The new temp didn’t seem very bright. Just something about him. Heâ€™d taught English in Korea and now he was home: he would always talk about that, or anime. The two ran together in the minds of the permanent staff.
He said the culture was different, it wasnâ€™t easy to live that way. He would just get tired. At the first he loved being strange. He could say what he wanted. But now he would rather be home where things made sense, and relax.
We’re at the beach for the weekend. Our hotel is book-themed. Each room is named after an author: we’re staying in the Lincoln Steffens room, decorated with a desk and typewriter; and we have photos on our wall: of a grimacing Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson looking like the missing butler from the Munsters. They really look as dead as they are. Teddy doesn’t look like his end was restful. There are photos of authors everywhere, the hallways are hung with them all up and down their length, so dense they are at most a half a foot apart. Photos are standing on the bookshelves, arranged in layered rows on the mantlepieces, and for sale in the gift shop as postcards.
Technology, or new media, or google, or somebody, has helped take the mystery out. There are plenty of blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers in the Caucasus. And I actually recognize a lot of what they describe, though I’ve never been near there. There’s a certain post-Sovietness that seems to be common to where I was (from September 2002 until January 2004, I lived in a small, ethnically Buryat-Mongol town in Eastern Siberia).
I can look forward to the same old exhortations to drink, the same condescending and infantalizing behavior by those who know me, the personal questions from strangers, unasked-for honesty, aggressive dogs, and mini-celebrity status. The same catechism of questions, even, persisting unchanged over thousands of miles of the previous Evil Empire. How much do teachers make, are you looking for a wife, is our vodka better than yours, how do you say kaif in English.
A: You’re on your way now. That process you have been working on for so long has finally begun! You must be in a strange state. How does it feel?
B: It’s strange to be in between. I’m not here any longer, I’m not there yet. I can’t really relax. It is a strange state, it’s like not being any state at all. It is exactly like not being in any state at all.
A: A friend of mine asked me a question the other day. I think he wanted to know: was I happy? but for me, he put things in an interesting light. He said, I thought travel was the thing you loved most of everything. I thought you couldn’t live without it. And yet you’ve stayed here, in the same town, hardly leaving, for four years. You’ve made two cross-town moves but you live in basically the same way. And he was right in a way I don’t think he understood. Because what I love is the regular day-to-day. It’s the regular habits and routine I fall into, that is where my heart is, no matter how simple or homely it is. What I call travel, and I do love it, is just another way of enjoying a routine. It’s the same regularity and familiarity and warmth, renewed and refreshed by exposure to different places and different pressures. It’s a small kind of variety, but it’s the sort that suits me. I wouldn’t like the life on the road and the kind of life that would never show the same face twice, the life of the visitor on the surface. It’s the life of a resident for me.
Listening to the radio the other day I heard a program (sort of) about the 1977 Voyager spacecraft, launched into space with a golden record and other goodies; the hosts of the show talked to several moderately well-known people and asked what they would include. Philip Glass, for instance, would include Bach and Tuvan throat-singing (details unspecified); Neil Gaiman would include the The Wizard of Oz, among other things. Several of the folks interviewed included things it would be difficult to include on a gold record: mandarin oranges in syrup, or an entire meal at Chez Panisse. Naturally, this got me thinking…
If I’m going to write I’d better do it. (It’s easier to steer a moving ship.) I might make a series: people I have known. Character sketches. I’ve never liked the idea of writing about people. It seems somehow disrespectful. People are large, and mostly invisible. How can I claim to know them well enough to represent them? They could always come back at me and deny my representation: I’m not like that at all.
What strikes me more and more now as I am rereading this book is how many different ways it finds to reflect its facets on each other. I’m not sure where to find the point of origin of any of its themes. Or are they themes, like melodies in a piece of music, subject to repetition, variation, and inversion? – or are they more like the instruments, themselves invariant, producing the infinite variety of melody?
One of the things I like best about Tristes Tropiques is the pleasure it takes in getting the sensuous detail right. There’s a kind of knowledge muscle it likes to flex as well…