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The clouds above Battery Park were like a sack of snakes around the sun’s breast, approaching the great windswept space of the streets that shone with perspiration. New York is cold, glittering on a dais above an immense bowl of ice, and the atmosphere of New York is cool and shrouded. I do nothing — no research, no writing — for a whole year, the duration of my stay in North America, talking to people when I meet them on my wanderings, just chattering to allow the recessed hopes of these poor wretches some room to grow and develop. The pollution that gives the city its particular smell, a blend of gasoline and general stink, this often makes a good sunset against the horizon, tinting the sky at dusk a blather of brave colours over the mechanical skyline of Manhattan, an evening which must be worth a million dollars in spiritual terms at least. From my apartment — from my room, forgive me — I could see the ragged edge of water in its perennial quarrel with the bulwarks of civilisation, so-called. The fringe of ice and rubbish, heaving. The pier was deserted, and all about there were swollen lumps streaked with a cold fire.
My Japanese friend nick-named ‘White-Eye’ drops by to see how I am. I’m fine, but I don’t tell him that. He takes a goldfish from the bowl on the table and slips it into his mouth. Then he feels a surge of sadness.
‘You may think I like being blind,’ White-Eye says. ‘That’s not so. The world is an intellectual farce, do you understand? And it is a marvellous sideshow too. I miss not seeing it.’
He shuffles to the balcony and looks out, or rather listens. ‘New York, there you are on your knees with that silly rubber plaything you call Capitalism. I want to walk out into the gloom of this evening among the neon and the badly-dressed spruikers and the Negroes with their enchanting soft-shoe routines, under the coppery gold of the clouds, but to me all that is invisible. I go to MOMA. I go to the movies. I shovel popcorn into my mouth and look towards the screen. What’s the point?’ He turns back into the room. ‘Let me tickle the ivories,’ he asks.
I say nothing. I’ve known the clever old beggar too long to be sucked in by his tricks. A sing-song around the old piano wasn’t a good idea.
I had set up a trip to the Mystic East. ‘I’m leaving,’ I say. I could already hear the foghorn, the rush of water past the bow. The job I had lined up was journalistic, and I wasn’t sure if I could handle it. Go was all the go, so I planned to tackle that, and get the word, from the Top Dog. He was hiding out in The Hills of Hokkaido.
The first interview was held at the hotel rented out for the occasion of the big Go tournament. I covered this story near the dreary courtyard where they pester the managers. I wrote about the cheap meals, the lurid posters, the snow jobs, the petty crimes, and the freezing mountain lake. I was caught there, strongly fascinated. And on the balcony were people with microphones all the next day, watchdogs and worn faces alive with the whisper of microphones.
When I tried to interview the Master of Go, his first wife was always hanging around, wringing her hands, commenting on this and that, my old suit, by egg-spotted tie, would I like a drink of water?, and so on. A wheedling old tune echoed between her remarks. There was something very convex in her conversation, something coiled and reflexive, perhaps arising from the lack of snakes in this part of Japan. It wound around her, over and over, and the husband said ‘Can you see her dark, swift-moving glance?’
I looked at her eyes, but I couldn’t see anything apart from a slight squint.
‘It’s the glance of a woman in bloom, and then because her hopes are dashed because of this and that, she’s unhappy. Perhaps if she wept only half the time, but she goes at it night and day. The next stage — old age, abandonment, illness — that is more difficult still.’ That’s what he said, about both his wives. They consoled each other, dancing in the evenings on the lawn. An accordion writhed between them as they danced, an imaginary accordion, and their fingers seemed to be coaxing notes from it.
‘Your second wife —’ I began.
‘Helen? She is near retirement, but I try not to exhaust her,’ the Master said kindly. ‘The sessions are tiring for me too. When I let Suzuki play, it was Helen who was really pleased, since it added a little girl to the seventh rank. Look, even for the rich or the poor, they say, love is enough for the yard, when the mall is locked. Do you understand? They chose to carry over the pail of saké for her, and desecrate her, and be drunken for one more day. When I think of my youth…’
The Master’s youthful tribulations were awful, what with the War and all that — I had been cautioned not to mention the War — and now in his old age he has halitosis. He wears gaudy socks to the interview, and a monstrous looking jacket, and has developed the habit of spitting noisily everywhere, I swear.
Yes, he had two wives, and they hovered around the problem of his suffering for the sake of his gift, his skill at the board, the little stones glinting in the half-light, black and white, pale grey and dark grey, the two wives, the old women beside the hearth, but his suffering, it wouldn’t go away. I decided to focus on that, the art and suffering routine, that bourgeois conceit.
‘Tell me about this suffering —’
‘I have nothing to say to you about how I suffer,’ he said, ‘that’s the game, that’s the way it is. What do you want me to do, cut off an ear? It’s just a skill, for God’s sake, like interior decorating. They suffer too, you know.’
They decided to play the game of Go through the night.
The next morning I was sitting in the foyer when Otake came in looking dishevelled. Otake was the Master’s best friend. He’d gone out for a walk in the dark woods, and he came back with books and pine needles up his sleeve. ‘Where have you been?’ I asked.
He replied courteously, but also calculatingly. ‘This cigarette? Would you like it?’
‘Is it a — is it a “herbal” cigarette?’ He nodded, and I took the cigarette.
‘The Master and I, ‘ Otake went on, ‘we were playing a game of Go, by the lake. A deeply pensive match. And I lost as Black. When it was over young Wu put some paving stones on the board, a mark of disrespect. But Wu has reason to be bitter. He had wanted to be rich, a foolish hope, and he not even a citizen, not a proper citizen, part Korean, they say — unable to recognise a camellia among a display of gardenias, he was like a strange fish swimming in a pool with a school of carp, while a single blossom floated on the surface, which is the Master’s talent. Indeed it was the same back in Tokyo. Ugly rumours, disrespect everywhere. You didn’t know where to look. Don’t you want a light? I have a Zippo®, one of those American lighters so popular during the Korean Police Action. We shouldn’t call it a war. N’est-ce pas?’
A pine cast its shadow on the blind.
His answer was strong and I was fascinated, so I tried to blow off steam, a bit of nothing, but letting off steam, it’s good, you know. ‘How clever of you,’ I hissed, ‘to end the session like that, playing — thank you — playing Black. And your companion complains — didn’t you say? — that when he faced young Kubomatsu, the Master’s face had worn a sad look and his heart predicted an unsatisfactory end? His is a disturbingly unbalanced record. I hear the young man wishes to postpone everything again.’
‘Postpone it my artificial eye!’ Otake said, ‘If we postpone our next session the Master will be distressed. Nicht Wahr? Where do you dig up these bright ideas? Say we postpone it a day or two until there’s time to study new openings. Will that help? When I think of Kubomatsu chivvying at the Master’s White position, then the contest with his old companions in ’52 comes to mind. He fell into a reverie at the crucial moment, and moved the pieces like a man blindfolded, click! click! click!, with his eyes everywhere but on the board. I went for a walk. The yard outside was empty, hot, and the summer sun was blinding on the concrete. The radio in a distant corner of the yard was bleating something about American troop movements on the Korean Peninsula. Courage!’
A cloud hid the early sun, and the tips of our cigarettes were like glow-worms in the gloom.
Early the next day I asked for the Master’s room. I gazed at the winners and the managers sitting naked in their clouds of doubt. It had taken all Otake’s skill to get the game room lined with those guys. The Master had been asleep. Now he agreed to their courteous criticism. He knew that after the presents of bunches of lilacs come sharp critical essays. He was pale from the tournament, the games he had planned so carefully.
‘I need the play to go on,’ the Master said. ‘If we postpone our next session we should use the three days I had planned.’
The managers only had five minutes to make up their minds. They had been through this before, late at night, up against the wall, facing the maps and the graphs of defeat.
‘Is the Master going to play — and is this his last game?’ I spoke boldly, with one foot drawn up on the tablecloth.
‘He will be going to defeat now,’ Otake whispered, ‘what we call “the defeat of a housewife”, a defeat I had arranged, to embroider the close of the long-time winner’s long career, a contest that will be like hauling up a denizen of the deep to him, nothing more. This is a mystery. You would not understand.’
The Master seemed bored with the managers, with the dwarfs, the rat-faced pimps, the bearded idiots. He stayed there in his cramped and uncomfortable room, rotting away, as he put it, until the last moment. It took him a long time to decide he might try a little girl, and asked for one to be brought up. He had a theory that a sexual encounter was useful before an important game; something to do with the vital bodily fluids, but there was nothing doing, in that department.
He was persuaded to try the Way of Food, instead. Soon he was eating greedily.
And Otake, too, he and his friends were not the only ones to shovel down dinner just in order to dwell in kingdom come. But it should be said a new vitality bubbles up in Otake. He’s acting pretty grand for an eminence from which you can see all of Asia.
A change of semen can make Otake happy. He had been through the main building, looking for women, and his wife was deliberately holding back. That was her approach, even though she was so kind as to play with his warm body. I remember she made him cry out passionately where the wintry sun lay on the pavement, a forty-second strangled cry.
I write it all up, but it feels flat. No real resolution. Am I working hard enough? They take me and my baggage up the gangplank. A traveller, again, always on the move. Don’t bother with the past, I say to myself.
Just before the boat was due to sail I went around to see Helen, the second wife, and I spoke hesitantly to her in Japanese. She was supposed to have some psychic ability, and I needed to know where my life was headed. We played a game.
‘You have lost,’ she said. ‘Now it’s time for you to seek out your fate in the City of Light, among the sour, milky drinks and the garrulous frauds, in the Cafés of Paris.’
After breakfast, I would go down and hear the hubbub of the clouds thronging the April sky. What’s it to me if the Eiffel Tower is fixed against the horizon like a clumsy solution to some problem in mechanical engineering? Defining the edge of the vault of heaven, articulating the shapes of the clouds that writhe and waft behind its steel rigidities, that’s its job.
On the Pont Alexandre they want me to write, but I have to do it well. In the little room with shutters I write not so badly — embroidering the view from the windows of my hotel, for example, or a piece on the brothel where Proust used to stab rats with a hatpin, the little creep. The Asian stuff is finished, the journalistic japonaiserie. I write till I’m blind, and they want me to write more, but I have the doorman say no when they come knocking.
Well, it took me a long time to write as fast as I do now. But they want me to write faster and faster, and I need to, to pay the rent. I like my work, but do they have to make it into something you could trade for a used car? I began to suspect that if one chooses to be a seller of lies, a day of prosperity follows.
The next day I’m in a bad mood, and I piddle on the roof, a dirty waterfall. The bread of life, and the rancid butter, too, is hidden away. I think of the grey sheets. People already dead were forever dissatisfied, weren’t they? Very smelly, very tired; that’s how I felt. Dry, brittle. The bourgeoisie — can I be blamed if I despised my best customers? Wasn’t it they who encouraged me to hate their shallow responses? They wanted to be spat on by Romantic artists. They — the wives, mostly — prop these frauds up on pedestals, and beg to be whipped! Disgusting! Which means, tasteless. Most of these artists are phoneys. Well, take my performance on my balcony, an exhibition of rage melded with priapic fury and childish perverseness falling to anger. Forgive me.
Did I tell you about the especially cheerless crowd gathered about the soup Friday night, the genuinely poor people? They didn’t debate whether it might be onion soup, or vegetable soup, they just scooped it up in their bony hands, scalding themselves in their hunger. You think this is imagery, but it’s just what happens.
Gaunt, bare trees, the river is still swollen, streaked with the winnings of the card game in a cheap café, that is, the vomit that follows the intoxication that follows the winnings.
And now here’s a poet, so-called, emerging out of the crowds in the street in a sort of atomic frenzy. It’s Sylvester, dusted with dandruff, the poor withered bastard, and his companions. They’ve been to the Galeries Lafayette. I owed him, because of his mention of me in the journalistic pieces he sent back to the Herald Tribune.
‘I took you for a poet coming into Heaven,’ I said. ‘God knows, you’re like a saint. Whitman sang of a jug of wine and a bleached cooking jacket, a good association of images, and then the night. What do you sing of?’
‘This afternoon the women do the singing,’ he replied. ‘Come with us, my friend, there’s a little garden party, something the subtle M.Satie might have attended a few decades ago, some feminine sing-song unter den linden.’
So we go to this event, put on by a society woman. Tanya is there, singing her guts out with her eyes shut, looking like a blind goose. She has been waiting months for this day, waiting for her turn to play and sing, and now it’s arrived. I sit observing the light on the flowers change from midday to evening sadness as if the garden had learned the behaviour of the sunlight. After her song Sylvester sat cross-legged with her on the bench drinking soda water. Everybody is making a kind of communal life in this garden.
The barrel-organ strapped to the garden gate bulges and wheezes as guests come and go. Now Eugenie sings, something dark, the little voice, the sharp teeth. In the crowd of spectators Olga sits with her big thumbs leafing through an address book. There’s a large Bulgarian woman in her lap cradling a rubber plant.
A voice whispers in my ear: ‘Aren’t you ever lonely?’
It’s a fellow with a crooked back, a chum of mine, a friend from ten years ago. We quarrelled way back when, and now he wants to have me as a friend again. He asks me if I had been carried over from across the street. In fact I had just come from there, from the hospital where the owl turned on the ridge of the roof and flapped away. I must be in a bad way, I realise. But he’s worse. Where can he find that gentle American sagacity, he wants to know, where are the people who were so kind as to offer him a last chance? He’d put a fence around himself, and everybody stayed away. ‘I know to expect nothing,’ he says, ‘but I have a favour to ask. People are plotting against me. Who are they? You had me to afternoon tea, so as to be kind, you said. But your tea poisoned me with its foul, gurgling splash. Perhaps you put rat poison in it.’
I brush him off.
Now it’s time to go to work, and a skinny monkey of a German wants me to polish the revolving drums carefully. One by one, that’s how he wants it. Then the pail, and then feed the animal in the outbuilding. Ape, gorilla, baboon.
A week of this and I go one morning at eight o’clock to meet Sylvester, with calcium light on his battle hairs, asleep over a hollow pit of relaxation. Sylvester says ‘Didn’t they play the dutiful sisters?’ He’s talking about Tanya and Olga. He brushes his thick red hair.
Last September he took a photo of me drowning in carbolic acid, and now it’s the hit of the Surrealist show. ‘Literature is nothing,’ he says. ‘Only experience matters.’ But the books he reads! Not only Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Kant, and Hegel, but also Cocteau, Cavafy, Camus — not only these intellectual opium joints, but everything else too. He thought of his own popular writings in terms of the books he read, hoping it would borrow their valuable shadings of opinion.
We go to a restaurant he likes, the Polidor, and we drink too much wine, a good burgundy. I can remember something about a Hungarian woman, Olga’s friend. And later, Tanya crawling out of bed. She has dyed her hair pink with mercurochrome, a rusty metallic green stain floating on a scarlet water, and of course it hasn’t taken. She never does anything right. I need to go to the john a lot — an old war wound — and she’s always saying ‘Fuck your weak bladder’, the bitch. She was wearing that cheap Broadway perfume, she stank of it, with her wedding ring gripped in her teeth, full of love, like a dog wanting to be patted.
The day after Olga is supposed to pay the rent, we have a bitter argument about money. ‘It’s not only the money,’ she screeches, ‘not only that, in the rue Amelie I’ve fucked myself standing in a darkened doorway. I’ve fucked myself permanently.’ She works in a brothel, and who is called to do such work? As death is inevitable, they call it play, not work. I have also heard more on that topic. I tell myself to remember to remember…
Outside the brothel there is an enamelled welcome sign but I’m short just a few sous, and I can’t go in. I go back to the hotel. I have been to see the woman I love, and now I feel a need for my freedom. A man who can no longer walk had better stay at home, that’s what they say, but what about the man who has no home? The bed and the desolations of sleep totter towards my eyes. The bed is crawling with colored suits. I seem to be coming out of a derangement like a ghost, disappearing from life and then reappearing in this sad room lined with old newspapers. I pull back the grimy curtain and look at the landscape. On the covered bridges, figures peer out through the mist and polish their talents.
The horses gallop through the room like a pack of sleepless monkeys. Sleep on a train, that’s the best. You only have small nightmares about toppling from a cliff, invoked by the movement of the carriage while you sleep. Not these big ugly ones. And in the morning — in the morning, the dead are at their most maudlin, and I have too many friends among the shades. Will it ever end?
There’s a letter, on crinkly pale green air-mail paper. Otake writes to me — we couldn’t stand each other in Japan, but now that the Master is dead and the planet separates us, we’ve become pen pals of a sort — he writes and offers me fatherly advice about my career. What I am doing? How am I? Am I working?
Well, Christ, the stuff I write and send in isn’t selling, so what can I tell him? What do I dream about? The dim room, the little stones clicking into their predetermined places on the board, the Master’s wife on the dark lawn? That’s history. I don’t even think about the Mystic East any more.
You showed me how to behave as a Westerner, he says. I owe you my undying… blah… blah…
Don’t thank me. I know nothing. There are no stars, and the river is filled with rustling rubbish. Helen, Helen…
‘It’s time to move out, old mate,’ he writes, practising his Cockney colloquialisms and a careful style of handwriting in lavender ink inscribed with a classy Japanese Pilot ® brand fountain pen, or so he says. ‘The dogs are pissing on your swag. If you will permit me to offer a smidgen of advice, it’s time to hit the trail, to hitch your star to that rotating Carousel. In Manhattan, your pal White-Eye is tuning the piano in readiness for your return. It’s time to pack your bags and head for Battery Park.’
Author’s note — ‘Carousel’ was freely adapted from a from a loose draft resulting from computer-aided analyses of letter-group frequencies in two samples of text, one from Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and the other from Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go. The index and frequency tables from these analyses were then blended, and the draft text regenerated from the resulting combination.
This piece appeared in the book Different Hands, (a book of seven experimental prose stories), Folio/ Fremantle Arts Centre Press, May 1998, paperback, 77 pages, ISBN 1-86368-241-4