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.

Blast from the Past: The Blue Fox – Sjón (tr. Victoria Cribb)

The Blue Fox was the first book I read of the Icelandic author Sjón, and it blew me away. I read it many years ago, pre-blog, and while recently sorting out some of bookshelves, came upon it again. Suddenly, I felt like penning some thoughts on it.

The Blue Fox is a haunting, mythical novella, a blend of historical fiction and fairytale, with a very dreamlike vibe pulsing through it.

Set in Iceland in the late 1800s, the book opens with the protagonist Baldur Skuggason, a priest, hunting for the mystical blue fox on the whitened, frozen landscape in the dead of winter.

Blue foxes are so curiously like stones that it is a matter for wonder. When they lie beside them in winter there is no hope of telling them apart from the rocks themselves; indeed, they’re far trickier than white foxes, which always cast a shadow or look yellow against the snow.

In the throes of a howling wind and a raging blizzard, the action in this section feels like watching a slow motion film, as the Reverend stealthily moves across the snowy slopes in his quest to trap the enigmatic vixen. When he thinks he has spotted it, the Reverend fires his gun and sets in motion an avalanche that blankets the region.

Like a camera angle zooming to another scene, we are then transported to a different storyline, where the spotlight shines on Fridrik Fridjonsson, a naturalist, who must bury a young girl he has been caring for. This young girl was called Abba and was afflicted with Down’s Syndrome. The story, then, moves backwards to give us a glimpse of the girl’s life up to moment she dies. It’s a heartbreaking tale showcasing Abba’s hard life, and the heavy burden that Fridrik shoulders as he is unable to turn a blind eye to her suffering.

What is remarkable is how Sjón masterfully interweaves these two seemingly disparate storylines, to reveal a surprising twist in the final pages. 

With concise prose that is both gorgeous and sinister, The Blue Fox is an impressive interlacing of lives, a spellbinding fable that is part mystery part fairytale that displays the dark recesses of the human heart. In the Baldur sections, Sjón takes us inside the minds of the hunter and hunted as they try to outmaneuver each other. More often than not, the reader’s sympathies lie with the blue fox as we secretly hope it escapes the Reverend’s mode of attack. With the Abba story thread, the book delves into the themes of human cruelty, the stigma associated with a genetic disorders and how society is so unkind to people born with them.  

Sjón’s prose is as sparse, crisp and still as the glacial surroundings depicted within. There is a lot of white, empty space around the printed words on most pages, which is symbolic of the stark, icy and wintry backdrop against which the book is set. Much of the prose throughout the book reads like lyrical poems.

It is a novella of surreal beauty interspersed with moments of volatile darkness that can strike as suddenly and violently as the avalanche triggered by the Reverend’s gun.

I simply adored this atmospheric novella, and I’ll end with a quote from the book that describes the stunning Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis), a natural phenomenon I was lucky to witness a few years ago, north of the Arctic Circle.

In the halls of heaven it was now dark enough for the Aurora Borealis sisters to begin their lively dance of the veils. With an enchanting play of colours they flitted light and quick about the great stage of the heavens, in fluttering golden dresses, their tumbling pearl necklaces scattering here and there in their wild caperings.

Subsequently, I have gone on to read his From the Mouth of a Whale, which I remember liking immensely at the time, but do not recall much of it now, unfortunately!

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.

 

Ice – Anna Kavan

I had meaning to read Anna Kavan – specifically Ice – for quite some time now but the tags ‘science fiction’ and ‘difficult book’ probably made me hesitant. But then I saw new versions of this novel being released by Peter Owen Classics and Penguin Modern Classics. These brilliant covers finally gave me the push I needed.

And as I kept turning the pages, I had to admit that all my prejudices were unfounded. Indeed, it dawned on me that to simply label Ice as science fiction was plain lazy, because there is so much more going on. Anyway, to cut a long story short; I absolutely loved Ice.

Ice Peter Owen
Peter Owen Cased Classics Edition

Ice is one of those books that are easy to read but difficult to write about.

Here’s what Christopher Priest (of The Prestige fame) wrote in a foreword to the book:

Anna Kavan’s Ice is a work of literary slipstream, one of the most significant novels of its type.

Essentially it’s a book where the boundaries between fiction, science fiction and fantasy are blurred.

When the novel opens, we are in stark, desolate and surreal territory. We don’t know where or when the novel is set, it’s possibly in a frozen dystopian world. Our male unnamed narrator is traversing the icy roads driven by a growing urge to find the girl he loves.

I was lost, it was already dusk, I had been driving for hours and was practically out of petrol. The idea of being stranded on these lonely hills in the dark appalled me, so I was glad to see a signpost, and coast down to a garage. When I opened a window to speak to the attendant, the air outside was so cold that I turned up my collar.

We learn that the narrator and this girl were seeing each other in earlier days, although for a brief period.

I had been infatuated with her at one time, had intended to marry her. Ironically, my aim then had been to shield her from the callousness of the world, which her timidity and fragility seemed to invite. She was over-sensitive, highly-strung, afraid of people and life; her personality had been damaged by a sadistic mother who kept her in a permanent state of frightened subjection.

There’s more to her…

Her prominent bones seemed brittle, the protruding wrist-bones had a particular fascination for me. Her hair was astonishing, silver-white, an albino’s, sparkling like moonlight, like moonlit venetian glass. I treated her like a glass girl; at times she hardly seemed real.

We then learn that she suddenly ditches the narrator and marries another man. The narrator goes to meet the couple at their home, and sees that she remains in a state of terror and submission in the marriage as well.

Later the husband tells the narrator that the girl has escaped, and from then onwards, the narrator decides to make his quest for finding the girl his sole purpose, above anything else.

This is also where the novel begins to take on a dream like quality, and as a reader you are strangely compelled to go along with the flow rather than try to make any sense of it.

Throughout the book, the sequence keeps on repeating…the narrator boards a ship, he reaches a town where he sees the girl only to lose her again.

For instance, in the initial pages, the narrator reaches an unnamed town and gathers that it is governed by the Warden, a powerful and brutal man. He knows that the girl is with him and makes a request to see her, but his efforts prove futile.

It’s a recurring pattern, as the girl continues to remain elusive. And yet, the narrator can’t let go of her. He wants to find her at all cost, even when during some moments of rationality, he acknowledges that he needs to abandon this desperate need to go after her.

Ice then is a tale of male obsession and desire, also giving us an uncomfortable glimpse into female objectification.

It’s a book that is disorienting and defies logic and that is precisely its strength. It’s as if we are in a dream where anything can seem real and yet it is not.

Ice also has streaks of science fiction elements running through it. The world Kavan has painted is cold, bleak and desolate; gradually being crushed by ice. It is a world on the brink of an apocalypse. It’s also in the description of this environment, where Kavan’s prose soars and shimmers…

She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice-walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an overhanging ring of frigid, fiery colossal waves about to collapse upon her.

And here…

Day by day the ice was creeping over the curve of the earth, unimpeded by seas or mountains. Without haste or pause, it was steadily moving nearer, entering and flattening cities, filling craters from which boiling lava had poured. There was no way of stopping the icy giant battalions, marching in relentless order across the world, crushing, obliterating, destroying everything in their path.

There are many set pieces in this novel each with more or less the same result, but it’s where Kavan’s writing clearly excels. One such section to me was quite hypnotic. It was when on learning about the ice catastrophe, the Warden flees his country and forces the girl to go with him.

It was incomprehensible to her, this extraordinary flight that went on and on. The forest went on forever, the silence went on and on. The snow stopped, but the cold went on and even increased, as if some icy exudation from the black trees congealed beneath them. Hour after hour passed before a little reluctant daylight filtered down through the roof of branches, revealing nothing but gloomy masses of firs, dead and living trees tangled together, a dead bird often caught in the branches, as if the tree had caught it deliberately.

Ice Penguin Modern
Penguin Modern Classics Edition (Eau-de-nil)

Just as Ice is an incredibly fascinating read so is its author’s profile. Kavan was married twice and once her second marriage ended, she suffered a series of nervous breakdowns for which she was confined to a clinic in Switzerland.

Kavan also suffered bouts of mental illness and was addicted to heroin for a considerable period. In a sense, there are influences of this in her novels. The hallucinatory effect of Ice probably corresponds to the unreal, surreal world that exists for a drug addict.

Given that Ice refuses to follow conventional norms of fiction or storytelling, it is challenging to define it. But if you are willing to accept its arbitrariness, and its strangeness, then the experience of reading it is as exhilarating as any whiff of joint.

Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me. At times this could be disturbing.

The Ice Palace – Tarjei Vesaas (tr. Elizabeth Rokkan)

Norway is a country of gorgeous scenery. When I visited it a couple of years ago, I was stunned by the beauty of its fjords and the charm of its small towns. It was also where I was treated to a fabulous display of the Northern Lights!

But besides nature, Norway also has a strong literary heritage as I am beginning to discover. Two months in and I have already savoured the novels of two Norwegian authors. One was the existential Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad, which I had reviewed on my blog earlier. The other is the one I will be reviewing now – The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas.

IMG_20180306_230024_082
Peter Owen Cased Classics Edition

The Ice Palace is a haunting tale of two 11-year old girls Siss and Unn. When the novel opens, it is a cold winter’s evening and Siss is one her way to Unn’s house.

Siss thought about many things as she walked, bundled up against the frost. She was on her way to Unn, a girl she scarcely knew, for the first time; on her way to something unfamiliar, which was why it was exciting.

Those lines are intriguing and we get a whiff of an intense friendship about to develop between them.

We then learn that Unn lost her unwed mother last spring. Having never met her father, she now comes to live in the village with her only relative – Auntie.

From the beginning it is clear that Unn is shy, likes to be alone and does not participate in the activities of the other children.

Siss, on the other hand, is a lively girl, always at the centre of her friends circle and tries her best to persuade Unn to join them.

And yet, despite their different personalities, they are drawn to each other, finally culminating in Unn asking Siss to come to her house one evening.

This is where it gets intense, sensual even and the meeting between the two girls is so electric, it crackles.

Four eyes full of gleams and radiance beneath their lashes, filling the looking glass. Questions shooting out and then hiding again. I don’t know; gleams and radiance, gleaming from you to me, from me to you, and from me to you alone – into the mirror and out again, and never an answer about what this is, never an explanation. Those pouting red lips of yours, no, they’re mine, how alike! Hair done in the same way, and gleams and radiance. It’s ourselves!

These are the tentative beginnings of a deep friendship as both the girls are trying to figure each other out.

We get to a pivotal moment in their conversation, an exchange (and what it implies) that Siss will have difficulty in conveying to adults later on in the novel.

After a long silence Unn said, ‘Siss.’

The start!

‘Yes?’

‘There’s something I want – ‘ said Unn, flushing.

Siss was already embarrassed. ‘Oh?’

‘Did you see anything on me just now?’ asked Unn quickly but looking Siss straight in the eyes.

Siss became even more embarrassed. ‘No!’

‘There’s something I want to tell you,’ began Unn again, her voice unrecognizable.

Siss held her breath.

Unn did not continue. But then she said, ‘I’ve never said it to anyone.’

Siss stammered, ‘Would you have said it to your mother?’

‘No!’

Silence.

Siss saw that Unn’s eyes were full of anxiety. Was she not going to tell her? Siss asked, almost in a whisper, ‘Will you say it now?’

Unn drew herself up. ‘No.’

‘All right.’

And we also get a feeling that while Siss is the extroverted of the two, she is also warier. She wants to know more about Unn and yet she is afraid.

By this time, we are barely 30 pages into the novel, and there is still so much yet to take place. But as far as the plot line goes, I will not reveal more.

While the entire novel is from Siss’ point of view, there is one chapter in the early part of the novel – and the only one – which is told from Unn’s point of view.

But it is a chapter that I read with a growing sense of dread and foreboding – and also with a sense of wonderment, of the kind Unn felt too. It is also the chapter where we are first introduced to the Ice Palace (of the novel) in the Norwegian fjords.

Unn looked down into an enchanted world of small pinnacles, gables, frosted domes, soft curves and confused tracery.

A little further on…

The enormous ice palace proved to be seven times bigger and more extravagant from this angle. From here the ice walls seemed to touch the sky, they grew as she thought about them. She was intoxicated. The place was full of wings and turrets, how many it was impossible to say. The water had made it swell in all directions, and the main waterfall plunged down in the middle, keeping a space clear for itself.

The Ice Palace then is a haunting, mesmerizing novel of friendship, of loss, of redemption and recovery, of the forces of nature, of people and their lives in a village.

Vesaas’ writing (wonderfully translated by Elizabeth Rokkan) is superb. The prose is lean, spare and poetic. He is great at getting into the minds of children and conveying the world one sees through their eyes. Throughout the novel, things are implied, never explicitly stated.

He is also particularly good at expressing mood and atmosphere and describing nature.

A loud noise had interrupted her thoughts, her expectancy; a noise like a long-drawn-out crack, moving further and further off, while the sound died away. It was from the ice on the big lake down below. And it was nothing dangerous, in fact it was good news: the noise meant that the ice was a little bit stronger. It thundered like gunshot, blasting long fissures, narrow as a knife-blade, from the surface down into the depths – yet the ice was stronger and safer each morning. There had been an unusually long period of severe frost this autumn.

Clearly, Vesaas writing’ was influenced by his origins. Here’s his profile from the book:

Tarjei Vesaas was born on a farm in Vinje, Telemark, an isolated mountainous district of southern Norway, in 1897 and, having little taste for travel and an abiding love of his native countryside, died there in 1970 aged seventy-two.

I simply loved The Ice Palace. It had me captivated throughout, and I will be exploring more of this author’s backlist.

The Ice Palace
Penguin Modern Classics Edition (Eau-de-nil)