Jan Morris and I did manage to meet. By taking drives out to each other’s hotels, leaving notes in pigeonholes and making the best headway that we could against the sluggish tides and crosscurrents of the city, we succeeded in arriving at the same time at the same open-air café on the Nile. Just to be sitting at table among the mosquitoes with glasses of Stella beer seemed to me to be a triumph of generalship: a combination of foresight, hard work, high tactical skill and immense good luck.
As James Morris, she had lived in Cairo on a houseboat in the 1950s. James Morris had been the correspondent in the Middle East for the London Times, and before that he had worked for a news bureau. Jan Morris, commissioned by Rolling Stone Magazine, was revisiting Cairo for the first time since she had changed gender, and she was nervous about what Jan might see in James’s City.
Arabia – A Journey Through the Labyrinth, Jonathan Raban, Simon and Schuster, 1979
When I read that first line in the second paragraph I stopped and re-read it many times. It was that line, when I read it in 1979 that first led me to understand that in a sea of writers there were a few that had a style so particular that it made it worthwhile for me to search for them in earnest. Jan Morris, herself became on of my favourite travel writers. In a story that preceded her biography of British Admiral John (Jackie) Fisher (Fisher's Face):
The young James Morris wanted to be the mercurial Jackie Fisher, later Admiral and First Sea Lord: "That's the man for me," he said on first seeing his photograph. Now the older Jan Morris has settled for an affair in the afterlife and written a self- styled jeu d'amour, an extravagant conception of breathless adulation, gossip, games and war. Probably the most eccentric book you'll read this year, and never a dull moment.
I remember reading (I have not been able to find the book in my library) how Jan Morris upon seeing a portrait of Fisher hanging from his house and or museum wrote something like: “The man in me admired the man I saw in the portrait. The woman in me fell madly in love with him.”
Since reading most of Jonathan Raban’s and Jan Morris’s books I have discovered others that write from a point of view that is alien to the norm. Among them are Jerome Charyn, Michael Dibdin, José Saramago, Andrea Camilleri, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Charles Palliser, Anthony Burgess, Don DeLillo, Raymond Chandler, Peter Carey and my very own and very Argentine Jorge Luís Borges.
Some of these writers are not lost in translation. The Sicilian-born Camilleri, the Portuguese Saramago still sing in English and in Spanish. Of late I have been reading the crime books of Italian Carlo Lucarelli. There is more than style oddness in his books. This is an oddness (odd in that it is not the norm in conventional novels) of perception and approach. Why would Lucarelli write a rambling page on what one can do while driving when it does not help or give us more information on the character nor does it play a role in the unfolding of events?
Only Saramago would write about a muezzin who calls the faithful to prayer from a minaret overlooking Lisbon who is able to discern the exact moment of sunrise even though he is blind:
Don’t worry about your turban, let’s go to the rampart and watch the infidels scatter, now these words spoken without any conscious malice, can only be attributed to the fact that the muezzin’s blindness is caused by amaurosis, look, he is watching us, that is to say, he has his eyes fixed in our direction yet cannot see us, how sad, it is difficult to believe that such transparency and clearness are, in the final analysis, the outer surface of absolute opacity.
The History of the Siege of Lisbon, José Saramago, Harcourt Brace and Company, 1989.
It is the unexpected directions of these books from these writers that for me emphasize how globalization is ironing out variety and difference. Just like a Starbucks in Moscow and one in Buenos Aires might be the same so might a recent Russian novel translated into English or an Argentine novel read the same. In my field of photography I can no longer spot different styles. Photographs seem to have a uniform efficiency and blandness. In what may be a by-product of my age I can no longer differentiate a BWM from a Mercedes or from a KIA. They all have the photographic sameness of Flickr and facebook. I remember stopping to stare at Russian Ladas in the 80s. They might have been shody but they were unique as if from another planet! Who can forget the 60 Peugeots in which to lock the doors you had to pull up the buttons instead of pressing them down? I drove a 403 for a month not knowing it had a fourth gear as it was out of the way.
I feel the same about World Music. Some of the jazz I might listen to on CBC Radio has a uniformity of approach that makes it sound timeless (in a perfectly negative way). There is nothing that says, that’s Gerry Mulligan 1959. On the other hand when I cannot understand the diverse accents of the announcers of BBC TV I should be happy!
While I believe that I am not ready (yet) to accept Mexican sushi with guacamole, I am freely able to incorporate literature in which I can identify a world in which geography text books featured maps that had Mexicans in big sombreros sleeping under a cactus, a Chinese woman with a Chinese conical hat planting rice, an American cowboy on a horse roping a cow and a scarlet-uniformed Mountie saving a swooning woman in distress.
It is a world in which Yusuf Islam’s My People does not ring as independently true as Tea For The Tillerman.