Reviewed by Tom DeBeauchamp
Ravicka's great novelist, Luswage Amini, hasn't left home in a week. Dripping cream in cup after cup of coffee, burrowed into the Poet of Architecture's new translation, she lives only for the click of the courier's bicycle, and who could blame her? Outside, Nothing accumulates. Her city is a colony collapsing. Ravicka, Luswage's home for all of her fifty-five years, has lost nearly a million of its citizens. Though the trains and busses run, they're empty. The buildings stand but they're locked, no one home. Every sound must cross a field of silence. So, indeed, why leave the house? Because Zàoter Limici, her old friend, will be reading from his new book of poems at Vonzy Hall, and Ana Patova, her long-time, almost-lover will be there.
So begins The Ravickians, Renee Gladman's second meditation on the human-nature of architecture. Where last year's Event Factory was the travel narrative of a single tourist, The Ravickians is the assemblage of half-a-dozen or more consciousnesses, their stray thoughts, memories, poems, and conversations. To be sure, the first half of the book, the first of its three sections, belongs to Luswage Amini. The words, with the exception of two jarring, bracketed stage directions, are entirely hers. We know of Ravicka's silence, for example, primarily because of her ironic refutation of it:
Ravicka is not at all silent as they say it is. When I am in the city I hear everything. When on Bodi I can hear voices from Shumgater, two blocks away. When those voices cease I hear the Balşa wind. Very late at night, a single car speeds through the streets. I hear its engines shifting gears. I imagine this nightlife of the driver, living through insomnia no doubt. And I find that the questions I send out to her about why she is here come whirling back at me. Who are you with? Who are you ever with? Repeatedly. So Ravicka is not at all silent.
Ravicka is a container always already filled, even if the substance with which it is filled is absence itself. It's a kind of paradox: the city is not silent but its few sounds point to the relative lack of sound. Compare the sleepless motorist to a pre-decay Friday night, and you'll understand that the timbre of the single sound is tempered by the absence of every other sound possible. By refusing to admit the silence of the streets, Amini focuses on the sounds that remain, without either addressing or extinguishing the not-heard at their periphery.
The effect is reversed with respect to language. Rather than the lone survivor in a field of empty, the untranslatable should be the lone empty in a field of text:
If you are engaged in a translation and discover that a quality you need to convey does not exist in your language, the language into which you are moving, do not pick the next best thing. Sometimes you will have to put a "0" there; this will indicate a hole....
This is not new: you need nothing to see something, which is the theory behind white space.
Of course, without something, nothing is all you have. Would Ravick translate itself entirely into zeros if the ambient noise of its populace were snuffed? Surely, the Balşa wind would still blow, the buildings of the city would continue to stand, but without Ravickians to interact with them, the city itself would cease to be.
Ravicka is a country of interlocking and interdependent parts. Subtly, meanderingly—"In the way it is possible to find the place you are looking for by simply moving about outside"—Gladman draws analogies between these many parts: the dahar light expresses a skyline like language expresses thought, a child is to an adult as an adult is to a building, trains connect your now-body to your then-body in the same way a codeless note tracks a stale love's progress. "The bus is so familiar it is a person to me," Amini says, "and these streets we travel our conversations."
Where the Ravickian world is criss-crossed and stacked, mapped and re-mapped with these architecturo-human concepts, the novel itself performs a kind of structural backflip. In the early pages, Luswage has our ear. The Ravicka we see is built entirely of her observations, recollections, and fears. Despite the incongruous stage directions, we have one narrator, one perspective, and there's little thought of a world outside. This private intimacy is pluralized and made public in the second section. Zàoter's poetry reading, though essentially a monologue, carries with it the echo of the hall, the blinding lights, and the feeling of an audience perceiving it.
In both of these early sections, the attention is directed at you, the reader alone, and you, the reader as audience member. The characters in the third section, however, speak only to one another. As the Ravickian literati walk djor bleje,
an elaborate and collective undertaking that ensues at the conclusion of a social event... the route of which is determined by a set of rules that shift according to the hour, to whether an older or younger person is leading, to the level of precipitation in the air...
their unattributed, em-dashed conversations overlap. You read these final twelve scenes from the perspective of the forgotten one in a crowd of friends. The conversation volleys back and forth between a half-dozen core speakers, but the air around them feels thick with other, unhailed hangers-on. Lefits, the club where they stop for cheese and wine, is clearly packed with people we never see. When Ana Patova and Luswage Amini sneak off to discuss their thirty year not-relationship—The Bridge, as they call it—it feels like you are their only witness. You have to wonder, though, how many other, unhailed watchers are crossing this bridge? Unnamed, unattended-to, is the feeling of their possibility essentially a ‘0', a hole, the kind you'd insert in a translation?
The production of these holes is one of the most amazing things Gladman is able to do with The Ravickians. Had she merely described them, merely enumerated the disappeared, the fled, qualified the lack of laughter in the street with the revving of an engine, the effect would have been poetic, even meaningful, but it would have failed to convey the dimension of these absences. Ana Patova used "the term ‘Installation'... instead of the more familiar ‘Chapter' to section her book," and The Ravickians works like this too. From the characters and the setting Gladman builds an environment, and then from section to section, with each change in perspective, she changes your position within it. Now we're on the train, look here, now we're in the auditorium, look here, hurry up we're going to the bridge, do you see the blinking lights? More than a novel, The Ravickians is a kind of curated environment, one built of the culture, language, and architecture of its people, but one that recognizes as well that the reader's perspective need not be omniscient, that the reader's point of view can be directed, that the reader can be pulled into the fictive space and made to occupy the stage as an absence or an extra.