Irvin D. Yalom is as well known a writer of fiction as he is of non-fiction. His novels include the famous When Nietzsche Wept (a tour de force rendering of the relationship between Freud’s mentor, the renowned Dr, Joseph Breuer, and the philosopher Frederick Nietzsche), The Schopenhauer Cure and the most recent, 2012’s The Spinoza Problem.
He is also the inventor of a new non-fiction form, in which the psychiatrist Dr. Yalom describes conversations he has had with some of his most challenging patients. One such is his new book, Creatures of A Day, and Other Tales of Psychotherapy, which was published this year by Basic Books. The best known of Dr. Yalom’s non-fiction books is Love’s Executioner, which, as well as possessing one of the most compelling titles ever, contains the equally appealing passage from which the title is taken:
I do not like to work with patients who are in love. Perhaps it is because of envy — I, too, crave enchantment. Perhaps it is because love and psychotherapy are fundamentally incompatible. The good therapist fights darkness and seeks illumination, while romantic love is sustained by mystery and crumbles upon inspection. I hate to be love’s executioner.
I spoke with Yalom recently, interested in why he writes both fiction and non-fiction. I wanted to ask him which of these forms he prefers, and what does each form require of him that the other does not.
IY: I have a lot of blurring between fiction and non-fiction in so many of my works. For example, my first novel, When Nietzsche Wept, has a great deal of non-fiction in it. I didn’t create many characters at all. Almost all of them are historical characters that actually existed. Now, I consider that almost like having written fiction with training wheels. Everything, historically, was already there.
But the next novel, Lying On The Couch was entirely made up, and I felt then that, really, I was jumping off into fiction. I’m reading that novel now again, though, for a memoir that I’m writing, and I’m amazed by how much non-fiction there actually is in it. A lot of instances from my past life that I attribute to the characters. Many things from my own past are in there. Even some of the characters’ names… I changed them around, of course, but some of them are very similar to the names of people I actually have known.
Something like that takes place in my non-fiction stories, too… the blurring, I mean. Those stories all have fiction in them. First of all, I have to change almost all the details of a physical, factual nature in the story, in order to protect the identity of the patient. I’ve changed men into women. I’ve made tremendous alterations in the characters. In essence, though, the main character remains as he or she really is, and I will have changed certain features of their appearance or personality.
Incidentally, despite all this, I ask each of the people, on whom patient conversations have been based in a particular story, to read my final story. All of them have approved. But here’s something about those stories. One of my most read books is actually a textbook titled Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. The individual stories in that book, of patients in group therapy, are true. I really was trying to find my wings as a writer at that time, and I am certain — I have no question in my mind at all — that the reason that book is so successful is that it contains those stories, which I bootlegged into the book. Legions of students have told me that what they really like are the stories. They can put up with a lot of dry theory (Yalom grins.) if they know that another story is coming around the bend in a few minutes.
TC: What impact has your being so well known as a writer had on your practice as a psychiatrist?
IY: I’d love to write about that some time. Now, literally every patient I see has come to me because of something I’ve written, and that does have a significant impact upon the course of the therapy. It makes me into a bit of a larger-than-life figure for the people I see, and maybe potentially it even gives me more power to do good, as long as ultimately I can get past their need to see me as a special sort of figure. I don’t want to be idealized by a patient because of what I’ve written.
TC: Is writing fiction more, or less, difficult for you to write than non-fiction?
IY: I enjoy writing fiction more. I have had great experiences… adventures! When I’ve been writing a novel. And now, my inclination is to continue writing only fiction. You know, I’m a compulsive reader of fiction. I fell in love with novels when I was a teenager. My wife Marilyn and I… our initial friendship began because we are both readers. I’ve gone to sleep almost every night of my life after having read in a novel for 30 or 40 minutes. I’m a great reader of fiction, and much less so of non-fiction.
TC: Would you consider writing fiction that does not have a basis in psychiatry? Would you go farther afield?
IY: I can imagine doing that, but even then, my work would be categorized by its looking at internal issues, by how people think, by what consciousness is like. I don’t think I could write a mindless detective story.
In a new afterword for the 2012 re-release of Love’s Executioner, Yalom writes,
“I had always wanted to be a storyteller. As long as I can remember, I’ve been a voracious reader and somewhere in early adolescence I began yearning to be a real writer. That desire must have been percolating on the back burner as I pursued my academic career, for as I began writing these ten stories [for Love’s Executioner] I sensed I was on the way to finding myself.”
As fictional elements pervade his non-fiction, and as actual facts determine much of the action of his fiction, Yalom’s devotion to both is clearly evident, and functions on equal terms, the one with the other.
Terence Clarke’s latest novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published earlier this year. He is director of publishing at Astor & Lenox.This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.
Eduardo Galeano died this weekend.
Here is a typical complete chapter from his Century of The Wind, one of a trilogy that makes up surely the strangest book of history you’ll ever have read:
“1927: San Gabriel de Jalisco: A Child Looks On–The mother covers his eyes so he cannot see his grandfather hanging by the feet. And then the mother’s hands prevent his seeing his father’s body riddled by the bandits’ bullets, or his uncle’s twisting in the wind over there on the telegraph posts.
“Now the mother too has died, or perhaps has just tired of defending her child’s eyes. Sitting on the stone fence that snakes over the slopes, Juan Rulfo contemplates his harsh land with a naked eye. He sees horsemen – federal police or Cristeros, it makes no difference – emerging from smoke, and behind them, in the distance, a fire. He sees bodies hanging in a row, nothing now but ragged clothing emptied by the vultures. He sees a procession of women dressed in black
“Juan Rulfo, a child of nine, is surrounded by ghosts who look like him.
“Here there is nothing alive – the only voices those of howling coyotes, the only air the black wind that rises in gusts from the plains of Jalisco, where the survivors are only dead people pretending.”
Galeano’s trilogy Memory of Fire contains the books Genesis, Faces and Masks and Century of The Wind. Taken together, they make up a compendious and riveting history of the Americas (mostly Central and South America). But this is no academic history. It does follow a chronological timeline through the last five centuries or so. But each chapter tells a small story, like the one above. Hundreds of historical figures wander, curse, pray, converse, make love, die, are transformed or obliterated in these pages. Each story is an anecdotal parable that contributes to a single long history of almost total cruelty.
And the history of The Americas is one of cruelty. Starting with the creation myths of several American Indian peoples, Memory of Fire continues through the history of those Indians prior to the invasions of their lands by Europeans, almost the only sanguine section of the entire trilogy. Then, Galeano proceeds to the invasions themselves, which include stories of myriad individual Indian headmen, priests and women warriors, mystic Indian truth tellers, those who would tell of future disasters, and tribal chiefs misled by their own oracles. . . as well as the myriad adventurers, holy men fanatics, pirates, crazy dictators, soldiers, mercenaries, prostitutes and treasure seekers that came with the conquerors. The single constant theme in all this is that of the crushing defeat and murder of the defenseless by the powerful.
Prior to the nineteenth century, the defenseless were all the Indians from both The Americas, and the Blacks who were brought to the American continents as slaves. Later the defenseless were made up of peons, indentured servants, peasants rendered landless by oligarchs and self-serving governments, Jews, socialists, communists and syndicalists, as well as those poor, ragged few Indians and Blacks still left standing.
So. . . in this passage, the nine year-old Juan Rulfo is witnessing the horror of an event during the Mexican civil War of The Cristeros in the 1920’s, that was fought between conservative Catholic peasants and the leftist government of the president Plutarco Calles. Calles had disenfranchised The Church, taken away Church lands and basically banned the public display of almost every Church activity.
I personally think that some version of this was a good idea, given the general treatment of Indians and peasants by the Church in South America for hundreds of years. It’s a story of whole-scale genocide justified by the prayerful murmurings of self-serving Catholic priests, beginning with the priests who accompanied Hernán Cortés. Someone like Bartolomé De Las Casas, a Spaniard who was the first bishop of Oaxaca, Mexico, and who defended the rights of the Indians before the Spanish court, was a distinct rarity. Most other priests victimized the Indians in the same way the secular conquistadores did, though with the direct approval of the Christian God, which made it even more shameful a history.
What made The War of The Cristeros so strange was that it was fought by Mexican Catholic peasants in God’s name against Calles’s government, in order to maintain the ascendancy of established religion in Mexican society. That the majority of Mexican Church fathers–although not all–stood to the side, caring little for the peasants, seems to have been lost on the peasants themselves. Thousands of them died horribly in this war.
The rage of The Cristeros had been enflamed by official Church umbrage at government policies, and a few years later The Cristeros were hung out to dry when The Church colluded with the government in the agreement to end the war. The peasants were used, they died by in droves and then they were abandoned.
Juan Rulfo himself went on to become a major Mexican literary figure, the man who wrote the novel Pedro Paramo, which is frequently cited as central to the South American “Boom” of such later writers as Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa and so many others. The spectral figures that Galeano writes about in the passage above are very like those that Rulfo himself describes in his story of a man’s search through a parched Mexican countryside for the truth about his father Pedro Paramo.
The Memory of Fire trilogy is made up of hundreds of such stories, and each gives a view of history that would almost never be found in the usual kinds of history books. Galeano was trained as a journalist, but it is my belief that he is a kind of inspired novelist/poet who, as it happens, found the vein for his work in the themes of history.
You may need a more traditionally written history of South America to make complete sense of all the people of whom Galeano writes. But I think everything you’ll need can actually be found in the amazingly encyclopedic bibliography that Galeano provides. His own interpretation of all this may be the most emotionally truthful take on the history of South America that’s ever been written.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this February.
Joe Bright’s thoughts returned to Billie Holiday, as they usually did when he was waiting for his father. Samuel Bright was a physician and an enormous fan of Lady Day’s singing, especially the recordings—“Such soulful longing”, Samuel often said while listening to them—that she had made with the pianist Oscar Peterson. Now, so many years removed from his time as a Navy medic with the Marines, Joe recalled the day that he and his father had talked about Billie, just before he had left for Vietnam. He had been nineteen, a big fan of Marvin Gaye and Jimi Hendrix, about whose amazing talents he had never been able to convince his father.
Hendrix was a lot of noise for Samuel Bright. “A pretty boy in all that orange and red get-up, all those feathers and make-up”. He also couldn’t play the guitar, as far as Samuel was concerned. Gaye was clearly a gifted singer, but his attitude toward his audience, the over-confidence, the sex, the in-your-face brazen demand to accept everything that Gaye was shoving at you…that made Samuel think that Marvin Gaye was more exhibitionist than artist. Samuel believed that popular music itself had been derailed by guys like these, by Miles Davis too and even The Beatles. “Too many gimmicks,” he had complained. “No soul. Too much bother about sales. Too much formula.”
Billie Holiday, on the other hand, merely had to make a gesture with one of her beautiful be-ringed hands, to look to the side the way she did so often, as though no one else were in the room and she had caught herself in mid-thought, in a passing dream or a painful effort at a smile…and then all she had to do was sing the words. ”Gay roué and gay divorcée/who lunch at The Ritz,/will tell you that it’s…/divine!” She sang from regret. A ruse, The Divine yet filled The Ritz, a palace devoted to fun and loss, and Billie Holiday was the muse who made you feel that fun in your own ruptured heart.
“She recorded it in 1952, with Oscar,” Samuel had told his son. “Her voice was failing. It wanders off key sometimes, weakens here and there. But you can tell how much the song is giving her. You know, she sings ‘It’s good to live it again’ there in the end. She means it, even though she’s faltering so badly.”
That day in 1967, Samuel had given Joe two eight-track tapes filled with Billie Holiday’s music. Dressed as always in a dark three-piece suit, a white dress shirt and dark tie, his hair just beginning to gray that year, his eyeglasses serving to make his face appear opaque and ordered, Samuel nonetheless took his son’s right hand into both of his.
“Listen to this while you’re over there, Joey. Please. Think about New York. Think about your mother and me. Just listen to this stuff now and then.”
Months before, Samuel had pleaded with Joe not to go into the Navy. “Finish college. Go to medical school, Joey. The world doesn’t need another piece of cannon fodder. It does need another doctor.” But Joe had gone to Vietnam, and been wounded at Khe Sanh in 1968.
There had been no medical school after he had recovered, a painful realization for his father, who could not understand why such a talented kid as Joey would want to waste his time with words. “What do you think, you’re a Hemingway?”
Joe remembered that moment too, when he and his father had been seated on this very same bench on a July day in 1969. The Pond in Central Park had appeared motionless. Traffic noise from 59th Street, on that warm day, the kind of day in which the heat holds to your skin as though bandaged to it… Indeed Joe’s legs had been heavily bandaged that day, his recovery from the burns progressing reasonably enough, although, as Samuel had told him, “that skin below your knees, it’s so bad that it’ll always be like cowhide, Joey. But cowhide that breaks open if you bang it against a low table or something. It’ll itch. It’ll hurt.” And so it had, and so it did now as he listened to more of Billie Holiday on his iPhone.
Holding the eight-tracks in his hands before Joe had left for Vietnam, his father had described to him the one Billie Holiday concert he had attended, on March 27, 1948 at Carnegie Hall. Samuel had been twenty-seven, a brand new physician living in The Village on Bank Street. He had no time to do anything, being the newest guy in a big practice up near The New York Hospital, and a new baby about to arrive, Joey himself. But he had made time for this concert.
“Your mother and I were up in the first balcony. First row. And there were so many people…black people, white people… Not an empty seat in the place. Looking down on the main floor, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen such…splendor in an audience. Gorgeous women dressed beautifully. Tuxes. Money. The love they had for her.” Samuel looked to his hands. “You never heard a voice like that, Joey. She did more than thirty tunes that night, and every one of them, every one, took your breath.”
Three months after his deployment, lying against a red mud embankment, smoke rising from his legs, his helmet rolling down the slime and mud beside him, everything about Joe was mottled red and black with mud except where his right shoulder bled. The piece of shrapnel that had loosed the helmet from his head had been diverted into the shoulder itself. Joe fell into a pain-ridden swoon, in which, through all the noise of the explosions and sear and automatic rifle fire, broken slivers of music ran through his mind, just here and there, gone in the terrifying pain, a sigh of remorse, death demanding that it be heard. Oscar Peterson’s recollected piano so sweet in the roar. Billie Holiday singing for Joe despite the fact that his legs were on fire and he was dying.
“Come on, Joey.” Someone huddled down next to him, still under fire, his voice barely controlled, all anger and panic. “We’re getting’ you out.” Joe hadn’t known who it was, even though he recognized the voice. They dragged him by his shoulders out of the kill zone. He had figured he was dead. Black smoke had been rising from the tattered shreds of his pants legs. His own skin…he didn’t know what was happening with his own skin.
Joe glimpsed his father approaching, an elderly man now, but still one who enjoyed his exercise. He loved this particular path in Central Park, the undulant turns in it, and the trees seeming to bow down over the shore of The Pond itself. This bench… Joe mused that it had to be this very bench that Billie had sung about. ”Lovers that bless the dark/On benches in Central Park/Greet autumn in New York”. He could not remember now whether that too had gone through his mind as, screaming, held down by others, still under fire, he awaited the med-evac. He should have died.
“It’s good to live it again,” she sang.
Joe stood up, a cane in each hand. Walking still caused him considerable pain, and his father occasionally kidded him for that. “Well, you’re sixty-three years old, Joey. What do you expect?” Samuel was ninety-one, a widower with an apartment on 59th Street overlooking the park. He walked far more comfortably than his son did, and still dressed with natty, businesslike style. A suit and a necktie, always. Dr. Samuel Bright, professor emeritus of Medicine, Columbia University.
Joe suspected that someone being told about such an exchange would accuse Samuel of heartlessness toward his son. But that was not so. As soon as Joe had arrived at the Brooke army burn center in Texas, Samuel had flown there. The physicians had explained that Joe had suffered full thickness burns in his lower legs, and that there had not been the facilities in the field to flay the skin, to enable blood circulation. The musculature had quickly deteriorated.
“You’ve got to do that within six hours, Doctor Bright,” one of the physicians had told him. Joe was lying in a bed, his father seated next to it. Samuel had placed a hand on Joe’s chest, to comfort him, as the doctor continued. “And out there, Joe, where you were…I don’t have to tell you about that fire fight you were in. A bad one. Very bad. They just couldn’t get you out of there in time.”
Samuel still helped Joe wash and hydrate the skin on his legs when he came to visit. They went for weekly walks in the park. Samuel kept up on the latest for the long-term treatment of such severe wounds. He admired his son’s writing and the fact that his novels had done so much to explain the heartfulness of the wounded in war. A New York Times best seller, Joe’s first novel had described the death of a Khe Sanh medic, his thoughts falling to dreams as he lay next to two dead men, both of whom he had thought he could save. Mendoza and Sink had been the two characters’ names in the book, the same as the two Marines that Joe had been lying next to when they all had been hit by the incendiary. Joe’s fourth novel, about the last moment in the life, in Vietnam in 1954, of the combat photographer Robert Capa, had won the National Book Award. Throughout the novel, before he stepped on the landmine, Capa’s damaging, electrified second thoughts about his life had, under duress, reluctantly revealed themselves to him.
“Hello, Dad.” Joe took Samuel’s hand in his. Samuel also wore a Neiman Marcus fedora that he had owned for thirty years. It was brushed, blocked, in beautiful shape.
“Hello, Joey. How you feeling?” His father looked down at the canes.
“The same. Fine.”
“Sure. But so what?”
Slowly, they turned up the path toward the Columbus Circle entrance to the park, where they usually stopped for Joe to rest. Arriving at the kiosk there, Samuel told his son that he was buying, and while they stood in line waiting, he turned to Joe to continue the conversation they had been having.
“That’s the reason I call it ‘Johnson’s Folly’.” Samuel took a billfold from his jacket pocket and brought out a twenty. “You know, president on the day that you were wounded. But you could call it Kennedy’s. Eisenhower’s. It doesn’t matter.”
“The were doing the best they could, Dad.”
“Maybe.” Samuel handed the money to the kid in the kiosk, and took the change. “But I think in my heart that those wounds are insulting reminders to the wounded themselves of how little they mattered.”
He took the two cups of coffee into his hands, and both men turned toward an empty metal table with a couple chairs and a view of Columbus Circle. Samuel placed the coffees on the table, along with two paper napkins and two plastic-wrapped slices of banana bread. Their usual. He put his hand on the small of Joe’s back, caressing it as he took the canes from his son and then helped him sit down.
“But you know, the wounded went on and strove for life, Joe.” Samuel sat down as well, unbuttoning his suit coat. “Like you. For themselves and…the others. For their memory.” He removed the fedora and placed it on the table. “And I know your work helped bring you back. I know that. Once you started writing, I knew that your studying to be a doctor wouldn’t have… I mean, I think you’re alive because you wrote about what happened.”
“I do too.”
“Yeah, you lived it again, Joe, and it kept you—”
“Yeah. Your heart. That’s what your books mean to me, Joey. Your heart.”
(Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this February.)
With a degree in English Literature fresh in my hands and with little money of my own, I figured the Peace Corps was a good way to travel, something I had almost never done. I’ve often thought that the experience of growing up as I did in the hills above Oakland, California was like living in East Berlin before the fall of The Wall…only without the stazi. Oakland was gray, inexpressive and leaden. Going to university at Berkeley did provide me with a measure of exoticism, but even I knew that beer busts and hanging out on Telegraph Avenue provided only limited experience. Europe lay out there. South America, too. And especially Southeast Asia.
So I signed up with the Peace Corps, my mother drove me to the airport in San Francisco, and I was gone!
At the time, a war was going on between Malaysia (a former British colony) and Indonesia (a former Dutch colony), both just-formed nations in the post-colonial new world order. There are many reasons for the war that are still being debated, but for me the reality was that it was being fought along the border between the two countries that runs the length of Borneo from north to south, in the mountainous interior of that vast forested island. I was posted to a couple of different teaching assignments in primary schools on the Malaysia side, far downriver from any war activity. This kept me safe from armies and various bands of terrorists wreaking havoc in the deep forests. The jungle and heat more or less did me in, however, my basically Irish skin growing mottled and scaled with sweat-related embarrassments in places impossible to keep dry. I almost made it through the entire two years of my commitment. But finally, my skin became so enflamed that my idealism faltered badly. I allowed the Peace Corps to come rescue me, and they flew me home to Oakland.
Now I have published several books of fiction, and two of the early ones used my Borneo experiences as their raw material. I didn’t start writing those books until two decades after my return to the United States. By then, the last great post-colonial war — that would be the one in Vietnam — had been lost by the post-colonials, and the countries of Southeast Asia were more or less entirely on their own. So already I was writing about a fast-disappearing colonial culture. Graying British foreign service officers are major characters in those two fictions of mine, as they still were in fact when I lived there.
Recently I met a thirty year-old Hewlett Packard software engineer named Q., who is Chinese from Sibu in Sarawak, Borneo. I frequented that town many times when I was there, and remember fondly its sagging tin-roofed wharves on the bank of the Rajang River, the palm trees everywhere, its Chinese bazaar and Malay kampongs, the Somerset Maugham-esque desperate quiet of the place for those unhappy colonialists who still remained. It was impossible to get a message to anyone from Sibu, since the only communication was through government-operated radio-telephones with very spotty reception. You had to yell on them to be understood.The principal industries (besides the repair of rusted, stained and slow Chinese cargo boats plying the river) were rice and rubber. Entertainment was provided by short-wave radio (Radio Hanoi carried the best of American rock ‘n roll) and the rite-of-passage festivals of the local tribes.
I recently re-read my two Borneo books, and was surprised to learn that I had written something that has such distance from contemporary life. So much has happened in Southeast Asia between then and now that I feel the books describe a place and an ambiance that have grown antique and humorously colorful. I read of a long-ago disappeared cultural experience whose only importance now may be to obscurity-ridden historians.
In the same way that I read Oliver Twist and learned of the troubles of starving, orphaned, pickpocket children in an otherwise unrecognizable London, someone who comes across my books The Day Nothing Happened and The King of Rumah Nadai will read about an American/British experience in a distant jungle, the romantic settings of which are part of a very exciting — and near forgotten — past.
When I told Q. about this, he laughed, and explained that Sibu is now well on its way to becoming the Silicon Valley of Malaysia.
Luckily, my main character in both books, an American State Department official, is a thoughtful man whose experiences of isolation, loneliness and real personal danger still give his troubled walk through this place a real measure of contemporary importance. Americans working for non-governmental organizations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other places doubtless suffer from anxieties similar to his. So, the furniture in my books may be old and quaint, but the person sitting on that furniture is thoroughly involved in a form of emotional isolation and peril quite recognizable today.
The Day Nothing Happened and The King of Rumah Nadai are available as used books. They are being re-edited now for re-publication as ebooks later this year. Terry’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this February.
“All right,” their daddy said. “We’ll buy it when we get back to Cartagena.”
Totó, who was nine, and Joel, seven, were far more decided about this than their parents could even believe.
“No,” they chorused. “We want it here and now.”
“To start with,” their mother said, “there aren’t any navigable waters here other than what comes out of the shower.”
She was just as right about this as her husband was. In their house in Cartagena de Indias, there was a patio with a pier on the bay, and a boat shelter for two large yachts. By comparison, here in Madrid they all lived jammed together on the fifth floor of 47 Paseo de la Castellana. But in the end, nether daddy nor mommy could say no because they had promised the boys a rowboat, along with a sextant and a compass, if they were to win the third grade prize, and they had won it. So it was that the daddy bought the boat without saying a word to his wife, who was the more reluctant of the two to pay off any sort of gambling debt. It was a cute aluminum boat with a line of golden rope along the waterline.
“The boat’s in the garage,” daddy revealed at lunch. “The problem is, there’s no way to bring it up either in the elevator or on the stairs, and there’s no more available space anywhere.”
That Saturday afternoon, however, the boys invited their classmates over, to bring the boat up by the stairs, and they succeeded in getting it into the utility room.
“Congratulations,” daddy said to them. “And now what?”
“Nothing now,” the boys said. “The only thing we wanted was to get the boat into the room, and now it’s there.”
The next Wednesday night, as on all Wednesday nights, the parents went to the movies. The boys, now owners and masters of the house, closed the doors and windows, and then broke the lit-up light bulb of a living room lamp. A spray of golden light, fresh as water, began to come out of the broken bulb, and they let the light mount up, until the level of it reached that of four open handprints. Then they cut off the current, brought out the boat, and navigated at their pleasure through the islands of the house.
This fabulous adventure was the result of a bit of flippancy on my part when I participated in a seminar on the poetry of domestic utensils. Totó asked me how it was that light came on simply from the pressing of a switch, and I didn’t have the nerve to think about it even more than just once.
“Light’s like water,” I responded to him. “You open the tap, and out it comes.”
Thus did they continue navigating every Wednesday in the evening, learning how to handle the sextant and the compass, until their parents would come back from the movies to find them sleeping like angels on terra firma. Months later, eager to go even further, they asked for fishing equipment. Everything: masks, flippers, oxygen tanks and compressed-air spear guns.
“It’s bad enough that you’ve got a rowboat in the utility room that doesn’t do anything,” the father said. “But it’s worse that you also want diving equipment.”
“And if we win the first semester Golden Gardenia?” Joel said.
“No,” said the mother, frightened. “No more!”
The father reproached her for her intransigence.
“Look, these kids don’t get even a penny for doing their homework,” she said, “but with some little caprice like this, they’re able to take over for the teacher.”
The parents didn’t say either yes or no finally. But Totó and Joel, who the previous two years had come in last, won the two Gold Gardenias in July, and the public recognition of the school rector. That same afternoon, without having had to ask again, they found in their bedroom the diving gear in its original packaging. So that, the following Wednesday, while the parents saw Last Tango in Paris, the boys filled the apartment up to two fathoms deep, dived like peaceful sharks under the furniture and beds, and rescued from the very bottom of the light those things that for years had been lost in darkness.
At the final awards ceremony, the brothers were acclaimed as an example to the school, and were given diplomas of excellence. This time, they didn’t have to ask for anything, because their parents asked them what they wanted. The boys were very reasonable, asking only for a party at home to honor their schoolmates.
The father, left alone with their mother, was radiant.
“It’s proof of their maturity,” he said.
“God is listening,” said the mother.
The following Wednesday, while their parents went to see The Battle of Algiers, the people passing up la Castellana saw a cascade of light from an old building hidden among the trees. It came down from the balconies, spilling in gushes down the front of the building, and made a channel up the great avenue in a golden torrent that lit up the city all the way to the Guadarrama.
Called out urgently, firemen forced open the door on the fifth floor, and found the house covered in light up to the ceiling. The sofa and armchairs, covered in leopard skin, floated around the room at different levels, between bottles from the bar and the baby grand piano and its manila-colored cover, which flapped around half-submerged like a golden manta ray. The domestic utensils, in the fullness of their poetry, flew with their own wings across the heaven of the kitchen. The military band instruments, to the music from which the boys danced, floated in a circle around the drain among the fishes liberated from Mama’s fishbowl, which were the only ones that floated alive and happy in the vast illuminated swamp. In the bathroom, everyone’s toothbrush floated about, with daddy’s condoms, mommy’s jars of cream and her extra set of dentures, the television from the principal bedroom floating on its side, still turned on to the last scene of a late-night film prohibited to kids.
At the end of the corridor, floating and perplexed, Totó was seated in the rowboat’s stern, hanging on to the paddles with a set face, looking for the port lighthouse from which he could refill the air tanks, and Joel floated in the prow still searching the height of the polar star with the sextant, and their 37 classmates floated through the entire house as though forever in the very moment of going pee-pee in the pot of geraniums, of singing the school hymn changed with lyrics mocking the rector, and secretly drinking glassfuls of brandy from daddy’s bottle. They had turned on so many lights at the same time that the house had spilled over with it, and the entire first-year class of the San Julián el Hospitalario School had been drowned on the fifth floor of number 47 Paseo de la Castellana. In Madrid, Spain, a remote city of burning summers and icy winds, without a sea or a river, whose terra firma aborigines had never mastered the science of navigating the light.
During a recent visit to The Republic of Ireland, the Papal Nuncio to that country, Archbishop Charles Brown, was interviewed by The Irish Independent. He was asked about the future for women as priests in the Church, and replied “The Catholic faith exists in part because of the tradition of the faith, and the tradition on that point is totally clear, completely clear. The Holy Father has spoken on that and I don’t think as a result we’re going to have women priests.”
Seventy-seven percent of the Irish population is in favor of allowing women to become priests. Democratic ideals, though, are not quite what the Church has in mind in its dealings with its flock. Indeed the flock has no authority at all. So those Irish will just have to live with the continuing top-down male rigidity with which Catholics world-wide have had to contend for the last 2000 years.
Archbishop Brown, who is American, is no doubt aware of a similar upsurge in support for women in the priesthood in his own country. He is, one would imagine, as recalcitrant on the matter on the Lower East Side, where he was born, as he is in Dublin.
Traditions change, and faith changes, as has been made abundantly clear during the two millennia of the Church’s history. Large social changes and important thinking have brought about tectonic shifts over the centuries, which the Church has resisted at almost every turn. Galileo, for example. Scientific inquiry. Voltaire. The French Revolution. Democratically elected governments. The Pill. Just to name a few. In response, an undemocratic bureaucracy elected by no one, with no accountability to the vast majority of the members of the organization, renders iron-clad restrictions that are based on centuries-old received wisdom and unexamined assumptions about the existence of God.
The restrictions are basically made out of self-interest, in order to keep the bureaucracy in a position of power. I think the rabidity of the Church’s current insistence on certain matters of faith, morals and politics shows its defensive fear…and its anger at being so ignored by the populace. The priest/bureaucracy rests like a drowned hulk between the faithful and the burning light of their faith. Even the simplest one-to-one personal relationship in the Church, the institution of Confession, places a priest between a believer and his or her God, a priest who turns the wish for forgiveness on the part of the believer to whatever purpose he may wish to impose. The only activity that you can undertake without a priest invading the moment is silent prayer, and I imagine many popes, archbishops and local pastors have gone to their graves unhappy about that.
Terrified by an onslaught of women bringing well thought-out change, new levels of heartfelt love, charitableness and perhaps even humor to the institution, these men have put their foot down…again. So, women will have to bide their time for maybe a few centuries more. Maybe.
But I have a modest proposal. The sclerotic bureaucracy of the priesthood is itself the problem. Becoming a member of it could very well infect the new women priests with the hardening of the Church’s arteries that has made the institution so nuttily inconsequential. Women, why do that? The Church is beside the point. Many of the previous faiths that have been destroyed by the Catholic Church had very prominent places for women, and they were faiths based on pagan-animist respect for nature, the stars, the planets, fruition, love and sensual beauty. As Shakespeare put it, “tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.”
That’s a faith I could buy into.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro, about the Catholic Church versus a world-famous artist, will be published later this month.
You walk down a sidewalk in Buenos Aires at your peril. Potholes, immense cracks in the cement, deteriorating curbs, and sudden whole absences of pavement can plague every footstep. This is worsened by the fact that sidewalks in this city are often very narrow as well. You must walk with your head down, watching, which is perhaps why so many Buenos Aires citizens appear lost in thought, a bit resentful, and put upon. They’re afraid they’ll fall, and so they have to concentrate.
It’s the same in tango, which of course comes from Buenos Aires. Dancers of tango very frequently look as though they’re angry with someone, which cloaks them in an ambiance of dismissive arrogance. When women in tango have such a disdainful veneer, they appear to be implying to their partners “Okay chico, show me what you can do.” This look has as much to do with concentration as it does with dramatics. The difficulties of dancing tango well make it imperative that you pay attention, otherwise you’ll look like a fool as you stumble through some radical misdirection. One thing you learn quickly about the citizens of Buenos Aires is that they do not want to look like fools.
Weather makes the sidewalks even more perilous. Parts of Argentina — including Buenos Aires itself — are subject to violent hailstorms and heavy rain. When this happens at night, the sidewalks become simply un-navigable because you can’t see anything, you’re usually running in order to get out of the tempest, and your concentration is being scattered by hailstones that are like globules of the cement missing from the sidewalks. During such storms, the rain really seems more like a driven, concentrated cataract. It bangs against the ground and soaks you coming down and going back up. Generally it makes you feel like a rat in a sewer.
This may sound like an exaggeration — and it is — but not much of one, and there are saviors in this city who, for a slight fee, will help you through just such torment.
Bea and I had been dancing tango one recent night in Buenos Aires. We’d begun around 11:00 PM, and we came out of the Viejo Correo club at about 3:00 in the morning. Sweaty, heated, and exhausted, all we wanted was a taxi and bed. It had been drizzling lightly when we’d gone into the club, bringing to mind a famous tango entitled “Garúa” (“Light Rain”), with its finely-rhymed lyrics of dark solitude:
Solo y triste por la acera,
va este corazón transido
con tristeza de tapera,
sintiendo tu hielo.
Porque aquella, con su olvido,
hoy le ha abierto una gotera.
Como un duende que en la sombra…
Alone and sad up the sidewalk
Goes this spent heart
With the sadness of an abandoned shack,
Feeling your icy cold.
Because that cold, with its forgetfulness,
Has opened up a leak on this day.
Like a ghost in the shadow. . .)
But coming back out onto the sidewalk, we found that the very awning over our heads was groaning beneath the weight of the water now coming down. A more or less slick sheet of it cascaded from each side of the convex canvas. I felt we were inside a constantly descending comber at some famous Hawaiian surfing spot.
Out on the Avenida Díaz Vélez, rain battled the pavement, lit by the headlamps of the heavy traffic. There were, as always in this city, numerous taxis, but they all seemed occupied or traveling so quickly that it would be impossible for their drivers to see the blur of an imploring hand waving for attention in the midst of the storm. I knew I’d be soaked in seconds if I moved further into the avenue to make my presence known. There was a flash of lightning, an immediate bang of thunder and, like shrapnel falling from heaven, hail. I glanced at Bea. She smiled, but I could tell she was as intimidated as I.
It was then that Narigón came to our aid.
The doorman had noticed our plight and whistled for Narigón. He came out of the dark. About 23, he was an over-the-hill street urchin. His name is Buenos Aires slang for “Big Nose,” and there was an Italianate heaviness to his own. His nose was, actually, muscular. In twenty years, it would have the look of a much-used doorstop. He looked like a laborer from contemporary Rome, his broad face already shaded with the beginnings of a dark beard. His hands were very large, as were his teeth, and they were similarly soiled. He had been out in the rain and, although his clothing appeared for the most part only damp, his shoulder-length black hair was pasted in meanders to his cheeks.
At first I was intimidated by him because, though he was only of average height, there was a severe, even angered look in his eyes that made me think he could take a swipe at me with a club when my back was turned, in order to get to my wallet. He’d been waiting outside the club for someone such as us, lost tangueros intent on a cab, but not so intent on one that we’d run out into the flood.
“Che, man, ¿taxi?” he said.
He was wearing an old coat, old pants, and running shoes without socks. His voice was arrabalero, a word that in Buenos Aires means “of the rough neighborhood,” as though he’d already smoked way too many cigarettes and drunk a good deal too much whiskey. It’s a voice you hear everywhere on the streets of Buenos Aires, and frequently in tango.
I assented, and Narigón ran out into the street. He had to contend with two elements: the tempest and the taxis, both of which seemed to want to run him down. He pulled his coat over his head and raised his right arm, his hand like a splayed flag over his head, waving back and forth. He was able to whistle, very loudly, at the same moment. While the rain pelted the street and ricocheted from it, the rain that pummeled Narigón sunk into the shoulders and the back of his coat, rendering them immediately soaked. He jumped back and forth, dodging taxis and other cars, his shoulders hunched beneath his jacket, his shoes splashing in the puddles, the water whelming over into them so that his feet must have been badly inundated within seconds.
In a few moments, an errant taxi pulled across a couple lanes of traffic to answer Narigón’s request, and as soon as it stopped in front of the club, he was there, at our side, with an umbrella. Where he’d gotten it was beyond me, but he sheltered Bea as she got into the taxi, and then me as I fumbled in my pants pocket for a tip. It took me a while because I had been watching him and admiring his dance-like movements in the run of all that rain and traffic. He’d been jumping around, bringing his fingers to his lips for loud whistles, waving his arms, all the while intent on the search for an empty cab.
As I searched my pockets, I considered my own admiration of this man. Of course, the effort he was making was for himself. Perhaps he had a family, maybe some children, but even if he had only himself, he was indigent and trying to make a peso. I myself have encountered have-not moments when a few extra dollars meant a great deal, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never had the problems that Narigón has had. He was a very poor man, but standing beneath that umbrella (underneath which, by the way, he was not standing) I felt I was in the company of a man of intense values, who was living a hard life, who had found me a cab under circumstances very threatening to his own health.
I pulled the bills from my pocket and handed them to him.
“Chau, señor,” he said, clapping me on the back as I got into the taxi. “Suerte.” This last is a Buenos Aires salutation. It means “Good luck.”
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro will be published this month.