What are authors currently going through? For the Passa Porta Festival we asked seven writers from different countries to respond to this question with a new text. Their contributions have inspired us in compiling the festival programme.
Polish born writer Aleksandra Lun (1979) lives in Brussels and writes in Spanish. In 2019 her remarkable novel The Palimpsests was published by Godine in a translation by Elizabeth Bryer. The book tells the story of Czesław Przęśnicki, a fictional Polish writer who ends up in a Belgian mental institution where he is forced to undergo therapy because he doesn't want to write in his mother tongue but in... 'Antarctican'. He meets many famous authors from the past who wrote in a 'foreign language', such as Nabokov, Conrad, Beckett, Ionesco and Kristof.
In this poetic-philosophical essay, Aleksandra Lun reflects on the meaning and function of 'foreign languages' and their relationship to the mother tongue. We will dedicate an online close reading session to this text in the presence of the author on 23 March.
Through the window, streets of a city I didn’t know surfaced and sank back into the night; empty avenues lit by green traffic lights stretched out in perfect symmetry. The radio was speaking a foreign language, the rear-view mirror threw an unknown image back at me, lampposts lined the way like sentries, their shadows striping the road.
In A Short History of the Shadow, Victor Stoichita recalls that, according to Pliny the Elder, art was born when one of us decided to outline our own shadow. And so, for the first time we saw ourselves: our body and its absence. A presence and a disappearance. The tangible part of us dancing with its likeness, with the part of us that gets away, that flees the magnesium dust of the first photographs but is forever in pursuit, curious to hear the story we want to relate with our lives.
Life is a fiction, wrote Calderón de la Barca, a dream. A novel is a dream too: a writer is a somnambulist trying not to wake. Groping her way in the dark, arms out straight, ready to defend herself, ready to surrender. Without opening her eyes, the somnambulist writer keeps walking, keeps moving forward into the night with just one aim: not to cross the border between sleeping and waking, the only border in writing.
We watch the wheel spin, an apt metaphor for geopolitics: the quietude at the centre contrasts with the vertiginous speed of the periphery. The roulette ball will come to rest in a pocket, a border crossing that comes with a passport. Some will win, others will lose, chance will wager on us. No more bets.
The roulette pocket our ball has fallen on is our Plato’s cave. Seated on the ground, we watch the shadows cast onto the wall by an invisible fire. The Others parade before our eyes, figures clad in strange garments who shout out in terror in languages we don’t understand. Devoured by time and history, the Others, like us, pick their way through the gloom. Stoichita connects the Pliny the Elder story with Plato’s: to see beyond the shadow is the work of art and knowledge both.
With each novel we see beyond a different shadow, with each novel we dream a different dream. The somnambulist writer gropes her way in the dark, arms out straight, ready to defend herself, ready to surrender. Writing wants to teach us to surrender. To surrender unconditionally, to raise our arms before a squadron of shadows, their military boots an inch off the ground, their footsteps echoing in the silence of the cave. On the walls, the shadows of Plato dancing with the buffalos of Altamira, with the horses of Lascaux, with the hands that adorn the Patagonian caves, with the human footprint on the moon. The somnambulist writer takes up the ochre; not opening her eyes, she draws us on the wall: all that we were, all that we did not know how to be.
Some reject us, bark at us like dogs guarding their territory. Others ignore us with the apathy of a beauty courted by many. Some fall in love with us. They surrender unconditionally, they murmur sweet words of love that we note down in our novice handwriting. We still haven’t realised that a language is a harbinger of change.
A new language is Einstein’s cataclysmic event: it creates waves in the spacetime of our lives. It displaces our centre of gravity, modifies our trajectory forever. Our mother tongue is the fuel that propels us to space; the foreign language, the gravitational force of an unknown planet that pulls us into its orbit.
This contact with another planet transforms us. The foreign language becomes our alter ego, the twin sibling who will accompany us for the rest of our lives. We split, disappear, and reappear elsewhere. We win and lose universes; words are born and die in us like distant galaxies. In each language we travel to a different galaxy: in each language we are a different person.
The flag administers its sleep elixir, turns us into citizens of a nightmare. It lulls us into a coma with its tale of victories and defeats, of one-dimensional heroes always standing tall, always on the right side of history. It hypnotises us with all that it declares and all that it conceals, it shows us the Other: a monster lurking beyond borders there to protect us from incursions by barbaric doubt. The flag shouts, twists, flutters in the emptiness. The surface of the moon accepts it silently. The somnambulist writer navigates the moon craters, still not rousing, still not crossing the border between sleeping and waking, the only border in writing.
A small step for a woman, a giant leap for literature. All literature is a tale about the Other, said Ryszard Kapuściński; every encounter with the Other is a mystery, an illusion of space. At daybreak we toss and turn in bed, the pillow presses down on us like an astronaut’s helmet. We open the window, from our crow’s nest we observe the night, we scrutinise the horizon in search of sails or spacecraft, in search of someone who might glimpse us. From the distance of the Fata Morgana, the Other signals to us with a mirror. The Other throws us back our reflection, throws us back the fiction of our reflection.
Our reflection is a fiction, our biography is a fiction. The shadows of the past dance across the white screen of an empty cinema. The film finished some time ago. We remain in our seats; we scrutinise the credits in search of an explanation. The somnambulist writer walks along the corridors of the repository, kilometres of film reel wave in greeting as she passes by. The flags harass her, they assail her on a corner. They pin her to the ground, they gag her, the silence engulfs her the way the sound of a piano engulfs a silent film. Music is more than the sum of its notes. Identity is more than the sum of its flags. Life is more than the sum of its fictions.
Our passport is a fiction. It is the answer to a question that needs no reply, a riddle that has no solution. Like a coach obsessed with his team’s past victories, the passport teaches us to ask each other where we have come from rather than where we are going. To ask after our origin, not our destination. To ask after our past, not our present. Not our future.
The centre resides in a luminous mansion. Through the windows, laughter and applause can be heard. A passport monitors the door, dominant languages patrol the grounds like bodyguards. The periphery writhes in the shadow, bellows its prayers in incomprehensible languages. Let us in, it whispers through the gaps in the gate, let us tell you a story. The unchecked current of the Acheron sweeps it up in its path. Translation, the Charon of universal literature, looks the other way. The periphery, child of a language too poor to pay the obolus for passage to posterity, awaits the boat in vain. In the sleeping quarters of the mansion, the light is extinguished: nobody notes the periphery’s absence.
Literature begins with the absence of writing. Oral storytelling kept us company in the caves; for millennia, stories fly above our heads, intersecting on their routes like migratory birds. Every form of life begins with a cell. Every letter of the alphabet begins with an image. Almost all modern alphabets derive from hieroglyphs: we are still making marks on the walls of the pyramids. We all write with the same alphabet, we all write in the same language, we all write the same story. The somnambulist writer keeps going, still not rousing, still not crossing the border between sleeping and waking, the only border in writing.
An alphabet is a novel, the hidden plot of our lives. Letters surround us like subatomic particles, the makings of the universe. They welcome us on birth certificates, smile at us from the pages of children’s books, greet us on the menus at cafes. They take our hand in airports, guide us along the highways, pinpoint our whereabouts on maps. They accompany us down the corridors of the hospital, their familiar faces explain the diagnosis. The send us off with epitaphs, disintegrate along with our bodies in the rain. Always present, always seated in the first row of our circus performance, letters are our most loyal public, the invisible ink with which we describe the enigma of our lives.
Beneath the circus tent, the spotlights search the sand; along a tightrope, the somnambulist writer gropes her way in the dark, arms stretched out front, ready to defend herself, ready to surrender. We defend ourselves against falls, defend ourselves against voids; there is nothing against which to defend ourselves, there is nowhere to plummet. Our atoms are empty, the void is our home. United by gravity, we plurilingual tightrope walkers advance across the earthly orbit. The alphabet speaks all languages. The alphabet writes all books.
One of the teams wins the World Cup, the players embrace the cup, the national anthem floods the stadium. The somnambulist writer is all alone, running towards the goal. The passport shouts from the dugout, the somnambulist writer loses the ball, keeps running forward, the Altamira buffalos trot alongside, the Lascaux horses gallop over the freshly cut grass. The public falls quiet, the commentator is struck dumb. Literature is not the World Cup final. A writer is not a footballer. A novel is not a goal for the national team.
A novel is a stateless oracle, a true orphan of language. The centuries erase the hieroglyphs of the pyramids, destroy the Latin letters trapped in rolls of papyrus, rust the moveable type of Gutenberg’s workshop. The truth disintegrates before our eyes, fiction disintegrates before our eyes. A novel asks that we look at the blank page hidden behind the letters. It asks us to read the tale that precedes any language: the story our atoms are writing in the language of the Big Bang.
According to the Big Bang theory, in the early universe matter and antimatter existed in equal quantities. Matter is composed of particles; antimatter, of antiparticles; the two annihilate each other. In the Big Bang, particles and antiparticles were born and died together, appeared and disappeared in the heat of the explosions. Matter survived; it saved our lives. Antimatter dissipated. Until in 1995 we created the first antiatom, annihilated the instant it encountered matter. We had only forty nanoseconds to try to outline our own shadow.
Life is a shadow, wrote Calderón de la Barca, a dream. We are the first dream of the mother tongue. We are the last dream of the foreign language, of antilanguage: a love come late that tries to make up for lost time. Give me forty more nanoseconds, antilanguage whispers to us from each mirror, give me one more second. Give me one more minute, one more day, one more year, give me one more life. Don’t move, don’t go, don’t wake. Together we will escape time, together we will explore the antiworlds. In the geometry of space, I will look into your eyes, dictionaries will burn in the night and we will not be alone.
The radio is speaking a foreign language, the rear-view mirror throws an image of the Other back at us, lampposts line the way like sentries, their shadows striping the road. The driver stops the car, we get out, we stretch out our arms, we start to walk. We keep going without rousing, we keep walking. We keep on, not crossing the border between sleeping and waking, the only border in literature.
Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer
Aleksandra Lun at the Passa Porta Festival:
- 23.3 Close reading with Aleksandra Lun (online session, booking required)
- 27.3 Brussels International: Aleksandra Lun over moeder- en andere talen. Live online interview by Nicky Aerts