Alain Mabanckou’s Black Moses is the story of the life of a Congolese orphan named Moses. His full name is Tokumisa Nzambe po Mose yamoyindo abotami namboka ya Bakoko, which means “Thanks be to God, the black Moses is born on the earth of our ancestors” in Lingala. His grandly prophetic name leads him to a destiny that’s far less linear than that of the original Moses, but just as gripping and fantastical.
Moses enters his teenage years in an orphanage as a government with a pan-African socialist message assumes power in the Republic of Congo. He escapes from the orphanage to wander along with a gang of fellow orphans, and then by himself, on the streets of the city of Pointe-Noire. Throughout the novel, Moses drifts from parental figure to parental figure, including Papa Moupelo, the priest who gives him his “kilometrically extended” name; the school nurse, Sabine Niangui; and a Zairean madam in Pointe-Noire nicknamed Maman Fiat 500.
Moses does his best to live up to his name. Throughout the novel, Moses harkens back to the life story of his biblical namesake, who provides him with a shining example of taking a principled stance against power. The story from the book of Exodus in which Moses kills an Egyptian overseer mistreating a slave, coupled with an understanding of the fundamental principles of socialism, give Mabanckou’s Moses a strong sense of justice.
But Moses doesn’t gain an understanding of socialism from the government propaganda he learns at school or the presidential speeches he is forced to memorize. In fact, his sense of justice persists despite rather than because of his education—an education dispensed by “bruisers with zero intelligence” turned party cadres, who pepper their speech with gratuitous uses of the word “dialectically” and say things like “the superstructure must not be allowed to outweigh the infrastructure” without seeming to understand what this vocabulary means. True to form, Mabanckou serves up his social commentary with a side of humor, satirizing pseudo-Marxist posers who substitute conceptual name-dropping for any type of action that might benefit the people.
As for Moses, he’s the exact opposite of the apparatchiks: he internalizes the spirit rather than the letter of the socialist discourse he is taught. From a young age, he is concerned about people who are more vulnerable than he is and tries to defend them from more powerful people. For example, in the orphanage, he takes revenge on the school bullies who terrorize his friend Kokolo by spiking their food with devastating amounts of chili pepper, which earns him the nickname Little Pepper (the title of the original French-language novel is Petit Piment). Aside from the biblical Moses, Little Pepper’s most important role model is Robin Hood, because he steals from the rich and gives to the poor. Moses actually does steal things from the market to hand them out to poor people at the mosque or on the street. Our protagonist is like the humble orphan in a fairytale whose good heart guides him to make good decisions and judge people for who they are rather than their position in society.
The society Moses lives in has nothing to do with fairy tales, though. He’s continually mocked for his collectivist spirit. Black Moses paints a picture of a society where socialism is the official ideology even as it’s not actually implemented anywhere. In a country that was actually socialist, there wouldn’t be hundreds of homeless teenagers wandering in the streets of a major city, subsisting on petty theft and scavenging. Driving poor people out of that city wouldn’t be considered a real solution to poverty. The mayor of that city pledging to “clean it up” by expelling undocumented sex workers would be decried as the cruel demagoguery it is. On a smaller level, a young woman’s life wouldn’t be ruined if a rich married man strung her along, made her believe he would support her, and ditched her when she became pregnant (this is what happened to the mother of Moses’ friend Kokolo).
Yes, by my telling Black Moses sounds like it’s all Dickensian tribulations. But in fact, true to Alain Mabanckou’s freewheeling, irreverent style and to real life, this novel is full of hilarious vignettes. To name just a few, there’s a story straight out of Mabanckou’s polyphonic, Rabelaisian Broken Glass, about a mortician who loves corpses a little too much; a lecherous artist named St. Francis of a Titty; and a comical shouting match between the idiotic president and his idiotic henchmen, which could have been a scene from Dr. Strangelove except it’s about whether the president’s favorite sex worker is seeing other clients behind his back.
This unclassifiable novel contains elements of comedy and tragedy, of realism, naturalism, and magical realism, but it is none of these. It most closely resembles the earliest examples of the novelistic form, dating back to the 1600s. One could say the novel was born pre-deconstructed in the sense that the major early works in the form were far more experimental in terms of style and content than most of the novels most of our contemporaries are producing. From Don Quixote to Tristram Shandy to Jacques the Fatalist, these early novels smashed the Aristotelian unities to bits in an effort to portray life as we experience it: not unified in the least but chaotic, completely disjointed, chronologically nonlinear because we reminisce and forget, a melting pot of every single emotion and every kind of experience. In Black Moses, Mabanckou returns to the very roots of the novel to produce a story that’s too thoroughly modern to concern itself with genre or register. Best of all, he does so effortlessly and without taking pains to point out that he’s being experimental (thus avoiding the pitfall of so much experimental literature that tries to knock the reader over the head with its affected weirdness). This is a novel that’s as entertaining as it is engrossing, and reads as though you were experiencing Moses’s life as your own.
في عز الانتفاضة، كان أهلي مشغولين بها، ليس لهم انتماء تنظيميّ واضح، ولكنهم منحازون لكل ما هو إسلاميّ، وكانت الانتفاضة صعودًا مستمرًا لحركة حماس. زوجة أخي الكبير كانت ناشطة، بل قيادية، وتعتز العائلة بها، وكنت أشك بنشاط أخي، زوجها، لطالما شعرت أنه شخص مهم في حماس ولكن الظروف الأمنية لم تسمح بإظهار ذلك.
والدي بحكم عمله تاجرًا وصاحب محال تموينية، كانت علاقته بحماس طيبة، يشترون المساعدات التي يوزعونها على الفقراء منه، ولكن بطريقة متوارية، بدا لي أنه يستفيد من حماس كثيرًا ولكن دون أن يظهر ذلك، ويمكن مداراة الأمر بتبرع سخي يقدمه أبي للأيتام والفقراء وعوائل الشهداء والأسرى.
لم تفوت العائلة بكل أفرادها أي مناسبة وطنية كبرى، جنازات الشهداء والمهرجانات الوطنية الجماهيرية. ومن طريقة تعامل المنظمين والنشطاء مع أفراد عائلتي تأكدت أن لنا مكانة مميزة، ولكنني لم أنشغل بها. بعد سنوات أدركت ذكاء أبي، فلم ينلنا أي سوء من الاحتلال أو من السلطة أو فتح، لم يعتقل أحد من العائلة ولم يدخلوا في الصدام الداخلي بين الفصائل، كان ذكيًا يعرف متى يتقدم ومتى يتراجع دون أن يخسر، تاجر بالفطرة. ولذلك ربما كان منشغلًا بكل ما يقع خارج البيت تاركًا البيت لأمي.
كانت أمي تتباهى بتدينها، تجمع نساء الحي ووجاهات المدينة في المنزل للحديث بأمور الدين، ولا تتردد في الإنفاق بسخاء على المؤمنات وضيافتهن، وحين تجتمع لديها الناشطات سياسيًّا في حماس تستعرض زوجة ابنها البكر أمامهن، فالكل يعرفها. تلك كانت تحيا بهوس واحد وحيد، التنظيم، الحركة. كنت أرصد هوسها بكل ما له علاقة بحركتها، شاغل حياتها الوحيد. وأذكر جيدًا كيف كانت تنتشي وتملؤها سعادة غامرة حين ترى بنات أخواتها في الحركة يكبرن وعليهن ملامح النضج والجمال، سمعتها مرارًا تجاملهن وتقول: "هيك بنتطمن ع شبابنا".
لم يكن يسعدها شيء مثل تدبير الزيجات بين شباب الحركة وبناتها، كأنها تشتري بذلك مستقبلًا للحركة وتضمن استمرارها. ومن خلف باب غرفة الضيوف كنت أسمع تغزلها بإحدى الأخوات أمام أمّ أحد الإخوة. كانت تعرف جيدًا أن الروابط الاجتماعية أهم شيء في الحياة التنظيمية، ولذلك تنهال بالقبلات والأحضان على أمي بعد ترتيبها لأي اجتماع نسائي في البيت.
وأخطر مهمات زوجة أخي تزويج زوجات الشهداء، تصبح الحركة وكأنها حمو أو حماة زوجة الشهيد ابن الحركة، ومستقبلها شيء يخص الحركة، لا مشاعر ولا رغبات. هنالك زوجة أخي ومثيلاتها من ينظرن إلى الأمر كمهمة ويبحثن سريعًا عن أخ يتزوج أرملة الشهيد، كل الاحترام والعناية الخاصة الذي تناله أرامل الشهداء يختفي عند تزويجهن، يمكن أن تكون زوجة ثانية أو ثالثة لأحدهم، فالمهم أن تتزوج بأي طريقة، وزوجة أخي، تجعل كل هذا ممكنًا بطريقتها النادرة في الإقناع وحرارتها العجيبة في كل ما يخص الحركة.
حين أفكر بها وبمن يشبهنها، حين أتذكر اليوم مراقبتها وأخواتها في غرفة الضيوف من خرم مفتاح الباب، أعرف أن الحركة تقوم على عاتقهن قبل الرجال، وحين أتذكر توجيهاتها المستمرة للصغار، لأبناء وبنات الأخوات، وسؤالها المستمر لهم كم صاروا يحفظون من القرآن، قبل السؤال عن أحوالهم، أستغرب كيف ينشغل الناس بالحديث عن "رجال الدين" دومًا ويغفلون عن "نساء الدين"!
كان أخي سعيدًا بها، ولطالما تخيّلت علاقتهما الخاصة، امرأة بهذه الحرارة والقوة والاقتدار، وبنضج بالغ في ملامحها وجسدها المكرس لأخي، وبالخبرة الطافرة من كل شيء فيها.
عائلتي سعيدة، بنسائها قبل أي شيء، بنسائها المكرسات لخدمة الرجال وإسعادهم، هذا ما لا تخطئه عين في اجتماعهم صباح كل جمعة على مائدة أمي وأبي. تلك الوجوه كانت قد شبعت من ملذات ليالي الخميس، هذه الأفواه التي لا تتوقف عن ذكر الله والصلاة على النبي في تلك الصباحات، كانت تنغمس ليلًا في كل سوائل الشهوة.
كان المخطط أن أصبر قليلًا حتى أنضج، أن أسير على خطى إخوتي وأقلدهم، أن تتدبر لي زوجة أخي عروسًا، كما تدبرت لكثير من العائلة، تقف أمام والدة الشاب الموعود وتحرص على أن يسمعها، تتحدث عن التزامها الديني وأخلاقها وحفظها للقرآن وأهلها الطيبين، ثم بحركة غير متوقعة، وكأنها زلة لسان، تقول: "بنت كاملة، كل شي فيها كامل، من شعرها لحتى أصابع رجليها، يا ربي سامحني، حورية … أستغفر الله".
كانت "أستغفر الله" تلك، شلال إيحاءات تستحم في مسقطه حوريات عرايا.
هذا ما كان مفترضًا، ولكنه لم يكن.
في عز الانتفاضة، اخترت البيت، على عكس كل أقراني، لم أخرج في مظاهرة ولم ألق أي حجر، كنت في نظر نفسي أصغر من ذلك، كنت أخاف من الخارج، أحب البيت، أتذرع بمساعدة أمي بأعمال البيت للهرب من شؤون الفتية الآخرين. أساعدها في غسل الصحون وفي شطف الأرض وفي نشر الغسيل.
"لماذا لم أكن أخرج؟ هل كنت خائفًا؟ لا أدري، ربما، لم أجد شيئًا مما يفعله أقراني يستهويني أو يثير فيّ حرارة، في المدرسة كنت أشعر بالإثارة تفور من أبدانهم وأعينهم وهم يتحدثون عن المواجهات على مداخل المدينة مع الإسرائيليين، عن رائحة الغاز والإطارات المشتعلة، وعن الدم. يتباهون بشجاعة فلان وقوة علان.
بعد أشهر صاروا يلملمون الرصاص الفارغ من بين أرجل المتظاهرين، لم تعد المظاهرات تصل إلى الحواجز الإسرائيلية على مداخل المدن، صارت المظاهرات داخلية وفيها الكثير من الأسلحة والتهديد والوعيد والانتظار.
تحولت الانتفاضة من الشارع إلى التلفاز. نظل كلنا نشاهد القنوات التلفزيونية، أبو ظبي والجزيرة، لمعرفة ما يجري، شهداء واعتقالات وقصف، ثم عمليات وإطلاق نار وقتلى، دوامة، والكل أمام التلفاز يتفرج، نضحك لساعة ونبكي لساعات.
مع اغتيال كل قائد من حماس كانت العائلة تدخل حدادًا غير معلن، يجعل ممارستنا لأي شيء عادي فعلًا يستجلب ندمًا. أذكر ماذا حل بأخي الكبير يومًا وهو جالس أمام التلفاز يتابع أخبارا وردت في الصباح الباكر عن عملية اغتيال كبيرة، حين بدأت أسماء المستهدفين تظهر على الشاشة بدا وكأن وجهه يتشقق غيظًا وحنقًا وحزنًا، جلست زوجته قربه وحاولت التخفيف عنه ولكن انفعالها وبكاءها هي أيضًا كان يحيلهما إلى كتلة ستنفجر.
نهض أخي لبس ملابسه وهم بالخروج، سأله أبي إلى أين فلم يجب. ظللت طوال ذلك اليوم أراقب التلفاز يبث الأغاني الوطنية المليئة بالأشلاء والرصاص، متوقعًا أن أقرأ خبر انفجار أو عملية في إحدى المدن الإسرائيلية متأكدًا أن أخي سيفعلها، ولم أنم إلا حين عرفت أنه مع زوجته في بيتهم.
كرهت التلفاز وكرهت الساعات الطوال التي يضطر الجميع لقضائها في البيت، هذا قبل أن تأتي أيام منع التجول القاتلة. كنت أكره اجتماع الجميع في البيت، كانت مساحتي الخاصة تتقلص وتكاد تختفي. كرهت كل شيء، وكرهت الانتفاضة.
في الليل حين ينام الجميع، أحاول التنقل بين القنوات الفضائية بحثًا عن أي شيء آخر غير الأخبار والرصاص والقتلى. القوائم المفضلة وأوائل القنوات كلها للقتل، وما يقع في آخر الأرقام أو في قوائم متوارية هي قنوات أفلام وأغان، استكشفتها كلها دون صوت، حتى لا يستيقظ أبي أو أمي ويكتشفا أنني أبحث في محظورات محرمة في حين يسيل دمنا في القنوات الإخبارية والشوارع. كنت عطشًا إلى أشياء كثيرة ولا شيء يروي.
A Fortune Foretold is an emotionally complex coming of age novel. It digs deep and narrow into the history and memory of the story’s narrator and protagonist, Neta. I emphasize Neta’s two roles in this novel separately because the story is primarily, though not always, told in the third person. The present is narrated with the first-person "I," while Neta’s childhood and adolescence are treated with “her.” That is, most of the time, though the past has a funny way of infringing on the present, changing it, tainting it.
Neta is a startlingly self-aware young woman who knows how to navigate harsh realities. As her family moves from Stockholm to Lund (with a brief stint in Princeton), Neta understands she will always be second to her father’s career and second to her mother’s other passions, ideas, lost lives. Neta’s life is filled with constant uncertainty, but she moves forward with a confident face.
She knows she has a better life than most people. But there is a shortage of love—no more than the odd glimpse from time to time. It’s not just because they are moving and she will never see the red-haired boy again. There’s other stuff too.
The story is simple enough, the life of a young woman moving from childhood to adulthood. Neta is reckless at times, self-indulgent, typical and arrogant in the way she approaches her life as a teenager. Encountering a female protagonist prone to such flights of narcissism is refreshing and somehow Neta remains a sympathetic character despite all of these character flaws.
Like most family stories, there is a veil of mystery behind her very bourgeois Swedish family’s activities. Her father the professor, whom she idolizes, turns out to be less than perfect. Her mother, a Dutch woman of Javanese descent, has a disability and often embarrasses Neta, is able to love her children in particular, confusing ways. The mother is a talented pianist whose career was cut short by having a family and for this reason she is prone to bouts of depression and anger. Behind this tale of difficult family dynamics, issues of race and disability lurk in the background Neta, perhaps because she is a child, tends to side with her father, even through his distance and infidelity. Neta often helps care for her two younger sisters, thinking of the youngest girl as her own baby. She has friends, boyfriends, but she feels the weight of family problems, even if she cannot identify them, throughout her life:
Childhood is a no-man’s-land . . . Now I’m going to talk about something for which I didn’t have words back then. About the fear. About the feeling of being overwhelmed, attacked in fact, by my body. About the loneliness all children share. And about the shadow cast by my parents’ dysfunctional marriage. But if they hadn’t met, I wouldn’t exist. Some other child, perhaps, but not me. That thought crossed my mind from time to time when I was growing up, and it was terrifying.
Like every mother-daughter relationship, this one is complicated, loving, and often painful. Neta seeks female role models in her beloved Aunt Ricki and family friend Vibeke, but is incapable of seeing any of that same feminine strength in her own mother. This seems to indicate something particular about Neta’s emotional work in separating herself from this “foreign” mother, her desire to be something else, something more accepted, more mainstream, more womanly, more able. Looking back on her relationship with her mother, she writes:
I dug out the memory of the steamboat pier much later, when I thought I had never yearned for my mother. The strength of the emotion within the memory convinced me that wasn’t the case. Feelings have an archeology; you can dig down, discover new things.
This novel in translation touches on something I often think about while both reading works in translation and while practicing translation myself. In the Anglophone world we are deeply focused on the scene of a story, showing instead of telling, a fixation many might say stems from MFA program culture. This book, and much other prose in translation, is unafraid of telling us something. The narrator’s voice is powerful enough to carry the plot and the suspense, certainly, but the text also leaves a touch of the foreign. While Marlaine Delargy’s name is not on the cover, and nothing indicates right away that this is a work of translation, the words themselves sometimes feel as if they are being spoken from a Scandinavian’s very refined, very close, but not quite native English. What is striking about this translation is that it doesn’t seem to be seeking invisibility, it allows for the foreignness of the text to come through. This is fitting because A Fortune Foretold is also about communication, the difficulties of communicating with those closest to us. While reading this novel I was reading Eleni Stecopoulos’s book of essays or meditations or memoir, Visceral Poetics, published by ON Contemporary Practice in 2016. Reading the texts simultaneously brought out the confessional quality of Agneta Pleijel’s narrative voice through Neta. Stecopoulos writes about the curative properties of language, of "language as homeopathy, language as antidote to language." Neta needs to tell this story, in her wavering first and third person she creates a new history for herself, an honest version with which she is able to live. Her body and her words finally find a way to thrive and move forward:
We are fiction. We create ourselves with words. This is my fiction . . . I could have been wrong.
Minae Mizumura’s Inheritance from Mother is a literature lover’s novel and a translator’s novel. The narrative is split into two parts, with a total of 66 short chapters. Chapter 1, “The Long Telephone Call in Lieu of a Wake,” opens with a conversation between sisters Mitsuki and Natsuki, who speculate about how much money they can get back from Golden, the barely-used assisted living home where their mother once lived. The frank conversation upends some of the most common stereotypes about the Japanese as ritualistic and indirect collectivists who put family above self. But the social pressure to present oneself as such is implied in the response from Mitsuki, the protagonist, when she lowers her voice even in the privacy of her own home to whisper the sum they hope to collect. That number also marks the novel as a translation, because it’s footnoted with both a US Dollar approximation and a general guideline for US-Japan currency conversion. The layered emphasis on linguistic and monetary conversation adds extra weight to the scandalous nature of the conversation––death and translation are always accompanied by concrete losses and gains. To add to that, Noriko (the mother in question) was a difficult women, and her relationship with both daughters is so strained that Mitsuki recalls how, when Noriko was first rushed to the ER, Mitsuki sat in the waiting room, thinking:
Mother is dying.
My mother is dying.
Finally she’s going to die.
In fact, Noriko didn’t die that night, but Mitsuki is seized with the thought, and the words become a dark, persistent refrain in her life, a shameful wish she can only share with her younger sister Natsuki. The sisters are close despite, or perhaps because of, the resentments between them, stoked by Noriko’s lifelong tendecy to play favorites.
Early in life, Natsuki was the favorite because she was more beautiful, and Noriko trained her to become a pianist, to marry into status and wealth. That preferential attention shapes Natsuki long after she falls out of favor––when the sisters convene for their frequent commiserating phone calls, Natsuki retreats to her soundproof piano room, out of earshot of her husband and daughter. Meanwhile, the long-neglected Mitsuki bears the burden of Noriko’s attention late in life, taking on the lion’s share of hospital visits in spite of her own poor health.
What both sisters inherit equally is their mother’s cultured sensibility and a love of the finer things in life, from French lace curtains and opera visits, to their respective artistic training: Natsuki in piano and German, Mitsuki in singing and French. As readers, we are immersed in Mitsuki’s cosmopolitan sensibilities and her meditation on life through art. Every major personal event in her life is contextualized by different artistic depictions. In the opening chapter, even as Mitsuki talks with her sister about their mother’s death, she thinks: “Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Today, Mother died. The opening line of the first novel she had ever read in French, long ago.” As a young woman, years before her mother’s death, Mitsuki went to Paris to study chanson. There she met Tetsuo, her future husband, a boursier––a graduate student on scholarship from the French government––who lived in a cheap, shabby apartment on his meager funds. He struck her as La Boheme’s Rodolfo in the flickering French candlelight of their engagement night, as an artistic soul living in charming poverty. She saw him as a kindred soul who would be her storybook hero as they romantically pursued a life of art and culture together. But when they moved back to Japan, Tetsuo’s materialistic side became apparent, as he became more and more preoccupied with the thought of owning a sleek, large condo downtown, rather than their homey but less fashionable apartment. Worse, on the same day that Noriko is rushed to the hospital, Mitsuki discovers that Tetsuo is cheating on her with a younger woman (again), and these twin blows send her into a tailspin, forcing her to come to terms with a life long on responsibility and short on happiness.
Several times throughout the narrative, Mitsuki declares herself someone who “wouldn’t make a good heroine in a novel.” A middle-aged woman about to slide into old age, Mitsuki has an unenviable life: her husband is preparing to leave her for a woman who calls Mitsuki “pathetic,” and she is saddled with a mother whose deteriorating body forces her to "fluently speak words like 'Dysphasia' and 'nasogastric tube." Meanwhile, her husband’s social ambitions require that she reject passion projects––like translating a new Japanese edition of Madame Bovary––in favor of working as a freelancer and adjunct professor, teaching English during the day and translating French patents at night. These thankless, boring jobs exacerbate her lifelong physical frailty. Yet until the double shock of that day, Mitsuki does not allow herself to recognize that her life is caught in “sticky meshes of woe.” Once that page is turned, she must decide if and how she can extract herself.
Part of what makes this novel so striking is its narrator's self-awareness, a quality that may not appeal to everyone. But for readers fascinated by the entanglements of language, society, and the way we create stories of ourselves, this book is a must read. It is also a novel acutely aware of its contemporary context, and the narrative gestures toward pressing issues, such as Japan’s aging problem, the cultural-linguistic hegemony of the West, and the double bind of women expected to act both as familial caretakers and productive workers.
Constant references to foreign literature aside, this is a novel deeply rooted in Japan. While Mitsuki regrets not re-translating Madame Bovary’s Emma, and Natsuki fantasizes about the pleasures of a “a room of one’s own,” the sisters’ very existence is contingent upon their grandmother’s conviction that she, a former geisha, is the heroine of Japan’s first newspaper novel, The Golden Demon. At one point, Mitsuki views the crisis point in her life as the frenetic pitch in a play by Noh master Zeami.
The tightly woven literary self-awareness and the emotionally heavy themes are shot through with surprising humor, like the moment when Mitsuki buys her fashionable mother emergency clothes for her hospital stay, selecting sturdy pajamas for “solid citizens” that fairly shout, “Hello, underwear here, at your service!”
Mitsuki’s incisive observations and cosmopolitan sense are mirrored in the author’s other works, an aesthetic sense rooted in her distinctive biography. A Yale graduate and former faculty member of the Iowa International Writing Program, Mizumura is a respected French literature scholar, and this is her third collaboration with translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, who translated Mizumura’s English debut, A True Novel (2002), and the thought-provoking essay collection The Fall of Language in the Age of English (2015). That past relationship is evident in the deftness of Inheritance, which offers little gifts made possible by an English translation—like the fact that Carpenter is translating Mizumura translating Camus’ The Stranger when Mitsuki recalls that famous French line, “Aujoud’hui, maman est morte," and renders it as "Today, Mother died."
These nerdy delights add to the novel’s overall literariness. And like Mizumura’s other works, Inheritance is just as interested in exploring form as well as content. The novel’s two parts are so distinct that, stylistically, they almost feel like standalone novellas––except that the narratives are so deeply entwined they end up looking like eerie, inverse silhouettes. Meanwhile each chapter is short and punchy, a reflection of its original context as a serial novel, published weekly in the Yomiuri Newspaper. A dying genre of fiction, the newspaper novel is largely read by middle-aged women, and Mizumura’s story elucidates the nuanced complexity of being a woman of a certain age in Japanese society. The female mind-body is on full view, with all its desires and disappointments, vitality and indignity. Mizumura’s insights edge on brutality, but in the best way possible, demonstrating that a middle-aged woman is more than capable of being our novel’s protagonist.
In “Delay," from Ester Naomi Perquin’s newly translated collection of poems The Hunger in Plain View, she remarks “We are modern. It’s the wrong century for love." Yet love is everywhere in this collection, complicated by the messiness of modernity, true, but appearing all the same, if not always where we expect to find it. Perquin's love is instead the contradictory kind, simultaneously mundane and surreal, and shared by criminals and prison guard’s wives, just as it is by family or lovers, and this perspective, style, and poetic play are expertly handled by translator David Colmer, in whose English none of the weird is lost.
Perquin's poetics are conversational, intimate and direct, such as in her poem “Quiz:"
Cross out: I am not a woman / I am a stupid woman.
In recent years there are at least six things
I have regretted. On my fingertips, I prefer:
gold leaf, paint, tomato juice.
The Hunger in Plain View provides a good overview of her three previous collections, Napkins at Halfmast, In the Name of the Other, and the captivating Cell Inspections, the last of which was partially inspired by her time working as a prison guard. This experience crops up in other places as well, like in her poem “Guard Duty” from In the Name of the Other. But it is love that appears again and again, providing the connecting thread throughout the collection, as in “You Are the Wrong Man:"
You always were the wrong man
and you, incontrovertibly, are the wrong man still.
I don’t like love and never have.
I’ve stayed with you because I am so sure of it.
Not exactly the stuff of fairy tales, but Perquin’s dismissal of the subject only serves to heighten the end of the poem five stanzas later, “Maybe I do love you, as long as I don’t stop / meaning it as something inalienable, / as long as I can keep it safe and well.” For Perquin, keeping something safe is a form of enclosure or confinement, whether it be in a prison or in our hearts. Personas and characters often appear celled or walled off, physically as well as emotionally. Take for example “Enclosed” where she begins:
Being alone in the sense
of constantly your own smell,
over the wall a view
of unfinished sheds
She juxtaposes the narrator's view of what lies beyond with the immediate surroundings:
But the perfect company
of a wallpapered cell, clippings
of glossy sluts, mothers
breastier than ever, girls
climbing onto laps, daughters
who feed the ducks.
Likewise, in her prose poem “Within Limitations” she begins:
You get used to your format. Walls built up out of patience, the height of the ceiling with peculiar stains, a sticky floor, your unstoppable breath feels out the room and rebounds, in the dark your hands know where to find the switch.
As in “Quiz,” the persona is aware of the poem as a prison, and in both poems is able to joke about things like “format” or telling herself to cross out words or phrases.
There are many solid poems in the first two collections, but it is the selections from her third, Cell Inspections, that really show off the nature and breadth of Perquin’s imagination, her eye for detail, for inhabiting character and voice, and her ability to imbue humanity into criminality. She worked in a prison as a way to pay for creative writing school and it is clear that the experience was formative. So many of the poems deal with specific prisoners, their crimes, their interiority and identity as something more than simply those convicted of a crime.
Many of the crimes described are difficult sounding to deal with, yet Perquin’s gaze is unflinching. Consider how Perquin describes love in “David H.”:
Of course it was love—but love can’t lie, it doesn’t scream
when you say, quiet, it doesn’t run out of breath and
doesn’t force me into anything. Love lies down
before you and listens. True love
is always willing.
Love here is the specious delusion of someone who can’t quite confront what he’s done. And indeed Perquin gives us the ending we expect, though in such a quiet, breathless way that is stunning:
As far as that goes, I know better now. I wouldn’t have looked
at her like that, I would have loved her differently,
not in a hurry with my two hands round her neck,
but thoughtfully, mournfully, gently.
At the same time there is monstrousness, there is also humanity, and Perquin’s knack for getting us there is nothing short of amazing.
My only regret with the book was that Cell Inspections wasn't translated and included in its entirety, as it was the strongest section of the book for me. Yet all the selections in The Hunger in Plain View are spellbinding, weird, and completely different than so much poetry I have read recently. Perquin was recently named Poet Laureate of the Netherlands through 2019, and based on the work on display here, it's no wonder. Hers is a unique, subtle, fascinating, sometimes weird, and sometimes creepy voice.