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Ugly Beautiful Books

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

by Anjanette Delgado

What is it about the ugly, the scatological, that has such power to break us open? To clear our defenses and preconceptions and allow us to see beauty in places until then unsuspected?

As in the writings of German Pulitzer Prize-winning author Herta Müller, the gross, the disgusting, the intrinsically ugly in the following novels, which I originally reviewed, pre-pandemic, for the New York Journal of Books, act much like the pinch of salt that brings out the sweetness of chocolate. Or like the teaspoon of sugar that does away with the acid in a bubbling pot of tomato sauce. Their ugliness serves to highlight and illuminate the beauty found in dirt, in mold, and sometimes even in the death of cold experienced as lunacy within the confines of a cardboard box in winter, trying to be a home.

Aviaries by Zuzana Brabcová, Translated from the Czech by Tereza Novická

(Twisted Spoon Pressm 2019)

What does it look like inside a mind ravaged by depression and loneliness? Is there transcendent beauty to be had from the harvesting of such a mind, from the culling of its experience of the most abject poverty and loss of self? In Aviaries, Zuzana Brabcova’s last work before her death in 2016, the Czech writer uses intricate storytelling patterns to credibly recreate her protagonist’s advanced lunacy, her hallucinations, and even her occasional life-saving awareness, while very clearly answering both questions, the latter with a resounding yes.

The novel is composed of the entries in Beta’s diary, begun on December 20, 2011, two days after the death of Václav Havel. The uncertain political scenario lends the tone of improbable hope amidst the dread of reality that matches Beta’s financial, physical, and mental situation, and that is at the center of the story.

And when I do have to go out, there’s a bloom coating the people I pass, a frost blurring their features. I can imagine they don’t exist, and in this way love them. All that exists just disrupts and mars, as if somebody had graffiti-tagged The Night Watch. Václav Havel died the day before yesterday. In his sleep, in the morning. So its reign extends beyond night.

Bêta is trying to come to terms with all she has lost. She is basically homeless, a squatter of sorts in heatless rooms in which her ghosts, loved ones past and present, visit her in dreams that read like a succession of beautiful, surrealist short films.

His buddies started to roar with laughter and scattered across the expanse of the Sacré-Coeur, not caring about the marvelous, unusual view it offered of Prague, a city full of injustice that nobody ever got used to, not the nation, not the private individual. In short, they’d become sour and plunged their arms elbow-deep into garbage cans, and when they pulled them out again, they were the color of melted chocolate.

Her mind assaulted by regret and loneliness, she’s unable to find her way without the identity she is losing to hunger, age, and illness. And yet she cannot help but love. She cannot help but give of what little she has.

Her story moves forward with glimpses of daughter Alice, who comes to her mother in dreams while dumpster-diving for basic necessities with beau Bob Dylan (“only his parents are to blame for his name”), a lit headlamp her only hat.

You’re three months old, sleeping in your crib, clutching a rattle in your tiny fist. Andrei is just leaving for his night shift in a boiler room . . . My God, I pray over you, I feel nothing at all. Who are you, you unfathomable creature? Where did you come from? You are a guest. I have given birth to a guest.

Later, when she dreams Alice needs her and wants to come home, love brings lucidity and the truths of the heart: “‘Return to my belly,’ I requested, ‘I’ve already got Grandma’s grave in my chest.’”

We see Bêta’s selfless love for Melda, a stuttering homeless man she picks up. He builds her a “cardboard palace” that is really a room of cardboard inside the outer cardboard of thinner walls, before leaving her in darkness, colder than before: “This rude stranger for whom I’d bought whatever he pointed to at Tesco just a few days before was now parading around in his grandiose cardboard box butt naked, and the scars that furrowed his body looked like riverbeds through which time streamed instead of water.”

It would be easy to confuse Brabcová’s work with loosely linked ramblings, but that would be a mistake. If we pay attention, readers will discover every clue she deliberately sets up for the finding, the rounding of each story to completion, just not the one we expected.

Aviaries is anchored in history, politics, satire, and humor. Stalin, Mozart, and even Proust lend height and sound to its metaphors. In turn, the news of the day, of every day in every place, lend the dose of reality against which all minds must end their race to feel. But what is most important about this, the last of Brabcová’s gifts, what makes it deserving of a place in the most minimalist of bookshelves, is its honest, overwhelming beauty, its celebration of language, imagery, and humanity, and its tribute to all of life, observed.

Flowers of Mold by Ha Seong-Nan, translated from the Korean by Janet Hong

(Open Letter Books, 2019)

The stories in Ha Seong-Nan’s Flowers of Mold are an acquired taste. Fortunately, taste for them can be developed awfully fast.

Starting with the collection’s title, the image they evoke at first is fuzzy, dark, and unfocused, making of our entrance into the world they present an exercise in ambivalence, so that we look at them in the way we regard things that fail to attract us immediately, things that unsettle us the moment we happen upon them. (Is it really the face of a feral cat I’m seeing in the folds made by that garbage bag in the street? Wait, why am I looking at garbage bags?)

Here she is in “Waxen Wings,” the book’s opening story: “For the first time in your life, you witness the moment life escapes from a living thing. All the visitors leave, but you continue to stand there, even after the concession clerks have gone home. The sun starts to set, and everything quickly grows dark. All the pigeons have flown off except for the one by your feet. Rigor mortis has set in.”

And it’s not just dead pigeons and garbage bags. It is maggots, vomit, insects, caked food on walls, three days’ old, blood, the stench of lifeless flowers, and, yes, mold.

But it is also people. People who love, who desire, who act out of an uncontrollable impulse for connection and do so in the very ways that will ensure they never get it. These actions seem to happen somewhat repetitively in Flowers of Mold, a certain lunacy born of longing and its consequences always on display.

There is also much high-stakes drama here, and it is successful in its goal of disconnecting us from our immediate reality, our hearts racing, disquieted, as if something dystopian had sprung from the pages housing these ten stories and were lurking about, threatening our normalized lives with events happening in muted colors—faded yellows, the blues and greens of neon letters that no longer light up, dark grey cement raining over everything.

It helps that Seong-Nan’s prose is clean and the stories well-constructed. Also that translator Janet Hong does a fantastic job of preserving the mood, tone, and elegance of the author’s poetic syntax, and of making sure that meaning is precisely rendered. A very good thing because time, too, is fluid here, yesterday and tomorrow the same thing, all of it ultimately enchanting and brilliant in its own exhausting, at times purposely confusing, way.

Thus any initial impulse to scrunch our nose and turn away from the smell gives way as the images come into focus, the sense of distance disappears, and we are involved, engaged, even interested in the life of some of the loneliest people we will ever hear of, as in these lines from the collection’s title story:

Bean shells, seesaw, monkey bars, boy, puddles. The man writes down a few words that will help jog his memory. Later, the shells she shucks will become the only clue in identifying her garbage bag from the others. He doesn’t know which unit out of the 90 she lives in. Luckily there’s only one apartment building.

Two distinct devices appear to help create this trance of interest and investment as we read. One, Seong-Nan’s ability to break down a moment until it reveals its urgency, as in this passage, also from the story “Flowers of Mold”:

The child is catching his breath before swinging from the third bar to the fourth. If he wants to land on dry ground, he has no choice but to go all the way across. His pants are slipping down, and his shirt rides up to reveal a patch of pale skin.

The second method is her commitment to delivering big enough moments in exchange for our patience with her breaking down of a second, a gesture, a glance, the most fleeting of thoughts, as in t