Winner of an English PEN Award
Published 17 January 2018, French paperback with flaps, 368 pages
V. PINHOLE CAMERA
My flat was not far from Abney Park Cemetery. Had I leaned out of the bay window in my front room I would have been able to see the cemetery gate whose defiant grandeur stood out from everything else in the area, even from the cemetery behind it. On a walk some years earlier, I had taken a detour through the cemetery. It was springtime, and there were small clumps of yellow and white blooming daffodils everywhere. Although I had not been alone at the time and was given all kinds of explanations about the history of the graves, the cemetery had seemed like a deep forest to me, a dank and musty island, half-wild, drifting in the river of the city. At the time I should not have been surprised to stumble out through one of the two gates into a London that was wholly different from the one I had previously entered from. Now that I was so near to this forest full of graves, I rarely visited it. It was autumn. Poisonous flowers blossomed in the shade of the tall trees and brushwood; the leaves rustled after a dry summer, but had retained their tired green instead of turning yellow. The cemetery seemed like an incongruous counter to the wilderness beyond the river Lea, which lay in the opposite direction. The cemetery belonged to the city; it was a small outgrowth from it, not an island in a river. There was no surprise for me to look forward to on leaving the gate at the other end of the cemetery; in fact, that way led towards my old London life, whose familiarity I wished to slough off. I confined myself to short tours between the graves, trees, flowers and undergrowth. I avoided little groups of drug dealers and their customers, and the dreamy visitors sitting on graves in the few patches of sunlight.
One day, in the middle of the cemetery, I came across a young girl and her boyfriend in a clearing. She had a pale, drained face, and was looking up with a timid, rapt expression at her companion, a large black man sitting very upright on a tree trunk or gravestone. He was staring into the bushes, but his gaze was so earnest and lofty that he seemed to be looking over the tops of the trees, into some uncharted yonder. The girl reminded me of a sepulchral angel, its face worn by wind and weather; her skin was like porous stone, and her features had a certain flatness, as if they had been sandpapered to erase severity. But she had lovely long red hair, and I secretly called her Sonja because she reminded me of a character in Chekhov. A few days later I saw Sonja in the cemetery by herself; she was sitting in a different part of the clearing, where she had set up a pinhole camera to take a picture. I asked her about the camera, which she had balanced with some difficulty on a tree trunk, and she explained its simple construction. On windless days the pictures can look like delicate sketches, she said. And sometimes they show angels.
Sonja was a firm believer in the pinhole camera. She showed me all kinds of wondrous phenomena made possible by the device: the reproduction of images; bringing to light the invisible. She went on to explain how leaves also acted as a kind of pinhole camera; the spots of light observable under foliage on a sunny day were countless tiny suns. Countless tiny suns, she repeated. It was a chilly, whitish-grey day, and I thought of the three suns seen by members of an expedition to the ice-wastes of the North Pole four centuries ago.
I would sometimes meet Sonja on the street, or in the second-hand clothes shop a few houses away from my flat. The shop was managed by a thin-lipped Croat, who professed to be running the place on behalf of a Bosnian charity. It was chock-a-block with stuff: clothes, suitcases, toys, shoes. I ran into Sonja a couple of times there trying on shoes. She didn’t like them, or they didn’t fit her, and on one of these occasions the thin-lipped man went to the back of the shop and reappeared with a large rubbish bag full of shoes, which he proceeded to empty onto the floor in front of Sonja. At last she found one that suited and fitted her, whooping with joy at how lovely it was as she rummaged in the shoe-heap; its other half was nowhere to be found. Sonja left the shop without purchasing anything. The Croat calmly picked up the dumped shoes, including the single one, and put them back in the bag.
To avoid having to search my house-moving boxes for crockery I bought some tea glasses from the Croat, and a metal teapot tarnished by constant scrubbing during its years of service in some canteen or cheap roadside café. The Croat stood behind his makeshift shop counter, where some pieces of jewellery were displayed. This was a motley jumble of brooches and rings, which the donors may have overlooked on lapels or in pockets as they hurried to stuff the clothes into bags. The Croat gave me the odd bit of advice as I studied the jewellery. This brooch was very becoming, or that ring showed off my hand very nicely, but I was not persuaded.
Sonja worked in a small grocer’s next to the charity for Bosnian refugees. I sometimes met her there. On one occasion I wanted to tell her about my instant pictures, indeed I had even prepared a little talk in my head about the relationship between these pictures and memory, but the talk went awry, my words sounded muddled, and she regarded me with disbelief. I mistrust memory, she said. The next time we met, she mentioned that she had started work on a photographic study. She mumbled an attempt to explain the study to me. You know, she said, beauty, light, reality, that sort of thing. A kind of law. Her voice became ever quieter, and I could barely understand what she was saying, but when I gave her a quizzical look, she shrugged her shoulders. A kind of law, she repeated, craning her face so far forward that it almost came up against my own. What is actually beautiful in what we see? she asked so suddenly and loudly that the few other customers in the shop turned to look. Following this conversation I stayed away from the shop, but a few weeks later Sonja came to see me. She was pregnant. Her features had become sharper; the weather-worn stone angel was no more, while her red hair, plaited into a braid, hung down in front of her shoulder. She lowered her eyes and soft bluish eyelids; she was no longer Sonja but a pre-Raphaelite vignette. That day at the grocer’s she had handed in her notice; she intended to move to a houseboat on the Lea. As a farewell gift she had brought me two photographs she had taken with her pinhole camera. On one of them I recognized a view of the garden behind where I lived: the flat gravel-strewn roof, the sycamore, the window of my small room, where I had so often stood. For a moment I was taken aback; I felt watched, and caught at trying to memorize things. The window of the little room looked empty, however; there was no sign of any figure.
The other picture showed Sonja’s clearing at Abney Park Cemetery: the trees, grass, half-overgrown gravestones, the deserted tree stump where she had sat with her friend. It really did look like a drawing.
An angel! she said, pointing to a thin, apparently hovering white shape in the bottom corner of the picture of the clearing. It was a blot of the kind that had occasionally appeared in the photos I took with my old instant camera: white shadows, caused by light penetrating the primitive casing.
Thank you, I said. It’s very beautiful.
Sonja, who since her metamorphosis may have been called Gabriella, took her leave. She walked slowly and ponderously, not towards the Abney Park Cemetery, but in the other direction. I began to imagine her in Springfield Park, where, who knows, she might cross paths with the King, but then I saw her turning down the lane that ran along between my back garden and the embankment above the train station. The moment she vanished I was no longer certain I would recognize her if I saw her again in a different place.
I gave the two pinhole photographs a place in my flat. And there they stood, one at either end of the series I had taken of the Lea, like two distant relatives from a branch of the family thought to have withered away.
The translation of this work was supported by a grant from the Goethe-Institut which is funded by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs
‘After many years I had excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo. Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence. I did so in a place where I knew none of my neighbours, where the street names, views, smells and faces were all unfamiliar to me, in a cheaply appointed flat where I would be able to lay my life aside for a while.’
In River, a woman moves to a London suburb for reasons that are unclear. She takes long, solitary walks by the River Lea, observing and describing her surroundings and the unusual characters she encounters. Over the course of these wanderings she amasses a collection of found objects and photographs and is drawn into reminiscences of the different rivers which haunted the various stages of her life, from the Rhine, where she grew up, to the Saint Lawrence, the Hooghly, and the banks of the Oder. Written in language that is as precise as it is limpid, River is a remarkable novel, full of poignant images and poetic observations, an ode to nature, edgelands, and the transience of all things human.
‘River is an unusual and stealthy sort of book in that it’s the opposite of what it appears to be – which is a rather apt dissimulation, as it turns out. Yes, it rifles through both the rich and rank materials of the world, turning over its trinkets and its tat, in a manner that is initially quite familiar – however, this curious inventory demonstrates an eye for the grotesque and does not hold the world aloft, or in place. Here, details blur boundaries rather than reaffirming them, positing a worldview that is haunted and uncanny. Shifting through unremarkable terrain we encounter the departed, the exiled, the underneath, the other side. We are on firm ground, always; yet whether that ground is here or there, now or then, is, increasingly, a distinction that is difficult and perhaps irrelevant to make. Sea or sky, boy or girl, east or west, king or vagrant, silt or gold; by turns grubby, theatrical, and exquisite, we are closer to the realm of Bakhtin’s carnival than we are to the well-trod paths of psychogeography. Kinsky’s River does indeed force us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side.’
— Claire-Louise Bennett, author of Pond
‘Our narrator is an ambulant consciousness open to stimulus, like a video recorder left running. She's not searching for anything. She's just there, enduring in the company of rust, moss, dirt, cracks, puddles, half-dead grass, rubbish, wire, random bricks, concrete without purpose, the blackened ground from past bonfires, holes, fragments of fabric, plastic toys, weeds, saplings and dead animals. ... [River's] main subject is the sense of materiality, and its complement, light, that accompanies the narrator from her childhood on the Rhine through sojourns in other riparians homes-from-home, on the St Lawrence in Canada, on the Vistula in Poland. ... The form of River mirrors its content; its consciousness flows with a sense that, like water to the sea, it will one day lose itself. It is appropriately, seamlessly translated by Iain Galbraith.’
— Lesley Chamberlain, The Times Literary Supplement
‘Rich in atmosphere, River meanders like its liquid locales ... Iain Galbraith, who has also translated Sebald, gives River, and all its "lumber of cumbersome jetsam", a special English poetry of grunge and grime.’
— The Economist
‘Magnificent... As with the work of W. G. Sebald, Kinsky constructs the past through landscapes: for the woman, a river is a “water-script of histories.’
— New Yorker
‘Esther Kinsky’s unnamed narrator observes and remembers, piling up beautiful, silt-like layers of description and memory until it becomes difficult to know which is which. ... This is a book to relish for its precise descriptions of landscape and weather, for its interest in the detritus of other people’s lives that we routinely overlook, and for its international reach as well as its localised intensities, all wonderfully evoked in Iain Galbraith’s translation.’
— Jonathan Gibbs, The Guardian
‘There’s a timeless quality to River ... the names of the four seasons and the four elements (“air” is most frequently associated with storms; the season is usually autumn or winter) are intoned over and over, and the book’s structure is openly cyclical. How much is fact and how much is pure fiction? It hardly matters. River exists in a hinterland between personal and universal strands of truth ... Esther Kinsky has produced a minor-key masterpiece. Iain Galbraith’s English translation is note-perfect, and River could well be one of the best new translations of 2018.’
— Jacob Silkstone, Asymptote
‘... thick with meditative and descriptive passages, with swells of poetry and lyricism ... it unfolds at a tender pace which encourages a way of reading that honours the narrator’s own movements. ... It is a book that offers gifts granted rarely to readers — particularly in an age when readers are starved for attention — including latitude and airiness, leeway to wander astray from a singular line of narrative.’
— Daniel David Wood, Glasgow Review of Books
‘A surreal, visionary, often comic novel about east London, and the meanings of exile. Hackney Marshes and their environs have never felt more magical – or menacing.’
— Boyd Tonkin, The Arts Desk
‘It is beautifully written (and sensitively translated by Iain Galbraith), finally capturing the enigmatic landscape of the Lea more than anything else I have read – it is that perfect.’
— Ken Worpole, Caught by the River
‘River is a beautiful exploration of memory’s unbreakable bonds with its natural surroundings.’
— Matthew Janney, Culture Trip
‘The quality of Esther Kinsky’s writing is so good that you cannot fail to be spellbound by it.’
— The Modern Novel
‘The chapters in River are tributaries, hinting at events, lives, relationships, before whirling and eddying backward or forward to another place, another time … reminiscent of Patrick Modiano, or, as many have been quick to point out, W.G. Sebald, in its hazy precision and nebulous beauty … it teaches us how to look closer, and how to love the grubby eloquence of the things we may first dismiss.’
— Totally Dublin
‘Esther Kinsky’s novel outlasts everything that has recently been published in the German language with patient stamina. It is full of culture without being erudite, and full of knowledge without being smart-alecky. River is a democratic book, witty, wise and touchingly beautiful.’
— Katharina Teutsch, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
‘Written in a style that is both precise and dream-like, River is a great book about the obliteration of landscape.’
— Christine Lecerf, Le Monde
‘An extraordinary book and a major writer.’
— Nelly Kapriélan, Les Inrockuptibles
Esther Kinsky grew up by the river Rhine and lived in London for twelve years. She is the author of six volumes of poetry, five novels (Summer Resort, Banatsko, River, Grove, Rombo), numerous essays on language, poetry and translation and three children’s books. She has translated many notable English (John Clare, Henry David Thoreau, Iain Sinclair) and Polish (Joanna Bator, Miron Białoszewski, Magdalena Tulli) authors into German. Both River and Grove won numerous literary prizes in Germany. Rombo was awarded the newly founded W.-G.-Sebald-Literaturpreis 2020. In 2022, Kinsky was awarded the prestigious Kleist Prize for her oeuvre.
Iain Galbraith was born and grew up on the west coast of Scotland and now lives in Germany. He is a poet and translator (Natascha Wodin, Alfred Kolleritsch, W. G. Sebald, Jan Wagner) and has received several prizes for his work, including, most recently, the Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize (2015) and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize (2016).
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