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Roelof Bakker (ed.) – Still

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Visuals, the written word, and a vast reach.

Publisher: Negative Press
Pages: 171
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-9573828-0-0
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 14th November 2012
Rating: 5/5

Still is an anthology of short stories by an international mix of 26 writers. Each story is based on inspiration gained from a certain photograph. The concept of Bakker, credited as the editor, the book invites new interpretations of his photographic work. With submissions from writers such as Evie Wyld and Jan Van Mersbergen, and including some up-and-coming authors, the book is an assortment from the industry as a whole.

Combining artistry and writing, Still is a work stunning in both presentation and textual content. Not only are the photographs wonderful to look at – the oft-used macro details, the sharpness and detail, the sheer truth of the emptiness that engulfs you perhaps even more so than it might in real life – the design of the book is as much a strong point as the rest. Whilst for Bakker the photography is important, the book itself almost favours the writing, the photographs covering only 3/4s of a single page per story, the rest of that page given to the title. This makes it truly a book for those interested in either subject as well as those interested in both. Bakker took centre stage for his photography exhibition, and in continuing the theme by incorporating the stories and putting them first he has ensured the longevity of his own work, longer than it might have been otherwise.

The fantastic thing about the stories in Still is something Bakker notes in his introduction – often the writer has taken the photographic inspiration and run with it, leaving behind the notion of the derelict town hall. This means that there is a rough three categories of writing: the story based entirely around the photograph and its context, the story that starts with the photograph before leaping somewhere else, and the story that uses the photograph as a cleverly integrated device. Whilst the stories are in nature quite similar, which will be discussed in due course, the differences mean that the book never loses its brilliance, never becomes dull.

‘…entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an “event boundary” in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away.’

The book is incredibly international, with authors from all over the world contributing stories that highlight particular cultures, and bring into focus the similar experiences that everyone faces. And “faces” is the right word – these are not joyous stories, indeed some are harrowing, and most share an interesting sort of disconnect. This disconnect is between reader and the character and it almost emphasises the vacant nature of the town hall, which when you think of the way some stories do not reference the hall, makes for a whole new topic of discussion. Similar too is the basic storytelling method, one of the reasons the book is so disturbing in that fascinating way. The often sparse language, the difference in dialects and speech patterns that don’t necessarily conform to the author’s choice of setting, and the hard-hitting atmosphere these elements bring to the table.

There is a specific theme that runs through most of the book, that of politics, society, and domesticity. They may be different subjects generally, but the way they are all compiled in one binding effectively puts across the fact that they are connected. Though it is not as simple as saying that politics affects society that affects domesticity. In addition there is the theme of self and how one fits into the world. There are stories focusing on themes such as cleaning an old work place that was important to the person, a loss of place in the life of one’s child, seeking sanctuary in the church, the difference between sisters, and the loss of self and identity that can happen after an accident.

Burdensome womanhood: inviting unwanted attention from unsavoury men who give themselves permission to see a young sapling as a full-grown tree, ready to be mounted. Tiresome womanhood: bringing with it expectations of marriage, of fecundity and of the fruit of the womb. Worrisome womanhood: ushering in responsibilities and tentative, anxious dreams for one’s offspring. Militant womanhood: in a state of perpetual readiness to do battle, a lioness ready to kill for her cubs.

Bakker has achieved his aim of creating something new from something already existing, as well as creating an art book, a literary work, and a combination of both. Still would make a superb addition to the shelves of anyone who favours the freedom provided by short stories and the quick dose of cerebral reading that accompanies them.

The quotations used in this review were taken from the stories of Justin Hill and Barbara Mhangami-Ruwende respectively.

I received this book for review from the editor, Roelof Bakker.

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Richard Weihe – Sea Of Ink

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Describing the self without words.

Publisher: Peirene Press
Pages: 100
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-9562840-8-2
First Published: 2003
Date Reviewed: 1st October 2012
Rating: 4/5

Original language: German
Original title: Meer der Tusche (Sea of Ink)
Translated by: Jamie Bulloch

Bada Shanren was born in luxury but chose to abandon said luxury for the robes of a monk. Inspired by his father and taught by the abbot he begins to paint, learning about himself and the world in a unique way as he does so.

A mixture of fact and fiction, Weihe’s chaptered novella spans almost an entire life in a very short time. Whilst the background is given to the reader as a non-fiction account, and non-fiction it is – the story of the Manchu conquest of China – the rest is a mostly imaginary tale of Shanren’s life. For what Weihe includes in his narrative is the sort of content you do not find in biographies: detailed thoughts and a tale that is as artistic in its written style as it is in its subject.

And there is a large amount of detail in this book; indeed just like art, it is varied, some details existing as part of the narrative, others being more about structure of subtext. A great deal consists of a subtle philosophy – sentences, ideas – often not discussed and simply just put out there, so to speak. And on the other hand there is, for example, a difference in the written style of the military non-fictional section compared to the fiction – the non-fiction reading rather like a set of bullet points without the bullet points themselves, and the fiction flowing more like the water that plays such a big part in Shanren’s life. If the non-fiction feels stilted, the fiction is liquid prose and beautiful.

The philosophy concerns art, first and foremost, but is inevitably linked to life in general. Often poetic, it draws from a pool that seems a blend of regular worldly philosophy and classical Chinese sayings, the result being highly interesting.

For me as a painter the value of the mountain is not in its size, but in the possibility of mastering it with the paintbrush. When you look at a mountain you are seeing a piece of nature. But when you paint a mountain it becomes a mountain. You do not paint its size, you imply it.

What is particularly intriguing about Shanren, at least in the way Weihe presents him, is the link between the self and the way the painter continually changes his name. Weihe himself, in the afterword, speaks of the artwork being a representation of the painter. Whilst it may not always be the case, there often seems a match of one style or atmosphere to the paintings and the name Shanren goes by at the time. He changes his name to suit the place he is at in his journey to master technique, his art, and the answers to his abbot’s questions.

As an additional point the reader may find the parallel between Shanren’s life and the life of Siddhartha Gautama, The Buddha, rather poignant. Like The Buddha, Shanren has an epiphany of sorts and decides to leave his wife and son in order to live simply with a spiritual aim. And like The Buddha – although Shanren does in fact seek a new wife after he realises his diversion from the path set by his ancestors – he comes to a spiritual awakening. The two figures shared a basic understanding of the world through Shanren’s following of the way of life created by The Buddha.

To read Sea Of Ink is to have a history lesson, art lesson, and language lesson at once. Jamie Bulloch’s translation seems at one with the original text, a good substitute where the original cannot be read. Weihe has included a lot of information and yet when reading it does not feel at all so. And the additions of the paintings themselves is a boon that allows Weihe to describe the method of painting in a way that means the reader can literally follow the brush. This written technique may at times feel overused, but it is an intriguing concept nonetheless.

If you are guided by human feelings you will easily lose your way, a wise saying went, but if you are guided by nature you will rarely go wrong.

Sea Of Ink, about art in its many forms, transcends the usual notions of appeal; it is far from restricted to those who have an interest in its most obvious aspects.

Sea Of Ink was originally written in Swiss German, and was translated into English by Jamie Bulloch.

I received this book for review from Peirene Press.

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