Sunday, August 16, 2015

Timbuktu, by Paul Auster

I read most of this novel when travelling up and down Vietnam by train.  Its narrator is a dog, Mr. Bones, and normally I'm leery of this device, but I figured Paul Auster might be able to pull it off. He did, and exceptionally well.  Mr. Bones accompanies his human, Willy G. Christmas, on a trek to Baltimore, where Willy hopes to find his high school English teacher. Willy, brilliant but mentally ill and homeless, hopes the woman will adopt Mr. Bones, as his own days are numbered. Instead of a bleak or maudlin tale of suffering of both man and dog, Timbuktu gave me profound insight into a clinically disordered mind.

When a Santa Claus on the television addresses him personally with a message of "goodness, generosity, and self-sacrifice", William Gurevitch resists him mightily, but after a long, emotional debate, he relents, acknowledging that his new mission in life is to "embody the message of Christmas every day of the year, to ask nothing from the world and give only love in return". His sign of this covenant is to change his name to Willy G. Christmas. When his Jewish mother, who has already invested a fortune in her son's mental health, hears this news, she is even less receptive than Willy had initially been to Santa.
Willy was frankly perplexed. He hadn't meant any harm, and in his present blissful state of remorse and conversion, the last thing he wanted was to offend his mother. But talk and explain as he did, she refused to listen. She shrieked at him and called him a Nazi, and when he persisted in trying to make her understand that Santa Claus was an incarnation of the Buddha, a holy being whose message to the world was one of merciful love and compassion, she threatened to send him back to the hospital that very afternoon. This brought to mind a sentence that Willy had heard from a fellow patient at Saint Luke's -- I'd rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy -- and suddenly he knew what was in store for him if he let his mother have her way. So rather than go on beating a dead horse, he climbed into his overcoat and left the apartment, heading in a beeline for God knows where. 

Yes, Willy is mentally ill; he doesn't deny it. Who else but a crazy man would come up with a transparent toaster? As Willy expounds on the idea to Mr. Bones, though, it sounds less like a crackpot idea and more like divine inspiration.
"Whatever else I've been, I've never let myself be that worm. I've jumped, I've galloped, I've soared, and no matter how many times I've crashed back to earth, I've always picked myself up and tried again. Even now, as the darkness closes in on me, my mind holds fast and won't throw in the towel. The transparent toaster, comrade. It came to me in a vision two or three nights ago, and my head's been full of the idea ever since. Why not expose the works, I said to myself, be able to watch the bread turn from white to golden brown, to see the metamorphosis with your own eyes? What good does it do to lock up the bread and hide it behind that ugly stainless steel? I'm talking about clear glass, with the orange coils glowing within. It would be a thing of beauty, a work of art in every kitchen, a luminous sculpture to contemplate even as we go about the humble task of preparing breakfast and fortifying ourselves for the day ahead. Clear, heat-resistant glass. We could tint it blue, tint it green, tint it any color we like, and then, with the orange radiating from within, imagine the combinations, just think of the visual wonders that would be possible. Making toast would be turned into a religious act, an emanation of otherworldliness, a form of prayer. Jesus god. How I wish I had the strength to work on it now, to sit down and draw up some plans, to perfect the thing and see where we got with it. That's all I've ever dreamed of, Mr. Bones. To make the world a better place. To bring some beauty to the drab, humdrum corners of the soul. You can do it with a toaster, you can do it with a poem, you can do it by reaching out your hand to a stranger. It doesn't matter what form it takes. To leave the world a little better than you found it. That's the best a man can ever do."

People who don't live with animals look at those of us who do and shake their heads. We talk to the dog or the cat, and we sometimes express the sincere belief that the world would be a better place if Fido or Fluffy were running it. They call us crazy pet people. Yeah, well, Willy and I happen to agree on this point, 100%.
"But I should have done better by you. I should have given you a chance to reach the stars. It's possible, believe me it is. I just didn't have the courage of my convictions. But the truth is, friend, that dogs can read. Why else would they put those signs on the doors of post offices? NO DOGS ALLOWED EXCEPT FOR SEEING-EYE DOGS. Do you catch my meaning? The man with the dog can't see, so how can he read the sign? And if he can't read it, who else is left? That's what they do in those Seeing-Eye schools. They just don't tell us. They've kept it a secret, and by now it's one of the three or four best-kept secrets in America. For good reason, too. If word got out, just think of what would happen. Dogs as smart as men? A blasphemous assertion. There'd be riots in the streets, they'd burn down the White House, mayhem would rule. In three months, dogs would be pressing for their independence. Delegations would convene, negotiations would begin, and in the end they'd settle the thing by giving up Nebraska, South Dakota, and half of Kansas. They'd kick out the human population and let the dogs move in, and from then on the country would be divided in two. The United States of People and the Independent Republic of Dogs. Good Christ, how I'd love to see that. I'd move there and work for you, Mr. Bones. I'd fetch your slippers and light your pipe. I'd get you elected prime minister. Anything you want, boss, and I'd be your man."

If you're not in favour of receiving wisdom and philosophy from psychotics and dogs, then go ahead and give Timbuktu a miss. Your loss.