‘I start to give an account . . . because someone has asked me to.’
– Judith Butler, Giving an Account of Oneself
Later, when I was back at the hotel, wakeful as I invariably am in the small hours, I would ask myself if the whole thing had really happened, the snow and the night, the flashing red and blue of the police car, and my doubts and the cold, that whole nocturnal tangle. I thought I had heard one of the agents call the other Valjean, and I considered googling the nearest police station, calling up and asking if Officer Valjean was on duty, but I didn’t. I left the episode to get muddled in my memory until I could no longer tell whether the recollection was real or dreamed, and it was not until months after the trip that I told Daniela about it. She didn’t know whether to take the account as accurate or to be infected by my doubts. She just said: Man, sounds like you lived out one of your stories.
It happened the night it finally started snowing. I’d been in the city for four days already and people hadn’t stopped saying that the storm was going to hit our group of Salon du livre guests before we got our flights back home. That we were going to see Montreal pulling its winter cloak over its shoulders, that the fair usually coincided with the first snow of the year, bestowing charm and authenticity on the experience of the fifteen guys who, like me, had been invited by the Quebec government to discover the city and its literary talents.
It did occur to me, as I wandered distractedly along rue Notre-Dame Ouest without realising that in the damp, all-enveloping chill, fragile stars of ice had started to stir, that in a sense, whenever I spoke of our group in Spanish, it would have been more precise to refer to our group of ‘guys’ collectively not as fifteen tipos but fifteen tipas. To a Spanish speaker like myself, normalising a mixed group to a collective feminine wasn’t standard in linguistic terms, but if from nine in the morning, as we visited the offices of the city’s main francophone publishers, to the afternoon in the meeting room of the conference centre and right up until I invented some excuse not to go for dinner with the others, we were bound together by that condition of invited guests, professional colleagues, trawlers for brilliant and sellable texts, and circumstance really did require – did it? – a defining of the group’s collective gender, then a group comprising thirteen female editors and two male editors was undeniably feminine.
Not fifteen guys, then, not fifteen tipos, but fifteen tipas. Of course, the words publishers or editors, as we designated ourselves every so often in our lingua franca, English, were lexical units that did not present this problem – I’ve always thought English a language that offered greater possibilities for confusion, for blurring the edges and for breaching, falling even after the final hurdle, the gap between the event itself and what gets recounted. But in Spanish, in my head, I needed to choose. In French, too. The Parisian publisher, Marie, was an éditrice, not an éditeur. And I couldn’t help referring, when I did so, to us as fifteen editores, again generalising to the masculine, not editoras – invited editores, European editores – but I was not at all displeased by the thought (and I discovered this when something cold and featherlike smudged my left cheek with sleet) that those days challenged the possibility of an identity that was monolithically masculine.
I had learned that to get back to the hotel all I needed to do was find one of the main roads that cross the city from north to south or from east to west and walk down it until I recognised a metro station – Sherbrooke, Square-Victoria-OACI, Rosemont, Bonaventure – that would reorientate me and allow me to stroll on towards rue McGill, which I recognised in reverse by the dreamy impression that the ochre light of the street-lamp reflections in the pale brown facades produced in me, and because some of the restaurants stayed open late, among them a fish and chip place where I ended up having dinner on the subsequent nights, as well as a twenty-four-hour convenience store managed by a Sikh man where on the three previous ones I’d bought a bottle of water and some packets of liquorice before retiring to my room. But at that time, when I thought about the fifteen editoras, I was still far from rue Saint-Paul. Some forty-five minutes away, maybe forty if I picked up the pace. This was a less busy street with hardly any stores, and barely any cars at that time, and often the few light bulbs that were still lit on the other side of the windows would melt into darkness and night and dream as I walked past.
I’m not really sure why, but I decided to leave rue Notre-Dame Ouest, one of the streets that served as a guarantee on my night-time walks, and turned right. Rue Guy, according to the sign on the corner. It was a slightly darker street. The lamps on both pavements were more spaced out than on the main road, and it appeared that the men and women who lived in those three-storey houses had decided to go to sleep even earlier. Except for one woman. She must have been ten or a dozen years older than me, though I might be wrong. She was sitting beside the window in a relaxed pose, with her hair tied back any old how, comfortably dressed and reading. I found the picture strangely satisfying. It was somehow reassuring to watch her for a few moments, as if I were sitting in that living room myself, in baggy trousers and a sweatshirt with a book in my hands, feeling the central heating at a temperature that allowed my body to call it home.
I tried to make out, from all those metres away, what book it was that she was reading. My eyesight did not, of course, reach that far, but I got it into my head that she was reading Annie Ernaux. Or at least, that is how I wanted to complete the scene. I don’t know why Ernaux and not, oh, Modiano, say, who’s much more melancholy and nocturnal. Maybe because the woman who’d been sitting on my right on the plane from my stop in Frankfurt to Montreal had been reading The Years, and I had snooped indiscreetly over her arm and thought Ernaux seemed like a writer who was powerful and delicate at the same time, discovering that her books were inhabited by rage and subtlety . . . But then I hadn’t read any more Ernaux than the four furtive paragraphs from the flight and I couldn’t ultimately know why I’d placed one of her books into the warm hands of that woman with the messily tied hair and comfortable clothing who was reading in her apartment on rue Guy.
The reader must have noticed that there was somebody watching her from the street, and while if she could have seen the look in my eyes she would have found, I like to think, a frank, almost tender curiosity, she nonetheless moved away from the windowsill, turned off the light and went to read somewhere else because, though the room remained in darkness, its contours continued to be illuminated by the blaze of a lamp somewhere deeper in the house, in a room my curiosity couldn’t reach.
I set off walking again, and a couple of blocks later it occurred to me that perhaps I ought to retrace my steps and ring the doorbell to apologise. Who would be happy having some stranger’s gaze intruding into their private space? To have a pair of eyes questioning a scene from our lives, asking who are you and why are you reading by the window, at this time, in those clothes, with your hair untidy like that, and what book are you reading, why that book and not some other, what are you doing alone and awake when the others are sleeping, what does all this say about you and what can I imagine, I who don’t know you at all, except that I’ve started to create your portrait, to enclose your existential possibilities around these queries that I express with the absurd legitimacy of someone looking from the street into your apartment? But that would only have been weirder still.
I turned another corner on a whim. Rue Ottawa. I’d not walked this one before. Or at least I didn’t recognise the road, the landscape. The snow was intensifying, and despite that, beneath the chill, I think I was able to smell the sea closer than on any of my other Montreal wanderings. The black sky collapsed into tiny winter feathers that were impossible to count and that were now refusing to turn into moisture on the sidewalk and were instead covering it in white, and they were making it slippery. Montreal was becoming smudged with snow and night.
The first person to warn me about the storm had been the taxi driver who’d picked me up at the airport. A big, very dark Haitian man, who spent the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the journey listening to a strange radio station on which somebody very angry was giving a speech in French, occasionally prompting fired-up shouts from the crowd. I asked him something in that same language, which when spoken by me did not much resemble that of Ernaux or Modiano, nor that of the political agitator coming through the speakers, and then, as if bashful, he turned the volume down on the radio. D’où êtes-vous? he asked me. His French didn’t sound like the writers I love either. He talked in a voice that was different to what I expected from Bergounioux or Volodine, more cavernous and bewildered. De Barcelone, d’Espagne, I replied, though these coordinates didn’t really explain all that much about me. Je viens de la Méditerranée, I should have said, and perhaps that way my response would have had more meaning for me. But I said Barcelone in the first instance, and then Espagne – I silenced a Catalogne that I suspected would have been entirely useless to a Haitian cabbie in Montreal – and the driver located me on his map according to those two geographical reference points and whatever Barcelona and Spain meant in his head, which were, of course, very different things to what they meant in mine when I spoke the two place names. For example: Ah, Barcelone! Football, Messi, Griezmann. I smiled, nodding – what polite comment would I have made if he’d explained to me that he was Haitian instead of my having discovered it from the radio station he was tuned in to? Ah, Haiti, yes I saw a documentary once about the houngan and those powders they use to transform human beings into demented zombies! Football, Messi, Griezmann, he said. At least one of my grandfathers was a Barça fan. Sometimes, when I go past the stadium or when, hopping cable channels, a match happens to pop up, I think about my pappous, and about the times we went to the grounds together, and how with my first pay cheque I bought him a blue-and-scarlet shirt because he’d never had one before and he put it on to go watch the club play that day, even though he was embarrassed to be wearing sports clothing on the street. After all, if this taxi driver also had a football team, especially if he’d inherited it, with no possibility of renunciation or reason, or if he followed the Montreal Canadiens because his first landlord in Quebec had been a fan, or his Canadian wife, or because when his father arrived from the Caribbean he’d worked at the rink cleaning the seats or selling popcorn, but at the same time maintained his association with some Haitian institution or other, in his chance comment I had actually begun intuitively to understand some of the links that just happened to bind me to Barcelona.
From Barcelona, but that’s not where your roots are from, right? One of the three German editors in our group, speaking English, was trying to work it out. Your surname isn’t typically Spanish, is it? I’ve not heard it before. A woman with grandmotherly charm, a look in her blue eyes that was crystalline and genial, who had lived in Madrid for two years and from time to time did venture to talk in Spanish. I shrugged and smiled back at her. Could be, I started to explain, rather tired from a whole day spent switching between English and French, not knowing in which of the two languages I felt clumsier, more caged. My father’s grandparents were Jews from Thessaloniki who arrived in Spain before the war. Thanks to that, they survived. Just about. Of course they fared better than the family they had left behind. Muzzled, but alive. And about how there are Jews in Spain, a lot of them, who’ve forgotten that on the afternoon when the Falangists took Barcelona, they went to plunder the synagogue on Calle Provenza, they unrolled the Sefer Torah in the middle of the asphalt and pissed on it . . . That’s how philo-Semitic the fascist and his dogs were. Any one of my four grandparents – my maternal ones were Sephardi from Morocco, from Tangiers, do you know Tangiers? – who arrived when the dictator was already about to die would have cut off both their hands sooner than vote for the extreme right just because they happened to hate the Moorish bastards more than they hated the filthy Jews, and because they sang praises to Israel – to only one part of Israel, the part they had an interest in – as a shield for the West, I’d started to tell her, sounding angry, because I always end up telling anybody who asks about the marriage between the Spanish thing and the Jewish thing or between Barcelona and the Catalan, sounding angry, that Spain is full of idiot Jews. But yes, my surname could be Spanish after all, I resumed, when I realised that my words and my overexcitement were casting a pall over that endearing gesture of hers, which didn’t deserve to be tarnished with rage or with concern. Why not? After all, in the fourteenth century there had been thousands of Jews who left Barcelona, Girona, Tortosa . . . also Toledo or Cordoba, headed for Europe and North Africa. Perhaps I’m the product of a return trip.