Whenever the word ‘river’ came to mind, I imagined panoramas, views, images from childhood—the postcards memory had sent me. I ran these views and images by countless rivers, holding them up to each river landscape as if to interrogate it for something specific. For distinct shades of blue both in the sky and in the sky’s reflection on both sides of the river? For its capacity to make magic with mist, its seaward promise and pledge of a greater brightness? The comparative allure of its unknown opposite bank? I could not have said myself what it was.
The woman who narrates Esther Kinsky’s novel River doesn’t tell us why she has just moved to Hackney, in London’s East End, but she has abruptly “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,” she is now living a “provisional existence” in a rented apartment full of unpacked boxes. Her neighborhood is a mix of Hasidic Jews, Croats, Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, Bosnians, Romas, and immigrants from various African nations, and she has become a passionate observer of the people around her. Smells, sounds, or other aspects of their daily routines set off recollections of her childhood. She buys things she doesn’t need in the Kosher store just because they “called forth lost memories.” During the Jewish Feast of the Tabernacle, she walks the streets of the Hasidic community, listening to the sounds of “plates clattering, voices, and table prayers spoken in the festively decorated gardens and backyards of the pious,” something that had been part of her own growing up. She begins dreaming of the dead, of her father and her grandfather and her youth.
But what has really called to her to Hackney was the River Lea. Nearly every day the narrator spends time taking long walks, exploring the marshes of the river and its banks.
On its back the river carried the sky, the trees along its bank, the withered cob-like blooms of water plants, black squiggles of birds against the clouds. Between the empty lands to the east of the river and the estates and factories along the other bank, I rediscovered bits and pieces of my childhood, found snippets cut from other landscapes and group photographs, unexpectedly come here to roost. I stumbled on them between willows under a tall sky, in reflections of impoverished housing estates on the town side of the river, amongst a scatter of cows on a meadow, in the contours of old brick buildings.
Her river walks evoke memories of growing up near the Rhine, reminding her of her father’s work as an amateur photographer. When she digs some of his photographs out of her boxes she realizes that she is seeing the world through his eyes for the first time. “I was astounded how many of these pictures had been taken on or beside a river.”
Her memories tend to dwell on the travels which have taken her to rivers—to the Po River in Italy, the Tisza River in Hungary, the Hoogly River in Kolkata, or the Yarkon River in Tel Aviv. “Every river is a border; that is one of the lessons of my childhood.” Those borders may be peaceful, or, as the narrator knows first-hand, those borders might represent hate and near certain death if one attempted to cross it, like the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, “the most wrecked place I had ever seen.”
One day she remembers an old instant photography camera, packed away somewhere in her boxes. She locates it and begins to take pictures as she walks. When the prints are ejected from the old camera, she is surprised by what she sees.
What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of grey was a memory I did not even know I had. These pictures showed something that lay behind the things the lens had focussed on, things which, for an imperceptible moment in time, the shutter release must have brushed aside. The images belonged to a past I could not even be sure was my own, touching on something whose name I must have forgotten, or possible never knew. There was something unquestionably familiar about these landscape scenes which, apart from the odd passer-by, were generally empty. Something waved to me, whispering: Do you remember? You do remember, don’t you?
At first, we might take Kinsky’s narrator for the pastoral equivalent to Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London, walking the marshy paths just outside the city rather than the paved streets within city limits. However, she turns out to be an equal opportunity stroller. It’s just that when she finally does explore her corner of London, she doesn’t go as a typical urban flâneuse. Instead, she haunts the difficult, unloved places, heading straight into London’s industrial ruins or down its far less affluent side streets.
Now and again I took a train in one direction or the other and studied the backs of the terraces, roofs, chimneys, gables, and rear gardens in varying light, the strips of waste ground with crows and cats, the whole hinterland of the city that stays hidden from bus-window views of street façades. With my finger on the map I followed the fine line cutting through the green and grey paper surfaces like the jagged outline of a distorted half-moon, wending across the red, brown and black threads of streets, thickening around stations, then trickling through no-man’s-land like the hairline strand of a brook. . .
I set off east, working my way through a wasteland of thorn-thickets, fox dens and rusty remains of old railway equipment near the edges of the big stations. Budding lilac nodded along semi-derelict fencing; battered shopping trolleys were rammed into bare spring bushes. Behind this zone of neglect and devastation, in the shadow of run-down factories and warehouses and within smelling distance of a sewage drain, the viaduct arches were home to goods that had been lost, given away, misappropriated or stolen elsewhere in the city, a loosely pitched series of junk-stall arches, selling anything which, for whatever reason, had been rejected, released or purloined from the commodity circuit. Under the rumbling trains trembled coach-loads of bicycles, chairs, fridges and tables, half-gutted washing machines, car seats, shelves full of fragile and unbreakable items, jackets, coats and flowery dresses, books and records, all darkened by dust that trickled from the pores of bricks and nipped by pigeon droppings. When the weather was fine the stallholders sat on camp-chairs and torn car tyres in front of their open arches.
Photographs and photography play a critical role in River, and a number of images are reproduced in the book. One day, while taking a photograph of the entrance to a building, something goes awry and the photograph shows only the feet of some passers-by, the pavement, part of the door, and a hand in a window, which she had not noticed when she took the picture.
A scrawny and presumably old hand, a hand that was unsure, reaching for something hidden to me. The picture was an image of my own uncertain future, one I would hold on to, and one day pick up, saying: Yes, Stamford Hill, London: that’s how the bricks felt under my fingertips, how the cracked paving stones with their sprouting grass and weeds felt under my feet, and how their great scattered flocks darkened my field of vision, this and no other lack of shadow was typical of the light there, that was my place, and this scrawny old hand will hang on to a piece of my life forever.
With the novel coming to an end, her seemingly aimless meandering stops and an actual destination is announced for the first time: the Thames must be found. Not only that, but she wants to find the specific location where she went with her father as a child, which means an expedition out of London toward Southend-on-Sea, where the Southend Pier extends more than 1.3 miles straight out into the Thames Estuary.
At the end of the mile-long pier that jutted into the heaving mass of waves and currents, I was practically on my own. The wind gusted across the platform from every angle and waves crashed against the steel girders below, between the rows of lights that were Sheerness to the South, and the gay blaze of colour that was Southend’s lit-up amusement park on the northern shore, between the enormous cupola of unbroken darkness over the sea in the east, and the distant glow of London in the west. Nothing began here, and nothing ended, and maybe that had been the message of the blinking lights I had seen from Sheerness. This place was the centre that never stood still.
After her experience where “nothing began” and “nothing ended,” the narrator packs up what few things she unpacked during her April to August stay in Hackney and prepares to move on in her “restlessness” to her next stay, which is in a country in “distant Eastern Europe.” As she prepares to depart, still as anonymous as when she arrived in her neighborhood, she watches one final sunrise.
Then a great torrent of light poured over the park. . . a luminosity that made each object stand out for a brief moment in an exuberant radiance that melted to fool’s gold and the sunburst delusions of cold spring days, glimmering, glistening, sparkling, and finally dissolving in a blinding, golden tremor, in which all that had accompanied me in the past months evaporated like a cloud succumbing to sunlight, and this effulgence, which broke over all I could see, transformed the marshland beyond the River Lea and the Lea itself into a shoreline that could barely be distinguished from the sea, and which, as it rose and fell like the surf, let all that was built on it founder.
There is no plot to River and only one character, about whom we learn very little. In fact, we learn more about the narrator’s childhood than her adult life. Kinsky plays with time in a curious way in River. Through memories, she exposes us to bits and pieces of the narrator’s childhood, but what we learn about her adult life is so meager that it’s like looking at a painting that has doesn’t really have a middle distance, just a foreground and some mountains very far away. Perhaps this is Kinsky’s way of telling us that it makes no difference what her narrator left behind (there’s mention of a child, although that episode seems many years earlier) or why she left her previous life in London. In any event, the book’s emphasis is on what kind of woman she is or aspires to be. We witness a woman of great curiosity and generosity of spirit. She is the sort of person to absorb everything she can about her international community of neighbors and, although she makes no deep friendships during her brief stay, she nevertheless routinely interacts with others just like a kind and helpful neighbor.
Photography tells us a little more about her. Early in the book, she looks at the images she took of some strangers and she “felt ashamed.” “It felt almost indecent to keep in my room these fragments of other people’s existence . . . snippets of the lives of strangers who knew nothing of the persistence in my possession, for the time being, of a fragment of their life.” After that, she “resolved to photograph only inanimate objects.” Later on, she buys an envelope of photographs at a flea market, only to discover that they seem to be the “testaments to a family visit” of some kind during a summer in Hackney.
What was I doing here, on this wind-buffeted, elevated station platform with its view over the zone of discontinuities gradually annexing the River Lea and its wild hinterland, with these snapshots of lives so remote from my own that I had been granted unsolicited access to them through some petty burglary or disappointing inheritance or ill-starred coincidence? I could not even think of names to give the two women who turned up in all of the photographs. I asked myself the unanswerable question of what name some other person might give me if they happened upon my photo?
Feeling like a voyeur, she abandons that envelope of flea-market photographs on the train. This obsession with names, I suspect, goes back to a temporary job she previously held in London at the Jewish Refugee Committee, where she did translations and answered inquiries “concerning the whereabouts of German Jewish refugees who had come to England in the 1930s.” She “reeled miles of microfilm,” “became embroiled in stories of strangers,” and was obsessed for days trying to solve cases. “I always took the names of the missing with me.”
The narrator’s instincts throughout the book are with the immigrants, the poor, and the struggling, those who live largely unseen and ignored in the underbelly of the city or in temporary shelters they have created among its marshy fringes. She flows through their community—almost like a river, one is tempted to say—then moves on, leaving little trace of her presence.
Esther Kinsky. River. Translated from the 2014 German original Am Fluss by Iain Galbraith. Originally published by Matthes & Seitz Verlag. Published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions (London) 2017 and Transit Books (Oakland) 2018.