Desolation

Gail Jones

A melancholy seriousness settles
on the faces of people attendingconcerts; it is a look both
distracted and concentrated, disturbed and imperturbable. Something
says: we shall endure this, it willeventually pass; we shall
orient our serried faces to the irresistible stage,and hope
for suspension in the glorious no-time of music. Everyone is thesame;
everyone feels this. Concerts impose a rude aura of collectivity
andthe tense AC/DC of the serious/glorious.

She had noticed it last night at
a piano recital, in which a slim Chinesewoman, beautifully
intense, played Rachmaninoff with super-humancelerity; and
she notices it here, listening to Death in Vegas. Faces shiningin
the dark, riveted, young, are replicating the expression. The music
theyare listening to is electronically synthesized, and has
a quality of poundingand insistent stammer: the squeal of
a keyboard and the whine ofelectric guitars are encased in
an over-amplified throb.

Repetition, repetition, repetition,
she thinks.

On the stage, absurdly familiar,
is a skull-and-crossbones flag, andbehind it hangs a screen
of fluctuating and synchronized projections.Images loop, and
loop again, then accelerate to crescendo. There are soldiersmarching
in formation, dancers whirling out of focus, machinery,light
bulbs, a weather balloon ascending.

She wonders what meaning operates
here, that employs the visualas mere flash. The bald head
of the keyboard player is her stable sign;throughout the concert
it is variously and fantastically lit–red, blue, purple and then
gold–but it remains somehow definite, a human globe, awonderfully
absolute, pure, and untechnical thing.

Ragged applause: then the system
of repetitions restarts.

There is too much sound and too much
light: she is feelingdenuded and swathed in excess. Ordinary
and strobe lights rake the darkcrowd, and at some point this
young woman, who has come to the concertalone, covers her
eyes with one hand to counter the bluish-lightblindness. Even
with her eyes closed she can still see the fulgurous strobe,and
she is even more willfully and emphatically alone; she is locked
intosome solitary concert and closed to community. She is
a foreigner, peoplewill know it, she does not belong here.

Someone reaches over and holds gently
her other hand.

The young woman can feel the touch,
which she takes as a gestureof solicitude. Perhaps, seeing
her shade her eyes, someone has imaginedher distressed. Perhaps
it is simple kindness, a vague gesture of concertsolidarity.
When she reopens her eyes, blinking against the renewedbrightness,
a man is standing beside her: an Algerian, possibly, or anIndian,
or a Moroccan. They are listening to music in Paris, foreigntogether.
The venue for the concert is the Elysee Montmartre, an oldcabaret–belle-époque-looking,
even in dereliction–a hall gutted andtransformed for dance
parties and concerts. The plaster ceiling is decoratedwith
eight women’s faces. They are gigantic and smiling and haveflowing
fin de siècle hairstyles; scarlet lights sit at
their chins, so that theyappear mean and infernal.

Here they are then, an instant couple,
beneath eight scarlet-facedwomen. The man is staring at the
stage; he has not attempted conversation.The music is now
so loud that it has materialized as a physical force;the wooden
floor vibrates with seismic shivers that move upwards throughevery
body.

Quaker, the woman is thinking.
This is like being possessed.

The Elysee Montmartre is becoming
hot and stuffy. Patrons areremoving layers of clothes and
buying more beer. The room is filled withcigarette smoke and
everyone wears black. Afraid that she will faint orswoon,
overcome by whatever bodily, existential, or foolish conundrum,
the woman pulls the foreign man with her, drags him through the
densecrowd, and leaves the building, still quaking.

2.

How to tell this compassionately?
How to preserve his vulnerability?

It was a small encounter, saturated
with contingent sadness.

In the street the strangers faced
each other, mutually embarrassed.They were exactly the same
height, and she has discovered that heis handsome and possibly
ten years her junior. Light from pink neon burnishedhis features.

Eleanor, she said, and extended her
hand formally.

Rashid. I am Rashid.

He took her hand again and performed
an Indian affirmation, abrief sideways tilt and motion of
the head.

Australia.

India.

We rhyme, she joked.

You have excellent cricketers, Rashid
said politely.

Cricketers, yes.

International value; how arcane
it is, how transparent.

She was relieved to speak English,
but disconcerted by her ownuncharacteristic assertiveness.
She was already wondering if she wouldsleep with him, this
Rashid, this young man, this youth she had draggedfrom a loud
concert as her hysterical accessory. They left for a nearby bar,walking
side by side, careful not to touch each other or forge obligation,and
then soon after, more trusting, to his rented room. It was a pitifullysmall
studio, on the fifth floor of an old building in the nineteentharrondissement.
Paint blistered on the walls; unintelligible graffitiinscribed
all the surfaces. In Rashid’s room the lighting was yellow-brownand
spilled from a glass tulip depending at an angle from the wall.
The airwas hung with persistent scents of Indian cooking.
There was a smallbasin, a single chair, a pile of stacked
dirty dishes.

Eleanor fought to repress a powerful
intuition: What am I doinghere?

Then she noticed a shudder, like
an aftershock from the Death inVegas concert. She assumed
it was the Metro, somewhere deep beneaththem. She heard its
thunderous sound trailing into the night, and imaginedthe
tunnel, and the tired driver, and the headlights flashing on wallslined
with innards of cable and pipe, then the sequence of lit chambersand
dark tunnels, lit chambers and dark tunnels, repeating on an efficientexhausted
circuit; and she saw then the passengers of many nationsembarking
and disembarking, and heard the shoosh of electric doors,opening
and closing; and she thought repetition, repetition, repetition,repetition
. . .

You get used to it, said Rashid.
You get used to the Metro.

He prepared cups of tea in the Indian
style, milky and with sugar,and they sat together on the single
bed, sipping and making self-conscioussmall talk.

When they made love, it was in darkness;
Rashid was shy andinexpert. Eleanor held his body closely,
but he felt absent, anonymous.

The kindness of strangers.
(She almost adopts a southern accent.)

Pardon? said Rashid.

In the companionable quiet, she could
hear a dripping tap and hissoft, murmurous breathing.

And then, clothed in darkness, Rashid
began to confess:

I should tell you, Miss Eleanor,
that I have great shame, heannounced in a low and slightly
hoarse whisper. I was sent to France bymy father–at huge
expense–to do a computer course, technology: thatwas the
deal. Why not United States or England? He knew a family here.They
said they would look out for me. Take me in. For the first two monthsor
so I tried very hard but my French was poor and I could not understandthe
technical terms. I studied, and I tried, but fell further and furtherbehind.
The other students in the course were all confident and cool. Theycalled
me le singe, the monkey, and they laughed behind my back.
Finally,I could stand it no more, so I left the course. I
did not tell the Guptas, thefamily I was staying with–kind
people, good people, from Bombay like myfamily–but left every
day with my hair combed and my books under my arm. I would wait
in the parks, or wander the streets, looking into shopwindows.
I became an expert at wandering and wasting time.

But then one day I received a letter
from home, from my father,asking me how I was doing–was I
well? was I successful?–and I felt suddenlysuch shame and
such deception. I left the Guptas that day andsimply disappeared.
I knew another Indian, a Bengali–he rents this place–who
agreed to let me use his room while I looked for work. He works
onnight shift, so I use the bed at night, and he has it in
the day. I have foundwork here and there–I am a cleaner,
part-time, at the Elysee Montmartre,so I get to see all the
concerts–but because I am illegal, I am poorly paid.I have
no hope at all of repaying my father. No hope at all of saving a
fareback home. And I live in dread of seeing the Guptas appear
on the street.I avoid the Indian areas, and get my friend
to do the shopping.

I am stranded here; I am lost. I
don’t know what to do.

Sometimes I feel I have become invisible.

Eleanor held Rashid in the now abysmal
darkness. He curled awayfrom her, his body distant and demonstrating
shame. She became awareonce again of the Metro, shuddering
the whole building. It rolled beneaththem both, in its corridor
of hot air, in its unceasing, predictable circumnavigationof
the city, carrying figures whose faces were blurred andcarried
away as they zipped into the underground night, like peopledragged,
fast motion, beyond any reliable identification.

3.

six disquisitions she tells herself

FOREIGNNESS

This man, this Rashid, carries the metaphysic of the stranded. Helies
awake at night, in someone else’s bed, thinking of a home thatbecomes
more precious with each new remembering. He knows too thathis
lost home is their found exotic. Everywhere in this city are chichi
boutiquesstocked with small objects from his country, familiar
thingsrelocated.

He is another kind of object: he
has entered a state of abstraction.He imagines himself becoming
phantom, almost invisible. Making love, even making love, has not
embodied him wholly.

CITY

One’s own city is always stable; it rests, we reside. But the travelerand
the refugee and the phantomised stranded know the secret instabilityof
every city. They have felt the ground move and shift beneath their
foreignfeet, and know that collapse of many kinds is always
possible.Sometimes this is an experience of excitation; sometimes
it is the tremorof lives on the annihilating brink. She inhabits
the touristic decadence ofthe casual encounter; he is her
object and she has unintentionally compoundedhis desolation.

MUSIC

It was the democracy–or was it the fascism?–of music thatunited
them. They listened together. They bobbed their bodies in sync.Each
moved with a kind of instinctive and elated obedience. This transculturalage
is the age of music. Words are disparaged, too difficult and tooabsurdly
imperative. Young people everywhere hallow the names of musiciansand
seek their lost sacred in a riff or in a resonating chord. Shedragged
him away. She broke his tense AC/DC.

PARENTS

He is enchained to them. We all are, even when they die. Of all
theauthorities in the world parents are the most sovereign,
and they followlike a double and separate shadow, everywhere
we go. Here is a youngwoman traveling, wondering: What
would my parents think?
The troublewe cause them. The
loving shame that they wield. If life were a blindman’sbluff,
we would always touch them in the darkness; they would always bethere,
somewhere.

SEX

When he came inside her, his body responded with a chorea-likeshiver;
she found it somehow anguishing. The sigh he gave up was such adistant
and sad-sounding relinquishment. This certainty, then: that in theeffacements
and anonymities of the night, other things find metaphoricaldefinition.
The physical body in crisis and its transphysical continuationare
like the indivisible image and after-image of the blinding strobe.

NIGHT

As a child she was obsessed with the idea that the planet is alwayshalf
night. It symbolized, even to her child-mind, the impermanence of
allstates and the principle of alterity and radical conversion.
Now she knowsit more boldly: that night is a mode of magnification.
Depression. Insomnia.Concerts. Sex. The enhancement of both
misery and its forms ofconsolation. This is banal knowledge
but now, in this lightly shaking room,it somehow reassures
her.

4.

They were lying together asleep,
on the narrow borrowed bed,when Rashid woke with a start and
switched on a nearby lamp. His facewas damp and shining with
tears.

Eleanor turned drowsily towards her
lover, her shanghaied youth,and saw his red swollen eyes and
his look of taut dishevelment.

I dreamed . . .

There is more, he said slowly, there
is more I didn’t tell you.

Rashid leaned away. His face was
not visible.

When I left Bombay, my mother was
dying of cancer. She was very,very thin, and had dark rings
beneath her eyes. I knew then that she wasdying–and she knew
that I knew-but my father nevertheless insistedthat I leave.
She wept so much; I shall never forget it. I said: I will returnsoon
and make a journey, and bring you some Ganga water; I will returnand
get the holy water and you will be cured. I think I believed it
then. Iwas confident when I left. I thought all the time about
going to Europe,about money, about success. In the letter,
my father’s letter, he told methat my mother had died. I left
the Guptas’ house because my mother haddied. Just that. Because
my mother had died. I could not bear to be withpeople. I could
not bear the knowledge of her death.

I dreamed just now a dream that I
have had three times. I dreamedthat my mother came to me wearing
the white sari of a widow. She waslooking like a skeleton,
and her voice was strange and very quiet. She said:I wrote
you a letter and you didn’t answer. Where is my answer, Rashid?
Where is my answer? She began to pound her chest in mourning, as
if Iwere the one who had died. I remember that there was spittle
on her chin,like an old person, like a cancer patient. I wanted
to wipe her face with acloth but I could not stretch far enough
to touch her.

Here Rashid paused. He was silent
for a long minute.

She wept so much, he repeated, I
can never forget it.

And then Rashid too began to weep.
Eleanor had never seen a mancry with such disinhibition. His
whole body sobbed; he was like a smallchild. He clenched his
fists against his eyes, as if trying to contain hisdreamy
sorrow.

Je suis desolé, he
said. Desolé. Desolé.

Please leave, he said. Desolé.
Desolé.

5.

Eleanor is on the street, at four
in the morning. The look of thingsis black glass–it has recently
rained or the streets have been washed andcleaned–and everything
appears remarkably still and settled. Her lonesomefootsteps
echo down the tunnel of the rue de Meaux. She hasreturned
to her habit of itemization; she begins to replay her nighttimememories.

This is what she is remembering:

She is remembering that the only
lyrics in the Death in Vegas concertwere “All gods suck,
all gods suck,” combined with a spinning Shivaimage and
the round surface of some dark, possibly planetary, object. Didit
hurt him, this crude and flashy combination? Did it recall some
childhoodmoment of a more holy and private life?

She is remembering the scarlet women
peering down from theceiling; how gigantic and superintending
they seemed, how ambiguous intheir presences. They rested
somewhere between benevolence andmalevolence, between charm
and grotesquerie.

This night has made every detail
retrospectively symbolic. Theirhair. Their oversized, European
smiles.

She is remembering his face under
pink neon, how young heappeared. He had large lustrous eyes
and a patina of electrical shine. Hehad a shy expression and
a quality of good-looking tenderness. Yet shedesired him,
quite simply, because he had held her hand. When he firsttouched
her, she could not have guessed that he was so insubstantial.

She is remembering the woman playing
Rachmaninoff, the Chinesewoman, and the bald head of the keyboard
player, repetitiouslyrecoloring. She is remembering too the
precise look of melancholy seriousnessthat begins in a concert,
extends into gestures and confessions,and then moves outwards,
traveling like vibrations, traveling so mysteriously–not
like the Metro at all, not regular and entrammeled–butfanning
open, invisibly, like vibrations in the body, into all the glories
anddesolations of a black city night.

 

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