What the Ellipses Elide: “Signs of Silence” by Nina Troks

Review by Olga Krushenitskaya, translated by Nina Murray

Signs of Silence is a novella about lesbian love, set not somewhere in the abstract West but in Kazakhstan—and yet it does not aspire in any way to be a work of pointed social commentary intended to draw attention to the challenges of the gay community. The protagonist’s lesbian identity is just a part of her personality which underscores her uniqueness and contributes to her isolation.

“We sat down near the fountain in the square in front of the Opera and Ballet Theater.” This is the only indication to the reader that the city where Anya Krylova, the protagonist, lives is Almaty. Perhaps another clue is the fact that the assistants to the magnificent librarian Margarita Mikhailovna speak Kazakh to each other. Otherwise, the story could be set in any post-Soviet city.

Similarly, the novella is set outside the social hostility toward gay people. Only once does Anya’s boss and nemesis, Semen, say, when he wants to make sure it would hurt, “Fucking kike, I don’t know what you are thinking!”

Semen’s line reflects both that Anya must conceal her identity and that the society she lives in would rather reject her than find a way to acceptance. This is why Anya responds to her boss with aggression which only serves to emphasize the vacuum in which she must exist.

Read more: What the Ellipses Elide: “Signs of Silence” by Nina Troks

“I’m like a half-blood in a society where everyone else is of royal breeding. They realize their superiority and carry themselves appropriately: with their backs straight and their dignity on their sleeves. I, on the other hand, am constantly aware of being deficient. I do my best to avoid being looked at.”

Signs of Silence is a story about its protagonist’s internal journey much more than about any exterior events. It is hard to summarize: very little actually happens. Anya runs into her former partner at an art gallery opening, and the reader is immediately plunged into the universe of emotions: “I looked at Fillip Malyavin’s “Dancing Woman” and saw a single blot of red. My heart took up the woman’s raging dance.”

“Who is she to you?” Anya’s companion asks.

“There was a time she was more than everything I needed.”

The scene between the two women that follows makes it clear that their feelings for each other are still running hot. And how could a volcano cool?

Anya’s past trauma and her acute sense of alienation makes her desire to find love only more urgent. It is not an accident, I think, that the object of her affection, Maya, is a sign-language interpreter, someone whose job, like that of a ferryman, is to bring people to each other. Anya is in desperate need of a means of crossing the divide between her and other people. But the very thing that brings the two women together also becomes the cause of their break-up. Maya, who grew up in a hearing-impaired family, needs silence, needs to be with people who do not make noise.

The novella is a jewel-box of puzzle pieces, set in a circular narrative which begins and ends with the encounter at the art gallery. The novella is composed of seven chapters which the author calls “Signs.” Only two signs are happy: the ones that tell of Anya and Maya’s several months of romantic fulfillment. Every person wants to share their life with another, it is a natural human need—yet, for the most part of the story, Anya finds herself in the unnatural state of solitude. In the first chapters of the novella, her solitude is also full of fear; in the last, it is laced with quiet sadness. This transition makes the text, perhaps, a form of therapy that allows both the author and the reader to accept that love can be a cause of great suffering.

Anya is an aesthete who goes to art openings to “experience painting.” If love, then, is the desire for beauty, here’s how the author describes her protagonist’s experience:

I loved to watch her hands dance. To watch her slender, long fingers bend, fan out, and come together in exquisite invisible patterns. I did not understand the signs she made, but they held me under a spell.

No pathos, no sentimentality, no desperation—such steady, marvelously measured descriptions are scattered throughout the novella like precious gems.

We walked around the city—my city that turned out to be completely different with her. Quiet little parks clattered and pierced with bird noise. Narrow streets seemed endlessly wide when she drifted away from me. Gray apartment blocks no longer oppressed with their mousy color. And I could not understand how one could think one had a grip on the world if a presence of another changed the world so completely?

The conflict in the novella is between sound and silence, the world outside and the one interior to each individual. The first chapter (sign) ends with this: “My body shuddered in response to the rustling of leaves underfoot, a honk of a car, a snippet of passers’-by conversation. Sounds seem to ricochet against me and make me vibrate.”

At the same time, the author does not imply that the outside world is always a source of violence or aggression. The fourth, happy chapter concludes with the description of sounds as they accompany happiness: “The chirp of the crickets, the regular tiutiu of a night bird perched somewhere close, the moist coolness of the night—this was my moment of happiness that would stay with me forever.”

Or elsewhere: “Without Maya, I filled with silence.”

Silence is a path to oneself, into the memories that can make love live longer. Silence has much to recommend it. Maya speaks of the appeal of silence: her parents were deaf-mute, she lived in silence until she was three, and associates silence with the cradle. In the first chapter, which contains the end of the story as well as its beginning, the narrator’s voice echoes Maya’s: “I wanted one thing—silence. Wanted to break free of the deafening noise of the city, the thoughts in my head, my memories. Wanted to run beyond the edge of sound.”

I read this urge to express a kind of hopelessness, a suicidal desire for an emotion-free peace akin to that of medieval romances whose protagonists wished to forget themselves in sleep.

All other characters are intentional; each reveals a new aspect of Anya’s world, shows the ways in which the outside world treats her, and together they make the text a comfortable space where the reader wants to stay longer.

One character stands apart in the canvas of the story: the librarian Margarita Mikhailovna. Given the very minor role she plays in the plot, her larger-than-life portrait seems excessive, albeit dynamic and memorable. I found her ironic treatment of the protagonist interesting: Margarita Mikhailovna discerns in Anya a soul in love and accepts her as any other lovelorn individual.

Semen, Anya’s boss, is an important minor character: his figure illustrates the intolerance of the wider society towards Anya.

I could not fail to mention the author handled sexual intimacy: the writing here is exactly what is necessary to satisfy the reader’s need to know without crossing the line into titillation.

Throughout the novella, Troks has many well-crafted, quote-worthy sentences:

“They snapped me off like a willow twig before Easter.”

“Random chance: sometimes that is precisely what rewrites your life’s entire plot.”

“I became an ellipsis. It was as if I had been interrupted. And nothing came after.”

The writing packs layers of meaning into many sentences which prevents the reader from slipping into automatic reading. The willow twig as a symbol of faith. The novella as a blanket draped over the narrator’s arms and opened as a pair of wings to take in her new lover—and with her, the reader. An immersion in a world of feelings and desires.

A Bertold Brecht quote comes to mind: “All artforms are in the service of the greatest of all arts: the art of living.” Nina Troks’ novella is a ministration by word, generously shared with the reader.

Oksana Trutneva, Nina Troks

Oksana Trutneva is a poet, fiction writer, and literary critic. She writes under the name Nina Troks. In 2002, she graduated from the master-class sponsored by Musaget; in 2008 she studied with Tobias Hill and Pascale Petit. Oksana teaches fiction workshops at Almaty’s Open Literary School (OLSHA).

Olga Krushenitskaya is a fiction writer from Kazakhstan. She was born in Shymkent and lives in Almaty. She is a graduate of Almaty’s Open Literary School (OLSHA). Her work has been published in Daktil and Literra NOVA and translated into German.

Mirgul Kali’s translation «To Hell with Poets» by Baqytgul Sarmekova wins PEN/HEIM, first from Central Asia – Part I

©  by PEN America

Mirgul Kali, a native of Kazakhstan, translated three works from the Kazakhstani writer Baqytgul Sarmekova’s recent collection of stories: “The Black Colt”, “To Hell with Poets”, and “Moniсa”. For these translations into English, Mirgul Kali was awarded a grant of $3,700 from the PEN/Heim fund. The grant is intended to support the completion of the short story collection’s translation.

We interviewed the translator and the writer about this milestone and how they met each other, what their expectations were, and what plans they have for the future. 

Aisulu Beken: Congratulations again on winning a PEN/Heim grant! And thank you for speaking with The Alma Review today. When and how did you find the stories of Baqytgul?

Mirgul Kali: Whenever I can, I try to follow literary news in Kazakhstan and read short fiction published on literary websites like Әдебиет порталы, Қаламгер, Қазақ әдебиеті. I first learned about Baqytgul from the Төр book club meeting announcement at the Әдебиет порталы in 2018. This Astana-based book club was planning to read and discuss two of her stories, “Итгершілік” and “Қарагер тай.” When I first read “Қарагер тай” (“The Black Colt”), I felt that this was not simply a story about an old man growing fond of a young horse; there was something else going on here. I reread it several times until I finally noticed how the narrative pace slows down and almost shifts in time when the colt is described; the image of the horse suddenly acquires this dreamy, mythical quality. And a horse is, of course, a symbol of the Kazakh nomadic past. I think this story, like many of Baqytgul’s stories, highlights the irretrievable loss of the traditional Kazakh way of life with all the good and bad things associated with it.

AB: As a young Kazakh woman, I found this story very evocative and poignant. To me, it seemed to be more about Zharbagul, a female character. Zharbagul is thirty years old, and her marriage prospects are near hopeless. Her distant relatives make a match for her with an older, gray-haired man. This suitor, in keeping with the Kazakh tradition of paying for one’s bride, gives Zharbagul’s relatives the black colt as kalym. Compared to the traditional kalym of several heads of cattle, the colt is a very modest gift indeed. When the marriage plans fall through, the groom’s brother comes to take the colt back. Negotiations between the two families become heated. The reader never learns whether Zharbagul wanted to marry that man at all, nor how she feels about the wedding falling through. Baqytgul’s impartial prose puts the fact that the colt is of much greater concern than a woman’s feelings front-and-center. At the end, the reader wonders, who was traded for what?

 AB: Why did you trust Mirgul to translate your stories?

Baqytgul Sarmekova: When my book “Кейіпкер” (“To Hell with Poets”)  was published, Mirgul called from the USA again. I sent her the book just to read. After reading the book, Mirgul offered to translate my book and apply for a translation grant from PEN America. I was not sure if the book would win the grant, because it seemed inconceivable that something I had written for pleasure, without a purpose, would win an international competition. I have participated in many competitions in our country, but have never won any prizes! I used to tell myself that my writing was just not up to a standard, that I probably was not ready for a prize. However, Mirgul was very confident in herself and her choice. I even asked Mirgul, “If you do not win a translation grant, your work will be wasted, how could I ever repay you?” I didn’t understand English, so I didn’t know at what level the translation would be released, and I also did not know how Mirgul translated. But when we analyzed the work, I felt that Mirgul had a different instinct: she noticed the subtleties that I had neglected, looked into the background. Then I saw that she could feel the mood and soul of my stories.

AB: What gave you confidence about your chances at the PEN/Heim Literary grant?

MK: I actually wasn’t sure if my submission would be among the winners. I think that non-mainstream literary prizes and independent publishers in the U.S. tend to favor works that lean toward experimental, rather than realist prose which is prevalent in Kazakhstan. But I believed that Baqytgul’s work was important and original. One, she explores a crucial theme of the transformation of the Kazakh society during the early years of independence. The transition from the traditional patriarchal, community-centered, rural, agrarian society to an early capitalist, individualist, urban, service-economy-based society in Kazakhstan in many ways resembles the early twentieth-century modernism era in the West.  In Kazakhstan, however, this transition has taken place in the era of globalization and accelerated technological advancement, and while it continues to affect the lives and psyche of many people, this momentous shift has largely gone unnoticed. Two, Baqytgul’s writing is incisive and unapologetic; she is not afraid to challenge stereotypes about how Central Asian women should write and what they should write about, and I hope this means that we’ll see more exciting and audacious works from women writing in Kazakh language.

AB: Reading Baqytgul’s work often made me wonder if she had somehow read my mind—so direct and unblinking it is. That’s how I felt while reading her story “To Hell with Poets.”  The young female protagonist wants to  become a popular poet quickly. The dream, to her, is worth the cost of starting a relationship with a man from a literary society who promises to recommend her poems to an editor. The literary magazine does publish the poems: with her name and bio, but with their content completely altered. So she looks at the overweight, sweaty man lying next to her in a dirty apartment with a broken chandelier, and tells herself, “To hell with poets.” Baqytgul’s unflinching prose makes the story that might seem hackneyed incisive and brave instead. She is not afraid to talk about unseemly things or to offend. Baqytgul writes in beautiful literary Kazakh, but with her very own prickly attitude. Her works make you admire her.  

AB: While Mirgul was optimistic about winning a grant, what hope did you have, and what does this important event mean to you now?

BS: Yes, Mirgul was very optimistic! She said that she had been wanting to take part in the competition for many years, but she could not find a worthy work. By describing the lives of ordinary people, I did not realize that I was describing the epoch in which I lived and the broader society. However, the English translation of the works was highly praised by the jury. This event should have been life-changing news not only for me, but also for Kazakh literature. But I did not notice any excitement in our society. I think our people still do not understand the importance and weight of the prize.

Continue reading here.