Tuesday, 29 September 2015

On how Valeria Luiselli builds cities of absences

Full title: Sidewalks
Author: Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Genre: Nonfiction
Attributes: 110 pages, paperback
Publisher: Granta (2013)
Between 0 and 1Zero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

Reading Valeria Luiselli after Patrick Modiano is something worth trying. They have one major thing in common: the crucial role played by places in their writing. Sidewalks, a volume released almost simultaneously with Luiselli’s other debut volume, Faces in the Crowd, is a collection of essays in which location is all that matters. She moves from Venice, in search for Joseph Brodsky’s burial place, to Mexico, in search for maps or lost libraries, and then back to Venice, so as to end full-circle. Her wanderings trace peculiar maps, which are based not on solid landmarks but rather on gaps, empty spaces, urban cavities. There is a name for these gaps. A Spanish word. Relingos. A word to the explanation of which Luiselli dedicates an entire essay: “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces.” The origins are not clear, but the word seems to mean this: urban spaces left unattended. Or better still, absences left in the fabric of a city. This is the kind of no-mans-land in the middle of an urban expanse, with a rondo left for flowers that will never be planted, or a pile of rubbish left to guard the peace (or war) of passers-by.
“A relingo – an emptiness, an absence – is a sort of depository for possibilities, a place that can be seized by imagination and inhabited by our phantom-follies. Citied need those vacant lots, those silent gaps where the mind can wander freely.”
This is what Valeria Luiselli searches for throughout the volume: manifestations of the figure of the relingo, the urban absence par excellence, the hole. That explains why the book starts with an essay about tombs, about a silent argument between the grave of Ezra Pound and that of Joseph Brodsky, two holes in the ground.
In the second essay, “Flying Home,” where the focus advances quickly from airplanes to maps, the most prominent image is that of an enormous book containing a nineteenth-century cartographic representation of the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The scale of the map is so large, the book contains pages upon pages of emptiness, designating spaces between the two countries where no distinctive trace is noticeable. The essay prompts a parallel between the work of a cartographer and that of an anatomist, in the style, perhaps, of Gilles Deleuze, whom Luiselli quotes at some point in relation to language. The work of the two professionals is equally concerned with incisions, with the creation of gaps, of openings. For them, signification is done by means of cutting-through.
“In essence, an anatomist and a cartographer do the same thing: trace vaguely arbitrary frontiers on a body whose nature it is to resist determined borders, definitions and precise limits.”

Valeria Luiselli. Source: The Telegraph
The shortest essay, included almost as an afterthought or maybe as a gap-filler (to keep in line with the profile of the book), is also the most powerful insofar as poetic power is concerned. It is only half page in length and is the story of a crime that took place close to the entrance in the building where Valeria Luiselli once resided in Mexico City. A man is shot. Homicide police takes over, as it must. What’s left, once the investigation is concluded, is the outline of the victim’s body. The outline, a sort of map left on the footpath, a gap of sorts, a delineation of a territory where once there was a body, where now there is an absence.
“The following day his outline appeared in white chalk on the asphalt. Did the hand of the person who skirted the coastline of his body tremble? The city, its sidewalks: an enormous blackboard – instead of numbers, we add up bodies.”
And so, Luiselli seizes the opportunity to bring up the central element of her system every time she finds it ready to be milked.
A neighbour (someone who reminds the reader of a similar character in Faces in the Crowd) digs a hole in the interior garden of the apartment block where the author lives. The hole itself warrants attention because it is a hole. And also because it motivates imagination.
In her childhood, inspired and also saddened by the idea that she could reach China if she kept digging, Luiselli ended up planting several holes in the backyard, which she then filled with aid-memoirs (toys, maps, and so on) for a future that’s uncertain at best. These holes too merit attention.
But gaps are not to be found only in cities. They also exist in language. Silences, like those in music, between sounds. And because these language gaps do exist there’s a sense that a writer herself will have to understand the hole-digging business that writing is. Luiselli has surely understood this already. Otherwise she wouldn’t say:
“Writing: drilling walls, breaking windows, blowing up buildings. Deep excavations to find – to find what? To find nothing.
A writer is a person who distributes silences and empty spaces.
Writing: making relingos.”
There’s yet another memory that stays: that of an earthquake in Mexico City, another episode from the author’s childhood. An earthquake causes chaos. It is, in essence, the force that alters maps. It leaves behind ruins, buildings reduced to rubble, holes, other absences. The reality of the threat that comes after the cataclysm, that the earthquake might return, creates the necessary connections between landscape, language, and anatomy, the three signposts of Luiselli’s concerns, the three stars of a writer’s person:
“We are in the process of losing something. We go round leaving bits of dead skin on the sidewalk, dropping dead words into a conversation. Cities, like our bodies, like language, are destruction under construction. But this constant threat of earthquakes is all that’s left to us. Only that kind of scene – a landscape of rubble piled on rubble – compels us to go out and look for the last remaining thing. Only under that threat does it again become necessary to excavate language, to find the exact word.”
And speaking of signposts, it must be mentioned that all the essays in the collection have this thing in common: they are interrupted by titles. Titles that are sometimes names (“Joseph Brodsky,” “Marcelino Giancarlo”), sometimes traffic sings (“Stop,” “Pedestrian Crossing”), sometimes civic warnings (“Use alternative routes,” “Watch your step”), sometimes business titles and messages (“Open all hours,” “Real Estate”), sometimes GPS-like directions (“Turn left at Durango,” “Continue along Orizaba – ride on sidewalk to avoid traffic”), sometimes just numbers. What’s important about these titles is that they seem arbitrary. They don’t bring about any necessary division.
The texts would work absolutely well without these titles. They aren’t enriched by them or better structured by them. But they play a role, these titles, that brings unity between structure and content: they create holes in the texts, absences where the reader’s imagination, as the author says, can wander freely.