Sunday, 31 August 2014

'Sidewalks' by Valeria Luiselli (Review)

It's the last day of August, and that means that we've reached the end of the official proceedings for Women In Translation Month (although you're free, of course, to carry on reading as many works of translated fiction by women as you like).  My reviewing month started off (a day early...) with my post on Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd, so with a liking for symmetry, I decided it would be nice to come full circle to finish the project off.  Let's all go for a cycle through the streets of Mexico City ;)

Sidewalks (translated by Christina MacSweeney), a collection of short essays about life, death, language and pushbikes, was Luiselli's debut work in Spanish, but it appeared in English at the same time as her novel.  This was probably a wise move - it's unlikely that the general reading public would have had a lot of interest in a series of musings from an unknown female Mexican writer, a book that barely scrapes past a hundred pages...

...and that, of course, would have been a shame because Sidewalks is a lovely little find, a book which takes very little time to read, but is one you'd like to dip back into at a later date.  The structure of the essays is deceptively simple, with each chopped up into shorter sections, often a matter of a paragraph or two, and they often start off talking about one topic before flitting off on a tangent to look at another - and then circling back to where we began.

A good example is 'Alternative Routes', in which an early-evening bike ride, ostensibly in search of a Portuguese dictionary, turns into a discussion of the word saudade and its possible equivalents in other languages.  This turns into a lengthy digression on the idea of melancholy, including the origins of the word, and the way in which old notions have become new illnesses, treatable with pills:
"Bastard daughter of melancholy, the term nostalgia inherited the characteristics of black bile but never achieved its former divine status.  The magic humours of mother melancholy evaporated in the three dry syllables of her aseptic daughter: nos-tal-gia."
'Alternative Routes', p.44 (Granta Books, 2013)
A bit of melancholy, a touch of nostalgia - and then the ride is over, and we arrive back where we started, in search of the dictionary :)

This isn't the only piece which has Mexico City at its heart.  One of the most impressive sections is titled 'Relingos', which, as Luiselli explains, refers to the empty spaces left at the heart of a city by bad planning or good fortune.  As the writer thinks about these voids at the heart of her home town, she also compares the idea of relingos to the work of a writer.  What else is writing if not creating words and ideas in the vain attempt to fill a void...

A few of the pieces also touch on the experiences the writer has when moving around from country to country (as she has done all her life).  'Flying Home' starts with an air journey back to Mexico City, with thoughts of home interspersed with musings about the Mexican capital's (lack of) urban planning, stories of disappearing canals and old maps jostling gently with the frustration of the aeroplane inching slowly across the screen in front of her seat.

Then, in 'Return Ticket', we look in on the writer unpacking at a new flat, moving her personal library to its new home.  Even when thumbing through old books, though, Luiselli is still thinking about cities:
"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, in comprehensible marginal notes that we have to decipher to make our own again."
'Return Ticket', p.85
Once again, we return to the nostalgia that we saw mentioned earlier.  Having spent her childhood overseas (and her adult life shuttling between Mexico City and New York), perhaps Luiselli is looking for something that can never be found - or wasn't really there in the first place...

Sidewalks is a beautiful little book, a wonderful way to while away an hour or so, and it's one of those rare works where you're constantly stopping to jot down an observation or copy an interesting line.  The writing is witty and laconic, cleverly looping around on itself, and the foreword by Cees Nooteboom is rather apt as Luiselli has a similar style and eye for detail to the (much older) Dutch writer.

It is a very short book, though, even shorter than the 110 pages it officially runs to (there are several blank pages between the pieces), and with Faces in the Crowd also a fairly brief novel, those wanting to immerse themselves in Luiselli's writing don't really have a lot to choose from.  However, if you are interested in learning more about the writer, I do have a few suggestions...

Firstly, I recently came across this video interview (in Spanish, with English subtitles) in which Luiselli talks about her upbringing.  Also, for those whose Spanish is passable, the writer has a monthly column for the El País newspaper, a series of short observations on life in New York.  Finally, if your language skills are really good, her third book is already out - La Historia de mis Dientes is available in Spanish now (the rest of us will have to wait until the end of 2015...).

Off you go, then ;)