Islas Malvinas

Frank Lentricchia

‘As we grow older,’ Lucchesi says at sixty, alone, at his desk, ‘we grow more extremely ourselves. Contact depresses us; conversation debilitates.’ Words spoken with forced eloquence, like a bad classical actor in an old movie. And yet, except for hiding himself behind collective pronouns, Lucchesi spoke sincerely. Forced eloquence had long since become second nature to him, there in his cramped writing room, where the writing no longer comes, and where he now makes desperate calls at all hours, to contact those he’d barely known in his early schooldays, and hasn’t seen since. Only names now, at the farthest edge of memory; names dragging reluctant images of fresh faces, in black and white, of ten, and 12, and 14-year-olds.

He wants to call the faces. First, all with the same surname in the town he’d left in his early twenties. Then directory assistance in many distant American cities; even London he calls. In futility, weeping to be told: ‘Oh, she died two weeks ago. Are you a close friend?’ ‘No such listing, sorry.’ ‘I have a listing, sir, for the Federal correctional facility at Leavenworth.’ ‘Why should I talk to you? Of all people, you?’ ‘She’s dead. Where you been?’ ‘He died.’ ‘Years ago, she moved way out West with her third husband. I can’t remember the state. I think it might have been Idaho, or South Carolina.’ ‘He says to tell you that he’s indisposed at the present time on the toilet, and he’ll get in touch with you some time next month.’ ‘Buzz off, this is Christmas Eve.’ ‘She died.’ ‘He died.’ ‘I died.’ ‘You died. You’re dead. Sorry.’

And it is Christmas Eve. And he thinks of himself as Ebenezer Scrooge, not because Money is All, but because Art is All. He, Thomas Lucchesi, the Scrooge of Art, who hoards himself to writing. He gives so little to others, he gives nothing, who would now reclaim his past with words.

Speaks again: ‘Lucchesi weeps for Lucchesi. True. Too easily true. But true.’ [Takes a note.] For something more did he weep? For contact purified by nostalgia, for contact without cost, he wept. And for the change of children, the mortality of childhood, he did weep. Pathetic. Such pathetic banalities. [Takes a note.] But it was precisely that, he thought, that had lent him his tenuous hold on the chain of humanity; his tendency to weep over the banalities that bind; all that treacherous crud that he laboured to expunge from his literary voice. [Expunge: break the chain.] He wept that children should grow to become grieving adults. Wept because an abused child was happier than any adult who had not been abused, because he believes that even an abused child, which he’d not been, lives in a magical kingdom, as he does not, as do not all the children of his memory, who had surely grown to become grieving adults. [Grown: groan.] Believes death to be the other magical kingdom and adulthood a long transition of exile. In the kingdom of death, the fresh faces will meet again. Until then? If only he could write again.

Recalls her: Melvina. The one forcing her way from the far edge of memory to the centre. Or was it Malvina? His dictionary of personal names gives both spellings. Much prefers the latter, doesn’t know why. It’ll be Malvina. Two spellings, one face: black, stern, starkly attractive, with a long bony body, fierce and flexible on the playgrounds of the eighth grade. At 12, she, Malvina the dominant, and young Lucchesi had competed for valedictorian of their grammar school and finished in a dead heat. Of course, they’d never spoken. She’d spoken to no one, not even her teachers. Who dared speak with Malvina? Once he followed her home. Wanted to knock on the door, but didn’t. Wanted to be in her stern black place, because he thought it might make him stern and romantic. Elevate him to her plane of aristocracy. Her surname had not survived. [Good: can’t call.]

Now he has his house of books. He’s library-sufficient [Note] and, therefore, all-sufficient [Note]. He’ll build her back, out of his books. Make literary contact with an obscure princess, for purposes of high discourse on the grave matter of her stern, stern world.

Against that day when maybe the ice would break up and thaw, he’ll file his notes in a manila folder. Thinks of Malvina gestating in the folder; thinks of the Falklands War. The Falkland Islands, down at the end of the Argentine coast, three hundred miles out where the Atlantic verges on the South Polar region, and he’s remembering a British TV correspondent stationed in Buenos Aires referring to the islands as the Malvinas. Plural. Islas Malvinas. Not since the eighth grade had Lucchesi heard that sound. What is a Malvina? His dictionary of personal names gives him Melvina, from Irish, ‘an armoured chief’ [Yes], derived perhaps from Gaelic moal-mhin, ‘smooth brow’ [Yes]. But Malvina from Scottish was the creation of a poet, who had claimed to discover an ancient Gaelic epic: James Macpherson, oh yes! he knew of Macpherson! 18th-century literary fraud, so gripped by the idea of an art rooted in folk culture, in local earth, that he invented it. The scandal of Macpherson’s hoax only helped Malvina do what she had long yearned to do: escape from the poem and her creator; leap from the text, leap down into the world, where many in the late 18th and early 19th centuries named their daughters Malvina. Then she slipped underground. For almost two hundred years nobody named their girl-child Malvina, until she returned, taciturn and mythic, in the imagination of a recessed and frail white boy, in a small town in middle America. Malvina, foundling gift of the literary gods, in temporary residence with a poor black family living at the edge of an Italian-American neighbourhood. The old Italians called her: graziadei. Local earth; local object of desire; vision. [Who needs a telephone?]

The furnace fails in Lucchesi’s house; cold air blows through the vents in his writing room. Getting on to midnight. Feels a little better; new writing may be at hand.

Assumes that Islas Malvinas is Spanish. Assumes that these islands were called Malvinas originally, before they became known as the Falklands. But the encyclopedias correct him: it seems that the British, like God, were originally everywhere, and the slow collapse of Empire was like the generous, but wary, withdrawal of God, which permitted being other than His own to exist. The British, the first namers, baptised the islands after one of their naval commanders. Then the islands were settled by the French who, in the arrogance by which the world would come to know them, refused to make a variant of ‘Falklands’ in their language. The French decided, instead, to express themselves. They decided: Lucchesi loves the idea. [Takes a note.] Because they needed to think of themselves as the first namers. And so they called them Iles Malouines. And then the belated Spanish, whose Islas Malvinas was indeed a Spanish variant on Iles Malouines. Spanish ruthlessness was tempered by lack of original genius. [Brits? French? Spanish? Kindergartners in the Imperialism of Art.] But what was signified by the French imagination? Malouines? What were they? The encyclopedists say that the original settlers were from Saint Malo, and that ‘Malouines’ was ‘no doubt’ (encyclopedists imagine, too) the feminine diminutive in old French of Malo. But malo in Lucchesi’s dictionary of Old French doesn’t exist, though the list of ‘mal’ words is immense.

Lucchesi decides to express himself. Writes: ‘These islands are small. “Saint” in old French is figurative for “inner sanctum”. The Falklands, the inner sanctum of small evils? So I compose; so I would compose myself on my small island, this writing room.’

Like Lucchesi, the Malvinas are not arable. They are treeless, and monotonously bleak, except for the millions of penguins which journey up from the neighbouring ice world of Antarctica to mate. [Cold Copulars!] Mean temperature: 42° Fahrenheit, with winds constant from all directions at 20 miles per hour, periodically sustained at gale force. Lucchesi thinks about the wind-chill factor. Lucchesi feels no chill. Rain and snow 200 days per year. Shoreline cut deep by fjords. Makes a note: ‘Like Norway in the South Atlantic.’ Makes another note: ‘Cancel the sentiment. Cancel all sentiment.’ Cloud-cover virtually perpetual; fog breaking on occasion to reveal, in patched sunlight, herds of sheep passing over brutally gravelled roads, grazing unfenced, but marked by their owners with coded dyes: a slash of red, or indigo, over the shoulders, flaring out like blood through the steaming mist. Sheep to humans: 800 to I, a ratio that pleases Lucchesi greatly. He makes a note of it. Principal import: alcoholic beverages, of course. Lucchesi adds to the fact: ‘and countless reams of typing paper, so that the humans can fight back against the fucking sheep’. Coastal topography: drowned river valleys.

Long ago, East Falkland served as a whaling station, the last before the tall ships, mainly American, in penetrating enterprise rounded Cape Horn and made for the Marquesas, Tahiti and the rich Japanese cruising grounds. And Lucchesi delights to imagine him there, Melville, of course, ruddiest of writers, strolling in the Malvinas! Strolling beaches of white quartz sand and suddenly seized by impulse, stripping, and plunging out of sight into the frigid surf, to dare the giant kelp coils. Look! Melville’s swimming too far out, he’s diving too deep! Herman! Don’t come up! There! There it is again, the bold, bearded head bobbing among the white caps, to stare down blank, dramatic sea cliffs, and the vast rolling moors of this awful waste.

In a geographical survey of the saints, he finds it: Saint Malo. Named for a Welsh monk who had fled to Brittany in the sixth century to escape persecution: Maclou, which became in modern French, Malo. Nothing to do with evil, everything to do with silence and rejection of the world which insisted on taking an interest in the monk. Lucchesi smiles in his cold room. Writes: ‘Am I not, in a way, more like Christ than I am like Scrooge? Have I not renounced all for Art? The Scrooge-Christ of Art, who has hoarded his self to Writing the Father. And not gained the world. Because who buys his books? And lost his soul. Wherein lie all my profits?’

Lucchesi feels very good. No chance he’ll weep now. Raises window high to let in a blast of icy air. Inhales deep. The heat had long gone down, and now the electrical power goes, too, and he’s in the dark, in the House of Books, without a single candle, just as he was about to begin new work at last, the first sentences stirring in his mind. He’ll have to write in the mind. In darkness, in the mind: ‘Writing is taking place.’ [Revises:] ‘Writing takes the place. In the Malvinas, something fast in the white grass. Arms up. Racing with her arms up, fists clenched, hair whipped back in the wind, a black streak through white grass. Secret, self-contained, solitary: Malvina and I take the place.’

He’ll memorise it. Revise in the mind through the night. Memorise the revision, waiting for dawn. Happy in his unredeemed state. No doubt about it: quite happy.

Time to tear the telephone from the wall.