Text by Gianluigi Ricuperati
Photographs by Luca De Santis
As I rested in the shade of some fronds on the most secret beach of Antiparos, Cyclades, Greece, it came to mind that to travel is to set the stage for our thoughts: to change set, illustrate the shadows of ideas, turn light and props, style, rhythm and pace of associations upside down.
I have been visiting Antiparos for four years, and for four years I have been giving a private and intimate dimension to the most abused word in the world: rest. The Italian word for rest – riposo – consists of two parts: ‘rip’, as in a cut, like snipping away at the time of life, and cutting out another time: but also ‘oso’, as in daring, building a life and a career on an island, the holiday island, the island of possibility (and not ‘the possibility of an island’).
Antiparos is indeed the ideal backdrop for reading and conceptual explorations, dialogues and conversations, flights of fancy and happy plunges, splendid incursions into the history of knowledge, my knowledge, which is never mine alone if it is true knowledge, and is never true knowledge if it remains at rest with me – if it is not cut, ripped off, but really dares to stretch out towards others, to become a school in the sun, a horizontal school beneath the vertical sun. (What is more, you have to know that on Antiparos it’s always sunny in August, maybe with the exception of a day at most, maybe two.) That’s why you have to be one hundred percent summery on Antiparos, and bold, and rested, and move in every direction that the mind’s elasticity allows.
While I was on Antiparos last year I read The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, published in London by Laurence Sterne in 1760 – one of the pillars not just of the modern novel, but also of the modern ‘mind’, of our polyphonic and digressive mind – and one of the those ideas came to me that you just can’t resist. If I’m writing about a book consisting almost wholly of digressions forwards and in every direction, why not grant myself one too? Why not grant it to the reader? So I thought I’d use a narrative mechanism that I invented and have applied to my new novel, La scomparsa di me [The Disappearance of Me]. It’s based on a simple idea: a man dies and wakes up again 365 times in the head of all the people that he has known: friends, wives, children, co-workers, taxi drivers… But what would happen if he were to wake up one day in the head of someone whom he hadn’t known? What would the forever curious Tristram Shandy have done? Perhaps he would have chosen his intellectual hero. And I did the same. So I have drafted an impossible snippet from my book, imagining that the lead character’s alter ego, me in this case, woke up at seven o’clock in the morning in the head of his hero. In my case, the artist and writer Douglas Coupland, Canadian, 57 years old, whose work has defined an important part of what is known as ‘contemporary sensitivity’. I started to imagine, and the rest happened as you can read below.
I confess: Coupland prompted my love for the contemporary world, my love for the contemporary world prompted the disaster of my private life, and the disaster of my private life prompted the post-mortem cosmos I am in now: the book was called Generation X, I was the right age and I didn’t understand many of the implications and the notes on the characters, the scenes, the settings or the quotations, for a long time. It took ten years of reading, listening, travelling and visiting museums for a detail that I had uncomprehendingly stored to suddenly leap out.
I was in the bunk bed in the room I shared with my brother – but without my brother at that point as he’d got married at 24, abandoning house and home – reading Generation X. Huddled up with the radio, and a programme based on complicated music culture games like Trivial Pursuit with listeners, mainly done using an answering machine, which, at the time, together with videotex was the most powerful and sophisticated means of communication imaginable.
Coupland had always been ahead of the rest, and less central than many others.
Hence he was able to gain a central position in a world that was becoming less and less indulgent towards creatures in too much of a cultural niche. He was an artist, journalist, organizer of languages: he was wise: he soaked up everything. I read all his books as they came out, over the years, in Italian and in English. There was one, Microserfs, in which a character wrote emulating Prince, that is, using a U instead of ‘you’ and 2 instead of ‘to’, etc., a long time before the written Internet dialect brought millions of people to use these same shortcuts, this same, intense, bland condensation. Coupland was my hero. This is why I felt a wave of joy when I woke up inside him – joy twice or three times over: because he was a hero, because he was the proof that the game I was trapped in allowed variations and exceptions (I can’t say he was really part of my everyday life as I had never met him), and finally because I loved the simple fortune of being inside something that I considered very acute. I was inside Coupland. I was inside an acute angle. It was very strange to realize, unfortunately, that at seven he was asleep, at eight he was asleep, at ten he was asleep, and at midday, the same. When a person was asleep I couldn’t see anything, because I used their eyes as windows. Technically, they were windows: so eyes closed meant total blindness. As the minutes went by, I wondered if he was jetlagged, or drunk, or if he swapped the night for the day. It could have been anything. Recently I had been incarnated into very different people, some very sad – so I couldn’t wait for him to open his eyes so I could see the world from his point of view. Ultimately, it was the last great novelty, the last great excitement that the afterlife reserved for me: the fan who can see the world from the viewpoint of his favourite author’s mind. Wow. But the minutes continued to pass, and the only thing I could hear was his breathing – at times interrupted by a moment of apnoea, a snore. And then, after the last incarnation, I remember well, I needed a successful man. My last incarnation had literally depressed me: after all, failure can lead to unimagined results, full of unthinkable consequences.
Douglas Coupland woke up at three o’clock in the afternoon. He was a bit big and a bit white as I had imagined him to be. White skin and hair – and beard. After writing a few messages on his mobile phone, having a shower, checking various sites and drinking a few coffees, after putting on a piece by Arthur Love on his iPod, after silently looking out of the window at the composed sky of Vancouver, the moment came to go out. There were some phone calls, from which I understood he was working at night, and after a certain age you really need time and sleep, especially when you finish writing at five or six in the morning. There was lunch and some chit-chat, and then a distracted return home. There was an article carefully read, so much so that I managed to read it too:
Imagine a deserted beach twenty or so miles south of San Diego – the US-Mexican border. Around the beach: the marshy delta of the River Tijuana. Around the delta: debris, rubbish, sewage. In the middle, a fence of steel plates rusted by the sea salt. Used during the first Gulf War to land in the desert, and here jammed into the ground as close as possible to each other, thanks to the US policy of conjuring up new uses for military materials – what was laid on the ground to accommodate fighter jets now stands to keep human beings out. Above, low in the sky, five or six military helicopters. At ground level, somewhere, US patrolmen and women in their jeeps: at times they get out, at others they drive aimlessly – at others still they shoot. Imagine the young intellectuals calling out to the people on the other side, taking a volley ball out of their backpack and simply, as you do, starting to play. The ball starts to cross the border, tersely and bouncing, in the dialectic between passes and spikes – and it seems odd that volleyball is essentially a plastic metaphor for migration. The match lasts an hour and is filmed, because it was Brent Hoff, director of the magnificent DVD magazine called Wholpin, and three of his co-workers, who had the idea of coming here and playing the match. Wrists come together to receive. Palms burn in contact with the grains of sand on the plastic curve of the moving ball. Shouts heard from the other side. After a while we’ve no idea who’s winning and who’s losing. Then a guard in stars and stripes arrives and can’t find anything illegal – but if the ball were goods and we had to pay customs duties every time that it went across? The guys invite him to play, but he’s working. At the end of the match, the first border volleyball match ever played, a clear and poetic, strong and dynamic point was scored against grim customs bureaucracy. Hans-Peter nods as the lady adds: transforming an imaginary sport into reality in such a tragic place is a gesture of political lyricism. We keep nodding. Then we observe the phone. Then we sit in our places. Then I unexpectedly get the clearest of desires to fly, and the aeroplanes that we took together appear, and in some cases what happens to me is no different from friendship: being with someone, being inside someone, being with someone so much that you end up being inside the calculation and the clashes, the facts and the experiences, the inner side of the front, the same way you feel the deep understanding, when you grasp what’s understood without saying what shouldn’t be said. And in the meantime, in the compressed air of the aircraft, someone asks someone else to do up their seatbelt…
Then Douglas set to work, opening the Word document and starting to correct and copy and paste pieces of various drafts of the same book, and images, and strange graphics. I struggled to follow because he kept opening different windows, then he wrote by hand on the desk, then he answered a message, then he put some music on iTunes, then he checked his Facebook page, then he selected paragraphs that he seemed to know to perfection, then he got up to go to the toilet and I concentrated on the details of the house.
Then there were other phone calls: not much attention to the text, also because he kept repeating that he was working on it at night, that it was a ‘textual’ period (even though to me it seemed like a period of absorbency, as if everything paradoxical and curious produced in the world came knocking on his door, and he let it in): dinnertime arrived, unhurried preparation and a call to book an Uber vehicle. Douglas went downstairs quickly, nervously tapping on the banister of the stairs separating him from the entrance hall of the small building. He didn’t look at his reflection in any available surfaces, like a car window. He put in his earphones. He got into the car which arrived a few minutes late. He confirmed the address and exchanged the odd nicety and a smile that I couldn’t see because he was on the wrong side of the backseat to the rear-view mirror. He put his earphones back in. When someone listened to music in their ears, it has to be said, I exploded: literally: I felt torn to bits, thrust about, even though it’s difficult to associate these sensations without any physical dimensions. But that’s how it was. That’s how it worked.
Said he was an actor, bit of a photographer
But made his living out of laughter which made him a comedian
Waiting for his million that was soon coming
But for now he was bumming
He looked in the mirror, looking back at an era
And finished up his brush stroke and laughing at a private joke
He saw the self-hate in his self-portrait
That would one day hang in the Tate next
to a Rembrandt
But still couldn’t pay the rent, man
He said he was a musician who had this ambition
For everyone to listen to his natural rhythm
But for now he was chilling
Just saying this
It’s a matter of time before I get mine
You could call it fate
I’m just waiting for my break
I’m just waiting for my break
I’d never heard this hip-hop song, but Douglas’s music was no disappointment. What I found disappointing was the conversation at dinner – entirely in German, a language I would have liked to have known, but didn’t. My memory perfectly soaked up the sounds but, what can I say, they just remained sounds. The dinner in German was a dinner in German and I only managed to distract myself by associating the titles of Douglas’s books with isolated bits of mouths intent on eating, moving bottles, rolling cigarettes, pushing down to raise torso and body and move from the table with some dishes in hand. They were friends, and he – I remembered this – was born in Germany, in an American military base where his father worked. I thought about Polaroids from the Dead. I thought about the 1990s. I thought about when we grew up in the last century. I thought about what point there was in accumulating all this information and happenings if we then end up so close to losing everything. I didn’t notice but it struck midnight, and like the rule in the fairytale I transformed again – into the gloomy molecule of methane. The world has no sense without our transformations. It’s the magic of the consciousness. The same that you find in Sterne, in Tristram Shandy, in his mind’s many adventures.
In chapter 8, volume 7 of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, modernist and cubist masterpiece slotted smack in the middle of the eighteenth century, it reads:
“When the precipitancy of a man’s wishes hurries on his ideas ninety times faster than the vehicle he rides in–woe be to truth! and woe be to the vehicle […]!”
The speeding vehicle at rest, the vehicle allowing the mind to take flight is called Antiparos.