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Archive for the ‘Literature Month’ Category

I discovered Nelly Sachs a few years back. I saw her photo and it looked like a photo of a gentle aunt or grandma that we all might have. It was love at first sight for me. I went and got a poetry collection by her and dipped into it. It was mostly moving and heartbreaking poems. I wanted to read her biography, and after some search I discovered this one, ‘Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis‘ by Aris Fioretos . I was very excited! I read this for ‘German Literature Month’ (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life’, which runs through the whole of November.

Nelly Sachs was born in a privileged family and her father was a small industrialist. She never married and was single all her life. When she was young she fell in love with someone, but her dad didn’t approve of her lover, and so she stayed single. Her dad fell ill at some point, and Nelly Sachs took care of him for years. After he died, her mom fell ill, and Nelly Sachs took care of her mom for years. When her mom passed, Nelly Sachs was sixty years old. Her life was a lifetime of service dedicated to her parents.

Nelly Sachs at around the time she won the Nobel Prize

When the Nazis came to power, and started bringing laws which squeezed the Jewish community, Nelly Sachs and her mom suffered because they were Jewish. At some point, exactly on the day she got a letter from the government that she had to report to a labour camp, she and her mom, with the help of friends, fled to Sweden. Nelly Sachs was fifty years old then. She spent the next thirty years in Sweden, initially as a refugee, and later as a Swedish citizen. During her time in Sweden, Nelly Sachs wrote poems which were mostly about the Holocaust. They were well received and acclaimed, but in small literary circles. In the 1960s, Nelly Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for her moving, powerful poetry.

After her mom passed, Nelly Sachs fell into a deep depression. All the anguish, that she had probably held in her heart for years, appeared to have come out. She imagined that the followers of the Nazis were pursuing her again. She had to get herself admitted to the hospital multiple times to take care of her mental health. Her greatest, most famous years as a poet, when she won many literary prizes, including the Nobel, were also the years filled with deep depression. Nelly Sachs died when she was seventy-nine. Her long life of suffering and anxiety, which was also filled with beauty, friendship and people whom she could call family, came to an end.

Nelly Sachs was virtually unknown in the wider literary world before she won the Nobel Prize. After a few moments of fame, when she won the Nobel, she has slipped into obscurity now, and is forgotten today. It is hard to find her poetry in English translation. For many years a small indie publisher called Green Integer, kept two volumes of her poetry collection in print. Even those two volumes are out-of-print now.

Nelly Sachs had a modest opinion about herself. She said, “I have never been a poet, you know. To this day I’ve never owned a desk – my manuscripts are here in the kitchen cupboard…I’m not a literary person. Actually, I’m a real housewife. Not a poet at all.”

Nelly Sachs’ poetry can be divided into two periods. From the time she started writing till 1940, when she lived her life in Germany, and from 1940 till 1970, when she lived in Sweden. There is a distinct difference between her poems of these two periods – they are like chalk and cheese. The poems she wrote during her German years were like traditional German poetry and were on familiar German themes, on fairy tales, fantasy, love, nature. The poems written during her Swedish years were mostly about the Holocaust. When one of her compilers tried publishing a collection of her poetry in later years, Nelly Sachs asked him to remove the poems from her German years, because she wanted to forget them. Her poems from that time are hard to find now.

This book is a beautiful, illustrated biography, and it talks about all this and more. There are photographs in every page, which are deeply linked to the particular section, photographs of books, places, documents, people, objects. The text with pictures brings us a deeply rich reading experience.

The book is not always smooth going. The biographical parts of it flow smoothly. I loved reading about Nelly Sachs’ friends especially, with whom she had really close relationships, and who were her soul sisters, some of whom took great risk during the Nazi era, and helped her escape the country. I also loved reading about her friendship with the poet, Paul Celan, whom she treated as her own brother, though she was thirty years older than him. Celan described their friendship beautifully like this – “Between Paris and Stockholm runs the meridian of pain and solace.” Outside of her parents, Nelly Sachs didn’t have a family, but these friends were her family, and they helped her and were there with her till the end. As they say, we are born into our biological family, about whom we can’t do much, but we can create our own family filled with the people whom we love and who love us back, and Nelly Sachs did exactly that.

The poetry parts of the book were challenging to read, and demanded a lot of attention. I’m not a big fan of analyzing poetry – I love reading poems and contemplate on them and let them do their magic. So reading the analysis of the poems was extra hard for me. The book has a fascinating section which describes how the Nazis restricted Jewish writers and artists and finally banned them. It was a very insightful and heartbreaking part to read.

I loved reading Nelly Sachs’ biography. This is the only biography of hers available in English. It is a labour of love and the author Aris Fioretos has to be commended for his sensitive portrayal of this beautiful poet as well as his deep research into those times.

I’m sharing one of my favourite Nelly Sachs poems here. It makes me cry everytime I read it.

If I only knew

If I only knew

On what your last look rested.

Was it a stone that had drunk

So many last looks that they fell

Blindly upon its blindness?

Or was it earth,

Enough to fill a shoe,

And black already

With so much parting

And with so much killing?

Or was it your last road

That brought you a farewell from all the roads

You had walked?

A puddle, a bit of shining metal,

Perhaps the buckle of your enemy’s belt,

Or some other small augury

Of heaven?

Or did this earth,

Which lets no one depart unloved,

Send you a bird-sign through the air,

Reminding your soul that it quivered

In the torment of its burnt body?

– Translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead

Have you heard of Nelly Sachs? Have you read any of her poems?

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Favourite quotes from the book, as promised 😊 You can find my review of the book here. Read this for German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

Ingrid Bergman as Joan Madou in the film adaptation of ‘Arc de Triomphe

“The cool bright face which didn’t ask for anything, which simply existed, waiting – it was an empty face, he thought; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream into it anything. It was like a beautiful empty house waiting for carpets and pictures. It had all possibilities…It depended on the one who filled it. How limited by comparison was all that is already completed and labeled –”

“Because I love you.”
“How she handles that word, Ravic thought. Without deliberation, like an empty bowl. She fills it with something and calls it love. With how many things had it been filled already! With fear of being alone –  with stimulation through another ego – with the boosting of one’s self-reliance with the glittering reflection of one’s fantasy but who really knows? Wasn’t what I said about growing old together the stupidest thing of all? Isn’t she far more right with her spontaneousness? And why do I sit here on a winter night, between wars, and spout words like a schoolmaster? Why do I resist, instead of plunging myself into it disbelievingly?”

“The early day blew its pure breath from afar, across all the dirty backyards and the smoky roofs, into the window, and there was still the breath of woods and plains in it.”

“Love! How much that word had to cover! From the softest caress of the skin to the most remote excitement of the spirit, from the simple desire for a family to the convulsions of death, from insatiable passion to Jacob’s struggle with the angel. Here am I, Ravic thought, a man of more than forty years, trained in many schools, with experience and knowledge, who has been beaten down and has risen again, sifted through the filter of the years, having become more callous, more critical, colder – I did not want it and I did not believe it, I did not think it would come again – and now here it is and all my experience is of no avail, all the knowledge makes it only the more burning – and what burns better in the fire of the emotions than dry cynicism and the stacked wood of the critical years?”

“Something had gone wrong, at some point the ray of his imagination had failed to hit the mirror, the mirror that caught it and threw it back intensified into itself, and now the ray had shot beyond into the blind sphere of the unfillable and nothing could bring it back again, not one mirror or a thousand mirrors. They could only catch a part of it, but never bring it back; by now its specter moved forlornly through the empty heavens of love and only filled them with radiant mist which no longer had any shape and which could never again become a rainbow around a beloved head. The magic circle was broken, the lamentation remained, but hope lay shattered.”

“Could he have held her? Could he have held her if he had been different? But what could be held? Only an illusion, little else. But wasn’t an illusion enough? Could one ever attain more? Who knew anything about the black whirlpool of life, namelessly seething beneath our senses, which, out of empty uproar, turned it into things, a table, a lamp, home and You and love? There was only a foreboding and a frightening twilight. Was it not enough?

It was not enough. It was enough only if one believed in it. Once the crystal had burst under the hammers of doubt one could only cement it together, but nothing more. Cement it, lie about it, and watch the broken light that once had been a white splendor. Nothing came back. Nothing reshaped itself. Nothing. Even if Joan came back it would not be the same again. A crystal cemented together. The hour had been missed. Nothing would bring it back.”

“Suddenly heavy thunder rumbled over the city. Raindrops splashed on the bushes. Ravic got up. He saw the street mottled with black silver. The rain began to sing. The heavy drops beat warmly against his face. And suddenly he no longer knew whether he was ludicrous, or miserable, whether he was suffering or not – he only knew that he was alive. He was alive! He was there, it held him again, it shook him, he was not a spectator any longer, not an onlooker from outside; the great splendor of uncontrollable feeling shot through his veins again like fire through a furnace; it scarcely mattered whether he was happy or unhappy, he was alive and he was fully aware that he was alive and that was enough.

He stood in the rain which was pouring down upon him like heavenly machine-gun fire. He stood there and he was rain and form and water and earth; the lightning from the horizon crossed within him, he was creature, element; nothing any longer had a name and was thereby made lonesome, everything was the same, we, the pouring rain, the pale fires above the roofs, the earth which seemed to swell; there were no longer any frontiers and he belonged to all this and happiness and unhappiness were empty husjs cast off by the overpowering sensation of being alive and feeling it.”

“He…placed a pile of books on the table by his bed. He had bought them two days before in order to have something to read in case he was not able to sleep. It was a strange thing about books – they were becoming more and more important to him. They were not a substitute for everything, but they reached into a sphere where nothing else could reach. In the first years he had not touched books; they had been lifeless in comparison with what had happened. But now they had become a wall; if they did not protect, at least one could lean against them. They did not help much; but they kept one from final despair in a time that was racing back into darkness. That was enough. Once thoughts had been thought that were despised and ridiculed today; but they had been thought and they would remain alive and that was enough.”

Which of these three quotes do you like the most? 😊

Quote 1

Kate : “Which century would you like to live in, Ravic, if you could choose?”

Ravic : “In this one. Otherwise I’d be dead and some idiot would be wearing my costume to this party.”

Kate : “I don’t mean that. I mean, in which would you like to live your life over again.”

Ravic : “Just the same. In ours. It is the lousiest, bloodiest, most corrupt, colorless, cowardly, and dirty so far – but nevertheless.”

Kate : “I wouldn’t. In this one. In the seventeenth. Or in an earlier one. In any only not in ours.”

– From ‘Arc de Triomphe’ by Erich Maria Remarque

Quote 2

“Let others praise ancient times; I am glad I was born in these.”

Ovid

Quote 3

“Someday, all centuries will end up looking alike under the stars’ dust. For now I’m content just to cherish my favourite centuries, beginning with mine, so fierce and sly, brilliantly fuelled by science, unquenchable in its rage against nature.”

– From ‘Yesterday, at the Hotel Clarendon‘ by Nicole Brossard

Have you read ‘Arc de Triomphe‘? What do you think about it?

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I’ve wanted to read Erich Maria Remarque’sArc de Triomphe‘ for a long time. I discovered it through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat‘) recommendation. I finally started reading it at the beginning of this month, but I couldn’t make much progress because I was following the cricket world cup. The world cup ended a couple of days back, and then I did a couple of days of readathoning and here I am. I read it for German Literature Month hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

The story told in ‘Arc de Triomphe‘ goes like this. It is the year 1936. A man walks in the streets of Paris in the middle of the night. He finds a woman on the way, who looks lost and despondent. This man offers to take her to her home or wherever she is staying. She refuses to go back. Then he decides to take her to his place. Who is this mysterious woman who is out late in the middle of the night? Who is this man? What happens between them? You have to read the story to find out 😊

Arc de Triomphe‘ bring the Paris of that era vividly alive. We meet refugees who don’t have any documents and who live in constant fear of being deported. (Nothing much has changed today.) There are refugees who are doctors who help people by performing surgeries. But it is illegal, and if they are caught, they’ll end up in prison. Refugees fall in love, but the future of their lives looks uncertain. The political situation is also uncertain with war looming ahead. There are also refugees who live in constant fear of meeting their Nazi torturers again.

In the midst of all this, Erich Maria Remarque tells us a beautiful love story. Yes, that is right. This is a love story. Atleast, a big part of it is. I didn’t expect that. Remarque’s stories always have a love story embedded in, but predominantly his books are about war or about the onset of war, or life between wars. But a significant part of this book is about love and the relationship between two people. Remarque shows us that he is very good at writing a love story, and those parts of the book are a pure pleasure to read, because the prose zings and pulls our heartstrings.

There are two complaints I have about the book though. The first is the title. The original title of the book is ‘Arc de Triomphe’. It is the name of a monument in Paris. The translators have translated it to ‘Arch of Triumph’. I reject the translated title and refuse to use it. It is frustrating when translators do stuff like this. Please leave the Arc de Triomphe alone. The second complaint I have is about the ending. Remarque does what he normally does. He goes and kills off one of the main characters. In other books of his, sometimes there is reason and logic in this. But in this book, it was just thrust in without any reason. It felt like a cinematic ending forcibly thrust into the story to make the reader cry. Why Remarque, why?

So where does ‘Arc de Triomphe’ stand in the pantheon of Remarque novels? I’ve read only three till now – ‘All Quiet on the Western Front‘, ‘A Time to Love and a Time to Die‘ and now ‘Arc de Triomphe’. They are all different books and I loved them all. I think ‘A Time to Love and a Time to Die’ is probably my favourite, but if I think again, it is so hard to choose. They are all beautiful.

There are so many beautiful passages in the book that I’d like to share. But I’m too tired and too lazy now to look through the book again. Maybe, I’ll do that later and write a separate post with my favourite quotes.

I loved ‘Arc de Triomphe‘. There is a film adaptation of the book starring Ingrid Bergman. I want to watch it sometime.

Have you read ‘Arc de Triomphe‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other Erich Maria Remarque books?

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I discovered Peter Handke’sA Sorrow Beyond Dreams’ through a friend’s recommendation. I’ve been hesitant to read Peter Handke because of all the controversies surrounding him, but this book was about his mom and so I couldn’t resist. I read it for German Literature Month (#GermanLitMonth) hosted by Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’ which is celebrated for the whole of November, and which is in its 12th season this year.

The book is not really a book. It can be called a long essay. It starts with Peter Handke describing his mom’s suicide. Then he describes her life, as much of it as he has discovered, how she grew up in poor and challenging conditions, tried escaping from it, but things didn’t go as planned, and how she came back to it. It was very moving and heartbreaking. When Handke becomes a writer and is able to help his mom, things get better, but this story doesn’t have a happy ending as the story of Édouard Louis’ mom has in ‘A Woman’s Battles and Transformations’.

Peter Handke’s story about his mom is moving and heartbreaking. It was published nearly fifty years back and I’m surprised that it was not that well-known until recently. It is up there with the great stories of mothers by Annie Ernaux, Édouard Louis and Erwin Mortier.

I’ll leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“The danger of all these abstractions and formulations is of course that they tend to become independent. When that happens, the individual that gave rise to them is forgotten—like images in a dream, phrases and sentences enter into a chain reaction, and the result is a literary ritual in which an individual life ceases to be anything more than a pretext. These two dangers—the danger of merely telling what happened and the danger of a human individual becoming painlessly submerged in poetic sentences—have slowed down my writing, because in every sentence I am afraid of losing my balance. This is true of every literary effort, but especially in this case, where the facts are so overwhelming that there is hardly anything to think out.”

“She read newspapers, but preferred books with stories that she could compare with her own life…“I’m not like that”, she sometimes said, as though the author had written about her. To her, every book was an account of her own life, and in reading she came to life; for the first time, she came out of her shell; she learned to talk about herself; and with each book she had more ideas on the subject. Little by little, I learned something about her. Up until then she had got on her own nerves, her own presence had made her uncomfortable; now she lost herself in reading and conversation, and emerged with a new feeling about herself. “It’s making me young again.” True, books to her were only stories out of the past, never dreams of the future; in them she found everything she had missed and would never make good. Early in life she had dismissed all thought of a future. Thus, her second spring was merely a transfiguration of her past experience. Literature didn’t teach her to start thinking of herself but showed her it was too late for that. She could have made something of herself. Now, at the most, she gave some thought to herself, and now and then after shopping she would treat herself to a cup of coffee at the tavern and worry a little less about what people might think.”

Have you read ‘A Sorrow Beyond Dreams‘? What do you think about it?

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Our unnamed narrator gets up from bed one day. He says that he has been lying on bed for the past nine months. And his wife has left him. And it is his fault. He proceeds to tell us the story. When the doorbell rings. A woman is standing outside. She wants his help in finding her father. Before long we are hurled into a world, where the narrator’s city has changed beyond recognition in the last nine months, and the story looks real before the narrator starts seeing people from his dreams in the real world and things turn increasingly surreal and then some mythical, magical creatures appear. What happens after that and whether the narrator is able to help in finding the woman’s father forms the rest of the story.

This is the surface level story. Of course, this is not all there is to it, and there is more to it than meets the eye. The nine months that the narrator spends in bed are the worst, most violent nine months in Bosnia in the ’90s, and when we realize that, the whole story takes on a totally different meaning and we see everything in new light. The monsters in the story are real-world people who did monstrous things, and the disappearances of family members is what most families went through. A reader who reads this book in Bosnian or Croatian or Serbian will catch all this on the first read and will be able to appreciate the metaphors of the story with a deeper resonance. But for an outsider like me, it took a while to figure things out.

Selvedin Avdić’s prose is beautiful and is filled with humour and is a pleasure to read. There are many footnotes in the book which were fascinating. The book has a foreword by Nick Lezard, who reviews books for ‘The Guardian’, which is very interesting.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“Then I thought that some music might help, recalling how it can easily change the atmosphere of any room. Do an experiment, if you don’t believe me. In a completely empty room, play different types of music and you will see how the shadows shift, the air stirs, the nuances of light change, as the room adjusts itself to the music, like the scene changing from act to act in the theatre. There is no such thing as complete silence. It does not exist. At least not in this world, maybe in outer space or in the bowels of the earth, where it’s only cold and dark.”

“Allah created this world so that it would be pleasing to an intelligent seven-year-old boy. That is what Ahmed said to me when I left his office. I think the thing that He made best was the morning. How I used to love the morning! I loved to drink coffee with Anđela and to make arrangements for the day, while morning was coming into the room. I loved every one of our conversations. I loved the little movements of her fingers around the cup. The scents, the clock ticking, the news on the radio…my whole body would relax. I could be alone with her for days, with her and the child in that little room. I used to tell her even prison would not be hard for me if we were together. Because, as the proverb says, if the household is never spiteful, the house is never too small. Mornings are now completely senseless. I imagine that they are still beautiful, but I can no longer notice.”

Have you read ‘Seven Terrors’? What do you think about it?

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I read a couple of Croatian short story collections last year, one by Asja Bakić, and another by Miljenko Jergović, and loved them both. So I was very excited when I discovered this short story collection ‘New Croatian Short Story : Everything You Wanted But Had No Chance to Read‘.

This book features fourteen contemporary Croatian writers and it has twenty one stories. Most of the writers were new-to-me. I could recognize only Olja Savičević Ivančević, who was widely reviewed last year, and Zoran Ferić, who I discovered through a friend’s review of one of his books. But nearly all the writers seem to be well-known among Croatian readers, as they have been around for a while.

There is good news and bad news. The bad news first. The book was very hit-and-miss for me. Some of the stories were underwhelming, but some of the stories were wonderful. The second bad news is that out of the fourteen featured writers, only three were women. Croatian women writers are kicking ass these days, and so I was very surprised with that.

Now, the good news. When the stories were hits, they were amazing and I loved them. They straightaway waltzed into my list of favourites. Here are my favourites.

Zlatka by Maja Hrgović – This is a beautiful lesbian love story. I won’t tell you more. You should read it and find out what happened. I love this story so much that I want to read all the stories of Maja Hrgović now.

Crocodile by Senko Karuza – Two people get stuck in the middle of nowhere because their car breaks down. There is only one house nearby. When they knock the door, an old man opens it. He has a pool inside his house, and next to the pool is a crocodile. The old man says that his crocodile is unwell. What happens after that – whether the crocodile eats the two newbies and becomes well, or whether it is just a charming pet and this old man is just a kind human being – you have to read the story to find out. There were three other stories by Senko Karuza in the book, and I eagerly looked forward to reading them after I read ‘Crocodile’, but unfortunately, I didn’t like them as much. But ‘Crocodile’ was exceptional. It showed a master at work. It was beautiful, charming and it had the perfect ending. I wondered about the author’s name, Senko Karuza. It definitely didn’t look Croatian. His first name looked Japanese. Even his second name looked Japanese. I’m wondering whether this is his real name, or whether this is the name he uses while writing stories. I hope there is a translated short story collection of Senko Karuza out there, because I’d like to read it.

The Snake Collector by Jurica Pavičić – This is one of the longest stories in the book. It is set during the war in the ’90s. It is about the absurdity of war and the loss of innocence of young soldiers who think it is an adventure and volunteer for the first time, and how the violence of war changes them irrevocably. It is a beautiful and moving story.

Sheepskin by Josip Novakovich – Another war-adjacent story. A man is travelling by train when he bumps into someone who was his tormentor during the war. Thoughts of revenge rise in his heart. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

When I was Nana Pila, Dead, but in my Prime by Zoran Malkoč – A man selling books knocks on the door of a house in a quiet village. The door is opened by an old man whose wife is unwell. This old man thinks that the visitor is the doctor. What happens after that forms the rest of the story. Beautiful, moving story with a heartwarming ending.

So, that’s it. If you stumble upon this book, or if you plan to read it, I’d suggest that you read these five stories first. Then if you feel upto it, maybe you can try dipping into the rest of the book.

Though this book was hit-and-miss for me, I’m glad I read it. Especially because I discovered Maja Hrgović, Senko Karuza, Jurica Pavičić and Josip Novakovich. I loved their stories and I hope to read more stories by them.

Have you read ‘New Croatian Short Story’? What do you think about it?

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We’ve all heard of ‘Hurricane Season’. Well, this is not that 😊 In these parts, it is ‘Dry Season‘ 😊 With Gabriela Babnik.

A woman in her sixties is walking through the streets of Burkina Faso. She meets a man in his twenties. Sparks fly. What happens next? She is in her sixties, he is in his twenties. She is white, he is black. Will this work? You have to read the book to find out.

I loved the central premise in the book. I haven’t read many (=any) spring–autumn romances, especially in literary fiction, especially in which the woman is older. It is common in movies and TV shows. But I haven’t seen many books featuring this. So that was wonderful. Gabriela Babnik’s prose is elegant and is a pleasure to read. I loved that. The story is narrated by the two lovers alternatively. They talk about their past and how they came to be where they were in the present. I loved those parts which delved on their past history. The parts in which they talked about their relationship and about each other – I found them hit and miss. Sometimes I loved those parts, sometimes I found them underwhelming.

One of the things I love reading in books is the description of food. There is a description of a Burkina Faso food in the book – “tô, kneaded balls of dough soaked in sesame sauce.” I want to try that 😊

Towards the end, the story has a cinematic climax, which in my opinion felt thrust in. I would have loved it when I was younger. But now, I was a little bit disappointed. But the book has won widespread acclaim and won awards. So probably, the problem is with me and not with the book.

I am glad I read ‘Dry Season’. It has many things to recommend it. It is also my first Slovenian book 😊 So, yay! My dream is to read atleast one book from every language from the Balkan region. Till now I’ve read Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Slovenian books. Only Montenegrin and Macedonian are left. Looking forward to reading them also soon.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“In fact, I don’t really know how it is with the body – when, exactly, does it start to decline, when does it surrender to that cold blast of wind, not asking, not hoping anymore, that things might change for the better? The only comfort is the here and now, which becomes the best you’ve got.”

“I swore to myself that I would learn to make sentences, not just letters and words, but long weaving sentences, and would someday write it all down in the dust, in the ground, in the earth. And when somebody looks down at my writing from above, their heart, from all the beauty of it, will cling to their inner walls and simply stand still.”

“Should I be like other elderly people who sit in remote villages and gaze into the fire and at certain rare moments think their life could have encompassed something other than simply what it is now? Or like the elderly lady who watches people’s faces through the window of a café, people too preoccupied to return her look? All my life I had lived the way other people wanted me to live, my mother, my father, my son, my ex-husband, my customers; all my life I had been the person they wanted to see. I could remember periods of my life lived through as somebody else, so now I had no need to pretend. So all those men sitting at that low table, and the woman by the window – I was able to return their gaze.”

“The desire to have a baby was, for him, a form of control, but there’s nothing new about that. It happened to generations before me and even a generation or two after me, and it undoubtedly happened to the women I was watching from under the mango tree.”

“Nowhere does evening come the way it does in the desert. The darkness comes over you so suddenly you sit in front of it motionless. It swarms a while through your entire body, then settles in your feet, and all you can do is light a paraffin lamp. The mosquitoes gather in formation around it, and you have to shoo them away with your hand.”

“The frog does not know there are two kinds of water if he never falls into the hot kind.”

Have you read ‘Dry Season’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered David Albahari through a friend’s recommendation, and decided to read his most recent book ‘Checkpoint‘.

A unit of soldiers and their commander are taken to a place in the middle of nowhere and are asked to create a checkpoint and manage it. They don’t know anything about the war going on, and who is the enemy. Nothing happens at the checkpoint. There is no one coming from either side and the days just pass by. As the narrator says –

“So we guarded a checkpoint where nobody was checked and peered through our binoculars at landscapes through which no one passed. If there was a war still on somewhere, we knew nothing about it. No shots were fired, there was no zinging of bullets, no bomb blasts, no helicopter clatter, nothing.”

What happens after that – are the soldiers just ‘waiting for Godot’, or does war enter this quiet place and does something happen – this is told in the rest of the story.

‘Checkpoint’ is a darkly comic satire. It is about the meaningless nature of war, during which innocent people get killed, and nothing good happens. David Albahari has been compared to Kubrick and Kafka and we can see why. (I’ll also add Joseph Heller to the mix.) Albahari’s dark humour makes us laugh in many places, and it also makes us think.

I enjoyed reading ‘Checkpoint’. David Albahari has written many books, but only a few are easily available in English translation. I found that a couple of them are available, and I hope to read them soon.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“No one wanted to die. Even for such a noble cause as defending the homeland. What could possibly be noble about a violent death? And the stupidest part of all was that afterwards this would become fodder for people who’d had no experience at all with it, with death. How can a living person understand someone who’s dead, understand what a gunshot victim thinks as the bullet rips through his flesh…”

“A wiseguy would say that the real barriers are the ones within us, and that the external ones, like the checkpoint, are, in fact, futile. Mumonkan, an ancient collection of Zen tales, speaks of all this with eloquence, but no one among us soldiers had Buddhist texts in mind, especially none of the amateur soldiers, society’s dregs, who were generally blasé about warfare. Professional soldiers, like samurai, are another story, and among them one may find connoisseurs of the Mumonkan and Hagakure, even lovers of the poetry of T. S. Eliot and the music of Edvard Grieg. Yes, it is one thing to be a samurai and altogether different to be an ordinary recruit who, when he opens his eyes in the morning, cares not a whit for himself or for the world.”

“War is so unnatural, so different from all else, that no one in their right mind can grasp why war would be a part of human culture. The commander turned—he ought to love war at least a little, being a man in uniform, but he couldn’t bring himself to. Never would he admit this to his soldiers. But he also couldn’t abandon them to this hell. So like a good fairy he hovered over their preparations for departure.”

“You could see right away, thought the commander, that he was one of those people bullets didn’t want to hit. There aren’t many folks who enjoy that kind of luck, though they’ll pay for it elsewhere, as things tend to go with good and bad luck. Life is impartial, it plays no favorites. If a person is offered something that is not equally accessible to all in equal measure, they’ll also be given something bad, meaning they’ll be greater losers in other realms. So the radio and telegraph operator, say, was spared the bullets, but he often tripped and fell, and it may have been a fall that additionally shielded him from bullets. The radio and telegraph operator may have stumbled exactly when the fingers of three snipers were on their triggers, and his tumble removed him from the enemies’ field of vision.”

“…the sky began to redden and the shadows, hidden until then by the dark, began shivering with anticipation. In no time they’d be venturing into the world, all they needed was to be told whether to go in front of or behind the soldiers. Shadows have a way of moving slowly and faltering, but when they finally make up their minds, their resolve is legendary. And so, when the soldiers set out on their “punitive expedition,” as the commander noted in his ledger, the shadows followed behind the soldiers, fused to their heels. When the soldiers returned, the shadows were still swinging from their heels, but with none of the earlier joy. In a word, the shadows on that brief journey downhill and uphill aged quickly, perhaps a little too quickly. Anyone would have aged who’d seen what the shadows saw; it’s enough to say they became darker, more somber, more hermetically sealed. Who knows what they might have said if only they’d had skill with words.”

Have you read ‘Checkpoint’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Marina Šur Puhlovski’sWild Woman‘ in an interesting way. I was looking for more translations by Christina Pribićević-Zorić, because she had translated two of my favourite books, ‘Dictionary of the Khazars‘ and ‘Zlata’s Diary‘. And that is how I stumbled upon ‘Wild Woman’.

The story starts with a young woman in an apartment with her dog. The apartment is in a mess. There is no food and the woman and her dog are literally scraping the barrel. This woman tells us what happened, and how events led to this situation. She takes us back by many years, when she first went to college and met a guy on the first day, and sparks started to fly. What happened after that – you have to read the book to find out.

‘Wild Woman’ is a beautiful, dark, heartbreaking book. It describes what happens when we fall in love, and things don’t go as we expect, and how sometimes we fall into a bottomless abyss from which we find it impossible to extricate ourselves.

I loved ‘Wild Woman’, though the word ‘love’ doesn’t begin to describe what I feel about it. It was powerful and moving and heartbreaking, and it pulled my heartstrings and it made me angry and it made me scream. Sometimes it felt like I was reading a contemporary version of the Ingrid Bergman movie ‘Gaslight‘.

Marina Šur Puhlovski’s prose is beautiful and I couldn’t stop highlighting my favourite passages. She has been writing for a while, but it appears that this is her only book which has been translated into English. Wish more of her work gets translated.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“What hurts is what you don’t have. And it hurts, say the experts, because the brain won’t accept that you no longer have what you once did, what it still remembers, and so it turns its absence into the pain of loss, which keeps going back to the beginning. That’s my story, I guess. Because if it weren’t, then I wouldn’t be sitting here for three days now, incapable of extricating myself from it.”

“I stepped out like a sleepwalker, in my nightgown, barefoot, at that magical moment in the morning that belongs to the surrounding forest, when life wakes up and you are filled with this sense of awakening, as at the dawn of humankind, when the first human realised that he was alive, because he hadn’t known it before, it came to him suddenly. And it’s no different today, the wonder of life remains hidden from us during the day, and turns into fear at night, and it is only like this in the early morning that we understand it, when we are alone and when it’s spring and when the forest within us breathes, or the sea within us breathes, when we imbue each other.”

“A magical wonder is when something doesn’t look real but is, I realised as they took me around – like the way Plitvice’s waters forged their own paths through the rocks and bushes, through the grey and green, through the air and earth, creating a work of art out of nature, making it look like child’s play, untaught, becoming a work of art in itself, based on some primeval memory. It was as if we became a work of art ourselves, rather than creating one, a higher form of existence that we did not sufficiently appreciate, because it eluded us, I thought, walking with my feet in the moss and ferns and my head in the air.”

“What else is love except a kind of blindness, I reflected, you see what you want, what you like, what catches your fancy, what makes you grow, you see what you need but you don’t see what you don’t need. When you see what you don’t need you try not to see it, to attribute it to a random instance, to hide it from yourself, because you compare what you see with the ideal that they’ve drummed into your head and try to make it fit that ideal. Sometimes it more or less works, unless you completely fail, because basically you always fail, but even an approximation is something, at least it’s bearable. The world exists on the basis of approximation. But it’s awful when it turns out that what you get is not even close, that it’s the exact opposite, that you had imagined somebody else! And, of course, he helped you along, he tried to be what he thought you wanted him to be, not what he was, but he could pretend to be what you wanted until he captured you, until he took away your freedom, in life and, worst of all, within your inner self, because the hardest thing was to save yourself from yourself. By saving him I was saving myself from myself, I realised, from the debt of love, I supposed, a debt you couldn’t just discard as if it never existed, it doesn’t exist now but it did, it was your life and if it is worthless then so are you and your life; how do you live with that?”

“…gazing at the early autumn greenery that has only just started to turn yellow and red and to decay, a moment with no continuation, but all the same a moment that existed, that fell into place with everything else that existed, the unreal attaching itself to the real which, once it passes, itself seems unreal, and passes in a heartbeat, as if it had never existed, but you know that it did, and so a vicious circle.”

You can find Marina’s (from ‘Finding Time to Write’) beautiful review of the book here.

Have you read ‘Wild Woman’? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Aleksandar Tišma’sThe Use of Man‘ through a friend’s recommendation.

It is the year 1935. A teacher in Novi Sad goes to the stationery shop, buys a diary and starts writing in it. At some point, this diary ends up in one of her students’ hands. This student has a boyfriend who has another friend. And suddenly our horizons widen, as we get to know more about these three people, and their families. The story keeps moving back and forth across time, as we follow the fates of the main characters and the people who are part of their lives. As this was also a complex time in history, when the Nazis, the Hungarians and later the Russians all occupied Novi Sad, and as our characters have complex social backgrounds and political persuasions, their lives get entangled in complicated ways, and the story tells us that.

The Use of Man‘ is a complex novel. It doesn’t have a linear structure and the story keeps moving across time, back and forth. Also some chapters are different from others, because they look like meticulous descriptions and lists. There is a reason for this and it is explained in the introduction. The characters in the book are all fascinating – complex, flawed, capable of beautiful things while at the same time doing the not-so-good things. In other words, they are all human. I loved the character of Vera, the girl who discovers her teacher’s diary. The way she evolves is very fascinating. Her boyfriend Milinko is very interesting too, as he is one of the nice characters in the book. His friendship with Vera’s father, and how their shared love for books and learning brings them together is very beautifully depicted. Mikinko’s friend Sredoje is one of the most complex characters in the book and because of that he is very fascinating. There is a German captain whom I liked very much and there is a minor character called Mitzi who is always bursting with energy, who is very likeable.

There is a beautiful introduction to the book by Claire Messud in which she puts the book in context and explains many of the things in the book, like a good teacher. If you are a seasoned reader, you probably already know this, but if you are like me (I’ve burnt your fingers many times reading the introduction before reading the book), I’d recommend that you read the book first and then read the introduction after that, as the introduction has many spoilers.

The Use of Man‘ is one of the classics of contemporary Serbian literature. I’m glad I read it. This is also my first NYRB book. So, Yay! 😊 I learnt a lot about the history of the period and I want to read more. I loved reading my first Aleksandar Tišma book. Aleksandar Tišma has written two more books set in Novi Sad and I want to read them sometime.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“At last she came to understand that having achieved her independence, she was going to be left too independent, in fact, completely alone, and that she was not up to such solitude.”

“It’s like people. Even nations borrow from each other. Nothing is born in a vacuum, nothing develops from itself alone, and anyone who claims otherwise—usually to laud the culture to which he belongs—is lying. All life is imitation. The way we live in this house is a copy of the way my father and mother lived in it, and they in turn patterned themselves on others. This kind of home, these objects, the storeroom in the back, the courtyard through which one passes from the private world into the business world and back again, all existed long ago, before this house, and served as a model when it was built and furnished. You could probably trace the migration of this type of merchant’s house, going back in time, from street to street, from the outskirts of town to the center, from town to city. Thus Novi Sad would perhaps lead you to Szeged, Szeged to Pest, Pest to Vienna, Vienna to Berlin. It might have been in 1862, or 1852, when this kind of merchant’s house was first adopted in Berlin. The same goes for books, whether they contain artistic material or whether they are of a scientific nature. Invariably you find traces of imitation.”

Have you read ‘The Use of Man‘? What do you think about it?

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