Romania should leave the geographical territory that today includes most of the Republic of Moldova, the motivation for crimes was set in place and it was like the fire was set. One year later, Romania joined Nazi Germany in a surprise attack against the USSR. Romania annexed a part of Ukraine, created a new province called Transnistria, and killed a large number of innocent civilians while expanding to the East.

Growing up in the 1980s under Nicolae Ceauşescu in Romania, I had never heard a word in school about all these tragedies generated by the Romanian army. Later, when I was in the U.S. studying mathematics in graduate school, I felt that I needed to explain somehow the springs that loaded this medieval machinery implanted in our heads by the Communist education system.

DK: This provided the background for writing Coming from an Off-Key Time?

BS: Yes. I am perfectly aware that I will not make everybody happy with what I say here. But Romanian culture, as well as many other cultures in Central and Eastern Europe, has many intricate innate springs that trigger a medieval way of viewing our neighbour as an enemy. If one is different, then he’s the enemy—this is how the machinery works. Such a state of mind is a perfect ground for crime. With Coming from an Off-Key Time, which is a novel written originally for a Romanian audience, I aimed at our minds: I planned a comedy that would expose us as we are, with all our tribal instincts and our inclination toward placing the tribal interest above any other values, in particular above the value for human life. What I am saying is that I don’t think I could have written this book if I lived in Romania. The awakening took a while and I believe that distance played a part in it. Without this distance, I don’t think I could have written my novel.

DK: In Coming From an Off-Key Time there is a character who was turned into a cat by a secret KGB weapon and is now one of the most effective Romanian Intelligence Service spy. You have written that to understand the humour of the cat is to understand Bucharest. Talk about that.

BS: Before and after 1989, the Romanian secret services conducted extended surveillance on its citizens on a large scale. It’s something that even today the Romanian society has not recovered from its effects. In Bucharest, today, it seems like every week there is another “Watergate” scandal in which we find out about new recordings leaked from the secret service to the mass media. I don’t think there are too many places in this universe where one is watched over the shoulder so much, and where privacy is violated so often.

In my novel I needed to depict this situation in a comic way. It’s an old trick to give an animal human characteristics to generates humor; it’s mentioned in detail in Henri Bergson’t Theory of Laughter. No other animal would better fit the description of a spy that follows one everywhere but a cat. It’s a very dedicated cat, full of patriotic feelings, who reflects all that education from under Ceauşescu, all the machinery of the spying process.

DK: The protagonist of Coming from an Off-Key Time is a tragic figure. His end is at once comic and cruel, and there are echoes of Christ’s death in his passing. Was your intention to compare the Romanian government—who roundly ignored the protagonist even as he gained favour with the public—to the Roman government from two-thousand years ago?

BS: In the novel, Vespasian Moisa is put under trial by a rival sect, not by the government. As he is recovering after the torture, the cat tries to recruit him to serve as informant for the secret services. That yields an implicit analogy between the Roman government from two-thousand years ago and the contemporary Romanian government. Actually, I played a lot with the potential of double level of reading, and I am happy that you noticed it. There are such subtle parallels hidden in the text.

DK: The novel is written in a number of different styles, ranging from the archaic to the modern. What influenced your decision in this area, and how much of this do you feel was transferred (or lost) in translation?

BS: I tried to bring forth in this text the whole Bucharest, that whole mixture of the real and imaginary world, partly grounded in the authentic tradition, partly based on made up claims and political theories, as I have explained above. To create the self-contained environment that the novel needed I had to combine all this rich material in one single substance. The first thirty pages or so are meant to serve as an introduction, where all these divergent pieces of cultural heritage are combined into one single style, delivered by one single voice. The good news is that Alistair Ian Blyth, the translator, is an outstanding specialist in Romanian language and culture and knew very well what he was doing. It is my hope that most of the tongue-in-the-cheek phrases, assisted by the brief but comprehensive notes at the end of the book, retain their meaning. We received great help from the editorial team at Northwestern University Press when we prepared the notes at the end of the book, and while working on this editorial presentation we had in mind English-speaking audiences. We wanted to inform and entertain in the same time. The translator and the copyeditor worked together with myself, which was a great experience. That’s why I hope the novel succeeds for an English-speaking audience: this work stands a fair chance to be completely understood.

DK: You say the novel was written first and foremost for a Romanian audience. Given that English-speaking people in the West are at least somewhat familiar with Communism and its ill-effects, how much can a reader expect to understand in your work? Do they run the risk of losing too much of the meaning?

BS: It may be interesting to see that some English-speaking readers would like to read exactly works that explore this reality. Take for example M.A. Orthofer’s comment for Complete Review, where he wrote that this novel “is an excellent example of what a foreign reader might hope for in a specifically ‘contemporary Romanian novel’: inward-looking (in contrast to so much of the current Eastern European fiction that is fixated on comparisons to the west) and, though modern, strongly rooted in local tradition (literary as well as otherwise).” I loved reading this comment. It’s true that it depends a lot on whether the reader is willing to bed forward and accept a viewpoint developed from another literary tradition. I have already had the chance to discuss with students who read this book at several North American universities (Columbia University or University of Texas at Dallas) and to visit departments with strong programs in Romanian studies (as for example the program at Arizona State University), which has given me a positive feeling about Coming From an Off-Key Time‘s potential to be understood.

DK: Finally, you have mentioned authors from the past such as Jaroslav Hašek and Karel Čapek as being important unknowns to American readers, as well as contemporary writers such as Filip Florian, Lucian Dan Teodorovici and Alta Ifland. I would add to those names Mircea Cărtărescu and Anca Cristofovici as great writers waiting to be discovered in English. Who is writing in Romanian right now that the American reader should get excited about?

BS: I should add here that essential readings for anyone interested in Eastern Europe are the Soviet authors Ilya Ilf and Evgeni Petrov. The most important Romanian author today is Norman Manea, whose novel Hooligan’s Return received several international distinctions. One of my favourite authors is Radu Aldulescu, whose realistic novels express a special sense of tragic. I like very much the social fables and profound metaphors used by Florina Ilis, Petru Cimpoeșu, Liviu Bîrsan and Petre Barbu. Perhaps the most lucid observer of the Romanian world is Răzvan Petrescu, and I’d like to see more of his works translated outside Romania. A very interesting novel of the first wave of the exiles after 1990 was written by Radu Jorgensen over a decade ago, while the author was still living in Sweden. A very original writer with an excellent dramatic instinct is Răzvan Rădulescu, who wrote the scripts of excellent movies like The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu and The Paper Will Be Blue. There is a lot of good quality Romanian prose that still awaits to be discovered by the interested audience outside Romania. Perhaps the new culture of the book, the one generated by the new technological advancements, will allow some space for literature in translation. I am hopeful we’ll find a way toward that.

Short Story – Montessori (with apologies to Roberto Bolaño)

I wrote this all the way back in 2013, when I was firmly in the throes of my Bolaño obsession.  I post this story here because I don’t really think it needs a home anywhere else.  I’ve cleaned up some spelling and grammar but otherwise it’s entirely untouched.  I offer up zero apologies for how closely it hews to Bolaño’s themes, plotting, conceits – he was everything to me then and this provides a snapshot into my own book-drunk thinking from the time.

It could be supposed that the life of Sebastian Montessori offers an example of the downtrodden, poor, virtually talentless and all but forgotten writer whose mark on the literary world, however desperately he may wished to have placed his mark upon it, was virtually nil.  Montessori spent his twenties locked up in a small apartment sufficiently distant from the city centre of Brisbane to command a meagre rent, writing, reading, and thinking about literature and the small opportunities – miniscule, really, or so he told me – available to a young writer following in the wake of Borges, Kafka, and Proust.  There’s nothing left to write!, he would declare each morning while we shared breakfast together in the communal kitchen that had been placed inside the tiny house in such a manner as to ensure the smells of cooking would penetrate into my rooms as soon as someone began preparing a meal.  Later, after eating, he would gather the loose folds of the soft blue dressing gown he always and only wore during breakfast, and ascend to his room.  Invariably while I began washing the dishes the tap-tap of his typewriter would begin, and the sounds would last until evening.

At that time I was as poor as Montessori, but I don’t think I was as unhappy.  For much of the morning I would walk along the windy beaches of Redcliffe, thinking, thinking about my life and its twist and turns, and thinking about literature.  I always carried a book with me, though I hardly opened it.  Later, protected from the sun by a gazebo installed near the sea, or under the shade of a spreading tree, I would write to the rhythm of the waves as they gently pushed up against the sand castles of children and the crudely formed words of idle teenagers.  I wished to combine the calm tranquility of Thomas Mann with the endless expanse of Robert Musil, and for some reason had convinced myself that writing by the sea was the best way in which to achieve this goal.  But the hours would go by and, tired, slightly sunburned (it is as impossible to protect one-self from the vicissitudes of nature as that of men), and anxious at another day passed without writing, I would return home by train, despondent, my knees knocking against the knees of men returning home from a day spent profitably at the office (I saw everything in terms of dollars in those days, because I had no money, and also in terms of bread).  Always, always I returned home to the tap-tap of Montessori’s white Olivetti.

While I may have wanted to be a writer, Montessori knew he was one.  His energy and capacity for production was prodigious.  For eight hours each day – each day without fail, no matter the temperature, his mood, the state of world politics or the grumbling of his stomach – Montessori wrote.  He wrote plays in the style of Dario Fo, and essays aping Joseph Epstein’s casual erudition.  He wrote short stories, with each weekday devoted to imitating the style and theme of one of the five authors he considered “world permanent” (Today is Tuesday which means that, if he were still alive (I assume – I have no other information – that Montessori is dead, because the alternative is too horrible to contemplate), Montessori would be writing something along the lines of “Details of a Sunset” or “The Visit to the Museum”).  He attempted novellas on occasion, but admitted he didn’t quite have the knack for them.  The final four hours of writing each day he devoted to the “Total Novel”, as yet untitled, which was, he knew, to be his major contribution to literature.  He wouldn’t allow me to read any portion of the Total Novel, but the short stories weren’t bad (though they were, it’s true, essentially unpublishable by any but the laziest of editors as they were basically exact copies of his World Permanent authors).  What little poetry he wrote reminded me of Neruda’s love poems, and I remember telling him once that his rather lengthy short story, X, bore a striking resemblance to The Death of Ivan Ilyich, though I hastened to add that it offered a new and interesting variation on this well-known work by Leo Tolstoy.  It was, I told him, his best and most accomplished piece.  Upon hearing these words Montessori became red-faced and angry.  It was clear he was offended, but why?  Montessori made me promise not to say such things again, and as he spoke he became, perhaps for the first time in his life, menacing.  It was the first time I became afraid of him. 

For various reasons, a few weeks later I accepted a job as a security guard at a natural history museum in a small town by the sea, several hours from Brisbane (from anywhere, really), and I didn’t see Montessori again for a long time.  I moved away because I couldn’t stand the city, because I loved the water and wanted to be closer to it, and because I was unwell and thought that the clear, salty air from the ocean would assist in my recuperation.  I don’t know.  None of the reasons seemed good enough on their own, and taken together I still couldn’t quite persuade my friends that I was making the right choice, but I made the decision anyway, and after several rounds of goodbyes and well wishings, I left.  After a few months I didn’t hear from anyone anyway.

At night I read.  Officially, I was supposed to remain vigilant and patrol the perimeter of the small museum (tiny, really, perhaps the smallest museum I have ever seen, before or since), but really the job was something of a farce.  My boss told me that the job had been initially created by one of the local members for parliament as a reward to a businessman who had become selling cardboard boxes, plastic sleeves and containers, and other packaging materials, up and down the Eastern Coast to post offices, businesses, small freighting companies and municipal councils.  The businessman’s son had been something of a dreamer, lazy and shiftless and prone, so my boss told me, to smoking marijuana in his room above his father’s offices, where the smell could be detected by clients.  Something had to be done, and thus strings were pulled and promises were made, and suddenly there was sufficient fat found in the city budget to approve the expense of a security guard’s position, full-time, five nights a week, with excellent superannuation and annual leave provisions, and just as suddenly the businessman’s son was pushed into the job, given a night-stick, and told to remain vigilant.  That was five years ago, and for whatever reason now the job was vacant and needed to be filled by someone who could withstand the crushing boredom of what was essentially an utterly unnecessary job.  You could sleep, the boss said to me on the first day as he handed me my own night-stick, a set of heavy keys, and a slightly worn uniform, nobody will care if you sleep and you’ll still get paid.  Or you could bring a girlfriend over.  Just don’t leave the premises and don’t do anything stupid.  So at night, huddled in the guard office of the museum, with the trees swinging and the faraway breaking of the ocean barely audible, I read.  Mostly the authors I should read (the only truth I really knew at the time was that I was woefully ignorant when it came to literature.  I hadn’t read anything, and wanted to read everything.), but sometimes also those semi-obscure, somewhat eccentric and slightly avant-garde authors whose discovery gives a young writer (and I was very young then – perhaps twenty-two, or maybe twenty-one.  I don’t exactly remember and I guess it doesn’t matter now) cause for being.  I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and dutifully felt sympathy toward the boorish Karenin and the sensitive Levin, but I devoured everythingI could get my hands on by Don DeLillo.  I admired Coetzee without ever feeling any emotion toward his works (Coetzee’s novels are like hard pieces of tin – sharp and useful, but impossible to love), but I felt with all my heart toward the melancholic wanderers and isolates in Tabucchi’s ephemeral fictions.  My reading was undisciplined, wide-ranging, shallowly conceived but honest, and I worked hard.  I begged my friends back in the city to send me national and international magazines via COD, and was forever handing money I couldn’t afford to the clerk of the tiny and only post office in the town, an older man with enormous eyebrows and the red, veined nose of the drunkard.  Each time he would invariably say to me as I came into the story, well look, it’s the reader!

At night I read.  Sometimes I sat and thought with the book closed and held on my lap, and at least once a night I walked through the natural history museum to look at the displays.  I rarely wrote, but when I did I soon stopped because I thought I could hear the tap-tap of Montessori’s white Olivetti, and invariably I became too distracted and had to stop.  After I tried to write, I would walk through the museum, the sounds of the Olivetti still in my mind as I browsed the shelves and display cases of the museum.  The most fragile items were behind glass, tiny bones of strange creatures, iridescent shells, fossilised wood and plant-life.  The major set-piece of the museum was an enormous piece of light pink coral, easily as tall as a full-grown man, and about as wide as an automobile.  From a main trunk spread the crooked fingers of coral, some broken, most not.  The coral, long dead, at night seemed somehow to pulse and sway.  At times the coral looked like the branching veins of an enormous heart, at other times the fractured brains of a mad men, a killer perhaps, or a prophet from an obscure religious sect.  Scattered around the coral were small glass cases containing the delicate skeletons of the fish most likely to have made their home around the coral when it was alive and submerged far below the surface of the ocean about twenty kilometres from the museum, where it had been found a few years earlier.

Two years after I moved to the coastal town I received a small package in the mail.  By this stage most of my friends had forgotten me, and the ones who still remembered sent sporadic postcards of letters (the magazines had long since stopped arriving).  These postcards came not from Brisbane but all over the world, their origins increasingly exotic as time went by – Hanoi, Tokyo, Beijing – and the tone of the writing shifted increasingly toward despondency and melancholy.  It seemed that of all my friends who could possibly have succeeded – postcards from Rome, Bogota, Valleta – the ones who did were unhappy with it, dissatisfied as though they had expected something of significance would have occurred by now, and disappointed that it hadn’t.  They were all convinced that seeing their names in print (they were all published by now, and some of them were very good) would somehow cause a key to turn in an invisible (though rusted and made from bronze) lock, and happiness would be theirs.  But it wasn’t, and the further away they travelled from Australia – postcards from Madrid, Reykjavík, Mare Serenitatis – and the more they were published, the greater the discontent in the letters.  This package came not from any of those friends however but from Montessori, who I had not heard from at all, and had in fact heard conflicting rumours about.  One friend was convinced he had died from hepatitis, another that he had married and become an accountant for a mid-tier firm.  They all agreed that no matter what had actually happened to him, he was no longer a writer.  But none of these, it soon became clear, were true.  He was a translator, and inside the package was a magazine which contained his first published piece.  The magazine, called Straight Lines, came with a note stapled to the front cover, which read:

JB

Let me know what you think.  You were always my first reader.

SM

And below that was an address.  JB was, of course, me, and SM, I quickly realised, was Montessori.  He wasn’t dead.

From the outset it was clear to me that Montessori had put a lot himself into the translation.  I could hear the white Olivetti in every sentence.  Translation is an art, but I wondered whether there was too much of Montessori in the short story.

And then I completed the story, and I knew.

The story, written by a Honduran writer by the name of José Cardoso Gebler (a name unknown to me and which, even before I read the story, seemed wrong, put together, artificial), was called Irrational Objections and was set in the capital of Honduras.  In the story Cardoso Gebler recounted the hours and days before three men, all about the same age, all desperate, and none of them given names or defining physical features, entered the estate of a wealthy banker known to all three via shady and ill-described means, robbed the house, tied up the occupants (the banker of course, but also his wife, a maid which the story leaves open as to whether she the banker’s mistress as suspected by two of the three men, and two children, both very young), and accidentally – at least, I think it was accidental, as very little of the story was written clearly, as though the prose itself was confused about the murky nature of the evening – killed one of the young children, the boy.  The whole story was in fact written as though it were some kind of remembered nightmare.  All three men suffered from nightmares after that horrible evening, and these were described in exhaustive detail.  Often the violence was sexualised, and blood dripped constantly.  By the end of the story it was unclear to the reader whether the break and enter, the thefts, and the subsequent murder were real or in fact another layer of nightmare presented to hide the true, and much more horrible, crime that had been committed.

What was clear, however, was that Cardoso Gebler, whoever he was,  hadn’t written the story at all. It was Montessori’s.

I didn’t have a computer at the time but I was in possession of the second volume of the Encyclopedia of Latin American Writers in the Twentieth Century, which I had bought second hand for five dollars on a whim toward gradual self-improvement which never eventuated.  As luck would have it the volume was devoted to the letters C – G, which would, I reasoned, include Cardoso Gebler.  I flicked through the pages, unable to find any trace of him whatsoever, though I admit my confidence in the encyclopedia’s accuracy was shaken upon seeing the brothers Goytisolo listed and their achievements duly described.  The article itself was excellently researched and thoroughly engaging, but what the encyclopedia failed to take note of was that the Goytisolos were not Latin American writers but Spanish.  Nonetheless I remained unsure as to Cardoso Gebler’s existence, though deep down I knew I was right.  The story was very good, it was stylistically challenging while remaining readable, and thematically it was strong.  Some of the details of Honduran life seemed off, as though they had been learned about from the pages of a Lonely Traveller guidebook and not truly lived, but I was hardly an expert on the country.

Time passed and I didn’t write back.  I would like to say it was because I was busy, but that was hardly the truth.  I had been convinced that my lot in life was to be a writer, and that my best work would be done by the sea, but now I wasn’t sure.  The words never came, and though at first I stayed at my writing post from low tide until high (I wrote in a natural alcove built into a network of huge slate-blue rocks, twenty steps from the water’s edge.  Very early in the morning, and very late at night, I could hear the snapping claws of tiny crabs hidden in the crevices of the alcove, but by and large I was left alone), but after a while I only stayed for a couple of hours, and then an hour, and then, if I went there at all, it was simply to read.  I had replaced Thomas Mann with David Markson, and Musil with Italo Calvino, and I couldn’t lie and say that I missed either of the writers.  I no longer had it in me to attempt to build baroque cathedrals, and instead became content with the production of others.  For a time I became involved with a newly opened cafe-cum-art gallery, but after a short while I was told by the owner, a young, preternaturally beautiful woman who evinced a propensity for sensitivity over business acumen (though I send that there was a silent partner involved, perhaps a local businessman or politician, who was fronting the money for the cafe, which never had any employees and seemed to be a money pit), that I could no longer work there for reasons I never understood, and in fact that marked the beginning of my bad luck as, perhaps a week later, I received notice that the number of hours required of me at the museum were to be halved, and that a number of the sundry allowances attached to the position (which were, I admitted, purely gravy off the top and in no way needed to properly function in the role) were to be cut effective immediately.  I was still doing okay financially but without a doubt cracks began to appear in the fabric of my life, and for the first time since I had moved away from the city I began to experience genuine material discomfort.  And then Montessori came back into my life.

He was not how I remembered him.  I suppose neither was I, but he had aged a lot more than eight or nine years would suggest.  His face was lined and his hair, previously so thick, had become sparse and unkempt.  His clothes were old and threadbare, and if I hadn’t known better I would have said he was either homeless or had been on the road for some time, perhaps months.  But the worst part were his eyes, which had changed from a brilliant, clear blue to muddied and bloodshot.  He looked as though he had been caught staring into an abyss, a very dark red, almost purple abyss.  

He made small talk over a hastily put together meal of bread, olives, ham and oil, or rather I talked rapidly while Montessori wolfed down everything as fast as I could prepare it and put it on the table.  The only thing he declined was liquor, mumbling something about a problem with his liver and requesting water or, if I had it, soda water.  But nothing more.  I am sorry to do this, he said, I don’t want to be a burden.  No burden, I told him, and then I began to make the required noises about how he could never be a burden when Montessori interrupted me.  So I suppose you have realised by now that all of the stories were mine.  After this surprising admission Montessori ate the last piece of bread on the plate (I had eaten nothing and couldn’t imagine eating anything at all tonight), That José Cardoso Gebler doesn’t exist.  That Pablo Recama doesn’t exist.  That Juan Garcia Cantante doesn’t exist.  That Paco Jardin doesn’t exist.  That Isabelle Hacienda doesn’t exist.  I said nothing; I sensed that Montessori simply wanted to talk.  But who were some of these names?  I had heard of only a few, and my understanding had been that he had sent me everything he had published.  What started as a lark became an obsession, he continued, the worst part about being a writer is that after a while you can’t quite recall if all the characters you keep writing about are real, or based on people you know, or composite creations with pieces taken from a dozen sources, or perhaps even made entirely from whole cloth, and very soon everything is a mess and you realise that you won’t ever untangle it because you can’t remember and you don’t know the answers, and if I don’t know the answers, Joseph, then who does?  And it’s much worse when you have pretended to be the author as well, because then you have to keep in your mind whether these characters are from Recama’s fiction, or those themes are part of Cantante’s oeuvre.  So you can imagine my confusion when I received this letter, he said, pushing a brown recycled envelope across the table to me.  With a trembling hand Montessori extracted the remnant of a cigarette from the breast pocket of his shirt, lit it, and took a drag that was so deep that as his chest expanded and expanded I thought for a crazy second, remembering Cardoso Gebler’s violent nightmare stories, that Montessori might explode right there at my table, his blood, guts and skin splattering all over the herbs I had recently planted.  But then he finally exhaled.  Go ahead, he said.  Read it.

Inside the envelope was not one letter but three, all short.  Two were from José Cardoso Gebler, and the other from a name I did not recognise (yet another of Montessori’s authors?).  The first letter from Cardoso Gebler was polite, thanking Montessori for his efforts in his translation, but admonishing him to ask for permission first next time.  The tone of the letter was that of a genial but slightly peevish schoolteacher.  It ended with Cardoso Gebler magnanimously providing Montessori with the retroactive right to publish his story in English, on the condition that any royalties were to be shared 60-40, in Cardoso Gebler’s favour.  The second letter was somewhat incoherent, though in it Cardoso Gebler seemed to be asking for money, and there was a vague reference to his ongoing persecution at the hand of the Albanian secret service, who were pursuing him on orders from Hoxha, of all people.  The third letter came not from another writer but a lawyer, though from the language used it was clear he was not a very good one.  The letter demanded all of the royalties paid to Montessori for Cardoso Gebler’s fiction, and threatened immediate and serious legal action if this did not occur.  What will you do, I asked.  If you created Cardoso Gebler then clearly this is a hoax, some conman in search of cash trying to shake you out for a couple of dollars… I pointed at several spelling mistakes in the lawyer’s letter and noted also that he had not provided a return address with which Montessori could respond.  He nodded and, as he gathered the letters together, he spoke once more, his eyes looking not at me but off into the distance, as though he could see the abyss wherever he looked, as though it followed him and taunted him.  That’s hardly the least of it, he said.  There are hundreds of letters like this, some from writers, some from lawyers.  But almost all are angry.  And – I met Cardoso Gebler a few weeks ago, and I know he is serious.  He made that very clear.  And it’s not just him, they are all making appearances now, every one of them, even the writers I never published, the ones I didn’t give last names to, or first names.  I see them everywhere, I hear from them.  They stop me in the street or writer me letters or call me very late at night.  And I don’t know, Montessori said, perhaps I deserve the harassment.  Perhaps it’s only right they wish to contact me.  I did create them after all.  I did do that, and I’m sorry.

Several minutes passed before I realised Montessori had fallen asleep while he spoke.  His head titled forward and, though his hand holding the cigarette titled downward, he didn’t drop it and for a long time I watched the ash slowly lengthen on the tip of the cigarette while Montessori snored.

I put him to bed in my room and I slept outside.  I think I dreamt, but my dreams were confusing, and when I woke, I couldn’t at first remember who I was, why I was sleeping in the hammock and not in my bed, or what had happened last night.  But then I remembered.  Montessori was gone.  He had made the bed, and on the sheets he had placed several thick manuscripts and an enormous pile of loose leaf papers.  Beside those lay a pile of perhaps thirty letters addressed to Montessori (though none of the letters had an address beyond his name, and none of them had stamps).  The thick manuscripts were all named The Total Novel, and were marked by volume.  My heart stopped when I saw a small clear net pouch filled with yellowing teeth – Montessori’s teeth! – but then I realised that they were not teeth but the keys from a white Olivetti typewriter, all of the letters of the alphabet except, oddly, the vowels, and all of the numbers except five, eight, and three.  There was no note.

About six months later I moved away from the seaside town.  I never heard from Montessori again.  The papers were drafts of stories in various phases of completion, and most of them were, I thought, very good.  I didn’t know what to do with them, but I couldn’t throw them away, either.  After a while they became tangled up in my own papers, and though I am sure I still have them somewhere, I couldn’t say where.  Last week, in the newspaper, I read an advertisement concerning a lecture that was to be held later this evening at one of the local universities as part of their “World Dialogues” series.  José Cardoso Gebler is speaking as the guest of honour.  A few minutes ago I bought a ticket and I really have to get ready else I will miss out on hearing him speak.  I don’t know who I’m going to see up on stage.

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.

The Journal of Failure – Week 46 of 2020

Week 46 of 2020 – 4 November to 10 November 2020

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 1,090/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 7 / week
  • Achieved – 9/14 – Success!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 1 minute, 20 seconds / day or 9 minutes, 20 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 17 minutes, 16 seconds – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 1 minute, 20 seconds / day or 9 minutes, 20 seconds / week
  • Achieved – 20 minutes, 31 seconds – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Zero (Five total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Week X!

A week of resetting.  A week of calibration.  A week of determining what it is, exactly, that I want.

October 2020 was, for me, an exceptionally busy period at work.  Consequently, writing and reading fell by the wayside.  But this time is over, now, and I simply must refocus my energy on the things that matter.  There’s so little time available to us all.

I have a child coming.  My second.  They will be here in April, and the habits I develop now will help appreciate and utilise the small amounts of time I will have to myself when they are here.  Right now, I am in a golden period of life, because my daughter (2) goes to bed early and my wife (34) goes to bed early and I (38) can go to bed whenever I like.  Similar to Machiavelli, the idea of reading and writing into the night while socialising with and sharing ideas with the greatest minds of all time, is very heaven.  And so I must do that.

This week, reading went quite well.  I read some fantasy nonsense, which was great.  And quite a bit of actual fine and good literature.  Kadare, Bernhard, Howe – these are fine names.  Fine names.

I wrote, for the first time in quite a while.  A new short story, cribbing from an overhead story in my own life.  I am not sure if this will become a story worth completing, but it’s being written and that is the primary goal.

Otherwise, I have re-categorised my current short works in progress to better attain a high-level view of the work I need to redraft, the work that needs to be complete, the work that needs to be submitted.  I aim to tackle the end of 2020 and the entirety of 2021 with the fullness of my ego, arrogance and talent, which means I must and will submit, submit, submit.  No more crouching in shadows, it’s time to write and publish.  I have read enough.

I aim to polish and complete my story about a failed gangster in Belarus.   I aim to polish and complete my story about a disappointed housewife.  I aim to polish and complete my story about a man who regrets everything in his life while aiding an idle rich fool to murder an abhorrent dentist.  With all of these stories, I want to combine the high and the low (see – Saul Bellow) with the violence of power and the futility of art (see – Bolaño).  I admire the capacity of evil to be seductive, I appreciate the flower that grows in the muck.  I appreciate failed individuals who nonetheless keep pushing their Sisyphean boulder.  I admire the unknowable grandness of men and women who contain multitudes and magnitudes.

In terms of a larger novel, I have returned, I think, to my novella on Rasputin.  I read it this week, and while I recognise many clumsy, choppy areas, I think that the overall thrust is fascinating and capable of exploring many of the ideas that I care about.  The polyphony of voices is a touch too-Bolaño, which remains a constant concern for me.  When I flounder in terms of ideas or plot or the next word, I devolve to what I know, and what I know how to do is cut-rate Bolaño and mawkish sentimentality.  I can fix the former but not the latter – eschew sloth and excise everything cliche.  Be better.

I recognise these writing goals are small.  They should be entirely achievable, and to not achieve them suggests to myself and the world that I am not actually interested in writing.  But I also want to ease myself in and increase the pressure – specifically 10 seconds / day / week in short story writing, and 20 seconds / day / week in longer form writing.  The gradual grind up and up suits me alright, and has worked in the past, but oh my, I dislike when I fall back and need to restart.  What’s wrong with me?  Time is hurtling by.

I finished Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World.  This is the first book in his 13ish book series, The Wheel of Time.  It’s fine. It’s fine.  I read it when I was 16 and thus it will always have a place in my heart.  Reading this book is me returning to old friends.  Friends I’d like to see for a little while, but not every weekend.  I usually read the first three, or first five, books of the series, before finishing.  Both points offer neat and clear end points, and in both cases, the extra novels diminish the totality.  I’ve never completed the series (and nor did Jordan, who died), and I am unsure if I ever will.  The gender issues make me very uncomfortable, and the explosion of minor characters drags everything to a crawl.  When I read fantasy I want to be pushed along by the plot.  I don’t want to make notes and keep a record of nations, political systems, factions, etc, etc, etc.

Anyway, on to the real and true literature!

Susan Howe’s Debths was an exceptional discovery for me.  She is an American poet, and her focus (at least for this book) is found texts and memory.  This collection really blew me away – I have never read anything like it.  The corruption of public domain text alongside brief pieces on memory were just fantastic.  I am not fully equipped to comment upon poetry, as I haven’t really read enough, but this was a revelation.

Thomas Bernhard’s My Prizes is a collection of pieces by Bernhard surrounding the prizes he won throughout his life.  And while he is curmudgeonly throughout he certainly, ah, accepted the prizes and prize money.  Sure, he was poor, but there’s a certain lack of integrity here which makes the entire collection somewhat uncomfortable.  Particularly because Bernhard himself boiled his life down to integrity, integrity, integrity.

Ismail Kadare’s The Successor is a great novella that is about 30 pages too long.  It opens with the successor to the current dictator in Albania being dead, perhaps killed, perhaps a suicide.  We don’t know.  Kadare keeps the view of the novella high and broad, providing an understanding of the general political and cultural situation of the city and nation.  This is very good.  The middle section concerns itself too heavily, I think, with characters, names, particulars – this is a book that would have been stronger if it had stayed almost entirely as a fable.  Nonetheless, it’s quite good, and highlights, yet again, that Kadare is a Nobel-worthy writer.  When will his time come?

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Some comments on Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard

Your mom’s a slut. I just have to throw that out there. This isn’t going to be easy for either of us but we’re ripping off the band-aid, son.

The anger of a wronged man is vast and knowable.  Vast, because they perceive that the world is pulling them down, their jobs, their women, their children, their obligations – it’s all one giant conspiracy to keep them low, down, trodden upon. These men never look to economics or class.  No, that problem is too big.  And so it is the immediate surrounds which are to blame.

Knowable because they rage online, in person, to friends, to family.  Their rage comes in the form of fists, of Facebook posts, of picketing in the streets.  They cannot be silent.  Whatever grievance they  have must be heard, tediously stretching out across the decades that make up their miserable lives.

Women rage, too, but they have the modesty to remain quiet about it.

In Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard, the rage comes via a message sent from father to son.  The son is 16, and his life has been hard.  But this story is not about him. No, instead it is about the father and his wife, ex-wife, the woman for whom his rage knows no bounds.  He airs his grievances to his son in explicit, detailed form, ostensibly wrapping them around the errors of the step-father, but this is not the entire truth.  The father’s rage reaches back to when she was young, at school, and extends forward to now and into the future.  This is a rage that will never be loosened.

The step-father, we learn, abuses the teenager, and at the end of the communication the father provides an answer to his son.  A gun, in the boat.  One squeeze of the trigger and the problems are over.  I note grimly that here the father offloads the responsibility of solving his son’s horrific problems to the child himself.  He will not pull the trigger – he will simply rage.

To his small credit, the father offers up a list of his own flaws, including that of violence against the mother.  But this list is used as a method of showing that he isn’t as bad as the others.

In truth they are all rotten.  Perhaps the son is not, but everyone else is a dark planet orbiting a fallen star.

Maine’s language is loose, and crude, and a touch too-heavy on the swearing.  Just a touch.  This message, however it is being communicated, is one of speech, streaming directly from the narrator in an out-pouring of anger.  This works, the character is believable, but the length of the short piece is just about as long as I’d like to spend inside his mind.  It’s exhaustive, and imagine living like that?

There are some shining bright spots.  Twice, the narrator mentions spending time with his son, and here the tone is pleasant, even kind.  It’s a nice balance, and shows that no matter how these men might hate the world, what they love, they love.

This strikes me as a very American story.  This is not a criticism or a commendation.  The ending involves violence, or at least, encouraging violence, and in a manner that I, as an Australia, perceive as close to uniquely American.  The answer provided is not to run away, or change, or engage the authorities – it is violence.  Violence, violence, violence.

The rage continues, the generations feed on one another, and in twenty years time this teenage boy will be saying something much the same to his own son, likely from jail, unquestionably full of his own inherited anger.

Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard is a short story published online at Misery Tourism.  Derek’s Twitter account is @derekmainelives.

2020 in Review – the first 100 Books

October 28 marks the day when I read 100 books for the year.

Let’s take a look at the breakdown of what I read –

Books written by men – 81

Books written by women – 19

Translated works – 70

Nobel Prize winning works – 21

Books by Small Presses – 46

Fantasy novels – 5

Average pages – 168 pages

So let’s analyse the above

Obviously the glaring, massive, disappointing issue is the percentage of women writers compared to men. It’s not good enough and I am honestly surprised. If I was asked I would have said perhaps 40%, but here we are under 20% for the year.

I need to do better. I have enough books written by women to dramatically improve these numbers.

The next book, which I am almost done at the time of writing this, was written by a woman, but that would only take the year from 19% to 19.8%. Lots and lots of work here to do.

Some of the notable women writers I have read this year include the incomparable Marguerite Duras. I prefer her late works, which are sparse, pristine, close to formless. Open Letter publish a number of these and I would strongly, strongly recommend checking out her work.

I like Rachel Cusk, but A Life’s Work is not a book I connected with particularly well. In it, Cusk grapples with being pregnant and then having a child. And I mean, she really grapples with it. To the point where she struggles with whether or not she hates her child while loving it. And, for me, with a very young child, I just found it too much. I don’t love/hate my child, and I haven’t struggled with parenting. Perhaps when she’s 10 and I am distanced from the baby-phase I might be able to read such a book dispassionately, but alas at this stage in my life I cannot.

Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth was very strong. Boiled down it’s an historical dialogue between a famous man and an unknown (to us, historically) woman. They discuss art, love, life and it’s all absolutely fascinating.

Otherwise, 70% being translated work seems about right. I certainly actively go out of my way to read translated work, and this is shown here. I would anticipate most years of my life would show 60-80% translated books, particularly now that my Updike/Bellow/Roth obsession of my twenties appears to be over.

Nobel Prize winners at 21 is fine. I have no real goal here other than I want to read as many as I can. One book in five seems fine, fine, fine. I’m drawn to novellas, as can be seen above, and it sometimes seems that most Nobel writers write big chunky bois.

Small Presses at 46% is good. I’d like to push that up to 50%, but I’m fine with where it is. Special shout-out as always to Open Letter, which make up 12 of the books I’ve read this year. They are doing excellent work. Other big hitters for me is Dalkey Archive Press and New Directions. The stalwarts, in other words.

Fantasy at 5 books is ok. I want it lower than 10% and here we are. Not much to say here. I tend to use fantasy as a way to kickstart my reading slumps and get me back into literature, but at times I’ll really dive deep into fantasy. Not this year, as we can see – though I have bought a simply enormous amount of books in the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series. One day.

The average pages strikes me as slightly lower than I thought, but broadly speaking about right. I have a fondness for novellas. I have for years and I will continue to do so. The kind of literature I enjoy most explores an idea fully and then gets out of the way. That’s a novella.

So what does the rest of the year bring? Likely twenty more books. And they really, really need to be more heavily female. I’ve disappointed myself here, and with only two months left in the year I don’t really see how I rectify this in any meaningful way. Reading 20 books, all by women, before the year ends, still only puts me at one third written by females. Which I mean is better but c’mon.

At any rate, reading is not a numbers game, or not entirely so. I have not engaged in enough reading projects this year (ie – Spanish writers, Holocaust literature, Oulipo, etc), and this is something I’d like to do more of. Twitter is aflutter with reading projects and months devoted to a country or language or theme. And sure, that’s pretty great. But I chafe under the rope of another individual’s project, and so I will go it alone, reading, reading, reading.

But definitely reading more women.

Update – And here are the books

Barthes, RolandCamera Lucida28 October 2020
Thiong’o, Ngugi WaWeep Not, Child27 October 2020
Handke, PeterDon Juan25 October 2020
Zweig, StefanJourneys28 September 2020
Darrieussecq, MarieOur Life in the Forest26 September 2020
Leiber, FritzSwords Against Wizardry26 September 2020
Eaves, WillMurmur24 September 2020
Didion, JoanSouth and West24 September 2020
Pessoa, FernandoSelected Poems5 September 2020
Calvino, ItaloInvisible Cities3 September 2020
Bataille, GeorgesStory of the Eye2 September 2020
Aira, CesarDinner1 September 2020
Greene, GrahamDoctor Fischer of Geneva31 August 2020
Ionescu, AnamariaZodiac31 August 2020
Beckett, SamuelThe Lost Ones26 August 2020
Madej, RyanThe Marianas Trench26 August 2020
King, StephenThe Gunslinger25 August 2020
Eliot, T. S.Murder in the Cathedral25 August 2020
Bolano, RobertoThe Spirit of Science Fiction16 August 2020
Perec, GeorgesAn Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris16 August 2020
Levi, PrimoMoments of Reprieve15 August 2020
Origo, IrisA Chill in the Air11 August 2020
Beckett, SamuelDante and the Lobster9 August 2020
Pilch, JerzyA Thousand Peaceful Cities8 August 2020
Saer, Juan JoseThe One Before7 August 2020
Togawa, MasakoThe Master Key6 August 2020
Sebald, W. G.Campo Santo5 August 2020
Gappah, PetinaAn Elegy for Easterly3 August 2020
Bolano, RobertoBy Night in Chile31 July 2020
Vila-Matas, EnriqueBecause She Never Asked30 July 2020
Armitage, SamuelBook of Matches29 July 2020
Coleridge, Samuel TaylorThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner23 July 2020
Review of Contemporary FictionGeorges Perec Issue22 July 2020
Hamsun, KnutVictoria22 July 2020
Cusk, RachelA Life’s Work21 July 2020
Sirieix, FredSecret Service17 July 2020
Roth, PhilipZuckerman Unbound11 July 2020
Whitehead, ColsonApex Hides the Hurt10 July 2020
Xingjian, GaoThe case for literature25 June 2020
Roth, PhilipThe Ghost Writer23 June 2020
Beckett, SamuelThe Expelled and Other Novellas22 June 2020
Mieville, ChinaIron Council22 June 2020
Fernandez Mallo, AgustinNocilla Experience16 June 2020
Turner, DavidVictorian and Edwardian Railway Travel13 June 2020
Nors, DortheMirror, Shoulder, Signal9 June 2020
Modiano, RenzoOf Jewish Race4 June 2020
OndjakiThe Whistler3 June 2020
Sosnowski, AndrzejLodgings2 June 2020
Navarro, ElviraA Working Woman1 June 2020
Modiano, PatrickHoneymoon1 June 2020
France, AnatoleBalthasar31 May 2020
Baudelaire, CharlesThe Flowers of Evil26 May 2020
Wolf, ChristaNo Place on Earth26 May 2020
Brecht, BertoltMother Courage and her Children22 May 2020
Mella, DanielOlder Brother21 May 2020
Azam, MaryamThe Hijab Files19 May 2020
Tenev, GeorgiParty Headquarters18 May 2020
Alexievich, SvetlanaZinky Boys17 May 2020
Rey Rosa, RodrigoSeverina16 May 2020
Hesse, HermannJourney to the East14 May 2020
Neruda, PabloSelected Poems13 May 2020
Heaney, SeamusNew Selected Poems 1966-198712 May 2020
Baudelaire, CharlesParis Spleen9 May 2020
Duras, MargueriteL’Amour7 May 2020
Erikson, StevenGardens of the Moon6 May 2020
Holub, MiroslavVanishing Lung Syndrome6 May 2020
Krasznahorkai, LaszloSatantango30 April 2020
Maupassant, Gu dePierre and Jean29 April 2020
Barba, AndresSuch Small Hands28 April 2020
Camus, AlbertThe Plague28 April 2020
Watson, HollyNever Seen the Sea26 April 2020
Saat, MariThe Saviour of Lasnamae25 April 2020
Saramago, JoseAll the Names23 April 2020
Sebald, W. G.Vertigo18 April 2020
Ogawa, YokoThe Housekeeper and the Professor15 April 2020
Modiano, PatrickSleep of Memory14 April 2020
Rothes, JoshuaThe Art of the Great Dictators19 March 2020
Pizarnik, AlejandraThe Galloping Hour17 March 2020
Camus, AlbertThe Outsider16 March 2020
Bidart, FrankHalf-Light – Collected Poems15 March 2020
Rilke, Rainer MariaSonnets to Orpheus14 March 2020
de Juan, Jose LuisNapoleon’s Beekeeper12 March 2020
Modiano, PatrickThe Search Warrant9 March 2020
Mieville, ChinaThe Scar8 March 2020
Transtromer, TomasThe Half-Finished Heaven2 March 2020
Igov, AngelA Short Tale of Shame20 February 2020
Wolf, RorTwo or Three Years Later11 February 2020
Vollmann, William TWhores for Gloria6 February 2020
Kadare, IsmailBroken April5 February 2020
Mahfouz, NaguibMiramar4 February 2020
Duras, MargueriteAbahn Sabana David3 February 2020
Ljubic, NicolStillness of the Sea3 February 2020
Mariani, LucioTraces of Time1 February 2020
Duras, MargueriteYann Andrea Steiner30 January 2020
Blatnik, AndrejYou Do Understand24 January 2020
Nordbrandt, HenrikWhen we Leave Each Other23 January 2020
Zambra, AlejandroMultiple Choice16 January 2020
Hazan, EricA History of the Barricade9 January 2020
Hesse, HermannPoems6 January 2020
Zambra, AlejandroThe Private Life of Trees2 January 2020