Saturday 23 February 2019

River by Esther Kinsky (translated by Iain Galbraith)   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
The prose of Esther Kinsky’s River, flowing as it does both over the surface of and, perhaps more slowly and tentatively but just as surely, in the unseen depths of various kinds of personal, cultural and fluvial sediment, provides the most precisely detailed record of the vague impressions that form the majority of our experience of place that you could hope to read. All sediment being primarily a temporal phenomenon, or, rather, both the primal and ultimate intermixing of physical and temporal phenomena, the effect of Kinsky’s book, comprised as it is of an immense amount of highly specific detail borne in exquisite prose (exquisitely translated by Iain Galbraith), is to immerse us in a sort of generalised past from which specific pasts arise and return, always subservient to the erosive force of the general. The novel is intensely personal but we learn few biographical details about the narrator, intent as she as at looking outward, at observing her surroundings, at recording, with words and camera or collected objects, the specifics of the world she finds herself in. It seems that some loss has caused her to move, excising herself from her old London life “just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo,” to a small temporary flat in the northeast of London, near the banks of the River Lea before it empties into the Thames, and it seems that her looking outward draws both her and our attention away from her unspecified loss, circling around it, both addressing and avoiding it. She is detached but not yet ready to leave. “Again and again during those wind-buffeted weeks, I picked up my battered suitcase with the intention of setting off on a journey. On each occasion, however, I turned back. Barely had I set foot outside the front door when the journey seemed too burdensome. … Few things are sadder than an eagerly anticipated coastline that turns out to be dismal: blurred outlines, the inconclusive discontinuance of the flat land, charmless villages where the only thing happening is washing flapping in the wind, and the silt-bound, sea-filled boats. After a while I learned to roam without thoughts of travel or a suitcase in my hand: I made a home for myself by walking, and casting my eyes with ever increasing dedication upon the unremarkable things that lay unheeded by the wayside, things lost and not found, things left behind, unclaimed, thrown aside, going to rack and ruin, beyond retrieval or recognition.” A river is antagonistic to order, is bordered by “interstitial wildernesses”, places that are contested by the solid and the fluid, the populated and the wild, the permanent and the impermanent, zones of “dislocation, confusion and unpredictability in a world that craves order.” The narrator walks the banks of the River Lea, through places not quite in the city but not quite free of it either, wastelands both rural and industrial, intensely interested in the minutiae of the physical and the human environments but withholding herself from both. The interstitial nature of the river is temporal as much as physical and the narrator is feels the ongoing attrition ensuing from past traumas, her own and others’. “Here in London the reasons for erasing traces of the past may have been different from those in the country of my childhood, but the unhappiness that inhabited the drab chasms between the houses looked remarkably similar in both.” The equivalence of intense attention given to what the narrator observes and to what she remembers, to the Lea and to other rivers, to her own inclinations and to the actions of others, corrodes the objectivity of observation and demonstrates that observation and memory are, perhaps surprisingly, mutually antagonistic. Her observations are very precise, their subjects entirely particular and not representative and thus cumulatively more and more interesting, the details becoming more and more specific until the reader finds they have lost their footing and have been carried somewhere beyond truth (the disconcerting detail of the aged circus performer, the dystopian radio station or the man borne aloft by the wind are examples of this). A clever novelist and a watchful reader both know the effect of detail on the experience of reading: detail both supplies a simulacrum of authenticity and controls the pace of experience; in other words, detail has both a physical and a temporal effect. Kinsky’s book is very much *about* detail-as-river: how we approach and follow text, how we surrender to being carried along by it, or alongside it, how the onward flow of text affects us both consciously and subconsciously, both willingly and against our will, both above and beneath our notice. Details can make the truth slippery, but often a truth that has slipped away can only be grasped through residual details. Must it always be the case that the closer we attend, the less we recognise? The people the narrator observes in her neighbourhood are all outsiders in their own ways (as she is in hers): Hasidic Jews, Croatians, immigrants from Eastern Europe or Africa, Gypsies, people caught somehow out of their own time or place. For all of them, memory is a form of erasure. “Every river is a border. It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. [But] does the water carry something away with it? Isn’t it saying that what we really belong to is the gaze toward the other side?” Kinsky’s obsession with the outward gaze that is necessary to observation (and to one’s own invisibility), extends to the qualities of light upon which gaze is dependent in both its objective and subjective aspects. The narrator photographs not so much scenes on the banks of the River Lea as the shadows and hazes and vaguenesses that make those scenes uncertain. Objectivity, taken to its extreme, reveals itself to be hardly objective at all. Light is corrosive to sight and is, in the end, a cause of blindness.  

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