starvation

INSEL BY MINA LOY

For years I considered myself unlucky, to be the innocent victim of misfortune. I could not understand how it came to be that everyone I was familiar or intimate with were mad, how I came to be so consistently embroiled in absurd, sometimes harmful, situations. It was only recently that I realised that it is my own eccentricity that draws these people to me, or draws me to them, that creates, or helps to create, the situations that I find myself in. Madness does not circle me, I am the madness. My behaviour, my choices, my attitude. So, when I arranged to visit a friend abroad, and the day before I was due to fly he deleted all trace of himself, disappeared, and hasn’t contacted me since, I am now able to recognise that this is as much about me as it is him. My inability to maintain conventional relationships means that the friendships I do have are with the sort who can and will suddenly disappear, in the same way that they too would likely not be surprised if I went missing, never to be heard from again.

“If this is madness,” I said to myself, breathing his atmosphere exquisite almost to sanctification, “madness is something very beautiful.”

Mina Loy made her name, if that isn’t too fanciful a term considering the limited success during her lifetime and her relative obscurity now, as much for her unconventional lifestyle as for her poetry and art. Insel, her only novel, was published posthumously, and was, one therefore assumes, unfinished, or certainly not completed to the author’s satisfaction. As one would expect, there isn’t a vast amount of information about, or critical analysis of, the book; but, in terms of what there is, the general consensus appears to be that it was inspired by, or is a fictionalised account of, her relationship with the German surrealist painter Richard Oelze. This strikes me as a further example of her personal life overshadowing, or being given more consideration, than her work, a trend that I am not interested in continuing here. [More interesting is the public’s relentless desire to hunt for, to sniff out, ‘real life’, or fact, in art, but that is a discussion for another time].

‘The first I heard of Insel was the story of a madman,’ is how the novel begins. It is an impressive opening, for it not only immediately grabs your attention, and motivates you to want to continue, it says something significant about the titular artist at the centre of the narrative. This is a man with a reputation, a man who is perhaps a figure of fun, about whom anecdotes circulate. Indeed, the narrator, Mrs. Jones, then shares one such anecdote, about how he is in need of money for a set of false teeth, so that he can go to a brothel without disgusting the prostitutes with a ‘mouthful of roots.’ Therefore, Insel is, we’re meant to believe, not in a good way, both mentally and physically. Mrs. Jones relentlessly stresses this point, as Loy, if not always to the reader’s enjoyment, seemingly delights in finding new turns of phrase to describe his poor state. He is ‘pathetically maimed’; an ‘animate cadaver’, with a ‘queer ashen face’, who has ‘fallen under the heel of fate.’

Moreover, as the book progresses we are given access to details that paint a picture of someone who has not suddenly found himself down on his luck, nor recently broken down, but who has always been on the periphery of things, of life itself. For example, Insel tells Mrs. Jones that ‘as a child I would remain silent for six months at a time.’ This sense of a disconnect, of being outside conventional society, is perhaps why the narrator frequently refers to him as a kind of ghost, someone ‘transparent’ who is able to ‘pass through’ without leaving a trace. It is, I would, argue, a metaphor for his relationship with the world, rather than, as it seems on the surface, a comment on his status as a starving artist. Indeed, the word insel is German for island.

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While all this likely gives the impression that Insel is a tough, bleak reading experience, the reality is the opposite. Stylistically, it is modernist, something like Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, and there are people who will struggle with that, but the tone is light and amiable, even comedic at times. Think back, for example, to Mrs. Jones’ anecdote about the teeth, which is pathetic, certainly, but humorous also. As are Insel’s run-ins with various prostitutes, whom he leeches off and gets into fights with. Moreover, there is a suggestion that the painter might not be as mad or vulnerable as he appears to be, that he is not quite a man on the brink of extinction. The leeching off prostitutes is part of it, for Insel can clearly ‘get by’, can put himself in a position to be kept, in spite of his apparently revolting appearance. Indeed, his relationship with Mrs. Jones, who supplies him with steak amongst other things, is further, even more commanding, proof. In this way, the book could be viewed as a portrait of a con man, more than that of a tortured artist. Certainly, there is little in Insel that gives weight to the idea that he is a mad genius; there is very little about art in it at all.

Yet I’d argue that the most rewarding reading of the novel is as a ode to unlikely friendship or mutual need. Both characters are obviously looking for something, if not precisely each other, when they meet. Mrs. Jones, a Mrs. without a husband in tow, is not exactly lonely, for she has friends, but men, it seems, are not beating down her door. In one scene, for example, she is approached in a bar, but the gentleman shudders when he discovers ‘the hair in the shadow of my hat to be undeniably white.’ Insel, therefore, plays an important role in her life by paying her attention, by playing suitor without ever being her lover. Likewise, she, as noted, feeds him and mothers him, but, more than this, she appears to value him, both as an artist and as a man – she calls him a ‘delicate and refined soul.’ The two together fit; their friendship is, she states, one of ‘unending hazy laughter.’ However, as I know myself, relationships of this sort are not built to last. ‘Danke für alles – Thanks for everything,’ Insel says at the very end of the book; and then he disappears, of course.

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THE TIME OF THE DOVES BY MERCE RODOREDA

You should never ignore the signs. In a relationship, I mean. It is easy to tell yourself that you are overreacting, or imagining things, that your doubts are unreasonable or that what you see or feel is insignificant relative to the positives, but you ought to trust your instincts [or your counter-instincts, if your instincts are telling you that things will work out ok with someone who is giving you the impression of being a douche]. The reality is that, contrary to what we are repeatedly told, no one ever ‘suddenly flips’, no one’s personality completely changes for the worse with a snap of the fingers; the clues to someone’s future behaviour or attitudes are always there, sometimes subtly disguised perhaps, but there nevertheless.

I was once talking to a friend of mine and she told me about a guy she had been seeing and how he would get aroused when she cried. I’m not making this up. He got an erection…when she cried. And as I listened to this story I was sure that the conclusion would be that she had freaked out and ended the relationship, but no. She thought it was ‘a bit odd’, sure, but it never crossed her mind to stop seeing the man who was made horny by her unhappiness. No doubt some of you will dismiss my example as a one-off, as an extreme or unusual incident that is not representative of anything, that is not applicable to people-in-general. You might say ‘no right thinking person would have given him the benefit of the doubt in those circumstances’, and yet I have heard hundreds of similar anecdotes and stories, often with unpleasant outcomes.

All of which is to say that as I was reading Mercè Rodoreda’s La plaça del diamant [or The Time of the Doves in the best English translation] I was struck by how depressingly familiar, how predictable, the trajectory of Natalia’s and Quimet’s relationship is. In the early stages, one’s impression of Natalia, who narrates the novel, is that she is kind and gentle, but green or naïve, perhaps even weak. The book opens with the young woman attending a party, dressed all in white. I do not think that this is a coincidence. White is, of course, traditionally worn by brides, and in this way the dress is a hint at her forthcoming marriage, but it also says something about her character, in that the colour is representative of virginity, of purity, even innocence. Likewise, Quimet’s name for Natalia, ‘Colometa’ or dove, which he bestows upon her almost immediately, is obviously significant. Doves are regarded as an emblem of peace and love, which is ironic because Quimet delivers little of either of these two things.

“I covered my face with my arms to protect myself from i don’t know what and i let out a hellish scream. A scream I must have been carrying around inside me for many years, so thick it was hard for it to get through my throat, and with that scream a little bit of nothing trickled out of my mouth, like a cockroach made of spit…and that bit of nothing that had lived so long trapped inside me was my youth and it flew off with a scream of I don’t know what…letting go?”

It is worth noting that Quimet is sweating heavily when Natalia first meets him at the party in the plaça del diamant, for this suggests manliness, and, as the sweating is caused by him having been dancing, sensuality too. Moreover, Natalia compares his eyes to those of a monkey, indicating a brutish animality. From the very beginning Quimet dictates to Natalia, informing her that one day she will be his wife. Even giving her a nickname is an attempt to establish ownership; it is a way of making her his. As the couple continue to spend time together these negative signs, or indications, as to his character become more pronounced. He jealously accuses Natalia of taking a walk with her ex-boyfriend [and she, who is innocent, almost comes to believe that she had done so]; he attempts to make her quit her job; he grabs her around the throat. He is, then, quite clearly a possessive, self-centred bully; he is, as we in Yorkshire might say, a wrong ‘un, and Natalia ought to get rid, because life with him will not be happy, but she, of course, does not.

As a result of all this, one cannot help but read The Time of the Doves with a heavy heart, with frustration and a sense of helplessness. It is like watching, from a safe distance, a car skid off the road and into a ditch. However, although on the surface this appears to be a novel about family and responsibility, poverty and suffering, it struck me that it is ultimately about power and control. And, yes, this refers to Quimet’s desire to dominate his wife, to have her, as he himself says, like everything he likes [which results in the ridiculous situation with the doves], but it relates to Natalia also, and her efforts to wrest control of her life back, from her spouse and from the world-at-large. For example, when Quimet’s dove-mania reaches its apex, and he has them moved into the family apartment, Natalia sabotages them, and tries to murder the chicks. Then, later, when the family are starving, she makes the decision to kill her two children and herself.

antiga

[La plaça del diamant in Barcelona]

It has been said that The Time of the Doves is a political novel, and, although the action takes place over thirty years, covering Franco’s ascension, the Spanish Civil War, and World War Two, and although all of these things are mentioned in the text, it may still strike one as a strange claim. That is because these events are kept in the background; they are never the primary focus. Natalia appears to do her best to not acknowledge politics, or at least not take a serious interest in it outside of the effect it has upon her day-to-day life; and she certainly does not choose a side, being, for example, neither obviously in favour of the republicans or the revolutionaries.

In order to understand the political nature of the story it is necessary to return to what I was discussing previously: power and control. First of all, to be an ordinary citizen in times of conflict or strife is to be at the mercy of a bunch of madmen who will decide the direction of your life, who are, specifically, fighting in order to have that level of control over you. Moreover, it is important to keep in mind that the novel is set in Barcelona, and that Natalia is Catalan, as was the author. Francisco Franco, who was Head of State from the 1930’s until his death in 1975, was a brutal dictator, and one of his policies was to make Spanish or Castilian the dominant language in Spain. In order to achieve this he made it the official language, and banned the public use of any others, including Catalan. I don’t want to speak for Catalans, but it seems reasonable to suggest that they would have felt as though they could not be themselves, as though they were being forced to be something other than who they were, as though they were being stripped of their identity, and this is similar to how Natalia is portrayed, as someone always constrained, but who is looking to be at ease, to be free like the doves.

INDEPENDENT PEOPLE BY HALLDOR LAXNESS

In 874 CE a Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Arnarson, became the first permanent settler on the island that came to be known as Iceland. Ah, truly an independent man! One can’t help but think that Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the dominant character in Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, would have approved of such a state of affairs. As the novel begins, Bjartur has purchased his own piece of land, after working, for eighteen years, for the Bailiff. This is, despite the measly nature of the land and the shabby dwelling upon it, a momentous occasion for him; he is, at last, a free and independent person. Indeed, Bjartur prizes this independence above all else, so that it becomes almost a mania with him. For example, in the opening chapter there is told the story of the witch Gunnvor, out of which has grown a kind of superstition that one must, when passing her so-called resting place, ‘give her a stone.’ Bjartur, however, refuses, even when his new wife begs him out of a fear of bad luck. He would, it is clear, rather make her unhappy than compromise his principles, than for one moment sacrifice the smallest amount of his freedom [i.e. his freedom to act as he pleases]. Likewise, when she later yearns for some milk, he makes it clear that he will not countenance it because he cannot produce it himself. Bjartur will not ask for anything from anyone else, as he sees this as begging; nor will he accept gifts either.

Iceland,_Carta_Marina

[Iceland on the Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus]

One might wonder then how one is to approach Bjartur, what one is to make of him, for there are elements of his personality and behaviour that are agreeable and elements that are, in contrast, entirely disagreeable. First of all, we instinctively root for those who strive for freedom; as we do those who live in accordance with their principles, and those who are prepared to work hard. However, his behaviour has disastrous results for his family. Hard work, principles, ideals, freedom, all that is well and good, but if the result is overwhelming misery then one must question whether it is worth it, whether the man who brings down this misery upon his family [if one wants to say that he does – and you do not want to blame economic conditions] is not actually a good person. This, for me, is one of the key questions that the novel raises: just how important are principles? Are they worth sacrificing your health and happiness for? I must admit that I was never really sure how I felt about Gudbjartur of Summerhouses. He has many admirable qualities, and he is capable of tenderness, but he is equally capable of monstrous behaviour.

“It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say. “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.””

It is interesting in light of all this to consider that Laxness was, by all accounts, a Maxist. Indeed, he is said to have visited Russia prior to commencing work on Independent People and was very impressed. Even without this knowledge it is clear that with the novel Laxness was, to some extent, making a political statement. Throughout characters engage in political discussions, pass comment on the governing of the country, and wax philosophical about the status of the working man. Moreover, it is significant that the title is plural; Laxness is clearly not, therefore, only concerned with one resolute man, but, rather, an entire country or class. It is worth noting, in this regard, that from 1262 to 1918, Iceland was ruled by Norway and then Denmark, and that the country itself only became independent in 1918, shortly before the novel was written.

Yet if you accept that Laxness was concerned with an entire class or country, and one considers the Maxist sympathies, then his message seems somewhat obscure [although this may have much to do with my own ignorance]. Marx was himself concerned with labour, production, and the proletariat, all of which obviously play such a big part in the narrative of Independent People. For the German, giving up the ownership of one’s labour is to be alienated from one’s own nature, resulting in a kind of spiritual loss. This seems somewhat in line with how Bjartur is presented, a man who certainly does own his own labour. However, Marx also advocated that the proletariat should have class consciousness, that they ought to organise, and ultimately challenge the prevailing system, which is not at all in keeping with Bjartur’s behaviour and opinions, as he is suspicious of political engagement and, well, men-at-large. For example, when the Bailiff’s son, Ingolfur, broaches the idea of a Co-operative Society for farmers, which would, he claims, prevent exploitation, Bjartur isn’t at all interested.

If Bjartur was intended as some kind of anti-capitalist hero then the book fails, because he is not necessarily against capitalism [he defends the merchant], he is simply against anything, or anyone, he deems to be in some way attempting to deny him freedom or independence. For Bjartur, one can be as ruthless and money-grubbing as one likes as long as you don’t interfere with him. Moreover, this free man, this man who owns his own labour, only ends up exacerbating the suffering of innocent people. As the novel progresses, the reader may legitimately ask if he, or certainly his family, wouldn’t have been better off remaining in the pay of a wealthier employer, if that wouldn’t be a more comfortable and therefore rational way of living. In fact, while one might look to the Bailiff and his wife – who periodically appears in the text in order to make glib and patronising statements about the working class, about how only poor people are truly happy, and how much she envies them. She contrasts this, of course, with the hard life of being a bourgeois employer, where all your money goes on paying wages and one cannot [the horror!] afford that dress you’ve had your eye on for a while – as the capitalist villains of the piece, the more I thought about it the more I realised that Bjartur himself could be called a capitalist, just not in the way that we tend to understand that term these days.

When someone says capitalist we [or certainly I] tend to imagine someone rich, with at least one thriving business, which is run on the toil of hired workers. Well, Bjartur is categorically not rich; nor does he own a thriving business; and the only workers he has are his own family. Yet his situation is a capitalist model; his farm, although not at all flourishing, is a private enterprise and his family are absolutely exploited as a means of production. The kids, the wife, all are expected to put in extremely long hours, and far from being rewarded commensurate to their efforts are actually given very little to eat, live in wretched circumstances [a small, foul-smelling, leaky hut] and have only rags to wear; indeed, these workers are actually sacrificed in order to protect the business’ assets [i.e. the sheep, which are given preferential treatment]. It is likely that I am wrong about all this, as I am admittedly no expert on Marxism and so on, but It was only when this interpretation came to me that the politics of the novel started to make more sense. Marx wrote about the “despotism of capital,” and that phrase could be seen to sum up this book.

I worry that so far I have made Laxness’ work seem horribly dry and grim and unapproachable. I mean, it is grim, there’s no way of getting around that, but it is not without warmth and humour and beauty either. Bjartur, although a kind of tyrant, is also a funny character, particularly in the opening stages of the novel; and even when things are at their blackest there are still moments of absurd comedy, for example, when Bjartur says, “A free man can live on fish. Independence is better than meat.” Furthermore, there is some fine nature writing which acts as a contrast to the unrelenting drudgery. In fact, Laxness’ prose is what makes the novel bearable. While I dislike throwing the word poetic around, because I think it is often used merely as a way of describing so-called superior or flowery writing, it is apt in this case; the Icelander was, I believe, actually a poet; and, well, it shows.

“Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, until it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty. Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.”

Moreover, as with all great novels of some heft, there are certain scenes in Independent People that will likely stay with you long after reading the book. For me, there are two in particular. First of all, there is the chapter when Bjartur leaves his wife Rosa on her own over night with his favourite gimmer [one of the Rev. Gudmundur’s breed, no less!] as company. Rosa, who has been on edge ever since not being allowed to give Gunnvor a stone, sees in the sheep’s frightened bleating some kind of evil omen. Laxness takes this potentially ridiculous set-up and manages to imbue it with a creeping tension and horror, until Rosa finally snaps and executes the gimmer. It is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful descriptions of madness in literature. The other big favourite of mine is when Bjartur goes in search of the sheep, for he doesn’t know it is dead, and spots a group of reindeer. He decides, being a strong-willed independent man, that he is going to capture the buck for meat. This is no easy feat, of course. During the struggle he climbs upon its back and the buck takes him into the river Glacier in an effort to throw him.

When I read another of Laxness’ most well-known works, World Light, last year I felt as though the characters lacked depth; it struck me that they had a signature mood or quirk, and that is all. As I reread Independent People I was starting to get the same feeling about Bjartur; yes, he has mania for independence and freedom…I get all that, I enjoy it, but one reaches a stage where this point has been hammered home so frequently in the first one hundred pages that you start to worry about another four hundred of it. What sets this book apart from World Light, and many other lesser novels, is that Laxness knew when to change it up. So when Bjartur’s one-man-show [he has a wife, of course, but she’s only really there for him to harangue about independence] starts to creak a bit, when it’s becoming repetitive, the author introduces a number of interesting new characters. In a way, one could criticise this move, for it is so abrupt, but providing Bjartur with a new wife, mother-in-law, and children gives the book fresh impetus. Moreover, this family is more finely crafted, have a greater emotional range and a more sophisticated inner life; this is particularly true of the children, Nonni and Asta, who are wonderful creations.

I’ve never been one for child worship, for finding a child’s misfortune worse than any other; I find that attitude quite odd, in fact; but Asta, Bjartur’s daughter from his first marriage, ruined me. She was born in extraordinary circumstances, tragic circumstances, and her life at Summerhouses proceeds in a manner no less tragic. There are numerous books that have moved me, many that have needled my personal sore spots [which this one does too, actually – anything to do with poverty tends to affect me emotionally], but this, as far as I can remember, is the only book ever to make me cry, to provoke a tear into dribbling miserably down my cheek. And it is all Asta’s fault. I’m not even sure why she got to me so much; she’s a sensitive, trusting slip of a girl, who, in her naivety or innocence, wants so little [her joy at being given an old worn dress of her mother’s all but finished me off], but, crucially, unlike her father, she does want; she is inquisitive, eager to learn. Maybe it is that: desiring such meagre or basic things, and being denied them. Or perhaps it is simply that having been brought up by a struggling single mother I just can’t bear to see women unhappy. I don’t know.

It is worth noting, in conclusion, that, after all the exhausting and frequently oppressive bleakness, there is, towards the end, a tiny shaft of light, a few whispered comforting words that suggest that love, at least, will endure. Ah, hold onto those words, store them in your heart, because a little hope, even blind hope, is the most precious thing of all.

KOLYMA TALES BY VARLAM SHALAMOV

I’ve written before about the idea of an ‘irrational attachment to life,’ which means that no matter how awful, how painful and degrading existence is one cannot forsake it. Not only that but, with a miser’s spirit, one actively clings to it. Of course it is not true of all – otherwise there would never be any suicide – but it is certainly true of many, including me. I had a very difficult childhood, and I would fantasise a lot about getting away, but at no point did I ever not want to be here. Quite the opposite: I would often cry in bed at night because I was so scared of dying. There’s something very funny about that, in a way…some kid weeping…begging…please give me more of this excruciating, this horrible life!

Why do some of us cling to life, no matter how awful that life may be? You could argue that it is the masochistic impulse. I believe in that, certainly. I think we have both a sadistic and masochistic impulse [one of which may be more pronounced in some], and that these influence many of our behaviours. I’m not convinced, however, that the masochistic impulse is responsible in this case, because an attachment to life in awful circumstances need not involve actively seeking out those circumstances [which would be necessary for me to consider it masochistic]. I think the desire to stay alive is a more basic, primordial impulse. A few years ago my cat fell out of a window and smashed his legs and split the palette in his mouth in two, but rather than lie down and succumb to what must have been a strong desire to give in he actually managed to drag himself out of the way of immediate danger and under a car. His instinct for survival was, you might say, absurdly strong, but there it was, urging him to protect what was left of his pain-wracked body. It’s an extraordinary thing, although It’s not necessarily admirable.

Varlam Shalamov spent, in total, seventeen years in prison and labour camps or Gulags. After his final release he commenced work upon a collection of short stories that dealt with camp and prison life. This collection came to be called Kolyma Tales. Kolyma is the name of the region where the camp was located in which the author served ten years. As this book, and others, attest life in the Russian labour camps was extraordinarily grim, with arctic conditions, beatings, scurvy, meagre rations, and near-unendurable work being the norm; the prisons weren’t much better.

“We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.” – Naftaly Frenkel, Camp commander [from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago].

конченый
Translation: ‘goner’ or ‘doomed.’

If there is a philosophical idea behind Shalamov’s work it is what I wrote about in the opening paragraphs. Most of his characters are survivors, as was the man himself, even though the desire to survive seems absurd. Another day of this? Of starvation, misery, exhaustion? Yes. Because what else is there but another day?

On numerous occasions the author is at pains to impress upon the reader that suffering, true suffering, does not engender camaraderie or ennoble the spirit. The consequence of life in the camps is that the prisoners become animalistic, their engagement with life is reduced to that of instinct. In many of his stories the most important thing to the characters is to get warm, or attempt to; many also steal from the dead in order to give themselves a better chance of survival. However, it is, once again, important to point out that for Shalamov this survival is absolutely not heroic, it just is. This is emphasised by the author’s dispassionate or matter-of-fact style. It is a style that is reminiscent of Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, yet lacks the Hungarian’s subtle irony. Shalamov plays it straight, without the hint of an upraised eyebrow.

I do not want to give the impression, however, that the Russian’s stories are thinly disguised autobiography, or that they are essentially a form of documentary or reportage. To see them in this way does the writer a huge disservice. What was most impressive, for me, aside from the incredible consistency, was the literary quality of each of Shalamov’s short tales. The structure and pacing, for example, are immaculate. There is one story, In the Night, in which two men set out along a path leading to a pile of rocks. One thinks, of course, that they have been put to work, especially when they start to move the rocks. Yet the conclusion of the story reveals that what they are actually doing is digging up a deceased comrade, in order to steal his clothes. There is no unnecessary exposition, no melodrama, just a great deal of control and a sharp, quick punch in the guts at the end. In the Night is one of the earliest stories in the collection, and I knew after reading it that Shalamov was a master of the form.

In the very best short stories there is a world both inside and outside of the narrative. This is true also of Shalamov’s work. Take In the Night again where there is the actual narrated action, but also a host of unanswered questions about who the dead man is, how he died, who the two men digging him up are, how they came to be incarcerated, and so on. In this way I was reminded strongly of Raymond Carver, whose snapshots are similarly restrained and yet suggestive of a more detailed narrative that is ultimately left to your imagination. Also like Carver, and Chekhov too, Shalamov is essentially apolitical and totally non-judgemental. For Carver and Chekhov that would have would been, one imagines, an easier feat than for this writer, whose tales all deal with people arrested [often on trumped up charges] under Stalin’s government. This refusal to fully engage with politics, the distance Shalamov maintains from the political climate of the time, serves to emphasise just how isolated, how cut off, his characters are from the outside world.

Shalamov does, however, make frequent references to literature. In certain stories he writes about Pushkin and Chekhov; in others he mentions a deck of playing cards that are made out of a Victor Hugo novel and discusses how inmates who can retell well-known or published stories are called novelists. More interestingly, some of the prisoners are named after famous Russian characters, such as Tolstoy’s Vronsky; and Andrei Platonov, a real life figure, and fellow writer, also makes an appearance, even though we know, of course, that he never served time in a prison. Russian writers, it has always struck me, are the most self-referential, but Shalamov, I imagine, wasn’t merely giving shout-outs. If you take Platonov as an example, he himself was a controversial figure, who Stalin apparently disliked, and so one might argue that he could easily, on this basis, have ended up in a camp, which were full of intellectuals anyway. I think in using Platonov and Vronsky and so on, he is saying that this could literally happen to anyone, that anyone, no matter what their status is, could find themselves in this horrific situation. Furthermore, by populating his tales with well-known Russians, in pointing to the country’s golden past or literary heritage, one might argue that Shalamov, whether intentionally or not, is subtly saying: look how we have come from that to this.

I’d like to have my arms and legs cut off and become a human stump – no arms or legs. Then I’d be strong enough to spit in their faces for everything they’re doing to us.

gulag-russi

THE BURNING PLAIN [EL LLANO EN LLAMAS] BY JUAN RULFO

The Burning Plain is, on the face of it, a collection of short stories. As with Babel’s Red Cavalry [which was perhaps an influence on the work], however, it feels more like a novel wherein each chapter is concerned with a different character and situation; there is a very clear thread linking each story, which is the plains of the title. The setting of the stories is a constant, and this consistency of place reminded me of Ivo Andric’s great novel The Bridge on the Drina. I’ve heard people complain about short stories, saying that it is frustrating to have to accustom yourself to new characters, new themes, new settings, every couple of pages, and Rulfo’s work pretty much negates those concerns; while there is no crossover of characters one feels with each new story almost as though one has merely moved a couple of doors down, not moved into another world completely. Rulfo’s stories have a unified vision; they are trying to tell you something about what life was like for the people who lived in rural Mexico, not about the lives of disparate people with a host of different backgrounds, ideas, and approaches to the world.

It is probably fair to warn you that this unified vision is that life on the plains is near-unparalleled misery. This is perhaps the most grim collection I have ever read. Nearly every story features despair, desperation, death, murder, and extreme poverty. Three stories stood out for me, and by giving a brief description of each of them you’ll get some idea of what you’re getting yourself into if you read the book. In the first, a bunch of plainsmen wander, almost deliriously, around the desolate plains, grumbling, mumbling and gabbling to themselves about their situation. They’ve been given this land, and yet the land is worthless; nothing grows there, there is no rain, no life, no hope. I was reminded of King Lear but most strongly of Beckett and his physically and mentally oppressed characters who we always meet already knee-deep in some absurd situation from which they cannot escape, like being unable to get out of bed, or off the floor, or being buried up to the neck.

The second story I want to mention also reminded me of Beckett; it features a man, a father, carrying his dying son on his back. He is attempting to get him to a place where he can receive medical treatment. The absurdity of this situation is that he can’t put the boy down, for if he did he wouldn’t have the strength to raise him back up to his previous position. The heart of this darkly humorous tale, the bit that jabs at your funny bone and your heart simultaneously, is that the father no longer likes his son, who is a murderer and a robber. So, there you have it: an old man dragging his exhausted body on, while carrying his violent but dying son on his back, as, as he tells it, his last act of fatherly affection and responsibility. I mean, fucking hell.

The third story is the one that touched me most personally, for reasons I’m not really going to get into but which relates to the intense affinity I feel for women and particularly those who find themselves in, what we’ll call, a bad situation. Here we have a young girl, whose father had given her a cow. The plains flood and the girl’s brother and father suspect that the cow might have been washed away. That would be sad enough, y’know, a girl and her cow and all that, especially if Michael Jackson’s Ben makes you sob, but the real heartbreaking aspect of this situation is that her family predict that without the cow, without the small amount of money it would bring in, the girl will turn to prostitution in order to make a living, like her sisters did. Goddamn. Rulfo concludes this story:

“She’s right here at my side, in her pink dress, looking at the river from the top of the ravine, unable to stop crying. Streams of dirty water run down her face as though the river were inside her[…]Her two little breasts bob up and down, continually, as if they had suddenly begun to swell, bringing her ever closer to perdition.”

And that little quote is a neat way of showcasing his skill, not just with situations and plots, but his talent as a prose-writer. Rulfo was a very fine stylist, an excellent writer of prose. I wrote earlier about how this collection reminds me of Isaac Babel [it reminds me too, very strongly, of Cormac McCarthy], and it was Babel’s ability to impress me with his prose and stab at my heart with his anecdotes that makes Red Cavalry one of the greatest short story collections. The Burning Plain is another. We’re talking the best of the best here, folks.

–♦–

SOME EXTRA WAFFLE AND BULLSHIT

The book titled The Burning Plain is no longer in print. It has been replaced by a new title and a new translation. Indeed, I chose to read the book again primarily because a couple of weeks ago I just happened to come across this more recent translation and I wanted to suck it and see. Well, I sucked and it, er, tasted both good and bad. It’s strange because generally speaking I thought the prose was better, and yet there are occasional phrases or sentences that are incredibly clumsy [I remember one that contained a had had had!!]. Having read the introduction the translators prided themselves on their work being more accurate than the previous, as they always do, so perhaps the clumsiness is to be found in Rulfo too. Who knows.

I find the vagaries of translation incredibly frustrating, and it’s something I try not to think about too much as I’d probably lose my fucking mind. Some time ago I bought a collection of Akutagawa’s stories called Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, primarily because of the cover:

Image

I knew it was translated by Jay Rubin, whose translations I can’t bear, but I figured the cover meant it was worth giving him another go. Anyway, a couple of stories in and I couldn’t take it any longer,and so I threw it down and have not picked it back up since. Recently I decided I wanted to read some more Akutagawa, so I started scouting for different translations. As I did so I came across this comparison, which is two different takes on the same line from one of Akutagawa’s stories:

De Wolf: …the presence in that same pillow of a centaur quite escaped his notice.

JAY RUBIN has it: That even such a pillow might hold a god half-horse, he remained unaware.

And, well, I dunno. What can you say about that? I mean, God Half Horse? Thing is, I’m sure Rubin would say that in the text the Japanese word used by Akutagawa isn’t equivalent to centaur, but, for me, it is the translators job to make sure that your English makes sense, while retaining the essence of the original. I have never felt as though Rubin does this; it’s almost as though he always deliberately chooses the naffest, most banal word or expression available to him. So what if the word in Japanese isn’t directly translatable as centaur, the point is that he should have enough of a feel for English and respect for his source material to make more successful decisions regarding word choices etc, i.e. that even if god half horse [fml] is more accurate you ought to be aware of how horrendous that sounds in English and work harder to come up with something else. And, yeah, you might say: cut him some slack, perhaps Akutagawa couldn’t string a coherent sentence together either [I’ve chosen not to mention, so far, how that line I quoted doesn’t even make sense, the word order being almost impossibly ugly and confusing]. And, uh, yeah maybe, but in that case it’s some coincidence that Rubin seems to gravitate towards writers that couldn’t, like, write.

In any case, in terms of the collection, and translation, under review here the missteps, boom moments, etc are never so glaring and for that we should be thankful. In the main the new translation is readable, smooth, and maintains a Latin American atmosphere [which isn’t easy when one is dealing with something that is meant to represent the speech of uneducated working class people, and where occasional slang is necessary]. The biggest misstep for me is the title, The Plain in Flames, which, yes, more closely resembles the original El Llano en llamas, but, in English, is clunky and less poetic.

Finally, this edition [the one I read over the weekend] reintroduces 2 stories cut from The Burning Plain. There are 17 in total.