SUMMER VISIT, THREE NOVELLAS, Antigone Kefala, published by Giramondo, 2003, 120 pp, $20 (pb)
Summer Visit is a structurally puzzling book. Taken as a whole, it offers the reader none of the usual comfortable resting places; there are no highs or lows to identify with easily. Death, loss and absence pervade the three novellas. In the first novella, Intimacy, the central character's dreams are more animated than her waking life from which she appears displaced. Grief and loss have numbed her response to reality. At the end of the story a death, dreamt, imagined, or remembered startles the reader.
The prose is measured, slow, expertly controlled and delivered. The stream of memory is stopped abruptly, along with the story, by the recalling of a death.
The story the book's title is named after, Summer Visit, describes a visit to Greece.
"We are in the kitchen making coffee. We speak constantly of the past, the distant past, the family. None of us remembers very much of the old life, we have been on the move for so long, changing places, leaving behind all the objects that would have been tangible proof of their existence. Everything from the past now an unplaced, mysterious story we have been telling each other. But now that the older generation had gone, the past had become more fluid, at ease with itself, nostalgic. It had lost the set positions it seemed to occupy before, when formed by actual experiences, hurts, everyone locked in brutal events that had coloured their reactions."
Again, the protagonist moves through this narrative neither fully engaged nor disengaged. The past, the present, the aura of those who have influenced the present but are no longer alive in it, objects, scenery, painful memories, death as a palpable presence, occupy the top layer of story-telling.
"Death it seems had been around while we were at the pictures, watching the old American film, that I had seen many years before."
Summer Visit, ends with a haunting description of a cemetery, a funeral.
"Inside, the place was throbbing with death."
The last of the novellas, Conversations with Mother, begins with a death, the death of the story-teller's mother.
"And there you were behind the glass, on this trolley, in white, with your white hair, I scaled the steps and went behind the glass to see you, touch you, stroke your forehead, your hair...
The absent mother reappears in the story as the 'other', a presence to talk with, a figure that appears in dreams, a companion, a source of memory and identity.
"No, no, I shall never accept this disappearance, whatever they say...everyone says...however inevitable...no...no...?" The narrator exclaims.
The final paragraph of the book is less stark but still offers resistance to the inevitability of death.
"The Moreton Bay figs with those heavy shapes made of granite, and the olive trees, full of little breasts coming out everywhere, as if a series of humans that have disappeared to leave only some vital part of their bodies transfixed into bark, to survive longer."
To appreciate Summer Visit, Three Novellas fully, this exquisite book needs to be savoured, its content slowly absorbed, its pages read as they were written, with infinite care and a great deal of intensity. Kefala's portraits of commonly repressed human states and emotions make a significant contribution to our literary heritage.