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Esther Kinsky: Am Fluss (River)

There are some books that do not have much of a plot and in which not much happens but, because of the quality of the writing, they remain outstanding works. This is one of those books. The quality of Esther Kinsky’s writing is so good that you cannot fail to be spellbound by it. It is one of those books that reviewers sometimes call luminous or numinous – I am never quite sure what they mean.

The book is about a German Jewish woman who comes to live in London, not in one of the fashionable parts, but in Hackney. For British people from other parts of the country, Hackney does not have a particularly good reputation. It is seen, rightly, as an area of immigrants, as a slightly rundown area. Hackney Marshes, which figure in this book, are associated with a somewhat uninviting area, where sex crimes may occur. This is all probably unfair but we all sadly stereotype areas we do not know. Reading this book somewhat changed my view but not too much. What Kinsky does and does brilliantly is show that even an area like Hackney has its own beauty, its own attraction, if only we look carefully.

We do not know and nor does the narrator seem to know why she has moved to London. This is not the first time she has done this. We later learn that, after her father’s death, she took off to Tel Aviv. I had no place to go and no particular plan, she states though, presumably, at least part of it was to connect with her Jewish roots and her father’s. She had been to London before, both as a child and young adult and had mixed memories of it. But as for Hackney, it is not clear why.

The title of the book (in German it is On the River as opposed to the simple River of the English) gives us some of the subject matter of this book. Hackney is on the River Lea. The Lea is only forty-two miles long but it is quite wide in places and one of the largest rivers in London.

Our narrator is clearly fascinated with rivers and describes, walks along it and she photographs the river. As well as being fascinating in its own right, in some respects it brings back memories of her childhood by the Rhine. While obviously the Lea cannot compare to the Rhine in most respects, the fact of it being a river brings back childhood memories, which she shares with us. For her, the river meant dislocation, confusion and unpredictability in a world that craved order. It was a river that was flowing away to towards a north that always seemed brighter. But she also remembers the Rhine as being a cruel river – a bow wave dragged a child in her class off the end of a breakwater.

Rivers will remain key in this book. She visits Toronto with her young son (there was a reason – to visit an aunt) and is impressed by the St Lawrence. Even in Tel Aviv, there is a river. There is a heatwave but her friend Mi, in a wheelchair, takes her to a river. it is not a very impressive river but a river nonetheless. But is the Lea and the Rhine that she beautifully relates to and describes in their various ways, both their beauty but also their colourful and not always positive role in the lives of the people who live and work nearby. Other rivers she reports on include the Hooghly, the Tisza, the Neretva and the Oder. The Oder she associated with Heinrich Kleist and muses on the fact that the river was almost certainly different in his day.

One way she captures the river(s) is with photography. There are quite a few black and white photos in this book of various scenes near the river, though not necessarily of the river, as well as other photos. She takes the photos with a cheap camera. She fails to unpack her moving boxes but one box breaks under the weight of other boxes on top of it, spilling out its contents. These are photos, generally taken by her father, of the Rhine and other scenes. Her father was not not the only photographer of the Rhine she remembers. There was a travelling photographer who took photos of weddings, funerals and anything else. Mi, in Tel Aviv, shows her photos the Rhine she had taken, as she used to live by the Rhine as well. Our narrator meets a young woman she calls Sonja (from Chekov, though that turns out not to be her real name, of course) who takes photos with a pin-hole camera and gives a couple to our narrator. She will continue to come across odd photos throughout the book.

Photos are, of course, about memories and, as we have seen,this is important to her, recalling her childhood by the Rhine and her father, as Mi recalls her childhood by the Rhine. But they have another role. I began to photograph things that were irreconcilable with my previous life in London, things I had stumbled across in the Lea Valley. She is often surprised by the results. The secret of this rather unsightly plastic box was probably that its pictures had less to do with the things seen than with the person seeing them… What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of grey was a memory I did not even know I had. It is a memory but an altered memory.

Some of this novel is also about fitting in or, perhaps, not fitting in. She is a foreigner in London but so are, to some degree, most of the people she meets. She lives in an area where there are a lot of Hasidic Jews but also an Islamic school. In her photos, she sees she has taken pictures of black women. The local junk shop is owned by a Croat. Many of the shops are owned by immigrant Jews. There are Pakistanis and other immigrants. This difference is seen on Bonfire Night, a big celebration for the British but not for our narrator and her neighbours.

She tries to learn the city, by smell as much as anything else but realises it would take a lifetime. She has a collection of maps of various places she has known but they do not really help.

Kinsky is a translator by profession, so language is key to this book. On several occasions she comments that she does not understand or fully understand what people are saying, either because they are speaking a language she does not know or in a dialect of a language she does know. They were speaking in a language I did not understand and She spoke a language I could not quite make out. She comments on the local form of English – what the English call Estuary English – and struggles with that. All of this adds to her feeling of being foreign.

There have, of course, been many other novels featuring rivers, from Wind in the Willows to Claudio MagrisDanubio (Danube), from Neil Gunn’s Highland River to Mikhail Sholokhov‘s Тихий Дон (And Quiet Flows the Don). With the obvious exception of Danubio (Danube), none gets into the role rivers (in the plural) can and do play both in the individual life of a person, as with our narrator, as well as in the surrounding landscape.

Clearly, for our narrator, rivers are something very special. Whenever the word ‘river’ came to mind, I imagined panoramas, views, images from childhood – the postcards memory had sent me. I ran these views and images by countless rivers, holding them up to each river landscape as if to interrogate it for something specific.

If it were only for her portrait of rivers and how they affected her and their surroundings, this would be a very fine book. However, Kinsky gives us much more. She delves into a community, a community which, on the face of it is very ordinary. Indeed, I do not think I will be far wrong when I say that for most British people, unless they have some connection with Hackney, Leyton or Bow, these are places they have never visited and are never likely to and are more likely only names on the tube map. Yet Kinsky sees things in them, as a foreigner and temporary resident (the book ends with her leaving), that gives them some distinction, some individuality, that separates them from the many other ordinary places in our world. She also sees the people – mostly foreigners and immigrants like her – and shows them as individuals, colourful, original and different.

This is the first book of Esther Kinsky that I have read and I hope that it will not be the last. As often happens, it is thanks to a small press – Fitzcarraldo (now there’s a film that features a river) – that English-speaking readers can read this superb writer.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Matthes & Seitz
First English translation 2017 by Fitzcarraldo