I’ve long stopped smearing drecks across this blog, preferring instead to fire off utilitarian (or so I believed) posts on C2O library’s growing site, and keeping the personal on my handwritten journals. 4 years ago I was hammering and painting the bookshelves using Danny’s notes. Now I’m thinking of upgrading to ceiling-high shelves as more and more book donations are bursting the creaking shelves.
A couple of years down, a stack of journals (the free, faux-leather kind handed out as annual reminder souvernirs by travel bureaus)—loyal victims of my whims and merciless scribbles, and a barely-filled one that got away, I’m writing here again. A few languages fell into disuse, the mother—whose mother’s?—tongue I have never been completely at ease with winning out in terms of my quantity of use.
I longed to be lost in language, in books, again, as I did back then, in that absorbed, oblivious-to-my-surrounding, very selfish manner. I picked up one book that used to hook me straight from the start. I remember gleefully jotting the words down for my own recreation, pleasure, self-assessment. “The whole world is dying of panicky fright… Their flesh is already embalming the humans who drop like flies. As the flesh perishes, solemnity issues forth. But where I am I can muse in comfort in the lovely dead of yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” Words were too beautiful back then. If writing is an erotic device, I was—at least the way I remembered it—one content voyeur.
Perhaps, the ethical aspect of these words is creeping on the voyeur—I can’t shake off the tension about being part of the same disease against what we claim to be fighting (what, really?). I’ve somehow regressed to the slightly conservative idea that time should be better spent on creating (writing), not just absorbing (reading), or if the latter, the choice should be weighed carefully on its practical uses, which most of the time brings me to non-fiction books I “should” read, and less reading for pleasure. How quaint, and yet how persistently it gnaws the back of my mind.
My sister gave me her copy of David Nicholls’ One Day, and skimming through, I found myself chagrined by the caricatural description of the female protagonist as a wide-eyed, left-leaning literary hopeful (not that the male protagonist was portrayed any better). I visited Berkelouw’s at Newtown and foolishly grew both disgruntled and fascinated by their range of high-end writing stationeries, all the time fully realising I should be glad that at least, this great, coffee-smelling independent bookstore is still standing and brimming with activities. (I can’t help breathing a sigh of relief entering a much barer Books on Kings nearby, though.)
I had a better luck with Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, which I’ve postponed buying from the $2 bargain bin on the account of the plethora of unread books and ebooks deemed more urgent or important to read. Reading the first few pages have convinced me to do otherwise, and having finished it, I can honestly say it’s quite a worthy find, of Goldman and also of Aura. Through this book, Goldman weaves a complex, rich narrative of his much younger dead wife, Aura Estrada, a PhD literature student at Columbia University.
This story of Aura Estrada, as told by Goldman, and how he was dealing with his extreme loss, shuffles back and forth amongst mystery, biography, and his own meditation on grief in a very humane, very personal way. I think Virginia Woolf once said, that reading about other women—their life, not their work—induced a guilty feeling, like she wasn’t really reading worthwhile and so she shouldn’t be reading it then. But these stories helped her grow, nurture her. You see the very quirks, sometimes overstated sometimes understated : the overbearing mother and her anguish of the American cafe, the wedding dress tailored by someone they were going to open a nachos bar with, the dirty Professor T who fell out of Aura, the axolotls found enticing on Cortazar’s short story, but extinct in the zoo itself. (Ah yes, the added bonus: intelligent insights and gossips on various literary figures and facts, which can lead you to even more interesting titles and authors to read.)
A few years back I’ve loved—and to a certain extent still do love—reading stories narrated by a stoic protagonist, most likely male, middle-class with a college (likely Ivy League) degree, a literary ambition and an existential crisis (a lot of the times triggered by the death of a loved one). Think Auster, Pahmuk, Murakami. They’d usually narrate their solitude, their painful inability to love, alienation etc. etc. in highly quotable, crisp words. Goldman’s stories, while also dealing with the bleakness of life without Estrada, palpitate with more characters, more flesh and blood, more ruthlessness, more memories and powerful loves that—coupled with the very inescapable reality of Aura’s death—are ultimately no less overwhelming.