This strange, dreamy and beautifully translated volume begins and ends with chapters both titled “King”, named for a man seen by the narrator in London’s Springfield park, communing with the ravens and dressed in gold-embroidered clothes, threadbare and magnificent. The reader, perhaps tricked into thinking they are being led into a linear narrative, is surprised to find herself whisked away, a few pages later, to the banks of the Rhine decades before, and not in order to get submerged in another story, either. The chapters in River are tributaries, hinting at events, lives, relationships, before whirling and eddying backward or forward to another place, another time. Our guide on this river journey is a narrator who has been washed up in North London, who declares: “After many years I had excised myself from the life I had led in town, just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo. Abashed by the harm I had wreaked on the picture left behind, and unsure where the cut-out might end up next, I lived a provisional existence.”
The reader who hopes for development of this plot, or any plot, will be disappointed. It is this very “provisional existence” that acts as both plot and character of River. Again and again we are given glimpses into life events – one chapter fleetingly addresses her experience living in Canada as a young single mother, another hints at the deep impact death of her father – which are never again revisited. The question the author seems to be asking is “Is it important for us to know these details?” and the answer she gives us is a resounding “no”.
The detail, instead, is reserved for the physical landscape. Living in a self-imposed exile, drawn to the “liminal space” of the river in any country she finds herself in (Germany, Poland, Canada, England, Israel, India), the author gives us an abundance of detail of physical place, endowing it with an importance given to no human characters or interactions. The very precision of this detail has a disorienting effect: our experience of the details comes in isolation, and devoid of any context, leaves the reader in a disjointed, unrooted but beautiful world. Major themes are postwar immigration and exile, and the book’s form – atmospheric, evocative, amorphous – lends itself to an expression of these experiences. It is reminiscent of Patrick Modiano, or, as many have been quick to point out, W.G. Sebald, in its hazy precision and nebulous beauty.
The labour of love represented in these painstaking descriptions of the most dilapidated post-industrial spaces and the loveliness found therein, is in itself something of a challenge to the modern reader. What most gloss over is exactly what Kinsky most laboriously and lovingly pores over, finds magic and illumination in. River may not always be an easy reading experience, but it teaches us how to look closer, and how to love the grubby eloquence of the things we may first dismiss.
Words – Liza Cox