Original: Vieraslista, Like, 2012, 373 pp.
English-language excerpt translated by Kristian London.
It goes round, round, round’ah
Once she lay open like a road
Madrid, I have the clap. And the wind murmurs down Calle de Cervantes. Through the open windows, the smell of food, cigarette smoke, the yapping of a dog, cries of disappointment. Television screens, flickering blue. A boy looks at the green cross of the pharmacy, the door across which a metal grid has been drawn. The wind murmurs down Calle de Cervantes, chopped by the wide, blue-flickering windows, the wind penetrates, thrusts into the garbage chute like blood collecting in the northwest corner of your pounding head. The wind dodges the scooters and the cars that have been driven onto the sidewalk, rustles the garbage bags, bumps into cardboard boxes, fruit boxes, lifts a white plastic bag into the air, whips it into the entryway of a bar, close that door, jostles people, circles the counter, don’t touch, it has the seeds of evil, turn down the TV, get the hell out of here! The wind murmurs down long, narrow lanes, licking the boy’s chest, in the lane strange smells, reeking refuse, burnt chestnuts. The crackling sound of a radio rises from somewhere, burying beneath it the television, the cries of disappointment, the football announcer, a heart-wrenching song floats up from the radio: where she gone, where she gone? The boy stands amid the rubbish, leans against a railing, pukes into a cardboard box, inside the box children’s toys, a blue chair, on its back a dog’s head, a dog’s headrest, a soft flat head, the chair levitates from the cardboard box, leads the boy in a dance, collides with the plastic bag whipped by the wind, nothing more than a bag, spoiled, wiped from the map, it does not belong to the filth of this city, this city wants to rid itself of trash, spit it back into the train station. I wander in circles.
Madrid. I have the picture of the disease in my pocket. I stand on the street, there’s no one here. Blue lights flicker in the buildings, inside it’s real Madrid versus athletic Madrid, goal. ¡Gol!
Gol x 60.
Gogol. Next time, remember to wear an overcoat, little brother.
I ache. I have plunged from an earth-circling orbit to a desolate network of streets. Cries come from the blue-flickering windows. The bars on Calle de Cervantes cheer. I turn onto Lope de Vega, walk it from end to end, turn again, Cervantes, I should read him sometime, Lope de Vega, I don’t know the language, I step into a bar, one coffee, the tiniest imaginable, that I burn off by sweating, wandering in circles, out in the lane, my fingers down my throat, the throat of love, I see the burn, the sun burnt to a crisp in my bowels, that’s not how it goes, it goes the other way around.
We met on the opera stairs. She was standing under an umbrella, red ankle-boots, dark skirt, dark-red winter coat, drops of water cling to its hairs like pearls. Her auburn hair glowed in the rain. I came from the side. I wasn’t in the best condition, standing there in front of her, surrounded by historical monuments. We had nothing in common except for a phone number and perhaps a similar taste in music. She offered me her umbrella, took me to the terrace of a café to warm up, ordered green tea, the surface of my café au lait was lighter than her skin. We both came from far away, we sat just as far from each other, Paris pelted the table with water. We sat in silence until she glanced at her watch and we ran to the train, not the metro, the commuter train. On the way, I spoke of the passing of time, the months that had rolled past like a ball into a gutter, I told her about my friends, not all of them, she smiled inwardly. The tiresome train ride ended with our getting off at the Nanterre station. The rain was coming down harder. She led me at a half-run across streets swimming in water, there wasn’t enough umbrella for me. Apartment buildings rose up out of the dark. The doorways that waited unilluminated at the feet of the concrete towers were all different in a weird way, I didn’t get them at all. She drew me to the right door, pulled out a bulky key chain, turned on the lights, and continued inside without waiting to see if I would follow. The stairwell was painted in gaudy colors, orange and green. The elevator door at the end of the corridor had been scrawled with grafitti. We didn’t need the elevator. She waited on the second-floor landing, gestured for me to go on ahead, closed the door, locked it, pulled the chain.
From the kitchen window you could see the train station, the power lines, and the rain. She cuts bread, puts water on to boil, gets a towel and a change of clothes, lavender silk pants and a sunflower-yellow shirt. As I go into the bathroom, I hear a faint bang from the kitchen as she lights the water heater. I heaped my wet clothes on top of the washing machine, the clean ones on top of them, money belt on top of it all. I turned on the water. I looked at myself in the mirror for the time it took for the mirror to fog over. I squatted in the tub. The water rushed over me. I pressed my sides, fingered the red marks left by the money belt. The hot water ran out, going lukewarm first, soon nothing was left but a back-flagellating hailstorm. I climbed out trembling from the cold. I sniffed the towel before drying myself, it smelled like detergent. The yellow shirt had lace trim at the sleeves and the cedar of Lebanon on the chest, a whiff of laundry cupboard at the armpits. The silk harem pants came from near the laundry basket, smelled like a pH of about five.
She was in the kitchen draining the macaroni when I came in, turned sideways when she saw my nightwear, her shoulders shuddered with restrained laughter. In the entryway there was a mirror, I didn’t dare to see what I looked like. We ate in silence, she with her eyes cast down, smiling at her plate. During dessert, mandarin slices and coffee, we chatted a little, formally. It was comfortable and awkward at the same time, I felt good and clean, a warm kitchen, a woman shoving clothes into a washing machine. While we waited for the wash cycle to end, she made tea. I killed time gazing at Nanterre’s brightly lit station through the rain. Soft Middle-Eastern music could be heard coming from the other side of the wall. I started getting drowsy. She was hanging laundry. My dress shirt and pants, her pantyhose and panties. I felt like helping her, but then I would have had to stand right up next to her.
The apartment was small, a cramped entryway, a narrow kitchen, a closet you could walk into, a room with a dressing table, books on the floor, a sewing machine and women’s fashion magazines, an ironing board leaning against the wall, a screen draped with clothes, a low stereo stand, a boombox, a photograph of a little girl in a princess dress, candles. Where are we going to sleep, she didn’t have a bed. The bed was a mattress on the floor, underneath it there was another mattress, she lifted the corner of the bed to show me. I won’t be relegated to the closet after all. I tugged out the bottom mattress, she set it up next to her bed, not so they touched, there was an alarm clock and a reading lamp and a glass of water between the mattresses, about two yards times eight inches of no-man’s land. When she went to get sheets from her closet, I nudged the mattresses to even out the gap. She gave me a bedspread and changed the pillowcase on her pillow, made do with a throw pillow trimmed with cord and embroidery. I crawled under the blanket, it was as thin as the harem pants. She kept studying, for a test or exam, I listened to the rustling of the pages, the scratching sound of the sharp-tipped pen, I smelled the aroma of the tea she was drinking, I smelled more than saw the pale, bare soles of her feet, her brown ankles, a golden anklet around one of them, moving above me, imagined more than saw her glistening black pussy hovering above the bedspread. I pretended to sleep. She had vanished on her own side under one of those old-fashioned duvets so all you could see of her was an auburn ponytail, that and the hand that crawled towards me, towards no-man’s land, and turned off the lamp. I listened to her breathing, thought I could make out the rise and fall of the blanket, sank into her scent. Outside it was still raining, the wind was blowing in the power lines.
In the morning I watched her behind her coffee cup, wrapped up in the blanket. She was just wearing a slip, my black jeans in her lap, she was mending the holes in the knee, the trains’ running boards were pretty high. I looked at her Roman profile, or Oriental, her chewed fingernails, her rough hands, the movement of the needleprick-hardened fingertips in the folds of the fabric. I looked at her bare feet, the golden anklet, the ankles sprouting black hairs, I was standing up, reaching for her, a gleam sparked in her eyes and she stretched out below me conciliatorily, pressed against me, I mussed her hair, sank into her eyes. We screwed until our mouths and eyes were full, those eyes didn’t close for a second. I blinked, jumped in place. She was sitting at the other end of the kitchen, looking at me with thread between her teeth, eyes big, brown nuts.
“Tea?” I moved towards the gas range.
She dressed in the living room behind the screen. The screen kept the people shivering at the train station from seeing her, I could see her in the entryway mirror. I tried to look away. The turquoise paint had peeled from the cupboard. The shelves held delicate coffee cups, a moka pot, a five-branched candelabra, photographs. Live shots, posed shots, shots she had taken herself, some in this kitchen. Not a single shot of herself, of schoolmates or friends, siblings, relatives, parents, just of bands, guitarists, singers, some I recognized, some well. My head turned. She was rolling white, crocheted-looking pantyhose, or were they tights, up around her brown feet, carefully, carefully as if they were too fragile to touch. She covered the black bra with a white shirt and her panties with a see-through slip and a then heavier black skirt, pulled up the side-zipper and patted the pleat down over it, looked at the end result in the mirror. “I made this.”
I started. “The skirt?”
She shoved her feet into flats, put on lipstick, took a key off the keychain, left it on the chair in the entryway, and headed out. I laid back down, on her side of the mattress. When I couldn’t fall asleep, I sat at the dressing table, looked out the window, at her make-up, her boxes, opened up my bag, moved the bottles of nail polish and tins of powder from the dressing table to the floor, lifted my portable typewriter in their place, rolled a piece of paper through it, nothing came, my head was empty. I paced in circles, popped into the closet, it smelled bewitching in there, I fingered her clothes, checked the minis on the shelf, lots of different flavors and brands, I opened and tossed back some cherry swill. I opened a cardboard box on the floor, there among the letters and papers and folders were hundreds of photographs, some of her, some naked. I pulled on my still-wet clothes on and headed out, wandered around the apartment buildings, they were weird, it was like they had tried to bring the atomic age to the suburbs. The windows protruded from the walls of the buildings, they were square but the corners were rounded, and the frames, if that’s what you could call them, looked like plastic. The buildings were painted different colors, lots of different colors, some had clouds painted on them. It was the weirdest Paris I had ever seen. There was a supermarket at the train station, I went there to buy wine. You could also get clothes there. I took a look at the pants rack. The selection was for a different demographic, I’m a whole other ball of wax, my bones are all off in relation to my flesh, my atrophied muscles. I took the only jeans that looked OK from the rack, they were light blue, American style. I opened the bottle of wine in the dressing room, took off my freshly mended Levis, someone peeked in from the other side of the curtain, a Turkish-looking woman who hissed, grabbed a mop and bucket from next to the chair, and yanked the curtain tighter. I pulled on my old pants, I probably wouldn’t wear light-blue jeans after all. I got a package from the men’s department consisting of, based on the picture and what I could make out through the plastic, black dress trousers, a white dress shirt, and a black bowtie with dots, picked up another bottle of wine and a package of coffee and a package of sugar and went back to the apartment.
I had tried on the pants, plucked the straight pins from the shirt, climbed back into my old pants, I was still wearing her yellow shirt. I lingered at the window, taking in the view of the rail yard, young African men, white students. I practiced tying a bow in my tie. I hid the empty wine bottle in the breast pocket of my jacket. Time dripped like glue, the schooldays here were long. I went into the closet to go through stuff, her clothes, photographs, I could have made money off some of them from music rags or men’s mags. I cursed my curiosity.
She finally came back. She had been cleaning after her school day. I showed her my purchases, offered her wine, she wanted to know what kind I had bought, what kind of coffee. She made couscous, tasted the wine from my glass, looked at my shirt and pants.
“Did you try them on first?”
She turned on the water heater, took a pack of slim cigarettes wrapped in black tobacco leaves from the spice cabinet and offered one to me, I declined, she waited for the water to heat up for as long as it took to smoke the cigarette, thanked me for the coffee, disappeared behind the screen to undress, left the bathroom door open while she brushed her teeth, she was wearing nothing more than a bra and a slip, I could see the dark, curly thatch of hair through the slip. She swept her hair up on top of her head, stepped into the tub, turned on the water, scoured her legs with a washcloth, starting from under the slip, the inside of her thighs, moving down the legs to the ankles, the gold anklet gleamed through the foam. She sneezed, sniffed, tossed her leg over the side of the tub.
“I already went this morning,” I lied.
The empty spot between her thick eyebrows furrowed. She finished her evening regimen and got in bed. I turned off the lights in the kitchen, followed her example. I laid my coat over the bedspread, assumed the fetal position, clenched my toes, shivered. I closed my eyes so hard it hurt. I listened to her, I lived off her clean smell. The duvet rustled as she tossed and turned, the anklet tinkled. She dug into, clambered on top of my chest, didn’t weigh much of anything, took my head in her hands, laughed at my bewilderment. I rose from my deflated position, too much booze had tuckered me out.
Nick Cave stops at a bakery window. ”Do you guys want something?” I ask. Barry Adamson, the band’s bassist, shakes his head. Thomas Wydler, the drummer, makes an apologetic face. But when I, having just a moment ago counted my centimes, say it’s on me, Nick drags me through the door by the shoulder. Hemming and hawing ensues, I issue warnings about the delicious-looking sugar-rings that will nevertheless prove to be hard, we all agree that cream is a must. After having picked out their pastries, the drummer and bassist head back outside. Nick can’t decide what he wants, gesticulates to his friends waiting outside the window, and eventually chooses the same kind of cream pastry I did. From the change the relentlessly smiling saleswoman holds out to me, I realize that I have only paid for the cream pastries. My respect for backing musicians goes up a notch.
Every choice in this life is, at best, the second best choice. I’m talking about when you don’t get the cutest girl in class and settle for her friend, when you’re in line at a coffee shop and feel like taking that piece of cake you can’t afford and buy a cookie instead. I’ve never seen the insides of private jets, hotel suites, I haven’t been admitted anywhere that matters, backstage is about as far as I’ve gone. I’m with a French band, traveling to England.
I’m sitting or more like crouching in the leg space of a van sided in corrugated metal, in that gap between the front seat and the door. Closest to me, on the seat, is the band’s pint-sized violinist Veronica, she’s sporting a clipped boy cut and ballet flats, size two at most. At the wheel is Tadeusz, Deus for short. Sitting in the middle is the band’s singer and namesake, Jesus Fucar, a suburban anarchist of Mexican origin. He smokes non-stop whenever he isn’t ingesting his asthma medicine, his red-checked velour pants brighten the van’s gray interior and his toffee-colored desert boots the otherwise drab surface of the dash.
Jesus Fucar’s background musicians are sitting behind the cab, in the cargo space, on benches sawn from particle board, they lean uncomfortably against the ridged surface, into their hands, crane and stretch to see out the windshield, where a too-small wiper clacks at the upper edge. The musicians’ names are Lionel, Jean-Yves, and Pascal. The first of these is the band’s guitarist and a cinema projectionist in civilian life, the middle one is the drummer and gofer for the leftist newspaper Libération, Pascal is the bassist and a set builder for television, a carpenter. They’re mellow guys, smart and educated, just like you might expect, and no, they’ve never been to the Eiffel Tower. They’re packed like sardines on the left side of the van, the other wall of the cargo space is crammed with guitar cases, drums, and amps, the van lists slightly to this side. Pascal’s upright bass is strapped to the roof.
I’m in charge of the entertainment, I’m a stowaway who’s trying to earn his passage. No moping allowed. The Polish driver does his best. He’s not pleased by my presence, I’m an enemy of music, I’m a cop and a parasite, I consume my weight in gas every hundred miles. I accept his criticism with a grunt. I’ve seen plenty of these, artists who are over-sensitive to journalists, I’ve even seen them in the drivers’ clothing. I tell dumb stories to keep the mood buoyant, I sacrifice my charisma for a free ride. The others try to silence me with their snorts, they want to rest. To the Pole butchering French at the wheel, I’m living proof, an archive copy, of how all journalists are unstable, and music journalists in a particularly crude way. They strike all the wrong chords, force themselves on you and don’t know how to shut up. When I say I’m doing a travelogue, they don’t get excited, they attack my grammar.
“For you it would be easiest to say trip.”
In this fashion my pronunciation is corrected and I am instructed, me, the journalist. The French – they definitely are ballsy. I pull out an old article from my wallet, unfold it, it’s a full-page spread and I have to lay it partially onto Veronica’s lap. “I figured I’d do something like this.” I cough and begin to quote myself: “They look like stray dogs as they lope down Boulevard Voltaire. The sudden stops at store windows, bookstands, grabbing a bite when the opportunity presents itself. Real in-the-moment living.” I raise my head. “Do you get what I’m going for?”
“You don’t know how to write about music,” Veronica replies.
I don’t care for her tone. “This is a snapshot, chérie, from a couple of years ago, of your hometown in October, its grand boulevards swept by the wind, and by cars, hundreds of cars, and I’m walking down them and so are Nick Cave and his band.”
“Are we in it?” The band’s drummer, Jean-Yves, stretches his neck across the bench.
I would like to lie that they’re in a starring role, but even though they don’t speak the language, they’d still see that Jesus Fucar’s name doesn’t appear until a side phrase in the last paragraph.
“Unfortunately I was only focusing on the evening’s headliner at the time.”
“You probably didn’t even notice us,” Veronica sighs.
“I didn’t recognize your genius until later. After I heard your record.”
“And so you want to do the same kind of piece on us as you did on Nick Cave?”
“Not the same kind as the one on him. A piece with the same sort of ambiance as this one.”
Kind of gonzo, getting away from the actual topic, from the music, because that’s the way you can open up the music, by opening up the soul of the band. But there’s no point explaining this in any greater depth to intellectuals, they slam everything anyway.
“If that ambiance means idolizing junkies, you’re flying out on your ass,” Jesus Fucar says, scowling. Naturally, he’s rabidly anti-drugs, the hard ones.
“Not on your life, señor.” I clear my throat and continue: “They’ve been to every metropolis;” I hold a semi-colonish pause, “there’s not much cash in their pockets or flesh on their bones and there’s no real plan for the future, for an hour from now.” I adopt a grandiloquent tone and make a couple of sweeping gestures, rapping my knuckles against the corrugated metal. “This is why I’m able to hook up with them; everything depends on their mood, not some PR spirit. They’re not mechanical, like the chart bands, they’re animals.” I take a breath. “How does it sound?”
“Animals?” The driver Tadeusz, Deus for short, lets out a consonant-heavy chortle. “You want us to be animals?”
So it’s us, huh? He’s just the driver.
“I don’t want anything, I’m just planning on following Jesus Fucar in civilian life, or actually removed from civilization, that’s what I mean by animals in this context.”
“There’s also the danger that we’ll be mixed up with other bands.”
He is, perhaps, referring to the band The Animals, and he’s taking the association way too far.
“I think the risk clearly exists,” chimes in the guitarist, Lionel, from the bowels of the van.
“But if the readers of his magazine haven’t heard of the 1960s,” supposes Pascal, the bassist, “then there’s probably no chance of confusion.”
“You guys are a drag,” I say.
Veronica knocks me with her ballet slipper. “There’s a germ of truth there.”
“There’s no germ, you guys are just giving me a hard time.”
“We’re just careful.”
“You want me to say it slowly?” I ask, and start talking as simply and slowly as possible. “Because I don’t write in English, it doesn’t make any difference if I talk about animals, and this piece,” I slap my beloved article, “wasn’t even about you, except for at the end of a subordinate clause! But if you guys want, when I’m writing about Jesus Fucar, I promise I won’t say a word about animals, at most tequila worms.”
“Ai-ai,” groans Jesus Fucar. “Right away a factual error and a cliché.”
“And in a single word,” Veronica quips.
Two words, actually. But I’m not a hairsplitter, I’m the first to admit and learn from my mistakes, I’m always receptive to good advice, I’m not perfect. Even with this two-year-old bastard, or symbiosis, of concert critique and flanuering down Parisian boulevards, after all of the plugging away at it, some imperfections could still be detected, primarily in terms of form. That semi-colon I used may have been a touch pseudo-artistic, but pseudo-artisticness can still have that certain Franz Kafka effect, especially when it comes to rhythm. My language arts teacher used to say that semicolons are like stones in your path; running into them produces a stumbling sensation, but stuff like that happens when you’re like me, even my attempts at escaping normal life have been pretty ungainly. Nevertheless, my article was written over and over again, honed to insanity, rewriting it helped kill time at the military hospital, in my blue-and-white striped pajamas, it gave me the motivation to keep breathing until the next day. Without this article I carry around in my pocket, things could have gone badly for me. For me, working on it was like searching for an ancient Incan city was for the conquistadors, it was my dream. Its publication, on the other hand, didn’t mean a thing, it wasn’t the fulfillment of a dream, just like finding the Incan city wasn’t for the Spaniards. The important thing was to do it, the article itself, all alone, without anyone’s help or encouragement. And the most important thing was that it wasn’t some dictated piece, some über-average piece of crap about some new-ro pop star; on the contrary, it was a virgin article, an accident, occurred and experienced in a fleeting rapturous moment, and only afterwards laboriously put down on paper. And due to the piece’s improvisatory nature, and I’m still talking not about form but content, about half a year went to its creation, delving into its form had taken me deep within myself, opened gates, locked previous ones, my article’s role as a trailblazer for all those gnats buzzing around music mags was, in my mind, completely clear. I felt it was a model for all those ossified armchair journalists, it would give them a tip, a hint, to stop living off official press releases and get out for once, there’s a lot to see out here.
“I’ve tapped something essential about the rock’s longing for freedom and irrationality here,” I say to Jesus Fucar, who is a rolling a hash cigarette on his knee. “I want to do another article like this about you, if you’ll just let me, about your real essence, the one external to your music. I wouldn’t leave, we wouldn’t leave a single stone unturned, every second is precious and worth writing about, this way we could show you as a phenomenon, a sensation, at least as significant as Nick Cave, what do you think?”
Of course I mean that I would, if they allowed me to, be able to write an article about Jesus Fucar just as good my virgin article, the one with the attitude that, without having any deeper insight into the matter, trounced most of Hunter S. Thompson’s drug-fueled misadventures, for the simple fact that it was written sober.
Jesus Fucar leans against the dashboard to see me, or to show me his expressions. “As I once noted to Le Monde, we don’t have any role models other than God the Father and Trotsky,” he stretches out his Mexican accent in the Parisian way and manages to slip in a tone of disparagement for that lowly class of reporters that have not risen above floor level.
“Not even when we’re talking about a tiny article,” Veronica clarifies, prodding me with her ballet shoe.
“Knock it off, le bitch!”
“You’d better come up with something original, she continues. “So young and so blocked.”
“This stuff is original, lady! The best article ever written about Nick Cave,” I huff and start folding up the article to put back in my wallet. “I could write about you the same way as those idiots at New Musical Express,” and now I can feel myself getting hot, “write about rock’s Rimbaud and the heirs of Artaud, so what the fuck,” I spit out the final words, imbuing the spray with all of my disgust for users of vapid expressions.
Deus the driver mutters something nasty in Polish, Jesus Fucar blows smoke into the windshield, and Veronica yawns audibly. Disappointed, I cram my wallet into my front pocket, disappointed by their poor sportsmanship, their guardedness, they’ve read too much and that’s why they think they’re better than they are. They wouldn’t be able to point out the assets of my article even if they were capable of reading it, they don’t want to accept the style I proposed because I proposed it, they can’t, because if they did, they would admit it, they would lose their justification for being right the same way as the nation of France lost sovereignty to the Algerians. Now, if I say this –
“You’re as scared of real suggestions and possibilities coming from somewhere else as an Indian is of a horse.”
“That metaphor is terrible,” Veronica prods.
“Kick me one more time and you’re going to be going out on stage barefoot, lady.”
If I were in a worse mood I could have been a lot more vicious, added some French outrage, disparagement, sarcasm to the sentence. Those times, those moments when I’ve let my dark side come out – by instinct I’ve only thrown myself into them once I’m dealing with the right target, and Veronica isn’t the right target. She also has her dark side, it’s called intelligence, I’ve had a taste of it, and I believe that Veronica would be better off as a political journalist than as a musician. When I warn her about kicking me, she looks at me almost tenderly. I also have to take into account that it’s thanks to her that I’m along on this jaunt in the first place.