Thursday, June 9, 2022

Tomb of Sand, by Geetanjali Shree

 "A border, gentlemen, is for crossing." 

Tilted Axis Press, 2021; originally published as Ret Samadhi (2018)
translated by Daisy Rockwell
739 pp


It was the first paragraph that sold me on this story, which is highly unusual but it's what happened.  Here the author  reveals that "this particular tale has a border and women who come and go as they please," but even more to the point, that 
"The story's path unfurls, not knowing where it will stop, tacking to the right and left, twisting and turning, allowing anything and everything to join in the narration.  It will emerge from within a volcano, swelling silently as the past boils forth into the present, bringing steam, embers and smoke."
I sat back, reread at that initial paragraph and guessed right away that I had here in my hands something completely and refreshingly different.  Evidently I wasn't alone -- at the website for the International Booker Prize, the blurb for this book states that the author's "light touch and exuberant wordplay ensures that Tomb of Sand remains constantly playful -- and utterly original."  And while the word "playful" fits, this novel takes a rather serious and surprising turn in its last section, making this book a most welcome addition to the world of Partition literature, described here as having 
"helped generations to make sense of a period in the subcontinent's history that is quite difficult to fathom in its entirety."  
Tomb of Sand is, as translator Daisy Rockwell notes in her "Translator's Note," 
"a tale woven of many threads, encompassing modern urban life, ancient history, folklore, feminism, global warming, Buddhism and much more."

It is all that and more; it is also hands down one of the best books of my reading year so far and sadly, I would not have known about it except that it was longlisted for the International Booker Prize which it would go on to win, deservedly so in my opinion.  I can honestly say I've never read anything quite like it.  

An older, eighty-year old woman  (known mainly as Ma)  who is a mother, grandmother and now a widow, becomes seriously depressed at the death of her husband and decides that she will not be getting up.  Wrapping herself in a quilt, she remains in her room in her son's Bade's house, with her "back to the world, as though dead"  ignoring the rest of the family's pleas for her to get up.   She had, it seems,
"grown tired of breathing for them, feeling their feelings, bearing their desires, carrying their animosities. She was tired of all of them and she wanted to glide into the wall with a tremor ..."
Things begin to change though first with the arrival of a cane brought by one of Bade's children, known as Overseas Son, a CEO of the overseas branch of the company for whom he works.  At first, his grandmother remained unimpressed; but one day her other grandson Sid comes in to her room and sees her holding the cane "at a ninety-degree angle, eyes closed, still as a statue, looking every inch an otherworldly idol."  On the verge of laughing at this sight,  Sid hears his grandmother declare "I am the Wishing Tree," which, while she continues to remain in bed, has the effect of bringing into the house a host of people hoping that she'll grant their wishes. It isn't too long afterwards that "poof, she'd disappeared into thin air," and this is where the story truly takes off, as she is sought and found and returns not to her son's house, but to that of her daughter Beti.   It isn't long until Beti notices the reversal in their roles wherein "Beti became the mother and made Ma the daughter," and while Ma's presence tends to upset Beti's independent lifestyle, Beti also sees that it's a good arrangement.  As she notes, "When Ma came to my home she began to dream new dreams."   

One of the frequent guests at Beti's apartment is Rosie Bua, a hijra (often described as  "third gender"), who is very close to Ma with whom she shares  (unknown until further on in the story) a history.   One of Rosie's plans was to someday travel to Pakistan; when tragedy strikes, Ma decides that she will go for Rosie, dragging Beti and an old Buddha statue that his been in her family for years along with her on a trip that is plagued by problems almost right away.  

It is a gorgeous book, not only brilliantly written by its author but also brilliantly and skillfully translated by Daisy Rockwell, who says in her "Translator's Notes" that "to the translator, Tomb of Sand is a love letter to the Hindi language."  Noting that the author is fluent in English, she also says that Shree chose to write in her "mother tongue," relishing the "sound of words, and how they echo one another, frequently showcasing their dhwani," described as "an echo, a vibration a resonance."  It can be
"deliberate and playful, as in double entrendre and punning, an accidental mishmash of sameness, or a mythical reverberation."

Admittedly I didn't get all of the references and spent much time with my tablet on my lap while reading, but really, it just didn't matter to me -- I absolutely loved this book.  It is a great example of what a writer can do not just with story but also with language and storytelling;  above all it is a book about borders, physical and otherwise.  "A Border," as Ma says to a group of men in Pakistan, "is for crossing" and it is just a joy to read about how many borders this woman (and other people as well)  refuses to be confined or defined by as she comes into her own.  As the back-cover blurb notes, it is a "timely protest against the destructive impact of borders and boundaries, whether between religions, countries, or genders."  There is so much happening in this book that makes it pretty impossible to encompass in a brief post, but it is rare that I find something like this novel which, despite the tragedies here, is so very life affirming in so many different ways.  If you need the quick story fix you won't find it here; I'd recommend it to those readers who are willing to take a chance on something very different than the norm.  I feel so lucky having made my way through these pages; it's a novel I will never, ever forget.  

a quick BTW:  I've recently read that Tomb of Sand will be available in the US as of 2023, but I bought my copies (yes, I made an error and ended up with two)  from Tilted Axis Press and having forgotten I'd done that, I turned to Waterstones in the UK.   I'm beyond happy I bought my book when I did.  

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Elena Knows, by Claudia Piñeiro


Charco Press, 2021
originally published as Elena sabe
translated by Frances Riddle
152 pp

(read earlier, in March)

  I bought Elena Knows last July, set it aside, and just recently took it off its shelf when I learned it is one of the books on this year's International Booker longlist.  The fact that it went on to make the shortlist was no surprise to me --  I'm a huge fan of Claudia Piñeiro's novels; I think I've read each one that's been translated into English and they've all been excellent.   I've also become a huge fan of Charco Press, a small publisher with a track record of great books, and Elena Knows is no exception.   

Elena's daughter Rita died on a rainy afternoon, found by some boys sent by the priest to ring the bells ahead of the 7:00 mass.  Her body was hanging by a rope in the belfry; her death declared a suicide.  But Elena knows that her daughter would never take herself to the church while it was raining; if she was there, she thinks, it must be that someone had "dragged her there, dead or alive."  No one will listen to her, not the coroner, not the police inspector, and not the priest, but she knows Rita would never have killed herself.  After all, "No one knows as much about her daughter as she does."  It had to be murder, but Elena knows she could never prove it on her own.

 The reason Elena can't do anything more about her murder theory is that she suffers from advanced Parkinson's, which she calls her "fucking whore illness," or "Herself," a disease that severely limits Elena's movements but not her mind, so 
"Even if she uses all the tricks in the book, she won't be able to uncover the truth unless she recruits another body to help her."
Believing that a woman named Isabel, whom she hasn't seen for twenty years but feels that she is someone who "feels the need to repay a debt" is the right person to help her discover the truth about Rita's death, Elena sets off across the city of Buenos Aires to find her.   The novel is divided into three sections, each corresponding to the timing of Elena's meds; she only has a certain amount of time during which her pills allow her legs to function.  Elena's life is measured in this way; not in hours but in intervals of medication.   Beginning with her second pill of the day, the story  captures Elena's difficult, painful but determined journey to find Isabel, while  flashbacks reveal her somewhat conflicted relationship with her daughter as well as the burdens not only of the disease on Elena, but also those taken on by caregivers.   As Elena faces the difficulties in navigating the streets of Buenos Aires (which are explained in  detail), we also learn just how difficult it is to navigate those bureaucratic agencies meant to help someone in Elena's condition.  While the going seems slow in spots, it's the final section that packs the major punch as Elena and Isabel finally meet and Elena comes to realize exactly what it is she doesn't know. 

Throughout the story, of course, it's also impossible not to ponder the mystery of Rita's death in the back of your mind.  As Dr. Fiona Mackintosh of University of Edinburgh notes in her Afterword to this book, Elena is presented as a very unlikely "elderly detective-heroine,"  an 
"objectionable and outspoken woman suffering advanced Parkinson's who stubbornly persists against the odds in investigating the death of her own daughter."
Yet as is the case in the other books I've read by Piñeiro, crime fiction is the vehicle by which the author makes astute observations on society, and in this book she raises, again quoting Mackintosh, issues that are "universal, timely and complex," including "the obstacles of a woman's right to control her own body, the myths and realities surrounding motherhood, the mental and physical constraints on women's daily routines, and the increasing challenges of an ill and ageing body."   In point of fact, bodies loom large in this novel.  There is much, much more of course, but I don't want to give anything away that might constitute a spoiler.  Let's just say that in a very big way, this book is definitely timely, and I'll go out on a limb to say that it's a necessary read, especially given what's happening here in the US at the moment.  An absolutely powerful story that overpowered me and made me cry (I'm sure because of the excellent translation by Frances Riddle), I would recommend this book to anyone.  I do hope Charco Press will bring more of this author's books into translation -- she is absolutely one of my favorite writers and has been for a long time. 

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Dirty Bird Blues, by Clarence Major


Penguin, 2022
originally published 1996
376 pp


"Blues done saved as many lives as church songs." 

I'm not exactly sure where I first heard about Dirty Bird Blues, but I think it was this year's inclusion in the long-established collection of Penguin Classics that sold me.  According to Penguin's website, their classics collections
"represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines,"  
and are also meant to "guide you through a reader's odyssey."  This latest addition to the series is by Clarence Major, about whom John Beckman has provided a brief biography as part of  his introduction to Dirty Bird Blues;  I also went to BlackPast for more info about this author.  He's published nine novels, two short fiction volumes and sixteen poetry collections; he is also "an accomplished visual artist."    About this book, Beckman quotes Major as saying that it is "another kind of experiment, this time with the language of the blues," to which Beckman adds that the novel is "powered by realism, and its experiments only enhance the effect."   It's also a novel I read twice; the second time through only boosted my admiration of this story in which a young, conflicted musician must reckon not only with balancing his artistic life with family responsibilities, but also must navigate a racist society while learning how to deal with problems of his own making.  

Chicago, Christmas 1949, and twenty-five year old  Manfred (Man) Banks is trying to climb into a window which gets stuck and then "Suddenly this big boom."  He's been shot, but thanks to the "good liquor coating him" he feels nothing.  Shot a second time, he makes his way to the black hospital where he's listed as a "charity case" before his treatment, after which he is then questioned and harassed by two black cops. The man who shot him is a preacher with whom Man's wife Cleo and their baby daughter Karina has been living for a while after Cleo left him. Cleo's leaving was apparently by mutual agreement -- they "couldn't keep food in the cupboard, couldn't feed the baby, refrigerator empty. " All of this, Cleo reminds him later, was too hard on their baby; Eddie, the man she's with now, "is good to her, she gets everything she needs."  She and Man still love each other; she wants him to "grow up" and to put her and the baby before his drinking;  he  wants to make it as a musician, not an easy task in Chicago, where as his fellow musician/friend/drinking/carousing partner Solly Thigpen notes, "it's hard to get anybody to pay any tention to you in a big town."  Realizing that he can't pull another stunt like he did,  understanding that "I got to walk straight fore I can fly," and knowing that  he wants Cleo back, Man decides to take his sister up on her offer for him to come to Omaha where he can stay with her family until he gets on his feet.  

A new start?  Certainly it's a new city; Man plays his music and sings at a local neighborhood joint called The Palace where he leaves the crowd "begging for more" and gets offered a part-time gig; he lands a day job and in anticipation  of Cleo joining him, finds an apartment for his family.  He's still hitting the Old Crow (the "Dirty Bird" of the title) pretty regularly, yet as happy as he is to be with Cleo when she comes to town,  
"already this new sense of responsibility he was feeling toward Cleo and Karina shook him. It felt like chains."

Then, when his best bud follows him to Omaha from Chicago, she warns him against 

"all that stuff with Solly again, all that drinking and staying out all hours and stuff, falling in drunk,"
and reminds him that she'd come out there because he'd "agreed to act right."   But Man  enjoys hanging out with the very irresponsible Solly with whom he feels no need to "grow up."    He finds himself in a sort of inner conflict between the two; one would think that some compromise seems to be in order but it doesn't seem to be in the cards on Man's part.   On top of his other ongoing problems (especially the racial issues that he finds himself falling victim to)  and his troubled past, this conflict will (quoting the back cover blurb)  soon lead him into a "nightmarish descent into his own troubled depths."  

The story's a good one, and yet the joy of reading  is found less in the plot than in the "language of the blues" the author employs throughout.  "Singing," we are told at the beginning, was Man's "way of talking out this furious, crazy thing in him that made him glide, leap, holler, and scream as if over treetops without even moving," and the blues, as he says, "done saved as many lives as church songs."  His lyrics and his often-surrealistic dreams offer not only a look into Man's troubled psyche, but also, as the book description notes, "keep bringing him back to face himself."  As Yusef Komunyakaa notes so eloquently in the foreward he's written for Dirty Bird Blues,  
"Man isn't merely a bluesman, but he is an artist, always engaged, like a John Coltrane -- not satisfied with the mere fingering of the elemental strings of his existence but determined to see into the mystery of his being, as well as gaze up at the sky or seek out a woman's eyes."
What is also really interesting and noteworthy is how the author sets up both Man and Solly as near-mirror images of each other -- I won't say more but it works so very nicely as the book moves toward its ending.    

I read Dirty Bird Blues as part of Black History month, a fine choice and it's a novel that has stuck with me since finishing it both in terms of content and especially because of the writing. Clearly Major is a gifted, out-of-the-box writer, and it didn't take long before I was completely immersed and entranced.  I can definitely recommend it.