Place, identity and the limitations of language converge in this slim collection of illuminating and incisive essays.
In her debut novel, Faces in the Crowd, published in America concurrently with this volume, Luiselli writes of literary recognition as a “virus,” one that these simultaneous publications is sure to spread. If anything, these essays are more impressive in both their expansiveness and epigrammatic precision, as the young writer—born in Mexico City, prolific in her output and currently studying for a doctorate in comparative literature at Columbia—mediates between her scholarship and her personal experience. The collection begins and ends in a cemetery in Venice, with the author making a pilgrimage to the grave of the exiled poet in the opening “Joseph Brodsky’s Room and a Half” and then returning full circle with the closing “Permanent Residence,” which ends with a vision of her own tombstone, after an admission that “writing about Venice is like emptying a glass of water into the sea.” In between, she writes of other places—primarily Mexico City and New York—and maps, architecture and, always, books and authors. “Going back to a book is like returning to the cities we believe to be our own, but which, in reality, we’ve forgotten and been forgotten by,” she writes. “In a city—in a book—we vainly revisit passages, looking for nostalgias that no longer belong to us….Rereading is not like remembering. It’s more like rewriting ourselves.” Whatever she writes about, ultimately, she’s writing about language, exploring the possibilities of words as well as recognizing their limits: “Perhaps learning to speak is realizing, little by little, that we can say nothing about anything.”
A collection that can’t be categorized as memoir or travel writing or literary criticism but cohesively combines such elements and more.