Auckland University Press, $19.95,
ISBN 1 86940 207 3
ISBN 0 14 028343 0
Marked as a new talent to watch, Kapka Kassabova has received extensive media attention in the past two years, especially after winning the New Zealand Poetry Society’s annual award in 1997, the Montana Award for the Best New Book of Poetry last year for All Roads Lead to the Sea, and the Buddle Findlay Sargeson Writers Fellowship for 1999. In almost every account of her writing that I’ve come across, the following details are elaborated upon: she is beautiful, she is young, and she is a Bulgarian immigrant to New Zealand.
We can dismiss the first of these descriptions as insulting, not to say sexist. Can you imagine the work of a male poet being introduced by a description of his appearance? But the other two are potentially more useful. Information about Kassabova’s immigrant status provides the most obvious frame through which to approach the content of her work – particularly her first collection of poems and her recently released first novel, Reconnaissance. Both thematise and explore loss and displacement – of and from self, family, history, culture, language – features of an immigrant/exile experience which have clearly shaped Kassabova’s sense of being and (not) belonging (although she rightly wishes to disavow straightforwardly autobiographical readings of her characters and personae). It is perhaps no understatement to say that Kassabova is the most powerful voice yet produced that speaks of and for the experience of many exiles and immigrants resident in New Zealand, a sector of our population who often lack the ability to tell their stories in our language.
As many commentators note, the fact that Kassabova writes so well in English is remarkable. English is, in fact, her fourth language (after Bulgarian, Russian and French) and she has only been writing it since she was 17 (she is now 25). For a largely monolingual New Zealand audience, this is perhaps even more astounding than it might be for a European readership for whom fluency in several languages is the norm rather than the exception.
Why is this relevant to the writing? It could be argued that in the free-verse Kassabova favours it is the music of the language and the resonances of imagery that are paramount; slippages and dissonances in phrases, and sentences that might jar awkwardly as prose, can nonetheless work powerfully in the incantation of the verse. This is not to dismiss Kassabova’s talent, but rather to suggest the rightness of her choice to write poetry. The most striking aspect of her poetry is the cadences of the verse: assonance, alliteration, tonal and verbal repetition are used to startling effect.
This is certainly the case in her second volume of poetry, Dismemberment. Unlike the first, immigrant experience filters but is not central to the collection. A slim volume containing 38 poems, it is organised into three sections. The first, “Sculpting”, loosely gathers poems around the themes of love and desire; pain, loss, uncertainty and nostalgia are the emotions that dominate this sequence of meditations – parting is anticipated in pairings, loss seems the inevitable outcome of love: “You don’t believe in permanence either” begins one poem (“Unseen”); while “Anticipation of parting” concludes:
Some day …
she hopes to be the obsolete and strange line
that he’ll whisper,
forgetting for a second his sleeping lover’s name.
Again and again in this section, and throughout the collection, sex and desire are equated with violence and violation – actual or metaphoric. Lovers collapse into, fall into and flatten, each other: “you’d break yourself running into the shaking wall of him”, “There is so much violence yet to be done. / He falls into her body / blind because desire makes him blind / deaf and limbless for the same reason” (“And they were both right”). Even in its gentlest moments love has the potential to wound and scar: “May you never recover / from the lightness of my touch” (“Calculations”).
The tone of perplexity increases in the second section, “Dismemberment” – achieved in part by the use of frequent rhetorical questions: “Tell me, what is it that kills?” (“The luminous”); “How will you ever understand it?” (“Ciphers”); “Why / is the simple, too, beyond understanding?” (“The conundrum”). There are few answers. Kassabova’s narrators lack reasons; the world they inhabit is inscrutable. Moments of illumination are also, always, moments of loss. This is the closest to an answer Kassabova can offer:
But sometimes when you hold a body
you hold the reason for everything
the great shaker where
the ciphers of obscenity and poetry mix
And so the title of this section is explained. Dismemberment is the dissolution of remembering, the knowledge of loss that is knowing, the rupture of awakening that dissolves the dream, the moment when “the continent of your memory” “float[s] away, dismembered” (“Dismemberment”). But as the collection progresses, I find the existential negativity hard to dissociate from a kind of solipsistic narcissism, a refusal to look outwards or to the future. There is something alienating in these fiercely private meditations. Although carefully written in a variety of narrative voices (with particularly effective use of the second person), the poems all finally seem to be written in one voice, endlessly articulating its own alienation and loss. Even the evocative “The luminous”, dedicated to the memory of Kassabova’s piano teacher (as is the whole volume), stresses only the personal knowledge of lack afforded by the death of one much loved:
If there was any doubt before, now I know:
if a delicate giant of light and a white piano
can sink into the slow turf of memory
not painlessly but string by broken string
now I know:
we are completely alone.
The final section, “A city of pierced amphorae”, continues to develop the themes and motifs of the first two sections, particularly unfulfilled longing and the actuality of loss. In the fragmentary mindscape of an exile’s memory, various cities are evoked, lost by departure, in distance and in time: “To wake up is to be the whore of waking up // in yet another town, in yet another / native tongue, to find your tongue is missing” (“The whore of waking up”). A sense of belonging – here, there – is precluded by distance: “At the other end is everything / you wouldn’t want if you were there / everything you crave now” (“The inhuman”).
In part the coherence and fluency of the collection lies in Kassabova’s use of repeated words, images and motifs: lightness, “touch”, “water”, “desire”, “dawn”, “bodies”, “blood” and, most persistently, “dream” and “memory”. These echo and develop carefully modulated repetitions within the poems themselves, drawing the collection together. Night and dawn are favoured times; personae often speak from the cusp of consciousness and dreaming, or from under the night-spell that quickens memory. In dreams buried memories and desires find expression; in memory the lost and longed for past lives on. Reality, wakefulness, is painful and yet to escape from it “you must be perfectly quiet. You must die” (“A city of pierced amphorae”).
The influence of European expressionism and symbolism is clear in the poetry, but at weaker points the slight poems falter under the sheer weight of the poet’s enthusiasm for metaphor, symbol and simile. It is as if Kassabova is compensating by metaphoric overdetermination for the lack she perceives in English – she has said in interview that “it is a lot less flowing, a lot less baroque [than the other languages she speaks]” – as in these lines: “to be the nipple of pleasure licked by the panting dogs of summer” (“Blue chairs”) or “a lake of moonlight / spills between you / like the surprised insides of a warm body” (“Fear by the lake”).
While the poems can (usually) carry the heavy burden of her imagery, Kassabova’s prose is less successful. The novel is overstuffed with the freight of metaphor and simile, and sentences often flag ponderously, like this one:
The past slams its heavy iron gate behind her, the future stretches ahead – a vast, empty province of rainy days that begin and end seemingly for no one, like the worst one-act play ever written by a demented hand and replayed ad infinitum in private, for some octogenarian despot who sits in the murky shadows of a mausoleum.
Make no mistake, Reconnaissance is a striking, ambitious achievement. But it is also a deeply flawed first novel. Problems with the imagistic overdetermination aside, it also seems to be doing too many things, and none of them entirely successfully. The handling of the anguished rupture of exile is compromised by clumsily interspersing passages that detail adolescent angst, symbolist dreamscapes and telepathic communications. The narration is complex, shifting with greater or lesser degrees of authenticity through the minds and memories of several characters, but is centrally focussed on that of the youthful protagonist, Nadejda. An exile from Bulgaria, Nadejda (“a virtually orphaned child from the poorest provinces of Europe”) has settled in New Zealand (“this half-country”) with her mother; her father remains in Bulgaria (“the vile country”). Several members of her mother’s family now live in New Zealand after fleeing their homeland during the Communist take-over some decades previously. So too does her mother’s ex-lover, Bojan, whose home in Nelson is the end-point of Nadejda’s journey.
The narrative begins with Nadejda backpacking through New Zealand, her whereabouts unknown to her family, following a brief, distressing return to Bulgaria that is detailed in flashbacks. In the narrative present she travels from Auckland to Nelson, at the same time journeying backwards through a psychic landscape of inherited and personal remembrance: guilty secrets, tortured loyalties and fatal betrayals.
The book is dedicated to “those who know exile” and in these terms provides a powerful account of the consequences of forced departure and the exile’s often anguished attempt to integrate remembered selves into the ongoing narrative of the present self. In the words of her uncle, when telling the story of his escape from Bulgaria:
I am the nineteen-year-old fugitive in that story, but that’s me in another life. I am no longer that person. There has been a transition from one self to another. We shed our selves on the way like snake-skins … In a way, it takes a constant effort of the imagination to remain acquainted with my past selves.
Reconnaissance is testament to that effort of imagination, a complex and vivid weaving of stories, memories and dreams. For Kassabova, as for Janet Frame, with whose writing she shares some affinities, remembering and imagining are intricately connected. Dreams and memories are clearly of great significance to Kassabova – here as in the poetry. At the level of the narrative, they are what fuel Nadejda’s (mental) journey; and at the level of narration, the italicised dream sequences allow free rein to some of Kassabova’s most overblown rhetoric and imagery.
Kassabova’s choice of a quotation from Ivan Klima to preface the novel is telling: “Forgetting is one of the symptoms of death. Without memory we cease to be human beings”. But memory often secures life at great cost, and the violent interruptions of the past can leave exiles doubly dispossessed. Awareness of this paradox is perhaps the source of overwhelming loss and despair at the heart of this novel. It is also, perhaps, suggestive of the seriousness of Kassabova’s philosophising, which can reveal an astonishing acuity (dare I say maturity?).
Against the powerful rendition of Nadejda’s guilty and pained introspection cut the rather clichéd accounts of her delinquency: minor rebellions against parental control, petty shop-lifting, and a couple of incidents of casual sex. And it is not only Nadejda who sinks her heart and soul into a doomed one-night stand with a Turkish-rug-salesman: the smooth-limbed Tarik. There is clearly heavy authorial investment in the rather tedious details of the affair and its aftermath. The writing in this section of the novel would slot comfortably into a Mills and Boon romance:
In the candlelight, the long, green lashes [she is wearing green mascara] emphasise the amber of her eyes. She has a loosely cut, thin angora top a size too big … which allows for a bit of cleavage … Tarik … bares his superb teeth in laughter … He looks at her with the hunger with which he would look at her naked body.
As in the poetry, sex doesn’t provide answers for Nadejda; “the resolution of all life’s torments” doesn’t lie in “the act of consummation”. Point taken – yet another failure of longing and unfulfilled desire for this tormented character. But the whole scene detracts from the seriousness and momentum of the narrative to this point. It never really recovers.
This is where the significance of comments on Kassabova’s age become apparent. Hers is an undeniably precocious, often profound, talent. But perhaps this is too often used to excuse, rather than elaborate, the weaknesses and excesses of her writing.
There is an implicit assumption conveyed in the writing that finally shuts out the reader – everyone else is too innocent, too complacent, too untouched by the knowledge of loss and unknowability. New Zealanders to Nadejda, and I suspect Kassabova, are simply “well-meaning, sun-struck people”. In this we see an arrogant condescension that marks Kassabova’s youth even more clearly than the unevenness of her writing. Perhaps mention of the writer’s age is the most relevant extra-textual gloss to this promising prose debut.
Kim Worthington teaches in the English Department at Victoria University of Wellington. Reconnaissance was shortlisted in the fiction category of the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards.