The Seventh Хорошо: A Conversation with Yuriy Tarnawsky

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Poet, translator, and fiction writer Yuriy Tarnawsky is a founding member of the New York Group and, as the faithful reader will recall, star of the fourth “Xорошо.” His latest work, consisting of The Placebo Effect Trilogy (JEF Books) and Modus Tollens (Jaded Ibis Productions) manages to be at once fluid and oddly specific; familiar yet unsettling. Tarnawsky, as usual, unnerves the reader by leaving her half the work of assembling these subconsciously active worlds. This seventh reincarnation of “The New Xорошо,” is the product of free association, linguistic play, nightmare, and a very permissive gateway between living and dead. ~T.M. De Vos

I love the logic of Roark’s interior world—that it is appropriate to investigate screams coming from a church, but it is not appropriate to watch “a man of Rilke’s stature” flounder on the ground in a dream. It seemed a perfect example of the “funny, ridiculous, laughable, grotesque” you spoke of embodying with your writing.

Yes, funny and grotesque, but it’s a dream, and facts in a dream mean something other than in real life. Also, bear in mind that, first, Roark’s first name is Rilke, so the dream is actually about him, and, second, that a myth has sprung up around Rilke’s death that he died as a result of pricking himself on a rose thorn while picking roses in his garden. In truth, he apparently died from leukemia, but he did choose for his epitaph his own poem which starts with “Rose, pure contradiction.” So this is how this dream scene came about. I actually don’t like Rilke’s poetry very much, and that’s one of the reasons I represent him here as I do. I find it too aestheticized, too “precious” in the face of the cruelty of life, and criticize it and him in the scene—here’s what this beautiful object does to you—it kills you! You should write a different kind of poetry.

In our earlier conversation about Short Tails, we had talked about the consonant-heavy, rocklike sounds of the characters’ names. I appreciated the name K. Ryk—a play on “kryk,” or scream—and the echo of Roark’s name. As for the name Schmuck, I was surprised to find it really did mean “jewelry” in German. 

“Screaming,” in which Roark appears, was written at the same time as the stories of Short Tails and meant to be part of it. So the percussive “r-k” sounds in the name come from the same source. But after writing it, I realized that it was fundamentally different from the other stories—more like a novel, in spite of being short, so I set it aside. It is the first mininovel I wrote and the beginning of the trilogy. I engineered it specifically to have “roar” embedded in it, which affected the nature of the story, including the mentioning of the Ruthenian (meaning Ukrainian) inventor K. Ryk. I had forgotten that Ayn Rand had a character by the same name; it’s a complete coincidence. To me it was an artificial name but, years later, I saw a documentary on TV about a man from East Germany whose name was Rohark. I was amazed at it and used in in the mininovel “The School,” which is the last piece in the third book and with which I close in the trilogy. That’s what’s called pure luck or serendipity. I was very pleased by this, for the two pieces form nice bookends to the whole work and you have characters with practically identical names in them.

As to Schmuck, yes, it means “jewelry” as well as “adornment” in German and is used in many funny ways in “The Short Unhappy Life of Pinky Schmuck,” which, readers tell me, is one of the most diverting pieces in the trilogy, although it’s by no means pleasant.

I noticed your draftsman-like precision of dimension with lack of dimensionality—a sandpit which travels forward all the way to the horizon and defies gravity, but the kitchen is “some thirty feet by about seven.” It is a world which is both describable by constants and extremely disobedient to them.

It might be part of my engineering background. I came to his country, having turned 18 on the boat, right after graduating from high school in Germany, and within weeks, I think, enrolled in a drafting course at night at Newark College of Engineering (now New Jersey Institute of Technology). That was in the spring semester, and in the fall I enrolled full-time at the school and studied electrical engineering. It was many years later that I went on to study linguistics at NYU. But, as many men apparently are, I am very much spatially oriented, and in my writing do devote a lot of attention to space. It helps me to stay embedded, so to speak, in the story and keep it vivid and real in my mind. I hope it helps the reader, too. But, the same as with twisting facts and human behavior in a dream, it’s nice to twist dimensions. I love doing it. By the way 30 feet by 7 is 10 by 2 meters. Brazil follows the metric system.

It strikes me that a lot of fellows seem to have trouble with their houses… not the normal home-improvement issues, but some very serious, immobilizing absurdity. I’m remembering the hellish vine Rooke battles in Short Tails and the immobilizing, nearly invisible threads holding Pavarotti/Agamemnon to his floor. Is this a comment on the absurdity of both leaving one’s home and not leaving one’s home? You talked before about the idea of human life looking bizarre from an alien perspective–is it immobility gives us this alien perspective?

Situations like this illustrate the absurdity, the pitiful nature of human life. Home (remember, “home sweet home”) is one of the safest, most sacred niches of a person’s life, and having it threatened or taken away is an attack on the person, underscoring the person’s vulnerability, his or her transitory nature.

One such bizarre behavior was the way in which the simple desire to get along socially trapped the character Nelson Fitipaldo in a single room and reduced him to using a chamber pot. Rodrigo Vargas, already an intruder in mistaking Fitipaldo’s apartment for his own, seizes the moment of uncertainty to bully Nelson Fitipaldo into selling him the entire apt, and Nelson Fitipaldo, out of hesitation and surprise, gets committed to this course of action, utterly changing his life and relation to space. What can we learn about our attachments to our living spaces and habits from this absurd scenario?

This scene is one of many peeks into the life and character of Nelson Fitipaldo. By the time Rodrigo Vargas barges into his apartment and bullies it away from him, his family apparently has already left him. That is, his wife has apparently left him, taking their two children along with her. We don’t know if this has made him so timid in regards to others or that he has been like that all his life and that perhaps this has been the reason for his wife’s leaving him. This is left up to the reader to figure out, or perhaps to get used to as an unresolved question. One hint that it might have been an “acquired” characteristic is that, as is shown in another chapter, he ceased playing the piano because of feeling his right hand doesn’t exist. So, it’s possible that, with that attitude, he may have lost his ability to fight off aggressive people. Again, this is left up to the reader not to resolve, so to speak. It is such uncertainties that constitute negative text, on which the mininovel is built.

The characters’ lives are richer in their dreams than in waking. People confront each other in dream worlds—like the surgery candidate and Dr. Kax—where the subconscious stakes behind their interactions are played out do you find that this is analogous to real life? Do we “do” more in our dreams than in reality? 

I enjoyed creating these two “parallel” dreams, one of the surgeon-aggressor and the other one of the patient-victim. It’s as if they all of a sudden started to inhabit the same dream space. I haven’t seen it done before, but I suspect I’m not the first one to do this. But yes, people’s dream lives are, potentially at least, richer than waking lives. The world of imagination isn’t restricted by laws of nature and facts. But it depends on the person. I have known some people whose dreams were as humdrum and boring as in real life. So, it’s a question of talent, which come to think of it, applies to real life too. But, in dreams, we are definitely freer than in reality—potentially freer.

Even in the ‘live action” of the stories, the fluid nature of death and reappearance—particularly for Detlev and the albino—suggests some easy portal by which to enter and leave. Similarly, in the poem “Little Fugue,” the imagery of the body upon which the poem is imposed goes blank: the reader wonders where the physical narrative has trailed off as the ticker-tape of the fugue continues, reminiscent of the way the brain works for a few more seconds after the body has physically expired.

Yeah, I keep suggesting throughout these books that the passing through the last door is surprisingly easy and even pleasant. I seem to feel this intuitively, but perhaps it’s just wishful thinking. Neither I nor anyone else will ever know this until we take that step.

The idea for printing the text of Modus Tollens on segments of a photograph of my body was Debra Di Blasi, the publisher of Jaded Ibis Press, who did the design. I think it really augments the contents. She clearly planned out carefully that the text interacts with the images in this powerful way.

I paused in my reading of The Future of Giraffes, with the eponymous opening story in which giraffes appear, and after going to sleep I had a dream of abandonment as well, the kind in which everyone close to you is conspiring in some way against you. I wouldn’t want to blame the dream and my resulting wariness of everyone else, which lasted about half a day, on the story; however, there is something to be said for the way the experience of reading and dreaming filter into one another. That feeling of dread that you will end up alone, that when you thought everything was all right, your loved ones were plotting to exclude you, is perhaps the most pervasive. I experienced this paranoia again, in “dreamdream2,” when the son meets his long-lost mother with joy only to find that she is feeding him boiled skull, the very act of nourishment a link with death. 

I’m really sorry my writing has caused you discomfort, but on the other hand feel gratified that it has had an effect on you. That’s what I write for, and that’s what every writer should be writing for—to evoke strong feelings in his readers. The reason why I write about painful things is to get such topics out of my mind, to exorcise them once and for all. And it appears that this is what these pieces have done for you. They stirred up some deeply hidden painful emotions inside you and brought them up to the surface. I sort of grafted my dreams onto you and they grew in this manner.

The “Dreamdream” triptych in Modus Tollens and “Little Fugue” are among my favorite poems in the book. The book was fun to write, too. I hadn’t written any poetry for some ten years, and was really eager and full of ideas. As you know, I call this poetry Heuristic, because it’s based on ambiguity—lines broken off in the middle of a word, and so forth—and it’s in some sense related to the trilogy because here the reader also has to crate the final poem on his own by resolving the ambiguities.

On a similarly macabre note, I noticed some thematic links among organs of the body—sweetbreads and the real Pavarotti’s death of pancreatic cancer and the cuckolding wife and effeminate cousin; the tailor Pavarotti carries the cloth of his own unawareness with him, his body hair. It reminded me of saints in old paintings, and how they carry around the instruments of their own doom—the rack, the wheel—just as we do. We just don’t see them until there is a reader to put all of the clues together: like the “second opinion” doctor’s photographs of surgeries and organs, which he has amassed like Rorschach inkblots of the body. 

Yes, this thing with Pavarotti’s death is really weird. I wrote the piece when he was still alive and I didn’t know he suffered from pancreatic cancer. When I found this out, I felt uncomfortable. I don’t think I would have written that scene had I known the situation with his health.

I chose Pavarotti as the model for the reasons the movie director gives in the book for choosing the lookalike tailor for his movie. He looked to me like a tragic figure and a perfect embodiment of Agamemnon. At one my readings, a listener asked me why I hated Pavarotti so much, because I had described him as being so ugly. I was amazed at this. I don’t think I describe him as ugly, and I felt great affection for him. I just thought he looked tragic. Readers have their own minds.

In this we are all like Cassandra, the tools of prophecy inside us, but never able to express or avert danger. 

Yes, sometimes we are.

Nearly all of the children have bleak realities; they cannot escape even in dreams—they are betrayed even there. The “rusty iron” shoes that carry over from “Your Childhood” to “The Quarry” are marks of inhospitality to children, reminiscent of actual shackles on the feet. 

I feel great love for children, as compared to adults, whom I often despise. These are pure little innocents who haven’t done anybody any harm and are brought into the world without their permission but then are subjected to all sorts of privations and inequities which not only bring them pain but sometimes turn them into monsters, or if not monsters, then into flawed beings. I have a little script that goes like this: “What do you want to be when you grow up? — A sonofabitch, like my daddy.” In The Future of Giraffes, which is devoted to the topic of childhood, I try to show how this happens. To me, “The Quarry” is the most painful piece in trilogy. I can’t read it any more. It is too painful to contemplate what is being done to that poor little boy who is being kept in the quarry to see how he’ll survive on his own.

I couldn’t help but see an allegory here for the injustices suffered by our urban children living in poverty. They are, quite literally, often left in their “quarries” to fend for themselves as best they can. I have been astonished at the conditions under which children live and learn—or fail to do either—only a brief subway ride from some of the greatest wealth in the world. Thousands of children around the world suffer from even worse poverty and abuse. 

However, the children themselves become unsympathetic characters, as they do in the scene of the Golgotha play, where they reduce the rat and mice to “tattered bloody rags.” This brutality is such a sharp contrast with the singing of hymns; it speaks to the hypocrisy of religion and history, the human impulse to cruelty. The repetition of history, too, is implied, when the image of crucified rats recurs in “The Quarry.”

Oh, yes, children can be very cruel, once they’ve been exposed to life. They see how tough life is and they want to become that way themselves so as to survive. (“I want to be a sonofabitch like my daddy.”) I try to show this in “The Quarry,” how the little boy turns into a predator so as to survive.

The young girls, though, seem to be elusive, youthful figures just drowned or imagined just out of reach, holding the kite which touches the heavens even while its flyer remains on earth. They are always leaving the scene, embarrassed, next to a cello filled with sand or a man who wants too ardently to give them a book. While the boys are too fleshy and vulgar, the girls are ethereal and barely inhabit the scene. 

These are idealized figures in the boys’ minds, and in mine too; and ultimately in the minds of all men. Remember Dante and his Beatrice. We men all search for this ideal, although not all of us are lucky enough to find it.

In terms of the negative text-gaps you describe in the back matter of each text, one of the details I supplied for myself was that the boys seem related to each other, in various stages of having and deprivation. For example, the boy in “Sunday Morning” seems to be an earlier configuration of the boy in “A Day in the Life,” and the rat in the wall a kind of post-Franz. This connection-making was similar to the experience of reading poems, which I have always considered the most direct access we can have to someone else’s subjective experience, in that the language tries to annihilate itself to make possible something like direct experience/understanding, which is purer when left to the reader to construct than overdescribed by the author. 

Oh, I definitely view these characters, as well as many of the adults, as different versions of the same one. Each is like the view of an object from a different angle, almost the way you represent three-dimensional objects in an engineering drawing—top, bottom, right side, and left side views. In The Future of Giraffes, in the first and last mininovel—“A Day in the Life” and “Sunday Morning”—I specifically made the physical surroundings of the two stories very similar, so as to evoke in the reader the kind of feeling you got. But I didn’t want it to be too obvious—the boy in the first piece is about 11 to 12, and the one in the second about 4 or 5. But the reader will ignore this, the way you have done. All I wanted to do is to create an association, the way, as you say, it is done in poetry. I feel the kind of writing I practice in the trilogy, that is in my mininovels, has a lot in common with poetry. I have stopped worrying if what I write is fiction, or poetry, or drama. Literature should be able to amalgamate all three. The aim is to impact the reader. How you do it is up to you.

What we think are our idiosyncrasies are most universal, so perhaps the best mode (modus?) of getting the reader to agree with the world we create is allowing him to do half the work in building it rather than being too dogmatic in the means of building. 

Yes, exactly. Getting the reader involved in the final product is the goal. It’s better for the writer and better still for the reader.

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T.M. De Vos is co-editor-in-chief of Gloom Cupboard, and a worker on novels in progress. She is a lover of sad languages, independent republics, and being in transit.  If you want a souvenir from Macedonia, or are an Eastern European author with something to say to her, you can reach her at editor@gloomcupboard.com.

Published by tmdevos

BIO: T.M. De Vos is the author of Cimmeria (Červena Barvá Press, 2016); a 2015 Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow; and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Gloom Cupboard. Her work has appeared previously in Embark Literary Journal, MockingHeart Review, Vagabond, Folder Magazine, concīs, Juked, Pacific Review, burntdistrict, HOBART, and the Los Angeles Review. De Vos is the recipient of fellowships from Murphy Writing Seminars, Summer Literary Seminars, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. She recently completed her first novel.

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