Talk and Touch

Such Small Hands
by
Andrés Barba
(translated by Lisa Dillman; with an afterword by Edmund White)
Portobello Books: 101pp.: £9.99

Childhood has been used historically in fiction, but recently there seems to be new sense of realism along with it, exploring the desires that people experience but hardly ever talk about, as if a new testing ground. Writers like Elena Ferrante and Zadie Smith, have laid a path, that has not just exposed a new way of talking about our concealed, inner world, that is even concealed from ourselves, but literature as well. Why are we leaving it to the children to talk?

Strangely, to me, it seems to be specifically the female childhood. It’s interesting then that a male chooses to tackle it, or use the experience of the female child, in the work discussed here. I’m not sure what happened, but speaking as a male, I feel like the male is still struggling to let the guard down, is seriously struggling to simply come to terms with talking. It seems that women can more honestly and openly discuss the things that are not so openly and honestly talked about, both in fiction and in life. What this is down to i’m not sure, but this could just be me looking from the outside-in. The archaic male archetype of ‘manliness’ is still a powerful marker of the man, and comes with it, clossetedness and the inability to talk about it. There have been campaigns like ‘It’s Okay to Talk’ on the back of the shocking statistics of male suicides, and sounds like a wilful attempt to open up this treacherously difficult ideal we’re still used to reinforcing, which is in part simply, down to the resounding construct of a person that doesn’t or can’t speak; it needs a wholesale, societal examination.

Barba then begins with dolls and somebody not talking. Both males and females use toys and dolls to say the things we can’t as children. But Ferrante’s epic tetralogy begins with Lenu and Lila playing with dolls in My Brilliant Friend. Andrés Barba’s novel is centred around dolls. Dolls and toys of course are a way to enact things we can’t be or say. Lila, often the object and subject of Lenu’s projections in this recollection of her childhood that Lenu writes, does the inexplicable act of pushing Lenu’s doll down a grate. These are the dolls in which “the terrors that we tasted every day were theirs”, the doll that at first, talks about Lenu’s fears out loud for her.

Ferrante’s work, both My Brilliant Friend and the ensuing saga of course, has a much longer trajectory, but this provides a neat way of framing Barba’s work. Because both novels do start with the protagonists owning dolls, but as Lenu loses hers and finds its childhood power waning, the dolls begin to hold an infinite power for Barba’s protagonist Marina, or at least, the power of being a doll. Ferrante’s work develops into a multi-volume saga of ‘realism’ where Barba’s short novella stays within the confines of childhood, and fantasy, not something magical, but a childhood fantasy  (or more comfortably associated with childhood). And both novels start with a loss, although Barba’s would appear of a deeper trauma.

The loss is central though, as the novels in part, become a way in which to describe or depict this loss, or new space that has formed as result. Lenu hears of a her friend, Lila’s, disappearance (before losing the doll), decades after last speaking to her, and so what begins is an exploration, a rewriting of her childhood, in a pursuit of not ‘letting her win again’ (there is a game in Barba’s work). And Marina, in Such Small Hands, must now try and deal with the hideously vacant space left by her parents death from a car crash. This is the description of the crash:

“The car falling, and where it fell, transforming. The car, making space for itself. That, more than ever, was when she had to fall back on the words. As if, of all the words that might describe the accident, those were the only ones that possessed the virtue of stating what could never be stated; or, as if they, of all words, were the only ones there, so close at hand, so easy to grasp, making what could never possibly be discerned somehow accessible.” [author’s emphasis]

Marina sees a psychologist whom brings her a doll presumably to help her understand her grief. She calls the doll Marina, rather bafflingly to the psychologist, before she is unwittingly sent to an orphanage. She does know that she is leaving the care of the professionals, but she does not know where to. It is the prospect of space, the big open space of the future that has suddenly been opened up to her, but she knows that it’s not so simple as that: “It wasn’t so much the fear of leaving that terrified Marina but the idea of that space, that intricate, bountiful, preconceived place, full of beforehands.” ‘Beforehands’, an obvious reference to the title, but such an acute way of describing the world we’re not supposed to believe we’re stepping into; daubed and touched by many others before us.

The Bobo Doll experiment first conducted by Albert Bandura

As much as a novel is a work of imagination, it’s about the imagination as well, and the question here is how far can that imagination go. Marina has been thrust into the world, the unrestrained adult world, prematurely. She seems to anticipate that it’s not original and uncharted. Or perhaps it’s because it’s a world where she realises you don’t need imagination but a sense of reality. As she arrives at the orphanage she is treated as an outsider. Yet the girls there are fascinated by her as much as Marina is fascinated by them, as the novel jumps between third person direct observer of Marina, to first person plural of the girls. Edmund White in the afterword, notes an important and rendered scene of watching the other girls eat (eating is important here and as White also notes, Marina appears to have come from a comfortable middle class background). And so being coerced into the girls world, she manages to coerce them into hers, in which she invents a game where a girl is selected as a doll, to be used, whilst they are asleep and motionless.

White says in the afterword though, Barba chooses not to make this a ‘psychological study’ of a young girl’s grief. This is why the darkness imbued in the novel feels all too real. White believes that the introduction of the girls in the orphanage helps to propel it away from that, and perhaps it’s also implicated in the opening pages when the doctors and psychologists are given short shrift by Barba, ushered on and off the scene in all their professional swiftness. As White says of Barba , he “is not a scientist and his book is not the demonstration of a theory but….we are convinced that we are plunged into an archaic system we’ve forgotten but that is oddly remiscient”. A psychologist would have done their best to disband the fantasy, impart some reality into the doll, but instead it’s like a relic with a mysterious capacity out of his hands. In a way it becomes more spiritual or totemic – a family heirloom that is believed to have enigmatic capacities.

What is theory but an attempt to describe something that is there but isn’t? The attempt (and ultimately failure) to render a space with words? Barba’s novel abounds in this sense of space, debating whether it’s positive or negative. I am the outskirts of a non-existent town” wrote Fernando Pessoa in one of his elusive passages, and that takes on a prominence here , indeed formalises in the section where the girls describe the orphanage, “It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls.” The girls are at the whim of their desires, transported around their city of themselves without them knowing how or why they got there. You notice how often though, invisible forces are alluded to, ‘tremors’, ‘vibrations’, ‘spasms’ but are definitely felt. The girls themselves almost seem invisible, like ghostly voices haunting the lonely Marina. At one point they question their pursuit of Marina:

“How did our desire begin? We don’t know. Everything was silent in our desire, like acrobats in motion, like tight-rope walkers.”

You can see them balancing in the air, that precarious line, and one of those ‘tremors’ enough to tilt them over the edge. The question is, what would falling over the edge constitute? That’s a question I would love to discuss and write more about, and I could talk a lot more about this book, only 94 pages long; it is so precise and accumulates in a way that isn’t a contrivance to genre, but a steady development of its ideas, but I need to leave it there for the reader.

I’ll finish on this though; White suggests that the scar from Marina’s crash could be the wing of an angel removed; as Rilke said, “all angels are terrible”. Rilke’s ‘First Elegy’ (who notably was dressed up as a girl by his mother, so desperate was she to have one) seems like it may have been consulted by Barba either before or during writing the novel. Rilke writes:

“to be no longer all that one used to be/in endlessly anxious hands, and to lay aside/even one’s proper name like a broken toy.”

Such small hands, such little power. “Strange, not to go on wishing one’s wishes,” Rilke then writes in the next line. It wouldn’t be perverse to say there is something desired and concealed within Barba’s work but as Barba’s suggests all along, we need to find a way to talk about it. A novel, that at it’s heart for me, is not necessarily about finding a way to talk, but allowing the space for things to be talked about – even if it could be exploring the heart of a trauma.

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Review: The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov

The literary cinema of Peirene rumbles on with The Dead Lake, part of it’s new 2014 series ‘Coming of Age: Towards Identity’. The first in the series, The Dead Lake  begins in a way that rings bells with the a growing trend in modern cinema; the based on a true story epitaph. Postmodern cinematic trends aside, the movies rely on these epitaphs in ways that the novel does not because we are expecting to be suspended in fictional reality with a novel. The movie increasingly needs to add credibility to it’s tired Hollywood vehicle. However two non-fictions here are the brief paragraph at the beginning that details the history of Semipalatinsk Nuclear Test Site; 468 nuclear explosions were carried out there, and that Kyrgyzstan born Hamid Ismailov is exiled from Uzbekistan. As you continue to read, another pertinent truth of sorts emerges.

They add another arc to this self-conscious, fable-esque novella (exquisitely translated by Andrew Bromfeld) that is as much a story as it is a mediation on the art ofnarrative and story-telling. An immediate referential opening sets this in motion with the opening line; ‘The story began in the most prosaic fashion possible.’ Once upon a time there was a story, another story in the world of stories. Our principle, first-person narrator is on a train journey. Into his fourth day on the train a ‘ten or twelve year old boy’ appears in the carriage playing Brahms on his violin. Speaking to him it transpires that the boy is a twenty-seven year old man who sets out to tell his story.

Yerzhan was born in a barren outlet on the East Kazakhstan Railway line that consists of two families; Yerzhan’s and his childhood love Aisulu’s family. Nobody seems to know how Yerzhan was conceived – nobody knows his father, no-one perhaps ‘except God’, which summons Granny Sholpan to invent stories about his arrival. but he was found in ‘The Zone’, which is also where Uncle Shaken works carrying out nuclear tests. Intermittent booms, which are test bombs (on most occassions) persist through the story, like all the other noises that awaken Yerzhan, like the ear for the violin he has that awakens the narrator to him. He associates a gadfly ‘that became the droning word: Zone…And the word began buzzing around in the child’s imagination’. The fly gets stuck in Yerzan’s dreams, and with it so does his fear of the Zone. The transfer of language to noise to crystallized experience.

One day Yerzhan is finally taken to the zone that torments his childhood, “and the gullies and ravines brought them to the zone that had tormented Yerzhan’s boyish curiosity like a gadfly for all these years”. This is Uncle Shaken’s workplace and the nuclear testing site is being used in case of an imminent war with America, where the point is constantly battered home by patriotic Shaken. This is the moment Yerzhan arrives in the zone “Has Aisulu seen this?” he asked Uncle Shaken fearfully. The man shook his head. ‘If we don’t simply catch up with the americans and then overtake them,’ he added in his usual manner, ‘the whole world will look like this’. The prophetic visions of war resemble the earth’s terminus, but Shaken, is unshaken in his duty to serve the government by working at the site.

One blast, distinctly more powerful than the others interrupts school lessons that Yerzhan and Aisulu are in. As a result, their class is taken on a school trip to where Shaken works and they are explained about Nuclear testing site. Finally toward the evening they are shown, what the novella lends it’s title to, the dead lake; a crater as a result of a bomb filled with unhealthy, unnatural water. In a daring moment of bravado by Yerzhan, which it is difficult to surmise why he does it, he takes off his shirt and walks into the lake. It isn’t just dead in appearance, but it is dead in the sense that it kills any kind of growth in Yerzhan (there is a vicious irony when Yerzhan is taken to a doctor and told that the growth zones in his body are dead) and why the narrator knows Yerzhan as the dwarfed talented violin player.

This pivotal moment is also where Ismailov’s writing is showcased. It is in these moments that the complex political nature of the test site is laid out for the school children in it’s basic terms, and the ‘chain reaction’ of the events that would set in motion a world war, and where they are expected to abide by it.The children are shown a video about nuclear war, but how Yerzhan cannot understand the greater meaning of the demonstration , ”They were shown a film about the peaceful use of nuclear power. Some of the children had never watched a film before and the rustling of the sound and the quick scene changes frightened them and they cried”. Brilliant writing of the highest quality: The blend of irony with an overwhelming, belated sadness.

The implications of Yerzhan’s stumped growth as he watches other children and Aisulu grow up quite literally as Yerzhan does not, retaining the consciousness of an older person but not fulfilling it in height. It’s a question that not only Yerzhan deals with, but is enveloped in the greater one that the likes of Uncle Shaken are trying to answer and justify in their pursuit of America. It is one that has particular resonance at the moment, and one that Ismailov has commented on, with the Winter Olympics in Russia. If the financial crash has taught us anything it has taught us nothing. Instead it has strengthened leaders egotism on the world stage. They are more willing to show that cost does not effect their treasuries, and at the same time more than willing to gloss over the clear fact, denies those who really need the money. The Winter Olympics has cost Russia £30 billion. How much of this will go to the workers, migrants and Russians building these in hideous labour conditions for a paltry sum? Not as much as is likely to go to the corporate companies, and sponsors on all levels of the corruption spectrum. Let us not forget the scandal over LGBT persons rights in Russia in the sense that they don’t have any. Talks of boycotting by other nations are quickly quelled as they go on the pursuit to, once again, strengthen their countries credentials by the pursuit gold medals. They’re all playing the same games on a sporting but also political level. Great Britain for one has an embarrassing presence at Winter games, yet still feel the need to go and compete for the three medals it is aiming for, when a boycott may just show it’s regard, for once, it’s recognition of human value over the egotistical assumption of sporting and national glory. Could we not go 4 year’s without 3 gold medals? We’re all caught up in these games of ideology whether we like it or not as citizens. As is most often in these cases, and as Ismailov openly admits, it is not the elites who pay the price, it is those at the bottom, like in the case of Yerzhan. He is the chain reaction as he admits at one point.  Interchange any world leader saying ‘One day we will take over America’ for Uncle Shaken. And this is not just something that happens to those behind the old iron curtain. This is something all our countries are responsible for, but sport is a great source of monetary capital, a great big advertising vehicle. This is not just something refined to the old iron curtain as the west would have us believe.Britain shoddily treated it’s security staff expecting voluntary work, then giving the best seats to corporate sponsors who failed to show up on most occasions, and Britain has an unrelenting belief in itself as a powerful nation. And look at the continuing scandal of IDS: Iain Duncan-Smith.

Towards the end, Ismailov finds time to ask metafictional questions in a more blatant manner, as the first person narrators intrusion becomes problematic. There are stories within stories in here, but they all seem to emanate when characters get bored, like the narrator on the long train journey. And to return to that opening, ‘the story began in the most prosaic fashion possible’; is that not just the modern day debunking of ‘Once upon a time’? It’s the stories that we tell ourselves of our own existence but also the stories that nations tell themselves, and we’re all expected to go with it and be patriotic citizens. The overwhelming point Ismailov seems to be getting across then is to deconstruct these stories, the ‘beautiful lies’ as Althusser might call it, and uncover real truth’s behind narratives. This is why writers like Ismailov are exiled from nations, because the governments cannot bear these truths being exposed.  Ismailov’s writing draws parallels with that other famous exile, Salman Rushdie.

In this fable of sorts, the moral if we are to assume one is clear: the cost of human life is so often less regarded than the cost of pursuing and building our nations. But if Ismailov is demonstrating to us the strength of storytelling, he has done it an almost implausible manner; maybe a lot of it is down to the timing of this review, but the overriding moral of it is timeless.

All this in the novella. But this is not a championing, or surpassing of one form over the other, it is rather just the brilliant and powerful art of fiction In whatever length or form and it’s ability to illuminate truth’s like no other medium can. These really are beautiful lies.

If you’re wanting justification for novels, stories and writers in the modern day technological, capitalist world, here is one of them.

The Dead Lake (122pp) by Hamid Ismailov, translated from Russian by Andrew Bromfield is published by Peirene Press (£12.00 rrp) and is released on the 27th February 2014.  Hamid Ismailov is also the BBC’s Writer in Residence and works for the World Service.

Thank you to Peirene Press for providing a review copy.