They can burn books, destroy libraries, forbid languages, ban beliefs, delete past times,
draw new present times, order future actions, torture and execute people...
But they still don´t know how to kill the intangible and bright
bodies of ideas, dreams and hopes.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Book pages are like a friend’s shoulder

Book pages are like a friend's shoulder

By Sara Plaza

The other day, Edgardo and I were going through the shelves of our library and rediscovering aged volumes –most of them from second–hand bookshops– in the lowest ones when I came across an old English edition of "Anna Karenina". Its covers were worm out and while I was turning carefully those thousand pages it came through them that smell of old paper that characterizes libraries and archives stores. There was a number of other "paper treasures" in those shelves but for any special reason my interest –a boat with many curious sailors– put in at that port with woman's name. Without sitting up straight yet –I had lay down on the floor and was surrounded by low piles of books that we intended to organize together– I started to read those words by count Leon Tolstoy and I couldn't stop until I got awful pins and needles in one of my legs. Then I urged myself to put all those books back in their place –if I remember rightly, at that moment Edgardo was as absorbed as me in his own discoveries– and, getting up off the floor, trying it slowly to awake my limb from its painful sleep, I walked to my chair with very little steps. This time, sitting down "properly" –I use to put my feet on the seat of my chair and rest my chin on my knees when I read– I keep on finding out more and more things about that Russian society from the late XIX century. At the beginning of chapter twenty nine in the first part of the book, I discovered some very fascinating lines that I couldn't prevent myself from reading once and again and thought of sharing with you. They reminded me of many other readings, of many kilometers sitting on a bus with a book in my black traveling bag, of many times looking through their windows while playing with the pages marker in one hand and drawing the line of the horizon with the other, of many others closing my eyes to dream awake with the life of those characters that –without my being aware of their escape– have sat down on the traveler's knees that was placed in the seat next to mine, and smiled broadly at me noticing my surprise after finding them out of the pages that I had left open. Those books and those sights through the bus windows have been –and still are– the best interlocutors to share an important part of my life. For years I have put my eyes, my hands and my thoughts on them, for they are like a friend's shoulder: the place where one's projects, complaints, annoyances and illusions can rest. The other day, Tolstoy took them back to my memory and Anna Karenina managed to revitalize them. I would like you to have a look at the following excerpt from the novel where I acknowledged many of my steps as reader. Who knows, you might find yours as well...

"Come, it's all over, and thank God!" was the first thought that came to Anna Arkadyevna, when she had said good–bye for the last time to her brother, who had stood blocking up the entrance to the carriage till the third bell rang. She sat down on her lounge beside Annushka, and looked about her in the twilight of the sleeping–carriage. "Thank God! Tomorrow I shall see Seryozha and Alexey Alexandrovitch, and my life will go on in the old way, all nice and as usual."

Still in the same anxious frame of mind, as she had been all that day, Anna took pleasure in arranging herself for the journey with great care. With her little deft hands she opened and shut her little red bag, took out a cushion, laid it on her knees, and carefully wrapping up her feet, settled herself comfortably. An invalid lady had already lain down to sleep. Two other ladies began talking to Anna, and a stout elderly lady tucked up her feet, and made observations about the heating of the train. Anna answered a few words, but not foreseeing any entertainment for the conversation, she asked Annushka to get a lamp, hooked it onto the arm of their seat, and took from her bag a paper–knife and an English novel. At first her reading made no progress. The fuss and bustle were disturbing; then when the train had started, she could not help listening to the noises; then the snow beating on the left window and sticking to the pane, and the sight of the muffled guard passing by, covered with snow on one side, and the conversations about the terrible snowstorm raging outside, distracted her attention. Further on, it was continually the same again and again: the same shaking and rattling, the same snow on the window, the same rapid transitions from steaming heat to cold, and back again to heat, the same passing glimpses of the same figures in the twilight, and the same voices, and Anna began to read and to understand what she read. Annushka was already dozing, the red bag on her lap, clutched by her broad hands, in gloves, of which one was torn. Anna Arkadyevna read and understood; but it was distasteful to her to read, that is, to follow the reflection of other people's lives. She had too great a desire to live herself. It she read that the heroine of the novel were nursing a sick man, she longed to move with noiseless steps about the room of a sick man; if she read of a member of Parliament making a speech, she longed to be delivering the speech; if she read of how Lady Mary had ridden after the hounds, and had provoked her sister–in–law, and had surprised everyone by her boldness, she too wished to be doing the same. But there was no chance of doing anything; and twisting the smooth paper–knife in her little hands, she forced herself to read.

The hero of the novel was already almost reaching his English happiness, a baronetcy and a estate, and Anna was feeling a desire to go with him to the estate, when she suddenly felt that he ought to feel ashamed, and that she was ashamed of the same thing. But what had he to be ashamed of? "What have I to be ashamed of?" she asked herself in injured surprise. She laid down the book and sank against the back of the chair, tightly gripping the paper–cutter in both hands. There was nothing. She went all over her Moscow recollections. All were good, pleasant. She remembered the ball, remembered Vronsky and his face of slavish adoration, remembered all her conduct with him: there was nothing shameful. And for all that, at the same point in her memories, the feeling of shame was intensified, as though some inner voice, just at the point when she thought of Vronsky, were saying to her, "Warm, very warm, hot." "Well, what is it?" she said to herself resolutely, shifting her seat in the lounge. "What does it mean? Am I afraid to look it straight in the face? Why, what is it? Can it be that between me and this officer boy there exist, or can exist, any other relations than such as are common with every acquaintance?" She laughed contemptuously and took up her book again; but now she was definitely unable to follow what she read. She passed the paper–knife over the window–pane, then laid its smooth, cool surface to her cheek, and almost laughed aloud at the feeling of delight that all at once without cause came over her. She felt as though her nerves were strings being strained tighter and tighter on some sort of screwing peg. She felt her eyes opening wider and wider, her fingers and toes twitching nervously, something within oppressing her breathing, while all shapes and sounds seemed in the uncertain half–light to strike her with unaccustomed vividness. Moments of doubt were continually coming upon her, when she was uncertain whether the train were going forwards or backwards, or were standing still altogether; whether it were Annushka at her side or a stranger. "What's that on the arms of the chair? Myself or some other woman?" She was afraid of giving away to this delirium. But something drew her towards it, and she could yield to it or resist it at will. She got up to rouse herself, and slipped off her plaid and the cape of her warm dress. For a moment she regained her self–possession, and realized that the thin peasant who had come in wearing a long overcoat, with buttons missing from it, was the stove heater, that he was looking at the thermometer, that it was the wind and snow bursting in after him at the door; but then everything grew blurred again... That peasant with the long waist seemed to be gnawing something on the wall, the old lady began stretching her legs the whole length of the carriage, and filling it with a black cloud; then there was a fearful shrieking and banging, as though someone were being torn to pieces; then there was a blinding dazzle of red fire before her eyes and a wall seemed to rise up and hide everything. Anna felt as though she were sinking down. But it was not terrible, but delightful. The voice of a man muffled up and covered with snow shouted something in her ear. She got up and pulled herself together; she realized that they had reached a station and that this was the guard. She asked Annushka to hand her cape she had taken off and her shawl, put them on and moved towards the door.

"Do you wish to get out?" asked Annushka.

"Yes, I want a little air. It's very hot in here." And she opened the door. The driving snow and the wind rushed to meet her and struggled with her over the door. But she enjoyed the struggle.

She opened the door and went out. The wind seemed as though lying in wait for her; with gleeful whistle it tried to snatch her up and bear her off, but she clung to the cold doorpost, and holding her skirt got down onto the platform and under the shelter of the carriages. The wind had been powerful on the steps, but on the platform, under the lee of the carriages, there was lull. With enjoyment she drew deep breaths of the frozen, snowy air, and standing near the carriage looked about the platform and the lighted station.