Archive

Issue No. 7 – July 2012

John Washington

One guy, when he walks, El Chino said, one guy can stray all over the place. One guy can wander, especially in the desert. And I know, I’ve been walking in the desert. But when you got two guys walking, it’s harder for them to stray because they keep each other on a leash a little bit, sort of like a flock. A flock goes straight because there’s so many animals in it, the animals balance each other, all the mistakes get balanced, you know what I mean. Like a straight line. One guy can’t draw a line very good, but a bunch of guys, all drawing together, can draw it straight on. Now these two guys, the guys who were walking, who were keeping each other from wandering, their names were Alvo and Lalo. Alvo was a little older than Lalo, but they were pretty close. They were walking for a long time and kept thinking that they were lost, but you know you can’t be lost unless you know where you’re going first. These guys weren’t walking to el norte, it wasn’t like that. They didn’t know why they were walking. Maybe they were walking north but it wasn’t like that. They were just out there, you know. You know how sometimes you can’t help being out there, can’t help being out in the desert, like when you lift your head up, or you put your head down and it’s in a desert and there’s nobody, and there’s nothing, and you’re there in the middle of that. That’s how it was. And Alvo was older than Lalo, but they weren’t father and son, they were too close in age, about ten years apart, ten or twelve years, an age difference that means they couldn’t be father and son and they probably wouldn’t even be brothers, and they probably aren’t friends either. They wouldn’t be friends. They weren’t, actually, they weren’t friends. Alvo would never call Lalo his friend. Lalo, though, he would call Alvo anything, anything except father because they were too close for that, but it wouldn’t matter. Their age was like their leash that kept them together, that kept them walking straight, walking straight where neither of them would have went by themselves, because by themselves they would have been wandering. But then it got more complicated. Because the imagination is the opposite of a leash. And that’s what these two guys had still, imagination. The imagination is more like a whip than a leash. Or like a gun to your head, you know, because you can’t walk very straight with a gun to your head. Or maybe you can, but only because there is someone holding the gun, but there’s not always someone holding the gun, you know, sometimes there’s just a gun, just floating there, straight against your head. And the imagination will make you wander a little bit, but also make you think you aren’t wandering, you know. It’s dangerous.

And so Alvo and Lalo started talking about where they were going, and one of them said that he thought he heard something about how good the place where they were going was, and the other was like, Yeah, I heard that too. And one of them said, If he knew what he thought he knew, then they were walking toward el norte, and the other said Yeah, that he had heard a lot about that place, and it went on like this, and pretty soon they knew exactly where they were going, you know how that can happen, like a flock, like a flock with imagination. But then Lalo, the younger one, he started falling behind. Every few minutes Alvo had to slow down, or turn around and wait for Lalo to catch up. But Lalo wasn’t that far behind. Not far enough for Alvo to sit down. So Alvo just slowed down for a few minutes and turned around to look back. And this made the talking difficult. They would start talking and then Lalo would start falling behind and they would have to stop talking, while Alvo paused and waited for Lalo to catch up, and it went on like that, their walking setting their conversation, giving it spaces, and you know what that does to the imagination. It makes it worse. And pretty soon they didn’t only know where they were going but they couldn’t wait to get there, you know, because of the imagination, because of the gun. But Lalo kept slowing down, and Alvo had to stop to wait for him, and soon Lalo was limping, and they weren’t smiling at each other anymore, and they didn’t have to talk either because they both knew it all, and they only had to say, And the wages up there, And the women, And the trucks, And the fields, And the buildings, And the women, and that was all they needed to say, just a few words, because their imagination filled in the rest, and so did the gun, it filled it all in for them. So soon Alvo didn’t want to wait anymore, and Lalo kept slowing down, and so Alvo was saying Hurry up if you ever want to get there, and What’s taking you so long, and You ain’t ever gonna get there limping like that. But Lalo’s limp got worse and worse, and you know what a limp does to the imagination, it makes it big, it makes everything else seem better, and you know what that does to the limp, makes it worse, so Lalo kept slowing down. And so finally Alvo said, Okay, you wait here, I’m gonna keep on, thinking he was going to get somewhere, and he kept walking, but then there wasn’t anybody to talk to and you know what that’s like, he still had his imagination but he didn’t have anybody to say it to, and remember when they started out they didn’t even know where they were going and now look at them, two imaginations fighting over the same place, and so Alvo said, It’s all Lalo’s fault, and Lalo was thinking, That fucker Alvo, leaving me stranded out here.

Kwets, Barcelona 2012

El Chino paused for a moment. He looked at me. Something devious in his eye. Or maybe just something right.

You know what people are like out there, El Chino continued, in the desert. They talk about everything. That’s where the best talking happens. In the middle of nowhere. Even when there’s nobody to talk to. Even when it’s only you and your gun that’s still the best place to talk.

But who can really tell what direction they were walking in? It seemed like Alvo was moving fast and Lalo was crawling over the cactus, but who knows if it wasn’t the other way around, and then Alvo was laid flat, Lalo running through the catclaws, and they were together again, on a leash, and they were just looking at each other, not sure who was saying what.

And they kept on. And when they came to a ravine they walked right through the ravine and when they came to a thicket they walked right through the thicket and they kept walking north, siempre, north not for any reason, like before, but because that was the way people walked, and that was how they leashed each other, not straying, just north, all the time now. And one time they even crossed a snake, but it was a dead snake. A big one. It looked like it had been killed with a shovel but there were no shovels out there, there was nothing at all, but the snake’s back was broken, like it had fallen out of the sky, and that’s what they thought, and they looked up, but there was nothing up there either. And so Alvo picked the snake up and said that they should bury it and Lalo shrugged, and they looked at each other, and then Lalo said that maybe they could eat it, and Alvo nodded.

Like a couple vultures, he said, and then he dropped the snake, and it fell, stiffly, and they kept on walking. And then it was day. And it was hot. It was night. It was cold. And it was day. They talked and they crawled and they stood and they walked. That’s all they could do. And the gun and the leash and the flock and the two of them, out there, in the middle of nothing, talking and walking. They had water but they drank it, pouring it into their mouths, wet and warm, and then they sweated and the water went back into the sky, high and hot. And then even the water was gone, and then they were on the ground. They were crawling, Alvo first, then Lalo, Lalo first, then Alvo. They were looking for water. They were looking for north or looking for south, it didn’t matter which one. And then they had to start to imagine harder than before, you know. And so they stood and opened the bottles and raised them over their open mouths, but nothing came out, but they drank, or imagined that they did. And so they started wondering why they were there. And maybe, they thought, maybe they were there because they were escaping something. They were escaping where they had been, escaping the steps that they’d been taking, and they imagined that each step, on the ground, was escaping the last step they had taken, and they felt like they couldn’t escape fast enough from where they had been, from where they were, from where they were going, and that’s why they didn’t turn around, and that’s why they couldn’t stop. Why they kept imagining. The gun, the ground, the fence. Trying to get away from their footprints. Trying to even get away from their own feet.

And there was nothing for them to do then, but talk.

Are we getting close? Lalo asked and Alvo nodded, but the answer wasn’t an answer, it was an echo. Are we getting close? Close to where? Is that the way North? Are we going North? We gonna die out here? We’re gonna die? And so maybe they did die out there, El Chino said, you see what I mean. Maybe Alvo would have lived, but he went back to Lalo. Maybe they both would have lived, but they didn’t. Maybe El Norte goes north at first but then it turns around and you’re back in the south, you know. That’s a story we got. We got el norte in our blood, but our blood is down here in the south. It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s everybody’s fault. There’s a lot of reasons, but there’s no good reason. It’s instinct and it’s imagination. It’s momentum and it’s a big fence. We got that story in our blood. We got each other in our blood sometimes too, which, you know, that’s dangerous.

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“Alvo Lalo” is an excerpt from John Washington‘s novel Dustmarch, which explores the borderlands and migration from southern Mexico to the Punjab to Arizona and much in between. The author was a Fulbright Fellow in Mexico City where he finished Dustmarch and worked on an anthology of fiction about migration, Antología de cuentos migratorios, forthcoming from Sur Plus in Mexico in 2013. He has published on upsidedownworld.orgthesmartset.compulsemedia.org, among others. His novel Cry Out Abba is forthcoming from Aqueous Books.

Giulia Po

“Ma cosa c’è di così bello dentro a un libro?” Cica è perplessa. “C’è tutto, bambina. C’è tutto” dice Carmelina. “Ciascuno di noi ha una vita soltanto. Tu sei piccola, ma passa veloce. Te lo posso giurare io, che mi sembra ieri che avevo vent’anni e mi dovevo sposare. Invece le persone che leggono i libri hanno tante vite, una per ogni libro. E tutte diverse. Puoi andare nella giungla, alla corte del re, in Cina. Puoi essere una ballerina, un capitano, un indiano. Quando leggi ti puoi pigliare la vita delle persone del libro, i loro amori, le loro feste, i loro vestiti, i loro cuori. Chi legge ha cento vite” (167).

“But what is so great in a book?” Cica is confused. “There is everything, little girl. Everything.” Carmelina replies. “Each of us has one life only. You are young, but time passes quickly. I can guarantee you, it seems yesterday that I was twenty and had to get married. But those who read books have many lives, one for each book. And they are all different. You can go to the jungle, a kingdom, China. You can be a ballerina, a captain, an Indian. When you read, you can take the life of those in the book, their love, their celebrations, their dresses, their hearts. Those who read have a hundred lives.” (167)

–       from Il negativo dell’amore  (The Negative of Love)

by Maria Paola Colombo

The lives we encounter in Maria Paola Colombo’s excellent debut novel Il negativo dell’amore (The Negative of Love) are those of Cica, a girl who lives in Novara, in the north of Italy, and Walker, a boy from Ostuni, in the southern Italian region of Puglia. They don’t know each other, and live very distinctive lives, but are both very sensitive and unique: Cica has survived her mother’s attempt to drown herself and the daughter (Cica’s nickname is the abbreviation of the word “cicatrice”, the scar that recently marks her back after the incident,); Walker has Down Syndrome (and gets his nickname from Walker Texas Ranger, the TV character that he worships to the point of wearing his ranger clothes even when he goes to a hot beach).

Colombo’s story was initially inspired by a suicide reported in a local newspaper, along with her desire to imagine a different ending to that real tragedy. Walker was envisioned as a character that could counterbalance Cica: he is a boy, he comes from a rich and loving family in the south, but he also has a chromosome that makes him different. The protagonists’ existence runs parallel almost until the very end of the book, and their encounter, after Cica and her father have moved to Ostuni, is more of a collision than a harmless presentation, when the boy and the girl unexpectedly bump into each other and save themselves from a car that is carelessly speeding.

Cica and Walker belong to two different worlds, but the construction of their emotional and genetic disabilities gave the author the space to investigate the individual’s search for happiness.  Cica and Walker are two vulnerable souls, but they are also very brave and willing to turn the negative of a black and white picture into a color photograph.  Colombo plays with the words of the title throughout the novel: the negative of love refers to the negative aspects that this feeling might cause, but she also uses the idea of the negative of a picture, which shows you the black and white image of our human bones. Cica’s scars mark her back with signs that symbolize the mother’s negativity, but also become a metaphor: a sort of black and white picture of the figure of the mother whom she misses and, by the end of the novel, understands better. Both Cica and Walker know about the black and white aspects of life; they both have emotional or genetic wounds that makes them weaker than others, but they never resign themselves to this fate, instead deciding to make their lives better, to give their life a full-color frame. Colombo’s optimism for the future is undeniable, but her novel isn’t built on a simple and easy positive message. The author, in fact, vividly depicts the frailty, and some of the problems of contemporary Italian society, with her entertaining and intense writing style.

The first two sections of the novel, North and South, respectively dedicated to each protagonist, immediately reveal the differences that characterize their lives. Cica is sent to a summer camp run by nuns near Misano Adriatico. After the tragic suicide of her mother, her father wants some time for himself to move to a new house in the same city of Novara; he wants to avoid the gossip of the neighbors and the difficulties of finding a new job. Cica is reticent and scared, especially of the water: “Cica non ha paura dell’acqua. Dell’acqua ha morte” (Cica is not afraid of the water; water is death”) (19), the narrator explains; she doesn’t swim in the sea, and cleverly hides in the toilet to stay away from the showers. In the south, Walker spends his summer days on the beach as well, but he is not alone: all of his family is there to watch him and his siblings play. The tourists’ mixed feelings of uneasiness and indifference on the beach emphasize the emblematic behavior of those who are unfamiliar with disability (when a lady on the beach, for instance, meets Walker’s eyes, “abbassa lei la faccia, con l’espressione di uno che ha visto qualcosa come una cacca di cane sul marciapiede” – “she looks down, with the expression of someone who has just seen a dog’s poop on the sidewalk” (41)), but this also stresses the effort of the parents who are trying to give Walker a life that is as normal as possible.

Cica finds some affection when she moves to the new house. At the cemetery where she believes her mother is buried she meets Tomba, the dog that will become her inseparable friend, while the new next door neighbor Carmelina, is the kind old woman who will be a new mother figure in Cica’s life, and will open her old son’s bedroom to give her a new space to play and read.

While Walker rides his horse named Fulmine (Lightning), falls in love, and starts looking for a job, Cica’s independence grows. There has never been room for love and affection in her life; her father has always been cold and distant, so worried about revealing his feelings and the truth about Cica’s mother that he has been hiding his sadness and depression in his daily routine at the office or behind the newspaper at the dinner table. When ten years later he decides to retire and moves to Ostuni, where his grandmother had left him a house, things won’t change; father and daughter still remain a separate dyad, but a final truth about the mother will be unveiled, together with the final revelation of Cica and Walker’s real names. It is a new beginning for the two protagonists that can finally be called by their real names.

The choice of the two settings, Novara and Ostuni, partially reflects the life experience of the writer who lived in the north of Italy, but also spent her adolescence in the south. The two cities, then, become symbols of her autobiographical emotional understanding of the north and the south of the peninsula: the cold soul of the north of Italy is represented by Cica’s mother’s inability to live, her father’s aloofness, and a pedophile who threatens her childhood for a second time, while the warm dimension of the south is embodied by Walker’s family, the parties, the first crushes among teenagers, the hot temperature that animates the characters. The strike and the occupation of the Liceo of Ostuni that Cica and Walker’s brother attend, then, stress the weak condition of the Italian school system, and a desire to change and improve that somehow clashes with the low level of education that characterize the students – Cica excluded.

The characterization of the split between the two geographical spaces through the idea of the cold north and the warm south is not a novelty, but Colombo’s narrative is not meant simply to reinforce common stereotypes. North and south emerge as a convincing construction of two coexistent and dissimilar spaces, and the creation of an original plot, innovative characters, and witty dialogues give the readers the chance to appreciate the unpredictable aspects of her work. Carmelina, the old lady who awakens Cica’s love for reading when she is a little girl in Novara, is a discrepancy in the two realms depicted by Colombo, but her figure also becomes super partes in her significant role of inspiring Cica’s desire to enter the world of books and culture. Her intervention seems to be at the origins of the protagonist’s scholastic success in Ostuni, and to respond to the narrator’s wish to see talented and well educated people guiding the Italian nation.

I spoke with Maria Paola Colombo just prior to the announcement that she had won the prestigious Flaiano Prize for Il negative dell’amore. We spoke about the novel, some of her life experiences, her ideas about north and south, and the writing process.

Maria Paola Colombo

GP: I read that you were born in the north of Italy, but that you also spent some of your adolescence in the south. Can you tell us about your movements throughout Italy?

 

MPC: I was born near Milano, half of my blood is from Brianza, a quarter is Venetian, and the last quarter is Sicilian. I lived in the north until the age of thirteen. Then my father decided to change our lives, and he took my mother and his five children to Ostuni. Ostuni is the land of my adolescence, with olive trees and a winterless countryside. The sea is nearby. I celebrated my eighteenth birthday in Piedmont. And since then I moved from one province to another, without passing the regional border. But in the future, I would like to live…well that is a different story…

Please, continue, where would you choose to live?

Maybe in a very small village in the mountain or near the sea, or maybe in a big city like Turin or Rome: a place that has its own greatness in terms of natural and human geography.

Were you able to experience any social and economic differences between north and south, or better stated, did you become aware of the “questione meridionale” (“the southern question”) that has characterized Italy since its Unification? Can you provide any examples?

 The answer is yes. It is such a wide and complex question. I can tell you that almost all of my classmates from the Liceo of Ostuni moved to the center or north of Italy to attend the university, and almost all of them found a job far away from their motherland, with their hearts full of nostalgia, but the awareness that they had no other option. The south is depriving itself of talented people and entrepreneurial capacity in a sad vicious circle.

North and South are the settings of your novel and the spaces in which the two protagonists, Cica and Walker, live or move. What made you choose both of these two different environments? Does it derive from your personal experience, or is there a deeper and more symbolic meaning behind your choice?

 

The two scenarios are definitely part of my personal story, but also part of my soul. Cica, the girl from the north, hurt by the lack of parental affection, stigmatizes the cold soul of the north of Italy; Walker, the boy from the south, expresses the colorful and intensely relational dimension of the south. Saying that north and south are respectively inhabited by cold and warm people is clearly a way to simplify things, but it becomes my way to portray a northern dimension that is more rational and self-centered and a southern dimension that is more impulsive and collectivist.

Cica is lonely, but also very independent and mature: what makes her so strong? The lack of a maternal figure? The distant paternal figure? Necessity?

 

Her biological instinct to survive. Cica is able to develop what in psychology is known as “negative capacity”: she manages to survive the uncertainties of her life, she finds solutions through logical understanding, but also and primarily on an emotional level. It is an ability that kids have, and only few adults manage to preserve.

In the novel, the strike and the occupation organized by the students of the Liceo in Puglia offer some considerations on social issues such as the school system and education. According to Geco (Walker’s brother) the malfunction of the school is marked by the lack of simple things such as the toilet paper. On the contrary, Cica believes it is idiotic to organize a strike because the toilet paper is missing. These types of excuses to skip school were very frequent in my Liceo in Modena as well, in the early 90’s. In your opinion, why do so many young people underestimate the importance of education?

 

The lack of a real collective and political (and I say political, not “politicized”) awareness in the adults that surround them. But things are changing. I see that the attention and the understanding of the role of school and education are growing among youth and within the schools. The gravity of the moment we are living is helping them to seriously think about their future and the future of their country.

Cica finds a very significant slogan to use during the strike/occupation of the school: “We’re going to wipe our asses with your promises because you didn’t even give us money for toilet paper” (200). She also reflects on the uselessness of a fake occupation that will not change their reality. But rebelling seems to her the right thing to do: “It starts from one. From me” (298), she affirms. Since you define yourself a “possibilist”, do you think that there will ever be “well educated, talented, coherent people” (298) who will work together for the improvement of our school system and the Italian society?

 

Yes. I believe in people. Not in the general concept of people, but in each individual. It is important to move the problem from a general and abstract dimension (society), which is unachievable, to a smaller, individual, daily reality. I know many committed people, and feel the strength of a collective desire to change, a desire to maximize their courage.

Disability is still an uncomfortable matter that is not frequently discussed, but you address this theme through Walker, the protagonist affected by Down Syndrome. Why did you choose to create such a character?

 

The first character that I imagined was Cica, with her hurt feelings. Walker was created as a counter alter: he has the warm and rich family that she is lacking, he has everything a kid needs, and something more: that gene that makes him different. Cica’s emotional disability and Walker’s genetic disability allowed me to focus on the individual possibility of happiness. When I wrote the novel, I also met many kids with Down Syndrome, and I was often surprised by their vital joy.

The initial black and white “negative” that symbolizes Cica’s life becomes a color picture near the end of the book. Cica’s mother was living her life with lots of difficulties, but Cica and Walker show that the possibilities of surviving the pain and living through the diversity are both achievable. What do you think about their behavior?

 

Cica and Walker embody the words of my heart. Their diversity represents, in reality, the little differences that each of us possess: we all are differently abled in our attempts to find our place in the world, each life has its own difficulties and limits. But the strong certainty that the sea might come after the next turn allows us to move forward and grow up without giving up.

When did you get interested in writing?

 

Writing is a dimension that has always belonged to me. It is a look before it becomes a gesture, and it is a way to read the world.

I know that you work in a bank. How does this activity affect your writing?

 

Initially it almost killed it. I entered the bank when I turned twenty: I was heartbroken, but it was a necessity. Then, little by little, I realized that a bank doesn’t simply work with numbers, but with people. In our times, money is a vehicle for all the important knots of everyone’s life: you fall in love and you go to the bank for a mortgage; you find a job and you open a bank account to set up direct deposit; you lose it and …  You know…I don’t talk about these stories, but my job is a continuous training in humanity.

What do you like to do when you’re not working or writing?

 

I read and read and read. I like spending time outside when it’s not raining too much. And I hug the people I love.

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Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  She teaches courses of Italian language and culture at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and lives in Boston. Her monographic study of Clara Sereni’s work has been recently published by the Franco Cesati publishing house in Italy.

Erik Raschke

Introduction

 

From 2001-2003, over three hundred refugees from all over the world moved to the small Arctic island of Berneria. In the spring of 2010, every human inhabitant vanished without a trace. In the fall of 2010, a U.N. freighter arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, with five cargo containers loaded with the Bernerians’ computers, diaries, and personal belongings. Since I had previously written about the colony, I was hired by the United Nations International High Commission for Refugees to sort through these containers and compile a cohesive narrative of their disappearance. An interactive app, to be launched in December, is designed to help friends and family of the Bernerians understand what might have happened to those they lost. Included below is an initial summary of my report.

Figure 1. October 17, 2010. U.N. containers from the island of Berneria.

History

1980

Beginning in 1980, the northern Arctic island of Berneria underwent what climatologists refer to as the Lippler Effect. The Lippler Effect, named after the New Zealand meteorologist Richard Lippler, occurs when certain greenhouse gases, upon colliding with the exosphere, create a kilometer-wide portal in which solar rays can be channeled, almost unimpeded, into our atmosphere. While the debate amongst scientists and politicians over the dangers of the Lippler Effect continues, the data shows that many of the islands in the far north of Russia have indeed become warmer.

In 1984, in the dead of night, an iceberg crashed through the hull of a Stanford research boat. The massive, multi-million dollar research vessel sunk in under an hour, in one of the most remote regions in the world – the Arctic Ocean

A week later, a small lifeboat from the Stanford research vessel washed up on a sandy beach. The sky was clear, the water pristine, the land dry, and the temperature as gentle as Southern California in spring. On this deserted island, two young graduate students, Richard Lippler and his sole surviving colleague, Lisa Knowles, built a home, gathered food, and lived comfortably. Almost two years later, a U.S. Navy submarine patrolling the area happened to see smoke coming from their chimney.

In the spring of 1987, Richard and Lisa Lippler, now married, returned to the remote island they called home. Arriving on a new research vessel paid for by the inventor of the Internet, Tim Berners-Lee, the couple began investigating why this single island, in the middle of the coldest part of the earth, was experiencing year-round temperatures comparable to those found on the equator. Their research led them to publish “The Lippler Effect,” one of the most explosive papers in the last century.

Figure 2. Berneria North-West Coast circa 1978, courtesy of ASWARC.

Figure 3. Berneria North-West Coast circa 1998, courtesy of Berneria Historical Society.

Figure 4. Richard Lippler and Lisa Knowles, courtesy of Stanford University Archives.

Figure 5. Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Internet, after whom Berneria is named.

1990

Financed by Tim Berners-Lee and Berneria Real Estate Corporation, in the spring of 1989, Richard and Lisa Lippler, Les Vanderpool, and a team of seventy surveyors, biologists, ecologists, climatologists, and botanists began mapping the small Arctic island of Berneria. During this process, they discovered that crops such as wheat, sugar beets, rye, barley, and potatoes,   -crops once attributable to more northern latitudes such as Canada and Finland- could now be grown on Berneria. After rigorous research and measurements, they concluded that the crops in Berneria grew 5 to 9 times faster than their counterparts in more southerly climes.

In the southwest portion of the island, Druidic markers were discovered. The Berneria Historical Society quickly procured funding from the Royal Academy of Archeology for further study (see cover photo).

Very early on, Tim Berners-Lee and the Lipplers began drafting an egalitarian charter for what they hoped would be a new colony, inhabited by individuals from all around the world. In an International Herald Tribune interview with Tim Berners-Lee, he said that his goal with Berneria was similar to what he did with the World Wide Web, which was to take disparate, existing concepts and “generalize” them, i.e., using the brains and ingenuity already present in humankind to create the “greatest” colony in the world.

Figure 6. Earliest survey of Berneria Harbor, courtesy of Berneria Historical Society.   

2000

In June of 2003, Les Vanderpool of Berneria Realty Corporation contacted me to write a series of articles about the new colony of Berneria. After three heavy days of travel, I spent June 2003 to October 2003 walking the island and visiting with Bernerians. To say the least, it was a revelatory experience. I was among hundreds of people, from every part of the world, beginning a new life. We were over a thousand miles away from any major metropolis, hundreds from any commercial outlets, and yet, among these Bernerians, there was nothing but hope, confidence, an unstoppable drive to redefine humanity’s potential.

However, in May of 2010, after repeated and unsuccessful attempts to get in touch with Les Vanderpool and arrange another visit, I went to Berneria on my own accord. Without the help of the various drivers and pilots working for Berneria Real Estate, it took me almost 10 days to get to the island. When I arrived early on the morning of June 5, 2010, I found the colony deserted. I discovered doors unlocked, meals half-eaten, dishes unwashed. However there seemed no sign of struggle, and no significant damage other than erosion. The Bernerians were simply gone.

I combed the island and during my ten weeks there could find no single answer to what happened except the name “Melville” scratched upon a tree in the town’s square. Melville Island is about a 10-hour trip northeast by boat from Berneria and since I was funding this trip out of my own pocket, I could not afford to make the exploration.

Figure 7. Les Vanderpool, Director of Berneria Real Estate.

Figure 8. Computer generated collage of the 300 inhabitants of Berneria which hangs on the wall of the now abandoned Berneria Real Estate offices.

2010 – Present

With the cargo containers safely stored near my home, I have begun to slowly unravel the mystery of the disappearance of the Bernerians. Every few weeks I will be updating the Berneria app with my findings. In the meantime, I have concluded that the per capita number of suicides reached levels unseen in any previously documented colony. I am convinced that this was not due to the remoteness of the island like some U.N. representatives have publicly claimed, but because of the objects and possessions which regularly washed upon shore. These “items,” many stored at the Berneria Historical Society, were physical manifestations of some deeper collective anxiety. Toward the end of the last year, these Bernerians, many of them highly-educated, secular individuals, started a church in which much of the ceremony involved “self-renunciation.” Much of the liturgical text refers to Kant and Kierkegaard as well as the writings of the highly-acclaimed poet Ho Jing, who fled China in 2005 and became a Bernerian citizen in 2006. I have sent copies of Ho Jing’s prophecies to several Religious Studies academics in Europe and America for further analyses.

Sample Journal Entries:

Nienke, June 30, 2001

I am sure it will take us most of the summer to recover from the loss of Francine Fromme. Everyone has been concealing their impatience or irritation under thin, painfully somber smiles. We nod and say hello, but conversation never seems to go much farther. Francine’s suicide has turned everyone into turtles, retreating without hesitation into themselves.

I refuse to walk along the beaches for fear of what I’ll find. Two weeks ago, on the upper north beach, Armen Mankarian, from Charents-Sevan, Armenia, found the hand coffee grinder that his father used to beat him and his mother with. Yesterday, I saw Sarah Bishop at Dr. Imjay’s office begging for Valium. She had just found the beaded steering wheel from her junked Toyota Camry lodged between two rocks along the southeastern cliffs. She said that the wheel still had blood on it, blood from the man she hit six years ago on The Cleveland Memorial Shoreway.

The only people who seem to enjoy the clutter lining our beach are the children who find endless new sources of entertainment. This morning I went to Enka’s restaurant and saw Oladele Nwokolo, a Nigerian boy of about seven playing with a rubber shark. He and his mother, Gimbya, had just been for a walk along the harbor. I am pretty sure the shark is the same as my son’s. When Sander took baths, in his little plastic tub, his skin slick from scented oil, he played only with that shark, circling it between his little legs, submerging it into the bottomless depths to hunt for imaginary prey.

Figure 9. Nienke

Sarah, July 3, 2001

O.K. So here’s  the third law I’m proposing. It’s called the “Get Over Yourself” law. If someone gets way too hung up over something lame, then they get imprisoned until they can prove that they’ve chilled out. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be shoes or abortion. Think about how rational conversations would be. Everyone would be worried about going to jail so they’d totally start listening to each other. How do you define “lame…” you might ask? Well, “lame” would be like “the right to bear arms” in the American Constitution, and Berneria would have judges like me interpreting the definition. “Lame” could mean “teachers who don’t let students text in school,” and then in ten years it could be like “old people driving rockets really slowly.”

When I finished drafting my law, Altunai came over and we made a bunch of hot cocoa and cider, put it in cups with lids, and went down to the harbor. In less than ten minutes, our tray was empty and we had to go back home and get more. We made fifty Berners between us for like an hour’s work. I told Altunai that we probably could have sold even more, but then those Muslim guys came and everyone got distracted. That evening, I showed the cash to my mom and told her I planned on using it to hire some movers to bring the glass table back from the beach. She told me I had manipulated a tense, unpleasant situation at the harbor for my own self-profit.

So? Isn’t it a free market?

Anyhow, Altunai and I gave three cups free to the Guantanamo prisoners as they passed by my house. It was so gross because they got whip cream and cocoa foam all caught up in their weird beards. Yuck. I think it was only because Altunai said “assalamu alaikum” that they drank it at all.

Welcome to Berneria fellas!

Not.

Figure 10. Sarah

Erik, June 30, 2003

Land

At three in the a.m., peering over his gas lantern, his rheumy eyes like freshly shucked oysters at midnight, the deckhand shook me awake. I dressed, and made my way to the stern, where I gazed into the freezing darkness. It was not until I made out the shadowy outline of land and we were a few hundred meters from shore that I saw the dim light of the harbormaster’s office. How disappointing after so many miles of travel to discover only a sleepy hamlet with little more than a desk lamp serving as a light tower.

The harbor was littered with ice, no doubt the remnants of the many ghostly icebergs that we passed on our way here. The captain cut the motor and our vessel pressed through the frozen debris as we glided toward land. Two African boys, accompanied by an older woman whom I judged to be their mother, fastened our ropes to the dock and laid a plank for us to cross. Oddly enough, once the boat was steady, I found myself crossing alone. The captain who had delivered me here so safely had no intention of going ashore.

The air here was surprisingly warm yet dry, like an August alpine afternoon. From what I could tell in the moonlight, the beach was composed of what seemed like large, rounded multi-colored pebbles, most likely smoothed by the hundreds of feet of ice which once covered this land. There were groves of saplings on the eroded cliffs, but most of the landscape appeared to comprise grass and shrubbery; but, like I said, it was hard to be certain in the dark.

Once I was safely on land, the deckhand grunted to the African boy and then the boat was unfastened. With a loud grumbling, the ships engines groaned into reverse. The deckhand, still busy coiling the rope, faded into the night without a wave goodbye. The captain switched off the light in the steering house, and the ocean became an uneven pattern of darker and darker movement.

Inside the tiny harbormaster’s office, which was not much more than a log hut, I was offered coffee and introduced to Mbali Van Gertz and her two sons, Manelesi and Ulwazi. I told her my name and where I was arriving from. Her two sons stared at me; the youngest of the boys, I realized after a few quick glances, had a glass eye. The other had a scar that traveled the length of his cheek and neck.

Mbali labored over each letter of my name. I occasionally smiled at the boys and asked them how they liked it here. Their replies were no different than the casual declarations of American youth: half-shrugs and sucked teeth. Ulwazi nodded toward Manelesi’s skateboard in the corner and boasted that they were building a half-pipe near the end of the harbor. Stupidly, I asked what the half-pipe would be used for and was once again directed back toward the skateboard. Seeing that I obviously had little street cred, the two boys left, explaining that Les Vanderpool had requested to be notified immediately of my arrival.

When the boys were gone, I asked Mbali if she was from KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. She nodded and said that her father had been an Afrikaner from Johannesburg, although she only saw him two or three times. He had several children spread out over the province.

“Have you been to South Africa?” she asked.

“Yes. For a week.”

“Did you like it?”

“It was like nothing I’ve ever seen.”

She nodded as if this were an acceptable answer and said finally, “You are the first American I have met who has been to my country.”

I was tempted to ask Mbali how she had come to Berneria, or better, how someone barely literate, and from such a disconsolate province, could have afforded the long journey. I asked Mbali if I could interview her in the weeks to come. She said, cheeks high, more wincing than smiling, that she would have to consider it.

I filled in a few forms and studied the temporary Bernerian Charter hanging from the wall. Within fifteen minutes of the boys’ departure, Les Vanderpool arrived at the office. He was a cheerful little man who excitedly shook my hand, although I suspect he would have preferred a hug. He still had the same mullet hair cut (which I had seen from pictures when I Googled his name) and a loose-fitting button down flannel shirt. He was neat in every way with his jeans rolled to the top of his sensible hiking boots, his face cleanly shaved except for a tightly trimmed mustache, and his hands and nails delicate, almost feminine. Overall he appeared as a divorcee and who suddenly, for whatever reason, had been thrust into the general instability of single-life and thus had turned to the predictable regiments of ironing, cuffing, creasing, and coiffing.

“Did  ya get seasick?” he asked in a slightly mocking tone. “Some of the stories we’ve heard, right Mbali? One little girl threw up sixteen times. The mother was sick seven or eight times. The father too! That old deckhand had his work cut out for him, eh? But they’re happy now. That family. Put the whole experience behind them in just a few days.”

He then glanced over the forms that Mbali had just completed.

“We can get anything we missed tomorrow. I bet Erik’s tired. Need to be rested for our hike tomorrow.”

Les spoke a few words of isiZulu to Mbali who only nodded back. Then, quite condescendingly, he patted Ulwazi and Manelesi on the head, and we bid our goodbyes. Mbali appeared neither excited nor disappointed by our departure, and was in fact as emotionless as a bureaucrat late on a Friday afternoon. I, however, was glad to be moving, glad to be heading toward a comfortable bed.

Les took my suitcase, rolling the wheels along the bumpy gravel road. He chatted about the weather over the last few days and how the Lippler Effect had given Berneria a gentle climate, but how it had also robbed them of long afternoons, as when he had lived in Seattle and Maine, locked in the house reading a book while the rain battered the windows. When there was inclement weather in Berneria, he moaned, it occurred only in the evening, after one fell asleep.

While we walked in the dim, pre-dawn light, I could make out a land that was rather barren, with Alpine grasses and bald patches of granite. I noticed pine seedlings stretching over a hillside, budding in rows, planted by the Bernerians for use as future timber. Some patches of trees had even grown to a reasonable height.

Somewhere along our walk, Les began to tell me about a program he heard on National Public Radio, via the Internet, about Republicans taking money directly from insurance companies and then looking the other way when hospitals tossed the poorest of the sick out onto the streets. The hyperbolic wrangling and hostile concern over federal policymaking, whether authentic or not, still had the ability to make his blood boil. For Les, the NPR story had relit the dark frustration of injustice with such force that the tremendous silence of Berneria at dawn was unable to ease his agitation.

“Here’s something,” he said, “that happened here and perhaps you shouldn’t repeat it because, well, as a journalist it is hearsay really, but a few months ago a family from Sudan arrived on our beaches. They were ill-equipped for the weather, had not a cent to their name. They went from house to house and each and every Bernerian gave them something. Coats, socks, food, you name it. All except one man. His name was Bertrand Beachman from Devon, England. Said that he moved here to ‘get away from the lazy.’ He was very vocal about his unwillingness to help anyone in need. He quickly adopted the nickname, Bertrand the Nazi.” Les paused here and chewed on the edge of his moustache and then continued:

“Two months ago his house caught on fire. He came running into the empty street for help. Begged. Pleaded.” Les cut the air with his index finger. “No one came.”

“Jesus.”

“The next day the family from Sudan brought Bertrand Beachman a thermos of coffee and hot oatmeal. We all felt ashamed. Our pettiness burned. They talked. Bertrand explained himself. The Sudanese father understood. Said that he didn’t like ‘lazy’ people either. Unfortunately, Bertrand took to wandering the streets and the hills. Something about that fire had snapped the life in his soul. A week after his house burned down we found his body washed up on the shore. He had jumped from the cliffs.”

Les looked me in the eyes. Then he looked away and kicked a stone. “The history of colonies and communes has been more negative than positive. One collapse after another. I’ve done my reading. I know it’ll take a lot to make Berneria work, but this island is much more than an experiment. Too many people can’t ever go back. It’s either prosper or perish for them.”

We walked the rest of the way in silence. There were no birds, no crickets, no sounds whatsoever. I could hear, however, the sound of Les’s labored breathing as he insisted on rolling my heavy suitcase.

Figure 11. Erik

Additional information

For the Google map of Berneria, click here, for Berneria Real Estate, click here, for Berneria Historical Society, click here. The app will be available in December 2012.

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Erik Raschke grew up in Denver, Colorado and received a Masters in Creative Writing from The City College of New York.  He taught in Washington Heights, Manhattan, for many years.  His first novel, The Book of Samuel, was published by St. Martin’s Press in the fall of 2009. He lives with his family in Amsterdam where he is currently finishing up his second novel, Action at a Distance.

 Found Poem: Echoes from Zuccotti Park

– after “Revolution Number 99,” Vanity Fair, February, 2012

it started in Egypt / a bunch of young people using social media / inspired us

and the Indignados in Madrid’s Puerto del Sol / quickly spread throughout Spain

don’t be so sure this can’t happen here / “Are you ready for a Tahrir moment?”

we just thought it would take a little longer / this thing started having a life of its own

the poster / a ballerina on top of this dynamic bull / we were going to take the bull / but

the bull was already occupied / by the police / there was an insane number of cops

horse cops / scooter cops / platoons of foot soldiers looking for something to do

we didn’t know we were going to end up in Zuccotti Park / you had to jockey for space, find

your spot, lay down your cardboard and your sleeping bag / there was this incredible energy

it rained like hell / the mood shifted/ from fear to a lot of hope / I’ve never felt more right

she was old enough to receive a senior-citizen discount / she wore a Guy Fawkes mask

17th century insurrectionist / the V for Vendetta mask was cheap and available / in every city

of the world / it was cool to be a lefty again / “Go cause trouble” / you could see

people being arrested and thrown into buses / young people realize their future

was mortgaged / “hacktivists” had brought down the websites of Visa and MasterCard

a cop came and slammed us down on the ground / it took a few seconds to feel tear gas

hurts to open your eyes / you can’t really breathe / this horrible burning all over your face

“Who are the men who really run this land?” / there are these long waves of American history

and we’re due for one / “And why do they run it with such a thoughtless hand?”

by October 15, Day 29 of the occupation, rallies had spread / Tokyo, Chicago, London, Manila

I’d seen it everywhere / wake people up / the park is symbolic now

the protest is bigger than that / amazing that it worked / like the Arab spring

people felt like they had a voice again because we had that space / are you ready

note:  Italicized lines are from David Crosby’s 1971 song, “What Are Their Names?”

Dissonant

 

Insolent beauty

next to these bruised swollen feet

a wild daffodil

~ ~ ~

Bound together

madmen, mothers, monks

whose mantra to choose

~ ~ ~

A tempest sky

stirred up by too much human

the blue still of fear

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Amy Uyematsu is a Los Angeles-based poet and former teacher (mathematics, creative writing, Asian American Studies).  She is Sansei (3rd-generation Japanese American).  Her published works include 30 Miles from J-Town (1992), Nights of Fire, Nights of Rain (1997), and Stone Bow Prayer (2005).  Her poetry has also been featured in various anthologies, including The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles (2003, eds. by Scott Timberg and Dana Gioia) and Bear Flag Republic: Prose Poems and Poetics from California (2008, eds. Christopher Buckley and Gary Young).  You can read more of Uyematsu’s poetry online at the Poetry Foundation website.

Andrea G. Labinger 

            Together we ride the elevator to the sixth floor of our apartment building. My mother holds a wicker basket full of clean, wet laundry, and I clutch a paper bag with wooden clothespins. We get off in the hallway, enter a dark stairwell and climb another half-flight, emerging into the sunlight. This is the Bronx, but as far as I’m concerned, it might as well be Paradise. I’m with my mom, and it’s laundry day.

I watch as she chooses a clothesline from the complicated tangle that crosses the roof, and then the ritual begins. She picks up a man’s white cotton shirt from the basket, stretches out the cloth, and carefully pins one shoulder, then the other, to the line. Solemnly, I hand her the clothespins. One, two. She repeats the process, gradually forming an army of hollow shirt-men that flap in the breeze. Next come the pants, all secured by their waistbands. By now we’ve reached the end of the clothesline. It sags a little under the collective weight of its occupants, so I can easily reach it. The socks are my job. One clothespin per sock. I stand back to admire our work. Those empty garments, those disembodied soldiers, belong to us. They salute us silently as we gather up the basket to return home.

But first, I need to admire what we’ve done. I run toward the edge of the roof to get a broader perspective.

“Andy, get back here!” my mother screams. There are no guard rails between this parapet and the street six floors below. Chastened, I return to her side. We retrace our steps: back to the stairwell, the elevator, the apartment.  Later we’ll ascend again to collect the dry garments and iron them.

Mama taught me the secrets of laundry: how to bleach the whites, how to use a quaint product she called “bluing,” dissolving one cube in warm water – just the right amount to get the task done, but not so much as to tint the fabric – and adding it to the final rinse.  How to wash the colors in cold water so they won’t bleed.  And the trickiest part of all: ironing. Done right, ironing is the universal panacea for all woes. It eliminates wrinkles, hides imperfections, wrests order from chaos.

Today we are ironing. I hand the clothes to Mama and she runs the sizzling steam iron across the cloth. Sometimes she spits on her finger and flicks it against the flat bottom surface of the iron to see if it’s hot enough. I’m not allowed to do that. It’s too dangerous.

“Mama, what’s suicide?”

“Where’d you hear that word?”

“You said it to Grandma. You said Mrs. Skolnik tried to do suicide.”

Commit. To commit suicide. You shouldn’t eavesdrop.”

“But what does it mean?”

“Nothing. You stay away from that woman, do you hear me?”

“I like Mrs. Skolnik. She showed me how to put on mascara. She said you have to be careful not to cry because then it makes black marks on your face, and you look like a raccoon.”

“I don’t want you talking to her.”

“Why? She’s nice. She said I could help her hang her laundry on the roof if you’ll let me.”

“You’re not to go near her, understand?  Not ever. Besides, no one can go up to the roof anymore. The landlord posted a Keep Off sign.”

“But what about the laundry?”

“We’ll hang it over the shower rod or lay it on the radiator.”

***

            In our new apartment house, the laundry facilities are in the basement.  We still have to travel by elevator, only now we descend. The building is modern: there’s a row of shiny white washing machines and another of matching dryers, all coin-operated. There’s also a futuristic-looking device called an extractor that squeezes out excess water from the clothing so you can save money on the drying cycle. It rocks violently from side to side as it accomplishes this task, like a drunken robot. This is the Golden Age of Polyester, so the dryers don’t get much of a workout, anyway. Everything is permanent press. I don’t like the rubbery feel of polyester, but the idea of permanence is reassuring. Mama shows me how to retrieve the items quickly after the briefest spin in the dryer and fold them along the unrelenting creases in the polyester. Mission accomplished. I wish it took a little longer. I miss the cotton soldiers, fluttering in the breeze.

***

            We have a new baby. She generates mountains of laundry, it seems, all of it Lilliputian. Tiny sleepers, shirts, bibs, minuscule socks. They need washing every day, sometimes twice a day. Who knew? My parents have flown up to New England to help out.

“What do you need for us to do?”

“The baby’s out of clean clothes. Would you mind  . . .?”

“Sure, I’ll take it downstairs for you, and Daddy can pick it up later. You rest.”

Bliss.  I sleep endlessly, awakened only by my parents’ laughter.

“What’s going on?” I rub my eyes.

“You won’t believe this – look what Daddy did! He brought up the wrong laundry. Do these look like baby clothes to you? I can’t understand how you could have picked up someone else’s load, honey. It’s really not that complicated.”

“I’ve never done this stuff before. What the hell do I know about laundry?”

Kwets, Barcelona 2012

***

            I know about laundry. I am a veritable laundry maven. What I’ve learned about washing and drying over the years could fill several volumes. I’m the family washerwoman, and I actually enjoy it. Mostly, I like washing for you.

Three times a week, maybe four, I troop over to your little room at the nursing home and insinuate myself into the cramped bathroom,  inching around the mechanical hoist, sometimes a wheelchair,  in order to reach the green nylon bag where your soiled garments await.  I take them home with me in a huge mesh shopping bag from Mexico. If only you’d open your eyes for a moment, I know you’d love the colors. When I arrive home, I dump the contents out on the floor and sort through the clothing for inspection.  I squirt Shout on the gravy stain on the left sleeve of your red sweater, where the pureed turkey missed its mark. Then I rub the bodice of your pink shirt to try to remove some unidentifiable red blob. Jello, maybe? Yes, I think it’s Jello.  I sniff a scarf in the hope of catching an ancient whiff of Elizabeth Arden’s Red Door, to see if it still smells of you. Into the machine it goes along with everything else, spinning and spinning in a dance of removal and renewal.

Then I iron the garments that need ironing, the ones I chose for you after you were no longer able to shop for yourself.  It’s easy to tell the difference between my selections for you and the old ones, those items you chose with your still-capable hands. Yours are polyester.

Everything is folded neatly and stacked back in the Mexican mesh bag, to be returned to your room and hung in your half of the closet.  You’re not aware of this rite, but it holds elements of the sacred. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to religion. Laundryism:  my creed. Why do our garments outlast our skins? These empty vessels hang quietly now, as hollow as the body that houses your fading spirit.

Who will do my laundry when my turn comes? Will it be done by hired hands, or will that duty fall to my own child?  What will she think as she scrubs the stains from a blouse or hangs a pair of elastic-waist pants in a closet?  Or will there still be an accessible roof somewhere, awash in sunlight, and a white shirt with long sleeves to flap in the wind in a brief, rebellious flight?

For now, though, I’ll just watch you sleep as I put away your laundry. This yellow crocheted shrug, for example, has never known the dryer’s blast. Too much heat might shrink it. I’ve blocked it carefully, just as you taught me, and laid it on the back of a chair to dry, letting time and patience do their work. It’s made of sturdy fabric: plain and practical. It will endure.

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Andrea G. Labinger  specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction.  Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela.  Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001) received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and OtherStories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007. The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008.  More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) , Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), and Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2012). Forthcoming titles include Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (University of Nebraska Press) and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story(Biblioasis). Please visit Andrea’s website at:  http://www.trans-latino-trans-lation.com

Noelia Diaz

Angelina Muñiz-Huberman was born in France (1936), to Spanish refugees from the Spanish Civil War (1936-39).  Her parents moved first to Cuba, and then permanently to Mexico (1942). Muñiz-Huberman conducted her studies at City University of New York (CUNY) and National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). A novelist, essayist, poet and critic, she is deeply concerned with notions of Jewish identity, exile and death. Her 1977 novel, Tierra adentro, translated by Seymour Menton into English as A Mystical Journey in 2011 (Gaon Books), explores all of these themes.

A Mystical Journey charts the spiritual and emotional development of a Jewish boy in Spain, under the rule of Philip II, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Muñiz-Huberman’s novel manages to fuse the picaresque and the Bildungsroman. Its shape is that of the picaresque, travelling from Spain to Israel; the novel’s hero, Rafael, is a protagonist in the Bildungsroman tradition, in his maturation from adolescence in a violent Spain to young adulthood in Israel, his true home. When the novel begins Rafael is a few days short of his bar mitzvah, which his parents decide not to celebrate in order to keep him safe from persecution. The inability to honor his true heritage prompts Rafael to leave his house and seek spiritual guidance, under the tutelage of a family friend residing in Madrid. His journey from Toledo to Madrid is the first of many, and along the way Rafael will find the help of an elusive character, the muleteer. In a world filled with horror and despair, the muleteer functions as a guardian angel, providing Rafael with companionship, help, and support. In his first trip to Madrid he will also meet Miriam, his future wife, who will dutifully await him until he is ready to embark in the journey that will lead them both to Israel.

Given the historical background of the novel, Rafael’s coming of age tale is filled with pain, sorrow and unimaginable hardships. In deeply poetic language, vividly captured by Menton’s translation, beautiful, winding sentences unearth a world filled with violence and despair. Rafael’s decision to remain true to his Jewish heritage, to seek spiritual growth under the guidance of different teachers in a country where execution, torture, and death were the price paid for that choice, allows Muñiz-Huberman to explore an unlikely spiritual itinerary. This is a novel of many roads, physical and imaginary. Rafael’s journey will take him from his hometown of Toledo, through nameless towns in Spain, France, Germany, Italy, and finally Israel. The cities reflect the tension and struggle of a world built on extremes, devoid of peace and alienating to Rafael: “A white city built of limestone, with many yesterdays but no tomorrow. A desert-like city that could improve its landscape with some palm trees to rise up among its walls. A city of sterile struggles, of lascivious secrets, a crucible of whirlwinds. A city of troubled and overwhelming passions, of torture, of enjoyment, of pure fresh and deep water that nevertheless is poisonous, of silence, calm and indifference. Imagined city, white city. A small city laid out in a grid, with white walls, tall rocks, watchtowers, austere, spotless” (45). The images invoke a deceptive, guarded and diseased society where much is hidden and little revealed. Against a background of “lascivious secrets,” Rafael’s sexual awakening is pure and gentle. The girls/women he encounters are kind and soft, and provide a safe haven in his tortuous journey. Miriam above all provides Rafael with an anchor, along with that of his faith, sustaining him through the many losses he endures; his parents are burnt in the pyre, his grandfather descends into madness, and Rafael’s house in Toledo is usurped by Catholic occupants. Winding like the prose of this novel, Rafael’s path stalls and continues, at times detoured by external pressures (persecution, war, the plague) and sometimes by internal struggles (fear, doubt, boredom) until Rafael reaches both his physical and spiritual home, Israel. Muñiz-Huberman’s lovely, poetic voice creates a complex coming of age journey filled with uncertainty and struggle, but ultimately hopeful and inspiring. This is a brief, condensed text that nevertheless manages in its short space (the English version is just above 125 pages) to be rich and deeply moving.

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Noelia Diaz grew up in Madrid but has lived in New York for the last 17 years. She is currently working towards her PhD in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of CUNY. Her areas of concentration are contemporary Irish and Argentine theater. At the moment she is teaching Latino/a theater in the U.S. in the Communications & Theatre Arts Department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Angelina Muñiz-Huberman (Hyères, France, 1936) has lived in Mexico since 1942. She teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is a guest lecturer at international universities. She is the author of 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Some of her literary themes are Jewish mysticism and Cryptojudaism.  Her work has been awarded with major prizes and translated into various languages. Some of her titles published in English are:Enclosed GardenThe Confidantes, and A Mystical Journey.  She is included in The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories;With Signs & Wonders; The Scroll and The Cross; The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature; Miriam´s Daughter, Jewish Latin American Poets, among other anthologies. At present Angelina Muñiz-Huberman holds a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Culture and the Arts (Mexico).

Carl Anderson

Window to the Caribbean, an oil on canvas, depicts a wide cross section of the region’s cultural heritage and diversity through peoples, festivals, wooden buildings, flora and fauna.

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Carl Anderson specializes in photo-realistic portraiture for a living, while continuing to produce complex geometric abstract art. The artist has won first prize for painting in the 4th Edition of the International Art Biennial of Malta. Later he received the second prize for painting, and a Diploma di merito at the International Grolla d’ Oro in Italy. Currently residing in Guyana, his paintings are in American and European private collections, as well as many public collections including Castellani House, Guyana’s National Art Gallery.