In the “Best of the B-Sides” series, critic and bookseller Lori Feathers recommends a new work in translation along with a number of backlist (“B-Side”) titles that you might have missed.
Confidence in our ability to exercise free will is the cornerstone of personal happiness and emotional well-being. But the power to direct how our life will unfold, at least in an absolute sense, is illusory. Call it what you like—fate, destiny, luck—things happen to each of us, independent of our will or intention.
In War and Peace, Lev Tolstoy examines the relationship between the actions of ordinary individuals and the outcome of decisive historical moments, such as Russia’s defeat by Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Borodino. He interrogates the idea that the sum of men’s intentional acts determines events, concluding instead that outcomes are predetermined by means and for reasons that are beyond the grasp of our understanding:
As the sun and every atom of the ether is a sphere complete in itself and at the same time only an atom of a whole that is inaccessible to man in its enormity—so, too, every person bears his own purposes within himself and yet bears them in order to serve general purposes that are inaccessible to man. (tr. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)
The books discussed below look at lives transformed by destiny, whether due to circumstances of birth, the dictates of ruthless leaders, or even the mysterious order of the universe.
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk first grabbed the attention of English-language readers with her essayistic novel Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, which won the 2018 Man Booker International Prize. Tokarczuk was already famous in her homeland, having twice captured Poland’s most prestigious literary prize, first in 2008 and again in 2015. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Riverhead Books, 2019), her latest book to be translated into English, this time by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, was also recognized by the Man Booker International jury, who named it to the 2019 longlist, and was longlisted for the National Book Award in Translated Literature.
Drive Your Plow demonstrates Tokarczuk’s dexterity in balancing philosophical questioning and plot-driven narrative. With its multiple facets, the novel (to crib from Winston Churchill) is a defense of animal rights wrapped in a locked-room-style murder mystery inside an existential inquiry. The story takes place during the winter at a remote, windy hamlet just inside Poland’s border with the Czech Republic and is narrated by Janina Duszejko, an aging part-time English teacher and one of the village’s few year-round residents. Janina’s solitary days are leavened, from time to time, by visits from her friend Dizzy, who seeks her help with his Polish translations of William Blake.
This isolated and winter-darkened landscape is the perfect setting for evil, and it is quick in coming. In the novel’s opening scene, Janina is startled from sleep by a neighbor who has just discovered the dead body of a man whom locals call Big Foot. While the police investigate the cause of Big Foot’s death, Janina has her own theory—Big Foot and the local police commissioner, who is found dead just days later, were struck down by animals to avenge the men’s hunting and poaching. To prove her supposition, Janina turns to astrology, that “complex Cosmos of correspondences, hard for the ordinary mind to penetrate,” and for Janina the only way to make sense of the world:
. . . oh yes, order does exist, and it is within reach . . . An afternoon storm, a letter that the postman has pressed into a crack in the door, a broken light bulb in the bathroom. Nothing is capable of eluding this order.
The book’s title comes from one of the “Proverbs of Hell” in William Blake’s prose poem “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” The proverb admonishes prudence and instead urges the reader to act upon desire in order to enjoy life even in the deepest winter. It is a fitting adage for Janina, who, despite her gloomy nature, finds strength in what the stars have preordained: “I know that date of my own death, and that lets me feel free.”
Dominique Eddé’s Kamal Jann (Seagull Books, 2014, tr. Ros Schwartz) is a tale of familial and political intrigue, a murky stew of byzantine alliances, betrayals, and hostilities. The year is 2010 and the eponymous, Syrian-born Kamal Jann is a successful middle-aged lawyer and human rights activist in New York City. Kamal is in the United States due to the largesse and influence of his uncle Sayf, head of the Syrian intelligence services. Yet Kamal carries a secret, poisonous hatred for his uncle. Sayf sexually molested Kamal when he was a boy and later ordered the murder of Kamal’s mother and father. When Kamal’s brother Murad becomes radicalized, Kamal travels back to Syria in an attempt to save his brother and avenge the murder of his parents.
The novel’s large cast of diverse characters is drawn with rich detail, in particular two women: Manhattan socialite Kate Man and ninety-year-old Lebanese grand dame Sitt Soussou. Kate is an aesthete whose purpose is largely to serve as a reflection of the tastes and opinions of those around her. Her obsession with Kamal leads her to cunning tactics in an effort to obtain his affections and displace the woman he loves. Meanwhile, Sitt Soussou possesses all of the self-confidence that Kate lacks. She is a “historical monument,” and her counsel is valued by her son-in-law, Sayf, with whom she shares a ruthless solidarity for political expediency and self-preservation.
The struggle for control is the novel’s overarching theme: Sayf, a man with seemingly limitless power, cannot direct his own political fate; Kate is unable to make Kamal love her; and Kamal is pushed to the breaking point by his consuming rage and desire to avenge Sayf’s crimes.
The old Syrian woman who raised the orphaned Kamal and Murad tells the boys the story of the eagle that flew above its shadow and, believing that the shadow was prey, tried to capture it. A shadow cannot be possessed. And, as Kamal discovers, neither can the past.
Moldovan-born poet Oleg Woolf’s Bessarabian Stamps (Phoneme Media, 2015), translated by Boris Dralyuk, features the colorful residents of the Moldovan village of Sănduleni in sixteen darkly whimsical “stamps” (most of which are nearly short enough to fit on the back of a postcard) that feel more akin to fables than short stories. The villagers consult the clairvoyant Feodasi, who eyes are two different shades of blue, for advice “as a soothsayer, interpreter, and miracle worker . . . or just in case.” Day after day, Feodasi sits under the plum tree, rereading a treatise on the role of birds in Odessan seafaring.
There is an uninhibited joy in Woolf’s writing, and Boris Dralyuk impresses with his ability to capture this quality with his translation of sensory-laden descriptions: stars “burst, crunched, and crackled over Sănduleni, like a barrel of fermented cucumbers,” and a tempestuous bride is “like an apple orchard in a May thunderstorm.” Woolf cleverly pairs opposing concepts to convey ironies that are absurd and at the same time hold traces of meaning: “Ever since he grew fat, he’s lost a little weight, and when we meet him, he might tell us that the ailment’s primary symptom is death.”
The cruel, arbitrary grip of fate takes the form of a metaphorical northbound train that transports the villagers out of Sănduleni and into the next world. Only Feodasi is immune:
They say a sage has no fate, but the average person receives one along with a name . . . Feodasi had no fate. His own father couldn’t surmise the meaning of his mysterious name.
As for the fate of Feodasi’s neighbors, only these “stamps” of their lives remain, posted at Sănduleni’s single mailbox and collected in the darkest hours of the night by a guy on a bicycle.
What could be a more appropriate title for this B-Sides segment than Life and Fate (NYRB Classics, 2006), the second volume in Vasily Grossman’s epic saga of Soviet life during World War II, translated by Robert Chandler? (The first, Stalingrad, also translated by Chandler, was published just this year by NYRB Classics—thirteen years after Life and Fate.) Compared to War and Peace for the grandeur of its scale and ambition, Life and Fate provides a vivid account of the unspeakable hardships that Hitler’s invasion inflicted upon nearly every Soviet citizen, civilian and military. At the same time, Grossman exposes the terrors wrought by totalitarianism and questions whether fascist rule would be any worse than life under Stalin’s dictatorship.
Grossman is masterful in portraying the texture and nuance of his characters’ perceptions, and none more so than his alter ego, the fictional Soviet scientist Viktor Shtrum, a man freighted with moral and ideological ambivalence. The will of the Soviet state directs the fate of anyone unfortunate enough to summon its gaze, and Viktor experiences this when the invisible “crushing” weight of the state coerces him to repent for the invented ideological deficiencies of which he has been publicly accused.
Only people who have never felt such a force themselves can be surprised that others submit to it. Those who have felt it, on the other hand, feel astonished that a man can rebel against it even for a moment . . .
For Grossman’s characters, the designs of cruel and immoral regimes dictate individual fates. And, ironically, the war affords no alternative but to personally sacrifice everything for the survival of an inhumane governing power.
Read an excerpt from Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones