Jessica Sequeira
Nov 23, 2016 · 19 min read
© Maison de la Magie

The bird in its golden cage stretches out its thin legs and puffs out its chest. Piou, it says. Piou-piou. This song was taught to it by a lady with a real canary, and the sequence was repeated over and over until learned. Piou. Piou-piou. Standing discreetly to one side of the room in his crimson dressing gown, the magician takes a few grand steps forward, sweeping his arm in an arc, as the bird in its golden cage repeats the sequence a final time. The spectators know it is not a real animal, but this does not bother them; in fact, it dazzles them.

The bird is a descendant of The Pigeon, a mechanical bird developed in ancient Greece, and the first robot of all time, for those of an anachronistic bent. It is one of a long line of artificial birds, used throughout history to better understand the natural biological body of animals. During the Renaissance, even da Vinci dedicated himself to creating mechanical ducks. In the 19th century, the bird was picked up by magicians. Of these performers, none succeeded in so many spectacular variations as Robert-Houdin. His mechanical birds were better learners than those of any other, and much beloved by his audiences. Best of all, since the birds were never faulty, his shows could always go off without a hitch.

Now Robert-Houdin draws the bird from its cage, cradling it with one glove-covered palm and cupping with the other as if it will fly away. With a single rapid gesture, he removes his hand to display it — and it’s gone! The public applauds, loudly, for a long time.

Mexican temple with Indians worshipping Sun and Moon, Oedipus Aegyptiacus © Stanford

Robert-Houdin, the magician, appears as a main figure in Topografía de lo insólito, the Spanish version of an essay by writer Chloe Aridjis, published by Fondo de Cultura Económica. In Aridjis’s book, the techniques of late-18th century Belgian magician Etienne-Gaspard Robertson and 19th-century French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin are discussed alongside those of poets Gérard de Nerval, Honoré de Balzac and Arthur Rimbaud.

For Aridjis, thinking is related to seeing, and there is a visual intelligence and knowledge to be acquired from sense perceptions. These perceptions pass through the mind, and are transformed by the imagination into magic — whether literally in the form of a magic show, or as an idea, historical narrative or poem. The magician, historian or poet plays the middleman role of the imagination for others, working sense data into spectacle, narrative or crafted literary form. In the meantime, the audience finds pleasure in the knowledge a gap exists between what is “real” and what is wondrously experienced.

I copied out this list of phrases while reading:

Poem as concrete model for mental process. Instability and defamiliarization. Back-and-forth, faith and disbelief. Doubt created by moments of terror. Aristocratic spectacles of the macabre attended by ladies. Le bouleversement de tous les sens. Magic lanterns and optical illusions. Mysterium, tremendum, fascinosum. Goya’s Caprichos. False expectations, awaiting one thing and experiencing another. Athanasius Kircher and his hierogylphs. Rupture, travel, development. Mechanical trapezes. Miniature pastry chefs. Seances and hermetic philosophy. Fluidity and fragmentation, elixirs and chimeras. Objects, colors, contours, ideas. Papillotage. Charlatans and self-proclaimed messiahs. Disappearances and returns. Adieu, hello.

Chloe Aridjis was born in New York City, but has lived in a number of places. Her mother was a translator, her father a poet-diplomat. (Later she would translate his childhood memoir The Child Poet.) She spent her early years in the Netherlands and moved to Mexico City when she was eight, where as a teenager she frequented the local Goth clubs and spent her time reading widely, in both Spanish and English. From there she went to Harvard and then Oxford, followed by six years in Berlin. Now she makes her home in London.

All this moving around has given Aridjis a certain way of seeing. Her books are about everyday noticing, and in the observer role adopted by inclination or circumstance, she describes phenomena that might not call the attention of others. Art appears frequently in her pages, since like a foreign city, a painting can provide material for careful looking and noticing. Within the density of visual information, Aridjis discovers small clues:

Upon seeing me at the painting, Daniel came over with his notebook under his arm and asked whether I had spotted the comet, to which I said no, startled by both the thought of a comet in a painting and the fact I had missed it. I leaned closer in to scour the sky — gradation of light pink and blue thinning into yellow, like a molten version of rock sediment, dolomite, limestone, sandstone and shale, and finally found the comet. A simple white brushstroke: one milky line at the top, hardly visible.

Drawing on both her life and her imagination, Aridjis is influenced by Walser, Kafka, Bernhard, Gogol. In the still lifes of her highly visual novels, almost nothing happens, but cracks start to spider over the smooth surface, and quiet tedium gives way to violence, or threatens to. Book of Clouds is about a young woman’s life in Berlin, Asunder about a young woman who works at London’s National Gallery. Aridjis is now finishing a novel about the Mexico of her adolescence, which moves between the DF and Oaxaca, and which still doesn’t have a name.

When we chatted, Aridjis had just come back from the British Library, a magical place in its own right. (The last time I entered its hushed spaces, I listened to a man writing a book about his ancestors request multiple volumes on falconry, and wandered through an exhibition on the Beat poets.) We talked about the relationship between her works and the Work, and about the strangeness of the imagination. In the background Aridjis’s “very demanding” cat Ludwig purred away. He was rescued three summers ago from a Greek island, and she still can’t decide whether he’s a Beethoven or a Wittgenstein or the mad King Ludwig of Bavaria. Here’s what she said, with my questions removed:

I have no interest in memoir, but I like to shape material from the past or present into new kinds of narrative, defamiliarizing it. The idea of defamiliarization interests me, seeing everything as slightly askew, in a reality that’s a little off kilter. A foreigner has that perspective already, you see things from the outside. I imagine things in a parallel universe: how they would exist there, what a person would represent, what their inner world might be.

Like Adam Smith’s sympathetic observer seeing yourself from above, exactly. An idea of ideas that comes only from a certain level of abstraction or distancing. In Berlin it was easy because I was living in a foreign language, and though I spoke German, I didn’t feel attached to it. It allowed me to go much deeper into my thoughts, understand scenarios, study faces on public transportation, imagine what other people’s stories might be.

You can do that in any city of course, even the countryside. But there was something very particular about Berlin. It had a strangeness to it. A lot of the London of the past, ’80s Camden Town and the Goths, has that too, though that side of London isn’t there much anymore. There are aging Goths and people from that time, but it’s not the same. London is more of a corporate city. It has eccentric characters too, strange and extravagant ones, but not so many as in Berlin. There’s a different set of tensions, less interesting to me. There’s a charm in that decay, but also always a risk of disenchantment.

You can find things in any city, you just have to be more open to them here. In Berlin they’re handed to you on a platter, though the city has changed a lot in the last decade. I’m extremely happy and grateful I was living in Berlin when I wrote my first novel, that that’s where it was set. I just went around with my notebook.

With this new novel, in a way it was even more challenging, because I don’t live in Mexico and haven’t for a long time, though I spend two months of the year there. In ways it almost feels like historical fiction since it’s set in the late ’80s, so even the Mexico I’m writing about doesn’t exist now. The first half is set in Mexico City, the second half takes place in Oaxaca on the Pacific Coast. I invented a few new characters, and gave some of the nocturnal creatures from when I used to go out more importance than they had in my life, pulled them into focus.

The one episode that really happened was when I was 16 and ran away with a boy to Playa Zipolite. My father came looking for me and, well, it was a disaster. So there’s a build up to the “Fugue” section, then I run away with the boy to the beach. Then there’s a more fragmented dreamlike section once I get there, and I’m completely adrift…

Visiting to research the book was tricky. I only went back to places or avenues that are almost the same — the Zócalo, the Centro, the Catedral — to soak up the general atmosphere. You have to be careful not to write over the memories, as sometimes it can inhibit the imagination. Sometimes the places I write about are completely different now and don’t exist anymore, and seeing a different venue or shop does a disservice to the memory and doesn’t help the story.

The funny thing is that sometimes friends think they’re characters when they’re not, and think they inspired a character when they haven’t. It’s almost the reverse of people complaining, Why did you put me in your novel? No, they ask, Did I inspire that? In Asunder there was no particular museum guard I based myself on. I interviewed several and spent a lot of time wandering through the National Gallery, and initially I thought one would give me an idea for a character. In the end, it was an amalgam of many. The narrator’s best friend Daniel is a poet, and his identity isn’t bound up with being a guard. The young woman is also completely fictional.

Including the suffragettes seemed an obvious choice, because the character shows traces of revolt against her own passivity and the passivity of her life, and the suffragettes were very passionate and anything but passive, fighting their roles. It worked well as an opposition to the girl’s condition.

Often when I’m writing, in the early stages I have a constellation of themes I’d like to have in the book, and then it’s a question of figuring out how they work together and resonate. With the suffragettes, the craquelure, the museum, the poets, the châtelain toward the end of the book, it all fell into place and I was very happy. But there’s always a moment of great uncertainty when you’re trying to map it out.

My favorite French poets have always been Baudelaire, Nerval and Mallarmé. When I got to Oxford, originally I was going to do German and write on Thomas Mann, but it was too daunting. So I switched from German to French and landed with the absolutely wonderful professor Malcolm Bowie, and began to focus on magic and the literary fantastique in 19th century France.

There used to exist in Paris, now unfortunately it’s closed, a little bookstore that my father would always visit, called the Librairie du Spectacle. It had books on clowns, pantomimes, circuses, magic shows, all kinds of performative arts. I came across references to Robert-Houdin in my early research, when my father got me his autobiography at the bookstore, and then I came across the autobiography of Etienne-Gaspard Robert, the Belgian magician with his magic lantern. And I was very struck when I began to read their autobiographies how these were bildungsromans, very much coming-of-age books, but at the same time they spoke about their craft in a way very similar to the way some poets spoke about theirs.

There began to be so many similarities with the writers I was reading, especially Mallarmé, but also Rimbaud and Baudelaire. They saw poetry as a sort of alchemical or performative act, the empty page as a stage, the verb as transformative, the city as a place to be coded and decoded around them. There was a phantasmagorical quality to life amidst these characters. It was a wonderful way to spend my ’20s. I knew I probably didn’t want to go into academia, but I had an amazing professor and all of this to think about.

I love poetry, but maybe poets are by personality more performative, whereas someone quieter will produce a different kind of work. A novel is a much longer endeavor. Even engaging with it is a longer act. Magic tricks are like working models of mental processes, and there’s a kind of distillation going on. In mysterious ways, though, all that material from my dissertation is still in the background. That’s the wonderful thing about how brains work, you never know how something from 10 or 15 years ago will enter your writing. A thought or an image can make its way into work a decade later.

The question of contemplation and distraction is interesting. In some ways I think it’s one of the main issues today. I just got my first iPhone last year, and resisted. Even now I mostly switch it off when I go out, to feel more free. I think of the days in Berlin going around with my notebook. I had one of those old-fashioned clam phones you could just snap open and shut. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I’d been constantly checking things online.

There’s a certain ambivalence toward technology at the end of Topografía. A mention of metallic shivers. Even at the library, there are days I feel focused, but am surrounded by people texting or on Facebook. They can spend their hours however they want, but somehow it ruins the atmosphere, and you feel a pact has been broken. One goes to the library, at least I do, to work better, and it’s very distracting if there’s someone reaching for their phone every two minutes. There are the hand movements, the eyes darting back and forth…

It’s very important to have communities and exchanges of ideas though. Mallarmé had Tuesday salons at his house, and serialized literature also had that element of participation with an audience. Collaboration in itself isn’t a bad thing. It’s just the ability to have those quiet moments on one’s own, those mental silences, that I see people struggling more to have.

Recently I’ve collaborated on two projects, and there’s a wonderful sense of being lifted outside yourself, or not being so completely channeled and funneled into your own thoughts. Last year when I co-curated the exhibition at Tate Liverpool, there was a year of emails and working with other curators, being aware of their thought processes and how they came up with narratives of the exhibition. That was a very positive experience. It was the first time in my life I’d really collaborated, and it wasn’t with my writing.

Leonora Carrington was a family friend, and we would go to her house every Sunday for tea. I got to know her and her work very well. I wrote one or two shorter texts about her, then Tate Liverpool decided to do an exhibition and asked if I wanted to get involved, which was wonderful. Most of my friendships here are in the art world. I do have close writer friends, but socialize much more with the artists, and go to openings a lot. Even though I don’t like much contemporary art, I still go for anthropological reasons or morbid curiosity. It’s a carnival.

I think that consciously or not, if one has the luxury of choosing one’s profession, in the end people choose what is best suited to their temperament. I’m quite solitary, so I can’t ever imagine being surrounded by people all day. In the afternoons I like to leave the house and go to the library for a few hours, on my own terms, and I don’t speak very much to anyone.

Nobody really knows where I’m from. In a way it’s liberating, but I also sort of fall through the cracks. I’m not considered Mexican in Mexico because I write in English and haven’t lived there for so long, and I’m not at all on the radar in the United States. England does feel like home and I’m part of a community, I just got my British citizenship, but culturally I’m not British. I really feel like I belong to a country that doesn’t exist.

A shadow with the shape of a kite moves over the ground; a light flickers. The human imagination takes sense data and transforms it into magic. But this same data can also turn to horror. Phantom presences, fears of disintegration: the imagination is able to compress all the diffuse things seen into a single, hard kernel of meaning. At the heart of both magic and horror is the conviction that everything is an allusion of importance or metaphor, that no movement is inconsequential.

With the same suddenness, ways of coming together can also become ways of coming apart. Take painting, for instance. To destroy a painting, if you are so inclined, you can rush at the work with knife in hand, as suffragette Mary Richardson did with the Rokeby Venus. (The museum guard in Book of Clouds is fascinated by this act.)

Alternatively, you can simply let time take its toll. Think of the black cracks spidering over the ivory faces of a Botticelli or Tiepolo in Rome, destruction developing in the same way the appearance of an ideal milky line might: partly as a result of chance, not entirely. Paintings crack up depending on oils, damp, location on the wall and other concerns restoration specialists make it their business to worry about. (The novel’s museum guard also takes a deep interest in craquelure.)

If a brush is dragged at a 45 degree angle across a canvas, perhaps the canvas will be more likely to erode that way. Creation and destruction, the making of the milky white line and eventual cracking of the canvas, may be linked.

Robert-Houdin and his mechanical bird have left the stage, and now the oval lady enters. She is made of tiny parts specially locked together, sheets of gleaming silver metal, miniature cog wheels, sapphires for the eyes and twisted bobby pins for legs. There is a golden key in her back, so you can wind her up and make her turn. This is a lady out of dreams, the most beautiful ever seen, and just to keep things interesting she has the head of a horse.

I am the magician onstage now, and to open the box I press a gold button. The oval springs up and the lady starts to travel, back and forth, back and forth, along a curve. There she sings, in her boîte à cheval danser, a replica of those from famous French and Swiss houses. Heel up and heel down the little thing dances, and I can make her start and stop. She doesn’t have any free will by the looks of it, and her lacquered shoes go on tapping several minutes. Then the lid claps shut like an oyster shell. C’est tout.

Leaving her upbringing in England, the artist Leonora Carrington came to Mexico City in 1942 after a chaotic life with Max Ernst, nervous collapse and marriage to Mexican diplomat Renato Leduc. This is where she would settle, continuing her work as a writer and artist, and getting to know many of those now considered surrealists, sharing domestic spaces, jokes and experiences of motherhood.

In Mexico she wrote several story collections including The Oval Lady, as well as her novel The Hearing Trumpet, about a ninety-two year old woman who overhears her family plotting to commit her to an asylum. This is not any institution, but a place with buildings shaped like igloos and birthday cakes, with lots of friendly people willing to hear out her silly ideas. Curious and openminded, with a sense of humor, she can get away with being a little bit crazy, connecting everyday things in odd ways and discovering the weird links and hidden situational puns fusing different tectonic plates of experience.

From March to May last year, Aridjis curated an exhibition of Leonora’s works at Tate Liverpool, and oblique references to the hearing trumpet appear throughout Aridjis’s work. The young woman in Book of Clouds wanders through the market and comes upon a sound machine (“plastic contraption shaped like a seashell”), and the old historian the woman works for as amanuensis unveils a mechanical ear.

Like Leonora in her work, Aridjis touches on themes of art, private worlds and life abroad that interest her and intersect with her own life. But her world is a darker one than Leonora’s, and more rational, though it yearns for the unthinking magic and humor of the surrealists. It hints that a benevolent existence devoted to painting and friendship can be both highly attractive, and a surface with cracks running over it. What hides under those surfaces to enable a world of such fantasy? Even Leonora’s stories are always tales of horror.

Maybe this has to do with personalities, maybe situations. To live abroad is always to create a crack in one’s settled world, and the act of self-consciously moving is already an artifice. To travel is to find a new domestic space abroad — and if one is female, to seek those spaces
as neither mother nor femme fatale. But I suspect the type of personality that likes to read novels and look at paintings for a long time is also the kind drawn to that kind of life, with all its complications and delights.

Technology troubles and transforms the surfaces of reality too. Perhaps this is unavoidable, and perhaps it is not necessarily a bad thing, as it can enrich the connections between objects and our relationship to them. But the cracks and ruptures in this surface do occasionally make one long for a more natural existence. The young woman in Book of Clouds joins an organization dedicated to fighting the spread of artificial light, which it sees as pollution. She writes:

For a long time I had deplored the human fixation on light, or rather, on artificial light, even before learning the German word Entzauberung and agreeing with all those poets and philosophers who warned about modernity and technology intruding further and further upon the imagination. Well, I was now witness to a very serious sort of disenchantment, the disenchantment of night, when each day at around six or seven, depending on the season, dusk fell and the mania for lighting up the sky and denying darkness began. Night would never be mystical again, at least not in the city, and I sometimes had fantasies of flying through town and smashing every lit bulb, or at least those screwed into the impertinent lamps on my street, obliterating those bright and irksome reminders of the rest of humanity, if only for a few hours, before morning rose and everything revved back to life.

Aridjis’s narrators — intelligent and curious, if also shy and occasionally irritable — are always looking to cut down on excess stimuli, in search of an ideal state of perfect stillness and concentration. In her work, the human imagination works its best within the parameters of either a specific situation (i.e. small community) or reduced set of influences (i.e. quiet place). Such conditions are needed for intensity rather than diffusion to prevail.

Here, despite the yearning for nature, artifice can help. Whether this means a specific stage set-up for a magician, formal linguistic constraints for a poet, or a focus on a limited period of time for a historian, there are ways to imitate the reduction of stimuli. Technology can help create the conditions for this artifice, applied at the stage of either perception of sense data or imaginative process.

Perhaps one can think of the mind as something like the magic lantern so dear to the magicians Aridjis describes, projecting the light of the imagination through pictures painted on glass. Technology can play with the images on the glass, or change the strength of the light. Either way, it does so with the aim that, when the image projected on the screen in the distance does appear, it is large, and clear, and illuminated.

The little earthquake

The square of sidewalk where I am sitting is very small, almost no larger than I am. Cross-legged here, I see it has a crack in it, a hair-thin line. No, not just a crack: I see there are ruptures everywhere in the ground, all very fine. The crust cracks in solid plates in one place, peels away in gray flakes in another. Lines of varying width run over the pavement, as if they’ve been carved out by a toothpick or cleaver, and green grass pokes up between them, having somehow grown and survived under the surface. The edge of the rubble is made of dry bits and knobs, some smooth and others textured, and none of the cracks are exactly the same. How did they get here? Was there an earthquake? Are we sitting on a fault line? No, there was never a quack of such magnitude in this place. Quake, I mean! Ah, a typo. But you know, charlatans of earthquakes could really exist, couldn’t they? People who sit on small squares of sidewalk and convince others that the smallness itself makes a tension in the square. All these cracks and splinters show it will burst soon. Yes, any minute! This square of sidewalk will go flying to pieces, and the beast from beneath will rise. Trembling, I wedge my pencil eraser under the trapezoid-shaped bit of cracked earth again, then lever it up until it goes flying. A black gash opens and the crack expands. I push the eraser in a little deeper, the darkness expands even more. Just one more time… The next person to walk by this place will see the ground ruptured. Perhaps he will think a sledge or jackhammer was responsible. Construction work is always going on in this city. But by then, the creature and I will both long since have vanished.


International, Intersectional, Always Interesting


Features Supplement to the Online Journal of Literature and Art

Jessica Sequeira

Written by


Features Supplement to the Online Journal of Literature and Art