A feeling of resignation haunts the verses of this celebrated Palestinian writer, but weariness becomes an improbable source of strength in his work.
Do Palestinian authors speak for their people, or for themselves? Should they write about politics, and if so, how? These dilemmas face many “resistance poets,” but especially Najwan Darwish, who burst onto the world stage in 2000 with his first collection, Kaan yaduqq al-baab al-akhiir (He Knocked the Final Door), and who had his English debut with a volume of selected poems in translation, Nothing More to Lose (NYRB Poets, 2014). Since then, he has been translated into ten languages and garnered praise from writers and critics like Issa J. Boullata and Raúl Zurita. Given such a meteoric flight, some might ask: what about Darwish’s poetry is universal, and what about it is local?
One glimpses the answer in his second collection to be published in English, Exhausted on the Cross, which came out this past February in Kareem James Abu-Zeid’s translation. It’s quieter and more inward-facing than Nothing More (also translated by Abu-Zeid for the NYRB). Politics takes on a broader meaning: from a mundane breakfast of oil and bread to the opulence of medieval Baghdad, Darwish’s capacious vision affirms the plight of his people, but is never confined by it. To steal a phrase from American epigrammatist J.V. Cunningham, the poet appears “weary but composed,” drawing on self-doubt as a source of strength. In sum, he speaks for Palestinians even as he speaks for himself.
True, a tone of resignation does echo in many poems. No doubt this comes from “the tedium of endless occupation,” as Abu-Zeid says in his translator’s afterword. But Darwish trades the cynicism of Nothing More for a hopeful assent to what life under occupation brings. In the poem “A Short Story About the Closing of the Sea,” he peers through the eyes of a boy named Tayseer, who desperately wants to swim at the Port of Gaza. “When the curfew’s lifted, we’ll take you to the sea,” his family tells him. But in an absurdist turn, the curfew finally lifts, only to have his family say, “The sea’s closed now, go to sleep.” Unfazed by the uphill struggle, this little Sisyphus is still holding out by the end of the poem, “eyes gleaming with all the world’s promises.” One imagines Darwish himself sharing the sentiment.
Still, the exhaustion lingers, and it leads to self-reproach when Darwish feels powerless against it. The poem “In Shatila” imagines an old woman amid the squalor of a refugee settlement. The poet can’t bear the sight anymore, so he smiles and turns away. Then he asks a furious question to himself:
How could you smile, indifferent
to the brackish water of the sea
while the barbed wire wrapped around your heart?
How could you,
you son of a bitch?
Paradoxically, when Darwish succumbs to the weight of reality, he starts to wonder if he himself is real. In the poem “Equivocation,” he says, “I don’t have a brother. / My parents never had another child—/ in truth, they never had any.” In another poem, “The Boy of Olives,” he writes, “my story is I have no story; I’m just words.” Darwish’s self-doubt shrivels and shrinks him until he becomes his own ghost, a prospect that recalls words from the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (no relation):
I gaze like a balcony upon what I want
I gaze upon my specter
a distance …
The self-effacing, self-effaced side of Darwish is just one of the apparitions that haunt Exhausted. Others include the ghost of a friend in “A Shadow from Martinique,” and that of Iraqi poet Abdel Amir Jaras, encountered while Darwish thumbs through faded notebooks. There’s a magical realist quality to these poems, as in “The Appearances of Taha Mohammad Ali,” where Darwish reads verses by a Palestinian poet of his grandparents’ generation and wonders how he came to be “wiping my grandmother’s tears from my cheeks.”
But turned another way, the poet’s doubts about reality—especially his own place in it—make him into a force of nature, expanding outwards in all directions until he’s no longer distinct from anything else. He becomes a Whitman-like container of multitudes: now a slave in ancient Egypt, now the bohemian poet Abu Nuwas, now a soldier in disguise.
Other times, it is Darwish who stays put and the world that comes to him. In “Four Meters,” he describes a square room:
In it you could find the northern face of the Caucasus
and the green shadows of Ararat, and all those graveyards
I always avoided, not wanting to know the names on the
At these moments of strength diffused outward, Darwish takes on a mystical quality, filling up the universe and fading into it at the same time (and not without some onomastic irony; his family name is the Arabic way of saying dervish).
In fact, it is Darwish’s identity with another mystic that best seems to capture his stance in Exhausted and his overall public role. In a prose poem called “A Story from Shiraz,” he describes the legendary fourteenth-century encounter between Turco-Mongol warlord Tamerlane and Persian Sufi poet Hafez. Tamerlane is troubled by a verse from Hafez that says he would give up Samarkand and Bukhara—the two grandest capitals of the realm—for just two beauty marks on the face of the beloved, who in a mystical context stands for Deity. The world-conqueror summons Hafez, worn down and dressed in rags, and asks how he could so easily give up worldly extravagance.
The poet, surrounded by carnage and burning streets, flashes a knowing smile. “The extravagance of which you speak has put me in my present state,” he retorts, exposing Tamerlane’s sweeping conquests for the hellscape that they are. Darwish takes this faraway moment of wry defiance as a badge for Palestinian opposition. “You’re still resisting,” ask the invaders, “in such a wretched state?” To which Darwish/Hafez replies:
We’re still able to respond,
and we’re still smiling
and taking you unawares,
the defeated entourage.
With an honest if disquieting turn, the poet no longer seeks martial victory because he knows it’s impossible. Ruination is assured, and the best Darwish can do now is conquer his own despair by maintaining composure. “Who’s the bravest in defeat?” he asks in the poem “In Defeat.” “Who’s the foremost in falling back?” With what strength he can summon, he raises his defeated banner—the title of another poem—and claims the dignity in turmoil that is all he and his people have left.
Here is the force behind the book’s governing symbol of crucifixion, a favorite trope of 1950s Arabic modernist poets (like Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Salah Abd al-Sabur) for its embodiment of collective suffering. In “They Awoke You at Dawn,” dedicated to one Rasmea Odeh, Darwish imagines Christ as a Palestinian freedom fighter (fedayee) and the dedicatee as being hoisted onto her cross day after day. In the poem that gives Exhausted its title, he prays for an end to Palestine’s crucifixion-like anguish. But Darwish is no mere spectator—in the opening line, he places himself on the gibbet with his people:
The ones hanging
so bring us down
and give us some rest.
And in “To This Very Moment,” he makes the connection sublimely complete:
I can hear them pounding in the nails,
their joy boundless…
I’m sleeping in the shade
in the swelter of the midday sun,
continue to crucify me.
Yet rather than labor under delusions of self-sacrifice, Darwish does not endure for his people, but with them. The plural pronoun—“bring us down, give us some rest”—is paramount. His crucifixion is their crucifixion, just as his salvation is theirs, too. In seeing his own fate tied to Palestine’s, he understands that resignation and self-doubt, once a reason to question his own role and even his own reality, have come full circle and turned into a source of inner resolve.
In the end, given the nature of literary history, Darwish will be remembered for poems that speak directly to the politics of the Palestinian struggle. But to ignore everything else—and there is much more—does him a real disservice. As fellow countryman and artistic forebearer Mahmoud Darwish wrote in the Summer 2000 issue of Banipal, the same year that Najwan Darwish published his first work: “Poetry is born of the first astonishments at life, when nascent humanity wondered at the first mysteries of existence. In this way, the universal is, from the very beginning, local.”
"Wild Swims," a new collection by the Danish writer, showcases her ability to use narrative blank spots and unresolved situations as devices to lure readers into her work.
One of the great joys of oral storytelling is the intimacy often forged between a talented speaker and an audience, which can transform any room into a two-person confessional, a late-night phone call, or a conversation with the stranger at the nearest barstool. I’ve been thinking about this kind of intimacy while reading and rereading Wild Swims, the latest story collection by Danish author Dorthe Nors, translated confidently by Misha Hoekstra. Shortlisted for the International Man Booker Prize in 2017, as well as being the first Danish writer to have a story published in The New Yorker, Nors has steadily gained international recognition over the past decade, and with Wild Swims, the author continues her streak of powerful flash and short fictions first introduced to English speaking readers in 2014’s Karate Chop. Across fourteen compact stories, most no longer than five pages, Nors mixes first and third person perspectives, luring the reader with an intimate tone and a masterful handling of pace and plot construction. The result is a collection reminiscent of a magnetic speaker standing at a microphone, enthralling her audience while sharing a secret.
Part of the appeal of reading a story like “In a Deer Stand,” which opens the collection, is Nors’ ability to produce engrossing narratives from bare-bones situations. Here, an injured, unnamed man—most of Nors’ characters are nameless—sits alone in a hunting stand, waiting for someone to pass by and offer help. He never leaves the stand over the course of the story, and not a soul enters the woods he lies in, yet Nors builds dynamism through the comings and goings of her protagonist’s memory. The story creeps back and forth in time, filling in the gaps of just how this man ended up in such a predicament and replicating the flitting nature of thought patterns. Take this short passage:
He’s seen it in the newspaper, but wolves can’t climb, and it’s just a question of time before she sits down next to the washing machine. Her hands cupped over her knees, and he hasn’t seen her cry in years. She didn’t cry when her mother died. Her face can clap shut over a feeling like the lid of a freezer over stick insects. He had some in eighth grade, in a terrarium, stick insects.
Nors slyly moves the reader through roughly concurrent scenes—the man considering the possibility of nearby wolves, which he read about in the paper, and his wife collapsing over his disappearance—before reversing decades in time to when the man was a teenager. Purely from a grammatical standpoint, the writing is brilliant in its control, beginning with the past perfect “He’s seen;” jumping to the present with “can’t,” “it’s,” and “sits”; moving back to past tense with “cupped;” and so on. Over five brief sentences, Nors—plus Hoekstra—marvelously compresses time, and thanks to this, a man can stay completely still for a full story while nevertheless keeping the reader entranced with glimpses of depression, teenage science projects, and a third wheel complicating his marriage.
Frequently, Nors uses this skillful approach to nonlinear plotting to dip into a character’s history. “Manitoba” follows a divorced man frustrated by the noisy kids camping in a nearby field. Like “In a Deer Stand,” the man scarcely acts in the story. He scowls and thinks of escaping to a hunting cabin for some peace and quiet, yet in bursts his past as a teacher seeps to the foreground, including allusions to a pedophilic relationship with a student. In the collection’s title story, a woman’s long-ago connection to her sister slowly materializes as the character works up the wherewithal to visit the local pool during a heat wave. Though the story contains more immediate action than “In a Deer Stand” and “Manitoba,” these segues into the woman’s bygone years make the story memorable, for they fuse her actions to past relationships, creating echoes that would otherwise fail to exist. They also introduce a mystery: Is Emilie, the sister, still alive?
Questions like this pepper Wild Swims. Nors avoids over-explanation and purposefully includes narrative blank spots. Emilie’s status, much like the potential student relationship of “Manitoba” (“Up close, the skin of her face was thin and alive”), is left for the reader to draw his or her own conclusion. This, in turn, can lead to multiple interpretations. A similar unknown lingers in “By Sydvest Station,” which sees two women, Kirsten and Lina, spend a day knocking on apartment building doors to seemingly collect money for a cancer society. They chat, play games, and joke about the residents they encounter, but threaded within these visits sits an opaque conflict haunting Lina: “…her head is full of him and what he said. It hurt her…” Nors writes in the story’s opening paragraph. Soon thereafter, Lina recalls that “…nobody knows that he told her…that her love couldn’t be genuine. That no one really loved that way.” Nors refuses to fully explain the conflict, and while all signs point to a romantic breakup, the reader is nevertheless tasked with filling in the gaps as Lina considers shouting, “All I’m doing is trying to move on after my emotional life went to the dogs, so shove it, motherfucker, you goddamn loser” at one of the residents.
These small mysteries help to forge a unique bond between author and reader. They create a sense of trust, of Nors putting faith in the reader to find his or her own way to the finish line. Nothing is spoon-fed, and this challenge becomes a key to the author-reader relationship. These mysteries also suggest a level of intimacy, of shared references, the way a friend may namedrop an acquaintance while recalling a recent escapade, assuming you’re still able to follow along. Yet is this a true intimacy, or are Nors’ deceptions merely crafted to mimic such connections? After all, a shared frame of reference may be impossible to establish when discussing fiction, itself a form based on the creativity of the lone storyteller. And I’d be lying if I said I never once had to stop mid-story to try to figure out if a character had been introduced earlier in the narrative. Still, perhaps it’s because of Nors’ big swings that the collection separates itself from so many of its contemporaries. Her commitment to leaving space for the reader to become part of the story creates its own sense of pleasure. There is never a point where her technique begins to show its seams, or where the author doesn’t craft with a sense of closeness, true or fabricated, toward her audience. These stories may be short in length, yet they all possess an abundance of depth.
GOTO WARD SENT ROPY
thef utur ecan goto
hell andm eltt here
huma nkin dcan goto
thef utur ethe nrot
infa rawa yice land
thet ribe obse rves
asag laci erde cays
thes amea sape rson
sinc eice land only
bear ssan dand rock
itca nnot care less
ifli feis thri ving
when iwas five isaw
atow erin ggla cier
that late rdro wned
amon gthe drif tice
trans. Larissa Kyzer
It was about four years ago, during the last summer I spent as a full-time resident of Iceland, that I read the above poem by Kári Tulinius and felt something crystalize in my understanding of the country whose literature inspired me to move across the ocean and keeps me returning to this small, weather-beaten island on the edge of the habitable world. Icelanders, I gathered—reading in between the poignant pauses of each of these lines—are a people on the periphery, fated to watch their glaciers vanish.
Certainly, there’s an underlying metaphor here. As a nation, Iceland is dead center, situated physically and culturally smack-dab between North America and Europe. And yet, in terms of actual agency, it is perpetually on the sidelines. This is a country whose greatest economic missteps ended up playing a key role in a global recession; whose volcanic eruptions have hobbled international travel and turned its tongue-twisting place names into mangled punchlines; whose sometimes topical (if ill-advised), usually savvy and self-deprecating marketing campaigns and Instagram-perfect landscapes have made it a bucket-list destination for travelers aching to experience the kind of “authentic” wilderness that is steadily, stealthily, vanishing.
when i was five i saw
a towering glacier
that later drowned
among the drift ice
And vanishing it is. Because there’s a more literal context for Kári’s poem as well. (Fun fact: Icelanders typically refer to each other by their first names, even in print; I’ll be abiding by that practice throughout this essay.) In late April of 2019, Icelandic geologists made a shocking prediction: if current climate conditions continue apace, the Snæfellsjökull glacier—a towering, frozen meringue that can be seen from over a hundred miles away on a clear day and has inspired authors from Jules Verne to Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness—will have all but vanished within the next thirty years.
This issue attempts to navigate the space that Iceland occupies, spotlighting Icelandic writing from the last five years that engages with global socio-political issues, contemporary mindsets, and topics of public conversation from the perspective of a nation that is literally and figuratively on the periphery—at once very much impacted by, and participant in, these conversations, but still a minor player, without the stature, or power, to effect real change on, say, the international climate policy that will have everything to do with whether those glaciers melt—or at the very least, how fast.
The issue also looks at the flip side of this marginality—the ways in which being supporting cast on the world stage means avoiding the spotlight when it comes to issues that the country still has work to do on. (Who can bother, after all, with a few soiled socks from a country like Iceland when the US alone generates more than enough dirty laundry for everyone?) The scope of the topics explored in this issue is, therefore, necessarily broad without being comprehensive, running the gamut from environmental issues and queer rights to intimate partner violence, immigration and migration, and participation in international aid efforts.
Climate change and human impact on the natural world are issues of genuinely existential concern for many Icelanders and inform two pieces included here. The first, a selection of three poems from the longer cycle “Sinkings,” is taken from Haukur Ingvarsson’s 2018 collection Ecostentialism, which, in its nascent form, won the Tómas Guðmundsson Prize for an as-yet unpublished collection of poetry. Ecostentialism is Haukur’s own coinage, drawn from the original title Vistarverur, which can be read as “living quarters,” as well as being a portmanteau of the Icelandic words for “ecosystem” and “existentialism.” These parallel connotations—the urban environment, human habitations, the natural world, and spiritual questions of man’s place within these spaces—create the uneasy backdrop for Haukur’s poems, intermixing the corporeal and the spiritual to form, as the prize committee noted, “a continuum between the two.”
Dividing her time between two largely rural island nations in opposite hemispheres, Kiwi-Icelandic author Bergrún Anna Hallsteinsdóttir is acutely aware of the way in which one’s surroundings, natural or otherwise, have a tangible and profoundly physical effect on one’s body, just as they have an emotional or spiritual effect on the psyche. “It’s difficult to calculate the influence of the missus of the night” explores this looming absence—a meditation on the light (pollution) of the city, the darkness of the wilderness, and a reckoning with what it means to protect something you didn’t even realize you had in the first place.
If Iceland tends to be forward-looking when it comes to environmental issues, as a nation, it also has notably progressive attitudes toward gender and sexuality and has made a concerted effort, particularly in recent years, to champion LGBTQIA+ rights, not least in the form of 2019’s Gender Autonomy Act. The country elected Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, the world’s first openly gay head of state in 2009, has resettled queer refugees fleeing persecution for their sexuality, and sees roughly a third of the nation turn out for its annual Pride parade. But the work is far from over: queer youth still report a high rate of verbal harassment and feeling unsafe at school; queer families still face a variety of heteronormative pressures and microaggressions in their daily lives.
Poet and playwright Eva Rún Snorradóttir explores the latter in her ruminative “In Human-Made Society,” a poem from the deeply personal Seeds that Impregnate the Darkness, which won the 2018 Maístjarnan, the national award for the year’s best book of poetry. The collection illuminates the experience of being a lesbian parent, wife, and woman, the feeling of always needing to explain oneself within those contexts, and the external forces and authorities that dictate the parameters of one’s daily life.
The Imposter Poets formed in part as a response to such strictures; three members of the all-woman collective—Fríða Ísberg, Thora Hjörleifsdóttir, and Thórdís Helgadóttir—are included in this issue.
Societal pressure and the corrosive effect of empty ambition are at the heart of Fríða Ísberg’s short story “Blue Days,” taken from the author’s Nordic Council Literature Prize-nominated collection, Itch. The collection paints an evocative portrait of millennial life in today’s Reykjavik, a capital city that’s more like a very large village where the only new faces are those of the tourists who visit in droves every year and where one’s accomplishments (or lack thereof) are always subject to public critique and comment. Each of Fríða’s characters grapples with a different “itch,” an underlying and unshakable anxiety—the obsession with positive reinforcement, for instance, or, as she has termed it, the “anxiety of making it.”
An excerpt from Thora Hjörleifsdóttir’s searing debut novel, Magma, paints a visceral portrait of an abusive relationship from the almost suffocatingly interior perspective of its narrator, a young woman who has experienced profound trauma but is still bold enough to go on extended, solitary backpacking trips across the world, sexually voracious and unapologetic about it, and surrounded by close family and friends. But an unexpected relationship turns her life and personality upside down, as her new boyfriend chips away at her confidence, gaslights her, isolates her, cajoles her into increasingly rough sexual acts that she doesn’t enjoy, and more—all while mocking her outside relationships and sexual past, dictating the terms of her appearance, and openly sleeping with other women. In its simple, unvarnished language, Magma poses an unflinching answer to the question “why does she stay?” And for a nation that is routinely celebrated as the “Best Place in the World to be a Woman,” performing best globally in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, it’s a difficult question to grapple with. But the stark reality is that gender-based violence and sexual assault have been, and remain, shockingly common in Iceland; the nation also has a startling low rate of reporting and prosecution of rapists and perpetrators of domestic violence. Magma was timely when it was published in 2019, but it’s become all the more relevant during the COVID pandemic. Reports of intimate partner and domestic violence increased as much as 14% during the virus’s first wave in Iceland and two women were killed by intimate partners in the first weeks of the nation’s lockdown, reigniting a national conversation that is far from finished.
At turns magical and menacing, “The Sea Gives Us Children,” by poet and playwright Thórdís Helgadóttir, is a masterclass in atmosphere, a sort of capsized and condensed Lord of the Flies with profound heart, and an allegory that eschews easy interpretation. There are no boats on Thórdis’s unnamed island and no adults, but an almost constant sense of unarticulated danger. It’s a story that speaks to the position that children growing up today often find themselves in: raising themselves in a world that is dangerous and threatening and absurd and that they didn't have a hand in creating but nonetheless have no choice but to adapt to.
An excerpt from visual artist, poet, and novelist Steinunn G. Helgadóttir’s 2019 novel The Strongest Woman in the World takes us to a different island—this time Lesbos during the ongoing refugee crisis. Eiður, the narrator, is the reluctant leader of a ragtag group of activists whose passion and commitment to social change he envies but lacks himself. The piece is an empathetic exploration of liberal, white, Northern European guilt and the limits of good intentions; how ethical, really, is a worldview that isn’t put into practice? And then again, how ethical is a worldview that is driven by a sense of obligation and the idea that one is in a position to save the world?
Complicity and inaction are at the heart of Björn Halldórsson’s “The Husband and His Brother,” taken from the literary critic and author’s 2017 Grassroots Grant-funded debut short story collection, Misdemeanors. In it, Jóhann, a happily married father of two young children, receives a call from his brother Böddi, who believes his wife Marion has just left him. Filipinos make up one of the largest immigrant populations in Iceland, and couples who, like Böddi and Marion, met on internet dating sites intended to connect older Icelandic men with younger Filipino women, are not uncommon. Over a cup of instant coffee, Jóhann listens to his brother talk about his relationship with his wife—all the while fighting to suppress the feeling that there’s something ominous about her sudden departure. It’s a story that explores regret, fractured familial relationships, things left unsaid, interventions left undone, and the seemingly small (in)decisions that can’t be gone back from.
These writings represent but a fraction of the excellent work by Icelandic authors, emerging and established, that could have been included in this issue. Together, however, I hope they give a sense of the breadth of the Icelandic literary scene and the way in which, for Icelanders, literature continues to be a vibrant site of social engagement and critique, a harbor both outward and inward-looking, on the margins of daily life and yet still, crucially, not.
“GOTO WARD SENT ROPY” was published in Exchanges in 2017 and appears here by permission of the author.
© 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.
On a strange island uninhabited by adults, danger lurks in this story by Thórdís Helgadóttir.
Listen to Thórdís Helgadóttir read "The Sea Gives Us Children" in the original Icelandic.
There are no boats on the island. Sometimes, Guðrún and I go down to the beach, just to let the wind beat our faces. We come home with salty lips and red ears. The wind whets our features until they become sharper, our similarities harder to discern. I always have a runny nose, but somehow Guðrún never does. She’s made from sterner stuff.
The beach is unsheltered. But even though I’m standing before the open sea with infinity all around me, I can’t shake my claustrophobia. The sky hangs low and vast, like a lid atop the island, matte and white. Milk, not water.
I ask Guðrún if she thinks other islands exist. She shakes her head.
The quiet hour begins at seven o’clock. No one’s allowed out later than that. I shore up my courage and complain. It isn’t fair. My bedtime’s not until nine—I’m quite capable of being careful while I play.
Guðrún looks at me severely. I should know better. We have this rule for the sake of the little ones, who grow so quickly and need to go to sleep early. As I well know. We can’t take any risks. Not with their souls.
Which is why, at seven on the dot, we nestle down under our quilts with ice water and books on our bedside tables. We flip through the pages carefully, as if they were butterfly wings.
Our books are about other islands. Some are about boats. One of the girls I sometimes play with in the lava field says her brother has a telescope and has seen other islands. Her name is Karen and I’ve caught her lying more than once. She says we’re forbidden to take the telescope out into the lava field. And that her brother doesn’t want strangers using it either.
One morning, Karen doesn’t come out to play. I fool around on my own—climb, make mud pies, and decorate them with snapdragons and horsetails. Later that day, I find out that a new child has arrived at theirs. I remember how the sea was that morning, how choppy it was, how the surf had suddenly shrieked aloud. It must have been at that exact moment that the child was born.
A few days later, she comes out with Karen. A little sister, plumped up like a teddy bear and sturdy on short, fat legs. She stuffs her mouth with berries and pees into crannies. Karen says she’s called Angela.
If there aren’t any other islands, then where do the children come from? I ask Guðrún. Then where did Angela come from? Guðrún just shakes her head, disappointed with me. Do I really think infants swim over here from far-flung islands? It’s unlikely, I have to admit. Angela can’t even run. It’s hard for her to walk a few steps without falling on her butt. Her body’s so little I don’t get how a whole person can fit in there.
I’m sitting in bed reading during the quiet hour when all of a sudden I notice something moving atop my quilt. A tiny dot. I hold my breath and whisper for Guðrún, who hears me through the wall and glides into my room like the wind. She crouches silently by my bed.
We can’t take any risks.
For a long time, we say nothing, just watch the spider as it inches its way along the quilt. It disappears into a fold, reappears, and continues toward the footboard, along the side rail, onto the bed leg, and finally all the way down to the floor. It’s an itsy-bitsy dwarf spider—dark brown with a bulbous belly that looks soft to the touch. It traces its way along the floorboards and eventually disappears into a crack in the molding. For a long time after, I sit there frozen and don’t dare go to sleep, even though Guðrún’s being nice to me. She strokes my hair and says I’ll be safe while I sleep. But she doesn’t understand what it is that I’m afraid of.
After this, I stop complaining about the quiet hour.
Karen says she’s seen it when the souls begin their perambulations. Everyone shares a single bedroom at her house. Her brother is always early to bed, she says. I have my doubts. Karen’s brother is a teenager, like Guðrún, and she always goes to sleep long after I do.
But then there’s Angela. She’s so little that she’s always having to lie down. Karen tucks her in, sings until she sees her little sister nod off. Once her eyelashes are resting on her cheek, says Karen, it’s only a few minutes before she sees the soul come crawling out of Angela’s left ear. It spins a delicate thread, tiptoes weightlessly up the wall, and finds its way out through an open window. I shudder. What color is it? I ask Karen. Black, she says. Tiny, furry, and black as coal.
Guðrún never has time to play in the lava field with me anymore. I try to get her to come down to the beach for a salt scrub from the wind, but she’s busy. She sits in the big easy chair in the living room and reads. Angela’s sick, so Karen doesn’t come out either. The streets are empty and bathed in harsh sunlight. The wind is biting. I forgot to bring mittens, so my hands turn red and stiff in the cold. I walk all around the village but don’t run into anyone. Snot leaks onto my upper lip and I feel sorry for myself. I come home very late.
Angela is dead. We wake to a dreadful, piercing sound. A throat choking on tears. Screams that seem like they’re ripping a teen boy’s vocal cords to shreds. Karen’s brother holds the body of his youngest sister and trembles like a skeleton. He tries to get some words out, but they’re drowned in the other sounds—the ones coming out of him that he’s not making himself.
It doesn’t take long to discover who’s responsible. I was hoping they’d say it had been an accident. But the guilty party’s been found. It’s a boy Guðrún’s age. He’s ugly, with heavy brown bags under his eyes. He doesn’t have any siblings and can often be seen down on the beach, throwing stones or burning driftwood. Karen says they saw him loitering around their house the night Angela died. He was waiting outside in the twilight, they say, just biding his time.
He denies all charges, which is why no one believes him. Maybe if he said it had been an accident, Guðrún says. People would trust that. But how could anyone be so certain?
We’re sent outside while the older kids have a meeting. Karen doesn’t want to go out in the lava field, so we go to the beach. We find two good sticks. I scrawl a hopscotch board in the sand. Karen beats her stick against the beach stones so that it gradually turns into a blizzard of angry little splinters.
Guðrún is cooking us porridge when I come home. We eat in silence and I try not to betray any emotion. Try not to let Guðrún see how I have to force the food down past my heart, which is lodged in my throat. After dinner, she lies on the sofa while I clean up. She looks older. With her eyes closed, she looks like a grown woman, and I think about the children in our books—children on big, faraway islands who all have mamas. But Guðrún isn’t sleeping. She opens her eyes when I sit down next to her. Looks up at the cupboard.
There’s a box.
Don’t, says Guðrún, when I start climbing. But I’m not going to touch it, I just want to see this new thing that’s appeared at the top of the cupboard. It’s a small box made of clear plastic. I don’t have to open it to see what’s inside.
Brown with yellow streaks on its back. It doesn’t move at all. I look at the spider and hold my breath until I start getting woozy. Then, all of a sudden, it wiggles a leg.
The next time I look, the box is gone. Guðrún says she put it somewhere I won’t find it. She knows very well that I’m not a little kid. But we can’t take any risks. We have to look after the box for one week. After that, the next family will take over, keep it for a week, and so on and so forth, one after the other. When all the families in the village have done their shift, the boy will be released, on a trial basis.
It’s not as much work this way, says Guðrún. Not as much responsibility. If we all take turns.
It’s not until later that I dare ask. Guðrún confirms what I’ve heard. The plan had been to kill him. A life for a life. But everyone had to be in agreement. And they weren’t. Not Guðrún.
For the first time in a long while, I manage to expel all the air from my lungs. I want to fling myself around Guðrún’s neck. Instead, I nod calmly to show that I understand the seriousness of the matter.
Of course, I say. We can’t take any risks.
Guðrún gives me a strange look.
Risks? she says. What do you mean?
I go down to the beach and scream a little at the sea. The sky presses in on my head from all sides, and it aches. The wind fills my mouth. I imagine myself leaping off a cliff, but not seriously.
I go out into the lava field. Out where Karen and I built a fort. It’s well sheltered. Now that I think about it, it makes sense that Angela’s soul came here in its sleep. She’d seen so little––what else would she have dreamed about?
It wasn’t an accident. And yet, who would have expected to see a spider out in the lava? It hadn’t even gotten dark yet. I was looking for crowberries and then, without warning, it crawled out of the heather and up onto the back of my hand—long-legged and quick. I was so shocked I fell over. And then there was this feeling in my fingers, this kind of crushing feeling. They turned into crushyfingers. I was hurt and wanted to avenge myself, to hit back. I didn’t remember the little ones who needed to sleep so much. Didn’t remember that Angela even existed. Guðrún would have helped me remember. Karen, too. But I was all by myself.
Guðrún said something strange to me. We’re free, she said. The sea gives us children, but no explanations. No rules. It’s unbearable. Intolerable. We’re forced to make our own rules. But that means we can also decide what rules we have. We decide what kind of world this is.
I had to be careful not to laugh. If we’d decided on it ourselves, the world wouldn’t be this way: the cliffs, the sky, the smothering sea . . . Listen, said Guðrún. She’d worked herself up a bit. We can be the sea. If we decide to be. Because no one is saying anything else. If we say the rule is that we’re sacred, then we’re sacred!
The moss is soft. I can feel now how tired I am. My eyelids flutter closed once again, and I let my head loll. Half asleep, I feel a tickle in my ear. I think about the spider with the yellow streaks and its legs and how they’d moved. Then I give myself over to sleep.
“Hafið gefur okkur börn” © Thórdís Helgadóttir. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.
Activists volunteering in a Greek refugee camp confront uncomfortable questions about European guilt and the limits of good intentions in this excerpt from Steinunn G. Helgadóttir’s novel The Strongest Woman in the World.
Listen to Steinunn G. Helgadóttir read from "The Strongest Woman in the World" in the original Icelandic.
There were five of us who moved into the abandoned basement apartment on Nýlendagata, and we lived there until we finished junior college.
A bunch of junkies had clearly been holed up here before us, and we spent a long time cleaning, painting, and throwing out syringes and other garbage. It was rather homey by the time we finished, but sometimes, on candlelit evenings, we wondered what had become of the previous tenants. We asked around, but it was strangely hard to find anything out; no one would even admit that there had been people here before us. All we had to go off of were those few hopeless traces, remnants from a congregation that worshipped a different god.
Clothes we bought at Kolaportið flea market and food waste were issues close to our hearts in those days. We learned to scavenge behind shops and restaurants, in dumpsters filled with all sorts of delectables, and twice a week we dressed in dark clothing, poked around back gardens, and rifled through dumpsters in the neighborhood.
I became the cook of the household and the kitchen my domain, where I was free to play with what motley ingredients I had on hand. My menu became increasingly experimental, my imagination and the offerings of the dumpsters boundless. I found freedom at my stove.
Mostly unbruised mango chunks, marinated in moonshine for several days and then blended with peeled oranges in a food processor until foamy.
Truffle oil; sell-by date, January 30
Mint from the neighbor’s garden
French bread, several days old
Two apples, no prob if they’re a little brown
Salad oil; sell-by date, February 15
Dill from the neighbor’s garden
Tear up the mushrooms that are still okay and heat them in the truffle oil
Add the innermost leaves of the leek along with the mint and chopped apples
Crumble French bread and layer the mushroom blend on top
Sprinkle moldy cheese over everything (fine if it’s started to turn)
Heat in the oven at 425° for 20 minutes
Plate with mint and a little squirt of dill-infused salad oil.
Sun-melted chocolate bar with nuts, remelted over a water bath
Yogurt; final sell-by date
Fill a glass with the yogurt and drizzle with melted chocolate.
We called ourselves activists, and whenever we had any money, we sat at Mokka Café with cups of coffee and hand-rolled Bali Shag cigarettes hanging from the corners of our mouths that my friend Már refused to light with anything but a match—he said using a lighter took the joy out of it. Mokka was the site of an endless stream of debates and arguments that we’d then continue at home, fueled by the moonshine and hash that was never in short supply on weekends.
Dóri, Már, and I were best friends, and we became the ringleaders. Már was the kind of guy who always did the right thing whether anyone was watching or not—he always jumped up from his seat on the bus if an old man or a possibly pregnant woman got on—and it was him who’d talk late into the night, stammering a little, about a better world. Már ignited the fire in us. Dóri, on the other hand, was driven by some kind of inner tension. It was like he couldn’t help being aggressive, even though he didn’t want to be. There was always this building sense of turmoil around Dóri in the lead-up to our actions that then tapered off afterward, only to increase again as we prepared for the next battle.
I hid it well, but I envied them their enthusiasm. Myself, I was the face of the group—that was the role I seemed best suited to—but I didn’t want to be. I recited Már’s words, played my part, but there were always doubts, even apathy, dozing just beneath the surface.
Our numbers soon grew, and my comrades’ ideals blossomed even as mine withered and died. A few girls joined the group, too, and I was insecure around them but hid it by treating them coldly. Mostly, I tried to fall in love with a girl who was hopelessly hung up on me, feeding and toying with her pointless affections, which made me attractively bitter. I felt years older than my comrades.
Not long after, Bergþóra came to a party at our place. She didn’t say much, but she was arresting. Bergþóra was tall, her voice deep and a bit husky, drowning out the other girls’, and she had a weird thumb—it was missing the topmost part of the nail. This was a girl who had definite opinions about everything.
The party ended in the early hours of the morning, but Bergþóra stayed, sitting alone and listening to music after everyone else had fallen asleep.
By the time I woke up, she’d already cleaned up. All the glasses had been washed, and she’d aired the smoke smell out of the living room. It was a nice way to wake up, and when she took off her dress and lay down next to me on the bed, she left an impression that would linger for a long time.
Bergþóra stayed with me all the next day, and before she left that night, we sat close together on the front steps. I could just make out the thin silk scarf that she wore to keep her neck warm under the wide collar of her sweater, and sitting side by side, we looked up at the sky and marveled at the stars that maybe didn’t even exist anymore, the occasional lone satellite.
“I like being with you,” I said, tracing my finger along the pale, pink silk. “I want you to stay. To never go home.”
“And you think you’re going to change the world?” She didn’t smile.
“Maybe,” I answered, and Bergþóra took control.
We sat on a broad, flat rock that the Norwegian audio engineer called “The Sweet Spot,” pricking up our ears while our butts went cold and numb, trying to make out where the sounds were coming from—the anxious voices, the cries of children, the sound of whirring motors blending with lapping waves in the coal-black Mediterranean Sea. No moon, no stars. I felt Bergþóra’s hot shoulder against my own and put my arm around her, but she didn’t notice. Her thoughts were with the people in the boats.
We’d been flown over into the capricious Lesbos spring the same day we joined the Norwegian volunteer association two weeks earlier, and had started working an hour after the plane landed. No preparation, just on-the-spot training because the refugees who’d been flooding our TV screens and newspapers back home were right here, right now. We volunteers mirrored them: mothers met mothers, bakers met bakers, teachers met teachers, and cooks, cooks. The wet sneakers and phones drawn out of plastic bags were just like ours, and we’d heard some of the same jokes being cracked.
There wasn’t much the international aid association could do in this place, and while the wind gusted indifferently through the great, wall-less tent that UNICEF had pitched on the site, the queue to the Greek police headquarters got longer and longer. The volunteers tried to keep the chaos in check, but the island had received 350,000 refugees and things were falling apart. Food was also in short supply; the three-gallon pot of soup on the gas stove in the storage tent hardly sufficed.
Our next-to-last shift was coming to an end. We’d peered through binoculars in the twilight, trying to count the boats on the horizon, but it was hopeless. New ones appeared, others didn’t move; some moved quickly, their motors silent. With so many boats approaching, it was hard to distinguish between them, and all you could do was hope they all made it safely to land.
The first boat that came out of the darkness was a big one. We tried to guide the people to a safe place to land, shouting and waving a flashlight and a neon pink life vest that was so torn and frayed that the noxious, wet scraps of paper that it had been stuffed with showed through.
“I think it missed the rocks and made it to shore,” said Bergþóra, and as it turned out, she was right—that time, the boat landed in one piece and the passengers waded joyously ashore. They were saved, they thought, and we tried to be happy for them. Tried to forget that the obstacle course was only now beginning, that the long road to Europe started here.
“We are safe!” a man in his sixties shouted in English. “I love you,” he added and hugged me.
“I love you, too,” I mumbled, clumsily blotting a little boy dry before I handed his mother a blanket. Then I offered the man a cigarette, though I could make out a crumpled pack of Camels in a taped-up Ziploc under his soaking wet shirt.
“Thank you,” he said, his green eyes glinting playfully in the glow of the lighter.
It wasn’t a bad shift, but it was one of the long ones, and we were happy to get back home to the hotel lobby, where the caretaker, Alekos, was sitting in front of the TV like usual, watching the broadcast from Lesbos get repeated, over and over, in news reports all around the world. He himself never went out; he didn’t care to see what was happening. All the curtains were tightly drawn, both in reception and the little room that he had on the ground floor between the slimy swimming pool, which hadn’t been cleaned since the last tourists left, and a closed-up restaurant with Kouzzina written on a blue sign that got a little less blue every time it rained, and which was now swaying ever so much in the evening breeze with a faint creaking sound.
“Does he really live here?” I once asked the hotel owner.
The man, who was never called anything but Owner, looked up proudly from the pyramid he was building out of glasses.
“Yes, it’s part of his wages. He’s divorced, you see,” he answered as though that explained everything, then squinted one eye and held the glass he was drying up to the light. “I just can’t help being helpful sometimes,” he added.
“Eesh, that must be a lonely life,” I murmured. “People who’ve just gotten divorced need company.”
“No, not Alekos. The divorce was a cakewalk—it was the wedding that ended in tears,” said Owner, boldly placing the glass on the tip-top of the pyramid.
We’d now long since ceased being curious, though, and I just nodded toward Alekos as I trotted after Bergþóra up to the shower on the second floor.
“I want to stay on here,” said Bergþóra, massaging the shampoo into her hair. “There’s such a dire need.”
“I want to go home,” I said.
“Don’t be like that,” said Bergþóra, splashing water at me. “You’re the tough guy, remember? Our fearless leader.”
Wrapped in towels, we tiptoed to our room, where Bergþóra rinsed our dirty clothes while I made sandwiches. After eating our simple meal in bed, we put on our other set and went to Parenthesis, the wood-paneled bar on the ground floor.
On our way, we ran into Mabel from Finnmark and Karen from Romsdal, who had both thought they’d spend all the safe, lonely evenings of their lives knitting and sitting in front of the television. When news of the situation in Lesbos broke, they both withdrew their savings and bought flights here without any further planning. Only just landed and a little dazed, they’d immediately found one another and were now looking for the bar, where every voice tried to muscle out the others and the burble would abide no silence.
It was early when we went back up to our room. “I feel like we’ve always been here,” murmured Bergþóra as she fell asleep, leaving me alone in this place where the hotel sign howled and the boats that were sailing around in my head got stranded on unfamiliar shores.
We always set out the day’s plan over breakfast; we knew it would fall apart within the first half hour, but it calmed us.
There were five of us in the old jalopy that we carefully drove past the people who were walking toward the bus stop with what was left of their worldly belongings. There were lone travelers, parents, children, old men, and one person in the only available wheelchair. Everyone was on their way to bigger, unseen refugee camps, and they lined up resignedly, hoping for buses that sometimes came and sometimes didn’t.
We started by asking if anyone needed water, and questions rained down upon us. We had to say the same thing again and again:
Yes, the bus will leave from here. No, I don’t know when.
“It’s strange to think that once the bus comes, we’ll never see these people again—they’ll just disappear,” said Bergþóra, looking over her shoulder as we inched along the sharply winding road, wending between bags and the various and sundry items scattered all the way to the camps.
“And in the end, so will we,” I said.
Finally, we reached the beach. Ruined orange life vests bobbed on the surface of the water and among them battered dinghies, their motors drained of whatever remaining dregs of gasoline.
This last shift, the boats came in all night and we ran out of everything—the mylar blankets, too. Two boats capsized and many were drowned. We sprinted back and forth, trying to drag as many people ashore as possible, and around midnight, a baby was born on the beach. The woman who acted as midwife had given birth herself and helped with lambing; now, she used one of her shoelaces to tie off the umbilical cord.
The last person I met in Lesbos was a teenage girl who waded ashore with her tiny, terrified brother in her arms and a phone in a plastic bag dangling from her wrist. Through the plastic, I could see that the phone was pink and patterned with hearts and unicorns. When I’d wrapped a blanket around the siblings, she looked out over the sea and started to cry.
“Why this my life?!” she asked in broken English. I couldn’t answer, just hugged her for a long time before I followed her to the car, where she left with the boy who was now her responsibility. I never saw her again.
The people were cold, and we gave them what we could. One of the Swedish women tried to set up a nursery of sorts in a car on the beach to keep the littlest ones warm, but when we left the site, we heard a woman’s voice telling her off for separating children from their parents, and the last thing we heard as we walked in the direction of the hotel was the thin, apologetic Swedish voice of a woman who had only meant well.
Dead tired, we stood with empty backpacks in front of the caretaker in reception, waiting for the car that would drive us to the airport.
“We have to come back here,” said Bergþóra.
“Maybe many, many years from now,” I answered. “As tourists. We’ll lie on the beach during the day with cold drinks and look out into the clear blue sky, long after all these people are living peacefully back at home.”
A Finnish volunteer on his first day came in. “A child’s body just washed up on the beach,” he said, teeth chattering.
“Maybe it’s better this way,” said Mabel ruefully. “The child’s in a better place, at journey’s end.”
I felt sick, stood up, and ran out with Bergþóra behind me.
“Do you think you’ve come down with something?” she asked, concerned, and I didn’t even try to answer.
Once in the dilapidated taxi, we were silent the whole way to the airport. Driving out of town and into the darkness, we passed a cheerful, well-lighted shop window I hadn’t seen before. The warm glow illuminated a beautiful array of colorful books, and I tried to keep the window in sight as long as I could, stared at the yellow square getting smaller and smaller until it finally disappeared in the darkness. I didn’t want to stop looking; it was the only constant in this place where everything left.
From Sterkasta kona í heimi. © Steinunn G. Helgadottir. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.
Day and night, light and dark, and humanity and the natural world converge in this poem by Bergrún Anna Hallsteinsdóttir.
Listen to Bergrún Anna Hallsteinsdóttir read "It's Difficult to Calculate the Influence of the Missus of the Night" in the original Icelandic.
“Það er erfitt að reikna út áhrif næturmissis” © Bergrún Anna Hallsteinsdóttir. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Meg Matich. All rights reserved.
Societal pressure and the corrosive effect of ambition are at the heart of this short story by Fríða Ísberg.
We shell time from the nuts and teach it to walk:
time returns to the shell.
–– Paul Celan, “Corona” (Trans. Pierre Joris)
She’s in the middle of moving the first time she sees him. Or notices him is maybe a more accurate way to put it, you never know in Reykjavik, she’s probably seen him dozens of times over the years. Crossed paths with him in the mall. Sat across from him in the hot pot at the neighborhood pool.
It’s mid-September and the days are all a faded blue. She and Indriði have just broken up. The leaves crunch when she steps on them. Everything smells like a beginning, even though it’s actually an ending. Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends. This line keeps running through her head. It’s from a Paul Celan poem, “Corona.” She’s tried translating it, but the more she reads it, the more cryptic it becomes.
She’s relieved more than anything. But she feels guilty, too. They’re still engaged on Facebook. When they were together, she’d used all the big words—soulmates, love of my life—she’d talked at length, and openly, about their future children. “No one knows where their life is going until it’s gotten there,” someone had said—who now? Grandma? Aunt Lára?—but she’d waved away such words of warning like a bad smell. She knew what she wanted. She and Indriði would have a good, long life together: pancakes on Sundays, sheet cake mid-week, knitting needles and a pipe (he’d do the knitting, she the pipe smoking), and when they saw the end was nigh, they’d walk up a mountain or into the sea. Meet death holding hands. Or something like that.
She inches her car into the lot at Sorpa, the dump and recycling center on the western edge of town. He’s in a pair of coveralls made from some kind of reflective material. He’s wearing two company-issued neck warmers, both pink—one around his throat and pulled up over his chin, the other around his head and over his ears. He’s got an honest air about him. His Icelandic is delicate. Almost fragile, breakable.
Stubble, a few days’ worth. Melancholy eyes. Eyebrows like humped caterpillars. He, too, is searching her face as he instructs her on what goes into which dumpsters. There’s a big broken mirror in her trunk that she needs to throw out.
“Nice nose,” he says before she drives over to the right container.
She pulls shards from the mirror one by one. The slivers shatter into smaller fragments when she tosses them into the dumpster like they’ve done something to her. The dumpster’s almost empty, and she likes making such a racket. She pauses for a moment with the last shard and examines her nose.
It’s a bit sharp. Like a teacher’s pointer.
She flings the shard into the dumpster with unnecessary force, like some sort of unruly teenager. Looks around. Just as well that this only counts as one mirror. Otherwise, she’d be looking at decades of bad luck. At least five times seven. Thirty-five years.
Indriði calls her every night, says he’s having trouble sleeping. “I haven’t slept alone since I was fifteen,” he says. She hears him pacing the floor as he talks to her. He’s stressed. Can’t stand change. Sometimes, he shows up late at night and tries to kiss her on the mouth. Hugs her tight and long and strokes her hair.
“You and I are sponges,” she tells him. “There’s an indentation in you that’s shaped like me. There’s an indentation in me that’s shaped like you. It takes time to re-expand.”
The next time she sees him is a week later, in the car. It’s around five—he must be on his way home from the dump. The weather’s come full circle. A low-pressure system has passed over and the sky’s turned a beautiful blue once again, like a new beginning, except now the leaves aren’t crackly but wet. She’s on her way to dinner at her parents’ house. She’s got both windows rolled down and is inching along in first gear. Somewhere behind her, she hears the opening bars of “Girl from the North Country”—another car must have its windows open, too. It’s the Nashville Skyline version, the one Dylan did with Johnny Cash. She switches off her radio to listen.
At the next light, a car in the next lane runs the yellow and the music gets louder. It’s coming from an old Jeep Cherokee with faux wood siding that stops next to her at the light. She used to think faux wood was tacky, but now she thinks it’s cool. It takes a moment for her to recognize him. He’s not wearing his garbage uniform; his left arm is resting on the driver’s-side door. He’s humming along with the song. They’re both at the front of their lanes. She hurries to look ahead again before he notices her.
Why is it that your subconscious can tell when another living being is looking at you? Like some sort of built-in security system. Homo securitas.
He looks at her right as she’s looking away. She can feel his gaze. Does he recognize her? The song ends and the next one on the album begins—the one that’s just guitar picking.
She turns at the next intersection, heads west though she needs to go east. Takes the long way along the coastal road.
Her parents mourn the relationship like they would an only son. Her mom makes a point of telling her that there aren’t necessarily more fish in the sea—the best ones are always the first to go. “Stop it, all right—I’m twenty-four,” she says. In a huff, her mother purses her lips, sets plates on the table, and clatters three sets of silverware down in the middle. Her dad sighs deeply a few times. It’s the lack of reasons they can’t accept. They paw at her answers like dogs at a closed door. Doesn’t she love him anymore? What happened? Only a few weeks ago, they’d been so happy together.
Yes, she still loves him.
“Then what?” her mother asks impatiently.
“I don’t know,” she answers. “I just want to be alone.”
After dinner, she takes the long way back to her apartment. Drives out to the lighthouse and then back home from there. On the way, she tries to imagine what his name might be. Sævar. Or Stefán. Something ordinary. But not Kristján. Or Markús. She has a hard time shaking off the look he gave her. Feels almost self-conscious sitting there in the car, as if he were about to barrel up next to her at any moment. Does he have children? A wife? How many gray hairs has he had? No more than forty-two—forty-three at most.
Indriði calls her that night. He’s three sheets and a thousand ideas, rattling on about some trip he wants to take around the world. She mm-hmms, encourages him, Mongolia would be something, sure. Vietnam, yeah. But then he stops speaking in the singular and shifts into the plural. “Maybe I’ll” turns into “We could,” and she can’t find any opening to interrupt and gently turn down the invitation. Scrolls through her feed while he blathers on. One of her former classmates is pregnant. She likes her aunt’s new profile picture.
“So, there’s this girl on Facebook who’s been talking to me.”
“Oh, yeah?” she says. “Talking to you? You’re not talking back?”
“I don’t know how to do this stuff.”
“Well, try asking her out.” She has trouble with the idea as soon as she says it. “Take her to a movie.”
“Maybe I will then,” he says and hangs up.
She thinks about him often—Sævar or Stefán or whatever his name is. He pops up at night, when she’s driving alone and listening to music or taking a walk around the neighborhood. She realizes that she’s romanticized this man out of all proportion, turned him into a relic of a bygone era who puts milk and two sugars in his coffee and listens to AM radio every morning. She has no idea if he takes milk and sugar in his coffee or ever listens to the radio, and even if he does, that doesn’t mean he’s some rare species on the verge of extinction. But the bottom line remains the same: working at the dump doesn’t define him. His coveralled modesty. His beautiful Icelandic. She knows this, and yet she still thinks of him as the garbageman.
That same month, she realizes that she’s never going to stop striving as long as she’s in Reykjavik. She can’t figure out how to shrug out of her ambition. It doesn’t make any difference if she slows down, refuses to run. She’s still on the track. It doesn’t matter how often she reminds herself that she’s not falling behind, not losing to anyone: “Life isn’t a competition. Life is living. Life is drinking coffee and enjoying your day.” Sometimes, little showers of terror rain over her and she feels like she should quit her job at the nursing home and figure out what she really wants to do with her life. Whenever she runs into her former high school classmates out at bars or in coffeehouses, they ask what she’s doing and then she feels like she should be doing something more than reading books, baking cakes, and wiping old people’s bottoms. “And then what?” is always the question that comes next. No one expects that this might be enough for her.
She can’t seem to shake Indriði, either. He comes by on Saturdays after the bars close, three or four in the morning, scruffy and desperate.
“It’s abusive,” her friends say. “Accosting you like that.”
“He’s in a bad place.”
“That’s not your problem. Do you know how many people are in a bad place?”
“Why have we all absolved ourselves of the responsibility we have to one another? There’s a difference between being codependent and empathetic.”
She lets Indriði in and lets him sleep in her bed. Holds him and lets him hold her.
“And then what?” her friends ask.
“And then nothing,” she says. “He knows how I feel.”
Uncertainty begets anxiety. Wanting to ease off the clutch, but only knowing how to go up or down a gear. She wants tranquility, but she also wants to be something. You can have your cake and eat it, too, Dylan sings in “Lay Lady Lay.” She thinks about the garbageman and how calm he was. Comfortable in his own skin. She doesn’t see him again until long after New Year’s, on a Sunday at the start of April. During what she thinks of as the waking week, that stretch in April during which the whole nation keeps leaping out of bed far too early—tricked by the premature sunlight, confused when the clock shows it’s only five, five-thirty—only to sigh and fall back onto their pillows, skin clammy and eyes clenched tight against the brightness for two more hours.
Baby prams. Bicycles. Beautiful coats. She sees him in his Jeep and thinks: This is a man who only exists on blue days. She’s just come out of a bakery, is standing at the intersection waiting for the walk signal. He’s ordinary, wearing a black lopapeysa, with that same three-day stubble that he always has. He catches sight of her, lifts a hand. It takes her a minute to realize he’d been waving hello. Then he’s driven past. She sees his eyes appear in the rearview mirror. Goes up to the window of the ice cream shop on the other side of the street and sees herself reflected there. Why does he remember her? She runs her index finger down the bridge of her nose.
Part of her wants to put her arms around him and save him. Such are the thoughts that creep up on her way home. Her pastries long since forgotten in the bag hanging from her wrist. She could invite him over the next time she sees him, for coffee. Buy a little carton of creamer to have on hand.
She briefly looks up at the sky. Svanur. That would suit him.
By the time she opens the door to her apartment, she’s irritated with herself for thinking he needs saving. Ambition is a weed she wants to pull up by the roots, but its roots are like veins inside her. She was raised on ambition. Fed on her parents’ pride. By hearing them say her name to strangers in the shop. “Why don’t you come back home?” they ask. “Save for an apartment, go to university? We’ll help you.”
Her ambition can’t understand how a person can be comfortable in his own skin and work as a garbageman. She herself can’t understand how a person can be comfortable in her own skin with this kind of ambition inside her.
There are more blue days after that, and she always expects him to appear. It doesn’t occur to her to make a trip down to Sorpa. Indriði calls occasionally, and every time, there’s a lull in the conversation and then he asks her if she’s started talking to other guys. No, she isn’t talking to other guys. He says he isn’t going out with other girls, but sometimes she hears that someone saw him downtown, making out with someone she knows—or someone she doesn’t. She’d prepared herself for a physical reaction when she found out that he’d started sleeping with other people again. “It’ll make you gag,” her friend told her. “Like you’re going to throw up. Feelings are everywhere. Not just in your head.” But the first time she hears about her former fiancé’s new love life, she has to search her pockets for any trace of jealousy. She doesn’t find any.
June arrives and the blue days turn a brilliant, sunshine yellow. On cloudless summer days, the sun is too bright. She stops paying attention to who or what is around her, just lies out on the balcony when she’s not working at the nursing home, reads book after book, eats whole liters of homemade ice cream, doesn’t pick up when her parents call. They’re worst at the start of the month, right before the university’s registration deadline. They’re casual—just calling to chat, hear what she’s been up to—but it doesn’t take long for the conversation to turn to their friends’ kids, who are studying business, nursing, academic counseling, Italian. “Just something,” they say. “You have to use your gifts. You’re so smart.”
Where should she go? East? North? West? She could say she was going backpacking like other kids her age and then find herself somewhere cheap to live where she could just let the minutes hop along like mice across a field of snow.
The last time she sees him, it’s fall again. Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends. She’s going through security, has taken off her shoes and belt. Walks hesitantly through the scanner, sure the alarm will pip. It’s the same feeling she always has whenever she encounters someone in a position of authority. When she sees a police car drive past or walks out of a shop without buying something. This urge to turn out her pockets and hold up her hands.
He walks through the scanner next to hers.
He nods at her like they’re old acquaintances and waits for her by the entrance to Duty Free. He’s dressed in black and carrying an old-fashioned leather satchel.
“Nice to see you,” he says.
“You too,” she answers. They smile.
“You fleeing the country?” he asks, his caterpillar brows arching their backs.
This cracks him up. “Me too.” They walk slowly through Duty Free. He says he’s on his way to Sweden, one way. She’s got a ticket to the Czech Republic, one way. She doesn’t have a job or apartment, but if the exchange rate holds, the money she made over the summer will float her for a few months.
“Can I buy you a coffee?” he asks. Sure, he can, she says. They pick the quietest cafeteria and he orders two cups of coffee. He’s clean-shaven now. She can see more of his face this way, the places where his skin has started to slacken. She notices old craters along his scalp and at the base of his cheekbones.
They’re relaxed, both of them. She’s dressed for vacation, wearing a dress and suede jacket. He adds milk and two sugar cubes to his coffee. Then they make their way to a tall bar table by a window that looks out toward the airplanes. They sit. He introduces himself, looking at her nose as he does.
“Steinar,” she repeats, comparing the name with the man. A good, strong Icelandic name, as her grandmother might say. A sturdy name. Stone.
How did the Celan poem end? It is time that the stone took the trouble to bloom.
Yes, she agrees. It’s time.
From Kláði. © 2018 by Fríða Ísberg. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.
A tenuous link between the corporeal and spiritual forms the backdrop of Haukur Ingvarsson's poem about our relationship to the changing natural world, from his 2018 collection Ecostentialism.
Listen to Haukur Ingvarsson read part IV of "Sinkings" in the original Icelandic.
Listen to Haukur Ingvarsson read part V of "Sinkings" in the original Icelandic.
Listen to Haukur Ingvarsson read part VI of "Sinkings" in the original Icelandic.
the world of the mind
has its own topography
netted to the body
you take a sharp turn
in the inner ear
and end up in the eustachian tube
for some reason I feel
this must be Denmark
farms of windmills
stalks of wheat toss
gently in the wind
the trees whisper
light ripples through wine in a glass
and glistens on white teeth
when she tilts
her head back
Memory or imaginary?
Is it a painting on a postcard? greeting from an old aunt?
the glacier is black
polar bears run on hot sand
I am all-seeing
on the sofa
into my thoughts
circle a blurry center
like goldfish in a bowl
should I scrub the tank?
is the water too cruddy?
with unwelcome life?
stunned into inaction
maybe they’re hungry?
could they survive in the wild?
should I set them free?
I have a secret
a ship sank inside me
I saw the wreck
I heard the screams
the horrible uproar
then, a big silence
I’m going to dive
down to the wreck
check the cabins
shine the soft shaft of a flashlight
into that deep down darkness
and unlock secrets
of the dead
of the living
of the living dead
impossible to imagine
equipped with all conveniences
chairs stacked on deck
unopened casks of rum
Malibu in the messhall
if I came across a tiny umbrella
I’d mix myself a drink
I must be dreaming
this stateless ship
was on its way nowhere
maybe it wasn’t a ship
but a rubber dinghy
so did it only happen
didn't it happen
where you’re sitting?
in which case, it’s none of my business,
I’ll tell you one thing
nothing frightens me more
than the open sea
and the abyss
think about that and
see it for yourself
and tell me
am I on
about the rising
I live on the fourth floor
I live by the ocean
in the basement
of my complex
I’ve got a storage space
where I keep
this and that
dear to me
and I don’t want
them to get wet
I have, for example
a new-ish bicycle
but I’d bet
its nuts and bolts
if the sea sunk it
up to the handlebars
and my family
pictures, small things
that can’t be forgotten
no, they cannot be forgotten
like that summer in Algarve, years ago
when I bought my first Walkman
spooled with Michael Jackson
it’s all in storage
I can see it
as I wind my thoughts
through the dim hall downstairs
and turn the key to the doors
yes, I see now
storage is the analog of memory
when I turn the light
on the flood
memories pour over me
I bathe in them
sink into the papers, crates, photos
slip into the past
this is a past
I want to preserve
for the next generation
it’s my gift to the future
with pomp and circumstance
I’ll pass down this trove
to the children of the future
when that future arrives
and then I’ll say
like the Danish sailor who returned Iceland’s national treasures:
“Værsågod Bad med Michael Jackson.”
“Allt Sekkur,” from Vistarverur. © 2018 Haukur Ingvarsson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Meg Matich. All rights reserved.
After his wife’s sudden departure, Böddi speaks to his brother over coffee in this story about regret, love, and family by Björn Halldórsson.
Listen to Björn Halldórsson read "The Husband and His Brother" in the original Icelandic.
Jóhann was the first to stand up when the phone rang. He was glad for the interruption. His in-laws were over for dinner and they’d been talking politics. They were finishing their coffee, along with pieces of expensive dark chocolate that Ella, his wife, had arranged on a decorative plate. He’d just gotten the kids in bed and hurried into the hall to answer before the ringing aroused their curiosity. “Hello!”
There was someone on the line. He heard breathing, but no voice. “Hello?” he repeated, stretching out the “o” as though expecting an echo.
“Jóhann? Hey. It’s me,” said his brother on the other end of the line.
“Hi. What’s up?” He turned in the doorframe, waved to get Ella’s attention, and pointed to his coffee cup, which was going cold on the table. She got up and brought the cup over to him, and he squeezed the receiver between his ear and shoulder while silently mouthing “Thank you!” She stood next to him, waiting with a concerned wrinkle on her forehead until he gently patted her bare upper arm to send her back to her parents, shutting the living room door behind her.
“I’m not bothering you, am I?” said his brother’s voice from the depths of the receiver.
“No, no. We’re just finishing dinner.” He lifted his cup and took a sip. Ella and her parents took their coffee black and drank it from tiny cups. He smirked as he pinched the doll-like handle. “Ella’s parents came over for dinner, but we’ve eaten—just having coffee now.”
The line went silent. He wondered if Böddi had been drinking. “What’s up?” he said again, setting the cup and saucer down on the laminated phone directory, which was lying unopened on the buffet. Who still used a phone directory? he thought, as he waited for his brother to speak.
“Marion’s gone,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “She left.”
Jóhann tilted his head back toward the wall until the top of his head was touching the cold cement.
“What do you mean?” he said.
“She’s gone. I came home from work and she was gone.”
“Have you tried calling her cell?”
“No. If she wants to leave, what do I care?”
Jóhann closed his eyes. Opened them again. On the corkboard over the buffet there was a motley assortment of paper scraps with scribbled phone numbers, flyers, postcards, and photos. Family photos—mostly of Ella and the kids. There were pictures from vacations on sunny beaches abroad and camping trips around the country. There was only one picture of him. In it, he was sitting on a white plastic stool on the veranda in front of a cabin they’d rented a few years ago. His legs were crossed, and he was holding a green can of Tuborg, looking off at something in the distance. The color had faded; it was as bleached and pale as late-afternoon sunshine.
“Where’re you at?” he asked.
“At a bar, outside having a cigarette,” said his brother. “I had to get out of the house for a bit.”
“Okay,” said Jóhann. “Had you two been fighting or something?”
“Nah. Yeah, maybe a little. She’d been in such a weird mood lately. I came home and she was gone.”
“What about her stuff?”
“What do you mean?”
“Her stuff. If she left you, then she must have taken some stuff with her. If she didn’t, then maybe she just needed to get away for a bit. Is her stuff gone?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t look.”
“Then how do you know she’s gone?” asked Jóhann, trying to sound calm. Positive, like maybe this was all just a misunderstanding. “Maybe she went out to run an errand and got held up. Maybe something happened.”
There was a heaviness in Böddi’s voice and Jóhann didn’t press the matter further. He held the phone close to his ear and thought about his brother as he stared at the corkboard on the wall and the photos of his family, and more particularly, the picture of himself sitting on the veranda outside the rented summer cabin, sipping a beer and watching the way the sunset illuminated the mountain on the other side of the valley.
“Ugh, I feel bad bugging you,” said the voice on the phone wearily. “I just needed to talk to somebody.”
“No, of course,” said Jóhann. “We’re brothers, man.” He felt like an idiot as soon as he said it. It was the kind of thing that shouldn’t have to be said. “Do you want me to pick you up?” he asked by way of redeeming himself.
“No, just stay with Ella and them. I don’t want to drag you out in this weather. I just needed to calm down a little. I feel better now.”
“Are you sure? It’s no problem.”
“Nah, it’s fine. I’m gonna go home anyway.”
“Okay. You’ll take a taxi, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
They said goodbye and Jóhann hung up, stood quietly in the hall for a moment thinking about his brother and sister-in-law and their marriage.
It was silent when he came back into the living room. He sat at the table and noticed that Ella and her parents were staring at him. Anger welled up inside him. He was sure they’d been listening to his phone call.
“Who was that?” asked Ella. She smiled. She knew who’d been on the phone, no question.
“My brother,” he said.
“Everything okay?” she asked, but he wasn’t going to get into it right now, not in front of his in-laws, and so he just said yes and asked if there was more coffee.
They didn’t mention the phone call again until late that night, after her parents had left and he’d put the dishes in the sink to soak with a promise to himself that he’d do them before he went to work the next morning. She’d done the cooking, so it was his job to do the dishes—it was one of the many good-natured pacts they made with one another every day. They were getting into bed when she started quizzing him about the phone call. He told her what had happened as he undressed but lost his cool when she asked him for details he hadn’t thought to weasel out of his brother. He stood in front of her, half-naked, and threw up his hands. “I don’t know!” he shouted. “I wasn’t cross-examining him!” Their voices got louder and louder, but in the end, they managed to check themselves. Moments later, they were in bed, curled up under the duvet and holding each other tight.
The next day, he left work early to visit his brother. He’d tried to reach him a few times during the day, both on his landline and his cell. He’d also called the office where his brother worked, but as he’d expected, Böddi had taken a sick day.
There was snow on the sidewalk and the cars on the street. Old, dirty snow that had been blanketing the city for several days. Jóhann parked and gingerly picked his way across the sheet of ice covering the driveway. His brother lived in a basement apartment that you entered from the back garden. The steps down to his door were slick with ice.
It took Böddi a long time to come to the door. Jóhann alternated between ringing the bell and knocking on the matte glass. Finally, it opened, and Böddi stood in the doorway in a bathrobe and sweats, fuzzy slippers on his feet. He filled the entrance, even though he was stooped over. He was too big to live in such a small basement apartment. Like a troll under a bridge, thought Jóhann. He remembered how big his brother seemed when he stood next to Marion. She was from the Philippines and barely reached his shoulder. The brothers greeted one another, and Böddi turned on his heel and went back into the apartment with Jóhann trailing behind him.
It had been a long time since he’d been in his brother’s apartment. They usually only saw each other when Böddi came over to his and Ella’s for dinner. He’d always sit between the kids. Their giant uncle was a great favorite with Jói and Helga. They’d talk over one another, trying to tell him all the remarkable happenings that made up their school days, and after dinner they could always sweet-talk Uncle Böddi into swinging them around in circles or letting them airplane on the soles of his feet. After Böddi and Marion got married, she accompanied him to these family dinners. Jóhann could see her influence wherever he looked in the apartment. In the white Christmas lights draped around the mirror in the foyer and the small framed pictures of flowers sprinkled across the living room wall. There were also framed photos of Böddi and Marion and of her family in the Philippines. Much to Jóhann’s surprise, he also saw a picture of his own family that he recognized as an old Christmas card. He couldn’t imagine Böddi making the trip to buy a frame for it. He’d have made do with sticking it up on the wall or sliding it under a fridge magnet. It must have been Marion.
He started thinking about the many small changes he and Ella had noticed in Böddi’s behavior since he got married. Birthday presents for the kids were wrapped in colorful paper with pretty ribbons. He’d stopped going around in shirts with holes at the elbows and was always clean-shaven. Marion didn’t like the way his stubble scratched her face when they kissed, he’d told Jóhann with a roguish smile. Ella had even gotten a bouquet at work when she got a big promotion. The flowers were accompanied by a card with congrats from Böddi and Marion. The card itself was rather unusual. There was a picture of a dark-clad, kneeling woman on the front, golden rays shining around her head. Inside, above Marion’s neat handwriting and Böddi’s clumsy signature, were two lines of poetry printed in a language that Ella thought might have been Latin. They never figured out what the card said but were touched by the trouble Marion had taken and thanked her for her thoughtfulness the next time she and Böddi came to dinner.
The brothers sat at the kitchen table. The little basement window above them cast a gray light over the kitchen cabinets. Böddi pushed an empty pizza box aside on the table and offered coffee. “I only have instant,” he said. He turned on the tap to fill the electric kettle, but the sink was full of dishes and the water ran over the dirty plates and down onto the floor. He swore, shifted the pile of plates in the sink, and dried the wet spot by rubbing his fuzzy slipper over the puddle.
“I tried calling you,” said Jóhann while they waited for the kettle.
“I called your office. They told me you were home sick.”
His brother turned around with a coffee mug in each hand. “What did you say to them?” he asked, putting the cups on the table and spooning coffee powder into each before opening the fridge and taking out a carton. The sugar bowl was already on the table. Both brothers favored milky, sweet coffee.
“Nothing. Nothing at all.”
“I’ve used all my vacation days,” said his brother as he poured water out of the whistling kettle.
They took a moment to liberally sugar their coffee.
“I wish you wouldn’t have called my work,” said Böddi. “They might think something’s up.”
“Your phone was off.”
“It’s not like your job—I can’t just leave whenever I want and say I’m working from home.”
“That’s not what my job is like. I’m sure they didn’t think anything of me calling.”
“I just needed a little time to myself. I think it should be okay for me to call in sick like this, just this one time. My wife left me.”
“Okay,” said Jóhann, trying to calm his brother down. “I didn’t say anything.” They took another sip of their coffee and Jóhann asked: “Have you heard from her?”
“No,” said Böddi. He stirred his coffee, swirled his spoon around his cup, then dropped it on the table with a clatter. “I haven’t tried to get ahold of her.”
“Where do you think she is?”
“Don’t know. Probably with some girlfriend. I don’t know any of them. Maybe she just went back home.”
“But your phone’s been off. Maybe she’s been trying to call you.”
Böddi was in no mood for hypotheticals. “She left, okay?” he said, looking sharply at Jóhann. “She’s gone.”
Jóhann gave up. He spooned more sugar into his cup to try and disguise the bitter flavor of the coffee powder.
“How are the kids?” asked Böddi suddenly.
“Just fine. Jói graduated from kindergarten the other day.”
“Oh yeah? It’s been forever since I saw them.”
“It was actually kind of funny. They had a ceremony and everything. It’s just kindergarten, right? But the kids loved it. Helga’s a full-blown teenager now. Can’t abide a word we say. We’re so lame, you know.”
“They’re great kids.”
“I’d always hoped that Marion and I would have kids, too. Then Jói and Helga could’ve babysat for us and we could’ve all gone on holiday together and stuff like that.”
“Yeah, that would’ve been fun,” said Jóhann, trying not to let himself get pulled into his brother’s daydreams. But he couldn’t stop himself from adding: “You never know. Maybe you guys will get back together.”
“No. No, I don’t think so,” said his brother. His eyes were deep-set in his broad face. Such sensitive eyes. Jóhann remembered how Böddi used to flit them around when they were young and went to dances together, as if he were certain that someone somewhere in the room was making fun of him.
“How’s Ella?” asked Böddi.
“She’s fine. Busy at work.” It had been nearly a month since Ella had taken Böddi aside at a dinner and told him he had to stop calling Jóhann when he’d been drinking. She told Jóhann about the conversation the night after. Another person would have let it be. Not Ella—that wasn’t her style. She didn’t care for the silence surrounding the brothers and their family. Her people talked about everything. They yelled at the top of their lungs and said what needed saying. Jóhann couldn’t stand the way her parents and siblings fought in front of just anyone—and always the same bones to pick. He didn’t see the point of expending so much volume and energy, getting worked up about things that were never going to change. You loved the people you loved, and you had to take them the way they were.
That being said, he was upset when Ella told him about her conversation with Böddi. They got into a tremendous argument and, since the kids were staying over at Ella’s parents’ place for the night, didn’t hesitate to lay into one another. It was supposed to have been date night for the two of them—candles, good wine, and good food—but instead, Jóhann stormed out for a walk by himself. It’s what he did when he needed to calm himself down. When he got back, she’d opened the wine and started cooking. He set the table without a word and lit the candles in the tall, slender candlesticks on the table. They sat and ate in silence, slowly working their way through the bottle and taking turns refilling each other’s glasses. At the end of the meal, he lay his hand in the middle of the table, palm upturned on the white tablecloth, and she interlaced her fingers with his. He could never find the words to tell her how grateful he was for her incredible strength, for how protective she was of him and the kids. In the twilight of their bedroom, he rested his head on her breast like a small child.
“You two are lucky to have found one another,” said Böddi. “You’re such a good match.”
“Yeah, I know,” said Jóhann. “You and Marion were good together, too,” he added, but Böddi shook his head.
“Nah, not like you two. We’d never even met until a week before we got engaged. Just texted and video-chatted.”
Jóhann nodded and tried to conceal his curiosity. It had been almost two years since Böddi came over after work. Jóhann was home by himself. Ella was at the gym and the kids at their music lessons. Böddi had come by with a late birthday present for his nephew, and while the brothers were sitting at the kitchen table with their coffee, he suddenly revealed that he had a girlfriend who he’d met online and was going to visit in Manila. Jóhann hardly knew what to say. So he took a sip of his coffee and said, “Whoa!” and congratulated his brother. When Böddi came back to Iceland a month later, he was engaged.
They were hesitant at first, he and Ella. Unsure of who was taking advantage of whom—Marion or Böddi. But after they met Marion and saw the effect she had on him, saw the way he acted around her, they decided that maybe this was the best thing for both of them. Marion was earnest and cheerful and coddled Böddi like a child. She was short and stocky, and whenever she and Böddi came over for dinner, she always found a way to pitch in with the meal prep, always helped with the clearing and washing up while Böddi sat with his coffee. It reminded Jóhann of their father, how he’d linger over his coffee while their mother hovered around him. Marion spoke English well but with a heavy accent and strange inflection. They all spoke English at the dinner table so as not to leave her out, but she told them often that she’d rather they speak their mother tongue. “To help me learn,” she said, in her broken Icelandic. She diligently attended a number of Icelandic classes where she met people from all over the world. Sometimes, she wouldn’t catch all of what Jóhann and Ella said, but it didn’t seem to bother her—she just smiled and shrugged and leaned back in her chair to let them know that she didn’t understand. It did, however, bother Böddi. He’d start fidgeting and then lean over to whisper an explanation in her ear.
“It was one of those dating sites,” said Böddi in the dusky kitchen. “It gave you all these pictures and names and hobbies and stuff like that. Pictures of men who were looking for wives, too. You could click on someone and message them. I looked at what some of the other men were writing about themselves, just to get an idea, you know? And some of them were pretty disgusting. Talking about what kind of women they wanted. Sizes and stuff.” The words flowed out of him in a torrent, as if he were relieved to finally spill his guts.
“What’d you say about yourself?” asked Jóhann, which made his brother squirm. “Just, uh, you know. The normal stuff. I wrote about who I was—my hobbies and work and stuff like that. Said I wanted to meet a good woman. A good-hearted woman.” He hesitated and then said: “People think that it’s some kind of trafficking operation, that these women are being bought. But it’s not like that. There’s no money in it—just people who want to meet each other and try to build a life together. Some of these girls, there’s not a lot for them there, and they want to get away and have a husband and a family. And most of the men are just guys like me who missed the chance to meet a woman and start a family when they were younger.”
Jóhann was uneasy listening to his brother. No one in the family ever talked about how Böddi and Marion met. He’d always thought they were all just being polite, but now he wasn’t so sure.
“Is that how it was with Marion? She wanted to get away?” he asked, surprising himself with his own nosiness.
“Yeah, actually,” said his brother. “It wasn’t a bad thing, really. She wanted to live her own life. Didn’t want to live with her mother forever and couldn’t see getting married there. She didn’t have enough money to buy her own apartment, and it’s hard to rent as a single person. Not a lot available. Most people only want to rent to couples and families.”
“So she just decided to come here instead?”
“Yeah. She was tired of Cavite, felt like she was stuck there. That’s the city she lived in, a little city across the bay from Manila. When I went to visit her, we met in Manila and took the ferry over. She had her aunt with her to make sure nothing happened. When we finally managed to talk together in private, away from the aunt, Marion said she was looking at this whole thing as an adventure. She said we were going on an adventure together.”
He fell silent and looked at Jóhann.
“We knew what we were doing,” he said. “We knew we weren’t in love—not yet, at least. We thought that would come later. That together, we’d cultivate a love. I met her family. They’re really good people, the lot of them. Her dad’s dead, but I talked to her mom. She asked about my job and my apartment. Whether I owned a car. She was making sure I could take care of her daughter, you know? Her mom told me that she and Marion’s father had gotten married because their families wanted them to. They knew almost nothing about one another when they got married but cultivated a love between themselves. Just like we intended to do.”
The phrase “cultivated a love” sounded odd coming out of Böddi’s mouth, and Jóhann realized he was repeating something Marion had said, or—maybe more likely—something Marion’s mother had said to the two of them. It was a phrase that bore traces of sorrow and desperation; a mother’s dearest wish as she watched her daughter sail away with a strange man.
The brothers sat for a long time talking about Böddi’s trip to Manila, and about Marion. Böddi said he’d been taken with her as soon as he saw her picture on the dating site. That he’d recognized her by her smile the moment he’d gotten off the plane. He’d read what she’d written about herself on her profile and thought she seemed smart and self-assured. More mature than the other girls on the site, even if she was ten years younger than him. When they met the first time, they were silent and shy, like teenagers on their way to their first dance, her elderly aunt trailing behind them. After she agreed to marry him, there was a party with all her relatives. It was their last day together before he went home to Iceland to wait for her. Böddi called it a barbecue, but if his descriptions were anything to go by, it had been a much grander affair. He and Marion had sat side by side, surrounded by her family and holding hands under the table while people brought them grilled food on paper plates.
Listening to how his brother and sister-in-law met, Jóhann realized that Böddi had been waiting for an opportunity to tell someone this story for a long time. Had, in fact, told it to himself again and again until he’d perfected it. It was the story of the great romantic adventure that he and Marion had embarked upon together. But he seemed to have forgotten certain episodes or simply skipped over them altogether.
The phone calls began some months after they married, not long after Marion started making her own friends in Iceland. People in her Icelandic classes and other women from the Philippines who had come to Iceland to marry Icelandic men. Böddi had called Jóhann and complained that Marion wanted him to meet these girlfriends of hers and their husbands. They regularly made plans to meet at each other’s homes, traded off hosting dinner parties, and even rented out a hall and brought Filipino food, rented a band or a DJ, and danced late into the night. Böddi couldn’t stand these gatherings. The women all talked together and laughed, and he couldn’t understand anything. He was stuck with the husbands, who he said were all these loser types. “Sad sacks,” he told Jóhann on the phone. Once he started to refuse to go with her, the calls became long complaints about Marion never being home. She only wanted to be with her friends, not with him. He’d started going to bars, as if to even the score. He wasn’t just going to sit at home waiting for her, you know?
Even though Jóhann had all the background, he still couldn’t bring himself to deny Böddi the romantic image he’d painted of his marriage to Marion, just as during all those phone calls, he let Böddi talk and tried as best he could not to take a stance. He’d rarely thought about how Marion might tell the story of the way she and Böddi met or what she’d say about their marriage, tried to brush such thoughts aside.
As was often the case, he didn’t even really need to be there for the conversation. He nodded along as Böddi talked, making affirmative noises. The fridge door behind Böddi was covered with tickets and flyers and photos held up by decorative magnets. Neither Marion nor Böddi were in any of the photographs. They must have all been sent by her family in the Philippines. They showed newborn babies in their baptismal gowns and little kids in their best clothes. There were pictures from weddings and other such events where the men wore filmy white shirts with starched collars and the women colorful evening dresses. They smiled happily at the camera, as if they were all about to burst out laughing.
“I thought you said all her stuff was gone,” said Jóhann.
Böddi had finished saying his piece and now sat with both hands clasped around his half-drunk coffee mug.
“What?” he said.
Jóhann had a hard time repeating the question, which had popped out of his mouth before he had time to think about it. But he asked again, stammering and mumbling.
“Her stuff. I thought you said that she had taken all her stuff. Yesterday when I talked with you on the phone.”
“Some of her stuff’s gone.”
“She left all her family photos?”
Böddi stared at him. His face, which had been open and happy while he told the story of him and Marion, now shuttered.
“She’s probably going to send for the rest of her things later,” said Jóhann, helpless against the silence that emanated from his brother.
Böddi nodded slowly.
“Yes, that’s probably it.”
Something had changed in the little kitchen. It was getting dark outside. Jóhann sipped his coffee, but it had gone cold. He kept a straight face and finished it anyway.
“Yes, well, I should probably get going,” he said.
“Nice that you could drop by,” said Böddi.
They stood up and clumsily embraced at the end of the table. Böddi followed him to the door. Jóhann shrugged into his jacket and wound his scarf around his neck. He hadn’t taken off his shoes when he came in and now saw that he’d tracked footprints across the floor. He opened the door and turned back to his brother.
“You should go back to work tomorrow,” he said. “Otherwise, they might think something’s up.”
His brother nodded.
Jóhann held the handrail as he walked up the slippery steps. When he looked back, Böddi was standing in the doorway. He was reminded again of a troll living under a bridge. They looked at one another, but neither said nor did anything to indicate that they even knew one another. Then Böddi closed the door.
At a red light on the way home, Jóhann suddenly had a vision of Böddi, walking from room to room in his little apartment, taking down all the photographs and flower prints, pulling clothes out of the bedroom closet, swiping makeup and lotion out of the bathroom cabinet, and stuffing it all into a black garbage bag.
“Eiginmaðurinn og bróðir hans," from Smáglæpir, © 2017 by Björn Halldórsson. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.
Eva Rún Snorradóttir illuminates lesbian parenthood and partnership in this poem from the 2018 Maístjarnan Award-winning collection Seeds that Impregnate the Darkness.
Two women sit on a little sofa in an office on the outskirts of the capital. Across from them, behind a desk, sits an elderly man in a white coat. A map showing the inner topography of the vagina is plastered on the wall behind him. They’d argued with the cab driver on the way. He’d been driving a cab for thirty years and thought it best to take the route along the coast, like he’d always done. We’re running late to make a baby, too late to be polite and deferential to a thirty-year career.
The vagina on the wall reminds them of an appointment in another office with another elderly man. He also sat behind a desk, the Indian Ambassador to Iceland. In order to get a visa, they had to explain to him how two women went about having sex. He was sincerely curious, his voice conveying genuine compassion and concern.
From behind his desk, the man in the lab coat uses precise gestures to describe what ovulation is like for women. His hand poised as though holding a little bell, his fingers forming a wing in the air. A sound from his lips, uncanny. They wonder if he makes the same sound for all women, but they forget to ask because one of them has to go behind a little screen and undress from the waist down.
“Í samfélagi manna” © Eva Rún Snorradóttir. From Fræ sem frjóvga myrkrið, published by Benedikt Bókaútgáfa. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Larissa Kyzer. All rights reserved.
Warning: This text includes descriptions of intimate partner abuse and may be disturbing to readers.
In this excerpt from Thora Hjörleifsdóttir’s debut novel, Magma, a woman narrates the evolution of an abusive relationship.
Listen to Thora Hjórleifsdóttir read “Chlamydia” in the original Icelandic.
I didn’t know it would be such a big deal; it’s not like it’s incurable. Nobody’s going to die. We’ll take antibiotics and then, ten days later, it’ll be gone. But now he thinks I’m a total slut. And I must be, since I’ve infected people. But I think he’s being unfair. It shouldn’t matter this much. He acts like I’ve rejected him because I’ve been with other men. We weren’t together when I went to Central America; we’d gone on one date and I hadn’t even slept with him. I was traveling alone, so I slept around because I had nothing better to do and I needed to fill in the gaps. I didn’t know that something would grow between us; in fact, I thought it’d never happen, but I became more and more taken with him as I traveled. He sent me near-constant emails and he was always ready to talk when I went to internet cafés. We just started to connect. When I came home, we clicked; I fell head over heels. He’s beautiful and smart—I don’t know how many books he owns, at least a few hundred, and he has this crazy DVD collection.
But the chlamydia kept eating at him. He wouldn’t stop interrogating me about the other boys. I held back at first. I only told him about one guy, a Norwegian in Cuba, and then I added the next one to the list—followed by the third, the fourth, the fifth, fuck, I can’t be expected to remember everything. I tried to explain that my memory isn’t really that great, but he thinks I’m lying. We were gliding on a smooth current, and now he wants nothing to do with me.
Listen to Thora Hjórleifsdóttir read “The Ex I” in the original Icelandic.
The Ex I
He still loves his ex-girlfriend, and they’re still close friends. She’s elegant and clever. She was at the top of her class in classics in school, they both know Latin, and they’re both well-read; they toss Derrida quotes around like it’s nothing. The other day, he asked me to meet him at a coffeehouse, so it was more than a little strange that he was sitting with her when I arrived. I felt humiliated, and I wanted to leave, to turn around and walk straight out, to disappear, but they’d already spotted me and I had to sit with them. It was one of the most uncomfortable afternoons of my life. I was stressed, sweating like a pig, and I got this weird tremor. They were so relaxed together, and so much smarter than me. They talked about movies I hadn’t seen, and they went on and on about things I hadn’t ever thought about. The Ex tried to bring me into the conversation by explaining, among other things, what a strawberry milkshake was—it’s when a man cums on a woman’s face and punches her in the nose, giving her a nosebleed. Snowballing, she went on, is when a man cums in a woman’s mouth and she spits it into his mouth. He’s told me about sex with her—how nice it was, how talented she is at blow jobs. I’m pretty bad at them; I just gag.
Listen to Thora Hjórleifsdóttir read “The Bike” in the original Icelandic.
He asked me to meet him at the bar one night, but I was home in the suburbs in Grafarvogur with my mom and dad, and I didn’t feel like it. I didn’t say it like that; I just said I was going to be with my little sister, but he got moody and weird. We were pretty much always together, so it felt like we’d become dependent on each other. That night, I noticed I couldn’t stand to sleep alone anymore; I was cold and I missed him. It was hard to fall asleep, I felt off, and I regretted not going out to meet him, but I felt a little guilty, too, for how little I’d seen my parents in the past few weeks. I tossed and turned because I couldn’t stop replaying the phone call in my head. I wanted to meet him, to check on him. Since I couldn’t sleep, I decided that I’d hop into my mom’s car and head to Vesturbær—I was going to surprise him, sneak into his bed, and wake up with him.
The front door to his place is always unlocked, so I showed myself in. In the entryway, I saw his shoes, alongside a pair of expensive heels from Kron. Sexy heels. I knew his roommate wouldn’t have brought home the type of girl who’d own these shoes. I figured that she’d be in the bed I’d gone there to slip into, and I didn’t need to go into the room to confirm it. I knew it. I knew in my gut that I hadn’t been enough. It’s obvious. I really thought we were going to be together—I’m a fucking idiot. Another woman always comes along.
I tiptoed into the bathroom and grabbed my toothbrush, my toiletries, my birth control. He’d wake up with this new girl and it’d be as if I’d never been there. My bike was outside the apartment, and I wheeled it over to the car. I was going to disappear from his life with all my stuff, and he wouldn’t even notice. The bike was really heavy, and it took me a while to figure out how to angle the wheel so that it fit into the trunk. I could never lift that bike by myself, but that night, I hardly felt a thing as I flung it over my shoulder and forced it into the car in a rush of adrenaline. I drove for a few minutes, parked the car by the ocean at a stretch of shore called Ægissíða, and howled with tears until there were no tears left, and then, and only then, did I trust myself to drive back to Grafarvogur. Everybody was still asleep. I snuck into my room and never let on that I’d gone out during the night.
I won’t speak to him again. I should’ve known that I’d never be good enough for him. If I’d just gone to the bar when he asked me, maybe this wouldn’t have happened. The girl with the great shoes is probably a vegetarian, I don’t want to know who she is, fucking slut.
Listen to Thora Hjórleifsdóttir read “Willpower I-II” in the original Icelandic.
He called, left a message, but I was a Teflon woman—everything slid off me.
For about fifteen minutes.
He invited me to his cousin’s graduation party. I was more than a little excited. This definitely meant that he wanted to be my boyfriend soon. You don’t just take your fuckbuddy to your cousin’s grad party. His younger cousin had passed all her exams, which took everyone by surprise; her mother sprang into action, planning the entire gathering in less than a day. The party was in Selfoss, an hour's drive for us, but it’s where his family lives. I borrowed my mom’s car, and as we drove past the lava fields at Hellisheiði, he told me that all his cousins on his mother’s side had competed in the Miss Southern Iceland pageant—it’d practically become a sport in his family. He’s good-looking, too, but he isn’t into these girls who cake on makeup for the county fair. I’m probably the first girl his cousin will meet who still has hair on her pussy.
I felt like a weed among the roses at the party; he didn’t introduce me to anyone, and he didn’t speak to anyone. He’d brought a book, which he read in a bedroom while his aunts and his mom sized me up in the living room. He hates chitchatting at these gatherings, it’s pointless, he says, so he always packs something to read. He says that parties give him time to enrich his internal life, to learn in the midst of mediocrity. He’s had enough of talking about the weather and how school is going.
After a while, his mom settled on introducing me as “a friend of her son.” Then his grandmother, who had sunk into a deep recliner in the living room, called out, “You know he has kids?” as she nibbled creamy cake from a tiny fork.
The aunts waited for the penny to drop. “Yes, I know about that,” I answered, holding my voice steady.
His grandmother continued: “I don’t think he’ll ever finish university. He really loves to read.” She let out a raspy laugh as she bent forward in the recliner, her plate seeming to refill itself with her daughter’s endless pastries.
In Cuba, I smoked filterless cigarettes called Flor de Aroma. They’re the best cigarettes I think I’ve ever smoked, hand-rolled in the region. They smell of tobacco flowers. They aren't as strong as cigars, but they are still intense. I smoked up all of them right after I left the tropics.
He thinks smoking is ridiculous. Only idiots smoke, he says. I’ve really cut down on my smoking, and now I only do it when I’m out or if I’m at a café. But after I’ve smoked, he sniffs me, frowns, refuses to kiss me. He says that I stink. The other day, he took it to the next level—he wants me to quit smoking, and for every cigarette I smoke from now on, he’s going to fuck eight women. I don’t want him to sleep with more girls. He should only be with me. I’ll never smoke again.
I’ve been working on my blow jobs. It’s not going very well. I always gag, sometimes loudly, and throw up in my mouth. But now I’ve started to swallow the puke and the bile and keep going instead of giving up right away, like I always did before. When I blow him, tears run down my cheeks, but I’m not crying, it’s just a reflex. I’m always surprised by how long it takes—I’m at it for half an hour or something before he cums, but in porn, it only takes about two minutes. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. But sometimes I can’t keep going, and it’s always right before he ejaculates, and then he gets pissed off and looks at my face, which is usually covered in tears, and says, “Wow, is being with me really that good?”
Plato’s Moon Child
It’s incredible to me that this big, strong man can also seem just like a fragile little boy. When we sleep together at night, he wraps himself around me, so peaceful and beautiful. We lie heavily against each other the entire night. Our bodies are two pieces of a puzzle. When we lie together, I feel like I’m finally complete. There’s neither too much nor too little; only a simple precision, just as it should be. Some mornings, when I wake up, he’s so hungry for me that he’s already pushed himself inside me. It’s almost automatic how he just slips in. Then he’s so gentle that I feel a sting of gratitude.
I really don’t own cosmetics; I’ve never been very good at dressing myself up. My makeup bag is so empty that when I unzip it, I expect moths to fly out. But instead, old mascara, half-empty powder, lipstick, and a Swiss Army knife clink around inside the bag. I bought the knife right before I traveled to Central America. I mainly used it to open beer, but I once used it to slice a mango on a beach on the way south, in Mexico.
It’s so wonderful how he likes me exactly as I am. He gets irritated, even seems hurt, if I put on makeup, and he asks accusingly, “Who are you doing that for?” I don’t understand why he gets so jealous; I would never want to be with anyone else. He’s so ethical, unlike anyone I’ve ever met. He just doesn’t want me to poison him with additives and preservatives. I don’t need to wear lipstick for him; he thinks my bare lips are perfectly kissable.
He keeps asking me about anal sex. I just say that I don’t understand why he wants it so much. Then he gets this dreamy look on his face and says he can’t even describe how good it feels. So tight and unique—something totally different. In the end, I give in.
It isn't good or bad, just uncomfortable, and I am so stressed the entire time. I worry that his penis might be like a plunger and when he takes it out of me, shit will just empty all over the bed. But that doesn't happen. When he is finished, he is so euphoric that I can't do anything other than feel happy along with him. I want him to believe I’m the best in bed.
He’s started to do it regularly—ride me in the ass. Once, he went from there straight into my pussy. I asked him to stop, asked him if I could just get a washcloth. I pictured his penis, the little clots of fecal matter that clung to it as it slid into my vagina. It was like an extreme version of wiping in the wrong direction. But he was so horny and so hungry for me that he couldn’t stop before he got off.
One of his childhood friends is going to get married in Selfoss, and he invited me to come with him. It’s the first time that I’ll meet any of his friends, apart from his roommate and his hopeless pickup artist pal. The ceremony was beautiful, everyone at the reception drunk on love. His friends thought I was really great, and one even said to him in astonishment, “Where have you been hiding this one?” We drank and danced, he twirled me in a circle on the dance floor and kissed me in front of everyone. He’s usually so private; he never does anything like that.
As night approached, we took a bus with his friends back to Reykjavik. On the way, he kissed me and, for the first time, said that he loved me. He said it again and again, I love you, I love you. When we arrived in town, I was pretty tired and much too drunk, so I went straight to his place. He went to Kaffibarinn with his friends. I woke up alone the next morning. He came home around noon and jumped straight into the shower.
He’s peeled me like an onion. Surrounded by the leavings of my own sallow skin, I’ve dwindled to nothing, and my eyes smart.
“What’s this? Do you still have a fever?” Mom asked when I climbed into the passenger seat.
“No, no. I think I’m coming around,” I answered, flipping on the radio. It was just past four in the afternoon, but the sun was on its way down. As we inched forward in the traffic, Mom told me about some friend drama with my sister, Gunna. One of the girls had had sex for the first time, and she showed Gunna and the other girls a pair of bloody underpants to prove it.
“They’re only twelve—should they be having sex already?” Mom asked, launching back into her story before I had a chance to respond. “Gunna’s lost all interest in the piano. We really have to push her to practice at home.” My mother talked and talked as we slowly made our way toward the shopping center at Skeifan. I leaned against the cold window, watching a drizzle of sleet fall to the sidewalk, melt into the grayness of the pavement.
Mom parked in front of a pricey furniture store and unstrapped her seat belt. I felt like I couldn’t move. I had no way to muster energy for this snob store.
“Come on,” Mom said, urging me to unhook my seat belt. I had such a lump in my throat, I couldn’t speak. As soon as we made eye contact, I broke into tears. She was completely taken aback. By sheer force of will, I was able to stutter, between deep sobs, “I’m . . . not . . . doing so . . . well . . .”
Mom leaned over the armrest, wrapped her arms around me, tried to comfort me. I felt I didn’t deserve how good she was with me, not with how self-centered I’d been. In a calm, almost sedative voice, she asked, “What’s wrong, love?”
I couldn’t tell her what happened, couldn’t talk about it. I had promised to keep the secret, but only halfheartedly. I lifted my arms, turned my wrists toward her.
Mom gasped. And said sadly, “My girl.” She tightened her arms around my shaking frame, and we cried together to the murmur of traffic in the parking lot.
Night after night, I have the same nightmare: I’m having cocktails, and I’m surrounded by attractive, well-to-do people. The scene glitters with light refracting off crystal champagne flutes and necklaces clasped around women’s necks. Frivolous laughter. The clinking of glasses. In the middle of the room, under an enormous crystal chandelier, there’s an elegant buffet set with exotic fruits, berries, and colorful canapés. In the middle of the table lies a thin girl, stripped of her clothes. She’s awake, staring straight ahead, sublimely detached. Before her, a row of carefully laid knives, sharpened to a sure point, not unlike the sterile scalpels of surgical carts. A grand middle-aged woman in an emerald dress that drags on the floor taps a spoon on her glass, announcing that it’s time to dig in. They line up one after another, slicing into the wafer-thin skin, binging on the pale morsels of her body. I go up to the girl, prod her with a knife, but she doesn’t react. I slice strip loin from her skinny frame, relishing the cold, salty meat.
As the room empties out, the woman in the green gown is beside herself because there’s so much food left over. She asks me to take the remains of the meal home.
I follow the woman into the kitchen. The girl is standing there, ghostly pale, wrapped in plastic. I throw her over my shoulder like a sack of potatoes, carry her to my car. But it feels too cruel to put her in the trunk, so I place her in the passenger seat. When I put the car in gear, she begins to tremble violently, as if she’s just come alive, and she begins to breathe quickly, erratically. I take her home, wrap a blanket around her, and talk to her. She doesn’t seem to comprehend anything. She shakes, consumed by choked breaths. I can’t save her. I can’t ease her suffering. I am complicit. I know she won’t linger much longer. I try to offer her food. I try to do something good for her, but I know the time for salvation has passed.
A best seller in South Korea, where it was made into a movie, this fable-like book in the vein of Fitzgerald's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" features a sixteen-year-old trying to figure out his unlikely fate.
Ae-ran Kim’s debut novel, My Brilliant Life, elegantly translated by Chi-Young Kim, is narrated by a witty teenager with a rare disorder. Areum, as he’s called, suffers from progeria, a degenerative disease that causes accelerated aging from age two. At sixteen, he has the organs of an old man and is in precipitous physical decline. Despite his prognosis, Areum tells his story with wry humor, showing great curiosity about himself as well as the people around him, starting with his parents, who had him when they themselves were sixteen.
The prologue is a poem that frames the novel:
A year in my life is like a month in someone else’s . . . .
My dad sees his future eighty-year-old face in mine . . . .
Is sixteen the right age to become a parent?
Is thirty-two the right age to lose a child? . . .
This is the story of the youngest parents and the oldest child.
This mismatch between body and mind is My Brilliant Life’s touchstone. Areum’s condition affects both his mental age and his body. He is boy-man, a young and old soul. He has had to face his mortality since toddlerhood, making him a wise and dispassionate observer of his dreadful illness. He is filled with wonder and love about his boisterous family.
The narrator writes a book within the book, so that My Brilliant Life turns out to be the story of Areum telling the story of his parents. Separately, he includes an account of his deeply private affection for a girl his own age. Kim develops this structure naturally, without fanfare. It is not clear until the end whether Areum is telling his parents' story as a way to understand himself and his origins better, to evade his predicament, to create a substitute for his absent social life, or some combination of the three. Only after completing the novel is it apparent how masterfully the book is woven together.
Early on, Areum asks: “Why did God make me the way I am? I haven’t been able to figure that out yet.” Even if he can’t find the ultimate reason or meaning for his condition, there is much for readers to learn about humor and compassion along his journey. Underneath the frothiness lies a tragic story of isolation and pain, but also of empathy. It is easy to see why My Brilliant Life became a best seller in South Korea, where it was made into a film as well (My Brilliant Life [English translation], co-written and directed by E J-yong, 2014).
My Brilliant Life resonates with several English-language works. Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli, itself based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald story (later film) “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” deployed a similar narrator. In Greer’s novel, Max Tivoli is born with the body of an old man, but the mind of a baby. He ages physically backward but mentally forward, until he is an old adult living in an infant’s body. Swept along in a compelling narrative, the reader knows that all will not end well. In British writer Ian McEwan’s Nutshell, the narrator is a fetus in utero, who, like Areum, possesses wisdom beyond his years. The fetus may not have all the answers, but he knows how to raise the right questions, ringing alarm bells about the future.
Where Greer and McEwan’s books are purposeful, plot-driven novels, Kim’s is more introspective. Areum is at pains to understand his parents’ teenage romance, given how young they were when they had him. Although he couldn’t possibly have been there, he describes his parents’ teen lives, his father Desu’s athletic prowess and his mother Mira’s silly flirtations pre-pregnancy. Desu excels at Tae Kwon Do, which doesn’t earn him any money. When Mira discloses her pregnancy, Desu launches into how much of a “loser” he is. “There’s this bug that camouflages itself with shit so it won’t get eaten by a bird,” Mira says almost lovingly, “That’s you.” As soon as it becomes known she’s expecting, Mira is thrown out of school.
Against severe family opprobrium and with no income, Mira and Desu commit to parenthood. Despite their initial condemnation, the extended family ends up embracing Areum and his parents; Areum grows up among loving, if obstreperous, relatives. His parents are so young that Areum has both a grandfather and a great-grandfather, known affectionately as Big Grandpa Jang and Little Grandpa Jang.
At no point does Areum doubt his parents’ love for him. Theirs is a constant struggle not only to make ends meet but also to care for their aging son and his frequent medical emergencies. Mira quickly progresses from a giggling, girly high school student into a committed mother. Desu dreams big, or as big as his condition allows for, and opens a Nike store. He never quite manages to make a living out of it, however. The store eventually closes, but not before outfits the whole family in Nike wear.
Areum’s parents are at his side through sickness and health, except for one time when Mira can’t take it and bolts. The implication is that Mira is crushed under the burden of responsibility at home, but her absence lasts only for a week. Areum gets inside the heads of both parents to let us know what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling. We may not know how he has the power to do this, but we trust his judgment. He provides a detailed account of his birth, as if he can remember it all. He was a preemie and describes how the house changed once he and Mira came home from the hospital. “Everything smelled like the milky scent of a newly breastfeeding mother, the sour stench of my poop and spit-up, and freshly washed cotton hanging in the sun to dry.”
Areum feels himself to be at once the loneliest boy in the world and the most beloved. His best friend is Little Grandpa Jang, to whom he relates both mentally and physically. As if Areum were also an old man and not sixteen, he listens to Little Grandpa’s complaints about the youth of today. “He’s a really bad kid,” Little Grandpa jokes affectionately. “He treats me like I’m some neighborhood kid . . . . He seems to think we’re peers.”
Who is the parent, and who the child? Areum ends up agreeing to an uncomfortable TV interview, knowing that he is exploiting his own condition to raise money for his medical treatments. This episode ends on a sour and depressing note, with people that Areum trusted letting him down in profound ways. Media may love tragedy, but for the boy in the middle of it, fame is a terrible burden. Areum suffers the painful consequences of celebrity like an age-appropriate, duped teenager. At the same time, he manages to retain his equanimity.
Author Ae-ran Kim is widely published in South Korea. She has won the Kim Yu-jeong Literary Award, the Lee Hyoseok Literary Award, and the Prix de l’inaperçu for her short fiction and collections, but has published only a few pieces in English. As a bookend to the opening of My Brilliant Life, Ae-ran Kim provides an author’s note, also in the form of a poem:
I hope my heart will fly to the wind to go to you.
There is no knowing if this song will become a seed or a whistle or
an unknown face.
The book feels like a seed, using the metaphor of disease and tragedy to sow a discussion of the importance of compassion. English language readers, most new to Kim’s work, will find much to relish. In the same author’s note, Kim writes that her aim is to “breathe warmth into forgotten names.” Clearly, she has breathed warmth into Areum and his family. We can only hope for more from her.
This month’s issue of Words Without Borders is graced by the art of Galician muralist Joseba Muruzábal, also known as Yoseba MP. The piece, Leiterofilia II, is one of a series of awe-inspiring murals collectively titled Fenómenos do rural (Rural Phenomena) and exhibited across Galicia, an autonomous community of Spain. The murals have garnered attention for their depictions of superpowerful grandmothers, women endemic to the region who have toiled and worked the soil of rural Galicia. In this interview conducted over e-mail, Muruzábal tells us how his murals give testament to a generation of women whose lifestyles resist the encroachments of speculative urbanization.
A greleira de 50 pés
Alexander Aguayo: Good afternoon, Joseba. You have had a lot of success with your work, Fenómenos do rural (Rural Phenomena). How do you feel about that?
Joseba Muruzábal: Very pleased. I’ve had the fortune to meet new models in different parts of Galicia, paint in several parts of my country that I did not know, and be able to charge a dignifying price for it.
Aguayo: Tell me a bit about your artistic training. Was there something particular about art that inspired you? What about mural art excites you?
Muruzábal: I received my training from a university that specializes in conceptual art; ideas were always superior to technique. It’s something that now, I believe, works to my advantage, though back then it was frustrating. Nowadays, I round out my education taking courses with painters I like. It’s like going to the training room in The Matrix; in one weekend you learn a lot of information. The last one I did was with Iñigo Navarro, an amazing painter.
One thing that I love most about muralism is its physical aspect. It’s exhausting, but at the same time very dynamic. What I don’t accomplish in the studio, painting without interruption, the mural demands of me. The mural has a timeline, you know when you begin and when you finish. You can leave a portrait unfinished for months, even years. Half-finished work leaves me in a well of unrest. It’s like when you read a Russian novel, one of the thick kind, and you take a few months’ break somewhere in the middle. Murals don’t let me idle away, and I like that.
Another amazing thing about muralism is that it allows you to meet new people and places. Certainly, this is the most enriching part of the job.
Aguayo: What was your intention when you began to paint the “supergrannies” in Fenómenos do rural? What impact did you want to have in the world with these subjects?
Muruzábal: To give testament to the difficult life of these women in a humorous tone. I think of the women in rural Galicia as a collective. This is key given that people understand the protagonists of the murals as metaphors for their own grandmothers. One alone represents the values of all, in spite of the fact that each mural tries to reflect the particularities, too, of each subject.
Soledad, a Poppins do sar
Aguayo: What characteristics attract you to rural environments? What relationship exists between your representations of ruralism and the urban environment in which your murals are displayed?
Muruzábal: I have only three murals from Fenómenos do rural in cities; the rest are in small towns. And as I always say, Galicia is all rural. Galician cities guard with zeal their rural areas. The mural that I painted in Santiago has just below it a group of houses with vegetable gardens and granaries that resist speculative urbanization right in the city center.
I have a video where I put together the process for each mural. I always try to mirror the reality of what I am painting by filming the surroundings. From the crane I tend to see women in aprons working on their garden plots or homes. It is very beautiful when the thing you are painting is replicated in the real life taking place around the mural.
Amparo, a reposteira dos montes
Aguayo: Within muralism various subjects are represented in a single image, which points to social life. What does it mean that the “supergrannies” are represented as individuals?
Muruzábal: Normally, that is how you find them: they are solitary workers, which by no means takes away from the fact that they make a social life in their garden plots. But in general, when you cross paths with a “supergranny” on a sidewalk, she tends to be alone on her way to or from work. The small homestead tends to be a site of individual work.
Aguayo: The woman that inspires you, what role does she represent in art? Is representing her a means of “translating,” that is, of adapting her to a different system of signification? Or better yet, is it a means of archiving Galicia?
Muruzábal: It is a way of archiving Galicia, of giving testimony in a humorous tone to this generation of women that due to a series of conditions share a way of life. Mind you, here is a generation without substitute, the people now raised in the country do not have the same life experiences as these women, luckily. Their superpowers are born out of overexerting themselves their whole lives, and now in old age they are unable to put the brakes on it. As a result, you can come across eighty-year old women pruning apple trees.
Eugenia e o dragón do batea
Aguayo: What else inspires you? Comics?
Muruzábal: Of course. Being born in the 1980s in the full swing of pop culture, it shows. On the one hand, I paint a woman who serves as a paradigm for the collective, and on the other, I mix this image with concepts borrowed from popular culture that are recognized by everyone. It’s painting for all publics with different levels of interpretation.
Aguayo: How has your technique or vision changed over the years?
Muruzábal: With time I would like my work to be valuable as much for its content as for its form. Although for many viewers my technique is good, in my opinion there is room for growth. I am working on that, continuing to learn.
Aguayo: What more can we expect to see from you?
Muruzábal: Well . . . let’s see if I exhibit my doll. For a while now I have been making a doll. The protagonist Dora, the model for my portrait Equilibrios na horta (Equilibriums on the Homestead). I didn’t like the first finish and I put the brakes on it for two years. This year I will try to finish it and put her up for sale.
© 2021 by Alexander Aguayo. All rights reserved.
"In the internet there is a fountain of youth into which at first you drunkenly plunge your face, and then in the dawn light you see your reflection, battered by the years," writes Maël Renouard. In "Fragments of an Infinite Memory", he takes a step back to meditate on the effects of online browsing upon our lives.
Maël Renouard begins Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet with a memory about memory itself:
One day, as I was daydreaming on the boulevard Beaumarchais, I had the idea—it came and went in a flash, almost in spite of myself—of Googling to find out what I’d been up to and where I’d been two evenings before, at five o’clock, since I couldn’t remember on my own.
What follows is essentially an in-depth exploration of that flash of an idea. What does the internet know, and what is it ignorant of? How far can it go to extend our ability to remember, and what are the repercussions of that extension?
Fragments of an Infinite Memory, translated beautifully from the French by Peter Behrman de Sinéty, is a meditation on the many ways that the internet has changed how we register, remember, and forget the past. For many of us, Google has turned into a kind of gigantic surrogate memory, a backup system for our brains; even as facts slip through our fingers, they are ever-present and easy to access online. This has made for a curiously lopsided relationship between public and private memory. Our personal histories can fall into oblivion, while public knowledge remains accessible forever.
Renouard is concerned with what happens as we all adapt to the omnipresent internet. What are the side effects of outsourcing our memory? How does it impact our personal lives, our relationships, our other thought processes? Can we still tell each other stories? Can we still appreciate art and music? What happens to the parts of our lives that are not documented online?
Many books have been written about the ills of the internet, but this is emphatically not one of them. This is not a how-to manual or a guide to overcoming internet addiction, nor is it a nostalgic paean to the analog days before the information superhighway. No, Renouard’s book is something that we don’t see enough of—a clear-eyed and not particularly sentimental look at the role played by the internet in our intellectual lives.
The book is structured in a way which seems suited to our impatient, internet age: it consists of short notes, some just a few paragraphs long, and all of them self-contained enough as to allow readers to go through the book in any order they like. Most are written by Renouard himself; others cite people he knows, who are referred to only by their first initials. The format seems to cater to our short attention spans, but Renouard’s prose is not designed for careless reading. It is densely packed material, in the tradition of fragmentary and epigrammatic works of cultural criticism such as the aphorisms of Friedrich Nietzsche, the epigrams of Oscar Wilde, or even the diary entries of Samuel Pepys.
Renouard does deal, of course, with the losses that we have all experienced because of the internet. We are ever more distractable; we spend hours chasing scraps of unnecessary information and updating our Facebook status. We’ve all become far less sociable as it’s become easier to spend more time alone burrowing into our own private worlds. Renouard doesn’t shy away from the damage that the internet has done to us all. He describes, in painful and familiar detail, the way a friend of his loses all his productive energy when he becomes obsessed with racking up Facebook “likes.” He also describes the way he wastes his own time hunting down irrelevant pieces of information online, in an obsessive chase after meaning which never materializes, and which he compares to opium use:
In the past, I only used to be able to concentrate at home, in silence and solitude. That’s exactly what I have to get away from now if I want to have any hope of putting the hours of a day to good use; otherwise, I look up everything that crosses my mind on the internet; the brief distractions that normally punctuate a sustained effort take on outsize proportions; time slips through my fingers, and I watch myself waste the hours as I take long puffs of this opium.
These aspects of the internet’s destructiveness will feel embarrassingly familiar to anyone who has spent much time online. Most of what the internet does, Renouard points out, is to separate our minds and emotions from our physical selves. When we lose ourselves in an internet search, we are plunging into a mental or spiritual experience and effectively leaving our physical selves behind. To a certain extent, this was always possible in the past too. Before the internet existed, we could plunge ourselves into books, after all. What’s changed now, Renouard argues, is that there is an easily accessible collective intellect which we can plug ourselves into. Not only are we separating ourselves from our physical lives, we are submerging ourselves in this collective mind. As Renouard puts it, “The body barrier will be broken.”
This desire for a purely spiritual life with no physical constraints dates back thousands of years, Renouard reasons:
Survival is not the only thing at stake in a victory of mind. The prize is also the ecstasy that would spring from dwelling in the realm of essences. Plato entrusted this hope to what would later be termed metaphysics. Romanticism left it to art.
And now, of course, we have Wikipedia.
Fragments of an Infinite Memory continually flattens out the difference between “high” and “low” culture, so that metaphysics and web pages can be discussed on the same terms. Renouard peppers his book with references to Hegel, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, and other philosophers. But he also talks about Google Earth, Facebook, and Wikipedia.
YouTube comes in for a particularly warm mention. Renouard describes the experience of staying up all night looking for songs from his early youth. And as he plays his favorite songs, he also reads through the nostalgic comments left by people from around the world, who have all been involved, at various times, in a similarly Proustian search for their past. “Melancholy is the future of emotion,” Renouard observes, noting how much we all seem to relish that blend of losing and rediscovering bits of our past. At the same time, the YouTube experience has the same non-bodily quality as every other online experience and, as such, carries with it a whiff of danger:
In the internet there is a fountain of youth into which at first you drunkenly plunge your face, and then in the dawn light you see your reflection, battered by the years.
Renouard excels at pointing out the emotional underbelly of intellectual work and mapping out the surges of feeling that accompany each stage of developing an idea. In fact, much of the book’s weight comes from its combination of philosophy and felt experience. Reading Fragments of an Infinite Memory is reminiscent of reading the most accessible works of Roland Barthes or Jean Baudrillard. Like those authors, Renouard finds value and meaning in the most ordinary human activities. And, like them, he is relentlessly cerebral, subjecting everything to the same rigorous analysis.
Some readers may wonder about everything that’s been left out of Fragments of an Infinite Memory. For a book about the internet, there is very little in here about social media, for example. The references to Facebook are all about the solitary use of that platform—the experience of posting status updates and waiting for “likes.” There’s nothing about online conversations, social groups, or social media pressures; there is absolutely nothing about the politics of fact-checking online. For an author who laments that we’ve all become less sociable, Renouard seems strangely unaware of the potential for online socializing. His experience of the internet is almost completely solitary, like a library patron in a multimedia reading room. He is aware of the other patrons, but he does not directly interact with them.
This itself may be a token of how quickly technology is moving forward. Renouard’s book was originally published in 2016—social media was already omnipresent at the time, but it is even more so today. Those of us who read this book during the COVID-19 outbreak will probably also be struck by how much life has changed since the onset of the pandemic. Renouard was able to spend his days sitting in cafés with his friends or going to the movie theater. His social life takes place almost entirely in person, something which, for many of us, seems like a throwback to an impossibly remote time. It’s hard to remember a time when we could power down the laptop and head out for the evening, instead of opening up Zoom to meet up with our friends.
Renouard concludes his book by noting that he grew up before the advent of the internet and that, therefore, he likely has a different experience of the online world. Those who were born later may well have a different relationship to the internet. Instead of divorcing their private, physical lives from the collective knowledge online, young people will experience a more seamless reality:
Perhaps those who grow up with the internet will leave enough traces of themselves to find their way through their own memories without fail. Their personal cartography will have lost its unknown territories. They will no longer bury their secrets in nothingness; they will bury them in the infinite.
Reading Fragments of an Infinite Memory, I took comfort from the idea that no matter how far the internet’s tentacles may reach, we are still capable of taking a step back and examining it as one more stage in human development. Renouard’s writing, tied as it is to an older philosophical tradition, seems to promise that the online world has not engulfed us completely—that, if anything, we can use our experience of the internet to add to our larger understanding of the nature of human memory and desire.
It will be interesting to see how people who have grown up in the age of the internet will respond to Renouard’s approach. Will readers a decade from now still want to take a step back from the internet? Or will they be so thoroughly enmeshed in the online world that stepping back from it would be an absurd exercise, like abandoning gravity? Only time will tell.
With a flair for the uncanny, the wonderfully weird stories in Elvira Navarro's new collection feature characters with a borderline grasp of reality and explore the exhilaration of feeling out of place.
The unnamed narrator of “Paris Périphérie,” a wisp of a story in Elvira Navarro’s new collection of short fiction, Rabbit Island, has an innate sense of direction. Even in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the bustling capital city of a foreign country, a hunch usually points her in the desired direction. As we meet her, she’s deeply conflicted about an important relationship, and long walks seem to clarify her thoughts. One day, while searching for a government office to re-up her short-term residency permit in Paris, she stops in front of a brick building. The façade is covered with mildew. Nearby, there’s a neglected garden. Storm clouds gather above distant skyscrapers. All at once, she’s gripped by a feeling of pronounced isolation—but she doesn’t mind a bit. If this is a “sense of unease,” one whose origins elude her, it’s oddly, inexplicably “pleasurable.”
Compared to some of this book’s wonderfully strange stories, “Paris Périphérie” is a minor mood piece, limited to a handful of thoughts going through the protagonist’s head as she makes for the city’s outskirts. But much of what makes this Spanish writer so interesting is present in its six pages. Impeccably translated by Christina MacSweeney, the stories in Rabbit Island take place in peripheral locales, settings that amplify Navarro’s talent for capturing the emotions that arise when her characters, who often go unnamed, feel lost. She has palpable empathy for people who are estranged from family members, romantic partners, and society itself. And she has an infectious appreciation for the ways in which such circumstances can be at once distressing and exhilarating. With a flair for the uncanny, Navarro can be as entertaining as she is perceptive.
The evocatively titled “Notes on the Architecture of Hell” is this collection’s clear standout. Featuring another main character whose name we never learn, the story, which takes place in Madrid’s cemeteries, hospitals, and sites of worship, charts the long-running travails of two brothers. Our protagonist vividly “remembers the day he saw Older Brother lose his mind,” Navarro writes. It was “a fall afternoon, a pale brown church on the corner, the leaves of the plane trees on the sidewalks. Older Brother climbing a streetlight, chanting a passage from the Apocalypse at the top of his lungs.” He’d hacked off his hair, and his bloody scalp was “glistening like a fresh flower.” The protagonist, too, struggles with his mental health, and after a stay in a psychiatric clinic and subsequent years of suffering, he begins furtively tailing his sibling.
Older Brother, we learn, was a respected NASA official who was forbidden from discussing the classified particulars of his work. He vanished around the time of a sensational UFO sighting, and after his unexplained reappearance, was hospitalized and given too many antipsychotic medications. The protagonist aches when he recalls his once-vibrant brother’s “intellectual and emotional paralysis, that stupefied-lump-of-flesh state” to which he had been reduced. Years later, as the story returns to the present day, Older Brother’s doctors forge a more humane pharmaceutical regimen, imbuing him with renewed friskiness. He begins sneaking out of the clinic after dark, alighting one night on a seminary, another on a church. Secretly following Older Brother as he enters the latter building, the protagonist “hear(s) a cry of relief. It wasn’t the sound of a man or a woman, but wasn’t a child either.” This happens with increasing regularity, leaving the protagonist to wonder if Older Brother has found a calling as an iconoclastic clergyman or “a crazy exorcist.” An irresistible blend of eerie intimations and real-world pathos, this is a gripping, powerful portrait of two suffering souls.
“The Top Floor Room” is another memorable story in which a nameless character faces a predicament that arises in the small hours of the morning. Navarro’s protagonist is on the go in this tale too, but most of her journeys take place in her mind—or perhaps in the minds of others. A kitchen staffer at a hotel where she also lives, the young woman goes to bed one night and “dream(s) of gales and tinny voices shouting.” She thinks she hears a city soundscape, and her perspective soon merges with that of a fellow employee who walks nude through the hotel. “When she woke,” Navarro writes, “she was certain she’d dreamed someone else’s dream.” More dreams of this kind follow. She theorizes that her residency in the hotel has caused her consciousness to subsume the inner lives of others who spend time there. She acknowledges that this is a daffy notion, but her mounting agitation inspires a fateful plan to extinguish her troubling dreams. A compact page-turner about the great mysteries of the mind, this story works as both a character study and a low-key thriller, one with a subtle yet heartbreaking final act.
In two other stories—not her best, yet plenty unnerving—Navarro contends with the ways in which our smartphones and apps can be wielded as alienating weapons. In “The Fortune-Teller,” a woman (again unnamed) is deeply unsettled by text messages sent by a purported clairvoyant. The texts, which seem to allude to painful episodes from the woman’s past, “manifested their own shadow . . . like the photograph of a highway on the outskirts of the city, at night, in a storm. Her childhood fears were there.” “Memorial” is about a woman who discovers that someone impersonating her late mother has created a Facebook page in the dead woman’s name. When the imposter proves to have knowledge of events that only a family member would possess, the woman begins a disturbing virtual correspondence. It’s a creepy tale that presents readers with yet another reason to temper their social media use.
If some of Navarro’s characters are terrorized via twenty-first century technology, others take up residence in places untouched by the internet. In the title story, a restless art-school teacher builds a canoe and paddles into the Guadalquivir, one of Spain’s longest rivers. He starts by exploring a group of islands. Before long, he’s decided to forsake his comfortable home and live on an uninhabited spit of earth. Why reinvent himself as a solitary isle dweller? Maybe he’s just sick of city life. But there are signs that something more worrisome is afoot.
He shouts at birds until he’s hoarse. He introduces rabbits to the island, and they reproduce at an alarming rate; some begin to eat their young, which he takes as a sign. Maybe he’s “inaugurating a new world. All this was happening in silence because there was still no language for a reality that was just taking its first steps.” Navarro depicts her protagonist’s fragile emotions with subtlety and sensitivity. Writing in close third person, she channels his thoughts about his changing appearance. He wonders if “his rapidly graying hair would achieve the amazing whiteness of those now sacred animals.” He is a troubled person, but considering the plights that befall the characters in some of this intelligent book’s other stories, you can understand his inclination to distance himself from the modern world. Estrangement, this collection’s primary theme, can be terrifying, maddening, empowering—often all at once. A complex state of mind, it can be difficult to describe or understand, but Navarro writes about it with commendable insight and compassion.
No doubt a few Galicians will think it in very bad taste to inaugurate this issue with a likeness to their higher profile southern neighbors, but because there may be a great many glad for the comparison, I can hardly imagine a better point of entry to the little-known trove that is Galician literature. Indeed, ever since the independence of Portugal in 1143 from the Spanish Kingdom of León, and the subsequent split of their common vulgar tongue, debate has raged over just where (and when) to draw the border between Galician and Portuguese, if one need be drawn at all. They are, for the most part, mutually intelligible, despite differences in vocabulary, accent, and syntax. Orthography is a particular sticking point, notably with place-names, whose spelling can carry real political import. It is hardly a surprise, then, that in either culture respect is reserved for all the irrevocably parted, or that a word has emerged, in either language, to express their anguish. In Portuguese, the word is saudade; I expect it rings a bell. It often turns up in BuzzFeed-type listicles of apparently untranslatable words. As a translator, I am more than a little ashamed to admit that I routinely fall for the clickbait, and so it is with some authority that I say saudade’s Galician sibling—morriña, or morrinha—seldom makes the cut.
Whether to Portugal or greater Spain, Galicia is often relegated to the role of second fiddle, but its native language and nearly three million speakers around the globe are not to be dismissed. According to recent research conducted by the Spanish National Institute of Statistics, the number of Galician-language books published within Galicia on any given year is now the same or higher as the number of those published in Spanish. Although this number is about half of what it had been only a decade earlier, it nevertheless offers something of a silver lining in an age defined by the attrition of regional languages across the Iberian Peninsula. And internationally, the outlook may be even rosier. As reported in Spain’s oldest operating newspaper, the bilingual Spanish-Galician Faro de Vigo, foreign translation of Galician literature has doubled since 2008. In the past five years especially Galician presses have nearly doubled their presence at the larger literary book fairs as well, in Bologna, Guadalajara, Buenos Aires, and Frankfurt, thanks in large part to language promotion initiatives financed by the regional government.
It would be more than a little incorrect, then, to shove the Galician language and its literary output under either the Spanish or Portuguese umbrellas. Galician is neither a dialect nor a transcription of those cultures and their languages any more than morriña is a mere varietal or translation of saudade.
But if morriña does claim less interest than its Lusitanian cousin, except in academic circles, this is probably because it presents less mystery. While her Portuguese counterpart, in the grips of his saudade, may struggle to define just what it is he longs for, ask a Galician about her morriña and she is bound to find you a little soft in the head: Galiza, claro—Galicia, of course.
Personally, I find the term more nuanced, more sophisticated than many Galicians care to admit. (Modesty is, after all, a point of pride in this rainy corner of northwestern Spain. It bears mention that Amancio Ortega, founder of the Zara fashion empire, grew up in A Coruña, where, if local accounts are faithful, he is often spotted strolling the city’s public beach, discreetly attired.) For although it may be easy enough to grasp why a Vigo fisherman hauling for cod on the high seas of the North Atlantic, or an Ourense exile hiding out on the Pampas from the wrath of a dictator—who, incidentally, hailed from Ferrol—might think often and fondly of their faraway home, it is a bit less clear, perhaps, why the sentiment may glow as brightly in a modern-day Lugo dairy farmer, dispossessed of the family trade by a shifting economy and the plummeting price of milk across the European Single Market.
As tempting as it is to think of morriña as only another kind of homesickness, a better synonym might be estrangement. From what Galicians feel estranged is a question with no single answer, but the pursuit of something like one has become a deep well of Galician literature, past and present. It certainly binds together the eight pieces in this month’s issue, which we can read as a survey of botched, aborted, or deferred attempts to connect or reconnect, with distant parents, with forgotten friends, or even with a sense of existential certainty—or even, when all else fails, one’s own livestock.
“i come from a family built on longing,” proclaims the narrator of Susana Sanches Arins’ And They Say, still nursing the multigenerational hurt of a home destroyed much less than disappeared through the Spanish Civil War. It is a sentiment all too familiar to the narrator of Emma Pedreira’s Voracious also, as she prepares for the loss of a mother she never really understood, for whom, as an author, understanding was the task of a lifetime, except when it came to her daughter.
We see a similar, if darker, struggle to connect in the poetry of Luisa Castro, wherein another daughter struggles to read into the circumstances of her birth a love her mother refuses to feign, even for appearance’s sake. Reality and expectation clash again, this time between lovers, and with an absurdly scatological streak, in Xurxo Borrazás’ “Of Children and Sphincters.”
Lest we imagine the hunger for resolution is proper only to the well-acquainted, Antón Lopo, in “Stress,” reminds us the feeling is equally at home between former friends, reunited by chance and divided by worldview. Nor, would it seem, is connection a strictly human problem, as Álvaro Cunqueiro proves with great absurdity in “Alberte Merlo’s Horse.”
Just why our heroes fall short of the resolution they desire is up for interpretation, although we could certainly credit the deep emotional constipation they share. Or we might wonder if failure, as some of these writers seem to suggest, is not simply a rule of life itself, the essential chaos of which will ever defy any dream of reconciliation. There is something of this idea in Samuel Solleiro’s “This, I Don’t Know,” in its very title. Or, choosing to see not chaos but overwhelming order, we can follow the lead of Alba Cid’s “Essays,” and lose ourselves in the architecture of an okra flower.
Altogether, the selections in this month’s issue imagine a universe of too many hopeless questions, of an endless host of desires wandering around in search of a one true heading. The scope of these questions, and the breadth of this wandering are truly stunning in their immensity. But abide this immensity, these pieces do, as living, breathing Galicians do, day in and day out, from the Costa da Morte to the heights of the Ancares. Theirs is a hardy, hard-headed refusal to give in, and there is nothing more Galician than that.
© 2021 Scott Shanahan. All rights reserved.
The work of German photographer Karl Blossfeldt and his relationship to plants is reimagined in this poem by 2019 Poems in Translation Contest winner Alba Cid from her collection Atlas.
Light is choral and comes from another world:
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone.
Edgar Allan Poe
1. A catalog for Karl Blossfeldt.
2. A creation that can only be seen head-on, one which celebrates the detail: fingers plucking petals and sepals to discover
3. the corolla (chrysanthemum)
4. the structures (sage)
5. a nearly nonexistent world: interior, spores, silences (nothing better than a panicle to catch a glimpse of silence).
6. With some enlargements, organic matter can become metal, sculpture, a richly split nutcracker, a Tsarine delirium after so many Tsars.
7. After each selection, earthen arrows, brushes, velvet, manipulation, and the play of light and shadow; the wary fascination of botanists.
8. Karl mounts his bicycle and leaves behind the sinewy nucleus of Berlin. We watch him pedal from above, drawing innumerable ellipses on his way to the outskirts, and we think back to a line by Jorie Graham, the line that explains sea creatures’ fascination with the moon’s traces in the water.
9. “Anything that flees so constantly must be desirable.” From “Ambergris,” in Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts, 1980.
10. Revelation can come in Potsdam or Teufelsee, at the foot of an ox-path.
11. Karl kneels before every wild specimen:
12. a blue button, lichens, the motion of a fern as its arms unfurl.
13. It’s hard to deny the evocations, elevation, and curve of the stalk, withdrawing, practically en quatrième position, like a ballerina in the German Staatsballett.
14. In 1929, Walter Benjamin describes the work of Karl Blossfeldt as “an entire, unsuspected horde of analogies and forms in the existence of plants.” From “News About Flowers,” in the year cited.
15. “Horde,” he writes (which is to write stampede, the tumult of battle), without knowing that the body of photographs taken between 1890 and his death in 1932 will climb to 6,000.
16. Is there a botanical inspiration behind Doric columns? Roman crowns? Gothic choirs?
17. When you say inspiration, what do you really mean?
18. There is a heartbeat in Karl’s words, a certain eagerness for restitution, the ceaseless revelation of the elective affinities between artistic and natural forms, something almost etymological,
19. soft as the word “balm,” which crosses the River Jordan, through the valleys of Syria, anointing lips and bodies.
20. These, Karl, are close-ups of a Canna indica in black and white.
21. In a certain slant of morning, some of the canna lily’s leaves, oblong and tropical, will begin to let the sunlight through.
22. Light filters through its tissues and marks the ribbing of the plant.
23. It respects stems and transition zones. It illuminates the edges.
24. As day falls, another burst bounces off its waxed surface and makes manifest each ripple, the traces of soil, and rain.
25. And smoothness, can’t you see?
26. As for the Canna, perennial, it can easily grow two meters high, flower and fruit, folding in on itself; it wouldn’t respond well to isolation or extraction.
27. How might we decide between choreography or architecture?
28. Urals or sky?
29. Smoothness tells a story of more delicate ambitions.
30. What do you know about leaves? (You, not Karl.) About touch?
31. Are you aware of having touched them once in silence?
32. Any one of them could envelop your whole hand, even when unclasped.
33. In the instant your fingertips meet the surface, your mind makes a rapid sketch, a mental image of the thing you’ve touched.
34. The Canna is chutes and rhythms, passageways.
35. Karl parks his bike carelessly. Under his arm, a bunch of marigolds, triumphant and tender:
36. “If I give someone a horsetail, he will have no difficulty making a photographic enlargement of it—anyone can do that. But to observe it, to notice it and discover its forms, is something that only a few are capable of.”
Atlas © 2019 Alba Cid. By arrangement with the author. English Translation © 2021 Megan Berkobien and Jacob Rogers. All rights reserved.
Memories of family unfold in fragments in this excerpt from Susana Sanches Arins' novel And They Say.
stories are always being constructed. the words work like hands, setting brick after brick in its place.
a wall that protects us.
my father was born in 1949, the year after the war had come to an end. my mother came into the world in 1952 and the Maquis still roamed the hills. the war seemed far away, but it was there.
and it is still there.
i don’t know the whole story. i only recall, although this i do recall clearly, some scraps. not even scraps of the story, but rather the ones of the stories that grandma gloria told about the story, or of the stories casilda struggles to remember that she heard from aunt ubaldina. how can you identify the links between one remnant and another? what stitch should you use? where should you cut the fabric? in fact, what cloth should be used? what is the right pattern?
is there a correct way to do it?
i come from a family built on longing, on nostalgia for bygone days.
grandma gloria was always talking about the times in the big house of portaris, about how she was happy before what happened happened. mom always talking about the family, about how important we were, about how in vigo we even had a coat of arms on a gothic style stone house. aunt pilar always remembering her childhood in the house of one of her uncles, who was quite sophisticated and very rich.
i come from a family built on anger, because the ruin we suffered wasn’t fair. if it weren’t for uncle manuel, portaris would be ours, if it weren’t for that fight, we would still have sunday lunches with relatives, if it weren’t for the war, i would be living in redondela.
oh, if only it weren’t for . . .
uncle manuel is in the only family photograph that my grandmother kept. uncle manuel was one of her older brothers, she was the youngest. there were thirteen of them, not counting the ones who had died. that’s why, in the photo, my grandmother is at my great-grandfather’s feet and is just two years old. uncle manuel looks straight-backed and stiff, in one of the outer corners of the photo. even though my great grandparents are sitting in the center of the picture, as if they are on a royal throne, the one who is presiding over the scene is uncle manuel. because he has that air about him. and he plays up that majestic appearance with the white suit and white hat and white shoes. as if he were an indiano, the emigrant returned from the americas.
the rest of the brothers and sisters, thirteen in all, besides the ones who had died, and even my great-grandparents, sitting on their royal throne, look like uncle manuel’s poor servants, the tenant farmers who work his fields, the washerwomen who rinsed out his pristine laundry, the wet nurses who nursed my grandmother.
always serving the lord.
portaris was a place of immense wealth, with the meadows, swiddens, oak groves, community fields, wheatfields, and hills where cart after cart of manure was carried down. they said that portaris had five hundred square meters or so for every day of the year and had at least thirty tenant farmers. there wasn’t a lunchtime during the week when there weren’t at least two priests sitting at the table.
where the priest says mass, he gets fed.
once this was all ours
one day my brother went with uncle josé to alter the course of the water. going up to the heights where the monastery was, where the well was and the irrigation streams started out, he looked where his uncle was pointing and listened to what he said: everything you see there on the horizon—and he pointed toward the north—were lands that belonged to portaris. when the words came to an end, he rested a hand on the boy’s shoulder, like they do in the films with the cavalry set in the far west, and they watched the sun set.
areias was a place of immense wealth, with the meadows, swiddens, oak groves, community fields, wheatfields, and hills where cart after cart of manure was carried down. they said that areias had five hundred or so square meters for every day of year and had at least thirty tenant farmers. there wasn’t a lunchtime during the week when there weren’t at least two poor persons and beggars sitting at the table and workers who were unemployed and ill.
the doors to the house of manuel gonzález fresco were always open and nobody went away empty-handed.
fishing without a hook
one day my brother went with uncle josé to change the way the water ran.
—everything you see there on the horizon—and he pointed toward the north—were lands that belonged to portaris.
inhaki was sad when he came back. he didn’t give a hoot about contemplating the horizon lit up by the sunset.
—i just wanted to see eels.
dad had told him the well where the irrigation streams emerged was full of them, as big as serpents. and he hadn’t caught sight of even one.
slippery fish, like the memories we retain of bygone days.
for years, during sunday visits to the house in ceia, my grandmother gloria would tell my father: uncle manuel is very ill, he might not make it past christmas. and christmas went by and a new sunday came. uncle manuel is really ill, he might not make it past easter; and easter came and went.
one of those mournful warnings by grandma had given rise to the rumor. dying he’s dying, but he hasn’t died yet. it might be he keeps going because of those shots of cane liquor, the old woman with the voice of a sassy young lass would affirm. even a frost won’t get rid of weeds, a member of the family would inevitably let slip out every sunday.
and that’s when grandmother gloria would get all riled up:
—shhhh! show some respect! he was never a good person, but i don’t wish him dead.
and then what died was the conversation. until the next sunday arrived bringing the same comment as always.
uncle manuel is very ill, he might not make it past midsummer eve.
version 1 (more outlandish and unpredictable): one day my great-grandfather went to the county fair in cambados and when he came home he ordered everything to be packed up because he had just bought land over yonder, along the sea, that they told him was better for planting gardens and growing fruit trees.
version 2 (more sensible and boring): the old man had become very ill with a chest ailment. he sold everything in cervanha and bought new land, near the coast, so he could go more often to bathe in the waters at a toja, which they had said could cure you and he would cough less and wouldn’t suffocate from the spasms in his diaphragm.
the point is
the important thing about the imaginative and random version as opposed to the sensible and boring one is seeing how each thing that happens has many versions that people tell, one, two, twelve, not as many as there are people.
as many as the times this story is told.
shoes ask for stockings
stockings ask for shoes
the shoemakers in the mountains
want land in cambados, they do
the oldest children were all fairly grown. only the little girls had been born in the new house. the move took a couple of days and required four or five oxcarts, with the chestnut bed frames, the dressers and trunks for the bed linens. on the trip they had to go back a ways, because along the way they’d lost aunt carmen, who was very little then.
they say uncle manuel, one of the older ones, had a girlfriend acquired during the festival in bandeira, but the relationship never made it past bandeira. who knows if that’s how the meanness entered his body.
we don’t know what market our great grandfather went to, but we think it was the one by the mosteiro, in meis. it was held on the ninth and twenty-fifth of each month and it was the biggest one in the area. who knows if that’s where the muleteers decided to accept dried octopus as payment for oil and paprika, and was thus the origin of polvo à feira, octopus market style, a national dish, gastronomic seal of quality. what was definitely true is that was where they sold cows who had just given birth, pregnant ones, the ones meant for slaughter, young cows, calves, oxen, pigs and horses. the wagon drivers from carvalhinho traded ribeiro wine, chestnuts from the courel mountains, walnuts from brolhao. the shepherds from ourense visited houses to buy livestock for wool. people came from meanho and valga, and caldas, and moranha, and cambados selling and buying, or just stopping by the vendors’ stands to listen to stories and have a glass of wine.
and in the middle of this hoopla great-grandfather heard them talking about a farm that belonged to some friars that nobody wanted: portaris.
grandmother gloria had the family portrait, with all of them, male and female, in front of the family home, perhaps in order to soften the suffering from having lost it. But every time the photograph emerged from the drawer and the parchment paper that it was wrapped in, the trauma, like the phoenix, was reborn from its silver nitrate.
. . . back then, back then, we were really happy, before uncle Manuel.
the one who saves, never goes without
version 3 (who knows if it’s the last): the old man was a clog maker. He went around to the big markets, and in his stand he repaired soles, replaced laces, tried to renew worn-down clogs. at one of those fairs he heard them talking about portaris.
The job as clog maker wasn’t a small business, considering the profit.
old wives’ tales
years ago i heard about the strength of the agrarian movement in the area around taveirós. the peasants, women and men, organized in unions, listened to the emancipating sermons of basilio álvarez and, in partnership with the ones who had emigrated, set up the first secular schools in the region, because they wanted daughters and sons who were deserters of illiteracy.
one of the things that amazed me the most was when i found out what happened in 1915. as always, the big houses with 365 ferrados were not required to pay taxes, the huts with a few cuncas, scraps of land, a granary with a single section, had to pay for the rest. And there was a general strike: for weeks the villages in the area refused to sell their produce in town, which meant the people there had no milk, no flour, no eggs, no vegetables or apples.
i had the idea that my people were downtrodden and had no backbone, and i was quite surprised at its astonishing history of resistance. astonishing and forgotten.
in the morning, uncle Manuel only had two shots of cane liquor, one the white kind, the other with herbs. so they say.
oral literature traditions
one of the sayings i recall from grandma gloria is her i'm going to tell you a story. a saying that always surprised me because what my grandmother would tell was what we children called gossip. my grandmother never lost her fondness for telling stories and she never lost the ironic way in which she told them even when her memory failed.
i never saw them, because i hadn't been born yet, but i can see them in the tiny kitchen in ceia, crowded in there, sitting on those white and green stools, around the table, my aunt yoya pretending she didn’t know anything and grandma gloria telling about the big house in portaris and about when the whole family had come from cervanha with the beds and dressers in ox carts and they lost aunt carmen, the one some missionaries passing through later took to become a nun, because grandpa, abuelito, was a man who went to mass every day and had the priest to eat at the house and that peddler who stopped in the big house on market days and the odd rubber that he kept in his traveling case and how aunt ubaldina egged grandma gloria on to steal the rubber and...
© Susana Sanches Arins. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2021 Kathleen March. All rights reserved.
Faced with the imminent death of her mother, Emma Pedreira's narrator reflects on how little they know one another.
Mamá will die tomorrow. Or maybe the day after tomorrow, I’m not sure, but I don’t want to stop to think about it. What I do know is that I’ll get a call and there’ll be a quiet voice, used to these types of things, and in such a schematic way that it’ll sound like a note jotted down on a Post-it: Your mother is dead. In accordance with her wishes, the burial will be tomorrow. We are very sorry.
But it doesn’t matter whether it’s tomorrow or the day after or whenever. Everything is happening as expected. The point is that she’s about to die and I don’t know how I feel about it.
I hardly know her, but I’ve been preparing myself mentally for this moment my whole life. Trying to decide whether I should hold back my tears or let them fall freely. I don’t know what’s going to happen, if they’ll come naturally or if I’ll have to fake them or if, on the contrary, I’ll finally be able to enjoy an infinite moment of peace, of compensation, of natural conciliation, of being able to relax the muscles that were born all tensed up and only when they’ve loosened up can I tell how rigid and painful they’ve been. I’ve been stiff ever since I can remember.
I don’t know Mamá. Or rather, I do know her, I know her first name, her surnames, her telephone number, her real hair color and the biography that’s on the inside flap of her books. I know her curriculum vitae, the differences between the nails on some fingers and on others, the brand of cigarettes she smokes, the yellow color of her fingertips which gives her away and makes her feel like she’s been judged but is not guilty. The world has changed, she’d say, always tending to make an excuse for it, when I started smoking the world demanded you do it, but now they demand you stop, they get you one way or another. I know she’d talk like that. I just know it. Ms. Notme, Ms. Excusemebut.
What I don’t know is how good she is as a mother. What the scent of her neck would be like when I was upset or how she would mark the occasion when I started to menstruate. I don’t know what look she’d have on her face if she’d seen me stoned or drunk the first time. I don’t know what tone of voice she’d use when she caught me stoned or drunk coming home in the wee hours of the morning. I know the tone of her voice better through the telephone or perhaps the videos of her I can watch on the internet. I know what she’s like inside, just as well as her best literary critic could, her best reader. I am her best reader.
In her books I can see the heights of her traumas and, if I dig deeper, I can recognize my name a thousand times.
I don’t even know if she’s the one who chose such a simple name, one you can find everywhere, or if it was Papá. I suppose she did, she just said it and Papá, who craved flesh, blood, the future, didn’t care if it was that name or something else.
Papá isn’t going to die. Papá is going to stay with me forever, holding hands, our faces close, lots of kisses and incomprehension, like Siamese twins with our respective traumas and with a two-for-one coupon—the post-traumatic family pack—at the psychologist’s.
I know how my father’s going to react when he receives the news. He’ll sigh, he’ll shake his head to erase what he’s just heard me say or what somebody else has said, if I’m not the one who’s told him, and he’ll keep on doing whatever it is he’s doing, listening to one of his old albums, or playing the guitar, or arguing with someone by internet. In his own world. Like he always is. In that world where he made a small nook for me but where I’m still a little satellite, close to him, but in the end still a satellite.
The voice will also tell me that I can come collect her personal belongings. A box of medicine that, in case they don’t want it, I can donate or drop off at a recycling place. Her underwear, which I imagine has been folded up to as small as possible and organized by color groups. Her books, the few she could keep in such a small space, and, supposedly, some keys that will allow me to enter the biggest kingdom in the world where everything that belongs to her will be waiting for her to return to die a little more.
I imagine myself opening the door to that place that I still haven’t seen, a small apartment, one I also imagine is crammed with books, notes, newspaper clippings, and awards for her accomplishments. I suppose I will find an envelope with my name on it, or perhaps a box. And inside the envelope or the box, a journal, a carefully kept notebook where the individual chapters of her life are gathered, the ones I don’t know about.
Or maybe there won’t be anything.
Papá punished me once. I think that was the only time he did it. I didn’t understand what wrong was and he typically didn’t know how to teach me using reprimands or physical punishment, but this time it happened he did. I had insulted, hit, and spit in the face of one of those uniform-wearing classmates from school who make fun of things you don’t have. Your daddy is a man-mommy. The insult flew through the air like a dart and stuck me in the face, my angry claws closed in around her neck, three days later the marks were still there. The telephone call . . . your daughter . . . Papá’s shadow, not too tall, not too long, not too strong, everything about him was in moderation.
I never knew if they had paraphrased the insult, but I always thought that his momentary rage came from the pain that the words had caused rather than by my desire for revenge. He took it out on me. He forbid me to watch television for a whole week. He knew the real damage would be to wound my pride deeply and it came at a point in the middle of the series, so I would lose track of the plots in my favorite program at that time. It was a really addicting program full of those types of romance that never happen in real life, the kind we’d never want for ourselves but bring pleasure to other bodies.
The whole week went by and around Wednesday I had gotten over the withdrawal symptoms, I felt clean and calm. Anyways, Sunday arrived and my father came to me and asked if I was going to behave aggressively anymore. You know I won’t. Unless it’s absolutely necessary. (This I didn’t say out loud, I said it silently, deep inside, with my fingers crossed behind my back, like when you swear you aren’t telling a lie.) Then Papá took a videotape from his jacket. In the sloppy writing of the schoolboy who fails four courses and misses the whole summer making it up were the days of the week and next to each, a number.
He had recorded each day's episode, identifying it like an armed guard with his strips of tape that close off an area—obsessively. Something he wouldn’t even do for himself.
For me, love consists of these things that get jumbled together. While I was being punished, my father was saving me, sitting in the living room with the remote in hand, taking care to record around the advertisements.
Even though I hate her, my mother probably wrote me letters that she never sent, because I know there’s pain in the places where she had a pulse. The place where many women put a dab of perfume.
Mamá’s entire life fits inside the books she wrote and published. In her collections of poetry, in her two novels, in the compilations of stories and her writings in journals and other publications that I was able to gather during all this time, collecting them with patience and dedication, as if instead of her daughter I were a garbage collector or a stalker.
None of her books talks about me, her hand lifted to dash off a dedication full of trembling emotion. Nor do any of them do so in the sidebars with bold print, and there are no initials or anything. I’m not there. I still haven’t been published, as they say.
Before, whenever she published a new book, I would go into bookstores like a person who’s making an awkward purchase in a pharmacy or who goes into some store planning to rob it, but I still bought her books, like an anonymous person would buy a pornographic magazine: quickly, in a cowardly fashion, hiding it among the other things that had been purchased. Secretly, and more recently, I would do it through the internet, and would wait anxiously for the mail carrier to arrive, and I’d run the tips of my fingers sore from caressing the covers like a porn lover would do, because I thought the images were so powerful and at the same time they were so harmless, like the siblings I’m pretty sure I've never had.
I also would always google references to her work, reviews, something new to learn about what moment of her life it was, since our brief meeting every semester, that lasted the time it takes to drink three coffees and smoke half a pack of cigarettes, wasn’t long enough for me to come out of my stupor and take a good look at my emotions, an adult conversation, without all the prying questions and evasive answers. We acted like we were strangers, like a landlord who goes to collect the envelope that contains the money from the renter and stops to chat a bit with the tenant about the things that have been remodeled and how comfortable the apartment is. At the end the only thing left was for each one to return to her real world and start the new solstice, if that were needed.
See you later, Mamá, we’ll have to do this again some time.
© Emma Pedreira. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 Kathleen March. All rights reserved.
A mother-daughter conversation and a child's search for her origins lead from the grandiose to the dreary in this poem by Luisa Castro.
My mother works in a cannery.
One day my mother said to me:
love is a canned sardine. Do you know how
One day my mother said to me: love is a work of art
in a can.
Do you know where you come from? You come
from a mussel nursery—
canned. Behind the cannery, where the shells
along with the fish boxes. An impossible stench, a dead-end blue.
That’s where you come from.
Ah! I said, so I’m the daughter of the sea.
You’re the daughter of a day off.
Ah! I said,
I’m the daughter of snack time.
Yes, in the back, among the dead-end things.
Baleas e baleas © Luisa Castro. English Translation © 2021 Laura Cesarco Eglin.
In this fantastical story of a man and his horse by Álvaro Cunqueiro, it becomes increasingly unclear who holds the reins.
One lovely summer afternoon Alberte Merlo gave his horse a little fresh grass, then sat himself down on his chopping block to read the newspaper. The horse, chewing, leaned over his master’s shoulder, and in the voice of a man, inquired:
“What’s new in the world today?”
So began many long months of conversation between Alberte and his horse. By Alberte’s account they spoke of politics, of taxes, of the latest festival in Noia, of weddings and funerals. One day the horse confessed he hated being named Moro, and suggested that Alberte find him something more proper, even if something French. So Alberte consulted a good friend of his in Muros, a teacher, who told him he ought to call this Moro of his Cheval, as they call horses in France. The horse liked the sound of this, but not without muttering that a surname might be nice, too. At the horse’s suggestion, Alberte went around to his neighbors and told them his Percheron and Moorish cross was now to be called Cheval, asking they kindly note the change. For practical purposes, said Cheval.
But as months went by the horse seemed ever more restless, growing jealous whenever Alberte went off to speak privately with anyone else, or whistled to Tirol, the dog, or read the newspaper to his wife, who had never learned to read.
“As if sleeping with her weren’t enough!” Cheval spat.
Almost a year had passed since the horse and Alberte began their chats, and as they were heading back one morning from the mill, Cheval, heavy with flour and bran, froze on the bridge and solemnly declared:
“We’ve been chatting for nearly a year now, but if you would like for us to go on talking about the world, you must promise to speak to me, and me alone, from this moment on. I am, after all, the only horse in all the province to talk to his master! Yet I’ve heard you lie once too often to take you at your word. You must draft a contract. If you refuse, you’ll never hear from me again!”
Alberte anticipated a difficult conversation with the lawyer. They would almost certainly take him for a madman if he were to walk in claiming he spoke to his horse, who now wanted a contract that bound the man to speak to no Galician but him, except in gestures. So Alberte traveled to Muros to visit his friend. The teacher advised he scribble out something on a scrap of paper, as he was sure Cheval didn’t know how to read.
“And how do we know he hasn’t learned to read?” Alberte pressed.
So the teacher produced a sheet of stamped, three-peseta paper and wrote up a sworn declaration in which Alberte pledged to speak to no one except by permission of Cheval the horse, previously known as Moro . . . Signed, Alberte Merlo . . .
Back home, Alberte showed the document to Cheval, who made him read it twice.
“Very good! Now bring it to the Recorder of Deeds!”
Alberte’s mouth fell open while he stared at Cheval.
“Off to the Records Office! I know how these things work. Remember, I once belonged to Abeledo, the famous lawyer.”
(A famous lawyer indeed, said to know Mischief Law inside and out.)
Declaration in hand, Alberte paced over hill and down dale, reclining on a boulder here, leaning against an oak tree there, chewing the whole thing over, wondering what to do, and whether to go into Noia, to the Recorder of Deeds . . . while the horse said nothing, and watched.
© Heirs of Álvaro Cunqueiro and Editorial Galaxia. By arrangement with the heirs and Galaxia. Translation © 2021 by Scott Shanahan.
An unexpected encounter on a train turns into a deeper discussion about love and desire in this poem by Antón Lopo.
We bumped into each other on the train.
Antonio, returning from A Coruña:
me, heading to Vigo.
We greet with air kisses —smooch, smooch—
and he soon asks after Oscar.
I lie to him,
“haven’t seen him in a year”
and he wrings his hands.
He’s put on weight.
“It’s the anti-depressants,”
he says indifferently
and flips his hair back.
It’s dirty. He laughs,
“didn’t find anyone with a shower
and his sweater smells strongly of tobacco and there’s a staleness
to his skin, a mustardy color,
but he’s still an incredibly good-looking man,
with that gaze you can dive into and lose yourself,
and half-open lips,
An inexplicable beauty,
as beauty always is.
He’s uncomfortable because I’m observing him
and from his knapsack he pulls out a book with a rumpled cover
and pages yellowed by sun and damp.
He waves it at me to
it’s Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel.
He found it in a used bookstore and
admits he’s already read it a few times.
He’s obsessed by the character of Kinue
and from how he says it,
I suspect something in Kinue
reminds him of his own life.
I say to him,
“I read a Mishima novel a long time ago
and it didn’t really grab me.”
He’s taken aback:
“How could anyone not love
“You really want to know?”
“Here goes! Kinue’s horrid, the quintessence of ugliness but she’s sure she’s the most beautiful
woman in the world and that she suffers as only beautiful women do when they walk down
the street and all eyes are on them, when she takes a bus and men rudely try to sit down
beside her, when she constantly feels men at dances drooling over her, men who would, if
they could, engage her in the most indecent acts.”
I ask if that’s how he feels
and he pulls out a wrinkled cigarette from the pocket
of his shirt.
“I can’t offer you one,”
“it’s my last.”
“No problem: I don’t smoke anymore.”
“To your health, then,”
and he lights the cigarette.
He exhales smoke the way a flautist, in fine-tuning the air,
extracts from it a strange music.
The smoke slips away,
“to be honest, I admit that I’m
and he looks out the window.
“Bored by what?”
“By all this: by the city, by Monday morning trains, by hookups, by all those who fall for me, those
who go wild for me, those who are starstruck, entranced when they see me, and who shower
me with promises,
marvelous promises: a beach getaway, a trip to Barcelona to get wasted, brand-name clothes, a
nice cologne, dinner in an expensive restaurant.
Some swear they’re serious, and at times
I’d say they’re serious, but in the end,
they are all scared to death.”
“I don’t get your drift.”
“Having something like me at your side means responsibilities and obligations. It seems
waiting for something and, in reality, they’re
too self-satisfied to wait for anything
that’s not a paperweight
right on top of the table.
A stunning companion who provokes
admiration from friends
and envy from enemies
exclamation from passersby
and joy at a fulfilling reflection in the mirror.”
I interrupt his soliloquy:
“It seems like you’ve been thinking about this for awhile.”
He taps a finger to his head:
“I’m on my own, by myself and with lots of time to think.
I’ve been learning this for 25 years.
Do you know
how it feels to know exactly how everything will play out?”
He finishes the cigarette and stubs it out in the armrest ashtray.
“They approach me and get an idea of me and expect me to surprise them without budging an
inch from their idea of me, and I’m not playing that game.
They love me not for myself but for what I represent, and when I give them proof, when I extract
from beauty what I actually am, it paralyzes them.”
“You mean you play them?”
“In a way, yes:
Some I just piss on in the library storeroom,
to others I just say no, that I don’t care to be with them,
that I’d rather smoke and watch them, that I’d rather drink coffee then spill it down my shirt, that I have no cash, that I need cash,
that I’ve a fine to pay, that I have insomnia, that my Dad’s a Fed, that I still haven’t finished
high school, that I’ve been arrested three times, that I’m a sleaze, I have panic attacks, I’m
impatient, that some nights my wrists tremble and glasses fall out of my hands and I don’t
know what to do with my hands and I wring my fingers.”
“Sounds hard to take.”
“And what about them? Don’t they have it worse? It’s not me who tragically realizes that love is
rotten to the core.
My tragedy is
confronting the truth that no one can love me: they don’t love me, or even need me:
they just possess me.”
He tenses and twists
his lip in a histrionic
at the corner of his mouth.
It’s clear he’s ready for another cigarette.
He stands and bums one from a girl at the far end of the car.
Her face goes suddenly bright and a shudder of nervous laughter rises from the girls with her.
They poke each other. A gum-bubble bursts on one’s face and makes her blush.
He returns sucking anxiously on the cigarette.
“You see? Everything seems easy at first . . . but that initial reaction is not to me but to the beauty
that imbues me.”
“You’re just obsessed. You’re handsome
but it’s no big deal.”
“Don’t be so superficial!”
“I’m not being superficial:
I can see you’re not a happy guy.”
“How can I be happy if I can’t find anyone who loves me?”
“And you? Do you love anyone?”
“No one gives me time to!”
“Maybe you don’t give them the chance?”
“I give them plenty of chances, but they always end up turning back to their money, their
bookshelves, their shirts . . . even you,
do you think I don’t see how you’ve looked at me
all these years? It’s an opaque, cowardly desire, the most cowardly of all because you fear I’ll notice. Or worse: not that I’ll notice but that other people will.”
“I think you’ve got me wrong, you’re mistaken.”
“Do you think I don’t see the pack of tobacco tucked in your jacket,
though you say you’ve stopped smoking?"
“I think that beauty is too narrow a path for those whom it keeps from sleeping.”
He bursts into a splendid peal of laughter, all teeth
and I pull a Walkman out of my jacket—
“It’s not tobacco, it’s music”—
and set it down on the seat beside me.
He picks it up and leans back,
“I knew it was music: I was only trying to bug you”
and unbends his legs. They’re long.
He slides one forward aside my seat
to give it a stretch.
“we still have half an hour before Vigo,
want to head to the toilets?”
Fálame © Esquío 2003 Antón Lopo. English Translation © 2021 Erín Moure. All rights reserved
Causality and chance collide in this poem by Samuel Solleiro.
So, there are a lot of things you can’t see, like evil or vitamins. Other things you can: love, which is like bearing a giant heart emoji on your back. It’s just so embarrassing. What does it matter if we believe in it or not, it rules our lives one way or the other, and we’re more or less ok with it. Later, when it gets dark, I’ll get back to thinking that the days seem to drag on, or that they might not be leading to one final day; it’s hard to say with days. But we’re all still here. These are the years directly preceding the onset of vulnerability: the epic ass-kicking, the cracking of the whip. We pretend that everything leaves us feeling vaguely indifferent. The computer where I work, bloody hunk of my body that it is. That’s how the universe works, without signifieds: somewhere a bird is walking, I don’t know. A planet explodes. A thing happens and we don’t know exactly what will happen next, nor exactly when, nor even if anything is actually going to happen. The end result is always something sad and outsized. But you know, all the times I didn’t love you enough, it was because I was writing this. A book. This, I don’t know. There are lot of things you can’t see, others you can, and then there’s the largely uncharted world of things that can only be heard, which are, in order of intensity: a jackhammer, the neighbors’ conversation, an asthmatic wheeze, a fly on the window, and the noise of thought.
Originally published as "Isto, non sei" © Samuel Solleiro. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Neil Anderson. All rights reserved.
Two maladroit lovers search for the meaning in childhood games, their parlay capturing the awkward transition from youth to intellectual and emotional adulthood, in this comical excerpt from Xurxo Borrazás’s novel I Is.
That night, in one second, the alarms ring out like crickets in heat, simultaneously. The sheets take on the shape of the bodies beneath them, and on wrists, in towers, on tables and walls, time is told in a single direction. Their bodies lie slack, submerged and conscious in the absence of light chased by the night.
“I don’t know where to start,” he says.
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to impress me or anything.”
“Did you know that holding in our shit is one of the first stages of socialization? That’s what Freud says.”
“You mean learning to ask permission to go to the bathroom? Everyone knows that.”
“And Freud did, too. Now shush and let me tell you my story.”
“Fine. Go ahead.”
“Well, one day, when I was eight, I was in the park playing bólas with another boy.”
“What do you mean bólas? Sorry for interrupting.”
“Bólas, marbles. These days everyone calls them canicas, like in Spain, but we used to call them bólas. The game was called gua, and the goal was to knock out your opponent’s marble while getting yours into a bowl-shaped hole in the ground. But you probably know all that already, and anyways it’s not important to the story. The thing is, I’d already won about a dozen of his marbles when, out of nowhere, I got this massive urge to shit.”
“You know what it’s like, right? When you have such an urgent need to shit that it feels like you’re going to burst, or it’s going to start seeping out your pores. Your brain speeds up or slows down like you’re underwater; you forget how to talk, your syntax gets jumbled, you become hysterical and you can’t find a comfortable posture. And that’s not the worst part.”
“Nope. The worst part is that whoever’s winning can’t just up and quit. The loser has to be the one to fold, like in poker. And—poor little me—I was suddenly faced with a set of dilemmas greater than anything I’d ever confronted.”
The girl strokes his thigh and beams up at him, mesmerized.
“On the one hand, I needed to shit, and satisfying that urge would have been the most sensible thing to do; my body was begging me for it. On the other hand . . . were a huge array of options, all of which could have had catastrophic effects on the self-esteem we struggle for so desperately as kids. So, I could admit that I was about to shit my pants and ask him to postpone the match, risking that he would say no and I would be doubly humiliated, but as I’m sure you understand, I couldn’t allow it—it was too steep a price. I haven’t mentioned that my opponent was a kid I didn’t know well, we weren’t friends, which is an important factor.”
“Or?” she says.
“Or,” he continues, “I could admit nothing and simply give him back his marbles—a blatant act of dismissal that would make me look really cool and, as an added bonus, give me the chance to humiliate him with my magnanimous superiority; but of course, it would also entail giving him back his marbles.”
“So which was it?”
“I haven’t finished explaining all the options yet: I could start letting him win as quickly as possible until we were tied and he’d earned all his marbles back, and then take off running, though the unfortunate side effect of that option was it would make me look like an idiot, not to mention that my suffering sphincter was sure to buckle from the effort of obstructing such a heavy load for so long.”
“‘Come on, let’s go again!’ my distraught rival demanded from among the pansies and geraniums. ‘You must have shoved a lucky charm up your butt this morning!’”
“And that was the flapjack that melted the butter. The tension made me play better, and I decided, unfazed, to win even more of his marbles off him. If I took them all, he’d be forced to surrender, and if I was lucky, I’d still have the whole afternoon ahead of me. And I’m not saying lucky because I didn’t trust my skills. It was the other factor at play—the sphincter factor.”
“Alright, Humble Harry.”
“Look, there’s no point in beating around the bush: right then, thanks to all the marbles clacking around in my bag, the squatting and standing back up again, and the excitement of winning so many times over, I found myself involuntarily taking the most ego-shattering option of them all, which, of course, was the final option.”
“Disgusting!” she says, smiling and slapping his bare ass.
“It took no more than a second: the relief, the bulge in my shorts, and his clean surrender.”
“‘Don’t take the blue one, c’mon,’ he begged. ‘It’s my favorite, I’ve had it for two years. I’ll play you for it again tomorrow.’”
“‘Enough, enough,’ I said. I didn’t really care either way at that point.”
“‘I’ll swap you for three of the other ones, okay?’ he insisted. ‘Four of them!’”
“I said my goodbyes with all the calm I could manage and made my way very daintily home, treading on the sidewalk as lightly as Santa Claus through a house on Christmas. I stored the marbles in a cigar box in my nightstand, dumped the shit in the toilet, and gave myself a rough-shod washing. Then I threw my underwear into the tub and filled it with water, changed clothes, and had my afterschool snack; a new man. When my mother asked me what happened, I told her there hadn’t been any toilet paper at school, and that was that. Whenever I see the kid nowadays, it occurs to me that my victory was likely more resounding in his mind than it was in mine, but at the end of the day . . . he was none the wiser. Anyway, it’s like Saint Augustine said: ‘Inter faeces et urinan nascimur.’”
“Why do you say that?”
“Nothing that exciting ever happened to me as a kid.”
“I mean, I guess the whole horror show did have its glamor, I’ll grant you that—my rival was two or three years older than me and we called him Jimmy Copacabana; but otherwise, I don’t know if I’d exactly call it exciting.”
“Then why’d you tell me the story? I asked you to tell me how you got here.”
“And that’s what I did. That anecdote is . . . defining. I almost want to say decisive, but what I mean is, it’s a perfect metaphor for my life, or at least I haven’t noticed myself behave in any way that might contradict it since. It must sound stupid, I know, but that’s my life story: obsession, obstruction, competition, and Pyrrhic victories, which I guess is like saying I’m my own Achilles’ heel.”
“Wait, so where does Freud come in?”
“Oh, because he was full of shit when he said that holding it in was a part of socialization.”
“And are you happy? I mean, do consider yourself a happy person?”
“Now that really is a question of socialization . . . I think people put up with me just fine. I’m the one that’s a problem.”
“You can’t put up with other people?”
“Of course I can. People are fine; it’s me I can’t put up with.”
“Like Groucho Marx?”
“Because of that thing about the club . . . ? Yeah, more or less.”
“I had a similar experience when I was a kid. I’ve really gotten it together since, but I was a total wreck when I was young; I couldn’t do anything right, and I eventually ended up convincing myself I was cursed, or had some fundamental flaw that doomed me to bad luck, and that all I could do was accept it.”
“I always tripped over the jump rope when I played with the other kids, I could never get my hair tie on straight, I was always the first one out in dodgeball . . . the only game I was any good at was hide-and-seek. I always managed to sneak away before everyone else and I never got caught, but that was mostly because no one ever paid attention to me, you know? Eventually, I stopped trying to hide and it didn’t even matter. Like . . . that’s what it took for me to be good at something—it was super depressing. When we started playing doctor, I was always assigned the role of unconscious patient. The other girls saved the best roles for themselves, like nurse and mother, and I, the unconscious patient, would lie there with my eyes closed while they put on this objective adult act and debated my ailments. But there was this one time, a boy was playing the doctor (I was six so he must have been around nine), and he and the nurse made me lie down in the grass while they discussed what was or wasn’t wrong with me with my mother, and then decided it was best to immediately anesthetize me. This anesthesia was fast-acting, so I put myself straight to sleep, and was left with nothing to do but listen to them mess around with my body.
“‘Mask,’ the doctor ordered.
“‘Mask,’ the nurse repeated, tying a rag around his neck.
“‘Gloves,’ she echoed, rubbing her hands on his left hand, then his right.
“By the way, the girl who usually played the doctor—the one who had been demoted to nurse, Marichús—was head over heels for the doctor at the time, and since she was almost eight years old, was always going around saying she was going to marry him and all that crap as soon as she got to secondary school.
“‘Lift her shirt,’ the examination continued, so two of the girls did. I lifted my butt a little to help them and they lifted my shirt up around my neck. These stripteases only happened when one of the boys played with us, and I didn’t much care either way, but since this time there were way more girls than boys, I wasn’t very nervous; or at least not any more than usual.
“‘Periscope,’ the doctor said.
“The nurse handed him a wad of air with both hands (we didn’t have much to work with), and he pretended to put it to his ears and listen to my heart. He pressed two of his fingers against my skin, and moved them in circles around my navel and nipples.”
As she recounts the story, he mimics the physician’s movements on her now grown-up body.
“Careful, that tickles.”
“Oh, are you ticklish?” he says.
“Yeah, but don’t get any ideas. I haven’t finished telling my story yet.”
“You were at the part about the periscope.”
“Then he removed the device and placed his ear to my chest."
“‘This looks like it might be serious,’ he said, feigning concern. And then he said something that really did make it serious. ‘Nurse, remove her underwear.’ The nurse shot a glance at one of the other girls and they both giggled excitedly. They lowered my underwear, this time without my help, and there I was, naked and possibly chronically ill in the grassy park behind our houses.
“Dr. Fabián (that was his name) spread my legs and observed, inching closer and closer, and looking very circumspect.
“‘How does her pee look?’ my mother finally asked.
“‘Yellow,’ Rita said.
“‘Hmmm,’ the doctor muttered, sporting a very serious expression.
“At that moment I would’ve loved to have been able to show him all the colors of the rainbow, but tension had the reverse effect on me that it had on you. The truth is I was starting to get nervous about the perverted direction things seemed to be going, because boys . . . I mean, you know how they are, always trying to push your boundaries as far as they can, or until you come to and dole out a few smacks. But not that time; that time I didn’t have to, because Fabián stood up and said:
“‘I’m going to wake her up. Get her clothes on.’
“The girls dressed me unhappily, exchanging glances, and he opened my mouth and pretended to give me a pill. I made like I was swallowing it by moving my throat, then he helped me sit up and said:
“‘You’re going to have to come to my clinic, I keep my bag and all my medications there.’
“‘Where is that?’ I asked.
“‘At my house. And while we’re there we can have a snack and watch cartoons.’
“It was very chivalrous. Do you remember the looks of shock on Cinderella’s stepsisters’ faces? Well, you should have seen the looks on Rita and that little know-it-all Marichús’ faces when he said that. I am forever in his debt.”
She rolls over and mounts him. He hugs her to his chest and bites her shoulder.
“Did I bore you?” she asked.
“Not at all, baby. My sweet, tiny girl. My little thing. I love story time.”
“I do too, and you still haven’t told me how you got here.”
“I mean, wow!”
“What a powerful prophylactic that must have been . . . playing doctor, I mean. The playground of curious youth!”
“I don’t know if I’d go so far as to say powerful. It didn’t exactly leave me traumatized.”
“Well, let’s just say I had quite a different experience as a kid. I didn’t have sisters, so as far as I was concerned, what went on under a girl’s skirt might well have been the philosopher’s stone. Even more so when the images in my head were adulterated by reports from a friend better versed in such sorcery.”
“And what reports were those?”
“I’ll spare you the details—the boys in my town were really depraved. Let’s just say it boiled down to appendages and orifices, you know what I mean? Playing doctor was as familiar to me as life on Mars, and the ‘sin-is-bad’ diatribes they heaped on us in catechism only stoked the flames of our subversive desires.”
“Do you always talk like this?”
“. . . how?”
“Like this, all analogies and conjecture.”
He looks in her eyes and bites her nose, smiling, before he answers.
“I suppose so. Yeah. I do sometimes notice that I talk like I’m writing. Or mimicking some novelistic realism. Which is to say, like I’m writing.”
“I’m not criticizing you, by the way. It’s just funny. Is there any Coke left?”
He picks up the can and gives it a shake.
“A little. Here.”
She grabs it, takes a sip, and tosses the empty can onto the carpet. Then she kisses him and passes a gulp of soda into his mouth.
“Hey, Teacher,” she whispers sensually in his ear. “You’re my teacher, aren’t you? Come on, teach me something.”
He unfolds the pillow and lies back down with her on top, naked with her arms around him, and rubs her pelvis against his. They bite and lick each other all over, clutching each other’s heads with their hands. She frees herself and kisses him on the ribs, on the toes, on the balls, working his skin with her teeth. He lifts himself up and lays her down on the bed, sucking on her arms and nipples, and dragging his tongue along her breasts.
“I didn’t even know you a few hours ago,” he says. “The world is insane.”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“Damn, you’re so sexy. I wanna crawl up inside you. Holy shit, you’re so hot.”
“Yeah?” she says, pushing her tits together with her arms. “You think I’m hot, baby? Then lick me. Lick me everywhere!”
He changes positions to kiss her thighs and knees, then spreads her legs and lips and slowly tongues her clitoris as she rocks her hips up and down.
“Ahh! Ohhh!!” she says, taking his head in her hands and digging her nails in. “Oof! Ooof! Come here, here, c’mere. Hurry!”
The chemicals burst animal-like from their bodies, coursing in their veins—a spark of solidarity from viscera to neuron, passing through them and running wild over their touching skin.
“A bear! Oh, you’re a bear!” she says, straddling him.
“Why?” he asks, extremely aroused.
“Because you’re a bear. Let me fuck you. Le-Let me. My turn, yeah, like that. Am I hurting you?”
“How could you if I’m a bear?” he exclaims, hands clamped on her ass.
She leans forward until he can just reach one of her breasts with his mouth, then quickly tears it away, oscillating back and forth, making it dance on his lips and teasing him as she rides him up and down. Then she groans, quivering, and says:
“Come on now, come for me. Come for Mama!”
He sees her face burning and repeats the same absurd and unrepeatable facial expression that millions of men have made right when they’ve come. The two burst into laughter, kiss each other’s salty skin, and fall into a deep embrace. Neither one mentions the tiny flecks of shit lounging pleasurably at the edge of their anuses, tucked just out of sight.
I Is © 1996 Xurxo Borrazás. By arrangement with the author. English translation © 2021 Adrian Minckley and Jacob Rogers. All rights reserved.
Davit Gabunia's cinematic debut novel, Falling Apart, from which this excerpt comes, recalls Rear Window in its dark exploration of voyeurism, and broke ground it its treatment of a male sexual liaison. Gabunia found fame aged twenty-two as the Georgian translator of Harry Potter, and later Shakespeare and Ibsen.
The people in the photo look like blue and black blotches. I can’t pick out Tina. Just last night she was lying in bed, the door to the bedroom wardrobe open, the wardrobe out of which she’d taken her clothes and packed them up. If last night she’d woken up and said, Zura, where are you going? Zura, stop, if the floor had creaked and woken her up and she’d looked at me with astonishment in her eyes and said, Why aren’t you asleep, Zura, what are you doing with that camera, I wouldn’t have said anything, I’d have stayed where I was, but no, Tina was sleeping so deeply, as she always did, just like it used to be when the children were little and would cry all night and she wouldn’t wake up once. So? Am I complaining? Blaming her for not waking up in the middle of the night? For forcing me to get up and put the children back to sleep? No, no. But if she’d woken up last night, I’d have told her, I’d have said to her, Something’s happened, Tina, you won’t believe it, and she’d have said to me, What on earth? Let’s call the police right now! But no, she didn’t wake up, and if she had maybe she wouldn’t even have said anything, just shaken her head and then laid it back on the pillow and gone back to sleep, and I would’ve carried on, picking my way carefully down the stairs so that none of the neighbors would hear as I walked out the front of our block. Everyone was asleep, everyone— there wasn’t a single light on in any of the windows. What would have happened if someone had looked out of their window and called out to me, Hey, Zura, what are you doing? Huh? What am I doing? Damn it! These fucking motion sensor lights—when you don’t need any light, when you want it to be dark, they work perfectly, when you want to make sure that no one sees you before you reach that other block, before you go up to that floor, to where you know exactly what awaits you but still don’t expect to find the door left open. He’s run off like a madman, he might already be driving away in his car, all he’ll want to do is get as far away from here as possible, but where can he turn? He can run from this business but he can’t hide.
So this is what the house is like, with a smell of something lingering. A sterile smell. The entrance. Four pairs of shoes and a light jacket. Bills strewn across the floor. If payment is not received by the 30th of this month we will . . . On the right, a bathroom, a little sink in front of the washing machine. Inside, dirty laundry, arranged and folded, one razor, shaving foam, lotion, toothpaste, one toothbrush, one of everything—one towel too, a big, blue one—and tiles on the wall, totally white except for a band of blue at waist height. I’ve never seen any of this before, you can’t see it from my building. I don’t know what I’d want to take photos of it for, but never mind. There isn’t much stuff here, as if he hadn’t lived here long and didn’t have the time to accumulate many things, the kind of things that you’re either reluctant or simply too lazy to throw away, which then pile up, gathering dust. What if he were to call out now from that room, Who’s there? What’re you doing? What if he thinks I’m him, that he’s come back to apologize? What if he gets up? But no, it’s so quiet, he must be dead. How does he air out this bathroom—just one little ventilator, not even a window, it must really steam up when he has a shower. There are towel marks on the mirror where he wiped the condensation away. A few strands of hair in the razor. Has he shaved today? Did he even have a beard? Maybe he used to shave, I’ll have to look at the photos and see if he’s got a beard in any of them—now he’s lying dead and clean-shaven in the other room. They say that people’s beards, hair, and nails keep on growing after death. But that takes time—he’s only just died. His body lying on the white rug. His corpse. His body. So much blood, but it’s all stayed on the carpet, which is thick and absorbs the blood, it’s soaked with it. I’ve got to make sure that he’s really dead. Oh, come on—he’s not breathing, and if he’s not breathing, that means he’s dead, that’s it, but still. Apparently, the name for the carotid artery comes from the Greek word for sleep. What’s sleep got to do with it? And here’s where you feel for a pulse, there’ll be one if he’s alive. I can’t feel one. Maybe he is breathing and I can’t see it; but his belly isn’t moving, neither’s his chest. No, no pulse, he’s dead. So why hasn’t the blood stopped? How much is there left to come? How many liters of blood does a person have? What if it gets on the floor, too? What if it seeps through the floor and stains the downstairs neighbors’ ceiling? He’s warm. He’s definitely not breathing, but he still looks alive. I wonder if there’s a mirror somewhere, a pocket mirror, I can put it over his mouth and if it steams up it means he’s alive . . . . Oh, forget the mirror, he’s got no pulse, no pulse equals dead. Bits of broken vase. Bookshelves. Practically empty. Just a few books, old ones. His won’t be one of them. No television, I knew that already. Bed a mess—not bed, armchair. A fold-out armchair, messy but not dirty. The blood didn’t go that far. Why isn’t it stopping, isn’t he dead? I press my fingers to his neck a bit harder, I press down and suddenly there it is—a pulse. I’m not imagining it, am I? No, it’s definitely beating, I can feel it. What if he asks me to help him, what do I do? Call an ambulance? Yeah, because if I call now it’ll definitely get here in time, right, hah, God bless our bloody ambulances. Yeah, they’ll come, they’ll do some tests, they’ll start filling in forms and asking me who I am and what I’m doing here and then they’ll call the police. They’ll say the body bears the marks of violence and they need to report it. I mean, some marks; all those head wounds and the fragments of vase strewn over the floor, you don’t need to be a genius to work out that someone smashed it over his head, I’ll get confused and make a run for it and they’ll run after me, Hey, stop, where are you going, and the whole neighborhood will wake up, including Tina, there will be such a commotion and so many people gather round that even Tina will wake up and come out onto the balcony and see me, see the police shouting after me, and rush down into the courtyard. No, if I don’t call, if I just wait a bit, he’ll lose all his blood and I won’t get caught up in this. If I’d been somewhere else tonight, if I’d been asleep in bed next to Tina and not seen anything, he’d still have died and it would have nothing to do with me, why should I call, why should I do anything at all? How many more liters of blood can there be left, how much more does he have to lose before he dies? Does he have to bleed it all out to the last drop? Or let’s say he’s only got a little bit left, would that be enough to kill him? What if he starts convulsing? What if he dies and I don’t realize? How long before he goes cold? I haven’t been in the kitchen yet, I haven’t seen what it’s like inside. Too many dirty cups to even fit in the sink, I wonder how long they’ve been piling up. Strange light, yellow, warm. Warm . . . Maybe there’s still time to call an ambulance. No, I know what I’m doing, I know what I’m doing, though I hope no one asks me now because I won’t be able to answer, but I do know what I’m doing, it’s a different sort of knowing, no need to say it out loud. Right, dish detergent and sponge in the corner of the sink. It’s so hot. How do you cool it down? Aha, that’s it, that’s it, and the liquid’s frothing up, and now I’ll wash up all the cups in case there are any traces on them, fingerprints or whatever. The water’s splashing onto my T-shirt, soapy water, but time’s ticking and meanwhile he’s losing blood and it’s nothing to do with me whatsoever. I put the cups upside down to dry and hang on, have I got my fingerprints on them? I should’ve thought about that before. Gloves. Why didn’t I think of that. I’ve still got time to kill, I’ll do them again. Such small gloves, my hands are too big for them. I wash each of the cups again, rinse them, that’ll do, and put them back on the drying rack. Tiled floor, easy to clean. No, not the floor yet, table first; maybe they sat there drinking coffee together and he touched the table and left behind his fingerprints? Table first, then floor. I don’t know what kind of traces there might be on the floor, but anyway, I’ve got time, I’m not in a hurry, I’ll get it all done by dawn.
I can only hear my own voice in this silence, I say, Am I speaking out loud? No, I’m hearing my voice in my head. The floor above is silent. The apartments on either side are silent. Everyone’s sleeping, everyone’s asleep and no one can hear a thing. Good thing I found these gloves, chlorine can burn your hands. The bathroom. Who knows, maybe they took a bath together in the tub. He will have gone to the bathroom, at least, he must have left his fingerprints behind, so everything needs to be scrubbed, with the brush, with chlorine. Do fingerprints stay on curtains? Will they search that hard? If Tina could see me now. I’ve never cleaned my own house like this. But Tina can’t see me, I hope, she’s still asleep while I’m here scouring the white tiles and this blue line. What’s left? That room, the main bedroom? Good thing this place isn’t any bigger. I’ve been here two hours. What if he comes back? Bursts in out of nowhere like a madman? He might’ve called an ambulance, maybe even the police, but if he hasn’t come back by now he won’t come back later. I’ll have to throw away the sheets, he’ll definitely have left traces on them. Ah, I’ll shove them into this bin liner and throw them in the trash, the garbage truck will come in the morning and take it away and they’re not going to look in the dump, are they?
There’s not long till dawn, and the garbage truck comes at seven o’clock, no one will ever be able to find them. Look how he’s lying there, he nearly takes up the whole room. There’s no more blood. It’s stopped. I put down the bag holding the sheets and look at him. I’ll take a picture and go, I can’t let anyone see it, I can’t let anyone find out about it, but still, those photos can stay, I’ll put them on my computer and that’ll be fine. What a beautiful shot. He’s never been so beautiful. I wonder if he’s still as warm. When do corpses start to go cold? If I had called an ambulance they probably wouldn’t have come in time anyway, I’ll just pretend I wasn’t here, I didn’t see any of what happened, I was asleep next to Tina. Besides, it’s so beautiful. I’ll get some great photos out of this, really good. A couple of close-ups and that’s it, I’m out of here. What’s that smell? Doesn’t smell like chlorine. Rust, or iron, or something like that. I’ll get the best shots if I kneel down and zoom into his face, that’s the best way. Oh, damn it, I’ve knelt in the blood. I’m not bothered, he’s dead after all, why should I care, I mean why should I be disgusted, he’s lying there not moving and he’ll never move again, and it’s just blood, just a normal fluid, I’ll wipe it off with some water and it’ll come out fine. So beautiful. I’ve never been scared of the dead, and I’m not scared now. Why should I be scared? It wasn’t me who killed him. He’d still be dead even if I hadn’t been here. Good lighting here, should make for some great pictures.
© Davit Gabunia. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 Adham Smart. All rights reserved.
Davit Gabunia will be in conversation with writer and journalist Mark Gevisser as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 28, 2021, and available to watch afterward.
Tamta Melashvili's 2015 novel, Eastwards, from which this excerpt comes, is the story of a young woman, Irina, in present-day Georgia, who is simultaneously suffering from depression, a vanished lover, and a taboo medical condition, vaginismus. She is researching Elene Dariani, a mystical poet believed to have had a secret affair with the famous Georgian poet Paolo Iashvili. Cofounder in 1915 of the Blue Horn Symbolists, Iashvili committed suicide in 1937 during Stalin’s Great Purge, when many Georgian writers were executed. In this extract––which references other famous Georgian poets such as Titsian Tabidze and Galaktion Tabidze––Irina is beginning to imagine that Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrenti Beria (who, like Stalin, was Georgian) was implicated in the poets’ mythic love affair.
She picked up the phone. First she glanced at her watch and then she made the call, thinking, It’s early, but he’ll be awake. Old men wake up early.
Revaz, sir, Mr. Rezo, good morning, it’s Irina.
Irina? Which Irina? Rezo must have been in a bad mood.
Irina. About Elene Dariani.
Oh, Irina! Irina Gasviani, is it? Irina Gasviani. Something’s bothering you, my dear Irina?
I’d like to see you again, Mr. Rezo.
Well, I’ll be. I don’t suppose you rang to ask how I am?
Irina couldn’t think of an answer.
What’s happened, girl, why don’t you tell me, Rezo softened. You really are a shy girl. Do you want to come round?
Yes, I want you to talk to me about Beria. I’ll only come today, I won’t bother you again.
You can bother me all you like. Go ahead. What am I for? Hang on, about Beria? You were interested in Dariani, in Paolo, in poetry, in “Beads of Coral,” isn’t that what you asked me to talk about? Why do you want to know about Beria now?
Irina was silent.
All right, come on over. What would you know about Beria? How could you know about Beria? Your generation only knows gypsy actresses on TV. And on the computer. Come on over.
Rezo put down the phone.
Irina went back to her laptop, which she’d left open. She opened Google and entered in Georgian: Lavrenti Beria.
She went through the list.
Lavrenti Beria’s Sex Crematorium
Lavrenti Beria’s Ghost and Tbilisi Buildings full of Secrets
Lavrenti Beria’s Secret
Lavrenti Beria’s Secret Diaries
Lavrenti Beria––the Bloodthirsty Tyrant
Lavrenti Beria and Women
Lavrenti Beria and His Women
Lavrenti Beria’s Love and Revenge
Lavrenti Beria––what Secrets did his Lovers take to their Graves?
Lavrenti Beria and the Case of the Treacherous Wives
Lavrenti Beria and the Actress Who Was Shot
Lavrenti Beria’s Revenge
Lavrenti Beria’s Fateful Speech
Irina felt a burning sensation between her legs. She switched off her laptop and rose heavily to her feet.
My blood pressure's high, there must be something wrong with me, said Rezo. What did you want us to talk about? Hang on, did you see them? The girls?
What girls? Irina couldn’t understand.
Iza and Liana.
Yes, I did.
Liana’s husband died.
Oh my God, what are you telling me, girl? Her husband was a young man. How come I never heard that her husband had died? I’ll telephone her later. I’ll offer my condolences. Poor woman. What did he die of? He was a young man.
Oh my God, said Rezo. Poor man. And Iza? Have you seen Iza?
Yes, I have.
You two haven’t quarreled, have you?
You can’t be in the mood for a talk today. Anyway, what brings you here? What did you say? What are we going to talk about?
Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria?
Was it Pavlovich? Yes, it was, Pavlovich. You want me to talk to you about Pavel’s lad? That snake with the glasses? That bastard? You don’t know, I suppose. If you can’t say something good about the dead, say nothing at all! Rezo was in a teasing mood. Can you say anything good about Beria?
Why can’t you?
Because Beria was a bastard.
What do you mean?
You can take it as you like: literally or metaphorically.
Shall I start recording?
Hang on, girl. Hang on for a bit. Get up: you can see a book on the top shelf. History of the Georgian Communist Party. On the right, girl, on the right, the top shelf. History of the Georgian Communist Party.
Irina sensed that she was being observed. Rezo was eyeing her up.
You had a very beautiful mother, didn’t you? What was her name?
Lia, said Irina.
And you had a handsome father, too; but your father was crazy, crazy and out of his mind, one of those Civic Warriors.
I’ve found it, said Irina with relief.
Open it to the first page, said Rezo. What do you see?
I see Stalin. Irina turned back to face Rezo.
Now the next page, what do you see?
A photo that’s been blacked out, said Irina. It’s covered in ink, who is it?
That was Lavrenti Pavlovich Beria, a real child-eating monster! Can you see it?
Where does this man get these words from?
Now see what year the book was published in.
1949. Who did this?
Who blotted it out?
The whole of Georgia did, Rezo got up from his chair, the whole of Georgia did that. One day you’re in the heavens, the next you’re six feet under. Well. You are dirt and you get it thrown over you. This is not the ink on the photo, but the dirt. He died and he had dirt thrown over him. He died and they blotted him out, they burned him, they annihilated him. They poured ink over him. His name became taboo, taboo, taboo, do you get it? A taboo. After his death the pictures of him that were hanging everywhere were taken down and torn up, and they erased every place where his names, first name and last, were written. He’d killed enemies of the people and then became an enemy of the people himself. That’s life, isn’t it?! Eh? He exterminated half of Georgia. His troika tribunals. You know what a troika is, don’t you?
Yes, I read about it somewhere.
The troika was the Holy Trinity of its time, Rezo chuckled. You’re not a churchgoer are you, girl? Don’t be angry with me.
Well, just look at you! Good girl! You and I are the only non-churchgoers in all of Georgia. Long live Irina and me! Don’t tell anyone, or they’ll cut our heads off.
Irina gave him a conspiratorial smile.
Yes. Anyway, he died, how many years ago did they kill that man? Fifty? More—sixty! It was sixty years ago and not a single decent monograph has been written about him in this Georgia of yours, the Virgin Mary’s own country. Everyone avoids the subject. Everyone. They either won’t or they can’t write about it!
Rezo examined Irina once more.
What are you looking at me for, I’m a literary critic.
In short, nothing’s been written here. Here, unlike there. Rezo shook his head. Over there, in Great Russia, a lot’s been written. A lot, but it’s rubbish. Ideological rubbish. Even after the Soviet era, even now. All these ideologues have built up an Everest of lies, of their own lies!
Yes indeed, they have. What did you come here for? What interested you?
Was it possible, Irina couldn’t find the right words, was it possible that there was some connection between Beria and Elene Bakradze, also known as Elene Dariani . . .
I wouldn’t know now. At the time you could say that every woman was on Beria’s antenna, Rezo let his hand drop between his legs, people said he could hear the whispering coming from anybody’s love nest, you know?! He had both of your Elene’s husbands shot. What can you make of it? She was a beautiful woman, but was she? I wouldn’t know, to judge by those pictures she was an ordinary woman. There were a million like her walking about in Tbilisi, even more in Kutaisi. But look here, in that picture where she’s smoking a cigarette, and she’s wearing trousers, the one feminists tote about, you know that picture? She looks all right in that picture, you know it, don’t you? You can see that she had her own kind of charm. A photograph can’t capture it. That charm doesn’t show up in a photo. You can see she had something. Something that made the men go mad for her. Paolo. Her husbands. Who knows who else. Paolo was quite a womanizer, did you know that?
They both fell silent.
I’ve remembered a funny story about Beria, should I tell it to you? Rezo looked with one eye at Irina.
Well then, once Beria took his lover to Sokhumi. The one he had at the time. She was a nice woman, good-looking, a real beauty, an actress. Apparently, one day, this woman goes into the sea to bathe. She swims, splashes about, and suddenly her dentures fall out and she loses them in the wretched water. Hee-hee-hee, Rezo tested his own dentures with his tongue, this actress apparently had dentures, false teeth. She searches and searches, the poor girl dives but can’t find the dentures and goes back to the hotel, devastated. She sits there more dead than alive, waiting for Beria; the woman seems to be afraid that Pavel’s lad will shoot her when he finds out she has no teeth. She sits there more dead than alive and Beria, apparently, comes in and she falls at his feet: “Forgive me, forgive me,” and Pavlovich breaks out laughing. He laughs and laughs, so much that he almost chokes with laughter.
Did he shoot her?
No, no. He didn’t. But he dropped her. What's the use of a toothless woman? The story didn’t make you laugh, girl?
Well . . . no.
You must be in a sour mood today, I did say, smile, girl, laugh, girl! You’re a good-looking girl and there’s no light in you. Laugh! Shed a ray of light on your looks. Put on a short skirt, put a flower in your hand, cross the street, and stop the traffic! Spring is coming! Make eyes happy, hearts happy!
Irina tensed up.
Fine, fine, Rezo waved his hand. Anyway, what were we talking about? Oh yes, Pavel’s lad, yes. What do you know so far? All the women remember him very well. What goes through a woman’s mind? “While she’s running about without a husband, a woman’s a woman. A woman’s a woman and she’ll find balm for herself,” I wonder who wrote that poem . . .
Clever you, clever girl! Rezo was pleased. You don’t write poetry by any chance?
Why not? Every good girl used to write poetry in my day.
I wouldn’t know, I don’t.
But you do like poetry, don’t you?
Yes, I do.
Very good! Fantastic, my dear lady. Well, what was I saying? A wife has a good memory, so does a mistress. Beria had not just mistresses, but a whole harem. He had harems, did you know that?
A harem, what else?
A-a-ah, said Irina.
Your generation doesn’t know Russian anymore, does it?
Do you know what a haramkhana is?
Well, he had a harem. A haramkhana. Every conceivable kind of woman was in it: blondes, brunettes, redheads . . . And these women remembered him favorably, by the way. Casual adventuresses, his mistresses, don’t remember him well. Those women scribbled various things later, books. They wanted to get rich at Beria’s expense, but they couldn’t benefit, who would believe them, nobody! His wife, though, did love him, by the way, did you know that? And she was a good woman, beautiful. Nina. Gegechkori. Yes, she loved him. Can you be in love with a monster? You can, you see. Women love monsters. He had another mistress, a girl, younger than you, almost a second wife. She too loved him. And that Nina kept on loving him. They couldn’t get her to say a single bad thing, so she died, saying only good things about her husband. Those were different times, do you understand? Do you have a boyfriend?
Why not, girl? Is reading poetry all you want, then? And that Elene Dariani?
Well, what can I tell you, said Rezo. If you’re a man with that amount of power, every woman is yours. Anyone you lay a hand on, they’re all yours.
Rezo fell silent for a short while.
True, Pavel’s lad wiped out half of Georgia, but people tend to forget that he also built the entire country. Beria was a builder. He really was! “Our orchards and meadows are blossoming, the sky is the color of emeralds, o builder of Georgia, may you live long, Beria!” He made Tbilisi look like a city. Now, you and I both use the drainage that he installed. He constructed the circus, he built the football stadium. Not just the circus and drainage, but the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for him, did you know that? And that’s not to mention intelligence and counterintelligence. Beria was a genius. They didn’t give him a moment, they had him shot. All of state power fell into the clutches of that dimwit Khrushchev! Khrushchev killed Beria, and how? Treacherously. One more Georgian had got stuck in the Russians' throat and they couldn’t shut him up! Rezo leaned forwards, the Chinese stole Beria’s plan for developing socialism, otherwise can you imagine what a country we would be living in? Not in a wretched hole like we are now! My God, Rezo suddenly put his hand on his heart, I get tired very quickly these days. My medicine’s right there next to you, pass it to me.
Yes, that one; water? Don’t I need water, girl?
Irina went out to the kitchen. Something was stinking in there.
He’s on his own, poor wretch. He’s an old man.
She held her breath.
Bless you, said Rezo. He sipped at the water. I get tired very quickly, you see.
I’ll go, said Irina. Thank you very much for everything.
It’s nothing, dear girl. Rezo had put his hand to his heart again. Come and see me now and again. Let’s talk, let’s recite poems, Irina. After all, I live alone. “That day white snow and loneliness fell. I opened the door, white snow burst in. I closed the door, loneliness moved in.” Who said that, then?!
Good for you! Congratulations, girl! You’re a star!
Thanks a lot, for everything, Irina got to her feet, take care.
Fine, fine, Irinola, said Rezo, as he moved heavily from his chair to his bed. Shut the door, then I’ll lock up.
I’ll shut it, take care, said Irina.
Frankly, this country could really use someone like Beria right now, wouldn’t go amiss! Rezo shouted from the room.
She quickly closed the door behind her and hurried down the hallway.
© Tamta Melashvili . By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 Patrick Donald Rayfield. All rights reserved.
Tamta Melashvili will speak about her novel Eastwards in the online event Medea's Daughters: Georgia's pioneering women in the arts, as part of the festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi, Writers’ House of Georgia and the British Library, will be livestreamed on Saturday, February 27, 2021 at 15:15—16:35 GMT. Bookers will be sent a link giving access and can watch at any time for 48 hours after the start time.
Lasha Bugadze's A Small Country, which won the Saba, IliaUni, and Writers’ House Litera prizes in Georgia––all for novel of the year in 2018––is based on the real scandal surrounding the publication of the author's 2001 short story “The First Russian.” The story outraged some MPs and clergy with its satirical allusions to the wedding night of Georgia’s revered medieval Queen Tamar, whose first husband was a Russian prince. The author found himself censured in parliament and threatened with excommunication.
I remember the man sitting at an oak table took two pieces of paper from a drawer and addressed me with a smile:
“Here,” he put his finger on the paper on his left, “is an intention to excommunicate you from the Georgian Orthodox Church. If you don’t apologize to the Georgian people and the Church, the Synod will be obliged to make it public, which would set in motion the excommunication. It says that you deny the living God, as well as the rules of Mother Church, that you mock the feelings of true believers, that you insult the belief of Orthodox people, the Host of Saints, and the memory of our ancestors who were canonized. While in this one,” he pointed at the paper on his right, “the Synod refers to you as a prodigal son who was exonerated by the people and Mother Church.”
“But only if we have a public apology,” the Archimandrite sitting in the dark corner of the room reminded us. “Otherwise, it’s going to be an anathema.”
“Are you serious?” someone sitting behind me asked. “People are worried . . . ”
A prodigal son.
The man looking at the papers smiled at me occasionally. I was wondering if he had a nervous tic or was just embarrassed by what he had to say.
I was too tired and confused to joke in return or reply politely.
“You have to apologize publicly,” the man, quite unperturbed, repeated with an ironic smile.
Ever since I was born my parents tried their best to encourage me, praising me because for twenty-three years I truly deserved to be praised. And now, suddenly, these strangers told them that I really didn’t deserve their praise and, if I refused to behave, I would become their prodigal son or something even worse.
People get killed for less nowadays . . .
That’s what they told Dad. And where? Next to the Patriarch’s resting room where, ideally, they had to talk about virtue, at least out of sheer decorum.
“It’s your fault," the Patriarch later told Dad, “you failed to raise your son properly.”
And all the while, to my parents, even to Dad deeply insulted by the Patriarch’s words, I truly was a clever, good-natured, genuinely decent and gifted twenty-three-year-old––an exceptional son already known to many as a wonder kid, a writer from a small country, only ten years older than Independent Georgia, who, by all standards, had done nothing to be reprimanded.
My parents’ son wasn’t branded by the 1990s: he didn’t roam the streets with other teenagers thirsty for blood. He either wrote or drew or talked, and according to Grandma, he could do the latter at the age of eight months. He was a skilled caricature artist and could imitate any person regardless of their age or gender, sang arias from classical operas, and was a bit chubby in his early years, which added to his charm. His dad, if he had a chance, or rather had he allowed himself, would have enumerated his son’s admirable traits, saying, for instance, that at the age of eleven, Your Holiness, he staged Goethe’s Faust with the girls of the neighborhood. Girls because nobody else was willing. Faust, no less, at the age of eleven! It was in our yard where he played Mephistopheles, the devil, Your Holiness––I’m so sorry I mentioned the devil so close to you––and he played a chubby and lovable Mephistopheles because he himself was lovable even when playing the devil, particularly when singing serenades to Faust’s sweetheart. Incidentally, there is a video recorded in June 1989 showing the eleven-year-old child reciting Goethe in his mother’s yard. Indeed, Your Holiness, this son of divorced parents was brought up with constant care, the center of attention of both grandmothers! They raised him and would never teach him to be disrespectful or indecent, contrary to your comment, which was rather hasty I believe. So, please excuse me, but we’re dealing with a very special child. I had brought along a cameraman because I guessed something out of the ordinary was about to take place. Yes, it is really extraordinary when an eleven-year-old stages a play about the agreement between God and the devil with the help only of little girls from his neighborhood, when he recites the entire thing for everybody to hear, wearing tails his aunt made for him and warning us of the importance of saving our souls. Is that poor parenting?
He’s been going to anti-Soviet rallies, the grandmothers could have said, especially the more sensitive and emotional one who could easily have retorted to the high-ranking clerics, my grandson has always been an exceptionally well-organized and highly moral boy. Others could break their toys in a day or two, some would immediately gut a giraffe or a teddy bear, while my grandson staged tetralogies with those giraffes and bears. You couldn’t get them in the empty shops of the time, so our acquaintances brought them from other Socialist countries. If other kids misbehaved, putting their poor parents in a difficult position, leaving them wondering how to occupy them, our boy entertained himself: he would place a board on his knees and draw amazing caricatures! You’d have been amazed had you observed him in the process. Mostly, he drew politicians, used to start at the heels and complete the picture in a matter of seconds. They were so skillful that they baffled even experienced artists. Once he stunned his German teacher who terrified the entire school. Apparently, she was trying to explain something quite awkwardly to the kids when our boy mentioned Siegfried, his favorite character, among others who the teacher had hardly heard about. When he was little, before he got a bit chubby, his dad used to have him on his shoulders while drawing, and they listened to Wagner. The vinyl was a bit scratched from use but still quite loud, a little too much for me in fact. The boy was literally raised on his dad’s shoulders! They hardly ever spent time apart! Before he started reading, we used to read books to him, but later we couldn’t tear him away from them. Unlike other kids, who counted the pages they’d read to earn some playtime, it was his choice. If at the age of nine he asked for a puppy, at eleven he bought Mozart’s flute concerto with my pension. He was intellectual but not reticent or closed or melancholic. Quite the opposite, he was open, with a good sense of humor, and rather entertaining. I remember when we had visitors for family celebrations, the boy would amuse them with impressions––speaking like drug-numbed Brezhnev or Shevardnadze, the latter considered a traitor at the time. His paternal side understood him better because we immediately sensed he was artistic. However, his mum failed to see it and decided he had to join a skiing club, then rugby, and then water polo to help him grow manlier. The boy absolutely refused to accept a rather rough informality from his coaches, because impolite and offensive behavior was unacceptable to my boy. And if anyone thinks he wanted to insult someone, they’d be gravely mistaken because in his twenty-three years the boy hasn’t offended anybody. It’s just not fair!
Who knows what other things they would want to say to those who kept us locked in a room with yellowing wallpaper, in the building belonging to the Tbilisi Patriarchate, where they were trying to threaten me with excommunication or labelling me a prodigal son.
Sadly, that day no one heard the evidence of my virtue, Grandma’s voice muffled by the soft cushions of the Patriarchate.
Everyone’s favorite word was sin.
By the end of the 1980s, I was still genuinely innocent.
Mum made several attempts to make me active but all was in vain. Skiing and rugby held no interest for me, while I preferred attending the meeting of the National Freedom Party of our class, or watching TV enlivened by Gorbachev’s Perestroika till midnight. That’s why she reverted to a strange, sporty-religious experiment quite typical of the period: she sent me on a three-day event called Saint Nino’s Way, where my aunt, fourteen years older than me, was supposed to look after me.
According to the new tradition initiated by the Patriarch under the proclaimed changes, people––or rather potential new churchgoers––had to take the same road that Saint Nino took in the fourth century when she walked from Paravani Lake to Mtskheta, the capital at the time.
I decided to sing an aria in an empty classroom of the local school that had been turned into a temporary camp by the marchers. On the one hand, I wanted to feel more at home by singing and I also wanted to overcome my fear of strangers. However, a ruddy, unshaven, and round-cheeked novice monk immediately pointed out that the place was not suitable for entertainment. He opened the door, looked at me with his bloodshot eyes, and told me in a voice both quivering and croaky that meant he either hadn’t slept or hadn’t spoken for a long time:
“You can’t sing here. People are praying.”
The young man had dark circles under his eyes and looked like someone who could easily turn nasty if you contradicted him. He was the kind of stranger I didn’t want to be around: calm at a glance but aggressive, someone who could make me lose my peace of mind.
Needless to say, I stopped at once.
And I was absolutely alone and quite vulnerable. I didn’t stay in the classroom and stepped into the long hall with backpacks strewn everywhere. With their shoes off, people exhausted or seeking inner peace were spread out along the walls.
There were huts around the school. Women were sitting along the fences, looking at the priest squatting near the rusty football pole. They had smiles of embarrassment on their faces, and the priest’s haughty tone seemed to insist that they were simple, provincial women.
“How many abortions have you had? Have you lost count? Twenty, forty?”
I already knew the meaning of the word, so I stopped nearby.
“What’s so funny? I’m serious!”
It was still the Soviet Union and the women didn’t know a priest could ask such questions.
They weren’t yet scared of their god, so were rather ironic about it all, covering their toothless or gold-toothed mouths with their callused hands, chuckling at the ridiculous priest.
The priest was a madman in their opinion.
But he only smiled. He was aware that he was talking to uneducated village women, to the Soviet mob in a remote province, in a Meskhi village. And all the while the priest was one of the elite––that’s how he viewed himself, especially in comparison to them.
“You think that an abortion isn’t a crime? Marx and Engels won’t help you. Which of you have had a church wedding? If you only went through a civil marriage, you can’t be considered your husband’s lawful wife. Did you know? Do you think I’m inventing it? Do you have a husband?” he asks one of them.
The woman laughed, waving him away:
“Leave me alone, for God’s sake.”
"Do you have one or not?”
"She does!” others replied. “And two sons too.”
"What about a church wedding? If you haven’t, then it means you’ve sinned and that’s for sure. I can perform the ceremony if you wish.” The women didn’t answer.
It was the second time I listened to a discussion about sexual issues since I had arrived: first it was my classmate who told me he hadn’t done anything of that nature for a whole month and now the priest was telling the village women they were sinners because they had babies without a church blessing. I was a little confused not being clear who was making fun of whom––the women of the priest or the other way round.
“See that?" he looked in my direction hoping to find a bigger audience, but discovering only me, he smiled. “How can one enlighten these people?” Then he turned to them again, “Do you at least believe in God?"
His question remained suspended in the air.
Along the way the priests baptized people in the river Mtkvari. Nearing Borjomi, our group argued with a convinced pagan and one of the stronger deacons even tried to push him into the water. The pagan turned out to be a physicist resting near Borjomi with his wife and baby. Stubbornly, and a little stupidly, he claimed that if he ever admitted the existence of God, it would be an ancient Georgian deity. He was dead serious, saying that accepting Dali and reintroducing her cult would be a bigger step toward recovering ourselves and reestablishing the Georgian nation than any Orthodox belief:
“Nationalism is waking up, so our religion must also be national. That’s what our country needs!"
The pagan had thick-rimmed glasses, the type every middle-income Soviet physicist wore at the end of the 1980s, and a rather shabby white shirt with a vest pathetically protruding from underneath. His young wife, holding a two- or three-year-old toddler, stood by his side, fearfully listening to her husband’s scandalous and highly charged patriotic declarations. Very soon she realized he could be badly beaten up there and then.
“How can Georgia stand out from other nations in today’s world? With our language only? The script? Its traditions?" the pagan asked the deacon. “It’s not enough. We Georgians must have our own pantheon, just like we used to. We might have Orthodoxy, but why shouldn’t we also have Dali’s Temple? What’s wrong with the Armazi or Zadeni cults?"
The pagan was surely playing a dangerous game: he mentioned the Armazi cult to those who, for a whole month, had followed the road of the person responsible for destroying that cult.
“He’s possessed,” someone said.
“Those were idols! Do you want Georgians to pray to Satan and discard their true belief?" the deacon yelled at him.
“They can pray to whatever or whoever they wish. Religion should be a matter of choice. Some will go to church, others to Armazi temple. It can be extremely interesting for the world. They’ll say that an old nation has an ancient belief, strange, but fascinating."
“Isn’t Christianity old enough?” the deacon persisted.
“Leave him, he’s possessed,” others told him.
"We’ve been Christians since the fourth century, or rather you’ve been," the pagan seemed intent on annoying the deacon. Then he turned to his wife, “Let me talk to these people. Please go home, put the baby to bed, will you?" And then went back to the argument: “How many years did foreigners think we were Russians? Nearly two centuries. Even today some don’t know we’re a completely different nation, so unlike each other! A different language, script, and culture, so why can’t our religions be different too? Why do we need to be either Orthodox or Catholic when we’ve got our Amirani?"
“I’m going to hit him,” a man standing next to the deacon whispered. The physicist’s wife grabbed his arm and dragged him away, just in time, to their shabby cottage. And because the toddler began to cry, the deacon decided not to pursue him, though his intention was to baptize the pagan to crown their heated dispute.
The pagan physicist proved to be the only exception because everyone else was baptized: those we met along the road, those at home, some brought by their family members, mainly children and grandchildren of those who hadn’t been baptized in Soviet times. Our robust deacon often said that in the past parents insisted on baptizing their children, but now it was the other way around.
© Lasha Bugadze. By arrangement with Sulakauri Publishing. Translation © 2020 Maya Kiasashvili. All rights reserved.
Lasha Bugadze and Georgian novelist Beka Adamashvili will be in conversation with Claire Armitstead, the Guardian’s Associate Editor, Culture, in a talk entitled "Levity and the Limits of Satire in the New Georgia," as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Friday, February 26, 2021, and available to watch afterward.
In her quarterly column, Maya Jaggi, our Critic at Large, provides a brief history of Georgian letters, whose influences look east and west. Jaggi has curated Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers inspired by the café culture of Georgia’s first democratic republic of 1918–21, taking place online from February 25 to 28.
In a little park with soaring fir trees behind the old parliament in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia in the southern Caucasus mountains, two translators are monumentalized in bronze. The mustachioed Oliver Wardrop, British high commissioner there a century ago, translated A Book of Wisdom and Lies by Sulkhan-Saba Orbeliani, an ambassador, fabulist, translator, and lexicographer, who met Louis XIV and Pope Clement on his European travels.
The bronze companion hugging a book to her breast is Wardrop’s sister Marjory, whose work included Georgian Folk Tales and Ilia Chavchavadze’s nineteenth-century Romantic poem, The Hermit. But she is most famous for her prose version of Shota Rustaveli’s The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, the national epic from Georgia’s medieval golden age, about an Arabian monarch who abdicates in favor of his daughter, and a melancholy knight in love with an Indian princess. Rustaveli’s chivalric masterpiece, penned during the courtly reign of a powerful queen they called King Tamar, refashioned Persian sources into a Georgian epic that looked both east and west, marrying Platonism with Sufism.
Marjory Scott Wardrop was still perfecting The Man in the Leopard’s Skin (her first draft of 1898) when she died in 1909. Posthumously published by her brother, her English prose stood its ground for more than a century until the American poet Lyn Coffin made the first verse translation in 2015—the year her forerunner’s statue was erected. The Knight in the Panther Skin astonishingly matches the twelfth-century original, with some 1,660 rhyming quatrains of sixteen-syllable lines, written in the Persian shairi form.
Geography has been destiny for Georgia and its literature, according to Zurab Karumidze, a prominent novelist and historian of jazz in Tbilisi. The country, he told me from a city under COVID curfews, has “always looked both ways.” A mountainous crossroads on the Silk Road, at the edge of empires, it was fought over and carved up for centuries, numbering Arabs, Mongols, and Ottoman Turks among its invaders. When Orbeliani wrote his eighteenth-century fables, eastern Georgia was an autonomous region of Persia. The Wardrops arrived after the country had been annexed by the Russian empire in 1801.
Yet Georgia, a small nation with fewer than five million people today, retained its own non-Indo-European language and ancient thirty-three-letter alphabet. Its oldest surviving literature dates from the fifth century, along with early Christian churches, while the wine-making culture reflected in its literature is as old as eight thousand years. Colchis, on its Black Sea coast, is the mythological home of Medea and the Golden Fleece. “Our influences are Middle Eastern, European, and Caucasian,” Karumidze said, “Georgians had to be very good translators, historically, to translate themselves to others, and others to one another—and to translate between East and West. This condition of translation was very important to the country. Starting from ancient Greece, Iran, and Biblical landscape, everything was mixed here.”
Centuries of invasion translate into cultural richness. Georgian, with loan words from Sanskrit, Greek, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, and Russian, is laden with synonyms—a protean tool for writers. Nino Haratischvili, who lives in Berlin and writes in both Georgian and German, said at the Frankfurt Book Fair where Georgia was Guest Country of Honor in 2018: “Georgia has been fighting for the identity it has claimed since antiquity and defended against all occupiers throughout the centuries. Many forget that identity is not something ossified . . . and that the richness of Georgian culture grew out of being permeable and perhaps brave, taking in foreign ideas and mixing them with its own in its search for novelties.”
Karumidze, Haratischvili, and poet-translator Coffin are among the speakers in Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers with a touch of food and song, streaming for a global English-language audience from February 25–28, 2021. As the festival’s artistic director, I curated the four-day program for Writers’ House of Georgia in Tbilisi, a city I first visited in 2014. Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern is in partnership with the British Library in London and Words Without Borders—which, starting today, is publishing four newly translated extracts from novels by festival authors who have made waves or won awards in Georgia. There are four days of online events, two of them ticketed and streamed by the British Library and Writers’ House in Tbilisi. All eleven talks will also available to watch afterwards. The digital tavern is a pandemic-era sequel to Where Europe Meets Asia: Georgia25, a weeklong London festival that I curated in 2016 for the Georgian National Book Center.
Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern takes its inspiration from the doomed cafe culture of another golden age of Georgian literature, whose end was tragic. A century ago, Tbilisi—known as Tiflis before 1936—was a “Paris of the East.” After the Russian revolutions of 1917, Georgia declared independence from the collapsing Tsarist empire. During its short-lived first democratic republic of 1918-21, Tbilisi became a haven for intellectuals fleeing the Russian civil wars—including Doctor Zhivago author Boris Pasternak. These exiles were welcomed by Georgian artists and writers such as the Blue Horn Symbolists, whose poet founders included Paolo Iashvili, Titsian Tabidze, and his cousin Galaktion Tabidze.
This cosmopolitan, polyglot avant-garde gathered in artists’ cafés such as the Fantastic Tavern, Argonauts’ Boat, Kimerioni, and Peacock’s Tail. The cafe walls became the blank canvas for Russian and Georgian artists returned from Paris and St. Petersburg, such as Lado Gudiashvili, whose painting for Kimerioni, Stepko’s Tavern, became the banner for this year’s festival. I had sought out this rare vestige of European modernist cafe culture on a visit to Tbilisi four years ago. The Rustaveli National Theater opened its closed basement for me, revealing the century-old wall painting on the stairs—recently restored—as well as work by another famous Georgian modernist, Davit Kakabadze, planting the seed that would later become this festival.
When the Bolsheviks invaded Georgia in February 1921, the Red Army not only crushed the democratic republic after only 1,028 days, but swept away its modernist avant-garde and the cafe culture that nurtured it. Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern begins on the centenary of Tbilisi’s occupation, February 25. Writers’ House contains portraits of the many writers who were executed in successive waves of Stalinist purges over the next two decades. Others committed suicide in an atmosphere of intolerable pressure to denounce colleagues, as socialist realism became the only acceptable form of art.
The seventy years of Soviet rule left a sense of rupture with this republic—a broken thread that many in today’s Georgia seek to repair. Haratischvili’s The Eighth Life: For Brilke (tr. Charlotte Collins and Ruth Martin), a multi-generational saga of the “Red century” written in German that won the 2018 Bertolt Brecht prize, alludes to the Blue Horn poets and uses lines of theirs as epigraphs. The novelist and playwright Dato Turashvili set his latest play on a train from Tbilisi to the Black sea in February 1921. Republic of Georgia (tr. Madonna Tkhelidze), which had a staged reading by the Voyage Theater Company at New York Public Library in 2019, takes place as the Red Army enters Tbilisi and members of the republican government flee into exile in France.
Aka Morchiladze revolutionized post-Soviet literature with his 1992 novel.
If Georgia’s modernist moment of the 1910s and '20s was interrupted by Soviet invasion, postmodernism was forged during Soviet collapse in the 1990s. Aka Morchiladze, the pen name of Gio Akhvlediani, revolutionized post-Soviet fiction with his fragmented debut novel Journey to Karabakh (1992, tr. Elizabeth Heighway), in which a privileged youth from Tbilisi looking for drugs strays into the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The 1990s, Akhvlediani recalled from Tbilisi, were a “terrible time of civil war, paramilitaries—many guns from that time we still have—and the beginning of a new literature.” An earlier generation of novelists, such as Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, seemed stilted. “No one speaks like that. It wasn’t natural. I had this feeling, I have to use the language of the street guys and the youth. People loved it.” Yet, even thirty years into independence, he feels Georgia remains post-Soviet in outlook: “Everything’s about punishment and betrayal. It’s a Stalinist thing. We’re all traitors who must be punished. It’s still in our vocabulary. People don’t understand they’re speaking the language of Stalin’s time, which their parents reused.” While he drew on the Russian classics he grew up reading alongside Hemingway and Jack London, “after the 2008 war, young people abandoned Russian culture. The war finished it totally.”
Tamta Melashvili’s debut novel, Counting Out (excerpted in WWB in 2014), about teenage girls’ experience in an unnamed war, was written in the wake of that five-day August war with Russia. Speaking from Tbilisi, she recalled that time of “total fear and despair, with planes flying over, and explosions from the nearby town being bombed.” Although her second novel, Eastwards, is also set in present-day Georgia, it looks back to the poets of the First Republic. “We had only three years of independence,” she said, “but I’m totally in love with that precious period. We had social democracy, a parliament with women’s representation [and five women MPs]. I like to imagine what might have happened if we weren’t invaded by the Soviet Union. How could the country have developed?”
The protagonist of Eastwards, Irina, is researching Elene Dariani-Bakradze, a mystical poet believed to have had a secret affair with the Blue Horn poet Paolo Iashvili. There is speculation that she may have authored fourteen erotic poems attributed to him. “Feminists prefer this version against the literary establishment,” Melashvili said. “I started to play with these two versions. Irina tries to reach the true story of Paolo and Elena but rebuilds a new myth. I wanted to show how Georgians can’t get out of the constant cycle of reimagining myths and legends and not writing true history.” Georgians, she added, “still live in very turbulent times. There are no resources. We cling to the mythic past. Otherwise we’re not strong enough to navigate the present.”
Soviet history remains intractably painful. “The purges of the 1930s, no one likes to talk about them,” she said. “All fathers are related to the purges as survivors or perpetrators. Most of us prefer to keep a distance from this past.” But Stalinism shattered Georgia’s literature. “Most good writers were shot. Or the men were shot, and the women were marginalized, redirected towards children’s literature. Some even quit. From the '40s to the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were almost no women writing, except one or two in the '80s. They became lost souls in Georgian literary history.”
“Georgians still live in very turbulent times,” says writer Tamta Melashvili. “There are no resources. We cling to the mythic past. Otherwise we’re not strong enough to navigate the present.”
Playwright and novelist Davit Gabunia, who found fame aged twenty-two as the Georgian translator of Harry Potter (and later Shakespeare and Ibsen), explores a different kind of violence. His cinematic debut novel, Falling Apart, recalls Rear Window in its dark exploration of voyeurism, and broke ground it its treatment of a male sexual liaison. “Everyone neglects men,” he said from Tbilisi. “The problem is men. I write mostly about troubled masculinities. My novel is ‘pulp,’ written as a quasi-thriller crime story, but I try to put these ideas in accessible form. Everything is wrong with the main character because he has false ideas of masculinity.”
Tracing change in independent Georgia, Gabunia said: “In 2005 when I wrote my first short stories, I wouldn’t have dared to come out. I wrote naive gay stories under a pen name, and no one wanted to publish them in case of a backlash. Then for three years I never wrote a word. It’s not less dangerous now for LGBT people but, certainly in literary circles, things have changed. There’s a huge difference between then and 2017, when my novel came out.” He attributes the slowness of change, which drove him to abandon activism to write for theater, to Georgia’s instability. “We’re still very poor, underpaid in wild capitalism. A big change in mentality comes after years of stable and normalized life. Since we regained independence in 1991, there have not been five consecutive years without something happening—unrest, conflict with a breakaway region, civil war, economic collapse, extreme poverty. It continues now. We’re a society in constant unrest, where religion is very powerful. When there’s no rational prospect, people choose the medieval darkness of the Church.”
If, for Karumidze, a strong post-Soviet thread is that Georgian writers “had to reread and deconstruct their history,” they also “make fun of it. Before, Georgian history was sacred, mythologized. Most kings are saints of the Georgian Church, and so are the ninth-century fathers of nationalism. You’re not supposed to be sarcastic about them.”
Some writers have tested the limits of this humor. Cartoonist and writer Lasha Bugadze’s plays include Putin’s Mum and The President will Come to See You. His novel The Literature Express (tr. Maya Kiasashvili) pokes fun at Georgia’s EU aspirations, and opens with the 2008 war as tanks advance towards Tbilisi. His latest novel, A Small Country, fictionalizes the real scandal over his satirical short story “The First Russian” which explored the relationship between Georgia and Russia though the medieval Queen Tamar’s wedding night. “We don’t speak about our history,” Bugadze told me from Tbilisi. “Georgia needs to reflect on its history, and the relationship with Russia. People are afraid to speak of it. That’s why I had problems. I wrote about Queen Tamar’s first husband—people didn’t know he was a Russian. She’s a holy saint, a legend, so how can you talk about her private life?” He paused. “I understand why they’re afraid: it’s like trauma. Everything of pride in Georgia is in the past. Our historical heroes are part of our identity, so don’t speak about our kings, or Stalin. We had a funny story about Medea by Euripedes, a Greek, but a Georgian woman would never kill her child!”
Bugadze was threatened with excommunication, and personally reprimanded by the head of Georgia’s Orthodox Church (“He wags his finger, and says, ‘Why did you write this?’ Like the Inquisition”). “The Patriarch became Archbishop in 1977, the year I was born. He is the greatest Georgian politician,” Bugadze said. “The Church and the government have a very strange relationship. They’re very close together. Who is the main boss in Georgia? The prime minister or the Patriarch or the oligarch?”
While the novel reflects Georgia’s relationship with Russia from the late 1980s, “now the relationship is very different because Putin has a dream to recreate the Soviet Union. We have Russian soldiers and army bases in the middle of Georgia, in South Ossetia, only forty kilometers from Tbilisi. The border moves, like ‘moving Berlin Walls,’ we call them. It’s psychologically and emotionally very difficult. We’re very afraid but we’re living with this.” In Soviet times, he added, “there was great humor, with metaphorical language, and everybody understood that it was because of censorship. Now we’ve become very serious and literal, and more angry about everything—I write blogs at Radio Liberty. Historically, it’s really dangerous to live near Putin’s Russia.” On the recent flare-up over Nagorno-Karabakh to which Russian peacekeepers were sent, he said, “It’s an old empire. These are contradictions Russia can manipulate. It’s existential. Every day we think, what will they do?”
Bugadze, like Melashvili, points up stark generational conflicts within Georgia. “Young people are very liberal and free. It’s a battle between grandfathers and grandsons, not fathers and sons, and what is our way in the future: the West or nostalgia for the Soviet Union? They don’t see it as nostalgia but as the ‘real Georgia,’ because we’ve ‘lost our identity.’ But I can’t speak about the Soviet Union without the tragedy.”
WWB’s first excerpt from the festival is from The Southern Mammoth, a novel by Archil Kikodze, an actor, writer, filmmaker, photographer, birdwatcher, and eco-guide. Its main character is Tbilisi, the city where he was born and which became a war zone in his youth in the 1990s, with refugees filling its hotels. “My father was a professional rescuer who carried refugees on his back through the mountains,” he said from the city. “My generation came back from wars they lost, with weapons and complexes. There were semi-official gangs, everybody carrying weapons and shooting in the street. Big, heavy violence.” Tbilisi is the “only city I know very well and know too well to love. When I walk, I know tragic stories about each district and quarter, each yard. We’re very social people. We know things you don’t need to know about each other—stories, gossip. It’s support but it’s also heavy baggage.”
Actor, writer, filmmaker, and photographer Archil Kikodze, who was still a youth in the post-Soviet Tblisi of the 1990s.
The narrator’s father “was a shadow businessman in the Soviet period of stagnation in the '70s and '80s, when corruption was blossoming and Georgia was like a Riviera for Russia. His mother is a Georgian nationalist, so that can’t work.” Kikodze’s interest is not in “good guys conquered by bad guys. The collaborator is more interesting for me as a character because he’s coming from the same society with the same values. We had too, too many collaborators. We still have them.”
This novel also has a flashback to the First Republic. “Till now there’s no historical evaluation of the things that have happened to us,” Kikodze said. “All new governments come to power playing with our past and our ethnic conflicts. But literature tries harder to evaluate what happened. Official history is blind, so it’s an alternative. Personal stories are always a treasure for me, I collect not news stories but what’s behind them—people crushed in all those changes and bad times.”
For Gabunia, Georgian is an “incredible blessing and a curse: it’s a wonderfully rich language with a long literary tradition—we still have those texts—but we’re doomed to have a small audience.” The humble aim of Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern is to widen this pool, while introducing more English-speaking readers to a literature, and a culture, they will not want to miss.
© 2021 Maya Jaggi. All rights reserved.
Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia, an online festival of Georgian writers inspired by the cafe culture of Georgia’s first democratic republic of 1918-21, is presented by artistic director Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, in partnership with The British Library and Words Without Borders. It is streaming for a global English-language audience on 25-28 February 2021 and available to watch afterwards.
Further Reading from Georgia's Fantastic Tavern:
Archil Kikodze's The Southern Mammoth, originally published in Georgian in 2017, takes place in a single day in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, as a filmmaker leaves his apartment to make way for a friend with a date, to wander freely through his city and his memories.
Armed with long poles, the policemen are busy at the Ortachala 1 hydro station. It seems they are the only ones on this sunny wintry morning who have something to do. They push as hard as they can, nearly succeed in moving the corpse. They aren’t trying to get the body out of the water. They just want to push it hard enough to budge it. We stare at the scene with gaping mouths. We don’t understand what’s going on. Only later, Tazo, loyal to his ways, finds out the story behind the scene we witnessed. But that morning, on our way from visiting prostitutes, we were dumbly watching the policemen’s futile efforts. We had spent the night in a house that was lost in the old quarter of Kharpukhi and now, looking at the curdled waters at the hydro station, we would have given anything to erase our memories, to forget all we’d seen . . . Asking around in the winding, narrow streets of Kharpukhi, we eventually find the brothel in the most inappropriate house and knock on the glass gallery, referring to an acquaintance of Tazo’s. Stepping in from the dark street, we momentarily freeze in the hall, long enough for our eyes to adjust to the light. The surrounding is a sight indeed . . . Dents on the ceiling and walls left by different caliber bullets, blunt stares from the corners, cast by eyes that don’t like anyone . . . As if we are characters in a Western who have just blundered into the worst town in the world. “They don’t like strangers, do they.” God bless the scriptwriters of the old movie dialogues. “They like no one.” It’s obvious that we won’t find love here. On the balcony, a generator roars offbeat . . . We aren’t looking for trouble, we are unarmed . . . Tazo is fiddling with his hat, the one he never goes without. Under his warm coat he has his only sweater he has been wearing for the last ten years. It’s a shapeless blue one, knitted from thick wool, with a diagonal red strip in front . . . He squints at the light bulb, then smiles at the surroundings for no apparent reason. He just can’t help it—his smile is always kind of inappropriate. Now it’s clear to everyone that we aren’t going to shoot or threaten anyone with a gun, and suddenly it becomes interesting. Are you brothers? A speck of interest appears in their lethargic eyes . . . No, we’re not . . . We aren’t going to hit them, either, during sex or later, when we get sober and are overcome by the urge to puke—not so much on account of them, but on account of ourselves. What’s more, Tazo might have enough strength to smile at them in the morning . . . Then we’ll leave . . . Go down the cobbled slope without talking to each other, in silence, cross the deserted square without a single car, won’t even notice the valiant Petre Bagrationi brandishing his sword, in the same way we never pay attention to other mounted historical heroes across the city. We’ll get on the Ortachala dike and share the only cigarette. We don’t have enough to buy the ones with filters, but will get some without filters later on, as soon as little kiosks in our respective blocks open. But it’s a long walk to the familiar grounds . . . In the meantime, we want to cast the first and final glance at the city from this vantage point . . . But why final? It was final for me, but surely Tazo came back. Otherwise he wouldn’t have found out about the corpse . . .
The stagnant Mtkvari with grassy banks and gulls . . . The Isani policemen, ever so hungry for petty bribes, are trying to push the corpse. With the long poles, they are shoving it to the right, swearing and getting into each other’s way. The dead man is floating on his back. He is wearing a pale jacket, the hue of the river, and a pair of jeans, just like us. Hard to say if he was killed or has committed suicide, but it doesn’t matter for the policemen anyway. Very soon Tazo will discover that it’s a common thing, that the Ortachala hydro station is a haven for Tbilisi corpses: those who jump of their own accord or are thrown into the river sooner or later gather at the dike. Down the Mtkvari, in Samgori, the policemen have lots of long rods and poles prepared for the same purpose. “You’ve got to act fast in this city”—depends on who is smarter and adroit in shoving the dead bodies to the other side. In Samgori and in Isani the policemen work with gusto to prove who is smarter. But that winter morning, Isani was definitely faster, which means Samgori got a fresh homicide case, or possibly a suicide . . .
Next to me, Tazo shivers. He might be thinking the same. The water’s too cold . . . Suddenly, he starts talking about his dream. "Don’t tell me you were able to sleep last night." He did and dreamt he was swimming in a vast stretch of water. He swims with strong, well-calculated strokes, heading for the horizon. He’s got quite a distance to cover, so he saves his energy. The horizon seems too distant, practically unreachable for even such an expert swimmer as Tazo, but he persists, quite stubbornly. He doesn’t really know why he is swimming or where to, but he feels there is something extremely important waiting for him ahead, or something vital is going to happen to him. Indeed, something appears against the dull horizon, pushing Tazo to keep going. He is exhausted but hasn’t lost faith in his own strength, not for a second. He is sure he will reach the end. His aim nears, consequently gets larger. It’s an inscription. Tazo can’t read it yet but he can clearly see that it is mounted on a huge metal construction, something similar to the old Soviet structures erected in the most improbable places, carrying the message “Forward to the bright future!” Or the enormous Hollywood sign on Mount Lee. Tazo waves his hand in a vague gesture to describe the inscription that he nears after swimming tirelessly in the vast sea and now he can discern it. Apparently, that was his target . . . The word “cunt” covers the entire horizon like a verdict and Tazo writes in the air with his hand, this time the letters are easily recognizable. There is no sea around us but I readily visualized the word written by Tazo's hand hanging over our city, somewhere above the dammed-up river and the old quarters across it. Insane, isn’t it? We stare at each other. He drags at what’s left of my cigarette, shrugs his shoulders as if saying it’s not his fault he dreamed such a weird dream. He fights back laughter. He flicks the butt into the river and we even hear a brief hiss as it hits the water and then we burst into laughter. We just can’t stop. The Isani policemen, who have nearly managed to shove the body into the Samgori jurisdiction, stop and look at us, trying to guess if we have found their efforts comical. Oh, no, not at all! Whatever you’re doing this morning, no doubt it’s for the good of our city and the whole country. We laugh our heads off. They give up on us, having their own problems. Still laughing, we leave the dike. We’ve got to walk all the way to our homes and the kiosks where we can get cigarettes without filters on credit . . .
I open my eyes. The ice cubes haven’t melted in the glass yet. I must have nodded off. The computer screen shows the same picture: somewhere in the Near East, Nelly is patting a cat. I look at my watch. Nearly nine. My visitor will be here any minute now. He hasn’t been for years. Mum’s funeral doesn’t count. It was more out of duty, personal and social. But he called yesterday and somehow, awkwardly, with lots of pauses, finally said what he wanted to say. Even across the distance I felt he was afraid of being laughed at. Something that never occurred to me. I listened and agreed, as if it were an honor.
But nine in the morning is too early. Is it a date he’s got or a hangover breakfast?
My doorbell rings. Couldn’t wait till nine. I go to open it, but halfway down the hall I suddenly think he mustn’t see Nelly. I go back to the computer and close the picture, then the whole album. The doorbell rings again—this time more persistently and a bit impatiently. My daughter hasn’t appeared in the chat for some time. It must be late there and most probably she’s asleep. I leave the chat room, order the computer to go to sleep, and head for the front door.
I hardly have time to look at him. Tazo doesn’t so much step over the threshold—he jumps over it as if he’s looking for shelter from the rain. He moves inside, into the depths of the flat as if it were a sanctuary. His insistent calling hasn’t been insolent at all—he was seeking asylum. He drops heavily into an armchair by my sofa and scrutinizes the bookshelves as if it’s his first time at my place.
“Were you asleep?”
“I nodded off. Was looking at the computer and dozed off. Actually, I woke up quite early . . . ”
He takes a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lights one. His manner hasn’t changed: he smokes with the greed of a teenager, a novice, with long drags—one, two, three and the fag’s burned to the butt.
I also take my cigarette from the table and light it. He watches me impatiently. I can’t enjoy mine, crush it out and get to my feet.
“Tazo, come with me, will you?”
We go into the bedroom. Zoia, my cleaner, hasn’t been in. Usually, it’s Zoia who changes my bedclothes. Come on, help me!
I had stripped away my own bedclothes earlier, before I dozed off at the computer. We are funny to watch. I shouldn’t be thinking about it, but what we do has the makings of a movie . . . Two men over forty are awkwardly changing bedclothes with dead serious faces, stuffing pillows into pillowcases. Do you want a thinner blanket? I don’t think we’ll be cold, it’s quite warm already . . . I don’t believe even for a moment that Tazo doesn’t appreciate the cinematographic value of the absurd scene. I can’t help thinking that now, just like in the old times, we are going to look at each other and guess we’re thinking the same. Then we’ll have a good laugh . . . But no—Tazo hasn’t glanced at me even once. We’ve been working in silence. We’re tired, but here you are, the bed’s ready . . .
I remember something. I go into the sitting room, open a sideboard, take out a half-empty bottle of brandy and two glasses.
“A glass or two has a great effect on me . . . In this case . . . you know what I mean, don’t you?” I’m angry with myself because I realize I’m carefully choosing my words when talking to Tazo.
He eyes the bottle, as if he doesn’t see it, as if he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. “Are you going out in that tracksuit?”
Tazo isn’t rude or impudent, and can never be such. He is just impatient to get me out. He is nervous and, I sense, he finds the whole situation highly embarrassing. I smile. “I’ll change in a second and I’ll be gone.”
In the bedroom I change quickly, like a soldier. I usually don’t need long. I shove my tracksuit into the wardrobe. I’ll change into the jogging shoes in the hall. I might need to walk quite a lot. Cigarettes, keys, phone in the pocket. What else?
In the sitting-room Tazo is looking at a photo behind the bookcase glass. Bent low, he seems to be trying to remember something.
The photo is black and white, I believe taken by his dad and developed in their bathroom under the magic red light. It has been behind that glass since the times when we didn’t need to stoop to see it. The National Museum yard, the two of us standing in front of the skeleton of a prehistoric elephant. I’m wearing a jumper knitted by Mum. Both groomed and in our Sunday best. Probably ten at the time. In the background the elephant in a huge glass box hardly fits into the frame. But its front legs, tusks, and part of its forehead are clearly visible. I even remember what the inscription was on the box. Here it is, if you don’t believe me:
Archidoskodon Meridionalis—the southern mammoth, found in Taribana Valley.
Tazo slips his hand behind the glass and takes out the photo, bringing it closer to his eyes. He squints and I think his eyesight is getting poorer. Might already need reading glasses.
“I always imagined Taribana Valley to be a mysterious place, with mammoths roaming freely. But the other day I was at an exhibition and there was this photo—a bare field with a single tree. It was a strangely beautiful place. It said Taribana Valley. I wanted to buy the photo but it had already sold.”
“I’ve been to the valley,” Tazo replaces the photo. “My office sent me to insure the harvest. Someone’s wheat. Nothing special about the place . . . ”
Tazo has been to Taribana Valley. He insured someone’s wheat crop. Time for me to go. Here, take the keys. Just in case . . . When you’re ready, call me and I’ll come back. If you don’t wait for me, leave them on the sideboard in the hall and shut the door . . .
He nods and sees me to the front door. I put my jogging shoes on. And go down the stairs with the thud of a man who’s got nothing to hide. Let the adulterers sneak around furtively! I look up to wave him goodbye but he’s already closed the door. Fine with me . . .
Before stepping out into the street, I look at myself in Mediko’s mirror. I haven’t shaved but that’s all right. Money, phone, keys . . . Nothing left behind, no need to go back. Mediko’s mirror tells me that besides a shave I’m in sore need of a haircut. I might get one if I plan my day properly. I smile—what planning am I talking about if I’ve got nothing to do? But even if I have to, I know all too well I won’t do it. I don’t even recall a time when I woke up or left home so early in the morning. Getting cigarettes and mineral water doesn’t count. I mean leaving home properly, purposefully. I look at myself in Mediko’s mirror once again, then one, two . . . two and a half, three and I’m in the street.
The entrance is strewn with cigarette butts.
At nighttime our entrance becomes a refuge for young couples. The door doesn’t lock. I know other similar entrances along the street with similarly broken locks, but ours is particularly popular. I believe it’s the mirror that is largely responsible for it . . . They can sit on the steps and see their reflections at the same time. The mirror is witness to their caresses and the proof that they have each other. They might even be sizing each other up. Mediko’s mirror has the shape of a vertically upturned enormous eye. The human eye isn’t a perfect instrument. At close quarters, it can easily lose focus, so you start seeing the dear eyes in patches, or a blur of the necklace around the dear neck. At that point you can furtively glance at the mirror to steal a different angle and who knows, the mirror can show you something that will make you smile . . .
The problem is they throw cigarette butts into the vestibule.
I step into the sunshine. I cross the street and look at my house from the opposite sidewalk. No one is watching me from the windows. The curtains aren’t moving. But is my flat really suitable for a first date? Tazo was so nervous I’m absolutely sure it’s the first. He’s got a job and salary, insures someone’s harvest in Taribana Valley. He could easily afford a hotel room but still opted for my place. Preferred my humble digs to an alienating, impersonal king-size hotel bed, to relaxing on it, watching a French movie. After all these years he preferred a homelike atmosphere . . . Apart from the photo behind the glass panel, what else is he going to find that will seem familiar to him? Books? I have several books on the floor by the bed. I wonder if he’s going to have a look at them. Will he get interested in what I’m reading? What else . . . A couple of paintings by Tengiz Mirzashvili on the walls, hanging there as a sign that mine, just like Tazo’s house, is part of a city within another city that the artist has left in abundance as selfless gifts . . . Maybe the woman Tazo’s waiting for is from the artist’s city too. Loneliness is unbearable in both cities, isn’t it? She is soon going to walk into my flat and look around timidly . . . What else will meet her eyes? Another huge photo of a city, or rather of a settlement . . . It’s Mom, leaning on a walking stick in the ditch that took years to dig in that archaeological site. She’s looking determinedly into the lens, refusing to accept that she had spent decades digging the monument that hadn’t yielded anything valuable . . . Also, a poster of my film, which I had no courage to ask Tazo to see, nor have I asked if he’s seen it. What else? Innumerable snapshots of my daughter stuck to the fridge with magnets. I forgot to tell Tazo to look inside, but if he does, he’ll find plenty of snacks suitable for a single man . . . On the other hand, he came with a plastic bag, which he stuffed between the armchair and the sofa. Apparently, he’s brought something himself . . .
Mediko comes out of our entrance and waves to me. I wave back from across the street. A casual meeting of neighbors in the morning. But she’s going to work while I’ve got no idea where I’m heading. "Is everything all right?"
“Yes. I’m out for a walk.”
“Your face says something’s up.”
“Not really. I just woke up very early and thought I’d have a walk.”
“Fancy walking in this direction?” She points toward Republic Square.
I shake my head and suddenly I feel the urge to shout that Tazo’s in my flat.
“Can we have a lock installed on the front door? Look at the mess.”
Smiling, Mediko turns back.
“By we you mean me, right?”
I chuckle and raise my hand in a goodbye gesture. I walk in the opposite direction, toward the Blue Monastery. From there I can walk straight into Vere Park and smoke a cigarette in peace and quiet.
© Archil Kikodze. By arrangement with Sulakauri Publishing. Translation © 2021 Maya Kiasashvili. All rights reserved.
Archil Kikodze will be in conversation with author and journalist Wendell Steavenson as part of the online festival Georgia’s Fantastic Tavern: Where Europe Meets Asia. The free event, in association with Maya Jaggi and Writers’ House of Georgia, will be livestreamed on Sunday, February 28, 2021, and available to watch afterwards.