Shorts

Songs for Night and Steps Through the Mist
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SONG FOR NIGHT

By Chris Abani

Akashic Books

164 pages

$12.95

In the secret sign language of Song for Night's mine diffusers — the child vanguard of an unnamed war somewhere in West Africa — silence is a steady hand, palm flat. Narrated in such a silence — of signed phrases and internal monologue — by a mute boy soldier named My Luck, Chris Abani's new novella is both deceptively understated and harrowing. My Luck has been stripped by violence of his freedom, his family, and his very voice, and as he travels in search of his missing platoon, he is propelled across a once familiar terrain become an endless battlefield populated with shadows.

Winding throughout My Luck's journey, a slow-moving river binds together wistful dreaming and uncomfortable reality. Contaminated by death, the river nonetheless remains a comforting constant — too familiar to mistrust entirely, too treacherous to ignore. A conduit to memories of a gentler past, as well as a gruesome reminder of the consequences of war, the river slowly takes on the metaphorical weight of the Styx, which the dead must cross to be admitted into the underworld.

No stranger to entrenched horrors within the West African political landscape, Abani was imprisoned several times in his native Nigeria, earning a death sentence for treason for one of his plays at the age of 21. Released in the face of international pressure, he has lived in exile ever since, first in the UK and now in California, where he wrote his previous novella, 2006's Becoming Abigail (Akashic). Beyond questions of format, there are numerous echoes here from Abigail, in which another river flows and carries memories with it, and children with no guardians are drawn out of childhood into nightmare. Neither Abani's nor Abigail's story, however, is My Luck's, and their sorrows are not the same. My Luck perhaps best sums up his own when dryly listing the pros and cons of child soldiering at the front of the line. Among the former: prime pillaging opportunities and choice of weapons. And the latter? Death, death, and death. (Nicole Gluckstern)

READINGS

With Joe Meno and Felicia Luna Lemus

Oct. 4, 7 p.m., free

City Lights Bookstore

261 Columbus, SF

(415) 362-8193, www.citylights.com

Oct. 5, 7 p.m., free

Black Oak Books

1491 Shattuck, Berk.

(510) 486-0698, www.blackoakbooks.com

STEPS THROUGH THE MIST

By Zoran Zivkovic

Translated by Alice Copple-Tosic

Aio

136 pages

$23.95

With its humanist rewriting of superpowers and its emphasis on the malleability of time and fate, Steps Through the Mist may inevitably call to mind a certain heroics-themed blockbuster television program. Unfolding in crisp scenes that emerge from a foggy landscape, the five stories in Serbian fantasy-oriented author Zoran Zivkovic's "mosaic novel" depict people whose fates are being decided before their eyes, their tales linked by an initially obscuring but ultimately redemptive mist that is brought to an almost visceral life in Alice Copple-Tosic's attentive translation from the Serbian.

Although dreamlike, the mist seems charged with a purpose: to bring each female protagonist — a controlling teacher, a dreamer in a straitjacket, a neurotic woman on vacation, a struggling fortune-teller, and an elderly woman in love with the ticking sound of her alarm clock — face-to-face with her own strong views of fate and chance.