Valeria Luiselli is a philosophical meanderer whose roving thoughts bring her to a cemetery in Venice in search of Russian poet, Joesph Brodsky’s tomb and wandering that alluring city’s streets so late at night she is locked out of the one room she managed to find in a convent.
She ponders the map with the slow-moving icon of a plane on the screen as she flies home and thinks about the layout of the land beneath and later will find a connection between a photo of cartographers in the Mexican Map Library and Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.
Sidewalks sees her leaving the four walls of her apartment late at night for a last cigarette outside the front door, seeking escape and encountering the advice and wisdom of a doorman who shares his own long life views on how one best comes to know thyself.
“If there still exists a gaze blessed with liminal wisdom, it is the gaze of night-shift doormen. They are the only true free-thinkers – generous men capable of conversing intelligently at midnight; empathetic accomplices, offering the consolation of a companionship replete with the same reprehensible vices you yourself have and defend.”
She laments the age of the individual computer, the window inside the window that has all but eliminated household drama and made high-rise voyeurism unexciting if not nonexistent.
“It is clear that the personal computer is the great modern attack on good old-fashioned voyeurism. From the moment these machines were installed in our homes, the irreversible process of the degeneration of character began and ruled out the possibility of anyone doing anything interesting for the delight of their voyeuristic neighbour.”
She is interested in spaces, voids, the edge of things, she tries to make sense of her home town in Mexico, a city whose first plan was allegedly scratched into sand and has continued to sprawl out of any recognisable or logical shape ever since.
Her essays reference other essayists as things she observes in her meandering bring back lines once read and remembered, passages of long dead authors become an old-fashioned, enjoyable distraction for a young woman, those words from the past arising unbidden while out walking sidewalks, no electronic media in sight.
In an essay on the river Spree, in Berlin, Fabio Morabito writes:
“A river tends to contain the city it crosses and to curb its ambitions, reminding it of its face; without a river, that is, without a face, a city is abandoned to itself and can become, like Mexico city, a blot.”
It is a slim volume and many of the essays are split into titled paragraphs, the first essay littered with the names and dates of the dead inhabiting the same resting place as Brodsky, although it wasn’t clear to me whether there was a link between the content and the named.
It feels as though there could well be much more to this collection than is picked up on first reading, especially given the original work was written in Spanish and many of the named places are foreign.
Intelligent, introspective essays that delight in being out and about and an appreciative and noteworthy introduction by the Dutch author and translator Cees Nooteboom. An author to watch out for.