by Elisabeth Åsbrink
Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
On 10 June 2021, critically acclaimed authors Anna-Karin Palm and Elisabeth Åsbrink joined Swedish Book Review to discuss their latest projects, the role of memory and cultural memory in their work, and the intersections of fiction and narrative non-fiction.
In connection with this event, we are delighted to present an excerpt from Elisabeth Åsbrink's Abandonment. Set across three generations of women in three cities, it is a captivating story of love, emigration and humanity that traces how secrets and lies pass from one generation to the next. In this passage, Katherine, one of the novel's protagonists, travels to Thessaloniki in search of traces of her maternal grandfather, Vidal Coenca, and the city in which he was raised.
You can also read an excerpt from Anna-Karin Palm's Writing Over Your Face here.
I WAS BORN POISED FOR FLIGHT. Even before I was old enough to know what had happened, I knew it could happen again.
Apparently the sun shone gloriously in Gothenburg on the April day that I was born in Sahlgrenska Hospital. The moment my father saw me he called me Kati, a Hungarian name. Whereupon, following my family’s inherent logic, I was given the English name Katherine. I would like to believe I was greeted by smiles. The family consisted of my mother, my father, and my two sisters, ten years older than me and born to my mother’s previous marriage. Before long I was screaming day and night with hunger — this as a result of my mother’s dieting being so successful that she stopped producing breastmilk — and in consequence I was soon bottle-fed.
For the first six years of my life we lived in a four-room apartment in a public housing block in Kallebäck, then in another apartment in Haninge and finally in a newly built townhouse in Hägersten in Stockholm. Our geographical relocations ran in parallel with my father’s professional advancement from medical student to junior doctor and his subsequent quest for a consultant’s position, but all that — addresses, floors occupied, neighbourhoods — are pieces of information of little interest, fragments of fact that really say nothing fundamental about our lives. Loneliness was key. It loomed between us like columns of air. Our footsteps echoed as if we were surrounded by marble. Our hearts pounded as if they were broken. But I didn’t know that then.
Not even when it started to expand and took up ever more space, practically forcing every family member against the wall as if a hot-air balloon had been filled inside our townhouse, could I know what loneliness actually consisted in and how life in a family might have looked without it. Thus we came apart, from within.
Originally I intended to entitle this book simply “Loneliness”. This is fiction and so everything written is true. But it is also fair to call the book family history, documentary novel or merely “book”. My plan was, once and for all, to put a name to the desolate shadow that has followed me through life. I wanted to define it, to truly understand, and it slowly dawned on me that the loneliness was a symptom rather than the malady itself, it was a consequence, an outcome, and hence I would have to change the name of the book.
Central to my childhood’s expanding universe of loneliness was my mother, Sally. I adored her. My father adored her. With a scintillating temperament, large grey-green eyes and very dark hair, she was indeed adorable. Her expression shifted from one second to the next; she read newspapers and books, discussed current events, loved opera, she would dissolve into laughter when something amused her. Whenever she entered a room the atmosphere changed and gained a focal point. Needless to say, my sisters and I stood in her shadow. But that is normal.
My mother’s loneliness was well concealed. No-one would suspect at first glance, quite the contrary. This was a radiant woman, employed as an English teacher, with many acquaintances, who never declined an invitation to a party or a dance. Only we who lived with her knew that the surface was thin as a layer of coral nail varnish. Beneath was anxiety and anger waiting to break out. But anxiety for what, anger at whom?
I needed to understand my mother’s loneliness in order to comprehend my own.
And, in order to understand her, I had to understand my grandmother Rita.
The research led me to my grandfather as well. Who was he, the man I had never met?
Sometimes I think about a recurring event while I was growing up, the sort of thing I suppose you would call a childhood memory. My mother would make a crumble for desert and serve it with Bird’s custard. The sweet-smelling powder it was made with came in the signature tin of bright red, yellow and blue. On the one hand I liked custard very much, on the other the ugliness of the tin itself made me feel uneasy.
The custard powder was whisked with heated milk, it was allowed to cool and then served with a layer of skin, one centimetre thick, like a wax seal over the sweet yellow sauce. Competition ensued when each of us, my mother, my sisters and myself, wanted a piece of the smooth rubbery skin. Fairness was a serious matter. Voices were raised. One of us had to fetch a sharp knife from the kitchen drawer. The custard skin was carefully cut into pieces and placed on each person’s plate as if it were a special delicacy. My sisters accused each other of stealing the best bit. The one with the smaller portion began to cry. That annoyed my mother. The tin radiated rage. It was not until I was ten that I realised I found the skin revolting, and from then on assumed the role of observer.
I named the book “Abandonment”.
Worlds collapse. Units explode. These are inexact assertions, so broad and general the words bear scarcely any meaning, I am aware of that. An author should be specific and exact. Yet I choose these propositions as a starting point — because they are true. There are occasions when everyday life does shatter, sometimes all that remains of an existence are sharp fragments, projectiles cutting through the generations. In a mountain village in Spain. In an overcrowded city in the Ottoman Empire. In a rented apartment in Budapest. In a quiet suburb of London. In a family of five with a cat in Stockholm. One after another the eruptions are linked, they lead to me, and I was born ready to flee. Therefore I write. [...]
The Warrior of Lost Memories
Thessaloniki, 29 April 2019
Katherine wakes on 29 April in Thessaloniki, the city that doesn’t recognise its own shadow. The swifts wake her. The balcony door is open and their tiny bodies cut like sharp-pointed arrows across the sky, through the air and its resistance, straight into her slumber.
It is a foreign place and as usual she feels at home.
A certain degree of forgetfulness is required in order to survive, she thinks as she rinses out a toothbrush glass in the basin, spoons in some instant coffee and waits for the kettle noise to subside. To remember everything would be to explode. Stories are composed by picking and choosing, and the same applies to the story of our lives. But repression — when we remember but don’t wish to remember, know but don’t wish to know, when something has happened but we don’t wish to acknowledge its existence because it would do something to us we can’t face — is something other than forgetfulness.
From the hotel balcony she looks up at a rectangle of clear blue sky, its shape fixed by the surrounding roofs. Pigeons fly heavily between windowsills, following one another, cooing, feathers ruffled. High above, the swifts are drawing their black arcs in the sky. Their call soars into descant, above the song of the doves, and below, like a drone, the traffic rumbles: the Thessalonian morning united in a triple chord.
Katherine tries to imagine the city living a different life, breathing a different breath, when Vidal Coenca was a child. The Turkish rulers in the northern quarters of the city, fanned by the mountain winds. The Greek-speaking Christians around the hippodrome. The densely built white houses by the sea, with alleyways so dusty that each ray of sunlight stood out from the others, where the Jews lived. The Spanish Jews. Vidal.
She sits on the balcony with her coffee and watches a cat in the yard rolling around, rubbing its back on the ground. In a minute she will go out into the city. She has an appointment this morning at half past ten to visit the Jewish community’s archive. The arrangement required a signed reference from an independent sponsor certifying her identity and she has been informed that no more than three visitors at a time are allowed in the archive. She is prepared, her questions listed in order of priority, a notebook and pencil at the ready. She is searching for something to do with herself and Vidal Coenca, but she doesn’t know what. Some kind of beginning.
The word “archive” comes from the Greek for origin, arkhe. Beginning. Katherine collects words.
The archaic period in human life consists of the very first stage, before the acquisition of speech. The child’s throat and larynx are not sufficiently developed for anything more than babbling and the brain is not capable of translating sensory impressions into words. Yet in spite of that, every moment of hunger is preserved, every silence, every song, every gaze bestowed and every eye averted — and there, in a wordless array of experiences, forms the first human memory, the archaic. But everything changes when language emerges. Words cover the wordless. Archaic memory subsides. Deposit on a riverbed. A layer of memories beneath the memories.
Katherine writes the word arkhe in her notebook next to the word psyche.
In the hotel room are the books she brought with her on the trip and some others that she has purchased here. Described in English, Greek and French are fragmentary details of the old days in the old city with the old name, with people who no longer exist. The information is scattered, but she highlights it, picks it out, arranges it in different patterns and various formats, categorises it, moves it around. And realises that what she is seeking lies in the cracks in between, the gaps in the story.
The city once known as Saloniki was an organism of three hearts, situated between the mountain and the sea.
In Ano Poli, the upper part of the town, the streets were airy and cool, nearer to the northerly breezes. The Turks lived there, the Ottoman ruling class, in spacious homes with leafy gardens, rose bushes, fountains. The women stayed behind closed doors, or enveloped themselves in their feredjé when they had to venture out under the eyes of the city. The men wore a fez. The girls wore floral dresses that looked like nightgowns. There were mosques everywhere, as numerous as the synagogues, but larger, more visible, with more elaborate adornments and domes like moon roundels over the city’s roofs. From within could be heard the sound of stone tapping stone as the prayer beads passed through the men’s fingers; one stone for each of God’s names, Allahu Akbar, ninety-nine stones in all.
The Christians lived in Saloniki’s eastern quarters, around the old hippodrome. Here there were thousand-year-old Byzantine churches, the size of secrets. The facades were worn, the windows few, the wooden doors revealing nothing of what was contained within, of the darkness under the cupolas fragmented by burning candles, where every flame was reflected in the myriads of tiny gilded pieces forming the mosaics of the Virgin Mary, the gold in her halo, her clothes, the child in her arms. The air was thick with prayer and incense.
Saloniki’s third heart was situated between the Via Egnatia and the quay. This was the tightly packed district inhabited by the city’s Jewish citizens, los djudios. Somewhere in there was Vidal Coenca’s childhood home. The well-to-do lived next door to tradesmen, porters, fishermen, street vendors. As the Jewish population grew, new floors were added to existing houses, often with projecting extensions obstructing the sun and darkening the streets. The houses were constructed in the Toledo style, multi-storey buildings enclosing a central courtyard, a cortijo. They looked the same as they always had, in Spain. Balconies and verandas faced the courtyard, while the windows onto the street were small and had wooden bars preventing both the sun and prying eyes from entering. Each house contained many families and each family contained many children. From the street las casas djudios were modest, even shabby, but inside in the courtyards fig trees and pomegranates grew, vines climbed along the verandas, jasmine and rose bushes filled the air with their scent. In the Jewish quarters winding back lanes and alleys would suddenly open into a little square, a placeta. And over it all hung the stench from the tanneries and slaughter-houses and the musty smell of wet yarn from family wool-dyeing businesses.
I don’t trust the world. Why would I? My mother once said: It’s not that I dislike Jews, it’s just that I don’t like having them around.
The people in Saloniki’s Jewish quarter lived cheek by jowl with one another. Solidarity was a given and a consequence of the Muslim rulers’ dictate: you are free to practise your faith on condition you pay your tax. (Incidentally, that same condition applied to Christians.)
Hence the religious communities were the Jewish hub. The community collected the crucial tax, organized schools and healthcare and dispensed welfare to the needy; it was the rabbis who settled disputes, judged and punished law-breakers, all according to the Ottoman empire’s principle of self-governance for minorities. No community, no cohesion; no cohesion, no order.
He who fell from order was lost.
She takes two or three pictures of the cat, now sleeping on its back in a square metre of sun, but immediately deletes them. In the bottom of the glass there are still a few drops of bitter-tasting coffee — she has forgotten to buy milk. She has to go, she has an appointment to keep, an archive to research; it is time to set out into the Greek morning to search for its cracks.
The Jewish community’s archive in Thessaloniki is relatively young. There are no extant documents from before 1917. Katherine doesn’t expect to find anything about Vidal Coenca, but, she thinks, what you don’t look for, you don’t find. New memories are still memories, she thinks, and then wonders if she read that on a fridge magnet.
She is in the city where Vidal Coenca was born. This is where he breathed in salt air from the Aegean or froze in the Vardar wind sweeping down from the canyons of Macedonia; this is where the White Tower stands guard. Katherine has come to breathe the same air, see the same water, perspire in the same heat and walk along the same quay, with warehouses and cafes on one side and the blazing blue sea on the other. She looks at the snow-capped Mount Olympus on the other side of the Gulf of Salonika just as he must have done — some days as solid and unwavering as a life sentence, other days elusive and diaphanous, barely discernible in the sea mist, a shimmer, a cloud hidden among clouds, an archaic memory.
She has travelled here to get to know Vidal Coenca through the place he abandoned. It is madness.
The whole of me a song of rage.
Katherine is walking in his city, that is true. But this city is not his. The name has changed, the streets are obliterated, the temples gone. In his day there were at least twenty chalk-white minarets with conical black roofs like exclamation marks around the city. As soon as the sun rose in the sky, the muezzin’s melancholic call to prayer for God’s glory could be heard. Not only the Muslims awoke to this, the first of the day’s sounds, but the Christians and Jews too. Today no-one here wakes to the dawn song of Allah. The nameless alleys and the winding passages in the shadow of balconies and baldachins are gone. Likewise the human obscurity of craftsmen, buyers, sellers, in the throng of donkeys and scared cats. The covered bazaars, which no breath of wind could ever reach, have been torn down, and so too the little cafes serving Turkish coffee with waterpipes. The muscular porters in the harbour exist no longer; and nor do the women in their courtyards, threading tobacco leaves on string in heavy garlands to dry in the sun. No itinerant heralds of news go from door to door, no gossip-mongers or chroniclers of city life describe weddings, baptisms, funerals, or relay greetings from one señora to another. There was a time when Muslims, Jews and Christians here invited one another to their celebrations, hired each other’s musicians to perform on their high days and holidays, shared their existence in this white city that runs between the mountain and the sea under the wide blue sky — when Vidal Coenca lived here. Now the people who were his relatives, his neighbours, his friends and enemies are gone.
Gone, Katherine thinks. What sort of bloody word is that?
Dead, she thinks.
Put. To. Death.
I’m sorry, I thought you were Greek, a man she didn’t know said to her yesterday. The flagstones on Aristotle Square gleamed marble-white under her sandals and the surrounding hotels shone hotel-white behind their neatly deployed parasol-white parasols. The man had spoken in a soft stream of Greek until he realised she had understood nothing. I could have been Greek, she thinks. If Vidal Coenca had stayed. For a fraction of a second she considers saying it, but it would be a lie. If Vidal Coenca had remained in Saloniki, now called Thessaloniki, she wouldn’t have existed at all.
Bokförlaget Polaris, 2020, 318 pages
Foreign rights: Magdalena Hedlund, Hedlund Literary Agency
We are grateful to the agent for permission to publish this translated extract.
Elisabeth Åsbrink is a multi-award-winning writer and journalist based in Stockholm and Copenhagen. In her essays and reviews of books, published in both the Swedish and Danish press, she focuses on the aftermath of WW2 and deals with memory and oblivion. Her books, including And in the Vienna Woods the Trees Remain, 1947: Where Now Begins, and Made in Sweden, have been translated and published in more than 20 countries. Abandonment was reviewed in SBR 2021:1.
Deborah Bragan-Turner is a translator working from Swedish to English. Her published translations include works by Per Olov Enquist, Mikael Niemi, Sara Stridsberg and Anne Swärd.