[Archipelago Books; 2020]
Tr. from the Spanish by Andrea Rosenberg
Difficult Light by Tomás González is about an old painter rapidly turning blind, mediating on one of the most impactful events in his life, the death of his oldest son Jacobo, “which we had scheduled for seven that night Portland time, ten o’clock in New York.”
I read the last sentence of the first chapter a few times and wondered whether the “scheduled part” could be a translation mistake, as the slim book was written in Spanish and then translated into English by Andrea Rosenberg. Or maybe in Spanish death isn’t described as just coming out of the blue, but is, when it happens to family members or close friends, referred to as a specific moment in time, I wondered? Maybe it’s a religious point of view, maybe the fact that the event is arranged acknowledges the existence of a higher authority who plans such things as birth and death with imperturbable precision? But then the sentence had said “we” and “we” had just been introduced as a group of regular people, a painter, his wife, his youngest son Arturo, his oldest son’s girlfriend Venus, and Debrah and James, two old friends of the family, who all spent the night in an apartment in the Lower East side of NYC and could not sleep.
The counting down the minutes to the scheduled death of this beloved son, which could be called off at any moment, if the son wished to do so, is part of the strange thrill of the book. As the implications for the looming deadline become more clear, the countdown adds a slightly perverted sense of suspense. A deadline. I remember my intuitive reluctance to use the word “deadline,” when I learned the word in English, it sounded hostile when someone told me for the first time: “You need to meet this deadline.” To get killed, I wondered?
Wikipedia explains: “There is only indirect evidence that the term deadline in the sense of ‘due date’ may be connected with the use of the term in prison camps during the American Civil War, when it referred to a physical line or boundary beyond which prisoners were shot,” and the Merriam-Webster Dictionary furnishes further evidence from Thomas Prentice Kettell’s History of the Great Rebellion (1866) of why the word unconsciously may carry associations that we naturally resist, or want to delay forever:
In a memorial addressed to President Lincoln in August, 1864, by Union officers confined in Charleston, occurs the following passage with reference to the Andersonville prisoners: “They are fast losing hope and becoming utterly reckless of life. Numbers, crazed by their sufferings, wander about in a state of idiocy. Others deliberately cross the ‘Dead Line’ and are remorselessly shot down.”
A deadline. How does a loving couple spend that last night of their son’s life on this earth, when he is with his brother Pablo in Portland and they are in NYC? What do they look at, what goes through their minds, what do they do? What does time feel like “to be locked for eternity in a burning house?” Besides bouts of “grief devouring me from within like the burning bush,” they recognize the meaning in the most simple things that gives them some sort of comfort. The father brushes the fur of the cat, he goes into the studio and continues painting his painting, people sit together around the kitchen table and drink tea, the father feels awkward, but also sincerely thankful for engaging in an American-style group hug with his wife and friends, he goes out a bit into the night and gets tangled up in a conversation with a stranger who wants to sell him some records from the basket strapped to his bike, he caresses his wife, they hold hands. They do these things calmly. There is no big drama, no major breakdowns or epiphanies, no nasty fights or love declarations, the only thing that constantly interrupts the collective passing of horribly calm time in this apartment are the constant phone-calls from or to their sons. The phone calls add action, the phone calls add hope, the phone calls add a bit of uncertainty to what has been decided, even though nothing incredibly informative seems to be exchanged, only the existential fact that Jacobo is still alive. Breathing. Talking. When the phone calls end, the father looks out the window, takes an anxiety pill, tries to sleep a bit, his wife Sara comforts him, he gets up again, looks at the clock, dining room, kitchen, studio, looks out the window at the cemetery, goes into his studio, looks at the painting he is working on.
Chapter Thirty-Two, the second to last chapter of the book, starts with the description of the family’s beloved cat:
Cristóbal glowed in the sun on the windowsill as if he were being stroked by the hand of God. I went to the living room and knew just from looking at Sara that Jacobo had died.
One thing causes another thing. There is a Zen-like awareness of that in the writing. Could there ever be another time for the cat on the windowsill to glow as being stroked by the hand of God, if it wasn’t the moment of his son’s death?
In an interview with Daniel Levine, Tomás González says: “Human happiness and the human sorrow always dissolve into the big thing that is there and has always been there. The Tao, if you will. This is a point of view that has been expressed by Taoists, Buddhists, the Kogui people, and many poets.”
As I am writing this, huge numbers of people in NYC are dying in isolation, possibly connected with their family members only by phone. What must these phone conversations be like? How meaningful and terribly painful?
And aren’t these deaths scheduled in a way? Statistics have clearly calculated that there will be more and more and more of them, which relates to the circumstances of this fictional family in Difficult Light, waiting out collectively, yet separated from each other, the passing of people with whom we shared our lives.
An insidious, subterranean silence had fallen over the house, a silence that didn’t lift even when we spoke or made noise. Two years later I would hear that same silence, but on a massive scale, when the Twin Towers fell. From the balcony, Sara, the boys, and I watched them crumble and disappear. After they turned to dust and smoke and the smell of char, that silence pervaded the squeal of the subway cars when they took a curve, the voices of people in restaurants, the heavy traffic on Canal Street, the cacophony of trains and cars on the bridges, and even the sirens; that silence took hold of everything, and you would have thought that the noise of New York, as fundamental as that of the mountains of Urabá, has been conquered from within and vanquished forever. That wasn’t the case of course. It never has been. I never thought I’d end up singing the praises of noise.
The narration of the old man — gentle, clear, content and occasionally annoying, because a bit patronizing towards women — happens simultaneously in three time zones. There is the retired David, turning rapidly blind, with a big, square magnifying glass and an expensive fountain pen in his house in Columbia, describing in detail how he is writing the very notes of what we are now holding in our hands as a book. There is him in NYC earlier in his life, surrounded by people he is grateful for, passing the agonizing hours that lead up to his son’s death, and then there are flashbacks to moments in his life he cherishes, mostly moments he shared with his wife Sara.
After they left NYC and lived in Columbia for a while, his wife died. He didn’t think he would be able to deal with the death of his wife, but it happened anyways. He adapted. Because of the beauty of his wife’s garden, because of the mountains, because his Ángela brought him coffee every morning and called him “Don David,” because his sons had sent him an electric blanket that kept him warm? Who knows . . .
In life, major events mix together with minor ones, and after a long time has passed, perspectives are lost. Nobody knows what is minor, what is major. Nobody knows if there are things that are less important than others. Nobody knows if things have some kind of order or if they are arbitrary.
The almost blind painter ends his notes with the word “Wunderful!” The spelling mistake is on purpose. It’s a little joke that seems to lift a lot of the weight that came before. It’s truly “wunderful” to have this at the end.
Franziska Lamprecht is an artist who started writing as an extension of the long-term process based works, she produces together with her husband Hajoe Moderegger under the name eteam. Their projects have been featured at PS1 NY, MUMOK Vienna, Centre Pompidou Paris, Transmediale Berlin, Taiwan International Documentary Festival, New York Video Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, the 11th Biennale of Moving Images in Geneva, among many others.