Categories
Index

Borderless, April, 2021

Greetings from Borderless Journal for all Asian New Years! Click here to read our message along with the video and a translation of a Tagore song written to greet the new year, with lyrics that not only inspire but ask the fledgling to heal mankind from deadly diseases.

Editorial

New Beginnings

A walk through our content and our plans for the future. Click here to read.

Interviews

In Conversation with Arundhathi Subramaniam: An online interview with this year’s Sahitya Akademi winner, Arundhathi Subramaniam. Click here to read.

Sumana Roy & Trees: An online interview with Sumana Roy, a writer and academic. Click here to read.

Poetry

(Click on the names to read)

Arundhathi Subramaniam, Jared Carter, Matthew James Friday, Michael R Burch, Aparna Ajith, Jenny Middleton, Rhys Hughes, Jay Nicholls, Achingliu Kamei, Vatsala Radhakeesoon, Ihlwha Choi, Smitha Vishwanath, Sekhar Banerjee, Sumana Roy

Photo-poetry by Penny Wilkes

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

With an introduction to Blood and Water by Rebecca Lowe, Rhys Hughes debuts with his column on poets and poetry. Click here to read.

Translations

The Word by Akbar Barakzai

Fazal Baloch translates the eminent Balochi poet, Akbar Barakzai. Click here to read.

Malayalam poetry in Translation

Aditya Shankar translates a poem by Shylan from Malayalam to English. Click here to read.

Tagore Songs in Translation

To commemorate Tagore’s birth anniversary, we translated five of his songs from Bengali to English. Click here to read, listen and savour.

Tagore Translations: One Small Ancient Tale

Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekti Khudro Puraton Golpo (One Small Ancient Tale) from his collection Golpo Guchcho ( literally, a bunch of stories) has been translated by Nishat Atiya. Click here to read.

Musings/Slice of Life

Pohela Boisakh: A Cultural Fiesta

Sohana Manzoor shares the Bengali New Year celebrations in Bangladesh with colourful photographs and interesting history and traditions that mingle beyond the borders. Click here to read.

Gliding along the Silk Route

Ratnottama Sengupta, a well-known senior journalist and film critic lives through her past to make an interesting discovery at the end of recapping about the silk route. Click here to read and find out more.

The Source

Mike Smith drifts into nostalgia about mid-twentieth century while exploring a box of old postcards. What are the stories they tell? Click here to read.

Lost in the Forest

John Drew, a retired professor, cogitates over a tapestry of the Ras lila. Click here to read.

Tied to Technology

Naomi Nair reflects on life infiltrated by technology, by Siri and Alexa with a tinge of humour. Click here to read.

Adventures of a Backpacking Granny

In Inspiriting SiberiaSybil Pretious takes us with her to Lake Baikal and further. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Tributes & AttributesDevraj Singh Kalsi pays tribute to his late mother. Click here to read.

Essays

Reflecting the Madness and Chaos Within

Over 150 Authors and Artists from five continents have written on mental illness in an anthology called Through the Looking Glass. Candice Louisa Daquin, a psychotherapist and writer and editor, tells us why this is important for healing. Click here to read.

At Home in the World: Tagore, Gandhi and the Quest for Alternative Masculinities

Meenakshi Malhotra explores the role of masculinity in Nationalism prescribed by Tagore, his niece Sarala Debi, Gandhi and Colonials. Click here to read.

A Tale of Devotion and Sacrifice as Opposed to Jealousy and Tyranny

Sohana Manzoor explores the social relevance of a dance drama by Tagore, Natir puja. We carry this to commemorate Tagore’s birth anniversary. Click here to read

Photo Essay: In the Midst of Colours

Nishi Pulugurtha explores the campus of a famed university with her camera and words and shares with us her experiences. Click here to read.

Bhaskar’s Corner

Oh, That lovely Title: Politics

A short piece by Bhaskar Parichha that makes for a witty comment on the forthcoming Indian elections. Click here to read.

Stories

Pothos

Rakhi Pande gives us a story about a woman and her inner journey embroiled in the vines of money plant. Click here to read.

Elusive

A sensitive short story by Sohana Manzoor that makes one wonder if neglect and lack of love can be termed as an abuse? Click here to read

Ghumi Stories: Grandfather & the Rickshaw

Nabanita Sengupta takes us on an adventure on the rickshaw with Raya’s grandfather. Click here to read

Flash Fiction: The Husband on the Roof

Carl Scharwath gives us a story with a strange twist. Click here to read

Flash Fiction: Flight of the Falcon

Livneet Shergill gives us a story in empathy with man and nature. Click here to read

The Literary Fictionist

A playlet by Sunil Sharma set in Badaun, The Dryad and I: A Confession and a Forecast, is a short fiction about trees and humans. Click here to read.

Book reviews

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Reconciling Differences by Rudolf C Heredia, a book that explores hate and violence. Click here to read.

Nivedita Sen reviews Nomad’s Land by Paro Anand, a fiction set among migrant children of a culture borne of displaced Rohingyas, Syrian refugees, Tibetans and more. Click here to read

Candice Louisa Daquin reviews The First Cell and the Human Costs of Pursuing Cancer to the last by Azra Raza. Click here to read.

Book Excerpt

Excerpted from Raising a Humanist: Conscious Parenting in an Increasingly Fragmented World by Manisha Pathak-Shelat and Kiran Vinod Bhatia, the focus is on media and its impact. Click here to read.

Sara’s Selection, April 2021

A selection of young person’s writings from Bookosmia. Click here to read.

Categories
Musings

The Source

Mike Smith drifts into nostalgia about mid-twentieth century while exploring a box of old postcards. What are the stories they tell?

In the days when I used to give live readings of short stories I was often asked where they came from. It’s a question writing buddies know better than to ask. Obviously, they already know that stories come from wherever you have found them. But to the non-writing reader it seems to be a mystery.

V.S.Pritchett said that they came from a ‘poetic impulse’, and life can and will prompt that impulse without warning. Even something as simple as looking at postcard can do the job. I was recently shown one such card, sent in the mid nineteen-thirties from Algiers. On the back it’s titled as number 12: Alger. Rue Bab-Azoun, and on the front of it carries a black and white photograph of a street scene. I’ve never been to Algiers, but the image evokes memories and associations with travellers’ tales, articles, TV shows and movies, and by no means all of them directly related to that city.

The image is full of life, locating itself at a precise moment in place and time by its buildings, its street furniture, its traffic, its advertising posters and its people, more than a dozen of them in several distinct groups. Each of those groups might imply a tale, and in combination a more complex one. That dead centre café with its two arches, ‘La Vieux Grenadier’ makes me think of Rick’s place in the film Casablanca. And could the ‘Au Grand Bon Marche’* up above it on the wall be an ironic comment? On the dapper man in the dark jacket and tie, his straw boater subtly tilted, his thumb stuck in his belt, say, as he strides towards us. Is he known to them, rejoining them perhaps after an assignation? And what about those two characters in white suits whom he has just passed? One of them is glancing across. Is it at him, and if so, why? Could be somebody’s brother, and the start of something. Or is his line of sight slightly ahead of the man, towards a couple partially obscured by the little knot of tourists nearer the foreground? Has something been done, or said? And who is the man standing on the back of the tram vanishing into the shadows? Has he just boarded at the stop? It is a stop, I’m sure, just close by that nearer group, because we can see the tracks reverting to single from double lines, that would form a passing loop for crossing vehicles. Further to the left there’s a mixed group: a man in robes reaching out, for what? Two men in solar topees: are they the police? Off duty soldiers? What sort of vehicle is it? Are they demanding to see papers? Is that luggage on the roof?

And on the far right, a couple, casually dressed. She is just visible behind him. They are heading towards the ‘Parfumerie’, if I have read the lettering on the wall above them correctly. They are moving quickly, I think, and with no eyes for the others in the scene.

Every still photograph catches a moment in time and place and holds it motionless, which, almost word for word, is what the writer Arthur Miller told us short stories do. Each picture is a segment of the arc of some imagined or remembered story, and for the would-be writer the trick might be – I offer no certainties – to know which segment: beginning, middle or end? So that the whole arc might be created.

And every momentary image brought to our eyes, upon the street or in a building, or from a vehicle, every sight and every sound, each whiff of wind off the sea, or waft of coffee from a café, each faint smell of smoke or blood from an alleyway or open door, offers us the same potential. And so, the answer to that question, asked or unasked, must always be: stories? They come from everywhere!

12: Alger. Rue Bab-Azoun. Snapshot of the postcard by Mike Smith

Where to start?

For I know only the ending of the story. That lies in the box of old postcards and photographs, of dinner menus and an itinerary of the liner, The Laconia. It was a Cunard Line ship and came to an unwanted fame a few years later when, in 1942 it was sunk by a German U-boat. A flotilla of German and Italian submarines attempted to rescue survivors, but were later bombed and strafed by American warplanes, forcing them to dive, sweeping those survivors into the sea.

The Mediterranean cruise recorded in those old postcards took place in the mid-nineteen thirties and was a honeymoon trip. The postcards show Algiers, Jerusalem, Valetta, and unknown views. Petra, city of the rock is in there. Photographs show bustling streets. Western tourists in period costume to us now, smile, raise glasses, chin-chin, gaze from balconies and terraces. The menus show us what they dined on, the itinerary, where and when they made landfall. They are printed on a stiff card, Art Deco in design and near to what we might think of as A5 in size, but which in those days would have carried what seems now a more Imperial label: crown quarto, small demy octavo.

There’s even a folding diagram of the ship: printed on flimsy paper but still good, even along the eighty-year-old folds. It shows the steel hull, the cabin walls (Not walls, an old naval friend mine would have corrected. Those are bulwarks, matey!).

The young bride was my mother in law’s mother. Her husband was an English farmer, a cut above her in class. She was a Londoner, a nurse, he a Norfolk country landowner. But tragedy struck. Before even the Laconia sank, he had died.

And through the twists and turns of life she’d kept the box of postcards and old photographs, and the dinner menus, the itinerary of their trip, the folded diagram of the ship, their cabin black-inked and arrowed in someone’s hand; perhaps hers, perhaps his.

I never met the lady. She died the year I met my wife, but I could weep for her now, knowing the ending of their story.      

Glossary

Au Grand Bon Marche: Literal translation, a great bargain, French. Could also refer to a French Department store Le Bon Marche.      

Parfumerie: A place where perfumes are sold. French.

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Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

Reflections on Nobel Laureate Bunin’s ‘Un Petit Accident’

Mike Smith reflects on a short fiction by Russia’s first Nobel Laureate, Ivan Bunin. Could it be a precursor to flash fiction?


Portrait of Ivan Bunin by Leonard Turzhansky, 1905. Courtesy: Wiki

Un Petit Accident‘ (A small Accident) is one of those tales which will need more words to discuss than will be found in it.

First published in the late 1940s as part of a trio of short pieces this little tale might be seen as a forerunner of our present-day flash fictions and micro fiction. Yet it is in a tradition that stretches back through the prose poem or Illumination to the anecdotes and exemplars of much earlier times. Only recently cast into English, this translation is attributed to Maria Bloshteyn and dated 2017.

Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) fled to France in 1920 in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution but unlike many émigrés he was already an established writer and his work is not solely related to the experience of exile.

‘Un Petit Accident’ in my paperback copy of Russian Émigré Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky (ed. Bryan Karetnyk, Penguin Classics), runs to a mere 29 lines, yet it packs a punch you might think would need a much wordier arm behind it. For me it’s both a master work and a master class in the short story, illustrating perfectly Hemingway’s ‘iceberg’, and his advice to ‘take everything out that isn’t the story’.

Like a slow camera pan, it traverses the cityscape of Paris. It takes in the sunset, the Palais Bourbon, the Seine, the Place de la Concorde and the Eiffel Tower, before zooming in, near The Madelaine, on the rushing, choking traffic of a Parisian evening. The final shot, in what, to twist the metaphor slightly, might be thought of as a slideshow rather than a moving picture, focuses on a single detail, the significance of which we are left to consider.

There are no named characters, seemingly no protagonist and antagonist, no obvious cycles of increasing jeopardy. The ‘Inciting Incident’, if it is not that sunset, might be in our imaginations and for later. Or perhaps the ‘Obligatory Scene’, if it is that final image, must serve the function of both. It seems that everything that happens in this story has already happened by the time we see it. Yet there is no sequence of actions as such, only the sequence of images that we might mistake for mere setting.

As with much longer short stories, there is the vestige of that common structural oddity of placing the most striking event or revelation slightly ahead of the actual ending, making it part of the preparation and contextualisation of the true ending. And following that shock there is a little addition which poses the question, raises the issue, on which I believe the author wishes us to ponder; the view to which he has brought us.

The collection is furnished with a section of notes about both the writers and individual stories. What they say about this story reveals a lesson in the form. Bunin is quoted; “ ...even with the greatest writers, there are only isolated good passages, and between them – water…”

Karetnyk’s notes go on to say: “these miniatures are an attempt to distil prose into its purest form.” Presumably, that is by getting rid of all that water.

Earlier in the piece he has described Bunin’s tales as ‘terse’, but in this case I did not find it so. Rather the opposite. I’d want to use the word lush. That opening sunset, painted in a three and half line, verbless sentence – which a professor of English in the nineteen seventies categorized because of that lack as being a ‘label’ rather than a ‘message’– is rich with colour: “…the enormous panel of sky covered in strokes of murky colours, mellow and many hued…” The city too is awash with description: ‘Slim spikes of greenish gas flames are strewn throughout the pistachio haze of the city,’

It’s one of the most description packed little tales I’ve read. It brought to mind the startling contrast with an earlier and longer tale by Mary Mann, in which a bare half dozen words sprinkled throughout describe the rural Norfolk in which her story is set. It is sometimes averred that description kills story, disrupts the narrative, brings action to a halt, but here Bunin’s tale is almost all description, a colourful, noisy kaleidoscope of sights and sounds. “Now darkness falls, and the candelabra of the Place de la Concorde cast their reflective silvery glow, while up in the black summits the lugubriously flowing lights of the Eiffel Tower flicker like lightning.

The sequence is constructed of easily imaginable images, and when we have reached the ending and come to re-read the piece, we might pay more attention to the ambience of those sounds and sights. They are what make the context for our arrival at the final image. They are what prejudice our frame of mind for understanding and speculating about the deeper meaning of what we are being brought to encounter. The purpose of the story, and you might argue, the storyness of it, is in our reaction to what we ‘see’. Conrad is quoted as saying he wanted to “make us see” in his writing and Bunin here does just that. But it is up to us alone to grapple with the significance of what we have been told.

On closer inspection we might see that Bunin has given us more than just intense colour, form, and movement. That it is a single paragraph story is notable. In a story of thirty lines there is room for a handful of paragraphs, but the fact that Bunin uses one alone need be no ‘petit accident‘. It gives the story a structural unity, such as you might expect to find in a painting or photograph.

The painting has it for me, with those ‘murky’ and ‘many-hued’ colours, but a painting of what? Despite the lack of protagonist or antagonist, at first glance, there is the anonymous man on whom our gaze comes to rest at what might be called the ‘crisis’ of the action, and there is one other ‘character’, referred to rather than present, and whose ‘unseen hand is smoothly conducting’. At this change point in the story, as the traffic locks and our focus is narrowed down onto and into a single vehicle, it ‘seems as if the hand has flinched’.

Seems’ is one of those words that, in a short story especially, should set our radars tingling, because it usually denotes, or at least raises the possibility, that what seems is not what is. And whose hand might that be which might be doing something other than flinching? It certainly isn’t a human hand. Is it a hand that has acted decisively? And the ‘fiery Babylon’ that Bunin describes with its ‘spikes of greenish gas’, its ‘darkness’ blazing, might seem more Hellish than Heavenly. I was reminded of apocalyptic visions in John Martin’s paintings.

My last paragraph contains a ‘spoiler’, and those who read to find out what happens next might prefer to stop here!

When we reach the story’s end, we are told of a “fast little auto, vividly yet softly lit inside” where a man in evening dress is “slumped over his steering wheel“. The narrative thread is almost imperceptible. The movement, lights and sounds, have seemed random rather than directional. Bunin’s tale has been told in the present tense, yet here, at the sticking point of the end, we are seeing events not so much unfold as having already unfolded. The focus neatly closes in, with mention of ‘matte top hat’, then closer still: “His eyes are closed…” The final words pull back a little, as we have recoiled from what we have recognised: “his young, tritely classical face is already looking like a mask.”

It is a mask, we understand, from behind which the spirit of life has already withdrawn.

Russian commemorative coin issued on Bunin’s 125th birth anniversary. Courtesy: Wiki

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Stories

Flash Fiction: Saved

A story of 1950s indiscipline related by Brindley Hallam Dennis with a soupçon of humour

The cathedral doors were massive. They towered above them. Even the keyhole and the iron ring handle were above their heads. And you would think it was the youngsters’ fault, the way they got a severe reprimand when the headmaster and his group arrived on the riverbank. Perhaps he had a word with Mr Stephens too, on the quiet in the coach on the way home.

Sound travelled oddly in big old buildings like that cathedral. Something whispered in one place at the other end of the cloisters could be heard quite clearly, yet something spoken in a quite normal voice above the heads of the children couldn’t be heard in the middle of the nave. What was heard perfectly clearly by the children was the instruction to go back inside through the huge wooden doors because you were with Mr Stephens’ group. And what stuck in the minds of at least one of them for decades afterwards was the shock of seeing that vast, empty grey space when they did. Mr Stephens and his group had simply vanished. Perhaps there was another door out of the building, somewhere down towards the choir stalls, or behind the pulpit.

It was Bryan who poked around behind the candles and the rood screens and in several other gloomy places, but he found no-one. It was Bryan who suggested that they should go back outside and tell the headmaster that Mr Stephens and his group had disappeared. It was Bryan who went outside and came back in saying that the Headmaster and his group were missing too. Then they had all gone outside and stood at the foot of the Cathedral doors wondering what to do.

What memory hasn’t recorded is the life of the city that must have continued to pass by, to and fro, in front of the building where they stood, whatever the Headmaster and Mr Stephens and their groups were doing. All sorts of people must have gone by and noticed the five or six adult-less seven-year-olds huddled against those doors like medieval supplicants denied entrance on account of some unforgivable sin or unacceptable affliction. Perhaps even policemen on their beats passed by without intervening, along with Samaritans and other travellers.

It was Bryan, probably, being a precocious but thoughtful child, who suggested, that they should go down to the river where they were scheduled, after their picnic lunch, to go on a boat trip. Mr Stephens and the Headmaster and their groups would be bound to show up there, obviously. Bryan had a watch, perhaps, or maybe they looked up at the Cathedral clock, if there was one. I think Bryan would have been the sort of boy who would have had a watch. Perhaps several of them did. And perhaps too, children being more observant often, and attentive to adult memes, they had taken in the oft-mentioned half past twelve of the planned lunch break at the wooden tables down by the landing stage.

It would have been Bryan, if anyone, who guessed or even knew that if you want to find a river, going downhill is as good a strategy as any. Or it might have been blind luck of the good sort, as one must suppose the abandonment by Mr Stephens, or the Headmaster, if wilful neglect or lack of attention or plain unruliness in the children were not to blame, had been the bad luck.

Whatever the explanation for the recovery of the situation it came to pass that the children moved safely through that urban jungle and found themselves on the riverbank where boats plied for hire. There they waited the half hour or so that it took for Mr Stephens and the Headmaster and their groups to circumnavigate the city’s ancient walls. Which of these two arrived first, memory does not record but what remains clear is that the Headmaster was very cross and flustered. He may have wished that there had been enough parental volunteers among the group to have prevented the occurrence. Or maybe, he did not.

With a voice sharper than they were used to hearing, the negligent children were told, that, seeing as they had already consumed their picnics, and before the appointed time, he, the Headmaster, would take them personally around the walls as that been the major educational objective of the trip, before they embarked on the boat. This he did at a pace remarkable for such small legs, and the walls passed beneath them in a blur.

By the time they got back to the riverbank, the Headmaster had cooled down, and made it plain that there would be no more mention of the children’s momentary lapse of concentration, and that they should be glad that nothing untoward had come of their irresponsible behaviour. They were advised, for their own sakes, if they wanted such trips in the future, not to talk about their misdemeanour with their friends or brothers and sisters back at school, and certainly not with their parents. Such indiscipline was not to be tolerated, and though it need not be dwelt on, it might serve as a useful lesson to us all.

Going back a lifetime later what was most surprising was how small those Cathedral doors really were.

Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Musings

From the Pages of a Soldier’s Diary…

By Mike Smith

My adoptive father was too old for military service when war broke out in 1939, but young enough by 1941 to be sent to India with the RAF (Royal Air Force), where he stayed until after that war’s end.

I’ve served, but not in an army, for five years under difficult circumstances, though nowhere near as difficult, and not half a world away from everything I knew about and had been led to believe. So, I have only an inkling of the stress he must have been under.

I have a couple of tiny diaries that he kept. Diaries were illegal for soldiers, I believe, which might explain their size. But they were sufficient for what he had to record, which by the second volume had reduced mostly to the chiselled capitals, day after day, of no mail.

I had, and to my regret, lost, a small pamphlet of Hindustani, issued to him by the Wild Woodbines cigarette brand. I can still count to ten – ek, doe, teen* and some more but probably not with good inflection. And phrases, the meanings of which have faded, can be brought to mind and tongue like fragments of old tunes. For a short time during my childhood, my father employed a man from the sub-continent, and he taught me a little more. I suspect he was badly treated, perhaps unknowingly, probably without conscious malice, by the other workers and left under circumstances that smacked, even to my child’s eye and ear, of dogs going to live on a farm.

His very presence, I think, must have owed something to my father’s experience of India. It had pervaded his consciousness and never left him. Neither did the malaria he had caught there. Throughout my childhood in the fifties, I was a chota wallah*, and slept in a charpoy, and was exhorted to jaldi jao*, not, I suspect, the politest way to summon or dismiss someone.

Quite co-incidentally I encountered an ‘old soldier’ of doubtful veracity, who plied me with British Army issue ration blocks dated to the 1940s, among which were ‘curry’, probably of the lamb or goat variety. To these, water was added, and the mush boiled. The smell was nice. I liked curry. But father would light a cigar, just as he did when our dog farted, and he’d reminisce about India, not fondly. The poverty and dirt had appalled him. He had misunderstood, or at least not become aware of the taboos on which hand did what. Yet he’d taken part in a failed distribution of tinned beef raided from the quartermaster’s stores, equally appalled at people literally dying in the streets of starvation, while the cinema reassured British troops of the vast food supplies kept for emergencies.

The Hindus had refused the meat, with a hostility that he never understood, but their refusal in the face of death both amazed him, and, I believe, destroyed his faith in the religion of his own country — he had a pious sister who, he told me, could never have made such a sacrifice for her faith. He had a brother-in-law too, who was a conscientious objector, and would never hear a word said against him. I think the Indian experience might have contributed to that. He told me also of a hut full of his comrades being ‘rescued’, from a harmless snake that was occupying the threshold, by one of the punka wallahs*, a man who never by word or smirk, he said, ever betrayed their moment of terror.

Sadly, my father died before I was old enough to have a really grown-up conversation with him about it.

So, India, though I’ve never been there, and though I’ve never talked to more than a handful of people who have lived there, has always been on the periphery of my life. My father had a camera with him and was far more of a photographer than he was a diarist. The black and white contact prints — from a Leica 35mm I believe — show jungles and deserts and temples and street scenes, even those streets with the dying upon them. They show servicemen in shorts and tropical kit, mostly standing in front of vehicles or planes. They show local workers on government service, which may or may not be the source of an acronym used in pay-books that has become tainted with misuse.

Since a short trip to China in the 1980s where a man dressed in military uniform welcomed us at Beijing airport with a smile (the smile seeming more fundamental than the uniform, I recognised he was just like me), I’ve believed we are all closer than we are distant, though we often stand or crouch on different sides of barricades erected in error and folly and for the benefit of those who would control us.

Recently I’ve had the good fortune to be rewarded with commendations and prizes in a series of flash fiction competitions run out of India, and to have the occasional piece taken for use in journals. For the years that I ran my BHDandMe blog, the 3rd largest group of readers was from India. Perhaps that drew me to reading writers whose names I don’t know how to pronounce and whose landscapes I have never seen except on a screen. And that’s been good for me, and in a strange way has brought me closer not only to them, but to the memory of my father.

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*ek, do, teen…: 1, 2,3… counting in Hindustani

*chota wallah: small man

*jaldi jao: Go fast

*punkah wallah: manual fan operators.

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Slices from Life

Me and James Joyce in Trieste

By Mike Smith

I visited the city in the year of the Brexit vote, conscious that I might never set foot on the mainland of my own continent again. I always give Trieste that extra lift at the end: tree-est-ee. Some say it flat: tree-est. I wondered which was right and kept my ears open. I heard both but I like to think that as you read you pronounce it Trieste.

The buildings of Trieste are massive, solid, and looked recently restored, seeming too new to be as old as they are. This was once the only port for the whole of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its fourth largest city. One time naval officer, Baron Von Trapp, must have known it and his first father-in-law’s British torpedoes must have been deployed here. High, squared city blocks with rows of filing cabinet windows housed thousands of administrators, civil servants and shipping agents who ran the empire’s import and export trade.

Umberto Saba’s statue at Trieste

A cold wind blew through the square the afternoon that I was there, though the sky was sheer blue and the autumn sun harsh. That wind blows often, I suspect. The statue of Italian poet, Umberto Saba, outside the bookshop he used to run shows the hem of his long coat flapping, the collar turned up. I’d never heard of Saba, but the cafes around the city centre have his photograph and information panels as well as those for James Joyce.

James Joyce lived here briefly, writing Ulysses, and I wonder to what extent the city reminded him of Dublin. No Liffey sticking out its tongue, but the more formal Canal Grande, straight sided and stone lined, runs down from the Piazza Saint Antonio towards the sea, crossed by the bridge on which Joyce stands — loiters, one commentator says.

The statute seemed somehow smaller than life sized. Joyce seems dazed, hand in pocket, dreaming, perhaps, of Molly Bloom’s ‘melons melonous’, or recalling the windows of high class clothes shops in the city centre, filled with ladies’ lingerie, “wondrous gowns and costliest frillies. For him!”

Could it have been the shops here, rather than Brown Thomas on Dublin’s Grafton Street, that really inspired the scene in which Bloom himself gazes on silks and satins, and ‘mutely’ craves ‘to adore’? Leaning against a wall, high up above the city I recalled the wall against which Milo O’Shea leans in Joseph Strick’s film of the Ulysees. Were it not so clean and well tended, I might think Trieste reminiscent of ‘dear, dirty, Dublin’.

A friend had driven me the two thousand kilometres to see that Joycean statue and to be seen by it — in both senses of the phrase. A pointless piece of literary homage that we’d talked about making for a decade and more.

Trieste seemed a cold city, and not just because of that wind. The people here look you in the eye and weigh you up. They don’t fawn or fall over you with welcomes, but judge, perhaps rightly, that you have done wisely to visit them. It was late October, and though unseasonably sunny the sensible tourists, and perhaps all of the English save us, had gone. A few kilometres out of the city a grid of buoys floated, bereft of their summer moorings. Beyond the flat-calm, azure Adriatic, towards the west, the buildings of — could it be? –Venice, caught the autumn sun and glistened like sugar cubes.

 A broad, stone pier juts out into the water at the centre of the bay. Here large ships must once have landed their cargoes. Now the curious and the adventurous risk that biting wind and stroll out to take in, briefly, the view back across the city, which folds out on each side, and climbs in orange pan-tiles the hill behind the crust of square-set buildings to lose itself in the thick mixed woods of the hinterland.

 Abandoned cranes and the shells of warehouses stand beyond the railway station to the west, and to the east a skyline of newer warehouses and cranes shows. An old stone fortress sits dead centre among the rooftops.

Between the promenade and the city, Mercedes, BMWs, and Audis fill the main road. We crossed into the Piazza del ‘Unita Italia’, and considered briefly a table at Harry’s, but settled for a local pizzeria where we dined beneath a garish painting of Westminster Bridge.

 Just off that square a band of locals stood a folding table bearing leaflets of a Trieste independence party and the flags of America and the UK. We wandered over to find out more. Trieste had been ‘given’ to Italy after the First World War but after the Second it was made over to an Allied Commission. A friendly English speaker explained to us. Out-Brexiting the Brexiteers, this happy band saw themselves as citizens of a potential city state and why not, if those up-market shops were anything to go by? I can imagine London with its Home Counties going the same way one day. 

There were beggars, such as we had seen all the way across Europe – our sensitivity heightened by the refugee crisis, and a post-Brexit sense that we were seeing a continent that would not be the same, for us at least, ever again. The supplicants seemed mostly of Eastern origin and in the Piazza Saint Antonio, hidden entirely beneath an orange cloak, richly embroidered, was one especially chilling. She — for some reason, though I could see no face or body, I thought of it as a woman — had placed a plastic cup on the ground, and wore a black sheep’s head, curled horns as dark as the tight curls of wool that covered it. The lower jaw, with slow, un-rhythmic persistence, made a flat, un-resonant clack, clack, clack, clack, that haunted the streets around the square.

James Joyce’s Statue Via Roma, 34122 Trieste TS, Italien. Courtesy: Wiki

To fulfil my bucket-list desire, I would not merely see, but be photographed not noticing the statue of James Joyce. I took an ancient Sony Handycam. Just get me crossing the bridge and passing him by, I told my friend. It’s easy to use, I said. Hold it like a trumpet, and you can operate all the controls with the fingers of one hand.

When I returned my friend was holding the camera like a saxophone. I think I missed you, he said. Do you want to do it again?

The sheer Joycean comic irony of the situation was too good to undo.

It’ll be fine, I said, and we drove the two thousand kilometres home. 

Curthwaite- Worlington-Heidelberg-Venice-Trieste. October 2016

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com 

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Categories
Essay

A Fresh Perspective: The Bull that Thought

By Mike Smith

I have an instinctive abhorrence for blood-sports. I can remember when many years ago Woman’s Hour on BBC’s Radio 4 misjudged its audience and promoted a female bullfighter in a spirit of misguided equality and was roundly condemned.

So, you might find it surprising that one of my favourite Kipling stories is about a bull-fight. ‘The Bull That Thought’, from the 1926 collection, Debits and Credits – home of several favourites, including the clever ‘The Eye of Allah’, and the poignant ‘The Gardener’ — is one of those Kipling stories that stands out, not merely from his own work but from just about anything else one might have read.

A framed story, like many Kipling stories, it is one of those told to its first person narrator, in this case in the presence of the reader, by one of those “men on steamers and trains” who Kipling reminds us in that much earlier tale Preface, which seems both tale and preface, is where stories come from The tale is told over a magnum (or probably larger) of fine old champagne, “between fawn and topaz, neither too sweet nor too dry”, by a Monsieur Voiron.

The eponymous bull is called Apis, and in Voiron’s youth was itself a calf. Voiron has been brought up on a cattle farm among herdsmen, and bulls, in The Crau and the Camargue regions of France. Retired after a life in the Colonial Service, and returned to his family farm, Voiron recounts the tale of Apis, who far from being a mindless beast has brought intelligence to the games of bull-fighting that were played in the yards and fields of his homeland.

In fact, Apis has shown himself to be an exceptional tactician, and a “natural murderer”  “almost indecent but infallibly significant”. The ownership of the bull passes into the hands of Christophe, a peasant herdsman on the estate, and he sells the bull to Spaniards, who fight their bulls, not with padded horns, but to death of either bull or matador. Voiron tells how he and Christophe travel across the border to see what must be Apis’ first and final fight.

Slightly more than half of this fourteen-page story is devoted to the description of that fight. All the tricks and turns that the bull has learned in his youth – leading to the death of horses and other bulls – is put to the test as Apis faces Villamarti, a local matador out to show his prowess. The bull destroys the forces sent against him, tricking them into errors, killing both horses and men, yet managing too, to convince the crowd, at least to begin with, that he is making merely clumsy mistakes, rather than clever ambushes. Finally, having destroyed Villamarti’s reputation, he is left in a bullring which, traditionally he cannot be allowed to leave alive. Already the Guardia Civile are handling their carbines.

Salvation comes in the shape of Christo, who like Christophe is a peasant herdsman at heart. He is also the oldest, wisest, and dullest of the matadors against whom the bulls have been pitted. He alone recognises the cleverness, and value of Apis, and the bull recognises him too. The two of them put on a marvellous display, edging nearer to the gate from which no bull has exited the arena under its own steam. Finally, Christo’s cloak thrown over the bull’s back, the old matador demands the gate be opened for him and his friend. Amazingly it is. The bull has spared him, and he has saved it. Both know the game they have played and won.

Finishing his tale, Voiron confesses that he and Christophe did not see the next bull – “an unthinking black Andalusian” — killed, for they were weeping like children. He ends the story by proposing a toast ‘to her’, and Kipling phrases it with just a hint of ambiguity as to just who that ‘her’ might be.

It’s not simply the story of the underdog winning that I like. Apis is hardly the underdog, even when outnumbered in the bullring! It’s what the story reminds me of about Kipling. Because of his enthusiasm for Empire, and the association of that Empire, despite its Britishness, with England, we can be fooled into thinking of Kipling as an English writer. But in reality, he was much broader than that.

His British soldiers, of the ‘Soldiers Three’ stories, are stereotypes of working-class voices from several regions of Britain, but none of them have Kipling’s voice. They seem as foreign to him as the Muslim and Hindu ayahs, servants and soldiers of his India, perhaps even more so.  And in the story ‘An Habitation Enforced’, it’s tempting to see the American and his wife who become nouveau Lords of the Manor in the English village to which they have moved as proxies for Kipling and his Sussex house, Batemans. In ‘The Village That Voted The Earth Was Flat’, and They, Kipling’s narrators slip easily into the identity of the British Establishment, but the English are always seen from the outside by this writer.

The writer, any writer, is likely to be to some extent an outsider, an observer, even when his or her readers perceive them to be insiders, and Kipling seems to be at a similar distance, or proximity to most of his characters, even those whom he calls “mine own people”.

In The Bull That Thought, Kipling’s narrator is a car-owning, continental travelling ‘Englishman’, which puts him in a very tiny minority of the British population. But the story allows us to see another aspect of Kipling’s identity, for he was a lover of France, and can present his French raconteur with absolute credibility, perhaps even authenticity.

The tale within a tale is a common technique and was used by many storytellers. Coppard used it, and he is about as far as you can get from Kipling where English identities are concerned, and so did and so do many others. Sometimes, the primary narrator simply introduces the tale and lets the secondary narrator carry on. Sometimes the frame is completed with the outer narrator appearing at the end to tie things up. Here, Kipling keeps a conversation between the two going, his primary narrator intervening to remind us who is talking to whom, and that both of them are setting into that enormous champagne bottle! “Monsieur Voiron replenished our glasses…”

Occasionally, as if to drive the narrative on, he asks questions: “Why did you want to send him to Arles?”And once he even has to bring Voiron back to the subject in hand as the old man veers off onto another train of thought:

‘…Now, as compared with our recent war, Soult’s campaign and retreat across the Bidassoa–’

“‘But did you allow Christophe just to annex the bull?’ I demanded”

            The opening frame takes up more than a page of the story, as the narrator recalls his trip to “westward from a town by the Mouth of the Rhone’”and his plan to road test the speed of his motor car on “thirty kilometres as near as might be” of a road “mathematically straight”. Voiron, a guest at the same Hotel takes an interest, and after the event suggests the celebratory meal during which he will tell his story. Though we get a fairly full account of Voiron’s history, we also get a subtle nudge about the narrator’s, for he has with him a Mr Leggat “who had slipped out to make sure” and “reported that the road surface was unblemished”. Leggat is our traveller’s chauffeur/mechanic. The purpose of such a frame is to let us know what sort of person we are listening to, and by extension, how to judge those to whom he is talking, and who he will suffer to talk to us.   

And at the end, it is Voiron to whom he gives the closing words. That leaves us with Kipling’s narrator when the telling ends. There is no comment either from Kipling’s narrator or himself. We make of it what we make of it, and it’s more, I think, that what we might expect our narrator, or his storyteller, or the author himself to believe about the practice of bullfighting.

The nature of the fight that Apis wages against his tormentors, both as a young calf and as a full grown bull, and Voiron’s attitude to it, and to him, and to the outcome of that final battle, can be seen as an examination of attitudes to war and violent conflict in the wider sense. Voiron has “supervised Chinese woodcutters who, with axe and dynamite, deforested the centre of France for trench-props”, and he drifts into talking about Soult’s Napoleonic War campaign in Spain. In short stories, and especially in ones by masters of the genre as Kipling was, there are no drifts into irrelevancy, only the illusion of them. Voiron draws a specific parallel just after he has described Apis as a “natural murderer”: “One knows the type among beasts as well as among men.”

 The date of publication, of 1926, falls well within the deep and long shadow thrown by the first ‘Great’ war of the twentieth century, and Kipling knew well the cost of it. In the stories ‘Mary Postgate’ and ‘The Gardener’ which bracket, by publication this one, he confronts directly both the private and the public grief, but here, might there be an oblique critique as well?  Yet not of the cleverness of the tactics as shown by Apis, so much as the attitude of those who live to tell the tale and of the outcome they long for. That “type among beasts” and men, Voiron asserts, “possesses a curious truculent mirth”.

Does the calculated brutality of the bull, and its sense of honour and of humour echo qualities that Kipling observed in those who fought in the trenches for which Voiron’s Chinese workers “deforested France”?      

Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com