In humorous and reflective brief notes, Laia Jufresa records daily life in quarantine in Edinburgh.
My daughter is a doctor. A dragon doctor. I know this because she tells me every day, all day long, and has been doing so for a month, ever since the nurseries closed. Her conviction wavers only occasionally, when she asks: Mamá, where can I find a real dragon? She says this in Spanish, but puts the words “real dragon” in the English order: adjective, noun. When she speaks, she does so mainly in Spanglish. Since she is three years old and I have absolutely no ambition to be a teacher, my only mission during quarantine is to correct her Spanish. Her father’s mission is to take her out in the sun once a day (“sun,” here in Scotland, is relative. Let’s call it “the fresh air”). And so I correct her: “‘Real dragon’ is English; in Spanish we say dragón real.” “No,” she insists, annoyed, “this is another kind of real dragon, this is a real-real dragon.” “Oh, OK,” I say, and I am content with this.
I promised myself I wouldn’t use the first-person plural to talk to my daughter. It’s a promise I break every single day, generally first thing in the morning. She gets into our bed really early and after just a few minutes I’m already at it: “We don’t kick! We don’t scratch! No, no, we don’t fart in people’s faces, damn it!”
We don’t know if she became a doctor because she thought that this way, we’d let her leave the house. These days, we only listen to the news with headphones on, just in case. As I give her breakfast, I listen with one ear to the BBC’s Coronavirus Newscast. I promised myself that this would be my only source of pandemic information, and I devour it early so that, by nine o’clock, I will have moved on from a state of global depression and be ready to carry out my maternal duties or, if it’s my turn on that particular day, to shut myself away in the study to work. This is another promise I break every single day.
In the UK at the time of writing, we are allowed out once a day to exercise. When I go out on my own, I run (this is relative; let’s say that I trot). When I go out with my daughter, I herd her along, trying to keep her two meters away from anyone who approaches. I try to do it nicely (just as, when we hear an ambulance, we chant “neeee-nawww, neeee-nawww,” and do a little dance), but I can’t do it. After just a couple of streets I’m already at it: “No, we don’t go up close to people!”
In Edinburgh’s Surgeons’ Hall Museums, which I used to pass on the bus every day but which now seem incredibly remote because they're not in my neighborhood, I once heard something that changed forever my idea of the past, like when a cousin takes some old negatives to be developed and you realize that, way back in 1950, your grandmother was painting her nails a bright shade of ’80s orange. What I heard was this: Before the invention of anesthetic, hospitals were the noisiest places in the world.
Friends in big cities write to me: “The silence—it’s incredible!” Friends in other big cities say: “The sound of ambulances is unbearable!” Sometimes, friends who live in different areas of the same big city say both of these things to me. Their perception, I suppose, is simply and directly related to how close they live to a hospital. In a silenced city, hospitals and their tentacles become the epicenters of noise once more.
I have noticed that when I go out for a trot, if someone doesn’t respect the two-meter rule and there’s no space for me to step out of the way, I hold my breath. This has absolutely zero scientific basis, but I can’t help it. And I have a hunch that I’m not alone. There must be millions of us around the world all doing it. It’s a new syndrome. Involuntary Apnea Due to Human Proximity.
Never have there been so many of us in the first-person plural. Not because the virus brings us together, of course, or because it is a leveler—quite the opposite. But never have so many of us been living through such a similar situation at the same time in so many places. How’s it going? I write to a Brazilian friend after a decade without any news from her. How are you coping? I write to a friend in India who I haven’t seen for fifteen years. They all reply, they all know what I’m talking about. Never have preambles been so unnecessary.
I emerge from the living room to investigate a sound. It’s my daughter, who is holding an unidentified pink plastic object. I have no idea where it came from—probably the charity shop where I sometimes buy us toys for fifty pence. Then I recognize it: it’s for giving massages. But she is holding it with both hands, sending it zigzagging down the hallway. Away! she orders it. Away from the coronavirus!
Similarly, never have so many of us fitted into our apartment. We are three real people, but many more real-real people. Most of them we’ve known since before the pandemic. Cara, for instance, has been living with us for over a year. At first, her being everywhere made me uncomfortable. I asked the nursery teacher if she thought it was normal for a two-year-old girl to have such concrete imaginary friends. She told me that in twenty years on the job she hadn’t seen anything like it, but that it certainly wasn’t abnormal. I am content with this. But three weeks into quarantine, I start feeling uncomfortable again when invisible versions of real friends start showing up. I contact their parents. We set up a few disastrous video calls with our kids.
One day I’m having breakfast standing up, purely so I can warm my buttocks on the radiator, and suddenly I notice my daughter staring curiously at me over her banana yogurt. What are you doing? she asks. Damn it, she’s caught me talking to myself. I ad lib: I’m talking to Cara’s mom. She is content with this.
As a kid, I was jealous of the children who had imaginary friends, so I pretended I had a few of my own. I now know that what I did was cheating. My daughter’s imaginary friends are real; mine were fictional. They still are. I don’t know how old I was when I started speaking to real-real people all day long. But I do know what time it is, in normal, non-pandemic life, when I go from the news to my novel, from my daughter to my characters. It’s a transition that starts as soon as her father takes her to the nursery. But now: how am I going to make that transition properly with all of us stuck in the same freaking house?
I find it amusing that, in between my greatest horror (at the dead and the sick, at the many crises that are yet to come) and my minor horrors (at growing fat in lockdown, or that we run out of wine or toilet roll), there is an intermediate horror. Not that my family might intrude while I’m writing my novel, but that they might actually intrude into the novel itself. It hasn’t even happened yet and already I’m at it: No, no—we don’t write autofiction, damn it!
I find my daughter sticking band-aids onto the pink object. It’s my dragon, she informs me: it’s got an ouchie. My enthusiasm is genuine: now the real-real dragon is really real! It has grown a body. End of the ontological muddle. Perhaps the best fifty pence I’ve ever spent.
As far as I can understand, the current muddle is epidemiological, but also systemic, epistemic, statistical, geopolitical, and economic. Ethical, at times. Epic, every day. But not ontological. The virus is. And, faced with this clarity, our sense of the following grows hazy: that which should have been, that which isn’t so, and that which will be.
Scotland’s First Minister recently gave a press conference in which she, unlike the government in Westminster, highlighted the importance of transparency. And so, with total transparency and treating us—in her own words—as grown-ups, she told us that the most certain thing is that all bets are off.
In August—perhaps; all bets are off—my daughter will start school. She’ll go to the tuition-free school over the road, which is not an English-language school but a Scots Gaelic one; Gaelic is a Celtic language that, at least in my head, sounds like Tolkien’s Elvish. I only know how to say “Thank you” in Scots Gaelic. But in week four of lockdown I tell myself that’s enough of correcting Spanish, and I start to look for Gaelic lessons. My daughter must feel like she’s at the end of her tether, too, because after finishing a video call with one of her little friends, she yells furiously: I want to see REAL people!
My first great love began in a chatroom. When I say “research,” I’m generally talking about googling something. I feel closer to the friends I write emails to than those who are near me. But it still sends me into a panic imagining that my daughter might start school online. This disdain for the internet makes me feel real, but in a way that is slightly moralizing. My addiction to the internet, meanwhile, also makes me feel real, but in a way that is more precarious, more basic. More human?
I have also noticed, on my walks, that people who are out there chatting to really real people arouse suspicion. Did they arrange to meet up despite the rules against seeing your friends? Because, if they do live together, what could they possibly have to say to each other at this stage of quarantine? It’s an age-old syndrome. Defamation Due to Envy.
What are you playing? my husband asks, sticking his head around the kitchen door. We’re repeating impossible sounds in front of a YouTube video. We’re counting in garlic! my daughter says. Gaelic, I correct her, without the “r.” How do you say “seven”? her father asks. Tap-la, I say, and he is content with this. (But tap-la means thank you, and I have no idea how you spell it.)
It occurs to me that being a writer of fiction requires a constant oscillation between fascination for and repulsation toward really real people.
If my daughter had used this phrase, I would have told her, “No, we don’t say ‘repulsation.’” I wouldn’t be able to say, “It’s a verb, not a noun,” because those are the lyrics of Ricardo Arjona’s hit ballad “Jesus is a verb, not a noun,” and it really sets off my cheesometer. But my daughter doesn’t say “repulsation.” My daughter can’t pronounce her r’s. Or, as my friends (who these days gather around their screens on Zoom as religiously as they used to gather around the bar) never tire of saying: She talks like a gringa.
The scales of her bilingualism tip up or down depending on which grandmother she has Skyped with most recently. If we hear her exclaim: Oh, dear! in English, it means she’s just spoken to my mother-in-law. If, after telling one of her stories, she ends it with, “That’s not true, I was just pulling your leg” in Spanish, it means she has been talking to my mother and so is using the very Mexican “nomás andaba vacilando.” Her sense of identity varies, too. She goes from “I’m such a vaciladora” to “I’m so silly.” It’s impossible to know what she’ll say about herself when she learns Gaelic. It makes me very wistful knowing that I won’t be able to understand her.
I’m not interested in baking pandemic bread. The sudden urge to plant tomatoes leaves me cold. I feel nothing but bemusement at all the people engaged in feverish spring cleaning. But not recording everything in written form at this moment in time does makes me feel guilty. As it always has. When I was pregnant, I felt bad for not describing my own bodily changes. Ever since I gave birth, I have lived with the guilt of not writing down what my daughter says, of not filling up notebooks with my reflections on motherhood. I’m embarrassed that I don’t think anything at all about motherhood (it’s a verb, not a noun). Now, I feel guilty for not keeping a quarantine diary. Or perhaps I just feel wistful because I won’t be able to understand myself.
This is what I know about the spring of 2020, thanks to the daily glimpse we are allowed: At the start of lockdown, there were no flowers. The flowers came out. The flowers are beginning to drop.
My cheesometer is switched off on Thursday nights, at 8:00 PM on the dot. This is the time when, here in the UK, we open our windows and doors—me wrapped in a duvet—and clap and cheer for the National Health Service until we’re hoarse. Not even soccer triggers my sense of Mexican nationalism; not even the Queen’s speech reversed my anti-imperialist streak; and yet, every Thursday without fail, the clap for carers and the NHS breaks me. I want to believe that this emotion isn’t patriotism, but rather something closer to humanism, or universalism. That we’re clapping for all the doctors and nurses in the world. That we’re harnessing the noise, alleviating, for a nanosecond, the hospitals’ burden. But who knows: we’ve already seen how health systems actually make more visible the differences and borders between people. And just to add to my doubts, there are the bagpipes. Out in the street, one of our neighbors, fastidiously attired in tartan kilt, plays hers at full volume (there is no other way to play the bagpipes) for around ten minutes and this, I am sure, helps us keep the applause going for longer, as well as magnifying all the emotion stirred up by the ritual. That’s when I wonder whether Scottish nationalism hasn’t gotten into me by osmosis, or the way a virus gets into you, when your guard’s down. And I also wonder whether we don’t all, in part, come from the place where our children grow up. If we aren’t all, or won’t end up being, partly, from the place where we spent quarantine. This is an identitary muddle. But not—at least for as long as the place we are in is the place where we’re meant to stay put—a logistical one.
When, in the future, my daughter asks me what we did in the days of the coronavirus, I’ll show her this text. It’s a real-real diary, I will say. And she will be content with that.
“Real dragón real” © Laia Jufresa, originally published in the Revista de la Universidad de México. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Rosalind Harvey. All rights reserved.
A deceased character writes his memoirs from beyond the grave in this sui generis classic by the Brazilian master, now published in two new editions that take divergent paths to convey its peculiar combination of "the pen of mirth" and "the ink of melancholy."
It is not every season that two new translations of a major work of Western literature appear simultaneously, yet that is precisely what has occurred with the 2020 summer catalog and the publication of fresh English-language versions of the Portuguese-language original of Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas (1881), by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1839–1908). Machado was the founding president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters and, more importantly, is widely considered to be the foremost author of prose fiction in nineteenth-century Latin America, if not of all epochs. Brás Cubas was a pivotal event in his career, as it marked a departure from the conventional narrative of his early Romantic novels toward a sui generis “realism” that not only set him apart in the Brazil of the time but also singled him out amongst most of his contemporaries anywhere in the world. The temporal coincidence and shared literary interest invite comparison of, and provoke curiosity about, the attractive dual offerings, allowing us a new look into this major work.
Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, a young North American scholar-translator now residing in Rio de Janeiro, has launched a highly touted annotated edition for the Penguin Classics series, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, whilst the UK duo of Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson have released Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas with Liveright. These translations have been preceded, in previous decades, by three other Anglophone renditions. The title of the first translation was—one still wonders why—Epitaph of a Small Winner (1952), by William Grossman (d. 1980), whose brief introduction presented the grand metafiction of Machado de Assis to English-language readers. A 1991 reissue featured a critical assessment by Susan Sontag. A scarcely known second translation was done, as Posthumous Reminiscences of Braz Cubas, by E. Percy Ellis for the Brazilian Book Institute (1955), which did not distribute effectively. The third was a prestigious university-press endeavor: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (Oxford, 1997) by Gregory Rabassa (d. 2014), the beloved doyen of translation of Latin American letters. This inaugural volume of a series of new translations of the fiction of Machado includes a sharp preface by a resident scholar in the USA and a longer critical afterword by a Brazilian colleague.
As an annotated translation, the present Penguin title compares to its Oxford antecedent in academic aim. The foreword by writer Dave Eggers, heavily excerpted on the New Yorker’s website, is “writerly” and confirms that he, though an admitted latecomer to Machado, quite smartly grasps the master’s essential mix of humor and philosophical melancholy. Translator Thomson-DeVeaux has Ivy League pedigree (a BA from Princeton and a PhD from Brown) and a contagious love for Machado’s novel, the topic of her doctoral dissertation. She began recasting cited passages of Machado in English while translating a critical monograph on the author by a leading Brazilian critic, João Cezar de Castro Rocha (Machado de Assis: Toward a Poetics of Emulation, Michigan State University Press). Her Penguin introduction, notes on the translation and endnotes, and the extensive endnotes themselves are all delightful. She really did her homework and demonstrates a true dedication to her purpose. At Brown she had access to a Machado archive bequeathed by the aforementioned Grossman. Thomson-DeVeaux compares her work passim with her forerunners, sometimes in exquisite detail, so we witness the nitty-gritty of professional literary translation. One significant point that she rightly highlights is that her version maintains the page breaks for all chapters, per the original periodical installments and as in Brazilian first editions. No one else does that. And given the typographical play in the book, it does make a difference. Mise-en-page obtains from start to finish.
The Liveright remake is a four-handed affair in British English. The venerable lead translator, Margaret Jull Costa (b. 1949), has a hundred works of translation behind her, several prizes, and a young mentee, Robin Patterson, devotee of letters. Together they have recently published the collected stories of Machado de Assis, so they were certainly in the groove. There’s not much front or back matter in this newest effort, though the translators’ introduction provides a good idea of what readers have in their hands; it is complemented by a brief author biography and limited footnotes. Therein lies the principal difference from the Penguin counterpart; the Liveright translation, as a non-university-press title, is much less concerned with paratextual extras, which are more or less valuable depending on given consumers’ concerns and preferences.
And how did we come to have dual releases? Both publishers have New York and London offices, but there are separate North American and British/Commonwealth markets to which to appeal. Machado’s reputation has been growing steadily, so acquisition editors in both cities are surely more agreeable than ever. The author is in the public domain, meaning that there are no worries about bidding or estate permission. For whatever reason, the mutual sense that it was time to take advantage is to the benefit of us, we the Anglophone readers of the world.
The original text has 160 chapters, of one to six pages each. An initial “To the reader” note asks whether the book is a novel or not. There commences the extremely metaliterary aspect of the memoirs. Models are invoked—Sterne, Xavier de Maistre, the ingenious Portuguese Romantic Garrett—and a parade of legion allusions begins. In this regard, Thomson-DeVeaux’s notes are quite beneficial. Machado’s chapters are written with “the pen of mirth” and “the ink of melancholy,” and that tricky balance is the principal challenge for the translators, who overall have answered the call admirably. There is one imperfection to flag, however. At the end of chapter one, the narrator refers to his own idea for an anti-melancholy poultice as “útil” (useful), which the UK translators render as “futile,” an unfortunate inversion that could affect interpretation.
The narrator is chatty, wandering, unpredictable. There is more commentary than diegetic action, old-time discursive narration. At the outset, one wonders: when does the story start? It will tell of birth, growth, dalliances, decadence, and death, with a bit of bildungsroman and abundant comedy of manners. Self-referentiality and gamesomeness abound. A “chapter” on Adam and Eve is all ellipses and marks (! ?); another is nothing but lines of periods (......). A key segment is called “The flaw in the book” [Thomson-DeVeaux], or “The problem with this book” [Jull Costa and Patterson] (The original “senão” has also been translated as “defect”).
This story of a man incapable of committing to love, career, or straightforward language has endless postmortem speculations, especially about text-making. One commentator says there are so many that the reader loses count. But not the perspicacious critic. In Machado de Assis and Narrative Theory: Language, Imitation, Art, and Verisimilitude in the Last Six Novels (Bucknell University Press, 2019), Earl E. Fitz dedicates chapter one to Brás Cubas and the beginnings of Machado’s auto-aware “new narrative.” He counts eighteen chapters in which the author-narrator speaks of his original way of writing. This is the ultimate “self-conscious novel” by Machado. The word “author” appears seven times, “writing” eleven, and “reader” forty-eight. Indicative counts.
Three instances of comparative translation will illustrate what may distinguish these two versions, and previous ones as well. Brás Cubas’s quick opening address to readers ends with a piparote. Translators render this gesture as a snap of the fingers, with the single exception of Thomson-DeVeaux. In a note, she cites the closest historical equivalent, “fillip,” but explains that the word is unfamiliar and that “flick” would be best. Indeed, this word better communicates the dismissive attitude in play. This is an example of her capturing of subtlety praised in expert endorsements. The organizational conceit of the novel is that the author/memorialist/narrator is dead, writing from the grave. Thus, in the initial chapter, he must explain his unusual condition. In the original: “eu não sou propriamente um autor defunto, mas um defunto autor.” A literal, etymologically biased, unidiomatic gloss: I am not properly an author [who is] defunct, but a defunct [who is an] author. How to capture this clever capsule in modern English with a nineteenth-century feel? Grossman wrote: “I am a deceased writer not in the sense of one who has written and is now deceased, but in the sense of one who has died and is now writing.” This rendering communicates the idea but sacrifices any pretense to concision. For his part, Rabassa translated with necessary noun clauses: “I am not exactly a writer who is dead but a dead man who is a writer.” Certainly a shorter and sweeter option. Thomson-DeVeaux footnotes, with reason, the whole affair and offers: “I am not exactly an author recently deceased but a deceased man recently an author.” “Deceased” as a vocabular selection is closer to “defunto,” while “recently,” though apt, is an add-on. Finally, Jull Costa and Patterson write: “I am not so much a writer who has died, as a dead man who has decided to write.” Their volitional attribution, again, fits perfectly but is the translators’ decision, not strictly a semanteme in the source passage. These comparisons should give readers an idea of the kind of difficulties that all the translators might come up against.
Another quite telling locution is the novel’s last line, often cited to demonstrate Machado’s pessimism. “Não tive filhos, não transmiti a nenhuma criatura o legado de nossa miséria.” Grossman: “I had no progeny, I transmitted to no one the legacy of our misery.” Rabassa: “I had no children, I haven’t transmitted the legacy of our misery to any creature.” Jull Costa and Patterson: “I did not have children, and thus did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery.” Thomson-DeVeaux: “I had no children; I did not bequeath to any creature the legacy of our misery.” If the very last word carries most weight, then any pessimistic interpretation would prefer “misery” to be that word, as four of the translators have done. The word “misery,” by the way, appears ten times in the course of the memoirs. Another question here is the relative effect of “transmit” and “bequeath.” The latter is one of the acceptations of the original verb (Machado’s sentence is even so cited in the Aurelião, Brazil’s standard dictionary), and it puts an accent on the idea of a doomed property inheritance, but “transmit” has the advantage of association with the passing on of disease as well, which fits the joco-somber mood.
Far be it from me to end on a down note like that, so let’s celebrate the enormous progress present in the appearance of two finely crafted translations of Machado’s brilliant proto- modernist text. Back in the 1980s, a young professor in the USA specialized in the Brazilian master’s fiction submitted a related article of criticism to an academic journal. They wrote back praising the quality of the study but rejecting the submission because the subject was an “unknown author.” That reaction does not speak very well to the broad comparative knowledge of the editors involved, but is perfectly indicative of the situation at the time. Just imagine sending in a study of a work by Cervantes, Flaubert, James, Kafka, Borges—all of whom have been invoked by leading writers in recent years to try to convey a notion of Machado’s deserved stature—only to have it returned for the judges’ lack of familiarity with the universally recognized author under scrutiny. For Machado, the turning point in international awareness and appreciation was the brilliant 1990 piece by Sontag in the New Yorker, reprinted as a foreword to the Grossman reissue. The current volumes cite all sorts of praise for Machado, who should grow even more with these welcome additions to the bibliography. The Liveright version comprises a trade title, not a university press book, as the Oxford volume was in 1997. Thomson-DeVeaux’s, based on a thesis, is an anomaly, a trade title with all the marks of an edited critical edition. It seems we readers can have the best of both worlds: a British release by a top name in the field of Spanish/Portuguese translation and her accomplished partner, and a North American translation by a newcomer with superb talents who researches and writes as if she were a seasoned veteran. Potential clients and readers should not think in terms of choosing one or the other: they should simply go for both. Double your pleasure. You can never have too much Machado de Assis, in originals or in winning translations.
A gender transition unites a mother and daughter in this poem by Giovanna Cristina Vivinetto.
When I was born my mother
gave me an ancient gift,
the gift of the mystic Tiresias:
to change sex once in my life.
Even from my first wails she understood
that my growth would be
a rebellion to come unstuck from my flesh
a fratricidal fight between spirit
and skin. An annihilation.
So she gave me her clothes,
her shoes, her lipstick;
she said: “Take these, my son,
become what you are
if what you are you can’t have been.”
I became a mystic, another Tiresias.
I practiced the art of clairvoyance,
became a sorceress, a witch, a woman
and I surrendered to the whisper of the body
—succumbed to its feminine seduction.
It was then that my mother
lived on in me, made me
younger daughter of my time,
time in which one can thrive so long
as they wander in circles, blind
—so long as they hide, just like Tiresias,
a mystery they can’t speak.
"Quando nacqui mia madre" © Giovanna Cristina Vivinetto. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Danielle Pieratti. All rights reserved.
In echoes of the Kafka text from which this poem takes its name, a queer man longs to confront his homophobic father for a lifetime of injury in this poem by Berlin-based writer and artist Ricardo Domeneck.
Now that my lord
more closely resembles a hunk
of meat with two eyes
turned toward the dark ceiling
from the gurney where likely
you will not die alone
only because not even able
to swallow your saliva
yourself in the company
of this tube alone
that feeds you
I ask myself
if mother's ban
to my lord the amorous habits
of my mucous membranes
is still in place
and if indeed you would love me
the less you knew about
how much rubbing they'd already had
that did not befit them
biological or religious
-ly and also if
you would want for your boyess
the death you wished
on so many of my kind
when they appeared on screen
on Globo Record
Manchete or SBT
which always constituted
your umbilical connection
and if indeed you would
make come upon them
by the violence
of your raging slurs
typical of a macho man
born in a remote town
in this country of machos
remote and broken
in their false pride
believing that a father
is he who crams
refrigerators full and does
not let the table want for
food to nourish
the same mucous membranes
in which your blood
but not your God
and now in this broken gurney
your brain all veins
like rivulets bent on
outside the lines
if my lord
I still ask myself
if you would welcome
me as meekly
as you accept a kiss
on the forehead from
who is nothing more
than your own image
and likeness inverted
a mirror such
as reflects opposites
of gender and religion
or the cartoon
from my childhood
of a Hall of Justice
where on a screen
you could watch
a world gone wrong
and if the Father and father
one created by the norms
of Biology and Religion
yet later corrected
after flaunting the laws
the Father and the father
impose on us in the science
of being all of us flawed
on this Earth where procreating
is so common
it brings pleasure
not at all and I look at
with these pupils
that maybe never
reflect the Father
but now see the father
also a hunk
with two eyes
for at least I can
say there is
no more time
and even still
for conflicted fear
of possibly shaking
a rudimentary system
holding up this house
holding up this room
holding up this borrowed
I once again
"Carta ao pai" © Ricardo Domeneck. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Hilary Kaplan. All rights reserved.
Mutsuo Takahashi admires the ancient Greeks’ innocence and lack of shame about their bodies in this short poem.
In Olympia, young men do not wear a single thread
In Pythia, in Isthmia, and in Nemea too
In every gymnasium in every small town
They’re as naked as the day they were born
It’s because they were born this way
They’re honest and upright, not the least bit lewd
Like the Greek summer sky,
Pure and fresh, a model of health itself
What made them so obscene were the girders
Supporting the eyes of those who watched
Girders that came from the deserts to the east
Crossing the seas with warm winds
Sent by a narrow-minded god
Jealous of purity and hating health
"裸身礼讃" from Only Yesterday. © Mutsuo Takahashi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jeffrey Angles. All rights reserved.
A man wanders through Tokyo’s gay and lesbian district in this poem by Mutsuo Takahashi.
Not lustful Socrates, nor Plato
Not Xenophon, just a plain pederast
I wandered through the nighttime labyrinth of Ni-Chōme’s1 Athens
Sharing with young men encountered there, not dialogues, not sweet nothings
Not delirious ravings, just plain hot breath—however
The wisdom gathered from those wanderings is far deeper
Than that of ancient Greece, or at least, it is filled
With far more tender shadows, or at least, that
Is my excuse now
1 Translator’s note: With literally hundreds of gay and lesbian bars crammed together in several city blocks, Shinjuku Ni-Chōme has the highest concentration of queer gathering places anyplace in Japan. ↩
"贈物" from Only Yesterday. © Mutsuo Takahashi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jeffrey Angles. All rights reserved.
After returning home from gender-affirmation surgery, a patient navigates a new existence where the physical and emotional are laid bare in this poem by Mariana Spada.
After ten days in the hospital
the apartment is a desolate labyrinth
a power outage as you shower in the dark
gingerly probing at the new parts of your body
the gaping wound and novel brush
of flesh-folds in the open air.
With no false glow to cover it
the remnants of the evening disappear
and somewhere in between the promise and the certainty of rain
the bounds of things
—all things, including you—
are blurred, while in the courtyard’s trapezoid
orbiting flies hover around
the bright swell of the garbage bag
like a squadron of helicopters
awaiting orders, preparing themselves.
"Post-op" © Mariana Spada. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Robin Myers. All rights reserved.
With every line of this laborious novel, the Palestinian writer explores how war and conflict occur on the level of narrative, history, and the individual psyche. The result is an accumulation of details that store the trauma of those whose screams hang in the air of the past.
This is the second 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, or have a look at the first installment in the series, Meyer's review of Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero.
When discussing her latest novel, Minor Detail, Palestinian author Adania Shibli can’t hide her excitement at the mention of language—her eyes widen and lighten up, as does her smile—a language in pursuit of which she spent at least a decade of her life. That’s how long it has taken to complete this short novel, her third work of fiction. During her absence, Shibli was working on growing her theoretical and research approaches to support her grand quest for a language of life under occupation. Minor Detail has been tagged, by reviewers and her publisher, as a “war novel” or classified under “Israeli-Arab conflict,” yet it takes only a few pages for the reader to realize how stereotypically lazy such labels are. If anything, Shibli makes it clear, with every line of her laborious novel, how war and conflict occur on the level of narrative, history, and the individual psyche.
The novel begins in the summer of 1949 in the Negev desert. Narrated in a distant third person, the first part of the novel follows Israeli soldiers as they set out on a mission to clear the area of roaming Arabs to make room for a new settlement. In one attack, they murder dozens of Bedouins and their animals, and capture a teenage girl, who then becomes the center of the story. Although her destiny might be predictable in context, the unfolding of her tragic story is where Shibli throws in all her weight, producing a piece of political fiction that stands out in contemporary Arabic literature.
The power of Shibli’s craft lies in the way she replaces voice with language, bypassing the search for the subaltern’s voice. Fiction writers tend to get lost in this pursuit; to “speak for” the victim, to resurrect her, to narrate from the point of view of the marginalized. Shibli makes no attempt to turn the victim into a hero, to suspiciously grant her a generous space. She is instead interested in amplifying the ease and silence surrounding the crime by playing on the distant voice, unnamed characters, and an hour-by-hour account.
He went on spraying her, arching his body to avoid the water flying in every direction, and circled around her, aiming the water first at her stomach, then her head, her back, her legs, and her feet, where grains of sand stuck to her skin, then at her torso again. And after he had soaked her completely, when every part of her was drenched, he convered the nozzle with his thumb, then turned to the crowd of soldiers circled around him and told the first one his gaze fell on to bring him a bar of soap immediately. The soldiers glanced at each other, and at the girl curled into a ball on the sand, shivering, until the soap arrived, and it slid from the soldier’s palm, to his palm, to the sand at her feet.
The work gives focus to the ways that language and space can interplay to strip everything naked. For example, in the first half, Shibli borrows an almost journalistic voice to follow an Israeli soldier whose enemies are both the native Bedouins and their ecology. We see him struggle to keep his body alive and clean, complaining of the heat and dust. The plot does not reveal itself right away, but the reader can already infer, from the soldier’s repetitive movements between tent and car, that something about his presence is invasive.
He had not slept for long, at least not enough for the shadows to recede and expose more sand. He turned and went back inside, then began circling the room, combing the walls and corners and ceiling with his eyes. He caught the movement of three delicate spiders, which he crushed at once with his hand.
In the first half of the book, Elisabeth Jaquette experiments with a number of approaches to Shibli’s careful language and prose. First, you read the long sentences divided by commas—a structure that is logical in Arabic but strange in English, since in Arabic a full stop signals a complete thought. Punctuation is used in the first pages to establish the setting, with commas and abrupt sentences capturing the remote place and its rigid protagonist, whose inner thoughts we never hear. As the novel becomes more focused on the soldier, the syntax changes to condensed sentences, mostly in the simple past tense, so as to stay faithful to the novel’s distancing between reader and event. It marks the place of the past, of official history and how it presents itself—cold-blooded and self-assured.
Minor Detail is rather a novel of minor details, an accumulation of details that store the trauma of those whose screams hang in the air of the past. Shibli startles you with her meticulous weaving of certain elements, such as an obsession for cleanliness, the scents of sweat and gas, the cries of howling dogs. The novel finds a way to disturb you by having these same elements reappear as experienced by different characters. In doing so, it creates a labyrinth in which each character echoes another, magnifying small acts and holding back from grand ones, shifting between history and its margins. By the end of the novel, one wonders which of the two parts of the novel is a margin to the other. It also feels as if the present moment, whose events occupy the second half of the book, is but a backdrop for the past.
This second section begins with a winding first-person paragraph as the story takes a meta turn: the focus is suddenly on an unnamed novelist who finds out about the girl’s murder from a newspaper article and decides to investigate it. Unlike the neutral register employed in the first part, the inflected tonality of the narrative voice in this half draws attention to itself, as it seems affected by the character’s anxiety in her search for archival material. In contrast with the officer’s invasive presence in the vast expanses of the Negev, the writer’s trip out of the West Bank makes you feel entrapped and breathless, surrounded by checkpoints, walls, and nameless streets.
Jaquette’s translation succeeds at bringing forward this anxiety, sometimes intentionally repeating certain words to reflect the character’s fixation on the howling dog, the chewing-gum girl, or the scents of gas and sweat. Perhaps the main challenge of translating Shibli’s text is her persistent use of an obscure diction so as to keep the reader sober throughout her unsettling prose. It produces an effect of detachment in the reader, a necessary distancing. This is best noticed in the rape scene, foreshadowed at length when the soldier washes the girl’s body with a water hose as she stands next to the dog, then soaks her with gas to disinfect her. The actual rape scene then unfolds at an abrupt pace, mostly fixating on their scents, letting the reader imagine such a violent event. Shibli’s philosophy stands for doing more by saying less.
The author does not miss the opportunity, in the two-day trip that her protagonist takes, to “unmute,” as it were, the history of the place. The second half dares to imagine a small return of the displaced Palestinian, represented by the novelist, who knows the land by heart, or via collective memory. Though she is not allowed in zones that are designated for Israelis only, she wanders around freely and even drives into a military base. Her prohibited presence offers a liberating, almost triumphant, effect. Her character already knows what the trip will yield, yet her thought process becomes a kind of typography of the oppressed psyche, rarely speaking out loud, preoccupied with her questions and doubts, terrified of the architecture, of others, of tomorrow. This “typography” takes form and shifts before the eyes of the reader. We notice only a few dialogues in the novel, as characters remain consumed by the weight of their own presence in this contested space. During the search for archival material, we come to realize that a true story is never found in history but rather in the language where it moves and settles.
In two poems, Yu Jian considers the emotional and physical roles of masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Great facial mask
now is the time to tell you that I love you
my little prison
take custody of my mouth
The Man without a Mask
I don’t have a mask
when I phone someone for help
I behave as if I don’t care
dignified expressions like those in first-class cabins on a sinking ship
“至爱” and “无口罩者” © Yu Jian. By arrangement with the author. Translations © 2020 by Shuyu Guo. All rights reserved.
Carolina Pihelgas maps a city emptied by coronavirus.
notes from this city,
which pants around me like a prehistoric beast. its skeleton juts from the riverside brush and the framework of buildings that crop up on the banks, wind flapping in their sheeted windows. its movement is fairly steady and silent, and yet careless, rooftops glinting, trees towering in the parks like obelisks.
with each day, the view from the window is increasingly my own gaze, telling me more of what is happening within than of without. the window frames have become national borders, the doorknob a border guard. the more the silence grows, the more the firmament contracts, constricts, congeals, and stifles, until ultimately the only boundary is my own skin—tensile and imperfect.
walking through the park some evenings, I see a little girl blowing bubbles by the pond. in the twilight they look like thoughts drifting away from her, semi-transparent, semi-silver, liable to burst.
the traffic lights blink yellow, empty city buses circulate along lanes painted on the streets, seeming to follow some long-forgotten rituals, the meaning of which no one knows any longer. and yet it seems so important, that movement, repetition.
wind walks the streets. when people are absent, there is always wind. dust flies down my throat and I try to keep from coughing. wind flies through my sentences like a bird that cannot remember from whence it set out or where it should alight.
sometimes fear approaches. it is an animal that can pass through walls. it appears out of nowhere and stares at me dully. sometimes in the morning, sometimes the middle of the night. it stares as me, just as dully, and then leaves. I’d like to offer it some food, for I feel it is hungry and weary from its long journey, yet I know that if I move, all will disappear.
the shrieks of seagulls in the night. inland gulls are so odd and yet, the white undersides of their wings against the dark sky. the day is wrapped, packaged into a tight bundle. sound is an echo with which to catch fractured dreams.
the city is still, the air crumbles like soil, brimming with doubt. at that moment, one may ask: of what do our shadows speak? perhaps of the loneliness we once tried to hide beneath tree roots, perhaps of some new expanse that will carry us to morning’s raw moors like tired children who keep on asking: are we there yet, are we there yet now?
"märkmeid sellest linnast," © Carolina Pihelgas. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.
Pride Month and our annual Queer issue arrive at a time of grief and rage. Already ravaged by the pandemic and the resulting financial devastation, the US erupted in fury over the brutal murder of George Floyd by police, protests which were soon duplicated around the world. As these three crises—health, economic, and racial justice—spur communities to take to the streets and demand action, we are reminded that Pride celebrations themselves grew out of the protests spearheaded by transgender people of color who fought back against New York police brutality. The fight for acknowledgment of the Queer experience intersects with race, class, culture, and more; and the characters in the works presented here demand recognition of the full spectrum of Queer experience in often hostile environments.
One such environment informs Nazli Karabiyikoglu’s harrowing portrait of repression and defiance, “Elfiye,” translated from Turkish by Ralph Hubbell. When the teenage title character brings home her masculine girlfriend, her horrified parents react to her “perverted sensibilities” by dragging her to an exorcist. As the ritual progresses to its violent end, Elfiye remains unmoved, “iron-hard” in the face of those who would deny her the right to her identity.
São Paulo journalist Chico Felitti had for years noticed a singular downtown figure, a street artist with a heavily made-up, grotesquely distorted face. After a bit of sleuthing, Felitti discovered the man, Ricardo, was in fact a well-known multilingual hairdresser and makeup artist who had served the rich and famous but fallen victim to mental illness and his insatiable desire for plastic surgery. Felitti’s 2017 Buzzfeed profile of Ricardo went viral, with over a million readers, and inspired him to research further. In this excerpt from the resulting book, translated from Portuguese by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux, Felitti reconstructs the beginning of Ricardo’s affair with the love of his life and his obsession with facial modification.
In another tale of self-transformation, translated from Cebuano by John Bengan, Filipino writer R. Joseph Dazo sees a young man turn serial heartbreak into body art. When an impulsive tattoo of his paramour’s name is followed by their breakup, Dazo’s narrator vows to inscribe his romantic history on his skin. Returning after each involvement to the one permanent man in his life, his tattoo artist, he covers his body with the names of the lovers he’s lost, queering the expression “to wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve.”
Peru’s Juan Carlos Cortázar makes his English-language debut with another tale of identity and loss in Jennifer Shyue's translation. The narrator nurses his former lover, Germán, through the latter’s final illness, and is willed Germán’s posh apartment as a result. Yet the grieving survivor wants only to fulfill Germán’s other last wish: to be buried in the plot that he purchased, rather than with his disapproving family in theirs. As the narrator jousts with the family’s condescending attorney, the power of the law to deny the rights of Queer chosen families comes into brutal relief.
In another story of distances unbridged, translated from Spanish by Kelley D. Salas, Chilean graphic novelist Gabriel Ebensperger sketches a portrait of an oversized youth with a growing awareness of his own difference. Mistaken for a girl when answering the phone, bullied for singing Cher songs, he remembers his childhood as a series of alienating events that convinced him he would never blend in. But will he remain so othered in adulthood?
Russia’s Natalia Rubanova composes a chamber piece set to Schubert. In this romantic triangle, a concert pianist leaves her sleeping husband to join her female lover. Rubanova is a trained pianist, and her musically rooted prose moves through themes and variations as romantic as any lieder. Although Rubanova’s work has enjoyed wide publication in Russia, LGBTI writing is illegal there, so this story, translated from Russian by Rachael Daum, is appearing in print for the first time in any language.
In this month of uprising and protest, the obstacles facing Rubanova and other queer writers around the world are a stark reminder that equality is often earned through dogged resistance and defiance of injustice. Exposing injustices and celebrating the beauty in the demonized, writers across the world help us to better understand just what is at stake.
© 2020 by Susan Harris. All rights reserved.
A couple takes a drastic step after discovering their daughter’s relationship with another woman in this short story by Nazli Karabiyikoglu.
Elfiye was planning to invite her friend over at some point, which she more or less had to do, actually. Pelin had lured her into it by asking all those questions about her family, and now she was caught in her trap. Elfiye waited a week, putting Pelin off until the day her stepmother met with her friends to give each other gold. These Gold Days happened once a month, and her stepmother never got back until evening. In the living room, Elfiye took her girlfriend’s hand. “You’re the first person I’ve brought home,” she said.
It was true. All through high school she’d never joined any of the ritual girls-only sleepovers because she thought she’d be a burden on the party. Maybe if she’d asked her father if she could have some guests over he’d have said it was fine, but Elfiye knew everyone would feel uncomfortable. It would have been a ridiculous suggestion—she didn’t even have her own bedroom. Instead of inviting people into her lopsided life, she preferred to spend her high school years as a kind of half loner.
They sat in the leather armchairs in the back room where her father worked and her stepmother hung the laundry. They kissed each other furtively. As she got up to make the coffee, Elfiye heard the clicking sound of a key turning in the door, then that high-pitched voice, and she panicked.
“Ah,” her stepmother said, looking from one of them to the other. “Hello, honey?”
Pelin jumped to her feet and firmly shook the woman’s hand. She looked at Elfiye, then turned back to Elfiye’s stepmother.
“How are you, ma’am?” she said. “Elfiye has told me so much about you!”
Her stepmother’s theatrical laughter and false hospitality always annoyed her, but Elfiye had no choice but to put up with it. Her stepmother made the coffee herself. When Elfiye saw her offer Pelin a cigarette, she went over and sat with them.
“If you’d told me you were having a guest, I would have prepared something, Elfiye honey,” her stepmother said.
“I didn’t want to interfere with your special day.”
“Serpil’s house flooded, remember?” she said sarcastically. “You’d think people would take the trouble to call, but what do you expect, she’s as clueless as her husband.”
With secret glances, Elfiye tried to convey that they needed to leave the house right away, but Pelin kept deepening the conversation to endear herself to her stepmother, patiently answering every question the woman, with her heavy makeup, asked her. She couldn’t get enough. Her stepmother said she wanted to make some tea, and Pelin, persisting, followed her into the kitchen. “This fuss better end before my dad comes home,” Elfiye thought.
Pelin didn't notice Elfiye's uneasiness until she saw her pouring the still-steeping tea. “I’ll have to drink this and go,” she said. “My mother has a medical exam at four.”
“Ohh.” Elfiye’s stepmother tried to make her disappointment obvious, even though it was fake. Her voice rose a pitch when she said she wished Pelin could stay for dinner. “But you come again,” she said, then added gruffly, “not for Elfiye, you come to see me.” Her words rang up through the narrow vacant atrium in the middle of their building.
February 17, 2008
Death, for me, would be wonderful. I want to get closer to the end, and I want to be the one to decide. The rest is easy, I’ll manage it somehow. Because I just lived through the worst day of my life today. (I’ve always wondered if it could get any worse. Turns out it can.)
After Pelin left I went into my room. Then we ate dinner, and my father called me back for some fruit dessert. They were both sitting in different chairs than usual. Aşk-ı Memnu was on the television, but the sound was off. Of course I knew something was wrong, because my stepmother would rather commit murder than miss an episode of that show. My father started to say something, but my stepmother kept looking at the screen from the corner of her eye, her fists in her lap.
“We’re going to have a talk, Elfiye,” he said, and I looked at the TV. Behlül and Bihter were in bed together. “Look at me,” he said. His voice was harsh. “Yes, Dad,” I said, thinking about what I’d do if he said anything about Pelin. I sounded so guilty, it was like they’d seen us kiss! “You’re a smart girl,” he said. “And if you stay smart, you’ve got a good life ahead of you.” Please, God, I thought, let this be about how I have to stay back a year, let him be upset over that, but he just angrily crossed his legs. “Decent people make society decent,” he said, yet again.
And decent people make a moral difference, I finished his sentence in my head.
I wasn’t wrong. He looked at my stepmother for encouragement, but Behlül had just pulled Bihter right up underneath him. My stepmother took a deep breath.
“What are you doing with that freak?” my father said.
“She’s my friend,” I said, and he asked me how long we’ve been friends, and what Pelin does for work, and what her family’s economic situation is, and why her father doesn’t have a job, and whether or not she has any sort of plan to go to university. Then he said:
“Why did you bring her here?”
I mumbled something.
“Were you going to have sexual relations?” he said.
“No, Dad, don’t be ridiculous.”
“Is she a man?”
“No, she’s a woman.”
“Well, she certainly shook my hand like a man,” my stepmother said.
“She’s not a guy?” my father said.
“No,” I said. “She’s just a masculine-looking woman.”
“She a tranny?”
“. . .”
“Does she have a—you know?”
“No, Dad, no.”
He stood up. He told me that if I was going to keep running around with trannies, I’d have to move out. My stepmother turned the sound back on.
“She had a mustache, honey—a mustache,” she said, and Adnan Bey paid off his mother-in-law’s debts on the TV.
I’ve never felt so unloved by them until now. But I couldn’t just stand there and lecture them on homosexuality. They wouldn’t understand anyway. They know how to live their lives without questioning the bodies they’re confined in. They looked at me like I was sick. They’ve stuck me in a dark room inside their minds. And it’s cold.
Not long after this, my stepmother took me to a hodja who performed exorcisms, to interrogate the perverted sensibilities inside me.
The hodja told me to sit on a cushion on the floor, and I crossed my legs. She slipped behind me, crouched to her knees, and held my shoulders with her two hands.
You made sure she washed herself? she asked my stepmother, who sat on the divan behind her.
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
Relax, close your eyes, and whatever happens, don’t open them,
the hodja said.
Lā haula walā quwwata illā billā-hil ‘aliyyul ‘Azim
Lā haula walā quwwata illā billā-hil ‘aliyyul ‘Azim
Lā haula walā quwwata illā billā-hil ‘aliyyul ‘Azim
she held my shoulders so tight and blew on my neck
gather now, by the seal of the Prophet Suleiman, by the will of
Hizir, peace be upon him—come!
kneeling behind me, she rocked us together to the same
rhythm, back and forth
she wasn’t so awful actually, she was even young, a pleasant
scent rising from her muslin headscarf, her hands
small and cool, a chill passing
through my sweater to my flesh
gather yourselves, quick! she shouted, and she began to rock
let’s go, all of you, every one of you, we must have been in a
because she sounded angry, this woman named Gül, about
whom we were told
there was no sickness her forceful breath couldn’t cure.
ye, saf, dīsh, she said and clutched the nape of my neck, then
into my right ear, bikatlamedeyīsh,
and again into my left ear, ye, saf, dīsh
then we stood, motionless, until she pressed down on the
back of my head and jammed my chin
straight into my chest, I don’t know if a breeze swept through
or if she’d begun to blow on my head, but we stood
what she was doing behind me I couldn’t tell, nodding I guess,
one hand on my neck
the other on my head, and it felt like the bare divan and the
old RCA TV and everything else in the room
was whirling around through my hair
then Gül Hodja shouted, wa ‘alaikum selaam!
her jinns must have arrived, had encircled us
and would soon pore over all the things I kept inside me,
I hated my stepmother and how little I loved my father
how often I touched myself and what I thought about when
that I hid my pens but claimed I’d lost them
what I’d dropped, what I’d broken
all of it returned to me, revolved around the room
and gathered itself at my knees.
get it out! she commanded them from behind me,
get it out, now! and she spread my arms to the side and
held them parallel to the floor
take it out of her, all of it, get it out, get it out, get it out,
I could feel my stepmother
watching breathlessly nearby, what was I supposed to get out?
suddenly a hand opened my mouth and pulled down on
my chin, hard
open up, Elfiye, she said, open your mouth!
I clenched my eyes tighter and opened my mouth so wide
I thought my jaw would detach itself from my skull, seeing that
a demon lived inside me and it had to come out
tear it up, tear it up, tear it all up, you, and you, and you keep
this constant gyre of orders, my mouth was going dry
my heart was rattling, so then the spirits and the fairies
had finally shown up, ah—!
and I still hadn’t been told the ancient legend of
gather all of it up, up, up, hold on to it tight and don’t let it
in you, oh God, we seek refuge from the scourge of
amiiin, my stepmother said
in you, oh God, we seek refuge from sexual confusion!
do you dare commit abomination such as no creature
ever did before you?
say that you repent
you really have given up on men, and now you’re lustfully
inching closer to women. it’s true,
you’re the descendant of a lecherous people
say that you repent
say that you repent
by the rod of the Prophet Lot and the seal of the Prophet Jonah,
bismillāhir-rahmānir-rahīm and she plunged her hand
all the way
into my stomach
perverse and lecherous thing
lurked down there
and pulled it out
make yourself vomit!
I forced up what was left
of my breakfast, the bread and jam, the tomato omelet
the more I vomited, the more I let myself go
she kicked me in the back
tear it up by the roots! she ordered me and her jinns
throw it up, she said, up, up, up, until there’s nothing but bile,
repent, say that you repent, take hold of the filth that’s
soiled her faith and tear it up by the roots
I let it pour out of me, the taste of her hand still on my lips
I heaved and gagged and started to cry
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
A ‘ūdhu billāhi minash-shaitānir-rajīm
then in a single breath she told me three times to pick it up
and pulled me back and pressed my head to her chest
gather it up, don’t leave it behind, take it and go,
whatever it was that had come out of Elfiye the jinns would
I opened my eyes
my heart had nearly stopped
I was expecting to see
angels, fairies, and leshies
or jinns with backward-twisted feet, tiny heads
and torsos made of light
but the only tangible thing was what I’d brought up from
and the burning feeling running down my throat
barakallahu minkum wa ‘alaikum, godspeed! Gül Hodja said
and she blew her jinn friends back to where they’d
That should do it, she turned to my stepmother. The poor thing was possessed by a perverted jinn. She needs to say twenty basmalahs every night until her period, and when she’s menstruating she does it six hundred sixty-six times, then she prays after a full ablution.
I tried to count the banknotes that passed between them, but I couldn’t. As Gül Hodja fixed her headscarf, a young girl came from the back room with a bucket, apparently to clean up my mess. But keep an eye on her, Gül Hodja stood behind me, cautioning my stepmother. If the issue gets worrisome again we’ll have to do a séance with fire, so bring her back right away.
Elfiye walked out of the damp, foul-smelling building
and left her childhood with her vomit on the floor
because she was an iron-hard girl no jinn could ever possess
From Elfiye. © Nazli Karabiyikoglu . By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Ralph Hubbell. All rights reserved.
A man’s unusual tattoos attract international attention in this short story by R. Joseph Dazo.
The first question most of them ask when they see my skin is “Why?” I often respond with a smile. Sometimes, my face turns hot. I can’t figure out if I’m annoyed or embarrassed. When I try to answer, I stutter, unable to finish a phrase so that they’ll understand. My armpits dampen. My forehead sweats. How I want to say to them, “This is art. This has been part of our culture for a thousand years.”
But perhaps it’s a waste of time to make them understand. “Of all the things you can put on your skin, why that?” I just laugh. “That’s OK, you’re famous anyway.” True, I’ve just received recognition from Guinness World Records as the man with the most names tattooed on his skin. Guinness also recognized Charlotte Guttenberg and her lover, Chuck Helmke, but theirs were skeletons and feathers. My tattoos, all names, were different. “What the heck, all names of people!” I could only nod.
This began when I decided to have John’s name tattooed on my shoulder. My love for him was immense. “You sure? On the shoulder?”
My answer: you’re the one I lean on when suddenly my world is heavy. Oh, yes, yes! I was young then. That’s why it’s awkward and corny now. After a few weeks, he broke up with me because his father caught us making love downstairs at their house.
Incidentally, my next boyfriend was Mark. He went to the Cebu State College of Science and Technology, studying for a Bachelor of Secondary Education. I took the same degree because I wanted us close to each other.
“What’s your full name, Mark?” His answer after chewing on pulled pig fat: “John Mark Pepito. Why?” I smiled, and when I got home, I stopped by my friend’s and added “Mark” on my shoulder.
John Mark got pissed when he saw my shoulder while we were at a motel in Colon. “You really had my name tattooed? Are you crazy?” I didn’t understand his reaction. It turned out he wanted to end our relationship because he had gotten one of our classmates pregnant.
They stopped going to college, while I continued without John Mark. Last I heard, he was running his parents’ stall at the public market.
Luckily, I soon met Kristoeffer, who was from Iligan and worked at Pier Three. He liked tattoos. He even showed me a tattoo of Mama Mary on his arm, but what really surprised me were the pellets on his dick. When he saw my shoulder, he instantly asked me who John Mark was. I didn’t answer right away, still brushing my teeth after sucking his cock. “Wait, let me rinse first.” He got mad, but I explained to him it was my father’s name. “I don’t want to forget him. Even if he’s already forgotten about me.”
“What happened to him, love?” said Kristoeffer. “He abandoned you?” I shook my head. “Papa John Mark has Alzheimer’s.”
He tattooed his name on my other shoulder. “So that every time you see your shoulder, you’ll think of the two men in your life. Your father and me.” I nodded. He didn’t know there were three men already resting on my shoulders. “Love, can I have a hundred? I need to buy briefs.” I handed him the money. After that, he stopped showing up. He returned to Iligan.
I didn’t finish the degree in education because of my tattoos, and also because I dated a student while doing practicum at the Abellana National School. It was a big issue, so I took it upon myself to leave college for good. His name I put on my arm: Renato.
Then Andres, Mon-mon, and Frank were added on my skin. Afterward it was Cris, another John, a Jhon with “J-h,” a Kris with a “K,” a Chris with “C-h-r.” That was when I did away with the notion of finding a beloved who would carry on and remain by my side. I had my palm read by a middle-aged man outside the basilica after Khristian ended things with me.
“You’ll become famous and your name will make it on TV.” The man paused as if he’d seen something else on my palm with his microscopic gaze. “But you won’t be lucky in love and relationships. You’re doomed.”
“Is that so, Noy? Does it say on my palm, Noy, if I’ll win the lotto?”
“No, because you never gamble.”
I had the seer’s name tattooed on my palm: Roberto.
I didn’t have a hard time finding a job. Maybe it was because of my height and my fondness for jogging and playing volleyball that I was able to pass their qualifications. The only complaint they had about my body were the names I had tattooed. Again, I just smiled. “You may start tomorrow evening,” said the woman.
Menzone was over at H. Cortes Street, in Mandaue City. It’s open from nine in the evening until three in the morning. A cousin from Leyte had brought me there before. He’d wanted to explore Cebu, so we planned to go to a gay bar. At first, I was nervous because it was my first time. But in the long run, I enjoyed and was beguiled by the darkness and the bright, dancing disco lights. The naked models dancing in the midst of darkness and light became mysterious. Their bodies shone with baby oil and sweat. The models: Gabby, Yuri, and Cyril.
I hid my hard-on under my crossed legs. Thinking that beer would wash away the warmth I felt, I only got worse. The entrance fee of PHP 250 was well worth the one free beer. The night was mystical and untamed. Their theme was spot-on: “d big . . . BANG.”
We spent most of the night there, and I got to chat with Mother Flower. She came up to me and introduced herself as a talent manager. She first appreciated and admired my height. “Tall kid. Nice stance,” she said after putting on her glasses. Right then I became interested in applying because one of their models had fallen ill. Pneumonia, I heard. College, which I’d left some time ago, had nothing for me to return to, and I also couldn’t find a proper job, so I tried out modeling. “What’s your name, lovey?” she asked.
“John Mark,” I blurted. Lied. But believed.
“How lovely your name. If you become a model, your name should be Marky.”
“I like that, Ma’am.”
Mother Flower winked. “Take care, lovey. Hope we see each other again.”
Productive. Maybe that’s the word to describe my time at Menzone. Performing on the platform with red balloons brought me joy, in the darkness and light, among the models before the gaze of the audience. The sensation was glorious. Many admired my muscular arms and the way the black sleeveless T-shirts fit on me. “It’s because I go to the gym with Kuya Enzo now.” But they complained again about my penchant for tattooing the names of the men I met. Yet I had more tattoos done: Cyril, Enzo, Gabby, and Yuri. My skin soon became like the pages of a newspaper. True, I didn’t love them, but they were like siblings. At one point in our time together, Cyril brought along a nurse while we were having drinks at Mango. The nurse invited us to an orgy. Each of us would get paid three thousand. He only wanted to watch us make love with one another. We didn’t tell our manager. We said yes.
“What do you want to eat, Marky?” asked Enzo.
“Whatever you want.”
“I want you.”
“Huh?” I didn’t understand how I felt. “You sure? Crazy-ass.”
We passed by the row of eateries. Slipped into the restroom. Our eyes met: Thirsty. Hungry. He ate me.
Afterward, I had Enzo’s real name tattooed on me: Luigi. He didn’t mind that I put his real name on my skin. “What’s you real name, Marky?” I answered the usual: John Mark.
“What’s your favorite food?” asked Enzo during the no-longer-inside-the-restroom date. “Whatever your favorite is.” I considered as favorites the favorite foods of the men I met: chicken lechon, braised pork, carbonara, sardines with egg, sardines with udon noodles, spicy sardines, balot, kwek-kwek
. . .
“Do you like rap?” No. But, but I’d also like what they liked. “So you don’t really have a personal favorite song?” Not really. I go along with whatever they play. “I like Eminem.”
“I like Eminem too,” I said.
“Ngee. Copycat. You don’t have your own preferences. What’s your favorite color?”
I remembered Frank’s favorite color. I said, “Black.”
“Mine’s also black.”
“See, you’re also a copycat.”
After some months, Enzo left me for the nurse we used to have drinks with. I didn’t know the real reason. Maybe because of money. Out of anger, I had the nurse’s name tattooed, so I wouldn’t forget, on my ass: Kevin.
In four years I’d covered my skin with the names of all the men I’d known, encountered, adored, rejected, and above all, loved. Nobody wanted to hire me if the job required facing customers or clients. It was a good thing there was the BPO industry and I was able to work at People Support.
Sometimes I’d meet someone who’d ask: Do I know you? Aren’t you the boyfriend of Anton, Bernard, Carlos, Denver, Ezra, Ferdinand, Gelo, Henry, Jack-Jack, Kim, Leonard, Matthew, Nestor, Oliver, Prince, Quinton, Reniel, Sandro, Teejay, Ulysses, Victor, Winston, Xavier, Yael, Zeke . . . Aren’t you the one with the tattoos? Aren’t you the one on the news? The one featured on Jessica Soho’s program? You’re famous: Dong, Do, Bay, Kuya, Uncle, Uy.
“Congrats on your Guinness. So famous now!” said Fred, my tattoo artist. His name was on my neck. “Seems like you want to add another name. There’s no space left on your body for another tattoo.”
“There’s still some.” I searched for a blank patch of skin: on my chest.
“Which guy’s name this time?”
This would be the very last time I was going to get a tattoo. I saw the same things: petroleum jelly, ink that would enter my skin, needle, tattoo machine, ink caps, soap, shaving cream, stencils, ballpoint pen, and others. Fred began to make an outline of the name. His right hand, the grip, and the left, tissue paper.
While Fred was busy, I remembered the slum book I filled out back in elementary. I wrote there my favorite things, from colors to food. My funny nickname. I even had a motto in life. Only God and I know.
Fred noticed the sudden smile. “What?”
“Nothing. I just remembered something.”
“Ha ha. You who were always being chased by your boyfriends?” said Fred. He was right, so I didn’t say anything more. “I don’t know about you. I remember how you’d come here crying, then you’d have their names tattooed. Now you really won’t forget them! Imagine, they’re on your skin.”
I laughed. “Embarrassing, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know. So, who’s this Jake?” He pointed at a name above my stomach.
“He’s a laborer at Mepza. He has a motorcycle. He brought me to Bantayan.”
“What about Amado?”
“He dreams of building a beauty salon.”
“That’s the blind man who used to massage me. Really good. I don’t know where he’s been assigned to.”
I was able to answer all of Fred’s questions. Not an hour later, he was done with the last name he would ink on my skin. I thanked him for his kindness. He didn’t charge a fee as a way to express his gratitude for our friendship of almost ten years. No one could match his service to me. A kind man. Really kind. I retrieved the plaque from my bag and handed it to him. The recognition wasn’t for me, but for Fred. He wept. I smiled. We savored the last moment of the very last time I’d tell him stories about the men I encountered over hot coffee and sticky rice.
I put my clothes back on. My skin throbbed. Before I left his space, Fred called out. “Whose name is that you’ve just tattooed?”
It took me a while to answer. First, I smiled. “My own.”
“Ang Tawo Nga May Liboan Ka Ngalan” © R. Joseph Dazo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by John Bengan. All rights reserved.
In this nonfiction excerpt, Chico Felitti tells the story of two Brazilian makeup artists who became famous for their radically altered appearances.
The cemetery in São Bento, Araraquara, has a grave with no name. It’s the second tombstone in the fourth block on the left, if you walk in through the gate by the coconut-water stand.
The family of the man buried there can't afford the R$140 (about $30) it takes to have a grave marker installed. But the man whose ashes rest there died with an identity: his name was Ricardo Correa da Silva.
Ricardo lived in São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil and the world’s fourth-largest metropolis, for most of his life. He used to say that he’d only go back to Araraquara, a rural city 150 miles from São Paulo, over his own dead body. He’d escaped because he was the black sheep of a traditional family in town, the first ones in the community to own a radio receiver, back in the thirties. He was ambitious, gay, and a schizophrenic artist. Not necessarily in that order.
In the São Paulo of the 1970s, he made a name for himself as a makeup artist. A man who “worked miracles,” in the words of legendary samba singer Beth Carvalho.
Even so, Ricardo eventually became famous for his own appearance, rather than the appearance his talent allowed him to give others. Ricardo wanted to look like a Chinese porcelain doll; he invested part of the money he earned from his salon work in raw silicone and injected the substance with the help of the love of his life, Vânia.
Ricardo and Vânia had injected five liters of silicone into each other’s faces by the time Vânia fled the country and Ricardo’s mental illness worsened until he lost his salon, his home, and his name.
It was then that Ricardo started begging for money on Rua Augusta, one of Brazil’s most famously bohemian streets.
In 1980 a seventeen-year-old knocks on the door to an apartment on Praça Julio de Mesquita in downtown São Paulo.
The door opens, revealing a studio painted black from floor to ceiling. “I have nowhere to go,” says Vânia (who went by Vagner back then). “Please, come in. You can stay here,” replies Ricardo, his voice affected by the plastic splint that covers a nose retouched less than a week ago.
It’s been almost a year since the two of them first met, but they haven’t gotten much closer. After running into her brother Valter at Shirley’s hair salon, Vânia went to dinner with him and Ricardo. And the beauty that had struck the teenager stopped mattering even before the entrées came. “Valter told me that they were a couple, and I lost interest right then and there. I also lost my appetite.”
Vânia started going to Ricardo’s house every weekend; a group of hairdressers, artists, and bohemians filled the 400-square-foot place. They discussed poetry, art, and makeup, and practiced it, too: Ricardo painted the guests’ faces while they recited poems.
While Valter was dating Ricardo, he met—and fell for—Anthok, a German journalist living in Paris and vacationing in Brazil. To the point of packing his bags and moving on a whim to Paris, leaving his job at Shirley’s. And leaving Ricardo behind.
Ricardo and Vânia were brought together by an unfortunate event: Vânia’s aunt kicked her out of the house where she had lived for three years. “It was the point of no return. I had stopped going to class. I was wearing makeup and spending my nights out. They were afraid I was turning into a woman. They were afraid I was going to become what I already was.” Vânia is sixteen when she finds herself on the streets, with only a briefcase-sized bag to her name. She hops on a bus that will take her to downtown São Paulo.
Ricardo, now age twenty-three, opens the door with a splint on his face. “He had just had plastic surgery to make his nose thinner. Whenever he got to the end of his rope, like when my brother left for France, he ran to the surgery center.” He would have thirty procedures done in all—which serves as some indication of the number of times Ricardo got to the end of his rope over the course of his life.
Vânia’s arrival is a breath of fresh air. One of the first things Ricardo does when she moves in is to take up the rug and hang it on the wall. The wooden flooring that had been hiding underneath it is then painted bright red. “He said the house needed a new look.”
The two start to create together. “We covered the walls with pictures and drawings. He was so avant-garde,” says Vânia. They’re soon extremely close.
Vânia refers to the first two years of the relationship as “the salad days.” Ricardo is already the main hairdresser at Casarão, the beauty salon whose clients include actress Tonia Carrero and Ana Maria Braga, the host of a morning show watched by about ten million Brazilians. Vânia can’t remember how much their weekly income was, but she knows where it went: “Ricardo had a huge collection of silk shirts and almost two pounds of gold. Golden necklaces and rings.”
For the first three months, Vânia didn’t work. “He paid for my hairdressing classes at Teruya. He insisted that I graduate before becoming his assistant.” Teruya is a hairdressing school stretching across eight floors of a skyscraper on Avenida São João, where people said that Ricardo came in and taught unsolicited, impromptu classes in the 2000s. After Vânia got her degree, she became the first of Ricardo’s assistants—back then he had a crew of three helping him out in the salon, working twelve hours a day, on a good day.
The hectic schedules didn’t keep the two of them from having a good time. “I took care of him, and he wined and dined me at the clubs. We went out every night. And I surely couldn't afford it.” She wasn’t well-off, but she was fresh and young, two valuable currencies out on the town. “When we got to the club, all the men would head straight for me like moths to a flame. Ricardo would go one way, I’d go the other.”
But the twentieth time they go out together, Ricardo stops Vânia before they part. He catches his young friend by the arm and says: “I want to be with you tonight.” Vânia smiles. “I had no feelings for him. Except lust, of course.” The two of them start kissing in the club and hold hands on their way back home, like few LGBTQ couples would do at the time. A ten-year relationship is born without anyone proposing.
“In the beginning, I didn’t love him. But I wound up loving him. I don’t know if it was real love, but I felt like I was under a spell.” They had a normal relationship, even if from the outside they might have seemed the most unusual people in town. “Folks would look at us and think we were free-love. Hell, no! It was a soap-opera love story. Monogamous. Exclusive.” Years into the relationship Vânia discovered some cheating, but the first years were the happiest of her life.
“People would ask if we were twins. We’d go out in matching outfits, the same makeup. We were so similar.” She describes the two of them on the dance floor at Medieval, a nightclub on Rua Augusta, a block off Avenida Paulista. Both of them are bare-chested, wearing crocheted thongs, six different colors of makeup around their eyes. They dance until their feet are sore. When one of them decides to give up, the other one rallies, and they dance till the sun comes up.
After months of enjoying a carefree life, Ricardo is fired from Casarão, and Vânia along with him. “I can’t quite recall why that was,” she says. But a dozen of the people who lived with them at the time say the reason was clear: their attitude.
“She was shady. If she wasn’t happy with a client’s hairdo, she wouldn’t mince words. She wouldn’t say ‘Oh, you can do this or that to improve it.’ She’d look at it and say: ‘This is hideous,’” recalls Suzanne Lee, a transvestite1 who left the street life and now works as a cleaning lady at a private school in southern São Paulo. “They liked to humiliate the clientele a little bit.”
The couple starts working independently. They print up colorful flyers offering their hair and makeup services and hand them out to the neighbors. The six-floor building they live in is mostly devoted to prostitution. Overnight, the black-ceilinged studio becomes a beauty salon.
One afternoon in 1980 before her eighteenth birthday, Vânia comes back from the supermarket to the studio where she lives with Ricardo. She’s just about to put the shopping bags on the table in the kitchen—which is also the couple’s bedroom—when she sees something new. A jar filled with thirteen ounces of a dense, transparent substance is sitting in a nest of fashion magazines.
Ricardo is standing by a steaming pan on the stove. He pulls out needles that had been boiling in the water. “Thick needles, like a child’s fingers,” Vânia recalls.
Ricardo says something to the effect of “This is the new hot thing in town. Want to give it a shot?” He promises, as he attaches the needles to a glass syringe and sucks out a little of the contents of the jar, that it’ll only sting a little. Ricardo tells Vânia that he met a man who works in a pharmacy nearby and can sell him raw medical silicone without a prescription. “It’s for your face. It’ll make us look better.”
Vânia says yes, even though she has no idea of what is about to be done. “I’d never heard of silicone. I didn’t know what a transvestite was. I was really insecure, I thought I looked hideous.” They take a seat at the table and Ricardo injects the silicone into Vânia’s cheeks. But they don’t use the verb “inject.” Back in the eighties, the verb used to describe the act is “pump”—referring to the strength needed to push the thick gel out of the syringe. Minutes later, Vânia pumps silicone into Ricardo’s face. And the result is immediate. “My cheekbones were instantly higher and my lips were plump. I thought it was amazing!”
The feeling is also immediate, and lasts for days. “It hurts. It burns a lot when the needle is going through the skin, like an antibiotic shot. But that pain goes away quickly.” The worst part, she says, starts on day two. “It feels like the worst sunburn you’ve ever had. Your skin stretches like someone is playing tug-of-war with your face.” The new weight on her face causes migraines. And that’s just the start. Vânia now has an arthritic neck; she blames the silicone in her face for the damage to her cartilage.
She can't count how many times she had silicone applied to her body. Let alone the number of times she saw Ricardo doing it to himself, or helped him in the process. “There was a time when he was using way too much. He even pumped it into his scalp. His cheeks would start at his forehead. They looked like they might fly away.”
The medical team at the Hospital das Clínicas and at Hospital Mandaqui calculate that Ricardo must have injected at least seventy ounces of silicone into his face.
Soon after they modified their faces for the first time, Ricardo explains to Vânia the look he’s going for. At a flea market in Bixiga, the Italian neighborhood in São Paulo, he comes across two Chinese porcelain dolls for sale. “Aren’t they glorious? Wouldn’t you want to be like that?” he asks. Years later, he would start telling people he wanted to emulate the singer Rosana, whose hit “O Amor e o Poder,” or “Love and Power,” played nonstop on Brazilian radio in 1987.
Vânia had another ideal in mind, and hers remained the same: Rita Hayworth. The star of Gilda and Salome had a wide face with generous cheeks. What Vânia, or any self-respecting fan of hers at that time, knew was that Hayworth had also resorted to plastic surgery to get her iconic look—using electrolysis to lift her hairline and narrow her eyebrows.
Not everyone understood their new appearances. Vânia’s mother burst into tears when her daughter walked through the door, starting to sob and yell as Vânia tried to soothe her. “It’s just the aftereffects of the surgery, it’ll go back to normal,” she lied.
“Everyone started looking at us on the streets. And I guess we liked that.” Today, however, Vânia attributes her professional decline to their metamorphosis. “Ricardo died fucked-up and broke. And that was partly because of the silicone. Every door closed on us after what we’d done to our faces. Can you imagine going to a job interview with a face like that?”
“People would say to me: ‘Can’t you see you look like a monster?’ And I couldn’t. Because I had Ricardo’s love. He was the only person who loved me.”
Ricardo never considered himself a monster. “My face is beautiful. So many people have copied it. Cindy Crawford and Sophia Loren did it, those Silly Sallys,” he said, looking at a mirror in the tenement building in Cracolândia in mid-2017.
Whereas Vânia stopped injecting herself in 1989, when she moved to Paris, Ricardo would keep on retouching himself occasionally. Several thirty-three-ounce containers of silicone are stashed under the kitchen sink in the house in Araraquara. When Ricardo moved to Ribeirão Preto in the nineties, he put all of his bags in the trunk—except for a half-liter bottle of silicone, which he put between his thighs.
“If I hadn’t injected silicone in my face,” Vânia says now, “none of this would’ve happened.”
1 Author's note: In Brazilian LGBTQ culture, the term "travesti" ("transvestite") is chosen politically by poorer trans women who work on the streets and don't identify with the term "trans woman," which they consider elitist. ↩
From Ricardo e Vânia. Published in 2019 by Todavia. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2020 by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux. All rights reserved.
A man tries to honor his dead lover’s final wish in this short story by Juan Carlos Cortázar.
You went back to him. The last months of his life, that’s how he said it, no embellishment. You went back—a year earlier you’d been the one to leave, you’re a piece of shit, you’d shouted—and the two of you made up. If it were HIV, even, he’d have more of a chance, but with this, no, nothing, a few months and that’s it, he said, and you went cold. Up to that point you’d never had anyone close to you die; two and a half years together, you’d never lasted that long before, by far your longest relationship. Why had he asked you, not anyone else, to come back? Because he trusted in your gratitude; he’d paid for university, where you studied advertising, he even paid for the last semester after you left him. Because he believed you were still in love with him, or because he maintained that of all of them, you were the one he’d loved most. Because he wagered that you would feel moved, that with your twenty-one-year-old’s innocence you would feel bad: he was dying alone—his last boy disappeared around the time of the first medical tests—abandoned in his lovely apartment on Javier Prado.
Now Germán is dead, buried. His family—mother and brother, but also aunts and uncles, cousins—didn’t go to the wake. This was to be expected: you were going to be there, you who had taken care of him in the final months, bringing basins and bedpans to the bathroom, tracking medication schedules, adjusting pillows and running sponges over his body, but most of all talking to him. The burial, the family didn’t go to the burial either. Nevertheless, a few weeks later, two or three, not to let too much time pass, his mother’s lawyer calls. Over the phone, the lawyer’s voice, deliberate and elegant, one of those that explain everything delicately, that never interrupt or cut you off; a refined man, with good manners. The señora would like to have her son in the family plot, next to his father, who’s already there, his grandparents, in a little while next to herself, and later next to his brother. Nothing about how, in a long while, he’ll rest next to you. You explain that Germán himself decided on the spot, that he chose Jardines de la Paz in Lurín because he knew about the family’s arrangements, but that remaining with them, side by side, wasn’t what he’d wanted. That it’s true he bought two places thinking of you, of how you were the only one he’d really loved, but this last part you don’t say. That at the end of the day, you emphasize, he’s buried just eight meters from his family.
The lawyer persists: you ought to understand, young man, what you had was—how to put it?—fleeting, casual, one of those things that happen, but what she has is a mother’s love. And you think about the handful of times she called and if you were the one to answer, she hung up. During the three birthdays you spent together, wine and finger foods on the black marble counter Germán had gotten made to open up the kitchen toward the living room; the places at the dining table set uselessly with plates, napkins, and silverware; the vase of flowers at the door, his mother’s favorites. You: enough already, they’re not going to come and you know it; you should talk to them about it, set things straight, stop waiting for them. Him: no, things are fine this way, you’re too young, when you’re older you’ll understand. And the rest of the year: Sundays are for mother, for going to accompany her at family lunch—which you were never invited to—one can’t abandon family. As if they hadn’t abandoned him, their son, brother, or nephew, first. It didn’t matter, every Sunday Germán was the fine tennis player and professor, the bachelor brother, the kind nephew, and, above all, the devoted and grateful son.
What the señora has is a mother’s love, insists the lawyer, a sacred thing. Understand that and don’t cause problems for yourself—the informal tú slips into the lawyer’s refined diction, into the you understand? punctuating the end of every sentence. He himself, Germán, he chose the spot, you repeat to the lawyer, the family can’t go against his final wish, you say. But you know they can, of course they can, and they will, and that’s why you spent days overturning the apartment, boxes, desk, kitchen, until you found the paper Germán signed stipulating where he wanted to be buried; and the receipt from when he paid for the spot—two spots—you found that, too, between the pages of the issue of Caras he triumphantly brought back one day, saying that his mother had given it to him. On the cover, a TV host, white with a beard, arms wrapped around a younger guy from behind, wavy hair and neat beard; kind of dark, the boyfriend, though not as dark as you—the guy probably wasn’t from the Northern Cone—they were fighting for civil unions, said the host and his boyfriend, Brandon was the boyfriend’s name, and more photos inside, holding hands, cheek to cheek, defying the entire country with how solid and stable their relationship was, how a relationship like this deserved to be shown to society. And that time you thought, you were left with: solidity, stability, a nicely trimmed beard, Brandon’s perfect teeth. Couples that deserve to be shown. The magazine, the two men right on the front cover, his mother herself had set it aside to give to her son. Who knows—a display of generosity, of an open mind now that things are changing, said Germán. You, mute, thought about the Maikels and Johns, the Damians and Toribios, all those boys—you yourself—who had lasted months, a couple years, so different from Brandon, with not ten but fifteen, eighteen, twenty-year gaps. And about Germán, his taste for picking up boys and bringing them to the apartment on Javier Prado, with its view of the trees and that upscale supermarket, meeting them over the reggaeton playing in some place in Centro, as he had met you, his hand moving down your body until it arrived at the elastic on your only pair of Calvin Kleins, meeting those boys and immediately taking them to the apartment to sleep with them, live with them for a while, with you, boys who, when seen by his colleagues or neighbors in the building, caused whispers you imagined but never managed to hear.
Mother that she is, the señora is not going to back down, she’s not going to give up is what I’m saying, you understand? presses the lawyer. His mother cares so much now, when he’s already under the grass. Green grass, perfect, extending for kilometers, hectares, so smooth it looks like plastic. In the middle of the desert, in the middle of a waterless city, all dirt and rock, gray sky and gray buildings, a fake oasis, made to order, a calculated explosion of green life for the dead, rotting away. If they had gone to the burial, the mother, the brother, the aunts and uncles, they would’ve been clad strictly in black, they would’ve cried, you imagine them receiving condolences. What a pretty portrait they would’ve made with the level green grass in the background: mother, brother, uncles and aunts, even a sobbing Brandon would’ve fit nicely into the photo. And Germán, if in the end he hadn’t decided what he did, Germán would be lying meekly in his dead person’s spot, having quietly taken his place, part of the family portrait, making no noise. And even though he’d kept it up almost until the end, suddenly—an effect of the illness, posthumous rebellion, or wanting to fuck with everybody, you don’t know—the outburst: not letting himself be buried next to his family and, to top it off, willing the apartment on Javier Prado to you. But you say none of this to the lawyer, and you repeat that he’s buried where he himself decided to be buried, that you have it in writing and his signature must have legal value. You grow bold, you go further: you’re not going to accept the family coming in now with their concern when in life they spurned him. Look, you don’t have to accept or reject anything, replies the lawyer—his voice now stiff, direct, in charge—you, I’ll remind you, are legally nobody. And you know it’s true, you’re nobody, just the boy who lived for almost three years with Germán and who, at the end, came back to accompany him as he died. The boy who, in the end, inexplicably, Germán tried to benefit by using legal maneuvers to leave him secure with the apartment. The boy who took care of burying him there, a mere eight meters from the unassailable family patch where mother and brother, colleagues, and even readers of Caras wanted Germán, silent, to rest forever.
“Ocho Metros” © Juan Carlos Cortázar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.
A queer love triangle revolves around the music of Schubert in this short story by Natalia Rubanova.
Annette sneaks: got to be quiet, quiet as a mouse, a mouse! Careless, better to keep to the left, the left, no pillows there—c u r i o u s: is he really sleeping or just pretending, and if he is, God have mercy, again? Annette tries not to think—not to think about that. Annette knows—there, in the silver Honda, decorating the darkness with all eight—count ’em! eight!—colors of the rainbow, the most ordinary miracle awaits. Oh, damn it, she’s always touching something: but try now, try not to brush against those suitcases from his vacation in the dark—they’re always lying wherever they fall, how many times has she asked . . . and the socks, his socks on the dresser, ugh! . . . Annette pinches her nose and slips into the bedroom, moves toward the bed: “Go to sleep, Mama’s here.” “Mhm.” Mama puts on her fur coat and, trying not to jingle the keys, carefully shuts the door behind her. At the click he awakens and, rubbing his palms together, the foot of the bed is still warm—ah, Annette’s heat, Annette’s warmth—he jumps up and dashes to the window: it seems to him that the tail of the Honda is laughing at him.
. . . so long
I’m sorry, I couldn’t come earlier, he didn’t fall asleep for a long time, and . . .
hell with it
hell with it
you know, I thought, if it weren’t for you, I’d never have learned to tell apart all these shades of black
shades of black?
shades of black: they’re iridescent—they’re glowing, shimmering, playing, do you see?
maybe . . . maybe, yes, I see . . .
I missed you so much
but what can we do about it now?
oh, don’t think about that right now
I can’t, it feels like this obligation is tearing me apart and . . . this feeling . . . this feeling . . .
you can guess
I want to hear you say it
don’t make me
but I really want . . .
it’s like I’ve grown a second skin . . .
He clutches his head, looks for a lighter, sleeping pills: does Annette really think he’s sleeping, as if he doesn’t hear a c l i c k? Doesn’t she realize he’s silent only because, more than anything, he fears being left without her, warm Annette? What a terrible film, a shitty director . . . Trickery, thy name is woman! He’s forever listing something off to himself: the costs of a good education, long walks on the beach, wining and dining, a sense of humor, providing a stable living situation—that last, of course, is as relative as anything else.
These days he often thinks of their first meeting—and even now, drilling his eyes into the impenetrable darkness out the window, he alights again on that same evening. There’s Annette in her short white skirt, her enviably tanned slender legs, just back from the sea; there’s Annette in her translucent top, her reluctantly concealed chest . . . Annette, of course, at the piano—a f t e r t h a t she’ll always, always be at the piano: a miraculous instrument, puissant and willful, it does not suffer betrayal, it avenges betrayal. Oh, he knows! He’s run through all of this so many times.
like I care
you’ll knock the lamp off
like I care
but what if someone looks through the window—
no one’s looking, you silly girl, it’s three in the morning, we’re the only ones, the only ones in all of Moscow
how glorious: the only ones in all of Moscow! come here . . .
look, the snow is falling
it’s for you, it’s all for you
and for you? what’s for you?
you mean, for me
the snowflakes, they’re all for you
me? why can’t we be fair?
because you’re married
you’re not single either
I don’t have a child
come here . . .
That was when he leaned on the piano: “It’s very subtle, the way you feel Schubert.” He suddenly coughed, blushed. “It’s very easy with Schubert to, well, vulgarize him: you can just cross that line where really beautiful pathos ends and sentimentality begins—but who am I talking to, you already know all this yourself.”
“But it’s always interesting,” Annette smiled. “About sentimentality and pathos—that’s just what it is. But I don’t always get it right. I don’t always get the balance, you know. Anyway, the ‘Six Moments’ is dangerous because only lazy people haven’t tried to play it. But I—I really love it. It’s so enigmatic.”
“Enigmatic?” He coughed.
“Of course. It just seems like it’s simple: but no, it’s terrifically deep, an abyss—and you see something terrifying in it.”
“But you’re looking!” He pulled out a cigarette. “And I’ve never even thought about it. Would you ever play for me? I’d love—I’d love to find myself in that abyss.” He was cut short for a moment. “In the abyss of Schubert—”
“You smoke too much, that’s why you’re coughing.” Annette shook her head: there were little devils in her eyes.
“Where would you go in the abyss . . .”
. . . I have a keyboard at my dacha
you have a dacha? where? you didn’t say
on the Riga highway, it doesn’t matter. well, the main thing is that there’s a keyboard. and you. and I want you to play. and play. and play. naked. by candlelight. a fairy princess
Brahms? Mozart? Hayden? Bach? Scarlatti?
and Schubert, darling, Schubert. you know, these musical moments of his—it seems as though they’re so simple, and at the same time so haunting
Moderato, Andantino, Allegro moderato “air russe,” Moderato, Allegro vivace, Allegretto . . .
why did you stop playing?
I was twenty, she was
thirty-six: since then I’ve been head over heels
you seem to have a girlfriend . . .
you seem to know everything. I have—you . . .
He accompanied Annette home, kissed her hand, old-fashioned, started to woo her: straight from the nineteenth century, who would have thought that he, well, that Annette—talented, whirling—would fall in love with him like lightning, without a drop of effort. But it would have been hard not to fall in love with her—with her dusky skin, her gypsy hair, the birthmark on her upper lip, her chiseled fingers (her hands, well, they were a whole other topic—he dedicated whole odes to her hands: Annette laughed, scented leaves in a well-kept hatbox). In concerts she was, of course, especially striking: aristocratic, a duchess, a treasure, what else is there? No austere black dress hugged her body, they were daring rainbow gowns, and that scent, that scent filling the hall—the scent of Annette. She smelled of Schubert, yes, with every composer she carried a different scent—what power, what forthright (though hardly conscious) shamelessness in this marked morphing, what eroticism!
He knows. He remembers everything. He still can’t listen to it. The scent of her Schubert.
imagine if that evening had never happened!
do you think we wouldn’t have happened then?
no, we would have happened no matter what, sooner or later—
there is such a thing as “too late,” Annette.
we’ll leave. I’ll take the child, and—
will your hubby survive it?
my hubby? . . . well, he has music. it’ll keep him. it holds us all back from the abyss
why do you talk that way?
because if you disappeared, I’d still have music
I won’t disappear
and that’s so, so much: more than life, more than love
don’t talk like that, you’re scaring me
I’ve already been behind the keys for four years, I can’t breathe without them, they’re drenched in poison, poison . . .
no, forgive me . . .
He fumbles with the hem of her concert dress. Surely, just like everyone else, Annette came into the world naturally? From the same gate all humanity springs from? Who is she? And how does she bear her own airs? Annette never showed interest in women—she has friends, men, and some musicians, who all pretend not to be in love with her; it isn’t easy, oh, it’s not easy being friends with the queen! You must keep a respectful distance: don’t, breaking into a sweat, extend invitations to Italy or wherever, don’t offer (what’s next on the list) . . . But: Annette’s music and Annette’s men—But: Annette’s men and Annette’s music—But! Music! Annette! And! Men! Annette!—Oh, there’s enough of her for ten beautiful lives, and she happened to marry him. They were lucky with their nanny—Annette would have been exhausted if she’d had to wipe the snot away from their newborn, no matter how beloved, day in and day out. Despite it all, she performed her new program—the romantics, including their beloved Schubert—four months after giving birth (the word makes Annette wince) brilliantly.
. . . what would you do if you knew that I’d changed you?
you’ve changed as far as the hubby goes
don’t say hubby. anyway, we haven’t slept together in more than a year
cherchez la femme
ah, that’s how we turn from dick to dyke
I don’t like clichés. I don’t like that word
tell me, do tell: what’s it matter what a man has in his pants?
she laughed. ask someone else
no, I’m serious. what’s the difference?
you don’t love your hubby?
don’t say hubby! no, he annoys me
his views. you have to run, but not to a hotel . . .
run to me
you’ve already run away, can’t you see?
if you hadn’t appeared, I’d have killed my own body
there’s no reason to lie
I, well, you see—speaking without emotion, well, I just generally lost the point of it all. that’s why, if you disappeared, I couldn’t go on, that’s all
I’ll be here
just don’t turn your nose up, my queen
what are you talking about, duchess . . .
He weeps. All these years, can it be that Annette has only allowed herself to love herself? Or is it just a phase—her nights out with the fair lady? A stifling lack of thrills? But what does he—he!—give her, besides sounds? When was the last time they were together, or had ever been together? What had they spoken about? What is she missing? What do they need, these princesses? He howls. Impotent rage. Shame is nothing more than convention.
. . . do you know what you smell like?
and you—you smell like the salt of the earth
like seventh chords
major or minor?
either, but just like seventh chords
and what am I?
you’re second chords
second and seventh are pretty much the same, you just have to change the floors of the notes in some places, and . . .
killing me softly
yes, yes, there
no, not now
it’s enough that you—
that I’m strange
no, wait, I’ll think of it. I just need to know one thing—will you love my child?
I already love your child . . .
He sits. Plays. Quietly—and the house of cards comes tumbling down. Five in the morning. All sorts of jackasses bang on the wall: It’s five a.m., man, have a heart! Do you expect us to tolerate your p i a n o? . . . The empty bottle rolls to the radiator. The child, understanding nothing, jumps up from the bed and asks papa, what happened? Papa laughs. Papa has music. It’ll keep him, yes, it’ll keep him. It’s the one thing that will keep him from stringing himself up: Franz Schubert, Six Moments Musicaux, D. 780.
“Шесть музыкальных моментов Шуберта” © Natalia Rubanova. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Rachael Daum. All rights reserved.
A crucial voice in the burgeoning movement of feminist fiction from South Korea, Ha is a master of atmospheric suspense whose stories use shock and horror to dissect contemporary gender-based violence and its historical roots.
An angry lone shooter wanders through the mist into town, bullets clinking. A woman sits bolt upright in the back of a taxi going the wrong way on an unlit road. A detective stumbles through the woods, dodging the searchlights of night poachers. In Ha Seong-nan’s new short story collection, Bluebeard’s First Wife, darkness and fog turn farmers’ fields and city suburbs into places of hidden horrors. These eleven stories use shock and horror to dissect contemporary gender-based violence and and its relationship to the community. Ha is a crucial voice in the burgeoning movement of feminist fiction from South Korea, which tackles the embodied experiences and fears of women in a highly patriarchal society, and includes names such as Cho Nam-joo (Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982) and Han Kang (The Vegetarian).
The volume’s title comes from the famous French folktale, first written down by Charles Perrault and published in 1697. In the original story, a wealthy nobleman named Bluebeard marries a series of young women who all mysteriously disappear. Bluebeard gives his newest bride a set of keys and tells her she can unlock any door in the vast château, but must never go into the cellar. Overcome by curiosity, she opens the cellar door and finds the floor covered with blood, and the bodies of his six previous wives hung up on the walls. Startled, she drops the key ring, later discovering that she cannot wipe off the bloodstains that will surely alert Bluebeard to her transgression. While she is eventually saved and gets her happily-ever-after, the story imparts a peculiar lesson about the dangers of curiosity.
In 2016, some three centuries after Perrault first put Bluebeard’s story into print, a thirty-four-year-old man stabbed a twenty-three-year-old woman to death when she entered the public bathroom of a karaoke bar in Seoul. What came to be known as “the Gangnam murder case” ignited a feminist movement in South Korea, in reaction not only to the horrific violence of the episode, but also to how it was handled in the ensuing court proceedings. The perpetrator, who did not know his victim, claimed to have killed her because he had been “ignored and humiliated by women his whole life.” The police and investigative parties blamed the murder on the perpetrator’s mental illness, significantly downplaying the role of misogyny. Just like in fables, we’re compelled to search for meaning in horrific real-life events—a parable, or some lesson to internalize and ward off the feeling that violence is arbitrary. Don’t wander off at night, don’t open a forbidden door, don’t fall in with the wrong crowd or look too closely for answers. And while there are countless cautionary tales of what happens to curious women, what the French folktale leaves out, for instance, is how the first wife died.
The titular story in Ha’s collection, “Bluebeard’s First Wife,” follows the new wife of a secretive South Korean man living in New Zealand. He is cold and withdrawn, but she makes the best of it, preparing for the arrival of an enormous custom-made wardrobe from back home and tending a garden in front of the house. She almost counts herself lucky, as her friends back home gush about her new life of material wealth in a foreign country. Like Bluebeard, her husband has a forbidden study; unsettled by the noises she hears behind the door, she enters and discovers him with a male lover. In a flash of anger, he turns on her and, with his boyfriend’s reluctant help, knocks her unconscious and violently stuffs her into her beloved wardrobe. She languishes there for untold hours before they open the door; while they attempt to transfer her limp body to the trunk of the car, she makes a frantic escape.
The stories all lean on film noir tropes of shadows and paranoia. The settings are often bleak and gritty, but evoke an uncanny familiarity. Those which appear bright or cheerful do so only as a disguise for something sinister.
In “O Father,” and “Pinky Finger,” Ha perfectly captures this oppressive atmosphere, capturing young girls’ uneasy existence in a world populated by both real and imagined threats. “Never get in a taxi alone at night,” one of them starts. The reader, particularly the female reader, is certain to feel that they already know the story long before the end. We could call Ha’s personal genre “domestic surrealism,” not only because of the narrative emphasis on the home, family, and community, but also for how intimately many women carry those words of “sound advice.” The stories' surrealist quality comes precisely from the transition from the real to the imaginary—they are the speculative conclusions of what might go wrong if we walk alone at night, or leave our child alone at home, or get too drunk at a party with men we don’t know.
Janet Hong’s translation and rendering of Ha’s style is so uniformly applied that it brings an extra cohesiveness to the collection. In fact, it is precisely the detached coolness of this voice that is so effectively disturbing in conjunction with the grotesque facts it describes. They are tales that could appear sprawled across the front page of a tabloid, but Hong treats them without a hint of sensationalism: the troublesome neighbors upstairs in “A Quiet Night”; the deadly hunting accident in “Night Poaching”; the straying husband with a second family somewhere else in the city in “O Father.”
The jewel of the collection, “Daisy Fleabane,” is a perfect example of this strategy at work: it follows the calm, almost aloof thoughts of a bloated corpse as she is dragged along a riverbed by unwitting fishermen.
While her characters are decidedly plain (corpse notwithstanding), Ha’s landscapes are elegant and painterly, expertly exposing the fissures between appearances and reality:
Car headlights swept between the glow of 24-hour convenience stores, church steeples, crosses, and streetlights. The morning would reveal the shabbiness that had been concealed by night—apartment buildings in various stages of reconstruction, residential streets heaped with garbage, and the dark reeking stream that cut through vacant lots overgrown with weeds—but the nightscape was lovely.
Much of the imagery is left over from her debut collection, Flowers of Mold. Pungency, brine, rot, and the primacy of smell over other senses is consistent throughout both collections. “A sour tang escaped from the plastic bag hanging on her shoulder,” the narrator writes of a woman boarding a tour bus to visit the burned-out building where her young daughter perished with her classmates in a fire; “An unpicked squash lay rotting in the soil,” remarks an outsider come to investigate the death of a village man in a hunting accident. The air inside the taxi on an ill-fated ride was “dank and musty; the cab seemed to have been shut up for a long time without any circulation.”
Ha turns a cold, penetrating eye on those men who have been “scorned” by women. Sometimes they are revealed as the centerpiece of a story, while other times they are mentioned in passing, becoming part of the landscape women navigate. There are young boys who shout “Bitch!” at strange girls, and men who leer at women while idly cradling glasses of soju—men who, in these stories of women’s work and survival, seem almost unnecessary in women’s lives. In “The Dress Shirt,” a character quips that “[She] didn’t feel any real discomfort or regret over the absence of her husband.” In many of the narratives, women are linked to productivity, and even to life itself, whereas men languish on the sidelines, growing resentful. The feelings of scorn and superfluousness embodied by the assailant in the Gangnam murder case are repressed until they reach a boiling point: in “Flies,” for example, a police officer beats a woman he slept with, then arms himself for a kind of revenge:
The entire village was at his mercy. He took down two M2 carbines. He loaded them with ammunition, slung one across his chest, and held the other in a shooting position. [. . .] As the fog rolled in, the crunch of gravel under his feet and the bullets rattling in his pockets were the only things he could hear.
Each story is a clever investigation into the tensions between the personal and the communal, violence and peace—particularly in the lives of women. The moments of true horror are carefully rationed, showing the author’s mastery of atmospheric suspense. Yet she makes no real conclusions or judgments—the stories are cold cases. Ha peels back the layers encasing crimes of hatred, misogyny, and despair, but never quite lays blame or follows them through to see justice done. Is the jury out, or is she leaving the verdict to the reader? Perhaps she is unwilling to appease our need for a moral to the story—after all, these aim to be depictions of real life, not fables.
After an acclaimed debut, Bluebeard’s First Wife is a forceful and impressive second collection. These stories succeed in unsettling us, not only by exposing our worst nightmares about what lies behind forbidden doors, but also by asking us whose fault it was to enter. The answer is clear, isn’t it?
In contemplative diary entries, Ricardo Romero records life in a locked-down Buenos Aires.
And suddenly, with the prospect of these days where the unreality of our daily lives cracks open to reveal the reality of the details (the parts, the fractions are clear but not the whole: the whole is hardly the story we need, the law of gravity that prevents our world from dispensing of us), suddenly, then, we discover that making a bed, turning on a stove, regulating the temperature of the shower, are innocuous tasks to us. Time becomes visible. And the time we see is undone: a cotton sock turned inside out, with all its loose threads on display.
They wander from room to room, somewhere between bored and crazed. Nobody knows it better than children of five or six: the direction we attribute to time is an arrow pointed at the heart of our fear.
In any case, there’s no use dramatizing, it’s not necessary. Do we have to choose what clothes to put on every day? What criteria do we use for that? I put on a red T-shirt because it matches the armchair in the living room, where I’m going to sit and read. I blend in. Is there something superficial about that, something we can rule out? Is it the superficial itself that we should rule out, or the meaning we wish to assign to it, no matter the cost? I contemplate the open wardrobe. When I look inside the wardrobe, the wardrobe looks inside me.
Sunday. Late afternoon. The surfaces conspire. My proof is the noise of helicopters—which is as if silence had a screw loose—the sirens that get closer but never arrive, that retreat without completely fading. Must I blend in, must I try to go unnoticed, as Girondo would say, between the furniture and the shadows? Thought is the heartbeat that gives me away. The loose screw of the silence that inhabits me, the sirens that surround my accidental existence without ever getting close to it. This accident. This unimaginable event. That is what I must remember. That I am unimaginable.
Going shopping is usually a wasted moment during the day. Today, however, standing on the pavement a meter apart from the person behind me and one meter from the person in front of me, I felt it was a worthwhile moment. I had a sudden unexpected impulse. Something active, invigorating: the urge to read. It would have been the best moment in the day to do it. I didn’t have a book with me, but this got me thinking about all the people in the queue. Suddenly I imagined lines of readers, focused people studying math, learning how to make a clay oven, or scribbling in the margins of a reference book the key bullet points for understanding a language they don’t know. A meter in front, a meter behind. Sun blazing. We can’t focus in our houses and so we go out to buy a lemon, 100 grams of mortadella, a bar of glycerin soap, and in the shelter of that wait, that tiny future transaction, we lose ourselves in thought. We are unimaginable.
“In this symbolic confinement, we are not prisoners of the same thing all the time.”
To lose oneself in thought. In this isolation, the “self” is harder to find. We have no points of reference to help us see with relative clarity where we begin and where we end. What we are and what we aren’t. I don’t want to hide away among my heirlooms. These days, the air is thick with anxiety and we drift in it. And anxiety is an unnecessary appropriation of the world.
At a distance of one meter, other people’s faces become important. We look at one another as if we know each other from somewhere and we can’t remember where.
At a distance of one meter, other people’s faces become suspicious. We look at one another as if asking ourselves: who’s dreaming this, you or me?
It’s hard to imagine this Sunday sun over the empty city. It’s hard to imagine the city empty. It unnerves and captivates me; I don’t know how to relate to it. How do you get into this city? Am I outside it or am I part of this spell? I am part of it, I assume, and as soon as I do, the unmistakable sound of clattering plates reaches my ears. I remember, I imagine, I predict: it is the morning of a Monday or Tuesday later in the autumn. The middle of April, let’s say, 20 degrees, sunny, southerly breeze. A beautiful morning when I’ve gone out to take care of some paperwork downtown. I’ve finished and I’m in a good mood. And the good mood makes me peckish. I go into Café Paulín, at Sarmiento 365. I sit down on the second stool on the left side of the U-shaped bar. I don’t have to think. I order a tortilla sandwich with watercress and a beer. I shrug in front of the mirror covering the entire wall opposite me, I let myself go. And while I wait, I once again admire the speed and skill of the man who, inside the horseshoe bar, moves plates and drinks around, hands them out. He is tall, with long arms and big hands, which, rather than making his work clumsy, allow him to reach every corner while standing in the same spot. He talks to one person, talks to someone else, calls out orders over the intercom. The plates clatter and slide, get where they need to go. I focus on his speed; I sense the exaggeration in his movements. He’s fast, yes, but it’s also an act. Or rather, he steps outside of himself so that he can contemplate his speed just as I’m doing, and then in that contemplation, his skill acquires style. I savor the tortilla sandwich with watercress, the beer. At some point, without looking at myself in the mirror, I shrug my shoulders again, let myself go. People come in and out of Paulín. The city is never empty. The Sunday sun is never entirely real. Somewhere, the barman from Paulín is performing his juggling act for himself, and in his skill, time and space clatter, slide, get where they need to go.
A moment of epiphany. Autumn made itself apparent not in the change of weather, in the rain predicted since the day before yesterday, but in retrospective reflection, in the brief stocktaking that accompanies the act of getting dressed after a shower these days. I realized that I had been wearing nothing but Bermuda shorts for over a week. The transition to long trousers, albeit ripped denim, had something inaugural about it, as if I were a boy in the olden days, becoming a man. Putting on socks added to this. For an instant, as I tied my shoelaces, I felt like a man who knew what he was doing.
The problem is that every house, every apartment, every home, is a convention. And this soft imprisonment jeopardizes that convention. Familiar shapes revolt under my watch. They don’t want to continue being what they are, they don’t want to continue being mine, responding to my level of demand. Not even bodily conventions are upheld. Yesterday, a while ago, as I was tying my shoelaces for a moment, I felt like a man who knew what he was doing, until I realized that I’d moved on to the third shoe.
And what if it was a matter of dismantling the frame? Wearing a patch over one eye, as if peeping through a keyhole. Covering the left eye one day, and the right eye the next. Sabotaging the synthesis. Allowing a cross-eyed poetics to make me bump into the doorframe and my thirst for predictions.
Another Sunday. There is no direction to the light, so there are no shadows, only furniture. Or rather, even the shadows are furniture. And they are all closed off. Furniture everywhere, lurking, overflowing with the things I’ve been dragging from house to house, city to city. I count the houses and I am not surprised. It’s a lot of places. But this evaluation doesn’t interest me, I don’t want to open the drawers and wardrobes to blend in with who I was, to become a shadow and a piece of furniture as well. What interests me now is finding an act that saves me and gives me continuity. I don’t have to think about it much: making the bed. I make the bed every day, and until I make it, I don’t feel like I’m ready to face what comes next. We get up, have breakfast, Victoria reads the news to me. At some point, the day summons us and we each start doing our own things. The first thing I do is make the bed. I am fully aware of the origin of this impulse. I lived for several years in a studio apartment in Córdoba, and in a boarding house in San Telmo during my first years in Buenos Aires, and in both places the bed was the central piece of furniture, the star around which the other furniture orbited, all satellites without their own light. By simply making the bed, the home was in order. But it wasn’t just that. I now clearly see that in my varying degrees of isolation during those times, making the bed was a way of keeping a lid on the opaque power of things, the mystery that does not ask to be solved. It was a way of making peace and living with it. Isn’t that arduous coexistence with mystery the very thing that poetry asks of us? Nap time is over, Victoria gets up, makes tea, sits down to read. Trying to go unnoticed, as if I had no more intent than the breeze that ruffles the curtains, I slip into the bedroom and make the bed again.
“Mask-wearers always look as if they want to say something to you.”
In the first week, the terrace became a place for socializing. Neighbors and pets went up there and we saw one another, sheltered by the enthusiasm of recognizing that we not only live in the same building but that we also live in the same world. An unprecedented civility allowed us to chat as we watched someone else’s dog lift its legs perilously close to our freshly laundered sheets. Formally, ceremoniously, we all picked up the dog turds. Then came the withdrawal: we carried on going up there, but we began to avoid each other, the silences were no longer so comfortable, and everyone craved their own schedule, their own corner. We have now entered a third stage. Naturalization. The terrace is like a city square, as magnificent as the Red Square in Moscow, the Garay Tower two blocks away like a cubist Kremlin. We inhabit it as if we’ve always been there. I’ve just confirmed it. When I went up there to read today, near my corner I found a dog turd, blackened by the days. Everything is where it should be.
Soft confinement, fluffy anxieties: every time I want to name this experience, I can’t help but use adjectives. That is, I suppose, because I am experiencing it more like a symbolic confinement than a concrete one. It is not as if we aren’t limited. But they are fragile limitations. They do not put up the concrete resistance that would force us to summon willpower, constant discipline. Many things in our lives are on pause. But what are those things? In this symbolic confinement, we are not prisoners of the same thing all the time, and we find that unsettling. In fact, we are not prisoners all the time. But why have I suddenly started speaking in the plural? Not because I think I understand the transversality of this experience, dazzled as I am by the word “confinement.” It is just an attempt to sustain the fiction of the masses. There is no tragedy without an echo.
I now have my homemade mask, fashioned out of an old sock. Victoria watched a tutorial on how to make them. I put it on and, inevitably, look at myself in the mirror. Okay, so I’m not Juan Salvo. I stop looking at myself and am taking it off when something makes me come back to the mirror. The mask effect, which I’d noticed when I saw people wearing them in the supermarket, is emphasized. Mask-wearers always look as if they want to say something to you. Now I am a mask-wearer and I don’t know what I want to say. With half my face covered, the amount of information offered by my features is all concentrated in my eyes. Eyebrows, forehead, they all frame the eyes, which no longer hide behind the rest of my features. It is as if they are accentuated. As if, finally, they are undressed. What an opportunity. What insolence. What a great capacity for synthesis.
I go out shopping. I no longer have the sock-mask, I have a more sophisticated one. Walking to the supermarket, I decide not to use it. And then I decide to use it. What is at play in these decisions? The gaze of others, my gaze? With the mask on I cannot breathe very well, and my glasses fog up. As I stand in line, I read. Every now and then I surreptitiously sniffle from the threat of an allergy attack. Once inside the supermarket, I walk around. What did I come to buy? It’s as if I’m snorkeling in a pool. I gradually get annoyed. A bad mood creeps in. By the time I return home, my bad mood is in full swing. I take off my shoes, wash my hands thoroughly, throw the mask on the table, wipe down the packaging with a cotton ball soaked in alcohol. The bad mood is, in a way, like that cotton ball with alcohol. It purifies me. It does away with over-acting. Because, no doubt about it, I am over-acting. That’s not to say that I find the dystopian protocols of these days unnecessary. I mean that there’s no contradiction. Because over-acting is part of the protocol, it is what they’re asking of us. It’s what we’re asking for. We are bad actors who suddenly find themselves in a leading role.
"120 escalones" © Ricardo Romero. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Charlotte Coombe. All rights reserved.
This meandering narrative, distinguished with the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, keeps a steady focus on how social pressures and the passage of time come to bear on its characters’ corporeality.
Reading Mieko Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs under lockdown is a particularly strange (and estranging) experience, since so much of the novel is concerned with a heightened awareness of the decaying female body, loneliness, and the passage of time. Looking up from a page to re-immerse yourself in real time, then engaging again with the particular texture of Kawakami’s prose, her descriptions of suburban Tokyo and Osaka in which years unspool within the space of a few pages, is a striking reminder of the imaginative powers involved both in reading and writing literature. First published as a shorter novella in Japan in 2008 and distinguished with the Akutagawa Prize, Breasts and Eggs was later expanded by the author into a novel, her first to be translated into English—and so, naturally, the two parts of the book occupy different rhythms and tempos.
Book 1 opens with the protagonist and narrator, Natsu, on the Yamanote Line on her way to meet her older sister and teenage niece at Tokyo Station. She looks at a young girl sitting across from her, scans her faded sneakers, her “way too skinny” frame, her coarse hair and psoriasis, thinking back to her own experience growing up as a poor girl in Osaka. She reflects violently, “How awful would it be if she opened her mouth and all her teeth were rotten.” Later that evening, her sister Makiko—a single mother who works as a hostess at a bar called Chanel in the grimy neighborhood of Shobashi—talks her through the various leaflets she has amassed for breast augmentation surgery, as well as the costs involved, and Natsu listens, impassive. She observes Makiko’s figure in a series of surprising, somewhat ungainly similes:
“Her legs were rail thin, like a pair of disposable chopsticks
[. . .] The skin at the back of her heels was cracked and dry like old mochi. Nothing to her calves but skin and bones, like the taut stomach of a sundried fish.”
All the while, Makiko’s daughter Midoriko refuses to say a single word or engage openly with her mother’s self-obsession. She scribbles feverishly in the notebooks she has been using to diarize her thoughts about adolescence and her own changing body—about menstruation, and breasts and sperm and eggs—occasionally writing out terse messages for her mother and aunt.
Midoriko’s silence is an interesting device that compresses the narrative tension of the first section of the novel, her mutism one of the many ways the characters in the novel react against the lack of agency that comes with having a female body. The sisters chatter in the Osaka dialect, filling the apartment with quick-fire conversational phrases that don’t mean very much in themselves, but rely on a certain posturing to carry through. “If you say so,” Natsu says, self-consciously shrugging off Makiko’s observation that she has a lot of books, to which her sister retorts, “I do.” Later, Makiko teases, “What kind of apartment doesn’t have a balcony?” Natsu’s response, as she laughs: “This kind.” At times, these exchanges read like scripts from dated American sitcoms scored by laugh tracks, but they also suggest that the characters are forever struggling to articulate their true thoughts and feelings, even to themselves, as they struggle, too, to extricate their desires from those imposed on them by social, cultural, and biological pressures. They talk about one another’s deepest longings and anxieties—whether literary aspirations or body dysmorphia—obliquely, feeling their way through the emotional charge around these conversations, both as a marker of respect or compassion, and also fundamentally because they can never know the experience of living in the other’s body.
In the second part of the novel, Sengawa, a literary editor who becomes both a mentor and friend to Natsu, observes,
“Well, we use words to communicate, right? Still, most of our words don’t actually get across. You know what I mean? Well, our words might, but not what we’re actually trying to say [. . .] We live in this place, in this world, where we can share our words but not our thoughts.”
Sengawa—or, we may assume, Kawakami—is trying to put her finger on something more urgent than plot when it comes to telling a story: the “voice, [. . .] the rhythm,” its “personality,” the very vitality that underpins Natsu’s Osaka dialect. Sengawa talks about the importance of readers “who want nothing more than the unknown, the mysterious,” people who “actually listen, try to understand your words, who try to understand you.” It is fitting, then, that the combative energies of the novel—its ambitious register, which fluctuates with Natsu’s changing moods, and its snappy dialogue—are tackled collaboratively by translators Sam Bett and David Boyd, both patient and attentive listeners.
Book 2 is slacker, more capacious, starting ten years after the events of Book 1. Natsu is forty now, and has garnered some praise for a collection of stories in which “all the characters [. . .] are dead, in another world, dying over and over.” She is able to save a modest sum of money each month, which she duly sends to Makiko, and her days appear to be structured by writing pieces for magazines and researching her next book—or rather, procrastinating. In her leisure time, Natsu gets drunk with a constellation of interesting female characters, including the genteel, ailing Segawa and the animated feminist writer Rika. They talk about things as diffuse as literary culture, illness, reproductive options, and asexuality. Sometimes these conversations descend into drunken, raucous rows; at other times, the women are a source of solace and support to one another.
If the pulsing center of the story is hard to find, it’s because there isn’t one exactly. Kawakami, like Natsu herself, creates a literary form that bears witness to the many stories and hardships of working-class and single women. Stretching back to the histories of Natsu’s mother and grandmother, who died prematurely from breast and lung cancer, and all the anonymous women she encounters, the book offers a glimpse of their “countless wrinkles, straight backs, sagging breasts, gleaming skin. Stubby little arms and legs, age spots dark and light, articulated shoulder blades—bodies [that] laughed and chattered about the silliest things, airing their frustrations or bottling them up [. . .] surviving, day by day.” The novel is at its most beautiful and urgent when it presses toward such crystalline epiphanies, even if the story runs out of steam or reaches a conclusion that seems forced or sentimental.
Occasionally, the narrative pauses, and in turn makes the reader pause, breathless—as when Natsu returns to the streets of her childhood in Osaka to celebrate Midoriko’s birthday:
“It was as if a camera flash had been drawn out indefinitely, and the trees, the asphalt, the word ‘STOP’ spelled out on the street, the telephone poles, the old lady, her shopping cart, and all the different shadows had been captured in a giant photograph by the harsh August sun.”
And I, too, pause to squint at the summer light reaching into the corners of this room, Natsu’s question blinding like a camera flash: “How many summers had I been alive?”
Introduction: Megacity Lockdown
Coronavirus has thrived in megacities, determined to make it in the big smoke of the world’s densest urban hubs. It was in industrial Wuhan, now the most infamous megacity of them all, where tightly packed tower-block residents first showed signs of a new lung infection. New York and London, superstar cities, meccas for tourists, are now epicenters not of culture but mortality. The virus spread easily on their densely packed transport networks, their fashionable restaurants, on Broadway, in Soho. And it is the new megacities of the developing world, where millions live in urban poverty, packed into favelas and slums with little or no infrastructure, that COVID-19 appears most unforgiving. In the Manila slum of San Roque, locals must choose between observing the lockdown or working to feed their families. In São Paulo, where the infection is said to have been brought back by wealthy residents returning from European holidays, it is the poor periphery neighborhoods that now have the highest numbers of deaths. Responding to the unique challenges the COVID-19 pandemic poses for megacity locals, authors from the new anthology Megacity come together at Words Without Borders to describe life under lockdown in the world’s densest urban hubs. Below, Hideo Furukawa looks at the strange arithmetic of pandemic life.
—Kathleen McCaul Moura | Editor, Megacity
What We Lost: COVID-19 Beyond the Numbers
We’re living in an extremely mathematical world. Just take a look around. People everywhere can’t stop counting. Yesterday’s number of new cases, number of deaths. Today’s number of new cases, number of deaths . . . Tomorrow’s numbers . . . Numbers nationwide, worldwide . . . And we process those numbers mathematically. Day in, day out.
This is what it means to live in a pandemic.
What has the coronavirus taken from us? We need to answer this in a way that isn’t expressed through numbers. (After all, we’re not mathematicians. Most of us aren’t medical professionals, either, or economists or scientists who use numbers and formulas in our work. This is why we need another way.) So my answer is as follows:
The virus has taken our schedules from us.
This answer may rub some the wrong way. If you said to me, “Don’t you mean it’s human life that the virus has taken from us?” I wouldn’t know how to respond, not right away. But let’s look at this from another angle. If you, or someone important to you, fell victim to this disease, wouldn’t you tell yourself, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this”? Wouldn’t you think “I was supposed to have more time,” “We were supposed to have more time”?
We’re always trying to figure out how much time we’ve got left. Case in point: when we’re chronically ill, we’re faced with prognoses, all kinds of estimates. Sometimes the doctor even says something like “You’ve got six months.” No matter who we are, we’ve always got an eye on the time we have—and that’s what the coronavirus has taken from us.
Our schedules are blank.
So how can we resist this pandemic that has left us calendarless?
I’m a writer, a person who works with words, so I’d like to propose we redefine “schedule.” Right, what was a schedule anyway? Plans written down for the future. OK, now how do we define the future? A time opposed to the past. OK, so what’s the major difference between the future and the past?
Here’s my answer. You can write the past down on a timeline, but you can’t do the same with the future. Try and you’ll only end up creating a list of speculations and predictions. In other words, what you’ve written down becomes something new—a schedule. The timeline is no longer a timeline.
The future is that which absolutely resists the timeline.
Best be careful here. The last thing I want to do is fall into the trap of having to use the word “schedule” in the definition of the word “schedule.”
Which brings me to my second answer. The future has always been a blank page, resistant to the various plans we pencil in. If that’s true, the coronavirus hasn’t stolen our schedules because it never could. The future was empty to begin with.
I know, I haven’t managed to redefine “schedule” at all. This is nothing but sophistry. Needless to say, I’m aware how unsatisfying this is.
So what makes us fill in the blanks? Why do we make plans? Because we’re alive? Because we’re working? Because, if we’re children, we’re going to school? Or because, if we’re closer to the end of our lives, we’ve been put in homes and now spend our days waiting?
I think about myself. I’ve been living in Tokyo, Japan’s capital, for more than thirty years. Before I started college, I lived in Fukushima Prefecture, where I was born and raised. It seems like pretty much no one outside Japan had heard of Fukushima until 2011. That year, a magnitude-9.0 earthquake struck the eastern half of the Japanese archipelago. It was a “once-in-a-thousand-year disaster.” Right after the quake, a giant tsunami devastated eastern Japan’s Pacific Coast. Near the Fukushima coastline, there was a nuclear power plant, and when the tsunami hit, they lost control of the plant.
Radioactive material spread far and wide, throughout Fukushima and beyond.
I’m not too sure how much everyone outside Japan knows about what happened after that, but people risked their lives to work quickly toward decontamination. Today they’re working steadily toward decommissioning the plant as well. Apart from a restricted area, people are still living in Fukushima. I have family who have been there the whole time.
In September of 2013, it was decided that the 2020 Summer Olympics would be held in Tokyo. Japan’s bid—Tokyo’s bid—was a success. Then people with the government started calling the Games “the Post-Disaster Olympics.” They said they wanted to show the world how far Fukushima had come since 2011. I had my reservations. If they really wanted to spotlight Fukushima, why not hold the Olympics there? Why have them in Tokyo? But hey, politics never made much sense anyway, so forget all that. Besides, people in Fukushima were—to some extent—fine with the idea of the Post-Disaster Olympics.
Then a plan took shape. As part of the 2020 Games, softball matches and a few other events would take place in Fukushima; the Japanese extension of the torch relay would start there as well.
So as a writer from Fukushima, I developed a plan of my own. I’d write a report about the so-called Post-Disaster Olympics. I gave myself two rules. First, I’d leave Tokyo before the events got underway and stay in Fukushima until they were over. Second, because the Olympics is all about the athletes and how they use their bodies, I figured I’d travel around Fukushima on foot, interviewing people everywhere I went, asking them, “What do you think about the Post-Disaster Olympics? What do you make of Fukushima, Japan, and the world after 2011?” The plan was to take everything I learned and publish it as a series of articles in a Fukushima newspaper.
My plan involved serious preparation—and I was seriously preparing. Over the summer, I’d be doing a lot of walking, around fifteen miles a day, so I started training with a pro. That was late last year.
Then came the pandemic. In March of 2020, they postponed the Tokyo Olympics. A few days later, Fukushima decided there’d be no torch relay—“not this year.” This probably goes without saying, but my arrangement with the local paper was put on hold, too.
With things as they are now, what am I thinking?
I can see one scene as a metaphor for the other. In the wake of the nuclear disaster, those working toward remediation had to wear special gear to protect themselves, and everyone in Fukushima had to wear masks to avoid internal exposure. Protective clothing, masks, contaminated areas, Fukushima (in a sense) under lockdown. And now, 2020 . . . PPE, homemade masks, hotspots, major cities everywhere under lockdown.
We can’t see radiation. That’s why it scared us.
We can’t see the virus. That’s why it scares us.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been unable to shake the sense of déjà vu. That’s why I’ve made up my mind. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics may be a thing of the past, but I’m still going to go to Fukushima. I’m still going to walk. There’s just one problem. What if people there see me as a threat, someone who could bring the virus from the city? What if they see me as a carrier? Or will this strange moment be over by then? Where will Japan be this summer?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that new borders are now emerging, dividing the country. On either side of those lines are potential carriers and potential victims. And at any moment those roles could easily be reversed. That’s why writers need to find the words to erase those borders, to undo them. If I can’t make it to Fukushima this summer, then what am I going to do?
I don’t know. I’m not making any plans. And that’s how I plan to resist the pandemic. But I still have a vision of the world without the virus. One scene as the other . . . We can always be connected with the past. Reading can be a communion with the dead, with their words. We can learn from them. When we read and when we write, we’re constantly traveling beyond time’s borders.
"Ubawareta mono, koeru beki kyōkai." © Hideo Furukawa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by David Boyd. All rights reserved.
The COVID-19 pandemic prompts a middle-aged woman to reconnect with a part of her past in this short story by Yishai Sarid.
I remember almost nothing about him. So many people have passed through my life since then, and he was no more than a marginal episode, a transient character. I never paid him any real attention before. And yet here I am, thirty years later, going to meet him. I recall the way he addressed me in one of his old letters: “My love, my gorgeous.” I may have been gorgeous, but I was never his. All he ever did was bring a brief, vain smile to my young face.
It’s midmorning and the roads are completely open. I have my well-worn classic rock ballad playlist on, the one I know by heart. I can’t listen to the news anymore. I’m sick of illness statistics, isolation restrictions, and politics. I almost texted him to cancel when I was about to head out. I was plagued with doubt. Meeting him is irrational, and contains a hint of infidelity, and I’m no cheater. But my heart told me to go ahead. I needed it too much.
It all started with an overflowing filing cabinet. I couldn’t fit a single piece of paper in. Because of the pandemic, I suddenly had lots of free time on my hands, and I decided to clean it out. Old bills, bank statements, traffic tickets, a history of life’s nuances all mixed together in terrible disarray. I pulled out the heap of papers and went over it, one document at a time. I crumpled most of them, taking pleasure in chucking them in the trash. Then, at the bottom of the pile, I found a large envelope stuffed with old letters—from my parents, my friends, my former lovers. Now this is interesting, I thought. I made myself a cup of coffee and settled in. Through these letters, I dove into a former incarnation of myself, like a land submerged underwater. Some of them made me laugh. Others moved me with the affection they contained. Then I came across one of his letters. The first words hit me, burning with an intense love. I see your face everywhere, he wrote, and I want nothing from you, only to be by your side. There were five letters from him in the envelope, growing more and more desperate, until he stopped writing. At least write me back, he begged. But I hadn’t. I never wrote him a thing. Nor did I call. Through the letters, I re-created the details of our brief acquaintance: he was friends with my roommate, and the three of us went out for a drink once. Later on we must have gone on a group trip up to the Galilee. It looked like we may have gone to a movie, just the two of us, and then once more to the beach. That’s all that ever happened between us. Then I cut him off. He wasn’t interesting enough. In his final letter, he apologized for that time he called me, crying and begging me to see him again. I won’t bother you anymore, he wrote, but please know I’ll always love you.
I put the letters down on the desk, stunned. You should write him, I told myself. No one ever loved you like he did. Others wanted you, sure, but they didn’t burn with this kind of fire. Not even the man you married. I knew if I waited, I’d be overcome by hesitation and would change my mind. So I went straight for my computer and searched for him. When I found him, I sent a friend request. When he didn’t respond, I was relieved. I imagined he wanted nothing to do with me. Why should I invade his life all over again? But a few hours later, I saw he’d accepted my request and written me a message, saying he was happy to hear from me. “Where are you? What do you do now?” he asked.
I laughed. How could I possibly summarize thirty years, in all their ups and downs, to a stranger? I wrote that I live in the city, that I am married, that I have two kids, the eldest already out of the house, the youngest in military service. I told him a little about my work, and how I was working from home now because of this stupid pandemic. There was plenty that I didn’t tell him, of course.
“I live in a village,” he answered. “My kids are grown up too. All that my wife and I have to take care of now are two old dogs. I’m an archaeologist. You probably remember how I talked your ear off about antiquities on that trip we took.”
I remembered vaguely that he was studying something unusual. I wanted to keep chatting. It felt nice. We both made sure not to get too personal. The words were brittle like eggshells under our fingertips. If he was still hurt, he concealed it well. His writing was wise and clean, and the things he told me about his work truly were interesting. He wrote that his specialty was the Canaanite Period, and that he’d just completed a riveting dig in the Carmel region, the results of which have yet to be made public. Then he asked if I was still in touch with his old friend, my former roommate.
“I haven’t heard from him since we graduated,” I answered.
He said, “Me neither. It really is prehistory, isn’t it?”
He’d built a nice life for himself, and I had left no baggage, I thought, a little disappointed. This wasn’t what I wrote to him for. I wrote to him to rekindle his flame; to have someone yearn for me, the way people used to. I didn’t answer his last message. That’s it, it’s over, I told myself, returning the letters to the bottom of the filing cabinet.
Then, a few days later, he offered a sign of life: “Good morning, I was sent home from work too. Want to see my excavation site before the rest of Israel storms the scene?”
My heart pounded. I was a young girl again. I’ve been married almost twenty-five years, and I’ve never gotten carried away on an adventure like this before. Not that I feel trapped in my marriage or anything. I’ve always been independent and my husband doesn’t keep a close watch on my comings and goings. Sometimes I even wish he were a little more jealous. Reading the archaeologist’s message, I hesitated. My thoughts were impure, so I didn’t respond right away. That night, before I got into bed, I gave myself a close look in the mirror. I looked into my eyes, tried smoothing out the wrinkles, combed the graying hair. It wouldn’t be a romantic rendezvous, I assured myself, making excuses. Nothing more than a meeting with an old friend.
“I would love to,” I wrote back. We made a plan to meet two days later, assuming the police didn’t shut down the roads by then. Suddenly, everything accelerated.
What was I going to wear? I found a few old-fashioned glossy photos of myself from back then. They emitted a glowing youth that blinded me. There I was in shorts, a slouchy t-shirt, and sneakers; a naive, captivating smile on my face. I could see why he fell for me. But I knew I couldn’t re-create that charming girl. I no longer looked like her. Even my smile was different. The first moment is the crucial moment, I told myself. It will be disastrous if all he sees when he looks at me is the horror of passing time. I rummaged through my closet over and over until I finally found the right dress and the right shoes. I used just a little bit of natural-looking makeup and hit the road.
My husband is out at his essential job and won’t be back until late. If the police stop me on the way, I decide, I’ll lie that I’m going to buy my mother some groceries before she starves to death. Echo and the Bunnymen sing about a killing moon, and from behind the screen of music I recall his voice as he cried over the phone, begging me to see him again. I just hope he isn’t looking for revenge now. Just don’t let him humiliate me.
I drive according to his directions toward the observation tower in the heart of a forest. He said he’d meet me there. I arrive early. There’s no one else around. I get out of the car and look at the thick woods all around. I close my eyes and feel the breeze, listening to the silence, letting the sun caress my face. The sound of an approaching motorcycle startles me.
He removes his helmet and approaches with hesitant steps, pausing two steps away from me. A man with the sad eyes of a boy. I wouldn’t have recognized him if I ran into him on the street, and his voice doesn’t sound familiar, either.
“Is it really you?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he laughs. He has a kind face and his gaze envelops me with affection. “Have you ever been here before?” he asks.
I say I can’t remember. Perhaps on some Scouts field trip when I was a little girl.
He gestures toward the houses of Haifa on the horizon, and points out the roofs of his small village in the distance. “Let’s go,” he says. “It’s in the forest, there’s no paved route yet.”
He leads the way down the narrow path. I’m not prepared for the steep descent into the ravine. When I almost stumble, his arm shoots out to steady me. His touch is tender, pleasant. “Sorry,” he says, startled.
“It’s fine,” I say.
As we walk, he tells me about the ancient civilization that used to live here, which subsisted on agriculture and fishing. Then he points at the sea that suddenly twinkles beyond the trees. Occasionally he glances back, making sure I’m still listening. Making sure he’s got my attention this time.
“Remember that time we went to the beach together?” he asks all of a sudden, as we reach the bottom of the ravine, picking our way between ferns and thorny raspberry bushes.
“Yeah, sure,” I say with trepidation. This is when the revenge happens, I think. The nasty words, the mortification. He could murder me in this thicket and no one would ever find out.
“That was a wonderful day,” he says. “I was so happy.” Then he starts climbing up the other side of the ravine.
I shouldn’t have worn a dress. It keeps getting tangled in branches, my legs getting scratched and more exposed than I’d like. He strides up the incline, leaving me behind. “Hang on,” I call out.
He pauses. “Sorry,” he says, coming back down the slope. He’s got a nice large head and even his thick glasses suddenly look cute. We climb together now, one step at a time, to the top of the gorge, where we find his excavation site: dug holes containing the foundations of ancient structures. He presents them to me with pride, showing me the ruler’s palace and the homes of the simple folk. When we reach the top of the hill, from which we get a breathtaking view of the sea, he reveals the pièce de résistance: a stack of chiseled rocks. “This used to be the altar,” he explains. “We found some animal bones underneath, as well as a wonderful statuette of a fertility goddess. We’ve already had it shipped to the archaeology museum in Jerusalem.”
“It’s pretty,” I say, tentatively touching the highest rock of the altar. “What happened to the people who used to live here?”
He spreads his arms and shrugs. “I don’t know. Disappeared. Maybe they died in battle. Or a plague. Or just gave up and moved elsewhere.”
Silence. Only the wind blows. He takes a seat on a boulder and stares into the distance. Finally, he gets up, and his sorrow fills the world.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “I was young and stupid.”
He looks at me with desperate longing and says softly, “It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m glad we met again. Now I can remember you forever. I don’t need more than that.”
“Don’t be silly.” I lean against his sacred altar and open my arms to him. “Of course you do.”
"סידור מגירות" © Yishai Sarid. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Yardenne Greenspan. All rights reserved.
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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