Wednesday, 19 March 2008

The Box

When I remember them, I write down my dreams. Some stories have come out of dreams, sometimes very directly. The story below couldn’t wait to be written down first as a dream. After a couple of sentences, imagination, that winged being, tugged at the pen and the writing took off, took flight, first person turned into third, and I was writing something the way you write a story, you don’t know in advance what you’re going to write. Yes, the character’s memories were similar to mine, and the ending is just as it was in the dream but the experience was the exciting one of writing a story, that spins you into another world.

Writing down a dream is fairly pedestrian, but writing a story connects with the imagination, so it’s like taking flight. I often use the first person in a story. Often too, they are taken from my own experience, but there’s a sense of detachment from the character, because you’re writing ‘from above’ , that’s how it feels to me, when you connect with the imagination. Or whatever name you choose to give that energy that feels to me to hover above our very present sense of being who we are. When we connect with that ‘other self’ that other energy, our ordinary sense of self becomes looser and more diffuse and you do not need to be writing a story to experience that. It can happen at any time of heightened feeling, heightened perception. I call it feeling that I’m in a film or in a novel.
Of course, our lives are stories, novels, films, complete with soundtrack. But I do not always feel that. But life feels much more exciting, interesting and purposeful, when I do.

The Box

One or two buses passed her as she walked down the road. She thought she could get a bus from here to another part of town, where she knew she could get a Number 5, which would take her home. But she couldn’t clearly remember which buses would take her there from here. She’d once known, she was sure she had once been familiar with this route, but the memory was too vague now and the numbers of the passing buses stirred no recollection. So much had changed – numbers and routes, it seemed like an age ago, that she’d known most of the system of connecting links that threaded their way through the city, like an intricate design.

It was probably when she lived somewhere else, she thought, in another city, which had laid its pattern over this one that she’d lost her once-familiar knowledge of it. It had changed the inner map of her. Not that she thought about that at the time. She simply became familiar with the new city, in the way you have to, of necessity, when you are living somewhere else. You need to know, first of all, how to get from where you live, to where you work. That route, at first so confusing, with its warren of tiny back streets, soon became a known familiar path. She remembered the feeling of confidence, almost amounting to triumph, when she had mastered it and could walk across the narrow wooden bridge over the river,
and know where she was going. Sometimes she’d stop and buy a packet of cigarettes from the elderly man who had a tiny stall on the far end of the bridge. His cigarettes, packets of biscuits, nuts, his handful of bananas and Albena chocolate bars, were carefully arranged on an upturned cardboard box. When she gave him the hundred lek note, he put his hand briefly on his heart, in thanks.

Once she had learned this necessary route, she began to walk around the city learning its geography through the soles of her feet, the only real way to know a place with intimacy. It moves into your body that way, it becomes a muscular part of who you are, its streets begin to be known by your body, its mapping and co-ordinates become your inner map, as the new connections in the mind make jumps and leaps and new discoveries, until one day – and perhaps you may not consciously remember just what day it was, but one day, all these confusing new directions and connections have come together and a new map is laid out, in your mind. And you find yourself walking along and your body knows which way to go, what turning to take, you are no longer fumbling, questioning, not-knowing, your inner network of ways and passages is linked with the outer streets you’re walking through. You have become one with the streets you walk on and the network of the city has become your own inner geography.
When she came back to Edinburgh, the city of her birth, Carla found it had changed, confusing her. Ways of getting from one place to another were no longer in her body, for this other pattern lived in her, was still with her, even though it did not correspond any longer to the physical terrain around her. There was this huge gap between what was inside her and what was outside. Streets she felt should have led to this place, or that, turned out to be dead-ends, or took her away from where she wanted to go. She got lost, in her own home town. Because this felt like failure, she could not admit to it, but she felt like a stranger in this city that she’d once felt part of. She felt rejected by it, as if it said to her – you found another city, you discovered another love, and it is still inside you, I can tell, there’s no use pretending, its still in your body, you no longer touch me in the way you used to, this is something that you cannot hide, cannot dissemble, the map of you is altered, and the language of you, shown in your body’s inner patterning, is not the same as mine. A black line of severance, of lack, of distance, comes between us.

What could she say to that? What possible excuses, explanations or denials could she give? For she knew that it was true. She had tasted truth in these other streets, hesitatingly at first, under grey skies, walking through muddy lanes, skirting enormous puddles. And later, with uncomprehending confidence when spring came and
the mud turned into dust. And later too, in summer, when the sun blazed high up in the sky’s vault, far higher than she was accustomed to and she sought out the streets darkened with the shade of massive chestnut trees. Truth, so hesitant at first, so bewildered and unsure, so lacking in confidence, had grown in her, in the same way as the bare trees began to show a hint of green among the drab grey buildings, the brown of mud and stonework and the black clothes that everybody seemed to wear.

And as the trees began to grow and sprout thick-fingered leaves, as this passion of growth revealed the real nature of sweeping and enfolding trees and the people threw off their black clothes and colour erupted in the streets, so did the growing truth inside her blossom too, she could smell its jasmine scents around her, she could feel sunlight turning truth inside her like a spinning dance. It was a revelation to be turned into something that she had not been before. She knew that she was different, but no name could fit this transformation. She did not want to stop its flow, its energy, by confining it within a name. She did not want this dance to stop. She had no intention of abandoning this dance, this energy, this truth she had become.

But circumstances – the only neutral word that she could find for forces operating beyond her conscious will – removed her from the geography that soared and plummeted inside of her. It was her mother’s death that brought her back here, to her home town. The job was winding up as well, but she had time, or so she thought, to look for something else. Before she could, death on the horizon made her pack her bags, too quickly, there was no time to reflect, consider, or to say goodbye to everyone, there was just this sudden parting, this sense of being torn away from everything that had turned her into truth.

And while she’d been away, the city of her birth had changed and she no longer knew it and it did not look her in the eye, it had become a stranger to her and its back was turned to her, it did not speak her language. But Carla knew that it was she who’d turned away and turned into some other person or some other being really, that had grown in her. But however separated it might be, from its outer place of origin, the truth body was there in her. She felt twice-bereft – of the woman who had given birth to her and nurtured her, and of the place that gave birth to the truth of her and turned her into an altogether other being, which was now an alien in the city she had grown up in. She was inconsolable. She wore a cautious brave and optimistic mask. Inside, she wept and
grieved for loss of her mother and her external city, heart of the country that had nurtured in her this new being of truth. She could not embrace the city of her birth, she could not truly say I love you, not with her heart of truth. That declaration belonged in another place and she could not say it, with the heart of her, to this one.

She could give qualified responses, but they sounded like the explanations of a lover, caught out loving someone else. She knew them all too well. Phrases like – I love you in a different way; its natural to love more than one person; there’s still things we can share; of course I still want to live with you – wrung out deception like a cloth left in the rain.

Truth was now her language and her being, but she was in a place she had to try to love and try to talk to and she lost her way in streets that she once knew and the glitter of the shiny shop-fronts did not welcome her and she was secretly appalled at the grim-faced crowds of shoppers, celebrating Christmas and she thought, that she could not see truth in this celebrating army on the streets and yet, surely, it was Truth that was the underlying reason for the celebration?

She knew she had no right to find fault with this city she had once loved as her own, she knew the lack was not in it at all, just because she couldn’t speak its language. She’d loved it once – could she not learn to love it once again? And so she tried, but still this voice inside her, whispered to her – isn’t this the past? it whispered. Or – how can you give up Truth, for practicality, for survival, for the daily round of commerce, barter and exchange? Truth has blossomed in you, put down roots, given out scent and ripened into fruit. How can you settle for the mundane and the practical, the daily round of work and sleep, how can you make do with a life of empty habits, when you have lived with Truth?

She could not answer this. Something in her could not respond. She let her mind take on responsibility and think up reasons or excuses for the things she went on doing, the actions she performed, the automatic gestures that she made. Though there were holes in her remembering, gaps in the fabric of the city that she wore like a borrowed garment, not like the clothes she wore in that other city which fitted her as if she’d grown them, like the way the trees grow leaves.

Here, her memories did not rise upwards from within her, they had not grown in her, they were rather, like a language she’d once
known and used, but had forgotten. And, when trying to relearn it, she found that it had changed and was still changing. So she felt that she could never quite catch up with the rate of change. And besides, it had become a stranger to her. Whole areas she’d known, had been knocked down, they were no longer there. New shiny buildings had appeared, all glass and glitter and reflection. She barely recognised herself, when she saw her image, reflected from their shiny surfaces. And she did not want to see it – it was as if she was thrown back at herself, while the shuttered buildings gave her nothing of themselves.

It became clear that she could not become one with this city as she had with that other dusty city, full of scents and car fumes, its air thick and motionless with heat. This one here was often windy, like an irritable parking warden, shooing you away from this place, on to the next one. Move on, move on, the wind seemed to exhort, endlessly, relentlessly.

And she always seemed to be in movement in the city now. Because if she stopped, she truly did not know what she was doing there. So that movement, tiring as it was, felt better somehow. She didn’t want to wait at a bus stop for a bus she wasn’t even sure would take her where she wanted to go. A bus that may not even exist. It
could perhaps just be a bus-in-memory, a maroon and white striped ghost of a bus. She got out her purse and rummaged in it. For these buses, you needed the right amount of change. There were only a few coins in her purse, she didn’t bother counting it, but it didn’t look like enough.

Then she realised that if she turned left at the approaching junction and followed that road, it would link up with another main road, which was on the bus route she was heading for, the one that would definitely take her home. She smiled a little wryly to herself. Another example of her forgetting a geography that had once been so familiar to her. It wasn’t far to the junction now. So she needn’t bother with a bus, she could walk there. And she was right, she turned left at the junction and it took no time at all, to reach the main road.

On the corner of this road, on the same side as the bus stop, was a little shop. She went in. It was small and wood-panelled, the dark wood drinking in the daylight coming through the window. Yet it did not appear dingy or dimly-lit; despite the dark wooden interior, there was a brightness inside the little shop. The shopkeeper was an elderly man with silvered hair, wearing a faded black apron with large pockets, tied around his waist. Instead of having his wares
piled up around him in ostentatious displays, giving the impression that your every nutritional desire will be catered for, she could only see boxes, a little like tea-chests, which presumably contained quantities of foodstuffs that would be measured out. It reminded her a little, of a shop she knew from her childhood. It was dimly-lit and the shopkeeper weighed out vegetables on old-fashioned dull brass scales. She had a large nose which was slightly purple at the end. She wore fingerless gloves and dark cardigans buttoned all the way up at the front and she rarely smiled. As a child Carla was a little scared of her, although she was never unpleasant, in word or manner. She was just aloof, inhabiting another world. It was the silence, mixed with her slow economy of gesture as she weighed the vegetables, her silent, concentrated presence and her rather odd appearance, that unnerved her.

The elderly shopkeeper did not unnerve her however. She felt perfectly at ease with him. And his shop was not inadequately lit by a single light bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was possibly its diminutive size and the dark-brown colours of the wood giving it such an old-fashioned atmosphere that made an association.

A small wooden box lay on the bare counter. Carla was struck by the design on the top. It was oval and raised and had subtle
coloured panels painted in it. It reminded her of something, it seemed to her that she had seen a box like this before, but where or when, she could not remember. This is a beautiful box she said to the shopkeeper. He agreed with her, that it was very fine.

She picked it up, examined it. The carved patterns and the colours seemed to swirl around, not staying in one place as you’d expect and she tried to remember where and when she saw one similar, the same in its striking physical appearance and the same in its affect on her. Only it seemed as if, the last time she saw this box, or its twin, she had not said anything, she had not spoken her admiration of it, out loud. She also had the impression that because she had said nothing, its memory was misted in her and she had not formed an intimate connection with it. But because she had remarked on it and the shopkeeper had agreed with her, some bond was formed between her and the box, some link, some secret underlying something that they shared.

It did not occur to her to ask if this box could be bought. Yes, this was a shop and commerce was a part of life, but it was the contents of the containers that were for sale. Instinctively, she felt that something so attractive was not something you could buy or sell. Her relationship to it was her appreciation of its beauty and the
connection formed between them was something that went far beyond exchange and ownership. It was a relationship of such equality that she felt she shared some essential being with this box. She also felt that her appreciation of it enhanced its richness and its beauty.

Even in the marketplace, it seemed to say, a treasure could be found. Why did she respond to the beauty of the pattern and feel that she had seen it in some time and place before? Does it mean that something that we recognize so deeply, love so immediately, must be a part of us already? That we are meeting up with something and some part of us we thought we’d lost? She had been lost, she’d lost her way, but in this little shop she’d found a jewel that stirred the depths of her, that moved her to express out loud the feelings that it touched in her. Maybe that’s it she thought, what wakes us up and brings us to the heart of us is not so much a map we have to work out logically, but something that we feel, a wonder and a mystery, a love, that’s what it is, a love, among the bus routes and the intersections and the ways of getting home, it’s what brings us to the love that’s in us, that will take us home.

A sudden storm erupted out of nowhere. The wind seemed to want to tear trees from the earth, the hailstones lashed the windows and there was one sharp peal of thunder.

And she realised that the hail was beating on her bedroom window as if it had become impatient and wanted her to wake up. I’m not separated, that was what she thought, from the feelings which that other city woke in me. I don’t have to be there to feel love. The home I wanted to get back to is this feeling that the beauty brought to life in me.

It was the first day of the New Year. The tearing wind, the wild hailstorm, they passed as quickly as they had appeared. She lit one candle. Then another. The sky grumbled with grey throughout the blustering, brief hours of daylight. The candle flames burnt blue and yellow, in moving, shifting patterns of light.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Une Vie de Chiens

Une Vie de Chiens/A Life with Dogs
By Michko Netchak (2000) (with English subtitles)

This short documentary film was a great success at the Venice Film Festival in 2000. It was shown in the little cinema l’Archipel in the Boulevard de Strasbourg, Paris, as part of the Serbian Film Festival at the end of June, 2007, which was where I saw it.

It portrays the daily life of a young man, Vladimir Vukovic, who looks after stray dogs in surroundings of idyllic natural beauty, in Bosnia. He talks in a quiet and matter-of-fact way about his present, and the circumstances of his past, that brought him to this unusual way of life.

He was born in 1970 by the beautiful Drina river in Bosnia and went to Sarajevo University to study biology. Then the war broke out. Virtually overnight he lost everything – his house, his parents, his brother, his fiancé, and of course his studies. He recounts in an even voice that his mother was raped before being thrown into the Drina, his father murdered, his brother decapitated. ‘One day’ he said ‘my girlfriend said to me I don’t love you any more and went off with someone who could give her financial security. I wonder if that was the real her or just some devil speaking through her’.

The one possession or relationship he did not lose in the war was his dog, who survived.

During the war he said at first he lived off friends and humanitarian handouts, then he got a job with the Red Cross. He refused to pick up a gun and fight. He did the work that no-one else wanted to do, such as clearing away corpses. He saw that it was children and dogs who really suffered in Sarajevo and he knew at that point that he would devote his life to helping dogs or children.

He has many questions about why the war happened, but no answers. When he left Sarajevo he said he buried his friends in the cemetery and buried his love along with them. He felt, he said, something breaking in his soul.

You see him getting up early in the morning, woken by his ‘alarm clock’ dog lying on his chest and whining. Its 4 am. He gets up so early because, as he tells us, the huge pans of dog food meal have to be cooked for two hours. He explains that the bottom of the pans have to be lined with plastic as there are so many holes in them they would leak and a lot of the food would be lost. When it’s ready he pours the thick meal out of the large cooking pans into the containers which he takes outside and distributes among the dogs. They crowd around him eagerly, big, small, black, brown, white, multi-coloured. They are all strays he says.

He describes various of the dogs’ histories. One had its ears docked with an axe, another had an eye put out by its drunken owner; the same owner broke the pelvis of another dog. One was found as an abandoned puppy, almost frozen to death, but given warmth, food and care, it survived. It was this one that was afraid of people and he says that he understands this, he has begun to be reserved about people too.

The compound is spacious, with plenty of room for the dogs to roam around. Just beyond it are wide open green spaces, huge leafy trees with the sunlight filtering through, and green mountains in the background.

‘People think’ says Vladimir, ‘that you need money to live on, but it's not that we need, nor imaginary success or a name that sounds important. It’s actually love you live on, love, fresh air and natural surroundings.’

Sava River, Slovenia

From Slovenia to Zagreb

The River Train itself came from somewhere in the north of Slovenia. I got on at Bled and immediately it began to follow the river's course. I'd spent a few days at an International PEN conference by Lake Bled, in 2007. The photograph at the top of this page is of the church on the island in the middle of Lake Bled. Once on the train, my mind was discharging all the thoughts and ideas, the feelings and emotions that had come up, while listening to talks given by speakers from all over the world. Here in the UK, we know little of the difficulties that some writers experience, sometimes just trying to speak and write in their own language, never mind trying to express ideas that could involve them in punishment, imprisonment or worse. But even the fact that some of these people were able to attend the conference was in itself, a blow struck for freedom, and for peace.

Then suddenly, after such emotional and intellectual intensity, I was on my own, on a slow train heading for Zagreb. It was early April, barely spring, but some trees had turned a greenish shade, a few early blossoms could be seen, stark white colours against the blue of sky. As the train wound its way eastwards around the curves in the river Sava, the opaque sky grew lighter, holes appeared in the cloud fabric, revealing patches of blue. The clouds became ripped and disentangled. Sometimes the train stopped at tiny stations, where no-one was waiting to get on. There were only a few passengers. On the way to Zagreb I wrote Rivertrain, which Liz Price later put to music. You can hear this at  

I was delivering some books to a friend in Zagreb. By the time we reached there, it was late afternoon, the sky was clear and the sun was warm. The next day, I wandered through the old town in the morning sunshine, through the market, a park and the botanical gardens. The tortoises were basking in the sun, their necks and legs stretched out of their shells.

Spires of Zagreb