(Two essays from the essay collection „The Third Tome“)
A good decade ago, Ambassador V. invited me to join him for lunch at the Alpenrose, a Swiss restaurant in Riga’s old town. Its blue façade was festooned with images of white blossoms and grazing brown heifers wearing cowbells around their necks. Early in the day, the refrigerator was stocked with little glasses of kirsch, rimy with frost, lined up like pawns at the start of a chess match. Legend has it that this restaurant was founded by a Swiss fellow who had come to our wintry shores – surprise, surprise – because of a woman. Could there have been any other reason? (Back then, such love-smitten immigrants arrived in droves. They opened up cafes, restaurants, and pizzerias together, which usually suffered a dramatic fate after the inevitable divorce – which had to come sooner or later – since one of the pair of “one-and-onlys” just couldn’t handle the pressure of running the place alone. New owners would take over soon thereafter. A fresh menu would replace the old one, and the original charm would be gone in an instant.) The kirschwasser was served by Zita, who the ambassador often saw there during his prix-fixe business lunches. Diplomats manage to live through all types of personal and state cataclysms without losing two very important attributes – those of womaniser and tippler – and so it came as no surprise when Zita materialised by the side of our table on the second floor of that auberge, her notebook open and at the ready. She wasn’t like classic Latvian women – statuesque, somewhat big-boned, with broad features, long hair, bangs, and already holding full membership in that ruthless corps of models. In plain terms, she wasn’t of that Scandinavian type – the type for whom “pretty” actually means “striking”. (Incidentally, the overall beauty score of Latvian women keeps going up in the ratings tables, including the politically incorrect ones.) But Zita was more of a classic ballerina type – she had perfect lines, delicate hands, and a Modigliani neck. Like an elegant pedestal – the restaurant surroundings almost made me feel like saying “platter” – that neck supported a smallish head, à la Brâncuşi, with tidily arranged dark hair. Her face was some- what reminiscent of the type of photograph you’d see in the window of a portrait studio between the wars: a few touch-ups, but not too many. (The Riga of that era was the measure of moderation.) She had thin lips, an angular nose, and big eyes. The kind of eyes that make a guy jot down his private number on the reverse side of his business card. But history is always silent about whether a phone call is ever received.
We mowed down all of white’s pawns on that early afternoon. The ambassador paid with his gold card. I had the good fortune of leaving the tip. Zita was not unappreciative; she gave me her work schedule. Viewing the city through the front windscreen of that Volvo with diplomatic number plates, thanks to that svelte waitress, Riga felt essentially closer. It was less imposing. The six-storey buildings that were at one time mandatory in the city centre were of the Imperial style through and through. Suddenly, though, it became easy to fill my head with the wonders of the Jugendstil – which mostly consisted of heads – since, fluttering in the place of the beautiful Pre-Raphaelite-inspired faces, I saw Zita’s elusive and flighty face, like something out of a French New Wave film. Cruel as it was for this particular cinephile, that hallowed setting needed to be moved to coastal Jurmala, where Russia and Latvia had organised an international contest of singers. If they had been given the opportunity, the trio of screechers headlining the event – who formed a three-headed dragon – would have done a far better job scaring the living daylights out of not only the Pre-Raphaelites, but also Mikhail Eisenstein, the designer of famous buildings on Albert Street, and Isaiah Berlin, who was born on that same street, than the Latvian riflemen guarding Lenin’s physiognomy. The only symbolic justice was that the contest’s first-ever winner was a completely unknown American singer named Angelina La Rose, who was hurtled back into obscurity the second it was over. At the time, Zita’s rose was also orbiting the oblivion of memory.
Mine, I should add. But we continued seeing each other for a couple of years: we’d meet in parks and out-of-the-way chocolateries. In a word, in that “other” Riga – or “no one’s” Riga as our prominent Olympian Arvydas J. called it in his reckless book about Latvia. We took in the wooden architecture of Riga Central Market, which was then still reminiscent of Vilnius’ Žvėrynas district, before it was given a heritage designation and became overrated. “Do you think you could live here?” she’d ask me while hopping on one leg. She had the strange habit of sharply turning her beak by a 180-degree angle. Interestingly, I remember the angle better than the beak.
She’d rest her head on my shoulder and say things like, “Do you play the violin?” We did our best to avoid hard questions. I never inquired about how she had ended up working at the Swiss place. She dreamed of studying child psychology somewhere abroad, but she was seriously short of money. I knew those sob stories by heart. She had a brother in Ireland who would also help her. (And that’s when I figured out that the Latvian exodus was just like ours: current and potential freeloaders leaving in great numbers in search of philanthropists, for which the state was implicitly and unutterably grateful.) Who did she mean by “also”? She never invited me back to her place; I always invited her to mine. But, for her, coming to my place was like going on an exhausting journey through desert dunes. She called me once from a small town that was about halfway from Klaipėda. As I understood it, some sort of mystical force had made her get off the bus. She stopped calling me. But I kept calling her. “Just don’t make any big plans,” she’d repeat. I sent postcards from my trips to the Alpenrose at Jauniela 16. “For Z.” I know she got them. One winter when I was in Athens, I stumbled across a huge sale of fashionable clothing in a store that was almost at the foot of the Acropolis. Crushed from all sides by squawking, bow- legged Japanese women, I nonetheless managed to snap up a few steals. The items were almost tailor-made for her: a blouse, a skirt, a coat, a jacket, a hat. (A few accessories will forever remain a secret.) She greeted me the time I came back from Greece, but not later, when I came back from Palanga. “You said yourself – waiting is the greatest art,” she said later, all decked out in the garments I’d bought for her at the store called Paranoia, which sold apparel made by chichi Athenian designers. She wore very little makeup, so everything suited her – especially the shades that were like autumn leaves and withered blossoms. As winter drew nearer, Riga grew prettier with things, especially in the districts where the city’s architecture still had some muscles. The very muscles that seemed to be missing from our platonic romance: protected from the inarticulate post-coital void and its piercing gaze, we never found our cosy little nest. (I almost wrote “womb”.) Two lonely little chess pieces with nowhere to lie down together after the masters’ match was over. She wouldn’t go to a hotel out of principle, and I never learned to take girls to friends’ places for one-night stands – that is to say, to turn their flats into hotels.
I have preserved only the memory of the afternoon direct bus to Klaipėda. She stands on the other side of the dusty window, but her eyes are inside the bus. “I AM SAD I AM BAD JUST FORGIVE ME,” she writes with her finger in leftwards-slanting letters. On the way home, a fierce storm washed away the dust and the whole girl, with all of our romantic strolls together, our high jinks, whooping, and cavorting, as well as the hilarious Latvian expressions and the outdoor advertisements of the big city that, it seemed, were whizzing past only yesterday. But everything petered out and stopped, and we went our separate ways. I lost her like all the others – as though I’d flung a vase from a balcony. The hardest part is believing that it’s not some heartless stranger who’s doing the flinging but your own subtle and all- knowing hand. As if that frosty glass of kirsch had raised itself to your lips and then lowered itself to the ground ... Sometimes during sleepless early mornings, usually in some foreign hotel with a few stars to its name, the shards of Zita’s vase reassemble themselves to form a whole, like something hand-cast by an imitator of Constantin Brâncuşi. In that vase stands a flower of the species Rhododendron ferruginem, placed there by an anonymous philanthropist – and like a true rose of the Alps, it never withers.
Silence under the Gravestones
On various occasions, like a Calvinist (by this, I mean a follower of Italo Calvino, who left our millennium with six famous memos ), I have written about the need to slow down. About Rolandas’s ritardando. The time has now come to discuss the silencing of song. These two things are related and have to do with the rituals of travel. The first is about deliberate indolence, as in when you let the world spin around your own ax-I-s. The second is about switching off the sounds of the world, as in “Turn off the damn radio, Peter!” Attempts at these latter mini-nirvanas have never proved particularly fruitful. Your – and the world’s – essence prevents them from ever being achieved. The same way utter bliss is usually disrupted by a gurgling stomach, an approaching storm, or wailing sirens. The total elimination of speed or sound would be hard to contemplate. Of course, there is no problem turning off the engine of a car or a submarine, but it would be impossible to turn off the sound of the heaving ocean. The battle of the waves. The sounds of whales spouting water. Lying on the bottom of a rowing boat, oars close to your sides like wings, you’d still be carried by the current. Oncoming clouds would thrust themselves into your field of vision, and flitting birds would dart past with every blink of your eyes. Some of their voices might even remind you of the trilling of your mother-in-law. Little would change even if you closed your eyes – you’d still be alive. Things would really get moving in the opposite direction if you were dead. You wouldn’t hear any laments, and, if you were buried below the ground, you’d never make it to Lourmarin cemetery in the Department of Vaucluse, where, beneath a crumbling gravestone, lies the goalkeeper of that commune’s football team, one Albert Camus. And then you’d be equals. It would take very little – simply lying down under the gravestones.
In my youth, I preferred boxing with cities to wrestling with them. Today, what I call “boxing” is the sudden sting you get from a place. A swarm of images buzzes in my memory. As in a dream, I dash into a tube station, change trains at far-flung, seedy stations, and, clueless as to how it happened, I end up alone with some disturbed knuckle-dragger inside a deserted Sunday lift, our eyes inevitably meet in the reflection of the polished steel. My back still remembers a question from three young black guys: “To beat or not to beat?” This happened during the scene with just the four of us – them and my scalp. That was when there were still no Android smartphones or GPS navigators with doltish voices. All I had was a humble, frayed little map that was barely holding together from my nervous fidgeting and folding, plus a blue phone card in my hand. Only fifteen minutes left before the vernissage for Anish Kapoor – this was before I knew that contemporary art is the same nearly everywhere – which, in a megalopolis, burns like a match lit in the wind by a novice smoker’s trembling fingers. And you are still far, far away, still only scuttling through the intersections, your reflection appearing in the piddle of recent rain- fall, and you always forget to look left. Left, my friend – always look left! Watched over by the Almighty, you somehow arrive on time. You emerge at the right time and place. The geniuses are all there. The curator is already hoodwinking them. The unidentified objects and subjects of art (sometimes they are one and the same) listen in silence to the monotonous voice of their God, because the curator (like the deejay) is God. (There’s no need to conceal it, because this ditheism presupposes a semblance of democracy.) You now have a few minutes to catch your breath and wipe away the stream of sweat with the sleeves of your cheque shirt, during which time you are able not only to gauge the lengths of the girls’ skirts, but also ask, “How the hell did I make it on time, anyway?” The banality of the answers overwhelms: the trains were half-empty, as were the streets. The skies over London became unwholesomely clear, and the only people in the streets were the home- less repeating their robotic “Small change?” So today is Saturday, the day no one hurries to get anywhere? The city has slowed down, right? Yes, lad. Uh-huh. London becomes “Unclogged-don”. It’s easy to hurry up in a city that’s slowed down. Afterwards, sipping from a small bottle of beer, even the customary bustle of the gallery appears to have ebbed. Everything is a tone lower, as if everyone is enveloped in an invisible sound-dampening bandage. A true silence filter!
It was from then on that I started planning and booking such weekend “there and back again” getaways. It’s something I’ve never regretted. Different kinds of empty space appeared livelier, the objects in it more attractive and visible from all angles, and the people more sculptural, too. An unexpected distance emerged between me and the world, which in principle is impossible in a crowd.
Retreating – that is to say, withdrawing to the safer position of an observer (a bench in the Parc Monceau or Jewish Alley in Klaipėda’s Akropolis shopping centre) – forces me not just to perceive things thoughtfully, but also to thoughtlessly choose and then constantly lose (i.e. lose sight of ) freshly caught objects of observation. Lure and prey in a single person. In the Parc Monceau, lunch means running around in circles; on Jewish Alley, it’s a dignified stroll at a surro- gate pace – surrogate because Akropolis is our substitute for Paris. Since we can’t loiter on the Champs-Élysées, we the surrogate Memelländer quietly opt for our Elysium in a nutshell.
Quietude is the brother of solitude. Silence is its sister. I can imagine such memos being exchanged between Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis and Sofija in Palanga. Refrigerators on which people could magnetically stick the offshoots of their wisdom had not yet been invented, so notes were left under teacups. Or under bits of soap in the bathroom. In 1908, he would write the following:
I would like to wrap you in May, in the fullness of its silence and the scents of its flowers; beneath your feet, I would like to roll out the finest Maharani rug, woven from golden spider webs and chrysanthemums whiter than snow; I hope that, as you recline on it, you will listen to the silence, that canticle of the New Language.
And silence did sound like the new language! One year before the start of their relationship – which, at least from their letters, was more reminiscent of a friend- ship between two souls hovering above the noise of the earth than a story of throbbing passion strewn with the breakage of daily life – he would paint a large pastel picture (65.4 by 82.8 centimetres) which looks different in reproduction: variations on brown across a cardboard surface. But its essence remains unchanged: like miniature astronauts in space-suits, three mature dandelions stand perched at the edge of an eerie greenish-black cliff. Their hunched stems are like tiny dystrophic bodies. A small gust of wind is about to blow them into the brown expanse (of sea?). Silence, the title of this painting, is the suspended moment just before the inevitability of death – not to be confused with Serenity, the title of a different painting of his! (And don’t be fooled by the seeming infantilism of pastels!) The silence is absolute: it’s a silence that can only exist in artefacts, especially in photography. (It’s not for nothing that MKČ – as though to escape the external and, no doubt, insufferable interior din of the world – immersed himself in photography during his final years!)
This is why photographers idealise emptiness. But snapshots filled with ordinary people and other loudmouths are also mute. A plane falling from the sky is recognised as a silent object. The “ninth wave” in a canvas by Turner or the photograph of a dune by a Thai amateur are both soundless. Francesca Woodman’s genial self-portrait, where she’s next to a cat examining itself in a mirror in her studio littered with bric-a-brac, is a silent pause before a long-planned suicide. One more practice of quietude before turning off the world’s noise. The photographer’s naked body is a tiny redoubt of silence. A vase of silence that will momentarily be smashed to bits, leaving us only magnificent shards to contemplate in albums and exhibition frames. I can vividly imagine a quiet conversation between the two of them, even in the small art gallery of Dusetos – MKČ’s pastels interspersed with Woodman’s (what a surname!) small prints. Little samples and distillations of silence. And please, I beg of you, there should be no accompanying music!
The most famous musician to ever attempt the silencing of music was John Cage (a very fitting surname for a composer who spent his whole life trying to expand the boundaries of hearing and perception). His most radical composition, 4’33” (1952), still irritatingly encourages us to escape from the cage of our daily habits and conceptions. It consists of nothing but a precisely timed pause by a performer (or performers) appearing on stage. Someone once joked that it would be impossible to perform the piece badly. But my retort is that it would be possible, no differently from any other piece. This opus, to my mind, can be interpreted in two ways: a) as an inspiring and heartening experience of silence in the here and now (like life itself – a short and accessible mini-nirvana, the fragility of which we only contemplate in funeral homes, not concert halls), and b) a fierce pronouncement by an artist admitting he has nothing to say. “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it,” the composer says to us with the bravery of a samurai warrior. Transposed to the plane of the everyday, it stops forcing us to connect silence with wisdom. No, that fellow in the corner of the room who’s spent the evening puffing away on his pipe without uttering a single word is no wise man. Quite simply, he has nothing to say for himself, and he says this by blowing puffs of smoke. And the pipe, in this instance, is truly nothing other than a pipe. Joking aside, Cage’s provocation can encourage the cultivation of silence (we’ll leave its cult to those monks who have taken a vow of silence). Listening attentively to silence, which as we now know exists nowhere, is a major test of self-awareness. Try to remain calm during those minutes and seconds of silence by the “composer of silence”, blissfully offering yourself to plenitude and swearing off all intentions and designs. Just for fun. Such a practice would constitute not only a cleanse, but also a release into the flow of existence. And you wouldn’t even need a piano. It wouldn’t fit inside the cage.
Oh that pause that threatens the heavens before the conductor begins TO LEAD the orchestra! Before setting our hearts aflutter! How often have I wished that the moment could last until ... the end of the performance. And not just in concert halls. In the realm of politics, too. The greatest punishment for a dictator appearing on a balcony would be the silence of the crowd gathered below. Silence as punish- ment and silence as self-worth.
Translated by Darius James Ross