During the last 25 years, Argentine tango has gone through a worldwide renaissance of interest. You can now dance tango in almost every major city on all continents. When you dance, the accompanying music comes from a very long tradition of respect for the past that is nonetheless enriched by constant innovation. A few tango musicians — Carlos Gardel and Astor Piazzolla, most notably — have passed into the pantheon of world renown, as have a few of the dancers, like Juan Carlos Copes, María Nieves and Carlos Gavito.
Carolina De Robertis is a novelist living in the United States and writing primarily in English. She is of Uruguayan roots, however, and has written provocatively and deeply about characters whose entire consciousness derives from the land, the traditions and the politics of Uruguay and Argentina. Her novel Perla is for me one of the most perceptive — and startling — accounts of the results of the terrible military governments that destroyed so many lives in Argentina during the 1970s and 80s.
De Robertis’s new novel is The Gods of Tango, published by Knopf. In 1913, 17-year-old Leda arrives by ship in Buenos Aires, from Italy, ostensibly to be greeted by her new husband Dante. Once on shore, she learns that Dante has recently been killed in a street battle between syndicalists and the police. With only the clothes on her back and a single trunk containing her things, a little money, and the violin that her cherished father gave her after having been given it by his father, Leda moves into a conventillo, named La Rete, in the poor wharf-side neighborhood of La Boca. Conventillos basically were tenements, some set up by the Argentine government, others privately run, to house the many thousands of immigrants pouring into Buenos Aires during the first years of the twentieth century. The conditions were uniformly terrible, with many people crowded into warrens of single rooms. The conventillo would often have a central patio with a source of water for cooking and washing, which would be the gathering place for the tenants. These sprawling edifices housed people from all over the world, and must have been a polyglot confusion of languages, cultures, manners of dress and, most principally for Leda’s purposes, music.
She hears her first tango in La Rete, and is immediately smitten by it. She has never even imagined such rhythmic intensity before, or such soulful intent and passion, in any of the music she has ever heard. She can play her father’s violin (although at first her efforts are insubstantial), and she determines to master the tango.
There is, however, a problem.
Tango in 1913 Buenos Aires was the domain of men, and men alone. The only women involved were those who worked in the many boliche cafes and bordellos of Buenos Aires, and the duties of those women had little to do with music. The very idea of a woman playing tango was ridiculous to the men. Women were incapable of doing so, it was thought. There was no place for them on the street corner or in the café. The first requirement for any tango musician was that he be a man.
Leda comes to understand this quickly. Despite her very conservative Catholic upbringing in Italy, her complete isolation in Buenos Aires, her worries about what her family would say and the considerable physical danger that could lay waiting for her, she decides upon a change. Wrapping her breasts to diminish their presence, getting her hair cut in the style of a man, and dressing in her deceased husband’s clothes, Leda leaves the conventillo and takes to the Buenos Aires streets, now calling herself Dante, after her husband. She does so with violin in hand.
Leda remains so disguised for the rest of the novel, and she becomes remarkably well known as a musician. Working at first in the poorest of little boliches, she hones her talent until she becomes one of the best tango violinists on the Buenos Aires scene. But she does so as a man, and the disguise — and what it teaches her about the privileges that men enjoy that are forbidden to women — becomes the very vehicle for her rise to tango eminence.
Women are fascinated by this strange fellow Dante, and during her first years as a man, Dante becomes involved with a few of them. Suddenly, a new kind of heart is opened in her, and she finds avenues to affection with those women that surely, she thinks, must be sinful. But she cannot draw away from such affection because it also leads Dante to deep, compelling love. The way De Robertis presents the confusions that arise, for Dante and for her lovers, is one of the great innovations of this novel. De Robertis writes with considerable passion and beauty about the kinds of love that Dante finds and, of course, the kinds of sex that she finds. This novel contains some of the loveliest and most riveting writing about sensuality that I’ve ever encountered.
Dante’s efforts to keep her secret are threatened numerous times through the book, and her close calls with possible discovery are all memorable.
For anyone who cares about tango, this novel is a fine addition to the history of that soulful music in its Rio de La Plata birthplace. It is also a sensuous, thoughtful and beautifully rendered look at the complications that can arise — and the solutions that can be found — when a woman is told that she cannot do something upon which her heart insists.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1. This piece first appeared in Huffington Post.
The tanguera Ada Falcón made her stage debut in 1910 at the age of five. Known then as La joyita argentina (The Little Argentine Jewel) she was an immediate hit as a singer during interludes between acts in Buenos Aires stage productions. At the age of thirteen, Ada made her first film and became an immediate star.
Her voice was mezzo-soprano, and so has a profundity not shared by the more usual women sopranos. When she sings a sad tango, there is nonetheless a kind of playfulness in her voice that seems to make fun of the possibilities for betrayal and desperation that fill so many tango lyrics. When she is singing of the disappointment life can bring…when she’s seen how the love she’s given away has then been thrown away…now that she’s given up what she had in such abundance as a child: innocence, trust, laughter…now that the only thing she has left from that time is the memory of the madreselva, the honeysuckle that grew up a wall, to the flowers of which she confided her closest secrets…when there’s nothing left at all, Ada still sings with a smile in her voice, fresh and genuine, and with a suggestion of jaded desire for the person to whom she is singing.
She is a Judy Garland-like figure. Evidently she did not attend school. Rather she had personal teachers who worked with her when she was not making movies or singing or making records. She was also quite remarkably beautiful, notably so. By the time she was in her twenties, she was driving around Buenos Aires in a fast, red luxury convertible, she owned a fabulous three-story home in the Recoleta neighborhood, and she was appearing in public wrapped in fur and glittering with jewels. In the early thirties, she made approximately fifteen recordings a month. She was a superstar, and when you listen to her recordings you understand why. There are few singers in any genre who approach their songs with as much casual authority, yet fine artistic judgment, as Ada Falcón.
She was not as successful in matters of love.
She fell for Francisco Canaro, who was himself one of the most successful tango orchestra leaders of the twenties and thirties. This man’s music is extremely popular to this day. Many of Falcón’s greatest recordings were made with Canaro, and I have listened to most of them, wondering how much of the passion that is so evident in her voice came about because Canaro himself was standing near her as she sang, behind her, watching her and marveling at the feeling with which she gave him back the songs that he had given her.
For an example, listen to Tengo Miedo, in which Falcón sings, “Tu cariño me enloquece,/tu pasión me da la vida./Sinembargo tengo miedo./Tengo miedo de quererte.” (“Your affection drives me wild,/your passion gives me life./Nonetheless I’m afraid./I’m afraid to love you.”)
In 1943, at the age of thirty-eight, at the peak of her career, Falcón abandoned it. Her retirement was sudden, completely unexpected and extremely strange. She began to appear on the streets of Buenos Aires in disguise, it seemed, her head swathed in scarves, shawls hanging about her shoulders, her considerably lovely eyes hidden behind slab-like sunglasses. She stopped recording. There were reports in the newspapers about strange nighttime peregrinations, about her odd dress, her raving. What was more unexpected was that she abruptly left Buenos Aires one day in the company of her mother, traveled to Cordoba, Argentina and there entered the Molinari Convent of Franciscan nuns.
There is a great deal of speculation about her decision to leave show business, the life she had known almost since birth, and to enter the contemplative life under vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Most center upon her love for Canaro. Because Canaro had a wife.
Evidently Falcón had been very guilt-ridden about her affair with a married man, yet overwhelmed by the love she felt for him. She had pleaded with Canaro to divorce his wife so that she could marry him. Canaro had agreed, but did not actually go through with the divorce action. He kept Falcón on one arm and his wife on the other, for years. There were family reasons, Canaro said. The Church, you see. We just have to wait for a while to keep it respectable. Careers. Obligations. Falcón waited, until the day on which Canaro admitted to her that he would never leave his wife under any circumstances.
Falcón, the theory says, went mad. She went to the streets, wandered the streets, swathed in craziness. Shortly thereafter, her mother took her away and she entered the convent.
Ada Falcón died in 2002, at niney-six, in the convent in Cordoba. She seldom left the convent, she never recorded another song, and it’s my guess that she never recovered her heart.
Terence Clarke’s seventh work of fiction, the novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published this spring.
I had a conversation last year in Finnegan’s of Dalkey–a phenomenal Dublin pub where novelist Maeve Binchy used to drink, and Bono now does drink–with an Irish attorney acquaintance. He had read my book of stories Little Bridget and The Flames of Hell, all of which deal in some way with the Irish in contemporary San Francisco, where I live.
San Francisco’s Irish community was, and still is, a major element in the culture of the city. As in so many other U.S. cities, the Irish came here in droves in the 19th century. But the diaspora has come upon us once again in the few years since the Celtic Tiger stumbled so badly. A victim of the same muscle-flexing hubris and financial thoughtlessness that almost brought the United States to its knees in 2008, Ireland is only just now beginning to recover. In the intervening seven years, there has been a noticeable increase of young Irish living and working in San Francisco, people in their early to mid-twenties.
My attorney friend enjoyed the stories I had written. He was surprised by the accuracy of my dialog when spoken by an Irish character, given that I had indeed never lived in Ireland. I explained that my knowledge of those conversational idiosyncrasies came from two sources: the kitchens of my mother and her mother (where I had spent so much time as a child listening to them talking and laughing, with their female relatives, at almost everything being said) and the University of California at Berkeley.
The women in those kitchens spoke in ways that seemed simply American to me, always with mid-west Chicago accents. I thought that the way my mother and grandmother told stories was how stories got told in every kitchen in the United States. What I did not realize was that, although their accents were in no way Irish, the idiomatic expressions those women often used were unique to the Irish. That revelation came to me when, as a student at Berkeley, I began reading Brendan Behan, Edna O’Brien, James Joyce, Frank O’Connor and all the others. Those writers worked in a kind of English dialect that I recognized from my mother. The turns of phrase, the wandering humor and laugh-inducing self-deprecation that had come into my own manner of speaking had originally come, I realized, from Dublin and its surround, from Cork City and Galway, where my great grandparents had lived.
But my attorney friend found fault with some of the stories I told in my book. “You’re writing about Irish sentiments from the 1950s or 60s, Terry. But not now.” He shook his head, his eyes softly observing the Finnegan’s pint before him. “No, not now, boy-o.”
Because of the duplicitous malfeasance of so many priests in Ireland–those most particularly who sexually attack children, and those who protect the attackers–the Catholic Church has lost its footing in that country. What was, until very recently, the single most repressed Catholic society in western Europe is now thoroughly revising its opinion of the Church. The most recent, and most stunning, example of that revisionism is the vote last month in the Republic of Ireland to legalize same-sex marriage. It is the first country whose entire populace has been asked to vote on the notion, and sixty-two percent of them said “yes”.
Ireland, of all places!
When I was writing my book ten years ago, I would no more have predicted such a vote than I would have claimed to be an English aristocrat. So my attorney acquaintance was right. Ireland is not the Ireland we once knew. But I was writing about a community of people who had arrived in San Francisco in the mid-twentieth century, and I now realize that that was an eon ago. The stories are terrific, believe me, but the Irish in Ireland have changed profoundly.
I am more or less devotedly heterosexual. But this same-sex marriage is a grand thing, and God save the Irish for having voted it in.
Terence Clarke’s new novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published on May 1.
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 corpsman, the equivalent of a 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 corpsman, 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 May.)
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.