Stille Zeile 6 by Monika Maron- a DDR chamber piece.

This apparently simple unassuming story is set almost entirely in  East Berlin’s Pankow Stille Zeile Sechsdistrict and told from the point of view of a middle aged woman : it tells the tale of a woman who takes on a part time job as a secretary/scribe to Beerenbaum, a former East German professor. First published in 1991, it was quite a different read in its scope and range from more recent DDR books, like Tellkamp’s der Turm or Eugen Ruge’s In Zeiten des abnehemenden Lichts, their plots sprawling over decades and generations. Yet on this small canvas it deals with the big issues of hierarchy, power and patriarchy and how they played out in the authoritarian state of the DDR.

Rosa or Rosalind Polkowski first meets Beerenbaum by chance in a cafe. She is in her forties and has just given up a good job at the Barabassche Research Institute because she is fed up with putting her brain to work for others in projects she doesn’t care about. She feels an immediate antipathy towards Beerenbaum, seeing him as one of a class of self important old men who patronise waitresses and belittle their wives in public and whom she can’t abide. Their encounter is described immediately within a framework of power relations: he reminds her of her father and she thinks she’ll get one up on him by ‘guessing’ his life story-a working class boy and a dedicated young Communist who rose to power and influence through the party ranks. Despite finding him repellent, she is intrigued when he tells her he is writing his memoirs and looking for a secretary/scribe two afternoons a week to write them down- he lost the use of his right hand after a stroke. She agrees to do the job, but on the condition that she will use just her hand and not engage her brain in the slightest in the content of what she is writing down: she knows after all that he was a brilliant speaker and an inflexible Stalinist- who knows what she’s letting herself in for?

A second narrative strand is interleaved with the main story- a fast forward to  Beerenbaum’s funeral where the outsized wreath and pompous ceremony leave us in no doubt as to Beerenbaum’s elevated status in the East German hierarchy: right at the beginning we are told he’ll be buried in that part of the Pankow cemetery reserved for important servants of the regime and we know he lives in the Pankow Villa Viertel-the posh part of Pankow whose large houses reward the government apparatchiks. Scene by scene the funeral and mourners are described while the narrator keeps her physical distance from the other mourners, expressing her ideological distance in a gloriously mocking riff on the ponderous double chin of the chief mourner.

Back at Stille Zeile 6, Beerenbaum’s house, where she goes on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, the narrator is finding it harder than she thought to suppress any commentary on the content of what she is writing down. Beerenbaum teases her a little to begin with, asking her if this or that would be the best means of expression and she manages to remain non committal. It is when he starts spouting the cliched and to her meaningless expressions like Klasseninstinkt that she finds it hard to maintain her cool. On the one hand they bring up for her the way in which such tropes were used to justify the ideological standpoint of the communist East German state and to repress discussion or debate. On the other hand such hackneyed phrases remind her of her father, an active communist and a repressive and unloving father. As the meetings progress and the plot develops, the two patriarchal figures, Beerenbaum and her father, become conflated and we see her locked in a power struggle with both these figures.

The third locus of activity and one offering both a counterpoint and a welcome break from the reader after the intensity of the sessions with Beerenbaum, is the Kneipe, or pub. So this is the narrator’s local where she meets up with her former lover, Bruno, and their colourful and eccentric friend,known as der Graf– the count. This locus extends to the narrator’s apartment block where she befriends the piano teacher Thekla Fleischer whom she asks to give her piano lessons-because what the narrator actually wanted to do on leaving the institute was to learn the piano and Italian so that she could translate the recitative from Don Giovanni into German, a feat that had eluded the best musicians and Italian speakers. Now the narrator cannot speak Italian or play the piano and has no knowledge of opera so this is clearly a crazy and impossible scheme. I saw it as an example of a dream, an ambition, a yearning for the impossible, a mad impulse which stood as a challenge, a counterpoint to the stifling rigidity of communist thinking. This eccentricity and impulsiveness is explored further in the florid character of the count and culminates in Thekla’s wonderfully anarchic home made wedding, a contrast to Beerenbaum’s overblown yet empty funeral.

Now we know from the beginning that Beerenbaum dies and that the narrator’s anger and outrage increases to breaking point during the sessions. It would spoil to say more. Yet I have to say that I found the build up between these two characters utterly compelling and absorbing. On the one hand their relationship exemplifies the power struggle in any relationship, but more specifically the struggle between communist/non communist, employer/employee,man/woman. Yet the most important struggle in this particular context is perhaps that between the generations. The narrator comments at one point that only when the old generation, the old communists of which Beerenbaum is one, die out, will the younger generation be free to move into positions of power and shape the world in a new and different way. His death should bring freedom and offer hope. Though one last gesture at the very end of the book leaves this open.

Do read this book. It’s a chamber piece in the tight focus of its plot but its themes still echo nearly 30 years later.

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The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream by Katharine Norbury

This book had been plucking at my sleeve for a while, since reading Richard Kerridge’s FishLadderreview in the Guardian in February 15. But it was visiting Spurn Point in November last year, that atmospheric low lying finger of land curving around  the Humber Estuary, that made me buy and read The Fish Ladder. I knew that the book narrates several journeys upstream to a river’s source, one being the Humber, and contains some beautiful nature writing. But the book interweaves these journeys with personal memoir, accounts of illness and loss, Welsh myth and the inspirational work by Neil M. Gunn The Well at the World’s End.  The journey is also a return to the source of self, a search for identity and this aspect of the book is so powerful that it’ll get right under the skin of any reader who has questions about their heritage.

The theme for the summer is following watercourses from the sea to the source. This is Katharine Norbury’s project and a response to the miscarriage of a much desired second child. She sets off first to the Humber and then to the Mersey with her daughter Evie and her mother, taking in the magnificent array of Antony Gormley’s standing men on Crosby Beach. There she visits the Catholic run orphanage where she was born and lived before being adopted. Little is known about her biological parents: she has the name and a sketchy story for her mother but no information about her father. Despite her happy upbringing in a loving adoptive family, her feelings of loss, of being cosmically..dizzyingly adrift are present throughout the book.

From the Mersey, Katharine returns to the LLyn Peninsula in North Wales where the family have a cottage and where her familiarity with the landscape gives rise to some fine observational writing. Here the moment when she comes across  Ffynnon Fawr, St. Mary’s Well: a round pool, a bowl of clear water, as wide as her arm’s length, as deep as her knees. At first it appeared still and we saw fine sandy gravel at the bottom, the occasional green weed. Tightly coiled water snails, small as seeds, bright as jewels, encrusted the straight walls and heaped against the stems of weeds.

From Wales, the writer heads off to Scotland, now fully embracing her mentor Neil M. Gunn and the search for the source of Dunbeath Water. Her solitary drive northwards is  accompanied by memories of her family and her own struggles, firstly her attempts to become pregnant and her experiences of IVF before conceiving Evie. Then later, her father’s painful illness and death from cancer and her own  breakdown. Her depiction of both parents, and their sad decline through illness, I found very moving, the respectful, quiet prose somehow reflecting the lives of these two ordinary, loving people. We see here  Katharine’s courage and stalwart adventurousness. She walks alone over moors in a remote part of Scotland to find the source of the river, sleeping out, surviving on snacks, using clues in the vegetation to follow the path of the underground stream to a bank of peat, beyond which is the loch. Loch Braighe na h’Aibhne, its surface, soft as pewter, mirrored the clouds. Salt white boulders lined a powdery shore of crystal sand, unmarked and clean, its whiteness stained to the colour of cork by the peat.

Katharine returns to the theme of adoption in the last part of the book. Just after her mother survives a thrombosis she is diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer and is asked for details of her family medical history, not least so that her daughter, Evie, can be aware of the implications for her. By chance, she is given a lead about her biological mother’s identity which she pursues as far as she can. In the course of this, she discovers she has half brothers and it was a letter she wrote to her brother which saw me weeping on my local train to Manchester one morning. It’s that kind of book. Be prepared to cry and it might come from offside, from a place you weren’t expecting.

I loved the combination of nature writing and personal memoir. It was a pleasure and a delight to read about places in the North of England I know well- the Humber Estuary and North Yorkshire- and to read about places in Wales and Scotland I’ve yet to discover. I enjoyed both the lyrical writing about nature and the writer’s careful eye for detail and knowledge of the history and topography of landscape. I found her energy for journeying and exploring as a lone woman inspirational and her courage for this and for her personal journey remarkable. This book stands with H is for Hawk, The Outrun and Hain as an example of women writers interweaving nature writing with accounts of personal struggle and loss to brilliant effect. Many thanks.

 

 

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Wie hoch die Wasser steigen- Anja Kampmann

Anja Kampmann’s novel, shortlisted for the Leipzig Book Prize this year, 2018, Wie hoch die Wasser steigentells an unusual story in a fresh and lyrical voice. The novel starts with a tragic accident on an oil rig off the coast of North Africa. The main protagonist, Waclaw, goes to wake up his friend, Mátyás, for his early morning shift, but finds that his bed is empty. There is no trace of him on board and it is presumed that he has been swept off the rig by the wind and sea on that particularly stormy night. They search for his body over several days, to no avail, and devastated by his loss, Waclaw returns to shore.

Overwhelmed by the raw shock of this event, Waclaw stays in Tangier for some days, in the room they used to rent during shore leave and in the bars they frequented. The quiet recognition of his loss from friends and acquaintances and his own recollection of tender and intimate moments with Mátyás suggest to me a love relationship rather than a platonic friendship, though this is never made explicit: I was reminded of the beautifully rendered relationship between the two male protagonists in Sebastian Barry’s End of Days.

Waclaw then sets off on a road trip across Europe, and, though his plan, if he has one, is not made explicit, he goes first to Hungary, where Mátyás comes from. He stays in a grand fin-de-siècle hotel in Budapest and then goes to Mátyás’ village, to tell his sister, Patricia, about the accident. From there he drives to Italy and visits an old family friend, Alois, who used to work with his father in the mines of the Ruhrgebiet. In the course of these wanderings, there is a lot of drinking and the occasional sexual encounter, and more importantly the opportunity to mull over his past as fragments of memory rise to the surface. We learn about his father’s life as a Polish miner in the Ruhrgebiet, his relationship with Milena and their return to her Polish village, his restlessness and desire to see the world coupled with the decision to work on the rigs to make some money. And then the meeting with Mátyás six years previously. Now, none of this is necessarily told in chronological order- we piece together his past from fragments- and much is left vague, ambiguous or unsaid. But at other times, images from the past are so striking, such as Shane whirling the heron round his head like a lasso, that they stay with us. And the stories of work mates battling against storms and tough working conditions run through the narrative like a seam of danger and precariousness.

The narrative picks up again when Waclaw agrees to take a homing pigeon back to the Ruhr for Alois, who wants to see if a bird of his can cross the Alps on his journey back home. This gives Waclaw a reason to visit the place he grew up in and this section was one I enjoyed the most. The writer describes the housing estate, some houses renovated, others still in post war style:

Die Spitzengardinen, wie früher. Einige Häuser waren neu gestrichen worden, mintgrün mit weißen Rollos, während die andere Haushälfte im alten Braungrau mit glattem Putz wie nackt dastand. (Lace curtains, like in the old days. Some houses had been freshly painted, mint green with white roller blinds, while the semi next door stood as if half naked with its smooth render in the old brown grey colours.) 

Waclaw’s observations about his community and its decline seem to expand the novel at this point beyond the personal: we see his story, and indeed that of the other characters, in the context of broader global and economic changes. It is as if the mine and the oil platforms are the two industrial worlds around which the story is woven and the characters’ lives are completely subject to them. Just as Waclaw’s father suffers chronic lung disease from working in the pit, so the decline of the industry a generation later sees Waclaw and Milena return to the Polish village from where Waclaw  leaves to work on the rigs. And towards the end of the novel, Waclaw makes for Poland to visit his former lover, Milena. The book ends with him on the Baltic coast, looking out to sea.

Now, this novel may not be to everyone’s taste. The narrative is at times vague and unspecific, which can lead to dips in the narrative drive, as well as occasional ambiguity as to actual events. The power of the text lies in the lyrical language which I found transporting. For example, the depiction of light: in the early morning sky in Budapest, in the flames from Gibraltar’s oil refineries, in the cascade of magnesium light from the bombs falling on Westphalia, in the squashes almost luminous against the dark soil in Poland. But beyond that, Anja Kampmann’s novel shines a light on our contemporary, globalised world: a world where our earth’s resources are exhausted, so we drill under the sea, where workers leave their countries of origin to follow the work, yet still yearn for home. Where workmates are international, though the business still run by Texans. In its global reach and the beauty of its language, I found this book at times visionary- which I never thought I would say about a book which begins with men on an oil rig. It is this global reach which makes the novel unique and just waiting to be translated into English.

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Hain- Grove- by Esther Kinsky

Esther Kinsky’s most recent book, Hain, is part memoir, part nature and travel writing, Hainbut 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.

 

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Blumenberg by Sibylle Lewitscharoff

If you are a reader who likes a good biopic novel,( and I for one love them, see my reviews on novels about Kafka and Stefan Zweig), then this novel may be for you. The eponymous protagonist is the German philosopher Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) and the novel is set in the early 80s when he was a Professor of Philosophy in Münster. Now, I have to confess that I didn’t come to this novel through an interest in Blumenberg, but rather because I hugely enjoyed Lewitscharoff’s novel Apostoloff and wanted to read something else by her. This novel won the Georg Büchner Prize in 2013 and came recommended by a critic whose opinion I value highly.

The novel starts with Blumenberg in his study at night, where he spends much of his time working, reading and thinking, relieved to be alone. He glances round and finds a lion lying on the rug- groß, gelb, atmend– big, yellow, breathing- a real lion, possibly an older specimen, looking straight at him. Thoughts go through his mind- is it real, should he be scared, why has the lion done him the honour of turning up in his, Blumenberg’s study? For Blumenberg, according to Ijoma Mangold’s review in die Zeit, was interested in the power of metaphor and imagery and one of his favourite images was the King of the Beasts, the lion.

While gazing at the lion lying peacefully on the rug, several instances of the lion’s appearance in art and literature go through Blumenberg’s head. This is characteristic of the man whose mind operates, as one might expect from a philosopher, on a higher plane than the rest of us, but who can also conjure up in amazing detail examples of world art and literature at the drop of a hat. Blumenberg is presented to us as a great thinker, a genius, no less.

The lion does not go away. One of the next scenes is the lion appearing at one of Blumenberg’s lectures, lying peacefully as before in the central gangway of the lecture hall. Blumenberg can’t help himself looking over to the lion to the extent that his students wonder why he keeps staring at that spot on the floor. This scene introduces us to the second strand in the novel, the group of students who attend Blumenberg’s lectures and are all affected by him to a greater and lesser extent. Their stories are told in parallel to that of Blumenberg and the lion and when their paths cross, this seems to have little impact on Blumenberg. We see this most tragically after the death of the young student Isa, when he doesn’t connect the woman in the newspaper report with the eager student on the front bench of the lecture hall who no longer shows up. He seems to be a lecturer who excels in and enjoys the public performance of the lecture but does not engage in a more personal relationship with students.

The students belong to their era, that of the early 80s and take their time over their studies. Richard goes off travelling in South America and Lewitscharoff treats us to a fabulously atmospheric and evocative description of the Amazonas with fantastic detail of the animals he encounters there. There is an equally arresting account of a trip Blumenberg takes to Egypt with his wife and friends in 1956, pre Suez, where the Nile is described in lush and wonderful detail- with the Mercedes they have shipped over to ferry them around providing an amusing and thought provoking counterpoint.

Now the novel has been criticised for not bringing these two strands together enough, for not providing us with a coherent enough narrative with a message- what is the point of the lion? Why do the young people have tragic ends? I must say, this didn’t bother me particularly. I found Lewitscharoff’s writing so compelling, whether it was the description of the lion, the exotic landscape, or the way poor Isa gradually loses a grip on reality that I didn’t find myself seeking more explanation. It may be that readers who know more about Blumenberg than I do will feel this more. Alternatively, with a greater understanding of his ideas about the power of metaphor, they may find a straightforward interpretation for the presence of the lion. Whatever your response may be to that lion, the novel contains some passages of superb writing which transport you to Egypt, to the Amazon and, sadly, to that motorway bridge and the grief of Isa’s parents. If you liked Apostoloff, you will enjoy Blumenberg. It’s available in English translated by Wieland Hoban, published by Seagull.

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The Robber of Memories- a River Journey through Colombia by Michael Jacobs

This is the story of Michael Jacobs’ journey along the river Magdalena in Colombia, from Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast upstream to its source in the high mountain moorlands of the Páramo de las Papas. The journey and the river itself provide the frame on which Jacobs weaves a rich texture of meditations on Colombia, past and present, historical and fictitious. He persuades us of the magical pull of the river from the very first, with Gabriel García Márquez’ insistent  I remember everything about the river, absolutely everything, while friends’ reactions to his plans suggest a trip up the Magdalena is the dream of every Colombian.

Into his account of the journey he weaves the story of his parents’ decline into Alzheimer’s disease- which partly explains the title. His mother has been diagnosed with the disease some time before, but has gone downhill just before he was due to leave, leaving him guilty and anxious during the trip. Sadly for the writer, his father also died of Alzheimer’s some years earlier and during the journey he goes back over the lives of both his parents. The theme of memory and forgetting is very present in the book, the title referring to a folk tale told along the Magdalena of a rider on horseback who descends on unwitting locals to steal their memories. Jacobs visits Mompós, once a thriving colonial port on the Magdalena, now a forgotten backwater due to silting of the riverbed making it harder to navigate: a place designed to stagnate, a chronicle in stone of a death foretold. And there is a heartbreaking account of his visit to the village of Agostura where a genetic mutation has led to a concentration of early onset Alzheimer’s: he visits a family where one elderly mother and her daughter are caring for three other middle aged children at varying stages of the disease.

Michael Jacobs started out as an art historian and I read somewhere that he became interested later in writing about people and places. You see his skill in evoking place in his description of the river, from the dirty ashen waters of its mouth at the Boca de Cenizas, to its wide expanses further upstream. He is a careful observer of nature: herons, perched on floating logs, prepared to take off into a sky already streaked by flocks of geese and white egrets. Black ducks swarmed around the gaunt branches of an immensely tall tree flanked by clusters of palms. He gives us the feel of the towns and villages in these parts: a market encased in diseased yellow plaster,……….shops psychedelically painted in luminous oranges, purples and blues. And he conveys his delight in the vast range of Colombians he comes across: the captain, Diomidio Raimundo Rosales is an Afro- Colombian who looked like a jovial, overweight blues singer past his prime. He wobbled and wheezed as he walked, his hair was peppered white and a massive silver chain glinted beneath his capacious green overalls.

Jacobs is very aware of his literary and scientific predecessors. There are many references to Gabriel García Márquez, not only to the fictional town of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, but also to the trip he made as a 15 year old up the Magdalena in the iconic luxury passenger ship the David Arango. He follows in the footsteps of the Spanish botanist José Celestino Mutis to Mariquita and has his ‘hero’ Alexander Humboldt also in mind.Yet as the journey progresses the complex and darker side of more recent Colombian history comes to the fore. Diomidio warns him that after Gamarra everything is dangerous- there is delinquency, guerrillas and the paramilitary. Jacobs and his friend Julio spend some time in Barrancabermeja, in the notorious Magdalena Medio, and find out about the murderous activities of the paramilitaries in that area. In Puerto Berrío this really hits home- to Jacobs and the reader- when his guide Ariadne is scared of talking in front of certain locals in the cafe and the courageous human rights worker Pilar assures them that the paramilitaries are carrying on much as before- one person a day is assassinated in the town with its population of 27,000.

Tension increases further when Jacobs and Julio leave the river for the final stage of their journey by bus and on horseback to the source of the river on the high plateau of the Páramo. Snatched whispers and an air of unease around their guide Torito suggest that there is something afoot so it is little surprise when they’re stopped and detained by some FARC guerrillas. Jacob describes this encounter brilliantly: his anxiety and the unexpected courtesy of the guerrillas which makes it difficult for him to read the situation and then the tenderness he feels towards the smiling young woman, so kind and sweet and brimming with enthusiasm, who gives him a gelatina to take away for his dessert. He learns she has been with the FARC since the age of 5. Jacobs’ party are allowed to continue, though they meet up with the guerrillas the following day and he realises that they’re controlling the local town.

The book ends with an account of the carnival in Barranquilla, where Jacobs has returned. The crazy inventive costumes of Jacobs and his friends is matched only by the riotous and anarchic partying of the whole city, just like the world over at carnival time. At the end of the night the writer sits down exhausted and finds himself thinking of the lovely young woman guerrilla who he’ll not see again, as well as his parents and people he has loved, now gone for ever. He remembers the words his uncle used to say: ‘carpe diem’. And that feels particularly poignant when we know that Michael Jacobs died not long after this book was published- in January 2014 of kidney cancer. This book is travel writing at its best and a great legacy.

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The Lucky Ones by Julianne Pachico

This carefully plotted collection of short stories is set in and around Cali, Lucky Ones UK.jpgone of Colombia’s largest cities, and an area which saw some of the worst violence in the recent troubled decades. The protagonists come from a wide range of backgrounds- the children of the wealthy, guerrilla fighters, American teachers, domestic servants- and all are affected by the civil conflict in some way. The stories are interconnected so that we meet some characters several times over, sometimes at a different point in their lives and in a different situation. The rare use of names means that we start relying on simple descriptors to identify characters -that dirty blonde hair, the black sparkly hairband- and are shocked at times to find people turning up where they do, but ‘oh,it’s you!’ is quickly succeeded by ‘well of course’ as the book proceeds and firm categories of victim and perpetrator, abuser and abused, exploiter and exploited are shaken and undermined.

The first story, Lucky, which you can read here, is set in 2003 in the Valle de Cauca and is told from the point of view of the 17 year old daughter of a wealthy family, allowed to stay in the city for the weekend with the maid Angelina while her family go to a friends’ out of town ranch for the weekend. There is no doubt this is a dangerous place: tension is ratcheted up when she recalls adult conversation about guerrillas and her mother warns her not to answer the door, talking over a car radio news piece about communist rebels. The girl is irritated and dismissive of Angelina, pushing away her ‘stubby finger’ as she strokes her hair, disliking her smell. She is looking forward to an illicit meeting with her friend and some boys in the mall, where she will receive their compliments ‘with the same icy sense of destiny that she accepts everything else in her life’.

Much later in the book comes the story The Bird Thing, Valle de Cauca 1993, told from Angelina’s point of view 10 years earlier. Her inner thoughts as she goes about her daily tasks in the same household-washing clothes, preparing breakfast- are interleaved with memories from her village. The memories are mixed and she feels at times persecuted by memories ‘hovering round the living like horseflies on cattle’. She remembers school being no fun, the cruel nuns twisting her earlobes with their cold fingers, her games of catching fish being impossible when there were bodies floating down the river. She remembers the way the oil executive looked at her, ‘his wet fingers on her thigh’ and her subsequent giving birth to a child her mother brings up in the village so that she can work for a family in the city, loving and nurturing the children of the rich.

Lemon Pie, Guaviare 2008, is set in the jungle and tells the story of an American teacher, kidnapped and imprisoned by the guerrillas in the jungle. This is a story that begins full of pathos as the teacher attempts to ward off  insanity by timetabling his day into units of Thinking and Picturing, Parasite Squishing and teaching literature, namely Hamlet. There is some nice irony when he considers how far Hamlet’s insanity is genuine and whether a hallucination shared by another ( here by Horatio who also sees the ghost of Hamlet’s father) can reasonably be called a hallucination. His back story is revealed when those disturbing thoughts of the day he was kidnapped rise to the surface and with a few deft phrases the writer has us wondering if he was maybe using those Colombian girlfriends, drinking a bit too much? And his guards in the background are also suffering from parasites, the heat, the sense of drift and pointlessness. Aren’t they trapped in this situation too?

The thoughts and feelings of childhood are wonderfully evoked and seem particularly poignant when juxtaposed with the reality of the world around the children. In Siberian Tiger Park Valle de Cauca 1993 a classroom of children in the elite private school are drawing pictures for Penelope’s family after her death in the Avianca plane crash of 1993. But another agenda is going on: her position as a popular girl is now vacant and a less popular girl who has been bullied wishes to fill it. She leads their imaginative games in the playground as Penelope had done, but she’s a different girl altogether and the games morph into the Siberian Tigers being locked up, shot and then terrorising others, much to the dismay of the other children. They turn on her and the bullying recommences.

However saddened we may be at the idea of violence invading the children’s imaginative worlds, this is as nothing compared to the experience of children in the poor rural areas at this time. In Julisa, Antioquia 1998, we meet idealistic Eduardo, gone to work in a rural school. He has found a way to calm and befriend Julisa, lying in the playground one day, rocking from side to side and refusing to come into class. She doesn’t show up the next day and though this is nothing new for this school with its ever changing and itinerant crowd of pupils, he sets off to her home to look for her. Her home is a set of rabbit warrens, out of which children appear. They are feral and Julisa herself has ‘gone’.

The last two stories are set in 2013 which is significant as it’s a time when the Colombian Peace Process is being negotiated; though both stories have a feeling of post conflict and terrible damage they also contain some feeling of hope. In Armadillo Man, Nariño 2013, this comes at the end when the professor prepares a beautiful meal of chicken for Sofia out of a gesture of loving friendship and she is able to overcome the ghastly physical sensations she has suffered as a result of trauma in order to move her tongue and eat. In Beyond the Cake, Cauca, Valle del Cauca 2013, Eduardo and Betsy, a couple, return from the US where they are now living to visit post conflict Colombia. We learn a little about what Eduardo ( yes, the teacher from Julisa’s story) suffered prior to leaving Colombia. He is now an academic and writing a paper on Post Conflict Colombia ‘filled with so much truth and fantasy it’s hard to know which is better’. For the paper is presenting an optimistic and idealised picture of the present situation. How should we react to this? With stern pleas to be realistic? Dismissing this as a fantasy on a par with the lovers’ games of Mouse Pilot or Mad Max? Yet fantasy has kept many of the characters in this book going- look at the crazy American teacher with his classes on Hamlet.

The uncertainty and ambiguity in this ending takes nothing away from the power of these short stories. Julianne Pachico draws us in with her range of voices to the very different but related worlds of the protagonists. With her succinct evocation of character and a narrative where no line is redundant she drops clues along the way which have us puzzling over how they fit together just like Ms. Simon’s pupils in more than one story try to fit together the jigsaw puzzle pieces representing the departments of Colombia. I don’t think any of them succeed and indeed the book shows us a world without coherence : where people’s lives have been ripped apart for reasons they barely understand, a world where usually it’s the poor who suffer most of all. These stories offer us an imaginative way into the complexity of the conflict and a momentary glimpse of the suffering of so many Colombians over decades. Thanks to Julianne Pachico for this superb collection.

 

 

 

 

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