Ellen Jones

Com­pass Points

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS - Ellen Jones

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.

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