February 2, 2016 § 3 Comments
Title: Memory At Bay
Author: Evelyne Trouillot
Translator: Paul Curtis Daw
Publisher: University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville & London (2015)
ISBN: 978 0 8139 3809 7
Extensive reading is not necessary to understand that Haiti has a complicated and troubling history. The brutal sugar plantations of Saint-Domingue, a nation formed out of the world’s first successful slave revolt, decades of precarious and corrupt governments, a devastating earthquake in 2010…time and again this country has had major obstacles thrown in its path. And yet, despite multiple barriers, its impact and population have extended far beyond the borders of what is a relatively small, still developing, island nation. By its tenacity alone Haiti is a place that inflames the imagination.
Alain Mabanckou wrote in Black Bazaar what is perhaps one of my favorite quotes about the Haitian people: “…These Haitian writers are like hunted birds. They’ve had more than thirty-two coups d’état back home and not a country in the world has equalled this record yet. With each coup d’état, flocks of writers have emigrated. They left everything behind, setting out with nothing apart from their manuscripts and their driving licence. I wish I’d been born Haitian so I could be a writer in exile who understands the song of the migrating bird, but I don’t have any manuscripts, or a driving licence to become, in the worst-case scenario, a taxi driver in the streets of Paris …”
Evelyne Trouillot is a writer who didn’t leave home. She is, for all intents, Haitian literary royalty. The daughter of a Haitian intellectual & lawyer, the niece of a historian, sister to a writer, an anthropologist and professor – Trouillot resides in Port-Au-Prince and is herself a teacher, novelist, and playwright. With her daughter and brother she co-founded Pré-texte, an institution which holds literacy and writing workshops. Memory At Bay is her second book to be translated into English.
Her main characters – two living, one dead – are members of the vast Haitian diaspora Mabanckou describes. Rather than art they instead grapple with their roles as mothers, daughters and wives – the less glamorous, traditional roles of women. Marie-Ange, the younger of the book’s two narrators, is employed as a caregiver in a facility in Martinique. She is in mourning for her mother, whose voice we hear only through Marie-Ange’s memories. Together they left Haiti when she was a very small child. Now she is an orphan and her relationship to her childhood home is entirely colored by the memories her mother shared of surviving a corrupt and brutal dictatorship.
While still very young, I became an expert at choosing inoffensive subjects, ones that wouldn’t provoke a long diatribe from you against the Doréval dictatorships or those rare silences that were the precursors of your days of utter prostration. But today I wonder whether my ploy accomplished much at all. Whether you, Maman, didn’t carry an inexpressible sadness with you to your grave. And whether I who vicariously experienced the despotic regime won’t always have it under my skin. I’ve heard so much about those people since my childhood – not only the Doréval family, but also the notorious henchmen with their revealing or deceptive nicknames, still evocative of terrible anecdotes long after their time: Ti Baba, Captain Henry Tobias, Evaris Maître, Chief Lanfè, Lucien Désir, Colonel Britton Claudius. They’ve become elements of my universe, so powerful a part of my mental space and of my memories that it seems to me I’ll never be able to escape them and will always remain captive to their ghosts.
As she works through her grief Marie-Ange finds herself caring for a Haitian woman of roughly her mother’s age. Odile’s identity is not discussed at the facility (we are told this is for her own protection), but Marie-Ange soon realizes exactly who she is caring for. Odile is the widow of one and the mother of another Haitian dictator – closely modeled after Papa & Baby Doc Duvalier. Hers is the book’s second narrative voice.
These two women – Marie-Ange & Odile – provide alternating, individual soliloquies on the Doréval/Duvalier regime. Marie -Ange addresses her mother, Odile her past. Over the course of the book a dialogue between them begins to take shape without their ever engaging each other in direct conversation. Trouillot writes about a particularly complicated time in a country with a peculiarly complicated history. Marie-Ange’s memories are second-hand, the collective experiences and stories bequeathed to her by her mother. Outside of her duties in the care facility she shares very little of her life. As she expresses in the passage above, she is held captive by ghosts.
Odile’s memories are, by contrast, entirely singular and skewed. Her position as wife of the president was unique. Her life privileged and sheltered. She was, in a sense, the monster’s darling. Now at the end of her life, Odile finds a need to justify her actions or, at the very least, the actions of others through which she benefitted. Odile’s version of events, growing more and more desperate and defensive as the novel progresses, is ultimately meant for Marie-Ange. Or, more specifically, what Marie-Ange has come to represent: absolution. In a sense, both women are relaying false memories. It is only when taken together that their words form a story that more completely resembles the truth.
On bad days, Fabien would tirelessly repeat the names of all those he needed to eliminate. As if to dare his listeners to instigate a plot of some kind. The names rolled on, with no need to evoke at much length the circumstances attached to each: they all pertained to former friendships. A wife with whom she had discussed hairstyles and fashion, youngsters who had played with the Doréval children. Sometimes they would learn that the father of a child to whom they had just given a birthday present had taken refuge in a Latin American embassy. Had received a fusillade in the back while trying to escape arrest. Had perished along with his entire family during an abortive uprising in the course of which the VSN had again proved worthy of the president’s confidence. Over the years she had learned not to recall the sweet little faces, to close her mind’s eye so as not to visualize the expression of terror on a known face. She had put on the impenetrable mask of the photos and official ceremonies. Over the years it had become so easy. AS usual, she wanted to banish all nagging qualms and retain only the thoughts that would facilitate her journey back in time, but she could only manage to take the whole bundle of memories with her into an unquiet sleep.
As Marie-Ange comes to terms with her grief and Odile with her past, Memory At Bay attempts to come to terms with the Haitian diaspora. Or, at the very least, explore what it means to be far from a home which has become more to do with an abstract idea than a geographic place. Troillot thoughtfully deals with the question of how, when a third of a country’s population lives outside its borders, do Haitians define and maintain their relationship to Haiti? Paul Curtis Daw has thoughtfully translated two distinct, feminine voices – one old and the other young – which complement one another while retaining their individuality. Memory At Bay is a small masterpiece: a sensitive, skillfully written novel with nuanced and sympathetic characters which satisfies on multiple levels.
December 4, 2015 § 8 Comments
I’m in the midst of writing a review of Memory At Bay, a novel by Evelyne Trouillot translated by Paul Curtis Daw. As I was writing an idea became stuck in my head – relevant to the book and the review, but too large and unformed at this stage to actually use. The only way I can think of to move past it and get back to work is to do a massive data-dump… plus I’d love to put it out there to hear what everyone else thinks of it.
My question is: can diaspora writing be considered a literary movement of the late 20th- early 21st- centuries? And if so, what would be its defining characteristics? Here’s what I’ve found so far.
A Google search brought up both the terms “diasporic literature” (which is a horrible name) and “exile literature”, but I think diaspora and exile are two different things. Modern diaspora is a kind of expatriation associated almost exclusively with people of the developing world who leave their home countries for socio-economic and political reasons: war, famine, poverty and corrupt governments. But they aren’t necessarily refugees or exiles. The implication is that refugees are fleeing ahead of something. That they are leaving against their will and that when the region they are leaving stabilizes they will try to return. The word exile, on the other hand, implies a specific individual (or race or religious group) forced to leave because they are being targeted. In contrast, members of a diaspora leave in search of better circumstances, better opportunities and (yes, this too) for safety. They plan and prepare. It is a kind of immigration (though members of a diaspora do not always come through legal channels). Ultimately, they are looking for a new home where they and their loved ones can thrive.
Puerto Rico (though not a country), Haiti and other Caribbean Islands, African nations (particularly Eastern, Western and Central), India, Bangladesh… these are all countries I associate with diaspora.* Countries, the majority relatively small, whose citizens have dispersed throughout the world in large numbers. Diaspora writing is about the transition between one country and another, about resettling and rebuilding of lives, and is often multi-generational. Another important characteristic of the literature is an attachment to memory and an underlying sense of guilt – for having left and for building a new life somewhere else. Displacement. Diversity. Navigation. Perhaps diaspora writing is about coming to terms with voluntary exile.
The writers who are a part of the diaspora tend to settle in the wealthier Western countries. English language countries like England, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States. They write in English or write in another language and are translated into English. Zadie Smith, Jhumpa Lahiri, Salman Rushdie, Alain Mabanckou, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Evelyne Trouillot, Jean-Euphèle Milcé and maybe Valeria Luiselli and Bolaño (Mexico and Latin America is somewhat tricky for a number of reasons) – they are some of the writers whose work I would put in the category of diaspora writing.
The immediate result of diaspora writing is that it brings a fresh perspective to English literature. It is a reexamination of Western culture, described by someone who is simultaneously embedded and detached, and gives voice to a huge segment of Western society that is too often marginalized and ignored. At its best it explores the fusion of two cultures, allowing for endless variations.
One last piece of information I found interesting: the word “diaspora” entered into the English language as recently as the late 1800’s. A graph generated by the Google Ngram Viewer (which tracks the usage of a word or phrase in books) shows a jump in its usage between the years 1980-2008 of approximately 250%. I can’t embed the chart into this post, but you can follow the link to it below.
That’s all I’ve got at the moment. I hope I haven’t bored everyone to death. My final question is – what do you think? Is diaspora writing a real thing or have I over thought it? (I’m really not sure :-) ). And are there other countries and authors you’d include in the category? I’d really love to hear what everyone thinks.
*For some reason I don’t entirely associate diaspora with most Asian and Latin American countries, though at the moment I can’t explain why.
November 25, 2015 § 4 Comments
Title: The Sleep of the Righteous
Author: Wolfgang Hilbig
Translator: Isabel Fargo Cole
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2015)
ISBN: 978 1 931883 47 4
In his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote: “Many have thought and have said about him that because his fate and writerly art are so closely tied with Communist East Germany, Hilbig is just little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany, a pale Kafkaist…” Krasznahorkai goes on to take what was perhaps originally intended as criticism and prove it to be the very thing that is most noteworthy about Hilbig’s writing. Hilbig, who was born in 1941 and died in 2007, was uniquely suited to write about Communist East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic) which was was founded and dissolved within his lifetime.
Fiction parallels real life. Raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandfather, Hilbig grew up fatherless in a coal town in the Thuringia region of Germany. There he received the full GDR experience – military service; working as a factory stoker; joining and being kicked out of a government sponsored writers’ group; interrogated by the Stasi; and finally leaving for the West on a one year Visa. He would travel back and forth between East and West – both physically and in his writing – for the rest of his life.
The world Hilbig describes in the seven short stories collected in The Sleep of the Righteous, brutal and bleak, read as part autobiography, part dystopian fiction. These linked stories are all told in the first person by the same unnamed narrator. Readers follow the boy as he grows into a man. Escape, the underground and disappearing are reoccurring themes. In the third story, titled “Coming”, the adolescent boy runs away. He is fatherless, a common state in post-war Germany. This boy – in the throes of puberty – flees the attentions of the women who’ve dominated his life. Their voices follow him like a Greek chorus, lamenting their helplessness and the behavior of the males in their lives. “The lake! they screamed, I’m going to throw myself into the lake! I’ll throw myself into the lake right this minute!”
“What pained them so was my apathy, which I took almost to the point of invisibility: I hunched speechless in some seat in the flat’s periphery, and my contours grew fainter and fainter.”
Every night, after the house has gone to sleep, the adolescent escapes to the lake of the women’s laments. The prose grows earthier and denser. The story’s entire tone changes –
“And suddenly I recalled a great mudhole, right in the center of the island, where we had sunned ourselves as children.
I recalled the sinful sense of well-being that came over me when I stripped off my clothes to stretch out in the thick black mud that filled the bottom of the hollow. It was grainy slurry of coal slack and sand in burnt-smelling water, whose surface, when smooth, showed yellow striations of sulfur…the oblong hole held the whole of my body, I ceased to move and waited until at last stillness came over me. Eyes nearly shut, I stared up into the sky whose rim was ablaze, and where the sun, straight above me, was an indistinct circle of white heat from which now and then, a drop seemed to fall… and a yellow cloud, nearly white, seemed to draw near this sun, touching the edge of its glaring gorge and beginning to melt.”
Most of The Sleep of the Righteous seems to be an attempt by Hilbig to understand his relationship to these women – aunts, mother, grandmother, wife, former lover – who dominate these stories. The few male figures are depicted as distant, often sinister. In the story from which the book takes its title the young boy is forced by his mother to share a bed with his grandfather. The two males sleep fitfully, one of them guilty (we are never told which) of murder. In “The Memories” a much older narrator recalls the boiler room stoker named Gunsch with whom he briefly worked the night shift. Gunsch is described as a modern German god of fire, grimy faced and inscrutable. In “The Dark Man’, the narrator is approached and confronted by a Stasi informer who reveals that he has for years been intercepting the narrator’s erotic correspondence with a former lover. The story is strange and surreal. The eventual outcome violent.
Strange and surreal describes Hilbig’s writing in general. All of the stories are set in a single town over a period covering decades – instilling the place with a lonely mysticism. The Sleep of the Righteous is a series of vignettes which together create a concrete sense of the period. The stories are gritty, roman noirs minus the criminal element. Calling them Kafkaesque (perhaps the most overused descriptor in literary criticism) isn’t entirely accurate. These stories have much more in common with the plain speaking narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Hilbig doesn’t push at the borders of possibilities like Kafka, or even Pynchon. He moves within them. And yet… Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of the prose is slightly awkward in that it lacks any stylistic tics or flourishes. The use of the hyphen and the odd syntax result in hard, choppy sentences. Hilbig combines a romantic sensibility and understanding of harsh reality.
The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet papers or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig. – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none…
What anger and impotence the narrator might feel remains beneath the surface in these stories, residual paranoia and oppression left over from a former life under the Stasi.
In the second part of the collection the perspective shifts and expands. The child’s curiosity has been worn away by adult experience. The narrator returns to the town which has remained mostly unchanged in appearance, growing only emptier. The remaining inhabitants go about their business as if still being monitored by the Stasi. A certain level of fear has become normal, comforting because it is familiar.
What had spun out of control was my wife’s rage; she regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason, because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches… because they had no desires or questions… because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment – for that very reason did every possible thing wrong. – You people show no initiative, my wife said, all you’ve learned is how to wait for orders, you have no sense of self, and that’s why you can’t enjoy life in this little house of mine…
Dystopian has long been used to describe stories that fall within the genre of sci-fi or fantasy. Most dystopian authors insert a fantastical element into their narratives, designed to distract readers from the factual and familiar. And so they include elaborate death matches involving adolescents broadcast for public entertainment, the outside threat of zombies or of machines seizing control and enslaving the human race. Even Margaret Atwood included the laboratory engineered evolution of the human species in her Madd Addam trilogy. All are designed to allow readers to make distinctions between the book they are reading and world in which they live. It’s a sleight of hand drawing attention away from the recognizable components of a degrading society that every dystopian vision shares: a scarcity of resources, the collapse of the environment, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, the suppression of free speech, racial violence and existence under a police state. Hilbig, in contrast, includes nothing that might distract. As Krasznahorkai wrote, he was a chronicler of East Germany – a place that technically no longer exists. But that’s not entirely accurate either. More than a simple chronicler, Wolfgang Hilbig was also a witness.
October 25, 2015 § Leave a comment
Title: The Brotherhood of Book Hunters
Author: Raphaël Jerusalmy
Translator: Howard Curtis
Publisher: Europa Editions, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 60945 230 8
The eighteenth century romance novel tradition with its lush descriptions of landscapes and settings is just one of the many threads Raphaël Jerusalmy weaves into a novel which features the 15th century French poet and rogue Francois Villon, a real-life figure with a shadowy historical record. Add to this the Medici family, a journey to the Holy Land and a Jewish conspiracy as fanciful and ambitious as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (minus the anti-semitism) and you’ll begin to get a sense of the scope of the author’s vision.
Slowly advancing across the still burning scrubland, through ravines over which darkness was spreading, Djanoush at last reached a promontory from which the outline of the lake could be seen in the distance. His traveling companions gazed down at the fabled landscape in silence. A sparrow hawk hovered, describing broad circles, weaving his flight in the invisible weft of the sky, patrolling the sheet of water in search of prey. The Sea of Kinnereth, as the Hebrews called it, stretched as far as the horizon, lined with wild rushes and willows. The white domes of Tiberias glittered on the western shore. To the east, the grim mass of the Golan rose into the clouds, covering the tranquil waters with its threatening shadow. Opposite, in the distance, where the haze of the lake gave way to a sand-filled mist, Judea began.
The Brotherhood of Book Hunters is a historical adventure story in the style of Alexandre Dumas, Robert Louis Stevenson or James Fenimore Cooper. Or, if we’re looking for more contemporary comparisons, with Michael Chabon’s 2007 novella Gentlemen of the Road, Arturo Perez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas and, in a roundabout way, the short stories of the sci-fi/fantasy writer Fritz Lieber will do nicely. The basics of what ultimately grows into a rather complicated plot are as follows: François Villon is approached in prison by the agents of Louis XI. The French King wishes to shift the power between himself and the Vatican by encouraging the circulation of pamphlets challenging the dogma of the Catholic Church. To this end he tasks Villon with convincing printers & booksellers from across Europe to set up their shops in Paris. And once that is accomplished he sends Villon – accompanied by the poet’s friend Colin da Cayeux (Fafhrd to Villon’s Gray Mouser) – to the Holy Land on a mission to acquire rare manuscripts from the time of Christ which are guaranteed to undermine the Pope’s authority once distributed among the masses.
What the King & Villon do not realize is that more people are involved in this game of Renaissance intrigue than they know. The Medici family, backed by a shadowy organization known as the Brotherhood of Book Hunters, have their own plans for poor Villon. And no one seems to consider the possibility that Villon may just have a few plans of his own.
“What good wind brings you to the Holy Land, Master Villon?”
“Contrary winds. Zephyrs of escape and trade winds of fortune.”
Raphaël Jerusalmy has a true gift for sprawling scenic landscapes and carefully lit interiors – in this way he is the novelistic equivalent to the director John Ford. Often he spends more time on the particulars of a room than the people in it, leaving his characters emotions and motivations opaque through much of the book. There’s a noticeable absence of internal dialogue in the pages of The Brotherhood…, particularly among the main characters. This is a marked and noticeable contrast to the Franzen-style psychoanalytical navel gazing frequently found in contemporary literary fiction. But Jerusalmy seems to be after something else entirely. His prose is performative, delivering moments of deliciously decadent melodrama. Take for example the passage below in which Colin de Cayeux dramatically enters a tavern, summoned there by Villon.
The door of the tavern opened suddenly, blown inward by a gust of wind. Spray and hail crashed onto the flagstones, sprinkling the sawdust and the straw. The dogs growled, the drinkers bellowed, the cats threw themselves under the tables. Their shadows swayed in the red light of the newly fanned flames of the hearth. Threats and curses rang out. Framed in the doorway, dripping with rain, a man stood silhouetted against the whiteness of the hail. He was motionless for a moment, ignoring the tumult. A black velvet cloak floated around his shoulders like beating wings. Only two things were visible on this untimely specter: a wan smile and, below it, the milky reflection of a knife.
Cue the sinister music.
The Brotherhood of Book Hunters was released in English by Europa Editions in 2014, the second of Jerusalmy’s novels to be translated into English, and received moderate attention and lukewarm reviews. His tendency to view his characters with the same panoramic lens he uses for the scenery – zooming in only briefly to record a reaction or fleeting emotion before sweeping off to the next plot twist – is a deliberate, but perhaps not always successful, stylistic tick. His use of the third person omniscient narrator is masterful, but (perhaps as a result) his book is not character driven enough to appeal to the genre reader. Nor is his writing experimental enough to draw the attention of the die-hard translation crowd. What he has done is written a solid, entertaining and (admittedly) cinematic novel filled with lovely passages that fire the imagination – the perfect book for Fall nights curled up in a comfortable armchair under a warm blanket.
Federico checked on last time that the volumes were in good condition, then called the clerk and ordered him to wrap them. He walked Ficino to the door of the shop. The old scholar took off his hat to say goodbye to his host, then again pulled it down over his ears. The rain had stopped. The clerk arrived, holding the precious package at arm’s length, and was already rushing outside, forcing Master Ficino to gallop after him. Federico watched them scampering toward the rainbow that crowned the end of the avenue. He half expected to see them fly away on the horizon and whirl around amid steeples and towers, gaily beating their wings beyond the orange roofs of the city.
October 21, 2015 § 2 Comments
This week’s review can be found over at The Rumpus. Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict is a book of short stories by Galician author & journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado, translated by Carys Evans-Corrales. This War of Mine is a computer survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Each compliments the other – forcing readers (and players) to re-evaluate the way we think about war. Arguably in more realistic ways than we’re used to. CLICK on the cover to learn more:
Note: This War of Mine was created by the game company 11 bit studios. They’re currently developing a new version of the game which ups the ante even further by adding children to the group of survivors. I talk about the original game in the review – here’s a link to the homepage and trailer (you’ll need to scroll down) for This War of Mine: The Little Ones. No release date yet, as far as I can tell.