Andrzej Tichý - A blurry tornado of voices and timelines, this short novel unspools over eight paragraphs of run-on sentences swirling around the memories of a cellist raised on an estate outside Malmö. A masterclass in hyper-modernist experimentation, voice and form

Wretchedness: Tichý, Andrzej, Smalley, Nichola: 9781911508762: Amazon.com:  Books

Andrzej Tichý, Wretchedness, Trans. by Nichola

Smalley, And Other Stories, 2020.

excerpt (pdf)

Malmö, Sweden. A cellist meets a spun-out junkie. That could have been me. His mind starts to glitch between his memories and the avant-garde music he loves, and he descends into his past, hearing all over again the chaotic song of his youth. He emerges to a different sound, heading for a crash.

From sprawling housing projects to underground clubs and squat parties, Wretchedness is a blistering trip through the underbelly of Europe’s cities. Powered by a furious, unpredictable beat, this is a paean to brotherhood, to those who didn’t make it however hard they fought, and a visceral indictment of the poverty which took them. 

"Graphic depictions of crime, racism, poverty, drug use and violence are rendered through paragraph-free slabs of text that propulsively veer between voices and minds, times and locations. As well as the Swedish estates, the novel draws on Tichý’s experiences of living in Hamburg and London to paint a picture of a pan-European community of the excluded passing through squats, underground clubs, petty scams and cash-only employment. [...] Tichý’s early creative life centered on music and there is a sense of musicality inherent Wretchedness." ―Nicholas Wroe, Guardian

A musician takes stock of his sordid life in this seedy, stream-of-consciousness confessional set in the streets, basements, and other hives of Sweden.

Tichý’s sort-of-novel was shortlisted for Sweden’s most prestigious literary prize, but whether this ranting, breathless confessional makes more sense in the original language is anyone’s guess. Even if it had more form and a less nonsensical style, at best it would keep company with the likes of Kerouac and the form-shattering Beats or maybe with the junkie lit that takes a meandering path from Burroughs to Irvine Welsh and on to Tony O’Neill’s desperate memoirs or, more recently, Nico Walkers’ Cherry. Yes, there are chapter breaks, but the novel itself is not so much crafted as unloaded in one rarely broken, sporadically punctuated block of first-person soliloquy by the protagonist, a freelance musician named Cody. As they say, music is his life, and he spends much of the novel pontificating on genres and specific bands ranging from John Cage to Nirvana in High Fidelity–like fashion, although his specific obsession seems to be with the surrealistic Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. The book is also something of a contemplation on mortality, as punctuated by the musician’s brief introductory interlude with a half-beaten addict on a bridge that comes back around as a surrealistic echo late in the game. The setting is raw, largely taking place in ugly hidey-holes that could just as easily be found in the council blocks of London or Edinburgh or Chicago’s public housing projects as in the gritty housing estates dotting the city of Malmö, Sweden. A mostly forgettable supporting cast doesn't distract much from Cody’s self-lacerating monologues, which can run pages at a time with only the occasional comma to break his caustic train of thought: “...I don’t know, Cody, I don’t know why I’m going over this again, over and over again, this mess, over and over again, this miserable shit, this murderously boring dirge...” and so on and on and on.

An inventive, linguistically adept experiment that appears to have been made painful to read on purpose. - Kirkus Reviews

‘Wretchedness is a social novel whose descent into hardship is haunting, and whose lead character is an example of the hazy line between surviving a lifestyle or falling prey to it.’ - Foreword Reviews

‘Visceral . . . a fascinating read, the real-life details of which further bolster the fiction . . . This is nightmarish, impressionistic literature whose disjointed sentences have an associative flow that accumulates to a shocking whole.’ - Sarah Gilmartin, Irish Times

‘The polyphony of voices is tightly interwoven . . . arranged into a narrative resembling a complex musical composition . . . The book ends abruptly, as an avant-garde piece of music might, but the vibrations continue to fill the air.’ - Anna Aslanyan, The Guardian

‘A blurry tornado of voices and timelines, this short novel unspools over eight paragraphs of run-on sentences swirling around the memories of a cellist raised on an estate outside Malmö . . . the novel builds to an unexpectedly heart-stopping . . . finale, with a frame-breaking time-slip that invites us to reconsider everything we’ve just read as a stylistically radical expression of survivor’s guilt.’ - Anthony Cummins, Book of the Day, The Observer

"An utterly phenomenal read: a masterclass in hyper-modernist experimentation, voice and form. Embracing the bitter realities of addiction, prejudice and inner-city turmoil, Tichý’s rapid prose roves internal dialogues, places, vernaculars and circumstances to expose a singular, absorbed world struggling to keep itself afloat. Through a complex network of characters, friends and strangers we’re made to think about the ways the human spirit can fall into despair, its ability to establish resolve, to love and remember, and the myriad philosophies it leaves us with."―Anthony Anaxagorou

“What can a survivor do with their history? Can you be loyal to the friends you left behind? Andrzej Tichý turns this wretched reality into something poignant. His polyphonic novel has a rough, rhythmic melody and a ferocious rage.”―August Prize Judges

“Tichý writes a delirious, detailed prose, studded with Malmö slang and contemporary verve. The language pours forth over the pages like a contaminated river, full of filth, despair and anxiety, an associative flow of long, disjointed, almost endless sentences.” ―Eva Johansson, Svenska Dagbladet

"Wretchedness is a wild intoxicant of language, momentum, and voice. Andrzej Tichý is a master of despair." ―Patty Yumi Cottrell

"Some kind of holy/unholy meeting of Thomas Bernhard and The Geto Boys, Wretchedness is an anguished, brutal, beautiful piece of phantasmagoric-realism, an act of remembrance through imagination, animated by rhythm, and pouring past you with the inevitability of the tide coming in. Brilliantly written, superbly translated, this small book packs in more sadness and moments of epiphany, more hopelessness and hope, more surviving - more life! - than most writers manage in a whole career. Remarkable." ―Will Ashon

"The past is so close behind in Nichola Smalley’s translation of Tichý’s precise maelstrom of memory, music and survival – on the margins of this and every city – that you can smell the chemicals on its breath. There’s nothing to lose and too much to lose; no escape and all our escapes. Keep going. Read it and be thankful for Andrzej Tichý." ―Tony White

"A bravura, urgent head-trip of a novel, replete with compassion, rage, and gimlet-eyed observation on every page. Essential reading - us English-speakers are lucky to have Tichy’s work available in translation at last." ―Luke Kennard

"A powerful, voice-driven novel that remains in the mind long after the final page. Tichý brings everything to life: circumstances and people we’d rather ignore, with a flow resembling music." ―Derek Owusu

"Wretchedness is a red-blooded ode to the most invisible and unwanted in society - immigrant workers, the homeless, addicts, and those born into the hardest of circumstances. Tichý’s gasping, polyphonic prose flies through time and space and drug-induced states, flinging us between disturbing recollections, hopeless presents, and deferred or tainted futures - all connected by bittersour camaraderies and the remedying power of music." ―Jen Calleja

If modernism exposed the ordinary realist novel as a kind of cover-up job on the essential messiness of human consciousness, its aversion to literary norms – chapter breaks, speech marks, tidy syntax and the like – have been debated ever since: even the chair of the Booker jury that gave the prize to Anna Burns’s Milkman suggested readers might find it easier going as an audiobook.

One suspects that Andrzej Tichý has no truck with that kind of thinking. In Wretchedness, his first book to be translated from Swedish, someone tells an artist: “You’ve got talent, but you know, you should do something simpler, so the man on the street can appreciate it, you get me, something straighter, clearer.” Note the reply: “Stop chatting shit, bro, I am the fucking man on the street.”

A blurry tornado of voices and timelines, this short novel unspools over eight paragraphs of run-on sentences swirling around the memories of a cellist raised on an estate outside Malmö. He’s heading for the train station to catch a concert in Copenhagen with two fellow musicians, discussing the ins and outs of microtonal composition, when he encounters a homeless addict begging for money – a run-in that prompts a dizzying array of criss-crossing memories of his own impoverished youth, marked by violence, crime and drug use.

Every time I think a thought, a thousand other thoughts flood in and I can’t distinguish between them,” the narrator says. It isn’t always easy for us either – not least when, without much by way of warning, he starts speaking to himself in the voice of a friend who died in circumstances that continue to sting.

There’s a sink-or-swim quality to all this, offset by the sheer vigour of the brawls, binges and comedowns that bubble up from the narrator’s past, as he recounts his life prior to entering adult education. We read about playing five-a-side football with a childhood friend jailed for assaulting someone with a screwdriver; about the “taste of sweaty, reused face masks” while putting in 10-hour shifts on a building site; about friends listening to rap and playing Resident Evil while mooting conspiracy theories about sportswear companies and the Illuminati.

Tichý would have been 18 in the mid-90s, and for British readers, parts of Wretchedness may recall the Trainspotting-fuelled boom in druggy vernacular fiction of that era, with a sense of nostalgia heightened by passing references to, say, drum’n’bass label Metalheadz, or Mary Anne Hobbs’s Radio 1 show Breezeblock. Sharper passages about the experience of social deprivation might land most pointedly in Sweden: as the narrator remembers growing up in a multi-ethnic suburb maligned as “a human rubbish dump”, in the words of one bitterly recalled headline, it’s clearly part of the book’s project to disrupt perceptions of the country as a liberal utopia.

In the end, we don’t know what’s true, what’s false, where one thing starts and the next finishes, or what one thing has to do with the next,” someone says. While that isn’t a bad way to sum up much of the experience of Wretchedness, the novel builds to an unexpectedly heart-stopping (and head-scratching) finale, with a frame-breaking time-slip that invites us to reconsider everything we’ve just read as a stylistically radical expression of survivor’s guilt. - Anthony Cummins


Early in Swedish author Andrzej Tichý’s fifth novel, Wretchedness, this reader had the sinking feeling that the narrative would be a latter-day, sentimental retrospective on drug addiction and random violence, its events set in urban squalor populated by, to borrow from Kerouac, “desolation angels.” That was soon proven wrong, as Tichý achieves something more like a sophisticated version of Trainspotting. Unlike Irving Welsh’s gallows humor, however, Tichý’s discordant sounds and philosophies seem to be in unison with the wasted terrain of Wretchedness. The novel offers an ugly picture of racial strife hidden in Sweden (and elsewhere), as well as the resulting economic disadvantages endured by those living in the margins. Here we have the next lost generation of immigrant youth depicted not in a cynical manner, but in a rather melancholy swansong and bleak realism:

Place is everything and death is placelessness to us. Bodylessness. We’re the confined ones, we’re the ones incapable of using our gifts. Despair, sorrow, loneliness. Insomnia creates new spaces, pockets of time, has a unique light, unique sounds, how they appear depends on where you live, the way everything depends on where you live.

Or, to have the book put its central argument of dispossession more tersely, “This is no home . . . this is just housing.” Following suit, the story of Wretchedness never settles down anywhere for too long, a feature of the narrative design that enacts the “placelessness.” In the novel’s present-day, recollective point-of-view, a cellist is approached while waiting to catch a recital of work by Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi. The homeless addict who approaches strikes up a conversation with him, and the musician begins to feel the tug of his yesteryears. He remembers life as a squatter, his rovings across Sweden and the rest of Europe with an ever-morphing list of acquaintances, the hang-outs and raves in burned-out neighborhoods. All of this Tichý establishes with a Proustian device set by the cellist to sound itself:

. . . I looked down at the gravel, down at the grains of gravel, and it made the noise that it does and I felt something, a diffuse pain, and I thought, as though in the background, while I was speaking, whether I should mention something to them. But what? I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. The feeling, this pain that was impossible to locate or describe, was familiar, but ungraspable.

Instead of opening up about this past to his now-present colleagues, the cellist quietly contemplates thoughts and memories of former traumas, large and small. Through casual conversation on Classical composition, Tichý negotiates a balance between the cellist’s personal meditation and the intellectual meanderings of his coworkers:

. . . but I was thinking too of that time I got a cracked rib after getting kicked in the chest, and that pain, I recall it so clearly, those breaths, so shallow, so careful so as not to cause more pain, that absolutely horrific pain, and the contradiction of feeling it when you breathe, which you can’t stop doing, you have to breathe after all, you have to live after all, and I didn’t hear what the guitarist said and I thought I had to sort myself out, pull myself together, so I focused my gaze and said: Airs? As in the stuff we breathe? You have to live after all, I thought again. Yeah, as in air, the composer said. Like shoes, don’t you have some of those? Yeah, look, she pointed at my shoes, at my feet, down at the gravel. Like Nike Airs, she said. Plural, air in plural. And the guitarist said: yeah, that’s right. Or in a way at least. Air or ayre, it means like, song or melody, and it’s actually connected to aria, which from like air or aer, but then . . . he lost his thread a moment . . . I mean, it’s patterns, he said, it’s that, he almost stammered, it’s that, that, that, that the music is there in the oscillations, there, there’s, there’s, there’s nothing strange about it.

This passage is a glimpse of how the work proceeds, navigating between physical pain, memory, language, and music theory. While advance praise for Wretchedness noted the ambitious form, the stylistic wordplay and rapid stream of consciousness should be recognizable to modern and postmodern fiction readers, as should the break-neck jump cuts between past and present. The novel strings together a series of flashbacks comprised of run-on conversations, slang, and epithets, as well as the occasional imaginary dialogue—the latter acknowledged as such by the cellist at times. In this regard, Tichý consistently blurs lines, up until the very end where he attempts what appears to be a striking perspective shift in the novel’s conclusion (other readers may interpret differently). That said, the overall pattern is straightforward enough to pick up after the first chapter, but it may not take much to get lost in the ensuing miasma as the cellist dives further into his rising guilt.

Punctuating this dread of survival is the novel’s ubiquitous budding of white, wax flowers. They act as a sign of continual mystery to the cellist, a way for him to derive harmonic order from the dregs of his past existence. By the end, though, the rags-to-riches trope hasn’t surfaced. This missing link in the story underscores the strange dichotomy between the narrator’s two different lives which apparently have no direct relation to each other—except for the love of music and a love of friends. For all their cultured trappings as Classical musicians, the orchestral colleagues appear not to share any of his experiences, or at least not his current distractions. They are, then, the limit against which the cellist seems to measure and set himself.

While it is tempting to fully embrace Giacinto Scelsi’s improvisational style of composition (given the cellist’s careful study of him), Classical music is not alone in the structure of Wretchedness. Tichý has carefully built in an eclectic soundtrack of pop music, often briefly referencing what to American readers will likely be obscure European acts, in addition to better known non-commercial albums of the 1980s and ’90s—the Trip-Hop hornwork of DJ Krush and Toshinori Kondo’s Ki-Oku are there, as are Harold Budd and Brian Eno’s The Pearl, along with Metallica, Slipknot, and Snoop Dogg. In all, it makes an engaging catalogue of music for its time, which in turn feeds our perception of the cellist’s musical training. Giacinto Scelsi, however, is clearly the primary inspiration, the grounds from which the cellist conducts everything in his narration. The novel is, then, a moving interpretation of microtonal sounds juxtaposed with sordid incidents.

Wretchedness is a forceful, challenging take on the dashed hopes of the immigrant song. While it is Tichý’s first novel to be translated into English, it likely will not be the last. - Forrest Roth


The cellist narrator tries to remember ‘the name of an Italian philosopher who’d written a long and exceptionally deep and incisive essay on {composer Giacinto} Scelsi’s importance’. What the cellist recalls instead of the essay is a fight on a housing estate, during which he (the narrator) choked another boy in a headlock, while a third kid burned the headlocked kid’s back with a lighted aerosol. In the opening pages of Wretchedness, Andrzej Tichý handles the transition between these two tones – discussion of avant-garde art and description of physical combat – so meticulously that it is almost invisible. Thrilled by the combination of Scelsi and a lighted aerosol, I am primed to read a novel – Tichý’s third, and his first to be translated from Swedish into English – which joins the dots between them. This is going to be a story about how a poor boy on an estate became a renowned cellist.

But this is not, thankfully, that story. This novel cannot join the dots because it is, ostentatiously, a novel without any middle. It’s intense: it soars with no middle flight, as Milton put it. It’s also full of jump cuts: one minute the narrator’s in a cruise ship kitchen, deafened by Slipknot’s ‘People = Shit’, arguing about the size of an alcoholic chef’s balls; the next minute he’s taking a stroll along a Stockholm canal with a guitarist and a composer, discussing open C tuning and the pentatonic scale. One minute, he’s remembering a Bosnian rave filling with human shit, or describing himself as ‘finger-fucking myself in the throat {…} as though I had a cunt in my face’; the next minute, he’s involved in an earnest discussion of the compositions of Terry Riley. The world is full of potential states of mind and action, I heard the book saying, and here are some of them recorded, for perhaps the first time, with beautiful transparency and power.

Then came the end. As a book without a middle, of course it ends where it begins. Almost. With a clever and forceful sleight of hand, the final page appears to change the narrative perspective, handing it from one character to another. This happens just as effortlessly as the writing switches codes, but its implications are significant. With this manoeuvre, the book splits off from itself – there is a crack running through that finely smoothed plane where Scelsi and Slipknot meet. All of a sudden, it seems as though there are two worlds after all, with an impasse between them. I had to go back to the book’s beginning and read the whole thing once more. In one dream passage, fighting at a bus stop bleeds seamlessly into listening to a John Cage composition. On first reading, that makes intuitive sense. The experiences are similar in some ways: repetitious, mixing pleasure with pain. But on a second read, this passage runs as a film, in which violence is made pretty by a soundtrack of minimalist piano that the bleeding ears of the characters cannot hear.

Giacinto Scelsi was a reclusive Italian aristocrat, whose deeply weird compositions, most of which were actually written down from Scelsi’s improvisations by ‘an underling, a so-called “negro” ’, include the 1959 ‘Quattro Pezzi su una nota sola’, a piece for twenty-six musicians, in which they all play the same one note. Not knowing anything about Scelsi, I went on Spotify, found a couple of podcasts online and emailed a friend. My friend told me that Scelsi was groundbreaking in how dramatically he shifted the expressive focus away from harmony and structure over to timbre and density. This was what I’d wanted to hear: a fine analogy with Andrzej Tichý’s book, where harmony and structure are the rough equivalent of the typical apparatus of the contemporary novel (scenes, dialogue, character development), from which Tichý dramatically shifts the focus, towards the rough textual equivalents of timbre and density, which are timbre and density. In dense, chapter-length paragraphs, it’s often difficult to tell who is speaking, whose memory is being recalled, where they are and why. What matters more is how it all sounds, the clashes and stresses in the language and the energy of the surface, how it strives, ascends, descends, and trembles, like a tug-of war between weight and levity (to paraphrase a description from the book of Scelsi’s Fourth String Quartet). Here’s an extended quotation:

Amine looked away and went down to his station, always the same thing, you know, Mush couldn’t really tell the names Andrea and Anders apart, he used to call Andrea Anders and vice versa, or he’d just call them both Andrews, so in the end they both wrote their names in Arabic on the fronts of those white disposable chef’s hats we had, so Mush could just shout his Yalla, yalla! Work, work! Andesh! Andrah! Move yourself! in between the Arabic harangues that had Tahar and Amine clenching their jaws in humiliation, dropping their gazes and going back to mopping the floors, loading up the dishes, scrubbing grease off the stove, or whatever they were doing. Same old, same old, said Rawna, it’s the same old shit. It’s still raining. What’s happening, Kiko? I say. Are we at the Elephant already? Who’s driving anyway? Cool it, bro, Rawna says, pulling her sleeve down over her messed-up forearm at last, and I look at her and say nothing at first, but I’m thinking about the mouse on the floor of my room that time she came to see me. Then I can’t help myself, and I say Rawna, do you remember? Do you remember that time you stayed with me, when you were trying to come off horse and all that?

Tichý’s style has drawn comparisons with Thomas Bernhard. They share long sentences of nested scenes, unbearably insistent on nothing in particular. Bernhard was also deeply interested in music, and critics have used musical form as a way of making sense of the Austrian novelist’s outrageous relationship with conventional plot. There are telling differences between Bernhard and Tichý: where Bernhard affirms in the negative – the more he disdains, the brighter the text burns – Tichý is more likely to affirm by affirming. The narrator wants to be in the car, wants Rawna to remember. Bernhard’s charisma is often felt in an exaggerated intolerance of others, at odds with the seeming abundance and generosity of the text itself. Tichý flirts with this – at one point the narrator suggests the extermination of the addict father of a friend’s children – but in Wretchedness the voice of judgment is so layered with other voices and tones that the overall effect is of refusing a vantage from which to pronounce. If the novel has what Jay-Z calls braggadocio, it’s in this virtuosic layering, rather than in the author’s (humble)brags – although the accompanying playlist is as carefully eclectic as anything on NTS or Pitchfork. The wretchedness of Tichý’s title is not, primarily, the wretchedness of one life as opposed to another, and nor does it describe the wretched real as opposed to conceptual purity. Tichý uses Simone Weil’s utterly mysterious and persuasive quasi-definition as an epigraph: ‘Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything. Contradiction is our wretchedness {…} It is true. That is why we have to value it.’

Bernhard’s world is the world of the sanatorium, the rustic retreat and the classical conservatoire. Wretchedness takes place in tower blocks, astroturf pitches and stolen cars. Most of the characters have lived in different cities, from North Africa to Scandinavia. The vocabulary operates on a microtonal scale, drawing on the ordinary lush counterpoint of languages that literary diction so often thins out, and which, as far as I can tell, Nichola Smalley transfers to, or reinvents in, English. Like the cruise ship kitchen, the book is always moving. It does not have a fixed centre, because there is no fixed centre:

you start thinking finally a little peace and quiet, finally a little respite, as they say, finally respectus, refugium, sanctum, the kind of stuff the coconuts come out with, and you know my dad told me this is paradise, and thirty years later he’d acknowledge that the whole thing had been a bluff, a lie, that he regretted the whole move, the whole emigration, as he put it, the emigration, cos, you know, he was ever an immigrant in his own mind, no fucking immigrant, he was an emigrant, man, an exile, brah.

That ‘brah’ – is it meant to ring as authentic or forced? In translation it’s difficult to tell which idioms are, in effect, already translated in the original text, and which just sound translated in translation. Sometimes, reading the book has the feel of the corner of a squat rave occupied by someone frightening and friendly, who wants you to see the face of God in the broken window; sometimes, it feels like dinner with a classical composition postgraduate, enthusing about their PhD on Mobb Deep and Kafka. Wretchedness is interested in this kind of contradiction. Do these voices come from the same person’s mouth? If not, why not?

The narrator remembers a former housemate foaming at the mouth in front of the TV. He’d started selling ketamine to stay solvent and could not resist snorting it himself. The friend is called Erik, sharing his name with that hero of the twentieth-century avant-garde, Erik Satie. I’m scrambling for an analogy: Gymnopédies = k-hole? It kind of works. Tichý seeds such speculations, while also making them feel absurd – we are not everything! Satie’s choice to reference a Spartan festival of naked wrestling as the title of his groundbreakingly disembodied piano compositions is, to borrow a phrase from Wretchedness, ‘almost a joke’. Tichý’s choice of Scelsi as one of the few fixed points in the torrent of the novel has a similar irony: Scelsi was notoriously detached from labour, even the labour of his own compositions. He is a most quintessential highbrow, in Virginia Woolf’s unintentionally ugly sense of an artist who, ‘for some reason or another, {is} wholly incapable of dealing successfully with what is called real life.’ ‘You spoilt bourgeois cunt,’ says Tichý’s narrator, using an intentionally ugly phrase, at a house party. But who is being denounced? The passage goes on: ‘Who said that? I’m ashamed. See myself as though from the outside: see Becca kissing Cody and pushing half an E into his mouth.’

This comes towards the end of Wretchedness, and what follows is a magnificent swansong description of getting mashed. There is a small argument about whether to leave the party because of a real-life baby in the corner. The narrator is freaked out by ‘that filthy junkie whore of a mother.’ Someone else replies: ‘What the fuck do you know bout that chick.’ It’s a vaporous, inconsequential piece of dialogue – an expression of the intense sensitivity that lets you know you’re about to come up. Then the prose lifts off, in a naff-cool way, spelling out the beat, ‘boom shaka tick click boom shaka tick,’ a parody of the critic’s favourite rhythmic prose. As the long, unusually continuous scene plays out, it becomes clear – at least in retrospect – that the swell of euphoria will not end well. The narrator loses track of the friends that have been the novel’s distraction and its central, joyful concern. Without them, he is vulnerable and uncertain, indistinguishable in fact from a hopeless, homeless stranger, as seen through the eyes of a privileged cellist, whose mind is elsewhere, attempting to remember something important. - Caleb Klaces


A cellist, waiting by a canal for his friends, is approached by a junkie on the hunt for cigarettes and change. Something sparks in the cellist’s memory, and from this innocuous encounter spirals a novel of unremitting intensity and bleakness. Almost nothing else happens as far as the present-day plot is concerned: all the action is in the cellist’s head. He has been thrown back into his past, submerged helplessly in what we might be tempted to call a stream of consciousness, if that didn’t suggest something too serene. Maelstrom might be closer to the mark.

The past he cannot escape – a world away from the urbane conversation of his new friends – was one of poverty and violence in the housing estates of Sweden’s marginalized immigrant underclass. His narrative interweaves a dizzying multitude of voices, each with its own tale of petty crime, or addiction, or mental breakdown. The boundaries between speakers are constantly blurred in the jumble of his thoughts, and what emerges is a collective experience of pain, loss and desperation. Andrzej Tichý’s excoriating novel is, among other things, a howl of defiance and rage in the name of those left behind and ignored by liberal society; people for whom, as one character puts it, “being screwed up was something to aspire to”.

It is a claustrophobic reading experience. We are trapped in the cellist’s mind, just as he is trapped in his past and the people he grew up with are trapped in their world of limited horizons. Wretchedness presents a realm of grimy squats and dimly lit hallways; and while Tichý gives voice to the voiceless, he offers no easy solutions. Indeed, his book often seems to mock those who affect to care about the deprivation he so unsparingly depicts. “I know all about how they come out and photograph us and talk about us in their seminars and conferences”, one character bitterly complains. “Gutter tourists”, another spits. There is incredulity, too, at the fact that such people are apparently “comfortable, at home in their bodies, their houses, their neighbourhoods … Shit, the world is theirs”.

These resented do-gooders are perhaps also the sorts of people who find themselves reading challenging literary fiction, and so there is something inherently confrontational about Tichý’s work. We are the gutter tourists, and we are not let off the hook. But nor is this resentment ... - Peter Brown


Early in the novel, Cody, a concert cellist and the protagonist of Wretchedness, recalls visiting his friend in prison, where their conversation contains a warning to—or an accusation against—reader, writer, and translator alike:

you street-level slum Samaritans, you gutter tourists, on the hunt for the next aesthetic wonder, the next imagination-whetting, titillating larva, the next grub who, anticipating metamorphosis, crawls around in the dung covering itself in whatever grot emerges from its orifices, . . . [people like you] hound the homeless, the beggars, pissheads, junkies, the criminals, they’d skin a creature alive just cos their still life is crying out for a splash of carmine red, they’ve got no problem asking the suicide case to throw themselves in front of the train fifty metres further along, so they get the fairground in the background.

The texts on trial range from the prisoner’s records to Tupac’s lyrics to the Bible, Marx, and German philosophy, but the question for each is the same: how can we ethically produce or consume art about human suffering? And at the same time, how can we not?

Wretchedness—understood both as a philosophical proposition and as the novel by Andrzej Tichý that Nichola Smalley has translated from Swedish into stunning, polyphonic English—offers a labyrinthine yet somehow also precise answer to these questions. Although it might initially suggest a rock bottom of condition and fortune, wretchedness also connects to the idea of contradiction. As Simone Weil explains in Gravity and Grace, which offers just one possible philosophical and spiritual glossary for Tichý’s otherwise relentlessly corporeal text, “Contradiction alone is the proof that we are not everything. Contradiction is our wretchedness, and the sense of our wretchedness is the sense of reality. For we do not invent our wretchedness. It is true. That is why we have to value it. All the rest is imaginary.” The hint she drops in this quote serving as the novel’s epigraph—that wretchedness contains lighter notes than we might suppose—is fully explored by Tichý as he develops Cody and the other characters around him.

At the novel’s outset, a meeting between Cody and a junkie triggers a series of memories and reflections that jump between timelines and bodies, marrying the reverent sanctuaries of high culture with the chaos and viscera of the streets. The Weilian theory of wretchedness and contradiction plays out first in this meeting and then repeatedly throughout the events, both past and present, of the rest of the novel: I am also my opposite, I am contradiction, and so I am wretchedness itself; I am wretchedness itself, but neither simply nor damningly. In the present, Cody goes to a concert with colleagues who share his enthusiasm for music, but there is a palpable distance between them caused by their distinct social backgrounds and emphasized by how thoroughly they disappear when Cody enters the realm of memory, which is the novel’s most prevalent setting.

Like Tichý, Cody is a Czech immigrant to Sweden. However, he identifies not with any community organized around nation, language, color, or class, but rather with a different sort of group: that of the “failed abortions,” which is to say the sons and daughters of hardworking immigrants who are so disenchanted with the dreams of security and comfort their parents sacrificed their bodies and hours for and who have so internalized Swedish society’s disdain for them that each one flails to discover how to spend their time on the streets of Malmö. At one point, Cody and a friend discuss a disparaging newspaper article they read as youths about the immigrant neighborhoods where they grew up: “it didn’t just say RUBBISH DUMP, it said more than that, it said much more, there were so many words, they were black on white, and the words were HUMAN and RUBBISH DUMP . . . and you know, my dad said to me that now we’ve come to PARADISE, but in the paper they wrote that it was a HUMAN RUBBISH DUMP.” Somewhere in this contradiction between paradise and a rubbish dump lies the community that raised them and that can be their only source of a sense of self, even if it is an impoverished one.

Cody, now a classical musician with a coin and a cigarette to spare, has often been in the position of the junkie he meets, who just got into a fight and does not know where he will sleep. These apparently contradictory characters tumble around, head over heels, inside of Cody in a version of the spiritual struggle that Weil refers to when talking about wretchedness and contradiction. Tichý, however, makes this theory more concrete as contradiction in the novel is neither binary nor dialectical but circular and generative, like a Celtic knot. The connection between opposites is more intimate than Marx would allow—and there’s plenty of half-rejected Marxism here—but also more interdependent than other political projects normally conceive of it. Wretchedness sits at the limits of what a human can tolerate, but it is also located within human inadequacy and inconsequentiality—sites where one could just as well find truth, divine love, and even saintliness. Tichý does not glorify wretchedness for the simple reason that it is not redemptive by itself. It is instead an unalienable fact that, once realized, can force one to confront oneself and play an active role in that relationship rather than letting one’s environment determine it. Cody takes advantage of this opportunity, and while Weil argues that the existence of God gives this process its redemptive power, Tichý remains agnostic on this topic, only mentioning God in the context of swearing or when equating its reality with that of unicorns.

The “rubbish dump” article, for instance, reminds Cody’s friend Soot, likely a lover as well as another junkie he’s nearly given up for lost, of how they used to dumpster dive

where people threw away things that weren’t totally broken, that hadn’t fallen apart, not completely anyway, things that could still be used, things that could be fixed, repurposed, used in some way or other, and one of us, or two of us, or all three, depending on whether we had to keep watch or not, jumped into the dumpster and lifted out junk and trash and looked for things that worked, and we were ashamed, it was that whole thing with the human rubbish dump and shit again, you know what I mean I think, and sometimes we didn’t find anything, and sometimes we found something, and if we happened to find something we could take home and make use of we got to feel ashamed every time we looked at the thing.

Soot connects the article to this experience of dumpster diving “because even if everyone knew it was a human rubbish dump, this place, you didn’t wanna look like a tramp.” But there is a more symbolic relationship between the article and the action: Cody and Soot have already established an equivalence, or at the very least the basis for a comparison, between human lives and discarded objects. Dismissed by society because they search for and recuperate inanimate objects whose value has been overlooked, Cody and Soot themselves lead the reader to consider how such a mission might be applied to animate “objects.” Yet even that mission never reaches the level of a redemption since neither the “object” nor the one recuperating it ever transcends the shame of disposability. This dance between worth and worthlessness, judged both internally and externally, for the elusive prize of being deemed valuable is precisely the understanding of wretchedness as contradiction that both Weil and Tichý articulate.

In this memory and others, Cody relinquishes his first-person voice, as if allowing himself to be possessed. No quotation marks separate dialogue from narration as other characters perform unstoppable monologues where they refer to themselves as “I” and to Cody as “you” or even occasionally use his name. In effect, Cody is dislocated—or rather, dislocates himself—from his person, which is another nod to Weil. This body-switching, by negating the dichotomy between subject and object, rejects a hierarchy of characters within both a work of art and society itself, and it can happen in an instant:

I was there when Laila, in pure desperation, cut her tongue out – swallowing blood in such large quantities is no good for the body, cos the body, the stomach, can’t handle it, it’s too much iron or something, you start feeling ill, you get nauseous, you get sick, and now my mouth is full of it, of that taste of iron and names and places, of events and movements, of memories and images, I have a mouth full of the tongue she cut off, I have a head full of blood, I see it the whole time, I have waking dreams about it in the day and I dream about it at night, my head is full of it, Cody, I have a mouth full of blood, I have a mouth full of earth, I have a mouth full of you.

Even though Soot is the “I” here, nothing distinguishes his speech from Cody’s, so it is easy to forget who actually speaks these words until Soot says Cody’s name. Blurring the boundaries between the two creates an affinity beyond empathy since Cody, too, has in his mouth the flavors of substances that are more metaphorical but no less toxic.

Elsewhere, Tichý deploys allusion to confront the challenge of creating a work that does not objectify suffering. But rather than transforming the text into a puzzle that is only decodable if the reader possesses a sufficient stockpile of cultural capital, these series of references have the unexpected effect of asserting the text’s radical accessibility. It’s rare that a reader will be familiar with the full range of his formidable personal canon, which includes both the Italian avant garde and Czech rap, but Cody poses a crucial invitation to the reader: “google it.” (Actually, Cody asks the reader to google “the final station” at the end of the train line in Prague where he comes from, the sort of place “decision-makers never come from.”) Once offered, the invitation stands to enter his world: one allusion becomes a dare to educate oneself about another, and in this way he bridges worlds while critiquing them, making them accessible instead of appropriating them.

For those of us who believe there are institutions and systems governing and safeguarding our lives, it can come as a shock—and one that is perhaps best forgotten quickly—to realize how fragile and inadequate they are. Such systems nurture within them their own weakness: the resistance of those of us who are not served by them, those often rejected by society who rely on more resilient modes of living that, however imperfectly, address real needs and value real skills. This is wretchedness on the broader scale of a nation or culture, and it is the endlessly regenerating, irresolvable, and often ugly contradiction to which this novel bears witness. Although wretchedness is often understood as the condition of those rejected as slackers, junkies, criminals, terrorists, and worse, Tichý retrieves it from the dumpster, restores some measure of its value, puts it to use, and, ashamed, continues to side-eye it. - Lindsay Semel


The Swedish novelist Andrzej Tichy’s fourth novel, his first to be translated into English, is a short, destabilising book. It begins conventionally enough. A cellist named Cody waits for two friends by a canal in Malmo. He has just finished rehearsing a piece by the Italian composer Giacinto Scelsi and is on his way to a performance of work by Arvo Pärt and John Cage. Chin-scratching music. As he waits a homeless man approaches him and asks for money. They have a conversation, and then the novel melts into the past, drifting between Cody’s memories — some real, others seemingly imagined — and between people and places.Cody — or one of his imagined alternative personalities — grew up on a council estate, a “hard, lurching place” where, in his youth, he and his friends took drugs, got into fights and graffitied. Some of his peers have since gone to prison or on to harder drugs, but Cody has extricated himself from his origins, becoming a freelance musician and drifting between cities across Europe: London, Berlin, Glasgow (all of which are evoked here with an insider’s familiarity). There are no quotation marks or paragraph breaks to aid navigation, and it’s often difficult to work out who is thinking or speaking. The effect is not quite a stream-of-consciousness: more like a chorus, or the collective memory of a fever dream.If it sounds like a daunting proposition, the novel is made somewhat navigable by the ear Tichy has for voice and the rhythms of language, and the attention he pays to the specificities of natural speech. Wretchedness is a deeply musical book (there’s even an accompanying Spotify playlist: a mixture of old school hip-hop and mid-century European avant-garde), and it is testament to Nichola Smalley’s skill that this musicality survives translation. The idiomatic registers of translated fiction can often feel false or dated, especially when translators reach for generic or transatlantic slang to try to make universal what should be singular and idiosyncratic. Smalley goes the opposite way, rendering Tichy’s street-lyricism into a kind of super-specific London English: “rock up” meaning “arrive”; “well” used as an intensifier, “creased” for laughter, “mans” for people, “shotted” for sold. It is deft and feels entirely appropriate.Wretchedness is structured like a piece of music too. Images recur throughout like musical phrases, taking on more significance as the novel progresses. Formally the technique is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves: another novel of voices and thoughts, in which characters dissolve into and out of each other. Every so often an essay on the effects of music, or the legacies of racism in Sweden, or the dark poetry of the tabloid press, intrudes.

This narrative uncertainty can be read as a measure of an anxiety Tichy has expressed elsewhere, over whose stories he feels able to tell, and how fine the line is between writing about a life and appropriating it. In interviews he has described the book as a way of challenging the common understanding of Sweden as a liberal, equitable society, free from the kinds of social and political inequalities that beset the rest of Europe.There’s a slight tension in the way Wretchedness revels in its descriptions of drug use, violence and casual racism while being suspicious of the cultural appropriations associated with certain kinds of gritty literary fiction. One character, a graffiti artist named Soot, laments the way those who write about the wretched lives of his peers often end up stealing their stories. Writers and academics come for “the latest hot story, juicy tale, personal, private, honest and raw — but simply and straightforwardly told”, and “in return the teller gets to stroke their soft clothing, to sniff the mimosa and the hyacinth and the lily of the valley they keep in their editors’ offices, which those silent cleaners, our mums and dads, have wiped clean with their aching bodies”. Is it a betrayal to make art out of broken, marginalised lives? It depends how you go about it, and on the whole Wretchedness is a sensitive and compelling attempt. - Jon Day


I swapped a couple of books from and other stories for a copy of the TLS I had that included a review of this book in I have met Nochola the translator of this book via her work at And other stories a couple of times, so it is a shame it has taken me a while to get to a review of books she has translated. looking up about the writer I came across this quote which seemed to sum him up as a writer. “Andrzej Tichý is a writer who, time and time again, with a language that sings, says something important about the Swedish contemporary. Read him”. He has lived in Sweden since 1981 born in Prague to a Polish mother and Czech father there is a sense of the great Mittel European writers in his work.

The way the wax plant flowers moved, those small movements, that trembling, that gentle vibrating, like an echo of the moving trings, combined with the low-frequency tone, the rumble – all that lingered in my consciousness as I saw the newly built tower block and the figures on its roof, with the railway tracks and rail yard in the background, all while I tried to say something to the guitarist and the composer about scelsi and my microtonal worl. We walked toward the central station to take the the train to Copenhagen, to Vor Frue Kirke and the moosmann concert.

Where he meets the Junkie and his past falls back into his world and those year flood back.

This book is told in a feverish manner at times what happened when a cellist comes face to face with a spun out Junkie for the second book in a row we have a sort of Proustian moment where this one single event leads the Ccellist into a journey through his past and the sense that he broke free of it a part of growing up in the Housing projects with a group of what in the day would be slackers this is an ode to the early nineties and the urban world he grew up in of skaters, junkies, rappers. Where there are Parties and clubs but he remembers that it was also a road to nowhere, as the memories of his past come tumbling in on him. This is all told in slang as we see his early jobs also the tension of the multi-cultural community he lives in just bubbling below the surface. He is the present is due to give a concert with two other musicians of the work Giacinto Scelsi the Italian modernist composer. This a story of breaking out but also the sense of loss of the comrade brothers he left behind in the melting post he grew up in.

THen a car pulled up. A man got out and other things. Then a car pulled. A man got out and asked if they wanted work. Employment, he said, Earn a little money, he said, they asked what they’d be doing.. Handing out flyers, he said. For his building firm. Go aroundthe wealthy neighbourhoods and stuff a few flyers through letterboxes. They asked how much they’d get five hundred. To share. Course we will, they said. That’s a lot of money, they thought. They got in the car. He drove them to the wealthy neighbourhood. They got a stack each. Took a side each and put them in the letterboxesas he drove behind them, crept along along slowly behind them

A classic ilustration of GEnration X the McJobs cash in hand jobs struggling to get by.

A lot of reviews I have seen of this book have mentioned Bernhard it hard not to avoid that as the book is told in a similar style of breathless prose, as the past comes flooding into his mind but jumbled up like a montage of his life with no real gaps as you get caught up in the cellist’s past and his thoughts of the world he grew up in. This is like a sample of his past mixtape of memories. The clash of high and low culture is shown here from his early love of street beats of the hip hop of the day over the modern music of Scelsi (I will put my hand up again her I know nothing of him just what I have read my modern classical knowledge is little) and the hip hop he likes is different to the bands I knew at the time but it reminds me of going to clubs in UK, Holland, and Germany late nights. Then time spent in cities like Manchester, Newcastle, Nimwegen, Kassel, and Dortmund at the similar time to this so the group he described remind me of my german friends although we didn’t do drugs we like a drink and clubs. This is a song about breaking free of the past. But there will always be that reminder of the past.

Winstons score – A- ( a Bernhard fan got score well with me)


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