Reimagining the New Testament

Title: Children of God

Author: Lars Petter Sveen

Translator: Guy Puzey

Publisher: Graywolf Press (Minneapolis, 2018)

ISBN: 978 1 55597 820 4

Three soldiers sent by King Herod to massacre innocent babies experience a moment of doubt, only to have their resolve strengthened (and hearts hardened) by the words of a sinister old man. An urchin boy styling himself King David sacrifices everything to keep his subjects safe. A rich man seeks out healers and prophets, desperate to cure his first-born son of a debilitating stutter. A prostitute searches for the man she loves and finds acceptance and community with a group of strangers. This baker’s dozen collection of short stories by Swedish writer Lars Petter Sveen reimagines the Bible as a work of speculative fiction, freshened up with contemporary prose. Featuring an overlapping cast of lepers, prostitutes, orphans, murderers, and thieves – these stories remind us that Jesus’ followers were often society’s outcasts. Sveen gives voices to the men, women and, children who are mentioned, but not considered important enough to name, in the Christian Gospels.

Children of God is told in the straightforward, character-driven style of a genre novel. There’s a substantial amount of dialogue. The prose does the job, but Sveen is not a stylist and Guy Puzey’s translation (from the original Norwegian) reflects that reality. But if you like fantasy-style novels, and aren’t quick to cry BLASPHEME!, this isn’t a bad read. In “I Smell of the Earth” a dead woman seeks to escape her demon lover. The demon is defined only by his voice, there is no physical description. We recognize him by the sibilants of his speech patterns. The way he hisses out the “s” in Ssssssarah, appearing suddenly out of the darkness, is chilling.

In “Martha’s Story” a young girl plays a game with an old man in which they both must tell stories to Martha’s little brothers and sisters. This old, blind man “stays in the shadows while light falls elsewhere” and connects the material world to the spiritual. He appears throughout the book. More Saruman than Satan (though, of course, we’re meant to recognize him as the latter) he plants doubt and corruption wherever he goes. He will tell the children a story to make them cry. Martha must make them smile or laugh again, or he will take her as a forfeit (one guesses to suffer Sarah’s fate). “Martha’s Story” is formatted differently from the others in the book – surrounded by wide margins which compress the text, giving it the appearance of a children’s book. It’s the second to last story. In my opinion, it should have closed the book out. Without spoiling too much, when it’s Martha’s turn she pulls a character we’ve met before into her tale, allowing him a chance at redemption. It’s a surprising, metafiction moment that had me thinking of another Graywolf book, The Impossible Fairy Tale by Han Yujoo, which touches on the same idea: the performance of author as a god. A strange and unexpected connection.

Discovering how the stories overlap and tracing the connections between the individual characters is a large part of the fun. For that reason, I recommend reading in order. There’s very little world-building otherwise, either historical or genre, and there appears to be the implicit (if unspoken) understanding that the reader brings at least a superficial knowledge of the Bible to the page. Eight years of Catholic school, after which I lapsed hard, stood me well. While probably not necessary, having that foundation did make things more interesting.

Children of God is Sveen’s English language debut. An entertaining, occasionally formulaic collection based on New Testament stories by an author who recognizes that the foundational themes/tenets of Christianity, in which the forces of good and evil battle for the hearts and souls of mankind, lend themselves handily to the genre of speculative fiction.

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang Hilbig, tr. Isabel Fargo Cole

Title: The Sleep of the Righteous

Author:   Wolfgang Hilbig

Translator:   Isabel Fargo Cole

Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2015)

ISBN: 978 1 931883 47 4

The Sleep of the Righteous by Wolfgang HilbigIn his introduction to Wolfgang Hilbig’s The Sleep of the Righteous, the Hungarian author Laszlo Krasznahorkai wrote: “Many have thought and have said about him that because his fate and writerly art are so closely tied with Communist East Germany, Hilbig is just little more than a kind of chronicler of East Germany, a pale Kafkaist…”  Krasznahorkai goes on to take what was perhaps originally intended as criticism and prove it to be the very thing that is most noteworthy about Hilbig’s writing.  Hilbig, who was born in 1941 and died in 2007, was uniquely suited to write about Communist East Germany (also known as the German Democratic Republic) which was was founded and dissolved within his lifetime.

Fiction parallels real life. Raised by his widowed mother and maternal grandfather, Hilbig grew up fatherless in a coal town in the Thuringia region of Germany. There he received the full GDR experience – military service; working as a factory stoker; joining and being kicked out of a government sponsored writers’ group; interrogated by the Stasi; and finally leaving for the West on a one year Visa. He would travel back and forth between  East and West – both physically and in his writing – for the rest of his life.

The world Hilbig describes in the seven short stories collected in The Sleep of the Righteous, brutal and bleak, read as part autobiography, part dystopian fiction.  These linked stories are all told in the first person by the same unnamed narrator.  Readers follow the boy as he grows into a man.  Escape, the underground and disappearing are reoccurring themes. In the third story, titled “Coming”,  the adolescent boy runs away.  He is fatherless, a common state in post-war Germany.  This boy – in the throes of puberty – flees the attentions of the women who’ve dominated his life.  Their voices follow him like a Greek chorus, lamenting their helplessness and the behavior of the males in their lives.  “The lake! they screamed, I’m going to throw myself into the lake! I’ll throw myself into the lake right this minute!”

“What pained them so was my apathy, which I took almost to the point of invisibility: I hunched speechless in some seat in the flat’s periphery, and my contours grew fainter and fainter.”

Every night, after the house has gone to sleep, the adolescent escapes to the lake of the women’s laments. The prose grows earthier and denser. The story’s entire tone changes –

“And suddenly I recalled a great mudhole, right in the center of the island, where we had sunned ourselves as children.

I recalled the sinful sense of well-being that came over me when I stripped off my clothes to stretch out in the thick black mud that filled the bottom of the hollow. It was grainy slurry of coal slack and sand in burnt-smelling water, whose surface, when smooth, showed yellow striations of sulfur…the oblong hole held the whole of my body, I ceased to move and waited until at last stillness came over me. Eyes nearly shut, I stared up into the sky whose rim was ablaze, and where the sun, straight above me, was an indistinct circle of white heat from which now and then, a drop seemed to fall… and a yellow cloud,  nearly white, seemed to draw near this sun, touching the edge of its glaring gorge and beginning to melt.”

Most of The Sleep of the Righteous seems to be an attempt by Hilbig to understand his relationship to these women – aunts, mother, grandmother, wife, former lover – who dominate these stories. The few male figures are depicted as distant, often sinister.  In the story from which the book takes its title the young boy is forced by his mother to share a bed with his grandfather.  The two males sleep fitfully, one of them guilty (we are never told which) of murder.  In “The Memories” a much older narrator recalls the boiler room stoker named Gunsch with whom he briefly worked the night shift. Gunsch is described as a modern German god of fire, grimy faced and inscrutable.  In “The Dark Man’, the narrator is approached and confronted by a Stasi informer who reveals that he has for years been intercepting the narrator’s erotic correspondence with a former lover.  The story is strange and surreal. The eventual outcome violent.

Strange and surreal describes Hilbig’s writing in general. All of the stories are set in a single town over a period covering decades –  instilling the place with a lonely mysticism.  The Sleep of the Righteous is a series of vignettes which together create a concrete sense of the period. The stories are gritty, roman noirs minus the criminal element. Calling them Kafkaesque (perhaps the most overused descriptor in literary criticism) isn’t entirely accurate.  These stories have much more in common with the plain speaking narrator of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground. Hilbig doesn’t push at the borders of possibilities like Kafka, or even Pynchon.  He moves within them. And yet… Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of the prose is slightly awkward in that it lacks any stylistic tics or flourishes.  The use of the hyphen and the odd syntax result in hard, choppy sentences. Hilbig combines a romantic sensibility and understanding of harsh reality.

The factories were closed, keys rusting in distant safes in Munich or Dortmund until they were sold to a demolition firm. If they were lucky, and not yet too old, they might find a job driving one of the long distance freight trains transporting rolls of pink toilet papers or tins of condensed milk from Munich to Leipzig. – And looking ahead, they shuddered to think of their sons who went about with shaved heads, in combat boots and black bomber jackets, staring with alcohol in their eyes into a future that was none…

What anger and impotence the narrator might feel remains beneath the surface in these stories, residual  paranoia and oppression left over from a former life under the Stasi.  

In the second part of the collection the perspective shifts and expands. The child’s curiosity has been worn away by adult experience.  The narrator returns to the town which has remained mostly unchanged in appearance, growing only emptier. The remaining inhabitants go about their business as if still being monitored by the Stasi.  A certain level of fear has become normal, comforting because it is familiar.

What had spun out of control was my wife’s rage; she regarded us both, my mother and me, as people who were devoid of independence, eternally anxious to do everything right, and who for that very reason, because they were constantly trying to hide, to avoid reproaches… because they had no desires or questions… because they skulked about the house as though under some tyranny from which a devastating verdict might come at any moment – for that very reason did every possible thing wrong. – You people show no initiative, my wife said, all you’ve learned is how to wait for orders, you have no sense of self, and that’s why you can’t enjoy life in this little house of mine…

Dystopian has long been used to describe stories that fall within the genre of sci-fi or fantasy.  Most dystopian authors insert a fantastical element into their narratives, designed to distract readers from the factual and familiar. And so they include elaborate death matches involving adolescents broadcast for public entertainment, the outside threat of zombies or of machines seizing control and enslaving the human race.  Even Margaret Atwood included the laboratory engineered evolution of the human species in her Madd Addam trilogy.  All are designed to allow readers to make distinctions between the book they are reading and world in which they live.  It’s a sleight of hand drawing attention away from the recognizable components of a degrading society that every dystopian vision shares: a scarcity of resources, the collapse of the environment, poverty and the unequal distribution of wealth, the suppression of free speech, racial violence and existence under a police state. Hilbig, in contrast, includes nothing that might distract.  As  Krasznahorkai wrote, he was a chronicler of East Germany – a place that technically no longer exists.  But that’s not entirely accurate either. More than a simple chronicler, Wolfgang Hilbig was also a witness.

The Bosnian War – In Short Stories & A Computer Game

This week’s review can be found over at The Rumpus. Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict is a book of short stories by Galician author & journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado, translated by Carys Evans-Corrales.  This War of Mine is a computer survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Each compliments the other – forcing readers (and players) to re-evaluate the way we think about war.  Arguably in more realistic ways than we’re used to.  CLICK on the cover to learn more:

 

SOUNDCHECK: TALES FROM THE BALKAN CONFLICT

 

Note:  This War of Mine was created by the game company 11 bit studios. They’re currently developing a new version of the game which ups the ante even further by adding children to the group of survivors. I talk about the original game in the review – here’s a link to the homepage and trailer (you’ll need to scroll down) for This War of Mine: The Little Ones. No release date yet, as far as I can tell.

The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth (Maria Tatar, translator)

Title:  The Turnip Princess & Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales
Author:  Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth
Translator: Maria Tatar
Publisher:  Penguin Classics, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 0 14 310742 2

There was once a farmer, and he had two sons…

One day a prince lost his way in the woods…

A farmer had three sons…

Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day…

A nobleman had three daughters, each more beautiful than the next…

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy TalesThis is how fairy tales begin. Not with “once upon a time”, but with individuals standing on an empty stage patiently waiting to be told what to do next. Because fairy tales are essentially about the completion of tasks, even when the hero or heroine has no idea what that might lead to.  The underlying moral of most fairy tales is – do as you’re told and good things will follow.

Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth was a contemporary of the Brothers Grimm.  Like them he collected folk tales, employing a scientific method and focusing on a specific region of Bavaria known as the Upper Palatinate. He used questionnaires and carefully recorded the dialect, customs and costumes of the people he interviewed.  His work was much admired during his lifetime, but seems to have disappeared after his death. Until 2009 when Erika Eichenseer (a Bavarian author, storyteller & poet) discovered 500 unpublished works in a Bavarian archive.

The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales translates 72 of these newly discovered stories into English. The book divides them into six categories: Tales of Magic and Romance, Enchanted Animals, Otherworldly Creatures, Legends, Tall Tales and Anecdotes and Tales About Nature.  And they are quite unlike anything you might have encountered in the past.  Yes, there are some familiar themes – such as dancing princesses, a miniature child (“the size of a thumb”) and enchanted toads.  But in Von Schönwerth’s versions the Prince is often the one who needs saving; soldiers carry guns, not swords; the toad is just as likely to be a Princess and even after the hero saves the day he doesn’t always get the girl.

What you realize as you read is how spare, fragmentary and contradictory these tales actually are.  The Three-Legged Goats (found in Part 2: Enchanted Animals) begins –

“Three young men, a tailor, a miller, and a soldier, found themselves lost in the woods one day. It was growing dark, and they still could not find a way out.  The tailor decided to climb to the top of a tree, and from there he could see a light in the distance. He started walking in that direction, without saying a word to his companions, until he reached a castle. The first room he entered had nothing in it but three-legged goats and cats. Some of the cats were playing the fiddle on the tables and benches; others were dancing to the tunes. The tailor was hungry, so he ate some food. Once he was done, he stuffed his pockets with good things to eat and went back to give some food to his companions. After the tailor returned, the miller also climbed the tree, saw the light, found the castle, and discovered everything the tailor had found.”

At this point the soldier follows in the footsteps of his two companions and the tailor and miller disappear – never to be mentioned again. The story goes on to tell how the soldier breaks the enchantment on the castle, marries the princess and then journeys home to tell his parents the good news.  And where traditional fairy tales might end, this one is just getting started:  his wife, discovering he is poor, spurns him.  She disappears and the soldier is forced to search for her. While searching he encounters three thieves, from whom he steals three magical items.  He uses these three items to find his princess and win her back. And even after all he has done the Princess still questions her father, the King, as to whether she should keep the soldier as her husband.  “What should I do? Should I choose a new broom or take back the old one?”

The Three-Legged Goats, like many of the stories in this collection, appears to be a compilation of several fairy tales into one. Which makes sense when you consider that Von Schönwerth’s purpose when setting down these tales  was to faithfully record the oral history of those he interviewed.  These stories were transcribed in the telling  – not copied from books.  They changed and evolved over time.  And so it’s not implausible that two or three may have eventually merged together and been condensed into one.  Or that a story which began one way would end in another.  This results in very different narratives than most of us are accustomed to.

Maria Tatar makes some interesting choices in her translation.  Three soldiers, we are told, have “finished their tour of duty”.  When a huntsman asks three giants if they are planning to free a princess, the giants growl “From her wealth, anyhow.”  There are more guns mentioned than I remember in The Brothers Grimm.  Von Schönwerth lived from 1810-1886, so the modernity of the language and references is not entirely misplaced.  But it is definitely unexpected and at times jarring – which might have more to do with my expectations of what a fairy tale is than the quality of the translation.

Hans Christian Anderson, Charles Perrault, Andrew Lang (of the Blue, Red & Green Fairybooks, etc.) and Walk Disney have – for better or worse – shaped most of our expectations of what a fairy tale should be.  It is easy to forget that folk tales are just another form of folk art – and that folk art is primitive by definition.  The stories in The Turnip Princess range from one to five pages in length, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for embellishment. But it is the stripped-down, primitive nature – the potential in these stories of what they can become – which makes this collection so exciting.  Consider the literary impact of Cinderella, Beauty & the Beast, Red Riding Hood and Hansel & Gretel.  The plots & characters have become archetypal.  Their influence can be detected (whether overt or subtle) in many contemporary works of fiction. What, then, might a new generation of writers make of Franz Xaver Von Schönwerth’s stories?  Of a girl who becomes a snake when her stepmother casts her into a lake? Or a Prince who is kidnapped by a mermaid? Or a beautiful maiden freed from a turnip? Erika Eichenseer’s discovery has created new possibilities… new opportunities.

 

 

The Scatter Here Is Too Great by Bilal Tanweer

A spider web crack is a series of hairline fractures spreading out from a central point of impact. Bilal Tanweer makes this image the motif for his short story collection The Scatter Here Is Too Great. The central point of impact is a bomb blast at the Karachi Train Station in Pakistan. All the stories, eight total, radiate out from and connect back to that one point in time.

Title:  The Scatter Here Is Too Great

Author:  Bilal Tanweer

Publisher: Harper Collins, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 0062 3044 1 4

 

18781341A spider web crack is a series of hairline fractures spreading out from a central point of impact.  Bilal Tanweer makes this image the motif for his short story collection The Scatter Here Is Too Great. The central point of impact is a bomb blast at the Karachi Train Station in Pakistan.  All the stories, eight total, radiate out from and connect back to that one point in time.

Tanweer takes a “community” approach to the event.  His characters are as interconnected as his stories; appearing, re-appearing and interacting with one another throughout the book; jumping from one story to the next; telling us about their lives before and after the explosion; gradually revealing their thoughts and feelings in first person narratives (with the exception of one story which is told in the third person present tense).  All the narrators are male, predominantly young and speak in voices which veer from self-conscious vulnerability to the cocky arrogance peculiar to young men.

More succinctly:  these people, who we expect to be no more than a group of strangers whose collective bad karma has resulted in them being at the wrong place at the wrong time, know each other.  For example:  there is an elderly man, a Communist poet, who passes through several different stories.  In one he recites his poetry on the bus and is derided by other passengers.  Later we will see him again, on another bus, though the eyes of the troubled boy he sits beside and talks to.  In yet another story we recognize him as the narrator’s grandfather, and then as another narrator’s the father, and then he has a brief cameo as the friend of the main character’s father seen from a distance.  Sadeq, the boy on the bus befriended by the poet, narrates more than one chapter and over time describes to us what is a remarkably depressing life for one whose only advanced into his early 20’s. Through his story we are linked to another young man who was his childhood friend.  And in this way, one thread at a time, we learn about the victims of the bombing. So that when the time comes to tend to the survivors and collect the dead, we have an understanding exactly who each of them is and was in that moment of impact.

Unhelpfully for the purposes of this review, my favorite story is the one that takes place in the weeks after the explosion. The narrator is worried about his brother Akbar, a first responder who develops PTSD as a result of the carnage he confronts in the aftermath of the blast.  Akbar is convinced he saw Gog & Magog walking among the bodies of the dead.  “If  you don’t already know about Gog and Magog, their arrival was supposed to mark the coming of the end of the world… They will bring strife and disharmony and, ultimately the apocalypse to the world.”  Akbar’s brother eventually tracks down Gog & Magog and, while they aren’t exactly what they appeared to be, we learn that “what appears strange and complex becomes even stranger and more complicated once you begin to investigate it.  That’s the true nature of the world.”

That is Bilal Tanweer’s super power as an author.  He has a talent for creating beautiful & strange imagery out of life’s banalities. He’s willing to spend time on the insignificant things we all notice and just as quickly forget. Like a plastic bag blowing in the wind.

My eyes were following the blue plastic bag that floated in between the onrushing cars. It curved sideways, rose and cruised and hung in the air, and finally ran into the path of a pedestrian who slapped it with the back of his hand and pushed it over the edge of the bridge. It limped over it and spiraled like a tiny tornado.

Because, when you think about those men & women entering the Twin Towers on 9/11, or boarding trains in London on 7/11, or riding a bus in Syria on a Sunday morning – they were all having normal, ordinary, even boring, days.  Until suddenly they weren’t.  Tanweer skillfully conveys the individual’s sense of normalcy leading up to a catastrophic event, which is so unfathomable to the reader who already possesses the knowledge of what is about to happen, and then allows the environment to degenerate into the chaos and confusion that must inevitably follow.

The Scatter Here is Too Great was on the shortlist for the DSC Prize.  It was not selected as the final winner by the Shadow or actual juries – mostly because despite its ambition (or perhaps because of it) the book has integral flaws.  The most obvious is how the voices of all the young men blend together as the book progresses. Less obvious, but ultimately more distracting, is how it works too hard at being a “concept” novel.  The opening image of the spiderweb crack is an intriguing one, particularly as the story centers on a bomb blast, and so you want it to fall into place naturally.  But Tanweer felt the need to insert (what I guess you could call) an element of metafiction: a writer who pops up to provide a sidebar commentary on what is happening and why. Tanweer doesn’t seem to fully trust his reader.  He’s created this writer to explain the structural and creative process… and to a point it succeeds. I was surprised at how well all the stories fit together and played their part in the author’s greater narrative plan.  But I didn’t see it until it was explained.  And, like that blue plastic bag, I forgot about it just as quickly.  One of the highest praises we as a society give to an artist is to say that he or she “makes it look easy”.  While The Scatter Here Is Too Great delivers moments of promise, in the end Tanweer succeeds in making it look unaccountably hard.