Finding no words

I’ve come up to this high place

how like a hook

seems this new moon


A lone phoenix tree

gently regards the autumn chill

locked within these walls




These threads I cannot cut

These knots I cannot untangle

Is the part I left with you

别是一番滋味在心头 。

Yet something else is here

in this heart

that finds no words at all.




how blue the sky seems,

how blue

and the leaves lie

yellowed, scattered


Mist the colour

of emeralds lingers

over the lake


I watch the mountains

grow dark against a setting sun

I watch earth and sky

become one


Yet I cannot see

the tall grasses waving

they lie outside

the auburn light



Away from you

my thoughts grow dark

unless I see you again

by the light of a dream



No, I will not

watch the moon myself;

I will pour what wine I need

to turn to tears

these thoughts of you



Let us watch the moon rise,

Together though apart.


The night grows long and hateful

to the lover without his love.


And though dark the room

seems full with light,

though clothed I feel

the chilly dew.



because these hands

cannot bear you light,

I shall seek you again

only in dreams.


She had blue skin,

And so did he.

He kept it hid

And so did she.

They searched for blue

Their whole life through.

Then passed right by–

And never knew.

about her ankles


And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom—
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles.
The tawdry veined body emerges
twisted upon itself
like a winter wind . . . !

William Carlos Williams

the baker’s dream

I want to find

your shell brittle, fragile

in the palm of my hands

and crack you open

spill you, yellow, translucent

whole and gelatinous, real



I want to undo

whatever was airtight

whatever was sealed

and scatter you

white, soft, powdery

and watch the dry

mingle with the wet



I want to drown my fingers

into your contradictory mix

which makes complete sense to me

I want to sink my hands

to their wrists



As I watch you congeal

into something whole

heavy, thick and real

I want to throw you

against the wood

and roll

Roll you and press you



And when you are ready

I want to slide you in

to a place of suitable warmth

a sanctuary of appropriate heat

a cocoon with a perfect climate

and sit back to watch you




And then I will open your door

I will breathe in your fragrances

your flavours

I will enjoy the gentle warmth

of your entirely new state



before I begin the process

of taking you in

morsel by morsel

mouthful by mouthful

if only you could know

Let me inhale ever so long, ever so long, the odor of your hair, plunge my whole face into it, like a thirsting man into the water of a spring, and wave it with my hand like a fragrant handkerchief, stirring memories into the air.

If only you could know everything I see! everything I feel! everything I hear in your hair!My soul travels on aromas like other men’s souls on music. 

From “A Hemisphere in Tresses” by Charles Baudelaire.


It seems that there is no clearer sign that love has descended than when a part of the beloved contains a meaning she herself cannot know, and which belongs solely to the man who pursues her, the man for whom she will always be elusive, because love is the sensation of never fully possessing what one pursues. And this meaning attached to a part of the beloved is not merely an idea; it is a stimulant, more than merely meaning, it is a means, a thing that can be utilized, an instrument or a doorway that becomes operational only in the hands or eyes of the beloved. As Baudelaire’s piece suggests, this part of the beloved affords transports, inspires delirium, separates mind from body; it is a bridge into a place far from the present, a space and time where the lover possesses and never has to relinquish the memories spun around the person he desires. And if the immense power this part possesses escapes the beloved, if everything he sees in it remains invisible or incomprehensible to the beloved, then so much the better, because perhaps love is most real when it cannot be understood, when the mind is boggled and the senses snared.

You do not come

Which is the road that leads to you: 

the east or the west?

I have clothes for winter,

but no address to send them to. 

When our eyes last met,

we had just planted a new tree in the courtyard;

dear, missed, beloved one,

nests already adorn it, and yet

You do not come.  

translated from the Tang poem by Fang Gan

imagining you

I imagine you reading this, perhaps fighting off sleep as the train rocks you like a cradle, letting the words peer out of the screen at you, allowing them to discover your eyes; maybe there is too much sunlight one moment and too little the next as you pass from countryside into tunnel, and maybe there is too much thinking one moment and something approaching peace the next. I imagine the cold air nip at you as you disembark, and I imagine your voice, the inner one, the one no one has ever heard, reproducing the sounds of these words within your mind, reinventing their writer, seeing him typing past midnight.

some reason connected with travel

Other places were free, there in the compartment, Private Tomagra noticed, and he had assumed the widow would surely choose one of them. But, on the contrary, despite the vicinity of a coarse soldier like himself, she came and sat right there — no doubt for some reason connected with travel, the soldier quickly decided, a draft, or the direction of the train.

From the opening paragraph to Italo Calvino’s “The adventure of a soldier”

When what we want but never dared hoped for happens, we send the mind in search for reasons to believe that the miracle before us has, in fact, not happened: the woman sitting next to us is not there for us at all, no — some other reason has compelled her to place herself within reach, and that reason cannot possibly be our selves. Love is a telescope reversed: through it, we become diminutive in importance, much less plausible a cause than even a draft, or less consequential than the direction in which a train is plotting its course.

touch and touch

Lady,i will touch you with my mind. 
Touch you and touch and touch 
until you give 
me suddenly a smile,shyly obscene 

(lady i will 
touch you with my mind.)Touch 
you,that is all, 

lightly and you utterly will become 
with infinite ease 

the poem which i do not write.

— e.e. cummings

strange familiar things


Can you still remember the sweet aroma of plaintains

How strange familar things can be after departure

How sad the food

How dull the bed

And cats

Do you remember those cats with strident claws

Screaming on roofs when your tongue passed into me

And rose up when your nails skinned me

They vibrated when I gave in

I no longer know how to love

Dolorous bubbles delirium fainted on my lips

Let go of my leafy mask

A rose bush agonized under the bed

I no longer swing my hips among the stones

The cats deserted the roof

— Joyce Mansour

What day is it


What day is it

It’s everyday

My friend

It’s all of life

My love

We love each other and we live

We live and we love each other

And do not know what this life is

And do not know what this day is

And do not know what this love is.

by Jacques Prevert


arguing with Death

The first thing he did was to take possession of his father’s office. He kept in place the hard, somber English furniture made of wood that sighed in the icy cold of dawn, but he consigned to the attic the treatises on viceregal science and romantic medicine and filled the bookshelves behind their glass doors with the writings of the new French school. He took down the faded pictures, except for the one of the physician arguing with Death for the nude body of a female patient

So the young doctor who inherits his father’s office consigns to obsolescence the knowledge that defined the elder man’s practice, and retains for unexplained reasons the painting that perhaps signifies father and son’s shared purpose. A problematic picture it is too: Does the physician, who is the clear symbol for the young doctor and his deceased father, defend the female body against Death’s incursion upon the woman’s life, or does he vie for possession of that same body as a rival against Death?

Perhaps it is the frequent reminders about our hero’s pride, or his hubris, that pushes me towards the second interpretation. Who is the one who establishes true dominion over the flesh — Death or science?

magic inks

But, indifferent to the uproar, she was captivated on the spot by a paper seller who was demonstrating magic inks, red inks with an ambience of blood, inks of sad aspect for messages of condolence, phosphorescent inks for reading in the dark, invisible inks that revealed themselves in the light.

Somewhere in this world on some forgotten shelf, there must be a story where the hero or heroine, and therefore the reader, makes the acquaintance of a mute shopkeeper and finds with an initial impression of relief, within the narrow confines of his lonely establishment, inks whose tincture suggest the urgent melancholy of secret affection, inks whose impossible character evoke the quiet inflammation of imagined futures. Inks to write oxymorons with, pens with which the catalogue of human ironies can be properly chronicled. Of course there must be paper too, parchments whose hue bring out the contradictory flavor of our days.

It was she

It was she, crossing the Plaza of the Cathedral, accompanied by Gala Placidia who was carrying the baskets for their marketing, and for the first time she was not wearing her school uniform.

Turning the page to be greeted by parentheses and a folded page is like turning a busy street corner and running into a friend whose face one has not seen for too long. To do so mere moments after Florentino Ariza first spies Fermina Daza in the marketplace doubles the surprise, doubles the gratitude.

so the lighthouse keeper installed a spyglass

And so the lighthouse keeper installed a spyglass through which one could contemplate the women’s beach by paying a centavo. Without knowing they were being observed, the young society ladies displayed themselves to the best of their ability in ruffled bathing suits and slippers and hats that hid their bodies almost as much as their street clothes did and were less attractive besides … The reality was that one could not see anything more, or anything more exciting, through the spyglass than one could see on the street.

The idea that a man whose primary trade consisted of providing safe passage to those sailing in the dark should come by an alternative source of income consisting of surveillance without the fear of discovery should incite no surprise; when a merchant has struck gold in one place he will go back to it again and again until the ore is completely emptied, and man’s need to see is just one such seam.

The true mystery lies in the magic of the spyglass: through it, the distant becomes almost within touching distance, the invisible becomes real, the mundane becomes charged with meaning. The paying customer exchanges his centavo not for a glimpse of bodies on a stretch of sand; for such a task he would require payment rather than seek to give it. In the moment he passes over the coin for the privilege of the spyglass he realizes that there in his pocket lay an enchanted object, that the apparently ordinary coin was instead a key that unlocked, albeit temporarily and with limited rights, the door to a place where the line drawn between Yes and No could finally be crossed. The spyglass grants each man’s lonely centavo that moment.

not the twenty claimed

Two hundred meters, not twenty: It is love that makes the miraculous seem possible, because every love seems at first impossible until the arrival of the first soft words in a letter or whisper. For so long as one is in love, one lives in a state of perpetual disbelief, and those who breathe the air of the marvelous everyday come to expect magic at every turn, or at least are less likely to be doubtful in the face of amazement. Every wonder one is touched by makes the realm of the wondrous seem more real, more within the range of possibility.

beyond the reach of any human being

In any case, Fermina Daza knew that the galleon lay beyond the reach of any human being, at a depth of two hundred meters, not the twenty claimed by Florentino Ariza. But she was so accustomed to his poetic excesses that she celebrated the adventure of the galleon as one of his most successful.

she knew the galleon lay

beyond the reach of human hands


she would rather join

him in his dreams

than wake them both from it

as if he were his own reflection

they entered the interior still waters of the archipelago in whose coral depths they could pick up sleeping lobsters with their hands. The air was so soft and the sea so calm and clear that Florentino Ariza felt as if he were his own reflection in the water. At the far end of the backwater, two hours from the largest island, was the site of the shipwreck.

On either side of the allusion to the myth of Narcissus we find intimations of forgetfulness, inaction, quiet forms of certain doom. The sleeping lobsters plucked from their calm nascence to become food suggest that death, that theme which creeps and riddles the pages of this text like an unseen character, can steal into the scene without a harbinger; their fate prepares us to view Florentino Ariza’s identification with his own simulacra with the apprehension that here is hinted his mortality. And the mention of the shipwreck is a reminder that the quest, that journey we associate more often with favour and meaning than the danger which always accompanies it, is also a double-edged thing.

an identifying phrase

It was the telegraph operator from Fonseca, who had keyed in through seven intermediate stations so that Fermina Daza could ask permission to attend the dance. When she obtained it, however, she was not satisfied with the simple affirmative answer but asked for proof that in fact it was Florentino Ariza operating the telegraph key at the other end of the line. More astonished than flattered, he composed an identifying phrase: Tell her that I swear by the crowned goddess. Fermina Daza recognized the password and stayed at her first adult dance until I seven in the morning, when she had to change in a rush in order not to be late for Mass.

What one knows about passwords is that their use requires having been uttered before: a password must be said at least twice — once to establish its significance and a second time to apply it. Yet here a password has been created at the moment of use, so that the assignation of meaning and its application are one and the same. We also remember that a password exists in no dictionary: it is a word posing as one of those one might find in the everyday lexicon, whose true place is actually outside it. In fact, regardless of which letters or syllables are involved in their construction, all passwords mean only one thing: this is me. Perhaps all the words exchanged between two who let each other cross the threshold into the hidden space of their real lives are passwords that say simply, despite the apparent variety of their music and nuance, the very same thing.

the pensive scent of white gardenias

It was enough for Fermina Daza to see her cousin’s expression of radiant malice for the pensive scent of white gardenias to grow again in her heart’s memory, and then she tore the red sealing wax with her teeth and drenched the eleven forbidden telegrams in a shower of tears until dawn.

Her heart’s memory: Does the heart remember what the mind cannot? Or are there certain events and occurrences that find a home only in that lonely labyrinth? Perhaps it is the place where ephemera and ghosts hide and bide their time, awaiting some accident to summon them again into view, the place where intangible and gossamer things, the ones the conscious mind cannot register but which exist like facts for our faculty of feeling, take the stage. What the mind doesn’t perceive, the hand cannot record; so there must exist signs of love that lend certain moments their texture and weight, certain slants of shadow and impalpable tinctures that escape our ability to retell. The fragile hours we want most desperately to relive again and again fall ever farther from us; what maddens one is the knowledge, or possibility, that these memories remain bright and undimmed but locked away in the heart’s secret places, awaiting the right accident to unlock them.

the fatality of love

Conscious of the fatality of love, he had often wondered how the meeting would be that he was bound to have with Lorenzo Daza sooner or later, the meeting that no human power could forestall because it had been inscribed in both their destinies forever.

Because of the revolver tucked into Lorenzo Daza’s trousers, and because of his apparent capacity for violence, we think of the first sense of the word fatality and think immediately of death; perhaps this suggestion of annihilation lies as an undertone, but the main force of the word is carried through by its less common meaning of helplessness in the face of circumstance, the recognition that one’s path has been predetermined through happenstance. We are taught to eschew such a concept: the world of science and economics, the world outside this text, has its own fate, but that is a structural phenomenon where the play of atoms, genetics, and psychology hold sway. This is fate made mysterious through their complexity, discernible by the scholar, the academic seer; it is not the fate occasioned by a single heart-stopping event like the mutual conflagration that two hearts close together muster and summon both quietly and suddenly.

to be where he could not be

And so she thought about him as she never could have imagined thinking about anyone, having premonitions that he would be where he was not, wanting him to be where he could not be

When the last word has been said on the subject of madness and the catalogue and chronicle of man’s monomanias is finally complete, love should rightly be included within the list because, among the disordered states of mind where one is no longer oneself, it has always been a door for anyone outside straitjackets and asylums to understand the fate of those within them.

the many masks of love

His foundling’s glasses, his clerical garb, his mysterious resources had awakened in her a curiosity that was difficult to resist, but she had never imagined that curiosity was one of the many masks of love.

Those who have loved should know this well, and suspect the onset of desire at the first scent of interest, the first moment when someone appears at the periphery of our consciousness with the unmistakable aura of mystery, of something to be understood, discovered, revealed. Yet if curiosity is to be a mask, it must hide the thing that wears it, and so we rarely see so clearly, and we begin to dote upon the little discoveries we make with greater and greater feeling until the desire to know crosses the threshold into the desire to hold the mystery in our hands, not simply to understand or inquire, but to just feel it close, to touch what once was pure abstract narrative and find it palpable, warm, soft.

the symptoms of love were the same as those of cholera

This formulation gave one pause, stopped the reader in his tracks even as he pursued the riveting development of the plot, gave reason to wonder: what is it about this comparison, almost as good as an equation, that leaves such an imprint on the mind?

Perhaps the pleasure it gives is not unlike the frisson the audience at a magic act receives upon the successful completion of a trick, the end of a sequence of actions and flourishes that might have been foreshadowed but never fully revealed or promised. These words remind one instantly, or present themselves as almost a reformulation, of the novel’s inscrutable, enigmatic title, which strikes every one of its readers as a riddle impossible to solve: Love in the time of cholera. So, the reader intimates in an instant, this is the game you were playing.

Beyond mere cleverness, the phrase begs the question: how is love as deadly as a disease? Or it is not a question at all, but a fact: love perhaps is just like a disease in the way it alters the chemistry of both body and mind, troubles the tepid facade of calm we take for granted until the affliction comes. It is a complete phenomenon, comprehensive in the way it takes over not merely the mind but through its tyranny over the brain usurps the hegemony of blood and nerve and muscle too, so that the entire constitution cannot know calm or cool its fever until that other one, that body removed from one’s own, is close and together with oneself. Love turns the desired one into the only antidote it will recognize; it is an infection caused by its own cure, and makes doctors of the ones we seek.

an instant

In reality, on the day when Fermina Daza let her mind wander for an instant from the reading lesson she was giving her aunt and raised her eyes to see who was walking along the passageway, Florentino Ariza had impressed her because of his air of vulnerability.

It seems right and proper, in keeping with the irony that prevails over human affairs both grand and minute, that while a lover pines for a way to share his secret with the object of his affection, that selfsame object already knows, perhaps without the sure weight of fact but certainly with some degree of intuition, her admirer’s intent, his desire.

a dictionary of compliments

So he decided to send Fermina Daza a simple note written on both sides of the paper in his exquisite notary’s hand. But he kept it in his pocket for several days, thinking about how to hand it to her, and while he thought he wrote several more pages before going to bed, so that the original letter was turning into a dictionary of compliments, inspired by books he had learned by heart because he read them so often during his vigils in the park.

So pretense can provide a bridge to the truth: the book he hides behind, with which he creates a plausible reason for lying in ambush, becomes a source for the words he uses to convey very real sentiments.

Little by little

Lost forever to history are the first thoughts, inchoate and perhaps only the germ of a thought, that approximate the fleeting and transient fever of an emotion when one decides that a line must be marked out with something, anything; there is that incipient rush, perhaps what one could call a reader’s spurt of adrenaline, when the eye catches the final word of a series and something incandescent happens within the black box of the mind. Maybe it is something akin to the desire to take a snapshot, to freeze forever for future enjoyment a moment one knows cannot be redeemed or rescued from the vault of the past.

the impossible maiden

From seven o’clock in the morning, he sat on the most hidden bench in the little park, pretending to read a book of verse in the shade of the almond trees, until he saw the impossible maiden walk by in her blue-striped uniform, stockings that reached to her knees, masculine laced oxfords, and a single thick braid with a bow at the end, which hung down her back to her waist.

Impossible: how? Which sense of the word are we looking for when a woman is seen through the eyes of desire, the seducer’s gaze? The signifiers of time (seven o’clock), space (the most hidden bench) and deception, or the invisibility of the one who awaits the sudden visibility of the other (pretending to read) all point to a impossibility of access — the maiden is too far away, walled off, unapproachable. She is simultaneously protected by her guardian, the aunt, and her natural haughtiness, which immediately conjures the suitor’s most primal fear, the one that defines his existence, that of rejection, of being laughed off or dismissed.

A second sense of impossibility, the one that beckons the lover even as the first sense of the word discourages and keeps at bay: the sensation or recognition that before one lies something out of legend, or at least the stuff that we look for but do not hope to really find, something archetypal in the way it approximates the forms we entertain in our mind and which we’ve grown used to seeing as abstract yardsticks against which we appraise the visible world. Yet Fermina Daza in her things, the accoutrements that are anything but peripheral, may perhaps be more than the realization of an ideal, of a type; the uniform, the oxfords, the straitened braid whose thickness suggests a certain richness and volume being held back, since hair has always been a symbol of passion checked, cut off or indulged — these simultaneously function as the signs of her distance from him (she is a student, she is focused on her studies, she is not to be touched) and the very same things that drive him towards her because of their minimalistic elegance, their quiet radiance.

that casual glance

The lesson was not interrupted, but the girl raised her eyes to see who was passing by the window, and that casual glance was the beginning of a cataclysm of love that still had not ended half a century later.

So much owed to accident, to careless gestures given without thought: can we imagine any experience of love that does not begin with coincidence or chance? Perhaps love is a sub-category of the larger field that goes by the name of luck for the layman, that scientists — perhaps more disinterestedly and accurately — call chaos and randomness. For what else can we call a situation where two otherwise unrelated people feel compelled to form a relationship that then goes on to struggle against circumstance and fate, all the slings and arrows of time?

the voice of a woman repeating

They retraced their steps along the arcaded passageway, but this time Florentino Ariza knew there was someone else in the house, because the brightness in the patio was filled with the voice of a woman repeating a reading lesson.

Sunlight and a singular voice: both intangible but real things, both stimulants to the imagination — light portends hope, and a voice beckons us to find its speaker the way a door left ajar invites us to examine the room beyond its threshold.

Repeating a reading lesson: the phrase, or act, conjures the image of a young lady sitting in an upright posture, her hair immaculately done up in ponytails or ringlets, her slight frame tucked and folded into a pinafore, or some other girlish and prim dress.

In the field of desire, there is seduction and there is hope of a liberating love. This scene must surely be the latter.

purified by forgetfulness

Though this is not the scene of a crime, one feels for sure some act of passion was committed here: unlike the detective who has recourse only to surmise and history, the catalogue of actions his quarry has left for him to discover, the reader who follows the path of that other reader, the original one, is able to effect a certain form of time travel to compare the marks left behind before and after a moment in the text. At no other point in this text is there red ink like this: elsewhere one finds the simultaneously decorative and studious stroke of a pink highlighter (suggesting a certain pleasure), or the more diligent film of blue or orange ink. Perhaps the marks closest in character are those left with a blue ballpoint, yet those suggest a reader who is simultaneously taking notes as she reads, perhaps with a slim notebook on the side. No, a set of parentheses drawn in red by a ballpoint tip was an act of inconvenience: it is likely that the reader, seized by the moment of discovery and not wanting to risk forgetfulness, reached for a writing instrument closest at hand. Perhaps there was even a shudder of regret, of self-recrimination of not having ready one’s usual set of instruments, the repertoire of colors that defines her style, method and character, her modus operandi.

he had loved in silence

… he was convinced in the solitude of his soul that he had loved in silence for a much longer time than anyone else in this world ever had.

So here is the denouement: not the resolution and end of the story as a whole, but of the entire passage, baffling in the richness of apparently trivial detail given apparently for the sole purpose of “local color”, that began with the doctor’s death and continued with his widow’s stoic grief. The reader at first wonders what the point of all this description could be: the writer parades the different actors across his stage — parties, factions, schools and families — and soon the entire pageantry of exotic names and foreign practices begins to sport the appearance of a divagation, almost digressive in nature despite the always lyrical prose. Yes, this is comical, or darkly comical; and yes, we are being given passage into another world, the world of the text; but nothing seems to be happening which advances the plot or our understanding of what should matter, the complex core of every work of art.

And so it was with some relief that the passage flowed quite naturally into a portrait of Fermina Daza as a woman of preternatural or premordial strength, like something out of legend. Yet here too one could not find what in a joke would be called the punchline.

Only with the arrival of this new entrant, and the final revelation that in him we have a love that was never revealed do we see that for this entire passage consisting of a few pages the writer has been following the same formula he applies to his sentences, which is to begin with a feint, a flourish of some kind consisting of his a little wit before finishing with a grander and perhaps more sober detail.

You’re even more of a scoundrel, Doctor

To parrot is to repeat without variation what has been said; the Doctor’s parrot does more than that when called a scoundrel. The image of a bird accusing its owner in the latter’s own voice seems faintly diabolical, as if the bird was some mythic emissary of a broader truth.

In the end, the reader discovers that this vague hint of the monstrous and supernatural, or magical, is an omen; it foreshadows the Doctor’s death. Even as we learn that the parrot makes a leap from a lower branch to a higher but apparently more reachable height, the reader apprehends what is going on: the Doctor is being lured. And since his death has been hinted at so often already, advertised since the start, we cannot help but observe with a certain sense of detached horror the particular stages of this final act, as the man descends stairs his legs have difficulty managing, ascends the rungs of a ladder he has never been seen attempting and reaching out for a bird it seems he never should have let into his catalogue of obsessions.

And yet all this is not without cause: though his final moment is wreathed in pointlessness and accident, juxtaposed against a life rich with vainglorious achievement (what the lengthy catalogue of triumphs that follows this passage is supposed to cement), the tragicomic tenor of his death and the florid music of his life stand on either side of his final declaration of love, framing it like the two curtains on either end of a stage. What remains for us to figure out is why: what does this death say?

So in the first chapter, both the secular saint and his rival in chess perish. Despite their grand differences in society’s eye, it is clear that privately, if their lives were lengthy sentences tortuous and winsome by turn, they both came to rest with the same punctuation, the knowledge that at the end of things only love survives Time.

The man who has no memory makes one out of paper.

But this was a short-lived illusion, for he had reached the stage where he would forget what the written reminders in his pockets meant

In our heads, the books talk to each other, holding their invisible conversation: I’m thinking of The Housekeeper and the Professor, of that other once-brilliant man without memory, who resorts to paper too, yet who seems to have enjoyed greater success, or never had his lack of success revealed to us.

I will take these fictions seriously, remind myself: do not dismiss lightly a herald bearing tidings that may be true, though he comes dressed for theatre. So: Perhaps it is hubris to think that writing these notes will help me remember the way I read these texts, or transport me to places in the heart by then grown difficult to return to with the passage of years; perhaps the day will come when none of this makes sense, and only the knowledge will remain, knowledge that here was some passion invested, some happiness sustained. May I still be grateful for this knowledge if that should come to pass, for by then there may be little else that is both secret and joyful to inflame an aged heart.

no sleeper more elegant than she

There was no sleeper more elegant than she, with her curved body posed for a dance and her hand across her forehead

One day I will watch you sleep

waking when I shouldn’t

When eyes have no right to see

To trace without sound

the line your toes should begin

extended left by shin

before curving into knee

and sloping back with thigh

our alphabet’s last letter

Trace breathlessly

how your cursive z curls into s

the sinuous line swollen

with your deer’s rump and hip

and curving into that small of back

my hand should nestle in

Trace breathlessly

your sibilance come to stop

suddenly with shoulder blade

Half-hidden by toss and tustle

of hair black

as this night I’ve woken in

hair like curtains

either side

of your face

that stage on which

your passions play

on which I spent

an act or two

one day I will wake

restless like this

looking for rest

finding you no help


If the spine of a borrowed book reveals its age, or vintage, then the lines of its fore edge reveal the industry and journey of its reader, the history of her passion. Folded corners leave pockets of air where newness might have left pages suffocated and flat; these are the strata that turn one into an archaeologist of the other reader’s traces. Yet quite unlike the members of that vocation, who labor oft in vain, guided perhaps by fine instruments but nonetheless never going forth in any certainty, the historian of this other reader’s progress knows with pleasure where the next discovery will lie, and may take his time getting there.

not only the most beautiful woman in the Caribbean but also the happiest

Abyssinian cats, premonitory curlews, perfumed crows, an anaconda: these glittering names with Latinate roots that variously trip the tongue or tap against the back of the teeth, ornate, urban, civilized. Civilized, despite the bestial things they name — perhaps in this contradiction alone one might have intuited the horror that put this Edenesque period to an end, when a man and a beautiful woman presided over a bright green space seemingly in perfect harmony with the creatures of the earth. For though it was a serpent that kept the peace and a dog, ironically, Man’s most famous defender, that put an end to the fantasy, the sense of an ending to a perfect period is clear to see.

More: what are we to make of the doctor’s command that nothing that does not speak will come to this house? Without giving us time to breed suspicion, the author is quick to forewarn his readers: this hasty generalization will cost him his life. We learn, at this point, or are reminded, that all the preceding myth making has been to prepare the stage for the entrance of the parrot, this thing that combines in one form the riveting speech of humans and the crazed, demented possibility hidden in every animal.

deplumed, maniacal parrot

He was a deplumed, maniacal parrot who did not speak when asked to but only when it was least expected, but then he did so with a clarity and rationality that were uncommon among human beings.

Some tension stalks the space between the two adjectives that describe this bird on one end of the sentence, and the same vaunted creature’s two attributes on the other. Deplumed, maniacal: if this was a man, we could see some half-wit shaven by force, raving and cackling at some joke repeated ad infinitum within his own head. (For this parrot is certainly a character, with a character’s posture and form.) Yet lucidity becomes this bird as easily as madness, as if it was touched by the same spirit that invests the words of fools in Elizabethan drama. Perhaps this foreshadows it’s eventual role in the tale.

arranged in an almost demented order

This library with too many books, clothed in covers that are as richly crafted as they are indistinguishable from each other, this sanctuary with the excessive isolation of an abbey, as if someone was toiling ceaselessly and with futile effort towards tranquility and rest — one gets the sense that even order can breed disorder, even peace can betoken restlessness.

folded corner on page 23

Here are the marks left behind: the corner bearing the page number, neatly creased and folded down; double parentheses on either end of a single paragraph in yellow highlighter; and after this paragraph, an entire sentence selected with three firm strokes that clearly received the unbending support of a good ruler.

One imagines the reader, the original owner of these pages, warming to the scent of the important and suggestive as she places the tentative brackets; she decides without deliberating too much, without wasting too much time, to accentuate the importance of this paragraph with the use of two brackets instead of just one. A dilemma: she is impatient to get on with the reading; she doesn’t dawdle over this page because she is hot on the trail of the plot, of these characters’ destinies; yet she suspects there is more to be mined here, more that with careful re-reading and time — time she does not have — might become apparent. A compromise then: she will fold the corner so that she might find her way home to the feelings that led her to identify this particular paragraph in the first place.

And then, either in repentance towards her impatient passage over that paragraph or in relief at the sight of a more definite target, she seizes her ruler and with three sidelong arcs of her forearm draws the highlighter over the sentence in the next paragraph. This is more satisfying by far, more illuminating and interesting, she thinks, and perhaps smiles in her mind though certainly not with her lips, for she is alone, alone with this text she is growing to love and learning to expect more of with every page.


She had been with him for half his life, with a devotion and submissive tenderness that bore too close a resemblance to love, and without anyone knowing anything about it in this sleepy provincial capital where even state secrets were common knowledge.

the innocence of age

Dr. Urbino, prepared for a confidential visit, realized too late that there was no innocence more dangerous than the innocence of age.

A mysterious sentence designed to mystify, to both rouse the reader into alertness, foreshadow some tragic turn, and prevent true discovery of what it really means. The sole clue lies in the playful reaction of the street urchins to the coachman’s attire, the link to de Saint-Amour’s reputation as a photographer of children, and the recurring mention of a letter with unsavory revelations.

what he was among us

Thanks to him, Jeremiah de Saint-Amour could become what he was among us.

A strange statement, one that provides a clue, suddenly and slyly offered, about the persona of the narrator. He is not outside this world of old respectable men and ill-deserved reputations; he is reporting its events from the inside.

Strange that I had not noted it until now: quite clearly, the two halves of this last name exist in a kind of inner tension, although not yet in contradiction. A saint is a symbol of religious passion; amour may be either a lover or the experience and activity of love itself. Both are passions. Yet perhaps there is a hint of contradiction and paradox after all if we consider how a saint is very much a public figure (we are reminded at every turn that he is regarded as a saint by all in society), whereas an amour is very much a secret, hidden figure. We ask: what is hidden from view? What is this passion that few know of?

Yet without being able to guess (or precisely because we cannot), this contradictory figure who perished alone already functions as a kind of vessel into which the reader can pour his own inner strife.

the great cholera epidemic

The first time a part of the title is mentioned should always be noted, even if there seems nothing remarkable. Especially when there seems nothing noteworthy, the reader knows the game is afoot.

Or perhaps there is something to remark. We learn here that he has preserved the same easygoing manner and festive spirit that he had on his return from Paris soon after the great cholera epidemic — surely an epidemic should not give rise to festivities of any kind, unless he was somehow inattentive to the sufferings of those afflicted by the malady or if he had by some method or stratagem gained something from it.

In any case, we have a clue, and we will surely attend more closely to any further mention of that foreign (foreign to the doctor) and utterly mythical city (Paris, that symbol, exists only between the pages of books and in the minds of delinquents, romantics and readers).

the most respectable of them all

So much respectability insisted upon and found hollow: we learn that the corpse had conducted himself as if he were the most respectable of them all, the most active and the most radical, even after it had become all too clear that he had been overwhelmed by the burden of disillusion. As if: for this man, and perhaps for all in this fictional space, eminence and respect is willed into being, something one can insist on and produce by force. At the same time the dominant image produced by these words seems to not be theatrical (as one might expect) but laborious, as if respectability was a huge rock or sack that required tremendous stamina and strength to heft and carry around with oneself as we make our rounds in society; perhaps it is the repetition of that arduous most, or the words overwhelmed and burden that produce this general impression.

And so in both men, the characters who dominate the text at the beginning, we are meant to understand that respectability eventually becomes too heavy to heave. The doctor resorts to a cocktail of drugs each day to maintain his facade of ease, felicity and brilliance, and follows the same routine each day; the atheist commands life with chess rituals he never deviates from. The formula appears simple: to earn the esteem of the people around you, show them that you are in control of Time, let no one doubt the iron grip you have over it. Yet the story begins precisely at the moment when Time is clearly ascendant, when these men can clearly no longer master it much longer.

the sufferings of love

He said: “There is bound to be someone driven mad by love who will give you the chance one of these days.” And only after he said it did he realize that among the countless suicides he could remember, this was the first with cyanide that had not been caused by the sufferings of love.

So this death had not been caused by love, though Urbino implies it and misleads the police into thinking it at every elegant turn of phrase; he behaves as it suicide is mundane, and that the use of cyanide to accomplish it is ordinary; death for the sake of love, he suggests, is nothing that should throw us off the orbit of the everyday. Perhaps the way love dominates the title of this text, and the way it shares that vaunted space with death through cholera its harbinger and avatar, has prepared us to accept such things.

Yet at the same time, and slyly too, Marquez — that other slippery, self-assured man whose words lull us into belief — reveals that all is not as it seems: Urbino possesses more knowledge than he is sharing with the policemen.

A mystery then: not simply a literary text but perhaps a crime novel, or at least something with the elements of one. But what this crime is has not yet been revealed. We know, however, and with some certainty too, that more than simple friendship or a protracted rivalry in chess, connects the two men.

Look a little deeper: Why this link, already lodged in our minds, between an experience that should provide the spark for new life, and one that is the very negation of all further experience? Perhaps it is because love has always been a bridge beyond the shell within which the self is encased, something like a plank one walks to take leave of a safe ship. Love, like death or madness, belongs to that part of human affairs where the niceties of convention and ritual lose their hold. Against the mystery of these antisocial experiences, we place hope only in a few anointed ones: the shaman, the priest, the doctor. Perhaps that is the reason for the way we follow, like the policemen, the lead of the aged gentleman.

He had said

He had said: “I’ll have plenty of time to rest when I die, but this eventuality is not yet part of my plans.”

Sometimes there are clear clues that lead us to suspect the role a particular character might play in the psychological relationship between a text and its author. In the case of Urbino, the markedly complex and clever play of syntax reminds us of the language with which Marquez opens this tale. The same strategy is at work here: begin with a simple statement that ends with a false finish that seems witty enough, eloquent enough to lull the reader into complacency, before leading him into the real trap, the actual punchline. We can draw the conclusion, or at least make the claim, that here we have a character who seems to serve as some representative of the author’s self-image, as his avatar. What fate this author chooses to put his own self-image in must point us towards the psychological utility of the text for its own creator.

both bedroom and laboratory

At one window the splendor of dawn was just beginning to illuminate the stifling, crowded room that served as both bedroom and laboratory, but there was enough light for him to recognize at once the authority of death.

So many strange bedfellows, so much is commingled here that shouldn’t be: because it is only just beginning to light up the room, one sees in the mind’s eye both the early rays of the sun and the gloom of the stifling room; a bedroom is an intimate space where the body comes for rest, yet this space is also a place of scientific machinations, where a body is currently at rest; and there is just only enough light, symbol of life and vitality, for the viewer to descry the signs of death’s dominion. If opposites occupy the same space, it is not to breed or create conflict; this is a world where the poles of every spectrum meet without blending, bringing the other into stark relief.

the scent of bitter almonds

The first paragraph always establishes its writer’s character, his idiosyncrasies and philosophy. Look to the syntax: three sentences, every one of them long though not excessively so — just long enough to string the reader along, hoodwink him at the start with something predictable and then finish him off with something lightly ironic, somewhat sad.

Take the first sentence: what, we wonder, is inevitable? Our eye sees the words almonds and cannot make any link. Continuing down the sentence, letting it lead us blind, we come to a dead end no clearer than before. What is the fate of unrequited love? The certainty, the solidity of inevitable finds nothing corresponding to it here, although if one cared to dwell on it long enough, one might find a foreshadowing of the one thing that is inevitable in all our lives — death, of course.

Move on to the second sentence. Noticed, as soon as, hurried — these words can only suggest pace, activity, haste. We picture Dr. Juvenal Urbino making a dash through the door of the house. And then we find that he has been here before, that he has hurried hence before; going further, we find at the end of the sentence that that urgent call was not the first, that in fact he must have come often enough, if all urgency had been lost many years before. A serpentine sentence, with a dissembling syntax: the sensation is not unlike what one might experience when, having searched for a way out of a forest, one finds himself back at the same tree, or fork in the path.

The third sentence confirms what we already guess. The details pile on top of each other, yet just when we think we have learnt enough of this photographer and war veteran, we find that he is dead. But it is only the last word cyanide that reveals this, because everything before it simultaneously suggests and defers the truth.

Through it all, a kind of gentle but tragic irony prevails over the opening; some kind of cosmic trickery is afoot. And it is the fate of these characters, and our fate too, of course, to endure it.



love in the time of cholera

Spend a little time on the title before you read the text itself, as you would the face of a stranger before you discover her name, before the first chat brings the flood of a history, of details; give yourself a chance to surface all the misconceptions you bear, give yourself the opportunity to misinterpret, to find out how wrong you are. The more wrong one is, the greater the pleasure that surprise will bring.

Love in the Time of Cholera. The familiar word is love, but the interesting one, the challenging one, is cholera. And so every time I hear or read this title, it is the disease that my mind alights on. Cholera: what is it? I’m sure it is a disease, and a major one, one that perhaps in man’s earlier days was a spectre or harbinger of doom. Perhaps in the history of medicine, this disease was once a jabberwocky of sorts, something close to Aids in its appearance or guise as an unfathomably difficult thing to understand and defeat. At the same time, the name reminds us of the four humours, of the word choleric, the bitter and angry spirit in us. Perhaps cholera was once thought to be caused by an excess of choler, which was supposed to be something that circulated within us.

And so cholera, both in its guise as a disease and its suggestion of anger and antipathy, exists as something diametrically opposed to love. If love finds itself in the time of cholera, then love must be endangered, or opposed, or quarantined as something strange and untenable.

A love story, then. A love story about love that should not exist, that nevertheless does.

In the story I have not read

In the story I have not read, there are two readers. He can read only in the evening, when day begins to lose its hold over the city. There is something he likes about the way a setting sun provides just enough light to read by. Each day, before reaching home, he stops by a park and sits himself down. Then he retrieves from his briefcase a slim volume and allows himself to sample a few pages.

She begins each day with a book in hand, on her way to work, to play, to every place. On a train, in a bus, on a cab, in a cafe at lunch, on her balcony overlooking the park — it seems there’s no place a book can’t go with her. Once she’s in a book, she believes it utterly, takes sides, berates villains, cries.

One day, his little stroll in his slim book is interrupted by an urgent call. With all haste, he looks for his caller and with some trouble manages to suppress the problem. What this problem is matters less than what it has led to. He collapses in bed, grateful for sleep and unaware that his book is lying on the bench in the park, unattended.

Daylight finds her making a detour, straying from her usual path to work, or the route she takes to find her friend. Again, what her destination doesn’t matter. It is the serendipity with which her eyes fall upon the slim volume on the bench that the reader should find piquant. She turns her head to see, just overhead, the balcony of her apartment. This book laid here overnight, right under my nose, she thinks.

In the story I have not read, which perhaps has been written but lies hidden from my eyes, which lies undiscovered in some dark corner in the neglected basement of an old shop, she begins to slide the tip of her index finger along the edge of the leather cover, parts it gently, almost reverently, prepared to spy the contents of his book.

To read your thoughts

Desire begins with the wish to divine the thoughts that exist in that other head, that motivate and circulate within that other self, the one we want so much and yet feel utterly separated from. Separation: that is the true experience of desire.

At breakneck speed, one wishes to collapse the space that separates himself from the beloved: note how quickly the poem moves from the need to simply see and understand to the urgent necessity of joining together and becoming commingled. Perhaps the violence of this desire is already there at the start, when the speaker states his/her desire to open up the head of the beloved. (Until the arrival of the word “crunched”, the word “open” appears curiously innocent!) This need to incorporate and incarcerate, this impulse towards internalization and possession, is so real and sudden that only the suggestion of the cannibalism taboo is able to fully express its avidity, its raw strength.

You and me


by Joyce Mansour


The jolting flight of my heart

Your excitement

The way my hair ruffles

When I laugh with you

The wind stuffed with smells

Coming before my body aflame

The rubbery grey thickness of the winter evenings

When we heard the rats jingling around

Eating poppies

You and me.


Reading this over and over again, one is reminded that in the end, when we consider the days, hours, moments that make up the history of our relationship with a beloved other, the one thing that matters is that there were two people together in each day, hour and moment. One can search for reasons, analyse chemistry, psychoanalyse and reduce to factors, elements, links this bond the two share; yet none of this seems adequate in the end. You and me — this alone seems sure.

a condensed drop of colour

It was as if she had dropped a condensed drop of colour into the water of the world and the colour had spread and the outlines of things had sprung into bright relief.

As with most complex metaphors, it is easy to allow what we know and expect to colour over the words themselves; here the reader may begin with the first part of the analogy and see in the mind’s eye a drop of paint that spreads across and over a sheet of paper, filling it with colour.

Yet the second half of this metaphor contradicts this expectation: instead of obscuring or distracting from view the paper on which it has landed, the spreading colour brings into stronger focus the outlines of things. And so the reader is meant to understand that Flora’s presence does not dominate the vision of those who love her; she is not all that they can see. Instead, her presence sensitizes them to the beauty or essence of the things around her, so that they can study, observe and understand.

Take the image further: in the mind’s eye, we see the outlines of things grow brighter and stronger underneath the spreading colour, but surely this also means they are no longer merely themselves, but also with a different hue or shade. And so Flora’s presence heightens others’ sensitivity to the existence and texture of the things around her, and adds a sheen, a layer of significance too. The things she touches will forever bear the signature of her presence.

the perfect number 28

The story doesn’t bring us far enough, but the reader can tell this much: the Professor’s condition will worsen, shortening his memory until he is no longer himself. Instead of the Professor, the man we end the story with is the Enatsu in his prime, who — by dint of the fact that he is also the Enatsu of the Professor’s prime — is a symbol of the Professor’s lost brilliance. It is no accident that we find in the same cookie tin baseball cards that enshrine Enatsu’s brilliance and the photograph that collects both the Professor’s intellect (according to our narrator, he radiates it) and secret passion.

Both cards and photographs are poor substitutes for the reality that has faded with the passage of time. Yet there is no regret at the end of the housekeeper’s recollections: no nostalgia or pain. Only a wish to preserve in her mind a bright vision of a past she came too late to see, but which she arrived just in time to love. Like mathematics, memories exist outside the visible, the empirical; yet both are true, both are intensely beautiful.

our favourite time of the day

Although the sky was still light, the moon and the evening star had appeared and the clouds streamed by in ever-changing patterns. Smudges of darkness were beginning to collect around the roots of the trees, but they were still faint, as if the night had agreed to hold off for a bit longer. Evening was our favourite time of the day.

the last evening

It was special because we celebrated it with the Professor, and because it turned out to be the last evening the three of us would ever spend together in the cottage.

Always, at the back of my mind, even as I sit next to cherished company, this suspicion: will this moment turn out to be the final one? When will we look at each other, sit like this again, talk like this again, feel this way again — with this ease, this confidence, this peace?

For N

A woman was seated next to the Professor. She leaned timidly toward him, the toes of her shoes poking out from under her flared skirt. Their bodies did not touch, but it was clear that they shared a bond. And in spite of the years that had passed since the picture was taken, I had no doubt that the woman was the Professor’s sister-in-law. 

There was one more thing I could read. At the top of the cover page, a single line in Japanese:

“For N, with my eternal love. Never forget.” 

A cookie tin buried under a pile of mathematics books; baseball cards hidden within the cookie tin; a thesis kept away from sight underneath the cards; a black and white photograph tucked away inside the thesis; a single letter denoting the lady in the photograph: love is layers, ellipses, silence and improbability.

Love is a single line without a sentence formed; love is a single letter without the need for a name. Because love is understanding, between lovers it is expressed through code, lacunae, mystery. Perhaps, for the lover, all manner of completeness is abhorrent, for love itself is the experience of incompleteness, of absence.

I like to watch you cook.

Usually, when he was wrestling with a problem, I hardly saw him. I wasn’t so sure whether I would be interrupting his thinking if I spoke to him, so I continued seeding the peppers and peeling the onions. He walked over, leaned against the counter, folded his arms, and stood there staring at my hands.


The Professor was watching me with the intense stare he normally reserved for math.

So instead of interrupting his thinking, it seems that the housekeeper replaces the subject of his study. The blend of tenderness and scholarly respect with which he regards the most homely of movements — the slicing of peppers, the frying of eggs — reminds one of the way he imbues life and personality into numbers even as he seeks out meaning among them. Numbers appear common and mundane until revealed by the Professor’s mathematical acumen to contain within them a brand of beauty and truth reserved only for those with the skill and desire to perceive them; in this passage, we see that perhaps the same logic can be applied to our everyday actions — until observed and subjected to study by the eye of love, they remain mundane and indifferent things.

Soon, we were back to our evenings in the kitchen listening to the radio.

We experience time both as a straight line that begins from the past, cuts through the present and shoots forth into the future, or as a cycle, a series of recurring sequences. Of course, neither is a more accurate perception than the other; both are valid. But time as a cycle, as a series of days with a predictable sequence, a series of weeks with regularly recurring events, is the kinder version if what we want is to see again and again some cherished face, hear some familiar voice.

There are passages in this story where the intent of the narrator is simply gratitude. No plot development takes place; perhaps it is the absence of change, the absence of the need for change that is being depicted. She and the Professor sitting in an old house in summer light or evening dusk, with the sound of trembling trees or thunder in the mountains harrying the windows and roof, as they go about their own tasks or sit together at a table in conversation: all that is happening in moments like these is the fact that they are sharing time together.

In such passages, time has been rolled into cycles and prevented from becoming a line. There is no sign of an end in sight, no tenure or duration to observe, no term or departure to trouble the peace. For the narrator, there lies only the certainty of two cycles: the 80 minute one and the daily one. When I began writing this journal, I was unconsciously entering a cycle, a happy cycle that I looked forward to every day – to read a short number of pages, to write about them on the way to and from work, and then to let the post sit, imagining them being read. And then the cycle would begin again, each day.

Yet all this is not to say that only cyclical time grants us joy. Time as a straight line intensifies its moments, rendering every pleasure keener but also bittersweet; time as a cycle engenders peace. In the end, there is nothing to choose between them.

the hidden order behind years of chaos

The housekeeper who had pinch-hit for me had been methodical, and while I had been afraid to disturb the Professor’s work and had barely touched the books in the study, she had picked them all up and stuffed them into the bookshelves, stacking any that didn’t fit in the spaces above the armoire and under the sofa. Apparently she had a single organizing principle: size. In the wake of her efforts, there was no denying that the room looked neater, but the hidden order behind years of chaos had been completely destroyed.

To those who care, even the disorder left behind by the beloved contain a certain script and story, a pattern that must needs be preserved though it might be invisible. And so taking care of someone means more than simply renovating him or her to match certain specifications, or seeing the one we love as a puzzle to solve, a heap of scattered things to sweep up.

The need to keep whole and complete the entire person of the one we cherish, to leave undisturbed the tilt and tangle of this complex structure despite our desire to rummage through and explore at leisure the threads of their life, is perhaps one of the happier paradoxes we in this life can look for, and find.

Nothing would have changed if I’d found a prime number, nor if I’d proven that one wasn’t a prime.

The numbers didn’t make things better; perhaps they even made them worse. Perhaps the ice-cream was melting in that refrigerator, I certainly wasn’t making any progress mopping the floor, and I suspected my employers would be unhappy with my work. But for all that, there was no denying that 2,311 was prime, and 341 was not.

Truths that have no place in the visible world, the world where things get done, nevertheless are real, and have an obstinate, adamantine quality to them that compels us to recognize their reality, their existence, their enduring beauty. A truth that leads to no change is nonetheless a truth discovered; there is a place reserved for it the way the night apportions space for stars, a place that nothing, perhaps not even Time, can touch.

But those moments we shared, the sights and sounds of the game, haven’t faded with the years.

We remember every detail, and when we talk about that night, we’re able to conjure up and bring back the Professor, as if he were sitting right beside us.

To remember every detail: that is impossible, surely an illusion. But it is a beautiful one to have, and I wish I believed the same way in my own memories. Years from now, will I be able to hear this rumbling of the train on electric tracks, see again the color of these pages and restore to clarity the thoughts that race ahead of me? Everything seems to be like an outline only, or silhouettes against the glare of detail. Memory is the unlucky painter who left his best colors at home.






I wanted to stay here forever, just staring at the formulas

The formulas snaked across the pages by some logic of their own, ignoring the lines on the paper; and just when they seemed to resolve into a kind of order, they would divide again into apparently random strands.

An apt analogy for the link between the housekeeper and the Professor: like lines on a page, the usual orbit of their lives dictates that they never meet, or if they do, that they never intertwine. They are too different. Yet here they are, like the formulas on the Professor’s notebook — looking for a pattern to rest into, searching for a solution. We see them sometimes settle into oases of peace, moments of certitude, and although these are all too brief, there is beauty in these mysterious lines that cannot be fully understood.

the passion in a pencil smudge

In my own way, I could sense all kinds of things from the mysterious numbers and figures — the passion in a pencil smudge, the impatience of a crossed-out mistake, the certitude in a passage underscored with two thick lines. This glimpse into the Professor’s world thrilled me deeply.

To possess, if only briefly and perhaps surreptitiously, and to study the marks left by those we care about, to infer from these traces and signs a younger, perhaps more primary version of the one we see now, is to bridge the distance between us in a way even touch and sight cannot accomplish. It feels like a way to cheat Time.

Do you really understand?

The pencil rolled out of his hand and fell at his feet. The Professor was crying. I believe it was the first time I saw him in tears, but I had the feeling that I’d seen these emotions many times before. I placed my hand on his.

“Do you understand?” he said. “You can find the sums of all the natural numbers.”


My footsteps fell in with the Professor’s, and Root’s tennis shoes swung back and forth in time.


I realized I had seen two men cry this evening. I had, of course, seen Root’s tears countless times before — as an infant, when he’d wanted to be held or fed; and later, during tantrums, or when he lost his grandmother. And, for that matter, at the moment he came into this world. But these tears were different, and no matter how I tried to wipe them away, they seemed to flow from a place I could never reach.

Sometimes it is enough to notice the power of a passage without fully probing its subtleties; yesterday I’d found this final passage affecting but I saw nothing else; perhaps when language is the flower the mind is content to rest there for a while and dote upon it without trying to do too much. But this morning I see much more clearly.

Note the parallels, the unspoken parallels left to the reader and not the narrator to see, creating what we commonly call dramatic irony. At first the housekeeper has the unexplained feeling that she had seen the emotions expressed by the older man who cried many times before; later she recalls the times when she had seen her own child cry. At that later point in the plot she remarks the difference between the way Root used to cry — as a child looking for comfort and consolation — and the way he does now, which turns out to be an implicit accusation. And so we are meant to see that the feelings she saw betrayed by the Professor’s tears were perhaps those of a child, which is really another way of saying that these feelings are needs that lie at the heart of every person — a need to be told that everything is alright, a need for shelter, for the sort of sanctuary only another person can give.

To render the parallels between the two men more complete, the writer provides as backdrop their consuming passions: numbers for one, baseball for the other. Yet neither mathematics nor sports can calm the emotions that have cut into them, and the housekeeper, whose role has always been to tend to the needs of others cannot put back in order the mess of hurt and harm she can see but not fully comprehend.

Sandwiched between these two passages where the two men are in the grip of turbulent emotions, we find the narrator savoring what appears to her to be the resolution of an event where everything turns out right. It is only by considering all three passages that the reader gets a hint of the irony that wraps around her perspective.

Nonetheless, through it all, she is there, beside them, trying her best: asking questions, listening, reaching out. Perhaps full understanding will always escape us; perhaps it is enough to be present.

how peaceful

Sometimes it takes a day for the connection to form. The two passages I posted yesterday share a link I did not see then, or saw only fitfully, like the sudden apprehension of rain on the horizon; perhaps the link is what made me copy them down in quick succession.

What was said of the twin primes must apply to the housekeeper and professor, of course; yet initially I saw that application in a general, abstract way; I could not see then that the analogy foreshadowed the recollection that followed. When the housekeeper watches the professor achieve a state of deep calm after completing an exercise in mathematical genius, she watches him from afar — the very method by which he extracts that share of tranquility is the thing that keeps them in separate worlds, the spheres of domesticity and academia, the homespun and the abstract. Yet soon we see mirrored in the professor’s devoted study of how she makes dumplings the same kind of distance — the adroitness of her actions have long been established by this point as maneuvers beyond him. For both, the world in which the other operates has hitherto been something of a desert, the type of inhospitable, impossible space we are reminded of in the professor’s description of the desert in which twin primes search for each other. The housekeeper has never felt comfortable in the world of the intellect; the Professor is something of a spectacular failure when it comes to life outside the mathematical universe. Yet in these spaces long regarded by each as a kind of desert both have found a spot in which to rest and take a drink of water.

The Professor wanted peace

When he had solved a contest problem from one of his journals and was making a clean copy to put in the mail, you could often hear him murmur, “How peaceful …” He seemed to be perfectly calm in these moments, as though everything were in its rightful place, with nothing left to add or subtract. “Peaceful” was, to him, the highest compliment.

When he was in a good mood, he would sit at the kitchen table and watch me making dinner; and if I were making dumplings, he would look on with something approaching wonder. I would take a dumpling skin in the palm of my hand, spoon on a bit of filling, and then pinch up the edges before setting it on the platter. A simple process, but he was completely absorbed by it, watching me until the last dumpling had been stuffed. I have to admit that the scene struck me as so funny that I hardly could keep from laughing.

When I was done at last and the dumplings were neatly arranged on the plate, he would fold his hands on the table and nod solemnly. “How peaceful …”

Twin primes

“But when you get to much bigger numbers — a million or ten million — you’re venturing into a wasteland where the prices are terribly far apart.”

“A wasteland?”

“That’s right, a desert. No matter how far you go, you don’t find any. Just sand as far as the eye can see. The sun shines down mercilessly, your throat is parched, your eyes glaze over. Then you think you see one, a prime number at last, and you go running toward it — only to find that it’s just a mirage, nothing but hot wind. Still, you refuse to give up, staggering on step by step, determined to continue the search … until you see it at last, the oasis of another prime number, a place of rest and cool, clear water …”

no theory or rule

To me, the appeal of prime numbers had something to do with the fact that you could never predict when one would appear. They seemed scattered along the number line at any place that took their fancy. The farther you get from zero, the harder they are to find, and no theory or rule could predict where they will turn up next.

Do I look like the Professor?

At first, I was conscious of wanting to please the Professor, but gradually that feeling faded and I realized it had become a battle between the problem and me.

Part of life’s mystery must consist of this: that there lie scattered in hidden spots all around the world persons who at first we take to be nothing like us, and yet become doorways to different selves simply because of this dissimilarity. The greater the gap between two people, the greater the growth, the change. And this happens because we see in the perspective and habits of the other a different way to confront the same mundanity that both face, day in, day out; if we listen well enough and pay attention to the same problems the other has studied all his or her life, we become able to see life through these problems which are in fact windows with a different view, a fresh vista from which the universe may be regarded in an unexpected light.

an answer in the sum itself III

I have just realized that I have inadvertently made two posts on the same passage; this is because I had thought the first one irrecoverable after the system failed to publish it. While typing the successor, I had chafed a bit at the knowledge that those words — the originals — were lost to me forever. But these new ones might be better, I told myself, and succeeded in consoling myself. But the pleasure I experienced upon seeing the first post survive is proof that all I had done was pull the wool over my own eyes.

the dappled sunlight

After the barbershop, we sat on a bench in the park and drank a can of coffee. There was a sandbox nearby, and a fountain and some tennis courts. When the wind blew, the petals from the cherry trees floated around us and the dappled sunlight danced on the Professor’s face.


The lights were out in the barbershop and the park was empty. The formulas the Professor has scratched in the dirt were hidden in the shadows.

Would it have been sunlight if it hadn’t danced on a face, and would they be shadows if they didn’t hide the words?

an answer in the sum itself

The Professor studied Root’s work as though it were a sophisticated proof. Unable to recall why he had assigned this problem or what connection it had to repairing the radio, he was perhaps looking for an answer in the sum itself.

Perhaps the answers we seek stay elusive, not because they are difficult to find or understand, or because we lack skill or wisdom, but because we grow so used to the problems we have become skilled in that we don’t know where else to look. Solutions are not answers.

an answer in the sum itself

The Professor studied Root’s work as though it were a sophisticated proof. Unable to recall why he had assigned this problem or what connection it had to repairing the radio, he was perhaps looking for an answer in the sum itself.

Perhaps the answers we seek cannot be found, not because they themselves are elusive and difficult, or because we lack the skill or clarity of mind to see them, but because we have applied ourselves to the same problems for so long that we fail to recognize that solving them will not bring the answers we seek. Solutions are not answers.

From the time of my earliest memories, I had no father.

Just a note for now: why is it that none of the characters have an other to count on? The Professor is alone; his sister-in-law is a widow; the housekeeper has left her husband; she herself has no father. It is a universe of absent partners.

In fact, what is a housekeeper but someone who has no relationship with the one she maintains the house for?A housekeeper maintains a structure that is not her habitat, not her shelter. It is a place of belonging to which she does not belong: the role is one rife with contradiction, paradox. Perhaps there is something symbolic about the role, perhaps through it the writer is saying something about loneliness. Do we spend our lives in some way doing the same thing, sustaining spaces and structures without finding a locus for the self to lock on to, to lay anchor?

I was free to repeat the same question until I understood

But the things the Professor taught me seemed to find their way effortlessly into my brain — not because I was an employee anxious to please her employer but because he was such a gifted teacher. There was something profound in his love for math. And it helped that he forgot what he’s taught me before, so I was free to repeat the same question until I understood. Things that most people would get the first time around might take me five, or even ten times, but I could go on asking the Professor to explain until I finally got it.

What more could one ask for? To ask, again and again, and not be found tiresome; to be asked the same question, again and again, and to regard each time as a new chance to share one’s love for something immense and greater than oneself: between the asking and the answering something broad, generous and capacious is at work, something that liberates two people from having to guess, having to hold back. Love is a patient teacher; love is a curious student.

much more than eighty minutes

He looked down, checking his suit in various places, and his gaze fell on a note clipped to his left pocket. “Oh, I see. I sent a proof to the Journal of Mathematics today.”

It had been much more than eighty minutes since I’d made my trip to the post office.


At some point, while we’d been talking, the sun had set and night was falling. From time to time I heard water dripping from the dishes I had left in the sink. The Professor stood close by, watching me.

Is it an accident that this episode, the first one that definitively suggests a bond forming, begins with a reminder of the 80 minute time limit, and then proceeds to produce the impression that more than that length of time elapses while the Professor and his housekeeper perform their mathematical exercises?

To talk and find that day has passed from one phase into another without notice: this happens. But in the Professor’s case this perhaps cannot happen, for the span of time between evening and nightfall must surely exceed the amount of time that takes for his memory to disappear and reset itself.

What is the reader left with then? Clearly the notion that something is afoot here to complicate the strange system that was previously in place within the Professor: something has happened to not only change his behavior, but the things that he is capable of doing. The things that can happen.

220 284

“That’s right! The sum of the factors of 220 is 284, and the sum of the factors of 284 is 220. They’re ‘amicable numbers,’ and they’re extremely rare. Fermat and Descartes were only able to find one pair each. They’re linked to each other by some divine scheme, and how incredible that your birthday and this number on my watch should be just such a pair.”

We sat staring at the advertisement for a long time. With my finger I traced the trail of numbers from the ones the Professor had written to the ones I’d added, and they all seemed to flow together, as if we’d been connecting up the constellations in the night sky.

So much to say: where shall we begin? At the numbers, but at length I will return to the issue, or theme, of time. (Yet what is time but numbers?)

What is a factor? In Mathematics, it is a number by which a larger figure can be divided; in life, it is also something that pares things down, makes them comprehensible. We each possess factors too: elements or components by which we can be analysable, broken down into parts, understood. Childhood memories, events, triumphs, desires, pastimes, defeats and departures.

The assumption we normally hold is this: The things that make up our selves also become what connect us to others: the more factors we share, the easier it is to make that connection we are looking for, the one that tells us, no, we are not alone, someone else has suffered too, someone else has been watching the world through the same set of windows.

Yet the factors that apply to 220 and 284 are not the same; but added up, they form the opposing figure. Similarly, we do not need the ones we come to love to be completely ourselves; we simply need, for some reason that perhaps falls outside human reckoning (hence the choice of the word divine), these factors to lead us to them. It is a matter of pure chance for two to make such a link; like a birthday and the number engraved on the back of a watch, the link may seem completely arbitrary but hide something real and essential, that takes time and careful study to reveal.

something dramatic had changed

But I realized that something dramatic had changed when, at the end of my first week, he came to me with a bundle of papers covered with formulas and numbers, and asked me to send it off to the Journal of Mathematics.

“I’m terribly sorry to bother you, but …”

His tone was polite, and completely unexpected after the way he had scolded me in his study on my first day. It was the first request he had made of me, and he was no longer “thinking,” for the moment.

“It’s no trouble at all,” I told him. I carefully copied the mysterious foreign address onto the envelope and ran off happily to the post office.

What is this dramatic change that lies hidden here perhaps in plain sight, pointed out but left unexplained? We are meant to guess. So it is the first time he makes a request; previously he simply let her exist in the same space as him: this is the change. Yet why should this be dramatic? The word compels the reader to probe deeper, until some layer of meaning that deserves that label emerges. And then we remember that she doesn’t know how to function without knowing what her employer wants; she orientates herself around these requests the way a planet requires the gravity of the sun for direction. Being asked to leave the house to mail a letter: both the task and the mention of a foreign address suggest the idea of direction, a clear path. And this gives her happiness.

What do requests do in our lives? Do we wait for the request to come, do we too derive purpose from the things those around us ask of us? Without a request, what is there left for us to do, if we seek to establish a connection?

before the memory had vanished

At the end of my first day, I noticed a new note on the cuff of his jacket. “The new housekeeper,” it said. The words were written in tiny, delicate characters, and above them was a sketch of a woman’s face. It looked like the work of a small child — short hair, round cheeks, and a mole next to the mouth — but I knew instantly that it was a portrait of me. I imagined the Professor hurrying to draw this likeness before the memory had vanished. The note was proof of something, that he had interrupted his thinking for my sake.

Evidently or transparently it is the Professor who has come to make room for her in his limited space, the span of time in which memory is possible. What this means has been left out, left unremarked upon: this is a narrator who wishes only to make observations, who allows herself only the occasional inference. The one at the end of this passage is an example of what she can allow herself to make. Her observations lie open on the page; her interpretations stay hidden. This is the text we are meant to study.

It is the urgency that she remarks on. More and more, it seems that the Professor’s affliction is simply a foreshortened form of what we all suffer from, the terrible decay of images, of moments, due to the passage of time. The inevitability of this process in the Professor reminds us of how fearful we are when we have caught, perhaps by accident, a moment or sight we want to retain forever, or that we wish to remain in forever.

Yet it is also true that she has noticed a detail. A difficult one to catch, given that his suit is riddled with numerous other notes; this is a clue to the reader — she is paying attention to the tiny words he writes on these scraps, these fragments that though scattered about his person nonetheless in some way offer the closest hints of who he is. Recollection and observation — are these not the most tender things two strangers newly turned friends — two people who find themselves sharing a space for a brief time — can do for each other?

always a new housekeeper he was meeting for the first time

Every morning, during the entire time I worked for the Professor, we repeated this numerical q and a at the front door. To the Professor, whose memory lasted only eighty minutes, I was always a new housekeeper he was meeting for the first time, and so every morning he was appropriately shy and reserved. He would ask my shoe size or telephone number, or perhaps my zip code, the registration number on my bicycle, or the number of brushstrokes in the characters of my name; and whatever the number, he invariably found some significance in it. Talk of factorials and primes flowed effortlessly, seeming completely natural, never forced.

Later, even after I had learned the meanings of some of these terms, there was still something pleasant about our daily introductions at the door. I found it reassuring to be reminded that my telephone number had some significance (beyond its usual purpose), and the simple sound of the numbers helped me to start the day’s work with a positive attitude.

Imagine that: to be always meeting, for the first time, the person who has become an irreplaceable part of your existence.

Beyond its usual purpose: what is the usual purpose of a telephone number? To contact another person; no, it’s more than that — it is to stay in touch, to have a means of always reaching someone you need to keep within the orbit of your being. Yet to ask for another person’s number brings with it other subtleties, or the not-so-subtle nuance of a special interest. Between strangers, a telephone number requested and obtained suggests a desire to prolong what for now must be only temporary contact.

There are also the other items: shoe size, zip code, the brushstrokes of a name. Numbers that describe the most personal parts of selves, intensely private numbers. The Professor’s obsession transforms these figures that hang about his housekeeper into meanings; or, to be more precise, he restores to them a significance that she never knew, or has forgotten. We are all so close to ourselves, live so near ourselves, that we sometimes lose interest in these details; it takes someone else to remind us that what we now find mundane was once new to us, and should always be worth inquiring about.

What’s your shoe size?

Soon after I began working for the Professor, I realized that he talked about numbers whenever he was unsure of what to say or do. Numbers were also his way of reaching out to the world. They were safe, a source of comfort.

Mathematicians use numbers; most use the weather; some of us turn to the books we’ve read, poems or plays. The languages we learn are what we inhabit, and also tentative bridges improvised to get across the sudden rivers that flow across our path every time someone new enters the landscape of our loneliness.

He has difficulties with his memory

He’s not senile; his brain works well, but about seventeen years ago he hit his head in an automobile accident. Since then, he has been unable to remember anything new. His memory stops in 1975. He can remember a theorem he developed thirty years ago, but he has no idea what he ate for dinner last night. In the simplest terms, it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories. His memory lasts precisely eighty minutes — no more and no less.

I am back here again, reading Ogawa’s The Housekeeper and the Professor again. In doing so I am leaving behind a egotist with a penchant for the prolix turn of phrase for a narrator whose simplicity hides what the complexity of the former always kept elusive: what, I wonder, does this odd problem — the problem of remembering only two specific sets of time, the long ago and the particularly recent — signify?

The automobile accident strikes one as a contrivance: it could have been anything else (a fall in a bathroom, a hammer blow from a burglar), so long as it produced this predicament, which also feels like a premise. Given that our Professor, obviously a brilliant man since he develops theorems, has only a span of 80 minutes to operate in, what can he accomplish, what kind of life can be packed into each episode? Yes, that seems to be what the videotape allusion suggests: life lived in episodes, or extremely short stories rather than chapters linked by the thread of a plot as long as a novel.

I ask myself: what can I do with this? I press ahead with the belief that there’s more to this passage than a mere gimmick (although a very good one) and I begin to understand the urgency that the 80 minute time limit imposes. Perhaps we are meant to see in the Professor what Donne saw in a flea: namely, that though we sometimes experience life as a lengthy duration, perhaps that is merely a matter of perspective; there is some wisdom squirreled away here in the need to make every 80 minutes count.

One more thread, one which we should expect in a text where math holds centre-stage: the contradiction between the accidental and the precise, the chaotic and the correct. The automobile accident underscores the power of chance over the life of a man whose command of numbers should rightly have given him some mastery over the randomness of life; the 80 minute time limit strikes one as being simultaneously, bizarrely precise and yet completely arbitrary. If the Professor’s life has been robbed of order because his memory is so short as to render him incapable of sustaining a narrative, his existence is also intensely regular, subjected as it is to the regularly recurring event of memory’s resignation and reboot. And so the regular and the random co-occur within the riot and structure of life, dashing hopes and bringing opportunity. For his condition has also made possible the entrance of the narrator, a woman who will in all certainty come to be the element of meaning in every episode, every short story.