Reading Ravicka: Two Novels in a Trilogy by Renee Gladman

Elaine Bleakney

Event Factory. Urbana, IL: Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2010. 126 pages. $16.00.

The Ravickians. Urbana, IL: Dorothy, A Publishing Project, 2011. 167 pages. $16.00.

Event FactoryAh, Ravicka. Where the bookstores are all independent, language swoops through the body, and buildings disintegrate. A city-state in flux and crisis. Belgians know about it. Citizens are disappearing. There’s still good coffee, though it’s the end of the world.

In her first novel of Ravicka, Event Factory, Renee Gladman constructs the city from the outside. Our guide is a linguist-traveler fluent in Ravic, the native language. She moves us through the city, using the word “yellow” to describe the air, a sickness in the air, and the emptiness suffusing Ravickian architecture. Architecture, we learn, is Ravicka’s at-risk ecology. The structures are massive, sublime, and shifty. Something is wrong; everything is OK. Our guide is nameless and perpetually walled-off, trying to read Ravicka’s ills by walking the city. She can’t seem to arrive, second-guessing at every turn her ability to report fully.

If you’ve ever fallen for another city and felt yourself bereft and flooded—welcome to Ravicka. What makes us most welcome here is Gladman’s linguist-traveler, able and at-sea as she navigates the city:

But there was a gesture I was to make upon entering a place that was already peopled, something between ‘hello,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘congratulations I’m here,’ and I could not remember what it was. As subtly as I could, I bent here and there trying to jog my memory: was I to do a shake, a roundoff? I kept thinking, ‘How great it would be to enter.’ If only traveling were about showing off your language skills, if only it did not also demand a certain commitment of body communication, of outright singing or dancing—I think I would be absolutely global by now.

This kind of travel—running on uncertainty, fluency, and vulnerability—makes Event Factory wildly engaging. Gladman’s linguist-traveler puts in mind another rare contemporary travelogue, Awayward by Jennifer Kronovet. (A disclosure: Kronovet is a friend of mine.) In Awayward, a linguist-traveler from New York City named Jennifer learns Chinese. She goes there to live. Where reportage and narrative fail, poetry fills in. She writes:

There is architecture
and there is your view

of architecture and then
there is the house you can’t

leave: Comparison House
brought to you by English.

Gladman’s linguist-traveler wears a related translation-exhaustion (wonder-agony?) as she presses herself to interpret Ravicka for us, knowing full well that she can’t know. She seeks a companion (lady preferred) to help/make out with her. Some good prospects show up, including a salsa dancer in a skyscraper. No keepers, though. She can’t get her footing, entering bakeries is very complicated, and the friendly hotel concierge disappears. She’s hungry, lost, and reading. We’re reading. Where is Ravicka? The map keeps changing. What’s wrong with Ravicka? No one can or will say. The city center doesn’t reveal and field trips involving possibly sexy informants prove nothing. But something clicks when she heads toward the mountains to ask Luswage Amini, the “Great Ravickian Novelist,” what the hell is going on. In doing so, she finds an answer—a lovely and untidy one—and introduces the narrator of the trilogy’s enticing second novel, The Ravickians.

The RavickiansThe Ravickians takes place in one day, a day that opens with Luswage Amini deciding to go to her old friend Zàoter’s poetry reading. She’s a recluse, sending out notes to Zàoter and her former lover, Ana Patova, by courier. She carefully considers her departure. Getting anywhere in Ravicka involves, we learn, delaying arrival. “I’m not sure if I’ve ever just gone anywhere,” Amini admits. An entire novel about a reclusive great writer trying to get to a poetry reading: OK, swoon. I wish Bolaño could have read this.

There is much to love in Amini’s character, so fully realized. Sort of Sontaggy, or what I imagine the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo to be like: brilliant, full of longing, depressed—Ravicka becomes a different variety of the untranslatable in Amini’s voice. It’s the voice of the ultimate literary insider, steeped in all she’s internalized while holed up in her apartment with what I imagine are walls made of many, many books. Moving outside of her interior means moving into language, its performance (which in Ravicka is something like sudden bursts of Merce Cunningham). Amini has much to say about being understood by people outside:

But why talk about the air here if this is a translation you are reading? I will tell you about it and you will read me saying the word “yellow” and think to yourself science fiction. Well, perhaps I do have a complaint for my translators, especially moving from Ravic to English. Why when I say dahar do you say ‘yellow’? I know that word. The air here is not yellow. It is dahar (yellow). If you are engaged in a translation and discover that a quality you need to convey does not exist in your language, the language into which you are moving, do not pick the next best thing. Sometimes you will have to put a “0” there; this will indicate a hole.

Thankfully, the novel isn’t peppered with “0.” It could have gone that way. But The Ravickians is Amini’s, and Gladman’s concern is for delivering her fragmented meditations on language, translation, city life, connection, and desire without typographical hula-hooping. The linguist-traveler of the first novel gets her wish: Amini speaks for Ravicka’s ills. The narrative shatters into a firework of other voices once she reaches Zàoter’s poetry reading. When it shatters, we’re ready: Gladman has oriented us. We find Amini there.

And where are we? On a communal walk in a great, imperiled city. (Did I mention that social events in Ravicka end with a group walk that “is made toward a new geography”?) The Ravickians closes (and opens) with an allusion to a book from the United States by “the Poet of Architecture,” translated by another Ravickian, Sirin Cucek. The book has transfixed literary Ravickians. (All Ravickians may be literary: perhaps this is further evidence we’re reading “science fiction”?)

Amini speaks to Cucek about “the Poet of Architecture” in a hallowed tone, reciting a line from the poet: “the exactitude and the ocean beside it.” (Please let this get totally Joycean and refer to a living American poet, I hoped.)

Google answered: the line Amini cites is by Melissa Buzzeo, from What Began Us—a book of poems published by Renee Gladman’s press, Leon Works. Beautiful: the idea of a publisher supporting a book of poetry by embedding a line of it in her own novel. (A line in English translated into Ravic then back to English, in the world of the novel.)

Will Sirin Cucek, Ravicka’s great translator, narrate Gladman’s third novel about Ravicka (tentatively due in the fall of 2013)? “You have transformed us with your translations,” Amini says to Cucek after Zàoter’s poetry reading. To be transformed by translation: however the third novel shapes, it’s clear that Gladman will be moving us further into this idea, complicating it, thankfully, again.

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