This issue of Words Without Borders is actually a special looking at graphic novels. Which puts me in an odd spot because I don't normally look at graphics or non-fiction, and most of the graphic novels here are non-fiction as well. So...I'm going to be looking at the fiction specifically for this issue, which means one of the graphic novels and all of the short stories in the New Slovak Women's Writing section. So this will be a much shorter review than before, looking at four stories and one graphic novel. Still, onwards!
"Sea Anemone" by Ursula Kovalyk, translated by Julia Sherwood and Peter Sherwood (1133 words)
The story of an old woman living out the end of her days, with the memory of having once been a dancer for a strip-club. It's a fun story, told through the eyes of a younger woman who helps around her apartment. Now the old woman is tired, never leaves her home, but there is a smell of smoke that clings to her, that her helper remarks on. And when the helper returns to find the old woman dead, the smoke still lingers, takes form, and it's the memory of that time when she was a dancer. The old woman never lost that part of herself, never stopped being the Sea Anemone. She kept it inside her, kept that smoke held in her body, but her whole self locked in the past, in that brief moment when she was free. And with her dead, the smoke billows out, lost to the wind, lost because the woman cannot hold it in any longer. A great story.
"Bermuda Triangle" by Jaroslava Blažková, translated by Magdalena Mullek (726 words)
This is a cheerfully brutal story written as a letter describing three couples. The husbands in all three relationships are dying. The first is old and has leukemia and wants to brush his cremation suit. The second is a home and keeps barely pulling through weakness after weakness. And the last had a stroke and now can't count past four. The women are the more interesting characters, as they react to the impending deaths in very different ways. The first keeps pulling her husband around on trips and cruises, then complains when all he does is sleep. The second keeps hoping her husband will die to save her the expense of his upkeep. And the last, the one writing the letter, hasn't made up her mind what to do, how to accept or fight against death, how to feel about the fact that it is approaching, that health has already snatched her husband away in some ways. It's a brilliant portrait of these three couples, and how they are each approaching similar things. And the ending is a lingering not about how cheerful it all is. Needless to say, I'm a big fan.
"Finale" by Svetlana Žuchová, translated by Charles Sabatos (2957 words)
These stories all circle around death, this one with the main character's mother dying after a long stay in the hospital. The call from the hospital informing her about the death is mainly what the story deals with. Such a small thing, that phone call. And the main character knew it was coming soon. But she didn't know exactly when and she didn't know that the hospital had her cell phone number and so it all kind of caught her off guard. Surprised her. But it's also about how death is always a surprise, always something that's not exactly looked for or expected, even when it kind of is. I like the bit at the end, the binary part, where the woman says that you can't be a little bit dead. It's a turning point. And so it is also always a surprise. Always something that has to be stopped for and considered. And still there is a numbness to the main character's actions after learning. She's obviously not quite dealing with what happened, is focused on the phone call, on that and not anything else. It's a nice story, a picture of grief and distance at the moment of death.
From "Boat Number Five" by Monika Kompanikova, translated by Janet Livingstone (2533 words)
This is a strange little excerpt about a young woman helping a young mother watch her babies at a train station. Assuming that the mother just needed to get something quick on the upper platform, the main character waits, examining the children and wishing that she could be a child again, free from care and obligation. it's a lovely bit of writing about how people think of children and how that feeling changes abruptly once the children can understand more. All this she things as she waits and then the mother doesn't return. It seems the mother disappeared, leaving her alone with the two children. And with a question of what to do next. It's a nice idea and I loved the writing, that yearning the main character has to be freed from the crappy societal bonds. Good stuff.
"Tell Me Where to Go," by Kim Han-min, translated by Jamie Chang and Sora Kim-Russel
About a group of people, called Limbos, who are trying to move from one country to another. Really about immigration and the brutality with which people are kept in bad situations who don't have the means to leave. The story talks about judging a country by its walls, and that is a very good way of looking at nations. By what criteria does a nation allow someone to enter. The graphic tale shows some people seeking to find a place to be. But there are no nations for the people that don't belong. There is no place for the rejected. They are expected to stay and die. Or, if they try to get out, to get put back in their place by the powers that be. The art is effective, political. It reminds me of a collection of Kafka's stories presented graphically that I read and it has a sort of Kafka-esque tone to it. It's all black and white with thick lines, and there is a surreal quality to it that makes it more disturbing, more impacting. So while not exactly fun, it is a very effective piece of writing and visual storytelling, political and damning. Excellent work.