An Empty Room

Mu Xin, An Empty Room

The title of this collection of short stories by Mu Xin is well-chosen, for this is narrative that is sparse and under-stated, sometimes to an extreme. It would be easier at times to detail what doesn’t happen in these tales than what does, for there is a constant sense of missed opportunities, missed connections. In the opening story, “The Moment Childhood Vanished,” for instance, a child coming home from a trip to a Buddhist monastery leaves his bowl behind. Someone runs to fetch it, but then the child drops and loses it forever in a river. The title story, “An Empty Room,” recounts the discovery of a room that turns out to be almost, if not quite, empty: strewn on the floor are letters that seem to reveal a love story that can’t quite be fully pieced back together. “The Windsor Cemetery Diary” concerns a fleeting and uncertain dialogue between two people who never meet and communicate only by turning over a penny in an otherwise abandoned graveyard. As the narrator notes at one point, “I put these thoughts in my diary to show that there is nothing to be recorded” (134). Little to nothing happens, but it is precisely this nothingness that is to be memorialized and pondered.

And of course the room is not completely empty. In the story of the same name, there are traces of some other narrative, even if it can never be fully reconstructed. Or in the cemetery, the periodic flipping of the coin is sufficient basis on which an entire series of hypotheses can be constructed. And even if one day the coin were not to be flipped, that too would send a series of possible messages, such as “I am dead. I have completely forgotten you. I do not come anymore” (140). It is as though Xin were asking what is the minimum material element of a signifying system, the degree zero of signification. Yet he also teases us with the prospect that there might be more, that there might be a whole hidden script that might one day unfold. “Quiet Afternoon Tea,” for example, tells the tale of a long-married couple apparently plagued by an untold story, of what happened–or didn’t happen–one day (the date and time are quite precise: October 26th, 1944, between three and seven o’clock) some forty or fifty years previously. The couple’s niece seems to think that this is a story that has to be told, for the benefit of her uncle and aunt alike, and does everything in her power to engineer a cathartic dénouement. But nothing happens: she leaves the two of them alone, and “there isn’t a sound” (91). It’s as though the pair are in fact perfectly content for the mystery to remain, or even that it’s precisely what remains unsaid, not what is said, that keeps them together.

It would be easy, no doubt too easy, to ascribe this pared-down tone to some kind of Asian reserve. Indeed, at times Xu seems to play on the notion of Buddhist self-abnegation: one story (“Fellow Passengers”) compares us to pipes “through which both joy and sadness flow. A pipe with all sorts of emotion flowing through it until one’s death or until it is emptied” (97). It ends with the dual assertion: “They are insignificant people. I am less than insignificant” (98). And yet there is a fascination with the almost ethereal traces left by such insignificance, traces that ultimately signify almost despite themselves, despite our shared hollowness or emptiness. In “Halo,” then, there is a lengthy discussion of the iconography of saintliness, in both Western and Eastern cultures. The Western halo, we’re told, is “false and awkward,” a “flaw [. . .] so embarrassing that it further inspires the eloquence of atheists” (108). The Eastern halo, by contrast, is more than mere pictorial “decoration” (112); it derives from an “internal calmness bordering on the state of sainthood” (110).

In the end, however, Xin rejects Western and Eastern traditions alike, in favour of “another kind of halo,” much more materialist if equally minimalist, “that exists in the dim realm of suffering” (112). He has a sculptor tell a story of when he was imprisoned “in the second half of the twentieth century, in a certain decade” (113)–one of Xu’s fleeting but repeated allusions to his own incarceration, during China’s Cultural Revolution. In a crowded cell, the artist meets an old man who mentions the Buddhist halo and then points to the cell wall against which the more privileged inmates sit and where:

Miraculously, I could suddenly make out a hazy circle behind the head of each prisoner. With so many heads repeatedly rubbing against the chalky surface, sweat had tainted patches of the wall in circular shapes. Since everyone was of a different height, the repeated rubbing produced circles of proportionate size to the heads before them. The circles were exactly like the dignified light of Buddha portrayed in ancient art. [. . .] I almost burst out laughing–the subtle profundity had to be felt not just spoken. (115-6)

Once the prisons were emptied, then, the halos would remain, a ghostly but absolutely material trace that can only point to, never fully encapsulate, an entire history of power and something like resistance that goes beyond words. And when the sculptor finishes his tale, “We raised our glasses. Why we didn’t quite know why we needed to empty the glasses, we emptied them anyway” (116). Mu Xin shows no great nostalgia for the fuller description and understanding that is inevitably lost; he knows them to be irrecuperable. Such is the way of the world, the effects of time and history. But even in their inevitably incomplete, precarious state, the traces of these broader histories deserve some acknowledgement, perhaps celebration, though we may not exactly know why.

Delirio II

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

In the end, everything is resolved: Laura Restrepo’s Delirio obeys the generic requirements of both the detective story and the romance, as the enigma of Agustina’s “four dark and dreadful days” while her husband was away is finally revealed, and the couple get back together, having survived the tribulations of madness and memory. All is ultimately well, as the crazy one ends up only “playing the fool” as she pretends not to see the red tie that Aguilar has put on as a sign of their renewed love (303). As I commented earlier, however, this is surely all a bit of a let-down. Not least because the solution to the mystery turns out to be remarkably banal: nothing of any particular note took place at the hotel where Agustina was found; the man she was with was simply there to look after her, and had no designs on her, nor even any real interaction with her; the trigger for her breakdown took place elsewhere, and was in any event merely an overheard conversation that imparted no real surprise or new information; everything of any significance had in fact already taken place long before, and if anything the only real question is why Aguilar had been so clueless about his wife’s past. In short, the mystery of the missing four days comes to seem like a classic cinematic McGuffin: a narrative device that is meaningless or empty in itself. And perhaps it is the vacuousness of the final revelation that enables the happy conclusion, in that there is nothing much for the wounded husband to pardon and indeed crazy Agustina emerges from the story both saner and saintlier than ever. Even the conclusions to the other narrative strands are likewise heart-warmingly low-key. Midas McAlister, for instance, the ne’er-do-well arriviste money-launderer, also ends up where he started, back home with an apparently all-forgiving mother. And Bichi, Agustina’s much put-upon younger brother, is about to arrive at the airport, boyfriend in tow, to a warm welcome from Aguilar and family. Individuals and families alike have been (so far as is possible) put back together. Something like unity and wholeness has replaced the earlier fragmentation and dissolution.

Nothing is perfect, of course, and the Londoño family remains stubbornly divided: her mother and older brother still cling to their sense of status and respectability; it is after all their rejection of Bichi that sparked the crisis. And for all Agustina’s troubled hallucinations that predicted the imminent return of the father, he is dead and gone, as are her grandparents with their own anxieties and concerns. Aguilar remains separated from his kids, despite a brief fantasy of reconciling with his first wife, and Restrepo knows not to push the comedic conventions too far by suggesting that, after two previous terminations, Agustina would ever be likely to produce a child. The family that they (re)construct, then, is partial and hybrid: husband and wife (though in fact they are formally unmarried), aunt, brother, lover. But the suggestions seems to be that the absences no longer haunt this happy rearrangement as they once did. When Aguilar finally returns home, having passed up on the opportunity of a fling with a sexy hotel clerk, he is greeted with familiar smells, familiar habits: “a smell of home, what else can I say, an everyday smell, of people who sleep at night and wake up in the morning, of real life, of life that has here once more returned to the realm of the possible, I don’t know for how long but at least while this smell lasts” (302). That night, then, “the last thought that cross my mind [. . .] was I’m happy, tonight I’m happy even though I don’t know how long this happiness will last” (302). However precarious or partial, it is still, surely, too good to be true. As Aguilar says, renouncing his rationalism, “Forgive me Voltaire but this is a miracle” (300).

What’s more, even if the personal and familial dislocations are (miraculously) addressed by the end, the social delirium remains untouched. And this indeed is what makes any sense of resolution all the more unconvincing. For the novel as a whole has hitherto consistently stressed the fact that there is no refuge from broader social dislocations. The one moment of intimacy between Agustina and her father (“the only time that he calls me Tina” [79]) may be their nightly ritual of locking doors and windows to keep out thieves or other potential threats. Just for a while, “everything changes because he and I enter in a world we share with nobody else, as he give me his heavy keychain that rings out like a cowbell” (79). But this ceremony is like the many others in the book, that are ultimately ineffective attempts to conjure away a violence whose insidious presence is always already within the home as well as without. In the end, the one spectre that cannot be conjured away is the ghostly absence/presence of the country itself, a place of which Midas McAlister (the most plugged-in of all the major characters) says that “if it weren’t for the bombs and the bursts of machine-gun fire that echo in the distance, whose tremors reach me here, I’d swear that the place called Colombia had stopped existing long ago” (289). There is little left of the country, caught in the networks of drug traffic and money-laundering that have little respect for any national borders, except for the violence whose reverberations and resonance (sometimes quite literally) explode the fuzzy barrier between public danger and private safehaven.

Why, then, is the social delirium so different, so much more intractable than the private or familial madnesses that (however temporarily or unconvincingly) the novel can claim are cured by the end of the narrative? I think it is more than a matter of either scale or history. After all the insanity that touches Agustina or the Londiños is no more or less historical than the national breakdown, going back at least three generations (perhaps further). No, I think it is this: that paradoxically the more intimate, the more private the derangement, the more it can seem to be ideological. In the end, after all, the source of Agustina’s disturbance are the serial falsehoods that she has to endure. She announces the fact early on, though neither Aguilar nor Aunt Sofi pick up on this rather simple resolution to the apparent mystery: “Why does she want to purify the house? Because she says that it’s full of lies, this morning she was relaxed as she was eating the egg that I served her for breakfast and she told me that it was the lies that were making her crazy. What lies? I don’t know, but that’s what she said, that the lies were making her crazy” (42). Towards the end, it’s Midas McAlister who goes through the “Londiño Catalogue of Basic Falsehoods” (234), the “convenient historical revisions and lies as big as mountains that are gradually turned into realities by mutual consensus” (233). By contrast, the way the country works (or doesn’t) is a matter of public knowledge, at least for everyone but the traditional oligarchy who try deny the new realities yet more often don’t even bother to ask about “the delirious way in which they were getting rich, in the most hygienic style possible, not sullying their hands with murky business [. . .]. Or is it,” Midas asks Agustina, “that you perhaps believed, my queen, that things were otherwise?” (63). Everybody knows, after all: “Don’t make that surprised face,” adds Midas, “don’t make me laugh, don’t come telling me that you hadn’t already figured out this little mystery” (64).

In Colombia as a whole, revelation lacks its power to shock, let alone to induce any change or resolution. It’s thoroughly posthegemonic. So the simulacrum of hegemony passes to the private domain: the notion that some consensus is obscuring more basic truths can only seem to function within the family, within the home. Yet this, too, is a mirage, as Bichi discovers to his cost when he attempts the dramatic gesture of displaying photos that prove his father’s long-running affair with Aunt Sofi. But even after detonating this “atomic bomb,” nothing really changes; it’s as though, Agustina reflects, her mother had always known. The only difference is that, at home, she can (just about) pretend to know otherwise, and the novel as a whole can (just about) pretend that access to the truth can somehow keep the demons of insanity at by. But it isn’t so for society as a whole, and ultimately the happy ending is barely credible for Agustina and Aguilar, either. Perhaps the greatest delirium here, the most violent dislocation between representation and reality, is the therapeutic notion that all this incessant talking can induce a cure, can bring sanity back to the individual or the family. The neat ending, the restoration of order, is in fact the craziest thing in the book.

Delirio I

Laura Restrepo, Delirio

What exactly is the delirium to which Laura Restrepo’s Delirio refers? In the first instance, it is the mental collapse suffered by the central character, Agustina Londoño, in the brief period while her husband, a dog-food salesman named Aguilar, is away on a business trip. For on his return she is gone from the house, and turns out to be holed up in a luxury hotel where she had booked in with a strange man who has left her almost catatonic, distraught and unrecognizable. The novel is driven, then, by this initial mystery: what was she doing there and what has caused such a drastic disturbance of her senses? Yet as her husband plunges into this investigation, it is soon revealed that Agustina’s breakdown has deep roots, and Aguilar has to acknowledge how little he really knows of his wife, her past, and her family. For it turns out that her madness is neither a new development nor simply a personal matter. She has always been a little “crazy,” and not only in the chic sense of an upper-class rebel who flits between fashionable obsessions: soft drugs, batik, feng shui. She has gained some minor fame for her supposed psychic powers, claiming to be something of a “seer.” More seriously, she comes from a severely dysfunctional upper-class Colombian family, with a distant and unforgiving father, a mother who will do anything to keep up appearances, a heartless older brother, and a younger one who was beaten and then ostracized for his effeminate tendencies. A generation further back, her immigrant grandfather apparently committed suicide while her great-aunt (his sister) was a full-fledged neurotic who had to be tied up to prevent her from masturbating in public. It’s as though madness runs in her veins. But all this dirty linen is resolutely hidden from view: these secrets are teased out slowly over the course of the book, which comprises a series of revelations each more shocking than the last until the final dénouement, the answer to the initial mystery, turns out to be almost a let-down by comparison.

By contrast, if personal and familial insanities are hidden under a thick façade of shame and hypocrisy, the more general social madness that afflicts the country as a whole is hardly a secret at all. This is Colombia sometime in the 1990s, during the heyday of Pablo Escobar and the FARC, and the effects of narcotraffic and guerrilla insurgency are visible on all sides. The highways are unsafe and the Londoños’ lowland estate has essentially been abandoned to the violence. Not that either the capital (where most of the action is set) or even the home provide much in the way of refuge: halfway through the book a huge bomb, for which Escobar happily claims responsibility, rocks the city; and one of Agustina’s most vivid childhood memories is of a security guard bleeding to death on the threshold of her family home. Meanwhile, drug profits fuel a hyperactive economy in which a decadent elite of both old and new money are criminally complicit either directly or indirectly, though laundering, loans, and generalized corruption as the state withers and Bogotá becomes site of a Hobbesian “war of all against all” (21). So Agustina’s personal breakdown, and even her family’s dysfunction, are as much as anything a symptom of long-entrenched class neuroses and devastating free-market psychoses alike. And in turn, perhaps (though Restrepo never really makes this point), the Colombian crisis is merely a symptom or effect of a madness that is as global as the international drug trade itself. This is not merely one person’s temporary estrangement; it is a social psychosis, the insanity of our times. Or better, perhaps: what Restrepo’s novel illustrates is a complex and mobile network of inter-related and mutually determining crises that collectively are not so much dysfunctions as the way the system works (as Deleuze and Guattari note), “by breaking down” (Anti-Oedipus 330). It is precisely this disarticulated but connected multiplicity that constitutes delirium.

So, how to understand this delirium? Aguilar’s quest may start out as rational, forensic, and clinical, the attempt to save–or “win back”–one particular individual, his wife, but it is soon caught up in the vortex. One sign of this is the variety of strategies that he finds himself forced to employ to describe it. In trying to map what he calls the “strange territory that is delirium,” he claims early on that he has “managed to establish two things: one, that it is by nature voracious and can swallow me up as it did her, and two, that the vertiginous rate at which it multiplies means that this is a fight against the clock and what’s more I’ve stepped in too late because I didn’t know soon enough how far the disaster had advanced” (19). Even, then, at this preliminary stage we see not only how the delirium itself has advanced–and it is always, we feel, “too late”–but also the proliferation of metaphors that it invokes. Delirium is both territory and disaster. Indeed it is also, in a martial comparison, a “mystical mania that’s invading the house” (15); both space and what comes to occupy that space. Elsewhere, Agustina’s madness is a “river” that “leaves its traces” in the diverse vessels full of water with which she sprinkles their home in repetitive acts of ritual ablution (15). And it is also a disease, as Agustina’s Aunt Sofi observes, “contagious, like the flu, and when one person in a family has it, everyone catches it in turn, there’s a chain reaction that no one can escape except those who’ve been vaccinated” (41). No wonder that Aguilar worries that he himself has caught the bug: “Could it be my fault that she’s going crazy? Or is her madness infecting me?” (78). Sofi has no doubts: “Now you’re the one who’s raving, Aguilar, that’s exactly what I mean when I say that you let the madness contaminate you” (42). More fundamentally, delirium an “excessive vibration,” something that “simmers inside with slow, hostile reverberation” (33), a set of “bubbles bursting inside her” even as it is also likened to “poisonous fish [that] wander the channels of her brain” (15). Sometimes her dislocation is taken to be the emanation of what Agustina herself calls her “naked soul” (21). Yet it is equally often seen as coming from outside and so is repeatedly compared to demonic “possession,” a word, Aguilar tells us, “which doesn’t even form part of my vocabulary since it belongs to the realm of the irrational, which doesn’t interest me in the slightest” (184).

Finally, then, the way in which language itself is disordered and dishevelled in the attempt to describe the madness is an indication that delirium is above all a linguistic disorder, a subversion of claims to referentiality or representation. Delirium is disarticulation: the taking apart of signifying elements to recompose or decompose them in patterns that are apparently random or at least ultimately incoherent. There is much play with words and narrative in this book, from the very basic elements such as names: “Agustina” herself is an anagram, just one shifted consonant away from “angustia” or “anxiety”; no wonder her obsession with crosswords, the methodical rearrangement of signifiers that gives structure without sense. More broadly and more strikingly, and as is announced in the novel’s opening epigraph that quotes Gore Vidal quoting Henry James’s warning “against the use of a mad person as central character of a narrative” (7), the novel repeatedly and consistently shifts between perspectives, points of view, and narrative voice. From Aguilar to Agustina to her grandfather to her ex-lover and shady friend, from first to second to third person violating conventional syntactic or grammatical rules, run-on sentences tumbling or circling like eddies in a river: Restrepo’s book endlessly flirts with derangement. For it is the search to define or describe, to tell a story about madness that pulls us into the flow that negates that very attempt. It is as though delirium can only be enacted or performed, always escaping any attempt at representation, forcing signification itself to become volatile, unstable, delirious.