Presented here for the first time in English, the cult writer Charles Chahwan—"Lebanon's answer to Charles Bukowski"—tells a tale of rival militiamen euphoric with violence.
Under the gentle afternoon sunlight, Serge’s body appeared limp and more slouched than usual as he rested against the back seat of the shared taxi, a Morris Princess. He was the sole passenger in the service as it made its way down the coastal highway, as if other potential passengers had unconsciously decided to leave him be, perhaps so he could burrow deeper into his solitude. The light streaming in generously through the window descended on top of his broad winter jacket and baggy trousers. That very light shaded a portion of his face and his crooked hand behind the smoke of a half-lit cigarette. His face was covered in deep creases that surrounded his two small, gloomy eyes. He was a young man, not yet thirty, but with the features of an old man. Everything about him—his face, his eyes, his hands, his clothes—seemed worn out, as if whatever was inside him was remote and forgotten long ago. It never occurred to him that the pain he suffered from at night or when he woke up feeling weak was caused by some chronic illness. My body has nothing to do with all that is happening, he would tell himself, the two things are unrelated. The body has no capacity to remember pain. Everything ailing me is rooted within myself. This thought always settled it for him.
Serge bit down on the end of his cigarette and tried to recall what the place he was headed to looked like. What he could summon were scant and hazy details. He fidgeted in his seat, and pulled a large black wallet from his jacket pocket, fishing out a flimsy, cropped photograph. He peered at the photograph for a moment, then took a pair of prescription eyeglasses from his other jacket pocket. He put on the glasses and peered again at the picture like someone gazing and trying to make out a figure far away. In the picture, he could see himself and his friend Francis, scrawny and laughing. They looked like a pair of mummies in the flesh—his friend Francis with his black hair and he with his long wavy hair. They were standing facing the camera with their hands on the balcony railing of Francis's apartment with its view to the harbor. The deep red and blue colors and their smiles re-ignited the spark of a lost simplicity within him, and he could picture once again the same image replicated in other disfigured photographs. He put the picture back in his wallet and peered into the area visible through the front windshield. In the opposite direction, the sun descending below the water created a radiant glimmer that mainly reminded him of the smell of fruit. The taxi turned off the highway and entered the harbor area, continuing its journey toward the shore. He murmured something to the driver to alert him where to let him off. Having lived there for a long time, he knew the area by heart. The taxi stopped at an intersection right next to an old textile factory and he got off. When he stood alone in front of the different roads branching out, he felt a tremendous, incomprehensible sense of warmth. He felt a desire to revisit and reconnect with many places he recognized. This feeling was all he needed before arriving at the house of his friend Francis. He knew full well that all he had to do was to free his emotions and open the door to anything that could put him on a different plane of consciousness. At that moment, what he felt was not that he was reliving old memories but rather as though he were a zombie. He was certain this was the explanation. When he looked out at the small square near Francis’s building, everything he saw appeared to be just as he’d known it. This feeling gave him great reassurance, so he continued moving forward with his head down; there was no need to look, this place was more real inside his head than it was in front of his eyes.
Francis lived on the third floor above the shop of al-Beiruti, the ice cream vendor. Serge had also lived in the same apartment, no. 14, for a long time. He slowly climbed the dirty stairs, stopping now and then in front of the open-air window in the wall facing the staircase to look at the buildings in the near vicinity. Opposite the building there was a small amusement park with its colorful steel rides and a giant elevated Ferris wheel adjacent to a large brick building. He reached the apartment and twice knocked weakly on the door, then looked again to confirm. Yes, this was it—no. 14. He knocked again, this time with more force. When the door suddenly opened, Serge was leaning on the adjoining wall. He gazed straight into Francis’s eyes for more than a minute, without either of them uttering a word.
They were like a pair of pouncing wolves as they embraced. They kept holding each other while shouting each other’s names. When they finally let go of each other, their gazes glowed with tenderness. Francis was the same age as Serge, but his facial features were quite different. He was tall and dark-skinned with pitch-black eyes, and although the rest of his body seemed scrawny, he had prominent, bulging biceps—a young man full of vitality.
At sunset, the two sat down on a couple of straw chairs on the balcony that looked onto the dilapidated swimming pool. They began slowly sipping cups of tea held between their hands, then placing them on the small coffee table between them. They carried on like this for a while. When they had finished their tea, Francis got up and slipped inside. Serge remained on the balcony for quite some time, watching the evening unfold in front of him. When Francis finally came back, he grabbed Serge by the shoulders. Serge wasn’t startled at all, not even bothering to turn around. When it was completely dark, Francis ushered Serge inside, shut the door to the balcony, and they sat inside facing each other. They exchanged words every now and then, but most of the time they grinned broadly each time their eyes met. Later, it began to rain. The rain became unbelievably heavy, to the point that the raindrops obscured most of the balcony’s glass door facing them. It soon became cold and Serge asked Francis to turn on the electric heater. When he did so, Serge took off his shoes and sat on the couch with his legs folded underneath him. Everything was peaceful. The rain did not stop for quite some time and it made strange sounds on the balcony and on the water between the boats docked nearby. When Serge told his friend that he liked these sounds, Francis's response emanated from the kitchen: “They mean nothing to me.” The apartment had no books, just an empty birdcage. Francis appeared at the kitchen door, and then suddenly flung himself onto the cot in the other corner of the living room. Serge looked over at him and saw his face was as calm as could possibly be, just as he noticed a black revolver below Francis’s pillow, and nothing else.
Neither of them felt like sleeping, and the room had become warm, almost hot. Francis started talking about his old car. At some point, Serge got up to turn on the television but then decided against it. Each one was staring uneasily at the room in a different direction when there was a violent knocking at the door. They glanced at each other; then someone called out Francis’s name. Evidently, Francis recognized the voice. He got up slowly, muttering, “What could this guy want at this hour?” He arrived at the door, and when he opened it, he could not see anyone there (nor could Serge from where he was). Then he heard someone’s voice again call out from the end of the hallway. Annoyed, Francis stepped outside. Before he could see anything or react, bullets riddled his body and sent it flying all over the place as if it were dancing. His body did not land in front of the door; the bullets were like tremendous punches driving it farther and farther away.
Serge watched it all unfold but could not seem to hear anything. Then he suddenly started hearing everything and got as close to the door as he possibly could. The bullets coming out of the barrel of the machine gun flashed like lightning, emitting a thunderous, painful din. The gunshots ceased. He heard men jostling as they all bounded down the stairs. He could also hear them cursing filthily. He took a deep breath and picked up the revolver—the first time he’d ever held one in his hand. He felt certain he was breathing not air but hatred.
The rain outside had stopped. Serge threw on his loose-fitting overcoat and grabbed the revolver from the bed. The overcoat flapped from side to side as he charged into the hallway. With the revolver in his hand, he looked as if he’d come straight off the cover of an old crime novel. He stopped and knelt beside Francis, who was no longer alive. Serge began stroking his forehead, begging him to say something, to at least wake up. Francis’s eyes were wide open but he did not wake up, nor did he speak. Serge picked him up and held him close to his chest. He held him close to his beating heart, then pressed his face to his own and wept profusely. Then he heard the voices of the same men in the street down below. They were yelling like wild animals. He got up and ran down the staircase to a window on the landing. He took a look at the revolver in his hand, then looked at them below. They hovered around their dark-colored military jeep and appeared exactly like cold-blooded killers. The square around them was damp and glistening from the rain. It did not feel right to him, but he knew hesitating was impossible. He fired a round of shots in the killers’ direction and watched as some of them dropped to the pavement. He could hear their bodies hit the damp ground with a thud. The others returned fire, the bullets whizzing past him. When his revolver had run out of bullets, he retreated. The shots fired near the window continued unabated. In his dazed view, the brick houses across the street seemed crooked. That’s how they should be, he thought. He tossed away the revolver and knelt over Francis’s body to kiss him one last time. He could hear them coming up the stairs, screaming with a terrifying savagery. It seemed there was nowhere to escape but the roof. He started to run toward the stairs, then scurried up them until he reached the roof. The rain had begun again. He felt so frail that his body felt like a flimsy sheet of paper.
When the wind passed through his hair, he could feel it had grown slightly longer, as it was brushing against his shoulders. He stopped for a moment to look at the houses, then turned to look at the sea. He could feel both looking back at him, as if they were meant to do so. Then he suddenly found himself before the sloped brick roof of the neighboring building. Down below, he heard them again firing their guns and screaming like wild animals. Serge realized he was barefoot. It was not going to be possible for him to go back for his shoes. He hurried to the building ledge and in a single move jumped to the sloped roof, sprawling across the brick surface as he landed. When he sensed that he was all right and not in danger of falling, he started to carefully crawl along the edge of the sloped brick roof until he reached the iron ladder that led to the courtyard of the house below. He descended the ladder toward the courtyard and jumped over the fence to the neighboring courtyard. He climbed the ladder up to the neighboring house’s roof and then began jumping from one roof to the next. He looked like a white butterfly in the night flitting above a river of blood. When he reached the roof of the last building on the block, he went down its ladder into the building’s courtyard. While standing there, he could make out the sound of the heavy gunfire, which penetrated deep inside his ears with every shot. At that moment, the rainfall became heavier. His overcoat became wet and the moisture seeped through, soaking his body and chilling him to the bone.
Serge spotted a door on the balcony of one of the higher floors. He had no choice but to climb up to it on the building’s ladder. He climbed over the edge, then stepped closer and grabbed the doorknob. It was unlocked. He pushed the door open and went inside. Dripping wet, he continued until he found himself inside a bedroom. In front of him stood a young woman staring at him in the darkness.
“I beg you,” he said, then said in a hushed voice. “They’re going to kill me.”
There wasn’t another sound in that cold room high above the ground. There was complete silence as they stood facing each other in that cold room high above the street. The woman drew closer and gently caressed his face. “Don’t be afraid,” she reassured him.
He stood there as she locked the door. He said he could not see her well. Then, as his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he was able to discern her a little better. He repeated that he was still scared. Only when she switched on the dim lamp near her bed could he properly see her face and body. She was remarkably attractive. She drew near again and ran her fingers through his hair as she gazed into his eyes. “You have a beautiful face,” she murmured.
“You need to take your clothes off,” she continued. “Come here and sit on this chair. I’ll help you.” Serge went and sat down. Her bed seemed comfortable. She helped him remove his clothing, and when he was undressed, she brought a large towel from her wooden closet and wrapped it around his torso. “You’re so skinny,” she remarked as she tightened the towel around him, “but you have a pretty face.” Then she dried his long hair. The weak lightbulb gave off a strange purple light in the dimly lit room, which reflected eerily off her bedsheets.
When she was finished, she took Serge by the arm and led him, still wrapped up in the towel, to her bed. There, she removed the towel and covered him with a warm blanket. The sweet scent of the bedsheets penetrated deeply into his nostrils. His eyes followed her as she walked to the other side of the bed and slipped beneath the sheets until their bodies were touching. She began to run her hands all over his body, which was still cold. When he could feel her warm breath right on his chest, Serge closed his eyes.
© Charles Chahwan. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Suneela Mubayi. All rights reserved.
A successful soap-opera writer struggling with memory loss sets off on a quest to find her vanished first husband in this new book by the Croatian novelist, poet, and playwright.
Singer in the Night, by Croatian novelist, poet, and playwright Olja Savičević, may look like a conventional road-trip novel, but it is far from it. To start with, our protagonist is no existential young man but a middle-aged woman, the soap-opera writer Clementine. After an accident leaves her struggling with memory loss, she jumps into her golden Mazda convertible to look for her vanished first husband—ostensibly not for sentimental reasons but to retrieve the keys to her boat, on which he’s occasionally lived since their split. And rather than taking to the clichéd highways through the American West, she traverses back roads to remote farms and over borders from Croatia into Bosnia, where, she laments, “the road swallowed me sullenly.”
Clementine’s estranged ex-husband, Nightingale—known to his friends as simply “Gale”—is an artist whose commitment to provocative art and desertion of the war effort in the 1990s is at odds with the hostile, nationalist world around him. The novel opens with letters from Gale to the residents of his beloved Dinko Šimunović Street in Split, in a neighborhood of dense concrete Communist-era apartment buildings, a far cry from the medieval old town that graces tourist brochures. By delivering the letters to all the street’s residents, he hopes to reach the unknown couple whose loud nighttime copulation is keeping the entire block awake and ask them—politely—to keep it down. The real purpose of the letters, however, appears to be to inform the neighborhood that he is leaving and to write an elegy for his life there. Rather than seeing the beauty in his latest artistic endeavor, the recipients collect and present the letters to the police, prompting Gale to disappear.
When Clementine finds the boat in question still in its mooring in Split but with no keys in sight, her one-woman search party for her former husband merges with an internal journey reflecting on their shared past and piecing together the parts that prove most difficult to recollect. Along the way, she meets Gale’s curmudgeonly mother, a bald woman raising her twins, Billy Goat and Arrow, on a Bosnian homestead, and a cow named Lily Allen. Savičević has a knack for talking about the solemn and serious with a laugh in her throat, evident in the details—unusual names, eccentric art, and garish automobiles.
Translator Celia Hawkesworth’s contribution to Clementine’s unique voice and endearing personality cannot be overstated. Hawkesworth demonstrates the remarkable ability to translate dialect convincingly—including a jittery, clipped local tongue (“Stone ve crows. I mus’ be dreamin’”). Clementine’s own speech and internal dialogues with herself, in a city dweller's dialect punctuated by plenty of darlings and my dears, naturally differentiates her from the others. She speaks directly to the reader in chapters packed with detours and backstories but infused with the kind of warmth one feels in the company of an old friend. The oscillation between the different voices in Gale’s artistic letters and in Clementine's story can be disorienting at first, but this effect might be seen as a consequence of Clementine’s memory loss—she, too, struggles to keep up with her own narrative. It may take some time to find your footing in this novel, but it is worth persevering to go along for the ride.
Part of what makes Clementine so appealing is her perceptiveness on feminist issues and women’s lives. This is made apparent through subtle, sometimes painfully revealing passages:
Ma was left utterly alone. [. . .] The fact that two children sat there with her made her, if it was possible, still more alone.
She also recalls that as a young woman, she watched Gale fall in love with her and, instead of falling for him, fell in love with herself—and her creativity. Her unabashed justification for making “low art” in the form of soap operas also speaks against the dismissal of women’s writing as “chick lit.” While she found fame and fortune writing soap operas in Croatia’s capital city, Zagreb, Gale berated her for selling out:
Gale, my by-then already former husband, called and said:
"Aren’t you a little ashamed? [. . .]"
"You know what they say: you can’t dream, or think, or write without dinner," I replied.
"Who said that? Jackie Collins?"
"No." (Virginia Woolf, in heaven’s name, you clown.)
Her advocacy for the role of popular art boils down to biting criticism of governments, tourism boards, investors, artists, and other “cultural gatekeepers.” Speaking of her soaps, she says, tongue-in-cheek:
Without any ambition, we had achieved more for Croatian culture than the Ministry of Culture had over the previous twenty or so years.
In stark contrast to this are Gale’s letters. While some of his experimental writing drags on (“Why, from my finger sprang the mango, the peacock’s tail, Sophie Loren.”)—almost ostentatious in comparison to Clementine’s witty, enigmatic, and entertaining narration—it is in his overt political manifestos that the letters read most beautifully and true:
. . . when school text books will contain the words There is nothing heroic about war, when newspapers publish headlines saying There is nothing heroic about war, when television announcers say There is nothing heroic about war, when generals come out in public with the military secret There is nothing heroic about war, when people proclaim from pulpits and minarets There is nothing heroic about war, when a war veteran whispers to his beloved as they lie naked as children There is nothing heroic, or romantic, about war, when directors produce a Hollywood film entitled There is nothing heroic about war. . .
Though she is said to be part of the “lost generation”—those who grew up in Yugoslavia, lived through a war, and found that the country of their birth no longer existed on the other side—Savičević mentions war only to the extent that it affects human relationships and human experience. Gale’s role as a deserter affects his relationships forever. Clementine’s postwar fortunes are marred by a sense of contributing to nationalism with her soap writing. As Clementine clings to her disappearing memories, she gradually draws closer to understanding, as the publisher, Istros Books, so aptly states, the “consequences of choosing banality—whether it be nationalism, vanity, or fame—over true human connection.”
At times, the novel is unapologetically sentimental and brazenly riotous, a pure delight in the vein of Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared. Clementine is a memorable protagonist: chatty and beguiling, insightful and shrewd, even if sometimes it seems she loses the thread of her own narrative. Like all road-trip stories, Clementine’s quest to find Gale is not about the destination. Its strength lies in its many digressions and loose ends, which come together in an imaginative novel on love, art, nationhood, and memory.
This month, we’re engaging one of the more pressing questions facing the literary sphere. Reading, it is commonly averred, can make us better versions of ourselves. Without ceding that notion, we ask a different version of it: can international literature make us better travelers?
Our debate includes contributions from four writers who bring wildly different perspectives: M. Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and translation issues; Tomaso Biancardi is an Italian editor and literary translator living in Istanbul; Emmanuel Iduma is a Nigerian writer, editor, publisher, and art critic; and Shahnaz Habib is a US-based Indian writer and translator. Together, they invite us to question our roles as readers, writers, translators, and editors, and perhaps even help us to begin to arrive at an answer to our question.
Can international literature make us better travelers?
The Reader's Openness to the Unfamiliar
by Emmanuel Iduma
On the "Good" in "Good Traveler"
by Shahnaz Habib
M. Lynx Qualey is the editor of ArabLit Quarterly. Should we, she asks, really place the onus for responsible travel on international literature—and can such literature even improve us as travelers?
Mark Twain read Arabic literature. Not widely; there were no English translations of Twain’s Arab contemporaries circulating in the mid-1800s. He’d surely have loved the satiric, word-spinning work of Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq, had it been available. Some of the grimmer American intellectuals read Ibn Tufail’s twelfth-century magnum opus, but I’ve seen no suggestion Twain partook. Yet Twain was unquestionably influenced by the 1001 Nights, which he probably read via Edward William Lane. Twain put it on a list of favorite books, right between “Crusoe” and “Gulliver.” He probably didn’t know the 1001 Nights was one of a number of popular fourteenth- and fifteenth-century collections, scorned by many Arab literati of its time. He probably did know the collection was a wild hit in Antoine Galland’s French translation before it moved to English.
Twain’s whole generation was marked by reading the Nights. He was one of many nineteenth-century authors to pen his own burlesque 1002nd Night, which he did in 1883. Apparently, it was so unfunny that his publisher cut it down, then shelved it.
Twain was also, famously, a traveler. In the 1860s, he took a long trip that encompassed several Arab-majority countries. Still a young journalist, he talked his newspaper into paying his way on the Quaker City steamboat, promising to send back dispatches, which he later turned into The Innocents Abroad.
You can imagine his hearty portraits of stupid savages, dim-witted travelers, and ugly women. In Jerusalem, he compares the locals to Indians, as if prescient of a settler-colonialism to come: “They sat in silence, and with tireless patience watched our every motion with that vile, uncomplaining impoliteness which is so truly Indian, and which makes a white man so nervous and uncomfortable and savage that he wants to exterminate the whole tribe.”
Clearly, Twain meant to exaggerate and entertain. Perhaps he was a decent enough guest in “real” life: he took off his shoes before entering a home and paid fair wages. But his caricatures had consequences. Popular literature is constantly in motion, being used in ways its authors cannot necessarily foresee. The absurdist way he constructed Palestine is now promoted as proof that there were no nineteenth-century Palestinians.
The Nights may well have made Twain a better writer. But did it make him a better traveler? Probably not. Certainly, no one would suggest that any international literature leads to self-improvement; if I were to read a sloppy, racist, and misogynist novel written by a Kuwaiti (for good measure, let’s imagine the translation is wooden), I might even be a worse person for the experience. On the other hand, let’s assume I’ve read Ismail Fahd Ismail’s al-Sabiliyat in Sophia Vasalou’s translation (as The Old Woman and the River). I’m sure it must’ve improved me a little, or at least my environmental sympathies. Still, any reading is a mental staging of the book, where the reader is both director and producer. Other directors would find different ways of staging Ismail’s gentle war novel, perhaps to suggest Muslims are inherently violent. John Updike read Arabic literature in translation, surely Mahfouz as well as Munif. I don’t think he ever traveled to Saudi Arabia, but he did create his own Arab characters in Terrorist. He was, let’s say, not a good guest of the Arab lands he’d created in his mind.
As Edward Said helped us see with Orientalism, people can be quite well versed in a foreign literature and use this knowledge to support real-life brutality. Perhaps some of the architects of the Iraq War read my beloved Muhammad Khudayyir, although I hope they never had anything so beautiful in their hands. Moreover, we usually ask literature to be humanizing only when it’s from Over There. I have never heard of anyone asking French literature to humanize the French. We can be awful, loud Americans in Paris; of course, there might be consequences.
But then what? Is there no reason to read widely, across genres and languages, genders and gender expressions, time periods and experimentalisms? To read with an engaged and relaxed ear, to try to discover the book as it wants to be read, rather than the book as we assume it should be? The question I’d like to ask is: Should we be good travelers, in our heads, when we go to fictional worlds? And does that also matter?
To get existential, our dignified survival as a species probably depends on finding ways to listen to each other. If any literature has made me a better person, it is the literature that showed me better ways to read. A person can be a brilliant writer without being a decent human, but I am not convinced they can be a brilliant reader and also a fascist narcissist. In any event, if we want to be respectful of others, being a good reader is a place to start.
© 2020 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.
In examining whether international literature can make us better travelers, Emmanuel Iduma, a writer who splits his time between Lagos and New York, takes a deep dive into the headwater of Igbo, his own estrangement from the language, and the intentions of writers and translators alike.
The introductory paragraph of Omenuko, Pita Nwana’s 1933 novel, the first to be written in Igbo, reads as follows:
N’akụkụ obodo anyị n’ime Africa, okwu a dị ka iwu e nyere enye; a na-asị na ọ buru na onye ọ bula agaa n’obodo ọzọ biri n’ebe ahụ dị ka ọbịa, ma ọ dị mma, ma ọ bụ onye ebere, ma ọ bụ onye amara, ma ọ bụ onye na-ekpe ikpe n’ụzọ ziri ezi, mbge dum ihe ụfọdụ ga na-echetara ya na ya onwe ya bụ ọbịa, n’ala ahụ, ọ ga na-ejikere onwe ya na ọ ghaghi ịla obodo ebe a mụrụ ya. Mgbe ọ bụla a tụrụ ya n’ilu, ma a gwawara ya agwawa na ọ bụ obịa, ọ ghaghi ịla.
This is how I translated it:
In the part of our land inside Africa, this saying is like a law: if anybody goes to another place to live there as a visitor, whether such a person is good, or the person is a person of mercy, whether such a person is graceful, whether such a person does what is just on a broad road, on several occasions circumstances will remind such person that he or she is a visitor in that land. Such a person will begin to prepare to return soon to the land where he or she was born. Whenever this saying is expressed, if they do not tell such a person he or she is a visitor, he or she will not leave.
This is how it was translated by Frances W. Pritchett:
Around our town in Africa, this belief is accepted as law: if anyone goes to another town and lives there as a guest, even if things are good, or he is a merciful person, or a gracious one, or a fair judge, he will always be reminded that he is a guest in that land and he will be preparing himself for his inevitable return to the town of his birth. At any time he may be told, proverbially or directly, that he is a guest and must not fail to return home.
The distinctions between both translations are less substantive than they are technical and syntactical, even if mine suffers from a lack of concision. We express the same sentiment: a person remains a stranger, regardless of how good or important they become in a place away from home. But in some of the translated sentences, particularly the last, there is an obvious contrast in our grasp and mastery of the language.
Once I consulted Pritchett’s translation, I realized that because I hadn’t understood that “a tụrụ ya n’ilu” referred to the subject of the sentence, as did “gwawara ya agwawa,” I ended up with a conditional statement instead of a declarative one.
I am under no illusion as to my skill as an Igbo-English translator. That paragraph, in fact, was the first time I’d attempted any translation. I undertook the exercise to test my comprehension of the language—and, perhaps, the degree of my alienation from it.
In his 1999 lecture, “Tomorrow is Uncertain: Today is Soon Enough,” delivered at the Catholic Archdiocese of Owerri in Nigeria, Chinua Achebe tells of the missionary fervor of a minister known as T. J. Dennis. Dennis began to translate the Bible into “Union Igbo” less than six years after he arrived in Igboland. Though there were several dialects of the language, he forged ahead with a plan to translate the Bible into a centralized one, borrowing words from other dialects. If he were merely working to translate the Bible into a different language, that would be agreeable. But he ventured further, writing in the Church Missionary Review of the poverty of the Igbo language, declaring it barbarous.
Achebe says in his lecture: “The story of Dennis and the Union Bible has been a great regret to me in several ways. But the greatest one of all is how the opportunity the Igbo Bible had to be the headwater of Igbo literature was thrown away.”
Can international literature make us better travelers? Who are the supposed beneficiaries? What pitfalls await? These are complex questions. For me, Igbo literature, though written in a language I am yet to master, isn’t international, even if it is to some degree foreign. I might, then, extend my reflection to include work written in all languages I am not yet competent in, whether international or not (the indigenous languages of the Americas come to mind). In the case of Dennis, the complexities extend to the motives for translating in the first place and the translator’s dismissive attitude toward both the Igbo language and his audience. In addition, Dennis sought to retranslate what was already a work of international literature—and he was not doing so directly from the original. To what extent had previous translators responsible for the Bible’s global journey inscribed their own bias onto the text that Dennis would bring into Igbo and that had informed his worldview?
Sometime this year I will embark on a journey through nearly a dozen towns of southeastern Nigeria, to research a book I am writing. The ethnic composition of those towns, and the language spoken, is predominantly Igbo. I will arrive with a sense of alienation from Igbo, a determination to immerse myself in the language, and a mastery of English. The matter for me, as I suppose it was for Dennis, is the terms of such an Igbo-English exchange. On my trip I hope to treat Igbo with the same attention I have paid English all my life—to consider, for instance, the subtle shifts in meaning in a word as it is used in a range of Igbo dialects. For while international literature can enable nuanced, cross-cultural understanding, the reader’s openness to the unfamiliar is but one component: what is also at stake are the attitudes and competencies of those involved in making the exchange possible in the first place.
© 2020 by Emmanuel Iduma. All rights reserved.
Shahnaz Habib is the author of Airplane Mode, a forthcoming book of narrative nonfiction about the complexities of travel. Drawing on her own experiences abroad, she concludes that literature may, in fact, make us better travelers—but not necessarily in the way we think.
Traveling someplace new is not easy. One thought that terrifies me when I find myself in a foreign place is that I might be spotted looking through a Lonely Planet. I stay safe by carrying only electronic versions of guidebooks, downloaded onto my phone. And when I do have to open the Not-So-Lonely Planet or Is-It-Really-Rough Guide on my phone, first I look around and make sure no one, least of all other tourists, has caught me in the act. This is where international literature can be useful. Open a book and hide the phone among its pages while quickly noting the information. Now I can safely walk down the little bougainvillea-draped alley and saunter into the restaurant as if I had just found it. Just me and my intuition.
Obviously you want to be careful with this. Take it from me, a woman who carried a Rumi anthology around Turkey, only to find it on the rickety Free Books shelf of every backpacker hostel, tucked behind the breakfast area.
Jokes aside, I would like to believe that international literature can indeed make us better travelers. It even sounds like the kind of theory that might well be proved dead right in a few decades. Imagine a randomized clinical trial conducted over the course of ten years, in which a bevy of unsuspecting subjects is fed books from around the world, with a healthy proportion of fiber-rich translation titles, to be consumed consistently, one a week perhaps, against a control group that reads nothing. Then everyone is tracked on their travels abroad through regular interviews and online surveys.
It’s at this point that my imagination fails. Not because I have a hard time conceiving of someone funding such a study or because in thirty years, the waters will have inundated us all. But because, for a while now, I have been confused about what it means to be a better traveler.
Certainly it is possible to identify some traits that would make a good traveler: curiosity, openness to the world, sympathy for the people they meet on their travels, willingness to question their own biases and stereotypes.
But I can’t help thinking that with these traits, the “good” in “good traveler” is mostly happening to the traveler. This “goodness” is not particularly beneficial to the place said traveler is traveling to. A lot of places in the world—from Venice to Boracay—are finding out that the best travelers are those who never bother to come. The ones who do not burden precious resources with their search for local, authentic experience.
In fact, it is worth wondering if travel is actually essential to being a good traveler. Benjamin Moser writes about the great writer Machado de Assis, who lived a quiet and provincial life in nineteenth-century Brazil, “Machado is proof that cosmopolitanism comes from reading, not from travel: through books he knew the world.”
Yet we travel. We cannot resist the lure of the world. We hope that travel will make us better human beings—more rounded, more sophisticated. There’s always the hope that by going somewhere else, we will find ourselves. Travel is a self-improvement project that has been sold to us as a world-improvement project.
In his memoir of his time in Verona, Italy, Italian Neighbors, Tim Parks recounts visiting two brothers, Giuliano and Girolamo, who run the farm where he gets his eggs. So far, so good. We are in the territory of the typical Italy travelogue: the enamored foreigner seeking wholesome food in the Italian countryside. Giuliano reminisces to Parks about being a prisoner of war in Scotland, where he lived with local farmers who put him to work he enjoyed in their fields. He loved Scotland! But when the war was over, he had twenty-four hours to decide whether to stay or not. Giuliano would have happily stayed—but pasta! He tells Parks that the thought of a plate of pasta put him on the boat back to Italy. Parks adds: “I wonder if his toothless grin is meant to indicate that he appreciates what a caricature he is offering.”
Something shifts in that moment when Parks suspects that Giuliano might be performing a national stereotype to please the foreigner. We are no longer in a tourist moment; instead, we are in a literary moment involving a character with complex motivations that we cannot fully understand.
Parks has an unfair advantage here as a translator of Italian literature. This gives him a sharp skepticism that other readers may not always have access to. Translators are accustomed to this shape-shifting, the way a text can hide a subtext, the way chasing a literal and obvious meaning can take one further away from the deeper meaning. Unfortunately, when we think of travel as a self-improvement exercise, we are primed to miss this subtext. We are fulfilling our own fantasies of becoming, rather than exploring the being of the place we are traveling to.
A couple of years ago, I spent two lovely long weeks in Montevideo, doing pretty much nothing. I walked aimlessly around flea markets, looked up Eduardo Galeano in the catalog of the public library even though I cannot read Spanish, watched the sunset on the promenade every day. And yet it was only later, after I read a Juan Carlos Onetti story in the recently translated A Dream Come True, that something clicked. Two aging theater impresarios are recruited to stage a reenactment of a woman’s dream. It’s a brief and banal moment on a street, but the woman felt such joy during the dream that she wants to recapture it. The futility of the woman’s quest and the resigned gentleness with which everyone involved makes her dream come true reminded me of the particular languor that I had enjoyed so much in Montevideo. Now I knew I was wrong. It was not languor, it was a tenderness borne out of surviving together.
Perhaps this is why I have found that literature is better at explaining the places I have been to than teaching me about a place I am going to. After you have been somewhere, after you have spent a boring half an hour waiting for a bus in that place, after you have eaten a few subpar meals in that city, it is easier to think clearly about that place, to translate it for yourself. And if you are lucky, back home, a book will fall into your hands, and far away from all the melodrama of travel and its epiphanies and souvenirs and fly-by-night friendships and trains to catch and the pressure to have a bon voyage, the book will tell you what you missed, how wrong you were.
© 2020 by Shahnaz Habib. All rights reserved.
Tomaso Biancardi is coeditor of The Passenger, a new series of travel magazines in Italian and English that publish long-form essays, investigative journalism, literary reportage, and visual narratives in order to tell the story of a country or city and to portray its shifting culture and identity, its public debates, the sensibilities of its people, its burning issues, conflicts, and open wounds. Through the lens of his own move to Istanbul, Biancardi explores the ways—conventional and surprising—in which international literature might make us better travelers.
Six years ago I moved to Istanbul. I had a very vague idea of the place I was to call home. Somehow, Turkey had never previously been in my thoughts, and in no conscious way whatsoever, I had always steered clear of it. My mind was a blank slate, so to speak, and so I was an ideal subject for a natural experiment to investigate the power of literature to shape one’s understanding of a country. Like many first-time visitors to Istanbul, I was spellbound. When I first arrived, I would find a rooftop café and spend all day watching the traffic of ferries, cargo ships, private dinghies, and tourist boats going up and down the Bosporus—the “original History Channel,” as a poster I’d seen in a bar proclaimed—against the skyline of the Old City’s minarets. And then there were the sights, the long queues to get into Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the Grand Bazaar, all testifying to a rich, fascinating history. At the Archaeological Museum, I learned about the long list of civilizations that have made Turkey their home: Hittites, Phrygians, Urartians, Lycians, Ionians, Lydians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, and Ottomans.
Occasionally, when leaving a restaurant after dinner, I would feel the pungent sting of tear gas, a sensory reminder that history had not stopped. The layers kept piling up, one on top of the other. So I started to read. Turkey was (and is) very much in the news—the Gezi Park protests, the repression that followed, and later a string of elections, terrorist attacks, an attempted coup, more repression, more terrorist attacks . . . no, history had definitely not stopped here. It was easy to find long articles trying to explain what was going on: plenty of Turkish writers and journalists had had to move abroad, and the Western media was hungry for their stories. And I was, too. Each new piece I read revealed a new aspect of the country I was living in. First, they helped me understand what I was seeing. Then, almost magically, long-form narratives started showing me what I was not seeing: what was hidden from view, left unsaid, whether intentionally or not, what was not advertised. They filled in the gaps. They made me go out and look for what I’d missed.
Meanwhile, time and work allowing, I was reading novels. Their contribution to my knowledge of Turkey was more nebulous, more indirect, hard to define. They may have been set in the heart of Anatolia, or in the east, near Armenia, or in the mountains along the southern coast. They were stories of love, or banditry, peripheral lives from a forgotten past, utterly different from a modern metropolis like Istanbul. What these novels did, what they are still doing, subtly, slowly, is to break down unconscious barriers erected by language, culture, religion, preconception. They direct my gaze toward commonalities instead of underlining differences. Science tells us that, thanks to so-called mirror neurons, our brains work similarly whether we perform an action ourselves or see that action performed by someone else. We use the same networks when we are reading stories as when we are trying to guess at another person’s feelings. Reading novels shrinks the distance between me and what is around me.
It is one thing, however, to live in a foreign country, with all the time in the world to let mirror neurons do their work, to allow all the knowledge gathered to sink in and then use it to explore and understand; it is another to be on a short holiday, when it is arguable whether these processes are applicable at all. A constant habit of reading international literature—be it in the form of journalism, literary nonfiction, or fiction—can give us a better appreciation of foreign cultures, and the tools to combat stereotypes and clichés. But I would argue that the main beneficiaries of this appreciation are the reader-travelers themselves rather than the cultures at the other end. More practical issues must be considered. In a world of increasing mass tourism, responsible travel means an awareness of the problems of being a tourist in the first place: the environmental stress on major destinations, the rising rents for locals in city centers due to short-term holiday homes, overcrowding at historical and natural monuments. Tourism is of course beneficial to many economies, and many livelihoods depend on it, but overtourism complicates the rosy, romantic picture of responsible international travel as a win-win proposition facilitated by books that brings people and cultures closer together. When we are tourists, constraints of time and money—and the thought that we may never return to this country—play a big role in our decisions and behaviors. No amount of Turkish novels will replace the excitement of entering Hagia Sophia, and yet Hagia Sophia is a fifteen-hundred-year-old building not designed for an influx of over three million people a year. Are we willing to give up visiting the Blue Mosque knowing that it is still very much a place of prayer?
The desire to travel responsibly must come before the desire to learn through literature. First we must decide that we’ll do everything in our power to make sure our trip has a positive net contribution to the place we are visiting. Reading is an indispensable tool for that: not only can reading help us identify the problems and behaviors we should avoid, it can also tell us an infinite number of alternative stories, leading us to that El Dorado of international travel, the place often summed up as “off the beaten path.” After all, if you don’t know where to look or what to look for, chances are you won’t find it.
Incidentally, there is a surer way for international literature to make us better tourists, and I would say that this specific task falls to fiction: imagine picking up a novel in the peace and quiet of your living room, opening the first pages, and, with no air travel or environmental impact whatsoever, being transported to a faraway land . . . Zero-emissions tourism, delivered straight to your home.
© 2020 by Tomaso Biancardi. All rights reserved.
This month, Words Without Borders brings readers a selection of poetry translated from Kurmanji, a Kurdish dialect spoken in Rojava. The autonomous Kurdish region of Syria has been in the news in recent months after the removal of US military units stationed there and Turkey’s subsequent invasion.
Throughout its history, Words Without Borders has advocated for increased access to writing from around the world in English translation. We exist for writers and translators, to provide a venue and a platform for their work and to foster cultural exchange. We strongly believe in the rights of literary artists to work and publish freely, and our decision to publish this selection of writers from Rojava reflects our commitment to ensuring their important art reaches international readers. When one of the poets featured here, Ciwan Qado, released his first book in 2003, it was officially against Syrian law to publish in Kurdish.
Publishing work from a disputed region or language comes with high stakes. Headline-grabbing conflicts in far-flung territories are often framed in US media as either-or propositions; news coverage frequently fails to address the fact that for many writers, acts as simple as publishing in one’s own country, in one’s own language, often present great dangers away from the battlefield. We must at times find appropriate literary responses to current events. We believe in literature’s unique ability to provide us with a diversity of perspectives, and we also believe in challenging our own paradigms through engagement with these writers.
To this end, we have worked with writer, publisher, and translator David Shook to present emerging poets in Rojava who represent a new generation; their ability to publish their work is possible thanks to the recent development of the autonomous Rojava territory. Shook—who currently lives in Iraq—has collaborated on this project with Zêdan Xelef, a Kurdish writer and translator whose own family has been caught up in the territorial disputes involving the Islamic State, the Kurds, and regional nation-states. Important to our decision to feature this writing was the presence of a guest editor in the region who had access to information on the conflict largely unavailable via Western media. Shook’s collaboration with Xelef was likewise crucial, ensuring that someone intimately familiar with the complexity of the Kurdish context was involved in and advising on the project.
WWB has consistently shown a commitment to supporting the right to cultural expression of artists working in disputed territories. In 2014, WWB published its first Kurdish-language feature; in 2015, we published a selection of writing by Palestinian authors; in 2017, WWB published an issue of work from countries riven by internal disputes; and in response to the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, we published poetry that grappled with the complexity of that event. These are but a few examples.
In deciding to bring this important work to readers of English, we consulted with colleagues engaged in the daily work of protecting writers in similar situations in order to grasp the full magnitude of this decision, particularly as it related to the safety of the featured poets, all of whom were eager to see their work published in English.
As Rojava confronts the uncertainty provoked by Turkey’s recent attacks and Syria’s unwillingness to recognize the autonomy of the region, we are grateful for the opportunity to provide this look at the verse of its poets. Shook’s illuminating introductory essay provides context on Kurdish-language literature and a brief assessment of the oeuvre of each of the three poets presented here.
By the time I moved to South Kurdistan in the late summer of 2018, I had been watching the development of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), commonly known internationally by its Kurdish name, Rojava, for several years. Like many others, I was excited to see how its libertarian socialist government would take shape, and inspired by its publicly declared values of gender equality, environmental sustainability, and pluralism. As a poet and translator, I was eager to learn more about the region’s literature, and soon I met the collaborator who would make that possible.
When Zêdan Xelef and I began translating these poems from Rojava in late spring of this year, we could not have imagined the severity of what would begin unfolding little more than a month ago, when a phone call between President Donald Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan resulted in the launch of the euphemistic Operation Peace Spring, a military invasion of the territory of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. In recent years, organizations from the BBC and the New York Times to the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights have monitored Rojava’s evolution and the unique circumstances of the conflict within Syria that have permitted its creation.
In the midst of this rapidly changing situation, we are presenting three poets from Rojava. Cihan Hesen, Ciwan Nebî, and Ciwan Qado offer a humanizing glimpse into a region so quickly reduced in public forums to political analysis and partisan assertions. It is our hope that these translations showcase the vibrant literary culture that doesn’t reach Western headlines. Because of current events, there does exist a more bellicose and patriotic strain of contemporary poetry from Rojava. While these poems have their place in society, we generally found them to require onerous explanation, to be less grounded in imagery, and, from a literary perspective, to seem less compelling. The poems in this selection do not directly address the politics of Rojava today. They do, however, reflect the passions and preoccupations of its residents, whose history of persecution over the past decades makes the very act of writing in Kurdish a defiance of repression.
As in much of his work, Ciwan Qado’s poems in this selection, especially “[I need to wake up at 3:00 in the morning and go to work],” express a longing to return to the less complicated days of childhood. The setting of Ciwan Nebî’s poem appears to be a war-torn Syria, shots ringing through an abandoned city. It is worth noting that, like the madman of his poem, Nebî himself has remained in Qamishlo. Like Qado's, Cihan Hesen’s poetry is a poetry of longing, whether for a lover or her homeland. In fact, she often links the concept of a homeland to the idea of a lover—a substitutive image that recurs in the work of Kurdish poets Abdulla Pashew and Sherko Bekas, among others. In this sense, these poets’ work belongs to the contemporary Kurdish tradition, which spans several variants that are not mutually intelligible. Pashew and Bekas, for example, write in the Sorani variant used throughout much of the autonomous Kurdish territory of present-day Iraq. Translation into Kurmanji has made their work popular in Rojava and Bakur, as the Kurdish region of present-day Turkey is traditionally known, where shared cultural history and values resonate across linguistic differences. At the same time, these poets’ work engages with the poetry of the wider region, and of greater Syria especially, where two of these three poets pursued their tertiary education. Multilingualism is widespread in Rojava, where many speak Arabic, as well as Turkish, Persian, and other variants of Kurdish, and literary translators, including Zêdan, labor nobly to bring more books into Kurmanji from the languages of the world.
When Qado’s first book, The Blind Snake, came out in 2003, publishing a Kurdish-language book was officially against the law in Syria, where minority populations have long endured intense legal discrimination, including arbitrary revocation of citizenship, prohibitions on property ownership, and even a ban on speaking Kurdish in their own homes. Since official publication was impossible, the popular book circulated in samizdat, passed from reader to reader. By the time Hesen and Nebî had written their first books, Rojava had achieved its de facto autonomy, and they were able to publish their work after an end to the ban on Kurdish-language publications.
The Kurmanji variant of Kurdish—a dialect continuum comprised of at least three major families—is spoken in northern Syria as well as several neighboring and nearby countries, and has fifteen million speakers. Its written literary tradition dates to the seventeenth century, and it has long been a vehicle for the transmission of oral literatures, including the songs and prayers of the Êzîdî. In Rojava, the language uses the Latin script; historically, much early literature was written using the Arabic script, and, among the relatively tiny population of speakers in Armenia, even Cyrillic. Our translation process for these poems was intensive. Following Zêdan’s work to create initial cribs, we labored together over every line, often at a Sulaimani café named for the classical Kurdish poet Nali. Zêdan would often read the original Kurmanji aloud, as I would the English translation, and bringing the poems to life in speech proved an important method for editing our translations and doing our best to replicate the rhythm and pacing of the originals.
It’s important to note that Rojava is not entirely or exclusively Kurdish; we have chosen to use its Kurdish name because of its ubiquity in the international community. The region’s diverse population is about 40 percent Arab, and includes smaller communities of Armenians, Assyrians, Chechens, Dom, and Turkmens, among others, as well as a small but notable population of immigrants from the West. Our initial selection of poems has focused on the emerging poets writing in Kurmanji because it is their work that most engages with the idea of a cohesive cultural identity forged from a combination of Rojava's recent political autonomy and the unique culture its residents aspire to create. While these poets may claim multiple identities, they consider themselves poets from Rojava. It is our hope that in the future we can expand this portfolio to include work written in Arabic, Syriac, and the territory’s other languages.
In Kurdish, rojava means both “sunset” and “west,” and among Kurds in the other three contemporary nation-states with significant populations, the region has often been referred to as West Kurdistan. The word is comprised of two parts—roj, the word for “sun,” and ava, meaning “dwelling.” As Zêdan recently explained, in both a “literal and spiritual sense it means that the sun goes home.” Today, the ambitious, idealistic Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria faces an existential crisis. These poems, meanwhile, display the health and vitality of a literature that has already proved to be a potent medium for self-expression, a grounds for linguistic experimentation, and an important declaration of autonomy itself.
© 2019 by David Shook. All rights reserved.
An abandoned city’s lone inhabitant rages against his surroundings and those who left in this poem by Ciwan Nebî.
Only the madman has stayed behind in the city,
On cold nights
Shots can be heard!
What does he have to fear?
He has no kin,
No kingdom but the city.
He’ll resort to anything!
He calls out to those who have abandoned the city
As if they took what’s left of his mind with them, and all his cigarettes!
He calls out in the rain,
Staring at the void around him,
At the sidewalks,
At the city.
He grabs the nearest umbrella
And falls asleep as if nothing has happened!
© Ciwan Nebî. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by David Shook and Zêdan Xelef. All rights reserved.
In two poems, Ciwan Qado reflects on relentless poverty and longs for relief from the worries of adult life.
I needed to wake up at 3:00 in the morning to make it to work
I said to myself, you can't go to work—you haven’t slept
Either sleep and don’t go to work
Or don't sleep but still don’t go to work.
I proceeded with caution
Like a marble inching toward the line
I opened my eyes.
The rain drizzled down.
Inside my head, a sound like banging the bowels of a cauldron
A chorus chanting the latest work anthem
My father's callused hands were my quilt.
I received a letter telling me, "You are a child!”
Is this accolade or insult?
I wish I were a child!
And could listen to the crickets chirp
From the foreskin Mohammed severed
And could wet my bed
And raise the soiled sheet as my homeland’s flag!
[My head was near the door.]
My head was near the door.
It was likely nearer to the door than the door itself.
It was as empty as the jerry can.
I owed 2,000 liras in rent for the house
And I had nothing but 12 fennel seeds, the remainder of my breakfast.
The landlord was washing dishes.
The windows of the door were broken.
The feet walking toward the door were broken.
And the mouths that should have given thanks and apologized were broken.
I had nothing but 12 fennel seeds, the remainder of my breakfast.
© Ciwan Qado. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by David Shook and Zêdan Xelef. All rights reserved.
Loneliness proves insurmountable in this haunting poem by Cihan Hesen.
I speak to
The corpse of a dead poem
I speak to
The skin of the night
I speak to
The bare fingernails of my weak hands
I speak to
The broken mirror in my dark and empty room
I speak to
Your orderly books
I speak to
I speak to
The loneliness of my long shadow
But the hush feeling, silence sullen-faced fate reaches my ears
I too fall silent in the fire of silence
© Cihan Hesen. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by David Shook and Zêdan Xelef. All rights reserved.
The trauma of a terrorist attack and the disillusion of unrequited love haunt the protagonist of a new novel by the Israeli author, in whose work the past usually returns to impinge upon the present, clamoring for repair.
In a 2007 interview with journalist Rochelle Furstenberg, Zeruya Shalev said that her writing seeks “the opposite of the public domain. I want to capture the nuances of the inner life.” This assertion notwithstanding, her sixth novel, Pain, wades into contemporary Middle Eastern politics to establish a rather problematic comparison between the pain caused by a terrorist act and the trauma caused when naïve illusions of perfect love are destroyed. Shalev brings these two domains—public and private traumas with their respective complications—together through the figure of a “pain doctor,” whom the heroine, Iris, consults about the aftereffects of an injury that she has sustained in a terrorist act.
The healer who might help Iris manage her physical injury turns out to be her long-lost lover, now a doctor, whom she paradoxically blames for having inflicted upon her the most intense suffering she has ever known. The plot thus remains firmly tethered to the inner world and domestic drama of a woman at the turn of the twenty-first century in Israel. Like her creator, Shalev’s heroine insists on her right to privilege private demands over broader societal concerns.
This comes as little surprise, as the novel’s origins are highly personal. In 2004, Shalev herself was wounded by a suicide bomber who killed eleven bus passengers and injured many others one busy morning in Jerusalem. She underwent complex surgery for her injuries, followed by four months of physical therapy during which she felt that she would never write fiction again. A decade and two novels later, however, Shalev has produced a work that inserts her personal experience into that of a middle-aged, middle-class woman struggling with a many-layered history of unhealed traumas.
In the typical Shalev novel, the past returns to impinge upon the present, clamoring for repair—Love Life (1997) and The Remains of Love (2011) come readily to mind. In Pain, translated into English by Sondra Silverston, Shalev reveals both the complications of revisiting the past and the tendency of doing so to liberate and heal her heroines.
Throughout the novel, Iris acknowledges that her body and soul may be irrevocably damaged; yet she insists on fulfilling her responsibilities in both work and family life. On the tenth anniversary of the terrorist bombing that drove nails, shrapnel, and rat poison into her limbs, she is seized by a debilitating pain that makes it almost impossible to juggle her responsibilities as a mother of two children, wife to a computer analyst, and principal of a school that prides itself on helping faltering students succeed. Her physical pain is further exacerbated by two older wounds of a psychological nature: her abandonment by the young man she loved in her youth—now her “pain doctor”—and a childhood spent in a fatherless home after hers died in one of Israel’s early wars.
As fresh pain adds to older woes, Iris keeps going. She never allows herself to vent her anger on the man who maimed her body. Instead, she delves deep into her past. She analyzes her relationship with her father, her exorbitant attachment to her first boyfriend, and her lukewarm interest in her husband. Shalev's novel as a whole thus avoids engaging with the public domain in any meaningful way, except—indirectly and intertextually—through the protagonist’s work as an educator and school principal. However, the parallel that this novel creates between Iris’s youthful heartbreak and her wounds caused by a terrorist act, seem to suggest, simplistically, that the trauma in both cases can be transcended through the brave confrontation of both painful past and a painful present.
In a newsletter that Iris prepares for her pupils’ parents, she resolves to “breathe life” into a “tired time,” averring that,“if something can still change, that’s when it will, in the tension between memory and renewal.” When Iris rekindles the relationship that gave her so much joy and sorrow in her youth, she must choose between maintaining a steadfast commitment to the family that she has nurtured so carefully and satisfying a lifelong yearning that suddenly enables her to transcend her physical limitations. Either choice is heroic.
One of the only ways in which Shalev endows her writing with a broader historical outlook is through allusions to key episodes from the Bible. At one point, Iris' monthly newletter to the parents of her pupils alludes to a painful moment of reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers after he reveals himself to them in Egypt: “How can Joseph truly reconcile with those who have inflicted such a mortal blow on him?” This blunt question, which comes closest to enunciating what we keep wondering about the terrorist who inflicted such a blow on Iris herself, opens up an additional interpretative link between the novel’s disparate realms, highlighting that Iris lives “between miracles and disasters,” to quote Shalev’s description of her own life spent in a region where at any moment she might be called upon to pay a heavy price for her existence.*
Popular both in Israel and abroad, notably in Germany and Italy, Shalev’s novels portray a slice of contemporary Israeli life through passionate love affairs that encompass several generations mired in fraught relationships. This novel is in much the same vein and will have particular appeal to readers of the “sandwich” generation caught between caring for elderly parents and parenting young adults not quite ready to fly on their own. Here, as trauma builds upon trauma and Iris keeps searching for a way out of her troubles, it becomes clear that neither her emotional nor physical pain can ever abate. She concentrates nevertheless on enabling the next generation to carry on with the struggle for survival and normalcy and through this empowerment, she transcends her own limitations.
In a way, every literary work is a travel story. Readers seek to be transported; authors oblige, serving as guides through unfamiliar territory, charting characters’ journeys through setting and plot. Reading in translation offers enhanced vicarious travel, in that the translator has navigated not only a text but a language, reporting back in the form of a new rendition.
This month we’ve traveled back in time and through our archives to bring you compelling tales of international journeys. Some of the writers here document their own trips, while others invent characters and send them on the road. The destinations here range from Corsican graveyards to Indian train terminals, and the methods of transit from the mundane to the monstrous; but all nine writers map the response to dislocation and the changes it brings.
We open with W. G. Sebald’s “Campo Santo,” a characteristically hybrid work blending memoir, history, and travelogue. In this excerpt from what was planned as a book-length collection on Corsica, the German master clambers through a ruined cemetery and finds his thoughts turning to death and remembrance. Sebald’s untimely death in a car crash lends another mournful layer to his meditation.
Sebald’s lyricism stands in stark contrast to Witold Gombrowicz’s dyspeptic account of his travels in Argentina. Arriving in Argentina for a planned brief visit on the eve of World War II, the great Polish writer was stranded there when Germany invaded Poland; he remained in exile in Argentina for over twenty years. In an excerpt from his Peregrinations in Argentina, the grouchy author swings from annoyance to ennui as he finds fault with the pampas (“nauseatingly boring”), the Andes (“terrifying”), and even Borges (“not very original”); but the biliousness is leavened with wit and Gombrowicz’s singular takes on everything from national character to travel itself.
Peruvian journalist Gabriela Wiener describes quite different South American trips in her account of seeking a true experience with the visionary ayahuasca. Fending off nausea, competitive shamans, and her own skepticism, she treks to the Amazonian jungle in search of enlightenment, tunneling deeper and deeper into both the terrain and her own psyche. Wiener published her first English-language collection, Sexologies, last year.
The trope of the road trip is represented here by the Argentine comic artist Liniers. Liniers, who draws himself as a man-size rabbit, records a car trip through eastern Canada. Unlike Gombrowicz, Liniers and his partner are generally charmed by all they see, and his cheerful account captures both the beauty and kitsch awaiting travelers. Liniers’s daily strip Macanudo made him a star in his native Argentina; it’s now syndicated in the US as well.
Norway’s Laila Stien portrays a group of Sami herders driving their reindeer from Norway’s mountainous northern tundra region to an island located off the country’s northern coast. As they and their animals fight their way through the annual spring migration, the memory of the previous year’s journey hangs over them. At the last leg of the trek, the treacherous terrain behind them and the reindeer needing only to cross the sea to the island, tragedy strikes again. Stien herself made the trip described while preparing to study Sami, contributing to her harrowing story’s documentary feel.
In a tale we can assume is not drawn from experience, Hungary’s György Dragomán introduces a new form of transit. In an unnamed country, a desperate couple put themselves in the hands of an unscrupulous smuggler. He drives them to the border, then announces that they will cross not with him but with other escorts. “Getting across will be a cinch,” he assures them, but this guaranteed passage would appear to be anything but certain.
Subodh Ghosh and Peter Weber both set their stories in the liminal spaces of train travel. In Ghosh’s “The House of Wax,” a divorced couple run into each other in a West Bengal waiting room. “Unprepared and embarrassed, annoyed and irritated; perhaps even a little scared,” they confront the end of their marriage and its aftermath. Like a number of Ghosh’s stories, this portrait of divergent journeys was made into a Bollywood film, and the startling emotions of the former spouses play out in cinematic form. By contrast, Weber’s “Fish Television,” from a collection of tales set in and around train stations, employs surrealistic wordplay and shape-shifting images. Weber has often taken train travel as a subject, drawing on the expectations and conventions of this form of travel while at the same time dismantling its romantic allure.
Finally, Gabriella Ghermandi’s narrator returns to her homeland of Ethiopia seventeen years after emigrating to Italy. She finds her urban rhythm and pace gradually replaced by the languor she left behind, her surrender marked by a symbolic gesture. Ghermandi, an Ethiopian Italian living in Bologna, is also a noted vocalist and musical director.
We hope you’ll enjoy traveling with the writers collected here. And we hope that your new year will include much fruitful exploration of worlds and ways unknown, both on and off the page.
A remarkable novel about the traces left by the Chilean dictatorship in the lives of children explores the tension between the unsaid and shreds of remembrance that acquire outsize importance when the reader connects the dots.
As I write this review, Chileans are on the streets, dealing once again with the limits and injustices of the neoliberal model, first imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship and currently advanced by the government of right-wing president Sebastián Piñera. As people hit the streets, fed up with decades of policies that have intensified class inequalities across the country, the fiction of Chile as a model of free-market success and democratic neoliberalism is crumbling, and the legacies of the dictatorial period are once again palpable in the streets, from the carabineros arresting middle schoolers participating in demonstrations, to Piñera’s declaration that his government is at war with its own citizens. Looking at the wounds of the neoliberal process in Chile, visible in such a stark way in the past few weeks, it is not surprising that a new generation of writers in the country has developed around narrating and making sense of both the unresolved traumas of the dictatorship and the contradictions of a country that continued to enact the policies of the military regime well into its democratic transition.
Chilean literature is booming, built by new generations of writers born right before, during, and after the Pinochet regime, who deal with the heavy history that haunts them. Some of them deal with it indirectly, as if addressing it by evasion, while others prefer frontal engagement, but in both cases the roster of writers is truly exceptional: Álvaro Bisama, Alejandra Costamagna, Claudia Ulloa Donoso, Alejandro Zambra, Lina Meruane are but a few of them. Translation is finally doing justice to this generation. Readers can find the works of Zambra and Meruane readily available, and the novel The Remainder, a postdictatorial work by Alia Trabucco Zerán, one of the youngest of the bunch, recently made the Man Booker International Prize shortlist.
Nona Fernández is one of the most fascinating writers in this group and an artist of many talents. Besides her career as a fiction author, she is a well-regarded television writer and a theater actor. Her literary success in Spanish, particularly beyond Chile, came from the wide acclaim for her novel La dimensión desconocida (The Twilight Zone, 2016), winner of the prestigious Sor Juana International Award, granted to the best book in Spanish written by a woman. In the book, a nonfiction narrative—an interview with a military officer published in 1984, in which the interviewee confesses to being a torturer and killer for the regime—intersects with an autofictional arc constructed on the memories triggered by the interview. This novel, which is both her most famous work and, arguably, her best one, turned Fernández into a household name in Latin American letters, and I hope an English translation will come soon.
English-language readers now have the opportunity to enjoy Fernández’s brilliant fiction thanks to Natasha Wimmer’s translation of her short novel Space Invaders. Published in Spanish in 2013, Space Invaders is a polyphonic novel about the traces that the dictatorship left in the lives and memories of children growing up in the seventies and eighties. As with The Twilight Zone, the title of Space Invaders is a temporal marker, in reference to the Atari game that was popular during the protagonists’ childhood. The novel is centered on a group of young adults who, as primary school classmates, experienced the silences and terrors of everyday life under Pinochet. The group’s collective remembrance of their classmate, Estrella González Jepsen, the daughter of a major official in the dictatorship who ultimately leaves for Germany, gives structure to the book. The novel functions as an (incomplete) reconstruction by the characters' older selves of traumatic events, oftentimes remembered in dreamlike ways, with traces of everyday terror: a teacher who freezes when a child asks what it means to be involved in politics, two young men killed by the police in a slum, the games that internalize military culture and patriotism in the children’s minds. The story is told in very short episodes, traversing the memories of various characters as well as the innocent letters they write to each other as a symbol of their childhood friendship.
The perspective of children of Southern Cone military dictatorships has become a significant theme both in literature and in cinema of the past two decades. Iconic films from Chile and Argentina—like Andrés Wood’s Machuca and Paula Markovitch’s El Premio—have become leading works on the dictatorial experience. Novels like Zerán’s The Remainder and Fernández’s The Twilight Zone and Space Invaders have consecrated what Zambra calls “literatura de hijos,” the literary reckoning of the generation after the one that perpetrated and suffered the dictatorship itself. Space Invaders is both iconic and unique in this group due to its literary economy. All the themes of literatura de hijos are present: the inability to grasp the present, the trauma of recognizing events post-factum, the unexpected ways in which the past catches up with the characters. At the same time, the contrast between the book’s minimalist tone and its complex structure creates a distinctive reading experience based on the slippages between memory and experience. It is a book fully built on the tension between the unsaid and the shreds of narrative that are casually dropped on the reader’s lap and acquire outsize importance when the reader connects the dots.
Wimmer is as ideal a translator as Fernández’s work could hope for. Known primarily for her exceptional translations of 2666 and The Savage Detectives, Wimmer performs a masterful work in conveying a style that, at times, is the polar opposite of Bolaño’s proliferating prose. Reading the Spanish and English versions side by side, one can see how Wimmer balances her translation, giving the book discursive flow while keeping both the distinction between voices and Fernández’s uncanny ability to weave key elements of the narrative into casual statements.
Space Invaders is a compelling and insightful work of literature from a truly talented fiction writer. It is my hope that this is only the first of her works to appear in English and that The Twilight Zone or Mapocho, Fernández’s deep historical and environmental novel, will follow suit.
I confess: my guilty pleasure is true crime. It started, appropriately, with In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel” about the murder of a Kansas family, which I discovered at the formative age of ten. I read it sitting up in a bed that felt progressively less secure, in my parents’ creaking, groaning old house, just one state over from the gruesome events. I was terrified. I don’t think I ever slept through the night in that house again. I was hooked.
There were many, many other true crime tales, gaudy mass-market paperback bricks (journalist Janet Malcolm observes, tartly, that “the books in this genre need fulfill only one requirement—that they be interminably long”), foil titles splashed with stylized blood. As I grew older and more refined in my reading tastes, I became furtive about my habit. Aside from their lurid wrappings, why was I embarrassed by these books? People surely have less defensible habits, and many of these books are stylishly written and intensively researched. Did my shame stem from true crime’s unavoidable overlap with the tabloids and their low-rent reputation? Or do my misgivings have their origin in a different sort of discomfort, the uneasy feeling that as readers we’re guilty of voyeurism, of finding pleasure, or at least recreation, in the misfortune of others?
Perhaps it’s more complicated, as with Fatal Vision, Joe McGinniss’s damning portrait of accused murderer Jeffrey MacDonald. Like many murders, this one prompted multiple books; unlike most of these volumes, however, the subsequent titles were occasioned not so much by the case itself as by McGinniss’s involvement in it. Written, infamously, under the false pretense of sympathy with the accused, Fatal Vision led to books not only debunking McGinniss’s conclusions (including documentarian Errol Morris’s exhaustive Wilderness of Error, rebutted in turn by McGinniss’s own Final Vision), but also to Malcolm’s eviscerating Journalist and the Murderer, with its iconic opening line, “Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” The true crime here, many seemed to feel, was McGinniss’s offense against MacDonald.
As the McGinniss-MacDonald saga suggests, tensions inhere in every true crime project. Beyond the usual tension between writer and subject lies the implicit promise of nonfiction: this is what happened, and why. The true crime reader herself may end up grilling the writer: is this the truth of the case? And if not, how can I tell?
That distance between the apparent and the actual, between first impressions and ultimate truths, runs throughout the pieces in this issue, the first Words Without Borders has devoted to this internationally popular genre. In some, the initial assumptions of guilt and responsibility prove inaccurate; in others, the facts of the case turn out to be far more complex than first realized. While the pieces here share these elements, they are from seven countries, translated from as many languages, and represent different stages in crime reporting, offering an international survey of the genre. The variety of weapons deployed, from poisoned drink to the proverbial blunt object, is matched in the range of tropes and topics: the reporter turned sleuth, the errant spouse, the trapped group picked off one by one. From the discovery of the crime to the interrogation and confession to the reporting of it, the pieces here map the translation of event into prose—the creation of true crime writing.
Czech graphic novelists Marek Šindelka, Vojtěch Mašek, and Marek Pokorný depict a reporter on the trail of a shadowy figure. When a captive child is discovered bound and bruised in her adoptive mother’s basement, the authorities assume they have an open-and-shut case. But when the supposed preteen vanishes from a children’s home and later is exposed as an adult woman and member of a mysterious cult, the story becomes even more complex. One newspaper reporter has already lost his job, if not his mind, over his obsession with the case. Can his dedicated successor crack the case without cracking up? The authors won the Muriel, the top award for Czech graphic novels, for their painstaking recreation of this intriguing tale.
A second graphic novelist, Jake Raynal, takes a markedly more cynical approach to the role of the press, skewering reporters and their disregard for facts in the interest of sensation. The three main concerns, he says, are protecting the innocent, respecting the accused—and working the audience into a frenzy for more. As evidence he produces accounts of a number of famous French crimes, citing the inaccuracies and exaggerations throughout—but “Who cares? It’s still an explosive story.” Between them, Raynal and Šindelka, Mašek, and Pokorný represent the extremes in portraits of journalistic practice, from the dogged pursuit of truth to the overt manipulation thereof. Raynal has been publishing serial graphic narratives in both the magazine Fluide Glacial and book form since 1994; his contribution here is from his series Les Nouveaux Mystères.
João Paulo Cuenca constructs an autofiction out of his victimization in an extreme case of identity theft. Hauled down to the police station after a neighborhood scuffle, he learns, to his understandable surprise, that he’s officially dead. Who has stolen his identity, and why has it been put to this disconcerting purpose? Blocked, unable to begin his planned next project, Cuenca decides to bring both himself and his writing back to life by teasing out the truth behind the crime. Cuenca, a Brazilian writer and filmmaker, won the 2017 Machado de Assis Prize for the resulting novel, I Found Out I Was Dead.
In another tale predicated on a personal connection, Miguel Ángel Hernández considers a baffling crime in his Spanish hometown. “Twenty years ago, on Christmas Eve, my best friend killed his sister and threw himself off a cliff,” he begins. The reasons behind the murder-suicide remain opaque, and Hernández has relegated the event to an anecdote from his youth. When a series of coincidences spur him to return to the scene of the crime, he finds himself, like Cuenca, drawn into an unexpected, and very personal, project. Hernández, an art historian, essayist, and short story writer, makes his crime writing debut here.
From China, where the literary reportage genre has exploded over the past several years, comes the account of one of the few survivors of a mutiny turned massacre. In December 2010 a squid boat left China to fish on the coasts of Chile and Peru with a crew of thirty-three. When it was towed into port eight months later, only eleven remained. All were tried, convicted, and imprisoned. Reporting for the Chinese edition of Esquire, the accomplished nonfiction writer Du Qiang interviewed the first crew member to be released from prison, telling him, “I want to know about the people.” The answers, in the pseudonymous sailor’s matter-of-fact recollections, are horrifying. Du’s story went viral (one source claims thirty million readers); film rights have been sold, and an audio version was broadcast in 2018.
Shoko Egawa also addresses a mass murder as she reconstructs a banquet turned bloodbath. At a village gathering, the toasts are followed by screams, as one woman after another collapses. At the end, five women lie dead, felled by poisoned wine. Suspicion falls on the unfaithful husband of one of the victims, and he’s called in for questioning. Will the detectives’ first assumption turn out to be correct? Egawa deftly builds the tension as the detectives circle their prey. Here as in the Du Qiang interview, the writer recreates both crime and confession, providing both an eyewitness account of a crime and the presumed criminal’s account of it. Veteran Japanese journalist Egawa won the prestigious Kabuki Kan Prize in 1995 for her coverage of the Aum Shinrikyō cult.
Cezary Łazarewicz reimagines a crime scene, this one in the deceptively safe environs of the victim’s own bedroom. When Henryk Zaremba awakens to his young son’s screams, he races through the house to find seventeen-year-old Lusia, his daughter from his first marriage, bludgeoned to death. He sends his lover, Rita, to fetch the doctor next door; the diagnosis is succinct, and crushing. An accomplished nonfiction writer specializing in crime, Łazarewicz won Poland's 2017 Nike Award for his account of a fatal police beating and its coverup, So There Will Be No Traces.
Compelling in their interrogations of crime and its depiction, these accounts provide, well, arresting reading. And surely there’s no shame in that.
© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A cheating husband, a jealous wife, and a suspicious bottle of wine turn a celebratory dinner into a tragedy in this excerpt from Shōko Egawa’s “The Sixth Victim.”
At the border between Mie and Nara prefectures is an area called Kuzuo. Kuzuo had once been a single village, but it was split in two when Japan’s feudal domains came to an end during the Meiji period. The part of Kuzuo now located in Mie is called Nabari. It’s also known as Iga Kuzuo. Across the border, in Nara, the village is a part of Yamazoemura. Some people call it Yamato Kuzuo.
March 28, 1961.
At this time, Iga Kuzuo had eighteen homes and Yamato Kuzuo had seven. Combined, the two villages had 140 residents, mostly farmers.
It was 7 p.m. and the sun had already gone down. On any other day, the villagers would have been at home, enjoying the evening with their families.
But this was a special day. It was the annual meeting of the Better Life Club at the Kuzuo Community Center.
The club was made up of residents from both Iga and Yamato. Its main function was to maintain good relations in the villages. After all, they had once been a single town. The club was also known as Everyone’s Club—a nod to the hopeful spirit at its core.
Among other activities, the club had a regular lottery. Winning families used the money they received to improve their lives however they saw fit, buying new appliances or renovating their kitchens or bathrooms. Thanks in no small part to this club, members really did lead better lives. Throughout the area, numerous houses now had tiled bathrooms. More homes had fridges than not.
“The smallest village with the brightest future”—that was Kuzuo’s motto.
The club’s general meeting was held every year toward the end of March. On that day, members elected club officials, discussed a few matters, then held a modest banquet. In the early 1960s, such diversions were few and far between. For the people of Kuzuo, especially the women, this gathering was a truly special occasion, and not to be missed.
On the day of the meeting, every woman in the club got an early start making dinner for her children and parents. Once their responsibilities at home were squared away, the women put on lipstick and donned their best kimonos, then happily set off for the community center.
The community center sat on a hill overlooking Nabari Kuzuo. It had formerly been a graveyard and a temple called Zofukuji. For this reason, locals often called the community center “the Temple.” Before the annual meeting, they removed the partitions between two of the center’s rooms to create space for the low tables.
Within an hour, the election and treasurer’s report had ended; it was time for the party to begin.
Bottles of sake were opened and warmed in teakettles. Once the sake was hot, the men filled each other’s cups. The women shared a large bottle of wine, passing it around the room. There was plenty of food. In addition to the boxes at every setting filled with several kinds of fish, tofu, beans, konbu rolls, and vegetables, the women also brought large plates with vegetables and other side dishes they had prepared at home.
The former chairman, Matsuo Oishi, made the toast.
“Here’s to all of you. I wish I could have done more for you as chairman, but it was a great year, all thanks to you. Omori, best of luck as our new chairman. And, finally, here’s to the club and the health of its members.”
All thirty-two members in attendance raised their cups. It was a late dinner, and everyone had quite an appetite. As soon as the toast was over, they started eating and drinking.
It all began about the time that the men and women were finishing their first drinks.
Something was wrong with Miyoko Nagasaki. With her face contorted, she got up and hurried out of the room. One seat over, Shoko Oishi grabbed her belly and fell against the woman on her other side, Chizuko Okunishi.
“My tongue, my tongue . . .” she said, burying her face in Chizuko’s lap.
“Are you OK?”
At first, the men made jokes, but as every woman in the room began to twitch, the laughter stopped. Within seconds, it was clear that most of the women were in incredible pain.
Shoko still in her lap, Chizuko suddenly collapsed.
Kei Niiya and Yukiko Kida were next.
“Shoko . . . Shoko!”
Tokiko Sakurai tried to help her neighbor, but soon her own pain was too much to bear.
“Something’s wrong,” she said. “Shizuko, take my place.”
Shizuko Uemura was standing across the way. She was about to step over the table, but unable to breathe, she fainted before she made it across.
“Shoko? Can you hear me? What’s going on?”
Kuniko Omori had no stomach for wine. She ran over, but Shoko wouldn’t respond to her questions. Shoko’s face was covered in sweat, some sort of mucus dripping from her dry lips.
“Hey, does this smell OK to you?”
Harue Nagata held the wine up to her nose, then grimaced.
“Let me see.”
Tamotsu Uemura grabbed Harue’s cup and took a small sip. There was nothing odd about it. It looked, smelled, and even tasted like ordinary white wine.
“It seems fine to me. Here, take a sip.”
Uemura passed Harue’s cup to Susumu Omori, who touched it to his lips and drank what little wine was left.
“Seems fine to me.”
The local official Yuichiro Hisada smelled the wine like the others, then took a mouthful. He was certain it was safe, but spat the liquid into the nearby hibachi just the same.
In the meantime, Harue Nagata was doubled over and clutching her belly. Tokiko Sakurai and Makiko Hanamura had lost feeling in their mouths. They were seized by chills and extreme nausea. The men looked on in helpless horror as seventeen of the twenty women present turned bright red and collapsed in pain.
Some men held their wives close and screamed their names, desperate to elicit some sort of response. Others left the community center to fetch family members. The room was covered in vomit and excrement. Some of the women were writhing in pain; others were completely motionless. Several tried to make it to the toilets but collapsed before they could. Other women had fallen in the hallway and by the door. Everyone else stood by, dumbfounded, unable to act.
Within minutes, the friendly atmosphere of the Better Life Club had evaporated. In its place was a horrifying scene—an image of hell.
* * *
The police first questioned Masaru Okunishi on March 29, 1961—one day after the incident.
At the time, they had no reason to suspect him of any wrongdoing. They were only following procedure, visiting the houses of all parties involved.
When Masaru spoke with the police, he acknowledged that he had brought the wine to the community center. During that interview, he also said:
“All the women collapsed within ten minutes of drinking the wine. That seems to be the only explanation—my wife and the other women were killed by something in the wine. It had to be some kind of poison.”
After that, the police took a greater interest in Masaru Okunishi. Although the interview was “voluntary,” he could hardly have turned them away. In the days that followed, a patrol car would pick him up every morning and drive him home again before nightfall.
Everyone in the village knew that Masaru had been having an affair with a local widow by the name of Yukiko Kida. When the police confronted Masaru about the rumor, he immediately denied it. The police knew he was lying, but they didn’t press the issue. The next day, however, when lead investigator Toshifumi Tsujii took over, the interrogation took an abrupt turn.
“You’re lying about Yukiko!”
Those were Tsujii’s first words.
Masaru broke under the pressure. He admitted that he had been cheating on his wife Chizuko—and that they had fought about it.
Through his neighbors, investigators had heard that Masaru’s family had been using an insecticide called tetraethyl pyrophosphate, also known as TEPP.
“You’ve been using TEPP in your fields, isn’t that right?”
“No, never. I bought some last summer but never used it.”
Meanwhile, Masaru tried to tell the police about the strained relationship between a couple of women in the village—a woman and her mother-in-law who had been at each other’s throats for some time.
“Funny you should mention that. People have been saying similar things about Yukiko and your wife, Chizuko. Like you said, she knew you’d been cheating. And maybe that’s why she poisoned the wine. Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
“No, no—she couldn’t have.”
The interrogation dragged on for hours. As Tsujii continued, Masaru came to believe that Chizuko was their primary suspect.
There appeared to be no end to the questioning.
“Just so you know, you’re not going home tonight.”
“What about the others? What about Oishi and Iwamura?”
“We sent them home a while ago, but you know something. We can’t let you go until we find out what it is.”
“No, please. My daughter’s starting elementary school this week. I need to get her ready for her first day. My wife is dead. I have to look after things around the house. I’ll come back tomorrow. Just let me go home.”
Masaru begged, but Tsujii remained firm. “You’re not going anywhere—not until you talk.”
Masaru buried his head in his hands. He remembered the rice polisher at home, full of water. If he didn’t empty it soon, the equipment would rust.
There was something else on his mind, too—something he didn’t want the police to know. Masaru had been stealing electricity. He knew it was wrong. That’s why he always made sure to put things back the way they were before someone came to read the meter.
The inspector was supposed to visit the next day. If Masaru didn’t get home that night, the theft would be discovered. Masaru knew he had to get home, no matter what.
At around 5 p.m., Masaru started to speak, hoping they’d release him if he did. His thoughts were vague and fragmentary. When there were gaps in his story, Tsujii helped him fill in the blanks.
The resulting testimony was this:
Yukiko Kida’s husband died last summer, leaving her alone with two children. I wanted to help, so I had her work with me. Soon, we became close. Then, last October, on the night of the fall festival, Yukiko and I went for a walk, just the two of us. My wife saw us and became jealous. After that, we started fighting. Chizuko said that she was going to leave me and go back to her parents . . . I tried telling my wife that nothing was going on, but she wouldn’t listen. At some point, I lost my temper and yelled back, “Fine! If you want to leave, then leave.” Then she looked right at me and said, “I’ll make sure you never see her again, then I’ll die. There won’t be anyone left—just you and the kids.”
Then I said something I shouldn’t have. “Well, there’s a box of poison on the shelf . . .”
It was around 11 p.m. when Masaru finished.
“Listen, if Chizuko did it,” Tsujii told him, “you’re hardly innocent here. She did it because you were cheating. You’re going to have to take responsibility for what you’ve done.”
Masaru was silent. He thought about Tsujii’s words.
Maybe he’s right. If she did it, she did it out of jealousy. It’s my fault. I even told her where to find the poison. I need to take responsibility . . .
“Think about what this is going to do to your family. It’ll destroy them. Your mother and father are saying they’re going to kill themselves. The officer who just came back from the scene told me so. What do you think about that?”
Masaru believed everything the policeman said.
It’d be best for my family if I took responsibility . . . if I say I did it.
Then Masaru’s thoughts returned to the stolen electricity and the rice polisher full of water.
At that point, Tsujii got up and left the room. Masaru was alone with a sergeant by the name of Yamakawa. In Masaru’s eyes, Yamakawa seemed like the more reasonable officer. With Tsujii out of the room, Masaru tried explaining why he was desperate to get home. He told Yamakawa about the rice polisher—and about the electricity. “Please let me go home tonight.”
“We can’t do that. We can arrest you. If not for this, we’ve already got you for stealing power.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“Come on, you know what I mean. Everything could go the way you want, as long as you cooperate. All you have to do is tell us what we need to know,” Yamakawa said as he stood up. “I’ll be right back.”
Masaru was left alone in the room.
I realized there were two ways things could go. I could either be arrested for stealing power or I could give the testimony they wanted me to give. [Masaru Okunishi’s letter to his lawyer]
Weighing his options, Masaru recalled the faces of his neighbors.
If I lie and tell the police that I did it, my neighbors will come forward with the truth . . . As long as they do that, everything will work out.
* * *
Before long, Tsujii and Yamakawa came back.
“Well, are you ready to tell us the truth?”
“So, did you do it?”
“Yes . . . It was me. I did it.”
From Rokunin-me no Giseisha. Published 1994 by Bungei Shunju. By arrangement with the publisher and author. Translation © 2019 by David Boyd. All rights reserved.
After learning that he is officially dead, Brazilian writer J. P. Cuenca tries to understand who stole his identity and why.
A dead man’s greatest virtue is honesty.
—Machado de Assis, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas
I found out I was dead when I started to write a book. It wasn’t this book yet.
I was living with my wife in an apartment two floors above a restaurant. The kitchen staff would get together on the restaurant’s back patio in the courtyard under that internal area where the buildings of the block form a polyhedron of public intimacy. There they would eat, smoke, talk on the phone, and gab. Their conversations traveled through the walls of my home. It was like living in Strindberg’s Inferno and hearing the voices that followed him through cheap hotels in Paris at the twilight of the nineteenth century. Except this was Rio de Janeiro, and unlike the Swedish writer, I wasn’t crazy.
Or at least that’s what I wanted to believe. When the loud conversations woke me up every morning and kept me from working during the day or screwing at night, I’d call the restaurant to complain about the noise. When my complaints were ignored, which was most of the time, I’d scream from the window: “Shut the fuck up, you sons of bitches!”
One night, after a brief exchange of curse words, I dumped the first thing I could find out the window: a garbage bag full of correspondence. In exchange someone threw a raw egg at my window. My wife started to cry. As the egg ran down the glass, they collected the garbage and went to the nearest police station.
The police cited me for the crimes of Threatening Behavior, Throwing Objects, and Public Endangerment under Incident Registry No. 014–03595/2011.
Three days later, a phone call woke me up at eleven in the morning. It was the last Saturday in April 2011.
“Who do you want to talk to?”
“Is this Mr. João Paulo?”
“João Paulo Vieira Machado de Cue . . .” He hesitates.
“Yes, that’s it. Son of Maria Teresa Vieira Machado and Juan José Cuenca?”
“I’m Inspector Gomes from the Fifth Police Precinct. We pulled your file here after the complaint about the restaurant incident.”
“It’s that we have another incident report here dated July 14, 2008, with your name on it.”
“Do you know what it’s about?”
“I have no idea.”
“This report documents your death.”
“The registry of your death. It says here that you’re dead. Do you know a Cristiane Paixão Ribeiro?”
“I think you’d better come down to the station to clear this up.”
On my way to the police station downtown, I looked out the taxi window at the beach.
Seen from the ocean, the car was a small metallic dot reflecting the sun as it advanced in front of the coil of buildings that lined the beachfront avenues. In the background the gigantic Tijuca Massif dominated the landscape in tones of green over rock.
The natural wall that divides Rio de Janeiro includes the hunchbacked ridge of the Corcovado Mountain, the Dois Irmãos, and the Pedra da Gávea, natural dividers between the South Zone, the North Zone, and the Barra da Tijuca. From atop the mountains, the sinuous panorama of the favelas spills down into a toothpick holder of buildings divided by the geometrical grid of asphalt avenues leading to the beach and the blue water. Perched on the topographical seesaw that mixes tile with the Atlantic rainforest, the poor watch the rich from above.
As much as they seem to be part of different universes, the favela dwellers have strong connections with their neighbors who occupy apartments of one thousand square meters behind mirrored facades reflecting the Atlantic. Many of the slum dwellers work in the homes of the white people who live on the asphalt—in the kitchen, as doormen, nannies, or chauffeurs—and sometimes they make deliveries of food, medicine, and cocaine. In turn, the bosses of the drug trade on the hillsides surrounding the South Zone and the power brokers of the luxury buildings on Avenues Delfim Moreira and Vieira Souto have even stronger ties.
The money trail involves high-ranking politicians, financiers, police officials, military, legislators, construction bosses, and neo-Pentecostal pastors who launder money for drug and arms traffickers. If at the retail point there are disposable black kids armed with guns on the dimly lit hillside arteries, on the other side there are prohibition lobbyists and drug wholesalers with Jacuzzis and paintings by Romero Britto and Beatriz Milhazes in their living rooms that look out onto the Atlantic Ocean.
Many of the residents of those marble buildings have no need to call the drug lords on the Morro do Vidigal or Rocinha when they want drugs. All they have to do is pick up the intercom to the penthouse and skip the intermediaries. It would be a discourtesy to even think about it.
After all, it was just one more weekend on the beach and the complacent citizens of Rio de Janeiro walked, ran, rode bikes, played variations of soccer on the sand—footvolley, goal to goal, altinho, and bobinho. They were drinking coconut water at the kiosks along Ipanema Beach, exercising on metal bars, tanning their well-nourished bodies while navigating the sidewalk. The women ignored them as they strolled in spandex two sizes too small, facing the emptiness with hurried steps.
It was on against this brilliant canvas that my parents met for the first time four decades ago. A man recently arrived from Argentina—he came in the mid-seventies seeking a sabbatical life and a suntan—and a girl from a formerly well-to-do family who worked in a real estate agency. They went to the same section of beach. I was born two years after that encounter, and unfortunately the luminous side of that young couple got lost in the genetics. If my father is optimistic and athletic and my mother is keen on affection, none of that carried over: from him I inherited the penchant for excess and unpaid work, and from her an irritable, anxious nature.
With the exception of a few brief episodes, I always rejected the exhibitionism of the beach. I rarely went, even though I lived only three blocks away.
“You don’t take advantage of it! It would be so healthy for you,” my wife often insisted.
A kid with a limited physique and a talent for being sickly. I perhaps rejected the beach because I liked to live outside my body. Or ignore it altogether and pretend that I was someone else. I was thinking about this as the city unfolded before me from Copacabana Beach to the Botafogo boardwalk. Afterward came the gardens of the Aterro do Flamengo, Glória, and then the center of the city announcing itself at the end of Praça Paris—all of this was once a big swath of sea later buried in tons of rock extracted from the Morro do Castelo. The hill on which the city was founded, the Morro was completely demolished along with its 470 buildings, churches, houses, and plots of land at the beginning of the 1920s. Its original dimensions were sixty-three meters high and eighteen thousand square meters wide.
My father liked to remind me: “Less than a century ago this wide avenue, the French gardens, and even this taxi were underwater. The water reached all the way to the Outeiro da Glória.”
In the air-conditioned car, the sun outside reminded me of the installations of the Colombian artist Oscar Muñoz, whose work I’d seen recently in a newly opened museum.
It was a video that showed a man’s hand drawing a face on a concrete floor. The drawing was made with a paintbrush dipped in water. Its features disappeared as the water evaporated—it seemed to be a hot day like today, perhaps with the same mesmerizing midday sun. The man’s hand retraced the recently erased features, but he had to quickly go back to touch up other parts of the face that were disappearing. The video followed this work of recomposition for an hour. As much as the man tried to maintain the original personality of the portrait, the shapes of the face changed while they were being reconstructed in that strange and unique race against time. If the man spent more than ten seconds without retouching the portrait it would disappear completely.
Rio de Janeiro’s Fifth Precinct Police Station is in a low building annexed to the Civil Police Headquarters on Avenida Gomes Freire in the Lapa district. The complex guards the architectonic pentimento of the city center: window boxes, postmodern skyscrapers, art deco gates, buildings inspired by French architecture, and town houses in the Portuguese tradition—many falling to pieces. Like the one next to the station with just the facade left standing, its windows opening a space to the sky and a bare patch of land.
After identifying myself to a police officer, I was led through hallways lined with boxes of files to the detective inspector’s office. Each one of those files, forming an enclosure around tables and chairs and leaving few walls visible, contained narratives whose common theme was misunderstanding between the human beings of my city. Stories transmitted orally by its inhabitants and registered by clerks, which made the place a lost crossroads between a library, registry, and morgue.
“So you’re Cuenca, huh?”
Inspector Gomes is bald, about fifty, and wears a shoulder holster. Without getting up from his chair, he stretches out his hand in a loose greeting. The atavistic fear that I feel in the presence of professors, priests, and policemen is a personality trait that has accompanied me since childhood—I’ve never felt at ease in front of an agent of the law. It would not be the first time.
The inspector seems to notice my discomfort and smiles with the air of someone who is keeper of the keys to the jail cell. Then he orders me to sit down and tosses on the desk the Registry of Incident 005–0591/2008, the Protocol for Removal of Corpse 042435–1005/2008, and Death Certificate 04331/08—all certifying that João Paulo Vieira Machado de Cuenca, son of Maria Teresa Vieira Machado and Juan José Cuenca, whose birth certificate number is PED2194177LV255A, is dead.
With a look that was somewhere between threatening and curious, the police officer studied my reaction as I read the incident report. Then he asked questions that you never imagine you’ll hear: “Where were you on July 14, 2008?”
I looked at the clock on the wall. It was 12:05—it was stopped. I don’t know why, but it seemed to be showing five minutes after midnight and not five minutes after noon.
I was in Rome. The date of the incident that registered my death by lobar pneumonia with formation of microabscesses, encephalitis with the presence of structures suggestive of oocytes of toxoplasma gondii, edema, and areas of intracranial hemorrhaging in an abandoned building on Rua da Relação, 47, between Rua dos Inválidos and Avenida Gomes Freire, just a few meters away from that police station, was the same as the date of the launch of the Italian translation of my second novel, Mastroianni’s Day, at the Libreria del Cinema, a small bookstore in Trastevere.
In February 2008, after a divorce, I left Rio with no fixed date of return, following a pattern that had become routine of accepting invitations for book launches or lectures abroad and adding on trips that kept getting longer and more pointless. The disingenuous belief in the departure—the same original sin of Europe, of Dom Sebastião, of my ancestors, of generations of immigrants and displaced people falling like domino pieces far from home—masked a certain moroseness and vague desires to disappear. I still didn’t understand that my personality would not be constructed by an accumulation of experiences, but rather eroded by them.
After a writer’s conference in Portugal, a stay of a few weeks in Spain, and a month in France, I arrived in Rome after a long train trip. I was feeling the vague, solitary happiness of travelers. It was summer, the day sparkled all over Europe, and I was holding on to the memory of a few naked women in the small studio behind the green door of Rue du Temple, 94, in Paris, and I was in love with one of them. I was returning to Rome to promote a translation and I was the perfect example of the young starving Latin American writer dazzled by the European experience.
The book launch at sunset in Trastevere, the dawn that I spent on the rear seat of the scooter driven by the Italian with full breasts and hooked nose with whom I had shared a pipe of hash and a few kisses under the galleries of the Pantheon, maybe that had been some kind of apex, the top of the mountain from which today I observe the valleys and gesture at the point of inflection.
“Where were you the night of July 14, 2008?”
"In July? In July 2008 I was in Europe. I stayed until the end of the month, or into August.”
“I’m a writer.”
“What do you write about?”
“I was invited to some literary festivals. I launched a translation of a book of mine in Italy.”
“Are you a famous writer?”
“Sorry, but I’ve never heard of you. And you have a strange name.”
“What do you write?”
“No. I mean, it could be.”
“What’s in your books?”
“I don’t know, it’s complicated.”
“What do you mean, complicated?”
“It’s that if you ask any writer . . .”
“Do you think I’m ignorant?”
“Of course not.”
“I’m a lawyer. I read a lot. I’ve read a lot. There was a time I read all of the books by Rubem Fonseca. You know him?”
“Do I know Rubem Fonseca?”
“I like Rubem Fonseca very much. He might be the author who had the most—”
“There’s a sentence by him that I love. I always use it.”
“What is it?”
“There’s nothing that a woman can’t make worse.”
“That’s a good one.”
“It is, isn’t it?”
“You’ve got this woman here, for example.”
“That one. It’s on the registry. She’s the one who identified the body with your name, address, and document number. That Cristiane.”
“She was summoned to clarify the story. But the address doesn’t match up.”
“Do you have any idea why that woman would have done such a thing?”
“Hey, my friend. There are stories I could tell . . .”
“She could be committing insurance fraud in your name.”
“In my name?”
“Yes, and you could be an accomplice.”
“I’m just kidding. But did you have any insurance in your name in 2008?”
“I’ve never had life insurance.”
“Not that I know of.”
“Have you had any credit problems lately?”
“Yes, but they were all my fault.”
“No personal loans in your name?”
“Then that guy just used your name to die.”
“He must have been running away from someone.”
“Yeah, but why did his wife identify him with your name and not his real one?”
“He was already dead, a guy like him didn’t have a pension coming.”
A young woman appears with a folder and leaves it on the desk. She has blonde hair and wears jeans. Her holster is empty. Inspector Gomes asks her for coffee and offers me some. I accept. The policewoman responds to my attempt at a smile with a resigned nod of her head and disappears down an aisle between the tables to the end of the hall. We both follow the pendular movement of her buttocks, our only moment of complicity that afternoon. The inspector returns to business, as if he just remembered something.
“People usually steal someone’s identity to run away from something, to try another life. It’s very common for a bum to steal the identity of a dead man to live with his name. But that’s . . .”
“I don’t know. This is strange as hell.”
“How did he get hold of my birth certificate?”
“You tell me. Have you lost it?”
“But you’re in luck. Didn’t you notice in the paperwork that they identified his body after a week?”
“They identified it?”
He showed me this piece of paper:
“That Sérgio there. They made the dead guy play the piano and that’s what saved you.”
“Fingerprints. That’s the only reason there’s not a death certificate in your name. You’d have been fucked.”
“It’s a bitch to try to prove you’re alive. You think you just have to be breathing?”
“Who would have thought.”
“That it was easy.”
“So who was this guy?”
“Look, I don’t know. But he wasn’t a good guy.”
“Can you bring up his file?”
“Yeah, but the system’s down.”
“Do you know when it will come back up?”
“If only I knew . . . Anyway, you can relax. I’ll make a note here that you were out of the country and didn’t know anything about this incident, and that you didn’t know that Miss Cristiane either.”
“And now what?
“I have your contact information. If we need you, I know how to find you. Are you planning on traveling abroad in the next few months?”
“Can I keep a copy of those papers?”
“What do you want with them?”
“I don’t know. I’d like to read them carefully.”
“It’s a story a writer can use.”
“Are you going to write a book about it?”
I left the police station. I never did get that coffee.
From Descobri que estava morto. © 2016 by J. P. Cuenca. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Elizabeth Lowe. All rights reserved.
When he runs into an old friend, Spanish writer Miguel Ángel Hernández is forced to revisit the shocking 1995 murder-suicide of his best friend.
They went into Rosario’s house, your father says from the next room, killed Rosi and took Nicolás.
It’s the first thing you hear. The voice that wakes you up. The sentence you’ll never be able to forget.
For a second, you prefer to think that it’s part of a dream, so you stay completely still beneath the sheets. It’s 5 a.m. and you’ve only just managed to get to sleep. Christmas Eve dinner hasn’t gone down well and you’ve been tossing and turning for hours.
They killed Rosi and took Nicolás, you hear your father say again, clear as a bell.
That’s when you open your eyes and jump out of bed, still not understanding a thing. You throw on the first clothes you find and run to the living room.
Your mother, standing by the Christmas tree in her nightdress, sees you and starts crying.
Rosario’s children . . . she manages to say.
What’s happened? you ask.
The worst thing that could, she replies. And she raises her hands to her face to hide the tears.
Your father finishes dressing in the bathroom. Your brother, the first to hear about it, calls to him impatiently from the doorway.
Come too if you want, he says to you as he leaves.
Your mother stays in the house and you go out with them.
Be careful, she warns, and locks the door behind you.
The cold creeps under your skin and the damp penetrates your skull. It is December in Murcia.
The three of you walk in silence down the dark track. There’s a hum in the background that absorbs every other noise. It gets louder the closer you get to the main road, and you head for the esplanade, crowded with silhouettes that dissolve into the gloom.
The dim glow from a cracked streetlight illuminates people’s faces. Nobody looks at anyone else directly. Everything is said in hushed voices.
Three police cars block the way into the house. Beside them, all alone, you make out your friend’s father walking in little circles with his hands behind his back.
What’s happened, Antón? your brother asks when you reach him.
Nothing . . . he stammers, his eyes fixed on the ground, they’ve killed my Rosi and kidnapped my Nicolás.
But who? How? you all ask.
Nothing . . . they’ve killed my Rosi. And they’ve taken my Nicolás.
That’s all he says. Over and over again. He says it to the neighbor across the road, to your neighbor Julia, to your cousin Maruja, to anyone driving past who slows down to ask. He says it with the same lost look, the same shattered expression, and the same air of incredulity, as if he genuinely knew nothing and as if nothing, in reality, had happened.
That’s how he begins whenever he’s asked.
Nothing . . .
And that’s the part no one understands. The nothing of things that cannot be said. The nothing that starts little by little to take over every corner of the scene. The nothing that paralyzes you and clouds your mind. The nothing and two questions:
Who killed Rosi?
Who took Nicolás?
“Twenty years ago, one Christmas Eve, my best friend killed his sister and threw himself off a cliff.”
That sentence contains a story. The past I’ve wanted to escape from my whole life.
Twenty years ago . . .
I’d just turned eighteen, I lived with my parents in a small house in the country—the part of Murcia where all the fruit and vegetables are grown—and I’d started studying art history at university. My father packed aluminum windows for a living and my mother took care of her ancient aunt, Nena, who was over ninety and spent her days sitting at the window looking out. My three brothers, all married when I was still a boy, had left home quite a long time before. I still had years to go, living in that little house in the middle of nowhere with Nena and parents who were four times my age and could very well have been my grandparents.
I was the one who was made a fuss of, the youngest, the spoiled one. I had everything that they—my brothers as well as my parents—couldn’t have. And I wasn’t to complain because I didn’t know what it was like to feel worn out or have to borrow money in order to eat. Precisely because of this, I had to study hard, work my socks off, and make the most of the gift that had been denied to so many others. I needed to study in order not to end up working in the fields. Study anything: Administration, Mechanics, Electronics. Or better still, stay on at school. And then do the exams and hopefully get into university. Study whatever, preferably Law, Education, or Psychology. Even History of Art would do. After all, it was still a degree, and a degree meant a future. I was going to be the first in my family to go to university. A source of pride. So much effort, so many extra hours, so many late nights rewarded at last. “My son,” my mother would be able to say, “the one at university who shuts himself up and studies all day long: he’ll be somebody one day.”
In 1995—the twenty years ago in the sentence above—without quite knowing it, I had already begun to plot my own escape. The university, the city, the world beyond the edges of the market garden were going to be my salvation. I would find the place I really belonged, the place where I should have been born. But there were still ties that stopped me from leaving and bound me to the place I came home to each afternoon. One of these had been like a supply of oxygen for me in the past, my shadow, the boy I’d grown up with: Nicolás, Rosario’s son, my neighbor, someone I’d grown apart from but still considered my best friend.
We lived barely two hundred yards from one another. His house was up on the main road that cut across the fields. Mine was at the end of a dirt track. Both houses were surrounded by lemon trees. Our lives seemed cut from the same cloth. His birthday was a few weeks after mine, he too was the child of old parents and the youngest of four siblings, just like I was. Nicolás had a sister while we were all boys, but apart from that we were like twin reflections. Inseparable. As close as flesh and bone, the neighbors said. I was the flesh, he was the bone. I was tubby and round, he was tall and thin. I was plump-cheeked and pink, he had copper-colored skin, a sharp profile, and features that were almost Chinese. A lanky Asian-looking boy with glossy black hair.
When I think of Nicolás, for some reason I always see him dressed in a purple Tactel tracksuit. I also remember him as self-contained, quiet, distant, reserved. Because this, more than anything, was what defined him. If I was a hardworking fatty, he was reticent and sickly. I guess these days he would be diagnosed as somewhere on the autism spectrum. Back then he was just a “quiet kid,” shy and withdrawn. A strange boy who kept his head down and whose voice barely made it out of his body. He was just the same when he was four as when he was seventeen.
Nicolás didn’t behave like other children. He was special. Even when he got teased about his shyness, he put up with it like nobody else would have done. But he had his limits. Pushed too far, he’d explode. A pent-up fury surfaced. Nobody knew where this excessive rage originated; the short-lived outbursts surprised even me. The rest of the time, I was his voice and his defender. I spoke for him and protected him. With Nicolás beside me, I felt powerful. I commanded and he obeyed. He was my shadow and my sidekick.
Nicolás was present in every bit of my life. From our first day at school until the night it all happened. It’s true our paths started to diverge a bit after middle school, when he opted for vocational training and I carried on along the academic route, but even though we no longer saw each other in class, we met up back home in the afternoons and played football, basketball, ludo, cards, and video games. We saw each other on Sundays at church, preparing the readings and assisting with the Mass. We attended confirmation classes in the next village over on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings. And, finally, we both took driving lessons. He was always there, right up to the end, on the afternoon of December 24, 1995, when I saw him in the doorway of his house playing chess with his cousin Pedro Enrique, just hours before the fateful night when he killed his sister and threw himself off a cliff.
That night, after Christmas Eve dinner, at around two in the morning, when his parents had gone to bed and the rest of the family had left, Nicolás went into Rosi’s bedroom—she was five years older than he was—and battered her to death. He did it with the cassette player, or the bathroom scale, or, according to other versions, everything he had on hand. The parents heard neither blows nor cries. They were woken by the sound of a car engine. Entering Rosi’s room, they found the body of their daughter lying in a pool of blood.
They looked for Nicolás, but he had disappeared. The blue SEAT 127 was gone too. They called the Guardia Civil and the search got underway. Nobody knew where Nicolás could be. Several hours later, toward dawn, they found his body in Cabezo de la Plata, a rugged, mountainous area about six miles from his home. His cousin, another of my closest friends, discovered him at the bottom of a cliff. He had his belt round his neck. He’d tried to hang himself before he jumped.
These were the facts. As much as I knew. Everything I’d managed to find out directly afterward. If some day I dared write the story, I’d have to start like that. And reveal everything from the beginning. He killed her and committed suicide the same night. There’s nothing more to it. There’s no mystery. Or rather, that is the mystery. Why did he kill her? What was going through his head? Why did he go into her room? What started the fight? Was it even a fight? Was there something else going on between them? What happened to turn a celebration into a deadly nightmare?
Nobody could explain it. A normal family, good kids; that’s what everyone told the Guardia Civil and the media, me included. Nobody knew anything. Nobody found out anything more. The case was closed and all questions remained unanswered. The secret became a riddle, its solution buried with the bodies forever. When all was said and done, the facts were pretty straightforward: there was a victim and a murderer and the murderer was dead too. The rest was pure speculation. But of course everyone speculated.
Strange though it may seem, I rarely revisited that long night. I preferred to blank it out and flee toward the future as though nothing had happened. My best friend had killed his sister and committed suicide. Nobody knew why, least of all me. I was eighteen years old and, coming right in the middle of my adolescence, it might be expected that such an event would leave me in bits. Be that as it may, I moved on in a manner that now, looking back, I find surprising and scarcely comprehensible.
That night created a strange rift between my past and my present. Before it, my childhood in the fields and orchards. Afterward, my university life among artists and historians. An insurmountable barrier between what I had been and what I had decided to become.
With time, that long night turned into an anecdote about the past. An episode in my life that I never examined beyond trotting out the sentence I sometimes repeated like a mantra: “My best friend killed his sister and threw himself off a cliff.” A well-rehearsed formula that was also perhaps a shell, protection against that dark space I’d never known how to enter.
Nevertheless, there, in that sentence, in that formula-shell I’d created to cut off my past and keep it away from the present, was a story that could be told. That’s what Sergio del Molino had suggested, and what others before him had also assured me. You have to write about it one day, my friend Leo insisted every time the topic came up. Yes, one day, I replied, believing that the day would be put off indefinitely as long as I continued to pursue my interest in stories about artists, intellectuals, and sophisticated theories. Yes, one day, I thought; one day I’ll revisit that night and everything that will come with it: Nicolás, life in the country, beginnings, home, parents, neighbors, incomprehension, that whole world I’d escaped from and never wanted to return to. Yes, one day, I used to say to myself; one day I’ll write about all the fears, frustrations, and sorrows of the past.
One day, I thought. One day, I said. And inside I was petrified that the day, constantly being shunted into the future, might finally arrive and begin to tear up the present.
There was a story there. Possibly a novel. I saw the possibility of it as clear as day. The next morning, however, the cold light of day persuaded me little by little that I’d been overenthusiastic. Where was I going with the book? A novel about a real crime? A story set in horticultural Murcia? It was nothing like anything I’d written before. I’d published one novel about the contemporary art world and I was trying to finish another that also revolved around art. Artists, intellectuals, international exhibitions, complex theories about the limits of representation and the way memory worked with images . . . these were the things I knew how to write about. After all, much as I’d like to think of myself as an author, in the end I was just a university lecturer who’d made the most of his knowledge to turn what had been written as an academic article into a novel. And that’s what I should carry on doing. Leave things alone and get on with stuff I could manage. Writing the story would mean leaving the relative comfort of that territory to journey into the unknown, straying into places I’d never explored before. At least that’s what I thought at the time. Now I know it’s all part of the same impulse and that, in fact, I wasn’t going to have to go all that far. But back then I was convinced it was a new path, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to take it because, among other things, I didn’t know how.
I spent almost the whole day with these thoughts running round my head. I was still mulling them over when, that same afternoon, while I was waiting at a set of traffic lights to cross the road after a tedious departmental meeting, a car started flashing its lights and someone waved at me from inside. I recognized his face instantly. I couldn’t believe it: Juan Alberto. I hadn’t seen him for almost ten years. I knew from occasional text messages that he’d started working at the Barrio de Carmen police station, but I had barely seen him since my wedding.
I went up to the car and greeted him through the passenger-side window.
“We must get together and catch up,” he said, grabbing my arm without taking his eyes from the rearview mirror.
“Sure thing, call me any time.”
“I’ve got shared custody now. You must see my little girl. She’s all grown up.”
“I’m really glad to see you, Miguel.”
We didn’t have time for more than that. The lights turned green and his car headed off toward the city.
I was glad to see him too. But bumping into him just when I was considering writing about what had taken place twenty years before seemed a strange twist of fate. Not only because Juan Alberto had been one of my best friends in adolescence and this fact took me straight back to the past, but also because he played a pivotal role in the story I was thinking of exploring. Juan Alberto was Nicolás’s cousin. He’d known him well too. But there was something else: the night it all happened, after a search lasting several hours, he was the one who had found the body at the bottom of the cliff.
Weirdly, we’d never talked about it. Since that sad night, we’d hardly seen each other for any length of time. Although we ended up losing touch for other reasons, what happened on Christmas Eve of 1995 put up a barrier of darkness between us, a space we couldn’t cross and within which everything had remained unsaid.
And now, when for the first time in ages I’d admitted the possibility of looking back, up popped Juan Alberto. What were the chances of it happening that very afternoon? I’ve never put much faith in signs and portents, but I confess that as I watched his car drive off into the distance, the naive idea that someone or something had made our paths cross went through my mind.
I think it was in that moment that I really convinced myself I had to write the book. In the same instant, I also realized what it would mean to do so, the wounds I’d reopen and the damage I might cause.
Today, with the book underway and no chance of turning back, I believe that if fate had a hand in my meeting Juan Alberto that day, it wasn’t to convince me that this was the story I had to write, but quite the opposite. It was to put me off, to warn me that there are waters it’s best not to stir up and places you shouldn’t go, that not all tales need telling, that writing doesn’t always win out and that sometimes we also founder when faced with the pain of others.
From El dolor de los demás. © Miguel Ángel Hernández. By arrangement with the Indent Literary Agency. Translation © 2019 by Anna Milsom. All rights reserved.
A woman remains suspiciously calm in the face of her stepdaughter’s violent death in Cezary Łazarewicz’s reimagining of a 1931 murder.
Brzuchowice, night of Wednesday to Thursday, December 30–31, 1931
It hurtles out of the darkness, flying straight at him. It’s small and bursts with color. The engineer’s clouded mind tells him it’s a hummingbird. He saw one like it in some book. Maybe in Trzaska, Evert, and Michalski’s encyclopedia? It has turquoise feathers, an orange beak, and a little black tail.
But how has it ended up in Galicia, at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains, in the middle of a snowy, freezing winter? Even he—an architectural engineer—knows hummingbirds live in the rainforests of South America. He wonders as he peers at his large, wrinkled palm, from which the bird picks up a seed, then flies up to his mouth, trying to push it under his salt-and-pepper mustache.
And then its turquoise feathers turn gray, its beak curls, its claws sharpen, its head and body swell. It’s no longer a hummingbird but a vulture. Its ashen wings are so huge they obscure the sky. It drives its sharp talons into the engineer’s chest and tries to slash through his aorta with its hooked beak. Before the blood comes gushing out, the scream of a fourteen-year-old boy comes blasting into the dream. It’s Staś—the engineer’s son. Howls and wails emanate from his room. The words are not yet comprehensible, but the engineer knows what they mean: Staś is calling for help.
“I thought he’d gotten sick, fallen, injured himself, that I had to save him,” the engineer writes later.
He leaps out of bed and runs, but the murk in the doorway of the next room stops him short. This room belongs to Rita, his life partner and mother of their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Romusia, who tonight is sleeping in a crib beside the engineer.
The dark is tempered slightly by the light reflecting off the December snow from a bulb at the nearby military police outpost. In Rita’s room the engineer can make out an indistinct outline of gray against the large porch windows. This is an important detail, which he will later be questioned about by investigators, lawyers, judges, journalists. He will never be able to precisely describe it. Once he says it was a black mass by the porch door; another time, a hunched figure squeezed between the bed and the dressing table.
“I didn’t think it could be her,” he writes later. “The blackness of the night, emphasized by the blackness of that indistinct shape straight through my door, made me realize I’d need to examine the boy in the light.”
He retreats to the nightstand by his bed and, hands trembling, lights a candle in a candlestick so clumsily that he knocks over a glass of water. (The broken glass will be yet another important detail in the pyramid of circumstantial evidence later constructed.)
He runs barefoot with the little flame through Rita’s room to the dining room with the large table and fireplace.
Staś’s divan bed is on the right, pushed into the alcove under the window. The boy is walking barefoot around the room, wailing:
“Lu-sia’s been mur-dered. Mur-derrrred. Muuuuur-derrrrrred.”
Elżbieta, known as Lusia, is Staś’s seventeen-year-old sister. She sleeps in a pink room behind glass doors. Her clothes are stuffed into an enormous dark-wood wardrobe standing to the right of the entrance. Despite the cold, a vent in the venetian window is open. Beneath the window stands a table. Ski gloves lie on top of it. The skis lean against the wall.
In the right corner is a desk heaped with school texts and notebooks. It’s winter vacation, so the girl hasn’t opened them.
Small paintings hang on the wall: landscapes and flowers.
On the left stands the bed. Heavy, steel, and flush against the wall. Beneath it, a vanity box and a large leather suitcase.
Before going to sleep Lusia laid her rings, the strap with her key, and an unfinished book on her nightstand, where the engineer now places the candlestick. Only in the candlelight does he notice his daughter’s bloodied face. She lies motionless, on her back, with a pillow thrown onto her legs. Her right leg is extended, her left slightly drawn up. Her right arm and clenched fist are thrown behind her head, her left arm lies at her side. In the faint light he cannot yet tell the whole mattress is soaked with blood; crimson drips onto the wood floor, forming a puddle under the bed. Later, a medical expert summoned from Lwów—Dr. Dawidowicz—will describe the scene more precisely.
It’s still the middle of the night. The forty-eight-year-old architectural engineer Henryk Zaremba stands at his daughter’s bed, takes her hand, touches her bloodied forehead and shouts to Staś, standing behind him:
“The doctor! Water!”
Their maid Marcelina Tobiaszówna brings water.
Zaremba wets some rags and uses them to wipe off his daughter’s bloodied face. Staś bends her arms back, tries artificial respiration.
Rita, whom Zaremba observes out of the corner of his eye, doesn’t come near the bed. She stands in the alcove in the foyer. She’s wearing a heavy brown fur with a collar and green slippers. She watches from afar, as if afraid to come into Lusia’s room.
“At the time it didn’t even occur to me to notice her face,” he writes later. The only thing that nags at him is that fur, since he and Staś are still barefoot in long nightshirts, and there she is wrapped up and in slippers.
“At times like this is there any room for womanly modesty?” he wonders. “Must you put on a fur when someone shouts ‘murder'?"
When he comes across her a moment later in the dining room, Rita avoids his gaze, but she is warmhearted. She throws her arms around his neck and strokes his head, trying to still his quivering body.
“Henryk, darling,” she whispers in his ear. “I’m worried about you. Try to calm down. What’s been done can’t be undone.”
Henryk darling doesn’t reply.
“How easy to say ‘it’s done.’ Easy for her, not for a father. I couldn’t go back to bed, could I?” he writes later.
He tells her to fetch the doctor.
Forty-five-year-old Dr. Ludwik Csala is a specialist in internal and pediatric medicine. He is the Zarembas’ neighbor. He lives in a redbrick house on the opposite side of Marszałkowska Street. Rita knows him a little, because two years ago she called at his house when Romusia was sick. Rita turns on her heel and goes out. She doesn’t take the shortest route beside Lusia’s room, but instead passes through the dining room, her room, and the small porch. By walking the length of the building to reach the gate, she adds a considerable distance. Why? This is one of the questions for which she will soon need to provide a convincing answer.
The gate is locked. She goes back. The second exit is on the opposite end of the garden, next to the cottage where the gardener Józef Kamiński and his wife Rozalia live. Rita knocks on the window to wake him up.
“Mr. Kamiński,” she shouts, “get up, something terrible’s happened!” She asks him to open the back gate for her, but the sleepy gardener discovers the key that always hangs nearby has disappeared.
Rita returns to the villa, takes the spare key from the nail in the kitchen, and runs with it back to the main gate.
Dr. Csala’s house looks like it’s under construction. The windows in the south part are boarded up. A painted metal sign on the gate says to enter from the direction of the cross erected nearby.
It’s nearly one in the morning. Dr. Csala isn’t asleep. Already in bed, he hears a commotion from outside. The noise is his neighbor asking for help, he learns thanks to the cart driver, who comes into his bedroom.
“Why she didn’t run straight to me, that I don’t know,” he says later. Dr. Csala dresses, then he and the driver head for the villa. The gardener is standing in front of the gate. He’s holding a baying dog by the collar so it doesn’t jump at them.
The doctor sees Zaremba by the girl’s bed, murmuring.
“Save her, doctor.”
Dr. Csala goes up to the bed, takes her by the hand, tries to find a pulse. He places an ear to her chest, then looks straight at the engineer’s pained face.
He says: “I’m afraid there’s no saving a corpse.”
From Stitched Up: The Gorgonowa Case. © Cezary Łazarewicz. Translation © 2019 by Sean Gasper Bye. Forthcoming 2022 from Open Letter Books. By arrangement with Open Letter Books. All rights reserved.
A Chinese fishing expedition devolves into a mutinous bloodbath in “Massacre in the Pacific,” reporter Du Qiang’s interview with one of the few crew members who made it home alive.
The Lurongyu 2682, which belonged to the Rongcheng Aquatic Product Company of Shandong Province, was a squid-jigging vessel measuring thirty to forty meters long and with a 330 kW power engine. In December 2010, it set off to fish for squid off the coast of Chile and Peru, with a crew of thirty-three on board. At some point, contact was lost with the parent company. When, eight months later, it was towed into port by the Chinese fishing authorities, only eleven crew members remained on board. The investigation that followed lasted almost two years. The eleven were convicted of murdering twenty-two fellow crew members, and six were condemned to death. Du Qiang, reporting for Esquire China, interviewed the first crewmember to be released after serving his sentence and asked him to tell the whole story.
Du Qiang: Most people live fairly rule-bound lives and maintain the belief that their fellow human beings for the most part do likewise. They are firmly convinced that it is a basic human condition to be ordinary, that on the whole, both good deeds and evil doings are of the banal kind. And on the whole, this view is more or less correct. However, as you will read below, there are exceptions to this rule.
Toward the end of October 2014, I was in the suburbs of a small town in northeast China to interview a man whom I shall call “Zhao Mucheng” about the Lurongyu 2682 massacre four years prior. I have changed his name at his request.
At the time of our interview, Zhao Mucheng had just served a four-year sentence for his part in the massacre and had been released. We first met on a country road one cold, windy day. He was in his late twenties, with a weather-beaten face and eyes that drooped at the corners, and his short, stocky frame was enveloped in a khaki-colored jacket. He might have come out of a photograph from a hundred years ago. He had a slightly diffident air, and a habit of glancing behind you every now and then.
“What do you want to know?” he asked me.
My answer was simple: “I want to know about the people.”
“Tell me how the killing happened, and about Liu Guiduo,” I said.
We sat on the embankment of his local Liuhe River, fishing. This seemed somehow symbolic, even though it was nothing like squid-jigging. It was fishing off Chile and Peru on the other side of the world that had gotten him into trouble in the first place. At that moment, he seemed anxious. The place was deserted, yet he kept looking around, standing up, pacing the empty ground behind him, then coming to sit down again and staring blankly at the river.
Finally, he gave me his personal account of what had happened four years before.
Something Ominous Happened on the First Day
DQ: On the very first day on board the Lurongyu 2682, something ominous happened, crewmember Zhao Mucheng told me.
Zhao Mucheng: “It was very weird what happened on the first day. It was November, and the first to go was the ship’s cook, a man called Yan. He was from Dalian, he’d been recruited by the first officer, and he’d had loads of experience on other ships. That evening, everyone was playing poker on board and I was reading a story on my phone. A bit past eight o’clock, the cook started yelling: “Murder! Murder!” He carried on shouting and yelling till after midnight. Whichever room he was in, he really put the wind up the men with him. It was nearly one in the morning when the ship’s captain finally got him up on deck and chewed him out. He sat down and behaved himself after that.
“But after he’d been sitting there a while, he got up and disappeared. We all thought he’d gone to the bathroom, we thought he was OK. But he’d jumped into the sea. It had gone really cold that day and there was a strong north wind blowing, force 5 or 6, and he jumped from Jiekou Pier on Shidao Island and started swimming around in the harbor. We went to pick him up, but it took about half an hour and it was pitch-dark. Luckily, there was a boat at anchor nearby and they rescued him before we got there.
“The first officer sent him home. His family said he’d been under a lot of pressure ever since his mom died, but a few days at home and he was better. He wanted to come back on board,but in the end it didn’t work out. So they took on a new chef, a man called Xia.”
DQ: The substitute chef, Xia, was in fact the first crewmember to be killed a short time later.
ZMC: “It was so weird. It happened the very first day, not a long time into the trip. It happened right at the start, the trawler hadn’t set out, the supplies weren’t on board yet, and the machinery still needed a complete pre-check.”
A Volley of Firecrackers and the Lurongyu 2682 Sets off for Peru
ZMC: “It was Cui Yong who got me hired. Cui Yong was from Dalian. He was alright. In fact, we got on very well. We once worked in the same restaurant. Back then, I had a roadside barbecue in my township, but it was a very wet summer and I hardly earned a thing. Anyway, Cui Yong called, and we chatted about this and that. Then two days later he called again and told me about the job. He said it paid 45,000 yuan a year and a bonus when the job was done.
“I’d just got myself a girlfriend and I knew I didn’t have the money, not enough to satisfy her. I wanted to earn a bit, at least enough to give me some savings, so I thought I’d go along and take a look.
“First, there was the seafarer’s certificate, I thought I’d better do that, and anyway the company paid part of it. There were three days of classes and a test, which was basically to copy everything out and you got the certificate. That was in Dalian, and after that, on October 5, I went to Shandong.
“All I was bothered about was the wages. I wanted to earn some money, and I couldn’t earn anything on land. I thought I’d do the two years’ minimum and I wouldn’t have a chance to spend my earnings, so I could put it all away and set up a small business when I got back on land.
“When we got to the company offices, the ship hadn’t come back to port yet, so we waited. They needed a crew of thirty-three, there were thirty-five to start with but a couple left for family reasons, one ’cause his mom got run over by a truck or had a fall. Anyway, she broke her arm, and there was no one at home to look after her. So he left.
“I met all the others before we set off, because we had our meals and stuff together. They weren’t anything special, they were just like me, in it to make a bit of money.
“There was one called Xiang Lishan, though. His hair was all gray and he was about fifty. He said he’d killed people and had done two stints in a laogai labor camp.”
DQ: Actually, Xiang Lishan had committed two robberies. There were at least two men on board who had criminal records, one of whom had served a long sentence.
The thirty-three crew members were made up of the ship’s captain, Li Chengquan; first officer Fu Yizhong; second officer Wang Yongbo; first engineer Wen Dou; and second engineer Wang Yanlong. The rest were all ordinary seamen. Most of them came from northeast China: Shenyang, Chaoyang, Dandong, Fushun, Dalian, and Changchun, as well as Inner Mongolia and Shandong. Most were there because they had relatives or friends on board. For instance, Wen Dou and another crewmember, Wen Mi, were cousins; and second officer Wang Yongbo was a cousin of the wife of crewmember Wu Guozhi. Wang Peng, a twenty-year-old from Dalian, had been brought along by Wen Dou. The latter was also doing onboard training to be a pilot. Wang Peng was determined to see a bit of the world and ignored his family’s objections to him signing up.
ZMC: “There were some Mongolians too, who spoke in Mongolian between themselves, so no one else understood them. The one I knew was Cui Yong.
“Cui Yong used to work on the buses. One night, he was playing mah-jongg and drinking with his buddies in their room. He got wastedand burned the building down, and had to pay a lot of compensation, so he’d signed up to this trip so he could earn the money to pay the owners back. He was a happy-go-lucky guy, a bit taller than me and very chubby.
“We didn’t set off right away, it took a few days for supplies to be loaded―all kinds of fish, meat, rice, and noodles provided by the company, and fresh vegetables too. Then there were lamps―you had to use those to lure the squid. We carried poles with hooks at each end to hang the lamps from. They were 2 kW each, Phillips, this big . . . and when you had a dozen or so set up, they were so bright you couldn’t look at them for long, it made your eyes run.
“I brought pot noodles, mineral water, soft drinks, beer, and so on, got them with my own money. Everyone had half a dozen packs of beer with them. I had thirty cartons of cigarettes too, ’cause they had to last for two years. I could get more but they’d be expensive, a carton could cost you a hundred and eighty yuan on board the ship.
“When it came time to leave home, my family didn’t want me to leave, they said it was too far, but I told them I was going . . . not going felt a bit like saying I couldn’t cope with the hardships and was chickening out.
“Besides, I’d already spent more than seven thousand on my seafarer’s certificate and the stuff I’d bought.
“A few days later, we set off. The company sent seven ships off at the same time, some of them had unregistered crew, but on ours, all the crew had their certificates. We cleared customs and were checked out by the port authority. So, customs and immigration done, and then we were off. Ten minutes later, we stopped again, the company had sent a boat after us with more men, a dozen of them, none of them with certificates. Liu Guiduo was one of them.
“Liu Guiduo had brought a hundred and sixty-five cartons of cigarettes and stacked them up on his bunk right up to the ceiling. He got through three packets a day. He used to say: ‘It’s such shit working on a ship, I’m not gonna go short of smokes.’
“He’d bought them on credit.
“It all went really well for starters, water as far as the eye could see, you had this great feeling of space and light. But then after a bit, you couldn’t see land anymore, and it made you feel a bit lost. I started to throw up several times a day, I was seasick for sixteen days.
“On the trip out, everyone got on fine. We spent all day on board playing mah-jongg, talking all sorts of nonsense, shooting our mouths off, saying what we’d do when we got back with the money, like buy a new model of car or go out on the town, spend it all, every last cent, and so on. Not that I’m a big one for talking. I’m better at listening.
“The rest of them played paigow every day, I joined in sometimes. You didn’t bet much, just whatever bits of cash you had on you. I hardly spent any of my money, I lent two or three thousand to Cui Yong. To be honest, I don’t like lending money, especially not for gambling.
“When we’d almost reached Peru, I was in the dorm one day and saw Liu Guiduo had left his notebook lying there. I flipped through it and it had all sorts of numbers written down. I asked him what they were, and he said they were the ship’s coordinates. I asked why, and he said, ‘No reason, just for a bit of fun.’
“Actually, it was hard to tell what that man was really thinking. He always seemed to have something on his mind, but no one knew what it was.
“Nearly six weeks after we’d left, at the end of February, we got to where we were headed, the waters off Peru, and started fishing. When it got dark at night, we lit the lamps, and along came the squid. You lowered the hooks and waited to feel a bite. There was nothing to it, you just watched and you saw how to do it, though at the start it was hard to tell if the squid were biting. If you brought in one that weighed ten pounds, it was too heavy and you needed two people to pull it in.
“A few months went by and I always hauled in less than the other men. Liu Guiduo got the most, one month he got 13,000 pounds. We were quite near each other and I followed what he was doing, like I asked him how deep to go. He said if there were no squid at fifty meters, then to go down to seventy. I kept my hooks in good repair, but he never fixed his even once, and once his got in a mess, but still he caught loads.
“Liu Guiduo, Cui Yong, and Huang Jinbo, and a few other guys of about the same age, we all used to chat together, but Liu, if he didn’t like someone, he wouldn’t give them the time of day. So although most of the time I got on well with him, I couldn’t help thinking he was full of himself and looked down on the rest of us.”
Illegal Maritime Workers
ZMC: “There are buying-ships out at sea. When your hold is full of squid, you can unload into a buying-ship. Each man has to carry a tray weighing thirty pounds down into the bilge. It’s such hard work, and I’m short, too, which makes it even worse. When it’s time to unload the squid, you might end up spending two days and a night without getting any sleep.
“Actually, once we got going, I didn’t think Liu Guiduo was all that bad. I heard he’d been in the army. You wouldn’t call him strong, he was even a little scrawny, but he looked out for other people. When it was time to unload the squid, Liu Guiduo would let me off ’cause I’m short. So I only had to do it once, or maybe twice. And he helped me each time.
“I didn’t know much about his family, but he must have been pretty poor. His parents were farmers from Heilongjiang.
“I don’t know who started the rumor, but before long, people were saying that the company wasn’t paying us the right wages. They said when we got back we should say something about it. That the company was trying to not pay us what they owed and our contracts weren’t right. We’d been told at first we’d get at least 45,000, but actually it was 2.5 mao for every pound of squid, so you’d only get that much if you caught enough fish.
“Liu Guiduo was pretty smart and he worked out that he wouldn’t be able to earn enough to even cover his smokes. I thought there was no way that a big company like that would try to do us out of our pay.
“We only talked about this among ourselves and didn’t mention it to the captain.
“The captain, Li Chengquan, was sentenced to death in the end. He was a big, tall, and bad-tempered man. If anyone talked back to him he would give them a black eye. When arguments started among the crew, he would give anyone from his hometown a clip round the ears.
“The new chef, Xia, was a bit of a show-off and liked to brownnose the captain. He thought he was a man of the world because he was a bit older. He was from the same part of Heilongjiang as another crewmember, Jiang Xiaolong. One evening, before it all happened, Xia had been drinking. He started ranting at Jiang Xiaolong and made such a racket that Jiang picked up a knife and threatened to stab him. In the end we had to go down and split them up. The captain landed a few left hooks on Jiang and threatened to sack him. Jiang knelt down before the captain and said, ‘I’ve messed up. I’ve drunk too much.’ Liu Guiduo also spoke up for Jiang. Maybe it was then that Jiang and Xia became enemies.
“Bit by bit, we grew jaded, and got lazy and unruly. There were more and more shirkers. In the morning, when the fishing was over, the catch had to be divided into trays of thirty poundseach. Any squid over eightpoundshad to be split up. There’s the head, that’s the bit shaped like a triangle, then the fins and the rest of the body, first you weighed it, then you sorted it into the different parts and gave it a wash. Then loaded up the tray and froze it. That’s it.
“Crew on other squid boats would finish around eight or nine o’clock in the morning. But we had to work to ten, eleven, even midday. By that time there would be nobody else around, everyone would have slacked off. In the end the captain stopped caring and got mad. He was always yelling but nobody took any notice. Anyone left would work until two in the afternoon before getting any sleep. I suggested to the captain that we work shifts, but he ignored that too.
“Liu Guiduo was alright, not too lazy. But he was always taking people aside for a quiet chat. His mind wasn’t on the fishing either.”
DQ: The case records show that Liu Guiduo had asked the captain if he could be sent home early. The captain had replied, ‘You can’t go back. You don’t have your papers, so no other boat would dare take you. It would be people-smuggling. You’ll have to stick it out, like it or not.’ Liu Guiduo’s intention to sue the company turned out to be impossible, because the company had used a fake seal to ‘sign’ its contracts with the crew. They were, in effect, a group of illegal sea workers.
The way this situation played out was, therefore, entirely dependent on the nature of the men on board.
ZMC: “One day, Liu Guiduo told me, ‘We’re working too hard. The company is so greedy, they’re not even paying us minimum wage. We’re never going to get what’s in our contracts.’ He wanted to get home and sue the company. He even said he knew a pretty good lawyer in Jinan. I asked him, ‘How can we get back?’ He hesitated but didn’t say anything.
“As he walked off, he told me one more thing. ‘It’s not a crime to kill someone on the high seas, you know.’”
Mutiny and Murder
June 16, 2011: One Person Killed in Chilean Waters
DQ: Liu Guiduo’s secret conversations continued for the next fortnight. And Zhao Mucheng spent time every day sorting out the fishing tackle before lowering the squid jigs into a calm sea.
ZMC: “One evening, the jigs hadn’t been in long before the squid were hooked. After raising the jigs I remembered there was a new knife with a very smooth, newly sharpened edge on the foredeck. I went off to fetch it. When I got back, there was someone leaning over into the hold hatch fora chat. It was Liu Guiduo.
“When he saw the knife, Liu said, ‘That’s a good knife, give it here, can I take a look? I’ll give it straight back once I’ve had a try.’ When he handed it back to me, he said, ‘We’re going to hijack the ship later, want to join us?’
“As soon as he said the word hijack, I told him ‘Count me out.’ He replied, ‘When it’s all over, we’re gonnaget anyone who didn’t go along with it and chuck them in the life rafts. Then we’ll contact another boat to come and get us so we can go home.’ I told him, ‘Look, I’m not up for this, I can’t do it.’ He said fine, then took the squid knife back and walked off.
“I went back to my jigging. I was pretty scared right then, thinking about how they were going to seize the ship. But I didn’t dare say anything to anyone ’cause I didn’t know who was with him. All I could do was keep an eye on things and see if I could work out who looked like they were with him.
“I knew that the first and second officers were definitely not. Not the first engineer either.They were all the captain’s men. But they were too far away from me; I couldn’t go up to warn them, it would have been too obvious.
“None of the crew around me was talking. They were all putting on an act. They all had knives on them.
“After a while, Huang Jinbo came out. He hadn’t done any work for days ’cause he kept fainting; he had low blood sugar brought on by his anemia. He was all dressed up, he’d even put his shoes on. I asked him what he was up to, but he just ignored me and went straight to the captain’s cabin. It wasn’t long before Liu Guiduo and a few others went up there too. As soon as I saw that, I knew it was starting.
“The lights on the ship were so bright and dazzling, I couldn’t see what was going on in the captain’s cabin. They hadn’t been in there long before Liu Guiduo was shouting [DQ: at everyone] to weigh anchor and bring in the jigs, in the end we just did it ’cause we didn’t know if it [DQ: the order] was coming from the captain or someone else.
“Someone was standing guard over one end of the gangway ladder—the one that went up to the upper deck. He had a knife. That’s when we all knew things were really bad.
“Then I think the first and second officers and the first engineer [DQ: the captain’s men] went up. They weren’t carrying anything. When they got up there, they tried to talk the others round, saying, ‘If you want to get home this isn’t the way to do it, just say the word and we’ll turn round and that’ll be the end of it.’
“Anyway, when I heard them say that, I knew it must be over, so I went over to the front deck.
“I should say that I couldn’t hear what Liu Guiduo was saying clearly because of the noise from the engine. The second officer started the engine and began to weigh anchor. While that was happening, Xia, the guy who cooked our food, came rushing up with a knife, yelling, ‘Who do you sons of bitches think you are, trying to hijack the ship?’
“I heard shouting from the cabin. Liu Guiduo yelled, ‘Put it down, put it down!’ And then there was no more noise.
DQ:I only found out a year ago how the chef, Xia Qiyong, died. The scant details were enclosed in the pages of some case notes sent to me by a friend:
At 11 p.m. on June 16, 2011, Liu Guiduo incited Huang Jinbo and Wang Peng to destroy the onboard communications equipment and GPS system and arranged for Jiang Xiaolong and some others to guard the gangway ladder. He then colluded with a group that included Bao De and Shuang Xi to break into the captain’s cabin armed with knives and sticks. They used the threat of beating and stabbing to coerce the captain to return the ship to base. On discovering this situation, the chef, Xia, rushed into the captain’s cabin to attempt rescue, armed with a knife. He was stabbed twice in the back by his longtime enemy, crewmember Jiang Xiaolong. Xia turned to grab the blade and in the struggle his left leg was crushed by a blow from an iron club. He fell to the ground and Jiang Xiaolong stabbed him once in the chest and twice in the neck. Liu Guiduo got the knife back and then ordered that Xia be thrown into the water.
ZMC: “After a while, Huang Jinbo came down the gangway ladder and came over from the right. ‘Got any smokes?’ he asked. When I passed him one, I realized his hand was shaking. He told me, ‘Xia’s dead.’
DQ: After recounting this experience, Zhao Mucheng clasped his hands, then reached into his bag for a cigarette.
ZMC: “Huang Jinbo stayed with me for a while. I don’t know when he left. Then a while later, Jiang Xiaolong—he liked to call me ‘young Zhao’ ’cause he was ten years older than me—anyway, he shouted down at me from the upper deck, ‘Come up here.’ I didn’t know what was up, so I really took my time getting up there. He said, ‘Why don’t you go up and get some sleep, young Zhao, it’s no big deal, but he’s dead, so you’ll have to start doing the cooking tomorrow morning.’
“I said OK and went up. I was just about to step onto the upper deck when I saw there was blood everywhere. I remembered then that I wasn’t wearing any shoes, I’d taken them off, so I had to go barefoot. I took my rain gear off, went into the cabin, and lay down. I couldn’t get to sleep, thinking about what was going to happen next, my imagination running riot.”
“Going Back” and “The Fucking Poser”
ZMC: “I shared a cabin with eleven other men. When the others eventually came back there was no big fuss. Everyone was pretty quiet. They just got undressed. One crewmember—Bao Baocheng—he said, ‘If we’ve lost a man, we’ve lost a man. When we get back we should just say he fell into the sea and was pulled under by a fish. Things like that are always happening at sea; it’ll be really easy to explain away.’ Liu Guiduo didn’t say anything, didn’t agree or argue, he just sat there mending his shoes.
“From that moment on, it was like Liu Guiduo had become another person.”
DQ: After the mutiny, the captain, Li Chengquan, was forced to reset the satellite navigation to go back to China, and Wang Peng took over as pilot.
ZMC: “The evening that we started back, we agreed that we’d go round Hawaii and then head west. If all went smoothly, it would take around fifty days to get back to China. Liu Guiduo and the others had taken the communications equipment apart during the hijack. The next day they gathered all the squid knives and locked the lifeboats up tightly with steel bars. A group of four men, armed with knives, took turns watching the captain, first officer, and second officer. They weren’t allowed out. There were nine men in Liu Guiduo’s gang. Most of the decisions were made by him and Bao De, who was from Inner Mongolia.”
DQ: Liu Guiduo’s gang of mutineers grew in number slightly in the following days, leveling off at around eleven men. Although Liu Guiduo was in charge, six of the members, all from Inner Mongolia, were actually loyal to Bao De.
Huang Jinbo played the role of Liu Guiduo’s lackey. Just nineteen, Huang was the youngest crewmember and the closest in age to both Liu Guiduo and Zhao Mucheng.
ZMC: “Huang Jinbo was from Yakeshi [DQ: in Inner Mongolia]. He was tall and thin and still looked like a kid. I can’t remember who told me that hisfamily in Beijing was pretty well-off, with a house and a car, but he had always dreamed of being a sailor ever since he was a kid. He only started smoking after coming on board. Liu Guiduo would give him smokes and never asked for any money for them.
“When I first came on board, I thought that Liu Guiduo had so many smokes with him because he was planning to sell them to earn some cash.
“Liu Guiduo was like a big brother to Huang Jinbo. Huang did everything he said.
“Whenever they had a meeting, Huang Jinbo would make notes of what Liu Guiduo said.
“Everyone was pretty nervous when we started back, but actually the next couple of weeks were pretty relaxed. We were all just happy at the thought of going home. If we’d lost a man, we’d lost a man. We’d just say he fell into the sea and was pulled under by a fish. These things often happen at sea. It would be easy to explain away.
“Slowly, the other crew members started to drink and play cards. But they never mentioned Xia by name. They’d call him ‘that fucking poser.’
“By the timewe were about two weeks from home, I was actually feeling pretty relaxed. Since we weren’t jigging, every day before sunrise I’d go to the cargo hold to fetch vegetables, noodles, fish, meat—we still had pork, it was all frozen. Anyway, it wasn’t too bad, so I did it happily enough.”
DQ: Since the incident, the captain, Li Chengquan, had been kept under guard by Liu Guiduo’s gang.
Elimination of the Management
DQ: Nine people were killed in waters west of Hawaii around July 20, 2011.
ZMC: “Liu Guiduo didn’t say another word to me for nearly three weeks after Xia was killed. He just hung out with his gang, only talking to them and not letting anyone else say so much as a whisper. I figured out—well, I was pretty suspicious—that Liu Guiduo was saying one moment that ‘we need to leave anyone who wasn’t involved behind,’ and the next that ‘they won’t dare say a word, they’re so worried someone might find out.’ But it was alright actually, Liu’s gang had all been invited to join the crew by the captain ’cause they were from Dalian like him, and because they were all friends, they stuck together.
“There was another rumor going round that there was going to be an attempt on their lives [DQ: the gang of mutineers]. I don’t know who started it, but there were whispers that the second officer and some others had plans to capture the hijackers and get the credit for it from the company when we got back. It was about then that the boat started using more oil, a good few times what it would normally, and we’d lost a few auxiliary engines too. Liu Guiduo was nervous, well, he swore a lot. ‘How the fuck did this happen?’—that type of thing.
“I couldn’t work out why everyone was so happy to do what Liu Guiduo told them. It couldn’t have been ’cause he was older or stronger.”
DQ: If Zhao Mucheng had read the case records as an outsider, as I did, then he would have reached the same conclusion I did. To make the crew follow his orders, Liu Guiduo relied not on force, but on a callous, mistrustful scheming instinct that seemed to delight in ruthlessness.
Excerpt from the case records:
"When Liu Guiduo suspected that the first engineer, Wen Dou, was deliberately sabotaging onboard equipment to prevent the hijacked boat from returning to China, one of his fellow accomplices in the mutiny, Bo Fujun, informed him, 'They’re planning to fight back. And they’re trying to get me to join them.'
On further questioning from Liu Guiduo, Bo Fujun volunteered more information about the 'rebels.' But Liu Guiduo believed that 'Bo Fujun has betrayed us.'"
ZMC: “I woke up just after midnight [DQ: Beijing time], when it had just gotten light, and lay there smoking. Everything seemed normal. There weren’t many people in the twelve-berth cabin since the incident and nobody spent much time in there anyway. I could see that most of the beds were empty that day. Just then Liu Chengjian came in to ask anyone who was awake to step outside with him. When I didn’t reply, he shook his head and left. About five minutes later he came back and asked again if anyone was up. Liu Gang, in the bunk below me, woke up and asked what was going on. Liu told him, ‘Come on out with me—it’s nothing much, I just need a hand.’
“Less than two minutes after that, I heard someone yelling. It wasn’t very loud, because the funnel outside the cabin was always chugging away. I didn’t think much of the noise at first. Even when I heard a splash, I still didn’t really worry. Suddenly I heard music blaring from the direction of the helm room and someone crying out in pain. That’s when I realized something wasn’t right.”
DQ: Liu Guiduo was at the helm and was using the loud music to mask the fact that a series of murders had started. As Huang Jinbo lured Wen Dou out of the four-berth cabin and into the pilot room on the poop deck, Jiang Xiaolong and four others seized their chance. Down in the four-berth cabin they stabbed Jiang Mi and threw his dead body overboard. When Wen Dou returned, Jiang Xiaolong and three others stabbed him repeatedly, then threw him into the water.
Next up were the crew in the twelve-berth cabin. First Yue Peng and then Liu Gang were called out, stabbed repeatedly, and thrown overboard.
ZMC: “Only a few minutes later, Liu Chengjian and Bao De came in carrying knives. They rushed over to the second officer’s bed. Wang Yongbo only woke up when they began stabbing him. He reached up and tried to grab them but couldn’t. Then he fell to the floor and they each stabbed him again. Then Liu Guiduo came in and said, ‘Hey, isn’t that the second officer? Why are you lying on the floor?’ As he talked, he stabbed the man. ‘I can see your guts leaking out.’ Another stab. ‘Oh, what’s the matter?’ And another stab. There was a trunk between me and the second officer, so I couldn’t see him. But I could see Liu Guiduo: he was bent over at the waist. The squid knife hissed as he pulled it out and the second officer lay there groaning and gasping for breath.
“I just stayed on my bed, too scared to move.
“When he finished, Liu Guiduo straightened up. As he turned around he saw me and said, ‘I asked you to join us at the start but you wouldn’t. Are you scared now?’ He seemed excited to me, he had a huge smile on his face. Then he said, ‘I won’t touch you; you’re my brother.’ But I didn’t believe a word. Liu Guiduo called me his brother, but I’d only known him a few months and ten people had already died. Who could believe what anyone said?
“I couldn’t work him out. He told me later, ‘You’ll get home fine.’ I didn’t know if he was telling the truth.
“You can’t imagine how powerful Liu Guiduo became when he was killing people. He was a completely different man. The same evening he killed the second officer, Er Xi and Dai Fushun were ordered to force the captain’s men at knifepoint to the side of the ship. When Liu Guiduo realized they didn’t dare do any more, he went over and stabbed the captain’s men twice to show them how it was done. Then he pushed them overboard. I heard him have a go at Er Xi about this later, saying that he was ‘a good-for-nothing piece of dead meat.’”
DQ: Before dawn the next morning, Jiang Shutao had been murdered on the starboard side of the vessel and thrown overboard, and Liu Guiduo had thrown Chen Guojun into the water from the foredeck, alive. In the afternoon, Wu Guozhi was stabbed and then forced to jump overboard.
The informer suspected of being a traitor, Bo Fujun, did not escape his fate either. At the start of the massacre, Liu Guiduo handed Mei Lincheng and Wang Peng a sharp knife each and told them, “You two need to get your hands dirty. Go ask Bo Fujun if he has a bank card. If he doesn’t, kill him.”
The two men made a surprise attack on Bo Fujun. As he was pushed up against the side of the vessel, bleeding heavily, Liu Guiduo kicked him into the water.
The investigation team provided the following description in the indictment: “On around July 20, 2011, Liu Guiduo assembled a small group that included Jiang Xiaolong. Together, they formed a plot to murder six men whom they had long suspected of conspiring to resist: Wen Dou, Wen Mi, Yue Peng, Liu Gang, Wang Yongbo, and Jiang Shutao. They also murdered Wu Guozhi and two others."
Li Chengquan, the captain, escaped death by mere chance and continued to be kept under guard.
No Way Out
DQ: The vessel was still a fortnight from China when the sudden massacre interrupted their plans. Liu Guiduo decided to slip across the border into Japan. He told the crew, “I have a friend in Japan who can help get us fake papers.”
At daybreak the morning after the killings, Zhao Mucheng prepared breakfast as usual. It was then he realized how greatly numbers had depleted.
ZMC: “There was pretty much nobody left apart from Liu Guiduo and his gang. I went up to the rear deck for a bit. There was no blood there at all; they had cleaned it all up in the night. I just kept walking up and down. I didn’t know what to do. I was pretty scared.
“Jiang Xiaolong, the man who killed the cook, saw me out there. He came over and started chatting to me, saying, ‘Stop stressing out, nobody has it in for you, we’re all buddies, we won’t touch you. Look, if I get a proper job one day, I’ll look out for you if I can.’ When he stopped I told him, ‘Just warn me first if you guys decide to kill me, OK, and I’ll throw myself overboard, save you the trouble.’
“That’s what I said, but I didn’t really mean it. What I was actually thinking was, If you come for me, I’ll find a way to get someone else to be the fall guy. But you know what, I might have fooled him a little.
“Actually, I was completely focused on searching the boat, looking for a place to hide out for the next few weeks, until I could run back home. But there were so many big spaces on board there really wasn’t anywhere to hide. Down at the bottom of the boat there was a freshwater tank. You could get in there to hide, but the top was screwed down, the inlet and outlet were so big that someone could climb in, but the main thing was you couldn’t cover it, so as soon as anyone went down below they’d see you. I ripped up any timber I could find to see if I could hide inside, but everything was filled with foam and too narrow for me to get in.
“If I could have just found something like a life jacket or a float ball, I would have jumped overboard with it. It would have been OK, I could have taken a fishing rod. And fish eyeballs have drinkable water in them, so you can eat them. I learned that when I studied for my seafarer’s certificate. I even knew how to distill fresh water. But it was no good: the life rafts had been locked down with steel bars and I couldn’t cut them open. They’d gathered up anything that floated too. I wouldn’t have survived if I’d just jumped in, even holding something I wouldn’t have made it without any power. Even if I’d managed to swim out a few hundred meters, the current would just have brought me back.”
One Person Goes Missing
ZMC: “There was this university student, Ma Yuzhao, who slept in the berth below me. One evening he told me, ‘Don’t leave me alone.’ By the next morning he’d disappeared. Nobody knew how he’d drowned, there was nothing missing, maybe he’d just swum off. He was definitely dead. When Liu Guiduo heard that Ma Yuzhao had disappeared, he said in front of everyone, ‘Why did he throw himself overboard? I had no plans to kill him, he was one of mine, he was my spy.’
“Nobody had known anything about Mu Yuzhao being a spy. And we didn’t know if it was really true or not. But anyway, because of what Liu Guiduo said, it was like he’d deliberately created this atmosphere. Everyone was scared. You got so uptight if someone approached you, you didn’t want to talk to anyone. The second officer and chief engineer died ’causethey’d been caught talking.”
Two Men Secretly Switch Sides
ZMC: “We used to pissover the side of the boat. But by now, I was so scared that someone might creep up on me and push me overboard, I’dtake a good look around before everypiss. Liu Guiduo wasn’t sleeping well himself. He’d moved into the captain’s cabin and had two men guarding him as he slept. He was also worried that I might try to poison them with my cooking and had someone watch me. He tried to cover it up by saying that he was there to keep an eye on the engine room in case the food was damaging the machinery or something, but I knew the real reason. They were keeping an eye on me in case I pulled some trick with the food. I’d known all along that they’d never trusted me.
“Nobody could trust anyone at all by that point. We were all scared.
“One day, Cui Yong—the one who was about the same age as me, Liu Guiduo, and Huang Jinbo—came up to me and said, ‘You get on OK with Liu Guiduo. Can you get him to let us in on the group? They can rely on us,we won’t let them down.’
“Cui Yong was pretty lazy normally. When he got hungry, he wouldn’t lift a finger and made me cook for him. Liu Guiduo couldn’t stand him, they argued a lot and I was always breaking them up. That’s why Cui Yong was scared. He’d spoken about joining them a few times. I didn’t want to go see Liu Guiduo at first, but after thinking about it a lot, I decided to, because I was pretty unsure myself.
“First, we spoke to Jiang Xiaolong, who said, ‘Best if you don’t: there’s no going back from this.’ Then he added, ‘But don’t take my word for it. Go see Liu Guiduo yourself if you want to.' Liu Guiduo had moved into the captain’s cabin after the second wave of murders. The two of us stood outside the cabin and called, ‘Come out, bro.’
“When he appeared, Cui Yong said, ‘If there’s anything else planned, count us in, bro, we’ll definitely be on your side.’ He went on and on, and seemed really nervous. I sat in a corner and didn’t say anything.
“Liu Guiduo turned us down. ‘No, you guys should just get home, OK? I don’t know if we’re gonna have trouble getting into Japan, you should just try your hardest to get back home.’ Cui Yong was still worried. ‘Remember you can count on us if something happens, bro.’
“‘Let’s see what happens. It’ll probably be fine.’ And Liu Guiduo just left without giving a definite yes or no.”
DQ: As Zhao Mucheng spoke, he pulled two small fish the size of a thumb off his fishhook and threw them into the weeds by his feet, leaving them to gasp for air.
ZMC: “Back then, I really didn’t think I’d get home alive, I just thought if I had to die I wanted to do it a little closer to home. I don’t believe in ghosts—but if they do exist after all, well, I’d rather be a ghost a little closer to home.”
A Treacherous Plot
DQ: As Zhao Mucheng and Cui Yong were looking for a way out, another plot was being hatched on board.
According to court documents, around noon oneday, Liu Guiduo summoned all the crew members on deck and ordered them to call home using the satellite phone, tell their family that they were ill, and ask them to remit 5,000 yuan into a post office account. They needed money to get to Japan, he said, but the crew later testified that this was greeted with complaints and suspicion.
Jiang Xiaolong stated: “I said my family had no money and no way of getting any. Liu Guiduo told me to get some anyway, and we had a big argument.”
There were a lot of crew members who couldn’t lay their hands on 5,000 yuan.
That afternoon, the Mongolian gang leader, Bao De, approached Huang Jinbo, a fellow Mongolian who was now one of Liu Guiduo’s cronies. He confided in him: “Liu Guiduo’s planning to take only a couple of his Heilongjiang buddies to Japan with him. He’s gonnakill the rest of us.” Bao De’s objective was to get Huang Jinbo into his gang, and he wanted them to confront Liu Guiduo together. Huang Jinbo agreed. “Liu’s ruthless,” he said. “He even made me tap my family for money. Count me in.”
Bao De gathered all the other Mongolians into the crew’s sleeping quarters on the bottom deck. If there was going to be a fight, they’d give Liu a run for his money.
But Huang Jinbo immediately turned informer, the second one on the vessel.
He testified that after he left Bao De, he went straight to Liu Guiduo. “I’ve got something to tell you,” he said, “and it’s serious.”
“Are Bao De and his buddies out to kill me?” Liu asked immediately.
Huang Jinbo, astonished, could only nod.
That made a big impression on Zhao Mucheng.
“Liu Guiduo was a bit different from the rest of us crew members,” he said. “It was like he was in hiding on the boat.”
DQ: Four days after the massacre described above, the members of the Mongolian gang were killed in the waters east of Japan.
Before the killing of the Mongolians, Liu Guiduo and his gang still did not have the upper hand. Liu had run out of new people he could call on and put his trust in. However, his methods were devious and ruthless, dramatic and unorthodox.
According to court records, Liu Guiduo reacted to Huang Jinbo’s information by turning to the captain, Li Chengquan, his former enemy and now his prisoner, and getting him on his side. “I’ve got seven or eight men’s blood on my hands, and if the rest of you want to live, you’ll have to get blood on yours too.” He knew that the captain had been close to the now-dead second officer Wang Yongbo, and to fire him up, he told him that it was Bao De who had killed Wang. So the captain agreed to throw in his lot with Liu Guiduo.
When night fell, Liu Guiduo got his men together and brought the captain and Cui Yong in as well. He wrote out the names of Bao De and three other Mongolians on a scrap of paper and passed it around for each of them to read.
Liu Guiduo then quietly slipped Cui Yong a squidknife and sent him down to the crew’s sleeping quarters to act as bait. He told the captain, who was also armed with a knife, to wait on deck. He did not entirely trust his latest recruit, so he told Huang Jinbo and Liu Chengjian to hide on deck and keep an eye on him.
Then Liu Guiduo went to find Bao De. He spun a story to him about how the captain had joined him and he [DQ: Liu] was planning to get him to kill Cui Yong, and for that, he needed to borrow Bao De’s squid knife. Bao De duly handed it over and then went down to the sleeping quarters to fetch Cui Yong up on deck so the captain could murder him. Cui Yong, holding his knife behind him, followed Bao De up on deck, where the captain was waiting, armed with his own knife. Bao De was taken by surprise. The captain and Cui Yong, one in front, one behind, stabbed him repeatedly. Bao De shouted down to his Mongolian compatriots, “Come up here!” but no one dared move.
At this point, Huang Jinbo and Liu Chengjian came out of hiding and joined the fray.
This was Cui Yong’s first murder, and he was elated. Smearing Bao De’s blood on his face, he shouted: “I’ve been blooded now!”
Bao De was forced to tell his attackers the names of the Mongolian gang members, and then made to jump into the sea.
For several nights in a row after this, Zhao Mucheng only dared sleep for an hour at a time. He had actually been lying in his bunk when Bao De was killed.
ZMC: “I had no idea what was going on. I looked outside and it was dark already, though it wasn’t even four o’clock. Honestly, I was just scared someone was going to come in. Then a voice blared out―the boat had one of those big megaphone things for making announcements―and what I thought was the captain’s voice came over it, ‘Bao De, tell us who’s in the gang with you! Make it snappy, I know what’s been going on!’ He repeated this and then Liu Guiduo’s voice took over, ‘Whose side did you think Huang Jinbo was on, eh?’ What on earth was going on?! I had no clue that the captain had joined Liu Guiduo.”
DQ: Zhao Mucheng sat upright and stared hard, as if he were sitting in fog and trying to make something out in front of him.
After that, the Mongolian gang memberswereeliminated one by one. Qiu Ronghua and Dan Guoxi were hauled out of the four-berth cabin and the foredeck cabin, respectively, and forced to jump into the sea. Shuang Xi and Dai Fushun were taken in the twelve-berth dorm and then forced to jump as well. So was Bao Baocheng, the old seaman who once said, “What does it matter if we lose a man? It’ll be easy to explain away when we get home.”
ZMC: “I heard someone shout, ‘That’s Bao Baocheng and Shuang Xi gone! When did Shuang Xi jump?’ That told me they’d drowned.
“I don’t remember the exact details. You’d have to be pretty smart not to have a few blanks in your memory for what happened back then.
“A few minutes later, the megaphone shut off and I heard Liu Guiduo up on the deck. Then he came down and shouted into my dorm, ‘Dan Guoxi, come out here!’ Dan Guoxi went out.
“What happened outside I never saw—the doorway had a big quilt hanging in front of it ’cause we had AC and the weather was pretty hot. But I heard a gasp and a thud. After that, Qiu Ronghua was called out, and there was another gasp and that was him done for.
“The next ones called out were Xiang Lishan and the first officer. ‘Are you with Bao De?’ they were asked. ‘No.’ ‘OK, I can see the two of you are honest, you go back in.’ But they wanted to go and piss. Liu Guiduo gave them a mouthful of abuse, ‘You want to be the next to jump? You got a fucking death wish?’ ‘We just want to piss.’ ‘Well, fucking hurry up then!’ he yelled at them.
“They came back, and a little while later, Liu Chengjian came in too. He took my cell off me and told me, ‘Liu Guiduo’s asking for you. Go on up.’
“My head was in a whirl. I thought I must be next for the chop and I hung back as much as I could. But when I got to the captain’s cabin, there was Liu Guiduo sitting on the bed looking exhausted. I relaxed a bit and he told me, ‘Don’t be scared, it’s nothing. We’ll be in Japan in a couple of days and you’ve got nothing to worry about, you’ve got no blood on your hands. Anyone with no blood on their hands can just go back to China and that’ll be it. You can tell the company anything you like, we’ll be in Japan, it doesn’t matter what you say. We’ve killed men and we’re going on the run for as long as we can.’ Then he said, ‘Go to the galley and cook some noodles, the men who’ve been doing the business are hungry, they need something to eat.’”
DQ: What Zhao Mucheng did not understand was why Liu Guiduo had roped in Cui Yong and not him.
ZMC: “I really don’t know why. Maybe he already had enough men. There was one thing I thought was very strange. It was the day that Liu Guiduo made all the crew members ask their families for another 5,000 yuan. I asked my younger sister. She said Mom had lost her phone and had a new number. She gave it to me and told me to call. I looked at Liu Guiduo and he said, ‘Go on, do it. Tell your mom you’ll be back soon, she’s not to worry.’ I didn’t think he would force me, in fact maybe he knew that my dad had died nearly twenty years before and Mom was on her own. So I didn’t call Mom. I gave the phone back to him.
DQ: Every time Zhao Mucheng talked about Liu Guiduo, he sighed heavily. “Liu Guiduo was a shrewd operator. He was more . . . experienced than the rest of us.”
To his family back home in Heilongjiang province, Liu Guiduo (Young Two, they called him) was a good son, and clever. He regretted dropping out of school and admired people with an education. When he was fifteen, there was a severe drought in the village, and Liu Guiduo left home for the first time and got laboring jobs on construction sites and big farms. When he made up his mind to sign up as a seaman, his father took him to the county town on the tractor. The old man only ever smoked his own home-cured tobacco, but that time his son bought him two packets of cigarettes as a going-away present.
Someone Opens the Kingston Valve
DQ: My next interview with Zhao Mucheng took place in late autumn. His village was bathed in bright sunshine and presented an intensely tranquil scene. There were few people about and only the occasional monotonous barking of a dog to be heard.
At four the morning after Cui Yong joined Liu Guiduo, the second engineer tried to scupper the boat and drown himself and everyone else. He was the next fatality.
ZMC: “On our journey back, there was absolutely nothing to see, only the ocean. Liu Guiduo made sure to avoid other ships. Just once, when we’d stopped to change the oil filter, we saw one in the distance. There was no flag or number on the side, and after about twenty minutes, it moved on. Pirates, we reckoned. But fishing boats didn’t carry money, so pirates weren’t interested in us. The high seas were different from the high road: if they’d wanted to chase us, we couldn’t have shaken them off.”
DQ: The evening that Bao De was killed, Zhao Mucheng went down to the galley to cook as instructed. He started to work out how many men were left. All of the Mongolian gang members were now dead, and out of thirty-three crew members, fifteen were left.
When the boat was still off Peru, there were always pinpricks of light from other ships around them as darkness fell. The lights were feeble, but still they nurtured a sense of security, albeit a false one. But now, there was nothing but pitch black to be seen out of the portholes.
ZMC: “When I’d cooked dinner, the crew ate and drank. They sat there for a while afterwards, then went to bed. That night, I was in the twelve-berth cabin on the upper deck and got Jiang Xiaolong’s berth. ‘You stay and sleep here,’ Jiang Xiaolong told me. ‘Don’t go down below.’
“I couldn’t get to sleep that night. When I woke up the next morning, I heard shouting. They were looking for Wang Yanlong, the second engineer, but they couldn’t find him. It was pandemonium. I lay there listening, scared that something else bad had happened.
“In fact, I could hear something was wrong with the boat. I found out that someone had opened the Kingston valve. Only Wang Yanlong knew where that was. Anyway, the water came rushing in and it was all hands to the pump. But when we’d pumped all the water out, the boat still wasn’t right.
“Liu Guiduo told all of us to get any stuff that would float, like bits of timber and bunk frames, tie them together into rafts, and load the rafts up with any food we could find.
“If the Kingston valve was open, it meant the boat might go down. The Lurongyu 2682 had to put out a distress signal, but that would mean we’d all get found out.
“Anyway, Liu Guiduo and the captain went and repaired the telecoms equipment and sent out a distress call. They told us they’d sent it but they had no idea when anyone might turn up.”
A Pacific “Raft of the Medusa”
DQ: In the seas to the east of Japan, four more men were killed. Of the crew of thirty-three, only eleven were left.
ZMC: “We lashed and nailed planks together to make a raft. We put it in the water, and I started to get stuff into it. The first officer got into the raft. He grinned and beckoned to me: ‘Stop messing around. Get in!’ He said this a few times, but I said, ‘I haven’t finished, wait a minute.’ There were three others on the raft, Song Guochun, Gong Xuejun, and Ding Yumin, all of them wearing life vests.
“Just then I heard a shout, I don’t know who from: ‘Hey, how come we’re floating away?’
“I turned to look. The cable was broken and the raft was already ten meters away. I grabbed a rope and threw it to them. But the first officer caught it and threw it back into the sea. ‘They’ve got knives!’ he shouted. ‘They’re still planning on killing more men. We’re not coming back!’
“Liu Guiduo was furious when he saw the raft was gone. ‘Motherfuckers! Motherfuckers! You come back!’ he yelled in a frenzy. But by now the raft was far in the distance and no bigger than your fist.
“Liu Guiduo sat on deck looking depressed.
“To our surprise, we didn’t sink, because we had nothing left in the stores so we didn’t take in much water. The trouble was that water had gotten into the cabin. We didn’t sink, but we couldn’t move either. We had to wait for help. When we’d sent out our distress signal, there had been fifteen, but now only eleven were left, so Liu Guiduo suggested we play innocent and throw the blame for the murders on the four who’d fled.
“Suddenly, the captain shouted: ‘Hide! Hide!’ He’d seen the raft was coming nearer. Someone had put down an umbrella anchor, which increased the pull of the current, and we were gaining on the raft.
“Just then the captain noticed that the men on the raft were cutting through the anchor cable with their knives. That was to slow us down and put some distance between us and the raft.
“Liu Guiduo called me down below and told me to get together the heavy squid hooks, the more the better. I got over a hundred of them. The four hadn’t cut all the way through the cable when the raft hit the ship’s bow.
“You have to admit, it was rotten luck for those four.
“‘Get ‘em!’ shouted the captain. ‘Kill ‘em!’ We threw down the sinkers and knocked three men off. Only Ding Yumin was left.
“Jiang Xiaolong grabbed a harpoon, jumped down onto the raft, and stabbed Ding. Ding fell into the water. Jiang was furious, he was cussing at Ding Yumin, he couldn’t believe that Ding had run away like that. They’d come on board together.
“The first officer, Gong Xuejun, and Ding Yumin were shouting and begging for mercy, but slowly they drifted farther off, the three of them grabbing on to each other in the water. They weren’t going to make it, for sure. Chinese-made life vests are useless, they get soaked and then in four or five hours, they sink. And the men were bleeding, and that would bring the sharks soon enough.
“That left the fourth, Song Guochun, floating quite near the ship. He was begging frantically for help, but Liu Guiduo said nothing and we didn’t dare move. Then Liu said, ‘Pull him in,’ and me and Huang Jinbo got him back on deck. He was bleeding from a head wound and I got a paper towel and wiped it for him.
“Just then, the captain went up to Liu Guiduo and said to him: ‘What are we going to do about Zhao Mucheng and Xiang Lishan? We’re gonna get rescued and those two haven’t gotten blood on their hands yet.’”
DQ: From this point on, Zhao Mucheng went very quiet, the way he had at the start of our interviews. He told his tale, but he gripped his fishing rod and blocked all my probing. ‘I don’t remember,’ was all he said if I tried to tease out the details. He didn’t seemed bothered, he was quite calm.
ZMC: “When he heard the captain, Xiang Lishan grabbed a squid knife and was about to stab Song Guochun, but Liu Guiduo stopped him. ‘No, you two just tie him up and throw him back.’
“There are some gaps in my memory after that. I took Song’s life vest off and tied his wrists, I remember that. I don’t remember if I tied his legs. In the trial, it was said that some of the men put sinkers in his pockets, and Huang Jinbo tied some together with fishing line and tied them around him, that’s for sure.
“Song Guochun was still crying: ‘Liu, you’re my bro, why are you ditching me, you don’t hate me that much, I won’t spill the beans when we get back!’ Where Song Guochun was standing, it was half a dozen meters to the stern, and it took me a full five minutes to push him back to the bit with no railings.
“I kept looking around at Liu Guiduo. I didn’t dare look Song Guochun in the eye, but I was wondering if Liu would give him another chance. When we were only a meter from the stern, I looked around again. Then I saw the sinkers tied to Song flying out and dropping into the water with a splash. I turned back, but the man was gone.”
DQ: Zhao Mucheng fell silent.
ZMC: “I must have pushed him, to send those sinkers flying, but I really wasn’t all that strong and honestly I can’t swear it was me that did it. The police told me that the sinkers fell at the same time as I pushed him.”
DQ: After Song Guochun had gone into the sea, the remaining eleven dispersed. Their SOS had been received, and all they could do was wait.
Typhoon Muifa was just then engulfing the Western Pacific. It took a week for the Chinese fishing authorities to reach them. Zhao Mucheng told me that, after the Chinese fishing authorities came on board, Captain Li Chengquan pulled him to one side and gave him a bit of paper on which he had written up the lie they had concocted: that once Bao De and his gang had committed their murders, they had made their escape on a raft, leaving eleven behind.
This was proven to be nonsense.
Back to the Dock on Shidao Island
August 13, 2011: A Rainstorm
DQ: Zhao Mucheng was still very worried. It wasn’t so much whether the plot would be exposed; he just had no idea whether he would get back alive. He went on:
ZMC: “I thought there might be more killing before we arrived in port. When we were being towed back, Liu Guiduo and his cronies went through each of the cabins and turned up a notebook, Dan Guoxi’s, apparently, with the name of the man who’d murdered old Xia.
“I was worried, mostly ‘cause Liu Chengjian had said something like, ‘I just knew it.’ I thought he must mean, ‘I just knew that those two were gonna cause problems for us.’ I behaved as naturally as I could, but I hid a knife in case I needed it. The captain had found it on the deck, I saw him, and he told me, ‘Hide this knife, and do it right.’ So I did, I pushed it between some boards at the bottom of the ship. Afterward, I realized that Liu Chengjian hadn’t been talking about me after all.
“During the tow back to port, Huang Jinbo and Wang Peng spent all their time in a huddle, muttering away to themselves very quietly. They got pen and paper and scribbled things down, all behind the backs of the rest. Then they folded the bits of paper into paper airplanes and sent them flying out to sea. One plane landed at Liu Guiduo’s feet, and he picked it up and read it. ‘What do you two think you’re playing at?’ he yelled at them. ‘Have you gone crazy?’”
DQ: Zhao Mucheng fired up his electric scooter and gave me a lift into the county town. This part of town hadn’t changed much in recent years, apart from the new multistory houses that had been built. Zhao pointed out an old compound:
ZMC: “I left school after lower middle school, and I had a job delivering milk in there. I got 300 yuan a month for that. It was exhausting and not enough to live on either. I stopped after two months and learned how to repair motorbikes, but that didn’t earn me much either, so I went to Dalian.
“I had a good time in Dalian. I worked in the kitchen of a hotel where I had some friends, and we used to go out on the town when we were free. We’d meet up and go to bars with loud music or discos. Almost every evening we were out. I was spending all the money I was earning, not a cent left. But when I got to twenty-four, I figured that I’d had enough fun and seen enough, and I had to buckle down and save. Not that anything particular happened, I’d just gotten to that age.”
DQ: From where I was sitting behind Zhao Mucheng, I couldn’t see his expression.
ZMC: “We were towed back to Shidao Port in the middle of a rainstorm. There was a bus waiting for us, and an ambulance, and twenty or thirty people. The armed police tied our hands behind our backs and escorted us off one by one, I was the third or fourth. We got on the bus, but we hadn’t driven far when suddenly we were surrounded by police who’d been hiding somewhere until we were safely off the ship and on land. Then we were each of us put in a different police car and taken to the police station.
“Everyone was really wound up, but I felt fine. I was sure now that I wasn’t going to die.
“When I was interviewed, the police said to me, ‘Don’t be scared, just confess everything, and if you haven’t done anything, you’ll be home soon.’ I just said, ‘Good,’ and didn’t say anything else. You see, Liu Guiduo had made sure to get hold of the addresses of all our families, and he told us if any of us said what had really happened, he’d get someone to go after our folks.
“I guess it was just wishful thinking, but when I was being interrogated, I kept saying that it was Bao De and his gang who killed the men and then made off.
“My interrogator said to me, ‘What you’ve just told me, if I was saying it to you, would you believe it?’ Then his chief came in and asked why I hadn’t told the truth yet. I didn’t say anything and he said, ‘They’ve all told us that Xia Qiyong was the first to die. Isn’t that right? You’ll get off the lightest, why don’t you tell the truth?’ By that time, my statement had been taken and all I had to do was sign and put my thumbprint. I put my thumbprint on each page until the last, which I didn’t put my print on. The more I thought, the worse I felt about it. I tore the statement up and threw it in the trash.”
DQ: Huang Jinbo, then nineteen years old, was the first to confess. He counted on giving himself up to the authorities before the plot came out in the trial, but in the end, that didn't work.
Crime and Punishment
DQ: Zhao Mucheng felt, based on his limited legal knowledge, that he would probably be given a suspended death sentence or life imprisonment. His first legal team told him the most likely outcome was a fixed-term sentence. After changing lawyers, he was advised that he was looking at less than ten years, possibly eight. Zhao thought eight seemed pretty good.
At the start of the trial, he was brought into court in handcuffs and shackles. He saw his mother in the public gallery. She was sobbing, which made him cry too. Every time he looked around, or tried to speak to his mother, the bailiff stopped him. “I was thinking how badly I’d let my family down. My mom had spent so much on me the last few years.”
Zhao Mucheng shared a cell with another seaman, suspected of killing eight people on an offshore container ship and stealing 100,000 yuan. His fellow inmate was not normal. When seated, his head twitched wildly and his hands shook uncontrollably. He liked to recite by heart a psychology book about ways to resolve inner turmoil.
When Zhao Mucheng received the court’s verdict of “a fixed term of four years,” he “felt so happy” and indicated in court that he did not wish to appeal.
The evening before his release, he pressed up against the steel bars and shouted to Huang Jinbo in the neighboring cell, “I’m getting out. You need anything? I’ll mail it to you.”
“S’alright, my folks send me everything. Look after yourself out there,” Huang Jinbo urged him. “Just forget about all this.”
Huang Jinbo was eventually sentenced to death, along with Liu Guiduo, Jiang Xiaolong, Liu Chengjian, and the captain, Li Chengquan.
All eleven survivors from the Lurongyu 2682 were found guilty.
Liu Guiduo continued to deny all charges against him. His parents gave a tearful interview to a reporter after their son was sentenced to death. “If only everyone on board had been a good swimmer, things would have been OK.”
While in prison awaiting trial, Liu Guiduo shared a cell with a man facing a possible death sentence. Liu tried to encourage him to join his escape attempt, but the man informed against him the following day. After this, Liu was tied to his bed by all four limbs. He is still restrained in this way today, over four years later.
ZMC: “Liu Guiduo is going to be executed in spring next year [DQ recorded this in 2016]. When I was still inside, I walked past Liu’s cell in my handcuffs and shackles. He saw me and lifted his hand. He couldn’t move very much, but he lifted his right hand and pointed at me. And then pulled his hand back toward his head, like this, like he was pulling a trigger. He was smiling, just like when he killed second officer Wang Yongbo.”
The Electric Port at Shidao
DQ: Zhao Mucheng was twenty-nine when he was released from prison. His girlfriend had left him and moved to Shanghai.
ZMC: “I’d lost everything. I had to start over. I wouldn’t be as badly off as I am now if it hadn’t been for what happened. I didn’t go see her. Couldn’t find her and didn’t want to. Even if I had gone, it wouldn’t have changed anything. I don’t even know what she’s like anymore, and I definitely wouldn’t have enough to satisfy her now. She’s been in the big city and seen so much, and that makes it even more embarrassing. So I really don’t want to see her at all.”
DQ: During my interviews with Zhao Mucheng, he was always keen to leave by five o’clock in the afternoon.
ZMC: “I have to get home and cook for my mom. She works in a factory, it’s tough for her. When she gets home, she aches from head to foot and can’t get comfortable at all. But she’s fine at work.”
DQ: Zhao Mucheng’s mother does not allow him to go far from home these days, and he has to be back on time in the evenings. He has also promised her that he will never leave his hometown again.
A few days later, I was at the Electric Port at Shidao, from which the Lurongyu 2682 had launched.
All the locals agreed that squid fishing was a fool’s game and there wasn’t enough money in it, so you could only get crew from inland China. There were close to a hundred different types of fishing vessels berthed in the harbor. Some crew were loading and unloading goods and repairing fishing nets, others squatted by the trash cans playing poker. Truckload after truckload of shellfish left the port, and truck after truck dumped ice into the vessels about to launch. You could describe that stench-filled harbor as a chaotic war zone, but perhaps there was a kind of unassailable order to it.
In a corner of the dock near the sea was a rust-stained vessel. Judging from the photographs, it looked to be the same type as the Lurongyu 2682. I jumped aboard. The ship had been abandoned for so long that even the mold on the trash strewn everywhere had long died off. It was forty-odd paces from the bow to the stern, then I headed round to the gangway ladder and climbed up to the captain’s cabin. Copies of the bimonthly women’s magazine Bosom Friend were scattered across the cabin floor. To the right of the control panel was a water cup, some liquid detergent, and a laminated sheet of instructions issued by the Korean Coast Guard. To the left, shockingly, was a heap of yellow ghost money.
The rear cabin, used for crew, was absolutely empty. On one wall were scrawled the words “Almighty Father.” There was a picture of a woman’s naked body on the low ceiling.
As I left, I noticed a message on the cabin door. “I’m off! Win and you’re a king—lose and you’re an outlaw. See ya!”
Most people live fairly rule-bound lives and maintain the belief that their fellow human beings on the whole do likewise. They are firmly convinced that it is a basic human condition to be ordinary, that on the whole, both good deeds and evil doings are of the banal kind.
But on the Pacific, or rather, in that far-flung corner of the world, things did not play out that way.
The translators would like to thank One Way Street Magazine in China and its editor Wu Qi for bringing the story to their attention.
First published in Esquire China, 2016. © Du Qiang. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Nicky Harman and Emily Jones. All rights reserved.
Edited by Dohra Ahmad, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature puts together a challenging and insightful collection that attempts to reveal the myriad ways of experiencing human movement across nations and cultures.
To anyone who regularly gets stuck in the news cycle, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature may seem somewhat overdue. Migration issues have received an increasing amount of media coverage over the past several years, often within a context of violence and disasters, as the number of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide hit record highs. Stories of migration are usually presented using imagery meant to provoke strong, and often contradictory, emotional responses. The picture of drowned three-year-old Alan Kurdi in 2015 will not be easily forgotten, but nor will drone-shot images of last winter’s Central American migrant caravans. The first image was used to foster empathy; the second, to incite fear.
While these emotional responses are telling, they are also fleeting. An anthology like this one gives the topic of migration a history and genealogy, a context from which we can work to find answers in the long term. Like its many protagonists, this book arrives right on time. Editor Dohra Ahmad has curated a challenging and insightful collection that attempts to reveal the myriad ways of experiencing human movement—forced migration and exile are only a part of this story, albeit an important one.
The works in this volume span many forms, including excerpts from novels, short stories, poems, and part of a graphic novel. It includes household names like Zadie Smith and Salman Rushdie as well as plenty of emerging voices. No anthology can claim to be complete, so Ahmad provides an extensive further reading (and watching) list that could keep a person busy for at least a year. With such broad parameters, anthologies can sometimes feel disjointed. But reading this book from cover to cover—as one seldom does with such a work—goes smoothly, largely due to the consistency of its selection and organization.
The pieces are arranged into four categories: Departures, Arrivals, Generations, and Returns. The Departures epigraph reads “No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,” but the stories make clear that this is not always the case. In the introduction, Ahmad notes that “unambiguously involuntary migrations” are, in fact, rather rare. While we tend to be more emotionally generous in situations of forced migration, most migrations lie in a gray area. Many migrations—including this reviewer’s—are made freely and happily. To this end, Ahmad states that she hopes for a world in which “all migrations may be as optional and as joyous as they are enriching.”
While some migrations do indeed end in the United States, these narratives, read together, challenge the idea of America (or Canada, the United Kingdom, or Australia) as the promised land. The multidirectional journeys present migration as a global issue and will hopefully undermine the hegemony the Western world believes it holds as an immigrant destination.
We begin with The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, a memoir written in the eighteenth century by Equiano himself about his kidnapping and journey from what is present-day Nigeria to the British West Indies on a slave ship. Initially, the narration is sparse and observational—a child’s-eye view—but it builds up to the terrorizing scene of the slave trade. Surviving the journey but about to be sold at auction, Equiano comments on the loss that permeates many of the anthology’s stories. His emphasis on the slaves’ lack of reservations or misgivings is particularly devastating, even more so as in some regards it still feels uncomfortably familiar today:
In this manner, without scruple, are relations and friends separated, most of them never to see each other again.
Equiano’s memoir is followed by the equally distressing “Zong! #5” by Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip. This poem is based on the legal decision (Philip is a former lawyer) to throw a hundred slaves overboard on a British ship to cash in on the insurance claims. Due to navigational errors, the ship was running low on drinking water, and letting the slaves die of dehydration would have resulted in financial losses.
By the time these first two works on involuntary migration have shock us, we come to a third transoceanic story, Julia Otsuka’s “Come, Japanese!” Young Japanese women sail to meet their future husbands and an American future where
the women did not have to work in the fields and there was plenty of rice and firewood for all [. . .] And wherever you went the men held open the doors and tipped their hats and called out, “Ladies first” and “After you.”
Otsuka’s piece exposes how voluntary migrations, especially those so-called economic migrations, are sometimes tied to false conceptions about the destination. As Shauna Singh Baldwin observes in “Montreal 1962,” “this was not how they described emigrating to Canada . . . No one said then, ‘You must be reborn white-skinned—and clean-shaven to show it—to survive.’” Many false professions also permeate the Mexico-United States border. The bitter disappointment of making it past la frontera is introduced in Francisco Jiménez’s “Under the Wire” when the child protagonist explains, “This is California!” and his older, wiser brother responds, “I am not so sure.”
The anthology also includes stories of migration that do not involve crossing borders, but rather movement from rural villages to urban centers. Internal migrants face not only culture shock, but also the stripping away of ties to land and family. Mohsin Hamid summarizes this best in an excerpt from How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia:
In this history of the evolution of the family, you and the millions of other migrants like you represent an ongoing proliferation of the nuclear. It is an explosive transformation, the supportive, stifling, stabilizing bonds of extended relationships weakening and giving way, leaving in their wake insecurity, anxiety, productivity, and potential.
These observations can help us examine how we have changed, and continue to change, as a social species. Rural culture is characterized by strong family ties, intimacy, and community-minded behaviors, whereas urban culture is marked by distant bloodlines, isolation, and competition. By drawing lines across centuries, the authors prove that we cannot understand migration today without taking a deep look at capitalism, industrialization, colonialism, and the legacy of slavery.
Some writers included in the anthology explore the experience of assimilation and the attempt to create a sense of home in a new place. An except from Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis 2depicts the catch-22 situation of trying to assimilate without betraying one’s roots. The protagonist in Sam Salvon’s “Come Back to Grenada” isn’t so interested in such a compromise. Having left the Caribbean and settled in the United Kingdom, he forms a community with fellow immigrants and develops English habits like “drinking tea all the time” and “reading the newspaper in the tube and bus.” He even finds that “when he think ’bout home it does look so far away that he feel as if he don’t belong there no more.”
Displacement is not the only common thread in these works. Regardless of time or geography, many symbols and tropes are consistent in migration literature. These include water, both a symbol of possibility and of life-threatening precarity. The ocean is a specter in the stories that depict the African slave trade, as well as in Edwidge Danticat’s “Children of the Sea,” a heartrending story of the passage from Haiti. While Philip invokes the “perils of water” in “Zong! #5,” Danticat’s narrator explicitly draws the link between centuries when he asks, “Do you want to know how people go to the bathroom on the boat? Probably the same way they did on those slave ships years ago.” Water is equally present in our shared imagery of today’s treacherous migratory routes.
Other authors included in this anthology look at the seemingly banal aspects of migration—paperwork, bribery, administration, and seemingly endless waiting. In Salman Rushdie’s “Good Advice is Rarer than Rubies,” the criminal offer of false papers is simply a “facilitation”—but the migration ultimately never happens. In Dinaw Mengestu’s lingering “An Honest Exit,” a professor tells his students the story of how his father fled Ethiopia, waiting for weeks on end for a smuggler to arrange his passage in a small crate on a ship. The wait is excruciating, riddled with stale excuses for the lack of movement, and speaks to the systematic inertia of migration processes around the world. The students are touched, except later the professor admits embellishing most, if not all, of the story. Mengestu recognizes that the children and grandchildren of immigrants often grapple with fragmented family histories:
I needed a history more complete than the strangled bits that he had owned and passed on to me—short, brutal tale of having been trapped as a stowaway on a ship. So I continued with my father’s story, knowing I would have to make up the missing details as I went.
Perhaps it is worth remembering when reading this anthology that in many languages the word for story and history are the same.
Since it spans centuries, or maybe because it offers such a rich and varied sample of migration stories, The Penguin Book of Migration Literature lacks the sense of urgency that accompanies the real and terrible vulnerability of today’s involuntary migrants. Some people may find that the volume also has surprisingly (and disappointingly) few works in translation. And, despite its aim to come full circle, it is like a one-act play—no one can say how migration will change and evolve, and the human stories with it, in the coming years. However, this anthology invites us to listen to the voices of migrants and, through the authors’ commitment to encountering them, asserts itself as a politically powerful volume. By presenting history as human stories, it acts as a gateway to empathy and understanding. The collection succeeds where politicians, international organizations, and even journalists sometimes fail because it reminds us of our common humanity. This thoughtful and provoking anthology from Penguin deserves its spot as the new cornerstone text for anyone interested in migration—indeed, the human condition—today.
The year 2021 will mark the five-hundred-year anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in the Philippine Islands, an event associated with the first circumnavigation of the world, led by Ferdinand Magellan. Both historical points launched the mapping and invasion of many parts of the archipelago for more than three hundred years, followed by an American invasion that has furthered the country’s long, tragic history of coming under the rule of one colonial power after another while remaining subjugated throughout.
In a time when the country is enmeshed in a territorial dispute with its new aggressor China, we remember. We remember and remain vigilant in the face of the apparatus—the apparatus controlled by the state, academic agencies, and businesses—the exact same one that purports to compel us to remember. We remember the five hundred years since Europeans and their Christianity arrived at the archipelago they linked to the patron saint Lazarus, the leper, the biblical character raised from the dead. We remember the Europeans’ supposed discovery of our islands, even as the necessary struggle for self-determination rightfully continues in the southern end of the archipelago, where the Bangsamoro people of Mindanao live.
Although the history of the Philippines is often just a cursory note in or a supplemental extension to the colonial discourse that is still the go-to marker of religion and civilization, the works we have selected challenge a monolithic view of the fragmented histories and interconnected, overlapping cultures in the Philippines. That monolithic take was reinforced in the Marcos dictatorship era’s propagation of the isang bansa, isang diwa (one country, one consciousness) stasis in preparation for Bagong Lipunan (The New Society). The new writings in this groundbreaking Philippines issue of Words Without Borders are founded mostly on hope—hope for the eventual collapse of this monolithic, monopolizing, crippling structure.
Among the more than 150 languages in the archipelago, English and the national language Filipino remain dominant in literary production. In the past few years, however, there has been a vigorous stream of writing from the regions, including literatures in the languages Bikol, Ilokano, Kapampangan, Minasbate, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a Binisaya, and from other ethno-linguistic communities. One example comes in Voltaire Oyzon’s Waray-language poem, “Water.” Oyzon presents that substance as an unwanted guest, an invader that can just as easily steal our possessions; yet we still find ourselves trying to please—even appease—it, recognizing again and again our natural affinity for the water that surrounds us.
Like Oyzon, also writing in their respective native languages are Genevieve Asenjo, who writes in Kinaray-a and Hiligaynon, and Enrique Villasis writing in Minasbate. Asenjo and Villasis are also avid Filipino-language writers, and their pieces here are translated from that language. It is apparent from their writings how their common inclination to write in both their native languages and Filipino has enriched their work; their native cultures have informed how they reworked Filipino. Meanwhile, in the poems of Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles and Marlon Hacla, both Filipino poetry and language itself present as revelatory enterprises. The two poets skillfully explore the philosophy of language, the meaning of experiences—even when they are brutally frank or still steeped in the irony or absurdity of characters arching back to the site of lalang ng grabedad, the hub of either pleasure or painful complexity of a city, a city whose claws resemble that of a raptor that feeds on our light.
Instead of America or the Middle East, the typical spaces for migrant Filipinos and usual stimulus for their narratives, Asenjo’s story “Norebang” takes place in South Korea. That choice is noteworthy, as South Korea in recent years has been aggressive in its cultural forays into Filipino consciousness. The conduits, which have been effective in their infusion, include Korean telenovelas, fashion, and technological gear, as well as Korean immigrants learning English from Filipino teachers, spouses, and house help.
In a conversation with WWB, Jessica Hagedorn considers the intersections of the many languages of the Philipines with each other and with English and how that affects Philippine literature. That relational dynamic of Philippine languages with English can also be seen in the fluid way Daryll Delgado and Tito Genova Valiente have tried to own colonial language. Although their stories are originally written in English, they are fortified with their authors’ uniquely specific experiences from the islands of Samar and Ticao, respectively, both places present and very much alive in the works’ theme, style, and language. This is no longer the English of the American colonial education from the early twentieth century. Delgado’s narrative on the ruins in the wake of super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in 2013 emphasizes the Waray word dunot and the subversive jokes of Johnny Pusong. Valiente, on the other hand, neatly recounts the nursemaid Erlina’s story and her love for the mythical creature Onglo. Valiente reimagines sugilanon—roughly described as “kuwentong katulong, mga kuwento ng kababalaghan” (“stories for the house help, stories of the supernatural”)—which he uses in his construction of an ethnography for driving discussion on the logic of experience rooted in the islands where it is sourced, cultivated, or erased. Valiente writes,
I keep waiting for more tales from Ticao but there have been no tales from the place. Perhaps there are no more narrators. Perhaps, they have cut the trees where enchanted creatures take their entrance and exit to our world. Perhaps, the enchanted beings have all died . . . what Ticao has now are tales about corruption, election fraud, poverty, and killings. They are the new tales of enchantment and I do not have access to their narrators.
This violence, sometimes mistaken for backlash after the long period of colonial and imperialist aggression, remains familiar—even cozy in its predictability—because it never really went away. It simply changes shape, becomes articulated in a different language, possibly gets called a different name. M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac’s poem on the harrowing plight of the indigenous Badjao tribe and Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano’s Binisaya short story on the creeping militarization in indigenous communities attest to the near-ubiquity of this violence. In Tumamac’s poem and Serrano-Quijano’s story, laid bare is the vicious encroachment into and persistently dissolving boundaries between the confines of home and its environs, a revolutionary and a member of the state’s military complex beholden to the whims of the ruling class, a native and a foreigner.
Just like the literatures of the world, this issue’s short fiction and poetry selections impart their own set of complexities and proclivities, sense of purpose and of place. It is in literature that we find the bulk of experiences that deepen our understanding of the world, regardless of the sensitivity of the themes that get brought to the fore. Moreover, the writers in this issue have been keen on advancing their understanding of what discovery entails. And it may well be the discovery learned from the navigation that has taken us across or forced us to skirt the compulsions and cruelties of our colonial-feudal society. It may also be the discovery that comes with awe, with truly learning at last to speak our languages, to see through the manifold us, a move that might obligate us to hope.
© 2019 by Kristian Sendon Cordero and Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.
We’ve marked this season in previous years by bringing you ghost stories and tales of mourning. This year, we’re exploring excursions into the otherworldly: that liminal space where lives and afterlives mingle and merge and the quotidian gives rise to the extraordinary.
The three pieces here portray characters meeting emissaries from realms beyond our own. A detective cracks a case with not-quite-earthly help; a relentless double trails an increasingly frustrated original; a smug general discovers himself outwitted by a mysterious, yet strangely familiar, visitor. The results of these confrontations range from triumphant to catastrophic as the boundaries between worlds dissolve.
In “The Checkers Player” by Yves Rémy and Ada Rémy, a general confronts an unexpected opponent. On the eve of a crucial battle, he is visited by a mysterious stranger who challenges him to a game of checkers. The general triumphs in both the game and the next day’s conflict, and a pattern is established: the stranger appears the night before battles, his game plan foretells that of the next day’s enemy, and the general’s victory in the game predicts the result on the battlefield. But when the visitor returns after the commander’s retirement, the general recognizes the terrifying truth behind his apparent victories. The authors, a married French pair, are writers and filmmakers best known for their classic alternate European history Les Soldats de la mer (The Soldiers of the Sea), from which this piece is taken.
Robert Marcuse’s “Juan Manuel’s Shadow” also features a battle, in this case an existential duel between the title character and his sclerotic originator. Sodden misanthrope Juan Manuel decides he needs no one, not even his shadow, and sets out to rid himself of this constant companion. When his increasingly desperate attempts to shake his shadow prove fruitless, he makes one final, violent effort. Like the general, he appears to have vanquished his bête noire; and like the general’s, his assumed triumph is revealed as anything but a victory. A Belgian-born Holocaust survivor whose family fled Europe for Uruguay during World War II, the trilingual Marcuse began writing fiction only in his seventies, and went on to publish several novels and the collection of short stories in which “Juan Manuel’s Shadow” appears.
Luiz Carlos Lisboa’s “His Very Last Case” sees two police detectives collaborate on their most challenging investigation. When his best friend on the force dies of a sudden illness and leaves a generous pension to his oddly untroubled widow, Detective Clemente’s suspicions are pricked; and when he uncovers proof of her extramarital activities, he becomes determined to expose the death as a murder. An assist, and the proof of guilt, come from a most unexpected yet incontestable source. Lisboa, a Brazilian lawyer turned journalist and writer, is the author of some forty books, as well as a translator from English, French, and Spanish into Portuguese.
We hope you’ll enjoy these journeys into the beyond and their glimpses of multiple states of being. And, as with everything we publish, we trust that these ventures into other worlds will only expand and enhance your own.
© 2019 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A game of checkers has life-and-death consequences in this short story by Ada Rémy and Yves Rémy.
General Arthur Shine-Levis tells his friends he fought eight battles during the campaign of Winter ’44 to Spring ’45. Eight times over, he emerged victorious. “Because I’m a solid checkers player,” he adds. He is entreated to explain himself. He obliges.
“It was the eve of my first battle. A quiet night. Not a whisper in camp, just the footfalls of the soldiers on watch. I sat, contemplative, in my tent. A man in a black cape and top hat lifted the flap and entered. ‘Guards!’ I cried. The man shrugged, the guards came bursting in, I ordered them to arrest the intruder. ‘What intruder?’ they replied. I pointed at the man. I was met with contrived expressions, fatuous smiles. ‘Well? What are you waiting for? Carry out my orders!’
“‘It must have been a dream, sir,’ a soldier ventured.
A storm lantern burns atop a crate, casting a pale but satisfactory glow.
“‘Don’t insist. You alone can see and hear me.’
“The man wasn’t lying. I dismissed the guards, after passing it off as the foolishness of someone still half-asleep. A general who has dreams, that much they’d put up with, but a general who sees ghosts? A general never sees ghosts.
“The man in the cape took out a set of checkers. His face was so severe, his eyes so imperious, that I did his bidding without question. He was a first-rate player. He was wily and blocked my moves. At long last, I took a nasty piece of his that had been giving me a lot of trouble. An hour later, the game was over; I emerged victorious. He vanished. Outside, dawn was aquiver. Shortly thereafter, the enemy troops neared; I was heavy with fatigue. The battle began; it lasted all day. Toward evening, I captured a hill and demolished some nasty artillery that had been keeping me pinned down. An hour later, the enemy broke off and beat a retreat, leaving behind on the field weapons and baggage, the wounded and the dead.”
General Arthur Shine-Levis opens a pouch of tobacco and sniffs a few pinches. With a single slender white hand, he sweeps the scattered shavings from his frock coat.
“Eight days later, we took up a position at Prast de Cambo. I’d set up headquarters in an old house, in a large room with a mezzanine. On the table, a map of the region. I studied it alone one last time: my second eve of battle. A dry little cough made me look up. Above me, leaning over the balcony railing, stood the man in the black cape. He came down, swept the map disdainfully aside, set the checkers game down, and ordered me to begin the game. Not as crafty as during our first encounter, he let himself be cornered; I stole his men away and crushed him in under an hour.
“The next day, I crushed the Muelno’s naval infantry forces just as easily.”
General Arthur Shine-Levis stylishly purports to be boring his friends. Exclamations of protest. With a modest wave, he assures them an old soldier like himself can only exasperate his youthful company with rumpled memories that reek of regimental leather and horse lather.
“And so, suffice it to say that the eve of every battle saw the arrival of the man in the top hat and black cape. He would slip mysteriously into my quarters, wherever they were, and invite me to play a game of checkers, lose it, then vanish. The next day, I would emerge victorious. In this way, we came to the eighth battle.
“I had fallen back to the hinterland: my men were weary. I thought to stay there for a fortnight. One evening, I was readying for bed when my visitor appeared and began our game. It was long and difficult. I was distracted, wondering if his visit did not perhaps presage some surprise for the next day; at long last I gained the upper hand and, late that night, took his men from him one by one. Furious, he left me as abruptly as he appeared.
“When the sun rose, I ordered the regiment to remain at the ready. Surprised, my officers requested an explanation. I knew not what to tell them. I was ill at ease; I feared an attack. Those nocturnal visits, always on the eve of a battle . . . I sent out patrols to scout the countryside, ordered defenses to be raised. Finally, at three o’clock in the afternoon, there was an explosion: Cortez’s troops, which we believed forty leagues distant, came clambering down the mountain to fall upon our rear. A hard-won battle, heavy losses on either side, but our attackers gave up.
“There you have it,” Arthur Shine-Levis says courteously, enveloped in an exquisite and exotic aroma of essence of citron.
“Was there no ninth battle, General?”
The speaker a young man, tall and spindly as a heron but all in all a likeable sort.
“There was indeed,” Shine-Levis replies, “but just on the checkerboard. It was a draw.
“The next day, I hesitated: before me, Cortez’s assembled forces, outnumbering us. Four hours’ march behind them, in Taransca, a regiment from Laërne. I must be cautious about committing my companies, to give our forces time to fall upon Cortez from the rear. The tie game from the night before left me worried. I feared not defeat, but a rout. What was the point of losing men, weakening my forces, if not to win? I ordered us to steal away. I was met with sharp reproach: a chance like this would not soon come again. Worse yet, were we to let the men of Laërne clash with Cortez at full strength? I ordered a retreat. You know what happened to the regiment from Laërne; they never reached Cortez’s men.
“How many escaped to Oliveiro during that unaccountable massacre in Taransca? Ten, twenty men, half a company? I could have been left waiting a long time for their help had I attacked Cortez.
“There you have it,” Arthur Shine-Levis says once more, savoring a cup of tea.
“Have you never met this visitor again, Arthur?”
The speaker a rosy old man the general’s age.
“Yes, Matthew, I think I have. When I came back to Libemoth, my service complete, I passed him in the hallway of my family home, and recognized him: he was myself, the way I look in the charcoal portrait a painter made of me when I was thirty.”
“Come now! What’s the meaning of all this? You were fighting against yourself?” A sturdy sort rankles. In the prime of his life, full of confidence.
“I might reply, Edward, that a general always fights against himself and only triumphs over the enemy after vanquishing his own fears, doubts, preconceptions, and good sense.”
“Was this story then no more than an allegory?” A young woman, her pinky finger gracefully lifted.
“Not in the least, Margaret. To defeat my visitor, I had to improvise a different strategy each time, and specific maneuvers. These maneuvers, these strategies, I then applied the next day in the field—without always realizing it, true, but always to my great satisfaction.”
“Then it was a kind of disguised revelation?”
“I believe so.”
His friends withdraw. Arthur Shine-Levis pours himself a wee snifter of brandy; his doctor has forbidden him, but he vows not to have another. A knock at the door. A visitor? Is his manservant William not on call? Shine-Levis bids his guest enter.
It is a man wearing a black cape and a top hat. Thirty-odd years of age. The spitting image of the general’s portrait that adorns the foyer, the vision of a realist painter almost forty years ago. He sets the game of checkers down on a gueridon.
Arthur Shine-Levis feels his heart falter.
“I was just speaking of you.”
“I’m well aware. Come closer, Arthur.”
Shine-Levis’s voice falls to a whisper. “You’ll not have me believe I’ve a battle to fight tomorrow.”
“You haven’t aged . . . ” he hesitated. “You’re me, at thirty.”
“But I’m only a retired general now.”
“Will you not fight one more battle, Arthur?”
“My hands are trembling. I can surmise the stakes.”
“Set out your men, Arthur.”
“Allow me to call you Arthur, in turn: I may, may I not?”
“Is it possible, Arthur, that you are my own executioner, my youth?”
“Set out your men, Arthur.”
“What are the stakes, Arthur?”
“The same as ever.”
Arthur Shine-Levis topples his pieces to the floor, so feeble is his hand.
“What are you trying to say?"
“You were wrong to impute good intentions on my part. Never have I attempted to reveal the enemy’s maneuvers. I have always applied the tactic your adversaries chose the next day, which was in theory to lead to your death. By finding an effective counter and applying it on the battlefield, you saved your life and the lives of your men, hence your victories.”
“You are contemptible, Arthur.”
“Arthur, consider tomorrow’s battle from a strictly military point of view.”
It seems, to the old man, that his own youth is mocking him.
“If I win the game . . . ” he says.
He loses. The next day, he dies.
“Who are you?” they ask the young man in a black cape and top hat following the funeral procession. He straightens up and doffs his hat. A scream; and horror engulfs them. No face. Just a checkerboard.
© Ada Rémy and Yves Rémy. By arrangement with the authors. Translation © 2019 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Daryll Delgado, a devastating typhoon unearths an unexpected childhood memory.
Masasarop an baha, pero diri an baba.
The flood may be contained, but never the mouth.
“. . . it was pointless to search in the places
where people were instructed to look. Sense was only to be found in secrets.”
—John Berger, Here Is Where We Meet: A Story of Crossing Paths
“Less than 12 hours from a devastating impact with the central Philippines (Friday morning local time), Super typhoon Haiyan has strengthened to mind-boggling levels. It is now among the most intense storms to form on the planet in modern records.
3:00 p.m. update (EST): The Joint Typhoon Warning Center has increased its estimate of Haiyan’s maximum sustained winds to 195 mph with gusts to 235 mph. The storm is now within a few hours of landfall in the central Philippines at peak intensity as among the most powerful storms witnessed anywhere in modern times. Widespread destruction, unfortunately, seems inevitable.
9:45 p.m. update (EST): Haiyan made landfall in the central Philippines earlier this evening (early morning in the Philippines). With estimated maximum sustained winds of 195 mph, it is thought to be the strongest storm to ever make landfall anywhere in the world in modern records.”
Jason Samenow and Brian McNoldy. “Super typhoon Haiyan strikes Philippines, among strongest storms ever.” The Washington Post. November 7, 2013.
I could almost smell it as soon as I saw it—the rotting, the decay. Dunot, stress on the second syllable. The local word came to me as the plane angled and I had a better view of the festering city, prostrate on the island’s narrow tip. The once-green island looked like an enormous animal carcass, jutting out from the sea.
The plane’s position shifted, and we lost sight of the island. All of a sudden there was nothing but intense blue water, reflecting back cloudless skies and, almost imperceptibly, our military plane wavering in the ripples like a black fly. For a while it felt like we were going to make a water landing, and then the plane righted itself before tilting toward land. As the island came into clearer view, I couldn’t help overlaying it with digital images of the storm repeatedly flashed across the TV screen: blue-green-yellow-red swirls around a black dot of an eye. A perfect storm, they say, and the tiny city right in the eye of it.
Since I started monitoring the news, I had also felt a pulsating sensation on my own eyes, even when I closed them. Not that I closed them much, operating on an average of two hours of sleep per day for the last six days. But, awake or asleep, colors continued to burst under my eyelids, a rather nauseating experience comparable to a bad trip I once had after ingesting cheap synthetic stuff. Meanwhile, to the extent that I could see, ground zero, as they’ve been calling the city, looked drained of color entirely.
“Unrecognizable, this is completely unrecognizable to me.” I heard someone behind me gasp, before mumbling something else I couldn’t make out.
“This used to be such a beautiful city . . .” someone else said.
I remembered one of the commentaries I read only that morning: It was as though the fantasy lid on the province, famed for being the hometown of the other half of the conjugal dictatorship, had finally been blown off and filthy vapors inevitably released.
Decayed, dilapidated, rotten. Dunot. There’s this joke my dad always tells (used to tell) about the word dunot. Of course, it just has to be a Johnny Pusong joke.
Johnny Pusong was driving his ramshackle, rickety jeepney in the downtown area of Tacloban one afternoon. He wanted to make a left turn to P. Gomez Street to get to Highway Supermart. He hesitated when he saw a sign in the middle of the road.
He struggled to read the words: “Do, doo, not? Ah! Du, du-not. Du-not. En, en, en-ter. Enter! Du-not. Enter. Dunot enter!” He smiled, pleased with himself, when he finally got it.
He stepped down from his dilapidated jeepney, walked over to the road sign, and pushed it to the side. He returned to his car, drove past the sign, and then got out again to return the sign to its original place.
A traffic officer saw Johnny just as he was boarding his jeepney. The officer blew his whistle furiously. He approached Johnny and slammed his fist against the windshield of Johnny’s old jeepney.
Johnny started. “Ha? Kay ano? Sorry, sorry ser. May naigo? I hit something?”
The officer pointed to the sign. “Can’t you see? There’s a big sign: Do. Not. Enter! Are you blind, dumb, or something?”
Johnny scratched his head. “Aw, kay amo balit, that’s why I entered, ser, because, because—”
“Ano, what? Speak up!”
“Uhm, kay kuan, because sign says du-du-not enter. Dunot enter. Aw, if dunot can enter, puede ako! I can enter! My car, see, is very dunot . . .”
Not really a good time for jokes. And this one was particularly bad, some would even say elitist. I hadn’t heard it in a long time. Used to make my sister, Alice, and me laugh so hard each time we heard it. Especially when Dad did Johnny, and his assistant, his sidekick, Paterno (also known as Pat, Pats, Pater, Patern, Terno, but Mano Pater or Mano Pat to me and Alice), played the role of the police. So corny. So bad. Used to make Mom so mad. Still makes me laugh.
I’ve never been able to retell the joke successfully to non-Waray friends though. The pun doesn’t translate well. But, Dad, a modestly successful lawyer and former editor of a law school journal, is (was) most proud of it. He claims (claimed) that it won first prize in a local radio contest of the best Johnny Pusong jokes. He also sometimes sent his siday—short, bawdy poems in Waray—and combined Alice’s, my, and Mom’s names for his pseudonym, Alicia Anna Magdalena Suarez, just to embarrass us. He would turn the radio to full volume in the morning, when he knew an entry of his would be read, and he’d laugh heartily over his own jokes, tears spilling from his baggy brown eyes. You wouldn’t ever hear (have heard) him bragging about difficult cases won, or articles published, but he always finds (found) an opportunity to tell his prize-winning jokes.
Verb tenses, Ann. I thought I heard my sister reprimanding me, reorienting me to reality. As is her role, as her professional training dictates.
I found myself apologizing to sister-in-my-head-Alice. Sorry, sorry. I know. It should be simple: He is gone. He has left. But he still is. Is him. Is Dad. Is here. Anyway, this is not about him—
Sister-in-my-head-Alice replied, softening. Well, it WAS Dad who taught us the rules, when we were very young, we weren’t even in school. So this IS about Dad, WILL always BE about him—
OK. Stop right there, Als. I can see what you’re doing here, and it’s annoying, very condescending. I shook my head at her, only half-smiling.
One of the pilots also shook his head, looked at me.
“I know. Grabe, ano? Just look at that. They weren’t exaggerating when they said it looks like a nuclear bomb was dropped over the island. Parang war zone ito—”
“What? Ah, yes, I mean, no, no, they weren’t exaggerating at all, no space for exaggeration there—”
“Whoa, just look at that.”
“I know. Dunot.”
“Waray term for festering, rotten, decayed. No, not do-not. Dunot. Stress on the second syllable, unless you’re making a joke—”
“A what? What’s that in Tagalog?”
The pilot tried out the word, shaking his head at the scene before him. “Dunot.”
The word sounded harsh to my Waray ears, and too much like kunot, same stress, second syllable: a violent twisting, a forceful crushing. Exactly how it felt in my stomach, as I saw more of the city. Leveled, stripped of any trace of vegetation. Brown and gray, and soggy in some parts, dry and flat in others. The wreckage that outlined the coast reminded me of miniature model houses I once saw angrily trampled on by a kid throwing a massive tantrum. Might the kid in question have been me, and the wreckage Alice’s school project? Could be. The point is, in a tantrum, nothing, no one, is spared. Just like what this angry typhoon did. It made sure not to leave any room for exaggeration indeed.
I went on standing between the two pilots and tried to locate Johnny Pusong’s Highway Supermart and other places I remembered frequenting as a child. I thought I saw the top of the neoclassical Provincial Capitol Building, once the country’s seat of government for a very brief period after The War. I was positive I identified the playground, Plaza Libertad, near the Capitol, and what looked like the fallen statues of the giant Snow White and some of her outsized dwarves. I was instructed to return to my seat as the USAF C-130 Hercules transport plane made another half-round turn, before it started to descend further, and just before I could get a chance to see if our old house near the airport had withstood the storm. Just as well, it was hard to make sense of the landscape anyway. Familiar structures no longer stood. And even if the house survived, what then? It had ceased to be ours, it had ceased to even be a house, a long time ago.
Malamrag. Masilaw. More words came to me. I took out my steno pad and wrote them quickly under “Dunot” as the plane finally landed and came to a stop. Waray for bright, dazzling, I wrote. No trees, no shade. Cloudless. I took notes rapidly, as I continued to see more. Breaking down the images into bullet points seemed a good way of keeping pinned to the official task at hand, helped to make sense of the scene that greeted us as the massive door of the plane was pulled down.
Airport terminal—washed out.
Makeshift booths for arrival, departure, aid agencies, media, celebrities.
Long lines. Many, many women and children. Disheveled, distraught.
Where are all the men?
Buringon—from the root word buring, dirt, mud.
Mud, dirt, buring, everywhere.
On their unshod feet. On their clothes. On hands clasping steel gates.
On their faces. On their matted hair.
Signs of shock?
Signs of hunger?
Enlarged pupils, bloodshot eyes. Catatonia. Anxiousness. Agitation.
Crowd control. Food supplies. Ammunition boxes. Military trucks.
American military personnel. UN Refugee Agency. Australian troops. Malaysian medics. ICRC, UNICEF, WHO, USAID, MSF, WFP, PLAN, Save the Children. (Yes, please.)
Coconut trees, palm fronds gone. Decapitated.
Other trees upturned. Roots in the air.
Brown and gray. Rot and mud.
This smell. (My god. I know this smell.)
From Remains. © 2019 by Daryll Delgado. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Johnny Pusong is a character in Eastern Visayas comic folklore noteworthy for his impertinence, impudence, and silliness. The Johnny Pusong stories are part of an oral tradition, so there is no single author. They were popularized by a local AM radio station in Tacloban, which devoted two segments, one in the morning and another in the evening, to Johnny Pusong jokes. Locals submit Johnny Pusong stories to the program and the top three stories for the day are awarded prizes such as one hundred pesos, a pack of cookies, or a meal in a local eatery.
In this short story by Robert Marcuse, a man attempts to rid himself of his own shadow.
When a man looks at his shadow, it’s because he’s thinking about something else: he looks at it without seeing it, lost in thought, and his gaze barely touches it.
We’ve lived with our shadows so long that they no longer attract our attention. They’re withdrawn and rather mysterious beings often hiding just behind us, or they peek out from the soles of our shoes. They frequently mingle with and dissolve into other shadows, creating deformed monsters that don’t even resemble us. When the sky is gray, they’re barely visible. That’s why clouds only project their shadows on sunny days. They need light, an obstacle to protect them from that light, and a surface to pick them up. Man and his shadow are like Siamese brothers, but no one knows if a shadow can live without its master or a man without his shadow.
I am Juan Manuel’s shadow. I have been ever since his birth, when in the hospital’s maternity ward, the floodlights hit him fully for the first time. He was a reddish, crying, screaming baby. I was already prettier than he was, neither reddish nor wrinkled. While he screamed his head off in the crib, I rested calm and quiet, like a well-mannered shadow. That’s because we come into the world with all the good manners learned in past lives. But Juan Manuel was just Juan Manuel, he’d never been, nor ever would be, anything else. He had to learn everything.
Like a good parasite I fed on him, and I thought that with time we could come to resemble each other more closely and understand each other better. It wasn’t like that. When he became a man he acquired a very defined and stable temperament and shape. I, on the other hand, became more and more capricious and temperamental.
I follow him everywhere and never lose sight of him; he rarely notices me. At night, when we go out for a walk, I need to be everywhere and turn constantly around him. It’s because, besides the streetlights illuminating us with predictable regularity, I also must avoid the bright glare from a window or a car’s headlights that force me to run along the wall. This constant rush to make myself long, short, and split in two is exhausting.
When we go to bed, I barely sleep. Juan Manuel turns off the light. I know sometimes it takes him a while to fall asleep, and he lies awake for hours in the dark. Plus, he dreams. That’s something I don’t do. Dreams give continuity to his life, because he often remembers them in the morning. I’ve had many consecutive lives, or a life cut in pieces, since at night I fall into a bottomless pit and disappear completely. Juan Manuel doesn’t believe in reincarnation, because people don’t reincarnate. I’ve been the shadow of many throughout centuries. I have no dreams, but I do have an infinite well of memories.
I am Juan Manuel, who I’ve been since I was born and baptized with that name. I’ve never been, nor do I want to be, anything else. I live alone, have few friends, and enjoy my independence. Everything I’ve accomplished was with great effort and without help. I don’t need anyone, not my family, my girlfriend, or even my shadow. My parents separated when I was still a child; they didn’t care about Juan Manuel. My girlfriend ran away with another man. That’s why I mention my shadow; it’s the only one still with me. I had never noticed it before. It’s strange, because it was always there. It’s quiet like me, that’s why I put up with it. But I don’t need it.
It all started when Juan Manuel’s girlfriend left him and he began drinking, something he’d never done before. One day he was sitting in an armchair in the den, a bottle in his hand, with me curled up at his feet; he looked at me, surprised, as if seeing his shadow for the first time. He mumbled, perhaps addressing me: “They say I’m all alone. But it’s not true; you’re always with me.”
His words frightened me, because people should not speak to their shadows. And I was right. That day was the beginning of a long nightmare. Juan Manuel could no longer stop observing me, or talking to me, perhaps hoping I’d answer him.
That evening, when we went for our regular walk, I had a hard time following him on the sidewalks, trying, as usual, to elude the constantly intruding lights. I realized that my skulduggery made him nervous. When we returned home he opened the door, and before going in, he bowed to me and said ironically: “After you, Your Lordship.”
Sunday I decided to visit Pedro, who lives in the suburbs. It was a nice afternoon for a drive. From time to time I’d look at the scenery to my left because the setting sun blinded me. I took a curve and had the strange feeling a car was trying to overtake me. I turned around and saw a gray spot silently speeding beside me on the highway. The car and its driver mingled into a single mass. A centaur galloped across my view. The car was following me but didn’t pass me. I moved a little toward the middle of the highway, and my pursuer did the same. Since no one was coming from the opposite direction, I moved a little farther to the left to push the other car against the markers bordering the route. Unfazed, the spot began to swallow and spit with the regularity of a metronome. I accelerated to try to leave it behind. But it was no use. I accelerated more.
One day Juan Manuel decided to go see a friend who lives in the suburbs. He took his convertible out of the garage, and we left. I settled comfortably in my big gray spot to follow him. In the beginning everything went well, despite his driving too close to the middle of the highway. Then he accelerated, trying to leave me behind. Of course he couldn’t, because I don’t need to step on a pedal to speed up; it’s enough for me to stick like chewing gum to the car I’m with.
The crash was violent. I didn’t lose consciousness because it was daytime, but for quite a while I was tangled in the shadows of the tree branches. I was really worried; I knew Juan Manuel was not dead, as I couldn’t get free, but feared he was badly wounded and might die. I didn’t like the idea of having to find someone else to serve as his shadow.
I woke up in the hospital. Someone was standing next to my bed, bending over me. I opened my eyes: no one was there. The only thing above me was the ceiling. I tried to move my left leg but couldn’t. I managed to half sit up by leaning on an elbow. The other patient did the same thing on the wall. It was him. I greeted him with a hand gesture which he courteously returned. When I lay back again and closed my eyes, I had the feeling once more of someone leaning over my bed. I hesitated to open my eyes, since my desire to surprise him was mixed with a certain anxiety. Suddenly I made up my mind, and again: nothing. I turned around, there he was resting on the wall, unconcerned about me. As soon as I closed my eyes, I again felt I was being observed. This time I was faster. I was startled: a nurse was standing next to me. I asked her if she’d been there a minute ago. She replied that she hadn’t, she’d just come in.
When he came home from the hospital, Juan Manuel was better physically, but his mind was disturbed. He blamed me for the accident and started hating me. He’d lash out with all kinds of curses against me. He’d say: “I don’t need you. I’ll find some way of getting rid of you. Damn you!”
He even started telling his friends about me.
At first I thought total darkness killed it. But it’s not like that. It only makes it sleepy, and at the tiniest sunbeam it reemerges like a devil from his cage. The only way to get rid of it is to shine light on it from every angle with equal intensity, so it can’t hide anywhere. For nights now I’ve been sleeping with the light on, and it’s growing weaker. Any day now I’ll manage to free myself of it.
He’s realized light bothers me. He amuses himself by cutting me into pieces with a flashlight. At night he turns on every light in the house. He even bought a few more lamps and a couple of powerful floodlights. I bore all this stoically, not suffering too much because I still had the nights to rest. Until the day he decided to sleep with the light on. I put up with it for five days and then began to feel very sick. I turned into the shadow of a shadow.
I had to do something before it was too late. That night we went out for a walk as usual. I dragged myself behind Juan Manuel as best I could. The friendly shadows of streetlamps, grilles, trees looked at me with pity and sympathy, until the shadow of a branch whispered in my ear: “Grab it, grab it now!” I coiled an arm around the lifeline offered by my friend. And I stretched and stretched, until only a thread tied me to Juan Manuel’s tendons. For a second I thought about Achilles’ heel, and at that moment the thread broke.
That night when we went out for a walk it seemed it had a hard time following me. I walked faster than usual to exhaust it. Suddenly I felt very tired and decided to go home. When I came in I turned on all the lights. Despite my desire to torture it, I thought only of sitting in my armchair and watching some TV. The truth is, I wasn’t feeling at all well, as if I were the one who hadn’t slept the last five nights. I poured myself a glass of whiskey and looked around to see how it was. My heart stopped: it wasn’t anywhere. I thought perhaps I hadn’t looked carefully enough and made a thorough examination of the rug: nothing. I was overwhelmed with euphoria. I’d done it, I’d killed it!
When he came in the house, Juan Manuel looked for me beside him as he always did, but this time he didn’t find me. He must have thought he’d managed to kill me. He tried to share the news with someone. He went up to the large living room mirror to celebrate. But there was no one in the mirror.
© Robert Marcuse. By arrangement with Aida Marcuse. Translation © 2019 by Cristina Lambert. All rights reserved.
An unwelcome visitor becomes a coveted houseguest in this poem by Voltaire Oyzon.
Voltaire Oyzon reads "Water."
Rain, this most ungracious guest,
enters your house
without bothering to knock
he’s all over the place
messes up the house
soaks the foot rags wets chairs winnowing basket grater firewood sleeping mat
the covers even the pillows
the wedding picture, my wife’s and mine . . .
Three or four days
he hangs out in our house.
I tell myself, don’t begrudge your welcome,
but how irksome his presence—
the baby’s clothes
never dry always
dripping with his tears.
Well, so now I say, I’m mad at you,
Please leave, will you?
But once you’re gone, things
go bad for us, everything that’s yours you take with you
all our wells dry up,
our faucets stop flowing,
the plants go thirsty
we have to cajole you to return
with what charms we know, prayers
offerings, begging you please come back.
But please, please, if you do
don’t bring everyone with you—
the rice we have,
the room to keep you in
are all just enough for today.
“Lambunaw” © Voltaire Oyzon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Merlie M. Alunan. All rights reserved.
Novelist, playwright, poet, essayist, and anthologist Jessica Hagedorn burst onto the literary scene with her first novel, Dogeaters (1990), a kaleidoscopic portrait of postcolonial Manila in the late 1950s under the Marcos dictatorship. Hagedorn grew up in Manila and came to the US in her early teens, and her work across genres engages with and reflects Filipino culture through the lens of diaspora, interrogating racism, the immigrant experience, and social and cultural clashes both within the Philippines and between that country and the US. WWB sat down with Hagedorn to discuss the multilingualism of the Philippines and her upbringing, the influence of this linguistic richness on her work, and the complex role of English in Philippines culture. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Words Without Borders: You grew up in Manila and came to the US at fourteen. What languages were you speaking and reading in?
Jessica Hagedorn: At home we spoke a mash-up of three languages—English, Tagalog, and Spanish. My mother could curse in Visayan and Ilokano, and spoke OK Cantonese—having lived with my father in Hong Kong and Macao during the Second World War. Living with all these languages constantly crackling in the air was not only thrilling, but really opened me up to the world and shaped me as a writer. The books, local newspapers, and magazines we read as a family were in English. Of course there were Tagalog newspapers and magazines available, along with my favorite “komiks” (Tagalog comic books peddled on the street). But my colonial, class-conscious upbringing in the Manila of the 1950s and 1960s favored mastering the English language. English had replaced Spanish as the language of education, privilege, and power. My older brothers, for example, were sent to a Jesuit boys’ school where students were fined if they were caught speaking Tagalog. The amount would be equivalent to a nickel or a dime; it was never about the money, but about the humiliation. And Philippine literature wasn’t prioritized at all in these fancypants schools. But hey—it’s 2019 and Words Without Borders is (finally) featuring a bit of Philippine literature in Waray, Cebuano, Filipino, and even . . . English! Not the aspirational English of my long ago childhood, but English with a Filipino twist. Which is, to my mind, a BRILLIANT addition to this issue.
WWB: How did those multiple languages—both of your home, and of the Philippines in general--shape you and your writing?
JH: Having access to all these languages and dialects enriched my already wild imagination and made me curious—about who I was, about the world, about the Philippines I knew and the many different ways I could tell a story. When I was writing Dogeaters, one of my goals was to capture the energy and music of multiple voices and cultures colliding/dancing/battling with each other. I sprinkled Tagalog and Spanish slang throughout the narrative in an attempt to evoke the noisy chaotic glorious Manila of my childhood. And when my editor suggested that we add a glossary, I said no. Quite emphatically, as I recall. I felt—and still do—that it’s OK for readers to be in the dark from time to time. I certainly was, growing up and reading the books that I did as a young writer. Everything was in translation! I learned to read and understand Shakespeare, Dickens, Marguerite Duras, James Baldwin, and Faulkner—by context. Sometimes I got it wrong, but a lot of times I didn’t.
WWB: And the influence of that colonizing English?
JH: I’ve lived in the U.S. of A for decades, and have to embrace the fact that I am a writer who writes in English. So what does it mean to speak, write, and maybe dream in the language of your former colonizer(s)? To reinvent that language and make it your own? And for Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano and Voltaire Oyzon to write in Cebuano and Waray in 2019? Is it a matter of cultural pride, a political act, or a bit of both? And what about Daryll Delgado and Tito Valiente, who choose to write in English?
WWB: How do you think that political aspect, and the interaction between languages, has shaped the literature of the Philippines?
JH: Philippine literature—just like the Philippines itself—is complicated, and can’t be easily described or pinned down. Over 7000 islands make up the Philippines, and over a hundred languages and dialects are spoken! (Wiki-everything correctly states that those numbers depend on how languages are classified, and who’s doing the classifying.) The Philippines has also had a rich oral tradition that continues to this day. “Erlina’s Sugilanon,” the bawdy story-within-a-story by Tito Valiente in this issue, is rooted in the folklore and scary myths of my childhood. These stories are passed down, embellished and transformed, from generation to generation. And that’s just one aspect of Philippine literature. Then there are the ancient myths and poems which are chanted or sung in indigenous languages like Tboli, for example. So it’s complicated, and this particular issue is only the tip of the volcano. I look forward to more translations in the future—from writers in the Ilocos and mountain provinces, and the vast, diverse, southern region of Mindanao. Some of these indigenous languages and literatures are marginalized in the Philippines, but there are also many literary and poetic traditions Filipino scholars and artists are trying to keep alive.
WWB: What common elements and themes do you see in Philippine writing? And what do you see in the pieces here?
JH: Yearning, and melancholy. Mordant humor, a certain kind of fatalism, love of the macabre and supernatural. A love of puns and a sense of irony. A reckoning with history and the colonial past.
WWB: Philippines literature is little known here, even though much of it is written in English. Why do you think that’s the case? Is there more involved than the typical challenges of publishing translations?
JH: The publishing marketplace is still controlled by the West. And I have to agree with R. Zamora Linmark, author of Rolling the Rs and Leche, when he says: “When it comes to translating and publishing literature from Asia, the West has created a hierarchical structure largely confined to China, Japan, and most recently, Korea.” Not enough is known about the Philippines, period—Imelda Marcos, Rodrigo Duterte, caregivers and chicken adobo aside. But that’s usually the case, isn’t it? Most of us don’t pay attention to anything outside our comfort zones, until a wildfire or a war breaks out in our own backyard. The attention being paid to Fil-Am writers like Jia Tolentino, Elaine Castillo, and Randy Ribay is lovely, but doesn’t necessarily extend to writers who are based in the Philippines. I just hope that this landmark Philippine issue highlighting the work of nine excellent poets and fictionistas stokes the world’s curiosity and hunger for more. And that’s what this conversation’s all about, right?
Jessica Hagedorn is the author of Dogeaters (National Book Award Finalist), The Gangster of Love, Dream Jungle, Toxicology, Danger and Beauty, and Burning Heart: A Portrait of the Philippines (with photojournalist Marissa Roth). Hagedorn has edited three fiction anthologies: Manila Noir, Charlie Chan Is Dead: An Anthology of Contemporary Asian American Fiction, and Charlie Chan Is Dead 2: At Home in the World. Her work as a playwright includes the stage adaptations of Dogeaters and The Gangster of Love. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry have been widely anthologized, including in The Soho Press 80s Book of Short Fiction, Becoming American: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing, Rock She Wrote, and Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton Anthology. Her prizes and honors include the Guggenheim Fiction Fellowship, the Hewlett, Gerbode Foundation Playwriting Fellowship, the Before Columbus American Book Award, and the Philippine National Book Award for Manila Noir.
A homicide investigation takes an uncanny turn in this short story by Luiz Carlos Lisboa.
Listen to Luiz Carlos Lisboa read "His Very Last Case" in the original Portuguese.
"Walt! Walt! Walter!" Janice repeated in an increasingly strained voice, running her fingers through the white hair of the man lying on the bed. Standing behind him, the maid and a male nurse watched the scene unfold, not moving. Somewhere in the neighborhood a car horn had begun sounding and took several minutes to be silenced. In the large bedroom, linens lay scattered on the floor, and the night table was piled with medicines beside an old wristwatch with a worn band. The woman ceased her appeal and stood up, supporting herself on the edge of the bed. No one there doubted any longer that Walter Morandi, the most respected and best-liked detective in Rio de Janeiro's Ninth Precinct, had died from the peptic ulcer that had plagued him for the last two years and had led to his recent retirement.
His body lay in wake overnight in the living room of his home. Various former colleagues from the precinct came by, as well as some relatives informed the next morning by Janice, his second wife. She dressed in black and ordered strong coffee and hors d'oeuvres served to those who would show up to say farewell to the deceased. At 11:30 that night, the small parlor of the house was filled with people speaking in soft tones, spilling out onto the narrow veranda where cigarettes could be smoked. Only detective Clemente remained steadfastly beside the coffin, looking at the face and hands of his dead friend, stark white and crossed over his chest. When Janice bent over to remove the gold wedding ring from his finger, Clemente observed the firm movements of her hands, adorned with the diamond wedding ring on her finger.
A fascinating couple, perhaps an enviable one, thought Clemente as he stood serene and motionless beside the coffin. Walter had always been his closest companion in the profession since his transfer from the Sixth to the Ninth five years earlier, a move arranged by the veteran Walter, who claimed he needed honest people at his side. Smart and honest people, he had added, speaking softly to avoid being overheard. They would have lunch together when there was something that couldn’t be said at the precinct, like the transfer of one of the police chief's fair-haired boys, or a request from higher-ups to pigeonhole an accusation against a certain colleague. But other than that, they seldom talked to each other, and Walter never knew what he, Clemente, thought about the world and life. While Janice left to go to the kitchen, he remembered that his colleague had never made a single comment about his married life or any reference, good or bad, to his much younger wife.
The coffin would not be closed until the next morning, and the funeral was set for 8 a.m. Clemente felt tired after a hard day at the precinct and wanted to go home right away. He left without saying good-bye to Janice and without looking around. He walked for a time through the streets of the neighborhood, half-deserted at that hour, and finally hailed a passing cab. At home he fell into a deep sleep and only the following afternoon remembered that by that time his friend must already be buried. He thought about Walter several times before nightfall, and at dinnertime there came to mind someone they had talked about regarding promotions in the force, but nothing he could recall in detail. His friend's hands, however, crossed over his chest in the coffin, formed a strangely persistent image in his memory, like the hands of Christ on a crucifix that he saw each Sunday in the church of St. Ignatius during Mass.
As for Walter, he still had not understood anything that was happening. It was as if he were in a dark, windowless room. He could hear distant voices, some of them vaguely familiar, and smell the aroma of coffee mingling with cigarette smoke. He had no notion of time or space, but he felt good, free of any discomfort. In his mind floated something like a buoy on a lightless sea, known but ineffable—a frosted glass, perhaps, kept in a cupboard, among other objects, including a few thin rubber tubes. It floated before him as if trying to remind him of something that escaped him however hard he attempted to grasp its significance.
He understood little of what he saw and heard, but in some way he knew he was very ill, perhaps anesthetized, or maybe he had fainted, because he felt no pain of any kind, floating in a very peculiar way without his body being supported anywhere. Swimming in air was what he seemed to be feeling. The voices he heard were whispers, he quickly noticed, and tried to attune his hearing to discern what those voices—a woman's, now quite clear, and a man's, somewhat hoarse—were saying. They fell silent for a moment, and then he heard them again.
"He’d been feeling bad lately and told me that twice he’d fallen in the street," said the woman's voice. He wasn’t sure who they were talking about, but it certainly wasn’t him. He heard the clink of spoons in cups, along with the same voices, as well as the creaking of the old rocking chair, his chair. So he was at home, that was good, but there was something frightening in that discovery: he must be blind, because everything around him was darkness. "Twice he’d fallen in the street"—the phrase echoed in his head. Or in his heart. He didn’t remember having fallen in the street, ever. Horrible cramps, yes, almost every day, and he had lost his appetite, but other than that his health had always been very good. "Fallen in the street." They couldn’t be talking about him.
He didn’t remember anymore how long he had heard those sounds in the darkened room where he found himself, when suddenly he saw a ray of light. It came from a point beyond his feet, which still floated somewhere he couldn’t identify, and the light extended in the direction of his head, as if it were a spotlight placed under a glass floor far below him. Dizzy from the effort of trying to make out words and interpret sounds, and half-blinded by the luminous ray from below, Walter felt himself drifting off. After a time, he yielded to the pleasurable sensation of sleep.
No one disturbed Walter's desk until the seventh-day mass, commissioned by the people at the precinct. Only Clemente and Pimenta, an old coffee break and billiards friend from payroll, showed up. Clemente saw to it that Janice was advised of the mass, but she sent word that she couldn’t attend because of a doctor's appointment. Upon returning from the mass they opened their dead friend's desk drawers to deliver her husband's personal effects to the widow. A letter in a sealed envelope caught Clemente's attention. Thinking it might be from some female admirer, he opened it at once. It was a report from a private detective, hired by Walter, detailing a complete week in Janice's life.
Clemente thought about destroying the letter immediately, but then promised himself to read it in its entirety and afterward burn it so Janice would never become aware of it. In the typically hypocritical language of such reports, in which the author attempts to show his objectivity and a certain understanding of human frailty, it stated that Janice frequently met a tall gentleman with a black mustache who carried a briefcase. The report went on to say that the usual rendezvous took place downtown, at the Casanova Motel on Rua do Riachuelo.
"The tramp," thought Clemente, running his gaze over the precinct's waiting room. He read the final conclusions of the report and stuck the letter in his pocket. He sat there for a time, recalling Walter's haste to get home so as not to leave his wife alone for long. Sometimes he would take a couple of theater tickets to surprise his spouse, who liked dramatic, sentimental plays, but at times she was not feeling well and he would go by himself. And there was the will, he now remembered, that Walter had changed to make Janice the sole beneficiary, leaving her, in addition to his police pension, the house in Petropolis that had once belonged to his grandmother. She would now have a nice place in the mountains to meet the guy with the mustache. "Tramp," he repeated as he opened the blotter.
Clemente was very busy that day and the next with two assault cases to investigate. An adolescent had attacked an elderly man for scratching the fender of his car on Rua do Passeio; in the other a young woman was raped at São João Batista cemetery as she left a funeral at nightfall. The rapist had already been charged with the same crime at the same place two years earlier. Between questioning, pulling up his rap sheet, and DNA testing the afternoon went by quickly, and Clemente didn’t have time to get to the ophthalmologist to have his eyesight checked.
Walter now knew that the sounds he heard were inside his house, and the images, he realized, were everything that he thought from one moment to the next there in the dark. This he could conclude with at least some certainty in the gloomy confines where he had spent the last several days. He tried to extend his arms and stretch his legs, but they wouldn’t obey him, if they existed at all, for he couldn’t see them in the blackness.
Once the sensation of normality had returned, he tried to regain control as far as possible, such as understanding the sounds he heard or perceiving the direction of the bright light he glimpsed around him. The woman's voice he could hear humming for some time now belonged to his wife, and the repertoire was also hers, beyond a doubt. Her voice had a jovial tone, he would call it almost happy, as if everything in her life had gone well, and yet there he was, in that condition he couldn’t explain, needing someone to tell him what was going on. Janice would surely come to his aid, if she knew where he was.
This nightmare, Walter persisted in believing, might actually be a stroke, paralysis, a catatonic state, perhaps a coma. Seen from inside, from the point of view of the one suffering, it was painful and frightening for a man who had always lived a healthy and methodical life to remain like this for long. But he felt no desperation, only an immense curiosity. He remained calm, calmer than he had ever been in his normal existence.
With tenderness and concern, he listened to Janice's song, intoned between closed lips in a manner that strangely recalled the old backyard of his house and the hazy figure of his mother. Despite this, deep inside that delight lay something that pained his heart, his soul, in the darkened space of his memory, something that, without his knowing what it was, enraged him.
That night, Clemente went to bed early because he was feeling very tense. He took two sleeping pills with a glass of milk. He didn’t want to think about the rapist still on the loose, perhaps nearby in the Copacabana night, or remember details of the forcible possessing of that terrified young girl. He tossed and turned in bed for an hour before finally falling asleep. He awoke at dawn, covered with sweat and still in the throes of the dream he had just experienced. It was Walter, speaking to him from the dark corner of a room, somewhere in the house where he had lived and where his wake had taken place a few days earlier. His dead friend had asked him to talk to Janice but hadn’t explained why. In the dream, his friend's flushed face trembled and perspired, and his hand gripped Clemente's arm tightly. Staring into his eyes, he repeated, "You have to, you have to speak to her . . . Don’t leave me like this." Clemente asked, half-aware he was dreaming, what he should say to her, but his friend couldn’t answer, merely repeating his appeal. Once he woke up, Clemente sat in a chair by the bed and pondered what such a dream could mean and whether dreams were sometimes more than dreams.
Shortly before ten o'clock, he looked up Walter's phone number and spoke with Janice. But when she answered, he felt it best to hold off, knowing how she was dealing with the loss of her husband, and asked whether she needed anything. She said she was coping well and remembered to ask Clemente about receiving the pension she was entitled to as widow of a police officer and whether she would get the full salary or only part. "I’ll find out and call you later," Clemente said. He hung up and leaned back in his leather chair. The dream, that face filled with despair; he couldn’t drive that vision from his mind. To him, death was the last stop, the end of everything and the beginning of nothingness, as he liked to tell his friends at the bar to see a trace of worry in their expressions. All those tough guys trembling in the face of death. But Clemente couldn’t stop thinking about Janice. He distrusted all women on principle, something he carefully concealed. He felt they always had their eye on a very practical outcome, in a desperate search that most of them didn’t even comprehend. As for men, to be honest he thought some of them were alienated or at least detached. For this and other philosophical reasons, Clemente was still a bachelor at over fifty.
He wanted to think about all this calmly, but there was a lot of paperwork to take care of at the precinct. At the end of the afternoon he inquired with Personnel about the pension and phoned Janice. Yes, he explained, she was entitled to her dead husband's full salary. She thanked him somewhat coolly and quickly rang off. "Must be on her way to meet somebody," he thought. Clemente remained in his office, alone, for some time, shuffling papers and pondering the dream about his dead friend. Despite a Catholic upbringing, he didn’t believe in the supernatural, but the closeness of death somewhat undermined his convictions. What mattered now was the loyal and true friend, his good faith betrayed, who appeared to him in a dream to speak of his horror at his own death. It might be more Shakespearean than anything else, but there was no way he could turn his back on that call.
Clemente shifted in his chair and recalled Walter's voice in the dream—"You have to, you have to speak to her . . ."—in the tone his friend used when he was wrestling with a thought of some kind. That wasn’t a usual thing with him; in the dream, the calm, almost imperturbable man was fearful of something. Nonsense, thought Clemente, sentimentality, the death of someone close messes with your head that way. But, "You have to . . ." and his eyes staring like that. He leaped out of the chair and stood beside the telephone, gazing at the apparatus. He dialed the number, not knowing what he was going to say. "Janice, Janice, it's Clemente . . ." He might appear out of control, but it didn’t matter. "I need to talk to you about Walter."
She didn’t answer for almost a minute. Then: "Go ahead," she murmured slowly.
"I want to speak to you in person, it won't take long." They agreed he would stop by early the next day before going to the precinct.
Much had changed for Walter in the meantime. He saw clearly the rooms of the house where he had lived with Janice for eight years. But he could not see his wife. He looked at the bedroom with its large bed where they had made love so many times, saw the small room where they shared an office, and the stove where he would heat up his coffee early in the morning while she was still sleeping. And in the poorly lit hallway upstairs he could sense something throbbing, like a small ache spreading through the walls and descending the staircase. Something lost in memory that showed itself, only to quickly hide. Now he saw the bathroom door and the knot in his heart worsened. Walter didn’t walk; it was as if he were flying, and now he saw the door much nearer, and passed through without opening it, and then was inside. It was there, in that corner, in the medicine cabinet with the enameled front, all the way in back, that his heart felt the most pain.
Next to some small bottles, a brush, cardboard boxes, a package wrapped in brown paper, was a frosted glass that seemed to stand out as Walter approached it. He tried to grasp it, but it was impossible; he had neither arms nor strength, only the will to enter it, the glass, and peer into it. There it was, that dark sediment accumulated around the bottom, the source of all his suffering. Walter wept without tears, felt rage without muscles, would have shouted to someone but had no voice with which to scream. Then he thought of his friend. He must call Clemente, if he could. But then he fell asleep, and everything vanished amid his deep slumber.
In the kitchen, Janice boiled water for coffee while talking with Clemente in the living room. "It's a daybook from the precinct, with a blue cover, and inside it has some old notes in a precise handwriting," he said, getting up from the sofa to make himself heard better in the kitchen. Janice nodded, looking at the living room out of the corner of her eye.
"I never saw that book here," she said. "If it's here it must be put away somewhere, because I’ve never seen anything like what you describe."
Clemente's palms were sweating; he didn’t know what else he could make up about that imaginary book. Nor did he know how he could get away from there without appearing crazy or ill intentioned. They sat in armchairs opposite one another in the small living room, silently drinking coffee. "I dreamed about Walter," he said. Janice raised her eyes, uneasy.
"You dreamed about him . . ."
As nothing more occurred to him, Clemente stood up. "Well, if you find the book, please give call me a call. I’m sure Walter told me he took it home to work on a report, and I thought maybe you could . . ." Janice nodded, her mouth tight. Clemente took a few steps toward the door.
Suddenly, he turned and said, "Excuse me, may I use your bathroom for a moment?" She stood there silent for several seconds and then pointed to the stairs. "It's up there, you can go on up. Pardon the mess." Clemente went up slowly and walked down the hallway. When he opened the bathroom door he again thought of his old friend, this time with great feeling. He went in, locked the door behind him, looked around, and stood there. A medicine cabinet painted white caught his attention as if it were the only thing in the small bathroom. He opened it and his hand reached inside, far inside, as if it knew the way. He brought out a frosted glass, took it closer to the light, and looked inside. "HCN, hydrogen cyanide, prussic acid," he said immediately, his lips trembling. "She couldn’t have known it's not enough to just wash the glass." He took a step back and saw his face, flushed and sweating, in the mirror.
Walter hugged his friend, but Clemente knew nothing of this because he was busy putting the glass in his pocket after wrapping it in a washcloth. With what Forensics would find, it was proof enough. Walter wept without tears, wanting to say so many things to the other man, but he had no words, no mouth, no tongue or body, only a thread of memory and a sensation of great joy in his heart. At that moment, he saw a deep tunnel before him, at the end a light that never wavered. He knew the time had come to let go of everything, to move toward that welcoming light.
© Luiz Carlos Lisboa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Clifford E. Landers. All rights reserved.
Karaoke unites a group of Filipina expats in this short story by Genevieve Asenjo.
She arrived as a guest and departed as an accomplice to a crime, after sitting down to a dinner of pinakbet and sinigang with the Kim family.
At least, that’s what she tells me in between mouthfuls of peanuts and potato chips. We are at Janga Norebang in Koejong.
Listen. One night in this Korean family’s typical apartment in Busan, tap water was gushing from the faucet onto the sink. There was something being washed, something boiling, something being cooked into pinakbet and sinigang. Presiding over this, all at the same time, was Neneng Delia, the Filipina wife of a Korean.
Look at her, that guest I mentioned who is beside me right now, sitting at the table around the corner from the sink and stove where Neneng remained standing. Across from her, on the other side of the table, sat the Korean, the husband. On the other end, the remaining half of the room. On display were a digital TV and framed pictures of the Kim family wearing hanbok, the traditional attire worn during celebrations like Chuseok, the harvest festival. There was a piano. Eight-year-old Ji-eun was playing a tune she recognized, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
Anyway, she continues, she kept on glancing at Neneng. She was convinced of the woman’s beauty; more so before, but even now, with that face worthy of a celebrity, her long hair and curvaceous body. In her black slacks and blue floral blouse, the woman looked her age, well past forty-five. She tells me those glances were a plea for help, she was listening to the woman’s husband, who was speaking to her—eye to eye—in phrases that Neneng quickly translated into English, some into a mix of Tagalog and Hiligaynon.
Such as: "My husband says you’re pretty. Bakit daw I’m not more like you?"
She says she then felt the crushing of tomatoes, of squash, of okra in her chest. Even persimmon, which she had first seen in this country and delighted in.
But she says she understands Neneng, all the more now. It’s why she had invited us here. The thing is, Neneng couldn’t come. Not even belatedly, like the others. They say they’re almost here.
Neneng and I have known each other for five years. We have this group of English teachers who married Koreans here in Busan. I know her husband too, Leo (that’s his English name). Bald, a little pudgy. Smiles a lot. I can imagine his face, his eyes turning into slits as he talked to this girl. There are some people for whom a smile is the equivalent of a hello, and perhaps on that night, since his wife was again cooking pinakbet and sinigang, out of joy at having met another Filipina friend, because of that, everything was OK between them. This, despite reports from the group that her husband had been laid off by the shipping company. Despite the fact that some days Ji-eun came home from school to complain that her classmates were teasing her: “Nunon african saram ida. Pibuga sikumota!” (You must be African. Your skin’s dark!)
They had met on the subway, Neneng and this girl, whom I first encountered during Independence Day this year; she had been in my Pandanggo sa Ilaw dancing group. The two of them shared the same route—Sinpyeong, Hadan, Tangni, Saha, Koejong, Seomyeon—and the same work hours: ten in the morning until six in the evening. Their hagwon stood near each other. “Come over to my house,” the woman had eagerly invited, “I’ll cook pinakbet and sinigang for you." Turned out they were both Ilonggo, and anyway how could she decline an invitation from an older Filipina, especially one involving such scrumptious dishes? Was she also a wife? No, she had answered, a new recruit actually, here to struggle after two years of tutoring Korean students in Iloilo. Her boyfriend, a seaman, had gotten another girl pregnant. Geu saram, she had said, her drama here would involve fixing a broken heart.
Song: (그 사람) Geu Saram/That Person
Artist: Lee Seung Chul
This was how she got me here. She has already memorized it from watching Baker King. Another can of beer each, another plate of peanuts, then we play the song.
“Saranghae, I also love my husband,” I tell her. “Love can be developed too, that’s not just for photos.”
Hehehehe, she adds.
“Yes, my shi-omoni is nice enough. But of course mothers-in-law always treat you like a maid, especially during Chuseok.” I down my beer and signal for another one.
Something else happened during that visit, she adds. After dinner, after Neneng finished washing and cleaning up, still in her black slacks and blue floral blouse and still refusing her help, they had norebang on the digital TV in the living room.
Here’s the scenario. The girl, sitting over there. The Korean, on the floor beside his daughter, in his shorts and T-shirt. And Neneng? She’s the one holding the microphone, crooning and swaying to “Bakit” by Imelda Papin.
Clap, clap, clap.
Neneng’s husband was very amused. Imagine Neneng’s long hair shimmying to the rhythm of her curvy body, as if she was not the Neneng we earlier saw cooking and translating her husband’s compliments to this girl: that she’s probably very smart because she had managed to come to Korea even without a Korean boyfriend or husband, that if he and Neneng were divorced, or if he was wealthy, he would woo her and take her to Jeju Island, where he once traveled for work and where well-heeled Koreans go for vacations.
She says she replied, as a plea to Neneng to change the topic, that there are many beautiful seas in the Philippines, which is why many Koreans go there. When was the last time they had a vacation, or when will they go for one?
Apparently she sweated so much that night that if it hadn't stopped she would have developed rashes. The daughter playing the piano as her parents were committing a crime! All this because she turned up. This knowledge pinned her to her seat. There was some illicit irony in what was happening in that household at that moment: she had to help Neneng amuse a husband who’d recently lost his job, she had to be there as both viewer and witness to Neneng’s Koreanovela, because indeed what else was she to do in this country, unmarried?
Yes, she understands now, this was why Neneng had invited her, not just because they’re from the same country, or perhaps precisely because of that, the woman saw her as the perfect accomplice (the word “victim” seems too harsh). So then Neneng was able to sing her heart out, to croon and sway seemingly without a care for today or tomorrow because, isn’t it true, her husband and daughter adored her in those moments, and as for her presence there, a fellow Filipina who might give ridicule or insult, so what? You too, her swaying seemed to say, you too will experience this strange sorrow and loneliness when the trees start shedding their leaves, you too will sob during nights and mornings as if someone had hewn into a part of your throat, as if someone had stolen your gold, and you will remain restless until you take a gulp of sinigang. This will repeat itself throughout the cycle of the four seasons; will be veiled by busyness but will never disappear, so that you too will say yes, it’s still better in the Philippines, especially in the province, it really is good, unlike anything else, but your life is no longer there. So you will sing popular songs, undying songs like those popularized by Imelda Papin, and dance, sway, without a care in the world, even if you get shot like those reported cases of late-night “My Way.”
She says they ended the night with “Hindi Ako Isang Laruan.”
“Let’s just sing,” I want to tell her. This girl is too sharp, I have to call up the others we’ve been waiting for. We can hardly hear each other over the noise, but I get that the three of them are already walking toward us, they can see the signboard.
Listen, haaaay . . .
I have memorized the usual schedule of a Korean’s Filipina wife: after hagwon, hurry to another teaching commitment, for example a private tutorial for older people who want to learn English, or else run to the market or fetch the child or go home to clean and launder and cook. At night, help the child with homework, keep the husband company as he watches TV, regale him in bed. We’d be lucky to have the occasional norebang together. Like now.
I wonder if this girl understands that although Neneng and I have different situations, I too can only leave the house, my work and husband and two children, for guests. This is what I told my husband, our group has a Filipina visitor—her, this girl, and since I am the president I have to arrange things. But my husband is kind anyway, he’s an engineer.
Go on listening, because I can no longer keep myself from talking. “Of course there’s a lot of suffering at first, especially in getting along with shi-omoni,” I tell her. “It’s as if you had stolen her child, plus you don’t know Korean and she’s not good in English, and she thinks you’re an idiot in the kitchen. It’s important that you know how to fight back. That’s what I teach my two sons. Even if they don’t get teased in school like Ji-eun. But back then, it’s like they were ashamed that their classmates would see me, that they would find out I was their mother!”
Come on, she says as “Gue Saram” starts up again.
We say cheers with our third cans of beer. I sing this, one of my early favorites, this song that surrenders the loved one, that says go on, leave, be with her instead, because I love you.
Then the door opens. Here come three more Koreans’ wives.
Which came first, song or story? Or are they the same thing? Is it the allure of a new acquaintance, of someone young? Or is it because we simply want to listen to ourselves?
“That’s just paper,” someone says about switching citizenships, “but if we didn’t become citizens, if we weren’t legal, well, pity our children, pity us, we wouldn’t receive benefits and our children wouldn’t have any rights.”
“So think carefully before you marry a Korean," another says jokingly, even though it’s true. She knows we have a tendency to become dramatic during these get-togethers.
There’s also someone else who stays quiet the entire time. Who prefers to eat peanuts and potato chips and prepare playlists.
We do not talk anymore about Neneng and the other Filipinas in the group. We only have an hour left before we need to go home. We belt out everything from ABBA to K-pop to “Ang Pasko ay Sumapit,” grinding and wiggling—but no splits.
Something else happened that night. Just then, for the very first time, we did something that might even erase the girl’s memory of that night at Neneng’s: we sang “Ang Bayan Ko.”
One refrain, without videoke accompaniment, and then we laughed and laughed afterward like a bunch of lunatics, hugging each other all around. The plate of peanuts and potato chips fell to the floor, along with a bag and a few empty cans of beer. Tears also fell like kimchi that had been stored in a jar and was now being served up wholeheartedly to be tasted and judged. This was also my crime that night. The girl had been the instigator, accomplice, witness. But I know we’re all absolved, because I’m sure this girl expects it, awaits it, just as we did during our first time here, like the coming of snow.
© Genevieve L. Asenjo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Michelle T. Tan. All rights reserved.
A juggler’s performance raises philosophical questions in this poem by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles.
Swapping seven balls with his palm,
and with air. Precision inhabits the gap
between the ball’s trajectory and its anticipated
pace at the brink of hesitation—
the arc of descent. How does one grasp making
sense of timing when to hurl and when to catch?
Is it when one rehearses alone or when one rehearses
being alone? Which one holds
when there is no break from motion,
and from emotion? They thought, he makes gravity.
Then in a blink of an eye, oh! the balls are dropped.
They have yet to stop holding their breath.
© Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.
In a group of tales by Tito Valiente drawing on a Filipino storytelling tradition, a supernatural beast seduces a young woman.
Editor’s Note: A Sugilanon is a form of story told orally. The power of the Sugilanon or tale depends on the skill and charisma of the narrator as he weaves the details of the story.
Erlina's Sugilanon Begins
Erlina was the all-around maid in my maternal grandmother's home. We did not have a wet nurse because by the time she arrived in that house, we were all little boys of three, six, and eight. Erlina, however, took care of us three with her stories that, as I look back now, involved huge pudenda and massive genitalia from giants of yore. Even Erlina's dwarfs were strange, little men. Vindictive, they were color coded: The yellow ones could be cajoled; the red ones accepted negotiation; the blue and black ones, because they lived underground and beneath the riverbeds and wet caves, always had judgments that were final. Anyone who incurred their ire was kidnapped and brought to their kingdom and their mind never returned. This, according to Erlina, explained the many mad men and women on the island of Ticao.
Erlina had what you may call a suite of stories. These involved the Onglo, a half-man, half-horse being. The Onglo was really a man with a mane for hair but he stood upright and had strong legs that looked like those of a horse. Instead of toes, he had hooves. His face had elongated features and his eyes were sharp and keen for day and night. The Onglo could stare straight into the sun and, thus, at daytime, no one could hide from him. At night, he did not need the moon or the stars. Erlina, in fact, said the Onglo derived his strength from the light of the stars.
Something needs to be mentioned about Erlina’s cousin, Viring. When there was a dance at the town plaza, Viring would go to San Fernando. We knew when there was a dance because Erlina would whip out a dress. We never knew where she got the textiles, but they were of the kind that had the colors of orchards and meadows. By sheer design, Erlina would see to it that bulbs of flowers would cluster around the bodice. Trees and wild leaves would form the hemline. At the sleeves, Erlina reserved roots that seemed to agonize over their growth.
Viring carried her own dress, already finished by the time she arrived in the house. Where Erlina opted for bright, bright dresses, Viring preferred brown and dark forests. Her blouse would be light brown and her skirt brown also but darkened by rows and rows of leafless trees and gray and amber roots that were turned up, reaching out for the sky and not submerged in the ground.
Both Erlina and Viring had narrow waists that magazines then referred to as wasplike. Wasplike! I think Erlina and Viring were really wasps transformed by the Onglo into fine, obedient, industrious women who worked for some households in order to evangelize little boys with their tales of the Onglo.
The Power of the Onglo
Why is the Onglo so powerful? We were huddled around Erlina, who was then getting ready to cook a kolo, or breadfruit. Erlina told us the Onglo could just run and hop and fly up a kolo tree and then gather its fruits without disturbing a family of banog or hawk living up there. He was that powerful.
Erlina said, like any normal person, she did not know where the Onglo got his power. Actually, the night Erlina first saw an Onglo was the night the creature was regenerating his power. It was early morning, at about two, when they all woke up to catch the sight of a comet on the eastern horizon of the sky. All of her brothers and sisters were looking out of the window, their heads covered by a blanket, for the morning was chilly. But Erlina was Lola Abing's favorite grandchild and the old woman encouraged Erlina to go back to where the old well was. A lonesome Atimoya tree, a favorite haunt of black dwarfs, hovered over the well.
Lola Abing advised Erlina to walk slowly and avoid stepping on dead twigs and rotten kolo leaves because they made loud crackling noises. Lola Abing warned Erlina though that what she would see would be scary not because the vision would strike terror in Erlina's young heart but because she might fall under the spell of the Onglo.
So Erlina was there in her chemise, her waist even narrower than the wasp's. Half-crouching and half-crawling, Erlina reached the edge of the Atimoya tree. She knew so because she had stepped on a fallen fruit of the tree and her toes felt like she had stepped on dung.
Erlina looked up; the comet appeared to have swung low, its tail touching the crown of the Atimoya tree. The leaves of the tree sparkled; silver flames shot up and brushed past the comet's tail. A figure moved below this incandescence. Erlina looked away from the bright skies and saw the strong head of the Onglo. His head was turned up, his mouth was open. He was drinking the silver and the diamond from the comet's tail, his throat gurgling. Erlina marveled at that throat that was like the trunk of a tree. The Onglo’s chest was heaving as he swallowed some more. He was drinking infinity with a tongue that was lapping up the light that shone in his throat.
The Onglo's legs were spread apart. He was horse below and something dark and turgid was swinging back and forth. Erlina, all of fourteen, felt a sensation in her thighs as she cupped her tiny breasts. The Onglo was the handsomest boy Erlina ever saw. She fell in love.
The Onglo Sees Erlina
Lola Abing, for all her wisdom, was not wise. It was not wise to spy on an Onglo getting power from the stars or comets. Gabunan, a man who transforms himself into a witch once a year. The onglo was gabunan when it came to power-sourcing.
Lola Abing was also smart. Avoid the scandalous kolo leaves because they make loud noises. The light of the comet was dimming as the Kagbubuwas—the Star-that-is-of-the-morning-becoming—was getting stronger.
The sheen on the face of the Onglo was vanishing and his face started to come forth. Aquiline nose, eyes that were shimmering gray and deep, lips that were thin on top and full on bottom, orange and pink combined to shape the mouth that, Erlina thought, was eternally hungry. As the comet moved away from the Atimoya tree, the Onglo bristled and shook his long silver hair. His legs quivered as if he was defecating. The Onglo was flailing his arms and the hair from the hands was falling and swirling. Erlina got so scared she turned around, panicked. The dry kolo leaves crackled. The Onglo turned his head. He saw the young girl, the lovely girl that was Erlina. He knew that was his girl.
Erlina is Enchanted by the Onglo
Erlina had fallen under the spell of the Onglo. Lola Abing, an Aswang, had no power over the Onglo. The Onglo was the opposite of the Aswang: the Onglo became more beautiful when he was angry and worked his enchantment; the Aswang turned uglier as it summoned its power.
Welts and rashes covered the face, breasts, and arms of Erlina. Nanay Gurang saw tiny specks of silver hairs on the face, especially on the lips and breasts and arms of Erlina.
Nanay Gurang was the only healer who could approach the tricks of the Onglo. Nanay Gurang had lustrous white hair that reached her ankles. When she swung it around and around to make braids, Nanay Gurang was a mighty mare with the longest mane.
Nanay Gurang was now swinging her white mane back and forth. She was whipping Erlina, the hair making more welts and rashes on the face, breasts, and arms of Erlina.
Out in the woods, just behind the Atimoya tree, in a forest forever unseen by mortals, the Onglo was writhing, suppressing the screams coming from within, welts appearing on his orange and pink lips, the rashes surfacing from below the skin of his arms and chest. All throughout his agony, the Onglo had his mouth open as sap from an old tree fell into his mouth. As more sap fell into his gaping mouth, the cheeks of the Onglo turned white, then golden. He did not have wings, but Erlina, in her account, mentioned how the Onglo resembled the big angel on the ceiling of the old church. That angel came when Lolo Doroy, the last sacristan mayor of Ticao, rang the bell for the dying priest who was, as my grandmother Emilia recalled, as handsome as all encantos of Mount Diwata put together.
That afternoon, as the Onglo marveled at the power of Nanay Gurang, he cried for the first time. He remembered his mother, whose mane was like the hair of Nanay Gurang.
Tired of the mortal world, Nanay Gurang stopped turning her head. She started cursing the surroundings.
On the other side of the world, the Onglo wept. He knew he was in love.
The Love of the Onglo
Erlina was truly a funny woman. Her sense of humor was so charming, she could get away with those difficult words in her stories. Those were words that should not be uttered in front of young boys and girls.
Here is one story.
The Onglo once fell in love with a mortal woman. Her name was Maria. This woman never saw the Onglo under the stars. When the Onglo appeared to her, he was ugly as an ordinary horse. Maria avoided the Onglo, who, nonetheless, persisted.
There was something in the Onglo's manner of wooing that was odd. Every time he caught Maria, he would tickle the woman till she begged him to stop. As Erlina put it, Maria could not bear this love anymore. She came up with many counterstrategies. The Onglo would come during late afternoons. Maria decided that she would cover herself, her face and extremities, with salong, sap from the rubber tree. She had a dress the color of the trunk of an old tree. Standing with her back to the tree, Maria disappeared.
But the Onglo did not come at three in the afternoon. The Onglo did not come at four. The Onglo was nowhere near the house of Maria.
It was already early evening when the Onglo appeared with a small torch with him. Maria was already very tired at this point. The Onglo came near Maria's house but he could not see Maria. For hours, the Onglo shouted the name of Maria. The Onglo was nearly giving up. He leaned against the trunk of the tree where Maria was. The Onglo was falling asleep but he tried to raise the torch up until the heat started to melt the salong on the face and arms of Maria. The young woman screamed and the Onglo stood up in haste, laughed, and started tickling Maria. The tickling, according to Erlina, hurt, because the Onglo, if you remember, was a horse first. Fierce and unrelenting, the Onglo never knew how to be gentle.
Maria came up with more devices to escape the Onglo. One day, after a long bout of tickling, Maria was really exhausted and almost dying. She thought, this time, of burying herself in the sand. I am certain, Maria convinced herself, that the Onglo will never find me.
That afternoon, at three, the Onglo came bellowing Maria’s name. He was asking Maria to join him for fishing in the river. There was no response from Maria, who was buried under the sand, her tiny nostrils flaring but barely seen. The Onglo kept shouting: Maria, Maria. Where are you?
The Onglo was enraged. He was pacing back and forth with the hook of his fishing device raking the sand. Then, ay, the Onglo heard that faint voice. The hook of his fishing line had hit Maria’s flaring nostrils. The Onglo jumped with joy, dug Maria from her early grave, and started tickling her.
Why tickle? I thought the Onglo loved Maria.
To this question, which we never failed to ask, Erlina responded that Maria would merely scream with laughter, her eyes turning into two tiny distant stars, her stomach quivering like the big stomach of the giants in her story.
The Death of the Onglo
The Onglo did not die on us. Erlina, however, stopped telling us about him. "Did Maria die, Erlina?" This time, the question did not make her shriek with laughter. She just looked into the distance, at our own kolo tree, where green and yellow parrots resided. The banog had left the town and settled far, far from the people
Erlina began talking of ugly fairies called the Buringkantada and the Kapre and the Tambaloslos. We found these stories boring because they were told by other women too. Erlina was special and the Onglo was special.
"Can the Onglo die?" Once more, the question did not touch Erlina the way other questions from us did.
One day, Erlina was not in the kitchen anymore. There was a new helper, Yangga, a young woman who laughed always and made us laugh as well.
Some people say Erlina got married to this bad man who beat her and made her sad. Then one day, Erlina's husband beat her more badly because he saw welts and rashes on her lips. The man accused Erlina of being unfaithful.
When the husband, who was a drunkard, fell asleep one late afternoon, Erlina escaped to Poro, near the farm of Lolo Doroy. She was last seen ferrying a raft across Lagang, where the sea met the river that cut across the island of Ticao. She has not been seen since then.
When the moon is full, people talk of a woman dressed in the color of rich farms and meadows with flowers yet unnamed, with kolo leaves at the hem of her skirt. The brave ones call her Erlina and the brave ones affirm that the woman looks over her shoulder and laughs. The woman is not alone. Standing at the edge of the raft, the green water of the river lapping at his hooves, a man has his face turned toward the sky as bits of moonbeams enter his open mouth. He is the handsomest of them all, eyes clear as the sea, lips orange and pink, and hands with specks of stars. When the two realize that they’ve drawn a crowd, some say the man stomps his horse legs and the raft slides and then glides into the dark river, and vanishes.
Those who believe the story of Erlina, the brave fishermen especially, they swim after the raft and, the braver ones say, are able to gather bits of moonbeams and use them for luck in love, for love that never ends, for love that grows stronger when the moon is bright and full.
© Tito Valiente. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
In this poem by M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac, a free diver’s connection to the sea endures even as his tribal way of life disappears.
Listen to M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac read "A Planned Brief Documentary on a Teenage Boy in a Badjao Village."
also after Jade Mark Capiñanes from his essay “Abal”
We will start with the fact you are not impressed
by the depth of the Celebes Sea. Since birth,
you are tethered to the moon and sun exhorting you
to surface and sink. We will bring up the statistic
of fifty fathoms for a free-diving Sama such as yourself.
You will be shown to be within visual proximity
of the setting sun. (Your first entry: there is no exploring
the abyssal hiding place of moon and sun under the sea
and the difference between depth and breadth cannot be fathomed.)
The boat your father does not own will sound off and his voice
will cut through the din, “We are up against huge fishing vessels.”
Then he will come home with his catch—four pieces of tuna.
He will come upon you and your mother beset with the shriek
of nine children bawling for their chance to be breastfed.
We dramatize a memory: it is Christmas in the city
and you beg for alms with your mother and youngest sibling.
(Second entry: there is sorrow in the gaze of a child
that your mother always has to be pregnant.)
We pretend you are groping blindly for the coins pitched
by our companion who pretends to be captivated
by the charm of an old restaurant that once patronized you;
the view will conjure a sea of memories
that mollifies you, the man with gills, the fear
that you will not someday rise again. Like a fish
in an aquarium, you are a source of distress and distraction.
We will anticipate your breathing at the surface
applaud as you emerge holding the coin.
You will dive again to gather blessings
in the form of mamukuk, tayum, and others destined
to remind you of the bitterness of thirst.
We listen to a scholar: the city is also the sea
for your tribe—collecting only what is offered
underneath the capsized rock, after a knock on a car window.
(Your third entry: anguish corresponds to scarcity and saltiness—
cars speeding away and a slippery eel escaping from grasp.)
You surface with no food for today and tomorrow.
We review the documentary of a foreigner
breaching all the layers and corners of earth and sea
to measure the lungs’ ultimate breathing limit.
This is what he discovered in the depths of the sea:
through the dense crystal-clear blue waters, there is light
for the deep-swimming Santarawi whose hands were clasped.
(Fourth entry: no proof is needed
to reveal the full extent of sunburn on your body
and the bleaching of your hair into golden strands.)
You go around your town for proof
of the fact that houses are no longer built over the sea.
(Your last entry: you cannot say some of the names
of marine lifeforms in your forgotten language.)
You end up once again at the edge of land and sea,
not in awe of the vastness of your disappearing world.
We finish with how your diving disrupts
the flow of the waves. While you are underwater, we watch closely,
listen for your breath bubbling, breaking the water surface.
“A Planned Brief Documentary on a Teenage Boy in a Badjao Village” © 2019 M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.
In this short story by Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano, a young girl longs to see the world beyond her rural village.
Darkness falls in the afternoon. It’s going to rain again. The carabao and the goats have been herded off to shelter. The newly harvested corn has been covered. The house smells of fuel because our tiny lamp has been lit. Smoke rises from the hearth, a signal that Mama is cooking something. The five of us can’t go out. I want to go out so I can wait for Papa. I want to look out for what he brings, but I can’t go out.
The other week, Papa brought meat from hunting. Mama prepared it in a delicious broth. Rod and I fought over a large piece of wild boar meat. Mama got upset because we shouldn’t fight at the table.
But last night, she and Papa were arguing. The five of us slept on empty stomachs. I couldn’t find my malong cloth. I fell asleep in our cold corner of the forest in Datal Fitak, a mountain in Matanao.
My teacher asks if we have ever seen a TV. I’ve seen one in a picture but I don’t know what it’s for. I haven’t been to Digos or to Davao, but I’ve heard about those places. So many people, they say, so many vehicles. Sometimes I don’t feel so bad because so many people and so many vehicles might run me over.
Ma’am Edna, my grade three teacher, says that others wish on a foling estar. I’ll also wish on a star that I might visit Digos even just for once. But the stars only come out at night, and I can’t go out.
I’ve only ever ridden Uncle Basud’s motorcycle, the time we delivered our harvested corn. I haven’t been in a jeep, or what Ma’am calls bus and van, airplane, ship. Sometimes my mind reaches the heavens. Are there also cars in heaven? Is there electricity, lights in the night that don’t need fuel?
I’ve only seen and listened to a radio but our radio ran out of batteries, and our house is now more quiet. When the wind blows, our cogon roof dances and our bamboo walls snap.
Mama didn’t go to Bangkal to buy batteries for the radio because there are soldiers. Anyway, I’ve seen a selfon. Because Ma’am Edna has a selfon. You can take a picture, listen to a song, you can read. I asked Mama if she knew how to use a selfon. She said to me, she doesn’t even know how to write her name. She only reached grade one, and then she was married off to Papa when she was only twelve. How could she have gone to school if she couldn’t go out.
Mama didn’t agree to me being married off to our neighbor Randy. Mama wants me to finish at least high school. Will I finish? I’ve repeated grade three twice. In a week, I’ll skip classes to help at the cornfield. My playmates are better off, they get to go with their mamas when the 4Ps are released. We didn’t join the 4Ps because Papa wouldn’t let us. We don’t know our birthdays and Ma’am Edna kept asking for my birthday. Mama said to me, you don’t have that because you can’t go out!
Papa didn’t come home. And I can’t find my malong. The wind outside seems to whisper something. The trees outside seem to speak and the footsteps of light feet lull me to sleep. When it’s dark, even when you want to take a piss, you can’t go out because there are raiders doing pangayaw. Wild creatures lurk outside. Rod’s malong smells like piss after he wet himself on our bed because we can’t go out.
I stir to the rustling of birds. Perok-perok, maya, agila, and banog, the loud ones early in the morning. I’m wide-awake hearing Mama’s scream. I rush downstairs and see two men.
“Your Papa’s gone,” says Mama, holding my malong soaked in blood. The men leave. I understand that my Papa is dead. I want to cry and look for Papa, but I can’t go out.
I told Ma’am Edna when she asked me what Papa’s work was, I told her Papa was a soldier. He had a yuniform and a gun. There was a red crest on the side of his yuniform. I bragged to my klasmit that Papa was a soldier. That was why he hunted deer and wild boar, because he was always in the forest. Every Friday I would wait for Papa because I knew he would bring something for me. Sometimes flowers from the jungle, and honey.
Rayzan said to me that Papa wasn’t a soldier. That was why we had a fight and I didn’t want us to be friends. Sometimes there were people who came to the house with Papa. They called papa Ka Oding. I saw that they had papers, and letters, money, guns, and they were also with women who were pretty and had light skin. I didn’t know where they were from. But Papa told us to play behind our cogon hut. Whenever his companions were around, Mama would go to the cornfield.
I told Papa, “Women can be soldiers too? I want to be like you, Pa. I want to be a soldier!”
Papa stood up, went outside, and struck our dog. Papa said I shouldn’t become a soldier, because soldiers have no mercy, they are abusive and they kill.
“Aren’t you a soldier, Pa? Why can’t I be a soldier too? You even have a companion who’s a girl soldier.”
Mama interrupted, “Greshel, your food, finish up, you’ll be leyt for the bayang flag ceremony.”
I didn’t know it would be our last breakfast with Papa. Only my bloody malong is what I have left. Papa brought my malong that day he left after he and Mama and had a fight.
“Rebelde, rebelde, but your children will die of hunger?!” Mama’s voice was loud.
“This is for them, this is for you!” Papa left with his bag.
I lay back down and thought of the heaven that Ma’am Edna told us about. In heaven there is plenty of food, in heaven there is God. Papa said God is not real. Mama said there is a God. I want to believe there’s a God so I could pray to Him about what I want. I want to go to Digos, eat hatdog, ays krim, and pitsa. Ma’am Edna told us these taste good and she showed us pictures. Ma’am even wanted to bring us to Matanao but Papa wouldn’t let us, because we can’t go out.
Gunshots! Gunshots! Gunshots! At first I could count the gunfire. But there are too many gunshots and I can’t anymore count because I can only count up to twenty. People are running, others yelling, “The soldiers are here!”
Soldiers?! Maybe Papa’s with them! I’ll go out! I see at the door Mama and my siblings covered in blood. Our walls and roof riddled with bullets.
“Mama! Mama! Mama!”
Mama stirs. And she says, “Don’t go out, you can’t go out!”
© Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by John Bengan. All rights reserved.