This quiet yet powerful anthology of translated stories is the latest in Two Line Press’s Calico Series, which offers readers “vibrant snapshot[s]” that focus on a single contemporary concern or idea. Two Lines has also published multiple works of speculative fiction in translation over the past few years, including That We May Live: Speculative Chinese Fiction (2020, also part of the Calico Series), João Gilberto Noll’s Harmada (2020), and Elvira Navarro’s Rabbit Island (2021), with Mohamed Kheir’s Slipping just out this last June.
Elemental—with stories translated from the Hebrew, Norwegian, Persian, Japanese, Kurdish, German, French, and Polish—is a lovely and sometimes disturbing exploration of the intersection of humanity and nature. This book, according to Two Lines, asks, “How can we understand our complex, ever-evolving relationship to the Earth and its elements?” Cities fall into ruin, dams and pipelines shift natural waterways, weather researchers brave harsh conditions; and yet, through it all, the protagonists learn to adjust to nature’s unpredictability and the inevitability of decay.
We see an individual’s struggle to understand how weather patterns influence the human or animal world in two of Elemental’s most powerful stories: Gøhril Gabrielsen’s “Ankomst” and “The Weather Woman” by Tamar Weiss-Gabbay. Translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin, “Ankomst” describes one researcher’s quest to gather crucial meteorological data while living atop an isolated mountain surrounded by fjords. In her pursuit of that data—to understand how climatic changes impact the seabirds living in the area—the unnamed narrator focuses intensely on tangible things, be they the driving winds, the birds, or her own physical sensations. In contrast to this palpable world is the narrator’s intangible, nebulous relationship to a man on the mainland whom the reader never meets.
The protagonist in “The Weather Woman” (translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen), is also an isolated, unnamed woman who tracks weather conditions, though in this case it’s an unspecified area of cliffs and canyons in Israel. First described in the spirit of a gunslinger out of a Western movie, we soon learn that her weather predictions have turned her into a kind of prophet for the local inhabitants. But when a new pipeline is built to combat flooding in the area, the natural imbalance extends to her own relationship with those around her.
Like “The Weather Woman,” “We Have Lived Here”—translated from the German by Rachel Farmer—has a fable-like quality to it, with the protagonist (Georg) sent to a strange town to inspect a quarry’s financial records. Woven throughout is the certainty that, in time, this limestone town will decay and fade away—even as the directors of the company running the quarry try to fudge the numbers and resist the inevitable. Human, animal, and environmental decay are also the central themes of Michèle Rakotoson’s “Lalana” (French, translated by Allison M. Charette), and the one nonfiction piece of the anthology—Dorota Brauntsch’s “Place Memory” (Polish, translated by Sean Gasper Bye).
In “Lalana,” the story of a man driving his dying friend to see the ocean—the friend’s final wish before succumbing to AIDS—intersects with descriptions of the dying, dessicated landscape. Images from the past and present merge together on this sad yet noble journey. Time and memory, and the decay that follows, similarly inform “Place Memory,” a simple yet powerful tale of one’s man’s connection to the land on which he was born, stretching back several generations. The felling of old apple trees that stood on his family’s land reinforces Szymon’s sense of loss as he witnesses the houses and natural world he once knew fall prey to modern development.
While all of the stories in this anthology have a slightly surreal quality, three in particular use magical realism to disrupt the reader’s certainty about past/present, life/death, dream/reality. Erika Kobayashi’s “Precious Stones”—translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom and the longest story in the book—moves freely between ancient times and contemporary life, all connected through one woman’s thoughts and dreams of a man who can confer immortality and a necklace that can contain dreams.
The Persian story “Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth” (written by Farkhondeh Aghaei and translated by Michelle Quay) vividly explores one young woman’s experiences at a funeral of a family friend and then her own passage from life into death. Meanwhile, Bakhtiyar Ali’s “Jamshid Khan” (translated from the Kurdish by Basir Borhani and Shirzad Alipour) tells the story of a man who is tortured and imprisoned for his political activities. Thanks to his wasted frame, he gets blown up and out of the prison yard by a gust of wind. Found by a family member and with no memory of his previous life Jamshid goes into hiding with two cousins who tie themselves to him to prevent him from blowing away again. Jamshid eventually becomes a kind of kite-man, rising above the conflicts and quarrels of his native country to find freedom.
On the publisher’s site, you can read about how three of the anthology’s authors conceived of their stories concerning encounters between humans and the natural world. Weiss-Gabay talks about “the limits of our influence on reality and particularly on nature”, and Elemental is a lovely and thought-provoking addition to literary meditations on our planet and our place in it. It offers an excellent selection of stories that differ in style, tone, and subject but unite around a common theme: what it is that we humans do to, and with, the world around us.