(Madrid: Varasek Ediciones, 2015)
A SUMMER WITH JIM MORRISON
“To resuscitate Carthage”: that was the task Flaubert, in his melancholy, set himself. Mine, however, was to resuscitate the sixties, after an interim of only a few decades. It’s not that they were dead and gone, but they seemed to have become buried under layers of ash and information, layers of supposedly new events, and the entropy of human affairs. I wanted to capture that moment by writing a novel about Jim Morrison. The fictional Jim of Ave Rock melds aspects that could have been experienced by a young man at that time, but that don’t entirely match the historical Jim. At that time (the late sixties and early seventies) the thinking of the new left had moved beyond traditional leftism and articulated a body politics; that is, a set of strategies dealing with race, gender, and lifestyle conflicts. These strategies became known as “style wars.” My novel treats some rock phenomena as an initiation into dissident styles, among them the suppressed cultural features of the North American Indian, invisible except in the distorted mirror of westerns. Jim’s anthropological adventure is a counterpoint to what I would call the Imperial Cavalcade, with its display of might. The son of a rear admiral whose flagship was shelling the coasts of Southeast Asia became a pastiche of Alexander the Great. With dazzling speed, that American son subverted the empire, overturned the consensus over customs, and embodied specific experiences that opened up a new cultural era.
However, Ave Rock is not a documentary novel, either of my own adolescent peregrinations or Jim Morrison’s. Its point of departure lies in those first rumbling explosions of a desire that didn’t yet have a name, but was already full of images. Those images were not the usual kind for the generation before mine. Their power and novelty surprised me. Everything in the world where I grew up made them hard to believe. Still, they were there, invading not just certain magazines but also public spaces. They were breaking the mold of what a man or a woman was supposed to look like.
I realized that they were proposing a musical utopia. Their vehicle was music. Art, according to Adorno, is the only possible space for utopia. It’s not very much, he added, but at least it’s something. In this case, utopia was being conjured up by images that suggested new urban lifestyles in the United States and Britain. The boundaries between art and everyday life did not disappear, because in everyday life one had to deal with attitudes and behaviors hostile to the new persona. Yet the turbulence of youth and the effects on the crowds who attended the concerts menaced those boundaries. Rock concerts tended to break the dotted line between the no-man’s-land of the stage and the battered bleachers, where a magical force was starting to be felt.
I was struck by Jim Morrison’s situation. His father’s aircraft carrier was shelling the coasts of Vietnam, while he performed like a toy battleship or a roaring mouse. One journalist called him “Mickey Mouse de Sade.” That youngster—or rather, that monster—offered himself up for immolation in one of the most spectacular trials ever, one that vied with Stalinist ones: the lawsuit in Florida, backed by a “moral” and ecclesiastical group. The city of Miami sued Morrison on charges of obscenity. The trial paralleled Oscar Wilde’s in England at the turn of the nineteenth century. In both cases, a cultural hero (a writer, a performer) was destroyed for pushing the limits of what a certain society was willing to tolerate, and seduction morphed into condemnation. These trials present a particular state of affairs, a play of forces, a power game at a given place and time. The sentences handed down were reminiscent of other somber eras, but they also vouchsafed a more long-ranging justice that would overcome the false modesty and prurience of contemporaries.
Jim Morrison was the vehicle that allowed me to smuggle in a message I hoped would resonate powerfully, as if from beyond the grave. Paradoxically, the most ancient historical strata can simultaneously be the most recent. What was ignited in the sixties is something that had resonated earlier on, something that cultural experience tried compulsively to repeat in later decades, without ever reaching the melting point of that ghostly, real, almost incredible precedent.
In Jim Morrison’s life story I recognized ingredients that moved my own historical body. I felt I could give it the pristine intensity that I needed to relive once and for all an intensity that has nothing to do with the ongoing waves of diluted pop music.
I decided to “spend a summer with Jim,” to take advantage of the vacation, since my teaching responsibilities left me little free time. That summer I decided not to go anywhere and to face up to Jim night and day. The full encounter ended up always being put off until the next day and, like a rock and roll Scheherezade, I spent night after night in perpetual rapture.
On the basis of a few loose events salvaged from Morrison’s life (I needed them as backing, to take them into account and give them credit) something else was being woven, something unpredictable, which is what tells the story and what finally counts, eventually acquiring great speed. The speed, it seems, of life itself. Besides, the “natural selection” of certain decisive traits that seem central at the time of writing projects by contrast a background or horizon where other things disappear. Only then can we acquire a historical perspective. In my case, for example, a United States emerged without its founding fathers, without its pilgrims, sidetracked by its Native Americans and by a landscape, flora and fauna that they knew better than the new settlers. It gave way to a mutant who had always been there, latent, a potential for a way of being beyond the poles of masculinity and femininity and the neoclassical transvestite that reinforced them. Despite the country’s racism and puritanism, its great invention during those years was an androgyne. That geopolitics, that labor market, and those technological conditions made androgyny possible, albeit only as a sketch, a glimmer of something that goes against the grain. Thus, the oldest trait in human nature can also become the most recent.
The sixties are not only ancient today. They also allow us to glimpse a past that is older still, buried by a trivial present. And a trivial present is not a true present, I might add, but something already irretrievably gone. This is the crack in the rock face, the claw of a style that remade fashion; rock’s legacy, which we receive in an envelope every morning in the coolness of the hallway, one we don’t yet know how to read properly.
I went down to Deauville Plaza, a rocky outcrop on the road along the seafront and the site of a naval sentry box. A recruit armed with a Mauser that looked as though it had been lifted from a national museum emerged and walked towards me. I retreated just enough to avoid being challenged, and walked on past some white markers painted on the rocks, being glared at by the guard, almost defying him; an old-fashioned naval recruit, stiff as cardboard, with a little mustache, and open pores on his dull skin—a being from another planet, whom I had no wish to confront. I peered over the rocks at a crescent of sand littered with broken tiles and glass, where the sewage pipe used to be. Now it goes underground and discharges a mile out in the estuary. Then I saw the heron on a stone, a single white heron that was always waiting for me, there and on other beaches: at the mouth of a river in Florianópolis, or along the cliffs opposite the island of Mirurgia, on the Península Celeste. It was inevitable; always a single white heron, at the key places along a coast I recognized and that recognized me. The heron used to live three hundred yards away, in my grandmother’s garden, decades ago. It was killed by the dog, who broke its neck with one snap of the jaws before I was born. I had identified the heron, frozen, superimposed like a stamp on photos depicting the shrubbery and the kennel with the name “Kiel” in a semi-circle over the door. The waves crashed onto a stairway leading down to the beach. “The water is coming up the stairs so that I’ll have to listen to it.” The heron was motionless. I stood motionless on the parapet. It stabbed the water with its beak and extracted a silvery zigzag, which it showed me; after taking some time to rotate the thing towards its gullet, it swallowed it. Stretching out its neck, it stalked over the rocks and returned to its position. Then I saw the dog, not Kiel but smaller, a puppy even, its tail a plume of black and white, its paws covered in tar; it jumped up on the wall where I was sitting and came to greet me. I petted it as I got up to go. It followed me. It squirmed around on the grass, rubbing its muzzle and paws to try and get rid of the mud. It was a bitch. She seemed to have been born there. I fed her once I got home. My grandmother must have sent her, I thought, just like the heron, to cheer up a phase of my life, for a while.
She ran away three days later when a workman left the garage door open. I was pleased, or rather, relieved not to have to be responsible for an animal that had been bestowed on me uninvited. But a few hours later I heard loud barking. The dog was reclaiming me. She had come to stay. And I realized I would have time, alongside her round little body, to take the time—which I’d postponed endlessly—to sound the depth of my affection for you, because we used to run into one another sometimes and now you weren’t there any more. From the postcard I found at a newsstand round the corner, in which you gazed out stubbornly, your mulishness reinforced, as if it were not enough, by the blurry fingertips of your open hands reaching out to the camera in that image I pocketed without paying; and from the cemetery I have never seen, one that someone else visited for me in the most outdated city in the world, the city where you met your end, a rogue too proud to learn French, you were demanding, as you had before, that I pay attention to you.
There’s time and it’s raining, or not. The furious water, mist, and wind of an autumn dusk in the Republic that others founded, where I was born. The wall of the house next to the Bauhaus building, the house that’s been remodeled and now looks like a red-brick barbecue stall, the wall of that house next door is covered in graffiti scrawled in Spanish and English. Against that same backdrop I was told, at the age of one, “You’re going to have a brother,” although you were born the year before me. As I walked by that wall today, I saw that someone had spray-painted the word zambomba and underneath Heavy metal for you.
That’s it, and tomorrow it will have been cleaned off, or there will be other phrases, all linked to heavy metal, which has been seemingly indestructible ever since the afternoon I glanced at the Spanish edition of Life carrying photos of Elvis; I couldn’t believe he was licking a silver album while running his finger along the fender of his pink Cadillac, on which the words I love you and fuck you were written in lipstick. From that moment on, I knew this was for me, in the antipodes of a country where his pompadour gleaming with oil provoked a sense of collusion I had never felt before, although it came from a reservoir, a secret place I had always inhabited. It immediately filled any blank space, any expectation, providing what I didn’t yet know I was waiting for.
The bream I caught out on the rocks with my fishing net, the one the heron caught today, was wriggling in the hand you were stretching out to me from the postcard; its silver belly revolted you; the guts weren’t easy to eat, but you ate it whole anyway, eyes and all, without even cleaning it, those eyes looking at you as they went into your mouth. The fish reminded you of the boys at school, the ones at the end of the line who used to smooth their long, wavy, oiled hair, which stuck to the back of their necks under their collars.
And you wanted to be that teacher, Brother Antino; once, in a fit of rage during geography lesson, he hit Lenguas, the guy who wore the most hair oil, and had been expelled from various schools. He had already failed that year and would not last there very much longer. Brother Antino wacked him on the backside with a ruler—no, with a bamboo rod used to lift maps up onto a hook. The thwack woke up the students who were dozing, and Lenguas’ school smock exhaled a cloud of chalk dust. Dumb with shock more than pain, a gob of saliva flew out of his mouth as far as the first row, sprayed my nose and slid into my mouth. At recess I could still feel it, dry and stuck to my face. The next summer, Lenguas appeared on the promontory at Punta Celeste, in front of the house where I spent my summers. He drove up in a jeep with some friends and they dived off the rocks where I was reading, accompanied by my grandmother`s Pekinese, because after I was born she changed dog size: Pekinese were easier to transport to the seaside.
“Open this tomb: at the bottom lies the sea” is the epitaph of someone I was reading back then. I’ve got time, I thought that afternoon, after finding the dog out on the rocks, time to open the tomb, even though it may just contain a heap of bones. I went down to visit the grave. I was carrying a bunch of gladiolus that caught the slanting rays of the sun at the last moment. I released a dove, which fluttered over the epitaphs on the tombstones before gaining height and melting into the blinding light, like the heron on the rocks. But I hadn’t gone to Père Lachaise, I was at the cemetery in Ciudad-Estado, on the cliffs near the ocean. “The best things about this city are the pastry shops and the cemeteries.”
“I know the dream that you’re dreamin’ of.” I have seen photos from that time. In one of them, sun-tanned and wearing a sly, smug expression, I’m in the house at Punta Celeste, on my seventh birthday, hugging a Pekinese perched on a pillar. In another, aged one and a half, I’m stroking the blond mane of a toy horse bigger than I am. It used to be harnessed to a tricycle. I probably wore out the hessian fabric it was made of very quickly. But in the photo the horse is healthy. I’m hugging its neck and mane, looking at the camera, sly and smug.
Last night I dreamed of you. I was in my parents’ apartment, washing my face before going to hear a band. My brother was also going, with a woman. But I was going alone. I didn’t know the group that was playing, only the name, Sepultura. I decided to leave early to get a ticket. As I was getting ready, I could see the portico of the theater giving off an orange glow, like a house on fire.
But as I went through the living room towards the hall door, I saw you sitting opposite the dining room table. You were wearing a leather jacket that looked rumpled, as if you’d slept in your clothes, your lank hair plastered to your skull. Your oily skin made me think of the dried goat meat they serve to the guest at the beginning of Góngora’s poem Soledades. You didn’t move. Or speak. But I could see you were upset because the movie they made about you recently was so bad. After a moment, you died, or so it seemed to me. I was afraid my father would come in and see us. I didn’t stop to check whether you were dead; I abandoned you to go hear the band. But then I thought better of it and turned back. I decided to confront your corpse, and my father, if he showed up. But when I got back, you’d gone. There was no one in the dining room. Perhaps my brother had moved you, but there was no way to know where to. I regretted not having looked at you properly at the time. But it occurred to me that if you’d only just died (and even that was doubtful), you must have been alive for the last forty years.
We used to see one another in the muggy heat of Tampa. Your grandparents’ house was no different from the others. It had a porch with a handrail where they sat sipping their iced tea in the afternoon. They didn’t drink alcohol, and unlike your parents they didn’t guffaw loudly or make risqué remarks over cocktails at the Military Circle. Your mother sometimes came home drunk from the club with one of her husband’s officer friends. Your father had a rugged face and blue eyes. In his Navy cap, he grinned out of the photo on her bedside table. His colleagues thought him a bright and responsible man. His spells of time with all of you were brief. Sometimes he came home in civilian clothes, but other times he wore his blue uniform. He liked to talk about the Second World War and the landings in Korea, even though he only fought there five days. He was immediately assigned to teach classes at the Naval Academy. You were irritated by your mother’s praise of him, reinforced by his parents when you went down from D.C.—where you grew up—to Tampa to visit them. Above all, you were irritated by their trust in him. Your mother see-sawed between two states of mind: self-satisfaction if everything was going well, and exasperation—her eyes would bulge and her nose turned red if you dug in your heels or she had to handle something by herself.
She was addicted to the order her husband embodied, and allergic to the disorder represented by her father, a communist attorney. He went into exile in Canada when you were three years old. She never mentioned him, wary of falling back into the well from which she had taken such pains to clamber out. You only got snippets of news about him. You found out he’d been a friend of the author of The Grapes of Wrath, a symptom, according to your informant, of unpardonable wickedness.
Your mother got along with her in-laws, well-meaning folk who owned a dry-cleaning business; she stayed with them in Tampa sometimes when her husband was away. She was particularly close to your grandmother, who wore her grey hair pulled back in a bun, and gray or black printed dresses. She donned black shoes with straps to go to the bank after lunch. In the evening, fanning herself on the porch opposite your mother, she would complain of the heat and give orders about dinner. She never questioned the Navy, which had offered her son a career as an honored traveler.
But I got to know your relatives indirectly. You never liked your friends to see them, and you never talked about them. Walking round their house, you peed against one of the basement windows. That’s when you told me the story about the dogs. A hunter wants to buy a gun-dog, but he’s been told that the animal must have a small, tight sphincter, otherwise it will fill with water and get bogged down when it goes into rivers and lakes to retrieve the prey. He sees an animal he likes, and examines its anus, but finds it to be loose; it expels a muffled fart, without much pressure. The seller tells him not to worry. He brings out a pair of tongs and squeezes the dog’s testicles; the muscle immediately contracts into the ring shape of a natural orifice. “That’s what it’s like,” you said. “If you’re not convinced, try it yourself.” I replied that mine tightened up whenever I saw an amputee.
Once they took us to your father’s base. At the entrance, there was a monument of an anchor on a steep slope, fifteen or twenty feet high. We tiptoed round it, and then you decided we should jump off. I had never jumped off anything that high. You explained that the trick was to relax and bend your knees so that you landed on your butt as smoothly as possible. As I jumped, I felt as if I had been endowed with qualities unlike the ones I’d possessed until then. I had dreamed about flying, but falling was different. I exhaled as I hit the ground and rolled over, my joints screaming. Randy broke his arm because he hit a rock, but when your mother asked how it happened neither of us accused you of having made us jump.
We would race each other on our bikes. Pedaling furiously away from you as you fired at me with your slingshot, I did a sharp turn on a patch of loose dirt. The bike skidded out from under me and I fell on the brake lever, which gored my thigh like a horn. I can still see the mark it left. [. . . .]
The first day I visited you in Tampa, that time you shot past your grandfather, we went into the woods. You didn’t have a bike and I was walking mine alongside you. We picked our way around puddles from a recent shower. For a while, you rode on my handle-bars. I could feel your ass, which wasn’t enormous but round, against my wrists.
The wheel hit a stump and you pitched onto the gravel track like a sack of apples. You lay there motionless, face down, as if you had been knocked out. I rolled you over. Your forehead was bleeding and your eyes were shut. I put my ear to your chest and you burst out laughing and spat out dirt, shaking yourself off; flies were buzzing around. I tickled you and you started wrestling. We tussled with an energy that had been building up for years, scraping our legs and elbows against the rocky ground as we rolled over and over. All the time, you kept howling. I swallowed dirt. Eventually, trembling and out of breath, I collapsed on my back and you stood up and started laughing again, still spitting out dirt. I put my hand on your back to feel the earthquake within.
Ave Rock (Madrid: Varasek, 2015), by the eminent Uruguayan author Roberto Echavarren, uses the life of the Doors singer Jim Morrison as the basis for a fascinating experimental novel that interweaves fiction, memoir, and biography, in writing that is both intellectually rigorous and lyrical. Morrison and Echavarren were born at roughly the same time, but at opposite ends of the Americas. The “I” in the narrative is a young Uruguayan gay man coming of age in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The novel’s conceit is that the narrator and Morrison knew each other intimately, that their lives intersected at multiple points in both countries. The book is a bittersweet paean, an elegy for the revolutionary intensity of the 60’s and 70’s. It maps the narrator’s sexual, intellectual and emotional experimentation as he travels toward adulthood. While the book is experimental in terms of structure and genre, it is syntactically and lexically “straight”forward; the translation challenges lie mostly in the Uruguayan cultural references, such as names for things that don’t have a parallel in American English. Also challenging is the syntactical flexibility of Spanish, which allows for numerous clauses separated by commas; often, this results in run-on sentences in English, so occasionally I inserted periods, semi-colons or em dashes so that English-language readers would not lose their bearings in the text.