River
by Esther Kinsky (2014)
translated from the German by Iaian Galbraith (2018)
Fitzcarraldo Editions (2018)
368 pp

Esther Kinsky River

The river meant dislocation, confusion and unpredictability in a world that craved order.

Esther Kinsky’s Am Fluß has been translated into English as River by Iain Galbraith, and published by perhaps the U.K.’s finest publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Her narrator has left her native Germany and is living in London and, towards the end of her time in the United Kingdom has, for reasons never really explained, moved to the outskirts of the town, to Hackney.

After many years I had excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo. Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence. I did so in a place where I knew none of my neighbours, where the street names, views, smells and faces were all unfamiliar to me, in a cheaply appointed flat where I would be able to lay my life aside.

In the opening chapter, in Springfield Park, she encounters a memorable and eccentric character, one of a number who will reoccur in her narrative:

The King wore a magnificent headdress of stiff, brocaded cloths, held together by a clasp adorned by feathers. The gold thread of the brocade and the clasp itself still gleamed in the declining light. He was attired in a short robe , with gold embroiled edgings shimmering around his neck and wrists. The robe, which hung to his thighs, was bluey-green and fashioned from a taut, heavy fabric with a woven feather pattern. His long black legs protruded beneath the cloth. They were naked.

[…]

The King stretched out his hands and the ravens gathered about him.

The area lies on the banks of the River Lea, and the main narrative thread tells of the walks she takes along the river over a number of months, ultimately tracing its path to its mouth where it meet the Thames. This is a run-down and unglamorous area of London:

Between the empty lands to the east of the river and the estates and factories along the other bank, I rediscovered bits and pieces of my childhood, found snippets cut from other landscapes and group photographs, unexpectedly come here to roost. I stumbled on them between willows under a tall sky, in reflections of impoverished housing estates on the town side of the river, amongst a scatter of cows on a meadow, in the contours of old brick buildings – factories, offices, former warehouses – against an exceptionally red-orange sunset, along the raised railway embankment where forlorn-looking, quaintly chattering trains receded into the distance, or when watching roaming gangs of children lighting fires and burnings odds and ends, fighting each other close to the flames, and unresponsive when a mother, standing between lines of flapping washing, held one hand up to shelter her eyes as she called them in.

And, as the passage suggests, as she travels along the river she recalls other rivers from her life – and that of people she meets, including the Oder, Thames, St Lawrence, Yarkon, Hooghly, Tisza, Neretva, Wear, Gironde, Po, Danube, and, firstly, the Rhine on whose banks she was born.

What were my memories of rivers, now I lived on an island whose thoughts were turned seawards, where rivers looked shallow and pretty, noticable only when they frayed into flats, or cut deep channels as they flowed out to sea.

[….]

The Rhine was the first border I ever knew, and it was constantly present. It taught us what was here and what was there. ‘Our’ side, with its villagey ways in relentless decline, its factories, shacks and freight trains, stood opposite the other side where the sun set. That side, remote and blurry, a hazy land of melting shapes and washed colours, provided a background to many of our family photographs.

Rivers in the narrator’s account, can be both benign and scenic but also threatening and hostile:

In primary school we had to learn sayings about Father Rhine, none of which had anything to do with the river I had walked along in the years before starting school. These sayings left an unpleasant aftertaste, which became much bitterer one day when the bow wave of a huge barge dragged a child in my class of the end of a breakwater. The Rhine had revealed Himself to be a nasty character. For days it seemed the river had taken our tongue and weighed so heavily in our clothes we could barely move.

and they denote both boundaries but also a strong pull to their destiny, the sea:

Could its flow, the incessant press of its water towards an estuary, be more powerful than its significance as a line fixed to determine belonging?

The story she tells of East London is a disconcerting one. She focuses on the local eccentrics, on the community of observant Jews (the area contains the largest concentration of Haredi Jews in Europe), itinerant Eastern Europeans, others packed into squalid and dangerous housing, travelers in their caravans. The epigraph of the novel is taken from a Charles Olson poem and reads: “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more,” and at another point she observes, “it was a spectacle of foreignness in which, thanks to my own foreignness, I felt at home.”

At times the narration stretches to the deliberate absurd. She takes a job in a radio-station, an exaggeratedly Kafkaesque version of the World Service, where the staff are given red caps, whistles in case they get lost in the catacombs of the vast building, are seemingly free to broadcast whatever they like as long as it is in their own language, and frequently remain in the office for days, weeks even months as to leave means handing in one’s red cap and going through the job application procedure from scratch the next day. Her London is plagued by its ‘famous’ winds, with which the locals are adept at coping, but which often pick up strangers and deposit them in another part of the city altogether, and by frequent bombs leaving behind large craters which are left, unrepaired, for people to scavenge through the debris.

This aside there is a definite Sebaldian feel to the narration, albeit without his detours into learned discourses, with photography playing a key role: she is particularly fond of her polaroid camera as well as hunting (as Sebald the author did in reality, albeit not in his novels) through junk stores for old photos. Although there are some black and white photographs included, most of those featured in the story are described verbally, and typically the narrator has no knowledge of what the recovered photos show:

they gave no hint of a narrative, revealed no intensity of feeling, no suspense of any kind, no loose thread of some drama to pick up. I found it impossible to attribute anything to these faces and figures, found no way into the scenes portrayed, and the emptiness that presented itself in this bundle of tiny segments of life O had purchased on some off-chance made me feel intrusive.

Overall a strange and unsettling novel, if (much as it pains me to say it) a little too long, and with
beautiful prose, thanks in no part to the three translators whose influence was brought to bear – the translator, the author and her husband. Although brought into English by Iain Galbraith, translator of, inter alia, W. G. Sebald’s Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems, 1964-2001, the book is dedicated to her husband, Martin Chalmers, who died in 2014, another prolific translator, notably (to me) of Thomas Bernhard’s Prose, and the chapter on the St Lawrence River is an expanded version of his original translation. Kinsky herself started as a translator into German, from Polish [notably Olga Tokarczuk’s Dom dzienny, dom nocny, later translated into English as House of Day, House of Night.

To conclude, Kinsky’s poem “Disturbed Land,” from the New English Review, as also translated by Galbraith:

Disturbed lands so pointed and so sorrowful
a name marked by human violation
thrust into frail wildness
waste ground following devastation piles
of rubble dumped in a derelict
crumbling recess at the former entrance
surrounded by sorrel
nearby Good-King-Henry parsnip and pigweed
poor people’s food for poor times and conducive to wild
dreams thriving on heaps of debris this one too
demanding its own its heap for burying
this and that and out on top
the honest birthwort.

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