Last spring in Mexico City seems an eternity ago. The jacarandas were blooming. Each morning I would rise early, salute the raucous purple blossoms on the tree outside the window, brew coffee, then return to bed and read, while my companion, a large, gangly, deaf white cat named Cirilo kneaded my legs. I read mostly nonfiction by Mexican women who wrote with what I came to describe as an itinerant sensibility—essays with a roving gaze whose authors travel through geographic and intellectual spaces with the same ease with which we used to walk around in New York. Now it’s the spring of 2020 in Brooklyn. Instead of the jacarandas outside, there are magnolias, but going out for a glimpse of them now feels illicit, and the privilege of freely wandering a foreign city or even one’s own seems a distant memory.
The books from which the pieces in this feature are selected can loosely be termed travel books. In On Lighthouses, Jazmina Barrera reminds us of the great travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s comment, “As you go along, you literally collect places.” Karen Villeda’s book Visegrado is a collection of places and moments presented in brief fragments that view Eastern European literature and history through the eyes of a young, female Mexican traveler to Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Villeda eschews objectivity, sending us postcards of highly distilled observations as she wanders her chosen territory, carrying the weight of home in her backpack. Villeda’s “micro-essays” make up a truly hybrid text that is at once travel notebook, literary criticism, and prose poem. “I can’t tell the difference between one genre and another,” Villeda has said. “When I approach poetry, the speculation of the essay stays with me, and when I write essays, the poetic image is always complicit.” Fragments find the author in Krakow, Budapest, and beyond, inviting us to share her view and to read the chroniclers of the places she visits alongside her. Such a peripatetic text is imbued with greater nostalgia from our current position of enforced stillness. As our joints stiffen in quarantine, Villeda reminds us often of the physicality of travel: on a train, “My body, once befuddled by the speed of the metropolis, registers each of the forty-five minutes the journey lasts.”
In her book of essays Aves migratorias (“Migratory Birds”), Mariana Oliver trains her gaze on multiple forms of migration, engaging with subjects as wide-ranging as Roman history and Greek mythology, and the raising and destruction of the Berlin Wall. The opening essay, which bears the book’s title, commemorates the life of the Canadian artist Bill Lishman, the first person to lead a flight of geese with an aircraft. Oliver introduces us to the young, color-blind Lishman, so desperate to fly despite his impairment that he takes to the skies in his own homemade ultralight aircraft, keeping company with migratory birds. Oliver seems to speak not only for birds but also for Lishman, and to gesture toward our human impulse for movement, when she writes, “Among migratory birds, to remain in place means accepting death.” She goes on to describe a range of types of migration. In an essay on Berlin, migration means crossing the wall, but imagination acquires a greater power than physical movement: “The true scalers of the wall weren’t those who crossed it, but those who began to imagine what was on the other side.”
In the piece excerpted for this issue, “Özdamar’s Tongue,” translated by Julia Sanches, linguistic migration takes the forefront. Emine Özdamar’s first migration from Istanbul to Berlin is as a worker; her second is as an actress in pursuit of her love of theater. Though this writer abandons her mother tongue, her nostalgia for Turkey finds expression in her new language: German is home to a wealth of words for longing. Özdamar considers herself a collector of words, and Oliver writes eloquently of the virtues of such collections: linguistic migration means making the words of others our own, speaking them in our own accent, possessing them as we possessed the words of our childhoods. We should “[t]urn our mother tongues into open spaces that can accommodate any word we choose or happen to come across at a particular time.”
Travel is also central in On Lighthouses: in Christina MacSweeney's translation, Barrera takes readers on a meandering tour of numerous lighthouses, from Oregon to Asturias, from Normandy to New York. Combining travelogue, literary criticism, personal essay, and the history of lighthouses, Barrera weaves a lyrical tapestry whose subject matter gives rise to meditations on solitude, friendship, distance, desire, and collecting. The book opens with a trip to an Oregon lighthouse as the author is reading Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. The solitary tower is an object of desire, a destination that may never be reached, but also a site of isolation and loneliness. We are reminded that Mrs. Ramsay knits socks for the lighthouse keeper’s son: “Mrs. Ramsay says one should take lighthouse keepers ‘whatever comforts one can’ because it must be terrible and very boring to be shut up there for months on end with nothing to do.”
Indeed, lighthouse keepers are experts in solitude. A keeper in Puerto Escondido on Mexico’s Pacific Coast tells of his battle with “idleness and low spirits” and recommends animals, reading, and radio as antidotes: “His work has affected his health: he suffers from chronic depression due to the loneliness of the prison he is locked in day and night.” And it is impossible to read of the lighthouse logbooks Barrera describes and not think of the quarantine diaries published online, the new genre of our times: “When time is indefinite, the calendar and the clock become indispensable to avoiding paralysis. And for that reason the logbook is a constant point of reference, the only means of combating boredom: each day less, one more X on the page. For want of an interlocutor, it is possible to construct narrative time in a diary.” The metaphorical possibilities of the lighthouse are of course never lost on the author, whom we occasionally glimpse in her own solitary tower in a cold, lonely New York: a high-up apartment that more and more comes to resemble the lighthouses that have taken hold of her imagination. Yet if the lighthouse is synonymous with loneliness and isolation, for sailors at sea, a glimpse of its flame meant hope and safety were near. The lighthouse keeper endures isolation for the safety of others, and is a fitting figure of contemplation for the situation in which we find ourselves.
© 2020 by Charlotte Whittle. All rights reserved.
Mariana Oliver reflects on the intertwined relationship of language and migration in this essay about Turkish writer Emine Özdamar.
In my language, tongue means language.
The tongue does not have bones: it twists in the direction we twist it in.
I sat tongue twisted in the city of Berlin.
—Emine Sevgi Özdamar
She moved to West Berlin at eighteen to work in one of the factories. Eyes accustomed to the colors of Istanbul; dark, thick hair. Though she wasn’t one for headscarves, in Germany the workers wore their hair in nets. She thought of herself as a collector of words but knew none so far in German. Turkish was her tongue and her mother’s tongue. She arrived in a city rent in half, arranged around a concrete wall and its watchtowers, around control points and the efforts of some to stop others from fleeing. Her hometown, Istanbul, was also two cities, the border between them not stone but a liquid line that had been there forever: the Bosporus, a strait where the beginning or the end of Asia and Europe gaze out at one another from either side. In its waters, tides from the Black Sea join those of the Marmara and together form a single flow. South of the Bosporus, on the European side, the sea has opened a path in the land and divided the city into two further seven-kilometer-long banks on which there are mosques, palaces, and the Galata Tower. In this area, known as the Golden Horn, the water is both fresh and salty at once.
About the border of the city where she grew up and which she knew best, she wrote:
Madame Athena once told me a story about two madmen in Istanbul: one stood on the European bank and said, “From here Istanbul is mine”; the other stood on the Asian bank and shouted across to the European side, “From here Istanbul is mine.”
Perhaps Özdamar went to Berlin in search of another city split by a border.
She arrived in 1965, when Turks were moving to Germany by the dozen. Back then, migrants were welcome and no one complained about the number of foreigners crossing the border. They called them Gastarbeiter: guest workers. They arrived during the postwar period to make up for a decimated population that needed labor to rebuild itself. Other hands to dig mines and grow coarse in fields and factories, other hands to sweep the dust off the streets and out of the houses, the ashen blanket that had covered everything since the beginning of the war. Welcome. Until the immaculate brilliance of the German people shone once more in the windows, and they could claim that it was thanks to their willpower and to the discipline of their daily work that they reinvented themselves time and again. After all, the migrants didn’t speak German but Gastarbeiterdeutsch. The migrants didn’t write in German but in Gastarbeiterdeutsch. The same went for their children. As though language were passed on by blood.
Özdamar knew that arriving in a country with no return ticket meant voluntarily surrendering to an indeterminate foreignness, letting go in another language, and admitting there would always be something ungraspable about words, something at times distorted that drew back whenever you thought you were getting close. Yet Özdamar also suspected there must be some appeal to shedding one’s mother’s tongue, what with so many people packing their lives into twenty-three-kilo bags.
She returned to Berlin eleven years later, fleeing a military coup in Turkey. By then she spoke Heine’s language and had studied acting in Istanbul. She went to Germany because theater was the only thing that interested her: “I get up and go to the other Berlin,” she wrote, “Brecht was the first person I came here for.” She lived in the West but crossed the border every day to go to Volksbühne, the theater on Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz where she assisted Benno Besson and Matthias Langhoff before putting on her own plays and giving voice to Brecht’s characters onstage. Her experience in those years inspired her to write the autobiographical novel Seltsame Sterne starren zur Erde, or Strange Stars Stare at Earth, published in 2003 and part of a series titled Sonne auf halben Weg: die Istanbul Berlin Trilogie, or Halfway Sun: the Istanbul-Berlin Trilogy, which also includes Life Is a Caravanserai and The Bridge of the Golden Horn.
Strange Stars is told in two parts. It begins with a first-person account of the protagonist’s daily journey between Berlin’s two halves: books sold for a song in the East, the wall, and the communes in the West filled with young people ashamed of their parents’ past. The second part is a journal with costume sketches and set designs, notes, and reflections on theater rehearsals. Most images are followed by descriptions in German; only one is in Turkish. Three men sit around a table, one of them smoking and the other two listening to him with apparent unease. They wear boots, raincoats, and one hat on each head. They are most likely detectives or hit men. On the tablecloth is an important warning: kırmızı, which means red, the color of the Turkish flag.
In Strange Stars, Özdamar details her experience migrating to and living in a new city, her prior life in Turkey, and how it affected her understanding of places around Berlin. In a single narrative, a picture of three cities emerges: East Berlin, West Berlin, and Istanbul.
Berlin materializes through detailed descriptions told from the perspective of a foreigner who needs time to grow accustomed to the colors and to make sense of what she sees, to adapt to the world around her and learn the meanings of the words saturating the streets, shop windows, and train menus:
They’ve all become used to me. I’ve become used to them. The train takes me to the theater, I get on and off, at the theater bar I buy tea for fifty pfennige, I love Mozart now; from nine to three, I rehearse, Fritz smiles at me, every day I sketch the rehearsals and get better and better at German, I read Heine.
Meanwhile, Istanbul is evoked in a haze; it exists only in memory and becomes a choice setting for nostalgia:
It was a warm night. The lily, lit up by the car headlights, smelled pleasant. Through an open window, I heard the clinking of silverware and felt nostalgia for Istanbul. Right then, my brother, sister, and grandmother were probably on the balcony. A night in May. Outside, colorful young women were likely strolling by. When it’s hot out, even the faces of Istanbul’s poor grow soft.
Languages betray the shortcomings and inclinations of those who speak them. Germany is also a land for the nostalgic. In German, there are several nouns for nostalgia. Sehnsucht, Fernweh, Nostalgie, Wehmut, Heimweh. The latter is made up of two parts that, when combined with others, designate particular sensations. Weh means pain or sorrow while Heim is often translated as “house” or “home.” Heim can also be used to form other nouns such as Heimat, which might be translated as “home country,” meaning the relationship a person has with the place where they grew up and learned to speak, and with the feelings and experiences of their childhood. Heimat is the connection to land and language crucial to forming identity. A derivative of this noun exists in the adjective unheimlich, the negation of Heim. Unheimlich is often translated into Spanish as “siniestro” or “ominoso,” and into English as “sinister” or “uncanny,” and refers to a thing that breaks with the familiar and day-to-day, creating a sense of unease.
The first recorded use of Heimweh dates to the twelfth century, in Switzerland. It makes sense that the word would appear in specialist medical texts to describe a heightened, unrelenting sadness: Heimweh as sickness. Up until the Romantic era, when it was exported to other German-speaking countries, it was only ever used in the medical field.
Agglutination is the foundation of the German language: nouns, adjectives, and other particles are strung together to generate new meanings. There are hierarchies in these constructions: the last part always designates the object referred to, while the preceding words accord particular qualities. So, in principle, Heimweh is “pain.” But it’s not just any pain; it’s a pain felt for home, for a place that has been lost, for a language, for something we think of as ours and which is missing.
Sometimes words and their nuances serve as thermometers. Özdamar’s nostalgia is not nostalgia. It is Heimweh.
We should adopt words across languages into our everyday vernacular. Pronounce them as confidently as we do those of our childhood, mark them with our accents, vocal modulations, and necessary pauses. Speak them as though they were ours, find a context for them in which their meanings explode, enveloping us. Turn our mother tongues into open spaces that can accommodate any word we choose or happen to come across at a particular time. Recognize others for the words they’ve chosen. Say “home,” “body,” or “ghost” in any language and assume every nuance.
In 1991, Özdamar was awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize for her book Mother Tongue. The title in German is Mutterzunge, a composite word that seems wrong in appearance yet cannot be corrected and so takes on new meaning: Mutter: mother, Zunge: tongue, but not as in language or idiom, but rather the tongue in one’s mouth, that muscle blanketed in taste buds that also articulates words. A mother’s tongue, not a mother tongue, which in proper German would be Muttersprache. Özdamar makes use of this strategy of deliberate mistranslation throughout the book.
Mutterzunge was written entirely in German, like much of Özdamar’s work. Authors writing in languages not their own are frequently interrogated about their motivations, as if words were also private property. Perhaps hidden behind this line of questioning lies a suspicion of betrayal or assault, an aversion to things illegitimate in appearance that can only be expressed through relentless probing. Perhaps, deep down, people believe that those who do not write in the language of their mothers are taking something that isn’t theirs, writing where they don’t belong; that they are word thieves. Especially when they do so in a language in which a single term can refer to something foreign and strange, something unknown and which belongs to another: Fremdsprache, foreign language but also the language of another.
Emine Özdamar was no doubt haunted by this question. Before I went looking for her answer, I assumed she wrote in German in order to lay claim to the country she’d chosen to live in and, at the same time, assert her identity as a migrant and Turkish woman; she was the one choosing the words that would define her, taking up her pen and fashioning herself in opposition to the gaze of others.
Writing in German as a way to say:
I [and lay claim to the blank space that complements all clauses].
Instead of reading or hearing:
She [and always feeling other in relation to a multitude of words that through repetition risk prevailing, becoming real].
I came across one response in Strange Stars:
I am unhappy in my language. For years, we’ve only spoken sentences like: “They’ll hang them,” “Where were their heads?” “No one knows where their graves are,” “The police have not released the bodies!” Our words are sick. My words are in need of a sanatorium, like sick mussels. There is a place in the Aegean Sea where three sea currents come together. People take sacks of mussels there from Istanbul, Izmir, and Italy, where they’ve gotten sick in the filthy water. The clean water from these three currents heals the sick mussels in a matter of months. Fishermen call this part of the sea the mussel sanatorium. How long does it take a word to heal? They say people lose their mother tongues in foreign countries. But can’t this happen too in a person’s home country?
Foreign words have no childhood, wrote Özdamar. Their roots are not as deep, and their branches are brittle. How can a person reject their mother tongue without also rejecting their childhood? Özdamar writes in German in order to elude unhappiness and spurn violence. The act of fleeing might also be a kind of word sanatorium. “I remember now phrases my mother spoke in her mother tongue, but only then, when I imagine her voice, do her words reach my ears, like a foreign language that has been learned well.”
Özdamar posits another answer to this question in another piece: “In German, I became happy again; maybe this is why I write in it.”
I was twenty-two when I was given a scholarship to study German one summer at a university in Erfurt, a small city in eastern Germany with a population of just over 200,000 that is known only for the mustard produced there. The medieval quarter and castle give it the appearance of another time.
In Erfurt, I met a couple of Turkish women who traveled to Berlin with me after our German course ended. They were called Büsra and Gülcan, and I never learned the correct pronunciation of their names. We took the train and arrived at the largest train station in Europe, Berlin Hauptbahnhof, a hull of glass and steel five stories tall where over a thousand trains and three hundred thousand people cross paths every day. The station thrums near where the wall once stood and has become a new gateway between East and West. The station has an exoskeleton-like structure. The Berlin Hauptbanhof is a new Tower of Babel. There, arrows and silhouettes framed in dichromatic squares are symbols of a language that claims to be universal.
In my mind, Berlin began as a gridded map that I carried in my backpack and regularly studied on excursions. I’m right-handed, so on my map, East lies next to my pinkie finger. An imaginary line easily draws a path between the Charlottenburg Palace and the television tower in Alexanderplatz. Although I understood the signs on the street corners, it still took me longer than usual to get my bearings. I’ve always envied people who know where north and south are. The paper map seemed to show a different, simpler city. These days I know that the best method to find your way around Berlin is walking, because body and mind learn out of step.
In Berlin, there are Turkish people all through the city, so it was easy to find someone who could explain to my fellow travelers how to reach the place where we’d be spending the night. Ramadan had started a week earlier, and I had fasted with them for a couple of days. My first time going around Berlin was on an empty stomach. Maybe that’s why I was so impressed by it.
The first night, we had dinner in Kreuzberg, a Berlin neighborhood also known as “Little Istanbul,” where Turkish is spoken on the streets, people drink black tea around the clock, and the shops smell of baklava honey. During Ramadan, the fast is broken at dinner with dates and tea. I don’t think anything sweeter has ever melted in my mouth.
Though I’ve forgotten what language my Turkish friends and I spoke together, I remember clearly the first time I saw them unveiled. In memory, words turn frail and unstable; they adapt to the places to which we take them and become distorted by distance. It’s other things that remain. Maybe we spoke Denglisch, an improvised blend of English and German common among foreigners in transit. An improvised language that has no place in any grammar, no proper pronunciation or univocal spelling, and exists only to be spoken, what is said in it quickly forgotten.
I’ve since returned to Berlin without the tongues of Büsra and Gülcan to translate what other Turkish men and women say on the streets, as well as the restaurant menus and hand gestures. It’s a different city.
© Mariana Oliver. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Julia Sanches. All rights reserved.
Karen Villeda tracks her journey through Eastern Europe in microessays that blend poetry and prose.
is the diminutive for something very small
a prefix derived from the Greek μ (mikró), meaning
as in microelectronics, microscope, microcast,
micrococcus, the “millionth” of a unit,
microsecond, the computer abbreviation microprocessor, or, when referring to a concentrated sound, the microphone.
Micro is a compositive element used to describe units of
measurement that designate the
corresponding submultiple. Its symbol is μ. There are
other multiples and submultiples we will not address
a way to refer to a bus in certain Latin American countries such
as Argentina (in some regions, coaches are called micros) and
Mexico . . .
noun Work in prose of variable length in which the author
reflects on a certain topic.
verb to make a tentative or experimental effort to perform.
The following can usually be found in the dictionary:
From the Late Latin exagium, “the act of weighing.”
1. Text in prose in which the author develops ideas on a particular subject, with personal style and character.
2. Literary genre to which the essay belongs.
Definition. Combination of the words “micro” and “essay” into a
neologism to describe brief essays, in particular those in
this book about
- Vyshorod, a suburb of Kiev, Ukraine.
- Vishegrad, in the province of Kardzhali (in other words, a town in Bulgaria).
- Vishegrad, the highest peak of Sakar. Where is this mountain located? In the borderlands between Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece. The surrounding towns lack proper irrigation systems, which is of concern to the European Union (to a lesser degree; aridity isn’t as dangerous as a porous border).
- Višegraf, a medieval fortress in southern Kosovo. Located in Prizren, the capital of the Serbian empire, now inhabited by Albanians.
- Višegrad, a city in Bosnia and Herzegovina, through which the Drina flows. Also known as Vichegrad, the setting of the novel that cemented the reputation of Ivo Andrić, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature "for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of his country." The Bridge on the Drina chronicles the period of time from the sixteenth up to the early twentieth century. What is the significant event described by the 1961 Nobel Laureate? The building of a bridge, as the title indicates, that joins two worlds—the Christian and the Muslim.
Comings and goings, friendship and conflict.
This last Višegrad was described by the then Yugoslav writer as a “particularly painful spot in that hilly and poverty-stricken district, in which misfortune was open and evident, that man was halted by powers stronger than he and, ashamed of his powerlessness, was forced to recognize more clearly his own misery and that of others, his own backwardness and that of others.” In other words, a genuine hotbed of hatred and mistrust.
I learn my first word in Magyar by intuition. It’s written in white sans serif letters on a Bengal-red sign on line 2 of the metro, which runs from the West of Buda to the East in Pest.
“It finds me.”
This lesson, which at first is a primitive psychological effect of the color, becomes a debt I owe Hungary.
After six hundred and eleven kilometers of sleeplessness, kijárat is my welcome.
“Leave, leave now.”
Exit, is, not.
When I travel, this concept of time is defined by language. I am obsessed with the sound of Hungarian vowels. The short ones have a dieresis (ö), and the long ones, a double accent (˝). The archaeology of this language is governed by an agglutination of inextricable digraphs like sz and ty, which cause the tongue to stick to the palate.
Words like megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért, whose closest meaning is “that which you cannot profane,” take the shape of a four-eyed reptile: fierce with ear-soothing brevity and generous with accented vowels. Its diereses and double acute accents are long, sharp claws.
Between Deák Ferenc tér and Örs vezér tere there are five stations. My body, once befuddled by the speed of the metropolis, registers each of the forty-five minutes the journey lasts. The only stop I recognize when it’s announced is Astoria, since it’s a foreign name. Three more stations to Örs vezér tere and victory will be mine. The station is commonly known as Örs, which means “hero.”
Name days in Hungary
are not as heavily Catholic
as traditional Mexican saint’s days,
which occasion street closures,
the use (and abuse) of fireworks,
and folk dances until dawn.
Hungarians celebrate névnap, which is a kind of saint’s day. Here, in the country whose flag is three (horizontal) stripes—red, white, and green, just like ours in Mexico—women are given tulips and orchids on their name days, while men are given bottles of alcohol. Flower prices rise according to (sexist) demand. An example: the tulip is the national flower and is more expensive on March 27, the day of Hajnalkas, than it is on the day before, since March 26 marks the celebration of people named Emánuel.
On my second trip to Budapest, I struck up a friendship with a Hajnalka, who gave me a tour of the university founded by George Soros. In times of predatory multimillionaires such as Donald Trump or Carlos Slim, who in a country mired in poverty aggressively defends his place on the Forbes list, Soros is an example worth following. The investor (or excessive speculator to his critics, who know him as “the man who bankrupted the Bank of England”) donated an enormous sum to found the Central European University (CEU) in Hungary’s capital.
Hajni, as her friends call her, isn’t a big Facebook user. Her wall shows a low level of activity, except for on March 27, when photos of roses and greetings appear (Boldog nevnapot! or “Happy name day!”; Sok puszi—“Lots of kisses”). If your name is “universal,” it’s easy to find on the névnap calendar. A Spanish speaker can see how their name is hungarianized through the indiscriminate use of accents (especially the grave accent), and letters like k and z.
(Gusztáv = Gustavo,
Kármen is Carmen,
Róbert = Roberto,
Zsófia is Sofía).
Some have more letters in their Spanish versions, like Margrit, which is Margarita, or Kata, Catalina.
“Institutions matter in this country,” Hajni tells me in perfect English.
What can I tell her about Mexico? “We’re the opposite.” I don’t say it aloud, though that’s what I’m thinking. I notice the decor in the corridors at Nádor 9, and a few lines penned in charcoal conjure me: “A minority that says that ‘this should not happen again,’ and a majority that says, “This should never happen to us again.” This work was imagined for and because of the Holocaust.
Then I’m a murmur of shame.
“We’re the opposite.”
But she doesn’t hear me.
The Hungarian Poet Who Spoke Chinese
Jeno Dsida was a translator of Taoist Chinese poetry about maple trees and snowstorms.
If we reimagine this vegetable kingdom in another context, we find ourselves in a scene worthy of a Hungarian winter.
On the eve of the feast of Pentecost, a woman considered the most beautiful by all the other women in a village in northeastern Hungary is given a crown of bell-shaped flowers that sprout even beneath the snow.
Spring takes a long time to come here, and the cold is a death sentence.
“My body was broken and my soul hardened, I felt like someone who, in secret,
sets out in the dark,
beckoned by the stars,
defiant in a fatal land, facing destiny even then;
and whose nerves are so tense that they can feel
their enemies, in the distance, lying in wait.”
My body broken, my soul hardened.
Bornemisza Anna Szakácskönyve 1680-Ból
Anna Bornemisza, princess consort of Transylvania, wrote a cookbook. Some experts have shown that her book is no more than a translation of a German cookbook. But most accuse them of ignorance. The cookbook’s origin is unclear.
What we can be certain of is that Anna Bornemisza, being the wife of Michael I Apafi of Apanagyfalva, knew a thing or two about matters of state. The unofficial version is that she was the one who resolved them: the Kingdom of Hungary began to recover due to her vision. The couple’s success didn’t last long. Anna Bornemisza had fourteen children and only one survived. Her husband had to cede power to Leopold I. Power (in itself, as an entity) is never lost, just transferred.
In lieu of more information on Hungary’s rivalry with the Ottoman Empire and the siege of Vienna in 1683, what we have is a recipe for beetroot salad: “If they are boiled, chop them. Dress them with oil, vinegar, and salt.”
At the Örs vezér tere stop, some teenage girls are selling cucumbers. They place them on the ground, over threadbare cloths. A few of them improvise signs out of old newspapers. Their sales strategy relies on the hurried charity of passersby. From time to time they imitate the sorrowful expressions of elderly beggars.
“They’re practically children.”
Their smooth skin is forced to wrinkle for a few coins, replicating indigence.
They make me uncomfortable. I fear for them. I’m afraid the masks they wear will also condemn them to that fate.
The police lurk nearby.
The homeless are considered criminals here, though Hungary has a comprehensive social security program that comes with a magazine titled Fedél Nélkül, whose literal translation is “Without a Roof.”
The Danube turns somber.
The Chain Bridge
and the wind is always
helping it escape.
The Danube brings a feeling of sorrow, as if one of the skeletons resting in its depths were mine.
And me, I think of her.
I am on Nádor Street, only a hundred arm’s lengths (ingenious calculation) from the river that will wash over me with those bones sunk in the sixteenth century. And those of an old woman who clings to my back.
“I know I carry the weight of a dead woman.”
And me, I think of her.
I think of my grandmother Lourdes. Her embroidered nightgown with thin straps, her scent of newspaper in the morning and jasmine all day long. Hundreds of jasmine flowers blossom in my brain. But there were other flowers, too.
For example: I remember the scent of ylang-ylang that flooded the room when she spoke of the trip we’d take to India, as she placed her thin, unblemished index finger on an old globe. On that worn-out, three-dimensional scale model, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics still existed.
I heard the word Danube for the first time when my grandmother told me about Strauss’s waltz.
And with my Danube, she comes back to life.
Accounts of Polish women’s relation to literature are offered by men like Szymon Wysocki, a priest who stated that “there wasn’t a single book she hadn’t read from cover to cover.” Who was she? A certain Barbara Lang of Kraków. There is no record of her existence beyond this remark by a sixteenth-century Jesuit theologian.
Official Patriarchal history asserts that the first woman writer in Poland was Gertrude of Poland, daughter of King Mieszko II, who modified the Archbishop of Trier’s Egbert Psalter by adding her own book of prayers. There, she pleads six times for her son, Yaropolk, unicus filius meus (“my only son,” God’s eternal favor).
Women were confined to reading prayer books and religious hymns. And they wrote in the margins. Centuries went by. Those marginalia are, in fact, the books I need to read.
From Kraków to Oświęcim.
I pay close attention to the gardens that bore vegetables in spring.
Rows of balding trees line the road.
The clouds are tinted with violet all the way to Oświęcim.
The name is an act of rebellion for my tongue; it feels brutal to put an accent over a consonant, when, last century, Oświęcim was a semantics of death.
I try to distract myself by looking for houses painted blue, announcing that the owner’s daughters are of marrying age.
Where my gaze falls, there is an ashen veil.
I miss Kraków, and we’re not even that far away.
I have a dream on my way to Kraków.
I’m slowly crossing a stream with smooth snakes at my feet.
I’m at a reading given by Wisława Szymborska. “Serpents appeared on my path, / spiders, field mice, baby vultures. / They were neither good nor evil now—every living thing / was simply creeping or hopping along in the mass panic.”
I wake up exactly forty-five minutes later. The same old woman who accompanied me to Oświęcim is coming back with me. While we don’t know one another, at the same time, we are close.
This is the third face I meet in Poland. The stiffness of her body is a tragic and moving poem. She is kilometers away from herself.
Animality is the only pure thing about humans. What remains of us is elevated by circumstance and context.
This that is Poland
I learned of Poland through the words of others.
Poland was the bestsellers I read in my childhood.
In some episode of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Jan Potocki tells a terrible truth: “But such is the force of the impressions we receive in childhood that this unreasonable hope obsessed me for a long time, and I have never been wholly cured of it.” And Czesław Miłosz wrote in “The Poor Poet,” “Still others find peace in the idolatry of country, / Which can last for a long time, / Although little longer than the nineteenth century lasts.”
My earliest knowledge of Poland came from my worship of the pulp novels my grandfather Guillermo collected. I read them with gusto. The country took shape in my mind as I skimmed through the books of Karl von Vereiter, pseudonym of the Spanish writer Enrique Sánchez Pascual. They had extremely attention-grabbing titles, like I Went to the Devil’s Doctor, Hitler’s She-Devils, The Ravensbruck Hyenas, They Called Her Lili Marlen, The Virgins of Kiev, Salon Kitty, SS Brothel, Requiem for an SS Officer, Kingdom of the Beast, and The Vestals of the Third Reich, among other absurdities that Von Vereiter, or rather Sánchez Pascual, churned out without overly racking his brains.
In my mind, Poland: The Blitzkrieg was the definitive novel. So sad and so true. I got to know Poland at the height of another postwar period: the Spanish one. By then it was the seventies, and mass despair fed upon stories that reminded people they were better off after Franco. The frugal Petronio publishing house, which indiscriminately published Von Vereiter alongside Victor Hugo and Eugène Sue, offered few, albeit memorable, choices: the Second World War or aliens.
The profitability of military themes meant that imported copies of Holocaust by Gerald Green and Mila 18 by Leon Uris fell into my hands. Later, my taste became more refined, and I engraved in my memory the black-and-white photos in the Reader’s Digest Illustrated Story of World War II.
I admit that this editorial shortsightedness gave shape in my mind to Poland.
It’s possible to write (and live) with no sense of reality. But you can’t travel in the Poland inside my head.
I reach the New Town and Prague sobs quietly.
I’m scarcely aware of its discreet tears.
I make an anthology of the sobs I find most meaningful.
Twice now, Prague has burst into tears with the subtlety of the second movement of Antonín Dvorák’s New World Symphony.
What will I do without my sorrow?
TLK 407 Chopin / 444 2.
From Warsaw to Prague, I have seen endless train stations pass before my eyes, their hair spilled over the rusty tracks. Some are touching up their makeup for the 2012 EuroCup. I’m hypnotized by the interminable succession of benches, tracks, and concrete platforms.
The early hours pass by as the train rattles like the keys of the citizens of Prague who gathered in solidarity in Wenceslas Square during the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, when Václav Havel declared freedom in the New Town.
I reach Prague with military punctuality: it’s dawn on Sunday, December 18, 2011. The sleepless city welcomes me with a cold embrace.
I leave Praha hlavni nadrazi, the main train station, walking with thick, velvety anticipation. The sun is barely rising and I long for its glassy rays, summertime’s vanity. Death’s indifferent face, which wears the same gaze everywhere, distracts me from the turning in my excited stomach, which recovers its usual morning hunger. Prague, with its pronounced dark circles, breaks the silence to bear some terrible news: Zem el Havel. Václav Havel has died of severe respiratory problems, the newspapers proclaim gravely in red and black. The artist, the last president of Czechoslovakia and the first president of the Czech Republic, has lost the battle against pulmonary cancer in his right lung.
When I first read Václav Havel, I had a glassy feeling. I watched the acacias through the window. They were disconsolate, remembering the haughty green petticoats that covered the crinolines of spring, when leaves trembled on their stalks in a gust of breeze, and floral ruffles swayed at the height of their youth. I memorized what I had read: “Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality, while making it easier for them to part with them.”
When I finished reading, the whole month paled. But the first decade of the twenty-first century was still agleam. It had seven digits left to show, and the possibility of a respectable degree certificate was as far from me as Mexico City from Václav Havel’s Prague. Now I know that the word meaning “left” in Czech is spelled levý. “Perhaps it’s a weightless word?” I wonder. And me, I still dwell in the past.
Visegrád, a city, or rather, a small castle, in Hungary.
Wyszogród, a place in Poland.
Vyšehrad, a castle in Prague, in the Czech Republic.
Vyšehrad (Prague metro), the metro station serving the aforementioned castle.
Visegrád. This. That which was mine. That is. That will be my Visegrád.
© Karen Villeda. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Charlotte Whittle. All rights reserved.
Writing from her cramped New York apartment, Jazmina Barrera finds solace in lighthouses, tracing their history and pondering their symbolism in this essay from her collection On Lighthouses.
44° 40’ 36.4” N 124° 4’ 45.9” W
Yaquina Head Lighthouse. Brick tower painted white, 28 meters high. Original Fresnel lens, visible at 31 kilometers. Blink pattern: two seconds on, two seconds off, two seconds on, fourteen seconds off.
We arrive in Portland, Oregon, to stay with Willey, my aunt’s boyfriend. In his youth Willey had been an EMT and a member of the Black Panthers; he had a daily routine that included a plentiful breakfast of ham and eggs, wheat semolina, and toast, reading the newspaper, and smoking two or three cigarettes on the balcony of his home.
I don’t smoke, but during my first day in that house I spent a long time on the balcony watching the river with its boats and seabirds. I guess that's equivalent to smoking. The following day we took the highway south. My cousin—two meters tall—and I were squashed in the back seat of the red pickup Willey referred to as "my baby." We spent a night at the snow-capped hotel where The Shining was filmed, en route to the crater of an extinct volcano that is now a sapphire-blue lake.
Two years later, when I returned to Portland with my mother and aunt, Willey drove us to the coastal city of Newport. It was September. In that same pickup, we traveled along a wooded highway, stopping at a diner halfway to our destination to eat cupcakes made from locally grown marionberries, served by a couple of kindly old men. I remember that I had my headphones on, and was looking out the window at the forests of bare trees with trunks that were first dark, then white, and finally red. In Newport, I felt I’d never before seen an ocean so gray, so cold. Even in summer, the whole city is shrouded in mist, and you have to search for your hotel among the clouds.
Even before I ever saw a lighthouse, I dreamed of one; it was abandoned, far from the coast. At the foot of the building was a garden and the house where I lived with my parents. In my childhood dream, I asked my father what he’d found during his exploration of the crumbling rooms. “Just the skeleton of a bat,” he said. I insistently asked for reassurance that the animal was dead, but he only muttered to himself, like someone in the trailer for a horror movie: “Dead, but alive.” The tip of the tower was visible: a dark garret where the bony hands of the bat’s skeleton stirred a cauldron containing a potion. The camera then zoomed in on the skull, which in a squeaky voice said, “I’m brewing my revenge on the person who killed me.”
In Moby Dick, Melville says that human beings “share a natural attraction to water.” At one point Ishmael offers an explanation for why people fritter away their savings and bonuses to visit such places as that sapphire-blue lake in the crater of a volcano, or a waterfall so high that the liquid evaporates before reaching the rocks, or a series of pools in the middle of the desert that are home to tiny prehistoric beings, or a natural well deep in the jungle. He explains the amazement we feel at the sight of the color now called International Klein Blue, or the turquoise of the Bacalar lagoon in Quintana Roo. Ishmael suggests that all men’s roads lead to water, and the reason why no one can resist its attraction is also why “Narcissus, who because he could not grasp the tormenting, mild image he saw in the fountain, plunged into it and was drowned. [. . .] It is the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
That reflective power of water made Joseph Brodsky believe that if the “Spirit of God” moved upon its surface, the water would surely reproduce it. God, for Brodsky, is time; water is, therefore, the image of time, and a wave crashing on the shoreline at midnight is a piece of time emerging from the water. If this is true, observing the surface of the ocean from an airplane is equivalent to witnessing the restless face of time.
No civilization bordering the sea, with lakes, or with important rivers has been immune to the need to navigate those waters, to explore the furthest reaches of the oceans, to transport or be carried on the waves. And yet mariners appear as vulnerable aboard their ships as penguins do ashore. Although familiar and necessary, water is also unknowable and menacing. Despite the fact that it makes up the greater part of the human body, it can also take human life.
The earliest lighthouses are the product of a collective effort to signal dangerous areas or the proximity of coastlines and ports. Shipwrecks may be less common nowadays, but for a long time they were everyday occurrences: 832 in English waters in the year 1853, according to Jean Delumeau; the author quotes Rabelais’s character Pantagruel confessing to his fear of the sea and his terror of “death by shipwreck.” And citing Homer, Pantagruel adds, “it is a grievous, abhorrent and unnatural thing to perish at sea.”
The Hells of many mythologies can only be reached by boat, they are surrounded by water because, as Delumeau notes, in antiquity the ocean was associated in the collective mind with the most awful images of pain and death, the night, the abyss.
The Maya used to build monuments lit from within to signal places where it was possible or perilous to bring a boat ashore. The Celts used beacons to send messages along the coast. But it was the Greeks who gave these lights the name Pharos.
Fire indicating the sea’s end. In The Iliad, Homer speaks of burning towers with bonfires that had to be constantly fed, like the sacred flames in temples dedicated to Apollo. He compares the lustrous glow rising to the heavens from Achilles’s shield to the “blazing fire from a lonely upland farm seen by sailors whom a storm drives over the plentiful deep far from their friends.”
Apparently during the Trojan Wars there was a lighthouse at the entrance to the Hellespont, and another in the Bosphorus strait. Suetonius says there was once a lighthouse on the island of Capri, and Pliny the Elder mentions others in Ostia and Ravenna (he also warns of the danger of mistaking them for stars). Herodian refers to towers in ports “which by the light of their fires bring to safety ships in distress at night.” These are the precursors of the lighthouse whose name passed into so many Romance languages: faro in Spanish and Italian; phare in French; farol in Portuguese; far in Romanian. Precursors of the “Pharos” of Alexandria. On the island of Pharos, visited by Odysseus, which “has a good harbor from which vessels can get out into open sea,” there was a huge guardian lighthouse that Ptolemy I, the Macedonian general of Alexander the Great, ordered to be constructed in the third century BC.
It was a tower of some 135 meters, constructed from pale stone, with a glass dome crowned with flames and a statue of the god Helios. It’s said that its architect, Sostratus of Cnidus, chiseled his name in the stone, plastered over it, and then inscribed that of Ptolemy on top, knowing that the plaster would eventually crumble so it would be his name that survived. The flame was tended day and night, and ships’ crews could see it fifty-six kilometers offshore. It remained in existence longer than the Hanging Gardens, longer than almost any other of the seven wonders, until, in 1323, an earthquake brought it down. But Alexandria will always be the city of the lighthouse, a huge ghost set down in history.
“The same streets and squares will burn in my imagination as the Pharos burns in history,” says the narrator of Justine, the first book of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. In this work, the protagonist merges with the city, both of them seductresses, tempestuous and unattainable.
Later, lighthouses began to spring up in other parts of the world. In Rome and the surrounding lands high towers, such as the one dedicated to Hercules in La Coruña, were located at the entrances to ports in imitation of Alexandria. It’s said that, in his madness, the emperor Caligula declared war on Neptune and attempted to insult him by collecting shells on the seashore, but as Neptune made no response, the emperor decided that he’d won. He celebrated this victory “by the erection of a tall tower, not unlike the one at Pharos, in which the fires were kept going all night as a guide to ships.”
Firewood was the first fuel source for lighthouses, followed by coal, and later pitch. Then came oil and gas lanterns, and with the availability of electric power, light bulbs were used in conjunction with the magnifying properties of Fresnel lenses: fantastic vitreous heads like prehistoric monsters that can transmit light for many kilometers.
The oldest lighthouses still in existence date from the Middle Ages. The Germans at times used beacons to warn sailors of the proximity of the coast. In those days the custodians of lighthouses were monks, who took on the task out of the kindness of their hearts. Their voluntary work was in contrast to the attitude of certain monarchs, who awarded themselves the rights to everything that washed up on their shores (men and women included). That is the reason for the prosperity of such lands as Normandy, where the swirling tides often swept ships onto the rocks. During this period giant pagodas that served as lighthouses were also being built in China.
In 1128, the Lanterna was constructed in Genoa; in 1449, one of its lighthouse keepers was Antonio Colombo who, according to several sources, was the uncle of the infamous seafarer Christopher Columbus.
Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport was opened on a whim by two women with an obsession for literature. It’s an enormous house full of cats and retired ladies who travel in groups and wear hats (close relatives of men who construct ships in bottles, of those who go on bird-watching vacations, and of those—of us—who collect tiny replicas of lighthouses). The hotel has a library in the attic and around forty rooms dedicated to well-known writers: there’s an Emily Dickinson, a Walt Whitman, a Jane Austen, plus a Shakespeare, a Melville, and a Gertrude Stein (although the premises take their name from Joyce’s patron, there is no bedroom dedicated to the author of Ulysses). The decor of the suites reflects the respective periods and tastes of the writers, with their complete works on the bookshelves. I would have loved to sleep in Virginia Woolf, with its Victorian furnishings and a window looking out to sea, giving a distant glimpse of Yaquina Head and, on its promontory, the lighthouse. I’d just started reading To the Lighthouse: it’s not clear to me now if it was a matter of chance or, knowing that I was going to visit such a building, I forced the coincidence.
The lighthouse in Woolf’s novel takes its inspiration from one located on the coast of Cornwall, where the author used to spend the summer with her family: a small white structure with many windows, built on an island. To the Lighthouse opens by a window, with Mrs. Ramsay’s promise to her son James that the following day, if the weather is good, they will visit the lighthouse near their summer home. Later, she repeats this promise while knitting a pair of socks for the tubercular son of the lighthouse keeper. Mrs. Ramsay imagines the keeper there, alone, week after week during the stormy season, the waves breaking against the lighthouse, rocking its foundations, covering it in surf. Directing her words to her daughters, Mrs. Ramsay says one should take lighthouse keepers “whatever comforts one can” because it must be terrible and very boring to be shut up there for months on end with nothing to do.
I live on an island, on the fifth floor of a red building. The plaque in the hallway says it’s the fifth, but for reasons no one has been able to explain to me, there are two second floors. I rarely leave this brick tower. When I do, it’s almost always at night, or to visit lighthouses.
There are four windows. Two have bars that were installed a while ago when a burglar managed to get into the neighboring apartment. The other windows look out onto a brick wall a meter away. That wall is so high that, looking up, you can’t see the sky. And neither can you see the ground below: the gap narrows and the bricks are lost in darkness. I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia, but I sometimes feel an uncontainable need to see the horizon. In this city of tall buildings, that horizon is difficult to find; in order to see anything at any distance you have to go up to a roof, to the river, or to one of the streets that cut across the whole island. From time to time I do one of those things. When I was taking art classes, I learned that my mind often follows the lead of my eyes, and if I restrict my gaze for too long, my thoughts become myopic.
Another problem with the apartment is the darkness. In my bedroom and in the living room a gray, muted, cloudy-day light filters through the windows. The only plant I’ve had here died after only a few weeks. I spend the whole day bathed in artificial light, and to see the sun—if the sky outside is clear and there’s no one else home—I have to press myself up against the bars of the other window and search it out above the buildings.
I wonder what will become of me, spending so much time without direct sunlight; I wonder if I’ll turn into one of those blind, transparent fish that live in subterranean rivers and caves.
It feels as if my nerves are a little more sensitive than the norm. I faint at the prick of a needle; almost all strong emotions give me a headache. Perhaps it’s that I’m not thick-skinned, and people seem a permanent source of danger.
Pain has this ability to become stronger when you think about it. If I concentrate hard on a part of my body, it ends up hurting. If I concentrate hard on myself, I hurt. For instance, right now, as I write this. By contrast, when I visit lighthouses, when I read or write about lighthouses, I leave myself behind. Some people like gazing into wells. That gives me vertigo. But with lighthouses, I stop thinking about myself. I move through space to remote places. I also move through time, toward a past that I’m aware I idealize, when solitude was easier. And in moving back in time I distance myself from the tastes of my own age, when lighthouses are linked with unfashionable adjectives like romantic and sublime. It’s difficult to talk about the topics generally associated with lighthouses: solitude, madness. Those of us who try have no option but to accept ourselves as quaint.
If I focus my attention on myself, the pain is magnified. On the other hand, when I think of myself in relation to a lighthouse, I feel brand new and so tiny that I almost vanish. What I feel for lighthouses is the complete opposite of passion, or at least it’s a passion for anesthesia. Analgesic addiction. I’d like to become a lighthouse: cold, unfeeling, solid, indifferent. When I see them, I sometimes have the sense that I really could turn to stone, and enjoy the absolute peace of rock.
I understand the objections to the desire to escape from the world. I know it can be an egoistic, arrogant desire, the attitude of someone looking down from above, from a tower. That’s why I find lighthouses so attractive: they combine that disdain, that misanthropy, with the task of guiding, helping, rescuing others.
Robert Louis Stevenson says that to tour lighthouses is “to visit past centuries,” which is exactly what he does in his book Records of a Family of Engineers. With the help of letters and diaries, he unearths the stories of his father, Thomas, his grandfather, Robert, and the latter’s stepfather, Thomas Smith: all engineers and inventors, pioneers in the creation of lighthouses.
The Scottish coast is a place of rough seas, stormy skies, bleak headlands, “savage islands and desolate moors.” The year was 1786, and along the whole coastline, only a single point shone out: the Isle of May, with a tower dating from 1635 on top of which was a grate with a coal fire. In 1791 the beacon was the cause of a conflagration in which the custodian of the lighthouse and five of his children died. The sole survivor was a girl who was found three days later, permanently transformed by the sight of the flames reflected in the sea.
The Isle of May was the only light on that coastline of shipwrecks and pirates: a single, inadequate light. For this reason, that same year the authorities decided to construct four more lighthouses. This task required engineers—not yet known by that name—whose responsibility it was to build the towers, light the fires, and, starting from nothing, create, organize, and recruit the members of a new profession: the lighthouse keeper. Stevenson’s grandfather and Thomas Smith teamed up with the Board of Northern Lights to illuminate certain strategic points on the coast.
The engineer as artist. Stevenson describes his father’s and grandfather’s profession as if he were talking about Romantic poets. The engineer, as a Wordsworth or a Coleridge, makes his plans with an eye to the natural world. His task does not involve language, but nature itself. For this he needs the ingenuity (the word engineer is derived from Medieval Latin ingeniator, meaning someone who creates or uses an engine) and intuition, which Stevenson calls a “sentiment of physical laws and of the scale of nature.” His “feelings” have to capture the smallest detail. To calculate the height of waves, for instance, the engineer had to take into account the slope of the ground, the configuration of the coastline, the depth of the water near the shore, and the species of plants and shellfish on the site. His observations and instinct stood in for the instruments that would come later with the Industrial Revolution. Stevenson recounts that he often watched his grandfather for hours on end, counting the waves, noting when they receded and when they broke. His task was to predict the unpredictable: how the new structure would affect the tides, increase the strength of the waves, hold back rainwater, or attract lightning. And all this done in the open air while sailing angry, inhospitable seas or, back on land, with only a tent to sleep in.
Villagers also constituted a threat. Superstitious, accustomed to war and violence coming from the sea (the Vikings had arrived in ships), they believed a man saved from the waters would be the ruin of his rescuer. On one occasion, Thomas Smith was mistaken for a Pict (the Scottish tribe that spoke Pictish) and if it hadn’t been for Robert Stevenson coming to his aid, he might have been summarily hanged. Years later, Robert himself was suspected of being a spy: when he happened to ask about the state of the lighthouse in one village, they almost put him to death.
In 1814, Sir Walter Scott traveled to Scotland with Robert Louis Stevenson’s grandfather aboard the lightship Pharos, accompanying a team of lighthouse inspectors. During the voyage Scott wrote a diary in which he mentions Bessie Millie, an old woman who lived in Stromness and earned a living selling favorable winds to seamen. No one ventured to set sail without first visiting Bessie Millie, who prayed for the winds to follow the sailors on their voyage. In order to reach her house, which Scott described as “the abode of Eolus himself,” he had to walk along a series of dangerous, steep, rocky paths. Bessie was close to ninety, skinny and wizened as a mummy, and had a kerchief that matched the pallor of her cadaveric body tied around her head. Her blue eyes shone with the gleam of madness. “A nose and chin that almost met together, and a ghastly expression of cunning” gave the impression that she was Hecate, the Greek goddess of the night and ghosts, says Scott.
The family of Stevenson’s grandfather was replete with pious women and moribund children, but neither poverty nor illness quenched his thirst for knowledge. In the winter months, when voyages were impossible, he sought shelter at the University of Edinburgh. He studied math, chemistry, natural history, agriculture, moral philosophy, and logic within the stone walls that housed Charles Darwin and David Hume during those same years.
He was the first person to construct a lighthouse on a marine rock, far from the coast. Bell Rock had been the cause of many shipwrecks, and it was said to be haunted by the ghost of a pirate. Years later, Robert Louis Stevenson’s father also contributed to the development of lighthouses when he transformed the Fresnel lens by combining it with metal to increase its strength.
“Perhaps it is by inheritance of blood,” says Robert Louis about Cape Wrath, “but I know few things more inspiriting than this location of a lighthouse in a designated space of heather and air, through which the sea-birds are still flying.”
Impossible to imagine a lighthouse without including the sea. They are a single entity, but also opposites.
The sea stretches out to the horizon; the lighthouse points to the sky.
The sea is in constant motion; the lighthouse is a static watchtower.
The sea is changeful, a “battlefield of emotions,” as Virginia Woolf might put it. The lighthouse is a stoic, immovable man.
The sea attracts by its distant sound, beyond the dunes. The rays of the lighthouse call out through mist and high tides.
The sea is a primeval liquid; the lighthouse is solidity incarnate.
The sea, the sea, is a biological, mythological metonym for the feminine. The lighthouse is masculine, phallic.
The sea is the empire of nature. The lighthouse is the artifice that, in its dignified smallness, opposes nature.
Excerpt from On Lighthouses © Jazmina Barrera. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Christina MacSweeney. All rights reserved.
Guo Jing, the first woman in China to win a gender discrimination case against a state-owned enterprise, chronicles daily life under the COVID-19 lockdown in Wuhan, China, in this excerpt from her Diary of the Wuhan Lockdown.
April 3, 2020
Yesterday, the Wuhan COVID-19 Epidemic Prevention and Control Headquarters issued a notice advising that the city lockdown needs to be continued. Many citizens left messages on the Chinanews social media account requesting government subsidies and calling for an end to the lockdown.
One person posted: “Give out some cash subsidies. I have not had any income for two months, and I still have to repay my mortgage.”
Another person posted: “For two months, I have not seen any government-subsidized vegetables. I can only buy them at a high price. Eggs are expensive, so are vegetables, and I have yet to find meat. The government provided a limited supply of subsidized meat, but it is mostly reserved for older people. I have lost more than ten thousand yuan (roughly 1,413 USD) in income. We cannot continue the lockdown like this. I will need to apply to leave Wuhan on April 8 so I can find a job elsewhere. Otherwise I will not be able to make ends meet this year.”
Another message stated: “Test all the Wuhan residents. Statistics may say there are zero new infections, but we are still worried. When will this come to an end?”
Yet another message read: “Wuhan’s lockdown is having a profound psychological impact on us. A friend of mine has two apartments and they are only a few kilometers apart. His car is parked near the other apartment. For a long time, he has been planning to visit the other apartment to pick up the car, but he has not had the courage to leave his apartment yet. My dad says, ‘The real end of the lockdown starts when people feel that they can go for a walk whenever they need to.’”
Yesterday’s dinner was stir-fried garlic moss and pork, with congee.
It was cloudy today. The sun appeared now and then, with fewer people than usual in the courtyard. I wondered if some had ventured out of our residential compound.
In the morning, someone messaged the head janitor on WeChat [a Chinese-language social media platform]: “Mr. Yin, are you still organizing bulk orders of eggs?”
The head janitor replied: “Now that the lockdown has been eased for our neighborhood, everyone can go to the supermarkets for themselves. We are not taking bulk orders anymore. Our apologies.”
A woman with many connections subsequently started a bulk order initiative for eggs in the neighborhood WeChat group. Thirty eggs for 16 yuan (roughly 2.26 USD, slightly cheaper than the typical supermarket price of 20 yuan).
At the moment, only a few shops offer delivery services. Some have a minimum order of 500 yuan (roughly 70 USD, more than a typical grocery run). Many shops offer only a limited choice of vegetables. I do my grocery shopping on a social media app because I do not want to spend time waiting in a queue. I can get groceries for myself now, and I have more choice too. I am happy.
I bought some flat beans today, which I can use in a stir-fry. In the last few weeks, I have bought peas through the neighborhood bulk orders. The pea pods have thick skins and you cannot eat them. The new kitchen knife I ordered also arrived today.
In the afternoon, a resident messaged everyone in the neighborhood WeChat group: “Neighbors, tomorrow is the Ching Ming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Day). If you need any ghost money, you can get some in front of the residents’ committee office.” I looked out the window and saw a stall downstairs selling joss paper. At about seven p.m., people were burning joss paper outside to mourn the dead.
April 4, 2020
Today is a carefully orchestrated national day of mourning. Some people attended the memorial service at the public shrine in Wuhan, but not everyone was allowed in. All those given access were men. Some memorial texts that people posted online were soon deleted by the censors.
These memorial ceremonies are designed to dissipate people’s anger through a form of collective catharsis, but they leave little room for ordinary people to mourn the dead in their own way. As ordinary citizens, we are not entitled to attend the ceremony, but we can refuse to be moved by such an artificial ritual of mourning.
Many people died because of inequality. The government treats them as heroes and praises them. But no one is held accountable for their deaths, and there is no critical reflection on why they died, either. A society cannot churn out dead tragic heroes forever; it should take responsibility for those who have already died and those who are still living.
Some doctors and nurses have not received the extra pay they deserve. DXY.cn [a website for health professionals] posted a message on Weibo [a Chinese-language social media platform] yesterday and asked: “How much extra pay have you received from your hospitals during the epidemic?” “None,” read many of the replies in the comments section. One person replied: “Zero. I have filled out one form after another but have yet to receive a cent.”
Many people have been grieving the dead for quite a while, and they will not stop their grief today. Some mourn their loved ones in their own way. To remember the dead, we need to fight Internet censorship. So that we do not lose online content taken down by the censors, we take screenshots and safekeep them. A friend said that she even thought of video recording the computer screen 24/7.
The sun came out today. I have been looking forward to the sun after so many days of clouds, but today’s sunshine feels a bit inappropriate. I detest the carefully orchestrated public memorial ceremony. I do not want to take part in it. I want to isolate myself from this absurd world.
At ten a.m., I could hear a loud siren outside. At the construction sites and on the streets, many people stopped their work and stood in silence. But not everyone. Some workers continued working, and some pedestrians kept walking. They carried on with their life as they mourned.
I was doing some cleaning at home. A month ago, I removed the tablecloth and gave it a wash. I have not used it since.
In the afternoon, a person asked in the neighborhood WeChat group: “Is ghost money still available?” The resident who had sold the joss paper the day before left a mobile number in the group chat: “Call this number if you need anything.”
Tongtong’s parent tweeted in the neighborhood WeChat group: “To the boy who lives in Apartment 405, your sister Tongtong is waiting for you downstairs.”
The well-connected woman informed everyone in the group that the eggs they had ordered arrived. A resident asked: “Can you wait for a while? I am busy with my child.” The woman replied: “What is your apartment number? I can deliver them to your door.”
“Wait a minute.”
“Don’t worry if you are busy distributing eggs. I can go downstairs and fetch them.”
The woman messaged back: “They are already at your door.”
April 5, 2020
To express their ideas without reservation, people need to feel safe speaking out and trusting each other. But we live in a society of surveillance and discipline. How can we not exercise necessary caution? Most of us busy ourselves with survival, but there are always people who are not content with the status quo and subsequently become protesters.
I had not been out of my apartment in the last few days. Life indoors felt a bit suffocating. At four p.m., I went downstairs for a walk. I had no plan to leave the neighborhood, because I did not want to register my exit and entry. Downstairs, I was immediately overwhelmed by the noise from the construction site nearby. After walking several rounds in the residential compound, I could not help but walk to the gate. Life is full of a series of miniature struggles.
At the gate, the security guard scanned my forehead with a thermometer and said: “36.2 degrees Celsius [97.16 degrees Fahrenheit].” I was given permission to leave the compound.
The greengrocer’s shop was still closed. Some fruit inside had spoiled.
I read in today’s news about the reopening of marriage and divorce registration in Wuhan starting on April 3. On my way back home, I took a detour to the marriage and divorce registration office near my home. It was already five p.m. when I got there. The office was still open, but no one was outside. At the entrance there were posters with headlines such as “notice,” “procedure,” and “divorce agreement.”
I walked in and asked a receptionist: “When did you reopen?” She said: “You need to scan the QR code to make an appointment.”
“I am not here to register. I am interested in knowing the current situation. Are there more marriage or divorce cases now?”
“There are plenty of both.”
She seemed a bit wary. I stopped asking questions and walked away.
Back in the neighborhood, a man was sitting in front of the parcel collection area drinking a bottle of beer and listening to Chinese opera on his phone. Another man washed his car in front of the janitor’s office.
April 6, 2020
Someone posted a poem titled “Messages for Easing the Lockdown” to the neighborhood WeChat group:
To ease or not to ease,
Never run wild and free!
For if you get the disease,
We’ll lose both people and money!
Take control of your two feet,
and cover your mouth with a mask!
Life above all else,
health is our most important task!
It was sunny and warm today. At eleven a.m., I went downstairs to enjoy some sunshine. There were only a few people in the courtyard. The man was still drinking beer while listening to opera. He walked up to the trash can, peered inside, and took out an old bowl made of stainless steel. He walked home with the bowl in his hand.
In the neighborhood WeChat group, someone started a new thread proposing to bulk order fish, and other residents answered by expressing their interest.
April 7, 2020
Many migrants like me have come to big cities for personal development. The cost of living in these cities is high, and many young people barely make ends meet. There are more people and resources in these big cities. They can offer us plenty of opportunities and hopes for the future.
April 8, 2020
It was not my plan to start writing a diary, let alone keep doing it for seventy-seven days. But in doing so, I have had many unexpected gains. Writing is a form of dialogue, a dialogue with oneself and with others.
Today, the municipal lockdown was declared “eased,” and traffic between Wuhan and the outside world is flowing once more. This is a significant development and shows that Wuhan is recovering from the epidemic. But when can the lockdown of central neighborhoods be eased? When can people’s anxiety and fear be overcome? The government initiative of decorating Wuhan with lights has once again sparked the romance of collectivism. Yet living conditions in central Wuhan continue to be concealed or erased.
The aftereffects of the epidemic can still be felt. Those who have recovered from COVID-19 are left with lifelong physical and psychological trauma. How can they restart their life? Will people from Hubei Province and Wuhan City continue to face discrimination? Who will take care of the companies that have gone bankrupt and the people who have lost their jobs?
It is difficult to articulate one’s psychological trauma in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but its impact on a person’s life can be long-lasting. Now and then I think back to the little girl I once was, curling up helplessly after being beaten. I still have to constantly comfort that helpless little girl.
I can finally stop writing my lockdown diary now. It is difficult to stick to a habit day after day. Apart from having meals, there are very few things in life that we must keep doing every day. Now and then I can skip going out, washing my face, or brushing my teeth before bed. There is no reason our lives have to be monotonous. How would we experience the richness and color of life otherwise?
"写了77天终于可以停下来了|郭晶的武汉封城日记|4/3-4/8" © Guo Jing. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Hongwei Bao. All rights reserved.
In this unsettling novel, shortlisted for the 2019 International Man Booker Prize and just published in the US, an academic expert on the history of beards in cinema reads Bashō and tries to help a stranger find the perfect spot to kill himself.
Two men set off across Japan in search of the perfect spot to commit suicide. It’s not your traditional travel story, let alone an ideal vacation, but Marion Poschmann’s The Pine Islands offers an encounter between Eastern and Western literary traditions that makes for a ghostly, unsettling trip.
Poschmann is a well-known figure in Germany, a respected writer whose work spans different genres (poems, short stories, essays, novels) and has been distinguished with accolades such as the Klopstock and the Wilhelm Raabe literary prizes. The Pine Islands, originally published in Germany in 2017, is her first book to be translated into English. It was shortlisted for the 2019 International Man Booker Prize after being published in the UK last year, an auspicious anglophone debut that lets us hope that more translations of her work are soon to follow.
The novel begins, banally enough, with a husband-wife argument. Gilbert, a middle-aged college professor, has a dream in which his wife cheats on him. The details of the dream are never revealed, and neither are their fights about it, but Gilbert can’t help but view the experience as an “unmistakable warning from his unconscious to his naive, unsuspecting ego.”
He suddenly decides to leave all of that behind and to board a flight to Tokyo.
It’s the start of a journey whose purpose remains elusive through to the end of the book. Gilbert expresses interest in seeing the pine islands, a collection of over 250 islands in the northeastern bay of Matsushima, but there seems to be no higher motivation for the journey or his seemingly random choice of destination. Gilbert’s not exactly traveling for self-improvement or to work out his marital problems. Sometimes a cigar is a just a cigar; a trip to Japan is just a trip to Japan.
Poschmann’s writing eschews the detailed accounts of inner life that seem mandatory for so-called literary fiction in the English-speaking world nowadays. But what her novel lacks in intricate psychology and complex characterization it makes up for with a fast-moving plot and smart cultural observation, all of which arises from the fact that Gilbert is a fascinatingly mundane protagonist. He seems to have no friends. No passions. His field of expertise is the history of beards in cinema, and that has, not unexpectedly, yielded him little recognition from the academic community. As Gilbert’s plane touches down in Japan, there’s a sense that he will be far outmatched by whatever awaits him.
On a Tokyo subway platform, he meets a young man named Yosa who is, by all accounts, even more mundane than Gilbert. Yosa wants to throw himself in front of a train not because of serious failure or loss but because “he was afraid he wasn’t going to pass his exams . . . his marks were good, but maybe not good enough.” These two inconsequential men complete each other, in a way, and much of the book rests on whether either will actually learn something by spending time with the other. Yosa agrees to delay his suicide on the condition that they seek out a “better” location for committing suicide—one that would imbue some honor on the whole experience.
They set off to the Imperial Gardens, Aokigahara forest, Sendai, the kabuki theatre in Ginza. They miss more spots than they hit, and those they do hit are themselves hit-and-miss—both for Gilbert and for Yosa. Neither of them can agree on where to go next, and even after compromising, one of them is always cross about having to change the itinerary. It’s an effective way of stripping back the romantic idea that a journey through the East might be “magical” or “perfect” somehow. Their experience is more real than that, taking into account that even the smoothest trip can’t avoid late buses and packed train cars.
It’s also because Gilbert travels with a refreshing objectivity. For every moment that he ponders “pines in the fierce afternoon light, a void, a nebulous black seen through incessant blinking,” there is another moment in which he chafes at the small, everyday cultural differences as if they were personal affronts. In one moment when he and Yosa are resting in his hotel room, Gilbert launches into a petty grievance about Japanese bathrooms:
The toilet apparatus didn’t only offer warm flushing water and a heated toilet seat, it also functioned as a stereo with a wide selection of soundscapes including the sea, rain showers, waterfalls of various heights, and babbling brooks . . . The mania with cleanliness in this country had gone so far that they even wanted to flush away filthy noises with water sounds.
The book spends an especially long time on their visit to the supposedly haunted Aokigahara, better known as the “Suicide Forest” on account of the hundreds of people who have hanged themselves from its trees. Their trek is creepy and ominous but also weirdly beautiful and even somewhat quaint. “The forest opened its black wings, closed in around them, drew itself closer and closer together with a sigh. Who is one fleeing when entering this forest?” Gilbert is not one for ghost stories—he is too practical for that—but Poschmann also never rules out the possibility that maybe he’ll be wrong.
Gilbert and Yosa’s journey mirrors much of The Narrow Road to the Interior, a travelogue written by the seventeenth-century master of haiku Matsuo Bashō, who was himself trying to mirror the travels of Saigyō Hōshi, a tenth-century Japanese poet. Bashō considered himself in conversation with Saigyō, and Gilbert considers himself in conversation with both of them. As he closes in on the pine islands, the writing becomes more spiritual and introspective—and also kind of abstractly intertextual, in that he starts to write haikus that are supposed to have meaning when juxtaposed with Bashō’s.
Perhaps Poschmann wanted to draw a poetic line through history. Perhaps she thought that poetry would be the best way to encapsulate northeastern Japan. Or perhaps she thought Gilbert’s deeper motivation for escaping to Japan was best expressed in verse. In any case, it’s hard to tell what to do with a haiku such as “A whole rice field / will have been planted / before I leave the willow” when it is presented at the center of the page. The work of parsing through such lines is best left to academics in Comparative Literature departments. For the average reader, meanwhile, these haikus at least accomplish a mystical effect, one that manages to create a little magic out of Gilbert’s trip after all.
In this essay, Kazakh writer Lilya Kalaus predicts what will happen when the COVID-19 quarantine comes to an end.
“Right, then, after the war, six in the evening!” Vodička shouted.
"Maybe come at 6:30 instead, in case I’m running late,” answered Švejk.
Vodička’s voice came again from far away.
“You can’t make it at six?!”
“Fine, I’ll be there at six!” came the response from Vodička’s comrade, as he too moved away.
And that is how brave soldier Švejk parted with the old sapper Vodička.
—Jaroslav Hasek, Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War
When I was little, I loved the book about the adventures of the good soldier Švejk. I laughed till I cried. Recently I started re-reading it—but somehow it wasn’t funny. Maybe I’m too old, maybe the text has gone flat, I don’t know. But it’s still interesting, of course. I especially liked one phrase: “At six o’clock in the evening after the war.” Ivan Pyryev swiped it for the title of his lyrical war drama in 1944, by the way. But what of it? War is more topical than ever and it would be a sin to forget it.
Now, why am I bringing this up? The grass is getting green, the rain pours down like tears, spring is hustling along, but the quarantine goes on and on. Naturally, people are losing their minds. The Internet is full of different visions of what will happen after the quarantine. How the world will change in terms of geopolitics and economics, how we’ll bury globalization for good, and what kind of pandemonium we’ll all descend into, assuming of course that the cursed corona spares us.
Well, those are completely understandable urges. A person is naturally inclined to prepare for the worst, listening in bravely to see if he’s about to get knocked into the abyss, where he’ll laze about in a silly homemade gauze mask. He’s got ginger root in one hand and an overtaxed COVID test in the other, the weirdo; gloves in one pocket, and a wrinkled application for a welfare payment (REJECTED) in the other. His feet are clad in his grandpa’s old workboots, wrapped in pale blue boot covers from China. His eyes show all the pain of antiviral therapy. And on his forehead, like diamonds, are big drops of sweat, because it’s awfully hot and stuffy in that damned mask. There! The perfect look for the hero of our time. He’d like to go on a drinking binge for a couple months just to wake up in the future, weak as a puppy, a crack through his trembling heart and a pulse over a hundred. And outside the window, there it would be, a brave new world . . .
But I’ve gotten carried away. There’s not going to be anything new, my dear. They’ll still shout the financial indices in their grating birdsong from the imponderable heights. Dull people will go on multiplying zero by zero on their ancient calculators, squatting around a fountain of oil. The stars will still shine over the Gothic cathedral, and the gargoyles will go on spitting disdainfully at your smartphone screen, from the side where you’ll never be. The world will remain untouchable and unknowable, whether you’re in its corona or not. The fleeting beauty of this moment is that everyone is equal before COVID, presidents and bums alike.
But no. Primus inter pares—there are also some who are more equal, as always. These are the good soldiers of the conquering army, who always know everything, act quickly and decisively, ready to roast anyone and anything with napalm—just as long as they can maintain their sense of righteousness and superiority. COVID can bite them, too, but they always have an absolute majority and will survive no matter how things shake out. The other survivors will surely take one on the jaw many more times to come.
So here’s my prediction: nothing special is going to happen. Even in quarantine we're not escaping our petty everyday squabbles. Wars continue across the planet as usual, both in the real world and the virtual. Money still decides everything, and no coronavirus is going to change that.
Sure, there will be fewer old folks strolling the parks and sidewalks, staring vacantly at some fixed point, shuffling along with their ski poles or walkers. Sure, we’ll wash our hands more often. Sure, we’ll start mass vaccinations, as soon as they put out a
Chinese vaccine. But the anti-vaxxers aren’t likely to shut up, are they? And another crisis will strike. Was there ever a lack of them? And some of the newly unemployed will howl about their loans for iPads and cars. And Trump will sneak around pumping brake fluid from the moon, or whatever. And we’ll make the transition to distance learning, distance working, distance eating. Business as usual.
We’ll learn to live with the coronavirus. We can live with politicians and corruption, can’t we? We moan and groan, march and picket, but we live on. It will be the same with COVID. Peaceful coexistence, like all the professors and Communist Party history departments were always drilling into us.
As for an economic or any other kind of rollback in the history of civilization . . . Well, it won’t be pleasant. Nobody’s arguing. But maybe, given that everyone knows progress has been going 150% over the past few years, it would be all right to march in place for a little. Surely we spent ten thousand years dicking around with pointed sticks, or the wheel. And we’re marching in place right now, too. Maybe we’ll finally master, say, fifteen percent of the iPhone’s functions. Not everyone—only about three percent makes any sense to me—but a lot of us.
Some people are making impatient noises now, like we didn’t finish the job killing off the bourgeoisie: there they are in their burrows, surrounded by hoarded buckwheat, lecturing us, and tormenting the old folks too, the vicious beasts.
I’m not like that. I’m nice and well-behaved. It’s just that I’m a sociopath. I don’t understand all these people suffering over not being able to go to their soccer pubs or beauty salons. Outdoor barbecues, hikes in the mountains, jogging, shopping, bus rides.
A close friend poured out her soul to me yesterday. So much unhappiness, tragedy, grief! She says she can’t buy barbell weights anywhere in St. Petersburg. All the sporting goods in all the stores are sold out, the Internet’s been completely combed over, and the weights she so dearly desires can only be delivered two months from now. A lonely tear rolls down her flushed cheek. O tempora! O mores! I had a sudden vision of all those good people carrying home the athletic supplies they’d wrestled away from the quarantine crowds in the store. I saw them arriving at home, lying down on their inflatable exercise mats, and getting to work arduously sculpting their bodies. Ha! But it's true. I've seen plenty of treadmills and training bikes transformed into clothing racks in people’s apartments.
I’ll say it again: I’m a sociopath. I have a hard time understanding people and I barely sympathize with them. I have personally noticed not a single change to my way of life during this state of emergency. For me, every 6:00 PM might as well be after the quarantine—or before it. That is to say that I’m in a lifelong quarantine, which just happens to coincide with the current, official quarantine. Considering it philosophically, we’re all locked in our own personal quarantines from the day we are born. We submit to the rules, in other words. Actually, this internal quarantine might even be what prompts the emergence of reason. Maybe it's thanks to a quarantine of Mother Nature that we even appeared? She’s just sent down some revisions. Previously there was no curfew, but now there is. Get used to it, kids! Be fruitful and multiply, and hang in there, okay?
But the people really do want a holiday, and I’m with them. So let’s meet at six in the evening after the quarantine and go drink some beer. It will be strange outside: squirrels, rabbits, lords of the forest like elk and bears, vines and spiders the size of saucers, columns of ants where sports fields should be and monkeys hanging in bunches off television antennas. Instead of shoddy asphalt and buckled slabs of concrete there will be a Baskervillian bog. The streetlights and the stoplights will give us a last embrace and blink, worried, as we go.
Law enforcement in its miraculous protective coveralls will be out there with us, too. We can splash some beer at their gas masks. And we’ll carry the doctors in our arms, like warriors of old. And the soldiers will be with us, and the politicians, and the bankers, and the bloggers, and the journalists—why not? For one short evening, we can pretend to be a unified human community of rational people.
"В шесть часов вечера после карантина" © Lilya Kalaus. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Shelley Fairweather-Vega. All rights reserved.
How should we review works in translation?
Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation is a new series of reviews from Words Without Borders that seeks to provide one possible response to the habitual question, "How Should We Review Translation?" The question is trickier than it might seem on its face, for it assumes that reviewers are paying any attention to the translator at all. In recent years, progress has been made in creating greater visibility for the art of translation through campaigns like #namethetranslator; still, it remains rare to see substantive engagement by critics with the act of translation itself, whether they are writing in the New York Times or in publications dedicated to international literature. In this series, critics and translators Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem seek to enact a translation-centric criticism, hoping, as they go along, to craft a new paradigm for the work of the critic of translated literature.
Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem on Their New Series “Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation”
This collection of stories by the Ecuadorean writer and journalist depicts episodes of abuse in a way that may not be exactly enjoyable to read, but feels urgent, gripping, and smart.
This is the first installment in WWB's new series Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation, in which Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem review translated books with a focus on the translation itself. Read more about the series in this interview with Meyer and Kareem.
The Ecuadorean writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero is not a fan of the family. In each of the thirteen stories that make up her collection Cockfight, newly translated by Frances Riddle, Ampuero presents the home as a trap, a prison, or a site of wrenching abuse. Asked about this in a 2019 conversation with the BBC, Ampuero replied in stark terms, telling the interviewer, “It seems to me that the relationship between parents and children contains something monstrous.” (The interview was conducted in Spanish; this translation is mine.) Later, she added, “Tolstoy says that happy families are alike and unhappy ones are each unhappy in their own way. I think happy families are alike because they’re fictional. I don’t believe that happy families exist.”
Cockfight’s familial pessimism has a clear feminist slant. Only one story, “Blinds,” features a male protagonist, a preteen boy on a miserable family vacation. In the rest, Ampuero keeps female perspectives front and center, and adult men appear almost exclusively as villains—which is not to say adult women can’t be villains, too. In “Griselda,” a grown daughter beats her mother in private, and the narrator’s mother in “Blinds” is both a victim and perpetrator of abuse. But more often, Ampuero presents men and masculinity as a threat. In the collection’s opener, “Auction,” the unnamed narrator falls victim to what is known in Ecuador as a secuestro exprés, or taxi kidnapping. Blindfolded and awaiting her fate, she smells roosters nearby and is transported to her childhood, spent helping her father raise cocks and clean up blood after cockfights. The smell of her kidnappers’ hideout is “the smell of my life, the smell of my father. It smells of blood, of man, of shit, of cheap liquor, of sour sweat and industrial grease.” Ampuero takes pains here to merge the narrator’s father with her kidnapper. Both are men; both are threats.
In later stories, this merging transforms into a recurrent depiction of incest. Often, this means straightforward abuse, as in “Mourning,” a story in which a grown man idealizes one of his adult sisters while turning the other into a sex slave. “Mourning” is among Ampuero’s weaker stories—it leans hard on the Madonna-whore dichotomy without complicating it or innovating on the theme—but its anger and force are undeniable, as is the sisters’ ultimate bond. More interesting, though, is Ampuero’s occasional habit of using children’s nascent desire for their siblings or cousins as a representation of innocence, or an instinctive repudiation of family structure and norms. “Nam” presents a preadolescent threesome—two siblings, one friend—as an escape from humiliation and secrecy, and a similar threesome in “Blinds” gives the narrator, Felipe, hope that he and his cousins can form an enduring bond instead of becoming invisible to each other, like the many “relatives who passed through this family like the maids walked through the house.” The scene is both painful and moving to read; the impulse to turn away meshes with real hope that the narrator’s optimism will not prove unfounded.
But in Cockfight, optimism never works out. Nearly every story has a grim twist at the end—or, if not grim, then one that seems to rejoice either in gore or in misery. Often, Ampuero amps up a story’s violence in its final moments, driving home the book’s commitment to darkness. Occasionally, these endings are cathartic: “Mourning” is a revenge fantasy, and in “Auction,” the narrator finds an ugly way to set herself free. But more often, Ampuero uses twist endings to prevent the catharsis that usually makes sad or frightening fiction pleasurable to read.
Her stories ask the reader to look directly at terrible human impulses—racism in “Coro,” child abuse in “Blinds” and “Pups,” gender-based violence in nearly all the rest—but, unusually, do not then offer the release of either redemption or grief. Life marches resolutely on in Cockfight, as unknowable and unbearable at each story’s end as it was at its beginning. This is a major shift from most contemporary tragedy, which tends to rely on resolution; Cockfight is, perhaps, the polar opposite of novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling literary tearjerker A Little Life. Both Yanagihara and Ampuero force the reader to confront awful violence, but where Yanagihara tips her novel into climactic tragedy, Ampuero instead looks squarely at what, to misquote Hannah Arendt, I might call the banality of cruelty.
Ampuero’s stance is demanding and admirable, and a more accurate reflection of life than Yanagihara’s self-conscious drama. It also takes a toll. Cockfight is not, strictly speaking, enjoyable to read. It is, however, urgent, gripping, and smart. Ampuero structures her stories so tightly and builds their momentum so well that stopping in the middle of one is barely possible, except to admire a shudderingly accurate description or intelligent turn of phrase. The sharpness and detail of Ampuero’s language and social observation are decisive in making Cockfight work as literary fiction, rather than cheap horror. This raises the stakes for Riddle’s translation in a big way. If her sentences were lifeless or lightless, Cockfight might seem like slasher fiction, which would entirely undermine the book’s agenda. It might also simply be unreadable. Thankfully, neither is the case. Riddle’s translation brings Ampuero’s stories to English-language life.
This is not to say her translation is pretty. The language in Cockfight is blunt, as it should be, and hyperspecific in its bluntness. Take “Auction,” whose narrator seems to delight in using the most precise and graphic language available to describe the bodies of dead fighting cocks. In the original, roosters are despanzurrados and descuajaringados, both of which could translate simply to smashed. But smashed is much flatter than either, and so Riddle opts for tougher language: despanzurrado—with its echo of panza, or belly—becomes gutted, and descuajaringado becomes “ruined and bloody.”
Riddle is equally unsparing with human bodies. In “Blinds,” Felipe’s beloved cousin Julio hits adolescence and becomes “a hateful, acne-ridden creature who never stopped popping his zits.” In “Ali,” a domestic worker complains about her boss taking too many uppers and then prowling the house with “her eyes bugged out, looking like an owl.” Both descriptions blend colloquial language with authorial flourishes, and do so swiftly enough that a reader might not stop to notice the transition from the high-flown hateful creature to the lowbrow zits. These rapid tonal shifts are key to Ampuero’s style, and Riddle manages them well. She’s especially good at choosing words that are idiomatic without connoting place, which is crucial to a translation’s success. If her slang made Ampuero’s characters sound like American Southerners rather than Ecuadoreans, the whole book would be thrown off, but if she included no slang whatsoever, Ampuero’s tonal precision would be lost.
Perhaps the best example of Riddle’s skill in recreating Ampuero’s complex prose is “Griselda,” which is narrated by a little girl in a neighborhood where everyone is, if not poor, then at least broke. The difficulty here is immense: the narrator has to sound articulate but not adult, convincingly working-class but not stereotypically so, and plausible in English without losing her Ecuadorean-ness. Riddle uses slightly more Spanish here than in the other stories, and leans harder on colloquialisms. The narrator’s mother avoids conflict because she “[doesn’t] like all the ruckus,” and when the story’s object of fascination, a cake decorator named Miss Griselda, gets mysteriously hurt, a rumor circulates that she “busted open her head” after an alcoholic bender. Ruckus and busted are unpleasant-sounding words, serving at once to emphasize the story’s ugliness and to locate it in social context. They also remind the reader that a child is speaking: where an adult might try to smooth ugly words and gossip away, the protagonist here doesn’t bother.
Ampuero often relies on child narrators and memories of childhood for precisely this reason. The honesty of youth serves her stories’ anti-familial darkness well. It also gives her space to describe mundane or alarming sensations with a hint of excitement or wonder. In “Christ,” a young girl likens holding her baby brother to “carrying wrinkled tissue paper in my arms.” Later, when he has a fever, she compares touching his forehead to “putting my hand over a bright candle.” Both images are lovely, if fleeting. They provide glimmers of beauty that Cockfight needs.
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A nameless town grows into a mythic city in this excerpt from Dina Salústio's novel Veromar.
The residents of See-the-Sea, most of whom hailed from distant places, made friends easily and had no qualms about baring their lives to anyone who passed by. They particularly liked telling stories about the place, as though sharing its secrets imbued their words with new meaning, bridged distances, and, most importantly, cast tired objects and situations in a fantastical new light.
Their favorite story went like this: one day, in an unspecified year, all the newspapers and radio announcers started talking about beautiful See-the-Sea, which, though not yet a household name or a sleepless city, had by this time become known as a wealthy inland capital, a city of gold, a city of dreams. And it was the latter characterization that many people started to wonder about.
What exactly is a city of dreams? What joys does it conceal? How many nightmares lurk just behind its various faces? How many crimes, tragedies, poems does it harbor? How to measure its portents and its passions? How great are the secrets that it keeps? Do dreams mean the same thing to everyone, or are they so nuanced that the opposite is true?
There’s some truth to the story they told. Their inland city is in fact named See-the-Sea. It has no ocean or seagulls. There are no boats to be seen there, no talk of sailors courting young girls; no one tells tales of men yearning for mermaids, fishermen boasting of their catches, crews lost to shipwreck, or believers saved by miracles; no special preparations are made for weddings on the feast of Our Lady of the Sea, and no one speaks of ships decorated on feast days, of women’s gazes shifting from beach to waves in search of men who have disappeared; you won’t find any young girls planning, in a great show of independence, to take up the sailor’s life. There is no place in the city where you might shield your eyes with your hands, searching the distant horizon for sails; you won’t hear the salty tidal winds blow nor see signs of whales passing by. See-the-Sea is another story, and there are so many versions of it told in so many ways that you could construct an entirely different one if you wished. For now, though, the most common variant will do.
One Sunday afternoon, when a few men erecting what would become their city tired of playing cards, they started talking, without even realizing it, about the places they were born. They remembered the families they had left behind and, with sudden emotion, let it be understood that they had no plans to return. The letters they sent home barely mentioned prosperity, but spoke rather of longing and the desire to embrace each other again in the new region.
To help pass the time, one of them challenged each of the others to reveal his innermost desire. They viewed it not as a challenge, but as an innocent game.
“No, it’s better we don’t say it out loud. Let’s write it down. That way, it’s like an oath,” another chimed in, clinging to each word as if afraid it might escape or wander off.
They all knew the written word carried more weight than spoken language, because blank paper, as soon as it’s written on, signed, and read, ceases to be an open page to which ideas, words, or commas can be added; it becomes a definitive record with a life of its own, respected and revered—in other words, an authority that speaks, listens, condemns, and absolves. That’s how it was in all the places they and everyone they knew had ever set foot. There was no reason for it to be any different in mining country.
They resolved that each of them would commit his greatest wish to paper. Thus the record of a simple desire would become a covenant that they would live to fulfill.
Cheerfully—it seemed the game had given them access to a new side of themselves—the men sought out the means for their task. They divided the only two pencils they could find into thirds. The pencils were even smaller after they finished sharpening them with a penknife, but it didn’t matter; they had very little to write. Only the essential.
One of them suggested that they take the opportunity to pick a name for the region where they lived. “Since we’re all writers now, let’s give this place a name,” he said, showing just how easily they were adjusting to their new roles on this slow-moving afternoon. It would be the second point they were to commit to the record.
They heard the word “record” for the third time and, cognizant of its solemn weight, wrapped up the playing cards in a colorless cloth so marred by stains that—as often happens with people—it seemed not to have any spots, scars, or memories at all. It took them longer than usual to fold it up.
The proposal, or maybe something larger than that, a tremendous desire for belonging, stirred the workers, who would normally be enjoying their Sunday rest before resuming the week’s never-ending tasks.
They were delighted by their colleague’s idea, and each of them almost swore—or rather, really did swear—that not a night went by when he didn’t think the place where they lived ought to have a proper name.
“A real name . . . a matter of honor . . . a right,” they said, finishing each other’s sentences.
“It’s not right that people think we live in the middle of nowhere, a few miles from point A or on the other side of point B.” The words sprang up of their own accord, independent of and certainly more resolute than the person saying them.
They discussed the matter for some time and finally discovered that every last one of them, every day, thought about how unfair it was that there was no record of the place they lived, no name they could mention in letters to their families or even keep in their heads and resort to in moments of need.
“And this place is so big it actually makes you angry to think it’s gone without a name for so long!” This was followed by a sort of applause.
The worker who seemed most inclined to steer the conversation toward other subjects echoed his colleague and added dreamily that the place where we live is like a friend or relative: when we fail to call it by its name or give it a nickname, no matter how simple, it’s as if we were treating it with enormous disregard.
“It’s as if we were wiping it from the face of the earth,” said a stonemason with a voice as hard as the boulders he cut.
The harsh afternoon weather had clearly made them sentimental, although that is, of course, just a conjecture, as they seldom offered any opportunity for the world to guess at their inner lives.
As time passed, the atmosphere grew so tense—so unsettling, even—that the men shrank before the pieces of paper that stared back at them, sarcastic, cruel, and seductive, as if offering themselves up and then refusing; as if simultaneously opening their arms and turning away; like someone who kisses and then forgets you; like, for that matter, all blank pages. The pencils, moistened by ardent tongues, shaped each letter. Some of the men pressed too hard and tore the paper, but then started writing again, more gently, in the unharmed spaces. Learning as they went.
"You who have no fear of a virgin page, no dread before a fountain pen, no horror of the written word, by all means, confess it now. These things attract us, they undeniably attract us, but they reduce us to an expression so simple as to crush us, to show us the meaning of uncertainty and fear. They defy, provoke, and lead us to death, and then we are reborn.” The voice of the madman from their natal village—a poet, you might say—spoke through the memory of one of the stonemasons, and they all understood the fundamental difficulty he described.
When one of the men read aloud what each of them had written, they could see that besides the same profession, the same employer, and the same fondness for gambling, they all shared the same yearning that now coalesced into a single desire: to see the sea before they died.
Caught in a flood of conflicting emotions, they had forgotten the second part of their challenge, and none of them had written a name for what was then a land of solitude, where they had begun the construction of a manufacturing city.
Worn out from writing, which had consumed quite a bit of energy, and eager to complete their task, the men agreed not to write another word—they already had enough material to choose a name.
“That’s life,” said one of the workers, tossing his pencil fragment into a box with the others without the slightest hint of frustration. To tell the truth, he liked to keep a couple of doubts and unanswered questions in his head. He couldn’t say why, but he made sure to abandon a line of thought before ever reaching the end, before arriving at an answer or clarification, maybe because it allowed him to return to the problem whenever he wanted, without the extra work of thinking up or searching for new questions. Circular questions that followed their defined paths and never strayed: this was the secret between him and the nights of stubborn insomnia and relentless doubts. Nights, in truth, that inspired a certain tenderness in him, and even the occasional shout of joy.
The worker who had been appointed secretary began to read the scraps of paper on which each of them had written “to see-the-sea before dying.” Written just like that, with hyphens. Maybe to fill the whole piece of paper, or because that was the shape they imagined for their longing, or because they didn’t know the words any other way.
“The name of the city can only be Dying. That’s the one word that stands out. Dying will be the name of our city,” he repeated, his strong voice marked by a note of displeasure that might have been defiance.
The word “dying” was written on every scrap of paper.
“No!” A shout rose up, brimming with the outrage the name had inspired.
“There are three nearby cities called Dying: Dying-up-above, Dying-down-below, and Dying. The last thing we want is to be accused of plagiarizing historical names.”
Admittedly, no one used the word “plagiarize,” but based on their spirited exchanges, it would have been the most fitting term for the situation.
“If we were the second or even the third city called Dying, it wouldn’t be so bad—the neighbors would probably understand. But to be the fourth community with that name would be humiliating, like we were admitting defeat.”
“What’s more, it might seem like we weren’t thinking for ourselves.”
“Dying-halfway wouldn’t be such a bad name, though.”
“I guess Dying-halfway might be all right.” No one sounded very confident.
They looked again at the scraps of paper, the only thing they still had in common, and in the interest of consensus—highly advisable in matters of names—they decided, after much contemplation, that the city would be called See-the-Sea. It was the second idea that tied them together. They never knew, of course, that their city was born of an accident (or many accidents), because without thinking twice, every single one of them had joined the verb, the article, and the noun with hyphens, apparently fulfilling some very strange psychological urge.
But an accident? Who’s in a position to say that a city’s name is derived from an accident? Does anyone have such power? Can we really know how many accidents we are made of? How many lies we are built on? An eclipse: is that an accident? A thunderstorm, a wave, a longing . . . are all of us accidents wandering through other people’s lives? Through other people’s accidents? Was the name they had chosen born of an accident? Maybe, but it was also born of a desire. Of the desire they all shared, and that was what mattered.
And so it became See-the-Sea.
Now with a name for their city, and certainly without realizing it, the workers began to speak and act differently. It was as if that immense piece of earth, newly christened, had transformed into a woman, a person; it filled them with warmth. They weren’t alone anymore.
And yet See-the-Sea evoked distant joys, called for whispered exchanges and renewed embraces. The men hurried to send for their families.
All who heard them were touched by their descriptions of what they felt upon breathing in the unmistakable scent of the land that was now theirs, upon seeing the sky, the clouds, and the soil of the mining country in colors that the best painters from the most vibrant continents hadn’t yet attempted. They talked at such length that most people, even today, take exceptional care in repeating what they said, so as not to cause any embarrassment for the descendants of the founding Seamen.
For centuries See-the-Sea was an isolated region, often loved, sometimes rejected, happy or sad depending on the year, the season, and the characters, just like any other place known to man. Not any place, but most places. Well, to be completely honest, not even most, but just a few defined places, whether beloved or unloved.
Whenever the region came up in conversation, its inhabitants were promptly described as extravagant, mistrustful, and a whole series of qualities that, it must be said, are hardly enough to merit a black mark against someone or set them apart from the rest. Yet those who passed through the area said the only assertion that could be even partially proven—and that was not in itself relevant or worthy of censure—was that the residents of See-the-Sea were very careful with their words and said only what was strictly necessary (and often not even that). “Tight-lipped even in death,” the gossips whispered.
For the many who treat speech as a cheap and meaningless activity, this particular personality trait would clearly fall outside the realm of normality.
But how do we define what’s worth putting into words and what isn’t? By what authority do we draw distinctions and render statutes, give voice and impose silence? The red pencil that strikes stupidity and lauds intelligence—where does it stop?
The women of See-the-Sea were more talkative than the men, and between one chore and the next they opened up to each other, though always partway, always wary, always in the hypothetical, whispering, “What’s wrong with our men? What are they hiding from us? What could be bothering them so?”
They didn’t know that the same silence that plagued their male counterparts plagued them too, despite their daily routines allowing for a few exchanges that might aptly be termed “subsistence dialogue,” but which inhabitants of the region would certainly consider excessive. The men found it very easy to accuse the women of foolishness, but the latter paid no attention and even provoked the men just to hear their voices and feel some sense of emotional life in that place.
The truth was that the men didn’t reveal their feelings to anyone, not even their own shadows, which at a certain time of day became so small as to vanish into their bodies, a phenomenon also experienced by the women and all the other creatures in the region, whether they had souls or not.
The people of See-the-Sea—at least the most radical among them—came to believe that at that time of day, the body and the mind actually devoured the shadow. They were so convinced of this strange dietary regimen that when they felt the moment approaching, they perched on strategically located rocks until their shadows reappeared. Visitors to the region reported that residents wished for the extinction of shadows everywhere so they would never again have to worry about that little fragment of time. Evidently, the people of See-the-Sea had a penchant for exaggeration, a compulsion that permeated their society. This is corroborated by historical accounts.
That special moment when bodies lost their shadows became known as the Waning Time, lord of all that transpired during that little slice of the day. It was said that no one with any sense dared defy it.
Certain prohibitions took effect during that part of the day. Set off on a journey in the Waning Time? Never. Harvest or sow during Waning Time? No. Give birth during Waning Time? Not on your life. Mix ingredients, be they for bread, cheese mass, pastries, or even concrete, during Waning Time? Absolutely forbidden. Pursue a romance during Waning Time? Romance was permitted, but only when it was murky, extraordinary, complicated, terrible, and, why not, reprehensible, of the kind that puts people between a dagger and a sword, both pointed at the soul, whether radiant or bathed in sadness. At times, an endless nightmare.
In spite of the silences, the extravagances, and the power attributed to the Waning Time, in spite of all that, which is already strange enough, what really frustrated the people of See-the-Sea and forced them to rigorously measure their every word was nothing more than their inability to guess what those around them, whether neighbor or relative, friend or enemy, platonic or intimate companion, was thinking. And they believed—just imagine it—that everyone else had that ability.
This drama—or perhaps tragedy?—strengthened the individuality and individualism of each citizen of See-the-Sea, and gave rise to such fervent personal conviction that outside observers ascribed it to the realm of faith.
As a result, everyone in See-the-Sea shielded themselves behind mistrust, trapped in the nonsensical belief that someone was listening in on their thoughts.
This was the basis underlying the decision—the radical decision—each took, and therefore all of them took, to put a definitive end to thinking at all and transform the place into a sphere of profound silence. Smug smiles, complicit glances, and any gestures that might be considered compromising were relegated to the darkness, and so the act of thinking in See-the-Sea became a strictly prohibited exercise that was at once highly seductive.
Who was responsible for this society that gave words so much power? Why did an entire population silence itself, forbidding both thought and speech? What do words have to do with happiness? How long could the silence sustain so much loneliness, so much neglect—so many lives?
Time, the best cure for all ills, completed hundreds of millions of revolutions, and one day, when the people woke up, they felt different—they forgot that everyone else could read their thoughts. Their conversations were normal, as were their demeanors. When the weekend arrived and it came time to play “the game of truth,” or their favorite, “guess what I’m thinking,” they felt calm and confident, like someone heading to church, at the appointed time, for an encounter with the divine.
© Dina Salústio. Translation © 2020 by Nina Perrotta. All rights reserved.
Far from the sun of my home
running to Africa
running to Europe
running to America
running across the map
running across the globe
—Corsino Fortes, “Recode d’Umbertona” (Message to Umbertona)1 in Pão & Fonema (Bread & Phoneme), 1974
The Cabo Verde islands have been a historically important piece on the geopolitical chessboard, variously employed as a map reference point, a supply port, and a link between continents and coasts.
The Cabo Verdean view of the world, and by extension the world of literature, has inevitably been shaped by our being an island people, but the Cabo Verdean writers of today aspire to see their work travel the world and long for their country’s literature to occupy a central place in the global picture.
Cabo Verde, from Dot on the Map to Cultural Bridge
It has traditionally been said that Cabo Verde’s two main resources are its latitude and longitude, fixed points; in other words, its geographical location. This is why the islands have been used throughout history as a supply base for voyages of “discovery” or coastal trading, as a point of reference on maps, and as a bridge connecting two extremes of the Atlantic.
From 1462 onward, Portugal endeavored to populate the islands. The aim was to make them a base for naval voyages, including voyages of “discovery” to the south, and to support coastal trading.
In 1494, the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal signed the Tordesillas Treaty. Named after the Spanish town in which it was negotiated, the treaty divided all “discovered or to be discovered” lands outside Europe between the two crowns.
The treaty was prompted by Portuguese objections to Spanish ambitions in the wake of Christopher Columbus’s voyage of a year and a half earlier, when the New World was “discovered” and officially claimed by Queen Isabella I of Spain (1474–1504). The treaty's dividing line was a meridian 370 leagues west of Santo Antão, an island in the Cabo Verde archipelago.
A Bridge Connecting Two Extremes
Cabo Verde was more than just a strategically located point on the map; it also served as a bridge between two ethnic groups, one from Europe and one from Africa, and between two parts of the Atlantic Ocean, the north and the south.
Right from the start, Cabo Verdean concepts of identity and individuality were defined by this mixed reality: the African and the European, in all their diverse and contrasting characteristics.
Cabo Verde is therefore a sui generis case of a people formed by the blending of races and institutions, and the people were quick to grasp this and forge their own path and culture. Cabo Verde's folklore, popular music, creole language, and high regard for literature are all examples of this mixed origin and remain defining characteristics of its people today.
The creole nature of the Cabo Verdean people, a product of the land they were born in and the social and historical circumstances they grew up in, is what we will, in this introduction and the work featured here, seek to explore and understand.
Maritime Ports Linking Europe, Africa, and the Americas
The initial importance of Cabo Verde in geographical terms owed everything to its ports. The first of these was Porto de Ribeira Grande, established in Santiago and in use from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries; in subsequent centuries, the Porto de Sal-Rei would be built on the island of Boa Vista and the Porto de Furna on the island of Brava. Both of these ports lasted from the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, when they were replaced by Porto Grande on the island of São Vicente.
While no longer so defined by its geography, and at a time when its double anchorage is much discussed—Cabo Verde is part of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and afforded special status within the periphery zone of the European Union (EU)—the archipelago largely plays the same role as it always has, as a global reference point and a bridge between continents, qualities that could perhaps be better valued and put to greater use.
The World in Cabo Verdean Literature
To consider world literature from a Cabo Verdean point of view, or to view it through the tiny prism of life on the islands, is to appreciate that Cabo Verde’s own literature cannot be contemplated without reference to other latitudes, and therefore other literatures.
One way to think about it is to treat Cabo Verde's literary output as a metaphor for the human body.
A Global Head
While rooted in Cabo Verde, the country’s first writings looked to Africa and Europe.
Sixteenth-century writers / Africa
We might reasonably begin with André Alvares d’Almada, a native of the island of Santiago and the “child of a brown woman.” A highly learned and knowledgeable man, in 1594 he was elected to represent the island and seek an audience with Dom Filipe I, to try and convince the king of the value of populating Sierra Leone. Alvares d’Almada wrote Tratado Breve dos Rios de Guiné do Cabo Verde [A Brief Treatise on the Rivers of Cabo Verdean Guinea] in 1594.
Also of interest is André Donelha. Little is known of Donelha’s life, but school records suggest he was born on the island of Santiago between 1550 and 1560. He wrote Descrição da Serra Leoa e dos rios da Guiné do Cabo Verde [A Description of Sierra Leone and the Rivers of Cabo Verdean Guinea] in 1625.
As the titles above suggest, much as in other colonial-era literatures around the globe, the earliest Cabo Verdean writers concerned themselves with describing the natural resources and navigation routes of interest to Portugal and other colonial powers. Only later would Cabo Verdean writers turn their attention to what we would today recognize as literary concerns.
The Nativist Generation of the Almanaques (1851–1932) / Europe
This is the period in which print media first emerged on the islands and the foundations of a Cabo Verdean literature were established. Prominent writers included Guilherme da Cunha Dantas, the very first Cabo Verdean writer, who, upon returning to Cabo Verde after ten years in Portugal, found it difficult to adapt to what he felt was a restrictive environment; Luiz Loff de Vasconcellos; Eugénio Tavares, whose mornas have been recorded by many musical artists; José Lopes da Silva; and Pedro Monteiro Cardoso, all born between 1800 and 1920.
In terms of formal aesthetics and subject matter, the period was dominated by Portuguese neoclassicism (1756–1825) and romanticism (1825–1865), especially the latter’s final stages, known as ultra-romanticism, which was adopted in Cabo Verde a little later than elsewhere and is a clear sign of the heavy influence wielded by the Santo Nicolau Seminary School, established in 1866, a major cultural and educational force characterized as “the light that shone most brightly on Cabo Verde.”
Writing in this period typically employed vernacular Portuguese on the one hand, following the example of Portuguese literature, and a pure form of creole, or crioulo, on the other, as nativists sought to champion creole values.
Feet on the Ground
The writers who followed looked to other latitudes for inspiration.
The Regionalist Generation of Claridade (1936–1960) and the Americas
The dominant aesthetics in this period were the same as those explored by Brazilian modernism (1922) and Portuguese modernism (1927–1940). In thematic terms, realism was the main influence, following the Brazilian trend (from 1930 to 1945/50, grosso modo) and neo-realism, in line with Portuguese tendencies (1940–1950).
Writing in this period involved a sort of breaking away from and reinventing of the language to produce a hybrid form of crioulo and oral Portuguese, a language consistent with this generation’s aesthetic and political concerns.
Writers in this period included António Aurélio Gonçalves, Jorge Vera-Cruz Barbosa, Baltasar Lopes da Silva (using the pseudonym Osvaldo Alcântara), and Henrique Teixeira de Sousa, all of whom were born between 1900 and 1920. Gonçalves, Barbosa, and Lopes da Silva constituted a founding nucleus for the Claridade movement, whose artistic ideals—centered not only on the reinvention of language but also on a break with poetic rhyme, meter, and even traditional genres—found expression in the movement’s eponymous literary journal. Lopes likened the movement to sinking one’s feet into the Cabo Verdean earth, thus transforming them into roots that would find nourishment in “the authentic humus of our islands."2
The writers that followed readjusted their focus.
The Nationalist Militancy Generation (1958–1975) / Africa
A new phase began in the late 1950s, one labeled nationalist, in which literature was used as a weapon in the struggle to build a new nation. The period was marked by the publication of the “Cultural Supplement” of the Cabo Verde – Boletim de Propaganda e Informação [Cabo Verde Propaganda and Information Bulletin] in 1958. The group of contributors to the Cultural Supplement, which published only a single volume, was composed of several writers living in Lisbon, where the majority of them had attended university. Living in the Casa dos Estudantes do Império (a residence for non-Portuguese students earning their degrees in the Portuguese capital), they would come into contact with many of the figures who would lead movements for independence across Portugal’s African colonies.
Here, writers embraced the diction of the Claridade generation and took it to its logical conclusion, employing a linguistic code that was influenced by and interspersed with crioulo words.
Writers in this period included Aguinaldo da Fonseca, whose poetry portrayed social injustice; Gabriel Lopes da Silva Mariano, a novelist and poet who won the 1976 Prémio de Literatura Africana and the 1996 Prémio Vale Flor; Ovídio de Sousa Martins, poet and one of the founders of the Cabo Verde – Boletim de Propaganda e Informação; and Onésimo Silveira, all born between 1920 and 1930.
With Open Arms and Outstretched Hands
The Global Generation (1975–), new themes and new visions of the world
The post-independence generation is more universalist and makes use of new forms of expression. Aesthetically, literature's universal classics are the principal reference.
Initially, diction reflected the revival and celebration of all things creole (not least language, the principal means of communication in all areas of Cabo Verdean life, literature included). Later, as nationalist manifestations cooled, writers became more open to global influences.
The globalist generation takes Portuguese to be a literary language in and of itself. They have no qualms about interiorizing it, playing with it, and pushing it to its limits, while also making literary use of the islands’ mother tongue. Indeed, there is a branch of writers, most of them from the island of Santiago, who choose to write almost exclusively in crioulo, which some prefer to call Cabo Verdean.
Writers from this period include Corsino Fortes, João Manuel Varela (using the heteronymns João Vário, Timóteo Tio Tiofe, and G. T. Didial), Oswaldo Osório, Arménio Vieira, Dina Salústio, Germano Almeida, Fátima Bettencourt, Jorge Carlos Fonseca, and Vera Duarte, all born between 1930 and 1960, and José Luís Hopffer Almada, Filinto Elísio Silva, Vadinho Velhinho, José Luiz Tavares, and Margarida Fontes, born after 1960.
Cabo Verde's Place in the World and in World Literature
“Here, from our modest vantage point, the city of Mindelo […] we took perfect note of the general situation”: So wrote Baltasar Lopes of global developments in the 1930s, a period the Claridade generation was well attuned to in producing a literature that was both modern and regional.
The principal Cabo Verdean writers of today—Arménio Vieira and Germano Almeida, Camões Prize winners in 2009 and 2018, respectively; Dina Salústio, an English PEN award winner in 2018; Fátima Bettencourt and Filinto Elísio—seek to place Cabo Verde at the center of things (geographically and in terms of world literature) in their work.
The importance placed on creating a space for Cabo Verde at the center of things can be evidenced in the writing that appears in this issue. In “Lisbon – 1971,” Arménio Vieira writes, “In point of fact, we were the poorest / of the Africans brought there [Lisbon],” while his poem “Caviar, Champagne, and Fantasy” talks of “dreaming of champagne and caviar / on Praia's Esplanada in Santiago de Cabo Verde / on the 29th of January, 1971”; in the first poem, the poet, torn from his own environment and taken to the capital of the empire, a place he finds shocking, becomes increasingly aware of his own identity and of not belonging to his new world, while in the second, the world belongs to him. Praia is the convergence of all worlds, of champagne and caviar.
If Vieira gestures toward the idea of Cabo Verde as the center of the world while also leveling with a sense of being outside it, his fellow Camões Prize winner Germano Almeida declares Cabo Verdeans “proud of the center of the earth where they live . . . their sights set on foreign parts, their hearts on the islands.” Almeida elegantly depicts the way in which Cabo Verdeans love their land, though their eyes forever seek the horizon. In his second essay in this issue, “A Form of African Identity,” Almeida avers that Cabo Verdeans consider themselves "possessors and bearers of a cultural identity that defined and distinguished us. We shared a Creole language and the open, relaxed customs, known as morabeza, that are unique to Cabo Verde; only we knew how to compose and sing morna music; and even our grogue [a sugarcane liquor] and cachupa [a traditional dish made from a corn and bean base] would never be confused with African palm wine or funge." It is this creole identity that is specific to Cabo Verdeans and distinguishes them from the rest of the world, complicating attempts at reckoning with notions of African identity.
This sense of cultural exceptionalism also permeates Dina Salústio’s novel Veromar, excerpted here as “See-the-Sea.” In the selection here, the town’s founders set about creating an identity for their city, which becomes the topic of headlines. The townspeople’s choice of a name represents their ambitions to make the city what it is not. And yet, we are told, See-the-Sea “become[s] known as [ . . .] a city of dreams,” the center of attention and the center of the world.
Elsewhere, stories by Fátima Bettencourt and Luís Romano and poems by Filinto Elísio insert Cabo Verde into a universal context (in more than one sense). In Bettencourt's “The Last Judgment,” translated here by Anna Kushner, a women looks on, “astounded, as the greatest massacre this planet had ever seen took place.” The biblical flood seen “from my window” happening on one of the islands seems more like an image from an inverted telescope. Luís Romano, whose vision of a universal Cabo Verdean literature included carving out space for work written in Cabo Verdean (Portuguese being the dominant literary language), contributes here with "Old Isidoro." Where Bettencourt and Romano's texts are concerned with things coming to an end, Filinto Elísio ponders the line between existence and nonexistence from a different angle in "On Beginnings." Pivoting from questions of existence to questions of influence, Elísio reclaims US jazz pianist and composer Horace Silver (Horace Ward Martin Tavares Silva), son of João Tavares Silva from Cabo Verde and his wife, Gertrude Edmonds, from Connecticut, in “Song for My Father,” in which he imagines the Silver song playing on the Apollo 12 moon mission, vindicating Cabo Verde’s claim to occupying a central place in the world.
Cabo Verde’s Future in the World of Letters
The concept of world literature may be a relatively recent construct, but Cabo Verde's literary elites have long been in dialogue with the Other, developing an intertextuality with literature from around the globe.
While previous generations sought to bring the world to the islands, today’s writers seek to capitalize on the initiative of new publishers, such as Rosa de Porcelana Editores and Pedro Cardoso Livraria, and take the islands to the world, especially the world of letters. This new sense of opportunity is based on the distribution of their work through Lisbon, the old metropole, spreading out from there to reach more readers, more students of literature and culture, and more university bookshelves, both in Portuguese and in translation to other languages. In this way Cabo Verde will, if not take its place at the center of the world, then at least get to run across the globe.
© 2020 by Manuel Brito-Semedo. Translation © 2020 by Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.
Filinto Elísio meditates on the border between existence and nonexistence in this short poem.
A cry, at birth,
and, then, only silence.
Inert stone, atomic,
nuclear before life.
© Filinto Elísio. Translation © 2020 by Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.
Camões Prize–winner Germano Almeida traces the formation of a new Cabo Verdean identity in this short essay.
It was when I was in grade four that I learned that, in addition to being a Cabo Verdean from Boa Vista, I was also a Portuguese from Portugal.
It was an extremely gratifying discovery. In the first place because we had just been learning that Portugal possessed numerous immense lands both within and beyond the seas, in Africa and in other parts of the world, and that meant that as Portuguese we were equally rich in gold, diamonds, and other valuables that we were becoming familiar with from books, though without a clear idea of what value or use they might have.
In the second place because this thrilling revelation coincided with the lightning visit of President Craveiro Lopes to Boa Vista. We had known that the President of the Republic was about to arrive, the old wooden jetty was being urgently repaired for His Excellency to disembark with the dignity that the occasion demanded, the street along which his entourage would pass had already been adorned with palm boughs and a selection of photographs of important people, but it was only on the day of the man’s arrival that we were surprised by the satisfying news, written in black letters on a large stretch of white fabric unfurled between two poles decorated with palm boughs: “WE ARE PORTUGAL.”
It’s true that we could have absorbed this important detail much earlier. Among other signs, there was the photograph of António Oliveira Salazar displayed in all public places above the caption “It’s easier to obey than to command,” and also the old and tattered flag that was carefully raised at city hall every Sunday. For us, this was simply another one of the duties assigned to village idiot Nené de Chalau, along with his role as the town’s street sweeper and pied piper on holidays.
But if we were excited, whether by the disembarkation of so many white-uniformed people, springing from the launch exactly as we had imagined bogeymen rising up out of the sea on the night of a full moon, or whether by the town council administrator’s statement that in Boa Vista, “everyone toils for the formation of an ever greater Portugal,” the presidential visit in no way clashed with the question of our identity. Because, aside from Senhor José Mateus, a deportee of over eighty years of age who had brought into port two small fishing boats and three games of table soccer, the Portuguese presence was limited to the naval carpenter Virgílio (who, after a few glasses of wine, liked to sing, “When I was young my father called me dirty names; now that I’m grown he tells me to fuck off!”) and to the manager of the Ultra supermarket, Senhor Patrício Correia, who, in addition to running the fish-canning factory, also looked after agricultural and fisheries experiments, having introduced to Boa Vista not only two wind pumps but also a bull of a breed so unusual that it never succeeded in mating with any of the local cows due to its anomalous proportions.
And so we led our lives in the serene assurance of being Cabo Verdeans, with the harmless contributing circumstance of also being Portuguese, when this tranquility was abruptly overturned in the 1960s and 1970s by the shattering revelation that Cabo Verde was also Africa, in the deepest sense, and that we were nothing more than disinherited children who had been torn from the maternal breast by ferocious slave traders around 1480 and thereafter.
This revelation coincided exactly with the active conversion of the majority of our young intellectuals to the condition of Africans, and for this reason, we very quickly had to learn that we formed part of the wretched of the earth, that we also belonged to that great mass of humanity called “natives,” as one book put it, even though it was true that, to our great intellectual displeasure, the troubles described in Cry, the Beloved Country or Native Son had nothing to do with our reality of islanders lost in the Atlantic.
In this way “African identity” took the form above all of a tremendous effort at solidarity with long-suffering brothers we did not actually know; the simple condition of being colonized obliged us to stand at all times shoulder to shoulder with the oppressed peoples of the entire world, even though in Cabo Verde the colonizer was represented almost exclusively by Cabo Verdean civil servants.
But if the assumption of our condition as “Africans” enabled us to situate ourselves in the world, unfortunately it also gave rise to a great feeling of emptiness in us. The problem was that as long as we were simple Cabo Verdeans, we knew ourselves to be the possessors and bearers of a cultural identity that defined and distinguished us. We shared a Creole language and the open, relaxed customs, known as morabeza, that are unique to Cabo Verde; only we knew how to compose and sing morna music; and even our grogue and cachupa stew would never be confused with African palm wine or funge. But as “Africans” of an Africa we did not know, an Africa that, for us, was “without history” and without heroes, because Gungunhana was nothing more than a rebellious Black man and a bloodthirsty member of the Vátua peoples of Mozambique imprisoned not a moment too soon by the glorious Portuguese cavalry officer Mouzinho de Albuquerque, we came to find ourselves in a very perplexing, disorienting situation with regard to all the heroic Portuguese whom we had been required to learn about at school.
Of course by the mid-1960s we already had African heroes. Amílcar Cabral, Patrice Lumumba, Sekou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, and others were formidable African names that enraptured our imaginations, though much more by inverse association than by familiarity: the more Europeans hated them, the more heroic they became. But not even this filled the void of our emptiness, because, among other reasons, “our brothers” spoke languages that we didn’t understand.
Meanwhile, it was almost certainly Ovídio Martins who resolved this serious problem of identity for us with the publication of his poem “Those Whipped by the East Wind.” Because with this work our national specificity was once again made clear: we were those whipped by the east wind, those whom the she-goats had taught to eat stones in order not to perish. Hence our struggle was not so much against exploitation but above all against the abandonment into which we had been cast, against the droughts and famines that at each occurrence finished off close to one-third of our population. And, in this way, we were part of the wretched of the earth, because if others were oppressed by actions, we were victims of a crime of omission.
As it happened, by mid-1967, Baltasar Lopes da Silva had laid out the problem in a clear, convincing manner: we were neither Africans nor Europeans, merely Cabo Verdeans.
Without a doubt, settling on this third possibility in which to situate ourselves does Cabo Verdeans good. Because the question continues to be asked in the wrong way. From Europe, we were acquainted with the Portuguese, the French, the Italians, the Spaniards, the Germans . . . . But for all of Africa there was only the generic, almost pejorative, expression of “Africans,” and it was only natural for us to refuse to jump into that immense catchall bag without having at least a label with which to identify ourselves.
Because we were aware of hearing Black women talk about what was happening all over that Africa place: Blacks in chains, flayed with horsewhips, branded with hot irons, and forced to work without receiving anything in return, and who, at the end of the day, bowed down before the whites and on their knees said: “Thank you, boss.” We knew that when a white man strolled down a sidewalk all the Black people were quick to clear the way so that he could pass by free and unimpeded.
Yet in Cabo Verde it was completely different. We had a deep consciousness of being at home in our land; if anybody was out of place it was the few mondrongos, or Portuguese people, who lived here, the sidewalks and even the parking lots belonged to us, if anyone needed to take care or get out of the way it would be them, not us, and for this reason they received deliberate shoves on the street for which apologies were not offered. If they wanted to be understood, then let them learn Creole . . . . No, sir, the simple designation of “Africans” didn’t fit us.
It was only very gradually that we came to understand that the Europeans, out of malice or simple ignorance, had instilled in us our reluctance to accept our condition as Africans. Because they spoke of “Africans” as though African identity were one and indivisible. And we had to learn that there are as many cultural identities as there are African peoples, and that we could belong perfectly well to Africa provided that we carried a label designating us as masters of an identity that underlined our particularity as Cabo Verdeans.
© Germano Almeida. Translation © 2020 by Stephen Henighan. All rights reserved.
Camões Prize–winner Germano Almeida reflects on his childhood discovery of the world beyond the Cabo Verdean islands in this short essay.
In the days of my childhood we used to go and play around the edges of a grave that lay isolated nearly two kilometers from the small town of Sal Rei on the island of Boa Vista, and which we called the “Maria de Patingole” cemetery. We already knew how to read Portuguese relatively well, but this business of “Maria de Patingole” remained an intriguingly indecipherable mystery because the handsome marble slab standing atop the grave contained a good number of words that were utterly foreign—though written in letters we’d known for some time—and of which we understood only Julia Maria Louise, 1825, and, just above the base of the gravestone, November 21, 1845.
Other than the “cemetery,” little more remained of “Maria de Patingole” beyond a vague memory of her having been the daughter of an Englishman who had lived on Boa Vista, and one of the victims of the great cholera outbreak of 1845. Shaken by her death, her father abandoned the island and never returned, and was reported to have died a madman somewhere in distant, unimaginable Africa.
In those days the island of Boa Vista was the whole world. It’s true that our primary school textbooks had left us with a confused notion of the maps of other lands, whose names we were obliged to learn by heart and then recite to the teacher, earning a smack with the ruler or a slap to an open hand for each mountain or river we omitted. Even so, the maps’ existence amounted to nothing more than a piece of paper on the classroom wall, a jumble of lines and colors that we traced quickly and in time to the rapid leaps of the little pointer. Nothing compared to the immensity of our island, where it took a full day’s journey, whether on foot or on the back of a donkey, to get from one settlement to the next.
“Maria de Patingole” conveyed the same sense of mystery as the charming names of the mountains of Portugal. “The Luso-Castilian System: Malcata, Estrela, Lousã, Sicó, Aire, Candeeiros, Montejunto, and Sintra, between the Mondego, Zêzere, and Tagus Rivers.” Only she was more real because we knew that she was there, alone and abandoned, beneath that marble slab the salty sea air was consuming little by little.
Father Higgino di Roma enabled us to take our first steps in deciphering the mystery of the hieroglyphs one afternoon when I took him to visit “Maria de Patingole.” He quickly established that the language on the stone was English and sent me to copy the complete inscription onto a piece of paper. At home, albeit rather laboriously and with the help of an English-Portuguese dictionary that I went to borrow, he translated: Here lie the mortal remains of Julia Maria Louisa, the beloved daughter of Charles Pettingal, arbitrator of His Brittanic Majesty’s Court of the Mixed Commission, born in January of 1825 and deceased November 21, 1845 . . . .
If in this way the name of “Maria de Patingole” was explained, no light was cast on the tragic fact of a girl, who must have been pretty to have spoken such a melodious language, having died at the age of twenty, nor, for that matter, on where that beautiful stone with such finely carved letters, words, and flowers had come from.
In any event, the island of Boa Vista was no longer the whole world because there was “Maria de Patingole” to prove that there were other worlds. But we were, without a doubt, “the center of the world,” everyone’s last stop before the grave, from His Majesty’s Englishmen to Jews from Rabat, as the little cemetery allowed us to confirm, 500 meters from Maria’s tomb, where Isaac Ben Uliel and his descendants rested.
They say that God had already finished making the world and distributing the riches that would nourish his children, whom he had set in their places—Blacks in Africa, Whites in Europe, still others in Asia and the Americas—when he glanced at his hands, hands still dirty with traces of clay. From his perch in the heavens, he casually brushed them away, but shortly thereafter, he noticed small islands budding here and there, close to Africa. “Aha!” his helpers told him. “You just created more land there, except you have no more riches or people to bestow on it, and it’s quite likely that in the future questions will be asked about your sense of equality.”
God hadn’t thought of this—it hadn’t been his intention to create anything more, it had been a distracted gesture—but he wasn’t going to let this tie him up in knots. “It doesn’t matter,” he’s said to have replied. “I’ve spread so much land around that no matter how diligently and energetically my children go about fulfilling my command to go forth and multiply until they fill up the earth, nobody’s going to need to live on those islands.”
Well, not being aware of, or perhaps deliberately disobeying, this command from Above, the Portuguese transformed Cabo Verde into a staging point for slaves, sending them on from there to the Americas and Europe. When slavery ceased to be a profitable business, they handed over the islands to the beneficiaries of this trade, after having settled there Blacks of varying ethnicities and European Whites, in their majority Portuguese. And then they “forgot” about them, a forgetting whose roots, let’s say it candidly and in all truth, can be traced back to divine distraction: there were no riches to exploit!
But it’s also perfectly natural that God should have had one eye fixed on another, far more complex, project, which he refused to reveal to his collaborators right away: creating a laboratory for the miscegenation of races and cultures and seeing what might emerge from this miscellany. And what emerged was the Cabo Verdean people.
On July 5, we commemorate Cabo Verdean independence. As one Cabo Verdean, convinced that the date coincided with that of American independence, said to me a long time ago: “Two great countries: Cabo Verde and the United States!”
Of course, translated from Creole this phrase loses much of its picturesque flavor; it even loses all of its naive, if delightful, boastful national swagger, since the solemn but absolutely convincing roll of the head that accompanied it is utterly indescribable. But that’s how Cabo Verdeans are: proud of the center of the earth where they live, suffer, and toil against endless drought, their sights set on foreign parts, their hearts on the islands.
Not even emigration has been powerful enough to jeopardize this “axis” painfully born of isolation. Being a country that has twice as much of its population abroad as it does within its borders, it could easily suffer a catastrophic erosion of its culture and identity. But Cabo Verdeans continue to carry their culture with them, living in all four corners of the earth on cachupa stew, grogue, and morna music, and never hesitating to show it, because nothing can convince them that Cabo Verde might cease to be the center of the world.
© Germano Almeida. Translation © 2020 by Stephen Henighan. All rights reserved.
In this poem, Camões Prize–winner Arménio Vieira writes of drifting and belonging in a foreign land.
For Ovídio Martins and Osvaldo Osório
In point of fact, Lisbon was not waiting there
[to greet us.
There we stood, at last, shivering, adrift
in the middle of Portela with its guards and its aircraft.
In point of fact, we were the poorest
of the Africans brought there
and like leaves swept about by
[a broomstick wind
clothed in class and
And when some time later we provoked
of a woman peddling apples
and she asked to know where we had come from and why
we discovered illusion flowing through the heart
Still, disenchantment, which caves the chest
and scales peaks,
needs the leavening that time supplies.
On some truck, crammed between boxes and
[traces of nights gone by
we chased our destiny
on that morning wet
[with winter’s drizzle.
© Arménio Vieira. Translation © 2020 by Eric M. B. Becker and David Shook. All rights reserved.
In this poem, Camões Prize–winner Arménio Vieira imagines a different future for the Esplanada Morabeza in the capital of Cabo Verde.
The Esplanada in Praia, on Santiago de
on January 29th, 1971
is a sketch for a hydrogen bomb
with no frequency calculations
it’s a moon-bound
that never takes off
(all that’s left is a crumpled
blueprint for a launch pad)
The Esplanada in Praia—even on days of
[sun and sweat
could be a cool oasis
if our faith (which moves mountains)
were one millionth of a mustard grain.
Coffee would abound
without the need to plant a single seed
in the manager’s ear as he comes and goes
tallying the day’s proceeds.
The Esplanada would boast whiter milk
and stylish shoppers and pretty maids
and limit the
[legions of beggars
hunting cigarette butts
and of course there would be a clinic nearby
with cures for everything (even the
The Esplanada would have a helicopter for
[its beloved poets
and the nearby fountain would not have gone dry
And there would be white swans gliding by at all
and even a hanging garden
with hothouse tulips and sunflowers
The Esplanada would boast jet planes so close
[you could touch them
there—on the bandstand—
where only musicians and drummers linger
dreaming of fifty mil-réis per week
The Esplanada, thick with the scent of fragrant
and even with a cathedral designed by Oscar
(so unlike the tiny church there now
with its four square walls
and archaic cross)
The Esplanada in Praia would be a wonder
[of the world
a pristine, embroidered canopy
refracting the stars
The Esplanada, at last, would have another name
—Morabeza is a term no doubt
to sit limp like a glove or an idiot toad
(I can see him now, on his branch,
[dirtying the tank)
Given what’s been said
and what hasn’t—
perhaps it would be best just to die right here and now
rather than celebrate my three decades
dreaming of champagne and caviar
on Praia's Esplanada in Santiago de
on the 29th of January, 1971.
© Arménio Vieira. Translation © 2020 by Eric M. B. Becker and David Shook. All rights reserved.
Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” inspires childhood dreams and adult reflections in this poem by Filinto Elísio.
We talked about “the first man”
to walk on the moon. And that the music played
on Apollo 11, it turned out, was “Georgia
On My Mind,” sung by Ray Charles.
Nha Gina, who worked for us as a
housemaid, refused to believe, looking up at the moon,
that the Americans had finally gotten
there. This was an argument she'd picked up in
Dona Mindoca’s house and I, a mixture of inspired
and provocative, predicted that perhaps for
Apollo 12 the music would be Horace Silver’s
“Song For My Father.”
Now, with plenty of water under the bridge of my
life, far removed from childhood and those surging
conversations with my father, when I look to the moon
(or am bathed in moonlight), I see the music and muse
that, existentially, nurture me. In
the groove . . .
© Filinto Elísio. Translation © 2020 by Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.
A woman wanders through an apocalyptic dream in this short story by Fátima Bettencourt.
A dream: From the window of my room, I watched the great massacre that I believed was the Last Judgment. Everything around me was being destroyed. Works of art emerged from the ruins. I took one, but it ended up falling and shattering into pieces.
From my window, protected by the glass, I looked on, astounded, as the greatest massacre this planet had ever seen took place. Without any further information, I was overcome by the unshakeable conviction that it was the end of the world.
Unable to understand the reason for such a catastrophe, I was left to hazard and deduce conclusions on the sole basis of knowledge previously acquired who-knew-how, probably from my scant reading of science fiction, a genre to which I was naturally averse.
Could it have been a meteorite, those incandescent “iron stones” that populate space? The quotation marks are practically required since, before, I was ignorant of the existence of such things in outer space or in the depths of the abyss, and, if they do exist, they should be called by a name that is more consistent with their origin, structure, or composition.
I don’t need anyone to tell me the purpose of those flying monsters; it seems clear that their objective is to destroy defenseless planets that are blindly obedient to all the rules—or at least some of them—and still lack the ability to detect these monsters that, from space, conspire against their existence. It’s obvious that detection would not be enough, of course. You'd still need to know how to steer them off their crazed path.
Of course, I should clarify that my insistence on the soaring rocks is due to the extent of the destruction that I glimpsed through my window, which could easily be explained by the phenomenon of a meteorite strike. It’s not valid to think that this was all the result of chance, because it is widely accepted that this world, including the stars, planets, and galaxies, is led by an unerring cosmic force. But there’s no proof of this, either, just the pretentious conclusions of astronauts drunk on their personal success, scientists and researchers allied with lunatic astronomers and mad or fundamentalist prophets.
I can’t allow myself to stray down a muddier and more precarious path. I should rather limit myself to what I saw from my window, well-hidden and protected behind the glass as I watched this devastation of city and earth from which only I was saved. Uninterrupted Dantean scenes danced across my window pane along with pieces of the most unusual objects mixed with the remains of the destruction of the planet, all in such a dizzying procession that I had difficulty following.
Suddenly, a Venus emerged from the depths with two perfect arms, just like the artist gave her when he finished his work. Delighted, I contemplated the piece’s beauty, momentarily removed from the terrible disgrace befalling the earth. I then began to ponder what the Holy Scriptures said about the apocalypse and remembered that the most horrific thing was the return of the dead—solely the just, if memory served, since the sinners must remain in the depths of hell. It was at this point that I realized works of art were never mentioned, but from what I could gather, they had the right to recover their original beauty in this planetary resurrection, just like the beautiful Venus I now saw emerging from the depths, so similar to the amber-curled goddess that Botticelli painted.
At this point, I noticed that a young man was holding on to Venus to keep her from falling into the abyss. A closer look revealed that it was, to my great shock, Vasco, my high school boyfriend, who had died in an accident more than fifty years before. It was him! As young as when he left this life. What’s more, he recognized me and began to wave at me enthusiastically. Straightaway, I climbed through the window and went out to the street to meet this boy, hugging him as if we had only been apart for a short holiday. The two of us grasped Venus, who was precious to us both, and quickly left the hecatomb for a more pleasurable purpose: taking up our life together, interrupted so precipitously all those years before. We continued down the street, happier than anything, holding on to our precious statue, me by the head, he by the feet, in search of some house that had not been affected by the destruction. We were so happy that we dispensed with questions and recriminations, and anyway, any notion of before and after seemed completely lost and senseless. There was merely a serene space of peace and harmony where we imbibed the certainty that the past had never existed and that we would never grow old or die.
We continued to carry our Venus until we grew tired, since in the midst of such desolation, only a miracle could offer us shelter. We stopped to regain our strength, looking around in the hopes of discovering water to quench the implacable thirst we lacked the courage to confess. It was then that Vasco looked at me, wrinkled his brow, showing that he did not recognize me, and began speaking to himself, saying that when he left me I was less than twenty years old and he could not understand how I’d become so hunched over, all wrinkles and white hair. My disappointment was considerable, since I had assumed that such details had been obliterated by the immense joy of our reunion and the miracle of resurrection. Unfortunately, it was not so; there was no miracle that would remove from my shoulders those years that had elapsed. I released the Venus brusquely and tried to move away. The sound of the statue breaking woke me and I confirmed that the banging was the window of the apartment above mine. Not Venus, not Vasco, not the Last Judgment. I was still here no matter what, to write one more story or, who knows, to dream another, less sinister dream.
© Fátima Bettencourt. Translation © 2020 by Anna Kushner. All rights reserved.
A bride, a groom, a priest and his mule: in this short story by Luís Romano, tragic events on the eve of a wedding spell the beginning of one man’s undoing.
Nowadays, it’s as if he were doing penitence here on Earth! They say it’s because of a priest, who excommunicated the man in the early hours before sunrise, when the priest’s mule took fright and threw him off a cliff down in Banda de Sul, on the eve of the Saint Andrew’s Day festivities.
Since then, Isidoro had become the epitome of ugliness, scaring children whenever he’d come around dressed in burlap, bedecked in rosary beads and charms, hunched as he made his way along, stinking and begging with his hand held out to those he passed as if he were a pilgrim.
Housewives would lock their doors and dogs would either start wailing in despair or barking furiously at him. Later, Isidoro would up and disappear, before anyone could see what direction he’d gone off in. Some said that at night he turned into a spirit and that during the day he hid in cliffside caves where no one could come near him. Others swore he stole children’s souls on the seventh day after they’d been given birth.1
It was old lady Nininha who, one evening near nightfall, gave me chapter and verse about Isidoro's origins, when she sent him a bowl of tuna cachupa so he could stave off his hunger after a day without food.
“Isidoro was from back in the time of Gungunhana2 and had returned from abroad with a good deal of money to build himself a home on a piece of land he’d bought in Ribeira da Cruz. His fame as a fearless fighter in the Southern War was well known. It was also said that he’d brought tons of gold and a great deal of wealth he’d earned risking life and death. His family was upstanding and well-regarded, but people whispered that Isidoro had learned witchcraft during the time he’d spent in those pagan lands on the far coast of the continent!
“Once the Gungunhana War was over, he retired and saw to all the paperwork necessary to marry a light-skinned, even-tempered girl who had been waiting for him for almost a dozen years on the promise and vow of the sacrament of his word and solemn consideration. And it had already been arranged for the marriage to be blessed by the priest the very same day he was to arrive in Ribeira da Cruz after the Saint Andrew’s Day Mass.
“After breakfast, Isidoro headed out from Carvoeiros on the back of a purebred horse that had been sent especially for him to ride at the head of a throng of people who came to carry his luggage. Every time they came to a farmstead in the valley, they all stopped to accept offerings of food and to rest, and to fire off three reed fireworks of the kind that disappear into the clouds. Fiddle and guitar players joined them as well, and the group swelled with each valley they passed through.
“When it was precisely midnight, Isidoro rode off ahead of his companions and spurred his horse toward Ribeira da Cruz, eager to finally be reunited with the bride who’d been waiting for him for so long without recourse for her resignation.
“As soon as he came around the bend at Passo Preto, he raised his pistol and fired into the air, waking every living creature in that lonely wilderness engulfed in darkness.
"Perhaps because it was the witching hour, or perhaps on account of simple restlessness, the priest who was soon to bless their marriage appeared at that very moment around the bend, along a stretch too narrow for even two animals to pass side by side, and his mule took fright and leapt down the cliff like a beast accursed. One of the priest’s feet got tangled in the stirrup, and he was pulled along down the cliff, which could not have been but the work of the demon, but not before he could issue his own malediction: “YOU DEVIL, MAY YOU BE EXCOMMUNICATED!”
“It was pitch-black, and even today people wonder how the priest had ventured out at such a grievous hour on muleback, without so much as a lantern to light his way, wandering about like a ghost in search of the fate he’d been assigned.
“Isidoro cried out for help. By the time he was brought to Ribeira da Cruz, he’d already taken leave of his natural God-given senses.
“At that very moment, water poured down from the sky with no respite, the likes of which no one had ever seen, cut through with lightning and thunder, as if the end of the world were upon the Earth, and for three days and three nights the torrent coursed through the valley, washing everything away as it gushed down to the sea, while falling rocks broke free from the cliffs, bringing an end to the Saint Andrew’s Day festivities.
“The priest’s body disappeared forever, and to this day his malediction still pursues Isidoro, now a tortured soul, forever doing penance in this world of tribulations because of a curse sworn before dawn by a priest, the rightful representative of Jesus Christ on Earth, at the moment of his death, in the times when we on the Island believed in the Devil’s doings and in the power, art, and cunning of that Beast . . . by the sign of the Holy Cross . . . LUCIFER!”
1Translator's note: A traditional belief throughout Cabo Verde holds that newborn babies are most vulnerable to witches and evil spirits on the night of the seventh day after their birth, a superstition that led to the common present-day practice of “Seven” or “Head-Guarding” ceremonies held on that same night and aimed at causing enough ruckus to scare away potential soul-stealers until after midnight. ↩
2 Translator's note: Gungunhana was the royal name of Mudungazi, the last king of the Gaza Empire in present-day Mozambique, who in the last decade of the nineteenth century was overthrown and sent into exile by the Portuguese to the Azores, where he died. The war that led to his removal helped consolidate Portuguese power in large swaths of southern Mozambique.↩
© Luís Romano. By arrangement with the author's estate. Translation © 2020 by Jeff Hessney. All rights reserved.
A poet considers anonymity and solidarity in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy.
Maria Borio reads "From the Red Desert" in the original Italian.
In the red desert I’m a single dot:
my size today, a dot
without length, width, depth,
fallen from the sky’s highest point on an earth
filled with silence and suddenly pure.
I write to you from the red zone, and here’s the truth:
the borders are drawn, the red has filled the space
without entry or exit, and all are like me,
single dots, with no illusion, in the first spring
of a millennium now changing the face of time.
From this room I write to you and whisper: if a dot
has no dimension, is it because all are contained within it?
To think is to unite—meanwhile day and night
are the same color, we learn to think of one another,
of, somehow, a new good.
“Dal deserto rosso” © 2020 by Maria Borio. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Danielle Pieratti. All rights reserved.
Felipe Restrepo Pombo reflects on his quiet days of COVID-19 quarantine in Bogotá, normally one of the most bustling cities in Latin America.
“If I was in hell I would always feel I had a chance of escaping.”
—Francis Bacon, in an interview with David Sylvester
A few months ago I was invited to teach a course at a university in Indianapolis. After class I headed for the outskirts of that small American city, where I would be spending the first night of my stay. I arrived in a peaceful suburb and pulled up in front of a building with dark stone walls built in the early twentieth century. It had been a school for many years before being remodeled as a row house. Upon entering I felt a disturbing sensation that I couldn’t quite define. Later, I went to bed and turned out the lights, but I couldn’t sleep. A couple of hours passed by, during which time I tried to identify the reason for my discomfort. Finally I found it: I opened the window and a gust of frigid wind blew in, announcing the end of autumn. Outside there wasn’t a sound to be heard.
I forgot about that moment after returning, a few weeks later, to the hubbub of my daily life. Once again I was surrounded by the calming murmur of the city that is ever with me and that lulls me to sleep at night. However, in the midst of the pandemic we’re experiencing, the feeling returned.
I traveled from Mexico City to Bogotá twenty days ago, when the COVID-19 emergency was just beginning to emerge in Latin America. I took one of the last flights into Colombia before the government closed the borders completely. I barely got up from my seat the entire flight—maybe once or twice to wash my hands. I didn’t touch the food or the entertainment screen on the seat in front of me. It was one of the most disquieting flights I’ve ever been on. Upon landing at the airport, I was examined by a doctor and—despite not exhibiting any symptoms of the disease—was ordered to spend fifteen days in mandatory isolation. I holed up in my apartment with some supplies and the certainty that I would not see another living being for the next two weeks.
Much has been published during this emergency about the effects that confinement has on both body and mind. During the first few days of isolation, I inhaled whatever information I could find in an attempt to cope with my loneliness. I wrote down recipes for healthy dishes, exercise routines that could be performed in a small space, and relaxation techniques. I read encouraging testimonies of brave souls who had survived prolonged confinement in terrifying conditions. I found myself feeling strong and capable of bearing anything . . . until I heard a psychologist on a newscast say that “after ten days of solitude the mind begins to produce self-destructive thoughts.” I panicked: all of the safety scaffolding I had erected began to crumble under the weight of those few simple words. I peered a few days into the future and saw myself lying on a bed, unwashed, staring at the ceiling and feeding on insects.
I ran to the window; I needed fresh air. And there it was again: the total silence. Bogotá is one of the most populous and chaotic cities in all of Latin America. Traffic there is some of the worst in the world, and the city has serious problems with both environmental and noise pollution. However, on that particular afternoon, in the midst of a languid, orange-hued sunset, there was absolutely nothing to be heard. Or was there? Yes, I could hear the coursing sound of water in a nearby stream that descends from the Bogotá mountains.
We are a vain species. For years we’ve cultivated the fantasy of our extinction in the form of a thundering roar. We’ve imagined environmental catastrophes, alien attacks, and asteroids raining down from the heavens. More recently we’ve found ourselves obsessing over the dual threats of technology and artificial intelligence. In most of these scenarios, the cataclysm is deafening, and through it shines our heroism. Always—even in the zombie apocalypse—the threat presents itself on a monumental scale.
What a miscalculation on our part: the greatest attack on our species turned out to be almost imperceptible.
Today finds us prisoners of our own fear, trying to protect ourselves with the most rudimentary of weapons: four walls. All the paranoia about gigantic enemies turned out to be a simple projection of our own narcissism. It’s not clear whether this virus that’s killing us is a living being or a chemical entity. But in either case, it is a rather graceless parasite. “We aren’t even facing an identifiable species that wants to live and perpetuate itself by preying on other species,” Juan Cárdenas wrote in a column for El País. “It is an ambiguous agent, something hovering between the living and the nonliving, which cracks open the cells of others and colonizes them in a way that serves no biological purpose.”
I managed to survive my days of confinement with order and patience. In fact, I had some periods of great productivity, along with the intimate, if virtual, company of those dearest to me. I didn’t eat a single insect, though I did get a bit drunk: a few bottles I had been saving for special occasions were emptied in the midst of the pandemic.
When my mandatory period of isolation came to an end, I went out to buy food, which is still allowed in Bogotá. The silence I sensed through my window was now amplified. I walked several blocks with the distinct impression that the city’s entire population had disappeared. I crossed an avenue along which not a single car passed. I was reminded of that magnificent sequence in the first episode of The Walking Dead in which Rick Grimes rides down an empty highway on horseback. Then, in the distance, I finally saw another person. A woman in her fifties. She was dressed in a white bathrobe, rubber boots, surgical gloves, a face mask, and dark glasses, and her head was wrapped in plastic. Walking a dog wearing cute red shoes. She stared at me in horror before hurrying off as fast as she could.
The key to confronting this virus seems to be the simplest: do nothing. Forget about our heroic impulses and stay at home, away from everything. But I’m afraid the notion of a society in a state of perpetual lockdown makes no sense. The consequences—both physical and emotional—of burying yourself alive can be devastating. We will have to emerge little by little, have to learn to live in a new environment with new rules. That is when this tragedy will have taught us something. Or not. But at least it will have brought us closer to solitude and silence.
“Un estruendo silencioso” © 2020 by Felipe Restrepo Pombo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Ezra E. Fitz. All rights reserved.
Originally published in 2010, this funny, if faintly scattershot, novel relies on a Kafkaesque allegory to reconsider Romania’s late-1980s transition to democracy after decades of Communist rule.
Kosef J is an inmate at an unnamed Romanian prison, where he serves his sentence for an undisclosed crime. One day, after failing to give him breakfast, and later to drag him to the fields to work with the rest of the prisoners, a guard casually mentions that as of that morning, Kosef J is free. Yet the wary inmate knows nothing of the world beyond the high prison walls, having spent the better part of his adult life behind bars. Instead of marching out the front gate, Mr. K claims he cannot leave without receiving new clothes from the prison tailor, and that the prison’s colonel must first officially decommission him.
These two requests, which at first seem reasonable enough, are only the beginning of Mr. K’s increasingly convoluted acts to avoid freedom, to indefinitely delay his return to the real world. Matéi Visniec’s funny, if faintly scattershot, Mr. K Released takes us into a Kafkaesque universe of inscrutable authority and endless deferral, playing on motifs from works such as The Trial—whose protagonist, Josef K, is also found guilty of an undisclosed crime—or The Castle. Originally published in 2010, Visniec’s novel can be read as a Kafka-inspired allegory of Romania’s late-1980s transition to democracy after forty-plus years of communist rule. Like a country trying to adapt to a new form of freedom, and perhaps retrospectively longing for the evil it knew over the potential evil waiting to be discovered, Mr. K fears the great unknown of the outside world.
The longer he hangs around the prison, hoping someone will provide him instructions on how to start his new life, the more Kosef entangles himself with its bungling employees: Fabius and Franz Hoss, two guards; Rozette, the prison cook; an unnamed child who haunts the kitchen; and the aforementioned tailor—a man overwhelmed by his own need for perfection, working at the pace of molasses. In bite-sized chapters, Mr. K finds ways to become increasingly involved in the prison’s routine while he waits. He washes dishes in the kitchen, creates a makeshift bed for himself in an elevator, plays games of dice with the guards, and fills in as a reluctant disciplinarian when Fabius and Franz Hoss are sent to search for an escaped inmate.
In each scenario, Mr. K’s internal fears and dependence on the prison are palpable, and his conversations with his new peers show Visniec’s sly ability to manipulate tone, deftly conveyed in Jozefina Komporaly’s translation. Take the following exchange between Mr. K and Fabius in which the former prisoner confronts the guard after Fabius claims he has always admired Mr. K:
“How about when you were beating me up?” Kosef J asked.
“What do you mean?” Fabius seemed puzzled.
“How about then? Were you thinking this even then?” Kosef J probed.
“I was beating you, yes, but I also respected you,” Fabius sighed.
In four lines, the characters segue from confrontation to anger to half-hearted admission. As the conversation continues, Mr. K speaks of the fear Fabius inspires in the inmates, and again, Visniec confidently shifts tone via dialogue and brief description, with Fabius relishing the idea that he is seen as a brute:
“Everyone was frightened of you,” Kosef J said.
“Everyone, really?” the guard hummed like a wise old man listening to a palpitating story.
The complete scene unfolds over ten pages, and throughout, Visniec’s characters traverse a wide emotional spectrum. Mr. K and Fabius reminisce about various beatings the former prisoner received, Fabius claims his life has lost meaning, and by the end, Mr. K consoles his abuser, urging him to “take pleasure in simple things . . . Such as the sky, grass, water.” Much of the sprawling conversation consists of brief statements employing similar rhythm—Were you thinking; I was beating; Everyone was frightened—and the pattern forges a connection between the speakers, who otherwise present as physical and mental opposites. The pattern also becomes a kind of tune in which the novel sings, and the perceptible cadence no doubt owes something to Komporaly’s English translation.
Visniec’s greatest charm is his ear for dialogue, and here, as well as in numerous other conversations, characters push and pull, search for equal footing, share regrets, and remember atrocities the way others might recall favorite childhood memories. The conversations are quite funny, yet initial laughter at the absurdity of each moment turns to unease as the weight of the subject matter builds.
This double-whammy approach to storytelling and political commentary propels Mr. K Released, yet after Mr. K’s umpteenth postponement of his return to the real world, he is so deeply slotted into the prison system that his narrative purpose begins to sag. Visniec sidesteps this hazard by having Mr. K discover a community of escaped convicts living in a long-abandoned section of the prison. And while this twist bestows on the author additional narrative threads, not to mention a good joke—men escaping prison so they can continue to live in prison, but in worse conditions—the creation of a new environment, known as the democratic “free world,” causes any subtlety in the novel’s allegorical intent to dissipate.
That “democracy” is represented by a group of dirty, ailing convicts lets the air out of Visniec’s otherwise clever societal skewering. As the novel chugs toward its conclusion, this community of men becomes the main narrative focus, shoving Mr. K into the background and eliminating him completely from certain chapters. Still, there are moments of wit embedded in this lesser narrative. Members of the “free world” are never provided names, instead known as “the man with the cheerful face,” “the old man with white hair,” “the man with the cleft chin,” and so on. As Mr. K cavorts with the group, these monikers knot themselves until characters become indistinguishable, much in the same way the guards treat prisoners as numbers, not men. This stripped identity plays into Visniec’s examination of democracy’s potential pitfalls, further emphasized by a scam perpetrated by the clandestine democracy: when “free” escapees fall too ill to contribute to the democracy, the others kidnap accounted-for inmates and swap the escapees into their places, thus “freeing” a new set of inmates and allowing their sick compatriots to receive much-needed medical care.
Mr. K reclaims his initial center-stage status in the novel’s closing chapters, and his storyline concludes with an apt, if predictable, reveal. Yet Visniec purposefully leaves several subplots unresolved. Perhaps this decision acts as the author’s final commentary on Romania’s shift to democracy. Despite three decades of freedom, unknowns remain. Answers to big questions are impossible to predict, but in Mr. K Released, Matéi Visniec valiantly dissects the possibilities, producing an entertaining, layered novel that succeeds more often than it fails.
A boy explains the coronavirus to his younger brother with the help of a dodgeball metaphor in this children's story by Maria Parr.
“Corona is a ball with spikes,” said Oskar.
He was in the lower bunk, jabbering away as usual.
“Corona is a virus,” I said.
“It looks like a ball with spikes on,” said Oskar.
“Yes, but it’s a virus,” I said, feeling annoyed. I wondered if all seven-year-olds are that stupid, or if it’s just my little brother who’s particularly dense.
Oskar went quiet for just long enough that I thought he’d gone to sleep.
“It looks like a ball with spikes no matter what you say,” he said.
“Fine, whatever. You can call it a frog with udders as long as you pipe down,” I said.
“So does that mean we’re playing a kind of dodgeball, except it’s coronaball?” he asked, not piping down in the slightest.
If there’s one thing Oskar’s proud of at the moment, it’s that he’s finally worked out the rules of dodgeball. He even dares to join in when the older ones are playing.
“Dodgeball? You nitwit, the coronavirus doesn’t have anything to do with dodgeball!”
“Yes it does, ’cause we’ve got to look out! If we get hit by the coronaball, then we’re going down. Splash!”
Good grief, I thought. I was so fed up with Oskar. He’s normally quite annoying as it is, but now I hadn’t seen anybody other than him and my parents for many weeks, and I couldn’t stand him any longer! Couldn’t he just go to sleep like normal children?
“There are two teams,” Oskar squealed from below. “There are the ones with corona and the ones without corona. The ones with corona have got the coronaball. Or, actually, they’ve got loads of coronaballs. With spikes on. Thousands of them. And then they throw coronaballs at the ones who haven’t got corona.”
I could tell that he was pretending to throw coronaballs down there. The whole bed was shaking.
“Oskar! Stop it!” I shouted. “I want to go to sleep.”
But Oskar wouldn’t stop.
“The ones who get hit by a coronaball have to swap teams. Then they can also start throwing coronaballs at people. They just keep on flinging spiky balls at people, and hitting as many as they can. Then more and more people end up on the corona team. Splash! Bang! Poooww!”
I sat up and leaned over the edge of my top bunk. Oskar, my skinny little brother, was waving his arms around, throwing pretend coronaballs so much he was getting his Spiderman pajamas all creased and crumpled.
“There aren’t two teams in coronaball, Oskar.”
“Oh yes there are,” said Oskar. “That’s why we’ve got to be careful and not meet other people.”
“There aren’t two teams, you nitwit," I said again. “There’s one team.”
“No,” said Oskar.
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s everybody versus corona.”
Finally he fell silent. I lay down again and closed my eyes.
“Is everybody on the same team, then?” he eventually asked, once his little brain had taken the time to think long and hard about it.
“Yes, Oskar. Everybody in the whole world is on the same team.”
“Do you mean even Messi and Ronaldo are on the same team?”
For goodness’ sake, what was there not to understand?
“Yes, Messi and Ronaldo are on the same side this time. And Luka Modrić and Eden Hazard too, in fact. Megan Rapinoe as well. All the football players in the whole world are on the same team. Every single one of them, Oskar. There are prime ministers on the team—from Norway, from New Zealand—and a billion people in China, and all the world’s doctors, and the police, and even bank robbers. They’re on the same side. And truck drivers too, people in America, people in Russia and Germany, Mom, the refugees in Syria, our neighbors, the local council, drug smugglers, all the firefighters in the world, all the helicopter pilots, Venus and Serena Williams, and even King Harald. All the other kings and queens too. And your teacher, and all the nurses, pop stars and vloggers, you and me, and the cat. We’re all on the same team. Do you get it?”
Oskar didn’t say anything. He was probably thinking. I’d almost fallen asleep when a voice piped up again:
“So, corona has nobody else on its team?”
“That’s right, Oskar. Corona has nobody else on its team. Can you stop jabbering away and go to sleep now, please?”
I could hear Oskar down below, straightening out his duvet.
“Yes,” he said with a yawn. “I can sleep now.”
And then he went to sleep.
“Korona er ein ball med piggar” © 2020 by Maria Parr. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Guy Puzey. All rights reserved.
To celebrate National Poetry Month and the #shelterinpoems movement this April, Words Without Borders is leaning into poetry's ability to fill the void of isolation. Idra Novey, Forrest Gander, Emily Wilson, Sholeh Wolpé, and Valzhyna Mort read you their own work or other favorites from the WWB archive in an effort to forge connection amid the solitude of social distancing. Check back each day throughout the week for an additional video reading from one of our distinguished guests.
1. Idra Novey reads "Rimbaud in America" by Alberto Martins
2. Forrest Gander reads "Rage" by Antonio Gamoneda
3. Emily Wilson reads "Tomboy" by Claudia Masin
4. Sholeh Wolpé reads "I Pity the Garden" by Forugh Farrokhzad
5. Valzhyna Mort reads "Belarusian I," translated from Belarusian by Franz Wright
Sonnet Mondal meditates on the lockdown in India and its possible aftermath in three short poems.
Where roads do not unfurl
the need for limits
breathes through dry tears.
Where Solitude takes wing
for the falling Sun
amnesia shrouds a generation.
Caged, wingless, a bird waits
for the last dusk
as a forsaken boatman
rows for food in the twilight.
A dry land seeking liberty
to wet itself wonders
about the quiet after this storm.
The roads are familiar to it.
The smell of the air isn't.
The trees no longer liaise.
Their commitments are done.
Does the new rephrasing require us?
An empty bowl falls on the floor—
The sound seems familiar.
It was there in the quiet
before the storm.
the iron in a lock
must be thinking
why was I molded
into something as such!
A life that came
got swept into
isolation—by the tongue
of a melancholic rust
hanging like a slave
to the will of the key
লকডাউন' ("Lockdown"), উত্তর'("Uttor"), and 'বন্ধ' ("Bondho") © 2020 by Sonnet Mondal. Translations © 2020 by Sonnet Mondal. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
This month’s feature brings together excerpts from three Arabic young adult novels in which young women defy expectations set by their families, society—and even themselves.
While Arabic publishing has historically focused on literature for adults and young children, recent years have seen an increasing number of titles aimed at a young adult readership. “Since the middle of the last decade . . . tens of innovative novels for tweens and teens have started appearing in Arabic each year,” M. Lynx Qualey wrote for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative in 2017. Thanks to initiatives such as the Tamer Institute, young adult (YA) and middle grade literature has been particularly cultivated and considered a serious form in Palestine in particular, and the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children's Literature has also had a great influence on the developing field. As the most important and prestigious award for children’s literature in the Arab world, the Etisalat Award bestows prizes in six categories: children’s book, text, illustrations, production, wordless picture book, and—as of 2013—young adult book.
In the past decade, YA titles like The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine and Code Name: Butterfly by Ahlam Bsharat have not only seen success in Arabic—The Servant, for instance, won the Best Book award at the Beirut International Book Fair in 2010—they have also begun to make their way into English. It should be noted that categories of middle grade, young adult, and adult literature do not always map neatly between Arabic and English, and books that are written for a YA readership in Arabic might be considered middle grade or adult literature in English. Yet stories like those included in this feature demonstrate that these books can be enjoyed by readers of many ages.
Our excerpt from Sonia Nimr’s Thunderbird begins with a strange and mysterious prediction from the local fortune-teller for the orphan girl Noor. Resented by the relatives she now lives with, Noor has only one ally, her beloved grandmother. Shortly before she dies, Grandmother gives Noor a gift: a strange ring from her father. In this fantastic, time-traveling novel, Noor teams up with a djinn (in the body of a cat), discovers that the King of the Djinn needs her help to save the world, and travels 500 years back in time—although not before a harrowing trip through checkpoints to get to contemporary Jerusalem. Thunderbird is the first title in a fantasy trilogy, the second of which is set to be released in April 2020. Sonia Nimr is a leading Palestinian author and storyteller who weaves together contemporary realism with magical folklore. She won an Etisalat Award in 2014 and was shortlisted for the prize for Thunderbird in 2017.
In Taghreed Najjar’s Against the Tide, fifteen-year-old Yusra is faced with a choice. When the course of her family’s life in contemporary Gaza changes forever, she must either accept her new life as it is or defy society’s expectations. So she does something no woman in Gaza has ever done before: support her family by becoming a fisherwoman. The book is inspired by the true story of a young Palestinian girl named Madelein Callab, who became Gaza’s first fisherwoman at the age of fifteen. Taghreed Najjar is a Palestinian-Jordanian author of over fifty books for children and young adults. She has twice been awarded the Etisalat Award and has been shortlisted three times (including for Against the Tide in 2013). She is also the founder of Dar al-Salwa publishing house.
Djamila Morani’s The Djinn’s Apple takes place in Baghdad in the Abbasid period, during the rule of Harun Al-Rashid (786–809). In the excerpt included here, "Black Saturday," twelve-year-old Nardeen witnesses the assassination of her family and narrowly escapes herself. Part crime novel, part historical fiction, The Djinn's Apple follows gutsy Nardeen as she seeks to discover who wanted her father dead—and why. Djamila Morani is an Algerian writer who works as a teacher of Arabic language and literature. She is the author of The Djinn’s Apple and Crown of Sin.
This feature is presented by translators from ArabKidLitNow, a collective dedicated to the discovery, promotion, and translation of Arabic literature for young readers. The collective’s website features an overview of the most exciting young adult and children’s books currently being released in Arabic, helping Arabic children’s literature find audiences in new languages around the world. ArabKidLitNow is the joint effort of translator-writer-critics Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Emily Danby, Nashwa Gowanlock, Sawad Hussain, Elisabeth Jaquette, M. Lynx Qualey, and Hend Saeed.
This year alone, translators from the collective are bringing three Arabic young adult novels into English: Ghady & Rawan by Fatima Sharafeddine and Samar Mahfouz Barraj (translated by M. Lynx Qualey and Sawad Hussain, both contributors to this issue), Trees for the Absentees by Ahlam Bsharat (translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland), and Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands by Sonia Nimr (translated by M. Lynx Qualey). So if Noor’s time-traveling in Thunderbird, Yusra’s seafaring in Against the Tide, and Nardeen’s investigations in The Djinn’s Apple pique your interest, many more untranslated books await.
© 2020 by Elisabeth Jaquette. All rights reserved.
A young woman defies societal expectations to become Gaza’s first fisherwoman in this excerpt from Taghreed Najjar’s YA novel Against the Tide.
Yusra’s father still didn’t know anything about her plans. She wanted to surprise him, so she kept them a secret and told Jameel not to say anything either.
It wasn’t easy for Jameel to keep a secret for so long. He kept asking Yusra, “When’s the surprise gonna be?” and sometimes he forgot and even asked her in front of their father. Eventually their mother began to suspect something was up and confronted her.
“I feel like you’re hiding something from me, Yusra,” she said. “What’s this surprise that Jameel keeps going on about? Who’s it for? And what is it? Come on, out with it!”
Yusra was afraid that her mother might become angry and prevent her from going ahead with her plan, or that she would object to the idea and then her father would too. So she decided it would be best just to tell her mother everything. She focused on her father’s boat at first, explaining that it had needed repairs and how they’d fixed it up.
“You know how much Father loves his boat. He won’t even think about selling it, not to anyone,” she told her mother.
“I know, Yusra. That boat is like a child to him.”
Yusra’s mother listened, and she teared up when she heard how Saleh’s friends had helped repair the boat too.
“Bless them, they’re such good kids . . . such good kids,” she murmured. “But what’s the point of all this hard work?” she added sadly. “The boat will just sit there, waiting for Jameel. Who’s going to use it? Your father is confined to his wheelchair—you know that as much as anyone. And Saleh . . .”
Her voice cracked when she said her son’s name.
“Saleh, may he rest in peace. Your father dreamed of giving the boat to Saleh after he retired, and then to Jameel when he grew up. But that’s not what happened.” She sighed, as if trying to console herself. “God forgive me. We shouldn’t question what He decides.”
Her mother fell silent for a moment, and Yusra saw an opportunity to bring up her idea.
“Mother, remember how I used to go fishing with Father on breaks from school? I helped him with everything, and he always said I was better at fishing than Saleh, because Saleh didn’t really want to be a fisherman when he grew up.”
“Yes,” her mother said, smiling at the memory. “Every time you and your father came home he’d say: if Yusra were a boy, she’d be the best fisherman out there.”
“That’s why I want to take Father’s boat out and go fishing myself.” Yusra said it quickly, afraid she might change her mind or lose her nerve.
“You?” her mother exclaimed. “Have you lost your mind? Who ever heard of a fisherwoman in Gaza, much less a young girl? What will people say?”
“Why should they have a problem with it?” said Yusra defiantly. “Don’t women drive cars in Gaza? Don’t they fly planes and captain ships in the rest of the world? I’ll go out fishing with Abu Ahmed and Father’s friends, bring back some fish, and make a bit of money . . . what’s so wrong with that? Wouldn’t that be better than sitting around waiting for handouts from other people? Wouldn’t it be better than hearing our neighbors talk about us behind our backs when we ask them for help? I don’t want to keep borrowing tea and sugar from them,” she added desperately. “Um Hafez acts like she’s better than us, like we’re beggars.”
Yusra continued to argue with her mother, reassuring her one moment and then trying to persuade her the next.
“Save your breath,” her mother said finally. “Your father will never agree to this.”
“Leave Father to me,” Yusra told her. “But when I bring it up, Mother, please help me convince him.”
Everything was ready. All Yusra could think about was her plan, and now the only thing she needed to do to set it in motion was tell her father. Abu Ahmed had agreed to pick them up in his old car and drive her father and his wheelchair to the beach, while Saleh’s friends had agreed to come to the house early and go with them.
Saleh’s friends arrived right on time and had tea with the family, and then As‘ad turned to Yusra’s father.
“Abu Saleh, we have a surprise for you.”
“What is it?” he asked, waving at a fly that was buzzing around his face. “The last thing we need is another surprise.”
Maher laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s a good surprise today. We’re going to take you with us on a little outing.”
“If only,” Abu Saleh sighed sadly. “My days of going on outings are over. The only places I go are the vegetable patch and the doctor. I don’t know what I’d do without Abu Ahmed. Whenever I need to go to the clinic, he drives me there.”
“Abu Ahmed is waiting outside, he’s going to take you with us,” As‘ad said with a laugh.
Yusra stroked her father’s forehead tenderly. “Come on, Father, go with Saleh’s friends. They came all the way here just for you.”
Her mother chimed in too. “Yusra’s right, don’t let the kids down. Go with them and Abu Ahmed, he’s waiting for you.”
Abu Saleh didn’t stop grumbling the whole way there, but when the car stopped at the beach he suddenly fell quiet. He took a deep breath of sea air, as if he wanted to fill his lungs with the salty breeze after such a long time away. He gazed out at the distant horizon.
“I’ve missed the sea,” he said quietly. Tears filled his eyes. It took him a moment to regain his composure.
“Is this the surprise?” he asked finally.
“Nope—there’s more,” Saleh’s friends told him as they opened the trunk of the car and took out his wheelchair.
They helped Abu Saleh into the wheelchair and pushed it to where the beach began, and then over the wooden pathway they’d constructed for him all the way to the fishermen’s hut. They stopped his wheelchair under an umbrella Abu Ahmed had set up for him, and Abu Saleh looked around. He couldn’t believe he’d reached the hut so easily. He looked deeply moved, as if he’d lost the words to express how happy he was.
Yusra went over to her father, gave him a hug, and kissed his forehead.
“This is where you belong, Father. On the beach with your friends.”
“Bless you, Yusra.” He looked at Saleh’s friends gathered around him. “You kids are wonderful, bless you.”
Abu Saleh tore his gaze away from the horizon to look for his boat, and when he saw a shiny new boat in its place, he cried out, horrified, “Where’s Sitt al-Kul? Who’s taken her?”
“Calm down,” said Abu Ahmed, laughing. “That new boat right there is your boat: it’s Sitt al-Kul. Your son’s friends wanted to surprise you. They painted her and fixed her up as good as new.”
Abu Saleh’s eyes shone with tears. “You shouldn’t have, honestly, you shouldn’t have. Thank you . . . thank you.”
Abu Ahmed nudged his friend playfully. “Enough with the talk, old pal. Have some tea and help me mend this net.”
Before long, news had spread that Abu Saleh was back on the beach, and other fishermen came down to say hello and swap stories, just like old times.
What’s So Wrong?
The day they took her father down to the beach, Yusra didn’t tell him her plan. She thought one surprise a day was enough and decided to tell him the following day.
Um Saleh was waiting for them when they came home. She watched Abu Ahmed help her husband out of the car, and even from a distance she knew that something had changed. He seemed more alive than she’d seen him in a long time, as if he’d been on a long journey and was finally returning home. The family came in and sat down, and she listened to them describe everything that had happened on that amazing day.
Abu Ahmed promised to come by twice a week to pick Abu Saleh up and take him to the sea.
Two days later, as Abu Saleh was eagerly waiting for his friend to arrive and take him to the fishermen’s hut, Yusra sat down next to him and took his hand in hers. She patted it for a few moments and then placed it on her cheek. His hand was less rough than it used to be.
“Father, do you remember how you always took me fishing with you on my days off from school?”
“Of course, Yusra, how could I forget?” he chuckled. “Those were the best days. You loved fishing, and you knew exactly what to do, not like Saleh, God rest his soul. His mind was always somewhere else.”
“You taught me to fish yourself, Father. You taught me to love fishing and love the sea, just like you do.” She paused. “That’s what I want to talk to you about.”
Quickly, so she wouldn’t lose her nerve, Yusra told her father what she wanted to do.
Her father was stunned by what she said.
“What kind of ridiculous idea is that?” he burst out angrily. “Stay home and let my daughter go out fishing in my place? For shame! What would people say? It would be a disgrace, Yusra, a disgrace!”
But Yusra stood her ground, and their voices rose as they argued over the idea. Um Saleh attempted to calm them down, but she knew her daughter was stubborn, just like her father.
“What’s so shameful about following in your footsteps so I can help the family?” Yusra countered, trying to convince her father. “Isn’t it more shameful to beg from our neighbors just to get by? Tell me. You’re my father, you know me and trust me, and you know how good I am at fishing. Why won’t you let me help the family? If you stand up for me, no one will be able to say anything. I know who I am! I’m Yusra, your daughter, the daughter of a fisherman, and I’m proud of that.”
Tears rose to Abu Saleh’s eyes and he fell silent.
“I know who you are, my girl,” he finally said. “And I know how skilled you are. Give me some time to think about it. I’ll let you know what I decide.”
A week later, Yusra asked her father again and was surprised by his response.
“I’ve thought about what you said for a long time, Yusra, and I’ve spoken to Abu Ahmed. He convinced me to give you a chance to prove you’re serious about this. He promised me he’ll go out with you until he’s sure you’ll be all right on your own. I know it’s almost the end of the school year. I want you to promise me you’ll focus on your studies until then. When summer vacation starts I’ll let you take the boat out, but on one condition: you have to practice with Abu Ahmed. When he tells me you’re ready to go fishing by yourself, then I’ll let you.”
Yusra leapt up and hugged her father, overjoyed.
“I’ll make you proud, Father. Things will be just like they used to be.”
A Long Night
Finally, the day she had been waiting for had almost arrived. Yusra tossed and turned in bed the whole night, unable to sleep. She was nervous and scared, and she started to doubt herself. What if she’d forgotten how to fish, or what if the boat capsized? What if she got lost at sea? What if the Israeli Navy's patrol ships intercepted her?
All sorts of disastrous possibilities swirled around in her mind. Finally, she pushed away her fear and steeled herself for the challenge. She wouldn’t give up now. She was going ahead with her plan, and she hoped everything would be fine.
Eventually drowsiness overtook her, and she fell asleep thinking about everything she was going to catch on her first day as a fisherwoman in the Mediterranean Sea. She woke up early, did her dawn prayers, and felt calmer, more reassured. She put on her gym clothes and looked around for something to protect her from the hot sun. She found a hat that Saleh used to wear all the time, one he loved. She turned it over in her hands, remembering him.
“Saleh’s hat will keep the sun off my face better than anything else,” she told herself. “It’ll be like he’s there with me, protecting me and helping me.”
The sun began to climb through the sky and spread its warm rays across the earth. Yusra sat down to eat breakfast with her mother and father. She had a slice of bread with olive oil and za’atar spices and some tea with mint, all while trying to avoid her mother’s anxious glances.
“The best time to go fishing is early in the morning,” her father told her. “Go out for two hours just after dawn and two hours in the evening. Are you ready, sweetheart? You can change your mind if you want.”
Yusra shook her head no. “I’m ready, Father. Besides, Abu Ahmed is already here to take us to the beach. I can hear the car.” She hugged her mother and kissed her on the forehead. “Don’t worry, Mother, I can do this.” Then Yusra stood up and pushed her father’s wheelchair out to the car.
The First Voyage
Yusra knew what she needed to do. She put her fishing net in the boat along with the lunch her mother had insisted that she take with her. She dragged the little boat to the edge of the shore, and with Abu Ahmed’s help and a final push, the boat was in the water. She started to paddle.
“Good luck, my girl,” her father called out from shore, his voice a bit hoarse. “Good luck, Sitt al-Kul.”
“Remember what I taught you, Yusra,” Abu Ahmed called after her excitedly. “And don’t go more than three miles from shore. Because if you do . . .” he trailed off.
Yusra stood up in the small boat, found her balance, and then began to paddle: once on the right side, then once on the left. For weeks, she and Abu Ahmed had practiced balancing and paddling. After being away from the sea for so long, she now felt her muscles growing stronger every day.
Yusra looked around and saw several other fishing boats heading toward the horizon, to the farthest point that the Israeli naval patrol ships allowed. The fishing was better out there.
Those heading out to sea included many seasoned fishermen around her father’s age and lots of teenage boys about her age. She was the only girl, the only fisherwoman.
The horizon stretched endlessly in front of her. Yusra had forgotten the world was so huge. She left the shore farther and farther behind, and thanked God the sea was calm that day. Far off in the distance, far away, she saw Israeli naval patrol ships looming menacingly on the horizon. They were poised like sea monsters, ready to snatch up the fishing boats. She turned away and gazed out even farther, imagining far-off countries she wished she could visit.
A sense of tranquility settled over everything: the sea around her, the sound of little waves lapping rhythmically against the boat. A light sea breeze buffeted against her face as if it were tickling her, and blew her hair back behind her. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and felt as if she could take off and fly on the ocean wind, out into the open skies, just like the seagulls she could see. It didn’t matter where to; all she wanted was to be free of all the restrictions and barriers in her life.
She looked at her compass and decided to try her luck in this part of the sea. She wasn’t far from shore. She felt safer when she could still see it back in the distance.
Yusra threw the net into the water, just like her father used to do. Now all she needed to do was wait. She was hungry, so she opened the lunch her mother had packed for her, took a bite, and drank some tea. Nearly two hours went by. Every so often she checked the net. Finally, it was time to return to shore. She checked her net one last time, hoping she’d managed to catch enough fish.
Yusra knew there weren’t many fish close to shore, because over the years Israel had punished the Palestinian people of Gaza by limiting the area where they were allowed to fish.
The Oslo Accords had decreed that Palestinians in Gaza had the right to fish twenty-five nautical miles from Gaza’s shore. Then Israel reduced the distance to twelve miles. Then five. Now it was just three miles.
The people of Gaza depended on fishing to eat and support themselves. But the area where they were allowed to fish was so small that now there were hardly any fish left there. Yusra knew that any fishing boat that crossed the three-mile mark could be turned back, seized, or even shot at by the Israeli patrol ships. And what really angered her was that those same patrol ships protected the huge Israeli fishing boats that came into Gaza’s waters to fish.
Yusra gazed out at the far-off Israeli Navy ships and shouted as loudly as she could, “Enough already! Enough! Just let us live!”
A wonderful feeling swept over her. She could yell freely here and no one could hear her.
She looked around and shouted again at the top of her lungs, with all the strength she could rally. She wasn’t calling for help, she just wanted—for once—to let out all the frustration and anger and sadness she felt.
Everyone was waiting for her as she approached the shore: her mother, father, and Jameel were there, and Abu Ahmed and Saleh’s friends too. A crowd of fishermen who had heard about Yusra had come to see with their own eyes if “Gaza’s first fisherwoman” was actually real.
Everyone waved at Yusra as she paddled toward shore.
As‘ad, Maher, and Abu Ahmed rushed into the water to pull the boat up onto the beach, and Yusra jumped out.
“Here, help me pull in the net,” she said to Saleh’s friends with a laugh. “Let’s see how much I caught today. I didn’t go far from shore, it was just my first day out there.”
Saleh’s friends started pulling in the net and folding it up so it wouldn’t get tangled. Jameel helped too, with focused excitement.
At last, they saw fish jumping around in the net. There weren’t many, just a few small fish and crabs, but enough to grill on the beach and share with everyone there. Um Saleh had brought some warm flatbread and spicy homemade Gazan salad to share, too.
The smell of grilled fish filled the air as the sun began to disappear over the horizon. Everyone gathered around Yusra and she told them about her first day at sea.
© Taghreed Najjar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Elisabeth Jaquette. All rights reserved.
An orphan named Noor receives a mysterious gift from her grandmother in this excerpt from Sonia Nimr’s YA novel Thunderbird.
Umm ‘Arab looked carefully into the coffee cup, wordlessly tipping it right and left. She allowed only a few grunts to escape each time she turned it in a new direction. “Hmm. Hmmmm.”
“What do you see in the cup, Umm ‘Arab? Is it good?”
As Widad asked, she shifted her huge body toward the ashtray that sat on the table in front of her, stabbing out her cigarette and looking back at Umm ‘Arab with an expression of interest.
“It’s good, Widad, it’s good. I see a big fish, and you know what that means—wealth is on its way.” Umm ‘Arab glanced up at Big Widad to see the effect this had on her before going on. “Didn’t I tell you good days were on their way?”
Widad fixed Umm ‘Arab with a serious gaze. “And when’s it going to happen? Soon?”
“I don’t know exactly. I see three signs, so it might be three days, three weeks . . . You know the cup doesn’t give specifics.”
After Umm ‘Arab spoke, she looked back at the cup.
“And what else?” Widad asked, urging her on.
“A phone call is coming that will make you very happy. Mmm, and I see two signs, which means it could be two hours or two days.”
Umm ‘Arab moved the cup toward Widad’s hand. “Now, when you’ve got your wish in mind, press your thumb to the bottom of the cup.”
Widad cradled the cup as though she were holding something sacred. Then she looked around until her eyes settled on Noor, who was sitting glued to her grandmother. Widad gave a spiteful smile as she pushed her thumb with all her strength to the bottom of the cup, jabbing it down so that it left a clear mark. She handed the cup to Umm ‘Arab before she took a tissue and wiped off her thumb.
Umm ‘Arab looked at the bottom of the cup. After a moment, she turned to Widad. “You’ll get your wish.”
Widad smiled triumphantly. “Bless your mouth.”
There was a brief silence in the room before Umm ‘Arab spoke again. “Evening prayers are coming, I’ve got to go.”
Noor’s grandmother had been watching the scene in silence. Now, she finally spoke. “Before you go, Umm ‘Arab, take a look at the little one’s cup.” She put a hand tenderly on Noor’s back.
“Little ones don’t drink coffee!” Widad said, indignant.
The grandmother quietly interrupted, “She’ll take a sip from my cup. I haven’t drunk from it, and I want Umm ‘Arab to see what’s to be seen.” She looked at Noor and reached out her cup. “Drink, my love, drink. Perhaps your fortune will be as lovely as your face.”
Widad glared at the girl with bubbling resentment. “Drink fast,” she said sharply. “The lady wants to go pray.”
Noor gulped down the hot coffee, which burned her tongue, and handed the cup to Umm ‘Arab. The woman turned it, then flipped it onto the saucer.
“And me, and me!” said Wafaa, who sat on the couch beside her mother. “I want her to read my cup, Mommy.”
“But there’s no coffee left, my sweet,” Widad said, lovingly stroking her daughter’s hair. “Maybe next time.”
Wafaa slammed her foot against the floor and pointed a jealous finger at Noor, who pressed more tightly against her grandmother.
“I don’t care! Why does she get to?”
“All right, my love, I’ll make more coffee for you. And Umm ‘Arab will read your fortune, won’t you, Umm ‘Arab?” Widad turned with a look that made the other woman throw up her hands.
“I’ll read her cup.”
Widad got up, slipping her feet into her high heels and heading for the kitchen, followed by Wafaa. Umm ‘Arab held Noor’s cup in her hand.
“Now let’s see what the cup has to say about your fortune.” Umm ‘Arab turned the cup around several times before she shifted, getting closer to the light that seeped in through the window.
Noor’s grandmother fixed her gaze on the expressions flitting across the cup-reader’s face. Involuntarily, Grandmother let go of the prayer beads she’d been clutching and reached out to grasp Noor’s hand.
“Strange!” Umm ‘Arab said, looking carefully at the cup, her thick eyebrows knitting together.
“What have you found?” Grandmother asked.
But Umm ‘Arab wouldn’t answer. She held on to the cup, looking at it carefully, before lifting her gaze to look at Grandmother.
“This is something strange! I’ve never seen a cup like this before!”
“What do you see in it, Umm ‘Arab? Just say it! I can’t wait,” Grandmother said, her voice urgent.
Umm ‘Arab gave her a serious look, eyebrows still knitted together. She adjusted the scarf on her head.
“The cup isn’t clear. And honestly, it’s hard to read.” Her voice was edged with surprise. “I don’t see anything well enough to explain it. It looks like a bird spreading its wings over the whole cup. I can’t say if that’s good or bad. Forgive me, but I don’t want to lie to you.”
Without noticing what she was doing, Noor’s grandmother tightened her grip on her granddaughter’s hand.
“Listen,” Umm ‘Arab said. “The bird in the cup usually means a remedy or cure. It usually means good news, but . . . I’ve never seen a bird like this before. It’s a riddle! I seek refuge in God from the accursed Satan.” She put the cup aside as though relieving herself of a heavy burden.
Widad came in with a silver tray laden with coffee. “Wafaa’s turn!” she announced, without noticing the grim expressions on the three faces. Then she turned to her daughter. “Come on, sweetie, drink the coffee, just be careful not to let it burn you. It’s still hot.”
Ever since Noor had moved out of her old house, she’d been staying in her grandmother’s bedroom, sleeping beside her on a big wooden bed. There was safety in the evenness of her grandmother’s nighttime breaths, and Noor found comfort in her grandmother’s arms when she woke, terrified, from her nightmares.
“Don’t be afraid, my love, it’s just a dream, go back to sleep,” Grandmother would sigh as she gathered Noor up against her chest. Then she’d sing, Sleep, sleep. I’ll catch a dove for you to keep. Oh dove, don’t you believe it, I just want Noor to sleep. Fly into the skies, while I stay by dear Noor’s side, so she’ll shut her eyes, her eyes, her eyes. Grandmother would keep singing until Noor’s small breaths grew regular and her eyes fell shut.
Since Noor’s parents had died two years before, Grandmother had become her only oasis in the wilderness of her life. Inside her grandmother’s arms was the only place where visions of ghosts and monsters couldn’t reach her.
When she came home from school each day, Noor ran to Grandmother, telling her about her day, about what she’d learned. Her grandmother was always there, listening with interest.
“You spoil her,” Widad said angrily.
“She needs it after everything she’s been through,” Grandmother said calmly. “Leave it alone.”
Widad was always annoyed when Grandmother talked about Noor. It nettled her when Grandmother defended Noor, and she was even more annoyed when Grandmother didn’t treat Widad's own daughter, Wafaa, the same way.
“Please don’t say that she’s an orphan and needs tender, loving care. That’s getting old,” Widad said. “You encourage her mistakes, and now she’s become lazy and mean-spirited. You always protect and defend her. Don’t you remember when she set that fire in the garden? The house almost burned down! What if the fire had gotten in through the kitchen window and burned everything?”
“But it didn’t,” Grandmother said. “And the house didn’t burn down.”
“Ha! See, you’re defending her,” Widad said, her tone nervous and aggressive. “And what about the time she set fire to the clothes out on the line, eh? What do you say about that?”
Grandmother set a bunch of parsley on the kitchen table. She spoke quietly, her voice tinged with irony.
“But you bought three times the amount of clothes that were burned, and with the little one’s own money.”
Widad took the pot lid she was holding and threw it violently into the sink.
“Yes, we bought new clothes to replace the ones that were burned. But you still don’t blame the crazy one who burned them!”
Grandmother’s hand reached down to the long string of prayer beads in her lap, moving the beads as if to suppress her anger. “Noor is not crazy, and that was an accident. She didn’t mean to set that fire.”
Widad turned to her, trembling with rage, her face going red.
“Are you serious? She deliberately burns things—whatever catches her fancy. You know the reason. It’s because she’s jealous of Wafaa.”
Grandmother smiled and said nothing, which irritated Widad even more, and she stormed out of the kitchen, grumbling, “Dear God, why did you hang this on me?”
Grandmother returned to chopping parsley with a satisfied smile.
Ziad poked his head into the kitchen, then came in to sit down at the round table. “Afternoon, Mama. What are you making today?”
“Maqlooba.” Grandmother smiled, her face full of love for her only remaining son.
“Ah, I love it.” He gave a satisfied grin.
Ziad washed his hands and face in the sink that stood in the hall outside the kitchen, speaking to his mother as he toweled off. “Did you hear the news today? A shooting in Gaza! Seven bullets for one child!” He returned, sitting at the table and tugging down his loose shirtsleeves.
“May God punish those who did it,” Grandmother said, lifting her hands up to the sky.
“God alone is able.” Ziad approached his mother. “I talked to the school principal,” he continued in a low voice. “It seems that Noor set fire to another student’s backpack.”
Grandmother moaned and put a hand over her mouth. “But how did it happen? Why—?” She didn’t finish her sentence, since Widad came in, addressing her husband.
“What’s going on, Ziad?”
He gave his mother a conspiratorial glance.
“Nothing,” Ziad said. “We were talking about the girl who was killed by seven bullets on her way to school. And they said it was an accident, can you believe it? Seven bullets by mistake! Shameless.”
But Widad hadn’t missed the meaningful look her husband had exchanged with his mother.
“No,” Widad said in an accusatory tone. “That’s not what you were talking about. You were talking about her, weren’t you?” With her head, she indicated Grandmother’s room, where Noor was.
“Why are you always so suspicious?” Ziad asked.
“You were talking about her,” Widad insisted. “What did she do this time?”
“She didn’t do anything, and we were not talking about her.”
“Ha!” Widad said defiantly. “You’re defending her, too, and covering up for her!”
“Why are you talking like this?” Ziad asked. “I—”
“Ever since she came into this house, you’ve put her first,” Widad said, with a growing anger. “And please don’t say it’s because she’s an orphan and needs tenderness! The only thing that girl needs is discipline. She’s got to be disciplined to stop her from these destructive acts, which is your job. But instead you make excuses for all her mistakes, so she goes on wrecking things. Are you going to wait till she burns down the house before you start to take her in hand? It’s—”
“Is it possible to eat our lunch?” Ziad asked, his patience snapping. “And after that we can go back to our daily shouting party?”
Whenever Noor heard shouting, she hid in her grandmother’s bed and covered her head with the quilt, or else she ran to her favorite hiding spot in the garden. She knew her uncle’s wife didn’t want her in their house, but where else could she go? After her parents had died, she had no place in the world—no place except this one, where they hated her. When her parents had died in the crash, her uncle had sold their apartment and brought Noor to this old house.
Now, Noor heard footsteps approaching Grandmother’s bedroom.
“Noor?” her uncle called gently. “Noor, are you asleep?”
She lifted her head from under the covers. “No, Uncle Ziad, I’m awake.”
Her uncle sat at the edge of the bed, giving her an affectionate look that was full of both sympathy and accusation.
“What happened today at school?”
Noor understood exactly what he meant, and she sat up in bed.
“Honestly, Uncle Ziad, I didn’t mean to do anything! I don’t know how her backpack burned, I didn’t touch it! Please believe me, I’m telling the truth.”
Ziad patted her hand. “I believe you, but I’m still confused about how these fires happen without anyone starting them. Do things just catch fire by themselves? It’s a real mystery!”
Noor started to cry. “I swear, I didn’t touch the bag or even go near her!”
“But how?” her uncle asked, caught between pity and disbelief.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Noor said, still sobbing. “Things just burn on their own, I don’t know!”
She buried her head under the quilt and went on crying. Her uncle gave her a confused look. “There’s no power nor strength except in God.”
That night, as she got ready for bed, Noor asked her grandmother: “Do you believe me? Honestly, I didn’t touch that bag. I don’t carry matches. The bag just caught fire on its own. I don’t know how, I really don’t!”
Her grandmother pressed Noor against her chest and stroked her hair. “I don’t know, my child. You have a power only God can understand. I can’t explain it, but I know you didn’t set those fires. You’re a good girl, without a single drop of evil in you.”
“But I got in trouble with the principal, and Auntie Widad hates me, and Wafaa hates me—they all hate me. What am I going to do?”
“Don’t do anything,” her grandmother said. “Grow up, just as you are, beautiful and kind and good. As they say, We cannot understand all that God does, my sweet, and you don’t know when or how help will come. For now, just try to sleep. You have to wake up early for school.”
“I hate school,” Noor said in protest. “I hate the principal, I hate the teachers, I hate the girls who make fun of me! Why did my parents leave me? Why did my uncle take me out of the school where I was happy and put me in this awful one? Nobody in this world loves me. Nobody!”
Tenderly, Grandmother took Noor’s hand between hers.
“I love you, and don’t you forget it. I will always love you, and I’ll never let anything hurt you.” Then she added, as if it were an afterthought: “Oh, I forgot, there’s something I want to give you.”
Grandmother reached a hand into the drawer of a small cabinet that stood near the bed. She took out a little red velvet bundle and opened it to the light. Noor looked at the old ring at the center of the bundle and then back at her grandmother.
“Take it,” Grandmother said. “It’s for you. Your father, God rest his soul, gave it to me before he traveled, and he asked me to give it to you if . . .” She didn’t finish her sentence.
“If what?” Noor asked.
Noor’s grandmother spoke with a sigh that came from the depths of her heart. “If I found the right time to give it to you. And I thought that, if I gave it to you now, it might make you happy.”
Noor held the ring and considered it. It was gold, and something had been carved into the top. But it wasn’t clear because of the tarnish that had crept over it.
“It’s very old!” Noor said.
“Yes, it’s old,” her grandmother said. “Your father said it was priceless. He didn’t want to leave it at the house while he was traveling.”
Noor looked back at the ring, but it didn’t seem like anything special. She couldn’t understand why this old thing would be priceless—if she’d found it lying on the ground, she wouldn’t have cared enough to pick it up.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s worth anything.”
“Maybe,” her grandmother said. “Maybe it doesn’t have material value, but it must have meant a lot to your father—something more important than its price. Otherwise he wouldn’t have asked me to hide it, tell no one, and give it straight to you, un—”
Noor’s grandmother didn’t finish her sentence. She’d been about to say, unlike your mother’s jewelry, which Widad sold off.
Carefully, Noor looked at the ring, holding it closer to the light. She was still wondering how this dirty old thing could be valuable. She moved it between her fingers, trying to make out the engraving. It looked like some kind of bird, but maybe she’d have to clean it off to see the shape more clearly.
Noor slipped it on her finger, and to her surprise, it felt as though she’d been born with it on. The ring felt weightless, and it was, in some mysterious way, comfortable and reassuring.
“Keep it with you and don’t lose it,” Noor’s grandmother said. “It carries the scent of your father, may God have mercy on him. And now, my love, to sleep. It’s a school day tomorrow.”
“School, school,” Noor muttered. “I hate it.”
She put her head down on the pillow beside her grandmother’s white hair. She placed her left hand, which was wearing the ring, on her grandmother’s chest, as she did every night, to feel her grandmother’s reassuring breaths until she sank into sleep.
Noor woke in terror from one of her nightmares, a sheen of cold sweat on her face and chest.
“Grandma, Grandma,” Noor shouted. “Help me!”
But her grandmother stayed deep in sleep. Noor sat up in bed and shook her grandmother, trying to wake her, but she didn’t respond. Noor put her hand against the old woman’s chest, trying to follow the movements of her breath, but she didn’t feel any movement.
“Grandma,” Noor shouted. “Grandma!”
Noor put her head on her grandmother’s chest, and then she gave a long, long faint cry. In the morning, they found her asleep on her dead grandmother’s chest.
© Sonia Nimr. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.
A girl named Nardeen barely escapes a fatal attack on her family in this excerpt from Djamila Morani’s YA novel The Djinn’s Apple.
My siblings’ screams still pierce my ears; no matter how hard I squeeze my head between my hands, their screams persist, filling my head until it almost bursts.
I couldn’t see anything in the dark, the moon hidden behind the clouds, embarrassed by what it might see or hear. I felt my way through the willow trees, my father’s face coming into focus as he opened the back gate to our house. “Go, now,” he ordered. “We’ll be right behind you. I’ve got to get your siblings and your mother.” He shoved me out and shut the gate, but I didn’t budge. How could I leave knowing that he was going back to die?
We had been in the room, my father as usual transcribing something or other while I gazed curiously at a strange manuscript. “Leave that manuscript alone and finish your reading, Nardeen,” he scolded. Tugging on my bottom lip, I looked at the odd drawing, which resembled a human: it had four limbs that looked like arms and legs and a small circle that could have been a head.
“What’s this, Baba? Did a child make it?”
He cut me off with a sternness I wasn’t used to. I raised my book in front of my face, pretending to read the words, while my eyes stayed glued to that manuscript . . . but the next thing I knew, a powerful boom shook the room, causing the book to slip from my hands.
“Al-Rashid’s men! Al-Rashid’s men!”
The name of Harun Al-Rashid echoed in every part of our roomy house, a name that spelled our death. Strange, seeing how—just a few days before—it had meant the life we had always dreamed of.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around the fine line between life and death.
Sometimes it’s so fine you can barely tell the difference.
I rushed to the balcony and craned forward to see men with their swords drawn, chanting, “Kill the apostates! Kill the infidels!” They didn’t look anything like Al-Rashid’s guard. Terrified, I turned to my father, who had jumped up from his chair when he heard the word “apostates.” He grabbed my hand and dragged me behind him down the stairs, his eyes surveying the area before him. My eyes clung to the fear in his. What was fear? Fear was my father’s wandering look that night. I pulled on his hand and mumbled, “Baba . . . .”
He stumbled but didn’t stop. I pressed my small palm into his sweaty one. Fear, for me, was usually a bogeyman from my mother’s stories chasing me; he would melt away, disappearing completely, whenever I leapt into my father’s embrace. But this fear that had engulfed his eyes was uglier than any bogeyman. He opened the back gate and threw me out. I tried to open it again but Baba had locked it from the inside.
I stood on the doorstep, listening to the sounds of bodies and things crashing to the floor; my brother and sister yelling; everyone calling out for everyone else, but nobody answering, like they couldn’t hear each other; Bayan’s loud wail . . . I could pick her out in the middle of the storm of shouting. Usually her cries were loud and annoying, but now it was just a desperate wail that tore my heart up. It was a heavy wail, heavier than her tender age of five. Suddenly she fell silent, the quiet slithered slowly all over, and the voices fell away. I only heard the cautious, firm steps that Death itself took inside, searching, it seemed, for another life, the final one to snatch before it left the place. My grip on the door handle loosened and I pushed my ear up against the door.
“Sire . . . I’ve looked for her everywhere.”
“She must be here, look harder,” Death ordered.
Fear rushed through me. I backed up a few steps. My foot slipped and I fell. Are they looking for me?
“I told you, keep looking!” Death yelled.
I stared at the shut door and imagined it opening. I sprinted outside the garden, not looking right or left, terrified that if I glanced back even once, Death would swallow me whole. I ran without knowing where I was going, my feet leading me to a nearby mosque. I steadied myself against the wall and sank to the ground to catch my breath, my heart pounding so wildly it felt like it was going to run out of my chest. I caught sight of the ink that had drawn a line along the length of my hand. It looked like henna, actually, just like the henna of the Bedouin women! I remembered the face of that woman Anan, the dark Bedouin soothsayer, whose hand was dyed with henna—she had visited Mama a few days before. A cold shiver traveled through my body, without me knowing why. Was it the cold night wind or what she had said?
“This land is no longer for the likes of you all, everything that was for you will be against you, Bani Yahya. All of you will drown in blood.”
Qasma raised her hand to stifle the gasp that nearly slipped out. Catching herself, she rose to the bed to check that little Bayan was still sleeping soundly. She didn’t want her daughter to hear what awaited her, what awaited the Baramkeh people in the coming days. She returned to her spot facing Anan. “Oh God . . . have mercy,” she whispered under her breath. Out loud she added, “But the Baramkeh in the caliph’s entourage have already been severely punished, and my husband’s friends promised that they would protect us.”
“If only devotion could stop death, then the most devoted of us would never die, my lady. But the final hour is victorious, and the appointed time isn’t in my hands. I’m just sharing the message to the best of my knowledge.”
Qasma’s chest tightened, her face grew pale.
My mother had thought, as my father did, that disappearing from the angry caliph’s sight—and that of his entourage—would protect the family from any danger. She didn’t understand why the soothsayer was all doom and gloom. Even if we were of the Baramkeh family line, we were as far as we could possibly be from its politics and all that went along with it. Baba had chosen the medical profession, studying at the Permestan medical school in Baghdad, and no other like him from the Baramkeh had served the Abbasids, one caliph after the other. All that tied him to the family line was his last name and the wealth he had inherited from my grandfather.
When Al-Rashid’s relations with the Baramkeh turned sour, things got so tough for Baba in Permestan that he had to leave his post and stay at home. During those troubled days, his main concern was to protect us from the caliph’s outpouring of anger that had crushed Baramkeh lives without a second thought. Maybe the caliph himself hadn’t ordered their slaughter, but he left them up for grabs for whoever wanted to attack them. Baba tried to calm Mama’s fears, but her heart told her that the soothsayer’s words were our inevitable fate. A fate that opened its arms, called out to us, waiting for us, a fate that became our shadow, staying with us until it scooped us up once and for all into its arms.
I used to eavesdrop whenever Mama invited one of her soothsayers over. I liked listening to the web of lies that they were so good at spinning, so that I could share them with Baba when he came home in the evening. Not for one second did Baba believe what they came up with. “The soothsayers are lying even when they’re telling the truth,” he’d say, his eyes never leaving the book in his hands. But he couldn’t get Mama to drop the habit that was so popular with the Abbasid women, and their men too, with soothsayers reaching the courts of kings and caliphs. The strange thing was that this soothsayer wasn’t like the rest: she didn’t dress up her prophecies or fill her lies with dried-up hope. Instead, she snapped her vision out like a whip, the crack in the air more painful than where it actually landed. Like this, her words were terrifying long before they might have come true. She scattered her stones on a patch of black fabric, which was meant to show the way forward, shaking her head, listening for the evil spirits that had just fled the heavenly kingdom, arriving with stolen bits of news. She swatted the air as if trying to get rid of something and opened her eyes as wide as they would go, trying to see what was hidden behind the screen of the unknown. Hugging herself, she murmured, “A sea of darkness will drown everyone, a black fury is coming.”
“How can we all be punished for one man’s sin?”
“Family is a necklace; if it comes loose, all its beads will fall, O child of Yahya.”
With a trembling hand Qasma wiped the sweat dripping down her forehead. The Abbasid caliph was raging against the Baramkeh, the same people who had grown up alongside him, provided stability, supported him, shouldered the burdens of the nation, advised him, defended him; those same people were now his worst enemies, and his first victims. Why? A question that was out of place, it seemed; politics has a beautiful, charming side that seduces men who fall into her clutches and worship her, giving her everything they have, but she’s a woman with secrets too holy to divulge, desires too ugly to speak aloud, promises like sandcastles crumbling under the waves of her fury. If she showed them her true face with all its adornment, their souls would be the sacrifice.
“Soothsayers tell the truth even when they’re lying,” I repeated to myself while a lantern’s shadow danced on the mosque wall. “The soothsayers told the truth, Baba, they told the truth even when they were lying.”
I hugged my legs to my chest, rested my head on my knees, and cried. Damn that prophecy that had come true, that had scattered my family, stolen our peace of mind, and driven us into hell. In the few days that had passed, my life and that of every Baramkeh descendant had been turned upside down. Just a few days had been enough to either humiliate everyone or drag them to an awful death. My parents had been worried about me, telling my siblings and me not to go outside the house. Even friends no longer dropped by, afraid prying eyes would get them in trouble with the caliph. One by one, they all slipped away, leaving my father and his family to face death alone.
Allahu Akbar . . . Allahu Akbar . . .
The dawn call to prayer rang out, announcing the start of a new day. Why, then, did I still feel like it was yesterday, my feet still stuck there? Why could I still hear them yelling? I looked at the men starting to gather at the mosque. One of them leaned over me. “What’s the matter, girl?”
I looked up at him, staring into his face, darkened by the lantern’s dancing shadow. As I tried to make sense of what had just come out of his mouth, my eyelids grew heavy. I didn’t answer him, his words not meaning anything. Was he speaking a different language? “Have you come to pray?” the man pressed.
I jumped from my place as if bitten by a rattlesnake. His words seemed strange. Pray? What about those I had left behind? Had they prayed? Baba didn’t like it if we were late to pray. I rushed toward home. Mama’s face came to mind, biting her lip as she always did when scolding me: “Look at your clothes, Nardeen! It’s not right for a Baramkeh girl as beautiful as you to go around in dirty clothes like these!”
I dusted the dirt off me and smiled. Mama must be waiting for me at home, ready to tell me off for how I looked. “You’re a woman now,” she always insisted. “You won’t get anything out of those books, binti. If only you put some kohl around your eyes, you’d drive the men crazy. Men were made to use their brains and women to look pretty,” she would say as she combed her long brown hair to rest on her shoulders. “Your lovely eyes will waste away for no reason. You know Baramkeh girls don’t belong in medical school!”
© Djamila Morani. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
The arrival of the plague sends a sleepy village into a frenzy in this excerpt from Iana Boukova's novel Traveling in the Direction of the Shadow.
And so Manol, the runt, was born, with clenched fists and broad shoulders. He came out with his eyes open but his shoulders became stuck and he remained this way, hanging between the world and the womb, making no sound, waiting for someone else to make a decision. And the old woman who was helping deliver him remembered the curse and spit into the embers to stop her hands from trembling. Whether as a result of her own efforts or with some other kind of assistance, she was finally able to pull him out, and while she wiped him down and angrily slapped his back to get him to cry, she said: “This one here was born twice.” And she tied his umbilical cord while she pressed her toothless gums into her lower lip and mulled over her words.
And he was almost four years old and still holding on to his mother’s skirts when one early evening a man entered the village, exhaustedly staggered across it, and stood in front of the last house on this side of the river, trying to recognize some sort of sign. Then he pushed the gate with his shoulder and entered Iovana’s yard.
On the morning of that same day, her second-youngest son, Damyan, had quarreled with his two older brothers over a whistle. It was one of the many toys carved by his father’s hands, which were never still: wooden dolls with impenetrable adult faces; dragonfly cages with latches and locks; and exquisite little carts where captured mice could be harnessed and then let to run around the yard. The whistle was no longer than a handspan, and—depending on which end of it was blown—produced two different sounds. The father had carved it with his restless hands, then given it to the youngest of the children sitting around him, so that the child could play with it—this was what Damyan claimed. Or he had simply handed it to whatever child happened to be sitting nearest to him, so that they would all eventually play with it—this was what the brothers claimed. But the verbal portion of the quarrel came to a rather quick end, since Damyan had overlooked the fact that his two brothers outranked him not just in age, but also in number, so they gave him a good licking without too many explanations, then left him alone to the receding dual sounds of the whistle: one wailing and the other mocking. When they were no longer audible, Damyan stopped crying, since crying on his own turned out to be much less exciting. He lay on his back and stared at the sky until his gaze cleared from the tears. One cloud resembled a reclining water buffalo, but with only one horn and a soft, crumpled wing that emerged from its left shoulder blade and dragged on the ground. And—although he continued lying there and staring at the sky while the cloud slowly lost its water-buffalo shape and turned into a frightened duck in the jaws of a legless dog with a broken tail—deep in his heart of hearts he knew, he could feel it in the anxious shudder of his stomach, that he had already made up his mind. He snuck through the orchards behind the house and entered the yard through a hole in the fence. The hole was there so that rainwater would drain away, but the smaller children had the habit of using it as a shortcut. Damyan grabbed half a loaf of bread and a rug, and snuck out the same way he had come without anyone seeing him. He spent the rest of the day chewing on bits of bread and torturing a beetle, which had the antlers of a large ruminant and a body that resembled a rabbit dropping. But by the early evening he was faced with the exact problem that he had spent all afternoon trying to avoid thinking about—the sun was setting and the woods were beginning to fill with darkness, and that darkness, with monsters. The darker it grew, the closer he moved to the village, drawn in by the light of the fires and the human voices coming through the open doors. He chose a freshly cut haystack in one of the yards, wrapped himself in the rug, and slipped into it. A dog barked and a man came out with a firebrand, but did not notice him in the shadow and went back inside. The dog went over to the haystack but did not bark again, and only its tail could be heard as it slashed through the air, and its panting with its tongue sticking out. The two of them were old acquaintances—the dog was big and yellow, with one upright and one drooping ear, and with a constant smile on its muzzle. It nestled close to Damyan and he slept peacefully until the morning, when he awoke, freezing from the dew. The sun still gave off only light but no warmth, so he headed out to the meadows beyond the village and ran around until his clothes and the grass beneath his feet dried off. Then he lay down in the warm grass and slept again, his eyelids pink beneath the sun. He woke up around noon, as ravenous as a wolf, and although he was whistling nonchalantly and kicking little stones around, he knew he was headed home, but chose the long way back so as to avoid admitting it.
But perhaps he had slept longer than he realized, since the village seemed unusually deserted for this time of day. On the street he ran into the priest’s wife and three other women. Still far away, the women stopped in their tracks as soon as they saw him, and the popadya asked him where he was headed. Home, Damyan replied, but the women did not budge, so he stopped and kept his distance too. Where had he been, the popadya asked, and, assuming they probably knew he had run away, Damyan admitted he had not been home since yesterday morning and had spent the night outdoors, sleeping in a haystack. Then the popadya approached and clasped his neck with two hard fingers, smiling all the while. There’s some warm chicken soup at my house, she said, and invited him over to have some. The three other women accompanied them. And it was there, in the half-dark kitchen of the priest’s house, while finishing his second bowl of soup, that Damyan suddenly realized something was wrong. He felt it the same way an image suddenly shifts in a dream, ever so slightly, causing an almost imperceptible difference, so that a face turns around and looks altered, and you know that the nightmare will begin in the next instant. He noticed their eyes watching his every move, and their tongues moving behind their closed mouths, and before the fear could overwhelm him, he jumped to the side in an attempt to dodge them, then slipped between their outstretched arms, bumped his head into one woman’s soft belly, got his legs entangled in another one’s flapping skirts, but managed to slip through their curled fingers and elude their shouts. Once outside, the sun blinded him but still he ran as fast as he could down the deserted street. He was so frightened that he ran past the wooden bridge and found himself across from his house, but on the wrong side of the river. In front of the house stood many men—some carried wooden clubs, others were empty-handed, and one held a rifle. Blows were heard, then his father emerged through the gate’s opening with an ax in his hands, the rifle went off and a red spot appeared on his father’s left shoulder, screams were heard from inside, the gate was shut, and the men threw themselves into boarding it up again with nails and planks.
He spent the whole day in a tree in the orchards, shivering in the afternoon heat and waiting for night to fall, so he could go home through the back of the house. But it was not even dark yet when, in the cinereous, sedimentary light, he saw his two brothers furtively sneaking out through the hole in the fence. And then he saw the men who had been hiding in the orchards and lying in wait for them, and they stood up with clubs in their hands, and their shirts glowed in the dusk. After the first blow, gold coins poured out the front of the boys’ shirts, glimmered, then soundlessly disappeared into the dirt beneath their feet. The men kept striking them and jumping backward, as to avoid getting sprayed by blood, and it all resembled some kind of a noiseless dance with cruel, rhythmic movements, while not a wail, nor even a whimper was heard from the two children, who fell to the ground with their arms around each other and without shielding themselves, and the men left them there, amid the dirt and the coins, threw down their clubs, and walked away.
He opened his mouth to scream but no sound came out, nor did he wake up, and that was when he was struck dumb forever, and he ran off into the woods, without direction, into the thickening darkness, in order to escape from the nightmare.
And when two or three years later, after having asked around, begged, and bribed, his oldest brother Kostadin finally found him, his skin scabby and his growth stunted, in a completely unexpected place and by accident, the boy tried by any means he could—through gestures and movements, through the guttural sounds that emerged from his throat, and through the crooked pictures he drew in the dirt—to tell his brother everything that had happened that day. He tried to tell him about the popadya and the other women, whose faces had suddenly changed, about the rifle that had gone off and struck their father in the chest, about the men in the white shirts who had beat his young brothers to a pulp. And Kostadin listened and understood everything. “They were witches,” he said, pressing his brother’s shorn head to his shoulder, so his shirt absorbed the boy’s tears and the dirt from his cheeks. “Don’t cry. They were sorcerers, and they put a curse on you. Don’t be afraid. They’re all gone. Thornitsa is gone, too, there’s no place called Thornitsa anymore.”
When the stranger walked into the yard, Iovana was not doing anything, and the creaking sound of the gate startled her and scattered her thoughts. The stranger had an old man’s gait and kept his head bowed, as if his feet could not advance on their own but had to be moved by the power of his gaze. He stopped in the middle of the yard, examined the house from the threshold all the way up to the chimney, and only then greeted her. The first sound that came out of his mouth already made it obvious he was a foreigner, but she could not figure out his origins, because he pronounced every word differently, elongating the vowels, hissing some of the consonants, and stressing others. He was looking for her husband, the man said, was her husband around. Iovana replied that her husband wasn’t home yet, that he’d be late, and asked if the newcomer was hungry. He wasn’t, the foreigner said. Iovana drew fresh water from the well and the man drank straight from the pail while the water ran down his chin and his chest, and then poured the rest of it over himself, which washed off the dust, and together with it, ten years off his face. That was when it became clear that what had seemed like the eyebrows of an old man was actually one straight black brow, as thick as an index finger, stretching over both his eyes. How did he know her husband, Iovana asked, and the man said, Very long ago, followed by another word she did not understand. Very tired, the man said, very terribly tired, and asked if he could rest somewhere while he waited for her husband. Iovana took him to the barn and gave him some blankets, because Thornitsa’s summer nights were as cold as its summer days were hot. And then she forgot about him. Her husband really did come back late, and they noticed that little Damyan had disappeared with a rug and a loaf of bread. He had run away before, but this time they had decided not to look for him and let him sleep outside in the dark, so as to teach him a lesson. She did not remember the stranger until the next morning—a morsel of bread still in her mouth, she ran out to the barn and found him, with eyes parched under the straight brow, sunk in his own blood and excrements. And she could not scream, because the morsel in her mouth was soggy with saliva and choked her, nor could she do anything else upon realizing the plague had entered her house, and the sun began to shine mercilessly, as if all of a sudden it were noon, and the front gate was already being boarded up from the outside.
By the time anyone dared to enter the yard—two gypsies, a father and a son who made their living at the fairs by letting venomous snakes bite them on the hands, whom the villagers had talked into doing the dirty job using threats, promises, and the murdered children’s money—they discovered that the dead had already been washed, their eyes had been closed, and the candles had been lit. In a corner they saw the body of Iovana, who had sat down and covered her head with a kerchief, embarrassed before whomever would see her face in death. In the dark, and as always without giving itself away, her luck had done as much as it could. Because death had taken away her husband with the wound in his chest, and her second-oldest son Nikodim, and her daughter-in-law with the child in her belly, and her beautiful daughter with the green eyes and the limp, and her two boys whom she had sent out in the early evening with all the coins she could find to escape through the hole in the fence, through which only the small children could fit. But she had been spared her firstborn son, Kostadin, who was away on an errand, and her two oldest daughters, who were married and living in other villages, and Damyan, who was struck dumb and ran off into the woods, and when they lifted her body, they also found Manol, the runt, having desperately cried himself to sleep but alive, hidden beneath his mother’s skirts.
The gypsy father and son looked almost the same age and resembled each other like twin brothers with their yellowing eyes and their contorted hands. Their palms were completely covered in red colons and semicolons from the snakebites, while the venom running through their veins brought a permanent blissful smile on their faces and made their movements slow and measured. They gathered everything of any value or use from the house, but the priest, who at this moment was performing the funeral rites from a distance (with the muffled wall of villagers behind him), shouted at them to drop everything, all the household belongings, into the large pit with the dead, and not to take anything. As far as the boy, they were told to do with him as they saw fit. So they took him as far away from the village as possible, up into the mountain, and left him on a path, so that fate could decide whether he should live or die. And it goes without saying that the two gypsies got away unscathed, untouched by the disease, because they were the only ones who were not afraid.
Under the ground, far from the winds that knocked the apples from the trees and the birds from the sky, far from the winter that came in September, far from the snow that sent the roofs crashing down, Iovana remained among the bodies of her people, among the bowls from her kitchen, among the clothes from the chest. She was not alone.
From Пътуване по посока на сянката. © Iana Boukova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Ekaterina Petrova. All rights reserved.
A murder mystery, told through the thoughts and voices of the inhabitants of a small town in Veracruz, lays bare the shattered hopes of a community hit by rampant violence and economic austerity, as Melchor draws on disparate traditions (from crime fiction to García Márquez novels) to create a masterpiece that is very much her own.
When it was originally released in Spanish in 2017, Fernanda Melchor’s Temporada de huracanes (Hurricane Season) quickly became the Mexican novel of the year. Critics praised the book’s forceful prose and compelling narrative, noting how Melchor masterfully taps into disparate literary traditions—among them, noir detective novels and modernist psychological prose—to create something very much her own.
Prior to the release of the novel, Melchor was already considered a rising star. Her first book, Aquí no es Miami (This is not Miami, 2013), collected various nonfictional pieces on politics and violence in her native state of Veracruz, earning her a place in the revered tradition of crónicas, a major genre in Mexican culture combining journalism, indirect narrative styles, and essayism, popularized by writers like Carlos Monsiváis and Elena Poniatowska. Shortly after, her first novel, Falsa liebre (False hare, 2013), secured her stature as one of the most interesting young writers in the country, showcasing both her unflinching style and the tropes that dominate her work: violence, the dark side of traditional masculinity, and the oppressiveness of life in Mexico’s tropical regions.
Melchor’s origins in Mexico’s Veracruz state, which runs along the Gulf of Mexico, are central to her work. Born in the city of Boca del Río, right next to Mexico’s most important trade port since colonial times, Melchor’s development as a writer has run parallel to the quick progression of the state into one of the most intense sites of violence and political corruption in the country. In her fiction and her nonfiction, Melchor explores the social, cultural, and economic processes that underlie the contemporary history of Veracruz.
Hurricane Season spectacularly fulfills the promise of Melchor’s early works, marking a major leap in her development as a writer. The novel revolves around the murder of a character known as the Witch and the discovery of her corpse by a group of children. The Witch’s identity and her murder provide a compelling narrative that would in itself sustain a very good noir tale, including a major twist that readers will find fascinating. The novel does not follow a linear narrative structure but rather meanders through the minds of various characters, and through different historical moments of importance to the local community.
Melchor uses this narrative kernel to build a complex architecture more widely focused on the life of a town in Veracruz called La Matosa. Some reviewers have noted that La Matosa should be taken as a fictional place, thus aligning the book with the long Latin American tradition of building mythical cities—from Juan Rulfo’s Comala and Elena Garro’s El Porvenir to García Márquez’s Macondo and even Roberto Bolaño’s Santa Teresa. However, La Matosa is indeed the name of a small town in Veracruz. It is named after Francisco de la Matosa, an Angolan slave leader who participated in the early seventeenth-century rebellion that established a community of freed African slaves in the region.
Regardless of how fictional we consider Melchor’s La Matosa to be, Veracruz’s history and the continued marginalization of its rural inhabitants, from colonial times to the present, act as a backdrop for the narrative. As the novel progresses, La Matosa becomes a symbol of Mexico’s failed modernization. Hurricane Season uses the Witch’s murder in part as a departure point to trace the history of violence in Veracruz and Mexico in the late twentieth century. At several junctures, the novel takes us back to late 1970s, when Mexico discovered major oil reserves initially hailed as a fast route to prosperity, giving rise to hopes that were quickly cut short by the price shock of 1982. La Matosa represents the type of peripheral community that would have played a secondary role in Mexico’s oil-fueled development projects. It grows by creating a buoyant but precarious parallel market of brothels and bars that quickly falls victim to neoliberal austerity policies, economic crisis, and the rise of the drug trade. The novel unfolds as an enactment of the collective memory of this community—an act of social remembrance rather than individual recollection. In Hurricane Season, the characters are more compelling in their whole than in themselves.
Hurricane Season is, in literary terms, a unique book in Mexican literature, at least among those translated and published in the US. Contemporary writers like Valeria Luiselli, Verónica Gerber Bicecci, and Cristina Rivera Garza, to name a few, have staked their reputations on different forms of experimentation in fiction, and their works break significantly with twentieth-century traditions of Mexican and Latin American writing by venturing into forms of autofictional and experimental writing much different from the works of the pre-Bolaño canon. In contrast, Melchor updates a significant genealogy of twentieth-century fictional writing that is not so directly engaged by any other influential Mexican writer of her generation.
In an acknowledgment page in the Mexican edition (missing in the US translation), Melchor thanks editor and writer Martín Solares for recommending that she read The Autumn of the Patriarch. Melchor’s prose style clearly harks back to García Márquez’s great 1975 novel in the way its chapters are composed of long, single-paragraphed streams of consciousness. But Melchor also introduces a significant split within this tradition: whereas García Márquez’s prose trends towards the baroque, narrating by aggregation, Melchor’s prose is violent, tearing through the very elements that are brought together in its large chunks of thought. García Márquez skillfully constructs a lavish fictional reality, overflowing with elaborate details. Melchor presents a ravaged one, delivered in a raging voice.
Another element from García Márquez (himself a practitioner of the crónica genre) that seems decisive for Melchor is the idea of the novel as an enactment and performance of collective memory, rather than individual subjectivity. This was a feature of his short novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold, which finds new life in Melchor. Her characters weave together a communal memory that is no longer just unreliable, as it was in García Márquez, but also broken, subject to the fragmentation caused by years of violence and precarity.
Melchor’s writing in Spanish showcases great grammatical and stylistic complexity, populated with regionalisms and subtle variations in narrative voice. Hurricane Season owes a significant part of its success and power to its form, and, as such, its translation into English was a tall order for Sophie Hughes. One of the most accomplished translators of Spanish-language fiction into English, Hughes has become a central figure thanks to her translations of authors like José Revueltas, Alia Trabucco Zerán, and Laia Jufresa, all of them distinct in their literary difficulty, and impeccably rendered into English. Although the translation loses some of Melchor’s linguistic richness, Hughes succeeds splendidly in conveying the flow and, more crucially, the immense power, of the narrative. Other than a few occasional words, Hughes resists the temptation to pepper the book with untranslated Spanish terms, and rather delivers them into her own inventive English nicknames and turns of phrase, which allows the book to be as powerful and as readable as the Spanish original.
At the moment of this writing, Hurricane Season has already picked up various major accolades beyond the Spanish-speaking world, including the Anna Seghers-Preis and the Internationaler Literaturpreis, both granted to the German translation. In English, the book was just shortlisted for the International Booker Prize (which will be awarded in May 19). Just like its Spanish version, Hurricane Season is well on the way to becoming a book of the year in English and in other languages. This is much-deserved recognition for a formidable and mighty novel, a masterpiece of Mexican literature.
Gonçalo M. Tavares tracks the COVID-19 pandemic in this stream-of-consciousness prose poem.
NASA cancels lunar research.
Matteo eats a forkful of pasta beside the window that looks over Vittorio De Sica street.
Sica was the director of The Bicycle Thief.
In Lombardy a woman is shouting for someone called Paolo.
A sick man in a Lombardy hospital sees the faces of his wife and brother on an iPad held well up in the air by the white gloves of the doctor.
The Marriott hotel is transformed into a field hospital.
Luxury rooms are now rooms for ten.
The space all used up, divided between machines, sick people, doctors.
An urgent new agriculture sows sick people and ventilators.
The president of the Retirees Association tells the younger generations not to forget them now.
Not to forget their parents and grandparents.
A girl beside me is crying.
A minister talked about measures—weights and tape measures for what he cannot see.
Andreotti, aged sixty, mask on his face, walks a very small dog on a long leash.
186 dead in France.
My Belgian Shepherd bitch is called Roma.
Roma is intact and alive; and she wags her tail.
She gets up, looking like a black bear.
I give Roma a hug.
Roma doesn’t cry, but she is not happy.
I say to her: Roma don’t cry.
Thermometer, temperature 37.2.
Playing the stock market, the individual version.
Goes up, goes down. The temperature.
They say the graves of the dead in Iran can be seen from space.
The Great Wall of China, the mass graves.
Depends how high.
How high you dare to go to look.
A temperature of 37.3.
A temperature for each country, a biological not external temperature.
Human 2 has a very high fever.
Human 3 plays on the console, the oldest game of all: hitting balls against a wall.
Sporting games suspended.
There is a macabre scoreboard announcing a single number that no longer has an opponent.
One single number per country.
Roma is thirsty, I put water in the bowl.
Hand trembling, paw steady.
The end of the world has always been announced as a statistic.
Karl Pearson in 1901 “founded the journal Biometrika.”
The century begins when it is necessary to get the measurement of things.
Measure the verticals, the horizontals, the size of feet, of a nose, of a heart.
The big numbers lean up at the beginning of the centuries.
Martha says her grandmother is OK, but that no sooner has she hung up than she starts to cry.
In 2020 another century begins.
Martha says she can hear her grandmother crying even after hanging up the phone.
That’s not possible, I say.
It is possible, she says.
News from two days ago:
“Italian economy takes big hit in first quarter”
“Africa sees more than 900 cases in 38 countries and territories”
“Four pharmacies closed due to professionals being infected”
Director-General of the WHO warns young people: “You aren’t invincible” and that they might “spend weeks in a hospital or even die.”
Giotto is twenty years old and he stops when he hears this.
I imagine it on the loudspeaker, those words repeated countless times: you aren’t invincible.
“United States cancels the release of entry visas.”
In the Italian cities, loudspeakers from which you can hear: you aren’t invincible.
Celine describes how, in the midst of the bombing in Berlin, a crazy woman used to shout, into the ears of people going past, the sound of the bomb, boooooooom.
The sound of something that kills without making any noise.
“Standard & Poor’s downgrades TAP’s rating.”
“Authorities in Jakarta declare a state of emergency.”
The sound of a virus.
“Public transportation in São Paulo might be banned for those aged over sixty at rush hour.”
462 dead in Spain.
Roma drinks the water from the bowl, she seems thirsty or else she’s transforming into a camel: she’s drinking for the difficult days ahead.
The ends of the century and the big numbers.
Catastrophes are to do with statistics and not to do with the person beside you who is looking at the statistics.
“I miss TV,” says a Foster Wallace character.
“You’ve learned to leave,” says another Foster Wallace character.
601 dead in Italy.
They say that even the smallest particles, like the virus, atoms, etc., make a sound, they give off a sound when they knock into things.
The sound of the virus.
Imagining experts out on the street detecting the sound of the virus.
A way of killing it, first: know its music.
601, 601, 601 are the dead in the last 24 hours in Italy.
I look out the window, all empty: up above, down below, in the distance.
A line from Neruda.
“Walking down a path / I met the air.”
An Italian woman says that Europe has abandoned Italy.
I turn off the TV.
“Diário da Peste, 23 March 2020” published in Expresso. © 2020 Gonçalo M. Tavares. By arrangement wiith Literarische Agentur MertinWitt. Translation © 2020 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved. This is the first installment of a series that will appear in translation in a number of publications. To read more, click here.
In the seventeen years Words Without Borders has been publishing, this is only the second issue dedicated specifically and exclusively to writing for children, and the first since November 2004. I can well understand the delay—children are not WWB’s main constituency of readers, after all. But I’ve been keen to work with them on this issue for a while, not only because children’s writing has been even more neglected for translation in the Anglophone world than its adult counterpart, but also because I’ve always felt the boundaries between potential groups of readers are much more porous than our overdeterministic publishing habits seem to suggest. I have not been a child in quite some time, and yet the seven pieces in this issue have all given me much pleasure. If you are reading this issue, then you, too, are probably not under twelve; the most I can hope for you is that you’ll enjoy it almost as much as if you were.
Guest editorships are usually granted to a person with an expertise to draw upon, with particular access to whatever the specific pool of possible content. This case feels different. Not that I don’t know my way around children’s books better than most, it’s just that the potential sources of commissions include the entire world and every language—anything written with a youngish audience in mind by anyone anywhere ever. This means I was not keen to simply read around and then choose, since this would have meant limiting the pool to my own reading languages, and why do that? So the process needed to be different, and the choices somewhat blinder . . .
My first step, then, was to contact not children’s writers or publishers but translators. Translators from seven languages, most of them with a particular interest in children’s books (and none of whom had translated for WWB before, as it happened), knowledgeable in this area, and all of them highly skillful; and in each case I allowed them, these translators, to steer the selection process. We were often choosing between pieces I could not myself read, after all. Indeed, of the seven pieces selected, Sandrine Kao and Maria Parr were the only writers whose work was previously known to me.
The pieces we’ve chosen to present to you have been translated respectively from French, Polish, Arabic, German, Norwegian, Japanese, and Italian, six of them originally written by women and one by a man. Between them, they span work for preschool children (Norway) to what feels like the gateway to Young Adult writing (Italy). There’s the occasional short story, but since this is a form very rarely published for children—bafflingly, to my mind—most are extracts from longer works, tantalizing glimpses of novels as yet unpublished in English translation. (If we didn’t have Guy Puzey to do the hard work for us, I would willingly learn Norwegian to be able to keep reading Maria Parr.) Many of these pieces appear in their original publications with illustrations, so your text-only reading experience will be unusual. Some are quite different from what you would expect to find in the Anglophone children’s book world; others seem curiously familiar.
“Firstclaw” by Sachiko Kashiwaba (translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa), for example, is a new story from Japan, but it feels a close kinship to very old European fairy tales—the webs of influence in children’s literature are dense and rich. This tale carries us back to a time of castles and dragons, when witches like Firstclaw still exist but live in secret—and it’s a surprising love story. (Surprising for the pair in question, but also for the way it is told and resolved.) Meanwhile, there’s another dragon in the Arabic story “The Appearance of the Dragon and Its Disappearance” (translated by M. Lynx Qualey), but this one, in contrast, is clearly not a real dragon—or is it? The piece is a chapter of Hooda El Shuwa’s The Dragon of Bethlehem, a story that also features an occupying army and a camp and military drones, and a boy who saves the life of his enemy. The borders between realist troubles and fantastical powers so often blur in children’s fiction. Children, after all, are the most open-minded readers where categorical rules are concerned. (Less imaginative adult readers can sometimes be fussy about this sort of thing.)
Our Polish piece, from Justyna Bednarek’s Mr. Gimbal’s Incredible Invention (translated by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones), introduces the inspiringly named Danny to tell a delightful story about what happens when his neighbor Mr. Gimbal comes up with his greatest invention yet. And there’s also a ghost! It’s very funny, with a lively sense of humor perfectly pitched for children and also, it turns out, forty-six-year-olds. The German story is another delight—another story that reminds me how much I loved losing myself in this sort of reading as a child (remember that feeling?), and another one for which I’ll be trying to persuade publishers that we Anglophones now need the rest of the book brought over very very soon, please. It’s another extract from a novel, Heaven Can Wait by Angelika Glitz (translated by Melody Shaw), with a lovely intergenerational relationship at its heart, a brief slice of a story about a girl and her charmingly wayward grandmother (a decidedly bad influence, I’m pleased to say). In this particular episode we learn how the grandmother found her ice skates, but to me this bit of writing is more about the relationship and the telling than about the plot. It’s deceptively simple, and I want more of it.
For the youngest readers, we have “Raur Gives His Blanket a Hug” by Maria Parr (translated by Guy Puzey), a perfect little short story . . . about a hug. It’s touching, it’s simple, and it’s totally assured, just like everything I’ve ever read from this writer-translator duo. It’s a story about a sort of monster under the stairs, but (like all Maria’s work, I guess) it’s really a story about the heart, and about kindness, and about love. Kids’ stuff? Sure. But I don’t know any adults who couldn’t learn from this, and neither do you.
Meanwhile, for the top end of the readership range, we have a couple of pieces that arguably stray into Young Adult territory, one from France, the other from Italy. The former, from Sandrine Kao’s novella The Park Bench (translated by Jane Roffe), is about a Taiwanese boy in France, but could in fact be set in lots of places. Racial bullying in high schools is not limited to France, so the setting seems almost incidental (to me as a reader, at least); the personal experience—the moving story about the loss of a culture—will be familiar to too many. Most complex of all, perhaps, we have the setup chapters of Pietro Albì’s new novel Farfariel: The Book of Micù (translated by Denise Muir). This inventive work, set against the religious backdrop of 1938 Italy, is about a small, oft-teased boy called Micú who meets a devilish creature called Farfariel, and in this opening extract we witness the latter’s first interference into our world. (There are hearts here, as there are in the Parr story; the difference is that here, well, they get eaten. We are no longer in the territory of the preschool reader, in case you were wondering.)
I often feel that adults forget what children’s stories are capable of, whether in terms of emotional complexity or linguistic and literary inventiveness; it’s easy, I suppose, to get lulled into a false sense of simplicity. Writing for kids requires such discipline. Stories might be mysterious, but they will never be incomprehensible—and they will never be self-indulgent. (I wish I could say that about other kinds of writing.) And to a reader who is six or nine or twelve, eyes still wide open to the world, the possibilities offered by this writing are mind-altering. It is a lucky adult who can still be affected by reading as deeply as a child is. To those of you who are regrettably no longer children, I hope some of these stories might serve as a happy reminder of that.
© 2020 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.
A furry creature named Raur discovers the power of hugs in this story for young readers.
This is Raur. No, not him. Him. Under the stairs. That’s the one. What’s he doing there? He lives there. You’ve trodden over his roof a hundred million times. Every time you’ve come to preschool, you’ve gone up the stairs and trampled on Raur’s roof. And every time they’ve come to pick you up from preschool, well, you’ve stepped on Raur’s roof then too. Not to mention all the times you’ve popped in and out of preschool during the day. You’ve stomped over Raur’s roof every single time, dusting his head with sand.
Have you never seen him before? Bend all the way down, then you’ll see him a little better.
Many people think that Raur is a cat. But he is definitely not a cat. Raur hates cats. If Raur sees a cat coming near his home under the preschool stairs, then he spits at it. That’s why there are so few cats at preschool.
If you had a flashlight with you, you could shine it into Raur’s home. Then you would see all sorts of things. But flashlights are Raur’s least favorite thing, after cats. Anyway, imagine you did shine a flashlight into Raur’s home. He would hiss so loudly it would send a cloud of dry under-the-stairs sand right into your face. And while you were rubbing your eyes, Raur would shout at the top of his voice:
“Flush that flashlight down the toilet! Otherwise I’ll come out and bite a hole in your rubber boots.”
Raur dreams of smashing all the flashlights in the world into flashlight-dust. Like this: bang, bang, bang.
The thing is that there are bits and bobs in Raur’s house that don’t like having flashlights shone on them. On his wall, he’s hung up the preschool manager’s beautiful long earring, and his little coffee table is made out of the missing wheel from the blue tricycle. He’s got chairs and shelves and drawers and cupboards. Everything is made out of things the preschool people have lost. Even his bed. It’s made of woolly hats. Five normal ones for the mattress, and a particularly warm and pink Hello Kitty one as a blanket. If only they knew, those folks who get cross when people lose their hats. It’s Raur who’s got them. Every single one!
Luckily for Raur, nobody peeps in.
But then came last Wednesday . . .
Raur doesn’t want to think about last Wednesday. Every time thoughts of last Wednesday creep into his hairy head, Raur starts jumping up and down to shake last Wednesday back out again. But there’s a limit to how much you can carry on jumping like that. Especially when you’ve gone to bed. At night, when it’s quiet at the preschool and Raur’s crawled under his Hello Kitty hat-blanket, everything about last Wednesday comes seeping in through the gap in his stair roof. With bells on.
What happened last Wednesday was that Noel peeped in. Of course, it would have to be Noel. After all, over the past four years, Raur has often found himself being disturbed, while in the middle of doing important things under those stairs, by grown-ups screaming and shouting:
“Noel! Get down from that tree NOW!”
“Noel! Give the bike back to Abdulai!”
“Noel! Are you crazy?”
“Noel! Let go of Mari this instant!”
Of all forty-three children at the preschool, it would have to be this little terror who came peering under the stairs. Raur wondered if he should lie down and die straightaway.
“Are you a cat?” Noel asked when he spotted Raur in the semidarkness.
That question made Raur break out in a rash on his back. He looked angrily at Noel.
“No, I am not a cat. You haven't got a flashlight, have you?”
“No,” said Noel.
“Good,” said Raur.
“But I could go and fetch one,” said Noel. “I know where they are.”
“No!” Raur shouted.
Noel lay down on his stomach and stuck his head all the way through the narrow gap.
“Who are you, then?” he asked, as a bit of his snot dripped down onto Raur’s Spiderman carpet.
“Raur,” said Raur, looking dubiously at the snot stain. Now he’d have to get the carpet cleaned.
“My name’s Noel,” said Noel. “I’m going to be picked up soon.”
“Good for you,” said Raur. “And for me,” he added, as he didn’t have the patience to stand a snot shower for much longer.
“My dad’s a bit late,” Noel explained.
“A bit?” Raur snorted. “He’s massively late. You’re the only one left in the whole preschool!”
“I know . . . ” Noel mumbled.
“Soon the people who work here will be going too. Then you’ll be left here all on your own.” Raur put on a sly-sounding voice and narrowed his eyes.
“Well, you’ll be here,” said Noel, smiling.
“No, I won’t,” said Raur.
“Yes, you will,” said Noel.
“No, because I’m going at Half Past Four,” said Raur.
Raur doesn’t know how to tell the time, but he’s heard the people who work at the preschool say “Half Past Four.” So Raur thinks that anything to do with time or clocks is called “Half Past Four.” Actually, it was almost five o’clock already. But that doesn’t matter so much when two people who can’t tell the time are talking to each other.
“Where are you going then?” asked Noel.
Raur put his hands on his sides and stuck out his stomach.
“To the Hairdresser.”
“Oh,” said Noel. “Then you’ll get a sheet round your neck, and you’ll have to sit still even if it’s itchy.”
“I know,” said Raur.
Well, actually he didn’t know, because Raur doesn’t really know what a hairdresser is. His mop of hair is untouched by hairdressers’ hands.
Suddenly Noel’s eyes widened.
“Hey, that’s Mari’s hat!”
He gurgled happily, and then he stuck his hand into Raur’s house and took his Hello Kitty blanket.
It’s when he gets to this bit that Raur really has to start jumping to get last Wednesday out of his head.
“GIVE ME BACK MY BLANKET!” Raur shouted.
“It’s not a blanket. It’s Mari’s hat,” said Noel.
“It’s my blanket!” Raur shouted.
“It’s Mari’s hat!”
Noel likes Mari very much, but sadly he often does things that make her cry. She’s got a kind of hair that’s so lovely to pull. If Mari got her hat back, she would smile at Noel instead of crying. That really would be something!
But that’s not what happened, because do you know what Raur did? He leapt out and bit Noel right in the middle of his finger, making him let go of the blanket with a gasp. And then Raur spat at him. Yes, that’s right. He spat like nothing anybody has ever seen. It was a good thing for Noel that he was wearing his waterproof pants. He got up with his finger bleeding and his pants dripping with spit.
“You’re not nice!” shouted Noel.
“Neither are you!” Raur screamed, pulling his blanket back under the stairs.
* * *
That was what happened last Wednesday. Raur spat and bit and got his blanket back.
“That was quite some biting and spitting you did last Wednesday, Mr. Raur,” he boasts to himself as he lies down under his lovely pink blanket. But he just can’t get to sleep. Everything feels topsy-turvy. When he thinks about Noel, something goes ba-dum in his stomach, or somewhere slightly above his stomach. And then his throat feels all lumpy and weird.
During the day, Raur spies on Noel. Has he got a little bandage on his finger? It’s impossible to tell, because Noel never comes near Raur’s stairs any longer. Imagine if he came back to talk a bit more, Raur sometimes thinks. When he thinks that, he hits himself hard on the head.
“I want to be left in peace,” he tells himself harshly. “It’s so wonderful to be left in peace by that silly Noel.”
But really it’s not wonderful at all. Something’s going ba-dum inside Raur, and he’s got a lump in his throat.
* * *
But then, one afternoon when Raur is sweeping his house under the stairs, he suddenly spots Noel sitting all alone, digging in the sandbox. He’s digging and digging. That tall, skinny father of his is late again! Raur starts tingling all over.
“Psst,” he says, quietly coughing.
Noel doesn’t turn around.
“PSST!” Raur half-shouts and half-whispers.
It would be impossible not to hear it, but still Noel just keeps on digging. Eventually Raur goes to the entrance to his hidden home and bellows:
Then Noel turns around.
“You’re not nice!” he shouts.
Raur is standing on the dried snot stain, right at the entrance to his house. His knees tremble as he says:
“How am I supposed to be nice when nobody’s nice to me?”
Then Noel stops digging and goes over to Raur. He does have a bandage on his finger. With a crocodile on it.
“My stomach’s going ba-dum,” Raur whispers.
“Here?” asks Noel.
“That’s not your stomach. That’s The Heart.”
“I thought all this part here was my stomach,” Raur explains, pointing to what he thought was his stomach.
It turns out to be almost his whole body. Except his feet.
“No, that thumping is coming from your heart,” Noel tells him. “Is it thumping very hard?”
Raur nods, and then he tells him that his throat feels all lumpy and weird too.
Noel looks at him seriously.
“That’s how I normally feel when I’m upset. My heart going ba-dum and a lump in my throat.”
“Am I going to die?” Raur asks, frightened.
“No,” says Noel, smiling. “Of course you’re not. You’ll be fine after some comforting.”
“Where can I get that, then?” Raur asks, because he thinks that Comforting must be some kind of pill.
“You can get it here,” says Noel, who then takes hold of Raur and lifts him all the way up. Raur thinks that Noel is about to press him right into his snot, but at the last moment he steers him toward his cheek instead.
Raur gets his first hug. It’s soft and warm, and smells of yogurt and sand. Raur feels himself starting to shiver a little. That thumping and the lump in his throat shift and change into a weak cry that comes leaking out of Raur in long streams.
“There, there,” says Noel. “You’ll be all better again in A Minute.”
Noel doesn’t know how long A Minute is, but neither does Raur, so not to worry.
Raur is astonished when he’s back standing on his Spiderman carpet. No more thumping. All he feels is warm and light.
“Where did you learn that from?” he asks, impressed.
Noel has no time to answer, because that’s when he gets picked up.
Raur hurries back into his house to spy through one of the gaps. Noel’s late, skinny dad puts his arms around his son and lifts him up.
“Sorry that I’m so late!” he says, squeezing him against his cheek.
Raur tilts his head, carefully watching Noel and his dad.
Then he goes over and picks up his Hello Kitty blanket.
“Sorry that Noel thought you were a hat,” says Raur, giving it the first hug he’s ever given.
Translation of “Raur gir dyna si ein klem,” from Trøysteboka Nynorsk stories (Skald, 2011). © Maria Parr. Illustrations © Guvnor Rasmussen. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Guy Puzey. All rights reserved.
This twist on a traditional fairy tale features a reclusive witch and an inventive young woman.
A war raged on for years. Witches had little choice but to protect themselves. Some gave up magic and passed as humans; others fled to the mountains and severed all contact with villages and towns. Still others, hoping for compensation, became castle witches and fought alongside lords of the realm at the battlefront. Through all of the fighting, the witches’ ways of coping were as varied as they were.
Then the war ended, and for twenty years, peace reigned. Green returned to the battle-scarred meadows and fields, and in castle cities and the surrounding hamlets and towns, people resumed a quiet life.
Castle witches grew scarce. Oral histories of the war seldom mentioned them; all the times when they had used magic to bring lightning or a flood upon an enemy were simply seen as times when the heavens had favored the victors. Perhaps the royal families, knights, and soldiers felt ashamed to have relied on witches. In any case, most people forgot that witches wield enough power to decide a war.
Now, many witches were living as humans and performing magic in secret—or living as mountain eccentrics who sold herbal remedies and cast the occasional spell. Those who performed spells openly were called witches, but in their hearts, people did not believe in their magic. They went to the witches for relief, and if their headaches improved or they found the objects they had lost, well, they were grateful.
The witch who was known as Firstclaw, from the country of the golden bear with six legs, lived deep in the mountains and made her living by casting spells. At a certain point, young women with love problems began sneaking off to see her. So many did so, in fact, that a path was worn across her mountain.
Firstclaw’s love spells were rumored to be unusually effective. In return for them, she required the supplicants to hand over their finest treasures. They understood that the love they sought would come in exchange for something very precious to them, and that this love would be deep indeed. The wealthy ones surrendered their most valuable gems, and the poor ones offered the loveliest items they owned. Whether the treasure was a ruby ring or a faded ribbon, Firstclaw’s spell always did its job.
Late one night, as a cold wind blew, Firstclaw heard a knock. It was faint, as if the wind had driven a leaf or some other small object at her door.
She sat up in bed, craning her neck and doubting her ears. “Who’s there?”
“Open the door, I beg you!” said a voice. “I have never walked so far. My legs ache.” The thin voice faltered.
“Very well.” Firstclaw crawled out of bed.
When she opened the door, she saw a young woman in a fine silk dress and black mantle who was fighting to draw breath. She seemed never to have climbed a mountain before; indeed, she seemed not to have ventured outside except in a horse-drawn carriage. She had fallen many times, leaving her mantle soiled, her soft leather shoes split, and her feet bleeding. More than a love spell, what she seemed to need was a salve for cuts.
“Come in, my child.”
The visitor practically fell in. She shivered, clearly chilled to the bone.
Firstclaw stirred the embers in the fire and added wood. When a log took, bright flames lit the visitor’s figure more clearly.
“Heavens, you’re the princess!”
The front of the young woman’s mantle bore an embroidered crest: a golden bear with six legs. It was the official crest of the realm, which depicted the first claw on the bear’s front paw as especially long and sharp. While flying flags with this crest, the princess’s father had prevailed in numerous battles, his courage becoming the stuff of legend.
Is she like him? Firstclaw peered at the princess’s tangle of blond hair, her cold and trembling lips, and her blue eyes, which showed her to be deep in thought. The princess seemed like, and also quite unlike, the king. Firstclaw thought that she remembered his face, but memory can blur.
“Wash your feet and rub some salve into them. It’s in the blue jar on the shelf.” Firstclaw motioned with her chin toward the kitchen well.
The princess, who seemed unused to such chores, drew water and somehow washed and salved her feet.
“How are you now?” Firstclaw asked her.
“Better. Thank you,” the princess replied. For the first time, she smiled.
Firstclaw inhaled sharply. That smile was the king’s. Yes, she has his face. Firstclaw found herself gaping at the princess, who in turn gazed at her.
The princess seemed younger than Firstclaw first assumed, and not without her charms. She seemed the sort of person who, when she discovered something of interest to her, would enjoy it to the full. Her pupils flashed with mischief, and she seemed ready to laugh at any moment.
As the princess surely expected, Firstclaw asked her, “So, what brings you here at this time of night?”
“I came for a love spell,” the princess replied, as if so much should be obvious.
“I see. And who do you love?” Firstclaw exaggerated her curiosity. She had heard a false note in the princess’s speech. The young woman seemed to be playing a part of some kind. Was she lying?
“I love the prince of the land of the soaring falcon,” the princess said, blushing. Seeing the color rise to the princess’s cheeks, Firstclaw knew that this much was true.
“Your engagement is fixed, is it not? That much I have heard, even here in these mountains!” Firstclaw replied, genuinely puzzled. The royal marriage was set for spring.
“Th-that is true, but these days I cannot tell if he really loves me,” the princess replied.
“I heard you two fell in love at first sight!” Firstclaw said, frowning. The other women who came for spells always spoke with envy of this couple: “They were made for each other!” “I’ve never seen two people more in love.” “I long for a love like theirs!” they would say.
Firstclaw believed the match to be a blissful one.
“But you are unsure, I see. Why?” she asked.
“Well, I . . .” The princess glared at the air, searching in vain for a complaint. But she could find none. It seemed that she could think of only good things about her prince, and the more she thought of him, the redder her cheeks grew.
What nonsense is this? Firstclaw wondered.
In those days, royal marriages were usually political arrangements. With a marriage between the royals of two countries, war could be brought to an end and hundreds—thousands—of lives saved. In such circumstances, newlyweds might well have complaints: “I expected someone with lovelier eyes.” “Just look at that overbite!” But they simply had to overlook such points, and many a political marriage did, in fact, yield happiness.
The princess’s parents—the late queen, who had died ten years earlier, and the king—had had a political marriage. It seemed to have been amiable. And yet their daughter was marrying for love . . . or was supposed to be.
The princess could find nothing the matter with her betrothed, no matter how much time elapsed.
“You don’t need a love spell,” Firstclaw said, shaking her head. She did not know why the princess would lie, but she believed that the prince of the country of the soaring falcon loved this princess, and she him.
“No. I must have a spell,” the princess said.
“You stole away from the castle, no? Get yourself home quickly, dear. How everyone will worry when they find you gone!
“The darkness will turn to dawn soon. You, scoot!”
Whether Firstclaw plied or scolded, the princess stood fast.
“You are more stubborn than you look!” Firstclaw said, bested. “Fine, I will cast you a spell.”
And she pretended to do so.
She pretended, because Firstclaw had already cast a spell for this princess months before.
The princess’s marriage was, in fact, a politically helpful one. But the moment any talk of it began, before the couple had even met, Firstclaw had cast a spell so that the princess would fall in love with the prince of the country of the soaring falcon, and he with her. Firstclaw’s magic had made the marriage a love match.
When Firstclaw herself was young, she had served as castle witch and fought alongside the princess’s father as his partner in battle. The king had been compared to the fierce bear in the country’s crest, and she had been likened to the first and sharpest claw on the bear’s forepaw.
Now, witches normally hide their names—especially castle witches. Names make them vulnerable to curses. Indeed, this witch had assumed a grave risk by becoming Firstclaw, but she had never objected to the name. That was because she loved the king. The war had been brutal, but it had brought her close to him. When the war ended, with the king’s marriage arranged to secure the peace, Firstclaw had swallowed her feelings and vanished into the mountains.
Because she had lost her own love, she longed for the princess to cherish hers.
The princess, thinking Firstclaw had just cast her a spell, rejoiced. Then she said, “I will bring you my treasure!” And she rushed home, seemingly forgetting her hurt feet.
Early the next day, she returned. Her bloodshot eyes betrayed that she had barely slept, but her cheeks glowed with excitement. “Here is my treasure,” she said.
And the princess produced the king.
She wanted Firstclaw to have this treasure of hers.
Before her own marriage had been fixed, the princess had learned of the king’s love for Firstclaw. “I knew from the start that I had no hope of marrying her,” the king had told his daughter. It was the first time he had voiced his feelings. “When she left the castle, she said that she wanted to be called Firstclaw for life. That was enough for me,” he’d said.
The king had known Firstclaw’s feelings too.
The princess knew the king’s habit of touching the long claw embroidered on the royal crest of his robes. She noticed that his face grew joyful when he spoke of Firstclaw. She believed that if he confessed his feelings to Firstclaw now, the departed queen would not begrudge it.
“Your courage is the stuff of legend, is it not?” the princess said now to her father. She pushed him toward Firstclaw. The king hung his head, bashful as a youth. Before long, Firstclaw had to laugh at the pitiful figure he cut.
Years ago, how many times did that laugh save me? the king thought. Even now, her laughter gave him courage.
“I want to go dragon hunting with you,” he told her. Some of his hair was white now, but the blond sovereign had finally asked Firstclaw on a date.
“I may as well go,” she replied.
And Firstclaw’s own cheeks reddened a little.
Translation ofイチノツメとよばれた魔女 in the collection 王様に恋した魔女 (Kodansha, 2016). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Avery Fischer Udagawa. All rights reserved.
A dragon gives a boy the courage to face a life-and-death situation in this children’s story by Hooda El Shuwa.
Khidr’s heart was pounding as he stepped into the house. It was almost sunset, and his mom wasn’t usually this late. Was she on an emergency visit to the hospital to see his dad?
Then a buzzing sound sliced through the sky above the camp. It was a familiar sound—the continuous whirring of a drone, the sound of the monster that harassed the camp without mercy. Its constant roar was punctuated by the whiz of bullets and the thunder of guns, which shook the windows of the house.
Khidr lifted his head to look out and saw groups of heavily armed occupation soldiers wearing helmets and fanning out through the alleys of the camp. He watched them spread out across the rooftops, leaping onto the roof of the building that overlooked the central street. He saw a slow-moving armored vehicle patrolling the main road. Behind it, military jeeps turned to probe the narrow camp alleys.
The stench of suffocating smoke rose up from the alleys . . . the sound of bombs . . . gunfire.
He muttered to himself: “Dragon, Dragon, where are you now? Where are you when I need you?”
Khidr stepped out onto the street and was filled with an extraordinary horror: his mother might be on her way home, and anything could happen during these wild raids that rained curses down from the skies above the camp.
He moved lightly down the alleys that threaded between the camp’s packed-in houses, listening to the growl of the patrol ahead. He turned and slipped into the darkness of Abu Lutfi’s barbershop, since his metal gate was open. He took in a breath . . . Through a crack in the door, he caught sight of a young guy, his face covered with a checked keffiyeh, standing on the roof of the building opposite. He was standing on top of Abu Yazan’s restaurant, the one that sold falafel, hummus, and fuul beans.
“Oh my God,” Khidr sputtered loudly. It was Marwan—he could tell from his black Reeboks with their red eagle wings. Those were the same shoes that had given him a sharp, cruel kick to the chest.
He muttered: “What is that crazy idiot doing on top of the restaurant? He’s going to get hit, either by a stray bullet . . . or on purpose.”
Marwan seemed to be hanging between life and death.
Khidr felt a bitterness in his stomach. He hated Marwan so much—so very much—but did he hate him so much that he’d wish him dead? Would he be happy if he saw a bullet pierce Marwan’s skull, knocking him off the roof?
The masked boy who stood with supreme confidence on the building’s roof . . . was he going to get hit from behind by a sniper’s bullet? Khidr asked himself: Would he be happy if he saw Marwan’s face on a new poster on one of the camp walls? Or a new painting on the side of their open-air museum, featuring him as one of the camp’s fallen? Would he rejoice if Marwan became a new hero and people wrote songs and poetry in memory of his martyrdom?
Khidr crouched in a corner of the barbershop, head pressed between his knees, trying to turn his body into a ball so small it almost wasn’t there.
He didn’t know how much time had passed. Chills raced through his body, his forehead was bathed in sweat, and his breaths sped up. He felt a twinge in his right thigh and put a hand in his pocket, feeling the wooden protrusions that jabbed into his flesh. A desolate feeling crept through him—a desolation mixed with guilt. Then, the next thing he knew, he was filled with an invisible strength.
Khidr got up, his feet driving him to the front of the shop, where he cautiously stuck his head past the edge of the metal door. He turned right, toward the end of the road. There, the situation seemed calm. Quickly, he went up a small stairway on the north side of the street, which brought him level with the roof of Abu Yazan’s restaurant, and within moments, he was standing face-to-face with Marwan. Behind the mask, he saw a spark of terror flashing in Marwan’s eyes.
As soon as Khidr took a few steps in his direction, extending his open hand toward Marwan, the street was filled with growling: loud bullhorns and popping sounds, clouds of foul smoke rising from the alleys between the houses, and the sound of shelling. Khidr grabbed Marwan’s jacket and threw his weight on top of him, dropping him to the ground among a cluster of satellite dishes.
Khidr felt a hot, searing pain in his right thigh, and he released another groan as he shoved his hand into his pocket, feeling for the pain, moving his fingers around the wooden statue of the saint and his dragon, which was deep in his pocket.
Lifting his head from its place on the roof, Khidr saw that a hole had been torn through the right side of his jeans.
Oh my God.
A bullet had pierced the fabric of his jeans . . . and it had gone straight into the body of the dragon! He touched the bullet—it was warm, satiny—and tugged it out of the tough sculpture. He ran it between his fingers, muttering: “It’s no more than a scratch, thank God . . . a scratch on the wood . . . torn jeans. Bless the spear-wielder, Khidr the Green, and the dragon.”
Khidr shifted from where he’d been lying, on his back on the roof, trying to catch his breath. His heart was beating fast, a series of violent, confused thuds striking against his cotton jacket. Inhale . . . exhale . . . inhale . . . exhale . . . . Khidr closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the smoke had risen far above, leaving a patch of starry sky that stretched out over the camp.
From this position—lying between the piles of wires, satellites, crushed soda cans, and leftover falafel bags—he lifted his gaze toward the dome of the sky. It seemed as if the moon, the stars, and the planets were all very close, and that the sky had expanded beyond his sight. It seemed as if he could stretch out a hand and touch it. And was that the constellation Ursa Major? Or was it Ursa Minor that flashed up before his eyes? And what was the name of that planet tinged with a lustrous red? He didn’t know! Where were the other heavenly bodies? Where were the constellations from the zodiac—Aries, Pisces, Leo, Capricorn, Taurus, Cancer, and Scorpio—that his dead friend Adnan had shown him from the roof of his house in the camp?
Adnan had been born under the sign of Leo, and where in the sky was Leo now? Khidr’s mom was a Capricorn . . . but his dad? He didn’t know his dad’s sign. He couldn’t even remember his dad’s birthday.
The dome of the sky was packed to the brim with images of animals, monsters, and bright and luminous beings, and they swam like meteors in an amazing panorama of orbiting radiance. The sky was so wide! For a moment, he imagined that he saw a flying dragon spreading out its two great wings, which beat with a powerful thunder along the edge of the horizon, and that out of its mouth gusted a brilliant flare that illuminated the darkness of the universe.
“Dragon!” Khidr shouted, lifting his voice and waving an arm in the air, the fist of his left hand clinging to the little wooden statue. The fingers of his right hand still clutched the bullet, the idiotic bullet, the bullet that had come to him, the bullet that had not struck Marwan.
The dragon had disappeared.
His throat felt very dry. Everything went quiet. Slowly, he lifted the statue to his lips and kissed it. “Dragon . . . you came, dragon.”
The sky shed droplets of water that moistened Khidr’s dry lips, and soon water was flowing down the heaps of metal satellite dishes, wetting the boy’s cheeks as well as his jacket and pants.
He heard a crunching sound to his side, from the darkness of the roof. Marwan slowly lifted his head, arched his back, and pulled the keffiyeh from around his neck. Khidr caught a strange flash in Marwan’s eyes, a look he’d never seen from his sworn enemy before, a look that seemed . . . grateful. Marwan reached his wet palm out toward Khidr, spreading the keffiyeh over both of their heads to protect them from the rain. In a low, breathless voice, Marwan said: “Khidr . . . That was . . . wow. Thanks.”
From The Dragon of Bethlehem (Tamer Institute, 2017). © Hooda El Shuwa. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by M. Lynx Qualey. All rights reserved.
An East Asian boy struggles with racist bullying at school and pressure at home in this children’s story by Sandrine Kao.
“Yes, Sybille, I would like you to back off . . .”
I didn’t allow myself to actually say it. But I really would have preferred it if she just went her own way. I needed to walk alone awhile and think.
Her chatter stopped. She was waiting for an answer. I was only half-listening to what she was saying, and she could tell. I wasn’t that interested in her latest quarrel with Ness.
“I’m getting on your nerves, aren’t I,” she asked, “going on about all this when it’s got nothing to do with you?”
I was on edge, although it was something else that was bothering me. But Sybille was being kind, and I didn’t want to annoy her, so I just said, “Of course you’re not getting on my nerves. Go on, I’m listening.”
Now that I’ve stopped having school lunches, I sometimes walk part of the way with her at lunchtime. She lives right next to the park where I eat my packed lunch. She’s been seeking me out lately—especially since she fell out with her group of friends. I think she quite likes me—she knows she can tell me stuff. Right behind us, Ness was walking between Johan and Phil, her laughter loud enough to drown out Sybille’s monologue.
“She’s doing it on purpose, just to wind me up,” muttered Sybille.
I could feel their eyes on my back, too, which I resented. Always thinking they’re smarter than everyone else. I had the same feeling, that they were laughing at us. At both of us, not just at Sybille; I’ve had this suspicion that everyone wants to make fun of me for some time now. Anyway, they’d be turning the corner soon, and I wouldn’t be able to hear them anymore.
Sybille usually goes that way too. But this time, she continued into the park beside me, still talking, as though there was nothing odd about it. I interrupted her—there was no way I was letting her follow me.
“Sybille, don’t you normally go that way?”
I pointed to the street the others were walking along.
“No, I’m going through the park with you,” she said. “I don’t want to walk in front of them, and I’ll get home just as quickly this way. You don’t mind?”
I shrugged, giving nothing away. She was free to take it as a no if she wanted. The truth was, I really didn’t want her to come with me. After school, it wouldn’t have bothered me. We would have walked along through the trees and gone our separate ways at the end of the path—Sybille turning right to go home and me going left along the wide avenue that leads to my neighborhood. But I wasn’t planning on going home right then. It’s quite a ways to where I live—about a twenty-five-minute walk. We usually only get an hour at lunchtime, so I don’t tend to go home. Instead, I sit on a bench in the park to eat my packed lunch. And I’ve got better things to do than keep Sybille entertained.
I was already nervous.
And the closer we got to “my” bench, the more uptight I got. I could see it now—it was really near—and I squinted to get a better view. Sybille’s chatter was distracting, and I was struggling to hide my irritation. She seemed to notice anyway.
“What’s up with you?”
In my head, everything was mixed up. I didn’t know what to say or how to explain to her, and my suspicions got the better of me. What if it was her? She lives right by the park, she could easily get here anytime she liked. I was sure she already knew where I ate my lunch, and that I didn’t go home.
Without any warning, I grabbed her by the arm and dragged her toward my bench.
That put a stop to her chattering. She seemed taken aback, and at the same time, her cheeks had reddened. For a brief moment, I thought she looked pretty. I realized that unless I explained myself immediately, she might misinterpret my actions. But there was no time for that, there we were in front of the bench, and I saw it—something else written in Wite-Out. I pointed it out to Sybille, but she was already looking at it. There it was, freshly spelled out—
Rice Balls Alex
Alex—that’s me. I’m an East Asian boy. And believe me, being on the receiving end of insults like this is no fun at all.
. . .
I forced a laugh that was about as joyful as a tired old smiley.
I didn’t know who’d done it. But it was no coincidence that they picked this very bench.
Yes, people often make fun of me and my typically East Asian features. And yes, strangers do sometimes snigger at me in the street, calling me “chinky” even though they’ve no idea where I’m from. Or else they tug at the corners of their eyes, speaking in a stupid accent, bleating, “ching, chang, chong.” I don’t react—they’re just a bunch of morons with nothing better to do. But it’s not surprising—with everything you hear on the news, how can anyone be expected to think well of the Chinese? They’re always saying it’s because of the Chinese that businesses are relocating, that the Chinese don’t respect human rights or protect the environment, that they’re only interested in money—and of course that there are too many of them. It’s scary. But the truth is that most Chinese people are just victims. Their government only cares about productivity, it doesn’t worry about whether things are fair. And nobody ever mentions the fact that Western countries did exactly the same thing themselves. And if all you care about is profit, well, other things don’t matter, do they?
When it comes to nicknames at school, the options are endless. Some of the kids call me “noiche”—it’s French back slang for “Chinese.” I just shrug. I don’t like it, but it’s how people talk. Others call me Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or Jet Li. Sometimes, it’s even affectionate.
On the other hand, writing something as lame as Rice Balls Alex on a park bench, and doing it anonymously—that was cowardly. And another thing—whoever did this must have been spying on me. How else would they know I’d come to this bench and read it?
And it’s not the first time! Yesterday, it was
Spring Roll Alex
The minute I saw it, I pulled my scissors out of my pencil case and scraped the white letters off. I felt a bit better once it was gone—but I still hadn't been able to stomach my tub of rice. I imagined someone hiding behind a bush, watching to see how I reacted, and sniggering. But I couldn’t see any sign of anyone, so I headed back to school, my stomach in knots. I wanted to act as if it hadn't affected me. I pretended to be happy, I made an effort to laugh harder than usual. I also kept an eye on how everyone in my class reacted. I was convinced it must have been one of them who’d done it.
I was so suspicious, I even wondered whether it might be my friend Bobo—though I knew it couldn't be. I hadn't even told him where I went at lunchtime. And he knows I'm not from Vietnam—yes, that’s where spring rolls come from. People don't even know the difference between Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean: to them, we’re all “chinks.” Or else gooks, slitty-eyes, noiches, rice balls, dog-eaters, etc. I’m from Taiwan, so don’t get me started! Nobody knows where it is or what it is. When my friends asked where I was from and I said Taiwan, here’s what they said:
“Ah, you’re from Thailand!”—that was Yann.
“No, you idiot, if I was from Thailand, I would have said Thailand. Just because it starts with the same letter doesn’t make it the same country!”
“Oh yeah, like ‘Made in Taiwan’!”
“They used to make cheap stuff there in the nineties. Now they specialize in electronic components.” That was Mehdi, our very own geek. He’s always glued to his tech, sniffing out the latest computer equipment.
“Yeah, it’s Chinese, right?”
“It's the rebel island!”
That was Bobo. Not bad, geographically speaking. But politically—well, that’s another story. Since then, though, we’ve even discussed whether Taiwan should become independent!
Anyway—the point is, Spring Roll was a very poor choice of insult. And Rice Balls was no better. I forced a laugh in front of Sybille, but she was livid. And speechless, at first.
“It’s pathetic,” she said in the end. “Who could have done this? Do you think it’s aimed at you?”
I soon stopped laughing when I saw how she was taking it.
Other things were scrawled on the bench too: POLICE = SCUM in black marker, J loves M (engraved inside a heart), and a spray-painted La Cité du Parc on top!!! All common enough sights around town. But Rice Balls Alex, that was different. There was no room for any doubt. I was being deliberately targeted.
How could I possibly have suspected Sybille for a single moment? I really couldn’t see her enjoying this sort of thing. It was stupid of me to drag her to the bench. I would have been better off walking on, as though nothing had happened, as far as the park gate, and then going back to my bench alone. Now I had to admit that it was aimed at me.
Because I’m the one who eats here at lunchtime, on this bench. And the first insult was already there yesterday. If I catch whoever it is, they’ll be sorry!
[Later that afternoon . . .]
She’s such a pain, our neighbor, always going on about my dad.
“Yeah,” I told her, “he’ll be back.”
Keeping things vague, I hurried to get through the door to our building.
She was persistent. “When will he be back?”
“In December, for Christmas,” I lied.
And then, to change the subject, I quickly added, “How are things with you? How’s your daughter doing at school?”
I knew that would hit the spot. Her daughter was in my class last year and really struggled to keep up. East Asians are prouder of their children than they are of anything else, and (unlucky for her) Mrs. Huang’s kids were very, very average—both scraping through school with no sign of any talent for anything.
“Yes, fine,” said Mrs. Huang unenthusiastically.
She began an angry retreat toward her apartment. But then she just couldn’t resist.
“You should answer in Chinese. If you always speak French, you’ll forget your Mandarin. It’s not right to deny your own culture!”
Slam! She shut the door in my face.
That’ll teach me to mention her own kids to her.
The only thing Mrs. Huang has to be proud of is that her kids can speak and write Chinese. Fluently. Which is more than you can say of me—it doesn’t take long to lose a language. Yet we’re constantly told how important it is to know how to speak Chinese, that it’s a fantastic asset for our future careers, that we’re bound to find work in international trade or the import-export business. The eldest Huang kid is studying marketing at a private school—his mother’s so proud. It’s not even as if there was any skill involved—all you had to do to get in was be able to pay. But that doesn’t stop her bragging that he got in because he speaks Chinese, or droning on about how having both cultures is so enriching for him. I couldn’t care less about the import-export business, and I definitely don’t want to work in it.
As for the Huang girl, she hangs out with a group of other East Asians. Sometimes they speak Chinese among themselves just so other people can’t understand. All their parents are shopkeepers or entrepreneurs. Which means these kids are dressed in luxury brands, with the latest tech in their pockets and celebrity-endorsed eyewear . . . not to mention hair that’s been bleached or dyed. But of course I’m the one who gets accused of rejecting my own culture.
Anyway, it’s my dad’s fault I can’t speak Chinese anymore. All he had to do was stay here. I used to speak Chinese with him because there was no choice—his French isn’t very good.
I wasn’t even ten years old when my dad left. He promised we’d go on vacation to Taiwan as soon as he got a good job—he’d been out of work for quite a while here in France. Once he went back to the island, he did find a job very quickly. But we didn’t go to see him in Taiwan. And he came back here less and less often.
He usually writes at this time of year to tell us he’s bought his plane tickets. At the same time, he sends money so that we can manage until he gets back. But this year, nothing. No matter how often we write, there’s no answer. No letter, no email, and no money either. My mom says something must have happened to him, and since he’s all on his own over there, nobody’s noticed he’s missing, and that’s why we haven’t been told. Or else he’s met another woman and abandoned us, my mom and me. Maybe he’s been leading a double life for years and has another family—so he’s cut us off forever.
I did ask my mother once, “Why didn’t we go back to Taiwan together? Couldn’t all three of us have lived there? It’s not as if we have any family or ties here in France. What’s keeping us?”
“It’s not as easy as that, Alexander. I don’t have anyone in Taiwan either now that your aunt’s gone to live in America. It was a stroke of luck, being able to stay in France—let’s not throw it away. And how would you have kept up with your schoolwork from there? You can barely read and write Chinese. You would have found yourself having to repeat the year, maybe several times over. And your life is definitely better here.”
I’m not so sure. What I think is that my dad would have gone anyway. It’s just not his thing, family life. Mom knows it—she wasn’t even that surprised when he left, as though she expected it. And yet she still thinks he’ll end up coming back. The thing is, it’s been almost a year since we last saw him, and there’s been no news for months now. Let’s face it. Dad’s left us.
I won’t be heading off on vacation to Taiwan anytime soon, although I’m sure I would have enjoyed the hot, stifling humidity, the taste of exotic fruits, the mountain landscapes, the sea, and the gray sandy beaches lined with palm and coconut trees. It’s easy to imagine myself melting into the crowd, amidst the passersby as they wander among the street food stalls, shops, and evening markets. I’d fit right in, just like all the other people there. Instead of being “Alex the Noiche,” I’d just be one East Asian boy among others.
From Le Banc. © 2013 by Syros. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Jane Roffe. All rights reserved.
A girl discovers her grandmother’s hidden talents and taste for adventure in this children’s story by Angelika Glitz.
Some people are like surprise eggs. You know, the chocolate ones with a tiny toy inside. You don’t discover what’s inside them until you’ve nibbled away some of the outside. And Granny Hilde was an egg with an extraordinary number of surprises. She’d totally fooled the security guard, and that was just the start. While he was taking his report to his boss, I told Granny Hilde the whole story from start to finish: how I’d dreamed of getting in-line skates ever since I’d seen Starlight Express; how I’d found a beautiful silver-gray pair with turquoise stripes and wheels—the last pair left in the sale and still seventy-nine euros; how I’d hidden them in the most expensive rucksack in the shop display to stop anyone else snapping them up before I’d saved enough money. And now the security guard thought I’d stolen them.
Granny Hilde just sat and listened, her head slightly to one side and her hand on my knee. Finally, she nodded, pulling a handkerchief out of her cardigan.
“What keeps us alive if not the dreams in our hearts?” She dabbed at her nose, then put the handkerchief back in her sleeve. “And even when they seem as far out of reach as a star in the sky, they still light our way.”
Granny Hilde’s words warmed me like a ray of sunshine, melting the hard, icy lump in my stomach—just a tiny bit.
“And that’s why . . .” still fumbling to put her handkerchief back, Granny Hilde pointed to the door. Not the one that the two men had disappeared through, but another, opposite the first, made of heavy steel with a few shoeboxes in front. A Hawaiian dancer key ring hung from a key in the lock. “And that’s why we’re getting out of here.”
“What do you mean, getting out of here?”
“Making a break for it!”
I didn’t need telling twice. I took all the boxes blocking our way and stacked them on the desk. The door was locked, and the key stuck, but after I’d thrown my weight against the door a couple of times, the key finally turned and pulled out easily. I turned to help Granny Hilde, but she was already on her feet, standing straighter than I’d ever seen before. Her eyes were sparkling so brightly, you’d think someone had switched Christmas lights on all through her tiny body. Not two minutes later, we were out, complete with Granny Hilde’s walker, and the door snapped shut with a dull click. To win us more time, I double-locked it. Then I put my arm under hers to support her, but she shook me off.
“It’ll only make our getaway trickier.”
“OK, sorry.” I started walking.
“Wait,” said Granny Hilde, “my eyes need to adjust to the low light in here first.”
She was right, it was pretty dim in there. We’d obviously ended up in the warehouse. The only light came from a few fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. Long rows of shelves towered up to the distant roof.
“Excellent,” said Granny Hilde, “now we need to creep along here.” She was bent over like a banana again, but her eyes were still sparkling with glee.
Unfortunately, we made very slow progress. Granny Hilde was pushing her walker a short way forward, then toddling two steps after it, but she seemed to be leaning harder on the handles every second. I began to wonder how she’d ever made it to the Sportfit shop at this pace. And why on earth had Agathe, her carer, even let her go? And still wearing her slippers?
As if she could read my thoughts, Granny Hilde said, “I had such a friendly taxi driver. He even came to the door with an umbrella for me. What a stroke of luck. Agathe couldn’t do it, she had such a terrible backache. She was busy rubbing in some ointment.”
“I see. And how did you know the number?”
Granny Hilde gave me a hard don’t-treat-me-like-an-idiot stare. “Agathe had stored it in my phone contacts. Now let me concentrate on my feet.”
I glanced back at the door; nothing was happening there yet. But I was getting worried, and every couple of yards I turned my head again. Had I just heard the sound of a door handle turning, or was I imagining it? Granny Hilde was wheezing as deeply and regularly as a steam train. At shelf 42, she said her legs were getting a bit tired and she needed to sit down. I forced myself to breathe calmly.
“Can you make it around the corner here? Then we’ll be out of sight.”
“No, I think it needs to be now.”
I realized how exhausted she looked, grimly clinging to the handles of her walker. My gaze fell on a pile of boxes six feet ahead. “Wait, I’ll build you a seat.”
“Oh no, not boxes. I’d rather take that seat there.”
I looked where she was pointing. Surely she couldn’t be serious? The only thing over there was a bright red forklift truck. OK, it had a seat, with a lovely, soft fur cover too. Unfortunately, it was a good six feet off the ground.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, fervently hoping I’d been mistaken.
“That classy little forklift, of course.”
The Granny Hilde marathon was already in progress. The sight of the forklift seemed to have renewed her energy; she was already standing at the footboard.
“Give me a hand, Lulu darling.”
“Granny Hilde, no!”
“Oh yes. Now hop to it, it’ll be fine!”
She grabbed a handle and kicked her walker to one side. I sighed.
“All right, but if anyone asks, it wasn’t my idea.”
“Push!” she commanded, her right foot already waving in the air.
I shook my head and gave in. Bracing myself against her backside, I pushed with all my might. Finally, after much coughing from Granny Hilde—and a little groaning from me—there she was, actually sitting in the driver’s seat, looking like she couldn’t quite believe it herself.
“How are you feeling now?” I asked.
“Marvelous. And the seat, absolutely wonderful. And what a view!”
She bent over the steering wheel, her finger drawing a circle around a green button. “Look, this forklift even has an electric motor.”
“Lulu, could you see if you can set the seat a little lower, please?”
I didn’t ask why; I was too busy worrying. I was expecting to see Security Guard Klötzing storm around the shelving corner at any moment. The shoeboxes on his desk must have given away which door we’d escaped through—but where else could I have put them? And there was bound to be a spare key somewhere. I noticed two small buttons, one with an arrow pointing down, the other with an arrow pointing up: electronic controls for the seat height! I pressed the first one, holding it until Granny Hilde had purred to the bottom.
“Excellent,” she said. “Now I can reach the pedal. What a good thing I’ve driven tractors so often in my life.”
“Why is that a good thing?”
But she had already pushed the green button. The forklift jerked, then hummed into motion.
“Lulu darling, run and fetch my walker frame!”
For a moment, all I could do was stand there, watching her tiny figure teetering on the seat as it wobbled away from me. Somewhere in the warehouse I heard a door bang and someone shouting. I grabbed the walker and made a run for it. “Granny! Someone’s coming! Put your foot down!”
She did, too. I could barely keep up with her. The forklift veered off course, knocking a few rows of boxes sideways and sending them crashing in a heap.
“Watch out, Granny!”
The steps behind us grew louder.
“Around this corner!”
Granny Hilde careered around a sharp right-hand bend, flattening two empty boxes, and there in front of us was a huge doorway. It looked about as inviting as a dragon’s jaws, but it was our only hope. For a few seconds, as I watched her weaving her way toward it like a snake, I was afraid Granny Hilde wouldn’t make it, but she only scraped the frame. I dived after her, my lungs burning. I’d barely gotten myself across the threshold before I heaved all my weight against the steel sliding door. Our luck held: the door was well oiled and snapped shut almost without a sound. Then there was nothing but darkness, and the sound of an electric motor purring to a stop with a faint whistle somewhere a few feet in front of my face. Outside, footsteps clattered past and faded away. Granny Hilde giggled. She chuckled, choked a little, then giggled again.
Man, what a granny!
“And now,” said this crazy Granny, “now let’s make ourselves comfortable until the coast is clear.”
Not long after, I was sitting on the forklift’s footboard, my feet stretched out in front of me on a box and my head resting against Granny Hilde’s scratchy tights. I pushed one of her bitter lemon sweets around my mouth with my tongue.
“How long do you think we’ll have to hide here?”
“A long while yet.”
“Hm. In that case,” I suggested, “why don’t you tell me how you come to have a pair of ice skates at home that you’ve never used?”
“Oh yes, that’s a good story,” said Granny Hilde.
“Great,” I said, closing my eyes. It’s funny, but I can listen better with my eyes closed, even if I’m sitting in the pitch dark.
“It started when we had to get my father out of prison.”
“Prison?” I had to ask, in case I’d misheard.
“Oh yes. It was my parents’ anniversary. My father had taken us out to dinner in a proper restaurant, with tablecloths and candles. ‘Today there’ll be meat for dinner,’ he’d said. Well, meat was something we only ate now and then, as a special treat on Sundays or birthdays. We ate braised beef, holding every morsel on our tongues as long as possible so as not to miss any of that delicious flavor. Father was in good spirits that evening, too, clinking his beer against our glasses. He was in such a good mood he forgot about the hyperinflation happening all across Germany. So while we were inside, savoring every bite, inflation continued outside, doubling the price of our meal, and at the end of the evening Father couldn’t pay the bill. There was a heated argument. Father called the owner a cutthroat and the owner bellowed could he not read?! The menu clearly stated that prices would track the money rate. And suddenly there were men in uniform at the door. Father shouted at them, too, then they took him away. Just like that. And threw him in jail.”
“In jail, the full works?” I asked.
“With bars? And bread and water?”
“No way! And how did he get out? He did get out, didn’t he?”
“Oh, we had to free him, of course. My sister Martha, Mother, and I. It must have been the middle of the night when Mother woke us. She hadn’t lit a lamp, so I could only see her outline. She asked whether we wanted to help get Father out of prison. Didn’t we just!
Mother told us to put on our darkest clothes, and she blackened our faces with soot. She warned us to be quiet as we ran down the stairs, and my heart was in my mouth. Outside was a Ford Model T, and you won’t believe how surprised we were when Mother pulled a bunch of keys from her pocket and unlocked it. She had borrowed the car from a neighbor. My sister and I hadn’t even known she could drive! Well, it turned out she couldn’t. The car jumped about like a wild pony. Once, Mother even put it in reverse gear by mistake. I really have no idea how we survived that journey. But at some point Mother stopped at the roadside. There were crickets chirping, and I looked around. There was no prison—nothing at all: not a building, not a house, not a tree to be seen. No light, just the darkness and the stars above.
‘Where’s Father?’ I asked.
‘In prison,’ Mother answered. She pulled jute sacks out of the trunk and gave them to us. ‘We’re going to get Father out with potatoes,’ she said. ‘The potatoes we dig up out of this field.’”
“What?! Granny Hilde, was your mother going to KO the prison guards with potatoes?”
Granny Hilde giggled. “Ooh, that would have been a brilliant idea; but no, she was only going to bribe the restaurant owner with them, to persuade him to drop the charges against Father.”
“Really? I can imagine bribing someone with something tasty like chocolate, but potatoes?”
“Potatoes were highly valuable,” explained Granny Hilde. “Potatoes filled your stomach, and they could be stored for a long time.”
I rubbed my backside where it was beginning to hurt. Forklift footboards were clearly not designed for sitting on.
“Everything OK?” asked Granny Hilde.
“Sure, if you go on with your story.”
“So, Mother, Martha, and I climbed down into the field with our sacks. We had to be careful: stealing potatoes from a field was highly illegal. Getting the rest of our family thrown into jail wouldn’t have helped us one bit.”
“Oh no!” I realized I was shivering slightly with excitement, and I pulled my jacket tighter around me.
“I can still remember how soft the ground was under our boots, and how damp it felt to the touch. The wind was blowing around our legs, and the cold night air crept down our necks. But after we’d spent a little while rooting through the earth for potatoes, something like the thrill of the chase awoke in me. I began to feel tremendous. My mother, sister, and I had a common goal, and nothing makes you stronger. Then, with my sack half-filled with potatoes, my hands struck something. It was flexible, but tough too, and at first I was afraid it was a dead animal, but when Mother brought the lantern over, I could see it was only a big leather bag. Well, finding a bag in the middle of a field was unusual enough, but imagine my surprise when I unzipped it to discover a pair of ice skates. In the middle of summer! They were beautiful.”
I flicked on my phone light, shining it in Granny Hilde’s face. She squinted.
“What? You found your amazing skates just lying in a field?”
“No, not the ones under my bed, a different pair.”
“You’ve got more than one pair of ice skates?”
“If you stop interrupting me, I’ll explain.”
I nodded, flicked the light off, and leaned back against her legs again.
“Mother allowed me to keep the skates. Although she had no idea how they came to be in the field, she was pretty certain the owner was never going to appear to reclaim them. She handed me the bag as solemnly as if they were the most valuable gift I’d ever received—which they were. She said: ‘Next winter, you’ll be gliding over frozen lakes, and that’s almost as good as flying.’
I put the bag in my sack and went back to digging potatoes. We filled two sacks, one for the restaurant owner and one for ourselves. By the time we were finished, the roosters were already crowing in the village. That was when we realized how tired we were. Exhaustion wrapped around us like a bank of fog. Back home, we didn’t even have the energy to wash off the dirt; we crept into bed with mud still under our fingernails and soot on our faces.”
Granny Hilde paused. Since she often paused in her stories, I waited; but then an all-too-familiar sound gurgled in my left ear: shnurrrk. Unbelievable. She’d fallen asleep again. I tugged at her sleeve.
“Hey, Granny Hilde, wake up!”
She gave a loud snort. I flicked on my phone light. Her head had sunk onto her chest, and her mouth was open.
“Hey!” I shook her gently. “Don’t leave me here on my own.”
“Just a quick forty winks,” she said.
I sighed, switched off the light, and closed my eyes too. What else could I do?
From Der Himmel kommt später (S. Fischer Verlag, 2015). © Angelika Glitz. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Melody Shaw. All rights reserved.
Mr. Gimbal’s Incredible Invention follows Danny, a bright and curious boy, and his neighbor, Mr. Archibald Gimbal, who is an inventor. Since becoming friends, they have acquired two Sussex hens named Sherlock and Watson, who roam freely around the garden and can travel through gaps in space and time in search of lost belongings. There is also a cat that divides its time between the two houses, going by the name of Spigot in one and Fluffy in the other. Unbeknownst to them all, they are accompanied by a ghost, Mr. Casimir, who used to live in Gimbal’s house many years ago and was in love with his neighbor, Miss Alice. He now observes events from his position next to an apricot tree in the garden.
“And so, my boy,” said Mr. Gimbal, putting his mug of tea on the step by the back door, “the time has come for you to see my magnum opus, the work of my lifetime.”
“The Vetustas . . .” whispered Danny, his voice quivering with excitement.
“That’s right: the Vetustas. The most unlikely instrument ever made by human hand,” he said, pulling a denim cloth off a pile of junk next to the shed.
And yet this wasn’t any ordinary junk, but a machine that looked like . . . well, I haven’t a clue what it looked like! That’s the point! It looked like nothing else. The base of the Vetustas consisted of three plastic barrels that once contained cabbage. They were filled with water, and a heavy steel sheet was nailed to their lids. Mr. Gimbal got the sheet from a friend from primary school. The friend, who was once the shortest and skinniest boy in their class, grew up to be a test driver for tank prototypes. Every now and then he’d crash one, and so had become a never-ending supply of heavy, steel things. On top of the steel sheet was a round wooden box with thick-lensed rubber peepholes around the edge. You could look through them into the machine. The wooden ring looked antique, because, as Mr. Gimbal explained, it was a centuries-old stereoscopic theater. The stereoscopic theater was attached to a gray, ordinary-looking slide projector, that is, one that enlarged small photo slides and projected them onto a wall or a screen. This bit of equipment was about fifty years younger than the theater, and the same number of years older than Danny. The projector was linked up to an ultramodern computer that had transparent tubes sticking out of it, which the water from the buckets flowed through and back again. A thick fiber-optic cable stuck out of the side of the computer and disappeared into the ground. The whole thing was connected to a 3D laser scanner, the kind that could capture a picture of an object from every angle and send it to the computer. In other words, there were objects from different generations (like a grandfather, father, and son) wired together. Other little dials and switches stuck out of the Vetustas. There was a smartphone stuck on with silver tape, columns of numbers and smiley faces scrolling down the screen. Some of the components emitted high-pitched beeps, some crackled, and others clicked.
Danny closed his eyes for a moment to focus on the unusual music. Truly, anyone would have to admit it: Mr. Gimbal’s invention was impressive.
“In a moment, Danny, you will witness a historic test . . .” Mr. Gimbal’s voice cracked with emotion. “We’re going to switch it on for the first time. We just need a piece of an old object . . .” He looked around and spotted the handle of a porcelain teapot lying in the grass. It seemed old enough.
All that remained was to switch on the machine.
“Now where the devil is that remote control!” cried Mr. Gimbal in frustration, ruing his own messiness.
Unfortunately, that’s just how it is: every genius is usually surrounded by mess. Among the rolls of wires and cables, the pieces of old calculators, the broken electric razors, the botched machines for doing all sorts of things that you bought over the phone without knowing if they worked or not, and the remote controls for every kind of device, it was difficult to find the right one. But that’s what a man has chickens for!
The ever-obliging Watson toddled over to the inventor, carrying in her beak a remote control that began its life as the remote for a large television. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mr. Gimbal seized it and pressed the button to change channels, which now activated the machine. The Vetustas lit up and a thousand little lights began to shimmer, as if it were an electronic rainbow rather than a device unlike anything else. It also began to emit a pleasant low hum, and Mr. Gimbal felt himself swelling with pride.
He stepped up to the laser scanner and placed the piece of teapot inside. A beam of light ran over the glass base on which the porcelain handle lay, memorizing its bends and curves. The scanned image traveled to the brain of the Vetustas, that is, to the computer, which immediately connected to a server room via the thick fiber-optic cable. Once upon a time, Mr. Gimbal had tried to beat the world record for digging the fastest holes in the ground, and in doing so had discovered the fiber-optic cable running alongside his house to the biggest server room in the world, which—quite coincidentally—was just around the corner, in an unremarkable gray building behind a high gray fence. Mr. Gimbal decided that since this find was on his land, he didn’t need to ask the black-suited men in sunglasses who sometimes went in and out of the gate in the dark fence for permission to connect his invention to their system. In the meantime, the mysterious electronic memory cells of the servers contained pictures, dimensions, and all possible data about EVERYTHING AND EVERYONE, including all the teapots in the world, the ones that already existed and ones that might exist in the future. Among them was also the image of the very same porcelain teapot that was missing a handle. And it came back along the fiber-optic cable to the computer. The computer buzzed, the liquid in the tubes began to flow faster, and a moment later the projector whirred to life and sent a beam of light into the stereoscopic theater.
“Now we’ll see a fully restored teapot,” said Mr. Gimbal.
It was true! When Danny brought his eye to the peephole he saw the teapot inside, as good as new.
“But, my dear Danny, that’s not the end of our work,” sighed Mr. Gimbal. “Now we have to work out how to get the picture of the teapot out of the theater, so you don’t have to look inside.”
“I have an idea!” said Danny excitedly and ran home, returning a minute later with a little old mirror that had a photo of a very pretty actress on the back.
“You clever rascal!” cried Mr. Gimbal with joy when Danny placed the mirror by the peephole. “What an ingenious idea!”
That was true too! It was an ingenious idea because the picture of the teapot inside was reflected off the mirror and outside the wooden box. And yet—to the surprise of the inventor himself—it didn’t stay flat on the mirror as usually happens with reflections, but appeared floating in the air, in three dimensions. Perhaps that was down to Sherlock, who had pecked at the computer keyboard a couple of times, changing something in the program’s settings, but who can say.
The teapot really was beautiful. There wasn’t a trace of damage, not even the slightest scratch! But you could see there was some hot tea inside, because a wisp of steam was rising from the spout. It was as though the Vetustas had in some miraculous way managed to link the broken bit of old porcelain with what it used to be in its greatness. It made you want to grab the handle and pour yourself a cup . . . which must be what occurred to Danny, because he took his empty hot chocolate mug and was just about to pour himself some when—
“Stop! Don’t do that!” cried Mr. Gimbal. “We don’t know the properties of this image our device has created. It’s a phantom, not a real thing, so we haven’t a clue what would happen if it touched living matter. Sometimes, if someone gets very close to a phantom, if they touch one, they become a phantom themselves and can’t get back to the real world. But we’ll soon find out for sure!”
Mr. Gimbal grabbed a slice of lemon in some kitchen tongs and with a brisk movement dropped it into the phantom teapot. The fruit hissed, spun around as though caught in a whirlwind, and vanished.
“Like I said!” he exclaimed. He wanted to go on, but just then a window in the house next door opened and they heard Danny’s mom’s voice.
“Darling, dinner’s on the table!”
“What a pity,” sighed Danny. “You have no idea how much I like you, Mr. Gimbal!”
And he ran home. When he’d regained his composure, Mr. Gimbal realized he hadn’t eaten anything since morning either. So he left the Vetustas and the image of the steaming teapot and went inside. Sherlock and Watson followed him.
Having observed everything from his position under the apricot tree, Mr. Casimir stood up and walked over to the machine. He picked up the teapot and drank straight out of the spout, because, unfortunately, he didn’t have a phantom teacup to hand, and as a ghost he couldn’t use a real one.
“Exquisite,” he sighed with pleasure. “I haven’t had such a good cup of tea in ages!”
And do you know what? If someone were standing next to him, they’d have been able to see his outline against the leaves of the apricot tree, still transparent, still blurred, and yet just a bit—a teeny tiny bit—visible.
The inventor and his young friend were preparing another test of the Vetustas’s potential.
“The most incredible thing about our invention is that we can’t fully predict what it will do,” said Mr. Gimbal.
Danny and Mr. Gimbal were sitting on the bench beneath the apricot tree, and just behind them stood Mr. Casimir, who was in the privileged situation of knowing exactly what was happening around him. But neither the inventor nor the boy had any idea they were in the company of a ghost. And it was a ghost who was brimming with enthusiasm and was therefore, how can I put this, more lively than traditional ghosts. The Vetustas was the cause of Mr. Casimir’s renewed liveliness, of the kind he hadn’t felt since he was . . . alive. It was simply because after many years he could finally have a good cup of tea and dance to his favorite music. Along with the music, he’d rediscovered his love for Miss Alice. And that’s why his silhouette was filling in. Mr. Casimir agreed with the inventor that the Vetustas was incredible, and he was expecting much more excitement to come of it.
“I’m very curious,” he went on, “to know what would happen if we put something on the scanner that used to be alive. We already know the Vetustas can reconstruct a whole based on a small part. Indeed—and this was the biggest surprise for me—it doesn’t just conjure up a phantom object, it’s also able to recreate the sounds it used to make.”
“I wonder what would happen if we put a slice of cake on the Vetustas . . . we’d probably get the whole cake. And then someone could live off one cake for their entire life. Isn’t that amazing?!”
“No, Danny! A grave error!” Mr. Gimbal raised his finger. “We only get a virtual recollection of a cake. Do you remember what happened to the slice of lemon in the phantom teapot?”
Danny did remember.
“Let me say it again,” Mr. Gimbal said firmly. “We must not touch a phantom, let alone bite one. If you swallowed some phantom, you’d be filled with an enormous vacuum. It might tear you to pieces.”
“Poppycock,” muttered Mr. Casimir, who had had an entirely different experience.
“Did you say something?” asked Mr. Gimbal.
“Me? I thought that was you . . .” Danny looked closely at the inventor.
“But it was actually me!” giggled Mr. Casimir, delighted with his prank. But he said it a little quieter so no one heard him this time. Well, no one except Watson, who was wandering around the garden digging things up—no, not treasure! This time they were just ordinary bugs. Watson heard Mr. Casimir, but it didn’t make much difference at that point.
“To come back to the heart of the matter, we need to carry out another test of the Vetustas. Look!” Mr. Gimbal rummaged in his pocket and produced something that looked like a sharpened stone.
“It’s a fossil! The tooth of a mosasaurus, a giant prehistoric lizard. It lived on this street back in the time when it was still the sea. About sixty million years ago.”
“Oh my . . .” Danny looked around, trying to imagine what it would be like if all the houses and streetlights, not to mention the cars, were suddenly underwater.
Mr. Gimbal stepped up to the machine and placed the mosasaurus tooth on the scanner. He pressed the button and . . . crikey! In barely a second, the most enormous and terrifying lizard imaginable leapt off the mirror attached to the stereoscopic theater! The tooth really was the smallest part of it. Suffice to say the jaws alone were about six feet long, and the whole body filled up the inventor’s garden from fence to fence. But that’s not all! The giant prehistoric creature, which of course used to live in an aquatic environment and couldn’t exist without the sea, had dragged an entire extraordinary underwater world along with it! It looked as though the small glass surface of the mirror had suddenly released a cloud of colored fog.
The air around Mr. Gimbal’s house began to shimmer like crystal clear water, spreading a blue haze more intense than anything humans had ever seen before. A layer of golden sand appeared on the lawn, with large pink shells lying on it. Inside they hid pearls the size of cabbage heads. In the sky—or rather, the upper levels of the ancient ocean—there were shoals of fantastic fish swimming around. Some had small mouths and fins that looked like wings, others had what looked like feet instead of tails, and still others were as flat as paper and had bell-shaped heads. They came in a dazzling array of colors, only some of which we know today. And behind the shoals, like an evil, voracious shadow, swam a gigantic octopus, spewing a cloud of purple ink. It was a terrible and yet enchanting picture. Danny stood there, his mouth agape, while Mr. Gimbal went weak at the knees and had to steady himself against the apricot tree.
Then, all of a sudden, a black cat came leaping out of a seashell! An ordinary alley cat! One of Spigot’s hairs had been stuck to the mosasaurus tooth, and the Vetustas had used it to recreate a complete image of the animal. The poor creature was blowing bubbles through its nose, pitifully paddling its legs and looking like it was about to drown! What did it matter that it was a phantom cat? In the image conjured up before a terrified Danny and an equally outraged inventor, the creature was behaving exactly as though it had fallen into the water. In other words, it was alive, and this life was in danger. If it were the real world, Danny could have rescued it; he’d been taking lessons since he was small and was an excellent swimmer. Mr. Gimbal would probably have also dared to leap into the watery depths. But it was too dangerous to touch the spectral ocean. They remembered what had happened to the lemon!
Fortunately, Mr. Casimir leapt into action. He was a ghost, so he could easily dive into the phantom ocean, particularly since he’d earned a swimming certificate when he was still alive. Of course, he was afraid of the huge prehistoric lizard, but he was much more afraid that the beautiful furry creature might drown! Without a moment’s hesitation, he leapt into the shimmering picture. And that’s when Danny and Mr. Gimbal saw him. Danny was struck dumb by terror, and Mr. Gimbal cried out, “Heavens above!”
You’re probably wondering how it was possible for the Vetustas, a machine for conjuring up images of the past, to suddenly conjure up a phantom image of a creature that was alive and well. It’s very simple. Every cat has seven lives, and so Spigot, a.k.a. Fluffy, was both a cat that wandered between Mr. Gimbal’s house and Danny’s, and at the same time a kitten from history that roamed from house to house fifty or a hundred years ago, or even earlier. It’s the same with all cats, including the one you have at home: it is both itself and another ancient creature. What’s more, when a bewildered Mr. Gimbal pressed his trembling finger to the button on the remote control and the whole enormous prehistoric ocean (including the shells, fish, and mosasaurus) was sucked back into the mirror, the cat was still sitting on the shoulder of Mr. Casimir, who was soaked to the skin and of course had no intention of disappearing again. How did it happen that the phantom cat stayed in the present time? To be honest, I just don’t know. Cats will always do as they please.
From Pan Kardan i przygoda z vetustasem (Bajka, 2017). © Justyna Bednarek. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Zosia Krasodomska-Jones. All rights reserved.
A boy is visited by a mischievous demon in this children’s story by Pietro Albì.
Translator’s Note: Farfariel: The Book of Micu is set in rural Abruzzo in 1938. The narration shifts between the scribe who is writing the text and the mischievous devil Farfariel, whose sections appear in red. The crossed-out sections are parts that Farfariel thinks should not be included in the scribe's text.
Summon me. No, it’s too soon to summon me, or maybe it’s too late, and you’re too young, too zulli, as they say in my village.
Some think of me as the shiver down the spine when you’re walking along a dark street. You hear the noise of footsteps behind you, snap your head around to see who’s there, and a cold shiver grips you, curdles your muscles, turns your legs to jelly. That shiver would be me. Others think of me as the crazy voice that fills your head with things that make no sense, things you don’t understand and don’t know how they got there, when you feel close to shame and your cheeks burn red at the madness of your thoughts, an eight-legged horse or your mom with an elephant’s head.
I’m not that shiver and I’m not that madness, I’m something else. If you want me to come, just say my name six times. That’s all, six times, one after the other, no more. If you pronounce it correctly without a single mistake, if you think hard about me, I’ll come.
What’s my name? It’s too early to say, you’re too young, this story’s too young. You’re both too zulli. But as the story grows, you’ll grow with it, and when the time comes, if you still want me, you can say my name, my real name, six times.
For now, all you need to know is this story is not about me. More importantly, it’s not about the people from a village called Canzano.
The real story is about a Book, a Book like no other, a Book that couldn’t be more different from the one you’re holding in your hands right now.
Everyone knows the Book, the same way everyone knows about me, because at least once in their life, they’ll have opened the Book. The only problem is, they don’t remember it.
You dream about it, everyone does. You probably dreamed about it last night, it was right there in your dream, but . . . Everyone dreams about the Book at least once in their life, they just don’t remember it.
Since the Book has been in the world, only two people haven’t forgotten it after dreaming about it. One is Micù, who was nearly ten years old when he first saw it, one night in April 1938.
A heart for a heart
Rosalbina made the sign of the cross and from the bag pulled out a swallow with broken wings. The knife glimmered in the sun. The swallow was gasping, like a fish plucked from the sky, and Rosalbina thrust her earth-stained fingers into its rib cage, which oozed blood.
Micù didn’t want to swallow, but quick as a flash, Rosalbina shoved the raw heart into his mouth. Micù fought against the slimy, bitter thing pulsating on his tongue. How could it be beating? Rosalbina was still holding the knife, turning it this way and that, close to her blood-splotched forehead. “Swallerit!” she bellowed.
Micù felt the animal’s heart pulse in his throat.
He looked at the hole in the animal’s chest, a cluster of clotted blood, ribs splayed like white needles. Rosalbina waited, eyes wide, as if any minute . . .
The bird’s heart beat a few more times in the boy’s stomach and he felt his intestines cramp.
“What happens to you?” Rosalbina asked, worried.
“I have to go,” Micù replied, stamping his feet. Rosalbina finally let go of her son’s hand, and Micù darted away. The pulsing heart of a swallow was too much for his stomach.
He crouched in the cowshed, Duchess nearby, convinced a barrage of fireworks was lodged deep in his viscera. Grimacing in pain and glee, he felt himself release an endless poo. A poo so incredibly big, bigger than the cow’s. Weirder still was the color.
“Fregnaaaaaa!” he exclaimed, preferring the village dialect to express his approval.
It looked blue, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t like the blue flowers that sometimes grow in ditches. It wasn’t like grapes when you look at them against the light and they seem almost blue. It wasn’t like any of the shades of blue in the sky after sunset or in the morning before the sun.
It wasn’t like nighttime in August, when the full moon beams bright bright and the night doesn’t feel like night and the sky shines a beautiful blue, a blue that, until now, Micù had always thought was the bluest of all blues.
Micù needed to clean himself up. Straw? Too dry. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a strip of alfalfa plants by the side door to the cowshed. He had an idea: a backsideslide!
Micù lifted his behind and planted it on the alfalfa. With his hands he dragged himself along the ground, leaving a thin trail of blue behind him. It wasn’t any normal blue! It was like a slice of rainbow with the stars of the night sky crushed inside it.
How could it be that the heart of a swallow so small could produce such an enormous heap?
The truly extraordinary thing was that the blue didn’t smell bad either: it had the scent of squished blackberries and raspberries. Not unpleasant at all. Only Micù hadn’t been picking blackberries and the raspberries weren’t ripe yet. He was amazed.
He picked up a stick and jabbed it into the blue.
It hit something solid. He tried to skewer it, sink the stick deeper. In response, the pile moved. Micù jumped back.
Had he gone on top of something? A sorica that had made its den in the cowshed?
What a stupid idea! Rats, even the ones that live in sewers, all run away. And it was even more incredible to think Micù could have pooed on a rat, hitting it in the split second it was running away.
Maybe a porcupine had been keeping warm in the straw.
But hibernation was over by April. And even if a porcupine had been hiding in that very spot, it would have put out its quills. Micù then thought of a badger, but badgers are so aggressive and . . . he was contemplating yet another new theory when, his stick spattered blue, he found himself fighting off a strange creature that had leapt out at him.
The thing was no more than twenty-five inches tall and of human shape—in the sense that it stood on two legs like a human. It ran a handlike thing over itself to wipe the blue muck off its nose and looked Micù in the eye.
“The Devil at your service!” it announced in perfect Italian with no inflection, so perfect it sounded like the voice that introduced the Duce’s speeches on the radio.
It gave Micù an enormous bow.
While Micù was unconscious, the thing chanted in his ears in a childish, singsong voice, “My name is Farfariel! Long live Farfariel! My name is Farfariel! Long live Farfariel! My name is Farfariel! Long live Farfariel!”
When Micù regained consciousness, he whispered in the faintest of voices, “I g-get it. But are you really the Devil?”
Farfariel held up a hand, opened wide. He had only three fingers, the middle one the longest. He replied in all his voices, unleashing the little girl side of him, which took great enjoyment on occasions of this kind.
More than once I told the so-called scribe in his ear exactly what he should write and how he should write it. More than once I told the silly hack the exact metaphor to use for me. I’m like a cake made of many layers. I’m like my most favorite cake, the Sturgeon, a delicacy from my village that’s shaped like a fish. Whatever happens, even if the cake were to fall from the summit of the Gran Sasso mountain all the way to the ground, if a mysterious force in the cream were to attract Saturn’s rings and pull them all crashing down on top of it, even if the sun in all its immensity were to implode over the almond fin and try to dunk its superincandescent nucleus in the chocolate cream, guess what? The layers would never mix. Never ever, no way!
Farfariel (hoarsely): We’re the devil but we’re not the Devil.
Micù: What’s that mean?
Farfariel: It means I come from hell.
Micù: So you’re here to do evil to me!
Farfariel: It’s hard to explain, but it’s no fun doing evil from evil. It’s more fun to do good from evil, and evil from good!
Micù: Ah! But if you’re evil and you do good, after that good comes evil.
Farfariel: Yes, but from that evil comes good.
Micù: Um, but then comes evil.
Farfariel: Yes, and then good.
Micù: And then evil.
Farfariel: And then good.
Micù: And then evil again.
Farfariel: And then good again.
Micù: Then evil.
Farfariel: Then . . .
“Then we’ll see,” Micù interrupted.
Micù limped over to his mother, who was still waiting by the house, while Farfariel hopped and skipped endlessly around him.
Rosalbina looked at her son. She lay a hand on his forehead, fearing he had sunstroke.
Canzano’s fabled medicine woman, the Spiritosa, had told Rosalbina that Micù’s nightmares and his constant chest pains were caused by his heart, a heart so skittish and wild it would take a special force, a strong hand, to govern it. Only the pure heart of a swallow could give Micù the special strength he needed to tame his heart. Maybe the swallow’s heart they had received from the Spiritosa hadn’t been pure?
Before Rosalbina had time to speak, Micù limped off, hoping to lead Farfariel away from his mother. Playing, prodding, poking, Farfariel was enjoying himself a little too much, teasing the woman with his tail.
When they were far enough away, Micù thundered at Farfariel with all the anger in his body, “So was it you tormenting me at night?”
“Not exactly,” Farfariel replied in his little girl’s voice, showing off all his sharp teeth.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means I made you have nightmares!”
Micù leapt at the devil’s neck to strangle him, but the neck evaded his grasp, became impalpable like the air, and disappeared. “Damn you!” Micú screamed at the air, and the air rasped back, “Damned I am . . . and so are you!”
“What’s it got to do with me?” the boy asked, astonished. Farfariel hopped around him, laughing his most childlike, diabolical laugh. “Oh, it has lots . . .”
The church bells of Our Lady of Alno were ringing the eight o’clock mass in Canzano when Farfariel reappeared before Micù.
“I’ll be back in thirty-three minutes!”
Micù swung a punch, but Farfariel vanished again and the boy landed belly-up on the ground like a fool.
It was eight o’clock on April 7, 1938, thirty-three minutes until Farfariel’s return.
I’ll be back!
The taste of the fog
If I had to guess, ten minutes had passed.
Micù washed his face in the pail and dressed in his Balilla clothes: black jacket, white shirt, short trousers, school smock over the top. He bid farewell to his mamma and grandma . . . it may even have been more than ten minutes.
Farfariel, if he were true to his word, would return in another twenty minutes.
Twenty minutes was also the time it took Micù to walk to school.
Down the hill, across the muddy road, men and women were digging. A mantle of fog swallowed up the diggers, blanketing everything. It had been foggy that day in November when Gennarino Pinozzo . . .
“Or maybe it was Farfariel?” Micù thought. “Maybe the devil whispered in Gennarino’s ear, told him the words to say to me that day in November . . .”
It wasn’t me!
Micù was at the exact same spot as that day in November, on the edge of the woods, near the village walls. It wasn’t long after the Day of the Dead, the feast of Saint Martin was the next day, and there was so much fog that the Canzano woods looked like they were on fire.
Micù hadn’t been wearing a coat that day. In short trousers, the cold stung his knees and his feet limped askew to stop him from sinking into the mud. Walking by his side was Dino, one foot also twisted by polio and limping a good deal, then cross-eyed Biagio, then Gennarino.
Dino coughed and spat out yellow. Biagio wrapped his mom’s moth-eaten scarf around him.
Gennarino lay his satchel on the ground and tossed a stone into the mist. It thwacked against the hollow trunk of an olive tree.
“When dogs get the thirst, they eat fog!” Gennarino said, opening his mouth wide.
The boys were entranced by the crazymad things the blond-haired bully said.
Biagio opened his mouth, and Dino didn’t wait to be told twice.
“You have to keep your eyes shut . . . it tastes better!” Gennarino added.
Micù shut his eyes, but a thought struck him: “What if he spits in my mouth?”
He opened his eyes again pronto. A bitter, wet tang slipped across his teeth. It was the taste of the fog!
Thank God no one had spit in his mouth. He had barely sighed in relief when Gennarino lifted his index finger toward Micù, smoke curling out of his mouth, and said, “Bagonghee . . . .”
Micù staggered back two paces. Gennarino sneered, piglike, wrinkling his nose, “Bagonghee! Bagonghee! Bagonghee!”
Biagio and Dino looked at Gennarino, astonished, and Gennarino hollered, “Bagongheeeeeeeeeeee!!!” with a smirk and a voice that would chill spines, like nails on a chalkboard.
At the last echo of Gennarino’s voice, Biagio burst into sudden, singsong laughter, interrupted by coughing. Then Dino, known as “Moldy-Mouth” because of his rotten teeth, also started to laugh, “Hee-hee-hee-hee-hee-hee.”
The Bagonghee business had begun.
So where had the nickname Bagonghee come from?
It had to be a nickname, one of those stupid things that latches on like a tick when you walk barefoot in the grass. But the tick had burrowed in, hollowed out a den under the skin, and gorged itself there for five months.
It obviously didn’t mean anything. It would die a natural death, it couldn’t last forever. Micù was top of his class, after all. The only one who could read aloud without stumbling.
He was always the first one with his hand up when the schoolmaster asked a question, and Peppino would pat him on the head by way of reward. Below Micù in the class rankings, a long way below, was Gennarino Pinozzo.
Gennarino Pinozzo brought one of his father’s magazines into school one day. Inside, on the thin paper pages, the whole Bagonghee mystery was laid bare. The secret of the nickname. Only Micù wasn’t permitted to know.
Gennarino Pinozzo would gather his gang around him each morning, and before the schoolmaster arrived, he’d hold the magazine up before the heads of his trusted disciples. It was all ha ha, hee hee, hoots and howling.
Their heads would bore into the magazine like hens pecking grains from a spot on the ground, then they’d look straight at Micù and smile, commenting under their breath, and the word that snaked between the heads, repeated with shrieks and smiles, was “Bagonghee!”
Micù had tried to break into the pack on several occasions, but Pupúm and his heftybulk had kept him out: “Not you!”
So it was far from the eyes and ears of Micù that Gennarino explained and explained, read and read, shed light on the great Bagonghee mystery.
It was Bagonghee-Bagonghee every time Micù limped into the classroom. Bagonghee-Bagonghee when he took his seat. Bagonghee-Bagonghee when he opened his schoolbook. Bagonghee-Bagonghee when he left at the end of yet another grueling day.
To begin with, Micù thought that if he let it go, they’d eventually stop teasing him. Don Luigi said it all the time in his sermons: “Turn the other cheek! Persist in the face of injustice!” Sitting in church preparing for his First Communion, Micú would sometimes look over at Gennarino, who’d be gazing contritely at the altar from the front row—where the village’s most important family sat—looking like a cherub granted the infinite mercy of the Holy Spirit.
As the parishioners ate the body of Christ, kneeling with their eyes shut, Micù would chant, “I forgive you, I forgive you, I forgive you!” under his breath. Then he’d turn to Gennarino, who’d be mouthing quite clearly in Micù’s direction, “Ba-gon-ghee.”
Micù even asked the priest, inside the confessional as Don Luigi yawned on the other side of the cross-shaped grating.
“Don Luigi. I’m sorry to ask you this, but there’s a word, I don’t know if it’s a bad word, could you tell me if it’s . . . a sin?”
“That depends, Micù. What letter does it start with?”
“With a B, father!”
“Bug . . .”
“How many letters? Tell me the second letter, Micù.”
“Is it bas . . .”
“What the devil word is it, Micù? Tell me, for the love of God, or I shall sin myself!”
“Bagonghee . . .” Micù blurted.
“Eh?” the priest asked.
“Ba-gon-ghee!” Micù said more slowly.
Don Luigi roared with laughter. “It means nothing, Micù! Nothing at all!”
He granted Micù absolution, then laughed and laughed and laughed some more, even more than Cenzino the Crazy One.
Micù thought he’d have to ask the schoolmaster but . . . that would be ratting. And ratting was for cowards.
Maybe it had something to do with lameness. Maybe Bagonghee was another word for lame, or crooked. Or maybe it had to do with his height, the others were poking fun at him for being small. Micù felt himself slide down with his shorter leg, downdown and more down. A grinding of teeth at every tuneless chant from his classmates. A tremor, in that left leg of his, gripping it, making him limp more than ever. The younger kids had also started to tease him now. Even Santina, who wasn’t yet seven. But they were careful never to let the schoolmaster hear them.
Oh, if the master were to hear them! How he would rage, but it would only start up again the next day.
Of late, Micù had tried to arrive at school moments before the schoolmaster, but each time a classmate would be ready to greet him with a “Ciao Bagonghee!”
After that he tried to arrive late. But seconds before he’d open the door, someone would always appear from behind his back, chanting under their breath, “Bagonghee-Bagonghee-Bagonghee!”
It was as if they’d agreed to take turns.
The schoolmaster couldn’t fathom Micù’s sudden tardiness. And by then the insults had reached the most unimaginable linguistic convolutions, often dished up as questions straight to the poor bagonghee’s face, with the utmost tranquility and not a hint of malice.
“Are all the bagonghees at home doing well?”
“How about that bagonghee grandfather of yours, the Americano, how’s he?”
“What the bagonghee does your father do?”
“Can I bagong your homework, I never had time to bagong it myself?”
“Are you bagongright? You look a bit bagongwrong to me.”
Bagonghee was the everything-word, the word that meant all things to all people, whenever they spoke to Micù.
When it was Gennarino Pinozzo’s turn to lead the bagongheria, he performed it as if it were a ritualistic dance. Into the classroom he’d trot, beating his satchel full of colored pencils like a bass drum as he marched through the door. Gennarino was the only one to own a satchel, or colored pencils for that matter; he’d skip one step forward, one step back, then forward, then back again, shrilling, “Good bagonging, Micùuuuu!”
Clapping, shrieks of joy, insults, rip-roaring raspberries from Pupúm, all directed at poor Micù. And Micù grew ever more weary, ever more tired.
If only he’d bent down, picked up a stone, and thrown it with all his might at Gennarino. If only he’d done it on that first day, he could’ve stopped it all before it started.
Thirty-three minutes later
“Where are you, Farfariel? Show yourself!”
Any minute now he’d appear. Only seconds to go.
Micù was standing a few feet from the entrance to the school. His classmates had gone inside. He waited. Looked through the window into his class. The master hadn’t arrived yet. It was cold. Something rustled in the leaves.
Micù spun around. Nothing. He called out quietly.
“Farfariel!” he repeated louder. “Farfarieeeel!”
Not a sound.
He opened the door, schoolbook and jotter gripped tight under his arm. Some children stood on chairs, others were flying paper airplanes. Ever since the master had read them “The Great Italy-to-Brazil Transatlantic Air Crossing,” everyone had wanted to be like Italo Balbo.
Micù, practically tiptoeing, was almost at his desk when Gennarino flashed him a look that stopped him dead in his tracks.
“Good morning, Bagonghee! What do you make of all this bagongheeing?”
“I don’t know, Gennarino,” Micù replied.
“You never know anything, do you, Micù, except for homework. Isn’t that right, Bagonghee? Because you’re just a Bagonghee! A Bagonghee!” Gennarino snarled.
“Bagonghee Bagonghee!” He banged his fist on the desk. “Bagonghee, Bagonghee, Bagonghee!”
Micù looked down while Biagio, Dino, and the rest of the class joined the chorus: “Bagonghee, Bagonghee, Bagonghee.”
Micù took his seat and shut his eyes. Tears of rage tried to force their way out, but he held them back.
Was Farfariel behind all this?
The thirty-three minutes had passed and Gennarino Pinozzo was dancing, a sort of hop, a dance made up of lots of little hops in a circle, and he was hopping around Micù, chanting in his ears.
“Bagonghee, Bagonghee, Bagonghee!”
Peals of laughter erupted from the class.
After yet another hop, his feet seemed to hit an invisible wire, or something tripped him. Whatever it was, it caused Gennarino Pinozzo to fall like a sack of potatoes, and his nose to go, “Crrraack!”
He lay prone on the floor.
The class fell silent. Seconds later, louder than the rumble of thunder, came Gennarino’s scream.
No one could believe what was happening. Gennarino was whimpering.
The first peal of laughter came from Pupúm, then Dino, then little Santina, then everyone else laughed and yelled and delighted at the undoing of Gennarino Pinozzo, writhing there on the floor. The more he screamed, the more the children copied him, honking like geese. Only Micù wasn’t laughing. When the schoolmaster came in, alerted by the commotion, he didn’t stop to bang on the desk or pull someone’s ear. He rushed straight to Pinozzo and yanked him by the arm out of the pool of blood.
“Be quietquietquiet!” the master said over and over, rocking with laughter himself.
The whole class filed out of the room behind him, as if in procession.
They stood in a circle, just outside the school, while the schoolmaster busied himself with Gennarino’s nose, sweating, struggling to stem the tide.
Micù had gone back inside. Squinting, he spied a shadow slinking in the corner of the room. He whipped around. A cat was rubbing against the outside of the window. It bore an enormous D in the center of its forehead: D for death. The cat clenched a mouse between its teeth. The mouse was still moving its whiskers and paws, the cat sank its teeth deeper into the prey, and the mouse stopped moving, vanquished.
The cat winked, set the dead mouse on the window ledge, and tapped on the window with its paw. It licked its whiskers, closed its eyes. And kept beating on the window with its paw.
Micù opened the window, and the cat jumped in and landed on the floor.
“So it was you then! The death cat in my dreams?”
My prankster side . . . I can’t always control it!
Micù looked at the cat, terrified,
while Farfariel dissolved into silent laughter, shoulders quivering. The more Farfariel watched Pinozzo outside, still crying, the more he laughed. Then he stopped sharply, raised an arm, and, with the longest finger on his left hand, pointed to Pinozzo’s open satchel, colored pencils strewn across the pool of blood on the floor.
Micù slipped a hand inside the satchel, extracted the magazine, and hastily tucked it under his shirt. The magazine was too big, and it was obvious he was trying to conceal something. So he leaned out of the window, which was still open, and threw it into the bushes.
Micù hung back after school, walked part of the way by himself, and, when Pupúm could no longer be seen in the distance, turned back. He turned around several times along the way to make sure no one was following him. Back outside the school, he waited, hid behind a tree for a minute. There was no one around.
He reached a hand into the bramble bushes and pulled out the magazine. It was too risky to open it now, time only to scan the front page: "Scenario." He tucked it under his arm and set off at a fast hobble, as fast as he could manage. When he reached the clearing near the irrigation well on his father and grandfather’s land, he opened the magazine.
“Cursed Farfariel, where are you? Damned devil, where are you?”
It was Farfariel who had stretched the invisible wire that had tripped up Pinozzo.
It was Farfariel who had told him to put his hand into Gennarino’s satchel and take the magazine. “Where are you, Farfariel? Where are you?”
The wind started to blow, scattering the grass sheaves his grandfather had cut for the cow.
“What a fool, what a fool I am, for not realizing straightaway . . . Bagonghee’s a name!”
The name of a dwarf! A dwarf for a dwarf!
A dwarf. A dwarf’s name, a stupid, ridiculous dwarfdwarfdwarf. A dwarf clown on a horse, inside a circus tent, entertaining an audience and making them laugh with stupid dwarf acrobatics.
With all the might in his body, Micù hurled the magazine to the ground. He picked up a stone and smashed it on the page to smash the moronic dwarf face grinning at him from the photo, lunged at it with all his might to kill the stupid, insufferable dwarf. Struck the picture repeatedly, over and over, until he was out of breath.
But with two deep breaths, his strength returned, and he tore the magazine into a hundred pieces, tossed the pages this way and that. Then he rolled them into little balls, tore them to bits; he turned Bagonghee’s face to a pulp and chewed it until his teeth wore down. The taste of the paper and ink were the taste of the anger foaming inside him like spittle from the mouth. He struck the ground, gouged it with his nails, punched it until the skin of his knuckles tore open. He sighed and cried and chewed and chewed. And cried and chewed some more and screamed like a demented baby. Anything he couldn’t chew, he spat out. Then buried. He would’ve set it on fire if he’d had a match, but he had no match, so he drowned it.
He peed on it.
He glanced at the well. It was dark. A dark abyss.
A page, nudged by the wind, landed on the tree.
“Trying to get away, eh?”
He grabbed it before the wind carried it away.
His hand trembled.
It wasn’t Bagonghee’s expression as he landed on the horse’s back after a pirouette.
Or the audience, transfixed, arms raised, waving in awe, hands clapping.
It wasn’t the smell of the dirt, sawdust, sand hanging like fog in the picture. So thick he could feel it in his nose, mixing with the odor of the animals, the scent of fur coat-clad ladies in the stands gripping the hands of children who gaped, intoxicated by the cocktail of dung and sawdust.
It was the horse. The horse stopped him from destroying the page. It was huge, with eyes that were blacker than black and the caption “Bagonghee riding Atlas.”
“What’s Atlas got to do with it? Why on earth would you call a horse Atlas? Ugly little moron! You think you can call your horse after King Atlas and people will suddenly forget you’re a dwarf? Idiot dwarf!”
He was on the point of ripping up the page when the dwarf’s face flashed between his fingers: he was a bold-looking dwarf, eyes shining with joy, blazing with fun, anger, and fire. It was the fire that gave him the strength to govern the horse. It was the joy and the astuteness, the anger and revenge. That dwarf was showing off: he felt important and he wanted everyone to know.
Micù began to think about the article he’d pored over before tearing up the pages. Bagonghee excited people, he won their admiration, they marveled at his astonishing feats.
Maybe the horse’s name wasn’t to make people forget he was a dwarf, it was to make sure they remembered him! It was written in the magazine that he was the highest-paid performer in the circus.
That he could jump and vault on horseback. Do things a normal-sized man couldn’t: his height enabled him to spin and do electrifying acrobatics.
A body so ungainly on the ground acquired elegance and finesse on the back of a horse.
It was as if he’d molded it to do tricks on horseback. Those eyes were trying to tell Micù something.
But the dwarf’s eyes said nothing. Instead, Farfariel spoke, suddenly appearing on the edge of the wall that circled the well.
“Do you feel small?” he shrilled.
“Go away!” Micù bellowed.
Farfariel continued, “I’m small too!”
“Leave me alone!” Micù shouted.
Farfariel paced around the edge of the well.
“Do you remember the last time you went to church?”
“That’s got nothing to do with this!”
“There are two statues kneeling on either side of the altar.”
“Church has nothing to do with this!”
“What are those statues?”
“Think about it, there are two of them . . .”
“And what are angels like? Are they beautiful?”
“Are they like me?”
“No . . .”
Without warning, Farfariel stopped, eyes fixed on Micù. “Tell me, Micù, are you more like me or the angels?”
“You’re the Devil, go away!”
“. . .”
“Are you like me or the angels on the altar?”
Micù looked at the well, pupils throbbing furiously.
“What, you’re not crying, are you?”
“Shut up, damned devil!”
Micù bent down to pick up a stone, but by the time he’d straightened up, Farfariel had gone.
“You never learn, do you?”
He reappeared in front of Micù’s face with his tongue out. Micù didn’t try to hit him this time, only stared with such plaintive eyes that even Farfariel felt a stab of compassion.
“Will you ever learn to use your talents to your advantage?”
The legs disappeared, then the body, then the hands with those strange fingers, and last of all the head, big blue tongue sticking out. Micù reeled. He threw the last few scraps of the magazine into the well.
He carefully folded the photo of Bagonghee on Atlas and placed it in his pocket.
He wasn’t ready to discover his power, the power of the Book. He was obsessed with his height.
“You’re either taller or shorter when you have to face people,” he repeated to himself. And he’d have to get used to being the shortest. Always. But maybe shortest didn’t mean weakest. For starters, to not be the weakest, he had to be cleverer. But where was the line between being clever and being cruel?
And what if he had to be a devil to be taken seriously by everyone else? His head reeled with questions.
“When will you stop being afraid?” Farfariel’s voice taunted him. “When will you stop being afraid?”
It surrounded him.
“When will you stop being afraid?”
No matter how many stupid questions you ask, nothing counts more than the right one.
“I’m not scared! I’m not scared of anything. Do you hear me, Farfariel? Do you hear me?” Micù bellowed to the four winds, limping toward home. “I’m not afraid of anything!” he shouted some more to the wind, trying to stop Farfariel’s voice. And the voice, before finally falling silent, said one last thing.
“The Book is yours, Micù. It’s waiting for you.”
From Farfariel - Il Libro di Micù (Uovonero, 2018). © Pietro Albi. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Denise Muir. All rights reserved.
As the world battles the COVID-19 virus, Words Without Borders is commissioning new work from contributors all over the world to offer humanistic perspectives on and literary responses to the crisis. We published the first piece, from Italian writer Silvia Ranfagni, on Monday, March 16, when the extent of the wreckage this coronavirus would leave in its wake was just becoming clear. Check back often for new selections of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry to accompany us through these uncertain times.
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