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from the September 2011 issue

Double Fishing


Trout Fishing in America writes to Barbel Fishing in Algeria

Arlington, Virginia

November 14, 1989

[ . . . ] I could go on to tell you all about the trip that came next, dear BFA, and you wouldn’t see anything very different from what you’ve just read. I could go on for pages and pages, but what would be the point? (He) can’t stop moving around, and his wanderlust points to a lamentably unproductive temperament. I’m on my knees every time. Just to see him, so pathetically restless, he exudes the perfect remedy against writing! If at least (he) would go to the trouble of doing a bit of fishing, just to make himself useful, but he refuses, despite the insistence of his friends . . . And yet everyone thinks he’s a real fisherman! According to Steinbeck, all Americans see themselves as born fishermen. For a man to admit to an aversion to fishing is tantamount to accusing oneself of incest or a hatred of moonlight!

Did we not make a solemn agreement never to say or spell out their names—those individuals who consider us mere parentheses in their works—other than to replace them with a (he) in parentheses? I would gladly yield to my desire to scream his name, and call him every name under the sun. And then make those names as long as I like, one term for every term in the story of their previous journey.

Since you asked: yes, computers are very useful. You can organize your ideas much more quickly and send them from the keyboard to the screen, and if they are devoid of all meaning you can erase the whole thing with a simple tap of the finger. I’ve often cherished the thought that good writing is closely linked to spoken language, whether it is a monologue, a dialogue, or a group of people all discussing the same topic. With the help of a computer it is possible to move thoughts with your fingers from their isolated little compartments and up into the brain, and to print them out instantaneously. It is true that an idea first conceived in the mind is the truest, and the most original is the one that is worth the trouble it takes to transmit it, and that is the case in every conversation, so the quicker the transaction, the more faithful the transfer of what has been thought, felt, and truly signified.

There are obvious risks to implementing my theory. 1) What has meaning for me might not have any for my interlocutor or interlocutors; I am taking a risk in assuming from the get-go that what I am saying makes sense, this being based on the fact that, having acted this way all my life, I have not ended up in a mental institution nor have I been totally ignored by the majority of people on whom I test my ideas. 2) In the event that this vast majority of people with whom I am in contact are simply being polite and, out of friendship, do not want to contest what I am saying, I have allowed myself to ramble on and speak without any logic or objectivity simply out of friendship, something we all need.

In either case, both aspects of the transaction will improve with experience, but as long as we haven’t figured out which of the two possibilities will prevail, we will be bound by uncertainty.

I suppose the crux of the matter is really to see how we feel about all those experiences we’ve accumulated through intellectual interaction. Speaking of which, I feel fairly confident about my own, and no doubt that is because I wouldn’t have come as far as I have without a minimum of sound reasoning to my approach. Moreover, I wouldn’t go so far as to proclaim that I owe my position to some sort of superior intelligence on my part, unless it is that of my own culture. I have often said that had fate not caused me to be born in Selah, Washington and, likewise, caused my dear Afghan friend, for example, to be born in Hazarajat in his country at a given time, and if he and I had been able to exchange space and time, he might well have become Trout Fishing in America and I might very well have had a successful career as a grocer or taxi driver in Kabul.

Which compels me to share another idea with you, a confession, in fact, and that is my great admiration for the thousands of recent immigrants we encounter, people who haven’t been here long but who have adapted so well that they have managed to do everything I dream of doing myself. It is again a question of fate that has caused them to end up in a fertile land where, it seems to me, their every effort at planting something in the ground ripens and prospers to such a degree that they sweat blood in order to compete with everyone.

This calls to mind the vague notion which we refer to as a border in our culture, where every newcomer rises to the challenge. Why is this? I suppose the answer lies in the possibilities they have, at this border, to ensure their own survival and spend most of their waking hours planning it, then to acknowledge the fact when someone finds the right answer to this fundamental question. No one is safe, but this in turn gives them an acute awareness, a clear perception of what safety ought to be. For example, when an intruder appears they instinctively greet him with all the respect required.

We have hundreds, no, thousands, tens of thousands of people in Washington, DC who cannot make ends meet. But then along comes someone who sets up a food truck outside an office building and, to judge by the lines outside his vehicle, he is obviously making a million—and who is he? Just some simple Afghan political refugee, born in a poor neighborhood in Kabul, but with enough determination to take a major risk, here, at this foreign border. His experience of survival in his poverty-stricken culture has armed him magnificently to deal with adversity in this relatively benign environment.

I’ve often thought that Algerian society is ripe for this sort of change. A nation that has survived the way your people have, who have emerged with their values and traditions more or less intact, is in a remarkably privileged position to pose a challenge to those societies bloated with self-sufficiency on the other side of the Atlantic. Given the fact that Algerians can live without coffee, butter, and sometimes even bread (usually during the traditional yearly leave in August), and see to their financial needs, despite the serious errors arising from their static view of human survival, they will encounter no difficulties whatsoever in dealing with even the harshest environment, and they will wipe out all the local competition. Just like the Afghan. However, he is not going to spend his life slaving away in his stainless-steel truck. In all likelihood he will find a little restaurant and turn it into his own place where people will come to meet and dine and he’ll get a write-up in the Washington Post. He’ll eventually move back to Kabul where he’ll set up the same sort of place—if, naturally, the political situation will allow it.

You must wonder why I’ve been dwelling on these issues at such length. It’s just that lately I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the space I inhabit on earth and the way I live. I have come to the conclusion that the inhabitants of the Third World are better armed to deal with life than we are here, and with a bit of luck on their side they could take over from us economically once we’ve gone soft and succumbed to the so-called good life. Don’t get me wrong, please. I don’t mean that we’re in a serious state of decline. Just some of us.

Frankly, dear BFA, my ideas are not all that clearly organized, it’s just that having you for a captive audience has inspired me to come out with everything that goes through my head.

We don’t hear a lot in the media about what’s going on over your way. In the Washington papers I read that Chadli has ousted Merbah, and that there was an earthquake. It’s the business of the tree falling in the forest. Without the presence of human beings, who would hear the tree falling? So, no sound of the tree falling. That’s how I’ve been getting news of Algiers lately. Don’t mention this, please, to the correspondent from Agence France-Presse, because he or she would be offended by the fact that I don’t consider the French media as belonging to the Western media.

Yes, I had a memorable stay in Algeria, and of all the countries I visited it was truly in your country that I had the greatest opportunity to meet so many sensible, thoughtful, considerate people. Every day was like a course in world affairs for a first-year student. Most of the people I met were brilliant professors of the universal, as L.S. Senghor liked to say. I didn’t get a diploma at the end of the experience, but I learned far more than most universities could ever offer in their curriculum.

I haven’t told you anything yet about the place where we live. We have a very pretty new house in Arlington, Virginia, not far from the Ballston metro station. It’s a three-story house with three bedrooms on the top floor, living room and kitchen on the second floor, and a big room set up as a “family room” and study on the ground floor, with its own fireplace and a separate full bathroom. We also have a little garden behind the house with a permanent terrace and a lot of little bushes and plants all around a circular lawn.

There must be a hundred or so houses more or less the same as ours in the neighborhood, which is called Cathcart Springs, after Admiral Cathcart, an American who went as a privateer (pirate, in other words) to Algeria, found favor with the Dey, learned Arabic and, in the long run, played a major role establishing relations between Algeria and the United States in their infancy as nations.

So, on the one hand, my relations with Algeria have been kept alive. On the other hand, if people of goodwill like yourself continue to reply to my long letters, the other part of these relations will continue. Naturally if one day you decide to come this way you will be welcome in our home. As you already know, we have two extra bedrooms, and it would be a pleasure to have you here, whenever you like.

Warmest regards,

Trout Fishing in America


Barbel Fishing in Algeria replies to Trout Fishing in America

Lattifia, January 26, 1990

Dear Trout Fishing in America,

Here at home, (he) is still going round in circles.

Twenty-five years ago, as a young man full of ambition, (he) went up to the capital and realized that the promised land was not as opulent and generous as they had said. After this came a period of soul-searching, and regular trips to the place (he) was from. These multiple journeys, most often by train, led to the discovery that one of the things luring him “back to his roots” and obsessively filling his thoughts was nothing other than some old furniture, as it happens a desk and chair that had survived the war and the earthquakes. A perfectly ordinary antediluvian work desk fit only for the dump, the kind even a flea-market vendor would have trouble getting rid of. Except that, here’s the thing, this desk had belonged to his brother, who was prematurely called to God, and this brother had been particularly fond of books, especially novels, and had worked himself into the ground, pounding away on a little typewriter. (Although he searched everywhere, (he) was unable to find the typewriter, or his brother’s texts.)

(He) was convinced that the desk, through some sort of positive reminiscence, would enable him to get going again and, with the help of literature, to find his place in the capital once again. So one fine day (he) loaded the desk and chair onto a vehicle and had them shipped to Algiers where they would stay for twenty-five long years, not without being subjected to various little restoration and polishing jobs by his own hand. Nothing wrong thus far, you might say, dear TFA, nothing abnormal about an object acquiring value as a symbol of the continuity of writing.

But nowadays, ever since (he) read the speech by the winner of the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature (see my previous letter), (he) only has eyes for his desk, because now (he) is so much more aware of its value. (He) wants to give it life and texture, as if imitating the Nobel Prizewinner. This is sheer animism! (He) wants to find out everything (he) can about the desk and its chair, “with all the precision required—to know exactly the material, industrial and social background of this furniture, and its place of origin.” I think that more than a simple monograph could come of it . . .

It’s true that prisoners have been known to bang their heads against the walls. As for the writer, in his Prison-House of Language, he sometimes lays his head on his desk to weep over his solitude, and if that solitude has been a long-time companion, he will have the feeling that it is listening, and understands him.

The first manifestation of his animism: (he) takes the desk back to his birthplace. Twenty-five years later. A memorable return voyage! (He) enlists the help of a friend, and the two men spend two exhausting hours trying to wedge the desk and chair into the friend’s car. First in the trunk, then the back seat. The wooden legs refuse to comply. The two men are streaming with sweat, but (he) is ever so careful not to get the slightest scratch on the furniture. Like moving two patients from intensive care! A small crowd of onlookers is standing around the car. Finally, one of them speaks up, and ever so casually hands them the solution, which is to move the front seats forward to make room for the table, while the chair can go in the trunk. It worked! But they drove the whole way with their noses rammed up against the windshield!

The driver could not understand why his friend had gone to so much trouble, all these tribulations, just to move some old furniture that would be better off in a junk shop. Nor could he understand what was so special about this desk and chair, when there were plenty of other decrepit objects in his friend’s apartment. The answer, as deep as the varnish you could see, was a laconic assertion to the effect that (he) was returning the furniture (he)’d borrowed one day twenty-five years earlier to its rightful owner, a man who was fond of antiques.

Once the desk and chair had been set down in their historical spot, after much exertion to extricate them from the car, (he) absorbed himself, dear TFA, in the most futile occupation I have ever had the opportunity to witness. (He) set about determining all the exact measurements of the desk and chair: length, width, height, thickness, and circumference, and (he) carried his animism to the point of weighing the two items, thus going even further than the German Nobel Prize for Literature winner who omitted this fundamental given from his speech. There were however two questions that remained unanswered. It was the oddest thing, the desktop was not made of one single piece but of two unequal rectangles separated by a groove between them. What also remained a mystery was the date of manufacture. (He) could get no further than vague suggestions, the late 1930s or the early 1940s or most likely the middle of the following decade. As to their manufacturer, who might have been able to enlighten him on the matter, there was not a trace of a carpenter anywhere in the vicinity or beyond. So great was his frustration that (he) thought seriously of taking up carpentry and manufacturing a few dozen desks and chairs similar to the ones he had taken from their birthplace one day twenty-five years earlier.

Plagued by his animist fever, by chance (he) came upon an article (which a passenger had forgotten on the back seat of a taxi) about torture under colonization in Algeria. This article detailed in great length the ignominious acts suffered by Algerian detainees in a camp conceived and constructed for the purposes of torture in its most inhuman and degrading forms. The brother’s desk and chair faded into the background, and his imagination was inflamed once again.

[ . . . ] If some day you happened to come back this way, to go fishing along the banks of the few little rivulets we have left, maybe (he) would make an effort to de-ice the porthole of his imagination, and inspiration would appear on the end of his fishing rod.

With fondest regards,

Barbel Fishing in Algeria

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