May 302012

Steve Dolph is the translator of Juan José Saer‘s novels The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and Scars, both published by Open Letter Books. He is currently at work on a translation of Saer’s posthumously published novel, La Grande. Dolph is a scholar in the highest sense of the word. His passion and dedication to his work are contagious. Saer (1937-2005) was a celebrated Argentine novelist and writer. He moved to Paris in 1968 and became a lecturer at the University of Rennes. He wrote numerous novels and short story collections as well as critical studies on literature. Dolph’s grasp of Saer’s work is expansive, and his passion for the preservation of world literature through translation is, in  a word, noble.  Our conversations opened a window for me into the gruelling, precise and often unacknowledged work of translators, men and women who toil away like monks locked in an abbey, preserving and passing along the gift that is the world’s collection of stories. It was a rare privilege to have spent time talking with Steve Dolph, and it is a distinct pleasure to introduce him to Numéro Cínq.

See also the NC reviews of Scars and The Sixty-Five Years of Washington; also an excerpt from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from Scars.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell:  How did you come to work on literary translations? Was this something you sought out or did it just happen through the course of your studies?

Steven Dolph: During my master’s program in creative writing at Temple, I took a translation class with Lawrence Venuti, the translator and scholar. That class was incredibly energizing and inspiring. It was a half a dozen students from various disciplines, no one focused exclusively on translation, if I remember correctly. We read a good amount of canonical translation theory, then workshopped translations-in-progress, not only from a formalistic perspective typical of creative writing workshops, but also based out of the theory we were reading. We read the translations, in fact, as theory, an approach that was at first shocking. Like most writing students, I think, I had always understood theory and literature to be distinct practices, and overlapping them seemed pretty scandalous. Frankly, I was less than prepared to read and write in that way, and I did pretty poorly in the class. But it was my first real exposure to comparative literature, and it stuck in a big way. After that class, I couldn’t really do anything else. It was at that time that I started working on the poetry of Néstor Perlongher, a project I stuck with for quite a while.

RF: It seems like most of the translators I know are poets, though I don’t know why that is. Are you a poet?

SD:  I’m not a poet. I studied fiction at Temple.

RF: Are you still writing fiction?

SD: I stopped writing. I never felt the enthusiasm for writing that I felt for translation. I’m back in grad school now, at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m getting a Ph.D. in Hispanic studies.  It’s a five year program. I hope to write about translation of Latin American literature. I’ve always thought of translation as a critical practice, and I’m trying to develop that sensibility.

RF:  Your work with translating Saer’s novels must be intensely time consuming. Could you walk us through a typical ‘day in the life’ of working on the translation of a novel?

SD: On a good day I’ll spend six to eight hours at the computer. It’s hard to measure production by the day or the week, because I’ve always squeezed it in, early in the morning before work or class, or on the weekend. In any case, the farther along, the slower it goes. Sometimes I’ll spend an entire morning on a single paragraph, or less. That has to do not only with the nature of Saer’s prose, which is difficult, but also the nature of the work in general. I’m always thinking in terms of capturing equivalences between Spanish and English, and if I’m translating a passage on, say, the description of a river, I may spend an entire morning reading sections of Huck Finn just to remind myself what writing the river sounds like in English.

RF: Do you work directly with the original works? I know that some translators use native speakers to do an initial translation, a literal translation, before going in and turning the ‘rough’ translation into something with more nuanced (poetic) language.

SD: I do translate directly from the original. That said, I rely on the help of informants— friends who either know Saer’s work better than I do, or who have a deep fluency in Spanish, which I don’t have, or who have a particular familiarity with some aspect of the English vocabulary: doctors, lawyers, mothers, scientists, horsemen, and so on. I’d be lost without these people.

RF: I wonder if you might expand a bit on who your ‘informants’ are.

SD:  Sure. One is Sergio Chejfec, who is a contemporary Argentine novelist and a professor of writing at NYU.  He’s a big fan of Saer, and he reached out to me and offered to help .  It helps to have other people who know the work, who really know the work as it was first written.

With Saer especially, there is a certain style, a certain sensibility that his prose follows. There’s a lot of parataxis in his writing, and a certain openness of meaning in his lines, or double meaning, inversions, and so on. Some of these things can be lost on me when I first read through it. A lot of the humor is there.  The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, for example, plays with a lot paraphrase and hearsay. So I would check on sentences that I couldn’t quite get a handle on. It helped to have people who were more familiar with his language to guide me.

 RF:  How did you come to work with Saer’s novels. I imagine you must be under contract before you begin. Perhaps not?

SD: The Saer translations, a three-book contract, were offered to me by Open Letter after I submitted a sample. This was back in 2008. I should mention, while we’re talking about the press, the amazing editorial work of E. J. Van Lanen, the editor at Open Letter. He’s been so fantastic to work with, and some of the real gems have come from his suggestions. In fact, many of the passages that have been quoted in reviews have been directly inspired by if not literally copied verbatim from his suggestions.

 RF:  How much contextual/historical research do you have to do with a writer’s work in order to render the best translation?

SD: For me, lots. Lots and lots. Before translating the first Saer book, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, I read quite a bit of Argentine history, especially the history of the Peronist regime, the coup, and the military dictatorship that followed: from 1940 to 1990, basically. I also read some of the literature that was being made at that time. That period, though, was one of the most productive, in terms of the novel, in the history of Latin America, and arguably anywhere, so I barely scratched the surface. I’m trying to focus some more attention on that these days. I also read a bit of what Saer was reading as he wrote the first book, in particular the French nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet and so on. Finally, for tone and affect, I read some history of rhetoric, and narration theory. The Sixty-Five Years is concerned, primarily, with the nature of storytelling, and Saer slides between close, colloquial speech and detached, critical prose. I tried to recreate that balance. I also read The Chicago Manual of Style like a novel, and had the idea of a parody of that style always close in mind. All that said, I don’t know if my research made the translation better in any way. After I started working, I read everything of Saer’s that had already been translated, mostly by Margaret Jull Costa and Helen Lane, to get a sense of what Saer already sounded like in English. I read a few interviews on line.

I came to see The Sixty-Five Years of Washington as a novel about storytelling, about Argentina’s Dirty War and about the memory of trauma.  The more I read the book, the more I came to appreciate it. Saer was so intent on rendering the Santa Fe region of Argentina, the region around the Paraná River.  So a lot of the early research involved gathering a sense of the history, of the language, and referring to the previous translations.  I tried to look at how those translations handled his idiosyncratic use of the language.

 RF: I know that you founded a literary journal on translation. Could you talk about that journal and how it works?

SD: As I was finishing the master’s program in writing, I got the naïve idea that I wanted to start a journal of literature in translation, focusing primarily on the voice of the translator. We would publish brief translation excerpts alongside the originals and translator introductions. Brandon Holmquest, who’s an editor at Asymptote now, said he would edit the thing with me, and it ran in print and online for three years and five issues. We wanted, basically, to publish a journal in which literature and criticism held equal footing, and where translators could speak more than just anecdotally about their craft.

RF: How does translation affect your appreciation of language and literature?

SD: The effect has really been profound. I tend to see all writing in terms of translation, either linguistic or cultural, and have less trust in concepts like national literatures or genealogies among writers. Even the idea of a unified language in itself seems deeply suspect and ideologically motivated to me. I’ve also become much more conscious of translation’s connection to linguistic colonialism, and the political role that translation plays between national groups and between individuals. I see novels, and narration in general, as less closed or finished, and rather more open than I used to, more a confluence of many, many voices than the product of a single voice. Along with that, the idea of authorship, and the distinction between fist-order and second-order artistic products seems more and more like a fiction to me. At the most basic level, though, I’m compelled to see translation—and, by extension, all reading, of text or of the world—as essentially hermeneutic rather than empirical. Which is to say: meaning is not inherent to writing or to language as such; meaning is a product of interpretation, which is never disinterested or absolute, but always, always informed and circumscribed by the cultural position that the reader occupies.

RF: Could you expand a bit on this idea of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ production with respect to translating literary works?

SD:  The idea of a clear transfer from a first order to a second order production is really recent, and has more to do with the 19th-century development of copyright than with what actually happens between texts, and involved the codification of the limits of artistic work and influence.  It’s certainly useful from a legal standpoint, but from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see it as very useful. A book is a confluence of many different voices and ideas. For the translator, it’s a whole other set of voices and ideas. The process just feels more open to me. Our ideas about originality and authority, these codes, are informed by an ideology of the role of arts and the artist that translation has always worked to destabilize.

RF: You mentioned linguistic colonialism. Is this about dominant languages and how this affects the work of translators?

SD: Are you asking, is the translation of a literary text a neutral agent?  A good portion of translators might not want to think about that question too much.

Translations are always informed by the ideologies that are implicit in the language community, from the way language is used, to its ideological undercurrents. Translators can be aware of or ignore these relationships. A translator has to find ways to address this issue, especially when these dominant languages move in to displace minority languages.

 RF:  I’m imaging that to translate a novel-length work, you must enter into a very deep relationship with the book. I’m also imagining that this could have negative effects, too. You must reach a point of exhaustion after a while. Do you ever just get sick of the pace of it?

SD: Never sick of it, no. Nor exhausted, really. A negative effect, though, is that with such an intense focus on producing a good structure, rhythm, and sound for individual sentences, it’s often easy to lose sight of the forest for all the trees. Then again, this focus has made my reading of other books that much more enjoyable. I pay much more attention than in the past to the ways that rhythm and syntax in prose are employed to create effect. I’m also now constantly on the lookout for interesting or startling language use in the world around me. I think the positive effects offset the negative ones, definitely.

RF: There must be work that is still in need of translation or in need of fresh translations. Who do you want to see brought back to life?

SD: That list is infinite. Something I’d really like to work on, and which has been neglected here for the most part, would be the black novels—hard core pulp detective writing—from Argentina since the 60s. Borges had his hands all the way in that mess. And Ricardo Piglia, more recently, has been working out of that tradition. What’s between those two writers needs a second look.

RF:  What projects are you working on now?

SD: Right now I’m working through the last of three books for Open Letter Books, Saer’s posthumous novel La Grande, which should be out next year.

RF: I know this is beyond the scope of strict translation, but in Scars, the character of the judge is translating into Spanish Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This must have been a fun moment for you while translating!

SD: Not to sound sentimental, but that was the most heartwarming part to translate. That section was a metaphor for the way practices are invisible, how the product stands at the front and the producer is behind a screen.  Despite his cynicism, despite his nihilistic view of society, his relationship to the work shows a deep care and attention, though he understood the futility of the work—the novel had been translated  so many times.

Then you read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and you see the way the book discusses appearances and the aesthetic practice and how the book calls this into question. And the content of what the Judge was translating, it made him seem so alive.  We only get a little bit at a time, but the moments when he is working, that is the person he is when he’s most alive.

Steve Dolph is currently a doctoral student in Hispanic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  He previously translated Juan José Saer’s novel, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, part of a three-book contract with Open Letter Books. He founded the journal Calque, which focuses on literature in translation. He lives in Philadelphia, PA.

May 292012

Herewith, an excerpt from Juan José Saer’s novel Scars (originally published in Argentina in 1969). Open Letter Books has released a new English translation from Steve Dolph. Saer, who died in 2005, is considered one of Argentina’s most important writers, alongside Juan Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. Saer was a prolific writer of novels, stories and criticism. For much of his life, he lived and worked in France, and the theme of exile is prevalent in his writing. Saer also blurred genres, a technique especially prevalent in Scars. With equal dexterity, he blends the influence of Dashiell Hammet with that of Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Scars might well be read as four linked novellas. In each of the four sections of the book, a different narrator recounts the events surrounding a brutal murder which takes place on the streets of Santa Fe, a small city along the Parana River in northeastern Argentina.  In the section excerpted below, the second in the book, the narrator is Sergio, a non-practicing lawyer who writes occasional essays (“Professor Nietzsche and Clark Kent”)  but who mostly gambles. Sergio’s obsession is baccarat. His entire existence seems centered around the system he has worked out for playing at the baccarat table. It’s not so much about winning or losing to Sergio, but about being in the game, about being at the table when the cards are dealt.  “In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me.” Sergio gambles with a mad fever. Watching him at the tables, your heart races as he throws down the last of savings. You feel that gambler’s high when he goes on a winning streak. You shout at the pages, trying to talk sense into this philosopher-madman as he puts up the mortgage on his house in order to have one more night of baccarat. “Every bet is desperate because we gamble for one single motive: to see.”

–Richard Farrell



Mostly I played baccarat, because there my past was predetermined. Once in a while it could change, but it felt more solid than the crazy mayhem of the dice in the shaker, better than the blind senselessness of their flight before they came to rest on the green felt. My heart would tumble more than the dice when I shook the cup and turned it over the table. You can’t bet on chaos. And not because you can’t win, but because it’s not you who wins, but the chaos that allows it.

In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me. That’s what I felt whenever I shook the dice. In baccarat, my eyes could follow every movement the dealers made as they shuffled the cards and reinserted them into the shoe. First they would spread them out over the table, and then stack them in piles organized in three or four rows. They’d combine all the piles into a single column, two hundred and sixty cards, five decks in all, and drop them into the shoe. Then the game would start. First you had to think about the cards in the shoe. In baccarat, when the player is dealt a five—made up of a face card and a five, a three and a two, a nine and a six, or any other combination—he can choose whether or not to hit in order to improve his score. If the player hits, the entire makeup of the shoe changes. Before, I said that in baccarat I had a predetermined past. But it’s probably better to say I had a predetermined future. Objectively speaking, the cards in the shoe are actually a past. For me, ignorant of their arrangement, they become the present and then the past as they are dealt, two at a time. At that point they become the future. And the player’s decision when he lands a five—hitting or standing—changes the cards. But the present is necessary for that change to take place.

So the dealer’s shoe, its cards arranged in a way that could be completely reorganized by a subjective decision to take a single card, is at once a predetermined past and a predetermined future, and at once determined and changeable according to the player’s decision to hit on five or stand.

Every hand was the present, but with the shoe there in the middle of the table both the past and the future were also the present. The three coincided. All three overlapped on the table. Once played, the two cards from that hand moved to a pile of cards face up next to the shoe, the cards that had been used in previous hands. They formed, in this way, another past. Several relative pasts were thus formed: the past of the discards piled face up next to the shoe; the past in the shoe, which was also the future; and the pasts of the rearrangements suffered by the shoe according to the gambler’s decision to hit on five or stand.

Several futures coincided as well: the future of the shoe as initially arranged, as well as every future determined by the player’s decisions to hit on five or stand. Because the decision to hit was always present, always future, until the decision to hit, standing, you could say, was also a rearrangement.

Every hand was thus a kind of bridge, a crossroads where distinct pasts and futures were exchanged, and where, at its center, all the presents were collected: the present of the current hand, momentary, transitory; the present of the past of the pile of discarded hands; the present of the past of the shoe as it had been arranged initially; the present of the past of the shoe, now that, objectively speaking, the shoe was both a determined past and a determined future, and at once a past and a future from which rearrangement could be dealt.

And with each hand the different pasts and futures would coalesce and intermingle: for example, the first four cards dealt, two to the player and two to the banker—which could reach as many as six each if the player and the banker failed to reach the minimum score (four)—belonged to the past, or the future, of the dealer’s shoe: they originated from the two hundred and sixty cards stacked up inside the shoe and nowhere else. And the pile of cards face up next to the shoe consisted of cards that had originated in the shoe, and which had briefly been the deal—that absolute, coalesced present, which my eyes had seen on the table. A narrow relationship, therefore, unified all the states.

Also present were the precedent chaos, the coincident chaos, and the future chaos. The three coincided, actively or potentially. The precedent chaos coincided with the organization suffered by the cards in the shoe, and rematerialized as the coincident chaos represented by the cards that were piled face up next to the shoe, which it coincided with. And this chaos would undergo a transformation similar to the first—when the dealers shuffled the cards, organized them into several even piles, and combined them, ultimately, into a single column of two hundred and sixty cards before dropping them into the shoe. The precedent chaos was present in this act, as the organization of the shoe was determined by it. The future chaos, at once active and potential since it took shape from the chaos of the cards piled face up next to the shoe—and therefore consisted partly of this chaos and could only come from it—would ultimately be indistinguishable from this—the precedent—chaos and from the coincident chaos, since chaos is in itself indistinguishable and essentially singular. Each chaos was also the future chaos, and the arrangement of the cards and the transitory present of the deal were also part of the future chaos, since they would soon become it. And the three mutually coincident states of chaos, meanwhile, were coincident with the arrangement of the shoe, the present of the deal, and all the intersections of the past and the future that had been, were, or would be coalesced in it.

Each time the shoe resets, having passed through the original chaos in which the dealers’ distracted hands spread the cards in random piles over the table, a new arrangement is produced. As many possibilities for its arrangement exist as there are possibilities for arrangement among the two hundred and sixty cards, each one a fragment of the original chaos submitted to an organization by the reflexive movements of the dealers’ hands. As I see it, no arrangement could be identical to another, and even if in two of the arrangements the cards fell in the same order, the first arrangement still wouldn’t be the same as the second, and for this reason: it would be, in effect, another. On the other hand, it wouldn’t seem the same. There wouldn’t be a way to verify it. The task—a tedious and hopeless waste of time—would be dismaying from the start. And in any case, only the initial arrangement would resemble the other’s. Which is to say, only a given pathway or portion of the process could resemble a pathway or portion of the process of the other arrangement.

Because the other pathways or parts wouldn’t be the same. For that to happen, the following similarities would have to occur: first, the way the dealers shuffled would have to be exactly the same both times, and the way the cards were arranged would have to turn out exactly as before. A five of diamonds that appears in the shoe between a three of diamonds and an eight of clubs would need to come to occupy this location by the same itinerary as before—above a four of spades and a king of diamonds, under a queen of clubs, between an ace of hearts and a two of hearts, for example—something which, of course, is impossible to verify.

Also: every player dealt the five would have to choose the same in every case in each of the arrangements. Bearing in mind that there are players who tend to stand, and players who tend to hit sometimes and other times not, and players who tend to follow their gut when the cards are turned over, the possibility of repetition becomes practically impossible.

Finally: the pile of cards face up next to the shoe would have to be a arranged in the same way as the pile formed by the discarded hands of the previous arrangement. But that arrangement, because no one controls it, is impossible to verify.

In baccarat, ultimately, repetition is impossible.

— Juan José Saer (English translation by Steve Dolph)


Juan José Saer (1937-2005) was a celebrated Argentine novelist and writer. He moved to Paris in 1968 and became a lecturer at the University of Rennes. He wrote numerous novels and short story collections as well as critical studies on literature. Winner of Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize, several of Saer’s novels have been (or will soon be) translated by Open Letter Books.

See also Richard Farrell’s review of Scars here, also his review The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from that novel here. Read an interview with Steve Dolph, Saer’s translator.

May 292012

“There’s only genre—the novel. It took years to discover this. There’s only three things in literature: perception, language, and form. Literature gives form, through language, to specific perceptions. And that’s it. The only possible form is narration, because the substance of perception is time.” – Juan José Saer

Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter Books

A good novel does much more than communicate the events of a story. A good novel also reflects on itself. It dabbles a bit in theory, considers genre and rediscovers form. The well-written book, what John Gardner once called the ‘serious novel,’ borrows from the traditions of the past and gestures toward the future, often in destabilizing ways. A good novel refuses simplistic labeling because it relentlessly stalks the nature of things and, in so doing, it helps resuscitate the very reason we read (and write) in the first place: to render some insight into the ineffable, to close the gap between perception and thought, to diminish the emptiness between the world we experience and the world we feel.

Though built with the bricks and mortar of fiction—point of view, plot, character, theme, etc. — the very best novels are always interrogating themselves.  They challenge. They provoke. They unsettle and confound. They ask questions about meaning rather than answering them. The reader willing to accept such books will often finish in a state of uncertainty, perplexed about what has just happened, about what has been read, about what it all means. But a door has opened in the reader’s mind, a nagging doubt exists that can only relieved over time, if at all, because the best books are always inviting us back, demanding to be reread, to be experienced again and again.

Juan José Saer’s novel Scars might well qualify as such as work. Set in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina, the novel is divided into four long sections, each narrated by a different character. Holding these disparate parts together are the events of May 1, Workers Day, a day when Luis Fiore, his wife and young daughter go duck hunting. It’s almost wintertime in the southern hemisphere, and a steady cool rain makes the hunting trip more dread than delight. Fiore and his wife argue all day, but Fiore bags two ducks anyway. He drives back into town, drops his daughter off at home and then stops in at a local pub with his wife. Inside the dingy bar, the ongoing argument between Fiore and his wife — an unnamed character with the mildly derogatory moniker Gringa—escalates. Fiore steps outside, points his shotgun in his wife’s face and pulls the trigger.

Part bildungsroman, part murder mystery, part Robbe-Grillet existentialist romp through a South American landscape, Scars refuses to be any one thing. The easiest comparison of its structure is with the game of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone). In the game, as in the novel, a single event is recounted by various witnesses, each with his own version. As the game and the novel unfold, the various perceptions skew the seemingly objective facts. What has been witnessed changes. As Joyce does with his theory of parallax, Saer shakes the reader’s sense of certainty. What is true? What really happened? It all depends on the position and inclination of the observer.

The novel’s opening section, titled “February, March, April, May, June,” introduces Angel, a young reporter for La Region, the local newspaper. Angel’s main responsibility is writing the weather headlines, a job he performs without actually checking the meteorology reports. “No Change in Sight,” he writes day after day. (Saer’s dry and subtle sense of humor peeks out often in the novel.) Angel lives with his young mother, a woman who struts around their small apartment in various stages of undress, more roommate than matriarch. While she goes out dancing, Angel rummages through her underwear drawer then masturbates in his room. Oedipal conflicts aside, Angel and his mother primarily argue over gin. In a brutal yet comedic scene, Angel beats the woman ruthlessly for polishing off his last bottle and not replacing it. “It’s my bottle. You drank my bottle,” he says, and then he proceeds to knock her senseless. This is truly one of the great dysfunctional relationships in literature.

But Angel is no mere brute. He reads Faulkner, Kafka, Raymond Chandler, Thomas Mann and Ian Fleming. A street-kid, raised by that promiscuous, alcoholic excuse for a mother, he survives by possessing an indomitable spirit and wit. You can’t help but root for him, out there in that big bad world. And at times, Saer’s world is both big and bad. The misery, layered thick in this novel, can make for a grim ambience. But Saer also works hard to tease out the inconsistencies, baffling us with magnificent bursts of light amidst such darkness.

Though sexually attracted to women, Angel is also the occasional lover of a ruthless judge named Ernesto (more on him below.)  After the murder and Fiore’s suicide (spoiler alert: at the inquest, Fiore jumps from the window of the courthouse in front of Angel and the judge), Saer provides one last spellbinding twist in this opening section, a twist pulled straight out of nineteenth century St. Petersburg. Angel falls into a feverish fugue state, reminiscent of Raskolnikov’s post-homicidal fever in Crime and Punishment. Wandering around the streets of Santa Fe, Angel runs into his double, a man alike in appearance, dress and action. In a lovely passage, Saer describes the moment of recognition.

It was a young man, wearing a raincoat that looked familiar. It was exactly like mine. He was coming right at me, and we stopped a half meter apart, directly under the streetlight. I tried not to look him in the face, because I had already guessed who it was. Finally I looked up and met his eyes. I saw my own face. He looked so much like me that I started wondering whether I myself was there, facing him, my flesh and bones really holding together the weak gaze I had fixed on him. Our circles had never overlapped so much, and I realized there was no reason to worry that he was living a life forbidden to me, a richer, more exalted life. Whatever his circle—that space set aside for him, which his consciousness drifted through like a wandering, flickering light—it wasn’t so different from mine that he could help but look at me through the May rain with a terrified face, marked by the fresh scars from the first wounds of disbelief and recognition.

So much for the opening act.


“The singular aspect of the game is its complexity,” Sergio Escalante says, describing the game of baccarat in the book’s second section. Conjuring another character from Dostoevsky — this time Alexi Ivanovich from The Gambler — Sergio is an inveterate gambler. He gambles and wins, gambles and loses, gambles and gets arrested. He gambles away his money, his friends’ money, his fourteen-year-old housecleaner’s money. Sergio gambles with a monomaniacal passion. The forays into philosophy on baccarat make up the richest writing in the book. Sergio is the consciousness of the novel. Saer’s ruminations about the game are thoughtful, elegant and unsettling. Though the subject appears to be baccarat, he might as well be talking about the novel, or about life itself.  “It (baccarat) precludes all rational behavior, and I’m forced to move through its internal confines with the groping, blind lurch of my imagination and my emotion, where the only perception available to me passes before my eyes in a quick flash, when it’s no longer useful because I’ve already had to bet blind, and then disappears.”

If Sergio is the consciousness of the novel, then the judge, Ernesto, is the book’s demonic soul. He suffers from metastatic misanthropy. Ernesto appears in the third section, and though he represents the system of justice, he hates people — all people, good and bad, guilty and innocent. He shows up late for work, shuffles his schedule around to suit his whims, and refers to other people as gorillas. There’s almost nothing human left in him. He would be utterly vile except for one thing: Ernesto is translating Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. From within the rubble of his miserable existence rises Ernesto’s work. The translation of Wilde beats like a thready pulse, barely circulating his humanity. It’s not much to go on, but the translation sections complicate the reader’s reaction.

This raises an interesting question: Is Saer evangelizing some form of literary salvation? Is he saying that even the worst among us might be saved by books? Consider that the only character who is not literary in taste or inclination is Fiore, who kills his wife, jumps out a window and orphans his only daughter. Maybe he should have read more?

Saer did much of his writing in Parisian exile. He renders his homeland with precise details and images as only an estranged citizen could, at times producing a landscape so precise, so accurate, that the technique becomes, well, awkward, in, yes,  that Robbe-Grillet sort of way. A reader (like me) unfamiliar with the city of Santa Fe and the Littoral region of Argentina is left to wonder why he writes multiple passages in the Ernesto section with the monotonous certainty of a GPS navigation system. “I cross the intersection of still on 25 de Mayo to the south, and everything is left behind. On the next corner I turn right, travel a block, then turn left onto San Martin to the south.” The exile yearns for home, so he recreates the world he left behind even in the most mundane details, in the left and right turns of his characters as they travel from one place to another. Saer is remaking the map of his home.

The novel closes with thirty-three pages from Fiore’s point of view. This section covers only the span of one day, the day of the hunting trip and the murder.  We don’t travel too deeply inside the murderer’s consciousness. He mostly narrates the events in a detached dramatic soliloquy. But we feel his agony. We see the pressure mounting.  All day his wife badgers him, relentless in her infliction of misery, to the point of  literally shining a flashlight in his eyes as she berates him over and over again.

— Turn off that flashlight right now, I say

— Turn off that flashlight, Gringa, or I’m going to shoot you, I say.

She laughs. I cock back the hammer, ready to pull the trigger—the metallic sound is heard clearly over her laughter, which for its part is the only other sound in the total silence—and the light turns off. But the laughter continues. It turns into a cough. And then into her clear voice, which echoes in the darkness.

— Help me pick up all this dogshit, she says.

Life has indeed become a pile of dog shit for Fiore. By the time he pulls the trigger, we are simply relieved to be done with this menacing woman. And yet Fiore loves his wife. She is not without her charms. Her pain and extreme anxiety emanate like the beams of the flashlight which she uses to torment her husband. “And I realize I’ve only erased part of it,” Fiore says at the end of the book, “not everything, and there’s still something left to erase so it’s all erased forever.”

The wounds in this novel run deep. Each character is scarred in his or her own way, and the novel ends without any indication that they may ever heal. The haunting image of Fiore’s orphaned daughter lingers long after the final page. In one brutal act, the little girl lost both her parents. What world awaits her? What horrible scars have been inflicted upon her?  “In this respect, all the bets in baccarat are bets of desperation,” Sergio says. “Hope is an edifying but useless accessory.” A sobering truth, perhaps, but it’s an earned one, a conclusion that resists simple formulas and summary. There are no easy answers in Scars. There aren’t even easy questions.

—Richard Farrell


Richard Farrell is  the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is currently at work on a collection of short stories. His work, including fiction, memoir, craft essays, and book reviews, has been published at Hunger Mountain, Numéro Cinq, and A Year in Ink anthology. His essay “Accidental Pugilism” (which first appeared on Numéro Cinq in a slightly different form) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.  He lives in San Diego with his wife and children.

See also Richard Farrell’s review of Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and an excerpt from that novel here.

May 272012


You try to tell people what it’s like living here, but you’re not sure you know. You’ve lived here nearly your whole life, and you’re numb to this place. You have to push yourself to see it. — Jennifer McGuiggan

 Town & Country: Part 1

You tell people that this small town, situated thirty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh, is the last bastion of suburbia before the routes go rural. You live in a thirty-year-old subdivision of single family homes and townhouses. One way in, same way out. No one drives by your house unless he’s headed to or from one of your neighbors’ houses. The well-tended lawns reach right up to the curb, no sidewalks needed in this quiet maze of streets. Yet even in all of this deliberate, manicured space you notice bits of the wild popping up close to the ground: purple crocus and green onion peeking out from the undergrowth in spring; yellow dandelions gone downy white polka-dotting the yards by mid-summer; crackly piles of jeweled leaves lining the curbs in autumn; and bleached twigs littering the mulched beds in winter.

Two minutes from your front door stand a dozen cows, and sometimes one lone goat, in the field next to St. Emma Monastery, where a handful of Benedictine nuns live out their days. People use the parking lot between the monastery and the cow field as a sort of informal, unmanned swap meet. They leave all kinds of junk there, sometimes with a sign that says “Free,” but more often with the simple assumption of freedom. Recently there was a small cardboard box of old Christmas cookie tins and a large, upholstered chair with carved wooden legs and arms, castoff seating for one. Every day for nearly two weeks you spotted the chair’s orange, mustard, and cream flowers as you drove past. Now you look for new treasures to pop up—and for the cop who sometimes sits in the parking lot waiting for anyone to break the 45-mph speed limit.

If you drive five minutes more down the road, you’ll be bobbing along in farm country: rolling hills, corn fields, metal silos, the occasional sheep. On Sundays you drive along the sweetly winding backroads to Bardine’s Country Smokehouse, where you can buy fresh chicken breasts, all manner of beef and pork, and more varieties of sausage than you knew there were names for. The folks at Bardine’s wear shirts that read “Nice to meat you” across the back, and they’re always happy to answer your questions and cut your meat to order. Blue ribbons, award plaques, and glossy photos of prize-winning pigs line the walls. There are cows and a barn out back of the store. When you ask if the chickens are their own too, the woman behind the counter says they come from Michigan. You wonder why there aren’t more locally available birds.

Along the way to Bardine’s you pass more fields of cows and try not to think about their sisters, whom you’re about to see splayed out, red and naked, in the display cases. It’s hard to be a vegetarian in this part of southwestern Pennsylvania, but you give it a try every few months. Going out to eat is your undoing, since most non-meat options here are limited to pasta with soggy vegetables. You have to drive thirty minutes for the nearest Indian restaurant, and thirty more past that to find Thai food, both good options for meat-free meals. But your real downfall is bacon, which you sometimes pick up at Bardine’s with a twinge of guilt, placing it on the counter alongside one of those Michigan chicken breasts. Most weeks you can’t bring yourself to buy the beef.

If you time the Sunday trip just right you can catch part of “A Prairie Home Companion” on NPR. Garrison Keillor’s molasses voice makes the country way of life sound so lovely, so vivid, so very nice. You listen because it fits the landscape, and because for those fifteen minutes each way, Garrison and his guests charm you into thinking that you’re cozy at home in these green, green hills, even though you know in your heart you’re not really a country girl.

Town & Country: Part 2

If you come out your front door, drive past the cows and the nuns, and keep going for ten minutes in the opposite direction of Bardine’s, you’ll run into the sad asphalt of highways, big box stores, and strip malls saturated with fast food. But if you want to avoid all that (and you do, unless you need groceries), you can be smack-dab downtown in five minutes. Here in the county seat, “smack-dab downtown” amounts to just a few streets’ worth of small-town city. The big draws, for you, are the library and the post office, which face each other across Pennsylvania Avenue. You occasionally treat yourself to a red velvet with cream cheese icing at the cupcake shop that recently opened around the corner, evidence that all good trends come to those who wait, even in small town America. More often, you stop by the coffee shop just down the street. They make a decent latte, and the vibe is funky, with angry, edgy art that you don’t really like, but that you appreciate just for existing in this little town. You hear that they’re planning to stay open until 9:00 on Friday and Saturday nights. This is good news, since the one or two other cafés that manage to stay in business here close by 6:00 p.m. during the week and 2:00 p.m. on Saturdays. There aren’t many places to go in this town after business hours unless you fancy one of the many bars: sports, dive, biker, or—the newest addition—the county’s first hookah bar, which opened last year in the strip behind the mall, sandwiched somewhere between Buffalo Wild Wings and Hallmark. But let’s face it, you’re not much of a bar girl.


This should be a college town, but it’s not quite that. Within a ten-mile radius sit four colleges and universities, albeit small ones. You’re well past college age, but you wonder where all the students are, where they go and what they do. Where are the late night caffeine-and-study haunts? The street musicians? Where’s the diversity? More to the point, where are all the young people? And by young people you don’t mean the 2.5 kids for every family on your street. There’s a sizable under-18 demographic in this town, rivaled only by the over-65 population. In 2007 U.S. News & World Report named Greensburg one of the best places to retire. From hookah bars to bingo nights, what’s a girl like you to do?

To be fair, there does seem to be a mini-Renaissance subtly taking shape here: cupcakes, evening coffee shop hours, flavored tobacco, even a few locally-owned, independent restaurants to combat the fluorescent chains along the highway. One of them features a menu of local and sometimes organic offerings, including meat from Bardine’s. (You think again about that Michigan chicken. Does five-hundred miles count as local in the world of food?) You’re really trying to be a small-town girl.

The In-between

As a teenager you had a boyfriend who loved living here, touting its ideal location halfway between the mountains and the city, forty-five minutes either way, he said. He was technically correct, but fifteen years later you’re still not buying it. It’s not the math or the mileage that’s wrong, just everything else. The problem is that neither the mountains nor the city on either side of this small town satisfy you. The Laurel Highlands to the east aren’t much when it comes to mountains, just Appalachia’s afterthought foothills. Pretty enough, sure, but nothing that catches your breath.

To the west, Pittsburgh keeps trying to shrug off its old blue collar, Steel Town image with new biotech firms and glossy marketing initiatives. But beneath the progress and the gloss, it’s the same old gritty city, the same squashed-voweled accents of the local “Yinzer” dialect, the longstanding adoration of Primanti Brothers sandwiches with their french fries and coleslaw piled high atop the meat and cheese, as though the sandwich itself were in a hurry for you to eat it. You’re just far enough outside of the city to be disconnected from the art scene that you hear is buzzing. People who live closer in think you live out in the sticks, and maybe you do (think of all those cows). You once went to an evening event in the city and someone asked if you were driving “all the way” back home that same night. One hour by car is a world away.

The city offers plenty to do. There’s the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Opera, and the Pittsburgh Public Theater, but looming above all of these are the Pittsburgh Steelers. Football reigns supreme here in the capital city of “Steeler Nation,” a geographically amorphous land populated with just as many women as men. You don’t really care about football, which is considered unnatural and blasphemous in these parts. This somewhat frivolous outcast status serves as the symbol for all the ways you don’t feel at home here. You daydream about cities like Portland, Oregon, cities with good public transportation, public recycling bins, and bicycle culture. Places where you—wearing a dress over your jeans and with small swatch of pink hair—aren’t the most outrageous hipster on the scene. You wonder if this makes you a snob in some way. (You fear that it does.)

Land and Sky

Pittsburgh’s three rivers notwithstanding, this is a landlocked pocket of earth. Lake Erie grazes the top of the state three hours to your north, but that’s not local, even if it is closer than those Michigan chickens. And this is the crux of your discontent: You are an ocean girl. You daydream about it the way you used to daydream about your old love who lived across the continent and then across the Atlantic. All of this land maroons you from your true self.

But all of this land is why you love the sky so much: It’s the closest thing you have to the sea and the only thing that seems to change much around here. On good days you watch the currents of the sky, the tide of blue and white and grey ebbing and flowing. But even the sky stays the same for too many days on end here, with more cloudy days than the Pacific Northwest, which, incidentally, is where you’d like to live—between the evergreen mountains and wild seashore. On winter days, when slate grey skies fit over these pale winter lawns like a too-tight skullcap, you feel claustrophobic inside and out, cabin fever that has nothing to do with walls.

Still, the sky is your saving grace. Late in the afternoon, when tentative patches of blue sometimes peek through the cloud lid, you go out for a walk. Every day around this time a fat hound dog cries with an alarming and mournful insistence. On one of your walks you see the dog and its owner. The hound snuffles in circles for all it’s worth, hot on the trail of something along the cold asphalt, braying every few seconds in a plea or an announcement or some triumph, you can’t be sure which.

These feeble splotches of color in the anemic sky remind you that above the colorless canvas that you can see is a wide space of blue that you cannot. Of course, above that lurks the cold dark of space, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is this: The sky is out there. This is how you feel in general: Things are out there, somewhere. Beyond the grey sky; beyond this solidly middle class, suburban development; beyond this small town creviced between the city and the foothills; beyond the farmland and rolling hills; thirty-five miles from urban culture, three-hundred miles from the nearest shoreline, and two-thousand-six-hundred-seventy-four from that beach you love the most on the Oregon coast.

When you force yourself to look at this place where you’ve lived for 35 of your 36 years, you can’t help but wonder what “home” really means. Is it where you hang your hat? Where you lay your head? Or is it, to mix the metaphors, where you hang your head? Even as you think about moving across the country, you push yourself to see this place you call home. You notice the pleasing contrast of brown branches against the whiteout sky, the melancholy music of the hound dog, the sinewy energy of angry art on coffee shop walls. As winter ends, warmer weather creeps back in, the sky blooms into a soft blue, and each spring you notice more purple crocus pushing their way up through the dry sticks of last year’s growth.


   — Jennifer McGuiggan


Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan lives in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and longs for the sea. To soothe her wanderlust she is working on a collection of essays set at seashores around the world. She holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. In 2009 she curated and published Lanterns: A Gathering of Stories, a collaborative collection of prose, poetry, and photography celebrating women in creative community. Visit her in The Word Cellar, where she writes about everything from navigating the writing life to venturing into the world of roller derby.

This is the 38th “What It’s Like Living Here” on NC. See the complete collection here.


May 252012

Johan Renck’s music video for The Knife’s “Pass This On” throws us into one of the most uncomfortable football award banquets ever, complete with three of my favourite things: drag queens, The Knife’s infectious song, and awkward straight boy dancing.

Renck works to build an aesthetics of discomfort here. The film finds the painful, rumpus room décor, the apathetic-to-the-point-of-aggressive blank faces of the audience, the drag queen’s Xanadu-esque outfit, and the lyrics she sings about preying on another girl’s brother (“I’m in love with your brother / What’s his name? / I thought I’d come by to see him again”). Terribly awkward. All of it. Made more awkward, not less, with the plethora of awkward dances the drag queen’s performance inspires. Most striking visually is the young blond man’s earnest courtship dance: to desire in Renck’s uncomfortable world is to be beauteous and a fool at the same time.

This aesthetics of discomfort recurs in Renck’s other works and is particularly similar in his video for Madonna’s “Hung Up.”

The lighting has all the florescent ambiance of a coroner’s autopsy theatre and the room’s pale blue floor and fake wood paneling scream sad basement from the ‘70s where sad things will happen. Madonna’s outfit and hair might have been designed and styled by the same perversely retro stylists who worked on the drag queen in “Pass This On.”

The difference between the two videos is that Renck permits Madonna to escape to beauty in the segments where she dances with beautiful young dancers in a night club (though Renck throws her back on the floor in the basement in the very last shot). For “Pass This On,” however, Renck doesn’t let the footballers or the drag queen find the exits in their rumpus room hell.

Through the first half of “Pass This On,” much of the discomfort comes from the juxtaposition of a drag queen performer with an unsympathetic audience. This fancy fish out of water tale then courts our expectations that, washed up here, the fish is in danger. Who booked her for this event and how badly is this going to end?

I am all for dance as the panacea to most social conflicts, but the film nicely resists that. Certainly, the men get up and dance instead of resorting to violence or panic at the sight of the drag queen, but the aesthetic of discomfort does not ease, helped in part by that glorious bad straight boy dancing, but ultimately secured by the film’s resistance to Broadway show tune resolutions: the last shot is of a young woman watching all the dancing footballers, the old men, and the drag queen with the same apathy the chorus of faces showed at the beginning. She is immune to this panacea. She won’t let this song and dance go full flash mob. Renck won’t let the film escape the aesthetics of discomfort.

Renck’s penchant for discomfort is perhaps at its most extreme in his “Mobile Movies: Self Portrait,” where he chronicles a solitary evening in a sparse apartment.

Sure, he pees on the toilet seat, but he does clean it up. This painful visual honesty is most realized in the low shot which starts with his naked butt and then holds on him as he awkwardly puts on his underwear and socks. Throughout this he angles himself towards the left of the screen and this suggests the presence of a mirror off screen. The self-consciousness, the awkwardness of him dressing, are vulnerable and disarming. We see him seeing himself, and we wonder what he sees. Again with the aesthetics of discomfort, the ambivalent desiring gaze.

Terribly talented Canadian director Xavier Dolan chose The Knife’s song for a sort of dervish subtext in his gorgeous second film Les Amours Imaginaires (a title terribly translated by –I am assuming – the film distribution company as Heartbeats).

The clip is in French, but the translation of their dialogue appears below the video frame. The awkwardness from Renck’s video is mirrored here as son and mother sexy dance at his birthday party while his two would-be suitors watch on.  There’s a similar thread of discomfort running through the rest of Dolan’s film, too, in the awkward documentary footage where random eccentric characters discuss their most obsessive loves and in the mise en scene that frames lovers talking in bed like awkward portraits. Desire, for Dolan’s film, is awkward and uncomfortable, built on unresolvable distances.

Reading this sense of desire and awkwardness back to Renck’s music videos, we can perhaps see that desire, too, plays a part in the music video worlds orbiting the drag queen and Madonna. The aesthetic of discomfort is not just about wanting to get away from anxiety provoking interiors and awkward social situations. There is something desirable about these worlds, too. And even something desirable about the discomfort itself. This, it seems, is at the core of Renck’s films. This discomforting desire that the drag queen passes on to the young man, that the young man passes on to the other men, that is held in the gaze of the young woman at the end of the video. Pass it on.

– R W Gray

May 252012

Tess Fragoulis

Herewith a strange and lurid scene from the bar life — gangsters, music, and a quasi-ritual violence — in Piraeus, after the ravaging of Smyrna during the 1922 Greco-Turkish war (one of the many Greco-Turkish wars) in Tess Fragoulis‘s brand new novel The Goodtime Girl (Cormorant Books). The scene is foreign, surprising because it lets the reader see, in its details, the mix of cultural history in the land that is often called the cradle of Western civilization while, at the same time, letting us know that gangsters are kind of like gangsters wherever they are — strutting cockerels with a peculiar sense of social harmony — whether they inhabit Isaac Babel’s Odessa or Mario Puzo’s Las Vegas. Tess Fragoulis, the author of two previous books, the novel Ariadne’s Dream and a story collection called Stories to Hide from Your Mother, writes and teaches teaches in Montreal.




You strut up to me
with a double-edged blade
Who’s your business with wise-guy,
what debts must be paid?

It was early evening and the taverna was empty except for a few members of the band escaping their wives, and a gang of codgers who wouldn’t last past eleven. They were playing endless hands of kseri, drinking retsina and reminiscing about the good old days when the taverna was their territory and no one came in without a brick of hashish as an offering. Now they were harmless granddads, coughing with every inhale of the narghile and gossiping about the preening young manghites with as much indulgence as disdain. Kivelli liked the taverna at this time of day, before the atmosphere was choked with grudges and bravado. She sat by herself, drinking coffee and waiting for the air to shift, for the old men to cede their places to the young.

To pass the time, she turned her little white cup onto its saucer and watched the muddy grounds ooze out the side while her future was being etched on the inner walls in lacy patterns. Barba Yannis claimed he could read palms, though everyone knew it was just an excuse to hold women’s hands and make predictions that gave him some sort of advantage. He’d already taken turns with Kiki and Lola, as well as several of the other girls because they liked what he saw in their future. He didn’t read cups, however, which was the territory of old ladies with black dresses and headscarves, their evil eyes usually aimed in his direction. As Kivelli peered into the cup’s miniature abyss at something that might have been a flower or a fallen sun, she sensed someone behind her and looked over her shoulder.

A short, skinny man Kivelli hadn’t seen before stood there, erect as a post, his nervous blinking the only sign he was alive. He wore an impeccable grey serge suit with a burgundy bow tie, and a black fedora pulled down over his forehead and ears, which made him look as if he had something to hide. He smelled familiar, however, of lemon verbena and fine tobacco, like her sleek-haired suitors in Smyrna, though he was nowhere near as handsome with his flaccid skin and thin, pale lips. When his mouth began to move, Kivelli couldn’t hear his words over the din of old men nattering and musicians fooling around with their instruments. She narrowed her eyes and cupped a hand by her ear.

“I am the Smyrniot,” the man repeated testily and paused a moment, waiting for a reaction. So many guys had adopted that nickname since the Catastrophe — whether they’d come from the city or a nearby village — it had become meaningless. Kivelli studied his grim face, but it told her nothing. He wasn’t distinct enough to be remembered. Even now, standing before her, her memory resisted him.

“What can I do for you?” she asked, not impolitely, but not graciously either. He threw her a sharp look that in the past might have frightened her, but now only made her more defiant. She compressed her lips and folded her arms over her chest, her eyes hard as diamonds. If he really wanted trouble, she could call the Cucumber. For a few uncomfortable seconds, they looked each other over with equal doubt. But before either could make a move, Barba Yannis rushed over and slapped the Smyrniot on the back, then shook his hand vigorously. Kivelli had seen that happy dog look on her boss’s face before: he was both impressed and slightly unnerved by the presence of the man he called Panayotis.

“What brings you here, my friend?” he asked Panayotis the Smyrniot, who pulled on the brim of his hat until his eyes all but disappeared. With an almost imperceptible tilt of his chin, he pointed in Kivelli’s direction. Barba Yannis looked as thrilled as Kyria Effie had on the day he’d arrived with his proposition. “You should be very flattered, girlie.” He then winked at the Smyrniot. “Don’t ask about the hole I found her in …” And with that he left, blissfully unaware that his taverna was just a different type of hole.

The Smyrniot looked left and right, as if plotting his escape. He was becoming more agitated by the minute; he fiddled with something in his pocket Kivelli hoped was neither a wedding ring nor a pistol. Barba Yannis was sitting with the old men, whispering and staring and whispering some more. There was a rumble of laughter, and someone began plucking a baglama, yowling between notes.

When the Smyrniot spoke again, he lowered his voice as if he feared being caught in an indiscretion. “Miss Kivelli,” he began, his words tentative, forced. “I have a song for you. Come to my house tomorrow afternoon if you want to try it on for size.” He pulled a piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to her, then scurried out of the taverna without waiting for her reply, or pulling on the narghile, or talking to anyone else — not even Barba Yannis. His address was outside the neighbourhood, over the bridge and up Castella Hill, in a better part of Piraeus. Kivelli stared at the piece of paper in her hand, then crumpled it and stuffed it in her coffee cup. The place was starting to fill up, and it was time for her to disappear into the storeroom so she could later make her entrance. Barba Yannis hurried over, his eyebrows twitching eagerly.

“What did he say, what did he want from you?” He wiped his forehead with a white handkerchief edged with pink embroidery.

“Who knows … something about a song … to each his own.” Barba Yannis looked at her as if she’d fallen on her head.

“Are you crazy? The Smyrniot wants to give you a song and you flick him off like lice? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you know who he is?” This was the first time he’d ever scolded her, and the strain soaked his handkerchief with sweat.

Kivelli admitted she didn’t know, and she didn’t care either. As far as she was concerned, he was one of a dozen newborn Smyrniots, and nobody to her. Barba Yannis plucked the crumpled, coffee-stained paper out of the cup, smoothed its wrinkles against the table. He held it at arm’s length to read it, then pressed it into her hand. “You go there and apologize, Miss Kivelli, or don’t bother showing up tomorrow night. I have no room here for women who live on the moon.” He then spelled it out for her and walked off to tell the other musicians, who had a good laugh at her expense.

This Smyrniot was Panayotis “The Smyrniot” Doukas, one of the most renowned musicians in Smyrna. Kivelli had heard his name and had danced to his music at balls and private functions where his orchestra played, but had certainly never met him. His were not the circles she travelled in, neither there nor here. The band hardly ever played his songs at the taverna; they weren’t raw or hard enough for the regular crowd, even when the lyrics were about hashish and prison and heartbreak. The music raised a different spirit — too happy, too romantic, even in its melancholy. Kivelli knew a few of his hits — “Maria, Stop Your Nagging,” and “Someone’s Stolen the Wine” — and sang them on request when one of her compatriots who could afford it was in the audience, which was not very often. They had their own clubs where they tried to recreate what they had lost, places named after Smyrna’s richest neighbourhoods — Bella Vista, Cordelio, Bournova. The mere thought of going there made Kivelli as sick as bad wine.

But now that she knew who the Smyrniot was, she was curious to hear what kind of song he thought was cut to her measure, and to find out how he knew, since she’d never seen him at the taverna. Though, admittedly, he could have been lurking in a smoky corner all along, testing and assessing her, or standing right under her nose, unremarkable and easily forgotten.

There was still this night to live through, however, and tomorrow seemed a thousand years away, during which the sun might be extinguished once and for all, if not for her, then for someone else. This had become a given since the Cucumber’s gang had taken up residence at the taverna. Notoriety had to be fed with flesh and blood, or it went somewhere else. So incidents of the kind that were never reported to the police escalated, and it was left to the manghes to sort things out, using their own code, imposing their own sentence.

At around two in the morning, a young swag from the neighbourhood sauntered in, high as Jupiter. Crazy Manos dropped in on most nights to flirt with the girls, exchange barbs with the guys. He was lean-faced and handsome, with dark blond hair and the green eyes of a wildcat, wary and always halfway shut. Rumour had it that he slept with ten women a day and stole from them all, which was how he could afford his fine suits and enough hashish to keep him flying most of the time. He collected his allowance throughout the day in exchange for a kiss on the forehead, and blew it all by dawn. Kivelli hoped it was worth it, but she had her doubts.

Crazy Manos was a bit of a show-off. He strutted around the room, glass of wine in hand, laughing uncontrollably and flashing his new double-edged dagger with the polished deer stag handle. He slid it through his fingers, ran it over the insides of his wrists and hefted it between his hands. He was also throwing his weight around with the girls in the corner, but from their scowls and waving hands, Kivelli could tell they were not enjoying his attentions. Narella left the table and went to speak with Barba Yannis, who consulted a few of his buddies and then called over Mortis, the taverna’s only waiter.

The older manghes had nothing against Crazy Manos. They admired his looks, his luck with the ladies and his fancy blade. They’d all been young and high and crazy once. He was one of them, but there was no bigger anathema than a guy who called attention to himself for no good reason. If you took out your sword, you’d better be ready to use it. They tried to ignore him at first, but this only encouraged his strutting. When Mortis refused to bring him more wine, Crazy Manos stood on a chair and smashed the empty glass on the floor, then began laughing like a maniac. One by one the instruments stopped playing, Kivelli stopped singing, the men stopped talking and even the girls’ gasps were soundless. A group of Barba Yannis’s tightest friends surrounded Crazy Manos, who cursed and spat like the devil as they dragged him outside. Barba Yannis signalled the band to start playing again, but Kivelli could still hear the shouting and swearing through the thick wooden door.

After two or three songs the manghes returned, wiping their hands on their trousers, tucking in their shirttails, looking neither happy nor angry nor proud. They had done what was necessary because they’d been provoked. They took their places at their tables as if nothing had happened, resumed their conversations as if they’d never been interrupted. That was that, Kivelli thought, and after a few more songs she too had forgotten the scuffle, though the broken glass still lay on the floor, twinkling like ice that would never melt.

Then Crazy Manos stumbled back in. Blood running from his nose and mouth stained his white shirt, both his eyes were blackened, swollen, his jacket was ripped and his hat had been crushed. This did not make him look ugly, just wilder. Before anyone could stop him, he ran to the front of the room with his dagger between his teeth and began dancing like a woman, clapping his hands above his head and shimmying his hips. He waggled his tongue at Kivelli as the same group of manghes carried him out again. But within two or three songs, Crazy Manos was back, as defiant as ever, blowing kisses and offering wine to everyone in the house. Those must have been powerful drugs coursing through his body. Corpse-raising drugs. A lesser mangha would have crawled home to die in his mother’s lap.

The rest of the night was punctuated by this back and forth, this in and out and in again. When Crazy Manos did not crawl back on his hands and knees after the final bout, Kivelli was sure they’d killed him, and she felt bad for a moment. He was a young guy trying to have some fun, a handsome mangha, just a little bit reckless.

After the taverna closed and the broken glass was swept up, Kivelli searched for Barba Yannis, but he was nowhere to be found. All she wanted was to get paid so she could go home and consider the Smyrniot’s invitation, the memory of which had been almost entirely wiped out by the night’s main event. If it disappeared by morning, she would be relieved of the decision, though she was not certain how much longer she could bear the brutishness of the taverna. Narella walked over and said she’d seen Barba Yannis leave by himself, and that she too was waiting for him because they had their own bills to settle. “He read my palm and paid me a visit at Kyria Effie’s,” she confessed sheepishly. She’d hoped to make Crazy Manos jealous, to get back at him for his philandering, but things had gone too far. She wiped away a tear. Narella had a soft spot for that little butcher.

Just then Barba Yannis returned. He and Mortis were holding Crazy Manos up by the armpits, helping him to a table near the back. Narella ran to him, threw her arms around his neck. Crazy Manos cursed, but didn’t push her away. He was a sorry sight, his pretty face puffed up like that of a drowned man, his fine threads dark with blood and dirt. But there he sat, holding hands with Narella and drinking the cup of coffee Barba Yannis himself had brought him, while Mortis dusted off his jacket with a white cloth.

 — Tess Fragoulis


Tess Fragoulis is the author of Stories to Hide from Your Mother (Arsenal Pulp, 1997), which was nominated for the QWF First Book Prize; Ariadne’s Dream (Thistledown, 2001), which was long-listed for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award; and is the editor of Musings, an anthology of Greek-Canadian Literature (Vehicule, 2004). Her latest novel, The Goodtime Girl, is published by Cormorant Books in Canada, and will be published in Greek by Psichogios Publications in Greece in 2013. She has also written for newspapers, magazines and television. She lives in Montreal and teaches writing part-time at Concordia University.

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May 232012

Here are some luscious photographs of Paris, not your tourist Paris, but the Paris streets, and not just the Paris streets but a selection of photos that are in many ways a homage to the history of Parisian street photography, that is, photographs with a particularity, an edge, derived from history and impersonation. These are from the Montreal poet/novelist Mark Lavorato (see his poem in the last issue) who started taking pictures as a moment of research for a new novel. He impersonated a 1920s Parisian street photographer who would be a character in his book, and, Lo! he became a photographer himself.



I was researching my third novel, Burning-In (forthcoming), in which one of my characters is a photographer in the 1920s. What I soon learned in my research is that the art of street photography came before the advent of photojournalism. This was astounding to me; that the art aspect of photography came well before its utility.

I picked up a camera and took to the streets to learn about how my protagonist would feel as a street photographer, and I found that, surprisingly, it was me, and not my protagonist, who was doing all the feeling. So I dove into street photography with all the fascination and intensity of someone discovering a new and rich medium.

— Mark Lavorato



— Mark Lavorato


Mark Lavorato is the author of three novels, VeracityBelieving Cedric, and the forthcoming Burning-In. His first collection of poetry, Wayworn Wooden Floors, had just been published. One of the poems from that book was published in a previous issue of Numéro Cinq. Mark lives in Montreal and is currently seeking galleries to exhibit his work.


May 212012

I met Emily Pulfer-Terino on the jet to Chicago for the AWP Conference last, a comical, sleepy morning meeting made somewhat impossible by my grumpy desire not to talk to ANYONE. Later, at the conference, we re-met with CONTEXT and it came out that she is a poet. Actually, a lovely poet who teaches at a girls’ private school in Massachusetts and has to do amusing things like chaperone dances. Emily Pulfer-Terino can build a beautiful line. Watch the verbs and verbals. Everything is moving, shifting, pelting, fraying in these poems.

this heaving air, the sound of air inborn
as effort. And what washes up, limp, inside-
out, jellyfish, empty skate, cartilage

Meditate upon the gorgeous concision of these lines. Think about the powerful rhetoric of lists and series and the dense concreteness of the words. Watch the way the grammar and drama of the sentences surges beyond the line to the next and the next.



The Vineyard

November wind persuades the dunes
You’ve brought me to. Dunes thin and swell.
Near, gray trees strain. Your friends
build houses and couple here;

I prefer mountains. But your heart
pelts against your ribs. You trudge
at wind and turn, grinning
over your shoulder at me. Constant here,

this heaving air, the sound of air inborn
as effort. And what washes up, limp, inside-
out, jellyfish, empty skate, cartilage
fraying. And there’s your dog,

who into the pluming water follows tossed planks,
again pleased and flapping, again,
salted by seaspume. Even in this
constant reshaping of ground by wind, of wave

by wind, with these cold shocks
of beachwinter numbing the skin,
how isolate each breathing thing must be.
Scents of wet wood, aged fish wed

these drowsy ions. I hate it here.
The way you clasp against this afternoon
into me, our two breaths chalking one,
your face a mortifying pink.



Yarrow, she says, wading through the weeds
beside the mountain road, will purify the blood.

Gathering plants to make tinctures and balms,
serious and thinner now, my friend is learning

how to heal. Red clover lowers fever, quiets
frantic nerves. Stinging nettle soothes the skin,

the pain of aging joints. Saint John’s wart, common
yellow flower, homely as a pillowcase, soothes the pain

of life itself. Well, pain has made a pagan of my friend.
At twenty-two, she has already learned to celebrate

death: friends, her father. Alone in her sugar shack home
up here, grown sinewy and stern, she studies the natural world

as if the names of living things, repeated, were a spell to undo loss.
She gives me what she gathers—hawthorn blossom, elder,

comfrey—to seal in jars with stones and alcohol. We’re pulled over
here forever. The sun, once heavy gold with heat, is growing tired

over us, pale white light of evening setting in. Soon, she’ll stop
and we’ll start to enjoy what we always do together: at her place,

sepia sounds of guitar steeping from the record player, outside,
lake water steadying slowly under lowered sun. And we enjoy

the wine she makes: dandelion, lemon mint. Tasting of flowers
and of fire. Strong wine, and good, it puts us under fast.

 — Emily Pulfer-Terino


Emily Pulfer-Terino grew up in Western Massachusetts, where she lives and teaches English at Miss Hall’s School, a boarding school for girls. She holds a BA from Sarah Lawrence College and an MFA in Creative Writing from Syracuse University. More of her work is published or forthcoming in Hunger Mountain, Stone Canoe, The Louisville Review, The Alembic, Oberon, and other journals and anthologies.