Boris Pasternak's Meditation
by Ezequiel Alemian. Translated by Jessica Sequeira
The following text is included in Una introducción, published this year by the Buenos Aires-based editorial Mansalva.
During a visit to Buenos Aires a few years ago, the saxophonist Ornette Coleman, an old trailblazer of free jazz, went out to explore the area near the hotel where he was staying his first night in the city, and got lost.
What “lost” means, if clarification is needed, is that the following day, as the afternoon wore on, when he was to be honored by the city government and afterward give his first concert, no one had any idea where he might be. “Who controls knowledge?”, someone repeated, in a phrase he’d heard from Coleman.
Although that’s already another question. Everything was another question after Coleman got lost. Getting lost was an action that occurred with such speed, and was linked to real-life effects so diffuse, that it was impossible to determine when precisely it had happened.
The first thing to go missing when one gets lost is consciousness of the moment that one got lost. How long does that moment last? Perhaps no time at all. Or perhaps until it becomes negative, the action reducing time rather than extending it. One might even have been lost from the start, the very beginning. In any case, the pertinent question in the Ornette Coleman incident is: How brief can an anecdote be? Take this line, for instance: “He rang the bell, they opened for him, and he entered.”
“He rang the bell, they opened for him, and he entered”. Depending on the response time of the person answering the call, the length of the anecdote might last a few seconds or a few minutes. It might even unfold over hours, if no one is home to answer and the person ringing the bell stays waiting. If in the end he doesn’t enter, the anecdote transforms into another: “He rang the bell, but because they didn’t answer, he didn’t enter.” And now: what if the original phrase were replaced by another, such as: “He entered”?
There are anecdotes whose duration, to the extent they depend only on a private, impalpable decision, can be prolonged over decades or even over the course of existence. “He let himself be”, for example. This measures a few seconds against an entire life, yet “He let himself be” is an anecdote even briefer than “He rang the bell, they opened for him, and he entered.”
The brevity of an anecdote doesn’t have to do with its temporal duration, or with the length of the phrase constituting it. In fact, it’s absurd even to ask about the duration of an anecdote, if one doesn’t first know what an anecdote is.
An attempt: an anecdote is a form of narrative synthesis. The maximum form of narrative synthesis. An anecdote is not a story: a story, if you like, is the attempt to translate an anecdote into a narrative system. Anecdote is transformed into spectacle, and becomes one part of a larger world of the expressable. But the anecdote is prior to this division of the world into worlds. The nature of narration is essentially linked to length, understood as the expression of anecdotal potential, and narrative possibility depends on what anecdotes are available in particular historical periods.
At the end of the 19th century, anarchists launched bombs at politicians, soldiers, businessmen, and priests. These frequently claimed fatal victims, and their perpetrators were imprisoned or shot. The anarchists believed that their acts could be read. They believed that it was this reading of their actions which wrote the content of their life philosophy. It was the acts they committed which created the meaning of the texts they narrated, not preexisting texts which defined their attempts.
If you had to look for the anecdote defining that period, however, you would probably find it not in the ensemble of anarchist actions, but in the unjustified expressions which later exploded into theater, literature and life.
A very common example which can be found in Breton, after having been in Vaché, after having been in Apollinaire, before or after having been in Jarry, goes like this: “It began with shots fired in the middle of the street.”
That is the anecdote of the 20th century.
Coleman, as it would emerge later, had walked from the Obelisco where his hotel was located, to Retiro station where he climbed aboard a train boxcar and rode the whole line until the terminal in Tigre 50 kilometers away. Once in Tigre he continued to wander. Black, tall, thickly-bearded, gray-haired, approaching eighty, without a single word of Spanish and dressed in an enormous multi-colored sports shirt, he didn’t call anyone’s attention. At least until he sat down to rest on someone’s front porch. The lady of the house called the police, who placed Coleman under arrest.
Coleman had no documents or any other identification on him. With the help of an English teacher, officials searched Google and discovered whom they had in custody. They called the United States Embassy to pick him up, and when the embassy car arrived at the station, Coleman was sharing a flask of wine with the policemen, whom he invited to the concert that night.
It’s likely that the news of his disappearance, or of his misplacement and reappearance, was published in the police reports of several local newspapers, or in the write-ups of the concerts he finally ended up giving, or that it simply spread from mouth to mouth, driven by who knows what mysterious dynamic. In any case, this dynamic of transmission likely ended up shaping the news of Coleman’s disappearance. One can imagine that quite a few hypotheses were entertained to explain what exactly happened.
These hypotheses can be traced or reconstructed; new hypotheses can also be sought. In the end it’s a question of self-documentation. It’s always a question of self-documentation. Today documentation occupies the space that the narrative or essay once did. It’s as if the moment for action has already occurred, and we live in a subsequent time: that of the documentation of the moment when action was still possible.
There’s no doubt that if Ornette Coleman had been “documented”, even if this meant no more than carrying a card on him from the hotel where he was staying (which was very well known and easy to remember) or the phone number of some close friend, he never would have gotten lost. How is it possible that he wasn’t capable of remembering the name “Panamericano”? Or the word “obelisco”? Or that knowing something like what happened to him was possible (especially since, as it was rumored afterward, it wasn’t the first time something like this had occurred), he didn’t have on him a notebook or a scrap of paper with emergency contacts?
It’s as if he wanted to become an amnesiac, the opposite of the desire to register oneself in a narrative. Rather than adding information, Coleman removed it.
If it wasn’t possible to remember the Hotel Panamericano, located in front of the Obelisco, or the event at which the city’s highest authorities would honor him, or his commitment to play in front of thousands of people, it’s because the past had ceased to exist and everything was pure present. And pure present is only conceivable in a world dominated by chance.
The disappearance of Ornette Coleman is essentially anecdotal. Furthermore: if the anecdotal is what happens between a beginning and an end, Coleman’s misplacement is anecdotal par excellence. There is nothing in it which is not beginning and ending, merged practically into the same action.
The stories we create about others, the stories we create about ourselves, the stories others create about us or about themselves, the very idea of narration, remain in a state of tension and uncertain perspective when compared with the experience of Ornette Coleman in Buenos Aires. In a world in which stories proliferate in such a way that now they don’t even find consumers but simply multiply, overlapping, deaf to one another, there must be some story that can absorb them all: mixing them, compressing them and returning them inverted in another dimension. A kind of black hole or super-concentrated narrative energy field that condenses the stories that swarm around it and removes them from circulation.
Coleman created the experience of amnesia as an anecdotal model of the contemporary.
A few months after the saxophonist’s visit to Argentina, the French writer Jean Echenoz came to the country to give a few talks and public interviews.
Echenoz began his literary career with some novels riddled with situations constantly on the verge of the implausible. It was a hybrid literature, with plots at times imitating the model of serialized novels. The adventures of characters around the world crossed and intertwined. There was a kind of out-of-tune quality to Echenoz’s style, which could make him seem a bad writer, or a postmodern innovator. But Echenoz began to arrange his narrations in different ways, and in his latest stories he seems to have dedicated himself to a sort of fractal “biographism”. He’s written a book about the composer Maurice Ravel, another about the marathon runner Emil Zatopek, and a third about Nikola Tesla, discoverer of the alternating current.
It’s probable that “biographism” is one of the forms closest to the anecdote, and that the novel lends itself most to its squandering. The novel is more interested in what is not anecdotal than in what is. Where the biography concentrates, the novel expands; the anecdote remains mute.
Exhausted after having recounted his beginnings and influences, and after having run through the origin and meaning of each one of his books, Echenoz mentioned in one of his talks that the previous night he’d seen a Jim Jarmusch film on television. This made him feel a great depression, he said. Jarmusch had found a way to tell the stories that he and other French writers of his generation had always wanted to write, without managing to.
Echenoz returned to the country a few weeks ago for a private visit. At the request of his local editor, he accepted that we interview him. We spoke over breakfast, in a small but very popular bar half a block from where he was staying.
It was obvious he wasn’t too willing to talk about literature, or at least about his literature, but he lent himself to the conversation with great friendliness.
–What was that story you and your generation always wanted to write, and which Jarmusch narrated?
–I don’t know. I don’t remember which Jarmusch film I was talking about that time.
–Ah. I’d forgotten completely.
–In reality, I think that more than a story, it’s about a way of telling a story, a trajectory. What I saw in that film was the unfolding of a very free way of narrating, that spoke to me in a very intimate way about the life everyone led. It made me think I was seeing an improvisation. Now…
–Your question brings to mind another Jarmusch film.
–Yes. How did you know?
–In the portrait you wrote of your relationship with your editor, Jérôme Lindon, you mention that you talked with him often about that film.
–It has to do with that extremely free way of telling a story. These are films that generate a spontaneous feeling in me, the need to make my short stories adopt the style of that way of filming. Of course, the films that make me want to write aren’t necessarily good, and neither does the will to write necessarily translate into good books.
–In that talk I had the impression you were making reference to the search for a sort of “contemporary anecdote”.
–My only relationship with the contemporary has to do with the fact that for more than twenty years I wrote stories that took place in the same moment as when I wrote them. If I wrote in 1983, the action of what I wrote took place in 1983. I always introduced elements and brands which clearly pointed to that synchronization. But the last three books I’ve published take place in the past. I wanted to experiment in them. It was a small adventure to see what freedom I had when working on historical moments.
–In those three books, you give up the multiple plot approach in order to narrow in on a specific moment in the life of one person. What were you trying to focus on?
–My first books were influenced by the crime novel and by a series of technical questions linked to the ’70s avant-garde, which bored me even at the time, despite the influence they exercised. I believe that the end of the ’70s saw a minor death of the novel, which was then reborn when people felt the impulse to take up the novelistic form again.
–Are your novels the investigation of the scene of a disappearance?
–Disappearance is a novelistic motor that recurs from book to book. I think that if I were to try to undo myself from it, it would emerge again despite my intentions. But I don’t see it as a specifically contemporary problem. It’s a theme of life. Disappearance can take on an infinite number of forms: death, neglect, escape, the search for something. These are motors for writing, more than themes.
–What interested you in biographical writing?
–I didn’t have a specific project in mind. It simply came into existence. I wanted Ravel to be one of the secondary characters in a novel, and I got interested in him, got to know his life, his music, his house. Finally, continuing with Ravel seemed more interesting than continuing with the project I was already working on. That’s how I found myself in the very curious situation of narrating the life of another person. But what I wrote isn’t a biography. What I did was transform a real character into a character from a novel. I never had any interest in writing the real life of anyone. Real life doesn’t exist.
–Ravel, Zatopek, and Tesla, what do they have in common?
–The mystery that surrounds them, their ambiguity, which is different in each one, and the dimension of solitude. Solitude interests me a great deal. The three of them saw their lives robbed by their work.
–Your latest books seem to provoke the question of why things happen as they do.
–This occurs because one tends to read people’s lives as if they were fictions. Just as a story can take elements from real life, real life can be read as fiction.
–Is this related to chance?
–Yes. It’s the random, the unexpected. It’s what makes a life read as a fiction acquire suspense. Going back to Jarmusch, these are films about the absolutely random.
–You just mentioned solitude. What happens with the will of the characters?
–The characters construct their lives driven by a desire, but that desire is also what alienates them.
–In some article or another your books were called metaphysical…
–But don’t they have elements which permit them to be thought of as parables?
–I hadn’t thought of it like that. It probably has to do with my fascination for that dimension of the human being, simultaneously majestic and laughable.An example
These days nobody deprives himself of the chance to cut journalists down to size. Maybe it’s always been that way. In his Life of Mayakovsky, Wiktor Woroszylski transcribes a fragment of text in which Boris Pasternak recalls the first time Mayakovsky wore his scandalous yellow shirt, in October 1913. This is the way he puts it: “He drew more attention than a sexy woman. It was difficult to write about him. In those days one had to give journalists a door they could open without too many complications. They were never going to go beyond the threshold.”
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