Book Diary: Leaving the Atocha Station (Ben Lerner)

I felt two very particular things about this novel: one that it is a really brilliant work of literature and two, that I was lucky to have an experience of reading it (that I’m not sure I’ve ever had before) whereby I could imagine the places described, revisiting them in my own memories.  Within this, I could also empathise with the particular alienation of having a kind of ‘half-of’ a second-language.

I also felt a third thing, but it wasn’t related to the novel directly, it was as a result of reading the novel whilst planning my own forthcoming, extended trip to Madrid.  I don’t know whether I’m now more excited, or more frightened.  I’ve been sliding up and down and all around the spectrum already and reading Leaving the Atocha Station has increased this turbulence.  On the one hand there is massive excitement, due mostly to the idea of ‘possibility’ and on the other, sheer terror and panic.

On the side of excitement, Lerner describes the kind of prescribed, organised freedom, which is certainly the kind that appeals to me and which provides the structure and the inspiration for my own trip:

I had the endless day, months and months of endless days, and yet my return date bounded this sense of boundlessness, kept it from becoming threatening.

And the building feeling of euphoria that follows this realisation:

… love for that other thing, the sound absorbent screen, life’s white machine, shadows massing in the middle distance, although that’s not even close, the texture of et cetera itself.

However, on the flip-side there is the sensation of becoming suddenly conscious of being somewhere far away and strange, and for a long time:

It was like failing to have awoken at the right point in a nightmare; now you had to live in it, make yourself at home.

***

Returning to the issue of language, my experience of learning Spanish has been one of massive highs and lows, setting it apart from any other learning I have ever done.  I feel wretched when I think of all those words; verbs, conjunctions, grammatical idiosyncracies, all the ever-moving slang, stretching out, unlearned, before me.  Then, if I manage to dash off a sentence, in speech or written down, without having to think about it, no matter now simple, I feel elated.  Currently, when listening to native speech, this is where I’m at:

I formed several possible stories out of her speech, formed them at once, so it was less like I failed to understand than that I understood in chords, understood in a plurality of words.

When Lerner describes this so beautifully and raises these worlds between languages higher than merely a lack of communication, I feel not so bad about it.  Until the next shameful moment that is

I managed, in reading the novel, which is almost totally in English, to have a new language experience too.  When reading the conversations Adam relates in English in the novel (but that obviously originally took place in Spanish), I would test myself to see if I could have had those conversations in Spanish myself.  If I couldn’t, or didn’t have all the words necessary, I would look up the English words in Spanish and then, with myself, I would have the conversation again, so that these words had a journey from Spanish, to fictionalised English, back to a different Spanish, or a different way of expressing the original, real meaning than it would have had in the beginning.  Alongside this, I was also making a list of English words in English that I had never heard before and looking up their meanings.

***

I think the worry that I’m left with, insomuch as I related this novel to myself and so taking aside its merits as a work of literature, is that it’s hard to want to have an experience of an experience, like the protagonist Adam, but as chaotic and occasionally frightening and sad as his is, I also I don’t want to feel like a tourist, but why not and to what extent I want to surpass that label I don’t know, and as Adam describes, tourists who don’t want to be tourists are the worst frauds of all:

I reserved my most intense antipathy for those Americans who attempted to blend in, who made Spanish friends and eschewed the company of their countrymen, who refused to speak English and who, when they spoke Spanish, exaggerated the peninsular lisp.

I’ll just have to wait and see what happens I suppose, but there is something heartbreaking about knowing that no matter what effort I make, I’ll always be on the outside of this country and its language.  In the novel, Teresa comes to represent the whole of Spain for me (‘where did they learn to smile like that?’).  I have extrapolated out Teresa’s grace, as described by Adam, to become my view of the Spanish nation.  All Spaniards appear to me to have this grace and ease, the cities too are elegant and effortless and to know that I’ll only be ever able to say that objectively, and never to feel it within myself, is a bit sad.  Perhaps at least it gives me permission to be a tourist, and so to enjoy Madrid hedonistically, selfishly.

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