Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Yanara Friedland, Uncountry, a mythology

Her favorite story is death. When you die you go down along a wall of stones pointing out of the earth like large bones. When you die you fall down a well and bring blood to the moon’s reflection. When you die the bird-killing hind toe carries you to the arch of Orion. When you die you go back to the clay and fog. When you die the golems will cry. When you die the world disappears. When you die I will die.

Mimmy’s son born bad is pulled out like water from a well. Large forceps embrace his neck. The tumble of sounds, he pushes back. His arms, oars. Jugular vein thumps. There are squirrels on the roof. Mimmy’s words shake up rough, they call out of her mouth like unripe berries. Several nurses have to hold her down. Mimmy roars; woman of a thousand heads on all fours, the forceps still stuck somewhere. The egg sandwich vomited onto white sheets. The baby is suddenly surrounded by numb flesh, his head in the slow current of a dark pond.

German-American writer, translator, and Arizona teacher Yanara Friedland’s first novel, 2015 winner of the Noemi Press Fiction Award, is the remarkable Uncountry, a mythology (La Cruces NM: Noemi Press, 2016). Composed as a series, a sequence, of self-contained prose sections, Friedland’s novel explores how stories of real experience shift and shimmy into mythology, writing a series of episodes that feel unreal at first, and then begin to cohere into something solid, concrete. One gets the sense that these stories could be centred in autobiography, writing outwards from stories collected from parents, grandparents and other points of extended family, and yet, whether they are or not are irrelevant; stories such as these not need to have happened as they are depicted for them to be “true.” Writing the character Mimmy from the old country to the new, Friedland tells tales of Europe during the war and contemporary North America, writing tales of love, death, memory and survival, from the carnage of war itself to the inevitable hangover once war finally ends, as well as what remains long after such experiences become history. Through an incredible book-length sequence that begins almost dreamlike, there are elements here that Friedland shares with Milan Kundera for the sense of personal story and intimate detail amid grand storytelling, bleeding between fact and memory, history and mythology. Hers are the small moments that make up a life, lived amid and between the details of historical fact, specifically the madness of the Second World War. This is very much a book about being and not belonging, the trauma of war displacing the soul from a connection to a home that no longer exists and surviving: whole, but not unscathed. This might be the sharpest and strongest novel I’ve read in some time. 

When you walk, you return to the human prodigal. To move across, trespass, leave behind. Retrieval of distance. Of arrival.

Marshland, basalt rock, nesting swans, washing lines. “The March” refers to a series of Death Marches of allied prisoners during the winter of ’45, also called “The Great March West,” “The Bread Walk” or “The Long Walk.” At the same time many thousand civilian refugees move away from the Russian occupation zone. Later that year, during the summer, Czechs expel their German minorities from Sudetenland to Austria, which is later referred to as the “Brünn Death March.”

It appears that the year of 1945 saw one of the largest human migrations dying on foot in European history.

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