I had the great pleasure of reviewing Jana Beňová’s award-winning novella Seeing People Off a couple of years ago, over at Necessary Fiction. It is an excellent, genre-defying, language-experimenting work with a compelling woman at its centre. So I was very excited to pick up Away! Away! Which is similarly genre-defying, language-experimenting, and also driven by a woman character sorting through a love-life-liberty mire in a thirties-ish kind of way.
As you might have gathered from the title, the book is about forms of escape, both large and small. If you enjoyed Seeing People Off, as I did, this book will be pleasantly familiar. But it also shows a stronger emphasis on the prose-poetry form, and pushes the boundaries of what this form can do, narrative-wise. All of which is to say that, comparatively, this book is more abstract in terms of what (“actually”) happens, but perhaps even more precise in describing the impressions and feelings that accompany what happens.
Here’s my best attempt at the major plot points: Rosa is in a relationship with Son. Rosa writes, and reflects a lot about the difference between poetry and prose, in an ironic sort of way that makes us believe the difference is arbitrary, at best, and at worst, sinister. Son is sick–allegorically? actually? maybe a little of both–and Rosa has to come back / delay fully leaving in order to help care for him. Rosa tries to leave Son. She goes away, and tries to regain places of former love. She also loves another man, Corman. Sometimes the paths of those two men (or the multiple lives represented by her relationships with these men) intersect. Rosa spends time on trains and in cars. There is also the owner of a travelling puppet theatre, Pierre. His production of the “Snow Queen” provides a lot of Metaphors. She tries very hard to exit her relationship and living situation with Son, to whom she is bound by shared time together, but in the end perhaps does not (or does) succeed.
The details are fairly vague. But the emotional life of Rosa forms the main material for the book. Which is not to say that it is sentimental. I think moody is a better word. And “emotional life” is not the correct term because it’s more about her life lived in impression, in observation, in experiencing certain tensions–pressure and release.
The story is about movement–of the heart, the body, the mind. It’s about the inner motions of being a person with a soul. And the outward motions that echo these.
Much of my attempt to circle around this book in order to find language to talk about it is related to an ongoing discussion within the book about what prose and poetry are (or are not) and how they intersect to form strange and unpredictable forms of language (and perhaps forms of thought and experience). And that itself is a major theme of the book. How do these two strange creatures (poetry & prose, Rosa & Son) live together? How do they help and hurt each other? Will they escape each other? In the end, who leaves whom?
There are ways in which Jana Beňová might be called a “writer’s writer.” Certainly, writers will recognize the intricacy of her craft. And her characters and narrators see life the way that writers tend to see it, rather than the way normal, well-adjusted people do. But she is also a reader’s writer, in a way that those writers who deal in allegories and abstraction often are not. Her voice is one of those that gets immediately stuck in my head, and I walk around narrating my life in her style. Which must, of course, also be the mark of her fantastic translator Janet Livingstone.
Of all there is to love about this book, it’s the images, dark and fearless that will draw you in: “Rosa. I’m trapped. I want to lie in bed next to Son, but instead, I’m sitting at work, a cramp personified. A trapped, bare, blood-soaked winter bone.”
But while a certain sardonic, morbid tone drives the book, it’s the humour that will make you stay. The taunting absurdity of life is put on display and made to answer for itself, as in the description of Rosa’s boss (nicknamed “the little captain”) and her beloved lap dog: “She was forever clutching a small animal under her arm. She always dressed him differently, so sometimes it was a dog, other times a wolf, a raven, a mouse, a reindeer, a dolphin or a pangasius.”
Passages like these, along with many others, are the perfect argument against both the separation of poetry and prose, and the separation of the broodingly literary and delightfully funny.
Read slowly, and you’ll be grandly rewarded.