The Spring 2019 issue of Asymptote, “Cosmic Connections,” features work from 27 countries and 17 different languages. If you’re not sure where to begin, our blog editors have you covered with recommendations for some of their favorite pieces, including an essay about an adventure in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, a story that jumps from medieval Jewish theology to the relationship between an Argentine father and son, and poems that offer us a glimpse into intimate moments in the city of Shanghai.
Asymptote’s newest issue is one of the journal’s best to date, meaning that it was nearly impossible to choose just one piece to highlight. In the interviews section, I found Dubravka Ugrešić’s comments on literary activism and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s discussion of the role of Marxism in his work particularly illuminating, while, in the special feature, Nancy Kline’s essay stood out for its focus on the often-overlooked role of the writer’s (and the translator’s) accent and spoken voice in the translation process. But I’d like to devote my highlight to an essay by a somewhat lesser-known writer, one who might otherwise get lost among the many big names that appear in this issue.
The premise of Markiyan Kamysh’s nonfiction essay “Prypiat Underground, or the Resurrection of a Dead Town,” translated from the Ukrainian by Hanna Leliv, is captivating in itself: the writer and a street artist named Hamlet sneak into the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, abandoned since the nuclear disaster that occurred there in 1986. On the journey from Kyiv to the ghost city of Prypiat, Kamysh and Hamlet stay in eerie, vacant apartments and hide from the occasional cars that pass by, driven either by police or by other illegal visitors, whom Kamysh has dubbed “stalkers.” The essay captures all the desolate imagery one would expect in a post-apocalyptic landscape: empty churches, a crumbling amusement park, a complete and unmitigated darkness at night. But what lingered with me after reading the essay was its strange hopefulness: Kamysh transforms the soaring, Soviet-era military radar into an almost touristic lookout point from which to admire the landscape, and he imagines a duck with a broken wing as a symbol for Prypiat itself, rising again after a nearly fatal wound. The beauty of the essay lies in Kamysh’s vision of the future: a new Prypiat, brought back to life by illicit partiers and street artists like Hamlet, “deserted and alive at the same time.”
My highlight from Asymptote’s 2019 Spring edition is Daniel Guebel’s provocative, poignant, and completely unpindownable “Jewish Son.” By turns family drama, Kafka homage, and reflection on Argentinian Jewishness, Guebel’s wit, learning, and unflinching honesty are displayed in their fullness in this short extract from his new book.
The extract begins with a wonderfully cheeky discussion of pilpul (Hebrew for “pepper,” with connotations of “spicy,” or “sharp,” analysis), an almost forgotten school of late medieval Jewish theology which, as described by Guebel, is in equal parts legal disputation, biblical hermeneutics, and a kind of linguistic analysis fine grained enough to rival anything in contemporary semantics. It is pedantic and even sophistic (it will surely not have escaped Guebel that pilpul is but a single consonant shift away from bilbul, Hebrew for confusion), but it is also a radical attempt to grapple with creation and its creator from a position of human finitude, a peculiarly Jewish demand for comprehension of the incomprehensible, an argumentative interpretation of Jacob’s wrestle with God.
Guebel claims that this tradition was revitalised centuries later by “the little Jew from Prague,” and that Kafka’s resuscitation of “those rhetorical operations at the end of the Middle Ages [ . . . ] are the form that the twentieth century chose to understand itself.” No sooner does Guebel make this provocative claim than we are whisked away from the yeshivas of sixteenth-century Galicia and the narrow streets of Prague to a car journey through the anonymous suburbs of Buenos Aires in the (almost) present-day, to a conversation between Guebel’s father and his eponymous “Jewish Son.” Over the lusty rumble of tango singers, the father speaks distantly of a former lover, hinting at his intention to leave his family and rediscover his youthful passion. The remainder of the extract explores the father-son relationship in all its tortured complexity, with Kafka and pilpul as constant touchstones. Guebel moves effortlessly between scenes from the present and the mythological past, from hospital waiting rooms to the battle of Troy, from IV drips to the image of Aeneas carrying his crippled father Anchises down to the beach, his legs sinking in the sand. It is by turns tender and bitter, mournful and celebratory, and in just a few thousand words says something affecting and new about the nature of that most fraught and ambivalent of human connections.
Our poetry selections of this issue abound with the ripe images that build poetry in the same impulse by which T.S. Eliot once declared, “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.”
It is ironic that I bring up Eliot, who so disdained prose poetry, as it is the wonderful prose poems—the Shanghai Stories—of Xiao Shui that I choose to introduce today. These pieces, brief and carefully measured, are reminiscent of those spare moments we spend passing by windows during the mystically quiet moments of nighttime, wondering about the lives contained within them. We are startled into their disparate narratives by way of vivid consciousness, invited into worlds that are no less real despite living—for us—only upon the page. Shanghai is a city that does not abide intimacy easily. It takes craft to carve out these breathing spaces in which we are allowed to touch one another, and it is by the chosen details here that we may come to share momentary residence. It is so that we are left feeling honoured, privy to a guarded privacy.
Xiao Shui is a poet who is wary of excess, in language and subject—the colloquialism and simplicity of these poems resound with individual voices: him, her, she, he, separate and distinct. The content is curious in the way that only the young can be curious. Though he has not staked his career on prose poetry, it is in this form that his command of language shines most apparently, through the careful internal dialogue that introduces the cinematic into the written: ut pictura poesis. Judith Huang’s sensitive translation renders these evocations seamlessly into the English, with dutiful attention to rhythm, cadence, and nuance. It is clear that these two are partners in language. The tenderness that comes through unscathed in the process of translation, in a way that rarely happens with Chinese-language poetry, is by way of Huang’s delicate hand.
These are, as has been said, ordinary emotions. Yet here, in these vignettes, brilliantly lit, we “see all things new.”
—Xiao Yue Shan
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