Ian Colford, Evidence

“Evidence of what?” might reasonably be a reader’s first question, heading into this volume that is not quite a novel, not quite a collection of individual stories, but instead an assortment of incidents in the unsettled (and unsettling) life of Kostandin Bitri, described in the jacket blurb as “a wanderer uprooted by war.” Each incident teases and disturbs with what it leaves out as much as what it includes (and some of them include elements that are, in fact, quite disturbing). They are not presented in chronological order, and the continuities between them are primarily of tone: Kostandin narrates in a flat, expository tone, like someone who has seen and done so much that he can no longer be surprised or deeply moved. And yet the content, the action, often turns on surprising and moving moments of connection–or, even more often, failed connection. Unlikely meetings become fragments of unsustainable relationships. People want or expect too much of each other, or of themselves; they cling to hope, they ask for help, but they receive or extend pain and disappointment.

Kostandin’s specific history is offered in fragments throughout the volume. “You’re from one of those countries over there that used to be part of Yugoslavia. I’m right, aren’t I?” asks one of his employers, and Kostandin opts “to let him think what he wanted about where I was from”; later he tells the members of a group counselling session about the “tribal” customs of his home country; an orphan, he eventually returns to seek the remains of his parents in a mass grave for which Communists are blamed. Even if we trust what he tells us, the details are left just vague enough that Kostandin’s stories seem to be about trauma, loss, and betrayal as ongoing conditions of human life rather than attempts to render, literally, the effects of historically specific events. Kostandin himself is sometimes victim, sometimes criminal. His world does not allow for heroism; in it, also, acts of generosity, including his own, lead nowhere in particular. There is evil, or at least cruelty. In one episode, Kostandin awakes in the hospital, badly injured; he is unable to recall what happened, and the absence of an explanation seems to epitomize the meaninglessness of the damage people inflict on each other, and the larger mystery of human motives–a mystery that cannot, after all, be solved but for which each of this strange episodes is partial, oblique evidence.

Throughout, the language is precise and controlled; details of colour and sound, rooms and personalities, emerge in sharp focus. Emotive language proves redundant, or at least optional. The situations Colford conjures for us through Kostandin’s almost clinically detached observations speak eloquently enough of strain and yearning, love and failure. The stories end rather than conclude or resolve. Perhaps because of the many questions they leave unanswered, they linger, uncomfortably, hauntingly, in the mind.

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