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If you borrow this book, you have to return it: Jacob I. Evans

May 3, 2011 \am\31 8:45 am

Dearest Readers: This may be the last of this particular series for now. Many thanks to all the contributors and readers. I’ve got some other sweet stuff in the works! Stay tuned.

[For this series, I’ve asked many wondrous writers to reflect on an individual copy of a book that is very important to them. Writers and publishers have varied and often impassioned relationships to their analog books, as actual books are still arguably the “realest” physical manifestation of their poetic pursuits. I think that as the Kindle and other digital representations of text continue their upward spiral, it’s important to reflect on books as the uniquely funky-smelling, emotion-provoking, paper-cutting, dust/coffee/spaghetti sauce-collecting artifacts that they are!]
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Jacob I. Evans is currently an art teacher in Hà Nội, Việt Nam. He is a writer, book designer, occasionally an artist, and a total omnivore .He thinks that more people should eat Vietnamese shrimp paste (mắm tôm) and stinky foods in general. Along with some friends (Matt L. Rohrer, LJ Moore, Britta Austin, and Truong Tran), he helped to start the incredible awesome and currently unstoppable Small Desk Press. He has published work in Nocturnes (re)view, Parthenon West Review, Watchword, We Still Like, Digital Artifact, 14 Hills, and in the men seeking women section of craigslist. He is the author of the chapbook I haven’t been thinking about you at all lately (ge collective, San Francisco, 2011).He writes ekphrasis prose online at http://whatikindoflikedaboutyou.tumblr.com. He is learning Vietnamese.

It was 2003, summer in San Francisco, I was only 23 and going through my esoteric-tortured-genius phase. I’m not sure what that entailed. I think I had a beard and a shaved head. I think I was wearing black and white Sambas and had holes in my socks. I paced through the fog in the sunset district wandering through the chaotic Asian supermarkets, suffering through persecution complexes and unshakable paranoia. I had a girlfriend that I secretly hated, a black cat and a three-legged dog. I moved to the city and there were so many used bookstores everywhere. They were the musty scented, acidic yellow paged, temples of weirdos like me and I would get lost in them for hours. A lot of them have since closed. My mental map of the city is full of red x’s where bookstores once stood. This one was where I bought the collected prose of Fernando Pessoa and that one was where I picked up a virtually untouched copy of Wretched of the Earth for two dollars. But on this summer day, I was walking down Valencia going in and out of different shops.

It’s now 2011 and I have moved half way around the world to Viet Nam. It’s spring in Ha Noi, and I am going through my fleeing-from-America-and-the-developed-world phase. I’m not sure what that entails. I am going bald. I wear black and white converses and the shoe shine guys in the city always stop me and try to shine my shoes. I don’t know how to say “these shoes are canvas and don’t need a shine” in Vietnamese. I have a black and white cat named Thursday because I found him on a Thursday in the garden of a house I used to live in. I went to smoke a cigarette and there sitting next to the little garden table was a small, wet, black and white cat, lying in a sunny spot in a puddle of his own blood, with open wounds all over his body as if something had been eating select parts of him over the course of several days. I drove to the vet on my motorcycle with the cat stuffed in a pillowcase. Now, when Thursday annoys me I tell him in broken Vietnamese that we’re going to eat cat barbecue for dinner (barbecued cat and dog are both delicacies in Northern Vietnam). He seems to understand because he usually shuts up after that.

Anyway, it was your typical foggy day in the summer in San Francisco’s Sunset district, so I took the N Judah train out from the fog, hoping for a bit of sunshine, and walked through the Castro towards the Mission. Abandoned Planet was one of those bookstores that is now gone. It had a cat who slept on the big art books laid out flat on the tables and there was also one guy working there, probably the owner, one of those dusty old men who knew everything and lived half of his life pressed between the pages of old books. I remember he gave me a card with an engraving of a fallen angel on it and he said that there were no good bookstores in the Sunset and if I didn’t shop there regularly the demon would come after me. The cat was fat and orange, just like a cat that lives at a secret cafe tucked behind a shop overlooking the turtle lake in the center of Ha Noi. Now that I think about it, maybe the cat in Abandoned Planet wasn’t fat and orange. It’s probably the case that the cat in my memory has little to do with the actual cat in history. I like cats. I once tried to write a novel about a dwarf, his obese cat, and some kind of murder mystery involving a matricide and a burnt-down trailer. I don’t really remember much about it. It’s also the year of the cat and this bodes well for people like me. So, this possibly fat, possibly orange, cat was sleeping on a big book of Leni Riefenstahl photos and I thought that alone was a good omen. I had a thing for Leni Riefenstahl at the time. I wrote a poem about her that was published as a little broadside by the now defunct Hemispherical press. Each broadside came with a one inch pink and black pin that had Leni’s face inside of a heart. The poem was called “Fifteen Reasons Why I Want to Fuck Leni Riefenstahl.”  So this aforementioned old man sidles up to me and looks at me looking at some book and says, “I have the book for you.” Not a book, but the book. The definite article. Like it was the book that had been made and brought to the store just for me. The entire conception and production, from the writing, editing, printing, and binding of the book, was all done for me. I thought it was a strange thing to say to someone, but also it was really genuine and nice. It was the kind of presumptuous generosity that makes you feel as if someone was looking at you and, in one brief moment, had figured out something essential about you that you were lacking. Now that I think about it, I wonder, what did that old man see in me from across the room that made him pick this one book? Was it the way I slouched my shoulders or didn’t look up much? Was it how I bit my lips and swallowed my words? Was there something in me that wanted to get out and he saw it clearly as it clawed at the walls?

The bookstore in my memory is full of old rugs and dust and comfortable leather chairs that belong in the house of a dead man who spent his life traveling the world and collecting odds and ends. When I am a dead man, I would like to be one of those dead men and the house or room I leave behind should be one of those houses or rooms. Memory is weird. You can’t really trust it, but that’s part of the fun isn’t it? I find it endlessly fascinating that we could just as easily be inventing these facts and embellishing on all of the details and artifacts that we find in these recollections. But the picture in my mind is still vague. Kind of this mythic play of light and shadows like a magic lantern show. Maybe I don’t remember at all? Maybe this didn’t happen. I do have some evidence though; I have the book, sort of. So I followed the old man across the bookstore and he reached over to a shelf and pulled out this small little nondescript hardcover with a three color dust-jacket in black, red, and green. The illustration on the front looked like a children’s book of fairytales as imagined by Emil Nolde. I held it in my hands and read the title: The Guitar by Michel del Castillo. Then I flipped open the book and read the blurb on the inside flap. A hunchback dwarf is hated and feared by the local villagers in the countryside of Galicia. He lives with his aging nurse in a deserted old farmhouse. All of the villagers think he and the nurse are servants of the devil. Everything changes when the dwarf meets a gypsy who begins to teach him to play the guitar. Now the last part sounds a little ridiculous, kind of like something that could be a Disney movie about the redemption of beauty and art and how monstrous things are really beautiful underneath the surface, but trust me it’s incredible, because everything doesn’t actually change. There is no saccharine redemption. Beauty does not conquer all. Human ugliness, fear, xenophobia, and superstition remain and are not dislodged from their positions. The monster in the book really is monstrous and plays the role of being hated and loathed just as readily as anything else. In the broader sense, The Guitar is a book about fear, about being feared, about ugliness and beauty and the way we desire after all of those positions. It is a book about wanting to be loved and wanting to be hated. It is a book about the artificial dichotomy between the monster and the victim, the normal and the degenerate. This is a pretty broad description I know, but what else can I say?

My edition was published in 1959 in Soho. It was translated from the French by a man named Humphrey Hare. As far I can tell it’s out of print in English, yet remains in circulation in the French. If you find it in a used bookshop or a library sale or somewhere, you should buy it and read it and if you don’t like it, we probably can’t be friends. Probably.

As I held it in my hands and thought wow, what a cool little book, I looked at the price tag penciled on the inside cover in a hand both impossibly light and legible all at once and it said $4.50. It was cheap too. I looked at the man and smiled and said something like woah, or you’re right, or yeah, it is. I was just as eloquent then as I am now. And he said, “Okay, now don’t lend this to anyone because you’re never going to find it again. If someone wants to read it have them come over to your house and sit them down in a comfortable chair.” That idea appealed to me. It was like I was being inducted into a conspiracy, a secret society. Psst! Hey, wanna come over to my house and read a book? You’ll never find it again. Trust me on this one. I took it home and read it. Since then I’ve lent it out, but only to a few special ones.

Then in 2009, after quitting an unimportant job in publishing, selling most of my stuff, stashing my boxes of books with my parents along with an offer to my 17 year old sister to adopt my collection of poetry and philosophy and make them her own, I moved south to Los Angeles and started preparing to move even further to SE Asia. In July of 2009 I bought a one way ticket to Vietnam and got a Visa good for six months. I initially planned to stay for only six months, then reevaluate and see where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, but six months turned into nine and then a year and then a year and a half and now I’m projecting towards two or three years. It is an interesting little life. I teach and drive a little motorcycle through the crowded streets and narrow alleys. I smoke way too many cigarettes and eat noodles hunched on child sized plastic furniture on the sidewalk. Before I left the states I gave my younger brother my banjo and guitar and this book and asked him to take care of it. I handed him the book and said, now don’t lend this to anyone because I’ll never be able find it again. If someone wants to read it have them come over to your house.

But this little book, that now sits safely with my little brother in his little apartment in Echo Park, still hums around in my head. I think about the opening lines which I typed out along with the first few pages before leaving the states as a sort of exercise. The direct address of the terrible dwarf who was terribly ugly. I still like it so much after all this time. I don’t have the book here and you probably won’t be able to find it, but maybe you can read French or you could learn, I suppose.

When I stood in that bookstore and read this opening passage, I thought, yes, this is the book for me:

I AM ugly. Terrifying ugly. And I want to begin my story with this painful avowal.

Ugly! Consider this word carefully, you who read me. There are a thousand kinds of ugliness, as there are a thousand kinds of beauty. There is even an ugly beauty: pretentious beauty. I am utterly ugly. Dwarfed, hunch-backed, one-eyed; my nose is flat as a boxer’s and a long, red scar dishonours my features. I am terrifyingly ugly. When I smile, I make so hideous a grimace that honest people flee. And yet, I do not want to frighten you; nor do I even want your pity. I am tired of frightening people and being pitied. Tired of being wicked and being good. 

And later, after some talk about the Spanish countryside, the narrator introduces what I guess could be considered the love interest of the book, an unattainable, mysterious, and violent love: the sea.

The sea. You must imagine her here as both violent and loving, like a mythological divinity. She licks the rocks with her white foam, creeps, slides, insinuates herself, rises, falls, rises again; she caresses the rough, male rock with her long swell, whispers into his ear and, disappointed at last, breaks with a gasp of love as the heart breaks, they say, from unassuaged desire. She returns to the charge, pierces and breaks the male repelling her. Afar off, fragments of rock lament their solitude. When the sea is too loving or too jealous, she rises and roars, engulfing these torn fragments till they are submerged in her bosom.

And at some point in the book I remember the line that I didn’t type up and maybe I’m misremembering it and maybe I’m embellishing it and maybe it doesn’t exist at all, but let’s pretend:

Why does a hunchback dwarf love the sea?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the heart of the matter. He just does.

And I’ll end with my favorite line in this or any book:

We have plenty of time. Particularly since you will never read me as I would wish.

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One Comment
  1. May 20, 2011 \am\31 10:08 am 10:08 am

    Loved reading every bit of this story.
    Thanks.

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