The cover of this issue is a painting by Tom Hammick. The title is Vergissmeinnicht, German for forget-me-not, the small blue flower. Tom told me that he took the title from a poem by Keith Douglas, written during the North Africa campaign of World War II. Douglas and his group discover a dead German soldier in the desert, on recaptured land – ‘Three weeks gone and the combatants gone / returning over the nightmare ground’. It’s only when they find a photograph in the gun pit, signed ‘Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht’, that Douglas begins to think of the dead soldier as anything other than simply an enemy. Steffi would weep, he thinks, at the sight of the flies on the dead man’s face; ‘the dust upon the paper eye / and the burst stomach like a cave’.
Within a year or so Douglas himself was dead, killed in Normandy, aged twenty-four.
Vergissmeinnicht. 55,000 dead and counting, in the UK, as I write. By the time you read this, many more people will have died, but for most of us, what we think of as ‘normal life’ may have resumed – a vaccine; Trump resigned to defeat; a Brexit deal concluded. Some of us, I notice, carry on almost as normal, but aren’t we all a bit frayed around the edges, worn out by – what exactly, if we are not ill? The proximity to illness? Lockdown restrictions? Isolation? The news? I don’t know. The title of this issue – taken from Dan Shurley’s story – reflects fatigue, and perhaps sadness. But, in defiance of sadness, we are introducing a vibrant new voice: Catalan poet Eva Baltasar, with ‘Permafrost’, an extract from her forthcoming novel.
Lindsey Hilsum remembers reporting from Goma, a small border town in what was then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees from Rwanda. By April 1994 the genocide was over, and some two million Hutus, many of them killers or collaborators, were fleeing the country. International media and aid organisations descended on this small town on the edge of a volcano, mingling with refugees who, within days, started succumbing to a cholera epidemic. There was no clean water, and at times no water at all. Journalists staying in colonial villas stepped cautiously around bodies, instructed not to bring abandoned children to the aid tents, because all hope of reuniting them with their parents would then be lost. Many of those children must have died. Mothers and fathers, who may have taken part in genocide, lay dying on the side of the road. Hilsum, who had reported from Rwanda during the genocide, knew the history well, but what do you do with the knowledge that the victims of today are yesterday’s perpetrators?
Poet Vidyan Ravinthiran meditates on similarly ambiguous themes in his autobiographical essay, ‘Victim and Accused’. He visits a group of mothers in Sri Lanka whose children – mostly young men, but women too – went missing in the civil war. The government has promised records, but none have been produced. The mothers are in limbo; their children are probably, but not certainly, dead. Ravinthiran is in his own, less desperate, limbo. He has lost his precarious sense of belonging in Brexit Britain; lost his poetic voice onstage and his confidence in teaching. Progressive white people sometimes fear saying the wrong thing when the issue is race and their interlocutor is not white; this silence, or fragility, contributes to Ravinthiran’s sense of alienation. He also touches, in his essay, on the thorny issue of comparative suffering. There can be no comparison, obviously, between his own suffering and the suffering of the mothers in Sri Lanka. ‘But,’ he writes, ‘I’m curious about the refusal to countenance a connection between disparate experiences – a route by which empathy could travel.’
We have now conducted two Zoom launches, for the summer and autumn issues of Granta. I have been moved – this sounds trivial, but bear with me – by seeing the chat bar on the side fill up with warm and respectful comments as people listened to contributors reading: that too, it seems to me, is a route by which empathy travels. Perhaps in isolation a new form of communication is emerging, expressing what readers and writers have always told one another, via books and letters and on the literary stage: I hear you. You are not alone.
Artwork © Tom Hammick