Article Written by Art Critic Ardis Grosjean Dreisbach
The prose-and-music performance of Margarita Meklina and Maja Elliott
took place in Stockholm despite the terrorist attack..
It was the afternoon of Friday April 7, 2017. Author Margarita Meklina and pianist Maja Elliott were on their way to central Stockholm to prepare for that evening’s joint presentation of their words and music. Their train was halted in a northern suburb. Much of Stockholm’s transit system had been shut down in response to a full-fledged, savage terrorist attack. A hijacked delivery van had hurtled down a pedestrian street in the middle of town. Many were maimed, five died. Though the driver of the van was soon apprehended, the city was in shock and people were urged to stay at home, as further attacks might be expected.
The scheduled prose-and-music performance had been planned as an open event to which poets and literary figures had been invited. The occasion was the launching of the first translation from English into Swedish of Linea Nigra, a work by Russian-born Margarita Meklina. The event was to take place in mid-town in the conference hall of the St. Eugenia church, which happened to be situated only a few blocks from the place where the terrorist’s van had finally crashed and burst into flame.
Not only was the evening’s reading now impossible, but Meklina and Elliott had a scheduled stay which was difficult to extend. Providentially, the publisher and arranger of the event, Ars Interpres Publications, managed in the midst of chaos to secure the very same venue for Saturday afternoon, April 8, though technical personnel would not then be available. Through further efforts by the publisher, a number of persons were reached and were informed of the impending afternoon performance. (Information and a video of the event can be found on the Ars Interpres Publications website.)
The Saturday reading did indeed take place. It was in two parts and consisted of excerpts from two of Margarita Meklina’s English texts. These were read to piano accompaniment composed and performed by Maja Elliott. It was a joint performance in which the music closely followed and interpreted the spoken text.
Excerpts from the prose piece, Waltz on Mount Lebanon, were read first. It is set in Ireland, and had recently appeared in the February 2017 number of the online literary magazine, The Honest Ulsterman. Meklina’s text has references at several cultural levels; its characters live or have lived in Galway, Syria, Lebanon, Sweden. The focus of the text is a young woman who has left her Syrian husband in Sweden, has moved to Dublin and is now making a first visit to a Lebanese woman in Galway for an overnight ‘date’. The Waltz of the title is the interaction of the two women in their first hours together, culminating in an intricately composed conflation of the Lebanese woman’s account of her flight from a fierce battle during the Lebanese War and the narrator’s stylised description of the two women’s sexual encounter – an unlikely but effectual melding of Mount Lebanon and mons veneris.
The second and somewhat longer work, Linea Nigra, may seem to focus on the narrator’s first-person account of the many aspects of a pregnancy, and on her ongoing dialogue with her unborn daughter. The text, however, is more complicated. Like Waltz on Mount Lebanon, it includes brief accounts of persons from other cultures, other social strata. In style and content it is both personal and far-ranging. The author has divided her text into 26 numbered sections of varying length. In section 20 the child is born. Typical of Meklina’s many-layered approach, we find here old childhood memories of summers at her Russian family’s dacha, and an account of criminal maltreatment of an aged, helpless woman. Still, tucked into the middle of this section, we find a welcome glimpse of the newborn child, splendid and silky soft.
The title, Linea Nigra, comes from a description which the author has found in a book on pregnancy. According to this source, women normally have a faint white line starting at the navel and proceeding straight down the abdomen. During pregnancy the line is said to get darker and leathery. After the birth, when the abdomen is no longer distended, the dark line fades and becomes white again. In this change from linea nigra to linea alba, the author finds that nothing is permanent, that both mother and daughter are beginning a new blank page.
One wonders if parts of the text can be traced to the author’s own experience of pregnancy. However that may be, the language is fresh and innovative and may be a bonus effect of writing in a new context, in an acquired language. Meklina left Russia in the 1990’s, lived for some years in California and has been in Dublin since 2015. Her images are ingenious in their cultural variations, drawing on her international family relationships and her personal experiences. Meklina’s freshness of expression in English may also characterise her work in Russian, for which she has received a number of awards.
Ewa Stackelberg’s nine striking photograms in this slender volume all share one theme – women’s bodies. The result of a photographic technique in which a camera is not used, they are varied and slightly mysterious and enrich an already rich text.
Ardis Grosjean Dreisbach