The Emissary, a slim and bitingly smart dystopia from Japanese writer Yoko Tawada, takes its readers in a distressing incursion into the future, but begins by pointing back to a book published more than half a century ago: Kenzaburō Ōe’s A Personal Matter. Ōe’s story of a young man abandoning his severely disabled newborn child is a classic of modern Japanese literature and helped earn Ōe the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994. In Tawada’s novel, the unfortunate infant of Ōe’s story has grown up into a happy, albeit highly diseased child named Mumei, who is the picture of innocence and bearer of his father’s sins. He has a large head on a tiny neck, like a baby bird, and his legs turn inward below the knees. He can digest only a few foods and frequently falls into faints and dissociative trances. When overexcited, he will throw his hands up in the air and shout, “Paradise!”
Mumei lives with his great-grandfather, Yoshiro, who is condemned to grow stronger day by day while his great-grandson grows weaker. Yoshiro takes care of Mumei, wheeling him around in a cart like a spaceship with padded sides, feeding him delicate mush, and telling him stories about the old Japan, when people still wrote out all the characters, and read the news, and planned trips abroad, and so on. Alternating between these two halves of the pair throughout the book, Tawada builds a play of contrasts between their perspectives, bringing out generational and stylistic differences in their voices.
The Emissary takes place in a Japan that has once again closed its borders to the outside world. No specific disaster or timeline is mentioned, but a nuclear fallout seems likely. The outskirts of Japan—Hokkaido, Kyuushuu, and Osaka—have become the most desirable places to live, while Tokyo is increasingly abandoned due to its radioactive soil and unattractive architecture.
As is often the case with dystopias, Tawada’s grim rendering of the future reads as a satire of current tendencies of the society it depicts. For example, nearly all the important positions in Tawada’s Japan are staffed by the elderly, who become all the more spry and capable as they age past ninety, and then 100, and then 110, reflecting the trend in contemporary Japan to an older and older working population. (According to a recent estimate by the Japanese government, people over the age of sixty-five will account for sixty percent of Japan’s population by 2060.) A town in Okinawa prohibits people younger than fifty-five from moving there in order to prevent population growth, so young men and women dye their hair and wrinkle their skin in an effort to look older, only to betray their youth by failing to identify trends we would associate with the youth of modern Japan—knowing English, for example, or understanding technology. A certain amount of political doublespeak is also mocked, with “Labor Day”, for instance, becoming “Being Alive is Enough Day.”
But there is a darker side still to Tawada’s fictional portrait of Japan. Unfortunately, the idea that Japan may once again close its borders is no less reflective of contemporary attitudes than the idea of an octogenarian working class. Although Tawada finished the novel in 2014, before surges of populism were to spread through the United States, France, Britain, and elsewhere, by that time Japan was already experiencing its own quiet form of renewed nationalism in the policies of Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. While not exactly isolationist, many items on Abe’s agenda emphasize a more patriotic view of Japan’s role in World War II. When coupled with heightened militarization, as well as a more aggressive approach to disputes in the East China Sea, these had the effect of producing strong objections in favor of a return to pre-war policies of noninvolvement. As Yoshiro explains to Mumei in the novel: “Every country has serious problems, so to keep those problems from spreading all around the world, they decided that each country should solve its own problems by itself.”
Contrasted against the indicting societal critique in The Emissary is the warm relationship between Yoshiro and Mumei, as well as the elegant and often poetic language used to describe Japan’s future. Like the fish-creatures of Vonnegut’s Galápagos, the citizens of Tawada’s Japan are described obliquely, their faintly suggested features blooming wildly in the reader’s mind. Children with “eyes like grapes moist with dew” sit eagerly on a classroom floor, waiting for words from their teacher about the outside world. Yoshiro sees Mumei’s teeth “drop out one after another like pomegranate pulp, leaving his mouth smeared with blood.” Of everything, the character that prompts the most speculation is Mumei: given only hints about his physical appearance, we construct a vision of him according to whatever fragments we may have in our mind of nuclear fallout, apocalyptic disfigurement, or human disabilities. (While the Japanese edition features a lovely watercolor of a birdlike creature on its cover, the New Directions design is slightly more abstract: a child teetering on the edge of a fruit.)
The emphasis on language in this work is not a coincidence. As an expatriate writer living in Berlin, Tawada writes in both German and Japanese, often in ways that reflect a deep awareness of the differing constraints of each language and alphabet. The Japanese title of The Emissary refers to the traditional name used for Japanese emissaries to China, and accordingly the idea that young Mumei may someday become an emissary to the world outside Japan. (If you are a highly optimistic reader, then this is exactly what happens to Mumei; otherwise you may find yourself reflecting on more abstract applications of the term.) However, Tawada uses different characters to spell this word kentoushi, adding the additional meaning of “bearer of light” in a subtle change that mirrors the shared linguistic history between China and Japan.
Characteristics of the Japanese language are toyed with throughout The Emissary, something translator Margaret Mitsutani does an admirable job of uncovering to an English audience. This is important, as many of Tawada’s tricks go deeper than mere linguistic play. For instance, when the young people of Tawada’s Japan, now wholly ignorant of the English language, interpret labels that say “made in Japan” phonetically, transforming “made” into the Japanese word “ma-de” or “to/until,” they are reflecting the much larger theme that all things in a country with closed borders must direct back into that country—even remnants of foreign words left behind.
Japan’s literature has changed quite a bit since A Personal Matter was published in 1964. A postwar era characterized by the themes of intense alienation and psychological strangeness in writers like Mishima, Kawabata, and Ōe has become increasingly identified with the light surrealism of Haruki Murakami, as well as numerous popular manga in translation. Tawada is a superb writer, to be sure, and with more interesting vision than Murakami, but it is clear that The Emissary describes a future with a similarly light tone. While the young father of A Personal Matter agonizes over his decision to keep his child alive, scraping at the heels of a once-strong Japanese moral sensibility to find anything that may have endured, the love between Yoshiro and Mumei is almost taken for granted. Mumei’s classmates are ecstatic, joyfully wriggling over one another’s disfigured bodies, and their happiness is wise, as if they know something that Yoshiro and the reader cannot. And yet to take heart in this seems strange; perhaps it is something that cannot be translated or carried away.
“If only he could put into words what he feels it would be almost like thinking clearly, but he cannot think clearly.”
This is the distress signal sent up at a crucial juncture by the protagonist of “Marathon,” the third of the four novellas in Andrés Barba’s The Right Intention, a collection originally published in the author’s native Spain as La recta intención in 2002. With its intimations of an inability to communicate, paranoia, and worse (note that “almost”), it’s a moment of realization that could define any of the main characters in these stories—all of them well-off urbanites who succumb to a single, overwhelming obsession. The destructive consequences of those obsessions, traced with an almost clinical precision, are the substance of Barba’s absorbing, unnerving stories.
In “Nocturne,” a single, comfortably settled gay man in late middle age finds his life of routine upended by an infatuation with a much younger man he meets through a personal ad. The lover has no illusions about the life of quiet desperation he’s been leading, the disappointment he’s kept at bay: “It seemed impossible to him that he had held on this way for so many years.” The same objectivity manifests itself later, once the affair reaches the abrupt end he has done so much to bring about, when he declares to the younger man, all too plausibly, “now it’s going to take me five years to get over you.”
Barba raises the stakes, and heightens the emotional pitch, with “Debilitation,” an account of a teenage girl’s descent into anorexia. Her dysfunction starts with an unwelcome poolside kiss—“Luis’s ridiculous, almost unpleasant tongue like a soggy worm wriggling against hers”—and proceeds into a gruesome body horror of cutting and self-starvation before she winds up in an expensive private clinic. Inside, her steely will has to contend with not only a strict, eat-your-peas kind of authority but a witchy fellow patient and an unlikely love interest. Closure, recovery are still somewhere over the horizon when “Debilitation” reaches its close, but at its moving climax her pain unspools in a three-page sentence that is a tour de force for the translator, Lisa Dillman, as well as the author. (Here as in the other stories, Dillman’s skillfull rendering of Barba’s free indirect style, along with a number of casually deployed colloquialisms —“frumpier,” “meds,” terse teen-speak like “Are you into me?” and “It’s pretty messed up”— results in a text that stands on its own in English as a stylistic feat.)
From this ordeal it is a relative step down in intensity to “Marathon,” which might be described as a study in the obnoxiousness of the long-distance runner. Training for an upcoming road race with increasing single-mindedness, Barba’s marathon man is willing to jeopardize both his marriage and a nascent friendship with a fellow runner, conceivably the one person in his life who might be able to understand his fixation. As maddening as the athlete’s behavior is, Barba makes sure we tunnel into his perspective: “If anyone had asked if he was happy he wouldn’t have known how to respond. Perhaps by saying that he felt empty, and that emptiness was, if not happiness, then the closest thing to a state of calm he’d ever known, a calm that didn’t need to be spoken or shared.”
In the final story, “Descent,” a grown, married woman with children has to contend with a sudden injury to, and the subsequent decline of, her elderly mother. The ordeal is made even more trying by the fact that the dying woman is a horror, a tyrant whose neediness and emotional manipulations have turned her three grown children into basket cases. You might think this means the most extreme story has been saved for last, but there’s a subtle change-up in Barba’s approach here, a pulling-back from his previously tight focus, that makes “Descent” the most human and accessible of the four novellas. The material has room to breathe; not just because this family’s backstory is effectively sketched in over a few pages (and because the main character is given a supportive husband, free of her family’s pathologies) but because there’s a sense of contingency, an arbitrariness in the way events unfold around us, that eludes any fine-meshed authorial net. In the climactic deathbed scene, especially, absurdity tugs at mortality’s hem in a way that resonates with one’s own experience of this terminal moment. The young priest who arrives to administer the last rites is both awkward and incongruously handsome—and then: “Life, made more ridiculous by the presence of the hospital window, is the sound of a bus horn.” More than any of the other novellas in The Right Intention, this story made me curious to see what Barba can do in a novel.
As it happens, last year Transit Books brought out a 2008 Barba novel, the well-received Such Small Hands, also in a translation by Lisa Dillman, and he has written twelve books of fiction and nonfiction overall. He has also translated a pair of stylistically extravagant nineteenth-century literary renegades, Herman Melville and Thomas De Quincey, into Spanish. All of which furthers the impression one gets from The Right Intention that an American readership for this talented writer is overdue.
But if one can lament how long it took for The Right Intention to receive its passport into English, there’s a certain piquancy in the way these stories, encountered in 2018, evoke an irrecoverable moment that isn’t even twenty years in the past. Meaning, the short span of our millennium just prior to the arrival of cell phones, texting, social media, and all their attendant compulsions. (In a sequence that seems like a kind of historical fiction, the lover in “Nocturne” races from newsstand to newsstand to track down a copy of the magazine with the right personal ad in it.) Which isn’t to suggest that this quartet of novellas allows the reader to indulge in any easy nostalgia. Sentient people—the kind of people who read fiction in translation, for instance—like to chide themselves for the way the devices in their hands are rewiring their circuitry, messing with their heads. Barba’s stories are a bracing reminder that we were finding plenty of ways to torment ourselves long before the latest technologies made it so much easier for us.
Latvia is a small country of two million inhabitants in northeastern Europe, a relatively inconspicuous place on the map. The country is celebrating its centenary this year, with a host of events, including Latvia’s participation as one of the Market Focus countries at the London Book Fair, putting its culture in the spotlight.
The history of Latvian literature spans several hundred years; its most recent chapter, however, began when Latvia declared the restoration of its independence in 1990 after decades of Soviet rule. Censorship was lifted, and this new freedom was seized upon by both well-established and emerging writers. For example, novelist Alberts Bels discussed the inner workings of the former Soviet regime in his book The Black Stain, while the young writer Gundega Repše’s Mark of Fire dealt with the suppression of the Latvian intelligentsia in the 1960s.
The resulting freedom also brought about new styles that would have been hard to imagine just a few years before. Jānis Einfelds’s short-story collection Moon Child and his surrealist novel The Book of Pigs stretched the imagination of Latvian literature.
The end of the 1990s and beginning of the 2000s saw several writers begin to blossom. Nora Ikstena’s earlier short-story collections set the stage for her first novel, The Celebration of Life, which established her as one of a new wave of women writers who still dominate the Latvian literary scene. That group includes Inga Abele, whose short stories and plays like Dark Deer catapulted her into the literary heights of the country.
The middle of the 2000s saw several writers hit their stride, including the aforementioned Inga Ābele with her novel High Tide, as well as writer and publicist Pauls Bankovskis with his book Euroremodeling, which details the days of Wild West capitalism and the resulting social chaos. The current decade has seen a wave of new talent, including EU Prize Winners like Inga Žolude and Jānis Joņevs, whose novels have been bestsellers in Latvia and well-received abroad.
The last few years have seen several trends, including a burst of historical fiction, led by a series of novels under the title We. Latvia. The 20th Century. Writer Gundega Repše and publisher Dienas Grāmata spearheaded this initiative to explore the often dark and complex history of the last century. Although there have been writers known for their historical fiction in past decades (Aleksandrs Grīns perhaps being the most brilliant of these), this series examined several events that up until that point had scarcely been broached. Māris Bērziņš’s book The Taste of Lead looked at the Holocaust, while Kristīne Ulberga’s novel There explored the hippie movement in Latvia in the 1970s.
Another change in the literary landscape is the growth of genres like fantasy and sci-fi. After decades of underrepresentation in the 1990s and 2000s, the last several years have seen a steady diet of books by authors like Ieva Melgalve, whose novel Moon Theater set off a wave of interest in homegrown sci-fi and fantasy novels. Newer writers like Linda Nemiera and Laura Dreiže have begun to dive deeper into areas that Melgalve has opened up.
A third noteworthy trend is the return of the short story. It is hard to say whether more writers are turning to the short story as a mode of expression; it can be said, however, that the recent Annual Latvian Literature Awards (LALIGABA, in the Latvian acronym) have given ample attention to the short story the last several years. Jana Egle’s short-story collection Light garnered the 2017 Best Book Award, while Sven Kuzmins’s collection, Urban Shamans, was shortlisted for the 2017 Best Debut Award. Other short-story writers of note include Daina Tabūna and Dace Vīgante, whose collections were also nominated for LALIGABA awards in 2015 and 2017 respectively, along with young writer Alise Redviņa.
Three representatives of this vibrant form appear in this feature. Poet and prose writer Jana Egle’s short stories are hard-hitting gems that talk of loneliness, broken families, and violence, often taking place in the provinces. Her story "The Quarry," which comes from her Light and is translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini, tells of a boy who one day unexpectedly takes one of his playmates to a large quarry in the area, and decides to leave her there.
Sven Kuzmins’s texts often veer off into almost magic-realism-inspired twists and turns. The stories of his Urban Shamans are mostly set outside Latvia, imposing a foreignness unusual for the Latvian short story. His “Three Weddings and a Funeral,” translated by Uldis Balodis, is a realistic portrayal of a wedding musician who, due to an absurd contract clause, is forced to appear at two separate weddings, but not allowed to play.
Alise Redviņa writes often uncomfortable stories that confront the reader's innermost thoughts and desires. Her story "Lynn," translated by Laura Adlers, tells of a man who develops a relationship with a blow-up doll, only to fall for a coworker.
Latvian poetry also deserves a brief mention. Unlike poets in countries such as the US, who can spend years establishing themselves through journal publications before their long-awaited first book, Latvian poets often begin publishing their work in book form in their early twenties, and might even have several books before thirty. Some very active young Latvian poets publish their first books and are never seen in print again. Others continue to build on their prior work and take a long and steady climb upward. The latter group includes poets like Inga Gaile, Artis Ostups, and Arvis Viguls, whose two poems “Forgetting” and “Home,” translated by Jayde Will, are also featured here.
This very short introduction cannot do justice to all the authors out there. There is good news, however, for those seeking Latvian authors in English translation. Due to recent efforts to promote Latvian literature abroad, over thirty new translations of Latvian authors will be published by the end of 2018, allowing English-language readers a chance to see for themselves what that inconspicuous northeastern European country has to offer. In the meantime, we offer you the selection here.
© 2018 by Jayde Will. All rights reserved.
Welcome to our twelfth graphic novel issue, and to our annual celebration of this endlessly expressive genre. Though much of the art here may be in black and white, the topics addressed are anything but. In settings ranging from the bowels of a 1960s German lab to an antiseptic future Sweden, and with characters as diverse as rural bigots and urbane aesthetes, the pieces here explore the challenges of life in a variety of locations and eras. Some revisit the past, both personal and political, and one constructs a chilling future; yet as they look to other times, these pieces also comment on issues facing our world today to striking effect.
In Scandorama, the Finnish novelist Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo, who writes in Swedish, and the Kenyan-Swedish artist Catherine Anyango construct a “perfect Scandinavian city.” This utopia, though, is achieved through dystopian means. The ideal population of Stohome (“The clean city. The beautiful people”) has been engineered by scientists at the evil Gentech corporation, with the undesirables—“the rubble of humanity”—banished to the dark side, the grimy, decaying city of Helsingy. With their portrayal of technology in the service of prejudice, Taivassalo and Anyango also represent the social manipulation that needs no scientific intervention to ghettoize “others.”
Davide Reviati’s Spit Three Times illustrates that impulse, here represented by Italian anti-immigrant sentiment and generalized hostility toward the other in rural Italy. European animosity toward Middle Eastern and African refugees has been well documented; the “outsiders” in this case, however, are not refugees fleeing Syria or other contemporary war zones, but Roma who settled in this small town over thirty years ago. Their long tenure in town does nothing to change the locals’ sneering intolerance: “They’re only gypsies.”
Yet another sort of bias informs “The I-Formula,” by the German team of Barbara Yelin and Thomas Steinaecker. Their graphic novel, Der Sommer ihres Lebens, depicts an elderly physicist recalling key moments of her life. The chapter here takes place in the mid-1960s, when Gerda Wendt, fresh out of graduate school, secures a post in a physics research lab. Her boss refers to her as "little lady"; her (male) fellow student assistant addresses her as "little Wendt." The episode chimes with the current #MeToo movement: Gerda’s confrontations with the sexism of superiors and peers, and her success despite that opposition, remind us of the obstacles others have faced—and of the incalculable potential contributions lost to those impediments. Yelin and Steinaecker’s work was originally serialized on Hundertvierzehn, the online literary magazine of the German publisher S. Fischer, and their playful manipulation of form—see the winding extended page where Gerda literally starts “at the bottom”—demonstrates the marriage of text and image facilitated by the web.
Another brilliant pairing here brings us political, rather than personal, history. The great French graphic novelist David B. appeared in our February 2007 issue. Since then, among his many projects, he has collaborated with the Arabist and historian Jean-Pierre Filiu on the sprawling, multivolume Best of Enemies: A History of US and Middle East Relations. In this extract from the third volume, which covers the years from 1990 to 2013, the pair interrogate the official version of the US involvement in Iraq under George H. W. Bush. David B.’s surreal illustrations—a ghoulish army of uniformed skeletons marches down “the road of death,” giant politicians each grasp one leg of a tiny soldier as if they’re breaking a wishbone—both represent and comment on Filiu’s sober chronological narrative to produce a nuanced chronicle of a fraught time.
And in our first Czech graphic novel, Lucie Lomová’s Knock ‘em Dead! stages a murder mystery within a theater company. When the leading man calls in sick at the last minute, his alternate takes on the role. But someone’s interfered with the props, and instead of the expected “star is born” narrative, the melodrama turns tragic. Lomová’s work has appeared in French and Hungarian translation, but never in English. We’re delighted to present her debut.
Whether revisiting past conflicts or projecting an ominous future, these pieces comment directly and otherwise on the events of the day. They are prime examples of the continuing power of lines on the page.
© 2018 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
Latvian author Sven Kuzmins describes the absurd toils of a depressive wedding musician.
“Why are you tying that weird rag around your neck?” Bush asked as he spit the toothpaste into the sink, leaving numerous white flecks on the sleeve of Ziedonis’s suit jacket. Ziedonis looked into the mirror, rinsed them off with water, and, without hiding his offense, said to Bush, who was standing behind him:
“It’s not a rag, it’s a genuine nineteenth-century jabot.”
“It would’ve been better if you’d just put on a tie like a normal person.”
“Oh look, suddenly we’ve got a fashion critic here, somebody who bleaches his hair like it was still 1992,” Ziedonis replied as he watched Bush’s heavyset, half-naked figure in the mirror and thought to himself: Goddammit, what am I even doing here?
“Well, OK, don’t get offended,” Bush came closer and put a hand on Ziedonis’s shoulder. Ziedonis turned his head and carefully freed himself from Bush.
“I have to run,” he said, shoving the synthesizer under his arm as he walked out into the hallway.
“Did you take your pills?” Bush called after him, but Ziedonis was already in the stairwell.
Ziedonis arrived at work before ten. The white hall of the registry office had been cleaned, aired out, and prepared for the wedding ceremony. Sharlotte was putting on her lipstick in the side room and was reading something intently.
“Good morning. What are you doing?” Ziedonis asked.
“I’m studying my speech.”
“You’re studying your speech? I thought it hadn’t changed in twenty years.”
“Yes, that’s exactly why I decided to introduce a few small corrections. To keep with the times, so to speak.”
“That’s a good idea. The most important thing is to throw out all those ‘in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Latvia . . .’”
“Ziedonis, sweetie, you know very well I can’t and don’t want to throw those out.”
“Why not? They sound so dry. You get the impression that marriage is nothing more than a responsibility. And anyway, if I had any say in it, I’d take the coat of arms off the wall, too. Why does a wedding hall need to look like the state revenue service or an enlistment office? Why can’t a wedding be a light and pleasant event?”
“But Ziedonis, honey, a wedding is a pleasant event. That’s why we have you,” Sharlotte said smiling as she straightened Ziedonis’s jacket, which was at least two sizes too big for his lean frame. “Just learn once and for all that the bottom button on a jacket has to stay undone! And take off that crochet work. Put on a normal tie.”
“That crochet work is a genuine nineteenth-century jabot! You said yourself that a musician has to pay attention to his appearance.”
Sharlotte opened the wardrobe and tossed Ziedonis a wide, slightly crumpled tie. He noticed that Sharlotte herself was wearing a brightly colored, unusually tight dress completely out of place in the registry office’s sterile interior. He carefully studied the director’s sturdy frame and concluded that her total body mass might be greater than Bush’s. However, while the extra pounds made Bush look flabby, Sharlotte’s Willendorfian complexion created an impression of health and strength.
She returned to the mirror and repeated her new speech:
“The union of two individuals is not just the joy they share during the most beautiful moments of their marriage and also not just the difficulties they overcome on life’s winding path. It’s also an example for friends, other people close to them in their lives, and fellow human beings. An example and a reminder that marriage stands at the foundation of every healthy society. How do you like it?” she asked.
Ziedonis felt an irresistible urge to go back home, crawl underneath his blanket with his clothes still on, and never come out again; he remembered that he hadn’t taken his Zoloft for three days in a row.
“It’s really good,” he said, lying. “Inspiring. And what are we playing?”
“What do you mean, what are we playing? Mendelssohn. What else?”
“Fine, Mendelssohn at the start. But how about something new toward the end?”
“Oh, look at that! We’ve got ourselves a visionary. No! We’re doing everything by the book.”
“Please! Something from Kalniņš at least. 'Little Blue Bird,' for example.”
“Not on my watch. Let’s go,” Sharlotte said as she gave him a hard slap on the shoulder. He studied his reflection with loathing and, using all his strength, pulled his tie into place. Sticking the synthesizer under his arm, he proceeded out to the hall.
None of the wedding guests looked especially happy and both rings ultimately turned out to be too small, though that didn’t significantly impact the pace of the ceremony. As he played the usual Mendelssohn, Ziedonis understood he needed to hurry home and take his pills, because his depression was becoming increasingly unbearable. After the ceremony he lifted the synthesizer off the stand and proceeded to the side room to say good-bye to Sharlotte, but she grabbed Ziedonis by the sleeve and said:
“Wait, wait. Where are you off to? We still have two trips today. The car is outside; go load up your piano.”
Ziedonis looked at the calendar on the wall. Two wedding trips were, in fact, scheduled, but there was a small note next to both of them: “No music.”
“But I don’t have to go. It says: ‘No music.’” he said.
Sharlotte looked at the schedule, looked into one of her folders, and said:
“Yes, but they’ve signed a standard contract, my friend. So you’re coming along.”
“Good God. Again? Why do I always have to go even when nobody ordered music?”
“Because, Ziedonis, sweetie, it says so in the contract. If it’s written on paper that there’s going to be a fully equipped pianist, then we have to bring along both the pianist and the equipment.”
“Is there no way of finally getting those standard contracts in order? Because this is totally absurd. More and more often I come along with all of you for nothing. Lately I’ve been driving around more than playing.”
“Come on, don’t exaggerate. Some people would love to have your job—a party outside of town, new people, free food, nothing to do.”
“But I don’t want to do nothing! If they’d ordered a ball, I’d happily come along to play for that ball. But they’ve clearly stated they don’t want it.”
“I’ll say it one last time, both contracts say we are providing a pianist. So we are providing a pianist.”
“Sharlotte, please understand me,” Ziedonis was grasping at his final straw, “I’m a professional composer and I want to use my time productively.”
Sharlotte twisted her face into her “boss” grimace, flipped a page in her folder, and said:
“Really? That’s funny. It says here that you’re a wedding musician. So load up your piano into the car, we’re leaving in twenty minutes.”
Ziedonis was about to answer: “Yeah, a wedding musician who goes to weddings to play no music,” but he knew it wasn’t worth arguing any further.
On the way Ziedonis pressed his head against the window and, catching sight of his reflection, shuddered at his unattractive exterior. During his student years he’d also recognized that he wasn’t especially attractive, if attractiveness is defined as the classical Greek ideal. His long nose in combination with his diminutive chin made him look like a half-melted wax doll. In his youth he could still joke about it. Now, on the verge of forty, his half-long hair had hopelessly receded from his forehead, and what are often referred to as bags under the eyes, in his case looked more like overcooked dumplings.
The wedding took place on an empty beach. The groom had long dreadlocks and an upturned mustache. The bride distinguished herself with brightly colored yet very tasteful makeup, a baroque dress, and a diadem tattooed onto her forehead. The guests also looked sufficiently colorful for Ziedonis to understand why nobody required his services here. Lately, Sharlotte had increasingly wed people like this and her attitude toward them was simple, she’d say: “It’s nice for anyone in this world to find someone like themselves.” However, during the speech she’d usually diverge from her script and go off into detailed instructions regarding the sacrament of marriage and an adult’s moral responsibilities.
Ziedonis stood off to the side hugging his synthesizer and watching the bridal party as he wondered what would end up being this event’s musical direction. Maybe it was worth it to go up to the groom’s relatives and ask? Maybe he should introduce himself and familiarize them with his high school experiments in progressive rock? However, this group looked even more advanced. People like this might even be interested in his more recent work—his jazz compositions from his time at the conservatory as well as the piano concertos he’d composed according to the modes of limited transposition, which incidentally was also his diploma piece.
After the rings were exchanged the wedding guests invited Sharlotte and the driver for a picnic in the dunes where two girls were playing an Indian tabla with remarkable dexterity, while a young guy was tapping an instrument with his fingertips that looked like a flying saucer and produced a harplike sound. Making sure his boss didn’t see him, Ziedonis exchanged his tie for the jabot and tried to stay close to the percussionists. After a while he succeeded in striking up a conversation with one of the wedding guests—not exactly one of the musicians, but without a doubt one of their friends. It was a young man named Mark Vorman. He carefully quizzed Ziedonis about the life of a wedding musician, but most of all, for some reason, he was interested not in Ziedonis’s musical experience, but instead in his mental state.
“How long have you been struggling with depression?” he asked.
“Shit. Thank God it only took me four years to get over it and without pills.”
“Lucky you,” Ziedonis said as he traced rings in the sand with his finger.
“It’s good at least that you’re able to live with it.”
“With varying results,” he sighed. “For a moment it even seemed like it was all over. But then I skipped a few days on my Zoloft like an idiot and now I feel the floor crumbling under my feet. Trust me, it’s not pleasant.”
“You bet,” Mark said as he motioned to a young man sitting nearby. “Hey, Harry, do you happen to have anything for depression?”
“I do,” the guy named Harry replied, “we were just thinking it was a good time. Let’s move to the woods, though.”
They sat down inside of an out-of-the-way ring of pines behind a dune—Vorman, Ziedonis, and a crowd of followers. Harry lit something that resembled a cigarette and passed it around.
“I don’t really smoke,” Ziedonis said when his turn in line came.
“Suit yourself, but this is a good anti-depressant. Worked wonders for me.”
Ziedonis shrugged and indifferently took a drag. At first it sent him into an unpleasant coughing fit, but soon he was overcome by a strange tranquility—similar to what he’d felt as a child, running across the meadow and on hot summer nights when he’d slept in the loft at his father’s house. A peace that he’d been seeking for so long that he couldn’t even understand at first whether he was worthy of it. He lay down on the warm seaside earth and for a long time watched tranquilly as clouds crowded together, touched, formed shapes, separated, and in all of that there was a wonderful harmony—musical as well as geometric. “If I died right now,” he thought, “at least it would be with the awareness that once in my life I’d heard the music of the spheres.” And his thoughts, too, were deeper, more expansive than usual. It was pleasant to linger in them.
“Doesn’t it seem to you like at every moment up there in the air a new, completely unique composition is being written?” he asked slowly.
“That’s a lovely idea,” Mark agreed.
“I could try to play it.”
“Go ahead and try.”
“I’ve got a combo amp in the car,” he said.
“Go get it. I’d love to hear it,” Mark said and the rest agreed.
Ziedonis was overcome by a long-forgotten feeling of happiness and motivation. This kind of effect wasn’t something that even Zoloft offered (it just made his mood somewhat bearable). He got up, laughed about the situation he’d unexpectedly found himself in, and went to the spot where the driver had left the van. Time went by slowly and Ziedonis didn’t want to rush it.
But when he reached the parking spot at the forest’s edge, the van was no longer there. The rest of the cars were all in their spots, but their gray Volkswagen was gone. Ziedonis patted down his pockets looking for his phone, but it too had gotten lost somewhere. He ran back to the beach where the wedding guests were congregating in small groups and soon found his phone half buried in the sand. Sharlotte had called him exactly eight times. Ziedonis dialed her number.
“Hello? Ziedonis? Where are you? We’re going to miss the wedding because of you,” she yelled anxiously into the phone.
“I’m sorry. I lost my phone.”
“Unbelievable! Everything always goes off the rails for you, even if you don’t have to do anything. Walk out to the highway right away, we’ll come get you. Don’t waste any time!”
It occurred to him that he could just as well hang up and stay in the dunes with his new friends, but remembered that all of his equipment was in the van. “That’s right,” he thought as he walked back toward the highway, “it was all too good to be true.”
Apparently, the van had already gotten pretty far. The empty road seemed endlessly long, the synthesizer was awkward to carry, but that wasn’t enough—clouds had gathered in front of the sun and it began to drizzle. At first the rain was very light, but soon it turned into a heavy downpour.
“No, no, no! Not the keyboard, please, not the keyboard,” he muttered as he cursed himself, Latvia’s climate, and the registry office. He took off his jacket and tried to wrap it around the synthesizer, but it didn’t help. The rain was crashing down onto the highway and roadside ditches like an avalanche. Pressing the drenched synthesizer up to his chest, Ziedonis kept moving forward. A few minutes later a car’s headlights pierced the impenetrable downpour. But as soon as Ziedonis got into the van, the rain, as if by cynical comedy script, stopped.
“You’ve put on that stupid crochet work again,” was the first thing Sharlotte said when she saw him.
The next wedding took place in a large hall; a bit further on there were not just one but two saunas heating up by the pond, and all in all everything looked very traditional. The exchange of rings was followed by the traditional crowning, during which, for some reason, a couple of burly twins carried the bride around on their shoulders. Women gossiped at the tables, men wasted no time getting drinks and every few minutes yelled at their children who were racing across the space reserved for dancing—just in case. The wedding party gave their toasts, the bride’s grandfather watched the guests with suspicion from his wheelchair, while two short-haired young guys in white shirts played exactly the same kind of repertoire on their synthesizers that Ziedonis would’ve played in their place.
But Ziedonis’s perception had changed. He almost couldn’t hear the people bellowing out their toasts. On the other hand, he could hear even the softest whispered conversation underway at the tables. When people came closer to him, he could see each clogged pore on their skin, every unshaved piece of stubble. But the most terrible thing was that Ziedonis had the power to predict their thoughts and movements.
Having discovered this kind of power, he was dumbfounded. “How strange,” he thought, “in a moment 'The Blue Carbuncle' will end, one of the musicians (the one on the left with the Yamaha) will play a bar from 'Raise Your Glasses,' the hosts will set up a game involving guessing answers to riddles so guests can get to know each other while delegating two of the groom’s relatives to protect the bride, but this guy in the pink shirt who’s sitting next to me will go for a smoke on the balcony and will think about how to strike up a conversation with the groom’s redheaded sister without alerting his wife who, incidentally, will be the next one to give a toast. They’re all programmed like electronic watches. Goddammit, what am I even doing here?”
Ziedonis understood that he needed to get out of there fast. He quietly asked Sharlotte when she was planning on going home. But it seemed that his boss was already a bit tipsy and she gestured indifferently:
“Are you in a hurry? Let’s sit for a while,” and nudged the gentleman next to her to fill up her champagne glass.
Ziedonis fell back into his chair and remembered how good he’d felt reclining by the forest under that cloudscape. It turned out that right next door there was a world in which he’d gladly live out his life, but it wasn’t meant for the likes of him.
“Not meant for the likes of me,” he repeated under his breath.
“What?” the man in the pink shirt asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” Ziedonis answered and the man got up and went for a smoke, glancing at the groom’s redheaded sister.
The entire evening Ziedonis privately predicted the wedding guests’ actions and his predictions came true without fail—even his premonition that the twins, who’d spent the entire time obsessively carrying around heavy objects, would convince him to go to the sauna. After dusk the men had grown rowdy. They packed into one of the saunas, didn’t waste time on speeches and most of the time made do with primitive sentences. Some of them were standing naked on the deck drinking vodka, trying to outgrowl each other, though most of them crowded together in the narrow rooms inside. The twins brought in a special wooden chair where the grandfather had been sitting and placed him in the center of the sauna. The group sitting on the upper bench was constantly throwing water on the hot stones, yelling, “Saunas are tops when your heart stops!” The thermometer’s indicator had climbed up to the 120-degree mark and the steam chamber resembled a shared taxi at rush hour. When it’d get too hot for the grandfather, he’d motion and the twins would carry him out on his chair. He’d sit like that in the moonlight as steam rose off his bony flesh. When the grandfather felt sufficiently cooled down, he’d motion again and the twins would carry him right back inside. One of the musicians had dozed off on the steaming bench, hit his forehead on the hot stones, and was now resting by the edge of the pond. The other one was rolling around like in a trance in the corner of the sauna and kept repeating, "Sometimes I wish I were an angel . . . " But Ziedonis, trapped between men drenched in alcohol sweat, was sitting on the lower bench and kept trying to think of clouds and the music of the spheres.
The one who’d been next to him and had spent the evening glancing at the groom’s sister sat down next to Ziedonis and introduced himself as Egon. The whites of his eyes were as red as his face.
“Hey, you some kind of a musician?” he asked.
“Hey, uh, can you play for us? The singers, uh, went off.”
“My synthesizer got soaked on the way,” Ziedonis said. “I don’t know if it’ll work.”
Egon considered what Ziedonis said as if it had been something complicated and called out:
“Hey, guys, we need to bring over the piano from the guest house!”
“It’s not necessary,” Ziedonis tried to object, but the carrier twins had tied towels around their waists, carried out the grandfather who had overheated again, and ran over to the guesthouse. Realizing that these guys were beginning to exhibit too much interest in him, Ziedonis decided to sneak out and disappear. But, while he was looking for his clothes in the overfilled front room, the twins had already taken the “Riga” brand piano and pushed it along the wooded path placing it on the deck. The women, who were using the other sauna, had gathered on the edge of the pond and were watching the chaotic scene.
“You’re crazy! Why do you have the piano?” the bride yelled.
“We’re having a concert! Come on over here,” Egon yelled back.
Ziedonis had found his socks and was hurrying to put them on, but the twins/porters had lifted the taboret on which he was sitting and carried Ziedonis over to the piano.
“Play something fun,” yelled the ladies.
“Yeah, something to dance to,” yelled the men.
There were calls coming from every side: “Yellow Leaves!” “Genovefa!” “Legionnaire songs!” But Ziedonis, who was sitting at the piano in nothing but his socks, hands shaking, quietly said:
“Piss off with your Genovefas,” and forcefully slammed out a heavy minor chord on the keys. Then another one, and another, and soon he was running up and down the octaves with so much force that for a few euphoric minutes he’d forgotten where he was, and on that dark night the comets and meteorites streaked across the sky and the trees looked alive as they shivered in the wind. His euphoria transformed into anger. At Bush, at Sharlotte, at the registry office, at the wedding guests, at the crowd of intellectuals he was destined never to join, at all the world known to him.
Then he stopped, took a break, walked into the front room of the sauna, and returned with the jabot around his neck. Making eye contact with the steaming grandfather, he continued to clatter the keys until he started getting cramps in his frozen legs.
The audience applauded. Without looking back, Ziedonis walked into the front room of the sauna. He wrapped himself in a white bathrobe, grimaced as he took a big gulp of vodka, waited until the audience started to disperse, and then went off to find Sharlotte. “That’s it,” he thought, “now I get to decide who goes where and when.”
“Hey, buddy, you’re fucking psycho,” Egon tried to pat Ziedonis’s back approvingly, but he pushed away Egon’s hand with a strong and precise motion and went off in the direction of the other sauna.
“Sharlotte,” he yelled, looking into every room. “Sharlotte, where are you?”
“Ziedonis, honey, is that you? Come up,” a voice echoed from the second floor.
Ziedonis walked up the stairs. There was a light on in one of the bedrooms. He opened the door. Sharlotte was standing in front of him with wet hair, noticeably drunk. She looked Ziedonis in the eyes, made a crooked grimace, which was surely meant to be seductive, and let the bathrobe slide off her shoulders.
“Tell the driver to start the car. We’re leaving,” Ziedonis said categorically.
“No, Ziedonis, sweetie, we’re staying for the night,” she replied and put her chubby arms around Ziedonis’s waist.
“Stop this behavior right this second! Get yourself together and go find the driver.”
“No, no, you’re not getting away from me that easily,” Sharlotte said with a smile, pulled Ziedonis by his jabot, pushed him into bed, and rolled on top of him with all her weight. Ziedonis clenched his teeth and tried to avoid Sharlotte’s kisses, he attempted to fight back with both hands.
“Pull yourself together, music man,” she ordered. “Don’t be such a wimp!”
“Yeah, pull yourself together! Be a man!” a voice echoed from the hallway. Ziedonis and Sharlotte looked up. Both musicians were standing by the door—one was supporting himself against the door frame, the other had a small trickle of blood flowing from his cracked forehead.
Shading her eyes with her palm, Sharlotte looked out at the chill autumn sunset, while Igor, the pianist who was now working at the registry office in Ziedonis’s place, played the most popular melodies of the composer Raimonds Pauls. Eight people out of the ten invited had come to Ziedonis’s funeral—Bush, who’d found Ziedonis hanging from his bathroom ceiling, still couldn’t pull himself together and was drinking for the third week straight, whereas Ziedonis’s father upon receiving the invitation had replied: “He had it coming, almost drove me there himself.” On the other hand, Mark Vorman had somehow found out about the funeral. He arrived late and stood off to the side the entire time, but when the proceedings were over and the gravediggers pushed the cross into the sand with the handles of their shovels, he walked up to Sharlotte.
“So strange to get to know a person in their final months,” he said.
“I feel like we never got to know each other at all,” Sharlotte sighed and blew her nose into a napkin.
“Seemed like everything was going to be fine, right? He said he had finally recovered and felt relieved.”
“Yes, that’s what he said, but I suspected that it wasn’t entirely true.”
“Apparently,” said Mark. He shoved his hands into his coat pockets and looked at the piano player, Igor. “Who the hell is that?” he asked.
“That’s our Igor.”
“Igor the pianist. He’s taken Ziedonis’s place.”
“I see,” Mark nodded expressively, bit his lip, and hung his head.
“What? Something wrong?”
“No, no. Everything’s OK,” Mark said as he rustled the leaves with the tip of his shoe.
Coolness arrived with twilight. Igor finished the melody and shot Sharlotte an inquisitive glance. She dragged her index finger across her throat indicating that it was time to go. Igor turned off the synthesizer and began unplugging the cords while Sharlotte produced a tiny bottle of Condy’s Crystals from her pocket and went to spray the flower bouquets and wreaths. So they wouldn’t get stolen.
© Sven Kuzmins. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Uldis Balodis. All rights reserved.
A young boy adapts to living with his grandmother and learns the ripple effect of his actions in Latvian author Jana Egle's tale on youth, loss, and shame.
Listen to Jana Egle read "The Quarry" in the original Latvian
“When I grow up, I’m going to be a painter just like my dad,” the boy said, his knees pulled up under his chin as he outlined designs, decipherable to him alone, with a stick.
“Do you think you’re good enough at drawing?” the girl asked, glancing incredulously from the boy to the lines he had etched on the ground.
“Yes, of course. Dad taught me.” The boy looked across the pit to the white gravel road. A black car crawled along like a lazy fly, the hum of its engine just about audible as it weaved elegantly along. The cloud of dust at its rear suspended in time immobile in the air . . .
“Where is your dad?”
“My uncle is far away, too. He is in Denmark but has come home twice already. When are your mom and dad coming back?” Anete was persistent in her line of questioning.
“Soon,” the boy snapped, pressing his cheek against his dirty knee.
“And when will soon be, exactly?” The little girl wouldn’t let up.
The boy stared at the cloud of dust frozen mid-air.
“Soon means soon. And quit asking so many questions, will you? Curiosity killed the cat!”
“Like the one your granny used to have? No one’s coming to see you, just you wait and see. So nyah!” The little girl stuck her tongue out before disappearing behind the bushes.
The boy heard well enough but didn’t move a muscle. His bottom seemed to have taken root in the earth, his hands and legs molded from soft, damp clay. Closing his eyes, he lay back and gazed through his eyelashes at the sunset. If you screw your eyes into narrow slits, the whole world glitters in clear, pure tones like a watercolor painting scattered with gold dust. The underbellies of seagulls floating above him were as pink as flamingos in the rays of the setting sun as the distant forest, trembling through the boy’s eyelashes, lifted its gray-blue branch arms eerily skyward. Markus turned his head and pressed his cheek to the sand. It was warm.
“Markus! Why aren’t you answering me? It’s dinnertime. And then it will be time for bed.”
“I don’t want to.”
“I see.” Grandma sighed heavily. “There are a lot of things I don’t want to do, but I do them anyway.”
“We could do with some rain,” Grandma mumbled as she turned her attention to slicing bread. The boy knew no reply was needed. After living alone for many years, Grandma was used to talking to herself. “There are no cucumbers and we won’t be getting any either, and there’s no knowing if those potatoes will swell before the autumn, they are that tiny.”
“We are going to the cemetery festival tomorrow. I need to see if you have anything half-decent to wear,” she continued, glancing sideways at Markus.
“I don’t want to go.”
“Is anyone asking what you do or do not want?” Grandma didn’t sound cross, merely exhausted. “I went today; tidied the grave, raked it over, watered it. We will lay some flowers down tomorrow before the festival starts.”
“Have you finished your soup?” By the sound of her voice, she was clearly speaking to the boy again. “At least you have a decent appetite, thank goodness for small mercies.”
Markus thanked her and somehow, seemingly unintentionally, managed to avoid his grandmother’s rough hand as it reached to caress his fragile, slightly hunched shoulders.
“My sweet little hedgehog,” Grandma sighed quietly when the boy had set off for his room.
Markus undressed slowly. It was still light, so he didn’t turn his bedside lamp on. The moon was not yet an entire orb, one side blurred as if smudged by a careless paintbrush.
Sometimes, the nights here were pitch-black in a way they never were in the city. As he burrowed into his bed, the only light was the thin line outlining the closed door, behind which Grandma was doing the dishes, discussing the events of the day with herself. When Grandma went to bed, the light disappeared altogether. On such nights, the boy felt frightened. On nights when he hadn’t yet fallen asleep by this time, he would lie there awake—his eyes open but unseeing, he too scared even to close them.
Nights had been so different at home. Light from the streetlamps shone into the room. Even in the dark, the tram rails beneath the window creaked and every so often Markus’s bed trembled slightly as a tram rambled past. Dad always left the door ajar, even when his buddies came round and sat smoking their roll-ups right there in the next room. That was the fun part; everyone sitting round listening to some kind of prehistoric music—Joplin, The Doors, Bob Marley—all of them laughing nonstop. And all the while Markus lay in his bed, joyfully inhaling the weird-smelling smoke drifting in from the room next door and wanting to join in the laughter. Other evenings, when there were no visitors, his dad would stay up late on his own, standing at his easel for the longest time, the sound of his brush quietly stroking the canvas lulling the boy to sleep. He missed the city lights, the sounds and smells, and his dad.
Markus shoved his hand sleepily under his pillow. There it was. His penknife with its sharp, paper-thin blade. It was the only thing he had been able to grab from his dad’s room when Grandma, the policeman, and the woman he didn’t know had come for him. As the boy’s fingers touched the knife’s smooth, plastic cover, he calmed down and, closing his eyes, yawned drowsily.
In the morning, Markus woke without being called. Grandma was bustling about the kitchen, chortling softly to herself. A deliciously tempting smell was wafting through the cracks around the door. The boy quickly pulled his clothes on and opened the door.
“Good morning! Do you want some pancakes? Strawberry jam, or cream and sugar?”
Pancakes sat steaming in a ceramic bowl on the table—thick, fluffy, and golden brown with crispy edges.
“Jam.” Grinning, he dove straight into his breakfast without so much as washing his face.
Grandma carried on cooking, glancing over her shoulder with satisfaction at the boy as he wolfed down pancake after pancake, dipping them into the puddle of jam on his plate as he went.
After breakfast, the boy went out into the garden. The feel of the cool grass tickling his bare feet was lovely; Markus stood a while trying to snap a long blade of grass between his toes.
“Hey, Markus! What are you up to?”
“Nothing.” After a moment’s silence, Markus added, “If you want, I can show you my secret?”
“What secret?” Anete widened her eyes.
“Well, a secret.” Markus dragged out the answer elusively. “Let’s go!”
Markus set off at a run. Bare feet flashing, they both made toward the dip. At its edge, the boy stopped dead in his tracks. When Anete reached his side, Markus said, gravely, “Do you really want to know?”
Looking excitedly into his face, the girl answered impatiently, “Yes, of course!”
“OK, we need to run, stay close by and don’t leave the track!”
The boy ran along the side of the dip without looking backward, at times running bent over, at others leaping. Pigtails waving, the little girl dashed after him, furtively straining to look ahead and discover what the secret might be. Suddenly, the ground beneath her feet gave way, something in her tummy tickled, flipped, her legs still running despite being momentarily up in the air before her frail body landed with an almighty thud and rolled to the bottom of a deep, narrow pit.
There was a desperate wail. The boy’s head appeared over the edge of the pit against a background of clear blue sky. “So, how do you like my secret! Didn’t I tell you to stay on the track?”
The girl stopped howling and pouted.
“Give me your hand!”
“No way, it’s not going to be that easy. I’m going to play ip-dip. If I lose, I’ll help you. If you lose, you’ll have to do it on your own.”
“But how can I do that?”
But the boy wasn’t listening. Pointing at his own tummy then at the girl at the bottom of the pit, he recited the counting-out rhyme in a monotonous tone. “Ip, dip, sky, blue, who’s it, not YOU!” he finished, his outstretched finger aimed at the little girl’s heart.
“OK, I’m off then!”
“Wait! Marku-us!” The girl called but the boy’s head had already disappeared from the little spot of the sky, now glittering bluer and clearer than before.
She tried to clamber up the wall of the pit. The dry, silky sand slithered beneath each step she took—it was hopeless, she would never get out on her own. Anete sat down in the pit. What a terrible mess. Every so often she called out Markus’s name, each time louder than the time before. She had no idea if he was coming to help her out of this secret. She tried desperately, over and over again, to climb out, but the cool sand just kept slipping smoothly down the wall of the pit and covering her bare feet. The whole time, she felt a rhythmic thud in her ears . . . Ip, dip, sky, blue, who’s it, not YOU . . .
Markus was on his way home. Grandma had probably been expecting him for some time. The boy felt dizzy with elation, a lightness spreading through his limbs. Now the secret was truly real, alive. He straightened his back, relaxed his shoulders, and galloped off home with a light, dancing step. His hair shone like polished copper in the morning sunshine, flopping up and down at his every leap.
“Markus! Where have you been?”
“Nowhere much! Right here!” The boy marched calmly into the yard.
“Come and clean up and we’ll get ourselves ready. We don’t have long. Give me that T-shirt you’re wearing. There we go, now I’ll give you a clean one.”
Flooded with the sudden desire to throw a tantrum, the boy pushed away his grandmother’s hands as they reached to peel off his dirty T-shirt.
“Don’t touch me,” he hissed. “I’ll do it myself.”
“OK, OK, there you go. Just get a move on. I’ve put some water in the bowl in the hallway. Go and have a good splash. You’re always so on edge, I really don’t know how to handle you.” The last utterance, accompanied by a heavy sigh, was to herself.
Standing with his feet in the enormous bowl, the boy scooped up water and poured it over himself several times; the tiny, refreshing rivulets splitting then reuniting as they ran down his itchy skin. The wounds had almost healed but they still hurt. Markus took one damaged palm in the other and pressed. He moaned quietly yet continued applying pressure. Then he scooped up water in the palm of his hand and let it caress the inflamed, slowly healing skin.
Half an hour later and the pair of them set off, all dressed up and flowers in hand. It was a fifteen-minute walk, going at a decent pace, to the cemetery. As they passed by their neighbors’ fence, his grandma stopped in her tracks. The woman was quite worked up about something, waving her arms about as she spoke. Her husband just shrugged.
“Ilzy, aren’t you coming to the cemetery festival?”
“We are, Aunt Velta, yes. Only we can’t find our daughter.” The woman turned her eyes on Markus. “Have you seen Anete?”
Markus shrugged his shoulders in silence and shook his head.
“She never goes off far but we haven’t seen her for almost an hour and I’m starting to get worried.”
“She must be somewhere nearby,” Anete’s dad remarked, seemingly unconcerned. “We will have to give her a good talking to when she comes back.”
Konrāds Kaparkalējs (1946–1999) and Velta Kaparkalēja (1948– . . .) A black butterfly had alighted on the oak leaves and inscription chiseled into the polished stone. Spreading its wings, the butterfly proudly displayed its bright orange spots and impressive wingspan. The boy placed his hand on the warm stone and slowly let it creep toward the butterfly. But the creature fluttered off playfully.
The white shirt Grandma had made him put on was a bit too tight; the seams cut in under his armpits and around his neck.
Standing in the chapel beneath an enormous cross, the pastor preached at great length and extremely tediously. The women’s choir wailed at great length and extremely piteously. Parish members sat down, stood up, and joined in the wailing as necessity required.
Markus looked around at the congregation, bored stiff. Thinning white hair, faded, wrinkled, paperlike faces and knotted hands. He listened to the quivering voices. It was dreary but peaceful. Behind his grandfather’s headstone were two graves overtaken by weeds. Markus went over and sat down beside them. This was the final resting place of Grandma’s grandparents. Further off were some smaller graves with tiny crosses, encrusted with yellowish-gray lichen. His grandma had told him on a previous visit to the cemetery that they were her mother’s brothers and sisters who had died in their first few years of life.
“Why did they die?” Markus had asked at the time. “I don’t know,” Grandma replied, raking the sand next to Grandfather’s headstone into a pine-cone-like pattern. “A lot of children died back then. It was after the war, times were tough.”
The boy stared, immobile, at the dark crosses for quite some time. Then he looked up; he seemed to see identical crosses in glittering white paint against the bright blue sky. Markus became pensive, what if Anete dies? Then she would be buried and have a tiny cross just like the ones he’d seen on her grave. Or maybe a headstone like Granddad’s. The boy pictured a small, neat wooden coffin with Anete laid out within, her hair neatly braided in pigtails. Last spring, Grandma had taken him to the funeral of a distant relative. He had seen her laid out; yellowy pale in white lace, her eyes sunken and blackened, as were her cheeks. She had definitely died because she was so old. Anete’s suntanned face is so pretty. If she actually died, Markus would probably feel very sorry.
The wind rustled through the trees in the cemetery, tugging rain clouds like a dark gray blanket across the sky in the blink of an eye. Moments later and the occasional heavy raindrop began to fall. In no time at all, the crosses, headstones, and trees were blotted out by a thick, white sheet of rain, and blundering figures stumbled about in search of shelter.
Markus pressed himself up against the warm, rough wall of the chapel and watched his grandma in the rain, turning this way and that as she scoured the surroundings for her grandson. When her eyes alighted on the chapel, Markus waved. Grandma scurried over to him and wriggled under the narrow space next to the boy.
Slightly out of breath, Grandma asked, “Didn’t you get caught in the rain?” as she brushed the rain from her clothes and ran her fingers through her hair to tidy it. Markus just shook his head without taking his eyes off the congregation who, now crouching over and soaked to the skin, were still trying to escape the rain while holding song sheets and bags over their heads.
“Velta, I can give you a lift home, it’s on our way!” a lady running past them called out. “It doesn’t look like it’s going to stop.”
The car was parked right behind the chapel but Markus’s white shirt still got soaked by the rain. His skin glowed through the wet patches and, as he climbed into the back, Markus carefully inspected his left palm. There was nothing to be seen. Grandma got into the front seat and, her feet still outside, banged the soles of her shoes together to get rid of the thick layer of sandy earth that clung to them.
As they drove along, the windshield misted up. They were dropped off right on the doorstep. Once indoors, they changed into dry clothes and Grandma put some tea on. The rain pelted down all around.
Then something happened. There was a knock at the door and, without being invited in, someone stormed straight into the house. It was Anete’s mother . . .
Markus shrank deeper into the room and, barely breathing, pressed himself up against the unlit wood burner.
“Where is that bastard grandson of yours, the degenerate!”
Grandma instinctively stepped in front of the door, barring the way.
“What is it? What’s happened?” she stuttered.
“It’s insane! How could you, you little creep? How could you do something like that?” Ilze tried to push Grandma away so she could get at the boy. Markus shrunk closer to the wall.
“Will you tell me what’s going on? What has happened?” Grandma asked, rock-like as she held her ground.
“The dog found Anete. At first I couldn’t understand why he was yelping and trying to get me to follow him. As far as that old quarry pit—there are still some pole shafts that haven’t been filled in.” Ilze had begun speaking in calmer tones before suddenly remembering herself and starting to shout again, even more furiously than before. She knew Markus was in the next room. “And don’t you dare try and say you weren’t there!” Tears caught in Ilze’s throat.
At a loss for words, Grandma put her hand on Ilze’s shoulder. “But is she all right?”
“Well, she’s alive.”
“Then everything is going to be fine . . .” Grandma murmured and, taking Ilze by the elbow, made her sit at the kitchen table. Not knowing what else to say, she reached for a tea towel and wiped the sweat from her neck. “Shall I pour you some tea?”
“Her dad has taken her to the doctor’s. The child was stiff with fright.”
At this, Markus finally let his breath out and felt his entire body, which seemed chiseled into the wall, finally relax. Hearing him sigh, Ilze leapt up and flung herself toward the door again. Grandma was quicker; she got there first and barred it. “Why on earth are you defending that bastard! Just you let me get at him!”
Grandma clung to Ilze like grim death, her heels digging into the floor. Then she raised her voice, too, telling Ilze to sit down. She should be ashamed of herself, attacking an old lady like that. Ilze calmed down and sank back into the chair. Grandma reached for a cup and was about to pour her neighbor some tea when Ilze spoke up again. “How can the earth bear such vile creatures?” Raising her eyes to meet Velta’s again she continued, her voice lowered yet still audible to the boy in the next room, “Why did you have to bring him back here from that junkies’ den? If you only had left him where he was, everyone would have been better off. We would have been, definitely.”
Replacing the teapot firmly but quietly, Grandma said, “I think it’s time you went home, your daughter is probably back from the doctor’s by now.”
Ilze grew even more agitated and started shouting again. “Oh, do you think so? You know what, your daughter-in-law did well to dump the lot of you. None of you are right in the head. None of you!”
Markus was sitting right there on the floor. Tonight, the moon was perfectly round. He hadn’t uttered a word the whole time. Grandma asked him repeatedly how he could have forgotten about the girl. What on earth had he been thinking? He should never have run away and left Anete in the pit, not even for a moment.
But Markus hadn’t forgotten about the girl, not for a moment. It was just how things had turned out, it had all been quite fair. Ip, dip, sky blue, who’s it, not YOU! He had played the counting-out game and it had landed on her; it was what they had agreed. And it wasn’t as if she had died—she had only fallen into a pit. Markus thought he heard Grandma crying when she went back to her room.
Markus crawled silently out of the window. The earth was soft and smelled of rain. The rain had stopped, only the odd cloud drifted overhead without ever completely blocking out the moonlight. A sharp, honeyed scent rose from the flowerbed. A light was on in Grandma’s window. The boy snuck quietly across the wet grass to it, standing in the flowerbed so he could peep inside. Grandma sat slumped in the chair, her back to the window, staring at the painting on the wall. Markus had always known there was a painting on the wall but tonight, for the first time, he took a good look at it. A tranquil landscape drowned in golden sunlight and green life. Markus knew it well; it was the scene from the edge of the forest beyond the pit. Only that in the painting, in the place of the enormous gravel pit hole, was a meadow full of dandelions.
One corner of the painting carried the year it was made—1998. The other, the initials MKK. Modris KaparKalējs always signed his work like that. In awe, the boy realized that his dad had done the painting, although it was far removed from the ornate, impetuous pictures he used to paint at night in the spare room of their city apartment . . . Markus’s eyes started itching; he glanced at Anete’s house. The only lit window there was in the kitchen, yet it somehow appeared just like the glittering, sunny landscape in Grandma’s room—now lost to them forever. His feet were freezing cold and he felt incredibly lonely.
Markus crawled back to his room. Having rubbed the soles of his dirty feet against his shins, he took off his shirt and slipped into bed. He thrust his hands under the pillow and felt for the knife. Then he let his fingers run over the back of his left hand and the already healed cut—MKK. Markus Kaparkalējs. The boy pulled the knife out from under the pillow, flicked it open, and took it in his left hand. Cutting clumsily, he slashed crosses, one after another, from his right shoulder down to his hand—one, two, three, four. The blood ran in warm black streaks down the length of his arm in the moonlight.
Originally published as "Bedre" in the short-story collection Gaismā. © 2016 Jana Egle. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini. All rights reserved.
Latvian author Alise Redviņa portrays a socially awkward office worker searching for true love.
Before Lynn came into my life, I only knew how to love people from a distance, only in my mind, and it was torture to bring myself to demonstrate verbal or physical affection.
My mother was convinced that I did not love her. Even the time when I gave her a bouquet of white lilies and an amber necklace I’d bought by saving my lunch money for a whole year and told her that she was the best mom in the world, she just thanked me dryly and didn’t speak with me the rest of the night. That was all because I once again withdrew when she tried to kiss me on the cheek and made a face when she stroked my head. Something about my mother’s caresses felt unbearable to me, too intimate. I wanted to like them and wished that I could respond sincerely, but I could not even muster a convincing act. I wanted to learn how to touch, but I didn’t know how to do it in a way that did not seem painful and unnatural.
It was the same with all of the women I liked, even with the one before Lynn—Greta. Back then when I was all alone, I would think about her a lot. It was so easy for me to imagine our relationship: my life would not change much, except I would have someone with whom to make dinner, my favorite macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans, and discuss the latest episodes of “Game of Thrones.” And at night, I would kiss not the pillow but Greta. Of course, when I met with Greta in real life, these simple fantasies became impossible. Everything I said I had to consider five times over, as I was afraid of saying something inappropriate, not to mention touching her—I never knew what was allowed, what was not, what she would like, what not. The last time we met, we sat at a brightly lit table in the middle of a crowded cafe, and, unintentionally, I asked her too loudly in front of the waiter if I could hold her hand, after which she got scared and immediately asked the waiter for the bill.
After that, I gave up and decided that my only experience of love would be lonely dreams. I started to look in the other direction as soon as I saw a pretty girl, and had decided that I would spend the rest of my life dining alone. But then—then I noticed and found Lynn.
She arrived in a long cardboard box, lying down. She looked just like the kind of girl that I like best: long, dark red hair, green eyes, a bit chubbier than the models in magazines. Lynn also had an ideal personality: calm and reserved.
On the first day, I just sat her on the sofa and observed with insecurity her curvy limbs and face full of superhuman love. The next day, I started to talk to her. I shared my opinion about the last episode of “Game of Thrones.” On the third day, I touched her hair, and after a few days also her skin. It was soft and smooth, almost too much, but not one hair out of place. With each day my courage grew and I started to kiss her belly, caress her feet, touch Lynn in all of the ways that I had dreamed of touching a woman. Her body, despite being cool and hard, always responded to my touches with complete surrender. If I held Lynn’s hand for a long time, it would warm up a bit. At first this scared me and left me uncomfortable, but soon I started to like it.
I couldn’t take her outside, so my home became our mutual world. Together we prepared macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans, curled up on the sofa, and watched “Game of Thrones” or listened to Tchaikovsky, who was our favorite composer.
When I wanted Lynn to touch me or cuddle up in my lap or kiss me, I always had to fold and arrange her arms and legs myself, since, although she cooperated, she did not show initiative. She used only words to express what she wanted, but Lynn’s wishes were always the same as mine, and her voice was so quiet that I heard it only in my mind.
I am not crazy. I knew that I was the one giving Lynn her words and opinions, I knew that she gave in to my touches because she could not protest. But I liked to fantasize about what Lynn could think and feel, pretending that she wanted to touch me as much as I wanted to touch her. I held Lynn in my grasp, she was real and touchable, yet half-imagined, but all the same it felt like the truest love that I had ever experienced.
Until the moment I met Mary. A real woman in flesh, blood, and mind, who started working at our company as the office assistant, and who eventually I would see every workday. Her hair was not red, nor were her eyes green, but the fact that she tended to smile shyly and clumsily walked into the corners of furniture moved me. From time to time she would come up to my computer monitor, where I was tapping out new programs, and give me some client update or ask what kind of tea I wanted to order for the office. It was difficult for me to answer Mary without hesitating and, after returning home from work, I still could not stop thinking about her beautiful voice, her eyes, which looked straight at me, rather than empty space. Once I lay down in bed, arranged Lynn’s arms on my naked chest and imagined how soft and warm Mary’s hands would be. Lynn could only get such warm hands in a microwave oven. I held Lynn close to my chest and tried to imagine that it was Mary, but Lynn was offended and stiffened even more, and became even colder, and I had to get up and seat her in a chair on the other side of the room.
But the next day I saw Mary again. She smiled and again banged her hip on the corner of my desk. This made me thirst for her touch, to have her next to me, more than ever before, and after work I returned to Lynn. I was angry with Lynn, because I could not imagine Mary in her place, because she lacked warmth, because she was so annoyingly quiet and still and agreed with everything I said and wanted with indifference. Even so, I continued to touch her, I used her with malicious pleasure, knowing full well that she could not resist. Once I thought I detected some expression in Lynn’s eyes—disapproval, perhaps, that someone else now lived in my thoughts.
This is how I suffered, my imagination leaping from one woman to the other. Being at work and speaking with Mary, I sometimes longed to be with Lynn, because with her it was easy after all. I didn’t blush, get tongue-tied, or work myself into a frenzy about what she would think or do. As I increasingly felt Mary leaning out from behind her desk and staring at me, I missed Lynn’s empty, indifferent, uninquisitive eyes. Once, on a Friday, Mary invited me to have lunch with her, when she asked hopefully about my plans for the weekend, and from fear I blurted out that I would be relaxing at home with my girlfriend. Mary lowered her eyes, so did I, and we no longer spoke that day.
When I returned home again to mute, cold Lynn, I of course bitterly regretted what I had said. Lynn just sat there quietly grinning, and I squeezed my hands into fists to avoid grabbing her and throwing her against the wall. But I was incapable of harming a woman, even a plastic woman. That weekend I didn’t even touch Lynn.
Mary no longer invited me to lunch, and she bumped into my desk less often. When she distanced herself, my obsession with her only grew. Once I found the courage to invite her to have lunch with me, but she just smiled shyly and declined, saying that she had quite a bit for breakfast that morning. On other days, when I showed great interest and asked Mary about office paper and coffee supplies, Mary answered politely, but was always very businesslike.
Everything ended—or one could say, finally began—that night when we were celebrating our boss’s birthday at the office. The boss bought a few drinks for everyone and later several colleagues went to a bar, including me and Mary. I was generously soaking my stressed brain in beer and noticed that Mary was drinking more than I imagined her capable of. While others were heading home, I convinced Mary to stay for one more drink. She hesitated, so I immediately ordered two rum and cokes, so that it would be rude for her to leave. And then when we sat down at a corner table, just the two of us, my protective walls came down. I told Mary that actually my so-called girlfriend was not alive and partly imaginary and that I really liked Mary, but was frightened by how alive and real she was. Mary did not understand what I was talking about, but I was afraid to tell her the whole story. I ordered two more drinks and told her about how hard it was for me to hug my mother when I was a child, and about how I didn’t know what to say and where to put my hands when I was together with Greta and all the other women that I have ever liked. Mary nodded her head in understanding. We each had another drink, and with the last sip I found the courage to ask Mary, a little too loudly, if I could show her something at my place. I said it and hoped that Mary would understand completely once she saw it with her own eyes. My enthusiasm, the alcohol, Mary’s realization that she did not live far from me—something convinced her.
When we came into my apartment, Lynn was sitting in the bedroom—in the recliner, thank god, not on the bed. I imagined how embarrassing it would have been if she had been rolling around naked in my unmade bed, and I laughed nervously. But my laughter fizzled when I saw Mary’s serious face, which was looking first at the passionless Lynn and then at me. I waited for her to call me a pathetic lecherous man or something like that and rush out the door, but then Mary started to laugh. Loudly, uproariously, really laughing. And this laughter, although the most wonderful sound I have ever heard, scared me a bit, just like Mary’s experienced, caressing hands when she approached me, having lost her inhibition in her drunken state. But then I glanced one more time at Lynn and remembered that when I was with her, I tried to imagine I was with Mary. I was not successful, and yet I had touched Lynn in all the ways I wanted to touch a real woman. And now I was acting the opposite: I remembered all of my time spent with Lynn and touched Mary in the same ways that I had done with Lynn. I put my palms in all the same places, starting with her hair, moving to her upper arms, her belly, her legs. And Mary let me, she responded to my caresses similarly to how I imagined Lynn would respond: she ran her fingers through my hair, kissed my neck, brushed against my chest. At one point, I noticed that Lynn’s face was turned toward us. I wanted to throw a piece of clothing on her, but then I remembered that she is only a doll, of course, she couldn’t see a thing.
Still, when Lynn’s place in my life was replaced by Mary and we decided to live together, we did not get rid of the doll. Mary learned to live with her. Sometimes we prepare macaroni with cheddar cheese and pecans together and afterward watch “Game of Thrones.” Sometimes Mary argues with me and says that she would rather order a pizza and watch “Sex and the City,” and at these moments, I tend to think about the time I spent with Lynn, secretly putting her hand in mine and smiling about how compliant she was, even if artificial, cold, and helpless.
But when we have guests, we hide Lynn in the closet. They would not understand.
"Linna" © Alise Redviņa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Laura Adlers. All rights reserved.
Listen to Arvis Viguls read his poem "Forgetting" in the original Latvian
The pawn shop, where we sold your rings,
The silver spoons that you got for your baptism
Oblivion smells like ammonia.
We scattered salt on the floor
and our memories
and poured chlorine—on our history.
We buried you so deep,
still come to us in our dreams
and don’t say a word.
The key jiggles in the door.
The dinner table is splitting in half
like a sinking ship out of a film.
With Mom on one side, the other—Dad.
Each one holds on for dear life
to the plate in front of them.
No, that’s not a life preserver.
The chandelier glows in all its brilliance
between the room’s Scylla and Charybdis.
They have put on their best clothes,
leaving their life vests in the closet.
No one gets up from the table
until their plate is empty.
The telephone rings.
The Christmas tree decorations
have scattered on the floor.
they talk about everything else but that at the table
but then the glass balls break beneath their steps
and cut their feet
as they go toward one another—
right through the pain.
It’s the shortest path.
"Aizmiršana" and "Mājas" © Arvis Viguls. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2018 by Jayde Will. All rights reserved.
Listen to It's Cold and It's Getting So Dark, produced by Play for Voices.
(Musical sounds are heard. As if someone were practicing the trumpet. Then a long pause. And the narration begins.)
SPEAKER 1: She wore a gentleman’s hat and with a trumpet in her hand directed a music that was audible only to her. At last you arrived on time. For once in my lifetime. Then she resumed singing, listening attentively to her inner music. She sang without words, syllables whose meanings only she could understand. Her eyes yearned for that which could not be seen.
Until a shimmer of color returned to her skin. Of the color of the earth. Of the wilted fields in winter. Her brow was damp. And beads of sweat streamed from her skin. They rushed down her face. Her voice was like the trace of a knife. Scratchy and thin, it slipped into my ears.
She didn’t want chocolate. She wanted beer instead. Flensburger, she said. Bring me a Flensburger. I didn’t know how important this Flensburger was to her. I went through a lot of trouble to find it. I don’t know anything about beer. I put everything off to the last minute. I didn’t buy it until shortly before I got there. She told me: Be on time. I still have a lot of things to take care of. My life is not terribly varied. But still, I do have to plan it properly.
I didn’t know if I could manage both. To get the Flensburger and to be on time. It seemed as though I had to choose one of the two. But then I got lucky. As if by accident, I managed both.
She set the trumpet down and looked at the clock and laughed as I came in. For once in my life. For once in my life, she said, you made it. You are too punctual!
I had no idea what time it really was. My perception of time had left me in the lurch. On the way to her place, I began to hurry and was out of breath. And if there’s anything I’m really incapable of it’s hurrying.
For once in my life. In my life, she said. I had thought I was late and I became furious. Furious at her, because she had demanded something that put a great deal of strain on me. To be punctual. I was furious at myself. And unhappy at the fact that I interpreted her wish as a demand. To be punctual goes against my subconscious.
I brought you chocolate. Your favorite chocolate, I said. But she made a gesture. Raised her hand, rested it on her breast and pushed it away. She pushed thought away from her. And I watched the tiny chocolates, filled with sweet alcohol and cherries, fade away. Disappear from the view. From her view.
Flensburger, she said to me. I had already unpacked it and was looking for a glass.
The air on the table stood still. It had the consistency of plastic. The air was colored gray. Or was it the table itself that had this wretched color?
The legs of the table upheld an empty surface. As if the sole purpose of a table were to support this emptiness. All of the stains, the breadcrumbs, the food remains were forgotten. A table without a memory. A table that had forgotten its purpose for being. And now she had to sit at such a table.
I can’t sit up any more, she said. I can only lie in bed. Suddenly she seemed to be exhausted. And with her eyes she pointed at this slightly raised surface close to her bed. First she fixed her gaze on the gray table. As soon as I followed the gaze, it slid over the room onto a small lackluster curve by the night table, and then it grew blurry. Lost. Like a piece of ice in a lake. And deep inside it one saw:
SPEAKER 2: He had gotten me the shoes. These shoes that I wished for. Back then I wished for stiletto heels. He had gotten them from his mother’s closet. You can have them, he said. Anyway, she won’t even notice they’re missing. She has too many of them. And when I one day earn money myself, I’ll buy you much nicer ones. I didn’t kiss him as he had hoped. His name was Franz, the same name my father had. And he already went to school. And I thought: one day when I’m old enough, he’ll be the one to get my kiss. It will be for always and forever. I hid the shoes in the barn.
Mother had discovered the shoes and we both got a beating. These shoes only brought bad luck.
SPEAKER 1: A glass of water reflected the pattern of the reddish brown saucer on the night table. And the pane of glass on the night table mirrored a timeless figure. I looked into this mirror. And saw the filtered view of a being that could only be Deborah. Deborah, the way she had always been. And the way she would remain. She grabbed hold of her walking stick and directed its silver tip, shaped like the head of a duck, toward a bottle. Pour me a little, please. The bottle stood next to the water glass and was filled with a reddish juice. A vitamin bomb, she said. They bombard me with visible and invisible ones. With atomic particles and vitamins. Between all of this stuff I’m taking, who knows if one thing can make up for what the other destroys?
Pour me a little. Not from the red bottle. No, from the dark bottle. That one over there, over to the right, over there, to the right. Slow down, not so much. Stop.
She wanted to have the glass next to the red bottle. And she wanted to have the red bottle next to the dark one. Not to the left. Not any closer. No. Also not any farther. And she wanted the pills right next to those. And the slice of crisp bread. For when the acids in her stomach would start to sting. She also wanted to have the beer close by. The Flensburger. Everything within reach.
SPEAKER 2: I still can’t stand beer. Father always smells like beer when I think of him. The memory smells like beer. I sit here in bed and smell father. And I’m repulsed by it.
Thirsty, father said. I am thirsty. Bring me a beer. Bring me a beer from the cellar. I can’t stand this smell. The sweat fermented in his skin and streamed out of his pores, stale and salty. I don’t bring him beer. I bring him water. Before I fill the bottle, I cup my hands under the water like a bowl. Fill the bowl. Fill it with fluid crystals. I sniff this freshness. I slurp it up. New water flows into the bowl. It sprays the stone basin full. It runs over. My feet are wet and so are my shoes. My dress sticks to my legs. I fill the bottles with water and take a drink from it from time to time.
The water shrouds my tongue. It fills my mouth with my own taste. Only when one drinks water can one discover what one tastes like, said Franz, who had the same name as my father. The man I would marry.
Water tastes like happiness. Father does not know this and drinks beer. Nothing in the world has a taste like it. Nothing can top the taste of water. Father does not know this and will never find it out. Because he’s never lived in the city and has never craved fresh water. He always had this well in the cellar and he’d had his fill of water. But one can never drink enough water to be sated. One only learns this when one no longer lives near the well.
I don’t bring him beer. I bring him water. Do you want me to rot, my father shouted at me. Do you want me to drown? Father shouts and throws the bottle against the wall. And he raises his hand and gets like a dragon. A Flensburger is what you have to bring me. That’s what I told you. But we don’t have Flensburger in our Saxon village. That’s right, a Flensburger! Our new gentlemen, our new comrades don’t like its taste!
Water from the well. From the well in our cellar. Our cellar. Our water. Our house. Our country. Sometimes the people from the village would be allowed into our cellar. To drink to their satisfaction. To fill their pitchers. But only when father was not around. Soon you’ll want to have the well that my grandfather discovered. You’ll want to steal his hard work. Soon you’ll want our family well. As national property. You’ll get nothing, you pack of scoundrels. You with your communes.
Mother says, Franz, let the people drink. Let them quench their thirsts. Let them drink to their hearts’ content. Let them have their part. Let’s share with them. Sharing increases the well. And father says, shut your trap, woman. This thirst can’t be quenched with water. And I don’t think much of sharing, anyway. You women always want to share.
I didn’t try a Flensberger until I got to the West. After the fall of the wall. Father was no longer with us. A Flensburger is what you should bring me. He smells like beer. Father. Whenever I remember him.
SPEAKER 1: On her night table lay a broken beer bottle and the smell wafted through the room. Deborah said, I’m not drinking any beer. I’m only smelling it. I’m not smoking any more pipes and no more cigars, either.
But you should smoke one for me. So that I can remember what it felt like.
Deborah wanted to remember everything. This had already started last winter. In the early summer she’d still wanted to travel with me.
SPEAKER 2: I still have to show you my hometown. The well. I want to sit with you on a step in the cellar and wait until the smell of the stew reaches us from the kitchen. To find the place in the cellar where mother keeps the cream. I want to stir the clay pot and spread a layer of cream two fingers thick on warm bread. I want to drink fresh milk. I want to go up the granite steps to follow the smell of the stew and find Mother in the kitchen. Mother, saying to me: you can’t fool me. I know the little kitty that dips into the cream. You have a white moustache.
SPEAKER 1: Everything is still there. The smell of mangel-wurzel is there. The smell of old potatoes. The stink of cows and pig dung, said Deborah. I’ve found it again, said Deborah. I wanted to show you Grandfather’s workshop and the barn, where I let Franz fit the shoe onto my foot and where I danced with him. Franz in his play shorts. With his blond curls.
I wanted to show you the pattern on the door handle. The first door I can remember. The first opening. Doors were always important to me, she said. Her voice was like a shaky veil. Sadness came over her face. Then her mood changed. She suddenly gazed at me with a mischievous look on her face and said: Now you must discover all of this on your own. This is your task. You are not the only one I assign tasks.
Up until the early summer, she had wanted to take me with her on her trip. I had canceled on short notice. I had stood her up. I didn’t know at the time that I would never have the chance again to take a trip with her.
All of a sudden she couldn’t stand the smell of the broken beer bottle on her night table. Pour it out she said. I’ve had enough of it.
SPEAKER 2: The first time I drank a Flensburger was with her. With my love. On the night that changed everything. The night with the wall. I called her right away. She lay in bed. She had sprained her foot and could barely walk. I’ll grab a taxi, she said. But there were no more taxis. Everybody hurried to the gate as fast as they could. Wait for me, my dearest. This time, it will be I who come to you. That way we won’t miss each other. I’m with you, my dearest, I told her, as we embraced each other. And no one will ever be able to keep us apart. I had a hard time believing it, to be allowed to drive through this opening with my Trabi. And no one who would want to shoot at me right after. And the border security just stood around clumsily and didn’t dare to stop us. Everybody hugged, cried and laughed and was ecstatic. And no one knew how the next day would be. And if there would be some terrible awakening.
She packed a couple of Flensburgers with her. It was her favorite beer. I couldn’t stand Flensburgers. But everything was different on this night with her.
She left me. Left me. She said it would strain her to see me every day. With my missing breast. It would strain her to hear my wheezing breath every day. She would feel guilty. My voice. The tumor in my throat. On my vocal chords. And this sound that I make every time I swallow. It unleashed a fear in her. And she couldn’t live with this fear. With this voice that would remind her of death every single day. Of my death. That would remind her of the fact that all of us are mortal. She didn’t want to be reminded of her own death on a daily basis, she wrote when she left me. She didn’t want to be reminded of the grieving she would one day have to experience. When it would get to that point with me.
I got her farewell letter in the hospital. After that I never saw her again. I waited for her the whole time. Waited and waited. My whole life through I waited. For father. For him to return from the war. For him to take me up on his lap. For him to stop drinking beer. I waited for him, who had the same name as father, to bring me back the shoe. And I waited for us to be happy with one another again in spite of everything. For the fall of the wall. For God to help me. To pull me out of the hole. And he did. I couldn’t announce the news on the radio anymore.
I had to strain my vocal chords excessively in order to get through it and to announce to the people the news from all around the world every day. In our country. The news. I felt as though I had a lump of lead in my throat, out of which sticky tentacles grew and numbed my vocal chords. I prayed to I don’t know whom. That he would help me to not have to announce the news anymore. That a miracle would happen. I waited for salvation. My body had liberated me from that. The lump grew wild. It flooded my voice with mold. With a poison. And I could no longer speak. I was relieved. But then came the fall of the wall. And I wanted to live. To conquer the world. To start everything from scratch. The world was born anew and I believed that it would happen to me too.
I wanted to conquer the world with her. With her, the love of my life. I had waited so long for her. And now I am only left waiting for eternity.
SPEAKER 1: Deborah sat in bed, propped up by a pile of pillows. Her skin had gotten translucent. So much so that one could see her cheekbones and her teeth right through it. The skin on her hand had shriveled up. The bones of her fingers were bulging out. Her veins were like hardened strands of blue. Everything about her had gotten small. Only her eye sockets were big. Her eyes were bursting out of them. Alert, oversized marbles. The head itself seemed to have gotten smaller. And on her head she wore this gentleman’s hat. She was small and her head was big. With time the hats got ever smaller and the cigarettes became cigars. Now her body had shrunk like laundry.
From hospital stay to hospital stay she grew smaller and smaller.
Her eyes were getting lighter and lighter. Bigger, brighter. They sucked in the world. As if she wanted to take everything with her. As if she wanted to store everything in her retinas. They were oversized marbles. Bigger. Wider. It looked as though only her eyes wanted to remain. Alert, oversized marbles. Underneath the covers, her legs were impatient.
Her impatience reminded me of my mother. Her intemperate way when I didn’t immediately pick up on what she wanted from me.
That ended with a slap on my face.
I know, I am unbearable, said Deborah.
You are not unbearable. You are only tired.
She was tired from the daily swallowing. And elimination. And from the daily stepping on the same place. From walking and never getting anywhere. One must live in harmony with one’s body. I grasped this too late, she said. My body. I always treated it as my rebellious subordinate. My body and I, we were enemies. I fight with my body on a daily basis. I still believed this up until the summer. I want what it wants. And it wants for me to want no more. One day we must come to an understanding.
She started to get restless. The trumpet. Give me the trumpet. I want to play the trumpet one more time.
Today I had myself rubbed with ointment, she said to me. She let the trumpet fall onto the bed. It didn’t emit any sound. Only a croak. A grind. A scratch of a wound in her own skin.
One day we will have to come to an understanding. My body and I. We’ve agreed on a couple of more days still. One day the time will come when one has to give up. Simply stop. And accept everything. She said. I would like to be a tree. A tree in the wind. That only falls over when it is felled. Now I’m like a crawling bush. A dry juniper.
Are you afraid, I asked her.
The crutches leaned on the bed next to her walking stick. She wanted to have that too. Because it was beautiful. And the crutches, she thought, were so unaesthetic. On the wall hang the other walking sticks. She wanted to look at them all. She wanted to bid them farewell.
I grabbed hold of the crutches. I wanted to help her. My hands were shaking and I dropped them. Just accept it, Deborah said. No one can help me. I have to die on my own.
Are you afraid?
The room was full of books. All of this I won’t read anymore. One doesn’t need to read everything in order to grasp what it’s about. One reads only until one manages to grasp it. Once that has happened, one looks out the window and stares into space.
It took forever for her to grab hold of her crutches. I can still do this myself, she said. And tapped me on the hand whenever I tried to help her. Getting to the bathroom felt like a trip around the world.
I stayed alone in the room with my fear and shuttled back and forth from the chair to the bathroom door. And back to the chair. And sometimes I’d sit back down and swing one leg over the other. Make yourself comfortable, she said from the bathroom. It’s going to take a while. I was afraid. And I asked myself what this fear was about. And if it was that I was afraid that she could die. At this very instant. In the bathroom. And I couldn’t catch her. She could slide right into death. And she would disappear. Completely disappear. And no one would be with her.
Don’t be so tense, she whispered to me. It was a loud whisper, a scream filtered through the layers of tiles. As if it had been sieved of the unessential. Of the unimportant. And as if only the essence of the scream had remained. Its force could not be measured by its volume but by its pain and the exertion that one surmised was behind it.
I was alone and listened attentively. It was dark in the room. She whispered once more from the bathroom: Open the closet, that way you won’t get bored. I have something for you! She didn’t let me turn on the light. You don’t need any light. There’s enough light there. Look inside.
(Music: Valse triste by Sybelius)
SPEAKER 2: The ballroom was overcrowded when I came in. It was my first ball since the Wall came down. It was the first ball in my life. Life no longer seemed to rush past me. I was immersed in its flow and I flowed with it. I had no time to stand still. We were invited by the president of the Federal Republic. And try to imagine somebody who was just as wide as she was tall. And round. That was me. The fall of the wall found me this way. And since I had no wish to hear any more advice on how to lose weight, I designed this dress.
Imagine somebody who was as tall as she was wide. And who rolled into the ballroom on the arm of a very young prince. It was a real prince that I chose for myself. It was a real ball. On the following day it read in the tabloids:
Edmund Prince of T. and T. accompanied the journalist D. to the presidential ball. She wore a red silken Rococo gown. A dress that bore a string of lights. The president of the Federal Republic greeted her among his guests. The prince and the journalist bowed before the president and she pressed a hidden button and her whole dress lit up. She did this every time she was introduced to someone. They were both in very good spirits and danced until the wee hours of the night. And the dress lit up countless times. It seemed as though the journalist had spare batteries on her. Or was it possible that she wore a dynamo underneath the dress? It shone brighter and brighter as she danced.
Even the president of the Federal Republic asked the journalist to dance a waltz with him and the photographers snapped pictures.
(Music escalates from a waltz to something quicker. And ceases. Or it slows down until it becomes quiet.)
SPEAKER 1: She came out of the bathroom with the hat on her head. A man’s hat. She seemed to discover me all over again and removed her hat to greet me. Her wilted hair clung to her head. She set the hat on her night table.
SPEAKER 2: What else can I do for you, my lady? Don’t look at me that way. It isn’t such a bad thing to go through the gate.
I’ve been in front of the garden gate so many times before. In front of the hedges. I stuck my finger and felt the thorn. Pull it out for me, I told my mother back then. But Mother was blind. Mother was deaf. Mother was not there. Pull it out for me, I yelled at the young Franz. But he’d already been long gone. He’d disappeared. He took the shoe back and gave it to somebody else. Never mind that one should never take back a gift. And that it didn’t even fit the other girl’s foot. Her big toe was too long. One toe-length too long. It lay in a package one day in my mailbox. I wasn’t happy about it. And I threw away the toe. Threw it to the cat.
Her foot didn’t fit the shoe. And in the end everyone sang: Oh yay, oh yay. The queen has no toe. O yay. Hurrah!
SPEAKER 1: Come. Why the long face? I’m doing my best to try and get you to laugh. I want to make it easier for you, she told me.
Today I’m going to get up for the last time, she said. From now on, I’m only going to sit. Until everybody is here and I will have taken leave from them. I’ve planned everything. Down to the last detail. I don’t have much time left.
Therefore, everybody must arrive on time. And no one may show up unannounced.
Tell me something about the children. She said. About your son. He’s probably a full-fledged man by now. Does he help out enough? Tell him, otherwise I’ll come to him as a ghost and lay him one on the ears.
Are you afraid, I asked her. What should I be afraid of? She said. I have made a truce with my body. And since then, I’m not afraid anymore.
It’s cold here and it’s getting so dark.
They told me, it’s supposed to be fun up there. Soon it’ll be Christmas. And whoever dies at Christmas, she said, goes straight to heaven. And white lilies bloom up there and it rains roses and jasmines. The ground is full of moss. I’m going to sit on the bench and play the trumpet. The cat will rub against my leg and lie in the grass. I’m going to sit on the bench and breathe in the air. And have time. And think of everything and everybody. And think about how I’m going to do things when I start fresh. I will play the trumpet and never wait for anything again. Because everything will have already happened. And everybody will already be with me. I know what awaits me. Just a couple of more days. But I still have a lot more to do until then. I still have to take care of so many things. Father smells like Flensburger. But I’m not mad at him for that anymore. And to the one who has the same name as father, I’ll gladly leave the shoe.
She should be able to get up a couple of more days still. Up until the end she should still be able to do that. I’m adamant about that she said. At least to be able to sit up. Then she fell asleep. With her mouth slightly open she snored lightly. I took her hand. She was like a breath. The weight of the world had vanished from her. Like a swan feather, she lay in my hand. I laid her on the bed. Everything felt so light. The fear was dispersed. A light flowed out of her, it flowed through the room. It lay over my fear. And painted it gold.
Shortly thereafter she woke up and smiled at me. Go, she said to me. There’s nothing left to say.
On the threshold of the door, I turned around one last time. I was on time. She saved an hour of strength for each one of us. For each one of us, a gift. A memory that we should take with us. I’m laden with my memories. I’ve already been to the garden gate many a time. In front of the hedges. Now I have no more fear. Now, everything is white and flowy. Go. There is nothing more to say.
Before I leave the room, at the threshold I turn around to look at her again. She laughs at me and says. Go now. Then she signals me with her hand and goes into the garden. The door is open. She has a trumpet in her hand. And she waves at me with the others. Then she disappears through an arch of roses.
(Wild waltz music playing in a frenzied crescendo. Then the music ceases to be heard and sudden bursts of freewheeling bands are heard. Valse Triste by Jean Sibelius.)
For production credits, an interview with the author, and more information about Play for Voices, visit the Play for Voices website.
Since her debut novel, Shankini (2006), the Indian writer Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay has been exploring female sexuality with an uncompromising and subversive vision. The radical nature of her works might have contributed to the fact that they remain largely inaccessible in the West—the only title available in translation outside of India up until now was her novella, Panty (2007), which represented Tilted Axis Press’ publishing debut in 2016. In her own country, however, Bandyopadhyay has published nine novels and over fifty short stories over the last decade, and her work has made her a widely discussed and highly controversial author. Now her third novel, Abandon (2008), has just been published by Tilted Axis in a translation by Arunava Sinha (who revised his own previous translation published in 2013 by HarperCollins India). It is an experimental yet human fiction that challenges our notions of the artistic life, and allows us to better understand the furor surrounding Bandyopadhyay’s work.
At the start of the novel, the female protagonist, Ishwari, and her child, Roo, have recently reunited and search the streets of India for shelter. She yearns to write a novel of her own life, but she is poor, her son suffers from severe malnutrition, and she has few job prospects. Ishwari is an example of a fictional character for whom art is not simply a form of escapism from the dreariness of life. Rather, in the Flaubertian tradition, she seeks to live purely for the sake of her art, to engage in experience that would enrich her novelistic creation. It is perhaps unavoidable to see her as a metafictional stand-in for the author: she admits that she is writing the book we have before us. Abandon thus adverts itself as a fiction, a combination of truth and lies, a form of artifice.
As Flaubert quickly discovered when lust and romantic love kept intruding into his hermitic existence, the manipulation of one’s life to serve one’s art is an impossible project. Life is truculent, capricious, and indomitable for even the most resolute of wills. The novel dramatizes the idea that the creation of art demands of the creator a certain amount of self-absorption, cruelty, and willingness to drop one’s attachments. In the past, Ishwari has abandoned her child, supposedly because motherhood suffocated the muse. She is conflicted between the responsibility toward her child and the responsibility toward her art. Ishwari suggests that the choice is often one between compassion and self-realization: “This narrative will continue to shriek as its characters claw their way between the poles of extreme humanity and extreme art.”
Bandyopadhyay ingeniously expresses this conflict as a fragmentation of the mind, a form of schizophrenia. Ishwari possesses a humane, compassionate self and an artistic, self-involved self both grappling for control in the same mind. The artistic persona is dominant and believes that it has invented the more humane Ishwari as a means of functioning in the world. The “I” of the novel is the artistic Ishwari, the Mr. Hyde of the pair, a character capable of manipulation and deceit. She is something of a Scheherazade, a woman barely surviving through the fluent telling of tales. What is important from this unique rendering of the inner life is that the artistic self is the essential self. The artistic consciousness understands the world first and then tries to accommodate itself to reality: “Only I can hear the buzz of crickets in the air. My authentic self is imprinted in my brain, exposed only to me. The Ishwari that Rantideb knows of, that Sukul and Gourohori Babu know of, is only a story. This is the self which needs to be presented at Radheshyam House . . . A person who can ask herself ‘Why am I what I am?’ and receive an answer is capable of creating a new narrative at every sunset.” The narrator suggests the artist peers through many masks and those masks are doffed and shelved in accordance with the circumstances. The artistic self can be monstrous but it justifies itself by reassuring the mind of both the nobility of its purpose and its own authenticity.
Ishwari is the product of an appalling personal history. She has escaped from an abusive, neglectful family and is, from what we can infer, most likely a victim of rape. Adopted and beloved as a child by her foster mother and father, Ishwari became marginalized for the impurity of her lineage when the couple gave birth to a child of their own flesh and blood. Ishwari writes with characteristic fierceness about her attempts in vain to abort her own child: “The truth is: I did not want to give birth to Roo. Roo’s arrival was unintended. I dislike children. You could say I cannot stand them. I made any number of secret attempts to ensure that the embryo lodged in my womb was not born . . . I inserted my hair into my nostrils to induce violent sneezing so that my stomach muscles could put terrible pressure on my uterus and force the foetus out.”
One of the central themes of the novel is the autonomy of the body and how that autonomy is either preserved or lost—in motherhood or sexual encounters. Though Ishwari knows herself to be a highly sexual creature, she often restrains the expression of her own desire. She shamefacedly admits an uncontrollable outpouring of desire when a handsome neighbor appears on his veranda and smokes a cigarette. But when sex does occur, it is on male terms. Ishwari is always the exploited party and often subservient to male desire. Even with the man who claims to love her, a widowed man who hires her as a companion, she quickly loses her excitement and begins to see the sex as a necessary function of her employment: “Over the past month and a half, Ishwari had savoured this love, this eagerness, with every pore in her body, till her wonder dissipated gradually and she grew accustomed to it.” In this novel, sex loses its quality of transcendence. It is a primal act, an act of raw desire rather than a consummation of love. For Ishwari, control over the body may be sacrificed so that the mind can remain pure, autonomous, and possessed by no one else.
Despite all its modern trappings, Bandyopadhyay’s theme is not that novel—the constraint of a female’s self-realization and imagination by moral conventions is a theme as old as Austen and George Eliot. Their protagonists negotiated those constraints but remained within the confines of their patriarchal societies. The novel differs in that Ishwari cannot abide by those constraints and abandons society altogether because artistic creation has become a matter of spiritual life and death. That is, if she cannot create, she cannot live. Society does not let her create, so she must depart from society. One of the greatest accomplishments of this audacious novel is the metaphorical representation of the artistic self as an individual’s dominant life force. The need to create, Bandyopadhyay suggests, is something like a permanent wound—inextricable, smarting with pain, and only denied for so long.
If one has come across any English translations of modern Czech poetry, it is likely to have been something by a member of the Devětsil group, perhaps Jaroslav Seifert, or maybe Vítězslav Nezval. Comprised of young leftist artists and authors primarily living in Prague, Devětsil paradoxically embraced a raucous Epicureanism alongside the socialist ideals of Marxism-Leninism. With the end of the First World War, the group made an ethos out of play, celebrating Charlie Chaplin and circus clowns, cabarets and cocktails, in its various publications. It is far less likely that the present reader will have heard of the radical Catholic Stará Říše community, which formed in the early twentieth century around the publisher Josef Florian in a village of the same name a few hours southeast of Prague, or the poet Bohuslav Reynek, a representative figure of the collective. Stará Říše put out beautiful editions typically dedicated to translation, a shared interest with Devětsil, but in this case the end goal was rather more morose: to preserve something of European culture against the inevitable flood and fire to come. So it was that in the decade of the Roaring Twenties, while Seifert was writing about sticking his head up women’s skirts “in our all-electric age,” Reynek took a more existentially somber approach: “we’re all drunk with grief. / Where we wander we don’t know.”
These lines, from the 1925 poem “A Fool,” open a new collection of his poems in English translation, The Well at Morning, out now from Karolinum Press. This most recent addition to the Modern Czech Classics series offers a selection of poems and prints by Reynek—who worked as an author, translator, and graphic artist—that spans five decades, from the early 1920s through early 1970s. The translator of this new volume, Justin Quinn, rightly states that these deeply religious poems are “untimely,” but he likewise notes that for many readers (like myself) the church is not what will be central here.
Reynek took the pastoral as his great theme, and Quinn’s deft translations alluringly echo the environmental emphasis of some of his own poems. Reynek lived the majority of his life at his family’s farmstead in the village of Petrkov on the Bohemian-Moravian border, and many of his poems included in this collection center around the details of rural life. Dogs and cats and goats and geese roam the pages. There is a “white ox in the yard” and one finds “cobwebs wound round the empty swallows’ nest.” Even at the site of hearth and home, the day of rest requires a cat for comfort, a Sunday’s stillness complete only with “a book and kitten grey / beneath my hand.” (Reynek’s evident love of feline companionship is echoed in the etching “Still Life with Artist” from 1954, which pictures the artist/poet seated with mug and kitten, and also in one of the beautiful black and white photographs included in the book, by Dagmar Hochová. The artist-with-cat motif also conjures an association with the great Czech writer of a later generation, Bohumil Hrabal.)
Images: "Still Life with Artist" and photograph of the poet-artist. Used with permission.
Although the poems are largely depopulated of people, man occasionally emerges in Reynek’s poetry, most notably to do violence to the natural landscape. In “Carpenters in the Wind,” we do not have the good Joseph but “these men / with their axes. // I’ve lost one of my own. / I’m more and more alone. / These men have finished chopping.” So it is, Reynek would seem to suggest here, that Earth’s destruction might come not through any apocalyptic grand finale but rather as a result of the banal, everyday actions that human beings act out upon their lived environment.
Similarly, the earthly element that often rears its head in vengeance in these poems is not the Pentecostal fire one might expect in the work of a poet associated with an “obscure apocalyptic sect” (as the scholar Martin C. Putna describes Stará Říše in an essay at the end of the book) but rather, snow. In a late poem, titled “Saint Martin,” Reynek details the more sinister aspects of the winter tableau:
Snow on the fence. Snow on the cape.
Ice in the hair and on the skin,
on hope, on the bare body’s shape,
across the fields, the days’ chagrin.
Snow falls on human hunger, spreads
on stones as cold as burnt-out coals;
falls on this dog’s unbarking head,
on sparrows perched on odd bean-poles.
An earlier standout beauty of a poem—“Advent in Stará Říše” (from Reynek’s post-World War Two collection, itself titled Snow at the Door)—opens ominously: “In the first snows / you see the print / of the last geese.”
Two poems entitled “November” (one from Snow at the Door and another in Swallows Flown, a collection of poems written between 1969 and 1971) mark the month as the true coming of cold. In the first, November is “a sorrel horse with a white blaze” that looks in upon sleepers restless in their grief but safe inside for the moment. In the second, we are warned that “beyond the fence it’s cold. / Death wants some warmth to keep.” November as a harbinger of loss would seem to be a fascination for Reynek, a month that is also depicted in one of the prints included in The Well at Morning. In a monotype drypoint from 1967, two dark figures beside a farmstead are foregrounded by a gaggle of geese who appear to be about to make their exit stage right, bright white against the overwhelming darkness of the rest of the image. They are as though the earliest flecks of snow, which will fall steadily with their departure.
The sixty-odd pages of poems included in The Well at Morning are followed by twenty-five graphic works by Reynek—all expressionistic drypoint etchings, occasionally hand-colored—that maintain a similar preoccupation as his poems, with farm animals and snowy, still landscapes. Some of the selected images are also more explicitly biblical, with several renderings of the Crucifixion and the Pietà. In a particularly interesting version of the latter, “Pietà with Train Stop” from 1968, the biblical scene is situated within the modern-day setting of Petrkov, where a train in the background pulls into the station and tiny bodies mill about, as Mary grieves alone. A burst of red in the direction of the train station is portrayed in an adjacent description as “glowing autumnal trees,” but it is tempting to interpret the color as the final coming of the promised fire.
Image: "Pietà with Train Stop," used with permission.
The jacket text of The Well at Morning proclaims this volume to be “the first comprehensive book on Reynek to be published in English,” and this is largely true—only one other publication, a dual-language edition of Reynek’s prose poems Fish Scales from 2001 has been dedicated to the author in English. But the supplementary materials in the book—the explanatory texts accompanying the print works, inclusion of four poems by Reynek’s wife, the French poet Suzanne Reynaud (whom Reynek himself first brought into Czech translation), and three essays on Reynek as poet, artist, and translator—risk weighing down the lightness of the bright white sheets of poems that occupy a mere third of the book’s pages. If a major goal was to assert Reynek’s as a powerful voice in twentieth-century European poetry for an English-reading audience, a larger portion of the available space might have been given over to that work, rendered as these poems are so well by Justin Quinn. At the same time, the inclusion of the four bucolic poems by Reynaud (translated here not by Reynek but by David Wheatley), feels a somewhat inadequate gesture, when one considers that not a single volume in the Modern Czech Classics series is dedicated to a female author.
Overall though, this new book marks a unique and welcome addition from a publisher that has done much to bring the works of Czech authors to a wider readership through its thoughtful and attractive editions.
Kazakhstan is the largest country by landmass to emerge from the breakup of the Soviet Union aside from Russia itself, but it has had an undersized impact on world literature. Its rich oral storytelling tradition has so far gone largely unrecorded outside the Kazakh and Russian languages. When we take into account that the region has had very little experience as an independent state but a centuries-long history of colonialism—Mongolian, Russian, and most recently Soviet—we start to understand how it is that no specifically, identifiably Kazakh body of literature has yet surfaced separate from those overbearing influences. Most of what Kazakhstan can claim has already been attributed to the Russians, or the Ottomans, or the Mongols, or the Persians.
The writings of the poets and novelists working within the boundaries of Kazakh socialist realism during the Soviet era have also not generated much interest from abroad. The fresh influx of banned books and translated literature during the perestroika and glasnost years could have transformed Kazakh literature, but it did not do so, at least not immediately. Only much more recently has a greater sense of artistic freedom begun to filter into the writings of Kazakh poets and novelists.
This new writing is still difficult to find, especially in English. Here is our attempt to begin that work with excerpts from two short stories (novellas, really) and one work of nonfiction by three contemporary Kazakh writers stepping outside the bounds of socialist realism. Their stories have similar themes but are written in different styles. Together, we hope, they provide an interesting insight into what preoccupies Kazakh women writing today.
Aigul Kemelbayeva’s novella The Nanny is a landmark: the first work of fiction written by a Kazakh woman to break with the conventions of Kazakh socialist realism. The perhaps-autobiographical story of a Kazakh student of Russian literature trying to survive in Moscow in the months following the collapse of the Soviet Union, The Nanny presents a new kind of protagonist: an uncertain, introverted young woman, whose only source of strength is her multicultural patchwork of knowledge, covering Russian literature, Islamic religion, and Kazakh folk culture.
Indebted to its landmark predecessor, Zaure Batayeva’s novel The School presents a few hectic months in the life of another young Kazakh woman trying to survive in a post-Soviet world. Stylistically, however, it is very different from The Nanny: terse and bare, it follows closely on the heels of its narrator. The story also pushes into new territory thematically, touching upon the low status of the Kazakh language among the Russian-speaking elite, the romantic confusions of the glasnost generation, and the corruption pervading the country’s education system.
Zira Naurzbayeva’s The Beskempir reads like a work of fiction, but, as the author assures us, the old women who feature in the story are real. Here, we present the introduction to the work. The rest of the essay consists of vignettes that give readers an unprecedented glimpse into the intergenerational relationships shaping the lives of so many families in Almaty during the late Soviet era (relationships which, the author suggests, are becoming increasingly rare). Each old woman has her own past and personality. Together they represent not just the complex history of women in Soviet Central Asia, but also what happened to those women as they moved from countryside to city, from communism to capitalism, and watched their children and grandchildren do the same.
All three of the authors showcased here are experienced writers who have plenty to tell us about the culture and time that shaped them, both personally and professionally. We hope you enjoy this look at a changing world from their point of view.
Zira Naurzbayeva pays homage to an older generation of women struggling to make the transition from village communities to urban living in contemporary Kazakhstan.
Listen to Zira Naurzbayeva reading an excerpt from "The Beskempir" in Russian.
The roar, filled with anger and a hot wrath, changed into a long, sad howl. My horror was quickly replaced by doubt, because that scream had sounded on a sunny summer day in Academgorodok, somewhere among the brand-new, pink seashell–trimmed buildings of the academic institutes and the housing units for the people who worked there.
I came here fairly often after class and during breaks to help my mother fill in her daily data on the ten square yards of peach graph paper that lined one wall, help her plot out every new data point and connect the dots in pencil. This dreary job, which demanded not just precision but also constant strain on the eyes, was too much now for my mother, who was only working a quarter of her former hours. Her sense of responsibility and her pride prevented her from rejecting this hellish burden altogether, and her bosses, all yesterday's graduates she had nurtured herself, tried not to notice it. That was why I was at the institute and heard that shriek through the open window.
I looked at Mama. But, contrary to her usual habit, she offered no explanation right away. She looked down, guiltily, somehow, and did not speak. The woman who shared her office did not speak, either. The scream came again. Now I knew for sure it was a person screaming. Mama winced so noticeably that I couldn’t ask my question out loud. I went on working on the graph paper, sorting out possible explanations in my mind. A cry of sorrow? The weeping of some alcoholic in the heat of delirium? A domestic quarrel, some scandal or fistfight? Someone who was just plain crazy?
That evening, when it was just the two of us on the way home, Mama finally found the strength to tell me. It turned out it had been a Kazakh woman screaming, in the apartment building across the way.
A woman working in the Institute of Biology had been in line to be assigned an apartment, and in order to get a bigger one, she had registered her mother as living with her, though she actually lived back in the aul. A lot of people did that back then. Just to be safe—in case the committee showed up unexpectedly or someone reported her—she talked the old woman into staying with her there in Almaty for a while. Her elderly mother was in a hurry to get home. She was lonely in the city, she wasn’t used to it. But her daughter talked her out of it, telling her she needed to stay a little while longer. What if one of the neighbors decided to file a complaint? They’d take the apartment away again. After putting up with it for a while, the old woman made her preparations to go home for good. But by then, she had nowhere to go. Her daughter wanted a new lifestyle to go with her new apartment, and on the sly, she sold her parents’ house in the old aul and used the profits to buy some furniture. What was the big deal, she thought? Why should the old woman live in poverty all alone in that distant village, stoking the oven and lugging buckets of water around? Let her live with her daughter in this apartment in the city and enjoy all the comforts and conveniences.
What else could she do? The old woman agreed. Academgorodok was located, back then, in the middle of an uninhabited green space. Below was the Botanical Garden, to the right were the vacant grounds of the Kazakh State University campus. Since the old woman was used to moving around all day, and being closer to the earth, she started to go out for walks. But problems arose. All her life she had lived in one place, in a tiny aul on the steppes, and now, in her old age, she could not possibly learn to get her bearings in a new, unfamiliar location, among these thick groves of trees and multistory buildings, which all looked identical to her. A few times, she got so lost that the whole building went out searching for her. They’d nearly called the police. Finally her walks were restricted to the courtyard of the building.
Then there was a new tragedy. In the far-off aul, where strangers were extremely rare, she had never once locked the door, and that meant that here in the city, too, she was always forgetting to lock up or leaving her key somewhere. Her daughter finally took her key away for good. When the daughter left for work in the morning, the mother walked out into the courtyard with her, sat down on the bench, chatted with people walking by, and kept at it until her daughter came home. The neighbors felt bad for the old woman and invited her in for tea. But the daughter didn’t like it that her mother was going in and out of the neighbors’ places like some homeless beggar, so now when she left for work she left her mother shut up alone in the apartment.
At first the old woman still wandered the courtyard in the evenings, but the new climate and her new way of life had their effects on her health, and she grew weaker and weaker. Climbing the stairs to the fifth floor was becoming too difficult. When winter came, she stopped leaving the building. Her solitary confinement in the stone box clouded her mind. Now, from time to time, she walks out onto the balcony of her apartment, and she stares at the far-off mountains, and the gardens all around her, and the people going about their business below. And she wails.
In the Almaty of the 1960s and 70s, the older generation in Kazakh families was represented, almost always, by a sole grandmother, an azhe or apa, widowed by the war. If the husband had survived the war years, then the old folks usually lived out their lives together in the aul. But their grown children tried as hard as they could to get the widowed old women to move to the city, mostly to help raise the grandchildren. Love was also a factor, of course, as was a desire to avoid being accused of leaving an old woman all alone.
It’s only now that I understand how hard it was for our grandmothers to settle in this strange city of stone, where a completely different set of morals is in force, where you needed to stand in a suffocating line of people for hours on end to receive a five-pound bundle of bones wrapped in cellophane, where your grandchildren might not know a single word of your native tongue.
City life itself was more than just unusual to them. It went against their traditional upbringing and their sense of decency. We knew a man who came from my mother’s village. He was a colonel in the KGB, and when his mother came to visit, he used to have to escort her to the bushes, right there in the center of the city, early in the morning and late in the evening, because the idea of handling any physiological needs inside the house was shocking to her. “God forbid my son or my daughter-in-law or my grandchildren hear me making noises!” she would say. It was a comical situation in a way, and just one example, but essentially it was a collision of worldviews.
The psychologist Erik Erikson described how Native American girls educated in boarding schools often developed depression due to the differing concepts of cleanliness in their own families and at school. For Indian mothers, the ritual cleanliness of their daughters was very important, while for the white teachers, the essential thing was sanitation and hygiene. As a result, the teenage girls felt dirty in both places. The native people also believed that excrement needed to be exposed to the cleansing effects of sunlight and wind, and they were horrified by the white people’s habit of burying their filth and letting it rot in one single place. We city-dwellers can easily imagine what the white people thought about the Indians. But the first thing Kazakhs did when it became possible to remodel their urban apartments during perestroika was to change up the bathroom. They tried to move the door to the lav, so that it would open up into the entranceway, rather than into the same little corridor as the kitchen. In newer apartments, the doorway to the guest toilet is often in the line of sight of anyone sitting at the table in the big room off the main hallway. That still bothers people who retain the rudiments of their traditional upbringing.
The colonel’s mother never could get used to the city. She moved in, plunged into depression, and began calling my Azhe, my mother’s mother, and asking her to come visit. My Azhe tried to straighten her out. Sure, this place can turn your stomach, but it’s not as if I can arrange a proper welcome feast for you. Come now, your son’s at work day and night, your daughter-in-law’s in the hospital, think of your grandchildren, let’s at least go to the store and buy some groceries. But the crowds in the store and the need to make the rude saleswomen understand what she wanted in Russian were terribly frightening to my grandmother’s friend. She left, while our Azhe put down roots here in Almaty. But only she herself knew what that cost her.
In the late 1980s, she and I watched a TV show together, about a Turkish village holiday with horse racing and everything. Azhe’s reaction took me by surprise. She sighed, and her only response to what she saw on the screen was, “Look how lucky they are, living on the flats!” She herself, in her younger days, had occasionally given in to her son-in-law, a public instructor in tourism, and went off on hikes in the mountains with us. But the stately beauty of the Alatau turned out to be less than inspiring for a native of the flat steppes.
Deprived of their old way of life and everyone they had known since childhood, our Kazakh grandmothers tried to recreate their world in the city. Children and grandchildren were all well and good, but Kazakhs consider their peers their own people, while later generations are some lesser, stranger tribe who have come to settle in an abandoned camp. An old man who has outlived his friends is a person who has been accidentally left behind after his clan has moved on, forced to live as a guest among these new settlers. This is the constant face of a traditional culture.
Picking up and moving to the city to live with their adult children uprooted these old widows, both socially and psychologically, and they often ended up the hostages of their children, whom city life had turned cruel. Pride prevented them from going back home to the aul and admitting, publicly, that things weren’t too good with their children.
When I was little, and even in my teen years, Azhe was the most important person in my life, so I judged people almost exclusively on the strength of their relationship with my grandmother. I saw how a coddled city teen who caused his parents endless problems could be perfectly happy to squat down to help his azheka put her shoes on and lead her out to the courtyard, and ring her friend’s doorbell, and then bring her back up to the fourth floor, say, and how he could do that every single day. I watched my own Azhe return abashed to our place after trying to express her sympathies to the family when one of her friends had died. She was ashamed because that family was experiencing no grief, and needed no sympathy. But it was the old grandmas themselves, each and every one of them, who were most interesting to me.
One of my lifelong friends told me, recently, that in a lot of ways, I was still a child. “But at the same time,” she said, “you are much older than I am. Sometimes you seem ancient to me, older even than my mother.” That is probably true. I remember that when I was a teenager, I preferred spending time with little kids or ninety-year-old women rather than with my own peers. But there are still things I could tell you about the world that had already begun to disappear. Almost none of those Kazakh azhes now remain.
It’s now been a long time since some scholar or other determined that the Kazakh word kempir—“old woman”—was etymologically derived from the two words kam and pir, where kam means shaman, and pir refers to a spiritual teacher or a supernatural benefactor. Presumably, the word kempir originally meant a benevolent master of the elements and other natural phenomena in the guise of an aged woman. Later the meaning lost its loftier connotations and became what we have today.
Indo-Europeans have their male thunder gods, like Zeus or Thor, but the Turkic peoples have a kempir, what we might call a “thunder grandma” today. Kazakh scholars have noted this sort of matriarchal orientation in Turkic and Prototurkic mythology. The Turks—hunters, herders, and warriors all—bowed down before their mothers. All this means that Beskempir could well be the title for some sort of ancient pantheon of gods.
One basic element of this mythology is the custom of taking newborn babies, born to families where the children frequently die, and passing them between the legs of three or four old women. Now this custom is explained as a way to confuse death. The original idea, though, was to show that the child had been born of these “masters of the elements” and shared their strength. The first Kazakh Olympic champion, Zhaqsylyq Üshkempirov, got his last name from this tradition.
Here in Almaty, our Kazakh azhes did not feel like goddesses, or even first wives or matriarchs, but their fates, at the end of their lives, were inextricably woven into the enormous tapestry of city life. Sometimes it worries me that in the fuss of our everyday routine they might finally be forgotten, and I repeat their names, or actually their nicknames, since they rarely called each other by their true names, in deference to an ancient taboo. Nyanya-apa. Astarkhan sheshe. Sary kempir. Öskemen kempir. Oficerdyn kempiri. There are others we lost earlier than our Azhe, and I remember them only dimly; in their lifetimes, for me, they were just her friends. Those who outlived Azhe, the ones I invited to her wake, lent their warmth and their respect for our grief to help me through the darkest period of my life. When the last of them departed, the quick-witted, boastful Ofitserdyn kempir (by then I had learned her real name: Nurganym), my door to that world closed forever.
© Zira Naurzbayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.
When her students refuse to learn Kazakh at school, a young teacher loses her job and is thrown into financial difficulty in this short story by Zaure Batayeva.
My heart leapt to the top of my head. On the announcement board in the entrance hall, the principal of the school, Blizhneva, had hung a piece of paper. Shynar Sagyman is dismissed from her position as teacher of Kazakh and ethnic literature for violating labor regulations. In the middle of May? The eleventh-grade boys behind me were giggling. Why had she made it so public? I was still staring at the board when the secretary approached me, smiling, and said, “Hello, Shynar! The principal would like to see you.”
Blizhneva, big as ever, was sitting at her desk, stubbing her cigarette on an ashtray.
“Have you seen the order?”
“I suppose I don’t need to explain to you why.”
“Good luck, then. But remember: you will not fit in anywhere with such an attitude.”
“Thank you for the kind wishes.”
“Мaria Alekseevna will calculate the rest of your salary. Good-bye.”
I slammed the door and said to myself, “I will not die without your miserable salary.” But the arrogant voice in my head quickly disappeared. Why hadn’t I apologized? She might have changed her mind.
Recently the eleventh-graders had prevented me from conducting a lesson.
“Who needs Kazakh? We are moving to Russia anyway. Who wants to study Kazakh when we could be learning English?” they asked. When I replied that the subject was part of the curriculum and not up to me, the students made such a fuss that I left the classroom and went to the vice-principal’s office.
“Natalya Nikolayevna, please speak to them. I need decent working conditions to conduct my lessons. How much time can I spend fending off their complaints? Examinations are approaching fast.”
“If you cannot handle fifteen students, why are you even teaching? Pedagogy is about finding the right approach for the children.”
I wondered why she gave me a response that was so patently untrue. We both knew why the Russian students in this school were resisting my lessons. But I held back the wave of angry words rolling toward my tongue and replied as calmly as I could.
“I don’t have enough experience. That is why I came to you to ask for help. If you don’t go with me to the classroom, I will not return there.”
Natalya Nikolayevna glared at me but remained in her place. I too stayed put, sitting upright as if I had swallowed a stick, until the end of the class period. No doubt Natalya Nikolayevna had reported this incident to Blizhneva.
The school’s accountant, Maria Alekseevna, said that I would receive the 6000 tenge they owed me only in the middle of June. This was bad news. I had already used up my teaching salary to pay for English lessons and my graduate-school stipend to pay for my daily living expenses. My stipend had run out in April. I had to find a new job immediately. Not wanting to spend money on minibuses, I went around the city on foot. “I can teach Kazakh and Russian. I’ve just finished a graduate program on literature. I can give lessons. I also speak a little English.” My advertising did not impress anyone. My pair of leather shoes, which had turned from festive shoes into everyday walking shoes, were hurting my feet. I bought sandals for 2000 tenge. Made of braided leather straps, with open toes and middle-height heels, they were lovely.
At home I put them on with my blue skirt and scampered over the mirror in the hallway. I had forgotten my troubles for a moment when the owner of the apartment, Bayan, came in and looked at my shoes.
“Could you not find anything cheaper? You have not paid for your room yet.”
“Bayan, can you please wait a little longer? The school said that they will pay me by the middle of June.”
We worked together at Blizhneva’s school. It was Bayan herself who had offered me to a room to rent in her apartment, for a good price, so I would keep her company. She was thirty-eight, unmarried, and lonely. We chatted once in a while, but she spent most of her free time watching Brazilian soap operas.
When I entered my room, my eyes fell on my books and dictionaries piled up on the table and I tried to calm myself down. It is all right, I told myself. I would find a job. Julio Cortazar’s novel Hopscotch, in an acclaimed Russian translation, was lying on the table. I had spent six months trying to obtain it from the library, but now I had no desire left for reading.
The middle of June came. I called the school.
“Мaria Alekseevna, I would like to stop by.”
“Unfortunately, we have no money at the moment.”
I took the golden earrings and the necklace that were a graduation gift from my mother to a pawn shop, where they were assessed at a total of 3500 tenge. I knew this was too little, but I left them there, hoping to buy them back later. I had not paid rent for two months. I would have to borrow money from someone. I did not dare to ask Dina or Karla. Maybe Bolat? When I told him that I sold my gold jewelry, he did not say a word. So I gathered all my courage and went to Kulimkhan.
After graduating from art school, Kulimkhan had rented two rooms in the building of the former Institute of Economics and had started her own clothing business. Now she had her own office, plus an accountant and a secretary. Kulimkhan came from a simple family. When she was a student, she had to work as a cleaning woman. She was the only one of nine siblings who had improved her lot in life. Now she was paying for the education of two younger sisters and all her relatives depended on her. When I entered her office, she and I hugged. She addressed me, as always, in Russian, even though she didn’t pronounce Russian words correctly. Her secretary brought in a teapot and two cups. We sat down and chatted about this and that. I complained about my situation. She listened silently, while drawing on the paper in front of her.
“Everything will be fine. You will find a job.”
“How? I have no connections. My parents are far away. And anyway, I would not dare to bother them with my troubles.”
“You are spoiled. You hired a private English teacher. That is a luxury I could never afford.”
“I think it’s a necessity. As we say, if time is a fox, become a hunter.”
I hesitated, then launched my question.
“Why don’t you hire me? Why don’t you help me?”
She dropped her pencil and sat back.
“Are you asking me to hire you? You have arms and legs, you have an education, and yet you are asking me, a stranger, to help you? Go and find your own place. Or are you one of those parasites that cannot survive without family connections? I thought you were stronger than that!”
I had not expected this answer. When we used to get together as students to recite verses, Kulimkhan was always among the more sentimental members of the group. But having grown up in scarcity, she had no patience for whining and self-pity. Her eyes were full of disdain when I mumbled good-bye and left.
English was my life jacket right now. I had prepaid twenty-five dollars, enough for five more English lessons. With no money left, I thought I had better not waste a second of my next lesson. I hurried into an old, almost abandoned building next to St. Nicolas church. Every time I entered the building, the smell of mold provoked a feeling of sadness in me. I had no idea what function the building had served before, but the green carpet on the floor indicated that it must have been an institution of some importance in the Soviet era. A ministry, perhaps? My teacher’s name was James. I had found him through a newspaper advertisement. James had told me that he was from Canada, but I suspected he was actually from Nigeria or South Africa. To me it made no difference. I just needed someone to speak English with. Right now it seemed crucial that I pass the IELTS exam and obtain an English teaching certificate. English teachers received better treatment and a higher salary.
When I entered the room, James was explaining something to a young girl. I greeted them and sat down in my usual place. I took out my notebook of new words and started reviewing. Almost ten minutes passed before James came to me and gave me an assignment, after which he returned to the girl immediately. Soon I understood that James had decided to feed me silent exercises.
“James, why are you teaching this girl during my lesson? Did we not agree that I would pay you five dollars for an individual lesson?”
“She has nothing to do with your lesson. Keep working on your assignment.”
“I didn’t pay you five dollars for silent exercises, I paid you to speak with me.”
The girl shook her head: “Are you not ashamed? How can you be so rude?”
Weeks of anger poured out of me.
“You don’t care if I put my entire salary into your pocket. Do you realize that I could have given it to my parents, whose pension is miserable? That I could have spent that money on myself? Why don’t you give me what I paid for?”
James was stunned. I put my papers in my bag and stood up.
“James, you owe me twenty-five dollars.”
Kulimkhan called. She was preparing for an exhibition of national costumes that she had designed herself and that would soon travel to Poland. She said she would pay me fifty dollars if I translated the costume descriptions into English. I used all my dictionaries and translated the ten short texts word by word. Kulimkhan was very precise at describing her designs. This exhibition must be very important for her. She could have hired a professional translator, but she trusted me. The quality would have to be excellent. I would need to have it edited. How about James? When I walked into his office, James was alone.
“Hello! Why didn’t you call first? If you want to continue, we need to reschedule your lessons.”
“I came here because I need you to edit these texts.”
“Don’t you remember that you owe me money?”
I put the papers in front of him and sat down. James remained silent for a while. Then he shook his head.
“All right. You can pick them up tomorrow morning.”
While I was leaving the room, he said to me in Russian: “You will go far!” His comment made me smile, but I had no idea what “going far” could possibly mean in my case.
Little Dina's birthday party would begin at three o’clock. I had put on my long skirt with small green and red flowers, a greenish top, and my new sandals. I had looked in the mirror and liked what I saw. Big Dina always tells us to be late. She says that coming on time makes you look less important. She must have picked up this wisdom from a women’s magazine. I’ve never been able to test her advice, because I'm never late. At five to three I arrived at the corner of Abay and Altynsarin streets. Fifteen minutes later I saw Bolat get out of a taxi. He lifted his glasses and smiled.
“Have you been waiting for long?”
Bolat had bought flowers for Dina. At the party I tried to hide my state of mind. I could not tell my friends that I had been fired. Their careless, laughing faces irritated me. I walked out with Bolat.
“They kicked me out of my job. I could have stayed, but I did not want to apologize.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I'm looking for work.”
“Hmm. . . Who does things in that order? You should have found a new job first.”
He hadn’t told me what I wanted to hear. I had expected a different reaction, something like, “Why look for a job? Let's get married!” Suddenly I understood that I had been waiting for this moment, thinking that my problems would be resolved at once. How could I have been so superficial? I was in big trouble.
© Zaure Batayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Zaure Batayeva and Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.
During the dissolution of the Soviet Union, a Kazakh university student in Moscow takes up work as a nanny to support herself in this excerpt from a novel by Aigul Kemelbayeva.
In September of my last year at the university, political reforms transformed the whole world. I did not immediately understand the problem, sudden as it was. The seventy-year-old fortress of the Soviet Union cracked. Each of its fifteen wings collapsed, and this resulted unavoidably in economic crisis.
It was becoming quite clear to me that I had never been taught to step outside my beloved literature and look at the real world. Now the real lessons were beginning. At first I was too startled to really grasp it. In a cruel trick, a money order arrived at the dormitory, my student heart rejoiced, and I rushed to the post office to cash it. In the palm of a post office employee that weighty sum evaporated into thin air. ‘‘This transfer is unauthorized,” she said. “We no longer hand out money from Kazakhstan. It will all be sent back.” Her words sounded like a court sentence. What nonsense was this? Thinking that she must be joking, I showed her the piece of paper and my passport again. How could they send back such a large amount of money that had been sent personally to me? It was ridiculous! What right did she have to deny me the money that belonged to me? But soon it was very clear that this situation had nothing to do with the post office clerk.
What was to be done? Who was to blame? Terrible, rebellious queries stuck in my throat and started sucking my blood like a leech. You can’t survive in a megalopolis with no money. That blatant reality grew stronger every day. Soon after, the same cursed post office denied me 30,000 rubles sent by telegram, then 90,000 rubles transferred conventionally, and then, in the middle of November, 50,000 rubles that my mother sent, hoping her third attempt would finally work be successful. All the paperwork for those transfers was written out in my name. The proverb was proving true: Even if it rains cloth, a slave won’t get a piece big enough for an insole.
Suddenly I felt like a character from Kafka. Society had adopted an anti-Utopian model, and its slogan was: no more transfers from Kazakhstan to Russia. I found out later that Kazakhstan had left the ruble zone. Kazakhstan was a foreign country now, and it was going to print its own currency, the national tenge. Maybe it had already started! Apparently the world’s bureaucrats, sitting in their offices, had decided that the student community should die of hunger. All I could do was ask God to give me patience, sabyr. For the first time I was cornered. I couldn’t look at life with the traditional Kazakh view. The technological age regulates social relations with its robotic fingers, and it does not give a damn about your naturally noble spirit.
There is always a way out of any crisis, so really, there is no use despairing, getting eaten up by worry. And patience is gold, of course. Lilya from the translation department was already working as a nanny, but while she worked she hadn’t touched her thesis, and now time was pressing her hard. She could no longer do the job every day and needed a partner to take turns with her.
Close to February, Lilya took me to the apartment where she worked, so I could get my first glimpse of the new era. The whole metro ride there, I felt sorry for myself, astonished by my situation, feeling like my head was suddenly locked in a halter, that there was no way I could break loose. But I also knew that if the owners of that apartment saw me as a stranger and would not hire me, then I would continue starving, destroy my health, and have that burden for the rest of my life. I was stuck: if I pulled one way, my bull would die, and if I pulled the other, my cart would break. The idea of being enslaved by strangers in the long days of winter was depressing. But, as they say, in three days a person can get used to anything, even the grave, so I had to hope for the best.
When Lilya rang the doorbell, my heart was in my mouth. A pale young woman with a long bob opened the door. Her face seemed so familiar—she was a Kazakh, and her name was Jamal. But that did not make me happy to have come. Lilya had told me the woman of the house was not pretty. That meant Lilya’s understanding of beauty was wildly inaccurate. This woman was a little over thirty, with a straight nose, hazel eyes, and beautiful eyebrows. Her body was petite. But she looked tired. She was wrapped in a long blue gown with white stripes that went down to her feet, as if she were cold. Lilya must have told them she was bringing me, because she greeted us indifferently and cheerlessly, gesturing that she had a headache.
Just then a little girl jumped out from behind her like a kid goat. Her eyes were shining and her carefree childhood was smiling cheerfully on her face. “Rita, turn off the TV. Haven’t you finished watching your cartoons?” said the mother to the daughter. “Go and do your English, your father will quiz you tonight.” She said a few words to Lilya about some household chores and then went back to sit at her computer in the bedroom.
Lilya had already told me everything she knew about this family. Nine-year-old Rita’s father was a Russian and her mother was a Kazakh. The mother worked as an economist at a big commercial firm. She was a close friend of a Tatar acquaintance of Lilya’s, which is how Lilya originally found the job. Lilya did not know what sort of firm it was, and she didn’t care. Rita’s mixed blood does not show at all. Her eyes are green, her skin is white, and her hair is not totally blond, but sort of brownish blond. She looks more like a Balt than a Slav. It seemed safe to predict that she will be a pretty girl when she grows up. When she caught sight of me, a new nanny, she lingered around in that manner peculiar to children, and we talked a little to get acquainted.
That day, it was my job to clean the room where Jamal was sitting. Even though it was not a pleasant feeling, I soaked a dustcloth in a bucket of water and started wiping up dust. Finishing quickly and escaping became the most pleasant thing I could imagine. While dusting around Jamal, I tried not to look at her, because the unhappy, annoyed mood of the young woman staring at the computer was easy to sense. But just then I was having a hard time paying attention to other things: I was obsessed with myself. I could almost hear a voice judging me. “This is what you get for your overweening desire for the pen, your punishment for listening to your passion and choosing writing,” that voice crowed. “Creativity cannot be innocent. So don’t be so surprised at being punished! You deserve it! You should not have been so vain, so ambitious!”
But the haughty look of this woman, using me as slave labor here in this modern time, made me angry. “Damn you, you bourgeois fool! One day I will be a world-renowned writer!” I thought to myself. But I knew that was the whimpering puppy of powerlessness talking, and a more kingly soul would be more forgiving.
“A writer needs all sorts of material from life, and this incomparable experience is yours!” some hypocritical inner voice told me, suddenly sounding as excited as if it had found seven hares underground. What can I say? I was experiencing mixed feelings—pity and sorrow for myself, joy at having found a way to make money, shame and surprise at having my leisure stolen from me. In the meantime, it seemed unspeakably odd and humiliating to be crawling around on all fours, up and down, now with a wet cloth, now with a dry cloth.
In two hours we made that two-room Moscow apartment shine like a mirror. We had scrubbed every tile in the bathroom, and the clean sheets and Rita’s freshly laundered clothes were hanging on a rope over the balcony. We had ironed the laundry that was already dry. Why do people refer to such cleanliness as “German”? Is cleanliness the attribute of just a single nation? The world could really use the cleanliness of the nomads. When those chores were done, Lilya and I started taking care of lunch in the kitchen. We warmed up some borscht we found in the fridge, and Lilya, apparently right at home, put butter, bread, cheese, and jam on the table. That must have been the first time in fifteen days that I had decent food. After the meal, I remembered what my grandmother used to say: God creates every person with his own share in the world. But feeding myself in someone else’s kitchen still bothered me.
When Jamal’s husband opened the door and walked in, we were drinking tea. Lilya quickly jumped up and took two of the three bags that he was holding.
“Hello,” he greeted us softly. He was a friendly man about the same age as his wife. He was tall and had typically Russian features. Compared to his wife’s slimness and fragility, he was much healthier and showed no traces of tiredness.
“Papa! Did you bring the movies?” shouted his daughter from the other room.
“Yes, Rita. Here, come and get them.”
Rita rushed in and immediately read the titles. They were Walt Disney cartoons. What else but Tom and Jerry could interest a nine-year-old girl? Then she ordered her father, who was just taking off his jacket, to turn on the video player.
“You will not watch more than forty minutes,” warned her father.
Lilya was still putting away the groceries he had brought home. It was obvious that he chose only the best fruit. The rich color of the oranges, the size of the green apples, big as bowls, the peels on the bananas—everything indicated deliciousness. Clearly, all the fruit was for Rita.
After lunch, Jamal let us go early. Still wrapped in her fleece robe, as if all her young energy had been sapped by her computer monitor, or as if she simply never got enough sleep, her face sad and suffering, she handed 5000 rubles to each of us.
“Girls, I was supposed to spend 5000 per day for a maid,” she told us wearily. “Today I’m paying 10,000 rubles. From now on, I’ll need you to come one at a time.”
“Thank you,” we said. I was glad, but my voice sounded a little embarrassed.
No doubt she was obeying her Kazakh nature when she accepted the extra expense that day.
I won’t lie—those bluish banknotes made me feel dizzy. For months, all sources of cash, except for my student stipend, had been blocked. And I’m wasteful by nature, because there is nothing more humiliating than counting change. Right after high school, I won a literary contest and my story was published. I received a big award and decent royalties. But I wasted that money, spending it frivolously. A big portion of my award was distributed among relatives by my mother as suinshi, and the rest was spent on the feast we gave to celebrate. I spent the royalties myself, buying expensive clothes for my sister, who was about to be married. I could have saved that money and bought a small apartment on the outskirts of Almaty. But I’ve never been able to see into the future.
I wondered if I should be worried about the unseemly way in which I was now earning money. It was the first time in my life that I had to take a job as an actual laborer, cleaning someone’s floor and washing their dishes. But the texture of that blue banknote seemed to have the magical power to heal the wounds in my soul, and erase all my whining and complaining before it poisoned me. Sabyr nested in my heart like a swallow. Sabyr would carry me to my goal.
The translator would like to acknowledge Zaure Batayeva's generous advice regarding this translation.
Excerpted from The Nanny © Aigul Kemelbayeva. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.
Not long after I returned to work following the birth of my baby, I was reading the news during my morning commute when I came upon a sentence containing the verb “to cling.” It wasn’t a sentence to savor or reread, just a description of something happening in the background. But I was unable to move forward. My eyes teared up, my heart raced, my body reacted to this word.
During those early weeks of nurturing a tiny, clinging baby, an otherwise commonplace verb had taken on new power and could somehow bypass my intellect to produce surprising physical effects. Parenthood, which already dominated much of my waking (and sleeping) life, had also invaded what was once a very private experience: reading. And if a single word like cling could elicit such a visceral response, I soon learned that stories that were explicitly about the joys or trials of parenthood could quickly transform me into an emotional mess.
I asked our editors for trigger warnings on pieces about children in peril and hoped the rawness of my new parenthood would eventually fade (it hasn’t really). But I also found myself looking around and wondering: if I was going through this, were other parents, too? In becoming a parent, I’d forged an utterly generic but almost painfully specific connection to parents around the world, and I was newly drawn to writing that explored this experience at once singular and universal.
By some estimates, parents make up over 80% of the adult population worldwide. A more universal experience is hard to imagine, and chances are that even if one hasn’t been a parent, they’ve had a parent affect their lives somewhere along the way. The intensity of the parent-child relationship, with its high emotional stakes, life-and-death responsibility, and inescapable physical proximity, makes for powerful stories.
For this special issue of Words Without Borders, we searched our archive for stories where the parent-child relationship plays a central role. Making a selection proved a difficult task: we’d published dozens of stories over the years that fit the bill. The ten pieces ultimately chosen, by writers from as many countries, portray the isolation, the anxiety, the challenges, the pain, and the absurdity of modern parenthood. Though their contexts couldn’t be more diverse—from suburban Finland to rural Madagascar, with stops in Argentina, Syria, Spain, Tibet, Brazil, Iran, Mexico, and Belgium—the parents in these tales struggle with questions faced by parents everywhere: What is my identity now that I am a parent? How can I help my child succeed and thrive? How do I protect my child from pain and suffering? How do I continue living if my child dies?
The narratives here explore the full scope of parental phases, from pregnancy to adulthood, and the shifting dynamics that characterize each. Argentine writer Samanta Schweblin is best known for her hallucinatory novel Fever Dream, in which a dying woman recounts events at the urging of a shadowy boy not her son. At one point he asks her why mothers always "try to get out in front of anything that could happen.” In "Preserves" she depicts one such mother, half of a married couple facing an unplanned pregnancy. The baby is not unwanted, simply a few years early—she “jumped the gun,” as the conflicted mother sighs. This problem of timing leads to a solution both elegant and totally unexpected.
Cristovão Tezza’s “The Eternal Son” follows a new father into the delivery room, where he receives news no parent wants to hear. Reeling, “he learned the power of forever. . . . Everything could be started over, but not now; everything could be redone, but not this.” Refusing to look at his wife or the baby, he is like a child who puts his hands over his eyes to make things disappear; but his “stubbornly prolonged” childhood ends here. Tezza won Brazil’s Jubuti Prize for this novel’s harrowing portrait of lives changed in an instant.
Catalan writer Teresa Solana, known for her antic detective tales, contributes "A Stitch in Time," a rollicking tale of extreme maternal devotion. When her married daughter turns up covered with bruises, an elderly widow enlists her equally aged friend as a confederate and gives her unsuspecting son-in-law a taste of his own medicine.
In a more somber tale, "Plastic Wrap," Belgium’s Lize Spit observes a man searching for a cure for his daughter’s mysterious rash in the wake of his wife’s abandonment. His deepening anguish mirrored by the spreading eruptions on his daughter’s legs, the desperate father turns to both conventional and alternative sources for advice. (Echoing the evocative word mentioned earlier, the household supply of the title is known in the UK as "cling wrap.")
In a turn from the distressing and macabre, Shimo Suntila’s “Daughters!” documents a day in the life of a Finnish single father and his two rambunctious little girls with magical capabilities. His exasperation with their antics—the coffeepot burned through, bugs brought into the house and enlarged, all set against the typical bickering of siblings—is tempered by his obvious affection.
If you’ve ever wondered how any parent manages with multiples, "Maria Times Seven" offers one example. Maria Batiz conjures a magical tale of the mother of septuplets who, in a Seussian turn, names them all María. The seven girls turn out to share not only their names but physical reactions: anything one feels is felt equally by the other six (“they suffered forty-nine cases of appendicitis, measles, and mumps, fourteen fractures, innumerable scrapes, sprains, head colds, and upset tummies . . .”). The arrival of puberty is even more disruptive; the aftermath, more surprising still.
No parent should have to bury his child. In Kader Abdollah’s searing "Eagles," a stoic father’s worst fear—that his son will die before he does—is exacerbated by his son’s status: a resistance fighter murdered in prison, he cannot be buried in their town cemetery. Enlisting his other son, the bereaved man travels throughout the region seeking a place to put his son to rest. Abdollah fled his native Iran as a political refugee and lives in physical and linguistic exile in the Netherlands, documenting his lost country and history in his adopted language of Dutch.
In another tale of wartime tragedy and the burden of history, Zaher Omareen listens in on "A Bedtime Story for Eid" as a Syrian mother conveys the coded truth of the horrific massacres of 1982. In her description of a missing soldier and his mother’s determination to find him, we hear the younger woman's recognition of both the need to protect her own child and her limited ability to do so.
While many parental decisions are shaped by local culture, traditions, and restrictions, some environments present more obstacles than others. Charlotte-Arrisoa Rafenomanjato's "Omeo Zamako" shows an impoverished Malagasy man struggling to raise his son after the boy’s mother dies in childbirth. The boy is intelligent and ambitious, but in this sharply divided society, promotion in school is limited to those who can afford to pay for the required examinations. The father’s attempts to buy his son’s way to success bring only loss and tragedy.
Pema Bhum’s sly portrait of Tibet under Mao, the appropriately titled "Wink," has a happier ending. After a man is banished from the local Party for desecrating Mao’s Quotations, his infant son becomes seriously ill. In search of medicine, the desperate man and his wife travel to a hospital and find themselves caught up in the mourning after Mao’s sudden death. Their baby’s random act, and its misinterpretation by a local Party officer, lead to unexpected redemption.
Our January issue is a reminder of what connects us: deep family ties, concern for loved ones, a human instinct to nurture—feelings a parent in the United States can share with a parent in Syria. Or for that matter, in any country in the world.
Susan Harris contributed to this text.