Translated from the Spanish by James Harrison Monaco
Art by Benjamin King
I’ll start at the end. It’s Saturday night. The hour of the taciturn return, the way certain old stories describe their characters’ exhaustion after a long day. Bragi and I have boarded the New York City subway, heading to the northern part of the island. We’re weighed down by the nervous fatigue of having busied ourselves with useless activities for hours on end, and in a few stops we’ll have to say goodbye to each other, likely for a long time.
The train is filled with the air of a Saturday, of leisure tailored down to a few fleeting hours. There are people from the suburbs headed to Midtown, most likely the theater district. There are also tourist couples or families, easy to pick out because many of them spend the journey trying to read fold-out maps of the city. Some say, “Pardon me” and approach the subway system maps mounted next to the doors of the car, then they check their own maps as though they’ve forgotten something essential, their point of arrival or reference. A trip by subway is an enclosed journey that doesn’t pass through any real places, it goes from origin to destination like a horizontal elevator. Each station is a small, lifeless enclave, or rather one with a very circumscribed intensity: its point of contact with the surface. It’s always hard for me to figure out where I am; I know which intersections are served by each stop, but I find it difficult to determine the above-ground location corresponding to where I am, underground, while the train car is stopped in the stations.
During the day, while I was with Bragi and the others, I didn’t have the courage to ask him the question I’ll fire off at a certain moment, with just a few minutes left before he exits the train. Bragi will get off several stops before me. He’ll then ascend to the street and walk to his hotel—I can picture this. Once in his room he’ll take off his bag and likely crack open a beer before sitting at the narrow desk provided there, in order to look through his notebook and review the main events of the journey. I’ve observed him over more than a day, and he hasn’t parted with his notebook for a single moment—though I couldn’t tell if he wrote much in it. Many years ago, Bragi worked with Björk, the famous Icelandic singer, and I’m curious to know what she’s like in her, say, professional context.
I’m not a great admirer of Björk (who could be today?), but I wasn’t indifferent to her music back when it was common to hear it. I could easily have a photo of her on my wall, and if I don’t, it’s only because it has never occurred to me to cut one out and save it. You might say the world is divided into three categories: 1) what we don’t wish to have photos of; 2) what we could have photos of but don’t; and 3) what we do have photos of. In my case, Björk would belong to the second group, which anyhow is always the largest. When I hear her voice, usually singing her own music, I’m immediately moved without knowing why. It was almost a physical shock, perhaps entirely acoustic; as though I were suddenly afflicted with an extreme weakness, and that voice, which always seems to hover between a howl and a purr, had made itself manifest to revive me or restore my strength. The truth is I’m constantly tired, life tires me: I would become aware of this and forget it immediately, when listening to Björk.
Across from us there are advertisements posted for lawyers specializing in accidents of any kind. That’s how they’ve worded it: any kind of accident, just turn to them. I mention to Bragi that I’m tired. He glances up from the floor and nods without looking at me. He thinks I mean tired from the day, or tired in a way connected to the subway advertisements, but I’m talking about that other tiredness, the one that’s permanent and never resolves, the one that Björk, for example, used to rescue me from. If Bragi, breaking from his absorption, had asked me to clarify, this would have been a good way to broach the topic and steer the conversation toward my question.
The advertisements are written in Spanish, but they don’t use the most appropriate wording. One of the ads promises they will always obtain the highest compensation, no matter the incident, because of their strong commitment to getting justice for victims. I, however, know of a case that could refute this claim. Bragi and I look over the advertisements, particularly the faces of the supposed victims or clients, images of ordinary people, all Latin American immigrants, and meanwhile I hesitate about whether to tell him what I know about this rampant gang of lawyers. This would require a detailed explanation, likely of little interest to Bragi, and—what’s worse—it would take up the rest of our journey, and I’d thus end up with no chance of asking my question about Björk.
I don’t mention it to him, though I keep quiet and think back over the story anyway: a person, whom I’ll call Juan and see on a fairly regular basis. While crossing the street he was run over by the truck of a major company. He came close to losing a leg, though in the end did not, or did only partially, fortunately for him, but he was left quite injured and at the mercy of an orthopedic group. This law firm, which has filled the subway car with advertisements, promised my friend a lucrative compensation. They told him he would remember the accident as his lucky day, as though he’d won the lottery and would never see poverty again. This is not what happened, however; the lawyers used their talent for maneuvering, so to speak, to get co-opted by the company and abandon the victim. In the end, and through an increasingly complex procedure, the details of which my friend Juan never managed to understand, he was left with neither justice nor compensation.
I don’t know if Bragi is thinking about anything in particular as we look over the advertisement—in any case, I doubt it inspires him with any sort of opinion on the matter, for or against, and I rather assume his feeling is one of indifference. He has two days left in the United States. At most, the ad could maybe be a window into surprising fictions, with those figures shown through the lens of ethnicity and social class. You feel drawn to their faces. Faces on subway ads are methods of racial appeal, more striking than when they appear in other circumstances, and much more conspicuous than when they’re seen in their true context, so to speak, as real faces and specific individuals. I’d like to ask Bragi his opinion: whether or not it’s possible in Icelandic to say “living faces,” or something along those lines, without it sounding too dramatic or jarring.
Tomorrow, Sunday, and the day after, Monday, he has interviews and one or two public presentations. This is in connection with his new book, entitled The Ambassador. In the meantime, we look at the train as it moves through the depths of the city. This image, which to me seems a terrible cliché for describing what takes place in such a moment, nevertheless gives me a certain thrill, as I imagine the line of cars in motion like an exceptionally precarious thread, threatened by darkness and things unknown, more vulnerable to collapse or catastrophe than anyone could possibly be aware of. It’s also true that this idea, of the train moving half-blind and screeching, verging on a crisis of velocity, through the so-called underworld of this region, is a commonly used image by writers when they choose to write about this city, especially Latin Americans. Maybe the same thing occurs with writers of any origin. Many of the poems of the Chilean writer Enrique Lihn, for example, suggest he was an avid subway rider. Lihn describes nuns, old women, bodies, and velocities. The subway is a river, more than a river it’s an endless stream. And in general, this city is a region invaded by streams, or certain unstable natural states, according to Lihn’s assertive poetry.
Someone takes advantage of this moment of silence with Bragi, leaning toward him and asking for a station: they want to know which makes the most sense if heading to a certain location. Bragi doesn’t have the slightest idea, he waits for me to respond. But, because of the noise, I wasn’t able to hear, so I don’t know where these people are going. And I don’t want to ask them to repeat themselves for fear of seeming too arrogant. I’m tempted to say “42nd,” since almost everyone will be getting off there. But I also think that, with this being such a well-known place, if their destination is anything else, they’ll realize I’ve given incorrect advice and think I’m answering them negligently. I therefore decide to answer “34th Street.” If they’re going somewhere near 42nd street, they’ll be just a few blocks away, and if they’re going somewhere else, even if it’s far from there, they’ll assume I’ve responded incorrectly but in good faith. In the end I don’t answer at all, since in view of my hesitation (time moves swiftly on the subway) they’ve chosen to ask another passenger, sitting out of earshot from us. Bragi and I look at each other and exchange a gesture, a mix of powerlessness and disbelief.
“The platforms of Exchange Place station were built at a depth that could easily be considered geological, presumably due to the nearness of the river. A set of long escalators connects these platforms to the surface. It’s a long climb, and it’s really only when looking up these steep escalators from below that you become aware of the depth from which you are rising, as if emerging rapidly (although seemingly slowly due to the length of the climb) from a hidden city, or from the undiscovered tunnels of a system of caves.”
The morning of the day prior, I took the subway in the opposite direction. Rain had been falling since the night before. The plan was to meet in Jersey City and travel from there to Scranton, in Pennsylvania. I needed to take the subway to a station near Ground Zero, then take the commuter train that passes under the Hudson and connects Manhattan to various points on the other side. As I was traveling against the normal flow of traffic, and almost no one was headed that way, platforms, trains, signals, operators, and passengers all seemed to be participating in a listless mise en scène for which there was an overabundance of time—or that simply had no purpose. I took advantage of this solitude to focus my mind on what my journey promised me: a trip to an unknown city, open spaces, scattered bits of time, coexistence with others that would be at once fluid and programmed. Those “others” were comprised of three people, and in total there’d be four of us, including Bragi—whom at that time I didn’t know.
I reached my destination early, as always. I still had a while before our agreed-upon meeting time. Once aboveground, the rain seemed to me heavier, or the light hazier, or both. In any case the air had grown turbid, perhaps because now the urban landscape could be seen more openly; all the opacity of the fog, the humidity from the rain, and the restless breeze created a curtain effect against the background of the landscape. The platforms of Exchange Place station were built at a depth that could easily be considered geological, presumably due to the nearness of the river. A set of long escalators connects these platforms to the surface, and while going up them you can pass the time by thinking over any insignificant little thing; or, as I’d been able to observe, you can calmly check your portable device, whether wireless or non-wireless, or try your cell phone; or, as I preferred, you can take off your glasses to clean them repeatedly: expel a half vaporous breath over them and rub them with the hem of your shirt an infinite number of times. It’s a long climb, and it’s really only when looking up these steep escalators from below that you become aware of the depth from which you are rising, as if emerging rapidly (although seemingly slowly due to the length of the climb) from a hidden city, or from the undiscovered tunnels of a system of caves.
Once outside, I found myself in front of a large, barren plaza, with benches and metal canopies of various sizes, mostly red in color, for providing shelter from the sun or from so-called inclement weather. It was a sort of coastal esplanade, which, if it weren’t for the day and time (weekday business hours), the cold, and the rain, would be full of people enjoying the open space and the view offered by the other side of the river.
At the moment it was possible to make out, through transparencies of mist and accumulations of water (at first glance close by but in fact far off, at a distance you could call conducive for taking in all the proportions together) the crowded backdrop of towers and buildings that make up southern Manhattan. Those irregular forms—erected as though each were an isolated fragment, at enmity with the others, a monument dedicated to its own size—had a ghostly air to them, something imposing but at the same time, and maybe for the same reason, absurdly fragile or shamelessly artificial. And as a result of that fragility, or affectation, they seemed to broadcast a distressing and threatening mood, or at least one of imminent danger.
I walked toward the riverside; more than a standard drizzle, it felt like risking an immersion of variable densities; the drops came from all directions, as happens in the enormous ducts of carwashes. Except that in this case you saw no sprinklers or dancing jets, just a volatile and frenzied rain driven by gusts of wind. The largest coverings were those where I would best be able to find shelter; in particular one (the most hospitable of all) that had metal chairs and surfaces of the same reddish hue, as well as some high round tables, the kind for eating or drinking while standing up. But due to the wind and the open leaks in the roof, especially along the central supporting columns, it was completely drenched underneath. I confirmed that even while standing in the very middle the rain reached me anyhow, scattered by the motion of the air, although admittedly diminished.
I then began to look out toward the island. Its spectral appearance at that moment seemed to me the truest of all other possible images, of the innumerable combinations of light and atmospheric occurrences in general; the muted colors and lack of any reflections evened out the contours, which blurred together in the haze; the silhouettes and towering masses seemed to resonate with one another, sympathetically, as objects originating from the same era or belonging to the same family of things. Buildings, water, vegetation, and sky spoke a similar language and conformed to a common range of tones, among which the leaden gray of the water prevailed, perhaps because of its uniform density—really inevitable given the rainy morning.
The surface of the river was the foundation from which everything else, artificial or at least added on, became manifest. And thus, I think, due to my privileged vantage point, which I believed I was sharing with no one, I was able to consider once more that the usual admiration produced by the impeccable verticality of this section of Manhattan is maybe less the result of the buildings’ considerable height than of the low level of the island. Those great masses of constructed material seem to grow from the surrounding waters themselves, and to have been raised all at once to foil any possible idea or intention of an organized landscape.
I don’t know if any of these impressions will prove to be profound. Anyhow, I was concentrating on the landscape and my thoughts associated with it, when a seemingly furtive movement made me aware that I wasn’t alone. Some meters off to the side, a man in a suit was tapping a small screen—a phone of the latest generation, I supposed. He looked up and was also surprised to see me, and then offered me, in the universal language of arms, a space at the only standing table still marginally dry. Other than my small rolling suitcase, I didn’t have much with me: an unopened umbrella and a rather ramshackle cell phone. I’m not a man of great experience with cell phones, maybe that’s why I’m particularly drawn to those of others, not just the devices, which I generally don’t understand, but rather the multiple ways their owners use them; in any case, what I should have done is set mine down somewhere, open my planner, look for the number I was supposed to call and report that I’d already arrived at our meeting point.
But instead I started talking with my new companion. About the rain, obviously, the topic of conversation perforce. And secondly about the view of the island, by which, despite my enthusiasm, he did not look impressed. Manhattan seemed invisible to him. This man was named Arvind, he lived in New Jersey and was from India. His voice was somewhat sharp, or shrill, and he expressed himself with emphatic conviction while looking you very fixedly in the eyes, a distinctively scrutinizing look, which made you, or at least me, regularly get distracted by the suspicion that he was meanwhile thinking about something else, or that he was concentrating on me in an overly exclusive or incisive way. Like many youngish people from India, he was an IT specialist. A job connected to software development had brought him to the United States, from what I understood, and he divided his time between this and trying to specialize in the sector of phone line logical networks.
I looked away toward the river, not knowing how to proceed. The shreds of fog were clinging to the water as though tired or afraid to take flight. I was just a writer, at least that’s what I thought, and the topic Arvind was proposing was beyond my normal panoply of general, debatable opinions. He said the most fascinating part of these phone lines are the logical networks, which are much more complex than the physical topologies with which they’re described. And that the study of them, and therefore the possible methods of optimization and problem solving, was generally provisional and thus endless. As I understood, though I’m not certain, these networks can be physically organized according to different designs, depending on frequency, material conditions, type or volume of data transmitted, uses, etc. Essentially, those topologies describe the flow of information between points in a network. However, when dealing with complex networks, for example those for phones, the physical design is extremely tangled and the frame sometimes ends up behaving according to unexpected patterns, which in turn affect, for good or ill, the use of the network’s resources.
I found this topic fascinating, but I kept looking at the water. He asked me where I was from. When I said I was Argentinian, he made an expression of satisfaction, or at least recognition. He said he’d seen an Argentinian movie a while ago, though he couldn’t remember what it was called. He described the plot a little, or anyhow its most memorable details, which were insufficient for identifying the movie, though that might also be because I’m not an avid viewer of my own country’s cinema. For my part, however, I was able to affirm that I remembered Slumdog Millionaire very well, even though I’d been rather late in seeing it, a comment he found flattering—perhaps because, from his point of view, watching it later meant doing so in a way that was, say, truer or more deliberate.
Arvind lives with his wife and two young children out past Edison; as he told me, and as I knew, about an hour or a little more from where we were. Since the eighties, a large number of Indian people have settled around Edison; and although I knew I couldn’t take his response as indicative, a sort of demographic curiosity led me to ask Arvind if he’d thought about going back to India. He didn’t hesitate a moment and said yes. He wanted to save up money—“some money,” he said—and return to his country, where those savings would go much further. I mentioned that somewhere near Edison, or maybe in Edison itself, I’d gotten lost for the first time a little after arriving in the United States. It was my first automotive excursion, and I was abducted for a number of hours by a dense network of turnpikes and highways that took me all over the place, without me ever being able to figure out where I was. Arvind smiled, but he grew serious when I said that, at a certain point, I sensed this would be my future, a castaway aboard a car, doomed to wander along indistinguishable roads for the rest of my life. I wanted to make a joke, so I added, in order to express an in fact false sense of hindsight, that perhaps that afternoon I had simply come face to face with the unexpected logical networks of the New Jersey high-speed transit system.
I felt I could have become life-long friends with Arvind immediately and that, due to the casual nature of our meeting, or to his having told me his plans for the future and his savings, who knows, maybe at the least a bond of trust had formed between us. Some moments later, when in answer to a question of his I said I was a writer and on my way to a literary event, he opened his eyes wide, either surprised or embarrassed or both. From his comments, I understood he was rather removed from the so-called literary world, even in its most accessible forms like the long shelves of the chain bookstores in every shopping mall in New Jersey, or the stories recounted in periodicals, magazines, or blogs, or movies adapted from novels, etc. Maybe he wasn’t much of a reader in general. There was no reason for that to surprise me; after all, it’s almost always the case. But the way this situation played out made me realize that, contrary to the normal cliché depicting artists, and writers in particular, as living in an isolated bubble or impenetrable tower, removed from everything and radically out of touch with anything beyond their particular world, I was actually more informed about Arvind’s occupation than he was about mine. And maybe that’s what the isolation consists of: for all that we as writers seek to open ourselves up, to inspire reality and be inspired by it, our occupation remains unfathomable to non-writers; and as a result, our natural openness to the world is perceived as closed-mindedness, when really it’s everyone else who’s closed off, not us.
From this episode I drew my first conclusion of the journey: a writer is someone who is open to the world, a being curious about everything that happens and for whom no piece of knowledge is insignificant or extravagant. I thought that might be a nice remark I could make to Arvind, a valuable lesson for him, and that way he could start to appreciate literature through a most basic but often forgotten truth. Yet for some reason I didn’t say anything, maybe because this idea might have proved to be unclear and, above all, irrelevant in this circumstance.
As Arvind was adding some superficial comment, and occasionally looking down at his phone screen (where I at one point glimpsed a photo, the image of a face looking directly at the camera), I for my part was looking toward Manhattan—which, despite the day’s advance, was becoming even more wrapped in fog. A grave, ominous sense of expectation seemed to take over the scene, a combination of the sounds of the wind, I think, with the passivity of the water under the rain. The mist loomed over the river like a veil struggling against its ties; and, before taking flight once and for all, it was working to rarify the bottom layers of the island, changing the lower altitudes into confused masses you couldn’t quite make out through the cloudscape, but which at a certain level, if you looked higher, displayed their true contours.
Every once in a while, the passenger boats connecting the two sides of the river became visible. The one coming from Manhattan was revealed intermittently, as if emerging through a series of veils; and the one heading the opposite direction seemed to be entering fatally into an uncertain world of darkness. I decided to ask Arvind about his friendships, I wanted to know if the friends he most often spent time with were mainly Indian people, or if they were of other nationalities. As you can tell, I was still interested in demographics. But I didn’t end up saying anything because, just then, his phone started ringing. He excused himself and took a few steps away so he could talk comfortably. He walked in circles and every once in a while came to a halt, as though something surprising from the other end of the line required his utmost attention. Chance had led us to meet under these circumstances, and now it was letting me watch him have a conversation in this manner.
I figured this was the right time to make my phone call. I looked through my planner for the number. The truth is I was embarrassed to be performing such rudimentary operations, when anyone else would have had their contacts and phone numbers saved on the same device. But it’s not that I felt embarrassment in front of Arvind or any other stranger who might see me; it’s really that I experienced a mix of embarrassment and compassion, a feeling of embarrassment in the face of current history, in this case the so-called forward march of progress, since I saw myself as one of the last hopeless stragglers in the daily race to adapt to technology’s advancements. To me this was a lost battle, and the only option left was to try and avoid total defeat—and that mortified me even more because it meant choosing to dissimulate my way through life. This taught me a second lesson: it didn’t matter what I was able to do, I also needed to worry about acting in the way I wanted my actions to be perceived; that is, dissimulation needed to become my weapon of choice.
As chance would also have it, just then Melanie, one of the other participants in the literary event, showed up. I didn’t recognize her until the last moment; I thought she was a new stranger joining the pair of refugees under the metal canopies. She was squeezing her umbrella so tightly—or the reverse, she was squeezed so tightly beneath her umbrella—that it looked like she was trying to hide. Since we’re more or less friends, I started a sensible conversation, unrelated to life, nationality, occupations, or demographics, but just about pedestrian things, like what time we’d each woken up or the weather, and in particular about matters involving our immediate comfort: Melanie pointed out that the fixtures interspersed throughout the plaza, or even the largest shelters that looked like giant huts, wouldn’t sufficiently protect us if we had to wait much longer. So we decided to relocate to a more suitable spot. Melanie was especially eager to move quickly, I guess because she didn’t want to keep getting wet. And so it was that I never again spoke with Arvind, whom I promptly bid farewell from a distance as he went on talking, by raising my arm—a gesture which he then returned.
We arrived in Scranton as night was falling. We’d been waiting for Chet, our master of ceremonies in all things related to the Festival, in a Così café on Hudson Street, where Melanie and I had finally gone inside. From where we were seated, the outside was barely visible, it could only be intuited. This café occupies the lower right portion of an old bank, built in the city’s golden age, a little over a hundred years ago. You could see the cast bronze ceilings; the modernist opaline glass; the paneling of presumably valuable—although not precious—varieties of wood; the benches on the sides, endless as though belonging to a cathedral, in their time likely meant for people to wait on. The space was darkened by all these particularly dense objects, as well as by the proliferation and size of the various kinds of molding and ornamentation, and above all by the height of the windows, which appear to have been constructed at chandelier-level to make sure no one could reach them and slip out through them.
One of the things that most struck me about that area of Jersey City was its total discrepancy from Manhattan, despite their proximity. What I mean is that I could understand the reasons almost everything was different, from the width of the streets to the gap between the buildings, their facades and features, to what is generally called the spatial utilization within the city itself, the distance between the trees, the public transportation stops and other details of that kind, etc. But I was amazed that these characteristics—which, going further, one could see more or less repeated in each new city or town one visited across the country—all started, so to speak, at that very point, right next to the waters surrounding Manhattan, as if someone driven by a certain impatience had wanted to take the first opportunity to establish this demarcation.
Once Chet arrived at Così, he used his cell phone to call Bragi. I was observing Chet carefully and saw that for him this was just a matter of pressing a small button on his phone screen and saying two words. Bragi appeared immediately, as if he’d been waiting for the signal behind one of those heavy doors. It turned out Bragi had been in the area since much earlier than I, and he’d spent the whole time waiting on the street, under an overpass that hardly provided any shelter, observing the traffic and people racing to avoid the rain. When I learned this, I felt Bragi had missed out on an opportunity to look out over the river while waiting, but then it was impossible for me to know whether that sort of thing would have interested him. I figured he must have been, like Arvind, watching for and concentrating on other sorts of things. His novel dealt with the vicissitudes of an Icelandic poet attending a literary festival in Vilna; given that, I imagined he wanted to get to Scranton as soon as possible, and maybe for that reason he was uninterested in any kind of distraction, even if only looking at the river, because it would pull him away from his double literary objective: Scranton could lead to his next book, to be published next Christmas season…as later I would learn, from Bragi himself, that in Iceland they only publish books before Christmas, and none come out during the rest of the year—an annual harvest of printed pages.
The journey to Scranton was long. A trip that would have taken two and a half hours under normal conditions required at least five. This was due to various construction projects blocking lanes and stretches of highway, and, since it was a Friday afternoon, many people were heading into Pennsylvania from the densely concentrated New York metropolitan area. Not to mention that it was hard to find the way out of Jersey City, where we spent a while circling about for no real reason, visiting various neighborhoods. Chet has a unique sense of direction, which leads him to deal with roads intuitively, as he says, convinced of his ability to successfully handle any unexpected occurrence. But this sometimes results in progress that’s more peripheral than it is effective.
We could think of this trip as a story, a tale, and that its teller knows where he wants to go but is unaware of not only the points along the way, but also the meaning and implications of each event or sign that arises. The effect of this was a repeated sensation of parentheses and ellipses, as if the story, out beyond its events, was entering into a shadow of meanings. Those of us traveling with Chet thus felt our condition as travelers to be periodically suspended, as though we weren’t actually going to any real place, and the journey itself was just a single unbroken passage.
At that moment our destination was Scranton. Or more precisely a particular highway, along the course of which, at a certain point, Scranton stood prominently as a famous gem from the past. Chet was heading toward there, knowing he’d find it eventually, though without knowing the alternatives or new changes to the route, which troubled him a little when they arose. This resulted in episodes of uncertainty that Chet, being a natural conversationalist, expressed to the rest of us, even if just in few words. But this was only for brief moments, since, like an impeccable host in his provisional four-wheel home, he would then introduce a variation in the topic of conversation, or another completely new topic, so we could continue to amuse ourselves, and—I think—so he could then recalibrate his internal compass and put it to better use.
Meanwhile, the landscape was filling up regularly with foothills, which then kept appearing behind us almost without our noticing. These hills, not quite mountains and smoothed over by the course of the highway, heightened the undulating nature of our surroundings, and we thus felt like we were sliding along a frictionless ribbon. At the same time, the cars were all driving at almost the same speed, producing the strange illusion that we were moving in concert, since the landscape kept changing but the relative position of the creatures in the caravan, so to speak, did not. How different this was from other, worn-out highway sensations…like saying we were devouring the road, for example, and things like that. It only rained intermittently, but I still remember clearly that it was overcast the entire way. It was one of those days that anticipate the winter; not because it was too cold or because the weather was especially harsh, on the contrary; it was more so that with the general gloom, the world and the natural environment had taken on a certain faintness, a sepulchral quality even.
As the car drifted along one of those wide, panoramic curves, I started thinking about Chet’s strategy of intuition. I told myself this was likely the traditional way to drive in this country, where it’s obvious to everyone that roads are destined to interconnect along an infinite chain of places, which are never far from one another anyhow, and so sooner or later you’ll always end up reaching your destination.
At a certain point, after another long detour of several kilometers, we started to see signs announcing the city of Moscow. One of the many duplicated names with which towns and cities, from the small to the large, are christened, as though linked together in a tribute to the wider world. I started thinking about how many things make this country feel like a theme park in certain ways, or like different theme parks at the same time that are occasionally in conflict with each other. And perhaps it was because we were approaching an alternative Moscow (or ancillary Moscow, or vicarious Moscow, or whatever, obviously no less real than the original, yet largely unknown), and because we weren’t going to take the exit to go visit it but would continue past it on to Scranton, that I was reminded of a news item I’d read that morning. According to the newspaper, NASA would soon be making changes in its priorities, and the lunar program would no longer be of particular importance. They would now focus on more distant locations, a select group of planets and asteroids. They’d even be aborting the project of constructing a lunar refueling station.
Faced with this news, in my home, surrounded by darkness as it was rather early, I had thought: it took so much work to get to the moon, and now it was being abandoned like it had just been an unprofitable gamble, one that even so had surely carried with it secret justifications. Yet I wasn’t outraged solely by the work that had been expended to get to the moon, but rather by the importance it had been granted before. That is, the abandonment of the lunar program clearly meant taking something whose importance in the past had been absolute and placing it in the realm of the debatable. I naturally mentioned this news to my travel companions with some emphasis, but none of them batted an eyelid. I then added that I saw this as the completion of an era: it was now being decided to leave the moon alone, safe and silent in its indifference, as it had been until 1969, offering ideas and illusions to a whole historic chain of inspired individuals. I then promptly added that in Argentina one of the effects of the lunar landing had been the appearance of a new brand of cigarettes (a short-lived one, for that matter), Collins, which came in purple packs with slanted lettering, and which I had once smoked without much enthusiasm.
I also remembered, although now in cautious silence, other news items from that rainy morning: the altercation between a journalist and a Tea Party Republican candidate for governor with an Italian last name. Before that I’d read that one night, at the doors to a Brooklyn bar, a fight between two small dogs had led to an argument between their owners, with one of them stabbing the other deftly and fatally. I thought of Borges, of course, and the long lineage of bizarre duels requiring a sense of dignity that seems hard to believe, even for duelists. But the news item I found most intriguing was an academic revenge story. The protagonist was the son of a former University of Chicago professor, a Dead Sea Scrolls specialist, whose theses had been debunked by another eminent figure from New York University. The Chicago professor had died years before. Then one day, for some unknown reason, his son started writing fake messages pretending to be the rival of his father, “admitting” to having plagiarized him. The son was now faced with a costly lawsuit and, lacking money, likely prison. (I didn’t mention this news item either during the trip—I told Melanie about it, but only some time later—because I thought it might feel ominous to discuss plagiarism and acts of symbolic attribution while on our way to a literary festival.)
Scranton has a defining nickname that I imagine weighs upon its inhabitants: “The Electric City.” It’s perhaps one of the most fortunate slogans a city could be given, as it doesn’t pretend to be reconciled with nature, or advocate some aestheticizing view of the world, or align itself with any moral concept. It’s an invocation of the technological; it’s emphatic, like saying “the city city.” Scranton’s legendary splendor is due to the nearby coal mines—the high quality of this coal led Scranton to be one of the first cities dedicated to electric energy production. First, electrified rails were laid down to transport the coal. Then, in 1886, the first electric trolley in the United States began operating there. But now, as with all cities in the United States interior, the central blocks of Scranton are a mix of opulent buildings erected during its boom period and smaller, much less ambitious constructions, when not just empty lots used for parking cars or simply abandoned (or both).
Facing the main square, at the top of one of those important buildings, ten or twelve stories high, there stands an iron structure with the illuminated sign that shines every night as an emblem of the community. On it, a giant neon ring encircles the city’s name and slogan, written in large, straight letters, a style reminiscent of comic book typography. Above the illuminated circle there’s an incandescent bulb whose filaments—indiscernible due to the light radiating from them—project amber lines in all directions, while torches of a bold white color, also illuminated, project out from the two sides. This towering scaffold, an inspired crest for a brotherhood of beings devoted to electricity, declares, with its permanent halo of light, the city’s name and nickname as if the two were one, a place and its slogan, an environment and its promise: “Scranton. The Electric City.”
Scranton’s golden age begins at the middle of the 19th century, when the anthracite mines begin operating, and ends after the first third of the 20th century, when coal stops being used in major contexts, such as heating. One can find many traces of its mining past, and the Anthracite Heritage Museum may be the only part conceived to bear witness to it. Yet this same city seems so submerged in languor and amnesia (one is sometimes inclined to see Scranton’s illuminated sign as a mechanical tribute to a fame now utterly disconnected from the present) that there are almost no indications of this museum’s existence.
I could observe all this while wandering about its central blocks, which are always semi-deserted. I think it’s fair to say you can intuit this legendary past just by walking along the city’s undulating streets. Preserved from that boom period is the old and majestic train station, today converted into a hotel now that the railway lines have left, as are a number of temples dedicated to different creeds and societies. Perhaps the most curious of them all is the Masonic Temple, built for dual use as the Scottish Rite Cathedral as well. It’s an immense construction, a mix of monastic fortress and gothic palace, saturated with Masonic symbols to astonish the distracted in every corner and on every door, frame, ironwork, baluster, nook, or molding of the building.
The day after our arrival, all Festival participants would be signing books. For this purpose, on one side of the main square I mentioned before, a number of enormous white canopies or tents had been set up, the kind used for parties. Outside these tents various United States flags were also visible, likely there permanently, since a monument to veterans of war stands in that part of the square. Inside the tents, wooden boards were set up like tables in a row, with signs indicating the names of the writers to be seated in each place, and with their corresponding seat waiting for them. The tables were covered with red plastic tablecloths, and there were two or three pens allocated to each writer, surely so that we could use, while signing the books, whichever pen stroke most suited our handwriting.
I remember all these details because, for the hour and a half the event lasted, we stood facing the tables, observing the empty seats as if we were the only spectators of our defection. I took a number of photos of the incident, photos I can now use as proof. Only one author there had a following, in fact a rather long line of them that was constantly being replenished. He was an English columnist residing in the United States, who in his early years had been a leftist and whose positions were now increasingly conservative. A few days ago, when I learned of his death, I also realized he likely knew at this time he had only a few months left to live. The book he was presenting had a yellow cover, and throughout that day the few people I encountered on the street were carrying the yellow book under their arm, or in a blue bag, the official bag of the Festival.
Anyhow, about twenty people were in the English author’s book signing line. He’d been placed at the left end of the long table. All the other writers and I were liberated from such duties, let’s say, and unoccupied. I took a photo of my spot: in it you can see my name on the table, my corresponding pens, and an empty chair. In the spots for Bragi, Melanie, and Sean (a translator who linked up with Chet’s troupe directly in Scranton, since he’d come on his own from Philadelphia) you can see the same image offered, with just the name of the seat holder changed.
Sometimes I open my computer and look at the photo with Bragi’s name and his empty chair, and it seems to me an illustration of the writer’s physical renunciation. I don’t know what he would think in particular about this; at most, I can entertain a couple hypotheses. But it’s likely he wouldn’t find anything significant in it. Really, to be certain, I should have brought it up on the subway, when we were traveling back at night; but I didn’t, and it didn’t even occur to me to do so at the time.
The thing I think about “Bragi’s Renunciation” (sometimes I like to dramatically christen certain episodes) is that, generally speaking, events keep occurring that push literature right to the edge of extinction, again and again; and that writers, not always being attentive to these signs—they in fact think they should ignore them, since they’re really directed at their other colleagues—are clinging to a world that’s increasingly well-known and circumscribed at the same time, in which there is logically very little space left for each individual. This observation, which I could easily designate as the third lesson, is obviously not connected with Bragi, but rather with the concept that his empty chair—or absent image—helped me consider.
Should we have sat down at the signing table and waited, exposed to the breeze and solitude of the Scranton streets, for the activity’s scheduled time to pass? I remember the wet grass of the square, it had been raining since morning, and the wind whipping the coverings on the boards, spraying droplets in all directions, soaking us, just as had happened to me a day earlier at Exchange Place, together with Arvind. As I said, I took photos of the spots we’d been assigned without thinking much about it. Later I noticed that in “my” photo you could see the side of someone, to the right of the image. I don’t know who it could have been; no one from our contingent, to be sure; very likely it was another invited writer who had no qualms about remaining in his spot, though standing, despite the lack of readers seeking his signature. In other words, this anonymous writer’s approach was the inverse of our own, he didn’t embrace the absence toward which the void was pushing him. I can see that he’s placed his visible hand in his pants pocket, and I can imagine his figure as a whole, a pose with his left in the other pocket, or set free, while making some gesture or pointing in a particular direction if he’s talking with someone.
At the end of the book signing, we left the tent and walked to the edge of the street. There we started debating the best time to leave Scranton. If someone observed us from at a distance, they might have thought these five writers were discussing some important issue, likely related to literature. But in fact none of us, not Melanie, not Chet, not Bragi, not Sean, and not I, were discussing anything transcendent, nor were we posing in any special way. We were talking about how many hours the drive would take, whether or not we were going to stop somewhere along the way, about what we could eat for lunch, etc. At some point I said, hoping someone would join me in my desire, that with our plans being what they were it would be difficult to visit the Anthracite Heritage Museum. I didn’t garner even a hint of solidarity, I even thought at the time maybe no one had heard me; everyone must have thought it was better to say nothing and avoid any risk that would keep us from leaving Scranton as soon as possible.
At one point, Chet wanted to make a comment on the invited English writer. He said he’d attended his presentation, which took place that morning in the main hall of the Scottish Masonic Temple. An enormous space, surrounded by raised galleries only reachable through narrow corridors and stairways. The stone walls, the ornamentation and furnishings, at once severe and lavish, the long and austere wooden pews, all transformed the talk into a sort of event for initiates. It was filled to capacity; and the air of a deliberative assembly, with whispering heard from all corners, made it seem as though the entire populace of Scranton had gathered to hear this controversial Englishman, named Christopher. As he was the star of the festival, he’d been assigned two presenters. The activity consisted of two conversations in a row with two other notable personalities from the area. There were also a number of questions from the public, but these could only be asked by those who’d been noted down on a list prepared in the preceding days, and this list had filled up as soon as it opened. Chet kept talking about the atmosphere and the anxiety caused by Christopher’s words, and in his opinion Christopher had temporarily redeemed the isolation of Scranton that was perhaps keenly felt by several of its inhabitants.
At a certain point during his account, Melanie looked up toward the sky. Chet went on saying that, as everyone knew, Christopher was a controversial figure because of his “Copernican” ideological conversion. Although he now embraced almost all conservative causes, he sometimes continued to think according to progressive values. This was a bit baffling to people, since some tended to agree with his premises but not his conclusions, and for others it was the reverse, they supported his conclusions but not the premises on which they were founded. These crossed dissensions unsettled those who sought to place Christopher in a fixed, crystalized location, and it was these people who took the lead in vilifying him as a libertarian propagandist or worse.
Chet kept on talking, yet Melanie seemed to no longer be listening, absorbed by whatever it was she saw above. Naturally, various members of the group started looking upward. First with distracted curiosity, then with engrossed interest, as Melanie did. We all started abandoning Chet’s story; it seemed very interesting, but Melanie’s concentration was more intriguing. Plus, he was talking just as he did when he drove, such that we all experienced that story as a preview of what we might hear on the way back, among the curves and lost detours of the journey.
Sean was the first to check out and follow Melanie’s example; Bragi came next. Out of the five of us, already three had their attention focused on the sky, and they seemed impermeable to anything that might happen on the ground. I remained stiffly faced forward, the only one still listening to Chet. And for this very reason I wasn’t going to look up for anything in the world, as I could imagine how frustrated he might feel if left talking to the void. Nevertheless, my attention was of course fixated on my other three companions.
What happened next was rather curious, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it: I feel I was witness, firstly, to the sudden silence of someone, in this case Chet, and secondly to a sort of enraptured communion between individuals, the five of us still standing on the side of the square. Chet continued speaking about Christopher’s talk, saying that in a moment of exaltation resulting from the precise rhetoric of the orator, who was spinning rather long sentences and seeming at times to purposefully emphasize his natural British accent, at a particular moment a sort of pleasurable collective murmuring occurred, a political delight feeding off the music of Christopher’s words, under which all present felt protected and (so Chet thought) directly addressed, or in any case understood.
Chet said at that point he had a kind of hallucination: he thought the audience was changing places in the temple and sitting according to their beliefs. The progressives to Christopher’s left, naturally, and the conservatives to his right. Chet felt he witnessed that alignment of bodies so vividly that, due to his own amazement, he had no time to find a place for himself. His delirium had the quality of a dream, because he felt admiration for the oratorical virtues of Christopher, who, as sometimes occurred with literary celebrities (so Chet thought) succumbed so easily to his own verbal effusions that he didn’t even notice what was happening in the audience—in this case, specifically, that everyone was changing places and creating a closed circulation of bodies in motion within a limited space.
According to Chet, it was a revelatory experience, as it showed him the extent to which this was perhaps really a moment of identification between the writer and his audience. Chet went on saying he could interpret his own daydream in various ways. I remember distinctly that he started his next sentence by saying, “It would be a mistake to accept…,” but for the briefest few moments I stopped listening to him, or he stopped speaking, and then a moment later he was saying, while still looking at me, “because no one knows who is a slave…” At that exact second, as had occurred with everyone else except for me, he left his sentence unfinished and looked up. I didn’t experience it as being done out of annoyance, or in any case I didn’t care if it was or not, but just as the confirmation of a new presence that demanded the interest of us all.
I, in fact, wasn’t listening very carefully, although I was disappointed when he broke off in the middle of a sentence, as though revealing an overwhelming impatience in Chet. In any case, all five of us were now looking upward. Not at an incline toward a specific point in the sky, but toward the sky itself at its center; that is, at pure verticality. We saw the blue in its transparent intensity, and the streets of Scranton seemed to have emptied out so that no noises could be heard, neither nearby nor in the distance. We remained that way a good while, looking at the zenith, as if enraptured before the sight of nothingness. But Melanie, who had been the first to feel called by verticality, was also the first to see the small object falling and heading directly toward us. She didn’t say anything and didn’t move, but the four of us sensed, from a slight shift in her stance, or maybe just in her breath, that she was seeing something we could not yet. Some time went by, and I can’t say if it was a short or long while; what the five of us then saw was a small white piece of paper, as if it were the smallest bit of a sheet torn apart by hand, and which was falling and tumbling down over itself, on account of its own lightness, from a distant point in outer space.
We watched this little piece of paper descend without deviating from its path, right to the point in Scranton where we had stopped, like some sort of harmless yet well-aimed projectile. For obvious reasons we thought Melanie should be the one to interpret this phenomenon, she having first rights to it. But she preferred to say nothing, or maybe was still absorbed thinking about something, beyond what the paper might signify. I preferred to draw my own conclusions, which I of course held back from exposing, for fear the others would think me some semi-esoteric character. I told myself that this paper was the object coming to our rescue as writers; that after our withdrawal, so to speak, reality was now showing itself to be in agreement with us, informing us that we were on the right path. Withdrawal, emptiness, absence, waiting, all those words linked to things that are undefined, or directly empty or negative, were the very things that are most significant and (so I thought that paper flung from space was trying to say) also the most worthy. But I couldn’t say for sure if the other four would agree with my diagnosis of these events, nor if they’d accept my premises.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t bring it up for the rest of the day. Only some weeks later did I mention the episode to Melanie, who reacted with such an expression of surprise and disbelief I was afraid she thought I was crazy. I said, “You must remember, in Scranton, after the signing, we were standing on the sidewalk and talking, and at a certain point when we looked up we saw a piece of paper falling from the sky…” She looked like she didn’t understand, or like she was being pressured to relive a dream or memory that was essentially forgotten, or like she didn’t believe me. But I know what happened, and I have the impression that at least Bragi kept thinking about it. You can always make arbitrary explanations for any kind of event. And this last episode left me, we might say, with the fourth lesson—or maybe it was just a signal. That little white piece of paper drifting toward us represented a particle of the moon. The moon was making itself manifest in that way and protesting its abandonment. The material world had worked carefully to create its own symbols, metaphors, and physical vehicles through which to make its positions clear; and we, or I, as writers, needed to receive these signals and then later see what to do with them.
When we left Scranton, the city’s famous sign was already lighting up the sky above the square. Chet was more assertive on the way back, taking a nearly direct route, but once we were close to our destination we got lost again in the surrounding suburbs and streets of Jersey City. Once the car was returned, we walked up a few meters from the Così, which was now closed, before descending to the depths of Exchange Place. Night had fallen, that whole section of the city was deserted and quite dark, which accentuated the incandescent presence of Manhattan, across the river. We were returning, I was returning, intrigued at having just glimpsed the vestiges of a bypassed civilization, which was called electric, and that had nevertheless freed itself of any nostalgia toward that with which it had once chosen to be identified. This left me thinking for a long while—I felt that a fifth lesson was nesting there. And so, still distracted once we arrived in Manhattan, I lost sight of my travel companions and wandered about for some time, without being able to decide whether to look for them or just give up.
But they were waiting for me at the station exit, to one side of the tumult of people, and I could even see, to my surprise, that they were relieved to see me appear. And so we met again, as they say. Chet and Melanie took different subway lines, and once we’d said goodbye to them, Bragi and I started walking the few blocks to the closest station for the 1 Line.
Sergio Chejfec is an Argentine writer of narrative and essays who lives in New York City. He teaches at NYU in the Creative Writing in Spanish MFA Program. He has published several books, including novels, essays, and short stories. Some of them have been translated Into English: Notes toward a Pamphlet, Ugly Duckling Presse, New York, 2020; The Incompletes, Open Letter, Rochester, 2019; Baroni, A Journey, Almost Island, New Delhi, 2017; The Dark, Open Letter, 2013; The Planets, 2012; My Two Worlds, Open Letter, 2011.
James Harrison Monaco
James Harrison Monaco is a translator of Spanish and Italian to English, as well as a writer, storyteller, performer, and composer. His translations include Chilean playwright Leonardo González’ Maids for a New York production in 2018, this Sergio Chejfec story, and various poetic translations for performance. His theatrical works have been presented by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Public Theater, The Bushwick Starr, and many others. He’s one half of music and storytelling duo Jerome & James.
Benjamin King holds an MFA from the University of Chicago and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His work has been exhibited in galleries including Freight+Volume, Laroche/Joncas, White Columns, Longhouse Projects, ACME Los Angeles, Ridgeway Exhibitions, and the Painting Center. King is a fellow of the Edward F. Albee Foundation and a repeat recipient of the DNA artist-in-residence award sponsored by Freight+Volume. He co-curated a series of exhibitions (2009-15) with Jay Henderson, and their group is included in Alternative HIstories (Exit Art/MIT press, 2010) that documents NY alternative art since the 1960s.