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

The Bridge over the Drina

Review of Ivo Andrić’s The Bridge over the Drina

By Rob Packer

The Bridge over the Drina by Ivo Andrić

Winning the Nobel Prize in Literature isn’t always the timeless honour for posterity that people often associate it with and some of its winners remain as relative unknowns on the world stage: Ivo Andrić, the prize’s Yugoslavian recipient in 1961, probably falls into this category despite his fame in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Andrić’s most famous work is The Bridge over the Drina, a book written while the author was under house arrest in Belgrade during the Second World War and set in Višegrad, the eastern Bosnian town where he grew up.

I read the book while I was in the Balkans earlier this month and the cover of Harvill’s edition promises that “No better introduction to the study of Balkan and Ottoman history exists”. The novel fits within the nation-defining tradition that often combines history and fiction in new nations trying to find their place in the world, and reminded me of Jan Neruda, one of the first Czech writers to write in Czech. Rather than having a central human character, the novel revolves around Višegrad’s Ottoman bridge charting the history of the town and the townspeople over nearly 350 years; and as you read the novel it seems more like a fictionalized history book than historical fiction, which gives it more structure than The Railway, a novel that also lacks clearly defined central characters and which I also read recently.

As you read The Bridge over the Drina, history seems to be a faceless, but powerful force: Višegrad might sit at a cultural crossroads between the worlds of Christianity and Islam, but history happens around and to the town and is controlled by outsiders with the inhabitants watching uncomprehendingly as they sit on the bridge drinking coffee. In the context of only basic education, the townspeople learn by observation alone: for most of the book, the bridge is a constant, unquestionable presence to the characters, even though when the Ottomans originally built the bridge, it was seen as a futile, even godless, act; and at the end as the bridge is mined as the Austro-Hungarian army fall back, its partial destruction is seen as another futile and godless act.

One of the things that seems to emphasize itself again and again in the book is the constant ethnic divide in the town between “Turks”—the term historically used for Bosniak Muslims—and the Serbs. It is a neighbourly attitude mixed with suspicion rather than a hostile one; however, suspicion and fear come to the fore whenever history starts to act on the town, at Serbian independence in the 19th century or when the Ottoman Empire withdraws from Bosnia. In some ways the divide seems insurmountable; and looking at Andrić’s own political views, it can only be overcome by removing foreign rule and independence—in 1945, this is Yugoslavia’s rather than Bosnia’s independence.

Going back to the promise on the book’s cover, it does put the Balkans’ recent struggles in historical perspective and is an excellent introduction to the region, and Bosnia in particular, which always seems to be a microcosm of European ethnic difficulties. The way it threads through history and its intensely regional viewpoint isn’t for everyone, but for anyone interested in the Balkans it’s unmissable.

Ivo Andrić, The Bridge over the Drina (Na Drini ćuprija/На Дрини ћуприја), Harvill 1994. (Original 1945)

Tales from Uzbekistan

Review of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway

By Rob Packer

"The Railway" by Hamid Ismailov

“The Railway” by Hamid Ismailov

I first bought a copy of Hamid Ismailov’s The Railway when I was freshly returned from my three-month stint in Central Asia at the end of 2009; but one thing led to another, the book was left at home when I headed to Colombia and Mexico and I didn’t read the novel until this week.

The book is one of those rarities you sometimes stumble across in a bookshop, or in the literature section of the Lonely Planet to an obscure destination, a post-Soviet novel by a dissident Uzbek émigré living in London and writing in Russian. Rather than a novel, it’s really a collection of fables set around Gilas, a fictional railway town in Uzbekistan and each chapter is the story of a family or individual from the village. The book covers so many parts of Central Asian life during the Soviet Union that I recognized from living there: the patchwork of ethnic groups (Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs), the internal exiles brought by Stalin from other parts of the Soviet Union (Koreans with their kimchi, Germans or members of groups from Siberia), and the universality of Bollywood films that everyone watches but no-one understands—and which are now being copied on very low budgets by Uzbekistan’s post-independence film industry. But when it comes down to it, as much as I wanted to enjoy the book, it never grabbed me and I kept feeling that there was something missing.

The book is full of fantastical elements, which reminded me of an essay by Declan Kiberd on Irish Literature and Irish History I recently read where he makes the link between the inner world of fantasy of several Irish writers and the “fabulistic techniques” of post-colonial literature in Latin America and India. And the post-Soviet fantastical mind makes compelling stories for a handful of the hundred or so characters—all of which have hyphenated nicknames. I enjoyed the story of Mullah-Ulmas-Greeneyes, an Uzbek who spends his life being mistaken for Jewish both by the German army in the Second World War and by the Brezhnev regime who lets him emigrate to Brighton Beach. A high point of fantastical storytelling is reached in the story of Mahmud-Hodja’s journeys across Central Asia to Mecca and back with Maike, a Kyrgyz hungry enough to eat half a flock of sheep and thirsty enough to drink rivers nearly dry. Meanwhile, the story of Oppok-Lovely, who becomes the local passport officer and can be bribed to change all kinds of details in internal passports, is a sad example of the corruption that plagued the Soviet Union. But a lot of the characters fell flat and seemed no more than ciphers for bawdy humour, like the drunkard village intellectual whose drinking partner urinates on his hair; outsized physical attributes, such as a penis mistaken for a battering ram; unexplained mass movements, like a self-mutilating religious cult; or the theme of violence and rape that seems to build throughout the course of the book.

I think my fundamental problem with novels of this type is that they start out with the premise of a novel but the substance of a collection of stories. A novel doesn’t necessarily need a central plot, so much as a central framing device, like the group of storytellers of the Decameron or a continual physical presence such as Ivo Andrić’s bridge on the Drina; the only thing that comes close are the recurring fragments of the story of an unnamed boy. But at the same time, I don’t really feel that the chapters—there are exceptions—stand up as individual short stories. This is a shame: the book had a lot of potential but fell short of my expectations and its Central Asian subject matter is fascinating, especially given the epic storytelling that flows deep in the region. For an introduction to the region, I’d still stick with Colin Thubron’s Lost Heart of Asia or the perfection of Chingiz Aimatov’s incredible Jamilia.

Hamid Ismailov, The Railway, Vintage 2006

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