Nearly Three Miles of Invention

In a recent post I wrote about the thought bubbles of our private selves, the stories we generate as we go about our lives, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. Those thought bubbles continually rise and fall within us, but what are the geographical perimeters of that “within”?

I remember seeing a television special years ago, hosted by the science writer Timothy Ferris. In that special, he tried to demonstrate how long it took for life to develop on earth. He did this by driving a racing car across 4.5 kilometers (nearly three miles) of the Bonneville Salt Flats of Utah, a desolate place that seems to go on forever.

Bonneville Salt Flats

His starting point was a line representing the formation of our planet, 4.5 billion years ago, and then he drove for three kilometers until he came to a line representing the origins of single-celled life, bacteria and algae, about 1.5 billion years ago. From there he drove for a kilometer until he came to the line for the beginnings of multicellular life, in the Cambrian era, a half billion years ago. He then raced on for another half a kilometer past the rise of reptiles, dinosaurs, and mammals.

Finally he stopped the car and walked the last few yards (let’s dispense with the metric system for the clincher, okay?), which corresponded to the origin of our earliest human ancestors. A half a yard from the very end marked the first appearance of Homo sapiens, and much less than an inch from the finish line, the narrowest sliver of highway represented all of human recorded history.

Now why not transpose the little sliver that Ferris calls human recorded history and call it instead the tiny portion of us that is available to others in any daily face-to-face contact. That sliver is the present moment, and behind it, equivalent to the long drive across the Salt Flats, are all the years of your experience and the multitude of your thoughts and all the stories of your life. So much of us remains hidden, inaccessible. That’s why humans invented language, why we invented storytelling.

So whenever you’re about to fashion a short story or an essay out of someone in your life, remember, fiction writers—and take caution, nonfiction writers—that any person’s mystery offers you nearly three miles of invention.

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January 21st, 2010 by admin

Perhaps There is a Light Inside People

When I lived in Lisbon I exchanged a few e-mails with the writer José Luís Peixoto, but somehow we never managed to meet; my loss, particularly since it has taken me a couple of years to read his marvelous novel The Implacable Order of Things, which won the José Saramago Prize in 2001.

The novel is set in the farmland of Portugal’s Alentejo region, a world of low sloping hills, cork and olive trees, golden wheat fields, and a relentless heat that Peixoto captures here nicely: “The earth was its own silence on fire. The sun was a blazing heat lighting up the flame-colored air: the aura of a fire that was the aura of the earth, that was the light and the sun.”

Alentejo landscape

It’s a world where “swallows fly close to the ground, like harmless volleys from a slingshot,” and where characters can live well past 100 years, as if baked into a sort of semi-immortal beef jerky by the Alentejo’s ever-present sun. Peixoto further peoples his novel with Siamese twins who are joined at the pinky, a brutal giant, a scheming sheepdog, a man with no right arm or leg who somehow manages as the town’s premier carpenter, a cook who sculpts her meals into elaborate landscapes, and an oracular voice locked in a hallway chest that seems to hypnotize some of the characters with pronouncements like “Perhaps there’s a light inside people, perhaps a clarity; perhaps people aren’t made of darkness, perhaps certainties are a breeze inside people, and perhaps people are the certainties they possess.”

These individual certainties, though, are almost never shared by the characters, who are unable to breach their invisible interior walls, and this lack of connection sets in place turns of fate that continue in the novel through not one but two generations.

Translated by Richard Zenith into a beautiful English that often rises to the rhythms of a desperate prayer, this novel’s accumulation of wisdoms lingers in my mind, particularly this hard truth: “We are granted our heart’s desire only for it to be definitively taken away, since our dream of it perishes.”

While I was reading Peixoto’s novel, I discovered by chance a Portuguese band that I have to confess to my shame I’d never noticed when living in Lisbon, A Naifa. Now I can’t stop listening to their music. They combine the traditions of fado with a contemporary, at times almost ambient rock sound, a strange brooding mixture of past and present. In many ways, the songs of their album “3 minutos antes de a maré encher” became the soundtrack for me of The Implacable Order of Things.

One of my favorite A Naifa songs is their heartbreaking “Todo o amor do mundo não foi suficiente” (“All the Love in the World Wasn’t Enough”). This video of the song is especially moving since it records one of the band’s last performances with their bassist, João Aguardela, who died too young of cancer in January 2009. Rest in peace, João.


And here’s a strange note: when I finally met up with José Peixoto, at the Disquiet International Literary Conference in Lisbon, he told me that he had written the lyrics for A Naifa’s song “Todo o amor do undo não suficiente.”

Interested in more of Peixoto’s work? Read about his travel experiences in North Korea, in the post “The Kinship of Secrets.”

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January 3rd, 2010 by admin