INTERNATIONAL LITERATURE AWARD FROM THE NATIONAL ENDOWNMENT OF THE ARTS/USA
Translated by Diane Thiel and Constantine Hadjilambrinos
*INTERNATIONAL LITERATURE AWARD FROM THE NATIONAL ENDOWNMENT OF THE ARTS/USA
Per me si va nella citta dolente,
Per me si va nell’ eterno dolore,
Per me si va tra la Perduta Gente.
Inferno, III, 1-3
THE CANARY IN THE MINE
Time is an ocean,
But it ends at the shore
If, as the saying goes, the past is a foreign country, then he had been exiled to its territory for many years now. A foreigner, alone in his own country. He had to leave, to place at least an ocean in between the past and the present. That’s why he was going across to the New World. To a country in which the pursuit of happiness is enshrined in the Constitution. He was not going in order to explore a new country, but in order to abandon himself to her liberating power. For the possibility that she could put out this second heart whose beat measured the past constantly inside him.
The light fell vertically—he was possibly the only one with it on. He opened his wallet. There, in the coin compartment, the last melatonin pill. He swallowed it with saliva. He looked around, one hundred and eighty degrees. Window, aisle, emergency exit.
In the net on the back of the seat, a magazine with a canary on its cover. On the small screen a Hollywood movie—old, black and white. A scene inside a mine. He watched for a while. Suddenly a spark. The mine. The canary. The canary in the mine. Old-time coal miners who, before entering the tunnels, would lower a canary to check if it was safe. If there was not enough oxygen the bird was a first indicator—it would die.
Sleep refused to come. He opened the newspaper. To find out what was going on. For the dispatches he would have to send back. “The ‘Swift Boat Veterans’ cast doubts on Kerry’s record during the Vietnam war”. Photo of Kerry. Tall, stiff back, dry. Further down: “Hurricane Ivan will hit Florida”. The Midwest is not anywhere near Florida, he thought. About as far as Poland from Greece. He was not heading to a country but to a continent. In a few hours, everything would be ten thousand kilometers behind him. He was sending himself to the biggest mine in the world. Like a canary. To check if there was oxygen.
He was not yet forty years old and his parents were dead. That is, his mother was dead. His father was dead only to him. They had not spoken to each other in eleven years. Nothing. Silence. His wife had left him: “I don’t feel we are a plural any more,” she’d said. “What plural?” he had asked. “‘I’ is singular, ‘we’ plural.” They had not made love in the ten months before their separation. He could not—not any more.
He had no kids. Almost no friends. He lived only for himself. How is it to live for yourself? Like there is no God, no universe, no humankind, no life on earth, no heaven, no hell. Everything a dream—an endless, dark, stupid dream.
He took out his pen. He wrote a single word: Egw (I). He scribbled it out immediately and rewrote it. This time with an omicron. Ego. Ego: the word with its closed letter, the omicron a cage full of blood and memory. As he wrote, the light, in synch with the small bumps of the plane, repeatedly cast shadow and light upon his face, as if an invisible pen was drawing lines and roads directly on his skin.
He was a writer. In other words the window, the aisle, and the emergency exit all at once.
The third flight was the shortest. Chicago to Cedar Rapids. Iowa City, despite proudly carrying the name of the entire state, did not even have an airport. After twenty-two hours in the bellies of airplanes and the bowels of airports, he was at last reaching his destination. He looked down, at the landscape. An infinite flat expanse. Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point jumped into his mind.
Through the earphones, Dylan:
I'm walkin' through streets that are dead
Walkin', walkin' with you in my head
My feet are so tired
My brain is so wired
And the clouds are weepin'.
The clouds are weeping. He looked at the last faint traces being cut up by the wing. The clouds were dissolving, retreating into the sky. And the ground was beginning. “Ladies and gentlemen, we will be landing in a few minutes. Our captain, Marshall Fugelman, and the crew wish you a pleasant stay in Iowa.” He turned again to the window. He was unable to focus his attention anywhere other than the aluminum crosses in the windows of the dispersed houses below. Like crosses of martyrdom, washed clean of blood. Something cold, human, old. Geraniou Street. Number six. Polar cold. Snow on the ground. February. His winter coat on, alone, shivering beneath. The house blinking like a Christmas tree. She is inside. He outside, in the cold, watching. What? Nothing in particular. He just watched. Ever since he was a child he was the one watching, listening, observing, daydreaming. He turned up the volume of the music, to dispel the memory. Impossible. When we were browsing each other’s faces… he remembered one of her letters.
This is the price of being a writer: being pursued by the past. Mercilessly. If he were a mechanic, it would have been difficult for memory to affect him so strongly. There are cures for people of action. Things are more difficult for those who live inside their heads.
By the time he got back to the small apartment he was renting, he had already caught a nasty cold. But it was not the cold that held him, for the next four months, first in the hospital and then bedridden. Body and soul were now living two different lives. He was Prometheus in reverse. He had chosen his own punishment. The vulture ate not his liver but his heart. He lived chained to an alien creature: his body. So many small deaths, was it important which one would be the final?
And truly, he had come close to death. But he lived. And there, in the hospital, at home, he went over everything in his mind. Some acquaintances came to visit him—mostly because they felt obligated—and, on the third day, she came as well. And in the half hour she stayed, she cried nearly the whole time. For him, it felt like the weeping of a mother or a sister. An older sister. It was the last time he would see her.
When the doctors allowed him to get up, he spent the first two weeks in front of the TV. He watched six movies per day. His favorite directors. Alphabetically. In reverse. He began with Hitchcock (Citskok) and Psycho and ending with Antonioni—who else?—and Profession: Reporter.
At some point in time someone, it seems, remembered him. He was asked to give an interview. “The subject will be white” they told him. “White as in blank paper?” he asked. “White in general—if to you, as a writer, it evokes blank paper, then you can talk about blank paper.” He said various brave things: that it had never happened to him, that, rather the opposite—he was always too full of ideas to pursue them all, etc. Lies. For the last six years, long before his illness, he had been struggling to finish a novel. He would sit in front of his keyboard, like an angler with his fishing pole over the water. Nothing would bite. The screen would remain blank.
Slowly, he began to go out: first the corner store, then a walk in the nearby grove, later to the city center. But he was no longer the same person. He seemed to have lost all ability to participate in life. Nothing affected him. He observed the world around him like a naturalist on field research. Totally disinterested in things that he used to care about deeply, he had found a little corner of the universe in which to exist. Certain events in his immediate family—the few family members that were left—did not even touch him in any way. He lived silently, not writing, observing. At some point, however, this superimposed zen began to crack. His old self started to squeeze in through the fissures.
And then came the phone call. An invitation out of nowhere. Three months at a university in the U.S. Based in Iowa City, a small college town. All costs covered. He wondered why he was chosen. Maybe it was his next to last book that had been translated into English and was published in the U.K.; perhaps it was his excellent English—the result of many years of study but also of practice with his best friend, an American from San Francisco. What was most important was that the invitation came at the right moment. Also invited were about thirty-five other writers from around the world. Most were authors of thrillers and detective novels. The obligations were few. Peace and quiet. He’d have time to write. And what he wanted most of all was to write. Again. Something.
He wrote mostly thrillers. Not the detective kind—existential thrillers. Novels in which a lonely hero would get drawn into intrigues, with his life in danger, usually because he had inadvertently entered some kind of a danger zone. There, the hero would struggle to overcome the hurdles with his only assets—his imagination and alertness. However, the fast-paced action was a vehicle. The real themes of his books were lodged beneath the layer of intrigue.
He used to enter a room like a lion, looking for his prey. He used to be able to find it everywhere: in the silences, the crisp creases of pants, the quick glances, the gestures. Everything was material which he would grasp with his jaws and take to his lair. And there he would tear into it—sometimes violently, sometimes slowly, sensually. But for the last six years the lion had been captive, in a cage, fed by the zoo-keepers.
He wanted that sensation again. To write literature again, a novel, something other than a newspaper article. Not that he would not write for them as well. Writing for the newspaper was his main source of income. “You are going to be there during the national election campaign season; we want you to send us regular dispatches”, the newsroom editor had told him. Bush vs. Kerry. The cowboy and the professor.
He looked down again; now he could see details clearly. A boy—shorts, baseball cap—was pitching rocks at a trash can. In front, on the street, a car was moving slowly—the triangular sign of a driving school on its roof. In a field, five large cows with black patches were grazing peacefully. And in the forefront, hazy, reflected by the plexiglass of the plane’s window, his own image. The long face with sunken eyes, the thin eyebrows, the slightly hooked nose, the strong jaw, the full lips with the two curved wrinkles like framing parentheses.
Suddenly the plane banked and everything—boy, car, cows, reflection—disappeared. A few moments later he felt the thump of landing.
 Through me pass into the painful city,
Through me pass into eternal grief,
Through me pass among the Lost People.