A tale of alienation, love, suspense, imagination, and literature set on the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Simone tells the story of a self-educated Chinese immigrant student courting (and stalking) a disillusioned, unnamed writer who is struggling to make a name for himself in a place that is not exactly a hotbed of literary fame. By turns solipsistic and political, romantic and dark, Simone begins with the writer’s frustrated, satiric observations on his native city and the banal life of the university where he teaches—forces utterly at odds with the sensuality of his writing. But, as mysterious messages and literary clues begin to appear—scrawled on sidewalks and walls, inside volumes set out in bookstores, left on his answering machine and under his windshield wiper—Simone progresses into a cat-and-mouse game between the writer and his mystery stalker. When the eponymous Simone’s identity is at last revealed, the writer finds in the life of this Chinese immigrant a plight not unlike his own. Traumatized and lonely, the pair moves towards bittersweet collaborations in passion, grief, and art.
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By Eduardo Lalo, David Frye
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2011 Ediciones Corregidor,
All rights reserved.
Writing. What other choice do I have in this world, where so many things are forever beyond my reach? But I'm still here, alive and irrepressible, and it doesn't matter if I've been condemned to corners, to cupboards, to nothingness.
Thoughts emerging from out of nowhere, from the "nothing's happening," from the here and now. I say this with the joy you feel when you've lost all hope yet still persist, still survive. Writing with no exit, from anywhere. In this opaque city, for instance, where I know my neighbors can't understand why I'm writing and, in any case, they won't ever see these pages. Writing from a dead end that will always remain a dead end that may have never been anything else. So many men and women have believed in the possibility of changing history, yet all they ever did was suffer it. Or maybe I should say: all they did was put up with their neighbors, their family, their wives, themselves. I've taken the blows and I'm still standing. That's about all I've accomplished. That is what writing or reading is good for, and I've devoted nearly my whole life to it. Now and then, I've known something akin to grace.
Another Sunday morning. The quiet street, a few kids shouting, a brief gust of wind swirling leaves down the sidewalk. The restless day of rest. Blessed are the birds that sing today like any other day — that is, without hope.
Most of what's called depression consists of store-bought feelings. I call them that for good reason: I'm speaking from experience. Our emotions pop off the assembly line, you can pick them up anywhere. There's a mass distribution network. Like so many other things we buy and sell, they're cheap knockoffs. They exist because we adopt specific ways of being and feeling to face specific events. That's about all.
But sometimes your depression stirs up no feelings, so it hardly deserves the name. It's just what's left when time's up and so many things have been lost or will never be gained, and you know there's nothing to hope for in the end but this: this Sunday morning.
That may sound stark, but I find it comforting to think this way.
A journal. This notebook, the umpteenth in my lifetime, bought at a nondescript bookstore in an equally nondescript shopping center (leaving a bookstore with only a tome of blank pages is a metaphor, but also a form of grief and boredom). Its paper is surprisingly good, though the notebook itself turns out to be a little thick for resting my hand on while writing this. I'm using these pages to log the passage of time. I want the notebook to be a tool for living as best I can, for making it through the day, through the year, while preserving some scrap of sanity and pleasure. Before, in my older journals — now tucked away in corners and bookshelves at home — I used to think I was struggling against the society I was forced to live in. Against this city. Against the unbearable succession of classrooms where I'd made my living until I landed a steady job (though my contract could be revoked at the end of any semester) at the university. (And I felt ashamed of that struggle, as if there were something disgracefully dirty and paltry about it.) But now I know that struggling and writing are the same thing, whether there's anything to write or struggle against. I'm not expecting anything major, no truce, no triumph. This is my place in the world, that's all.
Diego told me it was only after he was able to move far from San Juan that he came to know beauty. He didn't mean beautiful landscapes or beautiful bodies. He was already a young man by the time he managed to leave our country, Puerto Rico. Only then did he fully grasp how much misery he'd lived through. He remembered years spent in the schoolyard, surrounded by screeching schoolmates, under the midday sun, in the thick, dry clouds of dust they raised as they ran about. He obsessively recalled his teachers' fruitless goodwill, the mounting pressure during class time, and the curriculum that made him despise for years the things he was forced to learn. And then, as if in a never-ending story, came the bell freeing him for the rest of the day, the stampede of kids shoving toward the water fountain, the games that kept getting more and more vicious, the interminable wait for the bus. Then arriving one hour later, dirty and exhausted, at his house in a city that has no prospects, nothing for a teenage boy to do but roam aimlessly and throw rocks at lamp posts, at neighbors' houses, at lizards, at the kids on the next block. Diego used to say, with all his fury still smoldering in his words, that it took him more than twenty years to realize that such a thing as beauty existed, that it could be found in a shrug, in a glance, in a leap, in a book. Though he'd had the good luck of discovering it, a gift in itself, he had never managed to free himself from that schoolyard, those teachers, those schoolmates and rivals. He was stuck with them for good, and he discovered, as a full-grown man, that he was a loser. That's all the good discovering beauty did him.
In my afternoon snooze, I had the dream again. I'm underground in an open space from which, after a whole series of apparently unconnected scenes, I am struggling to extract myself. This time, I had to climb a vast incline inside what looked like a metro station or the old lobby of the boarding lounge at the San Juan airport. But I couldn't do it, it was too hard, and my feet seemed glued to the floor. I kept looking back (as I always do in this dream), trying to communicate with another person (almost always a woman), but I couldn't find her, or my voice wouldn't reach her.
It's odd, this underground trap I can never leave. Apparently, there's some country that I find myself unable to depart from; travel and connections with other human beings are impossible. The fact that it takes place underground — in a tomb or a trap — makes the point so obvious that it borders on the redundant. The space is lit exactly like a shopping mall. It is, then, a cave made from the most ignoble of materials. Isn't the impossibility of escaping this space an image of me in this city?
It took such a short stretch of time, watching the news on Televisión Española, to encapsulate what had taken me a long time to live. The news program ended with their announcement of an upcoming concert by a singer celebrating sixteen years of performing solo. I watched his skeletal figure for thirty seconds, until the credits rolled. He wore a jacket (but not the sort an executive or a salesman would wear) and moved his head away from the microphone to take a deep breath before each verse. Years and excesses had taken their toll in equally brutal measure.
If I'd stayed in Madrid, I would have recognized him. All the same, I was convinced as I heard him sing that, even if I had remained there, I could never have made that world my own or become a part of the generation I'd been born into. I was too intensely discontented back then. There was no place — and no concert — where I would have belonged. This distance from everything around me, nearly the same as I'd later feel in San Juan, already stood between the person I was and the world. Geography and travel were infinitely less real than my feeling alone.
I don't buy newspapers. Lately I've started to get them again on occasion; the wealth of absurdities in them amuses me. Yesterday I ripped half a page from Primera Hora and stuck it in my back pocket. Today I found it. In a column listing the opinions of people that the reporter interviewed on the street, six citizens were asked whether they thought the war in Iraq, which seems to be right around the corner, will go on for very long.
The first man, whose impossible name was Hovitt Plancdeball, stated, "I don't think it will last long. Because of all the technological advances, that won't be necessary. They'll drop a bomb and that's it, it won't even be like the Gulf War."
A woman addressed the question: "Not long, I don't think. With all that technology, they'll definitely finish quick and start a dialogue because, otherwise, it could lead to worse consequences." Curious, this notion that dialogue could only begin after bombardment (discussing, I imagine, various ways to surrender) and that the absence of such a dialogue could forebode something worse.
A man said, "Short. Our technology" (our?) "is much more advanced, and the American people would never agree to that." (That? What is that?) "They'd start putting yellow signs" (shouldn't it be yellow ribbons?) "up everywhere."
There's only one dissident voice: "Plenty, a lot longer than they think. I pray to God that it won't cause too much devastation and that it will end as soon as possible."
But my favorite opinion comes from an advertising agent from Carolina — young and attractive, to judge by her photo; an idiot, to judge by the rest: "Short. We aren't living in the old days anymore." (Apparently in the past everything was worse.) "We're a little lighter on our feet now and people have to have more civilization and resolve things faster." This way of looking at war is extraordinary, like love advice or an offer from a telemarketer.
— The new arrivals are on the table.
— Yeah, I saw.
— We just got García Márquez's new novel.
— Not interested.
I see a bumper sticker. It says, "I am a citizen of Heaven." Ironically, the phrase floats above twinned flags of Puerto Rico and the United States. Below it there's a Bible quote and the names of a pastor and a church, but the lettering is too small for me to read.
Get up, see and hear the city. Think: I've wasted my life here and now it's too late. Think: it would have been the same anywhere else, but it doesn't matter, I would have preferred anywhere else.
Outside, the loudspeakers blaring from a politician's campaign car promise fireworks and "surprises" in front of campaign headquarters tonight after five.
Today everything is too painful, and yet I am nearly at peace. It's because pain has become a habit. I no longer notice the incessant hum.
I spend Sunday afternoon correcting exams. One student has written, "The Renaissance started when people realized it wasn't the Middle Ages anymore."
Diego, who has been frequenting the airport for some time now, told me about him. The man is retired. As a boy, he lived in New York, and after he returned to Puerto Rico, he left rarely and for short trips. It's been years now since he's boarded a plane. Every week he spends at least one night at the international airport. He strides along the wide concourses like just another passenger. He shows up at the food stands, reads the newspaper or a novel as if he were killing time on a long layover, sits at a bar near the boarding gates. He buys knickknacks, magazines, and countless best sellers in those all-night stores.
Sometimes, suffering from insomnia, he goes to the airport in the small hours of the morning, when it's practically deserted and the workers are polishing the floors with machines. He walks through both levels, arrivals and departures, along the outdoor sidewalks that were crowded with people all day and half the night and where now you might see nothing passing by but a taxi or a service truck.
Out there, he feels the night breeze, stares at the black spots on the cement (old chewing gum stains), reads the signs at the post office or customs booth announcing hours, holidays, and obscure laws. He stops walking when he feels a vibration growing until it turns into a takeoff or landing. He attends the thundering din, much as others sip coffee or savor a dessert. Then, nodding off in a chair, greeting through his yawns the cleaning crews or airline workers he's met, he waits for the shops to open. He has a couple of eggs for breakfast at a cafeteria, and before leaving, he buys the newspaper and sometimes a National Geographic. He goes home while hundreds of people are rushing along the highways in the other direction to catch their morning fights.
I've been very impressed by the adventures of this man who inhabits the borders of travel indefinitely, as if they would exhaust his desire to leave. Few people travel so often, so slowly, so close to home.
A curious phenomenon: if I don't jot down a memory or an idea, it loses all its power, as if the substance of the thought had dried up, leaving it forever inert. It's as if I could only discern life through ink.
I walk toward four young women and from a distance I perceive the aura of stupidity. As they pass me, I hear one saying, "Addy is famous among the world of the homosexuals." The sentence doesn't hold together, not only because of the misused preposition. She pronounces the last word clumsily, partly swallowing the sound of the m, as if it were too big for her mouth.
A student hands me a note, signed with only her first name: Cindidet. We both live in the same city. Nevertheless, this absurd, made-up name seems to open an unbridgeable distance between us.
I think about all the times I've read or written the concept, "Puerto Rico." Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of times, and yet those words are hardly ever written or read anywhere but here. What's more, they are practically unknown, or they suggest very weak images having little to do with what they mean to me. This is something I think whenever I read, write, hear this name of a country that means so little beyond its borders (and perhaps within them, too). What sort of silence is this? That is to say, what sort of pain?
Somewhere in the city (I know I saw it with Diego years ago), there's a coffee shop called "Our Daily Bread." Unbelievable, such a pious tautology. Is it in Barrio Obrero, Villa Palmeras, or on a street around Avenida Fernández Juncos? I don't know, and this incomplete memory is also a part of San Juan.
Late last night, I went to get takeout from a Chinese restaurant near Avenida Barbosa. I'd never gone in there, and I felt nervous stepping out of the car. The atmosphere was tense: a couple of drug addicts out begging, shady teenagers keeping an eye on everyone who approached, men drinking beer and shouting under the corner streetlight.
When they handed me my food, a man came in who said hello to the fellow behind me in line. Then the guard at the door, apparently an indispensable employee around there, went up to him:
"You left your engine running."
"Yeah, if I turn it off I have to push-start it."
When I left, carrying my order of fried rice in a bag, I spotted the old Yamaha. In terrible condition, its motor chugging. Not even worth stealing.
I've reread The Stranger after many years, focusing on Camus's use of the sun. Meursault, the protagonist, authentically perceives things the way someone suffering from too much sun would, someone who'd even kill because of it. His is not the tourists' sun; there's no paradise here. His sun is simply what one has to endure day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. It heightens poverty, despondency, the neighbors' shouting.
Curiosity aroused, I found the only text I have about Camus. I opened it at random and started reading a paragraph: "Due to his health, he was forced to leave the Algerian summer. Camus obtained a safe-conduct pass to return, with his wife, to the mother country." Was he another victim of the sun? Could the sun be a sort of illness that for centuries has been producing the sensation that life is unlivable?
I picture myself here, sitting alone at this table in a shopping center courtyard food court, with my coffee and notebook. At my feet, a backpack with books, another notebook, and two fountain pens. I've been here for hours and haven't bought anything, not even a book. It's incredibly odd, given everything around me, but I find no other image so haunting and disturbing.
"Even in our own day, nine-tenths of humanity is outside history, outside a system of interpretation and recording which was born with modern times and will disappear. History is a kind of luxury Western societies have afforded themselves. It's 'their' history. The fact that it seems to be disappearing is unfortunate for us, but it allows destiny, which has always been the lot of other cultures, to take over. The other cultures have never lacked destiny, whereas we, in our Western societies, are bereft of it." Jean Baudrillard, Le Paroxyste indifférent.
Excerpted from Simone by Eduardo Lalo, David Frye. Copyright © 2011 Ediciones Corregidor,. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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