[Feminist Press; 2024]

Tr. from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel

Reading The Singularity, Saskia Vogel’s translation of the 2021 Swedish novel Singulariteten by Balsam Karam, I was reminded of an etching I saw at the Tate a few years ago. Mimmo Paladino’s Menacing Caves (1982) centers on an abstracted, female figure. Her head rests vertically on her arm, perhaps in resignation or in slumber, and her left hand makes an uncertain or pained gesture. She is surrounded by a shadowy, bald humanoid with a shameless, openmouthed smile, who foregrounds an even more abstracted ghost, tipping what appears to be a hat. On the lower half of the paper, there are vague outlines (of furniture? clothes? apple cores?), a mammalian snout, and a bird’s nest with three chicks, tended by an oblong crow. These figures are assembled in an unclear, yet harmonious composition. An example of the Transavanguardia movement, the Italian branch of neo-expressionism, the etching fascinated me with its suggestive eeriness, emanating from its unplaceable simplicity. With the exception of two upside down, blood red triangles resting on the bottom of the sketch, Menacing Caves is composed entirely of white, gray, and black. It suggests a great deal and shows us nothing; its haunting non-narrative is so evocative because it doesn’t evoke anything in particular.

The Singularity makes a similar impression. Karam has written a surprising work of horror, embedded in two motherhood plots that briefly connect in an unnamed harbor town half-recovered from a violent conflict. An unnamed, middle-aged refugee woman searches for her teenage daughter. This mother has no backstory, no defining features (as the narrator remarks, “nothing in her face recalls what once was”), and no future; in the prologue to the work, she jumps off a cliff and plummets to her death, a suicide largely unnoticed by tourists and locals swarming the corniche. In the first section of the work, titled “The Missing One,” a third-person narrator dwells on the mother’s final, fruitless search for her daughter before her fall. The mother likewise grieves for her surviving children, because she knows that she is gradually losing them, too: her ability to look after them is eroding. In the days leading up to her suicide, she wanders, day and night, cursed and unheard, returning less and less frequently to her children, Pearl, Minna, and Mo, and her elderly mother. Her prayers unanswered, her headscarf gone, she leaps into the sea.

Shortly before the mother of the Missing One jumps to her death, she locks eyes with a young traveler visiting the city, the second mother-heroine of The Singularity. The traveler, also unnamed, moved to this cold European country with her mother, grandmother, and siblings as a young girl. The chance encounter between the two women shakes the young traveler to her core and takes on a particular symbolic significance for her when she learns that her unborn child has died. 

Bodily and narrative distortion fuse the heroines’ stories, as each woman gives way to darkness. Horrific imagery in both narrative arcs connect the seemingly unrelated stories, suggesting—while not insisting upon—the parallels between the two. Given that her death is revealed almost immediately in the text, the mother of the Missing One is truly a walking corpse, castaway from the living. She suits this grim role perfectly, as “pus seeps out yellow thick” from the wounds covering her emaciated, skeleton-like body. Her near final resting place, “a raised lot they call the alley,” is truly the place of nightmares, replete with cockroaches, rats, and vegetables brought by a kindly grocer and allowed to rot, half-eaten. The alley is haunted by the Missing One’s grandmother, who finds herself unable to care for her kin. One day, the narrator claims, “the grandmother went into the darkness and there she stayed.” During her intermittent appearances in the first section of the text, she resides in a pit and sobs and curses the town’s visitors. Her surviving offspring are neglected then abandoned, a fate they cannot change but seem to accept. Wise children are eerie, cursed ones are heartbreaking. It is worth noting here that the only characters with names in the text are doomed children. To me, this suggests the author’s particular mourning for next generation of victimized people.

The traveler’s story, recounted in the second and third sections of the book, also terrifies. She carries a dead baby inside of her and refuses to part with it for four days, an ordeal portrayed in a section of the work called Evening, a maternity ward. Here, slash marks attach disjointed thoughts and memories told in first and second person, forming a sixteen-page leviathan of trauma. For example, 

 / the counsellor’s name is Alexander or John and in the dream you approach him with a sharp knife in your hand / Mum is losing blood and isn’t allowed to put you to her breast even if she wants to / you rest the teacup on your belly like you did when the child was alive and say from here on out, no one I love will be forced to give up their child—that ends now, that trauma / …

The unrelenting, staccato narration—never interrupted, except for sub-headings marking the passage of time—approximates the traveler’s psyche at a time of utter collapse. This section comes to an abrupt end on day four, without offering cathartic relief.

In the final section of the book, another, unidentified second-person narrator confronts the traveler with a series of painful, paragraph-long episodes from her childhood. The reader is left to piece together the traveler’s biography from the clues left by this caustic narrative voice. The traveler struggles with unresolved guilt about her past, as well as the uncertainty of her place in the country where she has spent most of her life.  Her backstory is rife with symbolic imagery of horror, from her mother’s lost eye, to the persistent memory of her childhood best friend, Rozia, found crushed in a pile of rubble. At the same time, the traveler faces more banal struggles of casual racism and adolescence:

None of your white friends have wanted to hear any of your memories from the war. It hits you one day as you’re sitting with one of them, listening to him talk about how he used to pick berries with his grandmother as a child. He goes into minute detail, pulling out pictures from when he was in the bilberry patch in the woods, one where he is sticking out his tongue, pulling a face. Yes, but my friend Rozia was found in the rubble after a bombing, what do you think about that? you say and wait for him to respond.

By juxtaposing gore and everyday hurt, the narrator imbues a familiar subject—social hypocrisy and racializing prejudice—with a disconcerting aura. Rather than offering a place for healing, the country of asylum seems to numb the traveler with unpredictable bouts of indifference and stereotyping meted out by friends, coworkers, and medical professionals. Although the traveler managed to escape catastrophe and build a new life for herself far from the site of disaster, she remains haunted by the demons of the past and trapped in an uncanny place where no one seems to care and no one can reach her. That could drive anyone mad. Perhaps this is what leads her to “save” her dead child and keep it in her womb indefinitely, stubbornly concluding, “from here on out, no one I love will be forced to give up their child—that ends now, that trauma.” With each confrontation, horror burrows deeper.

All three sections of The Singularity create a chilling backdrop for the momentary collision between the two heroines. But what connects the two women? The traveler does not explicitly figure into the story of the refugee mother and it remains unclear to what extent their encounter is distorted by the traveler’s grief. This intriguing inconsistency aside, the women certainly function as doubles of one another, a reading implicated most vividly in the traveler’s narratives. If her life story had panned out differently, the traveler could have been the Missing One, or her mother. Instead, fate chose a different path for her, one that appears—at least in the moment of loss—equally pointless and cruel, tainted by the wounds of her forebears. Trying to figure out when exactly her child died, she concludes, “I think it died a long time ago or on the corniche. Maybe it died long before I got here and maybe even before they dug Rozia out, who knows. . . . I mean, maybe the child had already died before I was born and Mum was just a girl, or maybe even before Mum was born and Gran was carrying her and me, do you know what I mean?” The frenzied, interactive delivery of an obvious message—that the traveler is tired of accumulating loss—stuns.

The singularity of grief unites these two women. And it is worth considering what the word singularity actually means. In the vocabulary of quantum physics, a singularity is “a point or region of infinite mass density at which space and time are infinitely distorted by gravitational forces and which is held to be the final state of matter falling into a black hole.” Here, the loss of a child creates an abyss that subsumes each heroine, allowing their pain to crystalize. A singularity can also represent “a context in which a small change can cause a large effect.” This definition hints at the undefined relationship between the book’s main characters, including the traveler’s role as a victim, bystander, and implicated subject in her moment of connection with the refugee mother. Although I do not know Swedish, it would seem that the work’s original title (Singulariteten means singularities) is similarly evocative.

Released this January by Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK), Book*hug Press (Canada), and Feminist Press (US), The Singularity has met an enthusiastic reception. Reviews and author blurbs celebrate Vogel’s translation, noting both the quality of the English prose styling and the structural ingenuity of Karam’s original, as well as the book’s important subject matter: the plight of refugees, the role of the bystander, and the loss and grief inherent to motherhood. Critics have also noticed parallels between Karam’s biography—she is a Kurdish woman who settled in Sweden as a child—and the traveler’s story, a comparison corroborated by the author. Given that certain reviews display veiled skepticism towards the themes of the work, I would like to stress that depictions of grieving mothers and asylum-seekers are rare and underexplored within the mainstream Anglophone book market, as are works by Kurdish authors (the first English translation of a Kurdish-language novel, I Stared at the Night of the City by Bachtyar Ali and translated by Kareem Abdulrahman, was only published in 2016).

The Singularity reflects and refracts a terrifying moment in the lives of two refugee mothers. It scares the reader with bodily decay, alienating narrative voices, and haunting memories. Just as Paladino’s Menacing Caves imbues basic, colorless, abstracted figures with eerie possibility, Vogel’s translation of Karam alters and rearranges seemingly familiar themes until they are unrecognizable, and more real. In The Singularity, motherhood, displacement, racism, and tourism careen through a black hole of grief. These topics will linger with you, leading you to wonder who really died on the corniche that day.

Jess Jensen Mitchell is a translator and PhD student at Harvard University, where she is writing her dissertation on contemporary Polish literature.

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