River by Esther Kinsky

Fitzcarraldo Editions, January 2018, 359 pp

Fitzcarraldo Editions, January 2018, 359 pp

River is a peculiar novel, quite unlike anything I have read before. A woman reminiscences the years she lived in East London near River Lea, a river that provides the main narrative structure to the novel. Lea reminds her of all the other rivers she has experienced, from the rivers of the Continent to the Yarkon in Tel Aviv and the Ganges in India. Every East London chapter, which depict in detail the progress of Lea from Springfield Park to its flowing into the Thames, is followed by three chapters of memories from abroad or elsewhere from London. This story is definitely in the heavyweight league of descriptive novels, said by some critics to resemble W. G. Sebald. Perhaps it is then no coincidence that Iain Galbraith, who has masterfully translated the novel into English from Esther Kinsky’s German, has previously translated Sebald’s poetry collection Across the Land and the Water.

The novel is curiously devoid of a traditional protagonist, and instead we have a narrator who is more of a lens than an active participant in the events. There are many characters in the novel, some who return, some who are only part of a brief memory, but the narrator himself is mostly in an observing role. Not only does she describe her surroundings, but she also takes polaroid pictures of the natural environment, and these photos are represented on the pages of the novel, not unlike the photos of animals on the pages of Sara Baume’s recent novel A Line Made by Walking.

Is River, then, more travelogue or memoir than a novel? I would argue not. Despite its meandering and verbose style, it is clearly structured with narrative pulls. For instance, we have recurring characters such as the King, a mysterious figure bookending the story. The narrator is keen to observe him. He makes an appearance in a park at the beginning, and later he is feared to have passed away. However, he returns at the end of the story in one of the novel’s most remarkable passages. It is not much of a spoiler to have a look at the last sentence of River, which is also a good example of Kinsky’s style:

Then a great torrent of light poured over the park, the fallen King and the birds, immersing everything in that glaring superabundance of brightness with which days begin that will pass away in rainy gloom, a luminosity that made each object stand out for a brief moment in sharp relief before squandering itself 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 few 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.

I cannot help admiring the beauty of that sentence, or of many other sentences in the novel. Not every sentence is that long, don’t worry, but Kinsky is amazingly skillful in conveying so much meaning in a descriptive sentence where nothing much happens. So much emotion is carried between the lines, in meditative sentences that on the surface only describe but implicitly evoke human emotions.

The relationship between humans and the natural world emerges as one of River’s themes. In the following passage, the narrator discusses rivers as bioregions, a casual thought which develops into a profound question of human identity:

Every river is a border; that was one of the lessons of my childhood. It informs our view of what is other, forcing us to stop in our tracks and take in the opposite side. The river is dynamic, a bustling stage, in contrast with which the otherland opposite is integral to the fixed picture, a background painting which impresses itself on our memory. What if the river, beyond its capacity as a border created solely by its own course, is also a border between countries? Could its flow, the incessant press of its water towards an estuary, be more powerful than its significance as a line fixed to determine belonging? Does the water carry something away with it, leaving the stateliness of state-borders diminished and apparently subject to depreciation? Isn’t it saying that what we really belong to is the gaze toward the other side?

In side with depictions of nature are observations of city life in London. The narrator has a habit of riding the double decker with no terminus in mind, realizing there that the upper deck is the way to learn what London is all about. Instead of looking at mere shop windows from the street level, she looks into people’s homes in all their day-to-day glory and misery. By scrupulously observing either nature or people through the course of the novel, she becomes a vehicle for readers to reflect on their own lives. While the novel’s rivers-as-borders theme often brought me back to my childhood city (which is built around a river that divided the city into a southern and northern side), these depictions of London are equally juicy bits of real life, memories of a time when I myself was getting acquainted with London.

So much has been packed inside these 350 pages or so that calling River a mere description of flowing bodies of water is very much slighting. It is true that reading it requires some amount of concentration, especially in the beginning when one is only getting accustomed to Kinsky’s style of writing, but its meditative flair is surprisingly addictive to follow. As long as you do not expect plot twists and are willing to go unhurried with the flow, you are in for a literary treat. Reading River is, in a sense, a meditative practice, a welcome exercise in an age of short attention spans. In fact, I don’t think River’s level of observation and focus on the everyday is very far from the actual experience of meditation.