Friday 31 October 2014

Soul by Andrey Platonov
The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

Conjure these, a novella and a travel book, on a damp and windy day in verdant Inniscarra and you know you've pleasantly, violently, achingly, lost your footing.

Andrey Platonov's creatures in Soviet Uzbekistan are beyond Beckett's; voiceless.
They sat on the ground and fell into thought, even though, given their advanced years, they had already had more than enough time to think everything through and arrive at truth.
The people Colin Thubron meets in the same place, sixty years later, post-Soviet, have something to say. When he asks a young girl about her future she replies that soon she'll be a young woman and then she'll be married and then she'll be an old woman. Then a corpse, she adds.

Unlike the soul nation in Andrey Platonov, they have not forgotten who they are, though some would prefer to. It was better when you were a Muslim and a member of your family, not Uzbek or Tajik or Kyrgyz or Kazakh, says one man. It was better when you didn't know anywhere other than where you were.

Many Uzbeks think England is next to America; and they're right. In Central Asia, nationality is a bend in the river, a mountain range, a horde on the steppes, a burrow in the sand. If you can trace your ancestry back to the Middle Horde across thousands of miles of arid steppe, what need of placehood, only inwardness and a mouthful of damp sand.

I once met a woman who wanted to be in the middle of the world. When she said it I thought of Central Asia, obscurely but definitely, as if learned during childhood, from folk tales or music: In the steppes of central Asia by Borodin, for example. The size of Asia gives its centre a ring of truth: the desert is like the sea and the mountains the sky, how could you not think you were in the middle of the world, the middle of your world, the one you've crossed and recrossed and thus own?

Alexander of Macedon, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, did. Then, when trade east/west transferred to the sea, sparse hordes criss-crossed the steppes and the mountains, picking fights and sucking sand, and new nations formed, like the Soul nation, out of wayfarers caught like tumbleweed in the scrub, Stalin thought it ripe for gigantesque conversion. He scooped up Central Asia, all of it, and set about collectivising (read: starving) the nomads and depleting the inland seas.

Wastelands go away East and South from the Aral Sea, whose former ports are now sixty miles from the nearest water. What's left condenses into clouds that fall as salt rain all around. Cotton crops no longer grow, nor any other. They're trading oil out of the lost heart of Asia these days, which makes 5% rich and leaves 95% poor. The country code for Uzbekistan is 998. Add one and it's a major emergency.

Colin Thubron's penultimate chapter begins: I was entering the fringes of a formidable solitude. Here's Beckett again. Here's Platonov. Puzzling echoes of Roger Deakin (Wildwood), whose Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are apple and walnut paradise. Colin Thubron sees a slightly warmer Siberia where discarded people, Trotsky among them, could be parked, and nuclear fission tested.

Andrey Platonov, who was born in Uzbekistan, finds the sublime when he returns. As we're inclined, all of us who return, towards the sublime. To get published at all, Platonov has to satisfy the Supreme Soviet; Chagataev, his main character, is sent back to his birthplace to bring socialism to his nation. The ridiculous aids the sublime.

I know this nation, said Chagataev. I was born in Sary-Kamysh. 
That's why you're being sent there, the secretary explained. What was the name of your nation – do you remember?
It wasn't called anything, said Chagataev, though it did give itself a little name.
What was this name?
Dzhan. It means soul, or dear life. The nation possessed nothing except the soul and dear life given to it by mothers, because it's mothers who give birth to the nation.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Reading Soul by Andrey Platonov at Limerick Junction waiting for the down train opposite a large stone building with unaccountable small holes at regular intervals up and down the front. The broken glass in the windows is triumphant, even, beside the dwellings of the Soul nation I am reading about – if they have dwellings, if they haven't left to wander. It is a light, sad feeling, sitting on the platform at a railway junction, in the middle of several choices, with the wind blowing from west to east, reading about people on the steppes of Central Asia in the 1930s, who chew on tumbleweed and have forgotten how to think.

The station men at Limerick Junction are plump and smoking, flicking dog-ends onto the tracks. There are older travellers, their wheeled luggage trilling along behind them, younger ones with rucksack and boots, undefeated; a Chinese father and son with their guides, phones and notebooks. Nowhere any of the merriment of despair that the Soul nation can raise as they invite death from the great and powerful who can bestow it. None of the lightness of being.

At Limerick Junction on a Monday morning in the middle of Ireland there's a fullness, a satisfaction even in the lateness of the up train, the cosy station men out of a 1960s Czech film, the important door of the station master, all announcements in triplicate in two languages. The train to Dublin is running thirty minutes late. Next train at platform one is the Cork train, the Cork train, the Cork train.

Reading Soul is like being at sea. Whatever you look at on land afterwards is excessive. Too many features, too many clothes, too many bags. People on the move in Modern Europe are even more substantial than when they're at home, packed into their train seats with their paper coffee cups and their apple Danish wrappers, their soccer fanatic newspaper pullouts. The calorie count of every item, including nought for tea, coffee and diet coke, is given on the train menu.

The Soul tribe, the Dzhan, move around the steppes Central Asia in euphoric desolation: desert, mountains, marsh and oasis. They are called soul because that's all they have. They are called nation not because they are many but because they are persistent, so far beyond sense that they are back inside it.

Tuesday 14 October 2014

Scanning the shelves I stopped at Grace Paley. Enormous Changes At The Last Minute. Why? Yesterday I met a woman who said she was a housewife, a sink wife, she added, I'm married to that sink. She said it without bitterness, but verging on a little black humour or domestic abyss wryness. She had eight children, all grown, and three freezers. Her husband grew a great array of fruit and she processed it all as she had processed the children.

I could wish that woman a read of Grace Paley. If she's not locked in the fruit cage or on her way to mass.

Although in my adult life I have neither children nor obvious politics other than what rises from my garden, I prepared for Grace Paley in my mother's kitchen once or twice a week when I came home from school, attending the chat between women over a cup of tea. It could be acid but it was always lyrical; they flowed with their opinions. They only had till five o'clock or so.

Grace Paley's stories are in this zone. As a writer she travels light: like my mother and her friends, this is all she's got time for.
As for you, fellow independent thinker of the Western Bloc, if you have anything sensible to say, don't wait. Shout it out loud right this minute. In twenty years, give or take a spring, your grandchildren will be lying in sandboxes all over the world, their ears to the ground, listening for signals from long ago.
I'm alert to this sense of having your say. As fundamental to a writer as to Beethoven. Marguerite Duras had her say, but she's harsher, she's french, she travels along lacunae. Grace Paley is warmer, more optimistic. She has common sense and energy I recognize. She stops short but the warmth still flows.
A woman inside the steamy energy of middle age runs and runs. She finds the houses and streets where her childhood happened. She lives in them. She learns as though she was still a child what in the world is coming next.

Friday 10 October 2014

There's a volume to be written on the reading you do out of nervousness, displacement, anxiety or inability to sleep; minor and major attempts to secure an anchor at times when reading is for some reason impossible, as when the weather has turned autumnal and your principal reading place in the attic is shaken by hammer blows from the lads re-roofing the house, singing their way through heavy showers, bless them.

Reading is not the word. Devouring the medium in which you immerse yourself. Searching through old New Yorkers for stories you haven't read, or have read but forgotten, racing to the finish as if this completion would transfer to the day, or the night, or the storm, or the roof. Reading on the sofa downstairs with the cat, hoping for a nap; in the middle of the night in the distracted, tricksy search for sleep; in the bath, a steamy, enclosed story of, as it often is in the New Yorker, marital distress or juvenile delirium; on the train, forswearing the company of strangers and the view out of the window for a tale, written up in Hortus, of tulip hunters in the 'Stans, anticipating their species, eating their mutton stew, for their cries of delight when tulipa whateveriensis heaves and flutters into view on a chilly Spring hillside in Turkmenistan.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

This must be the last of the pond moments (I've thought this for a month), last of the sun at the start of the (school) year;  not the last of the roofers, who start appearing from 8 a.m., all eyes on the 60 feet by 18 times 2 of the roof (of my life) which they are re-slating. I go past with a box of eggs, a bucket of apples or an outsize package of paper (Munken Lynx rough, 150gsm).  One of them asked what the straw in the shed was for, so I explained about the horses down the road and how the straw came back as manure. He also asked about bees, elderberries and the sedum roof on the shed. As they are roofing I am watching a small bumble bee on a blue scabious flower and working my way towards writing about Clarice Lispector, The Hour of the Star.

From her name to her spiky vigour on the page, I am completely seduced every time I open the book. As I was at first by Marguerite Duras in her later more talky books. Duras came into literature from foreign lands (Indo-China); Lispector (may I call you Clarice?) from Ukraine to Brazil, via international diplomacy and jewishness. Savage women wresting words out of difficult lives.

The Hour of the Star is a short book, the endgame of a writing life, with enough narrative to float compassion for this creature/character called Macabéa from the northeast of Brazil, displaced & inadequate, outlandish & naive in Rio de Janeiro, her naiveté her only strength, her life and her death.

I have misgivings about narrative as I have misgivings about poetry, yet feast off both.

Read this: 'I am a typist and a virgin and I like coca-cola'. And sigh. (Small bang). The first time I read  The Hour of the Star, the bang/small bang moments, both ironic and childlike, made me catch my breath. As well as the hesitancy, the diffidence, the assertions: 'What troubles my existence is writing.' Existence is already what must be wrenched into being. Not just Macabéa. Me. You. The small bumble bee. The roof (of my life).

What is the truth about my Maca? It is enough to discover the truth that she no longer exists: the moment has passed. I ask myself: what is she? Reply: she is not.

I like writers who make me feel that what I am reading has brought them, and me, into existence, golem-like, relentless, scattering powers to the four winds.

And now – now it only remains for me to light a cigarette and go home. Dear God, only now am I remembering that people die. Does that include me? 
Don't forget, in the meantime, that this is the season for strawberries. Yes.