I’ve head so many good things about Valeria Luiselli from other bloggers, particularly the positive reviews of The Story of My Teeth such as this one from A Life in Books. I’m always excited to hear about fantastic upcoming writers, and Luiselli seems to have the perfect blend of intelligence, humour and creativity to make her very exciting indeed. So I was pleased to hear she had released a collection of essays called Sidewalks which made for a perfect read for Women in Translation month. The introduction from one of my favourite writers, Cees Nooteboom, was the icing on the cake.
Sidewalks is a collection of essays about spaces and places. Specifically she writes about Venice and Mexico City, but she also explores the streets, the graveyards, the hidden spaces – relingos – the insides of apartments and the ways in which this variously allows voyeurism or anonymity. The essays are approached in the style of the ‘flaneur’ – the walking, observing philosopher – or in Luiselli’s case the ‘cycleur’, a word she invented in her ‘Manifesto a Velo’ reflecting the freedom and anonymity of the cyclist, as she writes about here:
“Of course, the bicycle can be used for other ends besides mere carefree travel: there are deliverymen, cycle rickshaw drivers – and even bicycle knife grinders – a species now almost extinct. Not to mention that semi-alien life form: racing cyclists, sheathed to resemble undernourished scuba divers, sticking their tiny tight arses out as they speed through the city. But in spite of these riders who prize the utility of two wheels above its art, riding a bicycle is one of the few street activities that can still be thought of as an end in itself. The person who distinguishes himself from that purposeful crowd by conceiving of it as such should be call a cycleur. And that person – who has discovered cycling to be an occupation with no interest in ultimate outcomes – knows he possesses a strange freedom which can only be compared with that of thinking or writing.”
‘Tight tiny arses’: that phrase hits like an electric shock and sums up what is brilliant about Luiselli’s writing. She is intelligent, yes, but also mischievous, cutting and fun and these attributes make her writing fizz. Considering the book starts and ends in a Venice graveyard, specifically seeking out the grave of Joseph Brodsky but aligned with little remembrances of other writers (including Luiselli herself) it could easily have a maudlin tone, but maudlin, even when Luiselli writes about crying, is the furthest you can get from the experience. Instead, this is a playful book. The visit to Brodsky’s grave is lightened by the story of a woman stealing the chocolates and pencils that have been left there by visiting pilgrims. In an essay about the apartment where she lives, Luiselli decries the way technology, the internet, has killed the art of voyeurism, the joy of spying on one’s neighbours, as she describes here:
“It’s clear that the personal computer is the great modern attack on good old-fashioned voyeurism. From the moment these machines were installed in our homes, the irreversible process of the degeneration of character began and ruled out the possibility of anyone doing anything interesting for the delight of their voyeuristic neighbour. Impossible, since the advent of Facebook and Twitter, for anyone to commit a spectacular crime in his living room or to conduct a good affair (dirt, delectable and detectable). Indiscreet rear windows to other lives no longer exist because everything happens inside those smaller, more circumspect Windows on our computer screens.”
It’s an interesting point, something I thought about when recently watching Hitchcock’s Rear Window and recognising it is a movie which couldn’t be made today unless the ‘window’ was a computer screen. And perhaps it is just a different window to let strangers in through, to see our bare undisguised self and, unlike the voyeuristic neighbour, deliver crushing judgement on our soul. And this is another aspect of Sidewalks: it makes you think. It is light and yet it is extremely clever. Luiselli’s intelligence is slippery and casually delivered. It is so much a part of her that the insight, when it comes, is almost offhand. Like here when she discusses analogy:
“Any analogy involves trickery because it both includes the idea it attempts to explain and, at the same time, moves away from that idea to attain its goal. But certain things – a territory, a map – elude direct observation. Sometimes it’s necessary to create an analogy, a slanting light which illuminates the figurative object, in order to momentarily fix the thing that escapes us.
In Sidewalks everything is the territory from the empty spaces in Mexico City, to the space beyond the grave, to language, to the apartment, the sidewalk, the world viewed from an aircraft. It even includes a map of human space – the way we reach across time and space to older versions of ourselves. Within this Luiselli explores the power of re-reading books, finding mementos of the place we were and the person we were when we last read them. As proves to be the case throughout the book, Luiselli’s view is never predictable:
“Going back to a book is like returning to the cities we believe to be our own, but which, in reality, we’ve forgotten and been forgotten by. In a city – in a book – we vainly revisit passages, looking for nostalgias that no longer belong to us. Impossible to return to a place and find it as you left it – impossible to discover in a book exactly what you first read between its lines. We find, at best, fragments of objects among the debris, incomprehensible marginal notes that we have to decipher to make our own again.”
I wonder who I will be when I read this book again?
Sidewalks is published in UK by Granta Books
It has also been reviewed on JacquiWine’s Journal.