Authors: Rachel Cusk
âIt makes you think democracy wasn't such a good idea after all,' he said.
I said I had assumed his family came from Wales, and he glanced at me with his strange wary smile, showing his narrow yellow teeth.
âI grew up just outside Corby,' he said. âTo be honest it was pretty dull. I keep thinking I'll write about it one day, but there just isn't a lot to say.'
The next morning the wind had dropped and the sagging grey clouds had begun to thin and lift, and by the time the delegates had started to gather in the lobby an intense heat had arrived that seemed to wait behind the veil of cloud, half-threat and half-promise.
Some of them wanted to go to the beach and the organisers were sombrely conferring and looking at their watches. The beach was at least half an hour's walk away, they said: unfortunately it would be impossible to get there and back in time for the next event. Someone asked whether there would be simultaneous translation provided for that event, whose subject was contemporary interpretations of the Bible, and the organisers said that unfortunately in this case they were unable to provide simultaneous translation: this weekend was a big religious festival here, and a lot of their staff had gone home to their families. Also there was the cup final, which they were worried would further deplete audience numbers. They act, a man called Eduardo said to me, as though they are the victims of fate, but in fact these are events that could have been seen from a long way off and avoided. Yet perhaps, he said, it is the very intentness of our own will that causes us to be blind to other realities. A few years ago, he said, some friends of his rented a house in Italy and chose to travel there by car, simply keying the address into their satnav and following its directions, which miraculously took them all the way from Holland â where they lived â down through Europe to this farmhouse in the remotest regions of the hot south. They spent two weeks there, marvelling at their own freedom and autonomy and the ease
with which they had made this transition. When the time came to go home and they had packed up the car again, they found that the satnav was for some reason not working. They realised, he said, that they had absolutely no idea where they were â they didn't even know the name of the nearest town â and since they spoke not one word of the language and were in any case in the middle of an unpopulated wilderness, they were forced to drive around and around this savage landscape on dirt roads, trying in increasing panic to find an escape route before they ran out of petrol and food. All that time, he said smiling, when they thought they were free, they were in fact lost without knowing it.
He asked whether I would be attending the Bible talk, which since I wouldn't be able to understand it I would have to treat as a mystical experience in itself, and I said that in fact I was going into the city for the day, as my editor had arranged a few interviews for me to do while I was here. He nodded his head slightly sadly, as though this information represented a disappointment, though to whom it wasn't clear. I had chosen a propitious time for my visit, he said, since it happened to be the brief season when the city's jacaranda trees were in bloom. They were a feature of the landscape there, running in great tall columns along the boulevards and avenues and
decorating the many famous squares. Yet it was only for the merest couple of weeks that they burst into flower, producing great ethereal clouds of luminous violet clusters, which moved in the breezes almost in the manner of water or indeed of music, as though the pretty purple flowers were the individual notes that in chorus formed a rippling body of sound. These trees took an extraordinarily long time to grow, he said, and the towering specimens in the city were decades â indeed centuries â old. People sometimes tried to grow them in their own gardens, but unless you were fortunate enough to have inherited one, it was almost impossible to reproduce this spectacle on your own private property. He had many friends â smart, aspirational people of good taste â who had planted a jacaranda tree in their new garden as though this law of nature somehow didn't apply to them and they could make it grow by the force of their will. After a year or two they would become frustrated and complain that it had barely increased even an inch. But it would take twenty, thirty, forty years for one of these trees to grow and yield its beautiful display, he said smiling: when you tell them this fact they are horrified, perhaps because they can't imagine remaining in the same house or indeed the same marriage for so long, and they almost come to hate their jacaranda tree, he said, sometimes even digging it up and replacing
it with something else, because it reminds them of the possibility that it is patience and endurance and loyalty â rather than ambition and desire â that bring the ultimate rewards. It is almost a tragedy, he said, that the same people who are capable of wanting the jacaranda tree and understanding its beauty are incapable of nurturing one themselves.
He was acquainted with my editor, he added, since the city was in the end a small world and everyone more or less knew everyone else. In a community as static as theirs, other people's lives were an ongoing drama that kept evolving through different phases of existence, like a long-running soap opera; occasionally a new character would come in, but the core cast remained the same. Paola was a good woman, he said, though one of those to whom something is always happening and who always somehow manages to come out of it stronger. In this country, for a woman to survive the numerous attempts to crush her, he said, she has to live like a hero, always getting up again and always, ultimately, alone.
On the television in front of the deserted sofas, a huge crowd was gathered around a church, holding aloft wreaths of flowers and candles while a man in ecclesiastical costume addressed them through a microphone. A little girl with an enormous blue satin bow in her hair and a matching elaborately frilled
dress stood staring at the screen while her parents called to her from inside the open lifts.
âOur embarrassing secret,' Eduardo said, rolling his eyes at the religious spectacle on the television. âYou can possibly cope with thinking half the country is mad, but then tomorrow, with the football, it becomes clear the other half is mad too.'
The other delegates were gathering on the tarmac beyond the plate-glass windows, waiting to be taken to the next event. We passed out through the doors and into the car park, where he looked doubtfully at the sky.
âYou have seen us in strange weather,' he said. âBut I think it's about to improve.'
Hammering sun, he added, was the norm at this time of year: these melancholy interludes of grey confusion were rare and yet nonetheless had the most dispiriting effect, as though they represented the temporary absence of authority. Dictatorial as it was, the sun was at least consistent: in England you are used to the sky weeping on you, he said, but here we take these things personally, like children take their parents' moods personally and assume they are to blame. Perhaps it follows, he said, that people who live in the sun don't take responsibility for their own happiness. According to his son, the unseasonal weather had at least yielded some excellent surf conditions,
which undoubtedly meant that he and his friends would pack up and move to the beach for a few days, with no more ambition than a colony of seals, he said, who go where the forces of nature direct them. My children live in only two dimensions, he said, like the character Tintin, whose adventures are made possible by occurring in a world that is fixed and that can be represented by a cartoonist's pen, where for me it is people and their thoughts that have been the true reality. I treated my children with only kindness, he said, and the result is that they have none of the anxieties I had at their age and also none of the ideas and visions by which I believed the world could be transformed and which turned even the smallest things into elements of a great drama, so that everything always seemed to be in a state of flux. For them the world is fixed, as I say, and they are willing to take their piece of it, but in the end it will be a much smaller piece, he said, than that which I have taken myself, despite the fact that I have apparently devoted myself to the life of the mind. I have more than they will probably ever have, he said smiling, yet I appear to them as a tortured soul: they are always giving me advice designed to make me happier and more relaxed, and it is good advice, he said, but they don't seem to realise that if I took it the drama would be over and the world would have less interest for me. The other day,
he said, my son and I were talking about politics, and he observed that in the current situation the possibility of destruction seemed genuinely to be upon us, to the extent that he couldn't see what move on the chess board would get us out of this corner. I replied that this was something all of us had felt in our turn, as we passed into adulthood and recognised the role of outside events in shaping history and their capacity to interfere in and change our lives, which until now had remained in the hermetic state of childhood. He said something which very much surprised me, which was that in any case he felt the destruction had by now been earned in full by humanity, and that even if it meant the lives of his generation weren't allowed to run their full course, he believed it would be for the best. Every time he thought of the future, his son said, he had to remind himself that this sense of his own story was just an illusion, because not enough was left any more for another story: enough time, enough material, enough authenticity. Everything has been used up, he said, except I suppose, Eduardo added, the waves, which continue to pound on the shore and will still be pounding when we're gone.
The bus had arrived and the queue of delegates was shuffling forwards through the open doors. Eduardo held out his hand. The sun suddenly broke through the cloud and surged hot and fierce across our faces
and the tarmac of the car park and the glinting metal of the bus.
âI suspect that you are running away,' he said, his eyes screwed up either with puzzlement or because of the heavy glare. âI hope you make good use of your freedom.'
The hotel where Paola had asked me to meet her was as plush as the one from which I'd come had been bleak. The walls of the vast lobby were panelled with dark wood and leather, and an air of mystery had been created by the use of columns and dim lighting and lowered sections of ceiling, so although the people inside remained visible, it encouraged them to feel concealed. The reception desk, an enormous dark plinth in a sunken hall staffed by a row of uniformed attendants, gave such an impression of grandiose finality that it was as if, Paola said, this was where the wheat was being separated from the chaff. She sat perched on a leather footstool in a silvery tunic and thin gold sandals, tapping speedily at the screen of her phone and shooting enquiring looks around the lobby while her assistant, a large soft girl with a sweetly placid expression, sat on a sofa nearby. The hotel, Paola said, laid claim to literary associations that were more or less spurious, since they consisted entirely
of the fact that a bookshop had once stood on this site which was demolished to make way for the new building. Nonetheless the theme had been conserved in the hotel's insignia â a motif of famous signatures written in faded ink â and in the severe splendour of its decor, though in their haste to recreate the ambiance of a library they had somehow, she said, forgotten to supply any books, except for the wallpaper made from a photograph of worn leather spines that had been used for the inside of the lifts. But we should be grateful, she said, that they took such a serious attitude to literature, because even if this place was entirely unrepresentative of writers and their lives, it was ideal for conducting interviews and in summer was one of the coolest and quietest spots in the city.
The first journalist would be arriving at any moment, she added, and there would be a filmed interview later, on behalf of the last remaining arts programme on national television. Only a handful of writers were invited to participate in this programme, she went on, so she was happy I was one of them, because opportunities to promote books were harder and harder to come by. The format was very straightforward and the whole thing would probably only take fifteen minutes, since the programme had had its running time cut in half last year. It was unclear precisely why this had happened, she added, except that everything to do with literature
always seemed to be shrinking, as though the world of books was governed by a principle of entropy while everything else proliferated and expanded. The newspapers now gave half the space to reviews that they had ten years ago and bookshops were forever closing down, and with the arrival of the e-reader there had even been doomsayers predicting the book as a physical entity might cease to exist entirely. Like the Siberian tiger, she said, we are always being threatened with extinction, as though novels likewise had once been fierce and were now fragile and defenceless. Somewhere along the line, she said, we have failed to promote our product, perhaps because the people who work in the literary world are those who secretly believe their interest in literature is a weakness, a kind of debility that marks them out from everyone else. We publishers, she said, proceed on the assumption that no one cares about books, whereas the makers of cornflakes convince everyone that the world needs cornflakes like it needs the sun to rise in the morning.
Her eyes had been busily scanning the lobby and they suddenly lit up at the sight of a man coming through the big smoked-glass doors. She leapt off her stool and went to meet him, while her assistant asked me if I wanted any coffee before things got started. There would probably be some free time between the interviews, she said, but you could never be sure:
sometimes they went on for much longer than they were supposed to. Some writers perhaps had more to say than others did, she said doubtfully, or perhaps they just enjoyed talking more. I asked her how long she had worked in publishing and she said she had only had this job for a couple of months. Before that she had worked for one of the national airlines. This was a better job, she said, because the hours were more sociable and it meant she could spend more time with her children. Her children were very small, she said, but she had got into the habit of asking each of the writers she met to sign a copy of their book with a dedication for them. She put the books on a special shelf at home, because although the children were too young to read them now, she liked the idea of them finding a shelf with all these books dedicated to them in the future. Perhaps, she said, if there was time, she could trouble me to sign one of mine for them later.