Monday, September 10, 2012

To be someone else

And why would you start writing again?

There are things we do without any reason of for the most trivial of reasons, I said: going out and walking along the road during the rush hour and looking at people in their cars; showing up in midafternoon at the box office of a movie theater or browsing in bookshops or sitting on a balcony watching people on their way home, and repeating to yourself in you mind, why am I doing all this? why today did I walk to a bookshop or go to a movie theater and just as I got to the door decide not to go in? We do thing that have no meaning or only acquire meaning over time, perhaps because deep down we want to change our lives at the last moment, when everything appears fixed, like those roulette players who one second before the close of bets nervously shift a tower of chips, from one number to another, and then bite their fingers; because we're searching for some kind of intense experience, or because we want to be someone else, yes, to be someone else, there you have your answer: I write to be someone else.

I think that's the passage that made me love this book, Necropolis, by Santiago Gamboa. At least, it's one that made me understand that I already did, and why. Maybe these questions are obvious to most people, but I find comfort and reassurance in hearing them voiced. It's why we write, but it's why we read too.

[Y]ou know, there's a sentence in Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, which says: "Man is a fickle creature of doubtful reputation, and perhaps, like a chess player, he is more interested in the process of reaching his objective than in the the objective itself," I don't know if you remember it . . . I shook my head and Supervielle continued: that's what we were discussing, my friend, that simple yet profound way of reading experience, what drives a person to make one decision and not another at a specific moment? to get off a train, get on a boat, cross the street? What there is at the end of a life is irrelevant, it isn't the result that makes a life exceptional, but the path trodden, am I being excessively obscure? There are great lives that don't get anywhere, but what does it matter? That's not a paradox.

These are the questions that Simenon asks and which his characters answer in unconventional and often unacceptable ways — it's what draws me to him. Gamboa asks them in a context that's more intellectual and emotionally safer. Our narrator is attending the International Conference on Biography and Memory in Jerusalem.

Part 1 concerns the narrator's invitation to the conference, his journey there, and some of the goings on in and around the conference setting over its first days. This is interspersed with portions of one lengthy presentation at said conference, the story of Walter de la Salle, an evangelical pastor and founder of the Ministry of Mercy, told by José Maturana, ex-con and disciple, who is found dead in his hotel room a few hours after his presentation.

Part 2 gives us 3 more of the conference presentations: The story of two brilliant but "unambitious" chess players. The tale of a Colombian man hard done by and the revenge he exacts, this story bearing more than a little resemblance to The Count of Monte Cristo. And the porn actress's reminiscences.

Part 3 kind of disintegrates. There are story fragments, including a piece presented by the narrator as part of a roundtable discussion. But these stories are not fleshed out and we are distracted by the war raging through this city, the bombs that dirupt the conference proceedings. As one character puts it, "there are times when literature has to take a back seat."

There's something unsatisfying about the structure of this book. I found all of the stories and fragments compelling but felt real disappointment that they weren't given equal weight, that these stories were treated unfairly. (As opposed to say, Cloud Atlas, where the stories balance each other, at least by page count, although I didn't care for a couple of them at all.) There's no thread tying all the disparate stories together, apart perhaps from a tunnel motif (if you stretch some metaphors) and an appreciation for chicken sandwiches.

It's part of the point of the book, I think, that things unravel — the stories, the conference, life itself. Because while the stories may be fascinating, outside is real life. All the biographical accounts are embellished or borrowed or misremembered; distilled into a narrative, they are no longer real. And as in real life, some stories make headlines, and others do not get the attention they merit.

[I]t has happened too many times in the history of thought and culture that the genius of exceptional people is unrecognized because of the stupidity and limited vision of their contemporaries, but what can we do if we live surrounded idiots and simpletons?

It's not a conventional novel, but there's a lot for bibliophiles (of the sort who pack Zweig and Schulz on holiday) to latch onto.

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