Wednesday, October 28, 2015

`I Place Empathy Above Language'

“To those who desire to think the same way others think, who long to crush dissent and to be on the right side of history, real literature is an oddity, an affront, the relic of an incomprehensible past. It makes too many nonsensical demands. It serves no obvious practical purpose.”

And that, of course, is its glory and the reason some of us choose to spend our lives in the company of words and the phantoms they embody. With “real literature,” there is no self-improvement, no bankable payoff, no return on your investment. A good sentence is its own reward, for writer and reader, though aesthetes need not apply. The passage above comes from Lee Oser’s review of Glenn Arbery’s novel Bearings and Distances (Wiseblood, 2015), which I haven’t read but which Oser makes tempting. I cite it only as a way to introduce Zoroaster’s Children (Biblioasis, 2015), Marius Kociejowski’s collection of travel essays (and partner to The Pebble Chance: Feuilletons and Other Prose, published last year by Biblioasis). Don’t open the new book if you’re expecting a Baedeker, thrills ‘n’ chills, or pretty snapshots. Kociejowski is a writer, plain and simple, without an agenda unless writing well counts. He covers a lot of ground, much of it internal. In his introductory essay, “Some Places I’ve Been To,” he writes:

“I have been described, though not often, as a travel writer, an appellation that vaguely embarrasses me. A couple of books, which sit in the travel section of bookshops, have had the effect of making me into what I may not be. I do not have the means to be a traveler or to be able to just pick up and go. Also, I’m idle. Oblomov outstrips me. I’m not a tourist either. A tourist moves inside a bubble; a traveler forgoes the safety of that bubble. I am sufficiently enough of a coward to not go risking my hide, but then again.”

That’s a fair sample of Kociejowski’s voice – modest, quietly learned, almost boyish, allergic to earnestness. He practices the essay in the etymological sense, without foregone conclusions. Travel for Kociejowski is a metaphor for life – movement toward an uncertain and possibly non-existent destination, without a map or compass. The books that “had the effect of making me into what I may not be” are his splendid volumes devoted to Syria -- The Street Philosopher and the Holy Fool: A Syrian Journey (2004) and The Pigeon Wars of Damascus (2010). In the new book he travels to Aleppo and Prague, Toronto and Tunisia, and sometimes around his neighborhood in London.

For Kociejowski, his fellow humans are intriguing mysteries who follow their own itineraries. He doesn’t have a lot of theories about human behavior – certainly nothing political, economic or, God forbid, psychological. One can’t imagine Kociejowski sightseeing. More likely, he’s people-seeing. He says: “I travel more through people than I do through places.” And this, after revealing his monolingual limitations: “Empathy, I place empathy above language. A writer who lacks it is not one who greatly interests me.” He describes two walkers in his neighborhood who “walk because they have to. Staying put might destroy them.” A pathology-minded observer might diagnose them as – what? Autistic? Obsessive compulsive? Certainly they are people worthy of empathy: 

“There are people who travel the world over and never let in a thing or very little, whereas, if I may hazard a guess, the bearded man in the tuque, who never veers from his chosen path, and the man with the Brueghelesque face are two of the great explorers of our age.”

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