The Black Box is an existential novel, written in a postmodern language, on freedom and fate, on faith and doubt, on revolt, desire and beauty. It is also a novel about premonitions and ‘essential absences’. The Black Box is a symbol of memory and of identity and a metaphor of the individual soul.
Let’s say you are a convinced pacifist and regarded as a mercenary, if you are an honest fellow and suspected of onerous intentions, if you are a good-natured person and people project evil intentions on you, of course you get scared. And it’s understandable, how could you not be terrified when you see that you are mistaken for someone detestable or even the opposite of who you truly are? And it’s well known that fear triggers aggressive-defensive reactions in anyone. Therefore, even the most peaceful of people may find themselves captive in fierce situations, without causing them in the least, and at the base of these incidents rest always projection, confusion, illusion…
Events, relationships, like any living organism, transpire: they begin to eliminate toxins, in time. Noise is the transpiration of real life.
Postulate 2. No one lives exclusively in reality.
Nature has endowed us with a purpose. Nature is more calculated than the most fanatical accountant and stingier than the greediest businessman: it doesn’t do anything for free. Nature also endowed us with the power to transfigure noise, a power we generally call music.
Sound has two states of aggregation: noise and music. Music is a suspension of existence in void. Music can temporarily interrupt real life. It can dissolve it. Music is the most available narcotic. It is a form of enthusiasm that erupts from the darkest reality. Enthusiasm generally erupts from pretty grim realities and is directly proportional to the frustration and bitterness that you keep company with, living inside them… Just like enthusiasm, music has the mission to compensate reality.”
The high school looked roughly like an asylum or an old prison, only there were no bars at the windows. But it wasn’t the end of the world; me and Tristan had seen worse, besides, we had bicycles and knew very well the way to the girls’ school. In the first two years of high school, Tristan’s professed purpose was to undermine authority. He was already determined from the years of boarding school, when he had been beaten enough to make it clear that he was in direct conflict with it. What was common knowledge, from what the older boys were saying, was that in the gas tank of the principal’s car you usually poured sugar, but Tristan poured salt. He emptied bags of water from the upper floors whenever an inspection came to school, he was as vigilant as possible. Once, he even had the courage to empty the content of his pencil in water, and the overflow of the bag discharged straight over the coat of the head inspector. He also ended up in the detention room a few times, because there were at least two known ratters and three suspected ratters in our classroom.
There were two lists: one of approved expressions and words, whose top of the bill was “order and discipline”, and another of forbidden expressions, which Tristan used in turns, careful not to miss any of them. Sometimes, there were clashes in his vocabulary between approved words and forbidden words, or an outcast word would accidentally stick to a refined formulation, just like a chewing gum to the sole of a royal shoe or it would sneak into his mind, through ricochet, precisely in those situations where etiquette demanded that he only thought about inspiring things.
‘When you go into a church and look at statues or stained glasses, what’s the word that usually comes to your mind?’ he once asked and I blushed, and he understood that he wasn’t the only one in that situation.
When there were no bets, there were competitions or challenges. I won two of them. Important ones.
Without having something clearly outlined in our minds, a shiver of terror ran through us anytime the geography teacher appeared in the boys’ locker room, we felt our palms heating up each time the math teacher raised his stick to point to something on the blackboard, and all of us, except maybe that mush head Gilford who was top of the form, had fantasies about the mother of Tom Wiggins, a blonde, delicate little boy, kind of a wuss, whose mother was an English teacher at the girls’ school. Although it may seem unbelievable, the best student in class at English was Tristan, and he could write pretty well. He intentionally slipped a poem that, to be honest, sounded more like a Dadaist composition, into Tom’s notebook and his mother found the paper and was delighted by the richness of the vocabulary and the unusual associations of images. Of course they were unusual, since Tristan automatically jotted down whatever was going through his head, without following a certain idea and at the end he named the result a poem. He did the same with drawings. In order to concentrate in class, he had to always scribble something. All his notebooks had the last pages filled with object studies: an eraser, a fountain pen, a sock with a hole in it, a tennis ball, a piece of chalk or a sponge, which mingled on the same page with faces of movie heroes, portraits of rock stars or sketches in movement, to which he added flowers or little stars, depending on what he felt like in that instant. Just as they were, huddled together on the same piece of paper, they could pass for surrealist embroideries in a strange composition. The fact is that the English teacher wanted to meet the talented poet and personally return the poem that had wandered into her son’s notebook. And we grew green with envy when we saw Tristan’s fingers touching that diaphanous hand embellished with rings. The truth is he blushed and lost his bearings like a girly-girl and didn’t understand much of the monologue that our idol held, encouraging him to pursue his talent. The way home from school went through a neighborhood filled with brick houses, through a park, over a bridge and through a fairly lively area, with shops and businesses, from where we rode down some streets that cut short the route through the ghetto. We were riding our bikes and had the opportunity to make a detour by the English teacher’s house, which was somewhere not far from the area with bistros and shops. And one day, we got an idea: what if we paid her a visit, since she was all in awe of Tristan? So we rang the doorbell. Tristan pushed me in front… and when the goddess opened the door and smiled at me, my knees gave in. She stretched out her hand and I had to stretch out mine, although I was extremely embarrassed of my sweaty palm. She invited us inside the living room and offered to make us a tea. All the furniture was white, the carpet was crimson, and there was a Victorian style porcelain vase on the table, with a bouquet of lilac flowers made of authentic plastic. The wallpaper was an acceptable baroque imitation, with little leaves and pinkish butterflies, and on the walls hung reproductions after period lithographs and family photographs, plus a large portrait of a distinguished lavaliere wearer. The usual word that Tristan and I used back then was “boring”. Everything that didn’t suit us was labeled in that manner. We would normally have labeled the atmosphere in the goddess’ house in that way, but that time we made a concession, especially since we could sniff a discrete scent of her perfume in the air…
When we finally began to unwind and find more natural positions on the couch that we sat on as if on pins and needles, we noticed the half-open cabinet. And from it, it unraveled before our eyes, as a diamond before the good eye of a pirate, in all its pink splendor: THE TROPHY. It was exactly as we had imagined it: one hundred percent silk, with fine embroidery on the sides.
‘I bet you don’t have the guts to!’ Tristan said, simpering.
I could already hear her footsteps approaching from the kitchen with the tea tray. I can’t explain where I got the courage or how I was agile enough or when I grabbed them, but the fact is that in less than 20 seconds, I was stuffing the English teacher’s panties in my own ones.
The terms of the problem:
1. You can make an ordinary thing seem profound just by insinuating that it is a secret or simply because it’s hard for you to confess it.
2. A well-educated English man would much sooner admit to have been roaring drunk that to have dropped a tear to one of Tom Jones’ songs.
3. Everyone feels the need to confess to someone and since a respectful English man wouldn’t dare bother his peers with personal dilemmas, when he can have a very exciting conversation about the exchange rate of the dollar or the weather conditions, he keeps journals in which he tells an imaginary interlocutor everything he is embarrassed about and doesn’t fit into his model citizen image. That explains why every new page begins with “Dear diary”…
The second trophy I managed to get my hands on was the diary of the class star, the dumbass Gilford. Tristan had been coveting it for a long time, and we were all sure that its existence wasn’t a mere myth circulating around the classroom. His locker in the changing room had been broken into several times, but the burglars had been disappointed each time, because except for a few pairs of dirty socks, a handful of pens and old felt-tip pens, two grammar notebooks, a pair of ragged gloves and a didactic poster with the children of the world holding hands over the Earth, they hadn’t found anything. Not even a torn off page from one of those magazines that circulated under the table, not even a rumpled piece of paper that would give him away in some respect. We all suspected he was gay. If Bobby Brown’s locker had been broken into, we probably would have found enough materials for all the boys in the class to dream about for the entire semester. No compromising materials of any kind were ever found in Gilford’s backpack either, although it was checked once every three days. Well, I got the bright idea of keeping him under close observation, and I saw him at the library hiding the notebook in the shelf with encyclopedias, a shelf full of volumes that no one touched, except for the school’s janitor when she dusted. He left it there, so that it wouldn’t be discovered by his parents, at home. As soon as he went out the library’s door, I snatched it and rushed off to let Tristan know. I put the trophy in the backpack and we both pedaled quickly to the park, where we threw ourselves onto the grass and started studying it in detail. Gilford was even more awkward and gay than we suspected, he had imagined an entire odyssey of the future where he had a two-storied house and a Japanese-style garden, two kids, a French wife and a German shepherd dog. It wasn’t very clear why the wife had to be French. He would become a surgeon and travel the world, operating on hopeless cases. He wanted to be a sort of genius and saint at the same time. In a word: BO-RING. At some point, I wondered what had become of him. My mother told me he was working at the gas station downtown, keeping the inventory.Tristan 1974
You always make the wrong choice. No matter what you choose. If you are a wuss, it’s bad, if you are brazen and gutsy, you’re a punk, if you mind your own business, you’re dull and mediocre, therefore you have nothing to say, if you are full of zeal, it’s clear that you’re a nerd and a goody-two-shoes and it’s bad again.
It’s wrong to show your vulnerabilities, because you’re automatically labeled as being contemptible and a pansy, but if you seem insensitive, you’re perceived as a bulldog worthy of being attacked. Well, you’re considered to be worthy of aggression anyway. If you look indifferent or absent-minded, you’re labeled as being arrogant and defiant. Especially when you’re obstinately quiet, you’re suspected of the worst. But you shouldn’t speak out of turn either, there will always be a smartass to think that you’re taking yourself too seriously. And these matters that already seem pretty nasty in relation to the people your age become even more unbearable when you are dealing with a perverted adult who feels he has the right to judge you.
What do they teach you in school, in general, and what is the message you get after education?
To be always the same, to be generous, but calculated, to be modest, but to know your own worth, to be tactful and yet always honest, prudent and brave, it’s not clear whether alternately or at the same time. To always land on your feet, and gracefully. Ungraceful landings aren’t acceptable. To lose your temper, but weigh your vainness in the morning, at noon and in the evening, to love passionately, but never neglect your own person, to be honest without offending or disturbing anyone, to dream, but to be realistic, to not cheat, to not betray any part of what you are, as if you know very well who you are since the beginning of time and forever, to not change, but to evolve, to not contradict yourself, to be responsible and yet enthusiastic, to enjoy life, to take everything seriously, to communicate, to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; all these atrocious imbecilities and precious contradictory advice are crammed down our throats with a hose, with a funnel, with a trumpet, they are hammered into our brains since childhood and to this day, everywhere, in school, at the market, in the stinking apartment house staircase, on TV, at the academy, at church, amen.Norman 2015
Tristan was somewhat right. Education was meant to enslave the individual, not serve him. The same for culture. If you don’t look out for yourself and go crazy, no one will bother to repair your mind. School has a sole purpose: the instrumentalisation of the individual, his transformation into a man useful for the community, certainly not free or genuine. We aren’t born free or genuine… These are things that we gain gradually. But school is an opponent that plays against you; you must know that, because if you don’t, you’re screwed.
We had to defend ourselves from the bourgeois… Not to let them patronize us. We wore uniforms in school, which was an advantage, because you couldn’t tell apart the kids like us from the kids whose parents were part of another social class. We never had more than two pairs of jeans, two t-shirts, two shirts and two caps each. Two, because the clothes had to be washed. We wore them in turns. I remember Tristan’s multicolor striped sweater, of a questionable taste, but which was extremely chic judging by the fashion of the time. We also had some clothes handed down by our big brothers, but which we only wore at family reunions. Bourgeois kids had about four times more pocket money than us, let alone the money for cinema or ice cream that they received additionally, on weekends. There was this one guy, Andrew Larry, who was the tennis champion of the city in the junior league, and whom the parents brought to school in a latest model red Aston Martin, leaping out of their skin with pride for their offspring… Of course this Andrew didn’t treat his colleagues like peers, when he had already made a name for himself. He was so aware that he was a treasure of a boy that he didn’t shy away from answering the teachers’ rhetorical questions, from the category: what is man? what is the meaning of life?
What me and Tristan called bourgeois at the time were actually middle class families.1974
No matter what a teacher asks you and no matter how benevolent he seems, never answer explicitly, but only evasively. In short, avoid acting as if you are in a confessional.
Don’t give the impression that you are talking seriously about the things that really matter to you and don’t shy away from acting all-knowing in insignificant matters; people only strike at what you seem to take seriously.
No matter how ugly a girl is, if you notice that she likes you, don’t reject the opportunity of going out with her and at least kissing her. You can never insult the desire of a female… Besides, you never know, it might be your only chance. You may wake up paralyzed or dead the following day. Only a wimp or a fool would pick and choose in such situations.
Be generous with those younger and weaker than you and pretend to be a “badass” in front of those that you sniff out as being tougher.
Don’t befriend a colleague whose parents are wealthy. Sooner or later, a situation will arise in which he and his entire family will humiliate you.
Don’t miss any opportunity of being the center of attention. Even bad fame counts as fame.
Adults are always willing to disarm you and to make headcheese out of you with their advice and morals, don’t even give them the impression that they know you.
Avoid making promises, as much as possible. People who seem moral are those who have the best strategies of avoiding responsibility.Ghetto fashion week
Tristan was a very smart guy and prematurely lucid. He was scared of suffering. He was scared of himself somewhat. He was afraid not to end up in his mother’s shoes… or his father’s. He adored both, but he wouldn’t have liked to resemble any of them, and most of all he wouldn’t have wanted to inherit their fate. The perspective of working in a factory, of having a wonderful wife that he would cheat on, because he couldn’t domesticate his dick, terrified him… He was already mature enough to wonder if his folks, who were such good parents, were far from being the ideal partners in a couple. He even began to believe that the existence of children compromised the life of a couple… I had completely different ideas. Because in our family, there was less love, maybe, but more honesty and communication. In Tristan’s case, there was a fatal mix of love and unhappiness, which is the most difficult thing to endure.
Dad made the laws in our house, he set the norms, the rigors, the rules and the punishments in case they were broken. Mom always kept to the straight and narrow path, of course, but I slipped up pretty often and she was willing to cover for me. And Grandpa only went by his own moods. I don’t mean to say that dad was the kind of head of the family whom everyone feared, I only mean that at home, just as at school, there was a code of behavior that needed to be followed. For example, we had to pray before every meal. And eat everything that was on the plate. “We don’t throw food away.” I was fed up with potatoes. Each day, we had potatoes cooked in a different manner. And sometimes, my stomach ached. I would much rather have went to bed with an empty stomach, but there was no chance of doing that. Otherwise, my dad was a waggish guy, to be honest, who didn’t like to be contradicted, an exceptional mechanic, very solicited, and a passionate supporter. My mom was a nurse, but ever since my sister’s disease had triggered, she stayed at home and kept an eye on her. The doctors didn’t manage to agree on the diagnosis and tried all sorts of treatments, which didn’t pay off. Besides, psychiatry wasn’t in its most glorious form back then, the asylums were a horror; they experimented a lot and unscrupulously…
One day, my mom had a breakdown, a moment of exasperation, during one of my sister’s seizures. Her fits were unpredictable and, with each new type of treatment, there was a period of remission, when she seemed to become a normal teenager again, and my mom hoped that the medication had paid off, after which, all of a sudden, she relapsed. My mom made such hopes with each new drug they gave Georgia. She should have had her committed, but she didn’t have the heart to. I was no older than 12 when it happened. My dad was away at work, and my grandpa had retreated to his room. My sister was banging her head against the wall and screaming so loud that the people in the street could hear her, and her temple bled profusely. My mother was trying to stop her, but she kept struggling and banging her head harder and harder, and I was watching the whole scene dumbstruck and at some point, my mom burst out crying and fell to her knees. She looked as if she was praying, but she seemed completely paralyzed. Her hands hung in the air in a powerless gesture, watching her daughter smash her own skull. And I just stared at both of them, terrified. Then, between sighs, burst out the words that would haunt me throughout my entire life and boil up inside me every time I had to deal with a desperate situation: “Norman, don’t just stand there, do something!”… And I did. I went over to my sister and slapped her. Afterwards, I hugged her and kissed her bloodied forehead and, miraculously, she calmed down.
Right about that time, Tristan was having his first fits of melancholy. Sometimes, they came about in the middle of the day. He didn’t say anything, he even tried to make jokes, but I could see his eyes were darker and he kept biting his fingernails. The bulge in his pants was growing more prominent and he was getting taller by the day. He was getting skinnier and more rebellious, had started smoking and sometimes even did it at school, in the bathrooms. And he had changed his accent: his speech had acquired the tempo of a spoiled child. He prolonged the vowels and let the last syllable of the words at the end of phrases die out in a sort of mist. I wondered if he was aware of the fact that there was a certain contradiction between his commendable intention of becoming a “badass” and the whining in his speech, but since the second word on the list of approved terms was “humble”, I believe I understand what his reasons were. He wore his own t-shirts backwards and had started crafting the clothes handed down by his brother; one day, he knocked me all of a heap when he appeared at a family picnic dressed in a disastrous violet shirt, made of an elastic material, as they were done at the beginning of the ‘70s, well cut up with a scissor and strapped with safety pins. His mother had no idea what he was wearing underneath his normal sweater, until she had the joy of discovering it. Seeing her bloodshot eyes, Tristan shrugged, innocently, arched his eyebrows in a playful manner and said, in that spoiled child tone, almost in a whisper, as sweet as candy: “ghetto fashion week!” You couldn’t get mad at him.Trees in bloom
Until that May morning in 1975, we had never had a serious dispute, although it’s wrong to call it a dispute, because I didn’t dispute anything, I just listened to him, dumbstruck, categorically rejecting inside my mind the meaning of his words. I remember the image of the trees in bloom. We propped our bikes against a tree trunk and sat on the grass. He approached me point-blank, first in a playful note:
‘How do you think Jesus feels about the fact that there are so many contradictory religious cults?’ he asked me.
I shrugged. I had never thought about it until then.
‘I guess he’s stroking his beard, satisfied, and telling himself: these ones are good, and these ones are good… Since they all praise him,’ Tristan joked.
The situation in his mind was more serious than I had suspected. He didn’t waste any more time with feeling out the terrain and played his highest card:
‘I believe there is no God.’
It took me a while to come around from the giddiness. In his mind, things had gone down a path that I wasn’t at all familiar with. God, if He existed, which was very unlikely, must have been amusing himself terribly on people’s expense, he said, but in that case, he wasn’t exactly worthy of the praise. I didn’t understand anything he was saying. I couldn’t believe that in the head of my best friend, who I believed I knew as well as I knew myself, had emerged such blasphemies, since I spent almost every waking moment with him!
‘If He exists, then He’s full of cruelty. He’s a sadist. Can’t you see?’ he said, in a tone that I perceived as being hostile.
I couldn’t understand anything he was blabbering. He eyes sparkled in a way in which, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make out a trace of humility. A thought went through my mind, which I am now ashamed of: “maybe that’s what happens when you are possessed.”
‘Everything that is beautiful and makes sense goes to the dogs!’ he added.
The fact that we died at a certain point didn’t seem to him that sadistic. Maybe things didn’t deserve to last forever. What he found unacceptable was the fact that we died bit by bit, that we grew old, that beginning with age of 40, the decline began.
‘We make such efforts to cultivate ourselves, to create something, and exactly when we start to do things well, degradation begins… all the science and joy of living and the wisdom we acquire goes to the grave with us. Old age is basically a manner of witnessing our own death. If we died young and powerful, attractive, it wouldn’t be all bad, but most of us die shriveled and withered… Have you ever seen an octogenarian’s breasts? Plus the suffering, the pain, the absurdness! Old age and degradation are unacceptable.’
Tears had gathered in his “possessed” man’s eyes. He was completely unsettled. Although what he was saying seemed to make sense, I wasn’t ready to follow him.
‘The Bible is full of nonsense, continuously… Christian love has no sense. Loving means choosing, and if you love everybody, the choice is canceled. If you like all colors, then you don’t like any.’
I was trying to collect myself and understand what the deal was with that avatar of Tristan that I had no idea about.
‘Do you really believe that in this infinite universe, there’s no one to see and hear us?’ I asked him.
‘I really do believe there is no one.’
After his confession that day, I got it into my head that maybe it would be best to stay away from him. What if whatever had affected his brain, that something which altered his way of thinking, was contagious? I obviously didn’t think it explicitly, but there was a fundamental fear. The state of anxiety was amplified by a wretched dream, in which I met the Devil. He was following me through an enormous hall, a kind of labyrinth factory. I knew who he was and I was desperately trying to find the way out, but he kept showing up in front of me, suddenly, although I was sure I had managed to trick him. I moved from the desk we shared together to one closer to the front of the class, explaining that my dioptres had increased and I shouldn’t strain my eyes, which was partially true. But Tristan was a smart guy. He understood pretty clearly what was going on and I realized he was brokenhearted and felt betrayed, although he tried not to show it. He saw me talking with the most unlikeable kids in class during recesses, and he stayed at his desk, with his nose in his notebooks, drawing impetuously, persistently biting the fingernails on his left hand. During that holiday, we saw each other three times and only in the presence of our parents. However, in fall, with the beginning of school, destiny gave him the opportunity of proving to me how possessed he was and how good Christians others were, and it gave me the opportunity of dissociating once and for all the problem of faith from people’s character.
Regardless of denomination, group affiliation is never a fairy land. I swallowed everything without a peep: pettiness, gossip, small humilities, great mockeries. You can’t even expect the people in convents to willingly obey all commandments. But the good Christians in the group I was trying to adhere to sometimes broke them with a cruelty which would have driven possessed Tristan crazy, who was fundamentally more sensitive and harmless than a herbivore. They made me kill a snail. First they cornered me in their usual manner, accusing me of illicitly usurping a male body. If you can kill a fly, then you can kill a snail! they objected, with a logic that was hard to beat. “It has no central nervous system,’ I told myself, it won’t feel anything. So I did it. The feeling of squashing a living being under the sole of my foot still haunts me to this day. If they had made me kill a wolf or even a fox, anything that could have fought back, I believe I would have felt less horror. After that episode, I had already begun to hate them, but I was still confused and I continued to be confused until one day, the jerk Mike Frayer, a sturdy fellow with horse-like teeth and chieftain habits, wrote on the wall that surrounded the high school’s courtyard three words from the forbidden list, and during the investigation, although they could very well say they didn’t know anything, they all blamed me, since I was the new guy in the gang. It was pretty obvious what was in store for me. I even risked being expelled. And then, the possessed man stepped in and took on the entire blame, which impressed the principal, who was leading the hostilities, because it was obvious that he was lying, so he called each of us in his office, where the whole truth was brought to the surface. Frayer got away with a reprimand and rehabilitation work, which implied repairing his own deed, repainting the wall in a dust color grey, and I began to see Tristan as a hero.About demonstrations, rebellions and the weather
After the terrorist attack in Birmingham on the 21st of November 1974, there were the ones in London in 1975. The glory year 1976, when Norman and Tristan were getting ready to apply to college, in London, the country was in the midst of recession, and the government seemed overwhelmed by the attempts, protests and strikes that flooded the country. Norman’s mother viewed the teenagers’ and young people’s actions as a sign of the beginning of the latter days and a sound reason for worry: what if her son would be caught in a street fight or, God forbid, arrested? However, her husband had a robust philosophy, based on clear principles and refuted with good arguments the terms “demonstration” and “revolution”, which came up frequently during anxiety crises. The fact that you banged your fist against a counter or overturned a table in a bar couldn’t really be called demonstration or the fact that a group of Arsenal supporters brawled with Chelsea fans on neutral ground, in a central area. Just as it didn’t count as demonstration that a TV star appeared in his underwear in Trafalgar Square at rush hour, manifesting his inflexible certainty that he was followed by the secret police, disguised as a group of prostitutes. Even yelling anti-government slogans in a night club wasn’t so alarming, since it was only a reproduction at a hard to estimate scale of historical moments when the guys from Sex Pistols released their great hits.
‘Anyway, dear Mary, he calmed his wife, you just pray that it rains, because you know Norman doesn’t go out to manifest in the rain.’
But he was wrong. Norman would take part in all the protests he got the chance to, regardless of the weather conditions.
‘Punk was evaporating and we were the same outsiders, just a bit more drugged and confused…’ Norman had confessed to Irène. ‘Young generations couldn’t understand what was happening then, even if you were to explain it to them in detail.’
One of Norman’s Swedish students, with multicolor hair and covered in tattoos and piercings, told him that in her country, the state gave them money to be punkers, therefore the movement was still alive…
‘What?’ he had burst out, disappointed of the young girl’s rhetoric.
‘We were all punkers and wanted to undermine the system with our art, and the state would sponsor us if we had group actions and wrote a good project which promised to have a social impact and that we were bearing in mind general welfare and the good of the species. And we did. Therefore, to simplify things, we were being paid to be punkers.’
‘Right! What else does a punker want, if not the good of the species?’
From the Chapter The Hydra-Metropolis
The teachers filled our heads with so much theory that we couldn’t even remember our own names after lectures. There were too many currents, too many art schools, too many visions, too many hermeneutics and they all had their own sense. There were too many options. Where to turn to? It was a lot easier in our little town back home: you only had to know how to draw a convertible car or a portrait of Jim Morrison and you were considered a genius. Tristan had been the genius of secondary school, because he could even draw Robert Plant without having to look at pictures of him. Even if we had wanted to become painters a century ago, it would have been easier. What were we?
‘What kind of artists are we, Tristan?’
‘Talented ones, of course, what kind of question is that?’
‘What are we? Minimalists, surrealists, constructivists, conceptualists, realists? What are we looking for? To capture the pulse of the moment?’
Tristan answered this kind of questions either with a whistle or with a phrase from the list of those forbidden in secondary school. I, for one, felt that art didn’t have to be a re-edition of the chaos in reality, that it shouldn’t modulate it or add echoes to it. For me, art was a chance to exit the area of the absurd. We each tried something on our own, but we never knew if we screwed up, because the teachers never deemed our experiments otherwise than “interesting” and “intriguing”. Well, it was very clear to us what the translation of “interesting” was: bad verging on very bad. We weren’t very clear on the meaning of “intriguing”.
We were perfectly disoriented when it came to art, because we lived with the obsession that we had to produce something. Back then, he was a passionate fan of Miro.
We didn’t have very strict tastes in music either. Tristan was definitely excited by everything that high class intellectuals hated, but he liked jazz and was crazy about German classics, although he would have denied it even if you put a gun to his head. I suspected that he went to the philharmonics secretly, without telling anyone, after he finished work. Even in later years, when he worked at the factory, I suspected that he lied about being with a girl, when in reality he listened to chamber music in a fancy concert hall, in leather pants and ripped t-shirts painted in a violent manner.
After two years of disastrous searching, running in circles and scurrying down dead-end streets, we began to see the light, as artists I mean. Our painting was beginning to depict the interference among the two worlds we were oscillating between: the England-in-heaven, which looked slightly surrealist, like the world in Lewis Caroll’s books, full of humor and motley characters, where you risked running into sacred monsters such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, scholars that you might mention proudly even on a vacation in Paris, such as Osborne, Shaffer and Durrell, the fellows in Monty Pyton and even David Bowie in a brocade dress, and a terrestrial England, in which factories closed down, there were always strikes and attempts, the prices increased alarmingly and each week, the House of Lords was caught with its pants down, in a new case of corruption or traffic. We felt that we somehow belonged to both worlds: the one in which Alice consumed her initiation voyage, and that of furnaces and street protests. A vague idea had already sprung in my mind, which would fall into place and become more prominent with time, and would eventually give the title of our first exhibition. What were heaven and earth? Mirrors which Tristan and I gawked at, trying to fathom a face. What they never say about mirrors is that, in fact, even the ones that seem to render a relevant and dignified image that can be trusted, are still crooked.
The key word had remained the same as in secondary school and it was the needle of Tristan’s compass, both when it came to art and in selecting his entourage, because something that was worth our attention could not be BO-RING. Basically, both the art and the women that we dealt with were assessed on the basis of the same criteria, which, if he hadn’t been a lazy bones and had had the patience of writing some theory, Tristan could have raised at the rank of aesthetic principle. Even kitsch had a certain value, if it managed not to be bo-ring.
We drank our coffee together, in the mornings, in a small establishment called “Blue Fox”, at the intersection of two streets near the building we lived in. We sat at a table in the corner of the coffee shop, began to draw sketches and prepared the character descriptions:
A woman. 35 years old, no children, depressive husband, finicky lover.
A man. Gesticulates a lot, spits when he talks. Politics. Politics. Everything is about politics. He has an exaltation meant to dislocate a chunk of apathy of great proportions.
A woman. 40 years old. Obsessed by her sizes. She jogs. She’s constantly dieting. She works in a bank.
A man. The type that brings order and discipline into your head, into your life… Profoundly unhappy by nature, but ready to lecture you about happiness, even on an empty stomach, in the morning. Ambitious wife, who urges him on and organizes his social life. His name must be John.
A couple. He’s 30 years old, looks like a lady’s man and a swanker, dark-haired, most likely Italian immigrant. She is a dreary English woman, wears glasses and calls him “honey”. She talks to him and he pretends to listen, with an artificial grin that numbs his lips, she keeps touching him lovingly, he indulges her with a bored air. I only had to catch Tristan’s look and I could guess his commentaries. She works to support him, while he fucks another woman on her dime or, in terms of capitalist economy: she sexually exploits him, he financially exploits her.
The teachers made consistent efforts to convince us of the fact that we were irrecoverably uncultivated and dumb and we would never be able to set an original stroke of the brush on canvas. Maybe we considered ourselves full of grace, in our cultural onanism, but all our creative effervescence was due to ignorance. On the one hand, the logical sense that each of us had, warned us that we shouldn’t be very educated either, since the lack of ignorance inevitably led to the appeasement of effervescence. ‘I’d rather be an onanist than an eunuch!,” that was our motto. Sometimes, they would line us up and take us in a group, like a flock of sheep, to a museum, in order to be humiliated and lessoned in front of the masters’ chef d’oeuvres. I’ve always amused myself with contemplating the motley and cheerful crowd of tourists that streamed from Westminster and blended with the one coming from County Hall, to create a compact and noisy belt that headed towards the area with museums. And the fact that we mingled with them made me feel even more foreign to that hydra-city. What we learned in school, since our first years of gymnasium, was related to the perception of time that – I believe – every English man has analyzed in depth: “glorious history, crappy present, uncertain future.” But Tristan didn’t agree with it, he believed that history was a lie, the future was, indeed, uncertain, but the present was “the battlefield and maneuvering space that could make the future not be extremely crappy.” Just as we were taking notes right in the hallway of the British Museum and the art history teacher was perorating about the Great Nation, at the peak of enthusiasm, Tristan found himself talking out of turn: “I guess you all realize that the most valuable pieces in this museum are ‘stolen’!” He flunked the subject and had to retake the exam in the summer. But I was very proud of him. When you come to think about how much money is still being made from what our ancestors stole! That’s about it on the subject of the sublime. If we had been his students in aesthetics, I’m afraid Kant would have expelled us.
Concerning the pleasant, opinions were divided. I generally liked medium height, brown-haired girls, thin, with an androgynous air, “with spunk”, with complex interests and inner lives, and obviously with certain vulnerabilities that I could exploit, whereas Tristan preferred the feminine kind, in its ensemble. He generally liked girls whose femininity presented itself in excessive terms visually and in particular blondes with long legs. We had the biggest controversies about the pleasant with regard to sizes. He had a small waist and thin bones and I suspect that he was slightly intimidated by the typical conformation of English women, which implied somewhat larger hips. “How did nature figure to make English males with such small hips and English women with thighs as big as a mare’s?” he wondered, refusing to admit that he was uncommonly skinny. Still, I can’t dispute the fact that he had a sense for shapes that stimulated his intuition and which any plastic artist would like to have: “If the girls are a little chubby, the lines of their buttocks and those of their legs are arranged so that they look like the holy cross,” he would say and I had to agree with him. He could undress women with his eyes. In less than 30 seconds, they showed themselves to him in the altogether… And those he managed to know intimately confirmed his visions every time. I have to admit, he was a painter with an exceptional intuition for shapes and sense of proportions.
We shared our chicks. Tristan claimed I was the handsome one. But he was the lothario, I’ve already said it and I insist. And it was very unpleasant when one of the girls he seduced and abandoned came to me to complain and stress me out with her frustrations. Some of them would even call me on the phone to bring me to account for the fact that he had been a jerk.
When it came to agreeable, I preferred the completely innocent kind, who didn’t have any opinions about anything. I was horrified by half-learned and conceited women who exuberantly delivered nonsense, especially about art. There’s something ingenuous about idiots, you can forgive them for anything if they are charming, but stupid people are failed idiots, they’re not dumb enough to be regarded as freaks of nature or comical enough to make you laugh… The platitude of stupidity is its most troubling aspect. All fools claim that they are nonconformist, modest, full of fantasy and humor and that they have a special personality. They somewhat know exactly what they’re missing… If adaptation to the environment is a sign of intelligence, then how do you explain that fools are most adaptable to any social medium? I sometimes wonder.
On the other hand, I didn’t mind dealing with an ingenuous and modest idiot. In second year, I went out with a girl named Diana for two months; she came from the countryside, was a wonderful girl, a photo model, who posed for pictorials and brochures with clothing novelties and kept calling me “bunny”. She was sweet and blonde and affectionate and never wore skirts longer than 20cm. Adorable. There’s no point in describing the faces Tristan made or the noises he let out anytime the girl sat on my knees and started calling me names. I was either “honey bunny” or “mean bunny” or “cutsie bunny” or “silly bunny”. The girl had a propensity for using diminutives, probably picked up from her octogenarian aunts who hosted her in London and she would passionately turn anything that went through her mind into a diminutive: she would go for a teeny weeny shopping spree to buy herself a little dress or a small skirt or maybe even some tiny shoes, after which she was all mine, so that we could go see a short movie or a even take a little stroll, in case it didn’t rain, we could do whatever my tiny heart desired. I wasn’t terribly bothered by it. In time, you get used to the matter and begin to ignore it. She didn’t claim to be a little art critic or that she knew anything about my small painting passion, so from my point of view, she was really agreeable. She would ask me to show her my sketches and my drawings and she would stand still in front of them, in a studied pose, which was meant to suggest contemplation, she would sigh in admiration, then exclaim in a sweet voice: “oh, my talented little bunny!” But after two months, I couldn’t deal with Tristan’s mockery anymore, so I had to drop her.