Columns

Neighbourhood of Letters

Alberto Manguel

There are imaginary cities for scientists, vampires, lechers and even bad students—but what about writers?

Biologists tell us that we differ in nothing from all other creatures in the world. Long before Darwin, St. Francis—with no irony—called the worm his sister and the horsefly his brother, humbly taking his place in the vast family of creation. One feature, however, distinguished Francis from all other things in the universe: unlike the worm and the horsefly, Francis knew he was Francis, and was able therefore, from the vantage point of self-consciousness, to recognize his brethren all around him. Not only that: Francis (like all of us humans) was capable of intuiting the world and its myriad inhabitants before going into the world and meeting his brothers and sisters. Francis was able to build in his mind the world and whatever the world contained before knowing it through the flesh. Our species, in order to survive (and now we are again among the scientists), has developed the extraordinary ability of being able to experience before the fact, to see and understand and draw conclusions from an event before the event takes place. To imagine, in human terms, is to exist.

We ignore whether worms and horseflies (or apes and dogs) have a sense of time; the universe does not. In the realm of astrophysics there is no such thing as past or future, and everything takes place in a now too vast for our understanding. We, unlike the universe, are riddled with time. We believe, we feel, that time hurtles us from womb to grave, flowing from what we remember to what we fear, from the place in which we learn to stand to the place in which we are forced to lie. According to astrophysicists, none of this happens as we think it happens, but the laws of our imagination override those of the universe. We imagine the world and ourselves in the world, and we give that imagination the name of reality.

We don’t know exactly when the first stories began to be told, but on a certain afternoon, far away and long ago, our ancestors became aware that, since their imagination allowed them to map the land beyond the horizon, it could also allow them to fashion that land to their liking. No doubt their imagination reconstructed far-off cities from the snippets brought home by travellers and the stories from ancient days, but on that prodigious afternoon these inspired grandparents constructed in words a city never seen before by anyone, made of bricks also imaginary and inhabited by men and women sprung fully formed from their minds. Their imagination allowed them to lend these people unheard-of adventures and astonishing deeds, and sometimes they mingled with these phantoms the phantoms of real people, dead or alive, to lend verisimilitude to their stories. Because, our ancestors soon realized, it was not enough to imagine; the imagination, if it was to take root in the world of stone and flesh, required an audience, and the audience demanded that, even if the stories were imagined, the characters had to be real. Fiction, our ancestors discovered, cannot be untrue.

From that distant afternoon until this day, the universe has been crammed with imaginary places that have risen from the dust of dreams. Some have fallen back into that dust, others stand now still, proudly proclaiming their resilience. Nineveh and Carthage no longer stand, but El Dorado and Wonderland and the Emerald City of Oz continue to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. Founding imaginary countries and building imaginary cities has long been a part of the storyteller’s task, and there is no reason to believe that it will ever stop. The geography of the imagination is generous and always allows room for one more place.

There are imaginary cities for scientists (Swift’s Laputa), for ladies (Christine de Pizan’s Cité des dames), for vampires (Paul Féval’s Vampire Town), for bad students (Carlo Collodi’s Play Town), for Christians (Johann Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis), for lechers (the Marquis de Sade’s Silling), for ghosts (Juan Rulfo’s Comala) but, with the exception of Dante’s Commedia, in which the Noble Castle serves as an eternal residence for the great poets of antiquity, and perhaps the secluded forest where the “living books” of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 open their memories to those who want to read them, there seem to be few places, in the vast universal library, in which the imagination has granted writers a home of their own.

The Portuguese writer Gonçalo M. Tavares has decided to fill this absence. He has created not a city but a neighbourhood, with houses grouped together for conviviality, and others set apart for peaceful solitude. Then, from his own bookshelf of favourites, he has selected the inhabitants and offered them the neighbourhood’s hospitality. Paul Valéry, Roberto Juarroz, Robert Walser, Henri Michaux, Bertolt Brecht, T.S. Eliot, even Emanuel Swedenborg, who speaks with angels, have all set up home in the houses Tavares has built for them. Visitors to the neighbourhood might ask: “Where are the women?” The demographics of the neighbourhood are due surely to a question of haphazard choice. Impossible not to suppose that in a near future, we shall see a moving van bringing to one of the houses the trunks and furniture of Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf or Clarice Lispector.

Of course, some of the writers are more amenable than others: Monsieur Valéry and Monsieur Swedenborg are neighbours and occasionally stop to chat; Monsieur Michaux and Monsieur Juarroz have curious conversations about the nature of language and the erotic underpinnings of humour. Each writer has, of course, not only a home but a style. Tavares has understood that to a writer, style is not merely the way in which one writes: it is the way in which one lives, one eats, one walks, one thinks. Style determines that Monsieur Valéry, for instance, uses his left hand only for things on his left and his right hand for things on his right. Style obliges Monsieur Walser not only to address his letters but also to draw on them a map marking the destination with an X so that the mail carrier can make no mistake in the delivery. Style reserves for Monsieur Eliot a house like that of his Prufrock, from where he can observe the universe of promised eternity and listen for the mermaids singing, each to each, though he knows they are not singing for him. Tavares’s neighbourhood is multicultural, multilingual and inhabited by writers of all ages and nationalities. One of the triumphs of the imagination is its ability, through language, to eliminate the barriers of time and space. The “conversation with the dead” that Francisco de Quevedo sought in his library takes place daily in this neighbourhood, and no immigration formalities were required. As Marguerite Yourcenar (a possible future inhabitant) once declared: “My country is my books.” This might be the motto of Tavares’s enlightened neighbourhood.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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