Lenten psalms translation contest 2017

Lent is here and Structo is holding its fourth Lenten psalms translation contest. We’re looking for free translations from the biblical psalms.

Lent. Translations. Biblical. Psalms. These words might bring up some questions.

What’s Lent got to do with poetry in translation?

Nothing and lots. Lent is traditionally a time set aside for reflection. We think poetry is a great way to reflect. Delving into the psalms is one way to reflect on the self and on the world.

Do I have to be religious?

No. And half of the team running this aren’t. But we view this as a chance to interact with, and create poetry in conjunction with, some great ancient texts. We’ve had a variety of submissions over the years from people with creeds from Catholic to agnostic, atheist to Hmong traditionalist, and all sorts in-between.

What if I don’t know Hebrew?

Free translation means what you want it to mean. None of the past winners have had an ancient languages background. Instead, they riffed off the original, turned it on its head, reversed it, used key phrases, sussed out a single idea, or wrote in a psalm mode and mood.


You can read last year’s winning psalm ‘Kestrels’ by Cristina Baptista and psalms by Christine Darragh and Abigail Carroll online in Issue 16.

How do I enter?

Head over here. Submissions are open until Easter Sunday (that’s Sunday 16th of April, at midnight UK time). All entries will be considered for publication in the magazine. The winning psalmist will receive $150 and a two-year subscription to Structo. Entries will be judged by panel on originality, musicality, accuracy (to the psalm’s spirit), and aesthetic.

Austrian Cultural Forum Prizes

As you will know if you have picked up a copy of the magazine over the last few years, we’re big fans of works in translation. And so we were delighted when the Austrian Cultural Forum in London got in touch to ask whether we’d like to help judge their new writing prizes: the ACF Writing Prize and the ACF Translation Prize. Here’s the spiel:

The Austrian Cultural Forum London is thrilled to invite submissions of translations into English of Austrian poetry, short fiction and book extracts, and original short fiction and poetry in English inspired by Austrian arts and culture, up to 2000 words in length. This is the first time these prizes have been offered, and have been organised by the ACF Translator in Residence.

A winner and two commended runners-up will be selected for each prize. The winning translator and winning writer will have their pieces published in the print issue of literary journal Structo, and the winning and commended translators will also be invited to attend a translation workshop with the Translator in Residence. Both winning and selected commended translators and writers will be invited to read their work at an evening reception at the Austrian Cultural Forum on Wednesday 29th March.

Submissions to the Writing Prize should take “Austrian art, literature, culture and/or history, or Austria itself, as their starting point or subject”, while the Translation Prize covers not only poetry and short fiction, but also book extracts. The deadline is Monday the 13th of March [Edit: Deadline extended until Mach 20th!], and it’s free to submit work. Head over here for full details.

Introducing issue 17

This is Structo 17. It features 104 pages of outstanding fiction and and poetry, an essay on the unknown side of Jerome K. Jerome and two interviews, one with Vera Chok and the other with Oscar Schwartz.

You can order your copy here, or find out more at the issue page. I hope you enjoy it.


Llama Sutra

Melanie Whipman’s story ‘After Ever After’ appeared in Structo 11. We talked to her about her new story collection, Llama Sutra.

Is there a common thread linking the stories in Llama Sutra?

Yes, the title of the book was chosen for a reason. It’s not just the title of the story that was broadcast on Radio 4, ‘Sutra’ literally means a thread or line that holds things together, and more metaphorically refers to an aphorism or a collection of such aphorisms in the form of a manual. I thought it was apt for a collection of short stories. There are threads – themes that run through the collection – the ‘the outsider’, acts of transgression, the natural world, liminality and borderlands. Landscape’s important to me – how it impacts on my characters. It works to reflect or represent them. Metaphorically. Water is present in most of the stories. Whether in the form of rivers or seas, to me water suggests borderlands. The space and light on the coast has an impact on the tone of the stories. I’m from Brighton, and I love the way the sea creates a perpetual sense of movement and change. It’s the opposite of stasis. There’s a sense of freedom and possibilities. And there are the animals, of course: lions, llamas, storks, parrots, birds, elephants, a deer, a singing fish, and a bull. And sexuality – hence the play on Karma Sutra.

Your Issue 11 story ‘After Ever After’, included in Llama Sutra, is a nice example of some of those threads. Have you always been interested in the fairy tale form?

Yes, I’m fascinated by the fairy tale or magic realism form. We’re exposed to different kinds of magic realism almost from the moment we’re born. Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, legends, bible stories. These are stories that are part of our collective heritage. I love tapping into these communal narratives, taking myths and fairy tales and giving them a contemporary twist. I think that yoking a modern woman’s views with ancient myths creates a sense of universality and emphasizes our narrative heritage. There are several of these stories in my collection. The idea of the surreal erupting into everyday life works well with my themes of transgression and borderlands. It seems to enhance that sense of dislocation that I’m intrigued by. I want the reader to be as unsettled as my protagonists; magic realism can facilitate this.

You teach creative writing. Do you find it useful for your own work?

Teaching is really important to me. It’s amazing how much you learn through examining other writers’ work. It helps me to gain an objective perspective on my own writing. I did an English degree a long time ago, and then more recently a Masters in Creative Writing at Chichester University. Exposure to different authors and different styles and genres really help you hone and edit your own work.

Llama Sutra is available now from Ink Tears. 

The Drowning Book

We talk to Structo alum Cristina Baptista about her new full-length collection, which opens with the poem ‘Trouble Woman’ from Issue 14.

I don’t know if The Drowning Book would have been possible without Gertrude Stein and William James. I began the project in early 2015, when I was teaching five sections of American Literature at a private high school in Connecticut and was introducing my students to Modernism, particularly the various poetic styles of the era. One of the exercises I had students tackle was taking headlines from the newspaper that week and, without reading the articles, start writing a poem sparked by the keywords in the headline. They had five minutes to write as much as possible without over-thinking. It was a very stream-of-consciousness assignment. After that, they had another five minutes to write a poem based upon an image that had to do with the year they were born. Then they had to fuse these poems together in some way that made sense to them (not via logic but rather intuition or gut feeling).

Not one to waste any time to write creatively, I did the assignment myself—and wound up with the drafts of five new poems by the end of the week. The students begged me to share my work in class—and as apprehensive as I was to read such hasty poetry aloud, I was encouraged by their enthusiasm and their questions about why I connected, for instance, a personal memory about reading Nancy Drew books as a child to a poetic line from Langston Hughes to a newspaper headline about women at the Met Gala dressed in costumes that made them look like flowers. I didn’t always have answers for my students because I just didn’t know. But I began to realize that a lot of my poetry is about women—their perceptions and how they are perceived; how they literally drown (the collection’s eponymous poem is dedicated to the 20-year-old woman in Dubai who, in 2015, was left to drown by her father, in order to preserve her honor) or how their voices are drowned-out by some other noise. I also felt like I was beginning to sink a bit beneath the weight of repressed memories bubbling to the surface now that the “Stein exercise” had catalyzed something. But I embraced it. I slowly began to surface, taking in new air.

It wasn’t long before I kept returning to these poems not because I thought they were necessarily strong but, rather, I felt rather haunted by how glimpses of my past—my childhood, random memories I had not considered for years, old adages or expressions my parents would say, or Portuguese superstitions from my ancestral heritage—kept resurrecting. As aforementioned, I felt like I was drowning in a nostalgia I barely recognized as my own. And, rather surprisingly, my personal feelings dovetailed with contemporary newspaper headlines. A literal drowning of a young girl made me think of Portugal and its history of whalemen and fishermen, as well as the irony that many Portuguese people in those careers never learned how to swim (in my own family, swimming lessons were not considered essential). A lot of ekphrastic poetry has worked its way into The Drowning Book, too. I’m particularly haunted by old buildings or cryptic-looking photographs—black-and-white prints, daguerreotypes, collodion-process prints, and the like. Old places awaken nostalgia in me even further. And for some reason, the personal memories, newspaper headlines, and a growing awareness of striking images friends kept sharing on social media began to coalesce. I think it was a fortuitous, happy moment of a lot of ideas merging. But if it hadn’t been for my lesson on Gertrude Stein, I perhaps would not have been in the proper mental state to be making the connections I did. My students, too, gave me that extra energy to keep working on these pieces: they inspired me with their own poems.

If I had to summarize The Drowning Book in a single blurb, it would be as follows: Anchored in contemporary issues that could be anywhere, any time, The Drowning Book examines the dissociation between action and feeling (particularly as it pertains to women) and how we can reclaim human dignity both for ourselves and others.

It was surprisingly easy to select poems for this book. I say that feeling guilty and I hope I don’t sound flippant, but while it took some months to write the poem, assembling them wasn’t as challenging as I anticipated. I think I had half-consciously been organizing the poems for a while, not sure when or how they’d fully come together. This is the fifth poetry manuscript I’ve written and the first to be officially published (or selected for publication). It’s also the fastest I’ve ever put a book collection. I actually spent one weekend selecting poems, organizing them based upon instinct (I read my work aloud and simply trust my intuition), and then submitted it to an open-reading Finishing Line Press does every November. There is no fee to enter and I figured I had nothing to lose. What was more difficult was trying to get myself to stop writing poems that I thought could fit the overall premise of The Drowning Book. You reach this point where you know you need to move on to other projects but it takes a while to get your head out of the space. I began writing the poems in early 2015 and about seven months later, I was putting them together as a manuscript. These poems were reworked piecemeal—I certainly did not leave them as raw as, say, Stein would have. I tried not to force anything, though. A few poems actually haven’t changed at all since their first drafts. I do believe it’s possible to overwork a poem, and if I felt like something was getting too far from my original sentiment, I left the piece alone. A few older poems—including ‘Trouble Woman,’ which is one of the Psalm Contest poems I submitted to Structo and that was published in Issue 14—also made it in because I felt they fit the main themes of femininity, personal reflection, and how it feels to be drowning in a chaotic world. But even now, with 2017 nearly at the doorstep, I keep thinking about how other poems I’ve written since would have been a good fit. All in all, the poems themselves took some time to evolve in as natural a way as possible—but once they felt right to me, assembling them into The Drowning Book wasn’t as much as an effort as I anticipated.

There is a lot of mourning in The Drowning Book—unintentional but I think my subconscious was telling me something, or at least noticing that the media seems to be a deluge of horror stories and I was desperate to start making sense of it all. I’m still trying to make sense of it all.

The Drowning Book is published by Finishing Line Press in February 2017 and can be pre-ordered here.

Review: ‘Pigeon’ by Alys Conran

pigeon-coverTo many, pigeons are indisputably the basest birds in the book. Our connotations of the pigeon don’t usually stray far from Woody Allen’s “rats of the sky” or Tom Lehrer’s Poisoning Pigeons in the Park. A positive literary allusion to the pigeon is included in Vladimir Nabokov’s Despair, which is bespeckled with mentions of a “dove grey” suit. However, as Simon Barnes, quoted in the introduction to Pigeon, points out:

“There seems to be a conspiracy of silence about the pigeon, as if pigeons were an embarrassment to birdwatchers — as if pigeons were an embarrassment to proper birds.”

None of the main characters in Alys Conran’s atmospheric novel are what would be called ‘proper birds’. Set in working class Wales in the early 90s, the eponymous protagonist, Pigeon, lives in a shed at the bottom of his garden. His new stepfather, ominously referred to as ‘Him’, rules over the household with a tyrannical force, frightening Pigeon’s stepsister Cher into familiar submission, and watching as Pigeon’s mother slowly sinks into herself. The novel also centres around Iola, Pigeon’s best friend and accomplice. Iola and her older sister Efa live by themselves in a house on a hill, living their Nain’s mantra, “It’s a world unfair for women, love.”

With its avian title and focus around young narrators, one can’t help but draw connections between Pigeon and another bird, precisely, a Mockingbird. One likeness Pigeon has to Mockingbird is the presence of a mysterious outcast. Gwyn acts as a catalyst to the children’s imaginations because, according to Pigeon, “Gwyn = od”. Another similarity between Pigeon and To Kill a Mockingbird is that the childlike narration lends itself to a lot of irony:

And there’s Gwyn, on the sofa. The murderer. I can see his hairy neck, and the shiny round top of his head, and I can see his stubby hands and they’re…

He’s just doing a crossword.

However, Pigeon and Iola’s made-up mission against Gwyn soon takes flight, growing its own form and growing out of their control. Much of the novel focuses around Pigeon and Iola wrangling with their shared story, trying to tame it and claim it back. Conran’s narrative moves between English and Welsh fluidly and cohesively, and non-Welsh speaking readers should not be at all deterred, as most of the Welsh is contextually discernible without lacking in subtlety.

The novel switches between Iola’s first person narrative and an omniscient narrator that follows Pigeon and Gwyn. At times of hopelessness and containment the narrative seems submerged in grief, but never heavy. An attempt to preserve a consistent tone throughout the novel sometimes made it difficult to distinguish between narrators and I thought that a more unique voice for the omniscient narrator would have quickened the pace of the storytelling, or provided relief from the somewhat self-conscious narrative.

Amid the perceptive sensory details that paint a full portrait of a child’s world, Conran develops a sense of consistent lightness as well as an unchanging colour that adds form to the character’s myopic setting. On the basis of Nabokov’s elegant dove-grey, what colour would we call Pigeon in its entirety? I would say that it is set in a blue haze, full of feeling and confusion about the world that the young protagonists are growing into.

Pigeon offers us stirring meditations on language: that it is laced with history, diegeses are built with words, and that one’s language and one’s story are bound together. Reading Pigeon, one feels the collision of past stories and the attempt to move forward, making peace with the words that created a history. One of the most poignant instances in the novel is Pigeon’s discovery:

Your own language was a part of your body, like a shoulder or a thigh, and when you were hurt there was no defence. When the kids argued in Welsh at home on the hill it was a bare knuckled fight. But English. With English what you had to do was build armour, and stand there behind your shield to shoot people down.

Pigeon is a testament to the visceral nature of one’s own language versus the flexible formality of a presentational language, and how the two function differently in truth telling, tall-tale telling, and comforting others.

Hannah Hayden is a slightly American and slightly English writer studying at Queen Mary University of London.

Pigeon by Alys Conran (1910901237)
Published by Parthian

Review: ‘Refugee Tales’ ed. by David Herd & Anna Pincus

refugee-tales-coverThe idea behind Refugee Tales certainly makes for good advertising. Marketed as a twenty-first century version of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales where refugees replace pilgrims, it sounds like a new entry on an award-studded list of contemporary takes on the canon, including Michael Cunningham’s The Hours and Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation.

Such publicity, however, turns out mostly to be a red herring. The main influence of Chaucer on the project is apparently the formula used to title the individual pieces. Those tantalised by the packaging of Refugee Tales may find something to sate their curiosity if they direct their attention to a different literary conversation altogether, one that circles a familiar question about the treacheries of mediation: how to manage the ethics of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves, in a way that faithfully conveys their experiences without inflicting further harm?

In a project that asks established writers to tell the stories of migrants, refugees, and detainees who cannot, for various reasons, tell the stories themselves, every piece must engage this question on some level. Their answers take various forms: lyric essays, hybrid poem-essays, dramatic monologues, short stories, and poems (both formal and free). However, even the most sophisticated pieces contain pitfalls.

how to manage the ethics of speaking for those who can’t speak for themselves without inflicting further harm?

Consider ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ by Ali Smith. For the piece, Smith meets a former detainee in an empty college classroom and interviews him about a life story that includes child labour and human trafficking. From the very beginning, she stresses her role as mediator by writing the story as though she is repeating everything the detainee says back to him: “The first thing, you tell me, is that school stops,” she says. She delivers the rest of the detainee’s story—the plantation in Ghana, the illegal sweatshop in the UK, the catch-and-release cycle of detention centres and prisons that follows his application for asylum—in the same manner, her voice directed toward his as though asking him to confirm that she has understood him correctly.

Initially, this seems like a good thing. By deferring to the detainee, she acknowledges that her version of events is only an interpretation and that the detainee is the ultimate authority. As the story progresses, though, her mediation starts to direct attention away from the detainee’s experience and toward the emotional edification of the people who consume it. Anyone who has read a moderate amount of fiction from the past thirty years will recognise a familiar pull when Smith repeats the detainee’s experiences in the second person present tense for extended periods. Such moments feel practically indistinguishable from the perspective that contemporary authors adopt to place their readers in visceral relation to their main characters.

Here is one of the earlier appearances of this second-person point-of-view—the first paragraph of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City: “You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not.” Here is Smith, describing the detainee on the plantation: “You have to climb the tree, cut the pods, break the shell with the seeds inside and pour them into baskets… The sacks of seeds are as big as you are. You drag these sacks back in the heat. The only clothes you’ve got are made from the sacks you drag.”

If the third-world problems of ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ are worlds away from first world problems of McInerney’s novel, is the narrative appeal of the one significantly different from that of the other? Both invite readers to become the protagonists of their respective narratives, a miserable yuppie in the one and a child labourer in the other. As far as Bright Lights, Big City is concerned, this identification is anodyne: the main character is a fiction and his voice is only endangered by his self-destruction. When it comes to ‘The Detainee’s Tale,’ however, such identification becomes questionable. It contains the possibility of turning the detainee’s real suffering into a tourist destination, a dangerous place readers can visit comfortably to perform their empathy.

skillful writing in the service of good intentions can still, without meaning to, contribute to the voicelessness of the voiceless

One need only pay close attention to the second half of ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ to notice this happening. After leaving the interview, Smith visits a detention centre herself, and her experience there allows her to understand the traumatic significance of certain details the detainee alludes to, which earlier she thinks do not “sound so bad.” In the interview, he mentions how much he dislikes the windows in the detention centre; after Smith makes her visit, she sees that is because they are sealed and barred. In the interview, he mentions how hard it is to get medicine for his epilepsy in the detention centre; after Smith makes her visit, she imagines that this is triggered by the solitary confinement cells, “where the light is on 24 hours a day… and where Security check on [detainees] every 15 minutes.” These insights become a “world-sized” lesson for her. They teach her what it’s like to experience what the detainee has experienced, and she becomes a better, more empathetic person because of it. In short, the tale becomes more about Smith’s experience than the detainee’s.

This is not to single out ‘The Detainee’s Tale’ as especially faulty. If a few pieces navigate the issue of mediation with a bit more care, several do so with a great deal less. Rather, it is to show in detail an unfortunate truth about Refugee Tales as a whole: that skillful writing in the service of good intentions can still, without meaning to, contribute to the voicelessness of the voiceless.

William Braun lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. A graduate of the Master’s program in English at the University of St. Thomas, he is an adjunct literature and writing instructor at several area universities. His translations have appeared in Exchanges Literary Journal and Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation.

Refugee Tales
Edited by David Herd & Anna Pincus
ISBN: 1910974234
Publication date: 23 Jun 2016
Published by Comma Press

Introducing issue 16


This is Structo 16. It features 94 pages of outstanding fiction and and poetry, alongside photography by Minoru Karamatsu and an interview with Minae Mizumura, novelist and author of The Fall of Language in the Age of English. It’s a corker, and it’s out now!

You can order your copy here, or find out more at the issue page. I hope you enjoy it.


Review: ‘Laurus’ by Eugene Vodolazkin

laurus-eugene-vodolazkinMostly when we think of science fiction, we think of spaceships and robots and giant floating eyes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like all these things, but they can be somewhat limiting. I prefer a broader understanding of science fiction as a genre that describes societies or phenomena that have a different understanding of science – or more expansively, of causality, or of epistemology, or of whatever other heuristic one can think of to explain the universe’s perplexingly continued existence – to our own. This different understanding can take the form of simple speculative fiction that asks, for example, what society would look like if everyone had a giant television in their front room and had to shout at it every morning, but it can also go backwards, and imagine understandings of science that are now generally discarded. The pinnacle of this genre is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, in which Pynchon essentially tries to write speculative science fiction from the point of view of someone with a cutting-edge understanding of physics c. 1895-1910 and none of the hindsight afforded by the intervening century. In Laurus, the second novel from Eugene Vodolazkin, a professor of medieval Russian history (translated by Lisa C. Hayden), we have an even more radical example of the genre: science fiction from the point of view of a medieval Russian hermit, who, as you might imagine, doesn’t have an understanding of causality that we might now, with the benefit of six centuries of hindsight, consider all that well-informed.

Laurus is the story of a man largely called Arseny, but sometimes called other things, who is born in European Russia in the fifteenth century, becomes a healer, then becomes a holy fool who throws clods of mud at people in the hope of dislodging the demons, “small and large”, that cling to their backs, and then becomes a healer again. The science we see, therefore, is largely medical and occasionally demonic. There are a few asides, however, in which a ship’s captain explains some basic physics to his attentive audience, such as how, while it is impossible to sail around the world (because water becomes ice in the cold polar region and salt in the hot equatorial one), it is probable that one can sail into the heavens:

the captain told of water that bathed the atmosphere and cooled the luminaries. He had no doubt those waters were salted. In his view, he was talking about the most ordinary of seas, which, for certain reasons, was located over the heavenly firmament. Otherwise why is it, the captain asked, that people in England recently left church and discovered an anchor that had been lowered from the heavens on a rope? And after that they heard, from above, the voices of sailors who were attempting to raise the anchor and when some sailor finally descended on the anchor rope, he died just after reaching the earth, as if he had drowned in water.

The only lack of clarity here concerned whether the waters that lie over the firmament are joined to the waters in which we sail.

We must admire the captain’s knowledge, but, more importantly, we must admire his awareness of the limits of his knowledge, captured with some irony by the narrator’s voice: the “only lack of clarity”. Always we are so close to and so far from knowing how the world works; always we are so confident that we have good explanations for natural mysteries, like why anchors fall out of the sky in England so frequently, but always we are so wrong.

The worldview largely held in Laurus, then, attempts to explain things rationally. Characters observe phenomena that lie some distance beyond their understanding, but they try to make sense of them anyway. Usually they do so through an elaborate science of correspondence, underpinned by the faith that everything is just so because of the exertions of the Almighty. Arseny is taught this scheme by his grandfather Christofer, from whom he learns a lot about herbs. The plant “scarem that grows in low lands”, for example, can do a whole variety of things: “do carry it on your person ther, wher thou wish to ask for some money or bread; yf you ask a man, place it on the right side under your shirt, on the left yf you ask a woman; yf there are minstrels playing, toss that herb under their feet and they will fight”. Similarly, “Carrying turquoise on one’s person protects from murder because that stone has never been seen on a murdered person”. The novel seems to endorse this understanding, although the narration is always laced with a little irony: “Christofer placed purple loosestrife under Arseny’s pillow so he would fall asleep easily. Which is why Arseny fell asleep easily.”

something happens, and something else happens, and the two things seem to be linked, and so the one thing must have caused the other

Such medieval causalities are endorsed repeatedly throughout the novel, particularly because Arseny has essentially been endowed with the ability to perform miracles. A mayor is upset when Arseny, his guest, pours an expensive glass of wine on the floor. A holy man chastises the mayor: “How can it be, holy fool Foma asks the mayor, that you don’t understand why God’s servant Ustin emptied your wine to the northeast?” The reason, of course, is that there was a fire in Novgorod, and Arseny wanted to put it out, so he poured his wine on the floor. The mayor, a good empiricist, withholds his judgement until he has sent a rider to Novgorod to discern the truth; it turns out that there had indeed been a fire on the day in question in Novgorod, and it had mysteriously stopped around lunchtime, just as Arseny was pouring his wine on the ground. The mayor, to his credit, takes this news very humbly, and asks for Arseny’s forgiveness.

This example describes the novel’s essential understanding of causality: something happens, and something else happens, and the two things seem to be linked, and so the one thing must have caused the other. We have now largely moved on from such a simple understanding of correspondence in our science, but it is still a kind of common sense, and it lingers in other areas of human endeavour. In literature, for example, correspondence is always planned and is always meaningful, as Arseny discovers by reading a romance about Alexander the Great over and over again. Alexander, we are told, has had many great adventures:

After six days in the middle of the desert, Alexander’s troops encountered astonishing people with six arms and six legs each. Alexander killed many of them and took many alive. He wanted to bring them to the inhabited world but nobody knew what these people ate, so they all died. […] Later on, after walking another six days, Alexander saw a mountain to which a man was bound with iron chains. That man was a thousand sazhens in height and two hundred sazhens in width. Alexander was surprised when he saw him but dared not approach.

There is much internal correspondence here: Alexander and his men walk for six days in the desert, and then encounter people with six arms and six legs; then, after another six days of walking, they find a giant man. We are perhaps more surprised that the giant man they encounter is a thousand sazhens high and two hundred sazhens wide rather than a corresponding six by six than we are by his size, for miracles are in many ways unsurprising. Arseny considers the Alexander Romance to be as factual as the other books he reads, which are largely medical treatises and lists of herbs and their uses; there is no difference in terms of credibility between the fact that men with six arms and six legs might exist and the fact that giving someone a herb might help them sleep.

As Vodolazkin constantly reminds us, this understanding should inflect our own reading of Laurus. The novel emphasises its own strange textuality, making it impossible for the reader to forget that she is reading a novel: through the narrator’s fussy historical commentary (“He was convinced the rules of personal hygiene should be upheld, even in the Middle Ages”); through a linguistic register that veers enthusiastically between modern and technical (“your prognosis is favorable”), modern and vernacular (“Everyone in Rus’ knows that you’re not, like, you know, allowed to beat holy fools”), and Early Modern English (“Golde rubbed and taken internally cures those who speake unto themselves and ask questions of themselves and answere themselves and become downhearted”); through tenses that shift without warning between present and past, as if the narrator can’t quite figure out if these events are still happening; and through occasional interludes from the future, either as described by the mostly omniscient narrator or as experienced by a character called Ambrogio, who Arseny meets on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and who has visions of, for example, “a gale in the White Sea on October 1, 1865. The Solovetsky Monastery’s steamer Faith was sailing from Anzer Island to Big Solovetsky Island. It was carrying pilgrims from Verkhny Volochok.” These strategies emphasise that we are reading a text, much like Arseny reads the Alexander Romance, and that the text is historically contingent: it describes a medieval world that is largely fictional and long gone, and that is full of things that are not real, or are at least improbable.

no one sensible reads science fiction and thinks that it is describing things as they were

Vodolazkin reminds us not to read as credulously as Arseny; such credulity is always a risk of historical fiction, which can sometimes seem as if it wants to trick its reader into thinking that it shows how things actually were. This is why I prefer to think of Laurus as a kind of science fiction, because no one sensible reads science fiction and thinks that it is describing things as they were. And Vodolazkin reminds us not to read credulously in the broadest possible sense of reading: reading in the novel refers not just to reading manuscripts, fables, and recipes, but also to reading bodies, which is an important analogy for Arseny’s medical practice (“How could I not know when it is written all over every christened person’s face?”), and to reading time, history, life, and creation: reading is understood as the fundamental way of understanding exactly what is going on in the world. Ambrogio claims that “All history is, to a certain extent, a scroll in the Almighty’s hands. Some people (me, for example) are granted the opportunity to peek every now and then, to see what lies ahead. There is just one thing I do not know: if that scroll will suddenly be thrown away”, and he means this in I think an essentially literal way. Reading things is his form of epistemology, as was not uncommon in the period before the scientific revolution, when some people with a Christian bent of mind tended to think of nature as God’s second revelation, after the text of the Bible, that should be subject to the same kinds of interpretation. So Laurus is a work of science fiction about a society in which reading is the dominant episteme, but the novel displays a fierce awareness of all the problems and absurdities of relying on reading things, spotting correspondences, and inventing stories to explain them as a path to finding truth or understanding anything. We know this, of course, as modern readers, because, while we don’t tend to use our reading skills in most areas of knowledge, we have become very sophisticated readers of novels, capable of revelling in their falseness, but capable also of alerting ourselves to their correspondences, and inventing stories to explain them, just as I have done here, and, if the stories please us enough, believing in them, and thinking of them as a truth, for the time being, until we read a story that pleases us better.

Tim is a writer and dilettante who has just moved to California. Follow him on Twitter @tpakennett2

Author: Eugene Vodolazkin
Translator: Lisa C. Hayden
ISBN: 1780747551
Published by: Oneworld

Review: ‘Resonance’ by Gary Beck

resonancecoverThis is the latest collection of poetry by Gary Beck, former New York theatre director and latterly novelist, playwright and poet. Beck has had poems published previously in a number of journals, including Structo. Resonance is billed as a collection that examines the contemporary individual and cultural experience; a work that confronts the reader with pressing and uncomfortable social and political matters.

For the most part, Beck’s poems are written in free verse. The non-metrical, non-rhyming format can obviously work very well, but it does require a special turn of phrase or image to leave a lasting impression.

The book is prefaced by an excerpt from one of Beck’s essays in which he says he is “more concerned with the message rather than the ‘poetic quality of poetry’”. He goes on to say that “if I may have abandoned metaphor and simile, it is not that I despise them, but I must deliver what I believe to be a necessary blunt message”. Poetry without metaphor and simile would be like a lightly grilled ocelot: a very rare beast – but Beck does not abandon them entirely and both metaphor and simile are plentiful here.

Given the wide range of social, political, economic and religious troubles that have affected the world in recent times, the issues that Beck rails against seem, strangely, to hark back to an era in which the Cold War threatened to become a hot war, such as these lines from ‘Children of Deprivation’:

In the world of power,
men stand by the buttons
of weapons of mass destruction,
eager to slay millions,
while we sit in comfort in our homes
newspapered, tv’d, dreamy,
careless of our sentinels, foes.

The poems ‘Radiation Rhapsody’ and ‘Premiers and Presidents’ give off the same vibe of Cold War dread. Does the prospect of nuclear war still resonate with people now? Surely, in the modern world, the bigger bogeyman is the threat of a seemingly random and unpredictable extremist attack? And so it goes on. ‘This is the voice of one man singing’ is the tale of a man who has been through the school of hard knocks and who seems to welcome the possibility of Armageddon that the Cuban Missile Crisis offered. ‘Idi’ is a short poem about (can you guess?) Idi Amin, the Ugandan despot who fled into exile in 1979. Again, it’s hard to see this as relevant to contemporary global politics, unless of course Amin is serving as a metaphor for all despots and dictators.

In a funny moment, ‘Rant’ shows us a polemicist who is distracted from his rage by a pretty girl. ‘Respite’ briefly ditches the free verse and has rhyme, rhythm and meter. It is a poem in which a lonely person finds brief pleasure in watching children play. It’s a nice image and sentiment.

Some prose poetry also features, a good example being ‘Art Calls’, which is about lost possibilities. It contains the line “Years of my lost time, where are you?”, a feeling with which many readers will identify.

Another prose poem, ‘Night Thoughts’, feels less in line with common experience. Within a neighbourhood there are domestic arguments and neighbours gossiping (so far, so good). It then switches to a school next door:

Within that building, I muse, the lives of so many innocents are mutilated. The empty corridors, classrooms, desks that I visualize finally feel to me the way they must feel to the child, who gropes for help in this labyrinth of confusion that is frigid, barren and eternally damning.

One would hope that the schools of New York were not so intimidating. It is an alien image, seemingly echoing the sentiments of Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’, which was written about school experiences of the 1950s. Towards the end we find the poems ‘Abandoned Youth’, ‘Painful Youth’ and ‘Doomed Youth’. You have to feel sorry for the young people of New York.

As a book of poetry, the pages turn quickly but there are few highlights that stick in the mind or resonate with the reader.

~ Review by Richard Bryant.

Richard Bryant’s desk-jockeying skills pay the bills, but he’d sooner be reading. More of his book reviews can be found at mishnory.wordpress.com

Resonance: A Poetry Collection
by Gary Beck
Published by Dreaming Big Publications
ISBN: 1523916400
Publication Date: 23 February 2016