Tuesday, December 06, 2005

...hence the progress of european civilisation

By the afternoon the sun has disappeared and the river which defines the northern edge of kucing turns a gray like sheet metal. The water is thick with the earth, and the wooden tambang scour tiny superficial grooves as they ferry passengers from the Kampungs to the town. If I was to stack 30 sents onto the landings’ wooden rails, the ferryman – a toothless old smile – would row me across to the other side… and the jungle. It is what I have come for. I would become postcard for the Europeans staying waterside at the Hilton, all fluorescent green splinters, and nestle ice tea advertisements, an obscure speck – a boat and two figures standing at the helm – and all around fragments of the sun’s reflection shimmering like foil candy wrappers. And then I hestitate… finding myself drawn along the water’s edge, smiling at the fisherman and teenage couples.

I orientate my day by this riverside promenade, taking advantage of the abundance of trees and warungs selling iced juices, to play hide-and-go-seek with the sun. And this heat and this mugginess! It throbs and slows the senses, so my malay only returns slowly and sometimes as Arabic. It confuses everyone. Alexandria was also built by the water. I remember walking along the corniche blinded by the sun and the image of a crowd praying on a large blue straw mat at the bus stop, in simple humble unison. A fat arab, tanned red, bellyflops the Mediterranean in green bike shorts, pulling the fishing net in and prouncing around for the gathering crowds, his body a slobbery mass of folds and protusions. I was dizzy then, smoking too much argileh, eating too little and reading too much Camus. For three long days, existence became a blinding, swollen, naseau, with no Arabic to communicate, abstract thoughts took form and precedence to the world around me, until solitude manifested one afternoon as vomit in my third-rate hotels’ toilet. There i was bent over the toilet bowl, and out my window primary coloured boats traced thin arcs through the water's glare. And whether it came to me from across the mediteranean or from the collection of plays I had just finished reading, I heard voices. Said Caligula to Scipio: “Solitude! What do you know of it? Only the solitude of poets and weaklings. You prate of solitude but you don’t realize that one is never alone. Always we are attended by the same load of the future and the past.”

It were these lines that drew me to the waterfront and as I looked over the flat surface squinting for Greece across 3,000 years, I saw the fisherman splash in, his massive forearms floating like logs on the surface as he treaded water, conscious of our gaze. Here was pure being before my eyes sewn into everything, between sea and land, direct and fulfilling connections with community and work, the fat man caught fish and the others were fed by it, he made some money and felt some sort of worth, some sort of collective dependency on him. The red arab found himself in relation to others. Everything blended, thrusting on me a fullness my belly had not felt for weeks. And I realized that this, proud, persistent ‘I am…’ constantly trying to free itself and separate from being, at the very moment it achieves such a break forgets the source of separations importance. It self-sterilises - I needed community like the affected fisherman needed our gazes.

I opened my eyes to the humidity and the Sarawak river. I had walked maybe ten steps with my eyes closed and two young women, pretty like Chinese gymnasts, giggled in acknowledgement of my peculiar behaviour. They held hands as they passed, their eyes white in the clouds shadows.

I am reading Gogol between walks, and he creates a biting comedy of the tragic existence of nineteenth century Russian civil servants. He reduces them to quill sharpeners and paper-pushers drawing solidarity from the absurdity of their lives. But this time it is different, there is no swelling naseau. In Alexandria the Mediterranean cured me with my past, the history of my mother, the recognition of some of myself in cultural protocol, I felt solidarity bend and bow with the backs of those praying at the bus stop, I felt it stretch back through my family tree as generations of them played out their lives at various spots along the southern banks of the this salty blue sea. I felt the interconnectedness of the ‘I am…´with a ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’, ‘when’ and ‘why’. There is a fullness to this. Here on the western tip of Borneo I feel only the presence of the future, as I stare across to the thickness of jungle. Conrad was completely wrong. Here in Malaysia, there is not the confrontation with some sort of inner, primitive self. There is no Europe stripped bare to its core, no laconic solitary sailors all enigma and dark hearts. There is only the future in the confrontation with the other, as a sense of possibility. If actions serve to reveal our image, then acting in the face of the other takes it a step further, as the relational dialogic allows both participants the possibility to change without the need for synthesis (no ‘…hence the progress of European civilization…’).

The wind began to swirl the rain loose from the leaves above. I had stopped again, leaning against the iron railing, watching the tiny little hut of the kampung conglomerate opn the far bank. The shift in weather meant it will rain soon. I waited, as a young boy approached. He was missing many teeth and the ones left were coated in a brownish film (Earlier I had walked past the Islamic cemetery next to Kucing’s biggest mosque, there the simple graves were marked with short pillars of wood and stone jutting out at every angle but the perpendicular, and all of them decaying and cancerous with moss. Now, his teeth reminded me of those graves of the pious.) He wore a shirt too big for his skinny frame. We talked, both of us distracted and gradually he became frustrated at my inability to notice that he wanted something from me. This young boy, slightly fidgety and perhaps too neurotic for his 13 years didn’t stop just so that we could compare our hungers, and no he had never read Gogol (though he got my demonstration of the absurd as I talked of the foibles of nineteenth century St Petersburg desk clarks while he rubbed his belly and rolled his eyes). In desperation he lifted his shirt and twisted his hip to reveal a gun cut crudely out of Styrofoam and tucked into the elastic of his pants. It stuck to his protruding bones, but he yanked it free and aimed it right between my eyes. I put my arms up and told him not to shoot, and then we laughed together, he a little hysterical as we suddenly remembered the rain which had already began to fall from both the sky and the trees. And he dashed ahead along the path, the gun held in both hands under his shirt. Occasionally, he would reveal it to the faces of Chinese gymnasts who pulled their umbrellas low over their vision, and quickened their pace. He hopped along, dancing from puddle to puddle until gradually he disappeared into the grayness of the rain and the river and I looked for a kedai kopi to wait out the downpour.

It is the ambiguity that sticks around. I kept searching for the boys form in the monsoonal curtain ahead, never wholly convinced that he wouldn’t re-appear. In the same way that the mountainous spine of Borneo disappeared and reappeared in the backdrop north-east of the city. When the sun burned it hung in distant mist and dark silhouette – the whole city felt luminious in comparison, and when the clouds gathered and the river shimmered it was gone the vista condensed into a one dimensional projection reaching only as far as the tangle of trees clinging to the rivers bank. I was left playing with this space between presence and absence, toying with the idea that there is real potential in this ambiguity.

By way of an afterthought: There is a short story written by Camus toward the end of his life. An artist, alone, paints and paints, becomes famous, loses the ability to paint as he becomes embroiled in debates and arguments with the town’s art scene, he marries and has kids. Years pass and he can’t paint the way he used to, he divides himself from his family, locks himself in his mezzanine above the living rooms and refuses to let anyone see his work - his last great painting. When he dies, they enter the mezzanine for the first time and see a single white canvass, blank except for one word scribbled in an illegible handwriting. So messy, in fact, that no one can make out if it says ‘solidarity’ or ‘solitary’. The critics love prioritizing one over the other, they say camus was an isolate who knew the power of solitude, or camus, when it came to a choice, chose solidarity and fought in the underground resistance to the Nazis. I am beginning to see the strength of the ambiguity not the dichotomy. Writing is undecidable, it lies between reality and imagination without ever being either/or.

‘Even if, militants in our lives, we speak in our work of desserts and of selflish love, the mere fact that our lives are militant causes a special tone of voiceto people, with men, that desert and love. I shall certainly not choos the moment when we are beginning to leave nihilism behind to stupidly deny the values of creation in favour of the values of humanity, or vice-versa. In my mind neither one is ever separated from the other and I measure the greatness of an artist (Moliere, Tolstoy, Melville) by the balance he managed to maintain between the two. Today under the pressure of events, we are obliged to transport that tension into our lives likewise. This is why so many artists, bending under the burden, take refuge in the ivory tower or, conversely, in the social church. But as for me, I see in both choices a like act of resignation. We must simultaneously serve suffering and beauty.’ –Albert Camus


Sunday, February 06, 2005

darwin-katherine [~400km]

ride: Ron, a gaunt, ex-army truckie who talks incessantly and has lost part of the ring finger on his right hand. he has a marvelous belief in the strength of the human will, or 'what you can do if you got guts, and you put your mind to it.'
ron used to be a firey out at pine creek. as we approached his former town he had the habit of pointing to the skids on the road which marked some of the road accidents on the stuart hwy. with only two coppers in the little outback town, whenever a truck battered a car full of tourists, or a car overturned crushing a skull between it and the bitumen, he would have to go and assist - the coppers couldn't manage it all by themselves, he said. and it was up to him to cut through sheets of metal, work loose a limb and pull all or part of people from the mess. we talked about this for some time, actually it was ron who did most of the talking. one of those tall leathery blokes that the territory seems to produce in abundance, he admitted rather openly that he still cried sometimes in the shower. it all really began to have an effect on him, but he could not give up the volunteer position as long as he stayed in pine-creek, it was his duty. he told me, while resting his elbows on the flat wheel, how through this community work he was slowly going mad. it got to the point where he almost hit his wife, at the last minute choosing to break his knuckles and some of the minor bones in his right fist, on the door of the fridge. in the end the only option was to move to the big city, where one could escape community without that deep sense of discontent at ones own complacency. lost in the city, one can live as an individual, and with a clear conscience.
we talked about these first times a lot, of what it does to someone to sdee the corpse of someone who has died the tragedy of an undeserved death (as if death is earned!) i was surprised that the brain and its cocktail of fluids will leak from a hole punched by a sniper bullet in essentially the same manner as if it had been crushed under an overturned 4wd (when i become cynical, iwould call this death's liberating equality). however, we eventually we moved on to other topics, for instance the plague of cane-taods marching across from queensland, which everybody sees as unstoppable. ron likes to collect stories that he's heard, first-hand, second-hand or from the papers, using them,in a long rambling speech, almost as personal experience:
' i heard of a womanin katherine, she come up from adelaide to work in the hospital there, it was something she had to do for her university degree. we had something like that in the army, where they posted us to different places, a hard thing to do if you've got a missus and kids, though this girl wasn't hitched. anyway everynight, after she knocked off at the clinic, she used to take a fat length of bamboo and patrol the grounds looking for canetoads to squash. in her first month there, she got something like 1037 of em...in these situations you gotta do something, right?'
and i suspect that he was talking about more than just toads.
ron dropped me at the junction of the victoria hwy, and though it was only 4pm, i decided to stop for the night.

darwin, n.t.

i have been making a deliberate, and a little long-winded, effort to explain a single sentence: 'and i walk on, and beneath my feet, there is nothing.
i felt it needed some sort of prelude, and there was those tired men at the bus stop and the statis. the fourth was nicola salvatore, i was going to include an inventory of everything 'old salvatore' ( as the frenchman calls him) left behind in his room...
1987 almanacco franiescano wall calender decorated with byzantine prints,
bleached lotto tickets,
metal tins of johnsons dental floss,
a heavy brass dolphin-shaped bottle opener...etc(you get the idea, how little an imprint a person can make on a place before their departure.)
i have changed my mind. i wanted to explain a little how the night before old salvatore left darwin he came back from the italian club, dreary with alcohol, and cried with defeated emotion that he is still an immigrant. i wanted to quote this old man, who built his house, his life with his bare hands, for he spoke of the sun with such fondness and drunk repetition. the vicious rays it throws at a man ho has nowhere to belong. and this nis not the sentimentality of those romantics who fetishized the natural and its inspiration, it is euclidean, it is about a man looking for a fixed point of reference when human community has always proven shaky. slavatore never told his friends that he was leaving, the frenchman was hurt by this, i think he thought they were all in this together. he told me that even his best friend, who came from the same village in italy, who he had known since childhood, didn't know until word passed from me to the frenchman, to the bus stop and from there in all directions through the mobile arteries of darwin to the entire retired community.
nic just slipped away one day, packed all his garen-tools into two big pags, left everything else behind. and told no one.

then i would have given this more intimate example.
i was riding home from work listening to the canteburry tales recorded in a proper, flat voice onto audio-cassettes. as i curved round into stuart park, i would have described the couple i saw there. the woman sitting on the bus stop bench, the man slowly pounding her head with his clenched fist. when he landed one squarely, which wasn't often as he was completely drunk, her head rebounded against ther concrete shelter. i had ear phones in but i heard that thud (it's always the same). she raised her arms to protect a swollen face and i stopped my bike, her cheeks bruised blue over black. in those few moments where i stood sweating and unable to move, he lowered his aim and landed two painfully slow jabs on her chest. i had taken my earphones out and the woman's screams seemed to bounce off everything. despite their intensity it was hard for them to get a foot-hold on anything, people kept driving and walking. all of this everyday motion seemed to drown her. i had written a lot about this scene, particularily about that minute frozen on my bike, when the conditions are right, actually demand, the union of ideals, will and action, and the sense of disbelief each time this is so. and then ducking under the swinging arc of a hay-maker aimed at her battered eye, she escpaed onto the road, running in front of the traffic and eventually stumbling past myself. andi has just stood there, the most i could say was that i was witness. and the sun was still shining overhead, heating the atmosphere so that it all seemed so rubbery, like a mirage.

and really this is the story of ahaseurus -the wandering jew. he looked on christ as he walked to golgotha carrying his own cross. jesus asked him for help and the various gospels seem to confer that he refused. but i have a sneaking suspicion that he voiced no position whatsoever. he neither denied nor consented to help jesus, he just stood there in disbelief, as the whole of human suffering gasped and slowly staggered in front of him. afterwards, ahaseurus like cain before him, was marked on his forehead and then condemned to walk the earth for eternity, robbed of the comfort of death and the solace it provides to the act of living.

borges once spoke of the intimacy of human knowledge, of true knowledge which must be emotional. i don't have the book on me, so i'm paraphrasing, but he asked what would happen when the last person to see christ had died. when there is only myth to put faith in, he called the story 'the last witness'. but what of ahaseurus, he will contin ue to walk the earth with intimate knowledge og what a man looks likje when he is carrying the instrument of his own death, helping to lighten the weight of it for his executioners. this will never pass into myth, this sort of knowledge haunts in the general.

much later, i was at a blues club on smith street. we were standing out the back, leaning on a window, sergei rolling a cigarette while an american travel with a throaty voice was singing covers of the rolling stones and dusty springfield. we talked a little of the wandering jew, what living would be like without death, whether we had the stomach for it. continuing on this hypothetical sergei asked: 'so where do you think ahaseurus is now?' and my reply, as ominious as i could make it: 'who knows, in two or three days time i reckon he'll be in katherine.' sergei smiled knowingly at my melodrama. and i walk on, and beneath my feet there is nothing.

Friday, January 28, 2005


--the frenchman--
we are frozen in the tropical heat. staring down the road toward adelaide, looking for oases.
under a bus shelter, our backs sticking to shirts, and shirts to grubby concrete, we are four. there is a french man who reminds me of a mouse, not in his disposition but in the smoothness or smallness of his features. he has a bristly moustache coloured gray and stained yellow from cigarettes. for thirty-odd years he worked on the wharf. he made himself with his own hands, he says, these muscles kept me going. and he looks at his hands as if they weren't his own flesh but some crumbling artefact of production - a flint and a crude hammer, perhaps, from some prior epoch of human struggle. now he sits at bus stops and gives notice when the next one first peeks round the bend in the road, dazzling in the sun.
'it's the number 5, the number 8 is late' and he recrosses his skinny legs, exposing a worn pair of boating shoes and bulbous ankles.
he had unloaded sea containers and each time after a hull was emptied another boat docked in its place and he went back again, his arms jellied from the repetition. But as soon as he stopped it began to all fall away, it all became aquiline so that he didn't even notice the slipping at first, now, only the buses trundling through puddles and the wet can make him feel some sort of inertia. he has the entire timetable memorized. true darwin is not a big town and sometimes it feels like one massive empty suburb slowly sinking into the muddy flats of australia's northern penninsula, but i admire the frenchman's effort. he has devoted years to this public service, announcing buses for the obliging passengers, quoting arrival and departure times, itemising official timetables into bubbly uninhibited ramblings, talking to nobody in particular without letting anyone feel unaddressed. his job done he sits leaning on his crossed legs, eyeing dreamily the curves and indents of womens arses as they stand in a square of shade waiting, shifting from one heel to the other, and then the buses take them in.
he tells me he rarely catches the bus these days, 'there's no reason to, what am i gonna do in the city?' and he discards Rodin's famous posture to open his arms, the flats of his palms lying supine.
i need a reason too. we are all waiting. i am waiting to remember the feel of my lover around my chest, squeezing me with the force of each breath, on a mobylette with her chin on my shoulder - and for the first time. the frenchman is waiting because that is all there is left. he has made a vocation of stalling indifference. he cackles at the misfortunes of friends and strangers alike, rubbing his thumbs into his index fingers when he gets excited. there is still a hint of defiance in his rheumy eyes, like he knew all along that it would boil down to this and yet he played along anyway.
--the lover--
standing in the frenchman's shadow is a rotund man, his ears prick out exaggerating the planarity of his already broad face. whereas the old frenchman carried the dress of an old sailor loosely on his skeletal shoulders, and they aged together, the lover has made a clean break. at retirement he cut all his suit trousers into shorts, sometimes above the knee, sometimes wherever the scissors blade took his plump digits. even his shirt-sleeves have been shortened so that the general impression is of a diligent, slightly frazzled, accountant who by some malicious twist of fate had been stranded on a tropical island. isolated, he had decided to make the best of it by allowing some minor concessions as the climate demands. and the ruse - that all if it is only temporary. although, some of his formality has lingered but, disheveled as he is, and without the frenchmans quick wit, the lover looks constantly as if he had just received a slap to his flat cheek.
the lover boarded the number 5, paying his fair in silence and settling for the first empty seat he found. the frenchman is an insatiable gossip. he has come to know everything about his buses and those who use them. the lover, he tells me, is actually italian. he 'did his time' in the administrative offices of a norwegian shipping line. after the end of mussolini he wrote to his brother in in italy and through some process which the frenchman referred to as 'that italian way of business' (the emphasis on the last word), he had come to inherit some property somewhere in the rural guts of italy. 'it was worth a tonne! the crazy bugger sold it and never used the money! it's for my children, he would say, i want to make the future just a little bit stable.'
at the age of 46 the lover, still unmarried, decided not to come into work anymore. an early retirement and i'm guessing entirely sudden. his meagre office would have had to be hastily cleaned-out by someone else. if they are anything like me, they would have found it incredibly difficult to throw away his yearly planner, or his roughed hard-cover notebook full of sums and calculations of gross tonnage underlined by quotes all in a thin, patient, blue-ink. the lover most probably couldn't look at them anymore. 'he claimed he wanted one holiday before he keels over, so he flew to thailand. probably just wanted to get laid, he was never married you know'. we were the only two left at the bus stop, nic who had introduced me to these men hadn't come with me this morning, he'd already made a break for it a few weeks ago, got as far as adelaide. we were in the middle of one of those lulls in the timetable, some miscalculation by some clark in the timetabling office, and the frenchman felt he could take one eeye off the stuart hwy and talk freely.
'turns out i was right, he came back two weeks later, as reclusive as ever, but i got it out of him. i kept on until he finally admitted that he met a local thai girl over there, and! that he was in love with her. in love with a prostitute! of course, i told him those women don't love, though she'll ride you for all your worth and let you call it whatever the hell you like!' he scoffed his eyes flashing with something that i took as his sense of the absurdity of it all. ' and the little whore was less than half his age!'
these days the lover completely ignores the frenchman. i have a feeling he also finds him vulgar, but having been insulted i guess he can't also see the compassion that so many men tougehened by work and broken by retirement tend to possess. 'he still sees her, you know. he trawls the supernmarkets for the discounted stock, always living one day before expiration, so he can save money to go and visit that little bitch. over the last fifteen years she's sent him comlepletely broke, he sold his house here in darwin, spent all his inheritance and now scums together every buck from his pension. what a fool! do you know that he bought her a little house in bangkok? and he lives here almost a long-grass.'
i told him i thought it romantic, and was there really anything else he should spend his retirement on, other than some companionship and love in his last years. to this the frenchman flicks a cigarette butt into a puddle shaking his head as if sympathetic to my naivete.
on second thoughts, the lover appears a ghost, gliding on and off buses in darwin but never giving more than a shadow of himself.