By Nancy Smith
Sidewalks landed on my desk during the usual end-of-semester rush. I had several essays due, a stack of papers to grade, and a research project to wrap up. And then summer came. Naturally it was time for a vacation. I packed up a few books and headed off on a road trip, where I finally got acquainted with Valeria Luiselli’s essay collection after a long day of wandering around the coast of Maine.
It seems fitting that I read it on a road trip. Sidewalks is about wandering and spaces and cities and being in the world. These essays take place all around the world—Mexico City, Venice, New York— and have a way of capturing the uniqueness of each city through small details and a beautiful sense of movement and curiosity. As much as Luiselli seems perfectly at home in the world of words and language, she also seems to be a natural-born explorer, someone who feels a deep need to investigate and examine the world around her.
In the first essay, “Joseph Brodsky’s Room and Half,” Luiselli is searching for Brodsky’s grave in San Michele, an island just outside of Venice. She writes:
Searching for a grave is, to some extent, like arranging to meet a stranger in a café, the lobby of a hotel or a public square, in that both activities engender the same way of being there and looking: at a given distance, every person could be the one waiting for us; every grave, the one we are searching for. Finding either involves circulating among people or tombs; approaching and scrutinizing their respective features.
While she searches for the gravestone, she weaves delicate observations about the space itself into the essay, and also recounts tidbits about the various spaces that Brodsky inhabited: St. Petersburg, Massachusetts, Venice. Part of what makes the essay so enchanting isn’t so much Brodsky’s life, but the way in which she tells his story, filling up just a few short pages with a trove of sensory experience.
In another essay, “Manifesto à velo,” Luiselli writes about the pace in which we explore urban spaces.
Apologists for walking have elevated ambulation to the height of an activity with literary overtones. From the Peripatetic philosophers to the modern flâneurs, the leisurely stroll has been conceived as the poetics of thought, a preamble to writing, a space for consultation with the muses.
And the way we move through cities is shaped by those around us:
The urban walker has to march to the rhythm of the city in which he finds himself and demonstrates the same single-minded purpose as other pedestrians.
If we modulate our pace, Luiselli argues, we might become the object of suspicion. Anyone who has spent much time ambling around cities knows this feeling well. We adapt to the space, move with the flow of other walkers, and become part of the natural movement of the city. But this essay is really about the cyclist, who is “sufficiently invisible to achieve what the pedestrian cannot: travelling in solitude and abandoning himself to the sweet flow of his thoughts.” Because the bicycle is halfway between walking and driving, the cyclist enjoys a certain kind of invisibility and therefore a sense of freedom, both physically and mentally. So too, does the body adapt to the rhythms of the bicycle. The movement of the bike becomes our movement too, and like the city, we become a part of something larger than ourselves.
In “Relingos: The Cartography of Empty Spaces,” Luiselli moves away from bustling areas and looks at abandoned urban spaces in Mexico City. These empty spaces were formed during the extension of the Paseo de la Reforma in the 1960s.
The widening of the avenue and the addition of a new stretch were accompanied by the indiscriminate demolition of the buildings in the area. As this new road cut diagonally across the orthogonal layout of the city, some rectangular plots became triangular or trapezoidal. And, since the construction of the buildings in these irregular spaces—leftovers from the Paseo—was inconceivable, the asphalt and paving-stone trapezoids and triangles remained like odd pieces of a jigsaw, the origin and purpose of which no one remembers any longer, but which, equally, no one dares to either destroy or use in any permanent way.
A group of architects have begun to call these spaces “relingos.” The essay then becomes an investigation of what this term—relingo—actually means and where it comes from. There are a number of theories: perhaps it is related to the old Castilian term realengas, a piece of land not belonging to the Crown, or it may be connected to the concept terraines vagues, an ambiguous space without defining borders, or maybe it is a sort of playground or tabula rasa.
Whatever the origins of relingo, it captures a kind of emptiness, an open space, or as Luiselli puts it, “an absence in the heart of the city.” Interestingly relingos don’t just exist in urban spaces. Luiselli suggests that writing is full of relingos—empty spaces—as well, and that we as writers create these spaces. Though we often think of the craft of writing as making, building, and putting together, there is also the opposite part of the craft, the chopping, cutting, shaping, and opening up. “A writer is a person who distributes silences and empty spaces.”
All of the essays in Sidewalks are infused with a deep sense of inquisitiveness about the world. Some are more obviously connected to one another, but all of them seem to hover around these ideas of cities, spaces, places, and our ability to make our way through them. Luiselli is exceptionally good at weaving together seemingly disparate parts to make a whole essay that feels at once thoughtful, surprising, and carefully constructed.
I have carried this book across the country and back home again, and though I wouldn’t exactly call it a collection of “travel essays,” in a way I have come to think of it as that. Perhaps because it was my steady companion as I drove up and down the East Coast, or perhaps because I found a kindred spirit in Luiselli, having always been a natural-born explorer myself. In his introduction to the book, Cees Nooteboom writes, “Essays have no plot, travel books (Chatwin, Theroux) sometimes do, and then there is also the travel book as a collection of essays, and the essay that involves travelling and looking. If my eccentric system of classification applies, then Sidewalks belongs to the last of these categories.” This is the perfect way to think about this book, as a collection of essays that involve travelling and looking, and what a marvelous world it is that Luiselli shows us.
Translated by Christina McSweeney
Coffee House Press (May 2014)