Tripe soup, Scheherazade and Nightmares
What Can Literature Still Do
We had been fed the secrets of the writing craft at an early age, and the most natural place for our first lesson appeared to be the nearby snack bar where in the morning my father would order tripe soup and lemonade for us. Square tables, cigarette-burned oilcloths, a dirty service-hatch, windows dimmed from the hot soup that everybody would blow on and sip noisily, adding generous amounts of vinegar and garlic. And there, on a blue plastic sign on the wall, I read for the first time: “Writers are surgeons of the human soul. They must cut out all that is rotten and decayed.” What could a sign like that mean here? I would spell it out every time I ate my soup. One spoonful – “surgeons”, a second – “rotten”, a third – “decayed”...Strange was the taste of that soup.
I don't know which ideological mind had come up with the idea of hanging this sign in a snack bar where I never saw a single writer blow on his soup. Writers inhabited other worlds and diners. Only first-shift workers ate here. I was seven or eight years old, and I imagined, vividly and with the complete empathy a child can have, those writers in white overalls, surgical gloves, masks and enormous scalpels for the soul. I still had no clear idea about the substance of the soul, its exact location among the internal organs, or whether it bled or not. Still, it was clearly a thing of rot and decay, and thus in constant need to be cut out. Right then and there I began to hate writers with a passion, whereas what I felt for the soul, whatever its location, was compassion and a slight fear. I never forgot that blue plastic sign in that snack bar and if I should list five things that influenced me to do what I do, that sign would be right there after Borges, the Bible and my grandmother. It saved me forever from the pretence to cut human souls. That was the moment I killed the literary surgeon in me for good. As a child I was afraid of going to sleep. And then I learned, first thanks to my grandma and her bedtime stories, that stories – and literature in particular - are there mostly to console. And that still undefined, fluffy creature called soul, I imagined it as a rabbit, soft ears and warm paws – is something which needed not a knife, but consolation and caress.
So, let's ask directly – what is storytelling, and literature in particular, capable of - apart from petting a rabbit (the timid rabbit of the soul)? Which seems quite important to me, by the way.
It is capable of simple things, like saving a life. How does it do that? To put it simply, it tells stories and thus postpones the end. This is clearest with Scheherazade. One doomed woman tells story after story to gain night after night. Inside the stories she tells, the most frequently tendered coins to buy someone’s life are again stories. But central to the story is that Shahryar only wants to bed a woman once: she has to be killed afterwards, because he wants to exclude any possibility of adultery. Only, Sheherazade starts telling him a story and by the time morning breaks, the story is not finished. Blissful times. "By Allah, I will not slay her, until I shall have heard the rest of her tale." But the story is endless. Just as the labyrinth is endless.
Do these stories change Shahryar, the mass murderer of women; do they evoke his empathy for the world? Who knows? It is more likely that they inject him with the drug of a new curiosity for the world and all its wonders, trials and tribulations, love and betrayal. The world is bigger than the betrayal of your beloved wife. Therefore, in this case it is storytelling that saves Scheherazade and a whole lot of other potential victims that would have followed her.
I cannot claim that Scheherazade's tales revive the tyrant's love for the world, but Shahryar clearly listens with a touch of empathy, gets involved in the story, and ultimately falls in love with the woman who, a thousand and one nights earlier, came to be murdered by him – he falls in love with the victim herself. While the victim is telling a story, she inhabits a different zone, a safe zone. As long as the story lasts, her life is guaranteed. Guaranteed by the storytelling itself.
This is what I would like to remind you from Scheherazade's great tale. About the power of the weak one, who is telling stories. About the special guarantee of literature. I must have known about this instinctively as a child, because I always used to pick up the books narrated in the first person. I knew that their characters could never perish at the end of the book, because it would be impossible for them to utter the sentence "I died". I tell a story, therefore I am. Narro, ergo sum.
What else can storytelling and literature do today? They can constantly produce memory. It is no accident that one of the Latin words for storyteller is memorator. The one who remembers and brings to mind through his/her story. Out of the many kinds of memory I would choose the memory for the fragile, the mutable and perishable.
"He knew the shapes of the southern clouds at dawn on April 30, 1882..." Borges wrote about Funes the Memorious in the short story of the same name. I have always wanted to be capable of that.
What else can literature do? It can console. Let us say a few words about consolation. I believe literature is steadily returning to this slightly forgotten role. More than two thousand years ago, "consolation" was a common genre in Roman literature. Seneca wrote the well-known "On Consolation to My Mother Helvia", which, if read today, will sound quite like our long-postponed consolations to our own mothers. (Their sorrow has not changed much in twenty centuries.) "My best of mothers, I have often felt eager to console you, and have as often checked that impulse. Many things urged me to make the attempt ... I might not be able to restrain your tears, yet that if I could even wipe them away, I should set myself free from all my own sorrows..." This is how Seneca begins his very personal text. If I could wipe away your tears, "I should set myself free from all my own sorrows". What we have here is a possible mechanism of every empathy, isn't it? One can not be completely happy in a world where one sees mourners everywhere around. I empathize with the other and want to help, because that will make me feel less unhappy myself. Altruism founded on selfishness.
What else can literature do? Stand on the losing side. I find this to be an essential feature of European literature. This is literature that avoids easy explanations of the world. Literature that is not afraid to speak of life's weak points, of sin, sorrow, guilt, perishableness.
Literature that knows – there are times when it is important to be on the losing side. On the side of the weak, the neglected, the hurt ones. On the side of the troubled ones. I know ‘History’ is written by the victor, but it is the defeated who write the stories which form a stream of their own. And they are often closer to the truth. There are other literary traditions whose preoccupation are the victors, the strong men. But the best literature tells the other story – the story of people beset by doubt, anxiety, guilt and fragility. The people I count on in times of crisis are on the side of literature and insecurity, hesitation and self-torment. And they are the true experts in crises. Their names are Pessoa, Kafka, Eliot, Borges, to name but a few. We are slowly realizing that the world can not be explained only through financial relations, cash flow, markets, interest and bank loans. Because we are not made of economics and politics. We are also made of sorrow and hesitation, of such fragile, unexplainable things. This is where literature steps in, this is its "expertise", if we use that language. Sooner or later, we will ultimately turn to literature and search for many of the answers there.
Literature gives us a few important rights. The right to hesitate. The right to be weak. The right to fail. The right to sympathise with others. The right to be somebody else, somewhere else, at least while reading. The right to feel sorrow, one of the most human conditions. The right to have a personal story with all its fears and nightmares.
When I was six, I had a nightmare that meticulously repeated itself three times, night after night. My whole family was at the bottom of a well, I stood alone outside, safe but scared to death. The fear was double, once for my mother, father and brother doomed at the dark bottom, and twice, for myself – saved but left alone forever. I lived with my grandmother at the time I had this dream, and she was the only person I could tell. But she stopped me at the first word. Bad dreams shouldn’t be told or they would become alive - ‘they will get full of blood,’ she said. The next night I had the nightmare again. I couldn’t tell it yet I couldn’t be silent about it any more. Then I had the ingenious idea of writing it down. I would be free without telling anyone. The untold nightmare was the first thing I ever wrote. Was that really a clever move? Yes and no. I didn’t have the nightmare anymore. But I couldn’t forget it either, and I had created a record of it, an archive.
I’ve realized that the motive of the six-year old boy that I was and my motive today after everything I’ve written are one and the same. I write because I am afraid. Fear is a reasonable motive for writing. And it’s no need to kill your nightmares (how we’ll write without them) but just to be able to narrate them, to live with them, to domesticate them.
Translated from the Bulgarian by Dragomir Marinov and Bilyana Kourtasheva