Esther Kinsky’s most recent book, Hain, is part memoir, part nature and travel writing, but it is also a meditation on death. The three sections of the book each describe journeys made in different parts of Italy when the writer is suffering bereavement and engaged in different ways with loss. The first section is an account of two months spent in the small town of Olevano after the death of her partner, M. In the second section the writer loses her father and recalls her experiences of travelling to Italy on family holidays with him. The third section is an account of a visit to the Po Delta a little time later when awareness of both these losses weave through the narrative and the wonderful nature writing, so powerful here.
The book is prefaced with a short account of the candles lit in Romanian churches, candles for the living on the left and for the dead on the right. This sets the tone for the writer’s stay in Olevano: she has rented a house standing on a sort of bluff with the cemetery to one side and the village on the other and this relationship in space and how it changes when seen from different places in the landscape is a recurrent theme. Every day very early the writer walks over to the cemetery, passing the grove of birch trees of the title on her way. She describes in detail the Kolumbarien style tombs, a system of square compartments stacked on top of one another where funerary urns are kept. The writer is weighed down with grief- her heart is heavy – and is ever conscious of absence. But she has vivid dreams about M. and it is as if she is at times inhabiting that liminal state where life and death are separated by the thinnest of membranes.
From her house she has a fantastic view over the plains below and the changing colours and shapes in the landscape determined by the play of cloud and dull winter sunlight are beautifully described and add to the sombre mood. Her attentive photographer’s eye observes nature in close-up too- she describes many bird varieties in the area and has an ear for their song. Her observation of place extends to urban as well as rural landscapes and I enjoyed her awareness of change in the small town of Olevano as well as the larger scale changes in land use in the Po Delta. She is as good at describing the anonymous non-lieux in the sprawling outskirts of Rome as she is at depicting the wintry holm oaks and pastures on the hillsides near her house.
The second section starts with the death of the writer’s father. Sorting through his affairs, she finds old photos and slides which trigger memories of him as a young man and of their holidays in Italy and it is these memories which largely figure in this section. Inevitably, the accounts are anecdotal and much is unexplained or speculative. Though the personality of this passionate lover of Italy does come through, he remains rather mysterious and elusive: I wanted to know where he went at night and what his wife thought of his wanderings! Where the writer excels is in conveying her feelings during these travels: the worry whether her father would come home, her discomfort at the older men touching her at the disco party, the tense atmosphere in Rome with its demonstrations and barricaded streets and the sleazy shameless men on the bus rubbing themselves up against women.
Awareness of her father and his Italian passions informs the travels described in the third section. The writer takes off for the Po Delta, again in winter but possibly a year or so later. Her father was fascinated by the Etruscans and their tombs and as they had settled at Spina, many treasures, in particular burial treasures, had been excavated and were now in museums. She thinks of going to visit them as well as the mosaics in Ravenna, another of her father’s favourites, but only sort of nebenbei– she’s interested in many other things in this area. In the Valli di Commacchio she stays in a chalet on an out of season holiday camp and evokes vividly its air of shabby abandonment, the tacky sleigh with reindeer Christmas lights still illuminating the patio at dusk. From here she explores the flat marshy landscape, run through with a network of small canals and ditches, a branching system providing drainage for the reclaimed agricultural land. She observes many types of reeds and grass and we hear das Rascheln der Palme, das Wispern der trockenen Schilfstengel. She describes the flamingos as eine schwimmende Ansammlung aus schmutzig rosa Kissen, setting off the dirty pink of the flamingos against the muted greens and browns of the landscape.
The final chapter Lamentatio returns us to the theme of death. Here Esther Kinsky describes a painting by Fra Angelico of the mass said for St. Francis of Assisi on his death. It is a triptych, reminding us of the positions of the candles in the Romanian church and of the three places in Olevano- the village, the cemetery and the house between. And here the central panel shows us the body of St. Francis, lying in his coffin, his mourners around him, weeping, disconsolate. This is death in the centre of life and the bereaved cannot be comforted.
Though this book ends with a lament and is at times deeply moving in its evocation of loss, I felt a sort of quiet joy at the description of place, at the thoughtful account of cities and people as well as the beauty of the natural world. There is an awareness of change through time, both in her return to childhood in the narrative but also in the changing landscape which she reveals to us. This awareness of time and change in nature helps us perhaps to come to terms with loss, to see death as part of the natural order, while at the same time grieving for those who have gone. This is the feeling that I was left with at the end of this beautiful book, which I can’t recommend strongly enough. It is now , so deservedly, on the shortlist for the Leipzig Book Prize 2018.