Rivers of Memory, Rivers of Language
The Oder drew a border line up and down the country, writing a Here and a There in the sandy earth. Under it, however, countless watery question marks and intertwining letters tugged in both directions, east and west, a water-script of histories granted continuity through the river, under it, beyond it, its tributaries and ramifications annotating the landscape, reversing its sides with befuddling mirror images of the sky and its blues of Here and There.
Esther Kinsky. River. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017, translated from the German by Iain Galbraith.
The narrator of Esther Kinsky’s luscious, elegaic novel River is an unnamed woman who is living, albeit temporarily, in a very liminal part of urban East London that edges up against Tottenham Marshes, a handful of reservoirs, Leyton Marshes, Hackney Marshes, and the River Lea. Alone and apparently jobless, she spends her time exploring and mentally mapping her environs.
South of Hackney Wick, beyond the lake-like stretch of unfrequented, placid water formed by the confluence of the Hertford Union Canal and the tame arm of the Lea, the town came close on both sides of the river, darker from the west, with bricks, stone and broken window-panes facing the river, and grass and weeds breaking up the surfacing of the riverside path…Scrap sidetracked for recycling now reinforced the borders of Bow, which the city had once declared to be its boundary, and where bricks from the clay pits and brickworks of London Fields were once loaded and began their journey upstream to Stamford Hill, there to mutate into the new arms, fingers and arteries of the city. To the east of the river had once lain Essex, green and flat…
Through countless place names and references to maps, Kinsky’s rootless narrator continually makes an effort—futile in the end—to locate a place where she belongs. Looking at a map of Canada, where she once lived, “under my fingers I felt the still, pale blue of the cold estuary, the countless small elevations of the islands, white and pale green in the river.”
The narrator is the central enigma in River. We are slowly given the basic arc of her life, but the nearer we get to the present the less we know. She was born and raised in Germany, but moved to Canada with a newborn son (who never reappears in her narrative). At some point (years are never mentioned) she moves London where she struggles to find work. “I regretted never having learned something practical, something that might have impressed people.” At the end of the book, without ever having fully unpacked, she is already leaving again for parts unknown. She seems driven by forces beyond our—and probably her—understanding. There are only a few hints at the melancholy so obviously embedded in her history. “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 I left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence.”
Her “provisional existence” is primarily consumed with walks, which form the basic content of River. As Kinsky’s title suggests, most of her narrator’s walks are rural (or, at least as rural as you can get within London city limits). Kinsky depicts the world that surrounds her narrator as an anthropomorphized being that speaks. Things like rose beds, a cafe, and hedges “signified a town.” The city tells tales to the river that passes through it. But to the narrator, the world prompts memories. “I heard curlews, lapwings, bitterns, melancholy calls from throats not at all in mourning, and saw my grandmother standing at the window again.”
Many of these family memories are not fully revealed to the reader. They remain mysterious scenes from a disconnected life. One day, for example, walking along the River Lea, something put the narrator “in mind of an oxbow by the Rhine on which my father once took us rowing in an old wooden boat.” “An incident of some kind,” she goes on, “had caused him to remove us from the house with barely concealed haste.” She remembers the details of that sudden outing, but we never learn what caused her father to abruptly gather up his family and flee in a rowboat.
“Hidden in the middle of the large Hackney Marshes Playing Fields…were memories I was only learning to read.” Seeing the goalposts on these playing fields sends the narrator back into an extended memory of her own childhood school’s sportplatz, or sports ground. Notably, this memory, as do several others, repeatedly spirals around a single word. In this instance it is turnwart, which is translated as “gymnastics supervisor.” “Turnwort—what a word, redolent of the reek of summer rubbish, the smell of linoleum from the gym, the odour of sweat, which, an invisible flag, is the marker of any sports facility.”
While the Lea is central to Kinsky’s novel, other rivers make an appearance, too, rivers from the narrator’s childhood in Germany and rivers that she encounters during her travels: the Oder River in Poland, the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the St. Lawrence River, which separates the U.S. and Canada, the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hooghly River in Kolkata, the Rhine, and, of course, the Thames. Every river, she notes, is both a border and a “bustling stage” for the gaze of the walker.
Still, some segments of the book take place in the narrator’s gritty, urban neighborhood, which is populated with Hasidic Jews and immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. As a fellow immigrant (although with a very different backstory), she is a sympathetic participant in their daily life of her neighborhood and gives voice to the people she befriends. There are hints that her sense of statelessness (she never suggests any emotional ties with Germany, where she was born and raised) might well be the source of her feeling of melancholy. At one time in her past, she worked briefly for the Jewish Refugee Committee in London, dealing “with enquiries concerning the whereabouts of German-Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” As she left work each day she “took the names of the missing with me.”
Kinsky’s narrator seems to be one of the missing. Her walks are, at least in part, an antidote to the “purposelessness of my life in this place,” a place where she has come in order to experience an unexplained and “protracted leave-taking” during the “uncertain months ahead.” River will remind readers of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and the urban roaming books of Iain Sinclair, like London Orbital and Lights Out for the Territory, but something else is going on here. For her narrator, simple sensory acts like seeing, listening, smelling, and moving are ends unto themselves, in keeping with the book’s epigraph from the poet Charles Olson: “Your eye, the wanderer, sees more.” But Kinsky’s prose continually reminds us that the process of reconstructing the world through language is actually a radical act of translation, and the result is more like a memory than a photograph—shifting, contingent, and personal.
Photography and photographs play an integral and complex role in River. I write about this aspect of Kinsky’s novel in a second post.