To celebrate a friend’s graduation from her MFA program, she and I flew to the Yucatan peninsula for ten days of vacation. In the course of our time in Mexico, we snorkeled amongst a stunning variety of fish and coral; visited the ruins of Tulum and Chichen Itza; stayed in the colonial cities of Vallodolid and Merida; saw hundreds of flamingos in Celestun; ate delicious food like queso relleno; swam amongst stalactites in a cenote; and in between doing all this, we read. One of my favorite things about vacation is the permission it gives me to read at odd hours of the day, freed from the grind of only reading before bedtime, or only reading the books most applicable to my teaching or writing. For Mexico, I wanted to read books outside of my ordinary reading list and by Spanish speaking writers. I ended up selecting The Bad Girl by Mario Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian writer and 2010 winner of the Nobel Prize, and 2666 by Roberto Bolano, a Chilean born writer who lived much of his adult life in Mexico. I am still reading the latter, but the first book was a wonderful beginning to my vacation.
I read books for the usual reasons. I read to be transported into other worlds, to live inside other people for a time, to gain empathy and understanding, to be moved to tears and laughter, to be frightened, challenged and exhilarated. I read because humans are narrative creatures, and we find meaning, knowledge and transcendence through stories. I also read in order to learn the craft of writing. The two pieces of advice every writer will give when asked what to do in order to learn how to write are summarized as such: to read a lot and to write a lot. That all. But hidden in those simple instructions is the secret that as you read and as you write, you become a better, more careful and insightful reader and writer. You learn how to tear apart texts and interrogate them for their secrets. And as a writer, you begin to learn how to put your imagination into words. In his Nobel Lecture, Llosa talks about this process, saying that:
Writing stories was not easy. When they were turned into words, projects withered on the paper and ideas and images failed. How to reanimate them? Fortunately, the masters were there, teachers to learn from and examples to follow.
Flaubert taught me that talent is unyielding discipline and long patience. Faulkner, that form – writing and structure – elevates or impoverishes subjects. Martorell, Cervantes, Dickens, Balzac, Tolstoy, Conrad, Thomas Mann, that scope and ambition are as important in a novel as stylistic dexterity and narrative strategy. Sartre, that words are acts, that a novel, a play, or an essay, engaged with the present moment and better options, can change the course of history. Camus and Orwell, that a literature stripped of morality is inhuman, and Malraux that heroism and the epic are as possible in the present as is the time of the Argonauts, the Odyssey, and the Iliad.
In order to teach me as a writer, I often seek out the writers who I most closely want to emulate, but I also seek out writers who vividly create their own voice, and who write of worlds I have never seen. While traveling in Mexico, I did not want to read fiction of American worlds that I knew. I travel to move outside the scope of my usual experience, and as such I want my reading to do the same. Llosa comments on this that, “Good literature erects bridges between different peoples, and by having us enjoy, suffer, or feel surprise, unites us beneath the languages, beliefs, habits, customs, and prejudices that separate us.” That is what The Bad Girl accomplishes. Most of the book is set in France, a place Llosa lived as a young writer, and like his main character, it is where he “learned that Peru was part of a vast community united by history, geography, social and political problems, a certain mode of being, and the delicious language it spoke and wrote.” This is the power of traveling, and particularly of living abroad, if only for a short time, because by living abroad you gain perspective of your home. This is even true of living “abroad,” in your own country. For all the doomsday talk of the “strip-malling” of America, where the same stores and corporations are found from sea to shining sea, there is still deep diversity to be found in American culture, language, food, habits, attitudes and religions, but that is not a difference easily seen in movies or television, or even in literature. It is a diversity only understood through traveling.
In the novel, the first person narrator, Ricardo Somocurcio, recounts the narrative arc of his life as it relates to his love for “the bad girl.” We all have many narratives we can tell of our lives. We characterize ourselves as the hero when trying to impress a date; we narrate our work histories when seeking employment, showing how every job was building towards the new job in question; we tell the stories of illnesses, of families, of reading, of disappointments; we tell the stories of love. One of these narratives become our primary narrative, and will remain so until it is replaced by another. For some people, their primary narrative remains the same for their entire life, and others it changes periodically. One may be a parent as your primary narrative, and then find that shifting as your children grow, or you may create and follow a narrative of work identity, or of being a friend, or being a partner or a lover. Somcurcio’s primary narrative was his love for one girl. He did many other things in his life – he learned languages, traveled the world, achieved professional success, made friendships, but the primary narrative of his life, the thing that defined him, was his love for “the bad girl.”
Last week I watched the film, Of Gods and Men, about a monastery caught in the middle of jihadist anti-foreign military and militia conflict in Algeria. The movie is a beautiful recounting of the communal life of the brothers, and the ways their life have intertwined with the Muslim village. And above all, the movie is about love. Love for God, love for people, and love for place. One of the brothers speaks about love, saying that, “Love is eternal hope. Love endures everything.” That, to me, seems the truest encapsulation of not just the movie, but of The Bad Girl, and of my experience of love in general. Love, despite logic and what we would sometimes wish, endures everything. That can be a thing of beauty, of romantic relationships that last for sixty years, of the unbreakable love between parent and child, and of the love of lifelong friendships, but it also means that through love people can become stuck to poisoned relationships and volatile situations. I, and others, have written before of the idea and image of love, whatever the type of love, feeling like a cord binding one soul to another. And when something happens to break off this love, to seemingly sever it, the cruel truth is that “love endures everything,” and thus will not be broken, but instead the cord remains attached, trapped beneath an immovable boulder, blocking you from all knowledge and contact with the one you love, but not severing the eternal hope. That is the central story of The Bad Girl, and that is the central story in Of Gods and Men. Both book and movie are the stories of how we have no choice but to give ourselves over to love, and the way in which we do that defines the type of people we are, and the types of lives we can lead. In the novel, the main character writes that he “fell in love with Lily like a calf,” and that total submission to love is what makes him the man he is, and it is thus what becomes the central narrative of his life. I struggle, like so many, if not all of us do, with the power love has over me, and over my life, but ultimately I must accept that the relationship that I have with love is the defining relationship of my life.
Now that I’m back from Mexico, the things I remember most are the quiet moments. I remember swimming in a cenote, floating inside the earth amongst dangling tree roots and stalactites. I remember the queso relleno I ate in Mexico, a food unlike anything I’d eaten before, wonderfully rich, smooth and layered with flavor. And I remember reading The Bad Girl.