Dear Doctor Guimaraes,
We have only had a couple sessions of therapy and troubles have already begun. My inability to talk with you has surprised me too. Still, since reading is my greatest habit (and writing my greatest pretension–that’s why I came to you in the first place, because I haven’t been able to write in a long time), I found in a novel a reference to a certain Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. I guess you have heard about this test’s 567 questions designed to portray the psychological profile of any given individual’s tendencies towards anomalous behaviors. I read the questions, and suddenly it occurred to me I should answer them, but not as indicated by the creators of the test--that is, with a simple false or true--but by a one page answer, a brief piece of autobiographical fiction. And then I found myself writing again as I tried to say things about my present mental situation. Perhaps I just found a method to get over my writer’s block while submitting myself to a therapeutic process?
As you well know, I’ve spent the last ten years of my life travelling through Europe. I think I lost myself a bit, a slow but unavoidable internal disappearance. I’m starting to emerge from it by answering this unusual questionnaire. I just remembered something Franz Kafka wrote in his diary on August 6, 1914: "The wish to represent my fantastic interior life has displaced everything else, it has also drained it terribly and it continues to do so. No other thing would be able to satisfy me ever."
It’s quite likely, dear doctor, that in these pages we could find the key to continue our therapy that I interrupted without explanation, or that at least we would be able to find 2 clues to what I’m going through. I beg you to read them. I’m willing to pay for your reading time.
Thank you very much and I hope to see you soon,
1. I like car maintenance magazines.
In my childhood home, while I dreamt of writing, two apparently different worlds--that later on would help me and threaten to prevent me from writing--would always be present. The world of my father, a car mechanic, was that of spark plugs and carburetors, the impossible aspiration of becoming a formula one pilot, and the mythology of the corny French movie A Man and a Woman. The other world, of my mother, a school teacher, was that of indoctrination and giving a good example, of lessons and punishments, but also of didactics and, again, of the mythology of the corny French movie A Man and a Woman. Between arid mechanics and the pressure of learning, I always wanted to find some words, something that might diminish the noise, that would temper the canvas on which the days fell heavily, like knocked out boxers. But none of my parents wanted to listen carefully. Or maybe it would be more fair to say they couldn’t or didn’t know how to, perhaps because neither of them had the complete educational scope to understand what writing is about or how to encourage a budding writer. Through the years I’ve seen my father reading little or nothing, whereas my mother reads a lot, and still none of them knew anything about the craft of writing. Needless to say, we had a lot of problems. There came prohibitions, more punishments, and, during adolescence, they came to think of my friends as a danger to my health, both physical and mental, while submitting me to surprise inspections, in search for drugs, and threatening to put me in a military boarding school.
In any case, during all these years, and despite the high opinion I had of myself, I wrote nothing. And now I think that perhaps they knew better. Maybe, knowing their first born’s academic struggles, straying, and ADD, my parents already knew that I would never be capable of becoming a writer. Perhaps their headaches had more to do with the frequent verification of their omens, and with the inexorable need to support me in that silliness that kept dragging me down.
Subtleties become clearer, now that I find myself “midway through the path of our lives” and my parents have already gone further. I have discovered that I owe my father a great deal of my great love for storytelling. In the 70’s, every time he would come home from a business trip, he would tell me, with great detail, about the movies he watched on cable TV or about his little but astonishingly funny adventures with coworkers. I have remembered that he is capable of telling a story with a great sense of suspense and of the weirdness of things. My mother, on the other hand, would take us to every good movie, theatre production, concert and exhibition she could find in Mexico City, and would buy us tons of books.
Perhaps that dialogue of the deaf that I had with them wasn’t really like that after all. And maybe this means we are finally at peace with each other.
2. Almost every day I wake up rested and renewed.
This question is more about my troubles sleeping. From a very early age I would resist going to bed early. At the beginning I would try to distract my parents from checking the time when the children’s TV shows would end. I wanted to stay and watch those series intended for an "adult" audience, filled with psychopaths, dead people, bullets, policemen, paramedics, forensic experts, monsters, supernatural facts and ultra soft-core sex --which for a kid would always be really hardcore. But my strategy would always fail, and at a certain point I would end up in my bed, staring at the ceiling and fearing "the creatures of the night." Reading and listening to music were the things that rescued me from that anxiety. I started to read in bed my Spanish textbooks from school. I acquired a mysterious but definite taste for tango that a radio station, lost in a corner of the AM band, would broadcast almost endlessly. The singer Carlos Gardel became my favorite. The reading material from the textbooks was not enough, and soon novels and books of short stories replaced them. But the main problem, my inability to fall sleep early, wasn't solved. On the contrary, I would then read till midnight or one o'clock and next day, at 6.30, I would be exhausted. I have tried to modify this tendency throughout my entire life, without great success, and have come to consider myself as a night person. Though classifying people in night or morning persons seems absurd to me, I can’t deny wanting to experience the pleasure of waking up early and not feeling tired, of watching the sunrise, of reaching 10 a.m. knowing that you have already spent some hours working. I have sincerely wished to become a morning guy all my life, but paradoxically, the times I have woken up at a conventional hour were during vacations. During a trip in Germany, near the city of Trier, I remember we were desperately looking for a place to stay because it was already night time. We ended up in a little motel that seemed to be just by the side of the highway, lost in the middle of nowhere. Next morning, I woke up unusually early, and went out to take some air. For a moment I thought I had been transported in my sleep to another location, because the little hotel was in fact a very old house, surrounded by splendid golden vineyards that presided over a magnificent view of the Moselle River. Excluding these miracles, night remained a pleasurable and intimate estate in which I could spend some quality time with myself, while enjoying its silences and atmospheres: much more propitious, or so I thought at the time, to develop my literary imagination. As I grew up, it also transformed itself in the world of parties, confessions and love relationships, like that Antonioni film, The Night, where night was the prelude to the reality that comes with daylight, dazzling, fatiguing and filling me with shame. I dare to say that a childish fear resulted in a nocturnal vocation that today fights an endless battle with a very common adult ambition, of being a normal person, a guy that shaves each day, picks up a blue tie with golden dots, just equal to all his other ties, grabs his briefcase and goes out to face the morning.
3. I think I might like to work as a librarian.
Before my time in Europe I would seldom visit a Mexican public library. I quit going in high school because they were poorly stocked, had restricted access to the books, or the librarians would take an unbelievably long time to bring any volume to the front desk. I went back when I met Elena, it was our relationship that took me back to the libraries of the National University, and to the great pleasure of sitting in a public place designed in such a way that everyone would just shut up, sit and get in the mood for reading. In Barcelona, the city that was the base for my European exploits, we really became interested in libraries, especially those of the universities, because the public ones, thanks to their aura of inclusiveness, would be full of freaks and homeless. I have nothing against any of these groups—on the contrary, they have all my sympathy. But it was really hard to concentrate while someone who seemed to have just emerged from the ruins of an ancient civilization sat right across from you, with no book in his hands, and looked you straight in the eye. In a moment of desperation, since I couldn't find a job, I decided to become a librarian. I thought of Jorge Luis Borges, of the silence, of the proximity with the supposedly beloved artifacts of my craft. I didn’t get the position in the end, but at least I met this Catalan, Carles Tarrac, the guy who interviewed me, who became, if not my friend, at least a good acquaintance. Tarrac owned an apartment at the old medieval neighborhood of El Borne, where from time to time I would gather with him and some other people to talk about books. He is what I call a very committed single, a reserved person, also an exercise fanatic, and he looked a lot like Cervantes. But without the beard. I can’t deny he got me a lot of books and that we got mixed up in a very curious incident of which I might say something later on. The thing is, Tarrac would congratulate me for not becoming a librarian, warning me of the danger of mental stagnation that certain professions without a future pose for the writer, like teaching, commercial services, or journalism. Having already tried my luck in teaching and journalism, I had to agree with him. I kept frequenting the libraries as a user, I kept looking at the freaks and the homeless out of the corner of my eye, I still didn’t know if I was a very lucky chap or a nobody for not having a steady job. I kept fighting against the possibility of depression. I wrote less, and though I read more, these were manuscripts I had to read for the publishers I worked for, and not the books I would have liked to read for my own pleasure. On its own terms, this was also a dead end job in which I was, nevertheless, surrounded by books. Perhaps in my first youth I would have gladly accepted a post as a librarian. Now I look at libraries with a mix of restlessness and longing.
Roberto Frías is a Mexican writer who lived in Barcelona from 2000 to 2010, where he became an editorial consultant for major literary publishing houses, including Anagrama and Penguin Random House. He’s a regular contributor to Mexican and Spanish written media on literary criticism, food and travel, and has translated works by Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde and Hanif Kureishi, among others. Artistic resident at Yaddo, The Banff Centre and Writer’s Centre Norwich, he’s currently writing a novel/book of stories dealing with memory, psychoanalysis, the writing process and the myth of the Count of Monte Cristo.