Esther Kinsky: Hain (Grove)
Esther Kinsky subtitles this work a Geländeroman, which can be translated as novel of the land. What we do know is that while the land is important to this work, so is death. The unnamed narrator – clearly Kinsky herself – tells us early on that she watched a film involving a Romanian church. In this church, there were two separate niches for candles, one on the left and one on the right. The one on the left was for the living, while the one on the right was for the dead. In the film she saw a man take a flickering candle from the left to the right, presumably because someone had died. She uses the Romanian terms for the living and dead (viǐ and morţǐ, respectively) and will continue to use these terms later in the book.
A few months after seeing this film, M. died. M. is presumably Martin Chalmers, a British translator, who was Kinsky’s husband. She describes herself as a Hinterbliebene, i.e. survivor.
She heads off (in January!) to Olevano Romano a small Italian town, not far from Rome, where she has rented a house. The first part of the book concerns her stay there.
While nature is relevant – the eponymous groves are there, both olive and other trees – it is death that still pervades, not least because her house is near a cemetery. She wanders round the cemetery several times, finding that the oldest grave there is of a German, though most of the graves are of locals who have names the same as the names on the shops in town.
She watches the cemetery, seeing people visit the graves, looking at the names on the gravestones, looking at the flowers and watching the various comings and goings. She even imagines the dead looking out from their graves at the town below. She will visit other towns later on and see the cemeteries there. Indeed, she goes to Cerveteri, famed for its necropolis.
She drops her camera cable and finds it by a grave, the grave of Maria Tagliacozzi who died over a hundred years ago and she adopts Maria. She goes to the local council offices to see if she can find out more about Maria. Next to Maria’s grave is the grave of Erminia de Paoli, who was born the day Maria died. Erminia died in London. Our narrator imagines that she was knocked down by a red London bus. She notes that neither Maria nor Erminia seem to have left a surviving spouse or child.
Other images of death occur. She finds a dead bird and buries it. She looks at the shops in town and notes various ones, but the undertaker in particular. She sees a dead man being taken out of a house in the town below. She thinks back to her past, her father and grandfather, and remembers their deaths. She even dreams of M. He says to her – in English – There’s nothing terrible about being dead. Don’t worry.
It is not all about being dead. She enjoys the nature surrounding her. She sees and talks to the locals. She learns the ways of the Italians. She reminisces about her past and her visits to Italy as a child with her parents. She witnesses the local carnival. She sees the various immigrants who live in or near the town.
Finally, however, it is time to move on. I wanted to leave behind Olevano, Lazio, Rome, this vague, cold Southernness of the last few months and know land beneath me that had a connection with my interrupted life.
The second section deals with her childhood, primarily her father, for whom she clearly had a deep attachment – her mother barely gets a look in – and their regular trips to Italy. Her father spoke Italian and liked using it. She remembers various journeys, including visits to Rome. Her father was keenly interested in the Etruscans and they often had to go and visit obscure Etruscan sites (many which, of course, had a necropolis). She remembers her last trip to Italy with her father. He had given up his job to become a tour guide and they met in Trieste.
The third and last section concerns her trip to the Po Valley. I am not aware of any novels being set in Olevano Romano. However, the Po valley has appealed to writers, most famously Giovannino Guareschi, author of the Don Camillo novels. Gianni Celati has written about the Po Valley, most famously in his Narratori delle pianure (Voices from the Plain), as has Riccardo Bacchelli, particularly in his Il mulino del Po (The Mill on the Po).
Kinsky, like these others writers, is fascinated by the landscape of the Po Valley. In her book Am Fluss (River), she shows her love for the wetlands (as well as dealing with death and being a solitary woman, alone in a foreign country and encountering immigrants). She wanders around the Po Valley, watching the people at work – primally fishing and dredging – and watching the wildlife, as there are, of course, lots of birds, and looking at the fauna, particularly the ubiquitous stone pine.
She also visits various villages and towns, including Ferrara (where, of course, she visits the Jewish cemetery). She gets lost in Ferrara but enjoys its history and winding streets. She has already mentioned The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, one of her favourite books, but mentions it again, as the action takes place in Ferrara. Of course, there is a dead bird and also immigrants (she sees an African immigrant arrested on a train).
She concludes with a comment on Fra Angelico’s Lamentation over St. Francis (the original is in Berlin), because it deals with grief over the loss of a loved one.
As in Am Fluss (River), not a great deal happens, but Kinsky is a superb observer and a superb writer of what she observes. This book is obviously very much coloured by the death of her husband and the theme of death and loss runs through the book. However, she writes about nature, its effect on her, the observer and on the people around, and shows how humans and animals are so much influenced by it.
First published 2018 by Suhrkamp
First English translation 2020 by Fitzcarraldo
Translated by Caroline Schmidt