Songs for Night and Steps Through the Mist
SONG FOR NIGHT
By Chris Abani
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)
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
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. Each woman encounters another individual in four of the tales, a man who triggers her insecurity about the future and taps into her obsession with how things ought to be.
Unlike the heroines of Heroes, who continually struggle with reutf8g to the wider world as it is, the often bewildered women in Zivkovic's harsh imaginings whether gifted with the ability to visit the dreams of others, beset with ghostly visitations from the past, or cursed with the horrifying task of choosing one of all possible futures (none, alas, very appealing) are engaged in a struggle with imagined, internal landscapes that have little to do with the reality of others.
"Would you consent to be the one to choose who should be sacrificed on the altar of the happy majority?" asks Katarina in "Hole in the Wall." Faced with the alternatives of her own death and choosing the future every time she closes her eyes, she is really questioning which is better: to withdraw from the world or to act in it, despite the possibility of less than ideal outcomes. This question echoes throughout the book, answered finally in the last and most beautiful story, where the older woman with the cherished alarm clock sees her past reenacted and is thereby cleansed of overwhelming memories. "Who knew what dreams might visit her?" Zivkovic writes, when "[no] urgent work awaited her anymore." (Ari Messer)