Monday, November 26, 2007

My Product is a Memory

The President of a Chamber of Commerce once said to me, “my product is a memory.” We were in a roundtable discussion of leaders of various cultural organizations. The leaders were thinking together about what “tourism” means in terms of a few specific kinds of visitors. Our facilitator had conjured up three sets of imaginary travelers and had divided us into three teams to consider their interests and needs.

We imagined those visitors and sought answers to a short list of questions. Why are they traveling? How did they decide to come to this place and not some place else? What time of the week are they coming and for how long? What month or season are they coming? What will they hope to experience while in this place? You might imagine this hypothetical exercise is useless, but it was amazing to see what the group realized about their town as they tried to imagine it as an outsider. They realized, for example, that some of the key businesses that weekend travelers would seek out are closed on Saturdays.

Tourism is a buzzword. “Readiness” is the soft underbelly of that word. To make an organization ready is one thing; but to make a town ready is a whole other ball game, and it’s a hard game to win.

“My product is a memory” sounded like an excellent theme statement for someone at the head of the Chamber of Commerce. A less thoughtful person might have said, “my product is a 50% increase in membership by year’s end,” or “my product is a measurable leap in public awareness of our town as an attraction by year’s end.” But she got right to the heart of why people come back: they remember having a good time. They found their way easily to whatever brought them here; they found parking without getting lost; they found an interesting place to eat near an interesting place to shop; they found the Church Directory they needed; they found things to do with their children; they found who-knows-what and they were happy they found it.

The President of the Chamber of Commerce was on target with her word choice. She would have missed if she had said, “my product is a favorable memory.” It isn’t always favorable, after all. If the Chamber’s members do nothing attentive to visitors, their product will be an array of bad memories. The Chamber has to do something within that community of members to turn their attention to shaping visitor experiences toward favorable memories.

Here is a quasi-hellish memory of mine from a recent stay at the Hospitality House in Williamsburg, Virginia. I stopped in for lunch one afternoon around 2 and decided on quick service at the pasta bar. I asked the server to prepare some sausage and spinach to mix with penne and a marinara sauce, which he did in a cordial way. The flavor of the first bite was totally distinctive, like no Italian pasta dish I had ever tasted, an alien, surprising, un-right combination of herb, tomato, and….what, exactly? What’s that sweetness? Then I realized that the restaurant had passed off unused maple-flavored breakfast links as “Italian sausage” at the pasta bar.

The food was by no means spoiled, but the experience was one of shock rather than satisfaction, and I resolved to go there no more during a four-day stay. Even worse for them, the experience gave me a 24-karat conversation item with the convention-goers I was there with. Bad news has a way of multiplying faster than good news, which is why smart managers try to get it right on the first try.

“My product is a memory” turns out to apply to a variety of venues. Over the weekend as I raked a mountain of leaves into the street, my neighbor was doing the same with his two young boys. My neighbor seems like such a gifted and resourceful dad. He made the work of gathering leaves a memorable and fun social experience. He and his wife seem to have a knack for creating great memories while getting work done. No household chore is done without child participation with Mom or Dad. Dad involves the kids in thinking about what sort of care the deck will need in the spring. Naturally, they will scrub the deck together; they will brush on the sealer together, some with large brushes and some with small ones.

My college choral director learned from one of his mentors that “every rehearsal must be a musical experience.” That means that no rehearsal is devoted simply to learning diction, rhythms, or pitches. The group has to sing whole passages in a musical way at some point, and that experience has to be memorable. The consequences of it not being memorable are (1) having to do the same work over again, and (2) a decline in morale. I think this applies to all forms of instruction. Whether we are talented or not, when we are in the role of teacher, our product is memory of some kind. We have to do something to shape it.

Why leave out friendships? Our product is a memory. If we neglect those we associate with, at any level of the love continuum, we are negatively investing in memories. Those are the ones that begin to ache.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cranberry Memories

This morning I helped San make the “Cranberries Grand Marnier” that we have made almost every Thanksgiving for twenty-five years or so. Then she made the sweet potato casserole with sherry and walnuts. Tomorrow we’ll make the turkey stuffing from an issue of Gourmet magazine way back when, November 1980. When first we made it, I would have happily made a meal of only the stuffing. It involved sausage, prunes soaked in Madeira, this and that. These days we substitute chopped mushrooms for the sausage.

I copied out the cranberry recipe this noon:

1 cup sugar
½ cup orange juice (fresh-squeezed on my watch!)
2 cups cranberries (red!)
¼ cup chopped, seeded, peeled (membrane-free) orange
1 T grated or zested orange peel
¼ cup Grand Marnier

Heat sugar and orange juice in a large saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in cranberries, orange pulp. Add orange peel. Heat to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer uncovered until juice is released from the cranberries, about 10 minutes. Add the Grand Marnier. Simmer 2 minutes. Refrigerate over night, and then don’t hog it all for yourself!

Cranberries are part of my family history. My grandfather, Bill Feaster, set up a trucking company in the 1920s to move the produce of central New Jersey to cities in the region. He lived near the cranberry bogs and would truck empty tin cans into the cranberry factories and truck canned cranberry products out.

Trucking was his second career. He was legendary in his region of New Jersey as a veterinarian. He had studied through correspondence courses at McGill University in Montreal. I don’t know the story of why he quit the veterinary work and set out to build a trucking enterprise. I’ve probably heard the story; maybe it’s in the notebook I filled when I got Mom talking about the old days.

My grandfather had already retired when I was born. I knew him as a hunter, landlord, and avid vegetable gardener. He hunted raccoons for the sport of it. He shot squirrels, too, from time to time for a dish my grandmother made. It was called “squirrel pot pie” but was no such thing. “Pot pie” was an expression meaning “stew with delicious dumplings.” I could have made a meal of those dumplings, and my grandparents would have encouraged me to do so, because to them, eating was a wonderful thing to see, even in a child who was developing into Baby Huey.

Though there were shotguns leaning next to the phone in their house, my grandparents never so much as hinted about teaching me to use a gun or to hunt. I have long imagined this was a result of the sternest possible warning from Mom, but I never asked her if it was true. I had any number of toy revolvers, but never owned so much as a B-B gun. Guns belonged in some other world.

Plants were another thing entirely. My grandfather grew a patch of blueberry bushes, and my sister and I were chief among the pickers. He grew a patch of strawberries in that rich black earth. He grew sweet corn, asparagus, peas, lima beans, pole beans, cabbages, cucumbers, squash, and majestic Jersey and Beefsteak tomatoes. My Aunt Millie, who lived with them, grew row upon row of gladiolus for cutting and maintained a big wire cage of parakeets (briefly, when they were in vogue).

Thanksgiving was always a large festival in our family. My mother’s family included her parents and half-sister, my Aunt Millie; her other half-sister, my Aunt Gertrude, and her husband, Uncle Bill Ellis, who prospered as a small-town commercial printer near Fort Dix; and Gertrude’s foster parents, Aunt Cora and Uncle Winfield Morris. Aunt Cora was the sister of my grandmother’s ill-fated first husband, the father of Gertrude and Mildred, who died of an ailment around the age of 20, leaving my grandmother unable to support two babies. So she gave one to Cora and Winfield, who raised but never adopted her in Cookstown, where my grandmother found work as a chamber maid in a country hotel.

Uncle Winfield had a resonant bass speaking voice, a beautiful, broad smile, and attentive eyes. Aunt Cora had a reedy voice and faintly purple white hair. Aunt Cora and Uncle Winfield raised only Gertrude. Winfield was a plumber and a town constable.

Aunt Gertrude and Uncle Bill had no children, but they had a small poodle. Uncle Bill was enthusiastic about model railroading and music. He had worked before the War as a banjoist in a pit orchestra.

Aunt Millie lived at home all her life, appears from skimpy evidence to have had an abruptly terminated courtship at some point, never married, wore a mannish hair style and mannish clothes, liked to bowl, liked Eddy Arnold’s singing, painted by numbers and hung her paintings around the house, read Popular Mechanics and Confidential, made her living driving a high school bus route, and loved me dearly. My grandfather legally adopted her around the time of his retirement. I don't know why he waited so long to do that, or what or who prompted him, but it was some kind of "statement" in the family and was a big deal, considering that Gertrude had something like orphan status by comparison.

Mom was the only child of my grandfather, Bill Feaster. She never learned much about cooking and hated to cook. She was fiesty and adventurous as a girl and young woman. She was also the first person in the family to go off to college. When she landed her first job at a publishing house in New York, my grandfather was heartsick at the loss of her. He cried when he saw her off at the Trenton depot.

New York was what Mom and Dad had in common. It was magic for both of them. Both of them had been raised in rural towns, too. Before she met Dad, a serious ailment ended her New York days and plunged her back into the obscurity of New Egypt. I imagine she felt cheated by fate. A door had closed, that’s how I imagine it, having never asked her about the emotional side of her history. (Why?)

The war came, she got a job as a secretary at Fort Dix, a good job because she looked glamorous. She told me about a promotion to a job held by a less gorgeous woman, who was transferred to Newark. Then one day, in walked youthful Herman Bouman, architect working in a New York office and involved in the expansion of Fort Dix. He must have seemed Deliverance to her. I can’t think of the word for what she must have seemed to him, but the fact that this beauty was also a confirmed member of the Lutheran Church led to a moment of “reduced expectations” that my mother told me about decades later: his idea of a date was to attend church together.

But they married, and then I came along, and then Chris, my sister, and every Thanksgiving and Christmas all of us would enjoy each other’s company, the sounds of our speech, the feast dishes on the table with the turkey, the pumpkin pie after. I am thankful to have such warm memories to go with the cold seasons of the year. I am one of the lucky ones for that. I look outside at the chilly rain, and I know there are people not far away who don’t have a warm or a safe home to return to; or they don’t have anyone who loves them dearly; or they haven’t had much luck. Bless them all, Lord. Take care of them. Give them hope.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Talk Show

I hope to enchant you with a gallery of prose passages that are sheer wonder to me. It’s a futile exercise, I think, because excerpting a large work seems a bit like playing sections of several arias from a Verdi opera. That could be frustrating! I’d want to have you hear how Violetta breaks my heart with the phrase, “Alfredo, Alfredo,” but then I’d have to play another 30 seconds so you could hear where that goes, and then you’d sneak a look at your watch and begin to concoct your exit lines.

So here I am, dearest reader, if you’re still with me, about to ask you to take off your watch and put it away. Put away the sense that you have other things to do. Sit down with me and consider some of the most refreshing and amazing writing I’ve come across in the past twelve months.

I’m talking about Roberto Bolaño’s novel, The Savage Detectives. It is a book about words and sentences, poems and talk, friendships and memory, sound and smell. It is a book without a plot, a book that breaks the usual sequence of time, a book composed of monologues, missing people, delusion, hope, tears, sex, and loss. It is a book about broken frames of reference, displacement, and the world of literature. It is a book with no narrative from an unseen and all-knowing author. Anything and everything we learn or think we learn in this book is the product of a monologue. The book is composed of many monologues, like a Mozart opera without any recitatives or ensembles. And yet there are ensembles in the book; they are groupings of monologues. Except for two long sections of diary entries, the book reads like the verbatim transcripts of oral history interviews, capturing all sorts of nuances and idiosyncracies of personality. The author’s ear for habits of speech is one of the most beguiling and amazing features, which is why I’m going to quote more than you imagine appropriate.

But I must digress for a moment, as the book does, and recall an acting class I took when I was a young teacher in Santa Fe. We learned to analyze a character by keeping three lists as we read through the play. On one list, we wrote down what the author says about our character; on another, what our character says about himself; and on a third, what the other characters say about our character. Despite my height and weight, I had decided to study the part of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Willy, the “low man” in the system, a person described in the play as “a shrimp,” has been played by big men, but I think Dustin Hoffman is about the right stature for that role. I made my three lists, though, and I have them yet. What a wonderful way to study!

In The Savage Detectives, the author says absolutely nothing about the characters, and only the secondary characters have anything to say about themselves. The main characters deliver no monologues at all, so they are known only through what others remember about them. They are known, in other words, only through the refraction of multiple memories. I think it is not a coincidence that one of the characters in the book repeatedly refers to Marcel Duchamp’s painting, Nude Descending a Staircase.

The book is a detective story of a special kind. All sorts of people and things turn up missing in the book, and there are stories within stories of the search for what has been lost. The book begins as comedy, wry comedy, and as it progresses, a sadness flows into every nook and cranny of it. There are broken or lost frames of human reference throughout, yet because the story of the central characters must be deduced and inferred from monologues of others, the book is also about how people remember each other and the small dramas of the moments they shared. The book is often cinematic in how we are made to see and sense what is inside the current frame of reference.

We open the book to a section titled “Mexicans Lost in Mexico” and find ourselves in the 1975 equivalent of a blog, a sequence of diary entries:


I’ve been cordially invited to join the visceral realists. I accepted, of course. There was no initiation ceremony. It was better that way.

Cordially. A word with spin, right away in the first sentence, and within two lines, something intriguing is afoot.


I’m not really sure what visceral realism is. I’m seventeen years old. My name is Juan García Madero, and I’m in my first semester of law school. I wanted to study literature, not law, but my uncle insisted, and in the end I gave in. I’m an orphan, and someday I’ll be a lawyer. That’s what I told my aunt and uncle, and then I shut myself in my room and cried all night. Or anyway for a long time. Then, as if it were settled, I started class in the law school’s hallowed halls, but a month later I registered for Julio César Álamo’s poetry workshop in the literature department, and that was how I met the visceral realists, or viscerealists, or even vicerealists, as they sometimes like to call themselves. Up until then, I had attended the workshop four times and nothing ever happened, though only in a manner of speaking, of course, since naturally something always happened: we read poems, and Álamo praised them or tore them to pieces, depending on his mood; one person would read, Álamo would critique, another person would read, Álamo would critique, somebody else would read, Álamo would critique. Sometimes Álamo would get bored and ask us (those who weren’t reading just then) to critique too, and then we would critique and Álamo would read the paper.

It was the ideal method for ensuring that no one was friends with anyone, or else that our friendships were unhealthy and based on resentment….

We imagine this is going to be García Madero’s story of university life. He identifies the visceral realists as two men in their early twenties, a Chilean named Arturo Belano, and a Mexican who adopted the name Ulises Lima several years earlier at the prompting of a high school girlfriend. The November 3 entry continues:

I still don’t really get it. In one sense, the name of the group is a joke. At the same time, it’s completely in earnest. Many years ago there was a Mexican avant-garde group called the visceral realists, I think, but I don’t know whether they were writers or painters or journalists or revolutionaries. They were active in the twenties or maybe the thirties, I’m not quite sure about that either. I’d obviously never heard of the group, but my ignorance in literary matters is to blame for that (every book in the world is out there waiting to be read by me). According to Arturo Belano, the visceral realists vanished in the Sonora desert. Then Belano and Lima mentioned somebody called Cesárea Tinajero or Tinaja, I can’t remember which (I think it was when I was shouting to the waiter to bring us some beers), and they talked about the Comte de Lautrémont’s Poems, something in the Poems that had to do with this Tinajero woman, and then Lima made a mysterious claim. According to him, the present-day visceral realists walked backward. What do you mean, backward? I asked.

“Backward, gazing at a point in the distance, but moving away from it, walking straight toward the unknown.”

I said I thought this sounded like the perfect way to walk. The truth was I had no idea what he was talking about. If you stop and think about it, it’s no way to walk at all.

Now the diarist sketches the gritty environs where aspiring poets meet:


I went back to the bar on Bucareli, but the visceral realists never showed up. While I was waiting for them, I spent my time reading and writing. The regulars, a group of silent, pretty grisly-looking drunks, never once took their eyes off me.

Results of five hours of waiting: four beers, four tequilas, a plate of tortilla sopes that I didn’t finish (they were half spoiled), a cover-to-cover reading of Álamo’s latest book of poems (which I only brought so I could make fun of Álamo with my new friends), seven texts written in the style of Ulises Lima, or rather, in the style of the one poem I’d read, or really just heard. The first one was about the sopes, which smelled of the grave; the second was about the university: I saw it in ruins; the third was about the university (me running naked in the middle of a crowd of zombies); the fourth was about the moon over Mexico City; the fifth about a dead singer; the sixth about a secret community living in the sewers of Chapultepec; and the seventh about a lost book and friendship. Those were the results, plus a physical and spiritual sense of loneliness.

A couple of drunks tried to bother me, but young as I may be, I can take care of myself. A waitress (I found out her name is Brígida; she said she remembered me from the other night with Belano and Lima) stroked my hair. She did it absentmindedly, as she went by to wait on another table. Afterward she sat with me for a while and hinted that my hair was too long. She was nice, but I decided it was better not to respond. At three in the morning I went home. Still no visceral realists. Will I ever see them again?

We turn the pages and meet the people García Madero hangs out with, and we learn that he is a virgin. On November 10 he narrates a scene of his first sexual experience, in which he is the baffled recipient of a favor from Brígida. But the favor, which occurs in the supplies closet of the bar, is interrupted by an emergency. Later, he wonders if he is still technically a virgin. Somewhat later, the question ceases to matter.

For the first two hours of reading, this is García Madero’s life and García Madero’s book. Through his sensibilities, we enter a circle people who are at least five years older. It is a circle in which people talk to each other about literature or politics for hours at a time. Everyone in the circle is somehow caught up in a love of poetry or a desire to write it or publish it. We meet Maria and Angelica Font, the daughters of a deranged architect, Joaquin “Quim” Font. Maria and Angelica share a “little house” behind the main Font residence, where they obtain privacy for sexual adventures by drawing a curtain across the single room.

We meet Maria’s friend, Lupe, who is a prostitute aspiring to enter dance school, and through Lupe’s conversations we hear about her pimp, Alberto, and his peculiar obsession involving a knife. We meet a strange, haunted bi-sexual youth who has named himself Luscious Skin, and we meet a variety of homosexuals. It’s an accepting circle of people. Sexual orientation is of no particular interest to any of them, and sexual curiosity is an unremarkable part of everyday life. We meet a couple of young poets who are expecting a baby, Jacinto Requena and Xóchitl García. (Her name is pronounced SO-cheetl, the Nahuatl word for “flower.”) (“Oh what a pompous know-it-all,” you’ve just thought. Before I Goggled for “Mexican X pronounce”, I don’t think I had ever seen the word, “Nahuatl.” I’m wearing it like a new watch today! Trying to find a use for it in an ordinary sentence several times. Not getting far.)

So we’re carried along through this new world that García Madero entered when he enrolled at the university, taking in all sorts of rich detail about everyone’s manners and lifestyles, and we can’t help wondering why these Mexicans are “lost,” or in what sense they are lost, or where the detectives are. Then things turn dangerous. Lupe decides to pursue an education and quits working for Alberto. Quim Font hides her in a hotel room, and later in his home, where Alberto mounts a siege as New Year’s Eve approaches. The cast of characters assembles at the Font home, and we know we’re in for a Mozart finale. Just after the turn of the year, it is decided that Belano and Lima will break the siege by speeding Lupe away in Quim Font’s new Impala. García Madero narrates what happened in his diary:

As Quim explained some of the finer points of the car to Ulises, Jorgito said that we should hurry up because Lupe’s pinp had just come back. For a few seconds everyone started talking in normal voices and Mrs. Font said: the shame of it all, to be reduced to this. Then I hurried off to the Fonts’ little house, got my books, and came back. The car’s engine was already running and everyone looked frozen in place.

I saw Arturo and Ulises in the front seats and Lupe in back.

“Someone will have to go open the gate,” said Quim.

I offered to do it.

I was on the sidewalk when I saw the lights of the Camaro and the lights of the Impala go on. It looked like a science fiction movie. As one car left the house, the other approached, as if the two were magnetically attracted to each other, or drawn together by fate, which the Greeks would say is the same thing.

I heard voices. People were calling my name. Quim’s car passed me. I saw the shape of Alberto getting out of the Camaro and the next moment he was alongside the car my friends were in. His friends, still sitting in the Camaro, yelled at him to break one of the Impala’s windows. Why doesn’t Ulises hit the gas? I thought. Lupe’s pimp started to kick the doors. I saw María coming through the garden toward me. I saw the faces of the thugs inside the Camaro. One of them was smoking a cigar. I saw Ulises’s face and his hands, which were moving on the dashboard of Quim’s car. I saw Belano’s face looking impassively at the pimp, as if none of this had anything to do with him. I saw Lupe, who was covering her face in the backseat. I thought that the window glass couldn’t withstand another kick and the next moment I was up next to Alberto. Then I saw that Alberto was swaying. He smelled of alcohol. They’d been celebrating the new year, too, of course. I saw my right fist (the only one I had free since my books were in my other hand) hurtling into the pimp’s body and this time I saw him fall. I heard my name being called from the house and I didn’t turn around. I kicked the body at my feet and I saw the Impala, which was moving at last. I saw the two thugs get out of the Camaro and I saw them coming toward me. I saw that Lupe was looking at me from inside the car and that she was opening the door. I realized that I’d always wanted to leave. I got in and before I could close the door Ulises stepped on the gas. I heard a shot or something that sounded like a shot. They’re shooting at us, the bastards, said Lupe. I turned around and through the back window I saw a shadow in the middle of the street. All the sadness of the world was concentrated in that shadow, framed by the strict rectangle of the Impala’s window. It’s firecrackers, I heard Belano say as our car leaped forward and left behind the Font’s house, the thugs’ Camaro, Calle Colima, and in less than two seconds we were on Avenida Oaxaca, heading north out of the city.

That’s the end of the section titled, “Mexicans Lost in Mexico.” The next section is titled, “The Savage Detectives (1976-1996)” We turn the page and the diary has vanished. Instead, we’re looking at text that begins with a formality:

Amadeo Salvatierra, Calle República Venezuela, near the Palacio de la Inquisición, Mexico City DF, January 1976

My dear boys, I said to them, I’m so glad to see you, come right in, make yourselves at home, and as they filed down the hall, or rather felt their way, because the hall is dark and the bulb had burned out and I hadn’t changed it (I haven’t changed it yet), I skipped joyfully ahead into the kitchen, where I got out a bottle of Los Suicidas mezcal, a mezcal only made in Chihuahua, limited run, of course, of which I used to receive two bottles each year by parcel post, until 1967…

This is evidently an interview taken in the same month Belano and Lima drove away with Lupe and Juan García Madero. Salvatierra is one of the earlier visceral realists, and the “dear boys” turn out to be Belano and Lima in the autumn of 1975. They are trying to track down Cesárea Tinajero, the “lost” mother of visceral realism, and are taping interviews with all the surviving members of her circle who they can locate in Mexico City.

We don’t know who is conducting this interview, though. Is it another group of university students on a quest, like Belano and Lima? Is it a team of policemen, or gangsters? Is Mexico City teeming with twenty-somethings armed with cassette recorders, taking oral histories of obscure poets? All we know is that the interviewers are male, plural, and young. The formality of the heading suggests a formal taking of information.

The next interview, also taken in January 1976, follows the same pattern; a formal opening giving name, location, and month, followed by a verbatim transcription. The purpose of the interview is to develop background information on Belano or Lima, or both. This one is with Perla Avilés, who shares a memory of horseback riding with Belano in 1970, when they were both in high school. Remember, we’re mentally making a list of things said by others that reveal a character we’re studying. And remember, too, that just like a scene in Verdi, there is a harmonic vocabulary in the fabric of this prose, a sense of pacing, a sense of where the weight will fall; and that like a screenplay or a good poem, it must seed our imagination with “sticky” images. (I couldn’t help noticing the unintended rhyme of Tlaxcala with the opera house, La Scala!)

…My father had some land in Tlaxcala and had bought a horse. He said he was a good rider and I said this Sunday I’m going to Tlaxcala with my father, you can come with us if you want. What bleak country that was. My father had built a thatched adobe hut and that was all there was, the rest was scrub and dirt. When we got there he looked around with a smile, as if to say, I knew this wasn’t going to be a fancy ranch or a big spread, but this is too much. Even I was a little bit ashamed of my father’s land. Among other things, there was no saddle, and some neighbors kept the horse for us. For a while, as my father was off getting the horse, we wandered the flats. I tried to talk about books I’d read that I knew he hadn’t read, but he hardly listened to me. He walked and smoked, walked and smoked, and the scenery was always the same. Until we heard the horn of my father’s car and then the man who kept the horse came, not riding the horse but leading it by the bridle. By the time we got back to the hut my father and the man had gone off in the car to settle some business and the horse was tied up waiting for us. You go first, I said. No, he said (it was clear his mind was on other things), you go. Not wanting to argue, I mounted the horse and broke straight into a gallop. When I got back he was sitting on the ground, against the wall of the hut, smoking. You ride well, he said. Then he got up and went over to the horse, saying that he wasn’t used to riding bareback, but he vaulted up anyway, and I showed him which way to go, telling him that over in that direction there was a river or actually a riverbed that was dry now but that filled up when it rained and was pretty, then he galloped off. He rode well. I’m a good horsewoman, but he was as good as I was or maybe better, I don’t know. At the time I thought he was better. Galloping without stirrups is hard and he galloped clinging to the horse’s back until he was out of sight. As I waited I counted the cigarette butts that he had stubbed out beside the hut and they made me want to learn to smoke. Hours later, as we were on our way back in my father’s car, him in front and me in back, he said that there was probably some pyramid lying buried under our land. I remember that my father turned his eyes from the road to look at him. Pyramids? Yes, he said, deep underground there must be lots of pyramids. My father didn’t say anything. From the darkness of the backseat, I asked him why he thought that. He didn’t answer. Then we started to talk about other things but I kept wondering why he’d said that about the pyramids. I kept thinking about pyramids. I kept thinking about my father’s stony plot of land and much later, when I’d lost touch with him, each time I went back to that barren place I thought about the buried pyramids, about the one time I’d seen him riding over the tops of the pyramids, and I imagined him in the hut, when he was left alone and sat there smoking.

Did you notice how much you have learned about Belano in this one, vivid memory of him as a teen? Smokes like a fiend, superb horseman, seems off in some other world, makes unique sorts of comments you never forget. And while you learn these things, you also retain the vivid details that Perla remembers, and you are left with that image of the superb young horseman alone in a hut, chain smoking.

Quim Font is interviewed many times during the book. In this monologue from October 1976, shortly before his family commits him to a mental institution, he responds to a question about Belano’s and Lima’s characters:

Now that the days are going by, coldly, in the cold way that days go by, I can say without the slightest resentment that Belano was a romantic, often pretentious, a good friend to his friends, I hope and trust, although no one really knew what he was thinking, probably not even Belano himself. Ulises Lima, on the other hand, was much friendlier and more radical. Sometimes he seemed like Vaché’s younger brother. Other times he seemed like an extraterrestrial. He smelled strange. This I know, this I can say, this I can attest to because on two unforgettable occasions he showered at my house. More precisely: he didn’t smell bad, he had a strange smell, as if he’d just emerged from a swamp and a desert at the same time. Extreme wetness and extreme dryness, the primordial soup and the barren plain. At the same time, gentlemen! A truly unnerving smell! It bothered me, for reasons that aren’t worth getting into here. His smell, I mean. Characterologically, Belano was extroverted and Ulises was introverted. In other words, I had more in common with Belano. Belano knew how to swim with the sharks much better than Lima did, no doubt about that. Much better than I did. He came across better, he knew how to handle things, he was more disciplined, he could pretend more convincingly. Good old Ulises was a ticking bomb, and what was worse, socially speaking, was that everyone knew or could sense that he was a ticking bomb and no one wanted him to get too close, for obvious and understandable reasons. Ah, Ulises Lima… He wrote constantly, that’s what I remember most about him, in the margins of books that he stole and on pieces of scrap paper that he was always losing. And he never wrote poems, he wrote stray lines that he’d assemble into long, strange poems later on if he was lucky…Belano, on the other hand, wrote in notebooks…They both still owe me money…

The memory of exceptional personal odors is a curious secondary theme throughout the book. It seemed to me that the accounts of odors were an embodiment, to choose a word, of “visceral realism.” After both men move to Europe, stories of Lima’s squalid living conditions are countered by stories of his bathing. Here is one sequence, from his time in Paris, a year after the New Year’s Eve escape from the Font home. The first voice is Hipólito Garces, a Peruvian who Lima had met in Mexico. It is very late at night, Garces has been waiting outside Lima’s room for hours, hoping to restore his parasitic relationship with Lima. Lima arrives and lets Garces in. Garces sells him a pile of books for an outrageous sum, which Lima pays, and then Garces begins to rant as Lima stands and stares him down. Garces:

And then I couldn’t take it anymore and I collapsed on the bed like a slut and I said: Ulises, I feel like shit, Ulises, man, my life is a disaster, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I try to do things right but everything turns out wrong…I’m not the same person I used to be, and on and on I went, letting out everything that was torturing me inside, with my face in the blankets, in Ulises’s blankets, I have no idea where they came from but they smelled bad, not just the typical unwashed smell of a chamber de bonne, and not like Ulises, but like something else, like death, an ominous smell that suddenly wormed its way into my brain and made me sit up, holy shit, Ulises, where did you get these blankets, causita, from the morgue? And Ulises was still standing there, not moving, listening to me, and then I thought this is my chance to go and I got up and reached out my hand and touched his shoulder. It was like touching a statue.

Next, the testimony of one of the Peruvian women, Sofia Pellegrini:

They called him the Christ of the Rue des Eaux and they all made fun of him, even Roberto Rosas, who claimed to be his best friend in Paris…..I never went to see his place. I know people said horrible things about it, that it was a filthy hole, that the worst junk in Paris piled up there: trash, magazines, newspapers, books he stole from bookstores, and that all of it soon began to smell like the place and then rotted, blossomed, turned all kinds of crazy colors. They said he could spend whole days without eating a thing, months without a visit to the public baths, but I doubt it because I never saw him looking especially dirty.

Then Simone Darrieux:

Ulises Lima showered at my house. I was never thrilled about it. I don’t like to use a towel after somebody else, especially if we aren’t intimate in some way, physically and even emotionally, but still I let him use my shower, then I would gather up the towels and put them in the machine. It helped that he tried to be neat in my apartment. In his own way, but he tried and that’s what counts. After I shower I scrub the bathtub and pick the hair out of the drain. It may seem trivial but it drives me up the wall. I hate to find clumps of hair clogging the drain, especially if it isn’t mine. Then I pick up the towels I’ve used and fold them and leave them on the bidet until I have time to put them in the machine. The first few times he came he even brought his own soap, but I told him he didn’t have to, that he should feel free to use my soap and shampoo but that he shouldn’t even think about touching my sponge….He was a strange person. He wrote in the margins of books….You won’t believe this, but he used to shower with a book. I swear. He read in the shower. How do I know? Easy. Almost all his books were wet. At first I thought it was the rain. Ulises was a big walker. He hardly ever took the metro. He walked back and forth across Paris and when it rained he got soaked because he never stopped to wait for it to clear up. So his books, at least the ones he read most often, were always a little warped, sort of stiff, and I thought it was from the rain. But one day I noticed that he went into the bathroom with a dry book and when he came out the book was wet. That day my curiosity got the better of me. I went up to him and pulled the book away from him. Not only was the cover wet, some of the pages were too, and so were the notes in the margins, some maybe even written under the spray, the water making the ink run, and then I said, for God’s sake, I can’t believe it, you read in the shower! have you gone crazy? and he said he couldn’t help it but at least he only read poetry (and I didn’t understand why he said he only read poetry, not at the time, but now I do: he meant that he only read two or three pages, not a whole book), and then I started to laugh, I threw myself on the sofa, writhing in laughter, and he started to laugh too, both of us laughed for I don’t know how long.

Several dialogues by and about two of Belano’s lovers revolve around offensive odors. These are vivid enough to balance the book’s primary emphasis on the sounds of human speech. One of these scenes is in an interview with a self-absorbed Spanish ambulance-chaser and poet who sprinkles his conversation with quotes from Latin classical authors:

Xosé Lendoiro, Terme di Traiano, Rome, October 1992. I was no ordinary lawyer. Lupo ovem commisisti or Alter remus aquas, alter tibi radat harenas: either could be said of me with equal justice. And yet I’ve preferred to adhere to the Catullian noli pugnare duobus. Someday my merits will be recognized.

In those days I was traveling and conducting experiments. My practice as a lawyer or jurist afforded me sufficient income so that I could devote ample time to the noble art of poetry. Unde habeas quaerit nemo, sed oportet habere, which, simply put, means that no one inquires as to the source of one’s possessions, but possessions are necessary. An essential truth if one wants to devote oneself to one’s most secret calling: poets are dazzled by the spectacle of wealth…

Let us not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of the interview with this blowhard is to find out another scrap of information about either Arturo Belano or Ulises Lima. The comedy of blowhardiness has Lendoiro describe his post-divorce liberation as the release of a “giant” that was within him. The “giant” then inhabits the narrative like a third party.

Lendoiro’s tells of meeting Belano during travels through Spain in 1977. He stops at a campground where Belano has found work as a watchman after leaving Mexico for Europe. Lendoiro witnesses Belano perform a remarkable feat of heroism and offers him a job writing monthly literary reviews for Lendoiro’s poetry magazine. What follows is a love affair between Belano and Lendoiro’s daughter, who is also a poet as well as the principal contributor to the magazine. Lendoiro discovers their affair in the most shocking way, vividly evoked in one of the best single sentences in the novel, which I will let you find for yourself.

Lendoiro’s salf-absorption diverts that tale of woe back to himself and his riches, and we enter a sub-narrative about wealth and stink, in “visceral realist” style:

Regarding money, naturally, I have indelible memories. Memories that glisten like a drunkard in the rain or a sick man in the rain. There was a time when my money was the object of jokes and ridicule. I know that. Vilius argentums est auro, virtutibus aurum. I know there was a time, at the beginning of my magazine’s run, when my young collaborators mocked the source of my money. You pay poets, it was said, with the money you make from crooked businessmen, embezzlers, drug traffickers, murderers of women and children, money launderers, corrupt politicians. I never dignified this slander with a reply. Plus augmentantur rumores, quando negantur. Someone has to defend the murders, the crooks, the men who want divorces and aren’t prepared to surrender all their money to their wives; someone has to defend them. And my firm defended them all, and the giant absolved them and charged them a fair price. That’s democracy, you fools, I told them, it’s time you understood. For better or for worse. And instead of buying a yacht with the money I made, I started a literary magazine. And although I knew that the money troubled the consciences of some of the young poets of Barcelona and Madrid, when I had a free moment I would come up silently behind them and touch their backs with the tips of my fingers, which were perfectly manicured (no longer, since even my nails are ragged now), and I would whisper in their ears: non olet. It doesn’t smell. The coins earned in the urinals of Barcelona and Madrid don’t smell. The coins earned in the toilets of Zaragoza don’t smell. The coins earned in the sewers of Bilbao don’t smell. Or if they smell, they smell of money. They smell of what the giant dreams of doing with his money. Then the young poets would understand and nod, even if they didn’t entirely follow what I was saying, even if they didn’t comprehend every jot and tittle of the terrible, timeless lesson I’d meant to drum into their silly little heads. And if any of them failed to understand, which I doubt, they understood when they was their pieces published, when they smelled the freshly printed pages, when they saw their names on the cover or in the table of contents. It was then that they got a whiff of what money really smells like: like power, like the gracious gesture of a giant. And then there were no more jokes and they all grew up and followed me.

All except Arturo Belano, and he didn’t follow me for the simple reason that he wasn’t called. Sequitur superbos ultor a tergo deus. And everyone who had followed me embarked on a career in the world of letters or cemented a career already begun but still in its infancy, except for Arturo Belano, who buried himself in a world where everything stank, where everything stank of shit and urine and rot and poverty and sickness, a world where the stink was suffocating and numbing, and where the only thing that didn’t stink was my daughter’s body. And I didn’t lift a finger to put an end to their unnatural relationship, but I bided my time. And one day I discovered (don’t ask me how because I’ve forgotten) that even my daughter, my beautiful older daughter, had begun to smell to that wretched ex-watchman of the Castroverde campground. Her mouth had begun to smell. The smell worked its way into the walls of the apartment where the wretched ex-watchman of the Castroverde campground was living. And my daughter, whose hygiene I refuse to let anyone question, brushed her teeth constantly: when she got up, at midmorning, after lunch, at four in the afternoon, at seven, after dinner, before she went to bed, but there was no way to get rid of the smell, there was no way to eliminate or hide the smell that the watchman scented or sniffed like a cornered animal, and although my daughter rinsed her mouth with Listerine between brushings, the smell persisted. It would go away for a moment only to appear again when it was least expected: at four in the morning in the watchman’s big castaway bed…It was an unbearable smell that chipped away at his patience and tact, the smell of money, the smell of poetry, maybe even the smell of love.

My poor daughter. It’s my wisdom teeth, she said. My poor daughter. It’s my last wisdom tooth coming in. That’s why my mouth smells, she would protest, when faced with the increasing coolness of the ex-watchman of the Castroverde campground. Her wisdom tooth!...

You may wonder how I could recommend that you read an entire book that is populated with people and events the such as these. But if you glossed over the passages, I hope you go back into them slowly, and resolve to read each sentence and absorb it for just what it is, and then read the next, and so on. Do not race to the “conclusion,” because it’s one of the things that has gone missing.

So we have sound and smell. What of taste? Nothing. Touch? Nothing. Sight? Very little. But the sense of triste? That permeates the monologues, especially in the way they end, without punch, as if the bottom line in these memories is “so what?”

Lima is the gravitational center of this sadness. It infuses people’s memories of him throughout the book. Hugo Montero remembers a moment with Lima on a plane to Managua with a group of Mexican poets. “…and then he said, in a voice that broke my heart: let me read it.” Clara Cabeza, Octavio Paz’s secretary, remembers a meeting between Lima and Paz. “Then Don Octavio looked at me with those pretty eyes of his and said Clarita, back in the days of the visceral realists I would hardly have been ten years old, this was around 1924, wasn’t it? he said, addressing Lima. And Lima said yes, more or less, the 1920s, but he said it with such sadness in his voice, with such. . .emotion, or feeling, that I thought it was the saddest voice I would ever hear. I think I even felt ill."

You can’t write about someone named Ulises and omit an odyssey, can you? Lima’s odyssey is encapsulated in a scintillating monologue by Jacinito Requena:

One day I asked him where he’d been. He told me that he’d traveled along a river that connects Mexico and Central America. As far as I know, there is no such river. But he told me he’d traveled along this river and that now he could say he knew its twists and tributaries. A river of trees or a river of sand or a river of trees that in certain stretches became a river of sand. A constant flow of people without work, of the poor and starving, drugs and suffering. A river of clouds he’d sailed on for twelve months, where he’d found countless islands and outposts, although not all the islands were settled, and sometimes he thought he’d stay and live on one of them forever or that he’d die there.

Of all the islands he’d visited, two stood out. The island of the past, he said, where the only time was past time and the inhabitants were bored and more or less happy, but where the weight of illusion was so great that the island sank a little deeper into the river every day. And the island of the future, where the only time was the future, and the inhabitants were planners and strivers, such strivers, said Ulises, that they were likely to end up devouring one another.

Loss. People lose touch with each other. They drop out of sight; they move to places they don’t belong; they try to return; their friendships dissolve, they move on with their lives. Jacobo Urenda, a foreign correspondent, in 1996, recalls a dangerous night in an African village in the midst of a civil war. He has known the mature Arturo Belano for several years and has run into him again in the thick of this war. It is late at night, and in the morning the people will leave in two directions, either or both of which could prove fatal.

So I started to think about my wife and my home and then I started to think about Belano, how well he looked, what good shape he seemed to be in, better than in Angola, when he wanted to die, and better than in Kigali, when he didn’t want to die anymore but couldn’t get off this godforsaken continent, and when I’d finished the cigarette I pulled out another one, which really was the last, and to cheer myself up I even started to sing very softly to myself or in my head, a song by Atahualpa Yupanqui, my God, Atahualpa Yupanqui, and only then did I realize that I was extremely nervous and that if I wanted to sleep what I needed was to talk, and then I got up and took a few blind steps, first in deathly silence (for a fraction of a second I thought we were all dead, that the hope sustaining us was only an illusion, and I had the urge to go running out the door of that foul-smelling house), then I heard the sound of snoring, the barely audible whispering of those who were still awake and talking in the dark in Gio or Mano, Mandingo or Krahn, English, Spanish.

All languages seemed detestable to me just then.

To say that now is silly, I know. All those languages, all that whispering, simply a vicarious way of preserving our identity for an uncertain length of time. Ultimately, the truth is that I don’t know why they seemed detestable, maybe because in an absurd way I was lost somewhere in those two long rooms, lost in a region I didn’t know, a country I didn’t know, a continent I didn’t know, on a strange, elongated planet, or maybe because I knew I should get some sleep and I couldn’t. And then I felt for the wall and sat on the floor and opened my eyes extrawide trying and trying to see something, and then I curled up on the floor and closed my eyes and prayed to God (in whom I don’t believe) that I wouldn’t get sick, because there was a long walk ahead of me the next day, and then I fell asleep.

When I woke up it must have been close to four in the morning.

A few feet from me, Belano and López Lobo were talking. I saw the light of their cigarettes, and my first impulse was to get up and go to them. I wanted to share in the uncertainty of what the next day would bring, join the two shadows I glimpsed behind the cigarettes even if I had to crawl or go on my knees. But I didn’t. Something in the tone of their voices stopped me, something in the angle of their shadows, shadows sometimes dense, squat, warlike, and sometimes fragmented, dispersed, as if the bodies that cast them had already disappeared.

So I controlled myself and pretended to be asleep and listened….

Bolaño is able to extend the magic of this scene for six more, absolutely spellbinding, pages.

Throughout the long middle section of the book, we are brought back to excerpts from the January 1976 interview with the old visceral realist poet, Amadeo Salvatierra. He may be one of your favorite voices if you read the book. Salvatierra has lost two things. It is hard to tell which is the more important, his connection to Cesárea Tinajero or his connection to poetry:

Life left us all where we were meant to be or where it was convenient to leave us and then forgot us, which is as it should be…I remember her laugh, boys, I said, night was falling over Mexico City and Cesárea laughed like a ghost, like the invisible woman she was about to become, a laugh that made my heart shrink, a laugh that made me want to run away from her and at the same time made me understand beyond the shadow of a doubt that there was no place I could run to….and then she looked at me, without seeing me at first, then seeing me, and she smiled and said goodbye, Amadeo. And that was the last time I saw her alive. Cool as could be. And that was the end of everything…

Everyone forgot her, boys, except me, I said. Now that we’re old and past hope maybe a few remember her, but back then everyone forgot her and then they started to forget themselves, which is what happens when you forget your friends. Except for me….Like so many Mexicans, I too gave up poetry. Like so many thousands of Mexicans, I too turned my back on poetry. Like so many hundreds of thousands of Mexicans, I too, when the moment came, stopped writing and reading poetry. From then on, my life proceeded along the drabbest course you can imagine.

Without any inherent reason, Salvatierra’s 1976 monologues appear in sections that contain later and later interviews. They stitch the book together, and then, when all the 1996 interviews have been presented, “The Savage Detectives” section ends, and we see a title page for the next section that says, “The Sonora Desert (1976)”


Today I realized that what I wrote yesterday I really wrote today: everything from December 31 I wrote on January 1, i.e., today, and what I wrote on December 30 I wrote on the 31st, i.e., yesterday. What I write today, I’m really writing tomorrow, which for me will be today and yesterday, and also, in some sense, tomorrow: an invisible day. But enough of that.

It’s you-know-who again, but I won’t tell you what transpires in the final fifty pages. What I will tell you is that, after two full readings of the book and a third skimming of the countless passages I marked for later review, I could reenter this world and read it all again many more times.

I hardly ever read a book twice. The author I’ve reread more than any other is Homer. I have five translations of The Odyssey.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Baby Steps

In so many aspects of our lives, the hill we have to climb seems huge. I would like to lose more than 50 pounds, for example. I have lost them before, but they find me again. I can’t lose them in a day. Well, to be perfectly honest, I can, but I wouldn’t survive what it would take to do that! I can’t lose them in a week or a month. But I can lose them, every one of them, if I change some fundamental “practices”, starting now and continuing to the end of today and then starting again tomorrow and continuing to the end of tomorrow, and so on. I can lose 50 pounds in six months if I make small changes in my practices and stick to those changes. The weight I have lost by tomorrow this time will be measured in ounces. By this time next week, we’ll be measuring pounds, and a month from now, we’ll be thinking in terms of tens of pounds.

This kind of thinking also applies to the vast idea of creating an entire state in which every child is read to. The project has to be broken down into a workable unit in which some fundamental practice changes, and then the unit has to be enlarged. Our READ from the START program changes the practice of one parent. When the other adults in that family network see the change in the toddler, their practices change, too. Voila! Out of “baby steps” of change undertaken by one individual, as many as sixteen adult relatives see something they want a part of.

We don’t teach family reading one-on-one. We teach classes of twenty at a time. The instruction is so easy to learn to do that the program is easy to copy. How many new parents live in your neighborhood, village, or town? If you offered READ from the START once a year, could you change the practices in every family with a new baby? If you think this way, in baby steps, you can imagine how feasible and practical it can be to create a state that has the highest literacy rate in the world, right up there with Japan and Iceland!

This kind of thinking belongs in local museums, too. Thinking in baby steps, you can move from boring to fascinating in the space of a few minutes, and you can remain there. Your museum doesn’t have to change over night, either. You can achieve “fascinating” in the midst of appalling clutter, the wrong lighting, poor sense of focus, deteriorating textiles and paper goods, you name it! You can achieve the most important thing by changing your practices. The rest of the necessary adjustments can come later.

These days I see baby steps nearly everywhere I look. Things appear to be on the move in Missouri’s local museums. The other day I stopped in to see the Kingdom of Callaway Historical Society’s storefront museum and had a wonderful surprise. I walked in and started to look around and one of the volunteers walked from the back of the room to greet me and make me feel welcome. Then she showed me a bit of what’s new. She pointed out a trunk full of objects at “kid level” that people are allowed to touch and handle. I saw a yo-yo. I asked her if she knew how to demonstrate it. She took it out, backhanded it up and down, and I was instantly transported to an ancient memory of myself, age eight or nine, competing without warrant in a yo-yo contest on the stage of the Isis Theatre in New Egypt, New Jersey. It was one of those on-stage moments when you realize, too late, what the “real” artists are able to do.

That lovely little moment was made possible by someone who used social skills in a teaching environment. History, after all, is a social field. Our knowledge of basic friendliness is so much more pertinent to working in museums than our knowledge of history or of conservation methods. When you volunteer in a museum, your most important product is a memory. As you greet the visitor, you are the museum's most important asset. What sort of experience will you shape for your visitor?

I had another great time recently at the Harlin Museum in West Plains. This is another place with challenges, and yet there is a sense there that all challenges can be broken down into things that are possible by individuals working in small, useful steps. Does this space look too cluttered? Reduce the number of objects competing for space and lighten the color of the walls! Problem with these textiles? Let the air circulate better! Baby steps, baby steps; that’s the way to think about it. Select a scale of work where you can see improvement by next week. Change practices, reap the rewards.

Friday, September 7, 2007

God's Instrument

St. Francis Day is October 4. I have just learned that today. I looked it up because a prayer that is commonly attributed to St. Francis has been with me all my adult life and it’s time to share what I found in it. When I first heard it, I thought there was only one “Prayer of St. Francis.” It was sung at my first wedding, and I later paid an artist to do a calligraphy rendition of it for my wife.

Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace;
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

Around the time I turned 50 and came to Missouri, I told my late cousin, Walt Bouman, who was a prominent theologian, that I had come to realize I had a calling as a “secular minister.” He chuckled and replied in his rich and resonant voice, “to those who are called, there is no distinction between the sacred and the secular. A minister is a minister.”

In the last couple of decades, I have developed some altogether contradictory religious ideas. I even hesitate to say “I” developed them. Maybe they developed me. I’m not being cute when I confess that I don’t know if there is a boundary that separates “my” action from action I do at the prompting of “that.”

I once began a journal, several years ago, lost in a computer failure, in which I was prompted to begin with the sentence, “God is not human” and go on from there. Though my religious tradition asserts that “God” is not subject to definition, we use the metaphors of humanity to express our sense of that which is beyond understanding. So when I speak of “God,” I am not suggesting that “he” has a gender, an age, or a point of view. I don’t know anything and yet I have something to say about this.

In the midst of a charette in Osage County, Missouri in 2001 I suddenly connected religious tradition to the work of a county historical society. Religion is prominent in the social customs of the people in Osage County. They even asked me to sing the Doxology as a blessing for our parting meal. I realized in the midst of a brainstorming session with them that the stewardship we know from our religious education is identical with the stewardship we must exercise in our voluntary associations.

Remember the Bible story of Cain and Abel? After the Bible’s first recorded murder, Cain barks back at an inquiring God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the lesson of this tale is, Yes, we are our brother’s keeper. We are the keepers of endangered species, as Noah discovered, much to his inconvenience. We are the keepers of strangers, and even reviled populations are composed of people who possess divine goodness, as Jesus taught in the parable of The Good Samaritan.

This sense of wide-ranging stewardship extends to historical work. A county historical society is inherently married in a relationship of stewardship of both the intelligence of the population and that population’s sense of relationship with place. No other entity in a county is so intimately connected with the stories that pertain to this place or to the things that distinguish this place from any other places.

If we are stewards of place, what may we do to increase people’s appreciation of all the beauties, virtues, sorrows, and other meanings that belong here and nowhere else? That was the question I posed in the charette in Osage County, Missouri, and the people there reached into their store of social skills, creativity, and kindness and developed a new form of activity that would engender love of place. For me, it was a religious experience. It was beyond “business as usual,” and it changed the way I see the work I do.

One of my avocations is singing. I keep in shape by vocalizing every morning during my 20-minute drive to work. One day as I approached the office I took the most remarkable breath I have ever drawn, and suddenly the opening of the Prayer of St. Francis popped into mind, and it occurred to me that God had just drawn that breath, through me. I had experienced the feeling of being the instrument of God’s breathing. One thought led to another, and before you know it, I’d embraced an idea that “God loves to sing, and I’m the only opportunity for God to sing in the space I occupy.” So I became the instrument of God’s love of singing, and that concept rippled out in all directions until virtually everything I touch or do is touched or done with a sense of a divine presence not of my making, but which inhabits and uses me. And what is true in my thinking about me, is true in my thinking about you. My sense of the divine is much more immediate since these ideas were granted to me by some deity called “Holy Spirit” in one tradition, or “Athena” in another.

Three years ago I quoted the opening line of The Prayer of St. Francis at a charette in the Champ Clark House in Bowling Green, Missouri. “This house may be thought of as an instrument of God’s purpose,” I said. “What sort of purpose becomes divine participation?” Something to that effect. I wasn’t implying that the trustees convert the house into a place of worship, but that they see the house as an instrument of active energy rather than as a stationary object intended as a container of various items and the occasional visitor. A historic house is a tool of education. The prayer might be extended this way: “Lord make us and this historic house the instruments of a learning that is worthy of divine participation. Where there is hesitancy, let me extend a hospitable greeting; where there is befuddlement, an opening moment of focus; where there is indifference, let me spark interest; where there is too much to tell; help me talk less, and listen more!”

I know an instrument of learning that is also the product of prayer. It’s the touring exhibit on Sac and Fox heritage. The exhibit contains and communicates a Sac and Fox story about “Twelve Boys” and their sacrifice of self to provide enduring aid to the people. Sandra Massey, who served as the lead tribal liaison in developing the exhibit content, recently wrote me an eloquent letter about the meaning of the exhibit as a tangible thing. She said, “Because the exhibit is the result not only of tribal history but prayer, it has taken on a spirit of its own. It is connected to the heart of the people through the Twelve Boys, who have found a modern venue through which to help the Sac and Fox survive in more than a physical sense….The Missouri Humanities Council did not form a partnership with the Sac and Fox to facilitate the return to our homelands, but through the “Homeland” exhibit it happened. Where the exhibit may stand so also is our presence as a people.”

Seven years ago I was among crowds of visitors in the Basilica of St. Francis in the town of Assisi in Italy. Inside that space I felt positively infused with the hopeful and holy energy that pilgrims had brought there. I have not had such a feeling before or since. It opened me to considering another indefinable and indescribable “that,” which some refer to as “the power of prayer.” I sensed that power as an environment that day in Assisi. I believe now that it radiates outward like radio waves, such that the thing we pray for may or may not be the thing affected by the energy we release and receive in the mental stance of a prayer. Indeed, this text is a prayer. You don’t have to relay it to 16 friends. If you got this far, the energy is already at work.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Hands-On, Body-Engaged Learning

Recently I stopped in to see what was going on at an outdoor entertainment venue. I’m glad I had my camera, because what I thought would just be a quick look around became what can only be called staring. I realized that although people of all ages appeared to be enjoying themselves, the play environment seemed like a history park.

The area where I stopped was devoted to the experience of getting into something unusual and getting the feel of it. Here’s a wagon, or half of one, designed for photo ops. People couldn’t resist trying it on for size.

And here’s a dugout canoe that made me wonder of Lewis and Clark’s party had traded for something like this with the tribes along the Missouri River. While I stood there with my camera, the canoe was almost never empty!

You can see in this next shot that the space people enter is designed in several levels, even though it didn’t have to be. The visitor not only enters the space horizontally, but must ascend and descend to gain passage through it. There is no direct route. Yonder, near a replica Mississippi River boat, I saw children playing in the dirt by a simulated stream. Were they “panning for gold?” I didn’t get over there to find out.

And here, bordering this zone of play is an old-fashioned split-rail fence and a big windmill. What museum is this?

Not many paces beyond this area, I spotted parents and children of all ages enjoying some water jets that were clearly designed to be part of the hands-on experience of this place.

I started to see this environment with new eyes, the eyes of someone who’s trying to teach “visitor-centered thinking.” Here is an environment designed to absorb the energy of children and to gratify the adults who are hoping the kids will have a good time.

What history museum is this? It’s not! It’s a new learning environment at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. It is not only hands-on, but body-involved. I saw some kind of tree house that was accessible by a sturdy walkway. Under the tree house hung simulated “jungle vines” that children grabbed and swung on. On the other side of a walkway was a rope bridge between one tree and another, with rope mesh on the sides to prevent any falls. It was not a stable walk, and the instability tempted parents as well as kids.

A botanical garden is a prime example of a space that has traditionally served self-guided individuals and couples. In recent years, this garden has devoted enormous attention to the cultivation of tomorrow’s members and patrons. They have invested in family-friendly experiences that are physical, creative, social, and fun. All of this fun impinges not a bit on the self-guided people who are seeking the pleasures of seeing the ever-changing face of this planted environment.

If you are involved in a local museum or historic house, I hope you see something you can use in this photo-blog. Whether you sell cars or operate a museum, your most important product is a good memory. You’ve got to put the visitor’s experience at the center of your thinking. Museum work these days is not about your skill in displaying objects for self-guided learners. It is about your ability to translate everything you know about good hospitality to the cultivation of people’s interest.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Graphic Artist in the Garden

My long-term friend, David Watkins, was already a fine graphic designer when I knew him as an undergraduate at Penn State in the 60s. He married the love of his life, Susan, and moved to make a family, a life, and a career with her at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

That’s David a couple of weeks ago with his granddaughter, Lily. His garden has been a living work of graphic art as long as I’ve made the nearly-annual visits there with San.

This is a blog about David’s artistic gift, how he creates interest by the art of selecting and composing what is in the frame, for David is an art photographer, too, and we had gone to Ithaca for his big gallery opening there.

Outside, the “frame” is what is on the boundary of the residential lot. Within the lot, David has created a variety of garden beds near a large deck, so those beds have become the “frame” for human interaction on the deck. The beds themselves are framed by deck, lawn, and a pathway. There is reciprocity there. In the small zone where human space meets plant space, David has arranged potted plants as well as a small arrangement of smooth rocks. This part of the garden frame has more human presence than the part beyond it. See here, what you face while standing on the edge of the deck and look toward the slight rise to the back yard:

Shift perspective just a tad, and you see David’s eye for color, form, and texture capture your attention. Your eye is compelled into the center of the space by that beautiful rose purple coleus in that rustic-looking pot.

Ascend into the yard and look at that big lime-green hosta, and see how he “frames” the key feature with variety on one side – more kinds of potted coleus – and consistency on the lawn side – a border or silvery purple heucheras, not in pots but “grounded.” We are now in the zone of the yard.

Looking beyond this view, the visitor sees a steep slope down to a pathway that runs the length of the house out to the street. As the overhead canopy produced too much shade for daylilies, David converted the planting to a hosta gallery, each variety planted next to a dissimilar one, the whole bed tied together with large juniper bushes above and small begonias below, with a small border of hand-set stones to buffer the more austere texture of the poured concrete walkway.

Color, form, texture, composition: the elements of my friend's special talent. In the art gallery, those gifts produce wonderful evocations of what is magical in the zone where the natural meets the man-made. Here is a detail David noticed while visiting somewhere; some tulips drooping next to a plaster wall, like something you would see in a painting by one of the Dutch masters. He made the picture, cropped it to balance the flat surface above the flowers with the place where the wall's man-made curvature meets the natural floral curves, balanced the illumination just so….and it was breathtaking!

Here is a large photograph he printed on canvas rather than paper, a pond somewhere in Vermont, utterly simple as a graphic statement.

Finally, here is an example of graphic manipulation of the image to move along the path from realism toward abstraction. He has used computer software to subtract visual detail and enhance what remains, but not so much that you have left realism entirely. I have watched him work on images in his studio, tweaking this and that to see how it will affect the image, and finally settling on an array of choices that represent what the artist’s eye sought out.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Suggestive Pacing

If you’ve read more than one of my blogs, you know that I pay special attention to how a book begins. I didn’t learn to read entirely by reading. There were helpful voices along the way, such as Ezra Pound’s book An ABC of Reading, or Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or my weekly poetry tutorial with Hayden Carruth back in 1975. We’d sit outside on balmy afternoons that fall, wild Asters in bloom by the bubbling brook beside his house in Johnson, Vermont, and he would show me what he noticed in my poems. He always noticed more than what I was conscious of writing. In that process of simple affirmation, he taught me to appreciate what was truly “mine” in the way I set things down. He did this in such a way that I didn’t have to force what was natural to me. I just had to open a door and get “myself” out of the way, and then see the sorts of things he had seen in the results. He found it remarkable that I was an aspiring poet who didn’t read much poetry. I tried to, I really did, but I am drawn more to narrative writing. That’s what I like to read.

Here is the beginning of a haunting narrative:

When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some granitic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease. Until they stood in a great stone room where lay a black and ancient lake. And on the far shore a creature that raised its dripping mouth from the rimstone pool and stared into the light with eyes dead white and sightless as the eggs of spiders. It swung its head low over the water as if to take the scent of what it could not see. Crouching there pale and naked and translucent, its alabaster bones cast up in shadow on the rocks behind it. Its bowels, its beating heart. The brain that pulsed in a dull glass bell. It swung its head from side to side and then gave out a low moan and turned and lurched away and loped soundlessly into the dark.

With the first gray light he rose and left the boy sleeping and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Barren, silent, godless. He thought the month was October but he wasnt sure. He hadnt kept a calendar for years. They were moving south. There’d be no surviving another winter here.

When it was light enough to use the binoculars he glassed the valley below. Everything paling away into the murk. The soft ash blowing in loose swirls over the blacktop. He studied what he could see. The segments of road down there among the dead trees. Looking for anything of color. Any movement. Any trace of standing smoke. He lowered the glasses and pulled down the cotton mask from his face and wiped his nose on the back of his wrist and then glassed the country again. Then he just sat there holding the binoculars and watching the ashen daylight congeal over the land. He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.

The author is Cormack McCarthy. The book is The Road. We enter the story in a factual statement about a man and a child sleeping for an undefined number of nights, cold, outside in the woods. Their environment is unnaturally dark and growing darker all the time. The man apparently touches the child to see if he is still alive. Each small breath is “precious.” The two people stink. The man has dreamed of them “like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost…”

In this first paragraph, there is something strange about the rhythm of the sentences. Some have a gesture of length to them, and then come some that begin with a stark noun, like the second sentence, “Nights dark beyond darkness…” Words left out, as if “saving breath” for the minimum number to get an idea out. The third sentence works the same way, saving breath. Then two longer sentences followed by the need to “catch breath,” in a manner of speaking. Back and forth it goes, moderately long sentences and “catching breath” sentences.

By the second paragraph, the writer is not just saving words, he is saving apostrophes. The man “wasnt” sure of the month. He “hadnt” kept a calendar for years. Years: the strange situation of the man and the child, in a dimming environment, has been an extended time. The geographical location of the two has become critical to their survival.

In the third paragraph, we see “the soft ash blowing in lose swirls over the blacktop.” The man keeps his face covered with a white cotton mask. In the last sentence of the third paragraph, we learn that the child is a boy, and the boy is the “warrant” for the man. And even a comma is spared in the last sentence of that paragraph: “If he is not the word of God God never spoke.”

The white cotton mask suggests that breath is not “precious” only because it is a child’s breath. ALL breath is precious when the air is full of “soft ash blowing in loose swirls.” Anyone who has ever cleaned the ash out of the fireplace knows how fine it is, how you don’t want to take a lungful of it as you sweep. The environment the man and child inhabit is dark and growing darker, and fine ash covers everything, and they have to be wary as they make their pilgrimage south to warmer country.

If the boy is the warrant for the man, what would the man do without the boy? Is the theme of this story what Albert Schweitzer called his central tenet, the “reverence for human life?” Why is the landscape “godless” while the man considers the child the virtual “word of God?”

A few pages later McCormack brings religion back into this godless landscape:

It took two days to cross that ashen scabland. The road beyond ran along the crest of a ridge where the barren woodland fell away on every side. It’s snowing, the boy said. He looked at the sky. A single gray flake sifting down. He caught it in his hand and watched it expire there like the last host of christendom.

They pushed on together with the tarp pulled over them. The wet gray flakes twisting and falling out of nothing. Gray slush by the roadside. Black water running from under the sodden drifts of ash. No more balefires on the distant ridges. He thought the bloodcults must have all consumed one another. No one traveled this road. No road-agents, no marauders. After a while they came to a roadside garage and they stood within the open door and looked out at the gray sleet gusting down out of the high country.

Again the narrative pace has to “conserve its breath.” There could have been a comma after “the tarp pulled over them.” Instead, there is a pause for breath and a continuation, each phrase a sentence in its own right, allowing for shortness of breath.

A little later, before we’ve read much more than half an hour into this tale, we get a picture of what the human environment was like several years earlier.

In those first years the roads were peopled with refugees shrouded up in their clothing. Wearing masks and goggles, sitting in their rags by the side of the road like ruined aviators. Their barrows heaped with shoddy. Towing wagons or carts. Their eyes bright in their skulls. Creedless shells of men tottering down the causeways like migrants in a feverland. The frailty of everything revealed at last. Old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night. The last instance of a thing takes the class with it. Turns out the light and is gone. Look around you. Ever is a long time. But the boy knew what he knew. That ever is no time at all.

I thought of the “death of the humanities” when I read that reference to “old and troubling issues resolved into nothingness and night” at a time when all people appeared to be “creedless shells of men.” My late cousin Walt, the theologian, once quipped that “God is what’s left after everything else is gone.” In the narrative at hand, the life of the boy is the warrant for the life of the man, and it becomes apparent that the man has trouble breathing and that they are both slowly starving.

Halfway into the story,

They scrabbled through the charred ruins of houses they would not have entered before. A corpse floating in the black water of a basement among the trash and rusting ductwork. He stood in a livingroom partly burned and open to the sky. The waterbuckled boards sloping away into the yard. Soggy volumes in a bookcase. He took one down and opened it and then put it back. Everything damp. Rotting. In a drawer he found a candle. No way to light it. He put it in his pocket. He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like groundfoxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

Despite the desperation of the situation, this tale moves fast on a concentrated fuel that is McCormack’s imagination. The environment may be in the last stage of collapse, but the energy that sustains a consistent narrative “voice” is perfectly focused and tuned. I felt I was breaking the spell every time I had to set the story down, and I finished it in a single day’s reading. There is something affirmative in this bleak and hopeless tale, or you wouldn’t keep turning the pages. It shapes an answer to the puzzle of faith when everything around is “godless” or “creedless.” When you read it, let the sentences guide your speed. They will set your pace. Hold to the pace they set. Absorb. Reflect.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Roberto Bolaño and the Numbness of Exile

There are times during a summer when the exhaustion of hybridizing daylilies is relieved by a trip to see distant friends. At such times, I take along several books for airport reading and to make the hours in the air pass more easily. Roberto Bolaño was the author I read on a recent trip to Ithaca, New York. A Chilean writer working in exile, Bolaño lived only fifty years. He died in 2003.

I read a collection of his stories titled Last Evenings On Earth. The collection is unified by a narrative voice of an exiled Chilean writer, perhaps a different writer in each story, as the historical time may shift from story to story, and by an offhand, informal delivery infused with an absolutely rigorous vagueness. Also, a love of unexpectedly vivid descriptors, like this passage about Henri Simon Leprince. Look how the story opens:

The events recounted here took place in France shortly before, during, and shortly after World War II. The protagonist – whose name, Leprince, is oddly appropriate, although he is quite the opposite of a prince (middle class, well educated, respectable friends, but downwardly mobile and short of money) – is a writer.

Naturally he is a failed writer, barely scraping a living in the Paris gutter press, and his stories and poems (which the bad poets regard as bad and the good poets don’t even read) are published in provincial magazines. Publishing houses and their accredited readers (that execrable subcaste) seem for some mysterious reason to detest him. His manuscripts are invariably rejected. He is middle-aged, single, and accustomed to failure.

Bolaño’s phrase, “some mysterious reason,” is part and parcel of the atmosphere of offhand vagueness that is elevated to a style. As the story continues, Leprince is drawn into the Resistance. His task is to help better writers escape the Nazis. He is willing to take great risks. Whatever made him detestable in the opening passage comes back into a description of his work for the Resistance:

For the writers, however, Leprince is something of an enigma and a surprise. Those who enjoyed a certain notoriety before the capitulation and never deigned to notice Leprince find themselves running into him everywhere they go, and worse, having to depend on him for protection and safe passage. Leprince seems to have emerged from limbo; he helps them, puts the meager sum of his possessions at their disposal; he is cooperative and diligent. The writers talk to him. The conversations take place at night, in dark rooms or corridors, and are always conducted in whispers. One writer suggests he try his hand at composing stories, verse, or essays. Leprince assures him that he has been doing precisely that since 1933. The nights of waiting are long and anxious, and some of the writers are talkative; they ask where he has published his works. Leprince mentions mouldering magazines and newspapers whose mere names provoke nausea or sadness. These conversations generally end at daybreak: Leprince leaves his charge in a safe house, with a hearty handshake or a brisk hug followed by a few words of thanks. And the words are sincere, but once the episode is over the writers avoid Leprince, and he fades from their minds like an unpleasant but forgettable dream.

There is something elusive, something indefinable about him that people find repellent. They know he is there to help, but deep down they simply cannot warm to him. Perhaps they sense that Leprince is tainted by the years he has spent in the underworld of sad magazines and the gutter press, from which no man or beast escapes, except the exceedingly strong, brilliant, and bestial.

Another very strange story is titled Anne Moore’s Life. It takes an hour to read it, and in that hour the story lurches and shifts location and characters as if someone were trying to describe a family history to you while constantly flipping channels on a television. Dislocation and relocation is a major theme of the stories, and lives lived in backwater places, far from where protagonists began. The story of Anne Moore begins this way:

Anne Moore’s father served his country and the free world on a hospital ship in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945. His first daughter, Susan, was born while he was at sea off the Philippines, just before the end of World War II. Soon after, he returned to Chicago, where Anne was born in 1948. But Dr. Moore didn’t like Chicago, so three years later, he and his family moved to Great Falls, Montana.

That is where Anne grew up. Her childhood was peaceful but it was also strange. In 1958, when she was ten years old, she glimpsed for the first time what she would later call the ashen (or the dirty) face of reality. Her sister had a boyfriend called Fred, who was fifteen. One Friday Fred came to the Moores’ house and said that his parents had gone on a trip. Anne’s mother said it wasn’t right, he was just a boy, he shouldn’t be left alone in the house like that. Anne’s father reckoned that Fred was old enough to look after himself. That night Fred had dinner at the Moores’ house, then sat on the porch chatting with Susan and Anne until ten. Before leaving he said good-bye to Mrs. Moore. Dr. Moore had already gone to bed.

This is boring, and bewildering, right? You wonder why you’re reading such blather, seemingly an unedited ramble, though with surprising sureness about details. The passage continues,

The next day Fred took Susan and Anne for a drive around the park in his parents’ car. According to what Anne told me, Fred’s state of mind was noticeably different from the night before. He was preoccupied and hardly spoke, as if he and Susan had argued. For a while they just sat there in the car, in silence, Fred and Susan in the front and Anne in the back, then Fred proposed that they go to his house. Susan didn’t answer. Fred started the car and drove to a poor neighborhood where Anne had never been; it was as if he was lost or, deep down, didn’t really want to take them to his house, even though he was the one who had suggested it. Anne remembers that as they drove around Susan didn’t look at Fred once; she spent the whole time looking out of the window, as if the houses and the streets slowly filing past were part of a never to be repeated show. And Fred, gazing fixedly straight ahead, didn’t once look at Susan. Neither of them said a word or turned to look at the young girl in the backseat, although at one point, momentarily, she caught Fred’s eye in the rearview mirror, staring at her, hard and bright.

When they finally arrived at Fred’s house, neither Fred nor Susan made a move to get out. Even the way Fred parked the car on the street instead of in the garage was non-committal, provisional, a deliberate pause. As if by parking like that, he was giving us and himself extra time to think, says Anne in hindsight.

After a while (Anne doesn’t remember how long) Susan got out of the car, ordered her sister to do the same, took her by the hand, and they walked away without saying good-bye. When they were several yards away, Anne turned and saw the back of Fred’s neck; he hadn’t moved, he was still at the wheel, as if still driving, staring straight ahead, says Anne, although by then he may have closed or half-closed his eyes; he may have been looking down, or crying.

They walked back home and Susan refused to explain her behavior, in spite of Anne’s questions. She wouldn’t have been surprised to find Fred in their backyard that afternoon. It wasn’t the first time he and her sister had fought, and they always made up soon afterward. But Fred didn’t come around that Saturday, or on Sunday, and he wasn’t in class on Monday, as Susan was later to confess. On Wednesday the police arrested Fred for drunken driving in a poor neighborhood of Great Falls. After questioning him, they went to his house and found the bodies of his parents: his mother’s in the bathroom and his father’s in the garage. His father’s body was partly wrapped in blankets and cardboard, as if Fred had been intending to dispose of it in the coming days.

As a result of this crime, Susan, who seemed at first to be coping remarkably well, had a nervous breakdown and was in therapy for several years with a series of psychologists. Anne, by contrast, was unaffected, although the incident, or the shadow it cast, would revisit her intermittently in later years. But at the time she didn’t even dream about Fred, or if she did, she sensibly forgot the dreams as soon as she emerged from sleep.

Even while spinning out this yarn in excruciatingly unnecessary detail, Bolaño pulls us into a sense of what his writing confronts: numbness, lack of bearings, and vagueness: “by then he may have closed or half-closed his eyes; he may have been looking down, or crying.” Or this portrait of a literary style in the character of Fred: “Even the way Fred parked the car on the street instead of in the garage was non-committal, provisional, a deliberate pause. As if by parking like that, he was giving us and himself extra time to think”

Extra time to think; a narrative style that subjects you to an experience, and the experience is one of the writer's themes. And this line, possibly autobiographical, "Although the incident, or the shadow it cast." Toward the end of the story, the narrator, who is a writer says,

After that I had no more news of her.

Several months went by. I moved. I went to live by the sea in a village that has acquired a legendary aura since Joan Marsé wrote about it in the seventies. I was too busy working and dealing with my own problems to do anything about Anne Moore. I think I even got married.

“I think I even got married.” He must have chuckled when he thought of that line.

The notion of saying good-bye appears in the stories again and again, an obsession. Here is the opening of a story about Mauricio (“The Eye”) Silva

Mauricio Silva, also known as “The Eye,” always tried to avoid violence, even at the risk of being considered a coward, but violence, real violence, is unavoidable, at least for those of us who were born in Latin America during the fifties and were about twenty years old at the time of Salvador Allende’s death. That’s just the way it goes.

A couple of pages later, The Eye and the narrator are both displaced:

One day I heard that The Eye had left Mexico. One of his former colleagues from the newspaper told me. I wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t said good-bye. The Eye never said good-bye to anyone. I never said good-bye to anyone either. None of my Mexican friends ever did. For my mother, however, it was a clear case of bad manners.

Two or three years later I left Mexico too. I went to Paris, where I tried (not very hard, admittedly) to find The Eye, without success. As time went by I began to forget what he looked like, although I still had a vague sense of his bearing and his manner. There was a certain way of expressing opinions, as if from a distance, sadly but gently, that I went on associating with The Eye, and even when his face had disappeared or receded into the shadow, that essence lingered in my memory: a way of moving, an almost abstract entity in which there was no place for calm.

This memory of The Eye could be a metaphor for a memory of a lost homeland, an "essence" that "lingered in my memory: a way of moving, an almost abstract entity in which there was no place for calm." I’ll close with a kind of Bolaño magic from a story about a writer’s residency at a provincial writers’ workshop funded by a local arts council in a Mexican town named Gómez Palacio. A strange woman who directs the arts council has insisted on taking him on a twilight drive into the desert:

Now we’re coming to a very special place, said the director. Those were her words. Very special.

I wanted you to see this, she said proudly, this is why I love it here. She pulled over and stopped in a sort of rest area, although it was really no more than a patch of ground big enough for a truck to park on. Lights were sparkling in the distance: a town or a restaurant. We didn’t get out. The director pointed in the direction of something—a stretch of highway that must have been about three miles from where we were, maybe less, maybe more. She even wiped the inside of the windshield with a cloth so I could see better. I looked: I saw the headlights of cars. From the way the beams of light were swiveling, there must have been a bend in the highway. And then I saw some green shapes in the desert. Did you see that? asked the director. Yes, lights, I replied. The director looked at me: her bulging eyes gleamed, as do, no doubt, the eyes of the small mammals native to the inhospitable environs of Gómez Palacio in the state of Durango. Then I looked again in the direction she had indicated: at first I couldn’t see anything, only darkness, the sparkling lights of that restaurant or town, then some cars went past and the beams of their headlights carved the space in two.

Their progress was exasperatingly slow, but we were beyond exasperation.

And then I saw how the light, seconds after the car or truck had passed that spot, turned back on itself and hung in the air, a green light that seemed to breathe, alive and aware for a fraction of a second in the middle of the desert, set free, a marine light, moving like the sea but with all the fragility of earth, a green, prodigious, solitary light that must have been produced by something near that curve in the road—a sign, the roof of an abandoned shed, huge sheets of plastic spread on the ground—but that, to us, seeing it from a distance, appeared to be a dream or a miracle, which comes to the same thing, in the end.

Then the director started the car, turned it around and drove back to the motel.

“Exasperatingly slow” is the effect of this style, almost like sitting in a “concert” of silence by John Cage and expecting something conventional to happen. Boredom, exile, and in that context, a vision of “a green light that seemed to breathe” in the middle of desolation.

Although the narrative pace is so offhand and vague as to seem careless, I found this collection a page-turner. The style is fascinating, and the situations memorable. I hope you saw some of the writer’s special gift in these excerpts.