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Fiction Review Three fine novellas

MICHAEL BIRTWHISTLE relishes the riches, the politics and the poetry of a new volume of short fiction

Rivers of the Unspoilt World
by David Constantine
Comma Press, £9.99

 

IN THIS new collection of short fiction, the acclaimed writer David Constantine takes his readers in each tale to a plethora of times, subjects and locations.

The first piece pulls no punches in its depiction of the week of the bloody suppression of the Paris Commune, the “semaine sanglante / bloody week” of May 1871.

 A Polish historian, Dr Wiktoria, on study leave in Paris, is researching these momentous, barbaric events. Online, an academic fellow Pole, fervently Catholic, delivers a paper defending the ruthless repression of the Commune.
 
Depressed at such revisionism Wiktoria presents her own interpretations, but fears that she has failed to do justice to her and Marx’s cause.

Then she befriends Jiyan, a doctor from an unnamed Middle Eastern country forced to flee a village, “commandeered by men with guns who live by terror and extortion.”

Jiyan has taken on the care of a young girl who has all but lost her native language and a Congolese boy forced in his homeland to become a child-soldier.

These new-found comrades, themselves the flotsam and jetsam of current bloody civil wars, ultimately help Wiktoria regain her own confidence, allowing her to relate the brave aims of the Communards and the brutal suppression of their dreams.

The story Our Glad will strike a chord with many readers. The author recalls intensive and labyrinthine conversations with a relative as family history is unpicked as humorous or sometimes painful anecdotes. The timeframe stretches from the trenches of the first world war to the blitzed bomb sites of a second, reaching the 1945 general election with its hope-filled demobbed generation.

These autobiographical chats are then extended back through “Ancestry.com” to fill in still darker, more distant gaps in personal history, revealing the pain and suffering of the agricultural and industrial revolutions too.

The language is tinged with the disappearing accent and dialect of his own Salford. The past is another country, but not a lost one, as Constantine shares his “dirty old town” of Salford in loving detail, and his discoveries show how we are all formed by our family history, often unknowingly.

And that “the unspoken premise in all my chats with Gladys” was that “every single human life is inexhaustibly, unfathomably rich.”

“Poetry is won in struggle, not just against the times, mores and their politics but also against the self, the failure of the will, frivolity, dishonesty, fatigue,” says Waiblinger, biographer of the great German Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin (1770-1843).

Holderlin was a supporter of the ideals of the French Revolution and sadly witnessed their betrayal, and a passionate love affair with a richer married woman lead to his own tragic despair and madness.

It is this process that Constantine portrays in the last story in this collection, and in the words of the biographer, “I have met a poet, a real one, the wreck of one.”

This is truly a rich collection of lives wrecked and saved, real and fictional.

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