Translated from Swedish by Nichola Smalley
(Sheffield, UK: And Other Stories, 2020)
Early in Swedish author Andrzej Tichý’s fifth novel, Wretchedness, this reader had the sinking feeling that the narrative would be a latter-day, sentimental retrospective on drug addiction and random violence, its events set in urban squalor populated by, to borrow from Kerouac, “desolation angels.” That was soon proven wrong, as Tichý achieves something more like a sophisticated version of Trainspotting. Unlike Irving Welsh’s gallows humor, however, Tichý’s discordant sounds and philosophies seem to be in unison with the wasted terrain of Wretchedness. The novel offers an ugly picture of racial strife hidden in Sweden (and elsewhere), as well as the resulting economic disadvantages endured by those living in the margins. Here we have the next lost generation of immigrant youth depicted not in a cynical manner, but in a rather melancholy swansong and bleak realism:
Place is everything and death is placelessness to us. Bodylessness. We’re the confined ones, we’re the ones incapable of using our gifts. Despair, sorrow, loneliness. Insomnia creates new spaces, pockets of time, has a unique light, unique sounds, how they appear depends on where you live, the way everything depends on where you live.
Or, to have the book put its central argument of dispossession more tersely, “This is no home . . . this is just housing.” Following suit, the story of Wretchedness never settles down anywhere for too long, a feature of the narrative design that enacts the “placelessness.” In the novel’s present-day, recollective point-of-view, a cellist is approached while waiting to catch a recital of work by Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. The homeless addict who approaches strikes up a conversation with him, and the musician begins to feel the tug of his yesteryears. He remembers life as a squatter, his rovings across Sweden and the rest of Europe with an ever-morphing list of acquaintances, the hang-outs and raves in burned-out neighborhoods. All of this Tichý establishes with a Proustian device set by the cellist to sound itself:
. . . I looked down at the gravel, down at the grains of gravel, and it made the noise that it does and I felt something, a diffuse pain, and I thought, as though in the background, while I was speaking, whether I should mention something to them. But what? I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. The feeling, this pain that was impossible to locate or describe, was familiar, but ungraspable.
Instead of opening up about this past to his now-present colleagues, the cellist quietly contemplates thoughts and memories of former traumas, large and small. Through casual conversation on Classical composition, Tichý negotiates a balance between the cellist’s personal meditation and the intellectual meanderings of his coworkers:
. . . but I was thinking too of that time I got a cracked rib after getting kicked in the chest, and that pain, I recall it so clearly, those breaths, so shallow, so careful so as not to cause more pain, that absolutely horrific pain, and the contradiction of feeling it when you breathe, which you can’t stop doing, you have to breathe after all, you have to live after all, and I didn’t hear what the guitarist said and I thought I had to sort myself out, pull myself together, so I focused my gaze and said: Airs? As in the stuff we breathe? You have to live after all, I thought again. Yeah, as in air, the composer said. Like shoes, don’t you have some of those? Yeah, look, she pointed at my shoes, at my feet, down at the gravel. Like Nike Airs, she said. Plural, air in plural. And the guitarist said: yeah, that’s right. Or in a way at least. Air or ayre, it means like, song or melody, and it’s actually connected to aria, which from like air or aer, but then . . . he lost his thread a moment . . . I mean, it’s patterns, he said, it’s that, he almost stammered, it’s that, that, that, that the music is there in the oscillations, there, there’s, there’s, there’s nothing strange about it.
This passage is a glimpse of how the work proceeds, navigating between physical pain, memory, language, and music theory. While advance praise for Wretchedness noted the ambitious form, the stylistic wordplay and rapid stream of consciousness should be recognizable to modern and postmodern fiction readers, as should the break-neck jump cuts between past and present. The novel strings together a series of flashbacks comprised of run-on conversations, slang, and epithets, as well as the occasional imaginary dialogue—the latter acknowledged as such by the cellist at times. In this regard, Tichý consistently blurs lines, up until the very end where he attempts what appears to be a striking perspective shift in the novel’s conclusion (other readers may interpret differently). That said, the overall pattern is straightforward enough to pick up after the first chapter, but it may not take much to get lost in the ensuing miasma as the cellist dives further into his rising guilt.
Punctuating this dread of survival is the novel’s ubiquitous budding of white, wax flowers. They act as a sign of continual mystery to the cellist, a way for him to derive harmonic order from the dregs of his past existence. By the end, though, the rags-to-riches trope hasn’t surfaced. This missing link in the story underscores the strange dichotomy between the narrator’s two different lives which apparently have no direct relation to each other—except for the love of music and a love of friends. For all their cultured trappings as Classical musicians, the orchestral colleagues appear not to share any of his experiences, or at least not his current distractions. They are, then, the limit against which the cellist seems to measure and set himself.
While it is tempting to fully embrace Giacinto Scelsi’s improvisational style of composition (given the cellist’s careful study of him), Classical music is not alone in the structure of Wretchedness. Tichý has carefully built in an eclectic soundtrack of pop music, often briefly referencing what to American readers will likely be obscure European acts, in addition to better known non-commercial albums of the 1980s and ’90s—the Trip-Hop hornwork of DJ Krush and Toshinori Kondo’s Ki-Oku are there, as are Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s The Pearl, along with Metallica, Slipknot, and Snoop Dogg. In all, it makes an engaging catalogue of music for its time, which in turn feeds our perception of the cellist’s musical training. Giacinto Scelsi, however, is clearly the primary inspiration, the grounds from which the cellist conducts everything in his narration. The novel is, then, a moving interpretation of microtonal sounds juxtaposed with sordid incidents.
Wretchedness is a forceful, challenging take on the dashed hopes of the immigrant song. While it is Tichý’s first novel to be translated into English, it likely will not be the last.
| | |
Forrest Roth is the author of Gary Oldman Is a Building You Must Walk Through (What Books Press, 2017). His shorter fiction has appeared in NOON, Denver Quarterly, Juked, Columbia Journal, Trnsfr, and other journals. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Marshall University in West Virginia. Links to his work can be found at www.forrestroth.blogspot.com.