Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

from the March 2022 issue

Reviewed by Alex Gilvarry

María Gainza's latest novel follows the trail of an enigmatic, brilliant forger with intriguing results.

One of the three women of focus in María Gainza’s latest novel is Enriqueta Macedo, a sort of Anna Wintour figure towering over the art valuations department of Ciudad Bank in Argentina. Of course, when I refer to Anna Wintour here, I am picturing the ice queen of Vogue (angular bob, Chanel sunglasses), but I have filled in everything with the fictional Miranda Priestly, played by Meryl Streep, in the film adaptation of The Devil Wears Prada. Priestly was a much more entertaining, love-to-hate imitation of Wintour. And even though I’ve seen the documentary The September Issue, where the real Wintour appears in an attempt to shed the “devil” from her reputation, whenever I see a photograph of Wintour, my memory chooses Streep. That’s the power of imitation, or of art in general. It can seduce its viewer, fill in gaps of knowledge with its drama, and influence opinion over reason. Is the imitation more real? That’s neither here nor there. Who is the real Wintour, anyway? Who cares. My opinion was formed long before I heard Wintour’s voice in The September Issue. It was solidified when I watched Streep squeeze Anne Hathaway to the point of resignation. 
 
Imitation, or more specifically, forgery, is the central subject of Gainza’s Portrait of an Unknown Lady, translated by Thomas Bunstead. Our nameless narrator (who’s only once referred to as Señorita M.—María perhaps?), a former art critic, takes us back to her early days in the Buenos Aires art scene, when she was a young woman eager for experience. M. becomes Enriqueta Macedo’s protégé, and at first, it’s a real Devil Wears Prada situation. When Enriqueta says "café," our narrator asks, "What size?" But that’s just a brief prelude to what M. discovers about her new boss. Enriqueta is much more interesting than a mere art world power player. In addition to being one of Argentina’s preeminent art authenticators, Enriqueta is integral to Argentina’s forgery business, because she authenticates paintings that she happens to know are fake. 
 
This is the crux of the novel, and Enriqueta brings our narrator in on the scheme early, seducing her through questions like: “Can forgery not give as much pleasure as an original? Isn’t there a point when fakes become more authentic than originals? And anyway . . . isn’t the real scandal the market itself?”
 
That line takes place in a sauna, where the two women, down to swimsuits, discuss Enriqueta’s illicit moonlighting. At about the same time, we feel Gainza having a bit of fun in this criminal territory, and Bunstead, as translator, is able to render her voice with equal enthusiasm. “O sauna! O great leveler! With bellies on display, there is nothing to tell the millionaire from the beggar, the low-down criminal from the most distinguished of citizens.” The American reader will feel that Gainza is touching on our present moment here—the incredible wealth disparity between the poor and middle classes and the millionaires and billionaires who deal in civilization’s great art. Following the thought, as far as crimes go, there’s something victimless about forgery, because from the artist’s point-of-view (Enriqueta and our narrator are artists in their own way), millionaires have too much money, and when governments fail to tax the rich and equalize opportunity, people like Enriqueta must take matters into their own hands. 
 
Our narrator and Enriqueta are “identical souls . . .. two romantics, rebels to the bourgeoisie and to that whole way of seeing the world: the buying way.” Through their friendship, our narrator’s life gets more interesting. From the little we know about Señorita M. at the start, we put together that her life is lacking both direction and what Enriqueta provides her: thrill. Now she meets forgers leading obscure lives, graduates of fine arts academies who never quite broke into the art scene. They congregate at the Hotel Melancholical, a sort of Chelsea Hotel for the fine arts outcasts and emigrés of Buenos Aires. 
 
It is in the Hotel Melancholical where we meet our second woman of focus, Renée, a master forger. Enriqueta had met her when they were both students at the Fine Arts Academy, where they were shown how to imitate great artists, “which is how painting is taught in art schools.” Renée’s specialty is reproducing the work of Mariette Lydis, the Austrian-Argentine painter and illustrator who may be altogether unknown to the casual reader—I only learned of her through this novel. The real Lydis fled Nazi-occupied Europe for Argentina, where she lived until 1970, mainly creating portraits of female couples and children in a dark and muted, art-deco style. For a time, Lydis’s work is red-hot, and Renée can not only imitate her, but paint in her style—which is what differentiates Renée from the other forgers at the Hotel Melancholical. Renée and Enriqueta combine to form a forgery operation nonpareil until the demand for Lydis dries up. Renée disappears while Enriqueta continues her certification scheme with other forgers until her unexpected death.  
 
Some years pass and our narrator has left art valuations for a life as an art critic, which she views as another scheme adjacent to forgery. “You see the object, you translate the vision into words and add any speculation you deem relevant. If no vision comes, the artwork can also be written about using words that are not your own, other people’s words artfully reassembled. I wasn’t fooling myself: reviews of the visual arts were the most neglected strand in all the supplements, meaning you could get away with writing whatever you liked.” Gainza brings up interesting questions about the ethics of criticism. Our narrator has developed some sway and her influence is respected. She’s not fully engaged, nor does she love her work, but her name in print can be a “high-impact weapon” and while she’s not authenticating forged works anymore, she’s still blowing hot air into the art speculation bubble. As an author reviewing another author’s novel, this was a little reminder that we critics do have a responsibility to the truth. We must shut out the noise of the market, resist what’s trending, and refrain from giving out hyperbole like it’s candy. 
 
And then the real rebellion begins in the heart of our critic, once M. is called upon by an old acquaintance, Lozinski, to help hype up interest in Mariette Lydis once again. Lozinski has come into possession of some of the real Lydis’s personal effects. There’s a bit of puzzling exposition surrounding the origin of said possessions that may require occasional backtracking. Yes, we were once dealing in forgeries by Mariette Lydis but are now dealing in the actual effects of the real Mariette Lydis, which include some drawings and lithographs.
 
There’s nothing too amazing in the bundle—charcoal sketches, a pearl necklace, postcards, a birch branch—but with the right writer drumming up the hype, Operation Lydis is underway. Here’s where Gainza has tremendous fun with fakery, and where her inventiveness and language breathe a new dimension into the novel. M. creates the auction catalog and concocts a story behind each object. These objects tell the biography of Mariette Lydis, our third woman of interest, through twenty-six knickknacks. The catalog itself is interpolated into a chapter. It’s this fashionable combination of fiction and nonfiction that gives the novel its playfulness. 
 
Less successful is the second half of the novel. Coming off of the lucrative Operation Lydis, M. leaves her life as an art critic to write a biography of Lydis’s master forger, Renée, who had disappeared before Enriqueta’s death. It’s a reflection of the first half of the book, where M. builds a portrait of a lady through an art catalog. Gainza, through her narrator, now attempts to build a portrait of Renée through police reports and interviews with Renée’s old acquaintances. When the art one leaves behind can tell a story, what does that mean for the forger? Renée’s life, while interesting, doesn’t generate the kind of narrative propulsion one hopes for. She is both mystery and disappointment, both to the narrator and, sadly, to the reader. M. doesn’t have enough to write her book, and the novel becomes a sort of catalog of M.’s failure to uncover the truth of a person. This is a recurring theme—both Lydis and Renée are impossible to know from M.’s vantage point. M. too, without a name, is that sort of faceless narrator who reveals occasional details about herself, but whom we never really get to know. She’s only visible though her obsessions: Enriqueta, Lydis, and Renée. 
 
Gainza’s ideas about art and value are compelling throughout, and she is certainly adept at drawing parallels between imitation, identity, and truly knowing something or someone. The issue is that reading about the metaphoric parallels in this novel is like viewing paintings in a gallery. Gainza’s ideas are on display, we can see them and recognize their thematic importance, but they never really feel engaged, nor do they produce satisfying dramatic outcomes. In a sense, there’s little to feel here, but loads to admire. That said, this is also the kind of artful novel whose intention isn’t to satisfy dramatically. The plot, if any, is a muted tone of gray. There and not there. Gainza is much more interested in presenting a portrait of three (actually, four, including M.) women as they rebel against the art world and the select few who get to partake in it. The proletariat may well get to share in the pleasure of art by visiting museums, but who owns its true value? Gainza’s three women are each, in their own way, raising a big middle finger to Art, Inc. 
 
As I mentioned, before reading Portrait of an Unknown Lady, I was completely ignorant of the artist Mariette Lydis. Although the auction catalog M. produces and all of Lydis’s paintings in the novel are forgeries, Gainza has actually resurrected Lydis’s spirit. It hovers over the dark hotel rooms of the Hotel Melancholical and the wide boulevards of Buenos Aires. In the novel, the narrator explains the concept of “Resurrection Men,” those responsible for reviving a long-forgotten artist, hype men essentially, to increase a work’s value. Which brings me back to my idea of the fictional Miranda Priestly leaving a bigger impression, at least in my mind, than the real Anna Wintour. Gainza has, intentionally or not, resurrected an artist, championed the unknown Mariette Lydis, and given the fictional Lydis a space to live in the reader’s imagination. Forgery or not, one always leaves the gallery with a certain impression. 
 
 
© 2022 by Alex Gilvarry. All rights reserved.

from the March 2022 issue

Reviewed by Maris Kreizman

Elena Ferrante's essay collection examines the pleasures of reading and writing with the author's characteristic flair for violent honesty.

“For me true writing is that: not an elegant, studied gesture but a convulsive act.” Elena Ferrante has regularly used violent imagery to describe her writing process, so this sort of visceral language in her craft book, In the Margins, is not entirely unexpected. Her 2016 collection Frantumaglia contains decades of her letters and interviews in which she asserts again and again that turbulence is fundamental to her process, and the book’s title echoes the theme: “The frantumaglia is an unstable landscape, an infinite aerial or aquatic mass of debris that appears to the I, brutally, as its true and unique inner self.” More bluntly, in 2020 Ferrante told the Guardian that writing is “twisting the knife in the wound, which can hurt a lot.”

Honesty, brutal honesty, is Elena Ferrante’s brand, the quality that a global audience has come to expect from her novels about messy women living complicated lives in a violent world. In the Margins is a cool, slim volume that ventures to reveal how Ferrante does it, how she wields the pen like a blade to puncture the flesh of the page. From the chunks of glass a man discovers in a dish of pasta in the novel The Days of Abandonment to the hatpin stab to the gut in the novel The Lost Daughter, Ferrante frequently, and not unintentionally, draws blood.

In the Margins is comprised of three lectures on the craft of writing commissioned by the University of Bologna, plus an essay on Dante’s Beatrice that feels a bit tacked on at the end. In 2021 an Italian actress played the role of the notoriously enigmatic writer with the pen name of Elena Ferrante and presented the first three lectures to the public (a Dante scholar later delivered the fourth at a conference devoted to Dante).

Consider the strangeness of such a spectacle for a moment: Ferrante is a master of pulling the mask off of polite society and exposing the unseemliness beneath, yet she chooses to present herself with near-total artifice. Think of Ferrante giving readers beautiful insights into how she translates her own thoughts into written works. Then think of her Italian to English translator Ann Goldstein, who once again has gracefully taken Ferrante’s words and turned them into an art of her own. Finally, think of the actress translating Ferrante’s prose into a spoken-word performance in which she embodies an author whose physical appearance remains mostly unknown. It’s the most exquisite game of Telephone: every whisper gives you goosebumps, but it’s hard to know what’s real.

What is real throughout In the Margins is a dilemma that Ferrante says she’s learned to forego after early failures in her attempts at writing realism, in which she was too bogged down in detail. Inspired in part by her reading of Denis Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, she had a realization: “Trying to tell the thing as it is can become paralyzing,” she writes, so “I will therefore try to tell it as I can, and, who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and tell it as it is.” If reality will always be influenced by the storyteller’s own experiences, then subjectivity requires the writer to value what is true over what is real. In other words: what is true?

In Elena Ferrante’s world, truth and ugliness are intertwined: “Beautiful writing becomes beautiful,” she writes, “when it loses its harmony and has the desperate power of the ugly.” Which is not to say that Ferrante rejects the idea of proper form. In the Margins details the joys of reading (Ferrante is as well-read as you’d expect her to be) and the necessity of broadening one’s understanding of what literature can do. 

Countless writers have expressed a similar sentiment: that you must understand the rules of craft before you can joyously break them. But Ferrante unleashes her beautiful violence on even the most trite writing advice, which makes it thrilling: “We have to give up the idea that writing miraculously releases a voice of our own, a tonality of our own: in my view that is a lazy way of talking about writing,” she writes. “Writing is, rather, entering an immense cemetery where every tomb is waiting to be profaned.” If this quote doesn’t inspire you to start a draft of a new novel, you’re probably not a writer, or at least not a writer who majored in English.

So, true writing, according to Elena Ferrante, requires discipline and planning and knowledge of craft, but also an impulse to forsake polish in favor of chaos: “For much of my life I’ve written careful pages in the hope that they would be preliminary pages,” she writes. “And that the irrepressible burst would arrive, when the writing I from its fragment of the brain abruptly seizes all the possible I’s, the entire head, the entire body, and so empowered, begins to run, drawing into its net the world it needs.” The ideal state for a writer, then, is one in which she loses all self-consciousness and gives free rein to the voice inside her head. This irrepressible burst is Ferrante’s holy grail of writing, the spark of inspiration that allows her to turn off the cautious parts of herself and aim to deface and deform all that has come before. I like to believe that this is what writers mean when they say things like, “The characters just spoke to me” or “the story wrote itself.”

Ferrante’s conception of true writing as a kind of id-versus-ego endeavor may not be unfamiliar to a vast audience of readers who’ve found themselves blithely stricken with Ferrante Fever over the past decade. But In the Margins makes explicit an idea that readers of the Neapolitan Novels might have suspected, or at least one that I had suspected, but never confirmed until now: that Elena and Lila are the absolute embodiments of their creator’s ideals and frustrations about writing. Perhaps no two characters in literature map so directly onto the writing process of their author, with each woman representing an opposing side of the problem. Elena, also known as Lenù, is a model of discipline and study. She has a proper regard for the classics and a great work ethic, but she’s plagued by the self-doubt with which so many writers, including Ferrante, must contend. Lila, on the other hand, is all impulse and dazzling genius, a born truth-teller who defies norms and fucks people up without thinking twice. Lenù and Lila work best as a team, with each one acting as a moderating influence on the other’s weakest qualities, much as how Ferrante’s conflicting writing styles require balance. 

Now think back to the actress playing the role of the author delivering the lectures of In the Margins. Such elaborate obfuscation in presenting a book as “candid” as this one reveals two contradictory impulses (the Lenù and the Lila, if you will) that seem to linger at the heart of Ferrante’s work: the desire to be intimately known and to not be known at all. Such a paradox makes Ferrante’s decision to remain anonymous throughout the successes of her career all the more understandable and yet still mysterious, even troubling.

I’m not suggesting that Ferrante must reveal herself, or that any author should be beholden to the marketing of their books, receptive to all journalists and bookstores and fans and, even worse, available on social media. I imagine the literary world would be a much better place if the job of the author contained more privacy and less shilling, more time for writing and less time for worrying about how they present themselves to the world. But In the Margins is a strange work to consider for this very specific reason, as it examines the desire to tell the truth by functionally losing control of boundaries. It’s a precise, academic, often brilliant book that contains very little of the brutality that we come to Ferrante for. But perhaps when we turn to a book on the writer’s craft, we’re looking more for a gentle nudge than a forceful push.


© 2022 by Maris Kreizman. All rights reserved.

from the March 2022 issue

Reviewed by Hannah Weber

Halldór Laxness's 1931 novel is a sometimes harrowing coming-of-age story of a young woman in a remote Icelandic fishing village.

 

When sailing on such a cold and bleak winter’s night along these shores, you get the impression that nothing in the world could be more insignificant and meaningless than such a small village under such high mountains. How do people live in such a place? And how do they die?

A smartly-dressed passenger on a ship heading to Reykjavik wonders this aloud as eleven-year-old Salka and her mother Sigurlína disembark at the small fishing village of Óseyri. Salka is the first to step off the boat and into their new life, comforting her seasick mother along the way in her trademark voice, which is unnaturally deep and low for a young girl. Salka Valka is the first of Halldór Laxness’s social realist novels. It was published in 1931 following a series of critical essays on everything from the terrible state of Icelandic sanitation to the problem with American films (with the sole exception of Charlie Chaplin). Despite his unflattering view of Hollywood, the coming-of-age story of a precocious young girl was originally written as a screenplay for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with the working title ‘A Woman in Pants,' Laxness even imagined Greta Garbo playing the central role. When this foundered, Salka Valka became a novel in two parts: Thou, Pure Grapevine and The Bird on the Shore, sometimes with the subtitle “A Political Love Story.”

From the time Salka and Sigurlína step off the boat, they are immersed in the village’s closed, judgmental atmosphere, which is juxtaposed with an Icelandic landscape that is endlessly vast and open. The sea at the village edges is “bitter cold and churning,” and “sheer crags loomed up from the snow-covered mountainsides in perfect indifference to all that lives and dies.” While everyone acknowledges their utter destitution—the Salvation Army, the doctor, the priest, and the local shopkeeper—no one seems particularly inclined to do anything about it. “Strangers bring corruption more so than edification,” warns the priest. Mother and daughter wind up at the mercy of the egotistical alcoholic Steinþor Steinsson (“I own the sea, I own the seashore and the village and the sky over the village with all its storms that come and go,” he declares), who brings them home with him. When Salka tells her mother that Steinþor “groped me here and here and here,” Sigurlína is dismissive and barely registers her daughter’s tears and outrage. Steinþor pushes himself on Sigurlína one night while she is sharing a bed with Salka; after a brief confrontation, she leads him away from the child and does what he wants. Salka lies alone and awake, acutely aware of the chasm forming between childhood and the rest of her life: “From then on, she had no mother. Maybe no one had a mother. Maybe no one actually had anyone but themselves.” The book’s first part culminates in an assault scene so vile and described with such cruel cynicism—Salka’s “first personal experience of love”—that it took considerable effort for me to pick the book up again at all.

Despite significant hardships, the young Salka is precocious and hardworking, securing a job and a credit account for herself before starting school. Though she cannot read when she arrives in Óseyri, she is quick to learn and soon teaches herself political and philosophical ideas—flipping through the “major foreign works of socialism” and Marxist social science. Salka is already a tomboy, with her tall frame and deep voice, and her disgust at her mother’s relationship contributes to her view of womanhood overall. “I’m sick of being a girl!” she declares to the soft-spoken Arnaldur, a teenage boy who agrees to teach her to read and write. “I will never, ever become a woman—like my Mama!” Arnaldur thinks for a while and, in one of the novel’s scant tender moments, replies with a simple offer: “I can get you a good pair of trousers.” 

The book sometimes goes to great lengths to show us the traits that make Salka (to borrow a contemporary phrase) “not like other girls”—her diligence and determination are precisely what make her a “match for any man alive” but also contribute to her “eccentricity” as a woman. When she gets older, she wears sturdy mountaineering boots and a thick woolen sweater (which doesn’t conceal her “curvy bosom,” the narrator would like us to know). Her eyes are “clear and bold” and her hands are “large and accustomed to work.” One gets the sense that Laxness’s view of a feminist socialist heroine may simply, at this point in his career, have been ‘a woman in pants’—or, in other words, a woman taking on the role of a man.

A contemporary reading of Salka’s discomfort with girlhood makes Laxness seem ahead of his time around issues of sex and gender. Yet, when contextualized with Salka’s work ethic and socialist ideas, the trousers appear to be more of a uniform for an equal society, rather than a nod to queer life in the early twentieth century. While the book is touted as a “feminist coming-of-age tale,” some turns of phrase make for uneasy reading: “These two females looked more like rubbish picked up off the beach;” “It must be quite uncomfortable for two unknown, wretched females who are completely on their own to come to a village where they have never been before….”. Using “females” as a noun could be a mark of the time or the particular translation, a part of the author’s detached and experimental modernist style, or even a way of exposing the villagers’ endemic misogyny. Yet, while it is impossible to hold a historical work accountable to contemporary standards of language, we can certainly question its feminist credentials.

In other ways, Laxness is a true poet with language. As the harsh winter fades, he describes how “terns hovered over the night-shaded fjord and the dewy grass grew in its midsummer dream.” The sights, sounds, and smells are more pungent and authentic in Philip Roughton’s translation than those we sometimes find in life: 

“There never seemed to be good weather in this village, because the Creator was always experimenting with His sky. . . . it might be said that the Creator’s favorite weather for the village was rain, which stirred up all sorts of stenches: sea and seaweed, fish, fish heads and fish guts, train oil, tar, manure, and refuse.”

But while the sky is full of life, the villagers—particularly the working class—are gray or colorless, rivaling even John Steinbeck’s depictions of the Depression-era Dust Bowl. The inhabitants of Óseyri are “a sort of abortion which Our Lord had made out of cooked fish and perhaps a handful of rotten potatoes and a drop of oatmeal gruel.” Only the wealthy have color in their cheeks and their clothes. They cheerfully recount vibrant excursions to the continent while the voices of the workers are tinged with a “salty, gray frigidity.” The poor are alternately described as drunk, tedious, foolish, or cruel, eliciting a mixture of pity and disdain from the better off. It is worth pointing out that Laxness wrote Salka Valka after visiting the United States, where he “did not become a socialist in America from studying manuals of socialism, but from watching the starving unemployed in the parks.” 

Part II deals in great detail with the work required to bring a nation like Iceland towards socialism and better living conditions. The country’s fragile economy was reeling from the Great Depression and, being so remote, it struggled to match the pace of modernization in Europe. Salka and Arnaldur have grown older and fallen in love, but his idealism and hopeless impracticality is worlds away from Salka’s pragmatism. He travels abroad while she is busy organizing the Óseyri fishermen into labor unions and getting her trousers muddy. Yet it is Arnaldur who acts as a mouthpiece for Laxness’s own ideas about more worldly themes: “But what was it that happened in 1874, when our finances were separated from those of Denmark?” he asks. “All that really happened was this: the exploitation of the people was brought into our own country. The robbers simply changed their nationality.” Laxness left Iceland at 17 and traveled widely—not just to the US, but across Europe and into the Soviet Union (producing an awkwardly uncritical essay about the Soviet state). The heroine of his most famous book, Independent People, is banished to the US, but returns upon concluding that the rural deprivation in Iceland is preferable. Laxness is consistently clear that poverty itself is the enemy, and that individualism (à la Steinþor) is not the solution. In fact, the Red Scare may go a long way to explain why the Nobel winner’s books were so difficult to obtain in English for so long. As a child, Salka listens as she is told:

“If you work non-stop all your life, day in and day out, you may be able to pay for your own funeral when you die. But believe me, good child: no one becomes rich by working. The few rich people that I saw in my life never worked a day, while the greatest poverty always plagued those who toiled hardest.”

Laxness died in 1998; his life spanned nearly the whole twentieth century. In a letter from San Francisco from that first U.S. trip, Laxness said the only two options in the face of such deprivation were to be “a reformer or a humbug;” Salka is a clear reformer and the model of leadership that Laxness envisions for the future. From the start, he was adamant that a novel should ask people to examine their lives and see how they might help turn the wheel of emancipatory politics. The happy ending to Salka and Arnaldur’s romance is forsaken for the needs of the people—they both must continue their work to advance Icelandic socialism. In the writing, there is a clear struggle to maintain the balance between storytelling and political discourse—while this makes for an uneven read, Laxness still achieves a certain richness with his sublime and painterly landscapes and earnest portraits of “insignificant” people living through a significant historical moment. Though Salka Valka is rife with idealism, the author’s homage to resilience and resistance is sometimes overshadowed by his depiction of a relentlessly bleak, impoverished world. For something once subtitled “A Political Love Story,” there is little love to be seen.


© 2022 by Hannah Weber. All rights reserved.

from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue
from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue
from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue
from the March 2022 issue

Reviewed by Tara Wanda Merrigan

Olga Tokarczuk's long-awaited opus tells the stories of the followers of Jacob Frank, an eighteenth-century messianic figure.

Olga Tokarczuk’s Books of Jacob, in a virtuosic translation by Jennifer Croft, begins in 1752 in Rohatyn, a rural town located in what is now Western Ukraine. Rohatyn, like much of East Central Europe, has belonged to different countries over the last thousand years. The Rohatyn of Books of Jacob is a modest Polish town of two churches, a monastery, two synagogues, and five Orthodox churches, and is home to Father Benedykt Chmielowski, a priest with an insatiable desire for knowledge who has authored the first Polish encyclopedia. (We will meet Chmielowski’s foil, the charismatic Jewish messianic figure Jacob Frank, later.) 

The reader first encounters Chmielowski, an emblem of Enlightenment rationality and progress, on his way to the market in search of books. He enters a general store owned by a Jewish family whose patriarch is a learned rabbi and there is confronted by the acrid smell of the increasingly popular beverage “cophee.” Passing through the store into the family’s quarters, he notices “thea,” a drink that helps Chmielowski sustain his scholarly efforts. He asks Elisha Shoor, the rabbi in the family, to lend him books. He offers a copy of his encyclopedia in return. Shorr is unimpressed. What use does a rabbi have for this priest’s encyclopedia? He sends Chmielowski home with a book of fairytales instead of the religious text the priest came looking for. Chmielowski will become less and less prominent in the narrative after this opening scene, but the journey has only begun for the reader: we have met the Shorrs, a few of Jacob Frank’s many future followers. Soon after Chmielowski’s visit to the general store, Jacob will declare himself the messiah and amass a following. 

As with Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the DeadBooks of Jacob demonstrates Tokarczuk’s delicate artistry. The novel ushers readers through eighteenth-century history, ferrying us from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to the lands of the Ottoman Empire and across more borders into the Habsburg Empire. The journey begins with the novel’s title page, whose long, campy subtitle imitates early print publishers’ attempt at marketing: “A fantastic journey across seven borders, five languages, and three major religions.” Images of antique print materials continue to set the mood. The novel’s page numbers tick down toward zero, the apocalypse longed for by the novel’s characters. This millenarian religious atmosphere offers a high-stakes context for reading and interpretation: characters must be vigilant for signs of the impending Final Judgment. Bodily ailments like infected, peeling skin might mean you’re cursed. Or that you’re the messiah. 

Tokarczuk’s story of Frank relies on the perspectives of his witnesses—followers, casual observers, and critics. Readers join Jacob’s company as they admire him, closely watch his actions, search for signs of divinity, and negotiate flickers of doubt about his charming, narcissistic, deranged personality. They eventually cling to him desperately, because he provides certainty in a time of upheaval and modernization. These witnesses provide a useful tool for Tokarczuk’s narrative: an intimate view of an enigmatic figure, whose own inner life was probably less interesting than the effects his actions had on the inner lives of others. 

Nahman, a Jewish merchant skilled in theological debate, is perhaps the most interesting of Jacob’s followers. Through Nahman’s eyes — his memoiristic entries, called “scraps," appear frequently — we see why Jacob's followers abandoned their lives to follow this pockmarked Podolian would-be messiah. In Nahman's case, joining Jacob's inner circle means financial ruin and the demise of his marriage. But as his memoiristic entries show, Jacob’s appeal defies logic; without Jacob, life is cold, hollow. Of a reunion with Jacob and other followers, Nahman writes that "it was as if we four and [Jacob], at our center, had joined together to create a single man, and we breathed a single breath.” This “complete” union fills Nahman with the certainty “he, Jacob, would lead us onward.” If a group hug with Jacob is able to fill Nahman with such feelings of harmony, we begin to understand why Jacob’s Jewish followers converted to Christianity when he told them to do so, even though this was the very conversion that Jews living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had resisted for so many years. 

Like any good cult leader, Jacob seems to know how to get the most out of theology. Jacob’s followers practice a form of hospitality that includes offering a wife, daughter, or sister to Jacob for the night, any of whom would be excited to sleep with him. (One woman feels disappointed when Jacob, exhausted, falls asleep immediately.) Jacob’s religious rituals, which he seems to improvise based on fancy, are sexual, too. In one scene, men, including relatives, suck from a woman’s breast in a sort of strengthening ritual. It’s an affecting moment: repulsive, alarming, but also compelling in spite of the shock it triggers. Tokarczuk holds strong convictions — her public statements have gotten her into trouble with Poland’s current far-right government — but as a writer she excels in the realm of the morally ambiguous where, as in the breastfeeding scene, the terrible and the inspiring can coexist, undisturbed by the other’s presence. 

Creating literature from history is another of Tokarczuk’s strengths. Books of Jacob is built from years of research, but perhaps most importantly, Tokarczuk has a light touch with research, treating each turn in Jacob’s story as if it were fresh and unexpected rather than recorded. Reading Books of Jacob often sent me back to War and Peace and Tolstoy’s historiographical rants about history happening the way it happens for no good reason other than that it happened that way. For Tokarczuk, history unfolds organically rather than randomly. Human events have a shape and direction. Difficulties create obstacles but pleasant coincidences abound: Jacob, referred to by followers as “The Lord,” learns to read Polish from Chmielowski’s encyclopedia, hundreds of pages after the priest first offered his book to the Rabbi Shorr.

A countercultural figure herself, Tokarczuk first became interested in Jacob Frank in 1997 after finding two volumes of Frank's lectures in a bookshop. Frank, it seemed to her, was underappreciated in Polish history. The story of Frank and his followers, mostly Eastern European Jews living tentatively under Christian rule a century and a half before the Holocaust, has clear echoes in modern times. But it’s also worth noting that Tokarczuk’s novel is set during the last decades of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which is perceived as a halcyon period of autonomous, proto-democratic rule in Polish history. Following the Commonwealth's demise, Poland was overseen by foreign powers from 1795 to 1989, with the exception of a twenty-year interlude between World War I and World War II. It’s hard to imagine a more subversive way to write a novel about the last fifty years of the Commonwealth than the one Tokarczuk has offered, in its focus on multiculturalism, border crossing, and religious heterodoxy. It stands opposed to the mushroom-picking and soup-eating nostalgia of Adam Mickiewicz’s popular nineteenth-century epic poem Pan Tadeusz and the resounding monoculture promoted by the governing far-right Law and Justice party. (Anglophone readers can enjoy Pan Tadeusz in Bill Johnston’s excellent translation that was published by Archipelago in 2018.) 

Despite Jacob’s appeal as a historical figure, approaching the alleged messiah’s story from his own perspective seemed impossible to Tokarczuk. In an essay explaining her process of writing Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk admits that the narrative positioning of telling Jacob’s story through his followers’ eyes was born of necessity. “I didn’t know how to cope with this figure empathetically, I couldn’t understand him,” she wrote in 2014 (translated in 2022 by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Tokarczuk’s other English-language translator). “So I decided to present Jacob Frank through the eyes of others, without daring to go too close, though the longer I was involved with him, the more he aroused my sympathy.” In this particular essay, Tokarczuk’s reflections on sympathy and empathy stop there, but it feels as if she picks up this line of thinking five years later in her Nobel prize lecture on the “czuły narrator” (in English, “tender narrator”). Tokarczuk’s czuły narrator — czuły is pronounced choo-way — is not strictly empathic. This narrator goes beyond the kind of instantaneous fellow feeling and position-swapping understanding prescribed by empathy. They are sensitive to the situations of others and position this sensitivity in philosophical understanding of common human fate: the “lack of immunity to suffering and the effects of time.” (Tokarczuk’s Nobel lecture was translated by Croft and Lloyd-Jones.) Furthermore, rather than adopting the perspective of another, a tender narrator causes boundaries between themself and the outside world to collapse, embracing connectedness. In Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk’s tenderness wraps her novel’s world in a cozy atmosphere; it also precludes judgment, which would have likely stifled a novel on an eighteenth-century cult. “Tenderness personalizes everything to which it relates, making it possible to give it a voice, to give it the space and the time to come into existence, and to be expressed,” Tokarczuk says. “It is thanks to tenderness that the teapot starts to talk.” 

Tokarczuk’s generous interest in the teapot, food, geography, religion, omens, death, relationships, writing and books, among other things, is the life-giving force that propels this novel forward. Croft’s swift, energetic English maintains momentum and enthusiasm through nearly one thousand pages. A buoyant, anarchic, consuming reading experience, Books of Jacob is a novel so all-encompassing and alive that it’s as if Tokarczuk has managed to break off a piece of the world and convert it into paper and ink. 


© 2022 by Tara Wanda Merrigan. All rights reserved.

from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue

from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue

from the March 2022 issue

отсюда не выйти никуда

отсюда не выйти никуда поскольку расстояние для выстрела слишком короткое война после мира наощупь тело твоё
искать среди похожих на нас отчислили из всех вузов исторической правды закалили в пепле смыслов возьми это сердце в доказательство того что жизнь не проходит просто так
отсюда не выйти никуда поскольку дети рисуют осенние плоды на побелённых стенах сияющие простыни мыслей надстройка и базис сюда и влетит снаряд света тёплые лучи словно ещё весна так было
отсюда не выйти поскольку свет нарисованный кровью и плотью теней война закончится когда-то и куда ты потом
мира не существует что это такое это мальвы вот ту пилюльку выкормила волчица ядовитый фон тут будет другой город
счастливые люди будут выходить из домов вести на холсте подсчёт сколько нас ещё осталось
это почти что любовь ко всему что может исчезнуть ко всему что только на день словно бабочка души
отсюда не выйти никуда мир поймал разглядывает под микроскопом куда воткнуть эту иголку чтоб было поинтереснее чтоб в растворе барахтаться тело плывёт за водой душа эти рисунки собирает ибо мала она чтобы защитить мир это война с собой потому что нас разрезали пополам
мы не узнаём больше этот город и в глаза твои не смотрите это зеркало врёт ты не существовала ещё там за занавеской мир тёплый октябрь весны
что-то пульсирует под кожей что это как не прикосновение как кровь из сердца что должно ещё быть живым иначе куда ты теперь после мира
я ещё научусь рисовать чтобы всё сбылось
 

Read more from the March 2022 issue

from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue
from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue

from the March 2022 issue

Reviewed by J. Howard Rosier

Olga Ravn's slim, surprising novel compiles corporate witness accounts from a shocking interstellar mission.

Underneath the COVID-19 fervor and the ennui of quarantine lies a lopsided civilization with questions that have been thrown into sharp relief: Who can weather days without working, who cannot? Whose social position renders them immune to lapses in judgment and prophylactic behavior, whose does not? Who is deemed “essential” (that is, whose facilitating function within a service economy prevents them from making a living from home), who is (blissfully, guiltily) not? Never before has the value of one’s labor felt so clearly defined, or so susceptible to charges of exploitation. Several novels have attempted to address the pandemic’s unique ecosystem of interaction and avoidance, but so far it seems that this low-hanging fruit—the maintenance of dignity amid the grueling or pointless reality of one’s work—is the most fertile yet the least remarked upon.

Olga Ravn’s The Employees is not a pandemic novel. However, thanks to a crackling translation from the Danish by Martin Aitken, readers in English are now able to delve into its futuristic and dystopian worldview, which contains enormous insight into labor’s many actors: deciders, stewards, pawns, and—when things go awry—its scapegoats and apologists. The novel’s structure, a series of collected statements that begin as declarations, then methodically transition into confessions and judgments, allows chronological story to buttress the reader’s engagement with accumulating details. 

But what of that reader? Ravn’s modular structure suggests that the responsibility of configuring her narrative and sussing out its moral leanings belongs to her audience. The book doesn’t lack plot so much as tacitly acknowledge that plot is a construct, and therefore susceptible to the politics of control, which implicates the author and, inevitably, whoever’s hands the book lands in. Or rather, the paradigm of who has created the book’s terms (Ravn) and who has not (us) forms a mirror image of who has power in the book (humans) and who does not (humanoids, mechanized human-like beings whose consciousness can be reprogrammed), which in turn establishes a clear-but-diversionary hierarchy of what readers of the novel may try to accumulate (chronological plot) and, as a result, what they may not (meaning).

This is why it’s probably best to split up The Employees’ plot and meaning. One wants to alert for spoilers, but items on a conveyor belt are only a surprise to the employees still in training. So: in the not-too-distant future, a vessel known as the Six Thousand Ship, containing a crew of humans and humanoids, is sent on an exploratory mission into space. On a planet aptly named New Discovery, the crew encounters a series of alien items, which it takes on board the ship for examination. The humans on board, starved for familiarity, give the items nicknames, such as the Reverse Strap-on and the Half-Naked Bean, and develop fetishized attachments to them. Lacking a frame of reference, the humanoids find this behavior bizarre, even as they form attachments to the humans. Yet they are frequently “regenerated”—that is, their internal lives can be erased—and an anxiety about the practice ensues among the crew at large. A botched mutiny in which a human dies causes an elusive governing body known only as “the committee” to panic. The humanoid sections of the ship are reduced to skeleton crews, then the mission is abandoned altogether. The ship is returned to New Discovery, where the “orders were given for all biomaterials to be disintegrated while preserving the ship itself” so that the items and other precious resources can be harvested after the humans die and the humanoids exhaust their energy. The remaining humanoids abandon the ship for a valley “where flowers and trees have begun to grow forth out of the soil and the thrusting plants have pushed various objects to the surface, where they now lie scattered about in the moist earth.” It’s left ambiguous whether they will be reconstituted or left as technological waste once the ship is recovered, but one humanoid’s last recorded statement proves prophetic all the same: “These words are the last you’ll hear from us.”

The certainty with which the remaining crew’s fate is sealed lacks any revelation, though this is not for lack of surprise. The business-like nature of “the committee” neutralizes any emotional register that would arise from events. On the other hand, one cannot expect those who are cutting their losses to empathize with those whom they are jettisoning, and much of Ravn’s dramaturgy quarrels with whether catharsis can intersect with the clerical. 

Now, on to meaning: throughout The Employees, the crew’s commentaries appear numerically, but not in order. One could in theory read the entries chronologically and get a clearer arc, but this is complicated by the fact that some of the entries are missing entirely. Rather than a puzzle or a method to create an unorthodox narrative tension, this form points back to the bureaucratic filtering of the information that the reader receives. Someone (the committee, the author) is deciding what readers see and don’t see, based on what’s ideal for their interests. Thus, Ravn metes out what moments best encapsulate the commentary she has constructed.

And what a commentary. A tension emerges regarding whom the novel’s “recordings” are speaking to. They alternate between a self-conscious acknowledgment of being interrogated, where speakers comment about what “you” might be thinking, or what “you” know versus what they do. At other times, the comments are so sober and distant that the point of view is voyeuristic. “We’ve developed our own little ritual here, in view of cremation being the only option and the bereaved having nowhere to go,” Statement 037, the declaration of a de facto undertaker, reads, “Or perhaps bereaved isn’t the right word. I don’t know if you grieve over a coworker, but we perform the ritual anyway, out of respect, and you can’t exactly rule out relations occurring between members of the crew.” You shouldn’t be hearing things so intimate, yet you are. Although the humanoids are, like smartphones or computers, subject to version upgrades, they never really die, whereas human beings have not evolved at all since being on the Six Thousand Ship. The humans have control over their destiny, until someone finds them expendable—just like the humanoids. Meanwhile, for all the mentions of physical labor—cleaning, digging, cooking—the eponymous employees are primarily concerned with watching over objects that are pillaged on the journey. It’s difficult to reconcile the humans’ attachment for these unidentifiable, alien things with the lack of attachment to the humanoids who look just like them, which of course is the point. The contradiction reads as a crystal-clear criticism of human beings valuing progress in the abstract rather than being responsible stewards of what is already tangible.

The headiness is further compounded by its compression into a brisk 144 pages. Not enough to account for a whole galaxy, but certainly enough to compile a report. The depth and richness of Ravn’s premise could theoretically stretch out into multiple volumes, and one would imagine part of the novel’s appeal lies in the author’s insistence on restraint even as her forms leave behind a multitude of unresolved philosophical inquiries.

It's also worth noting that, for a novel about working without questioning one’s purpose, the mutiny that takes place is not about the work that humanoids are subjected to. Instead, the revolt stems from a resentment at not being afforded the same latitude, consciousness-wise, as the humans:

You want to know what I think about this arrangement? I think you look down on me. The way I see it, you’re a family that’s built a house and from the warm rooms of that house you now look out at the pouring rain. Safe from menace, you delight in the rain. You’re dry and smug, you’re reaping the rewards of a long process of refinement. When the storm gets up, it only heightens your enjoyment. I’m standing in the rain you think can never fall on you. I become one with the rain. I’m the storm you shelter from. The entire house is something you built just to avoid me. So don’t come to me and say I play no part in human lives.

Naturally, this puts the reader in a precarious position. How much of yourself do you see in the pillaged objects? The sub-human categorization of the humanoids? The humans themselves? When the plot eventually does come to a head, it doesn’t matter nearly as much as one would think, because none of the people you are witnessing have any control over what transpires.


© 2022 by J. Howard Rosier. All rights reserved.

from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue

from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue
from the March 2022 issue

Read more from the March 2022 issue

from the January 2022 issue

Read more from the January 2022 issue
from the January 2022 issue

Read more from the January 2022 issue

from the January 2022 issue

Reviewed by Laura Marris

Nastassja Martin's poetic memoir dissects an unforgettable, harrowing encounter with an animal.

The first time I camped overnight in Wyoming, I was handed a bright red canister of bear spray right before going to bed. Back in my tent, I stared at the words COUNTER ASSAULT written across the packaging in paramilitary font, trying to imagine what a grizzly would look like, smell like, if it got close enough to require the mace. I was just out of college, working as a field assistant for geologists, and unprepared for the potential confrontation this canister represented. It was absurd in my hands, a trinket compared with the wildness of the bear, and I spent the night sleepless, listening for paws. A single question had changed the valance of the landscape around me—what would happen if I met a bear, face to face?

Nastassja Martin’s In the Eye of the Wild mainly takes place in the aftermath of this question. While conducting fieldwork on animism in the Kamchatka Peninsula in Siberia, Martin climbs a volcano and emerges from a patch of fog. A bear stands just steps away. What follows is a kind of dialogue—the bear stares at her, and she stares back; he bares his teeth, and she bares her own. The animal reacts by nearly killing her, but stops short of crushing her skull in his mouth. She, in turn, wounds the bear with her ice axe and survives to write this account of interspecies porousness—a vivid refusal of one-dimensional experience, rendered in Sophie R. Lewis’s eloquent and perfectly paced translation. The lines of inquiry that emerge from Martin’s encounter are far deeper than my initial question: “What does it mean,” she asks, “to emerge from the abyss where uncertainty reigns and choose to build new boundaries using brand new materials salvaged from the depths of your dreams’ unvarying darkness? From the very depths of the yawning gob of a being other than yourself?”

It’s fair to say that Martin was prepared for her human boundaries to blur. As an anthropologist in the field, she begins by keeping two sets of notebooks—one for daytime, to be turned into future scholarship, and the other dedicated to the wildness of her nighttime thoughts, a black book of words and fissures that come to her in the dark. Increasingly, she dreams of bears. They emerge from her childhood garden; they encircle her tent on the taiga; she gets glimpses of their teeth, their claws, their “disquiet.” In Kamchatka, the Even people she is living with notice the way she wakes soaked in sweat and inform her that she is not dreaming of the bear, but dreaming with him. 

This thought shakes her, but it also propels her—after all, she has come to this remote part of the world to research how the inhabitants have been dealing with loss and uncertainty in their environment for thousands of years. When she starts her research on animism among the Gwich’in and Even people who live on opposite sides of the Bering Strait, she thinks the dreams of animals she records in her night notebook will “make nice material to write about, to get into animism as applied to dreams, the interpermeability of two souls, the tanglement of ontologies, the dialogue between worlds.” Then she winces: “What presumption! To think that my inner disturbance would not genuinely propel me beyond myself . . . .But where, towards what or whom, to direct my listening?”

It’s an apt question because Martin is a consummate listener, sensitive to the connotations of words and the cultural heft behind them. Though In the Eye of the Wild is billed as “an anthropologist’s tale of reconstitution after a bear attack,” Martin herself never uses that word for what happens between her and the bear, preferring to call it a meeting, an encounter, a confrontation, an implosion of a boundary, a hybridization, a kiss, a resonance, or even a “semantic void, an off-script leap that challenges and unnerves all categories.” 

As you may have guessed by now, this is a book that feels genuinely driven by its questioning. It’s one thing to talk about the post-human as a reframing of principles, and quite another to be embodied by a creature, the bear’s face in hers and hers in his, exchanging eye for eye and tooth for tooth. The intensity of this experience places Martin in a different realm. I refuse to use the phrase “uncharted territory,” but there’s a sense that what happens takes place somewhere unmappable, where you have to feel your way in the dark. Martin has the strong impression that there’s something odd about her survival, that she has been allowed to return alive from a mythical, primordial realm. “Death,” she writes, “was the most effective way to escape the unlivable limes, or frontier, that the encounter between two beings from different worlds implies—to escape the cycle of metamorphosis which is then triggered and from which there can be no return.” But she doesn’t die. Instead, she has to learn how to coexist with what she’s seen.

She survives, in part, through instances when she chooses not to listen. Not to a therapist in a maxillofacial surgery unit who tells her, in a stunningly tone-deaf moment, that a person’s face is their identity. Not to all the surgeons who insist on continuing to reopen her jaw in a kind of “cold war” between Russian and French hospitals. Not to her hiking companion who goes into ecstasies about the beauty of Mother Nature. Not to another therapist who says that the bear is a boundary in her life, that she went out into the world to find her own inner darkness in the animal. In these instances of remarkable lucidity, Martin refuses to heal in a way that would be considered “normal,” refuses to shut herself back inside the expected borders of human thought. “There was that incomprehensible us,” she writes of the encounter with the bear. And then there is the human social world, the world of doctors and hospitals that wants to close what is open in her, to make her back into an I, alone.

Fortunately for us, her resistance is a welcome change from the typical fallacies that predominate in books about the wild. These problems can best be summed up by what the critic Kathryn Schulz calls “the great imaginative failure of both spiritual and misanthropic strains of nature writing,” that “they valorize the challenges that arise when we confront ourselves and the wilderness, but not the challenges that arise when we confront one another.” What’s brilliant about Martin’s book is that she’s able to call bullshit on the idea of the pristine, the virginal, the wilderness, while still carrying on a deep conversation with non-human and non-Western ways of being. And she documents how deeply that engagement disturbs other humans, both Even and French. One particularly ironic example occurs when she returns from Siberia to the Salpêtrière, a famous Parisian hospital. “As it’s a bear that has alighted at the Salpêtrière,” she writes, “traveling by way of my body, and a Russian bear, to boot, the hospital staff have activated all their safety and security procedures.” They place her in quarantine as if she were an infectious disease patient, suiting themselves up in coveralls, overshoes, and masks, which they discard when they leave her room. Of course, it’s not the bear that makes her sick—it’s the antibiotic-resistant superbug she catches from their scalpels. The problem, for other people, is that Martin contains more than “can be made to fit the human project”: the bear, the Russian surgeon’s metal plate, her dreams, her interactions with her family, a bacterial colony from the French operating table, her night notebooks, the words of the Even. 

Given this book’s doubleness and its dialogue with other voices, I find it particularly moving to read Martin in translation—through the craft of an art form that also strives to keep the borders open between languages and selves. Lewis’s translation is full of lovely choices, from the decision to keep the French word limes in the text and gloss it, to the title itself. On a recent Wednesday, I had a chance to see Lewis talk about titling the book in English, and I was struck by the way the title represented the difficulty of the book itself. In French, the book is called Croire aux fauves—literally “to believe in beasts.” But fauves is a much more multivalent word. It can mean a wild animal, a big cat, a beast, but it can also mean a kind of tawny, primal color, which I’ve always imagined as roughly the hue of a saber-toothed tiger. Lewis said she considered other options like “to believe in the animal” and “listening to the animal,” but ultimately settled on the meeting of eyes that unleashes the encounter between woman and bear. To be In the Eye of the Wild is to be in its sights, but also to peer into the animal world, to stop wearing the mask of human binaries, to look through a wider view.

In the end, that’s just what Martin does. In refusing to pin down her encounter, she stays liminal without going silent. “The wild creature bit my jaw,” she writes, “it was my turn to speak.”


© 2022 by Laura Marris. All rights reserved.

from the January 2022 issue

Reviewed by Benjamin Woodard

Mahsa Mohebali's novel is a snappy, inventive picaresque with an unforgettable lead.


A series of apocalyptic earthquakes and aftershocks rock Tehran. Some residents attempt to flee, yet traffic snarls the roadways. Fights erupt. Cell service blinks out. In the midst of the growing bedlam strides Shadi, twenty something, questioning life, low on opium and looking to score. So begins Mahsa Mohebali’s exhilarating In Case of Emergency, a novel originally published in Iran in 2008 (as  نگران نباشDon’t Worry) and now available in English thanks to translator Mariam Rahmani and the Feminist Press. Covering a single day and told exclusively through Shadi’s first-person point-of-view, Mohebali’s tale is like a pinball machine on overdrive, a rapid-fire affair that succeeds thanks to the author’s playful repetitions and her choice to grant her narrator’s quirks and asides free rein on the page. Though I found that the novel doesn’t offer much in the way of character development, Shadi’s wanderings—and her eye on contemporary life in Iran—fill the short volume with memorable thrills and verbal flourishes. 

Mohebali opens the story in medias res with a topsy-turvy scene. Shadi wakes to her bed trembling. Her mother is screaming and her older brother is trying to get the family ready to leave the city. Shadi admits that she spent the night stoned. She rolls a ball of opium under her tongue, complaining about her nearly depleted stash. As the drug takes effect (“A little creature sets out from the lowest vertebra of my spine, calmly crawls up, then hurls itself from my neck into my skull”)—the action turns surreal. Mohebali rarely employs dialogue tags, so while Shadi wanders through her home, the opium hitting harder with each step, it’s sometimes difficult to know who is speaking. This adds to the chaos, and it also shows confidence from the author, who expects the audience to quickly pick up the novel’s stripped-down style in these first fractured moments. Shadi’s mother tries to reach Shadi’s father on the phone; Shadi’s younger brother, Arash, spouts off about revolution; the panicked maid, Miss Gelin, wonders how Shadi’s grandmother, Nana Molouk, has vanished during an emergency; Shadi sees a text message from her friend, Ashkan, who is threatening to kill himself.

It isn’t long before Shadi gives her family the slip and heads out into the city, first trying to find Ashkan, and later hoping to contact one of her dealers. With these foundations of In Case of Emergency’s threadbare plot, a hero’s journey ensues. Shadi encounters picaresque vignettes along the way to her destinations—navigating through packed streets, tussling with rollerblading teens—and though none of the interactions lead to great fortune or revelation, they provide opportunity for Mohebali’s narrative techniques to come alive. In her helpful translator’s note, Mariam Rahmani mentions Mohebali’s use of repetition, wondering if English audiences will see the device as “lazy and lowly,” while defending the technique as “well respected in the Farsi canon, perhaps because of the way couplets historically lean on conjugated verbs for easy rhymes.” Indeed, the repetition in Mohebali’s prose is anything but lazy, building a rhythm for Shadi’s day, adding beats to the frenetic nature of each scene, and at times signaling similarities between characters. For example, nearly everyone—prosperous, tragic, sober, drugged, human, canine—climbs stairs “two by two.” Shadi also describes various men in the novel, including Arash, as possessing “jackal-jawed smile[s],” a recurrence that comes to signify a certain breed of young men, desperate for attention and keen on playing the role of tough guys. 

Moreover, Shadi’s repetitions feel at times like old jokes, balms in a world gone out of control. She numbers her cargo pant pockets (“I take a pack of cigarettes out of pocket #206,” “I reach into pocket #304,” “I extract my phone from pocket #206”) as if she doubled as a secret agent. She refers to nonsense versions of Newton’s laws, from “think not when coming down for thou thinkst out of thine ass” to “thou shalt keep thy lighter within a half-meter radius at all times” that she confuses as the hours tick by, asking herself “Which one of Newton’s laws was it that says keep your cigarette and lighter within thirty centimeters at all times?” Considering her external disposition is one of disinterest—in her family, in whether Ashkan lives or dies, in the hostility she witnesses in public—it’s these patterned internal asides that shed light on Shadi’s true nature. 

Perhaps the most effective of these digressions drops humor almost entirely for sentimentality couched in criticism. Though she rarely utters a kindness aloud, Shadi engages in jags of thoughts directly addressing other characters, using “you” in place of the target’s name. About her older brother, Bobak, Shadi thinks, “Bitch, how did you get so pretty? Too bad you’re a mama’s boy who won’t cut the cord.” While listening to Arash ramble about revolution, she thinks, “I wish you’d never grown up. I wish you didn’t have all that fuzz on your chest and cheeks and I wish I could swim with your arms clasped around my neck like old times.” And when she sees her friend, Sara, late in the novel, Shadi unloads the following:
 

Ever since first grade you’ve been there beside me. At my desk or me at yours. On the seesaw or on the swings. In the big black car that used to pick you up. Or in this very garden, playing hide-and-seek, laughing, laughing, laughing. So when did you disappear? You went to Paris then all of a sudden the sorrow of exile seized you and like a ghost you popped up in the crates of herbs and tomatoes for sale at Tajrish Square. So that I said to myself, see how all that hash is finally catching up to you? See how you’ve become melancholic and hallucinate in broad daylight? 
 

These tangents contradict Shadi’s terse verbal exchanges, and they add elements of monologue to the traditional blow-by-blow narration one might expect from the first person. They round off Shadi’s character, providing sympathy for someone who otherwise may be tough to root for, yet they also prevent her companions from knowing her deeper thoughts. The result is a double-edged sword. By novel’s end, Shadi is fully realized, but I would be lying if I said I felt the same about her co-stars. These secondary characters remain two-dimensional, left to react solely to Shadi’s sarcastic quips and verbal dodges.  

Despite this flaw, In Case of Emergency is a potent critique of contemporary life in Iran, both in its depiction of narcotic use (translator Rahmani notes that “Iran had the highest per capita opiate use in the world” at the time of the novel’s conception) and in its observations of wealth. Shadi and her well-to-do family possess the luxury of potentially abandoning Tehran for safer pastures. When Shadi sees walls of traffic attempting to leave the city, she notes the automobiles of middle- to upper-class citizens, dubbing one driver “Prince Peugeot,” and she watches a flood of women cramming into an ATM to withdraw funds, turning the machine into “a beehive.” Those left behind are a mixture of loudmouth youth like Arash, elderly people with little access to freedom, and families huddled on blankets, waiting for soldiers to hand out rations. When first published, In Case of Emergency took home a Hooshang Golshiri Literary Award—a major Iranian literary award celebrating contemporary writing—and it’s easy to see why. With its snappy tour of Tehran and engaging, complicated protagonist, the novel is hard to forget. 

© 2022 by Benjamin Woodard. All rights reserved.

from the January 2022 issue

Read more from the January 2022 issue

from the December 2021 issue

Reviewed by Elaine Margolin

Shukri Mabkhout's award winning novel shows characters attempting to navigate a society in tumult.

One gets the uneasy feeling that 59-year-old Shukri Mabkhout has been holding himself back. It might be an automatic reflex, after decades of living under tyranny in Tunisia. He is currently the director of Manouba University — where he teaches Arabic, literature, and discourse analysis — and has produced many fine works of literary criticism. Mabkhout comes off as restrained in interviews. This benign demeanor is at odds with the raging passion and rebelliousness that infiltrate the pages of his phenomenal novel, The Italian, which was released in 2015. It won the Arab Booker Prize and was temporarily banned by the UAE for unspecified official reasons. Readers will immediately grasp why his book threatened the status quo. Mabkhout has produced a stunning literary work about how it feels to live in a society that is not free. 

Mabkhout makes no such assertions about his work and downplays any autobiographical links to his story. He paints himself as an observer of sorts, claiming that he has never joined forces with any political faction. Regarding the success of his work, he has said: “The novel, for me, is a way of looking into the chaos of society even if at first glance it appears stable and coherent. The chaos described in the book is not my chaos. It is a chaos of a society in transition from one regime to another.” Yet, it is impossible not to think that many of his finely drawn, haunting characters owe something to his experiences as an intellectual in a country whose government censors any material deemed not beneficial to the running of the state.

Modern Tunisia was established in 1956, after growing pressure for independence led to the end of French colonial rule. Habib Bourguiba led the anti-colonial movement, then kept himself at the head of an authoritarian regime for the next three decades, until he was unseated in a coup in 1987 by Ben Ali, who in turn remained in power until the Arab Spring erupted, in 2011. Both regimes were oppressive police states, in which surveillance, humiliation, and paranoia were everyday affairs for those who dared to step out of place. During the past ten years, Tunisia has slowly and unevenly been moving towards democratic reforms.

Mabkhout has his narrator introduce us to the protagonist of the novel, the firebrand and leftist college activist Abdel Nasser. The narrator describes himself as timid and obedient and confesses that his friendship with Nasser was peculiar, since they were nothing alike. He says that he was always Nasser’s best friend, but there is an edginess in the prose that suggests that their relationship was not always as harmonious as it seems. He eventually concedes that he was jealous of Nasser, who he describes as wild, impetuous, handsome, and filled with boundless energy. The narrator is impressed by Nasser’s brazenness but is unable to mimic him. He cares too much about fitting in and not disappointing his parents. The action is set in the 1980s, when the two of them spent hours reading Arab and French poetry, discussing Russian writers, and listening to music.

The narrator is present when Nasser meets Zeina and falls hopelessly in love with her. She is a mysterious woman from the countryside who seems to know everything. The two debate Mao, Lenin, Bordieuan sociology, and whether they have a chance at having a life together. Nasser is certain, but Zeina hesitates, traumatized by familial episodes of rape and uncertain whether she is capable of love. Mabkhout writes luscious romantic passages that are highlighted by the aching longings of a young man who thinks he has found his soul mate. There is something about Zeina that inspires uncertainty. Even his friends at college have trouble placing her in any sort of defined context. Nasser is overwhelmed by her “green eyes, a shade of dark green made even brighter and more beautiful by their prominence. Her eyes were full of mystery, anyone who tried to focus on them would notice nuances of green that varied by the weather‑one shade for sun, another for clouds, and by the openness of the space she was in.”  

Desperate to stay together despite mounting financial strain and Zeina's desire to keep studying, Nasser takes a job at a state-run newspaper so her education can continue. The work is eye-opening for Nasser, who is suddenly forced to make concessions that he had never previously considered. He resents the setup at the newspaper, particularly how everything is gone over by several censors. Over an alcohol-fueled lunch, his boss, Si Abdel Hamid, tells him that there is no legitimate journalism in Tunisia and that all of his colleagues at the newspaper are merely tightrope walkers. Hamid says, “There’s only one source of truth in Tunisia: the state. And these days, the interior ministry is the state, and the state is the interior ministry.” He continues: “The state is the biggest lie that humanity has ever created and then believed in. The state is me. And you. And the secretary who gives me her body at the office without me asking for it, because I represent the state in her eyes.”   

His boss instructs Nasser to write an article that welcomes Ben Ali and embraces the changes he promises. He warns Nasser to keep his language neutral and not ruffle any feathers. Nasser is at first confused, but his boss clafirifes that Ben Ali’s words are just a smoke screen. Nothing will really change. The back and forth between Nasser and Hamid takes on astonishing power. We can’t imagine the Nasser we've seen throughout the novel buckling under such constricting conditions, but what choice does he really have? Mabkhout shows us the overwhelming helplessness that ransacks the ambitious souls of those who live without liberty.

Nasser is shaken and begins to drink excessively. His relationship hangs by a thread. Disillusionment sets in, as Nasser ages. As I came towards the end of this tremendously provocative work, I kept thinking of Shukri Mabkhout’s decision to write this book. It took courage for him to have published The Italian. For surely he knew what he was trying to show us. And how dangerous it was to do so. 

© 2021 by Elaine Margolin. All rights reserved.

from the December 2021 issue

Reviewed by Ben Goldman

Samar Yazbek's novel uses a memorable narrator to explore the indelibility of storytelling.


If Rima, the narrator of Samar Yazbek’s Planet of Clay, could have her way, she would not be writing her story—she would be drawing it. “Before,” she writes, referring to her life in Syria prior to its ongoing civil war, “I used to believe that drawing was more capable of expression than words.” But Rima has been relegated to an underground cellar that is her de facto trap and perhaps her salvation, a cellar that is by chance supplied with writing paper and just one blue ink pen. She has neither the luxury of choosing her medium, nor the privilege of knowing if she will ever enjoy the attentions of a reader.  Still, “there are many stories you will hear,” Rima assures her improbable, imagined reader. “If I live.” Yazbek is a storyteller of many genres, so it seems only natural that this novel should—as it closely hews to horrors as seen and understood by one set of eyes, one mind—be concerned with the earthiest of literary questions: how, really, should one go about passing on that fickle thing, a story?

Yazbek worked as a journalist and script writer for Syrian television until 2011, when she joined the protests against the Assad dictatorship in the wake of the Arab Spring. After conflicts intensified, leading Syria into a catastrophic civil war, she was forced into exile. In the last decade, she has concerned herself with telling the stories of the conflict that led her to flee her home country. Her first two books about the war were works of memoir and reportage—A Woman in The Crossfire: Diaries of the Syrian Revolution; and The Crossing: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria—for which she won the PEN/Pinter International Writer of Courage Award and the French Best Foreign Book Award. Another nonfiction work, 19 Women: Tales of Resilience from Syria, came out in 2018, but has not yet been translated into English.

“What is happening in Syria,” Yazbek said in a 2015 interview, “is like being trapped down a deep, dark tunnel where you can see no way out.” In Planet of Clay, Yazbek makes the tunnel Rima’s cellar. Before her imprisonment, she is young but on the way to womanhood, silent except when reciting the Quran, and given to ambulatory excess—to keep her from wandering off, because she is believed to be mentally ill, her mother ties one of Rima’s wrists to her own with a cord. Rima offers a double-edged perspective: she is in the midst of events but also, at first, unaware of the world shifting, shaking, shattering just out of sight.

Rima chooses to begin her compelling if unevenly told tale just when her life of a bookish, oblivious teenager turns hellish: “Life seemed to be snapping at our heels,” she writes. One innocuous day, on the way to visit a librarian who long nourished her imagination with books—particularly Alice in Wonderland and The Little Prince, from which this book gets its title—Syria’s war finds her. At one of the checkpoints that dot Damascus, a scuffle ensues, Rima’s mother is killed (“my mother disappeared”), and Rima, shot in the shoulder and imprisoned in a so-called hospital, is witness to scenes and figures hued with Kafkaesque tones. Yazbek has expressed admiration for the Czech writer, but while Kafka renders his horrors as surrealistic, individualized tortures, Yazbek’s are experienced en masse, and grounded in the real recent past. Part of the point is that for all her idiosyncrasies, Rima’s fate, though it might be called random, is not idiosyncratic.

And the novel’s hallucinogenic horrors stem from a real source. The most affecting pages strikingly describe the aftermath of a sarin gas attack that nearly costs Rima her life. It is a scene that might be nominally familiar to anyone reading newspapers around 2013, rendered with unusual creative intensity:

There was a room soaked in water and we were swimming in it like paintings, and there were souls rising to heaven, children and women and men, more children and women than men. I was able to tell the souls apart from each other.

One of the book’s central questions is how to write out something you’ve experienced—imagine it out so that others may understand it, feel it, even live it. “I hear the roar of the plane,” Rima comments, “but that can’t be seen on the page.” Meanwhile, description is inadequate, too: “Is there a phrase that can describe the color that the chemical bombs left behind them?” At one point in Rima’s narration, which moves between telling the tale of her eventual entrapment in her cellar and her more associative ruminations, she speaks of an ambition she once had “to write and illustrate a long novel,” stating that “the right moment for turning these words into drawings is coming.” 

Since Rima speaks to the difficulty of understanding “bare words without turning them into pictures,” one wonders what these illustrations might look like. When Rima does try to draw through her words, it leads to some of the book’s more strained writing, here about Rima’s infatuation for the man who saved her life during the sarin attack: 

I am writing about Hassan for you, and I am observing the flies around me, coming out of the fish in my head. . . . Imagine me watching the flies all around me, and thinking there is a fish jumping between my ribs, and suddenly a fish shape wearing a rabbit skin leaps out from my chest and comes to rest! Drawing is better than words. If I had my paints, I could make you understand me much more clearly.

That this passage ends on a note of defeat evinces one of the risks of trying to turn thought and feeling into expression, but certainly our narrator knows that the greatest danger to storytelling, beyond not being understood, is that of not being believed: “Don’t think that what you are reading is a novel. What I’m writing is the truth.” This is curious, though not necessarily contradictory, in a sometimes discursive novel obsessed with the imaginary. But if Rima were real, if what we were holding in our hands is the compilation of all her scattered pages found and preserved, then we, the readers, might be nothing short of the final act of her attempted sorcery, the kind of figures that Rima’s highly active imagination would have committed to the page if only she had lived in a different world, on a different planet. Samar Yazbek has written a novel that, while sometimes frustrating or overwrought, nonetheless manages to speak to the urgency of telling and listening to the most vulnerable of stories—stories by people who in other circumstances might have had more than one story to tell.

 

© 2021 by Ben Goldman. All rights reserved.

from the December 2021 issue

Read more from the December 2021 issue
from the December 2021 issue

Read more from the December 2021 issue
from the December 2021 issue

Estadísticas

Trescientos ochenta y un metros, ciento dos plantas y seis mil quinientas ventanas. Se sabe que más de dos millones y medio de personas visitan cada año el Empire State Building. Un promedio de ochenta y siete parejas al mes se comprometen en su observatorio. Se calcula que la dimensión de un anillo de compromiso es directamente proporcional a la infelicidad de los contrayentes. Tres de cada diez mujeres de entre veinticuatro y treinta años de edad y de visita en Nueva York durante un fin de semana confirman que el tamaño importa. Es conocido que el edificio posee mil quinientos setenta y seis escalones y que los ascensores casi nunca se estropean. Se tardan siete minutos y treinta cuatro segundos caminando del vestíbulo a la estación de metro. Un individuo y su recién prometida pueden llegar a cruzarse con doscientas catorce personas entre la Quinta y la Séptima Avenida. El metro de la ciudad está considerado el más sucio de este mundo y de otros universos paralelos. Recientemente, el número de quejas por la plaga de ratas ascendió a veinticuatro mil ciento ochenta y seis. En una mala noche, el vagón de tren de la línea roja necesita más de media hora para aparecer y no menos de veintidós minutos al peregrinar por once estaciones hacia el sur de Manhattan. En ocasiones, el ruido de las vías alcanza ciento seis decibelios. Más de dieciocho mil cámaras de seguridad de la Policía de la Ciudad de Nueva York captan miles de imágenes por segundo. La nueva terminal de Whitehall cuenta con cinco escaleras mecánicas y veintiocho bancos de granito. El Ferry de Staten Island transporta a más de sesenta y seis mil personas cada día. En invierno, el viento sobrepasa con frecuencia los setenta kilómetros por hora, la sensación térmica roza los veinticinco grados bajo cero y la niebla del trayecto nocturno puede ocultar los noventa y tres metros de la Estatua de la Libertad. Nueve personas han caído al agua en circunstancias extrañas desde comienzos de año. Tres de cada diez mujeres de entre veinticuatro y treinta años de edad y de visita en Nueva York durante un fin de semana nunca aprendieron a nadar. Se calcula que dentro del Río Hudson el peso de un anillo de compromiso es inversamente proporcional a las posibilidades de salvación.

 

© Álvaro Baquero-PecinoOriginally published in Los bárbaros. All rights reserved.

Read more from the December 2021 issue
from the December 2021 issue

Read more from the December 2021 issue
from the December 2021 issue

Read more from the December 2021 issue
from the December 2021 issue

Read more from the December 2021 issue
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.