Friday, August 31, 2018

Of Light

Agha Shahid Ali

At dawn you leave. The river wears its skin of light.
And I traced love’s loss to the origin of light.

“I swallow down the goodbyes I won’t get to use.”
At grief’s speed she waves from a palanquin of light.

My book’s been burned? Send me the ashes, so I can say:
I’ve been sent the phoenix in a coffin of light.

From History tears learn a slanted understanding
of the human face torn by blood’s bulletin of light.

It was a temporal thought. Well, it has vanished.
Will Prometheus commit the mortal sin of light?

She said, “My name is icicles coming down from it…”
Did I leave it, somewhere, in a margin of light?

When I go off alone, as if listening for God,
there’s absolutely nothing I can win of light.

Now everything’s left to the imagination -
a djinn has deprived even Aladdin of light.

We’ll see Manhattan, a bride in diamonds, one day
abashed to remind her sweet man, Brooklyn, of light.

“A cheekbone, / A curved piece of brow, / A pale eyelid…”
And the dark eye I make out with all within of light.

Stranger, when the river leans toward the emptiness,
abandon, for my darkness, the thick and thin of light.

Note:  Agha Shahid Ali is the author of many collections of poetry.  To read his poems is to become immersed in the tradition of "the beloved" wandering the world, as well as verse deeply grounded in the cultural and social realities of the day.  Born in India and raised in Kashmir, he immigrated to the United States in the 1980s.  "Of Light" appears in The Veiled Suite, The Collected Poems, Agha Shahid Ali.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Funes, the Memorious

Jorge Luis Borges
  (trans. Anthony Kerrigan)

Josiah McElheny (2007) 

I remember him (I scarcely have the right to use this ghostly verb; only one man on earth deserved the right, and he is dead), I remember him with a dark passion flower in his hand, looking at it as no one has ever looked at such a flower, though they might look from the twilight of day until the twilight of night, for a whole life long. I remember him, his face immobile and Indian-like, and singularly remote, behind his cigarette, I remember (I believe) the strong delicate fingers of the plainsman who can braid leather. I remember, near those hands, a vessel in which to make mat6 tea, bearing the arms of the Banda Oriental; I remember, in the window of the house, a yellow rush mat, and beyond, a vague marshy landscape. I remember clearly his voice, the deliberate, resentful, nasal voice of the old Eastern Shore man, without the Italianate syllables of today, I did not see him more than three times; the last time, in 1887. . . .

That all those who knew him should write something about him seems to me a very felicitous idea; my testimony may perhaps be the briefest and without doubt the poorest, and it will not be the least impartial. The deplorable fact of my being an Argentinian will hinder me from falling into a dithyramb-an obligatory form in the Uruguay, when the theme is an Uruguayan. Littdrateur, slicker, Buenos Airean: Funes did not use these insulting phrases, but I am sufficiently aware that for him I represented these unfortunate categories. Pedro Leandro Ipuche has written that Funes was a precursor of the super- man, "an untamed and vernacular Zarathustra"; I do not doubt it, but one must not forget, either, that he was a countryman from the town of Fray Bentos, with certain incurable limitations.

My first recollection of Funes is quite clear, I see him at dusk, sometime in March or February of the year '84. That year, my father had taken me to spend the summer at Fray Bentos. I was on my way back from the farm at San Francisco with my cousin Bemardo Haedo. We came back singing, on horseback; and this last fact was not the only reason for my joy. After a sultry day, an enormous slategray storm had obscured the sky. It was driven on by a wind from the south; the trees were already tossing like madmen; and I had the apprehension (the secret hope) that the elemental downpour would catch us out in the open. We were running a kind of race with the tempest. We rode into a narrow lane which wound down between two enormously high brick footpaths It had grown black of a sudden; I now heard rapid almost secret steps above; I raised my eyes and saw a boy running along the narrow, cracked path as if he were running along a narrow, broken wall. I remember the loose trousers, tight at the bottom, the hemp sandals; I remember the cigarette in the hard visage, standing out against the by now limitless darkness.

 Bernardo unexpectedly yelled to him: "What's the time, Ireneo?"

 Without looking up, without stopping, Ireneo replied: "In ten minutes it will be eight o'clock, child Bernardo Juan Francisco."

The voice was sharp, mocking. I am so absentminded that the dialogue which I have just cited would not have penetrated my attention if it had not been repeated by my cousin, who was stimulated, I think, by a certain local pride and by a desire to show himself indifferent to the other's three-sided reply. He told me that the boy above us in the pass was a certain Ireneo Funes, renowned for a number of eccentricities, such as that of having nothing to do with people and of always knowing the time, like a watch. He added that Ireneo was the son of Maria Clementina Funes, an ironing woman in the town, and that his father, some people said, was an "Englishman" named O'Connor, a doctor in the salting fields, though some said the father was a horse-breaker, or scout, from the province of El Salto. Ireneo lived with his mother, at the edge of the country house of the Laurels.

 In the years '85 and '86 we spent the summer in the city of Montevideo. We returned to Fray Bentos in '87. As was natural, I inquired after all my acquaintances, and finally, about "the chronometer Funes." I was told that he had been thrown by a wild horse at the San Francisco ranch, and that he had been hopelessly crippled. I remember the impression of uneasy magic which the news provoked in me: the only time I had seen him we were on horseback, coming from San Francisco, and he was in a high place; from the lips of my cousin Bernardo the affair sounded like a dream elaborated with elements out of the past. They told me that Ireneo did not move now from his cot, but remained with his eyes fixed on the backyard fig tree, or on a cobweb. At sunset he allowed himself to be brought to the window. He carried pride to the extreme of pretending that the blow which had befallen him was a good thing. . . . Twice I saw him behind the iron grate which sternly delineated his eternal imprisonment: unmoving, once, his eyes closed; unmoving also, another time, absorbed in the contemplation of a sweet-smelling sprig of lavender cotton.

At the time I had begun, not without some ostentation, the methodical study of Latin. My valise contained the De vbis ill~stribus of Lhomond, the Thesaurus of Quicherat, Caesar's Commentaries, and an odd-numbered volume of the Historia Naturalis of Pliny, which exceeded (and still exceeds) my modest talents as a Latinist. Everything is noised around in a small town; Ireneo, at his small farm on the outskirts, was not long in learning of the arrival of these anomalous books. He sent me a flowery, ceremonious letter, in which he recalled our encounter, unfortunately brief, "on the seventh day of February of the year '84," and alluded to the glorious services which Don Gregorio Haedo, my uncle, dead the same year, "had rendered to the Two Fatherlands in the glorious campaign of Ituzaing6," and he solicited the loan of any one of the volumes, to be accompanied by a dictionary "for the better intelligence of the original text, for I do not know Latin as yet." He promised to return them in good condition, almost immediately. The letter was perfect, very nicely constructed; the orthography was of the type sponsored by Andres Bello: i for y, j for g. At first I naturally suspected a jest. My cousins assured me it was not so, that these were the ways of Ireneo. I did not know whether to attribute to impudence, ignorance, or stupidity, the idea that the difficult Latin required no other instrument than a dictionary; in order fully to undeceive him I sent the Gradus ad Parnassum of Quicherat, and the Pliny.

On February 14, I received a telegram from Buenos Aires telling me to return immediately, for my father was "in no way well." God forgive me, but the prestige of being the recipient of an urgent telegram, the desire to point out to all of Fray Bentos the contradiction between the negative form of the news and the positive adverb, the temptation to dramatize my sorrow as I feigned a virile stoicism, all no doubt distracted me from the possibility of anguish. As I packed my valise, I noted that I was missing the Gradus and the volume of the Historia Naturalis. The "Saturn" was to weigh anchor on the morning of the next day; that night, after supper, I made my way to the house of Funes. Outside, I was surprised to find the night no less oppressive than the day. Ireneo's mother received me at the modest ranch. She told me that Ireneo was in the back room and that I should not be disturbed to find him in the dark, for he knew how to pass the dead hours without lighting the candle.

I crossed the cobblestone patio, the small corridor; I came to the second patio. A great vine covered everything, so that the darkness seemed complete. Of a sudden I heard the high-pitched, mocking voice of Ireneo. The voice spoke in Latin; the voice (which came out of the obscurity) was reading, with obvious delight, a treatise or prayer or incantation. The Roman syllables resounded in the earthen patio; my suspicion made them seem undecipherable, interminable; afterwards, in the enormous dialogue of that night, I learned that they made up the first paragraph of the twenty-fourth chapter of the seventh book of the Historia Naturalis. The subject of this chapter is memory; the last words are ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditurn.

Without the least change in his voice, Ireneo bade me come in. He was lying on the cot, smoking. It seems to me that I did not see his face until dawn; I seem to recall the momentary glow of the cigarette. The room smelled vaguely of dampness. I sat down, and repeated the story of the telegram and my father's illness. I come now to the most difficult point in my narrative. For the entire story has no other point (the reader might as well know it by now) than this dialogue of almost a halfcentury ago. I shall not attempt to reproduce his words, now irrecoverable. I prefer truthfully to make a r6sumk of the many things Ireneo told me. The indirect style is remote and weak; I know that I sacrifice the effectiveness of my narrative; but let my readers imagine the nebulous ,.. sentences which clouded that night. Ireneo began by enumerating, in Latin and Spanish, the cases of prodigious memory cited in the Historia Naturalis: Cyrus, king of the Persians, who could call every soldier in his armies by name; Mithridates Eupator, who administered justice in the twenty-two languages of his empire; Simonides, inventor of mnemotechny; Metrodorus, who practiced the art of repeating faithfully what he heard once. With evident good faith Funes marveled that such  things should be considered marvelous. He told me that previous to the rainy afternoon when the blue-tinted horse threw him, he had been-like any Christian-blind, deaf mute, somnambulistic, memoryless. (I tried to remind him of his precise perception of time, his memory for proper names; he paid no attention to me). For nineteen years, he said, he had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything-almost everything. On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories. A little later he realized that he was crippled. This fact scarcely interested him. He reasoned (or felt) that immobility was a minimum price to pay. And now, his perception and his memory were infallible.

We, in a glance, perceive three wine glasses on the table; Funes saw all the shoots, clusters, and grapes of the vine. He remembered the shapes of the clouds in the south at dawn on the 30th of April of 1882, and he could compare them in his recollection with the marbled grain in the design of a leather-bound book which he had seen only once, and with the lines in the spray which an oar raised in the Rio Negro on the eve of the battle of the Quebracho. These recollections were not simple; each visual image was linked to muscular sensations, thermal sensations, etc. He could reconstruct all his dreams, all his fancies. Two or three times he had reconstructed an entire day. He told me: I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world. And again: My dreams are like your vigils. And again, toward dawn: My memory, sir, is like a garbage disposal. A circumference on a blackboard, a rectangular triangle, a rhomb, are forms which we can fully intuit; the same held true with Ireneo for the tempestuous mane of a stallion, a herd of cattle in a pass, the ever-changing flame or the innumerable ash, the many faces of a dead man during the course of a protracted wake. He could perceive I do not know how many stars in the sky.

These things be told me; neither then nor at any time later did they seem doubtful. In those days neither the cinema nor the phonograph yet existed; nevertheless, it seems strange, almost incredible, that no one should have experimented on Funes. The truth is that we all live by leaving behind; no doubt we all profoundly know that we are immortal and that sooner or later every man will do all things and know everything.

The voice of Funes, out of the darkness, continued. He told me that toward 1886 he had devised a new system of enumeration and that in a very few days he had gone beyond twenty-four thousand. He had not written it down, for what he once meditated would not be erased. The first stimulus to his work, I believe, had been his discontent with the fact that "thirty-three Uruguayans" required two symbols and three words, rather than a single word and a single symbol. Later he applied his extravagant principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Mdximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Train; other numbers were Luis Melidn Lafinur, Olimar, Brimstone, Clubs, The Whale, Gas, The Cauldron, Napoleon, Agustin de Vedia. In lieu of five hundred, he would say nine. Each word had a particular sign, a species of mark; the last were very complicated. . . . I attempted to explain that this rhapsody of unconnected terms was precisely the contrary of a system of enumeration. I said that to say three hundred and sixty-five was to say three hundreds, six tens, five units: an analysis which does not exist in such numbers as The Black Timoteo or The Flesh Blanket. Funes did not understand me, or did not wish to understand me. Locke, in the seventeenth century, postulated (and rejected) an impossible idiom in which each individual object, each stone, each bird and branch had an individual name Funes had once projected an analogous idiom, but he had renounced it as being too general, too ambiguous. In effect, Funes not only remembered every leaf on every tree of every wood, but even every one of the times he had perceived or imagined it. He determined to reduce all of his past experience to some seventy thousand recollections, which he would later define numerically. Two considerations dissuaded him: the thought that the task was interminable and the thought that it was useless. He knew that at the hour of his death he would scarcely have finished classifying even all the memories of his childhood.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, and a usable mental catalogue of all the images of memory) are lacking in sense, but they reveal a certain stammering greatness. They allow us to make out dimly, or to infer, the dizzying world of Funes. He was, let us not forget, almost incapable of general, Platonic ideas. It was not only difficult for him to understand that the generic term dog embraced so many unlike specimens of differing sizes and different forms; he was disturbed by the fact that a dog at three-fourteen (seen in profile) should have the same name as the dog at three fifteen (seen from the front). His own face in the mirror, his own hands, surprised him on every occasion. Swift writes that the emperor of Lilliput could discern the movement of the minute hand; Funes could continuously make out the tranquil advances of corruption, of caries, of fatigue. He noted the progress of death, of moisture. He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform world which was instantaneously and almost intolerably exact. Babylon, London, and New York have overawed the imagination of men with their ferocious splendor; no one, in those populous towers or upon those surging avenues, has felt the heat and pressure of a reality as indefatigable as that which day and night converged upon the unfortunate Ireneo in his humble South American farmhouse. It was very difficult for him to sleep. To sleep is to be abstracted from the world; Funes, on his back in his cot, in the shadows, imagined every crevice and every molding of the various houses which surrounded him. (I repeat, the least important of his recollections was more minutely precise and more lively than our perception of a physical pleasure or a physical torment) Toward the east, in a section which was not yet cut into blocks of homes, there were some new unknown houses. Funes imagined them black, compact, made of a single obscurity; he would turn his face in this direction in order to sleep. He would also imagine himself at the bottom of the river, being rocked and annihilated by the current.

 Without effort, he had learned English, French, Portuguese, Latin. I suspect, nevertheless, that he was not very capable of thought. To think is to forget a difference, to generalize, to abstract. In the overly replete world of Funes there were nothing but details, almost contiguous details.

The equivocal clarity of dawn penetrated along the earthen patio. Then it was that I saw the face of the voice which had spoken all through the night. Ireneo was nineteen years old; he had been born in 1868; he seemed as monumental as bronze, more ancient than Egypt, anterior to the prophecies and the pyramids. It occurred to me that each one of my words (each one of my gestures) would live on in his implacable memory; I was benumbed by the fear of multiplying superfluous gestures.

Ireneo Funes died in 1889, of a pulmonary congestion.

Note:  "Funes, el memorioso" was published in 1944 as part of Ficciones, one of Borges's most respected and beloved collections of short fiction.  I first read "Funes" in college, a life-time away--and true to the spirit and letter of the story, I remember it to this day.

This translation was found online at

Monday, August 27, 2018

In the Red Room

Paul Bowles

When I had a house in Sri Lanka, my parents came out one winter to see me. Originally I had felt some qualms about encouraging their visit. Any one of several things--the constant heat, the unaccustomed food and drinking water, even the presence of a leprosy clinic a quarter of a mile from the house might easily have an adverse effect on them in one way or another. But I had underestimated their resilience; they made a greater show of adaptability than I had thought possible, and seemed entirely content with everything. They claimed not to mind the lack of running water in the bathrooms, and regularly praised the curries prepared by Appuhamy, the resident cook. Both of them being in their seventies, they were not tempted by the more distant or inaccessible points of interest. It was enough for them to stay around the house reading, sleeping, taking twilight dips in the ocean, and going on short trips along the coast by hired car. If the driver stopped unexpectedly at a shrine to sacrifice a coconut, they were delighted, and if they came upon a group of elephants lumbering along the road, the car had to be parked some distance up ahead, so that they could watch them approach and file past. They had no interest in taking photographs, and this spared me what is perhaps the most taxing duty of cicerone: the repeated waits while the ritual between man and machine is observed. They were ideal guests.
Colombo, where all the people I knew lives, was less than a hundred miles away. Several times we went up for weekends, which I arranged with friends by telephone beforehand. There we had tea on the wide verandas of certain houses in Cinnamon Gardens, and sat at dinners with professors from the university, Protestant ministers, and assorted members of the government. (Many of the Sinhalese found it strange that I should call my parents by their first names, Dodd and Hannah; several of them inquired if I were actually their son or had been adopted.) These weekends in the city were hot and exhausting, and they were always happy to get back to the house, where they could change into comfortable clothing.
One Sunday not long before they were due to return to America, we decided to take in the horse races at Gintota, where there are also some botanical gardens that Hannah wanted to see. I engaged rooms at the New Oriental in Galle and we had lunch there before setting out.
As usual, the events were late in starting. It was the spectators, in any case, who were the focus of interest. The phalanx of women in their shot-silk saris moved Hannah to cries of delight. The races themselves were something of a disappointment. As we left the grounds, Dodd said with satisfaction: It'll be good to get back to the hotel and relax.
But we were going to the botanical gardens, Hannan reminded him. I'd like to have just a peek at them.
Dodd was not eager. Those places cover a lot of territory, you know, he said.
We'll look inside and come out again, she promised.
The hired car took us to the entrance. Dodd was tired, and as a result was having a certain amount of difficulty in walking. The last year or so I find my legs aren't' always doing exactly what I want 'em to do, he explained.
You two amble along, Hannah told us. I'll run up ahead and find out if there's anything to see.

We stopped to look up at a clove tree; its powerful odor filled the air like a gas. When we turned to continue our walk, Hannah was no longer in sight. We went on under the high vegetation, around a curve in the path, looked ahead, and still there was no sign of her.

What does your mother think she's doing? The first thing we know she'll be lost.
She's up ahead somewhere.
Soon, at the end of a short lane overhung by twisted lianas, we saw her, partially hidden by the gesticulating figure of a Sinhalese standing next to her.

What's going on? Dodd hastened his steps. Run over there, he told me, and I started ahead, walking fast. Then I saw Hannah's animated smile, and slowed my pace. She and the young man stood in front of a huge bank of brown spider orchids.

Ah! I thought we'd lost you, I said.

Look at these orchids. Aren't they incredible?

Dodd came up, nodded at the young man, and examined the display of flowers. They look to me like skunk cabbage, he declared.

The young man broke into wild laughter. Dodd stared at him.

This young man has been telling me the history of the garden, Hannah began hurriedly. About the opposition to it, and how it finally came to be planted. It's interesting.
The Sinhalese beamed triumphantly. He wore white flannels and a crimson blazer, and his sleek black hair gave off a metallic blue glint in the sunlight.

Ordinarily I steer a determined course away from the anonymous person who tries to engage me in conversation. This time it was too late; encouraged by Hannah, the stranger strolled beside her, back to the main path. Dodd and I exchanged a glance, shrugged, and began to follow along behind.
Somewhere up at the end of the gardens a pavilion had been built under the high rain trees. It had a veranda where a few sarong- draped men reclined in long chairs. The young man stopped walking. Now I invite you to a cold ginger beer.

Oh, Hannah said, at a loss. Well, yes. That would be nice. I'd welcome a chance to sit down.

Dodd peered at his wristwatch. I'll pass up the beer, but I'll sit and watch you.

We sat and looked out at the lush greenness. The young man's conversation leapt from one subject to another; he seemed unable to follow any train of thought further than its inception. I put this down as a bad sign, and tried to tell from the inflections of Hannah's voice whether she found him as disconcerting as I did.

Dodd was not listening. He found the heat of low-country Ceylon oppressive, and it was easy to see that he was tired. Thinking I might cover up the young man's chatter, I turned to Dodd and began to talk about whatever came into my head: the resurgence of mask-making in Ambalangoda, devil-dancing, the high incidence of crime among the fishermen converted to Catholicism. Dodd listened, but did no more than move his head now and then in response.

Suddenly I heard the young man saying to Hannah: I have just the house for you. A godsend to fill your requirements. Very quiet and protected.
She laughed. Mercy, no! We're not looking for a house. We're only going to be here a few weeks more.

I looked hard at her, hoping she would take my glance as a warning against going on and mentioning the place where she was staying. The young man was not paying attention, in any case. Quite all right. You are not buying houses. But you should see this house and tell your friends. A superior investment, no doubt about that. Shall I introduce myself, please? Justus Gonzag, called Sonny by friends.

His smile, which was not a smile at all, gave me an unpleasant physical sensation.

Come anyway. A five-minute walk, guaranteed. He looked searchingly at Hannah. I intend to give you a book of poems. My own. Autographed for you with your name. That will make me very happy.

Oh, Hannan said, a note of dismay in her voice. Then she braced herself and smiled. That would be lovely. But you understand, we can't stay more than a minute.

There was a silence. Dodd inquired plaintively: Can't we go in the car, at least?

Impossible, sir. We are having a very narrow road. Car can't get through. I am arranging in a jiffy. He called out. A waiter came up, and he addressed him in Sinhalese at some length. The man nodded and went inside. Your driver is now bringing your car to this gate. Very close by.

This was going a little too far. I asked him how he though anyone was going to know which car was ours.

No problem. I was present when you were leaving the Pontiac. Your driver is called Wickramasinghe.
 Up-country resident, most reliable. Down here people are hopeless.

I disliked him more each time he spoke. You're not from around here? I asked him.

No, no! I'm a Colombo chap. These people are impossible scoundrels. Every one of the blighters has a knife in his belt, guaranteed.

When the waiter brought the check, he signed it with a rapid flourish and stood up. Shall we be going on to the house, then?

No one answered, but all three of us rose and reluctantly moved off with him in the direction of the exit gate. The hired car was there; Mr. Wickramasinghe saluted us from behind the wheel.

The afternoon heat had gone, leaving only a pocket here and there beneath the trees where the air was still. Originally the lane where we were walking had been wide enough to admit a bullock- car, but the vegetation encroaching on each side had narrowed it to little more than a footpath.

At the end of the lane were two concrete gateposts with no gate between them. We passed through, and went into a large compound bordered on two sides by ruined stables. With the exception of one small ell, the house was entirely hidden by high bushes and flowering trees.
 As we came to a doorway the young man stopped and turned to us, holding up one finger. No noises here, isn't it? Only birds.

It was the hour when the birds begin to awaken from their daytime lethargy. An indeterminate twittering came from the trees. He lowered his finger and turned back to the door. Mornings they are singing. Now not.

Oh, it's lovely, Hannah told him.

He led us through a series of dark empty rooms. Here the _dhobi_ was washing the soiled clothing. This is the kitchen, you see? Ceylon style. Only the charcoal. My father was refusing paraffin and gas both. Even in Colombo.

We huddled in a short corridor while he opened a door, reached in, and flooded the space inside with blinding light. It was a small room, made to seem still smaller by having given glistening crimson walls and ceiling. Almost all the space was filled by a big bed with a satin coverlet of a slightly darker red. A row of straight-backed chairs stood along one wall. Sit down and be comfy, our host advised us.

We sat, staring at the bed and at the three framed pictures on the wall above its brass-spoked headboard: on the left a girl, in the middle our host, and on the right another young man. The portraits had the imprecision of passport photographs that have been enlarged to many times their original size.

Hannah coughed. She had nothing to say. The room gave off a cloying scent of ancient incense, as in a disused chapel. The feeling of absurdity I got from seeing us sitting there side by side, wedged in between the bed and the wall, was so powerful that it briefly paralyzed my mental processes. For once the young man was being silent; he sat stiffly, looking straight ahead, like someone at the theater.

Finally I had to say something. I turned to our host and asked him if he slept in this room. The question seemed to shock him. Here? he cried, as if the thing were inconceivable. No, no! This house is unoccupied. No one sleeping on the premises. Only a stout chap to watch out at night. Excuse me one moment.

He jumped up and hurried out of the room. We heard his footsteps echo in the corridor and then grow silent. From somewhere in the house there came the sonorous chiming of a grandfather's clock; its comfortable sound made the shiny blood-colored cubicle even more remote and unlikely.

Dodd stirred uncomfortably in his chair; the bed was too close for him to cross his legs. As soon as he comes back, we go, he muttered.

He's looking for the book, I imagine, said Hannah.

We waited a while. Then I said: Look. If he's not back in two minutes, I move we just get up and leave. We can find out way out all right.

Hannah objected, saying it would be unpardonable.

Again we sat in silence, Dodd now shielding his eyes from the glare. When Sonny Gonzag returned, he was carrying a glass of water which he drank standing in the doorway. His expression had altered: he now looked preoccupied, and he was breathing heavily.

We slowly got to our feet, Hannah still looking expectant.

We are going, then? Come. With the empty glass still in his hand he turned off the lights, shut the door behind us, opened another, and led us quickly through a sumptuous room furnished with large divans, coromandel screens, and bronze Buddhas. We had no time to do more than glance from side to side as we followed him. As we went out through the front door, he called one peremptory word back into the house, presumably to the caretaker.

There was a wide unkempt lawn on this side, where a few clumps of high areca palms were being slowly strangled by the sheaths of philodendron roots and leaves that encased their trunks. Creepers had spread themselves unpleasantly over the tops of shrubs like the meshes of gigantic cobwebs. I knew that Hannah was thinking of snakes. She kept her eyes on the ground, stepping carefully from flagstone to flagstone as we followed the exterior of the house around to the stables, and thence out into the lane.

The swift twilight had come down. No one seemed disposed to speak. When we reached the car Mr. Wickramasinghe stood beside it.

Cheery-bye, then, and tell your friends to look for Sonny Gonzag when they are coming to Gintota. He offered his hand to Dodd first, then me, finally to Hannah, and turned away.

They were both very quiet on the way back to Galle. The road was narrow and the blinding lights of oncoming cars made them nervous. During dinner we made no mention of the afternoon.

At breakfast, on the veranda swept by the morning breeze, we felt sufficiently removed from the experience to discuss it. Hannah said: I kept waking up in the night and seeing that awful bed.

Dodd groaned.

I said it was like watching television without the sound. You saw everything, but you didn't get what was going on.

The kid was completely non compos mentis. You could see that a mile away, Dodd declared.

Hannah was not listening. It must have been a maid's room. But why would he take us there? I don't know; there's something terribly depressing about the whole thing. It makes me feel a little sick just to think about it. And that bed!

Well, stop thinking about it, then! Dodd told her. I for one am going to put it right out of my mind. He waited. I feel better already. Isn't that the way the Buddhists do it?

The sunny holiday continued for a few weeks more, with longer trips now to the east, to Tissamaharana and the wild elephants in the Yala Preserve. We did not go to Colombo again until it was time for me to put them onto the plane.

The black weather of the monsoons was blowing in from the southwest as we drove up the coast. There was a violent downpour when we arrived in midafternoon at Mount Lavinia and checked into our rooms. The crashing of the waves outside my room was so loud that Dodd had to shut the windows in order to hear what we were saying.

I had taken advantage of the trip to Colombo to arrange a talk with my lawyer, a Telugu-speaking Indian. We were to meet in the bar at the Galleface, some miles up the coast. I'll be back at six, I told Hannah. The rain had abated somewhat when I started out.

Damp winds moved through the lobby of the Galleface, but the smoky air in the bar was stirred only by fans. As I entered, the first person I noticed was Weston of the Chartered Bank. The lawyer had not yet come in, so I stood at the bar with Weston and ordered a whiskey.

Didn't I see you in Gintota at the races last month? With an elderly couple?

I was there with my parents. I didn't notice you.

I couldn't tell. It was too far away. But I saw the same three people alter with a local character. What did you think of Sonny Gonzag?

I laughed. He dragged us off to his house.

You know the story, I take it.

I shook my head.

The story, which he recounted with relish, began on the day after Gonzag's wedding, when he stepped into a servant's room and found his bride in bed with the friend who had been best man. How he happened to have a pistol with him was not explained, but he shot them both in the face, and later chopped their bodies into pieces. As Weston remarked: That sort of thing isn't too uncommon, of course. But it was the trial that caused the scandal. Gonzag spent a few weeks in a mental hospital, and was discharged.

You can imagine, said Weston. Political excitement. The poor go to jail for a handful of rice, but the rich can kill with impunity, and that sort of thing. You still see references to the case in the press now and then.

I was thinking of the crimson blazer and the botanical gardens. No. I never heard about it, I said.
He's mad as a hatter, but there he is, free to do whatever he feels like. And all he wants now is to get people into that house and show them the room where the great event took place. The more the merrier as far as he's concerned.

I saw the Indian come into the bar. It's unbelievable, but I believe it, I told Weston.

Then I turned to greet the lawyer, who immediately complained of the stale air in the bar. We sat and talked in the lounge.

I managed to get back to Mount Lavinia in time to bathe before dinner. As I lay in the tepid water, I tried to imagine the reactions of Hannah and Dodd when I told them what I had heard. I myself felt a solid satisfaction at knowing the rest of the story. But being old, they might well brood over it, working it up into an episode so unpleasant in retrospect that it stained the memory of their holiday. I still had not decided whether to tell them or not when I went to their room to take them down to dinner.

We sat as far away from the music as we could get. Hannah had dressed a little more elaborately than usual, and they both were speaking with more than their accustomed animation. I realized that they were happy to be returning to New York. Halfway through he meal they began to review what they considered the highlights of their visit. They mentioned the Temple of the Tooth, the pair of Bengal tiger cubs in Dehiwala which they had petted but regretfully declined to purchase, the Indonesian dinner on Mr. Bultjens's lawn, where the myna bird had hopped over to Hannah and said: "Eat it up," the cobra under the couch at Mrs. de Sylva's tea party.

And that peculiar young man in the _strange_ house, Hannah added meditatively.

Which one was that? asked Dodd, frowning as he tried to remember. Then it came to him. Oh, God, he muttered. Your special friend. He turned to me. Your mother certainly can pick 'em.

Outside, the ocean roared. Hannah seemed lost in thought. _I_ know what it was like! she exclaimed suddenly. It was like being shown around one of the temples by a _bhikku_. Isn't that what they call them?

Dodd sniffed. Some temple! he chuckled.

No, I'm serious. That room had a particular meaning for him. It was like a sort of shrine.

I looked at her. She had got to the core without needing the details. I felt that, too, I said. Of course, there's no way of knowing.

She smiled. Well, what you don't know won't hurt you.

I had heard her use the expression a hundred times without ever being able to understand what she meant by it, because it seemed so patently untrue. But for once it was apt. I nodded my head and said: That's right.

Credits:  This story can be found online at Classic Short Stories.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Javier Marias: A Life in Writing

Nicholas Wroe

Javier Marías was a student of English Philology in Madrid in the 1970s he says it was with a sense of "awe and reverence" that he would buy copies of "the then grey-spined Penguin Modern Classics. The authors ranged from Conrad to James, Faulkner to Joyce, Thomas Mann to Ford Madox Ford, Woolf to Camus. Not even Nabokov was allowed to be there." Last year [2012] Marías himself became one of just a handful of living writers to join that same list. "I must assume, therefore, that these are much less demanding times than the 1970s," he explains modestly. "But, still, I feel very honoured, even if I can't help thinking I must be a fraud."

Far from being a fraud, it is difficult to think of many other living writers who are such an obvious fit for the list. In brute commercial terms, as was noted at the time, you could say his inclusion is not a bad hedge bet from his new publisher Penguin in the event of his winning the Nobel prize, something he is regularly tipped to do. In purely literary terms there is an even more compelling case. Few writers have sustained such an engagement with the classic (Anglophone) canon. As a translator he has rendered into Spanish work by Hardy, Yeats, Conrad, Nabokov, Faulkner, Updike, Salinger and many others. As a novelist, he has threaded his work with traces of these writers, and is explicitly underpinned by an empathy with Shakespeare and Sterne, as well as Cervantes and Proust.

"I've never had a literary project and feel I have been improvising all my career," he recently claimed. "But I do recognise certain recurring themes: treason, secrecy, the impossibility of knowing things, or people, or yourself, for sure. There is also persuasion, marriage and love. But these things are the matter of literature, not just of my books. The history of literature is probably the same drop of water falling on the same stone only with different language, different manners, different forms adequate to our own time. But it remains the same thing, the same stories, the same drop on the same stone, since Homer or before."

His flair for improvisation has seen him selling millions of books that have been translated into more than 40 languages. His 12th novel, The Infatuations, is published in English next month, and work such as All Souls, A Heart So White, and, more recently, his monumental Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, have received almost universal critical acclaim. And he has not only been garlanded with prizes. Among his other titles he is King of Redonda, a real, if uninhabited, lump of Caribbean rock, the monarchy of which has been passed down through a line of writers.

"I've taken my responsibilities lightly," he smiles, "but I do follow the tradition of an intellectual nobility." He funds a literary prize and awards dukedoms to the winners, which so far have included among others Alice Munro, AS Byatt, William Boyd and Umberto Eco. "JM Coetzee was the first winner, and I was delighted that he accepted and joined in with the playfulness of it. Maybe it is time that I should start thinking about an heir. I inherited through an abdication, so I shall have to find another writer, as it is not passed on by blood but by letters."

Marías has never visited Redonda and lives in a book-packed apartment overlooking one of Madrid's oldest squares where he works on an electric typewriter, doesn't have internet and is equally old-fashioned in his prodigious cigarette consumption. He has a long-term partner, but she lives in Barcelona. "And that is usually my lot. Either my girlfriends have been married at a time when there was no divorce in Spain, or they lived somewhere else or there was something else in the way."

The Infatuations, featuring a rare Marías female narrator, is, among other things, a cool-eyed examination of love; in fact "Los enamoramientos", the Spanish title, could also be translated as "The Crushes". Maria has breakfast in the same café every morning, where she observes a married couple with the same routine. Some time after the couple stop coming to the café Maria learns that the husband has been brutally murdered, and she becomes embroiled in the life of the widow and the emotional ramifications of the husband's death.

"Loving and falling in love have a very good reputation," he says. "That may be justified sometimes, but sometimes it is the opposite. I have seen very generous, kind and noble people behave very badly because they are in love. Equally there is this idea of destiny. People remember how they met and wondered what would have happened if they hadn't gone to that bar or that dinner. But we are in fact very limited in our choices of partner by location, class, history and who is willing to accept our advances. How many times are we not the first choice? Or even the second, or the third?"

The book has sold more than 160,000 copies in Spain and was awarded the national narrative award, which Marías declined because the €20,000 prize was funded by the state. He has been criticised as a novelist for not engaging directly in Spain's turbulent political life – although in fact the civil war and Franco's rule have been dark presences in his books – but he has shown no reticence about engaging in the day-to-day as a newspaper columnist for the last 18 years.

"As a columnist I write as citizen and maybe have too many opinions" – he has published a whole book of just his football articles – "but writing as a novelist is different. I don't like the journalistic kind of novel which is now rather fashionable. If a book or film takes a good subject from the everyday press – say domestic murders in Spain, which are a historic disgrace – everyone will applaud, but it is easy applause. Who will say it is bad? People say the novel is a way of imparting knowledge. Well, maybe. But for me it is more a way of imparting recognition of things that you didn't know you knew. You say 'yes'. It feels true even though it might be uncomfortable. You find this in Proust, who is one of the cruellest authors in the history of literature. He says terrible things, but in such a way that you know that you have experienced those thoughts too."

Marías was born in Madrid in 1951, the fourth of five sons. Three of his brothers – the eldest died before he was born – went on to have careers in the arts. Their father was Julián Marías, a leading philosopher whose republican activities had seen him briefly imprisoned following the Spanish civil war, an episode Javier drew on in Your Face Tomorrow. Their mother, Dolores Franco, was a translator and an editor of an anthology of Spanish literature before starting a family. As a child Marías was taken for several trips to America where his father was teaching, having been blacklisted at home. Back in Madrid, his early writing came directly out of his reading; he created his own musketeer and Just William stories when he had finished all the books. "Richmal Crompton had been very popular in Spain since my parents' time."

The family home was full of books, art and elevating conversation. But Marías's introduction to professional writing was facilitated by an uncle who was a maker of soft porn and horror films. During the six weeks the 17-year-old Marías stayed at his uncle's Parisian apartment he not only watched 85 films but also broke the back of a debut novel, Los dominios del lobo ("The Dominions of the Wolf") that was published in 1971 when he was only 20.

"It was a sort of a tribute and parody of American films of the 1940s and 50s. A youthful work, but not the usual autobiographical story of most young writers. And also not deadly serious in the way young people often are. As such, I'm actually not ashamed of it."

He says the dominant trend in Spain at the time was social realism. "Franco was still alive. The idea was that writers, as far as censorship would allow, must try to raise the consciousness of the people about the terrible situation. I thought it was well meant, but had nothing to do with literature. My generation knew that a novel couldn't end the dictatorship, and so as writers we did as we wanted."

In fact over the next decade he published only another two novels as his career as a translator came to the fore, most notably with his 1979 version of Tristram Shandy, which won the (not state-funded) national translation prize. He categorises a translator as both a "privileged reader and a privileged writer. If you're capable of rewriting in a different language something by Conrad or Sterne then you learn a lot. I've not got involved with the creative writing industry, but if I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again."

During his years translating he found that some writers helped the translator by being stylistically contagious. "There is a pace and a rhythm of prose that, if the translator catches it, you can surf the wave of cadence. I certainly felt it with Conrad and in a way with Sir Thomas Browne. But it is not essential to good writing. It was not there with Yeats's prose, or Isak Dinesen's or Thomas Hardy's. I like to think that my prose has some cadence that can contaminate, in the good sense, and help a translator. And I always want to help as much as I can because I remember being so annoyed that I couldn't ask Conrad what the hell he meant."

He says that what is now regarded as his own distinctive style – the long, digressive, almost musical sentences that loop around observation, reflection and supposition – took many years to achieve and wasn't really in place until his 1986 novel about an opera singer, A Man of Feeling. "I had written four novels before then. The impatience of the publishing world today might mean that I wouldn't have been given a chance to get that far. So many worthwhile writers must have been lost because of this impatience. The change has been brutal."

His next novel, All Souls (1989), based closely on his experiences teaching at Oxford in the 1980s, was a success, but it wasn't until A Heart So White in 1992 that he first became a fixture on the bestseller lists. After selling well in Spain it became a global hit after "the Pope of German critics", Marcel Reich-Ranicki, recommended it on television. "He was known as a tough critic who had once, literally, ripped up a Günter Grass book. But he said some exaggerated things about my book and that it should be number one. Obediently, as sometimes Germans in their history have been, they went out and bought it."

The book sold 1.3m copies in Germany and later won the Impac prize. Marías's novel-writing technique – "which I know could be suicidal" – is to set out with only minimal planning (all his notes for the 1,200-page Your Face Tomorrow trilogy were scribbled on just four sheets of A5 paper; not all of them were used) and then not to redraft the book, "although I do go back to change a Tuesday to a Thursday and things like that". It is a high-wire act that is sustained by what must be a remarkable memory as he shapes his story round complicated digressions and repetitions. "What Sterne said always struck me as true: 'I progress as I digress.' And you realise that what seemed anecdotal is actually part of the story. I like to use a system of echoes and resonances and characters that reappear not only within the same book, but from one book to another."

He describes the current situation in Spain as "scary", and lambasts the government for using the economic crisis to impose labour reforms, toughen abortion laws, cut education and culture spending, and privatise the health system. "Those opinions I stand by. It is not quite the same as a novelist. A novel is a more savage and wild thing in the sense that you can say anything, and your narrators or characters can say anything. Yet it still arrives at a kind of truth. It is like the theatre where you know the name of the playwright, but when the curtain rises the accepted convention is that the audience doesn't take all the actions or opinions on the stage as the author's. It is the same with a book. You turn from the cover to the biographical note, then maybe a dedication until you reach page one and the curtain rises. From that moment on the name on the cover doesn't matter any more."

Credits:  This article originally appeared in The Guardian in 2013.  It has been slightly altered for the sake of coherence.

So Why Did I Defend Paul Bowles?

by Hisham Aidi  In the mid-1990s, I used to lead literary walking tours of “Paul Bowles’s Tangier” for friends or literary pilgrims visitin...