‘A collection of varied personal musings, using place as inspiration’ – Sidewalks by Valeria Luiselli

51uYBK9i4BL._AA160_Valeria Luiselli (who is Mexican, despite the Italian name) was described by the Observer as ‘an exciting female voice to join a new wave of Latino writers’ following the UK launch of her debut Faces in the Crowd last year. So her follow up Sidewalks has a lot to live up to. Now, I haven’t read Faces in the Crowd, but it’s obvious from the start that Sidewalks is a completely different kind of book. In terms of genre it’s probably best described as creative nonfiction: it’s a collection of varied personal musings, using place as inspiration.

We first encounter Luiselli wandering around a graveyard in Venice, look for Joseph Brodsky’s grave. She notes that ‘searching for a grave is, to some extent, like arranging to meet a stranger in a café, the lobby of a hotel or a public square, in that both activities engender the same way of being there and looking: at a given distance, every person could be the one waiting for us; every grave, the one we are searching for’.

The second piece, ‘Flying Home’, begins with a lament about the slowness of transatlantic air travel. I couldn’t identify, and this leads to my main problem with Sidewalks – since it’s all about Luiselli and her experiences you need to identify with her to fully appreciate what she’s trying to say.

Most of the rest of the book roams around Mexico City, and these pieces were less jarring to read. The authoritative tone, which came across as a bit pretentious in the earlier pieces, starts to sound more genuine. ‘Manifesto a Velo’ meditates on the unique viewpoint those travelling by bicycle have on the city. ‘Alternative Routes’, in which she wanders the streets of Mexico City while pondering the meaning of words, was engaging, although it would have been more original had she omitted the word saudade, an endless source of fascination for students of Portuguese about which everything has surely been said already.

‘Stuttering Cities’ draws clever parallels between language and the city, the process of finding the exact word compared to excavating the rubble after an earthquake. ‘Relingos’ talks about disused plots of land, and buildings. Luiselli talks her way into a disused library which is being used as ‘an improvised and not quite official workshop for restoring murals’, specifically, one called The History of Writing (‘It seemed a little ironic that this very mural, The History of Writing, was being restored in an ex-library completely devoid of books.’)

On her apartment building in New York (by the next story ‘Other Rooms’ she lives in New York):

“There’s nothing to talk about with the people who live in this building. Gilberto Owen, the Mexican poet who resided in this very same area over eighty years ago, knew why: the worst defect of neighbours here is their incapacity for properly bad mouthing each other. Not only is that fundamentally true – but the current reality is worse still. Today our neighbours are always happy, always excited about something, always doing great, really great, never openly disillusioned, never ever unsuccessful, properly depressed or decently full of spite.”

By the end of the book she’s back in Venice, where after stating that writing about the city is ‘vulgar and futile’ she goes ahead and does it anyway. In ‘Permanent Residence’, after pondering for a while on the meaning of national identity, she admits to having an Italian passport (hence the name) and using it to get permanent residence in Venice, just so she can visit a doctor.

I had a love hate relationship with Sidewalks. It is creative, at times satisfyingly ironic, but thanks to the dense literary tone it’s generally heavy going, and the occasional inserts of self-deprecating humour often seem incongruous. As I’ve already noted, I haven’t read Faces in the Crowd, but reviews describe it as original and progressive. Unfortunately we can’t say the same for Sidewalks – the blogosphere is full of this kind of writing, and Sidewalks does it no better than much of the rest. Admittedly it’s a genre which has not made great inroads into traditional publishing, so in this respect Sidewalks is a welcome addition, but I can’t help thinking that there is even more original writing out there.

Any Cop?: If you read this hoping for more of Faces in the Crowd’s experimental brand of Latam fiction you might be disappointed. This venture into non-fiction feels like Luiselli is still finding her voice, but at least she’s happy to try new things while doing do.

 

Lucy Chatburn


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