ELEMENTAL (Calico Series)

Elemental
(Calico Series)
Two Lines Press — 9th March 2021
ISBN: 9781949641110
— Paperback — 240 pp.
Cover Design: Crisis


The eight stories of this anthology span the globe and language, but also span a wide range of approaches to the Elemental theme. Most approach the term from in the classical sense of the Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, but others also incorporate actual physical elements from the Periodic Table. Though not ever speculative, the literary tales frequently incorporate magical realism into the plots, with nods to mythology. Some of the authors chose to make the elements into something akin to characters themselves. Many place the elemental theme into the central turning point of the plot or character development. Others treat the theme of elemental more subtly, and some also approach it in broad terms of how humanity is impacted as a part of nature – even when humanity tries to bend nature to its will.

In this sense Elemental is very much an ecological anthology, a look at how humans impact the abiotic environment and vice versa. Like all literature, it’s also at heart an investigation of humans, their interactions and foibles. More particularly to the anthology’s theme, it’s often about humans trying to find connection and freedom in the natural world.

The stories span vastly different styles, but all appear beautifully rendered into English. Each story begins with a title page, featuring a duo-toned photo and a quote from the story that both connect to the Elemental theme. Most enjoyably, the quote is rendered not just in the English translation, but in the original language script as well.

I enjoyed and appreciated some stories more than others, of course, but I would not say there’s a bad story in this bunch. For most it’s their first appearance in English, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, many are actually excerpts from novel-length works. In retrospect after reading, this isn’t surprising, as many of these worked for me as themed mood pieces, but the ‘plots’ often felt unresolved, fragmentary. I dislike excerpts for precisely this reason. On the other hand, I can give a pass to excerpting in this case of literature in translation, given the full texts are otherwise just not accessible to me. This has given me a chance to discover several new voices. However, now let’s get the actual full works published. I wish the editors (who are the editors by the way? – it’s not actually credited anywhere) had indicated when works were excerpts or not. An appendix does provide nice biographies on the authors and their translators.

On to thoughts on the individual selections:

“Precious Stones” by Erika Kobayashi, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom — The anthology starts with the longest work, one of the best, and one representative of the varied styles and approaches to the elemental theme. Its length is particularly well used to explore a varied complexity beyond what the other shorter works here have room to offer. It’s a hard one to summarize. A woman experiences vivid dreams of her deceased grandmother, who simultaneously in those past moments has visions of a future granddaughter there regarding her. The two seem linked by an inherited jewel, the last real remnant of a jeweler family that previously lost all. With her family beset with cancer across generations, the woman, her mother, and her sisters visit a spa/shrine with a radium pool that is fabled to cure all sorts of ailments. But the sisters also trade urban legend tails of an ageless man who wanders a housing development near their home and tunnels being drilled into the Earth. A man who it is said can also help cure diseases through sex. How does this all come together? You’ll have to read; it is fantastic. The theme tackles themes of family, illness, and inheritance in a cultural context that references a famous, mythical poet who is linked to the shrine. It introduces elements that crop up in other stories in the collection: the magical realism, nods to mythology, and of course approaches to the theme of elements earth and water.

“Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth” by Farkhondeh Aghaei, translated from the Persian by Michelle Quay — After meeting an Iranian man while abroad, a woman returns home to familial expectations that she will marry him. The parents of the couple arrange her to visit the home of his parents and make a good impression, despite her lack of enthusiasm. During a visit, a sudden storm and flash flood sweep her away to the banks of a river, where other moss-covered women have been deposited. What begins as a very conventional story goes into fantastical, symbolic directions with a feminist viewpoint. A later story uses a similar idea of natural climatic elements sweeping someone away.

“Ankomst” by Gøhril Gabrielsen, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin — A touching fragment featuring a woman who has been deposited at the Northern edges of the world, 100s of kilometers from any other human contact, to study birds and climatic patterns. Despite this isolation, she keeps contact with her partner who is scheduled to soon join her there, but she also uses this isolation to become reawakened by the natural world and its staggering power and beauty.

“We Have Lived Here Since We Were Born” by Andreas Moster, translated from the German by Rachel Farmer — A man visits a mining operation to oversee/check up on their status/progress. This is another example of a story that starts somewhat conventionally, but proceeds into directions increasingly surreal and perhaps magical. It also is one heavily influenced by mythology. The man arrives accompanied by a group of women who hold much of his attention, but then as he sees more of the mining operation, his focus turns to a ferryman there on the site. The story climaxes with a scheduled blasting at the mine that wrecks havoc and a howling (an element in common here with the final story in the collection). In the final pages the mountain itself becomes personified as a character. It’s a strange story, and I wish I got the mythological references more, but it also serves well for the themes of humanity trying to plunder the Earth and the effects.

“Lalana” by Michèle Rakotoson, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette — One of at least two stories in the collection particularly tied to location in a way that stresses how much a local landscape can change over time. Yet, some things never change. This story, set in the author’s native Madagascar, touches (among other things) on AIDS and its effects on society and individuals there. The native location (earth) and how it affects people touches the Elemental theme here, but in a way so to does HIV as a natural element of ecology.

“Jamshid Khan” by Bakhtiyar Ali, translated from the Kurdish by Basir Borhani and Shirzad Alipour — A second story with a prcharacter being swept away. In this case a man, a political prisoner and uncle of the story’s narrator, who escapes prison and subsequent troubles by simply catching his emaciated frame up in the wind like a kite to blow away. Similar to Aghaei’s prior story, it’s a story of politically symbolic magical realism.

“Place Memory” by Dorota Brauntsch, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye — Like “Lalana” this story also has a strong sense of place. Brauntsch touches more firmly and simply on the concept that humans can alter landscapes into things unrecognizable. It’s a melancholy story on things that can be lost, but also sweet in terms of memory that can still be held and ways that environment can still persist despite alteration. More of a mood piece than any other in the collection, but one of my favorite offerings.

“The Weather Woman” by Tamar Weiss-Gabbay, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen — A story that again touches on the theme of how the natural world resists human attempts at taming. In this case it revolves around the concept of a weather forecaster, how meteorologists can understandably get things wrong. But the general population refuses to accept the unpredictable nature of … well, nature … and demands our advanced civilization should bend things to 100% accurate foresight if not absolute control. A town facing flooding installs a pipeline to help prevent disasters, and the meteorologist becomes involved more in this when the engineering infrastructure ends up producing an annoying howling they want gone.

This is the first offering from the Calico Series put out by Two Lines Press and the NEA that I’ve read, but it is the third to be published in their roughly year-old, biannual series.

“While each Calico book will zoom in on specific styles, topics, and regions, the series will build into a composite portrait of today’s vast and rich literary landscape. What’s more, Calico books explore aspects of the present moment without the usual limitations of book publishing: genre, form, style, or a single author. We asked ourselves: What would we like to read that’s not being published? The result is Calico. We hope you enjoy it too.”

—Sarah Coolidge, Associate Editor

I’ll have to go back and read the first (Chinese speculative fiction), and though I’m uninterested in the second, poetry fans should appreciate its new Arabic poetry selections. The fourth volume, due out in September 2021 is Cuíer, a collection of Queer Brazil writing (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction alike). It can be preordered here, and I’ll look forward to checking the fiction and nonfiction in it out at least.


LOVE. AN ARCHAEOLOGY by Fábio Fernandes

Love. An Archaeology
By Fábio Fernandes
Luna Press Publishing — 26th March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387426
— Paperback — 164 pp.
Cover: Francesca T Barbini


What exactly is a translation? For a multilingual writer, does every piece become a sort of translation within the creator’s mind, or is each story pre-filtered though one linguistic route of the brain?

These question came to mind as I read Love. An Archaeology, the first collection of short fiction from Brazilian writer Fábio Fernandes, just released from Luna Press as part of their “Harvester Series.” The books in this series intentionally gather a collection of old and new works from a writer, along with authorial reflections as an appendix. For Fernandes’ stories, language becomes another layer to that harvest of past and new works.

Two of the stories in Love. An Archaeology were originally written in Portuguese and translated into English by Fernandes for the collection. One of those two was translated into Spanish for its original publication. One, Fernandes wrote in English for submission to an anthology. When it didn’t make the cut, he then translated into Portuguese and published that. Though the majority of the stories in the collection were written and published originally in English, they still exude an aura of being cultural hybrids. While the characters and plot do contribute, Fernandes’ English also adds to that flavor. Though technically correct, he often turns his phrasing in a way that feels slightly off from that of a native speaker. And that is absolutely wonderful, fitting perfectly with the unexpected turns of his stories, and those moments of surreal wonder particularly found in his forays into New Weird.

But as Paul Jessup notes in his introduction to the collection, the stories here are more than a literature of atmosphere. They are “an exploration of idea with depth. Each story is poetic, at times spiritual and transcendent.” That depth permeates into realms both emotional and intellectual. Love. An Archaeology will make you think. Though pointing out the uniqueness of Fernandes, Jessup also compares his writing to that of Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugène Ionesco, Jeffery Ford, and Ted Chiang.

The name that pops to my mind first, however, is Samuel R. Delany. In part that’s because I first encountered Fernandes with “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell. Reading Love. An Archaeology I increasingly noticed the shared fundamental elements between Delany and Fernandes: the intensity, the intellect, the curiosity, the subtle complexity exploring a basic idea. Both can leave readers disoriented one moment, only to lead them to startling revelation the next. Throughout that all, a love for – and power over – language.

I didn’t appreciate all this when reading “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip. I ended up relatively ambivalent to the story then, certainly not disliking it, but not enjoying either. Starting Love. An Archaeology I at first felt similarly. The opening story “Seven Horrors” revolves around a fascinating premise taking the idea of time travel in truly unique and mind-bending directions. A man simply called the Time Traveller and a woman known as the Assassin hop across the eons of time, locked together in an immortal struggle for/against death and love for one another. In this tale Fernandes takes the contradictions inherent to time travel stories and simply runs with the trope’s bewildering anti-logic. The framework becomes an opportunity to meditate on themes of spirituality, love, and persistence.

On the one hand, I loved the concepts of the story and its gentle luscious prose, which contras with the apocalyptic settings and chaos through time. On the other hand, I found it dense to get into with a formality to its tone that almost clashes with the personal nature of the character interactions at its heart. A lot of the references were lost on me. (The first section of the collection contains four stories ‘to the memory of Harlan Ellison’ and this must be Ellisonesque in some way I wouldn’t be able to grasp.) It’s a hard story to start things off with, yet appropriate and easier to appreciate as one digs deeper into the collection and becomes familiar with what Fernandes is doing.

Aside from showing how he approaches classic speculative fiction themes, “Seven Horrors” introduces readers to the themes of metaphysics/spirituality that Fernandes draws upon, especially Buddhism. Both “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip and “Seven Horrors” that opens Love. An Archaeology represent titles that invite speculation for numerical symbolism. Fernandes uses this type of title in additional stories in this collection, and dates. These numbers are yet another example of the cultural depths that he digs for details in his stories. Numbers mean something equally as much as words, and they are in some ways the purest form of science fiction, even more so than physics as they underlie the language of the universe and the sciences.

By the second story of Love. An Archaeology, I became hooked. Its plot is more conventional, yet still contains the elements that Fernandes plays with so effectively. It’s also a fantasy/horror as opposed to a science fiction, and I feel they are so much easier for me to get into. “The Emptiness in the Heart of All Things” may be my favorite story of the collection. It draws from the Matinta Pereira folklore of the Brazilian ‘northern wilderness’, but Fernandes works with political and feminist themes inspired by the legend of this witch-like creature, and he casts it into a crime plot. Though it contains elements of Weird, the linear narrative gives the early reader a bit more stability in navigating Fernandes’ references and themes. I wish he wrote more in this genre, because this is exceptional.

Though still in the section dedicated to Ellison, “The Remaker” is a meta-tribute to Borges, a near-future remake of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The original apparently being a story about a fellow (Menard) who recreates (not copies) Cervantes’ classic. So this is a remake of a remake concept, and we are several recursive layers deep here. Again the concept is intriguing, and now a few stories in, I had begun warming to Ferndandes’ style. As the backdrop to that, Fernandes gives his “Pierre Menard” lovers, allowing rich character development while also tapping into diversity of sex and gender. Originally published in a collection titled Outlaw Bodies, the rawness of biology, love, and sex in the story again recalls Delany. Such a wonderful ending for this story as well, and though the title has no numbers, the numerical fascination continues within chapter headings and the remade books of the plot.

A cyber-punk story that mashes up 3D printing technology with dreamscape exploration follows in “WiFi Dreams” to conclude the first section of the collection. It’s another trippy one, where I had a hard time seeing how the 3D printing idea actually integrates in.

The next two sections of stories in the collection consist of relatively shorter works. The first, dedicated to Cordwainer Smith, includes “Tales of the Obliterati”, a series of connected stories Fernandes writes about ‘lost discoveries’ and future eras where humanity faces annihilation. “Nothing Happened in 1999” is a piece of solid, if not remarkable, flash fiction. My interest really picked up for “Mycelium”, a story set in a hidden enclave of surviving humanity where a fungal symbiosis might be the key to save the human remnant. “Nine Paths to Destruction” approaches spiritual, existential matters of an individual and a species facing extinction. Beautifully and emotionally resonant.

The second of short fiction sections bears dedication to Fredric Brown and presents “Three Snapshots”, further flash fiction. Fernandes comments in the appendix that he feels very short fiction is one of his strengths, and with these I’d largely conclude. “Other Metamorphoses” is great and “Who Mourns for Washington?” is a profound take on the persistence and loss of memory.

“Archaeologies” the fourth and final section of Love. An Archaeology contains additional stories on love and includes the short story that gives the collection its title. “A Lover’s Discourse: Five Fragments and a Memory of War” returns to surreal New Weird tones, with a plot that’s hard to peg into any particular sub-genre. “The Unexpected Geographies” is notable in that it is another fantasy, darker than the prior one and more firmly in the realm of horror. Though I liked the story overall, I felt this was the most uneven and in need of further editing to make it cut more effectively.

The concluding story “Love. An Archaeology” ends things with another high point. Sisters use a new device that allows experience of alternate history timelines to discover what may have happened between their father and mother. But alternate, after all, is a relative term. The story reinforces what Fernandes excels at: taking well-worn SF ideas for a ride in new and fascinating directions. Some of those may verge into confusing dream-like realms, and others – like this one may be more standard. But they all use that platform to delve into base human relationships/emotions, like family, partner, love to see both the ecstasy and the cracks.

Fernandes is both a graduate of the prestigious Clarion West course, and a former slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine. His appreciation for classics of the SF genre and of literature, mythology, and philosophy in general should be obvious. This is a debut collection that literary speculative fiction fans should not pass up, and I believe they will look forward to seeing more from him in the future as much as I do.


CREATIVE SURGERY by Clelia Farris (Translated by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)

Creative Surgery
By Clelia Farris
(Translated from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco and Jennifer Delare)
Rosarium Publishing — September 2020
ISBN: 9781732638839
— Paperback — 172 pp.


Last night I started reading a new ~250 page novel. Even with Food Network on in the background, I plowed through and enjoyed half of it with no challenge. It’s conventional literature with a contemporary setting, straight-forward plot, and an unadorned, conversational voice. What a drastic shift from what I just read prior. Creative Surgery by Clelia Farris may be a slim volume, but the collection of seven short stories packs a density and intensity that demands vigilant attention and careful reading. But, that requirement for focus will be greatly rewarded: with profound and provocative insights into her characters, wonderment at the speculatively imaginative worlds she paints, and dazzlement at the literary finesse she employs to accomplish it all.

The title Creative Surgery comes from the final tale printed in this collection (reflected in the cover art), but it can also be taken to apply to what Farris does with genre literature through her writing. She does not settle for one speculative item to focus on, but creates multiple layers of details to combine into one adhesive whole. The opening story of the collection “A Day to Remember” illustrates this in ways better than any generalized attempt could: The story is set in climate change dystopia, where floods have inundated a city and created a patchwork of humanity separated on small makeshift islands of detritus or remnants of buildings still high enough for now to clear the water’s reach. Grafted to this setting is the protagonist Olì, a woman who is an artist with the technology to work on the personal canvas of memory. But she also uses other media for more public display of her art. Already enough in theory to feature in a short story. But not for Farris. Albeit a short story on the longer novelette size, she is able to put a ton more into this one tale: water-bound marauders geared up like sharks, family strifes, class divisions, experimental cooking recipes (cakes with candied clams in the middle – yum!), food-based bartering systems, deadly shifts in temperatures from the climate crisis, orphaned children… Where one might expect these disparate bits to clash like a cat’s head on a tortoise, Farris somehow makes it – the weird absurdities of it all – seem completely natural, surgically placed together into a brief work of literature delving into the theme of human commitments to one another, and the memories we choose to keep or lose of those connections.

Each story within the collection needs to be approached completely anew, readers need to get their bearings on what kind of world they now find themselves thrust into. At times, the answer to this is not fully clear, perhaps, until the end has been reached, meaning that several of the stories benefit from rereading and thought based on the first impressions. There are some small flourishes that Farris returns to within each story to give the reader some soupçon of familiarity, often humorous eccentricities of character’s personalities. One of these is mention of food that the character’s mentioning enjoying (or using as currency), particularly fish and shellfish; not a surprise given Farris’ native Sardinia. Another is misanthropic secondary characters that complain about their no good, bastard, cheat relatives, business partners, or neighbors. The de Sade company shows up mentioned in at least two stories. Though really small details, they nonetheless serve to help anchor the reading experience as something unified between the seven very unique stories.

“Gabola” features a man of that name, who specializes in recreating objects from the ruins of the hills where he lives on the edge of the city. The antiquity thieves that end up unwittingly taking his relatively worthless recreations don’t care for that much. But, what is most concerning for Gabola is that plunder is the only attention that the ruins, and the priceless history contained within them are getting from the community at large. Now, plans to raze the ruins to make room for new buildings are proposed, with only Gabola seeming to care to prevent it. The name Gabola is also a slang term, that from context one gathers means something worthless – junk. Both what Gabola produces, and what he himself represents in the eyes of others that look to progress and not the past. Like the protagonist of the previous story, and many others in this collection, Gabola exists as an outsider, doing his own thing.

Of all the stories, “Gabola”, is perhaps the most difficult to first get one’s bearings. It begins with a third-person passage from the point of view of a thief, and then introduces Gabola in the third person before abruptly switching to first-person. Thereafter first- and third-person portions appear, with occasional second-person declarations from Gabola. It makes for jarring transitions, but I can imagine how this is symbolically consistent with the theme of the story that contrasts Gabola’s point of view of the ruins and history with that of his contemporaries. As much as I found the story interesting, I did feel this one could have been abbreviated while achieving the same impact.

“Secret Enemy” and “Rebecca” both feature characters who are kept prisoner in one way or another. The first of these is the one story I want to go back and read again, as I’m still trying to make sense of it all. In it, a man is kept behind a bathroom mirror (in another room?) to serve as a sort of physician/nutritionist for his captor. Through first person narration he details the interactions with his captor, observations of guests to the house, and the Japanese flower art arrangements he does to pass time. Despite being a prisoner, he comes to realize (and act upon) the power he has over his captor’s health. Whether this man is actually a separate entity or a part of the captor I am still uncertain of, and there are worlds of analysis that still could be done with the brief story.

“Rebecca” is one of my favorite selections from the collection – probably along with the first one “A Day to Remember”. I love the Du Maurier novel, and the Hitchcock adaptation. that form the inspiration for this tale. But I adore Farris’ story not just for drawing from those classics, but making a fabulous story from the characters and themes of Rebecca that works in its own speculative right. This is one where the progression of it – and its ending – really reveal the clever idea behind it all, so I don’t want to spoil that. But it again involves that ‘creative literary’ surgery of Farris’: physics and feminism stitched onto the gothic framework.

Each of the proceeding stories mentioned, along with “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas”, are translated for this collection from the Italian by Rachel Cordasco. I don’t know Italian to be able to technically comment on the translation details, but the English presented here flows beautifully, even with those jarring moments of shifting voice or perspective in some of Farris’ more complex writing. I should also mention that Rachel is a dear colleague and friend whose Speculative Fiction in Translation site I contribute to. So I probably am biased. Nonetheless, I’ll be honest and say that my one critique with this is that I’d wish for footnotes explaining more about certain passages or translations. “Gabola” is one example that could have benefited. On the other hand, I imagine some readers might find footnotes obtrusively annoying.

I already reviewed both “Holes” and “The Substance of Ideas” on Speculative Fiction in Translation when they were published in short fiction outlets last year. If interested, you could click to read those reviews there and find links to the stories. A new read through them actually led to new insights and appreciations of the stories, again verifying just how well these stories hold up to multiple reads.

Jennifer Delare translated the final story of the collection, the eponymous “Creative Surgery” features a pair of outsider artist-type characters: in this case a creator of animal hybrids or chimeras who can cut, and her assistant, who can join. The story stands apart as going from the speculative edge toward horror, like the Mary Shelley story it uses at least in part as inspiration. It is used though to examine the central themes that pervade several of Farris’ other stories: human interactions and creations of beauty even amid exploitation.

The blurb quote on the cover of Creative Surgery by Cat Rambo is very apt. Firstly in the adjectives she uses to describe the writing. But also apt in that it’s Rambo providing it. The complex, detailed speculative creativity and style of Farris and the voice of her characters actually does remind me of what I’ve read from Rambo. Worlds seeming so bizarre, yet wholly believable. Creative Surgery has already gotten great reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Strange Horizons, and Locus Magazine as well. My voice may not ring as far as those get, but if you happen to hear it, do give this a look. It deserves attention from the SF genre world, as well as any who appreciate literary short fiction in general.


OF DARKNESS by Josefine Klougart (Translated by Martin Aitken)

Of Darkness (Om mörker)
By Josefine Klougart
(Translated from the Danish by Martin Aitken)
Deep Vellum Publishing — January 2017
ISBN: 9781941920503
— Papberback — 322 pp.


Today I have a review from the backlist of copies received: the second novel by Josefine Klougart translated into English by Martin Aitken: Of Darkness, published by Deep Vellum. A critically acclaimed young voice in current Scandanavian Literature, Klougart has five novels and additional works of prose published in her native Danish.

Several additional backlist titles from Deep Vellum are planned for review here in the near future, and as I try to bring more attention to translated fiction on Reading 1000 Lives, I hope to feature some of their current, new releases as well. Deep Vellum has an impressive catalog and their endeavor deserves support and readership. I’ve discovered several authors through them that I otherwise would have never read. Their prices are also great deals given the quality they put out.

Of Darkness represents a rare case of a book from Deep Vellum that I didn’t really like. Nonetheless, as I try to do here, let me provide a review that could show potential readers out there why it might be the perfect book for them.

Klougart writes beautifully, and I would give another of her novels a try, if it were more conventional, and at least had some skeleton of plot to support the atmosphere of its words. Of Darkness might be labelled as experimental in multiple regards. It lacks narrative or character development in the usual senses of a novel, with unnamed personages flowing through the scenes of its pages, starting with a particular ‘she’ and ‘he’. Although composed of prose, as novels typically are, the text most often veers closer to poetry, and also includes sketch illustrations and, at one point, turns briefly into the format of a script.

Poetry is not for me, as much as I’ve tried to read it. However, I can fall in love with poetic prose, as long as it has other aspects of story to anchor me. Even without such an anchor, I can still appreciate it in small doses, just not within a work that is over 300 pages.

Everything is shifting and merging in Of Darkness time, space, perception, revelation, relationships with the shifting styles of its experimental writing to mirror the nature of its themes. One moment Klougart gives us musical text like:

“January. Bells of frost beneath the horses’ hooves, compact snow wedged to the iron shoe, the frog of the hoof blued and fraying in the freeze.

High walls balanced on the branches here. 

It snowed, the way it had snowed for days, weeks soon.

Feet kicking up their fans of powdery snow with each step.
The darkness unrevealing of such detonations of crystal.

The crystal shares much with literature. Material held together in a particular pattern,
determined by particular rules. Structures repeating everywhere.

He can see that, he says. It makes sense.

She remembers the snow consumed her tracks and that she was unable to find her way home again.

Trudging, then to pause and listen to the sound of her breath, which in turn startled her. No way forward, no way back.

Like a year suddenly past. Or just a summer.

She remembers she gave up and thought of a farewell scene, a parting from her family and lover. She recalls being surprised at who turned up in her mind.

How many were present, and the way the snow settled in her hair.”  

Another moment, and Klougart writes in a different fashion, more akin to typical prose of a novel:

“There’s something satisfying about hearing a pop song’s reiteration of a simple truth, for instance the banality of not knowing what you’ve got until it’s gone. You lose someone but at the same time gain a more complete picture of the love you nonetheless felt for that person. That’s one way of putting it. But one might also consider that time changes everything; that the next day will always be new; that in a way it’s too late to learn what you had to lose after you’ve already lost it—the glancing back over your shoulder, or the longer look, reveals the land you’ve covered to be different from the land in which you lived. The fields you left behind, the distance measured out in units of assumptions and kilometers. She stands with her hands on her midriff, concentrating on listening. But the light has the same effect as water, distorting all sounds. And yet she is certain, he is downstairs shaving with the electric shaver. The door is closed, she lies down and turns on her side. Lying there on the bed she can look down between the beams and see the door, which indeed is closed. 

She gets to her feet. The pane is steamed up, a drop of condensation travels down the middle. 

The sky is not blue but white; the light is the voice of the sun, unready as yet, though sleep-drenched it muscles in. The pane is soaking wet. She descends the loft ladder and cautiously opens the door of the bathroom. 

He is facing away, quite apathetic.” 

These two evocative passages represent brief sips that impress and astound me, and the novel may have succeeded for me in its entirety if I hadn’t gulped it in a few sittings, but rather just as sips every once in a while, across a span of months.

Klougart’s Of Darkness is a mediative look at loss, love, pain, living, and mortality. Even with its shifting styles it can become repetitive if forced and not given time to process its details. I would vastly prefer these themes to be covered in a narrative story, with occasions of poetic interlude. But that is not what Klougart has done, and that is valid.

Though not really for me, the evident high quality of this particular work by Klougart is equally the product of its translator into English, Martin Aitken. A sparse, atmospheric, poetic novel such as this demands remarkable and delicate precision in words. I cannot speak to the precision of the translation, but Atiken keeps all of the affect that appears intended by Klougart. Aitken has also contributed to the translation of the final volume in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic My Struggle, which may be familiar to many readers. There is enough interest for me still in Klougart to give his translation of her novel One of Us Is Sleeping a try one day, which seems to be more appropriate for my tastes.


NEXHUMAN by Francesco Verso

Nexhuman
By Francesco Verso
Translated by Sally McCorry
Apex Book Company — August 2018
ISBN: 9781937009656
228 Pages — Paperback


The discarded detritus of human civilization has overwhelmed the near future Earth, submerging society in kipple junk that many turn to scavenging for survival. This dystopic landscape of garbage has triggered further ecological misbalance, cultivating new endemic pathogens to menace humanity. Coupled with technological advances in bodily transformation and the expansion of immersive artificial realities, people are left disconnected from the natural world, and emotionally from one another.

Teenage Peter Payne lives with his mother and elder brother Charlie, but spends his time out working for Charlie by scavenging among the kipple, and running with The Dead Bones, a gang led by Charlie. Although his elder brother’s presence dominates his life, Peter doesn’t look up to Charlie with much respect. Sibling rivalry and Charlie’s abuse of Peter for personal gain span years, back to a horrific accident that left Peter with artificial limbs.

Whereas Charlie and other members of The Dead Bones look to the broken world and respond with further cruelty, Peter’s temperament eyes the world seeing the flashes of beauty that still remain, including a young woman, named Alba, who treats Peter with smiles, conversation, and a yearned-for general kindness that is otherwise absent from his existence.

However, one day that small spot of beauty in Peter’s life is savagely torn apart when Peter witnesses The Dead Bones take Alva and rip her into pieces. Peter realizes that Alba is a nexhuman, an advanced artificial human body that has had a human consciousness uploaded. Charlie and his gang have taken the one spot of beauty in Peter’s life to use for violent, carnal thrills, and ultimately profit from the sale of Alba’s parts. Society doesn’t consider nexhumans as really alive, and thus there is no murder, but Peter cannot see how this brutality could be any less heinous.

Peter sets out to recover Alba’s parts with the dream of restoring her to consciousness and life, to then profess his love and devotion to her. However this obsession places him squarely against his brother, alienates him from his mother and friends, and puts him at risk of more bodily harm.

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman is thus a melange of Frankenstein and transhumanist cyberpunk, adopting the term kipple from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The plot is relatively straightforward, but the short length of the novel is packed with grand ideas of biology, transhumanism, consummerism, and human interactions. Sally McCorry’s translation of Verso’s Italian into English flows lyrically and brightly even through passages of dark violence to contrast with the dim, dank rubbish of the novel’s setting.

As a piece of speculative fiction set in the near future, Nexhuman contains both scientific and technological details to enrich the story. As a microbiologist I was ecstatic to see microbes mentioned repeatedly, where changes in the microbial communities that form the base of all life end up effecting the human characters in significant ways. While praising this inclusion I have to also criticize the errors in some of those details though. The text sadly conflates different groups of microbes: protists, bacteria, viruses, etc. To what degree the confusion between a bacteria and a virus here (for example) is due to translation or in the original I’m uncertain. But even with those errors I’m glad the subject is there, with changes in other organisms highlighted alongside the changes in human biology that the Nexhuman setting provides.

The overarching theme of transcendence amidst global ecological changes sits central to all aspects of Nexhuman. The increasing separation of humanity from the natural world and traditional human relationships drives people further into existences of distance and artifice. The ultimate expression of this is, of course, the uploading of a mind into the nexhuman form to live past death. To overcome that defining natural relationship of mortal fate. How diverged from the human body can one be while remaining ‘human’? Can virtual relationships supplant the absence of physical ones? Can existence in the world still proceed when no longer balanced with the rest of ecology? Can we transcend the biological when that foundational ecology it is built upon breaks apart under the weight of human impact?

Verso writes his characters dealing with these questions in largely non-judgmental strokes, leaving it up to the reader to see a mixture of both the promisingly good and disturbingly bad in Peter, secondary characters, or the world of the novel in general. There is much nobility in Peter, yet his obsession over Alba is also disturbingly intense and possessive, bearing little consideration over whether she would actually be grateful for his help, have any romantic feelings for him, etc.

Peter’s relationship (or really non-relationship) with Alba thereby illustrates the separation that has occurred between people in Nexhuman. Individuals have a harder time understanding both the nature of themselves, and of the Other. Peter defines Alba solely through his own emotions and desires. A nexhuman woman who simply smiled and is kindly polite to him is now an object of sexual obsession, someone who he imagines with be beholden to him when he ‘saves’ her. The lack of emotional interaction between people has left everyone, even Peter, with an ability to look past selfish considerations. Though he occasionally wonders if Alba would stay with him or reject him were he able to restore her body to life, Peter never fully seems capable of looking at her realistically as someone apart from his desires.

The thematic depth and elegant prose of Nexhuman make it a powerful and throught-provoking read that will also entertain without requiring a large time commitment. I originally picked up a copy of this on Rachel Cordasco’s recommendation (Speculative Fiction in Translation), as a possible text to use in a Biology in Fiction course I teach. With all the discussion this book could provoke, I certainly intend to use it. I hope you’ll check it out too if you’re intrigued.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for one more review of an Apex title here later this month.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

TARGET IN THE NIGHT by Ricardo Piglia (Translated by Sergio Waisman)

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Target in the Night
(Emilio Renzi #2)
By Ricardo Piglia
(Translated from Blanco nocturno by Sergio Waisman)
Deep Vellum Publishing — October 2015
ISBN 9781941920169 — 288 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


As unique a piece of crime/detective fiction that one will likely come across, Target in the Night is an acknowledged literary masterpiece, winner of the 2011 Premio internacional de novela Rómulo Gallegos and other prestigious prizes for Spanish language literature. In the few years since its translation into English by Deep Vellum Press, it has gotten even further positive reviews in multiple outlets. However, I found the novel to be a nigh impenetrable puzzle that I could never quite capture in the cross-hairs of my focus or enjoyment.
Set in a small, insular Argentinian town, the novel begins when Puerto Rican visitor Tony Durán is found murdered in his hotel room after flamboyantly arriving in town and sleeping with the twin Belladonna sisters, members of a powerful family that gained its wealth in the crooked industry of horse racing. Authorities make an arrest, but Police Inspector Croce remains unsatisfied, convinced there is something buried and committed to discover the truth behind Durán’s murder, no matter the cost. Emilio Renzi, a reporter who appears as a character in other novels by Piglia joins Croce in the investigation, and in this way Renzi serves as the point-of-view narrator of events, recounting them years after their completion in a nonlinear pattern.
While the plot of Target in the Night seems rather straight-forward and conventional for a crime thriller, it’s style is decidedly the opposite, from the aforementioned nonlinear structure to an unconventional focus away from details of the crime, or its resolution, themselves to a postmodern meditation on the politics of an intricate web of characters, on seeking interpretations of truth in a corrupt society where nebulous, authoritarian forces spin individuals into intractable realities.

There is nothing inherently problematic with this unconventional approach. Were I to have read up a bit more on the novel prior to my starting reading, it may have lessened my frustrations with finding its rhythm, because all my expectations of a ‘detective novel’ would have been shed. But even so there remain some significant potential impediments for readers. One is an ignorance of its historical context. Target in the Night is rife with not just abstract philosophical strains, but also with specific metaphor and commentary on Argentinian political unrest. The Spanish language here may be translated with fidelity, but I have no basis for making the full cultural connections the novel paints. The slow paced building of Piglia’s ideas through novel combined with a cold, almost emotionally distant personality of his characters exacerbates this inability to connect. Given the large number of eccentricities that Piglia gives his characters, I was surprised how hard it became for me to get into them, and the text.

Piglia, who sadly passed away in January of last year achieves some staggeringly impressive writing, that while not easily approachable is evocative and at times poetic. Despite that, this particular novel simply did not work for me. Readers who appreciate intellectual literature still might want to check Target in the Night out, particularly if more familiar with the history of Argentina than I. The mystery and detective aspects of the novel provide an adequate backdrop of plot for Piglia’s craft, just don’t expect that plot to become more than a means to an end.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

BEFORE by Carmen Boullosa

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Before
By Carmen Boullosa
(Translated by Peter Bush)
Deep Vellum Press — June 2016
ISBN 9781941920282 — 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


Before is a perfect example of what makes Deep Vellum Press so invaluable in providing access to English translations of modern world writers. Boullosa’s published works spans from poetry through plays to novels, generally focusing on themes of gender and feminism. This novella provides a finely distilled entry into her themes for those who can’t fluently read Spanish and/or are hesitant to commit to any one of her seventeen novels published in Mexico (with some translated and at least once in print in the US).
Billed as “part bildungsroman, part ghost story, part revenge novel,” Before is told by a woman who may — or may not — be dead, in an uncanny narration that disjointedly recollects her past, the relationships that kept her in fear while young through that uncertain journey to adulthood. Like Modiano, Boullosa’s seems particularly focused here on the theme of memory. Whereas the French novelist has often explored this on the collective cultural/national level, Boullosa’s prose dredges through the personal and familial.
   “(I feel surrounded on all sides by loose ends of memories I’ve invoked when telling you my story. They all rush up, want my hand, as if they were children, shouting ‘me first,’ and I don’t know which to take first, for fear that one will rush out, decide not to come back in a fit of pique. I lecture them: ‘Memories, be patient, let me take you one at a time to consider you more favorably, please understand that if you come at the right moment you’ll shine better in my eyes, you’ll burst and liberate all the treasures hiding on the backs of your roan mares…’ If only I could write what I relate and devote eternity to reading it…)” — pp. 43 – 44.
Before captures and celebrates the contradictions inherent in these relationships and their associated memories:
“My grandmother looked at me disappointedly because I wasn’t the boy she would have liked. My dad…he didn’t look at me that day or any subsequent day, till I lost count. Then, when I stopped noticing he wasn’t looking at me, he did look and did play with me. He was fantastic to play games with.” — p. 11.
Alongside her family, fear lurks as embodiment of the factor that has most influenced the narrator’s memories and development.
“Afterwards I fell asleep and the [terrifying sounds] that woke up…the ones that woke me up! I was in holy fear of them, a nameless tasteless fear, a fear outside of me, that went beyond me…” — p. 27.
Boullosa paints this fear as as a force that parallels the narrator’s sense of isolation from the universe around her, strengthening the forces of patriarchy that stifle her budding individualism and any self-confidence she might discover.
The melancholy tone of Before and its soupçon of the supernatural make it into an eerie auto-bereavement of how a woman began and how the power of others molded her into something else, an entity distinct from what she could have been.
“Because I’m not what I was like as a child. I am who I was, that’s true, I am or think I have been the same from the day I was born to today, but my eyes are not the same.” — p. 65.
The disjointed, fragmented nature of Before, characteristics inherent in memory, should not dissuade readers. Within the novella length this type of construction is palatable and apt. Those who appreciate intelligent, atmospheric meditations on these themes of womanhood, family, memory, and mortality shouldn’t hesitate to allow Before to speak to them.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

TRAM 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila

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Tram 83
By Fiston Mwanza Mujila
Translated by Roland Glasser
Deep Vellum Press – September 2015
ISBN 9781941920046 – 224 Pages – Paperback
Source: Publisher


“I trained as a historian. I think, unless I am mistaken, that literature deserves pride of place in the shaping of history. It is by way of literature that I can reestablish the truth. I intend to piece together the memory of a country that exists only on paper. To fantasize about the City-State and the Back-Country with a view to exploring collective memory. Historical characters are my waymarks. But baby-chicks, diggers, famished students, tourists, and…”
“I’m familiar with that view of things. We’ve already had enough of squalor, poverty, syphilis, and violence in African literature. Look around us. There are beautiful girls, good-looking men, Brazza Beer, good music. Doesn’t all that inspire you? I’m concerned for the future of African Literature in general. The main character in the African novel is always single, neurotic, perverse, depressive, childless, homeless, and overburdened with debt. Here, we live, we fuck, we’re happy. There needs to be more fucking in African literature too!”
– pp. 45-46.
Congolese, first-time novelist Fiston Mwanza Mujila may well be brilliant; his Man Booker Prize-nominated Tram 83 certainly is brilliance, African literature of honest and refreshing exuberance. Published two years ago in French, Tram 83 has garnered worldwide attention, and was published this last year in translation by Roland Glasser through the nonprofit literary arts press Deep Vellum. I’ve previously reviewed a collection of Shishkin stories from these fantastic publishers of contemporary translations into English, and I have a trove of other releases to soon read and review. They are a press that I have quickly became excited about, and Tram 83 only solidifies my appreciation of the benefit they provide readers in the United States.
This novel takes its name from the fictional, infamous nightclub of an unnamed African city-state where underworld elements of squalor, corruption, and opportunity gather in a haze of drugs, sexuality, philosophy, and politics. Trapped in a sociopolitical culture of perpetual succession, residents of the city and visitors alike compete in wild schemes of profiteering from the exploitation of the land’s natural mineral resources by the de facto ‘dissident General’ who sits in power.
Growing up – and remaining – in the city, Requiem is a realist, seeing a world past redemption: “The roads that lead to truth and honesty are cut by flooding, filth, dog turds, lies, and black-outs…” A scam artist dreaming of attaining more power in the broken existence personified by the drunken dances and excess of Tram 83, Requiem’s outlook is challenged by the arrival of his childhood friend Lucien, an aspiring writer and intellectual, looking to change the world through a literature of honest Truth.
The plot to Tram 83 is loose, ill-defined and nearly lost in the jazz-like improvisational, poetic style to the text:
 In the distance: first light, music, fatwas, angelus bells, the laughter of the post-adolescent baby-chicks, the single-mamas with spoiled breasts, the Tram busgirls and waitresses, the strike and its students, the desperados and their dogs, the dissident rebels and their desire for rape, the local mayor bringing out his fifteen sacks of heterogenite, the publisher with a single-mama-post-baby-chick, the screeching of the rails, the tragic lamentations of the Railroad Diva, the haze, the melancholy of a life premeditated.
The majority of the text is beautiful dialogue, and like the text that I’ve opened this review with, character individualities become blurred in their similarities of speaking, despite very different social status, beliefs, or behaviors. What Mujila does here is show just how fully the ‘vibe’ of this city – of Tram 83 – takes over the characters regardless of their background. They become defined by the overriding nature of their environment. This highlights that while frenetic and colorful style/language are major components to Tram 83, these are stressed to fully realize the novel’s themes and symbolism.
Full of contradiction like African literature and many aspects of the continent and its very diverse cultures, Mujila’s novel is darkly comic, seemingly written to both ‘reestablish a truth’ that transcends African literature, while also playing with its tropes in a surreal mix of philosophy, friendship, and criminal exploitation. Battling contradictions become allegorized in the characters of Lucien & Requiem. For instance, the novel has an edge of masculine rawness: women are mostly prostitutes, another resource – in the form of baby-chicks or single-mamas – for profiteering and power. On the one hand this conveys a brutal reality of a cultural condition. At the same time this fails to suggest a way forward past a history of collective misogynistic memory. Echoing the resigned despair of Requiem in opposition to the optimistic ambitions of Lucien, this is just one example of Tram 83‘s complexity.
I would have really liked the opportunity to read this in French in addition to Glasser’s translation. The peculiar magic and rhythm of the original language is surely lost through the simple act of translation. Indeed to my ears the simple title Tram 83 sounds far more evocative in French. Though I can’t directly compare the texts, I can say that Glasser at least achieves a poetry and pace in the English that is sublime in its own right, one that meshes perfectly with the other feverishly chaotic elements to the novel.
Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut novel has garnered far more than my admiration and enjoyment. In the time between my reading it and this review there have been numerous reviews/interpretations published in both well-respected professional venues and from everyday readers alike. Lovers of literature, new to African lit or not, should check this out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

THE GODDESS OF SMALL VICTORIES, by Yannick Grannec

The Goddess of Small Victories
(La Déesse des petites victoires)
By Yannick Grannec
(Translated by Willard Wood)
Other Press – October 2014
ISBN 9781590516362 – 464 Pages – Hardback
Source: Publisher via Atticus Review


FOLLOWING THE COLLAPSE

“In 1931, soon after finishing his doctorate at the University of Vienna, mathematician Kurt Gödel published his incompleteness theorems that demonstrate that a closed system of axioms cannot be used to demonstrate its own consistency. The broad themes and implications of Gödel’s work are popularly known in the foundation of Douglas Hofstadter’s 1979 book Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. Recently, in La Déesse des petites victoires (The Goddess of Small Victories), Yannick Grannec approaches the emotions and personal events around Gödel’s life and achievements through the point of view of his wife, Adele…”

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review for Atticus Review.

CALLIGRAPHY LESSON: THE COLLECTED STORIES, by Mikhail Shishkin

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Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories
By Mikhail Shishkin (Translated)
Deep Vellum Publishing – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781941920039  – 180 Pages – Paperback
Source: Edelweiss


CONTENTS:
“The Half-Belt Overcoat” (Translated by Leo Shtutuin)
“Calligraphy Lesson” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“The Blind Musician” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Language Saved” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)
“Nabakov’s Inkblot” (Translated by Mariya Bashkatova)
“Of Saucepans and Star-Showers” (Translated by Leo Shtutin)
“The Bell Tower of San Marco” (Translated by Sylvia Maizell)
“In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” (Translated by Marion Schwartz)

        –

This book from Deep Vellum Publishing marks the first collection of Mikhail Shishkin’s stories in English. Shishkin is a highly-regarded writer in contemporary Russian literature, a winner of multiple literary prizes whose name comes up with the likes of Haruki Murakami and Krasznahorkai László for potential candidacy for the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Shishkin’s writing is typical of the literary genre in its skillful achievement of complex, stylistic prose to evoke poignant themes common to all people, including love, life, family, and death. His particular style is impressionistic, which matches the characteristics of his dominating theme: language. The translation required for bringing these stories to Anglophones who cannot read Russian is wonderfully fitting with the primary concern of Shishkin’s prose. Through the narrators Shishkin argues that language is a barrier, something imperfect that can never express an exact truth. Twice he points to the story of the Tower of Babel as emblematic (the start of) the separations that language engenders.
Yet Shishkin’s stories explore this concept a bit more deeply, particularly in light of what language is able accomplish, despite its limitations through the art of prose, of the story. His debut 1993 story that gives the Calligraphy Lesson collection its name most strongly delves into this. In this story Shishkin considers words and their formation, whether through the process of basic writing, the art of calligraphy, or spoken and the power that they have to convey meaning both implicitly and explicitly. Moreover, he explores how language can be used to interpret complex human emotions and experience, such as the soul-numbing violence faced by the police investigator in the story.
Language allows organization of fragments, it allows the impression of a truth to be conveyed through imperfect means through the interpretations it permits. In one brilliantly written courtroom scene in the title story characters consider one word in Russian and the meaning, the ‘baggage’, that each letter of that word brings along with it, how they resonate in sound and appearance when written. Earlier in the story, Shishkin alternates scenes describing the composition of calligraphic text with scenes that mirror points in aspects of human interactions. Thus language itself is a translation, a transformation of ideas.
Aside from the repeated theme of language in general, Shishkin’s stories are also firmly embedded within the historical context of Russian literary history. (Footnotes and one brief, but very informative afterward are provided by the translators to give some grounding to readers.) The most recent story from Shishkin, 2013’s “Nabokov’s inkblot” illustrates this condition most directly with a character-driven tale that features a man considering his present, the weight that we attach to memories of the past, of historical significance broad or personal, and how they may be viewed quite differently in the light of the present moment.
The only limitation from the collection, from perhaps Shishkin’s short fiction in general, is the question of where it has grown – or can grow. His mastery of themes shines here, and he follows that dictum of writing what one knows best. His stories all feature male protagonists that resemble their author, literary-inclined Russians, some of whom like the author spend time residing in Switzerland. Can he write more than this? Does he need to even, if this where he excels, where he has something to say. For immediate purposes such questions are somewhat moot. This particular collection is short enough that the thematic repetition doesn’t try the reader, it is the perfect length for the stories to remain engaging. Additionally, stories vary in how far they extend the themes symbolically into the characters. For instance “The Blind Musician” considers language further within the realm of sight, with both the fallibility and unique abilities that blindness could offer.”In a Boat Scratched on a Wall” on the other hand is less of a narrative, something closer to an essay.
Books like this make me thankful for publishers of all kinds that support and facilitate translation of the world’s literature into English for the US market. In this case it offers accessibility to a major figure who I would otherwise be ignorant. Deep Vellum Publishing is a Dallas-based nonprofit literary arts organization that specializes in getting translations to market. You can find out more about the organization, their books and their translators at their site. One translator of many of the stories in Calligraphy Lesson, Marion Schwartz, was just shortlisted for the 2015 Read Russia prize for her translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
Through 5th June 2015 you can enter to win a copy of the Calligraphy Lesson collection through Goodreads’ Giveaway program.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Deep Vellum Publishing via Edelweiss in exchange for an honest review.