Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Anik See, Saudade: The Possibilities of Place

I used to think that I could bear any kind of loss – a limb, sight, the love of my life – but memory. That kind of loss leaves you with nothing but starting over, which seems like an insult. I’m now at an age where I’m noticing that any memory is not what it used to be. You think memory is like anything else, that it gets better with practice, and it can, but it’s a bit strange. We tend to think of it as either a straight line or bubbles of past experience that touch nothing else unless something forces us to connect them. I think it’s more like that stone wall that the sculptor Andy Goldsworthy built, the one that starts at a four-lane highway and runs straight, straight, directly away from it, bolting across a huge empty field. It only begins to twist and turn, like a river, when it enters a forest, which is where it starts to form itself to the landscape, to the obstacles in its path. On the inside we shape our memory wherever it’ll fit. On the outside it’s the shortest line between two points. Maybe when I was younger I was on the outside. Maybe I’m on the inside now. Funny thing is, I’ve discovered that I don’t mind losing memory as much as I always thought I would. I think it’s hugely important, but it can also wind up being a bit masturbatory. Maybe it’s enough to remember why it’s important. Like landscape.
Once I picked up Anik See’s Saudade: The Possibilities of Place (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2008), it was impossible to put down. A travel book written as a series of essays, or a series of essays written as a travel book, See’s Saudade revels in a fantastic mixture of such thick physical description and meditative thought that it is impossible to see this book as a work on travel. Saudade is not as much about the place where the author is, and writing about, as being in that particular geography; less writing the place but how the author is shaped in, into and around that place, writing Sri Lanka, the American/Canadian border, and the roads of Tbilisi. In Saudade, See manages not only to write out the possibilities of place, but writes out a shape of being.

Reading this collection has echoes of Sarah de Leeuw's Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2004), or even a Peter Carey book I read years ago about his home city, writing himself back into his previous geography, moving into some of the best of what creative non-fiction is supposed to be about. Whatever else this book is, See writes her way through her own thinking about what geography means, and the differences between how people exist through circumstance, geography and other arbitrary enough markers, and seeing just how small some of those differences actually are. How does she achieve such remarkable clarity in such a small space?
What I’m aiming for in this crapshoot, or perhaps just what resonates with me, is essentially an idealization of places or events that have never been experienced. It’s the Portuguese notion of saudade that’s simmering: the feeling of yearning for something impossible to regain because it never quite existed. It’s not quite homesickness or pining for someone loved or once loved, but more a longing, the opposite of the Proustian sense of wistfulness. It’s mostly a pleasant feeling, but it can often be too located in the present and future to be practical.

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