The first story in John Berger’s Here is Where We Meet, is set in Lisbon. The narrator, John, by chance meets his mother while walking the streets of the city. There are two peculiar things about this meeting – the first is that his mother has been dead for fifteen years, and the second is that she had never been to Lisbon when alive. But their meeting only makes sense in the Portuguese capital:
Lisboa is a city which has a relationhsip with the visible world like no other city. It plays a game. Its squares and streets are paved with patterns of white and coloured stones, as if, instead of being roads, they were ceilings. Its walls, both indoors and outdoors, are covered with the famous azulejos tiles wherever you look. And these tiles speak of the faulous things to be seen in the world: a monkey playing pipes, a woman picking grapes, saints praying, whales in the ocean, crusaders in their boats, basilica plants, magpies in flight, lovers embracing, a tame lion, a Moreia fish with spots like a leopard. The tiles of the city draw attention to the visible, to what can be seen.
At the same time these same decorations on walls and floors, around windows, and down staircases, are saying something different, in fact the opposite. Their crackly white ceramic surfaces, their vivacious colours, the mortar joints around them, the repeated patterns all insist upon the fact that they are covering something up, and that whatever is behind them or beneath them will remain , thanks to them, invisible and hidden for ever!
Throughout Berger’s book (which is difficult to classify – is it a collection of stories, a novel, an essay or biography? All of the above, probably) there’s a clear message – the setting, the often taken-for-granted background, is vital for some stories. With the wrong setting certain stories just can’t be told properly.
Reading Here is where we meet brought to my mind three specific novels from the last year-or-so. Each very different from Berger’s book, and from each other, but all linked by the question of background. The setting of each of these three novels, it seems to me, is a serious undertaking by the authors. The stories they tell could have been set elsewhere, or indeed anywhere, but great writing depends upon making the right choices, and for these novels the setting becomes a protagonist.
The first,The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon belongs to that curious genre known as speculative fiction (which begs an obvious question). Chabon imagines a Jewish homeland set up, with a time-limited mandate, in the wilds of Alaska after the Second World War and the destruction of the newly born state of Israel in 1948.
Chabon’s choice of location was dictated in part by the fact that there was indeed a plan, formulated in the Slattery Report presented to Roosevelt in the early 1940s, to establish a Jewish homeland in the Sitka area of Alaska – but then again, umpteen different locations have in the past been proposed for a similar homeland: Northern Australia, Madagascar, and British Guyana to name but a few. Chabon’s detective story about religious fanatacism and identity could, in theory, be situated in any of the above, but Alaska – the polar opposite of the parched Holy Land – fits this story like a glove. It’s as if, like the Turin shroud, things become so much clearer in a negative image.
Canadian author Stephen Galloway’s choices were perhaps more limited, given that his novel The Cellist of Sarajevo refers to an iconic moment from the war in Bosnia, when a real-life Cellist, Vedran Smailovic, reacted to the may 1992 marketplace massacre of twenty-two people by performing Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor for twenty-two consecutive days in the same public sniper-threatened spot. Galloway’s novel would, perhaps, have been easier for the author had he situated it in a fictitious spot – given that Smailovic, a peripheral character in the plot, reacted vigorously against the novel.
The cellist, though – with all due respect – while proposing a serious theme (the necessity of art for civilisation) could be replaced from Galloway’s book without, perhaps, losing impact. A painter, drama troupe, or poet could fill the gap as easily. It’s hard to imagine, though, any other background working quite the same way as Sarajevo does for this novel. It’s a story of how close we all are to savagery and hatred, and Sarajevo’s distinct geography and recent history make it the natural choice for this novel. Relatively ignored by English-speaking artists, Sarajevo is strangely familiar to most people of my generation. Fleshed out by the voyeurism of 24hr news broadcasts, it has become a byword for cruelty, senseless killing, and bloodlust; it’s the ‘there-but-for-the-grace’ city whose name also conjures up defiance, resistance, and the survival of the human spirit. Galloway’s novel, aware of these complex and contradictory meanings, uses Sarajevo to tell a universal story.
And finally there’s Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases
, a brilliant piece of storytelling that Englander freely refers to as his ‘Jerusalem novel’, despite the fact that it is set entirely in Buenos Aires during the rule of the military junta. Englander, who I interviewed a couple of months ago for TMO (technical hitches have delayed the publication – but we’re almost there), told Three Monkeys that he had at one point considered setting the book in an unnamed city – like Portuguese author José Saramago – but settled on setting it in Buenos Aires, a city with which he had only a slight physical familiarity with when he wrote the book. In a piece written for Nextbook, Englander described some of his motives for setting the novel in Buenos Aires:
It’s this juxtaposition, this relationship to the deceased that allows for one of Buenos Aires’ liveliest neighborhoods also to be its deadest, that began to fascinate me when I first visited the city in 1991. I began to think about a nation that lionizes its deceased heroes while living among so many nameless Dirty War graves.
While making my home in Jerusalem between 1996 and 2001, I became more and more interested in notions of death and burial, bodies and their absence, and community and identity and governments gone awry. These ideas began to form into the basis of a novel, and that novel ended up being set in Argentina.
Intent on building my own Buenos Aires, staying true to the city I was constructing in my head, I decided not to return to Argentina until the novel was done. In many ways this trip was a visit to the city of my imagination. Recoleta I’d set foot in, but there were other central places that appear in the novel that I’d never been to before. One of the single purest moments of my whole life was stepping out onto the pier at the Club Pescadoro where a critical moment takes place, and, looking down toward its end, thinking, Yes, that’s where they stood. It wasn’t a sense of déjà vu, and it wasn’t like visiting a movie set. It was, simply, like knowing, like seeing any other memory in my head. Other places I’d visit, like the section of Cementerio de la Tablada set aside for Jewish prostitutes, were equally moving to me, but raise more complicated issues about memory and truth.
To finish let’s go back to Berger who, in the third chapter of Here is where we meet, has moved on to Krakow. Entering the market he in Place Nowy he writes:
I have never been in this square before and I know it by heart, or rather I know by heart the people who are selling things in it. Some of them have regular stalls with awnings to keep the sun off their goods. It is already hot, hot with the blurred, gnat heat of the Eastern European plains and forest. A foliage heat. A heat full of suggestions, that does not have the assurance of a Mediterranean heat. Here nothing is certain. The nearest thing to certainty here is a grandmother.