As the Anglo-speaking world dances with authoritarianism, it feels apropos, if not a bit foreboding, that Bandi’s collection of short stories, The Accusation, should have its English debut. “Bandi” is the pseudonym of a North Korean author and member of Chosun Central League Writers’ Committee. His committee takes its cues from the Worker’s Party Department of Propaganda and Agitation, a highly significant state organ.
But The Accusation, which consists of seven short stories, is propaganda of a different nature; one highly critical of the North Korean regime, and particularly that of its first leader Kim Il-sung’s final years, marked by the deprivation and misery caused by the Soviet Union’s collapse. In Bandi’s stories hunger, for example, is everywhere, as evident as is the watchful eye of the State. The Accusation is a stark and often despair-inducing collection, but one we should read with great urgency at this moment, both as a document of what is and what could be and as a way to continue gaining better understanding of the complexities of North Korean society, which remains elusive to the West.
The Accusation’s arrival in South Korea and now in English is cause for celebration. Bandi’s is not the first piece of literature written by a North Korean dissident. Several successful memoirs and collections of poetry have emerged from DPRK defectors in the South, and no doubt these works had their seeds in the North. However, as far as can be told, Bandi’s stories represent the first written by someone who remains in the country, presumably still writing both for the State and for himself (for all we know Bandi is a woman, as it is unclear which parts of his biography are fabricated to protect his identity). How they were smuggled out of the North—a story unto itself, full of the kind of fortune that confirms the truth really is stranger than fiction—is included as an afterward.
The stories are most valuable as representations of the inner struggles of ordinary North Koreans. They are varied, and translator Deborah Smith renders them in an almost cheerful, matter-of-fact tone; characters are given wit and bitter humor. Their lives are at once relatable and comprised of experiences that, for the moment, remain a great distance from the lived experiences of many people who will pick up this book.
At their core they elucidate the logic required of people who are constantly monitored, not just by the State, directly, but by their fellow citizens A passage from the first story, “A Story of a Defection” exhibits the pervasive scrutiny:
I answered unthinkingly, too busy wondering how she could possibly have seen us. Thinking back now, she must have heard the gossip from the woman at No. 4, come to me to verify it, then reported it to the residents’ police. All of which could mean only one thing: Our apartment was under daily observation.
The portion of the North Korean population formally or informally connected to the surveillance apparatus is unparalleled. There is no such thing as idle gossip, and Bandi’s characters are well aware.
One’s connection, however tenuous, to a subversive or reactionary element can be devastating within the social caste system of the DPRK. In the case of Ko Inshik in the final story, “The Red Mushroom”, his brother-in-law was discovered to not have been killed during the Korean War, but ended up in the South, where Inshik’s reputation "became tarred with the brush of those who ‘falsified their history,’ and was sent down from Pyongyang in order to ‘have the proper revolutionary ideals instilled in him’ in N Town.”
In “Record of a Defection” the narrator’s family has been relegated to what is known as the wavering class “because my father was a murderer—albeit only an accidental one, and one whose sole victim was a crate of rice seedlings."
The parents in “The Stage”, the collection's most artful and viscerally affecting story, become agents of the State against their son, Kyeong-hun. Already viewed as a subversive element, “more canny than he’s letting on”, Kyeong-hun is observed holding a woman’s hand and drinking alcohol during the period of mourning for the Dear Leader. But the sins of the son are the whole family's and it is Kyeong-hun’s father who is forced to debase himself before his Bowibu Director and sell out his son with crocodile tears.
"Of course it’s political. Such behavior would be disgraceful at any time, but now! Now, when the inestimable loss of our Great Leader…" As though on cue, tears ran down Yeong-pyo’s cheeks, sallow and sunken due to a long-standing liver complaint. Even Yeong-pyo himself found it difficult to comprehend. How could the small cup of sadness sitting inside him produce a whole pitcher’s worth of tears?
Where the collection falters, if only a bit, is its overreliance on a single narrative structure. Bandi works heavily from flashback to tell his stories. The flashback typically takes up the middle third of each story, often outlining the dedication and perseverance of a Party worker who ends up disillusioned and disgusted, often battling feelings of impotence.
This may be just the style he is comfortable with (no one faults a hip hop artist for never writing a metal song), or perhaps it is a form common or popular in North Korean fiction, there is no way to tell. Fortunately, this rigid structure often breaks out into evocative, lyric passages, such as this quiet moment between old family friends:
...the smoke from Yeong-il’s cigarette quietly unspooled into the freezing air, and a space gradually formed between the two men...
or this description of the weather:
When the wind pauses to gather its breath, its absence amplified the sound of the rain, which poured down the roof in a plaintive whoosh.
The Accusation represents a milestone for those living outside the DPRK, but also in a sense for those living within its borders. To our great detriment, we in the West reduce and caricature North Korea, wanting to believe it simply a country of brainwashed peons serving a Confucian Big Brother. But, even if the narratives tend to be simple, Bandi refuses simplicity for his characters. Instead he gifts them forceful and vivid voices. The characters are stuck inside a terrible bind and it imbues their daily lives with a complexity and self-awareness that is as heartbreaking as it must be psychologically torturous, a bind I hope sincerely we ourselves can avoid in the years to come.
Catalan literature enjoys a long, vibrant tradition. Beginning with Ramon Llull—who was celebrated throughout 2016 to commemorate the seventh centenary of his death—and, after a long period of medieval splendor, with important contributions by Ausiàs March, Joanot Martorell, and Bernat Metge, literary production in Catalan once again flourished in the final decades of the nineteenth century and, above all, in the twentieth. Jacint Verdaguer, Narcís Oller, and Àngel Guimerà, among others, led the Renaixença—or the Renaissance, a movement akin to other European Romanticisms—of a culture that, over the last century, has come to include noteworthy figures in prose, poetry, theater, and philosophy. Of the generation born before the Spanish Civil War, the following writers stand out: Josep Carner, Joaquim Ruyra, Víctor Català, Josep Maria de Sagarra, Mercè Rodoreda, J.V. Foix, Joan Sales, Salvador Espriu, Pere Calders, Santiago Rusiñol, Joan Brossa, Josep Palau i Fabre, Gabriel Ferrater, Agustí Bartra, and Anna Murià. The Franco dictatorship forced Catalan literature into a state of hibernation from which it would only emerge following a slight thaw in the regime, an opportunity that marked the critical resurgence of the Catalan publishing industry during the 1960s. Many of the authors born in the ’20s and ‘30s published their most important works during this period, and, a few years later, new authors came on the scene, expanding and diversifying the Catalan-language canon, which has, for years now, blended formal risk and commercial literature, classical narrative and postmodernism, the construction of a Catalan identity and autofiction. Quim Monzó, Jesús Moncada, Montserrat Roig, Jordi Coca, Maria Mercè Marçal, Miquel de Palol, Jaume Cabré, Sergi Pàmies, Carme Riera, and Enric Casasses are just an essential few of the many faces of contemporary Catalan-language prose and poetry.
Despite this long tradition, as well as efforts at language normalization during the democratic opening and generational renewal, Catalan literature’s survival has been hard-won in a context that remains unfavorable economically, socially, and politically.
The financial crisis of 2008 continues to have devastating effects on the book market. According to data from the Spanish Association of Publishers Guilds, the publishing industry has lost around forty percent of its governmental funding, despite a small upturn in the past two fiscal years; caught in the wake of recession across Spain at large, literary production in Catalan now represents 14.3% of the market, while Spanish-language production makes up 74.4% (the most recent numbers are from 2015). The 11,480 Catalan-language titles published annually must go up against the almost 60,000 titles in Spanish. In short, when a reader enters a bookstore in one of the three Catalan-speaking autonomous regions—Catalonia, the Balearic Islands, and Valencia—for every title they find in Catalan, they face at least seven others in Spanish.
Given the available options, choosing a book in Catalan is, inevitably, the choice of a social minority. The latest survey on reading habits commissioned by Catalonia’s Department of Culture (2015) revealed that only 26.4% of Catalans read in Catalan regularly—a percentage that has increased only slightly (around 3%) during the last decade. This past January, the Catalan Government approved a budget allotting €249.7 million for the development and promotion of culture, and while this figure is €21.5 million more than in 2016, it represents little more than 1% of the government’s overall spending. Financially supporting the book world, which includes literary and translation grants as well as acquisition funds for public libraries, bookstore renovations, and organizing book fairs, amounts to around €9.2 million, or four percent of book sales in Catalan, which came to €230.31 million in 2015.
Writing in Catalan: Both Feat and Sacrifice
The publishing sector’s overall figures are hardly promising. The economic revenue that drives Catalan-language literature—which, in 2015, accounting for all adult, young adult, and children’s literature, was around €89 million—represents only a third of the national total. And the consequences for writers are obvious. Two years ago, only one in ten Catalan-language authors could make a living off their earnings while around eighty percent of other writers made less than €5,000 a year for their artistic labor (royalties, conferences, articles and interviews in the press); these figures may be somewhat surprising considering that the Catalan literary world has several high-paying prizes, such as the Ramon Llull or Sant Jordi—both published with imprints of Planeta—that annually award €60,000 for an unpublished work. This data comes from a study undertaken by the Association of Writers in Catalan, which, with more than 1,200 affiliates, is the organization that represents the greatest number of Catalan-language writers, despite including only a token percentage of young writers—one of the age groups most affected by the crisis.
Pursuing a writing career in Catalan remains, for the time being, both a feat and a sacrifice; and yet, it’s also a literature that’s on the rise. It’s surprising that, year after year—and during a time of economic crisis—new voices continue to populate the literary landscape: in narrative, the appearance of writers such as Marta Rojals, Max Besora, Alicia Kopf, Albert Forns, Alba Dedeu, Damià Bardera, Gemma Ruiz, Marc Cerdó, Sebastià Portell, Albert Pijuan, Joan Benesiu, and Adrià Pujol has been remarkable; in poetry, several debut collections stand out, including those of Francesc Gelonch, Jaume Coll Mariné, Misael Alerm, Marc Rovira, Carles Dachs, Laia Carbonell i Maria Sevilla—as well as work by the ever-prolific Blanca Llum Vidal and Lucia Pietrelli.
Another good sign has been the arrival of several independent publishers committed to bringing out literature that does not promise immediate financial turnover; what’s more, they make an effort to establish lasting editorial relationships with the majority of their authors. This is true for L’Altra, LaBreu, Males Herbes, Periscopi, and Raig Verd, as well as the second generation of publishing house Club Editor, to cite only a half dozen of those that have developed their catalogues over the past decade in particular.
Undoubtedly, one of the key factors of Catalan literature’s growing prestige over the past decade was Catalonia’s attendance, as Guest of Honor, at several International Book Fairs. The first was Guadalajara (2004), then Frankfurt (2007)—which was arguably the most important—and, later on, Göteborg (2013) and Warsaw (2016). This spring, Catalonia’s participation in the Bologna Children’s Book Fair could prove another critical achievement. If fifty-five translations from Catalan were published in 2003, that number has practically doubled in the last year (99), with a few particularly good years in between, such as 2007 (145) and 2011 (135). Of the 1,030 translations published between 2002 and 2013, 833 have received funding from the Institut Ramon Llull, which has already awarded €2.5 million. The Institute’s principal goal is to promote Catalan culture and literature abroad, and, in the short fifteen years since its founding, it has unquestionably played a remarkable role in disseminating the works of both classic and contemporary authors internationally. In first part, for the growing impact of several authors stand out: Marcè Rodoreda’s In Diamond Square, Joan Sales’ s Uncertain Glory, Josep Pla’s The Gray Notebook, and Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life; in second part, for the thirty-seven translations of Albert Sánchez Piñol’s Cold Skin, the more than twenty versions of Jaume Cabré’s Confessions, or the sixteen languages into which Jordo Puntí’s Lost Luggage has been translated thus far.
Apart from those exceptional cases, only a small group of writers are regularly translated, as is true for Quim Monzó, Carme Riera, Francesc Serés, Sergi Pàmies, Maria Barbal, and Sebastià Alzamora. Others have had a single work enjoy phenomenal success abroad, including the following titles: Marc Pastor’s Barcelona Shadows, Toni Sala’s The Boys, Marta Rojal’s The Other, and Najat El Hachmi’s The Last Patriarch. The latter two are included in this issue to demonstrate that their work is still full of unexplored nuances; short work by Mercè Ibarz has appeared in two anthologies released by Dalkey Archive Press; the remaining contributors—Pep Puig, Borja Bagunyà, Maria Cabrera, and Francesc Garriga—are appearing in English for the first time.
El Hachmi and Rojals: Writing on the Opportunity Gap
In this issue we present an excerpt from Najat El Hachmi’s (Nador, 1979) latest novel, The Foreign Daughter (Edicions 62, 2015), in which the problems of a girl who lives with her mother, and who has been offered the hand of a Moroccan cousin, become the stuff of literature. She agrees to marry him while explaining where she works—describing in depth the possibilities that are afforded to her by a Catalan society to which she has belonged for many years—while offering a frank comparison between herself and her mother, who has had to persevere on her own since moving inland to live with her daughter.
As for Marta Rojals, we’ve selected four articles from the collection We Could Have Studied Less (Sembra, 2015), in which the author reflects, in brief segments, on her generation’s experience of growing professional instability, a generation that, after years of making a living in positions related to their degrees, has been forced to accept precarious jobs. Rojals devotes several texts to the growing devaluation of humanities degrees in various countries, but also to evictions, failing confidence in the political class, environmental issues, the Catalan independence movement, and the tenuous status of the Catalan language.
Ibarz, Puig, Bagunyà: Three Generations of Storytellers
Spanning three generations, the short stories selected for this issue comprise an array of diverse narratives. Since debuting with her autobiographical “nouvelle” Solitary Land (Quaderns Crema, 1993), Mercè Ibarz (Saidí, 1954) has penned essays on Mercè Rodoreda, Luis Buñuel, and Maria-Mercè Marçal while continuing to write fiction that is at once deeply personal and original. In doing so, Ibarz departs from her contemporaries, including Ferran Torrent, Ramon Solsona, and Carme Riera, while also drawing closer to one of the great writers of the preceding generation, Jesús Moncada, author of The Towpath (La Magrana, 1988). This is clearest in Palm of Wheat (1995), but likewise in two earlier short story collections about city life: In the City Under Construction (2002) and Street Fever (2005). “The Street,” the story we’ve selected for this issue, comes from the latter. Here, we see Ibarz suture the narrator’s past and present through a visit to an outlying alley, situated at the foot of Montjuïc Mountain, where she had lived years many years beforehand. It’s a story worked through with lyricism, and spotted with numerous—and pertinent—cultural referents, from Anna Magnani, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Luchino Visconti to Omar Khayyam and Antoni Gaudí’s architecture.
Pep Puig (Terrassa, 1969) belongs to a generation of writers uniquely characterized by their wide range of styles, including Lluís-Anton Baulenas, Joan-Daniel Bezsonoff, Flavia Company, Jordi Lara, Vicenç Pagès Jordà, Màrius Serra, Joan-Lluís Lluís, Jordi Puntí, Gabriel Galmés and Maria Jaén. He came onto the scene in 2005 with the novel The Man Who Returns (Empúries). After publishing his second novel, Miss Marta’s Tears (Empúries, 2007), Puig took an extended publishing hiatus that would only end with the release of his splendid first short story collection, The Love of My Life, for the Time Being (L'Altra, 2015), to which “My Uncle” belongs. Here, Puig describes a young boy’s fascination with a girl at the pool in polished, highly enjoyable prose; the tale, however, grows darker as the story progresses and the characters grow up.
Borja Bagunyà (Barcelona, 1982) launched his writing career much earlier than other writers of his generation, which includes Max Besora, Víctor Garcia Tur, Joan Jordi Miralles, Llucia Ramis, Joan Todó, Pere Antoni Pons, Miquel Adam, Bel Olid, Albert Forns, Yannick Garcia, Marina Espasa, Anna Carreras, and Montse Banegas. His first book, Notes for a City Portrait, was published in 2004, and three years later—when he was only twenty-five—he won the Mercè Rodoreda Award for Short Fiction with Self Defense. The story “You’ve Likely Never Been to a Party This Big” belongs to his third collection, Houseplants (Empúries, 2011), which represents his most eclectic, intense, and ambitious writing up to this point. Drawing on postmodern conventions—among his referents are David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover, and Gonçalo M. Tavares—Bagunyà describes a party whose excesses echo those of mythological debauchery.
Cabrera and Garriga: Two Voices of Contemporary Poetry
“There are things more dangerous than poets . . . although some would disagree,” noted Enric Casasses following the publication of You I Know, his final book of poems, in late 2013. To that thought Casasses would add, “Professors establish canons. Each writer has his or her own way of observing the past and present. All of them joined together will continue to create the future canon, perhaps. You must keep your eyes and ears open. There are pearls everywhere!” It’s no secret that poetry abounds in Catalan literature. Since the end of the ’90s, the number of reading series dedicated to poetry has grown in Catalonia, as well as in Valencia and the Balearic Islands; these performances continue—though there are fewer than before the crisis—and have even occasioned the creation of several micro-presses. As publishers specifically devoted to works from this genre, Café Central and LaBreu were pioneers, but others have played a significant role, including AdiA, Terrícola, Edicions del Buc and Poncianes, as well as robust poetry series from Proa, Pagès, Edicions 62, Lleonard Muntaner, Edicions de 1984, El Gall, Quaderns Crema, 3i4, and Viena.
Maria Cabrera i Callís (Girona, 1983) recently won the Carles Riba prize in poetry for her third book, Tired City (Proa, 2017), but it was Bright Morning (Accent, 2010) that established her as one of several essential young voices in the genre, growing in parallel with the diverse aesthetics of writers such as Josep Pedrals, Eduard Escoffet, Jaume C. Pons Alorda, Mireia Vidal-Conte, Francesc Gelonch, Adrià Targa, Carles Rebassa, Anna Gual, Esteve Plantada, Blanca Llum Vidal, and Martí Sales. In Bright Morning, Cabrera combines prose and verse in masterful ways, with results—incendiary, unexpected, clairvoyant—that are clear in "ways of knowing," the poem from that collection that appears here. In addition, we feature two poems from her Riba prize-winning collection.
Finally, Francesc Garriga i Barata (Sabadell, 1932–Sant Cugat, 2015), while first appearing in print in the ’50s, didn’t begin to publish regularly until 2000, after retiring from his position as a secondary school teacher. His success can be credited to his collection Shadows, and, some time later, to Lost Time (2003), where he found his creative path—at once expressive and jagged, inclement and desolate. His masterful voice was later reaffirmed in the excellent work The Night of the Fish (2005) and grew stronger still—taking on new nuances—in Serpent Paths (2009) and Ragtime (2011). This is no less true for Returning is Far off (2013), the last book he published in his lifetime, in which he once again charged against hypocrisy, (“They’d serve lies / on the plate of prayers / and it was impossible to distinguish / one from the other”), reclaimed the value of friendship (“only those who love will purify time / in the fire of conversation”) and took himself to task with his usual brutality (“all that’s left for you is the embarrassment / of having fled / to survive”).
The many modes, styles, and genres of writing to be found here provide a window into the vast possibilities—for language and for subject matter—explored in contemporary Catalan literature. If the growing prestige of Catalan writers depends, in part, on several factors that are not strictly literary, the selection here suggests Catalan writers stand ready to rise to the occasion.
© Jordi Nopca. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Megan Berkobien. All rights reserved.
The following pages are not intended to be representative of contemporary Russian poetry per se, but rather to introduce some of the most extraordinary poets working outside of the main cannon. If anything, the three poets collected here are “outliers,” who yet may be read as having points of commonality with developments in post-war American poetry. While each is singular and sui generis, collectively they are representative of a relatively new trend in Russian poetry itself, a kind of “parallel convergence” with the West. As such, they are likely to be of interest to American readers. It was also our intent that these three, Mikhail Eremin (b.1936), Shamshad Abdullaev (b. 1957), and Amarsana Ulzyuev (b. 1963)—respectively, an acknowledged “master,” a respected “older poet,” and a “mid-career poet”—represent at least some generational and geographic and ethnic range. While Eremin would and has taken issue with being characterized as a “free verse” poet, the work of all three has very consciously aimed to break the mold of the historical “stranglehold of rhyme” on Russian poetry, while still seeking to advance its best traditions.
Mikhail Eremin was a participant in one of the first postwar groupings of “unofficial” poetry, the so-called St. Petersburg philological school of the late 1950s. In the six decades since, he has worked methodically to develop the possibilities inherent within the same constraints he had then established, his entire oeuvre consisting of octaves, or eight-line poems. Joseph Brodsky had written the following of his work: “Eremin is an unreconstructed minimalist. Poetry in essence consists precisely in the concentration of language: a small quantity of lines surrounded by a mass of empty space. Eremin elevates this concentration to a principle: as though it is not simply language but poetry itself that crystallizes into verse . . . . Most remarkable is that all of it has been written for oneself, out of one’s own conception of the mother tongue.”
Ironically, it is by working in one of the two geographic centers of Russian poetry (until quite recently, St. Petersburg and Moscow were its two dominant poles), but almost entirely outside of the established conventions and movements of the past decades, that Eremin has come to hit upon the convergent development we are speaking of here by seeking our common sources in classical antiquity. His oeuvre explores progressively greater possibilities of syntactic and lexical complexity, each poem marked by cross-referential and pluripotent modifying digression, often contained parenthetically within anchoring observations or commentary.
In its encyclopedic complexity, Eremin's verse incorporates an ever-expanding linguistic register, ranging from scientific jargon to archaic or specialized diction (such as “thieves' cant”), with an occasional auspicious admixture of neologism. However, always primary among Eremin’s recurrent thematic touchstones—the Bible, classic mythology, art, architecture, Russian folklore—has been the natural world. For it is here that the spirit inheres. If, as many Russian critics have noted, Eremin may be viewed to have, in his own way, continued the lineage of Osip Mandelstam, that other Russian practitioner of the eight-line verse, he may be thought of primarily as a metaphysical poet, and each poem an object for meditation that simultaneously functions as part of an incredibly coherent whole. A fitting point of reference in American poetry would be the lasting influence of Transcendentalism.
Similarly, Shamshad Abdullaev had, independently, found the same timeless convergence by working largely in isolation at the empire's periphery. An ethnic Uzbek who writes postmodernist free verse in beautiful, classical Russian, on themes often informed by Italian Neorealist cinema yet played out in an arid Central Asian provincial landscape, Shamshad Abdullaev may seem an aberration, a composite persona that implies either an artificial or a conflicted hybrid identity. That this couldn’t be further from the truth may be understood when one realizes how organically whole and congruent with his “sense of place” Abdullaev is, by learning briefly about his hometown, Fergana, which he never formally left.
Located in the fertile valley on the western slopes of the Tian Shan mountain range, Fergana had been a major outpost on Persian King Darius's Royal Road (built in the fourth century B.C.) that for many centuries afterward had served as the Silk Road connecting East and West, the Orient to the Mediterranean, with all the major civilizations of the last two millennia vying for its control, first establishing a major presence and then coming into conflict, or conversation, and thus cross-pollinating. This was the outer outpost of Alexander the Great’s Hellenic world, a place the Greeks called Alexandria Eschate (or “The Farthest”). The Fergana valley was also where the remnants of the Golden Horde thrived alongside the nomadic Turkic tribes, where the descendants of Gengis Khan spun off two of their own great Empires (the Timurides and the Mughal), where Taoist monks and Byzantine clerics crossed paths with Sufi mystics, where Middle Eastern and North African envoys traded with Venetian and Florentine merchants, and the Chinese imperial troops of the Han dynasty (360 B.C.) had an improbable clash with a Roman legion, inadvertently introducing them to the crossbow that subsequently became a staple of the Roman arsenal. This was the place where new technologies, hybrid art forms, and syncretic religions proliferated as a result of direct encounters and cultural exchange between Eastern and the Western minds.
Shamshad Abdullaev notes that Fergana afforded him “a vantage point from which the world was clearly visible in all directions.” Therein lies the key to understanding his writing. He is first and foremost an observer; he has no interest in explaining the world to his reader; his goal is to render it palpable, so that the reader can experience it firsthand. His eye is the eye of a dispassionate camera, aimed at framing a scene while allowing it to remain undisturbed. He is both an exquisite voyeur and a conscientious witness. As a connoisseur of Italian Neorealist cinema (he acknowledges such directors as Campagna, Gatto, Montale, Pasolini, and Bertolucci as artistic influences), Abdullaev has a remarkable sense of mise-en-scène—he sets up each image with such poignant precision that it becomes intensely lyrical without being remotely sentimental. In this respect, he has a distinct Western existential bend. However, his Eastern eye is contemplative. There is an extended concentration in his observations, an immersive, in-the-moment sensibility that appears to slow down time (both outside and inside a poem) and let the moment fulfill itself. Here, his patience is reminiscent of the disciplined reverie of a Zen monk contemplating a mandala.
Born in 1957, when Fergana was a dusty, remote province of the latest empire to possess it—i.e., the USSR—Abdullayev was raised under the inevitable Russian cultural dominance. Russian was the language of his early reading and formal education, and he has an incredible sense of the Russian language and its possibilities, both as a philologist and a poet. Yet, his texts (poetry, prose, and essays) are as divergent from the Russian classical cannon as can be. If anything, his dense, supercharged lines, packed with complex, sealed allusions and obscure references, owe more to the French rather than the Russian Symbolists, and especially to the Italian Hermeticists whom he specifically mentions as another major aesthetic and stylistic influence. In his own words: “Italy is my INNER homeland.”
In this post-Imperial, postcolonial, post-Soviet day and age, our present period of fragmentation, ethnic tensions, and reaction against globalization, identifying as this or that often forces one into a position of political grandstanding. However, when pressed on whether he is a “Russian poet” or “ Uzbek, culturally,” or some other such thing, Shamshad Abdullaev replies without hesitation that he is “the last citadel, the last remaining intact place—a private person.” And it is this insular “place” that he writes from. Except that Shamshad's “citadel” is at the authentic center of a vast, expansive, culturally saturated world, where heterogeneous layers have fused so solidly over time as to become inextricable.
In the 1980s, during the waning years of the USSR,the personal poetic journey of our last poet, Amarsana Ulzytuev, first took him from his birthplace, the Buryatian capital of Ulan-Ude (southeast of Lake Baykal, in the ethnically Mongolian province of Russia), to the Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, the prestigious and sole training ground for Russian poets. However, it was, it would seem, only after two decades of work that he was able to find a way forward, through a spiritual return of sorts in his verse to the traditions of his own Mongolian and Buddhist cultural heritage and oral-folk tradition. While often seeking an intersection between this poetics and both Russian contemporary realia and Western popular culture, the work's authenticity is strongly grounded in its relationship to the former:
I imagine how James Cameron, descending into Lake Baikal,
Transforms from a human being into the avatar of a Baikal seal,
And investigates the bottom of our daydreams, various endemics and rifts
Of the golden dream, if we ourselves fail to discover our sacred mystery . . . .
He has championed a compositional method ostensibly alien to Russian verse but intended to enrich it, which he came to identify as Anaphora, in his manifesto of the same name. He writes: “It is entirely possible that, in absorbing the architectonics of European prosody, and transposing it onto Russian soil, Russian poetry has incidentally thrown out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. I am speaking here of that great body of poetry which exists in parallel to ‘literature’— the magnificent traditions of spells and incantations, hexes and enchantments, folk songs, hymns and laments, convocations and invocations. Traditions that, to a significant extent, created the language and, almost certainly, poetry itself. Today, there is sense in taking such a ‘glance backward.’
“I also speak here of the too-regular syllabotonic rhythms that have left a sour taste in our mouths and . . . about the true meaning of rhyme . . . I suggest it is better we not continue relying on rhyme as a requisite accessory in composing poetry. To replace it, as one acoustic embellishment of verse, I nominate anaphora. . . . That may serve as a structuring element of the compositional stream. . . . That my claims not be unfounded, I offer up to the reader’s judgment the results of my own experience: an attempt to reconstruct the ancient verse in a contemporary voicing and setting, what happens when European rhyme is replaced with anaphora and ‘frontal rhyme’ [alliteration], and European metrics— with a rhythm natural to the Russian ear. That is, with those poetic means that lay at the foundation of Russian poetry and, by the way, of the poetics of the Mongol people as well.”
While adherence to or absence thereof of end-rhyme and regular meter alone are no sure sign of either the modernist or the conservative impulses, it bears noting that only in recent years has the groundwork been laid in Russia for a full acceptance of the legitimacy of free verse and its use adopted widely by younger practicing poets. If the popularity of Amarsana's live performances is any indication (he has become a fixture on the Russian poetry festival circuit), this may well be counted as yet another convergent trend with American poetry: that poetry has a function and a second life on the stage, apart from its life on the page.
In our opening lines, we used the phrase "parallel convergence," and so it is fitting to close this introduction by defining more precisely what we meant by it. It is certainly not that, as with parallel or convergent evolution, Russian and American poetry have evolved under similar environmental conditions, nor is it intended to contradict Kipling's notion that “the twain shall never meet.” Rather, it is a largely indisputable observation that the two have evolved not entirely without mutual influence, and it is this dynamic that in this age of globalization is progressively coming to the fore. If we may take Osip Mandelstam's definition of the Acmeist movement as "a yearning for world culture" as our motto, it seems to us that the worlds of Russian and American poetry have more intersections than ever before, and it is this dynamic that is exerting the greatest influence on Russian poetry today. The three poets presented here, each of them in a very distinct way, represent a number of the factors in this ongoing development.
© 2017 Alex Cigale and Dana Golin. All rights reserved.
The postwar ruins (Roofs ripped off,
The charred walls.) do not resemble
Skeletons, stripped by the predators—
The gnawed-upon scraps of ribs,
Crushed to dust cranial bones.
Only that the same birds
Flock to the remains
As to scorched ground.
To be struck in the forest by a flash of light, where there’s crunch
And crackling, rustle and creaking underfoot, and the hush
That brings to mind wheezes and groans, whispering and sighs,
Where every measly bush is disguised as
God knows what, and the half-rotten trunk—a dangerous maw.
Do not such deliberate and persistent fears shade
Of other depredations: burning, prickling, poison,
And of what multitude of others still?
© Mikhail Eremin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Alex Cigale. All rights reserved.
In the poems below, Carles Riba Prize-winning poet Maria Cabrera combines prose and verse in masterful ways, with results that are at once incendiary, unexpected, and clairvoyant.
ways of knowing
i know the fear in your eyes at dawn. and the crackle of flames, the hidden creaking of the woods, the madness of the birds beating paths in the air. the two of us were just a vague hypothesis, on the threshold of sleep, in the vertigo of doubt and the feline night. we weren’t walking: we were sitting at the peak of a mountain we had scaled insatiably up the soul’s steep paths. you didn’t laugh, you didn’t look at me: your eyes were fast on the flames, in your eyes were two flames that would not be long in following all the ashen routes inside me: ever so cruel and ever so beautiful. and I awaited you, crouching atop a rocky peak riddled with impassible hurdles, teetering one shiver from the abyss: will you come and save me? will you hurtle past me? i know the lodes of fear in your verses, the scalene triangle of your gestures, the animal huddled in your pulse, the dissonant repeat of the taste of you when I walk away, the bitter taste of the orange you hand to me. i have learned all the dawns, i have learned all the quiet sounds of the morning: the forest, the bird, the stones, the wood, the flames. and now, when nothing is left of our walk together surely in opposite directions but a handful of pebbles pinging in my pockets, an empty glass flask and all this dust on my shoes; now that I have learned by heart the rosary of sadness; now that you know by heart the filigrees of the wood at its roots; now; now that I have become a deep gorge, death and passion, three days without bread and deliriums of water: now I carry in my breast the whole of the night.
Alguer, the 18th of the 11th of the year 8/November 11, 2008
or physiology of a heart
Woman, how to know if not knowing how to turn the page on the old days,
or finding the dust of the old days clinging under your fingernails
in the shape of white moons,
woman in ruins,
is something you owe to the Proust you never read,
or to the agony of books, or to the poem that pursues you,
or to the unripeness of fruit or the incessant rain that inhabits you.
Woman, if memories turn into clumps of earth on you,
and lines of poetry grow in you like succulents,
like unexpected rats in the dark of the kitchen,
like sandstorms in the eye of the poem
or like the nightly attack of syllables that keeps you tossing in bed,
verse in flames,
and shadow woman,
how to know if you owe it to Freud whom you never got,
or to the cold touch of marble, or the sadness of pencils
or the echo of your ventricles.
And the systole speaks to you of guilt,
and the diastole says genetics,
and the heart valves
sigh orphan sighs.
You Came Toward Me . . .
And you came toward me with a peninsular gaze
the noblest of tear ducts,
a classic pate
and the pride of titans in your veins,
with the punic wars still palpitating,
and the folly of a thousand lost battles on your shoulders,
swift swipe of the willow as you climb the mountain crest,
and your right hand and your left hand in love, respectively,
with the legends of Homer
and the trains that cross continents down my back,
with a pocket full of tin mysteries and promises of silicate nights,
and a cold lime well holding all the drugs
that have kept us tied so long to the port of this Greek city,
with apples fermented over the slow simmer of love,
with love scalded in the brusque fire of thirst,
with astute little lizard eyes,
with the deep sleep of the provinces of Spain,
with the dream dwarf's seven cards up your sleeve
and a multicolored spool to spin the yarn of the planets.
For me, just for me, you came,
and behind you the evening stretched across countries like a strange shadow.
© Maria Cabrera Callís. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Mary Ann Newman. All rights reserved.
On the Death of Jean Vigo
The day was silent to distraction,
only the dog’s growl traveled beyond the window
undulating slightly, barely eschewing
the bellows of the echo. A person—
that’s something interior (therefore,
incapable of habituating itself to Being).
To rise, get out of bed, handle a book,
open a responsive door—
no more than trifles,
but these ministrations are mystical rites when
they are inspired by a presentiment of death
or, possibly, something entirely different.
The air billowed under the morning casing,
in the all-too-usual yolk-stain of a dispassionate city,
in the room,
where the haggard blanket coddled his austere body.
On the other hand, this is wholly irrelevant . . .
Translated by Dana Golin
The midday—spring-wound—with its lilac skin
cracked along a fold, reveals a path to blooming,
the nest feels heavier, and death
doesn’t submerge in a jar of iridescent honey.
Earth is moist with perspiration, which dries up as it slithers
into the wood-pulp,
the way a sequence of hours ripens,
precluding that awkward tension,
which holds the stalk trembling against the wind.
The surface of the water’s still—as it absorbs
into its very depths the glow of poppies.
Love’s premature, and lips
are fraught with salt and silence.
Translated by Dana Golin.
The song of a mockingbird seeps into the taste of black cherry
especially here in father’s and mother’s
yard where for the first time the question
and answer are heard in unison—
the freshness of the vanishing provinces at
the end of a century when
the final stage of any microcosm resembles a prolonged dawning.
The terse terminus of the south
which will now frame the impending tide . . . .
a Greek-Bactrian dress, a pergola, and a hill,
a swarthy stranger with the profile of a Saxon sable.
Dust in the former rays settles steamlike between the
quinine-gray shoulder blades
of this guest who had fallen asleep in one of the rooms of my
as though it were only coolness warming up to the unfamiliar
A commonplace time in the begetting provinces,
a dim departure on your film strip,
but the sunny circumstances impinge upon the crashing
in the clay lamp crusting up in the shade—
an other tranquility of other grownups.
In the roots’ fibers fidget yellow beetles
like gobs of spit of mischief-makers come to life—he
is immobile growing no smaller,
the familiar impersonality of average dimensions still alive in him.
Translated by Alex Cigale.
© Shamshad Abdullaev. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2017 by Dana Golin and Alex Cigale. All rights reserved.
In this short story, Borja Bagunyà drops in on a riotous party that would make Gatsby blush.
Of course it wasn’t natural, but it was necessary, and unavoidable.
You’ve likely never been to a party this big—no, to a party in a house this big; no, no, this enormous, this unbelievably enormous. So the house is big, but all this stuff and all these people make it seem even bigger, as if the fact that things keep crisscrossing your line of sight makes it enormous in a different sense, one impossible to quantify. Each room contains an open bar, including waiters in tails and girls in uniform, and there are Persian rugs everywhere, as well as chandeliers, and the furniture is all made of either oak or ebony, and yet, every room on every floor boasts an environment all its own, and environment in the way people use it in reference to a party, like, as a place where a DJ spins a certain kind of music to attract a certain kind of people, who all share the same certain sets of opinions and positions on the same certain sets of issues and arguments; a place where you can expect a certain kind of expectation to become a reality, or at least, have a better shot of it becoming a reality, relative to any other environment, or any other music, or any other crowd, or any other thousand plus people spread throughout a never-ending house.
You’ve already had a look around the place, and it already seems to offer the promise of a better life. You’d always imagined that in a house like this, with that thirty-foot-tall covered entryway flanked by Grecian columns on either side, and those gardens rippling down the slope of the driveway, and the sort of like monumental calm—for once you can breathe, you were saying to yourself, you never have any time simply to breathe in and breathe out, not in this packed, neurotic city, but then this house just appeared—in a house like this you imagined all the stories had happy endings. There were probably people relaxing all over the place, who dressed any way they wanted and always vacationed in Hawaii or Punta Cana or one of those big old Swiss resorts full of Audrey Hepburn-types in turtlenecks. The occasion of a party had been (or has been—now it’s hard to say) the ideal excuse to finally step inside and cross that invisible line between workaday life and the life of a dandy, between prose and poetry, although nobody is really clear on what kind of party this is, or what it’s supposed to be celebrating, or who’s throwing it, not that you really care (err, had cared), since all parties, after a certain point, tend to take on a life of their own. No matter how many people you tap on the back, or drag into the corner, I’m all ears, in the end they all tell you the exact same thing: no, they don’t remember when they first arrived, but the place was still empty. A case of spontaneous generation, you’re thinking (were thinking), a single accident multiplied a thousand times, coalescing as a party, but which could have just as easily manifested in the form of a demonstration against some type of violence, or one of those soccer brawls that infect and spread as an all-encompassing wave of destruction.
You’re here because of Ariadna, who apparently couldn’t be brought to spend yet another Friday night inside and got you to see that you couldn’t either. More precisely, she got you to see that you were dying to go to a party with her, and that, thanks to her charitable nature and clear thinking—not to mention the fact that someone as gorgeous as her would even waste her time getting you to see all this, when there are tons of other guys who already get how gorgeous she is, and don't need anybody to convince them to go to a party with her—you came to realize not only this, but also that it wasn't too late to take her, if you just smartened up. You realized right in time. Ariadna had gotten you to see how not going to the party with her would have been the worst decision of your entire life. How you said No when all your friends saw every reason for you to go, how this would have established for them just how much of a moron you are, and how the ability, in short, to deprive yourself of a party with Ariadna on a Friday night was a serious and extremely dangerous psychological disorder that you had better overcome, starting right this minute. Or, as she had put it, starting right this party, and you couldn't convince yourself otherwise, not the morning after, or out walking your whiny dog, or at the Saturday dinner you always do with your family.
In a certain sense, there’s nothing strange about you finding her attractive. She’s got that special something, you think, and the kind of figure that probably made her quite a thing back in high school, and in no way does she seem to be the kind of mess that would complicate your life. The perfect girl ever since she was sixteen, you think, but now she’s twenty-nine, and stuck in that same engagement, with that same simplistic understanding of right and wrong, which always makes her so hard for you to read. (You see it in evidence every time she tries to make excuses for one of those morons she attracts, and the terrible way they treat her, and you don't understand how she could possibly take a month to see what anyone else would have seen in half an hour. Or when she walks out of Custo with those woolly pink legwarmers around her ankles, and she whips out that mesmerizingly pink and, like, half-illiterate-looking bookmark, which, at her age, in that sad SonusTel office, stuck between those laminate wood walls with the most physically repulsive staff you’ve ever seen, all those hairy warts, the double and triple chins, the acrylic nails covering up the genuine black ones, the bad breath, the lip herpes, the one cross-eyes, and that prime example of an anti-receptionist, Maribel, and her emerging hunchback—feels a little out of place.) But in that five-foot frame of hers there’s nevertheless something special that the party has caused to reemerge, as though she suddenly remembered her superpower to shape-shift. Maybe that’s why you want her. You want her so, so bad. But all you can really do right now, as you’re walking back through the foyer of an estate returned to its former medieval glory, is trace and retrace the line of her profile. You're thinking that this had to have been exactly the desire that made you want to come to the party and gel back your hair and wear the ass-hugging jeans and resort to all those other tricks you’ve picked up from a lifetime of going out, which are finally doing their job.
But now you’re ready to leave. You’ve already done everything there is to do, and something in your body is telling you that the party has reached the end of its natural cycle. Honestly, you have no idea how long it has been going on. A couple hours? The whole night? A few days, a few nights? What does register is the record of all the party’s tastes and smells you have in your mouth—a sort of, like, rancid and chunky version of those ice cores they extract in Antarctica—all combining into this one mysterious stench that is probably rotting your teeth. And you feel like your head is on fire, as if somebody drew a needle right through it and is now folding it and unfolding it, accordion-style. You feel like shit. You think it’s probably not too late to preserve some shred of your dignity, of your integrity and self-control, if you leave right now, except the house is set up like a supermarket or a casino, and it’s practically as impossible to make a speedy exit as it is to locate a clock or get to a window. Every time you think you’ve come to the back of the room, a narrow corridor appears, with a half dozen solid doors, or a tiny hallway, hiding another room, just as enormous as the first, and flanked on either side by two more rooms set inside the black wood lining their doorless doorways, where the party is looking even livelier than what you left behind. You try not to give in to your tragic impulses. Yet you enjoy thinking it’s all a trap, and that there’s something heroic or tragic about your escape, in attempting the impossible, you say, and then you envision yourself relating the story to someone, one of your future children, maybe: there wasn't a single clock anywhere, and the house was so big and so full of all this stuff . . .
You migrate. You’ve been sitting this whole time on a tufted leather sofa, which dawns on you only once you’re back on your feet. Off in the corner, beneath one of the wooden beams arching across the ceiling, there’s this dude in a backward hat devouring the ear off some girl in a pale green dress and gold hoop earrings, completely surrounded by a group of girls all nodding and smoking water pipes. They’re talking about something, you’re sure of it; you just can’t tell what. All these people sitting on the floor make you feel like you’re at some top secret rendezvous, or one of those pre-parties people have before heading out for a concert, where everybody is smoking and singing and dealing out rounds of Mus and knocking back Xibecas, when the party in general is just people sitting around cross-legged in little groups and talking quietly among themselves, with the sleeves of their sweaters pulled down over their knuckles to keep their hands from getting cold. You can’t remember what you’re doing in this room, or how you got here, when suddenly you locate a door that leads into (yet) another hallway, about six feet tall and five feet wide, where this couple asks you if you don’t by any chance have any rolling papers.
You don’t. You walk right past them toward a second door, which opens onto a room that you’re all of sudden being pushed into by all the people charging up behind you toward something they can see but you can't. You turn around, shifting your arms, trying to make yourself small, but it’s no use. You suddenly realize you’re stuck. You’re now a part of this audience awaiting some spectacle. The tight crowd reminds you of when you first got to the party—so long ago now, but who knows how long—and the way the entrance hall was clogged with people crowding around the welcome cocktails, and how that one acquaintance of Ariadna’s—some spikey-haired dude in one of those blue banker’s shirts with the white collar you’ve always associated with a sort of, like, ambiguous but fucked-up lack of restraint—pulled her off to the side to chat while you were still waiting for your gin and tonic. You might have been wedged between some lady in a silk scarf and a pair of six-foot-wide shoulders with a shaved head, but you could still manage to spot Ariadna through the gap between the two backs stooped in conversation. (Whenever the backs slid apart, you would spot her clutching her martini and digging the toe of her right shoe into the carpet, but when they slid back together, she would disappear again behind a brown corduroy sleeve, and all that remained of her was the impression of her long blond hair seared onto your retinas, like when you close your eyes after looking directly at the sun.) Unable to find a single exit, or do anything except resign yourself to the crowd, you wriggle between two of the backs entrapping you and make your way to the corner closest to the door. You wonder, sitting down again, where Ariadna could be right this minute. Disconnecting from whatever everyone is waiting for is the closest you can get to leaving this room or this floor or this party.
When you wake up—because you ended up falling asleep, or you’ve disengaged yourself from your surroundings long enough to get the impression that something is different, that something has disengaged itself from you, too, although you can’t quite figure out why, and you find that unsettling—there’s a woman’s naked torso being projected on the far wall. Something about this woman’s naked torso leads you to a piercing insight having to do with the sort of like ritual objectification of bodies at the heart of all parties, not because it’s an idea you’ve had yourself—you’re not self-reflective enough to draw piercing insights from a sweet pair of tits—but because you remember hearing it come out of the mouths of a couple of film students in thick black frames during their animated discussion of some film and the quintessentially bourgeois nausea it made them feel. You can’t remember whether this took place in the room with the ostrich meat and the cheese or in that sort of like carpeted foyer with the stream of cabezudos running around in their oversize papier-mâché heads, chanting political jingles—really more like mangling them, you think, although there was something hilarious about the sight of those enormous heads and the ironic, irreverent way they acted, like they were one of those jokes you can really only get if you were there for it, at the party, right when it was being told, as if the cabezudos and the enormous heads were the instrument of the party’s whole comedic intelligence—except, no, it had to have been in the first room, the room the film students were in, because something had caused the conversation to drift to whether it was truly possible to eat until you burst, like in that one classic, they were saying, fucking intense.
Or did the fucking intense happen before that? Honestly, it’s getting harder and harder for anything not to remind you of the party in some way. Did you hear it back on the top floor, in that sort of like polyester-wrapped room where those two staff guys in the Hawaiian shirts were desperately trying to start up the foam cannon? Or was it hours ago? Or even days, you wonder, because you could swear that it’s been forever since you and Ariadna first arrived, once you take into account the progressive decay afflicting your memory, or the accumulation of moments and scenes and conversations that makes the distance between now and the time you arrived stretch on into infinity, and forces you to convert this stretch into a unit of measurement that feels totally made up—and given the complete lack of clocks or windows, or people able to tell you how much time has gone by since they first arrived, or when this thing is supposed to end, assuming it some day will, you’re now starting to think no one ever planned it with any end in mind. This is what you heard from a bald guy with moles on the back of his neck as he was talking to a dude in a gorilla costume beside the rainbow-colored punch bowl with the eggs, vanilla ice cream, and whiskey. Goddammit, he was saying, there’s just no way to get a collective shot of the entire party at once. Because even if you stood right in the middle—which of course doesn’t actually exist, the center, as you know perfectly well, because the party just keeps expanding and rearranging itself anarchically, according to no discernible logic—even if it was possible for you to stand right in the party’s fictional center, some anecdote would still elude you, or some situation would escalate on the third floor while you’re still down enjoying yourself on the first, I mean, unless you got a group together whose sole task it was to document the party, this great occasion, said the bald guy with the moles, and now that you think about it, he’s totally right.
The thing is, you could give two shits about the collective shot of the party. Leaving is the only thing you care about—or, to be more exact, beginning to think about how leaving is pretty soon going to be the only thing you care about, if think about is a fair description of the sort of like crap-quality, stuttering language you use to express to yourself what you think you should express to yourself, all this, like, blah blah blah that means anything you want it to mean—but you’re still clinging to the possibility of taking Ariadna back with you to bed and executing the fantasy that has been playing out in your head ever since you walked in, whenever that was. Or maybe what refuses to disappear is really just the memory of this possibility—or even the memory of the outline you've sketched out for the party, this idea that tonight was the night, so you made yourself look hot, and Ariadna made herself look hot, because it was now or never—which is also what makes you tell yourself that the party isn't quite over, and that it won't be over until you’re taking Ariadna back with you to bed, and that there’s still time to make you and Ariadna happen. Which starts with you finding her, you think, and once again you all of a sudden find yourself walking down a corridor carpeted in red and with lanterns hanging above the doors, slogging through all the couples pressing up against the wall and sliding to the floor and calmly making out, the way you’d picture happening in a strip club, you think, if you’d ever set foot in one before.
But for this place, the comparison is accurate. All the rooms, halls, dining rooms, living rooms, corridors, bathrooms, game rooms, trophy rooms, and all those other spaces you couldn’t quite match with a specific function together remind you of a different house, or class of house, to which this one belongs—not that you find this at all strange; in the end, parties make all houses look alike, and the style of this particular house is so all over the place that it’s a little lacking in character, as though the house were this house and all houses at once, and the party, this party and all parties—but then it starts to dawn on you that you can’t remember any prior houses, just rooms you saw a while ago (maybe days ago, who knows), because you’re starting to forget everything unrelated to the party, and your keen sense of direction is starting to become a detriment. Ariadna, you suddenly say, find her—fie urr—as though that were the key to eliminating all the confusion screwing with your head right now, and allowing yourself to abandon once and for all whatever is tying you here. You find it easier to contemplate your fate from within the chaos of arms and legs and different types of music audible behind closed doors, just like in a strip club, thrilled by the thought of the people moving all around you—than anywhere else. And what if you do manage to find Ariadna? To be honest, you’re not totally sure you’re up to it anymore. Your ability to perform has been incrementally diminishing with every beer and gin and tonic, so you almost prefer not to find her, rather than spoil your one shot at what you had always imagined to be gold medal-level sex—an image inclusive of everything you've ever heard said about one-night stands, and the way to fuck shorter girls, whom you had never suspected to be the subject of so much scientific concern, or demand so much physical endurance. Also, you know yourself well enough to know that four drinks too many is a sufficient number to trap you inside the laziest, most unpleasant version of yourself, a version you despise, the polar opposite of the sort of self-praise that will restore both your courage and your status as a fertility god and allow you to proceed ahead into everything you find so terrifying about the extreme exhibitionism that is sex in all its forms. If you’re not into it, you won't get hard, you’re thinking, when this electric sensation shoots through your right shinbone and you fall to the floor with such little grace that you sprain your left wrist as the force of your body comes crashing down on your hands.
What the fuck, they say, what a fucking idiot, except it doesn't even cross your mind that this is directed at you, much less that it’s coming from one of the cabezudos from earlier, the guy now picking himself up off the ground. He fits his oversize head down over some angry-looking face and runs off in the direction that everybody else seems to be running. You follow them into a bi-level room where three lanky guys with geeky-looking faces are siphoning beer from a keg into a plastic funnel with a huge brim. The funnel has to be at least six feet across, and they’ve got it mounted inside the narrow mouth of this see-through, boa-constrictor-like hose stretching from the upper floor down to the floor below. At the end of the hose, there’s a girl in a wet T-shirt knotted around her waist waiting for the beer to flow. This whole scene reminds you of something, you think, like a movie maybe, or some TV show, you’re not sure. Now here’s an idea for those film students, you think, those guys who wanted to eat until they burst. The room is so jam-packed with people that you can’t help feeling like you should make conversation with the person next to you, in this case, a Basque girl with a metal colander on her head. She just can’t believe how nuts some people are, but you tell her to stop exaggerating, how it’s really just grains, and that tomorrow, beer’s on your breakfast menu anyway, a comment she finds especially entertaining, probably on account of everything she’s already had to drink. You’re suddenly her best friend and she takes advantage of her status to slap a hand on your shoulder and push you toward the center of the shit show. The crowd (or maybe just you) don't stop themselves from yelling even though the girl with the makeshift crop top has finished downing the beer, which has stained her from top to bottom, while down on the lower level they’re asking for volunteers to keep the mayhem rolling. You decline, but it looks like the crowd has already made the decision for you, because now it’s your turn—although it’s not really your turn, not technically, but you look like you want it to be, and if you want it to be, it is—so they’re pushing you and chanting something you can’t really make out and eyeing you so intensely that you don't even think about how many other people have already drunk from the same hose or what kind of hose it is or where they got it from or how, deep down, despite what it looks like, you don’t actually give a shit about the approval of all these strangers, who want you to drink not for your own benefit, but for theirs, so that they can remain in this state of mindless bliss they all find so goddamn entertaining.
Resisting the throngs of people all around you is your last remaining form of independence. You’re you, you’re not whatever it is they want from you, or whatever it is they want you to do. You’re nothing but what you want yourself to do, you tell yourself, as they position you right where they want you and stick the end of the hose into your mouth. You decide you’re going to resist mentally. The beer pummels the back of your throat but the nausea compels you to stop chugging, so you use your beard to try to block the flow—Oh, aren’t you a clever one? You're lucky the beer agrees with you—but it’s no use: you end up choking, and coughing up all the beer that went down the wrong tube. Out of the corner of your eye you catch, in a flash of gold, Ariadna’s blond extensions appear one minute and disappear the next. You scan all around for her, but you only make out the backside of someone squeezed up against the tons of people howling for you to drink again. But Ariadna’s presence has brought you back to your senses, right as you were nearing the point of no return, and has, by consequence, brought back the guilt and the shame—and it just now occurs to you as you’re scanning the crowd to look where they're all pointing: the latex penis affixed to the end of the hose the beer just came out of, and the droplets now dangling from the tip.
You’re running. You plow through the people hovering in the hallway, shoving into them, jabbing them with your elbows, and not at all feeling bad about the guy you just slammed into the wall who is now cussing out you and your entire family, knowing you’ll be long gone before any of these altercations has a chance to develop or escalate into a situation. You pursue Ariadna, or what you think is Ariadna, through rooms and down hallways, into a crowd playing pin the tail on the donkey—only, the donkey, wherever it came from, is fucking real—then on past a bunch of clowns having themselves a good time getting these trashy hags and tipsy dudes absolutely wasted, then an impromptu rave full of zombies with sunglasses and mini water bottles. You’re looking for her not because you want her, not now; you just want to see what she might do with all those parts of you you’re not. You’re looking for her because she’s your salvation—that’s what you say, even though you hate the word; salvation, you say, save yourself, you say—and to see what will happen if you find her. You’re guided by that sort of like retinal persistence that made you see her earlier in the night (or days ago) when she wasn't actually there, that trace of blond that just refuses to go away and is at this moment in your line of sight long enough for you to know she has just banked right, out of your field of view and into a mass of people filling up a pitch dark room.
Your pursuit of Ariadna returns you to your former state. You’re a little more aware of where your body ends, and where other bodies begin. Thanks to this bit of awareness you’re able to realize that you’re over this party. You don't know anybody, plus the guests are all nuts, maybe on account of how long the party has been going on, you say, not even realizing that you’re saying all of this out loud and at such a volume that one of the guests turns around in order to find you and single you out. You could care less, but you think these people take pity on you—take pity? no, they write you off—as you propel yourself off someone’s back out of the pitch dark room and toward the bottom of this long-ass marble staircase, and lucky you, now you got all these stairs to climb. You climb them solely for the air of cinematic romance, which convinces you that it’s not too late for you and Ariadna. What a shame your body can’t come with you for it. Your knees give out, and a sharp anxiety fills your lungs every time you breathe, over and over, forcing you to pause halfway. If she would just stand still! But Ariadna is always a step ahead, always just far enough away to keep evading contact, which is the only thing you want right now, to make contact, instead of chasing after the jangling of her tacky necklace like a moron—but you’d be lying if you said you didn’t enjoy the exhaustion a little, like when you risk your good health, or what health you have, to scale a summit, and in a certain sense, the harder it is to find her, the happier you are with yourself.
Also, something hasn’t been sitting too well in your stomach, and you can just picture the simmering, green soup, but you force yourself to rally—as if rallying were purely a matter of effort or will—and by the time you get to the top, your head is spinning. Or is it the house that is spinning? The carpet down the staircase becomes a spiraling smear of red, and the paintings and the walls and everything else in your field of vision fade to one side, as though they were all made of dust and a giant finger just went and smudged them, fading exactly the way an idyllic childhood might at the moment its charm wears off. You end up sprawled across the floor, convinced that this rug is the comfiest solution to a totally temporary problem. One minute and then I’m coming, Ariadna. Don’t go, you say, unsure whether you’re talking to yourself or talking out loud. But deep down, it doesn't matter. All you care about right now is finding some kind of support for your head that doesn't make you feel like your neck is going to snap—that, and suppressing this surge of vomit that is threatening to leap up your esophagus, but you can barely keep your eyes open, or perceive anything except for the blond, white-blond figure of Ariadna fading on a far-off wall, like a projection disintegrating little by little on a screen made of smoke.
Afterward (after what?) you wake up to find that you've become the topic of conversation. He’s just been lying there. I watched them drag him across the floor. This is the kind of stuff they’re saying, but you can't work out exactly what they’re talking about, or who they are, or what they want from you. Who the fuck is Ariadna? the person beside you keeps saying, a sort of, like, three-hundred-pound, androgynous vampire who’s giving you this look like you’re supposed to be entertaining them, when you’re simply trying to keep your eyes closed and not stare directly into any of the ghoulish faces all around you or answer any of their questions. This dude with an inverted cross on his left eyeball is acting like he wants something from you, but then someone shouts something about food and they all go running out of sight. You breathe in and out, trying to remind yourself that you have to get up and go find Ariadna and then get the hell out of here, but it’s getting harder every time. Why did you want to get out of here? You’re so comfortable on the ground, relaxing at last, that you can’t remember now. Then you realize that what you’d swear is daylight is poking into the room, either through some badly closed blind or some crack in the wall, you’re thinking, because the light definitively seems to be coming from the outside. By the stench, and by the sort of like gloopy chowder soaking your entire chest, you realize that you puked all over yourself—or maybe somewhere else, but you ended up dumping it all over yourself anyway, because you're a moron, or because somebody really wanted to see what would happen if they made you do it. Somebody has propped you up on this leather sofa, which is feeling pretty great right about now, off on the sidelines of everything and everyone, perfectly hidden away in this corner of this enormous room that is now practically empty, or maybe just full of quiet people, you can't really say. When you wake back up, your achy and swollen eyes open to a pair of CDs, about a foot from your face, one with a pile of cocaine, and the other, a pile of tabs.
You don't remember taking anything, but you sure feel like you did. You're surrounded by couples on couches, chairs, stools, tables, off in the corners, all absolutely hypnotized by each other, just waiting for whatever the other person is about to do next—totally like one of those ecstasy parties, for people who can't otherwise relax their inhibitions enough to discover their desire for not so much the other person but for themselves—and you ask yourself whether you really didn't take anything, and if that’s not the reason that you find everything and everyone so erotic, but mechanically, as though it was a feeling you had all the time.
The room opens onto a terrace where a hundred people are dancing around a half-dozen lit tiki torches. It will be night again any minute now, you think, but also: what have you been doing this whole time? But then this blonde appears, right in the middle of a cluster of arms in the air. She freezes when she spots you. She comes to you, barely able to keep her eyes open, this undying half-smile on her face. You look each other up and down. She’s got Ariadna’s hair, the exact same tiny arms, the exact same tits. She even has her laugh, and with a voice exactly like Ariadna’s, she asks you where you are, then looks at you the way you had always imagined Ariadna someday would. You could embrace her and press her up against the nearest surface and make love to her with complete impunity, except something has seized up inside you, this kind of serenity terribly similar to oblivion that makes you now view her from a remove, and you don't even care about the frenzy of people shoving you both out onto the terrace, squishing you into so many unfamiliar backs. You’re both now a part of this audience awaiting a spectacle—and with any luck, they’ll serve up another round, or spray you with a shaken-up bottle of cava, or whatever. Ariadna—but it can't be Ariadna, you think, or you’d want her, and you don't want this girl—is standing right beside you, with invisible pillows cushioning her head and protecting her from all the people collecting and pressed up against you on this terrace, and there’s no acquaintance of hers to separate her from you, no face she wants to go say hello to real quick. You stare her right in the face, unflinching, trying to remember what it was that you came to the party to accomplish, and what made you—you and her—decide to go, and go together, and why your brain keeps saying her name, and why this blond chick is staring at you right now—except your mind contains nothing but scraps of the party, and your desire to stay at the party, and the impossibility of doing anything that isn't the party—then the music starts up again, irresistibly, and there’s this couple of French dudes going du du dut, like they were casting a spell or curse, du du dah, they go, but to you it’s all the same, all so happily the same, du du dut dah dah, you think, du dah dut dah dah, they sing, and everybody is dancing and you’re all this single unit jumping to the beat of the drum and throwing its achy arms in the air, emaciated from the length of the party, sickly, faded, but in sync.
© Borja Bagunyà. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Scott Shanahan. All rights reserved.
Businessman from Mongolia. Irkutsk
Like a raven on a stripped branch, sitting alone on the roof of
Having lost everything, from the height of the thirteenth floor,
dangles his feet.
The angels of death—the photographers, TV journalists—
have already turned on their cameras,
The embassy, the other side of the sacred shore, has already been
Enkh Etrech, dear one, what have you forgotten in Siberia’s
region of hungry ghosts?
Oh, to ride on horseback at a gallop, on the steppes of
You even found the time to say—you love this city,
this forested country,
You bestow as though a souvenir from Ulan Bator your corpse to
the EST rescuer.
So what could the fool of a rescuer rescue if he’s not
the savior Buddha,
Could he return to you the dough lost yesterday
at the roulette table,
The flame of desire is eternal—so sayeth the Sitter in the Lotus,
Nothing left to extinguish the debt with, the Chinese dragon
burning up the soul . . . .
Enkh Etretch, my dear man, why did you, as a child with a top,
play the wheel of Samsara,
Bleating from the fold, mustangs thunder, trade in steppe songs
for poker chips, and the stars?
Mute and unhearing, heir to the human clan’s sacred sayings,
Heedless to gasps and groans, all gallop toward ancestral bones
on horseback, all apple dappled . . .
Coffin, and what a coffin, your brother Eric, that great carpenter,
Tom-toms’ thunder, music of the spheres, the black-eyed widow
The two-meter-long fish obscures everything with its silver
Filling the confines of the dead fisherman’s earthen hut.
Yes, your friends and relatives have made you a farewell gift
Of a magnificent and blinding hope, Eddie;
They cradle and lull you in it as though inside a crib,
Then send you off on your final path with dances and song.
Awake!—the widow sings.—Get up, you old lazybones!
Your hungry children are begging you for a bite of a fish!
What are you waiting for, go and catch us something to eat!
We need you, you big swarthy oaf!
But his dirty ears are resistant to their tender entreating,
And the thick lips will not stretch from these ears into a smile;
His drunk friends carry his fish-of-a-coffin while play-fighting,
For Eddie loved his drop to drink, and of course, to rumble.
Shoulder to it! and the fish barely lurching shifts forward;
Shouts from behind: “Turn around, Eddie’s forgot something—
the spirits are speaking!”
The funeral procession shuffles thus, first forward then
By turns chanting mournful praises, then merrily dancing
onward . . . .
© Amarsana Ulzytuev. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Alex Cigale. All rights reserved.
The following excerpts are taken from novelist Marta Rojals's nonfiction work We Could Have Studied Less, the portait of a generation—hers—that, after years of making a living in positions related to their degrees, has been forced to accept precarious jobs.
We swallowed up everything they told us. We, the children of modest families, became believers in the creed of the JASP: the jóvenes aunque sobradamente preparados, the generation of exceedingly educated Spanish youth. We established our careers just so: we completed our diplomas, our undergraduate degrees, our postgraduate studies; we boarded airplanes for afar, we got our second master’s. We were the pride of our homes. We’d answer the phone, and we’d have a job offer already awaiting, or we’d have changed jobs already, or already someone would be courting us for another. The order of all things had been predestined—so they had told us, and so we believed, et in sæcula sæculorum, amen. Through our faith we were granted autonomy: we rented properties, we renovated flats, we dined out among friends and toasted our successes, we found we could afford those lamps we’d been eyeing at Vinçon, we began to have children.
The first day the phone didn’t ring, we thought it was an auditory illusion. We’d done more crunches than usual one morning, and we went to the mirror to inspect, and there: our singular bubble had fractured right before our eyes.
The next dinner among friends takes place in an apartment-share where hardly anyone is under thirty-five. The table fills up with potluck offerings, and no one gives a shit this time who brought the salad. Out on the balconies we roll tobacco, while inquiring of one another how it’s going, if we’re still doing this or that or have since moved on, if we know of anyone who might be looking for someone to do whatever. Because a moment has arrived in which to assume the right to do what we might have studied once is now a bourgeois vice, a pedantic indulgence for which we must atone. Or at least, this is what we want to believe: that who do we think we are, that we must still be grateful, that by the sweat of our brows we shall eat bread, that the pain of our childbirth shall be multiplied, and finally, that this is our divine justice.
And so the pair of architects hanging at the back sport T-shirts and carry recycled bags. The journalist of twenty years now goes to teach PE after dropping his little one off at the nursery. The art historian is celebrating: on Monday she starts as a cashier at Lidl. Our parents no longer ask questions over leftovers at our weekly Sunday meals. Our gullible parents, and the primary educations they broke their backs to give us so that one day they might have the chance to hang a graduation photo on the dining room wall, one for every child. Because in those days, to speak of such a photo was to speak of a future.
The next day, on the radio, a talk show host will thunder: privileged, pampered sons of democracy! In the paper, an economist will preach about what a miscalculation was made opening the ball to too many dancers, and what’s come of it: these frustrated graduates gone too far now to turn back. A therapist will lecture that we mustn’t blame the system for our professional discontent, if in the moment we had wanted to study philology or philosophy or whatever the fuck it was. Once more we’ll find the mailbox stuffed with advertisements from the university, promising that all that stands between us and work is another degree.
Nice try, gentlemen, but that old inertia, that verily, verily I say unto you, has lost its sticking power, has nothing left to give us. So much of what we once believed has been disproven, which has left us ultimately with but a single choice: to have faith only in ourselves. And to arrive at this conclusion, we might admit that along the way, some had had a point: we could have studied less.
20 June 2011
False Information, in Five Episodes
To pass by la millor botiga del món—the greatest shop on earth, that honor conferred by the city upon Barcelona’s most innovative entrepreneurial establishments—is an unusual rush-hour spectacle. Shoppers rush past to the left, to the right, while inside the store clerks chatter on the telephone, inspecting their nails with their elbows propped against the counter. You might not have stopped had you not inadvertently overheard one of them declaring: Today I made a sale. And perhaps then she called another colleague: the day’s grand achievement, Today I made a sale.
The store selling organic goods is bolted up because, I’m told, someone drained the register on Thursday. The subject of this gossip was so desperate as to believe that he could make up for the meager amount he'd stolen earlier that day with proceeds from the sale of tofu and seitan burgers. A note to the statisticians: our thieves have not yet turned vegetarian.
The little clothing boutiques keep their doors locked too: Ring the bell, ring here, we’re open! The shop girls run up to the entrance, blinking, before you have a chance to reconsider. Perhaps you never even planned to enter until you found yourself inside. The jackets are half-price. The shelves bloom with colors. May I hold your bag while you try that on? If you find it’s too long, we offer free alterations. In practice they spare you your life for the act of demanding another size, abandoning you instead in body and spirit to a deluge of unbridled attentions. Queen for a day, as they’ve been trained to say.
At the back of a small wine cellar, a mirror plays the snitch: the boy with the practiced face of a white-collar worker pretends to manage orders while engrossed in a computer game. One radiant day he must have decided: You stay here, I have a dream. At the commencement of his vision, the glasses were filled till overflowing. Smiles, playful claps on the back: You're on the rise! But today there is no dinner celebration. The shelves are full of bottles, as they were yesterday, as they were the day before, their labels facing outward. He shuts off the lights and the wine rests another night.
And signs, many signs: For Rent, Space Available, Sale, 50%, 70%. And one that calls your attention more than any other: a page printed in black, in all caps: WE HAVE CLOSED FOREVER. MANY THANKS. A tiny bar that is no longer a bar, forever. They say never say never. That nothing is forever. Save one, one single man, one evening, printing one page. One single man closes a door. Forever. Space for rent.
17 March 2010
All You Can Touch
The viewer can, at his pleasure, find the images on YouTube: in the thick of the human agglomerations that congregate yearly at the festival of San Fermín, a young man is assailed by a torrent of feminine hands. They tear at his pants, strip off his undergarments, douse him with boozy crimson kalimotxo, grab him like savages by the crotch. And yet, a moment—if I posit a reversal, if I swap the pronoun, if I tell you that our subject is a young woman, grasped at by a horde of men who violently disrobe her, and so on, and so forth: well, certainly; what banality; that’s just the norm.
To refer to a young woman is, in this case, to refer to the dozens of women who travel each summer to the famed festivities of San Fermín to find themselves subject to this baptism of humiliation, whether caught on smartphone cameras and by television crews or just in parts unseen. With the dispensation of the public, because there’s so much drinking there, and you know how that goes. With the general absolution that they’re young people, and you know how young people are. That we offer the permission of youth should be perhaps the most pernicious sign, in that it demonstrates how little has changed since the days we used to justify these sorts of episodes with a simple She was asking for it.
Take, in fact, a female reporter covering the txupinazo—that ceremonial pyrotechnic spectacular that marks the festival’s inauguration—at San Fermín’s 2010 edition. Mid-broadcast on Spanish national television, suddenly she was met with the imposition of a stranger’s mouth upon her own (a sloppy excess one couldn’t quite call a kiss). From the studio, her colleagues rebuked her Ante toda España—before her whole country, as the title of their program proclaimed. Please, they told her, snickering, don’t provoke the boy. And there it was again: don’t provoke the boys, little girl, lest you find your mouth otherwise occupied while you try to do your work, to complete your segment.
If, reader, you clear your mind for a moment, and think upon four women in your life, let’s say your mother, your colleague, your sister, your daughter, sitting perhaps around the Christmas dinner table, it might interest you to know that, just by the most recent Catalan statistics—to say nothing of those, for example, of Nigeria—one of these women has, at the moment in time you’re considering, been the object of some variety of masculine aggression. And if you think upon the men in your life—your father, your grandfather, your husband, brother, son—well, we’ll leave it there.
And with that insinuation hanging in the air, we should acknowledge that these young men who journey to the bacchanals of San Fermín and decide there to commit assaults upon the bodies of their female counterparts, to force them to their knees, may well be upstanding citizens in their homes. There are rarely antecedents to the behavior that emerges in this atmosphere: no fondling in the workplace, no sexual aggression in the street. They feign surprise at Christmas; they sit around the Thanksgiving table, surrounded by the women in their lives, and pass the gravy, and carve the turkey with practiced politesse. Our son? Certainly never, never. Our boy is a saint.
And what of these manhandled girls? They, surely, will remember that July, they will recall San Fermín, and all of that will come rushing back to the forefront of their minds. If too much drink dulled the details, they’ll still have YouTube to jog the memory. And of course, for the rest of their days, they will know that that little black spot is lurking somewhere in the folds of their cerebra, that dark thing we call guilt, waiting to be revived by any little trigger from any corner: public opinion, family, friends, themselves. You provoked the boy. You asked for it. Look at what you were wearing. You laughed the whole way through. The natural reaction to such visible humiliation: we laugh so as not to cry.
As always, with our offers of impunity we justify the aggressors. No punishment, no crime: full stop. And so their behavior, like that of their predecessors, will become in turn the advertising fodder for the coming year’s festival, which will promise to a new crop of youngsters a buffet of flesh. Take some and pass it on. All you can touch.
15 July 2013
A steep park that all the guidebooks highlight. A day that feels like the apogee of spring. The urbanites walk their dogs here, they smoke their joints here, they bring their children. At the backs of the tourists posing for their snapshots, the city slopes serenely toward the sea.
And between one thing and the other, a wonder: from behind a group of heads gathered like a fairy ring, a quivering, transparent planet emerges. It is a big, now an enormous, now a colossal bubble of soap. So it comes to be: a neo-hippie dips a length of rope by its handle into a bucket of slick green water. A little gust of wind and a theatrical flourish do the rest. The bubble is born and rises, rippling, before seven gaping mouths, each of which contains if not a filling then certainly a bridge. Which is to say that these are the mouths of seven adults whom one might imagine entirely spellbound by the spectacles of the bubble-mime Pep Bou, his work, if rudimentary, nonetheless somehow affecting—the bubbles heaving greedily in the nothingness of the air, seeking an impossible rotundity. Nothing could be further from that playful fleet of bubbles, recalling the music of a xylophone. Here, now, this, our gargantuan bubble is more akin to a trombone. Fabulous, hypnotic iridescences reel back and forth across its aqueous skin. For a moment, the breeze excites it; we each squint an eye as it catches the glint of the sun in flash of gold.
We hold our breath: caught in the path of its pregnant flight, three or four of us move away, we want it to live, we fan at its underside, C’mon, here we go, up, up, and it seems now that it’s rising once more, and from the crowd, Now, now!, but in the end it seems to flag again, and some simply mutter awwww, while the more optimistic among us try to blow at it, Phew, phew phew . . . And then, out of nowhere, amid all the madness, a little hand appears, and pop! Some male progenitors applaud the scene, Very good, very good!, and the creature that has shattered our planet right before our eyes claps his hands and stomps his feet, pleased with himself. The adults of the army of salvation wear our defeat on our furrowed faces. Someone, at a whisper, suggests a good slap. Someone else says nothing, but in a brief spell of aphoristic delirium realizes that the world is divided into two types of children: those who, before a gigantic soap bubble, hold their breath, transfixed, their mouths agape—and those who, knowing such a thing to be vulnerable, have the irrepressible impulse to fling themselves at the air. It’s needless to say which of these two groups has always been most fragile.
21 March 2011
© Marta Rojals. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Alicia Maria Meier. All rights reserved.
Mercè Ibarz explores the mysterious origins of Alleyway S, a street whose myriad transformations mirror those of Barcelona.
Of all the streets I venture through in the city, none has offered me as much joy as Alleyway S, or as much sorrow. I even think, because sometimes you can say you think at the same time you feel something, that the joy that gradually filled me as I headed there was a prelude to the sorrow that awaited me, that awaits me there, and perhaps always will. The street was invented many years ago, when no one wished to claim the mountain that rises from the sea to crown the city, and at its foot sprang up a fretwork of houses and huts with dark, shrunken gardens, often airless—at least from the perspective of the trees that would be planted there. Such were the constructions and fantasies of laborers. The houses were squeezed in next to each other, until the city was forced to give a name to what was, finally, a street, even if it had not been laid out by the authorities. Right and left and at the bottom of the street, the houses gave themselves numbers, and the passageway appeared in street guides. No one knows who S was or why an invented street was so named.
The houses were built in the evenings, on Sundays, in the early mornings, by pioneers who never knew what it was to have a vacation or enjoy a weekend off. They never struggled for lack of work, something hard to imagine today when sustained employment is so rare. They knew only work, always work. No need to give much thought to the provenance of the building materials. But if you insist, we can explain. They came from construction sites where the men or family acquaintances worked; from the proprietors of stately homes where the wives cleaned; from houses that had been abandoned in the earlier years of expropriations and the owners had fled; from wholesalers the men knew through work. And from quarries along the coast that were mined, day and night, during the days of the Great War of 1914 and further exploited after their own war of 1936. Most of those who built the street had survived this war in other parts, other lands, from whence they fled when it ended, for nothing was left and work beckoned them to the city of the mountain by the sea. They all remember what their lives were like when they first arrived. We know they lived in shacks in the beginning; later a few of them moved to the other side of the mountain when the more daring among them first began to open up the passageway. They built the street on the side of the mountain that had witnessed the death of so many: relatives and friends of old people from neighborhoods both near and far; natives of the city by the sea; nameless people who were executed and buried in the cemetery on the mountain. The houses are cheerful, mischievous, each an ode to its own style. One of the gardens still houses an air-raid shelter.
When I arrived that first day, I stared at the house that was to be like my own—because the person who would live there knew my memories—and I took a picture of it. The garage door was Tunisian blue, the traffic sign red, the tree stunted—a musty shade of green—the sun blazing, the letters of the message scribbled on the Tunisian blue, black: Maria Soledat / do not weep for one / day the flowers / of love / will bloom. To the left and above the message was a yellow paper advertising the sale of an apartment. After taking the picture, I read the painted message again. Flowers of love. Will bloom. One day. Do not weep. Maria Soledat. Farther up the street on the right, Alleyway S awaited me, its cats huddled at the edges, its terraces planted with lemon trees, palm trees, winter cherry, bougainvillea and—I could glimpse it already—the olive tree.
As I walk by it now, the picture comes back to me. The door to the garage is no longer Tunisian blue, the painted message is gone. This is not an excursion I should take; it is painful: things are not as they were when the flowers of love were still expected to bloom. Many tears have flowed since then; perhaps that is why the flowers never bloomed. The anonymous hand that once offered hope and advice knew what it was talking about, but we didn’t believe it. And yet, even now the street comforts me. As I look back at a past that no longer exists—fish-memory is short, and in this part of town we are close to the sea—the present summons me. It does so of its own accord, without warning, quiet and at the same time as dense as the scribbling over the Tunisian blue so many years ago. I am seated by a door. It is narrow and low, as if to offer a secret passage to someone in great haste. In earlier times it must have been the entrance to a warehouse that wished to remain inconspicuous, discreet. The door is open.
Without my noticing it, someone has leaned out and placed a camp stove on the street; the sounds of a conversation I do not understand issue from inside. They do not yell, it just seems that they do. Their speech has the gruff melody of fatigue or hunger, of malicious humor that guards against resentment and infuses air into weary chests. Ancient phonetics that have never been schooled, only trained. Three children come running out, as two tall, wiry young men make their way down the street and duck inside, as if entering a fairytale or a vampire story. For those of us who have lived in this city for a while, or always, or for many years, the streets have become more and more opaque. I do not understand the myriad uses of these houses and streets. If it were not for this moral excursion—let’s call it that—I couldn’t even imagine them; it would be as if this narrow door did not exist. Perhaps a few years from now, several no doubt, as people pass through this door without noticing me, as if I were the one who did not exist, sitting here on the curb, this threshold will open up, yielding a name and a passageway into a street whose movements we cannot imagine. I’d like to look inside, but I don’t.
Right now I would love a coffee—a Coke, even.
No need to make a big fuss, for heaven’s sake; this is how the city has developed since time immemorial. It’s nice to look up from where I am sitting. To the left, opposite Alleyway S, begins one of those lanes—they are rare but still exist—that reminds us that the remote past is not really so distant. You would think you were in the Orient, in the East, Near, Middle or Far, it matters not. I turn into the lane. The walls on either side are of mud and stone, cool in summer, as they are now. There are no houses. The lane curves around, leading up to the mountain roads. One has the impression that the clandestine laborers who settled the side of the mountain spared it precisely because it offered shade in summer. Perhaps they gave it the shape of a curve, or of a tunnel with no ceiling, to facilitate the movement of goods that could flow along its diagonal, straight through the narrow door where I sit, a door to the past and the future.
I am moving farther away from Alleyway S. Not much, just enough to see it in perspective. From here, from this oriental lane—she had traveled in the East and said it was like being in Damascus—I am reminded of our conversations, our meals together, the silences, fears and jokes, our indignation and laughter when reading the newspapers, the surprise of living. We watered the garden while we smoked, and she cooked. There are moments in friendships that are like this street of streets. It is not my intention to resort to pompous images; I’m just being truthful. To visit Alleyway S was to enter and not emerge for many hours, and on leaving you realized you had journeyed through time and across an excessive geography that spanned from the street to the coast, the coast to the airport, the airport to the Orient—far away, where they make tea with burnt sugar, cinnamon, and cardamom—only to end up again in the neighborhood, where, before heading back to work—no escaping that—we would order paella at Elche, near the windmill-shaped cabaret with the neon lights. We can do that some other day, we said, now we have your cannelloni, the spongy crayfish, the tomatoes from the farmer in El Prat, the white wine I remembered to bring today, the chilled champagne that awaits dessert, the cigarette you are already rolling, you shouldn’t smoke so much, give it here. Careful, your asthma.
Ah, if only we had been able to go on like that. Someone knocked at the door and it was the boy who was top of the class at hairdressing school, come to do your hair in the latest style. He gave you the news about high school friends, family, the neighborhood, the job his father didn’t have and his mother invented. He shot me a suspicious glance, you introduced me perfunctorily, we stared at each other with distrust, each ignoring the other. He had an exquisite androgynous look about him, transsexual almost, like a self-reliant animal. What a bore, I thought, her always playing Mother Teresa. If I want delectable treats I must put up with tales from blue-collar suburbia, where only losers seem to live, even if some of them can do your hair. Pleasure drives cynicism, your cooking had that flaw. You realized it, but didn’t care. The pleasure you gave us blinded us. Self-indulgent, all of us. So I would go out into the garden, leaving the hairdresser and the girl from Calcutta to their own devices. The table had been cleared, it was time for dessert—champagne would suffice. I followed the conversation from the garden. I would turn off the hose, sit down beside the bignonia, by the large window, and listen. The loser with the hair scissors had a gift for storytelling. The more he flaunted his gift, meant for her ears alone, the better he got. I too was part of the story, my back to it, ears pricked up; the narrator, happy to be observed by her powerful eyes, her encouraging smile, her sarcastic and benevolent intelligence. He made observations, qualified them, and in all respects she received him exactly the way he needed. Once he finished the story he had gone to tell her, in a flash he would leave her hair looking stupendous, smoke another cigarette she had prepared for him, gulp down some tea whether he liked it or not, drink a glass of champagne, emerge by the garden door, greet me mechanically, and depart. Not for one moment had he forgotten about me, I knew that from previous visits; but he only addressed the rest of us when he arrived or left. She would accompany him to the door and continue to ask him about school, family, friends, the end-of-term trip they were planning to take, whether he could afford it, and that they would discuss it later.
I grew accustomed to the rhythm of the house on the alleyway, though it didn’t always suit me. I knew I would always find someone who had come to visit, or someone would happen to drop by. But if I wanted to see her, I had to go there. It was impossible to get her to come to my place; my cooking (it’s not bad, I don’t want to brag, but I’d like it to be noted) was never good enough, and she said as much, she didn’t keep it to herself; she was a teacher, a good teacher, accustomed to giving grades, and she graded you, graded everything, left and right. She always got involved, didn’t hold back her opinion or assessment. That’s why she was feared by some and idolized by others. Everything was excessive, I can see that now. I’m referring to the manner in which she was excessive, without dwelling on those other moments of hers, the downtimes, which were persistent and cold, with no possibility of rebuttal. They too were excessive.
She did, however, find my opinions about decoration interesting, especially where color was concerned. On this topic she listened to me. But only about that, nothing else, stubborn as a timepiece, a machine, a sick person who knows too much. She agreed when I encouraged her to be daring with the wall color, but when the painters showed up, since they were suburban riffraff—from the fringes—she let them do what they wanted. It was pointless for me to insist that the bad taste and conventionalisms of what used to be known as the “popular classes”—the working class—were abominable and perhaps explained many of their historical plights—and ours, for that is our heritage too. It was futile. The exurban painters were the only oracles she listened to. The colors they chose were, of course, neither fish nor fowl. And they did not suit the house on that invented street.
That was when I told her I’d had enough, it was great to praise my taste and decorative criteria but look at the walls she had allowed to be painted. She was like that in everything, I said. She listened only to the voices she deemed telluric and deep, which often were full of prejudices, lacking in courage; and yet she thought they sprang from the wellspring of history and should be abided by for that reason alone, as if the mother of god had spoken. Imagine that! Who would have expected it from a secondary school history teacher in the urban periphery? So we could agree: the present is not history and she was incapable of accepting that the working classes have adopted market aesthetics and distrust anything that does not appear on television. And often, the more dim-witted the person, the more interesting she found them. In every respect. And perhaps I wasn’t dim-witted enough for her. We were in the garden, smoking and drinking sparkling water, while the cat lunched on a plate of clams I would have wished for myself. She glanced at me over her glasses, wide-eyed, hard and superior, ready for a showdown. Preemptively, so she wouldn’t open the window of her eyes any further, I invoked Pasolini and his conceptual rigor. She too adored the poet. She because of his depiction of the underworld, I for other reasons. What do you mean? she asked, taking a sip of water and lowering her eyes. We need to live out our fantasies and beliefs, she said; it’s true, but it’s difficult. It takes so much out of you. You are left with nothing, no strength, no nothing.
Since she was prone to melodrama, in the ironic bent of the great Magnani, I didn’t pursue the conversation. In order to justify the painters’ choice—the painters from the outskirts who had ruined her decor but nevertheless had a Pasolinian air about them—she was capable of the most ludicrous arguments. Such as saying that life was draining her of every ounce of strength, when all we were doing was discussing the color of the walls. She continued to smoke and I began to water the garden.
The mud and stone alley ends in a curve that runs into a street and a large house with a garden. Behind the house, the mountain. I head there again. I walk down the street, turn to the left and enter Alleyway S.
A few days later, a Saturday afternoon, she phoned. Something she rarely did. So rare was it that I teased her, asked if she was ill, if something had happened. She laughed. Strange as it may sound, I’m calling to suggest we go somewhere, like we used to. To India, perhaps? I asked. Well, I wouldn’t claim it doesn’t resemble one of the beaches in southern India. You absolutely have to see the summer huts on a beach near here, she declared, all seductive-like, as if she were teaching a class. Maybe then I would understand something of the city’s working-class history, the period after the shacks were erected and the street was opened up. You say such idiotic things about the aesthetics of resistance. The aesthetics of resistance, she said. If I had the car, it wasn’t too late to head out then.
The coastal routes are dreadful on the weekend, crowded with cars cruising up and down, day and night. I left the house at once. The traffic was calm: drivers were still having lunch or napping, depending on their age. The sea was to our left. We passed an enormous, impressive quarry of red earth and stones, where so many men and children were made to work after the war. She kept glancing at it, but didn’t say anything. Soon we would encounter one of Gaudi’s lesser-known buildings, and not as well maintained as the others.
She was anticlerical, in the old mold, with a sort of belligerent secularism that she exercised frequently, and with a very sharp tongue. But she admired the mystic who had built the cathedral of the poor, which anarchists and all manner of malcontents had respected during the burning of churches in the first decades of the twentieth century. Even so, she had never visited the cathedral. She hated the name, Sagrada Família, Holy Family. Maybe it was meant to be sarcastic, I said. No, unfortunately, it wasn’t, she responded. But we can be; we can use the name Sagrada Família in a mocking way, as a sarcastic metaphor. No, no we can’t, she said again.
She had sounded so sad that I tried to distract her by talking about the spiral staircase in Gaudí’s cathedral of the poor—which is now the cathedral of the tourists. Climbing up and down it makes you forget everything, you enter a spiral where time no longer flows, it is only present. That’s why I never go there, she said with a laugh.
We exited the motorway to the right, on to a road that led down to where the horizon became a tunnel under a bridge. We waited for the light to turn green and proceeded through the tunnel. The sea reappeared on the other side, and it was as if I had never seen it. Gathered around a large, sheltered cove, dependable, reserved and uncrowded, everything about it was welcoming. I do not remember the first time I saw the sea, I remember this sea.
I parked the car near a hotel, and got out, removed my shoes and made for the beach without waiting for her. I went straight into the water, swam until I could no longer, floated for a long time, and returned, dragging my feet through the sand. She was sipping a red vermouth and talking to a waiter.
That was when I noticed the summer huts. Green and white, wooden, built right on the sand, forming a coronet around the beach. If Dirk Bogarde, Silvana Mangano, and the boy who plays Tadzio in the film had suddenly appeared, I would not have been surprised. She flashed me a sardonic look. I didn’t need to tell her what was going through my mind; she was seeing the same film. The only thing missing was Visconti, not someone easy to emulate. When the movie first came out, we talked about it a lot. I was captivated by the Lido and the cabanas; the characters’ malaise distanced me from them, but it was what most interested her. Their intense suffering. She hadn’t always been like that, not at all. But she was now. And now she was incapable of doing anything to change her ways, her patterns of behavior, so we never talked about those things. She did the same: when she saw I was sad or worried, she tried to distract me. I like to make the most of other people’s words, drink them in when they sit well with me; I could not survive without it, but she couldn’t allow herself the same. When I wanted to conjure a kind of happiness she could accept, we spoke of Pasolini. It’s tragicomic and lucid. It’s not happy, but it makes you happy. Not always, she added. True. But with him, only social evils make you suffer. She laughed when I told her, yet again, that I was so affected by his last film that, when I came out, I went straight into a bar and devoured a tin of huge clams, like I used to do as a child.
A boy emerged from one of the green and white houses. He descended the wooden steps and entered the open basement on the sand. In these spaces, above which the houses are raised, people store sea and beach equipment: boats, bicycles, motorcycles. His was a well-stocked summer garage. There was a powerful new car. What do you think? I asked. Now explain to me why these shacks are part of the history of the aesthetics of resistance. I really want to know. She asked the waiter at the hotel restaurant for a menu and she ordered black rice, and white wine and cod fritters while we waited for the rice. I noticed they had a good-quality pomace brandy. I’d have a glass at the end of the meal.
Her face lit up when she began to speak and she kept the glow for quite a while. I could again see in her the face of a Circassian Begum, and I let her know by quoting Omar Khayyam, her favorite among all poets. A beauty that exceeds the bounds of memory and reverie. She knew the boy we had just caught a glimpse of, or rather she knew his grandparents; they were the same age as her parents, who still lived in the concierge’s ground-floor apartment in a neighborhood not far from the mountain. The boy’s grandparents had left the neighborhood when the car factory had begun to offer good jobs, lots of them; to work at the Seat factory was a big deal, I knew that much. The 1960s. The 1970s. The boy’s grandparents and her own parents had arrived quite young from the same village in Aragon, during the wave of migration of the 1920s, when the city held the 1929 World Fair at the foot and along the breasts of the mountain. They all lived in shacks for a short while, but were soon able to move to an established, solid, proper urban neighborhood. Her parents would never have imagined that their daughter would end up settling in one of the old squatter houses at the foot of the mountain, which at the time still lacked water and electricity, though not now, not since it has been regulated by the city and no new buildings are allowed. She smiled. I didn’t. Both of her parents were anarchists, two sharecroppers who had never known anything but manual labor. Her arrival wasn’t until much later. She was born when her parents were old, two people wasted and despondent after losing the war, confined in a concierge’s room, with neither the energy nor the age to work for Seat. I had always known this, and she didn’t rehash it now.
The little beach houses, she said after a calm silence, were the property of the first families that had worked in the car factory and their descendants, and also of nearby residents. She shot me a defiant look, her eyes feverish. They built them themselves; her father had helped the family of the boy we had just seen walk by. They built them all the same. Beneath the houses, a space for the Seat 600, and room enough to share the Sunday paella, to chat in the early morning when the temperature dropped or to sleep off hangovers and failed love affairs. Above it, a kitchenette and two bedrooms. At the backdoor, the latrine, the water closet. UNESCO had just included them on the World Heritage List, and now no one can sell them to build apartments, or even paint them differently. That’s why we’re here, to celebrate, she said.
The string of little houses, a beach tiara in the sand, dozed like an exhausted child after running and eating.
The rice arrived, black and thick, fragrant with cuttlefish, potent and delicate, we both said in unison as we tasted it. I ordered more wine. The time passed easefully as she offered details about the holidays of the working-class aristocrats of the Franco years, anti-Francoist at times, often disoriented or de-classed, uncomfortable with their unexpected welfare. The village chosen by the factory and the workers for their summer holidays did not approve of their arrival, much less of the wooden houses erected on the sand, which the locals would never have dared to imagine for themselves. The idea and the place—in short, the launching of the settlement with the little houses—capped a year of negotiations between managers and union leaders, following the example of the Fiat factory in Turin, Seat’s experienced parent company. Over the years, more than a few local villagers had wanted to buy one of the houses. She made a gesture of satisfaction, pushed her chair back from the table and gazed out at sea. But no one has ever sold, not one of the houses. If the owner dies without any descendants, someone from the same group of homeowners will purchase it, according to the stipulations in the first deeds.
An interesting story, I said. I ordered the glass of brandy, she a Marc de Champagne. It was past five in the afternoon and the beach was beginning to awaken after its nap. The boy we had seen before emerged accompanied by a young woman and an infant in a tricked-out, nicely coordinated stroller of the latest model. The young woman was wearing a stylish swimsuit.
The two of them made their way to a great umbrella planted in the sand, in front of the restaurant terrace, close to us. Beneath the parasol was another family of the same age, with another baby in another designer stroller.
The end-of-June sun wasn’t strong, but the young couples were careful to protect their little ones. They also flaunted for anyone who wished to see—us in this case—an extensive, no doubt costly sample of equipment and clothes. They had perfect bodies, with even tans that would be difficult to obtain if only at the beach. Toned muscles, flat stomachs, hair expertly cut and conditioned. The men dressed in black and work-smock blue, the women and children in bright colors that reminded one of the color-blocking of the sixties, with an added touch of elegance. The colors of India, don’t you think? Yes, she replied with a hesitant tone. They certainly seem to have it all, don’t they? I added, hoping to provoke her, I admit. The parasol and the towels are definitely cool, the beautiful children—straight out of a TV commercial—charming. What more could you say about them? She gave me an ill-humored look and lashed out as expected: What’s the matter? Aren’t they allowed that? Should only people from uptown neighborhoods be able to go to the gym? You didn’t know, señorita, that stylish clothing can be found everywhere in blue-collar suburbia, in all the little shops and market stalls? she asked sarcastically. You think only you can use face creams? She said it softly, seemingly calm but fast as a machine gun. I laughed. She was capable of contradicting herself, pretending to confuse a plebeian design with something from a boutique. She could certainly tell the two apart, but she never spent a penny in the shops uptown. She spent it on food and drinks, on smoking, reading, and laughing. On her friends. On her students. On trips.
The girls were sunning in silence, the babies didn’t stir. Only the boys were talking under the umbrella. The two were promising soccer players. At the youth academy run by Barça, a team that had built an international name for itself and had star players who drew huge salaries.
The guys talked, showing off their voices, not exactly yelling but as if wanting to stand out, a legacy of their ancestors that was reinforced by their status as would-be soccer stars. Their Catalan was mixed in with Spanish and English, the two languages they grew up with at home and at work. I started listening without paying attention to what they were saying, merely to the sounds they made. I enjoy hearing the Catalan that is the special, intimate language of children of migrant families; I find it a moving, ambiguous act of historical restitution. It must be for them too, I imagine. Their distorted and imprecise phonetics, the dissonant music of the words, that blended history as much as these beach houses or their grandparents’ past. And, like the music of the sixties, I thought to myself, it’s here to stay. They never take the initiative to speak Catalan in public, but like the indigenous population during the Franco years, they speak the language when they are alone, among friends, or, like now, when they find themselves back in the realm of adolescence, when they wished to learn the language their parents could not speak.
They are expressing a desire that perhaps they don’t even recognize, one that wants to be represented, I said. Or a frustration, she said.
They didn’t mind that we could hear them, they spoke without inhibition. The newspapers wouldn’t believe it, I said. Maybe because they never take an interest, she ventured, the papers don’t know what people talk about, nor do they want to know. We live in apartheids, she added as she watched them attentively.
The two soccer players were now discussing a party they had had the previous night on the beach.
Enough of this cheap sociology, she cautioned me, anticipating my decision not to listen to the boys any longer. We need more than that.
“Papa,” one of the girls under the umbrella called out.
She was holding her designer baby and addressing her husband, who was heading into the water. He ignored her.
“Papa,” the wife repeated.
The young soccer player turned around.
“Aren’t you going to say anything to your baby?” she asked, speaking in Spanish.
“Which one?” he asked.
“Which one do you think? You don’t even talk to me anymore . . .”
We packed up our things in silence and headed back to the city, the car windows rolled down. We stopped for a cigarette at the lookout above the beach that borders the motorway. So when are you taking me on another excursion? I asked. The sea isn’t good for my asthma, but if we don’t overdo it . . .
But she never did. She had tired. More than usual. She never called again, never picked up the phone, or responded to my emails. She took sick leave from school. She didn’t give up smoking. She gave up on us.
On the street, in Alleyway S, the olive tree still grows.
© Mercè Ibarz. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Martha Tennent. All rights reserved.
no time remains for you to regret,
spill the vat where hatred
ferments and spoils words and wisdom
to no avail.
ashes are the promises
of stunted fires of youthful days.
no longer do you wield the knife that might
have carved the shadows.
now you have nothing but the shame
of having fled
no more are you the boy you were.
you will not be born again.
bare road, lumbering.
evening of red algae,
chimera in blood
in the wounds of a flesh
attuned to beauty,
the purple of evening dazzles me.
the voices of a body spent
venture new rhymes,
i can’t fathom what they mean to say
like fish upriver, the clearest sounds.
i am the bone that awaits its evening meal.
© Francesc Garriga. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Adrian Nathan West. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from her novel The Foreign Daughter, Najat El Hachmi's narrator has resolved to give in to familial pressures to marry, comparing her situation to that of Mundeta Ventura, a character from the Monserrat Roig novel Ramona, adéu. The first novel in a trilogy, and told from a feminist perspective, it depicts the lives of women in a family living in the Eixample, a district of Barcelona that lies between the old city and what were once outlying towns, and whose Modernist-inspired architecture includes Gaudí structures. As the narrator relates her situation, she meditates on her arrival in Catalunya, the foreignness of her mother's language, and her situation between two worlds.
I no longer read. I don’t have the time, and it’s not the right thing for me now. I’ve chosen a life where I should be illiterate like my mother: marry, have children, cook, clean, tidy up, wear myself out every day, and then get up again and do exactly the same as the day before. And never complaining. And getting used to the idea I’m giving up everything that was part of my other life, secondary school, books, learning in general. We were able to buy a television with my first paycheck and I now kill the little time I have left to think glued to that fascinating, much-prized screen.
Nobody asked me to stop reading, my mother’s really pleased I’ve decided to look toward our country and marry a nice young man from down there. He’s so nice, he’s my cousin, her brother’s son. She’s been very fond of Driss from the day he was born, she’s always given him presents and paid for his parties. Now she’s giving him her daughter, her most prized possession. But I try not to think of it like that, remembering that I decided to accept his proposal, and she did say if I didn’t think it was a good idea, she would understand. I try to remember that once I’m married, she’ll be free, everything will be easier.
Thoughts come to me thick and fast in the corridors of the seminary, whether I like it or not, but I send them packing. I work a lot of hours, all the ones they want. The manager is a lean, clean-cut man in a hurry who hardly gives me a glance, and when he does he just seems to look through me. He’s not a priest, but easily could be. On public holidays he sometimes comes with a woman who must be his fiancée, slim, fair, and fond of neutral colors. She could be an adult version of many of my companions at school, who are so different from “us,” who tend to be plump, with flesh brimming over on all sides, huge proportions and sweaty armpit smells. I’m sure this woman’s armpits don’t smell, I’m sure no bit of her ever smells. When she visits, she waits in reception while he goes through the room diary. Nobody will be there this week, but all the rooms have to be cleaned. Every day you come, make a note of the rooms you finish, and leave it in reception.
I like being alone in such a large building where my footsteps resound, where even my breathing seems to echo. I spray the mop with that liquid that has a varnished wood aroma, and smell the particles hanging in the air. Although it’s boring, monotonous work, I look forward to what the manager will say when he sees I have done a good job and that he can trust me. When we’d only just arrived here, I had the same aspiration, I thought everything was possible in this new country, and when my mother made me clean the stairs, I would often fantasize that someone would see me and be filled with admiration for my cleaning skills. They would walk past and be astonished to see how nimbly such a little girl could handle that broom. Then they’d give me a job cleaning stairs, you could be sure, for that was what my mother’s friends did, and my mother, too. The first to give me a job would tell their friends or relatives: we’ve a girl, look how small she is, but she’s really smart . . . she sweeps the stairs like we’ve never seen them swept before. They’d recommend me to others and my spare time would fill up with well-paid work. I’d help Mother and pay for my own things, we’d even be able to save to have that house “down there.” When I remember myself as I was then, on the pavement, holding that brush, my heart beating whenever someone walked down the street, I think how foolish I used to be, a little girl who only wanted to be in service.
And now here I am, in that fantasy, but for real, no wishful thinking this time, and saving for my wedding, the travel expenses, the presents for my fiancé’s family, and the deposit for the new flat. In each room I grab the worn sheets with a little flower pattern and put them in a heap to wash. When I’m carrying them rucked in a ball against my chest, I walk past the mirror and can’t avoid taking a look at myself. I stand in profile specifically to see how long my hair is, which our women think is as valuable as gold: the more you have, the better. That’s why I still apply henna, which is what my mother did when her period ended. As a child, I hated the cold, damp, sticky feel of the heavy green paste on my head. I felt uncomfortable not being able to move and sat in the yard, wherever there was a patch of sunlight, and rested my chin on my hand and nodded off, while I felt that thick substance drying and hardening. If my mother didn’t see me in the sun, I’d enjoy the midday heat for a while, but if she did, she would immediately shout: get out of the sun, aia abaiud, which I still don’t know how to translate, it means “mud,” but they say that to you when they think you’re in a daydream and miles away. Take that hand away from your chin, she’d add, only orphans do that. Then I couldn’t stop myself, I began to think about that expression, what could it mean? When did somebody, for the first time, decide that if you rested your chin on the palm of your hand, it meant you didn’t have any parents? They must say that because orphans spend a lot of hours like that, with their hand holding up their faces, because they must be very anxious if they don’t have parents and get very sad, and that must be the source of that expression. I may even have asked my mother, why do we say that, but I suspect she ignored me as people usually do when children ask too many questions.
That ritual has become more relaxed in our tiny bathroom in this old city. She no longer applies the henna. There are women who do it to each other even when they’re much older because it’s more relaxing, but at some point I started to do it myself. I keep trying to call on my mother less and less, although she still asks me to keep rubbing her back, which, for some reason or other, I find increasingly unpleasant. I can’t think when I started to feel strange about seeing her naked. I remember it used to be a sight I quite liked, her firm flesh and full breasts with the water streaming down which she poured over herself from a plastic bottle. When did I begin to look away when she asked me to rub her back? I’ve now been doing it for a long time almost without giving her a glance.
I look at myself in every mirror in every room I clean and every time I tell myself my mother is proud of me—I have the kind of hair she had always wanted. We agree on that. We disagree, however, about the kind of body I should have. I look at myself and see there’s still a long way to go, that I’ve still got to learn to control what I eat if I’m ever going to reach the weight I want to be, a weight that would allow me to have hips similar to girls from around here and not the broad, fertile hips Moroccan women have, which are only good for having children and yet more children. Mother doesn’t know what to say now to encourage me to eat more and the right kind of food, stews, roasts, meat, potatoes, and bread. The lot. Fortunately, we have a good supply of all kind of nourishment, we’re short of nothing and yet I choose not to touch some dishes. Her bodily ideal and mine are completely opposed. She’d like me to be plump, fat, with a face as round as the moon (or in my case, like a cottage loaf). It’s the expression she uses when she sees a girl she likes, one she thinks is pretty: a face as round as the moon with huge black eyes and long, thick eyebrows, the whitest, fullest face. On the other hand, I only have eyes for the spindly girls, like so many who went to my secondary school, who wear tight trousers that mark out their butts, small and round like a young child’s. I only have eyes for their collarbones, which I find incredibly poetic. I often tell myself that if it wasn’t for my genes, I’d probably not have to make such an effort to be like them and thus feel integrated. I must simply learn to keep my own impulses under better control, then I can do it.
I’ve got to run, I’m going to work, Mother is now teaching me the tasks she’s been wanting to teach me for a long time, which I never had the time to learn as a student. I cook, I still bake bread, I make remsemmen and pastries, sfenj and khringu, I help out when there’s a party. Now she hardly ever says that what I cook looks like dog vomit. She almost never criticizes me when the other women come, and never comes out with “and what will she do when she’s living in someone else’s house, learn how to cook from the pages of a book?”
Although I’m working so hard, although I’m always on the go and never stare at anyone when I walk down the street, men still follow me. They have been for some time, ever since I made the change, they’ve started saying things to me in the street when they notice my body filling out, oh, usually a sigh that ends in heavy breathing I find obscene and insulting. If I swing round, I can see the filthy leer, as they look me up and down. But I don’t swing round, and haven’t for a long time. I’ve also stopped wearing tight trousers or T-shirts that are too clinging. To be sure, I don’t wear a headscarf, I can’t wear one if I want work, but I also doubt they’d leave me in peace even if I did. Now they know I’m spoken for, but it makes no odds. Ziin is the other thing they say, beauty, and if they think I’ve reacted, if only with the subtlest nod of the head in response to their desires, they go on saying things I don’t even hear. Sometimes I lambast them, though I never slow my pace, with a “go fuck yourself” that sounds even grosser in my mother’s language.
I look at myself in the mirrors in these bare rooms and tell myself that if only I could manage to get the body of a thrumesht, of a Christian, all thin and svelte, the sort they don’t like, perhaps they’d leave me in peace for once. At any rate, when I’m married, they won’t say a word to me, you can’t to a married woman.
The Town Hall is organizing courses for women. Sewing and cooking, which is what they reckon we like and will need to make us feel part of this society that’s so new to us. I sign up for sewing. My mother would have liked to learn to sew and admires women who know how to use a sewing machine and put together a qandura in a split second. She hand-sews, but only to patch something or make a pillowcase or a mattress cover. She says the courses at the Town Hall are free and are only for women. Obviously, who else would go to a sewing workshop for “women at risk of social exclusion”?
In the light, anodyne room dotted with columns, painted a neutral office gray, a group of women is seated in a loose circle. They’ve seemingly positioned themselves around the workshop leader, a lady who looks a thousand years old, with knobby, deformed hands that take out the big needle she’s holding in her mouth. She talks with pins between her lips, and I don’t know what I find more stressful, her hands or the feeling she might swallow a needle at any moment. When I see her, I can’t help reflecting how I remember her whenever I’m using a big needle, a trivial detail but she always pops up as if I were listening to her right then. That’s one of the ways in which my brain is dysfunctional: I can’t stop linking elements in my present reality to other knowledge I bring to bear, I can’t see a needle and not summon up all I know about them. We were down there, Mother was sitting in the bedroom we used as a dining room, the girls’ bedroom, in front of the door with a brazier. Well, brazier’s not exactly the word, we say thimjmath and it’s made of mud and is where we heat up the bread in the morning or make the kebabs for Eid and where grandmother heats up the water and tea because she’s more used to that than butane gas. One of mother’s legs is stretched out, the other is bent under her and she’s talking. To whom? I don’t remember, but I imagine it was one of my aunts. She was turning the bread over, pouring tea, breaking the bread she’d just heated up, and was telling all kinds of stories that had no apparent thread to them. One thing led to another until it was time to get up and start on the morning’s household chores, the second round of the morning, because by breakfast time they’d folded the blankets, seen to their ablutions and prayed the first prayer of the day, and usually swept the yard outside after splashing water around to stop dust flying everywhere. When I recall that anecdote, my mother is always telling the story of a woman, who was too distant to be a relative or family acquaintance, who put a needle in her mouth when she was sewing something and was startled by her little son chasing around and suddenly swallowed the needle. Swallowing a needle is one of the worst things that can happen to you. In this case, the needle went into the woman’s stomach, and from there into her bloodstream. However many X-rays they did, they couldn’t locate the needle, because it was going round her body in her blood. L.lah istar, exclaimed the women, L.lah istar, and I suddenly had a bunch of questions I wanted to ask, a bunch of questions I couldn’t have formulated if I’d never been to school or had anatomy classes, or knew nothing about how the human body works. But I had to stay silent if I wanted them to let me be there while they were chatting, mother always said I had to keep quiet when adults were there. Finally, I could stand it no longer and, tired of hearing L.lah istar, L.lah istar, I asked: So what happened to her? What do you think happened? She died!
I could never forget that unknown woman I’d endowed with a face, hair, clothes, and headscarf, and a house a long way from ours. To have such memories verging on reality, as if they were happening right now, is a horrible, exhausting burden to bear.
The workshop leader’s name was Conxita because that’s how the women pronounced it—in Catalan. Now what, Conxita? Conxita, what do I do now . . .? Cómo hago para . . .?—in Spanish. There were three kinds of pupil: young Moroccan women like me, almost all single and acquaintances of ours, gypsy girls, and ones “from here,” who looked as if they’d had hard lives, with their chipped or broken teeth and voices hoarse from too much smoking and drinking. The Moroccans sat around in small groups with other Moroccans, speaking their language the others didn’t understand, and the others sat slightly apart although they spoke the same languages. When I walked in, there was an empty chair next to a gypsy woman, whose hair was tied in a stiff ponytail; she was old, fat, and dressed in black. She looked me up and down in my short-sleeved T-shirt and long, straight skirt. Are you Moroccan? Tú eres marroquí? I said I was and sat down. Well, you don’t look like one, she continued in Spanish. For a second I felt thrilled, even proud. I thought she’d say I was like a local, that my shape and hair and glasses and clothes made me look different, singled me out from my fellow “countrywomen.” No, you don’t look Moroccan, you look negra. You know, the palms of the hands and soles of the feet of los negros are white. Give me your hand. I showed her one, rather shamefaced, choking down indignation provoked by the fact she judged me to be even more exotic, more different, more southern than I was. See, you’re una negra. And you’re a gypsy, I should have replied, but I kept quiet.
The workshop, Conxita told me, was, of course, about making something, something simple to start with, and she would tell me the steps to take. To begin with, you won’t cut, because you need to know a lot to cut. And you won’t use a sewing machine, that’s for more experienced girls. The important thing is to baste, if you don’t baste properly, it won’t work. Baste, baste, baste, is what I always say. I glanced at the others basting away, their work-rate was soporific and I realized that this was a place for marginalized women who supposedly needed to be integrated. Another aim was for it to be somewhere to facilitate conversation in the local language, but only the one that Conxita spoke.
After a couple hours of being there and basting away, I was suddenly gripped by an irrepressible desire to go to the lavatory and masturbate to end that unbearable tedium, the feeling that the world I myself had chosen wasn’t simply small and limited but was shrinking all around me. But before I even stood up, a girl rushed in like a whirlwind, under thirty, tall, slim, and with a UV tan. She spoke stridently, her tone swinging disconcertingly from soft to loud. She talked to Conxita and the pupils as if we were deaf, or young, stupid kids. Or all three at the same time. She asked: Hey, you do like coming here, right? Hey, you are happy with Conxita, right? You’re so lucky, you know, she’s ever so patient. And as she said this, she swayed her head dramatically, gesticulating nonstop. I stared at her, I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Suddenly she was the one staring at me. I know you, I know you, I really do! You were on TV. I was so embarrassed and that little chorus rattled around my head. (Fairground monkey! Fairground monkey!) You were the girl that got a nine in the Cert! I almost corrected her: nine and a half. Well, aren’t you the fairground monkey? I really congratulate you, my dear, it can’t have been easy for you. What you did has lots of merit, my congratulations. You speak Catalan so well! Fairground monkey! Look how you like people saying these things to you, even though you know it’s insulting, since what this girl is really thinking—given who you are, given you were born where you were, you are destined to be a nobody, to achieve nothing, inferiority and backwardness are inscribed in your DNA. That’s why it’s such an incredible merit, practically a miracle, you overcame these conditioning factors. However, I look at her and try to be fair, and not take it for granted she’s burdened with so much prejudice. Perhaps she thinks what I did has merit because I learned her language at the age of ten and before we moved to this old city, didn’t even know it existed. Perhaps what I did is something exceptional, but I can’t stand the way she looks at me, her eyes sparkling so enthusiastically, but when she looks at the other Moroccan girls, the women who are more like my mother, many of whom don’t know how to read or write and will marry as soon as they start to be fertile, when she looks at them, she must think theirs is an existence that’s not worth living.
So what are you doing here? she asks, when, plainly uncomfortable, I thank her for her kind words. What am I doing here? I ask myself. I could tell her I’m preparing my trousseau like Mundeta Ventura and that I’ve got to embroider my initials on the bed linen, I’m getting married and that’s why I’ve come to learn how to sew. But that would be a lie, because we’re not preparing our trousseaus or embroidering, let alone our initials. We don’t even feel incarcerated in the patios of the Eixample. You know, I say, giving myself time to think of an answer, I wanted to see what this workshop was like . . . . But hey . . . and finally, what are you studying? I remember they asked you that in the interview, my dear, and how well you spoke, really, the whole city, I can say this because I’m the mayor’s daughter, the whole city feels so proud of you. It must mean we are doing things properly, right? So what’s this all about, my merit or the city’s? I felt her strident voice becoming increasingly intolerable as she went on speaking and gesticulating, gesticulating so frantically I thought her head would fly off. In the interview you said that you hadn’t yet decided, that you didn’t know what to do.
And I still don’t, I tell her in the end. I’m taking a sabbatical while I think it through. For the first time, the glow on the woman’s face wanes, out of disappointment, and I look around and can see that the whole room is hanging on our conversation. Most eyes are on the task in hand, but I know their ears aren’t missing a single word of what the girl with the fake tan is saying to me. She’s getting married, a Moroccan woman pipes up, a friend of my mother’s.
What, how come you’re getting married? You’re so young, how old are you? I tell her I’m eighteen, soon to be nineteen. She looks at me even more aghast and my situation seems so untenable, so unreal I suddenly start seeing myself from the outside, as if I wasn’t the one experiencing that absurd moment. I look at myself and see myself straight-backed, clutching a piece of material between tensed fingers, adjusting my glasses every other second, flattening my hair as if I feel it’s gone frizzy all of a sudden. I look at myself and see myself opposite this person I don’t know from Adam who’s asking me to explain my life to her, a fragment of which until a few minutes ago she’d only seen on a television screen. I look at myself from the outside, on the freezing floor of that city building, and think that if I’d have gone to the bathroom, I’d have spared myself all that. I sense that I’d like to tell all, so she understands what I’m doing and am about to stop doing, even though I’m not duty-bound to do so, that I’d like her to see the whole journey, my whole life story, so she could see me inside and out and then understand my decision. But that’s impossible, I can’t tell her everything I am in a word or a sentence in this unexpected conversation. What do I tell her? About A, and the hurt and disillusion when I knew I was unloved? About my mother and her suffering? About the men who pursue me in the street? About the fact I don’t know what I should study and that if there’s nothing I feel passionate enough about to put all my energies and the scant money we have into, if I can’t choose a path that seems at all secure, better do what’s been planned for me from early childhood. I could also tell her I’m a coward and unable to tackle what life would mean for me far from here and my mother.
I’m getting married because I want to. I mean, I took all the decisions. I’m sure you did, she responds incredulously. Anyway, I’ll give you my card and you tell me if there’s ever anything you need. And how do I get hold of you? Because I’m sure my father would be delighted to meet you. Besides, we’re initiating some projects that might be of interest and we would really like you to collaborate. I think: why? How do you know I’m suitable, simply because I’m Moroccan and can speak Catalan? But I just thank her. My dear, you do speak Catalan ever so well!
© Najat El Hachmi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Peter Bush. All rights reserved.
In Pep Puig’s “My Uncle,” a young boy’s world is turned upside down during a visit to Grandma’s house.
Even though they’d been brought up pretty much the same, there was a fundamental difference between my uncle and my father. My father was the child my grandparents had always wanted. Plus, they knew for a fact he wasn’t faking it. A man of the house and a man of faith, he was hardworking, brave, and responsible. If there was ever any conflict between him and my grandparents, I never heard of it. But I doubt there ever was one.
Maybe because he was the youngest, my uncle was a whole other story. He’d only been married to my Aunt Pilar for about a year, and they had one on the way, but you could tell he was having second thoughts. He forged his own path.
Still, it wasn’t my uncle who skipped town for the city, as everyone had expected, but my father. My uncle stayed to work the lands my grandfather left us when he died a few years back. My uncle and my father truly cared about each other, but they weren’t friends. It must have been the age difference.
My uncle took a special liking to me. Or at least he acted like he did whenever we’d trek up to town to visit my grandmother in Salomó. He’d hold back the kisses—knowing I hated them—but as soon as I came within his line of sight, he’d hug me until I squealed in pain.
“What’s up, Pepino!?” he’d ask as I smiled, happy and embarrassed at the same time.
Sometimes I’d bring a ball to town with me, and he’d want to play right away. We’d go to the store (my grandmother ran a shoe store), and I’d kick while he played goalie. My uncle had short arms, but he could catch a ball with incredible skill. But every once in a while we’d knock over a stack of shoeboxes and my grandmother would run over and yell at him like he was still a little boy.
He was a little boy, my uncle.
So I wouldn’t get bored out of my mind back home, my father would drop me off at my grandparents’ in Salomó for a few days a year, as soon as school was out. In town—to us, Salomó was a town—I had my own group of friends and we’d spend all day playing. The only thing I had to worry about was showing up to meals on time to keep my grandmother happy.
A woman came to Salomó one summer and turned life upside down. Maybe she wasn’t really a woman, but a girl. And the one life she turned upside down was my uncle’s—and maybe mine, too. It might have been because they all had the same last name and all went to church, but the women in town seemed to share a certain physiognomy, which I didn’t find very attractive. This girl was different though. Not only was she tall, blonde, and skinny, but there was something special to her beauty. Anyone could see that at a single glance. She would have had to cover up to go unnoticed. But it was summer. And she wore the dresses she wore. You could tell she was a good girl from a mile away, which is why the women felt bad about talking trash. And the men never talked: they’d just ogle her at a distance, some with hungry eyes, others wishing for her on the sly. But soon enough they’d return their gaze to their card games and dominoes and forget about it.
My uncle got hooked. Hooked: that might be the best word for his predicament.
Allow me to explain: even though he seemed like your average Joe on the field, stubborn and a little rough hewn, my uncle had a knack for reading. He had a wall full of books in his room, half of which disappeared when he got married and moved out. No one knew where that reading habit had come from. One day I asked my father about it and he said reading was my uncle’s way of leaving town. I didn’t quite get what he meant back then, but I did a year later, in the throes of my adolescence, when I started devouring the novels that he had kept on hand at the shoe shop to kill time.
I guess my uncle was a major fan of movies for the same reasons. There was only one movie theater in town, and on Sundays, when the lights would dim, it was not uncommon for the screen to conjure up remarkable women from the dark, and maybe even some men. Ava Gardner. Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford. Once the lights switched back on, the gods and goddesses would disappear into thin air. We’d look at each other and know how much we wanted to be like them. But it would never be the same. Books, movies . . . they showed my uncle that the world could be different. But this different world was in the books and movies, not in his life. Maybe the woman who had just arrived at Salomó wasn’t Jessica Lange, but she looked like she’d just descended from the screen to dwell among us mortals. That’s what got my uncle hooked: that she had stayed among us.
I can talk about my uncle’s rapture because maybe it was mine, too. I also got hooked. One morning, I was staring out my bedroom window when I saw her ride by on a bicycle, her golden hair flowing in the wind. Who is this girl? I thought. I had no idea, but I figured out that she was staying in town, or somewhere on the outskirts, when I saw her at the pool the very next day. And the next. And the next.
She’d come down from the hill (not on her bike, but on foot), and I could spot her long before she arrived, a willow basket swinging on her shoulder as she crossed the three diagonal paths downhill, through the carob trees. Like that, from a distance, she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Sometimes I’d be so entranced it was like she’d never make it down.
And suddenly she’d walk through the gate, settling alone under the mulberry at the corner, all the way at the rather isolated, shallow end of the pool. First she’d lay out her towel, then she’d take out a book and sunscreen, drop her dress to her ankles, and sit down to read, legs crossed. After a while she’d lay down, chest to towel, and reach her arm behind her back to undo her bikini top, and later she’d very carefully tie it back on—she knew where she was. She’d sit up, cast a quick glance at her surroundings, and walk to the pool’s edge. After dipping a single toe in the water, she’d dive in without taking a shower first. (Showering was the rule, but I figured that Paco—the concierge—didn’t have the heart to tell her).
I’m about to say something outrageous: her body was perfect. In my childish eyes, when I saw her hips swaying toward the pool’s edge in infinite grace, a dark and melancholy desire, or a precursor to desire, would awaken within me. Sometimes I think that if I saw her now—if I saw her the way she was back then, I mean—I might be a little disappointed. Maybe I’d find her a little narrow in the shoulders, or not quite tall enough, or too broad in the hips. (No, not that: I’ve never found a woman too broad in the hips.)
That thing about the bikini would get the gang all riled up. We’d elbow each other and giggle under our breath, but then they’d let it go and leave her to me. On one of those afternoons, she went to the shoe shop to buy a pair of sandals. I was having lunch in the kitchen and though I had never heard her speak, I recognized her voice: there weren’t any voices like that one in town. My heart skipped a beat. I got up and tip-toed toward the hallway, hoping I could catch a glimpse of her—that’s all. But right when I stuck my nose in, my grandmother turned around and caught me.
“This is my grandson,” she said, “Josep.”
I didn’t want to be rude, so I had no choice but to stay. “Hi, Josep.” She gave me a wide, bright smile. “Hi,” I said, sheepishly. “Josep is the oldest son of my oldest son, who is also called Josep, and he came here to Salomó to visit with me for a few days. Right, Josep?” I nodded. She sat down on the wooden chair, the one for clients and farmers who came to buy espadrilles for the field. She crossed one leg over her bare knee and waited for my grandmother to hand her a sandal. It may have been because she smiled at me, but my legs turned to spaghetti. It was like all that beauty surging through her, which I’d usually only glimpse from far away, was concentrated in that closed-in space, cornered by all those shoe boxes. I walked toward the door in an attempt to hide my burning cheeks and stared out at the road, but I could still see her in the glass. I only turned back around when she went up to pay, and then I stared at her again, like a dog.
“Bye, Josep,” she said.
I was only ten years old but, looking back, I think I fell in love, hard. I thought about her all the time. At night I’d take her to my room with me and hug the pillow like it was her and we were talking. In the morning, as soon as I opened my eyes—or way before that—she was already in my head. She was showing up constantly, between my gaze and the objects surrounding me, her presence invisible, almost ethereal.
The next morning at the pool, she caught me gawking at her. She obviously recognized me from the day before: she smiled and waved. I waved back—and smiled back—before dropping my head. From that moment on, a complicity of sorts was established between us. Every morning, she’d catch me looking at her at some point or other, and then we’d smile and wave, first her at me, then me at her.
My uncle was short, well built, and hairy, with a thick mustache covering his lip in an attempt to draw attention away from his huge nose, which wasn’t really that huge. More of a clown nose. A bulbous nose. In the morning, while my Aunt Pilar worked the cash register at the Palet’s, he would ride down to the vineyard on his motorcycle to check on the vines and water the tomatoes. The vine was on the opposite side of town from the pool. Which is why I thought it strange when I heard the quick roar of his bike getting close. I thought maybe he was running an errand somewhere, but soon enough he was at the door, camouflaged under his straw hat.
And I jumped.
I couldn’t believe he was at the pool: besides the fact that he’d never come before, he had a huge pool at the vineyard all to himself. Maybe I would have thought nothing of it if I hadn’t noticed the way he looked at her at the movies that Sunday. Engulfed by shame, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. But soon enough a shadow blocked the sun above me and I felt a kick on my shin.
“Hey, Pepino . . .” When I opened my eyes the sun blinded me. “Grandma says . . .”
He hadn’t even finished offering his excuse when the motives of his visit became obvious to me. And the sunlight didn’t let me see if he’d gone red or not. He’d come down the hill wearing his swimming trunks already and after setting his shirt and towel down beside me, as if he were just one of the crew, he went up to the pool’s edge and said, “Hey, Pepino, I challenge you to a race.”
Hesitant—actually, more embarrassed than hesitant—I got up and walked to the deep end. There was a diving board in the middle and we stood on either side. “You have to let me win,” he whispered, swinging his arms ostentatiously, like an Olympic swimmer. He said it all like it was a joke, but deep down I knew he was serious. And I didn’t like it. My father had taught me to fight, to try to be the best at everything. Of course I couldn’t be the best at everything, but I could at some things. At running, jumping, and swimming, for example. I found myself compromised: I wanted to show off for her, too.
“Ready,” he yelled, “Set . . .”
We both jumped in the pool at about the same time. Letting my uncle win was no easy feat: the guy splashed his short arms frantically but could barely move forward. At one point I even remember actually considering whether to keep swimming or stop and rescue him. In the end, we tied. Maybe he got there a tiny bit before me.
As soon as he touched the edge, he soared out of the water like he had just broken a record. He spit out a stream like a fountain, slicked back his hair, turned toward her, and gave her his goofiest smile, like he had put on that entire show just for her. She smiled back and even delivered a few generous claps. That was just too much for him to handle. Then he pulled himself together, slid over to the rail, and climbed out to get his towel with a dignified walk.
In the middle of it all, I heard a voice ask, “Who is he?”
I turned toward her.
“My uncle,” I replied. Mortified, I plunged all the way to the bottom of the pool.
That morning my uncle let me ride to the shoe store on his motorcycle. When my grandmother saw us, she yelled at him and asked if there was nothing but air in his head.
“Kid fell in love with a tourist,” was all he had to say, changing the subject.
But Grandma wasn’t up for games and just shuffled back to the kitchen to cook lunch. While I turned red as a tomato, my uncle winked at me and left.
The next day, my uncle went back to the pool and brought a book. This time he said hi from far away with a quick gesture of the hand and sat down on the corner opposite her, under another mulberry tree. There was something different about his posture, something in the way he waved at me with his ironically threatening attitude, as if he were saying I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.
My uncle really did love reading, but he’d clearly only brought the book to make it seem like he was doing something. He spent the whole time checking her out. Every time she jumped in the pool, every time she climbed out or lay in the sun, he would peer over the edge of his book and then hide again. In the end she got dressed, slid her sandals on without bending over, and perched her bag on her shoulder, taking her time on her way out.
Five minutes later it was my uncle who got dressed, and without so much as a good-bye, he left. I saw him head out the door, and after a while I heard the motorcycle rev up. She was already halfway up the second path, making her way with no apparent effort. I anxiously followed her trek with my gaze, and though I sensed that he was slowing down, he didn’t stop when he caught up to her—thank God—but just waved and went on up the highway.
He was back at the pool the very next day. Same ritual: hiding behind his book. He tried so hard to be discreet it was even more shameless. I asked myself if it would really matter all that much if anyone in town caught on. Knowing him, he probably didn’t give a damn.
My uncle’s secret infatuation kind of agonized me. If he hadn’t been my uncle, I would have found his antics entertaining and probably would have gotten a kick out of them with my friends. But this was my uncle, and I guess I felt sorry for my pregnant aunt.
On the third or fourth day, he finally went up to her. He stood straight up and stretched out his arms like he was trying to get rid of some stubborn sluggishness. I saw him cross the narrow end of the pool inch by inch so as not to slip. My uncle was a true actor. In fact, he was in the town’s theater company, and he always got the parts that made people laugh. Once at her side, he asked what book she was reading. He flipped through it and gave it back. For a while they sat there, talking, I don’t know about what. From a distance, the racket of my friends playing in the water and my own embarrassment wouldn’t let me catch exactly what they said to each other, but every now and then she’d burst into laughter, and sometimes she’d throw her head back and everything.
When it was finally over, he inched his way across the long end of the pool with his arms out like a tightrope walker and came up to me.
“Her name is Helena,” he whispered and winked. “You know what she told me?” I looked up. “She says you’ve got nice eyes.”
I dropped my head in shame, but from the corner of my eye I could see her looking our way, like she was making sure my uncle had delivered the message.
“You’ve got her in your pocket, Pepino.” He gave me a light kick on the foot, made a euphoric run for the water, and cannonballed in.
He meant it as a joke, of course. He was just pulling my leg. But for some reason I believed it. Not that I had her in my pocket, obviously, nor that a girl like her would think anything of a ten-year-old like me, but I did believe she thought I was cute, and that perhaps, every morning, when she looked at me, she looked because she wanted to. For a few minutes the world around me disappeared. An uncontrollable drunkenness took over my small body and I almost didn’t notice when she packed up her things and left.
Again my uncle’s voice brought me back.
“Pepino, I’m leaving. Do you wanna come?”
I said no. We don’t have to tell Grandma. I’ll give you a ride uphill and you can walk the rest. I told him no. Said I’d head up with my friends. The girl (whose name was Helena) was already halfway uphill, taking her time as usual. After a while I saw my uncle climb out of the pool and I followed the roar of his motorcycle and saw how he caught up to her, and how this time, instead of waving and moving on, he slowed down until he almost came to a full stop. For a few feet they went along side by side. Then they paused and I saw my uncle unfold the towel he was sitting on and hand her a book, and I saw her take it and put it in her bag. Then it looked like my uncle was taking off, but he stopped again soon after. When she caught up to him, she drew up her skirt and climbed onto the motorcycle. And almost as slowly as if they were walking, they rode up the rest of the hill together, and I guess that’s when they went their separate ways, because when I thought that he’d drop her off at home, she climbed off the motorcycle, gestured a thank you, and walked into an alley that led to town while he shot up the highway, as if getting rid of that extra weight had juiced up his bike like never before.
My uncle didn’t show up at the pool for the next few days. The first day I thought it strange, but not the second. I can’t remember what I thought—maybe that he had work, or that someone had told Aunt Pilar and she’d given him a piece of her mind, or that he really wasn’t as into her as I’d thought. When I did picture Helena on that bike, her arms around my uncle’s waist, it seemed totally bizarre. Like maybe I’d dreamed it up.
I didn’t dwell on it too much. I felt liberated without my uncle, but more anxious at the same time. Liberated because I could look at her as much as I wanted again, but anxious because she probably knew how I was looking at her—my uncle had definitely told her—and I had to be more careful, more discreet.
One of those mornings, she got up and walked along the entire pool, turned the corner, and stopped right next to the diving board. Then she looked at me and asked, “Where’s your uncle been?”
I don’t remember what I told her, but I remember feeling embarrassed at how high-pitched my voice came out. Then she asked, “How about a race?”
I froze and didn’t know what to do.
“You don’t have to let me win . . .”
I got up with a hesitant air, which in reality was pure embarrassment, and reached her side. Right then, I realized she was a lot taller than me—my head barely made it to her shoulder—and I slyly got up on my toes.
“Ready!” she said, “Set!” and then she jumped in the pool before she had even said “Go.”
That girl swam like a fish. She might have been a whole yard and a half ahead of me.
When I finally touched the edge, she was waiting, relaxed, with a triumphant smile on her face. She barely even had to catch her breath.
“Pepino!” she exclaimed. “You didn’t let anyone beat you this time, did you?”
I smiled, conceding my defeat, though I felt a bit humiliated on the inside, not so much because she beat me, but because she beat me by a lot. While I struggled to recover, she pushed herself up with her arms and sat down at the pool’s edge.
And she forgot about me for a while.
Her gaze was lost somewhere between the sky and the carob fields, and I honed in on her thighs, her breath moving up and down, her wet hair . . . What was a pretty girl like her doing all alone in this town? I remember thinking there was something sad in her eyes, but maybe it wasn’t just sadness—maybe there was happiness too, because depending on how you looked, she could have been smiling. An urge to stroke her knee took over me, but I could sense an immense space between us, something like the space she’d put between us in that race. Suddenly, I was flooded with melancholy—a pain that I could not yet recognize as deep melancholy. For a few seconds it seemed to me that, with the way her gaze trailed away, maybe she also felt sorry. Maybe she had realized that I was just a kid who couldn’t even take losing a race.
In the end she caught me looking and prodded me with her foot.
On one of those nights, my uncle showed up at the shoe store again, waving his motorcycle key around. I hadn’t seen him in days. When my grandmother was in the kitchen, he took the chance to ask, “What’s new with our visitor, Pepino?”
“Is she your girlfriend yet?”
I gave a sheepish smile. But I felt bad that he was treating me like a kid, so I just said, “And why haven’t you come by anymore?”
He looked surprised, almost on guard.
“I’ve had a lot of work at the vineyard lately . . .” he said. “And people talk. I don’t like people talking. She’s all yours!” he winked.
I remember thinking that was the first time my uncle had talked to me on the same level. Man to man. But for some reason I didn’t buy it. Something inside me just wouldn’t let me trust him.
Over the next few days, I decided to change my behavior at the pool. First the race and then that conversation with my uncle had taken a toll on my mood. Maybe I was just acting up, but I felt like to them I was just a child, and I wanted to resist that.
For starters, every time she caught me looking, I wouldn’t smile like a little kid anymore. I would either shift my eyes quickly, or give her a serious look. Once I even held her gaze for longer than normal, challenging her. I don’t know what in God’s name I was trying to prove. Sometimes I’d head over to the diving board and just sit there for a long time, quietly staring down at the blue water, which after a while was no longer blue or any color at all. The board bobbed gently beneath me and I’d imagine myself growing taller by the minute.
The truth is I was hooked on her every move, on whether or not she looked my way. Whenever she seemed to be getting up, I would dive into the water and stay under for a while. Deep down I felt powerful. I didn’t understand how, in that sixty-foot pool, I had managed to put so much space between us. The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that she really hadn’t beat me by that much, that if we had both jumped in the pool at the same time, we could have almost tied.
“Helena!” I sometimes imagined myself calling out, “How about another race!?” But I was afraid of how my childish voice would sound, so high-pitched.
Surely it was more a question of shame than pride. If I wanted to challenge her it wasn’t really to prove I was a better swimmer than she thought, but because I was dying to be at her side again, to hear her voice, to have her touch me with her smile . . . But I didn’t know how to go about it, and in the end, the time for her to fold up her towel, slip her feet into her sandals, and gesture a good-bye would always come—or not always: sometimes she wouldn’t say anything—and then she’d leave.
Obviously, if it had been up to me alone, the summer would have come to an end with nothing but the familiar never-ending sadness.
She was the one to approach me again. I was sitting at the edge of the pool, with that same tired expression I’d worn for the last few days, and I barely noticed her coming up to me. When I saw her I almost jumped and disappeared into the water, but she was so close that I kept still.
“Are you mad at me, Pepino?” she asked, kneeling down beside me.
I shook my head.
“So what’s wrong? Why the long face these days?”
Deep down it hurt me that she hadn’t figured out what was going on, but I kept my response to a childish smile, and I guess I said there was nothing wrong. Then she held out her hand and said, “Come on. How about another race?”
I didn’t take her hand, but I shot up right away.
“Do you want a head start today?” she asked, as we took opposite sides of the diving board.
“I’m not that little, you know.”
“No, but don’t jump in first today.”
We looked at each other for a second, smiling. Ready! Set . . . This time we both jumped in at the same time and I started kicking my arms and legs with all the fury I could muster (I remember how I wouldn’t forgive myself for not kicking my legs enough the first time). I don’t know if she had sensed just how important that race was to me, but she couldn’t seem to get a lead. We practically swam shoulder to shoulder and finished at practically the same time.
“Good one, Pepino!” she panted. “I see you’ve made a lot of progress.”
“You let me win . . .” I replied.
“You didn’t win! We tied.”
“I got there a little before.”
“Does it really bother you that much for a girl to beat you?”
I smiled. Even though I knew she was just playing, she seemed to be giving me a little room to play back. Then, instead of sitting up like last time, she hung her legs over the edge and let her body float on the water, playing dead, arms stretched out at her sides.
“Can you do this?” she asked.
As if this were my one chance to prove myself, I rushed to fling my legs over the edge, but they weighed so little that I tipped over right away, happy to let her laugh at me. I tried again, acting a little clownish, and fell again. The third time she asked me to take her hand.
“Can you float now?”
“Isn’t it nice?”
She told me to stretch out my neck and arms and relax, and with my head in the water, my ears got plugged up until I heard her say something and stuck my head out. “What?” I asked.
“What would your uncle think if he saw us like this?”
I shrugged my shoulders.
“Do you think he’d be jealous?”
I barely even knew what it meant to be jealous, but I smiled and said, “Maybe so,” and threw my neck back over the water, embarrassed but proud of my answer, which she had found highly amusing. I’m not sure how long we held hands, tying our smiles together under the rounded sky. Little by little the sounds of the world faded out, and my friends’ yapping and their mothers’ calls just trailed further and further off, and that perfect moment stayed with me for I don't know how long until the distant sound of my uncle’s motorcycle ripped through the summer’s sweltering air.
I opened my eyes and stood up in a flash, startled. I wasn’t actually at the pool anymore, but was taking a nap at the store, in my room upstairs. While I followed that noise like the buzz of an irritating fly, I got the feeling I’d been hearing it for days, but it wasn’t until that high noon that I snapped out of it.
I jumped out of bed and stood out on the balcony. The streets were deserted. All I could hear was my uncle’s motorcycle ripping through. I followed it with my gaze until it came to a stop.
I threw some clothes on and, sandals in hand (my grandmother was sleeping in the room next door, snoring like a madwoman), I tiptoed down the stairs. But the front door was locked: Grandma probably didn’t want anyone bothering her. I looked for the key but couldn’t find it anywhere. I ran back up to my room and stepped out on the balcony one more time. It was a whole floor above ground, but I was too desperate to stay locked up inside. I swung one leg over the rail and then the other, then dangled my body over the edge and jumped down to the floor.
I dashed downhill and figured I’d think up an excuse later. The sun boiled up the pavement. Followed by nothing but the sound of my own footsteps, I ran through the union farm, and soon enough I was at the town’s back end, shrouded in its vines and carob fields. I took a shortcut through the Dalmau vineyard, and when I got to the road I could make out my uncle’s motorcycle leaning on the fig tree that marked the start of his property. I got close and hid behind a carob tree, beads of sweat rolling down my entire body.
Just about thirty yards stood between me and my uncle’s stone manor, but a stretch of tall and bushy fennel grew in the way, making it seem much farther. The backs of the town’s houses faced me, keeping guard. In the hush of the midday fields, I could feel my heartbeat climb up my throat and beat at my temples. One time I saw my uncle chase off some guys who were stealing figs. He flung stones at them and hollered savage, brute cries.
I don’t know what I found more terrifying: for him to think I was a thief, or to find her inside there with him.
I eventually left my spot behind the carob tree and anxiously called out a soft “Uncle!”
I thought it’d be better to act normal, so it would seem like I was there for a reason. “Uncle!” I cried again. No one answered so I kept edging forward. Convinced or maybe just hoping that I’d find him asleep on the torn-up mattress he kept shoved up against the wall, I made my way to the window. But I crouched down that very second. My heart stopped. Then, inch by inch, I straightened up and stared at what I thought I’d seen. It took me a good while to unglue my gaze. That was the first time I’d seen it. I’d never seen it before, not even in one of those magazines. I waited for something bitter to hit me, but nothing happened for a while. The shock was too great. Then that bitterness started flooding through me and it knew no bounds. It became clear to me that those two had betrayed me. They’d mocked me. I couldn’t keep looking. It hurt too much. I looked down to stop the tears and poked around for a stone on the ground. I took a few steps back and then I flung it at the window and ran off like a madman, leaping through the fennel and towering weeds with a fury that I didn’t even know was in me and that only barely numbed the shock of the shattering glass.
© Pep Puig. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by María Cristina Hall. All rights reserved.
Per J. Andersson’s The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love is not only a love story, as its title suggests—it is also a biography and a travelogue. Andersson is a Swedish journalist who has traveled in and written extensively about India. In his latest book, he explores the true story of Pradyumna Kumar, or PK, a Dalit artist who grew up “untouchable” in 1950s India. Wonderfully translated from the Swedish to English by Anna Holmwood, The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love was a best-seller in Germany and translation rights have been bought in a dozen languages, including Thai and Icelandic.
With its simple tone, linear plot structure and rich descriptions of Indian rural and city life, Andersson carefully builds PK’s internal and external worlds. He also balances complex information about India's caste system.
The book opens with PK’s birth in Athmallik, a small village in the Eastern state of Orissa. His family is gathered around a wicker basket holding the infant and as in a fairy-tale, the village astrologer delivers a most unusual prophecy about the child.
You will marry a girl who is not from the village, she will own a jungle and be born under the sign of the ox.
With those words, PK’s fate is sealed. The astrologer’s predictions follow PK throughout his life and her words do indeed come true. But not before PK battles with the discrimination, poverty, and depression of belonging to India’s lowest caste.
Growing up Dalit in the village of Athmallik is not easy. PK cannot enter the village temple and the Brahmin priests, who belong to the highest caste, throw rocks at him. When he finally begins school, he is made to sit in a veranda outside, away from the other children. He longs to play with them but is deterred by his teacher. PK’s childhood pain and confusion are captured beautifully as he plays by the pond behind the school and gazes down at his own reflection in the water.
He searched the rippled image for the features, the colour perhaps, that made him different from the others. Maybe his nose was too flat, his complexion too dark, his hair too curly? Sometimes he thought he looked more like the forest creatures that played on the dark surface of the water. Other times, he concluded that, in fact, he looked just like all the other children.
As a young man in a new boarding school, the few times PK dares to speak up about the injustices he endures, he is told that his caste is a karma from his past life and that he must accept it. He tries to tame his anger and find justification.
It’s not their fault, he would explain to himself, they have been indoctrinated, taught to treat untouchables like lepers.
But because the caste system is PK’s greatest source of pain, no amount of rationalization will control his sense of injustice and his anger is uncomfortable. But anger is also PK’s greatest motivator. In 1971, when he is twenty years old, he wins a scholarship to the College of Art in New Delhi, one of the top art schools in India.
The anonymity of city life is a positive force in PK’s life. At the art school, his teachers and fellow students alike oppose the caste system and he is finally treated like any other student, his caste a mere afterthought. But while his art flourishes, money is scarce and he sleeps in the railway station, telephone booths, and under city bridges. Homelessness and hunger do not deter him, and he never stops drawing.
He began to draw people on the verge of starvation, expressionistic depictions of poverty that frightened people he showed them to.
He nearly dies of starvation himself, but a friend from the art school helps him, and PK spends over three months sleeping on this friend’s bedroom floor. Later, on a trip to Nepal, PK finds a solution for his money problems: he decides to draw people’s portraits and sets up shop in Cannaught Place, a large square in the heart of New Delhi. As he draws European tourists on their way to and from the Hippie Trail, he meets and falls in love with his future wife, a Swedish tourist named Lotta. She goes back to Europe and they are separated for over a year, when PK decides to go after her on his bicycle, pedaling nearly seven thousand miles miles to Sweden.
PK’s story is interspersed with mini chapters about Lotta—her childhood fascination with the East, her aristocratic background, a year spent in London studying nursing and finally, her decision to travel to India. Despite these and other details, Lotta’s character feels underdeveloped and readers may be left wanting a fuller picture of the woman PK fell so madly in love with.
Andersson’s direct and simple language beautifully captures India’s setting: its markets, busy streets and vegetation. At times however, the book’s pacing is uneven, particularly in its last two sections, which race to describe PK’s journey to Europe and assimilation to life in Sweden. Overall, The Amazing Story of the Man Who Cycled from India to Europe for Love is an uplifting book that successfully captures PK’s biography and his power to forgive those who had denied him his humanity.
For a book full of so much mystery, the creative mission of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale is remarkable for its author's openness about choices regarding how to tell stories, how an author reveals information, and the dissecting and peeling away of the layers of artifice inherent in the reading and writing of fiction.
Broken into two parts, Part I begins with Mia, an average twelve-year-old in an average neighborhood attending an average school in South Korea in the 1990s. She is concerned with moving up to middle school, getting a new pullover, and trying out a new haircut that her mother surely wouldn’t like. It is also noted that Mia’s name means both “beautiful child” and “lost child,” dual markers that make the reader want to pay attention to her even though she carries on like as one might expect of a schoolgirl. However, Part I soon alternates from Mia’s story to that of the Child—described as more monstrous than human—a peer who is not even given a name. The Child is mostly ignored by her fellow students and completely ignored by the few adults that populate the novel. Every day, the Child comes to class with a new wound, be it covered bruises or a fingernail yanked clean off, leaving behind a wounded, bloody nub. Even with her stark abuses and injuries, The Child is meant to be erased, both by her thoughts and the author’s.
She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker. Every day, she grows darker. Enough for her body to gobble up her shadow. At school, she exists like a shadow. Or she has become a shadow and is absent.
The Child is able to lurk and ooze, yet she is not the only alarming aspect of this fifth-grade classroom. The adults, both parents and teachers, are always on the periphery, if not completely absent. The homeroom teacher is entirely oblivious to a horrid game the boys play in the back of the classroom called the fainting game, which entails choking each other until losing consciousness. The children also buy baby chicks from a street vendor with the intent of dropping them to their deaths from the roof of a building. Horror and violence permeate their lives and the narrative. Even happy Mia who likes her colored pencils and chatting with her desk mate, often perks up to explain that a fountain pen would be an ideal murder weapon, or so she once read in a detective novel.
The Child has a story too, but as she is constantly erasing herself, her actions throughout each chapter become more vividly heightened. With an unknown identity, the reasons for her behavior are frightening and enigmatic. After school hours, she sneaks back into the classroom and writes extra lines in the other students’ journals: “I hate you;” “Park Yeongwu killed the chick;” “I want to kill, too.” To the Child, she is revealing the children’s secrets, because otherwise the explicit thoughts written down for the privy of their homeroom teacher are generally mundane. When the teacher reads these addenda, he is horrified and threatens to get the police involved if no one steps forward to claim responsibility. In a world where the adults do not notice children strangling each other on a daily basis, it becomes even more horrifying that a generally benign transgression is what the teacher focuses on and takes seriously.
The bluntness of the violence is shocking, but somehow a natural part of the world that the author has built. It propels the narrative forward without ever quite normalizing it. The book creeps into the realm of horror reminding the reader that fairy tales were not originally stories of fluffy princesses and riches, but tales of nefarious sharp-toothed monsters, and atrocious and brutal outcomes. Part I ends with a provocative, but somehow anticipated ending.
In Part II, Han plays with a more experimental narrative, and while it does not have the same grounded feeling as Part I, the examination of storytelling is at the forefront. Here the narrative voice moves to first person, a mostly unknown narrator probing the events leading up to the shocking end of Part I. It's this narrator who questions what it is to write, how a story is told, and how an author manipulates the reader through the artifice of fiction.
Don’t be deceived by these words. I can package a certain story as a dream and tell it that way. I can disguise my childhood, and as I disguise it I can make allusions, and as I reveal details about allusions, I can make them appear fictitious, and in this way, I can deceive you all.
Explicitly name-checked with admiration by the narrator of Part II is Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence, a short work about the inability to write a story until time has passed. Death Sentence acts as a sort of key for reading the more opaque second-half of the novel. Bits of Part I are re-written and magnified with the idea of reading and writing as a shared experience. It’s as if the author is asking the reader, what do you expect from a story?
Janet Hong's translation retains Han's idiosyncratic play, her sense of mystery in language and thought. This play is so important to the project of the novel, wherein Han rewrites and reiterates details, words, and phrases, and scenarios. She is at her best in the concrete details of the novel, like the repeated images of the Child’s nubby, painful fingers, and Mia’s beloved expensive colored pencils. Less successful are those passages where the author is emphasizing a connection between an abstractraction—for example, a character’s dream—and the folded pathways of written language. During these less successful moments of recursive language, Han's constructs can hinder the momentum of her story-telling, occasionally even slipping into sloppy lyricism: “Brick you don’t look at brick me. Brick words don’t remember brick words. Brick dawn, brick morning, brick evening, brick night.” In these moments it can be difficult to unpack the author's intent. But that’s fine. The Impossible Fairy Tale is gripping in its horror, making commonplace environments completely unsettling, and the examination of story-telling itself, a curious endeavor.