Around the middle of the 20th century, aspiring writers began to cultivate the topic of sexual experience more fully than ever before in the history of mainstream Western literature, and give it back to us as art. For years, anyone who wrote about sex with a candor similar to Miller’s or even Joyce’s, found his (or her) work banned from American publication. Such writings were accessible only to a fortunate few who were able to find them in Europe or through “underground” sources, and smuggle them into Great Britain or the U.S.A., where they ran the risk of being confiscated as “obscene” by the respective governments which had banned them in the first place, and ultimately, destroyed.
Today, in the dawn years of the 21st century, we have come so far from that time, only a scant half century ago, that some of these books even seem a bit old-fashioned to us. Leopold Bloom admits to having a “French letter” stashed in his pocketbook; his wife Molly masturbates while dreaming of her lover; Miller focuses his considerable powers on the geography of cock and cunt; the jaded 21st century aficionado reads on and shrugs, seeking even more novelty in his or her reading matter.
But what’s left for the writers who follow? Are there any more undiscovered territories to explore? What about the shock to the senses brought about by a clear look at the eroticism of pain? A lot of “alternative fiction” of the late 20th and early 21st centuries seems to involve sado-masochism, following the lead of writers like de Sade and the anonymous author of The Story of O. It seems likely, however, that even this material may lose its novelty eventually, if only because of the frequency of imitation. So it may come to pass that even the impact of descriptions of torture, sexual and otherwise, for the sake of recreation (or even art) will probably also pass.
Nonetheless, watching the development of our literature over the decades might suggest to an observer that as a reading public, we believe that addiction or pain on some level leads to salvation, perhaps even to a kind of sainthood. Is this possibly because, until now, so little of real import has happened to any of us (those, at least, who constitute the reading public) on this safe, huge continent for such a long time, or at least to those of us on the more privileged levels of society? We are observers of catastrophes like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake and other forms of world anguish, but has this really touched us? By and large, many middle-class Americans—those who constitute the reading public—seem to have dissociated ourselves from our histories, and with a few, die-hard exceptions, we don’t even want to read about them any more.
So our fetish becomes words: words upon words, expanded consciousness for the sake of expansion; expanded experience for the sake of experience. Which leads to a singular quandary: that no matter how diligently we try, it’s virtually impossible to write without focusing on subject matter. Impossible to write, literally, about nothing.
Perhaps this explains why there has been such a recent influx of literature fueled by a recognition of the changes being wrought in what, to us, have often seemed distant regions undergoing unspeakable struggles. Many of the authors of such work, among whom I count novelists Elif Shafak and Salman Rushdie, journalist Anna Politskovskaya and poet U Sam Oeur, among legions of others, present and past, have indeed gone through life-altering experiences; not as the result of some e need for self-development or self-revelation, but because they tried to express something in their art that was punished by repressive and powerful opponents. Rushdie was forced into hiding because the Muslim theocracy issued a fatwa for blasphemy against him after publication of his brilliant novel, The Satanic Verses; Cambodian poet U Sam Oeur lived through Pal Pot’s epoch of the killing fields, from which his poetry emerges as a cry of rage and anguish. And in October, 2006, Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had written about the injustices wrought by Putin’s regime in the Chechin war, was murdered while alone in her Moscow apartment.
For such writers, day-to-day life became a series of flights, due not only to the pursuit of interesting content, but to the relentless need to survive. And we, the American reading public, have gradually begun to realize that the messages brought to us by such survivors may well be the first notes of authentic urgency being struck in our world, awakening us to a reality based less on the quest for pure experience than on the quest for continuing existence — as a people, as a society, and as a species.
Placed where it belongs, beside the work of such prophetic authors, Alicia Kozameh’s newest book, 259 Leaps; The Last Immortal, (Wings Press, San Antonio, Texas), glows with authenticity and poetry. Kozameh was born in Rosario, Argentina, to an affluent family with origins in Catholicism, Judaism, and both Greek and Lebanese cultures. Despite relative wealth and position, however, Kozameh’s family was deeply affected by the severe disability of her younger sister, and at 17, Kozameh, a brilliant student of philosophy and literature at the University of Rosario, decided to leave her family’s home. Becoming deeply involved with the political struggle raging in Argentina at that time, she joined the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, was arrested, and spent the subsequent four years — the late 1970s through the early 1980s — detained in an underground prison in her native city, and then the Villa Devoto prison in Buenos Aires. After years in captivity, she was finally released through the intercession of Amnesty International and similar organizations, and given sanctuary first in Mexico and then in Los Angeles, where she still lives and works today.
Many of Kozameh’s previous books and stories deal with her experience of imprisonment; her current novel, 259 Leaps; The Last Immortal, explores her experience of exile. Heavy and deadening as these ordeals might seem, there is little of either quality in the exquisitely written, soaring novel which Kozameh, through the medium of Clare Sullivan’s translation, presents to us. It is executed, perhaps in itself like an act of escape, in tiny steps, in stages, but in each of which is a leap of consciousness, a leap of geography, and a leap of self.
As in the use of space in Abstract Expressionism, the space between Kozameh’s leaps is important; each represents the breath which the author takes between actions, those moments in which she—and we—can take the time to integrate the enormity of where she is coming from, and the direction in which she still moves.
“You absorb not quite half,” she writes of first entering this brand-new, sun-dazzled American city—L.A. “Less. Much less. You manage to absorb a sixth of what happens. Your head, surrounded by a bright light, the bright light of Los Angeles, that doesn’t quite blind you, that surrounds your temples but doesn’t quite grab hold of them, your head deflects what’s going on to the right and left, letting everything that won’t be recovered escape into the shop windows along Santa Monica Boulevard. That first vision, the one that can never be recreated, fades as you move from place to place. The car moves forward and your brain dozes, confronted by the hunger of your naïve, deluded eyes. What you didn’t see today you won’t see tomorrow. And there’s no way to be tomorrow what you were today, and the sun’s begun to set.”
This is the first leap, from which we progress to the second, which reads:
“It seems to go down red, reddened.”
There is nothing monotonous or artificial about Kozameh’s literary voice. It replicates the wonder and bewilderment of the exile, states which it is difficult to communicate, even to oneself. The tremulous music of this inner narrative permeates every line, so that less explanation is necessary than one might imagine for the reader to participate in the experience of being totally alone in an entirely new country; stranger to the language, the customs, the food, the people: everything.
Kozameh plays with words; mimics and repeats herself. And laughs. “You absorb a sixth,” she repeats, in the 17th leap. “Or less.” But then she goes on: “And even though Los Angeles is a city on wheels, no one’s forcing you not to walk.”
There is a wonderful play of language and image in her prose; at moments it is almost poetry in its word-play, and yet the content is integrating with the continuum, a developing story of her unfolding experience of exile. She writes of whatever she sees: cars, hair curlers, everyday things like “…a piece of soap, an abundance of cigarettes, some worn-out, clean underwear, a two-week old letter from a five-year-old son and, above all, more and more male and female prisoners. That more than anything: the rest of the Argentine political prisoners….You see them peeking out of the little holes in the curlers used by people who straighten or curl their hair…peeking out of all the other orifices that exist in this city. Which is the most spread out city in the world. All the holes: in the trunks of trees. In the clothes of the homeless. In the heads of crazy people. In the sewers where all the anguish pools up. You see them. Yes, you can see them.”
The leaps, as the narrator accustoms herself to her new life, become longer, more complex. They encompass the arc between the present and the past; they hazard the future. Every sentence of this remarkable book is filled with objects, memories, identities, scenes: a formal dinner in which the narrator sits stiffly over her plate, chewing lettuce beside her millionaire employers and their children, until they ask her what has brought her to America, and she tells them. Which then causes yet another transmutation, another leap; the dinner party turns into something else, with both the wealthy patrons and their children gathering around her, weeping, promising to look after her, gifting her with a new typewriter and immense, wonderful bars of soap. Soap! After years in an underground prison, soap cannot seem as simple to Alicia as to those who read her book; how can feel the silence of the private bathroom to which she is led in order to wash, the immensity of the large, white, sweetly-scented slabs as she rubs them against her skin; their beauty and significance.
American politics begin to motivate and call forth more leaps, some explicitly political, some brazenly observant, as if the narrator finally dares to take a long look at this country into which she has escaped. She places herself in the midst of the 1980s, of American partisan politics: the husband of the household in which she works as a servant, the progenitor of its fortune, is a Reaganite. The wife’s for Carter. For a month or so they do not speak, because of these differences. And then Kozameh takes yet another leap:
“…Until he asked for forgiveness,” she writes, “and received it. You see this phenomenon in Southern California all the time, don’t you? I saw it time and time again in those days: forgiveness, second or third or fourth chances, the abiding freedom to change one’s mind (because of course it’s the land of freedom) at any moment and under any circumstance, forgetfulness, or some other weakness of the heart or mind. And, who knows, probably also in Northern California, and in the North, and on the East Coast, and in the rest of the West, and in the rest of the South, and ultimately, in the lower strata from which this country grows, upon which it rests, and in the vast blue sky, the lid of the great frying pan in which its citizens were frying little by little.”
Alicia Kozameh, dropped into the most “spread out city in the world” by a munificent engine of rescue, reveals herself in this book as one of our most exceptional observers. She deciphers our lives with an apparatus developed long before she ever got here. Her tools include a vaulting lyricism, irony, self-comprehension, the capacity for endurance; and last but not least, laughter. Observant of the present she remains cognizant, always, of what is not seen, of what remains still trapped in the dungeons of the present and the past. Those who did not escape. Those who did not survive. Observing with unclouded vision the two selves who write this book, she sees–and makes us see — “one trying to reconstruct herself and the other one, well-intentioned and ready to contribute to the happy ending,” but still in shadow, “imperturbable for an infinity of time.”