The day was bleached, the sun pouring a magnesium bath over the teeming city, its trains and trams and two-stroke motors beetling from place to place like an insect plague, blueing the air with prodigious clouds of waste. They were enjoying it enough, though – human and inorganic industry alike, it was all the same to them.
Towards noon a film-production company appeared, as they regularly did after the morning hours, scouting for unlikely talent, and lighted on Ray and Servetus. They rested spread-eagled in the sun, on the pavement beside a heroin-addict and a Scientological missionary. The two observers didn’t have a position on the minor battle of wills going on between these two prone protagonists, and Ray for his part saw as much virtue in either form of salvation, should salvation be a necessary feature in his scheme of things.
A man with a sports-cap and clipboard immediately kicked Ray and demanded he be measured for costuming. They gathered Servetus up too, with some misgivings it appeared, because his tall and dull insubstantiality seemed more filmically resistant, and in any case his features too mild-mannered to serve their dramatic purposes. But it was decided almost on the spot that Ray should be the Assassin, lying in deathly wait at the heart of the film. Servetus was – irony of ironies – to be a Christian hanger-on, decked out in a beige linen-suit, custom-made for the tropics.
“Can you sweat? Can you sweat a lot?” they asked him. Would he be able to sweat naturally, they repeated, or failing that, could he simulate the same? Servetus recalled somewhere that the young Brando had been able to sweat on cue, but it seemed clear that such a calibre was beyond him. So, still frowning, they even had a photo they could show him of the tropical suit he would wear and said it wasn’t so important for him to sweat all the time, as long as he could often be seen wiping his forehead. Which seemed within his means. Their career as amateur Assassin and Christian hit the floor running, as these people would tell them between snatches of intensive Marlboro-consumption. Ray laughed at this, as well he might, knowing that that morning they had both not known where their breakfast would be coming from.
In the rigours of another time they would look back on this one and doubt how anything like it could come to pass. They were like the old explorers, an old idealism still intact, but for one difference – they threw themselves out in the vast open spaces of possibility, not the already-known of the world, and tried to find in the present what had previously gone unseen. They might then be able to understand those who had left obscure signs, that others had passed-over in ignorance or disdain – a neglect that had refused to believe miracles, let alone other worlds, would ever be possible.
Visionaries, then, or disbelievers – and most democratically, both. You need fools as much as geniuses to keep the story going, Servetus always said. He was one of the unspoken leaders, as well as a servant, to the rest of them. The place they found themselves in was a bee-hive, a colony of pure and abundant chaos. You could almost think, in coming here, that everyone who gravitated to this place did so out of an atavistic suicidal impulse. But the first person Servetus met there had escaped both life and death.
Ray didn’t know who he was anymore. He had the spare body and economical face of a Tibetan, the sagacity, too, in his laughing but ringingly confused eyes. He said some months before he had woken up in a tent in the Himalayas with some clothes and a few hundred American dollars under his mattress. Without a passport. With no consciousness of what had come before. Without any documents or evidence offering him a potential clue to an earlier life.
He had lost his own story – surely that is a worse effacement than either the certainty of death might be, or the mixed-bag of hope and hopelessness we can at least lay claim to. He had neither, but maybe that was his liberation as well. Servetus had met him in a half-way house, to which he sought refuge when his own money had run out – as it was bound to. (He had arrived there, after all, with barely enough to last a month or two. What absurd expectations he had placed in the benevolence of the world, though he would make the same mistake again, a hundred times, and by choice). Ray was kept in the half-way house by the authorities until such time as he might recover his memory and be returned safely to his country of birth.
But in the meantime he was unable to remember his own name, let alone his country of birth. He had lately become a lover of the films of Satyajit Ray, and so he called himself Ray. The other curious thing about him was that he spoke fluent Norwegian and good English, with a marked Japanese accent, but when given the opportunity of speaking the latter tongue, claimed to be unable to and understood only by guessing what his Japanese interlocutor might have been telling him. He and Servetus spoke, then, in English, and he never again mentioned his erroneous Japanese-Tibetan identity, and he stayed Ray for the duration. Though Servetus’ private name for him was Ray-San: it seemed a truer compromise.
He had a few of his American dollars left over, and the clothes he stood in. The psychological assessment team assigned to his case had given him permission to travel for awhile, until such time as he could at least report on some fraction of recovered memory. But that never happened, so far as anyone can surmise, and despite what later befell him, it is doubtful that Ray ever reported back to them at all. Not that he has ever let anyone know in either case, and he has doubtless embarked on a third incarnation as a wandering minnesinger, making amorous overtures to silky young backpackers in his cracked Japanese voice.
The point of Ray, and much else of this time and place, was that very little seemed to sit squarely in the usual outlines of things, and a double-world seemed to co-exist just beyond the assumed borders of what appeared to their senses. On top of the dense millions of bodies (appended, presumably, to some millions of souls) swarming and surging through the sweltering streets, there seemed to be a spectral double, like a falsely-exposed negative, clinging to each as well: not really real, but there nevertheless. Was it death at the right shoulder of each, an ideal self, a twin of spirit that would accompany the mortal body until such time as it took over the work of living on behalf of the individual it accompanied?
There was no way of knowing and these are speculative notions in any case. Suffice to say that this efflorescence of replication surrounded men and women and all living things, with a palpable intimation of another world. No-one could ever be sure which one he was stepping into, so that after some months there seemed to be even a danger of multiple worlds that would never be able to be successfully distinguished. Let it be said simply that, contra Deus, there was not only one world or one Kingdom of Sensible Power directing it: there was, if anything, a prism with multiple reflecting-lens that offered the view of a new and different world with every step they took. And each prism merely a function inside each new world. So it can be seen how confused they were liable to become.
Ray and Servetus stayed in the half-way house, and in case false inference be made that assumes some artifical derangement via opium or hashish enough to explain them, they remained wholly sober and clear-sensed throughout the course of these wanderings. There was, in fact, a wide and open-armed bay gesturing out to the ocean, right where they were, and most evenings they would enjoy the cooler breezes and while away the hours with other such travelers and local folk as sought their company.
And there were many. There was doubtless something clownish and hopeless in their ambience and especially in Ray’s functional lack – barely even a loss, given that he was unable even to identify what he had lost – of a self. Children especially would be likely to gravitate to his starry and wide-awake eyes. He was always buying them the sweet tea he could barely himself afford. But Ray, far more than Servetus, put his trust in the goodness of the world and it tended to repay his investment in kind.
Little girls would improvise eccentric dances for him, little boys insist on proving the marvel of their young muscles. And the marvel of Ray was that he seemed genuinely to respond to these displays with full, completely selfless engrossment: he rarely allowed irony, let alone sarcasm, to shadow his laughter, even if he knew these things from his camaraderie with Servetus, if not the modest period of his new life as a born-again, placeless alien.
He simply responded to things as they presented to him. He said he knew no other way to live, so far, and in any case, could only experiment with a few possibilities at this point. He didn’t believe that psychology is destiny, because he had none, of a decisive kind. Not that he was a tabula rasa, either. Without psychology, he was all blood, and heart, and whatever other sentient imaginings he considered he could put his granted self to. Like a gift, whatever body and intelligence he had been given, he figured he ought to make use of, which for him meant making a further gift to others of that which he had already received.
“Received from where?” Servetus asked once during these nightly conferences. “From no-one, nowhere,” he said, with the dubious small smile he tended to wear in the vicinity of such questions. “But it has to come from somewhere – this body, this gift as you say?” “Yes, but, also, it just appears,” Ray would say, a bit simple-mindedly. “By virtue of me,” he would add. “Your own mind, Ray?” “Hah, hah! No, you want me to agree! You want me to agree! I won’t do that!” “Why not?” “Because then it would be left there in finality. There would be nothing left to talk about, and we would start decaying, like old statues. Uncertainty keeps things moving.”
And it would be left there, for the moment. Ray would go back to watching the children moving, in their awkward yet gracious dance – made lovely by intention if not physical mastery. And buying them more of the terrible, sweet tea they seemed to crave.
It probably makes sense to suggest why they should find themselves in the place they did. Ray had forgotten his history, which was perhaps just as well for him, considering his prior life might have contained sorrows or horrors of which he might have preferred to remain ignorant. As for Servetus, like a lot of the others they met along the way, he couldn’t afford to be anywhere else. He had failed. He had little money and no steady occupation in any case, and there were few who were willing to take him on as a trusted employee. He had anarchistic and anti-social leanings. He threatened capitalists, the greedy, the exploiters of the earth, sometimes by sheer, Quixotic force. He disagreed with everyone, even his best friends. He had once cared, and now cared so much he had to care a little less just to survive. The world was a shocking travesty in his eyes, and bound for collapse.
“Travesty of what?” Ray-San would ask him. “Of it’s ultimate goodness,” Servetus would reply. “Mark my words,” he had said, and no-one did. Even his heros had gone ignored, so who was there to follow?
The idealism of other-worldly solutions demoralised him, and spiritual idealism worst of all. Sanctity made him retch, and he refused to believe in anyone who advertised themselves as such, however humbly, either in their costume or vocation, as a human being of sincerity. The bona-fide holy, if such should exist, were as far as he could tell working underground in long-suffering silence and obscurity, if they had not already been long killed-off by civilisation and its discontents. (Oh yes, he knew about those from long before. How repetitive and tedious they had themselves become – kids could now sing songs and repeat the same, with a thousand advertising agencies behind them, and make millions of dollars out of them.) Disenchantment had long before – before they were born! – become an industry in itself. In certain countries, the really advanced ones where little remained to fight for, it was de rigueur to buy the music and order the accessories, knowing beforehand that nothing would, or was meant to, change. And so flaccid irony became the currency of the time.
So there was really very little reason to go anywhere, or escape anything. Just letting the body move from place to place was a redemption from inertia or despair, knowing that history had its own trajectory for the world, deeply hidden in the nuts and bolts of cause and effect. Things would go on, of themselves, regardless of them, and so they were just flotsam willingly drawn by the wind, by happenstance, or mischance. Not everything that happens should be good, after all, and they took it all in their stride, as it came to them.
(opening chapter of a novel The End of Suffering - Paris, 2005)