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I Is Someone Else

 

Death-in-a-Box
By Alta Ifland
Subito Press, 2011


Let’s say there’s two kinds of writers: those who detail the differences between people (conflicts, habits, passions) and then the second kind – the solitary, unsettled, generally European writer who meditates on sameness, doubling, identity’s dissolve. Alta Ifland could make an excellent poem about how both kinds of writer are the same writer; this is because she is a writer of the second kind.

Doubling: The narrator of several stories in her new collection, Death-In-A-Box, was born a twin but did not remain a twin, her sister died at birth. (“I never managed to shake off the thought that maybe it was not she who died, but I, and the nurses made an understandable mistake”). As a young girl, this narrator makes a new best friend, only to wake up one morning and discover she has become that friend. In another tale, an essay on loss—a happy woman and a grieving woman swap places in time. Mysteries conceal deeper mysteries, a woman turns into her pet monkey, another woman contemplates her own evaporation:

Once, I was in a plane, returning from Europe, and I suddenly realized that my only possession, besides my body, was the luggage I had with me. I didn’t have a key into my apartment, I hoped I could stay with a friend for a while, though I really don’t have any friends. Nor relatives. It was as if I had realized that I didn’t exist—if one could say that.

“Not-a-soul-not-a-soul” she mutters to herself, and “Less than a whole.”

Death-In-A-Box is a Paris Spleen of a book—a slim collection of short pieces respectively definable as fables, reportage, prose poems, extended jokes, and lyric memoir. The wide sample of styles shines a moving flashlight into far and opposing corners of Ifland’s writing mind. The individual stories are brief – two to seven pages – and the book is lean, closer in thickness to a book of poetry than a typical collection of essays or stories.

The title tale concerns a cherrywood box which the narrator, a young girl, has been forbidden ever to open. As a fantasy game, the girl convinces herself that she is a kind of Pandora and it is this box in which her Godfather trapped death back when death “was Life’s sister [and] Beauty was clothed in the enigmatic glow of Death and walked in its shoes.” She opens the box of course and nothing happens. She thinks it’s funny, goes to a Jack-in-the-box restaurant and orders Death-In-A-Box and runs out laughing. Nothing happens until she comes upon her Godfather chanting, “Come here, dear, dear Death, oh come here! Come back in the box! Back-in-the-box!” Her Godfather does catch Death in the end, albeit grotesquely. It’s a fairy tale.

Then there’s “Double Lives,” which begins in the same vein, fantastical:

Toward the end of the twentieth-century, humans were so used to transforming everything into something lucrative that they discovered how to make a profit of the last remnant of uselessness: pure being.

Shortly thereafter, we discover that this has been no fable, it’s an essay, a laugh: “The new institution that made official the bestowal of meaning upon their empty lives was called ‘the book contract.’” It’s the contract that matters and not the book, it’s the contract that mediates our experience, that is our life’s meaning:

The rich were trading days of their lives with the poor so that they could each have the “experience” of the other’s life. Everyone was playing a role, afraid that the next-door neighbor might have already acquired the rights to the only unplayed role that was left.

Ifland’s spiky narration turns fables into essays and then into sermons, milking the efficacy of the forms she passes through; just as characters double and blend, so do forms. Not that all of this blending works all the time; generally speaking, these stories begin with strong premises and then escape themselves. Sometimes this is an uroboros (as in “Death-In-A-Box” where the premise with which we begin winds elegantly back on itself); sometimes these endings are fine disappearing acts (as in “Twin Sisters” when one character disappears into another); sometimes these escapes are just French exits, unsatisfying evasions (as in “Uncle Otto,” where a zany character piece decomposes into drunken paperwork).

English is Ifland’s third language and she can surprise with misphrased idiom (“only several” instead of “only a few”), but she can also surprise with her odd humor and her eloquence. She’s highly aware of both the strength and weaknesses of her relationship with her adopted tongue:

It was a problem she still had with English. She often went to the chicken to put the kitchen in the oven, referred to men as “she” and to her female friends as “he,” asked people not to sleep on her toes, got down the bus, slapped the door, smashed the potatoes, squashed the water, sweatened the cake …

Ifland, like a number of the narrators in this new book, grew up in Transylvania and it’s a pleasure to see the second half of Death-In-A-Box become what the reader must assume are a series of semi-fantastical autobiographical snapshots, enough of them that the Soviet Romania of Ifland’s childhood emerges as a character. This is the Romania of children schooled hard in Revolutionary Consciousness, forced to memorize Ceaușescu’s heroics; shops are devoid of necessities (feminine hygiene consists of wads of cotton balls, then rags when the cotton balls run out), there’s no shortage of sadistic tortures (we are taken inside the minds of the mothers of both victim and tormentor); We learn that Romanian for “voice” is glas, that Kent cigarettes were the apogee of cool in the 1980s, that snoops and secret spies were everywhere and the coffee shops were always packed with smokers and talkers but innocent of coffee.

This world is not one most of Ifland’s English readers will have known firsthand, and yet her interest in doubling, smudging identities applies here too. Communist Romania, the Eastern Europe of spy v. spy, is doubled everywhere:

Dictatorships have nothing to do with what we call “ideology;” the only ideology of those living under them is that of survival. Collaborators are made of the same stuff as those who, in democratic regimes, are only guilty of occasionally disgusting us with their appetite for success, which is their veins has taken the place of blood, with their conditioned-unconditional reflex of bowing down before Power, those who, under more austere skies, would be forced to put their appetite in the service of the butchers.

Ifland carries this world with her—off-angles and whispering neighbors—a world away from the mandatory social realism of 1980s Romania. A collection like Death-In-the-Box could not have been published in the country of Ifland’s childhood, at least not until after Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu were tried and machine-gunned on television (death in a box) and its creation now can be seen as an act of philosophical rebellion that’s no less meaningful for taking place years after the fact; art is long.

I’m fairly sure “Alta Ifland” is a pseudonym, which would be entirely of-a-piece with the way her narrators feel about names. In the case of the young girl who narrates some of the later stories, names are a kind of poison; when teachers at school would call out her last name she felt as though she were being brusquely fastened to the cruel state of Romania. Many children react against their given name or the family that bestowed it upon them but the narrator of “False Memories of Not-Myself” has a particularly severe case. She is embarrassed by her crass, line-toeing mother, mortified by the country’s worship of its Great Leader, and abandoned by her twin; she feels each marker of identity as a source of pain. In retaliation, she abandons herself: “I, I wrote this only to record the passage of my shadow on the earth, for I have never existed.”

Unromantic, absurd, this is a political position as much as it is personal. As a child, Not-Myself watches her mother enact the eternal struggle of other-versus-self over games of dominoes:

If [her] friends happened to be Russian, my mother would complain about the Germans, the Poles, the Moldavians, and the Jews, “who were destroying our country and selling it to the foreigners.” If the friends happened to be German, she would complain about the Russians, the Poles, the Moldavians, and the Jews … Of course, sometimes she would get confused and curse the Hungarians when they were there, and then a wind of unease would blow for a second, but then, someone would remember the Gypsies, and they would all start cursing the Gypsies and the ethnic harmony would soon be reinstated.

When she comes to America, Not-Myself’s mother easily transitions into our beloved hierarchy of bigotry, dissing the blacks, adulating the red man.

Some of these pieces probably began as 5 finger exercises and some read as though they haven’t evolved any further. The tales of the 4 speakers in “what would you do?” are all rendered as one page-long run-on sentence—it’s well done, but why bother? “Fried Brains” sets up a good premise that it abruptly shuts with an unexceptional Borcht Belt punchline. But Death-In-A-Box is a sampler of sweets, some of them spiked, and there will be a few you wish were doubled and a few less to taste. That said, there’s more wonderful writing in this book than you might expect from such a small package and the way each story twists, becoming not-itself halfway through, means that a lot of that good writing is of a thrillingly unexpected kind.

I’d be pleased if Subito put out one of these slim Ifland collections every year—an almanac of dark little treasures, a black valentine to no-one.

 

___
John Cotter
‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010. He is a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly.

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