Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

jueves, noviembre 25, 2010

The Ceremony

I started calling his children, his spouse, his ex-spouses, people he liked, people he worked with. At first nobody knew anything at all about the notebooks. Finally, his daughter said she didn’t have all of them, but she did have what she thought was the final one. A Moleskine. Apparently with squares. One that opens from the top. She had never read it. And she was quite reluctant to let me read it. It was, she said, an important, private keepsake. She did not want to part with it. She’d consider my request to read the others if she found them

One day he died. Then there was the memorial service. Then months went by. And then one morning inexplicably I wondered about his notebooks. Where were they? What had happened to them?

He was a writer. He was always writing in them. At the kitchen table. Under an umbrella at the beach. On a park bench. In a cafe. He said he was scribbling. Asked about what he was writing, he offered only irony. Yes, he was writing in them, but his handwriting was so bad he’d never be able to decipher what he wrote, that this was, therefore, just a ritualized way to think about things as he put them down. He’d never be able to retrieve his words later on. He must have been writing stories, or a third novel, or ideas for new work, or articles, and trying to keep them a secret.

And the notebooks themselves. They were, as I remember them, a bizarre collection of sublime Moleskines, cuadernos filled with cheap toilet paper he bought in Mexican supermarkets, spiral ones of all shapes, many with strange lines. I imagined them an unruly heap of dusty, yellowed, frayed pages, stained with coffee and red wine, all tied together sloppily with brown, garden twine. Where could they be now? I wanted to read them.

About a month later, after hearing nothing from her, I called his daughter again. “Oh,” she said, “I didn’t call you because there aren’t any other notebooks. They’re all gone.”

She had finally managed to read the one she had. It was an excruciatingly difficult struggle and very time consuming to parse all the scribbling, but she had managed ultimately to understand what was in it.

His horrible handwriting, he claimed, was the visible legacy of McCarthyism. In first grade, when it was time to learn to write, he refused to single himself out to be segregated in the first row by the windows, his desk turned to the right. No. That was humiliating. Instead, he made believe that he too was right handed. At that point nobody could write enough with either hand for it really to matter. His unreadable penmanship was begun. It would stick with him until the end.

In an entry written shortly before he passed on, his daughter told me, he was railing at Max Brod for publishing Kafka’s work posthumously despite Kafka’s direction to destroy it. And he was ranting about a short story by Ricardo Piglia which purported to discover a lost work of Roberto Arlt. The entry was as illegible as it was furious. It digressed uncontrollably, and ended with his dread that anyone would ever exhume his many notebooks and read them. He was plainly quite agitated when he wrote the entry. He had no intention to let anyone read what he had written.

The entries, he claimed, were all virtually identical. For more than forty years he had been engaged in elaborating some of the infinite variations on the same very simple theme.

“Did he say what that was?”

Evidently it had to do with his use of notebooks to ferret out how he felt, about the conditions of his interior flora and fauna. He was trying to sort out and care for the many species living in his emotional forest. Were the trees full of noisome chatter? Were ravens suffering angst? Were the monkeys critical? Were the ants pleased? Were the coatis satisfied? Mostly he was the game warden. He was the steward of this invisible world, pushing his mind’s clamor and his heart’s many confusions onto the pages, where he could thoroughly examine them. It had nothing to do with making art. Or stories. He was a writer, yes, but, he insisted, the notebooks didn’t contain writing.

Where were the rest of them? Maybe, I thought, they had some stories in them. Or some accounts of his life. Or something he could be remembered by.

She assured me they were all gone. In the winter, he had held what he called “a ceremony.” He built a large fire in the field. The ground was frozen, and there was a crisp coating of brittle snow. A sharp wind blew from the North, scattering sparks and ash across the snow to the South. He burned all the old notebooks, placing them one by one in the fire. At the end, there were only ashes and the scorched wires from the spiral ones, and a few charred paperclips. And a blackened clasp.

He had reduced four decades of introspection to ash, heat, flame and smoke. Eventually even the remaining metal would rust and degrade into dust.

I imagined he must have said something about his intentions for “the ceremony,” its significance.

“No,” she told me, “He didn’t write that down.”

Buenos Aires, 11/26/10

Note: A special thank you to CSM for great editing advice.

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