During times of revolution, there is one tension that consistently emerges: when change is necessary, should progressives work within an existing structure or seek to dismantle it and begin anew?
This age old question plays out in deeply personal battlegrounds in Moez Surani's new novel, The Legend of Baraffo (Book*hug Press). Set in a small town (the titular Baraffo) undergoing drastic revolution, a young boy emerges at the centre of it all. Mazzu is confused and fascinated by Babello, a local man who has been imprisoned for a destructive act of arson with revolutionary motivations. Seen through Mazzu's eyes, readers witness a town experiencing the growing pains of progress, with its attendant acts of injustice, courage, resistance, selfishness, and more.
And when another fire begins to blaze and the town seems set to explode itself, it's Mazzu's choices that change the destiny of those around him.
Mythical and absorbing, both seemingly set out of time while resonating as deeply timely, Surani's smart, subtle, engrossing tale feels like an instant classic.
We're sharing an excerpt from Surani's novel today, courtesy of Book*hug Press, in which we are introduced to the town of Baraffo and its extraordinary cast of characters, and catch a glimpse of young Mazzu.
content warning: loss of a child
Excerpt from The Legend of Baraffo by Moez Surani:
Katrina had been a joyous mother. She celebrated Anavo’s milestones with splendour. Each of his birthdays was a little carnival, with musicians, a play, stilt walkers, and, on two occasions, caged mountain animals. Believing that the worst quality in a boy was meekness, she knelt to each of Anavo’s needs and nurtured him into robustness. Her son would never address a room with a quavering voice; he would never vacillate over a difficult but necessary decision. She admonished any sign of shyness. While he slept, she came into his room and whispered praise into his ears. Catching the reflection of her and her son in a mirror one day, Katrina felt a tingling pride. He was her dream, her ideal. He was clear, bold, and self-possessed. In the evenings, after leaving work, she sat on his bed with a book in her lap and read him parables exalting courage and ferocity. With his sharp face, the boy lay in bed listening to these stories, receiving the lessons with attention, so that by the age of ten, he was ruthless, efficient, and he had a reservoir of conviction. Anavo bathed on time and without fuss, observed adults with an unsettling stare, spoke flatly, his speech torn clean of the enthusiasm of adolescence, and he espoused a liberal, though pragmatic, mindset. Through these years, though, Anavo’s unspoken desire was to fly.
In secrecy, Anavo trapped insects in a handkerchief. Once he heard the fluttering cease, he lifted the cloth and peered at the beetles, wasps, and butterflies. Through his friends, he put a bounty out for captured birds, and when they were brought to him, he unwrapped the newspaper and felt the architecture of their wings. He possessed the logic of mathematics without the clumsiness of numbers. He discerned ratios between wing breadth and weight. He pinched wings and understood patterns of cartilage that gave resilience against storms. Anavo went to the town’s carpenters, inquired about the varieties of wood, their weight, tensile strength, and cost, then built several gliders. He climbed to his second-storey roof and flung them off. Other boys followed the flight of his gliders and shoved each other to collect them from the lawn or tree where they landed. He sat at the riverbank and made notes about the flow, threw leaves in to see how water behaved around bends, and how the fluid reacted against rocks and counter-currents. He used these observations to predict the behaviour of winds.
After months of this private study, in the unsupervised hours before Katrina arrived home from work, Anavo changed into old clothes, pushed his bed against a wall, and began work on a pair of elaborate wings. He shaved the wooden frames thin and stretched fabric over them.
Though often tempted, he never confessed his ambition, those around him dismissing his solitude as that of an unusually private intellect. What Anavo wanted was to fly across Baraffo when crowds filled the roads and parks to watch the sunset. He would be a graceful silhouette and land somewhere in the length of the river, skimming into the blue.
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When Anavo stood on the roof and reviewed his plan, he became frustrated by the wind’s irregularity. Even on days when the gusts were ample, tugging at his pants and sleeves, he found that just minutes later they would slacken, making his imagined flight fatal. He paced the roof, evaluating different solutions. It bothered him that he would be dependent on such fickleness. During dinner one evening, Katrina mentioned someone who had begun a third marriage. Anavo shook his head. “People are as erratic as the wind. It is ridiculous we must depend on them.” She smiled across the oval table. Even this precocious misanthropy she loved!
What he wanted was to shock Baraffo by gliding over it before slipping into the river. The throng of people would rush at him, fully clothed men and women abandoning conversations to dive into the water and pull him free. He imagined himself struggling to remove the giant wings while he bobbed, all those around him demanding answers, and him shrugging, wiping water from his face, and confessing, “I simply wanted to fly.” As a late amendment, he desired a liquor to drink at the height of his leisure, mid-flight, once the success of his achievement was ensured. This would not only add a certain sophistication but would also relieve the pain the block of river would inflict during his entry. In the days before his flight, he sold several gliders and used the money to buy a vial of ruby-coloured liquor.
On the fateful day, sitting in school, Anavo provoked other boys. He raged. He threw a book. His teacher came over to him, rubbed his shoulder, and spoke with such kindness that Anavo behaved himself. After lunch, when he was in the midst of a second willed tantrum and he overturned his desk and tore his collar, the boy was ordered to go home. Anavo ran through the streets. Once he was in his bedroom, he pulled his wings out from under his bed, examined their joints a final time, and rechecked the details of his plan.
Anavo climbed to the roof, hauling the wings one by one up the stairs, and immediately noticed the flourishing wind. He thanked the sky. He flung several gliders off the roof and watched them coast far longer than he’d hoped. “Yes,” he murmured, watching them waver on the unseen planes of air. Using stones to hold the wings down, he lay back on them, knotting the ropes at his waist and under his arms. He tugged the ropes, testing their knots. He had imagined he would have time for deliberation, a moment to savour the anticipation or look out at the town, but when he felt the gusts pushing him, he clutched the vial and struggled against the wind to the back of the roof. Anavo ran the length of the house and leapt.
He captured the wind, his neck pulling back; people below startled and pointed at the strange kite. He resisted acknowledging them, locking himself on the angle of his flight, his mind ripped clear of friends, memories, the essential wisdom encased within the holy parables his mother fed him. There was only an appreciation for the fists of wind that drove into the fabric, lifting him above the town’s commerce.
Anavo rose into afternoon flight.
He climbed into the sky above Baraffo and, tilting his arms, rose above Zuraffi’s red-bricked tower. The separate plots of lawn passed below him. He could see the mountains, the streams that glinted, the distant farmlands to the north, and the sea, brilliant and dotted with cliff-edged islands.
Anavo fought for breath. Lowering his chin to his chest, then his shoulder, he struggled to inhale the hurtling air, which came at him too fast to be faced directly. With the town fleeting beneath him, his spread arms split the sky. He shuttled forward on the wind’s volition with the vial in his fist. He could barely inhale, and then there was his new concern that the tarp could split, flinging him into a spin.
The wind swivelled and pushed another way, knocking like a heavy hip against him. His eyes streamed with tears, but his mind was preoccupied, fixated on the river and the possibility of unknotting the ropes before landing so he could tumble deep into the water without the obstruction of wings. So, as he veered, he was not unsettled. He corrected his flight by leaning back against the burden of the current. The wind sighed, preserving his precision, before regrouping and overhauling him. Bracing the ropes against him, the boy rolled through the air. The fabric fluttered, but held. Anavo muscled his left arm down.
With the wind bursting like a wave, Katrina’s son rode the air in swerves over the mesmerized, open-mouthed town.
Once the thunder began cracking, Anavo was cursing. His arms fought to regain his line of flight, but he was unable to prevent a fateful veering or achieve any deceleration. The haven of river fled his line of vision, and the sea was behind him.
When he realized his flight was doomed, he snapped the vial between his teeth and swallowed the liquor so that as he skidded across a series of roofs and the length of a lawn, stopping only once his head split a flowerpot, he was wonderfully drunk.
Only two people were there in the yard when the town’s postal carrier arrived. Vullie cursed and backed away. He pedalled across town and up the mayor’s hill and returned with Mazzu, who circled the mess. The boy extricated one of the wings from a hedge while Vullie turned away from the growing crowd, which was lauding the young corpse as the first of their people to fly.
Atop Vullie’s roof, Mazzu marvelled at the wing. Kneeling over it, he studied the craftsmanship.
Midway through that evening, the people of Baraffo wondered if Anavo had, in fact, been some ill-fated angel. They clustered and debated his fall. “Who did he betray?” someone asked. “And why must angels fall?”
“Where else will we one day go?” another man asked, raising his eyes to the stars.
Katrina’s marriage dissolved. Those near her, thinking they were doing good, amused her with stories, philosophies of chance and mortality, distracting pleasures, sang songs of consolation, tempted her to swim, but they failed to unbutton her from her unbearable coat of sorrow. She cried for weeks, saying nothing at all while her son’s life story was reshaped by the buoyantly chatty town. While deep in grief, Anavo’s life morphed into a town-wide lesson promoting reasonable limits and the importance of laughing off one’s own ambition. Katrina, meanwhile, wept without control.
Without any place to be downcast, Katrina fled inward. She swallowed her parables and retreated from her circle. Life, she was sure, lacked solace. She had nothing to say to anyone. She reduced her activities to her life’s most basic functions and completed only those tasks that were required, so, a year later, when a ponderously large man named Bhara was introduced to her, she was a woman of no pretense or enthusiasm. She dressed in muted clothes, wore no adornments, and her manner had neither aggrandizement nor humility. She presented herself factually, accurately, and her talking was not strained by drama, emotions, or comedy. Listening to her, Bhara found her remarkable: She was perfectly impartial. Her perceptions enthralled him. Leaning forward in a chair that looked far too small for him, Bhara did not interject or tell counter-stories. He was charmed. He held her hands. He never thought he would meet someone so placid, even, and pure.
The extent of his ardour worried him. In the initial phase of their courtship, when he was apart from her, Bhara was shocked at how often he thought of Katrina, and in the afternoon, when his energy dipped, he worried that she wouldn’t requite his affections. Even at that stage, only weeks after meeting, he was sure that Katrina would be an essential part of his life. There was no mistaking this.
He brought her gifts that she liked not for their own value or charm, but for the childlike energy that glowed from him as she thumbed the ribbon aside.
Katrina had no wish for a prolonged courtship; they were married within months of meeting. And Bhara did not pry into her grief and never did what irritated her most: he never inflected any of what he said to her with solemnity, sympathy, or condolence. Without those reminders nagging at her, she could dispose of her life’s tragedy the way she liked: she ceded her airborne boy to the town’s repertoire of gossip and lore.
Bhara was a sturdy, optimistic presence beside her. Living with him almost immediately, and absorbing the self-assurance of this man who seemed to exist without any pessimism at all, Katrina began to warm.
Bhara had to be the largest man in the whole town. One night, Katrina measured his back while he slept. She spread her hands and walked them across his gargantuan width, touching her thumb to her other thumb, then swapping her hands, and touching little finger to little finger. Six. Sitting cross-legged in the dark and in awe, Katrina measured herself. She was just two hands across.
All it took to remind her of his nature was one look at his clothes or at how he carried himself. He was always clean-shaven, he kept his fine hair precisely parted, and his attire fit him perfectly. It took weeks, though, for her to understand the depth of this severity. Bhara bristled at any offer of dessert, so she gave up dessert too. He permitted himself only two extravagances. One of them was his endearing habit of giving Katrina a one-on-one retelling of the entire sequence of his day. The other was his gardens. His front garden was grown to a height that shielded his two-bedroom home. The back garden, with its two beds of flowers, the single tree that he pruned by going up and down on the stepladder, and the vines that climbed the fencing, was an enclosed idyll where they could sit after dinner. He had purchased a home well within his means and showed little interest in decoration. Save for books, his walls were bare, and he didn’t clutter his shelves with curiosities or ornaments.
“This town,” Bhara once wrote to her, “never changes. It’s like a still water pond, or a fenced garden—like a family that does not move apart.” When she read these words, which felt as if they came from inside of her, Katrina’s affection for him became involuntary. She wanted to seize him and dominate him, and also, brimming with adoration, to yield completely. She became fastidious with her clothes and hair, and she read more and tested her growth in conversations. She reflected on this new element she found in her, this fire, and felt that this feeling was what others termed “passion.” She thought this to herself at thirty-seven, years after she had resigned herself to a cooler existence.
Excerpt from The Legend of Baraffo, a novel by Moez Surani. Published by Book*hug Press. Copyright 2023, Moez Surani. Reprinted with permission.
Moez Surani’s writing has been published internationally, including in Harper’s Magazine, Best American Experimental Writing 2016, Best Canadian Poetry, and the Globe and Mail. He has received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which supported research in India and East Africa. He has been an artist-in-residence in Finland, Italy, Latvia, Myanmar, Switzerland, Taiwan, the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, and at MacDowell in the United States. He is the author of four poetry books: Reticent Bodies (2009), Floating Life (2012), Operations (2016), and Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real (2019). Surani lives in Toronto.