Kader Abdolah · Mark Slouka

The title comes the last

It’s astonishing how easily I put everything aside for a book. With all the work that needed to be done, with all the preparations for the fast approaching trip that should have been made, I found myself disregarding the resolution – not to enter the library! – as smoothly as tossing a used tissue. (Somehow, resisting books on my own bookshelves is never a problem.)

So, I read. Not just one book but three…

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Kader Abdolah left me in that odious state of not really knowing what to think about what I’ve read – was it mediocre or was it just me failing to see its value? First, The Journey of the Empty Bottles, which I checked out because it was a thin volume (an attempt to compensate the mined resolution with the book’s thinness) and then, three days later, The House of the Mosque, which I checked out in order to get to know Abdolah’s writing better (mining along the way the attempt of compensation) – both were strangely, how should I put it- empty. Especially so The House of the Mosque... There were beautiful bits, some of the characters and places were very vivid, the themes were serious (exile, revolution, war, tradition vs. modernity) but, after the last word was read and the book laid on the table I felt I had nothing. I could not escape the impression, the imposing thought, that everything was there for entertainment. That it pretended to be important. There was no flesh to bite into, which was a bit sad.

Searching the internet for reviews and interviews I came across Abdolah’s lecture at UC Berkeley mistitled as “Literature as resistance”. To sum it all up, he said nothing except: “I wanted to fight the regime with the pen.” And, if one’s to judge by these two books, fight he did not.

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On the other hand, the third book, Mark Slouka’s Lost Lake was a real treat. I checked it out of the library because I recognized the type of the paper and, casting a glance on the spine for confirmation, indeed saw the logo of a publisher responsible for Willa’s novels I was so enthusiastic about (Vintage Books). But, still, I thought I would never get to read it, being tired and exhausted as I was. It lay beside the pillow for more than a week before I made myself reach for it.

In Lost Lake, everything is in a slow movement. Slouka is telling stories about everyday events (fishing, neighboring family, adultery) and ‘ordinary’ things (father-son relationship, history of a small lake), but, as is the case with great literature, he’s digging deep into the human experience and the sense of living. He’s incredibly observant and perceptive – almost every page subtly demanded full attention, immersion. It was one of those time-stretching experiences – lifting your head from the story you’ve just read, in twenty minutes, and feeling as if you have lived an eternity. You’re looking around you for a witness of this miracle… The prose was so expressive, the language beautifully rich. I hope his other books will prove to be equally intoxicating.

In the forest the rain was diminished, a distant hissing, a spray of mist across his face. The needles and moss would be like sponge beneath his feet. He wouldn’t talk, he’d listen, and his father’s voice (low, clear, rough as a pine burl) would seem measured to the place, to the creek of trees, the spaces between the wind.
This, rather than any desk or pew, was his source. To him, the things his father’s voice explained or touched were scripture; the questions, the answers, a forest catechism; every blood-tipped quill, every broken reed, every flash of color in the gloom, a parable of survival or death. what about this? Machar’s father would say, indicating a yellow stemmed mushroom prodding up to the air, a cap op loam still perched on its velvety head. And the boy would have to recite what he had learned: no skirt, no sheath, gills burned orange and closely layered, swollen like pages left in the rain, a smell like crushed walnuts. “Dobry,” he would say. It’s good. And his father would dig beneath the loam with his hands, not pleased, and a finger’s depth down his thumb would run the rim of a ghostly sheath, thin as membrane. “Eat this, you’ll die,” he would say to the boy. “Remember that.”

(The Woodcarver’s Tale)

 

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