Between the Museum and the Zoo: Sébastien Smirou

Sébastien Smirou emerged in 1993 with the publication of his “La quoi?” in Action Poétique, followed by the appearance of “Bubble” in the second number of Revue de Littérature Générale, a massive 1996 magazine/anthology edited by Olivier Cadiot and Pierre Alferi that forced the collective gaze in contemporary French poetry toward new aesthetics and revised ambitions. Less metaphysical or purely lyrical in orientation, experimental French poetics of the past decade and a half has been propelled by pop culture, a vertiginous shuttling between theoryspeak and speakeasy slang, the liberties afforded by mathematical and other constraints, suspicions of all self-proclaimed official discourses, including formal grammar, and a global splay of signifiers and languages, identities and politics. Alongside further publications in BOBOBO, Nioques, and IF, Smirou released a chapbook, Simon aime Anna, in 1998. A couple of his poems, translated by Erin Mouré and by Stacy Doris, appeared in the American journals Raddle Moon (#16: Modern French Poetry in Translation) and Double Change several years ago.

Mon Laurent, his first full-length volume, appeared in 2003 from Éditions P.O.L., the leading Parisian experimental poetry house. Divided into eight distinct sections, each containing sixteen quatrains, Mon Laurent is an elegant, funny, often sad meditation on the fifteenth-century Italian statesman, art patron, and poet Lorenzo de Medici. Obliquely and eccentrically narrated, as concerned with physical arrangement and fractal symmetry as it is with high-voltage linguistic ambiguity and ruminations on matters philosophical, political, and sentimental, Mon Laurent is striking visually not least for the full justification of its stanzas. Reading the book is quite intentionally akin to touring the Uffizi, its Renaissance paintings hung meticulously along otherwise adamantly blank walls, and the book itself, its width measuring twice its height, is purposefully tableau-like in dimension and shape. Smirou is obsessively attentive even to the spacing between individual words: insisting that the type be set in Gill Sans, he stipulates that the gaps separating words, inevitably variant on account of the strict margins, be nonetheless as regular and inconspicuous as possible.

A blatant logic governs this conceptual layout, while a legitimate lineage is also at play. Pierre Alferi’s Kub Or (1994), to take one example, is split into seven sections of seven poems, with each poem containing seven lines, each line seven syllables. Similarly, though written in prose, Suzanne Doppelt’s Quelque chose cloche (2004) fractures into eight segments, each containing ten photographs, which are themselves reprised in a ninth chapter, or “résumé,” of eight large and eight smaller images culled from earlier sections. Both of these works—published in France by P.O.L. and in English translation in the United States by Burning Deck—can, in turn, be traced to a pair of earlier books written according to numerical constraints. One is Louis Zukofsky’s 80 Flowers (1978), in which all eighty poems break into octets, with five words to the line; the other is Jacques Roubaud’s Trente et un au cube (Gallimard, 1973): thirty-one poems of thirty-one lines of thirty-one syllables.

The amazing mélange of traditional form (or format) with an unapologetically modern idiom accounts, in part, for why Mon Laurent was so well received, garnering reviews and author interviews in Action Poétique, in Regards, in Cahier Critique de Poésie (organ of the Centre international de poésie in Marseille), and on numerous radio shows.

Smirou’s second full-length book, Beau voir, was published last year by P.O.L. Like its predecessor, Beau voir is divided into eight sections, each containing as many poems, with each poem comprising an octave of lines. Moreover, the last line, or a portion of it, is repeated in each poem within a chapter, if not verbatim then with a ghazal’s variegated reiterations. All eight sections of “The giraffe,” for instance, conclude, “si tu vois ce que je veux dire” (“if you see what I mean”), a phrase that, in addition to highlighting Smirou’s impish desire to marry seeing and saying, happens to be the title of his blog. The title Beau voir itself, of course, contains eight letters—no inadvertent or contingent detail.

Subtitled “Bestiaire,” with a pencil sketch by celebrated artist François Matton of an unfinished beast on its cover, Beau voir contains chapters that each address a different animal: lion, giraffe, chamois, cow, cat, turtle, glowworm, and dodo. In this context, one may hear the title as an echo of mirabile visu, “wonderful to behold,” with the reading experience figured like a day spent wandering around a somewhat unusual zoo: the animals here are hardly in captivity, few zoos feature glowworms or, for that matter, cats, and the dodo, of course, is extinct. On the other hand, “beau voir” is also a set expression in French, indicating cynicism: “oh really? I’d like to see that,” or even, “oh yeah, we’ll see about that.” Poised between exhibition and exhibitionism, between inventory and invention, Beau voir is a kind of kids’ book for grownups, those featherless bipeds who live behind figurative bars but are sometimes freed by rhyme, or nonsense, a run-on sentence, a sing-along. Reading it, one might keep in mind that bête is not only a noun for “creature”—it can also be an adjective meaning “stupid,” even “silly.” Just as “vache” is an adjective for “nasty,” while “La vache,” the title of Smirou’s fourth chapter, is a cow—but “la vache!” an exclamation of surprise.

Smirou published the chapbook Ma girafe in 2006 with Contrat maint, who have just released his latest work, Je voudrais entrer dans la légende. The latter has been translated into English by Jean-Jacques Poucel and was published as part of this summer’s binational FACE (Franco-American Cultural Exchange) program. Smirou visited Connecticut for a week in June to participate in that festival along with six other prominent French poets, including Anne Portugal and Michele Métail.

In the late 90s, Smirou founded and directed éditions rup&rud (the press name an inversion of dur&pur, or “hard and pure”), which published seven authors, including American poet Peter Gizzi (in Smirou’s translation), over as many years. In a spirit of noncommercial circulation, rup&rud printed twenty-five handmade copies of each booklet, designed in cooperation with its author. The chapbooks were presented to readers of the writers’ own choice, as a way of “inverting the cycle of reading by choosing its destination,” as Smirou put it, “to truly write for.” Recently, the complete series has been reprinted in a single volume by Éditions de l’Attente as rup&rud: l’intégrale, 1999-2004.

Smirou was born in 1972 in Niort, France. After earning his undergraduate degree from the École Supérieure de Journalisme in Paris, he studied at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, where he enrolled in Roubaud’s course in formal poetics. He received a “Bourse de découverte” from the Centre national du Livre in 2007. The following year, Smirou benefited from a writers’ residence sponsored by the Conseil Régional d’Ile de France, and in 2009, with the support of the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, he traveled to Pamplona, Spain, as part of the “Mission Stendhal,” to attend the bullfights that serve as the subject of his latest writings. Smirou is a psychoanalyst, with a specialization in working with troubled children. He lives in Montrouge, on the outskirts of Paris.

—Andrew Zawacki

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Editor's Note: Because of the typographical specifications of the poems, we've decided to publish these translations as PDFs. View them directly below or download from Scribd.


"Prairie's powers" by Gustave Roud; translated from the French by Alexander Dickow

photo copyright Fonds Gustave Roud, BCU, Lausanne

Prairie's powers

Who would think to question a vast and ordered landscape’s irresistible ascendancy, at once over our gaze and, piece by piece, over our total being? It enslaves us gently, in the manner of a symphony. The sky, vacant or pasture to the clouds; the lands drawn out to their horizons with their naive features intact, or molded by the hands of men, offer to the eye their grand themes, in no way bound to any temporal progression, but pronounced across space in unison, where they forever secure the paradox of a simultaneous and immutable counterpoint. It is rather our vision that follows the length of each motionless phrase, enmeshed in the lace of shapely melody, the magic net, the relentless snare that every season, every day, nearly every hour bends, with the weight of so much fresh bait, beneath new harmonies. And the spirit eagerly suffers the delights of an expert capture: in an even more startling paradox, these delights teach the spirit its most secret, most essential strengths. More than Amiel’s celebrated remark, every landscape is an emotion, Brulard-Stendhal translates this mystery perfectly to my mind: the landscapes drew their bows across my soul, for this expression highlights the lasting likeness of landscape and lullaby.

A mysterious power plays indeed in the case of those grand, ordered spaces whose virtues surpass those of a mere soul-stirring bow to attain those of an immense orchestra, laying its plies from total silence to pure fury into a sheer universe of variegated inflections, and which, merely to interpret a few eternal themes, keeps at hand the sorcery of notes a thousandfold. A power still more mysterious in the case of an isolated fraction embedded in the larger landscape, whose welcoming gesture, by the secret virtue of a single clump of trees, of a liquid glint below a dark cluster of leaves, likewise draws us softly towards our finest self.

There I daydream, laying in a balmy October prairie where the encroaching evening spreads the ash and the oak trees’ shade alongside me – a fleeting prairie, bounded by a screen of trees and a creek of little violence; one of those ennobling sites where the most rehearsed gesture, the most everyday thought, divested, as it were, of its contingency, reaches toward a simplicity serene and near to greatness. My friend and his cart, some weeks ago, were here loading the soft aftermath with which the wind delights to mix the mower’s hair, or to cling to his scorched and naked shoulder. And this familiar labor, these always identical movements; the horses’ halt, their advance; the pitch, the draw of the rake; the pitchfork empty, the pitchfork full and in full swing; it all unfolded against the dark and leafy backdrop like a sort of dance, steady and flawless, from which were banished any rhythmic misstep. Then like a rash of angry hives across the mown ground the meadow saffron lit their tufts of flame. There was no one left. On Sunday, occasionally, the sound of laughter and brushing against leaves along the hedge: little girls were shaking the high hazel boughs. The grass grew green again, little by little, from one dew to the next. One morning, from up in the village, a herd hurtled down in a great tumult of cries and cowbells, immediately hushed. Only one shepherd led the herd, yet the beasts, their muffles lowered to the chill forage, proceeded at an even pace, as though the strange calm of this place had dimly arrested them. I remember it. A rain as soft as mist began to descend; the boy, kneeling, was trying to coax a blaze from smoke beneath an enormous ruined umbrella as blue as his damp overalls. Already I could no longer hear the bells; they were themselves the thoughts they punctuated in perfect time, muffled or clear, and in the tempo of my step I also felt this tranquil cadence, as though recovered in it, and once again overhead, in the lovely sprays of branches dark against the sky in sequence. What is called plenitude is perhaps less abundance than concordance; it is a call and response, a concert in which each voice sings itself alone, yet nourished by the songs of others in its ear.

And poetry, which I had not dared to invoke for such a long time, was suddenly present as if it had obeyed some mysterious summons. Poetry, or a poet, rather. A lifeless stanza that had haunted me for hours sings suddenly in its fullest wealth and in the searing reality of its music:

If only
My very courage does not expose me. This first we
Must understand. For like morning air are the names
Since Christ. Become dreams. Fall on the heart
Like error, and killing, if one does not
Consider what they are and understand.
But the attentive man saw
The face of God...(1)

I can see this Hölderlin, once he had taken leave, at the time of the hymns, from that which men call “life”; Diotima dead, Schiller cruelly silent, I can see him plunging alone into his grand prophetic Night, where, as lord over time and space, poring over the “immeasurable fable” of Earth and of humankind, he senses his imminent defeat, prepared to lose heart before the surge of presences conjured, gradually stronger than his expiring voice; casting ever rarer lightning-strokes across the centuries, and ceaselessly repeating this despondent cry to stave off the threat of silence: Ah! I have so much, so much left to say! – knowing full well he shall never say it.

My prairie listened then just as it listens now to this still resounding lament. It even seems to me, at certain moments, that the prairie makes that lament its own, and grieves too, wherein each tree, each leaf, each clump of grass signifies in the face of an imminent winter that shall rob the prairie of its voice. Now the prairie too is alone, and like the poet, sovereign in its solitude. Before late autumn’s final farewell, it rehearses its farewell daily, its welcome to the night. How may one abandon this place without secret affliction, as it sinks majestically into shadow, overrun little by little by the chill of hidden water; the green of the ash dwindling to ashes, their own high, blind bulk burdening the feeble daylight; while around them evening draws out and distils a sky forever more akin to crystal?

(1) Friedrich Hölderlin, trans. Jeremy Adler and Michael Hamburger, Selected Poems and Fragments (New York: Penguin Books, 1998) 247-249.

Gustave Roud (1897-1976) was a Swiss poet and translator of Novalis and Hölderlin into French. Rarely overblown and never pompous, Roud successfully fuses Romantic sublimity and classical restraint. Because of his repressed homosexuality and self-imposed seclusion, Roud’s landscapes bristle with sexual energy even in the absence of the masculine silhouettes that occasionally appear. The desire to envelop and possess the object of the gaze lends unparalleled intensity to a contemplative attitude suddenly bereft of detachment. Prairie’s Powers (Pouvoirs d’une prairie) was published in Air of Solitude (Air de la solitude) in 1945 (now published with other selections by Editions Gallimard as Air de la solitude et autres écrits, Paris, Collection Poésie Gallimard, 2002). Roud was Philippe Jaccottet’s mentor and direct literary ascendant, and is now considered one of the most important Swiss writers of the Twentieth Century. But because of his seclusion and natural distaste for literary promotion, Roud remains a discrete presence in France and elsewhere. Prairie’s Powers is one of Roud’s most visibly Romantic texts, while others, such as Requiem (1967), extensively reinvent familiar forms.

Alexander Dickow is a bilingual poet and translator who writes in French and English. He has translated poems by Aaron Belz, Amy King and Ana Bozicevic-Bowling into French, and is currently preparing a book-length selection of Gustave Roud’s works. He is also the author of a book of poems in French and English, Caramboles (Paris, Argol Editions, 2008), and irregularly maintains a weblog, Voix Off. He currently lives in Châtillon, France. Child, cowritten with his wife, is forthcoming in December 2009.

I hear The Armies charging across the land

Special Feature: The Armies by Evelio Rosero, translated by Anne McLean, published by New Directions (jacket design by Erik Rieselbach)

It seems like all this book does is go around winning prizes and knocking readers over the head. And rightfully so, on both counts. I myself read it in about a day and a half, my pace quickening as I went, snapping at anyone who interrupted me. Relevant comparisions: Heart of Darkness, Moby Dick, maybe Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone. Rosero is Colombian, and he likes García Márquez a lot, but comparisions between the two are misguided, in my opinion. The Armies is Macondo become hell itself, then made into a four-hour movie by a half-mad director and a cast of drug-crazed actors shooting at each other with live ammunition. Or better than that: The Armies is basically real, and that's what's so horrifying about it. It also happens to be an anti-war novel that makes its point without being didactic, and without irony or sarcasm. Catch-22 narrated by the people getting bombed, for once. What follows are interviews I did over email with the book's author, Evelio Rosero, and its English translator, Anne McLean. Thanks to them both, and to Renato Gomez, who somehow managed to make me sound polite when he revised my questions for Mr. Rosero. And apologies to all and sundry for the Joyce pun headline above. I couldn't help it. —Brandon Holmquest


photo by Sandra Páez; courtesy New Directions

Calque: The Armies is obviously an antiwar novel. Why did you decide to write a novel, specifically, instead of maybe a piece of journalism or a report on these issues?

Rosero: I'm a novelist. With fiction, I feel like a fish in the water. Journalism for me was just a way to earn a bit of money to pay the rent or the bills. Any work other than ficiton, however related to literature it might be, causes me a sort of intimate discomfort. The novel is definitely my spiritual resource for saying what I want to say to the world, for shouting.

Calque: I've read that you used journalistic methods to gather material for the novel. Can you tell us something about this process and what interested you in these investigations?

Rosero: They weren't really “journalistic methods.” There were simply news reports on the radio and television (during the writing of The Armies) that began to affect me in a very different way than they had before, that made me lose all hope for the country, but also made me rebel, with my writing. These reports and events, which I call reports from reality arose in such a way that they incorporated themselves into the novel I was writing as though the novel itself had been waiting for them. The trick was to elevate these motifs from raw reality to literature. I've always thought that a finished novel is more real than the very reality from which it originates. This assembly and purification of reality is the novelist's principal task. Then, when the novel was almost finished, to corroborate certain atmospheres, I spoke personally with some of the “desplazados,” those displaced by the violence, in Calí. But these weren't formally investigative, journalistic conversations. They were spontaneous, human, like a conversation between two strangers on the bus.

Calque: The Armies is in first person, in the voice of Ismael Pasos. Why did you choose first person, and why a character as advanced in age as Ismael?

Rosero: The first draft of the novel was worked out in the third person; I haven't discovered what internal mechanism moved me to put it into first. Something similar happened to me with other novels, but in reverse: I started them in the first person, and wound up switching to third. I've never worried about finding out the reasons, but I think these changes of perspective, the attributes of the narrative voice, remain in the background of the work all the same, and maybe give it a certain originality and even a double objectivity.

Calque: Is the use of the name Ismael an allusion to Herman Melville?

Rosero: The protagonist's name came to me very quickly, unpremeditated, the way I prefer to name my characters. Of course, I instantly thought of Melville and of his extraordinary opening line, still unequalled in literature: “Call me Ishmael.” I immediately wanted to change the character’s name, but just as quickly decided not to. In the end it seemed to me that the old teacher Ismael Pasos was another Ishmael, confronted with “another” monster of the most fearsome proportions, though not managing to survive.

Calque: Although The Armies expresses a moral horror for the war, it's not exactly an ideological novel in the manner of some of the later Cortázar, for example. Do you think this is because you prefer to remain outside of ideology, or is the role of ideology in Latin American literature changing?

Rosero: The way I see it, the novelist should situate himself outside of ideology. Of course a novelist has an ideology, which is permanent, which obeys his principles and his culture, his particular interpretation of reality, etc. But to directly wield an ideology, its aims, questions, solutions and puzzles, is more appropriate for an essay or a study, I think. Obviously the novel can let you do anything, and for this very reason it is a great genre, but also a dangerous one. Ultimately, the novel is art. It's humanism. As a reader I'm no great friend of the novels you refer to as ideological. As soon as a writer voluntarily proposes to advance an explicit ideology in his work he commits the worst error: he forgets the human being, which is essentially he himself, who loves and feels fear, hatred, hunger and loneliness without need of ideologies, whatever his race or creed. To try and exceed reality, to impose a reality by means of the novel, is already truth enough.

Calque: It seems to me that The Armies can be read allegorically, did you write it with that intention?

Rosero: No.

Calque: You've spoken of Colombian indifference toward the violence in the country. Do you think your book has affected that indifference? Do you think a novel is capable of doing such a thing?

Rosero: Yes, I believe a novel can change things. Not in an immediate way, the way a film can, or a television program or a piece of journalism. But the novel's ability to change things is, it seems to me, deeper, it sticks in your memory. It transforms consciousness. I myself have felt this transformative effect of the novel as a reader: I was not the same boy after reading Robinson Crusoe. I wasn’t the same teenager after Don Quixote and Crime and Punishment. I know the United States through its poets and writers. I think my book—as various readers have confirmed—has chipped away at the indifference people feel toward this horrible daily custom of death and massacres in my country, of fathers, sons and brothers chained up for years. It's humanized their perception of reality, through the novel. But this was not my goal when I sat down to write. I only wanted to write about what was affecting me deep down, as a human being, not as a sociologist or a journalist or a historian: my reality, my country. Death and fear very near to desire and love.

Calque: Are you surprised by the success that The Armies has had outside of Colombia, especially in the English-speaking world? Why do you think it's had such success?

Rosero: Something strange has happened to me with the success and translations. It always seems like it's happening to someone else, some other writer. It's not about me. I'd like it, but I am still here and he is still over there.

Calque: Which writers have been the most important for you? Which contemporary Colombian writers do you like the most?

Rosero: The 19th Century Russian writers are my masters. I reread them and find them stirring every time. Not long ago I read The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing, and I thought it was a tremendous, disturbing book, the kind of thing I haven't come across for a long time. Coetzee is another great writer. Now I'm reading a lot of histories of Colombian independence, which I have to force myself to read, joylessly, because it's the background for my next novel. But I long to read a good novel, discover another great writer. Reading is the best excuse for not writing, it's better than traveling, or the same, but you go farther. The only thing comparable to a good book is making love. I hope, therefore, that García Márquez hasn’t stopped writing. We could still get one more book out of him, I think. Among Colombian authors, I always keep an eye on Gabo. He's the best.


Calque: Like most Spanish-English translators, you work with books from all over the Spanish-speaking world. Was there anything about Los ejércitos, which is so Colombian, that took an adjustment, or a different kind of approach? Did you have to do any research?

McLean: I always have to do lots of research. Los ejércitos was my second Colombian novel so I already had a great diccionario de colombianismos and was already paying attention to the place, reading around the novels in English and Spanish. I don’t think I really took a different approach than with any of the other things I’ve translated.

Calque: Evelio's prose style is rather poetic, taking full advantage of the greater flexibility in terms of word order within the individual sentence that Spanish offers, as opposed to English. How did you go about trying to capture his style without making him sound like a demented Romantic poet?

McLean: This is something I try not to think about while I’m doing it. When I first read, and was blown away by, Los ejércitos, my gut reaction to the prose style was: intraducible. To tell you the truth, I found the prospect of attempting to translate this book terrifying.

But in the end I just tried to follow Evelio’s lead and stick as close to his word order as I possibly could in English, whenever possible. And, as I’m sure he did, I pared down the prose with each successive draft. And then, as usual, read it aloud to see if I’d recaptured, or could recreate, any of the rhythms of the writing.

Calque: Judging by the prizes and reviews, this book seems to have struck a chord in the Anglo literary world. Were you surprised by that, and would care to hazard a guess as to why people are so into it?

McLean: I was very surprised. I suppose it could be because the book’s a surprise in itself: an artful treatment of an age-old subject, a beautifully told depiction of an ugly reality, and not at all what the opening pages might lead the reader to expect. I think it’s an almost inexplicably moving book and it speaks to our times. You don’t need to know anything about Colombia and its current conflict to understand these characters: defenseless civilians caught in a crossfire.

Months after the book was published here in the UK I heard a news reporter on the radio say, “The Americans are keen to tell us the villagers don’t want the Taliban here, and it’s true. The villagers don’t want the Taliban, but they don’t want American soldiers either. They don’t want Afghan soldiers. They don’t want men with guns in the village.” And I thought just change a very few words and he could be talking about rural Colombia.

Calque: How much interaction do you tend to have with an author you translate, and what kind of questions, problems, etc. do you turn to author for help with?

McLean: It varies enormously depending on how well I know an author. I didn’t meet Evelio until The Armies was published in London last October so I tended to only ask him questions I couldn’t figure out from other sources. I had pages of vocabulary and usage queries but I was also in touch with the German translator of the novel, Matthias Strobel, whose deadline was very close to mine, and we discussed some of the thorny issues like the shifts in verb tenses, and lots of specific difficulties to do with the demands of our languages (and publishers) when trying to recreate Evelio’s style.

My other great stroke of luck was that the other two Colombian authors I translate, Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Héctor Abad Faciolince, happen to be the only two writers I’ve ever met in person before translating their work, so they were already friends, and already forgiving of the huge gaps in my understanding of their language. They both reviewed Los ejércitos and admired it and were both enormously helpful with specific vocabulary and usage and context. Now that I know Evelio, I won’t be so shy about asking him stuff the next time I translate one of his books.

But that’s how it goes. When I translated Soldiers of Salamis, for example, I think I asked Javier Cercas three questions after I’d been through several drafts and maybe three or four more during the copyediting. When I was working on his novel The Speed of Light, a few years later, I asked him hundreds, probably lots of stupid little things…

But most of my questions are along the lines of “What does that mean?” or “How unusual is that in Spanish?” I expect their usual first reaction is “Why doesn’t she know that?!”

"Trimurti" by Pravinsinh Chavda; translated by Mira Desai

Note: this is the third (and final) of three Pravinsinh Chavda stories translated by Mira Desai. To read the introduction to the series and the first story, click here; the second story can be clicked toward here.

Mira adds the following: "The title 'Trimurti,' literally 'three facets,' is from the triumvirate of Hindu Gods—Lord Brahma, the creator; Lord Vishnu, the nurturer, and Lord Shiva, the destroyer."


And in my minds eye, I can still see the two women seated comfortably on the sofa or on the kitchen floor. Breaking darning thread between her teeth with practiced ease, one asks, "Do you see it? Near my temples, behind my ear.. white.."

The other reflective, with an artist’s perspective "Not at all. Anyways, some white is like a badge of honor, proudly worn."

In a manner entirely womanlike, their talk meanders to matters of greater import.. "Get me some areetha from Gandhi Road when you go there next. Don’t you ever think of your ben in all this gallivanting about that you do? Spare some attention for ben, otherwise saheb is all that holds your interest!"

The hidden nuances, the numberless shades in this conversation did not remain unnoticed or un-understood by the younger woman. She straightened for a moment, thought deeply, then cursorily said "Oh yes! What you say is right."

And after this break the talk veered towards cooking soda or sweet neem or some such.

While folding and keeping away Bapuji’s clothes or arranging the books on his study table, while addressing envelopes or making tea to his taste, four hands blur in my sight, strangely interweave and emerge as two.

Oneness, identification, merging of souls.

They’re fine, as far as religious fervent, bhakti, is concerned.

But these begin separating out, assuming separate identities, when one looks at details.

The elder, aware of each subtle stanza of like and dislike, like the language of a gentle touch says, "He can’t tolerate oil and chilies, not at all. Sprouted moong. Khichdi. An apple or perhaps a chicku. His tea and cigarettes for sure! Fueled by these, he transcribes history, brings centuries to life."

The younger, with a hint of a temper tantrum, "D’you wish to belittle saheb? He is an authority, not an ascetic. Chilies and oil aid temper, they bring qualities to light."

And giving credence to the tone of this conversation, Ba would sometimes say, "Ah lo the equations of destiny! Such a well- known man, respected, looked up to. Wherever he goes, a hundred rush forth to meet him! Wouldn’t a half of these be women? Several of these traipse all the way home. Hordes! Some journalists. Some professors. Truly, there is no shortage of jesters in our land. Some swing outside, some gather in his room for hours without end. They interview him, take notes, tape conversations. Each valued guest shares our dinner table.

All of these came, and they went their separate ways. Only this one held tight to the thread of this relationship. This, for sure, one can’t find fault with."

The crux of this story is Bapuji’s grief.

But Ba’s behavior and thoughts filter past memories and crowd the foreground of my mind.

Ba certainly was not as simple, naïve or dumb, as she appeared to be.

It’s only now that I recollect, at certain times, a stilling, stiffening of lip.

Ba would perhaps be in the kitchen, testing the sharpness of the seasoning, she certainly would have read the tones, said and unsaid; of the arguments and discussions that ensued in the incense-scented room on the first floor.

Ba was not a village bumpkin. No. She was not dumb.

A stillness, a capacity to view life in its entirety, an endearing simplicity- these qualities defined Ba.

When a vision is quiet and unwavering, a lot can be seen. A great deal observed. And when such sight is moist everything is understood, everything taken in, accepted.

Truly, oneness does seem to find expression in strangely different ways.

Sometimes I’d be at my books, studying, and Anuradha would suddenly appear from nowhere to sit by my side. I’d ask, "Anuben, why are you crying?" And pulling my book away she’d say, "You do your work!"

And a certain sternness would be written over Ba’s face, for Ba would have followed her to my room to stand by the doorframe, with hands folded, a disciplinarian.

"You’ve become very smart now! No respect! No regard at all for the difference between the old and the young! Talking back, answering back at will?! Someone older can, quite correctly too, tell you a few things, teach you a word or two and..." After this one-sided dialogue she’d soften and implore, "Make amends...!"

What were these arguments about? These tiffs, misunderstandings? What were the steps that defined an amend? All this was far past my ken, and as far as I was concerned the discussion ended then.

The myriad whirlwinds that decorated the margins of the writing paper - these were things that I did not understand. No, not at that time.

Chili powder had become a symbol, a representative of the battle. Ba would be cooking, adding her usual spices to the vegetables and dal; Anuradha would rush in with a huge pinch of chilies and say, "An expert historian, an authority he may well be for universities and conferences! Do we give a damn? Someone like me would drag him to the kitchen and force him to hold a kitchen knife, and I’d tell him “Stand right here! I’ll prepare the dough for rotis and you cut vegetables! When I temper the seasoning, rush to my assistance with the stirring spoon!" Sometimes she’d softly add, "And when I weep, sit by my side, gather my tears..."

And sometimes she’d scold Bapuji. "Don’t you think sometimes you could take us out, to some park or garden, and then treat us to a meal which is decent, but not expensive?"

Bapuji would glance at Ba and comment: "See! She wants us to go to war over this!"

Ba would retort, "Well! Grumbling is not part of my nature, but what she says is entirely right! I don’t speak up. She doesn’t shut up. That’s the basic difference between us."

At this point all three would laugh together, a similar kind of laughter, and the seriousness of the moment would take flight. Although a feeble trickle, a remnant, would find its way ahead. Perhaps Ba could not see this.

This gala laughter would make the moment lighter, fluffier. Lifting, for a moment, this veil of lightness Anuradha would look up and say, "Do you wish to ask me something directly?"

One evening I noticed a shift in tone and a variant of shade in the up-down scale of questions and replies that reached my ears from the garden as I sat at my desk, and my hands stilled. I stared at the slowly approaching dusk. Suddenly I could hear Anuradha speak up, "If I had a husband like this I wouldn’t tolerate him for a day!"

In a low tone, Bapuji replied, "Anurag, is that right? You wouldn’t tolerate him for a day?"

Where was the irritant in this dialogue? Was there something hurtful that would drive someone to tears?

Suddenly I could hear the sound of a chair being pushed aside, as Anuradha swiftly got up and rushed indoors. Looking at me as though I was a complete stranger, she stood wide -eyed in the center of the room staring at me, until Ba led her away quietly into her domain, the kitchen. "Here, take a sip of water. I won't let you leave without dinner. Not today."

To all problems and conundrums, a simple homemade solution.

In due course Anuradha completed her PhD, her thesis was received well by a publisher in Delhi, and she got a job as a city college lecturer; however, there was no change in her standing in my home despite these accomplishments.

Some arrangements, however, did change.

Some activities were added.

Annual visits to Jaipur, Kanpur or Madras, or wherever the historical society convocation would be held that year. Other than that, visits to the history societies in Calcutta or Delhi every now and then. Or if they’d hear about some private collection or library that held a rare document, in Junagadh, Palanpur or Navsari, they would rush there, eager and enthusiastic, bursting at the seams with childlike glee.

The woman at home would dutifully fill containers of thepla and sukhdi.

About the staying arrangements, about accommodation and bedding perhaps she was not overly curious.

Bapuji’s book on the princely states of preindependent Gujarat, entered its 3rd volume of narration. The intensity of his concentration was nearing its peak. His involvement –no- his oneness, ownership, was total. All absorbing. His discussions were measured and well considered, free of an argumentative undercurrent.

Blissfully ignorant of being the fulcrum for two pans swinging first one way and then the other, the distinguished authority worked, engrossed at his task.

If a drop of perspiration was visible on his furrowed brow, two hands would appear from two different directions and proceed, with a gentle finger each, to soothe the drop away, calm his forehead.

Ideas, thoughts, principles, details, and shadowy crowds- all this and more, his vision struggled to capture and race past.

The intensity of his happiness had increased apace in the last few days. I remember Anuradha’s visits had also intensified. She would run to and fro between kitchen and study, connecting the two.

I distinctly remember the Uttrayan festival (kite flying festival) that year. Clad in jeans and a blue round necked t shirt, with glares and a white cap perched atop, this vision ran fleet footed from spot to spot, as though at whim she’d merrily follow a kite into the blue sky up above.

Her tresses, escaped from the confines of her cap, flew in the wind, master of their will. Bapuji shaded his eyes against this glare as that of the sunlight.

Two eyesights, two lines of vision. Meeting at some distant point far away in the sky.

The third person, in charge of domestic matters, was setting forth a volley of orders from her ground floor domain.

"O! Tea’s ready"

"One of you come and fetch these chikkis (puffed rice sweet)"

When we ran out of drinking water and I rushed for a refill, Ba was patiently rolling chikki at the kitchen counter.

A peace, very different from the chaos on the terrace, percolated the kitchen, a look of quiet satisfaction marked Ba’s face.

This instance has been imprinted, nay, burnt deep, in my memory.

The festival of crisscrossing kite strings against the blue skies would mark the end of Shantiparv, the season of truce, of peace.

A new chapter was soon to begin.

But who amongst us knew about this cataclysm at that point in time?

And I wonder at the girl jumping about on the rooftop, shouting gleefully … did she not have any inkling of a chapter’s ending?

This happened the third day after Uttrayan.

Two experts from Rajasthan were visiting on a study tour of the sculptures of North Gujarat. They had been invited home for dinner. Ba, at peace after having completed the dining arrangements, commented, "Hasn’t she come as yet?"

Bapuji was speaking in a slightly raised tone, he was restless, and every now and then would step to the front porch.

When this happened thrice, Ba called him into the kitchen on some pretext, and in a muted voice scolded him, "Perhaps some task cropped up at the last moment! Why are you causing such havoc?"

Perhaps what she left unsaid was, "What is it that you’re yearning for anyway? To meet a householders duty to his guests, I stand by your side, stalwart, steady and shoulder to shoulder, in a manner that’s befitting..."

That day passed somehow, but the transformation that it caused in its wake was difficult to understand. Anuradha’s absence that day was an error, there was no way it could be termed a flaw in character or a life-threatening fault.

Perhaps something that I was unaware of had happened.

At any rate, I was no more than a chit of a girl. And in matters of import, matters that concerned elders I could not gain an entry.

I could not understand their language. Perhaps I could look at this behavior. How could I unscramble this code of silence?

A dull, heavy tread took the place of swift feet, and laughter vanished.

Anuradha would come home. But she’d remain by Ba’s side. The learned authority would remain aloof within his castle of anger. Ba would command, "Here- take this draught to your Saheb."

Anuradha would return with an untouched cup.


"He refused it"

"Why did he refuse it?"

"He says he doesn’t wish to drink it."

And I’d wonder at this conversation. What an uncouth way to refuse something.

Was it so difficult to reply with a sensible excuse?

"I just don’t understand any of this. You know and your saheb knows the best."

But it was obvious she was not sad. At dinnertime, she’d settle her unwavering glance upon Bapuji, "Is this some way to behave? Is it the done thing, to push away someone in this brusque manner?"

The learned authority whose expertise was the deployment of language, at that point used another equally powerful weapon, the weapon of silence.

Amidst that mist of chaos and hurt and sullen silence, Shri Seshadri emerged, pleasant faced and nodding his head, like his namesake…

Whether or not I understood what was happening, Ba worked hard to solicit my support. One afternoon she recited a list of complaints. Since she lacked the impartiality of a judge, half her case would be for the accused, and half for the defendant. In the manner in which she junked the case, it was difficult to say who the accused was, and who the defendant.

"Look at her, the shameless girl! Shouldn’t she have been ashamed of roaming about openly in this fashion with someone? That too, on the strength of a piddly University job? And lo! Look at him! Shouldn’t he even show basic concern about the person on the opposite side? How uncaring." When I asked several unrelated questions in a crisscross fashion, I could unearth pertinent but disjointed clues. That Seshadri was a man of management. That he had no connect, whatsoever, with history. God alone knows how they had met. But now he made several trips to Ahmedabad, ostensibly on work. He must be a good catch. Our one, that girl is fairly pretty too.

And if both are happy, and the families have no objection...The judge’s final statement placed the blame fairly on the woman’s head. "That one, she’s shrewd, deep, difficult to fathom…"

Grief is an independent, isolated nation.

It has its own sky, its own weather, and the laws and regulations that normalize life outside its boundaries do not govern the inhabitants of this land.

When I stand in that no man’s land with Bapuji I see the wise historian, the authority and the man of letters transform into a mere child in this land. Where have the pride of learning and the distinguished veneer of knowledge gone? All this expertise, all this wisdom about humankind, the individual, the universality of nature, the pervasiveness of human emotions…why did all this not help him in his own case? I used to firmly believe that a learned man, an authority stays aloof from sorrow and grief; he stands beyond the pale of mundane human emotions.

A wife’s untimely death, a son lost in the prime of youth…but so what? After thirteen days of quiet, he returns to his realm of books, his domain, and says firmly, without this sustenance, there is no go, for life has to go on.

But Bapuji could not do this.

He could not lose himself on some meandering path related to his subject, and follow where the trail would lead, step after step in uncharted land. The very words that once raced like a horde of gleeful schoolchildren were vanquished and bloody, defeated.

The requests and pleading from his publishers in Delhi continued but work on the prestigious 3rd volume of history was at a standstill.

Time was frozen. All I can see is a picture of a man cut off from time. Regardless of how long that time span must have been in reality, in my memory it has become dense, like a condensate. With a pen in hand, a skeletal structure sits at a desk, listless and vacant eyed, hour after hour. And moves as limply to the adjoining balcony.

Ba would say, slowly, "Go up, see what he is doing..."

And quiet footed I would creep up the flight of stairs, hide behind the curtains and keep watch.

I couldn’t see, but I could hear a subdued, broken wail

How could I go downstairs and report this to Ba, and which language should I pick the words from, to tell her that my father was weeping?

Ba was his better half, his wife. She had wed a distinguished and proud man of letters and she had supported his brilliance. Even in these circumstances, she could not bear to see him broken, lost, a shadow of his previous self.

One evening as he was seated in the dark gloom, she spoke to him.

"Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? This behavior, shedding tears in the dark- this doesn’t befit you! Someone doesn’t care for us, doesn’t quite give a damn, and we sit here, broken, lost, in pain. If nothing else, don’t you have any self-respect left?"

If a picture of an old man bereft, dead and frozen in his sorrow marked our home, at the other end, time was prancing in all its extravagance, finery.

Although Ba did not completely understand the words “Simple wedding” she struggled hard to translate these words, unravel them.

A simple wedding means only a few invitees. Immediate relatives and close associates. We can’t comment on this, or choose to be happy or hurt that we were not invited.

I was after all an intrinsic part of this household, brought up and weaned on its breath. This brutal attack left me dizzy, disjointed, and unable to see reason.

Pointing to the floor above, I asked, "Does he know?"

"Do matters like these remain a secret? He’s known for long."

The next evening, unannounced, the newly weds arrived at our threshold. I had opened the door, and I stood still at the spectacle on my doorstep.

The newly weds had come to seek blessings from their elders.

The bride? Well she seemed taller than usual, in a heavy silk sari and was reflecting such dazzling brilliance that one would have to shade eyes from the glare. Was marriage a parasmani? Just a fleeting touch bestowed shining radiance?

Ba beckoned "O! Do step down! See who’s here!"

That evening was an exam, and one that all of us passed with distinction.

Bapuji stepped down swiftly, he did not seek extra time to reconcile, cover up or splash the make up of laughter on his face.

No one and not certainly Mr Seshadri caught any inkling of the prevailing undercurrents of sorrow and pain.

No gaps or awkward silences marred the conversation; no dialogues with two shades of meaning were uttered.

I did not possess a camera, or else some moments deserved to be preserved for posterity, framed and displayed on the wide skies.

On her arrival Anuradha stepped forward to touch Bapuji’s feet for blessings, and her jet black mane, a curtain of black silk touched the great historian’s feet. For a fraction of a moment both were statue-still.

And then Bapuji broke free of the spell and exited that moment.

"Are arre! sukhi thao!"

Then he seated himself next to Seshadri and the talk pranced past diverse topics like national associations, design, french films. On each of these topics Bapuji held revolutionary, long cherished opinions, but that evening he agreed with everything that Seshadri said. He would not fault courtesy, not fall amiss of the norms of give and take characteristic of worldly interactions. Retrieving a wrapped sari from its hiding place in some cupboard, he blessed them, "Be happy, what else should we say?" An envelope was handed over to the prize winner. No rules of propriety were breached, no ritual left undone. A cloud of fluffy happiness gathered everyone in its folds. Since I did not have a role to play in this final act, I stood by a wall, and watched.

When Anuradha swept by with a swish to sit next to Ba, the pallav of her sari touched Bapuji’s cheek. Finally it was my turn to benefit from her grace. I was looking at Bapuji, conscious only of his tone laced with enthusiasm, when the silk whirlwind enshrouded me, and a voice with a gentle fullstop, a hand placed on my head said "Goodbye!"

Long after the couple left, these words rang loud in the air.

"Goodbye goodbye"

"Be happy be happy"

It is not easy to erase the presence of a learned man from a home. One cannot simply dust free and mop away his identity. If nothing else, cupboards, storage attics and corners occupied by the physical manifestations of knowledge –books and volumes- cannot be scoffed at, ignored easily. Sheets of foolscap paper filled diligently in fine writing, getting yellower by the day, but why should foolscap sheets folded at the margins display such anguish?

The doctor said it was a stroke, but given the manner in which he died, sitting emptily in his armchair, this medical term failed to capture this physical assault. A gentle tap, nay a nudge, that too from so far away- for when this happened, the newly weds were ensconced in Dalhousie, partaking of the night.

And in this manner the Trimurti broke apart. Two individuals, who swam deep in the rarified air of the study, now swam in directions that took them far far apart, in differing dimensions of light.

The third person of this triumvirate was left behind, along with the spices in her kitchen.

The task of converting our home to a learning–less, expert-less state, fell on our shoulders. Books were gathered up and sent to school and college libraries. Some were sacrificed in Diwali maha-cleaning, and some were thrown out in lots one after the other, along with used up batteries and long silent transistors.

Ba’s scalp was now completely white.

No one could look at our home and state that here, once upon a time; a man of a different mettle resided, and in this very balcony, in this very chair, an old man broke down and wept like a child.

No one could ever imagine that a woman, accused and held guilty of unstated betrayal and treachery, once spread a cape of jet—black silk in pleading, at someone’s feet.

The past does not exist in my memory as a continual chain. Some events, some instances, some expressions—this is the residual. And these events kaleidoscopically morph of their free will, fragments rearrange to create new shapes, memories. Old memories are not faithful to what actually happened. Of their own fancy they form new stratagems. New plots, and that instance of touching feet seems elongated into eternity.

The woman who bent in submission and beseeched for forgiveness with a cape of black silk does not move past that freeze frame.

And I tell her, get up! Get up, Anuradha, get up and go….

Remembering Gert Jonke (1946 – 2009) by Vincent Kling

Seven Years of Good Luck

David Foster Wallace and Gert Jonke died a few months apart, at different ages and in different ways, but the grief beyond sadness and the personal impact of the loss in both cases make it clear that something more valuable than even their distinguished writing alone had ceased. As with Wallace, Jonke’s audiences, readers, admirers, and friends are acting six months later as if their compass weren’t working quite so reliably any more, as though they were slightly adrift in a world that needed not just the order and affirmation of their technical virtuosity but their visions of hope and compassion in the teeth of a human isolation rampant consumerism and waste can only intensify. Simply by being the artists and men they were, both Wallace and Jonke revived the old-fashioned ethos of the good writer as a good person advancing good aims.

Readers over forty will recall how John Gardner was ridiculed ­­in the late 1970s for advocating moral fiction, but literature has moved back to the return of the author with its attendant ethical positions and affective appeals, as Vivian Laska observed in an essay accounting for the recent renewal of interest in Stefan Zweig. Far from objecting, then, readers revered Wallace for his efforts, more and more pronounced in his last years, “[. . .] to show readers how to live a fulfilled, meaningful life,” quoting D. T. Max in the New Yorker in March 2009. Good writing, said Wallace, should help readers “‘to become less alone inside,’” and his explicit desire was to “‘write morally passionate, passionately moral fiction,’ as he put it in a 1996 essay on Dostoyevsky.” Dying for the reader sounds like an act of grandiosity or drastic masochism, but it formed a stated movitation for Wallace from which many readers have come away the better.

Jonke followed a zanier path to ethical integrity, depicting with grace and mad humor what his fellow Austrian Hermann Broch once called the “jolly apocalypse” (“die fröhliche Apokalypse”) that accompanied the collapse of Europe from 1914 to 1945 and that’s anything but past and gone in the era of the European Union. Armed attacks on Roma and Sinti, a renewed romance with fascistoid ideologies, demagogic appeals to hatred of foreigners, rampant capitalism as the third wave of totalitarianism – even or especially after the financial crises of the past year – are being confronted seriously and conscientiously throughout Europe, but the Austrian weapon is often deceptively absurd comedy or humor. Parody is alive and well: a rough parallel from the 2008 election in the United States is found in the considerable part Tina Fay played on Saturday Night Live in focusing opposition to Sarah Palin – rough because Jonke was a master at making political points without such direct reference. In one of his last plays, for instance, a character laments that the national assembly has sold all the air space over the country to a monopolistic advertising agency, which will erect huge banners to blot out the sun, moon, stars, the birds in flight, and the wind. Too buffoonishly over the top? Not when people in Vienna recall that the tower of the cathedral and other landmarks were long draped by scaffolding over which advertisements for insurance companies were hung and that one firm has in fact recently been granted exclusive legal rights to all the billboards in the city.

Jonke’s coding this or that specific piece of corruption with droll inventiveness was one part of a broader moral vision grounded in hope. His attitude illustrates a famous proverbial difference between Germans and Austrians; war news from Berlin supposedly often used the phrase, “The situation is serious but not hopeless,” while the broadcasts from Vienna allegedly were summed up with, “The situation is hopeless but not serious.” Joachim Lux wrote when Jonke died this past January, “We have him and his work to thank for the greatest of gifts: the illusion that we can fly, can overcome death and every other adversity,” and a few months earlier, in November 2008, as he conferred the much-coveted Nestroy Prize on Jonke for the third time, Lux had addressed him as an especially deserving laureate, “[. . .] because you go on dreaming the dream of flying. You give us glimpses of a freedom that perhaps may never have existed but that we cannot live without.” Jonke had the full measure of this world, but he loved it anyway and taught us to do the same, as Lux further stated. Memorial tributes by artists like Elfriede Jelinek and Friederike Mayröcker referred to Jonke as a great magician of language, the last-ever Don Quixote, a virtuosic jazz-like improviser, but this true original might have been even more touched by the many memories of him as a kind, modest, and genuinely good man who, like Wallace, was never known to be anything other than gracious and considerate to students, readers, fellow writers, editors, and scholars. A man whose constant advice to the students in his writing classes was that they had to let themselves go crazy was also the sweetest of human beings.

The five short works here are a farewell tribute meant to show various related aspects of Jonke’s art. The writing is a much more enduring monument than anything said about it, but since Jonke is pretty much unknown outside the German-speaking world still (reader, please note: Dalkey Archive Press and Ariadne Press have been publishing him in translation, and there’s an extensive article about him in Review of Contemporary Fiction), some discussion of these pieces might help. With one exception, the “Letter to Hans,” they are taken from the volume of all his plays published in August 2008. The title of that handsome book, Alle Stücke, was meant to be read as meaning all the plays up to that time, but it became sadly, inadvertently prophetic in including all the plays Jonke was ever to write – unless, as appears unlikely, posthumous work shows up.

The letter to his baby son Hans, who died suddenly at age four months, is taken from a book that mingles fiction, autobiography, reminiscences, tributes to friends, and brilliant essays on music. It might be a good place to start for anyone who doubts that the exaggerations of comedy can dwell with and augment understated poignancy. Jonke’s wild fantasy projections are always transforming documentary reality into something rich and strange. He owed a good deal of his fantasy to the Romantic movement, but for its tendency to solipsism, with attendant isolation, he substituted a faith in the ability of the perceptual act to apprehend a real world outside of us, only to ring changes on that world rooted in synesthesia, the displaced perception of one sense through the organs of another, a favorite device of mystical Romanticism for heightening reality by blurring its contours. Dozing with the baby at noon, he hears midday bells that sweep sunlight into the room and wash sleep away from him. Alarmed at the onset of Hans’s seizures, he thinks the ceiling is casting mortar down on him and frowning at him in hatred. It isn’t that the tenderness and the sorrow emerge despite the disconcerting jumble of mixed sense impressions but because of it. Everywhere in Jonke, streetcar tracks get fed up with immobility and leap into the air, statues take it upon themselves to stride back to the quarries from which their stone came, buildings expand or contract by whole floors depending on their mood. Reality as we live it is much deeper and richer, even when it hurts, as in the baby’s passing, than conventionally ordered perceptions can account for.

Ordered perceptions are a sometime thing anyway. “Hyperbole 1,” from a series of snapshots or vignettes in drama form called Insektarium, is one of several studies by Jonke showing the social origins of perception and memory. That process forms the basis of his Geometric Regional Novel. If the difference between how the human eye and the insect eye perceive their surroundings is a marvel of nature, it might be even more miraculous to ponder how different the outside world can appear to any two human observers. The man and the woman are watching the same circus performance but placing opposite meanings on the same phenomena. Even as the show is taking place, not after it, the observers are “distorting” reality by negotiating an understanding of what they’re seeing and then storing those “distortions” in their memory. Almost all the famous investigations of recovered memory (Elizabeth Loftus, “Remembering Dangeously”; Maryanne Garry, “A Few Seemingly Harmless Routes to a False Memory”; or the classic David Rapaport, “Organization and Pathology of Thought”) make exactly the point that emotion plays a major part in shaping memory, especially the desire to accommodate what others are suggesting is the reality they see. Jonke shows us that process from a you-are-there standpoint, intuiting through art what psychologists ascertain through research (as Freud once wrote to Schnitzler about their pursuits). There’s no harm done in the Jonke piece, unlike some of the more sensational real-life cases of people’s lives being destroyed through false memories, but the volatility and uncertainty of the memory being formed even as the action forming it is still occurring, the very factual basis of the memory being transformed by commenting on it, give this two-minute playlet its dynamic.

Preserving or fortifying memory is also a theme of “The Projector,” a piece holding more than its brevity would seem to make possible. It was most recently published as the preface to Jonke’s last play, Freier Fall (Free Fall). The sci-fi, fantasy premise of erasing memory of a film by showing it backwards seems a comical variation on popular stories and films about “brainwashing,”so we have here a kind of domestic, trivial Manchurian Candidate in clowning mode, except that the migraine-inducing hollows where the memories were call to mind all too effectively the paralysis, grief, and bewilderment recorded by children of Holocaust victims who are partly or fully deprived by traumatized relatives of memory or even basic information. “The Projector” is thus a shorter, funnier, but not less powerful version of stories like George Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood, Doron Rabinovici’s The Search for M., or W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, right down to the realization that restoring memory, or being provided one in the first place, starts the process of resolution almost regardless of how dreadful the events were. Not knowing what one intuits is worse, because the horror is present in sublimated but damaging form, unavailable for processing. The spotless mind does not experience eternal sunshine, to cite another film about memory, for it isn’t spotless; its blankness is already a taint. Nor is the conferring or denying of memory unconnected here with rewarding or punishing consumer behavior; the owner of the movie theater reserves the right to make the audience happy or miserable based purely on payment, so the tensions of capitalist structures, always present in Jonke and always reduced to their logical absurdities, make up another theme. Finally, “The Projector” encompasses a subtlely found often in Jonke, one that places the reliability of narration into further playful but searching doubt. The piece begins as a personal recollection, a realistically documented memory vouched for as accurate by the presence of the narrator at the events he’s describing. “I was there; I saw this with my own eyes” is the tone and stance of the first part, but just when we’ve settled into taking the narrator’s account fully for granted – if we ever called it into question to begin with – we stumble over the qualifier “They say” toward the end, so the unshakable eyewitness quality of the account turns out to be perhaps not quite so certain after all. Again, Geometric Regional Novel, published by Dalkey Archive, is a book-length study in the relativity of perception and memory, as participants in various actions are never quite able to pin down whether they were in fact present, or just heard about the events, or read an account of them in a book, or all or none of the above.

Male-female conflict doesn’t end quite so harmoniously in “Praying Mantis” as in “Hyperbole 1,” likewise from Insektarium. Jonke wouldn’t be a good citizen of Freud country if he weren’t keenly aware of the battle of the sexes or, more generally, of the roots of all social interaction in more or less sublimated hostility. And if a smile, accompanied by a thin veneer of courtesy, can both mitigate and advance the aggression growing out of the hosility, all the more validly is the experience captured in art. Jonke never worried about being politically correct, but he was too much a realist in his fantasy not to give equal opportunity to the primal fury of devouring rapacity through the need for dominance. Nature books and TV shows tell us that it’s always the female praying mantis who bites the head off the male – after sex, by the way – but “Praying Mantis” (and the word itself if feminine in German – “Gottesanbeterin”) makes it purposely, skillfully unclear which partner is attacking the other, for the instinct to devour is not a confined to one gender, at least not once we reach a certain level of biological organization. Jonke exploits the discrepancy between a relatively “primitive” organic structure and an all-too-sophisticated psychological makeup. What emerges is an encounter as formally polite as a conventionalized “limits-respecting” S-M negotiation guaranteeing a pleasurable encounter. After all, Jonke came from Leopold von Sacher-Masoch territory as well.

In his last few years, “Leavetaking” became Jonke’s much-anticipated signature piece. Like so much of his work, it has appeared in different contexts and configurations, last seen as another vignette in Insektarium, but Jonke had long since made it a practice to end his energetic, madcap readings with some improvisation on the published text, changing it up like a fine jazz musician on the spur of the moment, the audience, and the mood. Klaus Amann was the host at a reading Jonke did in November 2008 at the Musil House in Klagenfurt. It was his last appearance ever, and Amann reminisced with me at a conference in Linz in early June 2009. Much marked by the pancreatic cancer that took him mercifully fast, Jonke glowed with happiness at once more, to the audience’s joy, closing with “Leavetaking,” adding even more outrageous contrasts of phony cordiality and control needs. The pompous, bloated rhetoric, the fake, manipulative warmth, the wallowing in cliché, overstatement, and compulsive repetition work brilliantly to create a portrait of smarmy monstrosity and the self-satisfied insanity of loving humanity but hating humans. It would be hard to imagine any way of abusing of language by people seeking power through crass, demagogically motivated camaraderie – from the “down-to-earth” CEO to the nicknamed politician in shirt sleeves, from the “understanding” teacher to the falsely “open” social worker, from the reactionary “graciously condescending” to the lower orders to the smiling liberal who’s good friends with all the downtrodden – that isn’t skewered by Jonke’s brilliant exploitation of the discrepancies between the rhetoric and the reality. And when the reciter or speaker of “Leavetaking” is a good performer – Jonke himself knew how to put on a show – then the growing nastiness, the sneaking insistence, the increasing shrillness and tightness of the voice make the whole conflict in the speaker unforgettably urgent, all the more when the whole series of donts and prohibitions and threats gives way to the revolting oiliness of happiness at the next gathering. The speaker is disgusting and frightening, but not more so, as exaggerated to transparent insanity here, than many a demagogue only a shade more subtle.

I met Jonke in Vienna in 2002, after I’d agreed to edit a casebook of essays about him. As if in a story by him, he got onto a bus I was on just as I was trying to figure out how I could meet him. The rest was history, a seven-year history of admiration, respect, and joy at the work it has been my privilege to translate and that has deepened my understanding of what literature is. That joy was only increased as I got to know Jonke the man as well and found in him a gentleness and a gentlemanliness anyone would benefit from emulating, a complete refusal to indulge the gossip and buzz of literary show-biz, a generous, open demeanor toward everyone, an emotional discipline that spoke only positives, and a spiritual alertness that saw the bad but prized the good, calling this broken world to heal itself through the repentance of laughter and comedy. The man is gone, but the work endures, and many of us are very grateful for both.

Letter to Hans

You probably don’t remember much about when you went away, took “French leave,” as they call it. Who could have even explained to you then, in any way that would have fit inside your head, that you’re really not supposed to do it like that? Besides, it wouldn’t have been worth asking about, and the question wouldn’t have deserved an answer, if you had reached the age where you could have slowly learned to read these few belated lines, the first and last ones ever addressed to you; be happy, though, that the people who know everything and have all the answers never got you into their clutches and started trying to get you to answer questions you would find completely incomprehensible – not because these people were looking forward to your answers with burning anticipation but only because they were demanding you should be burned – burned up or burned out – by their highly drilled activity of rote memorization and constant repetition, parroting material in every one of their mandatory school subjects for endless hours and weeks until all the imagination is burned out of children’s heads. You were spared that, anyway, along with everything inevitably following from it, when you were four months old and began moving away from us, something all of us around you at first very steadfastly tried to prevent. And oh yes, it was a true liftoff of your little body, good and slow – not from the floor, no, not from the ground, but directly away from me; the time was noon, because I remember the bells being shaken through the window into the room by the sun at the height of summer and their washing the remains of the drowsy morning from my temples; I remember the hollows behind the walls of my sinuses suddenly being rinsed clear so that my skull bolted upright into the midst of the hollow room, from the highest corners of which the walls began flinging down on me a glittering, moist storm of mortar with all the crumbling ridicule of its wallpaper tatters loosened by laughter; that was when I first saw how you had lifted yourself off me and were trying ­­to get completely away from me. You had slept next to me all morning, on me, really, lying on my chest, which you liked; you always did like it, except that day – apparently not any more, at least not that day, anyway, and then all I saw was how you had lifted yourself quite far off me by now, how you’d raised yourself really high and had drifted up, the distance growing and growing until your little body had practically soared up to the ceiling, fled away as if dissolving into the air of the room, become as good as “transparent,” though I succeeded at the very last minute, seemingly at least, in bringing you back down, getting hold of you again, intercepting you in flight, retrieving you, and so then I had you again and was holding you fast before you could slip away completely – no wonder, either, for the storm that had broken loose in the room had probably frightened you very much, and the whole room still had a totally frowning, wrinkled, furrowed, creased, beetle-browed, furiously enraged-looking ceiling! Anyone would become afraid! Still, I had been able to get you back at the last minute and hold you fast, as I said, and so it seemed things were turning out at least halfway right in the end. But then when I tried to wake you, your head started falling back and kept on just hanging down – for such a long time; it’s still going on today – even though I was trying to feed you some warm broth so you’d gain strength. Things kept on like this for some time, though, and that’s when I got scared. I called a taxi and dashed off with you to the nearest hospital, where I asked them to take us both into their care. The only thing they knew to do was to wrap you up in a tangle of tubes, because they thought you must be cold. Or did they want you confined in a labyrinth like that because they were thinking they could resolutely prevent your going away, your lifting off from the globe in this way? Dear Hans! It’s already frightening enough to see an adult locked inside one of those heart-lung machines, but when it’s an infant – I only hope you didn’t even notice what was happening, and I’m assuming that in the course of the thunderstorm inside the room earlier a couple of lightning bolts hit you hard enough that you never felt a thing after that. Later on they requested me to bring some decent clothes for you, and when I gave the morgue official the overalls you’d embellished a few weeks before with a huge strawberry stain, his deeply reproachful look – it stayed with me for a long time – held a strong reprimand after the fact for your untidy manners . . .

Later, at the grave, a very sweet, very aged clergyman said I shouldn’t be too sad about your untimely disappearance, because in all probably you hadn’t really and truly disappeared at all. For the fact was that in times to come, in future days and years, you would be with me, even though I wouldn’t be able to notice it very clearly – and, he went on, the way I’d see that you were with me is in how you would sometimes help my eyes to go flying very swiftly out of my head like a pair of darting wrens, circling the globe once and then telling me all about the world in great detail without my having to take the trip myself. And how nothing bad would happen to my eyebirds on their travels; they wouldn’t go and drown in the very first waterfall of light they came to, if maybe you’d look after them, keep an eye on them a little so they’d come back safe and sound and able to give dependable reports on all the latest going on in the world; you’d see to it and you’d help in many other ways as well – is this what he meant, that aged clergyman? Anyway, you can believe me when I tell you my eyesight has grown much sharper since then. Because I trust my eyes more and more since then, entrust more and more to them, so that their absence from my head is more frequent. Even so, I’m not anywhere nearly as blind as I was then, because the memories of the stories my eyes tell during their moments of absence convey so keen a sense of things to me that I can never again allow this globe, this earth of ours, simply to drift into forgetfulness.

Thank you so much for everything.

Hyperbole 1

He and She are sitting as if on raised audience benches and looking out into the auditorium, as if they were watching a circus performance.

He: Now comes the standard tightrope walk. I don’t envy the man doing it.

She: He’s already reached the middle of the rope. How daring! It’s amazing that some eyes are tossing blank looks of contempt right between his legs to make him stumble and falter. But he’s defending himself tooth and nail, or arm and leg anyway; he’s making every effort to thrust away the air behind him like a mule kicking backwards.

He: No he’s not, he’s giving a sign, a forceful slipping and sliding backwards with both his heels; he’d doing it on purpose to give his assistant down below a very specific sign. Do you understand?

She: Yes, because this sign results in both rope walkers’ freeing themselves altogether unexpectedly, suddenly, and simulaneously, so that the rope, even without being attached, nonetheless hangs in air like a straight line that can bear the weight of the one artist still traversing it, like a horizontal pole, without his plunging to the ground at once.

He: Now the rope has turned into a gigantic snake and is wrapping itself around the artist’s body, preparing to squeeze him to death.

She: No, you’re mistaken. Don’t you see that the rope is wrapping itself in a loving embrace around the body of the dancer in air and trying to protect him, to help cushion his body from the plunge down to the ring, no doubt left filthy on purpose, that’s now about to take place; do you see?

He: You’re right. I bet he won’t even mess up his hair.

She: But where’s the artist now? He probably wanted to do nothing but just slip away with his failure.

He: No, no, this is something different now. This next act is what’s known as the “escape number.”

She: It looks now as if he’s trying with all his heart to work free of his entanglement in that cumbersome, gigantic mass of colossally piled-up, coiled ship-towing cable. And in fact, he’s becoming more and more visible all the time, as if he were an emerging pupa. But no, not quite yet, but still you can see him, yes, there he is; maybe he’s being just a little too brash now, simply popping out that way right in front of our eyes so he can complete his transformation within full sight of us, just like that.

He: Yes, exactly like a sphinx moth coming out of its cocoon, isn’t he?

She: The audience doesn’t know what to think. No real tightrope walking, no dancing in air. Not even a botched act or an injured artist. The audience is finding this escape number pretty feeble, even if it is placed on purpose under the guise of a botched tightrope walk, because he wasn’t even the one who untied the knots.

He: There he is, the artist. Listen to the ovations! He’s simply allowing all the laughter to enter the arena of his face and then to exit, and then bowing once more, then exiting again and making another entrance and radiantly bowing to the audience. If we weren’t to tear ourselves away, if we were to keep looking on to this laughter he’s conjuring up so artfully, well, for the next few hours or maybe even all night or for days and days after this we’d . . .

She: But isn’t that why we came here in the first place?

He: Yes, of course. And now all of a sudden the audience is really thrilled and is starting to go berserk. And even if you’d never in your life seen all these smiles before, you’d think right away you were seeing them again and are being recognized on a personal basis. Fantastic! Amazing.

She: Come on. Let’s go down to see the artist and request his autograph. Then maybe we can bask in his smile from close up. Like a little sun. Come quick.

The Projector

I was just about thirteen or fourteen when I first started wanting to go to the movies on a regular basis. That wasn’t easy, because either I didn’t have the money to buy a ticket or the film was prohibited for young people.

The owner of the movie theater had a certain quirk – he couldn’t stand it when somebody would sneak into the theater behind his back without paying.

After the main feature started, he would vanish from the theater into the lobby, to the ticket seller’s glass booth, so he could compare the number of people sitting in the audience with the number of tickets sold. For the rest of the show he would take a seat up in the projection room behind the projectionist, who would be standing next to the projector.

It sometimes happened, when the movie was over, that the projectionist would immediately rewind the rolls of film, this reverse motion replaying the whole film within a few seconds at an immensely speeded up rate and creating an ear-splitting racket from the dirty, flickering screen. Everybody would then feel gloomy and empty, as if they hadn’t even been to the movies in the first place.

This happened because the projectionist had somehow found a way, while rewinding the rolls of film, not only to play them in reverse at that insanely rapid pace, but also, as aided by the projector now running the movie backwards in full length on the screen, to edit out the entire film from the minds of the audience that had just finished watching it, to draw it right back out of their brains completely, and in the minds of the audience, which should have been occupied by the memory of the film that had ended just a moment before, there opened up instead a migraine-inducing cavern. All because someone hadn’t paid, and this was the theater owner’s revenge, his way of taking it out on everybody.

They say that almost always, however, the guilty party – or someone else in his stead, someone who hadn’t done anything wrong – would then voluntarily step up and offer to pay, even after the damage was done, whereupon the owner would cheerfully request the audience to resume their seats and the projectionist to show the entire film at full length once more, from beginning to end, but in that insanely rapid span of only a few seconds, thereby propelling it back into the people’s heads.

They would then go home, or to the coffee house next door, or to a bar – whatever they ordinarily did – very much happier than usual, as if they’d seen an especially fine film. And it made no difference whether they’d just seen the worst trash ever or a really wonderful movie.

The Praying Mantis

As He and She draw closer, either He with His mandibles, or She with Hers, both at the same time or one after the other, lunges at the other’s neck, wrenching the other’s head up and back, toward the sky, or at least in that general direction, either simultaneously or in succession or several times or only once, thereby practically choking off the following sentences.

She or He (to Him or Her): I’m so sorry, but just now I have to bite your head off, you know, but don’t be afraid, because it won’t hurt a bit, so please just hold still now!

He or She (to Her or Him): Yes, you’re absolutely right, because I do notice that right now my head is being bitten off by you – but it’s so exciting and wonderful, and I can tell it will now and forevermore, as time goes by, remain everpresent as the most wonderful event I will ever have experienced.


Farewell Speaker: Now before we arrive at the point of general dispersal, I would very much like to convey to all of you, to each and every one of you, that is, meaning all and sundry without exception, my express admiration at how you all – “all” referring to an entirety, a collective entity – have borne with me for so long, right up to this present moment, that is. You see, I ordinarily, which is to say as a general rule, can’t bear with anyone for very long, certainly not as long as you, each and every one of you, have borne with me. In the place of any and all of you I would normally have long since been up and gone by now. In the place of any or all of you, I would normally not even have turned up here to begin with, in fact, all the more not had I known that I were to be in any way involved in any of the present proceedings. But while sharing this time together amongst or amidst – that is simply to say with – each and every one of you, I have felt so very happy as to be entirely unable to tell you, at least not at this point, the last time I felt so happy being together with anyone – whether it be one person or several people, or animals, vegetables, or minerals – as I now feel with you.

It strikes me as totally absurd that you and I – you as a communal or collective entity, encompassing all and sundry – should have gathered together for the first time only today and hence not have made one another’s acquaintance until just now.

It quite simply surpasses my powers of comprehension that I should never have gathered together with you, all and sundry considered collectively, at any point in time before today’s date, as of which moment – the present one, of course – we are indeed and in fact gathered together, “we” meaning I with you, aggregately and collectively! It’s my stated belief that we – you as a collective aggregation and I – would have had no need to gather together for any such thing as a “first time” with a view toward establishing mutual acquaintance.

As of now, however, we’ve been sitting together for quite a long while.

We really must meet again soon.

For the time being, let’s say that we, taken all together – you in the collective or aggregate and I – will meet once every two weeks. All of you together with me. My hearing is very sharp, incidentally, and it’s telling me now that there is no desire you – meaning each and every one of you – harbor more keenly than to meet and gather together with me.

Let’s say once a week at the tavern here, where your association convenes, and why not right away next week, as I’ve said, whereupon, having proposed which, I would like now to extend an invitation for you all to come – for each and every one of you, that is – to come visit me at home. Please come and enjoy my hospitality, but you all need to come, all and sundry, without exception, and everyone please needs to be on time!

Only if all of you, excluding not one single soul, shall have assembled not only on time but all together, as a complete contingent, without one single person being absent, as you have done today in this hall, would I be in a position to put in my own appearance, as I have done today, so that all of us, you and I considered as a collective and aggregate assemblage, might meet once again.

And when you come to visit me in my penthouse apartment, to which, as I’ve said, I am herewith inviting you, aggregately and in your full number, to gather together on my roof terrace – on which there is more or less room for just about as many people as you are when all present and accounted for in full contingent without anyone falling over the edge, or at least not very often – when you come to visit me, at any rate, all and sundry fully assembled, I must insist that you all arrive at the same time, all together as a full contingent. If you should wish to come visit me and should not be able to come as a numerically complete contingent, I simply will not be able to admit you. You can also at any time, whenever you wish, come to pay me a visit on the terrace of my penthouse, and you needn’t give any notice in advance; feel free to come at any hour of the day or night, at four in the morning or any other time, as far as I’m concerned, but only under the proviso that you all arrive and present yourselves, collectively and aggregately assembled, all present and accounted for, as a full contingent.

For that matter, moreover, we can gather together at any time or any place, in any location anywhere, for as long as you like, and all of you – each and every one, all and sundry – and myself, could stay together throughout the complete span of the remainder of our lives, anywhere at all, if you taken all together and I should happen to want it that way, but then only if you are always all together in your entirety. For if even one of you is absent, then we – you and I considered as an aggregation – would simply no longer be what we now are.

My wish, then, is always and ever to engage with all of you only as a corporate, collective entity and aggregate assemblage.

All of you – meaning each and every one, all and sundry, said collective entity – are most heartily and cordially welcome to come visit me at any time, always and everyone, but there is at no time ever to be any engaging with any single one of you separately, as an individual.

For various reasons I simply cannot do that.

In addition, I would not recognize or acknowledge any single, individual one of you by yourselves, as a distinct and separate entity, should I happen to encounter you on the street, and why indeed should I, since I know you all as a complete assemblage, not on any isolated, single, separate, individual basis.

Accordingly, I take no interest whatever in any individual one of you viewed as a single or separate entity, meaning that I am altogether indifferent to any or each one of you considered singly or individually, which is, furthermore, how it must be.

Only if all of you, the collective entity or assembled communality, should happen to encounter me on the street would I be able to acknowledge you. All of you together, in your entirety, the aggregate assemblage, you understand. That should be clear, I think. Were any individual one of you to come visit me alone, singly, on an isolated or separate basis, I would be entirely unable to place you, the individual, single visitor, into anything even approaching the context of “us,” meaning the aggregate assemblage of the collective, communal entity. You do understand me, I hope?

After all, I have always understood all of you perfectly well, even though not a single one of you has ever uttered one single word.

Accordingly, I would therefore advise every single one of you not to turn up under any circumstances on a separate or individual basis at my place of residence. I would have to slam the door right in the face of any stranger, which is of course what you would be, or would have to have such a person thrown out like a panhandler or peddler before a single word could be uttered. I also feel constrained to recommend to each and every one of you that no individual, separately or in isolation, make any solitary effort, in any manner, shape, or form, even to think of growing argumentative or pugnacious with me.

I simply cannot allow rumors to begin spreading to the effect that I at any time ever went cow-tipping with any individual one of you as a solitary or separate entity. I would not at all mind, on the other hand, if rumors were to be bruited abroad that it’s long been my practice to go cow-tipping with all of you as an aggregate or collective assemblage, whether occasionally or fairly often, or very often, or even constantly, for that matter, provided rumor has it that I’ve been doing it with all and sundry, communally; nay, I would even relish the spread of a rumor – so what if just as a matter of idle gossip or on the basis of common hearsay? – to the effect that I have never preferred to do anything more with all of you as an aggregate communality, that I indeed have never in fact done anything other than engage with all of you taken together and collectively in the activity of cow-tipping.

All of you together, the whole aggregation, and myself.

I’m prepared at any time to do anything whatsoever for you all as a collective entity, a group taken together, whereas for any single or individual one of you in isolation I would quite unable even to lift my little finger.

So now we can begin meeting fairly often and on a regular basis.

We’ll proceed from gathering once every two weeks to gathering once a week.

Then we’ll start meeting several times a week.

And every now and then perhaps even every day.

Sometimes here, sometimes there, sometimes here where you all are now, all and sundry in full aggregate assemblage and sometimes up on the terrace in my penthouse. I know we’re all looking forward to it a great deal.