A matter of arithmetic

“The life of an émigré ‘ there’s a matter of arithmetic,” writes Kundera in Testaments Betrayed, “Jósef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski (famous under the name Joseph Conrad) lived 17 years in Poland (and in Russia, with his exiled family), the rest of his life, 50 years, in England (or on English ships). He was thus able to adopt English as his writing language, and English themes as well. Only his allergy to things Russian (ah, poor Gide, incapable of understanding Conrad’s puzzling aversion to Dostoyevsky!) preserves a trace of his Polishness.”

And then he continues, Kundera: “Vladimir Nabokov lived in Russia for 20 years, 21 in Europe (in England, Germany, and France), 20 years in America, 16 in Switzerland. He adopted English as his writing language, but American themes a bit less thoroughly; there are many russian characters in his novels. Yet he was unequivocal and insistent in proclaiming himself an American citizen and writer. His body lies at Montreux, in Switzerland.”

“Emigration is hard from the purely personal standpoint as well: people generally think of the pain of nostalgial; but what is worse is the pain of estrangement: the process whereby what was intimate becomes foreign. We experience that estrangement not vis-a`-vis the new country: there, the process is the inverse: what was foreign becomes, little by little, familiar and beloved. The shocking, stupefying form of strangeness occurs not with an unknown woman we are trying to pick up but with a woman who used to belong to us. Only returning to the native land after a long absence can reveal the substantial strangeness of the world and of existence.”

Fortunately for Kundera’s literary fame, the past is another country and we can all know, in some small amount, what this substantial strangeness is.

I am in deadline hell, and yet hoping to steal a bit of time here, a bit there, to write about Ariel Dorfman’s beautiful Purgatorio (crediting the writer before all other artists involved in the production is not a lapsus linguae: this really is a production chiefly concerned with letting the text speak). It’s a theatre work that somehow scrapes the bottom of the soul, right there where all the dregs go.

Instead, I am consolidating my CV into something more than a scattering of notes, thus trawling through unlikely places: repositories of old writing, for example. Writing in other languages, for other audiences. I’m finding these spectacular love letters, for one thing, letters that still make me remember the taste of love for some long-forgotten faces. “Do you know”, I finish the letter to one particularly delectable boy, “that [Henry] Miller was terribly fond of his bike?”

More strangely, though, there is a scattering of semi-journalism I wrote before I left Croatia, in the rough span between 2002 and 2005, most of it published in the local youth media. The language is acrobatic; the dance moves impeccable. The conclusions, facile. The sum, appalling.

“I must warn you: this story begins and ends with a vomit.” starts one, while another bears the humble title “The psychopathology of Croatian home decor”. What amuses me, of course, is that I could not, for the love of me, repeat that voice nowadays. It’s the voice instantly recognisable, despite the language difference, from ThreeThousand and similar Young Adult Journalism. Soaring with opinion, but heavy on words, like those stumbling floating islands of Hayao Miyazaki.

I should add, for good measure, that I am endlessly irritated by the style of ThreeThousand, and that this look into my own unseemly past was a welcome reminder of why and how. Since I was the smartest person on earth slightly before the appropriate age, mainly due to the fact I so dilligently travelled myself in&out of the country, a lot can be blamed on the haughtiness with which a lateadolescent/early-adult observes the world knowing absolutely everything, jumping from one ludicrous point to another with absolute ecstasy. (Getting published always helps, and I cannot even imagine how much worse I would be, as a person, had my juvenile escapades been greeted with the absolute adoration of youth that countries like Australia preach like a gospel.)

The other point, more acutely, is the complete, total, lack of humility. Not merely because nothing bad had happened until then: quite the contrary, plenty of bad things will always go on in my homeland. It was the lack of humility of a person that had not been uprooted yet. The broadbrush certainty with which I pontificated over home decor, abortion law, university curricula, gay rights, and a hundred other things that interested a young person of my age and time, could not be sustained through migration. Quite simply, it didn’t travel well across the oceans. It had less to do with not knowing that things could be different (I had the experience of multiple countries, thus multiple everythings, under my belt), and more with not knowing that I myself could change my opinion. Habits. That I could be fine with things being more than one way.

Reading Kundera on the “substantial strangeness of the world and existence”, I wonder what I made of it the first time I read it, before I had started trotting the globe. I remember finding out that 3 was an infinitely bigger number than 2 (2 was a dialectic: this good, that bad; it was the us-and-overseas logic familiar to both Croatia and Australia; 3 meant choice, plurality). I remember that it mattered. Looking back on my writing, it clearly didn’t. (I do want to slap that girl, in case you wonder. But it also doesn’t matter, does it?)

It is a funny possibility, or likelihood, is that at a certain point I joined the swaggering cads precisely to learn to dislike them, in order to exorcise my inner swaggering cad, that got truncated in travel but never properly finished with. In ThreeThousand, this bubble of hyper-copy, and all the boys and girls around Melbourne, with bad skin and intentionally bad haircuts, mouths full of facile opinions, may just be my apocalypse bear. Just to keep me on my toes.