Caught Mapping

From Public Books:

As I write this, Sydney, the city where I’ve set my life and much of my fiction over the past 27 years, is ringed by fire and choked by smoke. A combination fan and air purifier hums in the corner of my study. Seretide and Ventolin inhalers sit within reach on my desk. I’m surrounded by a lifetime’s accumulation of books, including some relatively rare and specialist volumes on China, in English and Chinese. This library might not be precious in monetary terms, but it’s priceless to me and vital to my work. I wonder which books I would save if I had to pack a car quickly and go. The thought of people making those decisions right now, including people I know, twists my gut.

I check the news online and the Fires Near Me app (with watch zones set for friends’ homes) compulsively. Distracted from the book I’m writing, a short history of China, I compose furious, polite, pleading letters to politicians about their failure to declare and act on our climate emergency, and their continuing support for coal. Then I try, with the aid of other apps like Freedom, to remove myself from my digitally infused physical surroundings so that I can write about place. So that I can write this. The best places for writing are those that fade from consciousness as the landscapes of the imagination take over.

Back in August, on the first day of a visit to Spain, I considered setting the start of this essay in Barcelona. Bit of a cliché, of course, how being in a new place sharpens the powers of observation. But it’s true if you make it so. It’s also a vital habit to cultivate for a novelist and travel writer. Many a beautiful notebook bought with the intention of keeping a daily journal has become a beautiful failure. But put me on a plane, and I’ll fill two pages before we even land. Do you want to know the name of every film I’ve seen on planes? Neither do I. But they’re all there. My travel journals are a continual source of wonder. All those details: Who was that brilliant and witty person I seemed so taken with? Others trigger memories that have slipped the loosely strung fishing net of my mind, which generally retains only the biggest catch, while everything else wriggles back into the sea. Recently, when in conversation, I likened my memory to a sieve, a friend objected: “It’s a filter,” he said. Nice thought, but sadly it’s not that deliberate.

. . . .

The fronts of buildings in Barcelona are lovely, with long, shuttered windows and balconies overspilling with flowering plants. The Catalan flag, fluttering off some balconies, proclaims the residents’ politics. The backs of the buildings are more intimate. In one apartment, a couple is rising from a siesta. The woman is putting on her bra. An arm reaches for her and pulls her out of sight for a moment. She reappears, and finishes getting dressed. The novelist in me imagines they are illicit lovers, doing what the French call the cinq à sept but from, let’s see, de la una a las tres in the afternoon. In the flat below, another woman, older, less obviously content, mops the floor, back and forth, back and forth, lost in thought, a lock of hair falling onto her cheek and sticking there. Upstairs, on a clothing rod suspended across the bottom of the window, a woman’s white slip flutters in a gentle breeze next to citrus-colored sheets and a hot pink pillowslip. In a higher window, too far up for me to see anything else, a bright ceramic plate hangs on the wall.

Link to the rest at Public Books

4 thoughts on “Caught Mapping”

  1. Worried about the “climate emergency”? Thinking that (rather than you and your friends preventing the clearing of underbrush) is causing the fires?

    Don’t write to your own politicians, sir – they can’t do a single solitary thing that will change it. Instead, write to Prime Minister Narendra Modi or General Secretary Xi Jinping. I’m sure they will file your missive appropriately.

    • In California, a huge factor was the old, corroding bolts on the poles. I guess they were corroded by the climate. The climate, not the maintenance plan, was responsible.

  2. Thanks for this. Our son is currently on full lockdown in a small apartment near the Sagrada Familia – working from home and not surprisingly a bit stressed. We should be getting ready for a planned springtime visit, now on hold. While we were talking to him on the laptop tonight he held his phone up to the window so that we could hear the applause, every night at the same time, and see a few fireworks, to celebrate the health workers of the city. I could cry just thinking about it, but we’re in Scotland with a capable First Minister, a good health service and – perhaps most important right now – a garden. So when spring comes (almost here) we can sit out with a glass of wine and converse over the hedge with our nice neighbours. But even so it was good to read this and think about future plans. And Barcelona.

    • You’re welcome, Catherine, and here’s hoping all works out well for your son.

      My wife and I both love Barcelona. It hurts to think of the city and its residents going through such difficult times.

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