The Book of Water by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (translated from the Greek by Sakis Kyratzis). Eris Press, 2022, 64pp, £14.99 (paperback) ISBN: 978-1-912475-19-3
Water is an all-pervasive physical and magical-realist presence in each of the twenty-two extraordinary short stories which make up The Book of Water by writer and multi-media artist Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, translated into English by Sakis Kyratzis. Sea levels have risen. Climate change seems irreversible. The boundaries between water and land, real and imaginary worlds liquefy. Even the geophysical stability of the world seems altered. Each story is told from the perspective of a purposefully unnamed narrator: male, female, genderless, each compelled to repeat, often seemingly absurdist quotidian routines, all involving water. By the time we finish the last story, we have become immersed in the liquid translucency of this magical-realist world, as if we too have melted into the Book of Water. When composing these stories on a tiny Greek island, so small it does not even feature on the map, Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos would casually meet people" and have conversations with them, and "allow these things to take on a life of their own and become slightly different in my mind." Upon waking up in the morning, he would write "one short story in longhand" with no editing, "just allowing a natural flow." And it is this flow that gives such a dreamlike quality to these stories, which combine elements of surreal-absurdism, satire, dark fairytale and ecological catastrophe.
In the introductory "Doorstep," the sea has risen overnight, waves "lapping against the doorstep." The male narrator wakes up; the walls are swaying, so he holds his breath until the room settles. This strange world is believable because of its everyday detail: "The large roses––the central feature of a wallpaper he never chose––were floating against their beige foliage." Is this not his home? There is a sinister reference to "they" who have left him tea and biscuits. Who are "they"? This echoes the first of three enigmatic epigraphs: "the lake is the others," and an afterword, each designed to unsettle us. The epigraphs separate the book into three sections, stories in which the narrators are surrounded by the water, then immersed, drawing us ever deeper into the book's surreal-absurdist world. By the end of "Doorstep" we are not surprised when the narrator takes off his pyjamas and enters the water––which he seems to do regularly––letting go of all the air inside him, and becoming part of the sea. And as he does so, we too, have stepped over The Book of Water's "watery" threshold.
In "The Wave," the unnamed first-person narrator complains about the neighbours; there are fights over resources; each person does not have enough space in their makeshift shacks, separated by partitions, which they lean up against, half-bent. Sea levels have risen further. No longer "lapping against the doorstep," people are standing in seawater. We infer we are in the near-future, and are deceptively lulled by the benign start of the handed-down oral story reference being told before becoming more threatening: "My grandmother used to tell me what her grandmother used to tell her, about how she was standing in the water when, years ago, the big one came ... " The narrative then transitions into poetic prose, with an insidious warning about an imminent apocalyptic wave:
Some mornings, especially when the sun is late to rise, a whisper stirs the water surface,
words dart past us whistling that something enormous has appeared on the horizon, a
boulder of water perhaps, so dense that it seems opaque and final.
Boundaries between solid and liquid become even less defined in the title story "The Book of Water," in which its narrator keeps attempting to reread a book: "The book would start liquifying, its pages turning into undercurrents and its phrases into reflections of geological lassitude." He reads faster, not understanding anything because he knows he only has about a minute left before the book will once more turn sticky "like green apple jelly mixed with brown sand, dulling its lustre." In stream of consciousness sentences, the boundary between the book, his body, the city and the world "seemed to turn into liquid ... " The narrator lets the book go, because he feels he is slipping from it, like a character no longer essential to its plot, "dragging down with him a piece of the world that was held together by liquid bridges, stretched ropes made of jelly, trembling hands of waves." And perhaps we too, are slipping away from the book we are reading, and being dragged down ...
The water has risen even further in "At Lela's," in which the narrator is often invited over to Lela's place, which he has to swim round, diving to rest on underwater bookshelves, which could also be sea-shelves, to "let the books open at random and the paragraphs float on our palms." The narrator subtly refers to quantum physics which seems relegated to a historical subject to be discussed like cave paintings: "She would smile and encourage me while we talked about politics, twentieth-century classical music, cave paintings and quantum physics." The last sentence is left open to interpretation: "time slowed down for both of us, equally." Has time slowed, or just their own sense of it?
Told from a child's point of view, "The City" is one of the most powerfully resonant stories in The Book of Water. A young girl draws a plan of a city in the ground with a twig, which she lets "lead her," first marking out streets, alleyways and boulevards, and then making "room for the water," a river and canals and bridges to connect the boroughs over ditches, which she fills with water from the playground's tap:
she would always scatter little houses for the elderly, the refugees who had just arrived to
the city, children who wanted to live on their own surrounded by animals, and other friends
of hers. Once she had the mayor live in one of these small houses. Why not, she thought.
For, in her childhood's imagination, she is free to be town-planner, social reformer, architect. She enlarges the buildings' windows to create more light. But then the reader is brought out of the child's make-believe world, and told that people who see her with her jumble of cartons, think: how can she play in "such filth?" This juxtaposition is particularly effective, as we now feel even more compassionate toward the neglected child, placing her in a real city, with refugees seeking sanctuary. As in "The Book of Water," the young girl never completes her city before the water rushes in and it collapses into the mud.
All her cities suffered the same fate. And in the end, she would climb on a piece of carton
and float out in the open, pushed by the aquatic boulevards and the submerged palaces that
gushed through the windows.
It is left open to interpretation as to whether the boulevards and palaces collapsing in a near-future flooded city, which resembles Venice––where the author lives for half of the year––are imaginary, or real, and the story ends enigmatically: "Maybe that was her city after all: an oceanic metropolis of failed beginnings."
What makes the magic-realism of these stories so convincing, is that they often begin matter-of-factly, with the reader gradually drawn in. "Underbelly" begins as if we are caught in casual conversation with a local: "So what? Does it really matter that there are no streets? We can swim after all. Look, there are much more serious problems to occupy ourself with." And the narrator goes on to tell us about forgetting to bring a waterproof shopping bag. This city also resembles an imaginary near-future Venice. During Easter, the narrator tells us that they leave church with their lit candles, trying to bring the holy light home intact. The streets are underwater, so swimmers swim in formation below, along the canals, while others stand upon their shoulders, in order to keep the flame dry. Then the locals want to be pulled into the underbelly of its deep water "ever since we were born and maybe even before ... " And so they go deeper, into the centre of the earth, as if into the planet's womb,
with the dead and the ones that might never be born. But also with winged and glassy
bodies, with trembling stamens and slumberous roots, with the whole city above and even
higher, with a universe that ceaselessly swims in a borderless water bubble.
The key word here is "borderless," for as land becomes submerged, borders are meaningless. Not only the world's, but the universe's geophysical nature seems to have altered, humans transformed into science-fictional creatures with roots, yet having wings. The author's satirical reference to waterproof shopping bags and tourists getting lost, and accidentally ending up down there, anchors the story's increasingly phantasmagoric surreality.
In "Membrane," an unnamed woman has burrowed a tunnel beneath the bottom of the sea. She has to stay hunched otherwise her head could break through the "glaucous" membrane which is holding up the "weight of aeons of water ..." above her. This dreamlike image of the ocean within a membrane being held up above the earth, is maternal, as if the woman is holding it within the womb's amniotic fluid. We almost feel we should not even breathe, in case we disturb this fragile balance of the world's eco-system, as we are told "she could finally see the other side of the membrane: a gigantic drop of ocean, succulent and luminescent like an emerald eye, held together with an eyelid breath ... "
In a world of rising seas, how do human beings respond? What effect does it have on our sense of being, to our creativity, to our sense of existential dread, in our imaginings about what world we leave behind for our children's generation? This is not The Drowned World of J. G. Ballard, but a blurry, marine-lit, surreal-absurdist world of our darkest dreams, as if the stories have been dredged up from the seabed of the author's subconscious mind upon waking. They are so condensed and beautifully nuanced they can be read almost as a sequence of prose poems linked by a series of "liquid bridges." You may even be compelled to read this extraordinary book all over again. For The Book of Water will haunt you with the resonance of its "poetic undoing" long after it has slipped from your hands.
 Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, An Interview to Alexandra Salimba (Film Editor: http://thines.gr), The Book of Water, (Thines Publishing, 2017) [online video] https//www.youtube.com/watch?v=HXskPaNvIE [accessed 2 February 2021].
 Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, An Interview to Alexandra Salimba.
Alison Smith is a poet and a writer. She is a Creative Writing MA student at the University of Lincoln and managing editor for The Lincoln Review. She is working on her first poetry collection. She is the editor of, and contributor to The Big Walk: It Takes a Decade (Lincoln: University of Lincoln, Justice Arts and Migration Network, Lincoln Institute for Advanced Studies, 2020), an Associate Artist for the Justice Arts and Migration Network, and one of the student poet-contributors to the film poems "5 Voices" shown at "The Wings of Technology Festival," 2020 and to "Poetic Conversations," responses to "I Am a Refugee, But . . ." in 2019–2020.
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