Mono: on language and homesickness — Fernando Sdrigotti

“…while on the village descends the scented night.”
Haroldo Conti, “Perfumada noche”

Day dreaming about the bar of my teens and twenties, the blackhole downtown where we used to spend every morning drinking beer and coffee, putting the world to rights. Wondering if the bar is still there, if the same kids — now over 30 — still beg from table to table. If the shoeshine and the waitress with the big smile and the tight jeans are still there. If the guy with the chronic cigarette on his lips, and the chronically useless killer tip, has finally managed to nail the right horse, in the right race, on the right day. If we are still sitting by the large windows reading the paper, at times playing truant, at times escaping job interviews or girlfriends, always safe in the muggy space of the bar.

Until I finally find myself back home for Christmas and I have a chance to dig out the lost traces for two weeks. The bar has been replaced by a parking lot. Some more friends have followed this lead and are now six feet under. And the ones still in this world no longer speak to one another, as if the bar had been what held our friendship together, or as if too many departures had ended up breaking the web that kept everyone immobilised, fixed in place and time. And Rosario, my hometown, it grows taller and taller every day. Rosario: a mini-Manhattan of the South where tall buildings eat away ancient houses. Yet even with the unfamiliarity of the new city and the discomfort of what is familiar and we would rather edit away — abject poverty, inequality — back in Rosario my brain shifts back to mono. My brain rests and I find a respite in my own language — imagine a spring shifting back to its lazy resting form.

All because of a mother tongue. It is all about the home that only one’s own language can provide. Words in Spanish clutter the page again, clutter the brain again. I type on my old Olivetti Lettera, in my mother’s garden, under the grapevine, feeling like Marcello Mastroianni in La dolce vita — it is a cliché, but some things demand the obvious. The Lettera flies in mono and even if I will never look as slick as Marcello I still feel like I am touching a central nerve banging the keys — Anita Ekberg might even turn up here, among the calla lilies and the hydrangeas. But here it isn’t about Anita or Marcello. It is just about nothing foreign.

I write (in Spanish):

I write in English because I need to engage my surroundings with my surroundings’ peculiar sounds. If I’d ended up in Berlin I would’ve failed at writing in German. It’s not the language itself but a matter of geography. Back here, in Rosario, there’s no need to engage anything but the page; I know the surroundings so well that the only possible option is to run away from them… Anyway: fuck stereo and give me a life in mono. I want to think in only one language. I want to live and die in only one language.

Mother tongue inebriating me, confusing my thoughts, like anything remotely motherly. Until sobriety hits me and this linguistic home is also revealed as a fallacy.

Mother tongue is not a home. It is not a coming together but an act of forgetting: an unmémoire volontaire, if the bad Proustian pun can be forgiven. Shifting back to my mother tongue implies a process of ridding myself of another tongue — suspending a part of my/self. And it is a fallacy, for now there is no possible stable idea of self and home. I don’t really miss home but its deception; I don’t miss an older version of myself but the illusion of being only one, of existing in mono.

This realisation, it might have happened like this: at some point, perhaps after several years away, or maybe just after a couple of hours, something broke, something that, ironically, was always broken. “The cracks became evident,” would perhaps be a more accurate way of describing what took place. It is a matter of awareness. Awareness of a home that was and a home that is and that could possibly stop being at any moment, for any movement in any direction would imply a loss, another jolt. In this way, the notion of home is shattered once and for all.

And there’s no return from this. Once home is shown to be a fallacy homesickness reveals itself as the fundamental state of being, for anyone attentive enough, even for those who never went further than the corner shop. Home is always elsewhere and we learn this in different ways. For me it took changing several countries in a very short period of time. For others it might take losing their parents at an early age, losing their jobs at 50, losing a sweetheart, losing a playground fight, losing their favourite toy, winning something they didn’t want to win. The lucky ones will only realise their homelessness during their final breath, when the home that life provided is taken away from them. They might not even have time to feel homesick. To those both my pity and my spite.

*

I wake up at 4.34 a.m. still half-caught in a dream where I am in the corner of Cafferata and Salta streets — just one of many nondescript corners in Rosario, a corner in which I have invested absolutely nothing at all. I remember this place, as seen from the bus, back in the 90s, on my way to the city centre; I don’t think I actually ever stood on this stretch of pavement. I remember it, for most of Rosario’s cityscape is equally unremarkable: any corner can be worthy of attention because none really is. Why I dream of this spot I don’t know. But after waking up I fail to go back to sleep. I need to see this place, connect with it — see it, for I can’t touch it (if one can touch corners).

I go online and to Google Maps — luckily this area of Rosario has been covered by Street View. The corner looks different from the one that played in my mind. It is now boarded up; it looks as if it could be demolished any moment soon to give way to one more skyscraper. Everything is changing in Rosario. The place where I spent the first 25 years of my life is metamorphosing; it is rapidly mutating while I am here, in this also metamorphic city, London. The processes that inspire this mutation might very well be the same ones.

My casual encounter with that Rosario corner in dreams and on my screen unleashes a storm of homesickness. There is something to be done here, a way of engaging performatively with my longing. In other words, a way of getting some attention in the process of suffering. On social media.

I find myself setting up a blog, posting screenshots from Google Street View, mapping the places where I used to spend my time, much against my strong belief that blogging is a very productive way to waste one’s time. But some media call for some types of messages and so I set on a solipsistic journey through spatial memories. My mother’s house. The park of my childhood. My first ex’s flat. The square where we used to smoke weed and drink wine during long, tedious and humid summer nights. The alley where our neighbourhood gang once got beaten up to a pulp by some older guys high on charlie. (It seems most of my memories are painful. Can memories be anything else?)

I name the blog Mnemoscapes and some of Twitter’s psychogeography gang find the idea brilliant or at least worth retweeting (which means absolutely nothing, as everybody knows). My idea might not be original but at least there is an intensity to it, a certain exhibitionist charm, a form of honesty — I do not ask for much more from my writing. It is also to some extent exotic and certainly very nostalgic — it ticks all the boxes of what it is expected of a Latin American writer, except for the magical realist thing. Once and for all I will get some attention, I think.

I spend several weeks posting images, slowly charting away all my memories. As the blog grows so does my homesickness. By the end of February 2015 I can’t take it anymore: longing becomes physical and I lose my appetite and renew my vows with tobacco — homesickness provides the perfect excuse. I think and even dream about Rosario all the time, the city I loved to hate. Faces, places, fragments of sidewalks start populating my thoughts, while I am asleep and while I am awake. Some mornings I try to leave the bed from the wrong side, only to be met by a wall — it takes me several seconds to realise I am actually in London. Even smells come back to me: a strong perfume I smelled in 1995, on a 107 bus from my neighbourhood to the city centre (an intense and cheap floral fragrance); the stench in my friend Martín’s adolescent room (stinky feet and cum and moisture); the smell of rainy nights (wet grass and pavement and petrol fumes). And I even begin to tell my friends that I want to move back home. My friends realise, of course, that this is no longer possible and so do I. But I still need to say it, that I want to move back home, because Argentineans appreciate dramatic gestures and I love to please an audience.

Soon, yet, it becomes evident that it is dangerous to tread this path. I see no other way out of the situation than stopping this mnemonic archaeology. First I stop posting images. Until one day I pull the blog’s plug. And nobody ever notices it.

It seems it is about letting go, for about that time I also give up trying to write a second novel in Spanish. This project — still unnamed at the time of its demise — was particularly appealing to me as it was the first time I had actually set the action in Rosario. This was supposed to be the book that would reconcile me with the place I had to leave in a rush after the 2001 crisis. I had set out to capture Rosario and to capture the rarefied atmosphere of the early 2000s, when the collapse was already palpable and we were all drafting our Plan Bs. Rosario in the book was very delimited, located, unashamedly realistic — it was even possible to step on dog’s poo while reading the pages of this manuscript[1] .

Until one night I am in London, on the bus home after a long train journey, when I realise I am actually in Rosario. I mean, I am physically in London but I am writing in Spanish about Rosario, filling pages with words that force me to look back to a place I would rather forget — or that I miss too much, I don’t know. This unsettles me, it makes me feel emotional and weak: I kill the novel[2] . All memories should be killed, I guess. At least some days — those when memories become too heavy. Of course I later regret deleting 45,000 words of fiction.

*

Someone, whose name or face I don’t recall anymore, once told me that “home is where your dead are buried”. She said it in a drunken stupor, in a dodgy bar, the dodgy bar I wrote about at the beginning. (I believe we were arguing about leaving; I believe she called me a coward; I can’t be sure.) Sadly, most of my dead haven’t been buried. Or perhaps “sadly” isn’t the right word, for they are still dead. Perhaps that most of the dead in my family opted out for cremation should be a reason to celebrate: one can’t never save enough fuel in trips to the cemetery.

But what really constitutes someone’s dead? It is only the dead I knew when they were alive that are hidden between the books of my mother’s house in Rosario – she was supposed to scatter these ashes, Mother Hoarder. And as with any human being my dead stretch back into several centuries. How long should one stretch back into the past when thinking about the home that one’s dead provide?

If I turn homesickness into an exercise of tracing origins I can go back at least 200 years and into several countries. The dead who were left behind in Spain and Italy. The dead who might have died fighting some obscure war for or against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dead who died in Argentina at least since the start of the 20th century, if not before. The whole branch of the family that disappeared into another surname, god knows why. Where should one stop digging out corpses?

Even death can’t provide a stable home, let alone an origin. I might as well start anywhere.

And so I go back to the bar where I used to spend my mornings, to the space the bar used to occupy. A while ago it was still possible to search and retrieve images online. Now even those traces have been cancelled: someone pressed “delete” or the web’s own mind decided to forget these digital memories. The listing is still in a couple of telephone registries; soon these will follow the road to oblivion.

And then, at the end, just as these places of memory disappear, there will be nothing, not even silence. It sucks, yes. But at least it is a way to escape homesickness, a way to escape the fallacy of home.

Notes: 

[1] I remember Rosario’s sidewalks as a minefield of dog faeces. I might be wrong.

[2] I don’t really kill it: I just make sure I delete the working file and all the backups. These sudden moments of writerly rage are nowadays very unspectacular and therefore extremely pathetic.


Fernando Sdrigotti lives in London. @f_sd

Image: © Fer Figheras.