We start to absorb the city when we cease to see and begin to feel; we know the city best when we feel the movement of its language
A city is an atmosphere defined by a history. A great city’s streets may reflect its past, but only art makes a city’s history, like its distinctive mood, present to the world. Architecture can brand a city’s profile on a million postcards: Antonio Gaudí’s melting towers are Barcelona, the Christ the Redeemer statue on Corcovado Hill is Rio de Janeiro. Yet images can take you only so far. Film, hobbled by its relegation of place to backdrop and its highlighting of personality (as opposed to character), has contributed little to enhancing the states of mind of great urban centres. The actors steal the show; the street scenes resort to the clich? of the panning shot. We are plagued by the suspicion that film is faking it, that when the credits roll, the scenes set in Manhattan will turn out to have been filmed in Toronto, that the Chinatown we were told was in San Francisco in fact belongs to Vancouver. The moving image of film tells us that cities are interchangeable, while the fixed view of the postcard shrinks urban identity to a trademark. Painting, particularly impressionist painting, can suggest a richer mythology (one thinks of Camille Pissarro’s rain-thronged Paris streets, J.M.W. Turner’s smeared London sunsets), but only literature fulfills this expectation.
To admire a postcard of the Sagrada Familia is to categorize Barcelona; to read a novel by Juan Marsé, Ana María Matute or Eduardo Mendoza may be the beginning of an imaginative understanding of the city. A novel by the great nineteenth- century Brazilian writer Machado de Assis plunges you into the disillusionment of grandiose expectations incessantly postponed, the crossover between beauty and sadness, the interracial malaise trembling beneath the ebullient exterior that even today embodies Rio de Janeiro more fully than the clanging irony encapsulated in contrasting snapshots of the five-star beach at Copacabana and the favelas on the hills.
Literature makes cities recognizable to those who have not visited them before. The first-time visitor to Paris, stepping out of the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport at the Gare du Nord and sauntering into the streets, feels the thrill of encountering the ambience inseparable from the writing of Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, Colette, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, or the post-1968 philosophers; perhaps also, depending on the visitor’s origins and reading, the atmosphere that recalls certain works of Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Julio Cortázar, Mavis Gallant, Tahar Ben Jelloun. Many visitors who have read only snatches of these writers’ works will nevertheless try to engage with this ambience. Such a quest may decline into romanticization or superficiality, but it would be wrong to deny that the search for a particular conjunction of place and attitude is an appropriate response to arrival in a great city. It may be the only response that does justice to the city’s history. Literature alone can transmit history, in its ravel of human dilemmas, symbolic actions, transitions, anxieties and, above all, language, from one epoch to another. This accretion of history, in all its contradictions and diverse possibilities, defines the city’s character.
Writers from former colonies tend to conceive their encounter with the metropolitan centre in visual terms. Nadine Gordimer describes arriving in London from South Africa as an adult and finding her way around the streets from the novels of Virginia Woolf; V. S. Naipaul, who went to London from Trinidad as a student and settled there, recounts a similar experience (though, as always with Naipaul, with a half-repudiating edge) with the novels of Charles Dickens.
Yet the experience of knowing a city before visiting it does not always represent a colonization of the imagination. Nor is the encounter necessarily defined in terms of obvious dynamics of cultural power between the society of the visitor and that of the city. In the absence of colonial links, visual phenomena play a smaller role in the visitor’s act of recognition. In 2002, after reading Argentine literature for more than twenty years, internalizing its dominant motifs and teaching this literature to students on two continents, I finally had the opportunity to visit Buenos Aires. I did not recognize the city. The vast Avenida 9 de Julio looked almost Australian in its greenness; the apartment blocks seemed to have been kidnapped from Paris. The city’s voices restored my sense of equilibrium. Those thick, languorous accents, making assumptions and references I recognized from literature, talking about culture in ways that were familiar from the essays of Argentine writers, conferred an inevitability on the Europeanness of the buildings, the sun-baked quality of the streets whose names I knew from books. The Palermo district, central to the upbringings of both Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar, acquired a familiar face; the Recoleta cemetery, where so many of the great figures of Argentine history and literature rest, took root in my imagination, in spite of the gaudy multiplex cinema across the street. Of course it was I, not the streets of Palermo or the carven family tombs of the Recoleta, who was adjusting: through the layered tones of literature, I was tuning myself in to the city’s history.
There are cities we know even though we may never visit them. I have not been to St. Petersburg, yet the novels of Fyodor Dostoyevsky have imbued my imagination with its white nights, its imperial architecture, its canals, its desperation. Such impressions are often strongest when—as with Dostoyevsky or Woolf—the writer in whose work we discover the city does not devote much space to physical description. Visualization is the enemy of imagination: the post-colonial writer who can see the streets of the never-visited metropolitan centre remains in the thrall of its power. We start to absorb the city when we cease to see and begin to feel; we know the city best when we feel the movement of its language. A city is an experience that we hear and read.