Writing: Review: Federico Clavarino "Hereafter"

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Federico Clavarino’s Hereafter is a poignant and immersive journey into the past told through the memories and collected archive of his maternal English grandparents, John and Mary. Structured over five chapters, the series explores the final years of the British empire. His grandfather John Phillips served as UK Ambassador in several former British colonies including Oman, Sudan and Jordan. Along with his wife, Mary, their archive of images, letters and documents play a central role in how this narrative slowly unfolds.  

I found this to be a book where the text carries more weight than the photographs, which are constructed based on Clavarino’s family archive and images he made himself while revisiting his grandparent’s home. He also managed to visit some of the locations his grandparents lived and captured a variety of open-ended images that reference the words of his grandparents and family members. But the photos that stay with me are the archive photographs — they carry the mystic of time and place, which adds to the overall feeling around the book. 

Memory is at the heart of this work — both metaphorically and literally. As a book, it is intentionally fragmented and surreal. At times, I felt as though I was floating through time and space, never really holding onto anything — like a fleeting thought. A sense of uncertainty looms across the book. I found myself pulling in to look at the details of photographs and trying to unwind bits of handwriting to try to fill in some of what I perceived to be gaps. But this is what Clavarino wants to accomplish — telling you one part of the story through the remembered or selective memory of his narrators. What remains unsaid is an intriguing question that carries through the book. 

Clavarino’s images are not intended to answer any questions. I see them as referencing the journey of his grandparents. Perhaps in part he had to go on this journey himself to feel a sense of connection to them, especially to his grandfather John, given his job at the time. His photographs marry well with the family archive because the two are open ended. You can add your own meaning to the photograph but with the context of words, that frame becomes smaller. 

Given Egypt, where I grew up, is a former British colony, albeit not one where Clavarino’s grandfather worked, I was especially interested in the behind the scenes of the British operation in its colonies. Little handwritten notes and photographs of private functions were a curious look into life at the time.  

I was curious by some of the descriptions and expressions used in the written correspondences from the time. It showed the political motives behind British rule in these colonies. While this may be obvious given the game of politics is always this way, seeing it in writing made this even more real. It also cast an air of doubt on the person of his grandfather. I say this with a degree of hesitation because it’s not entirely fair. But the book leaves room for doubt and uncertainty. What is being said and how much is being revealed instantly makes me wonder what is being concealed. It is a reflection of politics itself as usually what is being said is a fraction of the full story. 

Adding to the voices of his grandparents, the book features excerpts of interviews with other members of Clavarino’s family — his aunt Elizabeth, Uncles William and Robin and his mother, Susan. We meet them at the end of the book. This is where it struck me that “Hereafter” can begin where it ends — read in reverse it gives you a different emotional experience. 

The book closes with Uncle Robin’s contemplations on the legacy of one’s existence and what it means to cease to exist “…You cannot know that the soul of that individual passed through the path that you interacted with, because they have an infinite number of paths, and the sum of their histories might actually be taking a different path, and in taking that different path, you will have seen them die, you will have seen me die, but actually in ourselves we didn’t die.” 

This quote was the beginning of an extended statement by Uncle Robin that leads to the ending. It is poignant in its philosophical and poetic interpretation of death. It struck me on a personal level because death of the ones I love is a dark cloud I want to walk away from, but through these words I felt that there is value in reconfiguring my own understanding of what it means for those who experience it and those who remain behind to deal with it. I imagine this is where Clavarino found himself too. When he first came upon the material for this book, he describes the pictures in his grandparents’ home. He must have had a moment where he wondered what it all meant. Death is a wonder of the unpleasant kind and Uncle Robin’s words ease the anxiety and pain around it. 

Laura El-Tantawy / July 2019