Three Books of a Kind

In the past year or two my fiction and non-fiction reading has generally tended to become focused on the Nordic and Russian/Slavic countries, by pure chance, and I’ve unearthed a great wealth of rewarding material.  For example, my interests in Russian and Soviet history has dovetailed greatly with the rich and rewarding trove of literature that the citizens of the east have produced, and continue to produce.  The latest novel that I find myself reading is the Soviet-era classic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thoroughly documented and powerful kaleidoscopic panoply of a Soviet society which finds itself engaged in total war with the fascist threat from Nazi Germany and her allies.  It is a novel which very nearly did not see the light of day due to the harsh censors of the Soviet Union, but thankfully the volume was smuggled out and printed elsewhere.

However, it is a little collection of books that I’ve read recently that remind me that fiction and reality aren’t always so clear-cut, and that they often inform one another with varying viewpoints.  I had the pleasure to read one of my favourite travel writer’s recent publications, Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Penguin), over the festive holiday and was ably transported once again to somewhere quite new (and rather cold) as he undertook a mission to accompany a Finnish icebreaker crew.

Another recent publication is The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories (Puskin Press), edited by Sjón & Ted Hodgkinson, which brings together a wide range of Nordic writers producing short sagas set in the fantastical north.  This reminded me of a volume I read a few years ago which was entitled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin), edited by Robert Chandler, which took a historical approach to understanding the cultural importance of magic tales that underpin Russia’s literature over two centuries.  This is an exquisite volume, one that allowed me to appreciate the form and beauty of often simple moral tales which bled into the surreal via the use of anthropomorphism.  This can be seen in some of the works produced before and during the Soviet period (Platonov’s ‘The Foundation Pit’ say, or Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’).

This was just a quick view into some of my recent reading habits and where they have led me.  Let me know below if you’ve been having fun exploring literature and fiction from around the world!


Autumn Beckons

The Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s latest cycle of books, the Seasons Quartet, has recently seen its first release, Autumn, in English this month.  (A quick note – the Seasons Quartet was originally published in Norwegian throughout 2015-16).  Styled as a series of letters to his unborn daughter, the quartet takes everyday objects or landscape features as their starting point for Knausgaard’s short and varied digressions on what it means to be alive.  I currently have Autumn by my bedside and it is a beautiful publication indeed, illustrated in style by Vanessa Baird and ably translated by Ingvild Burkey.  I haven’t yet started reading it but I shall do tonight, as it seems fitting to do so as the clouds roll in and the temperature drops. Autumn truly is my favourite season and I look forward to the changing colour of the landscape as trees shed their leaves and the nights draw in.

The second volume in the series, Winter, is released on the 2nd November 2017 and I cannot wait to hold and to read it.  I note on the publisher’s website that the volume has a different illustrator; I’m quite impressed that Knausgaard (or at least his publisher) is bringing together other artists into the fold of his new publications.  It also introduces the English-speaking world to new Scandinavian writers and artists that they may otherwise have not come across.  In the meantime Knausgaard’s much-anticipated sixth volume of his My Struggle cycle of novels isn’t released until late 2018, in the English translation, but the Seasons Quartet more than makes up for the long wait.  Happy reading!

And When the Ashes Fall From the Sky

‘At first pass (= shot) some ten or so Numbers from our hangar were caught napping beneath the engine exhaust – absolutely nothing was left of them but some sort of crumbs and soot.  I’m proud to note down here that this did not cause a second’s hitch in the rhythm of our work, no one flinched; and we and our work teams continued our rectilinear and circular movement with exactly the same precision as though nothing had happened.  Ten Numbers – that is scarcely one hundred-millionth part of the mass of OneState.  For all practical purposes, it’s a third-order infinitesimal.  Innumerate pity is a thing known only to the ancients; to us it’s funny.’

– Record 19 in Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s novel We, first published in 1924.

A Letter From Your Friend

Dear John,

Forgive the state of this paper that I write on to you now.

There is no sleep in this house now, there is only the ongoing pain at the long and drawn out suicide of humanity, that final desperate cry that is falling on deaf ears the world over.  Our cities, our towns, and our villages are burning in this fever, we are being choked as the very oxygen of life itself is sucked into this unremitting chaos, this rack and ruin of our modern world.  I know you have felt true pain in your life John, as I have mine, but this is unlike anything that we have seen before.  There is no glory in death, no beauty in execution, no mercy in torture.

Man is at the mercy of fellow-man, and that well of mercy has reached its bitter and turgid end.  It is dry, bone dry, and we have resorted to barbarity to replace what we have lost.

Even as I write this letter to you now I can hear the engines of jeeps prowling the street, the siren call for retribution wailing into the night.  I can hear the distant thud of artillery threatening the very capital.  The sands of our land are choking on the blood of its people, spilt time and time again.  I have seen inhumane scenes, of neighbour killing neighbour, of families split by invisible sectarian lines, of death squads rampaging across the city executing those it hates on sight.  I have lost the beauty that I once found in life itself, and it has been replaced by those faces that I see day in and day out.  The faces that are willing to kill and to maim if you do not abide by their rules.

I cannot believe that these people have families that lovingly raised them to be citizens of the world, that were ensconced in the beauty of our religion from birth.

It would be a lie, a certain and death-defying lie, to tell you that I did not fear for my immediate future.  There is no hope in munitions, helped either in its aim by the barrel of a gun or of a bomb held securely in the bay of distant plane.  In that sense, they both share the same problem in that they only kill and main and alienate – they do not heal, they do not bring together the families of those that are at war with each other.

The news is the same the world over, each country fighting its own personal war against the populace.  I pray for you my brother, as I shall pray for your family as you pray for mine.  May we find each other again in a garden of peace.

Yours sincerely,

Abdulrahman M.

Literature Updates

A quick note here to say that my book collection has recently grown to include John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands, two defining books of the travel literature genre.  I’ve now finished Steinbeck’s book and I’m a good chunk of the way into Thesiger’s work.  It is interesting to note that the journeys of both, whilst vastly different in terms of transport, culture and geography, were roughly contemporaneous and each offer a personal slice of quickly changing worlds.  Steinbeck notes that he hoped to learn about the population of his country, yet ultimately he comes away perhaps knowing less than he’d like being partly disgusted by the actions of some in his native country (whilst nevertheless delighting in the natural landscape), Thesiger meanwhile seeks to escape the memories of his school life and instead become deeply entrenched during his 5 years of wandering the deserts of Arabia and Abyssinia.  I am very much enjoying learning about the The Empty Quarter of the Arabian Peninsula and about the often harsh but distinct Bedu way of life, particularly as the current media focus in the Middle East is particularly negative and non-too encouraging.  I’ve also recently ordered The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, as I’ve not previously read any of his work and I’d like to get an understanding of the author before delving into his body of work.

As I’ve said before on this blog I truly believe that literature (and storytelling) is one of humanity’s greatest gifts.  As such I am always happy for any recommendations as to what to read next if you care to leave any suggestions below.  Happy reading!

Kafka Revisited

I think this photograph turned out alright!  I love how the Penguin Modern Classic of Franz Kafka’s ‘The Castle ‘ ends as he left it, the last sentence hanging incomplete.  It tantalises the reader to think of what Kafka possibly had planned for the conclusion of the novel but, as the introductory essay in the Modern Classic notes, it also adds an air of completeness to the novel as a whole helping to fit the overall theme of the novel perfectly.


My photograph of the last page of Kafka’s 1926 novel ‘The Castle’, taken with a Pentax S1a camera on colour film.  Perhaps not as clear as I’d like it to be, but I love the highlighting the ‘she spoke with an effort’ part which, I think, adds an air mystery.

I have one more novel to read by Kafka and that is ‘The Trial’, a copy of which sits on my bedside table.  In truth I am loathe to start reading it, partly because I have so many other books on the go at once, but truthfully because it would be the last major work of his that I have not read.  Although I’ve never found Kafka’s writings an easy read his work is a rewarding read, burrowing deeply into themes that permeated the 19th and 20th centuries.

A Letter To Sasha



Monday 14th July


You are always too formal!  I have your crinkled and yellowed letter by my side as I write to you now, though it has took some time to arrive to me here on the sunny coast of Recife (I think Brasilian mail is slow).  I trust that you are safe, whatever devil wrote that letter will surely be thrown from your trail once you moved.  In truth I have to believe that you are safe, you are my link, possibly my last link to what we once had in the old world.  But I will not speak like that because we are strong, we have always been strong!  Remember when we were children and we used to rings around Joseph in the school yard, how his little cheeks became red with the effort of his exertion as he tried to catch us whilst we floated on the air, always beating him.  We were always the fastest in the school races as well.

Do you believe that whoever sent you the letter also knew about me?

Recife life is good, I am liking it here although it is very different from the home country.  The coast and the countryside are beautiful (a lush verdant green contrasting with the colonial town facade), the sea is sparkling and the living is good.  I should say though that this city is not without it’s own problems of course.  There is a large population here, full of migrants and manual laborers from the surrounding countryside, and whilst there is a strong regional and local identity it would not do to compare it to the cities in the south!  I know you think it is odd my coming here, after all this is country that is directly opposite to ours in ideology and views, one that has harboured those that seek to banish, isolate and, ultimately, flay us off the face of this earth, but in truth Sasha it is also a vibrant mix of people, of identities and cultures.  I can, with a good tan and some local knowledge, slip into the crowds here and form myself a new skin; I am born anew.

Please do not say that I am betraying our homeland identity though.  We both know what it is like carrying around our secrets and hidden pasts (that heavy depressing weight) but we have to be careful, we always have to be careful.  In my heart I believe that this is the last place that I’ll be found in or hunted down in- I am living in the open, eating fresh fish and fruit and drinking the vitalising local drinks.  I feel free here Sasha!  More free than I have felt for so many years.  It is as if I can feel my wings spreading that little bit more each day, as if the very horizon widens that little bit more every morning.  I am even taking educational classes, learning the local language slowly but surely and helping to sell goods at a small local market.  I know it is nothing compared to our previous lives but I am slowly earning to live again.  I pray that you too are doing the same.  In fact I know you are, we could not be so close and not know one another’s thoughts, even with an ocean between our physical bodies.

I wake up on the cool mornings, with the air laced with the salt of the sea spray, the sun’s rays casting shadows on my walls and the calls of the street echoing in my room, and I give thanks that I wake up in this lovely place.  There is history here too, although not classical it is every bit as intriguing as anything Rome or Athens produced, and so recent too.  Did you know that the indigenous peoples raised their own republic here in the north not so long ago?  That they repelled the central government so many times that the main rebel city grew and prospered for decades?  In resistance there is hope.  We know this, we live this.  To be alive is to be against the laws of the very known universe, but to be alive means that we must push ourselves even when we think that we can no longer function as humans.  We must, we have to, or else our lives would be in vain.

Forgive me, I know you know this.  And do not joke, your bones are almost younger than mine!  I will see you yet in Brasil and we shall dance together in the street.  I know that you have to stay in Europe; I miss it every waking hour of my life but I need to be away from it.  I cannot yet go back, too fresh is the wound upon my body and being physically back would surely open re-open those wounds.  I fear that is something I could not recover from quickly, if I ever could.  No, I have a horrible feeling that it could be fatal.  No, I need to Stay away, I need that deep blue gap between between me and the land we once knew.

Tell me, my dear, what news of your love life?  What news of your latest historical fix?  I miss your knowledgeable ways, the pointing out of nicked buildings and little cultured asides on some-such street feature.  Are you reading at the moment?  I find that I have to, that before I go to bed on a night I must pick up a European classic and read a few pages or even just flick through some favourite passages of a few novels.  I need to remind myself that evil has not permeated every facet of European life, that it has not indelibly marked the pleasure of our country or another.  Maybe it is stupid, or daft, but I feel it is necessary.

Do not forget Sasha that we are all sons and daughters of some one.  We have our history, our culture, our people, running through our own veins right now, even as you read these very words remember that we are free.  Whilst we live so do they.  Do not give up hope, and do not give in to despair.  Fly while (and when) you can but soon we will be settled once again.  Keep that hope in your heart and enjoy your historical tours as I am sure only you can!

With deepest love for you my brother, my family.


Letter 1Letter 3

A Letter To Simone

Vieille Ville,


Thursday 26th May

Dear Simone,

Thank you for your latest letter Simone, it is much appreciated and much needed at this moment in my life.  It means the world to hear from such a dear friend.  I was extremely interested to hear of your tales and adventures in Brazil – it is a country I have yearned to visit for some years now, although I doubt my old bones will now make it across the cold Atlantic.  Maybe I will finally join you in the twilight years of my life?  We shall see old friend, we shall see!  In the meantime I find myself in Geneva, of all places.  It is nice here, warm in the summer sun.  Great chess boards too, where you often find yourself playing against old crooked masters.

At this moment I’m sitting in Vieille Ville, sure it is a tourist trap, but I am anonymous enough drinking my coffee in peace in this rich historic environment.  (You know as well as I do that I need history, not just coffee, to keep me going).  As a pleasant extra I am served by waitresses that have truly taken in the beauty of the landscape – they have must have gulped it down so candescent is their splendour and bosoms!  Enough of my chatter, let us get down to business and the reason why I write to you now.

Yesterday I received a letter from a person that neither I nor you know, yet they knew me intimately.  Although I have only been in Geneva a few weeks (and what glorious peaceful weeks they have been!) this person knew of my history and of our connection.   We both know what it is like to live but not to be alive, to merely survive, of constantly having to check who is behind you.  I do not want to do that again, I will not.  We are brother and sister me and you, not a family by shared blood but by shared experiences.  I know I can trust you and that is why I write to you now in deepest confidence.

The content of the letter was vicious, bloody, a real slap in the face of a warning.  I could make out a couple of sentences warning of retaliation for being what we are, for having the nerve to run when we did.  I am not sure, though, that the writer knew of our story in all of it’s grisly detail, just that we had escaped, ran across that fateful line that separated us from them.

When I close my eyes, when I try to sleep, just when I think I am at my most peaceful sitting by the lake, the scene is shattered irrevocably.  I see them still, caged like beasts whilst we ran for our lives, flying over torn up fields of green.  We both know that there was no chance of rescuing any of the others but that did not make the decision to leave any easier.  When I wake in the morning tears still stain my pillows, such is my desolation that I weep in my sleep.  I only hope that you, sister, fare better then me in such circumstances.  Indeed, in our way, we have swapped the turmoil in our souls for the beauty of landscapes that we each now inhabit.  As deep as we try to drink in the beauty of the world, we know of the deepest darkest recesses of the human mind that haunt us wherever we shall go.

But let me come back to the letter.  It was hand delivered to the door of my apartment in Geneva around the time the normal post came.  This realisation, that whoever dropped it off knew where I was living, came to me like a slap in the face.  It was as if I had been pulled from a deep peaceful coma and plunged into an ice bath.  Perhaps for too long had I been lulled into a false sense of security by the facade of history in the city.  Either way I knew I had to act quickly.

The letter did not state any direct actions that the writer would take but it did not need to – after all the very fact that they knew where I lived was a threat enough was it not?  I decided to pack my bag that instant, leaving the apartment within the hour.  I am hiding in plain sight at the moment but later I shall catch the train and escape this city altogether.  I do not feel safe here any more.  I knew of course that it was risky to stay here, but I will not abandon them, at least not until I know it is too late.

You know I cannot seem to escape Europe itself.  My roots are too deeply embedded in the landscape, my history present in the wind, the soil drenched in my blood.  I cannot leave here, nor will I.  As much as I would love to sit by your side on the white beaches of Rio I cannot.  Please have that extra drink for me and raise your glass when you do.  Think of me, but think of others left behind.  Only in our mind are we truly free.

So this letter is just a warning sister, please be on your guard as I am now on mine.

In this letter I have included a safe location for you to write to me.  For now I will deposit this letter at the railway station and ask an aide to post it later on today to make the 5pm post.

Please reply when it is safe, when you are able.

Yours sincerely,

Sasha C.

Letter 2 – Letter 3

In the Shadow of the Dom

He walked along the cobbled pathway, working his way around the historic square in slow motion in the shadow of the Dom.  His feet had last graced these stones many years ago, and now, unlike then, it was raining a fine mist of droplets, covering every surface available but barely palpable on the skin itself.  His thoughts lingered to the dominating brick and stone built twin-towered Dom that had stood for many centuries overlooking the square, of the individual lives that they had silently watched over, of the city they had seen being built, burned, rebuilt and bombed time and time again.  Time herself is a very odd mistress, one that can command an excruciating hour to last a lifetime but wish away a long awaited holiday in the blink of an eye.  It was hard for his mind to let go of the thought that he had been waiting many years to be here once more, in the heartland of Europe, to think that he was meant to come back.  To once again see the familiar faces aged by the years but to notice the still vibrant smiles lingering on the faces of people that he loved.

The Dom itself had also been born anew in the time that it had taken for him to return.  No longer spouting a skeletal frame of metal and canvas around it’s gothic towers, the building gleamed a new vitality as if life itself leached from the very stone of its own integral anatomy.  The smell of the refreshed moist earth, of the surrounding shrubbery glinting with water droplets, made him feel glad to be rooted once again to the European continent.


Photograph by author.

Time’s Arrow

The arrow thudded into the target with a satisfying thud, scoring a much needed five points for our team.  The bow, still clutched in my hand, was placed horizontal out in front of me as I latched another arrow onto the string, brought it up vertical, drew back the string to just under my chin, aimed and fired again.

I hadn’t fired a bow for a few years now and, as it slowly came back to me after going through the basics with the other participants  it made me think of how previous generations of humans had used the bow for pleasure, for war, and for hunting, for millennium.  The bow and arrow isn’t a modern weapon, it isn’t a gun.  It is a thing of beauty, sleek and skillful.

Ah the passing of the time, of time’s infinite arrow into the unknown.  The string and the thack of the arrow into the wooden boards reminded me of the twanging of the heavy bass strings, of the light and bluesy guitar strings in comparison, and of the intricacies and follies of string theory, and ultimately, of the vibrancy of life.

Last week I visited Amsterdam with friends, and it was beautiful.  Time slowed down, came to a stop a few times, and seemed to go all too fast as we left that beautiful, surreal city.


Author’s photograph of the canals of the Dutch capital.