A Report from Sassari
by Malcolm Bates
Before the ink had dried on my diploma I came to Sardinia to be an English teacher, that perennial job of disgruntled ex-pats. For the month of September I lived in a small city called Alghero on the western coast while I earned my certification. Then, right around the time my meager savings ran out, I was offered a teaching position in Sassari, a larger city about forty minutes to the east by car.
I’ve never been good at leaving. It’s just that I don’t like to think about it. There are certain things that are impossible to prepare for, including moving to a new country. I’d prefer to just end up at the airport one day with a ticket and bag, almost by surprise. So the day before I left for Sardinia, I threw some clothes and toiletries into a black duffel and held a protracted single-elimination tournament to decide which books would be coming with me. The final list looked like this:
Ways of Seeing, John Berger
Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges
Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino
Final Exam, Julio Cortazar
The Recognitions, William Gaddis
The Hemingway Reader, Ernest Hemingway (Charles Poore, Editor)
Sea and Sardinia, D.H. Lawrence
I also brought one of those books of writer’s devotionals called Walking On Alligators by Susan Shaughnessy and a short story collection called Seven Contemporary Chinese Women Writers whose title page offered no editor, no publishing house, no translator, and essentially only said that it had been printed in 1982 in the People’s Republic of China.
I was spending nine hours a day studying English grammar in a cramped room with ten other students, so my reading mostly coincided with my meals. Rising in the dark with the fishermen and feral cats, I’d take my coffee and pastry al fresco at the café across the street from my school and spray crumbs across the pages of a paperback. In the afternoon, I’d walk to the park and share my bagged lunch with one of the many stray dogs in the city – which all, mysteriously, wear collars – and the bookmark would shift a few millimeters toward The End. But the majority of my reading took place at night, at the dinner table with a bottle of red wine and a plate of pasta, the door open onto the terrace, rogue grains of sand skating in on the warm autumn wind.
I started with Sea and Sardinia, a gift from my brother in anticipation of my departure. Having never read Lawrence before, I was totally unprepared for his writing style, which oscillates between sentences attenuated like post-it-note reminders and maximalist descriptive paragraphs that bury the reader in an avalanche of modifiers. It was the perfect book to begin with: the protagonist is himself an ex-pat on a journey through Sardinia, he speaks Italian well and combines the local mythology of the different cities with the distance and curiosity of an outsider, and the book’s opening line, “Comes over one an absolute necessity to move,” was easily appropriated as my own impetus to relocate. Though I had spent very little time outside of Alghero or Sassari, I felt that I somehow knew the island better after finishing this book. His descriptions of inns, bus rides, crowds of men throwing elbows in front of a ticket booth are told as if to someone who already knows how the story ends—who was there when it all happened. When a student or a friend mentioned places like Nuoro and Cagliari, it felt good to have a picture of them in my mind, even if the pictures weren’t real.
More importantly, it showed me how relatively little has changed here over the last century. Sure, the Sardinians have kept up with the same innovations as the rest of the world—smartphones, air conditioning, supermarkets, —but there’s something intransigent about this society. The Sardinians of Lawrence’s novel are completely convincing; they could be the parents or grandparents of some of my students. The way the Sassaresi men brag to the protagonist about the particularity of their dialect – which, I confess, is Greek to me – the observations about unlocked doors and personal belongings left unattended in the streets, even the absurdly high incidence of hypochondria are all characteristics of Sardinia that persist today.
About a month after I moved to Sassari, a man I had met exactly one time before invited me to dinner. He took me to his friend’s apartment, where I ate and drank with him and six people he had known his entire life. The hospitality here is legendary. After dinner, I indulged my repulsive habit of seeing what people keep on their bookshelves. Wedged into a beautiful, wall-mounted spiral bookcase, what should I find but Il Mare e la Sardegna. The hostess caught me looking and asked if I’d read it. I told her I had, in Alghero. She said she’d never managed to get through it, and asked if it ended happily.
“More or less. He goes back to Sicily,” I said.
She frowned thoughtfully and said, “It could be worse.”
When I’d finished Sea and Sardinia I picked up a book I’d been waiting to read for months: Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino. Apart from being one of my favorite authors, Calvino is probably the most important Italian writer since Dante (sorry, Pirandello). Like most of his books, Invisible Cities is short and ruminative, valuing description and philosophy over narrative. It alternates between scenes of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan conversing in the Khan’s palace and Polo’s accounts of the cities he has seen in his travels. Even more than Sea and Sardinia, this book stoked the flames of restlessness that had led me to the island. Polo’s stories about the cities he’s known read like fairy tales, and evoke Escher-like structures: narcissistic cities of gigantic mirrors, fatalistic cities suspended from ropes, static cities with no negative space – where for every flight of stairs there is a counter-flight completing a perfect square – cities entirely paradoxical where to enter is to leave and where you would not recognize your own reflection. His gift for imagination and style places you in town squares filled with women wearing bronze necklaces and clay jars full of mustard seeds. I grew impatient as we neared breaks from class, eager to get back to the peculiar geography Calvino had mapped.
Just like the best fairy tales, Invisible Cities hides an instructive secret—a moral of sorts—that he hints at about fifty pages in, first saying, “There is no language without deceit,” and then, several pages later:
Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else. (page 48)
In the end, Polo reveals that all the cities he’s described are contained in Venice, his hometown. Reading this, I realized how much of my home I still carried with me, little pieces of fantasies, fragmentary and deceitful as all memories are. Even now, when I walk the streets of Sassari, I find myself imposing Philadelphia on my surroundings. I see a young man who looks just like my friend Josh, or I think that the historic center is somewhat like Kensington, or else it’s something as trivial as my bus running late. Or sometimes Philadelphia imposes itself on me: a pyramid of familiar cream cheese in the supermarket mixed in with the Bel Paese and the pecorino, a Canadian ex-pat telling me that her favorite band is The Roots, one of my students revealing that her son studies at UPenn… After reading Invisible Cities, I understood that by leaving Philly I was entering it more deeply, seeing the city as I never could have if I had stayed.
I’d made a friend through the certification program named Andrew and every now and then we’d talk about books. One time he needed some reading material for an upper-intermediate level class and asked me if I had anything. I lent him The Hemingway Reader indefinitely and in return he let me borrow The Passion by Jeanette Winterson and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. While The Passion still sits gathering dust on my bookshelf (I promise I’ll read it next, Andrew), I finished the Calvino in three days.
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler is Calvino’s contribution to the “Books About Books” genre as well as being maybe the closest thing I’ve seen to a perfect novel. The sensation of being included in the narrative that I felt while reading Invisible Cities was only heightened in this book, as it opens with the protagonist (i.e. you, the Reader) going to a bookstore to purchase a copy of Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. If only I could have bought the book myself! I’d love to see someone’s reaction to page one after picking it up from the shop.
One of the things that I find so captivating about Calvino’s work is that, no matter what the subject matter, he writes the story as though he were sitting at your bedside, reading you a fable before you go to sleep. In If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler in particular, the fables are tailored to the kind of generic Modern Reader archetype that Calvino uses as his protagonist—his Everyman. He taps into the reader’s secret desires, the afternoon daydreams he has sitting on a park bench in the sun, taking a break from reading a book to insert himself into the plot. There is a love interest and a mystery to be solved and a Bad Guy to defeat and all in the name of Literature—which is the only sort of mystery a chronic reader might ever solve. Consider, for example, the sheer dopamine of being planted in this scenario:
In a roofed garden, among the bergamots and the lyrebirds and the jets of fountains, she came toward me, cloaked in indigo, a mask on her face, green silk dotted with white gold, a strand of aquamarines on her brow… (page 123)
I saw myself clad like Lawrence of Arabia on the terrace of a Persian palace, the Bookworm Princess walking toward me one foot in line with the other as if on a tightrope, the agitated water of the fountains glittering in her jewels and eyes—and her eyes! the only exposed part of her face, and these outlined with charcoal and smoldering with desire. This is a book that begs to be read and reread, each time offering something new.
Again, Calvino ends the book with a lesson that he has dangled in front of you the entire time and to which I, again, was totally blind. Rather than ruining the endings of three books in one essay, let me just say that after finishing I felt as though Calvino had written the book as much for other writers as for other readers. It was as though he was trying to show you one step at a time how he created the worlds in which his books take place, the characters that populate them, the emotions that fuel them. While the other books I’d been reading justified my decision to move to the island, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler validated my desire to use my experiences here to the benefit of my own writing.
Next, I began reading Labyrinths. Jorge Luis Borges is the kind of writer that I heard mentioned in every English class I took in college and whom I had, until now, never read. In fact, until a couple years ago I pronounced his name in such a way that it sort of rhymed with “borscht.” About ten pages into Labyrinths I realized what all the fuss was about. His ability to take stories that could have filled libraries and reduce them to ten or twenty pages, the way the stories sort of overlapped but also really didn’t – making you question the influence of a certain character’s death in one story on the decisions of a different character in another – the way “Borges” hangs around in his stories sometimes like a modern-day Dante, the noir-type elements and style—two men in fedoras and overcoats chasing each other through 1940s Germany, murderers that leave coded messages with the bodies—but also the ancient mythology of jungles and deserts, pyramids, slaves, fetish objects, ritual sacrifice, magic, and above all infinity. At times it felt like reading a newspaper. That is, he was so well-read, his sources so convincing, his characters so alive on the page that the possibility of a man rewriting Don Quixote word for word and somehow improving it seemed not only plausible but banal.
Labyrinths was the first book I read when I moved to Sassari. I had found a five-bedroom apartment for very cheap and was living alone with no television, no Internet, and no hot water in the kitchen. Some of my students said I lived in “the immigrant neighborhood.” I told them that this was fine, considering that I was an immigrant. And they would smile in that twisted way that told me they wanted to say, “No, it’s different,” but couldn’t. This idea of place, and especially place within place – my apartment within the immigrant neighborhood within Sassari ad infinitum – is very important to Borges’ writing, as I understood it. Like Calvino said of his invisible cities, everything concealed something else; every country and city and neighborhood was a passage leading deeper into the labyrinth. In Argentina, in Buenos Aires, in a poor neighborhood, in a bedroom looking out onto a courtyard with a budding tree, there is a crippled boy with a perfect memory. Or replace Argentina with an alternate dimension, Buenos Aires with an unknown place and time, the poor neighborhood with an infinite library, and the crippled boy with an old man writing histories. I liked to take Labyrinths with me to the park in my neighborhood, and after reading would invariably go for a walk. The streets are cobbled and narrow, twisting and folding back on themselves, lined with sprays of uneven windows that give out from rooms of every variety. From one house you can smell garbanzo beans and canned tomatoes simmering with saffron, from another comes a father scolding his child and sharp smacks and tears, through the hole in a wooden gate you see flocks of young boys lighting firecrackers and kicking a soccer ball. I wondered where Borges had gone on his walks, what he’d thought about, how many anonymous boys playing in a gated courtyard had made appearances in his stories. What I took away from his book was that there is no need to find the end of the labyrinth, if such an ending exists. It seems more likely that at the end of any one labyrinth there would be a portal leading to another. The important thing is to explore.
About four days after beginning Labyrinths, I decided to start The Recognitions as well. It’s been my experience that reading one or two short books in concert with a big book eases the weight of the need to finish the latter at all costs. Besides—and I don’t know if this has happened to you—looking at that brick of a book lounging on my desk, spine uncracked, gathering dust, felt pathetic to the point of indignity. I had to read it sooner or later.
“Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.”
Some books give you an idea on the very first page of what they will contain. This is one of them. I feel that this first sentence could be expanded to encompass most of the major themes that Gaddis addresses in his swirling, night-black narrative. On a fundamental level, it is a book talking about Christianity. But, in reality, it is a book about people talking about people talking about Christianity and filtering it through myriad other tangential subjects. Christianity itself, at this distance, is practically irrelevant. This separation between the topic of discussion and those discussing it permeates the book. Whether it be Flemish painters, Mediterranean cathedrals, classic compositions for organ, or counterfeit money, the reader receives all the information second-, third-, fourth-hand. Everything and everyone is a reproduction of a reproduction.
In a way, this stylistic trait of Gaddis bled over into the way I absorbed my surroundings. My family came to visit me, and together we went to some “Nuraghic” ruins on the coast. They were under restoration at the time, and I found myself wandering through the ancient compound, dragging my fingers along the stones, and wondering if this had really been a prehistoric city at all. How many of these stones were original? What exaggerations had been added since their discovery? And, the omnipresent question in Gaddis’ novel, what did someone stand to gain from this marvel?
One of the central themes in The Recognitions is that of classic artwork—what we see when we look at a painting, the philosophy of forgery, Art as status symbol. For this reason, Ways of Seeing by John Berger was an ideal companion to the novel. This collection of seven essays—short but full of protein—seemed to always answer the questions that lingered with me after reading twenty, fifty, one hundred pages of The Recognitions. What is the role of oil painting in advertising? How do the female figure and gaze empower a masculine art-owner? The first essay in particular, borrowing heavily from Walter Benjamin’s “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” helped to clarify the abstract arguments in favor of forgery made by Gaddis’ characters Recktall Brown and Basil Valentine.
As of this writing I’ve still got about 200 pages to go in The Recognitions. Because of this, and because I could write an entire book of reactions to what I’ve already read, I should continue to the last few books I’ve finished during my time here.
I mentioned before that my family came to visit me. With them, they brought two jars of peanut butter, four cans of baked beans, a block of sharp cheddar, a bottle of Kentucky bourbon, and the following books:
Holy Bible, New Revised Standard Version
Molloy, Mallone Dies, and The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs
Masks, Fumiko Enchi
Peter Caminzind, Herman Hesse
Novel Without a Name, Duong Thu Huong
The Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Franz Kafka
A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch, Danilo Kis
Memories of My Melancholy Whores, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Moby Dick, Herman Melville
Essays of the Masters, Ed. Neider
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust
The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rainer Maria Rilke
Both Flesh and Not, David Foster Wallace
Of these, I’ve finished Kis, Marquez, and Orwell. Over one weekend—wanting a break from the at-times crushing cynicism of The Recognitions—I managed to read them all in a literary fit that, thankfully, did not result in bedsores.
The first time I heard of Danilo Kis was in the Book Barn in West Chester, PA. I’d just bought a copy of Vollmann’s Europe Central, and was flipping through the introduction in front of the store. When he mentioned that A Tomb for Boris Davidovich had been at his elbow the entire time he’d been writing his novel, I went back inside and unsuccessfully searched for a copy. Several months later, biking past 12th and Spring Garden, I saw a pile of books on the sidewalk outside my old apartment building. Among these, I happened to find a battered, paperback Boris Davidovitch. I rode away with the Kis in addition to twenty other volumes.
A Tomb for Boris Davidovich , like The Rite of Spring or Salò, caused public uproar upon its debut. Kis, a native of a pro-Stalinist country, sets his stories in various totalitarian states, illuminating individual life in places collectivized through violence. While reading it, I constantly feared the scuffle of boots outside my apartment, sharp raps on the door, requests for my papers. And yet, though Kis’s situations are chilling, he approaches them with a bizarre and comic style. I laughed, often uncomfortably, at a character who had just witnessed or committed murder, scenes of torture and unsettling doublethink, the triviality of an offense against the state that received a sentence of hard labor or capital punishment.
It’s difficult to express what effect this book had on me. In one sense, it was almost inaccessible. The societies portrayed in his stories were as foreign to my experience as the Martian scenes in The Sirens of Titan, for example. They fascinated me, but I had no personal framework with which to process them. The best I could do was to contrast the absurd, theatrical societies of Kis’s characters with mine—namely, modern youth in the United States, in which basic freedoms have become uninspiring, even uncool. Take, for example, the Occupy protests, which were roundly lambasted as being counterproductive, misrepresentative, misled. Are we so self-satisfied now that to assemble—to vote, even—is square? The problem may be that many in our society would consider the very real situations addressed in Kis’s stories unthinkable. All the more reason to read his work.
On a purely literary level, A Tomb for Boris Davidovitch was exemplary. But how often do we judge a book based solely on its literary merit? On a deeper level, it reminds the reader of what society looks like when you strip away all the endowments in our founding documents—when the people in power stop pretending that “rights” are anything more than privileges.
From Kis I went to Marquez and Memories of My Melancholy Whores. Topping out at just over 100 pages in a nice, large typeface, this book can be started and finished in one marathon trip to the bathroom. The protagonist, an old school newspaperman (e.g. he insists on writing all his columns long-hand) turns ninety and goes to a bordello in search of love. Honestly, there’s not much else to say about the novella, for me. While full of Marquez’s typical elegant sensory descriptions, it lacked the intrigue and fantasy that endear his other books. If you’re looking for something in the vein of Chronicle of a Death Foretold or One-Hundred Years of Solitude, this is not the book for you. Apart from being sentimental to the point of mawkishness, it was also a very particular reminder of one’s own mortality. That is, while reading Kis I feared a “premature” death: facing down a firing squad, being spirited away to a salt mine in Siberia, and so on. Reading Marquez, on the other hand, and the protagonist’s descriptions of life at ninety, how he looks at death as a sort of permanent narcoleptic incident, almost made the firing squad seem preferable.
And then there was Orwell. Down and Out in Paris and London is a first-person account of poverty and life in the service industry without many of the harsher elements of Orwell’s later work. Orwell, living in the Paris slums and teaching English, describes with dry humor and satisfied indifference the sensation of having only two or three francs left, knowing that he will not eat that night and will possibly sleep outside, and knowing yet that tomorrow will be the same or worse. At its happiest moments, the narrator is living in conditions that seem nearly impossible. He works fifteen hours a day washing dishes and running food in a swanky hotel, with barely enough time to sleep in between shifts. Interspersed with his caricatures of Parisian waiters, charismatic tramps, and proselytizing do-gooders, Orwell makes a series of simple pleas to the disinterested public for small concessions that would improve the lives of those who have not.
One of the more interesting sequences for me was his explanation of the different jobs tramps take up in London. While begging is illegal, busking, selling trinkets on the sidewalk, “glimming” – holding parking spaces – and so on are all considered perfectly legitimate professions in the eyes of the law, if not the remunerated public. This caught my attention because of the elevated presence of people earning their money this way in Sassari as well as Italy in general. It is virtually impossible to have a drink or sit in a park or, realistically, walk down a sidewalk without someone trying to sell you a rose, an alarm clock, a refrigerator magnet…In fact, as I write this, in a café, a man has just tried to sell me a lighter, a flashlight, and a cap. In Alghero, these people are treated—appropriately—like merchants. The city gives them a long stretch of sidewalk along one of the more popular parks to set up an open-air market, and they receive the same deference as any of the local shopkeepers. Here, they are all but ignored by the majority of the public. They are treated like an inconvenience, and often shooed away like pigeons or stray dogs. It is exactly this dismissal of people who struggle for their livelihood that Orwell debunks by giving faces and personalities to those whom we normally overlook or avoid. Since finishing the book – and in spite of the lousy return policy – I’m much more open to buying the wares on sale in the street. Unfortunately for my friend today, however, I already had a cap and lighter and had bought a flashlight from someone else over the weekend.
This, again, brought back memories of Philadelphia and the down and out people I’d known there. While waiting for the 3 bus at Huntingdon Street, I listened to stories about dealers who wait outside of methadone clinics, groups of people sleeping next to abandoned train tracks, which types of metal yield the most money at the scrap yard. One man in particular liked to hang around the café where I worked and I got to know him pretty well. Now and again I’d buy him a beer and he’d tell me about Florida, where he’d come from. Then one night, when it was slow at the café, he came by and we had a cup of coffee outside. It was a cool, clear night and he was relaxed. Good weather means more when you sleep outside. In the middle of our conversation, a security guard came over and asked him to leave. The café was in a well-known, expensive apartment complex on the site of an old brewery. I told the guard that he was with me, that he wasn’t begging. I even tried to invoke my nonexistent authority as the manager of the café, which had a staff of four people. The guard would have none of it and led him off by the arm. He didn’t come around again after that.
The memory of that night burned behind my eyes when I finished Down and Out. What do we gain by taking away from those who already have nothing? What do we leave behind in someone when we tell them that a cup of coffee, a casual conversation, a seat outside during summer are too valuable to be wasted on them? The owners and tenants of that well-known apartment complex are so obsessed with visible, enviable luxury that they hide the blemishes of poverty and struggle that surround them. Orwell’s point is that our own lives stand to improve when we ease the burden on those around us.
It seems to me that reading habits are as good a metric as any for measuring time. I can just as easily look at the years in terms of books I was reading as I can in terms of months, or weeks, or days passing. Here, especially, so far from home, the stories—in place of my friends and family—denote places along the path where I can return later in my mind, like mile markers. I remember days on the hidden beach, Maria Pia, in terms of Calvino’s cities. Nights spent alone in my apartment become nights spent with my old friends Otto, Wyatt, and Basil. With all the transient lessons I have learned from books while here, this one—I hope—will last.
Malcolm Bates is a writer who teaches English in Sardinia.
Photograph by Madeline Bates