Saturday, July 25, 2015

A Wish to Eye God

Some years ago, when my wife and I were travelling in southern Africa, we had the chance to hear a reading in Swaziland by the South African writers, Nadine Gordimer and her longtime friend and fellow activist, Mongane Wally Serote. While Gordimer read her story "The Ultimate Safari", Serote followed with a number of his poems, including (if I remember it correctly) the anguished "A Wish to Eye God".

A Wish to Eye God

May it happen that one day
When the sun wipes its face
and the moon shakes its sweat like a dog removing flies
I will no longer write about people
dying in the street and bleeding through the ears and eyes
and babies suffocating in suitcases in muddy dongas;
I am not pleading or praying
I am just polite
choking my shout from rushing out
I am calm
Since that other day when I saw that mother shout at you
     at the grave
and I knew
even her dead silent scream won't help
and I was not wrong
Since I have been to the graveyard to lay down a stabbed
You know that
I think
and think
about you and all they say about you
and what I see and hear and live
I have never had a life
but maybe I won't live for you
I feel like shouting.

Peter Adam Nash

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Obelisk Index

Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov

                  A Militia major is driving along when he sees a militiaman standing with a penguin. "Take  
                  him to the zoo, " he orders. Some time later the same major is driving along when he sees the 
                  militiaman still standing with the penguin. "What have you been doing?" he asks. "I said take 
                  him to the zoo." We've been to the zoo, Comrade Major," says the militiaman, "and the circus. 
                  And now we're going to the pictures."

A few weeks ago I was struck by a story in the news about how, after massive flooding in the city of Tbilisi, Georgia, some zoo animals were on the loose. The residents, many of them homeless, had been warned of lions and tigers afoot. Included in the article was a photograph of a hippo standing bewildered in the street. What had struck me most about the st0ry was not the event itself, surely a sad and sensational one, but the fact that it had seemed familiar to me, as though I had read about something like it before, though for the life of me I could not remember what. Then it struck me this morning: Death and the Penguin! Where the hell was that book? Had I leant it, lost it; had I given it away, but, no, there it was, covered with dust and old spider webs, on the bottom shelf behind my chair.   

As the novel opens, Viktor, a lonely, desperate young writer living with his pet penguin in a small apartment in Soviet-controlled Kiev, has just been offered the opportunity to write copy for a major national newspaper. Excited by the prospect of money, and eager to finally see his name in print, he readily accepts the position, only to discover that the job entails writing obituaries, pithy, thumbnail biographies of many of Kiev's doyens, kingpins, and politicians—each of them still very much alive. As one character puts it to Viktor, he is "writing for the drawer," a troubling euphemism soon compounded by the more sinister description of the work as 'obelisk jobs', his task: "painting vital images of the future departed."  Not surprisingly, in a city then ruled by violence and corruption, his work proves predictive. Shortly after submitting his first obituary about a well-known State Deputy named Aleksandr Yakornitsky, he is informed by his delighted Editor-in-Chief that (miracle of miracles!) the very same man has just died: "Fell from a sixth-floor window—was cleaning it for some reason, apparently, though it wasn't his. And at night." While frightened, aghast, Viktor continues to write. It is only when a recently acquired friend of his disappears, and he is forced to assume responsibility for his daughter, that the stakes of the game become clear. 

At the heart of this darkly pleasing satire of life in Soviet Ukraine is Viktor's depressed and insomniac penguin, Misha. Rescued by Viktor from the bankrupt city zoo, which could no longer afford to feed him, Misha spends most of his time "roaming the flat, leaving doors open, occasionally stopping and heaving a deep sigh, like an old man weary of both life and himself." He eats frozen fish, he stares at the wall, he splashes around in the bathtub; and, sometimes, when Viktor is restless, when Misha gets too hot, the two of them venture outside at night, exploring the grim-faced  streets and wandering back and forth across the frozen Dnieper.

Andrey Kurov was born in St. Petersburg and now lives in Kiev with his English wife and her three children. He has published numerous other novels, including Penguin Lost, A Matter of Life and Death, The Case of the General’s Thumb, and The Milkman in the Night

Peter Adam Nash