December 6, 2019

I’ll Never Leave Ravicka


Where is Ravicka? A prosaic answer to this poetic question is that Ravicka is a fictional city-state within the recent novels of Renee Gladman. You may already know these books: Event Factory (2010), The Ravickians (2011), Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge (2013), Houses of Ravicka (2017). Ravicka is shifting, disappearing, possibly under attack, difficult to translate. There is a crisis and this crisis can be variously understood. And though there is a crisis, you are not allowed to call it that, at least not in front of government officials. I once thought these books were a trilogy, but there are already four and I understand at least two more are on the way. I recently reread the Ravicka novels one after another and would recommend reading them in exactly this fashion, in rapid succession. Each book complicates the others. Their status as a series calls into question what it means for books to exist as a series, each book troubling timeline, narrative, and geography alike. For me, The Ravicka novels desire not just to be read quickly and in succession, but to be reread. This desire might be rephrased in the form of my original question: Where (or perhaps what) is Ravicka? The more you reread the less you are able to satisfactorily locate it, as each new aspect you learn (or relearn, or unlearn) continues to resonate.

In several of the books, a governor none of the protagonists like or respect appears. “Our governor Ludoc Vlati sings the city’s praises; we are against him. While I will also adore our city, we are not against me,” says the Great Ravickian Novelist Luswage Amini. We don’t know anything about Ludoc Vlati, but also we do, since of course we instinctively know all the ways a politician can be wrong. This is Ravicka, a world at once identical to our own and absolutely nothing like it. In our world, buildings and neighborhoods are moved out of reach through gentrification and rising rents. In Ravicka, the buildings literally stand up and walk away. (But do they do so literally, or in some other way? This is never fully explained.) Ludoc Vlati is a politician claiming everything is all right, when everything is clearly not alright, when things are falling apart, though it is impossible to know the severity of the disaster. We don’t know enough about him to gather whether he really believes that everything is all right or if he’s simply lying for votes. Or, rather, do we know that everything is all right for Vlati and his class, and he’s bet the farm on the assumption things will continue to be so? Vlati is rarely mentioned, only a few times. It’s unclear why I’ve begun with him. He’s not significant.

Ravicka is a land of many customs. Most of these customs involve putting your body into it, bending and twisting as custom requires: “But there was a gesture I was to make upon entering a place that was already peopled, something between ‘hello,’ ‘sorry,’ and ‘congratulations I’m here,’ and I could not remember what it was. As subtly as I could, I bent here and there trying to jog my memory: was I to do a shake, a roundoff? […] A child approached me and asked if I were sleepy. Why it was this question that recalled the missing gesture, I shall never know. But there it was: you folded your body as though you were taking a bow with your legs spread apart, and then, after holding that posture for several seconds (depending on your age) you brought your legs together quickly.” The physicality of such customs make Ravicka a land of continuous social dancing. But we think of dancing as fluid and graceful, while so much of Ravickian social life comes across as awkward, aspiring to grace but falling short. Perhaps the physicality of the customs themselves are graceful, but those performing them are no more graceful than you or I. Might this also be how I perform whatever social customs I encounter in my own daily life, which mercifully require less physical acumen than those of Ravicka? “…no culture performs as extensively as the Ravickians. You cannot enter a place without proving to the occupants that you have a body. Not just to display the limbs and skin you carry around with you, but to prove you are in dialogue with them.” When I am reading I am often not aware of my body. Perhaps one of the reasons I love reading so much is it allows me to temporarily forget my considerable bodily limitations. But Ravicka never lets me forget. Every few pages I am reminded that to properly interact with others requires one’s full physical presence: eye contact, open and welcoming body language, a hug or no hug, a shake, a roundoff or whatever else the encounter might desire.

Ravicka is a city-state in two parts, divided by the all-important bridge. (I would like to further explain the importance of this bridge, but also must admit that I still haven’t fully grasped it.) “But in which place? There were reasons for choosing either: cit Sahaly because it was gorgeous and ancient and from it we could watch the spectacle at the other end of the bridge, or cit Mohaly because it was the spectacle.” I can never quite keep these two places straight. The old world and the new. Is it true that most large cities have a part of town where much older buildings remain intact? Or does this only apply to cities with an unbroken history, cities in which older buildings haven’t been eliminated by extensive redevelopment or war? “I wanted to sing and I wanted to draw, so I moved to cit Mohaly, as every other creative person does. You go there or you go to cit Sahaly – to Sahaly if you’re looking to practice art at the level of science, if you want to be an architect, for example, or a cartographer…” I wonder if I will ever fully comprehend the many tangled differences between cit Sahaly and cit Mohaly. This wondering is also a reminder that I’m still a newcomer here, in Ravicka, still a tourist, almost a child, unable to fully understand what it means to be in one neighborhood rather than another, though I definitely understand it means a lot. Perhaps everything.

I have been thinking how each of Ravicka’s narrators are embodied neurotics, since their internal struggles are rarely, if ever, kept inside. (I say this as someone who works very hard to keep my own neuroses hidden.) Instead they actively and repeatedly embody their dissatisfactions and confusions, playing them out in each of their wanderings and carefully unbalanced exchanges. In Event Factory, an unnamed “linguist-traveler” arrives as a tourist (or researcher), and then continuously attempts to keep up, so many newly made friends and acquaintances slipping past her, uncertain to what degree her understanding of basic matters is shared by others. Or, in The Ravickians, the Great Ravickian Novelist Luswage Amini pines for Ana Patova in an ongoing arrangement that never quite coheres, getting purposefully lost on her way to hear her old friend, the poet Zàoter Limici, read a few poems that soon become an entire chapter of their own: “I am not sure if I have ever just gone anywhere. In Ravicka, you walk out into the city and want immediately to get swept up into an adventure, and it is only after this adventure, which might take the better part of the day, that you wish to arrive at your destination.” Then, in Ana Patova Crosses a Bridge, Patova writes (or, at least, starts writing) book after book, reaching towards the contours of the ongoing crisis, her friends a swirl of unreliable information and beautiful semi-communication around her, every chapter unspooling like the next stanza in a poem: “I wrote a book whose title I withheld from the book for a long time as I wrote it and slept on it and not because I didn’t want the book to know itself (I had no influence on that), rather, because I feared that once I put the two together they would go on without me.” And finally the overconfident—and, one suspects, rather incompetent—Comptroller Jakobi in Houses of Ravicka, author of Regulating the Book of Regulations, wanting to be fully in charge of situations as they unravel. For example, dragging his close friend Triti away just as she’s claiming to have discovered the lost house he had originally enlisted her assistance to recover. (Triti was about to find it down a manhole.) Yet who wouldn’t be neurotic in this world of physical social customs? The air is yellow (or not yellow but dahar, a Ravickian word we can only translate into English as yellow, though it is not yellow), the population mysteriously leaving or in some other way diminishing, the buildings moving of their own accord. Indeed, because of the crisis, you might even get run over by buildings slowly moving through the night. Of course this is the only world the Ravickians know, saved by the ways the dahar air is sometimes beautiful, “and as I pass through I am brushing glitter from my skin,” reflects Luswage Amini.

The formal shifts within each Ravicka book, and from book to book, keep me elegantly off balance. When, in the final section of The Ravickians, we drift into a fragmented poem of misdirected dialog between friends, the section reads like an absurdist stage play. Or, when the “linguist-traveler” in Event Factory begins living homelessly, I also felt myself slipping into a different, and precarious, method of literature and feeling. (A method that doesn’t require the reader, or writer, to fully understand all aspects; that allows our understanding to ebb and flow within whirlpools of desire and unsatisfied anticipation.) Then there is the perspective shift in Houses of Ravicka, moving from Jakobi, who is searching for house No. 96, to the occupant of the invisible, corresponding house No. 32; from the world of the pompous professional to the world of artistic living. Such shifts are a blast from nowhere, the sound of an author surprising herself in some genuine and flourishing way, and rereading them renders them no less uncanny.

Ravicka is also a land where national writers are nationally beloved. (This is very different from anything I know in real life.) In almost all of the books, The Great Ravickian Novelist is sought after, her titles searched for, encounters with her fulfilled or imagined. In a moment of great stress, trying to recall the books on his bedside table in order to calm himself, Jakobi wishes he was currently reading something by The Great Ravickian Novelist, instead of The Days Were Done by Gunnezet: “I wish I were reading Amini right now. How The Very Long Array would fortify! But Gunnezet is the man of the hour.” Of course Gunnezet is never mentioned again. The “man of the hour” vanishes just as quickly as he appeared—and can’t we all think of at least a few writers who fit this description? What is this disintegrating world where writers and literature are continuously important, to so many different kinds of people, yet in an everyday sort of way, as if the books we read cannot help but be at the center of our lives. “Passerby would suggest I read Patova’s I Thought of Architecture, which I had read many times and knew many passages by heart, as most everyone else did.” These writers struggle to solve a crisis, through writing and action, that at the same time they cannot officially acknowledge. And has any crisis ever been solved through a writer’s struggle with words?

As I’ve already mentioned, there are aspects of each Ravicka book I don’t completely understand. And I hope, no matter how much I explore them, that some parts will never completely cohere. That Ravicka will remain a labyrinth in my mind, entire swathes of the city just out of reach, what these swathes are changing over time in my memory and rereading of them. In Eileen Myles’s blurb for Event Factory she compares the novel to Kafka’s Amerika, and Gladman does often make me think of Kafka. Yet, as soon as this comparison occurs I know I’ve taken a wrong turn. A wrong turn on the road to answering the question: Where is Ravicka? Gladman is nothing like Kafka, yet both writers are consistently uncompromising—in their language, in the fragmented worlds they have, paradoxically, so seamlessly and convincingly created. There is a quote from Kafka I sometimes see online: “Don’t bend; don’t water it down; don’t try to make it logical; don’t edit your own soul according to the fashion. Rather, follow your most intense obsessions mercilessly.” Ravicka is the story of one writer’s merciless obsessions and the city-state that embodies them. These obsessions, mirroring our own world, a world that is also disintegrating before our eyes, miraculously manage to find joy and relief in the most unexpected of ways and places.

The rumor that more Ravicka books are to come is a rumor I hope is true. The next in the series is rumored to be about the grasses of Ravicka, grasses where the ancestors long ago lay down and dreamt what Ravicka might someday become. Future books, of course, will have to wait (even future books taking us further back into the past.) So perhaps I’ll just let Ravicka have the last word: “It was amazing to imagine your city was a novel, and that for you to walk around within it meant that you were in language, you were in a thinking text; pages were walls that enclosed you, the ground was the floor of the book, the horizon of the sentence, and all you were doing was walking up hill, going for coffee, hanging clothes to dry. We were inside a living structure, ourselves living, and went on this way for a long time.”


1 comment:

Patrik Sampler said...

I've read Event Factory (and referenced it in this item:, an unusually thought-full novel for our Nonthought epoch. It's great to see Gladman's Ravicka novels covered here.