Death, Sleep and the Traveler
“We can speak of occupied languages as we speak of occupied countries,” Juan Goytisolo wrote recently in The New York Times, thinking of the Spanish of Franco’s Spain. Yet this is a language occupied by native speakers, not by an invading army, and the members of the Resistance all seem to live abroad—they are the Free French, to shift the latitude of the metaphor, not the maquis. Certainly any good book written in Spanish strikes a blow for the language’s liberation, but the characters in such books (and the people stuck in Spain) may be forgiven for dreaming of less oblique acts of sabotage against the status quo.
This is the dream of the hero of Goytisolo’s own brilliant Count Julian: a ruinous, apocalyptic reversal of the whole course of Spanish history. The Moors, held off by the Cid, turned back at Granada in 1492, come sweeping over the Straits of Gibraltar at last, scimitars gleaming, white robes flowing, grins like Peter O’Toole’s all over their faces. “O tempora! O Moors!” the hero snappily thinks at one point.
The book recounts a hallucinatory day in the life of a Spanish exile in Tangier, histrionically peering (and refusing to peer) across the narrow water at what he calls his harsh homeland, that arid, Castilian country, home of St. Theresa, Lope de Vega, Calderón, the Generation of ‘98, and the Falange. His major act in the course of this (and other) days is to take a trip to the local library with a purseful of dead insects, and crush them between the pages of a few Spanish classics, smearing those immortal words with the blood and entrails of bees and ants and spiders and flies—
the “Dos de Mayo,” the resoundingly patriotic sonnet of Enrique López Alarcón!: you can barely keep from drooling as you place the massive corpse of a horsefly on top of it, and zap!: consummatum est: the perfect hendecasyllable is shattered, the grandiloquent tercet is blotted out….
The helplessness which lies behind this comic and pathetic gesture of wrath and rebellion is too painful to be laughed at for long, and a good measure of Goytisolo’s achievement is the poise with which he juggles both helplessness and laughter, avoiding despair on the one hand and too much jocularity on the other. This makes the book a very literary achievement, an elegant and accomplished novel about impotent rage rather than a cry of rage and impotence itself, and a little too civilized for all the violence it keeps threatening to conjure up (“on the way back home, you will meet an old woman mounted on a humble ass, and gratuitously attack her, with the greatest severity and cruelty”).
I say this because the book occasionally behaves as if it were a genuine political act all on its own—it is no more political than any good novel is, and it is less political than some. What it is, is a Spanish work of fiction which has learned the language of phantasmagoria and feigned free association from Latin American writers of the Sixties (Count Julian was first published in Mexico in 1970), thereby reversing a centuries-old debt: the mother country goes to school with her children. I don’t mean that Goytisolo is imitating or plagiarizing Cortázar, or Lezama Lima, or García Márquez, I mean that the occupied language of Spain is here set free by the emancipated example of other novelists writing in Spanish; once free, having once found what he calls in another context the absolute kingdom of the improbable, Goytisolo creates his own remarkably fluent and funny and intelligent idiom:
the road ahead is clear, the day belongs to you: you are the protean master of your fate, and better still, you’ve dropped out from the march of history, you’re playing no part in the rapid process of development which, according to all witnesses, is rejuvenating the face of an ancient country that yesterday was both forbiddingly grim and drowsy, and today is flowering and humming with activity: service stations and motels, daring films and foreign girls in bikinis on the beaches: different, yes: possessed of a typical Spanish flavor, a warm, sunny charm: bullfights, manzanilla, guitars: light, color, flamenco: the subtle spell of nights in the gardens of Spain; populorum progressio: thanks to the cleverness and the competence of your brilliant technocrats, the zealous male nurses of a patient who had been ill for decades, who despite a provident bloodletting was under strict orders to remain in bed around the clock and not move a muscle, to take a sleep cure, to stick to a diet of plain water: but who now is on the way to recovery thanks to the ubiquitous power of a certain barrel-shaped gentleman: ready to climb out of bed, speak in a soft voice, take his first steps: little walks in the garden of the clinic: not at all impatient to visit the gymnasium again or turn somersaults….
Nothing is sacred, nothing is spared. Every thing Spanish, from Fray Luis de León to Federico García Lorca by way of Unamuno and Menéndez Pelayo, comes under the hatchet of this exile’s scorn. The attack is too undiscriminating in the end to be anything other than an implicit portrait of the attacker, and this is the force of the allusion in the book’s title. Count Julian (or Ulyan, or Urban, or Ulbán, or Bulian) turned the Arabs back from Tangier in 682, we are told in an epigraph. He was described by Alfonso the Wise, on the other hand (and in another epigraph), as incapable of loyalty, respecting no law, and scorning God: “the traitor Julian.” And a third epigraph, from de Sade, pulls these pieces together, expresses the wish to discover a crime the effect of which would live forever, “so that every single instant of my life, even when sleeping, would become the cause of some sort of disorder….”
Goytisolo’s hero, a latter-day Julian, urging his imaginary Arabs on from Tangier instead of back, dreams of infinite damage to the homeland he can’t forget and can’t escape: rape, pillage, desecration, disease, the slow and subtle corruption of the young. But these dreams are also his prison. He is trapped in a vision of Spain which is no less conventional and sentimental than that of the academicians and bureaucrats he is pillorying, indeed which is the same vision—it is just that he is against it while they are piously for it. And that (Goytisolo implies) is what an occupied language feels like: not even the shape of your anger is your own.
The central character of John Hawkes’s Death, Sleep and the Traveler is similarly dispossessed, although he is in exile not only from his country, a Dutchman in an unnamed land, but from his life. He is a calm collaborator in the whims of people around him, an oddly unruffled perceiver of images of panic and disaster in the world and in himself, a curiously composed narrator of his own alarming dreams.
The third musician was playing his vibraphone with naked knuckles, with knuckles split to the bone and bleeding onto his sentimental percussive instrument….
My rash is now an unremovable undergarment that covers and contains my belly and buttocks and genitalia in a wet palpable flush of color like a tincture of blood in warm water….
In my dream the nighttime village, which is poor and not at all the village of my birth, consists of no more than a dusty road flanked on one side by a candle-lit cathedral and on the other by a small unoccupied petrol station….
But suddenly I know that the shapes lying like dark and spongy land mines beneath my feet are composed not of cow dung, as I had thought, but of congealed blood….
But there is something still more unusual about the sight below. Feeling my brow tightening in a single crease, it is then that I see that the poor tin coffin rests not on the bottom of the old cart but rather floats in perhaps a foot of dark water….
The last three of these images appear in the Dutchman’s dreams, but the first two belong to his supposed waking spells, and it is hardly surprising that his wife should think his life and his dreams are identical, or that his best friend should suggest his life is a coma. The Dutchman himself feels he has difficulty in believing in reality. But then his wife thinks he is too phlegmatic (too Dutch: “thus she is leaving—because she does not like the Dutch”) about all this panoply of nightmare, and calls him a “psychic invalid.” “I wish,” she says, “that just once you might become truly obsessional.” She doesn’t understand that in order to become obsessional the Dutchman would have to have an existence outside of his interchangeable waking and sleeping dreams, a form of sanity from which to plunge into lunacy. He is encased in obsessions already, and just not the type to make a fuss about it. He is a figure intimating not that we are all mad, as R.D. Laing suggests, but that placid normality is riddled with the raw materials of madness. We pick them up and put them down every day.
The gentle, affable, schnapps- drinking Dutchman, for example, may be a murderer, although he was acquitted at his trial. “How could I possibly have done harm to such a creature?” he thinks, remembering the girl he was accused of killing. He is shocked when his wife asks whether he did it or not, but the form of his shock (“I could not believe that my wife would ever ask me that question”) is as ambiguous as the form of the thought I have just quoted. How could I possibly? But anything is possible. How could I?—but I did. How could I?—of course I didn’t. The last words of the novel are the Dutchman’s clear statement: “I am not guilty.” But what does that mean? That he didn’t do it? That he did, but doesn’t blame himself? Perhaps the girl’s death was a natural disaster, almost the expected consequence of so many ugly portents; nothing, really, to do with him, even if he did throw her off the ship they were traveling on.
We are meant to wonder:
We spend most of our lives attempting in small ways to know someone else. And we hope that someone else will care to peek into our darkest corners, without shock or condemnation…. But on the brink of success, precisely when a moment of understanding seems nearest at hand, and even if the moment is a small thing and not particularly consequential, it is then that the eyes close, the head turns away, the voice dies, the surface of the bright ocean becomes a sea of lead, and from the very shape we know to be our own there leaps a mansized batlike shadow that flees or crouches to attack, to drive us away. Who is safe? Who knows what he will do next?
This is a little too explicit—did he or didn’t he, how can we ever know—and suggests a touch of banality at the heart of this slight and elaborate book. Certainly here, and in The Blood Oranges, Hawkes’s last novel, there is a good deal of unmistakable triviality beneath the glitter of the artful language. I don’t think we can complain about the glitter itself, precious as it sometimes seems (“The light of the first stars purled impossibly through the last light of the day”), because the glitter is the style, the perfect vehicle for Hawkes’s fastidiously upsetting effects.
My life has always been uncensored, overexposed. Each event, each situation, each image stands before me like a piece of film blackened from overexposure to intense light. The figures within my photographic frames are slick but charred. In the middle of the dark wood I am a golden horse lying dead on its side across the path and rotting.
We can’t complain about the pompous and disagreeable tone of all Hawkes’s recent narrators (and several of his characters), because their stately and indestructible self-absorption is precisely what allows them to survive in the universe of menace and distress which they inhabit. But the concerns that animate these people—performing and watching intercourse, sharing lovers, swopping wives, collecting pornography, and describing their stilted and rather stale philosophies of life—are surely not the most urgent of subjects for a major novelist, which Hawkes undoubtedly is. Hawkes strikes me as a writer who started out as if he were going to become Kafka and turned into something between Henry Miller and Virginia Woolf on the way. Of course, neither Miller nor Woolf is a negligible figure, and of course I don’t mean to suggest that the private life is not a subject for fiction any more, or that Hawkes has to take on the holocaust every time he writes. And of course, any subject becomes what the writer makes of it. But still, Death, Sleep and the Traveler and The Blood Oranges, striking, personal, and assured as they are, remain rather wispy works, have the air of dazzling exercises performed on the edge of nothing. The eerie, luminous images of these two books are lost in almost empty narrative space; great songs in search of an opera; brief poems looking for a play.