“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or sip it like a liquer until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.” This is how Bohumil Hrabal’s Haňta reads — or how he doesn’t really read.
This is how I read, or how I did not really read, The Hills Reply by Tarjei Vesaas. I do not think there is any other way to read, or to not really read, this book.
What is this book? I can say, “A collection of sixteen short pieces of literature.” Or I can also say, “A lyrical poem, two hundred and seventy five pages long.”
But I’d rather say: A Lispector attuned to nature. An impressionistic artwork so keenly aware of the elements, of the light in different times of the day, and of its sounds and its silences. A swan song of sheer beauty that leaves you quiet and asks your heart, for the time being, to dwell inside its pages… a heart so full, so open, it breaks.
When a poet writes a memoir, the entire book is a poignant song. Exiled from his homeland after the Six Day War, Mourid Barghouti returns after thirty years and sings of his experience and his memories.
“And now I pass from my exile to their… homeland? My homeland? The West Bank and Gaza? The Occupied Territories? The Areas? Judea and Samaria? The Autonomous Government? Israel? Palestine? Is there any other country in the world that so perplexes you with its names?”
And yet, as Edward W. Said intimates in the foreword, the account is free of bitterness and recrimination.
“I know that it is the easiest thing to stare at the faults of others and that if you look for faults you see little else. Which is why—after each setback that befalls us—I look for our faults too; the faults of our song. I ask if my attachment to the homeland can reach a sophistication that is reflected in my song for it. Does a poet live in space or time? Our homeland is the shape of the time we spent in it.”
The pages teem with beautiful questions…
“Who has stolen our gentleness?”
“Are they really afraid of us or is it we who are afraid?”
“What should we remember and what should we forget?”
“Did I paint for strangers an ideal Palestine because I had lost it?”
…and express in simple ways the everyday sorrows of displacement.
“I have never been able to collect my own library. I have moved between houses and furnished apartments, and become used to the passing and the temporary. I have tamed myself to the feeling that the coffeepot is not mine.”
But in the vast desert of pain, there is room for love and joy…
“Love is the confusion of roles between the giver and the taker.”
“Joy needs training and experience. You have to take the first step.”
…and even vaster spaces for art.
“I said to myself that the heart of the matter was in a detailed knowledge of life, and of the human maturity that is the foundation for all artistic maturity. These are features that no work of art worthy of the name can do without, whatever the lived experience. What is important is the piercing insight and the special sensitivity with which we receive experience, not simply our presence at the event, which, important as it is, is not enough to create art.”
I Saw Ramallah — read, once again, to humanize what we tend to generalize.