“What pulls us together beyond need and desire? And when those fray, what holds us in place? Is it the memory of that first drawing in, the questions we asked of ourselves in the eyes and names of others?” —from “The Visitor”
“They both knew that, as they say, the end was already written, the end of them, of the sad young people who read novels together, who wake up with books lost between the blankets, who smoke a lot of marijuana and listen to songs that are not the same ones they separately prefer (of Ella Fitzgerald’s, for example: they are aware that at that age it is still acceptable to have recently discovered Ella Fitzgerald). They both harbor the fantasy of at least finishing Proust, of stretching the cord through seven volumes and for the last word (the word ‘time’) to also be the last word foreseen between them. Their reading lasts, lamentably, little more than a month, at a pace of ten pages a day. They stopped on page 373, and, from then on, the book stayed open.” —Alejandro Zambra, Bonsai
Once that moment had passed, a more objective gaze revealed that the sticky object in his hand was formless and repulsive. He was through for the day. He tossed the fish into the washbowl full of water, and, for want of a rag, dried his hands on the sheet of notepaper, which he then folded and put in his pocket, thinking it might come in useful. He had a superstitious respect for any kind of paper. When his eyes returned to the washbowl, he saw that the twisted, bloated, monstrous fish was swimming, on its side, up and down, vertically, like a sea horse, visibly alive. That was the finishing touch. They always went on living, no matter what he did to them. Actually, this was the first time it had happened, but once was as good as “always.”
“Most of all I enjoy central-heating control rooms, where men with higher education, chained to their jobs like dogs to their kennels, write the history of their times as a sort of sociological survey and where I learned how the fourth estate was depopulated and the proletariat went from base to superstructure and how the university-trained elite now carries on its work. My best friends are two former members of our Academy of Sciences who have been set to work in the sewers, so they’ve decided to write a book about them, about their crissings and crossings under Prague, and they are the ones who taught me that the excrement entering the sewage plant at Podbaba on Sundays differs substantially from the excrement entering it on Mondays, and that each day is so clearly differentiated from the rest that the rate of flux may be plotted on a graph, and according to the ebb and flow of prophylactics one many determine the relative frequency with which varying sections of Prague indulge in sexual intercourse. Today, however, my friends made an even deeper impression on me with a report of a war, a total, humanlike war, between white rats and brown, which, though it ended in an absolute victory of the whites, had led to their immediate breakdown into two groups, two opposing clans, two tightly organized rodent factions engaged at this very moment in a life-and-death struggle for supremacy of the sewers, a great rodent war over the rights to all the refuse and fecal matter flowing through the sewers to Podbaba, and as soon as the present war was over, my friends the academic sewersweeps informed me, the winning side would break down again, like gases and metals and all organic matter, into two dialectically opposed camps, the struggle for supremacy bringing life back to life, the desire for conflict resolution promising imminent equilibrium, the world never stumbling for an instant.” —from Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal
“Oh, if I were doing nothing only out of laziness. Lord, how I’d respect myself then. Respect myself precisely because I’d at least be capable of having laziness in me; there would be in me at least one, as it were, positive quality, which I myself could be sure. Question: who is he? Answer: a lazybones. Now, it would be most agreeable to hear that about myself. It means I’m positively defined; it means there’s something to say about me. “Lazybones!”—now, that’s a title and a mission, it’s a career, sirs. No joking, it really is. By rights I’m then a member of the foremost club, and my sole occupation is ceaselessly respecting myself. I knew a gentleman who prided himself all his life on being a fine judge of Lafite. He regarded it as his positive merit and never doubted himself. He died not merely with a serene but with a triumphant conscience, and he was perfectly right.” —F. Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground.
Michal Ajvaz‘s fantastic novel The Other City is a surrealistic guidebook to the hidden spaces and invisible ‘other’ Prague. Writing in a dreamlike prose reminiscent of Borges, Ajvaz describes and explores the invisible city of the imagination that, he says, is enmeshed in the unoccupied spaces of the known world. It’s a brilliant book that brings to mind not only Borges and Kafka but Italo Calvino‘s Invisible Cities and John Stilgoe’s Outside Lies Magic as well as Rebecca Solnit‘s Wanderlust, which I recently wrote about on my books and culture blog, The Bronsk Commons. The passage below also reminded me of my Codes photo series, prompting me to post the second part.
“Like everyone, I had on many previous occasions, ignored a half-open door leading elsewhere—in the chilly passages of strange houses, in backyards, on the outskirts of towns. The frontier of our world is not far away; it doesn’t run along the horizon or in the depths. It glimmers faintly close by, in the twilight of our nearest surroundings; out of the corner of our eye we can always glimpse another world, without realizing it. We are walking all the time along a shore and along the edges of a virgin forest. Our gestures would seem to rise out of an entity that also encompasses these concealed spaces, and in an odd way they reveal their shadowy existence, although we are unaware of the roar of waves and shrieks of animals—the disquieting accomplishment to our words (and possibly their secret birthplace); we are unaware of the glitter of jewels in the unknown world of nooks and crannies; usually we don’t stray off the path even once in the course of our lives. What golden temples in the jungles might we find our way to? With what beasts and monsters might we content and on what islands might we forget our plans and ambitions?”