I was fortunate enough to hear Jay Bernard perform several of the poems in this collection and have never forgotten them. It was an excellent introduction, because many of them gain immeasurably from being heard, particularly Songbook, whose almost jaunty sing-song rhythm belies the underlying horror.
Make no mistake, this book is as much of a punch in the gut as one of the other books on the shortlist (Inferno by Catherine Cho). Except it isn’t a memoir. It’s a poet’s exploration of historical facts. In 2016 Jay Bernard was a writer in residence at the George Padmore Institute, an archive and research centre for radical black history in Britain. During the course of the residency, Bernard examined the documents pertaining to the New Cross Fire of 1981 and the indifference with which the deaths of thirteen young black people was treated in the media, by the authorities and the general public. A short while after engaging with these historical records, in 2017, the Grenfell Fire took place and the poet felt as if history was repeating itself.
Surge is not a political manifesto, but an emotional response to these disasters and their aftermaths. Of course it expresses sorrow and anger, it calls for justice, and therefore might be called political. There are also some harrowing scenes of retrieving the charred bodies, of parents having to identify the remains, of private and public grieving. But it feels like it’s teaching us a way to come to terms with almost unimaginable pain.
Going in when the firefighters left
was like standing on a black beach
with the sea suspended in the walls,
soot suds like a conglomerate of flies. […]
The black is coming in from the cold,
rolling up the beach walls, looking for light.
It is also the story of the Windrush generation and their descendants. It warns of the dangers of believing yourself at home in a community, and of feeling a homesickness for a place or for people who may no longer exist anywhere except in our memories.
don’t let me die in England I said to the pavement –
to the sea-black rain –
and never tell my grandmother why I never called –
never called to say that I thought of her daily –
that I suffered with the weight of what she had freely given
But it’s also an intimate, touching portrait of growing up black and queer in South London, of feeling part of and apart from several different cultures. Personal sorrows and fears blend with those of the larger community, small joys and triumphs are a source of almost guilty pleasure.
Some day when we can all go to in-person theatre again, I would like to see this book in an immersive experience format, with film projection, audio recordings, something to be felt with all the senses, painful thought it might be. As it was, I felt the words and images fairly jumped off the page, as the poet ably combines pictures, witness statements, newspaper articles and video archives. Jay Bernard shows a remarkable craft and tonal range, far beyond their years: from the auditive delights of spoken word poetry to lyrical minimalism. It was often the quieter, more elegiac moments where the emotion gripped me most:
Margarita Garcia Robayo: Holiday Heart, transl. Charlotte Coombe
This book ticks three boxes: #SpanishLitMonth, #20BooksofSummer and #WomeninTranslation.
I didn’t read this one in time for the Borderless Book Club in June, but I nevertheless enjoyed hearing the discussions around it. I think quite a few struggled with the unlikability of the main characters, but I felt like that was the point of the book. It offers a different perspective on the life of privileged Colombian immigrants to the US. All too often Latinos are perceived as racially inferior, uneducated, relegated to menial jobs or (if they are lucky) entertainment – but what about those immigrants who are wealthy, well-educated and feel superior to those with a darker skin colour than themselves and to those coming from other Latin American countries?
There is a far greater variety among immigrants, even when they come from the same linguistic background or the same continent, than we are typically shown in films or literature. It was this aspect of the story which I found most interesting: the chasing after a new cultural identity, the ambiguous feelings towards the home country, feeling second-rate in a host culture when you were used to feeling first-rate at home. Just because you are an immigrant and discriminated against doesn’t mean that you cannot find others even lower than you, so that you too can discriminate (or merely quietly envy). Snobbery and racism are rife, as well as resentment for the way they are treated in their new environment.
Being brown isn’t an advantage, thinks Pablo, and he thinks about himself, his mother and his sisters, even Lucia. Being black gets you further. A brown man is a watered-down man, stuck halfway between identities. It’s impossible to construct a strong identity if you are brown.
It is also the story of a marriage breaking down, where a sense of common identity is not enough to keep them together. Lucia was forced to move around a lot as a child, following her father’s job with oil companies, so she wants to integrate fully, to raise their children as Americans, and can be quite sarcastic or bored about her origins. Meanwhile, Pablo has a nostalgia about ‘our country’ and resents this uprooting:
‘…one day you’ll realise that a man without roots is a dead man.’ He couldn’t remember Lucia’s response. Something seething and spiteful. Something about how much his argument sounded like a lyric from an Ismael Rivera song.
When Pablo develops a ‘holiday heart’ syndrome (a severe heart condition usually associated with over-indulgence of food, drink, sex and the like during the holidays), the couple’s contrasting attitudes towards life become ever clearer. Pablo is going through a midlife crisis and having several affairs, including one with a pupil of his. Lucia goes off to Miami with the kids and flirts with a celebrity football player who is also there on vacation. These shenanigans got a little bit tedious, but they were revealing of character. There is an emptiness at the heart of this relationship and in their own hearts. When reading this book, I get the same sense of alienation as in watching a film like Antonioni’s The Eclipse.
Almost immediately after reading this book, I read Fleishman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (although this was a library book and adjacent to my #20booksofsummer reading plans). It is also about the breakdown of a marriage, but set in the well-heeled milieu of New York doctors, bankers and celebrity agents, with summer homes in the Hamptons and an endless round of private schools, tennis lessons, piano lessons, holiday camps and what not else. I wondered whether the readers who had found the Holiday Heart characters unlikable thought that these ones were more relatable because they were white.
The book was funny in parts, especially when describing the sex-fuelled haze of online dating, or the reactions of other people to the news that a couple is divorcing ‘people pretended to care for him when they were really asking after themselves’). Instead of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, this one reminded me of the TV series Sex and the City. There are some sharp observations about modern life and gender relationships, but I couldn’t help feeling that I was reading a lifestyle article in Vanity Fair or New York Times. I couldn’t care deeply about either Toby or his wife Rachel, or their respective midlife crises, or any of the characters who seem to relish their respective well-furnished prisons even though they complain about them. Although some of the rants were really spot-on, I couldn’t help remembering the critique I got on an excerpt of my novel in progress a few years back – that it was too much of a rant, the whingeing of a privileged white Mum that nobody would be interested in reading. Yes, this is exactly what this book felt like (although we get two for the price of one, rants from both genders).
I watched a couple go by, burrowing into each other… I pitied them… in a few years, that girl would be just some guy’s wife. She would be someone her husband referred to as angry – as angry and a dour and a nag. He would wonder where her worship went; he would wonder where her smiles were. He would wonder why she never broke out in laughter; why she never wore lingerie,; why her underwear, once lacy and dangerous, was now cotton and white; why she ddn’t like it from behind anymore; why she never got on top… The fortress where they kept their secrets would begin to crack, and he would push water through those cracks when he would begin to confide in his friends. He would get enough empathy and nods of understanding so that he would begin to wonder exactly what he had to gain from remaining with someone so bitter, someone who no longer appreciated him for who he was, and life’s too short, man, life’s too short.
Although I flagged quite a few passages that made me nod and smile wryly in recognition, overall I felt I’d heard the story a hundred times before and the style was too pedestrian to rescue it. It was an entertaining enough way to spend a weekend, but I choose Holiday Heart over this one. The Colombian novel gives a more lasting feeling of unease, raises provocative questions, and has a more precise, clearcut style where you feel every word counts (plus, it has been carefully and lovingly translated).
This month I’ve decided to focus on memoirs (factual or slighly fictionalised) by women writers. The first two that I read were Motherwell by Deborah Orr and Splithead by Julya Rabinowich (translated by Tess Lewis).
Deborah Orr: Motherwell
Although Motherwell is the name of the place where Deborah Orr was born and grew up, it is a felicitous play on words, because her relationship with her mother was going anything but ‘well’ and because it is a story of origin, such as the fountain/ well that gave her inspiration and values for the rest of her life (even if she chose to rebel against them).
Motherwell is – or was – a working-class coal and steel town on the Clyde Valley. The stripping back of its industry had already started when Orr was a child, the town lost its purpose and the people lost their identity. Orr hated the town and longed to escape – which she did, as soon as she left school – but this is a more nuanced revisiting of the place at the removal of several decades, a brutally honest look at what was both good and bad about it. There are moments of real lyricism, childhood friendships revisited (and the division between Catholics and Protestants stated all too clearly), and Orr’s love of nature becomes apparent. Both the child and the grown-up Deborah appreciate the landscape around her home town, the great river Clyde on their doorstep, the woods and marshlands. What she notices in the present-day, however, is that more attention is being given to the historical background of the area, which used to be a royal hunting forest in the Middle Ages.
There’s a sign by the tree now, telling people this stuff…. But none of this was there when Motherwell was a place with a future. The heritage industry moves in when people don’t know who they are any more and have to focus on who they were instead.
This is the story of a certain time and place, but it’s also a personal family history. Orr is sometimes a little too harsh on her parents, but she also tries to understand how their hard and unsatisfactory lives shaped them, and why this might have made them less-than-perfect and rather unsupportive parents. Having a difficult relationship with my mother myself, I could relate to many of the instances she describes.
It makes me grieve for the lost Win, the bright, talented girl who could have got so much more out of her life, if all of her life hadn’t been squashed into the tiny space of husband, home and children. My mother’s whole existence… was ordered by the choices of men. Their attention, their validation – that was everything to Win. She didn’t even think about it, was not really aware of it. Being in the good graces of men, attracting them, keeping the one you chose… these were the only important ways in which to gauge the worth of a woman. Win’s forty -year marriage to my father had been the great achievement of her life. Getting married, being married, staying married. These were things my mothers was violently, indefatigably in favour of.
My mother slagged off women, women she didn’t feel superior to who were different to her in a way that made her doubt herself, because she was so invested in the perfection of her womanhood, so proud of it.
Yet I can accept her unsentimental critique of her parents, because I can imagine she was just as hard on herself. Nevertheless, as she rummages after her mother’s death through her bureau, where she kept all of her paperwork and valuables, she finds keepsakes of many of her achievements as a child and a collection of clippings of her articles after she moved to London and became a journalist. Her parents were proud of her after all – they just weren’t the generation or perhaps the personalities who could comfortably articulate that.
I’d read a few articles by Deborah Orr, but I really became aware of her on Twitter in the last few months before her premature death, when she was describing in painful detail her nasty divorce. (You can imagine why I could relate to that). She does not shy away from painful details in this book either, and I do wish she could have lived longer to write the next volume of her memoirs.
Julya Rabinowich: Splithead
Julya Rabinowich emigrated from Russia to Austria in 1977, when she was just seven. She is now considered one of the most interesting German language writers of her generation (she is also a translator, playwright and painter). Both her parents were artists and this ‘novel’ is a very lightly fictionalised account of her own move to Austria. It tells the story of Mischka, born in St Petersburg into an extended Jewish family. She moves to Vienna with her parents and grandmother, and her story of trying to fit into the Viennese schools and society is interspersed with memories of their life in Russia, as recounted by Spaltkopf (“Splithead”), a Russian fairy-tale monster who feeds off the emotions of his victims. It’s a quirky experimental style, quite different from the more straightforward account by Deborah Orr. While I generally like experimental fiction, I have to admit that I found this style annoying at times, too jerky and bitty, swerving from one paragraph to the next, even from one sentence to the next, to Russian folk tales or imaginary friends or other influences.
Although I enjoyed the scenes of life in a block of flats in St Petersburg, the descriptions of neighbours and scenes of naughtiness, the oppressive atmosphere that they had to learn to navigate, I felt that the life in exile section was not as detailed as I’d have liked. I much preferred the descriptions of life as an immigrant in Switzerland by Irena Brežná or Julia Franck’s description of life in a refugee camp in West. There were some scenes such as the one below, but far too few of them for my liking.
We wait in a long queue with other emigrants for allocation by the organization responsible for us… Our goal is the shabby desk of the official who will interview us… An endless wave of complaints washes over the man facing us with his questionnaires. There is no alphabet in the world that can capture this despair. Whatever gets set down on the form is not what makes up the person. Our Noah’s Ark, which we’ve lined up by twos to enter, doesn’t have enough room for us all; at least, that is the rumour.
As for Mischka herself, she is a bit of a manipulative brat (the description of what she does to her mother at some pointm for no good reason at all just broke my heart) and she gets even worse when she grows up. However, there are little gems of insight scattered throughout the book, which kept me reading on. Of course, means of communication have moved on since the 1970s, but perhaps it’s still not easy to get past censorship in the ‘mother country’.
Emigration tears people apart. They learn about high points and personal disasters in letters and phone calls. Closer contact is impossible. As if they had landed on another planet, breathing is difficult in the spacesuits that they don’t dare take off for fear there won’t be enough air in the new atmosphere. Their chests rise and fall with difficulty.Their lungs hurt. The voices of the other settlers croak through the microphones in their helmet.
Charles Simic: Essays on the Poetry, edited by Bruce Weigl.
Charles Simic is a Puliter Prize winning American poet of Serbian origin, and one of the few modern poets in the US who doesn’t seem to fit neatly into any ‘school’ or style. Yet he is always recognisably himself: pared down, short poems polished to perfection like small gems, no fancy diction or ‘swallowing a thesaurus’ type of vocabulary, but containing big ideas.
I like the conciseness of the lyric and I like to tell stories – an impossible situation! Brevity has always impressed me! A few striking images and goodbye… How to say everything with the minimum of words is my ideal.
Born in Belgrade and witnessing the indiscriminate bombing of the city as a small child, he is deeply distrustful of absolutist statements or those who claim moral authority. Partly surrealist, deceptively simple but never simplistic, he remains preoccupied with history and truth, the search of meaning in a world that seems determined to destroy all innocence.
I continue to believe that poetry says more about the psychic life of an age than any other art. Poetry is a place where all the fundamental questions are asked about the human condition.
Where does he get all his inspiration from? Simic has no qualms about admitting that it’s from his personal experience.
Form is the extension of content, so it’s not an invention – something out of nothing, but a discovery of what is already there… Poetry is the archeology of the self. The bits and pieces one keeps digging up belong to the world – everybody’s world. It’s a paradox that has always amused me. Just when you think you’re most subjective, you meet everybody else.
But if poetry is about universal experience, then why is it so little appreciated and read? Simic has quite trenchant views on that and I can’t help wondering what he feels about the current popularity of Instagram poetry.
… why more people don’t read poetry? I suppose for the same reasons more people don’t read philosophy. Philosophy is important, was alayws important, but very few people in any age have read it. No point kidding ourselves! The human animal is lazy. Thinking is work and so is poetry… You notice how all those imported Eastern phiosophies, when they come to the West, reduce their theologies to the simplest possible terms? A two-word mantra and off you go! That’s all you need, kid! Imagine if someone actually tried to make them study the great Hindu and Buddhist philosophers and poets?
War The trembling finger of a woman Goes down the list of casualties On the evening of the first snow
The house is cold and the list is long.
All our names are included.
The tragic in Simic’s verse is always tempered with something uttered so baldly, it almost becomes comic. As he describes it, the world is a mix of the sacred and the profane, the serious and the absurd: ‘dopiness is at the heart of much human activity.’ I love the juxtaposition of abstract and very concrete indeed, of high-minded, high-falutin’ ideals and the boring old everyday.
Mother Tongue Sold by a butcher Wrapped in a newspaper It travels in a bag Of the stooped widow Next to some onions and potatoes
Toward a dark house Where a cat will Leap off the stove Purring At its entrance
For a boy who learnt English only after he emigrated to the States at the age of 16, to then go on to become the Poet Laureate… Not a bad accomplishment, right? Oh, and the title of this post? It’s from a quote of his: ‘Poetry tries to bridge the abyss lying between the name and the thing. That language is a problem is no news to poets.’
Over the years I’ve had many conversations with friends from all over the world about white privilege (and yes, seen it all too clearly in my own life). In the past two years I’ve also seen evidence of what I would call ‘British privilege’ (it is not exclusively British of course – and, indeed, spread unevenly through the British Isles – so perhaps it would be more accurate to call them Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, to quote Lewis Carroll and Angus Wilson). Here are some examples, with no further comment, just to get things off my chest. For more excellent examples of these kind of liberal blindspots and microaggressions, see Americanah.
What is your evidence for saying that the general discourse against foreigners has worsened in the last two years? Do you really think that people are less tolerant now? I haven’t seen any examples of that. If you don’t like it here, why don’t you go somewhere else?
Do you really get that question ‘Where are you from?’ I have to say, I’ve never had anyone ask me that. (From a blonde woman with an English-sounding name). You must be exaggerating. Anyway, there is nothing inherently bad about that question. It just shows genuine curiosity, people want to find out more about you.
The UK has always been interracial and tolerant of all the different ethnic groups throughout our history. The only reason we have now started turning against our Commonwealth brothers is because we are trying to make up for the immigration we cannot control, the one from the EU. We have to allow all those people in, so instead we are putting all sorts of barriers up for those whose immigration we can control, like the poor people from the Commonwealth. That was never the case before.
There are so many empty houses in Spain – why do you think no one from the UK is going there under this freedom of movement? I’ll tell you why: because the UK is far too generous with its benefits, so it’s more likely that the Spanish are coming over here.
I am vegetarian, I am careful about recycling, I no longer use plastic straws, I care deeply about dolphins and sharks and other animals. I travel all over the world and love finding out about other countries and cultures. I am very much against racism. But… We’ve had to accept far too many people from the EU who are not qualified and our infrastructure simply cannot put up with it. I mean, just look at what has happened in Germany with all those refugees they have let in.
Where are you from? OK, but I meant, with a name like that, where are you originally from? Or where are your parents from? That is so interesting! Do you ever go back there? Do you still have family there?
What would we do without immigrants? I mean, our whole NHS would collapse without all the doctors and nurses from abroad. They certainly need to continue to allow valuable people like that into the country. It’s just those others doing unskilled labour and driving down wages who are a problem.
I don’t understand why people want to come to this miserable, rainy island with all the potholes and crowded trains and all that. I would love to live in the sun and on the beaches of many of those countries.
On a lighter note, here is the answer when I ask people in the UK what they think those coming to visit or stay in their country find most difficult to adapt to:
The weather? Queuing? What do you mean – unmixed taps? I’ve never had a problem with that!
The frustration of EU citizens living in the UK is easy to understand. Many of them have made their lives here, have contributed with work and taxes for many decades, have raised families here and now feel pushed out. However, as Helen de Cruz points out in this article, it is part of a widespread (and now officially endorsed) xenophobia
Unless, of course, you are very rich, in which case you can arrange a visa or naturalisation deal, not many questions asked about where your money comes from. But for those of us who are neither wealthy nor (some of us until quite recently) EU citizens, it will sound very familiar indeed. We have always been second-class citizens, even in the eyes of EU citizens living here. The Greeks and Spanish looked down with disdain on the newer EU countries, forgetting that when they joined the EU in the 1980s, the French and Germans looked down on them. And that’s just those of us who have the same colour skin and a shared European history. Can you imagine how they felt about those from different continents and with darker skins? As writer and academic Sunny Singh explains in this Twitter thread, it is disingenuous and requires some intellectual acrobatics to pretend that Brexit is not ‘really’ about hatred of pesky immigrants and foreigners. EU citizens are now experiencing this prejudice for themselves and it’s something that they are not used to – or at least, not since the 1950s/60s. But I cannot feel Schadenfreude. I was the second-class citizen who strove to give my children the opportunity to never have to feel inferior, so it makes me sad. And I also believe it’s a dangerous time to allow hateful rhetoric to create divisions between ‘desirable’ and ‘less desirable’ immigrants.
It’s not that English (and Scottish and Welsh and Irish) people are not welcoming individually or in batches, but the UK administration as a whole has not made our lives easy at any step of the way. Think about the humiliations, queues, lack of understanding and incompetence you have sometimes encountered at the Job Centre and multiply it five-fold to get an approximate idea of the frustrations of getting your visa renewed at Lunar House in Croydon (a name that strikes fear in the heart of most of us immigrants or students). The amount of paperwork and official invitations and payments required to get your elderly parents to visit you (and no, they do not want free NHS treatment, as they think that Romanian doctors are vastly superior – or at least those of them still living in Romania, as many of them are working for the NHS). Same applies for other countries: I know many Greeks or Polish friends who go back ‘home’ to get their teeth fixed. Out of the 7 dentists at my local practice, 6 are from an immigrant background (India, South Africa, Vietnam and Greece, in case you are wondering). But you’d better be careful and not stay for too long outside the UK with your medical problems, otherwise you will not qualify for your indefinite leave to remain… Then, because the UK is not in Schengen, even if you have a one-year student visa here, you will still need visas to visit the rest of Europe, often having to prove that you are covered for travel and health insurance, that you have a certain amount per day of spending money, that you have an address where you intend to stay while visiting that country or maybe a letter from a company or conference organiser if you are there on business.
And of course there are some people (including politicians, who really should know better but cannot resist pandering to the voters) who are blaming immigrants for all of the things which don’t work in their society. There are quite blatant personal attacks in the media and on the street, but even if you haven’t experienced them personally, there is plenty to give you pause for thought. I conducted a sociological experiment during my training courses with a large UK company: in half of the (completely identical) courses I stated I was Romanian, in the other half I emphasised my Britishness. Guess which courses got higher scores in the feedback forms? Then there are the ever-so-subtle, sometimes unintentional questions which give you an insight into a deeply entrenched way of thinking:
‘What a pretty name? What does it mean?’ – why, does Jane or Sheryl mean anything
‘But where are you really from?’ – just because you were born in Watford doesn’t mean you really belong there
‘I thought I detected a trace of an accent there…’ – although they didn’t at all, not until you told them that you were an immigrant
‘What was that language you were speaking with your child?’ – and how dare you speak it in front of us
‘I’d never have thought you were ___, you don’t look/sound/behave like your other compatriots’ – how many of them have you met and got to know
‘No, of course we were not referring to you, you are all right, but all those other ___ should go off home’ – you’re the exception which confirms the rule. but woe betide if you don’t behave!
‘So are you thinking of leaving the country now after Brexit, don’t you feel you are too cosmopolitan for life here?’ – perhaps you should be, you are too exotic and don’t belong
Soon it will be the turn of the British citizens to feel second-class in Europe. My father was a negotiator during the accession of Romania to the EU and he would tell you how hard it is to fight against the combined interests of so many countries. After protecting the interests of Spanish textile industry, Greek fruit farmers, French and British farmers, Swedish and Finnish timber industry, steelworkers everywhere in the EU, there was not much left for Romania to trade. Most of its industries and businesses have been acquired by international owners and so most of the earnings go out of the country. And yet Romanians are still in favour of the EU – because they recognise that the alternative would be worse.
There is a strong likelihood that Ireland or Malta will mop up any of the English-speaking, low-taxation-loving US companies for their European headquarters. If the British negotiators don’t get their act together soon, they will be severely depleted by the EU team – and so a vicious circle of blaming and hatred will start up again. I’m not sure that the UK can compete with labour in Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, which is still cheaper (and more productive), although giving up on any laws to protect workers’ rights might help.
I’ve become used to being a second-class citizen everywhere I go, even in Romania (because I have spent too much time abroad and speak with a slight foreign accent). I am less happy that my children might be viewed as second-class citizens too (their Greek name over here, their British passport over in France or Germany). My sons prefer the English language but can speak three others, they support the German and French football teams, love the Greek sea and the Romanian mountains, want to study in France or Switzerland maybe… What we feel is European and we had been hoping that these meaningless nationalistic affiliations would disappear and we could feel loyalty to our local communities and the larger Europe instead.
‘Now, Marina, this time you’ve gone too far with your tenuous links between books which you are reviewing!’ [I can hear you say.] ‘The thread here is so thin it wouldn’t hold a spider! What could a zombie apocalypse, an angry teenager and a staid family man have in common?’ But hear me out, for there is some zany logic at work here: each of these books is about someone coming from ‘outside’ and trying to inveigle themselves into a new world, a new society, yet failing to understand its rules or deliberately subverting them. There is also a common theme of loss and of feeding on anger and sorrow. Not convinced? Let’s go into a little more detail.
Alina Bronsky: Scherbenpark
The first ‘alien’ (which is what Japan was calling those with foreign passports until the early 1990s) is a Russian growing up in Germany. 17 year old Sascha has a clear aim in life: she wants to kill her mother’s violent ex-partner, Vadim, who murdered her a couple of years before the story starts and is now banged up in prison. A Siberian aunt who doesn’t speak a word of German has come to look after Sascha and her younger brother and sister. Meanwhile, Sascha tries to write a book about her mother, to show what she was really like, but ends up spending the summer sulking instead, teasing and annoying people, thinking she knows everything best, raging at anyone who tries to help and getting herself into some really strange situations. She is good at school and speaks German far better than anyone else in her ghetto, so she feels superior to her fellow Russians. Yet at the same time she is disdainful about the Germans in their naive comfortable existence, which she simultaneously yearns for but also ridicules.
I understood Sascha’s anger and bewilderment, but at times she seemed too wise for her years and at other times too childish. There was also no real menace other than Vadim – everyone around her turns out to be far better than they seem at first sight (and, quite frankly, they often behave far better than she deserves). Sascha herself, for all her posturing, is not as cruel and uncaring as she pretends to be, she ends up helping everyone and (with one exception) never puts herself in any real danger. All this sounds a bit like wishful thinking to me. However, as an insight into an adolescent mind and a way of life ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’, I thought it was pretty good.
The breathless, snappy style could get on my nerves after a while, but fits this particular protagonist. Bronsky is no great stylist (at least, judging from this novel), but it was better than Tigermilk– in fact, it felt like the original upon which Tigermilk was based. Surprisingly, Bronsky was not 17 but 30 when she wrote this. I read the book in German but it has been translated by Tim Mohr and published by Europa Editions as ‘Broken Glass Park’.
Marius Daniel Popescu: La Symphonie du loup
The author is a Romanian poet and literary editor, who emigrated to Switzerland in his late twenties and worked as a bus driver in Lausanne. However, he has continued to be very active on the literary scene in both French and Romanian, founding a literary journal in Switzerland and publishing two volumes of poetry. This book is his first novel and was quite a success in France but remains only available in French.
The book has an autobiographical flavour, describing childhood and student days in Romania during Ceausescu’s time, interspersed with scenes from present-day Swiss life and learning to be a father. The author is a few years older than me, but so many of his bittersweet memories sound familiar: living with his grandmother in the countryside; getting onto the crowded trains without a ticket and bribing the ticket-inspector instead; participating in public processions to praise ‘our beloved leader; family gatherings, funerals, hospital visits, overcrowded student halls. Then we have the glimpses of Swiss bureaucracy, little everyday habits and routines, absurd rules which make us smile (or grind our teeth). The protagonist does not exactly feel like a misfit, but somehow remains spreadeagled between countries, not quite belonging to either, trying to explain one to the other.
The structure of the book can be difficult to follow: made up of strips of memories, like paper that has been through the shredder and is now mixed up in all styles and colours. There is no chronology, of course, and we get glimpses of a child, a student, and then a man tending to a toddler and watching the joy on her face as she learns something new. Then back again, in no particular order. The descriptions of life in Romania were evocative, sometimes lyrical, sometimes funny, at times shocking, but certainly rich in colour and atmosphere. The explorations of present-day life as a father and family man were not bad either, but the constant jumps from one to the other became irritating and I failed to see the relevance and connection at times. I suppose it was done for the sake of contrast between the luminous instances of love and protection in the ‘now’, and the rather lonely childhood under so-called ‘state protection’.
The author has been praised as a stylist and won prizes for this novel, but I am not fully convinced. At least in French, which is a second language for both of us. It feels a little like we are trying to converse with oven gloves on. The author is a poet, I can see that curiosity and playfulness with language in certain passages. But at times he relies on very detailed description which can be bland and overly long, or even lists and word-for-word rendering of instructions (in 3 languages) or posters at the opticians’, things like that. Perhaps it makes native French speakers become more aware of the inconsistencies of their language, but to me it seemed lazy and not terribly relevant. Finally, I found the author’s over-reliance on the second person to tell the story of childhood (as if a grandfather were reminding his grandson of his past) tiresome in the long run.
Elizabeth Knox: Wake
Knox is a well-known writer in her native New Zealand, but I haven’t come across her before. (My knowledge of authors from that part of the world is atrocious.) So I had no idea what to expect, other than that the author is dismissive of genre distinctions. She most certainly is!
This is horror story, science-fiction, psychological thriller, mystery and disturbing dystopian tale all rolled into one. Despite its gruesome opening scenes, it’s really more about the characters and how they learn to live with each other, take care of each other and deal with loss. No spoilers if I tell you that there are only fourteen survivors living under a force field which has descended upon their town on the Tasman Bay and is isolating them from the outside world. Inside this ‘dome’, there is an invisible monster who feeds on death, grief, anger, fear and other weaknesses and is picking them off one by one. Think ‘And Then There Were None’ with even more inexplicable phenomena.
In this book, we not only find an actual alien, but also people feeling jolted out of their happy, unquestioning existence, a sense of strangeness permeating everything they do, say and think thereafter. No one can be quite sure of themselves or others – is the evil within or without? Readers will be just as confused as the characters.There is a real sense of danger, as any outcome seems possible. One thing is certain: there will be no return to the age of innocence.
A story very much outside my reading comfort zone, but which left me unsettled and very thoughtful. The kind of reading which throws up more questions than it answers, I would compare it with Ioanna Bourazopoulou’s What Lot’s Wife Sawin terms of impact.
It took me a long while to get started with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s ‘Americanah’, but once I passed the first chapter mark, I was hooked. I took it with me everywhere and it became a conversation starter. At the hairdresser’s, appropriately enough, we started comparing the immigrant experience of black Africans in America, UK and France (my hairdresser is from the Republic of Guinea and has family in the US as well as ‘back home’).
It is a love story, but that aspect of it is almost lost in this sweeping collection of anecdotes and stories. Different facets of the Nigerian exodus to other countries are explored, as well as that uneasy tension between making a new life abroad and returning to something that is possibly no longer quite home. The language is scalpel-like in its precision, the scenes described are hard-hitting, yet there is much beauty and even lyricism here.
Prickly, honest, smart Ifemelu and handsome, effortlessly cool Obinze fall in love as teenagers in a Lagos school, but life and emigration separates them. Ifemelu goes to the US to study, experiences many humiliations but also small triumphs, finally finds a job, has relationships with both a black and a white American and becomes a successful blogger, before deciding to move back.
…and yet there was cement in her soul. It had been there for a while, an early morning disease of fatigue, a bleakness and borderlessness. It brought with it amorphous longings, shapeless desires, brief imaginary glints of other lives she could be living. that over the months melded into a piercing homesickness…. Nigeria became where she was supposed to be, the only place she could sink her roots in without the constant urge to tug them out and shake off the soil.
Meanwhile, Obinze is left behind in Nigeria, is devastated when he no longer hears from his girlfriend, tries to join her in the US but fails to secure a visa and ends up cleaning toilets in Britain. He manages to save some money for a fake marriage, but is stopped and deported by the immigration police.
‘I’m willing to go back to Nigeria,’ Obinze said. The last shard of his dignity was like a wrapper slipping off that he was desperate to retie.
The lawyer looked surprised. ‘Okay, then,’ he said, and got up a little too hastily, as though grateful that his job had been made easier… He was going to tick on a form that his client was willing to be removed. ‘Removed.’ That word made Obinze feel inanimate. A thing to be removed. A thing without breath and mind. A thing.
I did not care over-much for the lop-sided structure of the book: we keep returning to that hair salon where the heroine is having her hair braided for at least three quarters of the book, while the return to Nigeria is handled in only the final 90 pages. I would also have liked to see a less hurried conclusion – it felt like there was too much build-up leading up to it and then it petered out in just a few pages. But I loved the stories of the immigrant/emigrant experience – in the US, in the UK and in Nigeria itself (past and present). And, despite the author’s reminder that the experiences of black Americans and other ethnic minorities are all different, there was so much here that made me laugh (and shed a little tear) in recognition.
The slow, deliberate, loud talking when people read your foreign name or see your differently coloured skin (even though your knowledge of English grammar and literature may be superior to theirs). The exaggerated political correctness of calling all black women ‘beautiful’ or ‘strong’, of pretending not to notice race, of talking about Africa as if it were one large amorphous mass with all its many cultures jumbled up in the pot. There are so many sharp, humorous observations about the cultural quirks and blind spots which strike foreigners arriving in both America and Britain. Especially foreigners from the so-called ‘developing world’. The pretentiousness of a ‘simple lifestyle’ for those who can afford everything, over-reliance on medical diagnosis and drugs, invitations for meals which have nothing to do with generosity but end up with a (hair)splitting of the bill, the superficial friendliness disguising a deep-seated mistrust of the ‘other’. Above all, the distinctions made between desirable and undesirable migrants, the expectation of gratitude and lack of historical guilt, the often arbitrary policies which almost force people to cheat the system.
[They] all understood the fleeing from war, from the kind of poverty that crushed human souls, but they would not understand the need to escape from the oppressive lethargy of choicelessness. They would not understand why people like him, who were raised well-fed and watered but mired in dissatisfaction, conditioned from birth to look towards somewhere else, eternally convince that real lives happened in that somewhere else, were now resolved to do dangerous things, illegal things, so as to leave, none of them starving, or raped, or from burned villages, but merely hungry for choice and certainty.
Back in 1992, when I first went to the UK, I too experienced that well-meaning political correctness and curiosity about my country; even the charities’ activities could feel patronising and demeaning. I was asked if we had flushable toilets in our houses, while I was shocked that the English (who invented the ritual of tea-time for Europeans, after all) popped teabags into mugs, rather than the elaborate teapot, sugar-bowl, dainty cups and saucers affair that all of my Romanian acquaintances used. The mother of a Lithuanian friend of mine had been a high-level scientific researcher in the Soviet Union, but once that Baltic State declared its independence, the Russians stopped funding her institute. She came to the UK to help support her son and became a chambermaid at a hotel in London. I couldn’t help remembering her story when I read about Obinze’s experiences in Britain.
Ifemelu is not the kind of person to ‘play nice’ in an effort to adapt. She initially adopts an American accent, but then deliberately switches back to her Nigerian one. She refuses to tone down her opinions or play by the rules, but she also has a mix of bad and good luck along the way. The author pulls no punches when it comes to race issues, which makes me think that reviewers in the States almost felt compelled to praise the book for fear of being labelled racist (a situation that is openly mocked in the novel).
The only reason you say that race was not an issue is because you wish it was not. We all wish it was not. But it’s a lie. I came from a country where race was not an issue; I did not think of myself as black and I only became black when I came to America… But the minute you step outside, race matters. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t even tell our white partners the small things that piss us off… because we’re worried they will say we’re overreacting, or we’re being too sensitive… We let it pile up inside our heads and when we come to nice liberal dinners like this, we say that race doesn’t matter because that’s what we’re supposed to say, to keep our nice liberal friends comfortable.
I could go on and on, giving examples and quotes, for the author is equally clear-eyed about the Nigeria she and her protagonists have left behind, the corruption or what she calls the ‘ass-licking economy’, the barely legal deals, the foreigners who avert their eyes so that they can exploit all the better, the snobbery and materialism of the wealthy citizens.
My only criticism would be that Ifemelu’s blogs are a bit too polemical and essayistic for this novel – perfect debating points, but they just don’t feel right (or perhaps there are simply too many instances of them) for the story. Ultimately, this starts to feel too much at times like a collection of anecdotes, rather than a tight-knit whole, and that is perhaps the only flaw in this otherwise thought-provoking, entertaining, panoramic book.
Two very different books for a change (and a break from my usual crime or other gruelling subjects): memoirs and poetry.
Hilde Spiel was a highly versatile Austrian writer and journalist (from a highly integrated Jewish family), who fled to London in 1936 (after the assassination of her beloved university lecturer Moritz Schlick). Her diary of her trip to Vienna in 1946 as a correspondent for the British Armed Forces was originally written in English but was later edited and published in German as ‘Rückkehr nach Wien‘ (Return to Vienna).
This is a very poignant and thoughtful report of a city changed beyond recognition by bombs and defeat… and yet unchanged in many ways (some good, some bad). [All translations my own.]
I must learn everything anew. The cold mouldy stone smell of Viennese houses… the unrelenting stare of the housekeeper… the suspicious, unfriendly smile that was there before the Nazis and will always be there.
Spiel refrains from sentimentality. She is clear-sighted and precise in her description of everyday heroism and cowardice, of opportunism and the complicated relationship between the victorious Allies and the local population. She talks to a Count and Countess, who now live in their crumbling little palace in the Russian Sector. They tell her about the day the Russian army descended upon their property, camped in their garden with fifty horses, shattered all their crystal and raped their female servants. The author understands their feeling of helplessness, but cannot help thinking:
Nevertheless, the two of them have lived for seven years side by side with barbarians. Only… their own barbarians were smooth-tongued, able to converse politely about Goethe and Mozart, with good table manners, agreeable hosts and guests, polished, elegant and thoroughly European. Yet they did far worse things behind prison walls and camp fences than the rape of helpless women. It’s only when the barbarians take on their eastern, unvarnished and shameless form that the Count and Countess realise the degeneration of the present day.
This trip is of course also an opportunity for self-reflection. To what extent can we ever go home to that place where we have been happy in the past, when we have changed and the place too has changed in a different way? Who wins in the battle between heart and mind? How much of our true selves do we have to hide or abandon when we become immigrants and have to abide by the rules and cultural mores of our adopted country?
I fear that my centre of gravity is somewhere above the skies of Europe, drifting in a cloud above England, Austria, Italy, France, simultaneously attracted and repelled, never really coming down in any of these places… I will have to test again and again where my true home is.
Spiel once said that she could never have worked without England, but she couldn’t live without Vienna. Yet, even as she enjoys a few musical performances at the temporarily re-housed Vienna Opera, she wonders:
Is there anything in this city still alive and contemporary, something I can admire unreservedly, that is not soaked up in the past like a sponge …?
Bonus tidbit of information that I discovered while reading the book is that Hilde Spiel spent the first ten years of her childhood on the street next to the one where I spent mine and had a similar near-Catholic experience in the very same little parish church (which is featured on the cover of the English language edition of her book).
For an additional book review and information on how to get hold of this fascinating book, see here.
The second book is a collection of 101 Sonnets published by Faber and Faber. Poet, writer and musician Don Paterson curates this eclectic collection of one of the best-loved and most popular verse forms in the Western world, often with witty asides about each poem. For instance, about Elizabeth Daryush’s Still Life:
The best breakfast every described, though the end of the poem you want to go at it with a cricket bat. It’s hard to know exactly where the poet stand on all this, but we can perhaps sense her disapproval in the pampered insularity of the scene. I hope.
I had no idea there were so much breadth and variety of modern sonnets, from Seamus Heaney’s beautifully controlled ‘The Skylight’ to Elizabeth Bishop’s unconventional two-stress lines to Douglas Dunn’s blissful description of a summer of ‘Modern Love’. A volume to treasure and dip into, again and again. (And yes, that explains my own two recent sonnet attempts.)
The poet Mihaela Moscaliuc was born and raised in Romania, but came to the United States in 1996 to do her graduate work in American literature. She is now married to an American poet and lectures in world literature, poetry and translation in New England. She was recommended to me by another poet, because in her first poetry collection ‘Father Dirt’ she captures perfectly the ambiguity of living a-straddle between two worlds, two languages and cultures.
Like any immigrant, she has come across the ocean with ‘a saddlebag of ghosts’ from her homeland:
We carry cemeteries on our heads,
in our bellies, round our ankles.
She used to be:
the girl who dreamt her escape…
who now fuels homesickness with immigrant tales.
And what tales she has to tell! She remembers with sensuous delight the rich tastes, images, sounds of a Romanian childhood: the odd astringent friendship of quince, cutting the corn porridge with butter-combed strings, spitting out cherry stones in the graveyard, the wary pleasure of having blood oranges for Easter (an uncommon delicacy in those days), good-natured banter and gossip during the home-waxing sessions among women. There are also aspects of her cultural heritage that she struggles to come to terms with: the old-fashioned beliefs in potions and tinctures, the healing powers of nettle and marigold tea, rituals for the dead, whispered curses and protection against evil. There is both a luminous and an ominous quality to her remembered life.
Yet the shadows hanging over these childhood memories are much deeper than that, for these were the years of deprivation and dictatorship, when abortion was illegal and even young girls were subjected to forced fertility checks. Moscaliuc remembers denouncements of classmates in school assemblies, the arrest of midwives who performed abortions, the suicide of a high-school classmate, the forced sterilisation of Roma women. She remembers fear and innuendo, when a careless word could send you to labour camp.
In the most heart-rending section of the book, there are a series of poems about children in orphanages and on the streets, youngsters who died far too young, for whom Father Dirt was a comforting figure, opposed to the bleached soul of the poet who was trying to help them on a voluntary basis. These are angry, fierce, immensely sad poems, individual stories almost too grim to contemplate. Moscaliuc piles on detail after sordid detail, until they sound almost banal, in a condemnation of society’s collective blindness to the problem.
My orphans grew up and disappeared below the earth.
Twice a day they ascend, cross the boulevard,
Sniffing auroleac, flapping plastic bottles…
Sometimes they’re electrocuted. Come dawn,
they’re carted to common burial…
Come spring, the survivors will honeycomb the town,
each crater strategically placed to absorb warmth and mercy.
These poems come from a harsh, unforgiving place and they brought up painful memories for me. The poet admits that they may not be to everyone’s taste or understanding, but she almost performs an act of exorcism by writing them down.
You ask me where these poems come from.
You traveled my country enough to know…
But this is the skin she wants to shed, the waters of yesterday that she no longer wants to wade through, although she will never completely forget them. She wants to fit in with her new world, with the sweet tomato aroma of her new home, and this is where she truly speaks to that yearning and sense of never quite belonging which every immigrant knows.
I want dreams in the American idiom –
[…] dreams with popcorn plots and slick endings,
dreams with heirloom seedlings, dreams
never in need of translation
An unforgettable volume of poetry (even given my biased reading, being of similar age and background as the poet). I was fascinated, absorbed, dragged into deep pockets of pain and back again. Above all, it has given me the permission to be bolder, more honest, more open about my own past and my cultural influences.