Aug 042014


La Grande was Juan José Saer’s final novel, published not long after the Argentinian author’s death in 2005.  Recently translated by Steve Dolph and published by Open Letter Books, La Grande follows Nula Anoch, Willi Gutiérrez and a host of other characters over the course of a single week. Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s long and tortured history, the characters contend with memory, loss, love, betrayal and hope in the days leading up to a party at the Gutiérrez compound. Part mystery, part  philosophy, part answer to the question, What is the novel? Saer’s masterwork is a wonderful example of why the novel remains relevant and very much alive. Saer reminds you of John Fowles, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, all rolled together into a South American exile with a Paris address.

In this excerpt. Nula (five years before the major events of the novel) has been swept up in a strange, sordid relationship with a married couple, Lucía and Riera. For months, LucÍa fondles Nula on the couch with her husband’s permission, but she refuses to bring him to orgasm or have intercourse with him. Still, Nula is mesmerized, and progressively becomes a puppet to this couple, until, in a heart-cringing scene, Lucía and Riera have sex on the bed while Nula watches television on the floor.

Saer’s ability to precisely render a scene, coupled with his unflinching gaze into the heart of human desire, offers a tense, gripping and unforgettable view into the mystery of existence.  We may not understand it all, but we will never forget it.

—Richard Farrell



After that October night, for several months, until the following fall, they were almost always together. Lucía didn’t work, which meant she had lots of free time, but Riera went to the office early, and later, during his lunch hour, and in the evenings, he made house calls; Nula worked at the law school kiosk several times a week, and when he stayed home he pretended to prepare for his philosophy exams in November and December, but the thought of returning to Rosario, of leaving the city and Lucía, and Riera too, even for a single day, seemed intolerable: it would have been like stepping out of a magical world, a novel and seductive place, not exempt from sordidness and cruelty, to return to the uncertain, grayish days, with their perpetual seesaw between doubt and serenity, where he’d been treading water, resigned, since his childhood. He wanted to be Lucía’s lover, but he was barely her friend, her confidant, and sometimes he even reached the status of lap dog. Even though it would’ve been enough for him to know her, to sit calmly and silently at her side, she allowed him certain gratifications: every so often she let him touch her, kiss her, put his hand down her brassiere, and even suck on her breasts, and two or three times she’d accepted, submissively, when he guided her hand to his open fly, squeezing his penis in that strange way, squeezing and releasing, but once when he’d put his own hand over hers, forcing her to rub until he finished, she’d jumped up, rearranging her clothes, indignant and flustered, protesting, Oh no, not that, definitely not that! And she’d practically run to the bathroom and the bedroom to clean up and change. But despite that, when she returned she seemed content, with an abstracted, placid smile. After being with them a few times, Nula realized that Lucía and Riera were joined by a feeling, or whatever it was, that wasn’t exactly love, in the altruistic sense of the word at least, but actually something more turbulent that combined with a sort of voluptuous interdependence in which their differences generated a sarcasm more mocking than violent and their affinities a blind, impulsive, almost animal fusion. It was strange to see how the most insulting nonsense from one, verbal or otherwise, first produced indignation and then complicit laughter in the other. Nula felt momentarily excluded in those situations, but they, together or alone, always rushed to recover him. There was always the perpetual enigma: were they manipulating him, were they laughing at him, were they using him for some incomprehensible ends? Or did they really appreciate him and acted like that with everyone? Even now, lying face down on the mat, his chin resting on the back of his superimposed hands, feeling the sweat run down his face and back, even at this very moment, when they’ve reappeared, unexpectedly, into his life, he still doesn’t know. The fact that he’d been with Lucía two days before, finally possessing what five years before he’d sought in vain, and then the coincidence that Riera had called to announce his arrival from Bahía Blanca, restarts the mechanism of the past, and though he knows that he’ll never be trapped by them again, a distant, even vaguely ironic curiosity suggests that he should be alert in the days ahead. With his eyes closed, his face sweaty, pressed against the back of his hand, Nula laughs, shivering expectantly, and he realizes that his affection for them persists, but that its charge has been reversed, that it doesn’t have the same painful dependency of the first period, which had lasted a while after he voluntarily decided to stop seeing them, and has now taken on a paternalistic forbearance, a sympathy without a trace of possessiveness, governed by a completely atheoretical and in fact sporting inclination, to anticipate their curious reactions, for pure entertainment, without inverting any sentiment in the issue. This attitude provokes in him an excessive impatience to see them again.

Lucía was rich, but Riera, on the other hand, had come from a family of petty merchants in Bahía Blanca, and he always said that because petty merchants and the rich had more or less the same things weighing on their conscience, that it was only a difference of proportion, he and Lucía had been made for each other from the start. Lucía always complained that, because she was expected to marry rich, she hadn’t been allowed to pursue secondary studies. She’d had a rancher boyfriend, but she’d left him for Riera. Her mother disapproved of the relationship (Lucía’s father had died long before), but her own sentimental complications didn’t allow her the occasion to worry about Lucía’s future; Leonor, for her part, had been born rich, and because she’d married a rich man from whom she’d inherited a second fortune, she knew instinctively, and from personal experience, that money made intelligence superfluous. But Lucía’s ignorance tormented her: when Nula and Riera discussed science and philosophy (each loathed the other’s specialty), Lucía’s mood would sour, and Riera, mercifully, would change the subject. The sexual disarray of Riera’s life contrasted with his professional diligence. When he finished at the office he went on house calls, and he also worked with a group of doctors who treated people from the shantytowns and the countryside free of charge; they distributed medicine, and, in the worse cases, sent them to the hospital. He also saw the novitiates of a semi-clandestine brothel and though the owner paid him he gave the girls condoms and free samples that pharmaceutical salesmen had left with him. One Saturday afternoon, Nula was in Riera’s car with him when suddenly he stopped, opened the door, and ran out onto the sidewalk, leaving the car running; they were downtown, and because it was Saturday, it was crowded on the street. The row of cars and buses behind Riera started to honk, but Riera didn’t seem to hear a thing. Nula got out and saw that a boy who was about ten, a shoe shine who always worked on that corner, was lying on the ground, convulsing and drooling. Riera bent over him, and with two or three quick operations, did something to his jaw and laid him on his side, trying to contain his seizures. It was an epileptic fit. The boy calmed down gradually—the scene lasted two or three minutes—and Riera told Nula to open the rear door of the car and then to pick up the shine box, while he himself picked up the boy, laid him down on his side on the back seat, set the shine box on the floor of the car, closed the door, and sat down behind the steering wheel. He told Nula to kneel on the front seat and watch the boy in case the seizures started again. The boy was pale but calm, and seemed lost and drowsy. Riera took him to the hospital, to the neurological office, and didn’t move until he was sure he had a bed and a specialist to examine him. Nula had gone to his office to meet him for an afternoon swim at the beach in Rincón (Lucía had gone to Paraná to see her mother), but at two thirty they were still at the hospital, so when they left, shortly after three, they ate a slice of pizza standing up at a pizzeria across from the hospital, and Riera, although he didn’t usually work on Saturday, decided not to go to the beach after all, and leaving him at the entrance to La India’s, went back home.

In late November, Nula had a fight with La India because he’d decided not to take his philosophy exams in December and push them back to March, under the pretext that he still wasn’t prepared. You’re one of those people who thinks that the mayonnaise gets made whether you beat the eggs or not! La India had exploded; she’d noticed that something strange had been going on with him since September, though she didn’t mind that he was staying in the city, working at the kiosk and living at home. Ever since their father had left, and especially after he was killed, her sons’ emotional life worried her, and she preferred to always have them on hand, but it was difficult (with Chade, who was more reserved, almost impossible) to talk about things in a clear and direct way. The offhand and somewhat aggressive talks she had with Nula contributed more to hiding the real problems than to revealing them clearly. Nula listened with a serious expression to La India’s remonstrations, but every free moment he had he spent with his new friends. Sometimes he was alone with Lucía at their house, or they went out walking, and other times he met up with Riera for a beer and they’d talk a while, but what he preferred was for the three of them to be together, because he got the feeling that Lucía and Riera really appreciated him and did everything they could to make him feel welcome. But with them there was always something false that came through despite the fact that everything they did seemed so natural, so much so that Nula ended up thinking that they must have been unaware of it. Riera would sometimes take him to Cristina’s—he remembers a week in December when her son was in Córdoba, at his grandparents’ house—and the thing that seemed unconscious with Lucía became obvious, even brutal, when they were with her. Riera’s political theories were as expedient as they come: the problem with society wasn’t the poor but rather the rich families that controlled the banks, the military, the seats of political power, the media, the factories, the press, and so on. Because they were very few, the simplest solution was to kill them all, but because this was impossible, they had to start by corrupting their women, and he’d taken on the task of corrupting the wives of the bourgeoisie in order to precipitate social change. And he always followed that brief discourse with that terse, somewhat degenerate laugh that no one, male or female—and he knew it—was capable of resisting. Cristina wasn’t particularly rich: if her family did have money, it was certainly less than Calcagno’s fortune, of which Riera never touched a dime, referring to it often with contempt and even disgust. Riera subjugated her, and she, Cristina, accepted everything he gave her. Sometimes, in Nula’s presence, he even ordered her around, and one night even suggested she should sleep with him, something she accepted immediately, but Nula, although he was very excited, didn’t dare do it and went home. He heard them laughing as he went out to the street, and then, after taking a few steps along the sidewalk, he stopped and stood for a couple of minutes, thinking about going back, but he changed his mind and went home, past Lucía’s house, which was dark and silent, and since it was almost midnight he didn’t want to ring the bell, so he just went to sleep.

The summer passed in this way; March, and the exams, were approaching. Nula studied, and because the law school shut down from early December to early March, the kiosk closed too. The bookstore, meanwhile, closed in January, for the judicial holiday, and reopened in February, half days only. Nula worked there twice a week, Thursdays and Fridays, which allowed La India to spend long weekends in the country or at the shore. Riera and Lucía didn’t leave the city all summer, and all that time Nula was trapped in the aura that they secreted, trying to prove to himself that he was capable of controlling his desire, his suffering, and even his lust. Their company became a kind of addiction: wherever they were was the center of the world, solid and brilliant; everything else was soft, shapeless, and gray. He knew he wasn’t getting any farther with Lucía, but while they continued to make him feel like he existed as something other than the theater of their wretched war—a feeling he often had—he’d be able to tolerate their machinations. One night in early March, having already decided to go to Rosario for his exams, he decided never to see them again. The heat was dreadful, so they ate in the courtyard, but suddenly, in the middle of their conversation, a storm drove them inside. After the lightning and thunder of a dense and turbulent storm had passed, a rain settled in that would surely last till the morning. Lucía proposed that they watch a movie she’d rented, a detective story that had made a big splash the previous winter, but which she hadn’t been able to see in the theater. They moved to the bedroom, with fruit and cold water, and sat down together at the foot of the bed to watch the movie. After a while, Lucía said she preferred to lie in bed to be more comfortable, and five minutes later, without saying a word, Riera followed her. Nula felt his heart beating harder and harder in his chest. His throat dried, and he opened his mouth to breathe, trying to be silent, because it felt like he was drowning. At first he thought these were the symptoms of desire, but immediately he realized they were of pain, and that, in fact, he wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart. The unnamable, the inconceivable, was happening. Because they’d turned on a bedside lamp so as to not watch the movie in the dark, the room had a warm glow, which from time to time brightened even more when the film passed from a dark image to a clear one, and which meant that everything happening was perfectly visible. But Nula didn’t want to turn around. Suddenly he heard Lucía’s voice behind him saying, Poor thing, we left him alone, and then, directly to him, Are you alright there, on the floor? with a distant, absent voice, as if she were falling asleep. But Nula was sure that she wasn’t falling asleep—just the opposite; their barely audible voices, their movements, their sounds, signaled not only that they weren’t sleeping, but that in fact they were wide awake, though in a somewhat different state of consciousness, which may have even pushed them radically farther from consciousness than a dream, believing they liberated in a whirlwind of sensation that defined them most intimately, when in fact they had been possessed and were now controlled by what was most external to them. Up till that moment, Nula had thought that the strange laughter that connected them precluded intercourse, that they left that extenuating labor for others—an illusion that, later, when he thought it over, seemed at once hilarious and pathetic. For several minutes, he was frozen, rigid, leaning against the edge of the bed, trying to ignore their whispers, their laughter, their moaning, the squeaking and creaking of the bed, the rustle of the sheets, but when Lucía finally started to emit a guttural noise, increasing in intensity, he crawled out on all fours, like a cat, trying not to make a sound, all the way to the hallway, where he stood up and walked out, practically running, through the darkened house that, over the last few months, he’d come to know by heart. Except for the morning when he’d seen them from a taxi, in Rosario, he never saw either of them again, until about a month back, in March, five years after that night, when he saw Lucía come out of the swimming pool in a green swimsuit, and when Gutiérrez, looking at him, had said, It’s not what you think. She’s my daughter. After the March exams, Nula stayed in Rosario under the pretext that classes were starting soon and he didn’t want to get behind that year, and when he came to visit La India on the weekends he almost never left the apartment, and if he did he never took the walk around the block; he always walked straight to the city center. Later, from Cristina, who he bumped into that winter, with her husband, he learned that Lucía and Riera had moved to Bahía Blanca. That October he met Diana, and he forgot about them completely; with Diana everything seemed easy and transparent, which was why, when she got pregnant and she told him she was willing to get an abortion he responded that it would be better if they got married. With his Greek philosophy professor he’d studied Problem XXX.1, attributed to Aristotle, or to Theophrastus, where the affinity between wine, sex, poetry, and philosophy—common ground of the melancholics—was discussed, and because he had to find work and just then an introductory seminar in enology was being offered at the Hotel Iguazú, and which created the possibility of finding a job if he did well, he enrolled with a loan from La India, and, soon after, with another brief course in Mendoza, he was offered a job with Amigos del Vino, which meant that the next year, when Yussef was born, he had enough to provide for him, and by the time Inés was born he was already one of the top salesmen for Amigos del Vino, at least the only one who Américo allowed to bend the rules. And now he’s lying on the mat, face down, tanning in the sun, feeling the sweat drip down the corners of his face pressed against the back of his hands superimposed on the edge of the mat.

 —Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

Juan José Saer (1937–2005), born in Santa Fé, Argentina, was the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. In 1968, he moved to Paris and taught literature at the University of Rennes. The author of numerous novels and short-story collections (including The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Scars, The One Before, and The Clouds, all published by or forthcoming from Open Letter Books), Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event.


Jul 312014

Nela Rio


Rio_Laberinto_vertical portada

The Argentinian-born poet Nela Rio’s writing is imbued with nostalgia and longing. She composes poems about everything from women victims of imprisonment and torture to the tango. She has even published a collection of erotic poetry. In El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth (translated by Sophie M. Lavoie and Hugh HazeltonBroken Jaw Press, 2014), Rio invents a woman-centered creation story, an original myth meant to disrupt the Christian biblical tradition. Though her exquisitely precise Spanish makes Rio’s work difficult to translate, many of of her poems have appeared in bilingual collections, from Spanish to both French and English. Nela Rio has lived in Fredericton, New Brunswick, for the past 45 years. She is the most prolific poet of the ten Latino-Canadian writers described by Hugh Hazelton in his book Latinocanadá: A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. Broken Jaw Press has now published ten of her collections of poetry and short stories. El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth will be published in the Spring of 2014.

—Sophie M. Lavoie


Las Mistícas 

… también había una que decía
de aquellas mujeres
que amaron a dios con amor de mujer
y lloraron la ausencia de la carne
en sus rezos que ardían de fervor.

Veneraron la parte de la Unidad con sabor a hombre
y se deleitaban en sus imágenes
saboreando los colores rozándolos con la lengua.
Ellas guardaban bajo amplios mantos
tejidos con los colores de los corales
los pezones erguidos de placer
en las noches en que en los corredores encantados
la magia del amor les traía vahídos de aliento sagrado.
Y no se contentaban con la tierra que recibía los pasos,
ni con el aire que recogía los murmullos,
sino que besaban con labios temblorosos
la plegaria
para que ascendiera a los otros.

Las castigaron por mala compañía,
por aceptar la naturaleza de sus pensamientos,
y les llovieron lluvias
hasta ahogarlas de amor en las noches tristes.

Preguntaron si estaba mal amar al hombre
diciéndoles “el amor es sagrado”
y también dijeron “así es”.
Las mujeres volvieron y amaron en su corazón
y dejaron que la carne se deleitara
en exquisitas oraciones.


The Mystics

… there was also one who said
that those women
loved god with a woman’s love
and mourned the absence of the flesh
in their prayers that burned with fervour.

They venerated the part of Unity that tasted of man
and delighted in its images
savouring the colours, running their tongues over them.
They kept their nipples, erect with pleasure,
under flowing blankets woven in shades of coral
on nights when, in the enchanted corridors,
the magic of love dizzied them with sacred inspiration.
And unsatisfied with the earth that felt their steps
and the air which collected murmurs,
they kissed the prayer
with trembling lips
so it would ascend to others.

They were punished for being bad company,
for accepting the nature of their thoughts,
and rains fell upon them
drowning them with love on sad nights.

They asked if it was wrong to love man
saying “love is sacred”
as well as “that’s the way it is.”
The women returned and loved with their hearts,
letting the flesh delight
in exquisite prayers.



Algunos, subiéndose a montañas
o descendiendo al fondo del océano
o contemplando el cielo
o meditando sobre la tierra
comenzaron a creer que algunas cosas
eran más hermosas que otras y las alabaron,
o que eran más sabias que otras y las alabaron,
o que eran más poderosas que otras y las alabaron.

Y comenzaron a haber dioses diversos
y rivalidades
y para superarse unos a otros
crearon normas y modos y leyes.

Y aún más, inventaron castigos,
y se habló de obediencia y desobediencia
y de resbaladizos planos de lomos intranquilos
donde moraban la condena o el invencible goce.

Y ya no hubo entendimiento entre la gente
porque hablaban idiomas distintos
y amaban las mismas cosas pero con exclusividad.

Así la Unidad quedó tamizada entre los siglos
y el amor tuvo que disfrazarse de muchas cosas
para sobrevivir.



Some people, climbing mountains
or descending to the depths of the ocean
or contemplating the sky
or meditating on the earth,
began to think that some things
were more beautiful than others and praised them,
or were more learned than others and praised them,
or were more powerful than others and praised them.

And there began to be many gods
and rivalries
and to outdo one another
they created norms and modes and laws.

And they went even further, inventing punishments,
and spoke of obedience and disobedience
and of slippery planes of restless backs,
a land of condemnation or invincible pleasure.

And there was no longer understanding among people
for they spoke different languages
and loved the same things, but exclusively.

Unity was then filtered through the centuries
and love had to disguise itself as many things
to survive.


Sol de Cartón 

Dicen que algunos de los hombres
se cegaron porque miraron la luz
creyendo que se irradiaba de ellos mismos.

El mayor secreto que guardaron
en sus pupilas vacías fue
que se tuvieron por gran señor
y fueron adúlteros con gran diligencia
y abusadores sin discriminación.
Respetaron su sabiduría y se sintieron sagaces
y fabricaron la gran diferencia.
Le dieron a la mujer el lugar
que correspondía
en su cosmogonía
y se entretenían limpiándose los traseros
cuando hacían justicia o predicaban.

Crearon niveles para vasallos
y con grandes sentimientos celebraban
que todo estaba por debajo de ellos
y lo guardaban con vigilancia.

Así la piel se les fue endureciendo
y el corazón se les achicó
y se les hizo tan remoto
que lo colgaron de una rama filuda
y lo escuchaban latir muy de vez en cuando.


Cardboard Sun

They say some men went blind
from looking at the light
thinking it came from themselves.

The greatest secret they kept
in their vacant pupils was
that they thought themselves great lords,
and were skilful adulterers
and indiscriminate abusers.
They respected their own wisdom and felt sagacious
and contrived the great difference.
They gave woman the place
that fell to her
in their cosmogony
and kept busy covering each other’s ass
while they carried out justice or preached.

They created ranks for vassals
and celebrated with great pomp
that everything was now beneath them
and kept close guard over all.

Thus their skin became thicker
and their hearts grew smaller
and became so remote
that they hung them from sharp branches
and only occasionally listened to their beat.



Te negaban la cima
donde se propaga la raíz del fuego, mujer,
tu boca abierta, clandestinamente sellada
por la rosa violada del idioma,
EEEEEEsufría la cópula con la desnudez del círculo,
EEEEEEramalazos de frío entubando calles.
Derribaban tu voz de firmamento de alas
EEEEEEescapando de pupilas transparentes:
pero ahora sabes que el idioma también puede disfrazar palabras,
obligarte a la mudez.

Por eso transformas la montaña con tu sed de ruptura,
te eriges como la fuente que proclama
la copiosa vertiente del acorde.
Penetrando el vuelo de la noche
enroscas tu voluntad al centro de la vida.

Tu pasión coral exige conciencia de destino,
resonancia del silencio.

Con el caprichoso alfabeto fecundizas, mujer,
la vocación de abrazo que tiene la palabra.



They denied you the summit
where the root of fire spreads, woman,
your open mouth, clandestinely sealed
by the raped rose of language,
EEEEEEsuffered copulation with the circle’s nakedness,
EEEEEEgusts of cold channelled by streets.
They cut down your voice of winged firmament
EEEEEEspringing from transparent pupils:
but now you know that language can also disguise words
and force you to be mute.

That’s why you transform the mountain
with your thirst for breaking away,
establishing yourself as the fountain proclaiming
the abundant slope of harmony.
Penetrating the night’s flight,
you curl up your will in the centre of life.

Your coral-coloured passion demands awareness of destiny,
resonance of silence.

Woman, with your capricious alphabet you fertilize
the word’s vocation to embrace.

—Nela Rio; Translated by Sophie M. Lavoie & Hugh Hazelton

sophie lavoie prince rupert cropped

Sophie M. Lavoie conducts research in the areas of women’s writing and social change in Central America and the Caribbean. Her studies focus on women in contemporary Nicaragua during the first Sandinista era (1970-1990), but she is also interested in other revolutionary movements in the area, such as Cuba and El Salvador and in women’s writing in Latin America. Her current research project focuses on the link between women’s writing, empowerment, and revolutionary action during the Sandinista era in Nicaragua. She has published articles in Canadian Women’s Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Pandora, Centroamericana, Cahiers d’Études Romanes and Descant. She is Associate Professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, NB where she teaches Spanish and Latin American Cinema.


Hugh Hazelton reading

Hugh Hazelton is a writer, translator, and retired professor from Concordia University who has run The Banff Centre’s International Literary Translation Centre programme for years. Hazelton is author of a number of translations and was awarded the Governor General’s Award for Literary Translation in 2006 for his English translation of Joel DesRosiers’s Vétiver. He is the author of Latinocanadá, A Critical Study of Ten Latin American Writers of Canada. El Laberinto vertical/Vertical Labyrinth is Hazelton’s first collaborative translation.


Jun 032014
jose_luis_sampedro bw

José Luis Sampedro © José Aymá via Komunikis

La Vieja Sirena (The Old Mermaid) is a novel by José Luis Sampedro first published in Spanish in 1990. It is the second title in Sampedro’s trilogy Los círculos de tiempo (Circles of Time) which also includes Octubre, Octubre (October, October) (1981) and Real Sitio (Seat of Power) (1993).

As the novel’s epigraph from William Blake states: Eternity is in love with the productions of time. So is Sampedro, whose colorful, skillfully layered drama set in ancient Alexandria, Egypt, in the third century A.D., follows three principal characters: the mysterious and exquisitely beautiful slave Irenia; a power-hungry businessman named Ahram; and Krito, a philosopher employed by Ahram, who experiences the classic blessing and curse of Tiresias as he alternately experiences life as both a man and a woman. The story which then unfolds is one of the complex attractions between these three characters, interpolated with the Irenia’s memories from her life before Alexandria.

The novel’s opening pages present a compelling variety of voices and perspectives: the narrator setting the scene in the ancient Alexandrian marketplace with its delightful cornucopia of wares, and describing the formal transaction between the haughty Amoptis, scribe and son-in-law to Ahram, and the cringing slave dealer who sells him Irenia. Then Amoptis’s cold, selfish, scheming thoughts, governed primarily by ambition and fear. In the final third of the selection, we see life through the eyes of Irenia herself, and how, in this ancient, hierarchical world, her lovely internal monologue introduces the cipher of love as a response to royal pomp and power’s brutal indifference.

One work that The Old Mermaid especially recalls is Flaubert’s great historical fantasia Salammbô (set in ancient Carthage). Sampedro’s novel works a tangible magic with its ability to transport the modern reader to a time and place usually depicted on the plane of relics, tombs, silent hieroglyphics; instead we experience a drama fraught with personal anxiety and wonder at the teeming variety of life and its astonishing experiences.

—Brendan Riley



Part I. The Slave (257 A.D.)

Eternity is in love with the productions of Time
William Blake

Chapter 1. The Land of the Gods

During the warm morning of the Egyptian spring, the summer already close at hand, the market of the third days in Canopus is a continuous vibration of light, color, and voices. The air is riddled with a heady mix of intensely pungent smells and the cries of the merchants who hawk their wares while seated on mats of woven papyrus. Make way! Make way! come the constant shouts of those trying to move through the throng, more densely crowded today because many farmers have harvested their crops and are enjoying the free time imposed by the annual flood which will soon be announced from the great southern Nilometer on Elephantine Island. Some seek care at the hands of the barber surgeon, some pass the time playing the serpent game, while others stop and visit the quack doctor with his magical herbs for cases of love or sickness. Because they are happy, they also permit themselves the luxury of buying barley water from the water vendor who advertises the drink with the jingling of his bells. At last, the plague of the tax assessors has left their fields, the scribes who monitored their reaping like eager crows, estimating first hand the taxes payable on demand for the ripe grain.

Towards midday, farmers and merchants go about packing up their stalls and stands. The smells –sweet or pungent, fermented or aromatic– intensify as the goods and produce are moved about: fava beans, lentils, smoked delta fish, meats and viscera, small sycamore figs alongside the very juiciest figs from true fig trees, dates, pistachios, snails, wild honey gathered in the Nubian oases, sesame, garlic, and so many more, inedible, objects: goatskins, flax, hides, tools, firewood, coal, farming implements, sandals and sun hats woven from papyrus. The plaza empties out, but on the adjacent streets and alleys small shops with more select merchandise remain open: silks and transparent linens suitable for pleating, goldsmiths and other artisans of fine metals, silver and lapis lazuli from the Sinai, imported amber and cosmetics, amulets, perfumes, wigs for men or women, and belts in the latest style. Coming down along one of these streets, the one that descends from the hill crowned by the exalted temple of Serapis, is a rider mounted on an ass whose height and lustrous coat reflect the quality of his personage: a mature man with a clear complexion, small shrewd eyes, and slender lips. From time to time, he checks the correct position of his black wig. One slave opens the way for his mount and another walks at his side, carrying his lord’s staff and sandals; three porters follow behind with bundles of goods acquired in the market.

The rider’s smile indicates pleasant thoughts. Certainly, the words heard in the temple could not have been more promising, dispelling his fears that the new Father of the Mysteries might not grant him the same protection as his recently deceased predecessor. The priestly community thinks in the long term and has not altered its expected plans in defense of the divine interests; nor has it forgotten the services rendered by the rider ever since he was a young scribe in the temple.

“Be patient, my son” the Father has said, “time labors for Heaven. The sacrilegious plundering of the lands of Tanuris, perpetrated by the emperor Caracalla forty-two years ago, will be corrected with your help. Serapis will recover that property and you will no longer be solely the majordomo of your impious patron, but the administrator for life of that estate in the name of the temple.” The rider will command in Tanuris. He will eventually build for himself, on the hilltop overlooking the canal, a tomb with a beautiful sarcophagus, one worthy of a scribe born of the priestly caste, where he will live on in the world of Osiris. His mind delights in contemplating the means necessary for hastening the recovery process, and he does not omit the possibilities of his daughter Yazila who, though barely ten years old, already promises to become a maiden of highly desirable charms. If he manages to get the young master to notice her…!

Meanwhile the slave guide has brought the retinue out of the market district, leading it toward the banks of the Alexandria canal, an area of concentration for the delightful activities that have made Canopus one of the most luxurious spas and pleasure centers in all Egypt. From the small riverside pavilions and pleasure houses and from the colorfully decorated party ships comes the ringing of cymbals, the rhythm of hand drums, and the melody of cithers and flutes. Some barges transport tourists from Alexandria but the majority belong to rich financiers and high society families whose names appear in the street satires or in the erotic epigrams scrawled by night upon certain walls in the capital.

As one additional public service this quarter sports one of the best slave markets, specializing in youths of both sexes trainable for pleasure. The master rises hastily from his shady seat on the porch as he recognizes a regular buyer: the grand majordomo of the House of Tanuris, property of Ahram the Navigator, inhabited by his son-in-law Neferhotep. The rider halts his mount. He condescends to hear the merchant’s flattery but impatiently dismisses how the man sings the praises of his merchandise because he has no intention of making a purchase. The salesman insists:
“At least come to have a look, noble Amoptis. I have an authentic rarity on hand, something never before seen. If this were not true, how could I have dared to detain you?”

In response to a gesture from the rider, his staff bearer hastens to kneel down, placing the sandals alongside the ass. He helps his master to dismount and put them on his feet. Then, handing him his staff, he follows him along the portico to the patio where he then stands waiting for Amoptis to return.

In a room apart from the communal chambers, a woman is lying upon a stone bench set into the wall, covered with a woven mat of rushes. She sits up as she notices the entrance of a possible buyer and, with customary indifference, lets fall to her feet the robe which covers her. Filtering through the latticework blind, the oblique rays of the sun turn her smooth white shapely hips gold. Nevertheless, she fails to provoke the visitor’s interest, for the reason that Amoptis prefers androgynous physiques over her slender body with its erect, high-set breasts whose arrogance resides more in their predictable density than in their volume. Besides, her flesh is not young: she is more than twenty years old, and thus the majordomo is sorry for having entered. He looks reproachfully at the old salesman. But this is what the man was expecting, and without a single word of excuse, he smiles craftily and pulls away the veil covering the woman’s face.

All at once an incredible cascade spills down to her naked shoulders, framing her face with a golden clarity very much like the shine of freshly cut copper. She is not one of those redheads frowned upon by Egyptian superstition: her living mane of silk, which writhes in long waves with her every movement like a gently swelling sea, has the deep, strong, sweet blonde color of ancient amber or fresh honey. Fascinated, Amoptis approaches and caresses the wondrous hair with a trembling hand while the woman remains indifferent. For the first time he contemplates the feminine face: he is astonished by her eyes—somewhere between green and grey—that make him feel guilty of insolence although they do not even deign to look at him. No, they do not see him. Distant from everything as if she were alone, the woman offers his masculine contemplation a figure that now seems marvelous: the discreet fullness of her lips, the delicate nose, the slender neck set upon well-rounded shoulders, the lightly pointed plum-colored nipples, the smooth line of her belly and the perfection of the navel, the tender pubis, and the long full statuesque legs with impeccable knees. As is normal in such transactions, Amoptis might wish to test with his own finger to see if the woman is a virgin, but inexplicably intimidated he suddenly turns his back on the slave and walks towards the door. The astonished salesman follows and closes the door behind him.

“Is your nobleness displeased?”

“At her age I suppose she’s not likely to be a virgin.”

The slave dealer gives a helpless shrug: “If she were, and young, too, she would have it all. But, my lord, that head of hair! I’ve never seen another like it in my life!”

Amoptis acknowledges it, and in that instant conceives of an idea that can win him greater influence over his wife, as well as—although he does not admit it to himself—free himself from his ridiculous inhibition before a mere slave. Such an absurd sentiment for the Grand Majordomo of Neferhotep, son-in-law of Ahram the Navigator, thanks to whose influence he is a member of the Municipal Council of Alexandria!
Amoptis opens the negotiation disdainfully.

“She’s not really worth a great deal. The only thing valuable to me is her hair. If you would sell me just that I would leave you the body.”

And as the salesman looks at him strangely, he concludes:
“So I could offer a wig to my wife. She would take delight in dazzling the ladies of Alexandria with it.”

With the price finally agreed upon—not very high because the salesman has had to admit that she is already twenty-three years old and a Christian terrorist—Amoptis reenters the room, where the woman gets to her feet, guessing the outcome.

“Be content: you are fortunate in your new master,” begins the salesman, “none less than the powerful Ahram…”
Amoptis silences him with a gesture and orders the woman to disrobe.

“Turn around and bend over,” he orders imperiously, thus discovering the harmony of the female back, covered almost to the waist by her hair.

The woman obeys, holding herself at a right angle, with her hands on her knees. Amoptis approaches her suggestive buttocks, and with humiliating brutality thrusts his hand between her legs, forcing them apart. Apparently he is simply following custom but in reality he exercises a vengeance for having felt intimidated before her. Although to do so, he has to touch those impure folds of female flesh, hardly attractive to one who was initiated into sex through the virile adolescent backsides of temple choirboys. Amoptis then orders the slave to dress and forbids her to uncover her hair unless he orders it: he wants to surprise his wife.

“Where are you from?” he asks in Egyptian.

“From the island of Psyra, sir,” she responds, also in Egyptian, though clumsily. Her voice is seductive without trying to be.

“Your name?” continues Amoptis in Greek, proud of his learning.

“Lately they have called me Irenia,” responds the slave. An imperceptible stab of pain wounds her heart as she remembers when she joined the wandering Christians that it was Domicia who gave her that name which means peace.

As he pays for his purchase, Amoptis orders some papyrus sandals to be brought for the slave. With an hour’s journey to Tanuris he does not wish to ruin the delicate feet that add value to his merchandise.
Upon arriving to the villa, Amoptis considers that it has gotten too late to show off his discovery. To ensure the surprise he orders them to take the slave to his own room, spread out a mat for her, and serve her food. And so when, with other obligations accomplished, he ascends to his chambers, he finds the woman there. He would prefer to be alone but decides to take advantage of her presence to have her remove his shoes and wash his feet with natron water, first ordering her to uncover her amazing hair.

Lost in thought, he lets her work. As she caresses his feet in the washbowl he suddenly notices that her feminine gestures are singularly soft and delicate. Leaning forward he studies the pair of delicate hands encircling his ankles. They lack the roughness of one who has run with a band of terrorists. Each movement of her bowed head makes her hair ripple and expand. Amoptis runs his fingers across that silk and feels an almost forgotten desire beating in his old veins. Meanwhile she has finished drying his feet and removes the vessel.

“You’re skillful. Are you trained in the arts of massage?”

“I have practiced them, my lord.”

The man stands and orders her to help him undress, then he stretches himself out face down on the bed, displaying a scribe’s narrow back with the spine slightly crooked, flaccid buttocks, and thin legs with knotty knees. He indicates a flask of oil on the shelf. Her feminine hands begin to caress, prod, and stimulate his lean flesh. The man sighs, pensive: Who would have imagined…that this happen to me, at my age…? If my little Yazila could learn these massages, I’m sure that the master would take delight in her flexible body, in her cinnamon skin…I will manage it, she will have to help me…ah, this woman, this woman! So cold, and knowing so much! Softly skinning me alive, removing my skin to go deeper inside…Where could she have…

“Have you ever worked in brothels? Don’t lie!”

The woman looks at him stupefied. Why would she have to lie?

“In Byzantium, my lord.”

Byzantium…they say that the pleasures there…I’m sure that…He suddenly turns over and before thinking about it, his body orders his voice:
“Suck me!”

The slave does not reply. Already kneeling, she lowers her head over his groin and her mouth knowingly begins to caress his circumcised member as her hair brushes against his half-opened thighs… Slow, slowly… The man sighs, pants, trembles, feels delight… His body feels disconnected, dispersed, liquid: he has never known such feverish dissolution… The woman returns to the alcove for the washbowl, returns with it, and carefully washes his shrinking member.

“Put out the lamp,” orders the man at last, “but leave that candle burning.”

Amoptis closes his eyes, not so much to fall asleep as to make her, and the confusion she causes him, disappear. He is always so self-assured! How is it that this woman who seemed to be ignoring him has driven him to such distraction? He begins to wonder if he has not perhaps brought some evil creature into his house. Suddenly he is frightened to recall that, as rumor has it, the carriers of the strange plague which has lately flared up, thrive among those who live badly. The very next morning, once her hair is shorn, he will consign her to the kitchens. No, to the stables, where he will not even see her, where she will pose no risk to anyone. Instinctively he raises his hand to his sex, as if to protect it, and begins to mutter the charm to appease Sekhmet, the powerful, the destroyer.

Thus was purchased the slave Irenia for the exalted Lord Neferhotep of the House of Tanuris in the first days of May in the year 1010 from the foundation of Rome, quarter of the reign of Caesar Gaius Publius Licinius Valerian, in the month which the Egyptian scribes call Mesore and the people know as the season of Fourth of Shemu, before which the tears of Isis, away in the remote south, cause the rising of the Nile and its flooding across the millenary land of the pharaohs.

* * *

What’s happening to me? What is it that affects me so? That pompous personage who has purchased me and who still lies awake, unable to sleep, must be thinking perhaps that the thought of him, or my other news masters, keeps me awake; but that is not the reason, it is really everything that has happened since they brought me to this land, Egypt… Barely three weeks since I arrived here and only from watching along the road, listening on the patio, of eating differently, of smelling the air and feeling the night, I am enveloped in a world I never imagined… Egypt! Before it was only a name to me, like Syria, Armenia, Sogdiana, Cyrenaica… When we traveled with Uruk, Fakumit amazed me with her greatness, she spoke to me about her gods, I had to learn something of his language to understand her, according to her there was no finer land, no greater empire, it sounded like her nostalgic exaggerations, but it was true, this is a different world, what a flood of lives and mysteries! I’m continually amazed, though nothing in life matters to me any more, though I expect nothing, I am drawn by this abundance, which must be how the world was when it was newly created, full, overflowing, giving birth every moment to waters, beings, gods, just yesterday, emerging from the house of slaves, in the corner of the patio, that hyacinth, the day before yesterday it was not there, sprouting in a single night, with its tender arrogance, fragile and powerful, its stem, its flowers, its slender leaves, launching its perfume like a cock crowing, the day before yesterday it was not there, this land never sleeps, giving birth to lotuses, crocodiles, papyrus, ibises, birds, palm trees, serpents, bulls, hippopotamuses, and the dazzling greenery, even here in this town by the sea, everything roiling with heat, the palm fronds, the shimmering air, this world overwhelms me, penetrates me, engenderer, multiplier, waster of lives, what a contrast to Cyrenaica! Not only that prison, with its sweating clay walls, its swill and filth, even free at the oasis everything was precarious, palm trees besieged by the sand, water in a puddle or enclosed in a well, a few scanty oleanders alongside the dry avenue, while here there are wide flowing canals and the arms of the delta, Egypt creating lives, as well as all its many gods, Sobek the sacred crocodile, Bast the cat, Udjit the cobra, Hapi the Nile River, Nefertum the lotus, Hathor, mother of Osiris… No, his daughter, I’m mistaken, Seth who is both good and bad, all divine, the water, the wheat, the beer, because everything gives life, “Life” is the key word, thus so much hope, here the people smile though they are naked and without possessions, and even the dead live on in their tombs, it is only I without a soul, how do I go on living after my disaster, she died in the amphitheater but the morays did not devour me, Domicia’s death killed me, too, I hear her voice everywhere in the silence, right now, that whispering, her wisdom in the serenity, and her hand, her hand, no one ever caressed me like that, not Narsus on the island, no man in Byzantium, nor in the harem, no, not even Uruk, he was something else, but Domicia’s hand was a dark heat, endless friction, burning but quenchable fire, no one else like that, none remembered nor forgotten, she smiled at my ecstasy, and explained it like this: “No man understands a woman’s flesh, only another woman.” She knew that I felt it, feeling with me at the same time, how she created pleasure, how her fingers and her tongue set me on fire! It was a world of women although there were also men following the Mother, I had already heard talk of Christ, when Uruk took me down the Oronotes past Antioch, I remember well, but they said that the Messiah was really a woman, that his masculine garb was only a disguise, the so-called Christ was born a girl, with a girl’s body and a girl’s soul, raised as a woman, that new goddess attracted me, and Domicia’s love had a hold on me, her absolute certainty, she lived safely removed from everything, and so she raised me to a new height, different from a man, I will no longer enjoy such moments, the revelation of life, the soul breaking free, once they were simply passions, caresses or excitations, hidden places in the flesh, but Domicia was the mistress of everything, including the spirit. Oh, how she began to show me! Writing! Words of Latin between her kisses! The geometry of the flesh! She had studied in Syracuse, she was from a rich family, that explained why she was a deaconess to the Mother. I’m dead without her! She was everything! It’s a devastating memory, the emptiness torments me, missing her lips on my sex, on my nipples, my own hands trying to imitate her are no replacement, I can’t recall, can’t remember, but impossible to forget her, I carry her in my skin, since her hand touched me, laying it on my arm, in that shadowy dungeon, her caressing voice, “Will you tell me your sorrows, my sister?” I groaned for Uruk, months had gone by and I was till crying for him, it was the first time she called me sister, me: born without anyone, her inexplicable appearance on a beach, she brought me to the clear light at the tiny window, I noticed on her cheek the purple welt, a whip had lashed her face, but in her eyes the serenity, immutable, her certainty in the faith, I confided, for the first time, I was able to speak to someone about Uruk murdered before my eyes, I transferred to her my desperation, and since then we were never apart, her peace flooded into me, she showed me that a woman’s love is not found in the games of a brothel and harem, but in putting the soul into the flesh, and the flesh into the soul, she pulled me out of my sorrow, without making me forget about Uruk because she embraced him, too, she had known a man’s love before, she could understand me. Why do I remember if it pains me so? Our embraces in the night, the oasis, dark island of silver moonlight on the sands, our walks together holding hands, envious but also admiring, and censured, by the men of the group especially, lusting after the two of us, I know that I saddened the deacon, he was in love with me without confessing it, I might have been his, she would have understood it, but he denied it to himself, he loved me from afar, only for the sake of faith, for salvation in the next life, which I reject! Impossible to understand him, although perhaps the secret in his past, perhaps the way I am now indifferent to everything, Domicia’s death ended my world, she changed my name, another name in my life, like reincarnations, but this time the last one, I am finished, I would have preferred to have cut my hair right there, before her body pierced with arrows, the hair she adored, so many times sliding over her calves, her breasts, her buttocks, pleasure that gave me chills, but they stopped me from doing it, it makes me more valuable, after the morays devoured me they would have cut it off to sell it, like this old man, sure, it’s what he has thought, what does it matter, nothing matters to me at all, and nevertheless, my world also sank when they killed Uruk, also before, when my poor daughter, my little Nira, knifed by the pirates, destroyers of my life, but I go on living. Life is so resistant! How life maintains its grip on us! And especially here in Egypt, an anthill of beings, fertilized by the Nile… Nothing matters to me at all, but I didn’t kill myself, as easy as it was, how strong is the blood against sorrow! Will everything be repeated? It seems to me impossible, then, why do I go on breathing amid this choking distress? A tormented panting but I go on, unable to forget those hours, that eternity by Domicia’s side, in the Church of the Divine Mother, among the femmes as they called us…

—José Luis Sampedro Sáez; translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley

 CapturePhoto by Gonzalo Cruz via

José Luis Sampedro Sáez was born in Barcelona, Spain in 1917. He led an extraordinarily active and productive life, pursuing a dual career as economist and novelist. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) he joined the Republican forces and spent the war in Melilla, Catalonia, Guadalajara, and Huete, in Cuenca. Following the war he worked as a customs agent in Melilla, and later studied Economics in Madrid. In 1948 he joined the research team for the Banco Exterior de España and in 1951 became an advisor in the Spanish Ministry of Trade. Throughout his long career he published ten books on economics as well as a dozen novels and assorted other volumes, including collections of short stories and essays. In 1990 he was elected as a member of the Real Academia Española, and in 2011 he was awarded the National Prize for Spanish Literature. He was known for as an advocate for human rights and ethical economic practices. Sampedro died in Madrid, in 2013, at the age of 96.

 Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

May 082014

A. AnupamaA. Anupama

A. Anupama, one of our regular contributors, dusts off her translating skills, bringing us hilariously sexy, curiously modern couplets from the classic Tirikkural, a vast book of over a thousand rhyming couplets written in ancient Tamil and dating from about 2,000 years ago. They run the gamut from agricultural advice to law to flirting couples (the most charming).

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

A. Anupama gives us a rare glimpse into this ancient world, also providing us with a brief gloss on the difficulties of translation and her modus operandi, plus, joy of joys, some sound files with the original Tamil verse (beautiful liquid sounds) and the English translation.

This is not her first translation effort. See also her “Poems from Kuruntokai” and “Sweet to my heart | Translations of Tamil Love Poems.”




Tirukkural is a collection of 1,330 rhyming couplets (called kural) written by the Tamil poet-saint Tiruvalluvar perhaps around 30 BC (dating is vague). The verses were meant as a comprehensive portrait of Tamil culture, a description but also an epigrammatic guidebook in verse to the formulas of this south Indian civilization. The poems cover every aspect of society and right living from the conduct of kings to the sowing of fields, from aspects of ascetic virtue to the intricacies of lovers’ quarrels, and from the art of friendship to dire warnings against vice.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?

The couplets are organized into chapters of ten each, and the entire work is divided into three sections, Virtue, Wealth, and Love. Tirukkural differs from other classical Indian philosophical literature (e.g., the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) by not including the fourth section of traditional teaching on spiritual release. Tirukkural emphasizes domestic life over ascetic or religious practice.


The colossal statue of Tiruvalluvar built on a small islet at the meeting of the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea, just offshore from the town of Kanyakumari at the southern tip of India, represents the poet’s legendary status. Designed by sculptor V. Ganapati Sthapati, this granite monument stands 133 feet high, representing the 133 chapters of Tirukkural. The height of the statue’s base, at 38 feet, represents the 38 chapters of the first section, Virtue, symbolically setting the foundation of the other two sections, Wealth and Love. The poet is depicted holding up three fingers, a stylized and definitive gesture of Tirukkural’s three sections.

According to tradition, Tiruvalluvar lived in about the first century BCE (though estimates vary by a few hundred years) and was a weaver from Mylapore, near present-day Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu. The Tamil culture and language are the oldest of Dravidian heritage, originating in the southern tip of India.

Tamil Nadu

Tamil is the oldest living language in the world, with a rich classical literary history. Tiruvalluvar’s work dates from the period of the classical Cankam, a famous gathering of poets, scholars, and sages in the ancient city of Madurai. His poetic couplets are the shortest verse form in Tamil literature, and his work was known and referred to by the writers of classical Tamil epics like Cilappatikaram and Manimekhalai.

If you search YouTube for “kural recitation,” you’ll find videos of young schoolchildren reciting memorized couplets, sometimes with a little prompting, but mostly with ease and confidence. The boy in this video recited chapter 40 from Tirukkural, a set of ten couplets on learning.

On the other hand, centuries of erudite commentary on Tirukkural have revealed its subtlety, and its influence on modern thinkers and writers has been significant. Leo Tolstoy quoted several couplets from it in a letter to an editor at Free Hindustan, a letter that was later translated into Gujarati and published by M.K. Gandhi. Albert Schweitzer said about Tirukkural, “There hardly exists in the literature of the world a collection of maxims in which we find so much of lofty wisdom.”

I couldn’t find a tougher or more rewarding translation challenge than this. Arthur Schopenhauer in his essay “On Language and Words” remarked, “Take translations of authors from antiquity: they are as obvious a surrogate as chicory for coffee. Poems cannot be translated; they can only be transposed, and that is always awkward.”[1] W.S. Merwin in the prologue to his collection Selected Translations, cites advice he received from Ezra Pound: “He spoke of the value of translation as a means of continually sharpening a writer’s awareness of the possibilities of his own language… Pound also urged—at that point and to me, at least—the greatest possible fidelity to the original, including its sounds.”[2] Tirukkural is a particular gift to the translator because in addition to offering fresh mental vistas, it invites one to stricter attention through the voice and the ear.

The couplets, like most proverbs, are designed to be easy to remember and repeat: the alliterative and assonant strength of the compositions aids memory, and tight line-length keeps each verse within a single breath. These same qualities make the couplets difficult to translate, requiring the translator to create equivalencies in sound and sense in a very tight space. Kural 12 showed me quickly how impossible it might be to honor the sound of the original. “Living” sounds nothing like “thupakith,” and yet, the poem in English requires the repetitive transformation of the single word for the purpose of the poem’s sense. The Tamil “Thupaarkuth thupaaya thupaakith thupaarkuth thupaaya” turns into “living,” “live,” “life-giving,” and “life” in my translation.

Still, I found that evoking the original’s sound was possible in many places, with some effort and luck. For example in Kural 18, the “s” sounds in the first line and the “v” sounds in the second line were reproducible, though they lack the alliterative effect of the original. In Kural 20, I added the words “nearness” and “farthest” at the beginnings of the lines to mimic the sounds of the Tamil words “neerindru” and “vaanindru,” which altered the sense only slightly by emphasizing the nuance of distance in the poem’s imagery.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.

Word order and integrity of the poetic line are another challenge, because Tamil syntax runs in the opposite direction from English. Subject-verb-object in English often translates to object-verb-subject in Tamil, and even prepositions become postpositions. Sometimes, I could maintain word order, as in Kural 19: “Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world, / sky unyielding.” In Kural 20, however, I had to flip word order for sense, translating the two phrases “all worldly work ends” and “all natures end” exactly inverted. The rest of the word order, as well as the couplet’s line integrity, I carefully maintained.

I learned my method of line-by-line translation in Richard Jackson’s translation workshop at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the summer of 2011 when Patty Crane showed us her work translating poems by Tomas Tranströmer. For each line of poetry, I add directly underneath it a literal translation, maintaining the syntax of the original. Alternative word choices are included in this step. Then, directly under that is a first draft of my literary translation of the line. I continue in this way, adding lines for each line of the original poem. I keep everything, every attempt to translate stays in the document. If the lines of poetry get too far away from each other in the process to look at on the computer screen, I copy and paste what I want to work with on a new page in the same document.

Kural 11 in Tamil

Kural 12 in Tamil


In this work with Tirukkural and in my previous translations from Kuruntokai, I relied on my co-translator B. Jeyaganesh for literal translations and recorded readings of the original poems. B. Jeyaganesh is a native speaker of Tamil, the son of a scholar with a Tamil PhD, and a fellow self-described non-expert in this classical literature. For this selection from Tirukkural, we spent over three hours coming up with alternative word choices in English and discussing the relative emphasis of words in the couplets. I listened to the recording over and over to gain a familiarity with the poems’ sounds. I used the recordings again to check my work, often reading my drafts aloud for comparison. Another helpful tool was an English transliteration of the full text online along with the original Tamil and the classic translation by Rev. Dr. G.U. Pope from 1886.

Palm-leaf manuscript

I chose this particular set of couplets to translate (the second chapter and the penultimate chapter) from Tirukkural partly to keep this first try easy for me and easy for a reader unfamiliar with this work. The poet intended these very specific moral edicts and proverb-like statements for people living in a certain cultural and philosophical context, making translation for a contemporary reader in English difficult. The universality of the need for rain and of quarrels between lovers is obvious, and I found this a generous place to begin. My idea was to bracket the work as a whole, but also to bring its didactic verse and its elegant love poetry close together in this small set. The couplets in the third section on love are beautiful, witty, and very different from those in the preceding chapters. In words, sounds, and imagery, however, the thread of the work from beginning to end is wonderfully consistent. The recent drought in South India, and its continuing effects in the region, also inspired me to bring this poetry off my shelf and to translate the chapter on rain.

Tiruvalluvar statue and Vivekananda memorialPhoto by Bennet Anand

In two instances in these couplets, I departed slightly from the literal meaning in order to evoke the sense of the whole work. In couplet 17, my eco-poetic commentary in the addition of “those who don’t give from within” reflects Tirukkural’s moral standard of generosity and right action, as in Kural 211: “Duty expects not anything in return / just as rain expects none.”[3] The literal translation of the line is roughly “gives not, if that’s the state of things.” The state of things today is marked by the urgency of eco-conscious moral imperatives. I found in this a beautiful opportunity to investigate how Tirukkural in translation might evolve in order to retain its original function, which was to describe the cultural, ethical ideal. My initial idea for the change in this line, however, came from the poem’s sound: the end-word “vitin” sounds like my “within.”

My second departure from the literal translation is in Kural 1323, the couplet taken from the last chapter of Tirukkural. My version ends “with earth and water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart,” while the literal includes no mention of a clay water vessel. My addition of the object attempts to bridge the distance between that specific culture and universal understanding. While this image would hover in the subconscious mind of a Tamil reader 2000 years ago and offer another level of mystery to the poem, a contemporary reader from another culture might miss it.

These departures from the literal in my translation are experiments based on an essay by David Damrosch, titled “Translation and World Literature.”[4] In writing about the problem of translating one of the oldest known lyric poems—an Egyptian poem inscribed in 1160 BCE—he observes, “Some literary works, indeed, may be so closely dependent on detailed culture-specific knowledge that they can only be meaningful to members of the originating culture or to specialists in that culture; these are works that remain within the sphere of a national literature and never achieve an effective life in world literature.” In regard to the Egyptian word mss in that poem, which has been variously translated as tunic, dress, loincloth, and clothing, he writes,

…however mss may be translated, most readers will be unable to visualize the ancient garment in all its authentic particularity. Yet as long as the translation doesn’t impose a wholesale modernization, we won’t assimilate the mss directly to our modern experience, as we remain aware that we’re reading an ancient poem: whatever we think a mss is, we won’t envision it as a Gore-Tex windbreaker, though this might be a modern equivalent of the original item. All the same, we can never hold the poem entirely away from our own experience, nor should we. As we read, we triangulate not only between ancient and modern worlds but also between general and personal meanings: however the mss is translated, different readers will visualize it very differently, and this variability helps the poem to resonate with memories from the reader’s own life. (Italics mine.)

In my translation, adding the material object of a water vessel creates a specific resonance and aids the reader’s associations within the ancient world of the poem. Adding the phrase “or if by those who don’t give from within” aids the reader’s associations in the modern world, simultaneously awakening moral consciousness, which is the original objective of Tirukkural. Though I initially felt awkward treating translation as a sort of geometry problem, I felt that the result brought me closer to the text. The availability of many complete translations of Tirukkural also lessened my concern over maintaining literal exactitude in every line. I hope that my work inspires more readers to take a close look at this ancient literary treasure.

—A. Anupama


Translations from Tirukkural


Chapter 2: On the excellence of rain

The sky, so distant, gives to our living world
rain, its own self, living essence.

The living live by the life-giving gift of the seed of life itself:
nourishment spraying down, this rain.

The sky, yielding no rain in spite of these steep surrounding seas,
will bite you from inside your hunger.


The plow won’t plow if the farmer’s awaited downpours, which sow
and grow their wealth, ebb.

Drought’s devastation crushes lives and brings ruin, while its reverse is
restoration in rain.

The sky’s quell of falling raindrops upsets
the lush grass, whose heads will then hide from sight.


The enormous sea, voluminous and teeming, will diminish if not diminished by clouds,
or if by those who don’t give from within.


Grand rituals and extravagant offerings will end if the sky is
rain void, serving the little gods no festivals.

Charity and penance, twins, make their exit from our world,
sky unyielding.

Nearness of rain—without which all worldly work ends, whomever you are.
Farthest skies—without which all natures end.


Chapter 132: On pretending to sulk


Women’s eyes savor your every line,
but mine won’t embrace your broad chest.

Our silent spat dragged on, so he sneezed on purpose, so that I would say
“bless you.” So he thought.


A whole branch of blossoms for a garland, and you accuse me of wearing it to catch another woman’s glance,
showing off how I’m dressed.

I love you more than anyone, I said. She sulked,
demanding more than whom, whom!


In this life, we will never be apart, I said.
Eyefuls of tears, she replied.

I thought about you, I said. Then sometimes, you forgot, she reminded,
keeping out of my arms, pretending to be peeved.

She blessed me when I sneezed, then altered, asking
Who thought about you to make you sneeze?

My next sneeze I quelled, but she cried, someone is thinking of you,
I know, you’re hiding it from me.

She spurned all my assurances, imagining the other women for whom
I’ve offered the same.

I gaze at her, admiring her every line, while she scowls
with whom do you compare me, staring like that?


from Chapter 133: On the pleasures of lovers’ quarrels

Inside this lyric sulk, a heaven nears, with earth and
water inseparable as in a clay vessel: the water drum of the heart.

—A. Anupama


A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, Fourteen Hills, and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Schopenhauer, Arthur. Peter Mollenhauer, transl. “On Language and Words,” in Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida. Rainer Schulte and John Biguenet, eds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
  2. Merwin, W.S. Selected Translations. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2013.
  3. Rajaram, M., transl. Thirukkural, Pearls of Wisdom. New Delhi: Rupa Publications, 2009.
  4. Damrosch, David. Translation and World Literature: Love in the Necropolis,” in The Translation Studies Reader, third edition, Lawrence Venuti, ed. New York: Routledge, 2012.
May 042014

CaptureGiulio Mozzi via

“I read Giulio Mozzi’s first book with real enthusiasm. What struck me most was his everyday language. Even when his subjects rely on metaphor, his words are plain, and so turn mysterious.”
—Federico Fellini

Giulio Mozzi’s This Is the Garden is an astonishing debut short story collection that English readers can now enjoy thanks to Open Letter Books. First published in 1993 (and winner of the Premio Mondello) and translated this year by Elizabeth Harris, these short stories all play in some way in the garden of the mind, the sandbox of introspection. Reminiscent of the work of Borges and Kafka, Mozzi’s psychologically acute, trenchant prose explores the self-conscious idiosyncrasies of the troubled mind. 

The story below is “Claw,” in which Mozzi imagines the later years of Yanez, the right-hand man of well-known Italian fictional pirate Sandokan. The once-infamous Yanez, known as the Tiger’s white brother, has now for years sat peacefully in his small, square, and white house, relying for subsistence and cigarettes on the daily visit of a woman from the nearby village. He sits in his small, square, and white house, smoking his cigarettes and looking meditative—but we do not believe he is meditating. The villagers react to the arrival of their “first real Englishman,” a threatening missionary who claims to be a saint sent by God. The villagers wonder how their own outsider Yanez will react. You can read my review of This Is the Garden by clicking here.

—Tom Faure




he house is small, square, and white. The roof is flat. The door, centered on the eastern side, is just a curtain with red and yellow flowers. The other sides have one square window, also centered. There’s no glass in the windows, just yellowing, loosely woven cotton rags nailed to the wood like mosquito netting. The house sits on a slight rise in the middle of the plain, and anyone looking out the windows could see a long way. Down the slope from the door, there’s a water pump. A leather razor strop hangs from a couple of nails in the pump’s wooden handle. A small washboard rests against the pump. The house has just one room. A hundred feet to the west, there’s a small shack for bodily functions. The house has a packed dirt floor. Two feet off the floor, a built-in shelf or bench runs along all four walls, interrupted only by the doorway. At the center of the room, there’s a wooden table, a single chair. A few things sit on the shelf: a bowl with a set of flatware, one fork, one knife, one spoon; a covered metal bucket with a curved handle and inside, a thick soup or mash; a basin with a few soap chips and a brush; a tiny, round mirror in a metal frame, a straight-edge razor resting on the mirror; a small rectangular basket with a lid, probably for linen or clothing; a rolled-up mat. On the table, there’s a white enamel pitcher with a blue rim and next to it, a slightly flared drinking glass, the bottom thick, rounded. The glass is cloudy, tinted pink. On one corner of the table, there’s a canister of cigarettes with a lighter. There’s a white man sitting on the chair. He has on khaki trousers and a light, collarless jacket, also khaki, but faded nearly white. He’s extremely thin: those clothes were meant for someone more muscular. The man’s face has a few deep lines. He doesn’t have a hair on his head. He could be fifty, someone who’s spent his life outdoors, but you can tell he’s extremely old because he’s so unnaturally thin. Another way you can tell his age: he barely moves. The man sits, facing the door, smoking. He’s not looking at anything in particular, or maybe he’s focused on the red and yellow curtain stirring just slightly in the breeze. The man sits rigid on the chair, left hand in his lap, right hand resting on the table, holding the cigarette, bringing it to his lips now and then. This man is Yanez, the Tiger’s white brother, and this ground where his house stands is far, far from any sea, in a part of India that appears on British maps as just a milk spot scratched with a few uncertain paths that could be swallowed up at any time by thriving forests or flooding rivers.

Once a day, in the morning, a woman comes from the village (which is close, just past the line of trees to the south), and she carries the bucket of food, and once a day, in the evening, she takes the empty bucket back again. Yanez has lost his teeth and his sense of taste; the bucket holds a milky broth with small bits of meat, boiled vegetables, rice. When he started eating only from the bowl, he gave the woman his metal plate but kept the fork and knife in case a large piece of meat needed cutting. Over the years, his throat has nearly closed. The woman also brings him soap and cigarettes when he runs out and sometimes a lantern wick or a piece of flint for the lighter. Sometimes the woman brings Yanez a shirt or a pair of pants, used, but still good enough to wear. She’s the only one who goes inside his house. Anyone could, but no one does. Yanez hasn’t asked to see anyone in years. For what the woman gives him, Yanez gives her nothing in return. When he dies, his few belongings will clearly go to her. But no one will live in the house—no one in the village can live outside the village. Yanez only leaves the house to fill the pitcher at the pump, or to wash his few clothes or to wash himself, pouring water over his body with the soup bowl; or else he’ll go to the small outhouse and relieve himself. To work the pump, Yanez must lean on the handle with all his slender might. Once a year, around the time of her wedding anniversary, the woman goes to Yanez’s house with her three sons dressed in their newest, cleanest clothes. She has her sons wait by the door, she pulls back the curtain, and Yanez looks at them a while. Years ago, there were two sons, and before that, one. Yanez looks at the young man, the youth, the child, and after a while, he smiles. Then the woman drops the curtain and sends her sons away. They’re healthy, handsome boys, and she’s a healthy, handsome woman—she hasn’t really changed with age. Yanez has never seen her husband. Years ago, Yanez went to the village by himself sometimes for supplies. The villagers knew who he was, but they never asked him any questions. The woman went to his house for the first time after they all realized no one had seen Yanez in nearly twenty days. She went once a week in the beginning; for years now, she’s gone every day. The two times she was in labor, her mother-in-law took her place, but didn’t go inside the house; the bucket of food she left outside the door in the morning was there by the door in the evening, empty. Yanez has given the woman two gifts: the metal plate, and on another occasion, his one book, a volume the size of his hand, three fingers thick, an English merchant vessel’s log of a voyage along the eastern coast of China.

The book was filled with small pictures: strange animals, strange plants, strange buildings, men and women with narrow eyes and strange clothing. The woman’s sons spent hours on boring or rainy days staring at those pictures, imagining all the strange and wonderful things he must have seen in his long, long life—this thin, silent man that people spoke of as a hero, a sea voyager, a great hunter of man and beast, brother in spirit to the Tiger. One day, before the youngest could even walk, the two older boys crept as close as they could to Yanez’s house and hid in the high grass and brush and watched Yanez leave his house with a torn shirt, the basin, the brush and soap. They watched him strain to pump a little water in the basin and wash the shirt, scrubbing it on the small washboard with the soap and brush. Then Yanez pumped a little more water, rinsed the shirt, and hung it over the pump handle to dry. They were quite impressed that he’d done this women’s work so easily, and they decided he could do anything at all. They never told anyone about their expedition and only admitted it to their little brother a few years later, after he swore a thousand oaths of secrecy. Their little brother knew he’d been made part of a great mystery, and he always kept his pledge.

No one knew what went on in Yanez’s mind. Some of the villagers thought he’d grown old and simple. Others thought he passed the time, in the absolute silence of his house, remembering his great adventures, his friends and brothers in spirit killed by accident or men, the thousand places where his name had been pronounced with reverence or rage, friendship or fear, love or loathing. When he first arrived from an unknown place and built his isolated, small white house, even then, Yanez was silent. He only said his name. And apparently, though he’d never been to this or any other nearby village, he knew his name would be enough for whatever he needed. And he needed little. He barely spoke, only if he needed something. When he still went to the village marketplace, he barely spoke a word. For years, the rumor had been that Yanez had died, but then he arrived in the village. The village boys imagined he’d taken refuge in this safe and tranquil place to plan his next great adventure. And they waited for him to tell them that they had to choose: either the safe, boring life of the village or the brief, glorious life of the hero.

But Yanez never told them. After almost a year of talking, meeting, stalling, the most spirited boys finally gathered up their courage and went to his house. They sat by his door and waited. Yanez came out almost at once, and then the boys spoke to him, taking turns, speaking passionately, for a long time. They recalled his great adventures, told him of their own desires to win glory in this life and honor in the next. Any adventure would do—it didn’t matter—it would be a glorious adventure, and they were ready for victory or defeat, because defeat at the hands of an overwhelming enemy would also bring glory on earth and honor in the heavens; they didn’t know their enemy, but they weren’t afraid; they’d fight anyone in his name, on the plains or in the mountains, in the rocky desert or the woods, even on the ocean that no villager had ever seen, but they knew it must be like a river with just one bank, and they weren’t afraid of any river or riverbank. Yanez stood in the doorway and listened, paying close attention to each boy, fixing his eye on the one who spoke, and when they’d all said their piece, and it was clearly his turn, the minutes passed in silence, and then he bowed stiffly and stepped behind the curtain. The boys spent a long time talking about this silent answer, what it could mean. Some boys started belittling Yanez, almost mocked him. Suddenly his race mattered. Others said, “The Tiger’s Claw has broken,” and they were sad. It took a few years—time for the village boys to become village men—before most of them realized what Yanez’s answer meant. The village was isolated, distant, and no one had ever seen an Englishman, but there still wasn’t a home without something made in England that had passed through a thousand peddlers’ hands. One villager, though quite suspicious, bought a sack of seeds from a bragging peddler, and it yielded thirty times the normal crop; from that year on, the children grew stronger. Some of the young men who longed to travel had gone off with peddlers to villages closer to the English, and they came back with stories of English medicines that cured almost anything and tools and machines that helped with every sort of labor. Who could resist the English when they brought such useful things? The village men wanted to consult with Yanez—he’d know everything about the English, everything good and bad—he’d fought them for so long and, really, was almost one of them, and the men wanted to know whether it was right or wrong to let the English take the village, even with fertile seeds, and strong medicines, and useful tools. The men talked a long while, but in the end they never went to Yanez—it was absurd, really—they could never keep something out that made life so much better. And then, around that time, a small caravan of peddlers arrived and brought the village its first real Englishman.

He was extremely robust, both muscular and fat, dressed all in black, with strange hair the same color you saw behind your eyelids when you closed your eyes and faced the sun. The Englishman’s hair shone in the sun, seemed almost to course with blood—not the dark blood of the body—a thinner, brighter blood. The Englishman could almost speak their language, but he used strange-sounding words, and once in a while, he’d go on and on when he was really saying something fairly simple, the same way children ramble when they’re first learning to talk. In the village square, the Englishman’s voice thundered that he was a saint of the English god, come for their own good, to save their souls from certain death, a death they’d all soon face, he insisted, if they refused his help. The village elders met for a long time, and finally they went to the square and told the Englishman they truly didn’t understand how a god, even the English god, could want or even allow men to die whom he hadn’t known existed until yesterday. The English saint laughed and said he admired the village elders for their intelligence and thought their answer was especially appropriate, coming from men who had understood the best ways of thinking when considering gods; but, he added, perhaps he hadn’t made himself quite clear, or the elders hadn’t quite understood. He asked permission to stay a while in the village, and they agreed. For a year, all the children, women, men, and elders listened every night while the English saint told stories about his god and the people to whom his god had first appeared. The English god treated his people (who weren’t English yet) like any good, stern father might treat his young son bursting with energy, both good and bad. When his people made mistakes, he punished them severely, and when they behaved, he rewarded them with his moderation. In the end, the English god wanted to teach his people a definitive lesson about the one true path, so he came down to earth as a man, yes, a real man who left his home and family when he was thirty and traveled around teaching the true path and living off the charity of others. Was he a buddha? the village asked. No, he wasn’t a buddha: he was god. An avatar? Something like that. A person could get along with this English saint; his topics were interesting and sparked debate. And he knew so many other useful things: how to cure certain childhood diseases, how to get an even larger yield from English seeds. The village men thought the god of the English saint seemed just and good, though they weren’t sure what to make of this idea of one god only; they might be willing to admit that he was a great god, and maybe—and this was extremely delicate—even a god more dignified and powerful than all the rest; but the English saint just kept insisting, ignoring all the evidence, that his was the one true god, and this, the village elders thought, was virtually insane; this pretense, this boundless pride was so out of character for a god who seemed so just, and kind, and good.

The English saint had been there almost a year, when much to everyone’s surprise, Yanez—who hadn’t left his house in years—showed up one night in the village square. He asked for the Englishman—so this was why he’d come. The English saint was astonished to see him, though Yanez didn’t say his name, at least in public, and somehow no villagers had mentioned it, either, so they’d kept Yanez hidden almost a year by just not saying anything. The English saint and Yanez wanted to be alone; they shut themselves away in the room of a house, and someone spying on them through a crack in the planks said Yanez dropped to his knees before the English saint, and stayed on his knees for over an hour, almost whispering—you couldn’t tell what he was saying—and the English saint listened, face attentive. You couldn’t see Yanez’s face, but his voice, that voice you couldn’t understand, that was the voice of a crying man, a man pleading to a vast superior, even pleading to a god. After a long time, the English saint and Yanez came out from the house, the saint in front, looking as if he could scarcely believe what he’d seen with his own two eyes; behind him came Yanez, his face, as always, revealing nothing. Together they went to Yanez’s house; meanwhile, in the village, people were making up stories; some were furious that Yanez had bowed down to this English saint, who maybe wasn’t so saintly after all; some said if the Tiger’s Claw welcomed the English saint into his home, the English saint must be good; but then others wondered if this applied to him and him alone, or whether all English saints were good (the English saint had said there were many saints like him spread all over the world, commanded by a saint of saints who lived in a very ancient city with a name that rolled beautifully off the tongue . . . Rome); and then what about the rest of the English—saint or otherwise—were they good, too? They discussed this in their homes; later, in the village square; finally, in the council of the adults and elders; and since they couldn’t send a delegation to Yanez and violate his privacy, they went directly to the English saint and questioned him in the square for an entire day, the people crowded all around him. They wanted to know—and the English saint could see the change right away—they wanted to know what his intentions were, not as a saint of his god or a saint in general, but as an Englishman, if he was there on his own or if he’d been sent by other Englishmen, and if anyone else, saint or otherwise, might be coming; quite simply, they wanted to know who he was, this man who’d made Yanez kneel down and cry and plead, this man who could break the Tiger’s Claw with just his presence, or better, who was so powerful, the Tiger’s Claw had come down to the village of his own free will, to be broken. But their questions served no purpose. The English saint still seemed like a good man, English, yes, so different from other men, but a good man all the same.

He’d lived in the village nearly a year and told wonderful stories. He’d taught the children new ways of doing figures. He’d taught the boys and men how to make English seeds yield more. He’d taught the women how to lower a child’s fever. He’d talked with the men and elders about the gods, about suffering and death. He’d laughed at births and cried at deaths, always in good measure. But he’d humiliated Yanez, they all said or thought. That isn’t true, someone stood up and said: Yanez humiliated himself. Following this day of questions came a night of talk, and in the morning they all said: Yanez humiliated himself. It was a surrender, not a defeat. The English saint could stay.

After his confession, Yanez barely slept. When it grew dark, he would unroll his reed mat and lie down, but he barely slept. He’d always been a light sleeper, but he slept often. Now he lay stretched out on the mat with his eyes closed, not sleeping, and this was like sitting and staring at the curtain moving slightly in the doorway, and really, if staring at the curtain was doing nothing, staying awake with his eyes closed was doing even less. He had only a short time to live, and he wanted to live every second of it, awake. He’d made himself a bet: if the priest absolved him and kept his confession, then god existed and was good and great, because only a true, and good, and great god could do great deeds with small men; and Yanez knew that he’d committed many large sins and pardoning them was a great deed, but above all, Yanez knew that even the smallest sin was enough for damnation, so even pardoning the smallest sin, and saving a soul from damnation, was a very great deed. If the priest refused to absolve him, then he had every reason to doubt the priest’s god. Yanez always knew the only one he could really count on was himself. He’d sailed a hundred seas, built and destroyed cities, been king and beggar, Portuguese and Oriental, loather and lover, friend and foe, only to find in the end that salvation comes not from what you take or lose, but from the gifts you’re given and keep forever. Yanez had been given three gifts: the friendship of the pirate Sandokan, the Tiger of Malaysia; the friendship of the woman who brought him food; and, maybe, the friendship of god. Sandokan had been dead for many years now, but their friendship wasn’t dead. They were friends together and friends apart, and now the great distance between them didn’t matter at all. Sandokan died young and handsome, as he should—a life like that couldn’t end with a frail body, a toothless mouth, a nearly closed throat, and soup trickling down your chin. This was Sandokan’s gift: the lesson that all lives are different, and each ends as it should. The woman was alive and gave Yanez almost everything, asking almost nothing in return; she fed him, honored him, named her sons for him. Yanez didn’t mind the woman’s devotion; he knew the woman considered this to be right because of what he was: an old man who needed her. Yanez knew the woman honored him for his age and for the wisdom gained with age. That’s why Yanez wanted to gain some wisdom, after so many years of life, because it was all he could give the woman in return for all her silent care. His desire for wisdom was the woman’s greatest gift. The English priest came just when Yanez realized that, for all his effort, wisdom was slipping away, because, quite simply, he wasn’t worthy: he’d wanted to live a thousand lives instead of one, the right life, his life. Perhaps the priest had the power to free him from all those superfluous lives, to strip him down to the least, the poorest. This power, perhaps the priest had it, and Yanez went to the village the day he felt strong enough and weak enough to find out. Now Yanez lies stretched out on the reed mat, awake, eyes closed, and he feels like a newborn child in a basket of rags who doesn’t know yet that he has arms, legs, a belly, and a back, who sees those limbs waving all around him without knowing that they’re his. Yanez grabs his left hand with his right; he clasps his hands, knits his fingers; he touches his face, his neck, his chest, his belly, and his thighs; he squats, hugs his knees, caresses himself, lightly kneads his lower back; he counts his toes, touches his hard soles, the backs of his knees; he hugs his shoulders, touches his throat, the back of his neck. He struggles to his knees, as he’s done only a few times by choice and as he was forced to do as a child. On his knees, almost without thinking, he prays, he gives himself.

Now he can die. When god’s claw decides to strike him.

—Giulio Mozzi, Translated by Elizabeth Harris

Giulio Mozzi was born in 1960 in the small town of Camira Vicentino in Northern Italy. He is the author of over two dozen books of fiction, poetry, and writing craft, and is credited with helping to launch the careers of numerous young writers in Italy. “The Apprentice,” a story from This Is the Garden, appeared in the anthology Racconti italiani del Novecento, edited by Enzo Siciliano for Mondadori Press. Mozzi lives in Padua.



Elizabeth Harris‘s translations include Mario Rigoni Stern’s novel Giacomo’s Seasons (Autumn Hill Books), Giulio Mozzi’s story collection This Is the Garden (Open Letter Books), and Antonio Tabucchi’s novel Tristano Dies (forthcoming with Archipelago Books). Her prizes include a 2013 Translation Prize from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Culture (Rome), a Banff Centre Translation Residency, and a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant from the PEN American Center.


Apr 112014

john lee portrait

In poetry, the local is the universal. As William Blake wrote:  “To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” John B. Lee is an old friend, published many times in Numéro Cinq, who lives in Port Dover, Ontario, just down the road from the farm where I grew up. We both have a special affection for Norfolk County, to me, always both local and an epic ground, filtered with blood of ancestors (see my anthology of Norfolk County history “A Geography of the Soul“). And in these poems, he remembers a relative of his, Ida Wright, born in Waterford, the farming town, where I went to high school. Ida went to China as a missionary — the rest I will let John tell. But notice, yes, how these poems rise by degrees to compass all life (and beyond), from a southwestern Ontario schoolroom to eternity.

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine

We have also translations of the poems into Spanish (we’ve done this before as well), courtesy of John B. Lee’s Cuban friend and colleague Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon.


The poems in this document are taken from a manuscript in progress called Into a Land of Strangers. The central figure in the poems is my great-aunt Ida Wight née Emerick, born in Waterford, Ontario, and raised by her father and mother in Bothwell, Ontario. After a brief stint as an elementary school teacher in Highgate, she joined the Mission to China and she became a missionary in China in the late 1800’s where she married a fellow missionary. Widowed during the Boxer Rebellion, she and her baby daughter fled on foot along with other westerners, surviving by eating boiled cotton and shoe leather. She spent two years in Canada before returning to China where she became superintendent of missionary schools. During the Second World War, she fled  to Hong Kong where she was eventually placed in an internment camp by the Japanese. Liberated by the Americans in late 1944, she traveled to Durban, South Africa, where she remained until her death on January 1, 1952. Her grandchildren were also interned in a camp for the duration of the war. The book Into a Land of Strangers tells the story of three generations of the Emerick family beginning with the German-American late-come Loyalist Francis Emerick who served on the Canadian side in the Lincoln militia during the War of 1812 after which he farmed a farm in what is now Middlesex County in southern Ontario. 

—John B. Lee


A Person on Business from Porlock

There is an imam
mosqued in the empire of the west
who preaches
that the greatest sin
in the land of the golden mountain
is the American lawn
even the burning earth
of south Texas, even there
on the torpid border of old Spain
that stolen-water-green thing thrives
with a great thickening
of wide-bladed
low-growth St. Augustine grass
even there
in the blue boil
of the unusable summer pools
of suburbia
in that necessary evaporate cool
all along the arroyos
the dry brown rivers
of parched clay
thirsty mud cracking open
like oil on old canvas
in the brilliant mirror of an unreflecting sky
the monolithic malady of modern paradise
insists itself
between the dream houses
of every middleclass mind

if one thinks of Cathay
and the Khan’s palace
in the city of Chandu
where mare’s milk spills
like moonlight on marble
and light falls in chords through cracks
like strands of silk that brace the bamboo palace
where leopards slip the saddle
in let-loose leaps
and the jessed hawks fly
over the claw shade of a shadow-measured wall

as I think now
of my own neighbour
mowing his yard for
the fourth time today

or as it was
with the woman next door
who plucked cut blades
one by one
from the sweet fragrance
of her wet-sock work with a similar care
one might use to pull stray thread
from a new garment

and I also recall
the mad lady nursing lost leaves
at midnight
in the candle-glow under star-dark heaven
when the world is otherwise laudanum black

and behind the forehead
like stones in a deep stream
something sleeps
turning green


Una persona de Porlock en negocios

Hay un imam
en una mezquita del imperio del oeste
que predica
que el pecado más grande
en la tierra de la montaña áurea
es el césped estadounidense
incluso la tierra ardiente
del sur de Texas, incluso allí
en la frontera letárgica de la vieja España
esa cosa verde del agua robada prospera
con un gran espesamiento
yerba de San Agustín
de anchas hojas
incluso allí
en el corral azul
de inservibles piscinas de verano
de los suburbios
en ese fresco necesario que se evapora
a lo largo de los arroyos
los secos ríos pardos
de árido barro
fango sediento que se resquebraja
como el óleo en el lienzo viejo
en el espejo brillante de un cielo sin reflejos
el mal monolítico del paraíso moderno
entre las casas de sueños
de cada mente de clase media

si uno piensa en Catay
y el palacio del Kan
en la ciudad de Chandu
donde la leche de yegua chorrea
como luz de luna sobre el mármol
y la luz cae en acordes a través de las grietas
como hebras de seda que apuntalan el palacio de bambú
donde los leopardos se deslizan de la montura
en saltos sueltos
y los halcones encorreados vuelan
sobre la penumbra desgarrada de una pared medida por su sombra

mientras pienso ahora
en mi propio vecino
cortando el césped de su patio por
cuarta vez hoy

o como fue
con la mujer de la casa de al lado
que recogió las briznas cortadas
una a una
desde la fragancia dulce
de su trabajo de medias mojadas con cuidado similar
al que pondríamos para sacar hilos extraviados
de una nueva prenda de vestir

y también recuerdo
la señora loca cuidando hojas perdidas
a medianoche
al fulgor de una vela bajo un cielo oscuro de estrellas
cuando el mundo está por otra parte negro como el láudano

y detrás de la frente
como piedras en una corriente profunda
algo duerme
tornándose verde


The Superintendent

looking at the comfortable room
in the luxurious home
she had built for herself
in the orient
my cousin said
of our late aunt
posing like widowed gentry
lolling amongst her precious things
“I thought missionaries
were supposed to be poor …”
her silk pillows
gilt upholsteries, silver
tea service, fine cloth
painted vase, and
dress, the tats
and flounces—doyen
of the wealthy classes
mistress of a private school
privy to
the Sino-Victoriana
of a distant land that changed the mind
like the slow conversion of green
in slanting shade
where everything greys
in the lonesome lamentation of a solitary light
growing older
in a homeland no longer home
in the piano parlour silence
with that deep-toned quiet
of untouched ivory, each key
yellow as a smoker’s tooth

who does not fear
or loathe to hear
the superintendent of schools
with her disapproving
and ultra-grammatical
crepitation, clearing her throat
with a phlegmy “ahem”
from the back of the room
her spine as stiff as a pointer
she strides
her heels cracking the floor
as she seizes the chalk of the day
and with white streak

is it a sin or is it a dream of sin
to see through the third eye
how the children tremble
shading their work
for a smudge of errors
the grand failures
we feel
in the pedagogical squint
of the once-a-term stranger
in a classroom smelling of spilled ink
and the bass notes of old plasticine
fragrant in bent fingers
and multi-coloured snakes of clay
rolled flat on the modeling board
one name carved deep
in the cave of every desk

for we are the bullied, the shy
the wild, the plump
the brilliant, the lost
the bratty, the eager-to-please
the quiet, the pimpled
the unclean, the poor
the criminal, the crippled, the maimed
the doomed-to-die young
the bad seed, the sniffling, sniveling
easy-to-hate tattle tale
the pampered
the beaten, the bewildered
the too-stupid-for words
learning one lesson in a tall cone-shaped hat
under tousled hair

and one in the tasseled

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine


La superintendente

mirando el aposento confortable
en la casa lujosa
que ella construyó para sí
en el oriente
mi primo dijo
de nuestra tía difunta
posando como viuda aristocrática
reclinada entre sus objetos preciosos

“creía que los misioneros
se suponía que fueran pobres…”

sus almohadas de seda
dorada tapicerías acolchadas, servicio de
té de plata, finas ropas
jarrones pintados, y
vestido abotonado hasta arriba
con corpiño
ajustado, los encajes
y cenefas—decana
de clases acaudaladas
maestra de una escuela privada
consejera en
la Sino-Victoriana
de una tierra distante que cambió la mente
como una lenta conversión del verde
en matices sesgados
en los que todo se torna gris
en la triste lamentación de la luz solitaria

en una patria que ya no es hogar
en el silencio del salón del piano
con ese silencioso tono profundo
de marfil intacto, cada tecla
amarilla como los dientes de un fumador

que no teme
o detesta escuchar
la superintendente de escuelas
con su traqueteo reprobador
y ultra-gramatical,
aclarándose la garganta
con flema “ejem”
desde el fondo del cuarto
su espalda tan tiesa como un puntero
camina a grandes pasos
sus talones golpeteando el suelo
mientras toma la tiza del día
y con un trazo blanco

es este un pecado o el sueño de un pecado
ver a través del tercer ojo
como los niños tiemblan
sombreando sus trabajos
por un borrón de errores
los grandes fallos
que sentimos 
en la bizquera pedagógica
del extraño de una vez un trimestre
en un aula que huele a tinta derramada
y las notas bajas de la plastilina vieja
fragante en los dedos doblados
y las serpientes de barro multicolores
enrolladas y aplastadas en la tabla de modelar
un nombre gravado profundamente
en la caverna de cada pupitre

porque somos los intimidados, los tímidos
los salvajes, los regordetes
los brillantes, los extraviados
los niños malos, difíciles de complacer
los callados, los espinillosos
los sucios, los pobres
los criminales, los lisiados, los mutilados
los condenados a morir jóvenes
la mala semilla, los que se sorben los mocos, los llorones
fáciles de odiar parloteadores
los consentidos
los golpeados, los atolondrados
los demasiado estúpidos para las palabras

aprendiendo una lección en un sombrero de alta copa
bajo el pelo desgreñado

y uno en el birrete
adornado con borlitas

todos compartimos nuestra naturaleza con los muertos
un nombre gravado hondo en la caverna
de los pupitres vacíos es tuyo
y un nombre allí es mío


The Impossible Black Tulip

“The men of old see not the moon
of today; yet the moon of today
is the moon that shone on them.”
……………………—Chinese proverb

I wonder, Ida
when you joined the mission bound for China
did you know the name
Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit priest
from Italy
the man the Chinese still call
“the scholar from the west”
a sixteenth century Catholic polymath
wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk
impressing the mandarins
of the Ming
mastering the culture and
language of the middle kingdom
and then, mapping the world beyond the world
tracing coastlines on the impossible black tulip
of cartography wherever Magellan sailed
and Columbus lost his way
where the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French
the English, the Dutch
went warring for land
and the madness of gold
and the minds
of the savage
and the bodies of slaves
the rivalries of red-haired kings
and red-robed churches
barbarians and buccaneers uncouth humans
in the era of inquisition
after Copernicus spun the globe
and Galileo gave heaven away for fear of burning alive
and there the new lands were named
even the home of your birth Jiānádá
first named and thereby known
by the learned classes
who opened their eyes to the west
and the faith of the west
inscribed with the allegory of the Holy Land
and he, the first westerner
to enter into
the Forbidden City
died a failure to evangelize
though he built a cathedral
in the capital
and still, long after
the gunboats have fallen silent
and the opium wars
have burned away
and the Boxers razed
your home and murdered your kind, and the Japanese
imprisoned you and your children
for the sins of empire—his name
lives on
in reverence—
like Li Po’s drowning moon
held loose
and glowing in the drunkard’s palm
of a midnight pond
the one we might see
if we dare to dream
of a darkness yet to come


El tulipán negro imposible

“Los hombres de la antigüedad no ven la luna
de hoy; sin embargo la luna de hoy
es la luna que brilló sobre ellos.”
…………………………………….—Proverbio chino

Me pregunto, Ida
cuando te uniste a la misión destinada a China
si sabías el nombre
Matteo Ricci, el sacerdote jesuita
de Italia
el hombre que los chinos aún llaman
“el sabio del oeste”
un erudito católico del siglo dieciséis
que usaba la túnica de un monje budista
impresionando a los mandarines
de los Ming
que dominaba la cultura y
la lengua del reino medio
y luego, trazaba mapas del mundo más allá del mundo
dibujando la línea de las costas sobre el tulipán negro imposible
de la cartografía dondequiera que navegara Magallanes
y Colón perdiera su ruta
donde los portugueses, los españoles y los franceses
los ingleses, los holandeses
se fueron peleando por tierra
y la locura del oro
por las mentes
de los salvajes
y los cuerpos de los esclavos
las rivalidades de los reyes pelirrojos
y de las iglesias de mantos rojos
bárbaros y bucaneros humanos groseros
en la era de la inquisición
luego de que Copérnico hiciera girar el globo
y Galileo entregara al cielo por temor a que lo quemaran vivo
y entonces se nombraron las nuevas tierras
incluso el hogar de tu nacimiento Jiānádá
primero nombrado y por tanto conocido
por las clases ilustradas
que abrieron sus ojos al oeste
y la fe del oeste
inscrito con la alegoría de la Tierra Santa

y él, el primer occidental
que entrara en
la Ciudad Prohibida
murió en el fracaso de evangelizar
aunque construyó una catedral
en la capital
y aun, mucho más tarde de que
las cañoneras se han callado
y las guerras del opio
han consumido en llamas
y los Bóxer arrasaran
tu hogar y asesinaron a tu gente, y los japoneses
te hicieron prisionera con tus hijos
por los pecados del imperio—su nombre
en reverencia—
como la luna inundada de Li Po
y luciendo en la palma del borracho
de una laguna a medianoche
la que veríamos
si nos atrevemos a soñar
en una oscuridad aún por venir


Considering Ancient Chinese Erotica

in the spring palace
behind high walls
of the Forbidden City
the perfumed concubine
lolled with her bound-as-a-child body
lamed by beauty
the crimson water lily of the royal house
playing bring on the clouds and the rain
with the wealthy lords
of the Ming
in the court of songs
otherwise dishabille women
their misshapen bones
broken in slippers
crippled by pain her feet made small as a deer
for the visual delight of men
well-born girls
wearing bow shoes embroidered in silk
walking with the lotus gait
the short-step sway of pampered ladies
even in time the eldest daughter of the poor
wanting to marry highborn
achieved the crescent moon
of the cramped arch
with its erotic allure
an intimate and chaste concealment
lasting a thousand years
until the corseted Christians
came at the time of the heavenly foot
their own vital organs cramped
in whalebone
their tight breasts swaddled
in winding-cloth white wear
sending home souvenirs
amazing the congregation
amusing the minister
tantalizing all future museums
where horrified visitors troupe past
in clicking stilettos and blushing tattoos


Considerando la antigua erótica china

en el palacio de invierno
detrás de las altas murallas
de la Ciudad Prohibida
la concubina perfumada
se arrellanaba con el cuerpo envuelto como el de un bebé
lisiada por la belleza
el agua de lilas carmesí de la casa real
jugando a llevar al emperador al éxtasis del placer
con los señores acaudalados
de los Ming
en la corte de las canciones
por otra parte mujeres en traje de casa
sus huesos mal formados
rotos en las sandalias
lisiadas por el dolor en sus pies hechos pequeños como los de un venado
para el deleite visual de los hombres
muchachas bien nacidas
usando zapatos de arco bordados en seda
caminando con el modo del loto
el bamboleo de paso corto de las señoras consentidas
incluso con el tiempo las hijas mayores de los pobres
que querían casarse con los de alta cuna
alcanzaban la luna nueva
del arco agarrotado
con su encanto erótico
un casto disimulo íntimo
que dura mil años
hasta las cristianas encorsetadas
llegaron en la época de los pies celestiales
sus órganos vitales agarrotados
entre barbas de ballena
sus apretados pechos envueltos
en blanca ropa enrollada
enviando a casa suvenires
que sorprendían la congregación
divertían al pastor
tentando a todos los museos futuros
donde los visitantes horrorizados pasaban en grupo
en chasqueantes estiletes y tatuajes ruborizados


Into a Land of Strangers

the muddy root
of the lotus, also
desires the sky


tropical lotus
blooms in the night
white flesh a white moon dreams


black water, blue sky
two minds
consider one light


undulating cutwater
darkens beneath
the white of a single cloud


the lotus open
in the moon-wane of morning
how young a fading white


how might the lotus thirst
in the ever-evaporate black
of a deep pool


into a land of strangers
she comes
a stranger to herself


in the seed pearl
of her beloved moon
the sand grain of her soul


celestial stranger
your secret revealed
to a secret concealed


an unpainted lotus
imagines the mind
wet brush dampens dry water


here in the seam of true silk
the chrysalis clings
to the force of an unborn wing


A tierra extranjera

en la raíz lodosa
del loto, también
desea el cielo


loto tropical
florece en la noche
blanca carne que una luna blanca sueña


agua negra, cielo azul
dos mentes
consideran una luz


ondulante rompeolas
se oscurece bajo
el blancor de una nube solitaria


se abren los lotos
en el cuarto menguante de la mañana
qué lozano el blanco mortecino


como puede el loto languidecer de sed
en el negro en evaporación
de una laguna profunda


a tierra extranjera
ella llega
una extranjera para ella misma


en la perla seminal
de su amada luna
el grano de arena de su alma


extranjera celestial
tu secreto revelado
a un secreto guardado


un loto no pintado
imagina la mente
el pincel mojado humedece el agua seca


aquí en la sutura de la verdadera seda
cuelga la crisálida
ante la fuerza de un ala por nacer

—John B. Lee & Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon


John and I (1)Manuel Leon, translator, and John B. Lee

John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books and  the recipient of over seventy awards for his writing. Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the north coast of Lake Erie. He and Manuel have collaborated on translations on several occasions, the most substantial project being Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958 (Hidden Brook Press, 2010), a bilingual anthology of Cuban poetry in original Spanish with English translations.

Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon is a professor at University of Hoguin. A co-founder of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance, he is editor-in-chief of the bilingual literary journal, The Ambassador. He and John B. Lee collaborated on the 360-page bilingual anthology Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958, (Hidden Brook Press, 2010). Sweet Cuba has been called “the most significant book of translated Cuban poetry ever published.”  He lives in Holguin, Cuba, with his wife and their young son and is the publisher of Sand Crab books which recently printed a bilingual editon of Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad’s book, A Thief of Impeccable Taste.


Apr 072014


Lost love, unrequited love, love all too achingly brief (and yet ever so slightly comical) is the subject of this excerpt from Álvaro Pombo‘s novel Where The Women (translated from Spanish and introduced by Brendan Riley). Here we get the story of poor Aunt Nines, packed off to a convent (the Sisters of Adoration in Letona) after she refuses to eat for lost love. Not just lost love, her only love, the deliciously named Indalecio, whose life is cut short by a swimming accident. “Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.” Meet also the divine Aunt Lucia who lives in a tower and tells everyone what to think. A gorgeous, sprawling novel inscribed in this short sample.


Álvaro Pombo is one of Spain’s major writers. Poet, novelist, and political activist, Pombo has won multiple awards awards, including the 1983 Herralde Novel Prize, for El héroe de las mansardas de Mansard (The Hero of the Big House; trans. Margaret Jull Costa) and the 1996 Spanish National Novel Prize for Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), from which the excerpt below is translated.

Pombo was born in Santander, in the northern Spanish autonomous province of Cantabria on the Bay of Biscay, in 1939. He holds degrees in philosophy from the Universidad Complutense in Madrid, and from Birkbeck College in London. He has published some six volumes of poetry and twenty novels and collections of short stories. He is a fascinating and gifted author whose novels offer finely drawn characters, compelling narratives, and keen psychological insights, all presented in richly woven tapestries of lyrical color and the finely tuned Castillian Spanish of his native Cantabria. Despite his enormous reputation in Spain, few of Pombo’s works have yet been translated into English.

Where the Women, Pombo’s eighth novel, is a book with many virtues. Primarily set in northern Spain along the Cantabrian Sea, (with one of the final chapters in Madrid), Where the Women offers a vivid portrait of an aloof, upper-class family in the decades following the Spanish Civil War.  In addition to the captivating, unnamed narrator who is the family’s oldest daughter, Pombo creates a slate of memorable characters: the mother who might be a good woman; the angular, venomous Aunt Lucia; her dutiful German aristocratic lover Tom Bilfinger; the stolid, matronly governess Fraulein Hannah; and the vain, petulant younger siblings Violeta and Fernandito. Gabriel, the narrator’s architect father whom she never meets until the novels end, when she is 31, appears in a ruthless, devastating cameo, in which he seems to embody the sterility and silence of Franco’s Spain.

Donde las mujeres is an unqualified pleasure, told in the voice of the young woman, intimate, authoritative, self-aware, and engaging. She invites the reader’s sympathy as she struggles to become a thoughtful person amid a family whose self-conception demands that it, especially the women, not think too much.  As the narrator’s mother tells her, she should speak less and draw more; drawing things makes them clear, but words misrepresent them. Even when she coquettishly flirts with the hearts of her young suitors, what remains most interesting is her honest self-appraisal; she knows what she is doing and why. Pombo deftly inspires our desire for her to succeed, either in her studies or love affairs, but then deliberately subverts any hopeful fruition; this emphasizes the narrator’s ultimate isolation: her home life is fancy but sterile and unfulfilling; her studies are mere dilettantism; she is being prepared for no real future, and her family offers nothing in the way of practical, worldly or spiritual wisdom except the eventual vague notion that she should someday find a husband.  Instead, thanks to the cruel revelation of Aunt Lucia, she inherits the paradox of unknown identity; like her deceased Aunt Nines, whom she regrets not properly mourning, she is the product of a loveless affair which her mother has always concealed. Thus, she is not the daughter she has been brought up to believe in, and her upper class status, as she comes to suspect, is a sham.

So, what initially seems like a familiar coming of age story turns out to be a sombre and beautifully executed philosophical meditation.  As the narrator goes to Madrid to confront her father –Gabriel– there is some expectation of mutual recognition or self-discovery, but Pombo pursues the path of alienation to the end. Gabriel is even colder, more vain and self-centered than the rest of the narrator’s family; he cavalierly refuses to acknowledge her. Their brief, chilly meeting in the capital powerfully refocuses the novel on Spain as a whole. Although set during the harshest years of the Franco regime, the political struggles and suffering endured by millions are hardly mentioned. Lately, even after the long dictatorship and the somewhat tarnished decades of a new, apparently open democracy, Spain still struggles with its past; its postmodern identity is built firmly upon a denial that reaches back to its civil war, and the new present cannot endure if the past is known.  

At the end the narrator cannot return home. She wakes up from her atheistic, bourgeois slumber to find out that there is nothing special or reassuring about her life; she is 31 years old, without family love, friends, money or prospects.

Where the Women is an eloquent and reflective novel, virtuously transparent and believable, an intriguing balance of sentimental exploration and psychological insight. Álvaro Pombo’s lyrical prose achieves a finely shaded composition of intimate reveries, disdainful bourgeois chatter, modern cynicism, and tightly reined irony which allows the narrator’s clear, thoughtful, and often humorous voice to carry us from beginning to end with impressive sustain, fluidity, and conviction. Where the Women is a masterful, beautifully written book which awaits and deserves an equally captivating English translation. 

—Brendan Riley



But you can’t take Nines seriously! She’s suffering from something, no one’s disputing it, not me, not anybody. But it’s not an illness.”

“She was really in love; that’s like an illness!” my mother commented from the other end of the dining room table where the whole family was having tea.

“So what? What does being in love have to do with not eating? Nines is just completely apathetic, that’s what. Tell me, how many people, as far as you know, have stopped eating because of love? Nobody!” Aunt Lucia assured us, answering her own question.

Violeta and I looked at each other, horrified and delighted by the stormy turn that Aunt Lucia’s statements had started to take. Sitting bolt upright in her chair away from the seat back, she opened wide her large blue eyes, bright with the slight opposition she seemed to be offering my mother.

“Your egg, Lucia! Eat your egg. Later, when it’s cold, it’ll feel like a lump in your stomach.”

But at that moment Aunt Lucia was not interested in the temperature of her food.  She simply gave the egg a sharp tap with her small elegant ivory spoon.  Nobody could have prevented Aunt Lucia from saying what she wanted to say about Aunt Nines.

“What’s happening is that Nines has compromised her health by not controlling herself, and she won’t control herself, not even if you kill her. There’s no decent doctor, no nurse, no nun, nobody who can bend a will like hers. She has decided that she’s going to starve herself to death, and that’s the end of it. She already weighs less than 100 pounds, just like Gandhi!”

Violeta and I looked at each other again. The storm was getting worse by the moment.  My mother responded to her in a calm, quiet voice, a voice calculated to irritate Aunt Lucia—she was the oldest of the sisters, followed by my mother and then Aunt Nines:

“It’s quite unfair and quite absurd what you’re saying. You know how everything happened. I’m not just talking about her misfortune. I’m talking about everything. Poor Nines. Her life, how it was and how it is now. It’s not that she wants to starve to death. She doesn’t want to die. What she doesn’t want is to go on living, which is something very different.”

A long silence floated over the unbleached linen tablecloth and my grandmother’s elegant china. Violeta and I shrugged our shoulders and stared fixedly at our plates. Neither the argument nor the fuss were new. It didn’t matter; that wasn’t necessary for them to be incredibly fascinating. The word “justice” shifted Aunt Lucia’s attention to regions of great profundity and nervousness. The supposed injustice committed against Aunt Nines was absorbed and nullified by the larger idea of justice which Aunt Lucia was busy expounding in that moment. The corresponding balance of the scales of justice ended up getting completely twisted around, along with the saucer and spoon and cup of tea which danced wildly in Aunt Lucia’s left hand. Despite being frequently on the verge of falling, they never did, something which we would have all preferred: for us all to come crashing down. And to rest in peace, smashed to pieces alongside the china and justice, across the tablecloth puddled with tea, without the least bit of style. But her style never faltered; it was as if Aunt Lucia had a magnet set right in each of the five fingertips of her left hand, with their proportional counterparts of steel or metal in the spoon, the plate, and the cup. It allowed for a wonderful imbalance at the heart of Aunt Lucia’s most elegant equilibrium, and in her voice and her manners.

It was November. Aunt Nines no longer lived at home. On medical advice, Aunt Lucia had taken her to live with the Sisters of Adoration in Letona. In a separate wing of the convent they had rooms, each one with its own mirror and washstand where, during Lent, the ladies from Letona went for three-day retreats and spiritual exercises. Throughout the year the nuns rented out rooms for the elderly who could no longer take care of themselves, or people like Aunt Nines who were suffering from nerves, who had to be watched discretely, keeping an eye on them without offending them because they were still not completely crazy.

It was noticeable that, now that Aunt Nines was gone, we talked about her incessantly. We had never done that while she lived with us. According to my mother, the decision to move Aunt Nines to live with the Sisters of Adoration was not, in any way, an easy one to take. My mother and Aunt Lucia had to meet with Doctor Mazarín and his assistant to carefully weigh the pros and cons that the move would mean for her. Aunt Nines herself had no part in the discussions nor, it seemed, the decision itself. She simply said: “Whatever you decide will be fine by me.”  In Aunt Lucia’s opinion it was a completely apathetic comment, although it was enough to make it understood that she was leaving the house on her own, without anybody pushing her. She was moving in with the Sisters of Adoration of her own free will. No one deliberately meant to isolate her. Once at the convent, little by little, Aunt Nines stopped eating or being interested in life at all.

In November, they talked about Aunt Nines’s stubbornness, one afternoon after another, all through tea and afterwards. Aunt Lucia carried all the weight of the conversation, at times giving the impression that she was speaking not only with us but also, at the same time, to an enormous crowd of people gathered in a grand theatre, one which required clear, precise explanations pronounced in a voice a few octaves higher than what is customary in homes at tea time. Throughout December and January she classified Doctor Mazarín and his assistant as both eminent authorities and imbeciles, sometimes in the same breath. By the middle of March, Doctor Mazarin came to be, in Aunt Lucia’s eyes, a perfect incompetent, incapable of distinguishing between bodies and souls. And yet, for all that, at the end of that year, he was the one responsible for preventing Aunt Nines from slowly killing herself as a result of her depression. It was depression and perhaps her desire to be united, there beyond, in death, with Indalecio, the only boyfriend that she ever had, and whom she had lost. Aunt Lucia always stressed—and my mother always discretely assented to this—that Aunt Nines wasn’t crazy but was really just as sane as any of us. And the proof was to be found in the fact that when they found her lifeless one morning, her two eyes were open and eloquent, tenaciously fixed on the bare ceiling of her private room with its own washbasin, with an air of peace and confidence in what awaited her in the next life.

In this life, on the other hand, Aunt Nines had nothing special to look forward to. And for this reason it was such a great surprise when, without expecting it, the chance to be happy came upon her. Her life had passed slowly until Idalecio appeared. They fell in love; they were going to get married; it all happened in the blink of an eye. And very suddenly it ended.

Violeta and I talked about it all in our bedroom until late at night without figuring it out, but we didn’t share the same attitude. I felt that with Aunt Nines installed in the convent of the Sisters of Adoration that there must be a solution and there, at that stage of the tragedy, was where we would find it. For Violeta, talking about Aunt Nines seemed to be simply making pointless conversation for the sake of talking. On the other hand, perhaps for being two years older, I talked to try to modify the sad situation. But it was sad exactly because it could not be changed, and that was why we talked about it so much that winter: more than deepening it, our talking about the sadness ennobled and embellished the situation. The fact that it was all so sad also made it exciting, not just in general, but in every detail, too.  Specifically, it was very sad that Aunt Nines was not really even my mother’s and Aunt Lucia’s sister; nor was she, like them, the daughter of my grandmother and grandfather. She was nothing more than a stepsister, the daughter of my grandfather and the person whose flat he used on his trips to Madrid. Violeta and I learned this fact as a result of Indalecio’s accident. It had been ignored until then because since long before my memories began to take hold, we had always called her Aunt Nines and she always lived at home.

In the parlor there is a photo of the three of them, seated on the front porch with grandmother, who has her head turned to highlight her Greek profile. Aunt Nines stands out a little from her two sisters; she is somewhat taller—it’s an old photo—with her hair combed in a different style, dressed more severely, in a different fashion. It’s as if she were the oldest one, but she was really the youngest of the three.

Oh, how Indalecio went running along the beach! He charmed everybody that summer.  That included the two of us, who went running as soon as we saw him from a distance coming down to the beach each morning, with the excuse of asking him what time it was, just to hear him say: “Are you going home already?”  It was exciting to answer, almost like a chorus: “Not yet because it’s still early, we usually leave at three.”  And Indalecio would take us by the hand, one on each side, hanging on, just our feet brushing along the sand. It was something that served as an excuse for him to come over to our awning and take Aunt Nines for a walk, down along the beach, to the cliff where the sand ends by the big rocks. They would walk back very slowly, the two of them staring at the ground, taking their steps one at a time. It was thrilling to see them walk away and not be able to see them, then see them again, dallying right before our very eyes, until it was well after three o’clock.

Indalecio was a good fellow, he was invincible: only the sea could beat him. The sea always betrays; there is no such thing as an easy sea. Indalecio drowned for not taking that into account, for letting himself be infected by the thoughts the sea brings to light, which seem not thoughts of the sea but of man. The more green and swollen, the more loquacious it seems, the more mute and deadly it becomes once you are within it. Indalecio knew the sea very well but it did him no good. He owned a white yacht with a bright red jib. From the balcony our house, no matter how far out he was racing, you could pick him out from all the rest at a glance: tacking wide to take best advantage of the wind; the sky, the race, the blue light of the open sea and the summer, the adventure. But Indalecio was younger than the sea; that’s why he drowned. In spite of his considerable charm and his unpretentious seriousness. In spite of his long arms and large hands, and his wrists, thick and strong from rowing. In spite of his black spherical watch, rustproof and water resistant, that drowned with him but which, unlike Indalecio, didn’t resurface. Under its fogged glass the hands count the hours at the bottom, water resistant still. By chance, Aunt Nines wasn’t home when the accident happened. My mother informed her over the phone. It’s almost impossible to deliver such news well. My mother delivered it to her curtly, dryly. For Aunt Nines it must have been more terrible than the most terrible thing, as we saw afterwards in her careless self-abandon and her lack of desire for living. It stuck to the roof of her mouth, like a limpet, until it killed her.


That winter was the wintriest of any winter.  No one could remember a worse one, neither in San Román nor in the other fishing towns on that part of the coast. We stopped attending school on the 4th of December in the afternoon, a Monday, because my mother said that it was better to be at home than anywhere else. That it was impossible to go to school was a marvelous impossibility.  Aunt Lucia was already installed in her tower, and that weather did not let up a bit.  At high tide, the waves released their pent-up energy against the wharf and the little bridge that connects to our part of the coast. It’s like an island. On the maps it looks like a peninsula—although on the maps it’s not called la Maraña—but it’s really an island. It has an isthmus at least two kilometers wide, a beach whose sand is swept by the waves and the northeast wind, secured by a partially hidden rocky place and the wild broom and weeds of the dunes. Having it look like a peninsula on the maps was unfortunate, although infinitely superior to living on the mainland like other girls. On the island, well, on La Maraña, we lived alone, just us, in two houses. Ours was the one closest to the bridge, a two-story chalet surrounded by a small garden and a privet hedge filled with holes that were, when we were small, secret doors for sneaking in and out. Facing ours was Aunt Lucia’s much bigger house with a semidetached tower and large grounds enclosed by a brick wall with an obelisk in the very center. From the bridge by our house you could only see one side of its slate roof.  On the other hand, the tower and the dormer windows of Aunt Lucia’s large house overlooked the highest part of the island. It faced the grey-white sky of winter like a dark lighthouse casting a gloomy shadow over the sea, useless and menacing, like a castle keep. Every year, at dawn on New Year’s Day, Aunt Lucia lit a fire in a large can of pitch atop the tower, which illuminated the whole wild flying sky with its sharp, capricious, incomprehensible flames. Aunt Lucia was an event all by herself. It was impossible for Violeta and I to listen to her and not end up arguing back in our bedroom about what she said and what she did. Her annual arrival, at the beginning of October, was a delightful holiday, blowing like a gale through the entire autumn and winter until the middle or end of April. “The spring won’t catch me here, not even dead!” Aunt Lucia used to say. It was true, because as soon as the air seemed to soften and the sun linger before setting, and we began to shed our sweaters, Aunt Lucia got ants in her pants and went off to Iceland, to Reykjavik, where Tom Bilfinger had built a chalet in the suburbs out of tar-covered logs and wood, the way they do in Iceland for the cold. Tom was essential for Aunt Lucia’s glamour: her High German suitor from a rich, noble Protestant family, whom Aunt Lucia never wanted to marry. Nor did he ever marry anyone else, perhaps in the hope that Aunt Lucia’s fierce iron will would soften as she grew older and they could at least have a civil wedding.

When we were little, it surprised us that Aunt Lucia didn’t live the whole year in her house with the tower, facing the sea, with its tall trees and gravel paths throughout the grounds, designed, as I believe, by Tom Bilfinger himself, in imitation of romantic English gardens.

“Why doesn’t Aunt Lucia stay all summer, since summer is so nice here?” Violeta and I asked my mother each time Aunt Lucia departed.

“Because Aunt Lucia is vain and doesn’t want her skin to get damaged a bit. In the North, it seems, with the humidity and the fog, her skin stays soft. Eternally young, as you can both see.”

“Well, if she’s vain then she’s stupid,” Violeta declared on one occasion. “Mother Maria Engracia said that everyone who is vain is stupid. Besides that, they always end up worse than bad. That’s her experience and she’s already grown up.”

“What does that nun know!” answered my mother. “If she specifically said that your aunt is stupid, then she’s mistaken. And if she said it about women in general, then I don’t know what to think about her anymore.”

“Well, it must be because of Aunt Lucia,” answered Violeta, “because when she said it she stared at me.”

“It’s always been that way,” exclaimed my mother,”because they all hate us in San Román, our family and us, the nuns and priests more than anybody. Because we don’t go to Mass. And your grandfather’s reputation as an atheist… We’re eagles, and always have been, and the nuns are chickens. That’s why they pray for everything, even to Saint Anthony when they lose their hairpins. Because, unlike us, they are incapable of taking care of themselves. They envy us because they’re nobodies. Meanwhile, just by being here, we shine like archangels, the way Lucifer shone. Don’t they teach you that in religion class?”

We both admitted that they did teach us that in religion, and in the chapel, about Lucifer, who lost God’s love because of his pride. The most beautiful archangel that existed. And just by looking at the two of them, at Aunt Lucia and my mother, it was more than well understood what Lucifer thought and what God thought as he cast him down to the inferno: that he shone too brightly, the way they shone and, by extension, the two of us and our little brother Fernandito, and the whole island of La Maraña, where we spent our childhood and youth.


Aunt Nines’s misfortune meant much more to me than I was capable of expressing aloud at the age of fourteen.  “It’s a tragedy,” I told myself, without knowing how that word could be applied to two events, as distinct as Indalecio drowning—an accident—and, in little less than a year, Aunt Nines losing her desire to eat, to take care of herself, and to live. This was not an accident. Quite the opposite, really: it was the result of a decision, except that it was composed almost entirely of omissions and denials. It was a tragedy just the same, even if the incomprehensibility and inexpressibility didn’t come randomly but throughout a whole year instead, as the result of a decision.

They took her away in a taxi. A taxi from Letona and not San Román. I knew that they were taking her away that day, and I was watching from the window in the hallway. I saw the rattling taxi arrive, backfiring, and I saw how Doctor Mazarín, who came seated next to the driver, got out. I saw Aunt Nines leave the house, walking between my mother and Aunt Lucia as if they were escorting a prisoner between the two of them. I watched the scene from above, in the grayish light of the autumn dawn on La Maraña. It seemed like the end of a silent movie; Doctor Mazarín was the executioner and Aunt Lucia and my mother were two high ranking officers or two prosecuting attorneys who see it all very clearly and are just following orders. My feet were cold and I felt an intense curiosity. At the same time I had a very strong sensation of not feeling what I should, or perhaps an ambiguous feeling of guilt by simply observing that scene from the window instead of running down to kiss Aunt Nines goodbye. She left without saying goodbye to us. And we let her go without saying goodbye, just the same way that the cooks and maids and nannies almost always left the house at that hour. It seemed we stopped loving them as soon as they left. That’s why, perhaps, for my not having said goodbye to Aunt Nines, Violeta and I talked about her almost every afternoon. At first I missed her at tea time. Her empty place and chair reminded me of Aunt Nines before Indalecio: laborious, confusingly similar to Fräulein Hannah, Fernandito’s governess. Aunt Nines took us out for walks, she went out with Violeta and me on the stormiest days, with the hard rain slanting against our raincoats, and the ferocious wind that turned our umbrellas inside out. I saw her empty place and I remembered in vain—like those who remember a sum but forget the numbers they added up—the way that Aunt Nines spent whole Sunday afternoons with us playing Brisca or Parcheesi or the Game of the Goose.  Violeta and I learned those three games from Aunt Nines. As painful a memory as it was, the sadness did not make me sad—and for that reason it was confusing, incomprehensible, and strange.

At fourteen years old, the meanings of my experiences appeared and disappeared like instantaneous flashes; they were explosions that I was incapable of reconciling with the rest of my life. So, only a few days after Indalecio’s accident (Aunt Nines was still at home, shut up in her room. Manuela or one of us took up her meals which she hardly touched; she only seemed to want some puree, some rice or noodle soup, or a cup of broth from the stew), Violeta and I had just come home from school and the two of us were in our room, dressing to go downstairs to tea. It was going to be a special tea because we had visitors: three ladies who were, perhaps, the same age as Aunt Lucia or my mother, but at first glance seemed older; deliberate, corseted, matronly, and domineering. We’d seen them seated in the parlor with my mother. The oldest one was a blonde woman that Violeta said was the president of Catholic Action. The other two were less important, perhaps younger. We didn’t know who they were. Violeta was looking at herself in the mirror, smoothing the pleats in her dark blue skirt, her uniform for Sundays and holidays.  I was sitting on the bed shining our shoes. Violet said:

“Doesn’t it seem strange to you, it does to me, not to wear any mourning clothes today?  It’s a formal visit today, a courtesy call…”

“If you’re saying that because of Indalecio, that’s silly, because he wasn’t related to us.”

“What do you mean he wasn’t related to us?  He had to have been something, being Aunt Nines’s boyfriend. He was her sweetheart before he drowned.”

“They weren’t quite sweethearts yet, you know? And since Indalecio drowned, they’re not even sweethearts anymore.” I said it solemnly, and immediately felt a pang of confused guilt.  I felt cruel for talking that way to Violeta. It was very unpleasant to feel cruel: I looked at myself in the mirror, and the cruelty showed on my curved lips. After all, I hadn’t brought it up, it was Violeta who started talking about mourning. So I said: “You shouldn’t have said that, about mourning. You shouldn’t have even thought about it; it’s like we’re laughing at Aunt Nines.”

Violet had come closer while I was talking and she looked at me with surprise.

“But what are you talking about? Aunt Nines has nothing to do with it. I said that about mourning because I’d love to wear black in the afternoons—a smooth black suit and just a simple necklace of Austrian silver with strawberry-colored Russian enamel. Aunt Lucia always says that black complements people with complexions like ours, with those cheekbones of hers – white– as if they were always painted with some kind of lacquer.”

It was always about Aunt Lucia! Listening to Violeta talk about the black suit that she’d like to wear in the afternoons, I couldn’t fail to recognize it. I felt her same persuasive influence just as strongly in myself. Nevertheless, while going downstairs I thought about something that Aunt Lucia would not have thought: how false I had been to instinctively blame my displeasure at feeling cruel on Violeta: I wanted to be innocent by any means, to see myself blameless at any cost. I entered the parlor behind Violeta, not knowing how to consider what I had just thought about while talking with her, nor what I felt in that very moment. To watch her during the visit, just to see her making animated conversation with Aunt Lucia and my mother, who simply smiled, occasionally exchanging a few words with her, erased in me any feeling of regret and reduced it all to a solemn joy. It was the objective happiness which almost any visit, of the few we ever received, held for me when I was fourteen years old. It was fun to greet the three of them, one by one, and then take my place on a settee. Facing them all I put on a mature face, pretending that we were taking everything that was said quite seriously instead of simply observing them so that Violeta and I could laugh later on in our room, imitating them. Every fourth sentence, with rhythmic interjections, they said something like “Nines! Oh, the poor thing!” or “Indalecio, may he rest in peace.”  It seemed like they were trying to brighten up their three monotonous monologues a little. They really weren’t like us at all. They were brood hens; that’s why they made us laugh. It made sense, I thought suddenly, that my mother had withdrawn to live alone on La Maraña when we were little: she came here to escape from these hens and their clucking. “Better alone than in bad company,” I said to myself. And I felt a solemn shiver of hot grandeur, like a swallow of grappa in my throat, my esophagus, my soul. It was fascinating to be visited like that from time to time, the way queens, or queen mothers, or princesses are visited: by fat, swollen brood hens, all dressed up for the occasion. With delight I imagined them trying on their gloves, then hastily sewing up the unstitched fingertip, because they only saw us on special occasions, such as a funeral or a wedding or a Te Deum to celebrate the victory of the Nationalists. We were never really seen; they only glimpsed us occasionally, never very close up, only for a holiday or a parade, at a distance…  That gratifying daydream entertained me that afternoon like so many other times! I thought that it was all true. The proof came on the day of the funeral for the eternal rest of Indalecio. After the prayers for the deceased, my mother and Aunt Lucia—with the two of us following—approached Indalecio’s mother and family to offer our condolences. Everyone stood up all at once—there must have been twenty of them, because they filled the first two pews—and they approached us as if we were the ones suffering, as if the duty of presiding over the mourning belonged exclusively to the four of us, and not to them.

— Álvaro Pombo, from Donde las mujeres (Where the Women), translated by Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.


Mar 082014


In 1996, less than a decade after the major state-run publishers closed during the revolution, the Romanian publishing house Humanitas, philosopher-owned and focused on critical nonfiction, published a suitably cerebral novel by the name of Orbitor: Aripa Stângă or Blinding: The Left Wing. Its author, the poet and essayist Mircea Cărtărescu, had spent the previous decade firmly establishing himself as one of the foremost figures in Romanian literature. The Left Wing, which Archipelago Books published in late 2013 as Blinding, is the first in a trilogy of books which seek out a greater human consciousness by uniting memories of the past with intimations of the future in a prophetic, far-seeing present. Humans lack a fundamental symmetry, Cărtărescu proposes in Blinding, and in this way we are like butterflies with only one wing.

Blinding focuses on that wing of the past, a thing wrought of memory and nostalgia. In a way it is autobiographical: the narrator-protagonist is Mircea Cărtărescu, and much of the story revolves around his childhood in Bucharest and his parents’ experiences in the Romanian capital before he came into being. But Blinding is welded together by fantasies and hallucinations. When facts are scarce and memories end, Cărtărescu fills the pages with his dreaming.

The following excerpt, featuring Cărtărescu’s future parents Maria and Costel (here they’re just young romantics) as they explore bombed-out factory wreckage in the wake of a pleasant movie date, shows the author’s talent for sliding casually into the realm of the unreal. Maria, feeling as if she has been chosen for this purpose, has just called down an elevator from a shaft that is miraculously still standing – the Allies bombed Bucharest heavily in the Second World War in an effort to disrupt railroad lines and destroy oil reserves – and when the glowing chamber reaches the ground, the doors open and this is what emerges.

The excerpt is published with permission from the publisher, the amazing  Archipelago Books. See my review of the novel here.

—Adam Segal


Inside the walnut-paneled car, between the crystal windows that doused the area with prisms and rainbow iridescences, seated on a little chair, was a rubicund, naked woman, blinding in the milky maturity of her skin, who held in her arms, like a swan and just as heavy, an immense butterfly with a thick, velvety body, six nervous legs that ended in claws propped on the woman’s breasts and stomach, a round head with enigmatic eyes, and a proboscis rolled up like a clock spring. The wings, unable to unfurl completely in the tight space, lined the car with an electric blue that hurt your eyes to look at, like the flame of a welding torch. The woman was at least forty years old. She had rings under her glassy, intelligent eyes, her breasts turned slightly toward the ground and their bluish curves were marked with small blue veins, and her stomach was creased with several deep folds. Her hair had grown down to the ragged floor of the elevator and the last tendrils were spread on the ground, wrapping her right thigh in curls and distinct locks. A subtle scent, dissolving rapidly in the sweet spinning of spring, wafted from her icon-like pose. A large, melancholic Omega was gouged between her eyebrows.

For a long time, she barely moved, staring at the two young people surrounded by the crepuscular light. When she stood, they sensed the fully female power of her hips. Her delicate webs of dry, curly hair did not quite cover the curved whiteness of her pubis, marked by a vertical velvet fissure. Released from the confining walls, where it left blue smudges like eye shadow, the butterfly beat its wings several times. Unfurled, they were more than three meters across. Although the woman held on to it as strongly as she could, hugging her arms around its ringed body, it still managed to pull itself free, to circle like a bird of prey over the vacant lot and rest, finally, on the warm wall of the house at the end. With its wings spread almost as wide as the yellow wall, it basked a few moments in the already rubicund rays of the sun, and then it brought its wings together and rested like the tail of a gnomon, casting a peaked shadow over the dandelions and chamomiles growing at the foot of the cracked wall. The underside of its wings took relief in the light that fell on their veins and nerves, a much paler blue below than the one above. Over the house’s pointed roof and chimneys, on the stillafternoon sky, blue, just visible, was the thin fingernail of the moon.

“You are Maria,” the woman said, stepping outside the box where she had waited for twelve years, feeding the strange infant from her breast, and dreaming, maybe, or gazing in a trance into the mirror on the elevator car wall. Because the mammary glands and tear glands are skin modified by the same hormone, the butterfly had fed alternately on tears and milk. Now the woman walked gracefully on the warm sidewalk, enveloped in spring. Costel and Maria walked very slowly, on either side of her, down the empty street. “Charlie told me about you. We only met for a moment, but he was able, in that moment, to tell me everything. The years from that time until I met you have passed so quickly, it’s like I was in a book and the author wrote ‘and then twelve years passed’. . . Just that much, as long as a phrase, an endless phrase that enclosed my child and me in a vial of liquid time. When I was young, I read the fairy tale about the djinn trapped in his bottle for millennia, and I quaked wondering how it was possible to experience something like that, the silence and endless stillness, your mind devouring itself in convulsions, nails growing into the heel of your hand, until they came out the other side, teeth plunging savagely into your tongue just to feel something, and from time to time, powerful hysteria rising inside you, dissolving you in its poisoned acid. . . So much better to choose the nameless tortures of a true, honest, inferno, with concrete objects that smash your mouth and crack your eyes and rip your kneecaps from your flesh! Even screaming, even writhing, you know you exist, that you are in history coming from somewhere and going somewhere, albeit another horrible suffering.

“It was different with me, it’s different with women. I lay in my chrysalis like a hard-shelled louse, degenerate, just a stomach full of fat and eggs, without eyes, without nerves, without hopes or expectations. Not like a consciousness that follows a thought to its end, then remains empty until the end of time, but like a thought from another, much greater someone, like a letter in a book, like a dot of color in a painting. I did not suffer, because I am woven from suffering; I did not think, because I am part of another thought, the fantastic intellection at the root of the world. My message is encoded in me, it is me, the way the host is the Savior, and the words of this message, meant only for you, are my fingers, lips, hips, spleen and vertebrae and large intestine. How odd, to live through someone else’s history, as though you were a dream creature, created entirely by the mind and yet complete, with personalities and desires, and with brown eyes with green flecks, without interiority, and which does not think, see, hear, or know it is alive. To be a secondary character in someone else’s novel rather than the enormous world of your full complexity, to be only one who brings a tray with a letter. To Hell with your heart and vulva and beliefs! Did you deliver the message? You will never appear again, not in this book or any other. And still, how pleasant it is to bear a message of good news. . . To be the Angel, kneeling with folded wings, speaking with a different kind of vocal apparatus than humans have, amidst the sounds of a triangle and carillon: ‘Rejoice, Maria!’ And then dissolving, not to disappear forever, but to return to the Intelligence whose fold you were, as though the fold would flatten or the smile depart, leaving the face serious, smiling only in its celestial eyes. . .

“I, this crumple in the sheet, this pleat of the Divine. This imperfection, this shard. This negativeness, which, much more blinding than beautiful, exceeds the flesh and mind in monstrousness. Ringworms, scorpions with translucent tails, octopi, abyssal fish that are all teeth, spiders and scabies, hunchbacks, lepers, cretins and newborns with only one eye in their foreheads are all less hideous than a beautiful woman in the splendor of her youth. For she is a piece plucked from God, a biopsy of his organ of light, a painful lumbar puncture that squirts a jet of liquid. She leaves a cavern in perfection, and she travels a much greater distance than monsters or any nightmare. It is terrible to possess beauty. Over twelve years I often looked at myself in the mirror, until my sin, my greatest and most unforgivable sin – because arrogance is another name for beauty – became clear and unbearable. Such joy I felt to find, now and then, a ring or wrinkle! Such a relief when my forehead was blotched with freckles! And when a pimple appeared on my lip, I was happy for days; it was as though a supernova had exploded in the abysses of constellations, destroying shameless matter, filling entire parsecs with blood. Aging, I offended the Flame less and less, my spark gained more and more of the delicate texture of ash. That’s all, all I wanted to be: a letter in a book, a snowflake of ash. . . Blessed, then and welcome may my double chin be, my sagging breasts, stretch marks, and varicose veins. I feel my beauty ebbing out of me like plasma, illuminating my contour and returning to the Beauty of the limitless one. . .”

Costel and Maria came to the end of the street, with the grand odalisque between them, her nipples turning wine-scarlet in the declining light. They stopped, contemplating the vanishing point of the nearly deserted boulevard. Some groups of young people passed occasionally, high school students with caps and briefcases, college kids with their hair combed flat over their heads, girls with their hair all in curls and eyebrows oddly plucked, their “eyebrows abroad,” as Tomazian teased on the radio; you might see a gentleman with a lavalier, a cane in hand, and a suit so elegant you wondered if time had gone backwards and the “Befores” ridiculed in magazines had become the “Afters.” Even though people passing by smiled at the three of them – they’d stopped at the corner, by the storefront of a funeral home, with a coffin leaned against the wall – nobody seemed to notice anything unusual. Walking on tip-toe, with her hair down to the backs of her knees, the last ringlets tickling the soft flesh there, oval like a closed eye, the woman from the elevator seemed to be made of honey-colored air. Maria suspected, despite their passivity, that everyone else could see the woman just as well as they did, but she matched so well the odd, nostalgic corner of Bucharest and the nightfall that she didn’t register in their minds. Her image descended directly into the obscure depths of their emotions and dreams.

They turned back, passing the unmoving houses again. Behind the curtains and windows covered with blue paper, a light would appear here and there. Maria remembered, charmed, the wonders in her landlord’s room on Silistra: dolls with pink and blue dresses, vases with painted feathers, pictures of wooly kittens. . . There could be so much of this kind of beauty behind every one of those curtains! She would never lose the taste for knick-knacks, macramé doilies, little framed photos: and in ten or fifteen years, on Ştefan cel Mare, she would fill her house with little angels, squirrels or kaolin ducklings, at two or three lei apiece, bracing herself resignedly for her husband’s sarcasm: “You brought another hen? If you won’t throw them all out, I will, just wait!”

“I had no childhood or youth. I page through my memory pointlessly, the way you pointlessly try to remember the eternity before you were born. Yet, there is a gray light there, a nuance somewhat lighter than the black we use for nothingness, and which, without representing, without showing something, signifies that the apparatus exists through which something might show itself. There are blind people who know they used to see, but, through an accident of fate, do not, and there are others who have no knowledge of any lack, for whom sight is unimaginable, the way we cannot imagine what we would feel if a sensory organ opened in our forehead like a flower, or if we grew bushy antennae like a moth. I always knew I was made to exist, full in body and mind, like the large, limpid eyes of the blind or dead, but also that I could not perceive existence. What does a millipede perceive, hanging in a slow spiral beneath a rotting leaf? What can a paramecium, writhing in a cup of tea, sense of the world’s spectacle? I experienced and sensed only that much for more than twenty years, as though I lived within the vague and mediocre dream of a railway clerk. I probably whimpered all night, wrapped up tight in wet diapers, struggling to get my hands out. I think I later went to school and shoved my classmates during recess, and I dirtied my nails with ink, and my cheeks and even my tongue. . . Or maybe I was sweet and awkward at thirteen, when anyone could do anything, embarrassed and revolted by the painful growth of my breasts. . . putting my first pad in my shorts and feeling, with more and more irritation, the wetness there. . . Maybe I was courted by a carbuncular apprentice who carried my books home and clowned around. . . I have no idea. None of this even weighs as much as a film that my mind confuses with all the others when I emerge from the dark theater, squinting my eyes against the August light, the sparking windshields and shop windows full of colored inscriptions. I only know this much: until the bombing I was, for a year, the elevator operator in this office building of a RomanianGerman petroleum corporation. For a whole year, eight hours a day, I sat on my little chair, opening and closing the elevator door, sliding the iron gate over, pushing buttons, carrying the clerks and their perfumed secretaries up and down, without any thought beyond doing this my whole life and then retiring from this less-than-two-square-meter box. Day after day within the four walls, thinking that I could have been a worker in a fertilizer factory, spitting out my lungs after a couple of months, or a waitress carrying ten plates or eight pints of beer at once with my butt bruised from pinching, or a whore bearing all the pigs and drunks on earth. . . So, at least I had a chair to sit on, at least, sometimes, the polite gentlemen smiled (even though they would try to touch me almost every day when, to my horror, one would enter the elevator alone and I had to take him to the top; sometimes I even had happen what any operator will tell you is normal: a gentleman shows you something before you can close your eyes, and you end up – you, a virgin with romantic dreams – with that pink stalk on your retina, unable to get it out of your mind, crying through the night on your lonely bed), at least the air smelled of cologne and Havana cigars. . . I had my proud moments and small satisfactions: I thought everyone admired the way I could stop the elevator, with a quick, decisive motion, right at the floor, not a millimeter too high or low. . . In the evenings, after the corporation closed, I would go, with my stiff back, through the ash of the streets, and, after a dreamlike hour of walking, reach my room, where I curled up on the bed like a kitten. I never saw anyone, never went out. Sundays it always rained, and all I did was sit by the wet window and look outside, at the yard behind the house, and watch the single tree there shake under gusts of rain. But I would not get lost in reveries or lamentations like other unmarried girls. Too great was my lack of experience, too obvious that all I touched turned to ash. It became ever clearer, precisely because no one chose me, that I was a chosen one. Not the Chosen One, because I sensed how small and weak I was. But still, something was going to happen, there would be significant moments, or hours. I would exist within a story, even if it wasn’t my story. It would give me coherence and dignity within a world, even if it was the most illusory world of all. Because you get reality from a story, not a substance. You could be carved in stone and not exist, lost somewhere inside endless dunes. But if you are a phantom in a dream, then the great light of the dream justifies you, constructs you. And there, in the story twisting in the mind of a person sleeping, you are truer than a billion inhabited worlds.

“And when, one evening in spring-summer-fall-winter (I had lost, if I ever had it, the thread of days and seasons) I found myself stuck in the top floor of the elevator shaft, with the electricity suddenly cut and a diffuse smell of fear floating around me like an arabesque of cigarette smoke, I knew at once that my astral moment had arrived. The sirens howled deafeningly outside, it was like you could hear, in a metaphysical sense, the engines of the approaching bombers, and when the quakes and explosions began, like a summer storm when the scary lightning flashes and you taste metal on your tongue and the children scream with their heads under blankets. This kind of blinding flash of lightning disassembled, in a single blow, the brick and lime flesh of the building, leaving only a skeleton of beams and black mesh. Up on the top floor, in my box of wood and crystal, with nighttime Bucharest around me, violently illuminated, from time to time, by the anti-aircraft guns and the ravishing explosions of carpet bombing. In contrast to the disaster below, a massive crystal moon, in its first quarter, wove itself around me like a motionless spider’s web.

“Then I took off my clothes, and I stood completely naked to await my winged groom, there, in the narrow nuptial chamber. He knew I was there, before he saw me from his cabin, he sensed the pheromones emanating from below my stomach (he felt with his brain, not his nostrils, because the brain is no more than the monstrous blossom of the olfactory bulb), and he dove toward my ziggurat of grease and metal. Suddenly he was in my cabin, blond and naked, with butterfly wings between his shoulder blades, his penis erect, powerful and golden, his dog tags on a silver chain around his neck. I clung to him and everything became luminous, fabulously colored, as though we had entered the mystical aura of a chakra with dozens of petals. When he broke my seal, he inserted in the center of my abdomen not only an ivory liquid, but also complete knowledge, as though his cannula of supple flesh had become a cord of communication between our two minds, through which, in a flash, we said everything to each other, we knew everything about each other, from the chemistry of our metabolisms to our complexes, preferences, experiences, and fantasies. He was Charlie Klosowsky from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He was accompanying the bombers that took off almost daily from an airbase in Malta. A lieutenant with almost a thousand hours of flight time in the supple Spitfire which, through an ingenious mechanism, fired through propeller blades that rotated so fast they became invisible, he had flown many times over the Balkans and Romania. He had watched the steel cylinders of the Ploieşti refineries explode and the stations at Câmpina crumble to bits as though made of matchsticks. He had run through the sky, like he was playing tag, with IARs and Stukas; he had seen flak tear balls of fire and black smoke from a bomber’s stomach, and the mushrooms of dust grow, three thousand meters below, on scratches as abstract as a map of the earth. It was like he had done nothing his whole life: held the joystick, pushed the triggers of his guns, and looked at the indicator panel, alone in his cabin, for hours and hours, just as I, in the elevator cabin, pushed buttons and watched the succession of floors. We both rose and fell, and neither of us had memories or a life of our own. We had come into the world (but which one?) only for the moment of our coupling, like two insects, in a halo of concentric circles of light. And that was how we would always be: standing, stuck together, united above in our gazes and below by that seminal cable, through which we felt millions of bits of information invading me. We stayed like that, in that closed circuit, in that wheel through which the man flowed into the woman through her sex and the woman into the man through his eyes, even when we released each other, even when he stepped backwards and took a moment to gaze at my belly and breasts, both wet with sweat. I looked once more at the curly hair on his chest, also wet, and his soft sex, and then he was in his ashen cabin again, and he was completely ashen, like in a black-and-white film from wartime, racing on through the calm or cloudy skies with the planes of enemy hunters, shot down the same day or surviving until the depths of old age, bouncing grandchildren on their knees and telling them how they fought in the war. Who cares?

“As for me, I stayed in the cabin, aging for twelve years, and raising my child. From the beginning, I felt it in my uterus, first like a revolting larva, with, fortunately, soft mandibles, frightening to look at. I saw it, as though my stomach had turned to crystal. It ate my placenta like a worm eats a cabbage leaf. Then it grew limbs and its wings budded in its armpits. And from one day to another it became a butterfly. It spread through my uterine canal like the showcase of an insect collection, its proboscis sucking at the gelatin plug that separated it from our world. It was born completely wrapped in its wings; it came out dirty with blood and placental liquid and its own feces, that I had to clean afterward, for days on end, with my saliva, tears, and milk. After a week it was puffy and fresh, with sparkling eyes, and it spread its wings, which had room then to curve freely through the space between the mirror and the grill. At first, the tips of its wings were not more than two hand-widths apart, and their blue didn’t flash like it does now. It was a female which must, someday, reach maturity. I combed my fingers daily through the soft fur on its belly, and I felt, near the last rings, how the tubes were growing that would fill the air, for hundreds of kilometers, with scents only their antennae can perceive. Pheromones: a single molecule suffices for one cubic kilometer of air. Yes, soon I will have suitors for my little girl. . .”

The suitors appeared, but they looked so pitiful! Passing the last five-story apartment block before the lot, the three people watched, amazed, behind the tower of black mesh, a scene from a fantasy. At the far end of the lot, the entire wall of the house was covered with butterflies. In the center, its enormous wings wide and sparkling, rested the elevator woman’s grand butterfly. Its knob-capped antennae symmetrically framed the window where the old woman with a sucker in her mouth reappeared. Around its immense wings, placed symmetrically and in an orderly fashion, were countless other butterflies, each one unique, of all shapes, sizes, and colors, making up a carpet of ravishing beauty. Even in the distillated twilight, the colors glowed like glass, yet velvety, in soft nuances that merged and separated, making waves, turning toward a unanimous brown and flashing again in green, azure, lemon, mahogany, and carnation, so pure that you would have thought that they were the flames of a quartz prism, or that they were the light of dawn, like a needlepoint of drops of dew, on a violet crocus. The moon above showed its strong, sharp peaks.

The golden, naked woman opened her mouth wide, until the curved tip of her tongue became visible, held from below by a flap of skin, and she let out a piercing sound. The great butterfly abruptly lifted from the wall, blowing away the others with the beat of its azure wings. It turned again over the vacant lot and threw itself, like a hawk diving at a field mouse, onto its mother’s breast. The velvety body was almost as long as she was. The woman held it in her arms and turned to Maria: “It will be soon,” she said, smiling so sadly and strangely, that, years later, that smile would reappear to Maria in her nightmares. And, before the young people could recover, the woman pushed the butterfly into the elevator. She knelt before the girl, large and heavy, wrapped in her fibrous hair, and kissed her right hand. The lips on the back of her hand appeared to release a volatile substance that rose into Maria’s brain and, for a moment, made it sparkle. Costel saw clearly (but he would soon forget) a crown of light around the temples of his beloved. The woman rose and turned, showing her imperious hips, with her dark, almost animal, vulva beneath them, and went into the elevator cabin, sat again on the chair and took the butterfly back into her arms. In all this time, the air was so dense with the other thousands of lepidopterae that the two of them simply breathed them in, pulling them into their nostrils and lungs, feeling how they fluttered in the alveoli, and exhaling them again into the dusk. But in the end, together with the almost complete nightfall and the apparition of the first stars on the summer sky (since it had become, without doubt, summer, and the night was hot and scented), all the butterflies flew into the elevator, as though into a luminous trap, filling the space completely. Behind the grill, the woman and the great butterfly were no longer visible. Maria closed the metal door, and the elevator slowly started upwards, making the tower of pitch tremble. At the top, it stopped beneath the great wheel, and it would have become completely invisible if the moon hadn’t beat blue light on its crystal windows.

Maria took her dark young man by the hand and set off, overcome with sadness, through the spectral streets, toward home. They crossed the city in little more than an hour, hardly speaking. Costel was completely focused on the small, damp palm of his girl, whose fingers twitched at the caresses of his own. The heat intensified and the trees along the streets smelled of fleshy leaves and sap. A tram would pass on its way to the train yard at Vatra Luminoasă, rattling and shaking on the rails. Garbage men filled bins beside scavengers, and the street cleaners stood in twos and threes, leaning on their brooms and smoking. Some factories had their workshops illuminated and inside pieces of machinery twitched: the night shift. They came, finally, to Colentina. From the soap factory came an unbearable smell of rancid fat. They went two more stops on the tram, passing the short and dilapidated houses, covered with tarred cardboard like garages. Costel, who had been enveloped by the endless afternoon, almost without his knowing, in an egg of translucid yet impenetrable amber – because to intuit a miracle you need a different synaptic make-up than the step-by-step macramé of short strings in the left hemisphere, and Costel was a true believer in the left hemisphere, the logician of melancholy – hummed a song to himself that at the time was on everyone’s lips:

And one, and two, and nine, and ninety-nine,
Tell me, Gardenia, tell me,

and he wondered again what spring or lever to push to make Maria’s neck muscles contract and turn her gaze toward him, so that later, through another adroit maneuver, the way he worked the metal sheer in the ITB plant, he could provoke at least a little smile, at least one gentle lift of the cheek bones, or that complex and ineffable coordination of peribuccal and periorbital sphincters that produced an expression of tranquility. He was four years younger than Maria, and in his still-virginal mind, he pictured a large table, like the one for logarithms, sines and cosines in the musty book he had in his room, a table of the thousands of gestures, words, corporeal shifts, facial expressions, hairstyles, clothes, shoes, cigarettes, cirrus patterns, cloud cover, constellations, political events, sidewalk chips, flashes of memory – matching all the possible reactions of the female youth, in a direct, unequivocal, and immutable relation. But it took hundreds of parts of this mechanism, activated at once and in synchronization, for her to graze his poorly shaved cheek with her hand, hundreds of thousands of meshing gears and transmitting belts for her to embrace him, and (here, Costel had no doubt that all his mechanical aptitude would not help him at all) a mechanism vaster and more complex than the universe, with more components than there were photons running through space, for Maria ever to say to him, “I love you.” The table, as yet, included very few certainties, many hypotheses, and a host of erasures and revisions. It stretched, step by step, in unforeseeable and heteroclite directions.

They entered a tangle of streets on the right of the main road, through the darkness that smelled like dirty wash-water . Crickets chirped, dogs barked, and from time to time an old man in a beret poked his head out of his gate, looked up the street and mumbled something. Then he closed the gate and disappeared into a vault of grape vines. In other yards, people were eating outside, around a table covered with a cloth, under a light bulb hung over a branch. Thousands of flies and mosquitoes glinted as they flew around the bulb. But most houses were silent and dark already, covered with a powder of stars.

A triangular piaţa, dimly lit by a streetlight, had a round place in the center with flowers and a cheap statue of a plaster soldier, smaller than life-size, with his gun raised. One hand had fallen off long ago, leaving a stub of rusty iron, the kind used to reinforce concrete. It was an unspeakably sad place. Entering it, you grew just as pale and immaterial as everything around you. But exactly there, Maria stopped, turned toward Costel and said seriously, almost angrily, “Kiss me.” The Bănăţean felt his mind make a popping sound and the world order shake. The effect came before the cause and time ran backwards. In a moment, he tossed the limitless table into the fire, since it foretold nothing, and he abandoned himself as living prey, to the other hemisphere, where contradictions disappear within a tender light, a universal solvent. He awkwardly took the girl by her waist, the way he’d seen in movies, and he tried to open her mouth with his lips and tongue, but she resisted, and their kiss was a typical 1950s kiss, romantic and almost chaste, the way everyone imagined their mother and father kissing before they came into the world. And that’s what it was: a Hollywood kiss, with mimed passion and no drop of eroticism. Even the light on Maria when they let each other go and Costel could see her face directed up at him, seemed studied, like a lighting effect meant to emphasize her sparkling eyes and her teeth as perfect as yesteryear’s divas’. Maria had not put her arms around Costel’s neck but held him lightly on the shoulders, as though they were dancing. She didn’t know why she had told him to kiss her. Maybe it was fear. She had thought again and again about the woman with the butterflies and her terrible message. She was chosen, she didn’t doubt it – but for what? And why her exactly? Lord, she thought, it’s frightening to be chosen, to feel the angel’s finger point toward you like a dagger. To feel that you have left the obscurity of your freedom behind, that you are in the light, that you are observed, every moment of your life, and that nothing belongs to you, not even your own soul. It is so extraordinary for the gaze of Someone so powerful and incomprehensible to stop on you, that it doesn’t matter whether you are chosen for beatitude or torture. We should pray, daily, in hope and despair, “Lord, do not choose me, Lord, never let me know you, do not keep me in your book. . .” Maria trembled with fascination and horror, because from now on, she could not escape. Yes, out of fear she had kissed the apprentice, fear she would love him and marry him and stay with him her entire life. How clear it was! She looked at the young man carefully, as though for the first time: was he even worth loving? Was he going to be the man of her life? She saw black eyes and pale cheeks and sad lips. Suddenly, she was indifferent to it all. “Why her exactly? Why her?”

They parted, after they had talked a little more, holding both hands, at the gate by her house on Silistra. It seemed like they were deep at the bottom of an ocean, that the stars were just the reflections of waves under the moon of another world. The oleander in the yard was sweet and dizzying. They kissed again, their lips barely touching, and Maria went inside. In their wire cage, the peacock and the peahen pecked a stump of wood. Marinache ruffled his wings in sleep, sensing the girl pass, but his squawk stopped in his throat, and his comb rested pale and soft, hanging over his beak. A few windows, covered with blue paper, were lit, and there were men’s and women’s voices, talking quietly or arguing. The girl went up the narrow stairs, in an almost total darkness, down the hall that creaked terribly with every step, and unlocked the door to her room.

Through the window comes the moon,
It comes into our room,

she murmured, because, actually, the scythe of moon threw a bluish light on the floor and side of her bed. She felt, all at once, terribly alone. She curled up on her mattress, pulled her sheet over her head, and fell asleep, after weeping like a child for a long time.

Costel had stayed a bit by the gate, inhaling the suffocating air of the slums, where the peppery smell of the stars mixed bizarrely, nostalgically, with barking from far-away dogs. His hands in his pockets toyed with a few coins, turning them between threads and crumbs. Maria. For him, Maria was the woman with the butterflies, even her lips were the butterflies every man waited for mystically, and which he had tasted there, beneath the piaţa’s dim lightbulb. Like through sparkfilled stillness, the image of his beloved, completely psychic (because even though he had held her, Costel would never have dared to imagine that he would one day master the empire of tissues, glands, and memories that carried the name Maria, and to whose ports he would send galleons loaded to the masts with hopes, gazes, caresses, sperm, dusks, a desperate flotilla of impossible communication), ran drop by drop through his venous system. It reached his heart, now surrounded by the rays of the moon. From the auricles it rippled into the ventricles, and then it was shot by a powerful contraction into the jugular arteries, where it separated into thousands of filaments and tubes that pushed their tiny fingers into his brain and wandered through the axonic pipes. Billions of identical Marias in glucose tunics housed themselves like parasites in every starry cell and every glial cell like enchanted spirochetes, they met in halls and corridors and merged one with another, like beads of mercury, into the greatest and most hieratic Sea, until, in the supreme hall, on the brain’s supreme throne, framed by griffons, a single, immense Maria shook again, reflecting the pleasant bas-relief of the skull, under which she barely fit, and where she was venerated by a deceased Polish poet from two centuries ago. After the light went out in the girl’s window, Costel lit a cigarette and went back through the sweltering labyrinth, starting at every shadow. With each step, he felt his skull wobble gently, like a gyroscope.

Soon, the night became suspect. The muddy streets multiplied, and the stars above were not the same. They were dull and close like naïvely painted scenery. The fences, where he ran his fingers, absentmindedly, began to shine like cardboard. The houses blurred their barely visible outlines, becoming unformed mounds of earth, and the dogs’ barking rarified and spread over scales in ever slower glissandi. “What the hell?” said the young man, passing a hand through his hair. His hair was now as dense as a piece of rubber. When his hand fell over his face, he felt dull, softened features, as though modeled in porcelain. Even the visual space seemed full of cobwebs. Costel looked, like a sleepwalker, at his left hand: his fingers were shrinking into his palm. In a flash, he realized that he had left the Story, that he had reached the wings, where everything was crosshatched, a world barely formed, its space and time still budding. He continued moving forward, until there was nothing left of him but the forward movement. The world now was dirty and diaphanous, like modeling clay when you’ve mixed all the colors together, all the figurines, all the trees. Soon, any property would be reabsorbed into the final matrix: the night. Which also dissipated into the unthought, the unwritten, the nonexistent. Into the white page, above which I lean, and which I will no longer desecrate with the obscene seed of my pen.

—Mircea Cărtărescu, Translated by Sean Cotter


Mircea Cărtărescu was born in Bucharest in 1956. Cărtărescu began his writing career in his early twenties, and soon became a celebrated cultural icon for his poetry. Cărtărescu has written of his youth in Romania as living in a sort of prison, because of the pervasive communist oppression and because he subsequently could not conceive of a reality beyond Romanian life, excepting what he read about in books. In 1990, the year following the revolution, Cărtărescu left Romania for the first time and visited several cities across the US, an experience whose massive shock left him feeling “as miserable as a Kafka character” and greatly impacted his writing. Cărtărescu continues to be prolific in poetry, fiction, and essay, and has won a number of international prizes including the Berlin International Prize for Literature, the Romanian Academy’s Prize and the Vilenica Prize. This is the first time any of Cărtărescu’s Orbitor trilogy has been published in English


Mar 042014

2014 bio photo colour doireann

It is well-understood that the language we speak shapes our perception, the structure of the language affecting the ways in which the speaker conceptualises his or her world. In this regard, bilingualism has been shown to have many cognitive advantages including an additive effect on a person’s creativity. Doireann Ní Ghríofa, a bilingual poet writing both in Irish and in English, exemplifies this. Although the written poems appear on the page in a single language, the thought processes to create them are borne of a far more complex interplay. I like to think of this interplay occurring in a type of cognitive marshlands, a ghostly transition zone between water and land with its own unique emotional ecosystem. Doireann’s poems, it seems to me, dwell in that world, and emerge from it like a rare and endangered species might emerge from its wetlands habitat through an early morning, low-lying mist.

— Gerard Beirne

My poem Waking gives voice to a woman waking up in the recovery room of a maternity hospital. At the core of this poem is the sense of disorientation, loneliness and loss that follows a miscarriage. This is an experience that is, sadly, not unfamiliar to me, personally.

I chose to dedicate Waking to the memory of  Savita Halappanavar, whose  appalling death while under the care of the Irish maternity system left many in shock. She was admitted to hospital while suffering a miscarriage, and despite her repeated requests to terminate her pregnancy, she was denied the procedure that would have saved her life. Savita’s death led to many protests both in Ireland and abroad, where protestors demanded a review of Irish law that prevented her from accessing the abortion that would have saved her life. I would wish nothing more for Savita than to allow her the treatment she needed in order to wake up and draw breath, and it angers and saddens me to live in a country where a woman must die in order for society to effect essential constitutional change.

I am very grateful to the talented filmmaker Peter Madden for interpreting my poem visually with a sensitivity that I believe honours those many, many women who each year suffer the pain of miscarriage in silence. The haunting soundtrack is an original musical composition by guitarist Stephen Moore that adds further depth to the collaboration.

Glaoch/Call is a consideration of modern life and love. I am intrigued by the multiple paradoxes of contemporary life — we are more connected than ever through technology, and yet there often remains a fundamental disconnect between us, an emotional distance, a fundamental interpersonal detachment. This poem arose from dissonance between these opposing constructs, and our collaboration in film seeks to further explore this matter.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa




Recovery Room, Maternity Ward
(for Savita Halappanavar)

The procedure complete,
I wake alone, weak under starched sheets.
As the hospital sleeps, my fingers fumble
over the sutured scar, a jagged map
of mourning stitched into my skin —
empty without and empty within.
Cradling my hollowed womb,
I trace this new wound and weep.
The only sound I hear now is the fading retreat
of a doctor’s footsteps, echoing my heartbeat.





Ní cheanglaíonn
…………………………aon chorda caol,
aon sreang teileafóin sinn níos mó.
I réimse na ríomhairí,
………………..ní thig liom
do ghuth a bhrú níos gaire do mo chluas.
Ní chloisim tú ag análú. Anois, ’sé an líne lag seo
…… t-aon cheangal amháin atá fágtha eadrainn
agus titimid
……….as a chéile
……….arís eile.



No slender thread,
………………………………no telephone cord
binds us anymore.
Now that our computers call each other,
…………I can’t
………………… your voice to my ear.
No longer can I hear you breathe. Now, we are bound only
…………………………… a weak connection
and we break up
……………………………..and break up
………..and break up.


Frozen Food

“The Iceman was carrying a sloe, presumably to eat” –Mandy Haggith

In the frozen foods aisle I think of him,
as I shiver among shelves of plastic-wrapped pizza,
green flecked garlic breads, chunks of frozen fish.
I touch the cold wrappers until my fingers
tingle, until my thumbs numb.

Strangers unpacked his body in a lab and thawed his hand.
His long-frozen fingers unfurled one by one,
his fist finally opened, let go,
and from his grasp rolled
a single sloe.
Ice-black with a purple-blue waxy bloom,
it waited through winters and winters
in his cold fingers.
……………………………………………………….Inside the sloe,
……………………………………………………..a blackthorn stone.
………………………………………………………Inside the stone,
…………………………………………………………….a seed.

In a frozen aisle, white on glass
I watch my breath freeze.


The Ledger

a sonnet for Edna O’ Brien

This chapter begins in a pharmacy.
Over the counter, you smooth prescriptions,
weigh powders, pass parcels. You nod shyly,
greet customers, mix tonics and potions.
Yellow liquid pours into glass bottles—
here, cures come from chemical addition.
All summer, you study, fill tins with pills,
dispense tablets, count coins, make medicines.
Summer blooms fade and fall. Rain returns. Bored,
you think up tales with each cream you concoct.
Every time the bell rings over the door,
you conjure symphonies of secret plots.
Name—ailment—payment. Pencil strikes paper,
filling the ledger, each word a step to your future.


In the University Library, I open the Book of my Finger

I study the same words again and again.
Smells of damp tobacco and beeswax polish
hover over a hundred desks of beech.
A sudden incision slices my skin,
splits my fingertip—a narrow breach.
The wound is so thin that it barely bleeds
but the slit stings, insists that I look again.
My cracked fingertip turns inside out.
Broken skin become walls, white-limed, gritty.
In the split, the red roof of a cowshed peaks. Doubt
rusts in my blood. I can’t live in this city.
On my palm, a road through streets and roundabouts
leads me home. Under beech trees a bee flits, free.


Radioactive Relics

Her papers still hum
in lead—lined boxes labelled Curie
in the Bibliothèque Nationale:

boxes filled with jotters
filled with the spools and loops
and curlicues of her hand

page after page of trials and tests
ideas in metamorphosis
the gleam of polonium and radium
the slow glow of understanding

a century later, her papers
still set our Geiger ticking
like a metal heart.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa




Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual poet based in Ireland, writing both in Irish and in English. Her poems have appeared in literary journals in Ireland and internationally (in France, Mexico, USA, in Scotland and in England). The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her bursaries in literature. Doireann’s Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair  are both published by Coiscéim, and her bilingual chapbook A Hummingbird, Your Heart  is available from Smithereens Press. Doireann was the winner of a Wigtown Award (Scotland) in 2012. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA) and her pamphlet of poems in English Ouroboros was longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).  

peter bio photo

Peter Madden graduated from IADT National Film School, Ireland in 2011. Currently working in photography and video advertising, he also works in short documentary, short film and music videos, editing the award winning short documentary ‘Rose’ in 2011.  His own directorial pieces have been screened at Irish and international film festivals. He works with two media based companies; Replayhouse and Little Beast, and has just recently co-created MadBag Films, all based in Dublin, Ireland.


Feb 072014

Desktop33-001Julián Herbert

Julián Herbert is a brash, exciting, young Mexican novelist, poet and musician, and it’s a special honour to be able to publish on NC this excerpt from his 2011 novel Canción de Tumba (Song of the Tomb), a fiction based loosely on his childhood, his mother (who died of leukemia in 2008), and their impoverished, wandering life in the 1970s and 80s. As the translator, Brendan Riley, points out, the language here is neither artfully embellished nor romanticized; but the text is packed with story, casual violence, large personalities, and the tragicomedy of life. A terrific read, it wakes you up, does what fiction ought to do, make the world seem vibrant and flash with energy, even the saddest things seem grand.


I find value in Julián Herbert’s words because they feel true, they relate a powerful variety of suffering and marginal behavior without surrendering to melodrama or getting stuck on the sentimental flypaper that makes some pages of Jean Genet, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, or even, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, pretty overwrought. To take a more contemporary, and Latin American example, Antonio Ungar’s Tres Ataudes Blancos is a terrifying novel, but it’s also a leering, artful dodger of a book which flexes its literary technique with real panache. With Julián Herbert I feel more like I’m in the pages of something like Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs; with no need for guile, Herbert simply shows us the sad, sordid life he was forced to endure as a prostitute’s child, and this is what gives the story its power.

All writers reassemble the past but there is not a jot here that feels unlikely or necessarily embellished. Life routinely outstrips fiction. By comparison, a highly stylized, smoothly poetic story like Roberto Bolaño’s “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, whose narrator recalls the life of his porn actress mother, feels crammed, baroque, and cloying. Maybe therein lies an authentic difference between pornography and real prostitution. Bolaño’s story is comically blue, making fun of the weird toil involved in committing sex to celluloid. “Mama Leukemia” succeeds by way of its hard, simple, realism: the exhausted prostitute taking her boy to the market in the morning, a family having all its belongings repossessed, surviving for three years in a self-constructed cinderblock hut with a cardboard roof.

—Brendan Riley


You only get one mother. And I sure got one.
Armando J. Guerra


Mama was born on December 12, 1942 in the city of San Luis Potosí. Predictably, she was named Guadalupe. Guadalupe Chávez Moreno. Nevertheless, she assumed –in part to give herself an aura of mystery, in part because she perceived her existence as a criminal event– an endless number of aliases throughout the years. She changed her name with the same insouciance with which another woman might dye or curl her hair.  Sometimes, when she took her kids to visit her narco friends in Nueva Italia, or her volatile aunts-in-law in Matamoros or Villa de la Paz, or the old señoritas in Irapuato for whom she’d been a maid after she ran away from my grandmother’s house (there’s a photo: she’s fourteen years old, her hair is cropped very short, and she’s wearing a blouse with appliqués which she ironed onto the cloth herself), she’d give us instructions:

“Here my name is Lorena Menchaca; my cousin is the famous karate expert.”

“People in this place call me Vicky.”

“Around here I go by Juana, like your grandma.”

(My grandmother, usually, called her Condenada Maldita –that is, “Goddamned little bitch from hell”– as she gripped her by her hair to drag her across the patio, smashing her face against the flowerpots.) Her most consistent identity was “Marisela Acosta.” That was the name my mother used for decades when she made a living as a prostitute. I don’t know in which moment exactly she became Marisela; that’s how she was known when I met her. She was very beautiful: very small and slender, with her long straight hair falling down to her waist, her well-built body, and some shamelessly lucent indigenous features. She was a little over thirty but looked closer to twenty. Very much the go-go girl: ample hips, nicely rounded buttocks, and a flat stomach all which she used to her advantage, wearing only jeans with a wide scarf crossed over her lean breasts and knotted in the back. Sometimes she pulled her hair back into a ponytail, put on some sunglasses and, taking me by the hand, led me through the dark, squalid streets of Acapulco’s red light district –at seven in the morning, while the last drunks staggered out of La Huerta or Pepe Carioca, and women wrapped in towels leaned out on the metallic sills of tiny rooms to call me “cutie” –to the market stalls along Canal Street. With the spleen and exquisite abandon of a sleepless whore, she would buy me a Chocomilk shake and two coloring books.

All the men eyeing her.

But she was with me.

There, five years old, satisfied, I made the acquaintance of this nightmare: the avarice of being the owner of something that you’ll never manage to comprehend.



As a boy I was called Favio Julián Herbert Chávez. Now, however, in the civil registry office in  Chilpancingo, they insist that’s not the case: the official register reads “Flavio”, whether thanks to some wicked mischief of my parents or because of some error by the old or new bureaucrats, I really don’t know: I can’t manage to distinguish (among the tons of crappy government propaganda and the hypocritical “¡Viva la familia!” video clips broadcast by Televisa. What family? The country’s one and only happy Family with roots in Michoacán is a clan of narcotraffickers whose members are experts in decapitation) between one and another. When it came time to renew my passport and my voter registration, I was required to use that name, “Flavio”. Thus all my childhood memories come, fatally, with a misprint. My memory is a hand-lettered cardboard sign posted on the outskirts of a modern airport equipped with Prodigy Mobile, a Sanborns department store, and a Casa de Bolsa bank office: “Welcomb to México”.

I was born on January 20, 1971, in the city and port of Acapulco de Juárez, in the state of Guerrero. At the age of four I met my first corpse: a drowned man. At five, my first guerilla: my godmother Jesu’s younger brother Kito, who was serving time for bank robbery. According to the nomadic conditions which my mother’s profession imposed on our family, I spent my early childhood traveling from one Mexican city to another, from one pimp to the next. Year after year,  armed with a burning patience, I traveled from the deep south until reaching the splendid cities of the north.

I thought that I’d never manage to escape the country. I thought that I’d never not be poor. I’ve worked –and here, with no desire to offend, I paraphrase an illustrious Mexican statesman, a prime example of our sublime national idiosyncrasy– doing things that even blacks would refuse. I’ve had seven wives –Aída, Sonia, Patricia, Ana Sol, Anabel, Lauréline, and Monica– and very few occasional lovers. I’ve fathered two sons: Jorge, who is now almost seventeen (he was born when I was twenty-one), and Arturo, who will soon turn fifteen. I’m going to be a father for the third time in September, exactly one year before the bicentennial: no one can ever accuse me of being unpatriotic. I’ve been a cocaine addict throughout the course of some of the happiest and most atrocious times of my life: I know how it feels to surf upon the shoulders of what Dexter Morgan called “the dark passenger”.

Once I helped to recover a dead body from the highway; I’ve smoked crystal meth using a lightbulb for a pipe; I did a fifteen day tour as a vocalist for a rock group; I attended university and studied literature; I’ve swallowed absinthe until I was blind drunk while making the rounds through the Spandau quarter of Berlin; I smuggled a chunk of opium through customs in Havana, Cuba, by distracting the officer with my t-shirt for the Industriales baseball team; I lost the school learning achievement competition whose prize was getting to meet Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado; I’m left-handed. None of those things prepared me for the news that my mother was dying from leukemia. None of those things reduced the sordidness of the forty days and nights I spent in vigil by her bedside, Noah plowing a flood of blood chemistry, caring for her and hating her, seeing her grow feverish to the point of asphyxiation, watching as she went bald.

I’m the sort who travels, swollen with vertigo, from the south to the north. I’ve followed a return path back from the ruins of the ancient civilization towards the conquest of a Second Coming of the Barbarians: Free Market; u.s.a. ; your motherfucking mother’s dying day.



I don’t have much experience with death. I suppose that could eventually present a serious logistical problem. I should have practiced with some junkie cousin of mine or some grandmother with a weak heart. But no. I regret to say that I lack experience. When it happens, I’ll end up making my debut in the Big Leagues: burying Mama.

One day I was playing my guitar when someone knocked on the door. It was the neighbor. She was sobbing.

“We’d like to ask you to stop playing your guitar. Cuquín got run over by a Coca-Cola truck. It killed him. We’ve been holding a vigil for him in the house for sometime now.”

I was fifteen, a useless layabout. I did them the courtesy to stop playing. Instead I slipped on my Walkman and switched on “Born in the USA.”

After a while, someone knocked again, insistently. It was my friend and namesake, the neighbor woman’s son and dead boy’s older brother. He said:

“Come with me to buy some bags of ice.”

I put on a t-shirt –it was summer: in the 117˚ summer in the Coahuila desert, people live inside their houses semi-naked–, I hopped over the fence and walked with him to the beer distributor.

He explained to me:

“He’s starting to smell. But Mama and Papa are pretending not to notice.”

We bought four bags of ice. As we walked back, my namesake stopped on the corner and started to cry. I embraced him. We stayed that way a long time. Then we picked up the bags and I accompanied him to his house. Shouts and cries floated out from inside. I helped him carry the bags to the porch, bid him good afternoon, and I went back to my headphones. I remember that episode today because something similar happened to me the other night: I went out to buy water at the Oxxo convenience store across from the hospital where my mother is a patient. Returning, I noticed a pedestrian having difficulty dodging the traffic in the street. In one moment, just before reaching the spot where I was standing, he stopped between two cars. The car horns flared up blaring instantly. I set my bottles of water down on the sidewalk, went to his side, and I gently pulled him towards the curb. When he felt my hand, he slid both his arms round my neck and began to cry, murmuring something bout his chiquita –his little girl–; I didn’t know if he meant his daughter or his wife. He asked if I could give him a telephone card. I gave it to him. There’ s something repugnant in the embrace of a person crying about death: they hang on to you as if you were a hunk of meat. I don’t know a thing about death. I only know about mortification.



When I was a little boy I wanted to be a scientist or a doctor. A man in a white coat. Sooner rather than later I discovered my lack of aptitude. It took me years to accept the fact that the Earth is round. Better to say, I wasn’t able to think about the Earth as a sphere. For a long time I only pretended to agree. Once in school –one of many: I attended eight different elementary schools– I stood in front of the class and explained, without stage fright, the movements of transit and rotation. Inspired by the textbook’s diagram, I used an orange decorated with blue crayon, and graphically illustrated these processes by piercing it with a pencil. I tried to memorize the illusory accounts, the hours and the days, the sun’s transit; the segments of each rotation. But, inside, no: I lived with that proud and lucid anguish that brought more than a few heresiarchs to die eviscerated at the hands of Saint Augustine. It was Mama’s fault: we traveled so much that for me the Earth was a gigantic basin circumscribed in all directions by railroad tracks. Curving tracks, straight, circular, elevated, subterranean. Ferrous and floating atmospheres that made one think of a disaster movie with sundering, crashing polar ice. Confines dark and inescapable as a tunnel, celestial as a cliff in Tarahumara, crackling as an alfalfa field upon which the sleeping stamp their feet. Sometimes, atop a rock or killing time atop a cliff along the Avenida Costera Miguel Alemán in Acapulco, I looked towards the sea and seemed to see rattling yellow train cars and diesel engines with the “N de M” emblem, more spectral than the breeze. Sometimes, at night, looking out a small train car window, I imagined that the glowworms under a bridge were those neighboring galaxies my older brother talked about. Sometimes, while I slept next to Mama, stretched out in a metallic hallway or hunched against a hard wooden seat, the whistle warned me that we were on the edge, that we might plunge into hyperspace. One day, while the train stopped in Paredón to change tracks, I reached the conclusion that the planet’s size and shape changed with each passing instant. This all sounds stupid, of course. It fills me with a monstrous sorrow. It makes me feel sorry, most of all, for Mama. Now that I see her completely wasted away in that bed, immobile, surrounded by translucent bottles of VenoPax stained with dry blood. With enormous bruises on both arms, needles, pieces of blue and yellow plastic and tiny BIC pen letters on the adhesive tape: Tempra 1g, Ceftzidime, Citarabine, Anthrcycline, Ciprofloxacin, Doxorubicin, poisonous solutions they shoot into her, mixed in black bags to protect them from the light. Crying because her most beloved and most hated child –the only one who could ever save her from her nightmares, the only one at whom she’s ever shouted “You’re not my son anymore, you bastard, you’re no better than a rabid dog”– has to spoonfeed her, see her withered breasts while changing her robe, carry her dead weight to the bath and listen (and smell, oh, how she hates smells) to how she shits. Without strength. Drunk from three blood transfusions. Walled away behind her surgical mask, waiting for them to remove a bone marrow sample.

I regret not having been, because of her (thanks to her hysterical life of traveling across the whole blessed country in search of a house or a lover or a job or some happiness, none of which ever existed in this Suave Patria––this Gentle Motherland), a model son; one capable of believing in the roundness of the Earth. Scientist or doctor. A man in a white coat who might be able to explain something to her. To recite something to her. To console her with a little bit of experience and wisdom and impressive medical machinery amid this hour in which her body shudders with wheezing and panic in the face of death.



In my final year of adolescence, at the age of sixteen, there was a second cadaver in my neighborhood. I didn’t dare to look at its coffin because, even now, I retain the sensation of having formed part of a shady plan for his murder. His name was David Durand Ramírez. He was younger than I was. He died on a September day in 1987, at eight o’clock in the morning, shot with a .22 caliber automatic pistol. His unfortunate death influenced my family to emigrate to Saltillo, and for me to study literature and choose a profession and, eventually, to sit myself down on leukemia’s balcony to narrate the sad and incredible account of my mother’s life. But, in order to explain how David Durand’s passing marked my life, I have to begin several years earlier. All this happened in Ciudad Frontera, a town of some fifteen or twenty thousand people which sprang up around the metalworking industry in Monclova, Coahuila. In that town, my family experienced its years of greatest ease as well as its whole catalog of indignities.

We moved there after the brothels in Lázaro Cárdenas went belly up. Mama took us there in search of sympathetic magic: she thought that with its flourishing iron and steel industry, the bonanza times we enjoyed in Lázaro Cárdenas would return to grace our home, the times before the Dry Law imposed by one of the most conservative PRI politicians of those years: Governor Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas Solórzano.

At first, she wasn’t wrong: in a brothel called Los Magueyes she met Don Ernesto Barajas, an old cattleman from the area. He began to visit her regularly, like any other whore, but as the months went by he began to realize that Mama wasn’t stupid: she read a lot, possessed a rare talent for mathematics, and –however absurd this might sound– she was a woman of unbreakable principles. She was, above all, incorruptible when it came to talking about finances –something that in this country makes a person practically a foreigner.

Don Ernesto hired her to be his eyes and ears in a few business ventures: a different brothel, and the town’s only gas station. He offered her a decent salary and affectionate treatment (which did not prevent him, after four tequilas, from slipping his hand into her pants; advances she had to manage to avoid without losing her composure or her job).

Marisela Acosta was happy. She trained her children to take care of each other so she wouldn’t have to shell out any more money for neurotic nannies. She rented a house with three bedrooms and a small patio. She acquired some furniture and a shoddy, sky-blue Ford. She brought black soil cultivated at a nursery in Lamadrid and with it sowed, at the end of the property, a small plot of carrots that never grew. Our neighborhood sported an ominous name: El Alacrán –the Scorpion. But, however stuffy it might sound, (and it will: what more could be expected from a story set in la Suave Patria?), we lived at the corner of Progreso y Renacimiento –Progress and Renaissance. There, between 1979 and 1981, our childhood unfolded: my mother’s and my own.

Then came the crisis of `82 and, within my childish pantheon, José López Portillo entered the ranks of posterity as (these are my mother’s words) El Gran Hijo de Puta – “The Great Son of a Bitch”. Don Ernesto Barajas gave up on suburban business ventures; he went back to livestock and let Marisela go. We kept the house but once again began to move from place to place: Acapulco, Oaxaca, San Luis, Ciudad Juárez, Sabinas, Laredo, Victoria, Miguel Alemán. Mama tried, for the umpteenth time, to earn a living working as a seamstress in a Teycon clothing factory in Monterrey. But the pay was criminal and they only hired her part time, two or three shifts a week. So she ended up returning to the daytime brothels on Villagrán Street, sordid dives which by mid-morning were overflowing with soldiers and lawyers more interested in the drag-queens than in the women, a fact which gave the competition a violent and miserable air.

Soon it was impossible to keep paying the rent on the house. At the end of `83 they evicted us and repossessed all our personal belongings. Almost all: by express petition the actuary allowed me to keep a few books before the police loaded our junk into the moving truck. I took the two fattest books: the Aguilar edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, and Volume 13 of the New Thematic Encyclopedia (Literature has always been good to me: if I had to return to that instant knowing what I know now, I’d choose the very same books). We spent three years in absolute misery. Mama had acquired a small bit of property on some disputed communal lands, but we possessed nothing more on that plot of land than dead cacti, a few little sand dunes, enough gravel to fill half a truck, two bags of cement, and three hundred cinder blocks. We built a tiny room about as high as my shoulder, without any foundation, atop which we laid sheets of cardboard for a roof. We had neither water nor drainage nor light. My older brother Jorge quit high school and found work shoveling corn flour in the tortilla factory of an industrial cafeteria. Saíd and I sang on buses for spare change.

After a year, Jorge exploded: he grabbed some clothes and left the house. He was seventeen. We received word from him again on his twenty-third birthday: they’d just named him shift manager in the Vidafel Hotel in Puerto Vallarta. He made it clear in his letter that it was only a temporary job.

“I was born in Mexico by mistake,” he told me once. “But one of these days I’m going to fix that once and for all.”

And he did: before he turned thirty he emigrated to Japan, where he still lives.

I can’t talk about myself nor about my mother without recalling those days: not for the pathos and sadness, but because it’s about our own curious Mexican version of The Dhammapada. Or, better yet and more vulgar, our version of the mystical kung fu film The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Three years of extreme poverty don’t destroy you. On the contrary: they awaken a certain kind of visceral lucidity. By singing on the intercity buses which transported the workers from the Ahmsa steel company back to the bone-dry archipelago of the neighboring towns (San Buenaventura, Nadadores, Cuatro Ciénegas, Lamadrid, Sacramento) Saíd and I got to know the almost crystalline sand dunes, black and white hills, deep walnut groves, a river called Cariño – which means “darling”–, fossilized pools of water with stromatolites and box turtles with shell patterns like giraffes…. We had our own money. We ate whatever we felt like. As runs the verse with which we concluded all our performances: esto que yo ando haciendo, es porque no quiero robar, which means “I sing for my meals because I’d rather not steal.” We learned to think like artists: we were selling a part of the landscape. Sometimes the howling wind was our Coahuiltecan version of the simoom, blowing so strong that it ripped the cardboard covering right off our shack. Then Saíd and I would go running after our roof spinning and flying away down the middle of the street.

Between 1986 (when Mexico hosted the World Cup) and 1987 (the year when David Durand died), things improved: we rented a house, bought some furniture, and slowly, gradually re-entered the class of “poor but honorable people.” Save that Marisela Acosta, without the majority of the neighbors knowing it, had to spend four nights a week in the brothels in Monterrey, trying to earn enough money so she could send us to school.

I was in my first year of high school and, despite the shame of half the town having known me as a child beggar, I’d managed little by little to make friends with the Durands –a blond family of French descent, without much money but quite popular.

One night Gonzalo Durand asked me to accompany him to La Acequia. He was going to buy a pistol.

Gonzalo was a kind of alpha male for our street corner gang that met at night to smoke marijuana and try to flirt with the junior high school girls. Not only was he the oldest: he was also the best fighter, and the only one who had a good, dependable job: he operated the desulphurization unit in Furnace Five at Ahmsa. He’d just turned nineteen. The age of armed fantasies.

Adrian and I were the ones chosen to share his rite of passage. In an illegal, unregistered `74 Maverick we headed straight over to the next neighborhood. First they offered him a revolver; in a thick pasty voice –surely from being stoned off his ass on cough syrup– the seller called the Smith & Wesson a Mita y Hueso. Then they showed Gonzalo the small automatic pistol. He fell in love with it right away. He bought it.

The next day, Adrián came to see me and he said:

“Something terrible’s happened: Gonzalo fired the gun by accident and killed Güerillo while he was sleeping.”

The first image that came to my head was ominous: Gonzalo, sleepwalking, murdering his family… But no: Gonzalo had come off the third shift and, sleepless and anxious, hurried home, climbed into his bunk, and started to clean his pistol. A bullet had slipped into the chamber. Gonzalo, who didn’t understand weapons, didn’t even notice. At some moment, the pistol slipped out of his hands. Trying to grab it, he accidentally fired. The bullet struck his little brother, who was sleeping in the bunk below, piercing his belly.

David Durand must have been how old? Fourteen? One time he’d run away with his girlfriend. Maybe because he wanted to get married. Both their parents beat the hell out of them.

Adrian and I attended the funeral, but we didn’t have the nerve to go to the wake. We feared that at any moment someone might ask us: “Where did that bastard get himself a pistol?”

Gonzalo was in jail, I think, for a couple months. That was the last I heard about him. Mama said to me, very serious:

“You’ll be sorry if I ever catch you looking at guns or hanging out again with those scumbags.”

The rest of the year went by. One day, shortly before Christmas, Mama came home very early, with alcohol still on her breath. Saíd and I were sleeping in the same bed, clutching each other against the cold. She turned on the light, sat down next to us, and sprinkled a light rain of wrinkled bills down on our heads. Her makeup looked clownish, and a small red wound stood out on her forehead.

She said: “Let’s go.”

And just like that, without packing or taking apart the house, we fled the town of my childhood.

Occasionally I return to Monclova to give a lecture or to attend a book launch. Sometimes we drive along the edge of Ciudad Frontera, on the way to the swimming holes at Cuatro Cienegas, or to pick pomegranates at Mario’s and Mabel’s ranch in Lamadrid.  As we drive along the Carlos Salinas de Gotari beltway, I tell Mónica: “I spent my childhood on the other side of this airport.” She replies: “Let’s go see it.” I tell her no.

What for?



I leave the hospital after keeping vigil for 36 hours. Monica comes to get me. The light of day looks harsh, like the air has been sprayed with filthy powdered milk. Monica says that she’s gathering together all the bills to see if they’re tax deductible; that my ex-boss promised to cover, through the Institute of Culture, at least part of the expenses; that Maruca has been behaving herself but that she misses me terribly; that the garden, the kapok tree, and the jacaranda have been freshly watered. I don’t understand what she is saying (I don’t manage to make the connection) but I answer yes to everything. Exhaustion. To sleep fitfully on a chair without armrests you need a rope dancer’s agility and the fury of an off-kilter madman, far from the wall and very close to the reggaeton broadcast on the radio from the nurses’ station: mírala mírala cómo suda y cómo ella se desnuda ella no sabe que a mí se me partió la tuba. – “Look at her look at how she sweats how she strips she don’t know how it made me so hard my horn just split”. A voice inside my head woke me up in the middle of the night. It was saying: “Don’t be afraid. Nothing that might be yours comes from you.” I rubbed my neck and closed my eyes again: I supposed that it must be some greedy peddler’s koan recited by the TV astrologer and medium Mizada Mohamed on the television set in the next room. It’s not reality that makes one cynical; it’s how hard it is to get to sleep in the city.

We make it home. Monica opens the big garage door, parks and locks the Atos inside, and says:

“If you want, after lunch, you can come for a while to the garden to read and just sit in the sun.”

I’d like to tease my wife for saying such prissy things. But I’ve got no strength. Besides, the sun is falling on my face with a palpable bliss. On the freshly watered grass. On the leaves of the jacaranda… I tumble down and lie on the grass. Maruca, our dog, gambols out to say hello to me. I close my eyes. Being cynical requires rhetoric. Sitting in the sunshine doesn’t, no.

–Julián Herbert; Translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley

Translating Mama Leukemia

No matter how strong your command of Spanish, translating any piece, especially a literary one where you confront a personal voice, in this case a very personal one, forces you to encounter a variety of challenges.  In addition to the fact that the Hispanic world contains dozens of countries, each one of them contains many different regions with a dizzying variety of idioms and local flavorings. This is well known. All those possible complications are increased when filtered through the mind and voice of an individual writer. But the need for communication provides a kind of governor, in both the source text and the target language. Unless writing for purely personal reasons or constructing some thanatoptic dream language, à la Finnegans Wake, grammar and orthography offer the translator some reassurance that despite whatever difficulties encountered, they are going to encounter meaning, and though there are often no exact matches there must be some meaningful equivalent. Finding that is part of the fun.

Another enjoyable aspect, especially in a memoir like “Mama Leukemia,” is discovering people and places. Reading and translating this text is like spending time in the company of the writer and the character, almost like getting to know them and the places they inhabit. Thanks to Julián Herbert’s precise prose I’m able to revisit Acapulco, where I once spent a beach weekend in 1984, when I was a senior in high school. I remember arriving there on a tour coach from Mexico City and, as I had been in the capital city, shocked by the close proximity of poverty and opulence, vast shanty towns clinging to crumbling hillsides just a short ride from luxurious hotels whose likes I’d never imagined. Julián Herbert’s harrowing experiences with and without his mother make those scenes I glimpsed in passing far more vivid because he populates them and sets them in motion.

 I’m also grateful for having had the chance to correspond with Julián while working on this translation and to receive his generous and thoughtful feedback. He answered each of my questions and also spotted a number of details which needed correction, and he kindly, patiently discussed them and offered feedback. He helped me clarify some locations when I had conflated Acapulco with some of the story’s later locations in north central Mexico. He also helped clarify the term “cigarra” which is literally a “cicada” but also as slang carries the meaning of “layabout” or “loafer”. It’s interesting to see how the noun “go-go girl” can be used in Spanish as an adjective; Julián uses it to describe his prostitute mother when she was young: “Era muy agogó” which literally means, she was as vivacious as a go-go dancer. A very interesting localism appears in the Spanish phrase about a car: “Nos enfilamos en un Maverick 74 chocolate al barrio de junto.” I was working from a Word document I’d made from the PDF. In the PDF the word “chocolate” is italicized, but it didn’t appear that way in Word. Had I noticed that at first I might have paid more attention to it, but I simply took it to mean brown, and produced this sentence: “We got into a chocolate-colored `74 Maverick and drove over to the next neighborhood.” Julián pointed out to me that chocolate (with the Spanish pronunciation), as used here, comes from the word chueco which means “outside the law” and in the story’s context refers to an illegal, unregistered car, imported from the U.S. into Northern Mexico, without paying taxes. A similarly interesting corruption of pronunciation occurs in “Mama Leukemia” when, in this illegal Maverick, (whose real color, he tells me, was green), they go to buy an illegal gun, a Smith and Wesson, which the stoned Mexican seller slurs as “Mita y Hueso”. Interestingly those two words individually mean “myth” and “bone”. 

Julián Herbert was born in Acapulco, Mexico in 1971. In 1989 he settled in Coahuila where he studied literature at university and still lives today. He has worked as an editor, cultural educator, and collaborator on numerous publications. As a writer, he has worked in various genres, including poetry: El nombre de esta casa (1999); La resistencia (2003); Kubla Khan (2005); the short story: Cocaína/Manual de usuario (2006); the novel: Un mundo infiel (2004); as well as translation and literary criticism. His short stories and novels have received many literary prizes in Mexico. “Mama Leukemia” is a chapter from his novel Canción de Tumba (2011).

Photo on 2012-12-09 at 00.03 #5Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.




Jan 062014


Mauricio Segura’s Eucalyptus, part of the Biblioasis International Translation Series, is a novel about identity and ownership, a narrative that drops a (relative) stranger into a (relative) strange land and lets the skeletons tumble from the closet. This may sound familiar. And yet, Segura avoids the clichés normally associated with these kinds of stories, twisting Eucalyptus into a strange, existential whodunnit. As I wrote in my review, “Segura isn’t quite interested in ‘you can’t go home again’ platitudes. Rather, he finds fascination in more oblique questions: What is home? Who truly belongs to a parcel of land? And it is these queries that make Eucalyptus an adventurous, hypnotic read.”

The following excerpt comes from chapter two, chosen because it does a great job representing not only Segura’s skills at immersing the reader in location, but also the thematic ideas of identity and ownership that pervade the narrative. There isn’t much one needs to know to appreciate this snippet: Alberto, Eucalyptus‘s protagonist, has just traveled to Chile with his young son, Marco, to bury his father, Roberto. In chapter one, the duo come across Araya, Alberto’s uncle, who tells Alberto a tale that paints Roberto in a cold light. As chapter two opens, Alberto and Marco are waiting for Roberto’s sister, Noemi, to meet them.

— Benjamin Woodard


In the middle of the afternoon, tired of waiting for Noemi to come back, tired of the stale odour in the house, Alberto took off in the pickup with Marco. His elbow propped on the open window, he watched, through the rear-view mirror, the light wind at play in his son’s hair. When he turned into the Avenida Pablo Neruda, a flash of sunlight created a blinding spot on the windshield, with a rainbow-coloured aura. He passed square after square, and although on many of them youngsters were playing football or marbles, although the benches shone bottle- green, although no litter was lying about, they all seemed drab, desolate. Was it the concrete covering the ground? Or the smog that, like an ulterior motive, darkened the city in full daylight?

He parked the pickup in front of a glass building, in which were reflected the movie theatre’s heavy columns, encrusted with dirt. He bought some fried cheese empanadas, Marco’s favourite, in a nearby grocery store, and they ate them in the shade of a palm tree, on a bench in the Plaza de Armas. As the fountain shot its jet of water towards the sky in a deafening cloud, he scanned an election poster on a lamppost. “Francisco Huenchumilla, Concertación candidate for mayor of Temuco. Para un ciudad próspera.” He wondered if Temuco had ever had a native mayor. Behind them, music from another time, childlike and gay, drifted into the square. A man with a hand organ was drawing all eyes. On his shoulder, a monkey munched peanuts and made faces. When he saw Marco watching the show, wide-eyed, Alberto remembered his first impressions of the city when, after having left Chile at the age of four, he returned with his family. At the time everything seemed dirty and old-fashioned; the cars, the excessive pollution, the shifty faces of the street children, the cadaverous features of the women kneeling on the sidewalk, selling Kleenex or mote con huesillo. And then, during the same visit, he went from one extreme to the other: he suddenly felt as if he were being reunited with a buried part of himself. He didn’t want to leave. But this honeymoon didn’t last: people, his extended family above all, made him understand that he was not quite one of them, that in certain respects, perhaps the most important, he was too gringo, a remark they let drop, sometimes in jest, at other times in all seriousness. Since then, he had never felt at home either here or back there.

A little girl, her hair held back with pink ribbons, was walking with her mother, a balloon in her hand. He bought one for Marco, and made a knot for him at his wrist with the string; from that point on his son kept his eyes on the balloon, a smile on his lips. They strolled, and soon came on itinerant sellers of every age, set up in front of a shopping centre, behind wool blankets on which were displayed miniature tanks, lighters, ballpoint pens, underpants. Alberto told himself that Araya’s story was not at all surprising. He was like that, his father, totally unpredictable, loving to spring surprises and to make a scene, seeking always to protect his moral and material independence.

“And what are going to do now your papa’s dead?” asked Marco.

The question pulled him up short.

“Don’t worry about me.”

And he tried to smile.

“Fleurette says we go up to heaven when we die.”

Fleurette was his schoolteacher.

“You think Abuelo’s going to heaven?”

“If he behaved well, yes. If not, perhaps no.”

“Did he behave well?”

Alberto shrugged his shoulders.

Then, a bit farther on:

“Papa, but why did he die, Abuelo?”

He met his son’s eyes.

“Are you going to die one day, too?”

He nodded, yes.

Seeing his son’s concern, he added:

“Don’t bother about that. It won’t be for many years. We’ve lots of good times ahead of us.”

He gripped his hand a little more tightly.

*  *  *

Back in his grandparents’ house, he went upstairs with Marco to the room where his father was laid out. Abuela, still sitting in front of the window, raised her head and blinked her eyes when they appeared, her wine-red manta accentuating her slumped shoulders. She stared at them, knitting her brows, then with a movement of her chin she ordered Alberto to introduce himself. When he revealed his identity, she repeated to herself, “Roberto’s son,” as if she no longer remembered Roberto but didn’t want to admit it. After a moment, as Alberto became conscious of the dim light surrounding him, she asked him curtly to leave, because the real Alberto was a boy living in Canada “who’s no bigger than that,” she said, stretching out the fingers of one hand. He replied that he was the boy, that he had visited her four years earlier. But she made a dismissive gesture with her index and middle fingers, indicating that he should leave. Then he took out of his pocket a watch with a chain, a present from his grandfather, went up to her and held it out. She took it, weighed it, and stared for a long time at the motionless hands, as if memories were working their way bit by bit up to the surface of her mind.

“It doesn’t work anymore?”

“For the last few days, it stops and starts. It has to be repaired.”

She gave it back to him, and venturing a smile, she said:

“It’s really you, Albertito?”

He held the watch and got on his knees at her feet. With her rough fingers, she patted Alberto’s hair and cheeks. He looked at her face, which, despite her yellowed eyes, despite the ravages of time, brought back to him a torrent of memories, of when he was Marco’s age and she kept him with her for entire days, before the dictatorship chased them out of the country again.

“You look more and more like Roberto,” she said, mussing his hair. “Do you have his character, too?” she asked, teasingly. “Ay, Dios mío, I hope not!” she added, smiling.

He returned her smile and pushed his face up against her skirts. He felt her own special odour attack his nostrils, one of wool, of tenderness, and of a madness she would not concede. He kept his eyes closed, persuaded that when he opened them he could remove himself from this oppressive climate of mourning.

She gestured to Marco that he should come near. Caressing his hands vigorously, as if she could not believe the softness of his skin, she asked him where his mother was. When the child explained that she had stayed in Canada, she looked at Alberto the way she used to when she was going to scold him.

“I’m not wrong, then?” she said. “You are like Roberto?”

Continuing to pass her hands through his curly hair, she raised her eyes to the ceiling and, in a stronger voice, as if she were addressing a large audience, embarked on a confused tirade against men and the desires that possess them like evil spirits. An evil she traced back to her dead husband, and her husband’s father, and his father before him. She went on with her monologue, digging deeper into the family’s past, and recalling, as she never failed to do, their ancestors’ arrival from Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, from an idyllic village called Monastir, today Bitola, at the heart of Macedonia. And Alberto was treated to the entire narrative of the family’s founding, only now it was timely, because although he knew it was a romanticized version, he needed to hear this story of emigration, of a flight by boat against the backdrop of a great conflagration, of the persecution of the Jewish community, and the decadence of the Ottoman Empire. Then, losing the thread of what she was saying, as if suddenly she had come back to herself and the weighty concerns of the present, she went silent. Her eyes darted this way and that, while at last tears ran down Alberto’s cheeks.

— Mauricio Segura, translated from the French by Donald Winkler


Born in Chile in 1969, Mauricio Segura grew up in Montreal and studied at Université de Montréal and McGill University. A well-known journalist and documentary filmmaker, he is the author of three novels and a study of French perceptions of Latin America. He lives with his family in Montreal.

Donald Winkler is a Montreal-based literary translator and documentary filmmaker. He has translated books by the astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, the philosopher Georges Leroux and the novelists Daniel Poliquin and Nadine Bismuth. Winkler is a three-time winner of the Governor General of Canada’s Award for French-to-English translation.

Nov 132013

Everything Happens Cover

“Night Vigils” comes in the middle of Albena Stambolova’s new novel, Everything Happens as It Does (Open Letter Books). This chapter is a sample of Stambolova’s idea-rich and scintillating prose. The reader doesn’t need to know much context to make this chapter complete, save that Margarita and her father have not seen a lot of each other lately, and, for the most part, she is a rather odd young woman. I think my favorite aspect of this chapter is the way Stambolova can write about such commonplace scenarios and make them sound surprising and intimate (perhaps even intrusive). Through the eyes of Margarita, Stambolova manages to convey the authentic nature of experience as a surprising and unsettling encounter with otherness.

— Jacob Glover (see NC’s review of the novel here)


Night Vigils

Margarita tiptoed between tangled legs and arms, tilted lamps, overturned glasses and all kinds of remnants from hours of sitting, smoking, talking and listening to music. She saw a couple kissing, their lips sunk into each other with such riveting force that she could not take her eyes off them. Worn-out desperate things had a strange effect on her. A threadbare blanket, for example, or this hopeless kiss, beautiful like a dead rose’s petals dripping with their scent of hysteria. She decided to walk around them, bumped into a sleeping body and the solid surface of an armchair, finally reached an emptier space with enough room for both her feet and managed to steady her step. Where could she have left her coat, her oversized, long black coat and her gigantic bag? They must be here somewhere. The figure of a man holding a candle appeared out of nowhere. Nothing ever happened the way one anticipated it. Come to think of it, even tonight, earlier in the evening, she had tried to explain that she didn’t have the time, but it turned out that she did have the time, she had lots of time. And what birthday were they talking about, no one had a birthday. At least she couldn’t see anyone who had a birthday.

For the first hour or so, it had been only the three of them—the boy who had brought her and who seemed to know her very well, and the girl she had assumed was the hostess, as she had changed into different clothes at least twice. They had all been sitting around a low coffee table when the girl had stood up and walked away, and just when they had almost forgotten about her, she reappeared wearing something like a transparent nightgown over her naked body. She looked beautiful in the dim light. Then more people came and Margarita lost sight of the girl, only to see her later in a different outfit, which made her doubt for a moment that it was the same person.

Now she was looking for her coat and her bag, and she was starving. Finally she stepped into a room with piles of coats thrown on a bed, and she buried her hands to search for hers. She recognized it by the touch of her fingers, like a blind person, and pulled it out, overcoming the resistance of the soft mass of clothes around it. Her bag was on the floor and she almost tripped over it. She flung it on her shoulder, continuing to tread carefully toward the exit.

Once outside, she could see only machines; there were people, but the people were all inside machines—trams, buses, and cars. She didn’t feel like going home, and decided instead to visit her father. The trams’ jangle and dazzling threaded lights did not seem inviting, so she headed there on foot, her heavy bag on her shoulder.

Walking gave her the satisfaction of work well done. Work that was pleasant and amusing, squeak-squeak-squeaking feet on the snow. Gliding, slaloming between the parked cars, stopping at traffic lights, standing upright like a soldier.

At night the city looked like a picture. Spaces look indistinct, the houses are surprising. At night the city lets you be; it lets you in, in all of its places, which, you then realize, belong to the city and not to you, a passerby. If you are brave enough, it will let you in even deeper, to places invisible in daylight no matter how hard you look for them. Night people in the city know this, they belong to the city, and that’s why they are scary and others are frightened by them.

Margarita was not thinking about these things. She never thought about anything at all. Thinking for her was like floating down a babbling stream, gently propelled by the drift of her unusual perceptions, until someone broke the spell by speaking or asking for something. No one had ever heard Margarita herself ask for anything. If she happened to feel like “asking,” what other people would call “asking,” she just let her feet take her to a place where whatever she needed simply happened to her. If she ever felt scared by something, she would run away and no one could stop her. She had thus gone through a number of schools, special schools and ordinary ones, she had started many classes and abandoned many, until one day Maria decided that she deserved some peace. Margarita read books, children’s stories and other books, she went out with people, to the cinema or elsewhere, but how far her knowledge of things extended was a mystery. She did not seem depressed about not fitting into a normal category, and the doctor, Mr. T., whom she was seeing about once a month, had himself come to a standstill in observing her perpetual state. Valentin would sometimes drag her with him for weekends or holidays with friends, and Margarita would blend in, in her own dazed way. At the same time, she never forgot faces or people in general. Her memory, free as it was from all other things, recorded words, faces, situations—gathering an endlessly abundant material that would make quite a few film directors happy.

Now she strolled about the city and registered no signs of danger. Every once in a while she felt the weight of her bag and moved it to her other shoulder. What was in that bag, only she knew, whatever to know meant for Margarita.

The window of her father’s apartment gleamed like a beacon. He answered the door almost immediately, dumbfounded to see her. So much so, that for a moment he did not invite her to come in, but let the smell of something burning reach her nose in wafts through the open door.

Are you alright?

Margarita smiled at him happily and he stepped back. He knew that she perceived things differently, but all the same he felt uncomfortable that she could see the remains of his lonely midnight dinner in the black frying pan. He chased away the thought of Maria’s ability to prepare something tasty out of anything, her oven turning out unbelievable dishes as if by itself.

Margarita looked at the piano, but her father waved his hand—not now, people are sleeping.

I’m hungry, dad.

Straight away he put a plate and some bread on the table, poured her a soda drink and took a salad out of the fridge. Margarita began to chew heartily, while her father wondered how he could possibly tell her that he was worried about her.

He asked about Valentin, but quickly hit some barrier and concluded that he needed to find out what was happening at his wife’s house.

Margarita finished eating, suddenly looking sad. He shouldn’t have spoken to her about Valentin. He took a sip of his beer and asked her about the baby. Margarita’s reaction was calmer, her mother and the baby were fine. And dear Boris? She hadn’t seen him for a while.

Her father felt anxious, the way he did every time he received news from Maria’s house. Margarita stirred from her seat like a restless bird before a storm. She wanted to go to bed and her father drove her home. He kissed her goodnight, lightly, as if this was something he did every night.

When she climbed into her enormous boat of a bed, her grandmother’s lamp was still lit. She couldn’t tell if there was anyone in the house.


StambolovaExcerpted from Everything Happens as it Does by Albena Stambolova

Trans. Olga Nikolova from Bulgarian

Pubished by permission of Open Letter Books

Oct 162013


Herewith, a delightful micro-story from Ror Wolf’s latest collection, Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions (published by Open Letter Books and translated by Jennifer Marquart ). Wolf was born in East Germany in 1932. He is an award-winning novelist, poet, artist and collagist. He emigrated West Germany in 1953, where he studied with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, members of the famous Frankfurt School, the source of modern critical theory. As you might expect of a writer with such a background, Wolf merrily refuses to create a conventional story line. Rather he works in fragments and asides and wordplay, always shadowed by the IDEA of a conventional story that might come into existence but doesn’t.  A first person narrator is asked a question. “What prompted your remark?” But Wolf’s narrator dashes and evades. “I didn’t make a remark,” the narrator says. And from there, we are off and running. Notice how Wolf shifts from past tense to present tense. Notice how he describes a cast of characters that aren’t really part of the main action. Suddenly the story fills with a variety of men sprawled out like disfigured shapes in a Goya painting.  What’s real? What’s it about? And Wolf leads us only further into the mystery, into the facts that never materialize. Like Robert Walser, like Gertrude Stein, like Thomas Bernhard, Wolf invents new possibilities for the story.

—Richard Farrell

two or three


Excuse me, what prompted your remark, said a man as I approached the reception desk at the train station hotel on October 21st 1999, and I said: I didn’t make a remark. I can’t even guess if the next man who shows up in line will make a remark. I also don’t know if my abilities are sufficient enough to describe this showing up, or to at least prove my competence for such a description here, in front of my readers. Anyway, I have doubts about my competence regarding the problem that surrounds and seems to occupy this man, and from which he is trying to momentarily step away in order to get my attention. Before I give any thought to this, I’ll turn my attention to another man, who’s lying crumpled under the table with only his feet visible. Without an extra explanation, no one would figure out why two identical-looking men are behaving so differently; and yet the explanation is very simple. You shouldn’t wait for an explanation from me because I just decided to turn my attention to another man. This man is resting his head on the table, as we can see, but in reality it only looks like that, and has no bearing on the continuation of this story. I am also not really interested in this man, but will only compare him to the man I wanted to discuss at the beginning and who is standing beside him—not directly next to him, but at a little bit of a distance. If I were to hear that the man I mentioned opened a door and disappeared, it would live up to my expectations and wishes entirely, enabling me to easily turn my attention towards several other men. They are men with a purpose, coming in as if they invented their purposes in the moment they entered, and they are in reality only meaningless purposes. Incidentally, all of these men wear their hats on their heads, and, between you and me, that seems somewhat boring, but I won’t dwell on it. Instead, I exhibit a certain interest in listening to a man whom I don’t see, but can hear quite well. Excuse me, what prompted your remark, this man said, as I approached the reception desk at the train station hotel on October 21st. And I said: I didn’t make any remark. That was ’99, a rather shitty year for men—men who went to the brink of tolerability, the end of their strengths, men with hats firmly adhered to their heads, shoes firmly attached to their feet, men who did not have a solid grasp on what could happen to them in a train station hotel. And that’s not nearly all. I’m refraining from describing what came next. I’ll do everything to avoid confusing you with more words, I said that time in ’99. I stood up. Where are you going? someone asked, some man asked: Where are you going? But I didn’t pay attention to the question, I left, and refrained from describing the further development.

—Ror Wolf


Ror Wolf is an artist, an author of prose and poetry, and a writer of radio plays and “radio collages.” Born in the East German city of Saalfeld, Wolf left the GDR for West Germany at the age of 31. His writing has earned him many awards, including Radio Play of the Year (2007), the Kassel Literature Prize for Grotesque Humor (2004) and the Literature Award of the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts in 2003. Wolf’s work has been translated into over 12 languages.

Jennifer Marquart studied German and translation at the University of Rochester. She has lived, continued her studies and taught in Cologne and Berlin. Two or Three Years Later: Forty-Nine Digressions by Ror Wolf is her first book-length translation.


Sep 152013

Vaclav HavelVáclav Havel via The New Yorker

Václav Havel was a hero to my generation, a poet, playwright, and political dissident who stood resolutely against Soviet domination during the final decades of the Iron Curtain, who spent years in prison, and who eventually helped engineer his country’s so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989. I have read Havel and about Havel all my life, it seems, and now it is a special honour to be able to publish in Numéro Cinq a hitherto untranslated Havel poem, “The Little Owl Who Brayed.” This is an amazing coup made possible through the efforts of the poet and translator David Celone who not only translated the poem and wrote an astute essay for us but also contacted Havel’s widow and obtained the necessary permissions for publication of both the translation and the original Czech version of the poem.



The Little Owl Who Brayed

Wisdom’s little owl brayed:
“How beautiful is rot’s decay.”
A pine grove bleated low:
“Come on, easy does it now.”

A serpent hissed: “I love graveyard’s bliss.”
A flower extolled:
“Where ambitions pit your soul?”

Pines gushed: “Wise up.”
Flower hissed: “Let it stink.”

“You should never, it’s true,”
calls motherland insistent,
“in twilight’s advancing gloom
be the least resistant.”

Pines shot: “Reason rots.”
Flower shrieked: “Beauty reeks.”

Serpent hooted: “The graveyard
is paradise, so tranquil and muted.”

You should never, I cry,
in our nation’s interest
beneath twilight’s grimace
ever have to resist.
Dig in. Resist. Persist…

— Václav Havel 1977 (translated by D. Celone, with Liba Hladik and Paul Wilson)



Zahýkal sýc: „Krásné je hnít.”
Zašuměl bor,
že: „To chce klid.”

Zasyčel had: „Hřbitov mám rád.”
Zaskvěl se květ:
„Kam se chceš drát?”

Zahýkal bor: „Rozumný být.”
Zasyčel květ:
„Nechat to čpít.”

„A tak by se neměl věru,”
volá vlast,
postupujícímu šeru
odpor klást.”

Zasyčel bor: „Rozumně hnít.”
Zaskučel květ:
„Krásné je čpít.”

Zahýkal had: „Hřbitov je ráj
a je tam klid.”

A tak by se neměl věru
v zájmu vlasti
postupujícímu šeru
odpor klásti.
Odpor klásti…

— Václav Havel, 1977


Václav Havel’s many incarnations led him from poet to playwright, to essayist and dissident, to become the final president of then-communist Czechoslovakia in 1989 before being elected as the first president of the newly formed democratic Czech Republic in 1993.  He was jailed for his writing in samizdat (government suppressed and censored) underground publications and for signing Charter 77, a public indictment of the government’s human and civil rights abuses, the dissemination of which was considered a political crime.  Notions of peaceful resistance proffered by Charter 77 evolved into what became known as the Velvet Revolution, ultimately toppling the communist regime in Czechoslovakia.  During Havel’s nearly four-year incarceration, he continued to write letters and to dream of new scripts for plays.  His letters from jail to his wife were subsequently published as Letters to Olga, a fascinating introspective journey of personal snippets, joys and woes during his prison term.  Little is known of Havel’s poetry outside of the Czech language and archives of the Havel Library in Prague.  His fame revolved around his plays that used absurdist humor to expose the plight of a country and its people oppressed by communist rule.  Havel’s political career brought him into the public light, winning him many international accolades and honors for his work as an outspoken proponent of human rights including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Gandhi Peace Prize, the Philadelphia Liberty Medal, and the Order of Canada.  This poet turned playwright turned politician deserves much of our attention as writers and humanists.  Yet, his poetry remains a mystery.

The 1970s in Czechoslovakia was an era and place where totalitarian rule under the then communist regime took great tolls on the Czech people.  The state normalization politics of quietism backed by strong-armed police efforts and state-led propaganda campaigns attempted to convince the Czech people that silence and tranquility were the traits needed to live in peace and harmony with one another while submitting to the political will of communist rule.  The alternative, of course, was jail.  Imprisonment for speaking out against the state, including censorship and arrest of writers and artists, exile, loss of work, and loss of educational opportunities for the children of political dissidents became the norm.  As a result, the heavy iron hand of the communist regime laid waste to artistic creativity and voice, breeding considerable unrest and dissidence.

Václav Havel, playwright, essayist, poet, dissident, politician, was part of a group of artists and writers that published samizdat, or underground leaflets, to avoid total censorship.  This group, loosely organized to avoid political trouble, eventually authored and signed a document known as “Charter 77” in 1977.  This public manifesto criticized the Czech government for failing to implement certain human rights provisions in national documents it had signed including the 1960 Constitution of Czechoslovakia.  Some short time after signing Charter 77, Havel wrote the poem “Zahýkal Sýc,” which has gone largely unnoticed by the cohorts of Havel archivists, translators, and, therefore, readers.  I have undertaken to translate this poem into English, which, to my knowledge after some considerable research of the Havel Library archives and other sources, is a first for any Havel poem other than his concrete poetry and one, short, nine-word poem entitled “We Promise” published in From A Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology.  (Delbos, Stephan. From A Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology. Ed. Delbos. Prague: Litteraria Pragensia. 2011.)

The English title of the poem I’ve chosen is “The Little Owl Who Brayed.”  It is replete with allusions and paradoxes, with an owl that brays, a serpent that hoots, a flower that hisses, and a forest that bleats, gushes, and moans.  All are absurdities that point to the deeper absurdity of the political order of the day and its heavy hand of political, social, educational, and cultural censorship.  “Zahýkal,” literally translated, means “murmured something painfully.”  “Sýc” is an owl, and an owl with a history in Greek myth and European hunting practice.  An owl that brays is clearly not well, and must feel considerable pain when making such an unusual noise.  There are several antithetical vocal elements at play, beginning with the wise owl who speaks with the paradoxical asininity of a donkey’s voice, then moving through a host of natural elements whose voices strain reason.  Havel approaches this poem in epistemological form, with an eye that describes and depicts nature at its most absurd, to convey a hugely powerful message to the Czech people.  In many ways, this poem serves as a roadmap for the type of dissidence that Havel and the members of Charter 77 would propound and follow for the next decade or so until communist rule devolved.

Classics from the then-popular movie Doctor Zhivago, itself an early samizdat publication authored by Boris Pasternak that had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and Jaroslav Hašek’s novel, The Good Soldier Švejk, are invoked through such lines as: “krasne je zit,” meaning “how beautiful it is to live” from the leitmotif “Lara’s Theme” in Doctor Zhivago (later becoming the basis for the English-language song “Somewhere My Love”) turned on its head to “krasne je hnít,” meaning, literally translated, “how beautiful it is to rot.”  Havel expresses his perspective of life in a satellite state of the Soviet Union as a place to rot rather than to live while also exposing a country that is, itself, rotting under the oppressive palm of the totalitarian hand.  So, too, does Havel use “to chce klid,” a famous line from Hašek’s Švejk meaning “take it easy,” or “don’t speak out and awaken the powers that be” as a defeatist form of quietism prevalent in then-communist Czechoslovakia—keeping one’s mouth shut was heralded by the government unless it wanted damning information about a neighbor, family member, or friend, in which case silence may well have become a political crime.

Havel then moves the poem and the reader into a world of absurdities in which animals and other characters in nature, such as a pine grove and a flower blossom, along with the prevailing iconic cultural themes of the day noted above are upended to convey the need to resist the state, the police, and the required social norms purveyed by the communist regime’s deep-rooted marketing and sloganeering propaganda efforts.

Similarly, Havel uses paradox to deliver his final message.  With “klast odpor,” meaning “to resist,” or, in biblical parlance, “to dig in” or “entrench,” and “vola vlast,” or, “motherland calls.”  Havel allows, sottovoce, and in the extant voice of the country itself to, at first, encourage people not to resist, or, in an absurdist twist of linguistic irony, to never “be the least resistant.”  Does this mean to not put up resistance against communism, or does it mean, as the country speaking in its double-negative voice implies, to never be the least resistant and, thus, arguably, to, in fact, be the most resistant to the country’s advancing gloom and plight?  It would seem the latter is what Havel had in mind, yet he couched it in terms the government might not readily understand.  Brilliantly, Havel used the absurd and circumlocution to make his political point while avoiding the strict scrutiny that otherwise might have censored his poem.  This was a trick he used during his lengthy jail term when writing letters to his then-wife, Olga.  He learned how to avoid censorship by making oblique references to certain places or people that he knew his wife would understand.

“Little Owl” also offers, at its most absurd, the notion of a cemetery as a place to which the Czechoslovakian people should aspire because it is a paradise of peace, tranquility, and quiet calm.  The poem closes with the voice of the country merging with Havel’s own narrative voice to urge the Czech people to, in fact, resist, persist, and resist again.  Throughout, Havel uses the voices of animals to mimic the political sloganeering of the communist government that offered constant passive-aggressive messaging and reinforcing innuendo that passivity and tranquility were the best ways to be a friend of the state in order to achieve peace and safety for oneself and one’s family.  Alternatives for those who spoke their minds were not favorable or pretty as Havel and his Charter 77 colleagues learned while serving out prison sentences.

Quietism, or keeping one’s thoughts private about politics and the state became a cultural agenda that took root and extracted a considerable toll on generations of disenchanted Czechs subjected to the encroaching gloom of a twilight that settled in upon their country over decades of communist rule.  Too, the notion of speaking out against friends or family to curry favor with the regime while “selling out” to communism comes under fire in this poem when the flower, a symbol of the country’s great beauty by virtue of its mention in the Czech national anthem, comments “Kam se chceš drát?,”  meaning, “Why be ambitious?” to benefit yourself to the detriment of others.  Personal ambition was frowned upon by the state and by most people living under the state’s powerful mind-control techniques.  In a double entendre of irony, Havel also brings to light the type of ambition the state allowed, which was to inform on others, thereby putting entire families at risk of being incarcerated.  Nobody felt safe from the watchful eye of the government as children, parents, or other family members, friends, colleagues, or complete strangers could levy accusations that might be taken seriously by the police.  Due process did not exist.  The rule of totalitarian law was extreme.  Little beyond quiet acceptance of state rule was tolerated.  The creative spirit of a nation was shorn.

As the final stanza suggests, and, again, with Havel’s use of the impish double negative, the Czech people should never have been put in a position to think about resisting the type of political regime under which they lived.  Yet, here they were tolerating, and oddly ignoring, the evils of communism.  They had entered the world of “Zahýkal Sýc” and its many absurdities that parallel reality under communist totalitarian rule.  The world of “The Little Owl Who Brayed” lives somewhere between nursery rhyme and parable, or fantasy and reality.   It is a rebuke of the prevailing defeatist tendencies of the people of Czechoslovakia at the time, leading to a country’s and a people’s entropy—politically, culturally, socially, individually, religiously, and artistically.  Yet “Little Owl” is also a highly emotional summons to the Czech people to take action and stand fast to principals of humanity and moral practices not condoned by the state and the Soviet regime.  By virtue of its use of cultural symbolism and natural elements known to all, direct story-telling prose, and poetic rhyme, this poem achieves its goal simply, dynamically, and with a deft hand and brilliantly wry wit.  At its end, in classic comic and absurdist form for which Havel is known as a dramatist, the narrator draws the reader in to resist the type of “wisdom” being purveyed by the state, or the snake.  In counterpoint to the serpent who hoots and preaches about paradise as a quiet graveyard, Havel offers the Czech people a poetic choice: they can choose freedom through resistance to overcome the serpent’s snare and break free of the political bonds that trap them like the owl, wise though it may be, or they can accept an ongoing existence of rotting within the decaying fabric of their once beautiful country by acquiescing to the demands of the communist propaganda, political, and police-state machine.  This poem is an epistemological triumph that delivers new knowledge through the elements of nature posited as absurd voices, while illuminating the Czech populace that their notions of normalcy were, in fact, completely invalid and out of touch with nature, reason, and humanity.  Havel hopes to move people away from entropy and call them to action to resist the ruling order of the day.

While Havel’s calling out to resist what is happening in the Czech homeland closes the poem, it gives rise to several complex questions about why he chose the various symbols to represent the speakers in the poem.  The owl, the serpent, the pine grove, the flower, and, most certainly and obviously, the country itself all have important allusory standing within this poem.

In brief, the owl represents wisdom, much as it did when perched on the shoulder of Athena, Greek goddess of wisdom and just warfare, who carried an owl with her, and who carries the image of the goddess Nike on her helmet.  It is Nike who is depicted in a statue with raised sword in triumph memorializing the Battle of Volgograd, one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history with more than two million casualties and a turning point in which Russia defeated the German army in World War II.  The statue of Nike is named “Matka Vlast Volá” or, “Mother Motherland Calls,” similar to Havel’s use of “vola vlast,” or “motherland calls” in the poem.  Thus, Havel may well be offering a reminder of the terrible bloodshed that can happen under totalitarian rule—even when power is wielded to protect a country—and a stern rebuke that aggressive resistance leading to bloodshed is not the best way forward for the people of Czechoslovakia.

The Little Owl (Athena noctua) carried by Athena was common in European pine forests and typically was used to hunt small prey.  Its particular facilities lay in its ability to be trained to catch animals (snakes included) in its claws and, most importantly, to learn to return again and again to the snare, or cage, of its captor and handler.  “Drat” in Czech, means “wire” or “snare,” as well as “to wear a wire” or microphone for eavesdropping or spying purposes.  “Drat se,” a reflexive verb, means “to push oneself forward” or “to be ambitious” to the demise of others as noted above.  Thus, the owl, though wise, serves its master willingly, obeys, and returns to its captor’s snare over and over much like Havel suggests the Czech people do through entropy and defeatism in the face of their political oppressors.  Too, like the owl, they are handled and trained by the state, held captive by the state police powers and propaganda machinery, and allowed only limited scope in which to live always being required to return to their nation-state cage itself held captive by the Soviet Union.  They also fall into the trap the state set that encouraged them to spy on others for personal gain or else be considered enemies of the state.  Havel delves deep beneath the veneer of the absurd, with an owl that brays, yielding further absurdities such as this symbol of wisdom that curries favor with its captor in exchange for a freedom that will never materialize.

The serpent suggests the obvious biblical allusion to Adam and Eve and its offer to them of knowledge versus life in Eden.  In this case, it is the serpent’s paradoxically irrational offer of living in a cemetery in exchange for peace that represents the state’s offer to the Czech people—not much of an offer to be sure!  The pine grove (“bor”) and the flower (“květ”) figure prominently in the Czech national anthem, thus invoking the love of country and Czech pride as important voices to heed.  The flower is, with the exception of the narrator in the final stanza, perhaps the only rational voice in the poem.  It is the flower that defines the beauty of the Czech homeland in the national anthem, and it is the flower that defies the seemingly rational voice of the pine grove.

—David Celone


I’ve been helped with this translation by native Czech speaker Liba Hladik of East Thetford, Vermont.  Liba is a Czech refugee who works for Dartmouth College.  I’ve also received generous assistance from Paul Wilson of Heathcote, Ontario.  Paul was Havel’s biographer, translator, and friend for many years.  He is also a freelance writer who was expelled from Czechoslovakia by the Communist government for his association with the dissident movement.  Liba and Paul have agreed to add their names to my translation of the “Little Owl” poem as I now affectionately call it.  I was further encouraged to take on this translation project by some wonderful people at the Václav Havel Library in Prague including: Jan Hron, Jan “Honza” Macháček, and Martin Palouš.  They’ve given me access to the Library archives and have allowed me to translate “Zahýkal Sýc” into English.  I’d also like to extend my gratitude to another Czech refugee who shall go only by the initials ZB, and his lovely wife, MMB, for their enduring friendship and for introducing me some time ago to the Václav Havel Library and its mission.  You’ve all helped me bring a newly translated voice into this world.  I am truly grateful.

Finally, and to echo the words of Robert Hass in his introduction to the selected poems of Tomas Tranströmer, translating is a “fiddlers task,” as opposed to editing, which belongs to the meddler.  (Tranströmer, Tomas.  Selected Poems 1965-1986.  Ed. Robert Hass. Hopewell, New Jersey: The Ecco Press. 1987.)  I’ve come to realize that tinkering with the strings of the Havelian fiddle is an enormously gratifying experience, producing beautiful music in a mellifluous language that many ears will hear for the very first time.  And, of course, I extend my abundant thanks to Jen Bervin and Rick Jackson of Vermont College of Fine Arts for their guidance as my faculty advisors, and to Douglas Glover of VCFA and his brilliantly designed online magazine Numéro Cinq for making Havel’s poetic music so readily available.  I expect to tinker further with more of Havel’s yet-to-be-translated verse over time.


djcelone photo

David Celone has worked in higher education development and alumni relations for the past seventeen years at Dartmouth College, The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Vermont Law School.  He holds a law degree from Vermont Law School and has practiced law in Vermont and Connecticut. Celone grew up in the seaside village of New Haven, Connecticut.  He lives in Lyme, New Hampshire, as he pursues a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Sep 062013

Boel Schenlaer

Boel Schenlaer is a whirlwind of a poet, playwright, editor and literary impresario in Sweden. She is also a bit of a nomad and writes about that, writes about the interzone where the familiar begins to fade and the Other, strange, foreign, crowded and confusing, begins to infiltrate consciousness with a tumult of sensation, gorgeous unknowable words, and fleeting, enigmatic encounters. This is the zone of translation (between cultures, peoples, languages) and transcendence. It’s ironic then that we also have here translations from the Swedish (by Alan Crozier) of Schenlaer’s translations of her experience, experience doubly displaced — something in this about the nature of poetry. Lovely to read.



En route to Marrakech
Cane making. Afriqua is the name of the
filling station, lovely clusters of cactus.
“A new life is born” it says on
the sign. Birdbath fountain. Repair shop.
Donkeys shrieking like donkeys.
Afriqua. Oilibya and Marrakech begin.

Round buildings, holes in the walls
pink stone houses, built-up areas.
Orange trees, cars, a mosque, swimming baths.
Red stone houses, red wall. Yellow-pink houses.
Café Ourika. Moped riders. Africa depicted.
When there are too few things to observe…
…children become poets…

A roof of cloth
Never before have I seen such a swarm
the medina, souks, the square full of people
like one big dark mystic mass
in which I move, which moves round me.
A vault of cloth above, a roof of cloth, the sky
the soft, dark night of creation, black
and all the lanterns, fires, lights, the glare
Djema el-Fnaa, fortune tellers, madrasas.
Who is frightened by large open squares with
smoke, fires, snakes, horses, drums, food
begging children, jewellery, carpets, shawls
scents of incense, the darkness, the throng…


Encircled by darkness and people


When we got out of the taxi the darkness was there
enclosing, embracing, the closure
and the opening of night in movements
in tension, in encounters that come closer.
The square a roundabout of bustle, rhythms
three spells, the fairytale, the hostilities
dynasties of believing Arabs
the Muslims, the women’s clothing
– heavy yellow-pink, soft orange, jellyfish-green –
beards, roving eyes, the heat in the air
the teapots, the drinking vessels, hats
carpets, patterns and the arabesques
the conmen, the beggars, and the
hands cupped before one’s eyes.
To give, always to give, to be a poor
Swede, but poor gives to poor and I can’t
remember such vulnerability
just my own former poverty and
the children’s blind trust, a destitution that
makes them want to abandon the draught animals
with caked earth hanging from their bellies.
The teapots, symbols of pause.


A girl pursues us up on to the roof
she wants her dirhams. She stands her ground.
When we have drunk our tea she is at the foot
of the stairs, tugs our clothes, loses her temper.
She gets twenty dirhams but wants a hundred
she doesn’t give up, we have to chase
the child away and what does that make us?
In that moment I lose my dignity
to the red pisé walls of the medina.

At home my friends are exposed to
hate crimes and I protest vehemently
to those who made the damage possible.
Anti-Semites are growing in numbers.


Night in the square is the darkness and mumbling
of rapture, the gloom of a spirit.
My black nightmare is of a different kind.
Poetry is the dark muzzle of a
confiscated horse left in the stable.
The four-legged steed, chained fast and
inside the horse another one like it
a velvety creature we call a foal
with the well in its eyes and a hoarse cry,
a whisper that has become mute, that lives
its life concealed, born into uncertainty
that strides through fire on weightless hooves.


I am standing in water up to my dream.
The clay houses, walls of dissected life.
Stone-paved sugar which for centuries has
got stuck together with corroded souls
terms of abuse, smears, disparagement, hatred
in a broad horizon of bridge abutments
underground passages, burnt sand, desert.

The same incurable torrent of words that
is an act of kindness to scornful faces.
The man who’s fit for fight flinches away.
A panegyric from purgatory, a gob of spittle.
Some ancient poems the door of which
cannot be seen without a protective film.
The pilgrimage of the seven shawls. An awkward hand.
Everything I lay down here agrees with what
he said about his own will to breathe:
You reach true depth on the surface level.


Mellah is Hebrew for salt, the
Jewish quarters, the salt regarded
as poison, strewn for murder victims, I
cannot put up with the lies, never,
not in situations where the clothes pegs
in our outstretched hand, our fellow feelings
are constantly questioned. Our hook on life.

How the button that Lenke Rothman kept as
a bridge over all time away from the end,
how candy floss, barbe à papa, ceases.


The shoe-cleaner in a black jacket with a red
collar, dressed like a dirtied bellhop
on his low stool at the café guests’
shoes makes me burst into sudden tears.
Just like the grubby little boy
who handed me a packet of tissues
to give something in exchange for a few
paltry dirhams, and the youth who sold
a box of raspberries, took the note and ran.

—Boel Schenlær, from the collection I Dream of Blood translated by Alan Crozier


Alan Crozier was born in Ulster in 1953. He gained a Ph.D. in Germanic philology at Cambridge University in 1980. For the past thirty years he has lived in Sweden, married, with two children. He works as a translator, mainly of Scandinavian academic texts, and more recently of poetry, including the latest two collections of poems by Boel Schenlaer. His spare-time interests include folk music and writing comic verse and
other nonsense.

Boel Schenlaer is a poet and playwright who made her debut in 1992. Her poems have been translated into eleven languages. She is also editor of the poetry magazine Post Scriptum, and of the literary journal Merkurius. For the past eleven years she has arranged the annual Södermalm Poetry Festival, where some three hundred Swedish and international poets have appeared. Her latest collection of poems is titled Nomad in Exile, and a new one is to be published this winter: I Dream of Blood (Symposion, 2014).

Aug 152013


Herewith is “Us.” I’ve chosen this excerpt of Through the Night (Dalkey Archive Press), translated by Seán Kinsella, to illustrate the power of Sæterbakken’s prose, particularly his narrative voice and control of the moment. “Us” comes early in the novel, and is perhaps the origins of Karl and Eva’s eventual separation. But as this section makes clear, Karl poses many existential questions on love and fidelity, which are paralyzing, and for him unanswerable. This rather prismatic questioning of life is repeated throughout the novel, adding to the novel’s overall tension and psychological terror.

Jason DeYoung



“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

We’d eaten a late dinner, and I was pouring Eva some wine from a newly opened bottle, after she had, surprisingly enough, asked me to check and see if we had one. I felt a smile cross my face as I stood in the closet with the bottle in my hands, Eva had that carefree air about her, the one she usually had, in fact, when circumstances suited her, and as I stood in the kitchen cutting off the bottle’s seal with the tip of the corkscrew, I couldn’t help but smile again, as if it were our very first night together.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

The question gave me a start and I tightened my grip on the bottle, anxious about where she wanted to go with this. Why did she ask? Because she figured, no matter which way she looked at it, that the answer had to be yes? Or because she figured, no matter which way you looked at it, that the answer had to be no? And I thought about how often the questions we asked each other were in reality the questions we wanted to be asked ourselves.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

I looked at her. Her neck, her shoulders. So beautiful, everything! Sometimes in the evenings I massaged her while she watched TV. I felt like a sculptor when I did it. This was what a sculptor must have felt, I imagined, when he had finally gotten a piece just as he wanted it, standing there running his hands over his finished work. And, in fact, she now placed her hand on her own shoulder, there at the table, and began to rub at it, without being aware she was doing so, which was usually an expression of exhaustion, self-pity, of wan despair, but which now seemed more like a self-caress.

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

In order to avoid answering, I raised my glass and clinked it against hers, and asked for her own opinion on the matter. The subject could hardly be coming up out of the blue, it occurred to me, when I actually thought about it: it was only a few days since one of Eva’s old friends, whom she hadn’t heard from for years, had called her up and described in detail—they’d been on the phone for almost three hours—the last few years of her marriage, a marriage that had lasted since the days she and Eva had been at school together, but was now over, as it had turned out that her husband, who had been her childhood sweetheart, was jumping into bed with practically every woman who had come his way, most recently with his sister-in-law, something that of course had come out, by and by, and had in turn triggered an absolute avalanche of confessions. This friend told Eva that she felt that her entire life had been ruined. All those years she’d regarded him as her one and only, believing him to be regarding herself as his . . . She’d said she would have felt better if she’d been the one who had done it, if she’d been the one who had lied and cheated, the one who now had to put up with the accusations, the one racked with shame and regret. She’d embarked on a few reckless escapades after she’d found out, she confided to Eva, as a revenge of sorts. But it was too late. There was nothing to be gained from it, neither for her nor for him. Nothing for her to win, nothing for him to lose. Everything was ruined. And she had never even had any fun of her own!

“Do you think the two of us will always be together?”

I looked at Eva. I remembered when I had gone back to her place for the first time, how amazed I’d been at how neat and tidy it was. It was like a household already, just as though the apartment was furnished for the life she wanted but had yet to acquire. It was a home, just standing there waiting for its family to arrive. And I remember thinking with horror about my own one-bedroom apartment, which she still hadn’t been to, how hopelessly juvenile and unfinished it would appear to her compared to all the things she kept around her. The chairs she had were comfortable to sit in, in the kitchen she had good quality knives on a magnetic strip above the range. She wasn’t a student! She was a complete person! There was something extremely appealing about it. I’d been filled with admiration as I looked at her standing there with a bottle of wine in each hand, asking me which I’d prefer; I wanted to move in with her right away, abandon everything I had, take nothing along, just advance to the start, her start, and begin there, over again.

So what did I think? Did the fact that I hesitated, that I didn’t have a ready-made answer, mean that the answer was no? Or was it just that I hadn’t formed any particular opinion yet? In which case it must mean that one outcome was just as likely as the other? Why hadn’t I thought it through properly? Was it because I was so certain that nothing would ever happen that could threaten us, our relationship, the vows we’d made?

I looked at her, the lovely renewed Eva. The just right level of tipsy Eva. The slightly nonchalant, amenable Eva. Whenever I dreamed of her, she was wearing the red dress she’d had on the first time we went out, to that Chinese restaurant. Yes, I think the two of us will always be together, I thought. What else could we possibly want? Her hair, which had grown and was long, fell across her face every time she turned her head, but it was as though she wanted this to happen, since she liked to rake her hand through it, gather it, pull it back behind her ear in a fresh futile attempt to fix it in place, the most beautiful of power struggles.

I looked at her and thought: Now it’s turned into the kind of night where anything can happen. Now we can say anything, anything that comes to mind, without either of us being hurt. At this moment we can take anything. And I remembered a film I’d seen, where you could enter another dimension through a hole in the atmosphere that was only open at certain times, and even then only to those who knew the secret formula. It was there now, the wormhole. It was right in front of us, the possibility to say anything we wanted, exactly what we had on our minds, without the need to take anything else into consideration. At this moment we ourselves didn’t need to be taken into consideration, neither of us. Right now we were the opposite of jealous. At this moment we were equally strong and could tolerate everything.

There and then I felt the need to do it, reveal something, confess something, anything at all, in order to affirm the new intimacy that had arisen (and that would soon vanish again), the candor that now existed between us (and that I knew would soon close again, like a flower that only blooms at night, which folds together as soon as the first rays of the sun fall on it). I despaired. Did I really have nothing to say? No, it seemed that I didn’t. No confessions. No admissions. Nothing to answer for. My conscience was clear. I felt ashamed at the thought. Because it was true, there really was nothing. Nothing other than some altogether insignificant episodes, some embraces that perhaps lingered beyond the merely amicable, some too-close dances, some fleeting touches, one or two kisses that were so innocent that I’d only make a fool of myself if I told Eva about them.

I thought: What in the world have I actually gotten up to in all these years?

A thousand thoughts, a thousand possibilities tumbled around in my head—I had to act quickly, our night was in danger, it could collapse at any moment, and if it did, then nothing could save it from the wan abyss, from the greedy maw of everyday life—but none distressing enough to take advantage of this opportunity, this potential for a new sort of relationship between us. No, to my horror, I had to face the fact that I had nothing to say. My God, if only I’d deceived her one single time! And I cursed myself, my honesty, my excessive caution. My sole sin: omission. Time was up, but there was nothing. She was ready, and I had nothing to offer her.

And a new anxiety pierced through me. What if she now came out with something? What if she now felt the same as I did, that the time had come to admit things, and that she, in contrast to me, actually had something on her conscience, something she now wanted to take the opportunity to unburden herself of? How then would I deal with that? I didn’t have anything to offer her in return, nothing of my own to balance the books with. And for a moment I felt helpless, terrified of what I might hear. I looked at her, waited for her mouth to open, for her to say the words, in an oddly toned voice, which would constitute the introduction, accompanied by a somewhat fearful glance, uncertain of exactly how open she could be.

“Why did you fall in love with me?” she asked before I could think of anything to say, and what I initially took as being a tender thought, a romantic invitation, was in reality, I realized, as I was about to answer, a challenge, a provocation, there had been something aggressive about the way she’d posed the question that only sank in afterward, like a delayed sting. And before I had time to answer, she continued, “Why us exactly? Why didn’t we both end up with other people? Why is it the two of us, in particular, sitting here?” And then she made a gesture with her hand: surrounded by all this. “Why you and me exactly? Why did you decide that I was the one? What was it that made you take that decision?” I searched for something to say, something to stay her with. Because I could see where this was going. But I couldn’t think of anything. And why should I? She wasn’t looking for answers anyway. Her eyes had that slightly glassy look about them, as if they weren’t being used to see anymore.

“Why?” she asked again, pausing before she continued, “Why did you marry me? Why didn’t you wait until you met somebody else? What was it that was so special about me? Was it really impossible for it to have been, just as easily, someone else? Did it only just happen to work out that way, that it was me? Was it just that I was at hand, that I was around when you thought the time was right?”

I said her name, but she didn’t hear me. She was far away. How am I going to get her back? I wondered. If I can’t get her back now, the evening will be lost. Then it was as though she came to life, her cheeks were crimson and a flame danced all the way up along her neck, it looked like her collarbone was on fire, the way her skin flushed and tightened over her throbbing veins.

“Am I the love of your life, Karl? The love that only comes along once in a lifetime? Am I?

“And does it only come along once in a lifetime? What do you think? Maybe it comes along a few times? Or is it something you can use up? What do you think?

“What about you, Karl? Could you love more than once? Is there anything left in you? Or have I taken it all?”

I should have stopped her, defended myself. But the way she’d worked herself up, I knew the only way to get her to stop would be to let her exhaust herself. She was like a riverbed in a spring flood. Any obstacles in her path would only increase the pressure.

“Why don’t you answer me? I’m only asking a few simple questions. What else can I do but ask when you don’t give me anything to work with? You never answer! What is it you don’t want to say? Are you hiding something? Are you hiding something from me, Karl? Are you keeping secrets from me? You don’t have any secrets you’re keeping from me, do you, Karl?”

She looked out of her mind, with her flaming red neck and the purple blotches all around her eyes and cheeks.

Then her head tipped forward, her face hidden by her hair. I didn’t know what to do, only that I’d be wise to wait a little longer before doing it. It looked like she was asleep, but I knew that her eyes were open, that she was sitting there struggling to collect her thoughts. Yes, best to wait, I thought. I took her hand, it was freezing. I warmed it up in my own, and after a while I felt it twitch a little. And then, at long last, she lifted her head and looked at me, fixed her eyes on mine, tried to lift herself up using only our eye contact as a prop. And now the glassy look had vanished, now her eyes sparkled, the light deepening, her look of despair finding expression, her lips regaining their color, the person in her returning, all her wrinkles and lines slipping back into place.

I stood up, still holding her hand, got down on my knees in front of her, and stroked her hair. She sat there for a long time just looking at me, smiling, rather contritely, it seemed. Then she grabbed me by the arm and stared into my eyes with an almost parodic over-seriousness: “Whatever you do, Karl,” she whispered, “whatever you do, don’t lie to me! Do you hear me? I think I’d be able to forgive you almost anything. No matter how idiotic. But not if you lied to me. Not if it turns out that you’d lied to me. Will you promise me? Promise me that you’ll never, ever lie to me?”

I promised, swore a solemn oath. Unconditionally, right there and then, I promised. I felt a pang of conscience as I said it. But then it vanished. Does it matter what you say, what you promise? I remembered how scared I used to be, at the time we were first getting to know each other, of her demands. It was as though she wanted us to live in a way the era in which we lived simply wouldn’t allow us. It was as though marriage was one of the antiques she’d collected, one she felt a particular attachment to. We had friends who’d already divorced and remarried, it was like a perpetual round dance, fueled by the same desires and the same disappointments at every point in the circle. They sought out marriage in order to realize their dreams, and they broke out of marriage in order to realize their dreams—which is to say, they married and divorced for the same reason. All the same, it didn’t occur to me to protest against the old-fashioned boundaries Eva set. Maybe she was right? Maybe it needed to be that strict if it was to mean anything at all? What would be left of fidelity once it was broken? All or nothing, wasn’t that how it had to be? If it happened once, what was to prevent it happening again? Was breaking your marriage vows five times any worse than breaking them twice? Is it better or worse to go to bed with ten different people or to do it ten times with the same person? Is the sin made greater when it’s repeated? Does fidelity even have any meaning in cases where it’s not absolute? And what value does it have if it’s going to be violated someday anyway? The smallest crimes are the largest. By perpetrating them you demonstrate that you are capable of anything.

What had bothered Eva’s friend wasn’t that her husband was unfaithful, but that she herself hadn’t been. Since she herself had refrained, when he did not, all of her years of fidelity became an object of shame. Her entire attitude, her devotion, her marital investment were all taken from her in one fell swoop. Her life-choice became a mockery, retroactively. Her outlook held up to ridicule. Her commitment a waste of time, when all was said and done.

Eva sat staring at me, with a look of either joy or despair, it was hard to say which. Then she tossed her head, sighed heavily, and shook off whatever it was that either delighted or distressed her. All at once she seemed completely sober. The transformation was almost uncanny, as if she’d only been pretending to be drunk.

“Does it make any difference,” she asked, watching me from inside that part of her brain she’d managed to keep on dry ground, away from the alcohol that had been flowing through her, “whether you do it or not, if you really want to do it?”

I asked her what she meant.

“If you meet someone you find attractive, someone you’d like to go to bed with, someone you know you could go to bed with, if you wanted, and then you don’t, out of consideration for me, have you been unfaithful to me anyway? What difference does it make, if it leaves you thinking about how nice it would’ve been to do it? Is there any difference? Does it affect our relationship any less, if you don’t go through with it? Is there less damage being done to our marriage if we do it in our heads and not in reality?”

For the umpteenth time that night I was again at a loss for words. All the same, I was aware that I was enjoyed talking to her about this. I liked the danger of it, the delicacy of it, liked the fact she was on a roll, that she was challenging me, I liked the way it all gushed out of her, how months of constantly recycled thoughts were suddenly being given vent, how everything that was usually concealed was now frolicking so openly between us. Oh, darling, why don’t we do this every night? Why don’t we sit like this, night after night, filling the cup till it overflows, talking about ourselves and our relationship, repeat things we’ve said a hundred times before, tell each other stories we both know by heart, let the familiar mill grind down the corn of our solidarity? Why does such a long time have to pass between each time we do it? Why does such a long time have to pass between each time we find our way to one another like this? What’s the point in everything we do if it doesn’t lead us here, the only place worth being? This is what we live for! This is the purpose of everything we do! The nights that make our days pale by comparison, which bathe our intimacy in a glow, the nights when it’s obvious and evident we can sit across from one another and tell each other everything. Why don’t we do this all the time? Why isn’t every night like this? If there’s a price, then let’s pay it: forty days of silence for one voluble night! As though it all runs by clockwork, gears turning us so slowly, impelling us, cogs that have to make a full revolution before their teeth again connect, slip into one another in precisely the right way, falling into the position needed to set the clock striking. And then come the beautiful, delicate sounds. And everything becomes melodious and obvious. Before the cogs move on, beginning the next long, slow revolution.



“I love you.”

—Stig Sæterbakken, Translated by Seán Kinsella

Aug 082013


TERRIBLE AND TRUE shriek the headlines beneath the gorgeously demonic murder scene. Scene and headline typify the remarkable broadsheet publications from the famous Mexican printshop of Antonio Vanegas Arroyo in the latter years of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Brendan Riley’s translation of Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue was just published by Dalkey Archive Press in May, and he has two more books forthcoming. Yet he managed to find time to deliver these gems to NC, marvelous combinations of poetry, cartoon and text, vaguely reminiscent of the tabloids you see at the grocery store checkout counter but not nearly so culturally peripheral in their day. Hyperbolic, true, political, journalistic, satirical, they are an art form unto themselves, a wonderful conjunction of publishing acumen, art and a hungry public.


Some of the most powerful combinations of text and graphics of the early 20th century are to be found in the celebrated broadsheets produced by the Mexico City printing shop of editor, writer, and dramatist Antonio Vanegas Arroyo (1850-1917), with accompanying cartoon illustrations created by the legendary printmaker José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913).

These broadsheets were printed on coarse paper and sold cheaply for widespread public consumption. They were the penny press of the day, frequently compared to our contemporary tabloids. Lurid, melodramatic, and eye-catching (though not tainted by quite the same kink of today’s scandal rags) they were also soundly relevant socially as well as potently satirical, often dispensing indictments of widespread corruption and misery suffered by Mexicans under el Porfiriato, the regime of president-cum-dictator Porfirio Díaz.

The Library of Congress holds a large collection of original examples of these inexpensive gacetas callejeras (street gazettes). The stories they offer are sensational, tragic, and sometimes scandalous. They are typically accompanied by a corrido, the traditional ballad form still used in Mexico to relay and celebrate the popular news of the day. Vanegas Arroyo was one of the best-known publishers of his time, and from 1880 until his death in 1917, he oversaw the production of thousands of these broadsheets. His family carried on the printing business until 2001. One of the main writers for the Vanegas firm was the poet Constacio S. Suárez who may have composed the corridos translated below. Although some of the sheets include the phrase “propiedad de (property of) Antonio Vanegas Arroyo” there is no specific byline or other claim of authorship.  Guadalupe Posada’s vivid illustrations often provided appropriate visual accompaniment to these startling episodes. The images presented here are freely available for download from the Library website which also provides extensive archival data for each artifact.

While these historic periodicals have been surveyed and reproduced in a number of different books (Posada’s Broadsheets: Mexican Popular Imagery, 1890-1910 by Patrick Frank; Posada: Illustrator of Chapbooks by Mercurio Casillas; and Posada’s Popular Mexican Prints, edited by Roberto Berdecio and Stanley Appelbaum, to name a few), the texts themselves are typically described or summarized but not always translated in full.

Here are translations from three different broadsheets from the Vanegas Arroyo shop. The first one describes the calamitous flood in Guanajuato, Mexico which occurred on Friday, June 30, 1905. The other two are from 1910, the first year of the Mexican Revolution. One deals specifically with those early days of uprising in Puebla, describing a protracted firefight between the family and allies of the anti-reelectionist leader Aquiles Cerdán and local police and soldiers which resulted in scores of dead and wounded, including police chief Miguel Cabrera who is named in the headline. The third text relates the macabre, cautionary tale of Norberta Reyes, a rebellious, prodigal, only daughter who abandoned her house to follow her lover, then returned home in misery a year later seeking refuge only to murder her doting parents when they tried to move the family to another town to repair the damage her scandalous affair had caused.

—Brendan Riley

Guanajuato Flood JPEG #1

The Guanajuato Flood and Its True Cause

Many years will pass before the horrific catastrophe at Guanajuato, already an unforgettable date in Mexican history, shall be forgotten. The tragic events which took place in that city will, without a doubt, move even the world’s most indifferent and skeptical soul. Such anguish! Such tremendous upheavals!

Only the Great Flood described in the Bible could be compared to this one. Based on accurate calculations, the true cause of this unsettling disaster can be explained as follows: built along the flanks of a canyon, the city of Guanajuato has streets which are narrow, winding, irregular, and not the least bit flat. Most of them form slopes and steep grades, a characteristic which favors flooding. Crossing back and forth through the town is a narrow river which is, in places, sealed over to facilitate traffic. Of course, it is also a well-known fact that the nearby dam has a spillway for those times when the river overflows; this current joins up with the water cascading down from the hills and goes surging through the narrow, covered riverbed. After an hour of the water rushing down through Guanajuato one could hear, above the noise of the pouring rain, a horrendous roar: it was the vaulted coverings over the river which proved inadequate to contain the flood. The floodwaters burst through them, wiping out the city. And after that deluge many people who had saved themselves by climbing up onto their rooftops fell into the water as their houses collapsed underneath them due to the force of the flood. In the wake of this disaster, the few remaining inhabitants face the horrible threat of hunger; as of this writing, groceries are commanding a very inflated price; suffice to say that a tortilla costs now two centavos and a piece of bread, ten.

 * * *

Pride of the Republic
For its rich minerals
The city of Guanajuato
Amassed vast capital wealth.
The cradle of liberals
Who always honored their country
And as brave men must, fought
For its progress and greatness
Among the most loyal Nations.

And rightly so, it came to be
That lovely capital city
The first in the country
For its massive splendor.
Buildings without equal
Made from beautiful quarries
Which are the true pride
Of that rich region
And which give the country
Renown among the greatest nations.

Such celebrated riches
Are now practically washed away,
By the terrible flood
Which overflowed the river’s course,
The wall of the great and famous Dam
Torn away from the shore
Joined with the spillway stream
Deluging all the people
The desolation came rushing on
As fast as they could fly.

And all the town of Marfil
Suffered the same, no less
The countless poor, who wander
About with no place to rest.
It’s said that the victims number
More than one thousand dead
In the furious deluge
Which destroyed those cities,
The horror we lament today
Unlike any other of the ages.

 * * *

Bloody Events in Puebla - Death of Police Chief Miguel Cabrera JPEG #1

Bloody Events in the City of Puebla – The Death of Police Chief Miguel Cabrera

This past month in the city of Puebla, in the early morning hours of Friday, November 18, quite near the downtown and the Plaza de Armas, various individuals appeared at 5 o’clock in the morning, shouting and firing guns at a house on Santa Clara Street, home of the anti-reelectionist Aquiles Cerdán.

The police arrived to investigate the house, headed by the chief of security Señor Miguel Cabrera who tried to gain entrance, but they were received with gunfire, with Sr. Cabrera and many police officers dying on the spot.

Word was sent to the local barracks and the “Zaragoza” Battalion rushed to their aid, sparking a terrible battle that lasted three hours, resulting in nearly one hundred dead and injured.

In the end, the house was taken by assault and various persons were apprehended. The lifeless body of Sr. Cabrera was recovered from where it lay sprawled on the porch of the house.

The City now finds itself in dismay. All shops are closed, and families are fleeing in search of safe places, for the revolution is terrible and the killing is horrifying.

Santa Clara Street is deserted, its sidewalks stained with blood. Inside the house of Aquiles Cerdán were found some 200 rifles, a large quantity of explosives, attack plans, and many artillery shells and dynamite bombs, several of which were hurled at the federal forces, along with a veritable rain of bullets. A general anti-reelectionist revolution is underway and the general state of panic is very great.

Among those wounded are the First Captain of the Zaragoza Battalion, Don Francisco Aguilar, who, like Colonel Mauro Huerta, fought valiantly against the reelectionists; also wounded are Lieutenant Colonel Abel Licona; Colonel Gaudencio González, a visitor from the headquarters of the State of Puebla; sublieutenant Camilo Ojeda; mounted policeman Wilifrído Cervantes; and countless policemen, soldiers, and passersby.

Among the dead are first counted Police Chief Sr. Miguel Cabrera, and Máximo Cerdán who seems to have directed the revolutionary movement, and who is the brother of the owner of the house on Santa Clara Street; private Angel Durán; Second Sergeant Manuel Sanchez, and two women who were walking along the street at the very moment when the fighting erupted.

Aquiles Cerdán, owner of the house and principal ringleader, was not found and remains at large, a fugitive from justice.

The Government has taken the necessary measures to suppress a growing revolution.

The whole city of Puebla is now deserted: doors are shut, inhabitants hidden in their houses and all business suspended.

Fourteen hours later, an underground vault was discovered in Cerdán’s house. When the hiding place was searched, Aquiles Cerdán appeared, declaring his wish to surrender, but before he could speak another word he was shot dead and carried to the police station on a stretcher.

Four rebels have been brought in from Tlaxcala; their names are Manuel Sánchez, along with Trinidad and Nicolás Sánchez, and Gregorio Florez.

In Orizaba authorities apprehended Victoriano García, José Ventura Sánchez, and Benjamín Rodriguez.

Prisoners brought in from Pachuca were Francisco Noble, a school teacher, Loreto Salinas, Mateo Angeles, and Eligio Ramírez.

Those arrested in San Luis Potosí were: Antonio and Adrián Gutierrez, Luis Martínez, Ernesto and Juan Espinosa and Lucrecio Montejano, a very wealthy man from that city. Others arrested later on were Bacilio and Concepción Regalado, Francisco Padilla, José Rico, José Tamayo, Pedro Torres, José María Espinosa, Francisco Herrera, Antonio Buendía, and Antonio Rangel.

All of these individuals have been confined within the following prisons: Santiago, Cuartel de la Montada, Belem, and the Federal Penitentiary.

Bloody Events in Puebla - Death of Police Chief Miguel Cabrera JPEG #2

Sad Lamentations from the Distraught Citizens of Heroic PUEBLA

Oh Peace, lovely Peace!
Why do you abandon us?
Politics and rumors
Now drive people’s meetings…
And you, that always adorns
Progress so tenaciously,
And the flourishing commerce
You’ve always brought to Puebla
Why do you now fall to chaos
Why do you abandon us
Oh Peace, lovely Peace?

War no matter where you turn!
Great and terrible alarm!
The whole world trembles
If war shows its face,
Brandishing its cruel weapons
Made for spilling blood;
Sowing bitterness,
Filling the heart
and soul with fear,
Now crying out ceaselessly
War everywhere!

Dying! Oh, why die?
Peace is so precious!
The Mother of Progress
Incense of our history
Fragrant and lovely rose
Of the richest garden
The happiest fortune
of life’s pleasure;
Oh venerated Goddess!
Exclaim now proudly:
Dying! Oh, why die?

Oh Peace, lovely Peace!
Do you abandon your children?
But your motherly love
Will never, ever accept that
Because your absence perhaps
Convulses the very future!
Without you, all is broken;
Neither science, nor progress:
Because you thrive on that
Why do you abandon us,
Oh Peace, lovely Peace?

Printed by Antonio Vanegas Arroyo
43 Calle de Santa Teresa, #2
Mexico City, 1910

Norberta Reyes JPEG #1SPACE

The True, Terrible, and Shocking Affair of Norberta Reyes, who murdered her parents near the city of Zamora on the 2nd of last month.

 In a small town on the outskirts of the city of Zamora, in the State of Michoacán, lived Anselmo Reyes and Pascuala Rosa, whose marriage only produced one child, their daughter Norberta, whom both parents loved with warmth and affection, as much for her being a girl as for being the only fruit of their love.

From a very young age Norberta showed herself to be possessed of a volatile and indomitable spirit; this being fomented by her parents’ indulgence, she grew up to become an insufferable creature for everyone except her mother and father, who in their blind devotion accepted all her caprice as their daughter’s natural grace and charm. And so she reached the age of 16 and not being an unpleasant looking girl, did not take long to meet up with a rascal who won her affections. As she was accustomed to do as she pleased, in spite of her parents’s advice, she reciprocated his desires and, when it was least suspected, disappeared with her lover.

A year and a half had passed without Norberta’s parents knowing anything more about their daughter in spite of their many efforts to discover her whereabouts. One evening she suddenly appeared in their doorway in a truly pathetic state, nearly naked, miserable, filthy, covered with lice, and bearing countless scars on every part of her body.

Upon seeing their daughter in such a lamentable state, her unhappy parents forgot her ingratitude and with a thousand caresses tried to console her sad condition; but this ungrateful daughter, far from being thankful for her parents’s goodness and kindness, each day behaved worse towards them. Norberta could not stop wondering what had become of her despicable seducer. This drove her increasingly out of her mind, and she caused a scandalous uproar day after day in their house, so much so that the neighbors became alarmed, for the which reason Norberta’s elderly parents decided to abandon their town and move to another where they were not known. Harboring hopes that her wicked lover would return in search of her, their depraved daughter was dead set against such a move; but seeing that her parents had made up their mind, she sheltered in her heart the cruelest, most horrible plan.

When the day came that they finally left the town, Norberta carefully concealed on her person a sharp knife and, even pretending to be happy, she set out with her elderly and beloved parents who could not imagine the sad fate their daughter had in store for them.

To reach the town they were headed for, they were obliged to pass through a very solitary spot, and there, in order to rest, they stopped and prepared their meager lunch. After eating, overcome with fatigue, the old couple lay down on the grass. When the vile Norberta saw them asleep, she took out the murderous knife and leaping first upon her old father, struck him a terrible blow to the neck which nearly severed his head from his body.

The noise of the bloody drama awoke the old woman; but before she could rise from the ground her wicked daughter hurled herself at her, plunging the knife repeatedly into different parts of her mother’s body until most of her innards were hanging out, leaving the unfortunate woman completely cut to pieces.

Her horrible crime now committed, Norberta set out on the road back towards her town; but without realizing it, she lost her way. After walking all day long, she found herself by nightfall in a dry, desolate place near a deep ravine.

There she paused, because by now her fatigue prevented her from walking farther. Around eleven o’clock at night she heard a chorus of hellish sounds that seemed to rise out from the depths of the ravine, and a few moments later she saw emerge from the same, two enormous black dogs baring their teeth and jaws with a frightful sound. They leapt upon the wretched Norberta, tearing her furiously, dragging her down into the ravine, and hurling her to the bottom. There she finally died five days later, tormented by hunger, thirst, and the terrible sharp pains from the bite wounds, by now festering with maggots.

The same day of this terrible occurrence, the police discovered the corpses of the old couple, who were then buried in the cemetery, unlike the body of their heinous daughter. Although her body was spotted at the bottom of the ravine it could not be removed from there because when they tried to, the body was lost to sight and was only glimpsed again the following day.

This extraordinary event serves to show parents the obligation they bear to not indulge their children, and that from their earliest infancy they must always curb their bad inclinations.

Norberta Reyes JPEG #2

* * * * * * * * * *

I hearkened to the seductions
of a depraved and vile man
Who at last abandoned me
Making me sadder than before.
His wicked wounded heart
Did mine, in turn, pervert
So that now I do suffer
The very torments of Hell,
Which shall be punishment eternal
For my horrible sin and transgression.

Like a wild, furious beast
I killed my beloved parents,
Tearing out their life
With strange, unspeakable cruelty.

Forgive me, dear Mother!
Forgive me, worshipful Father!
Now my punishment has arrived,
If only I might have died alone
In that desert a thousand times
Before I’d murdered them!

Last month I committed
an atrocious crime
I delivered death unto them both
With horrible cruelty.
But the punishment decreed by God
Came down like lightning
And my body was flung
From atop a ravine into the depths
And there lay broken and lifeless
To be by worms devoured.

Blinded by love and affection
My parents indulged me,
Leading to my disgrace,
They saw their mistake too late.
And for not being reprimanded,
They both became victims
Of my too-kind upbringing,
And twisted inclinations.
And this love, badly entertained,
Has now wrought my perdition.

Printed at 29 Calle de la Penintenciaría #2, Mexico City

—Translated by Brendan Riley


Brendan Riley

Brendan Riley has worked for many years as a teacher and translator. He holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. In addition to being an ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, Riley has also earned certificates in Translation Studies and Applied Literary Translation from U.C. Berkeley and the University of Illinois, respectively. His translation of Eloy Tizón’s story “The Mercury in the Thermometers” was included in Best European Fiction 2013. Other translations in print include Massacre of the Dreamers by Juan Velasco, and Hypothermia by Álvaro Enrigue. Forthcoming translations include Caterva by Juan Filloy, and The Great Latin American Novel by Carlos Fuentes.

Jul 182013

Angel Igov via www.programata,bg

Angel Igov’s A Short Tale of Shame, translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel and published by Open Letter Books, is an ambitious, lyrical novel that succeeds in part by transplanting its story to a semi-fictitious version of the Balkan region. Igov experiments with setting and with an explosive style reminiscent of the Beats’ lyricism combined with Virginia Woolf’s free indirect discourse. His pages-long paragraphs build beyond bite-sized slices consumer readers favor—the reward is a sentential tension that delivers scene, exposition, and character thought all in one.

The following excerpt, taken from the end of the first chapter, captures the distinctive nature of both Igov’s setting and style. When asked via e-mail about the novel’s discomfiting mock-Balkan setting, he wrote:

“The main purpose in establishing this mock-Balkan background is precisely political irony, directed both ways: at Balkan nations, for making their history so crucial to their identity, and at the “West”, for being so eager to use ready-made stereotypes of the region. The Balkans in my novel resemble very much the ones we know from stereotypes even though the ethnonyms are different and history has gone some alternative way.

The mock-Balkan layer also has the idea to introduce some estrangement or alienation from the main story, in a somewhat Brechtian sense.

But I certainly didn’t try to establish a whole fictional world with its clearly cut geography and history. So I don’t expect readers anywhere to draw for themselves a clearer picture than the one I had in mind. The game of hints and ironies is purposefully vague, and it’s vague enough for Bulgarian readers too. As long as it holds and you are partially (but beneficially) lost, that’s good for you.”

—Tom Faure

See Tom Faure’s review of the novel here.


Actually, it suddenly popped into Krustev’s mind, aren’t these three in college? It’s the middle of May, shouldn’t they be going to lectures right now? He received a full-on lecture in reply. All three of us are taking time off, Maya explained. At the end of sophomore year, lots of people begin doubting whether their major is really for them, they had, too. The three of them had gotten together at the end of last summer and decided that they would give themselves a year to clear things up, then they would decide whether to keep the same majors or to change, interesting, Krustev said, do the three of you always decide what to do as a group? Pretty often, the girl again gave her nervous laugh. It’s been like that since the beginning of high school, always the three of us together. In the beginning everybody thought it was weird, Spartacus cut in, then little by little they got used to it, at the end of the day there are people with much stranger relationships. Krustev couldn’t disagree with that, he himself handled strange relationships well, significantly more successfully than normal ones, take me, for example, Spartacus continued, I’m in law school. Sirma jokes that that’s why I’m such a chatterbox. Right now, I can’t say that I don’t want to study law anymore. It’s just that I need a year off to think things over and figure out whether I really want to go into law or if I’d rather do something else, and now’s the time, because afterwards it will be too late . . . Sirma wanted to know what Krustev’s major had been. Me? He had studied management. Only it was different then, he shrugged, I never really had the college experience, because of music I started my BA a lot later, after the Euphoria guys and I had ditched our instruments and decided to go into business. And I was in a hurry to graduate, even though I’m sure it would’ve been the same, even without a diploma. While they were teaching me how to run a company, I was already running three. He suddenly thought this sounded too arrogant and added that in those years, that happened a lot, it still does now, too, Maya said.

The road rushed on ahead and took the curves fast, narrow, but nice, repaved recently with the Union’s money, traffic was light, few drivers chose to pass through the heart of the Rhodopes on their way to the sea, and Krustev felt a fleeting, hesitant delight in the freedom to drive freely, without getting furious over the trucks and junkers blocking traffic. Below them, to the left, was the river, high since all the snow had already melted, running its course with a cold and no-nonsense determination; beyond it rippled the newly greened hills. They passed through several villages, long and narrow, built along the river, with two-story houses, their black wooden timbers sternly crossed over whitewashed walls. Since few cars passed, people were walking along the highway here and there, sinewy grandfathers and ancient grandmothers, some even leading goats and from the backseat Sirma for no rhyme or reason announced that she had dreamed of being a goat her whole life, but didn’t manage to expand on her argument, seemingly having dozed off again. Krustev put on some music, Maya and Spartacus, perhaps to make him happy, or perhaps completely spontaneously, sang along quietly and swayed in rhythm such that in their interpretation, the careless rock, designed for Saturday night and chicks in leather jackets, sounded and looked like some mystical Indian mantra. Krustev kept silent, he drove slowly through the villages and looked at the people. They spontaneously reminded him of his grandfather, a strange, scowling person, who always looked angry before you started talking to him, then it turned out that he gladly gave himself over to shooting the breeze and telling stories, mostly amusing tales, one, however, the most recent story, was swollen with darkness and violence, and Krustev thought of it from time to time. His grandfather’s village lay on the border of the Ludogorie region, the only Slavic village around, and his house was on the very edge of the village, near the river, a quiet village, pleasant, albeit a lost cause, the communists had forgotten it in their general industrialization, occupied as they were with the more densely Slavic regions, after the fall of communism the state had left the Slavs in peace once and for all, but back then it was the Dacians’ turn, they had moved into erstwhile Thracian towns, and, of course, in the end they fought, the Thracians called it “The Three Months of Unrest,” while everyone else called it the Civil War of ’73. Before the war, everyone from my grandfather’s village figured that the quarrels between the Thracians and the Dacians weren’t their business, they even joked about how the names of the two peoples rhymed, people for whom they felt equally little love lost, the civil war in the Ludogorie, however, made the hostility their business, too. The battles began, the Dacian militias defended their cities street by street and building by building against the army, who rolled in with tanks, but the tanks didn’t do much good in a war in which you couldn’t see your enemy. Everything really had lasted only three months and Krustev, no matter how young he had been then, could confirm that beyond the region and even in the capital, people were hardly aware of the unrest in practice, his father and mother said the same thing, his grandfather’s village, however, was a whole different story. For three days they heard machine gun fire from the direction of the city, all the radios were turned on in hopes of picking up some news, but they only played cheerful Thracian music around the clock. On the third day, the shooting ceased. A rumor spread that the army had taken the city and that the Dacian fighters had scattered, every man trying to save his own skin however he could. The village mayor warned them not to take any Dacians into their homes, should they arrive. Only five years had passed since the Slavic events in Moesia and everyone was afraid of what might happen if Thracian soldiers came to search the village and found hidden enemy fighters. That evening, my grandfather went out to feed his animals and when he opened the door of the barn, he saw two human eyes. It was a young man, no older than twenty, with dirty, matted hair, a gashed forehead and blood stains on his ragged striped shirt, like the shirts the Dacian militias had worn, he hadn’t even managed to take it off. He was severely wounded and feverish, wheezing, rolling his eyes from the cow to the mule and back again, he didn’t say anything. What could Krustev’s grandfather do? All alone in the very last house, just as his village was all alone between the hammer and the anvil of this war, which was not its own. Perhaps the boy would die before the soldiers came, but perhaps not. He left the barn, grabbed his hoe, went back in and brought it down on the boy’s head with all the geezerly strength left in him. He loaded him on the mule somehow or other and threw him into the river. The neighbors kept quiet. The next day a Thracian regiment really did arrive in the village, searched a few houses, sniffed around suspiciously, doled out slaps to a few young men whose looks they didn’t like, and went on their way. The river carried the corpse away and no one in the village mentioned it, his grandfather, however, for some unclear reason was sure that the neighbors had seen everything, he crossed himself surreptitiously, like under communism, and kept repeating, a terrible sin, a terrible sin, a terrible sin, but what else could I do? He lived a long life. He had told Krustev this story the same year that Elena was born and several months before he died. Much time had already passed, he had taken a second wife, a widow from the village, and he had continued living in the last house by the river. Senility was already getting the best of him and Krustev had even wondered whether he hadn’t made the whole story up, because who, really, who could imagine his grandfather killing someone in cold blood with a hoe? Yes, indeed, he had lived in a different time, he had fought in two wars and had won medals for bravery, so that means he surely had killed people, but not with a hoe and not in his very own barn, although do the place and the method really change anything, Krustev grunted and tried to keep his mind on the road.

Sirma announced her latest awakening with a powerful yawn and a quick commentary on her friends’ mantra-like chanting, and for the next half hour they all talked over one another, including Krustev. The asphalt was much better than on the last road. Maya, for her part, had never come this way. They argued for some time about whether she really hadn’t. Krustev asked them whether they hitchhiked often. Not very often, they had done it more in high school. Surely his daughter had tagged along with them as well, but in any case, his observations about the decline of hitchhiking were confirmed. The three of them generally tried to hitch together, sometimes they tried other combinations, but it never went as well. Spartacus had once hitched with three other guys and only a Gypsy horse cart had deigned to drive them between two villages, after which they split up, otherwise it was never going to work. Sirma, for her part, had hitched alone a couple times. Didn’t you ever run into any trouble? No, only once, when a woman had picked her up. Everyone laughed at that, even Krustev. He was feeling better and better, he was tempted to say more normal, but he was no longer sure whether this was normal or whether, on the contrary, the scowling pre-dawn, semi-twilight he had inhabited for such a long time was. There had been flashes during the winter, too, but then Elena had left and he had collapsed again, only he didn’t turn on the television, but read instead, first he read the books he had been given on various occasions in recent years, then the ones Elena had left in her room, after that he went to an online bookstore and ordered a whole series of contemporary titles in translation, they were delivered by van, an astonished young man unloaded two full cardboard boxes in his hallway and left, shaking his head pensively, Krustev read them, some were good, others not so good, but once he had closed the last one—a novel by a Dutch writer about a malicious, blind cellist—he decided that he wouldn’t read anymore and that he had to get out of the house. Maya said that she thought she had forgotten her bathing suit. As if we haven’t seen you without your bathing suit on, Spartacus replied, then realized that they weren’t alone and fell silent, embarrassed. The three of them seemed to spend so much time together that when they found themselves with other people, they quickly forgot about the others’ presence. With the involuntary habit of the male imagination, Krustev envisioned the girl sitting next to him without her bathing suit for an instant and felt uncomfortable about it, as if he had made her an indecent proposal. She was his daughter’s age. Sirma preferred Samothrace to Thasos. Samo-thrace, only Thracians, Krustev joked, without knowing whether they spoke Slavic, but at least Sirma seemed to get it and repeated in delight: Only Thracians, how cool is that! Thasos and Samothrace, the two islands the new state had managed to save when the Macedonian legacy was divvied up. Like many other Slavs, Krustev, with a nostalgia instilled by foreign books, sometimes dreamed of Macedonian times, when the Slavs were merely one of the dozens of people who had inhabited the empire and were in no case so special that they should be subjected to attempts at assimilation, but still, things were clearly changing. Twenty years ago, Thracian kids wouldn’t have taken a ride from a Slav. Twenty years ago, there weren’t many Slavs with their own cars and even fewer of them would have dared to drive straight through the Rhodopes. Had they been to any other Aegean islands? Last year the three of them had made it to Lemnos, while Maya had gone to Santorini with her father. We also want to go to Lesbos, Sirma announced. You two go right on ahead to Lesbos, Spartacus said, that island doesn’t interest me a bit, they all burst out laughing. Krustev was impressed, however. So now that’s possible, he said. We’re all part of the Union and the borders are open. Do you know how hard it was to get a Phrygian visa back in the day? Especially for me, Sirma suddenly blurted out, seeing as how my grandfather is Lydian. But she had never set foot in Lydia. Spartacus and Maya looked extremely surprised, apparently not so much at her parentage, rather at the fact that there was something about her that they didn’t know. The mood crashed for a whole five minutes, at which point Spartacus started talking about Euphoria’s first album again, asking Krustev whether he had it with him in the car and insisting on putting it on. Later, Krustev replied, because in disbelieving gratitude for this kind-hearted twist of fate, he felt himself wanting to sleep, the curves ahead were giving off warm sleep, and when on the outskirts of the next village he saw a shabby roadside dive, he stopped immediately to drink a coffee.

—Angel Igov


Jul 132013

anna_kim from Austrian Cultural ForumAuthor photo via

Anna Kim’s Anatomy of a Night is composed of fragments, few more than a page or two in length. The novel, translated from the German by Bradley Schmidt and just released by the Berlin-based publisher Frisch and Co., tracks the suicides of eleven members of an east-Greenlandic community within a five hour period. Kim is interested in exploring the complex connections between a place and its people. She is interested in sentences that extend and modify lines of thought (check out the sentence that begins the second fragment below – the one that starts: “Ole, who had originally befriended Magnus…” – how it keeps interrupting itself, how it never quite arrives at where it set out for, but ends someplace visceral all the same), while also painting miniature portraits.

Kim’s prose demands rereading. In the excerpt below, which comes about a third of the way through the novel, watch for the way that attributes of the setting, Amarâq, described in the first fragment as a place where “you could believe you are dead and yet still exist . . . perhaps one must say before birth,” manifest themselves in Inger’s love for Mikkel in the third fragment: “a timeless love, without space, an end . . . it would be a beginning and an end at the same time.” Note that both Keyi and Inger are thinking of a sentence, but not the same one. What initially seems arbitrary is anything but, and the more one rereads Anatomy of a Night, the more the fragments – trimmed and wedged and sanded first by the author, then by the translator, and finally in the mind of the reader – fit together.

—Eric Foley

Anatomy of a Night

The nights in Amarâq are an impenetrable black mass, what one imagines nothingness is, an image the eye cannot comprehend. And for a brief moment, you could believe you are dead and yet still exist: finding yourself at the other end of life, at a point that doesn’t yet exist, that is searching for its existence, perhaps one must say before birth, though there can be no talk of a mystic primal state, this darkness is concrete, it’s almost tangible, it’s a thicket. Day and night aren’t the same place, not in Amarâq.

As a child Keyi didn’t count the days, he counted the nights after the hunt, when the stories traveled from mouth to mouth, reappearing in similar form, the same heroes, the same monsters, but the story about the world’s creation impressed him most of all. The empty night was filled all at once when the earth fell from the sky, and with it fell the mountains, hills, valleys, rivers, lakes, and stones, they fell and landed in the darkness. Finally the first humans crept from the middle of the earth, at first they couldn’t speak, only eat and flail around, and they didn’t know how people died because there was no death in those distant nights. When from those few people too many arose, they were forced to choose between night and immortality and day and mortality, as if it was merely visibility which made them mortal. They chose day. The words were pronounced, and the first ones died, but they didn’t know how to die correctly, they stuck their heads out of their stone graves, the stone mounds that had been stacked over them, in an attempt to stand up and leave, and they had to be pushed back into their graves and be banished with words, with magic.

The tamed night, the stars and the moon, came with the day, and Keyi believes he had once heard the souls of the dead flying across the sky and becoming stars, and he was surprised he thought of that sentence, today, in this moment, and even more surprised that he remembered the voice of the person who said it, his grandmother, who spoke these words while pouring milk over cooked whale meat, to drive away the taste of liver; it was a voice he had believed he couldn’t remember—in Amarâq the nights are a reservoir for everything that has been forgotten, buried. The memory becomes invisible at the moment of forgetting, only to fall back to earth like a bolt of lightning, at the other end of life.

Ole, who had originally befriended Magnus because he had a television as large as an altar, and just as ornately decorated—with porcelain figurines (a ballet dancer, a shepherd and his sheep) and plastic roses winding their way around the base—it was more than a device, it was a view out into a world which, as it seemed to Ole, couldn’t exist in this form: wonderful, at the same time infinitely ugly and full—

and he became lost in the television pictures at first, didn’t understand the faces of those strange people as faces, he saw only pieces of faces, often just the mouths, which made familiar tones and transported him back to an earlier time, when he was reproached due to his failure to understand a language which repeatedly commanded him to be less himself—

ultimately he refused to decode these words, he gave up and was satisfied being what he should have been from the beginning: one of those who, like his parents and brothers before him, wouldn’t make it, but for that reason fit into this world, Amarâq, all the more, where being no one at all didn’t make a difference because the infinite nature of Amarâq reduced and negated every difference—

and while his parents buy beer from the welfare they collected at the post office on Fridays between nine and twelve, to maintain their inebriation until Sunday evening, because they know how to drink themselves senseless then roll around on the floor, depending on where you kicked them, Ole tries to ignore the stench of vomit that had become ensconced in the house, in the air and the walls, in his clothing, in his hair, in his skin, a stench he couldn’t wash off, even after scrubbing himself every morning in the shower at school with a piece of soap that Magnus had given him—

he can’t get rid of the puke, it had been etched into his nose along with his father’s kicks, his mother’s punches.

His stomach growls.

Are you hungry?

Ole nods.


Magnus quietly opens the door, sticks his head through the crack, to see the lay of the land. No one there. Slips into the dark hallway, the steps creak with every movement, and into the kitchen, he rummages through the cupboards, picks out a bag of toast, butter, marmalade, sausage, and orange juice.

Help yourself.

A noise from the shower room startles Inger.

Her first instinct is to hide, duck down; she quickly looks around, to see if she could crawl under the table or slip into a dark corner, but then abandons this plan and listens. She is used to listening; as a hunter’s wife, she learned to listen on a professional level. Niels, who couldn’t differentiate between his obsessions, who pursued hunting as obsessively as he pursued dreaming, loving and hating, black and white, in his world there were no shades of gray; he tracked his quarry for days, studied their habits, their preferences, to anticipate their wishes and find out when they were most vulnerable. He attacked when they were happy because he knew that they, paralyzed by happiness, wouldn’t be able to defend themselves. His strategy paid off; for a long time, he was one of Amarâq’s most successful hunters, despite his scarred eyes, he was esteemed and respected, and it was said that in his dreams he could see where the best hunting grounds were and what he would hunt next—until one day he found himself at the mercy of his prey: a polar bear which had lost its way and come close to town. It quickly recognized its mistake and slipped away, but Niels had seen it, he had been following the animal, day and night, in his dreams; and then days, weeks, months passed, and the desire to capture this creature became his sole purpose, his life dictated by his obsession: this time the hunter was the one captured.

In those lonely days, Inger thought that every hunting relationship is also a love affair, and she turned a blind eye when, after half a year, Niels returned home empty-handed, emaciated, sick, and weak, half of his gear either lost or broken, and when he recuperated, he signed up for welfare, and he never spoke of hunting again. Perhaps his hunting instincts had turned in a different direction—he concentrated on his immediate vicinity, on those who were easier to capture, his child and her mother, and every blow led necessarily to a subsequent blow, because they could still move, weren’t yet bagged—

until an outside competitor interfered, the Danish man named Mikkel Poulsen, who hunted as a hobby, chugging aimlessly around the fjord and shooting indiscriminately into the waves at everything that vaguely resembled a living creature, he taught broken English in school using broken Danish, his tongue had lost its way in this cold desert that calls itself Amarâq. This man snatched Inger, and she grabbed at him, let herself be pulled from a fragile life. And they compared the fragments, placed them next to each other, edge against edge, and discovered some of the parts complimented each other, and they trimmed the pieces that wedged, sanded down the corners, and Inger transformed herself from the wife of a hunter to the wife of a teacher. And because she could answer him in broken Danish and he could answer her in broken Greenlandic, she believed he was what people call the love of their life, a timeless love, without space, an end, because no other love could follow a love like this, it would be unmatchable, it would be a beginning and an end at the same time.

When no further noises come from the shower, Inger decides to check. She carefully opens the door and gropes for the light switch. It’s a small room, covered with tiles, the shower itself is a hose with a hook, and warm water comes out of the faucet, not from the stove, like at her house. Once white, the tiles are now a shade of yellow and some of their corners are broken. The mirror above the sink is smeared with toothpaste and soap. The window above the toilet is cracked open, and a cool breeze streams in. Before she closes it she peers outside, although she knows she won’t see anything, but she believes she hears footsteps in the darkness, steps that move away swiftly, a quick tapping of soles on stony ground, quiet smacking on the damp earth.

She turns around and returns to the laundry room, still an hour and twenty minutes, the yellow numbers glow on the washing machine display. The fact that a person ceases to be arbitrary for someone else, the beginning of this sentence has been floating around her head, and she has been trying to finish it for days, but she hadn’t been able to decide on an ending—when it emerges voluntarily: is almost a miracle.

—Anna Kim translated by Bradley Schmidt


May 152013

Herewith Betsy Sholl’s diffident, respectful and intensely thoughtful essay on Osip Mandelstam, his life, poetry, and translations. Betsy is a dear friend and colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts where she teaches poetry and I teach prose and we meet and catch up every six months at the residencies in Montpelier. At once an essay about poetry and about the art of translation, “The Dark Speech of Silence Laboring” plays on the oscillation between intimacy and distance involved in reading poems in translation and ends by celebrating that distance. She writes: “Maybe the sense of lifting one veil only to find another describes all reading, describes our human condition.”


When I ask myself why, for the last several years, I have gone back to the work Osip Mandelstam more than any other poet, the answer seems to involve some combination of the man and his work, or perhaps the man in his work.  There is an  intimacy in his voice that carries a quality of purity, as if the poems welled up from within and were first whispered to himself as provisional stays against the chaos around him.  The words are like boulders allowing him to cross a difficult river, one bank being his own interior life, the other the outside world of Soviet life.  Even in translation the intensity of his language comes through, a sense of the physicality of his words, an almost palpable voice.  His genius for metaphor is clear: in the rapidity of association images have that quality of transformability or convertibility, which he admires in Dante, whose  “similes that are,” he says, “never descriptive, that is, purely representational.  They always pursue the concrete goal of giving the inner image of the structure or the force… (Conversation about Dante).”  To suggest something of the original quality of his mind, here is a prose description from Journey to Armenia:

I managed to observe the clouds performing their devotions to Ararat.

It was the descending and ascending motion of cream when it is poured into a glass of ruddy tea and roils in all directions like cumulous tubers.

The sky in the land of Ararat gives little pleasure, however, to the Lord of Sabaoth; it was dreamed by the blue titmouse in the spirit of the most ancient atheism.

There is in the passage, of course, the delicious metaphor of clouds like cream in tea.  But there is so much more.  Ararat is the mountain where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed, which suggests a world in dubious straits—some element of survival surrounded by vast destruction. If the Jewish God is one of justice and order, then the roiling clouds suggest a kind of airily chaotic movement in contrast to the rest commanded by the “Lord of Sabaoth.”  I don’t fully understand the blue titmouse, but it seems that this resting place, this starting place for the new order of life is still in tension with something older, wilder, not to be easily subdued.  Clouds like tubers, descending and ascending, atheism and the blue titmouse—God seems hardly able to control the world he has been trying to get right!

Though Mandelstam conveys a kind of interior landscape that can seem very private, nevertheless the poems are deeply engaged with culture and history, registering the rapid changes in the world around him.   The poems work with interior images, like much lyric poetry of our current time, but Mandelstam does not merely depict his own sensibility; he takes all the resources of lyricism and uses them to address the world around him.


For several reasons the poems can be difficult.  Some have to do with our ignorance of Russian culture and history: we miss the lines of other poets embedded in his own, and many subtle allusions a Russian reader would recognize.  Other references and associative leaps come from such a deeply personal place, the best we can do is catch the resonance, the dust flying off his boot soles. His widow Nadezhda Mandelstam sometimes argues against accepted interpretations of certain poems, as though even Russian scholars have missed private allusions. In his “Conversation about Dante,” Mandelstam himself compares the rapidity of poetic association to running across a river, “jammed with mobile Chinese junks sailing at various directions.”  He continues, “This is how the meaning of poetic speech is created.   Its route cannot be reconstructed by interviewing the boatmen: they will not tell how and why we were leaping from junk to junk.”   So we make our way, leaping, stumbling.  Despite the difficulties and the problems of translation, Mandelstam’s emotional openness and vulnerability clearly come across.

HopeAnd that brings me to the life.  Mandelstam was born in 1891, and came of age during the revolution with its various conflicting parties, its terrorism and deprivations.  I won’t spend time here on biography or Russian history—those things are easy enough to find.  Suffice it to say the aftermath of revolution was chaotic with various leaders in and out of power, endless atrocities.  In the mid ‘20s Stalin rose to the top.  By 1930 he had published a letter announcing that “nothing should be published that was at variance with the official point of view.”  In 1933, as if silent acquiescence had become intolerable, Mandelstam composed his famous “Stalin Epigram” and read it to at least two different gatherings, clearly aware someone would probably turn him in.   Nadezhda Mandelstam, in her memoir Hope Against Hope, says in doing this, he was “choosing his manner of death.”  Perhaps the real crime, and for Mandelstam the real necessity, was what she calls “the usurpation of the right to words and thoughts that the ruling powers reserved exclusively for themselves….”   At any rate, it was like signing his own death sentence, which Mandelstam himself suggested in a kind of recklessly sanguine moment when he said to her, “Why do you complain?  Poetry is respected only in this country—people kill for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”  In Mandelstam’s case, he was jailed, interrogated and eventually exiled for three years, from 1934 to May of 1937, then arrested again in May of 1938, and sentenced to hard labor.  He died in a transit camp in Eastern Siberia that December.  Here’s the poem in Merwin’s translation:


Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms of his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
one for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

[November, 1933]


W.S. Merwin

This poem is more accessible than most of Mandelstam’s poems, which suggests he felt his fate closing in, and wanted to make his position clear, leaving nothing to ambiguity.  Certain lines of Merwin’s version are burned into my mind, and I hate to even look at other versions: “the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,”  “Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses,” “He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.”  However, if we look at the Hayward translation, which is the one printed in Hope Against Hope, there is “the broad-chested Ossette,”  and that reference is clearly in the original.  Apparently there was some question about whether Stalin was actually from Georgian or Ossetia, the small republic next door.  Ossetians were viewed as less refined and more violent, so Stalin officially claimed to be Georgian.   It’s telling to consider that even as Mandelstam recited the poem, knowing the dangers, he was concerned with its artistic quality, and said he wanted to get rid of those last lines, they were no good. Perhaps Merwin was wise to avoid a reference the poet himself questioned, and that wouldn’t mean much to English readers anyway.  The “berries” in Merwin are raspberries in the original, which apparently is gangster-speak for the criminal underworld.   It is clear from just these little points how compacted a Mandelstam poem is, even one of his most accessible.  Joseph Brodsky has said that this “overloaded” quality of his verse is what makes Mandelstam unique.   (For the most part he worked in traditional forms—rhyme and iambic meter.)


Joseph Brodsky

Given our experience in America, where poems, cartoons, rants on just about everything go into the blogosphere with no repercussions, it may be good to stop a moment and realize the nature of Soviet life.  The closest parallel in our times might be the fundamentalist extremism of certain theocracies.  In Soviet Russia the state controlled everything—work, housing, food.  Arrests, sentences of hard labor or exile, executions were ongoing.  Currying favor was basically the only way to have any kind of bearable life—a place to stay, enough work to survive, ration books for food.  Many intellectuals and artists caved, turned in fellow writers, wrote what would get them the few benefits available, or else they sat out the terror in silence.  So, what made it possible for Mandelstam to speak out?  He chose to respond to Stalin as a poet, in a poem read to other poets, so I wonder if there is something in his concept of poetry that contributed to his ability to resist what Nadezhda calls “a rationalist program of social change [that] demanded blind faith and obedience to authority.”  Of course there are many factors separate from poetry involving background, education, character, a whole complex belief system.  But there must have been something in his understanding of poetry and its place in the world that contributed as well.

For one thing, with his fellow Acmeists he rejected the Russian Symbolist emphasis on a form of subjectivity that considered the poet a superior being, whose poem was significant only in so far as it was the vehicle for the poet’s statements.  For the more extreme Symbolists, the world was insignificant and the spirit all; they were happy to mix and match spiritual doctrines for their own ends.  That kind of individualism and subjectivity can easily lead to an emphasis on self-preservation at any cost, a willingness to reinvent one’s frame of reference to suit that end.  In contrast, the Acmeists valued craft, the poem in itself, and they valued the phenomenal world.  Mandelstam once defined Acmeism as “nostalgia for world culture.”  Nadezhda says, it was “also an affirmation of life on earth and social concern.”  In “The Morning of Acmeism,” Mandelstam says, “The earth is not an encumbrance or an unfortunate accident, but a God-given palace.”   That implies attention and awe, and also a belief system that looks beyond the utilitarian.  As to nostalgia for world culture, that implies an awareness of history, the classical world, a larger frame of reference and sensibility than his own moment.   Along with this was his personal sense of identification with his fellow humans, among whom he lived and shared a fate, and his sense of not speaking for them, but with them.

Because Mandelstam valued craft, attended to the roots and origins of words, to tradition, nothing in his understanding of himself or poetry would allow him to write propaganda.  Identifying with the people, with the earth, and a larger world perhaps reinforced his own innate sense of responsibility.  As a Jew in Tsarist Russia, he was used to being on the edge of admission, which may have helped him remain clear eyed and skeptical of mass indoctrination.


Finally, there was his sense of poetry as a calling, not a profession.  He once pushed a fellow poet down the stairs for complaining about not getting published, and shouted at him, “What Jesus Christ published?”  He lived a literary life, writing essays while traveling by boxcar and crashing at various places.   But he didn’t will poems into being.  Either they came or they didn’t.  When they came, they often began physically as a ringing in the ears before the formation of words, a process he described as “the recollection of something that has never before been said, and the search for lost words….”  He didn’t sit at a desk.  He paced, or walked through the streets, muttering, concentrating so hard, sometimes he’d get lost.  He never wrote down the “Stalin Epigram.”  Whoever turned him in remembered it well enough to recite it for the police to write down.  If Mandelstam had been less overwhelmed by his interrogator, he’d have known from the version shown him, which reading his betrayer had attended.  At any rate, such a view of art and such a mode of composition suggest that poetry was too essential to his very being to be transgressed.  The one time he composed at a desk it was his “Ode to Stalin,” written in the hope of gaining his freedom, but written with such contradictions embedded in the language, it couldn’t possibly have worked.  He simply couldn’t conceal his attitude toward tyranny, murder, blind obedience and self-interest.

I used to think Mandelstam was harassed for being a personal poet, for maintaining belief in the individual spirit, in independence and privacy, against the tyranny of the collective.  You might see that in this poem, “Leningrad,” as translated by Merwin.

I’ve come back to my city. These are my own old tears,
my own little veins, the swollen glands of childhood.

So you’re back.  Open wide.  Swallow
the fish-oil from the river lamps of Leningrad.

Open your eyes.  Do you know this December day,
the egg-yolk with the deadly tar beaten into it?

Petersburg!  I don’t want to die yet!
You know my telephone numbers.

Petersburg!  I’ve still got the addresses:
I can look up dead voices.

I live on back stairs, and the bell,
torn out nerves and all, jangles in my temples.

And I wait till morning for guests that I love,
and rattle the door in its chains.

Leningrad, née St. Petersburg, is where Mandelstam grew up.  And where like Dante he was never able to live again.  This was composed in 1930, during Mandelstam’s final unsuccessful attempt to settle in Leningrad. I love the way he evokes childhood in the first couplet, and then moves from the swollen glands to the second couplet, which seems to superimpose onto that childhood with its fish-oil tonic the darker experience.  “Open wide.  Swallow,” a mother or doctor might say to a child.  But now he is swallowing the new city of Leningrad, no longer Petersburg, no longer the capital or the most Western city in Russia.  Now he is swallowing the oily river.  “Open your eyes” the speaker says to himself, and raises the question of “this December day,” the deadly tar in the egg—as if everything now is dangerous.  December evokes the Petersburg worker strikes, which could be called the start of the revolution in 1904.

“Petersburg!” he cries out, addressing the old life. “Petersburg!”—the city where his friend and Akhmatova’s husband Nicolai Gumilev was executed,  the city that evokes his desire to live and his fear of dying.  Tapped wires, death threats, the old addresses of those who have been arrested or killed.  Apartments split up so people live in just one room, or less.  Internal and external disharmony—the bell’s torn wires, the frayed nerves.  And the speaker waits all night for “the guests that I love,” some remaining fragment of humanity, perhaps.  He rattles his own door, as if it’s been locked from outside—an image of the individual trying to break out of the imposed restriction.

But is this what Mandelstam wrote?  Bernard Meares’ translation, apparently approved by Joseph Brodsky, ends with these two couplets:

I live on the backstairs and the doorbell buzz
Strikes me in the temple and tears at my flesh.

And all night long I await those dear guests of yours,
Rattling, like manacles, the chains on the doors.

Osipbook1“Dear guests,” according to Meares, is a euphemism for the political police. Tony Brinkley, who also translates Mandelstam, says that “gostei dorogikh (‘dear guests’) might also be translated as ‘special visitors.’  Dorogik apparently means ‘dear’ as in expensive, i.e. you pay dearly.  Gostei can also mean ‘visitors’.  In any case these guests, I think, are the Cheka, the GPU, the political police.”  So in Meares’ version, it’s the speaker who has chained the door, though the need for those chains makes them feel like manacles, and also suggests a fear of future imprisonment.  But the guests clearly are not loved ones; those “dear guests of yours” suggests the beloved city is now in collusion with the police, the old city of his childhood, the cultural capital, is gone, and the place now is associated with danger, betrayal, arrest

Meares gives us a different poem, maybe even a different poet from Merwin’s, and a significant filling in of our understanding. Still, the Merwin to my mind is a better poem.   Compare the first 3 couplets:

I’ve come back to my city. These are my own old tears,
my own little veins, the swollen glands of childhood.

So you’re back.  Open wide.  Swallow
the fish-oil from the river lamps of Leningrad.

Open your eyes.  Do you know this December day,
the egg-yolk with the deadly tar beaten into it?

to Meares:

I returned to my city, familiar as tears,
As veins, as mumps from childhood years.

You’ve returned here, so swallow as quick as you can
The cod-liver oil of Leningrad’s riverside lamps.

Recognize when you can December’s brief day:
Egg yolk folded into its ominous tar.

The Meares has little of Merwin’s fluidity, Merwin’s music, swollen glands to swallow, the use of “Open wide” and “Swallow” to evoke childhood, which then shifts to the poet’s self injunction to be to open his own eyes, a move from the old nurture to the current need for vigilance.   Merwin in general is more concrete and more colloquial.

Osipbook2But did Merwin read a softer, less political Mandelstam, one for whom nostalgia was stronger than anxiety, one less willing to define the nature of experience in Soviet Russia?

The Meares translation in particular suggests that for Mandelstam the political and the personal were never separate, that he responded to the world around him with all of his interior resources.  Here is a poem (Merwin translation) written during the last six months of his exile in Voronezh, # 355:

Now I’m in the spider-web of light.
The people with all the shadows of their hair
need light and the pale blue air
and bread, and snow from the peak of Elbrus.

And there’s no one I can ask about it.
Alone, where would I look?
These clear stones weeping themselves
come from no mountains of ours.

The people need poetry that will be their own secret
to keep them awake forever,
and bathe them in the bright-haired wave
of its breathing.

Osipbook4Richard and Elizabeth McKane say, “The people need a poem that is both mysterious and familiar.”  I guess we can see this poem as a model—the spider web of light, the shadow of hair, juxtaposed with Mount Elbrus, the highest mountain in the Caucasus.  There’s something mysterious in those images, at least to my mind.  What does it mean to be in the “spider-web of light?”  Is the poet caught, a fly entangled in the web?  Yes.  But it’s a web of light, and the people need light.   So perhaps it’s not only an image of entrapment, but also one of being at the center of an act of making.   There’s an old myth that has Prometheus shackled to Mt. Elbrus, so perhaps Mandelstam is imagining a new Prometheus who would meet his people’s needs, not stealing fire, but language from the gods of the state.

Then there’s the poet’s isolation.  As the McKanes have it, “There’s no one to give me advice, and I don’t think I can work it out on my own.”   Mandelstam is literally isolated, having set out on a course of resistance.   Beyond that, questions of what the people need, what the poet can give, what the light exposes, are bigger than anyone can fully answer. There’s both vulnerability and resolve in these lines.  The weeping stones—perhaps in snow melt, or a stream from that mountain—also combine something hard with something vulnerable, a lament perhaps for the distance the current age has moved from its cultural heights.  The poem itself is a mix of strength and weakness, assertion and secrecy.   Poetry becomes a means of awakening, but secret, as opposed to corrupted by public speech.   Whatever translation we look to for the end, we see that quality of transformability that Mandelstam praises in Dante, as poetry in its cleansing power becomes water, wind, voice and breath.  In the McKane’s translation the connection to earth is more prominent, but in either case there’s an immersion, poetry as a form of cleansing.

Late Mandelstam poems are very compressed, and often combine a sense of pleasure or beauty with a sense of doom.   Here’s a short poem from March 1937, not too divergent in its translations,  Merwin’s translation of “Winejug”:

Bad debtor to an endless thirst,
wise pander of wine and water,
the young goats jump up around you
and the fruits are swelling to music.

The flutes shrill, they rail and shriek
because the black and red all around you
tell of ruin to come
and no one there to change it.

In a museum in Voronezh Mandelstam had seen a Greek urn on which satyrs are playing flutes, and apparently angry at the chipped condition of the jug.  But of course we can’t help reading as well the state of the country, and situation of the Mandelstams in particular.   I think of Mandelstam visiting the museum in Voronezh, and no matter what pressure he is under—broke, spied upon, unable to get work, having to change apartments constantly—still he celebrates these artifacts of world culture—celebrates and mourns.   In the same month he writes “The Last Supper”:

The heaven of the supper fell in love with the wall.
It filled it with cracks.  It fills them with light.
It fell into the wall.  It shines out there
in the form of thirteen heads.

And that’s my night sky, before me,
and I’m the child standing under it,
my back getting cold, an ache in my eyes,
and the wall-battering heaven battering me.

At every blow of the battering ram
stars without eyes rain down,
new wounds in the last supper,
the unfinished mist on the wall.

[Merwin’s translation]

We begin with a sort of allegory.  The heaven of the supper fell in love with the wall.  The intensity of heaven both cracks the weak vessel of the wall and fills it with light, which suggests an incarnation, the divine breaking into the human, and also perhaps something about how inspiration works.  We’re looking at Da Vinci’s painting, of course, so this light manifests itself through the thirteen heads of the disciples and Christ—as if illumination needs concrete vessels.  Thoughts of the painting move him to recognize another form of illumination, the night sky, before which he becomes a child—in memory and in the experience of awe.  But if he feels the awe of a child, under the whole night sky, there is also a chill—the cold is at his back, the ache in his eyes.  This heaven has something of violence in it—wall-battering and battering him.  A more positive reading of this image suggests the way any spiritual or aesthetic experience breaks down walls, knocks us out of our habitual slumber, out of the familiar and into the strange ache of revelation.

But then the poem turns to a different kind of battering for sure: the battering ram, stars without eyes—headless stars, the McKanes say—whatever they are, they are no longer the disciples bearing a message of forgiveness and peace.  New wounds in the last supper, suggest new betrayals, new deaths.  Christ on the cross said, “It is finished,” but here nothing is finished, the battering goes on.   I don’t know what that “mist” is about.  The McKanes translate that as “the gloom of an unfinished eternity…,” so maybe it alludes to the mist and chaos at the beginning of creation.  The painting Mandelstam would have seen in was severely damaged in the 17th and 18th centuries.   In the last verse, according to the McKanes, the word “ram” in Russian is “tarana,” one vowel away from “tirana,” which means tyrant.

Here’s one more poem, this one from Mandelstam’s  early days in Voronezh.   It’s the second poem recorded in the notebooks he kept there.   From Voronezh, April, 1935:

Manured, blackened, worked to a fine tilth, combed
like a stallion’s mane, stroked under the wide air,
all the loosened ridges cast up in a single choir,
the damp crumbs of my earth and my freedom!

In the first days of plowing it’s so black it looks blue.
Here the labor without tools begins.
A thousand mounds of rumor plowed open—I see
the limits of this have no limits.

Yet the earth’s a mistake, the back of an axe;
fall at her feet, she won’t notice.
She pricks up our ears with her rotting flute,
freezes them with the wood-winds of her morning.

How good the fat earth feels on the plowshare.
How still the steppe, turned up to April.
Salutations, black earth.  Courage.  Keep the eye wide.
Be the dark speech of silence laboring.

Merwin gives the suggestion of a horse more emphasis than other translators, who just say “well groomed,” or “everything groomed withers.”   I’d like to think Merwin here is closer to the way Mandelstam works, with the same convertibility or transformability of Dante.  There is an associative logic in going from manured earth, to that “fine tilth combed like a horse’s mane,” and then to let the horse move on pulling its plough, while the speaker remains looking at the turned-up earth like rows in a choir loft.   Already a connection between earth and language is suggested, as well as earth and freedom, as if there is liberty in being grounded, in earth as a physical counter-weight to abstraction and deceit, the entire Bolshevik collective machinery.   Merwin’s “labor without tools” suggests the earth’s own work of germination, separate from what its workers might will.  While other translators speak of “unwarlike labor” or render the phrase as “ploughing is pacifist work,”  Merwin’s “the labor without tools” hints more at Mandelstam’s way of composition—the labor of language beginning to emerge first without language.   I don’t know what Russian word “rumor “ is translating, but it’s interesting that the Latin root of our “rumor” means “noise.”  We tend to read it as pejorative, but it could also hint at something else, the incipient word coming from a distance (literal or psychic), not yet fully heard or realized.  In “The Word and Culture” Mandelstam writes “Poetry is a plough, turning up time so that its deep layers, its black earth appear on top.”  Clearly, earth and language are intimately connected here.  And yet earth is a mistake.   Is it a mistake to the Soviets who can’t control it they way they can control human beings?   Or is it a mistake for us to expect consolation from the earth?   No answered prayers, no protection in nature.   But there is a kind of music that is mixed with its own demise, its own vulnerability.  Earth pricks our ears with her rotting flute, or her mildewed flute, she sharpens our hearing with her dying flute.   What moves, what quickens us in the natural world is its very temporal nature.   Our ears are ploughed (in Greene) or frozen—big difference—with morning sounds: the wood-winds of morning, a chilly morning clarinet.   The music is not permanent, but it sharpens or whets our hearing.  How clearly Merwin goes for the more physical: “pricks up our ears,” which hints at the horse in those opening lines.

There’s a celebration in the final quatrain.  The silence is fruitful, a germination.

Salutations, black earth.  Courage.  Keep the eye wide.
Be the dark speech of silence laboring.

I love Merwin’s continuation of the direct address, a kind of simpatico here, a little shared and benign conspiracy.   The McKanes break that sense with,  “There is a fertile black silence in work.” Greene: “A black-voiced silence is at work.”    In any case, the silence is fruitful, there’s a germination going on, something stirring—perhaps Mandelstam’s hope that there in Voronezh language will come back to him, an unwarlike work.  But the place isn’t without danger.  He is still under surveillance.  Even the earth needs courage, needs to keep the eye wide, and the speech that comes may be dark.  Later, in fact, he will write a darker poem, which reduces the earth to the size of his grave:

You took away all the oceans and all the room.
You gave me my shoe-size in earth with bars around it.
Where did it get you?  Nowhere.
You left me my lips, and they shape words, even in silence.

Mandelstam found other things left to him, even in exile.  “You’re still alive,” he tells himself, and lists those great oxymorons: “Opulent poverty, regal indigence!”  If we ask how a poet can survive under deprivation and oppression, perhaps the ability to live in contradictions, to accept paradox has something to do with it.  Mandelstam uses the word “blessed,” and speaks of his work as innocent, “the labor’s singing sweetness,” or in the McKane, “the sweet-voiced work…without sin.”   So, his own integrity is a comfort.

Perhaps no better example of that integrity comes from the translation work of Tony Brinkley and Raina Kostova.   Here is their translation of the fourth section of “Lines on the Unknown Soldier,” complete with some Russian words left in the text to illustrate their point:

An Arabian medley, muddled, tangled, crumbling,
World-light of velocities, ground to a beam—
On my retina the beam pauses
In my eye on squinted feet.

Millions of dead men cheaply killed
Have walked a path through emptiness—
Good night!  Best wishes to them all!
From the façade, the face of these earth-fortresses.

Sky of the trenches, incorruptible,
The sky of mass, of wholesale deaths,
Beyond, behind—away from you—entirely—
I am moving with my lips in darkness.

Beyond the craters, the voronki, behind embankments,
Scree, osypi—where he lingered, darkened,
Overturning—gloomy, pockmarked, ospennyi
The unsettled graves’ belittled genius.

In the final stanza the translators show us how carefully Mandelstam worked, nesting words within words, drawing on roots and origins, using echo and innuendo—much as Dante does, whom Mandelstam read in the original Italian.  Brinkley and Kostova include some of the Russian words here, along with notes to explain the way meanings are embedded.   They point out that voronki means “craters,” but also names Voronezh, and more than that it is also the name for the “ ‘little ravens,’ the black vans that roamed city streets at night and that the police used to transport prisoners.”   Mandelstam’s name, Osip, appears in osypi (scree) and ospennyi (pockmarked), but those words also suggest Stalin’s pockmarked face and his given name, which is also Joseph or Osip.  Just this brief excerpt shows us how carefully Mandelstam worked, his ear always to the language, hearing echoes, roots, reverberations.  Language was something almost sacred, it seems, far beyond a tool for manipulation.    The language becomes co-creator with the poet, suggesting a little more concretely what Mandelstam means when he describes his process as “the recollection of something that has never before been said, and the search for lost words…”—words lost within words, or buried there.


I was reluctant to write about Mandelstam for fear of a kind of desecration, my words dimming, rather than illuminating his work.  I am equally reluctant to conclude, perhaps for a similar reason.   One realization I’ve come to is that it would be an error to mistake intimacy with a translation for intimacy with the original.  But I would actually like to celebrate that distance.  When I first read Mandelstam’s “Conversation about Dante,” it was in winter.  I was sitting in the window with the whole vast black night behind me, and on my lap? –an English translation of that twentieth century post-revolution Russian writer discussing his reading of a medieval poet in the original Italian.  It seemed miraculous to be there, holding such vast distances in my hands. Perhaps the enormous gap in time, language, history, culture makes what we have all the more precious. Still, that gap is certainly real: between the text and what we can absorb, between Mandelstam and us, us and Dante, you and me.  Maybe the sense of lifting one veil only to find another describes all reading, describes our human condition.


A final reflection for me has to do with how we translate from Mandelstam’s life into our own.  Perhaps in any age artists face the possibility of corruption, involving self-preservation, careerism, lesser ambitions, attitudes of superiority to fellow citizens. Perhaps it’s always hard to see our own temptations. For me, across the distance of time and culture and extremity, Mandelstam becomes a model of integrity, a reminder of a larger world culture, perhaps now many world cultures; he challenges me to sharpen my craft, to both broaden my engagement with the world and be more interior—and not to assume there’s a divide between the two.   However limited our own audiences might be, those who find us still need a poetry that is “both mysterious and familiar,” that will be a shared secret to keep us awake: because even one reader counts in a world where nobody is expendable, which is the world Mandelstam loved and died for.

—Betsy Sholl


Brinkley, Tony and Kostova, Raina, “ ‘The Road to Stalin’: Mandelstam’s Ode to Stalin and ‘Lines on the Unknown Soldier,’’ Shofar, Summer 2003, Vol 21, N0. 4.

Mandelatam, Nadezhda,  Hope Against Hope:  A Memoir, trans. Max Hayward (New York: The Modern Library,1999).

Mandelstam, Osip, The Selected Poems of Osip Mandelstam, trans. Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004).

Mandelstam, Osip. Selected Poems, trans. James Greene (London: Penguin, 2004).

Mandelstam, Osip, The Voronezh Notebooks, trans. Richard and Elizabeth McKane,(Newcastle Upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, Ltd., 1996).

Mandelstam, Osip. 50 Poems, trans. Bernard Meares (New York: Persea Books, 1977).

Mandelstam, Osip,  Complete Critical Prose,  trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link (Dana Point, California: Ardis, 1997).

Mandelstam, Osip, The Noise of Time, trans. Clarence Brown (New York:  Penguin Books, 1985).


Betsy Sholl served as Poet Laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.  She is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Rough Cradle (Alice James Books), Late Psalm, Don’t Explain,and The Red Line.  A new book is forthcoming from the University of Wisconsin Press.   Her awards include the AWP Prize for Poetry, the Felix Pollak Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and two Maine Individual Artists Grants.  Recent poems have appeared in Ploughshares, Image, Field, Brilliant Corners, Best American Poetry, 2009, Best Spiritual Writing, 2012.  She teaches at the University of Southern Maine and in the MFA Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.





May 022013

fruelundin top

Herewith is a story by Simon Fruelund translated by K. E. Semmel.

K. E. Semmel is an old friend and former colleague from my days at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He is not only a dedicated and talented fiction writer in his own right, but a hard working and skilled translator as well, having translated and published four books of Scandinavian fiction in the last five years, including two books by Simon Fruelund, Karin Fossum’s The Caller, and Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One. (He’s wrapping up a fifth book this summer.) K. E. Semmel also serves as the Development and Communications Manager at Collegiate Directions, Inc., a non-profit dedicated to helping low-income children attend four-year college. I have spent many Sunday afternoons with him and his family, watching our sons play, drinking Belgian ales, talking books, and trying to love baseball as much as he does, so it is with pleasure that I bring to Numéro Cinq one of his translations.

Simon Fruelund is the author five books of which two are available in English: his novel Civil Twilight (published by Spout Hill Press) and a soon-to-be released collection of short fiction titled Milk and Other Stories (Santa Fe Writer’s Project). Alan Cheuse, book critic for National Public Radio, recently wrote about Fruelund’s work:  “[he] is a master of the short form, importing some designs from our own Raymond Carver, applying them to the interstices of the European everyday, and making them his own.”

“Albatross” is typical of Simon Fruelund’s style. A sparse, subdued story about two brothers, one of whom sets fire to his father’s rye field. With unassuming details and carefully fine-tuned images, “Albatross” is the type of story that sneaks up on you, and I found myself thinking for days after first reading it about the boy/arsonist perched atop the silo watching the adults scramble to put out his fire and harvest their grain. As K. E. Semmel has written: in Fruelund’s work “truths and experiences are intimated” in “quiet, inconspicuous way[s].” “Albatross” will appear in Milk and Other Stories.

—Jason DeYoung


My brother sat on the couch reading a magazine. I aimed at him with my lighter pistol and pulled the trigger. The flame rose straight up, almost five inches high, but he didn’t react.


I tossed the lighter at him over the coffee table. He dropped the magazine and threw himself toward the lighter in order to save the couch and curtains and wall-to-wall carpet. He couldn’t find it and started pulling the pillows down on the floor.

—Jeppe, you dick. Where’d it go? You’ll burn the house down.

The lighter lay on the floor right at his feet. I stood and walked over. The flame had gone out as soon as I’d let go.

—Here, I said and handed it to him.

—You’re an idiot, he said, refusing the lighter.

I stuffed the lighter in my pocket and left the room. I put on my boots and jacket and walked through the empty stalls and out the other side. We’d not been outdoors for two days. The afternoon sky was clear and blue, and I tromped toward our neighbor’s place. Svend the Hen was scorching his field; he’d lit rows of straw on the opposite side, and the fire now ran in parallel tracks over the crest of a hill. He was busy plowing a security barrier so the fire wouldn’t leap over onto our field, which hadn’t been harvested yet. He brought the tractor to a halt and opened the cab door.

—Get in.

I grabbed the handrail inside the door and hoisted myself up.  Svend the Hen had his shotgun across his thigh, the barrel snapped open and draped over his leg. I sat on the wheel guard, and the tractor started with a jerk. Svend the Hen’s short silver hair poked out of the corner of a green cap. He didn’t say anything. He plowed another row along the barrier to our field.

—So, he said.

I could see how the effort of talking stretched his cheeks, how his lips twitched in the attempt, and how he sat chewing on what he would say. As if he had to put his tongue and lips in order first. As we reached the end of the row, he turned the tractor and began a third row.

—So…They’re on vacation or what?

—Yeah, I said.

—What about the other hen?

—He’s at home.

—Well, well, then.

He always called us hens—maybe because he didn’t have any kids of his own. Some said he fucked his cows, but I had never believed it.

—Well then, he said again after a minute.

He smiled for an instant. Not because he liked to, but more because he couldn’t help himself, I think. Or maybe because he was proud that he’d managed to get his tongue in the right position in his mouth, moved his lips and all that. His teeth didn’t look too good, and you couldn’t mistake the smell. Maybe everything’s going rotten in there, I thought. He turned the tractor up near the shrubbery and drove with the plow raised in the direction of the fire. He took two bullets from a box on the front window and stuck them in the shotgun, still with one hand on the steering wheel. As we reached the first burning column, he turned the tractor so we were driving along the front. He opened the door and asked me to steer. The air was heavy with black dust, and it was hot as hell. We’d almost reached the end of the field before anything happened. He aimed and fired in almost the same instant. I barely registered what had happened.

—God damn, he mumbled.

I saw a hare leaping away.

—God damn, I said.

At that moment I saw another hare. Svend the Hen fired and this time he got it. The hare rolled a somersault, then lay completely still. He stopped the tractor and opened the door on my side, and with a nod of the head let me know what he wanted me to do. I hopped down and ran over to pick up the hare. I grabbed its legs and swung it around high over my head. The flames came closer; it was a wall of heat moving in my direction. I ran back to the tractor and tossed the hare to him.

—Get in, he said.

I shook my head.

—I gotta go, I said.

He closed the door, touched his fingers to his cap, and a moment later he was off in a cloud of black smoke.

I looked around for a place where I could get through the fire. I found an opening then made a running start and leaped through. When I came out on the other side, my face felt stiff and my hair smelled charred.

The ground was black and scorched.

At the end of the field, I found a smoldering chunk of a tree. It was a branch from an oak that stood near the border of our land. I picked up the cold end and went toward our side. Near the track separating the two fields, I stopped and looked around. The rye should’ve been harvested a long time ago; in many places the stalks lay horizontal to the ground. Ours was the only field, as far as I could see, that didn’t have stubble, or wasn’t already plowed up. I stood there a moment considering the pros and cons. They can kiss my ass, I thought. Then I threw the branch as far as I could into the field.

I hiked across Svend the Hen’s field. I headed down through the bog, followed the railroad tracks a short distance, and then walked through a small stand of spruce.

I’d reached the main road when I heard the first fire truck. It drove toward me at high speed, and a moment later the second one followed. I could see the firemen putting on their gear. I tramped along the road meeting one car after another—curiosity-seekers following the fire trucks, I think.  I also saw someone on a bicycle. I could hear the sirens approaching from every direction.

Along the way I passed a large white farm, and I saw a man and a woman hastily getting their children inside a car. After a few hundred feet, I passed a Dutch barn stuffed with hay, and half a mile later came to a wide field of barley that hadn’t been harvested.

Before long, I could see the first houses in what passed for the area’s biggest town. Towering up over all the houses was a grain silo. And I could see the brownstone school building with its white windows.

Just as I got to town, the local cop drove toward me in his blue Volvo. I waved at him and he waved back, and then he was already long past me.

I crossed the road, and soon stood in front of a broad chain-link gate. Three trucks were parked in the lot, but there was nobody around. I clambered over the gate and walked toward the silo. Small piles of grain lay here and there, and the smell was sweet and good. I put my hand on the outer wall; it felt warm. I went around the silo and found a door behind the building. With a hard jerk, I got the door open and went inside. I stood in a pretty narrow shaft; on the wall were a number of shiny steel stairs, and far above, I noticed a small circle of blue light, which I guessed was the sky.

I started crawling. It was really hot inside the shaft, and when I reached the halfway point, I had to stop and take my jacket off. I tied it around my waist, but that only made crawling more difficult, so I let it fall. I continued up; the higher I got, the warmer it was.

When I finally crawled onto the roof, I was soaked through with sweat. I pulled my shirt over my head and looked toward the south.  I could see a huge black cloud of smoke; under it, an orange glow. I couldn’t see the flames. In the foreground, I could see a combine that’d now begun to harvest the field I’d just passed.

I looked at the parking lot below; the three trucks were slightly staggered and resembled toys on display. The houses in the town were unusually close, but they still seemed small. Patio furniture filled the square yards, but there were no people. Furthest away was the train station, and I could see the red train waiting for the regional train.

I turned toward the north and saw a blue glare, which I knew was the sea. Then I turned toward the south and looked at the red glow.

Soon after, I sat down. I flicked my lighter and watched the flame. I fell into a trance and sat that way for a long time. At some point I realized I was freezing. I stood and put on my shirt, but it was cold and damp. I stared toward the south: As far as I could see the flames were burning out.

I moved to the hatch and started crawling back down.

I headed back the same way I’d come. Outside the town limits, I passed the cop. I waved, and he waved back politely. I passed the barley field and greeted the farmhand, who leaned up against the grain wagon smoking. I passed the Dutch barn where two boys shot at a target with a bow. There were lights in the stalls at the big farm, and I could hear the sound of a transistor radio through the open door.

I followed the main road and walked through the little stand of spruce, followed the railroad tracks, and walked through the bog.

It had grown dark by the time I finally made it home. At a distance I could see the light in the living room. I shuffled forward through a thick layer of gray ash. The fire had burned up most of the field; it hadn’t been brought under control until about 150 feet from the house.

When I walked inside, my brother sat on the couch watching television. He looked up.

—Where have you been? he said. There was a fire in the fields.

—I know that, I said.

I looked at the screen. I could see a big white bird lying on a nest: an albatross.

—There were a lot of people here. The cop was here, too. He was over talking to Svend the Hen. He seemed to think it was his fault.

I walked into the kitchen and poured a bowl of cornflakes. When I got back, my brother had changed the channel to some kind of quiz show; from a few notes you were supposed to guess the name of a song or a piece of music. I sat down in the seat opposite him.

They played a few bars of a song.

—“Strangers in the Night”! my brother called out.

We waited for the answer.

—You see, he said.

I pulled the lighter from my pocket, and this time I didn’t flick it—I just tossed it over to him.

—Catch! I said.

He flicked it and saw that the flame was only an inch high. He looked at me and then set it down on the coffee table.

—They say he fucks his cows.

—Yeah, I said and watched the screen.

They played a few bars of a new tune.

—Can’t we watch the show with the albatrosses? I said.


For a long time, without saying a word, we watched the program about the enormous birds. The narrator said they could fly up to a 600 miles a day. They sailed on the wind almost without moving their wings. We saw how they dived after fish, and we saw an albatross egg that was the size of a honey melon.

At some point, my brother turned his head and looked at me. I didn’t look at him, but I could feel his gaze; he watched me for a pretty long time. Then he turned his attention back to the screen.

—Promise you’ll never do that again, he said under his breath.

—Simon Fruelund



f bottom

Simon Fruelund is the author of five books, among them Milk and Other Stories, Civil Twilight, and Panamericana. His work has been translated into Italian, Swedish, and English, and his short stories have appeared in a number of magazines across the U.S, including World Literature Today, Redivider, and Absinthe. For nine years Fruelund worked as an editor at Denmark’s largest publishing house, Gyldendal, but is now writing full time.



K.E. Semmel is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Ontario Review, The Washington Post, Aufgabe, The Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, Redivider, Hayden’s Ferry Review, World Literature Today, and elsewhere. His translations include Karin Fossum’s The Caller and Jussi Adler Olsen’s The Absent One. He has received multiple translation grants from the Danish Arts Council to support his translation of Simon Fruelund’s fiction.

Also available Civil Twilight

civil twilight



Apr 152013

Pierre JorisPierre Joris

Two truly lovely poems here by the prolific Luxembourg poet, novelist and editor Jean Portante translated from the French by my old friend and former colleague at the University at Albany Pierre Joris who is himself a prolific and peripatetic poet, impresario and world-traveler. (Please revisit his gorgeous translations of Habib Tengour’s “Five Movements of the Soul & Hodgepodge” published earlier on NC.) These are amazing poems. The first is an insistent, undulating, rhythmic meditation on the desert, sand, the sea (the anti-image) and the poet’s self, the sand and the desert inhabiting the self as metaphor and soul. The poem is leavened with sweet touches of wit (the poet at the line between one desert and another, watching the grains of said get married in secret before crossing). And, oh my goodness, just look at the “The One I Saw Again” — three parts, three characters; take the first, with its recursive “passed and passed,” the train passing before the eyes of the subject who is sewing up his wound again and again and not seeing the passing and passing though it is reflected in his eyes. Oh language, oh beauty! Helps heal the day.


PortanteJean Portante



Le désert compta ses rides et l’aigle et le

faucon répandirent, aussitôt la nouvelle.

— Edmond Jabès

it is due to the general indifference of

the grains of sand

that the desert came about

but also because the sand

knew how to remain gregarious


to know that all the grains of sand

of all the deserts sleep in me

does not reassure me

like them every night

I get underway

searching for a dry dream

a dream which in order to defend us

would brave the meanders of humidity


I went to station myself

on the line separating one desert from the other

to watch the grains of sand

getting married in secret

before crossing the border


when I said I had the desert in me

I was thinking less of the dryness

than of the incessant swarming of the sand

and caught in the swirl

I stopped weeping

even though I had been weeping for joy


each desert hides a secret

each secret hides an injustice

nobody knows who slipped it in there

but it makes everybody rejoice secretly


I’ve read somewhere or did I dream it

that the desert was the scar a sea left

o what anguish to think

that one day the wound could open again


in my childhood my youth my life for short

I have known many a gathering of sand

the words I have spoken or written

rest there temporarily

a wind comes up and worries them


I envy the desert’s sand grains’s anonymity

they come and go they say hello good night

they love & know how to recognize each other

because there where one ends the other begins

in the desert the eternal return

is a question of life and death


no one has as much imagination as a desert

the sea was there first

but the desert knew how to dry it up

& seize its memory

that’s why no one

has as much imagination as a desert


Certain words disappear

when they venture into the desert

the stories that emerge from it

nearly always seem truncated

but if one looks at them closely

one notices that they have become purer


All poets should speak of the desert

and the musicians would do well

to think of it from time to time

if only because history

has all too often slandered it


to be as happy as a desert or as sad as water

is not a malediction

one couldn’t have avoided

today you can love the one

without betraying the other


we should thank the desert

for having taught us to ration the water

this could come in handy

during the next drought






two days ago kept sewing

the same wound up again:

if he still sat facing

the train that passed and passed

again it was not because he

particularly loved the

journey but because of this

window that gave

onto the viaduct:

yet the train as it passed

and passed again over the

viaduct before him still reflected

in his eyes:

did he know this as he kept sewing

the same wound again & again:

and what did he know of immobility:

and the one sitting across from

him on the train that passed

and passed again over the viaduct

was he jealous that across

from him the other thus

sat at his window giving

on this viaduct without

particularly loving

the journey:

and isn’t it exactly because

of this that the train passed

and passed again as if

instead of carrying its

passengers towards a specific

destination its only mission

was to agree with this

statistic that states that of

two men sitting one at

least will ceaselessly be sewing

up the same wound.



previously held at the end

of a long string a distant

kite that his hand reeled

in and reeled out:

the clouds were close by

and the migratory birds that

were returning from afar

were also tethered to a string:

just like the clouds

by the way and even the sun

when it hid:

and if you looked carefully you

saw that there was also

a string from one language to

the other or from the apple tree

to the olive tree and our gazes

remember were linked

one to the other by two

strings on which wept like

clothes hung out to dry

or rain that falls and wets

the pro and con

of love:

the kite also wept

on its flight:

you could have thought the entire

universe was repenting:

the strings of course were

invisible to the naked love

but when the storm

broke and the flash of

lightening photographed the

landscape didn’t you see

as if you were all

these hands that reeled in and

reeled out all remorse.



more than a week ago

like a dead man hugged

the walls of the city:

you’d have thought he was

sorting the mirrors

from the shadows:

there were graffiti

behind him on the walls

he was hugging but he

didn’t read them:

everything he did or

didn’t do was

carefully sorted:

I confess that I didn’t

read what the walls

said either and when

I said that I saw him again

more than a week ago the one

who like a dead man hugged

the walls of the city maybe

I was a little too forward:

it was pitch black already

and a street light of uncertain

origin was projecting

shadows on the walls:

what I saw was that

some were missing

others not as if light

had its preferences:

so then I started to count

these shadows thus sorted

on the walls of the city

and coming to mine with

a step darker than usual

I like someone who knows

but doesn’t say anything

to anyone thought back on

this story of a kite that

doesn’t fly which

I often tell and on these chance

occurrences that sort so well

the secret from death

but I told no one about it.


 —Jean Portante translated by Pierre Joris


Born in Differdange (Luxembourg) in 1950, though presently living in Paris, Jean Portante is a writer, translator and journalist. He is the author of some thirty books including volumes of poetry, collaborations with artists, narratives, plays, essays and novels. Published in 15 countries, his work has been translated into English, Spanish, Italian, German, Slovakian, Croatian and Rumanian.  He has translated Juan Gelman, Gonzalo Rojas, Jerome Rothenberg, Maria Luisa Spaziani, Edoardo Sanguineti, John Deane, Pierre Joris many other poets into French. For editions Phi in Luxembourg he directs the poetry book series graphiti. In 2003, he was awarded the Prix Mallarmé for his book L’étrange langue  and the Grand prix d’automne de la Société des gens de lettres 2003 for the whole of his work. En 2005, a Selected Poems came out from Editions Le Castor Astral. The sequnce above is from “Journal d’un oublieur intime” in La réinvention de l’oubli. Editions Le Castor Astral, Paris,  2010.

Pierre Joris has moved between the US, Europe & North Africa for 45 years, publishing over 40 books of poetry, essays and translations. Coming in early 2013 are Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) from Chax Press & Barzakh (Poems 2000-2012) from Black Widow Press. Just out from UCP is The University of California Book of North African Literature (vol. 4 in the Poems for the Millennium series), coedited with Habib Tengour. Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader edited, introduced & translated by Pierre Joris (Black Widow Press) came out in early 2012 as did Pierre Joris: Cartographies of the In-between, edited by Peter Cockelbergh, with essays on Joris’ work by, among others, Mohamed Bennis, Charles Bernstein, Nicole Brossard, Clayton Eshleman, Allen Fisher, Christine Hume, Robert Kelly, Abdelwahab Meddeb, Jennifer Moxley, Jean Portante, Carrie Noland, Alice Notley, Marjorie Perloff & Nicole Peyrafitte (Litteraria Pragensia, Charles University, Prague, 2011).  The Collected Later Poems of Paul Celan, translated & annotated by Pierre Joris, is scheduled for early 2014 from Farrar, Strauss & Giroux. Other recent books include The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials by Paul Celan (Stanford U.P. 2011), Canto Diurno #4: The Tang Extending from the Blade, (poems, 2010), Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (Salt Books), Aljibar I & II (poems) & the CD Routes, not Roots (with Munir Beken, oud; Mike Bisio, bass; Ben Chadabe, percussion; Mitch Elrod, guitar; Ta’wil Productions). Further translations include Paul Celan: Selections (UC Press) & Lightduress by Paul Celan which received the 2005 PEN Poetry Translation Award. With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. He lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn with his wife, performance artist Nicole Peyrafitte & teaches poetry & poetics at the State University of New York, Albany. Check out his Nomadics Blog.


Apr 102013

A. Anupama


Okay, these are love poems and not love poems. Deeply erotic, they are also metaphors for consciousness and its object, for the way the mind works in our dualistic universe. And make no mistake, we humans do experience our universe as dualistic; it’s not a matter of preference as some people think; it’s deeply inscribed in the language we use, in the concepts of self and mind and reality; and the dance between the self and what it thinks reality is can most effectively be described as something like love. The ancient Greeks, just as the ancient Tamils, knew this. A. Anupama offers here luscious translations of very old poems, poems from a sophisticated and civilized tradition, articulate, knowing and eloquent.

See also her earlier translations ” Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry, Essay and Poems” and the essay we published in this self-same issue, “Poetry’s Om.” For the majority of us who are brought up in one tradition, it is an immense privilege to be tendered an insight into something very different and profound.



Poem from the purple-flowered hills

Talaivi says—

Swaying vines sprawl under the honeybees’ hive.
A seated cripple curls his palm into a bowl beneath,
pointing and licking. Like mountain honey, my lover,
who doesn’t care, doesn’t love
but is sweet to my heart, which sees again and again.

Kuruntokai, verse 60


Poem from the hillside woods

Talaivi says—

Pink as a partridge’s leg, the roots of the black mung bean plants,
which the deer trample and rob of their ripened pods.
In this harsh morning dew, I’ll find no cure.
No medicine for me other than my beloved’s chest.

Allur Nanmullai
Kuruntokai, verse 68


Poem from the bare desert

Talaivi says—

I will not tie a vow on my wrist
in the cracked caverns to win grace of the victorious goddess.
I won’t seek auguries, won’t stand watching for omens.
My friend, I won’t think of him, soul of my soul,
without whom I die each moment.
For him, strong enough to stay away and forget, I won’t.

Kuruntokai, verse 218


Poem from the blue lotus seashore

Talaivi says—

Thick buds unfold above the prop roots of the screwpines,
petals spreading like a perched pelican’s wing.
And in the front yard of this small house, all surrounded by water,
waves come and go. Even though
I give him up to his land far away,
he is near my heart in his cool country.

Ceyti Valluvan Peruncattan
Kuruntokai, verse 228


Poem from the blue lotus seashore

Talaivi says—

“I’m leaving, leaving,” he said. And I, thinking it
another bluff like before,
said “and stay away.”
Where is he now, who used to shelter me like a father?
Black-eyed white egrets could wade
in the large pond I’ve made in the space between my breasts.

Kuruntokai, verse 325


Poem from the fertile fields and ornamental trees

Talaivan’s mistress says—

On cool ponds, colorful thick buds
tempt bees, which force open each stemmed mouth.
When I lie down with him, our two bodies
are close as the archer’s fingers on the bow.
But, if I clasp his strong chest, we become one body.

Kuruntokai, verse 370

—Translated by A. Anupama

A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York. She blogs about poetic inspiration at Seranam.


Apr 092013















Herewith a fascinating essay on philosophical dualism, the East, the West, poetry, yoga, Ralph Waldo Emerson and, well, just about everything else worth talking about. A. Anupama has already contributed reviews and translations to Numéro Cinq (see especially her “Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry, Essay and Poems”) but in this essay she makes a special effort to extend our (western) understanding of the interconnection between love (eros), poetry and yoga in the Tamil Indian tradition. This is intriguing to read in part because it reveals a poetic tradition steeped in spirituality and philosophy, a tradition that is formal, ancient and self-conscious in its almost ritualized deployment of patterns and devices (which are, in themselves, a poetic language). In both the East and the West, humans have long wrestled with the famous gap between consciousness and the object, self and nature; love, even in the West (see Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet), has been a constant source of metaphor for this relationship: lover and loved one/mind and what it perceives. We also have gorgeous photos taken by Dorothea Erichsen, the yoga poses were shot near Hook Mountain on the Hudson River.



Emerson, in his essay “The Poet,” wrote, “I know not how it is that we need an interpreter; but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual utility in the sun, and stars, earth, and water. These stand and wait to render him a peculiar service. But there is some obstruction, or some excess of phlegm in our constitution, which does not suffer them to yield the due effect. Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much an artist, that he could report in conversation what had befallen him. Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick, and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.”

Emerson sees the poet as an interpreter—someone who is clear of the “phlegm” of consciousness that pervades mundane experience.  In this essay, and in his 1835 essay “Nature,” Emerson dissolves even the distinction between consciousness and nature itself within the framework of his logic. In “Nature,” he wrote, “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” This dissolve is also the goal of yoga practice. The very first sutra in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, an ancient manual for yoga practitioners, states, “Yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind.” Emerson’s essays and Patanjali’s teachings seem to be on the same track here. Like Emerson’s thought, the Yoga Sutras are based on a dualistic philosophy in which an individual’s pure awareness is distinct from objects of awareness.  The translator and commentator Edwin F. Bryant summarizes it this way: “The goal of the entire yoga system … is to extricate pure consciousness from its embroilment with the internal workings of the mind as well as the external senses of the body.”

This might seem like the very opposite of poetry. Our discipline in poetry is to permit our minds to move, sometimes quite wildly, to let the mind bathe itself in the senses. As poets, we focus a lot of attention on image. The way the image heightens one’s senses is sometimes crucial to expressing the sublime essence of a poem. That sublime essence is the goal of both poetry and yoga, even though they seem to pursue it in opposite ways.

Patanjali’s Sutra 41, in section 1, states that by fixing one’s mind on an object, all mental disturbances cease, and the mind becomes like a pure crystal, reflecting the nature of whatever is placed before it. In yoga science, the pure intellect, in Sanskrit called buddhi, is the encasement of the eternal soul. The natural, inherent luminescence of the mind is the reflection of that eternal soul within it. In poetry, we are, in effect, practicing this clarity of mind. By our attention to image and senses, we are exercising and purifying the mind so that awareness and expression of the light within may follow.

Emerson again, in “The Poet” (and please forgive the gender specific language characteristic of Emerson’s time): “If the imagination intoxicates the poet, it is not inactive in other men. The metamorphosis excites in the beholder an emotion of joy. The use of symbols has a certain power and exhilaration for all men.” He goes on to say, “Poets are thus liberating gods. Men have really got a new sense, and found within their world, another world, or nest of worlds; for, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.”

The Cankam poets of South India knew this well. In the carefully crafted style of love poetry, known as akam poetry, the mystery of the soul’s presence becomes accessible by the concrete imagery of the symbolic landscapes and by the reality of the emotional dramas that unfold between the archetypal lovers. This highly symbolic form of poetry was written by assemblies of poets for several generations. Cankam means “a community or assembly.” The anthologies we have today were written in the third and final Cankam gathering, in about the third century.

Akam poems are small monologues, and in each one the speaker is one of five archetypical characters in a love drama: the hero and heroine in love, her friend, her mother, and the hero’s mistress. Each poem is set in one of five symbolic landscapes, called “tinai,” each representing a different mood of love. The mountain tinai, named kurinci, for a mountain shrub that blooms with purple flowers, represents the dawning of first love, with its longing and secret trysts. The forest tinai; named mullai, for jasmine, presents the sweet mood of union and patient waiting for the beloved. The countryside, named marutam, for a flowering ornamental tree, is the mood of the quarreling lovers. The seashore, named neytal, for the blue lotus, offers the mood of unfulfilled longing. And the desert-like landscape, named palai, for a scrubby bush, offers portraits of the lovers’ separation or hardships during elopement. Each tinai has its dazzling particulars, in the types of animals and specific flowers and plants, the occupations of the people in each, and even the type of water to be found in each, as waterfalls in the mountains, or dry wells in the desert. As specific and inevitable as the features of the landscape, so are the movements of the lovers’ hearts and actions. These poets’ imaginations had an abundant and beautiful playground to share. The anthologies were written by scores of poets, and many of the poets are named only by the metaphor they use in their poem, as one called “the poet of the long white moonlight,” or another called “the poet of red earth and pouring rain.”

Even as the poems stand firmly in the landscape and describe the dramatic motions of the heart, the specific blends of imagery, the directionality of the syntax, and the formal meter of the poems lead to a quiet interior space. Here is a verse I translated from the ancient Cankam anthology Kuruntogai,

Poem from the desert road

He says—

Fearlessly, my heart has departed
to embrace my beloved.
If its arms are too slack to hold her
what use is it?
The distances between us stretch long.
Must I think of the many forests
where deadly tigers rise up roaring and
circling like the waves of the dark ocean
standing between us? I don’t dare.

Allur nanmullaiyar

Kuruntogai 237

In this poem, the lovely image of the heart embracing, but lacking arms to do so is reflected in the image of the forest tiger roaring like ocean waves.  The word for “circling” in the original poem can also mean “echoing.” And its placement in the poem makes it a little ambiguous as to whether it refers to the tigers’ roaming movements or the sound of repetitive ocean waves. This fine swirl of images echoes the dark tumult of the heroes’ heartbeat as he moves through the landscape on his journey..

Here is verse 38, translated by the poet A.K. Ramanujan.

What She Said

He is from those mountains

where the little black-faced monkey,
playing in the sun,
rolls the wild peacock’s eggs
on the rocks.

Yes, his love is always good
as you say, my friend,

but only for those strong enough
to bear it,

who will not cry their eyes out
or think anything of it

when he leaves.


This verse enacts a vision of a nest of worlds through metaphoric image within the symbolic landscape representing secret trysts and longing. A broken heart like broken eggs on the mountainside. The grand level of landscape is signified by the name of a single plant, the kurinci, which blooms extravagantly every twelve years. The Cankam anthologies show us a multitude of poets writing the same drama and setting. There is a similar experience in a yoga practice, in which a pose like Mountain pose, signifies a position of the body, but also an attitude of the mind and heart. Consider the way the five tinai of Cankam literature can be experienced in the Sun Salutation, a vinyasa popular in today’s yoga practices. The Sun Salutation is a sequence of poses, movement mediated in time by the breath. In a class setting, a yoga teacher sets the pace, and a roomful of yogis on their mats enact this world.

We begin in mountain pose. Sweep our arms up and then dive into the ocean, the forward fold. Straighten the spine and level it to the horizon for the flat desert road. Stoop deeply again, as in a rice paddy—the fertile countryside. Then fly upright to the trees of the sacred forest, hands pressed together at the heart. So kurinci=mountain, neytal=diving at the seashore, palai=the desert road, marutam=the fields, and mullai=forest.






Indian classical love poetry is meant to illuminate the energetic precision of yogic wisdom. Another well-known work from the Cankam period called Tirukkural by the poet and weaver, Tiruvalluvar, concludes with a long set of erotic verses based on the archetypal lovers— some from his, and some from her point-of-view.  But while Tiruvalluvar sets a foundation for the practice of yoga in the practice of Virtue with a capital V, the akam genre of Cankam poetry sets the foundation in Nature itself and in the very landscapes’ inescapable features. The poetry’s attention to the details of flora and fauna speaks volumes about the very precise nature of what they were about in the inner realm. Aside from references to teh five landscapes, botanical references are particularly rich, like the sound made by seedpods on a tree blown by the wind, the circular look of mounds of pollen dust when it is shaken onto the ground, the shape of a certain flower’s calyx..

Henry David Thoreau described Walden Pond with a similar attention to its particular beauty. Some of my favorite passages in his book Walden detail his measurements of aspects of the pond: its depth, its temperature, its color, the precise characteristics of the depth and quality of its ice. In one lovely passage, he wrote about midnight fishing from a boat by moonlight. “These experiences were very valuable to me—anchored in forty feet of water, and twenty or thirty rods from the shore, surrounded sometimes by thousands of small perch and shiners, dimpling the surface with their tails in the moonlight, and communicating by a long flaxen line with mysterious nocturnal fishes which had their dwelling forty feet below, or sometimes dragging sixty feet of line about the pond as I drifted in the gentle night breeze, now and then feeling a slight vibration along it, indicative of some life prowling about its extremity, of dull uncertain blundering purpose there, and slow to make up its mind. At length you slowly raise, pulling hand over hand, some horned pout squeaking and squirming to the upper air. It was very queer, especially in dark nights, when your thoughts had wandered to vast and cosmogonal themes in other spheres, to feel this faint jerk, which came to interrupt your dreams and link you to Nature again. It seemed as if I might next cast my line upward into the air, as well as downward into this element, which was scarcely more dense. Thus I caught two fishes as it were with one hook.”  A metaphor of the consciousness using itself as the object of its meditation, this passage is a beautiful rendering of that movement of awareness from a sense of nature to a sense of mind, to a sense of enlightenment..

Yoga and poetry are sisters yet again when we consider the use of breath for approaching the experience of the sublime. In yoga class, usually the first instruction is to become mindful of the breath, to deepen it, so that we extend it fully. Only then do we proceed, pairing our movements with it. In poetry, we are often advised to speak our poems aloud, to let the breath guide the movement of our expression.  In both yoga and poetry, a beautiful pose relies on the way the breath corrects our stance. In yoga, breathing into each pose makes an automatic correction in the alignment of the pose, especially in the twists and the poses in which the belly and torso are stretched taut so that it is difficult to draw a full breath. Your aching muscles will show you an easier way if you are breathing well. When speaking a poem, the poet’s experience of the sound of it creates a similar internal tension. We utter the words, with breath. Our aching ears show us an easier way if we are breathing well.

In yoga, breathing exercises called pranayama are intrinsic to the discipline. Besides creating a silent relationship between one’s mind and one’s body, attention to breathing can affect the quality of one’s awareness. William J. Broad in his book The Science of Yoga describes in detail the effects of these practices on levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the body, and the resulting effect of those on the brain and nervous system. The slowed forms of yogic breathing have been shown to increase calm awareness. “Today a standard figure is that cutting lung ventilation in half prompts blood levels of carbon dioxide to double. And the ensuing dilation of cerebral blood vessels means the brain now gets more oxygen, not less.”  But, the slowed yogic breath has a temporary negative impact on practitioners’ ability with logic-driven and problem-solving tasks, as researchers have found. The quality of awareness is transformed by the practice.

Broad points out that the opposite happens in the rapid-breathing exercises like one called Breath of Fire. With this form, the emphasis is on exhaling forcefully and quickly, speeding up the breath, and letting the inhale occur as a result of the forced exhale. The plunge in carbon dioxide levels causes cerebral blood vessels to constrict, so the brain takes up less oxygen, sometimes resulting in dizziness and fainting. Practitioners are cautioned build up their use of this pranayama gradually. This leaves one’s awareness more laden in the region of the heart and of the belly, which has been pumping like a bellows to create the movement necessary for the breath.  EEG studies of advanced yogis show increased brain activity arising in the central parietal lobes, which are the brain’s processing points for sensory information from the body. So, in this pranayama practice, awareness arises from the body instead of the mind.

Broad presents modern yoga practice as a systematic workout for the autonomic nervous system, the half of the nervous system that is responsible for the body’s automatic responses to its environment. The physical disciplines of yoga use the two things about that system that can be consciously manipulated in order to improve its overall health: 1) the subtle physical positions of the body and 2) the velocity of its breathing. This discipline of movement and breath has a profound impact on the body’s ability to cope with stress, to regulate metabolism and digestion, to glide through its moods. Recent studies of yoga practitioners’ levels of mood-boosting neurotransmitters have only confirmed the obvious benefit.

Knowing the limits of one’s breath and movement in the practice of asana and pranayama offer a sense of both confidence and humility, which carries over into our treatment of our bodies, in what we eat, how we dress and shelter ourselves, what we offer to others.  By extending our awareness into our autonomic nervous systems, we can tap into the intense voltage of our hearts, and honor the complex neurology of the belly, with its gut feelings and reactions. Consider the poems of the 12th century saint Avvaiyar, who wrote this about the way the belly can be one’s best guru:


If I say give up food for one day, you won’t.
If I say for two take, you won’t take.
……………………………………………….O belly, full of pains,
You don’t know one day of my grief.
How great, how rare, to live with you.

Avvaiyar wrote to impart wisdom to children and young people, and her poems are beloved today as treasuries of that wisdom. Like Tiruvalluvar, she points to virtue, and like the akam poets she twines her verse with nature.

The first verse from her book Muturai is this—

“When doing good to a man, do not ask
If he’ll do good.
……………………Tall-standing coconut palms,
Tireless and growing, take water at their roots
And return it, sweet, from above.”

The very next verse seems to contradict—

“Good done to a man of character—
letters etched in stone.
…………………………….Good done
to a man who lacks ethics and love—
letters traced upon water.

Her movement in these two verses is a kind of sawing back and forth, like yoga’s deft autonomic workout.


Water that runs from the well to the rice
also waters the wayside grass.
…………………………………If on our old earth
There walk one upright man, for his sake
Everyone receives rain.

As verses from Tirukkural are recited by heart by children, by everyone, as an expression of Tamil culture, so are Avvaiyar’s. She had this to say about the ascetic yogis:

(7, Nalvali)

Looked at in all ways, this body is a hovel
For foul worms and teeming disease.
………………………………………………The great,
Because they know this, stand apart from it, silent,
like water on a lotus’s leaves.

William Broad devotes a long chapter of his book to yogic experiences of enlightenment, called samadhi in Sanskrit. Researchers interested in the physiologic aspects of yoga have noted the cooling effect of the discipline on the autonomic nervous system. In advanced practice, however, yoga’s ancient roots in Tantra become evident. Sharp spikes in heart-rate and brain activity in meditating yogis closely resemble the patterns of sexual orgasm. Broad cites the studies and then calls this yoga’s little secret, as though yoga’s marketing, as mere exercise, or stress-relief, or physical therapy, has successfully altered its image. He also offers a long discussion of Kundalini yoga: the fiery experience of the arousal of yogic energy. Kundalini promises its practitioners a path to boundless creativity, joy, and spiritual bliss. Broad mentions Carl Jung’s studies of kundalini and provides anecdotes of sudden transformations of ordinary lives into artistic virtuosity.

One of the most common forms of yoga practiced today, however, is Hatha yoga—a discipline that was invented in the tantric tradition to generate an ability to retain erotic tension within the body. Akam poetry and Tirukkural describe this erotic tension, evoking intimately both sides of the experience of love while grounding firmly in the landscape and social wisdom. Avvaiyar sums it all up in one verse:

Giving is virtue, earning rightly is wealth, living
in harmony and hospitality is love.
Letting go of all three, thinking only of god—
the bliss without peer of release.

This movement is what the bhakti poets take on in the shearing force of their devotional verse. Bhakti is defined as a counter-cultural poetry, composed in vernacular, with a devotional attitude, meant to be chanted or sung, according to Andrew Schelling, the editor of the new Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. He wrote in his introduction, “At a level deeper than what a poem or song says, occur disruptions or subversions that appear both spiritual and linguistic. These include forbidden emotions, raw vernacular vocabulary, riddles, secret codes, and non-rational images.” The big change from the ancient modes of poetry is that bhakti is born in dissent from religious and/or political authority. The result is that it is composed in the first-person– the lyric “I” with which we are familiar in our contemporary verse. An attitude of defiance paired with an attitude of devotion stretches the erotic tension inside the poet.

A few long verses now from the ninth-century poet-saint, Kotai, a devotee of the god Krishna, whom she calls Govinda and refers to here as cowherd, dancer, and thief. She is usually known by her honorific name, Antal.

I am caught in the snare
of that omniscient lord
who slumbered
upon the banyan leaf.
Do not speak
whatever comes to mind—
your words pierce me
like a dagger.
The cowherd chief
who tends his calves
with staff in hand,
that dancer with the waterpots
who reclines in sacred Kutanai—
bring me
his sacred basil
cool, lustrous, blue,
place it
upon my soft tresses.

Like an arrow
from the bow of his eyebrows,
the sidelong glance
of him who destroyed Kamsa
enters my heart,
makes me sore with pain,
weak and worn.
I yearn, I melt,
yet he says not
‘have no fear’.
If willingly
he gives his garland
of holy basil,
bring it,
place it upon my breast.

My soul melts in anguish—
he cares not
if I live or die.
If I see the lord of Govardhana
that looting thief,
that plunderer,
I shall pluck
by their roots
these useless breasts,
I shall fling them
at his chest,
I shall cool
the raging fire
within me.

To soothe the grief
of my rounded breasts,
is it not better
in this very birth
to serve Govinda
in little intimate ways,
than wait for a life beyond?
If one day
he would fold me
into his radiant chest,
that would fulfill me.
Else, looking straight at me,
uttering the truth,
he should give me
leave to go—
that also I would accept.

Kotai, daughter of Visnucittan
master of the town of Villiputuvai,
she of excellence
whose eyebrows arch like a bow,
poured her intense longing for
the radiant light of Ayarpati
the lord who brought her pain.
Those who chant
these verses of praise
will never flounder
in the sea of sorrow.

In the last stanza, the poet refers to herself in the third-person, forming a signature within the verse. Other bhakti poets use the name of their personal deity in the last lines of their poems as the signature, a complete removal of the self at the end of the lyric. The poet Mahadeviyakka, another woman poet-saint with an honorific name, wrote her burning verses in the twelfth century, as she wandered in a state of undress, scorning suitors and authorities alike.

Would a circling surface vulture
know such depths of sky
as the moon would know?

would a weed on the riverbank
know such depths of water
as the lotus would know?

would a fly darting nearby
know the smell of flowers
as the bee would know?
O lord white as jasmine
only you would know
the way of your devotees:
how would these,

on the buffalo’s hide?

Following bhakti into north India, into the 15th century, the tradition of signing the poem with a third-person reference to oneself continues. Here is one by a male poet, the weaver Kabir.

My husband is called Hari,
And I’m his young wife.
My husband is called Rama.
He’s an inch taller than me.

Looking my best,
I go in search of Hari,
The lord of the three worlds.
He’s nowhere to be found.

We live under the same roof,
Sleep in the same bed,
But seldom meet.
Fortunate the bride, says Kabir,

Whose husband loves her.

Notice the twisting of gender in this verse as he calls himself god’s wife. Kabir is known for this and many other logic-smashing contortions in his verse. Thoreau and Emerson both cite Kabir’s poetry in their writing.

Mirabai, like Antal and Mahadeviyakka, calls herself the Dark One’s lover, and plunges into even wilder twists of voice. She sings this poetic conversation,

Listen, friend,
the Dark One laughs
and scours my body with ravenous eyes.
Eyebrows are bows,
darting glances are arrows that pierce
a wrecked heart.

You will heal
I’ll bind you with magical diagrams
and crush drugs
for a poultice.
But if it’s love that afflicts you
my powers are worthless.

Sister, how can I heal?
I’ve already
crushed sandalwood paste,
tried witchcraft—charms and weird spells.
Wherever I go
his sweet form is laughing inside me.
Tear open these breasts
You’ll see a torn heart!
Unless she sees her dark lover
how can Mira
endure her own body?

Mirabai’s god, the Dark One whom she also calls Giridhara, is a form of Krishna, the handsome cowherd who lured the wives and milkmaids of Vrindavan into the forest for wild orgies. According to the mythology, when Krishna left Vrindavan, the women stood looking up the road, desolate and in anguish. A holy man came down the road and said to them, you can have him again. He went on, explaining to them the practice of yoga. One might imagine the women stringing him up in the nearest banyan tree by his saffron robes for such a suggestion. But luckily they listened to him and found their joy again.

Considering the devices and perspectives of the ancient poets, I have found this last one, in bhakti, to be surprisingly useful in the writing and revising of my own poems. Writing verse about yourself in the third person is a kind of headstand. It’s a good warm-up exercise. One way that I play with the device is to take a poem I’m revising, rewrite it entirely in third-person, then quickly and freely write another stanza in first-person. It’s a useful strategy for finding images that eluded me on the first writing, and sometimes this exercise helps me to find the fulcrum of a poem that felt lopsided or just incomplete. If the breath of the bhakti poem is a wind blowing from the south-east, as the monsoon does, the third-person voice blows in the opposite direction, miraculously steadying the flame of the devotional lamp within the poet.

Emerson wrote in “The Poet,” “We are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.” Our sun salutation contains that wisdom, too. Here is a full expression of the sun salutation, with its flowing inner motion.


—A. Anupama (Photos by Dorothea Erichsen)


Anupama, A. “Translations of Classical Tamil Love Poetry and Essay.” Numéro Cinq Magazine. Sept. 12, 2011. Web.

Avvaiyar. Thomas H. Pruiksma, transl. Give, Eat, and Live: Poems of Avvaiyar.  Los Angeles: Red Hen Press, 2009.

Broad, William J. The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

Bryant, Edwin F. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature,” from Nature; Addresses, and Lectures. 1834.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Poet,” from Essays, second series. 1844.

Ramanujan, A.K. Poems of Love and War. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

Ramanujan, A.K. Molly Daniels-Ramanujan, ed. The Oxford India Ramanujan. New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 2004.

Schelling, Andrew. The Oxford Anthology of Bhakti Literature. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. 1854. New York: Fall River Press, 2008.

Tiruvalluvar. G.U. Pope, W.H. Drew, John Lazarus, and F.W. Ellis, transl. Tirukkural. 1886. Full text online at Project Madurai:


Translation Acknowledgements

Many thanks to B. Jeyaganesh, Vennila Amaran, and Dr. Malarvizhi Mangayarkarasi of Thiagarajar College for recorded readings of the verses in Tamil and for literal translations. I am indebted to the work of A.R. Ramanujan and Robert Butler for clues to the ancient Tamil. Also thanks Jen Bervin for advising and encouraging while I wrote the lecture.


A. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at

Apr 072013

McCabe phot (2)

For your Sunday morning delectation, over coffee and bagels or eggs and bacon or hominy and grits and the New York Times or the Sunday Star or the London Sunday Times, preferably while you’re still in bed, here is Marilyn McCabe singing Leconte de Lisle‘s “Les Roses d’Ispahan” put to music by Gabriel Fauré. Marilyn’s popular translation and performance pieces have a very special place at Numéro Cinq; she’s done a bunch and I have to say it’s a treat I keep returning to, just to switch onto NC, find Marilyn and shut my eyes listening to her voice. So I’ve collected all her the contributions onto one page to make this easier for readers. Just click on her name in this paragraph to be taken to The Marilyn McCabe NC Archive Page. For each of these pieces, Marilyn also provides a deft translation of the original poem.


In keeping with the West’s long love affair with the idea of the East, Leconte de Lisle (1818-1894) invokes the mystery and seduction of Iran, its aromas and flora. He plays with formal constructions, limiting himself to four end words in French poetry’s traditional alexandrine or twelve-syllable lines.  When he put the poem to music, Gabriel Fauré dropped two of the original stanzas, but breathed something into the lines that the text does not quite offer. Translator/traitor indeed, my pale rendering into English fails the poem’s romance. The original’s oo’s and oi’s naturally purse the lips to a murmur, toward a kiss.

Marilyn McCabe

Leconte de Lisle

Click on the PLAY arrow and listen to Marilyn McCabe.

Les Roses d’Ispahan

Les roses d’Ispahan dans leur gaîne de mousse,
Les jasmines de Moussoul, les fleurs de l’oranger
Ont un parfum moins frais, ont une odeur moins douce,
O blanche Leïla! que ton souffle léger.

Ta lèvre est de corail, et ton rire léger
Sonne mieux que l’eau vive et d’une voix plus douce,
Mieux que le vent joyeux qui berce l’oranger,
Mieux que l’oiseau qui chante au bord d’un nid de mousse.

O Leïlah, depuis que de leur vol léger
Tous les baisers ont fui de ta lèvre si douce,
Il n’est plus de parfum dans le pale oranger,
Ni de céleste arôme aux roses dans leur mousse.

Oh que ton jeune amour, ce papillon léger,
Revienne vers mon coeur d’une aile prompte et douce,
Et qu’il parfume encore la fleur de l’oranger,
Les roses d’Ispahan dans leur gaîne de mousse.

—Leconte de Lisle


The Roses of Ispahan

The roses of Ispahan, their sheath of moss,
the jasmines of Moussoul, their orange blossoms,
send forth a perfume less fresh, a scent less soft,
O pale Leila, than your breath, so light.

Your lips are of coral and your light
filled laugh more lovely than swift water, your voice more soft;
more joyful than the wind that shivers the orange blossoms,
than the bird that sings beside its nest of moss.

O Leilah, since all the kisses have fled light-
ly your lips, there is no soft
perfume in the pale orange blossoms,
nor scent of roses in their moss.

Oh, that it would return on light
wings, your love, that butterfly, quick and soft,
and perfume again rise from the orange blossoms,
the roses in their sheath of moss.

—Translation & Performance by Marilyn McCabe


Marilyn McCabe’s poem “On Hearing the Call to Prayer Over the Marcellus Shale on Easter Morning” was awarded A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Orlando Prize, fall 2012, and is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review. Her book of poetry Perpetual Motion was published by The Word Works in 2012 as the winner of the Hilary Tham Capitol Collection contest.




Feb 062013


Herewith an excerpt from Stig Sæterbakken’s Self-Control, translated by Seán Kinsella and published by Dalkey Archive Press. Self-Control’s narrative is that of Andreas Felt tottering on the brink of unsettling his entire life. In this excerpt—the opening chapter of the novel—his first spoken words to his daughter are ironically “You’re all settled in then?” This sentence has a very meta and unnerving quality when thinking about the book as a whole. Also in this passage, you’ll get hear the stammer in Andreas’s voice (which I don’t mention in my review). The use of ellipses is an eccentric technique that runs throughout the novel, adding silence to Andreas’s confession.  These small silences add to the reveal at the end and recalls Jeanette Winterson’s idea: “When we tell a story we exercise control, but in such a way as to leave a gap, an opening. It is a version, but never the final one.”   —Jason DeYoung



I hadn’t seen her… talked to her of course, but hadn’t seen her, in… how many years had it been?… even though she was my own flesh and blood… and that’s why it seemed natural to me to explain it this way, because it was as though the opportunity arose so seldom that it have us both… or me at least… a sort of fear of failure with regard to the benefits of our rather hastily arranged meeting.  Even though she wasn’t the daughter who lived farthest away, no, on the contrary our homes were so close to each other that actually it was a wonder that we didn’t bump into each other unexpectedly from time to time.  That this wasn’t the case made it natural to assume that it was because she didn’t want to, and for that reason had taken measures not to… or simply… and perhaps more likely… because it was extremely seldom that I… if at all in the past year… had deviated from my regular daily route through the city.

She had lit a long, thing cigarillo, I got the idea that it was chosen on account of her fingers, which were also very long and thin.  She kept looking out the window all the time, as if there was something exciting going on out there, or she stared down at the table or at the cigarillo when I answered her or asked about something: surveying with great interest, it seemed, the grey glow advancing down along the slim stem.  A bit put-on, this excessive nonchalance.  But what else could I expect?  Every time she opened her mouth I thought I’d hear something terrible, that she’d blame for something, or tell me about something horrible that had happened to her.  But after a while, as the conversation ran its course, still without any particularly unpleasant subjects being brought up, I ascertained to my surprise that it was all progressing in an extremely polite and restrained way: I couldn’t help but imagine how friendly and relaxed our little meeting would appear to an outsider, one of the café’s random patrons.

I took a glance out the window, in the hope of perhaps discovering something of interest that could explain her slight absentmindedness.  But there was nothing to see, not from where I was sitting anyway, nothing other than a fire hydrant that stood on the other side of the street, squeezed against the fence, with a drooping bush as a roof.  It had a sort of dignity, standing there.  A few long blades of grass had struggled up through the asphalt an grown closely around it, and a couple of dandelions had accompanied them, of which there were only a few greenish-brown leaves left, making it look like a headstone.  It was completely calm, cars passed without a sound.  Yes, it all seemed so peaceful that it appeared almost staged.  I started to think about that girl who’d been reported missing earlier in the day, she was sixteen and hadn’t come home from a party the night before.  We’d heard the police appeals on the news during our lunch break but it didn’t seem like anyone else had taken any particular notice of it… perhaps you just hear about that sort of thing too often nowadays?… and this had exasperated me, I realized, even though it was only now, in retrospect, that I noticed what an impression it had made.  It was so tranquil in the park as well, when I strolled through it, a bit before six, and still warm in the sunlight.  The pea shrub bushes crackled like a lively fire in a hearth along the promenade, the empty pods hitting the asphalt with a dry slap.  She’d suggested the place to meet, I had to ask for directions twice.  And when I finally opened the door, a couple of minutes late, and caught sight of her… she had sat down at a round table, in the middle of the café… there was something strange about her, just at first glance, that made me proud, like a confirmation of something, without my being sure of what it was.

Our chairs were plastic, the seat felt cold against my behind when I sat down and I had a hard time ignoring the goose bumps it gave me on my skin down there, it felt like tiny nails being pulled out of my rear.  All at once I became aware that I was frightened of running out of things to say, and I thought I recognised the same fear in her.  Then I thought that I could actually say anything at all, that it still wouldn’t make any difference.  It was as though the lack of contact, on a regular basis, which at some times bothered me and at other times didn’t, relieved us of all responsibility: however you looked at it, we didn’t have the time we’d need to become so acquainted with one another that it would be of any significance, no matter what we said.  At the same time I couldn’t quite get away from feeling a certain sort of secret admiration for her.  Because I did see, to my amazement, that it was a grown-up and extremely sensible woman sitting in front of me, one who wouldn’t allow herself to be knocked off her perch just like that, wonderful to see, yes, quite beautiful actually, it struck me, as I studied her more closely.  I thought I could picture her reprimanding one of her colleagues for substandard work, or rolling her eyes over a particularly stupid remark from Karl-Martin, with whom she had unfortunately and for reasons that were incomprehensible ended up; she who could probably have chosen anyone she wanted…

“You’re all settled in then?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she answered, a little sullenly, as if the question bored her.

“And everything at work is all right?”


“And Karl-Martin?”

“Karl-Martin’s work is okay too.  He’s just started in a new job.  The last job he had was just awful, he hated it so much he was on the verge of… well.”

I nodded, even though I didn’t know what she was going to say.

“But he’s happy now,” she said, it seemed like fatigue was on the verge of overwhelming her.

“Do the two of you have any particular plans, or…”

I immediately regretted the unfinished sentence, because I knew she wouldn’t help me in the way I had helped her.  She looked at me.  As I’d thought.  She just waited.

“Or are you both…?”  I felt I’d already entangled myself in something that would be impossible to find my way out of again.

“Y’know?  Thinking, right now, how should I put it…?”

She gave a wry grin.  “About children, you mean?”

I threw my hands up.  “Yes, for example.”

“That can wait,” she said, but it seemed from the way she said it as though this was out of the question.  She began to tell me about Karl-Martin’s job, not her own… described in detail what his new position involved, how much responsibility he’d been given, how much they expected of him, how much freedom he had to plan his workdays.

While I sat there listening to her I noticed something peculiar about her lips, how they stuck to each other at a particular point at the far corner of one side of her mouth when she spoke.  This detail, insignificant as it was, now caught my attention in such a way that I lost sight of everything else.  I couldn’t manage to take my eyes off it.  It bothered me to look at it, all the same I let myself become completely absorbed by it.  There was something about it that didn’t fit… was that why I was so fascinated?… the rest of her, something that didn’t match, no, absolutely not, with what I otherwise took as being her, or rather her outward face.  It was as though that small, and to a certain extent innocent, defect did something to her expression, gave her a certain quality of… well, mercilessness, completely lacking in compassion, as if she was ready to clear every obstacle out of her way by whatever means necessary.  It frightened me when I saw it.  It was like I was sitting face to face with a superior power.  I looked at her, closely examined her whole face, which I had studied with pleasure only a few minutes before… but it seemed as though it had changed, and now I thought it was a wonder that I hadn’t noticed it right away, this cool, calculating, yes, cynical feature of her mouth.  It wasn’t possible not to see it.  And what I had initially considered a disruptive element, a blemish, was now revealed as the very thing that, in reality, have her her own particular appearance.  I stared at her mouth: unmistakably hers.  And eventually… unavoidably perhaps… there was something nasty about it, the slow, sort of lazy motion at the corner of her mouth… it was as though I was hearing the sound of them, her lips, every time they tore free of one another, again and again, for every word she spoke.  And it was only when I realized that she had been sitting staring at me a while without saying anything that I managed to tear my eyes away from that fold of skin… only to discover that I hadn’t the slightest notion of anything appropriate to say…

Once again it was she who saved us from an embarrassing silence.

“How are things with Mom anyway?” she asked, in an offhand kind of way, as if it didn’t matter to her whether she got a proper answer or not.

“Marit,” I said, squeezing my buttocks together, because a brief bout of stomachache had suddenly become a bubble of air that wanted to get out, and it was as if the coldness of the seat was trying to pull it out of me by force.

“Your mother and I, we’re getting a divorce.”

She was startled.  It was as unexpected for her as it was for me.  I had to use all my strength to tame the demon that was wreaking havoc down in my rear end, a loud piercing fart cloud cracked against the seat before I managed to gag it, but she was, fortunately, too beside herself to notice.  Because we both sat there, shocked by what we had heard.  Yes, even she sat there now, with glistening eyes and a flushing flower on each cheek.  But only for a moment, she was quick to regain her composure, find her way back to her pale, feigned attitude of insensitivity.

“I see,” she said.  “I see, so the two of you are getting a divorce.”

A few moments passed, then she added: “That was a surprise.”  She shrugged, in resignation… or indifference perhaps… as if to illustrate how little she cared, and drank what looked like the last dregs from her cup.  I said a silent prayer that she would let the subject lie, which it seemed she wanted to do as well.  She was probably uneasy about showing too much interest in the unexpected news, and at that moment I was indebted to her for exactly that.  because what would I have answered, if she had begun to question me… about the cause of the breakup… about our reasons for wanting to leave each other… about how we planned to organize our new lives… when we had no intention at all of doing any of it?

My spontaneous lie made it difficult for us to continue our conversation, that was plain to see.  So I drank up as well, a cold, pasty sediment that made me shiver, and we took care of what we had met up to take care of in the twinkling of an eye, quickly and efficiently, without saying any more than was necessary to each other, like a customer and an employee; I gave her the money, we exchanged a few words, I waved to the waiter and asked for the bill.  Marit insisted on paying, but I was strongly opposed, there was no sense in it, I thought, if she was going to use the money she had just gotten.

She said good-bye to me as soon as we were outside the café.  I was a little bewildered since the most natural thing would have been for me to accompany her, I could almost have followed her home without going out of my way… on the other hand I was also aware of how easily an awkward atmosphere could develop in the course of an unplanned extension of our time together… possibly it was precisely this that she was considerate enough to want to avoid by our taking leave of each other… or she could have to run an errand downtown for that matter… what did I know?  I wondered if I should ask her to say hello to Karl-Martin, but thought it best not to mention his name any more than was absolutely necessary.  We shook hands.  And suddenly I felt the impulse to hug her, to hold her, just for a moment… be left with a perfumed imprint on my body as a memento… but I refrained, I thought that it would only make the situation more difficult for her.  And for me.  Maybe she would have to twist herself free from the embrace… as from an assault… and then she would have gone home with the feeling that she’d been molested, a feeling which would then be imprinted on her memory of this meeting, overshadowing all its positive aspects, no matter if they were in the majority… which they were… as opposed to now, I thought as I stood there watching her walk away, there where we parted, if not in an especially affectionate way, then at least in a polite and level-headed one, so she could walk home, if not with any great happiness, that’s for sure, then without bearing a grudge, without having experienced her father as a particularly clumsy or unpleasant person.

Her head stuck up out of the coat like a flower from a vase, I saw her neck, white beneath her close-cropped hair, and I thought I could almost picture the way it had been when she was small… there was something about her neck… their necks… that made such an impression on me every time I saw them, although I couldn’t remember the reason.  But there was something nervous about the way she walked, out here… she sort of danced along… which didn’t quite fit with the impression I had gotten from her in there, cool and self-assured, that arrogant attitude she had adopted… which she had probably had from the start, it had just taken a little time before I recognised it… and which my insane fabrication about the divorce had been the only thing that… for a fraction of a second… had managed to puncture.  I tried to remember if I’d had any firm opinion of myself when I was her age.  In any case, I was convinced it was a lot less developed and self-assured than hers.  I had once wished all the best for her, I thought no matter what.  As little pain as possible, and as much joy as possible.  That she would succeed in everything she did, however far her interests might be from the pursuits I myself considered meaningful.  No matter what she chose to invest her time and energy in, that the investment would prove to be worthwhile, that the profit would be plentiful, that her efforts would only make her stronger.  I wanted her to be a fast learner, wanted her to do all right as far as her circles of friends; wanted her to have, preferably, a prominent position; wanted her not to be bothered by anyone, have the wool pulled over her eyes by anyone; not to be exploited by any two-faced creeps, stripped of her independence and self-respect by some twisted psychopath or other.  I wondered if she and Nina still kept in touch, or if the years had come between them, as they can so easily, and so quickly, between siblings… and I remembered that that was what I’d been thinking about beforehand and had wanted to ask her, if it had been a long time since she’d heard anything from Nina, if they ever met up, or rang each other now and again, if she knew where Nina was at the moment, where she lived, who she lived with if she wasn’t living alone… I tried to think, were they more alike than unlike, those two, would a stranger seeing them for the first time notice the similarities or the differences if told that they were sisters.  But it was as though I couldn’t quite manage to picture both of them side by side… it was as though I didn’t have room in my thoughts for the both of them… only Marit, or someone who resembled Marit…

She disappeared behind a growling bus, and I couldn’t help feeling  certain relief at the thought that it would probably be a good while before we would meet again.  I let my eyes wander, slowly.  I tried to remember if there was any particular name for them, the clouds I saw, which looked like they were stuck to the blue of the sky, clouds that would soon diminish and which awoke a strange and highly conflicted feeling in me… It was as though I was close to exploding with joy over something that in reality was dreadfully sad.  I stood looking at the traffic light, just there where Marit had disappeared, a round, red blot, like an overripe apple that would soon fall.  Finally I decided to go… why hand around there, in the middle of a busy sidewalk, with my bag in my hand?… besides, I was freezing… and I turned my head slowly as I walked so as not to let the traffic light out of my sight: I thought that if it changes to green while I can still see it then a disaster is going to take place somewhere in the world tonight, a catastrophe so big that it would be all over the front pages tomorrow morning and that there’d be newsflashes on the television all afternoon… several hundred people dead, an entire area razed to the ground… but nothing happened, it was still red as I crossed the street and went into the parking lot outside the big shopping centre on the other side: its name stood humming in the twilight in a seething shimmer of orange and yellow.  My hands turned yellow, and the people I met looked sinister, as if their faces were about to come loose from their bodies.  Even the parked cars shone in the light of the store’s letters, like animals asleep in a field.

—Stig Sæterbakken


Feb 052013


Self-Control is a disquieting novel of Beckettian stasis that simmers in that prolonged “state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.”  Its narrator, inexplicably possessed by sadistic thoughts, off-putting desires, and weaknesses, lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction in a world that seems to take little notice of him. He is man intoxicated by his own pain, an agony that has dulled him to the point of despair, and throughout the novel we witness his (initial?) efforts to confront his reality only to have them thwarted either by those closest to him or by his own self-control.   —Jason DeYoung


Stig Sæterbakken
Translated by Seán Kinsella
Dalkey Archive Press, 2012
154 pages

In response to the question how can we enjoy something sad, Stig Sæterbakken writes in a short essay titled “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music”:

I believe disharmony and asymmetry correspond to a disharmony and an asymmetry within us, because we ourselves are not whole, or complete. Because we are never fully and completely ourselves. Because our lacks, our weaknesses, and our fears make up an essential dimension within us. Because our wounds are meant not only for healing, but also the opposite, to be kept open, as part of our receptivity to that which is around us and within us. And because there is also relief in this, not to be healed, not to be cured, melancholia satisfies us by preventing us from reaching satisfaction, it clams us by keeping our anxiety alive, it gives us peace by prolonging the state of emergency, the state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.[1]

Self-Control is a disquieting novel of Beckettian stasis that simmers in that prolonged “state of emergency that answers to the name of Humankind.”  Its narrator, inexplicably possessed by sadistic thoughts, off-putting desires, and weaknesses, lives in a constant state of dissatisfaction in a world that seems to take little notice of him. He is man intoxicated by his own pain, an agony that has dulled him to the point of despair, and throughout the novel we witness his (initial?) efforts to confront his reality only to have them thwarted either by those closest to him or by his own self-control.

Influenced by writers such as Poe, Celine, and Georges Bataille, Stig Sæterbakken doesn’t write pretty books nor does he write novels that close with an upstroke of sweetness.  Instead, his novels remind us that there are fates worst than death, namely life—long, horrifically normal life, in which people do not know you and you do not know yourself.  Life in which we cannot find congruence with one another, even though that is what we yearn for the most.

Before he took his own life in 2012, Stig Sæterbakken was renown as one of Norway’s best living novelists—as well as one of its most infamous.  As a writer, Sæterbakken insisted “that literature [be] a free zone, a place where prevailing social morals should not apply…[that] literature exists in a space beyond good and evil where the farthest boundaries of human experience can be explored.” His novels investigate much of what is unflattering about human behavior—evil, which he called “the most human condition of all.” [2]

This exploration of evil bled over into his professional life as the Content Director of the Norwegian Festival of Literature in 2008, when he invited the controversial author and Holocaust denier David Irving to be the keynote speaker for the 2009 festival. The Norwegian press demanded Sæterbakken disinvite Irving and even Norway’s free speech organization Fritt Ord asked that their logo be removed from all of the festival’s publicity. Sæterbakken refused.  He called his colleagues “damned cowards.”  Although reviled by some as a stunt, the David Irving invitation has been seen by others as within keeping with Sæterbakken’s examination of evil.[3]

For all this talk of evil, however, Self-Control is not an evil novel—or I do not perceive it to be—but it does delve into unattractive human behavior, specifically our indifference to the pain of others.  Self-Control is the second novel in Sæterbakken’s S-trilogy, so called because the title of each book starts with an “S”.  The trilogy starts with Siamese, which Dalkey Archive Press published the first English translation of in 2010, and concludes with Sauermugg (not yet available in English). The S-trilogy novels are linked by their exploration of male identity problems, and a “disgusting descent into the hell of human flesh”[4]

Outraged by the complete indifference and self-centered behavior of the people around him, Andreas Felt, the narrator of Self-Control, begins a series of deliberate actions to defy the social norms he sees as the barriers between us. His rampage (of sorts) starts with a lie he tells his daughter that he and her mother are divorcing, a lie that is spontaneous, meant to puncture the “cool…arrogant attitude” his daughter has adopted. Only briefly does his daughter seem touched by this news.

During the second scene of the book, Andreas carries his rampage into his boss’s office.  His boss is a man “five to ten years” his junior, and Andreas thinks to himself that their whole relationship is built upon formalities: “we only need to leave the premises and go to another place…in order to see how ludicrous…how implausible” it all is.  He walks into the office and without provocation calls the man a “little shit” and a “miserable bastard.” He tells him that he is “one of the worst imaginable types of creeps that crawls on the surface of the earth,” reminds him that he got his job through fraud, and that he “probably couldn’t put two words together if someone came up and asked what it is we actually do here.”

Andreas expects dismissal or some sort of reproach.  Instead his boss says simply: “My wife is very ill.”  His boss wants to discuss his wife’s illness, not Andreas’s tantrum.  As with his daughter, Andreas’s expectations are rebuffed, this time by an exchanged of one outpouring of pain for another.  A quick search through this slim novel (154 pages) reveals that the word “expect” shows up fourteen times, and its close cousins “usual” and “usually” appear fourteen times and sixteen times respectively. Self-Control is a novel that shows how our lives are ruled by the “familiar” (a word that appears eleven times), by “habit” (a word that appears eight times), by route and routine (a variation that appears six times).  Granted it is a translated text—but this is a novel of spurned expectations.

What Andreas wants is for our usual, familiar, habitual behavior to go away—a full extirpation of all our hideous decorum. Of a houseguest, Andreas says: “His discretion has always irritated me.”  He imagines leaping upon this man and biting his nose; this thought he says, “cheered me up.” As Georges Bataille writes: “Society is governed by its will to survive…and based on the calculations of interest… it requires [savages] to comply with…reasonable adult conventions which are advantageous to the community.” [5] In Self-Control, characters are govern by social norms, and will not tolerate Andreas.  Where he breaks with custom, others rebuke with conventionality.

Reappearing like a compass heading throughout the novel is the disappearance of a sixteen year-old girl.  The girl goes missing on the same day as the novel begins and lends a sense of imminent tragedy to the narrative.  But the presiding sense of doom in the novel also manifests in Andreas’s almost worshipful attitude toward disaster and catastrophe. When observing his colleague Jens-Olav, who has lost his wife and house and most of his possessions in a recent fire, Andreas thinks: “I didn’t know if it was compassion or envy I felt most. Grief like that…I couldn’t imagine to think of it as anything other than liberation, liberations from all the trivial things that otherwise have such power over you.”  At other times, he lies in bed fantasizing about living through war.  He also desires misfortune on others: “I thought that if I could only mange to find out who [carved an obscene word into the lavatory wall at work] then that person would undergo a transformation, right before my eyes, and it would be a lasting change.”  But his obsession with tragedy is part and parcel with his desire for change. Late in the novel while watching a movie in a theatre for the first time in years, he thinks:

I didn’t want it to end. I wanted a new beginning. Everything over again…fresh and unfamiliar…without any clues as to how it was going to go…what was going to happen…no end. Only beginnings. One after the other. That was the way I wanted it. To know that everything was in front of me. That nothing was decided.

Andreas covets his own sovereignty, but he is fearful of taking real action toward obtaining it. Instead he longingly looks upon tragedy as a source of freedom—“It was as though I was close to exploding with joy over something that in reality was dreadfully sad.”   This promise of tragedy invades his decision making as he put faith into chance occurrences: “if [the traffic light] changes to green while I can still see it then a disaster is going to take place” (page 12); “if a taxi drives by the department store next…then I’ll call [home]” (page 86); “if the next person who goes by the window has a hat on I’ll make the call” (page 90); “if a female newsreader comes on the radio at the top of hour I’ll leave [my wife]” (page 153). When he finally sees someone who has what he wants it is a bum seated a few table over from him, farting:

[T]he power in the eyes of a man who has given up on everything…at least that was what I thought I’d seen in them…one who has nothing left to lose…who has no interest in the workings of the world…and so take people for what they are, not for what he wants them to be… a look so pure and hard and clear that I felt it in the pit of my stomach. Inferior, I felt completely inferior… I felt like a fool, like someone whose development has been at a standstill since his youth and has never been corrected, who’s never been made aware of the grotesque disparity between reality and his perception of reality.

For all his desire to “freshen” life, to be “transformed,” to change the “usual” course of things, Andreas is a man boxed in by self-control, too.  If the reader stops listening to Andreas’s flat, rather monotone torrent of thought for a moment, and thinks about his actions, what we discover is that he is really very similar to those around him.  After he rants to his boss, his boss confesses that his wife is ill.  Andreas can’t show any compassion toward the man, who so clearly desires it, but he does asks “politely” what’s wrong with her, and many of the other “usual” questions one perfunctorily asks when told such news.  During a diner party, Andreas’s guest so plainly wants to enliven the mood. Andreas refuses to play along.  After a meal in a restaurant, where Andreas over tips the waitress, the waitress begins to go on and on about how hard her work is, and she wants to show Andreas the kitchen, which is a terribly confined space, where a sick person, wrapped up like a larva, lingers in a corner.  Again, the social norms are tested—what he seems to want—but our flummoxed narrator retreats.

I’m resisting the urge to spoil Self-Control, because there is a profound silence in it—an important character who doesn’t speak. What I will say is that the final sentence of this novel reveals that one of the worst tragedies that can befall a person has already happened to Andreas, and the end of Self-Control blossoms with complexity only suggested on the previous pages. It is a line that attacks and shakes you from compliancy in Andreas’s nightmare. It is testament of Sæterbakken’s great skill as a writer, too, that he manages to withhold its information for so long and uses it to obliterate our perception of his narrator, to show how insidious Andreas’s stasis is and perhaps how impossible to overcome.

                                                            —Jason DeYoung


Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  His fiction has appeared most recently in Corium, The Los Angeles ReviewNuméro Cinq, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2012





Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. “Why I Always Listen to Such Sad Music” by Stig Sæterbakken. Literature & Music. Vol. 1, Fall 2012.
  2. “Stig Sæterbakken—Between Good and Evil” by Gabriella Håkansson, Transcript.
  3. I am not trying to defend Sæterbakken’s decision or ethics here, but to give a sense of his character. He does seem to be a person who lived by a code near to Terence’s “I am a human and consider nothing human alien to me.”
  4. “Stig Sæterbakken—Between Good and Evil” by Gabriella Håkansson, Transcript.
  5. Literature and Evil, Georges Bataille. Trans by Alastair Hamilton. Marion Boyars, 1988.
Jan 092013


The minimalism of Absurdism is tautological, taking a perverse, morbidly dry pleasure in stories that, like much of life, go nowhere, a very literal practice of the idea that art, poetry “makes nothing happen” (of course not taken from Auden, but a product of a similar historical disenchantment). The artlessness of Daniil Kharms, in accord with his age (in the wake of Satie, and Duchamp and Ernst, Kokoschka and the German Expressionists, yet almost certainly unaware of them and without precedent other than say Gogol in Russian) is Anti-art. (The designation of the Russian Absurdists for themselves was Oberiu, short for Ob’edinenie real’novo iskusstva, the tongue-in-cheek “Association for REAL Art”.) Minimalism as insufficiency of the word qua communication was already in the air when Kharm’s came of age in the 1920s, during the end-stage of Russian Futurism (particularly notable are Vasilisk Gnedov, whose logical conclusion was his “Poem of the End” (a blank page), and the Constructivist poet Ilya Selvinsky; see my tribute to the centennial of Russian Futurism at

Thumb-twiddling boredom, repetition, hoaxes, and other violations of expectations in evidence here are dissonant and discomfiting in themselves. Elsewhere, Kharms strikes a more distasteful, even offensive pose, an epatage that practically wallows in degradation and self-degradation. Explaining his “program” he wrote: “I am interested only in absolute nonsense, only in that which has no practical meaning. I am interested in life only in its absurd manifestation. I find abhorrent heroics, pathos, moralizing, all that is hygienic and tasteful … both as words and as feelings.” In his other work we may find a precedent, for example, for The Theater of Cruelty, but also in its minutia of daily life for the post-modernist, documentary yet ironic and paradoxical approach of the Moscow Conceptualist artists and poets of the 1970s who acknowledged Kharms as an essential influence.

One of them, Ilya Kabakov, wrote: “…Contact with nothing, emptiness makes up, we feel, the basic peculiarity of Russian conceptualism….” Kharms was similarly central for the non-conformist poets of the 1950s and 60s (Yevgeny Kropivnitsky, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Jan Satunovsky, Igor Kholin, Genrikh Sapgir, Alexei Khvostenko) and the Minimalist poets of the 1970s and 80s.  Just to enumerate some of the aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) values: plain speech, written as it is spoken, folksy simplicity, daily life or byt, but also the spiritual values of Absurdism: the ridiculous as a reaction and an alternative to revulsion and resignation before an Absurd age.

As I believe is true of all minimalist practice, the above not only doesn’t preclude a spiritual dimension, but makes it necessary. This particularly (also Kharms’s silly rhyming) is what is likely most incomprehensible to Anglophone readers of Kharms, and of the work of his colleague and friend, the proto-existentialist poet Alexander Vvedensky. How may their seeming nihilism (I would argue they were not) be made coherent with and even motivated by their conceptions of God? While the specifically Russian Orthodox context, particularly evident in Vvedensky’s writings (he was a genuinely religious person and writer,) but also in Kharms’s irreverence (he was the son of a religious mystical philosopher Ivan Yuvachev and seemingly an irrepressible person) is outside our scope, it may be fitting to end by noting that Kharms falls squarely within the Russian tradition of the yurodivy, the “holy fool,” even to the point of feigning insanity to avoid arrest. Daniil Kharms died in 1942, of starvation, in a psychiatric hospital during the Nazi siege of Leningrad.

—Alex Cigale



King of the universe,
dearest king of nature,
king who is nameless,
who hasn’t even a definite frame,
come over to my house
and together we will down vodka,
stuff ourselves with some meat,
and then discuss acquaintances.
Perhaps your visit will bring me
the Lord’s on high autograph,
or perhaps your photograph,
that I may your portrait depict.

(27 March 1934)


How strange it is, how inexpressibly strange, that behind this wall, behind this very wall, a man is sitting on the floor, stretching out his long legs in orange boots, an expression of malice on his face.

We need only drill a hole in the wall and look through it and immediately we would see this mean-spirited man sitting there.

But we shouldn’t think of him. What is he anyway? Is he not after all a portion of death in life, materialized out of our conception of emptiness? Whoever he may be, God bless him.



Olga Forsh approached Alexei Tolstoy and did something.

Alexei Tolstoy did something too.

Then Konstantin Fedin and Valentin Stenich ran out into the yard and began searching for an appropriate stone. They didn’t find a stone, but they did find a shovel. With this shovel, Konstantin Fedin smacked Olga Forsh across her mug.

Then Alexei Tolstoy stripped off all his clothes and completely naked walked out onto the Fontanka and began to neigh like a horse. Everybody was saying: “There neighing is a major contemporary writer.” And no one even lay a hand on Alexei Tolstoy.



At 2 o’clock past midday on Nevsky Prospect or, more precisely, on the Prospect of the 25th of October, nothing in particular happened. No no, that man standing by the Coliseum store stopped there purely by accident. Perhaps the shoelaces of his boots became untied, or maybe he stopped to light a cigarette. Or no, not that at all! He’s simply new in town and doesn’t know the way. But where then are his things? Well no, wait, now he is lifting up his head, as though wishing to look up at the third floor, or even the fourth floor, even the fifth. No, look again, he only sneezed and is now walking on. He is a bit hunched and holds his shoulders hiked up. His green greatcoat is blowing open in the wind. And now he just turned off onto Nadezhinskaya and disappeared behind a corner.

A man of Eastern extraction, a boot polisher, looked up in his wake and with his hand brushed smooth his luxurious black mustaches.

His coat is long, tight-fitting, and lilac in color, either checkered or, perhaps, stripped in pattern, or is it, the devil take it! all in polka dots.



A little old man was scratching himself with both hands. Where he could not reach with both hands, the old man scratched with one hand only, but quickly-quickly and then, the whole time, while rapidly blinking his eyes.



The window, shuttered with a curtain, was growing lighter and lighter, because the day had begun. The floors had began to creek, doors to sing, and chairs were being shuffled in the apartments. Ruzhetskii, climbing out his bed, fell on the floor and cracked open his face. He was in a hurry to get to work and therefore went out on the street having only covered his face with his hands. His hands were making it difficult for Ruzhetskii to see the way, and for this reason he twice collided with an advertising arcade and shoved some old man who was wearing a felt hat with fur ear flaps, which brought the geezer into such a state of rage, that a street sweeper who had just happened to be nearby and was attempting to catch a tomcat with a shovel, had to calm the old man down: “Aren’t you ashamed, grampa, at your age to be behaving like a teenage hooligan.”



Kulakov squeezed himself into a deep armchair and immediately fell asleep. He fell asleep sitting up and several hours later woke up lying in a coffin. Kulakov realized right away that he was lying in a coffin and was seized with a paralyzing terror. With his clouded eyes he looked around, and everywhere, in every direction he could cast his gaze, he saw only flowers: flowers in baskets, bouquets of flowers, wrapped in ribbons, wreaths of flowers, and flowers scattered separately about.

“I am being buried,” Kulakov thought to himself, filling with horror, and suddenly felt a sense of pride, that he, such an insignificant person, was being buried with such pomp, and with such a quantity of flowers.



I can’t imagine why but everyone thinks I’m a genius; but if you ask me, I’m no genius. Just yesterday I was telling them: Please hear me! What sort of a genius am I? And they tell me: What a genius! And I tell them: Well, what kind? But they don’t tell me what kind, they only repeat, genius this, genius that. But if you ask me, I’m no genius at all.

Wherever I go, they all immediately start whispering and pointing their fingers at me. “What is going on here?!” I say. But they don’t let me utter a word, and any minute now they will lift me up in the air and carry me off on their shoulders.



One man went to sleep with faith, and woke up faithless.

As luck would have it, in this man’s room stood very precise medical scales, and the man was in the habit of weighing himself daily, every morning and every night.

And so, before going to bed the previous evening, having weighed himself, the man determined that he weighed 4 stone and 21 pounds. And on the next morning, having woken up without faith, the man weighed himself again and determined that he now weighed only 4 stone and 13 pounds. “It may thus be determined,” the man concluded, “that my faith had weighed approximately eight pounds.”



Two men were talking animatedly. As they were speaking, one of them was stammering on the consonants, and the other one on the consonants and the vowels both.

When they stopped speaking, everything suddenly felt incredibly pleasant – as though the hissing of a gas stove had been shut off.



The Adventures of Mr. Caterpillar

Mishurin was a caterpillar. Because of this, or perhaps for another reason, he loved to wallow under the sofa or behind the dresser sucking in the dust. Because he was a somewhat slovenly person, sometimes for an entire day his mug would be covered in dust, as though with eider down.

Once upon a time he was invited as a guest to someone’s house, and Mishurin decided to give his countenance a light rinse. He filled a bowl with lukewarm water and added some vinegar to it and immersed his face in this water. As it turns out, this mixture contained too much vinegar, and for the rest of his long life Mishurin went blind. Into his deep old age, he walked around feeling his way about with his hands and for this reason, or perhaps another, he came to resemble a caterpillar even more.

(October 16, 1940)


The streets were becoming immersed in silence. At the intersections, people stood waiting for trolley buses. Some of them, having given up hope, set off on foot. And so at one of the intersections on the Petrograd side of town, only two people remained. One of them was particularly short in stature, with a round face and protruding ears. The other was slightly taller and, as was apparent, lame in his left foot. They were not acquainted with each other, but their common interest in the trolley bus forced them into conversing. The conversation was initiated by the lame one.

I don’t know what to do, he said, as though directing himself to no one. It’s probably not even worth waiting here.

The round-faced man turned toward the lame one and said:

I don’t think so, it might still come.



I’m sitting here on a stool. And the stool stands on the floor. And the floor is part of the house. And the house stands on the ground. And the ground extends in all directions, to the right, and to the left, forwards and backwards. Is there an end to it anywhere?

It isn’t possible, that it doesn’t end somewhere! It must end at some point or other! And then what? Water? And the ground floats on water? That’s what people used to think. And they thought, that there, where the water ends, there is where it and the sky meet.

And indeed, if you stand on a steamship at sea, where all around nothing interrupts your vision, then that is what it seems, that somewhere very far away the sky descends and unites with the water.

And the sky appeared to people as a big solid cupola, made of something transparent, like glass. But that was before anyone knew about glass and they said the sky is made of crystal. And they called the sky firmament. And people thought the sky or firmament is the most solid thing there is, the most consistent. Everything may change, but the firmament will never change. And to this day, when we wish to say of something, that it will not change, we say: this must be confirmed.

And people saw how upon the sky the sun and the moon move, but the stars stand immobile. People began to pay closer attention to the stars and they noticed that the stars are distributed in the sky in the shape of figures. Here are seven stars placed in the form of a pot with a handle, here are three stars one following right upon another as though on a ruler. People learned to distinguish one star from another and they determined that the stars are also in motion, only all together, as though they are fixed to the sky and they move together with the sky itself. And people decided that the sky circles around the earth.

The people then divided the entire sky into distinct figures consisting of stars and each figure they called a constellation and each constellation they gave its own name.

And then people saw that not all stars move together with the sky but that there are some which wander among the other stars. And people called these stars planets.



One man was chasing another, and the one running away was, in his turn, chasing a third one who, unaware he was being chased, was simply striding along on the pavement stones at a moderate pace.



A Northern Fable

An old man, for no particular reason, went off into the forest. Then he returned and said: Old woman, hey, old woman!

And the old woman dropped dead. Ever since then, all rabbits are white in winter.



Yes, I’m a poet forgotten by the sky.
Forgotten by the sky from days of old.
But once upon a time Phoebus and I
made a racket joined in a sweet choir.
Yes, there was a time when I and Phoebus
joined in a sweet choir and made a squall.
And there were days when I and Geb were
tight as drops of water and in clouds above
the thunder in its youth rang with laugher.
The thunder rolled flying after Geb and I
pouring from the heavens a golden light.


—Daniil Kharms translated by Alex Cigale

Alex Cigale has had his poems appear in Colorado, Green Mountains, North American, Tampa, and The Literary Reviews, and online in Drunken Boat and McSweeney’s. His translations from the Russian can be found in Ancora Imparo, Cimarron Review, Literary Imagination, Modern Poetry in Translation, Brooklyn Rail InTranslation, The Manhattan, St. Ann‘s, and Washington Square Reviews. Other Kharms translations by Alex Cigale have appeared in PEN America and Gargoyle, and online in Eleven Eleven (California College of the Arts), Offcourse (SUNY Albany) and Mayday Magazine. He is currently Assistant Professor at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.



Dec 112012

“A Cut” is a very short story, allegorical, if you will, mordant and slyly ironic in the modern mode, representing a clash of values, a clash of the new and the old, with the voice of tradition coming in the words of the teacher trying to keep control of his classroom, inhumanely and blindly reciting the former courtesies in the face of contemporary social realities (chaos and violence). “A Cut” is Catalan writer Quim Monzo‘s second appearance in Numéro Cinq (see his earlier story “Gregor” here). The story is excerpted from Monzo’s collection A Thousand Morons, translated by Peter Bush, and just published by Open Letter Books. See NC Senior Editor Richard Farrell’s review of A Thousand Morons here.



Toni dashes into the classroom with a look of terror in his eyes and a gash in his neck. It is a deep, broad cut, spurting blood that is bright crimson rather than red. One would say, on the evidence of a glance, without a proper investigation, that, now that the flesh has opened up, the gash—that in principle should be no more than a millimeter wide—is two to three centimeters across. We might estimate its length at twenty to twenty-five centimeters, given that it starts under his left ear, goes down his neck, and ends level with his chest, slightly to the right of his sternum.

“They attacked me with a broken bottle.”

Blood is seeping down his neck, staining the white shirt of his uniform. His jacket collar is equally soaked in blood.

“Come on, boy. Is this any way to walk into the classroom, Toni?”

“Sir, Ferran and Roger got hold of a broken bottle next to the vending machine, stuck it into me, and . . .”

“How does one enter the classroom, Toni? Is this how one comes into a class? Does one enter any old way? Does one enter without saying ‘Good morning’? Is this what we have taught you at school?”

“Good morning,” says Toni, putting his right hand over the gash to try to staunch the flow of blood.

“Generally speaking, habits have been degenerating, and you are not to blame, I know. We are also to blame, in institutions that are unable to offer an education that shapes character with a proper sense of discipline and duty. But society is also to blame, and all the many parents who demand that school provides the authority they are incapable of wielding. You, Toni, are but a sample, a grain of sand from the interminable beach of universal disorder. Where is the discipline of yesteryear? Where are the sacrifice and effort? Where are the basics of education and civility we have inculcated into you day after day, from the moment you entered this institution? I know that many other educational institutions practice a much laxer form of education, and that, as it is impossible to totally isolate each individual, and being aware of the tendency of the youth to mingle and fraternize, I know, for all these reasons, that, however much our institution strives to educate you in exemplary fashion, if we are the only ones inculcating any norms, you have too great an opportunity to be polluted by the lax mores of others.”

“Sir, I’m soaked in blood.”

“So I see. And I can also see the dreadful mess you are leaving on the parquet. Not to mention your shirt and your jacket. You know by now that I like your uniforms to always be spotless. But we will leave that for tomorrow. Now go to reception and ask Mr. Manolo for a mop and a bucket of water and try not to splatter blood all down the corridor, as you will have to clean that too.”

—Quim Monzo


Quim Monzo is an award-winning Barcelona based writer. He has written novels, story collections, essays and journalism. His short story collection, A Thousand Morons, translated from Catalan by Peter Bush, is available from Open Letter. Bush’s sharp and flawless translation brings together 19 stories and shorter fictions from one of Catalonia’s leading writers. Monzo’s short story “Gregor” can be read here at Numéro Cinq.


Jul 122012

Herewith an excerpt from Edouard Levé‘s Autoportrait, translated by Lorin Stein and published by Dalkey Archive Press.  On first encounter you might feel reluctant toward Levé’s prose since the sentences tend not to work together as in a standard narrative. The rhythm of his “I like,” “I have,” “I would,” I + verb will pull you along, though.  Also I’ve tried to choose a section with some of the more humorous (note: darkly) lines.

A few months ago, when The Paris Review ran a pre-publication excerpt of Autoportrait, I experimented with writing in its style because it looked too easy, too random.  It proved more difficult than expected.  A page or two was all I could muster.  I felt too exposed, too vulnerable. Also, to my surprise, the truthfulness of what I’d written started to feel rather shaky.  It’s extraordinary that Levé extents his self-revealing for 117 pages, and at times it’s painful. He lays out so much about himself that he seems to disappear in the bluster of his statements, a kind of self-erasure through self-exploratory prose perhaps meant to showcase his life. As he writes: “If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything.”

Author photo via The Balloon Journey.

— Jason DeYoung

I reuse grocery bags as trash bags. I separate my recycling, more or less. Drinking puts me to sleep. In Hong Kong I knew someone who went out three nights a week, no more, no less. I believe that democracy is spreading in the world. The modern man I sing. I feel better lying down than standing up and better standing than seated. I admire the person who thought up the title The Last House on the Left. A friend told me about the “Red Man of the Tuileries,” I don’t remember what he did but the name still gives me shivers. The pediatrician my mother took me to humiliated generations of children, including me, with this riddle: “If Vincent leaves a donkey in one meadow and goes into another meadow, how many donkeys are there?” all said in a measured voice, and then he’d say, “There’s only one donkey—you” to any child, that is, every child, who didn’t answer “One.” I want to write sentences that begin “Ultimately.” I can understand “It’s the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end,” “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning,” but once we get to “It’s the beginning of the end of the beginning of the end of the beginning,” all I hear is a bunch of words. I have sometimes annoyed an interlocutor by systematically repeating the last word he said. I never get tired of saying La fifille à son pépère (grandfather’s darling). One of my friends earns the admiration of some and the indifference of others by knowing the name and number of every département in France. My cousin Véronique is amazing. I sometimes think of the witty thing to say an hour later. At the table, I excused myself for splashing food on the spotless shirt of a friend by telling him: “You got in the way of my juice.” I take no pleasure in others’ misfortunes. I do not bow down before a metal idol. I am not horrified by my heritage. I do not till the earth. I do not expect to discover new marvels in classical music, but I’m sure of taking pleasure until I die in the ones I already know. I do not know whether one can improve on the music of Bach, but one can certainly improve on the music of several others who shall remain nameless. I admit to being wrong. I do not fight. I have never punched anyone. I have noticed that, on the keypads of Parisian front doors, the 1 wears out the fastest. I have sometimes turned my interlocutors against me by an excess of argumentation. I do not listen to jazz, I listen to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday. I sometimes feel like an impostor without knowing why, as if a shadow falls over me and I can’t make it go away. If I travel with someone, I see half as much of the country as if I traveled by myself. One of my friends likes to travel in certain Middle Eastern countries where there is nothing to see but airports, deserts, and roads. I have never regretted traveling by myself, but I have sometimes regretted traveling with someone else. I read the Bible out of order. I do not read Faulkner, because of the translation. I made a series of pictures based on things that came out of my body or grew on it: whiskers, hair, nails, semen, urine, shit, saliva, mucus, tears, sweat, pus, blood. TV interests me more without the sound. Among friends I can laugh hard at certain unfunny TV programs that depress me when I’m alone. I never quite hear what people say who bore me. To me a simple “No” is pleasantly brief and upsettingly harsh. The noise level when it’s turned up too high in a restaurant ruins my meal. If I had to emigrate I would choose Italy or America, but I don’t. When I’m in a foreign country, I dream of having a house in Provence, a project I forget when I get back. I rarely regret a decision and always regret not having made one. I think back on the pain of affairs that never took place. The highway bores me, there’s no life on the side of the road. On the highway the view is too far away for my imagination to bring it to life. I do not see what I lack. I have less desire to change things than to change my perception of them. I take pictures because I have no real desire to change things. I have no desire to change things because I am the youngest in my family. I like meeting new people when I travel: these brief and inconsequential encounters have the thrill of beginnings and the sadness of separations. I wanted to write a book entitled In the Car, made up of remarks recorded while driving. To take pictures at random goes against my nature, but since I like doing things that go against my nature, I have had to make up excuses to take pictures at random, for example, to spend three months in the United States traveling only to cities that share a name with a city in another country: Berlin, Florence, Oxford, Canton, Jericho, Stockholm, Rio, Delhi, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Mexico, Syracuse, Lima, Versailles, Calcutta, Baghdad. When I decide to take a picture of someone I see in the street, I have ten seconds to notice the person, decide to take the picture, and go ask, if I wait it’s too late. I wear glasses. In my mouth, time moves slowly for candy. I have deeper to dig in myself. I see art where others see things. Between the solitude of the womb and the solitude of the tomb I will have hung out with lots of people. While driving a car past some meadows these words came to me: a tractor chicken and an elephant tent. I wish treatises were article- not booklength. In the United States I came across a village called Seneca Falls, which I mistranslated Les Chutes de Seneque (Seneca’s Falls). I have seen an ad for a vegetarian vehicle. I would like to see movies accompanied by inappropriate music, a comedy with goth rock, a children’s movie with music from a funeral, a romance with a brass band, a political film with a musical-comedy sound track, a war movie with acid rock, porn with a choir. I make fewer and fewer excuses. After I lick an envelope I spit. I don’t want to die suddenly but to see death slowly coming. I do not think I will end up in hell. It takes five minutes for my nose to forget a smell, even a very bad one, this doesn’t go for what I perceive with my other senses. I have weapons in my brain. I have read this sentence by Kerouac: “The war must have been getting in my bones.” Although I have always translated Deer Hunter as Chasseur de cerf, I still hear the echo of the mistranslation cher chasseur (dear hunter). I remember what people tell me better than what I said. I expect to die at the age of eighty-five. To drive at night through rolling hills by moonlight in summertime can make me shudder with pleasure. I look more closely at old photographs than contemporary ones, they are smaller, and their details are more precise. If not for religion and sex, I could live like a monk. My last and first names mean nothing to me. If I look in the mirror for long enough, a moment comes when my face stops meaning anything. I can stand around in several dozen different ways. I have carried women in my arms, I have not been carried by them. I have not hugged a male friend tight. I have not walked hand in hand with a male friend. I have not worn a friend’s clothing. I have not seen the dead body of a friend. I have seen the dead bodies of my grandmother and my uncle. I have not kissed a boy. I used to have sex with women my own age, but as I got older they got younger. I do not buy used shoes. I had an idea for an Amish punk band. Only once was I the first occupant of an apartment. I got into a motorcycle accident that could have cost me my life, but I don’t have any bad memories of it. The present interests me more than the past, and less than the future. I have nothing to confess. I have trouble believing that France will go to war in my lifetime. I like to say thank you. I cannot perceive the delay in mirrors. I don’t like narrative movies any more than I like the novel. “I do not like the novel” doesn’t mean I do not like literature, “I don’t like narrative movies” doesn’t mean I don’t like movies. Art that unfolds over time gives me less pleasure than art that stops it. The second time I walk the same route, I pay less attention to the view and walk faster. I let the phone ring until the answering machine screens the call. I spend two hours talking to one friend, but it only takes five minutes to end my conversation with another. When I’m on the phone, I don’t make any effort with my face. If I put off a phone call where something is at stake, the wait becomes more difficult than the call. I am impatient when waiting for a phone call but not when I have to make one. I have more good memories than bad ones. When I’m sure I like an article of clothing I buy a few of the same one. I do not wish to shine.

— Edouard Levé, translated by Lorin Stein