Landing by Laia Fàbregas is a rare find – a narrative of worlds lost and found, of words that are vital and impossible to translate, of human communion, and communication that must be retrieved in its utmost simplicity from the plexus of relentless alienation and multi-layered facelessness that characterises the aftermath of our post-modernity. Above all, Landing is about a singular word and feeling that is the most universal human need: gezelligheid, a Dutch word, a term of many permutations, omnipotent associative echoes, innumerable possible approximations, and only a wordless potential of transubstantiation into other languages.

Gezelligheid signifies hominess, human warmth, a sense of belonging, it is the confirmation of one’s existence as an inextricable and inexorable part of a human-all-too-human whole. Gezelligheid is to finally land at the end of long and errant travelling, it is to find roots in the earthiness of a present that no longer fears either past or future. To see and feel the enchantment of all that has always been there, to come to terms with unutterable pain, to dare to find joy beyond devastation; to remember gently all that was, all that was lost, all that might have been, and can, perhaps, still be – eternally same and different.

Landing begins in suspended motion, in media res, nowhere and everywhere: it begins on a plane in mid-flight, across time zones, individual consciousness, languages and national borders, inside the emotional space-non-space of enforced proximity and familiarity of air travel that is “both appealing and discomfiting”. An old man is seated next to a very young woman. They are both travelling “to shorten the distance between past and present”, they are both seeking to begin a new life: their common question is whether, in order to do so, one must leave the past behind – in fact, what does one do with the past? What is the past good for? And what is the use of heaven?

Fàbregas offers us a finely wrought narrative of intertwining human threads, of lifelines cut short or deemed to be stumped, snipped before they could become the web and weft of an existence.”

The old man tells stories in a desperate attempt to hold on to time, to the gestures of humanity, to a life that was as rich as it now feels empty; the young woman seeks the person who will tell her the story of why time stopped for her, she thinks, for ever. She goes through the motions of human existence in a blind, dogged search for meaning, attachment, a stop to a centrifugal as well as centripetal compulsion.

Fàbregas offers us a finely wrought narrative of intertwining human threads, of lifelines cut short or deemed to be stumped, snipped before they could become the web and weft of an existence. Stories, words, darkness and light, attachment and mere contact become the stepping stones to a yearned-for truth and release: what Fàbregas calls the “search for angels” – angels that can speak of life beyond death; that can allow death to die without killing, somehow.

Two worlds sit side by side on that plane: a world seeking beauty, certainty, solidity, humanity; this is the old man’s world: a world he has built slowly, hopefully, dreamily, but also through hardship and adversity. His world is a world coming out of pain seeking heeling. The young woman’s world is a disintegrating world, uncomfortable with its humanity; a world that is a riddle of darkness, prickly emptiness and solitude, a labyrinth where Ariadne’s thread is a list of a hundred names corresponding to the wrong persons, persons living complex, intricately constructed, intriguing illusions.

The old man sees life as a search, a personal quest, a house of books standing “out from the shelves begging to be read”; she sees life as an investigation of trails and records, a police enquiry, an examination of another life. His is a world of stories, hers a world of reports, accounts, skeletons of a narrative. He is Spanish, he comes from a country built on stones; she is Dutch, from a country built on sand. His stories on the plane unsettle her own – an iPod conveniently allows her to retreat into a safe capsule of evasion and forgetting. She re-emerges just as the pilot announces they are about to land and she “felt an angel sigh in her ear”. The old man next to her had been tense and agitated during take-off and now again at landing. As the plane comes to a halt and everyone begins to move in the confusion of disembarking, he remains deadly still – he has in fact just died. She flees with a box that had belonged to him, a mysterious and homey wooden box he had intended to show his eldest son.

This death is a double beginning of narratives intent on standing strong against chasms and silence – just as the box is a Pandora’s box where hope alone remains for safe keeping in the form of an unpronounceable, indecipherable word concealed under a heap of ashes. We listen to the sighing angel, the now dead old man, telling a story of immigration, integration, life in a new language and of a great love; the story of the Dutch woman who transformed goals into purpose and meaning, massive stones into spellbinding tales, and the dreams of the Spanish man into paintings. A woman called Willemien, who made silence into an art form and a terminus into a beginning.

We also hear the transcript of the young woman’s probing into a past that has singed both words and emotions. She searches for the facts that will activate the words to say it, words for things that have not been said yet in a language; words kept in boxes, secret words hidden under ashes, meant to pass from one generation to another, unpronounceable words deflected to other destinations by an accidental death out of place and time – the old man’s death, the death of the woman’s parents when she was only a child. Her recounting of events, impressions and actions is ultimately a question upon which life invariably depends: does dealing with the pain of loss, or the delight of attachment, mean losing memory? Does pain or joy alone keep memory alive? Do the zenith of happiness and the nadir of sorrow ever come to balance each other out?

She writes with a confident balance of tones and timbres of voices, of cultural landscapes and national states of mind, but also with an incandescent sense of what is always human everywhere.”

Fàbregas subtly interweaves personal remembrance, lament, bliss and agony with themes that force us to examine our current reality, in all its magnificence and confused horror, in very close detail: sponsored immigration as it happened in the ’70s versus the spasmodic, chaotic migration of our own present, on which we blame so many of our presumed plights; exile, racism, integration and an appreciation of distinction, respect and tolerance, roots and nomadism, custom and modernity, societies of sand and stone. At the centre of this intertwining of experiences, is art as a gesture of life, or the art of living: first, Willemien’s “poster painting”, a constellation of names and nodes of connection, “so we won’t forget we’re not alone”; then her wooden box containing mysterious ashes, a mysterious word, ultimately mystery itself.

“The void fills with movement, the void can only be filled by doing things, moving around. Searching”. Or it fills with the stillness of belonging, of gezelligheid, if one allows oneself to be surprised by life. Fàbregas demonstrates lyrically, softly, powerfully and convincingly that even as tragedy is part of life, so is the possibility of happiness and the gratitude for humanity regained. She writes with a confident balance of tones and timbres of voices, of cultural landscapes and national states of mind, but also with an incandescent sense of what is always human everywhere. Above all, with a fine insight into what writing, art, any act of human creation is all about: “works of art aren’t meant to be understood, they are meant to be felt”, we are told, as are works and acts of silent, patient human presence, perseverance and kindness. In Samantha Schnee’s elegant, precise and textured translation, we feel both the words and the lives and feelings beyond them, as well as the craft of Fàbregas’ inspired conceit of stories meeting, clashing, joining, tangentially affirming all that ever mattered.

 

laia-fabregasLaia Fàbregas was born in Barcelona in 1973 and has a degree in Fine Arts from the University of Barcelona. She has also lived, worked and studied in the Netherlands, and has published three novels in Dutch that have been translated into several languages. Since February 2012, she has taught creative writing at the Laboratori de Lletres in Barcelona. Landing, translated by Samantha Schnee, is published by Hispabooks. Read more.

Samantha Schnee is the founding editor of Words Without Borders and currently edits In Other Words, the biannual journal of the British Centre for Literary Translation and Writers’ Centre Norwich. She is also a trustee of English PEN. Her translation of Mexican author Carmen Boullosa’s Texas: The Great Theft was longlisted for the International Dublin Literary Award, shortlisted for the PEN America Translation Prize, and won the Typographical Era Translation Award. wordswithoutborders.org

 

Mika Provata-Carlone is an independent scholar, translator, editor and illustrator, and a contributing editor to Bookanista. She has a doctorate from Princeton University and lives and works in London.

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