The narratives of "Everything Like Before," only the second book by the Norwegian writer to be published in the US, bend toward the seemingly mundane, then sting with an act that might (or might not) change everything.
Kjell Askildsen, winner of the Swedish Academy’s Nordic Prize in 2009, is a consummate chronicler of contradictory, quicksilver emotions and impulses. There is in his work a careful calibration of his characters' inner lives, of small dramas in no way empty of incident, whose ultimate crux is the desultory, dangerous weight of time: time is too slow, nothing ever changes, time doesn’t matter, then it is too abrupt, it’s unbearably long—all in prose that is as lean and clean as its implications can be dark.
Everything Like Before is only Askildsen’s second book to be published in the US, following 2014’s Selected Stories, which, published by Dalkey Archive Press and also translated by Sean Kinsella, features a handful of the stories also present in Archipelago’s offering. Published simultaneously in the UK by Penguin Modern Classics and bringing together thirty-six stories from Askildsen’s long career—which started with his 1954 debut short story collection From Now on I'll Take You All the Way Home—Everything Like Before showcases the Norwegian as a master of the shorter mode.
Many of Askildsen’s stories bend toward the seemingly mundane, then sting with an act that might or might not be quite ordinary, that might or might not change everything. In “A Lovely Spot,” a couple tensely tries to keep the unease and uncertainty between them from ruining their calm vacation, culminating in an act of undiscussed, benign violence; in the stunning “A Sudden Liberating Thought,” a man living quietly in a basement flat is unnerved when one day a stranger sits down next to him at the park, precipitating a surprising series of encounters that proves, if we are to trust our narrator, fatal; and in “Nothing for Nothing,” a jealous husband embarks on a pitiful betrayal that doesn’t quite pan out. In addition to the often-disquieting realism of these stories––the way they seem to eerily meander at a pace redolent of real, unremarkable life––what these stories have in common is Askildsen’s tendency to chillingly weave between stasis and revelation, where stasis can lead to revelation and revelation to stasis, such that stasis and revelation seem, at the very least, to rhyme.
It is through his characters’ reactive and random thoughts and dialogue that Askildsen can be at his most affecting. Here he is in “Dogs of Thessaloniki,” limning a man’s mind as, vexed by his wife, he takes a walk and falls into “a drowsy, absentminded state”:
My thoughts pursued seemingly illogical courses, which were not unpleasant, on the contrary I had an extraordinary feeling of wellbeing, which made it all the more incomprehensible that, without any noticeable transition, I became gripped by a feeling of anguish and desertion. There was something all-encompassing about both the anguish and feeling of desertion that, in a way, suspended time, although it probably didn’t take more than a few seconds before my senses steered me back to the present . . . suddenly I thought, and it was a distinct thought: if only she were dead.
In a different writer’s hands, this might lead in a subsequent scene to some frenetic climax, but though there is a kind of uncanny crescendo to this story, even two of them, Askildsen offers no easy resolution or epiphany to the man’s feelings of entrapment: the man’s wife does not die, nor does he kill her (other stories do feature murderers, though never in the act). Because nothing actually earth-shattering or nominally significant happens, what is at stake in this passage, as is true in many of Askildsen’s stories, is not so much the question of time passing or standing still, of lost memories or change, as much as it’s about it already being too late in the day: the lovers are already at the end of love’s possible course, the friendship is over, the judgment has been handed down, the punishment meted out, the body has already aged—yet it, all of it, continues.
Time itself, rather than passing by, seems to inhabit the same place as those beholden to it. It is waiting. But for what, only time will tell. “He’d been dead nine days. That’s far too long, I think,” remarks the narrator of “After the Funeral Service.” It is this sensibility, most keenly tuned in “Thomas F’s Final Notes to the Public,” a grouping of eleven stories taken from Askildsen’s celebrated collection of the same name, that makes Thomas F, who graces some of Askildsen’s shortest stories in the book, such a crowning achievement.
Everything Like Before might be full of aging male narrators, but Thomas is Askildsen’s tartest graybeard; he comes out with lines like “Life won’t let go of me. He who has nothing to live for has nothing to die for.” In a strain found, too, in many of the other stories, Thomas’s bent, despite his bitterness, is toward hope, even if he might ultimately regret having given in to it. In “Maria,” Thomas bumps into his estranged daughter, who for a moment he mistakenly believes to have cracked a joke, which throws him on this little eddy of cogitation:
To think I had a daughter with a sense of humor, a slightly cheeky sense of humor at that. Who would have thought? It was a special moment. But I was mistaken, you’re never too old to be stripped of your illusions.
In “My Goodness,” when seeing an old friend from across the street but giving up on crossing, Thomas, who has trouble walking, quips, or perhaps laments, “It would have been stupid to lose my life from joy when I had managed to survive so long without it.”
What allows these stories to transcend their slim setups (“Café-goers” has him dropping a wallet and hoping someone will pick it up) is not exactly Thomas’s humorous, ironic asides so much as the way their tone expresses what he and others of the Askildsenean cast so yearn for: refuge from pain and humiliation, quiet and human connection both. In “The Banister,” Thomas wishes for the repair of the eponymous handhold. “‘Don’t you understand,’” he beseeches his landlord, “‘that on occasion that banister is all I have to hold onto in life?’” The landlord responds with a trite religious remark, such that Thomas might better have remembered his own dictum from “Maria”: “There are far too many words in circulation, the more you say the greater your chances of being wrong,” which is also a way of saying, as so many of these stories tacitly do, that the more you talk the greater your chances of being misunderstood, ignored, betrayed.
And yet! Though the banister’s destiny might not include its repair and life’s indignities might be too all-pervading (in one story, Thomas pees himself), Thomas somehow has the strength to tell himself in the final grace note of the story, “Don’t give up, Thomas, don’t give up.”
Many of Askildsen’s characters, such as the husband of “The Dogs of Thessaloniki,” inhabit a stasis from which only death might deliver them. In Thomas’s swan songs, this danger and release is especially concrete. In the final story of “Final Notes,” which is also the final story of Everything Like Before, Thomas has a fainting fit over a chessboard, toppling both “kings and pawns,” and upon waking, realizes that like this, painlessly, is “exactly how I wanted to die.” So, he waits—or does he?
Since then I’ve had several dizzy spells. But I’ve placed the chairs I have in strategic positions. It makes rather a sorry mess of the room, almost gives the impression of it being almost uninhabited. But I’m still living here. Living and waiting.
Is the strategy here to hurry things along, to make sure he hits his head good on one of these chairs, or is it that he cannot but fashion for himself a kind of banister, a grouping of things to hold onto so as to save himself and continue the stasis that is his living?
“Oh,” narrates Thomas in the final line of the story just preceding, “The world is changing, I thought. And silence is spreading. It’s time to die.” This here might be revelation in the form of resignation, but in the end, Thomas is still setting up his chairs. Maybe one day he’ll finally give life a rest—or a place to sit.
The release of the Hollywood film The Mauritanian earlier this year made a harrowing tale of torture and injustice at Guantánamo Bay the first Mauritanian story to truly reach the world. When the book the film was based on—Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi—came out in 2015, there were only three books written by Mauritanian authors available in English. The number of Mauritanian works which had been translated into other languages or won regional literary awards could be counted on one hand. However, the world literature market’s lack of interest in Mauritania—a country simultaneously Arab, West African, Saharan, and Sahelian—does not reflect its overall literary vitality.
The country’s position—straddling the Arabophone and Francophone spheres and bringing Pulaar, Wolof, Soninke, and Arab-Moorish cultures into contact with each other—lends itself to an outward-facing literature of movement, migration, and adaptation. Yet, paradoxically, Mauritania’s state of interethnic division and resistance to hybridity also brings a sense of stasis to these very same stories.
After Mauritania gained independence from France in 1960, conflicts over the character of the new nation-state played out in language policy. While Arabic speakers associated French with colonization, speakers of Pulaar, Wolof, and Soninke associated arabicization with racism. In addition to interethnic tensions, occupation-based caste structures dividing nobles from craftsmen, musicians, and—in Arab Mauritanians’ case—religious scholars still influence opportunities, social status, and marriages.
Yet, whether written in Arabic or in French, whether sweeping across the Sahara or tracing the Atlantic coastline, Mauritanian literature foregrounds characters on the move. Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s The Desert and the Drum (2016) alternates between life in an Arab encampment and the rebel Rayhana’s breakaway move to the city. Aichetou’s Awaiting the Stoning (2013) and Al-Sunnī ‘Abdāwa’s The Ghosts (1998) follow the nomadic routes most Arab Mauritanians lived by until decades of drought and desertification forced them into settled life on the fringes of ever-expanding cities. This migration to the city and its attendant sense of alienation is mournfully documented by Aḥmad wuld ʻAbd al-Qadir in The Gazing Eyes (1999) and Turbah Mint ʻAmmar in Two Faces in a Man’s Life (2008). Other writers show Mauritanians seeking their fortunes as far afield as Angola, as in Muḥammad Maḥmūd Wuld al-Shaykh Aḥmad’s The Chaos of Dreams: Diary of an Immigrant to Angola (2011), or opting for remote desert retreats when the promises of immigration fail as in Daḥḥān (2016) by Muḥammad wuld Muḥammad Sālim.
Yet, alongside this element of physical movement and momentum, a heavy sense of social stasis permeates Mauritanian literature as the enduring legacies of slavery, racism, and rigid caste structures keep protagonists in their place. Mimoun of The Shepherd of Fort El Barka (2015) comes to see himself as more than the caste he was born into, but is unable to move those around him to do so. Mhemid of Outside Servitude watches other Haratin—Black descendants of former slaves who speak Arabic and share many cultural practices with Arab Mauritanians—formally leave slavery only to find themselves economically unable to cut off their former masters. Cheikh Nouh’s Adabai shows that while the Iggawen (griot) caste preserves the histories, glories, and genealogies of others through their songs, this music only speaks to a small segment of the population. The 1989 border war with Senegal and its aftereffects haunt Bios Diallo’s Life with a Begging Bowl (2011) and Muḥammad Fāḍil ʻAbd al-Laṭīf’s award-winning novel Hospitality (2013). Finally, for those protagonists who do escape—such as the narrator of Mist from a City That Rains (2015) by ʻAbdallāhi Aḥmad Maḥmūd and that of Munina Blanche (2014) by Muḥammad ould Amīn—their new circumstances only make them obsess even more over everything connected to the past.
As such, the five stories and two poems presented here engage with the forces drawing Mauritanians across race, caste, and language to move and migrate, as well as those forces that confine them to predetermined social roles. The dialectic of movement and stasis propel each text even as their styles and foci diverge. In Moussa Ould Ebnou’s Barzakh: The Land of In-between, Gara travels further and further into the future, searching for a better civilization. He starts in the period of the trans-Saharan slave trade, then moves to the beginning of the French conquests of Mauritania before finally arriving in an imagined future where toxic waste facilities poison the Sahara. Gara finds that while technology advances, exploitation simply shifts shape.
In Bios Diallo’s “Say to the Tomb,” however, the future becomes not a repetition of the past, but rather a language that is shared by all Mauritanians regardless of their mother tongue. A politically engaged author who takes inspiration from Francophone Négritude literature, Diallo connects Mauritania’s struggle to form a united national identity with similar issues elsewhere on the continent. He dedicates La Saigne, the forthcoming book this poem is taken from, to the Malian city of Timbuktu.
Haratin poet and activist Cheikh Nouh’s novel Adabai (2019) shows the arbitrary nature of narratives surrounding bloodlines and purity, recording their real, deadly consequences even while showing their patent falsehood. This extract captures the thoughts of the villager Musa as he meanders between his experiences growing up in Adabai, the village’s founding myth, and the community’s forbidden loves.
Herself a product of migration and métissage, feminist poet Mariem Mint Derwich pays tribute to the women of the diaspora, hailing them as the transmitters, renewers, and revitalizers of culture. In her poem “You Will Tell Them,” published originally in Anthologie des femmes poètes du monde arabe (2019), she asserts that Mauritanian cultural memory remains wherever its citizens move, declaring “You will inscribe in their blazing gazes, your name / my name / their names / And, in the infinite that is, you will become a country within.”
Aichetou, who grew up in a nomadic encampment, takes us through an outsider’s drifting, amorphous impressions of one such camp. Her historical novel I Am N’Daté . . . (2018) situates the history of slavery in Mauritania within the larger regional context of conflicts and struggles in seventeenth-century West Africa. The narrator, N’Daté, proudly claims her origins from the Balanta People of Guinea-Bissau. However, after hostilities with a neighboring community, she finds herself far from the forests she grew up in, sold into an Arab encampment. Alone with her story and unable to speak the language of the nomads, she observes the lives of the women around her closely and gradually learns of their stories and dreams.
Looking forward rather than to history, Mamadou Kalidou Ba’s resistance literature explores whether interethnic solidarity and nonviolent activism could be the answer to Mauritania’s social stasis. In “A Tactical Alliance,” from his novel The Peaceful Resistance (2017), two activist groups meet to discuss joining forces in a different type of confrontation with the state.
Finally, looking outward, Ahmed Isselmou’s science fiction novel Outsider Mode (2021) imagines a new currency that links value directly to an individual’s productivity, regardless of their nation’s exchange rate. Invented by a resident of Futurcity and adopted around the world, the T-coin becomes a global economic driving force, only to find its strength challenged by a devastating cyberattack.
While there are still fewer than ten Mauritanian books available in English translation, there has been a steady growth in regional and international recognition of the country’s literature over the past five years. Since the publication of Guantánamo Diary, the aforementioned Mbarek Ould Beyrouk’s novel Le Tambour de Larmes (2016) was translated into English as The Desert and the Drum and was awarded the Ahmed Korouma Prize. Muḥammad Fāḍil ʻAbd al-Laṭīf’s second novel won the Egyptian Supreme Council for Culture’s Naguib Mahfouz Award, and Aḥmad ould al-Ḥafīẓ’s The Grapes of Wrath (2016) made the Sheikh Zayed Book Award longlist. Cheikh Aḥmad al-Bān’s first novel is also due to be translated into English after winning a Katara Award last October. Lastly, in the month of The Mauritanian’s release, Mohamedou Ould Slahi broke away from the endless burden of telling and retelling his story of torture and survival by publishing an epic adventure novel in English. This issue aims to maintain this momentum by moving more of Mauritania’s vibrant literature, in both Arabic and French, into the Anglophone sphere.
© 2021 by July Blalack. All rights reserved.
 The other English-language Mauritanian books were The Ignored Cries of Pain and Injustice from Mauritania (2011) by Sidi Sene; Crossing the Atlantic Ocean in Search of Happiness by Amadou Ndiaye (2014); and Mohamed Bouya Bamba’s self-published novella Angels of Mauritania and the Curse of the Language (2011). There were also some academic books and articles written by Mauritanians in English.
 See Epic Traditions of Africa by Stephen Paterson Belcher (p. 9–13); “Popular Culture in Senegal: Blending the Secular and the Religious” by Fallou Ngom in Music, Performance and African Identities edited by Toyin Falola and Tyler Fleming (p. 100); “Mauritania” by Constanze Weise in Africa: An Encyclopedia of Culture and Society, vol. 2.
 See “The Griot Tradition in Ḥassāniyya Music: The Iggāwen” by John Shoup in Quaderni di Studi Arabi, Nuova Serie, vol. 2 (2007), pp. 95–102
 For more information on narratives surrounding bloodsucking, see Erin Pettigrew’s article “The Heart of the Matter: Bloodsucking Accusations Along the Slave Routes of Mauritania.”
A currency linked to worker productivity becomes a global economic force—and the target of a devastating cyberattack—in this excerpt from Ahmed Isselmou's novel.
“Time is the God of our era,” Hammoud al-Jamloudi, the governor of Futurcity’s Central Bank, declared to the delegates packing the assembly hall. “Time is the sacred arbiter we worship today. Time is the true revolution that offers justice to all classes of society. Time cannot submit to anybody’s power. The era of wage slavery is over, and employees today are free to demand a fair wage for the work they do.
“There is no room for discrimination or favoritism in today’s world because no one can make the minutes go any faster or slower. A day lasts twenty-four hours in every corner of the planet. Competition is free and fair: people can work ten hours if they wish, or they can work twenty—and if they don’t want to work at all, they can spend all twenty-four hours relaxing.
“Human society has aspired to fairness throughout the history of its existence. Now, the rollout of the Pay Yourself system has made this ambition a reality.
“Today, no manager can have favorites, no secretary can seduce her boss, and no employee can claim overtime for work they didn’t do. The Pay Yourself system links a company’s accounts to its employee time management system, and when employees leave their workplace, the cash value of the work they have performed is deposited in their wallet within minutes. Nothing could be fairer. We’ve brought to life the Arabic proverb that says ‘Pay the laborer his due before his sweat has dried.’”
When Futurcity was established, there had been a fierce conflict over what the new country’s official currency would be, and in the early days a proposal was made that all global currencies, at their market rate, should be legal tender for day-to-day transactions. This caused such confusion and contention that the stability of the newborn island city-state was under threat when the then-young IT engineer Hammoud al-Jamloudi—who had recently joined the Union of Migrant Minds—came up with a proposal for a cryptocurrency linked to users’ smartphones that would automatically mirror their productive capacity. Individuals would earn units of the currency based on the hours they worked, with each unit equaling one minute. Since the currency’s market value would reflect the productivity of Futurcity’s labor force, he suggested it be called Time Coin. Employees’ salaries would be determined by grade, each grade commanding a specific value per minute worked.
The proposal met with an enthusiastic response from the tech companies, and the International Federation of Technology Industries funded the pioneering project. Jamloudi and his team designed the T-coin algorithms themselves. The system was carefully encrypted. Every resident of the island was assigned a unique identifier to log the start of their working day that could be authenticated by facial recognition technology. The Pay Yourself app was soon rolled out, and now every workplace in the country—even newspaper stands, flower stalls, and public transport stations—was equipped with facial recognition sensors. Jamloudi’s team had developed a feature for the phone app that allowed freelancers and home workers to sign in for work remotely and automatically signed them back out whenever they spent ten minutes away from their employer’s work page.
Meanwhile, T-coin was in use all over the world and was rapidly becoming one of the most widely trusted cryptocurrencies in existence.
As Jamloudi finished speaking, one of the IT engineers, a young African man holding a tablet in one hand, burst in through the door of the hall. He jostled past the high-ranking guests, excusing himself profusely and apologizing to everyone he bumped into or tripped over on his way to the front.
“Sir, sir,” he said urgently, “the central server is under attack and receiving commands to self-destruct.”
“Self-destruct?!” said Jamloudi. “That’s not possible! I programmed the thing. There’s no way anyone but me can give it that command!”
“Look, sir . . . ”
Jamloudi peered at the data scrolling across the screen. It was displaying the self-destruct algorithm, along with a countdown timer and a processing speed monitor that stood at 80 percent. The self-destruct operation was at 7 percent, and if it carried on at this rate, every piece of data about every last person living in Futurcity would be obliterated, along with the currency in their wallets, before the sun had even set.
“Mr. President,” said Jamloudi, “if you’ll excuse me, I’m getting an urgent call to go to the central server room. I’ll update you with more details as soon as we have a better idea of the extent of the damage.”
“You must be kidding me,” said the president of the governing council, who was appointed by the UN. “All these men are waiting to hear what’s happened, and you’re just going to leave the room?”
He gestured to the hall full of delegates, who were nodding and craning their necks, waiting for an answer.
“What’s happened, gentlemen, or at least what we know so far,” said Jamloudi decisively, “is that our servers have been targeted by a cyberattack, and time has stopped. Okay? Try to figure it out yourselves if you can. Argue as much as you like. I don’t have time.”
Jamloudi had dropped any pretense at diplomacy, and, clutching the tablet in his hand, strode out of the hall.
The president turned to the room and called to the assembled delegates to take their seats and listen. He had to raise his voice and repeat himself several times before the first person pulled out a chair to sit down, his attention still on the phone in his hand. Everybody was either making calls or tapping out messages.
“Gentlemen. You are here as representatives of the international scientific and industrial community. I am also joined by representatives of the Central Authority. I’d like you all to muster the forces of your technical teams to work out what’s going on here. We’re going to split into two teams. One will work with Mr. Jamloudi’s staff on a technical solution, and the other, under my leadership, will be working on a political response to this crisis.”
“This isn’t just about Futurcity,” shouted one of the delegates, president of the International Federation of Technology Industries, which represented the world’s twenty biggest tech companies. “This is happening to every company in Silicon Valley. Everyone’s clocks have stopped.”
“It’s happening at the Seoul stock exchange, too,” shouted another, this time the president of the Union of Migrant Minds, looking down at a message on his phone.
Futurcity’s interior minister came rushing into the hall. “None of this makes sense,” he said. “Has anyone here sent any messages from their phones?”
“Yes,” said two people at once.
“We all need to stop using the internet right now,” said the minister.
“How are we going to communicate with the rest of the world?” someone asked.
“We have a secure communications room,” said the minister. “If anyone needs to make an urgent call, they can come with me now. And if you’ve communicated with anyone, tell them to switch off their internet and pass on the same message to anyone they’ve communicated with. We’ve never seen an attack like this before. But we’re going to deal with it.”
The delegates stared at each other in incomprehension. Seven of them followed him out, along with the president. Others hesitated, then one by one left the hall, each hurrying away in different directions.
“I told you, it’s an order from the senior council leadership,” yelled the minister into his phone, paying no attention to the anxious people trailing mechanically behind him. “How dare you argue with me! I want all internet connections cut, across the whole island, right now… To hell with the USA, and the rest of them! They can get their own internet. This is our network and it’s independent. We built it, we put the satellites up there, and we run it. It isn’t up to them. I told you, cut the internet, now.”
It looked like the person on the other end of the line was carrying out the order, because the minister was looking at the faces around him and muttering, “We’ve stopped the virus spreading. Now we just need to eliminate it at the source.”
The president of the International Federation of Technology Industries and the president of the Union of Migrant Minds hung back from the fray around the minister and stepped into the office next door to the Central Bank’s server room, where governor Jamloudi and his engineering team were frantically working on a solution to the virus that was consuming data protocols the way a caterpillar chews through a fresh leaf.
“Turn on all the coolers and get the backup generator going,” barked Jamloudi at the engineers. “Goddammit, if everyone in Futurcity worked this hard all the time we’d be running the world. Get administrator accounts set up for these two. You can sit at that desk.”
He didn’t look up once as he spoke, or stop writing, but the engineers knew his orders were directed at them. One of them came to assist the two guests, who’d immediately taken off their jackets, loosened their ties, and rolled up their sleeves. Sweat stained a wide circle around their underarms.
Suddenly the words SHUT DOWN THE “PAY YOURSELF” NETWORK flashed on the screens where the Central Bank engineers were at work. None of their attempts to shift it succeeded.
“I can’t get into the system!” screamed Jamloudi. He looked around at his team in desperation, but their faces were grim. All their devices showed the same message. Jamloudi picked up his phone and called the minister of the interior.
“I need the entire cybersecurity team here at the Central Bank,” he said.
“We’re losing control over the city,” hissed the minister. “And it’s all because of your greed. So how about you get your team over to the ministry, fast.”
“This isn’t the time to bicker over whose remit this is. I need your engineers over here. We’ve lost access to the central servers.”
“I’m going to transfer you to the head of cybersecurity. He’s on the line. You can talk your tech talk together. Do whatever you have to, just put an end to this farce.”
The director of cybersecurity came on.
“We can’t get on to the network anymore,” he said, sounding panicked. “The attackers have gotten control of all of our machines.”
At his end of the line was a vast hall one hundred yards long. He paced up and down the rows of desks where dozens of engineers were hunched over their devices. Every single screen showed a clock face with no hands, and the same message blinking ominously each second: SHUT DOWN THE “PAY YOURSELF” NETWORK.
© Ahmed Isselmou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Katharine Halls. All rights reserved.
This excerpt from Aichetou’s historical novel Je Suis N’Daté . . . details the legend of the Forsaken, a community of Bedouin women in a seventeenth-century nomadic encampment.
“You don’t know who the Forsaken are?”
O Sand! Son of the impudent Wind . . .
Much later, for want of having made good my escape, I was to come to know these Bedouin women, the Forsaken:
The Mariemes, eldest daughters of their families, are insignificant but for the names they bear: those ancient clans whose list of ancestors is endless. . . . Do they make them up?
A certain girl named Khadi always occupies a spot between her friends, who are never to be seen without her. She is the daughter of the largest family of Bedouin blacksmiths. Like the Fula, they too have their smiths, pillars of each encampment. Khadi is also called the beauty of beauties.
None of the Forsaken go an afternoon without El-Hartaniya, daughter of the Beautiful Freedwoman, ever-absent and greatly anticipated, of whom everyone speaks, who feeds the conversation of the Forsaken, though she be far away, or perhaps en route for a return the entire encampment awaits. Till then, her daughter is always to be found seated in the center of the small gathering: she is its soul and dominates it completely. Her strength lies in her size, far greater than all the other Forsaken. She is neither really black nor bister like all those around her. She looks like a daughter of the Fula . . .
Beside her sits her friend Sara, elbows ever propped on the knees of one of her neighbors.
Not far away from these two, a Marieme is inevitably to be found. Marieme is such a common first name here. The Bedouins call all their eldest daughters Marieme, in memory of a goddess who, as a virgin, bore a son because their God decreed that it should be so, in a display of His power and His magic, in order to remind one and all that He was the one true Master of women and men. Had He not made a young woman, a virgin, into the Mother of His Son? No need to be violated to give birth to a baby . . .
I knew that the Mariemes, pillars of these little gatherings of the Forsaken, lead such boring lives that they are soon forgotten in the presence of a black woman: Essoudania. She is never without Ramla, her protégé.
Essoudania was born among these tents. She is the chief of her master’s family, the master who made her his wife after his own died from a miscarriage, hoisting a slave to the other's rank, most splendid Forsaken.
Ramla the pious: daughter of a foreigner, whence the shyness that often drove one of her comrades to remind her she was no mute. Her mother, widowed very young, had been protégé to Essoudania’s mother, and so Ramla naturally became protégé to Essoudania.
El-Hartaniya is the rival to a strange woman of a color that does not exist in our Balanta lands, nor in the lands of the Serer or their neighbors. The other Bedouin women all call her El Beidha, the white one. If Essoudania is a former slave, El Beidha belongs to the caste they call Znagua here, a caste formed for the most part of camel drivers said to be swifter than all the djinns and all the winds. But the Bedouin are especially pretentious and underestimate them, as they do all who are not Bedouin. El Beidha has strange eyes, gray like those of a panther surprised while stealing off with a youth barely emerged from boyhood . . .
Sometimes, with the Forsaken can be found other Forsaken just passing through camp during the rainy season, on their way to visit an aunt, a grandmother, an uncle, a sister: Raki, Sektou, Koriya, Zoueinouha, Maimouna, Hafsatou, Zakiyatou, Safiyatou, Aichetou, Fatimatou, Salma, and others still, whose first names betray their foreign origins amid these black tents. All of them have noses that confess they belong to distant encampments, and their very obvious earrings confirm this foreign origin, a world born of unfamiliar dunes, less shifting than the ones surrounding this camp, where the wind god is perhaps more clement.
Every day, these women gather to braid their hair, to throng to repair Bedouins’ tents, to welcome a lost camel driver who tells them tales, recites them poems they always love, no matter their shortcomings. More often, they gather to help a woman giving birth, or to grieve another woman who dies just after.
They also gather at the tent of Khadi’s mother, the lady blacksmith who beautifies all things, who makes everything to be found inside these tents, aided by her husband.
All the Forsaken bow to the whims of the Beautiful Freedwoman when she returns from her long voyages whose secret has long since escaped me.
Will I tolerate these women all my life?
Listen, all of you, to what will later be said of the Forsaken by one of their descendants, who fled the desert, its mirages, its impudent winds, its desiccating winds, its deceitful wells, its shifting dunes, its devils everywhere aprowl; who preferred distant lands like Mortagne, cold and icy, where white, sometimes very white people live, whose shamans know more than those of the Susu, the Bedouin, the Fula, or the Balanta; they are tall, very tall, their hair long, sometimes very long, or very short, often red or ginger, depending, and their eyes blue, gray, green, sometimes brown, faded, but rarely black; they are strange and savage; they build enormous huts of stone to shield themselves from the flood-like rains that drown everything in their wake:
The ten years before the Forsaken came into this world had been relatively prosperous: two green years had followed two green years. Such a thing had never been seen before. Many boys had survived, upsetting the pyramid of the sexes. There were so many that the camp even came to send one caravan, at least, to the edge of the Black River. Male slaves, too, were almost surplus in number. A problem arose: how to find wives for so many men if such growth kept up? The generation of Forsaken was usually meant to supply wives to young boys who’d overpopulated the encampment, but there were even more girls than expected. The God of Abraham does not take kindly to those who complain of His designs. Everyone here knows that.
Had He wished to please the prayerful, or was He calling them to order? The year the Forsaken were born, He carried off half the little boys, saddling the encampment with a horde of particularly robust little girls. They had survived thirst and early fasting imposed on the pretext that there weren’t enough wet nurses.
A great number of men, despite the precautions taken by all the grandmothers, aunts, mothers, stepmothers, serving-girls, cousins, and sisters, passed away. So it was that the Bedouins were reminded that God was the Master of all things, and it was not wise to tempt Him . . .
His will was accepted: the number of Forsaken exceeded all expectations, and soon they dominated camp, until the great drought that forced upon them knowledge of a world they could not have dreamed; and yet their imagination was great. Had they, too, been punished?
Only the God of Abraham could say. He was known to punish both victims and executioners, for the sake of greater balance.
Finally, the people of the black tents came to suffer the Forsaken, to grow used to their invasive presence, to bow to their law, and they soon became the peerless driving forces of the modest life of the encampment, starting with its school and its upkeep, forever marking its history, whence the importance of the Schoolmistress in their lives.
Could they, these Forsaken, understand who I am? Who is the daughter of the Beautiful Toura?
From Je Suis N’Daté . . . © L'Harmattan. Published 2018 by L’Harmattan. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Edward Gauvin. All rights reserved.
In this excerpt from Cheikh Nouh’s novel Adabai, we're introduced to the history and myths of the eponymous Mauritanian village.
Musa says that Ibrika founded the village of Adabai twenty years after “the year of Ja’bara’s death,” which was an important year in Adabai’s history. Ja’bara was a female slave from the nearby village.
“Ja’bara had confided to some of the women while drawing water from the well that she was carrying the child of master Hammada, a son of the Al-Mukhtar family, whereas she was the slave of Hammada’s cousin Sa’edbouh. Sa’edbouh would send Ja’bara nightly with a glass of cow’s milk to the master who loved it so, and soon enough he fell in love with her.
“Hammada’s passion as a man of his stature for a woman of Ja’bara’s rank was considered taboo, forbidden, atrocious. Ja’bara’s own master Sa’edbouh couldn’t be considered the father of the life within her—even if he had had his way with her as was permitted by an interpretation of Islamic law—because he was known to be sterile, having been married to his uncle’s daughter for ten years with no offspring to show for it.
“With this confession of hers, Ja’bara caused tension between Hammada and his cousin. Even if it was a frightening consideration, there was no redemption from this scandal except for getting rid of Ja’bara herself. What was the life of a female slave compared to the sullying of the Great Tent’s reputation? Both Ja’bara and the life of her fetus died for the reputation of the Great Tent. She was put to death over the accusation of practicing ‘sal.’
“She was a dangerous sallala, an expert bloodsucker, she would have killed everyone if she wasn’t put down—that’s how Ja’bara became a martyr, and what was said when the sons of the Great Tent made their way back from burying her. ‘Sal’ is the practice of sucking out blood by calling upon evil spirits, something which is attributed to the Adabai residents by those intent on scaring others from mixing with them and pushing people to ostracize them, whereas righteousness and sovereignty are attributed to the masters. The master in this society isn’t a rank tied to worship or knowledge, or a position of spiritual purity a person reaches through God’s salvation, whatever his color or origin. It is, rather, an inherited social rank, one of forced authority over people, an eternal occupation.
“As for the labeling of the righteous ones, it can be explained through the past: long ago in ancient times if a girl belonging to the Great Tent fell pregnant then her mother or her aunt would accompany her, approximately a month before the birth, on a journey to an unknown place. One of their relatives would ensure they had food and drink, and stay the night with them in that place or nearby until the girl gave birth. When they returned under the dark of night, they placed the child in a cloth at the cemetery, called colloquially ‘Al-Saliheen.’ They would then command one of the slaves to go to the cemetery and bring the child back. Then the news would spread and the child would enjoy a particular sacredness for being ‘Ibn Al-Saliheen,’ or son of the righteous. One of the slave families, or another family at the bottom of the chain, would raise the child, and it would grow in proximity to the environment of his real family, enjoying the opportunity to learn from those who officially denied his existence. Then once he reached a marriageable age, he would marry one of the daughters of his uncles because he was considered ‘Ibn Al-Saliheen,’ a label which grew to carry a sense of sacredness and magic, someone who had come to the world in a different way, God himself had placed him in ‘Al-Saliheen.’”
With the passing of time, a class formed of the “Ibn Al-Saliheen” that enjoyed a large halo of reverence as Musa saw it. The enslaved Haratin were isolated in desolate clusters. They kept living despite all the torments and bitterness, finding grace in music. Their nayffara is a flutelike instrument heavy with history, deeply immersed in sorrow: all the pain behind words and what is beyond language entrusted to it.
Beneath his trellis erected on the west side of the village school, in front of his clay house on the evening of a scorching day in May 2013, I sat on the dindera for the first time with Musa as he smoked, when the growl of the school principal’s car engine sounded. Not knowing his name, the village people just called him Principal. Musa was observing Yarba—his only son, a teenager named after Musa’s father—open up the pen to let the sheep in, iPod earbuds in his ears.
“He must be listening to that hip-hop song, the popular one by Ouled l'bled . . . it’s got a message. It’s music that speaks to our pain that no one else takes notice of. Is there any other song that speaks to us more than ‘Miserable Ones’?”
Maybe Musa felt this connection because a Jamaican migrant, DJ Kool Herc, founded hip-hop in the impoverished Bronx in cramped New York City, the center of global capitalism. This art form soaked in pain made its way to this boiling desert, which had accumulated eras of creed-like crushing pain wrapped in heavy silence.
Yarba’s generation, the crushed ones, loved this art and melted into its details. They chanted the rhymes and moved to the beats carved from the flesh of their pains. Hip-hop expressed the voices of the marginalized and the broken, of the young people lost between the heaviness of reality, the burdens of the past, and the haze of the future. It was one of the artistic forms of rebellion against the bourgeois suit, the elegant tie, and the official protocols. It celebrated the street-life and the marginal, which was left to be forgotten and thrown to nothingness.
Musa’s ears kept fleeing from the rhythms of traditional Mauritanian music, it being one of the manifestations of the prevailing social order and a way of preserving it by praising the sheikhs of tribes and military organizations. It was only practiced in well-known families forming a separate caste called Iggawen. Their role can be summarized as preserving the lineage of tribal chiefs and singing their supposed glories. This is what made the people at the bottom feel as if the artists of such music weren’t addressing them. In fact, there were songs and slogans that such artists intoned which consecrated the inferiority of the marginalized classes and slapped them with ugly, racist, inhuman stereotypes. Such songs cultivated sayings that glorified the unrelenting social order, even though the Iggawen class itself was considered at the bottom of the pyramid socially, even if their economic standing was better than this.
As such Musa and Yarba his son, and those like them, didn’t find any art form other than hip-hop which was free from social restrictions and available to all, one where you didn’t have to be a descendant of an Iggawen family in order to take part. Maybe that would explain why all hip-hop artists came from tin-house neighborhoods, destitute Gazraat and Kebbatt, waiting for governmental interventions that would never arrive.
The tributaries of hip-hop spread among the youth from the dregs of society like the salt of the sea: rap, the musical embodiment; then graffiti, the drawn embodiment; and finally breakdancing.
Techno music was also popular during the 1990s among teenagers. It didn’t have a specific message, though, and maybe that’s why it didn’t engrave itself deeply into the psyche of those who had been crushed by society. Even so, “Techno,” or “Dance Machine” as they called it, was a trend that those on the lowest rung of society exceled at.
Musa didn’t know what caused these memories to refresh themselves as of late with such piercing urgency and cause him to speak so freely about his life and his past. Since he started feeling comfortable with me—as he put it—every evening that I visited him he started sharing with me the most important events in his life and what they left within. Is it merely a matter of him unloading himself of a past charged with surprising and dramatic events? Or is it a talent for storytelling that only I have been able to unlock? When I promised him that I would write down his story while he sipped green tea with mint on the dindera, his appetite was whetted for sharing stories; stories from when he first entered this school thirty years ago, to his on-off relationship with the sea, to the beginning of his mysterious illness that, according to doctors, is not life-threatening.
His memory jumps to the day when his father patted him on the shoulder and said, “Now it’s halaal for you to slaughter like other men.” He was overcome with a wave of joy at this grand announcement back then, and he still wonders until today why he felt that way when he was told he could spill the blood of another soul and destroy it; even if it was just a hen carrying a string of eggs within her.
From Adabai. © Cheikh Nouh. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Sawad Hussain. All rights reserved.
Mauritania, its geography, and its women come to life in vivid detail in this poem by Mariem Mint Derwich.
You will tell them, my country,
you will tell them of your daughter, daughter among your daughters,
daughter among your men,
you will tell them of the winds that engendered her,
your winds of the East and your winds of the sea.
You will tell them that around her ankles she wears your dunes,
your notes of the moon,
your notes of the sun.
You will say to them that she is your daughter,
born and born again,
with each dawn,
in each song from the mosques.
You will tell them, my country,
of the lineage, the name of your people,
the scent of her mother,
the laugh of stone walls,
over there, in the city that sleeps.
You will tell them how she offered her hands
to the cliffs of Amogjjar,
to the walls of the big city,
to the songs of the rambling night.
You will say to them, to your people,
that she is your name,
in the sudden splendor of a dawn,
in the fold of a riverbed,
in the liquid finesse of a rivulet,
you will sing to them that she is the daughter of clouds,
daughter of phantom words.
You will tell them that she carries love,
You will write on the dusty paths,
you will write that she is the ocher color of her memories,
that she birthed dreams,
sons of man to whom she whispered her name, their womb.
You will say to them, you will say to them, the encampments,
that she is blood and flesh, blood
You will tell them that she is the daughter of encounters,
mixed daughter, roots daughter, mango daughter, date daughter,
you will say to them that she sleeps in the calabash of worlds,
that she is the milk that runs over skin,
you will say to them that she has eyes open, your eyes,
you will say to them that she bears your name, your names, your incantations,
you will tell them, her people, that she sleeps under cemetery stones,
in the prayer of those who rest and hope.
You will inscribe in their blazing gazes, your name,
And, in the infinite that is, you will become a country within . . .
© Mariem Mint Derwich. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.
Two activist groups meet to discuss joining forces in confronting the repressive state in this excerpt from Mamadou Kalidou Ba's novel La résistance pacifique.
It’s now six months since Bilal, the leader of the Call of the Muezzin group, was arrested. And three months since Gayel, the leader of the Walfugui youth movement for Equality and Justice (WEJ), and some of his comrades were also apprehended during a demonstration in Place des Martyrs. These activists were arrested at the same time and released a few hours later, or the next day. The two organizations had held separate marches and sit-ins to protest the detention of their comrades. Each time, the police, backed up by the National Guards, had cracked down on the peaceful demonstrators and there had been bloodshed. This army corps had a special combat squadron dedicated to maintaining order.
Both activist groups, now in the crosshairs of the Harfusowo authorities, were going through a major crisis. A crisis that jeopardized their very existence. Of which the government seemed acutely aware. The regular police crackdowns had put hundreds of activists in the hospital, while others were languishing in Rènedango’s police cells. The capital’s dungeons were crammed so full that more than two hundred activists had been transferred to penitentiaries in the country’s interior to relieve the pressure. Now, everyone here knows that the prison authorities think it normal for a ninety-seven-square-foot cell to house five people. So when they start to show concern about the number of prisoners packed together, it’s because the situation in these detention centers has become truly inhumane. It is all the more worrying because the Harfusowo jailhouses allow no visits from prisoners’ rights organizations. When a prisoner dies, generally as a result of a neglected illness or torture, the death certificate is signed by a prison doctor before the body is handed over to the family. When it is in too poor a condition, it is buried and then the family is informed a week later, with the excuse that the prison authorities had lost their address and telephone number.
The leaders of the WEJ and AM youth wings had resolved to do more than just support each other during demonstrations—they’d agreed to join strategic forces. They’d arranged to meet up, all together, to discuss their very similar situations and see how they could work closely together. Depleted as they were, they realized that they had to either team up or go under. They needed to take back control in the face of the crumbling support of their activists, some of whom wanted to break away and take up arms. It was a matter of the utmost urgency.
Salif from the WEJ and Maham from AM had assembled their comrades in a small house in the Lobouguel-Fouta neighborhood. This abode, rented by three AM members, had been chosen for its seclusion. Their usual meeting places were under covert surveillance by the secret police. They had restricted the number of attendees to ten to avoid attracting attention. Because the place belonged to Maham’s comrades, Salif did him the courtesy of inviting him to chair the meeting. Maham returned the courtesy by first refusing and then accepting at his guest’s insistence.
“Comrades! Salif and I have held talks, and we’ve decided to forget the differences between our respective organizations to bring you all together here. In recent months, our two movements have supported each other a number of times, as much in reaffirming each other’s policy positions as in helping to advance all just causes. But, if we’re gathered here today, it is for even more important reasons. Over the past few weeks, we have been subjected to a violent and unjust repression because we have dared to challenge an iniquitous system of governance, a medieval social order, and a dangerous intolerance. To stifle our voices, the authorities jail us in the hundreds, send us to hospital by the dozens, and bludgeon us by the thousand. Those of us who have escaped the raids so far are forced to go into hiding. As a result, our struggle is losing momentum, and worse, it is threatened by radicalization in reaction to the regime’s oppression. A growing number of voices, within both AM and the WEJ, are calling for armed struggle to break this cycle. ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ as one of our comrades was banging on about to me only yesterday. Our hope is that together we can find a path—a means of pursuing our fight and demanding the release of our comrades being held in extrajudicial detention—without abandoning our fundamental principle of nonviolence no matter what adversity we face. And now I’ll hand the floor over to any of you who wish to speak.”
“I’ll be brief,” said Mboyrik, an AM member. “I have to say that I fully understand those who want to change our means of struggle. I agree with many of these views. After all, we can’t carry on laying ourselves open to the brutality of people who appear to take pleasure in watching us suffer. If you have other solutions, we’ll need to be quick, otherwise we’re likely to find ourselves very much alone.”
“I’d like to thank our friends from AM for accepting our invitation,” began Salif. “Thanks especially to Maham for giving such a full summary of the crisis engulfing us. After convincing my comrades in the WEJ’s policy bureau to refrain from violent protest, I hope that together we will be able to appease the very legitimate anger many of us feel. Although resorting to armed struggle might feel like vengeance now, it will not satisfy either the thirst for revenge or, even less, the burning desire for freedom and equality that drives us. On the contrary, violence only multiplies and amplifies human suffering. Let us not take an either-or view of things. Yes, the current regime—infiltrated by Baathists, Nasserists, and Islamists—is backing us into a final corner through unprecedented repression, but an alternative option is emerging. Harfusowo’s people no longer condone these atrocities and are daring to speak out against our woes and even support our struggle. If our sympathizers among the Ar community are a little more numerous and a little more inclined to stand by us, it is because we have never harmed anyone. But if we indulge in brutal acts, at some point our violence will strike an innocent Ar and then we will be as guilty as our current persecutors.”
“I suggest that we mobilize our remaining forces to engage in one last battle that will have a chance of reversing the power balance, or of turning the tide in any case, and at least of breaking the stranglehold we’re in.”
“Yes, but how?” asked Fodye.
“Let us meticulously plan to occupy Place des Martyrs.”
“Place des Martyrs again?” said Mboyrik, surprised.
“Yes, in that very same place. We’ll turn up there with all the activists and sympathizers who are not in the prisons or hospitals. There’ll be a thousand of us, perhaps more. This time we’ll occupy the square—but not for a sit-in lasting a few hours. We will leave only in police vans, ambulances bound for the hospital or hearses for the cemetery. In short, the government must agree to hand back our comrades alive and to discuss our legitimate demands with us.”
At this point in Salif’s speech, applause broke out. “The success of this action,” he went on, “requires lengthy and painstaking preparations. We need at least half of those we've managed to persuade to follow us, in other words nonviolent activists who are both determined and disciplined. They must act as role models, helping to train and impose on others the self-control of passive resistance if attacked by the police—which is inevitable.”
From La résistance pacifique. © 2017 by L’Harmattan. By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2021 by Ros Schwartz. All rights reserved.
Poet Bios Diallo connects Mauritania’s struggle to form a united national identity with similar conflicts elsewhere on the continent.
Say to the tomb, without pride
Here the poem ends
Here identities, prayers bleed
Here also the nation is reborn
And since a country has but one language
That of its future, of its people
I will brandish my own
Though full of holes
And since we won’t exile ourselves
Or harm our land
I will be, for my nation
The eternal shepherd.
From La Saigne, published 2021 by Obsidiane. © 2021 by Bios Diallo. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Emma Ramadan. All rights reserved.
A time traveler finds himself in a harsh new society in this excerpt from writer and critic Moussa Ould Ebnou’s novel.
That night I slept a troubled sleep, and when the time came to dream, my memory and consciousness recalled the beyond-time. I began to cry and scream with all my might, calling for the Master of Time: “Khidr! Khidr! What disaster have you caused to befall me?! Take me from here! You know very well that I am traveling through the beyond-time searching for a better people, and you know that this is the evilest of civilizations. Don’t leave me here!” After much begging and pleading, he finally heeded my cries and appeared, his features obscured by his green aura.
“Gara, did you forget our agreement?”
“No, I didn’t forget anything!”
“Then you must recall that I allowed you to travel to the future in order to change your nation.”
“Yes, but I pictured the future as better than its past.”
“That’s why you chose to explore the future, and I allowed you to explore two periods if you so wished. You said you wanted to leave the period of Awdaghost, so you used up your first chance. You found yourself nine centuries ahead of the period you escaped from. As returning to the past is impossible, it was within your ability to either settle in the period you arrived in or to use your last chance to travel further into the future. This came with the possibility of finding yourself in the midst of a nation more wicked than the one you escaped from and with no way to leave. Was this not the agreement? Despite that, you left the period of Coppolani and found yourself in the period of Tanval, and here you are urging me to give you another chance! I am reminding you of the agreement and confirming that your travel through the beyond-time is over and you will stay here until you die!”
“Save me! I must leave this cursed nation! I never saw such evil, and so up close!”
“You no longer have any refuge! What person before you had the opportunity to live in three different civilizations far apart in time? You only got what you deserved for your iniquity and ignorance! You can’t escape fate forever, and you have nowhere to run. You are compelled to live with your people. At any rate, what you are witnessing is the last face of the Earth. If you kept moving through the future, you would find that the Earth has become a heap of ash, and the Sun has been snuffed out!”
Khidr gradually vanished into his green aura.
“No! Wait! Wait! Khidr! Khidr!”
I woke up shivering violently. My head was as heavy as lead and felt like it would explode from the intensity of the pain. Anmad had taken my hand.
“What’s wrong? Who were you calling for?”
My tongue was thick, and the back of my throat was dry and sticky.
“Give me something to drink!”
After I drank he repeated his question:
“Who was it you were calling?”
“Me? When was I calling for anyone?”
“Just now. You were screaming ‘Khidr! Khidr!'"
“That’s strange! I don’t recall a thing.”
“You scare me! I need to watch out around you.”
The supervisor came to us early the next day. He was armed and threatened us repeatedly as he marched us out.
“I am taking you two to the disinfection room to prepare for work. You are now on the day shift on the squad that monitors the wells. Let’s go, hurry up!”
We were the first to arrive at the disinfection room. The supervisor pointed to some lockers and said they were for our clothing. He then ordered us to wash in cold, filthy showers. I felt my body as the water stung it with sharp jabs. We dressed in our work clothes: two smooth white jumpsuits and knee-high pull-on boots. We put on safety masks and gloves and waited on metal benches, bent over and with our heads hanging, for the rest of the team to get there. The workers arrived in droves, silent and walking as though hypnotized. Terrible pain was etched on their faces, but they remained silent. They took off their clothes and stored them in the metal lockers, then got in line in front of the putrid showers, each of them doing as we had done. We were all given two pills and ordered to swallow them. I felt a lump in my throat as I gulped them down . . .
The sun had settled around the peak of the mountain when we disembarked from the airway at the site of the wells. There were four of us, counting the supervisor. We inspected the area, noticing the cracks that had formed in the rock since yesterday. We found several fissures, some of which had become deep grooves.
“This is how the work will be organized. You two!” the supervisor pointed at me and Anmad. “You will gather large rocks from the top of the peak. I said the large rocks and not the small ones! Put them in the grinder. And you!” he pointed at the other worker, “Turn the grinder, melt the stone, and rotate the platform to pour the melted stone into the fissures. Hurry up! Let’s go! I am watching you, you lazy asses!”
At the end of the day, when the shadows of our uniforms stuck to the height of the mountain as if they were giant ghosts, we heard the end-of-work whistle. I felt my body as I took off my uniform in the disinfection room, unable to believe that it still had volume, that it had remained solid and not melted.
The residential area was perched on the sides of the mountain, rising and falling with its peaks and valleys. It consisted of prefabricated sheds that were unreachable except by the airway. They guided me to my spot in the sleeping area. It was a sleeping pad resembling a military cot, and beside it was a steel dresser of the same type I saw in the disinfection room. I flung myself on the bed and stayed there for a while, unconscious, until I started awake at a sudden alarm bell. At first I thought it was in my head, but then I saw people heading for the exit doors. I got up and followed them down a long hallway.
It led to an open door flanked by large blinds parallel to the wall and controlled by two steel rails positioned above and below. There was writing above the door in illuminated script explaining the purpose of the dining hall. Then, to the left, above the door, was a blackboard with writing in yellow chalk: “December 20th, 2045: Potassium soup, beefsteak, boiled fungi, Agreijitt dates.”
© Moussa Ould Ebnou. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by July Blalack. All rights reserved.
Having written my novel Dove mi trovo in Italian, I was the first to doubt that it could transform into English. Naturally it could be translated; any text can, to greater or lesser degrees of success. I was not apprehensive when translators began turning the novel into other languages—into Spanish or German or Dutch, for example. Rather, the prospect gratified me. But when it came to replicating this particular book, conceived and written in Italian, into the language that I knew best—the language I had emphatically stepped away from in order for it to be born in the first place—I was of two minds.
As I was writing Dove mi trovo, the thought of it being anything other than an Italian text felt irrelevant. While writing, one must keep one’s eyes on the road, straight ahead, and not contemplate or anticipate driving down another. The dangers, for the writer as for the driver, are obvious.
And yet, even as I was writing, I felt shadowed by two questions: 1) when would the text be turned into English and 2) who would translate it? These questions rose from the fact that I am also, and was for many years exclusively, a writer in English. And so, if I choose to write in Italian, the English version immediately rears its head, like a bulb that sprouts too early in mid-winter. Everything I write in Italian is born with the simultaneous potential—or perhaps destiny is the better word here—of existing in English. Another image, perhaps jarring, comes to mind: that of the burial plot of a surviving spouse, demarcated and waiting.
The responsibility of translation is as grave and as precarious as that of a surgeon who is trained to transplant organs, or to redirect the blood flow to our hearts, and I wavered at length over the question of who would perform the surgery. I thought back to other authors who had migrated into different languages. Had they translated their own work? And if so, where did translation taper off, and the act of rewriting take over? I was wary of betraying myself. Beckett had notably altered his French when translating himself into English. Brodsky, too, took great liberties when translating his Russian poetry into English. Juan Rodolfo Wilcock, an Argentine whose major works were composed in Italian, had been more “faithful” when rendering his texts into Spanish. Another Argentine, Borges, who had grown up bilingual in Spanish and English, translated numerous works into Spanish, but left the English translation of his own work to others. Leonora Carrington, whose first language was English, had also left the messy business of translating many of her French and Spanish stories to someone else, as had the Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi in the case of Requiem, the great novel he wrote in Portuguese.
When an author migrates into another language, the subsequent crossing into the former language might be regarded, by some, as a crossing back, an act of return, a coming home. This idea is false, and it was also not my objective. Even before I decided to translate Dove mi trovo myself, I knew that the idea of “coming home” was no longer an option. I had gone too deep into Italian, and so English no longer represented the reassuring, essential act of coming up for air. My center of gravity had shifted; or at least, it had begun to shift back and forth.
I began writing Dove mi trovo in the spring of 2015. I had been living in Italy for three years, but I had already made the anguished decision to return to the United States. As with most projects, in the beginning, I had no sense that the words I was scribbling in a notebook would develop into a book. When I left Rome in August of that year, I took the notebook with me. It languished in my study in Brooklyn, though in retrospect “hibernated” is the apt term, for when I returned to Rome that winter, I found myself turning back to the notebook, which had traveled with me, and adding new scenes. The following year I moved to Princeton, New Jersey. But every two months or so I flew to Rome, either for short stays or for the summer, always with the notebook in my carry-on suitcase, and by 2017, once the notebook was full, I began to type out the contents.
In 2018, on sabbatical, I was able to move back to Rome for an entire year for the book’s publication. When asked about the English version, I said that it was still too soon to think about it. In order to undertake a translation, or even to evaluate a translation someone else has done, one must understand the particulars of the book in question, just as the surgeon, ideally, needs to study her patient’s organism before entering the operating room. I knew that I needed time—a great deal of it—to pass. I needed to gain distance from the novel, answer questions about it, hear responses from my Italian readers. For though I’d already written the book, I felt the way perhaps my own immigrant parents felt as they were raising me: the author of an inherently foreign creature, both recognizable and unrecognizable, born from my flesh and blood.
Regarding the eventual English translation, two camps quickly formed. Members of the first camp were those who urged me to translate the book myself. Their opponents urged me, with equal vehemence, to steer clear of the operation. To return to my analogy of the surgeon, I sometimes said, to members of the first camp, What surgeon, in need of an operation, would take the scalpel to herself? Wouldn’t she entrust the procedure to another pair of hands?
Following the advice of Gioia Guerzoni, an Italian translator friend who belonged to the second camp, I sought out the translator Frederika Randall, who worked out of Italian into English. Frederika was an American based in Rome for decades, not far from where I lived: the very part of the city where my book, loosely speaking (though I never specify this), is set. When she said she was willing to translate the first dozen or so pages, so that we could both get a feel for how her translation would sound, I was relieved. I was convinced that she was the ideal person to translate my novel, not only because she was an extremely skilled translator, but because she knew the setting and atmosphere of the book far better than I did.
I thought that perhaps, once she’d finished the translation, I could weigh in on one or two matters, and that my role would be respectfully collaborative. Grandmotherly, which was how I felt when Mira Nair had turned one of my other novels into a film. Perhaps this time I would be a slightly more involved grandmother than I had been to Ann Goldstein’s translation of In Other Words (produced at a time when I was wary of any reconnection with English, and did not relish the role of being a grandmother at all). Deep down, however, I was convinced that when I saw the English version, it would reveal, brusquely and definitively, the book’s failure to function in English, not due to any fault of Frederika, but because the book itself, inherently flawed, would refuse to comply, like a potato or an apple that, decayed within, must be set aside once it is cut open and examined, and cannot lend itself to any other dish.
Italian translation, for me, has always been a way to maintain contact with the language I love when I am far away from it.
Instead, when I read the pages she prepared for me, I found that the book was intact, that the sentences made sense, and that the Italian had enough sap to sustain another text in another language. At this point a surprising thing happened. I switched camps and felt the urge to take over, just as, watching my daughter turn somersaults underwater this past summer, I, too, was inspired to learn how. Of course, that discombobulating act of flipping over, the idea of which had always terrified me until the day I finally figured out, thanks to my daughter, how to execute the maneuver, was exactly what my own book had to do. Frederika, who had lived astride English and Italian for so very long, was bipartisan to the core. She had understood, initially, why I’d been reluctant to translate the book myself, and when I told her I was having a change of heart, she wasn’t surprised. Like my daughter, she encouraged me. As is often the case when crossing a new threshold, it had taken her example, just like my daughter’s, to show me that it could be done.
I was still in Rome—a place where I feel no inspiration to work out of Italian into English—when I came to my decision. When living and writing in Rome, I have an Italian center of gravity. I needed to move back to Princeton, where I am surrounded by English, where I miss Rome. Italian translation, for me, has always been a way to maintain contact with the language I love when I am far away from it. To translate is to alter one’s linguistic coordinates, to grab on to what has slipped away, to cope with exile.
I began translating at the start of the fall semester in 2019. I didn’t look at Frederika’s sample pages; in fact, I hid them away. The book consists of forty-six relatively brief chapters. I aimed to tackle one at each sitting, two or three sittings per week. I approached the text and it greeted me like certain neighbors—if not warmly, politely enough. As I felt my way back into the book, and pressed through it, it yielded discreetly. There were roadblocks now and then, and I stopped to ponder them, or I stepped over them, determined, before stopping to think too much about what I was doing, to reach the end.
One obvious roadblock was the title itself. The literal translation, which means “where I find myself,” sounded belabored to me. The book had no English title until, at the end of October, with a few chapters still left to translate, I stepped on a plane to go to Rome. Not long after takeoff, “whereabouts” popped into my brain. A word as inherently English, and as fundamentally untranslatable, as the expression dove mi trovo is in Italian. Somewhere in the air, over the waters that separate my English and Italian lives, the original title recognized itself—dare I say found itself—in another language.
Once I finished the first draft, I circulated it to a small group of readers who did not read Italian, who knew me well, and only, as a writer in English. Then I waited, anxiously, even though the book had already been born over a year before, and was already living, not only in Italian but, as previously mentioned, in other languages as well. It was only after these readers told me the book had spoken to them that I believed that the foolhardy operation I had performed on myself had not been in vain.
As Dove mi trovo was turning into Whereabouts, I naturally had to keep referring back to the original book I’d written. I began to notice a few repetitions in the Italian I wished I’d caught. Certain adjectives I was relying on too heavily. A few inconsistencies. I had miscounted the number of people at a dinner party, for example. I began to mark the Italian book with adhesive arrows, and then to keep a list to send to my Italian editors at Guanda, so that certain changes could be made in subsequent editions of the book. In other words, the second version of the book was now generating a third: a revised Italian text that was stemming from my self-translation. When translating oneself, each and every flaw or weakness in the former text becomes immediately and painfully apparent. Keeping to my medical metaphors, I would say that self-translation is like one of those radioactive dyes that enable doctors to look through our skin to locate damage in the cartilage, unfortunate blockages, and other states of imperfection.
Some people insist that there is no such thing as self-translation.
As discomfiting as this process of revelation was, I felt a parallel gratitude for the very ability to isolate these problems, to be aware of them and to find new solutions. The brutal act of self-translation frees oneself, once and for all, from the false myth of the definitive text. It was only by self-translating that I finally understood what Valéry meant when he said that a work of art was never finished, only abandoned. The publication of any book is an arbitrary act; there is no ideal phase of gestation, nor of birth, as is the case for living creatures. A book is done when it seems done, when it feels done, when the author is sick of it, or is eager to publish it, or when the editor wrests it away. All of my books, in retrospect, feel premature. The act of self-translation enables the author to restore a previously published work to its most vital and dynamic state—that of a work-in-progress—and to repair and recalibrate as needed.
Some people insist that there is no such thing as self-translation, and that it necessarily becomes an act of rewriting or emphatically editing—read: improving—the first go-around. This temptation attracts some and repels others. I personally was not interested in altering my Italian book in order to arrive at a more supple, elegant, and mature version of it in English. My aim was to respect and reproduce the novel I had originally conceived, but not so blindly as to reproduce and perpetuate certain infelicities.
As Whereabouts moved through copyediting to typeset pages, with different editors and proofreaders weighing in, so did the changes to Dove mi trovo continue to accumulate—I repeat, all relatively minor, but nevertheless significant to me. The two texts began to move forward in tandem, each on its own terms. When the paperback of Dove mi trovo eventually comes out in Italian—at the time of writing, it hasn’t yet—I will consider it the definitive version, at least for now, given that I have come to think of any “definitive text” largely the same way that I think of a mother tongue, at least in my case: an inherently debatable, perpetually relative concept.
The first day I sat down with the page proofs of Whereabouts, during the autumn of the coronavirus pandemic, I went to Firestone Library, at Princeton, booking a seat and taking my place at a round white marble table. I was masked and many feet away from the other three people allowed in a room that could easily hold one hundred. I realized that day, when pausing to question something in the English text, that I had left my battered copy of Dove mi trovo at home. The translator side of me, focused on bringing the book into English, was already subconsciously distancing and disassociating from the Italian. Of course, it is always strange, and also crucial, at the last stage of looking at a translation, to all but disregard the text in the original language. The latter cannot be hovering, as I did when my children first went off to school, somewhere in the building, alert to cries of protest. A true separation, as false as that is, must occur. In the final stages of reviewing a translation, either of one’s own work or someone else’s, one achieves a level of concentration that is akin to focusing purely on the quality and sensations of the water when one is swimming in the sea, as opposed to admiring elements that float through it or collect on the seabed. When one is so focused on language, a selective blindness sets in, and along with it, a form of X-ray vision.
Reading over the page proofs of Whereabouts in English, I began reflecting in my diary, in Italian, on the process of having translated it. In fact, the text you are now reading, which I’ve written in English, is a product of notes taken in Italian. In some sense, this is the first piece of writing that I have conceived bilingually, and so the subject, self-translation, feels especially appropriate. Here, in translation, are some of the notes I took:
1. The profoundly destabilizing thing about self-translation is that the book threatens to unravel, to hurtle toward potential annihilation. It seems to annihilate itself. Or am I annihilating it? No text should sustain that level of scrutiny; at a certain point, it cedes. It’s the reading and the scrutinizing, the insistent inquiry implicit in the act of writing and translating, that inevitably jostles the text.
2. This task is not for the faint of heart. It forces you to doubt the validity of every word on the page. It casts your book—already published, between covers, sold on shelves in stores—into a revised state of profound uncertainty. It is an operation that feels doomed from the start, even contrary to nature, like the experiments of Victor Frankenstein.
3. Self-translation is a bewildering, paradoxical going backward and moving forward at once. There is ongoing tension between the impulse to plow ahead undermined by a strange gravitational force that holds you back. One feels silenced in the very act of speaking. Those two dizzying tercets from Dante come to mind, with their language of doubling and their contorted logic: “Qual è colui che suo dannaggio sogna, / che sognando desidera sognare, / sì che quel ch’è, come non fosse, agogna, / tale me fec’io, non posando parlare, / che disiava scusarmi, e scusava / me tuttavia, e nol mi credea fare.” (Like one asleep who dreams himself in trouble / and in his dream he wishes he were dreaming, / longing for that which is, as if it were not, / just so I found myself: unable to speak, / longing to beg for pardon and already / begging for pardon, not knowing what I did.” (Inferno XXX, 136-141)
4. Reading the English, every sentence that felt off, that had gone astray in the translation, always led me back to a misreading of myself in Italian.
5. Whereabouts will emerge on its own, without the Italian text on the facing page, as was the case with In Other Words. But if anything, the absence of the Italian reinforces, for me, the bond between these two versions, one of which I wrote, and one of which I translated. These two versions have entered into a tennis match. But in fact, it’s the ball that represents both texts, volleyed from one side of the net over the other and back again.
6. Self-translation means prolonging your relationship to the book you’ve written. Time expands and the sun still shines when you expect things to go dark. This disorienting surplus of daylight feels unnatural, but it also feels advantageous, magical.
7. Self-translation affords a second act for a book, but in my opinion, this second act pertains less to the translated version than to the original, which is now readjusted and realigned thanks to the process of being dismantled and reassembled.
8. What I altered in Italian was what, in hindsight, still felt superfluous to my view. The stringent quality of English forced the Italian text, at times, to tighten its belt as well.
In some sense the book remains Italian in my head in spite of its metamorphosis into English.
9. I suppose the exhilarating aspect of translating myself was being constantly reminded, as I changed the words from one language to another, that I myself had changed so profoundly, and that I was capable of such change. I realized that my relationship to the English language, thanks to my linguistic graft, had also been irrevocably altered.
10. Whereabouts will never be an autonomous text in my mind, nor will the paperback of Dove mi trovo, which is now indebted to the process of first translating and then revising Whereabouts. They share the same vital organs. They are conjoined twins, though, on the surface, they bear no resemblance to one another. They have nourished and been nourished by the other. Once the translation was in progress, I almost felt like a passive bystander as they began sharing and exchanging elements between themselves.
11. I believe I began writing in Italian to obviate the need to have an Italian translator. As grateful as I am to those who have rendered my English books into Italian in the past, something was driving me, in Italian, to speak for myself. I have now assumed the role I had set out to eliminate, only in the inverse. Becoming my own translator in English has only lodged me further inside the Italian language.
12. In some sense the book remains Italian in my head in spite of its metamorphosis into English. The adjustments I made in English were always in service to the original text.
In reviewing the proofs of Whereabouts, I noticed a sentence I’d skipped entirely in the English. It has to do with the word portagioie, which, in the Italian version, the protagonist considers the most beautiful word in the Italian language. But the sentence only carries its full weight in Italian. The English equivalent of portagioie, “jewelry box,” doesn’t contain the poetry of portagioie, given that joys and jewels are not the same thing in English. I inserted the sentence into the translation, but had to alter it. This is probably the most significantly reworked bit of the book, and I added a footnote for clarification. I had hoped to avoid footnotes, but in this case, the me in Italian and the me in English had no common ground.
The penultimate chapter of the novel is called Da nessuna parte. I translated it as “Nowhere” in English, which breaks the string of prepositions in the Italian. An Italian reader pointed this out, suggesting I translate it more literally as “In no place.” I considered making the change, but in the end my English ear prevailed, and I opted for an adverb which, to my satisfaction, contains the “where” of the title I’d come up with.
There was one instance of grossly mistranslating myself. It was a crucial line, and I only caught the error in the final pass. As I was reading the English proofs aloud for the last time, without referring back to the Italian, I knew the sentence was wrong, and that I had completely, unintentionally mangled the meaning of my own words.
It also took several readings to correct an auxiliary verb in English that the Italian side of my brain, in the act of translating, had rendered sloppily. In English one takes steps, but in Italian one makes them. Given that I read and write in both languages, my brain has developed blind spots. It was only by looking again and again at the English that I saved a character in Whereabouts from “making steps.” Having said this, in English, it is possible to make missteps.
In the end, the hardest thing about translating Whereabouts were the lines written not by me but by two other writers: Italo Svevo—whom I cite in the epigraph—and Corrado Alvaro, whom I cite in the body of the text. Their words, not mine, are the ones I feel ultimately responsible for, and have wrestled with most. These are the lines I will continue to fret over even when the book goes to press. The desire to translate—to press up as closely as possible to the words of another, to cross the threshold of one’s consciousness—is keener when the other remains inexorably, incontrovertibly out of reach.
I believe it was important to have gained experience translating other authors out of Italian before confronting Dove mi trovo. The upsetting experience of trying to translate myself early on in the process of writing in Italian, which I briefly touched upon in In Other Words, had a lot to do with the fact that I had yet to translate out of Italian. All my energy back then was devoted to sinking deeper into the new language and avoiding English as much as possible. I had to establish myself as a translator of others before I could achieve the illusion of being another myself.
As someone who dislikes looking back at her work, and prefers not to reread it if at all possible, I was not an ideal candidate to translate Dove mi trovo, given that translation is the most intense form of reading and rereading there is. I have never reread one of my books as many times as Dove mi trovo. The experience would have been deadening had it been one of my English books. But working with Italian, even a book that I have myself composed slips surprisingly easily in and out of my hands. This is because the language resides both within me and beyond my grasp. The author who wrote Dove mi trovo both is and is not the author who translated them. This split consciousness is, if nothing else, a bracing experience.
Self-translation led to a deep awareness of the book I'd written, and therefore, to one of my past selves.
For years I have trained myself, when asked to read aloud from my work, to approach it as if it had been written by someone else. Perhaps my impulse to separate radically from my former work, book after book, was already conditioning me to recognize the separate writers who have always dwelled inside me. We write books in a fixed moment in time, in a specific phase of our consciousness and development. That is why reading words written years ago feels alienating. You are no longer the person whose existence depended on the production of those words. But alienation, for better or for worse, establishes distance, and grants perspective, two things that are particularly crucial to the act of self-translation.
Self-translation led to a deep awareness of the book I’d written, and therefore, to one of my past selves. As I’ve said, once I write my other books, I tend to walk away as quickly as possible, whereas I now have a certain residual affection for Dove mi trovo, just as I do for its English counterpart—an affection born from the intimacy that can only be achieved by the collaborative act of translating as opposed to the solitary act of writing.
I also feel, toward Dove mi trovo, a level of acceptance that I have not felt for the other books. The others still haunt me with choices I might have made, ideas I ought to have developed, passages that should have been further revised. In translating Dove mi trovo, in writing it a second time in a second language and allowing it to be born, largely intact, a second time, I feel closer to it, doubly tied to it, whereas the other books represent a series of relationships, passionate and life-altering at the time, that have now cooled to embers, having never strayed beyond the point of no return.
My copy of Dove mi trovo in Italian is a now dog-eared volume, underlined and marked with Post-its indicating the various corrections and clarifications to make. It has transformed from a published text to something resembling a set of bound galleys. I would never have thought to make those changes had I not translated the book out of the language in which I conceived and created it. Only I was capable of accessing and altering both texts from the inside. Now that the book is about to be printed in English, it has traded places with the finished Italian copy, which has lost its published patina, at least from the author’s point of view, and resumed the identity of a work still in its final stages of becoming a published text. As I write this, Whereabouts is being sewn up for publication, but Dove mi trovo needs to be opened up again for a few discreet procedures. That original book, which now feels incomplete to me, stands in line behind its English-language counterpart. Like an image viewed in the mirror, it has turned into the simulacrum, and both is and is not the starting point for what rationally and irrationally followed.
© 2021 by Jhumpa Lahiri. By arrangement with the author. All rights reserved.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, vol. 1: Inferno, trans. Mark Musa (New York: Penguin, 1984), p. 347.
"Brazil's Virginia Woolf." "Sebaldian." An heir to Flaubert, Stendhal, Sterne . . .
Comps—or comparative titles/authors—are ubiquitous in publishing, particularly when it comes to international literature. They are intended as a guide for publishers, readers, booksellers, critics, publicity teams: situating new works and writers in the context of the well-known, it is thought, can help these new works succeed. It is common among all of the aforementioned groups at different points in the publication cycle: agents might use comps when pitching an international writer to a publisher, critics to help situate a writer in readers' minds or their own. Another way to think of the practice is as analog (in both senses of the term) to the Netflix algorithm.
Not infrequently, however, the use of comps comes in for criticism: Why, for example, should a non-Western (or non-American, etc.) writer be compared to a well-regarded counterpart from national or linguistic traditions other than his or her own (or even to another writer within his or her tradition)? Is to do so not to imply a cultural hierarchy? On the other hand, supporters ask whether the ultimate goal of creating a readership for literature in translation doesn't outweigh these concerns, no matter how valid. Others strike a middle ground: is there not a thoughtful way to draw these comparisons without imperialist overtones?
This month, Words Without Borders brings together four individuals—critic J. R. Ramakrishnan, agent Laurence Laluyaux, writer-translator Saudamini Deo, and editor Juan Milà—to weigh in on the question.
|The Thrill of Reading Obliviously
by J.R. Ramakrishnan
|The Comparison Game
by Laurence Laluyaux
Why Must Two Works be Compared at All?
|The Incomparable Ones
by Juan Milà
I discovered The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in the library of the dead wife of my mother’s then-partner. At eight, I was three years fatherless and about a year into a bewildering blended family situation. Over several readings, Anne’s confessions provided much-needed escape and empathy. I never considered that Anne was writing to Kitty in Dutch, which makes The Diary my first translated book. It never occurred to me even though I grew up with multiple languages in Malaysia. It could be that it seemed then that “real” books only came in English, but I dove into Anne’s world unbothered by such questions. It was like nothing I’d ever read. I also had nothing to compare it to.
As someone who has since written about books and curated the programs of a US literary festival, I understand comparison offers a contextual shorthand for selling books and luring readers, both causes close to my heart. In the realm of translated literature, however, the idea is largely one-directional in the service of Anglophone readers, a construct of colonialism, perhaps an inevitable result of the prevailing empire. We might have, for example, the “Jonathan Franzen of Argentina,” but who might be the “Mariana Enríquez of Florida letters”? Translators I polled (unscientifically) said they hadn’t come across such evaluations—no “British Murakami”-type mentions—in the literary discourses of the languages they worked in. English books are not “translated literature,” but just books by American or British authors.
Anglophone readers, however, appear to require familiar persuasion. “When we describe someone as ‘the German x,’ 'the Italian y,’ often it's because our exposure in the US is generally restricted to, well, US-born writers,” says Aaron Robertson, translator from the Italian of Igiaba Scego’s Beyond Babylon, which dazzled me with its global tangents and linguistic wanderings. Only once I finished it did I read the introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri, in which she draws a connective thread between the novel and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. In this case, the presumptions that the reader would be familiar with the compared-to titles (a more global mix), and would enjoy Beyond Babylon just as much, worked out. In another case, a Latin American author I recently wrote about was likened in marketing to Shirley Jackson, an American writer whom I haven’t gotten to yet but probably should ASAP. The endorsements were not essential for me to crack either book open.
Known English titles lead others to translated titles. “Selling Americans translated lit is like selling them films with subtitles,” says Bulgarian-to-English translator Izidora Angel. “It’s too ‘hard’ to explain.” The nature of publishing’s gatekeeping, the demands of marketing, and, as Angel puts it, the “cultural priorities of those who hold the money” have everything to do with which English translations even get the chance to be compared to something. A translated work’s pitch is aided by comparisons. “I can imagine whom I would pick as the Martin Amis of China—it’s not a completely meaningless description for anyone who has read Martin Amis—but I have to wonder whether insisting on these categories might mean, first of all, reinforcing an existing canon and, relatedly, overlooking writers who can’t be similarly pigeonholed,” says Natascha Bruce, translator of Chinese-language writers such as Hong Kong’s Dorothy Tse. “Translating books isn’t just about getting new books to readers. It’s about deconstructing what empire has decided is canon, undoing that whole tradition of how we respond to and assess literature and–building on that–of how we understand the world.”
Through Bruce’s work, I read my first translated Malaysian title, Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong, who writes in Chinese. Ho’s stories, deeply interior and unabashedly local to the point that Bruce had to render a mix of languages, in addition to the overall translation, dislodged my own perceptions. Perhaps it was the effect of her pointed yet also floating language, but I felt released from the need to liken her work to books in the Malaysian English canon, or the contemporary Malay novels published by Buku Fixi. Although familiar with the general setting, I met Ho’s stories on their terms, and admired her matter-of-fact unveiling of what are considered “sensitive” areas—race, sexuality, etc.—in the country. I submerged myself in what I think all reading is about: the undeniability of stories, and that feeling that it is all real, and not fiction at all.
A label (Malaysia’s Flannery O’Connor? Jean Rhys? Virginia Woolf? But which books?!) might coax some, especially those unfamiliar with Malaysia’s multi-everything surrealism or Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora literature. If it does, great; the given book (and all translated ones) will get read. I would never argue against literary gateway drugs. For me, the blurbs on a book’s cover are less interesting than the words contained within, especially those woven together in their original languages and re-created by translators in English. Discovery without outside preamble is a thrill as pure as it was for my eight-year-old self reading Anne Frank, unaware that a language called Dutch existed.
© 2021 by J. R. Ramakrishnan. All rights reserved.
In my early teens, I moved from Paris to Nice, in the south of France. A much smaller town meant a newfound autonomy, and as I grew older, I started gravitating toward the poky secondhand bookshops near the old town. Those shops, now long gone, shaped me as a reader. Alongside the mostly stale set texts of the now rightly defunct French literature schoolbooks (back when the canon was almost exclusively male), I discovered Romain Gary, Colette, and also James Baldwin, Natalia Ginzburg, Elsa Morante, Dino Buzzati, John Fante, and many others. I hurtled across continents from one exciting discovery to another and never stopped to think about what a privilege it was to have access to so many authors from so many countries. Being consumed by literature meant being consumed by world literature; there was no sense of boundaries or categories. There were just more authors to discover. It was only when I moved to the US for a year, and then to the UK permanently, that I realized how lucky I had been.
I got into agenting through selling translation rights of English-language authors. I soon realized that I had an unfair advantage in terms of the range of publishers I had access to, and started to think of it as a stepping-stone, a way of turning the tables and introducing authors from other countries, presenting authors to publishers who were maybe mostly attracted by the English books and not expecting to discuss a Brazilian or a Mexican author. From the start I felt very strongly that these authors should be presented alongside all the other authors, not set in a separate list of “non-Anglophone authors,” something that was maybe not so common at the time. The authors I represent are for the most part literary novelists who are interested in form as much as content and who have a political sensibility, be it overt or under the surface.
When it comes to agenting non-Anglophone authors, the issue of how they are presented is constantly reassessed. At first, the move toward comparing titles by international authors to familiar Anglophone voices felt like a worthwhile attempt at breaking down more barriers and inviting new readers to venture toward the unknown. After all, comp titles are a conservative tool, however inventive they might be, and if bringing into the picture established Anglophone writers was a way to demystify international fiction and remove the cloak of inaccessibility, that could only be a good thing. It certainly felt like an improvement on the previously widespread tendency to burden translated fiction with anthropological responsibility. When I started representing international authors, there was a sense that a book in translation had to teach us something about the world it came from that was simply inaccessible to English-speaking authors, and token authors were brandished as representatives of their countries: Murakami was Japan, Houellebecq was France, Bolaño was the whole of the Spanish-speaking world. There were of course many publishers passionately building brilliant international lists, but they were a minority, and it was difficult to shake off certain expectations.
Ahead of new releases of her work earlier this year, Tove Ditlevsen, who is going back into print all over the world, was compared to Lucia Berlin and Clarice Lispector. The trope here is clearly rediscovered women. When I told a Danish friend, she was surprised and said that if she had to pick a comparison, she would have said Jean Rhys. Another Danish friend said Carson McCullers. Both asked why there was a need to compare her to English-language authors at all. I had been wondering if Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend had paved the way and led readers to Ditlevsen’s trilogy, certainly to Childhood. Was I thinking this because I was lumping these women in translation together in a way someone in another country would not have done? This game of comparisons, while not always accurate, can open doors and be thought-provoking. It brings movement, and that is always good. I find the tendency to treat all authors from one country in the same way much more problematic. For instance: no, all first novels written by young French women do not make their authors the new Marguerite Duras. This one-size-fits-all comparison is reductive and makes these writers feel that they are interchangeable; the parallel might have been fresh the first time it was used, but it fast becomes deeply irritating.
In recent years, I have come up against the limitations of comp titles in newly frustrating ways. One is how limiting they are for books that break from Anglocentric expectations of what the novel should be. At times they are truly groundbreaking and original, but often they are deemed experimental by the English-speaking world when in fact they speak to a tradition in the part of the world they come from. My own experience of this has been mostly with Latin American writing. Someone who mixes ancient myths, realism, and Lovecraft-like fantasy is not easy to place (see what I did here?). I seek it and I love it and I am sure that it has a lot to do with the fact that my most formative reading experience was probably Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, but it has led me to think about how much more inventive we need to be with comp titles.
Comp titles are an acknowledgment of the fact that if we recognize what we see, we move toward it more readily. However, readers in the English-speaking world are increasingly looking to international fiction as a way to counter the growing isolation among countries, politically and culturally. It is palpable in the UK as Brexit has taken hold. It is crucial that fiction in translation be an integral part of the necessary push toward greater diversity, and there are great publishers and excellent translators working together toward this goal. Now is the time to be bolder in how we introduce these writers, because the hunger is there.
© 2021 by Laurence Laluyaux. All rights reserved.
In 1866, Claude Monet—at the insistence of Gustave Courbet—made a figurative painting of his lover Camille Doncieux, who would later become his first wife, dressed in a dazzling green silk dress. The way he captured the slightly stiff and radiating hues, shades, and nuances of the silk made Camille simultaneously a mythical and a modern woman. She is of the old and the new times. In 1936, Amrita Sher-Gil painted an almost melancholic portrait of her cousin, Sumair, dressed in a green-pink sari, her emerald, or peridot, earrings contrasting against her heavily rouged cheeks. The way the light bounces off her shoulder, making the shade of green seem lighter than it is, transforms her into a demigoddess, touched by something not of this earth. Much earlier, in 1665–67, Johannes Vermeer painted Girl with a Red Hat, in which a young girl wearing a deep ruby-red fur hat, dressed in a lapis lazuli robe and pearl earrings, gazes directly at the viewer. Light falls on her face, making both her skin and her pearls gleam softly. She seems like a woman of two times, or two earths. These three women seem connected by a vague quality of timelessness, but is Camille Doncieux the nineteenth century’s Girl with a Red Hat, is Sumair the Indian Camille, or, inversely, is Camille the French Sumair? Are both of them modern versions of Girl with a Red Hat or is Girl with a Red Hat an earlier avatar of Camille or Sumair? Is it necessary to identify one with another to understand the pain and beauty underlying their (and our own) existence?
A few months ago, as I was translating Bhuwaneshwar’s short stories from Hindi into English, I asked a similar question of myself when I had to describe him—a writer close to a century old—to an Anglophone reader as “kind of absurdist,” knowing well how that description was insufficient and perhaps historically inaccurate as well. Absurdism in Western literature arose in the 1950s and '60s as a result of postwar disillusionment, but Bhuwaneshwar wrote most of his stories in the 1930s, and died almost anonymous, ill and among beggars, somewhere in Varanasi in the 1950s, perhaps 1957, though the exact year of his death remains disputed. He wrote his most iconic short story, “Wolves,” considered by many to be the first modern Hindi short story, in the year 1937. It tells of a caravan being constantly chased by wolves in the middle of the night. Nothing stops the pack from reappearing, and any pause—any victory—is only momentary, temporary. When talking about it, I didn’t know what to compare the wolves of his stories to. Were the two types of wolves usually found on the Indian subcontinent—the Tibetan wolf and the Indian gray wolf—reminiscent of the Eurasian or Arctic wolf? What kind would an Anglophone reader envision when they read of wolves? Is just “wolf” not enough to imagine the horror of being eaten alive by any of them?
Perhaps not, as I resorted to comparisons again when, talking about Rajkamal Chaudhary (another Hindi writer I am translating) to yet another Anglophone reader, I compared his montage-like writing to Godard’s films, or to Nouvelle Vague aesthetics, in general. It doesn’t escape me that sometimes a reader of a particular language may feel more comfortable approaching something new with a familiar reference in mind, but a point of reference sometimes—mostly?—takes on the aura of a benchmark, a standard, the absolute original to which the newer work (which may, ironically, be older than the work it is being compared to) must keep a subordinate position.
We must acknowledge the influence of the assumed supremacy of Western culture here. Colonialism accounts for at least part of this bias, of course. But inherent in this power imbalance are nuances: French may be considered literarily superior to English, but Hindi, for example, or Urdu, will never be offered the same courtesy. Non-Anglophone literary histories may or may not matter, depending upon their respective geographical histories. Sumair may remind us of Camille, but Camille will almost never remind us of Sumair. The pearl earring in Girl with a Red Hat will not remind the viewer of expensive pearls of Basra.
And then there is the essential question of why must something be like another? Why must two works be compared at all? When we look at Sumair, must she resemble our grandmother for us to appreciate her beauty? Must Camille’s eyes remind us of something? Could they not just remind us of her and her eyes alone? I wonder if, when we meet new people in our lives, we categorize them as kind-of other people. And if we don’t do that, if we make new spaces for every new face we encounter, why can’t we do that with books? Essentially, it is a meeting with a new person.
Which writer reminds us of other writers is influenced by the delicate balance (and imbalance) of ancient and modern power structures. However, perhaps it’s better if books remind us of the lives we lead rather than other books, if writers allow us to encounter ourselves rather than other writers.
© 2021 by Saudamini Deo. All rights reserved.
Comparable titles, or comps, are a widely used way to describe books throughout the publishing process, from an agent’s pitch all the way to the sale of the finished book. The first time I was asked “What are the comps?” I had to ask for clarification. I had been working in Spain, where books are also widely compared to other books, but where there isn’t a nice short term for it. “Comps,” with its abbreviated zing, sounds like an essential part of the process, as old as publishing itself.
Comps are generally an efficient way to sort out new books. By nature, books are complex, resistant to simplification and easy categorization, so comparing them to previous books with which they share similarities helps publishing professionals describe and position them and communicate their interest and potential.
But comps are also an approximation. The comparisons they draw are limited and arbitrary. Choosing the wrong comps can create many distortions and hinder a book’s prospects. And, most importantly, they can inhibit diversity when editors pass on projects because the lack of comps is perceived as an obstacle or a risk. The most interesting, original books, and sometimes the ones that have the deepest, most lasting impact, are the breakout ones, the category definers, the incomparable ones, which in turn become themselves the ones to which every other book is compared. If there isn’t a Tom Gauld cartoon about comps, I can easily imagine one, a play on their arbitrariness taken to the point of absurdity, like the one in which the category labels in a library were “Poetry by Left-Handed Scandinavians,” “Cookbooks by Dog-Owning Atheists,” and so on.
Comps tend to be less efficient for books in translation (which still make up a very small fraction of the whole), tending to confine them to their own small category, a kind of bubble, the equivalent of the small table at the back of the bookstore. And the category of translated books is a strange one, since these are books of all kinds. As an editor who works across geographical lines, languages, and cultures in an effort to bring interesting international fiction and nonfiction into English, I think often about how to circumvent this.
One crucial way is editorial, by concentrating on choosing titles well and putting care into every step of the publishing process so that each book is allowed to be entirely original. The editor should be concerned not with finding books about what readers are said to want but with finding readers for works that are unique. The importance of translated books becoming best-selling sensations and breaking established truths cannot be overstated. The success of books like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is a good recent example. It shows that readers recognize great, original storytelling, which opens the door to many other books in translation. The creation of prizes for translated literature is also laying the groundwork to normalize both translated books and the work that literary translators do, still surprisingly little known.
It is essential that we understand comps and are aware of their limitations. As technology creates greater possibilities to group books together, we need to make sure that we do not allow comps to reinforce our biases in ways that diminish diversity of voices and ideas. I like to see books as part of an ecosystem whose many elements are interconnected and thrive together. Bookstores, libraries, schools, universities, newspapers, magazines, radio, podcasts, festivals, conferences, writers, journalists, critics, translators, educators, publicists, editors, bloggers, and many others. The health of each of these has profound collective benefits. One of the few encouraging aspects exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic has been the resilience of books and reading. I hope this time of reckoning helps us rethink how to use stories, both fictional and nonfictional, to expand our world.
© 2021 by Juan Milà. All rights reserved.
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.