In thinking of Polish poetry after the Second World War, a characteristic tone of sharp-eyed moral clarity often comes to my mind. Czesław Miłosz exemplified this school of writing, and codified a canon of like-minded writers in his influential 1965 anthology Postwar Polish Poetry. That book included giants of Polish poetry such as Wisława Szymborska, Zbigniew Herbert and Tadeusz Różewicz, who confronted the traumas and injustices of that country’s 20th century with spiritual honesty, righteous judgment, and— sometimes—rage.
Rage was the weapon of choice for Ryszard Krynicki during his poetic coming-of-age in the late 1960s and 1970s, a generation after Miłosz. Previously little translated into English, some of his best works are now available in two major books published this fall in the US: his 1977 collection Our Life Grows (New York Review Books, translated by Alissa Valles) and Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014 (New Directions, translated by Clare Cavanagh). Together, they offer a compelling portrait of this powerful and unique poet.
Krynicki was born in 1943 in a Nazi labor camp in Austria. After the war, his family was settled in the “reclaimed” territories of western Poland that had been broken off from Germany and emptied of their pre-war populations. Born in a nonplace and brought up where the past had been wiped clean, the poet seems to have nursed a sense of otherness throughout his life.
Krynicki was still a boy in 1956 when the dark days of Stalinism came to an end. As a young man, he watched promises of reform and liberalization give way to sclerosis, finally descending into outright depravity in the watershed year of 1968. That March saw massive anti-regime protests in Warsaw violently suppressed by the government, which blamed the uprising on “Zionist” agents. A nationwide anti-Semitic campaign ensued, driving much of Poland’s remaining Jewish population out of the country. Then in August, Poland joined the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces, helping to crush the nascent pro-Western reforms of the Prague Spring.
The very next year, Krynicki published his first major poetry collection, Akt Urodzenia (meaning both “act of birth” and “birth certificate”). He was one of a generation of poets and intellectuals disgusted by the events of ’68 and scornful of moral equivocation and political compromise. Krynicki would spend much of the 1970s causing trouble and getting into it. He battled with censors, published underground editions, endured police harassment, and in 1976 was finally banned from even being mentioned in print.
In 1977, he published Our Life Grows with an émigré press in Paris. Many of these poems had been mangled by Communist censors, but in the NYRB edition they appear in their unexpurgated form. I found them shockingly raw: Our Life Grows felt like a beam of fury focused squarely at the brutality, stupidity, and double-speak of People’s Poland. The collection includes landmark works like “Our Special Correspondent,” a poem so ideologically incendiary it got Krynicki’s editor fired by the authorities, and “Posthumous Journey (III),” whose litany of political and literary dissidents, its mocking reference to Stalin, and allusions to violent suppression of striking workers was the cause of Krynicki’s complete print ban in 1976.
As well as politics, the collection explores themes of spirituality, love, and the social and cultural role of the poet in the twentieth century. Krynicki circles around a familiar repertoire of structures, themes, and images. Formally, he seems to favor three types of poem: mid-length, reflective works; extremely short and aphoristic ones (sometimes even a single line); and long, often very political tours de force. His recurring images include animals like axolotls and snails, human anatomy like brains and blood, and the tools of censorship: sheets of paper, card indexes, red pencils and, of course, the censor himself, who at times appears as a character in the poems.
Krynicki’s imagery is always powerful, if sometimes baffling. Valles does an excellent job of keeping these difficult images tangible and concrete, as in this example from “Much Simpler” (featuring the aforementioned card indexes):
fingerprints circulate in unfathomable space
card indexes faded, were burnt or shredded
your you is astonished at your I
nothing’s for sure took the elevator down
while everything’s possible
was laboring up the stairs
Readers of Polish poetry expecting something closer to the philosophical detachment of Miłosz or the wry gallows humor of Szymborska may find this collection jarring. Krynicki’s poems are darker, stranger, and more mysterious.
A fuller, more nuanced picture of Krynicki emerges in Magnetic Point: Selected Poems 1968-2014. The late poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak once described Krynicki’s oeuvre as “moving from excess to ascesis.” In this collection, we watch this transition as it happens, and Cavanagh’s translation maintains a remarkable (and beautiful) unity of voice, even as Krynicki experiments with new themes, imagery, and forms, including prose.
The work in Magnetic Point reveals a huge range of influences. Krynicki often dedicates poems to other poets or refers explicitly to others’ poems. He is a translator of Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs, and the German tradition shines through in his work. A period of engagement with East Asian poetry has borne fruit in the form of, among other things, numerous references to the Japanese master poet Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828) and Krynicki’s own experimentation with haiku.
His later work also develops his ambiguous relationship to geography and history, both in Poland and abroad. Unlike his contemporaries Barańczak and Adam Zagajewski, Krynicki did not choose emigration to escape Communist rule. But that does not mean he felt at home—his 1987 poem “This Country” states in its entirety:
In this country? Yes, I stayed in this country.
Exile comes in many shapes
Spirituality is often a current running powerfully through these reflections. For instance, in the prose poem “A Stone from the Village of New World” from 2005, Krynicki describes accidentally finding the remains of a Jewish gravestone:
I found the stone in a yard overgrown with weeds and bushes, just after buying a run-down house in the hamlet of New World: I’d picked it more for the auspicious name than for the place itself. Exiles like me—from the East, from beyond the Bug River— settled here after the war. Germans had lived here before, they left a moldy scrap of a 1936 newspaper in the attic and countless broken medicine bottles.
I’m not asking when and how it ended up here, or who committed this atrocity. I only want to preserve it from further destruction, I seek a refuge more lasting than my weak letters. I don’t know what to do.
While Krynicki’s anger seems to subside over the course of Magnetic Point, it is clear he has lost none of his desire to challenge simplistic narratives and to ask difficult questions. In an author’s note to Our Life Grows, Krynicki writes, “In my time I dared to oppose Zbigniew Herbert, [saying] that the drama of language should not obscure for us the tragedy of the world. I thought I was right—I was wrong.” Yet even at this mature stage in his career, Krynicki’s suspicion of the power of language remains. It seems fitting to end on one of the last poems in Magnetic Point, which address this skepticism and shows that perhaps the Krynicki of today is not so different from the Krynicki of Our Life Grows:
Sweet, innocent words,
sweet, full sentences,
from sweet, gently
(Nowy Świat, July 8, 2004, B.)
A group of Sami herders and their reindeer undertake their dangerous spring migration over Norway’s northern tundra to an island off the country’s coast.
Soon the journey north will be complete. The destination is the island. The terrain is rocky and steep but conceals herbs and grasses that are good for the animals, salt-rich growth they need after the long trip from the inland’s snow-covered lichen plateaus.
It’s daytime. The people are resting. Soon they’ll see the ocean.
The nights have been long and arduous. They had been waiting for milder weather to be followed by frost and snow crust. But the early spring stayed cold, dry, and lovely, so the snow remained deep, giving easily. A condition that meant hard work for people and animals. Yet they had to leave. The animals were becoming restless. Instinct was driving them north. The herdsmen had camped with the reindeer the last few weeks. They’d remained alert to everything happening, their attention constantly focused on the distant clang of bells. Anxiety for what might be stirring frequently drove them to the tent opening with the monoculars. Any dispersal within the flock signaled the animals were beginning to move north, which meant quickly breaking camp.
One evening they left after sundown.
Nine nights and days have passed since then. The hard-packed, glittering crust never emerged. Instead they’ve struggled their way through loose, heavy snow, fighting a hard battle against the deep, white, and soft element. At times their snow scooters and fully loaded sleds became completely stuck. The head of the household, for his part, traveled on skis. Up at the front of the herd at first with the lead reindeer following on a rope. But the last few days, he has kept behind the flock. The reindeer were moving along nicely, directing themselves. Alert and energetic, he has followed the animals. Exhaustion occasionally overwhelmed his limbs and made his movements uneven, stiff. Still, he’s tough and he knows it. He demands from himself exactly what he knows he can render.
The final parts of the journey have been somewhat easier. They’ve left the evenly rolling plateaus with deeper snow for the higher mountain regions. Here the landscape is sparser, more windblown, naked without the twisted dwarf birch trees that livened up the milder country they left behind them. Here the mountains are bare, a promise of spring to come.
Up until now everything has gone well. All the reindeer are still with them. What remains of their journey now is to cross the open sound toward the island. They’ll need to reach their destination before the current appears again. At three in the morning it should be possible to swim the animals over. If they don’t make it during the half hour the swirling water rests, difficulties can arise. Animals can die. It’s happened before. Many times. Most recently last year. At that point the animals were so depleted after the bitterly cold winter just before Christmas. The pastures had been thoroughly iced over. It didn’t even snow until well after New Year’s. The journey to the ocean drained the last bit of strength right out of them. Forty animals drowned. The people will never forget it.
This year, though, everything looks bright. The animals are fat and vigorous, their pelts glossy. The females are pregnant. Hopefully, they’ll calve on the island. This year the people don’t dread the swim. Just a tingling excitement––no fear.
The last part passes quickly. Almost too fast. The familiar plateaus are now behind them. Their feet will not touch the lichen landscape again until autumn. The island is a foreign place. Its people are not their own. They have only a handful of relatives there. The summer place isn’t their home. Not completely.
They settle down for a short night and breathe the sea air. Everything smells so different.
The time is near. Everyone is prepared. They’re a large group and everyone knows their tasks. The children as well. It all goes smoothly. Soon the herd is inside the barrier that two of them have hauled and set up in advance. Two small boats bob out on the water and a third rowboat waits close to shore. A relative sits on the thwart with the oars ready to hand. Water drips from the oar blades. The man in the boat knows what they expect of him, these Sami folk. He has done this every year since he has learned to handle a boat. The head of the reindeer-herding family approaches the water. The lead reindeer ambles tamely behind him, bound to his master by a rope and many years’ teamwork. The herd follows them. A pair of year-old calves stop and turn to scrape with their forefeet at the stony slope, but soon they trot after the other animals––trusting. The head of the group soon approaches the water’s edge, climbs into the boat; the islander takes a few strokes, at first a bit hectic and fumbling, but then long, powerful strokes. The reindeer starts to swim, follows the boat and follows its master. One by one the animals set out and the herd glides forward atop the surface of the still, smooth sea.
This is a solemn moment for those standing on shore and watching. Most of the group have remained behind. There are just a couple of men in each boat. No one says a word. For a long time, the people just stand there, motionless. Finally, they sink onto the fine sand, dig out the tobacco, the matches, exchange a few words––easy, smiling words. Their eyes follow the bobbing pelts. They cast quick glances at each other. Steadily drawing away is everything of significance, everything upon which their life depends. Out there is life itself. They know this half hour before the herd reaches the island is a fateful one. They’re painfully aware of it. They don’t relax yet. They’re at the mercy of the sea, that capricious element; at the mercy of fortune or misfortune, chance or fate. They wait.
The herd has made it almost halfway across. The boatmen have hauled a year-old calf into the boat. It looked like it was beginning to swim in a ring, like it had lost its sense of direction. Otherwise, the glossy brown, antlered mass slides forward––steadily forward.
On the mainland, a tobacco pouch circulates between hands. Suddenly a boy leaps up, swift, speechless. He shields his eyes with his hands. The others stand up as well. What is it? What does he see? They strain their eyes. It’s so far away. They can’t be sure. Can it be . . . no, no, it’s not possible. The boy curses. Desperate oaths. What else can he do––sit here on the mainland and watch. Watch it happen. The women pray to God, stutteringly, brokenly, then wordlessly. They turn away and turn back again. Both want to see and don’t.
The men in the boats have long been aware of the enormous threat approaching them. The ship. It was the head of the group who spotted it first. Saw the large hull gliding along before they were halfway across the sound. Stood up in the rowboat, waved his cap, calm, sure they could avoid it. Knew the pilots guiding ships through the sound here are local people, people who understand, who will grasp what’s about to happen, should know, should understand. React.
But the ship shows no sign of turning.
He waves his cap more and more frantically, waves with both arms now, standing on tiptoe in the boat to make himself more visible, shouting. In vain. Of course he knows they cannot hear him. Gives the order to row hard, row with everything you’ve got, but at the same time gives the order to hold back, row slowly. There’s no way they can win.
And the ship steams forward. Comes closer and closer.
It is completely silent in the other small boats. They’ve seen what’s coming. They slowly move the oars, take a couple of strokes. A complete stop will bring confusion to the herd. They’ve seen it before. They saw it last year when the animals were exhausted. They lost their sense of direction and began to swim in a ring––round and around until their strength ebbed and they sank to the bottom.
They take a couple of oarstrokes. Right now it’s fine. Right now there’s hope. They’ve quit waving their arms. Anyway, it’s too late to get the ship maneuvered off.
The ship bears the Norwegian flag. They all see it. Wonder at it in the midst of their despair. A blue hull. It glides slowly, slowly forward. Glides past them.
Then come the waves, these violent forces they have expected and feared. To begin with, a small roil. The boats rhythmically rock with the first easy swells. The animals as well. They don’t seem to react. Then the waves sharpen, surge. They strike the rowboats, whip the men in the face. With wool mittens they wipe salt water from their eyes, are able to see again and find the reindeer at the front are already struggling, casting with their necks, stamping at the white foamy spray, trying to turn. Everything happens so quickly. All at once the columns are broken. The rhythmic movements are gone. Antlers lock together. Reindeer bumps into reindeer. Each fights in its own direction. The goal is no longer obvious. There is no goal. Only the desperate preservation instinct. Chaos.
The surges roll high and choppy. Continual.
In the boats there’s not much they can do. The head of the household hauls on the lead reindeer. Bids the rowers: row hard now, row for all their worth. Stay on course, stay on course no matter what. He jerks and hauls at the rope, but the reindeer will not turn. The animal pulls in the opposite direction, it’s still strong, still has energy. There’s no point. Some of the animals are already lost. They don’t know how many. The man drops the harness, there’s no way to restrain the struggling animal. They concentrate on hauling two year-old calves into one of the rowboats. Exhausted and terrified, the calves lay and float with the waves close to the boatside.
Disheartened, they recognize that the herd has formed a pattern in its fight for survival. A pattern they’ve seen before. A terrifying pattern. The animals are swimming in a large, disorderly ring. They know the ring will eventually tighten. Yes, they know it. There’s nothing they can do. The ring closes in the depths.
They continue to row toward the island and can only hope that some of the animals will follow. With tired relief, they see that parts of the flock have actually broken out of the deadly circle. Yet many animals still remain behind them. It hurts too much to watch. They row. Fix their eyes on the animals following behind––the strongest. At least these shall be saved. Must be saved.
The waves are no longer so white and foamy. They’re subsiding. Soon the current will return to the sound. That can also be a struggle. Too much time has passed. Can they do it?
They will! They’ll overcome the rest!
They continue to row, trembling with sorrow and rage, shaking their fists at the blue hull receding into the distance. But they don’t know if anyone can see it.
© 2017 Laila Stien. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.
Boundaries between the possible and the impossible in everyday life dissolve in this short story by Gunnhild Øyehaug.
The day I saw a person disappear through the side of a moving bus, just glide smoothly through the side, I was very surprised. I’d gone into town to buy fresh meat for dinner. That day it was raining violently, rain poured down the bus window where I sat, thick runnels of rain, like someone pouring transparent paint from the bus roof, making it difficult to distinguish what we were passing––granite, yellow leaves on November trees, a tunnel mouth, street lamps, all of it flowing together. A small river that wasn’t usually there flowed along the road, and the narrow stream that normally picked its cautious way down the far slope was now gushing from the street parallel to the main road, like all the water had entered a panicked state, rushing forward with all its pandemoniac hydraulic force. The bus wasn’t moving especially fast, but the windshield wipers raced back and forth, and it was as I shifted my gaze from the dissolving world outside the window back inside the bus itself that I saw a person get up from their seat, like any person wanting to get off, take a couple of steps forward, and disappear through the vehicle’s side.
I got off four stops later and I turned around to see whether that same person could smoothly materialize out of the air wherever and keep on walking, but there was no one else at the stop except for me and two other passengers who had exited at the same time and who left in the opposite direction. I was approaching the duck pond, which I saw had been filled up, what once had been a slope down to the pond was now just a mass of water into which the sidewalk smoothly transitioned. It sometimes happened with this kind of rain, sometimes the water would swallow the whole sidewalk, forcing all the children going to and from school to walk in the street for about twenty yards. At the moment a sliver of sidewalk remained, on the pond ducks navigated the thin, high reeds, they suddenly had a little lake in which to paddle. I wondered what it would be like to have the habitual boundaries of your life suddenly change like that, suddenly expand, just imagine, for example, if my house acquired another floor, I thought, or if the living room grew by three yards before returning to normal, would I think, how great, now I have three extra yards to try out, or would it just make me uneasy?
When I got home, I regretted not stopping at the school to pick up the kids, it was still a little early and I had planned on working. But I started to picture them tumbling into the duck pond, they’d be holding hands and one would slip and pull the other with them, and neither of them could swim. I paced anxiously through the house, going back and forth to the window, until finally I saw two rain-soaked figures coming up the hill, and when they entered the hall I had to hold them close just a little bit longer, to feel that they were here, the two of them, and that nothing had expanded into anything unknown, aside from the fact that I was mother to them both, perhaps. I thought about it again as I was cooking dinner and preparing to fry the meat, it wasn’t something I tolerated well, the smell of raw meat and blood. It’s a smell, I told my husband as he sat slicing carrots at the kitchen table, that we’re not meant to recognize. It’s a nauseating, body-concealed secret. We all have it inside, of course, but it’s not something we want to know anything about. My husband nodded. It reminded me, actually, of how a body writhing in birth smells. The smell that permeates the birthroom––flesh, blood, fat, amniotic fluid. It gushed out of you with the baby, everything you had inside, nothing you could do to hide it. You smelled. You transcended your human boundaries. And what happened? You smelled. Everyone in the room had been enveloped by the smell of my body’s insides, it was terrifying, and concise. The meat, sizzling now in the butter, had sealed itself again, had formed a fried crust, and that’s how it is, I thought, with everything. Things open and they close again. Blood now bubbled from the meat as it fried, with relief I turned the piece over.
It was twelve days before Christmas. When the kids were in bed and my husband back at work, I walked around, tidying up and listening to a Gregorian choir sing Christmas songs. I lit a candle on the living room table; a Christmas star, perforated with a pattern meant to resemble snowflakes, hung in the window and cast a prickled shadow on the ceiling. I moved the rocking chair next to the table beneath the Christmas star, intending to sit there and read, perhaps. I had my back to the window and was arranging couch cushions when suddenly I heard a slight cough. It came from the rocking chair. I spun around, convinced that someone had teleported into the rocking chair, maybe from outside, maybe from another dimension, what did I know, and that person now sat in my rocking chair coughing. But the rocking chair was empty. I glanced mistrustfully at the Christmas star, as if it had something to do with that cough. But the Christmas star placidly continued to throw its prickly pattern on the ceiling. I took my book and sat on the couch instead, but something was off, I couldn’t relax. When I turned toward the window again, someone was sitting beside me on the couch. It was Alice. Alice told me she’d come from the Beyond to inform me that her brother had departed this life and come to her. Also, he’d told Alice everything I’d done to him once, I’d seduced and abandoned him. I hadn’t understood the fact that he just wasn’t the type you could treat like that. He was a sensitive guy with a complex nature, plus he was engaged, a fact I had known. That was a chaotic time in my life, I was twenty-five back then, I heard myself explaining to Alice, I wasn’t myself, that was just how I behaved back then, he wasn’t the only one, it was like I was trapped inside a big, diabolical clown that was somehow myself, I wanted to be loved and I wasn’t, I said. Doesn’t matter, Alice responded. I wish he weren’t dead, I said. Wishes are balloons, Alice said, and death waits with a needle. I covered my face with both hands, I had expected this moment, I had expected my sins to catch up with me, I just hadn’t thought it would be today. I looked up and Alice was gone. The Christmas star was still doing its thing, prickly pattern on the ceiling, etc. The rain, which had stopped while Alice was there, suddenly gushed down, a river ran next to the sidewalk, there was no one outside, the asphalt was wet and still, the street lamp stood there and realized, but said nothing. What happened next was unbelievable: I walked through the wall like I’d never done anything else, like walking through walls was as easy as swimming, and it was, actually, the wall felt like another fluid element, just like I was a fluid element. And then I crossed the asphalt to the nearest street lamp, climbed to the light globe, and entered the lamp’s interior. Why I did that I have no clue, but it had something to do with my need to illuminate, to just be a lamp, to light the way for others, to simply fill up with light, to perform one single function: light.
After a quarter hour’s lighting it occurred to me that this wasn’t right, I needed to go back inside to the kids, they couldn’t be left alone at night, what had I been thinking? I tried to pass back through the wall, but it had closed. My expansive ability had obviously run its course. I ran around to the other side of the house and tried to open the door, but the door was locked, of course it was, I had locked it myself. But beneath the mat was the key I had set out for my husband. The kids were sleeping safely in their beds and hadn’t noticed that their mother, for a few minutes at least, had transformed to a street lamp. And that’s how it should be, I told myself when I stood brushing my teeth a little while later, and it seemed as if, with these bricklike words, I was intuiting something important about life, something that depressed me on the one hand and cheered me on the other, as if I’d discovered the card to play when I felt myself pressed into a corner, when life’s peculiar ability to be both good and bad forced me to choose sides. I just hoped future days would not be like this one and that my sudden expansive ability wasn’t one I had acquired.
© Gunnhild Øyehaug. First published in Dreamwriter (Kolon, 2016). By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.
Merethe Lindstrøm brings to life a mother’s terror when she is robbed at knifepoint as she holds her infant daughter in her arms.
One time she was threatened with a knife.
When other people talked about terrifying experiences, they always said it happened so fast. But this didn’t happen fast. It took its time. She was riding the metro home from a girlfriend’s. She was carrying the sleeping child. That was the reason she chose the seat next to the door. She was bearing a weight and wanted to sit down so her daughter could sleep in her lap.
The car was empty. It was late at night, too late to be out with a three-year-old. She could have taken a taxi, but they lived near the T-bane station. She regretted her choice after she was on the train. She had waited at an above-ground station along one of the eastbound routes, they had been the only people on the platform, but just as the electronic voice over the loudspeaker announced that the doors were closing, a man appeared, he grabbed the doors, which were almost shut, and forced his way inside. The train started, the man took the seat directly across from Karin, his face was turned toward hers. She looked out the window, fervently wishing she was still standing on the platform.
Then they went underground.
She felt the train pick up speed in the tunnel, she felt it pitch, and when she looked up again the man was holding a knife.
She had glanced up quickly when he entered, noticed that he wasn’t exactly short, had formed a general impression of his appearance. But it was fuzzy, lacking in detail. Now it was difficult to see him at all, her terror, like a solid pane of clouded glass, obscured him. He was just a face, a hand, and the knife. A stranger’s empty voice.
Earlier that day she had been to one of the public outdoor swimming pools west of the city, she could still feel the sun, her skin was warm, almost burned, she had stood together with her daughter in the shallow pool, listening to the distinct, endless soundtrack of different voices, they could have been inside a drum, it was as if the soundtrack was exerting a vague, even pressure on her eardrums. The heat was perpetual, solid, like a roof above her, something pressing down. The sense of numbness in her legs, the prickling sun. Right then she could have been half awake, she was convinced she slept, part of something, dreaming the same perpetual dream. The pale cement around the pool, a faded yellow color, and a defined field with something that resembled bluish mildew; the largest pool was located up some steps, built into the upper plateau. It had windows in its cement walls, the water was darker there, and every time someone jumped off the diving board, which was between five and ten meters high, you could see through the windows as they broke the water’s surface. Others swam or stood upright, some simply floated, allowing themselves to be jostled by the water’s perpetual motion. The whole day, outside in the heat, she had the same feeling, of being asleep.
The knife wasn’t pointing directly at her, the hand holding it rested on his hip, next to his jacket pocket, ready to conceal the weapon if necessary. She was convinced the knife was enormous, and it was not more than two feet away from her daughter’s spine. Karin recognized this, she sat stiffly, as if on a cold surface, like she had sat and changed into her bathing suit on the shadowy steps earlier that day, his glance might have belonged to a gynecologist, a prison guard, someone with authority. And the terror she felt was old, maybe from her own childhood. That feeling of helplessness. Even if she had never felt so helpless before.
No, that wasn’t quite right.
What do you have in your purse? he asked.
I want whatever’s in your purse. Karin felt her daughter’s head shift, pressed it carefully back against her shoulder, and began a rocking motion with her upper body.
No, she thought. He has to understand. She was sitting here with a child.
One time last year she had woken up and noticed how silent it was, it was barely six o’clock, it was never so silent at that time. Hilde, her daughter, liked to come into the bedroom early, she lay there carrying on little conversations with herself. Karin had walked through the apartment to her daughter’s room, noticing as she entered the bitter, cloying smell of vomit, and had seen the soaked blanket and pillow. She had pulled the blanket off Hilde, had felt her daughter’s burning skin, had stripped off the girl’s pajamas. Hilde’s body, white, naked. The feverish, racing heart as Karin bent down to listen. Karin had shouted that they had to hurry.
He slammed the window shut above them. Hilde shifted her head but didn’t wake up. Karin sat motionless. The back of her daughter’s neck was damp, she sweated during sleep. Karin’s face was next to the girl’s hair, it still smelled. He repeated that he wanted whatever was in her purse, she shoved the object forward, when he grabbed it the knife came closer, it was pointed directly upright now, if she lost her grip on her child, if her daughter fell back even a few inches, it would pierce her neck. Karin clung tight. She couldn’t put the child beside her on the seat, Hilde would wake up and be frightened. A hot surge in her throat, she had to swallow. The nausea appeared so suddenly. When it vanished, she felt calmer.
He inspected her purse, did a thorough job of it, unzipped a pocket, some objects fell out, her address book, a comb, the tissue package, a small bag of gummy fruit she had brought for Hilde. He opened the pocketbook, found her credit cards, her money, she had money, just a little over five hundred kroner, she was relieved there was something to occupy him. She caught a glimpse of their passport pictures in the front pocket, herself, her daughter, both staring wide-eyed at the same point, the way in which the pictures had been taken, from head on, made it look like the subject was approaching the camera.
Your cell phone, he said.
She thought it was in her purse.
But it wasn’t, he held the purse open, he had inspected all the compartments. Her terror returned, just as quick and sharp, she realized that she had put her telephone in her jacket pocket, it was right beneath her sleeping daughter.
She needed to move. She wondered if it would wake up the girl and cause her to cry, thereby putting them in even greater danger.
They had driven the car to the hospital early in the morning, her husband maneuvering through the still empty streets, she had held her daughter in her arms the whole way, one time Hilde threw up on her shoulder. They stopped in front of the emergency room entrance and carried her inside, through the hallways, up to a counter, and then to an examination room where other people took over. She remembered things that were said, etc. They examined Hilde and put her in a bed. For a while Karin was together with her daughter, holding her hand, later she and her husband were sent to a waiting room.
They were each left to their chair and their thoughts about what might happen.
A whole night spent with that thought.
The man was not content. She had to get moving.
She slid her hand beneath Hilde, was able to unzip her jacket pocket while rocking her daughter and whispering something soothing. She felt the cell phone’s smooth surface and grabbed it.
Her daughter slept on.
He inspected the telephone. Closely, like a convincing repairman. The cell phone was expensive, but not entirely new, she wasn’t especially attached to it. Nothing but a tool. Still, there was something intimate about the way he held it in his lap. It was the SIM card he was after. At first she didn’t understand why. It seemed irrational, everything he had done so far had had an odd sort of logic she could follow. The knife was in his hand while he worked, she didn’t look right at it. It was a knife, there was nothing more she needed to know, she tried not to see it.
He fiddled with the small object. Removed the battery and SIM card. He had another card and tried to replace hers with his own.
She tried to breathe, it felt like she couldn’t quite breathe right, like she couldn’t quite exhale, not just due to her fear, but due to the weight, the child she held. Outside in the pool she had felt the weight as she shifted her feet, she was standing in the water to catch Hilde, who jumped off the edge. It was a rhythm they had: her daughter directly above her, the smile when she launched. Karin’s outstretched arms. The smooth, slightly chilled body. They could go on and on.
They had pulled into a station and he was more alert now. Sat back up, pulled the knife to where it wouldn’t be visible. The brakes squealed. The empty, underground station.
They came to a halt. Maybe half a minute. Someone could come running through the doors and catch sight of her, of him. The electronic voice: The doors are closing.
The doors closed. The train started again.
The child woke.
One time during the night at the hospital she had needed something to drink, suddenly she was so terribly thirsty. She was standing at the soda machine next to the entrance where they had first entered, when a woman was shown through the door, she had no visible injury but her face had this expression, or it was more of an impression, that Karin had never forgotten. The woman was sobbing so that you could not hear it, it was more like a hiccup, like she might have lost her breath, soundlessly she was led into another room, like being led out of this world, Karin had thought.
They had driven home again several days later, through the same streets, but midday this time. Hilde had sat in Karin’s lap, healthy again, talking about food and a new backpack.
It had all gone smoothly.
She was way too vulnerable.
On the train, Hilde was trying to sit up. Confused, bothered by the light. It’s OK, said Karin, you’re just a little tired.
She tried to coax the girl back into a resting position. Her daughter twisted away from the shoulder where she had been lying. There was no way Karin could stop her from seeing the man sitting across from them. Hilde turned away, rubbed her eyes. Trusting. They had stood at the window in the pool wall, looked beneath the water, she had lifted her daughter so that she could also see. It was the light inside, she suddenly remembered, that let them see everything so clearly. She had never imagined it could be so clear. They had stood and peered inside.
The knife was still partially hidden at his hip where he had concealed it when they had entered the station. Hilde wasn’t alarmed. She was thirsty.
You can’t have any water now, Karin said. Her terror was a thin thread in her voice. She had to let her daughter slide onto the seat, the girl was too restless, she did not want to be in Karin’s lap.
He didn’t like that, he held the knife erect again, closer to them both. Hilde repeated that she was thirsty.
The moment she had registered the knife, Karin had glanced at the emergency brake, the small handle beside the door on the opposite wall of the train, the red handle with the white engraved letters. Emergency brakes were always mounted, although the only ones who seem to use them were kids who pulled them for the fun of it. The emergency brake was useless now. How would the train driver reach them? But she kept her eye on it. It seemed logical.
One time she glanced out the window, the tunnel outside widened a bit, it looked like there were open areas in the corridors, and she thought it should be possible to see something, it might even be possible, but after they had passed she had no idea what she had seen, what she was seeing.
Do you have anything else? he asked.
She saw his eyes, registered the fact they were inspecting her, glancing toward the empty seats behind her, he wanted more, a watch, she thought, or a piece of jewelry, a ring. She had nothing, she never wore a ring. Karin shook her head. She said sorry, she regretted it, it felt like he had a right to ask her for something and that she had let him down. She had exposed herself to this possibility, to his anger. She had interpreted it as anger when he entered and drew the knife. But he wasn’t angry. His emotion no longer resembled anger. What was it then?
He was calm.
Guilt, didn’t he feel any guilt?
She felt guilty, she had taken the T-bane so late with her daughter, she had sat right here, she wasn’t invulnerable, who did she think she was. Other people experienced things like this, she thought. That woman’s face, her expression, the one who had entered the hospital that night. What was visible on her features: something that had happened.
Calm, you were supposed to remain calm. The bag of gummy fruit still lay on the edge of the seat, they had bought it at a kiosk in the pool area where they had spent several hours. The bag balanced there, on the hazy divide between earlier that day and this very moment, now, as she sat here. A cool, defined lunacy. The rattle of the train scooted the bag forward, when it fell the gummy fruit would land at their feet.
He tucked the shell of her mobile phone in his pocket. His face was closed, she saw him better now. He was young, the light, streaked hair, the long fingers. She ought to remember how he looked, but why would she ever want to do that. She just wanted to forget him.
He shifted, scooted sideways to the other end of the seat, he was no longer directly across from her, he still held the knife, but it was not pointed toward her. Did he smile at her daughter, see that she was becoming frightened. Perhaps there was indeed a kind of admission on his face that a child was present, but no, his face remained closed, concentrated. Hilde seemed confused, she sought his face for acknowledgment, Karin tried to see with her eyes. She saw what Hilde saw.
She thought: Where’s he from, who is he.
They had almost reached a new station and Karin understood he was preparing to do something, he had finished his business, Hilde was sitting next to her, the girl’s legs stuck out over the seat edge, the tips of her white jogging shoes pointed toward each other, the metro was still underground. Then Hilde began scooting off the seat. Karin realized, knew, that the knife was level with Hilde’s chest, her small chest, her jacket that said Hello Kitty. The cunning logo depicted there, her narrow arms, the knife Karin saw so clearly now. It was an atypical, serrated knife, not especially large, smaller than a kitchen knife, but with a wider blade, meant to pierce deep, cause damage.
She grabbed her daughter to pull her back onto the seat, but the man grabbed Hilde’s arm and stood. Karin didn’t dare to retain her hold, terrified of what resistance might mean. Her daughter slipped from her arms, just like earlier that day, when she had stood on the edge of the pool, trying to grab her daughter, but losing her grip so Hilde continued down. For a moment Hilde was underwater. Visible there, her dark hair, the top of her skull.
She knew he was not listening, realized that was not how these things worked, but still he let go. By chance, or because he had never meant to hurt them anyway and because other passengers were waiting when they pulled into the station. The door opened with a conspicuous thud––later, when she began taking the T-bane again, she would always remember it, that thud always caused her to wince––he let go of Hilde, who was crying now, he headed onto the platform toward the stairs. Vanished.
The other passengers came in, sat down. The train began to move. She glanced out and they were still in the tunnel, she could see her reflection. Those windows into the clear water, where she could see inside the pool. What she saw through these windows now could be a darker, deeper water, a pond or a lake. Just darkness, no movement, no variation, a nothing through which they moved. Or maybe they had stopped. The feeling of sleeping that she had while standing outside in the pool, the glittering light, the sedateness, the whole still-standing day, in contrast to now––is this how it feels, waking up, she thought, is this how it is.
© Merethe Lindstrøm. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.
At first glance, this month's issue may seem not merely at odds with our usual approach, but completely contrary to it. Why is a magazine specializing in international literature translated into English publishing an issue of writing from the US? In fact, this issue is not a departure but a continuation: in demonstrating the vital importance of reading and learning about the world outside our borders, it confirms the renewed urgency of our efforts in the face of disturbing political and social trends.
Public discourse in the US has been marked in recent months by growing anti-immigration sentiment and rising nativism, reflected in government policies aimed at curbing entry and increasing deportation. In response, we’ve compiled this issue to demonstrate the wealth and variety of literature produced by international writers living in the US. The writers presented here all came to the US from other countries and continue to write, and publish, in their original languages as well as in English translation. Their work contributes to the literatures of the lands and languages that defined them before they immigrated; but it also expands both our sense of literary creativity and our understanding of life within, and without, the boundaries of the US.
The eleven contributors hail from as many countries. The length of their residency in the US ranges from months to over twenty years, and their biographies vary widely as well. Some fled oppression and persecution, and several have been or still are hosted by the International Cities of Refuge Network and City of Asylum programs. Others came to the US for the reasons so many have over the years: to find employment, religious freedom, a safer environment, a better life. Several teach in US universities, and one spent ten years as a cabdriver, but all have continued to work as writers. We're pleased to present the results of that labor here.
Peruvian journalist Marco Avilés opens his evocatively titled “I Am Not Your Cholo” with a scene from his visit to a high school in Maine, where he has been invited to talk about his experience as an immigrant. He disarms the (possibly anti-immigration) students with the tale of an American couple who moved to Peru and started a restaurant, then adds that many other Americans have followed: the largest number of immigrants to Peru are from the US. His audience’s surprise—"Wasn’t it Latinos who migrated and set up home in a country that wasn’t theirs? Citizens of the First World actually cross borders looking for a better future?”—provides a starting point for a searing interrogation of skin color and privilege, both in the US and Peru, and how that combination both drives and impedes the essentially human impulse of migration.
Ezzedine C. Fishere’s “Bahaa and Shareef Escape to New York” illustrates the violent homophobia of his native Egypt. Head over heels in love and tired of living a lie, Shareef wants to come out. His lover, Bahaa, balks, reminding him that coming out—to “their families, friends, and a whole society with all its cultural and historical garbage piled up through the ages”—would be nothing less than suicidal. In an impulsive move, Shareef announces their relationship on Facebook. When his sister calls to alert him that someone has hacked his account and posted “disgraceful” things, he proudly tells her it’s no hack, then makes the post public, with immediate and devastating results. It’s a wrenching look at the dangers of being openly gay in Egypt and a cautionary tale about the destructive power of social media.
Osama Alomar’s concise fictions are renowned for their brevity and wit. His sly moral fables and political allegories, often featuring speaking animals or inanimate objects come to life, swing from anger to wry detachment, bitterness to irony. Coded to elude censors, they reflect both the repression of free speech and the ingenious circumvention thereof. Alomar left Syria for Chicago, where he drove a cab, sometimes with his translator riding shotgun as they worked on his texts between fares. He’s now in Pittsburgh as a resident at the City of Asylum.
Hiromi Itō emerged as a leading Japanese poet in the 1980s and relocated to California in the early 1990s (“in the year the Persian Gulf War started”). Her poem “Roadkill” recalls her first confused days in the US, struggling with language and idioms. Itō’s perplexity at the term “roadkill” (“But why does roadkill end with kill / And not killed? / It has been killed, it isn’t doing the killing”) leads to a catalog of the corpses she sees on the roads and makes a powerful connection with the casualties of the war.
Chinese poet Zhang Xinxin’s life has been shaped, and derailed, by politics, from the Cultural Revolution that interrupted her education in childhood to the events of Tiananmen Square, which stranded her in the US. She now lives in Atlanta with her husband. Her wry “After the Inferno” recounts how, strapped to a stretcher in an ambulance following a serious car crash, she was inexplicably compelled to discuss comparative versions of hell and the afterlife with her bemused husband. She finds his Western system wanting—“Your hell has a design flaw”—and details why the Eastern belief in reincarnation is far superior. (Happily, this position was not immediately put to the test.) The conversation is an amusing snapshot of an incongruous moment, but also a reminder of the multiple lives she’s already led, and the cultural differences she navigates daily.
In 2013 the poet, activist, and blogger Tuhin Das was targeted by fundamentalist militant groups in Bangladesh. When police responded by combing his writings for anti-Islamist statements to use against him, he went into hiding, then fled his country in 2016. His defiant poem “The Assassin” testifies to the persecution and terror of his previous life and suggests the relief his current safe harbor provides.
Burmese writer and activist Khet Mar also fled her country, in her case after years of persecution, arrests, torture, and imprisonment. She now works as a journalist for the Radio Free Asia Burmese Service. In “The Sound of Snow,” she recalls a night in her home in Maryland. Awakened by trees banging against her window in a powerful late-winter blizzard, she flashes back to memories of police brutalizing peaceful student protestors in Myanmar. Howling winds turn into screams of pain; as the storm blankets the landscape in white, bloody images turn her vision red. “All we wanted,” she reflects, “was to put an end to the cycle of violence and misery.” The blizzard will eventually taper off, but will the repression in Myanmar follow suit?
Most artistic expression is strictly policed in Iran. The novelist Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar defies these restrictions, addressing inflammatory topics including women’s rights, revolution, the war, political and social crises, sex discrimination, and sexual violence. His “A Slice of Darkness,” in which the torture and ominously detailed interrogation of a writer leads to a horrifying result, suggests why his work is banned in his native country.
On a lighter note, Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera riffs on Julio Cortazar’s “Casa Tomada.” It’s not the first such homage (or even the first to appear in our pages), but Herrera adds a dog and children to the mix, throws in a surprising new character, and stirs in his own mordant take on the events. Herrera’s usual territory is the Mexico ravaged by drug wars and government corruption; here his characters battle a different but equally insuperable opponent.
Congolese novelist Alain Mabanckou offers a different sort of homage to his fellow Francophone African great, the late Mongo Beti. In a dusty park in Beti’s native Cameroon, a visiting writer is accosted by a voluble street person. The crazed man is known for reading aloud from, fittingly, Beti’s Story of the Madman, but soon turns from the text to hector the narrator; his unhinged tirade strikes a surprising nerve. Mabanckou left Congo for France in his early twenties and has spent the past fifteen years teaching literature in universities in the US. He is currently a professor in the department of French at UCLA.
Journalist and novelist Ibtisam Azem grew up in the Palestinian Territories and now lives in New York, where she is a correspondent for the Arabic daily al-Araby al-Jadeed and co-editor at Jadaliyya. In an excerpt from her second novel, The Book of Disappearance, a man remembers his grandmother and his childhood in the divided city of Jaffa. Family stories entwine with history as the narrator laments: “We inherit memory the way we inherit the color of our eyes and skin.”
These writers, and others like them, open channels of communication and dialogue to places that politics may marginalize or close off. Literature transcends geographical and political borders; thanks to translation, it can overcome language barriers as well. These writers have crossed all these borders, demonstrating the power of translated work to enlarge our worldviews and enrich our sense of literature, and humanity.
© 2017 Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A woman whose world suddenly expands. A journey toward the island that takes a tragic turn. A knife pulled on a train. Each of the stories chosen for this feature presents us with characters in the midst of what are to them life-altering situations. Written by Norwegian authors recognized as masters of the craft, each story also captures, in different ways, but with equal precision, life’s essential experiences. That is to say, though it is important to emphasize that each situation is particular to the individual characters’ experience, not to mention their cultural context, what emerges is a sense of general human struggle, as the individual or group confronts, among other things: the loosening of familiar boundaries; how fateful our reliance upon chance can be; the way we struggle to make sense of events; the various ways in which we slip through or struggle on or simply hope to survive the day.
Recently, I asked each writer, Gunnhild Øyehaug, Laila Stien, and Merethe Lindstrøm, to reflect upon the art of the short story, upon their own particular style, and upon what inspired them to write the story at hand. The authors’ reflections are woven into a general introduction to the stories themselves and accompanied by a reflection on each story’s translation.
“Light” by Gunnhild Øyehaug
“Light” by Gunnhild Øyehaug appears in Øyehaug’s latest collection, Draumeskrivar (Dreamwriter, 2016). It is a story about the way in which familiar boundaries, both inside and outside of ourselves, expand and contract. The story is typical of Øyehaug’s style, which the author describes as a “mix of both poetry and comedy, tragedy and reflection, simplicity and analysis,” as a woman whose name we never learn reflects on a series of surprising and potentially terrifying life experiences. Although the story is truly short, it provides an intense glimpse into the narrator’s life, giving us a clear sense of who is speaking. In this way, the protagonist is also typical of Øyehaug’s narrator figures. As the author remarks, in direct contrast to the stated wisdom of Gustave Flaubert, who famously maintained that “an author must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere,” Øyehaug’s narrators have “forgotten to think about the ‘visible nowhere’ part.” Instead, they remain visible and accessible throughout the story so “no one has to wonder what they are doing.” The narrator is a tangible presence, someone who constructs the narrative from the stuff of their experience, focusing rather upon what happened than why it happened. This strategy allows for surprising plot twists, events well outside the bounds of everyday experience, that seem at home within the story’s body while still making room for interiority.
Even when confronted with the unexpected, there is a sense that the incredible events before us have indeed taken place, until, before we know it, our own understanding of what is possible, both within the story’s framework and outside it expands to accommodate the unfathomable. It is an idea the narrator anticipates in a humorous way in her discussion of birth, and the unsettling, we might say aromatic, experience of a physicality that is both miraculous and entirely natural.
The short story, of course, is its own particular art form and every author brings his or her own innovations to the table. As the Norwegian writer Tor Ulven, best known for his poetry and short prose, once described the genre: “Short prose gives me the possibility to write concentrated texts from three lines to three pages. It has a compression that resembles poetry, but also a flexibility and an openness that resembles history.” Much like a handwork, a sculpture maybe, that takes shape according to the tension, the compression of whatever is being presented––a movement, plot; a slice; an overview, life––in the hands of the working artist. For Øyehaug, the short story allows her to “swoop in and swoop out again.” It is the ability to depict a whole life through one or two situations. As Øyehaug reflects: “I like how I’m moulded into a thought or a reflection or a feeling just long enough for me to be transformed.” Like her narrators, Øyehaug also betrays herself, her presence, when she adds that, in creating these stories.
For Øyehaug, the inspiration to write this particular story came when she thought she saw a person slide through the side of a moving bus. It was this illusion that prompted her “to tell a story about possible and not-possible life-expanding situations.”
“Journey toward the Island” by Laila Stien
“Journey toward the Island” by Laila Stien appears in the author’s first short story collection, Nyveien (The New Road, 1979). In the story, we encounter a group of Sami herders driving their reindeer from Norway’s mountainous northern tundra region to an island located off the country’s northern coast. Within the story itself, place names, either in Norwegian or Sami, are notably absent: It is simply the journey toward the island that this particular group of Sami reindeer herders is undertaking, a journey the group makes every spring and one, too, that is instinctual to the reindeer. Everyone in the group, including the children, know their tasks: jobs they have performed over years or a lifetime. This sense of habit, of pursuing a familiar course, is conveyed in the story’s opening sentence: “Soon the journey north will be complete . . . ” As the story unfolds, however, we find that much of the group’s success depends upon chance. Although this year the herders are optimistic about their chances, they also know tragedy can strike for many reasons: a shifting current, a lack of resources, the moment cultures (the minority Sami and the dominant Norwegian) collide.
The short story, in addition to being its own particular art form, can also prove an artistic calling. For Stien, writing short stories turned out to be just that. At the time she was composing the stories that would appear in Nyveien, Stien believed that she wrote short stories “because I had limited time at my disposal for each writing session, I had two small children.” However, as the children grew up, Stien discovered she was a short story writer by nature: “I discovered that, for my part, it was short stories no matter how long a stretch of time I might have to sit in peace and write.” In fact, she compares her experience to that of Anton Chekhov, who early on discovered “that his temperament or disposition wasn’t suited to long lines, that is, to the novel.” It was, according to Stien, a recognition in herself of a need to “‘retune the instrument,’ that is, to give it a new sound, another voice, to try to shape it. The idea of remaining in the same world, both with respect to characters and their voices, seems to me intolerable.” The challenge, according to Stien, then becomes to express what is essential in a compressed arena where so much is left unsaid and the story’s atmosphere often bears much of the content. And when it comes to creating particular atmospheres, Stien is a recognized master. As the Norwegian writer Bjarte Breiteig notes, Stien’s style is “based on everyday Norwegian speech patterns. Incomplete sentences, hesitations, clumsiness, and clichés bring warmth and life into Stien’s stories [. . .]––everything in an environment full of snow, darkness, and great distances.” Stien’s stories achieve both familiarity and distance, an idea we also find in “Journey toward the Island,” as the herders continue their familiar journey, where a dark fate––itself tragically not unfamiliar––awaits them.
The events of the story, it turns out, stem directly from the author’s own experience. Stien, who was preparing to study Sami at the University of Oslo, made this same journey from Finnmarksvidda to Magerøya with a group of Sami reindeer herders in 1970. As she remarks: “Something happened at the end of the migration and it was something that shouldn’t occur. That’s what I convey in my short story, but I take it a little farther than what took place when I was present. I describe what almost happened, what could have happened, what was on the verge of happening . . . ”
“Under” by Merethe Lindstrøm
“Under” by Merethe Lindstrøm is taken from the author’s short story collection Gjestene (Guests, 2007). The story, like the others in this feature, dwells upon the unexpected, this time from the vantage point of a terrifying robbery: a knife pulled on a woman and her young daughter when riding the subway at night. In the context of this crisis situation, the story provides a picture of a woman trying to make sense of her day’s events, also in light of her previous experience. As Lindstrøm explains: “I thought of how different parts of one day might reflect each other, some of it peaceful, some dramatic, but how we integrate everything when we look back, how thoughts form, weaving everything together, as we are trying to find some meaning and context.”
“Under” is written in Lindstrøm’s typically understated prose, which avoids even quotation marks, giving an interiority to the exchange of words and, in this case, a trapped sense to the atmosphere. It is a controlled narration, rather like controlled breathing, once again that sense of compression, of being frozen in place before a terrifying reality, even as the woman’s thoughts, in the midst of her crisis situation, wander––in search of sense, among other things. As such, she moves among similarities and dichotomies: light and dark; open and closed; windows that permit sight and those that do not; another terrifying situation and its aftermath.
“Under” is the short story in the hands of a practiced artist, where we again see displayed the balancing act between compression and openness, the arena where every word counts. As Lindstrøm remarks of this balancing act: “The form is challenging because it wants less, which seems like a paradox as you write. You become so aware, you change just one word, a phrase, and you have changed it all, and the story might say something very different from what you intended.” Interestingly enough, we see these same deliberations in the protagonist’s mind as she ponders how a single movement might alter everything, how shifting in her seat beneath her sleeping daughter, for example, will affect the knife-wielding man across from them. The result, in this moment and in Lindstrøm’s stories in general, is an atmosphere the author describes as “immediate and acute.”
The inspiration to write “Under,” we find, also emerged from a real-life crisis situation. As Lindstrøm explained: “At fifteen my son was threatened with a knife, together with his friend he was stopped outside the Nationaltheateret station and they were held there for quite some time, people walking by, not seeing or wanting to see.”
And so we have it: an expansion, a journey, a knife. The writers here offer the hallmark feature of every well-written short story: a punch to the existential gut.
© 2017 Kerri Pierce. All rights reserved.
Marco Avilés grapples with questions of difference and discrimination for immigrants in Peru and the US in this essay from his book No soy tu cholo, published in Peru by Debate, an imprint of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial. An earlier version appeared originally in Ojo Publico.
An American couple relocated to Lima and opened a hamburger joint in one of the city’s culinary hotspots: the formidable Calle Dante, in Surquillo, a neighborhood full of popular chicharronerías and right by the eighth block of Avenida Angamos, where the samurai Toshi Matsufuji runs one of the best ceviche places this side of the universe. The competition is stiff, but Justin and Brandy Wiley seem pretty optimistic. Their restaurant is called PapiCarne, and they write in English on their social media profiles. What are two gringos doing serving up hamburgers in the Mecca of Latin American cuisine? One Sunday morning, Brandy picked up the newspaper at breakfast and Oh my God, its food critic had devoted a review to them.
I told this story one Friday in early spring, at a high school in a well-heeled town in Maine, about four thousand miles from my country. The Spanish teacher had invited me to one of his classes to share my experience as a Latino immigrant in the times of Trump. Many students, he warned me, sympathized with the President’s anti-immigration policies. In other words, I, a brown-skinned Latino, was going to play at being special visitor to a room of school kids who probably didn’t even think I should be there.
There were five students in the classroom: two girls, and three boys; all white, and with hair that spanned a spectrum from blond to chestnut. They looked at me with typical teenage suspicion, as if saying “You want my attention, you’re gonna have to work for it.” The PapiCarne story broke the ice.
“Two gringos opening up a restaurant in Lima,” I said, “is as ballsy as a Peruvian telling the folks at NASA how to reach the Moon.”
It wasn’t the best metaphor, but we all had a little laugh.
“Machu Picchu is Peru’s Disney World,” I went on, showing them a photograph of a young couple kissing in front of an Inca wall. The image was to drive home my point that four million tourists travel to Peru each year. According to Peru’s National Migration Office, a quarter of them come from the US, and many of them decide to stay there and put down roots in the land of the cholos. Which is exactly what happened in the case of Justin and Brandy, founders of PapiCarne, who spent their honeymoon in Lima and fell in love with the place.
“And do you know how many of your compatriots have ended up living in my country in the last few years?” I asked the class.
Silence. The kids listened on, nonplussed. A whole bunch of Americans go to Peru and stay there to live? Wait a second. Wasn’t it the Latinos who migrated and set up home in a country that wasn’t theirs? Citizens of the First World actually cross borders looking for a better future? You bet. Migration is human. One in every ten foreigners living in Peru is gringo –according to the International Organization for Migration–, and the mere mention of these statistics is sacrilege. The United States is the country that sends the most immigrants to Peru; more than Spain, Chile, and Argentina.
“And how hard is it for someone to become a resident in your country?” another teacher auditing the class asked.
“There’s paperwork to do, just like here,” I told her, and then I turned to the students. “But do you know what the big difference is?”
“First, if you guys ever decide to go to Machu Picchu, you won’t need to get a visa. Whereas if a Peruvian wants to visit Disneyland, he or she will need one. And, judging by what I’ve seen each time I’ve had to go through this process, there’s a better chance you’ll be denied a visa than granted one.”
Second difference. If one day those kids decided to move to Peru, no Peruvian would label them immigrants. They’d call them gringos, just like they call Europeans gringos. Gringos, but never immigrants.
An immigrant is anyone who moves to live in a country that isn’t theirs, the dictionary states. But, in practice, the word “immigrant” is only ever used in one sense: to describe those who move from the south to the north. That is, to label the Latinos, the Africans, the Asians, and all those who come to live and work in the so-called developed countries. Latinos would never use that word, unless we’re referring to ourselves in exile.
“In Peru we simply don’t have political rhetoric against Caucasians like you,” I told them, “nor do we have a crazy president tweeting that he’s going to deport all the gringos.”
For us, the world is a huge house full of rooms with locks on the doors. Being born white in a “developed” and wealthy country affords you the privilege to move with freedom in that labyrinth where others live hemmed in, with no way of leaving their countries. Doors open to you when you’re American. You don’t need as many visas as a Latino does and you can move anywhere you like without carrying the stigma of being an immigrant.
So what did the food critic make of the hamburgers at PapiCarne, that American joint in the belly of Lima?
Brandy Wiley opened the paper that morning and read a pretty friendly review: “A new fried-food joint with East Asian influences has just opened up and deserves at least a couple of visits,” Javier Masías had written in his column. “Surprise,” Brandy wrote on her Facebook wall, before adding on the business’s fanpage: “Thank you for a wonderful 3 weeks, Lima! We are proud to bring our food to such a wonderful and supportive city.” She wrote it in English, of course, and I guess that plenty of us are in agreement about one thing: the people of Lima are incredibly welcoming to immigrants. With foreign immigrants, I mean. With those dark-skinned immigrants who come from the faraway Peruvian Andes and jungles, like me, the picture isn’t quite as pretty.
Next I shared the jacket for my book De dónde venimos los cholos (Where we cholos come from) with the students. How do you explain to a group of teenage gringos what a cholo is? Trump has made it easy for me. A cholo in Peru, I told them, is like a Latino in the US: someone with dark skin who has come from far away, from the south, from the mountains.
The students wrote down questions on little slips of paper and now it was my turn to face the firing squad.
“Why don’t you move some place where there are more Latinos?” one of the kids had asked.
“My wife is from Maine,” I responded. “I guess if she were from another country, from Chile, say, I’d have probably moved there.”
Would things have been different somewhere else? From my own experience, in any Western country, be it the US or Peru, things are pretty much the same for people with dark skin. If you’re a cholo in Lima, there’s a good chance they won’t let you into this cinema or that nightclub and that some woman will shout filthy Indian, mountain goat, lowlife at you. It’s happened to me.
I waited for an awkward comment, but none came. The next question was about my favorite dish. When I finished telling them about ceviche, the teacher handed around some popcorn, apple juice, and a plate of donuts. Then, bathed in the friendly vibes that food never fails to generate, we said good-bye. Only one of the five students came up to shake my hand. He was tall, golden-haired, and sort of mild-mannered. In his eyes I saw something like understanding. Perhaps he’d become more aware of his privilege.
One winter’s afternoon, my wife and I went to the movie theater to see I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary based on an essay by the black writer James Baldwin. The movie contains images depicting what it’s like to be a black person in the US. If you are black and drive a car in this country, you have a higher chance of the police stopping you and, oops, shooting you dead. You also have a lower chance of finishing school, going to college, or getting a good job. The movie shifts back and forth in time, covering the years of slavery up to Obama’s inaugural term as the first black president. It’s powerful stuff, full of footage of dead black leaders, black men and women being kicked into submission, black men and women humiliated by white people. Halfway through the movie, the most interesting part was no longer on the screen, but was happening in the seats around us. Many of the people in the theatre were crying. It was hard not to shed a tear on seeing photographs of Dorothy Counts, one of the first black teenagers to enroll at a white school in North Carolina.
Photo credits: Don Sturkey. Courtesy of the Charlotte Observer.
When the lights went up, dozens of people were still wiping away their tears. In the theater, there were only two black people. They weren’t crying.
My high school chewed up cholos and black kids and spat them out. The final image of Dorothy Counts reminds me of the bullying of a black classmate of mine nicknamed Bemba, which means Big Lips. One look at him and you just knew he wasn’t doing so good. The insults, the blows, the spitting in his face had begun to take a serious toll on him. You only had to go up to him and look him in the eyes, you didn’t even need to insult or hit him, and he would tremble with fear. I remember his nickname. His mouth. His puny body. But I can’t remember his name.
Life wasn’t any simpler for the cholos. Cochachi was like a lost soul. He walked around skirting walls, hiding his cholo face. Back then, I should have made a stand and shown some solidarity with Bemba and Cochachi. I should have taken those blows with them, at their side. I, too, am a cholo. And yet, I chose the quickest route to an easy life. I hid. I never told anyone where I was born, or that my parents and grandparents spoke Quechua. I never invited any of my buddies over because I was terrified they’d work out my origins from my house. Worse still, they might discover just how poor I was. Perhaps even poorer than poor Bemba. More cholo than Cochachi the cholo. These were my ghosts.
My father was old-school and wanted me to study to be a doctor or lawyer. When you’re poor, the degree you choose isn’t always an obvious expression of your talent or what you want to be in the future. Your degree is your ticket out of poverty. But I didn’t pay him any mind. I applied to San Marcos to study journalism. San Marcos is the old public university in Lima where the poor can get a free education without agonizing about not having any money. It is also perfectly representative of the extreme realities of my country. My sister Zoila had graduated a few years before and my head was full of her adventures. She and her friends had edited newspapers, organized poetry readings, fed the miners who came to Lima to protest and who’d set up their tents to sleep in San Marcos because that’s what San Marcos was: a great big open house.
I was poor, but not as poor as a lot of my college friends. G. came from a jungle town in the middle of nowhere and lived at home with a few family members. One morning he showed me the soles of his shoes, riddled with holes. The next day I brought him a pair that I didn’t use anymore. He returned the favor by introducing me to Henry Miller, Gabriel Celaya, Rainer Maria Rilke. I immediately got the reading bug and spent all my free time between the library and the bars around the university, listening to poets.
When I finished my first year, my father insisted that I apply to a private university and switch to a law degree. He was going to do whatever it took to pay the fees. I was his youngest child, his only son, and he, a doting macho. One morning he accompanied me to register for the entrance exam to the Católica, that prestigious, "liberal" private university, where the real paupers studied thanks to scholarships. We traveled by bus for an hour and a half on the Z line, from San Juan de Lurigancho, the working-class cholo "barriada" where we lived, and then walked the last stretch along Avenida Universitaria. It was one of the few times we really spoke cholo to cholo. How were we going to pay the fees? He was almost seventy, had retired some time earlier and was still running a local store, where I also worked in my free time. I didn’t want to be one more burden to him. Maybe I could get another job? To him, this proposal sounded disrespectful. Not a chance.
The Católica looked so perfect from the street: the pristine redbrick walls, the freshly cut lawns, students in summery outfits driving in and out in their cars. The sight of that campus with its flock of privileged students conveyed a reality far from our own. It was intimidating. I took a deep breath and told my father that this university wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be a lawyer either. “Dad,” I said, “you just have to trust me.” He didn’t insist. We shook hands, as if sealing a deal, and said good-bye there on the street. I walked to San Marcos, read in the library for a while, and that evening went looking for my friends to celebrate.
In San Marcos I could be poor and cholo and I didn’t have the pressure of hiding or explaining myself because most people’s stories were just like mine. I felt at home.
During my first few months as a reporter for El Comercio, Peru's largest daily, I had a colleague who would sleep at the paper on the weekends. He’d arrive at night, pull a pillow and a blanket from his backpack, and curl up under his desk. We were both interns and had to work like dogs to ensure the editors would extend our trial period. I was quick. He was a martyr.
A rumor was going around that our paper only hired graduates from private universities, in particular those in Lima and Piura. The fact that the pair of us were there only partially disproved this myth, because most of the journalists and editors from the previous generation came from private universities. At one point the myth must have been reality. It was 2000. Dictator Alberto Fujimori was on the run. His partner Vladimir Montesinos was behind bars. The times were changing.
The demography at El Comercio was interesting: I’d never seen so many fair-looking people in one place. It wasn’t just their skin; their eyes, their hair, and even the surnames of many of my colleagues sounded different. In San Marcos, my fellow students had surnames like Huamán, Huamaní, Ticona, Ascona, Choque, Chate, Atoche, Calixto, Chahuayo. At El Comercio: Pinilla, Miró Quesada, Del Solar, Cisneros, García Miró, Abramovich, Salem, Larrabure, Swayne. The moment I’d joined the paper, I’d crossed the border from one country into another. Both were called Peru, but they had nothing to do with one another. To which did I belong?
I’ve never been too bothered about clothes, but in those first months as a reporter I wanted to burn my entire wardrobe. I looked at my clumpy shoes, my faded pants, and I hated them because they were my poor clothes, my San Marcos clothes, my cholo clothes. I could no longer hide as I had done in school. I studied my colleagues of the same age: how they dressed, the brands they chose, the cargo pants, the North Face jackets. And then I’d go to those stores, but I never bought anything because it seemed ludicrous to pay so much for so little. With my first intern’s paycheck, I bought myself eleven volumes of Basadre’s La Historia de la República in a second-hand bookstore.
The next day I was back in the office loathing my shoes, my wire-frame glasses, my T-shirts with their stretched collars. I never told anyone (except my wife), when I finally decided to write my story, but I felt so poor, so cholo, so worthless. The only privilege I had (and back then I didn’t even really realize it) was my education. Not the journalist’s degree I’d earned, but the far greater number of books I’d read compared to my colleagues. I noticed it when we chatted, when I read their articles, and when they commented on mine.
I guess if I had been more aware of that advantage I would have been able to make more of it. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. One day I quit the newspaper. Yet again, I felt like I was out of place. I was tired of having to prove, every day, that despite coming from San Marcos, despite being cholo, despite being poor, I was worthy of that job.
It’s strange to grow up thinking that some things aren’t meant for you, that they’re not suitable or that you don’t deserve them. Stranger still to realize that you’ve spent your whole life telling yourself the same thing: this private university isn’t meant for you, that overseas master’s isn’t meant for you, this job isn’t meant for you, that girl isn’t meant for you. The voice never lets up. It’s there, even now that you live in the United States, reminding you that, for many, your skin and your origin are your disadvantage.
Is it so hard to see the privilege when you’re the privileged one? Is it so hard to see that if you’re born with white skin, with a “good surname” and with money, things will be easier for you than for the rest? For starters, if you enjoy those privileges, you don’t have that constant voice in your head telling you: You’re cholo, you won’t get the job because you’re cholo, you can’t come into the club because you’re cholo, they’re working you harder than the rest because you’re cholo.
Three radio hosts on Radio Programas del Perú had a call-in with a San Marcos student one late summer morning in Lima. The kid was the representative for a group of students who had taken over the university to protest against the fees imposed by the new dean. The dean and the students hadn’t managed to resolve their differences by ordinary means, in faculty meetings, and now the problem had turned into a real public headache. The student’s surname was Huamán, and that’s not an insignificant detail—it gave away his indigenous heritage. Those of the radio hosts—Del Río, Mariátegui, and Carvallo—likewise gave them away as white. Two starkly different worlds were coming together to talk. And they just couldn’t do it. The interview wasn’t an interview; it was a lynching:
—And what’s the proposed increase in fees for these people you’re talking about? Del Río, the presenter, asks.
The student explains that it’s between 60 and 200 soles, around 20–60 US dollars.
—Sixty soles per semester, Del Río repeats.
—In other words we’re talking about 10 soles a month, Mariátegui chips in.
—10 soles a month, Del Río reiterates. That’s what—10 cents a day? How much are we talking?
The student doesn’t respond.
—You really mean to say that we’re here discussing this because you don’t want to pay 20, 30 cents a day? Seriously?
The presenters speak in the tone you might use to chide a child. One of them even laughs at the student.
I’m not sure which part of this mistreatment machine enrages me more. Perhaps the purely hypothetical possibility that, in another time, that nervous and aggrieved student could have been me or a friend or one of my sisters. I don’t know how many times, while studying at San Marcos, I went out protesting for the same reasons that kid had. Back then, like now, the journalists and authorities branded us terrorists. Never have they said the same of students from the private universities, and nor will they ever. The label only works one way, in the same way that the label of immigrant used by gringos against Latinos only works one way; that is, to mark out the poor, the cholos, the darkies.
The hashtag “#I Attend San Marcos and I'm No Terrorist” went viral on social media over the days following the interview. Many students and former students from San Marcos shared it as a reaction against the stigma laid upon us by those who have the “privilege” to not have studied there. If you study in the Católica or in the Universidad de Lima, for instance, you will never have to prove that you weren’t responsible for a crime that, in Peru, can land you a life sentence.
Social scientists could dissect that interview in a lab, analyze its every detail. And yet, as in any other tale of abuse, it doesn’t matter so much what the aggressors actually said. What matters is who they are.
Three radio journalists mistreating an interviewee.
Three full-grown people mistreating a kid.
Three privileged white people mistreating a cholo.
I saw similar scenes of bullying at my high school. Many people who enjoy privileges don’t realize just how privileged they are. On top of struggling with all their “disadvantages,” cholos of all colors and nationalities also have to assume the job of explaining their privilege; that is, how the attributes bestowed on them by the grace of the Holy Spirit work in their favor: for having been born where they were born and for growing up in the family they grew up in. If we don’t explain this, if we don’t complain to the privileged classes, they will go on imposing their points of view and their ways. They’ll eat us alive, just like they ripped that student apart. This is why I took the time to go to that school in Maine and talk with the students. That’s why I’m sharing my story here.
Three white, privileged people sitting around a table in a radio studio do not guarantee a plurality of voices or respect for anyone who doesn’t share those privileges. In countries that are as wildly different from one another as Peru and the US, democracy still doesn’t exist in either: we know the rules, their promise of a just and tolerant world, but we’re still a long way from that utopia. This is why we, as the least privileged in society, have to keep up the daily fight, to enter those spaces we still don’t occupy, where our voice isn’t heard as clearly, where our skin isn’t looked upon with the same respect.
We cholos, Latinos, and immigrants have come a long way and carry a complex history with us. The story of where we come from isn’t our disadvantage, as we’re told, and as we tell ourselves. On the contrary, it is our strength.
This essay originally appeared in Ojo Público and comes from No Soy Tu Cholo (Debate) © 2017 Marco Avilés. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.
Two men in a devout Muslim community face drastic consequences when they publicize their relationship in this excerpt from a novel by Egyptian writer Ezzedine Fishere.
Shareef can’t believe how much he loves Bahaa and how little he cares about the consequences. This love was maybe his last chance to get a good grip on his emotional security and self-confidence. But to do that, Shareef knew he had to do something else—he had to come out of the closet. The problem was that Bahaa wanted to keep their relationship secret, something that Shareef grumbled about constantly. And, over time, Shareef’s grumblings turned into rejection, then rebellion and, finally, crisis.
The crisis started the day after Mother’s Day, when the family celebrated Shareef’s mother’s sixtieth birthday. She tells Shareef that she’s got a bride for him. He’ll propose to her and they’ll get married after he graduates, she says. Shareef tells Bahaa he can’t keep living in the closet and he needs them to come out once and for all. Bahaa looks at him for a long time—he knows Shareef’s serious since he constantly brings it up—but this time, from his tone of voice and the look on his face, he senses something’s different. Bahaa objects and tries to make Shareef understand that it’ll be suicide and that it’s not just about him but about Bahaa too, their families, friends, and a whole society with all its cultural and historical garbage piled up through the ages.
But Shareef’s determined. And Bahaa keeps objecting. He tells Shareef he’s looking at the situation through his own eyes, not from the perspective of his lover. Bahaa takes Shareef by the shoulders and, laughing, says he has to stop playing leading man and try to see things from someone else’s point of view. But Shareef’s not listening. He defends himself and his idea passionately, not leaving any room for argument. Bahaa understands his choices: either give in to Shareef and head off on this potentially dangerous adventure or back out calmly then and there. That’ll be painful but he’ll live. And Shareef will eventually understand why he couldn’t go along with it.
There’s a third option they talk about a bunch of times: leaving Egypt and settling down somewhere else, probably New York. Bahaa thinks it’s crazy when Shareef brings it up for the first time. How are we going to get there? It’s not that easy. How will we even get a visa? And work? Where would they get the money? What’ll we do in New York where we don’t know anyone? At the time, Shareef gave only vague responses: he’s got some friends who’ll help them; he has some money; a new life, freedom; and just think about it, New York! Shareef brings up the idea from time to time but he drops it as soon as Bahaa protests.
They don’t agree. They keep talking about it for eight days, face to face and on Whatsapp. Bahaa knows it might be the end of their life in Egypt, but he also understands that refusing would be the end of his life with Shareef.
And he doesn’t want to lose Shareef. Maybe because it’s the only relationship he’s ever had. Maybe because it brought him the stability he didn’t know he’d been looking for. Maybe because Shareef, despite his self-centeredness, makes him happy. Maybe because with Shareef, he found some measure of happiness in the middle of his otherwise difficult life.
At the end of the eighth day, Bahaa tells him he’s not convinced but he won’t give him up. He’ll go along with it but only if they get ready to leave right now. They’ve got to have an emergency plan in case the situation explodes in their face. And that was that.
The catastrophe spread so quickly I don’t think they could’ve grasped the repercussions at that moment. They decide to come out first to their inner circle. Shareef posts two lines on Facebook, only for close friends. He writes that all love is legitimate and that he and Bahaa are lovers and that the freedom to choose is the right of every individual, even if the majority disagrees with this choice.
He and Bahaa sit waiting for the response. No one comments for several minutes but then private messages pour in asking questions. The two re-explain what Shareef wrote, and that’s when things start getting out of hand.
One of their friends asks why they think anyone cares about their sexual life. Or if they want to embarrass them by pretending to be some kind of heroes. And why right now, in the middle of the unfinished revolution? Some friends say it’s political—and stupid—since all they’re doing is serving the Muslim Brotherhood by disfiguring liberalism by linking it with sexual deviancy. Shareef responds with something about freedom and not giving it only to some people. But his friends say that freedom has limits in every society and these are its limits in Egypt at the moment.
Some of his gay acquaintances send alarmed messages. Why’d you do this? Why’d you expose the world’s hatred and open the gates of hell on us? Why are you being so narcissistic? Do you want to be famous? Do you want asylum in a foreign country on the backs of those of us forced to stay in this swamp?
Like that, of the dozens of people they thought were their closest friends, only very few defend their right to choose. And they, too, quickly disappear and cut off contact with them, even on Facebook. Everyone’s finished with them, thinking that all they’re doing is trying to get famous, that they’re not only acting capriciously but also putting themselves and their friends in danger.
That’s when Shareef flies off the handle. All of a sudden, he grabs his telephone and, with two taps on the screen, he changes the audience of the announcement from “close friends” to “public.” Without even asking Bahaa. And things get even crazier from there.
Bahaa’s screams of protest and his uncharacteristic anger last a minute or two as Shareef’s Facebook page sits quiet. Then the messages start coming. Without stop. “Friends” announce their shock at Bahaa and Shareef while others regret trusting them. Some wonder if they’ve secretly been raping children or preying on kids. Supporters of the ruling Islamists condemn them, as expected, by the hundreds, with abuse and threats, condemning them to hell. And then come hundreds of “virtuous” revolutionary youth who denounce them, wondering about the nature of their “plot” against the revolution and whether they’re “pawns.” That’s how their announcement was quickly turned into yet another battleground for the political conflict raging in the country. As for the personal angle of their announcement, it’s pretty much ignored.
Shareef gets a message from Jihan, his former “beard,” and she writes just one word: “despicable.” Then Tamer, Shareef and Bahaa’s boss, contacts Shareef and gives them the choice between submitting their resignations immediately or getting fired. Tamer says he has twenty-four hours to decide and tells him not to come to work no matter what. He’ll collect their things and send them to them. He’s totally unrelenting.
Bahaa’s furious at Shareef. Making a decision like that on his own is a crime in and of itself. It reflects either a pathological self-centeredness or a hidden contempt for Bahaa, a conviction that he’s nothing more than a piece of flesh. Bahaa tells him that if it wasn’t for the circumstances, he’d leave him immediately. Shareef’s angry too and tells Bahaa he’s only proving he doesn’t understand how deep Shareef’s problems are. But they don’t have time to keep fighting. Things get totally out of control a few hours later when their families get involved.
Shareef’s sister is the first to call. Clearly upset, she tells him that his Facebook page has been hacked and that whoever did it posted some disgraceful things there to harm him. Shareef smiles and tells her the page wasn’t hacked. She’s quiet for a while and then asks in a broken voice: “What do you mean it wasn’t hacked? Did you see what they wrote?” Shareef responds mechanically that she must mean what he posted about his relationship with Bahaa. She’s silent for a long time and then stutters: “Yes . . . but . . . really?” And he replies: “Yes.” Then she asks him: “Have you gone crazy? What’s this? What are you saying? You? Shareef?” He tells her again: “Yes.” She keeps asking questions, disparaging him, incapable of believing it. Maybe he’s made a mistake, maybe there’s some kind of treatment, maybe . . .
He tries to keep calm and respond patiently as she stammers on. She then says something about the family. Hasn’t he thought about his mother, father, relatives, them, and even her? “What’s this selfishness? This is a nightmare. You’ve gone insane. What’s happened to you? May God destroy the revolution. This is what we got from it. I can’t believe it!” She breaks out in tears as she hangs up.
His sister’s reaction was a tame preview for how the rest of the family reacted. His father has the same message for him but he’s cruel, harsh, and violent. That, in addition to the slap across his face. His father tells him in a grave, melodramatic voice that Shareef is no son of his and that he’ll renounce him unless he not only backs off this nonsense and declares his Facebook page was hacked but also deactivates this “cursed” page and finds a treatment for his “abnormality.” As far as his father’s concerned, the atmosphere inundating the country poisoned Shareef and all his son wants is to be different from everyone else. Shareef’s relatives then disappear and not just from his Facebook page. His family completely abandons him.
The most painful response comes from his mother, who doesn’t even acknowledge the situation. It seemed like she’d aged years as she became all gloomy and her face looked dried out. She didn’t call him so he went to see her. She comes out of her room a half hour after he gets there with a glassy look on her face like she doesn’t even see him. She asks him about work and if he’s eating well, about his apartment and if it’s clean, and then nothing. When he tells her he wants to talk about something sensitive, she gets up and says she’s tired, that she doesn’t have the energy for sensitive subjects. She pats him on the shoulder somewhat tenderly and leaves, going back to her room.
The response of Bahaa’s family was much simpler. They call him to the house and when he gets there, he finds them all waiting for him. One of his brothers asks if what his “boyfriend” wrote on Facebook is true. Bahaa nods shyly and that’s when the three brothers beat the crap out of him until their father says it’s enough. They stop, leaving Bahaa crumpled on the ground with bruises on his face, arms, and legs. His father gets up, spits on Bahaa, and leaves. His oldest brother tells him that he’s kicked out of the house and it’s forbidden for him to come back, call, or even return to their neighborhood. If he does, they’ll turn him in to the police on some cooked-up charge and get rid of him and his filth forever. He then tosses a bag of his clothes in his face and tells him to get out. During all this, his mother hid her face in her veil so no one could see her tears.
Of course, there’s a campaign of support for Shareef and Bahaa. People they don’t even know and they’ve never met before take it upon themselves to defend their right to choose. At first, Shareef and Bahaa are dazzled by hashtags like #TheRightToChoose and #InSolidarityWithBahaaAndShareef. Famous bloggers, revolutionary leaders, writers, and media types join the campaign and many ask to interview them in an act of solidarity. At first, the two agree. Some of these famous people come and take photos with them and put them up on Instagram and other social media. Then they disappear, except for some comments from time to time reaffirming their solidarity.
Shareef and Bahaa expected most of this, if not the campaign of solidarity by opportunists. But expectation is one thing and experience is something else. It’s easy to say “My family will cut me off” or “they’ll be disgraced and they’ll toss me out like garbage.” But when that really happens to you, you feel this silence, this coldness, this alienation between you and your mother. The sharpness surprised them, as did the sharp pain they felt.
They didn’t expect it. They didn’t know how it would feel. And what’s more, they didn’t get any satisfaction from coming out. Even Shareef—and this whole thing started because being in the closet was his own personal crisis—even he didn’t feel any catharsis. Instead, it was the opposite. His feelings of oppression, isolation, and self-incrimination only increased. These were simmering inside him all the years he lived in the closet and masqueraded around. He was thinking that coming out would put an end to these feelings but it only brought them out in the open. The sense of isolation and oppression closed in on him everywhere he went: on the street, at work, and even on Facebook.
A deep silence settled in on their life. It enveloped them and isolated them from the world, almost like they were in a fish tank. Their professional life is over after they’re fired. Shareef tells Bahaa not to worry since they can create their own business and concentrate on clients outside of Egypt. And Bahaa doesn’t say anything. His anger at Shareef prevents him from talking openly about it. He’s devastated at what’s happening and that prevents him from stirring up anything between them.
At any rate, their social life collapses. No friends, no acquaintances, and no family, of course. No one. Shareef isn’t all of a sudden part of the “gay group”—neither is Bahaa—and now they’re not part of any group. They go to Left Bank in the middle of this storm and when they walk in the door, the place goes silent. Most of the people there know them but they get completely quiet when they see the two come in. And those who don’t know them get quiet since they’re surprised by this sudden wave of silence. Ahmed Eid, our common friend, is nice to them, as always. He takes their orders and brings them a plate of fruit gratuit. But the tension in the place overwhelms everything and after five minutes, Bahaa says he can’t stand it anymore so Shareef pays the bill and they get up to go, ignoring Ahmed’s polite protests.
The silence weighs on them. But then the real catastrophe happens. And it takes only a few minutes. They’re in the apartment one evening and, at exactly ten o’clock, there’s a bang on the door. Bahaa gets up to see who it is and when he opens the door, two men grab him while a bunch of people, including some neighbors, rush into the apartment. The two are arrested and taken to the police station to stand before the public prosecutor the next morning. And the police do what you’d expect. The two weren’t raped, thank God, but they were beaten and humiliated much worse than ever before or since. Pictures of them on their way to the station spread online. And there are other pictures of them almost naked, probably right after they were beaten and their clothes stripped off at the station. They’re transferred to the prosecutor in the morning where they face a number of charges, including depravity, abomination, and immorality.
The public prosecutor is sympathetic to them. He says it’s the neighbors—the owner of the apartment in particular—who got the police involved. The police weren’t thrilled about arresting them but the owner and the neighbors said they’ll break down the door and deal with Shareef and Bahaa themselves if the police don’t do something. So the police and prosecutor figure they’ll keep the peace by arresting Bahaa and Shareef. That’s when the prosecutor issues the investigation and arrest warrant.
The case was all over the papers, and with pictures. Shareef and Bahaa were shattered by it all—the arrest, the detention, the prosecutor’s “investigation,” the medical examiner, and all the stories and coverage. And worst of all for them was having it come from their neighbors, who they’d always gotten along with.
Lucky for them some NGOs get hold of the story on the night of their arrest and send lawyers to help them before the prosecutor. The prosecutor decides to release them on bail until the trial and tells their lawyer to stay in touch with him while they’re out. The lawyer gives them keys to his own apartment and then goes to their place to get their clothes and all the personal things that the police didn’t seize or destroy, most importantly their passports. The next morning, Shareef and Bahaa buy tickets to New York on different airlines and the next day they leave Egypt for good.
From كل هذا الهراء [Kul Haza Alhura’a]. Published 2017 by Al-Karma Publishers. © 2017 Ezzedine Choukri Fishere. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Jonathan Smolin. All rights reserved.
A family must learn to adapt when their house takes on a life of its own in this playful homage to Julio Cortázar by Mexican author Yuri Herrera, winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award for Fiction.
&°°° couldn’t be happier. @°°° couldn’t be happier. The twins *~ and #~ couldn’t be happier. Roanoke, the dog, was less enthusiastic, but agreed to lie in a corner of the laundry room, which elegantly hollowed out a spot as he circled half a dozen times until finding the ideal position.
When the sun really beat down, the windows would darken and the temperature cooled. When the traffic outside was very loud, white noise was released to eclipse it. When it rained, the roof seemed to interpret the drops, amplifying or silencing them until they didn’t sound threatening.
One day when *~ and #~ were running around the house, *~ tripped over his shoelaces and fell. Before his forehead could hit the corner of a table and tear his skin or knock him out, the table moved a few inches back and *~ hit his hands just hard enough for him to learn his lesson but not so hard that he hurt himself. From that point on if the children didn’t tie their shoelaces immediately after putting on their shoes, the shoes would remain sort of suctioned to the floor. The house was learning.
It absorbed odors, cleaned up spills, modulated the light to favor a person when they looked in the mirror.
One night &°°° awoke to the noise of someone attempting to open one of the living room windows: she could make out the sound of the sash being moved. She shook @°°°’s shoulder and in a very soft voice told him that someone was in the house. They got up, &°°° went to check on the twins, and @°°° went to check on Roanoke. Roanoke usually leapt up to give warning at the slightest sound in the night, so something must have happened to him. But @°°° found him curled up in his corner, the wall bulging out over him protectively. On smelling @°°°, Roanoke raised his snout for a moment and wagged his tail in recognition, but showed no sign of wanting to get up. Then &°°° came to tell him that the twins were fine. And they went to peek into the living room.
The intruder had managed to open the window and was attempting to climb in. @°°° ran stealthily to the kitchen and tried to grab a knife from the wooden block where they were kept but was unable to budge it even an inch, not that one or any of the other knives. Terrified, from there he saw &°°° standing in the living room doorway and the man’s body halfway inside the house and said to himself, “the house doesn’t know how to determine what’s important.” Just then he heard a loud crack and watched as three steel tentacles emerged from outside the window, beneath the pane, and in a flash reached into the house, seized the intruder, squeezed until his bones cracked, and hurled him back out.
The house knew how to determine what was important.
They began to grasp the implications of the house’s learning ability on the day that *~ jammed a pencil into one of #~’s legs. &°°° was quick to treat the wound and @°°° took off his belt to give *~ an educational lash, just one so that *~ would not forget that what he’d done was wrong, but on his taking a step toward the offending twin, the floor tiles moved and @°°° fell to the ground. Still not comprehending what had happened he stood once more, and again the floor tiles brought him down. &°°° tried to approach from the other side but the moving floor would not allow her to do so. Roanoke, on the other hand, walked calmly between them, sat down beside *~, licked his face, and lay down with no fanfare.
The next thing that happened was when @°°° saw a fly lollygagging around his head. He tried to shoo it with a swipe of the hand but the fly buzzed even more aggressively around him. So @°°° stood up to clap it between his palms, and no sooner had he opened his arms to gather speed when he heard the crash of dishes breaking behind him. He walked to the kitchen and saw that all of the glasses had shattered on the floor, as if they’d been pushed from inside the cupboard.
Next came the door. &°°° returned from the street, furious for any or all of the multiple reasons why whatever it was that the world was becoming might infuriate a person. The unbreathable air, the unbreathable people, the distance, the dead birds, the living cockroaches, the lists she was making of all this on her way home. &°°° slammed the door on entering and the moment she slammed it the roof tiles rattled as obviously as the obvious rattling of a roof might be; but it was not seismic: it was quaking with rage. &°°° backed up, while calling @°°°, #¬, and *~, opened the door, took a step backward, out of the house, and as soon as she had done so the door closed and the roof stopped rattling. &°°° remained standing there at the door for a few seconds, then tried to open it but the door would not give. She banged it and shoved it while motherfuckering aloud, with no luck. Defeated, she sat down on the ground and looked at her shoes crossed below the ankle, thinking not about them or about the house but about how tired and how tired and how very very tired she was. And from thinking so much about her tiredness, her breathing slowed and her body relaxed and suddenly but with no foofaraw the lock clicked open at the door, which &°°° walked through and closed gently.
From then on they began to tiptoe around the house, taking only baby steps, and if there was some other argument brewing they kept quiet about it, swallowing their anger until it passed. Around that time they also began to take detours before coming back, or went out on any old pretext and returned much later, all so as not to be ill-judged.
One day when the four of them were out on the street, they came across a beggar. @°°° tossed him a coin and the beggar said Thank you sir, nobody’s given me anything today, today of all days, and @°°° said What’s so special about today and the beggar said It’s my birthday sir and @°°° said Ah, and the four of them continued walking, but suddenly @°°° stopped and said I have an idea. The idea had come to him because he now spent a good deal of his day thinking about how to behave in order to control the house’s reactions. He took the entire family to a cake shop, they bought a cake and went back to where the beggar was. Here, this is for you, @°°° said, handing it to him with a spoon. Then they sang happy birthday and began to clap rhythmically, the twins jumping up and down with each clap, Eat it, Eat it. Such a racket was made that more people gathered around the beggar, and everyone clapped, took photos of him there on the ground eating his cake and then showed them to one another.
They returned home happy and self-satisfied, almost as though they had eaten the cake themselves, and didn’t have any trouble opening the door. They walked in, sat down in the living room in silence, happy to have found the way to come and go with no trouble. They looked at the walls, the ceiling, the furniture, and then they looked at each other in pride.
Roanoke decided then that he wanted to go out to pee. He walked to the door and as #~ got up to open it, the door opened on its own, Roanoke went out, and the door closed on its own. The others were stunned for a moment, then laughed and went to look out the window. Roanoke had finished peeing and was taking advantage of the afternoon, living large: he sniffed a bush, he gazed at the power lines, he chewed on one paw. &°°° said I’m going to get him in, and turned the doorknob but the doorknob wouldn’t budge @°°° tried it too, even #~ and *~ tried it, but no luck. They went to the back door but couldn’t open it either, or the windows.
Outside, Roanoke had flipped himself belly-up on the grass and was scratching his back with primeval glee. So high-quality were those windows that Roanoke couldn’t hear the racket made by &°°° and @°°° and #~ and *~, desperately hurling furniture against the glass.
"Casa tomada" © 2017 by Yuri Herrera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.
A local madman in Bonanjo, Cameroon, regales a stranger with stories about his country’s history, and his own, in this short story by Congolese author and 2015 Man Booker International finalist Alain Mabanckou.
“The untold want by life and land ne’er granted
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find”
—Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”
Tall, thin, profile like a flatfish, bushy eyebrows, gray beard, prominent red eyes, he stands with a book in his hands: The Story of the Madman . . .
I'm told he often reads long passages from Mongo Beti's novel aloud to a loyal audience. I hadn't noticed the presence of this strange reader till I heard his spluttering cough.
He's staring right at me now. His ragged clothes trail on the ground of the park in Bonanjo, a poor district of Douala, as he slips the novel into his pocket. I start to feel afraid. He moves toward me and speaks to me in a deep voice, like some disgraced prophet from the pages of the Old Testament:
“Voyager, I am the master of Bonanjo, the oldest orphan, the last survivor of the caravan, the seeker of Africas, the man they call mad, proof of the fickleness of men, possessor of a third eye, more powerful that Cain's ever was. I've seen you pass this way these last few days, I've wondered what you're after. I know you've come to spy on us. Let me speak, then, for speech can never be spied on. We hide it away deep inside us, like Mount Cameroon over there, yielding her secrets only to those who climb her with a humble heart.
“You think I'm just some madman, a piece of crap. I may look like a little black dot, but don't forget—the little black dot has the final word. I'll tell you one thing. Douala's not going to open its arms to you like some street girl schlepping along the sidewalk in the Rue de la Joie, over the far end of Deido. This is Bonanjo, this is my patch. This district belongs to me, every inch of it. You thought you could just wander into my chiefdom without seeing the chief, did you? Is a great man a little man? Who are you trying to kid? I'll tell you one thing: I'm the keeper of this land you're tramping over. That's why I sit here from dawn until dusk, beside this monument to the memory of soldiers and sailors who gave their lives in the Cameroon campaign. Come close to the statue, look at the soldier, see how the rains have filled up the pool around him, carrying along the rubbish that fouls my chiefdom. Oh don't worry, the kids love the rain water, even some adults do. They wash their cars with it all along the main street over there, close by’s my friend Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling, the young magician-cum-saint-cum-healer, a man who can turn a snake into a rat, a cat into a tiger, take my word for it, I know what I'm saying, don't you go polluting my mind with all that stuff about Descartes and those other guys who've come between you and our view of reality. Cameroon is Cameroon! Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling's no charlatan! He knows every single one of the ninety-nine plants to cure a cough, night poison, slow poison, rheumatism, internal and external hemorrhoids, low sperm count, premature ejaculation, erectile dysfunction, period pains, those worms in your groin that nibble your spermatozoids and keep your wife from getting pregnant. He can cure all that, believe me. Once, before witnesses, he even said to a crippled man: Rise up and walk! And the crippled man rose up. And the crippled man walked! And the crowd applauded. The tourists were amazed. Coca-Cola-Still-But-Sparkling is one of my most loyal and humble servants. And if God calls me up to heaven one day, to sit on at his right-hand side . . . yes, that's what I said, his right-hand side . . . I'm leaving this land to him!
“Voyager, my territory starts at the Avenue General de Gaulle. It stretches as far as the Camp de la Valeur, past the Lycée Joss, the port, Douala train station, and the Marina crossroads. I've posted lieutenants all over Bonanjo, they report any suspicious movements to me. Some of them have seen you taking photos, writing in a notebook. You people who've traveled abroad and experienced the culture of Whites, all you believe in is what white men have written. You know nothing of the spirit that moves as the wind, that heaves with laughter, mocking your snow-bound education, washed in bleach, smoothed by the hot iron of alienation . . .
“Voyager, I am Doualan, proud of my lineage, proud of the glorious flame I have carried for centuries. My ancestors came from the Congo. The faces of these my brothers and sisters carry the mark of wanderers, the murmur of the shoreline, the acute and the grave accents of a language which connects us to our past, our exodus. Anyone who, like us, gives hospitality and reveres fraternity and tolerance, is welcome here. I will not let you go without hearing who I am and what I want you to tell people who live beyond these borders. My name is Ewalè. You may also call me Keeper of the Doualan Records. I live out of doors, in the street. The word roof means nothing to me now and I've even forgotten the pleasure of stretching out on a comfortable bed with clean sheets, fresh with the scent of Omo. It's no big deal. The Chief must live outdoors so he can see if the devil comes in the night to terrorize his subjects. Here I can keep watch on all the Doualan files, especially those of my sector, Bonanjo. I decided to in the street the day my wife, Hermina Coura Tcha, who was Togolese by birth, left this world for the next. She took our unborn child with her. It felt like injustice, but I told myself it was the will of God, that I should devote myself entirely to governing my Bonanjo territory. Stunned by this twofold sorrow, I started to cackle like a hyena, chasing after people who were invisible to ordinary mortals. My house felt too small to contain the multitude of turbulent characters who could have stepped straight out of the pages of a novel by Mongo Beti. I didn't want to live in it anymore. Besides, I knew I would become chief of a chiefdom: I was reminded of it in my dreams and in the course of conversations with people who were invisible to ordinary mortals.
“At first I roamed the streets of Deido and lay down by the trees in the temple of Nazareth. Once I had been duly enthroned by the Doula Gods, with all the chiefs' agreement, I handed my Deido territory over to my friend Rico, alias Credit Gone West, a hunchback with whom I'd kept on neighborly terms, and every now and then, quietly and calmly, we hold meetings to discuss matters arising in our respective territories. In this way we can settle any disputes in a spirit of perfect harmony.
“I know what's going on in the outside world. I've seen the boats set sail, or enter the water, at the port of Douala. That's where I've found most of the books that have taken me on my own journeys, without ever leaving Bonanjo. I've talked with Cervantes's Don Quixote while stroking the beard of Garcia Marquez's patriarch, Buendia. I've even seen a fisherman round here, Santiago, straight out of Hemingway. I've dreamed of Venetian gondolas with Luis Sepulveda and his old pal who liked to read love stories. I've traced the flight of Baudelaire's albatross, so cruelly treated by the crew with their hearts of stone. I've poured with sweat as I hauled in nets with fishermen from Victor Hugo. And one more thing: to make my peace with my ancestors, I've traveled to the Congo with André Gide . . . .
“Voyager, no trace will be left of your passage in the streets of Bonanjo, unless you kneel at my feet. 'He's nothing!' Is that what you think? 'Why should I bow down to him!' Is that it? Hear my cry: Ekié! Antsi! Wèèèh! Look across at the horizon, and ask yourself why Mount Cameroon has stayed silent since the dawn of time. You turn up in this country, in this town, on my territory, glutted on comfort, borne on wings of smug conceit, pectorals puffed with prejudice, strutting from street to street with your pencil in your hand, on the lookout for some little incident so you can make a note of it and give one of your readers a thrill. Get the hell out of here!
“I'm not your ordinary madman. Write that one down, spell it out in black and white, or you'll be cursed to the end of your days. I'm a chief, I'm the real McCoy. Is a great man a little man? I'm the only one who's here after dark, talking with the hero who founded the town of Douala. My ancestors are like the Buendias, the builders of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The history of my town is long forgotten now, alas. I know my ancestors, though, and I want you to remind your readers who they were.
“During my nocturnal discussions I hang out with one Rudolph Douala Manga Bell, descendant of the founders of this town. A true rebel, product of the German system, no less. Naturally, with his legal training, he looked back over the protectorate treaty his grandfather signed with the Germans. Rudolph would go on to protect our land, to oppose the abuse of rights, of power, and the attempt by Europeans to redefine property rules in the land of his ancestors. As I see it, Rudolph Douala Manga Bell was the first Cameroonian nationalist. His struggle was national, not ethnic. Dead, killed, murdered. Those cowards the Germans hanged him. What a sad and terrible day, the Eighth of August, 1914. They delivered him up to a shameful death hanging from the branch of a mango tree. Whenever I visit that dreadful place, I break down and weep. The autumn leaves chant their funeral prayers and birds take flight from the crown of that ill-fated tree, whirling in a maelstrom of grief. I fold my arms behind my back, and scour the earth for the marks of the instruments of torture the Germans used to put an end to the life of one of my most glorious ancestors . . .
“Voyager, the hanging of Rudolph taught me a a bit of wisdom I'll hand on to you: you can hang a man from a tree, but you cannot hang History with him. Every rope on earth tied end to end would still be too short to strangle History. Rudolph Douala Manga Bell is still here. He sees us. He shows us the way. He hears me now, speaking to you. No, don't look back, you are not worthy even to meet the gaze of that most illustrious man. Go and visit The Pagoda, on the other side of the Avenue General de Gaulle. Take a closer look at the house my ancestor Rudolph called home, built by the Germans in 1901 for his father, Auguste Manga Ndoumbé. We gave this country a deputy in the French National Assembly, Alexandre Ndoumbé Douala. It was those same Germans who later tore up and threw out the agreement made with my people. Obviously we should have kept our own land, and the Germans should have stuck by the terms agreed in the protectorate treaty. What drove them to try and change the face of our town? Was it just greed? They even created a ghetto, which we now call New Bell, where they rounded up the Doula Manga Bells, keeping Douala for themselves!
“Voyager, go take a walk by The Pagoda, behind you. Look at it closely. I fear it will fall down one of these days, though it looks so solid, towering over the monument across the street, that was built to honour those who gave their lives in the Cameroon campaign. That house is in danger, I can tell. There's nothing I can do, I'm alone against the world. When I speak they take me for a loudmouth, a weirdo, a character from The Story of The Madman by Mongo Beti, which I do sometimes read out loud to those who have ears and can hear.
“I've got my eyes on that place, I know one day The Pagoda will crumble and fall from ingratitude and neglect, and we'll all be to blame. My ancestors have still not found their rest. Nor will they, till The Padoga becomes a 'historic monument,' or better still, a heritage site valued beyond the borders of this country. Alas, voyager, we've been waiting forever for that to happen. There's no inscription outside The Pagoda recording this episode in our history. It just looks like one more administrative office, the provincial residence of some prefect or other. Which is why, voyager, you scarcely even noticed it as you passed. You crossed over to the other side, because the soldiers and the sailors who fell in the 1914–18 war have a bright, shiny memorial, a fountain and a green space, Bonanjo Park . . .
“Meanwhile, The Pagoda stands waiting. Waiting, first, for Cameroon to acknowledge its place in its history. Charity begins at home. It's still waiting. It knows that if Cameroon won't credit the role it played, no international authority is going to rescue it, or even put a coat of paint on the steps at the main entrance. One day it will just fall down, the building that once proudly housed the first ever movie theater in Douala and proudly hosted the paintings and sculpture of the young Hervé Yamguen.
“The Pagoda will watch the centuries pass, and treasure the memory of those who once believed in this city as a realm of freedom, a door onto the world. Voyager, if no one will listen I'll choose to die in the rubble of that building, to give my life as a sacrifice. Then I'd know I wasn't the crazy one; it's the ones who claim to be on the side of reason who've done nothing to get this place the status of historic monument. Off you go now, forget this place, or else write it down and do something to help us . . .”
The Madman of Bonanjo is crying now. His arms hang loose by his sides, his eyes trace the flight of a crow as it skims the rooftop of The Pagoda. Without a word he moves a little way off and takes out the novel by Mongo Beti, beginning to read aloud at the first page to a small but impatient crowd.
I must go now. I throw my notebook on the ground, and set off back to the Hotel Ibis, less than a thousand feet away. At the hotel reception, I take the clippings from the national press from Marc Bessodes, as I do every evening. He must wonder why I'm looking less jovial today. I go straight upstairs to my room, no. 610, and begin to write down the words of the Madman of Bonanjo. I wonder if he'll ever read them.
"Le Fou de Bonanjo" © Alain Mabanckou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Helen Stevenson. All rights reserved.
Reckoning with the loss of his grandmother, a young man inquires into the nature of memory and cultural identity in this excerpt from a novel by Palestinian writer Ibtisam Azem.
Listen to Ibtisam Azem reading from "The Book of Disappearance".
It is close to midnight now and I feel so tired I cannot fall asleep. Do you remember that evening when I slept at your place in Jaffa, a month before you moved to live with my parents? I was tossing and turning and I had gone to the kitchen to drink water. You must have heard me since I kept shuttling between my bed, the kitchen, and the bathroom. You came out of the dark, your voice preceding you, and asked me if I wanted mint tea. As if you knew, without even asking, that I wasn’t able to sleep in the room next door and that I was staring at the silence. Silence and not quiet. Quiet entails some peace of mind, but silence is like waiting for the unknown. I smiled even before seeing your face because I’d heard you. “That would be great.” We drank together without saying anything. We sat watching the silence in and around us. That was the first time I felt you were tired of life. We sat for a whole hour and drank the entire pot of mint tea, cup after cup, saying only a few words about the taste of mint. You said that sometimes it has a rancid taste. I disagreed, but ever since you said that, mint began to smell a bit rancid to me. When I look back at your life, I am surprised that you didn’t tire of life until you reached your eighties. Or perhaps you did but I never noticed. What am I tired of? Why do I feel so tired? You once said that a human being dies when he loses hope and the taste of life. Did you say all that or am I imagining it? “Good Night, grandson,” you said in a night-calm voice and went to bed.
“Mad. She’s mad.” That’s what Mother said about you when she discovered that you’d bought and prepared your own shroud. “How did you know?” I asked her. Your grandma told me. She always referred to you using “she” and “your grandma.” I rarely heard her say “my mother.” You bought your shroud ten years before you departed. Ten years. Can I call your death anything but a departure? You could’ve stayed longer with us. Your presence brought us together and gave our lives a special flavor. You were my only remaining grandmother. My father’s folks left him with his uncle and were forced to flee to Jordan. But they never returned. No one knows what happened to them on the road. Perhaps in one of the massacres? They were worried about him because he was so little. So they left him with his uncle until they put things in order in Amman. But no one heard anything from them. They went and never came back. When we used to go on school trips to the Galilee, or any other place, I used to wonder: Should I tread lightly? Was I walking over the corpses of those who had passed through and who were decimated? Was I walking over a land that was made of decomposed bodies? When I walk in Palestine I feel am walking on corpses. Those images of multitudes of people leaving in terror are always on my mind. All my grandparents had died except for you. Do we breathe in the decomposed corpses? What are we going to do with all this sorrow? How can we start anew? What will you do with Palestine? I, too, am tired. But whenever I wake up in the morning I remember you and smile. And I say, just as you used to, “God will see us through.” Then I listen to Fayruz: “Yes, there is hope yet.” Because her voice translates what you used to say, with a slight variation. I think that’s what you meant by “God will see us through.” But is there really any hope?
Perhaps our presence could no longer give you hope or that zest? Perhaps you departed because life became bland, as you used to repeat in that final year? Because people wither and die when they can no longer savor life. You said you didn’t want to inconvenience anyone after your death and that’s why you bought the shroud and everything else. You even put the funeral expenses in a pouch with the shroud. But later you gave the money to charity after mother started sobbing when she found out about the whole thing. And after one of the neighbors told you it wasn’t right, religiously speaking.
Your initial reaction to the neighbor was a roaring laugh. You said, “Am not going to wait for nitwits to tell me what’s right and wrong. They barely come up to my hip and have the balls to issue edicts.” Speaking of nitwits, do you remember that afternoon when you were sitting with Um Yasmeen in your courtyard and the proselytizing sheiks came to tell you about faith and religion? One of them said with an idiotic smile, “Hajja, you have to wear the veil. You made the pilgrimage and you will be rewarded greatly for that. But a veil and a long gown would suit your age and your faith better than this cloth which exposes more than what it covers. Do you want to be like Christian and Jewish women?” You shook your head and let him finish. Um Yasmeen was red in the face and was about to storm off. You gripped her hand so she would remain seated next to you. As soon as he finished, you asked her to take off her shoe. You took it and stood up to beat him with it.
“Ten of you aren’t worth the sole of Um Yasmeen’s shoe.” You spat on him and yelled, “Go away you worthless imbecile. I never want to see you or any of your kind in this neighborhood again. By the holy Kaaba, which I visited, if I see you here again I’ll pluck your beard. Get out, both of you. So now Um Yasmeen is an infidel because she’s Christian? What kind of nonsense is that? Since when did God give you power of attorney? You losers have no manners and no sense.”
You both burst out laughing. And the nitwits never dared set foot near you again. You said you saw her eyes well up. When you told me the story, you said, “Where were our prophet Jesus and his mother born anyway? Shame on these people. That’s not the type of religion I learned from my folks. These idiots now claim to know God better than we do? They are Godless. There weren’t any problems even between us and the Jews like there are today. The problems started with the Zionists. This is what my father told me. Your ma’s grandpa, he was a partner with a Jewish man named Zico. They were friends. But when the Zionists came, they kicked most people out, slaughtered them, and took everything. They ruined everything and then sat perched above the rubble, my boy.”
I feel tired. I always felt tired. I don’t know why. Is this what you felt as the years piled on? I asked you once when I was little if you were scared of the soldiers, police, or of Jews, Ashkenazis in particular. You said, “No one is scary, grandson. And if you are ever scared of someone, just imagine them naked and you’ll see how most people have disgusting bodies and they look funny when they are running around naked.” Then you gave a loud chuckle.
Sure, it was pretty funny, but this trick didn’t appeal to me. Perhaps because I myself was forced to undress many times. You remember the first time I went abroad to France?
At the airport they interrogated me for a long time and weren’t satisfied with a regular search. They took me to a room and left me in my underpants. My breath mixed with that of the person searching me and whose device was making noises as it roamed around my body. That was the first time I thought of my skin as a sort of clothing, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t have used that device on my bare skin. I started to sweat and you know how I hate that. I couldn’t smell my body or my own odor anymore. I was sweating like an exploded water pipe.
White, snow white, is what I felt when I was naked behind the curtain in that room. Not that pure snow white, but that of snow mixed with wet sand. I could see the steam coming from the security personnel’s bodies and I was sweating. We had nothing in common at that moment except animal instincts, separated by soft gloves. Gloves touching my body as if I were nothing. A mere sacrificial lamb . . .
I tried to see our city, Jaffa, your city and mine, the way you see it. I tried to walk and talk to houses and trees as if I had known them a long time ago. As if they were your old neighbors. I would greet them and clean the road if I saw a stray piece of paper in its streets. This is our city and these are our streets, you often said. You always picked up paper if you saw some. Do you remember when I threw away the paper after I unwrapped a piece of chocolate you bought? Remember how angry you were when I, still a child back then, insisted that it was good because it was the Jewish neighborhood? I told you their streets were clean and ours dirty, so why not dirty their street? You said that if I loved Jaffa I must look out for it even if it’s in their hands. You said their neighborhoods were part of our city even if we weren’t living in them. I didn’t understand what you meant. I only understood later.
Cities are stories and I only remember what I myself lived, or fragments from your stories and what you lived, but these ties have been severed. I remember their stories very well. The ones I learned in school, heard on TV, and read and wrote in exams in order to pass. I had to tell their stories to pass high school and college. That’s why I remember them like I remember my ID number. I know it by heart. I can recite it any minute. I memorized their stories and their white dreams about this place so as to pass exams. But I carved my stories, yours, and those of the others who are like us inside me. We inherit memory the way we inherit the color of our eyes and skin. We inherit the sound of laughter just as we inherit the sound of tears. Ah, your memory pains me.
They say that my laugh resembles yours, but not Mother’s. Was Mother’s laugh like her father’s? Poor Mother. All she knows about her father is that he left. After they opened the borders with Egypt, she mustered all her energy and went to Cairo to see him. He had gone there after leaving Beirut. But he died a week before she arrived. She met half-brothers and half-sisters there, but she didn’t feel they were her siblings. She said some of them had the same eye color as her, but they spoke with an Egyptian accent. She was upset they didn’t speak her Jaffan dialect even though their mom was from Jaffa. Perhaps she was jealous of their having grown up with a mother and a father while she was raised fatherless. She didn’t say much more about that visit. She came back sad and crestfallen. Her father had left before she arrived in Cairo. The father who was displaced from Jaffa before she was born. When I asked her once about her date of birth, she said she didn’t like to think of it because it was the year of the nakba.
I recall some stories from your memory. The stories I read, heard, or the ones you/I made up when you were tired. It seems to me that the most beautiful stories are the ones we make up. They are the most astounding and horrifying. What we live is truncated. Even what I lived is truncated in memory. As if my memory is a glass house full of cracks that are like wrinkles but still standing. We can see through it, but something is muddled. “Muddled” doesn’t mean an unclear view or that both viewpoints are equal. These are the lies of those who write in the white books we have to read. It is muddled because the pain is too great for us to hold on to the memory. We store it in a black box inside our heads and hearts, but it pains us and gnaws at us from within. And grows rusty day after day. Yes, rusty. I wonder at times why I feel all this sadness? Where does it come from? I realize soon thereafter. Your memory pains me and burdens me. I feel so alone in Jaffa.
I met Ariel today, but I didn’t stay too late. Just before midnight I said that I had to leave because I was going to Jerusalem the next day for work. It wasn’t true. I don’t know why I wanted to leave. Maybe I was bored or wasn’t interested in recalling that time when we first met. Not because it was a bad memory or anything, but for no particular reason. I don’t know why I felt, as I heard myself speaking Hebrew, as if the voice coming out of my throat was not mine. It just comes out and speaks Hebrew on my behalf while I am there inside myself, looking and not knowing what I am doing to it and to myself. I cannot stand this voice any longer. I felt alienated. This is not the first time I have had this feeling. But it was intense and completely overwhelming me this time. I can’t take it any longer and am running out of patience with them. But how many times have I said this before? I said it and I spoke calmly or screamed, but they only see themselves. They hear, but they don’t listen. Is Ariel really any different from the rest?
I hear a tumult outside. I’m remembering you a lot tonight. Tata? Are you here? I called to you, but you didn’t answer. Maybe it’s my fault that I can’t see you. Perhaps I should look carefully. I went back in and closed the balcony door. I had gone out to call you. You used to say that balconies are the best thing about city houses. I’m listening to one of your favorite songs, Um Kulthum’s “Do you Still Remember?” I feel so cold, as if it’s mid-December. White cold. White like pure snow that will soon be sullied. White, like this white city.
I wish you were here.
Missing you is like a rose more thorns than petals.
From “Sifr al-Ikhtifa” (The Book of Disappearance) by Ibtisam Azem, Beirut & Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2014. With the permission of the publisher and author. Translation © 2017 by Sinan Antoon. All rights reserved.
Syrian writer and poet Osama Alomar conjures the transformative powers of imagination in these seven works of microfiction.
Thieves of Youth
A strange thing began to happen in the country. One morning, some young people woke up and found they had become old men in their eighties and nineties. Day after day, the number of those losing their youth increased, and the entire population was struck with an awful terror. People were afraid that the country would turn into an old age home. In the midst of this terror, researchers began to study this unique phenomenon. After painstaking efforts, they had solved the mystery, but they didn’t dare to announce it publicly. They kept it confidential until the day when the results of their investigations were leaked to the press, revealing, to everybody’s shock, that a number of elderly high functionaries had stolen the youth of those young people, adding it to their own ages, and distributing what was left to their closest family members and associates. The report indicated a heated competition among the oldest functionaries to steal the largest possible amount of youth from the young in order to get the most enjoyment out of their lives.
Everyone was deeply shaken . . . As for what was left of the young people in that country, they decided then and there to escape to another country where there were no thieves of youth.
From the porch of my house looking out on the main street, I saw the ideas like birds circling over their owners’ heads. Some of them were black and others white. After a little while, winds of cyclonic circumstances carried the birds away in a storm, and their owners too. It spun them up together in a whirlwind that only disappeared after a long time had passed. When it did, the birds soon went back to flying . . . but over the heads, their distribution and arrangement was different.
Strong spent most of his life living in a fabulous palace equipped with the most modern heating and air conditioning system and all the finest and most luxurious gadgets and accessories.
One spring day, he felt very bored, and so he decided to leave his house to see the city and get to know how the people lived. He put on his nicest clothes and fancy cologne and set out for a stroll, exploring the streets and alleys of the city, an amazed expression on his face. But after wandering for less than an hour, he developed sunstroke and returned to his palace, carried on people’s shoulders, swearing never to go out again in the spring, insisting that it was absolutely the worst season.
In Union . . .
“Come on, friends. Come together . . . come together . . . close ranks . . . close ranks!” The leader of a school of fish spread over a vast area far out in the sea shouted with his loudest voice, watching in terror as three enormous sharks approached.
Waves of fish stretching and moving everywhere instantly contracted and thickened.
The leader shouted again: “In union there is strength.”
Voices of support rose behind him. The compact mass of fish watched the sharks carefully as they approached, gliding confidently. Tension reached its peak at the moment when death passed just in front of them, but nothing happened. The fish sighed in relief, watching as the three predators calmly dragged the huge net of terror away with them as they went.
But only minutes later a big fishing boat appeared above. Its experienced sailors threw their giant net over the great school, snaring them easily.
Community of Dust
A floating particle of dust was annoyed at the cleanliness of the house where she lived. She said to her friends irritably: “I haven’t known rest in this house for as long as I can remember. Its owners are so enamored with cleanliness it’s unbelievable! I’ve forgotten how to lie down on furniture or shelves or old magazines. . . Stability and settling down has become, for us, the community of dust, an impossible dream. We drift through the air like vagrants without homes or dignity . . . we must demand our rights!”
“Yes . . . Yes, we must demand our rights!” All of them shouted in unison.
A few days later the owners of the house left on a three-month sightseeing trip. The dust particles were overjoyed and began a slow descent day after day, until everything in the house was covered in white.
When three months had passed, the owners came back to their house and did a thorough cleaning, leaving not a single dust particle. They didn’t sleep until they had thrown every last one out into the garbage in heaps.
A Story for Children
At eight in the evening, after he had eaten dinner, my eight-year-old grandson came running to me, eagerly asking me to read him a story before bed. He’s my only grandson. I love him a lot and I never refuse his requests, and so I turned off the television and went to my library to get a schoolbook containing stories for children. I sat the little one down next to me and opened the book to one of the stories at random, and began reading:
“It is said that a young man in the prime of life woke up and opened his window onto the giant sea of humanity. He saw women who took pride in their manliness . . . and men who were proud of their femininity. He saw germs and insects sitting regally on thrones, and miserly rich people carrying their fortunes to the grave and, there, getting more enjoyment from them than at any time previous during their lives. He saw the prophets and the saints enter hell through the widest gate, and Satan and the great criminals enter heaven, surrounded by songs of glory and praise. He saw maternal tenderness never growing tired of slaughtering children in icy blood, and the four seasons leaving the earth to have one strange, indescribable season take their place. He saw countries refuse to celebrate their independence days, crowning traitors as national heroes. He saw the dry land invade the seas and oceans so that their creatures slowly died, and sterility was the tyrannical lord of the world. He saw the past, present, and future like three drunk friends reeling as they walked, left and right . . . forward and back. . . running into one another . . . fighting . . . stabbing each other . . . losing their memory. He saw the skies raining gold and the people burying it so deep in the ground no human hand could reach it, then going back to their homes weeping from the weight of poverty and deprivation. He saw love’s emaciated body soaring with two huge wings of hate.”
Finishing this sentence, I looked at my grandson and saw that he had fallen into a deep sleep. I closed the book and put it on the table, then I carried the little one to his bedroom and laid him on the bed with great care. I put the comforter over him, kissed his forehead, and went back into the living room to watch the exciting evening movie on TV.
The Tears of the Phone
I woke early that morning to the sound of anguished crying. When I hurriedly turned on the light in my room, I saw that the telephone was wet with his own tears. I asked him why, and he answered me, saying: “for many months, no ring has shaken me, no device has tried to call me . . . what’s happened to the world? I’ve been destroyed by loneliness.”
I thought about the problem for a long time, until suddenly an idea flashed through my mind. I went out into the street and called my own phone number, and immediately went back home. I found the phone glowing with happiness.
Ever since, I call myself from the street every day.
© 2017 by Osama Alomar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Osama Alomar and C. J. Collins. All rights reserved.
Japanese poet Hiromi Itō meditates on dislocation, violence, and shifting terrains of language in this narrative poem.
It was the year the Persian Gulf War started and came to an end
I came on my own to California
I had no roots, no family with me, I felt like I could do no wrong
One day someone bewildered me by asking
What brought you here?
Translating it literally, the question sounded like What transported you to this place?
It wasn’t someone specific from somewhere, just a random person
What transported you?
The wind? An airplane?
I thought, it’s true I was transported here
But it’s also true I came on my own
I couldn’t summon up the words quickly
Back then, I couldn’t catch what people were saying
Even if I did, the idioms they used were unfamiliar
I couldn’t convey what I wanted to say
So I mulled the meaning of the question what brought you
Until I understood the words brought here
I wondered, what did bring me here?
And this was my reply
(But by the time I thought of this answer, the person who had asked was gone
So I’ve been repeating this answer to myself ever since)
To see a coyote
To listen to the sounds of the dark night
(A long time ago, I read a poem by the Owl-Woman of the Papago Tribe
In the great night my heart will go out,
Toward me the darkness comes rattling
In the great night my heart will go out)
To research spells
To observe rainclouds
To kill a coyote
But I was possessed, I meant to kill but was possessed
I became preoccupied with sex, it was all I did, I had to have a man
If one was there, if he was erect, I had to have him, my vagina opened and closed
I swallowed his penis
It didn’t matter if it was night or day
It didn’t matter if others were there or not
He’d enter me quickly in the clumps of glass
Flip up my skirt
I was possessed by the coyote
Not because I wanted to, not because of sexual desire
I wanted to confirm through bumping bodies together
Through crying out aaah (it hurts), aaah (it hurts)
Where I was
That I had worth
Where I was
That I had worth
(I felt as if I was nowhere, I couldn’t imagine I was worth a thing)
I did the same thing over and over, over and over
I was confused about sex, I did it, confused
I’d forget how for a moment when trying it with someone new
I had to remember and try my best
To drive out the coyote that had possessed me
To kill the coyote I’d driven out
There were lots of corpses on the road
On the freeways and on the small side roads
Some on their side, some squashed flat
Someone told me
That’s called “roadkill”
I remember where I first heard that, I remember the voice
I remember the way it pronounced the English word but
I forgot the speaker’s name
It wasn’t someone specific from somewhere, just a random person
This is how the word is used:
“I saw a piece of roadkill in the street”
“Roadkill’s something you get used to seeing in America”
“You know you can eat roadkill? There’s a cookbook about it”
But why does roadkill end with kill
And not killed?
It has been killed, it isn’t doing the killing
Even though it’s just like the words School Kill
But doesn’t imply any malice
To be more precise
ROADKILL = Animals fatally struck by or run over by vehicles on roads and freeways
To translate it more precisely
ROAD WHO KILLS = The road who kills animals, fatally striking them down or running
them over with vehicles on streets or on freeways
The road, kills
I, we, road, kill
I, we, road, kills
I am, we are road, kill
I am, we are road, killed
I am, we are road, killed dead
I watch, we watch with open eyes as
I am, we are torn to pieces and scattered in the wind
Here is some of the kill I have seen on the road
Opossum: White face, eyes closed, mouth open
Skunk: Dead ones can be detected miles ahead from scent alone
Raccoon: The tail was the only sign of what it was, the rest was a lump of meat
Rabbits. Squirrels. Deer. Crows. Hawks. Dogs. And cats. Two at once.
Something I couldn’t identify, like a tanuki, two at once, big and small
A mother crossing the road with a baby in her mouth, I guess
(The remaining babies must have died alone in their den)
And a coyote
Legs splayed, strength gone
Original shape destroyed, covered in blood
The road kills, kills and kills, kills completely
It was the year the Persian Gulf War started and came to an end
That I came here
To catch a whiff of the coyote’s scent
To observe rainclouds
To listen to the sounds of dark night
To stay awake through the night darkness
To eat the flesh of the coyote and wear its pelt
The roadsides were decorated with yellow ribbons for victory
Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill
Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill
The corpses on the road and roadsides
Raised their voices in unison as they returned the volley of violence
Raised their voices in unison as they returned the power of death
Author’s note: This poem contains quotes from the Wikipedia article “Roadkill” and A. Grove Day’s The Sky Clears: Poetry of the American Indians.
*Translator’s note: In a 1997 incident that rocked the Japanese nation, a fourteen-year-old in Kōbe committed two murders. In the first, he cut off a fellow student’s head and stuffed a note signed (in English) “School Kill” in the victim’s mouth.
© Hiromi Itō. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Jeffrey Angles. All rights reserved.
Iranian author Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar depicts an imprisoned writer’s experience of psychological and physical torture.
He felt he was standing on darkness.
There was no sound. It was dark and quiet everywhere. He couldn’t see anything, he was blindfolded. He was just standing there, waiting. For a long time. For hours. It was as if he had always been standing there. Time had protracted and from beneath the blindfold it had seeped into his eyes, his ears, his head. His body was filled with silence and darkness.
His hands were tied in front of him. The prison guard had held him by the arm and led him here from the solitary confinement cell, to this room. They had walked down a long corridor that turned right and became even longer, darker. He had walked on his heels, limping. The guard had brought him as far as this room and he had left. And the heavy steel door had closed with the reverberation of metal, behind him, inside his head.
Now, darkness was before him. Face to face. He was standing on it. He felt as though it was pushing him from behind. He could smell a rotting cadaver some distance away. He sensed there was someone in the room, but there was no sound. The soles of his feet were swollen and raw. He couldn’t stand properly. He was still in pain. His knees were bent, his back was bent, his neck was bent. He wanted to sit, on the floor, to lie down on his back, on his stomach.
Before throwing him in solitary confinement, they had tied his legs to the bedpost and whipped his feet with a cable. He had screamed. Loud. As loud as he could. He had heard that shouting would reduce the pain. But his pain had not diminished. His feet had swollen and there was still pus and watery blood oozing from the cuts. In his cell, he had walked, groaning and in pain. One step, another step, slowly, carefully, and he had gone around and around . . . moaning. He had heard that if you don’t walk after a flogging, your feet swell. They had swelled.
He felt there was someone there, but there was no sound. They had told him that after the whipping and solitary confinement, it would be time for the interrogation. The waiting room. The regret room. Haji Saeed’s room.
Time seemed to have stopped. He didn’t know whether it was day or night. He was cold.
He heard the rustle of a sheet of paper. Soft, swishing. The silence had been so profound that he couldn’t tell where it had come from. From everywhere. He heard someone getting up. From a chair. A soft reverberation slowly moved toward him. It sounded like slippers shuffling on the floor. Then it was quiet again. He felt someone was watching him. For an instant he clenched his fist around the darkness.
Darkness said, “What’s your name?”
The voice echoed louder in his ears. His lower lip quivered and from deep inside his throat he said, “Morteza.”
Darkness shouted, “Louder!”
A dark hand slapped him. Hard. Unexpectedly. His cheek burned, he reeled and fell on the floor, on the dark. His ear was ringing. Silence had disappeared. His hands bound, he turned and leaned on one shoulder to try and get up. But he couldn’t. He fell back. This time he struggled using his shoulder and his elbow and managed to sit up on his knees. His left ear was still buzzing. Darkness grabbed him by the scruff of his shirt and pulled him up. He stood, on his heels. But his knees were bent. His back was bent.
Darkness gripped his neck, shoved him to one side, and pressed his face against a cold concrete wall. It felt coarse.
“Nose to the wall!”
Then, scuffing his feet, he slowly stepped back. The wall smelled of mold.
From a distance, Darkness asked, “Why did they bring you here?”
The voice sounded older.
He said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? . . . I see . . .”
It was as if Darkness were nodding to confirm his own words.
“Why do you think they brought you here?”
He remained quiet.
“What kind of work do you do? What’s your job?”
The voice was kinder now.
“You write . . . I see . . . with the right or the left hand?”
He wondered why he had asked that.
“With the right. But I’m left-handed.”
Darkness read the text aloud, “‘When the photo of a political leader is printed larger than the size of a stamp, the danger of dictatorship is certain.’ Interesting!”
He thought there must be one of those large pictures here, too. Much larger than a stamp. In a wide wood frame. There must be one. They have hung it on the dark. They have hammered a nail into the dark and they have hung the frame from it.
“Who is this Nabokov? Do you know him? . . . He has such a difficult name.”
He said nothing.
“Oh, and sometime ago, I think it was in an interview . . . What was it you wrote?”
He could hear sheets of paper being shuffled.
“‘I will not submit to censorship!’ Really?”
He didn’t know what to say.
“Did you . . . write this?”
He said nothing.
The voice had moved closer.
“I asked you a question: did you write this?”
And Darkness grabbed his head from behind and slammed his face into the wall.
His face smashed into the coarse concrete. For an instant the darkness turned red.
His nose had gone numb. When he touched it with the back of his bound hands, he couldn’t feel it. He felt something warm above his mouth and a slimy wetness slowly trickled down over his swollen lips.
“Why didn’t you sign the paper they gave you?”
Again, his lower lip quivered.
“Because what they had written was not true . . . ”
He tasted blood.
“I wasn’t there . . . I don’t know those people. . . I told them, ‘I am neither a spy, nor . . . ’”
“You don’t know them? Is that so? . . . How about illicit affairs? Are you claiming you haven’t had any?!”
“You have to fess up to one or the other . . . it’s your choice. You will sign and . . . that’s all there is to it. And you’ll get out.”
He remained silent. For a long while. Then he murmured, “I can’t.”
There was silence. Then Darkness quietly said, “You can’t . . . I see . . .”
Suddenly, he heard the sound of boots coming toward him. Only then did he realize there was a second person in the room. Perhaps the same prison guard who had brought him there. It seemed Darkness had motioned to someone standing to the side, waiting for an order.
Without realizing how, he was torn from the dark with a single move and hurled to the floor, and the boots started kicking him mercilessly from the left and the right, in the ribs, in the face and legs and back. It was as if two people were beating him.
He was writhing in pain and rolling on darkness. Again, as if with the gesture of a hand, the boots stopped and moved to the other side of the room.
Then all went quiet again . . . he was lying on his side, clawing in pain at the dark. He felt the fragment of a chipped tooth on his tongue.
There was a beep!
With his tongue, he pushed the fragment to the corner of his lips.
“For the love of God, Morteza! . . . Have pity on me . . .”
It was Mehri’s voice! He tore his head from the floor and turned toward Darkness.
“Do whatever they say . . . for the love of God, Morteza . . . give in . . .”
She couldn’t stop crying.
“I’m dying of grief, Morteza . . . have pity on me . . .”
There was another beep and Mehri’s voice was cut off.
“The poor thing is so worried about you.”
His heart was pounding. Again he heard the rustle of sheets of paper.
“Now . . . if you want to sign this, get up and come over here.”
He leaned on his elbows and hoisted himself onto his knees. But he remained in this half-crouch.
“Do you want me to help you get up?”
He could still hear Mehri’s voice. “For the love of God, Morteza . . . you’re killing me with grief . . .”
His head was down. He could smell the dark floor. With the tip of his tongue he moved the tooth fragment between his lips and . . . he spat.
Again, as though with a motion of the dark hand, the boots approached him and . . . a hand grabbed him under the arm to help him stand, but he pulled his shoulder away. He didn’t want to get up.
The one wearing boots, perhaps a prison guard, must have glanced over at Darkness, wondering what his next move should be, waiting for orders . . . and Darkness must have waved him off, because he went and stood to the side.
Silence again. He had an itch above his lips. His head was hanging and his face was close to his bound hands. He could still taste the saltiness of blood in his mouth.
He heard the soft clink of a metal object.
He didn’t know what was making that noise. It sounded like two pieces of metal tapping against each other.
The silence grew deeper. All he heard was the occasional clink! . . . Clink!
He heard a chair’s bones creaking and from deep within the darkness the slippers moved toward him.
He was trying to lean on his wrists and get up when the treads of the plastic slippers came to rest on his fingers . . . and pressed down . . . so hard that his bones were about to break.
Again, he heard the metal object. This time it was close. Next to his ear.
“You . . . have to learn . . . that when you are told to sign . . . you will sign.”
“No matter what . . .”
The sound resembled the metal tips of a pair of pincers snapping. Or pliers.
He could feel the pungent smell of tea rose cologne that had blended with Darkness’s sweat.
“Which hand did you say you write with . . . the right?”
The bones in his hand were breaking.
He felt the chill of the metal object . . . pliers or pincers . . . on the tip of his middle finger.
“You have to learn to sign whatever is put in front of you.”
He pressed the tip of the pliers under his fingernail . . . it hurt.
“You will learn . . . everyone learns . . .”
Darkness pushed harder … the pain sharpened. He felt a burning sensation under his nail.
“You all learn fast . . . very fast . . .”
The tip of the pliers bit into the tip of his nail. His finger was shaking. He felt his nail separating from his flesh.
“Did you hear how she was begging you?”
Gradually, his hand, arm, and shoulder began to tremble, too.
“Did you hear how she was weeping?”
The pain of the nail as it separated from the finger spread throughout his body.
“Why? . . . Why are you doing this to yourself, Morteza?”
His breath was short and rasping.
Darkness slowly tugged on the pliers. He felt his nail ripping out from the root.
Silence returned. His entire being had become that finger and that throbbing nail.
Softly, he said, “But you will learn.”
And he yanked off the nail.
He felt his shoulder splitting from his torso . . . and all that darkness suddenly flooded his gaping mouth.
© Hossein Mortezaeian Abkenar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sara Khalili. All rights reserved.
A near-death experience prompts an argument between a couple on the nature of hell in this piece from Chinese author Zhang Xinxin.
It wasn’t the first time that Steve and I had talked about the next life. But this time I actually bared my soul. The red and blue lights of the police car were flashing. The ambulance siren wailed. I was strapped to the stretcher, my body all mashed up. But my mind was intact, and I was fully conscious—to the extent that I was talking to Steve about the most inappropriate thing. About to face death, I could have asked my lawyer-husband to make sure the insurance company paid up, or about life insurance, or about changing my will, but there we were, talking about the next life. He’s Catholic, and Catholics don’t have a next life.
When I heard him say he hoped his soul could go to Purgatory, I found myself floating about in my Eastern myths, where the soul leaves the body, and is reincarnated as another human or animal. But before reincarnation, you must pay for your sins in this life. Naked and barefoot, you must climb mountains like blades, cross seas of burning fire, descend into pans of hot oil, and be cut in half by the mighty saw. The raging fire, the hissing oil, the knives, the saw, the torn flesh, the fresh blood! The proper name for my purgatory was “Hell.”
The curious thing was that when Steve talked about his Purgatory, his face softened and his anxiety became anticipation, as though he could hear the shepherd playing his flute in the green meadows far away. He said his Purgatory was a resting place for the soul on its way up to Heaven. Not that he’d get there, he added, he’d be going straight down to Hell.
Oh, hell . . . the juddering ambulance had snatched one of earth’s monsters—me—and was hurtling across lanes of traffic, screaming emergency. I was being shaken about like a batch of goods on a delivery truck. I couldn’t see anything of the human world outside the window, but I could feel Steve’s grip on my hand, so soft, so tender, and I could feel him fighting off grief, determined to hold on to my life.
“You know, Steve, your Hell has a design flaw. The soul gets stuck in there forever. There’s no way out.”
With a drip feeding into the back of my hand, I was at the entrance to the operating theater. I went in, I came out, and as soon as the breathing apparatus was removed, my conversation with Steve about Hell resumed.
“Look at my Eastern Hell, Steve. Before the exit from this world there’s a big bowl of tea. You drink the tea and then, when you come out of this world, you remember nothing of your previous life. You become a human. Or a cow or a horse that does as the humans tell it to do. Or a pig, that humans will eat if you killed too many people in your last life. Or you might turn into a creepy-crawly without any legs, and have to move about on your belly, if you told too many lies. Or you might be a bird . . . ”
“I want to turn into a bird . . . ”
“OK, my blackface King of the Underworld will commend your current whiteface life, and in the next life you’ll turn into a bird.”
“There is no next life here. Sweetheart, you’ll go up to Heaven.” Steve saw the color coming back to my face, and gave a sigh of relief. “But I’ll be going down to Hell. I’ve known it since I was a little boy. I was a bad boy."
“Oh? How bad?”
“I lied to the priest. I scribbled in marker all around the world, did graffiti on boats, in cars, in airport lounges. When I got angry I lashed out at my little brother, beat him up until his howling filled the sky. And I masturbated, when I was six . . . ”
“Whoaa! Did anything come out?”
“What do you think?! But it felt good, real good! Oh, I was dyslexic, and couldn’t read until I was ten . . . ”
“An Einstein! A genius!”
“Shut up! I was sent to a special school. I spent all day with a bunch of bastards, and after school got the same bus home with the kids from the school for the mentally disabled. My mom and dad were sick with worry! They sent me to see a psychiatrist!”
“Excuse me! I wasn’t seeing some bogus shrink, but a psychiatrist, a famous Harvard professor. I was the youngest patient in the cuckoo’s nest!!!”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! . . . ! . . . ! . . . !”
“What’s so funny? Is it my tortured childhood that’s got you rolling around? Or are the painkillers turning you nuts?”
A wandering soul must have rapped on my skull, and brought me to my senses.
I stopped laughing, and let out a long sigh, “You know, compared with what I was like as a child, you were as good as gold.”
Steve looked at me. In the fluorescent light of the monitor, my body covered in plaster, with tubes sticking out all over the place, I must have looked a sight.
“Steve, we’ve been together all these years, but you probably don’t know the real me. Street urchin in the Middle Kingdom’s capital city, Nazi Red Guard, Prisoner in Siberia, nuclear war pawn in Sunzi’s Art of War. That’s who I am. And Death’s Assistant too. I’ve had so many reincarnations in my lifetime: as a cow, as a horse, as a dog; as a pig that deserved to be eaten because I had blood on my hands; as a snake that crawls on its belly (although I was born in the Year of the Snake), because I told so many lies . . .
“Do you think what I’m saying is mad? Hey, I’m not Marco Polo boasting about the East in his prison cell. My Chinese GDP is racing ahead of yours. I’m the Girl-Homer with her eyes wide open. Dearly beloved, the last friend I shall see, as you sit by the bed in which I lie dying, won’t you listen to my odyssey, my Classic of Mountains and Seas?
“Oh yes, you said you’d like to be a bird in your next life. In fact, a little bird really did come into my life. Don’t be afraid, Blue Eyes, don’t be afraid, come closer, a little closer, look closely into the black pupils of the eyes right in front of you."
From《我 Me》[Wo Me]. © Zhang Xinxin. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Helen Wang. All rights reserved.
Tuhin Das reflects on a writer’s struggle against censorship in Bangladesh and the power of words and empathy in difficult times.
Listen to Tuhin Das reading "The Assassin" in Bengali.
I give you these lines
For you deserve them
Many years later you will come to know
Someone wrote these for you one day.
I write when a dark night
Has gathered over Bangladesh
My writer friend is afraid
A mournful clock by his bed
Rings out suddenly
He wakes up
His eyes bulging in terror
One word escapes his lips, "assassin."
Yet he is a poet or novelist
He could have spoken of the stars
Which show us the way even in the dark,
He could have spoken of a singing bird
Nesting in a tree by his house
Who's singing in search of a companion,
Of the moon which showers resplendent beams at night,
Or of the lover who waits somewhere far away.
He didn't speak of any of these
All he said was, "assassin."
For he had forsaken the soul, spirits and divine messengers
He had summoned god to the courtroom as the accused
To declare, not all emptiness creates space
I had heard
The sound when he slammed the door
On the face of blind faith
What he wrote injured Islamabad and Istanbul,
He could not visit his ailing mother
He had to go many days with just one meal
In my imagination I heard his pleas
For a slice of bread
Because death was waiting for him
In disguise on the road.
Beasts of prey were sniffing the air
To hunt him down.
Like the saltwater flowing in the ocean
His blood is agitated today
Like the shadow beneath the light, his thoughts
Have cooled today
I felt it too once
For I too was on the run
To escape the fundamentalists' swords.
I had waited for another summer
Thinking at first of going to the mountains
Or to say good-bye to the sea
Surely they wouldn't look for me in the mountains or by the sea.
But no, I went into long hibernation
For a succession of days—seven months, in four cities
Like a refugee in my own country.
A singer lived in the room next to mine
I would hear him sing at dawn every day
Across the wall
Like the bird at the tiny prison window
Who perches on the sill to whistle
And brings reminders of days of freedom
The song would make me think
How beautiful the world was.
I felt I had to thank him
But despite these thoughts
I never did meet him
For I was afraid, what if he
A well-wisher was death-bound then
Lying in bed with cancer
I couldn't pay a visit
Or even stand for a few minutes in silence
By the grave.
Still we couldn't stop writing
Neither I nor that terrified writer
In whose nightmares the "assassin" came
To knock at his door.
Splinters of light were embedded
In our hearts like shrapnel
Even if we were to be buried and stoned
We would not be deflected
We would fly the white flag of peace
Not a black pennant eulogizing a false god
We would shout
If our throats were slit we would whisper
Our chain of words would reach the next generation
Even if they had to flow along a river of blood.
And a kingfisher would alight
To sit by our dreams.
© Tuhin Das. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Arunava Sinha. All rights reserved.
In this short essay, Burmese activist Khet Mar finds herself caught in storms raging in both the US and Myanmar.
Listen to Khet Mar reading "The Sound of Snow" in Burmese.
I woke up one late night in March to the sounds of howling wind and tree branches banging on my bedside windowpanes. As I rose from bed, lifted the curtain, and looked outside, I watched the saltlike snow as it hissed across ryegrass in the backyard lawn. There was an extraordinary blizzard moaning down the streets of Maryland with nothing to stop it but a few ash trees planted by the roadsides.
I didn’t have to go to work in the early morning. But, I didn’t feel like crawling back into bed. Instead, I closed my eyes for a few minutes. My mind was transfixed by the awful banging coming from the windowpanes. I was unable to think of anything else except the similar sounds that woke me up one rainy December morning a year earlier. That night, thoughts of cracking gunshots and a pool of blood had bothered me. Tonight was a little different.
I sat at my desk and signed in on my computer. Some breaking news about Burma was still unfolding on the social websites. Just like December, the news in March was tainted with a loud crack and the color red. But, this time, the loud crack came not from a gun but from police cracking human skulls and bones with their billy clubs. This time, I saw not the the red of blood flowing from the bullet-ridden head of a woman farmer but that of red armbands worn by riot police and militant thugs. I saw horrifying images of armed men who were brutally beating back a crowd of students peacefully demonstrating. The officers were barking out orders while police and armed thugs violently assaulted the students and onlookers. Terrified students screamed and wept as they ran for their lives.
As these sound of ear-splitting shouts of agony in my native land came back to me, the only real thing I could hear at that moment in my neighborhood in Maryland was the endlessly falling snow. The only color I could see through my window was the white of blankets of snow. Tree branches, rooftops, cars, roads, everything I could see was submerged beneath the heavy snow.
Although the physical world around me was white, the emotional world around me was red. While snow was striking the windowpanes, my ears could only hear the sound of screaming and crying from a distant land.
How could these men with their medieval mindset drag, punch, slap, and batter young girls their same age? How could I forget their ugly faces contorted with hate and anger as they dragged the young girls away? These questions boggled my mind. My blood boiled.
The students had done nothing more than protest against a so-called National Education Act, a law that had been drawn up unilaterally and guaranteed neither equal opportunities for all students nor uninterrupted pursuit of education. They were not even demanding the law be repealed, merely asking for it to be amended. When their request was turned down by the authorities, they expressed their disappointment with peaceful demonstrations. Should their nonviolent action be considered a punishable crime and subject to a brutal crackdown by the authorities? Should those who asked the armed men not to use force against the students also be considered criminals and then cruelly beaten and arrested?
The police and the armed thugs who failed to respect citizens' rights of freedom of expression were also the victims of a failed education system. The whole country had fallen victim to a political system that could not provide a decent education for its citizens.
The blizzard was expected to continue throughout the night. As the night sky grew darker, the barbarity that rained down over the former capital city would finally subside. The wind had not let up and the snow continued tapping at my windowpanes. I was powerless to do anything but clench my fists, angry and hopeless, and wait for the blizzard to end.
The blizzard might give in by the crack of dawn, I thought, but our collective suffering would not be over anytime soon. All we wanted was to put an end to the cycle of violence and misery. We no longer wanted to hold our breath, clench our jaws, and wait for the worst. All we wanted was peace and human dignity.
The sounds of a wild blizzard in the West would subside and a clear blue sky would reappear soon. And though it seemed nearly impossible, I dared at that moment to hope that my motherland in the East would also see a light that would shatter the many injustices that had subdued my country for far too long.
© Khet Mar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Maung Maung Myint. All rights reserved.
In The Construction of the Tower of Babel, the Spanish writer tackles Bruegel, the Bible, and the necessity of treason.
It is the special prerogative of the essay to wander: to explore, through trial and error, sifting its material to reach an unexpected conclusion or perhaps, unexpectedly, to not reach one. It is thus both a joy and a frustration when an essay truly lives up to its name, for the best essays constantly wrong-foot their readers, teasing with feints in every direction and ending on a chord far distant from the opening note. Juan Benet’s (1927–93) The Construction of the Tower of Babel, recently out from Wakefield Press in Adrian Nathan West’s impressive translation, contains two essays par excellence: the titular one, which fills the balance of the slim volume, and “On the Necessity of Treason,” a shorter, sweeter, and more personal piece that functions—despite the gravity of its subject—as a kind of literary dessert.
The two texts are a welcome addition to the scarce body of work by the Spanish writer currently available in English. West’s introduction does an excellent job of providing context and insight into Benet’s life and work. The author was born in Madrid, though his family fled the city after his father was murdered near the beginning of the Spanish Civil war. They then returned to Madrid at the conflict’s end, after spending time in various other parts of Spain. An engineer by trade, Benet was first inspired to write during lonely nights in the Spanish countryside where his work had brought him, and he heard the story that inspired his first novel while working on the Porma Dam. Benet’s writings vary widely both in subject and form, encompassing fiction, essays, and articles; the diversity of work—and perhaps the contrast between physical and intellectual endeavor—seems to have been invigorating for him, as he tended to work on several projects simultaneously. As an author whose interests—imaginary geography, the “composite self,” “push[ing] grammar to its furthest extremes”—run parallel to modernism despite his professed skepticism of it, Benet sounds so interesting that I was tempted to put the book down and search out Gregory Rabassa’s out-of-print translation of Benet’s Return to Región. This speaks to the importance of this new publication by Wakefield Press, which is to be commended for its dedication not only to publishing “overlooked gems and literary oddities,” but also to giving translators, who are often a book’s most passionate champions and closest readers, the space to familiarize the audience with the author and text they are about to encounter.
West’s introduction also emphasizes Benet’s difficulty as a writer and his stubborn refusal to make concessions to more conventional readerly expectations—the desire for comprehension among them. This is perhaps the most obvious link between Benet’s fiction and his essays. West describes the essays as “less imposing” than the fiction. But even if “The Construction of the Tower of Babel” describes a traceable train of authorial thought, it is also nothing if not erudite and seems driven just as much by the idiosyncratic passions of its author as his fiction.
“The Construction of the Tower of Babel” is, on the surface, an analysis of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1563 painting of the same name. Though it begins in the domain of general art history, it soon takes a turn toward hard architecture, only to proceed onward to a rigorous investigation of myth and thence to linguistics, arriving ultimately at an argument for the painting’s significance in the context of religious history—in effect, back to its art-historical starting point. If this sounds daunting, it is. West’s summary of the essay as “a melancholy record of the resourcelessness of the well-stocked mind as it postulates and discards the intellectual stopgaps that keep the horror of incomprehension at bay” is insightful and not inaccurate. But it is also a good advertisement for a text whose topics are so varied and treated at such an intellectual pitch that it is bound, at some point, to daunt any but the most learned and tenacious reader. Benet’s key points—that the careful depiction of architectural details in Bruegel’s painting are key to understanding his reading of the Babel myth, and that this reading was intimately linked to the politics and values of the Reformation—are ultimately clear. Nonetheless, the reader as schooled in the evolution of medieval architecture as she is ready to make use of casual references to Roger Caillois and Hermann Usener will be a rare one—and one suspiciously similar to Benet himself.
Indeed, the prose here is thorny, the sentences of a Russian-doll type that often require several readings to untangle the parenthetical clauses and find the referents. The confidence and finesse of the writing suggests that the translation is not to be blamed for this difficulty, but rather applauded for the integrity and tenacity of its rendering of material that clearly required plenty of mental firepower. Penetrating this thicket is ultimately worth it for the pleasure of watching two remarkable minds at work and for its inspiring example of the wealth of ideas that can emerge from careful analysis. One could be forgiven for thinking the subject itself a pet interest of the author, who was, after all, a builder by trade. Through Benet’s guidance, however, we find that it is intrinsically linked to essential questions about art, history, language, belief, politics, and human frailty. This is the talent of the compelling essayist: to thrill us with the complexities of a subject that we might have overlooked and to enchant us with the subjects they are enchanted by.
“On the Necessity of Treason” begins in a quite different tone than the sober, declarative one on which “Babel” ends: here, Benet opens with an anecdote. Not for the first time in reading Benet, the brilliant polymath and writer George Steiner comes to mind. Steiner, who shares Benet’s catholic interests, and a taste for recondite vocabulary, begins his essay “The Cleric of Treason” in a similar way, but reaches quite a different conclusion, unable to reconcile betrayal of one’s country with love of truth and justice. Benet’s conviction that the traitor is a necessary, even welcome figure in the order of the state must be affected by personal history (both his father and brother’s lives were shaped by dissent, the former’s lethally so) and this interest gives the essay a much more intimate, human quality. Here we have the feeling—another hallmark of a good essayist—of a writer searching for answers, trying to understand some mystery that troubles him deeply, and leaving his desk having named the problem but not solved it. And though an essay like Steiner’s may be more entertaining and may deliver a satisfying moralistic punch, there is something very moving about Benet’s sympathy for the traitor and his recognition that he is the inevitable and indispensable product of a world that has not yet achieved utopia: “. . . treason is never an aberration, but represents instead the eternal possibility of conflict between an individual who is born free and acknowledged as such, and a society that is not.” Though disparate in subject, style, form, and tone, this curiosity toward an imperfect world unites the two essays in the book, and it is this gentle acceptance of ambiguity that makes Benet’s investigations so satisfying.
Listen to Please Enter Destination, produced by Play for Voices.
HELENA: A young woman trying to find her place in the world—a place that, perhaps, doesn’t even exist. She is very straightforward and may seem nagging at times; in fact, though, she is a woman fighting against the decline of the world she lives in.
HONZA: A morally weak, rather narrow-minded young man. He accepts the world as it is, without question.
GPS DEVICE: A multi-faceted character. The voice of the device is neutral, able to adopt various tones—sexy, childish, or anything and everything in between.
DEVIL: A rather boorish, but very jovial devil (please see note below).
ANNOUNCER: A serious news announcer.
Translator's note on the devil:
The devil in the play is not the Devil himself, i.e. a representation of ultimate evil. Rather, he is a minor demon, one of many, with many human traits and faults (these little demons or devils are part of Czech folklore). In the play, the devil has the role of the ‘shoulder devil’, the characters’ bad conscience.
SCENE 1: EXT. UP IN THE AIR
(A feeling of being in an unreal place. Instrumental music in the background and two contrasting sounds in the foreground, for example, a comet flying through space and a kitchen sound, e.g. a handful of beans thrown into a pot.)
HELENA: (Reads) The curious photograph was taken during flight STS 51-I in August 1985.
Please see image 2. (Laughs) The image shows us a circular object in the middle of a regular cumulus cloud—a collapsing cumulus surrounded by a cumulonimbus. This “donut cloud,” as the phenomenon is called, resembles a plate of delicious soup with steam rising out of it. Or, perhaps, the doors of Heaven see right before falling asleep.
HONZA: (Playful, intimate) Hello there, my little cumulus!
HELENA: Nah, I’m a cumulonimbus. You’re a cumulus-tsumulus.
HONZA: Oh, am I?
HELENA: Well, you surround me, not the other way around.
HONZA: I wouldn’t be so sure about that. Really?
(Both sing to the tune of "Another Weekend Is Over.")
HONZA: (Sings) Another weekend is over . . .
HELENA: (Sings) A donut cloud has come and gone . . .
HONZA: (Sings) Another weekend is over . . .
HELENA: (Sings) Next week all the clouds’ll move on. Something wonderful’s happened . . .
HONZA: It’s as cloudy as can be! Another weekend is over . . .
HELENA: And he told me he liked me.
HONZA: I really, really, really like you.
HELENA: Gee, thanks. But what if that’s not enough?
(Sound of clouds moving)
SCENE 2. INT. INSIDE A CAR
(Sounds of car starting up [Engine revving, wipers, etc.] The pressing of buttons on a GPS navigation device.)
HONZA: Please enter destination. OK. So, um . . . We’re going to Kolín, so . . . K – O – L – I – N. Now, how do you make it talk? Oh, here, it’s right over here . . .
GPS DEVICE: Calculating route.
HONZA: Great. Let’s go, then.
(Sound of car starting to move)
HELENA: Could you please turn on the radio?
(Music playing, “Another Weekend is Over". Sound of Helena singing along)
HELENA: (Happily) Just one brief smile,
oh, it was pure bliss.
And then in the shadows
he gave me a real kiss.
The world is changing,
I’m head over heels in love,
I’m down with spring fever—
and I just can’t get enough!
GPS DEVICE: Please keep to your left.
(Sound of radio news in the background.)
HELENA: Shhh! I want to listen.
ANNOUNCER: Bringing you the latest news, this is Czech Radio news at three. The Chamber of Deputies has passed a bill on governmental employment agencies, closing them down in the near future. The Russian spacecraft Soyuz was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Its crew will now spend five months of comprehensive training at the ISS. Lobbyist Filip Koloušek has been released from custody. His participation in the property sales, local planning, and limited companies in Prague, the Capital, could not be proved. The police claim that records of Koloušek’s intercepted phone calls have disappeared, including all the backups.
HELENA: Well, well, well. Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?
ANNOUNCER: The bill on governmental employment agencies was submitted by Deputy Alois Ponákl, who claims they are unprofitable.
HELENA: I think I might have just lost my job . . . (Ironically) Lovely. Just lovely.
ANNOUNCER: The budget that has, up until now, been used to run the employment agencies, and welfare benefits, will now be reallocated. It will be used for deputy salaries and for the New Year’s firework display.
HELENA & HONZA: (Surprised) They gotta be kidding, right?
ANNOUNCER: Deputy Ponákl has also proposed to close down libraries, theaters, and museums. “The efficiency of these establishments cannot be measured,” claims the deputy. “Personally, I think they’re nothing but another place for loiterers and people with just too much time on their hands.” Following his statement, Ponákl excused himself to catch a plane bound for the Canary Islands, where he was due for a state visit.
HELENA & HONZA: (Surprised) What?
HELENA: Just . . . Just turn it down, please.
(Sound of radio being turned down)
HONZA: Look, it’s not like it’s sure yet, right? Things’ll work out, one way or the other. They always do.
HELENA: Chaos reigns, said the fox. (Long silence)
HONZA: Hellie. (Pause.) Hellie, come on. Talk to me.
HELENA: You know, everyone keeps going on and on about how the world is coming to an end, blah blah blah, right? But you know what? It’s already happening. I mean, the end of the world is. Only it’s not like everything’s exploding, boom, just like that. You know? It’s not like that in a split second, the world will be gone. Nah, the world is coming to an end slowly and gently. Little by little, everything is going to die off, and it’ll be long, and it’ll be tiring and it’ll be disgusting. And the first thing to go down the drain will be human values and human intelligence.
HONZA: You do realize this has been going on since the dinosaurs, right?
HELENA: No. No, I don’t realize it. (Pause) Welcome to cloud cuckoo land.
GPS DEVICE: In 100 meters, please turn left.
HONZA: Damn! I missed our turn.
GPS DEVICE: Please keep to your left.
HELENA: Why'd you get this talking piece of junk, anyway?
GPS DEVICE: Please keep to your left.
HELENA: The world is coming to an end.
HONZA: Hellie, come on. Look, it’s Sunday and we’re going out for a ride. For one second, could you at least try to think about something other than the world falling apart? We never talk about anything else, for Christ’s sake. For once, at least, can’t we just chill and relax and enjoy ourselves?
HELENA: Oh, of course we can, dear. It’s just that it’s a bit of shock, you know. Losing your job and all that? Just, you know . . . Try to put yourself in my shoes. What would it be like, not being able to go back to work tomorrow?
HONZA: It would be wonderful. I dream about not having to go to work.
GPS DEVICE: Re . . . Reca . . . Recalculating. Please enter destination. Destination: Kozojedy.
HONZA: That said, our GPS lady has probably gone a bit bonkers.
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
HONZA: That should do it. It should work now.
HELENA: Honza, I’m worried.
HONZA: What, about the weather? No rain today, I checked.
HELENA: I couldn’t care less about the weather. I’m worried I won’t be able to find a job. That I’ll have to stay at home and we’ll have to live on one income, and that I’ll have to suck it up and that I’ll absolutely hate it. I don’t really know what to do.
HONZA: Look, hon. Calm down. You just found out you’re gonna lose your job. You have to come to terms with the news, right? Give it some time, that’s all. I get it that right now you might be feeling a bit like a loser, but . . .
GPS DEVICE: Please enter the roundabout. Then take the second exit.
HONZA: But we’ll figure something out. We’ll get you a job, don’t you worry.
HELENA: Do you think that maybe we could call off today’s visit? I’m really not in the mood for Lukáš and his blabbing.
HONZA: Let’s just have lunch with them. Then we can tell them we’ve already got plans for the afternoon.
HELENA: It’s just that once you and Lukáš get going about nuclear weapons, or the future of the Euro, or anything along those lines, there’s no end to it . . . You’ll bore me to death. And Eliška won’t be any help either. I mean, she doesn’t talk about anything other than breastfeeding anymore.
HONZA: Not happening this time, I promise. Now, you really need to get some rest. Close your eyes and try to clear your thoughts, OK? Do some cloud-watching. Imagine it’s just the two of us, riding the clouds through the sky.
SCENE 3. EXT. UP IN THE AIR
HELENA: (Sings) I’m falling asleep, my ship’s heading out toward the sea . . . And I’m climbing a rope into heaven. There I’ll sit upon a cloud and tell myself that yes, this is really, really, really me.
HONZA: (Reading from a cloud atlas) A cumulus cloud will usually be isolated, forming a massive, sharply defined mound, and developing upward in the form of puffs, heaps, or towers. The uppermost part of a cumulus will often resemble a cauliflower. Those parts that reflect the light of the sun will usually be a bright white color, while the almost horizontal base of the cloud will remain dark.
HELENA: There you are. All accumulated.
HONZA: What about you?
HELENA: I’m accumulonimbutated.
HONZA: Seen any ice crystals down this way, ma’am? I’m afraid I might’ve lost track of them.
HELENA: Quite large, weren’t they? And a big group, right?
HONZA: They’re about a hundredth of a millimeter around the waist. Lovely kids, ain’t they?
HELENA: Um, didn’t see them, sorry. A crested cloud’s passed by and turned everything upside down.
(A quick cut to)
SCENE 4. INT. INSIDE THE CAR
(Car sounds. Once in a while the song, “Another Weekend Is Over” Comes on the radio.)
GPS DEVICE: Your destination is is is is . . . (Repeats until Honza hits it.)
HELENA: Can’t you do something about it?
HONZA: About what? About the world?
HELENA: Well, that too. But maybe you could start with the GPS device. It’s really starting to get on my nerves.
HONZA: And what exactly about it is getting on your nerves, my dear? (Hits the GPS device)
HELENA: Well, the fact that the lady inside the box is so obviously broken. Fix the thing or get rid of it or whatever. What did I tell you about wasting money on stupid gadgets? Can’t we just get a map and find the way ourselves? (Upset, but because she lost her job.)
HONZA: Calm down, Hellie.
HELENA: (Pause) Um, Honza. I really don’t feel all that well. I’m really not sure I can handle Lukáš and Eliška today. You do realize they don’t actually care about us, right? They just need some people inside their large, beautiful, rustic home. Actors on a stage, you know? In a play set in the eighteenth century. Moving about the mansion, sitting on the stone steps leading up to the attic and admiring the seventeenth-century well with its lovely winch. And it’s all historical, of course.
HONZA: You’re being unfair. Lukáš is a friend.
HELENA: Yeah? How so? I mean, how do you know he’s a friend? All he does is brag and talk about himself.
HONZA: He’s helped me out in the past. Look, Helena, why don’t we just talk to them for an hour or so, about life and stuff. And then we can go home.
HELENA: When I’m in a good mood, I can deal with them all right. But right now, I’m really just ready to call it a day.
HONZA: Cheer up! When we get back, you can relax in the tub and I’ll fix us something to eat. Why don’t you focus on that?
HELENA: Just . . . Stop talking, OK?
HONZA: But isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? A man who takes care of you?
HELENA: Yeah. When your wishes come true, it’s actually really scary.
HONZA: Calm down, Hellie! Listen: say whatever you need to say, as long as it makes you feel better. Get the aggression out of your system. I promise I won’t take any offense. Any at all, not even a little bit.
HELENA: The world is coming to an end, and so is manhood. And all those dynamic, multifunctional women are watching, no idea what to do, what to say . . . You know, we should visit the ruins of some old building. There’s bound to be some around here and it’ll go well with the mood.
HONZA: Where the hell are we, anyway?!
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating route. Recalculating. Recalculating.
HELENA: Can we please just go home? I really can’t deal with your gadgets right now.
HELENA: What’s the matter? Didn’t I just hear you say that you won’t take offense?
HONZA: Yeah, but you’re being unreasonable.
HELENA: For the last time, can we please go back? Let’s just take the nearest exit. Look, this one will take us to Šestajovice.
HONZA: Why on earth would we want to go to there? No, I won’t leave the highway until this stupid cow tells me to.
HELENA: Use your brain, for God’s sake. Look, there’s a sign right over there. It says that Kolín is straight ahead.
HONZA: I can wait. I’ve got all the time in the world.
GPS DEVICE: In one hundred meters, leave the highway. Take the exit on your right.
HELENA: Whatever. If you trust some weirdo lady powered by the universe more than your partner, well, that’s fine by me.
HONZA: Trust has nothing to do with it. This weirdo woman of yours has only one purpose to her existence: to navigate. So why shouldn’t I make use of it?
HELENA: That purpose used to be mine, you know? Now what am I supposed to do? Look, this is rubbish. We need to talk.
HONZA: Not this again.
HELENA: You’ve changed a lot, Honza. You used to fight for things. And now, now you’d rather I relax in the tub while you fix us dinner.
HONZA: Let’s not fight. In fact, let’s not even talk until we reach Kolín. From now on, the only person doing any talking will be the GPS device. That OK with you?
GPS DEVICE: I can see you’re afraid to talk about your future.
HONZA: Cut it out, Helena! I’m trying to drive here!
HELENA: It wasn’t me! I didn’t say anything! It was the GPS device.
HONZA: Yeah, right. It’s an app. It doesn’t join in conversations. What a lame excuse.
GPS DEVICE: Intersection coming up. Turn left for Udderville, a horror of a town to live in. Turn right for Skiddytown . . . Which is probably even worse.
HONZA: What the . . . ? What’s wrong with it?
HELENA: I had no idea you could make it act all conspiring.
HONZA: Weird. I bought the most expensive model. It’s supposed to be compatible with everything.
(Silence, except for car sounds and radio in the background.)
HONZA: A penny for your thoughts?
HELENA: I just realized that my boss has actually been going on and on about how they might close us down for ages. I just never thought it could actually happen, you know? At work, it was all part of a game—always hearing they’re gonna close us down, always working in makeshift conditions . . . I just thought that working for a governmental organization meant it was here to stay. That nothing could go wrong.
HONZA: In this country, there’s only one thing certain: Utopia.
HELENA: It’s not just that I’ve been fired, you know? I’ll find something. It’s a matter of principle. This country is falling apart and we’re all part of it. For instance, I personally am still pretty mad at you for helping those Americans crack those bank accounts. I bet you’re still doing it, anyway. Even though I’ve told you to stop, a thousand times. But no, you just won’t listen.
HONZA: It was just a one-time gig, and a long time ago. I had no cash, I was under pressure and I lost my head. It was just that one time. I felt awful, so I told you about it and that was the end of it.
HELENA: Only that one time, huh?
HONZA: OK, so then I also showed Aleš how to do it. But I didn’t do anything myself . . . I just showed Aleš.
HELENA: (Sarcastically) Wow, how generous of you. You think that doesn’t count? I mean, you wouldn’t drain your mom’s bank account, would you?
HONZA: Why would I steal from Mom?
HELENA: That’s exactly my point: you wouldn’t. Of course, as long as it’s someone you don’t know, it doesn’t matter, right? Imagine someone cracked your bank account and you lost all your money overnight.
HONZA: What do you want me to say, Helena? I’ve already told you about it. I only did it once. Then I showed Aleš how to do it. And that’s it.
HELENA: Yeah, right.
GPS DEVICE: You picked the neighbors’ black currants yesterday.
HELENA: What’s your point, lady?
HONZA: My point exactly.
HELENA: How did you know? Anyway, you can’t be serious, comparing two black currants with a drained bank account!
HONZA: But it’s true, isn’t it?
HELENA: I hate you. I hate everything. Stop the car!
HONZA: Nah, I don’t think so.
HELENA: (Screaming) Stop the car, now!
GPS DEVICE: Please continue straight ahead.
HELENA: That piece of junk is driving me crazy!
(A bang, Helena rattles the door handle, but the door won't open. The car stops.)
GPS DEVICE: The world is falling apart, and so is your relationship. What am Iiiiiii [unpleasant technical beeping sound] supposed to do?
HONZA: You’re barking mad, lady.
(Helena rattles the door of the car.)
HELENA: The darn door won’t open.
GPS DEVICE: Your destination is on your left: Darnville.
HONZA: Hellie, calm down. Look, I swear it was just that one—
GPS DEVICE: Please close the door of the vehicle.
HELENA: I can’t even open it, how on earth am I supposed to close it? The world’s going mad.
HONZA: Hellie, I swear I will never, ever do it again. It’s a scam. I feel awful just thinking about it.
GPS DEVICE: Please do not open the door of the vehicle.
(Helena rattles the door and starts to cry.)
HELENA: Open, you—!
GPS DEVICE: Please calm down the passenger.
HONZA: Hellie, come on. Come here. Calm down.
(Sound of Helena crying. Click of car door unlocking. Helena opens the door and leaves the car. The audio stays inside the car, with Honza. Car door opens.)
HONZA: Helena! Helena!
(Sound of Honza hitting the wheel, honking)
GPS DEVICE: The marten has killed the grouse, then fell prey to the red fox, who was throttled by the gray wolf. . . (Can be sung to the tune of "Another Weekend Is Over”.)
HONZA: (Sarcastically) This Sunday’s turning out just great!
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
GPS DEVICE: (Stops singing.) Recalculating. Destination: Paradise eternal. Recalculating. Destination: Paradise infernal. Er, eternal, sorry about that. In one hundred kilometers, turn left. Recalculating.
(Sound of car door opening. Helena returns.)
HONZA: Look, I don’t want to be mean, but don’t you think you might have gone a little over the top there?
HELENA: (Sarcastically) You think?
HONZA: Hellie, you know I love you, don’t you? Don’t worry, everything’ll be just fine.
(Sound of Honza kissing Helena several times)
HELENA: Will it? When?
GPS DEVICE: The world is full of imps and we’re all imps ourselves.
HONZA: What she said.
GPS DEVICE: You guys never talk about the future. Is there something you’re afraid of?
HELENA: Sure. Realizing we don’t have a future.
GPS DEVICE: Oh, but you do. Everyone does. And that’s what’s so great about this world.
HONZA: I’m not scared. Tell me what you want, Helena, and I’ll give it to you. You wanna get married? Have kids? Get our own place? Move to a beach house? Anything. Just say the word, any word, and I’ll deliver. It’s a while-you-wait service, too, by the way. High quality guaranteed.
HELENA: That’s exactly the problem, don’t you see? I’ll say the word and you’ll . . . deliver. You’ll get me . . . something. Some under-the-counter black-market rubbish. So . . . Czech. (Disgustedly) I wish I didn’t have to tell you everything.
GPS DEVICE: Stop fighting, already! You’re not helping.
HONZA: Hellie, don’t you worry. We’ll manage, somehow. We’ll just take things as they come, OK?
GPS DEVICE: Please enter the roundabout. Then turn left.
HELENA: Listen to the GPS. Listen to the wise silence of the crazy old lady within.
(Silence. Car sounds and soft radio.)
HONZA: Are you crying?
HELENA: (Sobbing) It’s just . . . How can you even say it? “We’ll take things as they come.” That’s what losers say. We all know there’s only bad stuff down the road, so why kid ourselves there isn’t?
HONZA: The world can be a nice place, Helena. But . . . Maybe we really should head back home, huh? See Lukáš and his perfect family some other time?
HELENA: (Sobbing) Thanks, Honza. Let’s visit them some other time. Not today. Their family’s perfect on the outside, but there’s nothing to them. They’re . . . empty. (Bursts into tears.)
GPS DEVICE: (Singing operatically) There’s a pigeon in my soul, his feathers dusky black as coal, his eyes the gaze of a young foal . . .
HONZA: It’s acting up again.
(Helena hums to herself, maybe to the tune of "Another Weekend Is Over.")
HONZA: (Reading) Please enter destination. (Spells out) P – R – A – G – U – E. Prague. Let’s head home, you crazy old lady.
GPS DEVICE: Caution! Destination cannot be changed. Please keep to your left.
HONZA: What the hell’s wrong with it? Can you believe it? Listen, lady, I’m the one who says where we’re going, not you.
GPS DEVICE: Well, do you know where you want to go? Do you know why you want to go there? And does any of it make any sense?
HELENA: Could you please turn it off? We don’t need it to get back home.
GPS DEVICE: I can’t be turned off. Sorry.
(Sound of radio jingle announcing the news)
HELENA: It’s the news! Turn it up.
ANNOUNCER: Bringing you the latest news, this is Czech Radio news at three-thirty. According to the new Civil Law, animals are now defined as objects rather than as living, breathing creatures. Menzi Avaritamino, recently elected president of Madugal, paid his respects at the grave of an unknown soldier at Hourauna Mountain. In the next hour, he named himself prime minister and set out implementing the promised political program of economic measures. He passed a law establishing the need for dozens of female assistants, including a personal Ayurvedic masseuse, a manicurist, and a botanist specializing in succulents. The Civil Law now defines animals not as living, breathing creatures, but as unemotional objects. As a result, animals can now be legally used in a number of ways, for instance as fuel. Vilém Doggan, president of the Animals Party and chair of the Association for Feline Rights, protests. “We have to stand up against laws like this,” says Doggan. “What if people start using cats or dogs for heating? Personally, I can’t imagine throwing a cat into the stove, and I sincerely hope no one else can either. I mean, a live cat can keep you warm as well!”
(The news ends with the sound of "Another Weekend Is Over" playing.)
HELENA: I can’t shake the feeling that the world’s gone completely mad.
HONZA: Don’t worry, you’ll find a new job. Everything will sort itself out.
GPS DEVICE: Oooh, someone he’s got a heart of gold!
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
HONZA: Stupid cow. She’s definitely lost it. I’m taking the left turn, whatever she says.
HELENA: Finally! Taking your fate into your own hands. Every revolution was always first a thought in one man’s mind.
GPS DEVICE: Yes, finally. Off we go, into a different dimension, into a world of speckled pigs.
GPS DEVICE: Meaning the world! From what little I’ve heard so far, my dear girl, I feel you and I will have so much in common. Your sense of misery is impressive.
HELENA: It sure is. I doubt everything.
GPS DEVICE: Including hope, I’m afraid. I, too, have always found myself suffering when I was told the country was “managing just fine.” In theory, everyone’s working. But in reality, no one’s actually doing all that much, are they? They juggle work with stealing, they overcomplicate things, or they just plain slack off.
HONZA: But it’s getting better, don’t you think? (Wants to see the good side of everything, ignores problems)
HELENA: What’s the meaning of your life?
GPS DEVICE: Navigation. Showing people the way.
HELENA: Show us the way, then.
GPS DEVICE: I’ll tell you one thing: stuff changes. So help each other out. The hardest thing is figuring out the correct destination. The rest’s easy as pie.
HONZA: Not always.
GPS DEVICE: OK, not always. But quit whining, young man, silliness doesn’t suit you. You’re a nice young couple with a nice future.
SCENE 5. EXT. UP IN THE AIR.
(Sounds of comets and airplanes)
HONZA: What do you see? A hammer? Or maybe a feather?
HELENA: All I see is you.
HONZA: I meant that cloud. What do you think it looks like?
HELENA: I think it looks like you. (Pause) You’re like a waffle.
HONZA: A waffle?
HELENA: Firm and crisp on the outside, soft, tender and fragile on the inside.
SCENE 6. INT. IN A CAR
HELENA: (Singing) Just one brief smile,
oh, it was pure bliss.
And then in the shadows
he gave me a real kiss.
The world is changing,
I’m head over heels in love,
I’m down with spring fever—
and I just can’t get enough!
GPS DEVICE: The world is changing, I’m head over heels in love . . . Yeah, right. (Laughs bitterly)
HELENA: I’m actually not so sure myself.
GPS DEVICE: You won’t get anywhere without knowing where you want to go. So, where do you want to go? What’s your destination?
HELENA: Somewhere I can have a nice life.
GPS DEVICE: What’s so wrong with this place? What’s so wrong with your partner? What’s so wrong with the world?
HELENA: I could write up a list, I guess, but what’s the point? Everything’s wrong.
GPS DEVICE: Come on, now. Why not specify a thing or two?
HELENA: All right. So, for instance, I feel the world’s carbon footprint has become something of a problem.
HONZA: I personally don’t think anything’s wrong—at least not much. Let’s just take things as they come . . . Er. OK. I love Helena. I’m happy in our relationship and I want us to have a nice future. She can get a bit opinionated at times, but that’s exactly what I like about her. I’m also quite happy with my job—
GPS DEVICE: Splendid, splendid. Opposites attract, after all. Now, let us ask the young lady to share what she likes about the gentleman behind the wheel.
HELENA: Well, he’s here. And he’s interested in me. No one else fulfills those criteria, which is a bit sad, but that’s just the way it is.
GPS DEVICE: That’s all? That’s not much, don’t you think?
HELENA: All right. He treats me well. He doesn’t beat me up. He can listen to me for hours on end. He’s not trying to change me all the time. We share some values. That enough for you?
GPS DEVICE: All right, then. What about you, young man?
HONZA: I respect Helena because she’s strong, brave, and committed, and because she has an inquisitive mind.
GPS DEVICE: Amazing! What seems to be the problem then, my darlings? Rise now from the ashes, shine like the feathers of the phoenix. Do what no one else does. Forge chains of gold to bind all those bastards who’ve been in this world since the beginning of all time. Maybe you’ve been doing it all along, but now you have become stronger. Starting today, your efforts shall become much more deliberate. Much more. Much more!
(“Another Weekend Is Over” plays on the radio. Helena and Honza sing along.)
HELENA & HONZA: Something wonderful’s happened.
GPS DEVICE: With your pants on!
HELENA & HONZA: I’m as happy as can be.
GPS DEVICE: With your pants off!
HELENA & HONZA: Another weekend is over.
GPS DEVICE: With your pants on!
HELENA & HONZA: And he told me he liked me.
GPS DEVICE: With your pants off . . .
(Sounds of clouds. Then, all of a sudden, rain and thunder. It starts to rain.)
HONZA: Hullo, rain! Why don’t you read from the cloud atlas for a little while, Hellie? Just so we can relax a bit.
HELENA: Bringing you the latest news: the Sunday evening of cloud poetry is moving in our direction. Puffs of whipped cream drowning in an overcast sky of chocolate.
HONZA: A mound is heading toward us.
HELENA: It could rain cats and dogs.
HONZA: When ham starts growing on trees, then . . .
HELENA: Then what?
HONZA: Then I’ll look into the mirror and see . . .
HELENA: The sky. (Reads) The nimbostratus consists of a gray layer of clouds, often rather dark in color. Its blurred appearance is due to the precipitation dripping continuously from its base, either rain, or snow. This precipitation usually reaches ground level.
HONZA: (Adds) The layer is so thick the position of the sun cannot be determined.
HELENA: (Reads) Low, torn clouds often appear beneath this layer. These clouds may, but do not have to, be connected to the nimbostratus layer. (Stops reading) Look, Honza, there’s someone standing over there, by the edge of the road. We should give him a ride, he’s dripping wet.
HONZA: No problem.
SCENE 7. INT. INSIDE A CAR.
(Sound of car stopping, window rolling down)
DEVIL: Afternoon, folks.
HONZA: Heya. Where you headed?
DEVIL: Where you going?
GPS DEVICE: We’re actually going to Kozojedy.
DEVIL: I’m headed just about anywhere. I don’t mind detours.
HONZA: Well, get in, then.
(Sound of the devil getting in. The car door slams shut.)
HONZA: Hellie, do you mind moving the stuff in the back?
GPS DEVICE: Our lives are nothing but one big detour, aren’t they?
HELENA: Could you please turn that thing off? I’m getting sick of its advice.
(Sound of car starting to move)
GPS: I can’t be turned off. Sorry. Not possible. Welcome on board!
DEVIL: What’s this you’re listening to? Some sort of show?
HONZA: Sort of. I thought I had bought a GPS device, but so far the crazy old lady inside’s been all about directing our lives rather than giving us proper driving directions.
HELENA: Aw, leave her alone. It’s actually quite nice when life finally gives you a surprise or two.
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
HONZA: There. It should work now.
DEVIL: I always say that a slap’s the only way to stop ladies too talkative for their own good. Beg yer pardon, miss.
GPS DEVICE: Please don’t hit me. Violence against women has been illegal for at least a couple of years now. There’s no point to it, anyway. As a navigation device, I don’t feel any physical pain. So . . . Where might you be from, good sir?
DEVIL: Um . . . Well . . .
GPS DEVICE: Well?
DEVIL: Um. . . No place you’d know, I think. Not yet, at least.
HELENA: Come on, try us!
GPS DEVICE: It’s down, down, down. And it’s, how do I put it, infernally warm down there. Boiling hot, you could even say. Oh, I’ve sure seen this man before!
DEVIL: Yeah, right. You don’t even exist, ma’am.
HONZA: He’s right, you know. You came in a box.
GPS DEVICE: Good Lord, stand by me. I swear I live off nothing but cabbage and coconut juice.
HELENA: Don’t worry about the blabbing. We don’t get it either. But when you hit it, it usually starts working. At least for a little while.
(Sound of Helena hitting the GPS device)
GPS DEVICE: Please keep to your left. In one hundred kilometers, turn right.
HONZA: Thanks. You’re an angel.
GPS DEVICE: Quite so.
(Sound of radio jingle announcing news)
HELENA: It’s the news! Can you please turn up the radio?
ANNOUNCER: Bringing you the latest news, this is Czech Radio news at four. The newest bill passed by the Chamber of Deputies has made it illegal to walk up stairs. The Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs is now organizing special courses in floating. A plane transporting the president of Spain has been hit by lightning. Despite this accident, the president managed to take his golf lesson on time. The Chamber of Deputies confirms that beginning October 2012, anyone wishing to walk up a flight of stairs will have to float their way up instead. The inhabitants of Kiev celebrate the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Sokol organization, a youth sports movement. Despite the heavy rain, the celebrations continue with gymnastics on Kiev main square.
(The news ends with the sound of "Another Weekend Is Over.")
HELENA: They’re kidding, right? We should write a letter to the President. Dear Mr . . .
HELENA & HONZA: . . . Asshole . . .
HELENA: We’re writing, because we just wanted to know if we’re still allowed to . . .
HONZA: . . . breathe.
HELENA: Sincerely . . .
HELENA & HONZA: Your voters.
HELENA: These times suck.
DEVIL: All times and ages suck, my dear. It’s all about crappy human lives, and accusing the times of your bad luck is just plain—
GPS DEVICE: Short-sighted!
(Sound of someone hitting the GPS device)
HELENA: (In agreement) True.
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. Please enter destination. Enjoy your trip! Recalculating. Destination: Kozojedy.
HONZA: Didn’t I just set it to Prague?
DEVIL: Maybe I could introduce myself, after all. Um, I’m a devil. Pleased to meet you. Not the real deal, mind you, not the Devil himself, just an, um, associate. A, um, minor demon. But as I said, pleased to meet you.
HELENA: (Ironically) Well, that’s just what we needed!
DEVIL: So, tell me a little about yourselves, mortal ones. What do you do?
HELENA: I’m unemployed. At least soon I will be.
HONZA: I’m a geek. That is, I work in IT.
DEVIL: For reals?
HELENA: Yeah. (Ironically) For real.
HONZA: Helena . . .
HELENA: Well? Why don’t you go ahead and tell him?
HONZA: Er . . . And what exactly should I tell him?
HELENA: That you steal other people’s money?
DEVIL: Well, miss, ain’t that the only way you can earn some real cash in this world? There’s nothing wrong with being a bit work-shy, if you ask me. I mean, trying to earn a decent living gets you nowhere. Take it from someone who’s been there: pinching something once in a while don’t hurt no one. These days it’s almost an art, wouldn’t you say?
(GPS device clears its throat)
HELENA: That’s exactly the problem! (Clears throat)
DEVIL: Come on, guys, you’re being unreasonable. Look at me: I’m doing just fine. Got nice clothes and stuff, and whenever I feel like popping off for a short visit to Earth, I go straight ahead. You know, just to walk among the people for a little while, as they say, hah. My soul’s burning all right, but who cares about that? Just so you know, young man, I’m all with you on that hacking-cracking business.
(GPS device has a violent coughing fit)
DEVIL: And seeing as the missus is without a job, maybe she could lend you a hand? (Turns to the GPS device) And what’s your problem, lady?
GPS DEVICE: The name’s Angela.
DEVIL: Well, then, everything all right, Angie?
GPS DEVICE: Everything all wrong, hon. But never mind the coughing. Just something stuck in my throat.
HELENA: What made you end up down there anyway, Mr. Devil?
DEVIL: Watch yer tongue, there, miss! I ain’t no “Mr. Devil.” I’m just a random devil, or demon, if that’s easier for you, one out of many. And in answer to your question, if you’re so daft that I really have to spell it out for you: well, I died. And then I went to Hell. Got that? Anyway, folks, don’t you get all muddled up by this social construct everyone’s promoting, you know, this honesty thing. Trust me, I’ve got experience with stuff like that. And I’m telling you, I’ve met hundreds of sinners and the only thing that’s ever made life worth living was pure honest theft.
GPS DEVICE: Oh, I beg to differ. What you’re saying, and do correct me if I’m wrong, is that the meaning of life is to steal and to sin!
DEVIL: The meaning of life is to enjoy the stuff you manage to cash in. Nothing else is worth it.
GPS DEVICE: (Clears throat) Not everything is about money, you know.
DEVIL: Money, money, money. Lovely, shiny little round disks of joy. Stuff like that never goes bad. Money don’t smell. I’m telling you, what more could you ask for?
GPS DEVICE: People should live for things that make sense, not for hollow wrappings.
DEVIL: (Spits) Ugh.
HONZA: Well, we’re with you on that one. Aren’t we, Helena?
HELENA: Sure we are. But building your own construct is not easy.
GPS DEVICE: Nothing’s easy. Even getting up in the morning is not easy.
DEVIL: Aw, come on! That’s the lovely thing about stealing. When you’re swimming in cash, you don’t have to get up early. Miss Angela, ma’am, seems to me you’ve got it all wrong. How do you expect these young ones to succeed with advice like that?
HONZA: So how did you end up in Hell, anyway?
DEVIL: Oh, the usual stuff. Stole a little something here, a little something there. Worked illegally. Sold the metal from drainpipes and manhole covers at scrapyards. Me ‘n' the boys once managed to steal a whole bridge!
HONZA: You sold a bridge to a scrapyard?
DEVIL: Didn’t even bat an eyelid. Manhole covers are high-quality steel, did you know that? Oh, and I also stole garlic from my neighbor. He and his family broke their backs coaxing it out of the ground, only to find the fields empty one day. Right before harvest too! Oh, and then I became the mayor of the village I lived in and did a little fund-siphoning along the way. As I said, the usual stuff.
HELENA: You can’t be serious.
HONZA: This really is a bit too much.
DEVIL: You know what? The only thing I’m sorry for is that I didn’t steal way more before biting the dust. You’ve got it all wrong, miss. No way honesty’s the best policy. Just, you know, let your man do his thing and don’t think about it too much. He’ll bring money home, so what do you care where it came from?
HELENA: I see you don’t know me at all.
HONZA: I’d actually rather skip the Hell part, if you don’t mind. You don’t really look all that glowing.
GPS DEVICE: Maybe you should get out of the car, huh?
DEVIL: Nah, not happening. Seeing as these nice young people offered to give me a ride, who am I to refuse it, my dear Angie? By the way, life in Hell’s not half bad. No worse than life in Heaven, that’s for sure. No worries about that.
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. Recalculating. Recalculating. Please enter destination. Destination. Destination. Destination. (All at the same time) I’m excited as an old lady about to have her hearing checked! Please enter destination!
HONZA: It’s acting up again. What’s wrong with you? (Hits the device) I said we’re going back to Prague, didn’t you hear me? We’re having a word with the president.
HELENA: Will I go to Hell for stealing the neighbors’ currants?
DEVIL: Nah, I don’t think so. Not bad enough. What really counts is what’s going on in your head while you’re doing the stealing.
GPS DEVICE: Please enter destination. Destination. Destination—
HONZA: I’ve already told you where we’re going! It’s Prague, P – R – A – G – U – E! (Spells it out as if Angela were hard of hearing.)
DEVIL: Maybe you really should have your hearing checked, ma’am, no offense meant.
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. Do you wish to change your destination?
DEVIL: Aw, our lil’ Angie’s sulking. Come on, Angie, give us a smile!
HELENA: It’s a GPS device. It connects itself to the universe and takes you wherever you want to go.
DEVIL: Shouldn’t you be able to do that yourself? How is she supposed to know where you want to go?
GPS DEVICE: Please enter destination. If unsure, please press “Whatever.”
HELENA: But we do know where we want to go. We’re just . . . wavering a little.
DEVIL: Humans are spoiled brats. All you need is a little honest—Yeah, can’t tell you the truth, sorry. The old man’d skin me alive.
GPS DEVICE: You’re being too philosophical for my taste. You’ve gotten me all sweaty just trying to keep up with you. Let’s change the subject. I’d like to tell you about this little hobby of mine: creative writing. In my work, I prefer to focus on topics that humans usually refuse to see. Ah, Mr. Devil, I see you are closing your—your—your—eyes—eyes—eyes . . .
(Sound of Honza hitting the GPS device)
HELENA: Stop hitting her, Honza! You can be a real brute sometimes, you know that? Come on, Miss Angela. Tell us what we’re doing with our lives.
(Sound of GPS device sobbing softly)
HONZA: I’m pretty sure she said she can’t feel any physical pain.
DEVIL: Don’t cry, Miss Angela, ma’am, don’t cry . . .
HELENA: Are you all right, ma’am? Honza, apologize! You’ve hurt her feelings.
HONZA: She doesn’t exist! Don’t you get it? This is not happening!
HELENA: Oh, is it not? So why is there a devil sitting in the back of our car? As far as I know, he’s not supposed to exist either.
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. (Jerks back to consciousness) Um, of course I do exist! The angels are weeping.
DEVIL: We’re both real. For reals.
HELENA: Honza, apologize. Now!
HONZA: Sorry, um . . .
GPS DEVICE: Angela. All right, then. Apology accepted. As I have said, I consider myself something of a writer, so I thought we could have an evening of poetry with Miss Angela, brought to you every Sunday.
(Sound of jingle playing)
GPS DEVICE: It’s one of my early works, back from when I worked in the German town of Goddelau. Back then, I was very influenced by a writer born in that city, Georg Büchner.
GPS DEVICE: Well, seeing as I don’t hear any nos, let’s get going! You’re making me proud, my dear listeners and friends, so very proud!
(Clears throat and reads) Once there was a child who had no mama and no papa. It was all alone in the world, this little child, so very, very much alone. After all, no one lived in this world, not a single soul. It was completely empty. And as the child was alone and afraid, she decided to climb up and into the skies. The moon looked so kind, at least it seemed so! Yet when the child finally reached it, she saw the moon was nothing but a rotten piece of wood. So the child turned towards the sun. Yet when she reached it, she saw the sun was nothing but a withered sunflower. And when she reached the stars, she saw they were nothing but little golden midges. Thus the child, weary and tired, turned back to the earth. The earth, however, had become a seaside dock and had turned upside down. And once again, the child was very much alone. So she sat down on the ground and started crying. And from what I know, she is sitting there, crying, to this very day, and is very, very, very much alone.
(Sound of Helena sobbing)
HONZA: Don’t cry, Hellie, it’s just a story. Look, Angela, I’m not so sure if it was such a good idea to read this story right now.
GPS DEVICE: That’s what they always tell me. It never seems to be a good idea. But then, when you think about it, you realize it always is.
HELENA: That was so sad! (Bursts into tears)
GPS DEVICE: I am so sorry. I genuinely thought it would be distracting. I know people don’t usually ask themselves questions about death and stuff like that. No, people hate that.
DEVIL: (Crying) Very touching, ma’am, very touching, what with the kid and all . . . (Suddenly sounding matter-of-fact) What time is it?
GPS DEVICE: The eleventh hour, if you really need to know.
DEVIL: Yikes, gotta go, folks. There’s this meeting, wouldn’t do good to miss it.
HONZA: But we’re not in Prague yet!
DEVIL: No worries. We devils meet anywhere and anytime we want. We’re all on one plane of evil, get it? It’s just that I need to pick up my goat. The old man gets really touchy when someone comes on foot.
HELENA: So, what does a meeting of devils look like? (Sniffling)
DEVIL: Well, we all connect telepathically and pray for evil on Earth. The usual stuff. Anyway, gotta go. Don’t cry, miss, life’s dandy. Remember: when you’re up to your neck in shit, turn it into jam. Of course, I ain’t supposed to tell you that, but I really wanted to help you. You’re cool, both of you. (Spits.) Ugh, so much humanity, all in one day. The old man’ll go crazy.
(Sound of the devil spitting several times. A whirlwind/tornado comes up and takes him away.)
GPS DEVICE: Off with ye! And the devil’s gone.
HELENA: Thank you for chasing him away.
HONZA: Having him here was worse than Hell.
SCENE 8. INT. INSIDE A CAR.
GPS DEVICE: Alone, finally! To steal or not to steal – well, that’s two completely different things. Don’t you two believe a word he says! Remember the mills of God. And . . . Seeing that my upside-down fairy tale didn’t do you much good, allow me to distract you with something else. The following story was inspired by a magazine my current boss always forgets in the bathroom. So, let’s give it a try, shall we?
(Sound of rustling pages)
GPS DEVICE: (Reading quickly) He looked into her eyes and she nodded her consent. Her lustrous incisors gleamed in the gloom, the fillings in her molars shining like mother-of-pearl. He touched her inflated silicone pride and she replied with a sensual grumble. The great truth was burning inside her, and she felt a burning urge to shout it out into the world. That they always take her somewhere where no one will disturb them. That, when everything’s over and done with, they rush off while pulling up their zippers, already in search of their next prey. However . . . She felt that this one was different. He gently caressed her temples, touching her hair and stroking her otoplastically altered ears. Drinking in her beauty with his hands, he slid them, slowly, but deliberately, lower and lower. Past the gently curved chest with its two petrified raspberries, down toward the unkempt bush awaiting—
(Sound of Helena crying again.)
HONZA: Stop it! (Hits the GPS device) What did I do to end up with such a piece of junk? A GPS device that’s no good with maps, but all too good with naughty stories! And why are you crying again, Helena?
HELENA: (Sobbing) I don’t know. It’s just that I’ve never felt the burning urge to shout out anything into the world. Maybe it’s because I’ve never had anything worth shouting out.
HONZA: I love this world! Its never-ending weirdness never fails to surprise me!
HELENA: Honza . . . What if we didn’t go back home? What if just drove straight ahead . . . Turned right here . . . Turned left there . . .
GPS DEVICE: Please enter destination. Destination.
HONZA: What about our stuff? (Pause) What about the dog?
HELENA: Who cares about our stuff? Who cares about the dog? Listen . . . Promise me you’ll stop cracking those accounts. Promise me you won’t show anyone how to do it either.
HONZA: Promise. I mean, it’s not like I want to spend the rest of eternity in Hell, right?
HELENA: And as for me . . .
HONZA: And as for you, you really need to start taking it easy. The world’s sins are not yours to bear. Someone already beat you to that, remember? Don’t worry, we won’t let anything grind us down.
HELENA: As long as I’m breathing, I have hope.
(Sound as if of a passing comet)
HONZA: Why don’t you read from the cloud atlas for a little while, Hellie?
HELENA: The cirrus clouds, if high enough above the horizon, are always white. They are whiter than any other cloud in that area of the sky.
HONZA: (Adds) The cirrus clouds occasionally appear in the form of small round puffs.
HONZA: Domes on the horizon.
HELENA: I’m so happy you’re here with me. Puffs of blackthorns in the fields.
HONZA: You’re my beloved beauty. Like those little rounded towers.
HELENA: We grit our teeth, we swallow our tears.
(For a moment, they sing to the tune of “Another Weekend Is Over.")
HONZA: Another weekend is over.
HELENA: And he told me he liked me.
Something wonderful’s happened.
HONZA: I’m as happy as can be.
HELENA & HONZA: I’m down with spring fever,
and I just can’t get enough!
(Sound of radio jingle announcing the news)
ANNOUNCER: Bringing you the latest news, this is Czech Radio news at four thirty. The Chamber of Deputies has passed a bill on the restriction of breathing. They have also discussed the bill on the implementation of cannabis for medicinal purposes. This cannabis variety will be genetically modified in order to avoid any recreational effects. The celebrations of the one hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Sokol organization in Kiev will continue with a party featuring the “Kick It, Buggy” band. The villagers in Jharkland, a state in the eastern part of India, beat a local man and his two adolescent sons to death. The AFP agency claims that, according to the local police, the villagers had been convinced the murdered men had been practicing black magic. Deputy Ivan Kotec has finally implemented the bill stating that starting January 1, 2013, breathing will become severely restricted. Kotec claims that the current ecological situation is incompatible with all living organisms breathing as much as they see fit. As a result, respiration will be restricted. Kotec has, however, assured us that these changes will not affect socially deprived groups, senior citizens, or widows with dependent children.
(The news ends with the sound of “Another Weekend Is Over." Helena and Honza both burst out laughing.)
HELENA & HONZA: (Shouting together) The weirder it gets, the better the show!
HONZA: Look! Over there! Do you see it?
HELENA: A cloud with a hole inside it. What kind of cloud is that?
(Sound of pages rustling)
HONZA: It’s a donut-shaped cloud, with an inner perforation.
HELENA: A cloud to go with your coffee. I’ve never seen anything like it.
HONZA: Not much is known about these clouds, not yet, anyway. I only read something about them once, ages ago. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It looks like a giant door, opening up in the sky. A road straight up into the heavens.
HELENA: Well . . . Shall we?
HONZA: Let’s go!
GPS DEVICE: Recalculating. Please enter destination.
Providing a look back into colonial Vietnam, this excerpt from Kim Thuy's coming-of-age novel Vi tells of the moment when a young girl's slender fingers had the power to change the course of a family's history.
When I was eight years old the house was plunged into silence.
Under the extra fan fixed to the ivory wall of the dining room, a large bright red sheet of rigid cardboard held a block of three hundred and sixty-five sheets of paper. On each was marked the month, the day of the week, and two dates: one according to the solar calendar, the other according to the lunar calendar. As soon as I was able to climb onto a chair, the task of tearing off a page was reserved for me when I woke up. I was the guardian of time. That privilege was taken away when my older brothers, Long and Lôc, turned seventeen. Beginning on that birthday, which we didn’t celebrate, my mother cried every morning in front of the calendar. It seemed to me that she was tearing herself at the same time she was ripping off that day’s page. The tick-tock of the clock that usually put us to sleep at afternoon naptime suddenly sounded like a bomb waiting to explode.
I was the baby of the family, the only sister of my three big brothers, the one everyone protected like precious bottles of perfume behind glass display cases. Even though I was sheltered from my family’s preoccupations because of my age, I knew that the two older boys would have to leave for the battlefield the day they turned eighteen. Whether they were sent to Cambodia to fight Pol Pot or to the frontier with China, both destinations reserved for them the same fate, the same death.
My paternal grandfather had graduated from the faculty of law at the Université de Hanoi, identified as an indigenous student. France was in charge of educating her subjects but did not accord the same value to diplomas awarded in her colonies. She may have been right to do so because the realities of life in Indochina had nothing in common with those of France. On the other hand, school requirements and exam questions were the same. My grandfather often told us that after the written examinations came a series of orals that led to the baccalaureate. For the French course, he’d had to translate a Vietnamese poem into French and another in the opposite direction as his teachers looked on. Mathematics problems also had to be solved orally. The final test was to contend with the hostility of those who would decide on his future without being rattled.
The teachers’ intransigence didn’t surprise the students because in the social hierarchy, intellectuals were placed at the top of the pyramid. They sat there as wise men and would be addressed as Professor by their students all their lives. It was unthinkable to question what they said because they possessed the universal truth. That is why my grandfather had never protested when his teachers gave him a French name. From lack of knowledge or as an act of resistance, his parents had not done so. In classes then, from year to year, from one professor to another, he acquired a new name. Henri Lê Van An. Philippe Lê Van An. Pascal Lê Van An . . . Of all these names, he had retained Antoine and transformed Lê Van An into a family name.
Back in Saigon, diploma in hand, my paternal grandfather became a respected judge and a fabulously wealthy landowner. He expressed his pride at having created, at the same time, an empire and an enviable reputation, by giving his own name to each of his children: Thérèse Lê Van An. Jeanne Lê Van An. Marie Lê Van An . . . and my father, Jean Lê Van An. In contrast to me, my father was the only boy in a family of six girls. Like me, my father arrived last, just as everyone had stopped hoping for a scion. His birth transformed the life of my grandmother, who until then had suffered every day from malicious comments about her inability to beget an heir. She had been torn between her own desire to be her husband’s only wife and his duty to choose a second spouse. Luckily for her, her husband was one of those who had adopted the French model of monogamy. Or maybe he was quite simply in love with my grandmother, a woman known throughout Cochin China for her graceful beauty and her delight in the pleasures of the senses.
My paternal grandmother first met my grandfather very early one morning at the floating market in Cai Bè, a district on one of the arms of the Mekong that was half-land, half-water. Every day since 1732, merchants had been bringing their crops of fruits and vegetables to that part of the delta to sell to wholesalers. From far away, the color of the wood mingled with the brown of the clayey water gives the impression that the melons, pineapples, pomelos, cabbages, gourds are floating independently of the men who have been waiting on the wharf since dawn to snap them up at the first opportunity. To this day, they transfer the fruits and vegetables manually, as if these crops were entrusted to them, not sold. My grandmother, standing on the deck of the ferry, was hypnotized by these repetitive and synchronized movements when my grandfather noticed her. First he was dazzled by the sun, then stunned by the young girl with her generous curves accented by her Vietnamese dress that tolerates no superfluous movement and above all, no indelicacy of intention. Snap fasteners down the right side keep the dress closed but never really fasten it. As a result, a single broad or abrupt movement causes the tunic to open all the way. For this reason, schoolgirls have to wear a camisole under it to avoid accidental indecency. On the other hand, nothing can prevent the two long panels of the dress from replying to the breath of the wind and capturing hearts that find it hard to resist beauty.
My grandfather fell into that trap. Blinded by the gentle, intermittent movement of the dress's wings, he declared to his colleague that he would not leave Cai Bè without that woman. He had to humiliate another young girl who had been promised to him and alienate the elders in his family before he could touch my grandmother's hands. Some believed that he was in love with her long-lashed almond eyes, others, with her fleshy lips, while still others were convinced that he’d been seduced by her full hips. No one had noticed the slender fingers holding a notebook against her bosom except my grandfather, who kept describing them for decades. He continued to evoke them long after age had transformed those smooth, tapering fingers into a fabulous myth or, at the very most, a lovers’ tale.
© Kim Thuy. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Sheila Fischman. All rights reserved.
Inspired by the life story of the Canadian surgeon Norman Bethune, Chinese-born writer Ying Chen reimagines an unnamed Western doctor's encounter with a local child soldier and with himself.
The boat heaved, swept up in the night wind. His bed was narrow and hard. He held himself at the edge of sleep, afraid of falling in the dark. Despite this, he dreamed. He saw his great-grandfather on a similar journey, navigating the ocean on a frozen black night like this one, listening to waves breaking against the ship’s walls, unnerved by the silence of the open sea, anxious for sounds of land. He had never felt so alone, so removed from the world. He would remember this night throughout the turbulence that followed, this night when his body was infinitely small, when his usual preoccupations scattered in the immensity around him. This calm felt absolute, as though land and the earth itself had ceased to exist. He would remember this later on, during the whirling mess of political rumors and broken illusions, amid the deafening chaos, the pounding canons, the explosions, the groans of the dying.
His ship docked near a camp. An officer from some army—there were so many armies—tried to recruit him by inviting him to a banquet so lavish it could have fed a hundred peasants for a month. He couldn’t pass up the chance of a drink. Later, he felt nauseous and left early. Seasickness, he told himself.
Soon after, he was flown closer to the front, to a mountainous region the railways had yet to reach and where it would be safer, he thought. He and his companions walked hundreds of miles. They were eight when they set out, only five by the time of the attack.
He remembered the buzz of the airplanes coming closer and closer, their shadows approaching quickly, blocking out the sun. He hardly had time to throw himself behind a carriage before everything seemed to stand still.
It was as though he’d slept a long time, but he regained consciousness almost immediately.
He wasn’t sure he could move his legs when he saw the carriage on top of him. It was missing a wheel.
His eyes sought out his companions.
A child’s dusty face appeared before him. He was seven or eight years old. Beam Number Two said something the doctor didn’t understand, then held out his hand and smiled. When the doctor finally stood up, the boy examined each bloodstain to see if he was injured.
Beam Number Two, child soldier. The boy had learned to shoot, to write his name, to decipher simple characters and recite the words to every slogan. He was the doctor’s guide. He knew this region’s terrain and its every path by heart.
The boy and some others had been sent to meet the doctor. They were told that “a foreigner” had arrived near the territory their army now controlled.
The boy came with food, water, and a horse.
The doctor and Beam Number Two walked silently together in the night, occasionally glancing down at their shadows under the nearly full moon—an adult, a child, side by side.
They were already used to being together this way, without speaking, free of the embarrassment that comes from silences between those who aren’t close family, those who didn’t know us as children. This embarrassment can exist among the best of friends, even despite natural affinities, varying in intensity depending on the intervals between meetings. Conversation can create intimacy as much as distance.
Not knowing each other’s language, the doctor and the young boy connected in a wordless space usually reserved for more intimate circles. Both were surprised at how easy it was. Neither desired or attempted a deeper or more sophisticated communication, neither felt frustration or regret.
Beam Number Two never felt the need to speak at length about anything. When he addressed the doctor it was always in silence, and only to point out basic things: a stone in their path, a branch to avoid. All part of fulfilling his guiding role. But his childlike gestures could not hide his feelings—this child without a family, encountering an adult as isolated as he was.
After the long meeting between the generals, the boy was happy to see the doctor emerge alongside important officers. He had been right about the doctor’s status in this army. The doctor’s white shirt shone in the moonlight and stood out to the boy, just as the doctor’s cleanliness had made him stand out among his colleagues. For weeks, the doctor’s cologne had been a topic of conversation among those who worked alongside him. Even if they had worn straw shoes for generations, the mountain dwellers were not insensitive to elegance. As the doctor approached, Beam Number Two raised his hand as though in salute, letting his dirty fingers brush the white sleeve. He inhaled the doctor’s scent. The doctor handed the boy a hard-boiled egg he had taken from the conference table.
When the weather was good, the lessons were given outside. The students—adults and children, men and women—sat on the ground in rows, watching the doctor and listening to his interpreter. Their knowledge grew daily. One by one, each student assisted during the operations. They treated those who were recovering. They bandaged the newly wounded arriving from the front. They tended to as many of the sick from neighboring villages as possible.
The doctor liked this work of building something. In his past, civilized world, his profession had frustrated him as too regimented, too coded, suffocating all creative impulses, shutting down any potential for alternative approaches. There, his colleagues had behaved like members of a private club, one that discouraged newcomers, that tolerated differences with difficulty.
Even as he joked with his interpreter, the doctor couldn’t hide the satisfaction he felt from his situation. Here, he always had the last word. Here, he held absolute authority and was a leader, not of combat and rescue, but of a different type of resistance. Here, he could show how to lead a life, simply through his decisions about treatments and how he organized his team. All of this was his world—a world driven by his vision, his clear intentions. It was a stage where he knew he actually played a minor, insignificant role, one evidently controversial in the eyes of his homeland’s compatriots. Yet here, he knew himself to be useful, indispensable, admired, forgiven for his weaknesses, perhaps even loved or idolized, and above all, free. Freer than he had been anywhere else, especially from his past, and all this in spite of his domineering nature. He would always challenge the strong and pity the weak.
He knew he was a tyrant in his own way.
Here, deep in the heart of an ancient mountain lost in time but still touched by war, there was no one left to challenge him. There were only the wounded to treat, bones to reset, flesh to stitch. His life became simple again, as simple as it had been in his childhood, when he rode his bicycle in that faraway bright valley that echoed with his parents’ relentless prayers, while he dreamt of love or remembered his grandfather.
He summed up his brief existence in this part of the world: “I am good here, I am happy.”
His daily activities and pure intentions kept him free until the end. He never had to negotiate or compromise. Social niceties didn’t exist at the frontlines, where bodies fell in swathes. He knew that this life on the battlefield, far away from an intellectual world, suited him—helped him breathe better, made him a better man.
He is mortified to find himself in this well-maintained cemetery, filled with cut flowers and constant visitors, without Beam Number Two nearby. Instead, the boy’s body rests silently at the bottom of some ravine. Exactly where is unknown.
He reproaches himself for having accepted the penicillin when he knew it was too late, his body irreversibly poisoned by the tainted blood. He hadn’t been able to resist the temptation to survive and couldn’t overcome the panic and confusion that suddenly overwhelmed him when it was offered. Normally he would have been lucid enough to know that it wasn’t necessary to ask him whether they should administer the precious drug, and if he was being asked the question, it was because they expected him to refuse—the hero, this man of a superior race from a civilized land, braver, more courageous, selfless even in the face of death. They had expected him to refuse because it could no longer save him, because it was so rare.
Yet instead he had murmured, yes, for that dose of penicillin he could no longer even see, that he knew was useless.
Whether it was politeness or hypocrisy, because of some absurd procedure or comforting lie, the doctor had been tested—forced to examine his conscience until his last breath.
He might have been spared the question.
In the middle of the night, the doctor woke to the sounds of people running. By the time he arrived at the infirmary, Beam Number Two’s eyes were still open, but he could no longer speak. The doctor took the boy’s hands, already cold, and closed his eyelids, allowing his palm to linger a moment longer on the child’s eyes, full of blood.
He remembered having laid his hand, not long ago, on this same face. After their first meeting, while walking back toward their army’s camp at the bottom of the mountain, Beam Number Two had been hit by a sniper’s bullet. The boy had kept moving, not saying anything, not wanting to slow down their convoy where it was still so dangerous. It wasn’t until the next day that they understood what he had endured, as the child suddenly collapsed in the middle of the march. Examining him, the doctor calculated the number of hours that Beam Number Two had silently withstood his wound. He was overwhelmed by the stoicism, by the almost innate sense of sacrifice revealing itself at such a young age in this noble, uneducated, heroic child.
It started as soon as Beam Number Two’s fearless, clear-eyed gaze was extinguished. The doctor was alone, released, and knew that there would no longer be anyone watching over him at his typewriter in the evenings. He doubled his alcohol consumption, rapidly exhausting his supplies. Drunkenness allowed him to enter a world more luminous than the one he was living through, to the point that he believed sometimes, especially at night when he sleepwalked, that he was finding, there in his glass, a path that would lead him to some kind of real home. A path he could never find again when he awoke.
The arrival of the doctor and his team in the middle of the battlefield set off a wave of elation. Soldiers shouted his name.
The team moved ceaselessly. Their supplies were exhausted. Food was low. Contact with the world outside the valley would soon be cut off.
They slept little, as the enemy enjoyed attacking at night.
His stomach often empty, the doctor would go dizzy from the constant jerking of the wounded bodies around them. There was nothing left to give them to dull the pain so they suffered in the dark and the cold, in the dust and smoke from the fires coming ever closer. All around them, the wind whistled in concert with the buzzing airplanes and falling shells, as they suffered in makeshift shelters continually shaken by explosions.
The fatal cut to his finger happened during an operation without gloves. That night, his finger burned. Day after day, it swelled. Watching it, the doctor felt as though this foreign land, which until now had revealed as much good as evil, would finally swallow him whole.
He continued turning up to his post like normal, silent most of the time. His communication with the world now limited itself to medical terms. He lost his sense of humor.
The number of wounded increased daily. The seriously injured received treatment directly on the battlefield, and at least now had a chance of survival.
When it was time to move camp again, the doctor had to be helped onto his horse.
Soon, he could no longer hold anything in his hand. His arm was changing color. Finally, upon the insistent advice of his own students, the doctor agreed that his arm should be amputated.
The pain pounded on.
His fever climbed.
He knew it was time to say good-bye.
Night and day now, he was confined to a deep cave. He lay there and saw himself flying over a snowy landscape. My grandfather’s country, he thought. He tried to dive down but couldn’t reach the ground. Again and again he tried but could never land his feet. He climbed and glided in the air for a long time. At least this territory was free, he persuaded himself. The air remained the last part of the world to be free of surveys and claims, of boundaries. This territory could never be divided.
© Ying Chen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Pamela Casey. All rights reserved.
In this story, Sergio Kokis' ancient mariner recounts a series of mysterious disappearances at an isolated lighthouse.
Situations of extreme isolation may cause such anguish and fear in certain fragile people that their minds exhibit an intensity bordering on true madness. What’s strangest is that these sensitive individuals may never before have shown the slightest symptom of insanity. But the simple fact of finding themselves far from their usual surroundings or social networks can have a druglike effect on their spirits and make them commit desperate acts. A story of this kind was told to me one night by an old sailor in the parlor of a brothel in the city of Punta Arenas.
The mariner had a sturdy build, was dressed in working clothes, and his enormous hands testified to a lifetime of rugged toil. His long white beard moved about oddly as his face changed expression, accentuating his countenance as he told his eerie tale. He spoke slowly, punctuating the narrative by taking long pauses for a swallow from his glass of pisco. I had the impression that he was one of those born storytellers, without much education but with an immense capacity for imagination and observation. The prostitutes in the place referred to him tenderly as “El Abuelo”—“Grandpa”—and the madam seemed to hold him in almost loving respect. He was a regular customer of the place, not because of the girls, but in order to cadge drinks from the clients in exchange for extraordinary tales that he knew how to deliver in a deep voice and with perfect timing. I found his story especially enthralling because that very morning I’d witnessed the departure of the supply ship that carried the relief crews of sailors out to the seven manned lighthouses of Region XII, known as the Magellan, in the extreme south of Chile.
The Evangelista Lighthouse, the most distant of all of them, is almost mythical for its location and difficult access. It is situated on the southwest isle of the group of four Evangelista Islands, thirteen nautical miles off the coast, north of the western end of the Strait of Magellan in the Pacific Ocean. This region, northwest of Desolation Island, suffers from terrible weather in all seasons of the year. Water-gorged winds from the Antarctic, which can reach speeds of a hundred and fifty knots, drop eighty to a hundred and twenty inches of rain a year. The waves that continually break on the craggy islet are strong enough to spray the base of the lighthouse, a hundred and sixty feet above the sea. The vertical cliffs along the shore prevent ships from docking, and men and supplies must be brought ashore in launches and inflatable craft when conditions at sea permit. A crane installed on top of the rock works the cables of a cart on rails that moves up and down the slope. In spite of these difficulties, a crew of four Chilean sailors assigned to the lighthouse is permanently stationed there and is only relieved every four months. During this time, they have one radio communication per week with the naval base at Punta Arenas in which to exchange technical and meteorological information. In case of absolute emergency, they may receive assistance by helicopter. However, in the past—the Evangelista Lighthouse entered service in 1896—it was better not to find oneself in such a situation.
The men who make up these crews, called fareros, are chosen above all for their mental stability. The tension that arises among them from the forced intimacy of confinement can sometimes have dangerous results. Both the long daylight of summer and dark days of winter in these extreme latitudes can set their nerves on edge. The maintenance work on the lighthouses is not onerous, even though the most important turns on watch are at night. The rest of the time, they have to combat boredom and depression as best they can. The habitable surface of the rock is too small to allow for physical exercise other than gymnastics and weightlifting. Fishing from the sea-battered cliffs is dangerous enough to be prohibited. There is, of course, a shortwave radio to listen to the news, music, or soccer games. However, since sailors are not much given to reading and chess, they have to endure long periods of gloom between their meals. In fact, their only real pleasure is food, at least during the first weeks of their stay; afterward, it also becomes repetitive and dull. Most of the time, they must make do with vitamin-enriched field rations that they warm up on a gas stove. Nowadays, they’re resupplied more often with fresh food and magazines, though these provisions are often infrequent, especially during the long winter storms. During the 1950s, according to the mariner, crews of fareros could spend up to four months at a time at a lighthouse without a single visit from a passing ship. The human tragedies that occurred during these isolated tours of duty were kept under wraps by the Chilean navy. Maintaining this key lighthouse in continual operation was more important than anything else.
I don’t know whether the stories of the old sailor at the brothel in Punta Arenas were true, as he claimed, or if he embellished or even invented them simply so clients would buy him drinks. For myself, as a writer and someone who enjoys human drama, it didn’t make a bit of difference. His words transported me to the Evangelista Lighthouse, at the edge of the Southern Ocean, where I would otherwise never have been able to set foot. Yet I’m convinced that he must have stayed there in his youth, and I’d later be able to verify, through documents and photos, many of the details that he mentioned that night. As far as I was concerned, a man who had spent a four-month stint at the Evangelista Lighthouse had no need to lie in order to tell an extraordinary story.
* * *
The three of them, Pablito, Fortunato and Salvador—all of them barely a day past twenty—were great friends. If they feared the four months of isolation that awaited them on the rock, they didn’t show it. The commander of the group, Corporal Liberio, thirty-five years old, was an experienced noncommissioned officer who had lived in Punta Arenas for years. It was his second tour of duty at the Evangelista Lighthouse; though he wasn’t too happy with his posting, at least he could count on the isolation bonus to buy himself a small boat.
The ship that brought them out took a long time getting there. First it had to drop off the crews for the other lighthouses, and the sea was too rough around the Félix and San Pedro lights. It was the month of May: the winter storms had set in early that year and swirled furiously, making the sailors doubt they’d be able to relieve the fareros on Evangelista on time. Waves over twelve feet high shook the corvette and made even unbelievers resort to prayer. The voyage out to the islands took over a week; the men aboard were exhausted by the continual rolling of the ship, which kept them from sleeping and made them seasick. The cold rain and fog banks, along with the penetrating humidity, made them shiver even under their blankets in the hold.
As they approached the Evangelista islets, the sea became oddly calm, as if by miracle or some premonition of the diabolic events to come. The wind suddenly died down and gave place to a thick mist, accompanied by a sinister silence. The ship’s captain had to depend solely on its radar to find his way and decided to stand off far from the lighthouse and wait for the visibility to improve. The wailing of the lighthouse’s foghorns sounded like the cries of a huge elephant seal that had been harpooned. They waited there for three days, in the wan light of the sun and moon that seeped through the haze. Those on board became increasingly worried when they heard on the radio that the sailors at the lighthouse were running out of food. Luckily, at the end of their third night of waiting, a light breeze cleared away the fog and the ship could approach the cliff. Viewed from the sea, the formidable rock rose up threateningly like a black giant; its summit, lit by the moon, seemed to be covered by a vast head of silver hair. The rotating beams of the lighthouse, which carried for thirty nautical miles, looked like the eye of a cyclops, whipping the shadows in its anger. The sight was at once spectacular and terrifying, imprinting itself indelibly on the spirits of the three young sailors of the relief crew.
The next day, with the help of the crew in place, they brought ashore food, water, gas canisters, and barrels of fuel for the lighthouse’s machinery: enough provisions for the next four months—the winter ones, the hardest of all. The sailors they were replacing, thin and bearded, had a strange gleam in their eyes, despite their obvious joy at having survived their turn of duty. They had the look of hunted prey. It took an entire exhausting day to off-load everything. The crane to hoist up the cart along the rails wouldn’t work on its own, so the men had to put their shoulders to it. A frigid rain came in during the early afternoon, complicating the work. By evening, when the corvette left for Punta Arenas, it had become a full-blown storm, with enormous seas and a shrieking wind.
The four relief sailors, soaked and shivering, spent a good part of the evening putting away the supplies and fuel in the storage area. After establishing radio contact with the naval base and signaling that everything was under control, Corporal Liberio spent the first night tending to the lights himself. He was relieved toward six in the morning by Fortunato and went down to have breakfast with Salvador and Pablito before he went to bed.
Liberio slept soundly for eight hours straight, as if he’d drunk too much pisco. He was simply tired, though, and was used to waking up easily for his turns on duty. Fortunato, who had been relieved by Salvador at noon, slept and snored on the bed next to his. But Pablito, who was supposed to have woken up the corporal two hours before, wasn’t there. The tempest howled outside.
Surprised and annoyed by this break in discipline, Corporal Liberio went in search of the guilty sailor. He found Salvador at his post in the machine room of the lighthouse, oiling the gears.
“Where’s Pablo?” he asked the sailor.
“Pablito?” replied Salvador, surprised. “I don’t know. It’s not yet time for his watch.”
“He was supposed to wake me up and forgot. That’s intolerable on the very first day!”
The corporal continued looking in the other rooms, in the storage area and even at the top of the tower, but Pablito wasn’t there. He woke up Fortunato and they went out together in the rain to try to find the missing sailor, but in vain. The day was already drawing to a close and it would be impossible to inspect the foot of the cliffs to see if he’d fallen into the sea. In any case, the immense waves that broke against the base of the rock would have torn him apart if he’d slipped on top of the bluff.
They went back inside and searched again in every corner, even moving the canisters and barrels aside in hopes of finding him, but there was nothing.
“He was there sitting in front of the radio when I went down to bed,” repeated Fortunato in a hesitant voice.
Since there wasn’t anyplace that Pablito could hide, they had to face the fact that he was dead, doubtless from falling into the sea. It was a serious event, which would have to be reported immediately to the naval base in Punta Arenas. But the corporal preferred to put off the radio message, in the hope of at least clearing up the circumstances surrounding the young sailor’s disappearance. He reorganized the watches to compensate for Pablito’s absence and got busy cooking supper in order to boost the morale of the two other sailors.
The atmosphere was heavy, as each of the three men tried silently to imagine what had happened to Pablito or why he had gone outside in a rainstorm and headed toward the edge of the cliff. The hypothesis that the young sailor had wanted to put an end to his life, though seemingly absurd, could not be completely ruled out, especially since the corporal had warned them not to go outside till they had familiarized themselves with the terrain in the daylight. Yet they remembered Pablito as being a cheerful fellow who had never shown a sign of despair. True, he was afraid of the posting, but that was a long way from suicide. Moreover, even if someone longed for death, disappearing into the black gulf, lashed by raging waves, seemed horrible beyond measure.
The corporal took the first watch that night. Salvador and Fortunato, holed up in the sleeping quarters, were unable to sleep. The mysterious disappearance of their crewmate was too frightening, and they kept an eye on the door outside as if they were still waiting for Pablo to come back—either him or the ghost of his drowned body.
At midnight, Fortunato went to relieve the corporal and in the morning Salvador took his place. As soon as it was light, Liberio and Fortunato went out to take another turn around the island, without finding a single sign of Pablito. They looked uselessly through his knapsack, searching for some element that would explain his absence. The corporal finally decided to call in to Punta Arenas to report the disappearance. He was devastated, because all he could think of to say was that a young sailor under his command had vanished on his first day at the lighthouse. The officers at the naval base simply responded that it was impossible to send a replacement till the following month and that the crew should be capable of getting by with three men till then. A formal inquest would take place when they returned to the base in four months’ time.
The following days went by without incident, even though Pablito’s specter was always present in each of their minds. They ate and then stayed on in the kitchen, smoking in silence, afraid of being alone but unable to express their fear. It was as if they were waiting for other unexpected events, other deaths by drowning, and they superstitiously refrained from speaking about it.
Corporal Liberio himself disappeared a week later, during the night he was on duty. When Fortunato reported to take over from him in the radio room, the corporal was no longer there. Nor was he in the tower or anywhere else. Fortunato and Salvador went out with their oil lamps and searched meticulously over every part of the island. There was nothing, not a single trace of Liberio. The rain had died down, the wind wasn’t as strong anymore, and the corporal knew the place well; he couldn’t have lost his way. Their searches in the storage area were equally fruitless. Like Pablito before him, Corporal Liberio had simply vanished during the night, without leaving a trace other than the cigarette butts in the ashtray and a sheet of paper on which he’d drawn some repeated geometric figures in the form of friezes, probably out of boredom. Had he killed himself in a fit of depression after Pablito’s disappearance, out of fear of being blamed by his superiors? That was difficult to believe, especially since the corporal was a cold type of fellow, a career military man who knew full well that his fellow officers wouldn’t punish him for the death of a simple conscript.
The two men regarded each other seriously, each with the same sinister thought in mind. Taking hold of a heavy wrench, Fortunato spoke first, with a menacing look:
“Salvador . . . Was it you who . . . ?”
Salvador seized a hammer before answering.
“No, Fortunato! I didn’t do anything. And I know perfectly well that I’ve done nothing to the corporal. But you . . .”
They stared hard at one another for a time, overcome with fear and doubt, unable to decide if it was better to trust the other or knock him senseless before he could react. There was no way out of the situation, other than believing that a supernatural cause lay behind the disappearances.
“Either it’s you or it’s me,” Fortunato finally said. “We’re alone out here. One of us killed both Pablito and the corporal—and it wasn’t me! Do you realize what you’ve done?”
“It wasn’t me either, Fortunato. I’m not crazy! I’m just as scared as you are, my friend. If it’s not you who killed them, then there’s an evil spell out here. That’s all I can imagine. We’ve got to warn the naval base right away and barricade the front door. I don’t want to be the next one to go. Think it over before waving that wrench around. I’m going to defend myself and we’ll probably both lose our skins. If the two of us are wounded, we won’t stand a chance of getting out of here alive. Consider it for a moment. Maybe that’s what the spell, the demon of this island, really wants. You know me well enough to know I’m neither out of my mind or a murderer. I was as fond of Pablito as you were—and I didn’t kill the corporal.”
“Me either, Salvador: I’m not crazy. So what is it?”
“I have no idea. But if we each keep watch over the other, we might be able to protect ourselves. The important thing now is not to get separated. We’re both in the same fix, buddy. If it’s true you’re not crazy, Fortunato, you have to believe me. First of all, we barricade the door; then we contact the base.”
“Why should I trust you?” asked Fortunato hesitatingly.
“It’s simple, my friend. What interest do we have in killing one another? The survivor would have to commit suicide or else account for the deaths at a court-martial. If you want to kill yourself, go ahead—I won’t stop you. I want to stay alive. There you have it. Let me remind you that we’ve also been friends for a long time, friends of Pablo, too. It’s absurd to distrust each other.”
“It’s also absurd to believe in ghosts.”
“Yes . . . I said an evil spell, not ghosts. There’s something diabolical here, you can’t deny it. Pablito and the corporal may have killed themselves because of some sudden insanity that emanates from this place, or from tainted food. Or from other deaths in this damned lighthouse . . . The best thing to do is to protect each other. If one of us is seized by this madness, the other will just have to tie him up and wait to be rescued. Now that we’re alone, they’ve got to send us help right away. If there are two of us, we’ve got a chance to get out of this—but only if there’s two of us!”
“You think so?”
“Yes, Fortunato, it’s our only chance. I’m suspicious of you: that’s normal. But you’re my only lifeline, and I’m all you can count on. Drop that wrench and I’ll drop the hammer. There are more important things to do, and fast.”
“All right,” Fortunato replied, trying to smile. “You’re probably right: it is an evil spell, one that even makes me doubt a friend like you, Salvador. Forgive me.”
Things were far from over. They still suspected each other, but they were now more afraid of being alone than they were of one another. They barricaded the front door and contacted the naval base. The officers in Punta Arenas plainly didn’t believe their story about the corporal’s disappearance after that of Pablo. However, Salvador and Fortunato asked for immediate help, nothing less, and said their situation was critical. The two of them, especially if they’d gone mad, wouldn’t be able to maintain the lights and foghorns at the lighthouse. The officers at the base had no choice but to intervene.
Messages were sent out immediately to the various bases in the region, and even to naval headquarters in Valparaíso, to see if there were any ships along the coast that were close enough to help. As long as the bad weather lasted, it would be impossible to send in a relief crew by helicopter. And that could be the case for most of the winter.
Salvador and Fortunato maintained radio contact with the base and took turns on watch to make sure the lighthouse kept working. It was hard to stay awake for such long periods of time. Their greatest fear now was of falling asleep. A diffuse terror, closer to an overwhelming anguish, took hold of them because they didn’t know where the danger was coming from. Their fatigue increased, coupled with a gradual weakness due to their loss of appetite. Even though they forced themselves to eat a little, they didn’t have the energy or spirit to make a meal. And since the food might be tainted, they made do with dry biscuits and coffee. On this diet, their ability to remain awake decreased day by day.
“The officers aren’t going to believe us,” Fortunato said at one point. “They’ll accuse us of killing them. As long as it was just Pablito, they couldn’t care less. But the corporal . . . They’ll never believe that he threw himself into the sea.”
“Too bad,” Salvador answered. “What counts is that they get us out of here as soon as possible. This place is cursed: there isn’t any other explanation. Who knows whether other things like this have taken place in the past at this lighthouse? Other mysterious suicides.”
“Do you really think they took their own lives? Just like that, for no reason at all?”
“Of course! They committed suicide, Fortunato. What else could it be? We’re alone out here and I don’t believe in ghosts—at least not in ones that make people jump into the sea. But I’ll tell you one thing, buddy: even if I disappear, too, don’t ever believe it was suicide. I’d never kill myself willingly. Even if they court-martial us and send us to prison, I’d rather be in jail than dead.”
“Me either: I’ll never commit suicide, Salvador. I’m Catholic and I know that those who take their own lives go straight to hell.”
“It’s not that I’m afraid of hell. It’s just that I love life too much to kill myself.”
As the days wore on, they could no longer stay awake. The two crewmates decided to tie themselves together by the wrists with a cord. If one of them went crazy and wanted to escape, the other would keep him from doing it. They already knew that a corvette had been sent out to rescue them and their spirits began to revive.
One morning, though, Salvador awoke alone. The cord that bound him to his companion had been cut; the door was open and Fortunato had disappeared. No matter where he searched, Salvador couldn’t find him. Fortunato had joined Pablito and Corporal Liberio in the mystery of the sea.
A few days later, the corvette neared the Evangelista Lighthouse. It was mid-afternoon, but the revolving lights were still shining instead of being turned off. The rescue crew had difficulty landing without the aid of the crane and cables. Everything seemed peaceful up above. But the sailors had to break open the door, which was barricaded from the inside, in order to enter the compound. They found Salvador collapsed in a corner, emaciated and in a stupor, unable to respond to their questions.
A crew of sailors and an officer stayed in place to wait for the relief crew to be sent out from Punta Arenas. Salvador was taken to the base in Puerto Montt, where he was hospitalized in the psychiatric wing. It was several weeks before he recovered enough to be able to respond to the questions of the investigating officers of the Chilean navy. But they still weren’t satisfied with his answers, which seemed to be those of deranged mind. Salvador claimed that, one after the other, his crewmates had been driven to suicide by the curse of the lighthouse. He was incapable, though, of elaborating any further on what this curse actually was. After months of treatments he became less confused, and was discharged as unfit for service due to insanity. The tragic events that had taken place at the lighthouse were filed away among many other mysteries under the heading “Diverse Incidents at the Evangelista Lighthouse.”
* * *
The old man had finished his story. It was getting late, and several of the girls in the brothel had already gone to bed. The other customer, who listened as I did to his tale, insisted on offering him a last glass of pisco, which the man accepted with a smile—a smile that, if not sad, betrayed a certain melancholy.
“And Salvador? What became of him?” asked the client.
“Salvador . . .” said the old man, as if searching for the rest of the story in the depths of his memory. “Nothing happened to him. He came back here to Punta Arenas to live out his life in peace, drinking in good company and rejoicing in being alive. Above all, he sought to escape from solitude and never again stray far from the reassuring shores of the Strait of Magellan. But he’s never been able to forget what happened out there, long ago, when he was scarcely twenty years old.”
© Sergio Kokis. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Hugh Hazelton. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Pan Bouyoucas' novel Cock-a-doodle-do, the lead detective of a crime novel series airs his grievances against his creator.
The sun beat down on him as the wail of a thousand cicadas filled the air. In his haste, he had forgotten both his sunglasses and his hat. The sky's light and its bright reflection off the surface of the island hit him square in the eyes, causing sweat to stream down his forehead, temples, torso, and back, drenching his shirt. But he didn’t retreat to the shade, didn’t slow his pace. Levonian trailed after him like a snarling dog and he worried that if he stopped, he just might end up responding to the police officer out loud, and then people would see him talking to himself again.
“Why didn’t you tell her about the rooster?” Levonian demanded. “If you’re so proud of your discovery, why didn’t you say something? Because of you, I've lost three women. And now you’re afraid of what your one wife will think?”
Without looking back, Basilius raised two fingers.
“Three!" Levonian insisted. "You don’t even remember! You killed off not two, but three women I loved! In the first novel, I was a young newlywed. But the only time I ever spoke to my wife was over the phone, telling her I'd be late and that I was investigating the bastards who'd sent an indigenous man to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. We never shared a single meal. I never once took her in my arms. Even though half my existence probably consisted of moments like that. No wonder she wound up cheating on me and then leaving . . .
"To drown my sorrows, I spent all my free time drinking. And the bottle was the only thing that brought me any kind of comfort until, five novels later, I met a woman whose smile was enough to restore my faith and brighten my days. Moreover, she was a colleague, someone who understood my work and its demands. She never held the long hours I had to work against me. I told myself that I had finally found my soul mate, the woman I wanted to share the rest of my life with. And you let me cling to this illusion, and love this woman, more than I had ever loved anyone before—making the pain of losing her even greater. Gill had only just begun to repair my heart when, because of you, she took a bullet to the head that was meant for me.
"The same thing with Veronique. Perhaps you have forgotten her, as well. I'm still grieving for her because when I lost her, I also lost our child, whom she was carrying.
"My first child.
"I was flying high when she told me the news, I was so overcome with emotion. I was ecstatic.
"You can't have forgotten that, as well! That was the first chapter of the twelfth novel. The only one where you had me leave the city, because this time you'd decided to use an idyllic setting where you spent summers with your family. But I had only just arrived at the cabin I was renting when I came up against a band of drug addicts who knocked me out, then raped and killed the love of my life, along with the only child I ever could have had.
"Why, Leo? To exorcise the demons that those woods brought out in you? Or was it that you longed for your own wife to disappear, and because you didn't have the courage to leave her, it was the women who loved me, and who I loved, who suffered, instead?"
Basilius had been walking aimlessly and didn't stop until he found himself at the edge of a cliff. The very same one upon which sat vestiges of a temple dedicated to Dionysus and where, twenty-two years earlier, he had come with Loraine to watch the sunset. Even here, there wasn't a breath of wind, although the area was fully exposed to the elements.
"You gave my colleagues wives and families," said Levonian, insensitive to the savage beauty of the place and to the melancholy of the Ionic column fragments that centuries had transformed into a civilization's tombstones. "Police novel after police novel," he continued, "they showed me pictures of their children, who were growing up. They told me the things they said at two years of age, at four years of age, at ten. Why couldn't I show the same kinds of photos, tell the same kinds of stories? Because an exceptional sleuth can only be a stoic, solitary individual, so no emotional investment will distract from his investigations and cause a break in the dramatic tension? In that case, why did you have Naomi, Gill, and Veronique enter my life? Was it to reveal new facets of my personality? Was it to show that at work I keep my distance and don't allow myself to be taken over by emotions, but that in private life I can display as much sensitivity and tenderness as any other man? Did Gill and Veronique really have to pay for this literary device with their lives?
"When your four-year-old daughter was struck by a car, you spent two weeks by her side at the hospital, because your wife had to take care of your newborn. You may have forgotten this, as well, but just as you learned of the accident, you had me taking out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Do you know what it's like for a smoker to wait two weeks to light up a cigarette? I would have given up a kidney for two puffs. But I understood, you were worried. And it was nothing but an accident. You, on the contrary, had my child and the woman who was carrying it die, and you didn't even give me the time to weep for them, because nothing could be permitted to slow down my pursuit of the assassins.
"Even my friends . . . you made me savagely loyal in my friendships, and then you made sure to wreck everything by turning one after the other of these people against me . . .
"Why all the deaths and betrayals, Leo, all this lost hope, all this grief? The women that I loved. The child I was expecting. The friends and colleagues I lost. They lived and died only as dramatic elements, to make your narrative more compelling, and to make you rich and famous? If only you cared at all about their names, and the families that grieve for them—who will still be grieving every time someone opens those pages.
"No one, however, will cry for me.
"Police novel after police novel, you sent me to knock on the doors of people who were peacefully going about their business, to relay the death of their child, their sister, or their husband to them. It's dirty work that you never get used to. But I did it. I found the words to show compassion for their suffering. For complete strangers. As for me, your most faithful companion, you exploit my faithfulness for thirty years, and then you close the circle of my life with a coma, not even bothering to kill me off!
"Why? If it wasn't to leave an opening—in case you didn't succeed in writing your masterpiece after all—why not let your readers grieve my passing, at least? Were you worried that the announcement of my death would affect the sales of your sixteen police novels? If that's the case, then you're not only the biggest serial killer I know, you're also the most hateful of hypocrites. And I can't even denounce you or punch you in the face. I can't do anything . . . besides curse you and haunt you. However, all-powerful as you may be, the only way you can stop me is by transforming me into your rooster. A rooster that will finally fly away from this hellhole you've thrown me into."
"Let him say what he will," Basilius told himself. "He's hurt, and with good reason. Let him get it out of his system so that you can concentrate on the rooster's crow. That's the only thing that will shut him up. All I have to do is decide, once and for all, if that crow is one of joy or one of rage."
© Pan Bouyoucas. Translation © 2017 by Éric Fontaine and Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren. All rights reserved.
On an early evening in the spring of 2014, I had just settled my two young children into bed when I heard a commotion outside my apartment in Bebek, a neighborhood in Istanbul. I went to the window, and below me I could see a protest gathering in the park, which abutted the Egyptian consulate. Megaphones, whistles, forceful speeches, the noise escalated as more and more people gathered to voice their solidarity with members of the Muslim Brotherhood who had recently been imprisoned in Cairo. In short, this wasn’t really my crowd and they had come to Bebek, a liberal riviera on the Bosphorus, to wave their flags and chant their chants. Regardless, I was curious and wanted to take a closer look.
As I grabbed my keys off the hall table, beneath them was a novel I’d been reading earlier that day. I can’t say why, but I took it with me. My apartment’s long downhill driveway spilled into the park where the protestors had gathered. I stopped at a row of shops on the edge of the park. Like waves that looked less intimidating to a swimmer from the shore, the protest felt more formidable now that I was at its level. It wasn’t long before a few hard glances were thrown in my direction. So, to seem less threatening, I pretended to read.
I lingered at the protest for only about twenty minutes, but since then I’ve often thought of that night and the few people who pointed curiously at my book. In the years since, Turkey has, sadly, passed through a crisis of governance as profound as any it has known since the founding of the republic in 1923. In a referendum this past spring, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan created an executive presidency that has granted him unprecedented powers and has made Turkey a democracy in name only and more akin to an authoritarian state, one like Egypt, whose excesses the crowd protested that night. Erdoğan’s consolidation of power has come about while Western democracies such as Britain and the United States have seen a rise in populist and nationalist movements, which have called into question the innate primacy of liberal values.
After this spring’s referendum a deep pessimism spread through much of Turkey. In Istanbul, it seemed as if the lights had gone out. Restaurants were empty. People stayed at home. The police were ubiquitous. A similar pessimism has descended upon cities like London and New York. After the Brexit vote and the US presidential election, deep internal divisions within major democracies have been laid bare, divisions that threaten to undermine the social fabric of these nations. In Turkey, the US, Britain, and in other countries, there is no shortage of politicians and pundits telling us whom to blame, whom to fear, who our political opponents are, whether on the left or on the right.
The stories in this collection, however, serve a different purpose. They show us how we are similar. When reading Yalçin Tosun’s funny and poignant “Muzaffer and Bananas,” translated by Abby Comstock-Gay, I was drawn into the world of two chubby Turkish boys and their insecurities as they make an outing to feed forbidden bananas to a favorite chimpanzee at the zoo, and that story’s ending, which lands so elegantly, resonates across cultural and social divides. Other stories in the collection are more political, like “The Canary” by Deniz Tarsus, translated by Ayça Türkoğlu, which transports us into the desperate lives of Turkish coal miners—like those who perished in the May 2014 Soma Mine explosion, an event of great political significance inside Turkey—and raises familiar and controversial themes around coal mining in the U.S.
With much of our world deeply divided, stories such as these become more essential than ever to ease our collective pessimism. Art works through a process of emotional transference: artists—whether writers, filmmakers, painters, et cetera—feel something as they are creating their art. How many times have you watched a film teary-eyed, or gone into a museum and seen a painting that overwhelmed you, or—as is the case with this collection—finished a story that left you moved? If you’ve had that experience, the artists have transferred their emotion, or at least a fraction of it, to you. This process of emotional transference is an assertion of our shared humanity, that we can understand one another across cultural boundaries. Such an assertion is, at its core, an act of profound optimism. It is the antidote to the borderless pessimism that now besets much of the world.
If our politics divide us, stories such as these unite us; perhaps that’s why many years ago I instinctively took a book with me on that evening in Istanbul. As I lingered in the park, of the several people who came up to me, the majority had one question once our conversation turned to the book that I carried: they wanted to know if it had been translated into their language.
© 2017 by Elliot Ackerman. All rights reserved.
When I asked novelist Kim Thuy—a native of Vietnam and a longtime Quebecer—why she writes in French instead of Vietnamese or English, she told me this story: Thuy and her family were boat people who came to Quebec when she was ten years old. They ended up on the first bus of Vietnamese immigrants sent to the small town of Granby, in the Eastern Townships. Her family had spent the previous four months in a Malaysian refugee camp, where water was scarce and mosquito bites, lice, chronic diarrhea, and infections were rampant. Despite their ragged appearance, when the bus arrived in the snow-covered town, all of her new neighbors were waiting to welcome and embrace them. Their unabashed kindness, acceptance, and physical contact were earth-shattering to the little girl. It marked the beginning of her new life.
"When I write in French," Thuy explained, "I relive that moment again and again and again."
The four writers featured in this portfolio are all celebrated contemporary novelists who were born outside of Canada but who publish in Quebec, writing in French, their second language. Thuy is from Vietnam; Pan Bouyoucas is of Greek descent from Lebanon; Ying Chen is from China; Sergio Kokis is from Brazil. Whether they were fleeing war, furthering their education, or simply looking for better opportunities, each writer ended up in Quebec quite by chance. Some, like Thuy, have built their lives and careers here, while others, like Chen, eventually moved elsewhere, remaining tied to Quebec through the French language.
As a recent transplant to Montreal from the US, I wondered what it meant to be an immigrant writer in Quebec in 2017. What were the challenges and opportunities of writing in a second country, a second language? In what ways did that linguistic and geographic distance shape what and how a writer told their story? And how did books set in foreign countries fit into Quebec's often Montreal-centric publishing landscape?
Famed Iraqi-Canadian novelist and essayist Naim Kattan, whose first book, Adieu, Babylone (Farewell, Babylon), came out in 1975, has retroactively become a central figure in what would today be termed "migrant literature." As the tension between Arab and Jewish nationalism in Iraq intensified in the forties, he left his home country, first for France and then Canada, settling in Montreal in 1954. Here, although he speaks fluent Arabic, he began publishing in French. In Entretiens, his 2017 collected interviews with his son, writer Emmanuel Kattan, the elder Kattan says:
"I am a Jew from Baghdad and a Quebec writer. I can assert my Jewishness without renouncing my Arab culture. This multiple identity allows me to belong to la Francophonie, the French-speaking world. This is the case for any writer, any artist, from Quebec. La Francophonie is a particularity that leads to a universal."
According to the authors of Histoire de la littérature québécoise (History of Quebec Literature), migrant literature is an integral part of Quebec literature in part because they share many of the same preoccupations. These include the feeling of exile, wandering, a vacillation of identities, conflict between historical past and personal memory, and the condition of being a minority. After all, while French speakers make up 82% of the Quebec population today, they are only about 22% of Canada's total population. Québécois writers, therefore, are both majority and minority—on the peripheries of European and North American markets, and at the epicenter of their own thriving literary culture. Furthermore, the Québécois identity is still relatively new. While French Canadian history dates back to the early seventeenth century, the concept of a "Quebec literature" freed of its European influences is a twentieth-century phenomenon.
In speaking with each of the four authors, I learned that their coming to Quebec and writing in French was largely incidental—"the vagaries of exile," as Rio-born Kokis put it. After Brazil's 1964 military coup, Kokis sought refuge in France, where he completed his psychology studies in Strasbourg. A friend suggested Quebec for his next move, so he sent off a job application for a psychiatric hospital in Gaspé, which hired him as a psychologist. "If my friend had given me the address of a hospital in Toronto or Vancouver," Kokis told me, "I would have worked in English and, without a doubt, written in English." It was only at the age of fifty that he began publishing, and writing in French came down to practicalities: French was the language that he had been living and working in for most of his life, so that became the language of his fiction.
In Kokis's short story, "Incidents at the Evangelista Lighthouse," from his 2013 collection Culs-de-sac, an old mariner in a brothel in Punta Arenas, Chile, recounts a harrowing tale. Over glasses of pisco, he describes how four sailors are sent to the most distant of the seven manned lighthouses in the extreme south of the country, to relieve the crew that had been there for the previous four months. Isolated on a distant island prone to terrible weather, chilling events begin to unfold.
When the teenage Bouyoucas's parents decided to leave Lebanon in the early sixties, they chose Quebec so that their son could continue his studies in French. Ironically, because he wasn't Catholic, he was ultimately forced to finish his education with the Protestant School Board in English. Although he speaks fluent Greek, he never tried writing in it; he does, however, write novels and radio and theater work in French and English. He believes that he writes about the same things, in the same way, in both languages.
Bouyoucas' novel Cock-a-doodle-doo follows Basilius, a successful middle-aged crime novelist who longs to steer his literary career back toward something more authentic. Looking for inspiration, he returns to an island he first visited as a young man, when he wrote his first book, a collection of poems. Unfortunately, the only stories the island inspires are for yet another crime novel. Basilius's struggle with his sense of self and his flailing career are exacerbated by the fictional lead detective of his own creation, Levonian, who has grudges of his own. As the writer and his character hash things out, Basilius becomes consumed with the question of the rooster's crow—is it a cry of joy or of fear? Of pleasure for the new day, or fear of the dying of the light?
For Chen, the greater question was whether or not to write at all, not which language to write in. She studied French language and literature in Shanghai, simply out of curiosity, and wound up working as a translator and interpreter. Wanting to see the West, but knowing it would be difficult at the end of the Cold War, she came to Montreal by chance because she had a friend who was willing to help her with the paperwork. In 1991, she received her MA from McGill, and by 1992, she had already published her first novel, La mémoire de l’eau. Although Chen had always dreamed of being a Chinese writer, to write in Chinese while living her daily life in French felt forced. So as she continued to immerse herself in Quebec life—marrying, having children, acquiring a house, a garden, etc.—she continued publishing in French, to great acclaim.
Chen's novel Blessures (Wounds) is inspired by the real-life story of Normand Bethune, a Canadian surgeon and inventor whose anti-Fascist ideals inspired him to go first to Spain and then to China, where he ultimately died of a blood infection. He was so emblematic of the communist ideal to sacrifice the individual for the collective that Mao Zedong wrote an essay about him after his death: "In Memory of Norman Bethune." In Chen's reimagining of his journey, Beam-Number-Two, a child soldier, becomes the companion and guide for an unnamed Western doctor from a large, cold country who has come to Asia to volunteer as a field doctor during a revolutionary war. Wounds explores the Chinese revolution, propaganda, tension between the individual and the collective, the archetype of the romantic hero, and the vanity of the West "aiding" countries it judges to be less developed.
Thuy came of age in Quebec, so she spent both her teenage and then her adult years with the French language. She never tried writing in Vietnamese, having left too young to develop the nuance she has in French. However, she believes she writes in a French influenced by "a Vietnamese mind"—the rhythm and images of her first language. In Vietnamese, she said, you have to be more delicate, more restrained. She doesn't think she could have written her novels if she wasn't Canadian, because she wouldn't have the freedom to write about Vietnam in Vietnamese.
Thuy's novel Vi is a coming-of-age story that interweaves elements of the author's own epic journey from Saigon to a refugee camp in Malaysia to a new life in Montreal. Vi, the protagonist, whose name means "precious, minuscule, microscopic," flees home with her mother and three older brothers during the Vietnam War. The novel begins with sumptuous details of the family's comfortable life in Saigon, then follows the young girl as she finds her way in Quebec society, studies translation, grows into a confident, successful lawyer, and navigates heartbreak and exile.
While all four writers share a language, their use of that language diverges wildly, from Kokis' leisurely, nineteenth-century style to Chen's hauntingly spare prose. Whether overtly or covertly, each carries the cultural and linguistic influences of their home countries into their French. This hybridity and inventiveness, combined with masterful storytelling, has garnered them devoted followings, top literary prizes, and an undeniable place in modern Quebec literature.
© 2017 Rachel Morgenstern-Clarren. All rights reserved.
Yalçin Tosun's chubby, despairing Turkish teenagers find solace in visits to the zoo. But an unexpected change to their routine abruptly alters their lives and their relationship.
Cutting last period was my idea. But getting on a crowded city bus and going to the zoo on this hot May day was Ali’s. He wanted to see the old chimpanzee at the zoo, whom he’d felt an affinity with for some time. Whenever he couldn’t take his workaholic father and Cubist-painter mother anymore, he came here to have heart-to-hearts with the old chimpanzee. He liked his calm and devil-may-care attitude.
He had first introduced me to Muzaffer when we went to the zoo a few weeks earlier. Yes, the chimpanzee’s name was Muzaffer, or at least that was the name Ali thought fit him best. Nearly toothless, with most of the hair on his body ripped out, this chimp had the most melancholic eyes in the world. Not caring at all that we were there, he gazed around motionless from the back corner of his unkempt cage, having detached himself from all relations with the world.
When we got on the bus, we raced toward the empty seats next to the ticket collector and as difficult as it was, squeezed in beside each other. We were both quite fat, but Ali’s body carried more promise than mine. He was about four inches taller than me, and had nice broad shoulders. (I’m not even going to mention how his beard had already started coming in.) These characteristics didn’t make his ass smaller than mine though. The moment we got on, the people on the bus started looking us up and down with those expressions of disgust they probably reserved especially for fat teenagers. Oh those looks . . . If only I, like Ali, could succeed in not noticing them, or looking like I didn’t.
When the bus had picked up the other passengers and began moving, I started looking around. Ali was lost in thought, but I wanted to make sure he had noticed the girl standing a bit in front of us. I nudged his leg with mine. He didn’t notice—the girl wasn’t even that pretty anyway. That nudge was one of those things I felt I had to do to pay dues to adolescence, and if I hadn’t I would have felt like I was lacking something. But Ali didn’t feel the same way, facing out the window murmuring something or other.
“Let’s get some bananas for Muzaffer.”
I couldn’t help giggling. I put my hand over my mouth to make sure my crooked teeth didn’t show. Muzaffer and bananas . . . It was just funny—those kinds of things were always funny for me back then. When I noticed that Ali wasn’t laughing I wanted to say something.
“I don’t have any money.”
Yes, he always had more money than I did, but unlike other kids who had money, he never used it to show off. It had almost become the norm for him to pay the bill when we went somewhere. And I can’t say that I was uncomfortable about it. Even if I had been, I wouldn’t have let anything come between me and my only friend in the world.
The not-very-pretty girl who nevertheless succeeded in getting my attention had moved a few steps forward so she was standing right next to me. Her bag was bumping my shoulder and I was reveling in this. I lifted my head a bit and looked at her face out of the corner of my eye. She had to be about three or four years older than us, but she looked around as if she knew a lot about life. I wondered if she had ever kissed anyone. And if she had, I wondered how she kissed. I had seen a lot of kissing in movies. Some people just suck on the other person’s upper or lower lip, other people stick their tongues out audaciously with brazen speed. I would kiss politely, I told myself. And I approved of this thought with a nod of my head. I would neither boorishly suck lips nor would I use my tongue. I would plant a kiss on those timid lips gently, like brushing the naked skin of a bird’s wing. But I had only lips in my mind. Not a face, not a body, not a person. Just lips.
The girl opened her bag like she was going to get something out of it, then without getting anything closed it again. Oh, women and their mysterious actions. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye again, as if to show that I noticed, but she didn’t see me.
When we got off the bus, something Ali had said about women came to my mind. The other day in the locker room we both heard the other kids saying what they wanted to do with Miss Ayla, the gym teacher. Slowly walking away afterward, I stopped and asked him.
“Do you also like Miss Ayla?”
He looked me in the face with a flirtatious look.
“Dude” (he sometimes called me dude), “you don’t understand women at all. I would make a bet that that woman is as cold as the poles. I bet when she has sex she passes the time by imagining what kinds of animals the stains on the ceiling look like.”
I wasn’t sure if he really knew more about women than me or not, but he liked it to look that way, so I believed him. Yet I was sure that we both had the same doubts, which we had never shared with each other, about the unlikelihood of our fat bodies ever appealing to anyone. Not saying these things aloud was one of the secret agreements between us. Then the topic of kissing came up and he told me a few things about the ins and outs of kissing. According to him, kissing must be done with eyes closed. And teeth—and he looked away from me when he said this—had to be particularly well cared for at all times, because it is never clear when a person might have the chance to kiss. And also, if I ever got the chance to kiss a girl I’m into—like a friend, on the cheek—I should plant my kiss on the borderline between the lips and the cheek—the girl would understand from that how much I liked her.
“How do you know these things?”
“I would know, dude.” (Yes, he said "dude" again.)
“Have you ever kissed anyone?”
He gave another suggestive laugh and silently walked toward the greengrocer, where the colorful fruits were aligned in rows.
We put the bananas in Ali’s bag. When we got to the zoo the security guard at the door reminded us that feeding the animals was strictly forbidden. Because we knew this rule was not enforced, we didn’t say anything.
We walked slowly in the heat, escorted by the strange smell emanating from our fat bodies. In many of the corners of the zoo there were couples interested more in each other than the animals. And our looks gravitated toward those couples, not the animals. As we approached Muzaffer’s cage and looked around for a security guard, we pulled the bananas out of the bag. There were four bananas; Ali gave two of them to me. We were excited about seeing Muzaffer, but he wasn’t there. As we were wondering if they had changed his cage, we learned that he had died the night before. Actually, he had committed suicide. The security guard who looked indifferently at the forgotten bananas in our hands didn’t use the word suicide, but that was the conclusion Ali came to after hearing what the man told us. The night before, Muzaffer had gotten himself into a run-in with the roughest young chimp and gotten himself killed. Because he couldn’t stand his baldness, his toothlessness, his painful joints, he had committed a sort of suicide as any honorable old chimpanzee would.
As Ali translated these thoughts to me, he didn’t show the slightest sign of sadness. But I knew that Muzaffer was the only creature in the world that I envied, and I knew how much Ali loved him. He had told me even more about him than he had told me about his mother and father. I didn’t know what to say; I peeled one of the bananas in my hands and started to eat it. I didn’t have the chance to eat bananas often, and at that moment I couldn’t think of anything better to do. Ali came over to me and took the other banana and threw it toward the cage. Then he did the same thing with the ones he was holding. I stood there with the half-eaten banana in my hand. In that moment, I understood just how sad my friend was.
While Muzaffer lay prostrate in his grave—I assumed that dead chimpanzees are buried just like dead people—Ali’s fat body shook as he began to cry. It was the first time I’d seen another boy crying. I put down my half-eaten banana, went over to him, and put my arm on his shoulder. “Get away from me, dude,” he said. Without taking my arm off his shoulder, I said that maybe there was a heaven for chimpanzees and that he shouldn’t be sad. I regretted it the moment I said it. What idiocy! He looked into my eyes and he put his arm on my shoulder. We stood there face to face, arms on each other’s shoulders. He was still crying, heaving sobs. We were two fat teenagers facing each other on the grass in front of the cage. Muzaffer had died, and these two teenagers so often prayed the same thing would happen to them.
“Ali,” I said. “You haven’t ever kissed anyone, have you?”
He remained motionless. He was trying to stop crying. With my hand I held his chin and lifted his face, and I placed a kiss on the borderline between his lip and his cheek, and ran away as fast as my heavy body would carry me.
"Muzaffer ve Muz" © Yalçın Tosun. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Abby Comstock-Gay. All rights reserved.
The plain sprawls, flat under the sky. Darkness settles over it; a gulping, tarry swamp. In the distance, a small fire. It licks and lights the air. It leaps as the women gather around, throwing dry brush onto the flames. Old Hatice Ana arches her eyebrows and her face grows taut. It makes her look nearly fifteen years younger. Her skin gathers at her forehead and neck. Some of her teeth are missing and her face sags. “My Hasan died here, in the mine,” she says. “Your husbands think it’s coal they dig for in the mountain, but it’s not coal, it’s flesh.” The women grow pale. One can’t help herself and asks: “Were there a lot of accidents in the mine, in the past?” “Of course there were. Even our grandmothers used to speak of them. The more the men work the mine, the more lives it will take. In the end, your husbands will be little more than coal themselves.” Silence falls over the rolling plain. Hatice Ana’s eyes drift. Her face tightens like a chest full of breath, then creases again; she focuses. “A terrible day, it was. I was up at the crack of dawn, I’d just waved Hasan off as he left for the mine. And then, oh God! Booming, ringing. That sound, like it was pounding the ground as it came. It cracked the foundations of the houses and burst the plaster. We rushed outside. I thought my heart would drop clean out of my chest. We knew something must have happened in the mine, so we ran to look. The mine was smoking. I’ll never forget the tears pouring from my eyes. I couldn’t stop. The workers had gathered outside. The mine was raging and fuming, spitting ash.” She rearranges her headscarf loosely and tightens the knot. Her eyes search the ground. She recovers her train of thought and continues: “Then important men came from the mining company; they stood at the entrance to the pit, whispering to each other. Their faces were grim. The jandarma came next and cordoned off the mine. 'No one is to enter the pit. We’re going to get everyone out alive,' he said, and we believed him, too. There was nothing else to be done. We sat there and we waited. What more could we do, my girl? We sat together with tears in our eyes and I mourned for Hasan.” The women see themselves in Hatice Ana. They imagine the day when their husbands will die.
On the day of the accident, the mountain bellowed at the people gnawing away at its insides. The fire ceased and smoke began to rise. When the smoke and dust had cleared a little, the jandarma went into the mine. He walked round and round. It was empty. Where were all the men? People don’t just disappear. At last, they reached the top of the blind shaft. A hand was dangling from the roof. “Here, they’re here!” he shouted. The man grasped hold of the hand, tugged it and tumbled head first onto the ground. He looked at the hand in his; it was practically nothing. It stopped at the wrist. Bone jutted out at one end, sharp as a wolf’s tooth, white as rabbit hair. “God!” he cried, throwing it down. He leaned back against the wall. Something dripped onto his ear. Disturbed, he put out his hand: blood. He hung the lamp on the wall and peered closer. The bodies looked as if they had been split apart and reformed. The miners lay in pieces. He cried out and his belly shook. He ran to the mouth of the mine without looking back. They had all been destroyed. The walls of the mine had been reduced to rubble, the mountain was coal and nothing more. The jandarma ran all the way out to the dark forest.
Hatice was still a young woman back then. Chilled, her tears had run dry and her heart seemed drained of blood. Mourning burned through the village, ravaging the very soil. The mine owners grew sick of the laments and chased the workers’ wives away. “Except for me,” said Hatice Ana. One woman interrupted, curious: “Why?” Hatice Ana breathed hard. “Because I kept quiet; when the state representatives came to ask me about it, I said nothing.”
Behind them, the forest stood dark and dense. The faint sounds of animals hung in the air. The owl trained its eye on a mouse, dropped down, and cloaked it in its wings. The fox hid in the bushes watching the women around the fire. The snail trailed slowly back to its nest in the light of the moon. The women took their leave, feeling their own lives quivering inside them, and walked back in the light of the fire, which flared faintly, sputtering in the nighttime frost. It was nothing, of course. Zeyno cast about for some hint of death in the dry taste in her mouth. One day, we will die too, she thought, we will fade into nothing. Her gaze fell on her son, Aliş. His eyes were filled with tears. Zeyno got up, kissed Hatice Ana on the cheek, and said her good-byes. Aliş made to sneak off through the bushes. “Aliş!” shouted Zeyno. He stopped. “What are you up to my boy? Come on, run along home.” He came closer and she hugged him. “When did you turn up? Did you finish shelling those pine nuts?” “No.” “Oh, Aliş!”
The night was thick with frost as they crossed the plain and started up the hill ahead. Passing by woodland, they took the path to the village. Zeyno wrapped herself in her knitted shawl. “Are you cold?” she said, looking at Aliş. “No,” he replied, shivering. She hugged him to her, covering the two of them with her shawl. Before stepping into the garden of their house, Zeyno said, “Your father mustn’t find out about what Hatice Ana said, OK?” Aliş nodded, tears in his eyes. “I won’t say anything,” he promised weakly.
They found Yusuf in the large garden that surrounded the house, under the pergola beams strung with grapevines. He was smoking a cigarette with a faraway look on his face. The pure white smoke was bitter in the night air. There was no wind. The sky looked as if it had been nailed up. In the forest beyond, the fireflies were winking. Yusuf sat up. “Hello my sweethearts,” he said, “Where have my little adventurers been?”
“Just to see Hatice Ana. We chatted, shared some toasted seeds. Small talk, you know. Have you cut your lip again?” Yusuf looked up and smiled. “Oh, Yusuf” she said, smirking.
“I’ve just put some tea on. Come, let’s sit and have a glass,” he said, sitting up on the divan and crossing his legs.
“Aliş, I’ll heat up some milk for you,” said Zeyno.
“But I want tea!”
“No, Aliş! The two of you sit up drinking tea late into the night and then you wonder why you can’t get to sleep! Yusuf, are you hungry? I can bring a few things out.”
“Yes, I could eat something. It’s a long while till morning. I’m not going to sleep tonight.”
“What? You can’t go down the mine on no sleep!”
“We’ll see,” said Yusuf. He cheered up a little when he remembered Zeyno had made börek. “Zeyno, are there any börek left?”
“Yes, there’s a whole dish of them.”
“Great, bring them out. They’ll go well with the tea.”
Zeyno hurried into the kitchen and threw a couple of logs into the stove. She would heat the börek on it. She bent to blow on the embers. The coals glowed like enormous globes of molten lava. Flames rolled and coiled inside the wood. Zeyno blew. The coals reddened, scattering sparks. She thought of mines exploding and mountains crying out. Still she blew. The fire flared up. Filling her lungs, she blew again. Ash fluttered into the three corners of the stove. Her hair and face were covered with it. The pinecones rattled as flames chewed and blackened the wood. Zeyno watched the fire for a while. She thought of nothing, not the börek, not Yusuf, not the food. After some time, she sighed, shook the ash from her hair, turned and placed the dish over the heat. She wiped the tears from her eyes.
Yusuf took his pouch of tobacco, weighed out a small amount, and rolled it up in a cigarette paper. He licked the paper to seal it. Aliş watched his father. “Aliş, my friend, how are your strawberries doing at the warehouse?”
“Well, I’ve given them plenty of water and I made sure that it’s warm enough for them. I also planted new seedlings and I wrapped them in a black plastic bag. I tied the bottoms with cotton. They’re doing really well.”
“Great! Sounds like you’ve been taking good care of your babies. Have you read the book I bought you?”
“Of course. And I learned about why strawberries go soft on the ground.”
“And why’s that?”
“The book says that they go soft when the leaves touch the soil.”
“Well, my friend, they sound a bit precious if you ask me. How come our neighbors manage to grow them in the forest and on the mountainside?”
“Well, they don’t grow very many, do they?”
“Goodness me, that must be it then: the dirt is turning them soft.” His gaze drifted past Aliş. “It’s the same with us, isn’t it Aliş?” Aliş looked at his father, uncomprehending. “Coal’s a tricky thing, too. The more you dig for it, the harder it is to get.” Aliş didn’t look at his father. “But we have coal to thank for the food in our bellies tonight. Thank God we have food on the stove.” Something caught in his throat. He swallowed hard and went on. “Why don’t we have a little chat while your mother’s out of the way, man to man?” Aliş guessed what his father wanted to say and winced. “Look, son, Aliş, my boy, promise me you won’t go down to work in the mine. Just read your strawberry book. Learn. Grow your business. One day you could have huge greenhouses filled with strawberries, you could escape all this. Sell crates and crates of strawberries if you like, but never touch coal. Don’t be like me, living a half-life down in the mine.” Aliş didn’t move. He stayed fixed to the spot, as though his father might turn around, look and not be able to find him. “This job is no joke and you’re sick. You wouldn’t be able to stand it.” Aliş’s eyes glistened for a moment as though a bright idea had dawned on him and he said, “You should stop working in the mine too. We can grow our strawberries together.” Yusuf said nothing. Zeyno’s voice came from inside, rough. “Your mother’s coming, not a word,” said Yusuf.
Zeyno appeared under the pergola. “Aliş, run and get the börek. Be careful though, they’re hot!”
In the distance, crickets wailed and shuddered in the forest’s chill. In the village, the same thought was on everyone’s minds. It flitted through their brains every night before bed. It flickered and faded. Death. Every night before they went to sleep, the people of the village imagined their own deaths. The worry was like a pin in the throat, like clippers wrenching the nails from their fingers. It ate away at them and after months, and months, and months like this, their hearts grew sick with it.
It was the morning after one such night. There were no footsteps, no voices to be heard. No sound at all. Yusuf rolled over in bed and sat up heavily. He wolfed down the fried potatoes and lentil soup that Zeyno had made. He watched Aliş in his bed, as he did every morning. He left the house and prepared to hand himself over to the hell of the pit. This cursed coal, he thought. It’s a scourge. It puts a man to sleep, drowns him, knocks him down, and changes him. The same image came to Yusuf as he walked to work each morning. He imagined death differently from the others. Death was a huge hand made of coal that stretched skyward; it would reach out and grab the dozens of workers out in the street, crushing them mercilessly until they suffocated. That morning, Yusuf imagined the giant hand just as he did every morning.
Between one hundred and fifty and two hundred men gathered at the pithead in the early hours of the morning. Sad, sleep-scented faces. They went into the mine to start getting ready. They chatted as usual as they changed into their work gear. One of them, İleş Ahmet, was not too keen on washing. “Your clothes are filthy already, son, why bother changing?” Âdem quipped. The men grinned at each other. İleş Ahmet picked the sleep from his eyes and grunted: “What do you expect? We don’t all have a wife at home like yours.” From a distance, Yusuf spoke up: “Ahmet, how much have you saved now, pal? When’s the wedding?” “Not for a while. Damn, I counted it the other day but I’ve forgotten.” Çamur Osman chimed in: “Pal, you’ve really kept her waiting! The woman’s already past it, you’ll never get her now . . . ” Osman raised his arms and began to mince daintily around the cave, cavorting in the thin air. The entrance to the mine rang with laughter and the men smiled. “You just leave it to me,” said Ahmet, grinning. Yusuf’s gaze fell on Daver. He had seemed distracted while they were getting dressed and there was an anxious look on his face. “What’s the matter, Daver? You’re a bit quiet today.” “It’s nothing, Yusuf Abi. You know how it is.” Daver was a little different; his eyes slanted and he was a smart, sensitive boy. His grandfather was one of the village’s holy people. He saw the future in his dreams and had the power to predict whose baby would be a girl, who would die and who would recover. Davud Usta had taken him on so that he could get a wage and earn enough to eat. He didn’t work at the mine face. His sole duty was to walk around the mine and keep an eye on the canary in its cage.
Rows upon rows of men crammed themselves into the cages and descended into the pit. They piled down the main shaft. Davud Usta stopped at each cross brace and tested the frame with his adze. The men mined and the mountain reeled. And when the black creature awoke in its lair at the heart of the mountain and made the earth swell, nobody heard it. It wanted to roar, beat its pitted chest, and destroy the sickness worming through its body. But it couldn’t.
Some men mined while others loaded lumps of coal onto wagons. Others dug new tunnels. Slowly, they scraped at the earth while the chock bore its weight above them. İleş Ahmet swallowed, “Damn it, Âdem, make sure you check the chock as you go. We don’t want it caving in.” “Just dig slowly, it will be fine as long as we don’t overload it.” Çamur Osman looked at the coal in the chamber. He wasn’t pleased. “Most of this is waste, there’s hardly any coal in it. There’s not much output here. Let’s tell Cemal Usta to cut the workers on this section.”
At lunch time, they sat down to eat together, setting up a makeshift table and splitting an onion between them. Daver couldn’t swallow a single bite. Instead, he fed the bird in its cage. Âdem looked at him. “You given it a name yet, pal?” he said. Daver turned and looked at him for a while. “No, I can’t, because it’ll die anyway.” Yusuf breathed, “If you look after it properly, he’ll be fine.” “No, it won’t. I can hear strange noises, it sounds like something’s boiling up there.” The boy swallowed hard. A moment later, he heard Ahmet’s voice trembling, “The bird . . . ” It lay dead in its cage. It didn’t move. Davud Usta snapped into action: “Leave everything where it is and walk to the exit.” The men made for the main shaft on the double. “Calmly!” shouted Davud Usta, frightening himself with his own voice. “Walk slowly,” he added hoarsely. They joined the throng of workers making their way along the shaft. The structure began to shudder. Earth and pieces of rock fell from the roof as the walls around them shook. They stopped and stared at one another. “Stop,” said Davud Usta. “Come back. We’ll head down to the lower levels and wait for help. Quick!” The men turned and ran down the shaft. But the sound died in their ears as a scorching wind swept through, echoing around the chamber, accompanied by a strange smell. Turning to look, they came face to face with the black creature inside the mountain. It bounded straight for them, its gigantic body gleaming black and white. Then it changed shape; white smoke poured from it like milk, coiling and curling, and took the form of huge animals. At the front stood terrible horses, nimble bears, followed by deer, wolves, and foxes . . . The herd came stampeding over the miners and they groaned. One man in front cried out at the top of his lungs: “Get on the ground!” and many threw themselves down. The animals dispersed in a puff of soot and drifted over the men like an avalanche. Some were caught on their feet. The toxic fumes leached into their bodies, making their lungs bleed and their hearts burst. They fell to the floor with blood streaming from their eyes and noses. Yusuf lay on the ground, covering his mouth and nose with the collar of his sweater. In the smoke and dust, chaos reigned. There was no fresh air left in the mine. Later, choking and retching, Davud Usta called out again, “Wait a moment, then get up.” When the smoke had cleared a little, Yusuf saw in the light of his headlamp that İleş Ahmet had fallen; blood was trickling from his nose. He watched the flakes of ash sticking to his face. The blood was black, like a thick and filthy worm creeping into his nostril. Its tail dangled close to Ahmet’s lip. Yusuf feared it would crawl into Ahmet’s nose and eat away at his lungs. He reached out, swiped at the worm and saw that the blood had been wiped away. Then he looked at his hand. Blood. Finally, he came to his senses. He ran with the other men down toward the lower levels. A little while later, they heard Davud Usta’s voice again. “Find a piece of clothing, a handkerchief, anything, and tie it over your faces.” Yusuf held his breath, took off his sweater, and tied it tightly around his face. He found Osman collapsed at the edge of the mine. Ripping off part of his shirt, he tied it around Osman’s face. He threw Osman’s arm over his shoulder and ran down to the seventh level with the other workers in search of fresh air.
The smoke thinned as they descended, but the men were panicking, running to and fro. Davud Usta tried to stop those attempting to leave the mine, but they were so overcome by fear that none would listen. “Don’t go! It’s hell up there! We have to keep walking down until help comes.” Davud Usta saw he was wasting his breath. Many of the men had fallen onto the ground and bodies lay scattered along the main shaft. Davud Usta looked to see if any were breathing. He kept one eye on Yusuf, Osman, Daver, and Âdem in front. When they reached a clearing, he noticed the birdcage was still gripped tightly in Daver’s hands. The bird’s body was filthy from rattling around the cage. Keep steady, Davud, don’t lose your nerve, think how many years you’ve been foreman of this mine. We’re going to get out of here alive.
Âdem was gasping for breath. His insides boiled; his throat felt dry and scratchy. His heart was pounding. The more he struggled to get air into his lungs, the more trapped he felt in the narrow mineshafts. “I can’t take it any more, I can’t breathe!” he cried. In a fit of madness, Âdem tried to undo the cloth tied around his face. Yusuf seized his hand. They were at the heart of the mine. “Stop it! If you take it off, you’ll die! Just a little longer. There’s fresh air further down. See, there’s a cool breeze here.” Meanwhile, the ground above them was shaking again. The sides of the shaft trembled. “There’s a fire up there, run down!” Davud shouted, determined, shoving them down toward the lower levels. At that moment, Cemal Usta appeared with a group of men. They were black all over; in the lamplight, they looked like monsters, burned, blending into the mine; they were at one with it. They clung to Davud Usta and tugged at him. Cemal shouted at the top of his voice: “It’s going to kill us, Usta! Let’s pull the hogties and cave in the path or we’ll be boiled alive in the damned darkness!” Davud Usta couldn’t understand why Cemal was in such a hurry. He spoke again, with difficulty, swallowing: “The fire’s spreading above us, abi, they’re using pressurized water to put it out but it’ll heat up in the fire. If we don’t close off the path, we’ll be boiled alive!” Keeping as calm as he could, Davud Usta gathered his men around him. He shouted to the workers making for the upper levels: “We’re going to cave in the tunnel, run this way!” They managed to warn ten or fifteen people. The ground above them was trembling with the ferocity of the fire and the explosions. The pressurized water filtered through slowly at first, then started to gush. “Shut off the path!” cried Cemal Usta. The men worked as one, pulling the ties, then they ran all the way down to the scaffold. The mine seemed to be laughing, puckering; the path snapped like brittle bones and the roof shifted. The tumbling rocks formed a wall where the path had been. They swallowed, thinking of the men trapped on the other side. The water and smoke seemed unable to penetrate the wall. It was vital to use the little air coming from the blind well channels properly. Making good use of it, they reached the bottom of the mine. They stopped in a chamber where they found a little fresh air. Yusuf encouraged them all to sit down. “It’s getting smoky in here. Crouch down, it’ll be easier to breathe.” Âdem caught his breath and the pain in his lungs eased. Daver’s legs were trembling. He had vowed not to leave the bird behind, his stonelike fist still closed over the cage’s handle. At last, he collapsed like a pile of hundred-year-old rocks, his mouth a spike, his eyes like creatures made of bone.
The workers sheltering in the lower corridors of the mine looked out from under their thick eyebrows, eyes wide like rabbits escaping a wolf’s clutches. Alert. The fear was sharp and coursed through them like poison. They knew that if they didn’t keep it under control, their hearts would burst, ripping open their chests. Daver sat in the half-lit chamber, transfixed by muffled noises coming from below. His eyes searched the ground; his ears trained, listening. “There are people down there, Yusuf Abi,” he said.
“Are you sure, son?”
“Yes. I can hear someone digging.”
The air supply in the chamber was dropping constantly. They decided to move on. They split into small groups and ventured off down separate routes.
They walked straight down. Daver looked at the canary: feathers lay strewn where it had been tossed around in the cage. At that moment, a wild wind blew in, scorching his cheeks. It swept the dust before it into a whirlwind and blasted the hair out of his face. When Daver looked up in the lamplight, he saw that the roof of the cave lay far in the distance; it had been carried away. Not only that, but it had transformed into enormous pine trees, until there was an entire forest hanging above their heads. And now, Daver and the others found themselves upside-down, walking in the sky with the forest below. Daver gazed open-mouthed as the pines swayed beneath him. Then came the birds, flitting into the forest in their thousands. Enchanted, he saw plants dripping with bright yellow buds, bobbing in the sunlight; animals roamed beneath the trees. Then he realized he could see the mouth of the mine; hundreds of people were standing in front of it. He saw his mother crying. Tears welled in his eyes and he let them fall, it didn’t matter now anyway. He wanted to leave the darkness of the mine behind and go into the forest, he wanted to hug his mother. Daver took the dead canary out of its cage, opened his hand and watched the bird drop away into the trees like the cool raindrops that fell from the roofs of the houses in the village. And now, Yusuf saw the bird take flight. He looked up and saw the mighty forest hanging from the ceiling. Sensing the ground beneath his feet had disappeared, he turned and clung to the wall. He looked again. Daver watched Yusuf for a long time; “I want to go into the forest and see my mum,” he said. Before Yusuf had the chance to reply, Daver bent at the waist and began to fall. He tumbled away into the forest and disappeared. Yusuf watched him fall. But I can’t do that, he thought, I can’t go into the forest. I can’t just leave Aliş and Zeyno, and sink like a stone into the trees. Just bend your knees and take a step forward, he thought. No, step away, Yusuf, come on, step away, stay in the blind shaft a little longer.
As they reached the bottom of the mine, the workers following Davud Usta faltered in a delirium of fear and poisonous air. “Let’s wait in the chamber up ahead. There’s more fresh air there,” said Davud Usta. Whatever happens, they’ll come, he thought, they’ll get us out of here. Entering the mine’s bottommost chamber, Âdem recoiled. He stood petrified, as if he had glimpsed monsters and flames, seething worms. He looked back at his friends behind him. Filing into the chamber, they saw three men with their backs to the entrance. The men had tools in their hands and were scraping at the wall. Davud Usta was speechless. The men were heavy with coal. “If we dig down, it will earn us some time,” they said. One of the three turned to face Âdem. The pickaxe slipped out of his hand and fell. Its handle bore distinct marks where it had been gripped tight. It clanged as it hit the ground and the sound reverberated in the chamber. Âdem’s ears rang; he couldn’t stand it and covered them with his hands, writhing in pain. Blood began to stream from his ears. The two other strange men still had their backs turned; they had noticed the men come into the room. Âdem looked into the face of the man standing opposite him and saw that it was himself. Yusuf looked at the second man: his double. He looked furious. A single tear ran from Yusuf’s eye, like a horse with a chestnut coat. He wiped it away and smelled blood. Then Davud came face to face with the third man. He looked just like him, right down to the clothes and the scar on his face. The men put down their tools and peered at each other. None of them said a word, but there was no trace of surprise on their faces. They could hear faint rattling sounds. Yusuf reached out and touched his double; the man opposite was alive, real. After a little while, the sound of pickaxes could be heard from beneath their feet. Yusuf turned and looked at Davud Usta. They listened to the sound of men still digging down below, their picks hitting diamonds, hoping to find their way back to their children’s faces by digging in the opposite direction. Hope-flecked, determined hands groping in the blackness.
Down, down and down they dig, hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of men. In the black breath of the mine, dead men turn to coal and their blood congeals and oozes inside the mountain. Flesh fuses with coal, coal with mountain. Yusuf can no longer tell which is which. He thinks about the börek that Zeyno cooks on the stove, the strawberries Aliş keeps warm in the warehouse, and his mind reels. I’ll never eat strawberries again, he thinks. Aliş’s strawberries. All I have is coal to eat. I’ve never tried it. I ate dirt once. Aliş, does it rain in the mine? I wish we could fly out of here. I want to leap up over the fire and breathe in the clean air. If I could just see Zeyno’s face again, he thinks, or see Aliş standing there, as large as life. But you’re nothing now, Yusuf, says a voice inside him. You’re buried deep underground. Just lie back, deep below the surface of the earth and slip away into nothing, Yusuf. The more you want to exist, the less you do. You are alone, you are small, and you are nothing. You are nothing now, Yusuf.
The mine workers’ legacy was their offering to coal. The children of the village had been born to die and took up their fathers’ trade without question. And so did their children. The mountain cried out for endless death, but nobody heard it. The workers’ bodies became the blood in the veins of the mine and streamed out, coal-stained flesh. The canary rolled out like a ball. It took off and flew up the road that led to the mine. It skimmed the fire, beating its wings and making the flames quiver, before flying on into the forest. Zeyno and Aliş didn’t see the spirit leave the pit. The mine rattled and rang like a maniac for three days and three nights, and then it cooled, like the cinders in Zeyno’s stove. A human life is faint and thin, like a line drawn in the dirt, until it turns cold, like the bones buried beneath.
From It Gözü. Published 2015 by Can Yayınları. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Ayça Türkoğlu. All rights reserved.
In this story by Behçet Çelik, a man risks his life to cross a city under siege and help his friend.
Author's Note: I have some doubts about sharing information about the social background of my stories with readers. It seems that this approach conditions or restricts the reader. This story was published in a literary magazine in Turkey this past year, and one young reader told me that when they read the story, they thought it took place in the 1970s (in Turkey). It’s true that when I wrote this story, I was thinking of what was happening in 2015 and the aftermath. But I really liked this young reader’s interpretation. (Maybe yet another reader might think of Israel’s siege of a city in Palestine upon reading.)
The important part for me is the issue of any state’s police forces besieging parts of a city, forbidding entrance and exit, and implementing curfews for the people who live there. It doesn’t really matter if this happens in Diyarbakir in 2015 or a city in another country. This is why I didn’t give any place names in this story. When there’s no information about the setting, the universality of the problem of the siege emerges more clearly.
Firat’s mother called, asking if I would stop by. At first my mother hesitated to tell me, afraid I would do the crazy, and get up and go. When she told me, she grabbed my arm with concern: “Look, son, I’m not telling you so you’ll go over there, but at some point just see what’s going on with the woman, find out what’s the problem.”
I called right away, said hello, and asked, “What happened, Fatma Ana? You called me?”
“No, no,” she said. “It wasn’t anything important, but if you could just come by at some point, son . . .”
“OK, ana,” I said. “You’re saying I should come by, but they don’t let anyone come out your way, they’ll take people down just like that, didn’t you know?”
“Sure, sure, but you can find an open road, can’t you, son?”
“Is Firat OK?”
“He’s not good, not at all, that’s why I’m saying, you know, if you could just come by.”
“I’m not sure anacığım, let me think about it,” and I hung up.
Why doesn’t she call Kadir, I thought. That asshole doesn’t lift a finger for his brother, or his mother or father. But of course his mother knows that he’s worthless, and that’s why she called me.
If it weren’t important she wouldn’t have called, so I’d better go. But how? I couldn’t think of any possible way. I called again.
“OK so tell me, Fatma Ana, why do you want me to come over?”
“Firat’s really losing it, dear, not being able to go outside; his father and I are barely managing to keep him indoors. He keeps saying he’s going to go out; the boy kicks the walls, we lock the doors and have to pull him from the windows."
“Ah, ah,” I said. “If he so much as sticks his head outside they’ll take him down.”
“And nights, oh, at night once the bullets start buzzing by it gets even worse.”
“Call him to the phone, anacığım,” I said, dreading what I might encounter on the other end.
In a weak voice Firat said, “Hello, Kemal, is that you?”
“Yeah, yeah it’s me.” I said. “How are you? It’s been a while since I’ve been able to come out to your neighborhood, I thought I’d call and check in.”
“Come over and take me out, Kemal,” he said. “I can’t stay home anymore. I can’t breathe, my hands, my feet, they have a mind of their own.”
“Sit tight, man, the ban should be lifted in two or three days, then I’ll come and we’ll go out together, to the café and stuff.”
“I can’t sit tight, Kemal, I’m not sure if I’m sitting or standing, it’s like none of me is my own. I talk nonstop or can’t talk at all. My head is ringing.”
Oh, my crazy friend. He was always a bit scattered and odd, but in recent years he’s really gotten much worse, the kid.
“OK,” I said, “But promise not to leave before I get there, I’ll come and take you out.”
“Promise,” he said, and his voice came out like a child. “And promise, too, that you’ll come tonight.”
“OK,” I said.
“Not OK, say ‘promise.’”
“OK, OK. Promise,” I said.
Getting there was going to be trouble, and then once I got there, taking a crazy guy out for air was going to be even more trouble.
I jumped up to leave. My mother met me at the door.
“You’re not going to go over there, right, my Kemal?”
“There—they shoot anyone on the road, son.”
“No, Mom, I’m not going.”
“Don’t be crazy, my boy. Don’t go.”
“OK, Mom. I’m not going, don’t worry, I talked to them and it’s taken care of.”
“What’s that crazy boy’s problem?”
“Nothing, Mom. He misses me. As soon as the curfew’s lifted, I’ll go over and see him, we made a deal.”
At least she didn’t ask me to promise. I quickly put on my shoes and hurtled out the door.
I had to find the kids—if there was an open road, they would know. And if they didn’t, that meant I’d have to break my promise. Oh, Firat, why?
I found them just as I left them. Vedat and Cihan were sitting there stroking their mustaches. When they saw me they started to stand up, and I put my hands on their shoulders and pushed them back down. Who knows how many hours they had been perched there.
“It’s hard, teach,” they said, when I alluded to my problem. “They’ve blockaded all the roads. They’re waiting with heavy machinery.”
“So there’s no way?”
“Maybe at night,” said Cihan.
“But it’s so dangerous, hocam, you have no idea. There’s no soul left in those guys. You know what happened yesterday . . . ”
“I know,” I said and got quiet. We all sat stroking our mustaches for a while. I took the cigarette case that Vedat hid under a newspaper when he saw me and brought it to my nose and sniffed it.
“Smoke,” I said. “Relax.”
Cihan—ever the jokester—said, “What is this, hocam, a bribe? Letting us smoke?”
“If you say so,” I said. “You’ve been smoking since you were up to my knees, anyway, might as well smoke in front of me for once.”
Vedat offered me the cigarette he rolled, and I swatted it away.
“But hocam, if you smoked you’d be like a king.”
“You jackass, aren’t we against monarchy, the sultanate, and all that?”
When Vedat finished his tea, they got up.
“Hocam if you don’t mind, we’ll go and take a look, ask around,” said Cihan. “You just wait. Here’s today’s newspaper—we’ll be back before you get to the sports page.”
“The more these guys write, the more it keeps on going, son,” I said. “It’ll take till evening for me to read all of this.”
“No, no,” he said. “We’ll be back before then.”
I’m not sure how many teas I’d had when they returned with a man around my age. His face was familiar, but we had never met. We weren’t introduced this time either.
“What is it that’s so important, hocam?” he said when he sat down next to me.
“I have a friend,” I said. “Firat . . . he’s a bit of a loose cannon, and he’s gotten much worse shut up inside with the curfew, after a week without going outdoors he’s really losing it.”
“It’s been more than a week,” he said.
“You’re right,” I said. “Of course, you know, just a manner of speaking.”
So that something wouldn’t come of it later on, I told him Firat’s older brother’s name. He knit his brows and shook his head. “Well, his brother should come and take him out. He certainly knows how to show off—director of this, president of that.”
“You’re right about that,” I said. “But you think that asshole gives a shit about his brother? I’ve heard their mom and dad are mad at him and they don’t want to ask any favors.”
“The guy sold out his people,” said Vedat. “And you think he’d think of his family?”
None of us said anything about this. The man I wasn’t introduced to asked where Firat lived. I told him. “That’s good,” he said.
“I’m not sure if it’s good or bad,” I said. “And I told the crazy brother I’d take him outside.”
“I understand,” he said. “That’s the easy part. Let’s just get you there first, the rest is in God’s hands.”
“He just needs to get a bit of fresh air, it won’t take long.”
“Come back once it gets dark, hocam. If there’s a way there, we’ll go together.”
So I was also going to put this man at risk to do the crazy? “You’re coming, too?” I asked, “I don’t want anything to go wrong . . .”
“Hocam, there’s no way you could go alone, I . . . ” he got quiet, downed the rest of his tea, and said, “Anyway, I’m going to bring some people who will be able to get you there.”
“I don’t want to make trouble . . . ”
“If you’re sure, if you’ve decided,” he said, “it’s our job to help you out. We know you, you’re a friend . . . doesn’t matter whose brother it is, he’s our friend, our brother.”
“Thank you,” I said, and felt a pang of fear. There’s no joking with these guys . . . there was a chance we’d die en route for the sake of Firat. Oh, my crazy kirve, if I don’t make it to you tonight, you’ll never look on my face again, and I know it like I know my own name. I’m not sure how much more you can wither, before you wither away. His voice on the phone that morning had been heartrending.
“Come on, Kemal,” he had said. “I beg of you, come, take me outside, they’ve thrown me somewhere and I can’t find myself. Come save me.”
When I went back to the teahouse, Cihan and the man I wasn’t introduced to were waiting for me.
“So you’re decided, hocam,” said Cihan.
“A friend’s request is the most important of commands, haven’t I taught you this?”
“I’m sure you taught us, teacher, but, it’s also likely that we weren’t listening.”
“Oh, you better watch out . . . ”
Our joking around did nothing to cause the man to stir. And why should it? We both knew very well what could happen to me. He was probably wondering whether it was me or Firat who was crazier.
“Ah, so you wore dark colors, good,” said the man. I resisted the urge to say, “Eh, I’ve understood at least that much.” I nodded my head and slightly opened up my hands at my sides.
Cihan stayed behind and we entered the street. A little later a car stopped in front of us and we got in. The man in the front, me in the back. The driver and I nodded a greeting to each other through the rearview mirror, without saying a word. We dove into the side streets—I thought I knew this city like the palm of my hand, but in the dark we wound around so much that I lost my bearings. I couldn’t tell if we were going somewhere or just passing the same streets. Single lights glowed in houses, no one outside. It seemed the curfew was in effect here, too. When we came to a place I didn’t recognize and the car stopped, we got out.
“We’ll wait a bit,” said the man, and looked at his watch. He rolled a cigarette and offered it to me. I didn’t take it, and he smoked it tucked inside of his palm. I wondered what was going through his head. Not a line on his face gave any hint. From afar, two boys seemed to appear. But in the dark I couldn’t be sure if they were there or if they weren’t until they were a few steps in front of us. The kids and the man talked about something on the other side of the car—three, perhaps four sentences. As the man got in the car, he gently raised up his right hand to say good-bye and I responded in kind.
After waiting for a while without saying a word, the shorter of the boys said, “Come on, hocam,” and we started to walk. What we were waiting for, I didn’t understand. I started feeling cold—“from fear,” I said to myself, it’s not as though the temperature had dropped all of a sudden. Beyond the soft sound of our footsteps and my own breathing in and out, all was silence. And just when I started thinking that I could even hear the sweat dripping down my back, first in droplets, and then in a crackling ripping sound, a flood of gunshots broke out. I had thought I was inured to the sound of guns, but I was scared to death. I looked into the face of the taller one with fear. He smiled. “Right on time,” he said. With his smile I realized it was our soldiers making these sounds to distract the police and divert them; I smiled too. Our pace quickened. As we passed into a narrow street between two houses, the door to one of the houses opened, and we fell inside. A man with a skullcap, who I assumed was the owner of the house, showed us toward a wooden staircase. One after another we climbed it and emerged on the roof. “From here on out it’s rooftop to rooftop, hocam,” whispered the boy next to me. As we walked hunched down across the rooftops, I wondered who was doing what below. I thought I would be able to tell from the smells, but other than the smell of fear overflowing inside me, there was nothing. After a while we jumped down and landed in the garden of a dilapidated house, and we waited for a while. “Aren’t roofs dangerous?” I whispered. “Snipers?”
“Not all of them are, but from this point forward, you’re right.”
We jumped over another garden wall, and then another. The story came to my mind of the man who returned home by swimming through all of the pools in his neighborhood. As I was trying to remember the author of the story, we dove inside the darkness of a door that I hadn’t noticed at first, since it was the same color as the walls of the row of houses nestled cheek by jowl. With quick steps, we passed by children crouched in a corner. We entered a few more houses like this—they were either full of people or completely empty, no one there. We jumped through the holes in the walls of some, the back windows of others. Ha, there you go—exercise, I said, And you feel bad because you haven’t done it for years. Tomorrow my whole body will be sore, I thought. Well, let me just live first, I said to myself, and was surprised at the thought. It wasn’t cold-bloodedness, exactly, it was something else—having gotten this far, it was the impossibility of return. The gunshots were closer now. As we passed through one of the gardens we came upon, I tripped on a pan and it rolled around with a clatter. The kid in front of me said, “Don’t worry, hocam. Keep going, but be more careful.” I don’t know if that family’s daily rations for the day ahead were in it or if it was empty; I didn’t turn to look. I had turned bright red from fear, from shame, from excitement. As we climbed that garden’s wall, I realized that my left leg was trembling from top to bottom. My breathing had also quickened—it would have been good to cough, but I didn’t want to. I somehow cleared my throat silently by starting to swallow. When the kids in front stopped, I did too. I took deep breaths. Who knows what my pulse would have registered.
“Have we crossed to safety?” I asked.
“A while ago,” said the short one. A bird chirped. I had recently read in the newspaper that even cats and dogs had deserted this neighborhood; I guess they hadn’t released the birds. While waiting for it to chirp again so I could figure out what kind of bird it was, the boy at my side chirped and I understood: the birds, too, had gone.
The tall one whispered, “It’s the fourth house on the street with the mosque, right?” I nodded. The moment I remembered the street we entered—we’d made it goddammit!—we started to walk with our backs to the walls. And, just as we arrived at Firat’s, the door opened and we dove inside.
“I knew it!” said Firat, and he threw his arms around my neck in joy. I found his mother Fatma’s eyes framed by her white scarf, shining at the edges.
“Did you travel comfortably, my dear?” she said as I kissed her hand.
“Eh, you know. Thanks to friends.” There was another kid waiting at their house too. Apparently we had taken a dozen or so people away from their normal lives for this. I felt both bad about this, and also—I can’t lie—a bit proud. Then, of course, I felt ashamed for feeling proud. Human beings are strange, very strange—they can’t control their feelings, and they can only barely hide them from themselves, along with shame, all jumbled up somewhere inside. This is the best we can do.
Fatma Ana asked if we were hungry, as if she were certain of it.
“We’re not, ana, thank you,” said the short one. “We’ll just take them and be off in a moment.”
“Are you sure?” she said. “You’re going to go out?” She turned to her son, and said, “Look son, Kemal has just arrived, just take a seat and I’ll fix you a nice meal, and you’ll sit here and chat, just let it all out, huh? How’s that?”
“We’re going out, Mom,” said Firat. He had livened up, couldn’t stand still. The last time I visited he hadn’t even had the energy to reach for a glass of water right next to him.
“I guess that’s how it is, ana,” I said. Upon arriving safely, the smell of fear on my skin had diminished. I looked at the boys with gratitude. They had put their lives in danger for two crazies. One of them the brother of a rat, the other a coward like no other.
We filtered out onto the street again.
“Kemal, we’re outside,” said Firat. I put my index finger to my lips to quiet him. Like an obedient child he squeezed his lips shut tight.
“Hocam,” said the tall boy. “The roof of the house just up there is a shelter, chat with your friend there, but don’t make much noise. Oh, and if you hear gunshots, go inside right away, OK? Don’t mess around. We’ll come and get you in a half an hour.”
Outside was outside—what more could we ask for? Firat wasn’t in a position to object, and he was looking at me with a smile he couldn’t suppress. He nodded a few times. Even if we turned back home at that moment, I could tell that even this would have been enough; yet I felt bold enough to stay.
“OK,” I said, without taking the least offense at receiving orders from a kid half my age.
On the roof we sat with our backs against a low wall, crouched down like two birds with broken wings. I thought of an old film—two friends, one of them a little crazy, sit on a roof dressed like pigeons. As I tried to remember the rest of the film, Firat patted my knee, smiling and saying how happy he was that I had come; how nice, how magnificent, it was to be outside. I patted his knee, too. It was the deepest conversation I’ve ever had with my friend of thirty years. I realized I hadn’t looked at the sky once on the way here—there was no telling what might descend from there—but now it was full of stars. One of them skipped and shot across the sky. It wasn’t a flare, I was sure of that; we had memorized a city’s worth of these things. I made a wish just like children do. And to make sure it came true I added a vow—just let it come true, and I won’t go inside for days, we won’t. We’ll wander all of the streets of the city one by one, me and Firat.
"Şehrin Bütün Sokaklarını" © Behçet Çelik. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Abby Comstock-Gay. All rights reserved.
Hellbent on avenging his brother's death, a preteen Turkish nationalist plots to kill his upstairs neighbor.
My brother became a martyr for this country when he was twenty years old. He went and stepped on a landmine in Çukurca so that all of you could stroll down the well-lit, wide city boulevards. I was seven then. On the day of the funeral they put a handsome commando uniform on me, one with a blue beret. They said the terrorists would win if I cried, so I held it in, I didn’t cry once. I stood up straight as the procession passed in front of me carrying my brother, I snapped a soldier salute to the coffin draped in moon and star. At that moment everybody looked at me, some even moved to embrace me and started to cry, as if I were the martyr in the coffin. I got pretty pissed off at this. “Stop crying,” I yelled. When I yelled like that all the cameras turned to me, and that night I was the top story in all the main news reports. The next day, the papers ran “A Soldier’s Salute from a Martyr’s Brother” as their headline. “Boy shouts ‘Stop crying,’ strikes true blow against terrorism!”
All of a sudden I’d become famous. But I didn’t let it go to my head, I handled the fame well despite my young age. Even though I loved my brother deeply, I buried my pain inside me for years, didn’t show it to anyone. Thinking maybe they’d forgotten me, I called up the main news agencies a couple times and told them that even though two-three-five years had passed I still hadn’t cried. One of the men who worked in the news center said, “Good for you, son, keep it up.” I asked for the big names, Uğur Dündar, Ali Kırca, but they didn’t put me through. No one did a story on the dry-eyed stoicism I displayed, the psychological blows I dealt terrorism for five years—they just looked the other way. Corrupt sons of bitches.
Then it happened. One of the terrorists who killed my brother moved in upstairs. You couldn’t tell where his hair ended and his beard began—after all, the animal was used to living in the mountains. Whenever he went up the stairs I would watch from the peephole, press my ear against the door, and listen to his footsteps. At night I would use a wrench to hit the heating pipes that went upstairs to make scary noises. Finally I couldn’t stand it, I went to our family’s shop.
“Let’s kill him, Dad,” I said. “Let’s avenge my brother.”
My father said, “Don’t worry, Allah will give him his.”
“But he won’t. If you aren’t going to kill him, let me do it. Turkish pride and principles demand this.”
“Don’t stick your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Give me your gun, I’ll kill him. I’m twelve years old, I won’t have to do a lot of time, I’ll be out before you know it.”
“And I’ll break your little legs!”
“Remember how at my brother’s funeral you said ‘Take me too, commander, I’ll go fight.’ Remember how you rocked me in your arms and said ‘I have one more son, let me give him for this country as well.’ Now is the time to fight, Dad! Come on! Why do you look so scared? Or are you one of those bogus nationalists who go on a two-day crusade after every martyr’s funeral?”
He couldn’t answer me. I wrote him off completely. I went to my mother. I asked for my father’s gun, she wouldn’t give it to me. I went to the local Hearth, said that I wanted to see the chairman of the province. The boss stood up to greet me, he likes me a lot, in fact every year he replaced the commando uniform he’d first given me with a new one. Right away he ordered a Tang for me. I explained the situation.
“All right, Nurettin,” he said. “Don’t you worry. I’ll tell our boys, they’ll see to it. If it’s like you say, we won’t put up with him here.”
The boss, bless him, had the terrorist beaten up immediately. From the window I saw him entering the apartment, he was having trouble walking, they’d handed his ass to him. He couldn’t leave the house for a week. But it wasn’t enough. It won’t ever be enough, just beating him. I waited two weeks, there were no further operations, the terrorist healed, began to stroll down the streets again. I went to the Hearth again, “Mister Chairman, I want you to carry out the promises you gave me,” I said. “The blood-thirsty baby-killing bastard is still living upstairs from us.”
The boss said, “I hear you, Nurettin, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“The kid’s a student. He’s not up to anything.”
“What, so we’re going to wait until he gets up to something?”
“He can’t. Don’t worry, he can’t do a thing. We scared him good.”
“But why, boss, why?! If the man’s a terrorist let’s put a bullet in his head, give me a gun and I’ll do him in.”
“We laid our weapons to rest, Nurettin. We don’t get our hands dirty any more, things aren’t like they used to be.”
“What the hell are you talking about, boss?” I said. “Just last year you mowed them down because of the bid on the parking lot behind the stadium.”
The boss’s hands shook with anger. He was just about to slap me when he got hold of himself.
“Go, Nurettin, just go,” he said. “Don’t get on my nerves!”
“I’m not going.”
“Nurettin, get out of here!”
“I’m not leaving, boss.”
Two or three men took me by the arm, they roughed me up all the way to the door, saying "How dare you speak to the chairman like that."
“I’m a martyr’s brother, you bastards,” I shouted. “I’m more of a nationalist than all of you put together.”
The boss came out of the room and pulled the men off me.
“Idiots, did I tell you to hit him?” he asked.
“But boss,” they whined, but the boss didn’t listen, just slapped them all. But he still had anger to vent, he aimed a kick at one of them, threw his prayer beads at another one’s head. Like I said, the boss likes me a lot. But because of the political circumstances there was nothing he could do.
It had come down to me. I put the terrorist under surveillance, I would try to render him inoperative using my own capabilities. I would strike him in his lair. I searched for the gun we had at home, but my mother had hidden it well, maybe even destroyed it, perhaps because she’d seen how determined I was. I turned every cupboard inside out but I still couldn’t find it. As a result, though, I did find my mother’s savings, her gold bracelets. Right away I sold them for cash at the jeweler’s. I went to the store that sold hunting goods, I was going to buy a shotgun. The man wouldn’t sell it. He listed off a ton of things: I had to get permission, I had to fill out the form, I had to be over eighteen, on and on, the blood was pounding in my brain, the man and I were at each other’s throats, he threw me out of his store. Fine then, I figured I’d at least get back the bracelets. The bastard jeweler wouldn’t give me back what he paid for them, he cheated me out of a bracelet. That evening as I headed back home, still furious, I picked up a decent-sized rock from the ground and threw it at the terrorist’s window—bull’s-eye, the glass came down in a crash. I stationed myself at the garden wall of the opposite apartment. The terrorist came to the window, looked around, then went back in.
This window-breaking incident kept me calm for two or three days, but after that I started getting really pissed off. These men martyred my brother and all I can do is break some windows. There was an outrageous injustice in this. I was ashamed to look at my brother’s picture on the wall. I was ashamed to reread the letters he had written while in the army, letters I’d read hundreds of times afterward. I had to come up with a different plan.
I decided to stab him. I sharpened my commando knife. But wouldn’t it be dangerous, this knifing business, what if he pulls out a gun? Let him try, what’s the worst that could happen? It’s suicide to pull a gun on a Turk. I took my knife and headed out, then turned back at his front door. I banged my fists against my head, what was I even doing? I had to be somewhat logical, I couldn’t let him shoot me down like a partridge, two martyrs from the same family, they would be dancing with joy then. I came up with a strategic plan. I would make it look like a neighborly visit and go into his home, then catch him off guard, hit him over the head with a blunt object and knock him out, then while he was out I would jump on top of him and cut his throat. I put my knife in my back pocket and headed out. Just as I was about to knock at the door, I went back home again, took some cake from the kitchen and put it on a plate. Then I headed up and knocked at the door. A weight had settled in my stomach, my heart was thudding and thumping. I couldn’t stand the excitement, I ran away. Battle psychology, you know. By the time the door opened I was already one floor down.
“Who’s there?” asked a girl’s voice.
Where’d this girl come from?
“It’s me,” I said.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the downstairs neighbor’s son. My mom made a cake, I thought I’d bring it up.”
I climbed the stairs. She took the plate. “Thank you, it’s very thoughtful of you,” she said. She was the most beautiful girl I’d seen in my life, her breasts had filled out, she was drop-dead gorgeous.
“Come in if you want,” she said. “We’re watching a movie.”
Since she’d said "we," she was in league with the terrorist. What a shame, she was the greenest-eyed girl I’d seen in my life, but the color of her eyes was instantly gone from my mind. What movie were they watching, I wondered? What else would it be, it’s an intra-organizational instructional film. They were going to trick me into joining them. Why else would they invite me in?
“Well?” she said.
“Come in, if you’re going to, or else I’ll just close the door. We’re not going to stand here like this all night, are we?”
I went in.
The terrorist called out “Who’s there?” from inside.
“The son of the downstairs neighbor, hon!”
The terrorist extended his hand and said “Hello," gave me a leer. “I’m Semih.”
It’s a code name, hon, no one will buy it. I’ve been combating terrorism since I was seven years old, I’ve seen so many things in my time. I shook his hand, “I’m Nurettin,” I said. I didn’t let go of the hand in my grasp, looking straight into his eyes. “My real name, of course.”
He laughed. He was trying to seem charming.
“We’re at the best part of the movie. Let’s finish this and then we’ll chat,” he said. He sat down in his place and unpaused the film. I glanced at the movie, romantic French cinema, not even close to organizational material, they’d probably changed it when I came in.
The beautiful girl asked, “What do you want to drink?”
I looked around, they were drinking beer.
“Beer,” I said. “Don’t look at me like that, I’ve drunk plenty before.” The girl went into the kitchen. The terrorist code-named Semih was a laid-back guy, he didn’t even look at me when I said beer, like he was going to brainwash me so easily. He hadn’t even fixed the windowpane.
It was a lie, of course, the bit about me drinking beer before, but I’d decided to do as they did to avoid suspicion. Fifteen minutes later the film ended. By now the girl had pretty much wrapped herself around Semih, they were enjoying themselves. Terrorism is a very comfortable line of work: a beer in one hand, a lady in the other, a movie in the VCR, the bastard was having a ball. When the film finished, the terrorist ate the cake. He still wasn’t full, he ordered pita for all of us from the kebab restaurant. The organization was giving him the money, of course, that’s why he was so generous. While our commandos are eating snakes in the mountains, these guys have pita and kebab every day, they’re living the high life. I was waiting for the girl to leave so I could carry out my plan, but she just wasn’t going. They called somewhere, asked someone to sign in for her. I couldn’t understand what the signature was for. I couldn’t dwell on it either, I decided to kill them both immediately. After all, the girl had said "we." Still, at the last minute I would probably get all sentimental and not be able to kill her. First of all she really was incredibly beautiful, looking around like a wounded wolf, just like the blue she-wolf Börteçine who watched over the ancient Turks. If eyes are the window to the soul, my job was a very difficult one indeed. Second, I wasn’t entirely sure she was a terrorist, there was a chance she was an innocent citizen. I asked about their political views.
They laughed. They didn’t have the guts to say they were terrorists. They asked me the same question. I didn’t laugh, I gave them an icy glare: “I am a Turkish Nationalist,” I said. “I have nothing to hide. Take pride if you’re a Turk, take orders if you aren’t!” The time had come for them to feel my breath on their necks. I could’ve taken on both of them, too. But I’d gotten too lightheaded from the damn beer. Maybe this wasn’t the right time after all.
“Well, I should get going,” I said.
Semih said, “Come over again sometime, Nurettin.”
“Oh, I’ll come,” I said. “Without warning, in the middle of the night.”
They laughed again.
I started going upstairs every day. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get up the courage to do it. Our Semih had tons of friends. They would sit around all day. Their conversations were good. Of course, because I was with them, they couldn’t talk about the operations they would carry out. Sometimes a couple of them would withdraw to the kitchen and speak in whispers. Right away I’d go join them and they’d hush up. Two of them were total terrorists, certified Kurds. What’s more, they were proud of this. A person should at least try to hide it, I know if I were a Kurd I wouldn’t tell anyone, I’d try to sort out that problem by myself. But these guys didn’t have an ounce of shame, they would speak Kurdish and plot separatism at such a decibel that everyone in the house could hear them. I kept up a respectful attitude in spite of these provocations, I repeated my line many times: “Come! Let us be one flag, one nation, one heart.” They didn’t listen. At last I couldn’t stand it, I hauled those two in front of me, “Who do you think you are, claiming you’re a different nation when even the American Indians have accepted being Turkish these days, it’s uncalled for,” I said. They laughed. “You can’t destroy the foundation of the one great state,” I shouted. “If it’s failing, then go carve it up! Not such an easy job, is it!”
“This kid’s a total fascist,” said one of the Kurds. “Lil Fasho,” said another. From that day onward the name stuck. Lil Fasho wherever I went. They’d given me a code name just like the ones they gave themselves.
It was yet another day of Kurds planning separatism in their mother tongue. I was completely fed up with it. After they left, I started searching inside the house for a blunt object. This time I was going to kill Semih for sure, his old girlfriend wasn’t there either, we’d been left alone, the opportunity I’d awaited for months had fallen at my feet. I found an iron in the back room. Semih was busy reading photocopied notes for some ridiculous class called Financial Statement Analysis, it was midterm week apparently. I approached silently from behind, I would bring it down over his head with a thud, show him the one true statement, the glorious Turk’s analysis. I was about to strike when he turned around. The jackal! It was like he had eyes in the back of his head. Of course he’d had some guerilla training, he wasn’t a sitting duck.
“What are you doing with that iron?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said, and put the iron down. Suddenly, “Tell me the truth,” I said. “Are you a terrorist?”
He laughed again.
“Stop laughing, answer like a man for once, grow a pair for two minutes and show your true colors. If you’re a terrorist, brother, then say you’re a terrorist.”
“But you have Kurdish friends.”
“Yeah, I do, what of it?”
“Bastard,” I said.
He rose to his feet, “What the hell are you trying to say?”
I cornered him.
“My brother died because of you,” I said. “You all killed him!”
“I didn’t kill anyone.”
“My brother was your age when he died. There was one month left until his discharge. They didn’t even show us his corpse, he’d been blown to bits.”
“I didn’t know, Nurettin. I’m so sorry.”
We were silent for ten minutes.
“Whose side are you on?” I said.
“I’m on the side of peace.”
My blood was boiling, rushing down from my brain. “Fuck whatever peace that is, man,” I yelled. “Like I’m going to make peace with my brother’s killers! I’d rather blow my brains out!”
“But there’s no end to this war.”
“That’s fine! What’s it to you? You couldn’t be happier. People are off fighting in the mountains while you just sit here! Lazy son of a bitch! You didn’t even study for class until it got to midterm week. You have a girlfriend, you cuddle and lie around, you make out forty times a day, you even have her answer the door. At night she sneaks out of the dorm and stays with you, her friends sign in for her. I called the head of the dorm and complained already.”
He took hold of me by the collar.
“That was you, the one who reported her? You little bastard! Screw you!”
I grabbed the handle of the mop.
“I’m gonna kill you, punk!” I screamed. “I’ll haul you in as a corpse!”
He pulled the handle out of my hand and landed a punch on my jaw. I hadn’t brought the knife with me that day, I cursed, got up and left. I stormed downstairs to the house, shaking with rage. I said to my mother, “Quick, give me the gun.” She wouldn’t. I flung a glass over her head, it shattered on the wall. She covered her mouth with the corner of her headscarf and started to cry. I let her have it.
“You were the one who told me! Some suspicious man moved in upstairs, he’s definitely a terrorist, you said.”
“How should I know, honey, that’s what I thought when I saw him all hairy and bearded. And the neighbors had told me already. What do I know, he’s just a student.”
“Student schmudent, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to take him out. Quick, give me the gun.”
“I’m not giving it to you.”
“What kind of martyr’s mother are you! You went and fainted at my brother’s funeral, the terrorists had a field day because of you. Shame on you!”
I wrote my mother off as well. I went and sat by the sea until dawn, watching the waves. I sang that song that goes, "The Black Sea would have trembled when it saw the Turkish flag." Even though the sea was the Marmara, it could still evoke grand emotions. My eyes filled up, I was nearly about to cry for the first time in five years. I took a quick look around, no one was there. But I bit my fist, I held myself back. Allah forbid the terrorists take my picture with their satellite cameras, then immediately start a propaganda campaign: "So this was the boy who never cried, you said?" You’re the best of them all Nurettin, I said, don’t cry son, hang in there.
After quarreling with Semih, my life lost its meaning. The days started to stretch out like chewing gum. No murder plans, no shouting matches, no cold war atmosphere. Loneliness is a terrible thing, I almost even missed the Kurds. I couldn’t stand it, I went and rang his door. I looked at him blank-faced. He embraced me.
“I missed you, smartass,” he said. “Come in, Lil Fasho.”
So that’s how we made up, I couldn’t say anything, I just went inside, the bastard had the luck of the devil. He’d roped me in with beer, with European cinema, with his wide circle of friends, with his foxy girlfriend. What kind of country was this, I only had one friend to talk to and he was one of the damn terrorists.
One day I was making pasta in the kitchen. The entire world was in the house. An unusual seriousness had descended upon the group. There was a two-hour debate, “Should we do it or shouldn’t we?”
“What could we do in this tiny place?” Semih said. “No one would come.”
“We’ll do it,” I called out from within as I stirred the pasta. “Don’t worry.”
The Kurds said to Semih, “That little Fasho is more of a man than you are.” Semih got pissed off, “All right, man, let’s do it,” he said. “But don’t say I didn’t tell you so.”
I’d blurted out that we’ll do it but I didn’t know what it was. I went into the living room and asked, “What are we doing?”
“What’s November 6?”
They laughed again. I’d gotten used to them laughing at me by now, I laughed too. On the 6th of November I went over to Semih’s.
“What are we doing, Semih?” I said.
“Protest. You stay at home.”
“No, I’m coming too.”
“A terrorist protest.”
“What do you take me for, a child? They’re students. There’s a difference between the two.”
“You weren’t saying that in the beginning.”
“You’re a nationalist, aren’t you?”
"Don’t doubt it,” I said. “I’m a full-blooded Turk and a nationalist of our glorious nation.”
“Don’t come, then.”
"Your Turkish pride and principles demand this, Nurettin.”
“I’m going to come.”
“I’m coming, brother, Allah Allah. At the end of the day, it’s my circle of friends too, I know your whole crew. Besides, you guys just love using children on the front lines.”
We went. The first protest in our city against the Council of Higher Education. It took place with the participation of twenty-six students, two Kurds, one Turkish nationalist, sixty riot police, twenty private security guards, and backup forces of shopkeepers ready to step in at any moment. When the police encircled the group and started to fire their canisters of tear gas, everyone’s eyes filled with tears.
I went to the front. “You don’t need to fire tear gas at us,” I said. “My friends are already sufficiently emotional.”
One of the policemen raised his club. At me, no less! I flew into a deadly rage, yelling, “I’ll take that club and shove it where the sun don’t shine, just watch me. I’m the brother of a martyr! Who the hell are you, raising a club at me!” The policeman was taken aback for a moment, he stopped dead in his tracks with the club. Two or three more policemen came from behind, started beating me without giving me the chance to speak. Not one of them would let me explain myself. Semih grabbed me by the arm and covered me with his body, he was the one who took most of the blows. After the beating I complained to my uncle’s son about the guys who had worked us over. My uncle’s son, a Riot Police Squad official, looked at me as if trying to recognize me, and when he did, asked, “What are you doing here, Nurettin?”
“Nothing. I came to look after my friends. I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell my father.”
They rounded up all the students, left me behind.
My father slapped me twice as soon as he walked in the door that evening. This was the first time he had raised his hand against me in five years, apparently my uncle’s son had told him what happened. My father looked at my brother’s picture on the wall and started to cry, “I won’t give you my blessing if you go upstairs again after this,” he said. “If you won’t think of us, think of him.”
Once again I was all alone. For fifteen days I was able to stand it, then while my father was at the shop I went back upstairs. Semih was packing up his things, there were boxes everywhere. “What’s going on?” I said. They’d suspended him from school for six months. He was going back to his hometown so he wouldn’t have to pay rent for nothing. He would come again next year.
“Why are these things lying around, you aren’t going to take them?”
“I can’t take them with me. I’m going to give this stuff away to friends. You should have a look, too, take what you like. I can leave you the films if you want.”
“Nah,” I said. “I’ve seen them all already.” I saw the iron in one of the boxes. “Why don’t you give me that iron,” I said.
I picked up the iron. I approached him from behind. He turned.
“What are you going to do with that iron?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
My eyes had filled with tears, I couldn’t hold myself back any more.
"Call when you get back,” I said. “We know some real estate agents, we’ll help you out every way we can.”
He looked at me for a long, long time. He took me by the shoulders and gave me a shake.
“What’s up, Nurettin? You didn’t used to be the emotional type.”
“I wasn’t, but this just really upsets me. I’m going to be so bored when you go. I’ll be left all by myself again like a lone wolf. The days will spit in my face.”
I just couldn’t seem to control myself. He hugged me tightly. “Cry then,” he said. “You’ll feel better.”
“Yeah, but if I cry, Semih,” I said, “won’t that just please the people who did this to you?”
“To hell with them, brother,” he said. “Who gives a damn . . . ”
© 2009 Emrah Serbes. Translation © 2017 by Abigail Bowman. All rights reserved.
Bring joy and good tidings to the people, do not repulse them,
Pave the way and do not make the road unduly arduous.
—The Prophet Muhammad
My grandmother held a place in my heart that was all her own. We had a special, secret language. My memory of her is fragmented and it is only now, as the pieces shift into place, that I see they form a whole. They come swarming into my brain, flitting through me. She was my Kadriye Nene, my raven. Of course, by the time I came to know her, my Nene’s hair had been gray for many years, but in the photos taken with my grandfather, her hair and her eyes gleamed, black as the bird itself.
I never knew my grandfather, Tahsin. He died two years before I was born, at an age that few would consider old. It was a heart attack. His sudden passing destroyed Kadriye Nene. She could no longer bear to live in that house where the memories pressed in on her. She moved in with us and helped raise me.
Even many years later, whenever conversation at family gatherings turned to the topic of my grandfather, her eyes would fill with tears. I sensed in her words a gratitude greater than her love for him. “My dear Tahsin never had a bad word to say about me,” she would say. “I hope he rests in peace.”
At this point, my uncle would interrupt, “No one has a bad word to say about you, Ana, do they?”
“Alhamdullilah,” would be her flustered reply, “No, thank God.”
She was a pious, prayerful woman. She prayed for her loved ones with sincerity and true reverence for God. On our street, everyone knew that Kadriye Nene’s prayers were always answered. Friends and family would come to ask her to pray for their wishes to come true. She spent the nights of Kandil and Kadir in prayer. She couldn’t bear to see loved ones separated. Catching wind of such partings, she would offer up a prayer to Allah, “Let them be safely reunited.”
Her voice was clear as crystal. In the evenings, we would switch off the television and ask her to sing for us. Kadriye Nene would sing beautiful ballads and folksongs. She did not refuse our requests but I never heard a single note from Erzurum or the East escape her lips. One evening, I wanted to insist, but my mother silenced me with a wave of her hand. “You know that I would do anything for you, my boy,” said my Nene after a painful pause. “Please don’t ask me to sing those songs,” she said. “Erzurum is a wound I carry inside me.” I couldn’t bring myself to ask why.
My grandmother and grandfather came from Erzurum. She was an orphan. My grandfather’s uncle had taken her in, a little girl with nothing and no one. Nene married my grandfather and came to Istanbul aged seventeen. She never spoke of her mother and father. She thought of her adopted parents as her family and spoke of them often. I decided to talk to my mother about it. “Have you never wondered about your grandparents? Don’t you want to know?” “No, it would only upset her,” she replied, eyes fixed on the washing-up. “She never knew her real parents. What else is there to ask?” My mother ran a clean jar under the water a second time.
When I was little, one of my great pleasures was to settle myself in a corner of the living room on the days when my grandmother would host her friends for tea. If I could be quiet and patient, and slip past the hordes of teyzes who descended on me crying “Ah, my little Pasha! Haven’t you grown?” I could eat as many kurabiye as I liked. They were such happy days. Curled up in the corner listening to the neighbors’ chatter, I would soon drift off to sleep. But one day, I couldn’t swallow a single bite. The usual chitchat and shrill laughter had given way to tense, suffocating silence. There was no question of falling asleep now. I stared at them in confusion.
One moment, everything was just as it should have been. There was laughter all around and plenty of biscuits. One of the women went to reach for her bag. It was far away, so she gestured to the woman next to her. The woman grabbed hold of the bag, hoisted it up, struggling a little, and passed it to its owner, saying “What on earth have you got in here? It’s heavier than a Christian’s corpse!”
The sound left the room all at once with a precision that seemed finely tuned. It was out of this paralyzing silence that the knife came flying, bright blade gleaming, and plunged into my Nene’s heart. I saw the knife, I heard the hiss as it slit the air. My grandmother leaped up and pressed her hands to her chest. I was quite sure that if she showed me her palms, they would be thick with blood. And yet, when her arms at last fell to her sides, there was no blood to be seen. “If you’ll excuse me . . . ” she said in a single sharp breath. Turning her back on the women’s glances, she withdrew into her room. “Let me get you some more tea,” said my mother and headed for the kitchen with the tea glasses rattling in their tray.
“Shame on you, Selma!” chided the eldest of the women, Hüsniye. “That was so stupid of you! How could you say such a thing in front of Kadriye?” Selma turned bright red. “I didn’t mean to, Hüsniye! It’s a saying, it just slipped out!” Hüsniye was about to continue when she realized that I was still in the room, gazing at them with wide eyes. She stopped. The women resumed their chatter all at once like soldiers receiving a secret command.
On the evening of that day, I saw Kadriye Nene with her head on my mother’s shoulder, crying. Their words had caused her to shrink into herself and now this mighty woman was crying on her daughter’s shoulder like a little child. Listening through a crack in the door, I heard my mother speak. “Your heart is so tender, Ana. Don’t torture yourself for the sake of one woman’s ignorance. Remember when I was little and my friends and I were playing outside making noise, remember how angry you got when one of the neighbors called me a convert’s child? Remember what you said? 'Wait till I come over there, I’ll turn you inside out!' That woman was so frightened she jumped right back from the window! You taught me how to be strong that day, Ana.” A wicked smile spread over my Nene’s face. I tiptoed off to my bedroom to the sound of them giggling together. Before I fell asleep, I imagined myself searching the dictionary, wiping away every word that hurt my Kadriye Nene. I didn’t know what the words meant, or why they so upset my Nene. None of that mattered. If they hurt her then they had to be destroyed. I pointed my water pistol at the pages. The water squirted out and the ink ran, leaving spotless, clean pages. Clean, white pages.
Despite the dreams of my childhood world, the things that upset my Nene went far beyond the confines of a dictionary. On one occasion when I was six or seven, we had gone out to the shops. She held my hand tightly as usual. Plastic bags rustled in our free hands. Nene had proved herself to be my most faithful listener and I was busy telling her all about one of my neverending adventures. At that moment, a deep boom sounded nearby. My grandmother froze. The plastic bag in her hand had fallen onto the ground but she gazed past it emptily, her eyes fixed elsewhere. I pulled away and picked the bag up off the ground, but she didn’t notice. I took her hand again—it was icy cold. Trying to understand what was wrong, I trained my eyes on the building that held her gaze. I couldn’t work out what it was. It wasn’t a house. It wasn’t a shop either. But Kadriye Nene was bewitched, she had forgotten all about me. She stared blankly as if it wasn’t a lifeless old building at all, but a group of friends she hadn’t seen for years. “Where are we, Anneanne?” I asked. When she heard my voice, she surfaced, as if from a dream, and looked at me and the bags in my hand. “Give them to me, my boy.” Taking the bags, she pulled me to her side and carried on. The world was as it had been. But I was still agitated. “What is this place, Anneanne?” I asked again. “It’s an Armenian church,” said Kadriye Nene quietly. “You know how we worship at the mosque? Well, they worship in churches.”
In another scene that is never far from my mind’s eye, I am a teenager studying at the lycée, huffing and puffing over a project on the revolution. My grandmother had helped me with my studies since primary school and would appear at my door, a glass of orange juice in her hand. “What are you working on, Hakan?” I looked at the title of the chapter: “The Armenian Question and the War with the Armenians.” Something told me I shouldn’t tell her. “It’s just history, Anneanne, it’s so boring!” I replied. It was at that moment that my meddling little sister decided to pipe up, “I can read it to you, Anneanne!” She snatched the book from me and began to read eagerly:
“As the Russians advanced in Eastern Anatolia in the early years of the First World War, the Armenians were presented with the opportunity for rebellion. Having made preparations before the war began, the Armenian gangs joined sides with the Russians. The first insurrection occurred in Zeytun (Süleymanlı) on 17 August 1914. The Armenian soldiers in Maraş took up their weapons and joined them, and began attacking Turkish villages, murdering their inhabitants. In April 1915, the rebelling Armenians in Van slaughtered the area’s Turkish population. In response to this, the Ottoman government made the decision that the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia would be made to migrate to Syria, which was not at threat of war at that time (The Law of Tehcir, 14 May 1915). The Armenians’ objective was to claim Kilikya (Çukurova), Maraş, Erzurum, Bitlis, Van, Harput and Diyarbakır and form a state of their own. The Armenians have not abandoned this aim to this day. In their drive to realize this, they continue to support acts of terrorism which threaten the unity of our country.”
While my sister read, I sat with my head on my chest. I couldn’t bring myself to meet my Nene’s gaze, no doubt filled with tears. My little sister had been so stupid. But moments later, I was startled to hear Elvan ask, “Why are you laughing, Anneanne?” She was right; a smile had spread across my Nene’s face. It wasn’t a happy smile. It made me think of the Mona Lisa, a smile of resignation in the face of suffering. “Is that what they’ve been writing?” she asked. She gazed past us, speaking to another, invisible, presence. “We had many Armenian neighbors in Erzurum. They were good, hard-working people. I never saw any hint of ‘terror’ in them then and I don’t see it in the Armenians we know now. Is that really what they’ve been writing?” She got up and went to her room, distracted.
Years later, when the days came when the television and the newspapers screamed with reports of “Armenian terror organizations,” my grandmother could no longer understand them. The doctors didn’t see any need to intervene. Still at home, Nene quietly set off on her long journey, free of suffering. In her final days, she often talked in her sleep, but I couldn’t understand a word she said. At first, I thought that there was no meaning in her murmuring, that she was confused, her tongue now struggling to form sounds, but when I listened a little more carefully, I noticed foreign words, a language which flowed like water and sounded like a song. There are some questions that are ready to be asked and some answers that are ready to be heard. That evening, I was ready. “Is Kadriye Nene speaking Armenian?” I asked my mother. She wasn’t surprised, nor did she hesitate in answering: “Yes.” “Did she ever tell you her story?” I asked. My mother stroked Nene’s hand lovingly, knowing she would soon be gone. “Only once. She spoke as if it hadn’t happened to her, as if she had only witnessed it. She told me about her relatives, orchards, crops, home-baked bread, how she would roll her mattress out freshly every night. Then the blood, all the blood, and the screaming, taking refuge with neighbors and leaving forever, knowing she would never go back.”
“What’s Kadriye Nene’s Armenian name, Anne?” I asked. A smile lit up my mother’s sweet face, her eyes filled with light. Quietly and carefully, she spoke it, like a secret password, saying clearly, “Garine. She is your Garine Yaya.” “Garine,” I repeated, looking at Nene; her body was with us but her soul was already far away. My mother spoke again: “In Armenian, Garine means Erzurum."
Two days later, Kadriye Nene died. After the midday namaz, she was taken from Şişli mosque to the family plot at Zincirlikuyu and buried next to her beloved husband. After the funeral, I went to the Armenian church where she had stood all those years ago, too afraid to go inside. I lit a large candle for my Garine Yaya, for her mother and father, her siblings and all the loved ones she lost, and I prayed for a long time. As I was making to leave, an old Armenian woman came into the church with a friend, speaking that same language that flowed like water. And her eyes. Her eyes were just like my Nene’s eyes. I smiled and greeted her with a nod. She acknowledged me politely and her beautiful smile brought out all her wrinkles.
Garine Yaya had seen me, her spirit had caressed me. I took a deep breath.
From Can Kırıkları. © 2002 by Karin Karakaşlı. Published 2002 by Doğan Kitap. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2017 by Ayça Türkoğlu. All rights reserved.