Sunday, November 22, 2009

Yanayacu River Journal, Part II - Movement & Grace

Late the other night I sat outside my apartment and smoked a cigarette after transcribing large parts of my Peru journal onto my computer. The night was cold and leaves rattled in the wind. The courtyard was quiet; none of the neighbors had lights on, and my mind was elsewhere. During these late night smokes I often think about hiking – where to go on my weekend, what the weather will be like, what the trail conditions are in the forests and mountains just east of here. On this particular night, I sat outside and struggled with my memory of different forests. On a day to day basis, I don’t think about Peru. I don’t think about the rainforest. I don’t think about what I saw and did and experienced. It’s not that my memory is bad. It’s that my normal life is active enough to preclude thinking about the jungle, and my immersion into a world so different from this that on my return to “this” world – Oregon, friends and family and coworkers, the reality of bills and rent and all the interests and activities I do to fill my time – on my return, I walked through my neighborhood looking into trees and expecting to see monkeys. Normal life has a way of appearing simultaneously more beautiful and more empty after an experience like Peru. And my journal, out of chronological order and glaringly remiss in many aspects of recording events and feelings and observation, threw me back that night into a place that will forever be vivid and meaningful and remote. There are no monkeys in Oregon’s trees. But there are words to summon them in my memory. If there are continuity problems in my journal entries, so be it. My journal is as jumbled as my reactions were to the Amazon. And I will continue to post excerpts here, in the spirit of telling the truth as true as I remember it.

September 9th, 2009

Woke this morning in the jungle. My cheap alarm purchased in Cusco woke me early and I sat on a couch in front of the main lodge, and smoked a cigarette while waiting for Hulber. The morning was already warm, and birdsong filled the air. The trees on the opposite bank of the Yanayacu glowed in the sun, and the river flowed lazy and brown past the floating docks where the canoes are tied.

Hulber and I set out looking for wildlife at 6:30am and paddled downstream in a tippy blue canoe. With the river so low, it’s hard to imagine the jungle at flood. Now, in the dry season, the banks are high and muddy and the long roots of trees stand several meters back and above the water. Hanging vines and water-marks on tree trunks show the reach of the flooding, and the amount of land that will be covered in water in just a few months time is incredible. I decided this morning not to waste my time using my camera – the unbalanced canoe and lack of a telephoto lens make wildlife shots impossible: no colorful birds, endangered river dolphins, troops of monkeys, casual sloths, flirty butterflies. I’m going to focus on the experience, not on the camera.

Hulber pointed out kingfishers, black-collared hawks, egrets, cocoi herons, fishing hawks, parakeets, long-nosed bats (Hulber pronounced it low-nosed bats), “Jesus” birds (wattled jacana, with long toes that allow then to walk on plants floating “on the water”), and squirrel monkeys moving in large troops in the morning branches. From the river, the jungle is a wall of green – brown river water covered in hyacinth and lily laps against steep banks tangled with roots supporting thick trees laden with vines and bromeliads. Finding animals is easy. You look for movement, and as you get used to seeing shapes within the dense forest, animals appear. I wear my little binoculars and scan the forest wherever I go.

As we paddled around the Yanayacu, we talked about the jungle, about the trees and plants the natives use for medicinal and material purposes; about the river, five meters deep and rising; about ourselves and the places we come from. Shoulders aching from early morning exertion and a stiff current, I thought of William Stafford on the way upstream – “In the canoe wilderness branches wait for winter; / every leaf concentrates; a drop from the paddle falls” – and Gary Snyder – “Gracias, xiexie, grace” (as I’ve recited so many times when things got tough).

But it isn’t tough here, unless you consider the heat, humidity, and mosquitoes. The temperature is in the high eighties most of the time, if not higher, and it’s so humid that it feels sometimes like I’m swimming in thick, heavily scented air. I sweat constantly and profusely. To prevent insect bites I practically bathe in repellent, which, coupled with the sweat and the requisite pants and long sleeves, means that I’m slimy all day long. The funny thing is – you just ignore it. It’s so humid nothing dries quickly: not socks, not shirts, not pants legs after being tucked into rubber boots. Everyone is equally affected, especially the guests. I can see how some people might suffer miserably. I just take it for what it is. Then I take a cold shower, and that first blast of cold water jolts my heart then spreads like heaven over my skin. Following which, of course, I can’t dry off and I put on clothes damp with perspiration. Oh well. I’m just going to get muddy and bitten, anyway. There are enough joys to make me forget these minor hardships.

The air is full of noise – shifting birdsong, from the chatter of parakeets to the deep, gulping cry of the horned screamer and the impossible to describe and impossible to forget call of the oropendula, which sounds like a drop of water falling through a synthesizer with the reverb set on high. Insects click and buzz and hum, frogs bleat and moan, and the forest cries and calls out constantly, constantly, constantly. I want to come back when the water is high and the wildlife clusters around high points in the flooded Amazon; I want to come back with a tape-recorder and a nice camera and several weeks to look and listen.

After the canoe trip and breakfast, two guides took four of us downstream (by motorized boat) and we hiked into the jungle to a lake. A path led over a creek, across a primitive bridge made from poles tied horizontally to other poles stuck vertically in the mud. It seemed rickety and unsafe, but it held, and no one fell or slipped into the swampy backwater that contained (or so it was claimed) piranhas. The trail led into a marsh filled with vines and tangled roots and the scent of decomposing leaves. Against a massive tree with wide, buttressed roots, the watermark from last year’s flooding stood another foot above my hand extended above my head. By the time we reached the lake, thick, sticky mud coated my rubber boots and my pant legs were damp with perspiration. The lake was almost entirely covered in floating plants, and one by one, we walked out on floating logs slick with slime and algae to get close to giant water lilies, Victoria amazonica, several feet wide and capable of supporting a small child. Two hoatzin perched in a grove of maquira trees on the opposite shore – through binoculars, it was easy to see how strange they are – large birds, almost prehistoric, with extra clawed digits on their wings that disappear as they mature. They barely fly, and one of their main food sources is a plant that contains alkaloids that make their flesh taste like a sewer. Even starving natives avoid hoatzins.

While making our way around the lake, we heard several loud booms, and looked up to see a big woodpecker high in a tree. The drumming was incredible – probably meant for communicating with other woodpeckers. I can’t believe how much I’m becoming interested in birds. I never gave them much thought before – but then, in Oregon, there aren’t as many large bird species, and the birds in general are dull in plumage and not as exotic as the toucans, macaws, hoatzin, and all the other birds I’ve been seeing here.

The boat returned us to the lodge and as we rode the river upstream I felt as if I were in a trance, as if a natural rhythm was coursing through my body and mind. The jungle passed by, thick with vines and full of birds. Floating plants bobbed in our wake. We slowed to pass locals fishing from canoes or steering peque-peques with twelve-foot long propeller shafts. Herons and egrets launched into flight as we approached and hawks watched us carefully as we passed. The breeze felt great; butterflies raced alongside the beam; and I removed my boots and leaned back and let the boat carry me further into the Amazon.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Thoughts Before Reading Nabokov's "The Original of Laura"

I’m holding in my hands the first edition of Nabokov’s Original of Laura, the author’s unfinished novel that, according to his last wishes, was to be destroyed and never published. Nabokov’s wife, Vera, could not bring herself to destroy the work, and following years of public indecision, Nabokov’s son and literary executor, Dmitri, found a publisher in Knopf.

That the work should have been destroyed raises a number of questions. Should Dmitri have followed his father’s instructions out of a sense of filial duty and respect? Did Nabokov wish the manuscript destroyed because it was unfinished, or because it was, in his mind, inferior to his other work? Or was it some other reason, one which we’ll never know?

As readers and critics, is it important to have access to this work? Will it cast light on Nabokov’s oeuvre; will it reveal something new about his writing and his writing process? Or does it just appeal to our sense of completeness, or to our desire to have as much as we can of a writer’s work? Is this selfishness more important than the writer’s final wishes?

Max Brod thought so, when he published Kafka’s work after his friend’s death and against his explicit wishes. Dmitri Nabokov thinks so – or perhaps it was, though he’d never admit it, money, fame, and power that drove his decision to publish. Many posthumous novels litter the shelves at bookstores; not all are good, not all are critically important, and not all enhanced our understanding of that writer’s career. But literary executors, agents, editors, and readers all salivate at the prospect of the unfinished masterpiece interrupted by death, the final words of a literary hero.

Dmitri Nabokov could have published The Original of Laura years ago; desire for money and fame are not the reasons this book is appearing now. In his introduction, he marginalizes those who can’t believe “that a doomed artist might decide to destroy a work of his, whatever the reason, rather than allow it to outlive him.” I agree; Nabokov had his reasons, however inscrutable. He worked on the manuscript right until his death, obviously caring for it and hoping to complete it. He once tried to burn a draft of Lolita – clearly, Nabokov was an artist who wasn’t satisfied with less than his best.

In 2666, Roberto Bolano describes how the fictional and reclusive author Archimboldi enjoys a popularity that owes greatly to his reclusiveness. It is, indeed, unknown as to whether the author is even still alive. Bolano writes that authors often win attention after their death, particularly in America – a prescient thought foreshadowing his own critical reception and popularity in this country following his passing. But Bolano’s are finished novels, published in his lifetime in Europe and South America, and Bolano was popular before he died.

All these thoughts are immaterial. I’m holding in my hands the first edition of Nabokov’s Original of Laura, the unfinished novel that wasn’t destroyed. Now the question is: what to do with it?

Knopf skirted some of the controversy (admittedly, a narrow controversy confined to literary and publishing circles) by producing a spectacularly beautiful book. The Original of Laura is Nabokov’s own title, appearing on the first of the many numbered note cards that constitute the text. These note cards are replicated in the published book – the pages are cardstock, with each note card perforated at the top of the page and a text transcription below it. The reader, if they wanted to, could punch out each card and hold in their hand a copy of the novel exactly as Nabokov left it.

The note cards themselves reproduce the author’s handwriting, his edits, his scratch-outs and erasures, his questions and quotes, notes and insertions, all the things that make a draft a draft. He leaves words out, adds them, misspells them, makes lists. Sometimes Nabokov writes precisely and purposefully, and his pencil is dark and flows across the thin blue lines. Sometimes, his handwriting seems hurried and sloppy, or seeking direction as it floats across the cards. He writes in both sure cursive and steady print. For a serious Nabokov fan or scholar, this is intense stuff.

I am not a serious Nabokov fan. I respect the hell out of him, for his talents and skill, for his imagination and daring, for his intelligence and craftsmanship. But he’s not one of my favorite writers, perhaps because, despite all his powers as a writer, I find his reputation outweighs the joy I look for when reading a novel.

I’ve read Pale Fire, which describes the slow writing of a 999-line poem on sequential note cards. I didn’t finish Lolita, but that says more about my ambition as an 18 or 19 reader not quite ready to tackle Nabokov’s prose. When I say I look for joy in a novel, I only mean pleasure – is what I’m reading something that I enjoy reading, something that I find pleasurable? My readings of Nabokov have been both stimulating and intellectually challenging, but I didn’t race home from work to read the next chapter; I didn’t bring it with me to work read on my breaks; I didn’t talk endlessly about the books to my friends. Great books? Yes. Emotionally gripping? No.

But that’s my reading of Nabokov: highly intelligent and incredibly well-written, linguistically dazzling and brilliantly layered, but not the sort of thing that made me angry, or weep, or cry, or laugh, or walk around in a daze while trying to sort out how the book made me feel. Others are free to disagree – many will disagree, especially those who’ve read far more Nabokov than I.

So what to do with The Original of Laura? It can’t be unpublished. It will be read. I could take a stand of some sort and not read it as a way of honoring Nabokov’s wishes – but that would just betray my intellectual curiosity. And to me, intellectual curiosity is everything Nabokov stood for. I said that the Knopf edition is beautiful; beneath the dust jacket, on the book itself, is a reproduction of one of Nabokov's note cards that reads "efface expunge erase delete rub out wipe out obliterate." That was the intended fate of this novel. It didn't happen. Dmitri Nabokov finally opened his father’s box of index cards, and for years after, was haunted by the story they contained. That story is ready to be told. I’m holding in my hands the first edition of Nabokov’s “Original of Laura,” the author’s unfinished novel that, according to his last wishes, was to be destroyed and never published. And I’m going to read it.