A mood, an atmosphere, rises up from the opening pages of Esther Kinsky’s River—a melancholy that unfolds so softly, so insistently that I repeatedly had to remind myself that I was reading words that originally existed in German. I found myself wondering: What would the German feel like in my hands? How would its texture taste, guttural tones against the back of my throat? These are questions that, in their asking, underscore how River is a text to linger in, to touch, to absorb, and recognize one’s self in. We follow the narrator as she temporarily suspends her life, settling for a time in a marginal community on the edge of London, so she can slowly disengage herself from a number of years spent in the city, and prepare, mentally and emotionally, to take her final leave. The process she details seems to be one we, too, undergo in reading River.
Under a pale sun and in the whitish, shadowless light peculiar to this place and these seasons, I took to following tracks which, time and again, led me back through the alder grove. This partly mutilated wetland wood with its childhood flowers and wild birds secretly appealing to my memory was my gateway to the lower reaches, to the path downstream that gradually taught me, during the final months of my stay, to find my own names for a city I had already spent many years labouring to decipher—names only walking and looking could force me to extract and reassemble from a web of trickling memories, a debris of stored images and sounds, a tissue of tangled words.
The river Lea traces a relatively short trail from hills northwest of London, through open expanses, marshlands and small stands of trees along the tattered urban fringes of the city, entering outer suburbs and running alongside the commercial district on its way to ultimately lose itself in the Thames. It is a curious little waterway, dominated by swans, frequented by gypsies, rubbing shoulders with multicultural communities and industrial wastelands. It is, for Kinsky’s unnamed narrator, a perfect location to undertake “a provisional existence” after having excised herself, “just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo,” from the life she lived in the city. One senses a difficult rupture. Now, uncertain where her next move will take her, she and her packed belongings have perched temporarily in a neighbourhood of East London where everyone and everything is unfamiliar and unknown—a transitional and transient space to harbour her restless soul for a time.
What follows is an account of the landscapes she explores and the people she observes and interacts with during this protracted process of breaking free and getting ready to move on. The pace is unrushed, meditative and dream-like; the moments collected simple, yet delicately detailed; the prose rhythmic and poetic, a tribute to translator Iain Galbraith’s sensitivity, no doubt, his careful touch. The Lea-based chapters keep to a rough chronology, moving through the seasons, expanding their geographic scope as the narrator chronicles her investigations of the river-bound borderlands, pushing outward to the marshes and open fields and inward to eventually trace the Lea’s historical pathway to the point where it meets the Thames amid vacant factory yards and empty lots. She watches her neighbours, primarily Hassidic Jews, and Kurdish, African and Central European immigrants, as they go about their daily lives. Socially her interactions are limited, but her engagement with the environment is intimate. She takes countless photographs—either with an instant camera or film developed in her bathroom—collects stones, feathers and other odd objects, and catalogues the sounds, scents, colours, textures and shifting qualities of light and shadow, as she attempts to absorb the smallest fragments of her closing months in the region.
Recurring throughout the narrative are a sporadic series of chapters that recount her earliest months in London, including her first, rather dystopian sounding job at a radio station, and her father’s sole visit, which will be the last time she sees him alive. She acquaints herself with her new home by walking the streets repeatedly, taking pictures, and soaking in the sights, aromas and noises of her new urban ecosystem, eager to shed the awkward veneer of an outsider. But the winds, ever varied and intense, that roar through the streets defy her attempts to easily adjust. And in a particularly vivid chapter, she describes how, during the rainy season, she takes to travelling the streets by bus, finding that through the blurred windows of the upper deck, London reveals secrets and boundaries invisible at ground level. A second-story world opens up to her, offering a passing view of life as it exists behind the walls of the city. Her orientation to this sprawling metropolitan environment as a newcomer mirrors her process of disconnecting, years later, within the relatively confined scope of the Lea Valley.
A third thread of interwoven chapters reach back to the narrator’s childhood along the Rhine, and recall a first visit to England as a young girl, both mediated by her father’s frequent holiday photographs with assorted rivers in the background. He and her grandparents feature clearly in her reveries, and frequent her dreams. Her memories also carry her back to other places and other rivers. The idea of the Saint Lawrence as a river emerging from the bulging Great Lakes to make its way to the sea haunts in her imagination during time spent in Toronto with her young son who, oddly, is mentioned nowhere else in the novel. The Nahal Ha Yarkon exists almost completely unnoticed during a stay in Tel Aviv, while the Oder stands as a distinct national boundary between Germany and Poland on another excursion. The reluctant Nerveta plays a different mediating border role as she journeys by bus across the post-war Balkan landscape of Croatia and Bosnia; the Tsiza in northern Hungary draws treasure hunters and local pleasure seekers to its regularly flood-ravaged shores; and the murky Hooghly that runs through the greater Kolkata municipal district offers unnerving watery transportation as she seeks a location hinted at in an old photograph glimpsed in a city bookseller’s shop. The narrative which begins and ends with the sight of a maddened, proud African man she nicknames The King holding court with a flock of ravens in the park, flows effortlessly between thirty-seven chapters which, on their own, could be read as perfectly contained prose pieces, but together gradually build layers and depth as the narrator’s time in East London draws toward a close.
The book’s apparent proximity to memoir may well help explain its emotional valence. Esther Kinsky was born in Engelskirchen, near Bonn, and spent her early years living along the Rhine River. She studied English and Slavic languages and literature in Bonn and Toronto, and spent over a decade in London before moving to Battayona, Hungary on the Romanian border. Now based in Vienna and northern Italy, she is an accomplished translator of literary works from Polish, Russian and English into German, and the author of three volumes of poetry and three novels. In March 2016, she was awarded the Chamisso Prize, which celebrates the contributions of those for whom German was not their mother tongue, for her entire oeuvre as an acknowledgment of the exceptionally high quality of literary work that can emerge when a translator’s experience with the mediation of culture and language is allowed expression in an authorial capacity. On the surface, her own history shares many basic features with that of River’s narrator who also, at least for a time, takes on work as a document translator. But the latter’s life remains so obscure, with so many details left unspoken, that it is impossible to say how closely their biographies mesh.
It is tempting to read an author into her fiction, especially when a number concurrences appear within a work that is so affectively autobiographical in tone. However, River reads as a work strongly grounded in experience of place, one that allows Kinsky to draw on her own sensitive engagement with the environments she has lived in and visited, and filter them through the eyes of a narrator who seems to belong to none of them. Turn them into stories. The protagonist’s time in Toronto, for example, makes no reference to an educational motive, rather it is a 1970s-inflected meditation on a time of linguistic and spatial disorientation—of being young and far from home—peopled with vivid characters. As one moves further into the narrative, it is increasingly difficult to orient the river-based chapters into any chronology that necessarily ties them to the author’s personal timeline. If it is close or not, we don’t need to know, that is not what is important.
What Kinsky and her narrator clearly do share, however, is a strong affinity for, and attraction to, borders or fringe territories. Riverbanks, roadsides, train platforms, and other transitional spaces reappear throughout Kinsky’s poetry and her prose. This theme has also been noted in her writing about translating. In her book Fremdsprechen: Gedanken zum Übersetzen (Speaking Foreign – reflections on translation), she describes the challenge of negotiating the delicate boundary between one’s own words and life and the words and lives of others. In River, the distinction between the life of the narrator and that of the author shifts in and out of focus, but, freed within the realm of fiction, it is one border Kinsky can navigate at will.
Another distinctive quality of her poetic sensibility that is also especially resonant in this novel is the idiosyncratic way that, through her narrator, she engages with the natural world. She paints with a particular palette—pale muted pastels and endless shades of white, mixed with greys and muddy, earthy tones dominate. Light has an almost tangible texture. Sounds have personality, scents carry weight. Nature as experience. Annelie David has written, regarding the poems that Kinsky situates in nature, that “both plant and animal life play an important role. Not to lament them as a lost world or lose herself in the beauty of nature. To the contrary; nothing in these poems is embellished or made palatable. Nature represents an inner state.”
The same metaphorical tendency is equally evident in River. The narrator’s regular walks along the Lea represent an intentional attempt to gather and archive memories and experiences from the natural world, as if to build a psychological bridge between a life abandoned and one yet to be defined, so as not to leave emptyhanded, one might say. As she understands it, nature, in its contact with human experience, is imbued with an certain sadness. Open marshlands, trees, clouds, birdsong, and the scattered, crumbling debris littering the riverbank all warrant her attentions, await the meaning she will grant them. But “nature” as she finds it is not always what we might expect.
Kinsky’s poetic instincts find particular expression in the way the objects in her narrator’s domestic life—her restless furniture and unpacked removal boxes—and in the heterogenous environment around her, are personified, allowed to become characters in her account, animated extras in her landscapes:
I returned on the path that looped around the filter beds and led back to the river between open terrain and the electric pylons standing by as ever like lost, harmless giants frozen in the flat land, slender, immobile, and delicate, their six arms splayed out to no conceivable purpose underlining their defencelessness or their perplexity over the question of which way they should go next. The more familiar I became with this flat world in the milky winter light, the more I thought of the pylons as parts of the landscape that by some strange quirk of nature had surged out of the ground featherless, hairless and leafless in time immemorial, honest custodians of this intermediate realm between the firm ground and a deceptive alluvial plain that was underwashed by countless waters; they were fine-boned guardians of the void uttering nothing but their spidery buzz and hum, a rarified, highly-pitched song that was only audible in pauses between clattering trains, and which attempted again and again to subvert the city beyond the Lea whenever it drew a deep breath to roar.
The meandering narrative is sparked with these inventive observations of the world, urban, rural and industrial. Although the narrator engages in limited, if respectful interactions with the people around her—the thin-lipped Croat who runs a charity shop, the Stollers with their Kosher Egg Store, Greengrocer Katz, the clusters of Jewish school children, and other assorted regulars—she makes no efforts to get closer. She prefers to stitch possible scenarios onto the lives of her neighbours, and, in her wanderings, she often fills in the empty spaces and structures she encounters with imaginary human characters, momentarily fleshed out, breathed into being and then forgotten. Naturally drawn to those who live on the margins, the eccentrics and misfits, her decision to settle within their community affords her a necessary measure of anonymity and she seems to be content to remain the perpetual observer, forever peering into shadows and lighted windows, but crossing few boundaries. She is already beginning to picture herself on the opposite shore of her London existence and with it, her time in England. If, as she says at one point, “all rivers are borders,” there is a sense by which she already belongs to “the gaze toward the other side.”
Marked by its affinity with margins, borders, edges and transition points, Kinsky’s work can be said to be at home in liminal spaces. As such, River itself, as a literary work, exists, as we’ve noted, on the threshold between novel and memoir. The lines are blurred, indistinct, as in the photographs, found and created, that hold such an appeal for her unnamed narrator. And, because the narrator reveals so little about the nature of her recent life, the author’s secrets also remain concealed, holding the designation as fiction unquestionable. Best to simply submit to the laconic, often directionless, drifting narrative, reminiscent of a lazy, slow moving waterway, and remain open to all the possibilities exposed on the journey. This strikes a sharp contrast to Kinsky’s first novel Summer Resort (2009)—translated by her late husband Martin Chalmers and published in English by Seagull Books in 2011—which presents itself as a short, sharp, almost breathless tale of the misadventures of an array of tragicomic characters who gather at a riverside holiday site during an unusually hot, dry Hungarian summer. It unfolds in a rough and rollicking stream of words that often collide to explode to form charged compound constructions. But echoes of the playful imagery, inventive language and sly humour that distinguish her initial outing pulse below the surface of River’s much more sophisticated, mature and contemplative currents. And a river, too, with all the threat and promise it carries, runs through the earlier novel as a preparation of sorts for this later work.
The pathway of the modest Lea and its environs is allowed to take a central, narrative role in River, a novel in which the narrator is at one with the land and its objects, its assorted elements, natural and manmade, and yet oddly distanced from the people around her. This is not a time for personal involvement. By contrast, she seems to feel more comfortable with the brief, transient relationships that develop with people she encounters on her visits to foreign countries such as Sandy, the young hippie mother she befriends during her stay in Toronto; Mi, her housebound neighbour in Tel Aviv; or Mrs. Bose, the corpulent hotel owner she meets on her boat ride down the Hooghly River in Kolkata. But even in these circumstances there is little affection; they are afforded by proximity and, perhaps, curiosity. The single, most enduring presence throughout this book is her father. His camera documented her childhood. His death marks the uncertain timeline of her river-bound reveries. His ghost hovers over the narrative which can, in part, be read as a quiet tribute to “the untiring traveller… with his voracious eyes always hungry for something new, always avid for more, landscapes, towns, rivers, images, a life so full of pictures that he gave up photography.” Through her cameras, her collections and her own restless wanderings, his daughter carries his spirit on.
With River, comparisons to fellow German writer W.G. Sebald are inevitable, and not entirely unwarranted. Like Sebald, Kinsky’s prose has a hypnotic quality, with long, winding sentences that almost seem hesitant to end, and paragraphs that can extend for several pages. Both blur the edges between fiction and nonfiction and incorporate photographs, ambiguous and indistinct, but in Kinsky’s text they appear less frequently and, even then, only at the head of chapters. However, photography plays a much more explicitly defined role in River. The images the narrator takes herself become a critical element of her explorations and attempts to capture the otherness of her present surroundings, while the ones she finds or collects serve as channels to memories and recollections of the past. As such, Kinsky’s narrative is more intimate, private and internal, and yet we learn nothing of what brought her narrator to London, kept her there for so many years, or what has finally called or driven her away. There is a reluctance, a slow and possibly painful letting go of the city—a gradual withdrawal that necessitates her temporary, tentative settlement in this marginal, mixed, neglected edge of London. At the same time, she is intent on collecting the small moments, the sensations, and the insignificant details of this stopover without a need to connect her gathered objects, images and observations to broader arcs of literature or history. Even her remembered sojourns in far flung countries exist in isolation, part of an accumulated life experience within which the only commonality is the presence, somewhere, of a river. The sustained opaqueness of this intimacy is remarkable. Rather than distancing the reader, it encourages reflection, opens up avenues for fresh observations of our own surroundings, however familiar, and inspires renewed appreciation of the small and precious memories we carry with us from our pasts, our childhoods and our travels.
Joseph Schreiber is a writer based in Calgary, Canada. He is Criticism/Nonfiction editor at 3:AM Magazine. His reviews and essays have been published in a variety of literary sites and publications including Numéro Cinq, Quarterly Conversation, and Minor Literature[s]. He also maintains a literary site called Roughghosts.
Banner image: "Flowing Water" by Dan Salaman. CC BY-NC.