Twelve Nights – Urs Faes (tr. Jamie Lee Searle)

Set in the Black Forest in the deeps of winter, Twelve Nights is a wonderfully atmospheric novella of family, love, guilt, reconciliation and redemption.

The book opens with our protagonist, Manfred, traversing a snowy landscape on foot, making his way to his family home, a place he has not visited in the last forty odd years. The sole occupant of the house now is his younger brother, Sebastian, a recluse hardly ever seen by the people in the village. At the village inn, Manfred learns of the aura of bad luck surrounding Sebastian – the farm is falling apart and his wife Minna is long dead.

On his trek and even later when he is settled in his lodgings, Manfred is haunted by the ghosts of his past…memories which had lain buried deep in his mind, come floating to the surface. He reminisces about his father, mother, Sebastian, and his own love for Minna, an unwavering love whose flame is tragically extinguished.

A story rooted in folklore, tradition, and superstitions, Manfred reflects on the rituals performed by his mother to ward off evil spirits especially during the twelve-day period between Christmas and Epiphany.

The image of his mother’s face had always been there, all this time. Year in and year out, she had told stories about these nights, the Twelve Nights, Dodecameron, which threatened disorder and peril through the work of dark forces, the abysses gaping open: a disaster which drew even closer, towards the feast of St Thomas, New Year’s Eve, and Epiphany. She would put juniper berries in the incense burner, adding fir and spruce needles, an activity that seemed to calm her, as though it gave her stability and certainty. No misfortune could strike her then, neither her nor her family.

He ruminates on the bond he shared with Sebastian and their differing personalities – Sebastian is quiet, a man of very few words, awkward, while he is quite the opposite. His younger brother not quite fit for hard farm work, it seems quite certain that Manfred will inherit the farm.

But more importantly, Manfred dwells on Minna, the love of his life, certain then that they were destined to marry since Minna too reciprocated his feelings. Displaying a deep love for the land, Minna and Manfred build plans about their future only to see them wither away.

The root of this is a development that jolts Manfred and shocks him to the core. Unleashing a wave of anger in Manfred so deep and intense, he is driven by an act of revenge that has devastating consequences. Unable to come to terms with this, he relocates to a bigger town and loses all contact with his family including Minna. And yet, his torch turns bright for Minna, he can’t forget her, his Minna who goes on to marry Sebastian. Now, visiting his roots after all these years, Manfred is plagued with guilt and regret.

Twelve Nights, then, is lush with writing that is poetic, spare, and haunting. It’s a novella replete with dreamy prose and vivid imagery and packs a slew of weightier themes in a miniscule package – the debilitating consequences of revenge, crippling guilt, a piercing sense of loss, and a profound hope of reconciliation.

The book is awash with gorgeous descriptions of a winter landscape – vistas of enchanting icicles, deep drifts of snow, a misty haze that hangs over the village, the all-encompassing quiet and silence spurred on by the densely falling snowflakes, the leaden gloom of the forest.

Outside, through the window, the snow was falling once more; a creeping dusk blurred the contours, turning the trees into wizened forms, the stream to a taffeta-grey ribbon, the farmhouses to shadowy distorting mirrors.

At its very core, this is a novella about the complexity of family relationships. Unspeakable tragedies can rip apart the fabric of family life, but it is not always easy to entirely sever ties. As the years pile on, and we grow older, the idea of loneliness haunts us, the inner cries for reconciliation only grow louder and a deep-rooted desire for redemption emerges above all else. These are the feelings that confront Manfred as he hopes to make amends. A lovely, wintry read, Faes ends the novella in such a way that the reader can interpret it anyway he/she chooses.

The Summer Book – Tove Jansson (tr. Thomas Teal)

It was good to read a Tove Jansson novel after a long time. The first book of hers I read – The True Deceiver – was dark and brilliant and it had found a place on my Best Books of 2011 list. It had also won the Best Translated Book Award that year. Having seen a lot of love for The Summer Book, it seemed like the obvious next choice, and I can now say that I join the chorus of praise for this novel.

The Summer Book is a lovely, beguiling novel that in twenty-two crystalline vignettes distills the essence of summer and captures the unshakeable bond between a 6-year old girl and her grandmother, two unusual but fascinating characters.

It was an early, very warm morning in July, and it had rained during the night. The bare granite steamed, the moss and crevices were drenched with moisture, and all the colors everywhere had deepened.

Sophia, her father and her grandmother spend the summer on an unspoiled island in the Gulf of Finland. Sophia is young with her whole life spread before her, a life that teems with infinite possibilities. The grandmother is in her twilight years with decades of experience under her belt but now weighed down by physical impediments. Sophia is wild, impetuous and prone to bouts of anger, while the grandmother is wise, unsentimental and sometimes cranky.

But the two learn to co-exist and navigate each other’s temperaments and fears. As far as books go, they are unconventional individuals simply because both are not in the prime of life and yet there is something about the relationship between the two that makes The Summer Book such an engrossing read.

It’s a book where nothing much happens and yet the small moments build up to paint an enchanting picture of family life during a Nordic summer.

Together, Sophia and her grandmother go for strolls along the coastline, they build a miniature Venice from wood, keep a cat, and build boats out of bark. Despite the huge age gap between the two and stark, contrasting personalities, the pair gels quite well and also embark on various adventures together. In keeping with the setting, each of the vignettes is like a self-contained island and depicts an idea around an event. For instance, a child called Berenice comes to stay on the island with them and is fearful of everything, an unknown visitor builds an ugly house on an adjacent island, a raging storm swirls around the island wreaking havoc, a midsummer evening is spent enjoying fireworks, and Sophia even sleeps in a tent alone.

They all moved about the island doing their own chores, which were so natural and obvious that no one mentioned them, neither for praise nor sympathy. It was just the same long summer, always, and everything lived and grew at its own pace.

But more often than not, Sophia and her grandmother have illuminating conversations – sometimes solemn, sometimes laced with humour. They discuss God, nasty relatives, fear, love and even death.

In a chapter called “The Visitor”, the grandmother laments,

Nasty relatives. They tell him (her friend Verner) what to do without asking him what he wants, and so there’s nothing at all he really does want.

There is another beautiful piece called “Of Angleworms and Others” where Sophia is voicing aloud her thoughts on these creatures, and the grandmother is scribbling them down. When angleworms are split in two, the two parts become individual selves and grow. But do they experience pain? Sophia quips,

Nothing is easy when you might come apart in the middle at any moment.

And she makes a profound observation…

They realized that from now on life would be quite different, but they didn’t know how, that is, in what way.

This particular observation hints at an element of darkness in the novel, an occurrence only mentioned once, but which hangs like a Damocles sword over the family – the death of Sophia’s mother. This is conveyed to the reader in only a couple of lines, but its spectre cannot be entirely forgotten.

Sophia woke up and remembered that they had come back to the island and that she had a bed to herself because her mother was dead.

Meanwhile, Sophia’s father is both an absence and a presence – he is not the central character but remains a figure in the background going about his work, while the centrestage belongs to his mother and daughter.

The idyllic Scandinavian summer is beautifully evoked – luscious landscapes, the blossoming of flowers, sounds and smells of waves, the immenseness of the sea, the serene, calm weather alternating with the rage and fury of storms.

I loved the tenderness shown by the grandmother towards Sophia as she assuages her fears and patiently bears out her outbursts. What’s remarkable about the novel is the portrayal of two perspectives together – the characters are at the opposite ends of the spectrum of life – the young Sophia who is curious, inquisitive with burning questions about the world, and the old grandmother who is mature but is beset by her own fears, always knowing that she is veering towards the end of her existence and hating the discomfort and dependence this entails.

And yet, for all her inexperience, there are moments when Sophia seems wise beyond her years, specifically when they talk about death. And the grandmother, for all her maturity, displays the inner child within her as she and Sophia engage in various activities on the island.

Like the brilliance of cut diamonds, The Summer Book sparkles with wisdom and humour from every angle, and is life affirming in many ways. The unchanging facet of island life is like a rock, an anchor against the turmoil and tempestuous moods of the sea and everything around it. It’s a testament to the fact that while life is unpredictable and has an uncanny ability to throw up challenges, there is comfort and solace to be found in the solidity of family rituals and relationships.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

Difficult Light by Colombian author Tomás González is a poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  

Our narrator is David, a painter by profession, who is now residing alone in a village in his native Colombia since the death of his wife, Sara, a couple of years ago. David’s specialty is capturing light in his paintings, and he has earned some renown for his craft. However, in his old age, David’s eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration, and he is gradually turning blind. The forms and shapes he discerns appear fluid and liquid rather than distinct and concrete. Thus, forced to give up painting, David turns to writing instead and this book in a way is his attempt to record some of the most difficult moments in his past.

In brief we learn that David and Sara marry in their early twenties, and despite some initial hiccups, theirs is a healthy marriage, only strengthened as the years roll by. Along with their three sons – Jacobo, Pablo and Arturo – the couple, after a brief stint in Miami, eventually move to New York. Sara and the boys settle down quickly in the megapolis, she in her new position as a counselor in a hospital, and the boys in college. David finds it difficult initially to adapt to the city, the noise is too much and the space is cramped. But a move to a larger apartment with a lot of light streaming in does wonders and David begins to make some strides in his art. With things coasting along smoothly, those are some of the happiest times that he recalls. And then tragedy strikes.

An inkling of this is provided in the first chapter itself. Indeed, I had to read the last couple of lines twice to make sense of what is happening, was it a translation mistake?

“…until I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in new York.”

The background to this development is this – Jacobo is on his way home in a taxi, when an oncoming vehicle driven by a drunk junkie rams into it. The taxi driver emerges unscathed, but Jacob’s life is shattered. The accident leaves Jacobo paralyzed from the waist below. But the irony is that while his lower body is now useless, the pain completely engulfs him. So soul crushing and immense it is that he begins to wonder whether death is not a better option.

This particular development and its harrowing consequences form the bulk of the book. Jacobo and Pablo, who in many ways is Jacobo’s anchor now, travel to Portland to induce death enlisting the help of a doctor.

I enjoyed nearly two years of artistic plenitude, a happiness that also brought with it pangs of anguish: I was finding treasures everywhere, like someone for whom the stones in the road were suddenly gemstones. How could I have known what was coming! Misfortune is always like the wind: natural, unforeseeable, effortless…

We are also shown a window into David and Sara’s personalities – David is the silent, melancholy type, while Sara is more extroverted and warm and able to connect with people better. David and Sara are extremely supportive of Jacobo’s decision, and yet the impending death of their eldest son is a source of heartbreak as well. When the doctor postpones the procedure by a few hours, David and Sara are filled with hope that maybe the doctor might not arrive or that Jacobo might change his mind. This heightens the narrative tension of the story, as the reader, while aware that his death is inevitable, is still left wondering whether Jacobo might not go through with it after all.

Difficult Light, then, is an unblinking meditation on grief, loss and our capacity for pain as humans. At a fundamental level, it questions whether an individual has the right to end his life rather than live an undignified existence of unrelenting pain. David and Sara, in their ways, understand the unbearable ordeal his son has to endure on a daily basis, and yet the hell that Jacobo experiences is something that only he can fathom.

Interspersed with this central theme, are David’s reflections on his paintings and the light he is always trying to capture. David also wrestles with the notion of fame. He craves for it in his earlier years, only for it to be denied. It’s only after Jacobo’s accident that fame and money come knocking on his door, and the irony is not lost on David – now he wants to shun the limelight, but has to grudgingly accept that the money is crucial for Jacobo’s treatment.

What I also liked in the book is the portrayal of David’s family. On the day of Jacobo’s scheduled death, the family members and friends gather around in their house to show support – not by continuously doling out words of comfort, but by just being there. The palpable sense of tension and anxiety is punctuated by moments of talk and camaraderie as the family navigates the seemingly endless hours of waiting.

So many years have passed since then that even the pain in my heart has gradually dried up, like the moisture in a piece of fruit, and only rarely now am I suddenly shaken by the memory of what happened, as if it happened yesterday, and swallow hard to contain a sob. But it does still happen, and I nearly double over with grief. But at other times, I think of my son, and then I feel such warmth that in those moments it even seems to me that life is eternal, restful and eternal, and pain is an illusion.

González’s prose is crystal clear, limpid and sensitive whether he is describing the anguish of his characters, the debilitating impact of grief as well as the healing power of art especially the joy of nailing it right. When showcasing the family’s plight around Jacobo’s fate, González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a beautiful book that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

Cockroaches – Scholastique Mukasonga (tr. Jordan Stump)

Scholastique Mukasonga is an author I had been meaning to read for a while, especially since the wonderful Archipelago Books had published a slew of her memoirs, a novel and a collection of short stories. I decided to begin with Cockroaches, the first of her acclaimed autobiographical works.

We thought we could see implacable hatred in their eyes. They called us Inyenzi – cockroaches. From now on, in Nyamata, we would all be Inyenzi. I was an Inyenzi.

Cockroaches is Mukasonga’s hard-hitting and heartbreaking chronicle of her Tutsi childhood in Rwanda and the events leading up to the horrific 1994 Rwandan genocide, told with poetic grace and intensity.

This genocide is truly a dark spot in the annals of African history, where an estimated 500,000 Tutsis (as per Wikipedia) were senselessly massacred by the Hutu clan. Just before the opening pages, Mukasonga dedicates the book to the murdered members of her family – her father Cosmo, her mother Stefania, her brother Antoine and his family, her sister Alexia and her family, and her other sisters Judith, Julienne and Jeanne.

As we begin reading, we realize that the genocide was not a sudden occurrence. Seeds of it were sown much earlier. Mukasonga reveals how the Tutsis were relentlessly persecuted right from the early days of her childhood.

The first pogroms against the Tutsis broke out on all Saints’ Day, 1959. The machinery of the genocide had been set into motion. It would never stop. Until the final solution, it would never stop.

Born in the late 1950s, Mukasonga’s first recollections begin from their new house in Magi, on the steep foothills of Mount Makwaza. Her big sister Alexia and her elder brothers Antoine and Andre went to school, while her mother worked the fields. Her father knew to read and write and worked as an accountant and secretary to the sub-chief Ruvebana. As soon as she was three, Mukasonga experienced her first brush with terror as she “heard noises, shouts, a hum like a swarm of monstrous bees, a growl filling the air.”

Her family manages to escape and hide in the banana groves. While still roaring, men burst into their house, launched a frenzied attack and destroyed all their possessions and belongings. Realising that they will never be able to resume their old life in Magi, a long period of exile begins for Mukasonga and her family. They are deported to Nyamata, in the district called Bugasera – an almost unpopulated savannah, home to big, wild animals, infested by tsetse flies.

The exiled families still harbor hopes of going back to Rwanda one day. But meanwhile, they must carve out an existence in the wild land right from scratch. And they manage to do just that. Bound by a sense of community and brotherhood, the exiled Tutsis begin focusing on the practical matters of restarting everyday life. Houses are built, latrines are dug, fields are cleared for growing crops, and for immediate money they begin working for the locals. Hardships are aplenty, but the Tutsis find a way to survive. Until the spectre of massacre comes to haunt them once again.

One day, thinking that the King is about to pay them a visit, the Tutsis dress up in their Sunday best on the appointed day. Morning quickly merges into the afternoon, and there’s still no sign of the king. However, helicopters suddenly make an appearance and start targeting the Tutsis who are once again compelled to flee for dear life. In this manner, Mukasonga’s family find themselves displaced yet again as they make their way to Gitagata to rebuild their lives.

What is remarkable about Mukasonga’s story is the indomitable spirit and the instinct for survival displayed by the Tutsis in the face of unspeakable tragedy. Mukasonga’s mother, for instance, dreads the prospect of moving again and having to begin life anew, but soldier on she must. The father is a resilient man too, and has ambitions of educating his children by sending them to school whatever the circumstances. That single mindedness yields results because we would not have had this book in our hands had Mukasonga also been murdered with the rest of the family.

It’s not all bleak though. Mukasonga writes about how the family manages to find moments of happiness and calm even when the world is crumbling around them and death is just around the corner. Mukasonga, particularly, cherishes some fond memories of her childhood – the daily routine, running for school, singing and dancing, making food preparations for festival days, enjoying languid afternoons with friends by the lake, and being enthralled by her mother’s storytelling skills.

As the book progresses, Mukasonga begins to develop an aptitude for education and learning, and we follow her journey from Nyamata “where the solidarity of the ghetto gave her the strength to endure the violent and even deadly persecution”, to the school in the city where “she would know the solitude of humiliation and rejection.”

It is the parents’ insistence that something of the Mukasonga family remains, and with that goal in mind they send Scholastique and Andre to pursue higher education in the city, even though they remain in the villages, so that the two avoid the tragic fate that is destined to befall the family (which is exactly what happens).

Andre becomes the head doctor of a hospital in Dakar, Senegal, while Scholastique pursues a career in social work eventually marrying and settling in France. And that is how they end up being the only survivors of the original Mukasonga family.

The penultimate chapter in the book focuses exclusively on the horrors of the 1994 genocide, and is quite brutal. The sheer random cruelty, mayhem, and mass murder make these sections painfully difficult to read. Mukasonga is tormented by the fact that she is not present with her family when these horrific crimes take place. It takes her nearly ten years since to revisit her Rwanda, to visit as she so calls “the land of the dead.”

The murderers tried to erase everything they were, even any memory of their existence, but, in the schoolchild’s notebook that I am now never without, I write down their names. I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.

Cockroaches was first published in 2006 after a gap of nearly 12 years since the genocide. From the vantage point of adulthood, Mukasonga gains the necessary distance and perspective when recalling and retelling her brutal past. Her prose is spare and lucid, lyrical yet tragic. Her language is drenched in warmth and emits rays of great tenderness and beauty even amid all the pain.

The reality of the shocking, gruesome genocide is hard to digest, and I realized how easy it is for the reader to just snap the book shut and not read more if he/she is no mood to stomach these horrors. And that is fine. We have that advantage to choose. If only the Tutsis had that choice too – to shut out that violence, and lead a normal life like the rest of us.

Notes to Self – Emilie Pine

While looking at my reading habits over the last few years, I realize I haven’t read too many essay collections (something I need to correct), but I have been quite impressed with the ones I have –Seduction and Betrayal by Elizabeth Hardwick is the one book that comes to mind. Now, I will also add Emilie Pine’s Notes to Self to that meager list.

Notes to Self is a collection of radical, honest and unflinching essays on personal events that marked Emilie Pine’s life – caring for an alcoholic parent, the crippling grief of infertility, taboos around female bodies and sexual violence.

There are a total of six essays in the collection, but for this review, I will focus on the first two essays, which are simply brilliant and worth the price of the book alone.

Let me begin with what to me is the standout piece – ‘From the Baby Years’, a poignant essay on Pine’s emotional upheaval when it dawns on her that she will never experience motherhood. Pine was not always sure she wanted to be a mother though. In her twenties and early thirties, she observed her friends leap into parenthood and witnessed the extraordinary range of emotions they underwent. But she and her partner R weren’t very sure it’s a step they wanted to take. They debated a lot on the pros and cons, and also talked about their lives as people who loved quiet and calm and the space to read and write. For them, this was a rich and fulfilling life and having a child would mean giving up all of that.

But then, one day she accompanies her friend and her child to the park and observes the love between the two. Yearning for that very same bond, Pine decides she wants to be a mother. She manages to convince R, who is still unsure, but they decide to take the plunge.

There is no luck though after a lot of ‘trying’. And thereby begins Pine’s ordeal of closely monitoring her cycles, endless tests and hospital visits to determine the root of the problem. At one point, Pine does become pregnant only to miscarry and she writes about the emotional pain this caused and the ambiguity surrounding it – the foetus was growing, but there was no heartbeat, and under stringent Irish laws, the foetus is prioritized over the mother, so she couldn’t abort it either unless there was more clarity on its status.

All of this begins to take a toll on the couple’s relationship. It comes to a point when they have to decide whether to go in for IVF treatment. And after an important conversation – possibly the most important of their lives – Pine and R decide not to.

I loved this essay for its frank and honest portrayal of the range of emotions that the author felt – the love of a child that evoked the desire to be a mother, difficulty in comprehending what’s going on inside her body, the jealousy she felt when her sister became pregnant, and the grief of realizing that her dream of motherhood will remain unfulfilled.

But what I loved most is how the author came to terms with this fact, displaying hope and courage. Why grieve over something you can’t have, and focus instead on what you do have? Pine realized that she has a great relationship with her partner and why not treasure that rather than going after something that is not likely to happen?

And it hit me. We are growing old together. This is what it will be like as we watch each other age, as our partnership ages. And this unexpected moment made me happier than I could have imagined. I see a life ahead for us, a shared life. A great life.

It is Pine’s way of saying that she chooses to be happy and put these ‘baby trying’ years behind her.

The first essay in the book “Notes on Intemperance” explores the difficult relationship between Pine and her alcoholic father. The essay hits you in the gut right from the first few sentences. Pine and her sister are in an understaffed and poorly managed hospital in Greece, where their father has been admitted for liver failure. Travelling all the way from Dublin, when the sisters find him, “he has been lying in a small pool of his own shit for several hours.”

Pine’s feelings for her father are very complicated. She resents him for his endless drinking during her younger years, and at the same time she knows that when he eventually calls her for help, she will not be able to refuse. Pine’s father manages to pull through, but the author uses this incident as a medium through which to explore the trials of caring for an alcoholic parent – one who does not even grasp the consequences of his actions. And yet she can’t give up caring for him.

But we are not lost, not just yet. Our relationship may be an unyielding kind of story, a chain of unalterable moments, from arguments in bars to vigils at hospital bedsides. But it is also, just as powerfully, an ever-changing conversation between two people, father and daughter, a conversation that we are both grateful is not over.

In Notes to Self, then, Emilie Pine touches upon crucial themes – alcoholism, infertility, taboos around female bodies and female pain – topics which cause emotional disruptions, but which are never part of ordinary conversations lest it gets uncomfortable for the audience. And yet these are necessary conversations and cannot be swept under the carpet. These are essays laced with fearless and astonishing honesty; they reveal devastating truths and dole out dollops of wisdom.