TE23 Double Feature
A Trafika Europe double feature! New Eco-Lit from.... and new literature from Germany
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Trafika Europe ISSN 2472-2138
Contents Editors’ Welcome _____________________6 Eco-Lit Ilija Trojanow The Lamentations of Zeno_________12 Loranne Vella Rocket____________________________36 Sandrine Collette The Forests______________________62 Philip Burton Gaia Warnings___________________100 Tomas Espedal The Year ________________________120 From Germany Anne Weber Fatherland _______________________144 Anke Laufer “The Silver Moth” and “The Island”__________________________178
Selim Özdoğan 52 Factory Lane_________________204 Simone Buccholz River Clyde_____________________234 Katja Oskamp Marzahn, Mon Amour______________260 Writings From Elsewhere Vesna Marić The President Shop ______________280 Gaetano Savatteri A Conspiracy of Talkers _________308 Andrea Tompa The Hangman’s House _____________336 Back Matter ________________________358 Author Bios _____________________360 Acknowledgments _________________366
Trafika Europe 23 — Double Feature Editors’ Welcome After a short pause, we are pleased to be bringing our journal back with a double feature! This issue presents firstly a selection of Eco-Lit that explores the importance which authors from across Europe are placing on the environment. Secondly, we showcase literature from Germany, a country with a wealth of literary production. We hope you enjoy the various genres and styles of this double feature as Trafika Europe continues to shine the spotlight on some of the best new literature from Europe. Our Eco-Lit focus begins with Ilija Trojanow ’s novel, The Lamentations of Zeno . We are transported to the Antarctic on a cruise ship where the scientist and main character, Zeno, shows the wealthy passengers on board how quickly this little-explored continent is disappearing before our eyes. Rather than taking us to an unknown place, Loranne Vella transports us to 2064, a year in which Europe as we know it no longer exists. Follow a series of social and environmental events through the lens of Petrel and his camera. French author Sandrine Collette explores a flight from the urban as the main character of The Forests , Corentin, ends up returning to the woods and family of his childhood after a catastrophic event leaves the city uninhabitable. Despite the apocalyptic setting, Collette shows how human perseverance and ingenuity can create new beginnings with very
little. The feature continues with a gripping set of poems from Philip Burton ’s collection, Gaia Warnings . We are reminded about the beauty of nature and why it’s so important and timely to take action to save it. Eco-Lit ends with Tomas Espedal’s, The Year, a novel written as a poem. The text explores the author’s efforts to balance his interior with the outside world. After a brief intermission, our feature of literature from Germany begins with Anne Weber ’s non-fiction work Fatherland . Weber explores identity and investigates how much our present is truly tied to people and events in our past. Anke Laufer ’s two short stories, “The Silver Moth” and “The Island”, delve into how a place can be so impactful for one person despite it having little to no importance for others. Whether a lost love connection or simply unease, each story will transport you with its vivid descriptions and universal themes. Selim Özdoğan ’s 52 Factory Lane is the second part of the Anatolian Blues trilogy. This novel explores the life of an immigrant living and working in Germany to fund building her home in Turkey. Özdoğan shows us how homes can be everywhere, yet the feeling of a home always seems out of reach. River Clyde by Simone Buccholz takes a similar twist of events when detective Chastity Riley returns to Scotland to uncover her family’s past. Can the exploration of her family’s loss and violence be the only way for Riley to move forward into the future? To round off our German feature, we have a touching excerpt of Katja Oskamp ’s Marzahn, Mon Amour . Oskamp retells her journey into a new career that she begins as a middle-aged woman, contrasting her own narrative with the diverse lives of people in
Marzahn, an area in Berlin. In addition to these wonderful excerpts in our double feature, we also have some bonus clips from elsewhere in Europe. In an excerpt from Vesna Marić ’s début novel, The President Shop , the generational divide becomes apparent regarding the Nation’s appreciation of the President. An uncertain future begins to appear as the beliefs of the past slowly crumble away. Italian author, Gaetano Savatteri , provides a thrilling tale of Sicilian crime in A Conspiracy of Talkers . No one escapes the drama as a network of lies and deceptions spreads across the whole town after the mayor’s murder. And finally, The Hangman’s House by Andrea Tompa provides a portrait of the ‘70s and ‘80s in Romania. The young girl narrator manages to imbue this tale with love, tenderness, and irony even though many of its characters seem to doubt their inability to survive the Hangman. Cover design and photographs in this issue are by Clayton McKee. We are excited to get back into our literary journal and we hope that you are as well. Sit back, grab some popcorn, and take a moment to enjoy our Double Feature with a great selection of literature from Europe. Andrew Singer and Clayton McKee, Editors
The Lamentations of Zeno
The Lamentations of Zeno (novel excerpt) Ilija Trojanow translated from German by Philip Boehm
54°16´8˝ S, 36°30´5˝ W
A day when clouds look like mountains and mountains like clouds. Alpine peaks spring up in the middle of the ocean, a tear in the sloping cloudbank exposes rocky cliffs and glaciers looming over patches of pasture, where reindeer introduced by homesick Norwegians chomp away at the vegetation. Trees have never set down their roots. The water inside the pot cove is rich in oxygen and krill and takes on a greenish tint. Here Creation appears with unfamiliar clarity, as though all cataracts have been removed and our collective vision was suddenly unclouded. We put into 15
[Hear Ilija Trojanow discuss his novel, The Lamentations of Zeno , on the February 21, 2022 episode of Eco-Lit on Trafika Europe Radio, right here .]
Ilija Trojanow 14
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Grytviken, an old whaling station that was abandoned overnight and left to rot and ruin. The passengers stroll from the cemetery to the flensing plan to the mudhole where the elephant seals wallow motionless except when yawning. Our dock isn’t far from the graveyard which offers a small but very choice selection. The names are etched in white stone, on calm days we pay our respects to Sir Ernest Shackleton with a champagne toast. The diesel tanks are lined up as neatly as the graves—a reminder of how much blubber was processed in this cove. Inside the factory humans once dismembered whales, now time is dismantling the factory. Silence weighs on the dilapidated halls, the skuas fly in other skies. The whale oil tanks still exude a stench, so it seems to me: it’s hard to breathe in the middle of the rusting slaughter-works. Here and there a roof slants downward between the clouds and the tin floor, red signs mark off an area infested with asbestos. In front of the bone-rendering plant three figures clamp their hands around
an iron chain and lean back as though in a tug-of-war with long dead whalers. The wind carries a sound of giggling, the Filipinos enjoy playing hide-and-seek in the ruins. But how am I supposed to distance myself from this flensing deck, this place synonymous with death? The snowcovered mountains are mere backdrops, distant and detached. So well hidden are the fur seals that you have to pay close attention not to step on one by accident. The younger seals scamper into the water, twisting in middive, then give themselves a vigorous shake as soon as they crawl ashore. A stand of gentoo penguins keeps watch between an anchor and some ship’s propellers (which, uncoupled from their purpose, are nothing more than grotesque jetsam), mocking glances behind red beaks. And by the jetty the Albatros has listed ostentatiously for decades, its harpoon gun long turned landward.
“Hello hello, hey it’s our guide, what an interesting place, isn’t it; just like you
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say, this is where humans and the Antarctic got to know each other, it sure is quite a mess, they really ought to clean it up, do you know what that building was for?”
until there weren’t any fur seals left, after that the elephant seals were killed for their blubber and the try-pots were heated with penguins when the fuel ran out, and when there weren’t any elephant seals left the penguins were rendered into oil. Everything was put to use—humans are always so eager to show Nature more efficient ways to manage her resources. I tramp across a gently sloping soccer field: the crooked goalposts a comforting sight. Slaughter by morning and soccer in the afternoon. Did the goalie’s hands stink? Were the striker’s shins streaked with blood? I leave because I know what they would say, the same thing everyone is always telling me: How come you have to be so negative? Why do you always insist on ruining the mood? Can’t you leave off just for once? The same thing over and over, burbling around me from dawn to dusk: don’t take it all so seriously, relax, stop picking on everything, turn a blind eye, things won’t work out so bad, nothing’s as awful as it seems—everyone has installed the 19
“There are some plaques on the other side, along the main path, with detailed information.”
“You’re not going to make us traipse through all that mud now are you, Mr. Zeno, now that we’ve run into you.” “That was the blubber cookery, Mrs. Morgenthau. First they carved the whales up here right where we are standing, then they extracted oil from the blubber in giant cookers.” “That sounds like hard work.” “Lucrative work. With high returns. In a good year they cooked away up to forty thousand whales.” I politely take my leave, otherwise I’d have to explain how first the fur seals were skinned, 18
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same software: deflect, downplay, be ready to duck when the storm hits. I wonder what words would have sprung to their happy lips if they’d been hauled off to the clinic at Pentecost, just as summer was settling in, with a persistent pain in the chest. A whole week of examinations. Probes boring into my body, as though the pain had to be hauled up from the deep. And then I spent days waiting for the life-saving operation and after that three months recuperating. When the doctors declared I was (almost) fully recovered, I dropped my bag at home and dashed off to the glacier, leaving Helene staring dumbly behind me. The mere sight of the strangers in my compartment got on my nerves. The woman sitting opposite—my equal in age and disappointment—was holding a box of chocolates. She cautiously untied the ribbon, removed the marbled paper cover and carefully laid it on the seat to her left, then positioned her fingers over the selected 20
confection like the grippers of a crane and lifted it from the box with clinical precision. The candy quickly disappeared between her pale purple lips, with hardly any sign of chewing as she closed the box and retied the ribbon, only to tug at it a few minutes later and repeat the entire pedantic operation. No matter how many pieces she removed, the outside looked completely untouched, as though the candies were intended as a present. At the rate she was going she’d have nothing but an empty box with a fancy bow by the time she got to Kufstein or Klagenfurt. Meanwhile the man sitting by the window was using newspapers—first Bild and then Krone—to shield himself against the swelling landscape. He gave the appearance of wealth, a middle-class man ready for first class travel on that hot summer day, faint marks on his suitcase showed it had once been covered with tacky tourist decals, perhaps he’d acquired some aesthetic guidance since sticking them on. The man studied the first tabloid from top to bottom and then proceeded 21
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to the next with similar dedication. Such keen regard for sensational headlines and pathetic ads irritated me. I had to step out into the corridor. When we reached Salzburg three girls with blank faces entered our compartment, without paying any attention to us old-timers. The woman permitted herself another candy, the man remained buried in the Krone, the three girls regaled one another with gossip from school, and when the train stopped in the middle of a field I was overcome with the fear of being trapped in this compartment, my view blocked by the Krone, with nothing to eat but a last piece of candy, my ears ringing with the vapid talk of the young generation, and never being able to make it back to my glacier. The train started up again, I calmed down somewhat, little did I know things would only get worse. So I wouldn’t have to wait for the bus in my weakened condition, the host of the Zum Kogl guest house picked me up at the station. A shaggy dog was panting in the back of his jeep. I have to tell you 22
right away, you’re not going to like it, something’s happened, you’re not going to like it. The road was all switchbacks and hairpin turns, with bare landscapes on both sides: without ice and snow the Alps are grossly ugly. I’m glad to see you’re back in shape, we prayed for you, our whole family— the man has seven daughters, or is it eight, in any case all daughters, and praying isn’t alien to him. For a moment I was distracted by a racing cyclist hurtling downhill, the car swerved left, the wheels grated on the gravel, I looked up through the windshield and saw . . . nothing. No glacier. No living glacier. Only fragments, individual pieces, as though its body had been mangled by a bomb. The escarpment was still iced over, but all that was left further down were lumps of darkened ice, strewn over the cliff like rubble waiting to be removed from a building site. All life had melted away. I told you it would be hard, that’s not a pretty sight. The host’s voice evaporates in my memory. Apparently I 23
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climbed out of his car without saying a word— so he informed me that evening over beer and Tafelspitz—and staggered from one shard of ice to the other, as though drunk or blind, reminding my host of the farmers saying good bye to their livestock during the Mad Cow scare, so he told me that evening. I wasn’t capable of such a gesture, I was too stunned, all thoughts and feelings paralyzed. I knelt next to one of the remnants, the ice under the sooty-black layer of dust was clean, I ran my fingers across the cold surface, then across my cheek, the way I always did, performing my ritual greeting. In the past I could plunge my arms into the fresh snow and bring up full scoops that made my hands so cold they would revitalize my face. I licked my index finger, it tasted like nothing. Only then did the first trivial thought occur to me: never again would I be able to fill plastic bottles with glacier water to sip so enjoyably at home. My host was standing next to his vehicle, I brusquely signaled for him to leave me alone. 24
Then I lay down on the scree, all balled up, a picture of misery, I would have welcomed any emotion that didn’t hit me like a positive lab test result. Not knowing what else to do, I stayed like that until a hiker put his hand on my shoulder to check on my condition. I snapped at him.
“You’re hiking here?”
“It’s amazing up here, isn’t it, and such a beautiful late summer day.”
“Don’t you see what’s happened?”
“Oh well, not much snow this year.”
“This glacier is dead, and you go sauntering blithely past. Get lost, disappear, you disgust me.” The man didn’t deign to look at me again and went on with his hike. It would have been 25
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pointless to calculate the volume of melt for this September, to take the balance of the summer. There was nothing left to measure, not on this mountain. At some point I got back on my feet and climbed uphill, heading no place in particular. On the steeper terrain a stump of ice had survived in the shadow of a desk-sized rock, it served as a temporary support, I set down my notebook, the wind leafed through the pages. What hadn’t we measured and weighed? And what of all the findings we had compiled, the models we had constructed, the warnings we had issued in careful scientific format? The pages of futility are filled with noble ambitions, they need to be torn out, every last one, our methods have failed us utterly. We had issued warnings, but in vain, things only worsened with every passing year. Only when it is too late do people hear Cassandra’s voice: today even more sanguine souls have joined the chorus of doomsayers. Nevertheless I hadn’t foreseen this degree of destruction, 26
not when the snout disappeared (I had just turned fifty), not when the tongue broke off and the calved ice melted away as quickly as it did (I had just turned sixty), and now this blow from the blind spot of our calculated optimism. If even the experts are surprised by the terrible speed of the demise, whose intervention can still save anything, whose point of view matters, since everyone else harkens to the rotten call of comfort and convenience? My work had consisted in documenting our delinquency—the father confessor masquerading as a scientist. I pounded my fists on the stone table, in my pain I thought of the girls on the train, chewing with difficulty on the gum of life, these three girls who pass in the world as innocent. But what is that kind of innocence worth, when we all know they’re bound to wind up guilty? That is what lies ahead for them as well as for us, they will continue this devastation, they will go on destroying the 27
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very foundation of life. They don’t give a damn, just like most of us, they won’t rest until they’ve consumed polluted squandered destroyed everything. I left the following morning. In the next valley over, the surviving ice surfaces had been shrouded with white burlap, under which an emaciated glacier was emitting its death rattle. I felt like a doctor in a hospice. We called it “swimming”— swimming in the river of ice. When we dared drop into the moulins, the glacier mills, to use them as chutes, trusting ourselves to the twists and coils as if the glacier were obliged to protect us as we slid on the seat of our pants through pipes of the purest blue. It was dangerous, moderately dangerous, we had checked to see where and how we would emerge, even if we occasionally miscalculated the acceleration and came shooting out of the shaft like a cannonball while it thundered underneath, so that even the person who was brushing the pain off his pants had to laugh at the glacier’s acoustic commentary. Yes we 28
gathered our share of bruises, but we really got to know the glacier, we stuck our nose in every crevasse, we even believed we could hear the icy creature sliding into the valley on a layer of its own water, and we were amazed at the multihued splendor within what seemed to be a monochrome universe. We opened our eyes (and not just under the polarizing microscope) to its delicate spectrum, the colors in the flatland seemed garish by contrast. Where the ice was as hard as alabaster we found blue caves which we decided to enter right then and there, afraid we might not be able to find them again when we returned. Afterwards we went our separate ways, some hurried back to the city, others retreated to the valley, in the end I was the only one who chose to shuttle between glacier and university, on solitary days I abandoned myself to the tranquility of the ice, the clang of the water, I became a stone pressing on the ice and leaving my own imprint, and one time I was surprised to feel the urge to pray inside one of the icy 29
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cavelets that served as my makeshift chapel— not to God (and how vain a deity to command his name be held so sacrosanct) but to variety and abundance (written out like that the words seem wooden, and it isn’t enough to replace “God” with “Gaia” either). All alone I searched for insight within the clearest and coldest blue, I filled the icy caves with my own variations of the eternal, just like the monks of long ago who filled their stony grottos with drawings, only why didn’t they see the stone itself as a perfect image of God, the weathered surface, the patches of moisture? Deum verum de Deo vero, can truth reside in such a phrase? Within my blue chamber, in the belly of my frosty whale, God has dispensed of every superfluous word. Jeremy is small and rather nondescript, but his glasses make him instantly recognizable wherever he goes, they look like they were lifted from some California comic strip that transforms every polar expedition into a heroic 30
saga, especially those of Ernest Shackleton, whom Jeremy worships above all others, he can give his lecture on Shackleton six times in one season, each one fresher and more original than the last. If they’re not on duty other lecturers will lurk near the door to the auditorium so they can listen for at least a few minutes as Jeremy hoists Sir Ernest to promethean heights (if our Californian whiz kid were looking for spiritual role models he would undoubtedly place Shackleton alongside Isaiah and Jeremiah). He’s seen me writing in my notebook with its heavyweight cover, I don’t try to hide this activity, it’s impossible to keep something like that secret, and anyone who believes otherwise will soon be disabused of the notion, because on board ship everything can be seen and anything seen can also be heard. Jeremy surprised me by placing a handwritten note under the service plate, which I manage to read sometime between hors d’oeuvres and dessert: “Since I see that you, too, are keeping a journal, I feel you 31
The Lamentations of Zeno
should take a moment to remember Nathaniel Hawthorne, who once applied to join Charles Wilkes’ US Exploring Expedition as official historian. His hopes were thwarted, however, after a certain Congressman opposed to his appointment argued that ‘the style in which this gentleman writes is too wordy and ornate to convey a genuine, sensible impression of the atmosphere on the expedition. Furthermore a man so talented and cultivated as the said Mr. Hawthorne will never be able to grasp the national and military significance of any discoveries it may make.’ I found this tidbit in my readings. You should feel fortunate to have free rein to do what your colleague was prevented from doing, even though like him you will probably never be able to grasp the national and military signifi cance of the Antarctic. Therefore: eschew prolixity and stylistic embellishment, and think upon Shackleton and the deprivations he endured.” When I looked up I saw that Jeremy was once again pointing his camcorder at me, I 32
held the paper in front of my chest like a kidnapped hostage, and swore the just-invented Shackleton Oath to uphold the Unadorned Word. Jeremy grinned and panned out away from me through the glass and onto the ocean. He would be welcome on any expedition because his good mood is infectious even when he is pensive. That is a rare talent. Of course he can hardly help summoning old Shackleton, every one of us identifies with the man (all but El Albatros, that is, who can’t get over the fact that Shackleton planned to sell albatross chicks to gourmets in London and New York, his hunger had made them particularly tasty), he is the Good Man of Antarctica, the famous photo of Endurance trapped in the ice is on display in the elevator, and the explorer’s portrait is hanging on the wall in front of the dining room, he could easily be a member of our group, he’d get along well with us, he mistrusted strict hierarchies and valued communality over subordination. Above all he was the only polar explorer 33
The Lamentations of Zeno
who traveled to the southernmost part of the planet knowing it would likely be his final destination. He could no more imagine a grave in thawed ground than he could everyday life in moderate temperatures. Having taken our time in Grytviken the captain calls for full speed, the Hansen plows through the swells, water water everywhere, as though we were the first sailors to pass through this sea. Barely three hours off of South Georgia we see whales, very close. Beate is so excited, when the humpbacks dive she holds her breath, and inhales together with them when they resurface. Her enthusiasm is undiminished by the dozens of cameras clicking and snapping around her like whips, did you see them, she calls out to Jeremy, who has blazed a trail through the dense spectatorship, and who calls back, “Oh yes, I did, I see we’re already clicking into place, too.”
Rocket (novel excerpt) Loranne Vella Translated from Maltese by Rowna Baldacchino
I had heard about the floods, tsunamis and interminable storms that had struck the island as a result of the climate change. I have always been hungry for human tragedy, so I was even more eager to pack up and head to Malta. It wasn’t important how I was going to reach my destination. The voyage could take any form: a straight line that takes a short time to complete or a curvy one, full of obstacles, that takes much longer. Not that I wasn’t eager to reach my destination. Now that I had decided, I didn’t have any doubts. In Malta, I would certainly find the replies to the questions that kept filling my head. Only on my way, then, I discovered that the island was in a situation of utmost gravity. The island was calling to me in a myriad of 39
[Learn more about Loranne Vela’s novel, Rocket , on the March 6, 2022 episode of Eco Lit on Trafika Europe Radio, right here .]
voices. During my journey, however, I heard other voices that were advising me to change my mind. I heard them say, “Where are you going? That’s crazy! Forget about Malta.” However, I turned my head and put my passport inside my pocket.
didn’t know the language that well, Petrel told him his story in a broken Italian. He told him about the recent death of Rika, the only relative he knew. He explained that his reason to travel to Malta was to discover something about her from the traces she had left behind, before leaving the island for good. He didn’t go into personal details. He didn’t tell him that he felt overloaded with guilt for having somehow conducted Rika to her death. They had planned to go together, but it never happened. The reason he wanted to visit her homeland was, in fact, to compensate for his wrongdoing and be absolved from his sin. He wasn’t going to tell him that he had always been eager to visit Malta, to witness with his own eyes – if only for once – the stories Rika used to tell him about the island, and to see the village she used to show him in pictures, the village in which she was born and raised by her family. He wanted to see all this with his own eyes, as if he was going to find everything precisely the way it was when 41
The last air vehicles for passengers had already completed their last trip. Petrel had no other option than travelling on a ship of the Italian naval army that had a number of cabins allocated to travellers like him. The marine watch guard in charge of passengers who had a permit to board the ship, interrogated him for three quarters of an hour. He wanted to know in detail the reasons why, unlike the rest of the people, Petrel wanted to travel to Malta. In fact, according to the decree that had been issued few months before, the orders were to leave the island and to stay, as far as possible, away from it. Since he 40
she had left. He expected to see the buildings and the village square where she used to play as a kid. He even expected to find evidence of the lifestyle she had led back then. He wanted to find out if some family members of hers were still living there. Maybe cousins, aunties and uncles, or simply neighbours and friends. Maybe he could see children playing in the streets, trying to extend that half an hour after school, before their mother would start calling them in. He wanted to walk to Mdina square and stop in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, in the old city where Rika’s parents had married. He was hoping that the winds and the waters hadn’t destroyed all evidence of her past. The marine watch guard, then, asked him about the photographic apparatus he was carrying with him. Petrel told him that it was the only memory he had of Rika. He couldn’t tell him, as he normally did, that he was travelling on duty, since he didn’t have any official 42
document that assigned him to carry such task. It wasn’t the marine watch guard’s business, either, the fact that this time Petrel was commissioning himself to conduct the work of a photographer. Another reason he was attracted to Malta, in fact, was that he wished to photograph the island while it struggled to remain on the surface of the waters, as it took its last breath before ultimately giving up, showing its teeth, extending its claws and releasing the fierce animal dwelling inside it. At last, the marine watch guard stood up and told him to wait there, in the small room at the back of the naval army quarters, in the port of Messina. Petrel was absorbed in his thoughts. If he failed to obtain the permit to travel to Malta, he had no idea of what would be his next step. He had never felt so lost and full of doubt. Usually, wherever he was, he would always know where his next destination was. Sometimes, the choice of the 43
destination would depend on the person or the company that would have commissioned Petrel to take photos of some event or specific places of a locality. When he didn’t travel on duty, then, Rika and Petrel would often swivel the globe until it stopped on a continent from which they would choose a country or a city they had never visited before. In case he failed to make it to Malta, he could always swivel the globe, and let it choose for him his destination and fate. However, he had sold the globe, and this game made sense only when he played it with Rika. It was meaningless to play it alone. Malta was his next step. He couldn’t go anywhere else now. His next destination was Malta. Definitely. He was feeling so impatient that he couldn’t stop shaking his legs. He was almost going to leave and try to find someone to ask how long he would have to wait, when the door opened and another marine watch guard entered. This one seemed of a higher rank though, maybe a second 44
lieutenant of the ship. Petrel tried to figure out the emblem on the sleeve of his uniform jacket. However, the three horizontal lines on the emblem didn’t help him to identify it. From his authoritative posture and behaviour, Petrel realised that he had better stay on good terms with him. Whatever he told him, he had to subdue and obey his orders. He had barely finished formulating this thought, when the high-ranking official made a gesture for Petrel to pick up his suitcase and follow him. Petrel obeyed and followed him out of the room. The marine watch guard was waiting for them in the corridor, and when Petrel passed in front of him, he started walking behind him. Initially, he thought that things had gone very bad. He felt as if he was under arrest with the high-ranking official in front of him and the marine watch guard behind him. Photographers were often regarded with a certain suspicion by authorities, especially during times of conflict. He got goose bumps when he pictured himself on his way to be 45
hanged, without even knowing for which crime. The second lieutenant however – he had rightly guessed his rank, as he heard another marine watch guard calling him so – kept walking outside the naval army quarters, towards the staircase that led to the ship. At this point, he stopped, handed him the stamped document and made a gesture for him to proceed up the stairs. Now that he had obtained the permit to board the ship, Petrel felt a moment of uncertainty. It didn’t last long though. He set his foot on the first step, looked up towards the diagonal line of the stairs, and sensed the high-ranking official walking away. In that moment of absolute freedom, he started climbing the stairs with a smile on his face. He didn’t even know how, but he had managed to board the ship that was heading to Malta. He had managed to make the first step towards a future about which he knew nothing except for the fact that it was an unknown one.
The image of Malta that Rika had described to Petrel along the years had vanished, and had been replaced by the image of a broken island. While they were having a cup of tea, Xandru explained to Petrel that, apparently, someone had marked - with a pencil and a ruler - vertical and horizontal lines on the map, and had decided that, where these representative lines had happened to be marked, sturdy and high walls were to be erected corresponding to the same geographic coordinates of the country. The spaces between the horizontal and vertical lines were being called sectors. “Call them what you may, ghettos, communities, districts, but keep in mind that the small size of the island grew even smaller,” Xandru continued to explain. “In the same manner in which the island was isolated from the rest 47
of the world, the sectors have been isolated from each other too.”
and his own. His reason was to discover more about the new bonds that were forming between the victims of this ruling and their enemies, the remains of the previous existence and the structures of this new reality that was taking shape. “Command and control!” Xandru was telling him. “When Malta surrendered to the Italians, it was a very good acquisition for them. An amicable arrangement, they said! They made it sound friendly, but they had a hidden agenda. When we were drowning, they gave us life jackets to make it seem like they were helping us out. It would have been better had they let us drown. At least we would have died with dignity.”
Malta, a microcosm, had been fragmented into a number of smaller microcosms. The ruler was reigning like a scientist who carefully breaks up, separates and examines. The island was being closely and minutely studied under a microscope. Nobody knew the true reason of such a detailed study. People speculated and there were rumours. Xandru mentioned to Petrel the idea of a space centre at Sector No 5. Others maintained that all the sectors in the south were intended for use by ships of the naval army. Petrel was fascinated. Xandru’s words were instilling in him the urge he usually felt to look more closely at exceptional circumstances where man finds himself in structures outside the norm. He wanted to know more. While Xandru was telling him the story, for a while it seemed as if the main reason of his visit to Malta was no longer Rika and his search for her roots, 48
“How many Maltese are left in all?”
“Until four years ago we were more than a million and a half roaming on this tiny rock! The sea floods halved that amount, not to 49
mention the disputes in the south of the island that resulted in thousands of further deaths. During the first week of the dominion, structures were still loose and, somehow, around ten thousand persons left the island. Some time later, the first rumours about the forced evacuation were being heard. For our own security, they maintained. While we were swarming out of the island, they were slowly infiltrating.” Xandru stopped talking to finish his tea. He then wiped his mouth in the sleeve of his woollen jersey. “Until January we were hundred thousand. Until end this year, only ten thousand are to be left. They planned that ten thousand Maltese persons are enough to sustain those who will come here to work.” Xandru stopped to light up a cigarette. After having three drags, he resumed talking. “This island is cursed: it is tiny and positioned at the most strategic point of the world. The more we want to stay separated from the 50
rest of the world, the more we end up to get involved.” “Such news aren’t reaching other countries,” Petrel replied. “They will not, for the time being. Rest assured. Few people know what is really happening. All means of communication have been removed so that everything remains concealed. That’s why they want to get rid of us before the works are conducted, so that, as far as possible everything remains under their control. I don’t have any proof of what I’m telling you. However, people speak and after extorting information this way and that, you start getting a better picture. Listen to me; don’t go out walking around with that camera hanging around your neck, as you could easily end up with something else instead around your neck.” Petrel kept silent, while he was processing all the information that Xandru was passing 51
to him. Once again, Medusa had raised her head and the serpents were bending and protruding away from her face, sticking out their tongues and uttering their deafening scream. Petrel heard it and instantly knew what next step to take.
rulers were still engaged in their negotiations with the citizens to convince them to leave, voluntarily, the island. While Petrel and Veronica were absorbed in discovering each other intimately, on the same mattress that Petrel had carried downstairs, unaware of what was happening around them, some other two thousand Maltese left the island. Hundreds of others were struggling with the conflict of whether they should give up, like all the others, and start a new life elsewhere, even though, only a few weeks before, they swore that nothing would make them part from their country, that no threat could ever uproot them. There was no need to receive another threat: they started to change their minds. It was enough to have a look around to realize that, whether they stayed or not in their homeland, this island was very different from the Malta they knew. Malta was gone, leaving her children behind, homeless. After all, what where the elements that composed Malta? 53
We can leave Petrel in the arms of Veronica for a while – rest assured that he’s not moving from there, for now. She had played very well the seduction game, and it would take quite long until, through Petrel’s mind, it would pass again the idea of leaving her house. In the meantime, the situation in the country was even more worrying than ever. The Alliance had issued a new list of its terms in relation to Malta and the Maltese who, nevertheless, chose to keep living on the island. The peaceful siege continued. The 52
The rock itself, whose edges had crumbled and ended up at the bottom of the sea, or carried away towards another continent? The buildings, erected by the Maltese and their various rulers throughout the centuries, the same buildings that were now empty and destroyed? Or else, weren’t the Maltese citizens who constituted the soul of this island? Those same Maltese citizens, who, when confronted with the decision whether to leave or not, in a low voice they said yes, we are leaving, and are now waiting to receive the next order, despite their beliefs and all they had avowed. There was nothing else left of the elements that composed the Malta they knew. Therefore, they took out their suitcases and started emptying the drawers. We should have left much before , some of them thought. The exodus continued, quietly. Not all over the island, though. There will always be a group of people, who are fighters and patriots. Most probably, this group was amongst those 54
few thousands who, despite what had happened, had managed to stay – legally or not - on the island. Two days before, in the streets of Rabat, a number of abandoned cars had exploded, and a number of empty buildings had been set on fire. The soldiers of the Italian army had immediately put the attacks to an end, but they hadn’t managed to seize all the rebels. The same happened in the whereabouts of Tas-Sliema and Balluta. Further down, in the whereabouts of Kottonera, a crowd of people had gathered. They were angry at the row of packed up cars on their way to Ċirkewwa. The people in the streets had armed themselves with whatever stuff they had managed to find – tins, bottles, branches and other objects – to throw them at the cars as a sign of protest against those who were leaving. Some of those who were inside the cars lowered their heads more than others, as they remembered that, only few months before, they had done the same against those who had left before them. They thought that most probably, many of 55
those who were now throwing things at them, would eventually change their mind and end up leaving this cursed country. Every day there was some kind of protest or demonstration going on. However, these were isolated events on a small scale; after all, no form of communication was any longer possible between different sectors. In the houses that were still inhabited, there was no type of apparatus left that could possibly inform them about what was happening around them, neither in their own country nor in the rest of the world. Computers and all other means of communication had been confiscated. The only form of communication that sometimes reached them was in the format of some official letter, sealed with the embossed symbol of the Alliance, consigned by the Marshal in person or by his assistant, that would inform them about their situation – whether they had the permit to stay or leave. Or else, it would be a letter to inform them about some member 56
of their family, when identified –the bodies of victims of the floods or other accidents at sea, were being found on a daily basis – or when arrested as a rebel or traitor. The only way they could obtain information about what was happening in their own country was by word of mouth, and people, as usual, distort the truth, exaggerate or lie. At the same time, whole villages had already drawn their last breath and emptied out entirely. Listen to the silence of the empty streets of Żurrieq, Ħal Safi, Qrendi and Ħal Kirkop. The sun is blazing on the black glossy tarmac. The few cars still left have been abandoned, their tyres are flat and the glass of their windows and windscreen is shattered. Many of the houses have been locked up; others were abandoned without the least idea of what is coming after. This door is open, and if we look inside, we can see an armchair placed in such a way that it is facing us. It is facing 57
the door, as if it is waiting for its master to come back. An empty cup of coffee is on the edge of the low table, as if it’s moving slowly towards the edge, by a millimetre at a time. Maybe one day it will manage to fall and break into pieces against the tiles, and get rid of this useless existence. Houses are full of things that have been left behind by their owners, others with whatever the deadly waves managed to carry inside, as for example a broken boat in the sitting room of one of the few houses in Marsaxlokk that had not been devoured by the sea. Summer brought high temperatures, unbearable hot weather, dryness and fires. The beaches no longer attracted swimmers, as they had done for whole centuries. In the past, the sea used to mitigate the heat and stickiness of summer days. After the havoc that had been caused by the floods and seaquakes, however, nobody dared to go into the water to relax and freshen up. The sea became a real cemetery. They had to 58
protect themselves against the heat in other ways, such as by staying in during the day, and go out only at sunset. Winter arrived, at last, and the sun stopped blazing so fiercely. Snow started to fall, however, and people were forced to stay in anyway, to protect themselves from the cold. Better snow than rain , they thought, as they prayed that this winter it wouldn’t rain so heavily as the winter before, flooding everything. In mid-March then, ashes were falling, and they assumed that Mount Etna had again erupted. The ashes destroyed several fields, also killing several farm animals in Gozo. When it finally started to rain, the water cleaned away all the ashes, giving a breath of fresh air to the whole island. In summer, however, the sun was fierce again, as was the winter, and the winter after. At the backstage of such events–whether small or big, they all had their importance–there was Petrel’s camera, stuck to his right eye, 59
capturing one evidence after another of the various forms that man’s desolation can take.
The Forests (novel excerpt) Sandrine Collette T ranslated from French by Alison Anderson In the middle of a day Corentin would record as August 11, they entered the territory of the Forests. And in all likelihood, he would not have recognized them had he not remembered the shape of the roads and the curves of each bend, had he not been looking out for the illegible signposts and the farms he’d gone past a thousand times, had he not felt his body quiver with a new sense of proximity. Because there were no more Forests. And even though he’d expected this, it was a shock. He’d hoped for something else. He’d believed the Forests would be stronger, that there would be a magnificent surprise in store for him, that there was truly something magical about them. And now all that was nothing but legends. Their trees were like all the trees he had seen since leaving the Big City: bare, 65
[Listen to Sandrine Collette discuss her novel, The Forests , on the April 10, 2022 episode of French Forays on Trafika Europe Radio, right here .]
blackened, bent, or gashed open. Their rivers were gray and muddy, full of dead fish in a sluggish current. No birds sang. It was cold andclammy.
world, they crumbled when Corentin stepped on them. Nothing announced its presence, neither squirrel nor blackbird, not even a fly, which, before, would have buzzed around him, driving him mad. A dozen times he thought he saw a blade of grass or a patch of tree that had been spared, that had preserved its colors, its green-brown bronze.
Like elsewhere. Like everywhere.
Something sank inside Corentin, shrinking him, when all he had hoped for was to be able to expand, to spread out at last after days of distress—he felt the flesh tightening around his bones. He’d been searching for a sign, but all he found was indifference. Deep in his gut, the feeling he’d been betrayed.
For something to gleam like bronze, it needed sunshine.
Corentin had slowed his pace, without realizing.
A part of him didn’t want to get there. As long as he was still on the way, he had a goal. Hope, too, a hope which he tried to quell, not to be disappointed, but which slipped into his head like leaking water, through the tiniest gap, the slightest breach. He frequently blocked his ears, as if it were coming from outside. But it clung on, inside 67
* * *
He went through the Forests without making a sound. The leaves did not crunch beneath his feet, they had fallen as ash. Pebbles did not roll. Incinerated by the fire of the 66
him. No, he said, no. He shook his arms, his shoulders, to make it fall. But the hope was still there, all the same.
to an end.
And he reckoned that his legs couldn’t go any further. He reckoned they needed to rest. And then: he’d see, afterwards.
Because he would get there eventually.
And Corentin could have gone on by, could have skipped the little turn-off. Could have gone on down the road indefinitely. Then there wouldn’t have been any bitterness, any sorrow. He would never have known what had happened, down there. But there wouldn’t be any more goal, either. No more quest, nothing more to expect. He would go on—where? What for?
If there was anyone left alive in the Forests— down there, he’d have his answer.
He caught his breath.
In the last little valley, where the road wound down, a sinuous trail, and there was nothing more after the two bends—in the last little valley, he began humming, very softly, to give himself courage.
Simply go on.
* * *
It didn’t make any sense.
And what he found at last: at the end of the valley, in the hole where he’d grown up, there was the house.
In any case, whether he got there or didn’t get there. In any case, the goal would come 68
And in the house, there was Augustine.
level with her.
But as soon as he saw her, he wasn’t sure anymore. Was it really Augustine?
Maybe she saw him. He thought he saw a fleeting shadow cross her face.
Something was moving and breathing.
It was making a little noise.
He had never been a shadow.
Corentin went in after knocking gently.
Or else, this was the only thing left and he’d have to make do with it, but just then, he didn’t understand. He held out his hand to her, very slowly, very gently. When he touched her, she didn’t recoil. She didn’t tremble. She didn’t do anything.
He’d seen her, but he called out all the same.
She didn’t turn her head toward him. She was in the armchair, her hands placed flat on her thighs, on the old apron she wore all day long. It reminded him of the old couple he’d left by the wood stove. They were stiff like that, too, just as motionless.
Oh the sudden doubt, so strong Corentin almost faltered.
He touched her shoulder.
Was she really alive?
He walked into the room, knelt down to be 70
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