AWF18: The Edge of Europe, by Kapka Kassabova

AWF18: The Edge of Europe, by Kapka Kassabova

Arriving in New Zealand in the 90s, after the roll back of the Soviet Union, it was the excessive freedom and space, the shock of the ocean, that made a lasting impression on  Kapka Kassabova. The European experience is quite different, she explains to the audience and her admiring interlocutor Lloyd Jones. There, people internalise borders – these create a sense of home and delineate one’s space. But the border zone between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria, the subject of her book Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe, is particular; it is a liminal world and culture unto itself.


Lloyd Jones and Kapka Kassabova, photo courtesy of Auckland Writers Festival

We start at the Red Riviera between Bulgaria and Turkey. We learn of ‘Sandals’, other Eastern Europeans who officially came to holiday in this region but had in fact planned their escape across the border. Many died in the attempt.

For as long as she can remember, Kapka has been obsessed with borders. Growing up behind the Iron Curtain, she wondered why people were allowed in, but they were not allowed out. The book was born out of her sense of urgency to tell the story of the border zone because a generation had already passed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union – people were beginning to forget, and to get old.

She shares a couple of pictures with us. In the first, young men and a German shepherd patrol the barbed wire fence in the 80s; the second, taken at the same spot just three years ago, is almost an idyllic vision, with the area reclaimed by nature. This border zone has been a corridor of migration for generations, it is just that the flow of people has changed direction. Walls and fences are going up again, to keep the refugees out. ‘History repeats itself quite literally,’ Kapka notes.

Lloyd describes her work as part excavation and part revelation of worlds that no longer exist. Kapka wanted to express the labyrinthine quality of the border zone, and the dense layers involved. She describes the places she journeyed to as distinct realms. There are Muslim villages that were established during the Ottoman period scattered through the mountain ranges to the north of Greece. ‘They have no place in the official histories. They are ordinary people in an extraordinary place’.


Kapka Kassabova, photo from Auckland Writers Festival

But much of this fertile region is empty except for phantom villages, some with only ten inhabitants left. The border culture has decimated the region and affected the psyche of those exposed to it. Kapka contends that the harder a border is, the more endangered people are. A culture of paranoia and surveillance spreads; the threat becomes internalised. She reads an extract from the book that features two generations of border guards – a sense of dread permeates the scene. Her reading amplifies the qualities she displays as a speaker: quietly compelling, eloquent, possessed of reserve.

For the refugees flooding into the region today there is little movement. There is stasis, an unbearable condition, where they cannot go forward or back. Kapka quotes Lloyd’s writing to describe the situation: they ‘run out of road’.

This was a wonderful session, although Lloyd, in all his enthusiasm and open admiration for Kapka, sometimes added to her thoughts a bit too early. I would have loved to hear her finish all of her polished thoughts. I look forward to reading the book, which Lloyd describes as the one Kapka was meant to write.

Reviewed by Emma Johnson

Published by Granta Books
ISBN 9781783783205

Book Review: The Cage, by Lloyd Jones

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_the_cageYou can always rely on Lloyd Jones to come up with something new. He never writes about the same thing and he rarely, in my opinion, writes in the same way (although he might argue with that).

The idea for this latest novel was brought together during a visit to Germany where his daughter was working with refugees, while he was a resident in the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin programme in 2016-2017.

The Cage is a horrific work. Two strangers arrive in a small NZ town, unable or unwilling to provide information on how they got there. The hotel owner takes them in initially, but a series of events culminates in their living outdoors in a cage. The prototype for the cage was the strangers’ own creation but the reality of its growth was brought about by the actions of the hotelier, his family, his staff and the townspeople.

The strangers effectively become prisoners. The narrator is responsible for recording their activities and reporting to the Trust which has been set up to keep them contained until they are told the whole story. The cage has a key, but it’s apparently missing so the strangers can’t be released. And then, no-one wants to release them until they know their history. Paranoia about the unknown is ever-present, and horribly well drawn by Lloyd Jones – so much so that it’s almost possible to think that you, the reader, can understand why the locals behave as they do. I say almost, deliberately, as I found myself ranting at the narrator to do the right thing – get a pair of tinsnips and cut the damn cage open just for starters.

At one point, quite far along in the story and I won’t give any spoilers about why, the narrator asks ‘What is the question? The question is this. At what point did I know what was going to happen?The second question. Why did I not do anything to prevent it?’

From very early in this novel, I was reminded of the work by Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning. Though possibly that’s because the hotel cook is called Viktor, so maybe this is not coincidental at all, nor as insightful as I first thought it might be.

But that’s what comes through: how easy it is to ignore the bad or evil things around us; how easy to pretend that something essentially bad can be construed as being “for their own good”; how hard it is to stand up against what we know, deep inside us, is wrong.

This novel is a modern fable, allegory, call it what you will. It’s certainly a hard read, but it throws up age-old questions about trust, responsibility, speaking up, justice and injustice, and above all taking action when you can.

Steel yourself, and read it.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

The Cage 
by Lloyd Jones
Published by  Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143772323

Sarah Forster reviewed an event featuring Lloyd Jones at the NZ Festival Writers & Readers Festival – check it out here. 


NZF Writers & Readers Festival: Lloyd Jones – The Cage

Lloyd Jones was chaired by Charlotte Wood. You can see her on Saturday 10, 2.45pm.

lloyd jones the cageCharlotte Wood comes from the point of view of a fellow writer, but also a fan. She sees Lloyd as a ‘thrillingly unconventional writer,’ having met him several years ago while he was a Writer in Residence in Adelaide.

The session began with rather a lengthy explanation of the book, which I have read, perhaps unfortunately for the sake of this session. The protagonist of the novel is Sport – and the subject is the strangers, that are kept in a cage in the backyard of the hotel Sport’s uncle owns. He is employed, somewhat, as an observer, and a reporter.

Charlotte noted that the subject of refugees can be difficult to talk about without feeling as though you are hammering people with a moral truth. Lloyd made this what he refers to as a ‘fable’ – but on looking this up, he realised it didn’t go by the real meaning, but as the meaning in the sense Kafka uses it. This is the first time, but not the last time he refers to Metamorphosis as a tone of what he was trying to achieve with the book. From my understanding of this, it is the lack of setting, lack of explanation that makes it like Kafka. ‘It is matter of fact, detached’, he says.

He realised he was going this way as soon as he had the concept. This was inspired by several things in his life, including the experience in 2015 of Keleti Station – here’s a Stuff article that talks about this.

‘As we took escalators up to the concourse, there was a smell. In the west, we’ve forgotten what we smell like – these people had been retained in the station for several days before we arrived. There were boxes they had flattened sleep on, and the noise was tremendous. They were on their way to Germany, but Hungarian authorities wouldn’t let them board the trains. The Hungarian President was making a point against what Merkel suggested. We abandoned the idea of a holiday & spent the next 5 days doing what we could in the station.’

Lloyd believes Wellingtonians would take these people in (where Hungarians wouldn’t / couldn’t), and that this is due to our political condition making one set of behaviour more available to us than another. I’m not so sure.

This links into something they talked on later, the fact we have a real problem as a society with people who are vulnerable. Lloyd thinks perhaps we feel ashamed – he speaks of watching atrocities on the computer, women being stoned, men blown up. We feel complicit. It is this he’s trying to express.

Another strand of the book is that in his downtime, Sport takes his cousin to the zoo. Lloyd visited Berlin Zoo frequently while on a Residency there. During this residency his daughter was working at a refugee camp, and found a sign on the fence saying ‘we are not zoo animals.’ This drew his mind back to  Kaleti – where arguably, they were. In the book Sport watches the men for his job, then goes to the zoo, which Lloyd notes are the first place to we first learn we are allowed to stare with impugnity.

In the book, language is powerful – but not powerful enough. The strangers can’t explain what happened to them. ‘It is beyond language.’ The reaction to this is at first one of wonder, then irritation. Lloyd notes, ‘As soon as the perception shifts to ‘other’, you will do things to them that you would never do to one of your own.’ Charlotte observes that the language that the ‘trustees’ who look after the men use, is used to absolve themselves of responsibility, and Lloyd agrees, saying that he enjoyed writing this bit. Meanwhile, Sport’s language is dispassionate – he is making the reader complicit to what is happening – he writes as though a pure eye for most of the book.

There was a sense to me in this session that Lloyd was endeavouring to review his own book, and Charlotte was happy to help him do this. He was putting right any misconceptions throughout the session.

Charlotte starts talking about the wire in the book: the men are given wire to create something – if it is beyond language, perhaps it isn’t beyond sculpture. When it means nothing to them, the townspeople work together to create a larger version – then there’s a slip, and the men end up inside the cage. With the door locked. This is the type of slip that happens frequently.

Charlotte doesn’t think you could do this book as realism. But there are points of connection, says Lloyd. For him, it’s dwelling on the observation of others – what it is to observe others. He is constraining his writing to this, these are the limits of the book. Charlotte sees this too and sympathises – reviewers often criticise her deliberate limitations of her fictional worlds – similarly with Lloyd.

They then discuss that the thing with Lloyd’s book is that it isn’t completely invented – they’ve talked already about its real-world influences, and in Australia there are men in cages, literally. He states, ‘The book isn’t a conversation – the allegory is off to one side, but it is there.’

Something I have seen reviews online and that I wish they’d gone further into is the fact that Sport is also a refugee from trauma – he is an outsider, and was a stranger to the town, until these men came around. He recognises where the strangers have come from, but Lloyd says, ‘his job isn’t to be sophisticated’.

Lloyd notes, with Charlotte’s suggestion, ‘Often I get a bit caught up in trying to reject the conventions of narrative.’ He initially tried to write this book from the point of view of the strangers. He realised he couldn’t, because they knew too much. The narrative strategy usually involves forward movement, but the observation was what drove this:  ‘I saw this, this is how you described it to me, this is how it’s being described.’

Charlotte and Lloyd then had a final discussion of voice – the idea that when you pick up a book you’re not reading with a sense of is this interesting because of what’s being described? Lloyd says his initial thought is now ‘Is it a voice I trust?’

He notes he used to write flamboyantly, and only understood the persuasiveness of voice later on. He says, ‘The task is to find that voice that I believe in that’s interesting to me as a writer, but that will also release more than me.’ Wood notes, ‘It’s the voice that lets you be surprised’. He then notes the only secret is to write a lot of sentences until he finds it!

As long as Lloyd knows he can rely on this happening for him, time after time, we’ll certainly hear more from him.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

The Cage: Lloyd Jones
with Lloyd Jones and Charlotte Wood
Writers & Readers Festival, Friday, 9 March


Griffith Review 43: Pacific Highways, edited by Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones

Available now from selected bookstores

cv_griffith_review_43A New Zealand booksellers’ site reviewing an Australian literary journal? Is this the next giant step forward in CER – NZ and Australian bookselling joining forces? Not quite…

Griffith Review is published quarterly by Griffith University in Brisbane, showcasing new fiction writing, essays, memoirs, poetry and art of Australian contributors. It is probably most similar to the six monthly Otago University publication Landfall, which has been in continuous publication since 1947 and performs the same function for NZ writers and artists.

In light of the success of New Zealand writers in recent years, this latest issue, “Pacific Highways” is devoted to all things New Zealand – a showcase of the depth of writing we have here, and the issues/ideas/themes currently in circulation. In the true spirit of trans-Tasman cooperation, this issue is edited by founding editor and academic Julianne Schultz who incidentally did travel on a New Zealand passport at one stage, and NZ’s very own Lloyd Jones – need we say more. He sees New Zealand positioned in a very exciting place at the moment, “one where it is possible to think of NZ as a hub in a mesh of highways spanning the littoral of South America, Asia, and Australia. There lies the future, as economists used to say. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge what is even more obvious. The future is here.”

For a young country with a relatively small population the number and variety of high calibre contributors to this edition is fantastic. Two photographers, ten poets, three ‘reportages’, six memoirs, three fiction items, and a most alarming twenty one essays. Twenty one essays? I would have liked to have seen half of this number, with the other half given over to ten more fiction writers. Wouldn’t it have been marvellous to see something, if at all possible, from the only other Booker Prize winner Keri Hulme? Admittedly some of the essays have been written by well known fiction writers such as Damien Wilkins – finding himself ‘forced’ by virtue of having young daughters to watch TV reality show monster The X Factor NZ – as well as Alison Wong, Kate de Goldi, and Hamish Clayton, but I really would have liked to have seen some more fiction.

However, the choice of writers cannot detract from the variety of subject and the writing quality. Contributors are young and not so young, Chilean, Chinese, academics, publishers, journalists, Samoan, Maori, Pakeha, a scientist, a teachers, well known, completely unknown, fiction and non fiction writers, a sportswriter, men and women – and many of these contributors are several of these things. It is a thing of wonder indeed that such a young and small country can produce such a huge pool of writers.

So what are the topics of choice for these writers in the twenty first century? Again many and various – the Christchurch earthquakes, the recent death of artist Ralph Hotere, a descendant of  Chinese origin who migrated to NZ a hundred years ago, a poem about the 1979 Erebus tragedy, beautiful and personal writings inspired by the land and seascapes, an economist looking at our economic future, a children’s author marvelling over Margaret Mahy. And at the root of almost all the writing, our ongoing search for a national identity and finding our fit in the world.

There is something here for everyone, a lot of it is easy to read, to understand and enjoy. And some of it not so much. But it is great to see the continued respect being given to New Zealand writers and artists from outside our borders.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

Griffith Review 43: Pacific Highways
edited by Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781922182241

Words of the Day: Tuesday, 12 November 2013




This is a digest of our Twitter feed that we email out most Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Sign up here for free if you’d like it emailed to you.

Book reviews
Review of Night Film by Marisha Pessl (Christopher Howe)

Book Review: A History of Silence, by Lloyd Jones

Author interviews
IIML’s 2009 Writer in Residence Paula Boock talks with Donna Malane about dramatising reality on screen

Whether you want to go Over the Hill to Greytown, or stay in Upper Hutt, there is a book event for you tonight

Not sure if there are spaces left, but this looks fantastic (Women in Comics)!

New Releases
Conversations with creative New Zealand women, including IIML’s 2014 Writer in Residence

Book News
The Auckland Pride Festival 2014 to showcase new writing with help from New Zealand Society of Authors

The place to be for rights sales in the UAE

The IMPAC Nominees include six kiwis, including #nzpba book of the year, The Big Music (and the fiction shortlist)

Congratulations to Sue Wooton, winner of the poetry section of the Cancer Council Victoria 2013 Arts Awards.

Publishers are realising consumer engagement is key, for e- and p-books alike

Please don’t mob Eleanor Catton at the airport.

Awards News
And they’re off… the first shipment of books are on their way to the #nzpba and #nzpcba judges

From around the internet
Zombie nouns…

@kebabette’s picks for New Zealand’s best book covers of 2013.

Why editors have no friends.

Reading Festival: Tessa Duder can’t imagine a life without books

Great description of why literary tweeters like the medium

Rachel Arons on the rise of the speed-reading ap:

On international rights…the heart of the publishing world depends on where you are

Book Review: A History of Silence, by Lloyd Jones

Available in bookstores now.

I had the most peculiar reaction to reading this memoir bcv_a_history_of_silencey the very highly regarded Lloyd Jones. For the first five years of my life I lived 1.7kms in one direction from where the author was living out his childhood, and for the next 15 years I lived 1.7kms in the other direction. Our paths never crossed, (he is a few years older), but everything he writes about the place of  Lower Hutt, and the sense of place is very strong in this book, had a startling ring of truth about it. From Stellin Street where I learnt to drive, to his days at the intermediate school, to the shop in the High St his school uniform was bought at, to his descriptions of Petone, the Hutt River bed, Eastbourne and the bays – I could see it all so clearly and in his retelling of his memory, he made me remember too. Just as wonderful was the quite amazing thought that just up the road a writer of such genius was slowly incubating!

Every family has its secrets, its stories that change over the years to accommodate new narrators and the mores of the time, its black sheep. Often full truths never come out because they are too painful, considered too shameful, or quite simply just too hard to deal with. Lloyd Jones’ parents, Joyce and Lew, were both extensively scarred by the circumstances of their childhoods, carrying their burdens into their marriage and the parenting of their five children, of whom Lloyd was the youngest by some ten years.

Lloyd grows up in a household of silence, pp_lloyd_joneswhere he and his siblings know very little about their parents’ early lives. All they really know is that there was a fair bit of sadness. There is a complete lack of family stories, no photos on the walls, what he calls ‘wilful forgetting’. Because he has nothing to compare this with, he grows up thinking nothing much about this lack, and is puzzled only momentarily when he goes driving, from time to time, with his mother to a house that they sit outside of for a while and then drive away again. His siblings are adults long before he is, and so he lives alone in the house with his parents, about whom he knows very little. One Christmas his older sister produces the results of her own research into their parents, a myriad mix of birth, death and marriage certificates which doesn’t really answer any questions and leads to a whole lot more.

The devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011, was the catalyst Lloyd Jones needed to kick start his search for where he came from and what made him. Throughout the book, Jones uses Christchurch repairing itself and rebuilding its foundations as an analogy for him finding his own base and putting the pieces of his family puzzle into place. The narrative takes the reader from Christchurch to Lower Hutt, as far away as Wales, Wairarapa, the backblocks of North Canterbury, Wellington, backwards and forwards, to and fro, weaving and threading the story of a family through these places.

It is very moving to read such a personal account of a family’s story, or more to the point, the stories of Joyce and Lew. This memoir reads more as a tribute to the parents, and Lloyd himself finally seems to find out from whom he has inherited aspects of his own self and the influences that have shaped him. This is writing written with love and longing, and all the more poignant for that. The storyteller in the author comes shining through as he expands on the lives of the people he is writing about, as they react to the events taking place around them. There are some threads I just could la-et-film-014not figure out the relevance of  – the boxing bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Gentleman Jim Corbett springs to mind. But boxing was a big thing in the house he grew up in.  Maybe I was just too tired to fully comprehend the significance. Never mind, such a tiny criticism, it barely matters.

This is a book I will treasure, not just because of the eloquent writing, but because he has given honour and integrity to the lives of two people who were unable to really find it for themselves during their own lifetimes.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

A History of Silence
by Lloyd Jones
Published by Penguin Books NZ
ISBN 9780143569473