May 082011

The following excerpt is from the seventh chapter of Mathias Énard’s novel, Zonehis first novel translated into English from the French by Charlotte Mandell. Before Zone‘s publication by Open Letter Books in December 2010, it won multiple literary awards including Prix du Livre Inter, Prix Décembre, and Prix Initiales. The excerpt finds Zone’s narrator, Francis Servain Mirkovic, amid a journey from Milan to Rome to sell the Vatican information he acquired as a spy for French intelligence. Indicative of the novel in its entirety (you can read an NC book review of Zone here), Mirkovic drifts between stories—stories of his past as a soldier for the Croatian army, stories of former comrades, stories spanning mythological epochs, and stories of lovers. Mirkovic crosses the boundaries between his present reality and the prismatic chaos of his traumatized mind, hoping this trip to sell information from the zone will be his last.

— mcs


everything is harder once you reach man’s estate, living shut up inside yourself harried destitute full of memories I’m not taking this trip for nothing, I’m not curling up like a dog on this seat for nothing, I’m going to save something I’m going to save myself despite the world that persists in going forward laboriously at the speed of a handcar operated by a man with one arm, blindly a train at night in a tunnel the dark even denser I had to sleep for a bit, if only I had a watch, I just have a telephone, it’s in my jacket hanging on the hook, but if I take it out I’ll be tempted to see if I have any messages and to send one, always this passion for writing into the distance, sending signs into the ether like smoke signals gestures with no object arms hands stretching out to nothingness, to whom could I send a message, from this prepaid phone that I took care to get a tramp to purchase for me in return for a big tip, as luck would have it he had an identity card and wasn’t too wasted, the seller didn’t cause any trouble, I left my apartment dropped off a few things at my mother’s sold my books in bulk to a bookseller at the Porte de Clignancourt took three or four things, as I was sorting through things I of course came across some photos, I saw Andrija again in his over-sized uniform, Marianne in Venice, Sashka at twenty in Leningrad, La Risiera camp in Trieste, the square chin of Globocnik, Gerbens’s mustache, I took everything, and I can say that everything I own is above me in a slightly scaled-down bag, next to the little briefcase that’s going to the Vatican and that I plan to hand over as soon as I reach Rome, then tonight in my room at the Plaza on the Via del Corso I’ll go drink at the hotel bar until it closes and tomorrow morning I’ll take a bath buy myself a new suit I’ll be another man I’ll call Sashka or I’ll go straight to her place I’ll ring at her door and God knows what will happen, Zeus will decide the fate that’s suitable to allot me the Moirae will bustle about for me in their cave and what will happen will happen we’ll see if war will catch up with me again or if I’ll live to be old watching my children grow up the children of my children hidden away somewhere on an island or a suburban condo what could I possibly be living on, what, like Eduardo Rózsa I could tell the story of my life write books and screenplays for autobiographical films—Rózsa born in Santa

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May 082011

This Ancient World
A Review of Mathias Énard’s Zone
by Mary Stein

By Mathias Énard
Translated by Charlotte Mandell
Open Letter Books
ISBN-13: 978-1-934824-9

I am lucky enough to have experienced the horrors of war only indirectly in the form of newspaper articles and television newscasts. I remember small blue-on-black explosions of sparkling shards arching through Iraq’s sky, ticker tape reeling across the bottom of the screen attempting to quantify casualties like stock market quotes. But in 1991 during the First Gulf War, a series of wars began tearing Yugoslavia apart—a nation splitting at cultural and political seams—and in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro, people were faced with an entirely different wartime experience: Instead of watching dim explosions on the television, they found war erupting in their cities, backyards, homes and bodies.

Translator, Charlotte Mandell

Zone, Mathias Énard’s fourth novel (of five), his first novel translated into English is an attempt to articulate the experience of the Balkan wars from the inside. Charlotte Mandell’s deft translation from French highlights Zone’s lyric quality, conveying the retroactive point of view of a narrator who condenses the personal and cultural impact of the Yugoslav wars along with historical war crimes, genocides and ethnic cleansings dating back to Troy.

Zone’s narrator, Francis Servain Mirkovic, is a French-born Croat, a former soldier who fought “…for a free and independent Croatia, a free and independent Herzegovina and finally for a free and independent Croatian Bosnia…,” thus, in his own mind, straddling the boundary between victim and perpetrator. In the present story of the novel, Mirkovic is a spy for French intelligence collecting stories of war crimes “…like someone who becomes a referee having been a boxer and himself no longer touches the faces that explode beneath fists, he counts the blows…”

Under the influence of alcohol and amphetamines, Mirkovic has just boarded a train from Milan to Rome intending to sell the Vatican another “sad piece of the past in an entirely ordinary plastic suitcase wherein is written the fate of hundreds of men who are dead or on the point of disappearing…” Using the identity of a childhood friend, Yvan Deroy, as a cover, Mirkovic finds himself “lost now with an assumed name between Milan and Rome, in the company of living ghosts.” A bizarre interaction with a stranger further unhinges Mirkovic, inciting a state of post-traumatic stress. As Mirkovic’s train crosses city boundaries, his erratic mind wanders, and he finds himself unable to separate his own trauma-tainted memories from the stories and names of the dead that fill his suitcase.

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May 072011

Herewith Diane Lefer’s startling look at Los Angeles, the city where she lives. But this isn’t the Los Angeles of glitz and glamour, of Hollywood and Beverly Hills. Diane’s Los Angeles has more in common with the LA of the movie Chinatown, a city of murky secrets and vast, ancient corruption. Finding her inspiration (she tells me to thank him) in Keith Maillard’s essay “Richland” recently published on NC, she takes an apocalyptic look at what is known as the Santa Susana Field Laboratory, now a toxic nuclear Superfund site. Diane’s view of LA is trenchant, bracing, and passionate. It will surprise you and sadden you, much the way we were surprised and saddened reading Keith’s memoir.

Diane is a dear old friend, also a constant reader of NC. You should also check out Diane’s story “The Tangerine Quandary” published here last year. In the intro to that story, I mentioned Diane’s work with a California prison inmate, Duc Ta. For readers interested in following the Duc Ta story, here is a link to Diane’s essay “Facing Life,” from Connotation Press.


What It’s Like Living Here

from Diane Lefer on Los Angeles, California



As a New York City transplant to LA some years back, I dreaded having to drive. I found an apartment a block from a major intersection where I can walk to most of what I need and have pretty good—at least for LA—access to public transportation. But once I got used to being behind the wheel, having a car liberated me. The New York subway system is such a gift to humanity, it ought to be recognized as such by UNESCO, but without a car, New Yorkers are confined to urban life. In Los Angeles, a short drive takes me to canyons, mountains, desert where I can cross paths with coyotes or turn back on sighting mountain lion tracks. (I also once cut a hike short when I encountered a Charles Manson lookalike not far from where The Family once lived.)

Some of my favorite trails are up through the sandstone and shale rock formations and cliffs in the northwest corner of LA at the Ventura County line. I long thought if I could ever bring myself to leave the center of town, this is where I’d want to be, in one of the residential communities tucked among the cliffs or at the base of all this fabulous sedimentary rock that was deposited 65-85 million years ago. I did wonder if I’d be able to find congenial company in an area where it seemed the main employers were the adult entertainment industry and various defense contractors. I haven’t met any porn stars, but whenever I headed up Woolsey Canyon Road to Sage Ranch Park, it was impossible to miss the Boeing checkpoint and guardhouse.

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May 062011


Here’s a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” piece from a former student and old friend, Laura Catherine Brown, who lives, yes, in Manhattan. I can’t even date our first meeting. I was teaching novel-writing at the New York State Writers Institute Summer Workshop; Laura had lovely growing-up in upstate New York novel-in-progress about a young woman from a place called Ransomeville, about the death of a parent, unexpected pregnancy, and the struggle to find some moment of control in a world of poverty, limited chances and no support systems (since the Great Recession more and more of America has fallen to this estate; this is a must-read book against despair).  That novel became her debut book, a fine first novel called Quickening, which Random House published 2000. Her shorter pieces have appeared in two anthologies, Before: The Big Book on Parenting, from Overlook Press and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater with Seal Press. She has been a resident at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Djerassi Program, Millay Colony, Vermont Studio Center, Ucross Foundation, Ragdale Foundation and The Hambidge Center.



What It’s Like Living Here

by Laura Catherine Brown in Manhattan

Any time of day except, perhaps, early Sunday morning, I cross the threshold of my building and step out onto an obstacle course generated by people. In the swarming thick of it, there is no clear line where they end and I begin. We’re parts of an incomprehensible whole. The clamor and din, the grit and anxiety, the need for haste, all swirl inside me. Any time of day. Breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s enough to make me dizzy.

Approximately eight million people dwell in New York City, a million or so in Manhattan. Two hundred fifteen thousand of them pass through Union Square, my neighborhood, on a typical busy day. Considering the volume, considering how each person rules their individual space, a remarkable accord prevails, and somehow everyone negotiates, barely touching anyone else. Amazing how we manage that.

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May 052011

One of dg’s discoveries during the marathon Danuta Gleed Literary Award reading process was a slender first collection of stories by the South African born writer Danila Botha (she lives in Halifax, soon to decamp to northern Ontario). The book is called Got No Secrets. Botha’s great subject is young wild women; her stories are confessions, full of dirty secrets, hangovers, indiscretions, drugs and alcohol, often scabrous or Rabelaisian epics of contemporary city life, clubs and hookups and the grim mornings after (when her heroines drag themselves to jobs that seem somehow beside the point). This is the female version of the Bukowski-Burroughs-Easton-Ellis macho drug romanticism, the romance of going over the cliff with bravado and style. “Jesus Was a Punk Rocker” is reprinted from the book with the author’s permission; it’s a wild ride.




I really have to take a piss.

I have to piss, but I can’t, because I’m lying on my back, legs spread, and I can’t get up.

My bed is collapsing. The planks of wood holding my mattress up have snapped in half one by one. It happened slowly over a few months. I felt the last one break this morning, just before I woke up. That’s what happens when you buy a bed from Ikea. Think like a student, get the back of a geriatric woman.

I reach onto my side table for a cigarette. It hurts to sit up, so I don’t. I look down to find that I’m still wearing my jeans from the night before. I’m glad. It means I have matches in my pocket. I smoke a cigarette staring at the ceiling.

I still have to piss, so I grab the vase next to my bed that once held eighteen long-stemmed red roses. It’s been empty for a while. I undo my fly and peel my jeans off. I manage to take care of business without getting a single drop on my sheets—a small miracle, since it’s a long thin vase, made of glass. I briefly consider sending it to him, with a note: This is what a sincere sentiment looks like, asshole.

I finally get up. It’s 8:35. I’m going to be late.

I step into the shower, turn the water on to the hottest it can get. I use my foot pumice to scrape the stamps off the backs of my hands, the ones that tell me what clubs or bars I went to last night. Apparently I went to the Horseshoe, and the Rivoli. My hair is greasy and stinks of smoke. I douse it in shampoo, wash it twice, then rinse like crazy.

I don’t eat because I can’t. I still have vomit lodged in the back of my throat, between my teeth, under my tongue. No amount of rinsing will get the taste out. I feel like I need to run through a car wash, clean the crevices, the part of me that can’t seem to get clean. I can’t remember anything, which worries me. I need an eternal cleansing of my spotless mind. I need to remember, and then erase.

I have fifteen minutes to get to a place that’s forty-five minutes away. I find my clothes, then my shoes, and race down the street to grab a taxi. My scrubs, as always, are wrinkled, and I’ve lost my name tag.

I get the joke about nurses in porn a lot, so I fucking hate it that the smart-ass taxi driver tells me I’m the kind of good-looking nurse that could be a star. I have no idea what cheesy movies with bleached blondes with fake tits and equally fake moans have to do with work that’s exhausting and not glamorous at all. My job means I’m constantly reassuring people, which makes me feel better about my own life, but only temporarily. A lot of people complain about the hectic pace of Toronto hospitals, but I like it. I like working ten- to eleven-hour days. The busier my hands are, the less likely I am to do something stupid, to over-think, or make a bad decision. I’ve spent ninety-nine percent of my life over-thinking everything. I once had a fight with a friend who said I mull over things until they don’t exist anymore. He was right, that used to be true. I used to consider and discuss everything until I drove everyone away. My mission in life is to not think as much as I do, and I take it very seriously.

I put my headphones on so the taxi driver will stop talking to me. It works for most of the trip. I blast punk, like the Ramones and Black Flag, bands that were my favourites in high school, and, for a minute, it makes me smile. I used to draw their logos in black ink on the insides of my arms until I was old enough to get tattoos. I stare out the window and notice some teenagers skateboarding. It makes me feel like I’m seven years old again, with my nose pressed to the window of a toy store the day before Christmas, knowing I won’t get any presents because my parents are Jews. I mean, how terrible is that? I always hated being Jewish. Chosen people, my ass. Cheap people is more like it. Other kids got dolls and books and bikes, and all I got was mouldy chocolate, wrapped up in gold foil to look like money. My parents never believed in Hanukkah presents either. They were Orthodox. They believed that presents took away from the spirit, turned something Jewish and wonderful into something Christian and terrible. It never made sense to me; it always bothered me, even then.

When I see these carefree kids skating now, it gets to me in the same way, the injustice of it. Three years ago, I could get drunk in parks, make out with strangers in the middle of the day, buy cheap wine that tasted like sunshine in a bottle. Now I have to be responsible. Now I have to think ahead. I hate the financial responsibility that comes with being able to move out of my parents’ house and party as much as I want. I could eat ice cream for breakfast, but I can’t quit the job I hate so much because I’d be out on the street. My parents would rather eat used condoms they found on the sidewalk than help me. I’m the biggest disgrace my family has ever seen. They pray for the day I get married and change my last name, or just get it legally changed, so nobody knows I’m theirs. Sometimes I can understand how they feel. I’m unconventional and strange, and they’re deeply conservative. I’ve embraced my freakishness, while they cower and hide from it.

When I was in high school I was angry all the time. I talked back to teachers, skipped class, and got kicked out when I did go. I was a rebel. When I graduated and went to college, I decided I wanted to try to challenge the system from the inside. I realized that was pointless after I got fired three times. Now I’m just a regular clock-punching employee with sensible black shoes. Most days, when I look at myself I feel sick. I feel like a hypocrite and a jackass. My job is supposed to be fulfilling, but it’s exhausting. I don’t feel like I’m in any position to help people, but I have to act like I am, act like a professional. If they only knew me, if they knew what my life was really like, they’d never trust me to do anything.

People open up to me because I don’t look like a typical nurse. I have six earrings and eight tattoos you can sometimes see, depending on what I’m wearing. My nail polish is always black and chipping. I have nose and labret piercings, but I take them out for work. My boss hates the way I look, I can tell, but patients relate to me better than they do to other nurses. I tell them to call me Mack, instead of Mackenzie, or Ms Moore. I go out of my way to make them feel at home, so that they open up to me, so that they tell me the truth. I can’t help them if I don’t know what’s really going on. I hear a lot of crazy stories. I never tell them anything about me, even when they ask. They wouldn’t want to know, anyway.

When I finally get to the hospital I jump out of the cab and speed up the stairs as fast as I can. Despite the fact that I’m thin, which is another of my serious obsessions, I’m winded by the time I get to the fourth floor. I am totally unfit. The head nurse, my boss, Mary, yells at me for being late. I have patients to see in fifteen minutes and I have no time to review their files. She grabs me by the arm so hard I wince.

I only have five minutes to go to the bathroom. I duck into the stall and role up my sleeves. I take the Swiss Army knife out of the back of my left shoe, where it’s covered by my pants. I don’t remember how old I was the first time I cut myself. I was in my parents’ kitchen, and I was having a really bad day. I wanted to eat ice cream, but we didn’t have any. Plus, it would have made me really sick anyway—I’m allergic to dairy. I decided to be good and started slicing one of those awful, healthy vegetables—I think it was a red pepper. I took a bite and it tasted like shit, so I figured it had to be good for me. I was concentrating on the taste, wondering if I should’ve just taken a multi-vitamin instead, when I accidentally sliced my fucking palm open. It was so gross. I spread my fingers open in front of me. I bled all over and didn’t even feel it. The blood spilled onto the white counter and I stared at it for at least a minute. I ran into the bathroom, grabbed a towel and held it there. I applied pressure to the wound, cleaned it with iodine, and put a couple of Band-Aids over it.

I felt so good—I’d made a mess that I’d managed to clean up. I had taken care of myself and the situation. I didn’t even feel the pain—so I just kept doing it. I have scars up and down my arms now—puffy red lines that poke out of the flesh, scabs that have no desire to heal. I’m young—I bet they’d heal eventually if I just gave them a chance. Maybe one day. My legs look fucked up, too, because I went through a burning phase. I threw hot oil from a frying pan onto my thighs for a couple of months. It hurt like hell so I didn’t do it for long. People used to say my legs were my best feature. I never saw it. But now there’s something beautiful about them—like I decided how they’d look, like I’m in control.

I cut myself every day, sometimes twice or even three times a day if I have a lot of stress. It gives me a release like nothing else. It helps me feel real, brings my anxieties and fears down to earth—it makes me feel like I’m taking all the shit I feel on the inside and putting it in a place I can see it, so I never forget it. If someone hurts me, I never forget it now. If a guy betrays me, even if I try to forget, my body will always have the scar.

I’ve been a wreck ever since the guy I fell in love with decided he didn’t want to be with me anymore. He had these liquid brown eyes that just seemed to melt even more every time he talked to me about something serious. He was so intense and so passionate. He was kind—gave change to the homeless, made small talk with everyone, even strangers. He made me want to be a lot nicer, be a lot more conscious of how I treated people. He challenged me intellectually. He was everything I ever wanted, and even though I hadn’t had a steady boyfriend since I was in grade eleven, I just wanted to be his. I wanted to belong to him more than anything in the world. He thought I was nice, too, just not anything special. I didn’t make his knees weak like he did mine. I didn’t make him want to pen bad poetry, or think about nothing else for hours while he lay in the bath, getting wrinkled fingers. I was just a passing fancy for him.

His last words to me were, “I think you’re a nice girl, but . . .”

I never even heard the rest of the sentence.

I had never tried so hard to be what I thought someone else wanted me to be. For the first time in my life, I really wanted to be good, I wanted to be loved. It’s physical: I want him to love me so much, I can feel it in every part of my body. But there’s nothing I can do about it.

I’ve been trying to sleep with other guys to get over it, but it doesn’t help. It sometimes feels empowering, like I’m starting to get over it, but it usually just makes me hate myself more. I have no idea how many guys I’ve slept with in total now, I lost track after ninety-nine. By which I mean the year, not the number. What scares me is if I counted, I’d find I’ve slept with way more than a hundred guys by now. So I ignore it. I lie to men. I told him the truth, and look where it got me. Most of the time, being myself hurts me more than anything. It’s easier to be what I think, or even know, people want.

Once I get out of the bathroom, the day passes by in a blur. I’m in the ER and then the psych ward. I see addicts and teenagers. I skip lunch and see more mental cases. I scribble notes in pencil and promise myself I’ll rewrite them tomorrow. I even make a list of their files so I can do it the next day. I see a guy who tried to kill himself by swallowing lots of Tylenol 3. His mother looks genuinely distressed and worried. I wish my parents cared that much.

I stop at Wendy’s on my way home. I just want to stuff my face. There’s something about grease, about knowing that I’m doing something bad for me that feels so good sometimes. I mean, I know how bad it is. I paid to see that documentary about that guy who eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month then nearly dies. But, on the other hand, it tastes so good. I can eat and be full for less than five bucks. I had a friend who worked at Taco Bell who said all fast food restaurants use Grade F meat. It makes me wonder if I’m eating a Chihuahua right now. Oh well. At least if I die tomorrow, I successfully beat lung cancer and liver failure, partied a lot, and don’t have to go back to work or pay rent. At least, for once, I actually managed to save money.

I have plans with a friend tonight. It’s a guy I met who’s a little younger, but really into me. Even though I don’t like him like that, it’s good for my ego. It feels really good sometimes to be wanted. Plus, if I remember right, the sex was good. At least I hope so. I go home and put on some tough-looking jewellery and my studded belt. I line my eyes with black and wear a see-through studded mesh top with a black bra underneath. I feel slut-tastic.

We meet at the Reverb at Queen and Bathurst at eleven. An all-ages punk show was his idea, and I thought it might make me feel good. Reconnect me with my past.

The walls are plastered with homemade flyers for bands I’ve never heard of. I feel so old and out of touch. We catch the second-last band and the headliner. They’re ska punk, which I’ve never liked. It’s loud and thrashing. It just sounds like noise to me. I never thought that would happen this soon. I gulp down a Scotch on the rocks and stare at the kids around me. They’re wearing Ramones T-shirts they probably bought at Bluenotes. It’s funny ’cause I see Dead Kennedys T-shirts, skulls, and studded belts, but I feel no connection to these kids.

A fourteen-year-old stops me at the bar and asks me if I can buy her and her friends some drinks. I’m drunk myself so I say sure, why not? I get them some beer—a pint for four little girls—and keep walking. They stop me and ask if I want to share some, and even though it’s crappy draft, I say yes.

I wonder if I was like them at their age. I wonder if I seem like a mom or a dinosaur to them. We sit in their booth and talk. They ask me how old I am, and when I tell them, the blonde says I give them hope. When they’re twenty-seven, she says, they want to be like me. I don’t want to tell them how I’m faking my way through every second of my life, including this conversation. I keep ordering more drinks until none of us know what we’re saying.

“To be punk all you have to do is be a rebel,” one of them says. “Everyone you’ve ever liked is punk,” she continues. “I mean, if you think about it, even Jesus was a punk rocker.”

She is giddy with excitement. I shake my head.

“He was such a blue-collar, working-class hero. He was a badass: drinking a lot, like us, hanging with whores. He took the ultimate hit for standing by his ideals. Everyone must have thought he was insane.”

I tell them it’s time to go. They try to high five me, but I move away so fast I nearly elbow a girl in the face. This religion stuff is starting to freak me out. I need to get the fuck out of here.

My date and I stumble down the street. He puts his arm and around me as I puke all over the sidewalk—booze and water and my burger come up in chunks. I look up and see neon signs and store windows spinning. I see Young Thailand with its purple and yellow lettering and rotting yellow steps. I see the crack house beside it. He walks me to my door, and I puke on his shoes, so he doesn’t ask to come upstairs and I don’t offer. I fall up the first five flights of stairs, then take the elevator up another seven flights. At least for once I’m here alone. My head is pounding like a jackhammer. I lie down and squeeze my temples. I’m going to be hungover tomorrow—again.

When I wake up it’s late and I can’t even walk straight. I take another cab to work. At this rate I’ll be broke by the end of the week—six days before I get my next paycheck. I hate my life.

I have a bunch of patients I forget immediately, until I meet a kid called Jared. He’s nine, and three months ago he lost his sister in a freak accident. His mom took them to an amusement park and they all went on a rollercoaster. Kelly had been sitting in the back, behind them both. Suddenly they heard a crash. His mother starting yelling, begging someone to stop the ride. He assumed she’d dropped her purse. When he and his mom got out they realized Kelly had fallen. They saw the height she’d fallen from. He had to see his sister in a bloody, tangled mess, her glasses smashed, her face smeared and bleeding. He had to live with the fact that if she’d been sitting where he was, she would have been fine. This beautiful nine-year-old boy was blaming himself for his sister’s death.

I can’t stop myself from crying right there, in front of him. I feel so out of my depth. I recommend an art therapist who might be able to help him express his feelings. I feel so helpless, so useless, I just want to make myself hurt. I can’t wait to get home and get into my kitchen. I duck into the staff bathroom with my knife. Just another few quick stabs around the ankle. I pull my pant leg farther down and pull my sock up higher when I’m done. I feel a little more relaxed, and I walk out smiling a little.

When I get home it’s so quiet, that it hits me—I miss him more than anything. I check my messages and—nothing. No email, no calls. A while ago I stopped bothering to keep in touch with friends. I don’t even know who to call. I could call the dude from last night, but I’m embarrassed. I never keep their numbers anyway; what’s the point?

I stare into the mirror behind my bed and decide I want to make a change. I start cutting my hair. I use the scissors on my knife that I use for opening the mail. After a while I’m not even looking. I hate having long hair. I’ve had it this long, past my shoulders, spilling onto my chest, for almost two years. It’s stringy and falls into my eyes. I don’t want to be pretty. It doesn’t help. No matter how good they say I look, guys only want to sleep with me. No one ever wants to be with me; they can sense that I’m trouble and they stay away. I want my outside to reflect my inside. I want to be ugly, messy, undeserving of a second look, never mind love.

I light a cigarette, inhale, and stare at the ceiling. A lot of people say that when they cut themselves they feel more alive. Like their pain makes them feel more real. For me it’s about being honest, showing people how hideous I am.

I’m wildly cutting now, and my hair is building up in piles on the floor. I’m shocked at how disconnected I feel from my body. What’s nice is that when I cut myself I don’t think about anything. I don’t feel sad at all. The scissors come dangerously close to cutting my cheek. I look in the mirror. My cheek is bleeding, but I don’t feel it. It takes the sight of the blood running down my face for me to know it’s happening.

I tell myself that I’m a person of ideas. That I could start a revolution, change the world. I keep telling myself that it’s not too late. But when I feel like being honest with myself, I point out that my disciples have lost interest and the only person who’s ever understood me, the only equal I’ve ever known doesn’t want me around. I wanted to be a renegade and here I am, as misunderstood as I was when I was fifteen. Only now, there’s no excuse for the angst. Now, not only does no one understand, no one really cares.

I crawl under the blankets and close my eyes to keep from crying. Half an hour later I hear my phone ring.

—Danila Botha


Danila Botha was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and move to Toronto in her teens. She studied Creative Writing at York University and at Humber College School for writers. Her first book, Got No Secrets, was published by Tightrope Books in Canada, and by Modjaji Books in South Africa in May 2010. Her next book, a novel called Too Much on the Inside, will be published in September 2012. She is currently working on a book of short stories called For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known.

May 042011

Foran’s Version

A Review of Mordecai: The Life and Times by Charles Foran

By Darryl Whetter

Mordecai: The Life and Times
Charles Foran
738 pp.
Knopf Canada
$39.95 hardcover

Author Charles ForanUntil Charles Foran’s recent Mordecai: The Life and Times, the various biographies of Mordecai Richler suggest that an interesting subject for biography does not necessarily an interesting biography make. Great lives don’t always inspire great books. In the decade since Richler’s death in 2001, four books entered a biography’s race between early market share, thoroughness and accuracy.  Globe and Mail journalist Michael Posner pre-excused the scattershot tone of his 2004 The Last Honest Man by subtitling it An Oral Biography. Posner splices together 150 interviews to raise questions (How much did he drink? Why the rift with his brother? Did he really seduce his high-school English teacher?) but refuses to affix any answers. The fatuousness Richler often mocked in the CanLit establishment didn’t leave him completely ignored by the Canadian academy. Reinhold Kramer’s Mordecai Richler: Leaving St Urbain (2008) examines many of the same formative experiences as Foran’s (the fall from Jewish orthodoxy, his parents’ loveless marriage and rare divorce) but also suffers the congenital blind spot of interpretation and begins to read a creative life of decades through a few childhood events. Like Foran, M.G. Vassanji is first and foremost a novelist. Vassanji’s peripatetic life within diasporic and intellectual communities could have made his 2009 Extraordinary Canadians: Mordecai Richler the most attentive to Richler’s dual citizenships as Canadian and a member of the Jewish diaspora, as Canadian novelist and cosmopolitan writer. However, Penguin’s insistence on a short biography denied Vassanji the archival time of the Kramer or the Foran and doesn’t find it as emboldened by extensive quotations from letters and manuscripts.

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May 042011

St. James’s Palace released the details of the dress just as Miss Middleton stepped out of a royal Rolls-Royce with her father, Michael, to walk down the aisle at Westminster Abbey.”  - New York Times, April 29th, 2011

Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the most devastating attack on American soil in modern times and the most hunted man in the world, was killed in a firefight with United States forces in Pakistan on Sunday, President Obama announced.” –New York Times, May 1st, 2011

For the better part of the last two weeks I’ve been reading and rereading Jean Baudrillard’s essay “The Precession of Simulacra,” trying to make some sense of it and figure out something to say.  I want to keep my thoughts under a thousand words, but it’s an elusive essay.  How I think about it keeps changing.  Baudrillard critiques contemporary Western culture—from religion to politics, from Egyptology to molecular science, from the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland to the discovery and subsequent ‘replacement’ of Tasaday Indians in the Philippine jungles—as being based on “models of a real without origin or reality.” In short, he says that we no longer have a tangible relationship with reality, that we’ve mistaken the simulacra for the authentic. The myth, the model of reality since civilization began, now (and for the first time) precedes the objective fact, a situation he calls “hyperreality.”

I needed examples, one or two snapshots of so-called origin-less reality, of models without an authentic reference.  Providence smiled upon me, offering up two perfect media bookends in a hyperreal world.  On Friday, the world watched the choreographed celebration of a royal wedding in London.  And then, as if on cue, on Sunday night with  symmetry too sublime to craft, came the strange, jingoistic jubilation after the announcement of the death of Osama bin Laden.

The gods of the absurd had granted my wish.

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May 032011

Cesare Pavese once said, “No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide,” a grim line that always makes dg chuckle. Pavese was a hugely important Italian writer of the first half of the 20th century. These poems date from the 1930s, early in his career, when he was briefly imprisoned for anti-fascist activities. After the Second World War, he became a communist (remember Italy had a powerful and for the most part legal Communist Party) and wrote prolifically until his death by suicide in 1950, the year he won the Strega Prize for a book of novellas called La Bella Estate. Richard Jackson is a beloved colleague and friend and, once upon a time, dg’s Virgil in the wilds of Slovenia (during one of those famous Vermont College of Fine Arts summer residencies). See also his revelatory essay on translation, published earlier on Numéro Cinq, and his lovely translation Leopardi’s “The Infinite.”


Poems by Cesare Pavese

Translated by Richard Jackson



We have the right to treat them that way.
It’s certainly better than having some compassionate
heart for them and then just enjoying them in bed.
“It’s the strongest need we have in our entire life,”
or rather “and we are all fated this way,
but if ever the girl makes a got of it with her skills
I’d choke her in a rage or learn some other revenge.”

Compassion was always just a matter of lost time,
life is bigger than any of us and won’t be changed by this,–
better to clench your teeth and be silent.

One evening
I traveled on a train where there was this woman
dressed plainly, made up, serious in her face.
Outside the lights paled and the green became gray,
erasing the world. We were isolated
in that car — third class– woman and young man.
I didn’t know what to say to her at that age
and I always wept when I thought of women. That’s the way
I made my trip, looking around nervously, and she also
looked at me sometimes, smoking.  I didn’t speak,
didn’t think anything, but still in my blood I can
feel her stern look, the laughter of an instant
of someone who has worked hard and took life
as it came, in silence.

A friend, someone
who says what he thinks, would like to save
a woman and wipe her tears, and give her some joy.
“No, it is the strongest need in our entire life
and if it is our fate that we have only this power
and a hardened soul, it doesn’t do any good.”

You have the power to save thousands of women
but those I have seen smoking and looking about
with pride written in their faces, –they will always live
to suffer in silence and pay for us all.


I want to know why the grave of evening settled in the meadow.
Perhaps it was because I collapsed, exhausted from sunstroke,
Pretending to be some wounded Indian. In those days the boy
Tried to escape loneliness by seeking models for ancestors,
And drew his imagined painted arrows and shook his lance.
The evening sky itself was colored with war paint.
Every day the air was so fresh, and the aroma indeed was
So plush, so deep, from sprays of flowers that were also
Reddish gray, and then suddenly the clouds and sky
Caught fire among the early stars. The boy turned
To the village feeling he should preserve it by celebrating it.
But the sunset dulled his senses. It seemed best to squint
So he could enjoy and embrace what he saw. As if immersed in water.

All at once a gruff voice assaulted me as if out of that sun—
It was the master of the manor, my nemesis from the house,
A voice that stopped me short in that pool where I was submerged–
Because it knew me from the village and berated me, irritated
That I could ruin everything that I could have been by not working.
I leapt from the grass, and I remained silent holding my hands tight
To stop them from shaking and I turned away into the darkness.

Oh what a good chance to shoot an arrow into the chest of that man.
If the boy didn’t have the courage, I at least deceived myself
To take on the air of a tough commando against that man.
But even today I deceive myself in order to act immovable and firm
And not to go into that darkness in silence, so I can draw my arrows
Whistling through the air, screaming words like some a paralyzed hero.
Perhaps it was the disheartening look when I saw a man
Who could have beaten me up badly. Or pitiful shame
Like that of a person who laughs embarrassed in the face of danger.
But I had a fearful terror. I had to flee, and so I fled.
And that night, returning home, I cried so hard into my pillow
That it left my lips bloody, knowing the blood of defeat.

The man is dead now. The field has become like a trench, harrowed,
But I can see that old field clearly just as it was back then,
And curiously, in this journey where I speak to myself, I am unmovable,
Like that other man, and I spend the evening still baking from that sun.

—Poems by Cesare Pavese, Translated by Richard Jackson

May 022011


Egypt After the Revolution:

Photographs by Natalia Sarkissian

Recently I flew to Cairo, an exhilarating yet draining trip to that sprawling city that covers 214 square kilometers of desert and teems with 15 million inhabitants. Then to smaller cities along the banks of the Nile, from Assuan to Luxor.

Here are snapshots of Egypt, where amidst the crumbling buildings and poverty and the weight of daily life, a fledgling hope for a less corrupt future grows.

Tahrir Square

Mubarak’s National Democratic Party Headquarters, Tahrir Square

Mosque of El Rifa’i near the Citadel, 19th century

Boy, working Cairo

Boy, working II, Giza

Boy, working III, Assuan

Boy, sightseeing

Getting about




Shopping, the souk

At the butcher’s, Assuan

Furniture shop

Vegetable Market

The Mall

Selling Mint, Cairo souk

Selling tea

The drag, with scarves, Assuan

To the ballroom in Heliopolis


To the sun

–by Natalia Sarkissian