A couple of years ago I read (and very much enjoyed) Valeria Luiselli’s novel Faces in the Crowd, and now we have Sidewalks, a collection of essays from this talented young Mexican writer.
Luiselli, a keen observer, is a little like a modern-day flâneur (or in one essay, a ‘cycleur’, a flâneur on a bicycle), and we follow her through the city streets and sidewalks, seeing the surroundings through her eyes and gaining access to her thoughts.
Many of the essays in this collection concentrate on locations, spaces and cities. And the subheadings, while at first sight seem to bear little relation to the essays themselves, are mostly themed around journeys: locations in Mexico; directions; street signs. In Flying Home, Luiselli ponders the way in which maps and different viewpoints present Mexico City and how these images have altered over time, possibly reflecting changes in the character of the city itself:
There are those who say that Mexico City is like a Big Pear – a bizarre sister of the Big Apple; the widest part of the fruit to the south and the stalk somewhere around the Basílica de Guadalupe, in the northernmost borough. But on more careful examination, the flesh of the fruit has, in fact, overflowed far beyond its skin. A contemporary artist – or a child – might represent the pear-city with a silhouette, like the ones drawn in chalk at the scene of a murder, the consequences of which exceed the supposed contaminant of the outline: pear splattered on tarmac.
The latest map we have of Mexico City (Guía Roji, 2012) doesn’t look like anything – anything, except, perhaps a stain, a trace, a distant memory of something else. (pgs. 27-28)
And a few lines later:
Far from above, lights glimmer in the valley and it regains its liquid past: a lake overcrowded with fishing boats. And on a clear day, from an airplane window, the city is almost comprehensible – a simpler representation of itself, to the scale of the human imagination. But as the airplane descends to earth, one discovers that the grid is floating on what seems to be an indeterminate stretch of grey water. The folds of the valley embody the threat of a wave of mercury which never quite breaks against the mountain range; the streets and avenues are petrified folds in an overflowing, ghostly lake. (pgs. 28-29)
In an age of constant connectivity, Luiselli contemplates the transition to a world where there has been a switch between the status of the street as a public space and the home as a private one. In such a world ‘our only option is to construct small, fleeting intimacies in other spaces.’ She finds an ally in the night-shift doorman of her building, a man who ‘watches over the imprecise limits between the public world and the private.’
Only in that liminal space, under the umbrella of his company, do I feel safe from the claustrophobic categories of outside and inside. (pg 97)
The collection comes bookended by the author’s reflections on a visit to Venice. Luiselli has travelled here in search of the grave of Joseph Brodsky, and the subheadings in this essay come from the other tombstones (including those of Ezra Pound and Luchino Visconti) she encounters in her search for Brodsky’s grave. As Luiselli considers Brodsky’s life, she touches once again on the theme of residences and spaces:
But perhaps a person only has two real residences: the childhood home and the grave. All the other spaces we inhabit are a mere grey spectrum of that first dwelling, a blurred succession of walls that finally resolve themselves into the crypt or the urn – the tiniest of the infinite divisions of space into which a human bodies can fit. (pg.13)
In some of the essays, Luiselli turns her gaze towards her own writing, language and the meaning of certain words. In Alternative Routes, she muses on the meaning of the Portuguese word ‘saudade’, for which there is no direct translation. Here she considers how our minds operate as we try to navigate our way through another language:
When we have only a partial knowledge of a language, the imagination fills in the sense of a word, a phrase or a paragraph – like those drawing books where the pages are covered with dots that, as children, we had to join with a crayon to reveal the complete image. (pg. 42)
I loved this collection of Valeria Luiselli’s illuminating essays, many of which have a philosophical and melancholy tone. The writing is excellent. Luiselli’s words (and Christina MacSweeney’s translation) seem to flow effortlessly across the page, and one could describe these glimpses into the author’s world as graceful prose poems or laments. In some respects, Sidewalks reminds me a little of Renata Adler’s Speedboat (which I’ll be reviewing in a few weeks’ time); while Speedboat is a novel, the two books share certain similarities in style and tone. Sidewalks also brings to mind Teju Cole’s Open City, a comparison Tony Malone makes in his excellent review of Luiselli’s novel, Faces in the Crowd. My one regret is that Sidewalks isn’t longer – Luiselli’s writing runs to around 100 pages – but let’s hope there’s more on the way.
I’ll finish with a quote on books that seems to typify Luiselli’s writing:
Going back to a book is like returning to the cities we believe to be our own, but which, in reality, we’ve forgotten and been forgotten by. In a city — in a book — we vainly revisit passages, looking for nostalgias that no longer belong to us. Impossible to return to a place and find it as you left it — impossible to discover in a book exactly what you first read between its lines. We find, at best, fragments of objects among the debris, incomprehensible marginal notes that we have to decipher to make our own again. (pg. 85)
I read this book to link in with Biblibio’s #WITMonth (focusing on Women in Translation), which is running throughout August, and also Richard and Stu’s Spanish Lit Month which has been extended by a week or two.
Sidewalks is published in the UK by Granta Books. Source: personal copy.