Absence

8 February 2010

A failed disposable camera picture of my desk in Boston in ’08. Two photographs tacked to the wall are visible: An artists’ photograph printed in Harper’s of a controlled fire set in an empty model home in Britain to train firemen, & a newspaper picture of the Iraqi minister of the Interior blindfolded & tied to a chair in his office after he was arrested for corruption.

I got up earlier this afternoon, still at the same café, to order another coffee & I put out my cigarette while I straightened. While I walked away what was left of it was still smoking in the ashtray, a kind of signal or trace. It reminded me, when I sat down again, of those effective & precise signifiers of absence (that is, of former presence) that crop up most often in crime fiction — the detectives are just seconds too late, & there’s still a thin coil of smoke coming up from the ashtray.

I suppose, overused, these verge on cliché — the flapping curtains in the open window, the still-warm, slight imprint in the empty bed — but the physicality of the best of them is moving. I read a Chilean poet once, I can’t remember who, it was a friend’s bookshelf in Ronda, & I still remember a turn of phrase — someone had come home to find that a person close to them had been taken by the special police, had been disappeared. An empty saucepan or a teakettle sat on a hot stove, smoking, ‘dry as a bone,’ the water all boiled away.

I can’t think of other similar moments in fiction, but perhaps you can.

People disappear sometimes in Basque Country, too (not in the same way as in Chile! — I want to add, because parallels are cheap), & the stories you’re told about it are typically difficult to make a single clear sense of. A friend works in a pueblo east of here, way up in the mountains, & five people were detained a few weeks ago in 3 a.m. raids with — from her high schoolers’ perspective, at least — no explanation. They were spirited away in the night & nobody knows what’s happened to them. This, at least, was what she was telling me, what her kids had been talking about in class in their mixture of Basque & Spanish. The same thing happened last fall — there were massive demonstrations in Bilbao. My friend brought it up at a party, to a Spanish woman, who listened with a particular kind of expression on her face & then said, politely but firmly, “There must have been a good reason.”

Which is to say, Don’t trust your kids to give you an accurate sense of what’s going on out of their own feelings of persecution.

This morning while I was taking my coffee at the bar in the Mercado de la Ribera,  I read in El Correo about the cache of explosives recently seized in Portugal; ETA, it seems, has been making noises about car bombs, attacks on airports. Most of their leadership is in jail — if you look at the wanted posters you see a bunch of rural kids from the pueblos. An ongoing season of crackdowns & detainments that started this fall, probably not all justified, probably not all unjustified.  I’m in over my head. I didn’t mean to start writing about this again. I’m just trying to give a sense of what’s left, what’s hanging in the air.

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