When are we going to Moscow?

“Haven’t they gone to Moscow yet?” is the question I’m usually greeted with when I suggest another theatre outing to see a Chekhov play. It’s a fair question, and one that I began asking as a struggling student of Russian, ploughing my way through Three Sisters in the original Russian while still recovering from the rigours of my O Level Russian exam. Through the opaque veil of a language still largely unknown to me, I instinctively understood the yearning of those sisters. Somewhere, beyond the boundaries of my small, suburban adolescent existence, there must surely be a world where life could be lived to the full.

That sense of unfulfilled longing runs through so much of Chekhov’s work, and it’s a theme I found to my delight in a novel I read while enjoying a series of three early Chekhov plays in London last year. Alison Anderson’s haunting elegiac novel The Summer Guest concerns a diarist in late nineteenth-century Russia, a translator in modern-day France and a London publisher: three women connected across time and space, united by a love of words, and by their desire to throw light into the hidden corners of the human spirit. Three deftly interwoven narrative strands bring these women together, transporting us to a Russian country-house setting that will be instantly recognisable to lovers of Chekhov and Tolstoy. As a translator myself, and an erstwhile student of Russian, I felt while reading this book that it was written for me. Here is a novel from a distinguished translator, peppered with insights into the process of translation, that skilfully blurs fact and fiction and tells a beguiling story of Chekhovian loss and longing, while throwing light on the great writer himself and teasing us with the possibility that Chekhov did after all write a full-length novel before his untimely death from consumption at the age of forty-four.

The diarist of The Summer Guest is Zina, a young woman, labouring under the burden of a fatal neurological disease that has deprived her of her sight and cut short her burgeoning career as a doctor in late nineteenth-century Russia. Anderson has taken her inspiration from the real Zinaida Lintvyarova (Zina), who exists as a footnote of history: an acquaintance of Chekhov for whom he wrote an obituary in which he spoke of her gifts as a doctor and of the patience and courage with which she endured her final illness. In this well-researched piece of fiction, Alison Anderson has created an imagined record of that illness, a diary in which Zina records her thoughts and emotions over two summers at her family home in Luka. The diary has fallen into the hands of Katya, a Russian publisher living in London, owner of the benighted small press aptly named, in a nod to Tolstoy, Polyana Press. Katya has engaged Ana Harding, a translator living in a small village in France, to bring the diary into English.

It is Ana’s translation of Zina’s diary that forms the bulk of the The Summer Guest. Zina writes poignantly of her desire to resist her cruel fate, reflecting that her words on the page are no more than “sightless scratchings against mortality”. Anderson approaches the subject of Zina’s experience of blindness with great sensitivity, skilfully avoiding cliché and focussing on the blind woman’s sensory experience of the world. Zina must learn to navigate her way through a landscape that is “no longer a place of colour and shapes”, an unfamiliar world in which friends and family have become disembodied voices. One voice stands out: the warm humorous tones of the eponymous summer guest, the young doctor and writer Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, who delights in engaging Zina in long discussions. In true Chekhovian fashion, they talk of love and literature, of destiny and free will. Zina comments on Anton Pavlovich’s fictional creations, urging him to write at greater length and become a novelist. Their friendship deepens as Anton Pavlovich illuminates the world for Zina, creating pictures in her mind with his descriptions of the scenes unfolding before his eyes. Echoing many a reader’s thoughts as we sink into a Chekhov short story, Zina writes: “He restores a fractured loveliness to my blind world, recalling remembered scenes and suggesting others blurred by time and loss.”

Interwoven with the diary itself are sections given over to Ana’s musings as she works on the translation. Alone in her remote village in France, she weathers the ups and downs of the freelancer’s life, relishing her solitude and the freedom it confers on her. Once engaged in the translation of the journal, she works slowly through her first draft, deepening her understanding of the diarist, researching, revising and losing herself in the work. We read that Ana takes the Russian words and “with each moment of slow, considered re-creation in her own language, enters the prism where sunlight refracts language.” She dreams of translating Chekhov’s lost novel, a manuscript repeatedly alluded to in the diary; finding herself daunted at this prospect, she imagines herself in conversation with Constance Garnett, the renowned translator of much of the Russian canon into English.

Alternating with the diary and with Ana’s story is the third strand of the novel, which takes us to London where Katya and her English husband, Peter, struggle to keep their Polyana Press afloat. Caught between market forces and a desire to publish a work they are deeply attached to, Katya and Peter are committed to bringing Zina’s diary to the English-speaking world. But the diary’s provenance remains shrouded in mystery. How did they come across this astonishing document? Do they really have access to a long-lost Chekhov manuscript? Ana travels to London to meet Katya and finds herself drawn further into the mystery of the diary’s origins, eventually travelling to Zina’s family home in modern day Ukraine.

This is an engrossing read that keeps us guessing until the last. The characters are deftly drawn and satisfyingly multi-faceted, and as befits a work that owes so much to Chekhov, the language is lyrical and restrained. Transported to a distant but familiar setting, I savoured the pages of this beguiling novel and was reminded of the joys of reading Chekhov with its distinctively clear-eyed depiction of life in all its tragicomic absurdity and beauty.

This review first appeared in Edition Two of The Riveter: Riveting Russian Writing

http://www.eurolitnetwork.com/the-riveter-edition-two-on-russian-literature-today-is-out/

 

 

 

 

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A hundred years and more

Reading Tahar Ben Jelloun’s moving account of his mother’s final illness, About My Mother, in a sensitive, lyrical translation by Ros Schwartz and Lulu Norman, I found myself pausing with increasing frequency to reflect on the arc of my own mother’s life. Tahar’s mother was a simple, illiterate woman, born into a traditional society in the early part of the twentieth century, who rarely ventured beyond the boundaries of the two towns in which she spent her life, and who accepted with unstinting faith that her life was in the hands of God. My mother has recently joined the burgeoning ranks of centenarian women in modern society and has led a rich life that’s taken her far beyond the bounds of the world she was born into. They couldn’t be more different. And yet, there is so much that strikes a common chord.

Tahar’s mother, Lalla Fatma, suffers from Alzheimer’s in her last years, drifting in and out of time, confusing memories, dreams, fears and imaginings. She is looked after by a paid companion, Keltum, who oversees the regimen of pills, feeds her, bathes her and attends to her increasingly burdensome bodily needs. Keltum bears the brunt of the aging woman’s bitterness and accusations, most of which arise from her confused state. For her son Tahar, Lalla Fatma reserves her boundless devotion; her attachment to her children has been the cornerstone of her life. Married as a child bride to man she had never met, widowed and pregnant at the age of sixteen – or thereabouts, she has no idea when she was born – widowed for a second time after a brief marriage to a kindly but elderly gentleman in need of a youthful wife, and finally married to the man who would become Tahar’s father, a cultured but unsuccessful businessman. It is from his father that Tahar learns that Islam is a tolerant religion, a private relationship between the individual and God: “ Islam is straightforward: to be a good Muslim, it’s enough to believe in the one and only God and His Prophet Muhammad, to behave decently, respecting your parents and the elderly, and not to lie, steal, kill or hurt others deliberately.” Lalla Fatma believes in kindness and love, that money is the instrument of the devil, the evil eye is an ever-present danger, and that a mother’s love surpasses all else. She apologises to her famous, cosmopolitan son for the love she bestows on him and for the burden that devotion places on him. She wants only to die in peace, surrounded by her children.

My mother commented to me the other day that I was young, able to do the things she can no longer do, and that this was why I was always out and about and had so little time for her. Not so young, Mum, I responded, and I do see you every day. But yes, I’m still young enough to live my life on my own terms. Until very recently, my mother stubbornly resisted the limitations imposed on her by her encroaching blindness, marching up to the shops brandishing her white stick, stumbling on and off the bus to take herself here, there and everywhere. Every day, she created a diversion for herself. Thus did she stave off loneliness and boredom and remain engaged in the world, in harmony with her family and friends. Now, her failing vision has deprived her of her pleasures, one by one. Her last few friends have died, her sister is long gone. Unable to read, baffled by the world of computers and mobile phones (“Are you a member of the Broad Band, dear?”), her grasp on reality is fading. Like Tahar’s mother, she confuses generations, forgets where her grandchildren are, and sometimes who they are, thinks the home help is stealing her money and her jewellery. “I haven’t had a holiday in years. I haven’t got a friend in the world.” I try to chivvy her up, but in my heart I think what a cruel fate such longevity is and dread my own sentence, the condemnation to live on when everyone else in my generation has perished. Most of all, I dread being unable to pick up a book and transport myself to other worlds.

Mum passes her time now telling herself stories, recreating lost worlds in her head. She’s always done this to an extent – perhaps this is the source of what most perceive to be her remarkable memory. I sit and listen, as she thinks aloud, sometimes feeding her questions to get her to reveal a tale I haven’t yet heard. I am taken back to her Edwardian childhood, a world of liberty bodices and diphtheria, of lisle stockings and scullery maids. I love to hear her tales of the war – ‘our war’ as she calls it – and of how she joined the Land Army to pull herself out of the grief of losing her young man, of the cows at dawn, of tractors and American pilots with their chocolate and easy-going ways. I hear tales of midnight assignations, of friendships and love affairs, of abortions, ghosts and the pleasures of hard physical labour among friends in the open air. And of how she and her friend joined the FANY at the end of the war, not wanting to settle down to the tedium of domestic life, of her voyage round the world, silent camels stepping alongside the ship as it passed through the Suez Canal at night. Of Japan, India and partition, and her marriage into a Muslim family and a world not so different from the Morocco of Tahar’s mother, an Indian family where women wore burqas and spent their days in the house, chewing paan and bestowing love on their children.

As she rambles on, I realise that Mum is muddling me sometimes with her sister who she says was like me, “bossy and clever”. And sometimes she thinks I lived through the war with her, that I share her attitudes and perspectives, that I remember the days when young women painted seams along the backs of their bare legs in the absence of stockings. I love her stories, even though I have heard most of them many times before. I don’t know how much she embellishes them, how much is remembered and how much is imagined. I weave my own tales around them, and the reality becomes even more blurred.

I wonder how much more my mother’s life will diminish, if she will become like Tahar’s mother, unable to do anything for herself, living more and more inside her own dreams and memories. She doesn’t have the simple faith of Lalla Fatma, she doesn’t know what awaits her after death. She says she must put her things in order, but she doesn’t speak of death. Older than she likes to admit, almost blind, much deafer than she realises, Mum is still very much alive.

 

In Japan – Part 2 Hiroshima

Hiroshima sits in a bowl between mountains and sea, a setting of stunning beauty. Drained by seven rivers that flow through its streets, dotted with bridges, waterside parks and cafes, the city is just across the water from the famous floating Tori Gates of Miyajima Island. Trams, old and new rumble through Hiroshima’s clean, airy streets. There are gardens, temples, shrines, a mix of modern and traditional architecture. There are castles and art galleries. And at the city’s heart, where once there was an elegant green-domed waterside structure designed by a Czech architect, the prosaically named Industrial Promotion Hall that housed exhibitions and cultural events, there is now a mournful concrete shell, the unmistakable silhouette of the A-bomb dome. This eerie World Heritage Site, a symbol of both hope and utter dejection, stands at the centre of Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park, the sober complex of museums and memorials from which everything in this modern city radiates.

I can’t say when I first became aware of Hiroshima. The bomb was always part of the landscape of our lives when I was growing up. We knew it had been dropped, we knew that if it were ever to be used again the world would come to an end, that World War Three would unleash unthinkable destruction. The fear of the apocalypse lurked in all of us. But it was only when I happened to see the film Hiroshima Mon Amour that I began to understand what all this could mean on a human scale. Grainy black and white images of blank-eyed suffering, of people staring in disbelief at their own burned and devastated flesh. A camera panning slowly over the empty grid of what was once a bustling city. And of course the familiar mushroom cloud burgeoning above an unseen city.

So, for me, a visit to Hiroshima was a necessity. My parents had spoken of it to me when I was a child, they had been given a permit to visit in the days when the bomb site was closed to outsiders, they had seen the flat emptiness that had replaced the once bustling city. I came to the reborn metropolis almost seventy years after its destruction, just a few weeks before Obama’s visit, the first from a serving American president. I was not surprised to read that this visit was controversial. I had learned during my years living in the US in the 1970s that my own view, that it had been wrong to use nuclear weapons to force Japan to surrender, was not at all current in the US. The accepted view was that if Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not been destroyed, the war would have dragged on and on with ever greater loss of life. The Peace Museum in Hiroshima sets out all those arguments with great dignity, the debate goes on. But the survivors, their descendants and the citizens of the new Hiroshima, a city devoted to the promotion of world peace, were grateful that Obama came. No apology was expected, his presence was enough.

I set aside a full day for the Museum and Peace Park. It was harrowing, of course. Hard work threading methodically through the complex of statues, structures and parks on the site where the explosion was centred. The museum itself is simply laid out. You take a headset in the language of your choice and make your way through the displays. Most moving are the artifacts from victims: watches, burnt clothing, children’s toys, all with a simple explanation of what that person was doing at the time of the bomb, and the circumstances of their deaths. Some died instantaneously, some after suffering ghastly burns and radiation sickness. Glass bottles, twisted and melted, charred tattered clothing from adults and children alike, lunch boxes and bicycles recovered from the debris. For many of the items there is a sobering account of the fate suffered by their owners. There are personal accounts of what it had been like to witness and survive the events of that day. On the train on the way to Hiroshima I had read John Hersey’s book Hiroshima, written in the aftermath of the bomb, a slim volume that gives voice to a handful of survivors. In clear-eyed, simple prose, ordinary people describe their experience of that day: their bewilderment in the face of the noiseless, blinding flash that erupted in the sky on a clear, sunny morning; their naïve but reasonable assumption that this had been just another bomb; the gradual realization that this was an event without precedent. They talk of the black rain that fell after the bomb, of the firestorm that destroyed the buildings left standing after the blast, of the children who simply vanished. Of the overwhelming numbers of burned, sick and blinded victims who made their way to makeshift hospitals and treatment centres that were themselves hopelessly understaffed and almost completely devoid of medicines or supplies. And after all this began to abate, the onset of the unknown sickness that killed some within a few days and delivered a lingering death to others. The museum tells the same story, and with the same unadorned simplicity. Visitors ponder the exhibits in silence, each person immured in his or her own world, headset clamped to the ears.

And after the museum there are the memorials of the Peace Park complex, the lists of names of victims, the reminders that there were not only Japanese people killed that day, that among the victims were American prisoners of war and thousands of Koreans conscripted into forced labour in Japan. The Children’s Peace Monument to all the thousands of children who died, festooned with paper cranes in memory of a young girl who folded paper cranes in a vain effort to fend off her own death from radiation sickness. The cenotaph and flame, a symbolic flame that will only be extinguished when the world is rid of nuclear weapons. Small displays, handouts and booklets to read, some from hibakusha, the survivors of the bombing, telling their stories and making the plea for world peace. And finally there is the dome itself, huge and imposing in its stark emptiness, shored up by scaffolding, the remnants of the structure left as it was on that day.

Impossible to come away from a day at the Peace Memorial Park  without being sickened by the horror of it all, moved by determination of the citizens of Hiroshima to ensure that this never happens again, that the world will find its way to peace.

After the park I made my way to the Shukkeien Garden, a reconstructed garden in the centre of the city, a haven of beauty and order like so many gardens in Japan. Amidst the gently curving bridges and walkways, I came upon a great gingko tree, leaning at an impossible angle, its strangely shaped leaves offering dappled shade. This venerable tree survived the blast while the rest of the garden was obliterated. Its seeds are gathered and sent around the world to be planted as symbols of peace and hope for the future. Crossing the domed bridge over one of the garden’s elegantly sculpted ponds, brightly coloured carp jostling open-mouthed at my feet as I passed, I turned back to look again at that gingko tree, trying to impress its structure into my mind and willing myself to carry away with me its silent message of hope.

 

 

In Japan – part 1

In Japan – part 1

Shikoku was the name of our dog, and I loved her with childish passion. We kept one of her many puppies, a floppy-eared male we named Uji. Dotted around the house were images and artefacts from Japan, tiny, exquisitely painted bowls, ethereal paintings of blossoms and mountains. Framed photographs of our parents, youthful and unrecognisable against a backdrop of pagodas, temples and buddhas. My mother holding Shikoku, a ball of white fluff, and behind her a house with a gracefully curving roof and windows that seemed to be made of paper.

My parents were married in Japan in the aftermath of the Second World War, an Indian captain in the British India Division and an adventurous FANY who had served in the Land Army and seized the chance to go overseas as the war ended. They met on a troop ship, and married boldly a few months later. And finally, some seventy years later, I made the trip to Japan, just another tourist spirited across the world in a modern airline, arriving jet lagged and grumpy to the comfortable embrace of a friend’s home in suburban Tokyo. But I carried with me those images impressed upon me throughout my childhood. A handful of old photographs were a talisman for my travels as I followed in the footsteps of my parents, railpass in hand and armed with a smattering of elementary Japanese.

My reading of Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, had warned me that old Japan would be hard to find, that the swooping roofs and sliding screens of traditional dwellings had been replaced by a sea of mismatched cubes surrounded by a jumble or overhead wires. Tokyo seemed to confirm that view, with its endless sprawl of high-rise buildings, train tracks and motorways rimmed by strangely cropped gingko trees. I found it hard to make any sense of this vast modern metropolis. In a blur of jetlag, I allowed myself to be swept through temples, shrines, gardens and shopping districts, the seething crowds of Japan’s Golden Week holiday pressing around me. Only in the great fishmarket of Tsukiji did I finally begin to get a sense of what made this culture so distinctive. There, amidst the frenetic bustle of daily commerce, I watched as modern-day samurai wielded meter-long curved blades to slice through gargantuan sides of tuna with absolute precision, wiping hands and blades as they worked, sluicing down surfaces and forearms with cloths dipped repeatedly in vats of water. “If it smells of fish, don’t eat it!” was the advice given to me later by a chef, words of wisdom that were not difficult to heed in that odourless bustle. Precision, immaculate presentation, and an absolute adherence to a rigorous standard of cleanliness were everywhere apparent.

Japan is like nowhere else, in every respect. Alex Kerr compares it to a hapax, a Chinese character that is found only in one instance. However much you study it or try to understand it, you will never really know what it means, as there is nothing to compare it with. It stands on its own. From the impenetrable writing system, to its extraordinary food, its crowded cities all packed together in a plane that stretches between the mountains and the sea and its amazing bullet trains, everything about Japan is remarkable and unexpected. I’m a language fanatic and whenever I visit a new country, I try to crack something of the language, but I had to admit defeat with written Japanese. First there are Hiragana and Katakana, the two alphabetic systems with their dizzying multiplicity of strokes and diacritics, and then there are the Kanji, thousands of characters borrowed from Chinese, a system of elegant, compact line drawings each representing a concept and not connected to sounds at all. It was only when I found a manual generously setting out the fundamentals of the language in Romaji, a romanized system of phonetic transcription, that I was able to make any headway at all. I took with me some of the photos from my parents’ old albums, those small black and white images of their courtship and honeymoon in places I hoped to be able to identify. Pointing at the photos, I managed to use my rudimentary skills to make it clear that these were my parents, in Japan all those years ago, and set off to follow in their footsteps: to Kyoto, Uji, Nara and to Kobe to the mosque where they were married. And finally to Hiroshima, the devastated city they had seen in the days when the grim details of its fate were still kept a secret from the outside world.

The hapax revealed itself to be a very modern place where everything works. To me, more used to the anarchy of London, it seemed a conformist society where people behave with great restraint – at least in public. No drunken ladettes here, no loud yobbish behaviour. No litter anywhere and no pick-pocketing or mugging. There must be crime and poverty, but I saw no sign of it. I saw only a homogeneous society where everyone is Japanese and speaks Japanese. It couldn’t be more different from Europe or America with their immigrant communities and array of peoples from all over the world. This is Japan, and the Japanese way of life is the only game in town. Beautiful clothes, an extraordinary variety of mysterious foods all presented with absolute care and elegance. Sushi, noodles, tempura, weird vegetables, fish of all descriptions and strange confectionary, none of it particularly sweet, and Japan’s own version of cuisines from all over the world, all absorbed and presented in a distinctively Japanese manner.

People behave with great restraint, are always extremely polite, bowing and smiling courteously, especially in hotels and restaurants. The trains are impressive, always on time, usually crowded, perfectly clean. Stations are huge, busy, crowded, well-organised and signposted. Everywhere I went, on the Tokyo metro, on buses and local trains, on the whimsically named Romance Car to the shadow of Mount Fuji, and most of all the bullet trains with their sleek white silhouette and long blunt snout, I found the same immaculate precision and courteousness. You form a line on the platform to board the train at precisely the right spot for your reserved seat. Everything works, everything is clean, everyone is polite.

And then there are the toilets. Heated seats, a control bar mounted on the wall at the side or attached to the throne itself, with a choice of added features. In upmarket hotels, public loos in the park, the ladies room in temples and noodle bars alike, and of course on the trains, I found always the same hygienic odourless splendour, the control displays illustrated with helpful line drawings to supplement the instructions: rear cleansing, front cleansing, deodorizing and sometimes a musical option to add to the sensory delights on offer. And, for the mother with her children in tow, no need to hang on to a wandering toddler with one hand while attending to her own needs, there is a small high chair, with harness, attached to the wall.

My travels took me to the mountains of Hakone where a sighting of Fuji San on a cloudless day, the great white cone floating in a flawless azure sky, fulfilled the promise of all those images imprinted on the mind from countless reproductions. Hot-spring baths, bowing hotel staff dressed in kimonos, tatami matting, meals that lasted for hours and consisted of innumerable small bites of mysterious delights, this surely was the Japan I’d been hoping to find. And then on to Kyoto arriving by bullet train amid throngs of people to be delivered to Japan’s ancient capital, a city left relatively unscathed by the destruction wreaked upon most of Japan’s cities during the war. More temples, shrines, castles, exquisite art works, buses, and wide straight roads set out on a grid, a sea of umbrellas and always, throngs of people. Learning to negotiate buses and local trains, I headed to Uji, Nara and Kobe to find what was left of the places where my parents had married and spent their honeymoon.

Kobe, like so many of Japan’s cities, has suffered destruction from earthquake and fire more than once. In 1946, all that remained standing after the bombing raids and fires was the stone-built mosque, the first mosque in Japan, where the Turkish imam welcomed my parents and married them, the mosque crowded with well-wishers and curious on-lookers. The old family photographs show my mother, legs and arms bare, her head uncovered, standing proudly on the arm of her uniformed beloved, solemnly facing the imam, and later on the steps of the mosque, smiling to the camera surrounded by beaming women and children. Flowery shirt waister frocks, 1940s hairstyles rolled and curled, children in dungarees and baseball caps and a Japanese women staring quizzically down into the camera, a basket on one arm, a paper parasol in the other. The modern imam greets me and seems interested in the photos but I must go upstairs with the women until the men have all finished praying. The mosque looks much as it did all those years ago, but the city around has grown up once again and the building is now hidden in a sea of wires and earth-quake proof structures, the worshippers dressed in Islamic style, heads covered, arms and legs hidden from view. Children play on the steps, chatting in Japanese and Urdu. Around the corner from the mosque, tourists wander among the boutiques and restaurants of Kitano, Kobe’s western enclave, once the home of foreigners, now a strangely Disneyesque cluster of ersatz French bistros and English tea shops in the shadow of the mountains that frame the city.

Nights in Vic – impressions of life in a French village

Sometimes I wake in the dead of night and hear a distant roar like a plane or the rumble of thunder. In my sleepy state, I have often thought I heard the crash of ocean waves, or perhaps the blasting of artillery. But it is the wind, gathering speed and power as it rolls off the mountains and over the plains. Shutters begin to rattle, windows and doors slam shut, trees sigh and moan. The coming onslaught goes on for days as the mistral batters the air and sweeps the clouds across the sky. The air cools, the humidity vanishes, the light is transformed.

When at last the wind drops the night air is pierced by the strange unworldly call of a bird, a soft whoop that punctuates the stillness, reminding me of India. It was some time before I learned that this was the cry of the small owl perched in the tall trees in the neighbours’ garden, the same trees that have grown up inexorably and blocked our once panoramic view of the mountains in the distance. That first summer, I was reminded again of India by the sweet stench of the still open sewers. Now, after twenty-five years of ever-deferred promises, the village has modern sewage and those smells have been banished. Instead a sickly odour occasionally wafts up through the pipes in the bathroom, reminding me of the old days, before the sewage, when every storm would unleash a rich bounty of perfumes. If I stand at the front door when the wind blows from the south, I can smell fennel and thyme, damp earth. Rain is falling somewhere far off to the south. After the storm the mistral will blow.

In summer, the nights are short, the air soft and still. Windows and doors are thrown open and people stay out late in the velvet darkness. The screeching of cicadas is replaced by the sound of voices rising and falling on the night air, the discreet whispers of elegant guests at a party on our neighbour’s roof terrace, the chink of glasses, knives and forks scraping on plates as the darkness thickens. Her soirées are always held under the stars, by candlelight, the voices hushed. Across the way, the Americans laugh raucously, shouting in animated voices, hooting and shrieking. Some nights I hear the strumming of an acoustic guitar, the flamenco rhythms hammered out, the wailing voice of a visiting singer echoing the cries of the cats that roam the village. Or else there is silence, the welcome blanket of silence, punctuated now and then by the whine of a mosquito. And all night long the comforting swoosh of the fan at my feet, moving the heavy summer night air and lulling me to sleep.

Anna’s Room

I stood in your room

Amid the seething clutter,

Flotsam of your unfolding life.

Shelf upon shelf of books: Little Miss Bossy;

Molecular Biology, pillars of your wisdom.

Framed snapshots of you: a smiling infant,

Held fast in giant arms; a laughing child, arms entwined

In other girlish limbs.

I thought I heard your voice ring out,

And reached out to wrap you in my arms.

I touched my face to your pillow

Where glass-eyed lambs and lions,

Still kept their vigil.

Read to me Mummy, stay here with me.

Read to me Mummy, stay here with me.

Keeping their vigil,

Glass-eyed lambs and lions,

I touched my face to your pillow

And reached out to wrap you in my arms.

I thought I heard your voice ring out,

A laughing child, arms entwined

In other girlish limbs.

A smiling infant, held fast in giant arms,

Framed snapshots of you.

Pillars of your wisdom,

Molecular Biology, Little Miss Bossy,

Shelf upon shelf of books,

The flotsam of your unfolding life.

Amid the seething clutter

I stood in your room.