What have the years of human activity and abuse of natural resources resulted in and how might the planet respond? The Book of Water, a translated collection of 22 short-short stories by multi-media artist Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, charts the relationship between the water now reclaiming its space on the planet, reflecting and impacting the psychologies of the ordinary human beings trying to continue their everyday lives as the sea gradually, inexorably, makes its return.
The stories fall into three distinct sections, separated by islands of text: the lake is the others; the blue is here and it’s not going away and then, underwater passage, seabed membrane. Within those, each story, with the exception of the very last, is a short, dreamlike vignette based on the lives of its human protagonists, a number of the tales taking the reader to the underwater dreamworlds of its characters, or observing the intrusion and creep of the water from outside into their lives and homes, although many of the protagonists, it must be said, are willing participants. Many of the stories read like recurring anxiety dreams in literary form; poetic, surreal; sometimes playful, open to interpretation, and often driven by elements of human compulsion, repetition, frustration, resignation, dread. Strongly influenced by psychoanalytic theory and surrealism, these are disorientating tales that draw on the power of the unconscious and take us to often fantastical alter-realities, where the boundaries of the real and imagined, inside and outside, ‘us’ and ‘the other’ reverse and dissolve, culminating in the meeting of several characters’ desire for total immersion, their ultimate return to the womb. Throughout, we are presented with the disorientating imagery of a half-dreamt, half-waking world where, for instance, painted roses can float off wallpaper and paragraphs off pages into the palms of their readers, while books themselves liquify and become sticky, holding the hands of their never-to-be-satisfied reader in suspension within. The multiple meanings of words, just as in the language of dreams, cleverly create new realities, ones where book volumes, for instance, can morph into volumes of water, a book shelf into a ‘shelf’ beneath the sea.
The human characters, men, women, children, most deliberately unnamed, react to the approach of the water in different ways. Some are helpless and supplicant, while others attempt to resist it, some crave it, some even want a kind of godlike epic drama from it only to be frustrated by its utter refusal to yield to their will. Most of the characters are portrayed in everyday scenarios; a man wakes up from a dream; a woman does the washing up; someone drinks coffee on a balcony; an awkward swimmer watches himself on a documentary; a woman tries to grow tomatoes in her newly sodden garden; a little boy refuses to eat and will only drink water. Indeed, many of the characters, particularly as the book progresses, learn to use and then accept the water, usually giving into it; an isolated, rejected child builds, again and again, her own ‘cities’ out of rubbish cartons and sails on the cartons every time she allows her city to get washed away; a man goes out day after day on a boat with a bottle that he then refills and uses before repeating the exact same process the next day; a woman ‘saves’ water in a piggy pank until it grows, expands and floods the whole house and town, and the defiant inhabitants of a now-underwater town relish their new environment.
The water itself is the ever-present character, and always one step ahead of the human protagonists. Particularly effective is its characterisation in the early story ‘The Wave’, where it is directly portrayed as a sly, mocking intruder, or perhaps a narcissistic relative, consciously encroaching and disrespecting others’ boundaries and space and forcing them to give in and recognize the futility of any human efforts at building barriers to protect themselves:
He pushes the partition I’ve made, supposedly by accident… The moment I realise, I yell and push back. but it gets tiring. I run out of patience and give up. Let him have as much space as he wants.
The imagery and tropes often recur again and again throughout the stories, much as they do in dreams until the underlying issue is resolved, and although, in a similar way to a dreamer, a reader might find that repetition at times frustrating, they might alternately note that this fits absolutely perfectly with the overall arc and themes of the book. Water fills up rooms and towns; people learn to swim everywhere and find breathing (or not breathing) underwater peaceful, and the ultimate, inevitable closing of the circle, now that human activity has caused irreversible damage to the planet, is a key theme.
Like dreams, too, much is left deliberately unsaid, leaving some of the stories cryptic, with the use of symbols inviting interpretation as to their inner meaning in each particular character’s lives. As such, much as I thoroughly enjoyed the surrealism, playfulness of the shapeshifting and sheer immersiveness of the writing, I confess to finding some stories a little too opaque for my personal taste; my own favourites were those in which the immediacy of the situation facing both the characters and us was brought home through the placing of the familiar, the everyday of our lives in new but recognisable watery worlds:
The whole flat was sliced across the middle; below the surface of the water lay carpets, TV sets and coffee tables, their stillness refracted on the flat’s seabed; above the surface, high chairs, paintings and standard lamps were mirrored on the water like reeds surrounding a still pond.
Ultimately, the book tells the same fundamental but perfectly illustrated story as it develops across each of its vignettes; the sea is coming back— perhaps it’s time for human acceptance that in the battle for space we have caused, the water, in its final act of rebalancing, appears destined to win. Whether we’ve left it too late remains to be seen.
Laura Windley is a short story lover and writer from London. She was runner-up in the Bristol Short Story Prize, has been short and longlisted in other competitions such as Fish and the London Short Story Prize, and has been published in print and online. She has an MA in Creative Writing and is currently putting the finishing touches on a short fiction collection as well as working on a novel. She tweets at @laura_windley
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