Tag Archives: Summer 2021

PUNCH

Radoslav Rochallyi
European Open Culture Network

by Andrea Schmidt

Radoslav Rochallyi, a Slovak poet with a Hungarian surname who lives in Prague and Malta, writes a mathematical poetry that is not easy to understand. His latest collection, PUNCH, builds on his previous experimental collections, including Golden Divine (self-published, 2016) and DNA (European Open Culture Network, 2019). Golden Divine is a prototype of formal fundamentalism in poetry, employing a restriction according to the Greek letter phi, which represents the golden ratio. In DNA, Rochallyi threw himself into another rule, one derived from the title formula.

PUNCH is a free continuation of this form of experimentation, and it is Rochallyi's best work so far, in that he seems better able to find a tolerable relationship between formalism and freedom. The first impression when you open the book is that you are looking at mathematical equations—ones that you cannot read. Then, after a while, you begin to perceive patterns and find that you can read the text in different ways, suggesting that this poetry is a critique of semantics and language as such. Here is a sample:

Skin

As the reader progresses through the volume, they are apt to feel that Rochallyi's project is not only a critique of language, but also a beautiful, direct confession that tears up the metaphysical ambiguity of life. The poems obsessively sing about suffering in time and the potential for radical dissolution in life. Importantly, Rochallyi turns away from cynicism and towards hope. Full of paradoxes in both content and form, PUNCH can be considered one of the most important works of experimental poetry in the last decade.


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Klara and the Sun

Kazuo Ishiguro
Alfred A. Knopf ($28)

by Kris Novak

In today’s world, is there a firm line between “human” and “artificial”? In his latest novel, Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro discusses subjects such as the dangers of technological advancement, the future of our world, and the meaning of being human that he also broached in his earlier books.

Taking place in the near future of the United States, the story unfolds through the view of Klara, the “Artificial Friend” of Josie, a success-driven teenage girl who suffers from a weird illness caused by “lifting,” an intelligence heightening procedure. Helping her with whatever she needs, Klara meets people in Josie’s circle like her boyfriend Rick, who shares their future plans with her. Klara’s only dream is to make her owner safe and sound. However, the girl grows weaker day after day, and Klara decides to immolate the Cootings Machine, believing this will cure Josie.

Klara’s extraordinary skills evoke feelings of excitement about progress, but the novel conveys an idea of its danger as well. Everyone depicted in this work is “self-programmed”; Josie, for instance, is fixated on creating the social mask she needs to fit in with her peers. All the characters show a lack of empathy and none of them see the world for its diversity—i.e. that everyone, “lifted” or not, has a role to play.

It quickly becomes evident that Klara’s character is more human than the others. While human characters’ language is stilted and robot-like, the narratives developed in Klara’s mind are complex and filled with imagery and details. Even her drawbacks—her tendency to rationalize an insatiable curiosity, say, or vision that becomes pixelated at moments of intense emotion—are recognizably human. Nevertheless, despite her extraordinary memory and intellectual capacity, she has difficulty synthesizing mixed emotions.

While Klara—more of a Lancelot than a Frankenstein’s creature—carries out her plan even though it may appear foolish, it is hard to say whether Josie’s recovery is a result of the immolation or not. Still, it is clear that Klara has made everyone around her stronger and confident enough in their thoughts and feelings to come up with the right decisions, including her best friend.

The theme of faith and its value in the modern world is hidden behind a fairy tale façade in Ishiguro’s story. Klara’s character demonstrates not only self-sacrifice, she fully accepts her destiny, pursues her goals energetically, and ignores all opinions except Josie’s in ways that could remind readers of Protestant doctrine. Further, almost every character expresses thoughts related to the doctrine of predestination at some point. Is it time for us to ask these questions too? The answer is hidden between the lines of this haunting novel.


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To Break the Silence:
An Interview with Kim Echlin

photo by Sara Upshur

by Allan Vorda

Kim Echlin was born in Burlington, Ontario, where her high school teachers noticed her writing talent early on. She has received degrees from McGill University and Paris-Sorbonne University, as well as her PhD in English literature from York University; her thesis was on the translation of Ojibwe Nanabush myths. Echlin has been a documentary filmmaker, editor, and teacher, and has travelled around the world, often infusing this experience into her novels, which include Under the Visible Life (Penguin Canada, 2016) and The Disappeared (Black Cat, 2009), a critically acclaimed book heralded by Khaled Hosseini as “nothing short of a masterpiece.” She currently teaches at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and for the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Echlin’s most recent novel, Speak, Silence (Hamish Hamilton, $22.95), is a fictionalized account of the Bosnian women who testified at The Hague about their experiences of crimes against humanity, focusing on the estimated 60,000 women and children who were raped during the genocidal Bosnian War. This novel celebrates the courageous women who spoke out against this brutal and widespread tool of war and, in doing so, changed both international law and the world’s consciousness.


Allan Vorda: The Disappeared , your novel about the relationship of a young Canadian girl with a Cambodian man, seems to have some similarities to your most recent novel, Speak, Silence.

Kim Echlin: Yes. In both novels, characters live with grave historical events—in The Disappeared , a genocide, and in Speak, Silence, an international war crimes trial. The characters in these novels live in a world that is connected by international travel and communications. They have romantic relationships and friendships and work affiliations across cultures and languages and international borders. This is my world, and it is the world I want to reflect in my storytelling. In The Disappeared and in Speak, Silence, Canadian characters have relationships with men who are not Canadian. One begins in Montreal, the other in Paris, and characters explore other parts of the world as a result of these relationships—Phnom Penh, Sarajevo, Toronto, The Hague. Their powerful and complicated love affairs are lived against a backdrop of international turmoil.

If we can bear to look, we know what is happening. We are electronically and visually connected as never before. My characters want to look. They want to act. They leave home to explore the world and they find love. They also find genocide and international trials and they do not turn away. Their consciousness compels them to look, and to act. The question I ask myself, in my writing and in my life, is, “What do we do once we know?”

AV: I want to mention also your previous novel, Under the Visible Life , which deals with the relationship of two multi-ethnic young women (Katherine Goodnow is Chinese and Canadian, while Mahsa Weaver is American and Afghani). Why did you choose to write about multi-ethnic characters?

KE: There are many reasons for this. From the point of view of the story, Katherine’s mother is prosecuted under the “Female Refuges Act” in Ontario (Canada) for having a relationship with a Chinese national working in Canada. Under this act, women could be charged with being “incorrigible.” This word was widely interpreted and applied to control women’s behaviors, everything from playing cards and prostitution to inter-racial relationships. This act was not removed from our legal system until 1969. Mahsa’s parents were persecuted by both state and religious law, and in the end were murdered for their relationship. Their marriage was transgressive because of their differences of religion and nationality. I wanted to explore law and custom in different parts of the world—in Canada, in Afghanistan and Pakistan—and to look at how law and institutionalized religion can limit love and human connection.

My city, Toronto, is diverse. Half of our citizens speak a language other than French or English at home. Our school system is set up to support students who are acquiring English and French at different ages. Important city information from our 311-telephone number is available in 180 languages. Naturally, in such a place, culture and ethnic origins mix. In my novels, characters of different origins and religions marry, have love affairs, create families and work together. Why? Because that is the world we live in.

Multicultural or pluralistic societies are not new. They have been with us since the beginning of recorded history. In ancient Mesopotamia, Akkadians and Sumerians mixed and their stories and documents were written on bilingual tablets, even though the two languages share no common roots. People have travelled, intermarried, traded, and lived together since 5,000 BCE. I think it is time to see that such interconnectedness is, in fact, the norm. Human cultures have never not mixed! I want to tell that story. Cultural connection is as ancient as the written word. Our consciousness can no longer deny this. Storytellers have always traded stories. Musicians, sculptors, painters have always shared their forms of expression.

AV: My kids, one of whom lives outside Ottawa and is married to a Canadian woman, are Asian-American, so these are issues that are near and dear to me. It is very disturbing to see anti-Asian violence here in the U.S., partly in response to COVID-19. What do you make of this, and is there similar anti-Asian violence in Canada?

KE: This is a question that is both literary and social, and it demonstrates our experience of imagination in the world. We, as a world community, have a very long way to go as we search—eternally and without hope that the work is ever finished—for equity across race, gender, sexual expression, and social class. I am sure you experience this in your own family as I do in mine. The violence we are witnessing around race in this moment is not only disturbing, it is criminal. We need to continue to use the principles of our democracies and our laws to defend everyone’s pursuit of self-definition. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is an elegantly written document that not only articulates ideals of citizenship but is the basis of our laws meant to defend and explore the responsibilities and rights of all citizens.

In your question, I feel you reaching into that almost ineffable place where lived experience and lived imagination become one. This is the greatest moment in art. It is the moment in which consciousness shifts and we see the world fresh.

The first time I saw Georgia O’Keeffe’s series called “Sky Above Clouds” I suddenly perceived the world in space differently. O’Keeffe captures flying and looking down on clouds. In my writing, I want to capture the complicated relationships people have with each other and create a moment of seeing afresh. Language has the power to understand more expansively, from above the clouds. Beautiful language can take us into pain that we perhaps cannot otherwise tolerate, and also into fresh consciousness.

AV: What research did you do for Speak, Silence? Did you travel to Sarajevo and The Hague? If so, in what ways did this help with writing your novel?

KE: I worked on Speak, Silence for ten years. I watched this war on television. I was fascinated when the international court was established. I travelled to The Hague, saw the courts, interviewed prosecutors and case managers, visited the evidence vaults and library and courtrooms, saw the mechanisms behind the courts, the translation booths and visitor galleries and witness waiting rooms. I really loved meeting the people who were working in the courts. Several have become dear friends which does not always happen when one is researching. I admire their international optic, their dedication to this difficult work and the shared ideal of international justice. Without a doubt, this group of people are the best listeners I have ever met, and novelists are accustomed to listening deeply.

My visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina was transformative. I travelled with a former soldier and UN driver to parts of the region that are normally difficult to access. A friend from The Hague who is a case manager travelled with us and brought detailed files. Throughout our days I heard personal experiences of the war from someone who fought in it and statistics and evidence about the war from someone who has spent years in the courts studying it.

On my own, I visited the office for Women Victims of War, and met the NGO’s founder Bakira Hasecic, who is a survivor. With her I could feel the tragedy and violence of what happened to the women. I remember a moment with her in which I looked at a wall of files and suddenly grasped that the files were the testimonies of thousands of courageous women finding a voice to tell about their experience of war rape. In this moment the walls seemed to tremble, as if the voices were speaking aloud.

AV: Did you give Edina’s husband the name Ivo in reference to Ivo Andric, who wrote The Bridge on the Drina and who won the Nobel Prize in 1961? In what ways was Andric’s novel an influence in writing Speak, Silence?

KE: Ivan is a common name in the region and means “God is gracious or merciful.” Edina calls him both Ivan and the diminutive, Ivo. Theirs is a great love affair. They grew up together and their families loved each other, and they shared Muslim and Christian traditions with ease and hospitality and caring. I wanted the love between Edina and Ivan to be one in which readers experience the grace of the spirit, unimpeded by politics, religion, or war.

Ivo Andric is an important writer. I read a lot of his work and learned many traditional stories that most people who grow up in the region would know. On the night they meet, Kosmos tells Gota about the long history of conflicts in his home and some of Andric’s stories. She responds by telling him about her own culture’s history of violent colonialism and the principle of Terra Nullius. But neither of them has any idea of what the other is talking about. They just want to make love!

AV: The main character, Gota Dobson, goes to cover a film festival in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. Is this scene referencing Susan Sontag, who made a famous trip to produce a play during the war?

KE: I’ll just sort out a few historical dates for clarity, because these events happened in an intense three-year period. Susan Sontag worked on a production of “Waiting for Godot” in 1993. She is much beloved in the community, and a square in Sarajevo in front of the National Theatre is named for her. The ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) was established in 1993, and the indictment for the trial that I fictionalize in the book was in 1996. The first film festival in Sarajevo began in 1995.

Artists played a prominent role in this war, especially in Sarajevo. They kept radio broadcasts going during the siege, and there was underground theatre and music. They impatiently started the film festival which continues to this day. Artists and their work became the embodiment of memory, activism and future. In my book, Kosmos, the father of Gota’s child who she travels to Sarajevo to find, is the eternal artist trying to capture in his work the psyche of the place where he was born.

AV: In your novel, Zarko Dragic is the defendant who is indicted and stands trial at The Hauge for crimes against humanity. Your portrayal of Zarko depicts him as a person with no feelings of guilt or remorse. What can you tell us about these men and what they were really like?

KE: This is perhaps the most complicated question in this interview. In earlier drafts of my novel, I tried to work from Dragic’s point of view and I wrote his backstory based on research. I read first person perpetrator accounts and the testimonies of the defense carefully; but I have never felt able to inhabit this psychology.

The three common features that I understand about the individual rationale for war crimes are: the pressure to act as others do or be killed oneself; the conception of the enemy as “other” and therefore not-quite-human; and the idea that there are no rules of war, and therefore anything is permitted. But there is more to war crimes than this—power, individual conscience—and I cannot get to the bottom of all of it.

In my novel, I decided not to try to enter into Dragic’s inner perspective because I felt my attempts were inauthentic. Was my imaginative empathy too limited? I don’t know but I never felt that I was being true to Dragic. His inner voice escaped me. I decided to use language from the trial transcripts, physical descriptions from watching the video footage of the trial, and the women’s responses to him in court. This was as accurate as I could get.

AV: Centrally in your novel there is the silence of the Bosnian women, but there is also the silence between Gota and her daughter Biddy. Can you extrapolate on this allegory of silence and the need for communication?

KE: People live with all kinds of silences. In my novel, the women defendants must find the courage to testify in court, to break the silence in order to have their stories on the record.

The silences between mothers and daughters are periodic and change throughout our lives. In my story, Gota and her daughter are living their unique relationship through both silence and deep connectedness. Edina and her daughter Merima have also had to learn to deal with secrets they kept, out of both shame and the desire to protect each other. Merima did not want her mother to know what she went through and yet, her mother urged her to testify in court, to tell her story, which meant that she would have to know. This was excruciating.

Ultimately, grandmothers, mothers, and daughters had to accept knowing each other’s dread stories in order to change the law. I do not know how people live with these truths. But I do know, even in my own more ordinary life, that secrets destroy families. It is better to tell and work to bear the pain.

AV: On the first page Gota is watching TV about the Bosnian war and ruminates: “To watch people falling like broken clay pigeons in skeet practice. To change the channel. To live in the unattended moment. To be where I was not.” Later on, after the war, Mak takes Gota to Srebrenica to see the memorial and graves at Potocari. This is quite a journey that Gota makes, from distant to first-hand observer. Is this something that you can relate to in your own experience visiting places like Srebrenica and Foca?

KE: Yes. I have been able to travel and to see. In part this may be why I am drawn to certain themes. My parents created our family after World War II. They both came from insecurity and poverty and they were both curious about the world and they liked to read. My father had a chance for education on a veterans’ plan and he became a dentist. Even though my mother did war work calibrating airplane engines, there were no education plans for women and she continued her own work independently. Later, when my parents had a chance to travel, they took us with them. We watched them work together on outreach dental programs in remote areas, the Northwest Territories and northern Labrador. We were always expected to help when we could and to give back. This was woven into who we were as naturally as breath. I think this has had a great impact on how and why I travel. I want to see. I want to know.

AV: Grief is a vast wasteland. An example of this is where you state: “People were still collecting and identifying, bone by bone, arranging memory.” I cannot conceive how the Bosnian people afflicted by the war can live with the horrors every day. As mentioned above, “arranging memory” would seem to be a never-ending process.

KE: Yes, I think you’re right. We are becoming aware, since World War II, that war experience is held by generations. The children of survivors carry the pain and grief. If, as a world community, we were able to conceive of ourselves as interconnected, we would all share the pain and grief. We would be less likely to turn away from each other. This is why I believe that the international courts are very important. People from all over the world find new ways to work together in these courts, to create new laws and to attempt a shared culture of ideas around justice.

AV: After the war in which these women were raped, “Some men supported their wives and some refused to live with them after the war.” Have there been any post-war studies about these families regarding the various traumas that occurred?

KE: Yes, a great deal of work has been done in this area. There is more to do. The trial I describe in Speak, Silence is one in which rape was found to be a “crime against humanity,” which is important because this means that the crime is not an individual crime against an individual woman but a crime against all of us, and, in certain cases, a constitutive part of genocide. These are legal definitions and they are important to all of us because with them comes a shift of our consciousness about rape in war. Women’s bodies are no longer spoils of war. But the crime goes on, most recently in Myanmar with the Rohingya, in China with the Uyghurs, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have so much more to do.

AV: At many points in the novel you seem to imply there was a directive by the Serbian leaders to commit genocide. Is there proof there was such a directive and what are your thoughts about this?

KE: The Foca (Kunarac, et al.) case from which my story is drawn was the first international case to exclusively prosecute sexual violence. The legal intricacies are critically important and there is a high legal bar to prove its part in genocide.

I think of the evolution of our thought since Homer’s Iliad in which Agamemnon rallies his troops by saying, “Now, let no man hurry to sail for home, not yet / Not til he beds down with a faithful Trojan wife.” Now, several thousand years later, our collective imagination is shifting with the recently developed legal jurisprudence that sexual violence can form part of convictions of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Where is the heroic literature about this? Where is the story of a woman’s survival of war that is as beautiful as the Iliad ? The work of representing a woman’s experience of war in fiction requires deep listening.

AV: When you discuss the cross-examination by the defense attorney Mutaruga of Edina, you state: “Both acted within the law. Like a king sliding in and out of check with no clear resolution.” This is analogous to the chess matches that Edina and Gota play. What brought up this effective metaphor of comparing the trial to a chess game?

KE: Chess is very popular in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In Sarajevo, I watched a wonderful game of street chess using pieces that were four feet tall. The two players walked through their game, moving the pieces with two hands. It was really fun to watch. Spectators called out advice and insults and it was entertaining for everyone on the square.

In schools, it was an activity that boys and girls did together and Edina had real mastery. I wanted to show her as she was before the war, fun, competent, competitive. Gota isn’t a good player but they can play together, even over the telephone, and chat. Edina is more relaxed playing chess than in any other activity and she is able to tell Gota difficult things while they play.

I had a beautiful moment of synchronicity when I was researching chess for this novel. This often happens to me when my research goes well. I was looking for someone to help me design the games in the book. I wanted them to show Edina’s spirit and competitiveness and humor. I checked online for a chess master near me and the first person’s name that came up was a name that looked Bosnian. I told him that I was writing a novel and needed instruction and when we met he agreed to teach me and a few lessons later he told me that he himself had escaped from Sarajevo during the war. Suddenly the pieces I was studying on the board seemed alive in a fresh way.

AV: There is a brief scene where you mention the seventeenth century Dutch painter Judith Leyster and her painting “The Proposition,” where a man is offering money to a seamstress, ostensibly for sex. Leyster’s painting originally included her initials with a star, but a person named Franz Hals put his name over hers and it was not discovered and restored for three hundred years. This could be analogous to the Serbian military trying to cover up or deny their responsibility. What else can you tell us about seeing this painting and incorporating it into your novel?

KE: I like how closely you read. The fabric of images is part of the story and all art is interconnected, if we can bear to see. We know that in the Western tradition, women have been ‘silenced,’ not only in war, but domestically. One of the many forms of silencing is appropriation of voice and creativity, which is what happens to Leyster when Hals steals her painting. Gota sees this painting during the time that she is watching the court case and she wonders if the legal process is not in some way appropriating the women’s experiences. Gota becomes acutely aware of the age-old harassment of a woman in her own home and also that Leyster’s work itself was disappeared under a male artist’s name. It is unbearable—in that moment—and she leaves the gallery. Then it makes her more determined to tell the story she is witnessing.

AV: Even though the trial at The Hague occurred ten years ago, Speak, Silence is an important book telling the reader we cannot, just like the Serbians and Bosnians, forget what happened. Perhaps you can comment on this.

KE: I hope that Speak, Silence transcends the particular trial which took place in 2000. The International Criminal Court work is ongoing. Women’s domestic lives, sexuality, and political freedoms have been silenced for millennia. I have experienced this in my own work and mothering and domesticity. I hope that this novel helps communicate the emotion of emerging from silence, the feeling of finding one’s voice. I write from emotion and feeling. Reading fiction allows us to enter into a shared imaginative experience in which we can feel what the characters feel. I have always, since childhood, read for the expansiveness that using the imagination gives me. I hope that readers will experience this in my books.


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Kamala’s Way: An American Life

Dan Morain
Simon & Schuster ($28)

by Mohd Yaziz Bin Mohd Isa

How did the daughter of two immigrants—her mother from India and her father from Jamaica—rise to become America’s first Black woman vice-president? She did it Kamala’s way.

Kamala’s Way: An American Life is a powerful biography of Kamala Harris, who, along with her younger sister, Maya, was raised in segregated California by a no-nonsense, cancer researcher single mother. Journalist Dan Morain has covered the state of California since November 1994 and watched her political ascent over those years, bringing first-hand knowledge of the events covered in this book.

Surprisingly, Morain writes that Harris’s classmates and friends remembered nothing about her early years that would have suggested she would one day become a district attorney, an attorney general, a senator, or a vice president. People who knew her in college said she was not a standout, and she did not graduate with academic honors.

Although political experiences are recorded in it, this is not really a book about politics. Instead, it is thoroughly about a woman with a talent for getting around closed doors. Harris quickly became the first Black female attorney general in California history, and was the youngest elected official in the role of United States Senator when she launched a bid for Presidential election in 2020. Her initial training as a prosecutor had unmistakably prepared her for her political journey.

The author honestly states that Harris has shown herself to be adept at not taking any stand when it is not politically necessary, revealing her understanding of one of the core truths about politics: whenever a politician takes a stand, they risk alienating someone. She is a shrewd strategist who is unafraid to play hardball in America’s sharp-elbowed politics and is also capable of pulling her punches when it benefits her.

Morain also analyzes her behind-the-scenes presidential campaign and her failure as a presidential candidate. By dropping out early, she saved herself from the embarrassment of losing impressively, which could have raised questions about her viability as a candidate in the years to come. It also allowed her to focus on securing her spot as Joe Biden’s running mate, an ultimately strategic move in her long-term career. Under normal circumstances, a politician might be criticized for seeking the limelight, but as Trump took over Washington, Harris rose above that. Her ability to come up with pithy sound bites, viral videos, and eye-catching headlines elevated her from being a bit player in the show to becoming a star.

Morain also offers insight about Harris’s existence when the cameras are gone. It might have been a big deal when she became a stepmother in an informal political family, but she did it, as she does everything, in a way that’s not sensational, whether she’s cooking for herself or going to the gym in a hoodie.

Though Morain’s book doesn’t offer much on the policy ideas that have resonated with Harris, he has penned a compelling story about her personally and the events surrounding her rise to political stardom. The resulting book is an inspirational and well-informed account of a bona fide trailblazer.


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The Passenger


Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
translated by Philip Boehm
Metropolitan Books ($24.99)

by Chris Barsanti

In one of many unnerving scenes in Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz’s eerily prescient novel The Passenger, set in November 1938, German Jewish businessman Otto Silbermann rides on yet another train that he hopes will bring him to safety. Silbermann is on the run in a country crawling with Gestapo, brownshirts, and Gentile citizens all too eager to volunteer their services to the National Socialist dragnet, and he is reaching the end of a rapidly fraying rope. In desperation, he riskily reveals his identity to the attractive woman sharing his compartment, setting into motion a quasi-absurdist chase narrative in which the man on the run is knocked from one dead end to another by forces not only out of his control but beyond his ken.

At first, the encounter goes better than expected; the woman on the train seems friendly and more concerned for his plight than any other non-Jew he has encountered. But as their talk progresses, she shows signs of irritation and boredom, asking, “Why do the Jews put up with all of this?”—a question echoed in later years by many others who would likely not see themselves as anti-Semitic. Silbermann pushes back against her allegations of spinelessness, arguing that, “If we were such romantics . . . we would have had hardly survived the last two thousand years.” The irony of his logic is that to some degree, he is a romantic. When she asks him whether “survival is so important” he answers, “Absolutely!” But the peregrinations of his chaotic and error-prone flight to freedom show that for him, survival itself may not be enough. He seems almost more driven to run by the degradations and humiliations imposed by the regime and a complicit citizenry eager to steal what little he has left than by the will to save his own life and be reunited with his family.

Composed in a feverish four weeks by twenty-three-year-old Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, The Passenger mirrors the author’s experiences as a German Jew whose family fled the country after the passage of the racist Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Like Silbermann, Boschwitz was constantly on the move in a world that had dispiritingly limited sympathy for refugees like himself. When originally published in 1939, The Passenger attracted little notice despite its burning timeliness. After all, even as the Nazis were openly rounding up Jewish citizens in the post-Kristallnacht smoke and rubble, a good part of the world was ignoring or actively dismissing the genocide-in-the-making. This new, long-overdue edition is based on the rediscovery of Boschwitz’s original German typescript and incorporates edits he had wished to make, highlighting the protagonist’s halting efforts to leave a country he now knows he should have departed months if not years before.

No escape artist, Silbermann is thwarted by panic, confusion, bad luck, and eventually a creeping thread of self-destructive despair. A prosperous businessman with a Protestant wife, Silbermann wonders to himself how “I’m living as though I weren’t a Jew” even though the tide of hatred has turned him into “a swear word on two legs.” Seeing a newspaper headline that reads “Jews Declare War on the German People,” he considers it a bad joke: “I was fully aware that war had been declared, he thought. But that I’m the one declaring it is news to me.” Like many people in his position throughout history, he cannot comprehend that his humanity can be legislated out of existence so simply.

Similarly, Silbermann cannot believe his fellow Germans will turn on him, even as pogroms and newly restrictive laws sweep the country and opportunists swoop like vultures to take advantage. Silbermann’s boorishly odious Gentile business partner Becker is vocally anti-Semitic and seems on the verge of absconding with the money Silbermann needs to flee Germany. Findler, the realtor blackmailing Silbermann for a low-ball price on his property even as the brownshirts are pounding on the door, worries only for himself: “They might take me for a Jew and smash my teeth in.” Still, our hero hangs on to some notion of these men’s inherent decency. While Silbermann’s insistence on bright-siding this catastrophe may make sense from a self-protection standpoint (trying to keep panic at bay), Boschwitz is also purposefully showing how so many Germans gleefully took part in the looting, knowledge that much of the world did not have until decades after the Holocaust.

The Passenger shows the heat and speed of its composition. A number of its conversations can feel repetitive, while Silbermann’s state of mind is not always clearly conveyed. But Boschwitz has a knack for illustrating a particular brand of racist self-delusion in which the non-Jewish German characters deny any responsibility for the dark forces harrying Silbermann. Like the woman to whom he opens himself up, they are uninterested in what happens to him, blame him for what is happening, or see no moral responsibility to help.

Even after publishing this novel, Boschwitz continued to be shuttled around in Silbermann-like fashion. He spent the early part of the war classified by the British as an “enemy alien” and was interred on the Isle of Man; later he was sent to Australia with Nazi sympathizers. Reclassified as a “friendly alien” in 1942, he was put on a ship back to England (where his mother lived); he and 361 others died when the ship was sunk by a Nazi U-boat. It is hard to imagine a more tragic end for an author who wrote with such adroit understanding about the mundane madness that lies behind genocidal cruelty and arbitrary classifications.


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Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry

John Murillo
Four Way Books ($16.95)

by Chaun Ballard

With Kontemporary Amerikan Poetry, John Murillo delivers poems that body-check the landscape of present-day America through a critique of, you guessed it, contemporary American poetry. In this second collection, Murillo is armed with the lessons passed down by his father and the likes of Robert Caldwell—who, “after twenty-something years / stretched across San Quentin, Soledad, Folsom” is a “triple O.G.” He shadow boxes through, reflecting on coming of age and making sense of poetry by acting as a conduit for the experiences and realities of many in the Black American community.

Murillo’s introductory poem, “On Confessionalism,” covers one of love’s most brutal characteristics that often gravitates toward tragedy. In this poem, jealousy—a jealousy that leads to “what a homeboy / said was a Beretta” placed in the mouth of “a man, who was really / a boy, on his knees”—is a precursor to change, as the gun jams and both the speaker and the victim are given a second chance at life. From here, Murillo presents a number of “On” poems (“On Metaphor,” “On Magical Realism,” “On Negative Capability,” “On Epiphany,” “On Lyric Narrative,” and “On Prosody,”), all of which demonstrate his own ars poetica, illustrating the speaker’s engagement with literary concepts through craft and the evocation of memory.

In the middle of the collection, Murillo completes a brilliantly constructed, unconventional crown of sonnets entitled “A Refusal to Mourn the Deaths, by Gunfire, of Three Men in Brooklyn.” Each sonnet opens with an epigraph from a prominent Black voice that both heads and converses with the sonnet to follow. The immense power of the crown is exhibited in its delivery of both diction and content, as it flawlessly merges each succeeding sonnet, providing context that culminates in revealing its purpose in the interwoven fourteen-line stanza finale.

The final section of the collection opens with the poem “Contemporary American Poetry,” in which the speaker meets with other poets at a bar and overhears discussions of congratulation for prizes and the latest gossip within the literary community. All the while, on the muted television screen, another Black youth is murdered and his city set aflame and a woman in Yemen is scorched with acid, a shattering contrast as the speaker is “with the poets. / One of whom—the political poet, / the outsider poet—has brought along / a selfie stick.” This is the contemporary scene of poetry, existing simultaneously within U.S. and international landscapes, where the speaker addresses the unifying and yet fragile climate in which poetry exists: “Everybody, now, squeeze in / tight. Everybody, now, say cheese.”


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Nancy

Bruno Lloret
translated by Ellen Jones
Two Lines Press ($19.95)

by Austyn Wohlers

A speculative and poetic first novel, Chilean writer Bruno Lloret’s Nancy comprises the deathbed recollections of its title character, a widow who is dying of cancer. Setting the book in the near future, in a politically fractured and ecologically collapsing Chile, Lloret endows his writing with an atmosphere that seeps into Nancy’s every memory, shadowing the narrative with an aura of decay that is almost tangible in Ellen Jones’s translation.

This atmosphere pervades the book, as Nancy frequently interrupts her recollections to bemoan her pain, show readers her X-rays, and dwell on unpleasant memories, like trash piling up at the shores of oceans and black clouds spilling out of factory smokestacks. Yet despite this heavy material, Lloret manages to strike a pleasant balance between lyricism and simplicity, making frequent use of clear (albeit sometimes surreal) imagery bookended by X’s: “From the base of the mountain a tangle of sheep streamed toward us ✖ ✖ ✖ A couple of dogs nipping here and there to keep the flow on course ✖ ✖ ✖ ✖” This device elevates Nancy from a well-crafted and poignant debut to an innovative and genuinely exciting experiment in form.

Indeed, Nancy is as much an interpretive visual game as it is a narrative. Lloret’s X’s weave in and out of the text in lieu of section breaks, quotation marks, or sometimes even periods. They are used skillfully to tighten the anxiety of certain scenes, invoke the rhythm of Nancy’s labored breathing, suggest the languid passage of time, or form some silhouette of an image related to the plot—at one point, X’s arranged in vertical lines suggest jail cells; at another, they evoke footsteps as Nancy’s future husband, meeting her for the first time, approaches her. As the book continues, one notices that the X’s echo the novel’s thematic content as well: X for negation, X for death, X for X-rays, X for the thousands of crosses in the graveyard where, near the end of the novel, Nancy observes the sunset.

Lloret succeeds at the difficult task of depicting the slow, complex, and global violence of climate change through the insular story of a single character who observes without passing judgement. Though inhabiting a world of ruin, a diseased world, Nancy is realistically concerned with her boyfriends, her brother, and her parents. An “ecological novel” emerges only at the peripheries, influencing Nancy’s life without her even discerning it. Of course, every facet of her life has been influenced by this decay, from her husband’s death in a poorly-run tuna canning operation to the flu epidemic that erupts from a pork processing plant and dispossesses her uncle. As the climate crisis continues to ravage our world, Lloret illustrates one possible future we are barreling towards, while focusing, as good novelists do, on the singular drama of an individual and her kin.


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frank: sonnets

Diane Seuss
Graywolf Press ($16)

by Meryl Natchez

Diane Seuss’s fifth book of poems, frank: sonnets, provides fresh imagery, calls out the male icons of the ’70s and early ’80s New York scene, and directly grapples with loneliness, addiction, abortion, and death. The language is often startling, the incidents pried open for the reader to enter and observe. The overall arc of the book is memoir: stories of grief, of questing, of trying to make sense of a complex life. These poems appear in the order written, with long sequences about Seuss’s father, her lovers, her exploits and failures, and the death of a close friend.

One of the most moving sections is at the center of the book, detailing the years of her son’s struggle with addiction. Seuss manages to telescope pain and compassion:

and I was such a fool, believing in fruition, stuck inside the fairy
tale of resurrection, even stars, he said, are trying to get by and then
he used for ten more years and bankruptcy and where’s the melody
to remedy the melody, the remedy to remedy the remedy?

Seuss also has a gift for imagery, which enhances the work, raising it above pure memoir. Her father’s illness and death as well as the death of other men in her life are explored with amazing specificity of memory:

at my father’s I was small and sat on the floor of the hearse,
people said don’t be sad, there was macaroni afterward, I liked macaroni . . .

Another intriguing section of the book deals with the author’s years as part of the New York art and poetry scene:

Richard Hell,
Lou Reed, Basquiat, Warhol, Burroughs Kenneth Koch,
and it all left me feeling invisible or fucked, fucked
sideways, fucked by a john who stiffs you on your fee
and doesn’t leave a tip . . .

This indictment is direct, while also acknowledging how hard it is to escape the glamor of these mythic figures. In settings closer to home, too, Seuss balances the longing for love and compassion against the complications it engenders; this comes across vividly in the poems about her son and those about her friend Mikel, who died of AIDS.

Perhaps most importantly, Seuss has a way of confronting her own fears and failings that draws us in. Reading through the varied trauma of these memoiristic poems is reminiscent of Czesław Miłosz’s The Witness of Poetry, in which he notes how writing about past events allows one to record them but also to distance oneself from the wreckage.

Some readers might quibble with Seuss designating these poems as “sonnets”; they may be fourteen lines, but they don’t break new ground as to what can be done with or included in the form. Nonetheless, frank: sonnets is worth reading for its feistiness and unashamed transgression. It delivers a life—flawed, raw, and multi-hued—and whether or not the poems that tell it are sonnets, it’s a life worth exploring.


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Cathedral

Ben Hopkins
Europa Editions ($26)

by David Wiley

In F for Fake, his quasi-documentary about fraudulence in the art world, Orson Welles pauses in his descent into imposture to hold aloft Chartres Cathedral as perhaps the one true thing that our culture has created. It will be our legacy, he posits, and will “testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.” Cannily, Welles fails to mention that the Gothic grandeur of Chartres was also founded on an epic fraud, as its majestic marshalling of spiritual, artistic, economic, and political forces was based on the pretense that it housed the tunic Mary wore while birthing Jesus. Encompassing a labyrinth of these kinds of interconnected dreams and deceptions, screenwriter and filmmaker Ben Hopkins’s monumental debut novel, Cathedral, constructs an edifice whose design ranges from the most sublime heights of inspiration to the most degenerate political depths, all of them counterbalancing each other to maintain their intricate facades.

Hopkins begins the novel with a bit of Wellesian legerdemain, enticing the reader into believing that this will be a kind of pilgrimage into artistic and spiritual fulfillment, with stock characters to root for and expect to develop. The great trick is that the initial clichés are as enjoyable as they are blatantly dubious. There’s the visionary master builder who’s visited the newly constructed Gothic cathedrals of medieval France and been given charge of redesigning the cathedral of Hagenberg, a burgeoning city on the Rhine, in this soaring new style. There’s his callow disciple, who we expect to grow to self-realization and mastery over the long course of the building’s bildung. Then there’s the master builder’s outrageously idealized muse, an ethereal magician’s daughter whose beauty and purity stretch the reader’s credulity and patience. Countering these three is the Bishop’s treasurer, a Machiavellian schemer who holds the purse strings for the cathedral’s construction and has no problem manufacturing heretics to squash in order to plunder their loot. In a traditional novel of this sort, he would be the dark underside of the matter that the author portrays as important and true, but in Hopkins’s medieval world of realpolitik, he and his kind are the novel’s true matter.

Rapidly subverting the agony-and-ecstasy clichés we expect, Hopkins largely discards the idealistic cathedral theme and plunges the reader into brutally pragmatic political machinations, taking as much time and interest in teasing out the intricacies of the local clergy, nobles, merchants, and bureaucrats as he does in explicating the vast Papal and Imperial intrigues that keep the locals in constant adaptation and evolution. A truly Darwinian novel, Cathedral never remains static as its denizens build and rebuild the structures of their lives, both in competition and symbiosis with each other. Alliances and friendships arise and fall and rise again in new forms as they balance and rebalance, the characters’ anthill associations scattering and regathering like a sped-up version of the incessantly redrawn plans for the cathedral, which, despite everything, continues its ascent.

Readers looking for medieval literature’s cathedral-like summa aesthetics—and ever-ascending spiritual edge-play—may be disappointed by this novel’s ultimately ghostless machine. A great Gothic cathedral is like the cosmos, with its every section and subsection forming an ever-fractaling and ever-ornate atomic density. Visiting the lacy whorls of Strasbourg cathedral is like walking up to an enormous thumbprint that becomes more astoundingly elaborate with each step forward. Hopkins’s novel is nothing like this. His prose isn’t at all lapidary, but instead rapid and vigorous; you don’t pause on it in rapt wonder, but rather get swept along by its force. He has a powerful vocabulary, but his readers won’t get the easter-egg-hunt joy of searching the dictionary or internet five times a page to discover the names of clothes and carriage parts and architectural details that they’ll recognize from medieval paintings, as they do when reading something like Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. They also won’t find themselves immersed in a heady web of Scholastic theology, as in Henry Adams or Jorge Luis Borges or Umberto Eco. Hopkins’s master is history, not aesthetics or metaphysics.

As a screenwriter and filmmaker, Hopkins also employs far more filmic allusions than literary ones, such as stone facedly referencing Monty Python at two very unfunny moments and making a few glancing nods toward The Princess Bride, another work of a great screenwriter/novelist. Nicknaming his jejune stonecutter “Rettich” and placing great stress on the association with the word radish, Hopkins almost certainly invokes the celebrated Chartres scene in F for Fake, during which Welles mistily refers to the contemporary human as a “poor forked radish,” an allusion to Thomas Carlyle’s riff on Falstaff’s description of Robert Shallow in Henry IV, Part 2. That’s quite a thread of association from film to architecture to literature, and Hopkins dispenses with that thread on the novel’s first page. Otherwise largely literature free in its associative language and aesthetic order, this brilliantly imagined, gorgeously designed, and deeply profound novel is nonetheless a magnificent work of literature itself. It took Hopkins eight years to construct this extraordinary novel, and it will likely stand as his lasting legacy.


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Saturn Peach

Lily Wang
Gordon Hill Press ($20)

by Greg Bem

“I am rowing away from myself into myself,” writes Lily Wang at the start of her mesmerizing collection Saturn Peach. A five-sequence book of poetry rooted in memory and reflection, inquisitive imagery, and minimalist tones, the book contains just over 80 pages that repeatedly suggest how questioning can lead to truth, growth, and transformation.

In an early poem, “The Christian Cycle / Redemption / Etc,” Wang writes:

Let Eve kill herself or what of her daughters?
Daughters aligned like beads on a horizontal
plane. Hearts skewered on the vertical
axis of your judgment.
What cycle?

This exemplifies how the poet explores the experience and mythology of womanhood vis-a-vis violence. Wang’s writing begins with the source and examines it from every angle. The questioning is both caustic and critical, enveloping statements of vigilance and liberation. Wang implements her technique subtly, in short, stark, surreal poems, often bridging into prose or breaking apart for rambles; the result feels a bit like Kim Hyesoon, though entirely unique as well.

Wang’s mixture of complex and simple language accommodates the tension between a fixed reality and a more radical, though amorphous, realm of possibility. Time and again in these poems, the slate is washed clean. “There is always something in my eye. I just forgot. I must be late for / something. I forget,” Wang writes in “Having a Thursday Morning.” Here epiphany meets longing, but Wang consistently goes deeper to root out what change could be possible, as in “S”:

I love the highway at night, it’s that simple
it could be so simple. Someone honks their horn
and I go to open the door, to fight, then my friend
says her heart is an overripe peach

The poet is energetically concerned with the past, with history, always moving backward and forward through time. Occasionally this transportation feels emblematic of a curse or a burden, which leads to a threshold of both repression and calm: “7 months and still grieving the setting sun. // 7 months and still looking back, watching you turn to stone.” This suspension raises questions, and yet the mystery elevates experience through curiosity, suggesting abundance through lack and evoking potential through emptiness.

As Saturn Peach moves forward through its sequences, the most holistic, stable literary element that emerges is the book’s structure itself: the five sections that Wang uses to house these poem-canvasses. Wang harnesses image through experiences of her daily life, portraits of friends, ekphrastic examinations of classic (and often violent) films, and even an homage to Anne Carson. Yet the overarching structure, the book’s five stable sections, feels simultaneously distant and present, faded and yet ripe with intense remembering.

Ultimately, it is the feeling of distance that provides a powerful challenge to the reader. Like walking into an art gallery filled with minimalist paintings, the reader of Wang’s poems has been provided an opportunity to feel confounded by the imposing leftover of potential. It is a defiant and wandering process, even when Wang writes, “There is a simple direction to /everything.” This truth is as frustratingly straightforward as a Zen koan, and yet it is critical and feminist, bringing reality into question to ensure that questioning occurs.


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