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For a brief interval of my life, I did not dream a single dream. If I had dreamt and forgotten, it would have been another matter, but as it was I was convinced I could not dream at all. When this happened to me, I had just moved from one country to another, one continent to another. In fact, my world had literally been turned upside-down because these two continents were also in different hemispheres, such that I would sometimes wonder, like Alice as I fell into my albeit much more desolate abyss of sleep each night, ‘Might I reach all the way to the other side of the earth like this, might I reach home this way?’ I had been reading Alice in Wonderland while waiting at a real  estate broker’s office in the new city to which I had moved. I had bought the copy of Alice in Wonderland for a few dollars on the street before I went in to meet the broker; on the first pages, as she plummets towards Wonderland, Alice guilelessly remarks, ‘How funny it’ll seem to come out among the people that walk with their heads downwards! The Antipathies, I think…’ And as I had read her words the slip was very poignant to me because it was with some bad feeling that I had left my own antipodean home. 

Before I left, I had written a book, a book that had meant a great deal to me at the time that I had written it; the book was about many things, but mostly it was about madness. Sometimes, while writing it, I would become so absorbed by the story’s sadness, so consumed with its reality, as though in the throes of a terrible nightmare, that tears would be rolling down my face without my even being conscious of them. When I arrived in the new country, the book was about to be published, but the feelings of importance I had had for what I had written had now turned to indifference and perhaps shame. 

When people questioned me as to whether the story was auto­biography or fiction, I offered convoluted arguments of form, though what I really wanted point-blank to answer was that to me there was really no difference between these concepts. If there was a difference, it was as difficult to distinguish as that between my actual face, the face that I knew so well, and the angry wounded face reflected in the blurry bathroom mirror of the new apartment I had illegally leased. (As it happened, the broker whom I had gone to see had told me that it was too difficult to find me a home as I did not possess an adequate ‘credit history’: in realtor vernacular, a euphemism for the fact that I had no finances. Actually, if I had been in serious debt, he pointed out, if I had a record of bankruptcy or bad debts, this at least would have constituted a history of a kind, but as it happened I had no history at all.) What I wanted to answer, when I was questioned about the reality of what I had written, was that reality could be darker than Dostoievskian realism. 

I was thinking of Dostoievsky because as I lay down on the sofa-bed which I had bought with my last savings from a charity shop in my new neighbourhood, I was trying to read The Brothers Karamazov, but so insensible was I to his terrifying hallucinatory universe, that I found myself turning back every few pages, able to take in only little of the story. The words swam before me with little purpose or distinction; the fate of each character was numbingly predictable. Indeed I felt bored by Dostoievsky! I was not tired, but reading The Brothers Karamazov this evening – it was early dusk – on my tattered, perforated sofa bed, I fell asleep. 

In the beginning, I could fall asleep at any moment. I could nod off without any trouble at all, and when I awoke after sleeping for twelve hours, I was the most tired then; not tired in my bones as though I had slept too deeply or too much, but weary with a vague feeling of disgruntlement. I should say that this weariness was something I had never known before. My whole life, I had woken in earnest and with an uncanny conceit about my place in the world. In the world, if people were distinguished by their night and morning sensibilities, I would be a ‘morning person’, by which I mean that I rarely hesitated about the importance of getting out of bed. 

There was a writer, Jean Rhys, who lived earlier last century and whose work was so ahead of its time that she remained until her death quite unrecognised. It should cause no sadness that her fame was largely posthumous; what is remarkable is that anyone achieves fame before their life is finished. Reading her work, which speaks with honesty, with a brutal kind of candour about not feeling in place anywhere in the world, I would have the feeling that her words had no skin, no surface, and these open wounds that were her words would cause me to sigh. I thought about Jean Rhys now when I awoke, tired and disgruntled. I thought in particular of one of her late stories, ‘Let Them Call It Jazz’, written from the point of view of a West Indian woman who is evicted from her London flat; her destitution, her solace in alcohol. Jean Rhys was an insomniac, she was an alcoholic and, although for a long time she was forgotten by the world, she was prolific. In many of her novels, she wrote about women not wanting to get out of bed of a morning. I thought about her because in order to write as well and as much about women who did not want to get out of bed of a morning, Jean Rhys would herself have had to have risen pretty early.

At the time that I stopped dreaming, I believed the feeling of numbness that hit me in the morning when I awoke with the sun on my face – I had not bought blinds or curtains because I had very little money and many debts; I was waiting for the money for the book which I had written, but the money was very late in coming – I believed the nihilism into which I woke had more to do with my forgetting my dreams than not having any at all. I was not tortured by this forgetting because I supposed that it would pass sooner or later. When I woke up, I would not dwell on my amnesia, but remembered that I had many bureaucratic feats to perform, such as getting a bank account for the little money I did have; important purchases to make, like getting an answering machine. I would try, to the best of my ability, to think about the future, but the future stood before me as a void.

When I went outside, it was strange to see the trees in full foliage in the middle of the year. The colours on the billboards and in shopfronts were so gaudy that I was at once drawn to and nauseated by them, as a child towards a fun park ride. It was unnerving to see taxis speeding by on the opposite side of the road; it was perturbing that all the doors, except for the revolving ones, which I found absurdly existential, opened outward. I enjoyed the feeling that no one outdid me in my estrangement, that no one surpassed me in my alienation. I fancied my malaise was not dissimilar to that of the autobiographical narrator of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, a book which I had in my possession and which I would read on public transport, wondering how it was possible that Rilke’s poetry was so much superior to prose; wondering how, when his verse was in formal German – a language I had to read in translation – I still found the cadences absolutely and unspeakably stirring. 

And yet, it was the narrative disruptions of The Notebooks which I now admired. The frequent discontinuities of the prose seemed suggestive of my metaphysical state: I was moving on public transport; the subway or bus, as it happened to be, stopped to pick up other passengers and to carry us to our varied destinations; my momentum and thoughts were frequently interrupted and in continual renewal as the vehicle was reinhabited from the inside. This was a mimesis uncharacteristic of the Rilkean poem whose internal state is far more static, whose metaphors are always tightly sealed, whose structure is unbreachable even as its subject implores transfiguration. Rilke’s prose was not perfect, my predicament was not perfect. I was not in Paris. There were children selling plastic trinkets on the subways; there were tramps and beggars all about me, but I was not in Paris; there was no one shouting a dissonant chou-fleur

In the country to which I had moved it was hot because it was midsummer. I didn’t know quite how hot because the temperature was calculated in Fahrenheit and Fahrenheit meant nothing to me. I felt giddy constantly; I wanted to drink litres upon litres of water. I took my clothes off piece by sweat-soaked piece while I cleaned my dirty apartment, for which purpose I had bought an inordinate number of bottles of pine disinfectant. 

At the supermarket to which I had gone to buy the pine dis­infectant, I had needed to buy a number of other things too, but as I entered the aisles, each one burgeoning with food and produce and household utensils, I became stupid and forgot the logical location of things. The simplest mental associations – that milk would be found in the same place I might find cheese – eluded me entirely. I sought cheese where the meat was kept and milk where the fruit and vegetables were. The supermarket itself appeared to me labyrinthine. My hunger was for the most basic nourishment: bread and oranges; coffee, cheese and some plain crackers; milk and fruit juice; shampoo. I searched for these items but because to me coffee meant Vittoria, and juice Sunburst and shampoo Pears, I immediately felt cheated by the fact that they weren’t there; I imagined at once that the new and un­familiar product names contained ersatz commercial goods, that I was being set up or duped. 

My paranoia was fuelled by the fact that, even though I spoke the same language, some very basic things could cause bafflement and bewilderment to the people around me. One example of this was the word ‘trolley’. It was difficult to believe that the word ‘trolley’, whose meaning I took quite for granted, could arouse such sighs of frustration and head-shaking confusion. As it took me some time to find that a ‘trolley’ was called a ‘shopping cart’, I carried the things I had wanted to buy cumbrously in my hands until I turned a corner and saw the trolleys, jammed, as you find them everywhere in the world, one inside another.

It was surfaces that were befuddling; it was the forms the groceries took, rather than the contents themselves, which appeared to me distorted. Under the garish lights of the supermarket each object, from the packets of soap to the tins of pink salmon, was monstrous, a mirror that mocked me, a mirror in which I could not see myself reflected back without being overcome by a feeling of disquiet. And yet, when I returned to my dingy apartment, the grocery bags lost this exaggerated quality; later, when I placed each item in the refrigerator – the light of which was broken – the groceries took on their familiar, utilitarian forms. 

When I returned to my apartment, I wasted no time uncapping the pine disinfectant and scrubbing the blurry mould-mottled glass of the bathroom mirror; I wiped the grime that had become congealed with stale morsels of food on the hot-plates of the stove; I scrubbed the old, unfinished parquetry floor and the two streaky windows with a fastidiousness I did not know I possessed. I washed the bathroom tub and tiles. Finally, I sat down under the naked light globe in my kitchen. When I tore open the crackers and the cheese and began eating, I was eating to fill a hunger for which it was irrelevant what was fraudulent and what wholesome, a hunger that came from a place more primitive than the names of the foods that would satisfy it, a hunger, I suppose you could say, without a name. And every few hours this hunger would return, for even though I may have lost my dreaming ability, I had not lost my appetite. 

In order to open a bank account and buy an answering machine, the two feats which I believed would place me in the present, provide order and institute habit in my new life, I had to go out into the world, I had to come face-to-face with people. My trepidation was not unfounded, for everywhere I went to apply for a bank account I had to wait in a long queue to talk to the authorities. I had credentials, letters attesting to my legitimacy to be in the new country, but like Kafka’s K., a stranger in the town about the Castle, I was continuously delayed and denied entry, I was continuously subjected to interrog­ations. Made patient to maniacal point, I felt I was losing my mind. 

All the authorities to whom I had to speak seemed impossible to locate. If I did locate someone, they seemed menacingly listless or, like the Landlady in The Castle, they stared at me with vacant eyes before launching into a series of impossible questions and interdictions. For the most part, I was left alone while people disappeared into nearby rooms, to forage in deep filing cabinets, while someone called someone else on the telephone and spoke about me as though I were not there. At one time, someone sat before me but stared at a computer monitor without saying a word for an hour. Soon I began to wonder whether the heavy-duty air-conditioning systems, whose effect on someone like me who had just come in from the outside was to make them shudder with cold, had blasted the eardrums of the authorities. 

I confess that part of the difficulty communicating was on my side: when I was admitted after a great wait and sat down to explain my situation, I opened my mouth to speak and my words would either pour out as volubly as water or I would speak in incomplete sentences, which would include tautology after contradiction. Sometimes, a word, after it was spoken, would hover, with all the potential and poise of a new idea; then it turned soft and ineffectual, and then, before I knew it, it assumed the fragile properties of glass and promised to come crashing to the ground about me. My panic about this splintered glass would then cause me not to speak at all. Eventually, I got some answers, accomplished, as they say, the bare essentials, but these achievements seemed as much a part of chance and the indiscriminate bouts of pity that the authorities took on me, as any action I had brought about myself. 

I could not dream and therefore I could not write: it took me a long time to make this deduction, but when I did I could see that good writing emerges from a sort of death, a sort of darkness; it requires an annihilation of space, an annihilation of time and that these annihil­ations have their phantasmagoric corollary in the dream which casts light on what the mind diurnally conceals. The resemblance between the dream and writing is in a sense that between what is original and what is plagiarised; there is always something inferior in the copy, something which betrays it as a copy as such, but the inferiority in time can come to be seen as an aesthetic virtue; the faults in the bastard text can make it in its own turn original. 

I could not write. I could have imitated someone else. The writer Janet Frame came to mind. I was reading her novel, Yellow Flowers in the Antipodean Room, a novel about life-in-death and death-in-life. Frame loves in her novels to play with such juxtapositions and paradoxes; she loves to toy with dialectics of interiority and exteriority. It made me wonder, reading her novel, what part her misdiagnosis as a schizophrenic had played in her faith in language. For since her mis­diagnosis as a schizophrenic Frame has written about people who, in one way or another, would rather be incarcerated than live in a world which, if not for psychiatric institutions, could be regarded as a psych­iatric institution in its own right. I could not imitate Janet Frame: she was truly inimitable. When I say her literary output would not have been the same if she had not written because of what had happened to her, I am trying to say that my own world, my waking world, would have had a huge hole in it too.

Now that I had invested money in an answering machine, I kept looking to see whether the answering machine was flashing at every moment. In this way, the answering machine became the only reference point for my earthly significance. I was quite aware that my family and friends were on the other side of the world – when I was awake they would be asleep and vice-versa – and still I made this demand of the answering machine: to account for my life, to register my gains, my losses. After a few days of seeing it blank, I began to wonder whether there might be a fault with the answering machine, and so I went downstairs to a public phone booth to test it. Though the thought crossed my mind, I did not go so far as to leave a message on my own answering machine; I simply hung up, as I had on so many machines before. 

Each evening, as I became more terrified that my sleep would be as empty as my answering machine, I would blink away my fatigue. And soon enough this took on the proportions of a kind of self-induced insomnia. Outside my tiny window I saw the moon, always waning it seemed. I looked at the clock, a wall clock so worthless it had been abandoned by the previous tenants (their leaving this particular plastic clock, repulsive to the eye, above a refrigerator whose light was broken and which leaked erratically, could only be a sign of their meanness, not of their largesse). If it was late enough, I knew I could call my family on the other side of the world. I was supposed to be asleep when they were awake; between us there were thirteen hours, which now seemed like all the time in the world to me. Now I could not see the space between us as a distance that could be calibrated. I could understand time – after all, time is the vector by which an insomniac measures her abnormality – but it was as if I had been flung into another galaxy in which, besides gobbling his fledgling children, Cronus had wolfed down space itself. 

If it was not late enough to call my family or friends, I would lie flat on my back on the kitchen linoleum and go on like this, cataleptically, eyeing now the clock, now the moon, in whose expressions I was seeking, like a daughter in her mismatched parents, common guidance or a sign. The stars were seldom visible in the city to which I had moved; someone had told me you had to squint to see them. But even when I squinted and squinted, I saw nothing but blackness and smog and skyscrapers forever. We say forever, imagining it is a time, but in fact forever is a space eternally empty of presence. It was not the calling long distance itself, but my ability to close the distance if I so wanted that comforted me more than the voices of those whom I had left and for whom I longed, because, it has to be said, I had left because they could comfort me no longer and, as for longing, one longs only for what is impossible, for what is irrecoverable. 

It could be said that a person as cruel and bitter as I, deserved nightmares, not dreamlessness, not a comatose-like insomnia. What I wanted was the power of choice, distinction, the right of refusal, all of them egoistic and childish desires. I had been called these things – egotistic, childish – before I left my home by a friend from whom I had become estranged. Notwithstanding our estrangement, this woman had given me as a farewell gift a book of poems by a famous poet of the country to which I had come. The poet was not a poet that I admired; his verse was secular and imbued with an idealism I considered naïve. Although I did not believe in God, I loved poems that mourned the absence of God; I loved poems that spoke of the centre not holding. If I suspected that this sometime friend suffered a narcissism which she confused with mutual harmony, the fact that she chose this book of all the books she could have given me, was an innocent but telling example of her misreading of me. And yet, as I had very few books to read, one night I read from this book of poems, lines in fact about somnambulism and death, and I found them so beautiful and hypnotic that I chanted them aloud to myself: ‘The wretched features of ennuyees, the white features of corpses, the livid faces of drunkards, the sick-grey faces of onanists/…The newborn emerging from gates and the dying emerging from gates,/ The night pervades them and enfolds of them.’

So moved was I by these lines, that I was overwhelmed with regret for the friendship which I had abruptly severed. I decided to call this old friend. I had her telephone number written somewhere. There was a time I would have been able to recall it by heart, but now I had to search for it. She was a social worker and, after we had talked for some time, she told me, only half-jokingly, to see a psychoanalyst. It didn’t do any good to counter that I was not depressed, only homesick. She was very good at convincing people that she knew them better than they knew themselves. She remarked that the city to which I had come was the world’s psychotherapeutic capital and we both laughed and I continued laughing even when I hung up, but I was laughing at myself for my situation seemed so grotesque: I had no money to see a psychoanalyst even though there was a surplus of such people in the city to which I had moved, there was a surplus of people who specialised in mental problems, there was a whole industry devoted to disorders.

The city to which I had moved was a monolith on a piece of land so tiny that it felt at any moment that it might disappear like Atlantis. It was clear that no one cared for anyone else; it was clear that people were dreadfully alone and empty, whether rich or poor, young or old – and the new city was full of piercing contradictions. To say that the degradation and inhumanity did not attract me would be a lie; no one had forced me to move to this new city, I had come of my own accord. The new city was extreme; its intensity delighted me because this intensity in all its manifestations, but especially when I walked its streets at night, imbued the new city with the quality of an illusion. 

When I was a child, there was a cliché of the city to which I had moved that said that it was so energetic that people had little reason to go to bed. A cliché often has a lot of truth to it, a truth so hackneyed we forget to take notice. But in the case of this cliché there was little truth: the building in which I lived was always very quiet when I came in late, and I was sure that everyone was fast asleep. What’s more, by day, the people in the elevator looked tired and irritated and, occasionally, as though they wanted to kill someone. When I looked at their faces, I had the increasing sense that their faces were my face too.

One of the first things that I did when I received the money on which I was waiting was to buy a bed for myself. I had wanted to buy myself a bed on my birthday, but I didn’t have the money and I was worried about buying such an expensive thing on credit because until I had the money I didn’t believe I would get it. This was a good principle, it seemed to me at the time – to only spend what you had – but in fact it is impossible to live this way; my mother lives this way and it reduces everything to its most literal meaning. It is impossible to live this way because living beyond one’s means, not lavishly, but beyond what is easiest and most reasonable and fair, is often where love begins, despite what a psychoanalyst will tell you. And yet, this living beyond one’s means, this yearning for more, is what makes us wretched and hateful. 

The gift of the bed that I bought myself did not seem less important because I had bought it on any other day besides my birthday. I knew I would not have bought such a bed for myself if it was not for my birthday, but I did not delight in my new bed any less because it arrived more than two weeks after my birthday had come and gone. The day that I bought the bed I had gone out intending to buy only a mattress to replace the threadbare battered sofa bed on which I had been sleeping. I knew that an old man sold cheap mattresses of reasonable quality on a street corner not far from where I lived. When I went to his mattress shop, he painstaking instructed me about the quality and texture of certain mattresses. I was so excited that I made the decision to buy a mattress very quickly. He would not accept a credit card and I had not carried my money with me because, unused as I was to having so much at once, I was concerned that I might lose it. The nearest bank was about ten minutes’ walk away and, while walking towards it, I caught sight of the bed that I ended up buying. 

My bed, a high, Mexican sleigh bed of rosewood and wrought iron, was on display in the front window of a shop into which I would never have ventured except that the signs all about announced that a clearance sale was on. The bed was so significantly reduced that the cost of its delivery was almost as much as the bed itself. I pointed this out when I paid for it – and I paid for it on the spot because I could not help myself, with my virgin credit card – I pointed out, not stridently, but good-naturedly, that I lived very close by and that perhaps I should be eligible for a discount on the delivery of the bed. But the sales assistant would brook no contradiction about the delivery costs, which she said were standard.

The two men who were assigned to the delivery of my bed were from the same town in the hinterland of Venezuela, a tiny town in which everyone, it was said, knew everyone and yet they themselves had not come to know each other until they came to the city in which we all now dwelt. They had come for better opportunities, but because the degrees they held were quite redundant in the new country, they made their living moving furniture. They asked me what I did and, when I told them, without wincing, that I had written a novel, we began to debate whether it was possible to write without a home, how the writing about one’s home is often distorted both there and away from it. One of the delivery men launched into a laudatory speech on Joyce, who, he claimed, perverted the irregularities of history, of language, irregularities by which all three of us had come to be in the world. He was so compelling in his discourse on Joyce that we got lost and once went through a red light. Now it occurs to me that I often got lost precisely because the city, laid out on a grid, was one of the most easy to navigate.

When I was able to dream again, I was happy. I didn’t know what involuntary part of my psyche’s impulses had set my dreaming to stop, but I was happy that my dreams had come back. In an effort to understand what had happened, I read Freud’s entire magnum opus on the subject, but even then I could only grasp how the dream worked, not why, not why not. Since there were no condensations, no distort­ions or displacements to speak of, I wondered whether my dreaming insensibility mirrored my waking insensibility. If, as Freud says, the dream resembles a translation to which we must apply a waking hermeneutics, it was as though when I woke up I had never known the original language, never been a native speaker. My sleep had been more akin to a blank page, rather than an indecipherable script. When I began to dream again, it was hard for me to recall that grief I felt when I had been unable to do so. In fact, I had the impression that a joke was being played on me by the capricious gods: I had been unable to dream and could not remember what that dreamlessness was like.

It was sometime after I began to dream again that I slept beside a man who had lost his family when he was young. He slept fitfully and often, soon after closing his eyes, would cry out so plaintively that he would wake himself up. When I asked him what he had dreamt, he would say only that he had dropped something or slipped over. Sleeping beside this man, I had odd pleasant dreams which would come back to me wistfully during the day; then and there, thinking how comforting it could be to lie beside him, I would want to summon him to me again. I began to imagine that my sleeping beside him was natural and therefore imperative. My pleasure in sleeping beside him was so total that I could not think of a time when I had slept alone. It is easy to accustom oneself to what is comforting; what is difficult is to get used to what is unpleasant. This is never a revelation, yet each time it has the shape of revelation. What is difficult is to do something with the pain that comes when you lose that to which you have, rightly or wrongly, but usually very easily, accustomed yourself. 

This man was someone who, not really under the influence of any soporific, was always sleepy. During the day, if he answered the phone at all, it would be somnolently and to say that he was taking a nap. If we met in a public place, he had the habit of dropping off. While I left him for a few minutes at the entrance to a museum or requested he wait outside a movie theatre so that I could go to the toilet, he would fall asleep leaning against a graffitied wall. He was infatuated with graffiti; graffiti was to him what hieroglyphs or ancient Greek tablets are to some curious and fanatical historians. How one could be so curious about the scripts of dead people I did not know, but I too had necrophilic predilections, I too was taken by the Dead Sea scrolls and by cuneiform. Because the meaning of what is undeciphered is yet to be revealed, always latent, it gives us hope. Illegible, unknown, it is like a disaster that is indefinitely deferred. Perhaps it is this paradox that piques our curiosity. I don’t know. 

All I know is that I could not understand my lover’s infatuation with graffiti. The graffiti which he brought to my attention throughout the city – and it was a new city for him too, and also a new language; the language he spoke was an ancient one, guttural, full of fricatives, and he often reverted to it when we were making love, such that it had an onomatopoeic effect – the graffiti he brought to my attention was repetitive and hectic; nothing was indelible about it, not even its urgency. He tried to tell me that the graffiti amounted to an effacement of meaning, that the graffiti was anarchic precisely because it refused to be remembered; if it were erased by the city authorities tomorrow, this would not only be expected, but a testament to the graffiti artists’ mastery. I did not refute him; I did not say that by objectifying the graffiti, by liking it, he, too, was missing the point. Rather, I thought, as he explicated the aesthetic principles of graffiti, that he had lost his family when he was a young man; he hated testimonies and memorials because they gave meaning to loss, exalted loss, when the hardest part of losing for him was the state of profound meaning­­less­ness which was his life.

My favourite time to be with this man was night-time because he was most animated and alert then. Eating, to a gluttonous degree, appeared to fill him more than his actual hunger and, while watching him eat, I could forget that he would be falling asleep at any moment. One night after we had eaten dinner, he found among a pile of books on my coffee table the copy of Alice in Wonderland that I had bought months before when I could not dream, and we began to talk about this book, a book that we had both read as children, he in the city that had been his home and from which he had exiled himself because there was too much hate, too much incivility, too little peace. I had read Alice in Wonderland in my home too, a place unravaged by war but a place that nonetheless caused me anxiety when I thought about it. He then gave me an improvised translation in his language, full of fricatives and gutturals, of the Jabberwocky’s poem, a performance so enchanting that I asked him at the end to repeat it. There were other moments like this in which it seemed we were reconciled by something larger than the languages we did not share. I had loved enough people who did speak the same language to see that knowing someone, which often involves loving them in a hopeless capacity, has little to do with sharing a language.

I think that he could not bear to see me go away and so when he heard that I was going away for a short while he decided that he would absent himself first. The uncoupling of these two notions – parting, returning – begins at a moment when we are still helpless and quite vulnerable and it goes on and goes on quite unswayed by the arguments or muscle of our will. It does not take us our whole lives to work out there is no such thing as the beginning, no such thing as the end, often no end in sight at all. When the man who was my lover told me he wanted to end it, he drank a lot of coffee; he chain-smoked until my apartment was so filled with tobacco fumes I went to the bathroom and threw up, after which I came out to find him reading the newspaper, another narcotic habit of his which caused us to argue even more. He had been a political correspondent before he left his country, a country that manufactured large-scale horror by way of a war with the people of a territory it had long ago annexed. The war was the largest industry in the country from which he had come, an industry that kept the mass media enthralled. We did not disagree on these points of argument, we did not disagree at all. Some things are irreconcilable: he wanted to end it, I did not want to end it and so it was not a question of disagreement; it was not a question of persuasion. 

I was going away for a short while to promote my book and, when I was in the airplane, at an appropriate altitude to see things, I wondered whether he had read my book – he had not said anything about it – and that this was why he was leaving me. When I got off the airplane, I was taken to a convention centre where I drank a lot of alcohol. There was a party of sorts, but I spoke only to one woman who had come to promote a book that she had self-published with her husband, a how-to book for children on the subject of writing thank-you cards. I did not need to prompt this woman to tell me about her book; she did not stop for breath; and, when her husband came towards her, she continued her story with even greater élan. When they had got married, she said, they had stayed at a small coastal resort. There were such terrible storms that they had been flooded in for the first three days of their honeymoon. They were not made miserable by the rain, however; they were quite good at entertaining themselves, and, one of the activities with which they entertained themselves was the writing of the three hundred and fifty thank-you notes for the wedding gifts they had received. Such was the reward for their ingenuity, resourcefulness and self-discipline: the how-to book on writing greeting cards had brought her by popular demand to a national book festival. 

After I went away to promote my book, I went again, on a longer trip, a holiday. A holiday was something I had not had in a long time. I was going to holiday in the village in which my father was born. A village is a small thing, barely a smudge on the map of the world. At the time my father was born, the village and the territory in which the village was located was a part of Portugal. It was only when he was a young man that it ceased being so. On a particular day when he was a young man some soldiers from the larger land-mass which shared its borders took over the territory in which my father’s village was located. There was no war, few reprisals and recriminations; very soon it was said that the territory, including the myriad villages such as the one in which my father had been born, had been ‘integrated’ with the larger sub­continental land-mass that adjoined it. But this integration in words amounted to very little in the minds of people such as my father.

The historical fate of each person is inexorable but varies in its degree of tragedy and comedy and farce. My father was an interpreter of the Portuguese language. Neither Portuguese nor English were his native tongues and it was a constant source of humour to me that it was by trading in these two languages – English and Portuguese, languages which had been used by colonial administrators centuries before to subjugate my father’s ancestors – that my father had made his living. He did not get exciting literary commissions. He translated birth certificates and marriage certificates. His efforts were often directed at jobs as prosaic as translating the written components of the driving test to Portuguese native speakers. The one question which would time after time floor the examinee was that about blood alcohol levels. There was an irony in this because on more than one occasion, having been called upon to interpret at the trial of a Portuguese native speaker charged with drunk driving, my father had recognised the defendant as someone who had, years before, nudged him to get the answer to the blood alcohol question at the Roads and Traffic Authority.

A village is barely a smudge on the map of world but the village of my father’s birth to which I was going occupied a mythic place in my imagination: its whitewashed gothic church, its green rice fields. When I thought of seeing my father’s village, I wanted to capture with words my feeling of elation and sadness to be seeing it again. A place such as the village of my father’s birth which had been brought under the sway of now one impostor, now another, could hardly be said to exist except in language: the church, built on the ruins of desecrated temples, the rice fields irrigated by landless aborigines – how else but by language could the violence and betrayal which was the history of the place of my Father’s birth be recalled? I was not taught the native tongue of my Father; I was not taught Portuguese; and yet I had an intimation of saudade, that melancholy for lost things, often confused with nostalgia. Saudade is a melancholy with no object, a melancholy whose object is the insufficiency of language itself and, in this sense, it does not lose much in translation. The Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi has written novels and stories in Portuguese for the very reason that Portuguese offers him a posture of reflection and mediation he cannot find in his native language. His novel, Requiem, which I am re-reading because I admire it so much, is the stream of consciousness of a somnambulist in Lisbon, a man who walks back in time toward his past and to the past of Portugal and indeed the whole history of Europe, all of which is staged as a wild reverie. The distinction between philosophy and fiction collapses around the autobiographical in Tabucchi’s work to produce an uncanny, revelatory inventory of the possibilities of knowing oneself in an adopted language. For while language is not everything and is often nothing at all, it is all the same an entry point into the world without which we are dreamless, without which we are dispossessed.

Just before I was to go away, the post office lost a certified letter that the consulate of the country in which my father was not born but by which, by the vagaries of history, the village of his birth had come to be administered, was returning to me. The letter contained the passport of the country in which I was born; the visa enabling me to be in the country in which I now lived, as well as the visa allowing me to travel to the village in which my father had been born. The passport and visa to my father’s place of birth were technically easy to obtain again, but it seemed impossible to obtain at such short notice another visa to be in the country in which I now lived. What’s more, after making the necessary inquiries, I discovered that, without this visa, I would be able to exit the country in which I now lived, but I would not be able to re-enter it. This was a situation that seemed laughable at first and very serious after a few minutes’ thinking about it. I went to the post office, I went to the two consulates, that of the country that had issued me with the visa to travel to the village of my father’s birth, as well as that of my own country of birth, the country whose passport I had lost. I went to these consulates four and five times, for interviews, for questions, and after many long distance phone calls and much currying of favour, I found a way to leave with the guarantee of returning, a guarantee that is always fantastic anyway. 

The dream is not a rebus awaiting resolution; the dream, how­ever we try to reduce it, is as incomplete as it is irresolvable. Just a few days before I left, I had the following memorable dream: the lover who had spurned me had come with me to the house in the village in which my father was born. There were many people there, many of whom I had not seen since I was a child. The many languages they were speaking at once constituted a veritable Babel. When I made to introduce my lover to them, I forgot his name and, hoping he would not notice, called him by a made-up name. Of course, he did notice the non­sensical name and, taking offence at it, went to sulk in the room where the family portraits hung. After some time, I remembered his correct name and, in order to make amends, went to address him by it, but he did not forgive me now, anyway.

When I woke up, I was crying. I knew my tears were for something else besides the certified letter, but it was the first thing that I remembered having lost. ‘The dream is, as it were, centred elsewhere,’ Freud writes. The recognition of the metaphoric displacement, of the condensation of my larger loss into the tangible-intangible ‘certified letter’, comes only now that I, too, am ‘elsewhere’. To know that I had lost much more than the letter, I have had to remember what I had forgotten was gone, and that recovery is as difficult and necessary as that of these pages which I lose every time there is a blackout here in the village of my father’s birth (where I dream, where I see the stars) and where my battery-less lap-top frequently dies.

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