Napoleon’s Roads by David Brooks. University of Queensland Press. AUD $23.95, 168pp.
Such weights they carry, these things that arrive as if unbidden
Handling thinness—of material, of facts, of edifice—with courage, showing tenacity in purpose, in rhythm, to go where language hesitates to go, the liminal space where consciousness touches—and then properly enters—the world: this, too, is possible. Robert Walser set himself this task in his short masterpiece “Kleist in Thun.” Or instead to move deftly, easily, with confidence gone deep, almost brazenly over the trembling foundations as if in a fantasy world of a children’s tale like that in Julio Cortázar’s “Bestiary.” Two distinct patterns of the same audacity, opposing urges of the same form.
Not Kleist but Rilke. Not Cortázar’s proud tiger roaming the country estate where ennui, apathy, and terror reign in equal measure, but Rilke’s caged and beleaguered panther. Different guides, different totems, yet in Napoleon’s Roads, his fourth and latest story collection, David Brooks continuously mediates between these two extremes to tell stories that are always on the point of dissolving in their own generative streams, leaving behind merely what Brooks calls “a force-field amongst their elements.” What else, after all, can language aspire to?
In the story that lends its title to the collection, Brooks returns to an old philosophical, almost obsessive concern to probe with the antennae of words the thusness of the world, the weight of its facts. Twice he breaks away even from the fragments that make up the story to catch his breath, to reflect:
How do you write like sand?
How do you write like water?
How to say that these roads are about what is not road, this text about what it is not?
Different ways, same despair. Old and obsessive, yet somehow ethical too. For the correct action or response can arise only from the correct understanding. In a swift creative burst—”Swallows”—captured in his recent collection of poems, Open House, he laments:
to write the simplest things,
these sabre-sharp wings
severing words from their stems.
Without fear of repetition, for this is a concerted quest to establish equivalence between the world and text, Brooks at the end of the piece “Crow Theses” takes another sheer plunge into the nature of things, pulled taut by the rope of language, thrilled to take in, and thankful for, the sights:
Words, in my abstraction, begin to lose definition. The page begins to exceed its borders, becoming as wide as the sky. A white sky, as it sometimes will be in winter, and in it a flock of crows, in obscure formations. Hieroglyphs. Moving slowly.
We dream of honesty, of openness, but openness can be lacerating. What can be more honest than a crow’s cry? What can be more open than a crow’s wings as it hovers above a cornfield?
Or better perhaps to leave the quest entirely, to assume that we are only “affects of a language we have not the clues to decipher”:
its need to survive some half forgotten track picked out in the bewildering star-encrusted firmament that shimmers and seems to cover, in inverse, the inconceivable dunes of the sky.
In inverse, then.
“Is it necessary to know the actual city? Or would knowledge of the actual city mask the other, prevent us again from arriving?” Brooks asks in the story “‘Kabul,’” old seat of catastrophe and violence, tired witness to the geo-political tyranny, a collage of narratives, lies, and betrayals, a textual city congealing like film over that other city, of carpets and orchards, traffickers and fugitives, of perfumes lingering in narrow stony lanes, of snow and blood and dust, of sharp contrasts, the city that language may conceal but not penetrate, the city that is same but also different, la città invisibile. Thankless task, then, to go looking for it with means ever inadequate and hopeless.
When the city is occupied by one force, it is the other force that prevents us. If the city could be entered it would not be the city. Hence the dependence upon fragments, fortuitous glimpses: any other kind would undo itself. Why would I go there, my friend writes, if I could imagine it?
Fragments. Fortuitous glimpses. Classic Calvino territory. But Brooks’s choice is deliberate. Kabul is not Venice.
Closer to Calvino’s fantasy is the many-gated city “A.,” like every city and like no other, mind-born or heart-born yet anchored in the ways of the world, different for different travelers, renewing itself with each new sighting. It is ruled and administered—the old Platonic quarrel resolved for once—by poets and philosophers (if only because there seems to be no one, be it banker or midwife, priest or digger, who is first not either or both of these things). Their laws are at once strict and pliant, beholden to tradition, yet generating their own antecedence, imagining precedents, if the need so arises, by a cunning combination of time, forgetfulness, and discourse. And as in Foucault’s thesis on sexuality, so are made plain the mechanics of power.
Other readings, other forebears. “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Dream” recalls that old Borgesian ploy in “The Circular Ruins” (the man dreaming of another only to find himself the subject of a third person’s dream), but it aims not to startle—hardly possible after Borges—only to tease open with a slight shift in register the inmost recesses of the psyche to let the clotted trauma escape:
Waking from his dream. . . the keeper always wonders why the man in his dream should find himself dreaming of such a lighthouse and such an existence. What it might be deep within each of them. . . that is so lonely, so isolated, so beleaguered, that it chooses for itself this place, this life, sending out messages that are no more than glimmers or bars of light, or repetitions of the one deep, mournful note, warning people, on vessels that he cannot see, of the dangers, the perils of approaching too near.
On the other hand, the most humorous story of the collection, “The Wall,” can easily be read as a variation of Kafka’s “The Great Wall of China.” It is all there, the fabled setting, the exposed stone ramparts, the wide gaps making the wall itself superfluous, the vast human endeavor greasing the slow moving cogs of the state machine, the imperial message that has no hope of reaching its intended recipient, the imaginary enemy beyond, and the distant or non-existent or simply dead sovereign within. Kafka’s pen is swifter, the vision omniscient, his humor double-edged, tinged with uneasiness, a function of the story’s inner ironic geometry. Brooks’s method instead is to branch out, to linger and to bring focus on a small section of the wall (hence, too, the truncated title), to generate localized drama and to revel in showing the hopeless futility of human affairs. Less edginess, more stoicness:
A bleak place. Wind, rain, ice, snow, or a summer that’s so hot and dusty they long for them back again; mist for the mid-seasons. . . Almost everyone gets to the point where they think that the Wall is doing their thinking for them. Almost everyone has got to the point where it occurs to them that they’ve had it wrong, that the side they thought was the outside, towards the enemy, is really the inside and vice versa. . . And if an enemy did come what would the guards do? Fight? Surrender? Offer them green tea and noodles? Wait for instructions? If there is a Headquarters anywhere it’s certainly not in this province or the next, or the one after that. The Wall could be taken and it might be weeks before Headquarters knew, if anyone ever took a message in the first place. You long for the enemy, to make sense of things.
But there is no enemy. And if someone in the garb of an enemy were to appear, were to build, in spite of all the resistance, an appendage to the wall, lay siege, wait, who is to say that with time and forgetfulness and the fixed, patient rituals of statecraft, this enemy, this structure, will not sooner or later be taken into the folds of the wall. For in the ageless world of the Wall, there is nothing that is not Wall.
Then, too, the Kafkaesque trope of perpetual deferment makes up the narrative of “A Traveler’s Tale” which is nothing but the upending of the typical narrative motifs of any travel tale, that is to say, it relates the journey—false starts, delays, paths discarded—up to the very point from where the actual journey begins.
After the irony, after the humor: pain, beauty—the beginnings of terror.
The prose fragment “The Dead” opens with an epigraph from Rilke’s “First Elegy.” And it is pure Rilke. The passages read like they came from the discarded pages of his expressionist novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. It stands as a testament to Brooks’s long engagement with the poet, the substance of his style, his oblique stance on the world, the lyric, that upon reading it you yearn to revisit the original. Calculated thrusts into the silence of things making emotions palpable, making the world vibrate with them:
Mid-winter sunrise, deep, vermilion, etched against the dark towers, cold and fiery dawn-ball of godspeech, horns like lost geese in the depths below. . . .
The high roofs of the dead are just visible over the long, straight walls, some of them with their windows open, catching the last light. I think about them sitting there, in their upper storeys, with their hands on the sill, their mouths and eyes gaping, absorbing whatever they can from the thin, buttery sun. . .
Every day you feel another life waiting. Every day you feel you could step off the edge. . .
Is that what we came here for, to wander about in the shadowy streets of ourselves, bear witness to them, in an alarm or amazement we can do little to explain or control? . . .
In the City of Ruins . . . a child . . . turned to me and, looking openly, spoke in my own tongue, the one clear, intimate word of greeting, as if he knew me and there were some treasured secret between us. All afternoon his strange beauty haunted the stone, sounds that might have been their muffled voices leading me deeper and deeper into the dry, hot maze of that place, investing it with unexpected and implausible desire.
“Swan,” “Panther,” “A Piece of Sheepsong.” Angels. What are they? Enigmas of the heart. Vessels of grace. Nodes where cosmic charge leaks into the world. The Tears of Eros (after Bataille, as Brooks said to me). Holograms. Tilt your gaze, and the swan you saw “covering the figure of the tall, pale woman” or crossing the darkening alley vanishes. Watch long enough and the panther hiding in the shrubbery at the edge of the painting or madly pacing the bars of its cage leaps out, is inside you and with you. They possess your world, your dreams. You see their impress in the wrinkled sheets of your bed at dawn, in the figure of the moon, in the gendarmes, visible through the bars of the plane trees, patrolling the routes Napoléon.
“Napoleon’s Roads”—to where do they lead? Languedoc? Provence? To the old troubadour territory and the swift rhythm of their songs? To Ezra Pound who was enthralled by them? To Brooks himself who wrote his doctorate on Pound’s early Cantos? But do they not also point towards the delusions of Emperors, the megalomania of nation building, Imperialism, plunder, pointless suffering?
The subtlety of the material with which this story’s edifice is built is a lesson in writing and storytelling. That such a story can be written of such a subject is itself quite enough—that it can be written in this way is a marvel and very humbling.
Over five years ago, on our first meeting, Brooks handed me a copy of his previous story collection Black Sea. It was a collection of abstract, elliptical pieces that ranged from portraits and sketches of people and places, to chance or erotic encounters in a castle in the Black Forest to a cottage in the English countryside, to philosophic and metaphysical speculations about life and nature of art, to the perverse and grotesque. If in “The Map Room” a map of the world grew out of proportion to encompass an entire village, not unlike Borges’s tiny piece “On Exactitude in Science,” then in “Alexandria” two lovers tired of the long-windedness of an “expatriate English novelist” (Durrell?) took matters into their own hands, scoffing from afar at Nabokov who famously called his characters “galley slaves.” “The Geometrist” contained, it seemed to me then, both Chekhovian and Borgesian elements, its idea infinitely complex (disproving Euclid on parallel lines), yet the execution astonishingly simple. In my favorite story “Jacques Prévert and the Cat” the action was concentrated in the single image of the poet sitting outside a Parisian café stroking his cat in the midst of a Proust-like epiphany.
What saved these stories or inquiries from being mere postmodernist feints then, and what has always distinguished Brooks’s writing from the start—for instance, his early ekphrastic novel The House of Balthus where subjects from the paintings of the Polish-French artist Balthasar Klossowski de Rola come to life in an apartment block in a French country town—is their underlying humanity, and the struggle, plain to see, to birth them into being, the thrill of watching that rare dynamic, dialectic process where the writer is transformed in equal measure by the very material he works diligently to transform.
Napoleon’s Roads, in language now on the point of collapsing, now suddenly gone transparent to reveal the world in its minute splendor, but always totally committed to its stylistic and ethical concerns, is a step further along that path. “To hold nothing back!” writes Brooks in Balthus. “Isn’t that what the stars do? The dark, the nothing behind them, held back by them, and yet made so much the more evident because they are there?” Like the ancient seers of Vedic India, Brooks knows that the visible puts down its roots only in the soil of the invisible, that perhaps, like them, it is better to seek—in Roberto Calasso’s words—not power but rapture.
In his fictions, Brooks moves lightly through societies or topographies, not only because that is a style he has now mastered but also because it emerges naturally from his long-held moral-political position regarding the devastating consequences of the colonial conquest of Australia, and the unspeakable suffering that the non-human and natural world continues to witness under the sign of capital. When the writer works tirelessly to lighten his tread, the writing is bound to follow his lead.
Fictional vignettes. Fragmentary prose. Prose poems. Brooks like certain authors and poets has nearly perfected this form. Napoleon’s Roads often reminded me of the works of the Canadian poet-philosopher Jan Zwicky, the French writer Pascal Quignard, and, in Australia, Beverley Farmer and Peter Boyle.
The narrator of “The Panther”—a writer, what else?—notes somewhat ruefully towards the end:
I have my admirers, as I have always had, but am in most common respects quite unsuccessful. Those critics who pay my books any attention say almost to a person that they are beautifully written, even haunting, but that there is always some indefinable thing missing, an unspoken absence, around which everything turns.
Brooks recently said to me that his deepening engagement with the non-human world has at last begun to fill up that absence.
Perhaps, then, the panther has walked free from the cage.
Aashish Kaul is the author of A Dream of Horses & Other Stories and The Queen’s Play.
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