River, Esther Kinsky, trans. Iain Galbraith, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018, pp. 368, £12.99 (paperback)
Living in London, I spend much of my time noticing exactly how much light there is. What colour, precisely, is the sky behind the building site when I leave the flat in the morning – a marginally lighter shade of purple than yesterday? And at precisely which point on my personal horizon does the sun disappear in the afternoon – to the right of the church spire, behind the leafless tree, third window from the left on the housing block opposite? Despite these continual measurements, spring always comes as a surprise. One day there is simply a different kind of light. The fronts of my thighs feel warm in my jeans as I walk into the sun, though the backs remain chilly, and in the evening people stand outside the pub for the first time, too cold of course, but with an infectious, unknockable cheer.
Evenings like these leave me with a lot more affection for this city than the narrator appears to have in Esther Kinsky’s novel, River, which appears in English thanks to London-based Fitzcarraldo Editions and poet-translator Iain Galbraith. Like me, Kinsky’s narrator spends much of her time noticing the sky, the quality of light, its colours and the shadows it casts at different times of year. As a newcomer, she watches how it changes with the seasons, reading ‘what the big sycamore wrote on the one-windowed brick wall of a neighbouring house at the bottom of the garden’ from April to August. She walks the city under still white skies, and when that light changes the cityscape is layered over in her mind with other places she has known. When the sky turns ‘light-blue and silver’, it is as if ‘a momentary off-centre spin of the Earth had let it stream in from the Bug and Vistula Rivers in deepest Middle Europe.’
Light, the sky, rivers. These natural features are the compass points by which Kinsky’s narrator navigates a city that is strange to her, seeing it
with fresh clarity, through the eyes of a foreigner. We learn little of the reasons for her arrival, nor of how long she intends to stay. She lives out of suitcases and unpacked boxes, walking, observing, and documenting the city with her camera, always on the verge of upping and leaving again. Her walks along the River Lea dredge up memories of other rivers she has known, from the Rhine of her childhood to the Neretva in Croatia, which she visits when London bomb-threats, combined with memories of her father in post-war Germany, compel her to compare the aftereffects of conflict there. To a collector and a wanderer, rivers are not only a hunting ground for interesting objects. They are also a link between the city and the sea and therefore a potential means of escape. Like the waterways she describes, the narrator is a temporary resident – restless, constantly on the move.
The city is undoubtedly the protagonist of this novel. Not the narrator, whose backstory remains vague, and not the strangers she observes. The Croat on her street who runs a charity shop for Bosnian refugees, the greengrocer perpetually unloading brightly coloured plastic bottles, the ‘King’ of Springfield Park in his fading headdress: these are only bit-part players. It’s the waterways of East London that take centre stage.
As the River Lea flows down from the Chilterns it splits into two major streams that run between Walthamstow and Stamford Hill, encircle Hackney Marshes between Clapton and Leyton, splinter further around the Olympic Park before rediscovering a common route, widening, looping back at Bow Creek and eventually disgorging into the Thames just west of City Airport. This part of the country is a buffer, ‘an intermediary zone between town and country’. It is a liminal space, half-urban, half-rural, like the foxes that make frequent appearances on the narrator’s walks. And the two branches of the Lea reflect that in-betweenness – one tame, the other wild. Walking along the eastern stream, on one bank you have ‘clipped, cropped, functional’ lawns, and on the other ‘an outland that could only be called untame, secluded from all utility and predictability.’ Like the Lea, the narrator of River is a border creature, observing the comings and goings of London’s diverse immigrants while never quite putting roots down herself.
And the London she narrates verges on the fantastical. This is a city where the wind flings unwary foreigners down alleyways and over treetops, only to dump them, disoriented, on some strange pavement. A storm can leave the streets out of order and the Thames an unlikely ‘luminous bright green’. People seem to shapeshift, too, their names changing or their faces suddenly old where previously they were young. Market stallholders invent tall tales from far flung places, and during an afternoon encounter with a fortune teller time slips away unaccountably, leaving the narrator baffled, having to search out a night bus in the small hours.
It is also a London that burns. The counterpoint to all the waterways in this novel are the fires that seem to spark disproportionately often, changing the face of the city from one day to the next. Fire engines wail in the background of every scene. When a building goes up in flames on the narrator’s street, three people die – three anonymous foreigners sleeping in a room with triple bunk beds, unable to speak the language in which people tried to warn them of the danger. For weeks police try fruitlessly to find out their names, nationality, places of work, in a small-scale version of the tragedy that played out at Grenfell tower in the summer of 2017. The narrator, watching from across the street, ‘hoped the wind, which, fortunately, usually blew from the west, would carry some partly burnt snippets with the victims’ names all the way to the places they had called home.’
The city in River is full of immigrants, the narrator included. Her descriptions of the English spoken in the South East speak volumes about how welcome she feels: this language is carnivorous, exclusionary, threatening to those for whom it does not come naturally. It has ‘severed syllables’, words that ‘snapped at my ears: malicious fish, whose pursed mouths were probably full of sharp little teeth.’ English, to this foreigner, is ‘a garbled idiom whose speakers’ mouths, perpetually starving for something, would bite off just enough of each word to ensure that only insiders grasped what was said.’ While elsewhere we’d be forgiven for detecting, in her elaborate descriptions, some muted affection for the city and its residents, there is little that’s hospitable about Kinsky’s London. Only in the refugee market, ‘a spectacle of foreignness’, does the narrator admit to feeling slightly at home.
Her walks along the River Lea provoke memories of rivers in other parts of the world. The Thames, that line between north and south that is ‘rarely crossed voluntarily’, naturally makes an appearance. But so does the Rhine, the St Lawrence in Canada, the Vistula and the Oder in Poland, the Neretva to the East of the Adriatic, the Hooghly in India, and the Yarkon in Tel Aviv. All these waterways flow into one another in the mind of the narrator, allowing memories to surface and layer. A chocolate bar eaten near the mouth of the Lea, for instance, takes her back to trips downriver with her father, and she is ‘overcome by the fear that a small pleasure boat might breeze past this strange, half-forgotten East London outpost, from whose railing I, in a child’s blue coat, would see myself.’
Some rivers, like the Lea, are benign and sleepy. Some deliver bounty, like the Tisza in northern Hungary, on whose banks the narrator encounters a man collecting bits of glitz washed up by the waters – fragments of tin, a shiny piece of wire, something that might be mistaken for a gold tooth. Other rivers are terrifying. In central Europe, locals tell of rivers that ‘malevolently burst their banks, stealing children, cattle and sweethearts, undermining shelters, causing bridges to collapse and washing from their graves the white bones of poor people.’ The Hooghly, a tributary of the Ganges, is a frightening paradox, bringing ‘food and excrement, growth and putrefaction, poison and health, combining them, blurring them, fusing them to one, a filthy fount of life that devoured the dead.’ Aboard a riverboat amid all this excess, dubious about its safety and uncertain of her destination, the narrator thinks what a comfort it would be to disembark and be able to say: ‘this is my place’.
Dialogue is largely absent from Kinsky’s prose; she prefers description, layering sentence upon long, meandering sentence. Galbraith has given her an English voice that is lucid and consistent, and his extraordinarily rich vocabulary evokes both urban and rural scenes in vivid detail. River is an intensely visual novel that allows readers to travel the rivers of London and elsewhere without ever having seen them – in fact, the book is dedicated to a ‘blind child’, pictured in a speckled, blurry reproduction just after the title page. This is the first of a dozen black and white photographs interspersed
between the chapters, mainly depicting bleak or unremarkable landscapes populated by leafless trees, scrubland, and nondescript outbuildings. They complement the photographs described at length by the narrator herself: a ghostly picture taken on a pinhole camera in a graveyard, polaroids kept in her coat pocket on walks along the Lea, old photos discovered in charity shops or snapped furtively in the street.
The narrator’s constant observation verges occasionally on a kind of voyeurism. She watches, for instance, a couple blurrily visible through a window from her flat, where ‘nightly shadow performances’ play out with her as the only audience member. She imagines the couple preparing food for delivery late into the night, and on one occasion spies the outline of a knife raised threateningly in front of somebody’s face. These detailed observations of people with whom the narrator rarely establishes a connection might open the novel up to criticism of the kind often directed at works of psychogeography: that all this scrutiny carries an air of condescension, amounting to objectification or fetishisation of the ‘other’. The narrator collects mental and physical snapshots of people’s lives much the same way she collects found objects, although not without a measure of embarrassment. But a crucial moment in the final pages reveals a keen awareness of what it is like to be on the receiving end of this observation. A neighbour, whose comings and goings she has detailed over the months, seems to be moving out. As she watches him load his car, he:
fiddled with something, lifted his arms and held something in front of his face. I felt exposed and hoped he would not notice me in the dark. A moment later I was blinded by the bright flash of a camera, and shut my eyes tightly in shock. The startling brightness hurt my eyes, and when I opened them a few minutes later there were shining tops still spinning in front of me, which took a while to twirl out of my field of vision.
After all her time hidden behind the camera or the window frame, suddenly she is seen, and temporarily blinded. In this moment the roles are reversed and the narrator herself is exposed, her gaze incapacitated.
From the title and organising theme – River – it doesn’t take much to understand that this is a novel about change. About the transience of light and the sky and the natural world, but also of perspective, human relationships, and urban landscapes. On the narrator’s final morning before leaving London, it seems that everything she has documented over the years will be blotted out, whether by the flash of a camera or by the ‘glaring superabundance of brightness’ that pours into Springfield Park at dawn, dissolving everything in her sightline until the river starts to look like the sea.