Recurring Currents: Esther Kinsky’s “River,” translated from German by Iain Galbraith

By Rebecca DeWald



When I first read Stan Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness (translated from German by Ralph Freedman), which follows Sir John Franklin on his arctic exploration, I was struck by the way in which the quality of “slowness” both becomes a plot device and its conceit: the reader sees the world through the protagonist’s eyes, and therefore events appear to happen at shocking speed. Different books demand different reading speeds. I’ve always thought of myself as a slow reader: a 500+-page book is a commitment. Though when I started River, at 357 pages, something else happened: it didn’t so much as demand a slow reading speed, but it first felt that my life around reading the book was happening too quickly for the speed of the novel. “This is a book to relish,” The Guardian quote boasts on the back cover – and indeed, “relish” is the right word, if you have time and space to devote to this novel and give in to it. The novel grows incrementally in sequential episodes of experiences and impressions of living by and exploring the surrounding of rivers through the passing seasons. Once immersed in the patient quality of the text, however, the reader’s rhythm chimes with the speed of the text. I was eventually sad to bid goodbye to the characters, whose lives and grief I shared.

Esther Kinsky is a German author and translator from Polish, English, and Russian. The German original, Am Fluss, and the English translation have both been well received by critics, garnering nominations for the German Book Prize and the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation, respectively. Transit Books, the press that published River in the US, extends the movement between languages to include the visual language of cover design. Designer Justin Carder plays with the river theme on the cover, where individual words and fragments of text flow over and through the title words. The inside of the cover is adorned with repetitive blue wavy lines. I mention this because the effect when reading the text is one of omnipresence of the river, which consistently flows alongside the pages while reading, a constant reminder of one’s situation “am Fluss”, “at the river,” as the German title would have it.

I applaud the powerful single-word title “River”: it makes a strong statement, while also being elusive. I can’t help but think it has also impacted previous reviewers, who see the meandering structure of a river in the text, the form of the river mirroring the book’s content (Chamberlain), the prose “piling up beautiful, silt-like layers of description and memory“ (Gibbs). While this is not not true, the German title is more peripheral: rather than suggesting the form and shape of the river itself, it draws attention to what happens on the shore, on the margins, the edgelands, and often the sky and the air, which are described more frequently and in more detail than the quality of a body of water:

The light on the day after the fire, at any rate, was unforgettable and not in any way English; it was light-blue and silver, as if a momentary off-centre spin of the Earth had let it stream in from the Bug and Vistula rivers in deepest Middle Europe. (116)

While a river can act as connector, uniting source and mouth through the force of water, it also separates the land around it. Similarly, the first chapters of the novel read discontinuous to me, before common themes started to emerge: a woman is about to leave London and observes her neighborhood and its inhabitants around Springfield Park, in Hackney, an area marked by the River Lea. She describes the “King,” a local extrovert attracting birds in the park, the observant Hasidic Jewish community and their customs, the Croat who runs the charity shop for Bosnian refugees. Then there is a chapter in which the narrator recalls growing up along the Rhine. More chapters on walks and wanderings along the Lea, but also excurses to the St Lawrence River in Canada, Nahal Ha Yarkon in Tel Aviv, the Oder between East Germany and Poland, the Neretva River in Croatia, and many more. The River Lea determines the plot, and all other tributaries lead back to the central body of water.

Within the stream, there are other recurring currents: a series of black and white photographs, which intersperse many, but not all, chapters, form the springboard for further memories. These are mementos of a feeling which overshadows any need for a plot-driven narrative: grief. On the first pages, the narrator reveals to the reader:

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 left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence. I did so in a place where I knew none of my neighbors, where the street names, views, smells and faces were unfamiliar to me, in a cheaply appointed flat where I would be able to lay my life aside for a while. (14)

The novel, then, represents a pause in the narrator’s life, a time for reflection and observation – both as flâneuse and as photographer, she remains distanced from her neighbors. Through memories, the narrator recalls the grief for friends and family members, in particular her father, lost over the years. The melancholic tone, as will come to no surprise to the reader, culminates in a goodbye, in the narrator’s decision to leave London.

The book is a novel, yet it also shows close resemblance with Esther Kinsky’s biography, and the border between fiction and non-fiction (and sometimes even poetry) is often difficult to draw. River had its origin in an English-language poem Kinsky wrote while living in London, and the torture of self-translating into German which she details in her essay on translation, Fremdsprechen, published shortly before Am Fluss. The poem, “Point of Departure. A Leave-taking,” shares the sentiment of River and its lyrical qualities, in particular the close attention paid to one’s surroundings:

Behind a fence stretches the long and earthen red brick wall with two windows on one side which are sometimes lit at night; and I remember a bunch of white roses against the fading summer light and the naked black lines and angles of fire escapes against the turquoise sky. (Fremdsprechen 128; my translation)

And in a way, the sky is a form of “edgeland” to the river and life along the river, in particular one that influences and shapes our impression of the rest. The gaze is drawn away from the “central” object to take in the bigger picture, to experience the way in which a “leave-taking” permeates through every aspect of life.

Another parallel River shares with Fremdsprechen is the way in which learning and hearing foreign words influences our experience of a place and is reflected in our memory of it. In Fremdsprechen, Kinsky argues that language use is always personal. Every word we choose has passed through a set of memories, emotions and visualizations, which makes it particular to the speaker. The example she uses is her own grandmothers, who would regularly argue over calling a particular body of water a “river,” a “stream” or a “current.” She also describes her great-grandmother’s indignation at her great-granddaughter’s first  words in French: “but a table is a table [Tisch]; you can’t just go around calling it a table!” (Fremdsprechen 27, my translation). Pondering the intricate meaning of words, especially those learned through a second language – and with it the acquisition of new understanding – is a recurrent feature in River. A feature every translator and conscious language learner will be familiar with.

Post-war was a prefix I had grown up with, despite the war being over for decades. In England it was joined by the phrase inter-war. Here, post-war and inter-war were not just rubble-heavy word-appendages, they also had a knack of wending their way adjectivally through different positions in a sentence, suppler and more expressive than their counterparts in my own mother tongue, and more enterprising, although in London too, in the battered and seedy eastern quarters and poverty-stunted, urban tracts by the River Lea, the traces of the pre-war era had been razed with dedicated haste, and debris-filled wastelands filled with the sharp-edged fortress-like housing blocks of the new times. (203)

It is in passages like this one that translator Iain Galbraith excels, bringing his skilled lyrical ear to the text. A “trümmerbrockenschwerer Zusatz” becomes “rubble-heavy word-appendages,” in keeping with the post-war landscape filled with rubble, the mighty (made-up) adjective has, although shortened, equal weight in the sentence, especially thanks to the rendering of the simple “Zusatz” by a double-barred word construct. Combined, they force the reader to slow down and experience stumbling over these word blocks, as if they were rubble (Am Fluss 101). In stark contrast, the sentence continues with sneaky, snake-like slithering pre-fixes “wending their way adjectivally” through it – try reading this with the characteristic breath of air that accompanies the “w” in a typical Scottish accent and the distinction between the solid rubble and the airy lightness with which these words find their way into a sentence becomes even starker. The private relationship with language also alters the way in which a translator reads a text for translation, paying close attention to both the contrasts but also the possibilities that open up between different languages.

I have the benefit of hindsight, as many a review now exists of River, all focusing on different aspects of the novel: an outsider’s view of London (Chamberlain), an aimless meandering in search of the “right place for one’s heart” (Mayer), “aesthetics of the crepuscular” in depicting a transitory state of being (Davis Wood). Reading River is like revisiting one of the many Polaroid pictures in the book: the first encounter is vague, bewildering, and out of focus; it requires the viewer’s patience. Over time, revisiting the text, the details start to emerge, and the many nuances converge to bigger, more intricate recurring themes, while other aspects slide into the background. The patient reader may not uncover all the mysteries of the text, but they will learn to appreciate slowness as a virtue when savoring words.

Kinsky, Esther. River. Translated from German by Iain Galbraith. Transit Books, 2018.

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