Post Road Magazine #14

Sisters by a River, by Barbara Comyns; The Girl from the Coast, by Pramoedya Ananta Toer (translated by Willem Samuels); and “Gusev,” by Anton Chekhov (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

by Maud Casey

Bodies of water link these three otherwise unrelated stories: the banks of the Avon River in Bidford-on-Avon, Warwickshire, England, in Comyns’s darkly comic novel, originally serialized in the 1940s by Lilliput magazine with the title “The Novel Nobody Will Publish”; the sea (the Java Sea or the Indian Ocean, I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know which—it’s only ever referred to as “the sea,” and my only excuse is that it’s imbued with such a mythic quality (THE SEA!) that it defies such earthly concerns as precise geography), lapping the shores of a poor fishing village in northern Java at the beginning of the twentieth century in Pramoedya’s transcendent, fablelike novel; and water, water everywhere in the form of the vast Indian Ocean, serving as a terrifying and fantastical burial ground, in Chekhov’s atypical, hallucinatory story, first published in 1890, set on a ship full of dying soldiers and sailors trying to get back to Russia after serving in the Far East.

These stories also share something else: a keen eye trained on mortality. In the case of Comyns and Pramoedya, it is evident in the act of writing itself, in each writer’s sense of urgency to record indelibly a life that might otherwise fade away. Comyns originally wrote Sisters by a River for her children. This series of wackadoodle vignettes (“The Aunt with the Square Face” and “The Field That Was Stiff with Skeletons” are but two of the chapter headings) to do with a falling-apart family, complete with a tyrannical father, a mute mother, six kids, and a monkey, is a vaguely autobiographical account of her own close call of a childhood. The beauty of it is that she gives the same import to  a child’s imagination and wonderment as she does to  realistic, adult action. A scene in which  two sisters look out a window and see hats of all colors, shapes, and sizes falling from the sky into the family’s backyard is invested with the same gravitas as a scene in which  the brutal father chases the mute mother out the window.

Pramoedya’s tale of a fourteen-year-old girl taken from her family and her village, and married to the Bendoro, a Javanese aristocrat who lives in obscene luxury, is the story of Pramoedya’s grandmother, forced to give up her own child in a similar city-not-her-home, where the alliance between the Dutch colonial government and the Javanese feudal aristocracy created a fierce and bitter entanglement, the wrath of which was unleashed primarily on the poor. Pramoedya’s sentences are clean, lucid, bonelike in their essential elegance. The girl—also mythic in her anonymity—lies in the arms of the Bendoro for the first time. “At that moment, it was only the dancing wind that ruled the world. Time moved forward, sometimes creeping slowly, sometimes advancing in wild leaps.” Pramoedya spent more than seventeen years in prison, first under colonial rule and then under an independent Indonesian government. He meant The Girl from the Coast to serve as the first book in a trilogy about the Indonesian nationalist movement, but the rest of the book was destroyed by the military. In an afterword the author provides the skeleton of what he intended. The last lines read, “But you are everyone, Grandma. You are all the people who have ever had to fight to make this life their own.” The afterword feels faintly drawn, a faded arrow pointing toward what was lost, but it also renders the volume that survived even more luminous.

“Gusev” is worth reading for so many reasons, including Gusev’s hallucinations of home from his sickbed; Pavel Ivanych’s self-righteous, allegedly revolutionary intelligentsia rants (followed by the hilarious first sentence of the next paragraph, “Gusev wasn’t listening”); the fabulist switch in point of view at the end from Gusev to the men watching his burial at sea, to the pilot fish that swim around his sinking body, to the shark that rips open the canvas into which Gusev’s body has been sewn, to the frowning ocean that, upon seeing the beautiful lilac of the sky, turns colors “as human tongue can hardly name.” I believe, however, “Gusev” is worth reading for the following sentence alone: “He sleeps for two days, and on the third day two sailors come from topside and carry him out of the sick bay.” In the first half of this sentence Gusev is alive; in the second half he is dead. How did Chekhov do this? In the sentence that starts the next paragraph Gusev is in the canvas sack and he’s sliding off a plank into the sea. It’s not merely the economy of language that inspires awe; it’s the absolute rightness of that efficiency. The miracle of this sentence has everything to do with the deceptively simple first line of the story: “It has grown dark, it will soon be night.” With this line Chekhov makes all of the beautiful strangeness that follows possible. This is a story about the plain-Jane fact of death in the face of the fancy curlicues of humanity. At first it is light, and then it is growing dark, and before we know it, it is night. In the first half of the sentence we are alive; in the second half of the sentence we are dead. What remains? It will soon be night, thought Comyns and Pramoedya, and so they wrote.

Maud Casey is the author of The Shape of Things to Come, Drastic, and, most recently, Genealogy. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Maryland.

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