Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Desert Island Dregs


When I packed my bags two years ago at the start of this journey I am on, I went through my books and set aside around thirty of them to bring along with me. The rest I left with my sister to safekeep until I am done with this place, or it has done with me.

The books I gathered for thirty years are only the ones I thought that I needed to have with me as I moved around the country or across an ocean, picked up in book stores in places like Columbia, Denver, Reno, Virginia Beach, Okinawa, Hong Kong, Des Moines, and Anchorage. In every one of them I wrote down the date and the place. They were too many to bring with me on the plane. I had no other possessions but them for a long time - no furniture, no appliances. Some keepsakes, some photographs. The vinyl records I had, hundreds of them, were finally abandoned in 2005. I regret giving them up, but to save them would have cost me more money than I had at the time. A poor excuse, but a lack of money at crucial moments in my life would seem to be a kind of dominant theme.

The books I packed in my bags included a few novels: one by V.S. Naipaul called A Way in the World; one by Arthur Schnitzler called A Way Into the Open. Emblematic titles, I know. I brought the Primo Levi memoir called The Periodic Table. And the three-volume biography of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher. Two marvelous books on Japan by Alan Booth. Three books by Charles Nicholl, including Somebody Else, about Rimbaud's last years in Africa, and The Creature in the Map, a latter-day exploration of the mouth of the Orinoco River in Venezuela, where Walter Raleigh searched but never found El Dorado. There were three books by Norman Lewis, whom I regard as the greatest travel writer of the 20th century. But the majority of the books in my bag were written by three men: Albert Camus, Moritz Thomsen, and George Orwell.

Shortlly after my arrival in the Philippines, a run of bad luck, precipitated by the treachery of a fellow American, forced a change of plans on me at a moment when, once again, a lack of money narrowed my options down to only one. And that option made it necessary for me to abandon all but seven of those books, the seven I had casually singled out for what I believed would be a few days' outing. Those seven books are all that I have left of the thirty or so that came with me on the plane two years ago, and they have survived my exile with me thus far: the last volume of the Deutscher biography of Trotsky, The Prophet Outcast, which chronicles his banishment from Russia and his flight from one safe haven to another, until his assassination in Mexico in 1940; Moritz Thomsen's first splendid book, Living Poor, about his Peace Corps experience in Ecuador; James Hamilton Paterson's The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds; George Orwell's one thousand three hundred and sixty nine page Essays. Camus' novel The Plague, in which a group of people contend with their exile to the quarantined city of Oran, Algeria during an outbreak of bubonic plague; Drieu La Rochell's novel, The Fire Within, about the final hours of Alain, who has condemned himself to death; and the King James Bible.

Over the past several months, I have quoted from these texts extensively - so much so that I fear some readers may think I am fixated on them. It so happens that I have grown fixated to the extent that I am no longer certain if I chose those books or they chose me.

On the island where I now spend my days, there is no library. They very notion of a lending-library is outlandish in a country where newly recruited soldiers cannot be counted on not to sell their M16s, and where if you are going to mail a pair of shoes, you had better mail them one at a time.

So a few times a week, my Filipino neighbors watch with curiosity as I stand on the side of the highway with a thick blue notebook under my arm, waiting for a ride into the nearby town. They suspect that I am conducting mysterious business transactions that I record in my notebook. But the only transactions I have conducted have been without remuneration, translating into my own language the things that I have witnessed. I have learned the hard way that an unpleasantness can be rendered less unpleasant by writing about it. I am not so annoyed by the incessant brownouts, the heat, the crowing of roosters and the baying of hounds as I once was. And when I open any one of those seven books, I am transported to another realm, more familiar, more agreeable, and less outlandish. Something like what Wallace Stevens felt on his "Arrival at the Waldorf":

Home from Guatemala, back at the Waldorf.
This arrival in the wild country of the soul,
All approaches gone, being completely there,
Where the wild poem is a substitute
For the woman one loves or ought to love,
One wild rhapsody a fake for another.

You touch the hotel the way you touch moonlight
Or sunlight and you hum and the orchestra
Hums and you say
"The world in a verse,

A generation sealed, men remoter than mountains,
Women invisible in music and motion and color,"
After that alien, point-blank, green and actual Guatemala.

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