“Sometimes the night closes in around me like a small room without a door.”

I must have heard of Bruno Schulz (1892-1941) before this year. I probably had while reading secondary literature for my university dissertation on Kafka; I definitely had listening to this BBC documentary about the history of Jewish life in Poland by the writer Eva Hoffman.

But it was this year that I kept coming across his name: referenced in Tomasz Różycki’s sonnet sequence Colonies; in this interview with David Grossman where the conversation turns to See Under: Love and Bruno Schulz’s resurrection after being murdered on the street by a Gestapo officer; in this radio essay on Kafka by Margaret Atwood that—by incredible coincidence—I listened to the same night as a discussion at the Goethe-Institut on a book by Martin Walser about the Yiddish writer Sholem Yankev Abramovich; in the new Brazilian edition of complete fictions of Schulz that I saw on a friend’s bookcase.

If it was the sheer anonymity of his name and the fleeting references that had made me forget him before, in 2015 it was impossible and now—after reading his incredible prose that conjures up something like a disembodied synaesthesia where all the sense are mixed up—doubly so.

Here is a paragraph from The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (Penguin) translated from the Polish by Celina Wieniewska:

A night in July! The secret fluid of dusk, the living, watchful, and mobile matter of darkness, ceaselessly shaping something out of chaos and immediately rejecting every shape. Black timber out of which caves, vaults, nooks, and niches along the path of a sleepy wanderer are constructed. Like an insistent talker, the night accompanies a lonely pilgrim, shutting him within the circle of its apparitions, indefatigable in invention and in fantasies, evoking for him starry distances, white Milky Ways, the labyrinths of successive Colosseums and Forums. The night air, that black Proteus playfully forming velvety densities streaked with the scent of jasmine, cascades of ozone, sudden airless wastes rising like black globes into the infinite, monstrous grapes of darkness flowing with dark juice! I elbow my way along these tight passages, I lower my head to pass under arches and low vaults, and suddenly the ceiling breaks open with a starry sight, a wide cupola slides away for a moment, and I am led again between narrow walls and passages. In these airless bays, in these nooks of darkness, scraps of conversation left by nightly wanderers hang in the air, fragments of inscriptions stick to posters, lost bars of laughter are heard, and skeins of whispers undispersed by the breeze of night unfold. Sometimes the night closes in around me like a small room without a door. I am overcome by drowsiness and cannot make out whether my legs are still carrying me forward or whether I am already at rest in that small chamber of the night. But then I feel again a velvety hot kiss left floating in space by some scented lips, some shutters open, I take a long step across a windowsill and continue to wander under the parabolas of falling stars.

“Leave the rest of your dream to sleep at the open window”

The title a contradiction. It is unclassifiable. And all of that you say about the book itself. Absent Presence is—depending on the moment you look at it—the autobiography, the memoirs, an extended prose poem, a novel, perhaps more specifically a Künstlerroman, a monologue written into the mirror, difficult prose, simple prose, an ars poetica, by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941-2008), translated by Mohammad Shaheen. It is all of the above and none. What it is—and what it remains—is hallucinatory, enlightening, beautiful in specific sentences, such as:

Poems and twilight have this in common: obscurity mingles with clarity, because a hidden pit emits its rays in shafts of light and in words, and consequently deprives darkness of the eternity of adjectives.

Or in longer sections, such as this description of his writing process that plays off the title and the previous sentence a good 25 pages before:

You marvel at how the water and the song are united; the voice of water is rhythm. Perhaps music is the organisation of drops of water in a spirit which becomes clear in the hands of one who plays on instruments made out of watery, emotional material. […] …and you proceed to the hobby which has become a trade, and the trade which has been a hobby. The cup of coffee on the left side of the desk, the box of pens on the right, next to the bottle of black ink; in the middle, the white leaves covered with white writing. You meet them, and they meet you, containing the secret memory of those who have gone before. You alone have nothing determinate, no content, and in vain you try to find your own line in this white throng which stretches between writing and speech. You longer ask, ‘What shall I write?’ but rather, ‘How shall I write?’ You summon a dream, but it flees from form; you beg for a meaning, but the rhythm is uneasy with it. You believe that you have crossed the threshold which divides the horizon from the abyss. You have practised the opening of metaphor to an absence that is present, to a presence that is absent, a spontaneity that seems obedient. You know that meaning in poetry is made up of the meaning in the movement of meaning in a rhythm in which prose aspires to the citizenship of poetry and in which poetry aspires to the aristocracy of prose. ‘Take me to features of the river that I do not know, take me.’

Take us all.

I should also mention that I read this book a while back, but the impulse came from the Brazilian poetry blog, Modo de Usar, where a Portuguese translation of one of Darwish’s poems appeared my Facebook feed yesterday.

Mahmoud Darwish, Absent Presence (translated by Mohammad Shaheen), Hesperus Press, 2010

Hamid Ismailov and the “Reality Novel”

By Rob Packer

The new novel by Hamid Ismailov

The new novel by Hamid Ismailov

“A Reality Novel” is a bold subtitle for any novel: the very act of writing slices up reality in a particular way, creating lacunae and juxtapositions. It’s an especially bold claim with political subject matter or somewhere relatively unknown, such as Central Asia. In the three months I lived in Kyrgyzstan, it seemed that half the facts were half-false, all lies contained a grain of truth and reality, if it existed, was somewhere in between.

For English-speakers, one of the best people to make sense of the conflicting and interlocking narratives of Central Asia, it’s probably Hamid Ismailov, Uzbek journalist, poet-novelist, BBC World Service Writer in Residence and head of the Central Asia service. In September, Glagoslav—a new publisher of literature in Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian—published his 2005 novel, A Poet and Bin-Laden.

Personally, the title feels a little sensationalist (the original Russian means ‘the road to death is greater than death’) and even misleading in a literary world where the Taliban write poetry.

The novel tells the story of Belgi, an internationally-renowned Uzbek poet with an American girlfriend, who leaves Uzbekistan after his brother is murdered by the police. He is delivered to and joins the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the mountains of Tajikistan; and he is later sent to the Taliban’s Afghanistan to make a (propaganda?) film about Uzbek refugees, where he does briefly encounter Bin-Laden, before being found by American troops in 2001.

Read more of this post

Teju Cole’s “Open City”

By Rob Packer

Open City by Teju Cole

Last month, I attended a joint reading by Jeet Thayil and Teju Cole at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. It was a stellar pairing between two debut novels and the two cities depicted in them: Mumbai in Thayil’s Narcopolis (2012) and New York in Cole’s Open City (2011). Over the following day and a half I was in Edinburgh, my friend, her sister and I kept coming back t othe reading as we evaluated and re-evaluated our festival highlights. We all had lots, but we were all agreed that Cole and Thayil came high in any list of favourites.

Open City is the monologue of Julius, as he goes on walks through the streets of New York, cataloguing meticulously what he sees and thinks and interleaving it with memories of his childhood in Nigeria. These walks are not just the narrative: Cole captures it in the flow of narrative form as well. The stream-of-consciousness prose reflects the contingent fluidity that an aimless walk around Manhattan actually produces. On a good day (like last weekend) it’s a sublime experience, where thesis, antithesis and synthesis pile up unexpectedly one on top of another in the world’s most impression-dense city. In an article for the FT, Cole described composing an article as “writing as diving”: Open City works as “reading as diving”—so much so, that I read most of the book on one transatlantic flight. Read more of this post

Rain by Don Paterson

By Rob Packer

At first glance it seems the perfect opening metaphor: a poem about two trees lashed together, their branches intertwining over time and eventual separation so that:

each strained on its shackled root to face
the other’s empty, intricate embrace.

But Don Paterson’s 2009 collection, Rain (his latest), also begins by prohibiting interpretation and the poem concludes:

They were trees, and trees don’t weep or ache or shout.
And trees are all this poem is about.

Don Paterson’s Rain

Over-interpretation is something all poetry readers dabble in every now and again—sometimes it really is irresistible—but in an extreme and simple example, I heard Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish, say in this podcast that his mother is often interpreted as Palestine: he really is writing about his mother. For good measure, Paterson closes the collection with “and none of this, none of this matters”.

Ultimately this means you can concentrate on Paterson’s fantastic use of language that often rumbles along unobtrusively in subtly rhymed and effortless metre and end up leading you into a trap. Domesticity often hides something dark or unnerving, referenced obliquely and unexplained: a child tied up like some Frankenstein creation or a son’s hand that shakes because “one inch from home, we couldn’t get the air to him”. Paterson’s genius lies in the way he makes the unsaid say more than the said and he does this best in the opening to ‘The Story of the Blue Flower’:

My boy was miles away, yes, I admit it,
but the place was empty, my lines of sight were good
and besides, such things were unknown in this town –

Even without any details, these is a hidden menace below the surface: which “lines of sight”? Maybe he has a gun? And what things are “unknown in this town”? We assume the worst, but still aren’t sure. This menace reminded me of the Spanish theatre genre* of the esperpento, Valle-Inclán’s theatre of the grotesque, where language is colloquial and reality is deformed by the grotesque.

Rain is fascinating for its effortlessness, simplicity and often-grotesque imagery, but also for its varied poetic forms and influences that come from far and wide. There is a sequence of adaptations of poets like Li Po, Antonio Machado or Robert Desnos and a fantastic poetic description of Zurbarán’s masterpiece of dark and shadow, St Francis in Meditation (a personal National Gallery favourite). There is the strangely wonderful ‘Song for Natalia “Tusja” Beridze’, a poem about a musical internet obsession with a Georgian electronic musician, where I just enjoyed finding out just what Paterson is going to use as a rhyme (struggling/Googling, virusy/piracy and maxxing/taxing are particular gems). But some of the most entertaining verse comes in a 35-poem renku sequence**, where some made me laugh out loud and others are simple at first glance but incredibly deep: it’s impossible to choose favourites, but here’s one of the most bizarre ones:

Aha! The zip
for that idiot-suit.
And inside? Zip!

Don Paterson, Rain, Faber & Faber 2009

* Admittedly not one I know well, though.

** If you think of renku as a sequence of haikus, you get the right kind of idea.

White Egrets by Derek Walcott

By Rob Packer

It doesn’t happen too often that I pull out a book of poetry in Waterloo Station to read a few lines to a friend. She and I were each heading back home from a rather literary lunch; I opened the book (almost) at random and read:

If all these words were different-coloured pebbles,
with little pools that the blue heron might drink from,
a mosaic sheeted and glazed by the vanishing bubbles
of the shallows, and bannered waves marching to the sea’s drum,
if they were more than black marks on white paper,
and sounds that our eyes make upon their meeting,
they would all be yours …

We then had to break off and run for our trains, but these lines remain some of my favourite of White Egrets, the 2010 collection by St Lucian poet, Derek Walcott (1930–). They’re also characteristic of a collection that creates potent image after potent image in the reader’s mind and weaves together motifs that echo, develop and interact through the collection: it feels as much a poetic sequence as a collection.

The “bannered waves” of the sea are a constant presence throughout White Egrets. The sea creates comparisons of “huge trees tossing at the edge of the lawn like a heaving sea without crests” and is described in countless ways, whether “a bosoming wave unbuttons her white bodice” or the reader being invited to:

Watch how spray will burst
like a cat scrambling up the side of a wall,
gripping, sliding, surrendering; how, at first,
its claws hook then slip with a quickening fall
to the lace-rocked foam.

A white egret (Source: JJ Harrison, Wikimedia Commons)

The sea also recalls the Caribbean’s history: it stretches off to Africa and Europe (Sicily and Andalucía feature particularly strongly). It clearly references the triangular slave trade, which resulted in the syncretic Caribbean culture and I found Walcott’s linking of Syracuse in Sicily with St Lucia fascinating. As well as both being islands, where “the sea was the same except for its history”, they share the same patron saint.

The “blue heron” of the extract I read in Waterloo also makes a visual allusion to the book’s most fluid motif: the white egrets of the title (egrets are a type of heron and look very similar). They are both beauty and terror; they are immortality, death, anonymity, human transience and nature’s permanence; they are rhymed visually with sails, with regrets, with poems, letters, clouds and sea waves breaking.

Every time the white egret reappears, it adds a new and contradictory shade of meaning. Right now, I imagine them as metaphors for the creative process: the muse’s fleeting ideas that arrive—and disappear—without warning. In an hour, I might imagine them as Walcott’s drive “to paint and write well in what could be my last year”. Tomorrow, I may think that they defy interpretation completely. But it’s these connections and contradictions between the book’s imagery and motifs that are really what add so much to its richness and make it such a joy to read and re-read.

Derek Walcott, White Egrets, Faber & Faber 2010

Colin Thubron’s To a Mountain in Tibet

By Rob Packer

To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

The pyramidal Mount Kailas (Mount Meru of mythology) stands in Tibet supernaturally close to the source of India’s greatest rivers—the Indus, the Sutlej, the Brahmaputra and a major Ganges tributary—and for this reason, Hindu and Buddhist cosmology places it at the centre of the world. In his latest book, To a Mountain in Tibet, Colin Thubron says “the concept of a world mountain pervaded Asia” and extends its influence as far as Babylonian ziggurats. Indeed, its shape is repeated in the temples of Angkor and Ellora, and constructed on a grand and allegorical scale at Borobudur (see photos).

Travel writing is sometimes (unfairly) treated as literature’s embarrassing relative: talking about himself, often male, showing off about his latest trip, perhaps a little uncouth. While thinking about this blog, I tried to come up with a personal definition but couldn’t get beyond a rather vague “first-person narrative telling a true story away from home”. With this woolliness, it’s no surprise that the genre ranges from the truly execrable (Brazil: Life, Blood, Soul by John Malathronas, for example) to the sublimely wonderful To a Mountain in Tibet.

The book is a travelogue of Thubron’s 2009 “pilgrimage” to through the Nepali Himalayas to Mount Kailas after “the last of my family dies”. Understandably, the author’s grief permeates the book and he also reflects on the conception of death in Hinduism and Buddhism, as he walks towards Kailas through a landscape ever more barren and physically marked by the Buddha’s footprints.

Mandala on the hand of a Nepali bodhisattva

He also examines “the fantasy of Tibet as an exalted sanctuary”, where even Tibetan exiles “depict a remembered country”, “a land that never existed at all”, and the more Western equation of Tibet with its fictional alter ego, Shangri-La (fictional despite recent renamings in Yunnan Province). But the Himalayas of the imagination are quickly disappearing in a world and “Arcadia is falling to bits as he speaks”, where even Nepali peasant farmers have daughters studying in Alabama and Tibetan monks anger over the refereeing of a Manchester United-Barcelona game: the abbot rationalizes it as “a kind of meditation. They concentrate on the ball and the rest of the world goes away…”

To a Mountain in Tibet is a joy to read with its cinematic flashbacks, its fascinating insights into Tibetan and Nepali culture, and Thubron’s exploration of his own and his family’s past. And above all, the book is written in fantastically lyrical prose, and the opening paragraph is just a taste of things to come:

The sun is rising to its zenith. Silver-grey boulders lie tumbled along the track among mattresses of thorns and smoke-blue flowers. The storm clouds that hang on the farther mountains do not move. There is no sound but the scrunch of our boots and the clink of the sherpa’s trekking pole. Underfoot the stones glisten with quartz.

I feel I owe a particular debt to Colin Thubron as one of the first people to introduce me to Central Asia with The Lost Heart of Asia (left on a Ukrainian train in 1998 and rediscovered when I lived in Kyrgyzstan). To a Mountain in Tibet surpasses that earlier work and is, without a doubt, one of the most engrossing and intelligent pieces of recent writing that I’ve read.

Colin Thubron, To a Mountain in Tibet, Chatto & Windus 2011

Kailas depicted at Angkor, Cambodia

Part of the Kailasa Temple at Ellora, Maharashtra, India

Borobudur, Java, Indonesia

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