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Rika Lesser

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(2013 - Translation)

from Hohaj by Elisabeth Rynell

[translated from the Swedish]

The outlying lands. Seldom set foot upon.

Strange to arrive there. That they can exist! so awake, dreaming.

Perhaps strangest of all, their beauty. And to walk in this untrampled space and suddenly discover that it's inhabited. Out in the out-of-the-way live human beings, a few here, a few there. Microscopic dots of houses. The barking of dogs shears a mile-wide silence into ribbons.

Even the untrodden is crisscrossed by paths. It takes time to discover them, but they are there. Humans and animals have worked on them together; they are a common language. Later people continued in their own language. They began to give names. They gave names to each small alteration in the landscape.

The outlying lands in this story bear the name Hohaj. Once upon a time this word could be deciphered, read. Now it is a sign, a mark; the web into which it was woven has decomposed.

But the paths remain, the language of origin. Where memory and oblivion meet. And behind the silence lies an even greater silence.


The Call

First a memory.

We lived in Lapland for many years. In a little pocket in the landscape opened up by forests and mountains. There was you, there was I and then our children. They were small at the time.

That last year wet heavy snow fell all through November. Our road was stoppered shut and the birches were forced down to form a bow. We went out and tried to shake the snow out of the trees, you and I. We laughed and became like children as bolts of snow fell over us. We went around for hours liberating trees with long poles we made especially for this purpose. Winter had come, pre-Christmas winter. The wet snow froze solid and grew hard. There were continual power failures. You stood in snow-darkness and made lamb cutlets on the outdoor grill. In the smell of wood coal that drifted out into the winter evening reality had already turned  into memory.

You would take the morning flight. The taxi picked you up long before six. I slept but still inside the darkness I heard the door of a car slam shut. He's off now, I remember thinking.

Days passed. We talked on the phone. Now it was morning again. Dark. The children slept in their bedroom, I slept in our bed. Why do my hands still tremble as I write this? Out there the tree-trunks had split under the heavy load of hard-frozen snow. It was a tiny little house in the middle of the woods, deep down in the snow, far into the darkness. The sound of the telephone tore me out of sleep and while I groped my way toward it I had already turned into an animal frightened out of its burrow, pelt and whiskers trembling.

It was a telephone operator.

--Long distance call from the county hospital. I'll connect you.

The hospital? You? But everything was fine. I had just phoned the evening before. You had come out of the anesthesia, you were having rose-hip soup, they said, and you were joking with the staff.

Now a new voice, a man's voice came through the receiver, wanting to know who I was, if I was who I said I was and not someone else. He was a doctor. He said something very bad had happened. I weighed his words. Very bad. That was worse than bad, but not awful, he didn't say that, not terribly tragic, not a catastrophe. I only heard half of what he went on to say, I had so much trouble weighing these words, comparing them with the fact that he was phoning so early -- what time was it anyway? Suddenly I realized that he was describing the operation, clearly it was he who had performed it, saying that all had gone well, that you had awakened in the evening. Why was he telling me this? Had something happened after that? Something very bad, when would he get to the point? Now he mentioned the rose-hip soup. He was on his way somewhere, he had a goal, I'm beginning to pick up the scent, beginning to sense walls, walls that soon must burst. Are you unconscious? Are you in a coma? I immediately want to get where you are, to be with you, to hold your hand in mine till you wake up. But now the voice is saying something. That you fainted in the toilet. That the nurse was there, that no, you were not alone, never, not for a second. And that a gurney, that you lie there and grow dizzy again, that the alarm, the code alarm, everyone comes running, oxygen, adrenaline. And now the voice is a meat-grinder into which I have been pressed and in which I am being ground, fiber by fiber. Now it is saying that you turned blue, that the anesthetist, the doctor on call, that you awaken momentarily and then lose consciousness, that -- but now I no longer hear what the voice is saying, only vague contours of words in the gigantic landslide that has dragged with it everything in its path, images, lightning flashes, my whole life and you and our house and our last conversations, everything, everything screeches and shrieks, so the voice that stubbornly grinds, the excruciating meat-grinder sounds most like the tinny little treble note on the piano tinkling and tinkling in the storm.

Excerpt in Swedish

About Elisabeth Rynell

Elisabeth Rynell is one of Sweden's most highly regarded living women writers. Born in Stockholm in 1954, she has lived in London and traveled through Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to India. For decades a resident of Sweden's remote north (Älvsbyn, Lycksele, Umeå), Rynell now divides her time between Stockholm and Delsbo, a community farther south in Norrland. Her writing is lyrical, straightforward, or oblique, as need be--not a word is wasted--and has been duly praised for its emotional intensity, openness, and sensuality. She made her literary debut with a collection of poetry in 1975. Eleven more books followed. A collection of her essays, Skrivandets sinne (The Mind of Writing), is forthcoming in May 2013.

Rika Lesser is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Questions of Love: New & Selected Poems and a revised edition of Etruscan Things. She has translated 15 collections of poetry or fiction for readers of all ages, among them works by Gōran Sonnevi, Gunnar Ekelōf, and Claes Andersson from Swedish, and Rafik Schami, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Hermann Hesse from German. Her honors include the Amy Lowell Poetry Travelling Scholarship, an Ingram-Merrill Foundation Award in Poetry, The Landon Poetry Translation Prize, a Fulbright Commission fellowship, a 2001 NEA Translation Fellowship, and two translation prizes from the Swedish Academy. Her translation of Sonnevi's Mozart's Third Brain was a finalist for the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation (2010). Her co-translation with Cecile Inglessis Margellos of The Brazen Plagiarist by Kiki Dimoula was published in November 2012 by  Yale University Press.

Photo © Clayton Price

Translator's Statement

There are many more deserving Swedish authors -- especially lyric poets -- than there are Nobel Prizes in Literature to go around. The first living Swedish poet I met was Tomas Transtrōmer (b. 1931), who even in 1974 had a small stable of translators. We agreed back then that it made sense for me to concentrate on the great master Gunnar Ekelōf (1907-1968). Auden, then his principal English translator (collaborating with Leif Sjōberg) had recently died. After several years' work on Guide to the Underworld (University of Massachusetts Press, 1980), I spent some 25 years attending chiefly to the poetry of Gōran Sonnevi (b. 1939), publishing A Child Is Not a Knife (Princeton University Press, 1993), and Mozart's Third Brain (Yale University Press, 2009, 2012). It has remained a pleasure to translate, speak, or write about Transtrōmer through the years.

As an editor for New European Poets (Graywolf, 2008), I immediately began to translate the moving and engrossing poems of Elisabeth Rynell (b. 1954). Hohaj, her 1997 breakthrough novel, also captivated me. It has already appeared in Danish, German, Norwegian, Latvian, Polish, and Russian. National support for the translation of non-commercial literary texts into English has never been more critical to the survival of the profession in North America. The Swedish Academy awards the Literature Prize while safeguarding a language few can read. Rynell's far northern houses and landscapes are vanishing ever more rapidly from the face of the actual earth. This grant affords a return to a place from which I can recover and bring home the clarity and ambiguity concerning human nature and values the author explores in her imaginative oeuvre. This is the nourishment that literary artists -- literary translators included -- provide others.