:: Article

The Texture of an Edge

By Anna MacDonald.

Review of River of Esther Kinsky

Esther Kinsky, River, translated by Iain Galbraith (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018)

Soon after I began reading Esther Kinsky’s River I went out in search of a magnifying glass. Early one Sunday, I drove east to the neighbourhood of my childhood and scanned the tables of the flea market, sifting through the mismatched crockery and souvenir ashtrays, the rusted garden tools and mildewed terracotta pots, the war medals, postcards, biscuit tins and children’s toys. I found the magnifying glass at a stall manned by two Russians whom I took to be brothers. The same table where, years ago, I had salvaged a cardboard box of photographs – many of them river scenes – that span the years between 1944 and 1970 and catalogue a Polish family’s births, deaths, marriages and the houses they once called home.

The handle of the magnifying glass bears the years of another’s use, but its lens is clear. With it I scanned the pages of River, paying particular attention to the book’s photographs, following fence lines, railway embankments, deserted roads that turn blindly into the distance, and wooded paths that disappear into a blaze of unexpected eerie light. I thought I was looking for clues; searching for details that were not at first apparent to the naked eye. I noted down metaphors, pursued suggestive allusions, drew connections between one thing and another, and believed I was reading River. But in fact, by looking closely, I was learning to see what was already there: to observe the book’s “fluvial landscape”, to recognise its “estuarine script” and, like the narrator, to discover a tidal universe in “the unremarkable things that lay unheeded by the wayside, things lost and not found, things left behind, unclaimed, thrown aside, going to rack and ruin, beyond retrieval or recognition”.

Kinsky is an heir to Thoreau (she has translated his work into German) and River is shaped by his thought in important ways. The book is an entrancing example of Thoreau’s “discipline of looking always at what is to be seen”. And the unnamed narrator’s “slow and haphazard” walks by the River Lea, her dedication to “walking and looking” as a way of being and belonging in the world recall Thoreau’s 1861 essay, ‘Walking’, in which he describes this “art”, best realised in sauntering, as the ability to be “equally at home everywhere”.

River is a work of fiction, but I hesitate to call it a novel. It has, rather, more in common with W. G. Sebald’s prose narratives which – as Kinsky’s translator Iain Galbraith notes in his introduction to Sebald’s Across the Land and the Water: Selected poems, 1964-2001 – keep “at arm’s length … the generic exactions (plot, character development, dialogue) levied by the more conventional modes of writing fiction”. There are similarities between Sebald’s and Kinsky’s prose works: the wandering narrators, the inclusion of photographs, the affective power of objects, the elemental prominence of water and fire, the emergence of memories in place, the topography of railway lines, bone mills, slaughterhouses and brickworks. These likenesses contribute to the uncanny familiarity of River’s narrative universe and it is due to them that I at first sought to read Kinsky’s book in the way I have learned to read from Sebald: by paying attention to those strange, allusive connections from which his world is woven. But the narrative universe of River – while descended from Sebald’s and Thoreau’s – is very much Kinsky’s own. In it, the narrator “looks always at what is to be seen” and, in doing so, is witness to that which has as yet gone unobserved. So it was that when I went out in search of a magnifying glass, I was also seeking another way of looking at what is to be seen.


The narrator of River was raised on the banks of the Rhine, which as she tells it was “the first border I ever knew … It taught us what was here and where was there.” Now, after living for many years in central London, she has “excised” herself from that life – “just as one might cut a figure out of a landscape or group photo” – in favour of “a provisional existence” by the Lea and an extended “leave-taking” of the city before her return to the east. Every day, from her temporary flat in London’s north-east, she walks to the river and its interstitial surrounds: beyond Springfield Park and the alder grove at Horse Shoe Point to Walthamstow, Leyton, Hackney and Stratford Marshes, to Hackney Wick, Leamouth and, eventually, the Thames Estuary.

This is fertile ground; territory that has been crossed by Iain Sinclair, Rachel Lichtenstein, Gareth E. Rees, Will Self and Nick Papadimitriou among other psycho-geographers, deep-topographers and writers of place. Like Kinsky, many of these walker-writers are drawn to the liminality of this urban edge. For Sinclair, in London Orbital, the Lea is “a water margin” that feeds his “Hackney dreaming”. In his book Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London, Rees describes the Lea as carving “a border between the modern boroughs of Hackney, Leyton and Waltham Forest, and the historical counties of Middlesex and Essex”. When the river bifurcates, the old Lea (for Kinsky’s narrator, its “wild” arm) “plunges into Hackney Marshes, where she reconnects with a deeper chronology, before the city, before people, when monsters hunted on her banks”. Here, according to Rees, the Lea “remembers herself”.

The Lea is a site of myth, memory and imagination, which in River, is reigned over by the King: a man “conversant with grandeur, but also used to desolation”, missing or deposed from his country of origin who, “in his stark solitude”, commands this enchanted area “between a landscape abandoned to all kinds of wildness, and the city”. The King is witness to the rising and setting of the sun, and his ritual marks the opening and closing of Kinsky’s narrative. River begins at twilight, when the King, encircled by ravens, faces east into the encroaching night. It ends at dawn, with “a great torrent of light” pouring over the King, the ravens and Springfield Park, “glimmering, glistening, sparkling, and finally dissolving in a blinding, golden tremor, in which all that had accompanied [the narrator] in the past months evaporated like a cloud succumbing to sunlight”. Between dusk and dawn, over the course of her extended London leave-taking, the narrator dreams upon the “dark matter” thrown up by the river: “images [that] belonged to a past I could not even be sure was my own, touching on something whose name I must have forgotten, or possibly never knew”.

It is in photographs that the narrator learns to recognise these uncannily familiar images. She carries a Polaroid camera as she walks and photographs “things that were irreconcilable with my previous life in London”:

What came to light when the developer foil was peeled from the black-and-white photo with its countless shades of grey was a memory I did not even know I had. The pictures showed something that lay behind the things the lens had focussed on, things which, for an imperceptible moment in time, the shutter release must have brushed aside. … There was something unquestionably familiar about these landscape scenes … Something waved to me, whispering: Do you remember? You remember, don’t you? from some remote depth within the white-edged surface of the photograph. And right beside it the world of the negative: nocturnal, putting a strange face on things, casting into doubt what belonged to which side, whether it was here or there, right or left.

In River, photographs – and Polaroid photographs especially – belong to the twilit, edgeland dreaming of the Lea. They belong to the place and time of their taking in ways that other kinds of photography do not. Because they are developed in situ, the narrator must take into account the weather conditions when determining how long to wait before peeling the positive image from its negative. And the “instant” nature of the Polaroid allows her to compare its subject against the photograph and its negative at once.

In their dark magic, these photographs both affirm and cast doubt upon the narrator’s Rhineland river teachings: “What [is] here and where [is] there.” In their “countless shades of grey” they “bring to light” the strange nocturnal world of the farther side of myth and imagination. Like the river with its “dark matter”, like the found objects that the narrator gathers as she walks and with which she compiles a “barely decipherable archive of [her] homelessness”, photographs remember what memory has neglected. With its “alien eye”, the camera captures a “wounded landscape”, just as the porcelain manufactured from slaughterhouse bones at Bow retained “a hint of rosiness” and the bricks from which London is built are repositories of “different histories”, drawn from the sediment of the city’s “network of countless rivers”.

The rivers of River are many – both arms of the Lea, the Thames, the St Lawrence, the Danube, the Yarkon, the Vistula, the Oder, the Neretva, the Tisza, and the Hooghly – but they all find their source in the Rhine. In his book Water and Dreams, phenomenologist and champion of the elemental imagination Gaston Bachelard describes the influence of the landscapes of childhood – the environments where as children we learn to dream – upon the world we later inhabit:

Dreaming by the river, I dedicated my imagination to water, to clear, green water, the water that makes the meadows green. I cannot sit beside a stream without falling into a profound reverie … It does not have to be the same stream …, water from home. The nameless waters know all of my secrets. The same memory flows from all fountains.

Walking and looking we learn to be at home everywhere. But this home that travels with us is forever inflected by the elemental landscapes of our childhood. Bachelard’s childhood waters are tranquil, the memories they ignite are coloured by his “youthful happiness”. Those of Kinsky’s narrator are considerably more turbulent. For her, all rivers are border zones and conjure the “dislocation, confusion and unpredictability in a world that crave[s] order”, which she first learned to recognise in her Rhineland childhood. To travel on the Rhine was to give oneself up to a “restless, transient land between two riverbanks”. To live alongside it was to inhabit a world prone to floods that “washed away any sense of order”, “clawed at things that seemed fixed and inviolable” and left behind in its wake “dark matter for which we had no name”.

Like the Rhine, the Lea marks an edge. It is just one of the between zones, border lines, no-man’s-lands, gateways, and transitional spaces to which Kinsky and her narrator are drawn. These zones indicate a city’s “scar lines”, and for all the urban drive toward order, they are sites of lingering wildness: “terrain undescribed enough for me to apply my own names to it”. Walking the Lea, taking photographs, collecting found objects, the narrator learns to look at the city in a way that had eluded her during all those years she lived there “under the delusion of belonging”. Here she learns, finally, to give a name to the dark matter of her childhood river.

But belonging – this calling into being – becomes possible only after the narrator leaves her London home for a place where she knows no-one and where “the street names, views, smells and faces were all unfamiliar to me”. Like Thoreau’s ‘Walker Errant’, having left behind family, friends and the known world, Kinsky’s narrator is now “at home everywhere”. And everywhere becomes the transient world of the river, that transitional space between wildness and the city, where the water-bound cosmic reveries of childhood can, and do, live again.

The old, wild Lea “remembers herself” in the deep chronology of her marshland territory. The narrator’s Lea-side walks are also journeys into memory. Along the way – “sticking to the river as if clutching a rope while balancing on a narrow footbridge” – she “rediscovered bits and pieces of [her] childhood, found snippets cut from other landscapes and group photographs, unexpectedly come here to roost”. Soon after arriving in the neighbourhood, she discovers an alder grove at Horse Shoe Point, where curlews, lapwings and bitterns sound their “melancholy calls” and recall her childhood by the Rhine:

This partly mutilated wetland wood with its childhood flowers and wild birds secretly appealing to my memory was my gateway to the lower reaches, to the path downstream that gradually taught me, during the final months of my stay, to find my own names for a city I had already spent many years labouring to decipher – names only walking and looking could force me to extract and reassemble from a web of trickling memories, a debris of stored images and sounds, a tissue of tangled words.

The allusion is clearly to a foundational trauma, which begins to be painfully extracted from a tangle of words and repressed images after the narrator passes through the gateway of a mutilated wood that distinctly recalls the sadness of her grandparents’ generation. And although I am reluctant to read River solely as a Holocaust narrative – for, like Sebald, Kinsky represents the Holocaust as one in an ongoing cycle of human atrocities in which the Bosnian War receives particular emphasis – the book is indelibly marked by the horrors of the Second World War, just as the landscape through which the narrator travels is regularly marked by death.

Pre-war, inter-war and post-war are prefixes that define the physical world of River, as well as the ways in which the book tells time. On her Lea-side walks, the narrator looks for traces of a past that might have survived post-war reconstruction. She travels to Croatia in search of “some kind of key to a post-war condition that refuses to be dismissed, even from the green of the grass, leaves and weeds”. The memories of her Rhineland childhood are coloured as much by “the dream of the Great Straightening of the World” as they are by the river itself. And in north-east London she finds evidence of the re-ordering of the post-war world in the council flats “built on land cleared of war debris”.

The hasty cobbling together of housing in an effort to remove all trace of what lay underneath had been a major feature of my childhood … Buildings were constantly demolished, sites excavated and levelled, and the signs of a past that had gone awry were overlaid with impenetrable crusts. Disintegrating brickwork, in whose nooks and crannies the hair of former residents who had turned to snow still hung in rustling spider webs, was buried under the pale-grey, post-war pressed stone, permitted its return to the earth under new roads. … Here in London the reasons for erasing traces of the past may have been different from those in the country of my childhood, but the unhappiness that inhabited the drab chasms between the houses looked remarkably similar in both.

In the country of the narrator’s childhood, the removal of traces of a past “gone awry” also meant the removal of gardens that had run wild after their “unremembered owners had fled their own names”. The neighbourhood of the River Lea is home to an observant Jewish community who, during the Feast of Tabernacles, “with its rehearsed atmosphere of provisional arrangements and make-believe fragility of dwellings”, celebrate “the opposite of homelessness”. Here, the narrator discovers traces of the levelled past: scar lines, wounded landscapes, porcelain and bricks tinged with slaughter blood, as well as a shoe-heap sold by “the Croat” in aid of victims of the Bosnian War, “fatty soot” left over from the burning of heretics, and a canister of “broken-off gold teeth”.

Walking, looking, learning to see: these are the tenets of River. In her extended daily walks over the same territory, Kinsky’s narrator adopts the “microscopic inner-eye” of Nick Papadimitriou’s deep-topography. As described by Will Self, in Psychogeography, this is a discipline of “minutely detailed, multi-level examinations of select locales”. To borrow further from Thoreau, it is an approach to place that “looks at what is to be seen”, and then looks deeper. Thus, with my salvaged magnifying glass, I hoped to strip back the layers of Kinsky’s photographs, and her words (staggeringly beautiful in Iain Galbraith’s translation from the German), to see beyond the surface to what lay beneath. Perhaps this is the natural development of a way of looking – of learning to see – that has moved from the woods and fields of Thoreau’s ‘Walking’ to the urban edge. But it is also the evolution of a “multi-level examination” of place that must consider what histories, myths and dreams have been built over to placate the post-war condition; what latent memories are waiting to resurface with the flood tide; what dark matter can be named by walking and looking.

Anna MacDonald

Anna MacDonald is a writer and bookseller. She lives in Melbourne.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 22nd, 2018.