The Unmapped Country; Stories & Fragments – Ann Quin

I have somehow always confused Ann Quin and Anna Kavan. They are obviously different writers and yet there are similarities. Both have experimental styles of writing. And both have had a brush with mental illness.

Since I had already read, loved and reviewed Anna Kavan’s Ice earlier this year, it only felt right to explore Ann Quin.

But rather than begin with her famous novel Berg, I decided to first tread the waters by dipping into this story collection recently released by the publisher And Other Stories.

The Unmapped Country
And Other Stories Edition

The Unmapped Country; Stories & Fragments, is difficult book to write about, simply because of Ann Quin’s experimental and sometimes challenging writing.

However, for those looking at a Quin appetizer before launching into the main course that is her novels, this is the best and the only place to start. As the whole title suggests, this is a collection of 14 pieces, stories, fragments; selected and edited by Jennifer Hodgson. They venture into a variety of genres – traditional narratives, horror, science fiction, stream of consciousness…

It begins with ‘Leaving School – XI.’ This is a piece of memoir writing where the narrator, which could very well be Quin herself, talks on a wide range of subjects. Here’s how it opens…

Bound by perverse securities in a convent, RC Brighton for eight years. Taking that long to get over. The Holy Ghost. The Trinity. The Reverend Mother. I was not a Catholic. I was sent to a convent to be brought up ‘a lady’. To say gate and not gaite – the Sussex accent I had picked up from a village school in my belly-rubbing days had to be eliminated by How Now Brown Cow, if I wanted to make my way in the world. According to Mother.

Besides her life in the convent, the narrator goes on describe her attempts first to try her hand at theatre, and the various dead end jobs she takes during the day – in a solicitor’s office in Brighton, as a secretary in a publishing firm in London, so that she can draft her novels in the evenings.  But it was not always easy.

In winter I lived on potatoes, saved on the gas fire by going to bed, hotwaterbottled, typerwriter balanced on knees. I rarely went out in the evenings, but was a voyeur, in the sense of watching from my window the prostitutes…

And then she describes her trysts with mental illness…

I decided to climb out of madness, the loneliness of going over the edge was worse than the absurdity of coping with day to day living.

We then have a grotesque but compelling piece called ‘Nude and Seascape’ where a man tries to create an artistic still life composition with a woman’s dead body on the beach. Not content with how things are panning out, he resorts to a bizarre tactic.

Against the landslide he found the body alone spoilt the effect, it was really only the head that was needed. He searched for his pocket-knife, it was a little rusty, which meant it would take some time.

This is followed by one of my favourites in this collection – ‘The Double Room’. This is a delicious tale about a pretty unremarkable couple. It is a tale of an extra marital affair and the woman is contemplating whether she should take up her married partner’s offer of going away for the weekend to the seaside.

Why am I going. Am I in love. No. One doesn’t question. In love with the situation. Hope of love. Out of boredom. A few days by the sea. A hotel. Room overlooking sand. Gulls. Beach. Breakfast in bed. Meals served by gracious smiling waiters. But the land there is flat. Dreary. Endless. Though the sea. The sea. The whole Front to myself. But what if it rains all the time.

It is not exactly a match made in heaven. Both are quite nervous and tetchy and unable to consummate their relationship. The dreary seaside only heightens the woman’s sense of isolation.

‘Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking’, is a story that focuses on a child’s mind, her enchanting perceptions of an adult world combined with an unflinching depiction of old age.

‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’ and ‘Ghostworm’ are stream of consciousness, experimental tales. In both, one is not really sure what is going on. Both are tales of lovers, that much seems clear. And yet, they are fascinating because of the impressions formed, and the sense of going through an experience. It’s all surreal as landscapes, words, sensual feelings swirl and merge to form an abstract painting.

Here are some tasters…

This is from ‘Eyes that Watch Behind the Wind’…

Later when they touched, it was as if someone else touched her. She gave herself up to this. From out of the past, with lovers she would not see again, be committed to. It was new. The lovemaking. Slower. Sensual. Longer. Backwards. Forwards. Sideways. She no longer placed herself over cliff edges.

‘Ghostworm’ opens thus…

I’ll take the ashes to his wife tomorrow. Idiot. No not again – go away. Never. Get off my back. You’re obsessed.

Clearly, there are two voices here. And here’s an image from the same piece…

Wind blew the curtains sideways. Lifted the Indian rug suspended from wooden beams. Wind across her feet. Face. Across his. As they lay on the mesa between rocks. The desert under his arms. She watched rain in the distance. Curtains of rain moving slowly. Wanting to watch that.

We then have ‘Motherlogue’, which is an interesting narrative because it is in the form of a telephone call and we only hear one side of the conversation – the mother talking to her daughter. And yet in this we get a glimpse of the daughter’s life as well.

And then there is the title story, ‘The Unmapped Country’, which was unfinished, but a dazzling piece told from the point of a view of a woman feeling trapped in a mental asylum.

She suddenly felt claustrophobic, the smell of women penetrated her nose, mouth, ears and eyes. She went again into the dormitory, where it was dark, silent. She lay down and slid into black velvet. A sea of velvet that tossed her gently, and somewhere above her the sound of ice breaking.

And then were a few lines in the story, which conjured up images of Anna Kavan’s Ice….

Wind ruffled snow. The north wind bringing the sound of ice. She saw again three gulls circle the ship’s mast, and heard the movement of wood against ice: saw the icebergs like fallen statues move slowly past. Points of light from islands pinpricked the disturbed darkness.

There are a couple of pieces I thought were pretty uninspiring. One was in the form of a manifesto, on behalf of one of Quin’s boyfriends Billy Apple. And the other is a tale in the form of cut-ups called ‘Living in the ‘Present’, which I couldn’t really get into.

But otherwise, this is a superb collection and gives a rich flavour of Quin’s innovative writing. There is no doubt that Ann Quin’s work is an acquired taste. But if you develop a liking, the journey is worth it.

And end up like me – yes perhaps it would be an experience for you that’s what you want EXPERIENCE in caps period. To live beyond myself. Such a craving.

 

Shadows on the Tundra – Dalia Grinkeviciute (tr. Delija Valiukenas)

Peirene Press is an interesting publisher. In 2016, three of its books made it into my Best of the Year list.

Every year, Peirene publishes three translated books from Europe, all bound together by a theme. The 2018 one is called ‘Home in Exile’ and I have already reviewed the first title in this series – the wonderful Nora Ikstena’s Soviet Milk. It is set in Latvia under Soviet occupation.

And now we have the second one – Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkeviciute, superbly translated by Delija Valiukenas. And the author’s country of origin? Lithuania.

I can confidently say that this book will find a place in my Best of 2018 list.

Shadows on the Tundra
Peirene Press Edition (‘Home in Exile’ Series Book Two)

Shadows on the Tundra is an incredible tale of the author Dalia’s hard and unbearable years in a Soviet gulag when she was a young girl, and her indomitable spirit and will to survive no matter what.

In 1941 at the height of the Second World War, many Lithuanians were deported from Kaunas in Lithuania to a harsh prison camp in the unforgiving Siberian tundra. There, all of them were forced to work in deplorable and inhuman conditions.

The author Dalia was 14 at the time she was deported along with her mother and brother Juozas.

Here is how the book opens…

I’m touching something. It feels like cold iron. I’m lying on my back…How beautiful…the sunlight…and the shadow.

I am aware that a phase of my life has come to an end, a line drawn underneath it. Another is beginning, uncertain and ominous. Twenty-four people lie nearby. Asleep?

It becomes evident that the deportees are not taken directly to the camp, but with several stops along the way. The first few pages describe this journey, with the deportees having no clue what their final destination will be. In fact, many are in denial and harbor considerable hope that they are being transported to America, that free land.

It’s only when they reach Trofimovsk, the site of the gulag much above the Arctic Circle that the harsh reality sets in.

To say life in the gulag is hard is an understatement. It is deep winter. The tundra is excruciatingly cold and blizzard after blizzard keeps pounding the region.

Sky and earth clash. Our barracks shake. Whirling like a dervish in the spaces between the ceiling boards, the snow descends in a vortex on the people huddled and shivering beneath their tatters. The polar elements sweep across the tundra, obliterating everything that is alive. The din outside merges into one deafening rumble of sound. The savage elements are clamouring for atonement.

In such an environment, Dalia describes the horrific and squalid conditions they are forced to live in. There is no ready habitation. The deportees have to build their barracks themselves right from scratch.

Then there is the work itself. It involves pulling logs tied by ropes from the mouth of the river and up a steep hill. It’s a grueling job, and quite simply back-breaking. And not something a young girl can manage in ordinary circumstances.

But Dalia pushes on through determination and sheer force of will. In fact, her strength of character and her courage shines on every page and makes the book quite incredible.

…that somewhere life is free and beautiful. I feel myself getting stronger, more determined; my desire to live, to fight, to endure intensifies. I want to take life by the horns, I want to take charge of it rather than have it knock me about. We’ve got a life to live yet, Dalia, and a battle to fight. Life may be a cruel enemy, but we will not surrender. So what if I’m only fifteen.

And then there is something to look forward to – school. Hours spent in school are the brightest points of the day for her, but this period of solace does not last for long.

Not everybody makes it through though. The deportees are treated badly. They are made to work hard but are fed poorly. Famine and starvation rule the roost. Diseases are just around the corner. Many of the deportees don’t survive and the corpses keep piling up.

The landscape is bleak and desolate.

Ahead of us is the mouth of the Lena River, which is several kilometres wide and fettered in ice. Wherever the wind has cleared the snow, the ice is as smooth as a mirror. We hear booming, a sound like muted cannon going off. That’s the ice quaking. Huge fissures appear that reach down its entire depth.

Dalia observes her fellow deportees and exhibits keen insight on their characters. These are people who had a life back in Lithuania – they were individuals, they were unique in their own way and had hopes and dreams.

All of that is reduced to nothing in the gulag. There is nothing to distinguish them, they are treated like a herd of cattle. Through sheer desperation, cheating and stealing become the order of the day. But Dalia understands this and chooses not to judge. After all, everyone is looking to just about survive.

What makes Dalia keep going is her spirit and zest for life. Hope sustains her and she refuses to give up.

Oddly, I never thought that I might die. I believed absolutely that no matter what the future had in store, I would survive. It was as simple as that. During the days that followed, a kind of tenacity began to take shape as part of my character. I felt a growing desire to confront life, to grapple with it, to prevail. I was convinced of my survival.

Even in the cold tundra, she manages to find moments of beauty.

Yet what splendor above. The northern lights are a magnificent web of colour. We are surrounded by grandeur: the immense tundra, as ruthless and infinite as the sea, the vast Lena estuary backed up with ice; the colossal, 100-metre-pillar caves on the shores of Stolby; and the aurora borealis.

And there are always some nostalgic moments – the happy life she led in Lithuania and the prospect of an exciting and full life ahead. Little did she know what fate had in store for her!

They say that it is during adversities that a person’s mettle is really tested. Dalia goes through hell but she fights back and that alone makes her truly extraordinary and extra special. While Shadows on the Tundra gives a horrific glimpse of Soviet cruelty, it is Dalia’s resilience and unbreakable spirit that makes her tale gut-wrenching and yet ultimately quite uplifting.

 

Things We Lost in the Fire – Mariana Enriquez (tr. Megan McDowell)

Last year, the Argentinian writer Samanta Schweblin’s Fever Dream made it to My Top 12 Books of 2017 list. As I pored over the glowing reviews of that novel in the cultural sections of newspapers, I stumbled across another translated book from Argentina, and published in the same year. But it was a short story collection this time, and penned by a writer previously unknown to me.

Not surprisingly, this collection was published by Portobello Books, a rather excellent publisher which introduced me to Han Kang and Andres Barba among others.

Things we lost in the fire
Portobello Books Edition

Things We Lost in the Fire by Marian Enriquez is a collection of 12 wonderful short stories steeped in Gothic horror. The difference – it’s not set in Victorian London, the birthplace of Gothic fiction, but in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

In most of them, there are many traces of supernatural elements, but there is more to it than that. For the author, these stories are also a medium to display the many evils plaguing Argentina, a country whose democracy is in its infancy having just broken away from the shackles of repressive dictatorships.

The translator, Megan McDowell, gives some perspective on the backdrop against which these stories are set…

Argentina’s twentieth century was scarred by decades of conflict between the leftist guerrillas and state and military forces. The last of many coups took place in 1976, three years after Marian Enriquez was born, and the military dictatorship it installed lasted until 1983. The dictatorship was a period of brutal repression and state terrorism, and thousands of people were murdered or disappeared. Since the dictatorship fell, Argentina has lived its longest period of democracy in recent history.

The collection opens with the story ‘The Dirty Kid.’ In this the narrator is a young woman who chooses to stay alone in her ancestral home in Constitucion, a dangerous neighbourhood rife with poverty and drug junkies. One day, she comes across a homeless woman, and her five year old son. Then, all of a sudden after some days they are gone, and the body of a child surfaces in the neighbourhood. Is it the same dirty kid?

There is a hint of violence that seeps through the story, but equally chilling is the narrator’s casual observation…

I realized, while the dirty kid was licking his sticky fingers, how little I cared about people, how natural these desperate lives seemed to me.

In Enriquez’s stories, violence is a part of everyday, ordinary life and occurs with alarming regularity. Children, in particular are at the centre of many of her stories, either as sufferers or the ones inflicting harm on others.

In one of my favourites ‘Adela’s House’, a group of three children are drawn to a house that is supposedly haunted, expressing extreme eagerness to explore it. But do all of them emerge unscathed?

The idea of going inside the house was my brother’s. He suggested it to me first. I told him he was crazy. And he was, he was obsessed. He needed to know what happened in that house, what was inside. He wanted it with a fervor that was strange to see in an eleven-year old boy. I don’t understand, I could never understand what the house did to him, how it drew him in like that. Because it drew him to it, first. And then he infected Adela.

In ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’, the protagonist Pablo is a tour operator taking tourists on a popular murder tour of the city. But one day he sees the apparition of one of the most famous murderers on the tour.

But it was impossible for him to be there, where Pablo saw him standing. The Runt had died in 1944 at the Ushuaia penitentiary in Tierra del Fuego, a thousand miles away, down at the end of the world. What could he possibly be doing now, in the spring of 2014, a ghost passenger on a bus touring the scenes of his crimes?

In her novel Fever Dream, Schweblin uses the supernatural as a tool to expose the ground realities in her country such as the harmful effects of agricultural pesticides. In a similar vein, Enriquez’s haunting and unsettling story ‘Under the Black Water’ mixes the eerie with the stark reality of Argentina’s hazardous, industrial waste dumped in a river.

He also explained to her that the Riachuelo’s deep and rotten stench, which with the right wind and the city’s constant humidity could hang in the air for days, was caused by the lack of oxygen in the water. Anoxia, he’d told her. “The organic material consumers the oxygen in the liquid,” he said…

Horror drips off the pages of this collection, and yet it’s not the only factor that punches you in the gut. Argentina has had a troubling past, it is still transitioning into a democracy, and is grappling with all the problems that a typical developing country faces. Poverty, corruption, the sorry plight of children, drug addiction, the haunting spectre of military dictatorships are recurrent themes…these are as frightening as the supernatural twist in every story.

Enriquez’ stories also explore relationships, in particular the weaknesses in men and their inability to understand the women they are in a relationship with.

‘The Neighbour’s Courtyard’ for instance focuses on a young couple; the woman is prone to depression, and how her partner just does not get it.

Paula convinced herself that it had been the stress from the move; she’d read once that moving was the third most stressful life event, after the death of a loved one and being fired. In the past two years she’d gone through all three: her father had died, she’d been fired from her job, and she’d moved. And then there was her idiot of a husband, who thought she could get over it all just by trying.

In a nutshell, this is a strange, macabre and superb short story collection, making Argentina a thriving hotbed of exciting literature. There’s loads to explore!