Spotlight Auster, Coetzee meeting falls short
For The Herald
Pen-pals reunion at the Book Fair too flavourless for Argentine audience
In a 1980 interview, Jorge Luis Borges said that “friendship doesn’t need frequency, love does.” Three decades later — in the opening letter of last year’s epistolary compilation between J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster, Here and Now — the South African Nobel laureate arrived to a similar premise after doing some research on friendship’s role in literature and finding a quote by Charles Lamb that says “One can have friends without wanting to see them.” On the next sentence, Coetzee added: “True; and interesting too — another way in which friendly feelings are unlike erotic attachments.”
This notion strengthens the bond between Borges and Coetzee’s impressions on friendship; but the cherry-on-top came yesterday, when Auster and Coetzee took a seat and faced each other in an auditorium dedicated to Borges at the Book Fair. Two friends, living on opposite sides of the world converged in BA, in front of hundreds of people, to maintain the most public of private conversations. Or was it?
At 5pm yesterday, the area was full of anxious, tense anticipation. Nonetheless, Florencia, 23 years old, waited calmly besides her father, almost at the beginning of a long line of seated people. She was eagerly reading Youth: Scenes From Provincial Life II by Coetzee. She got here at 1pm, three hours before the organizers started handing out the 600 numbers that filled the 550 available seats at the Borges auditorium.
Though she hadn’t read Here and Now, she assumed the day’s event would be one-of-a-kind, for Coetzee and Auster are two of her favorite authors — she expected to find in their conversation a sort of intellectual enlightenment that could pierce through the foggy trivialities of everyday life.
At 6.30pm, the place was already packed — excitement flooded the auditorium and what started as a gentle murmur turns into a roar of hundreds of overlapping voices, waiting for the sudden apparition that will silence them all. Nine minutes later, the buzz ceased. Book Fair director Gabriela Adamo took the microphone and gave a short speech in which she stressed the importance of the fair’s guests, claiming that “the ones who renew the interest for books are the most important”: for her, Auster and Coetzee were the fair’s main event.
Next on the microphone was Universidad de San Martín dean Carlos Ruta, who invited everyone to the university today, where he will hand out honoris causa degrees to both Auster and Coetzee. He added that the event will also feature musicians Liliana Herrero and Juan Falú, who will be giving short speeches. Ruta also said that “we believe in the potency of literature, in the potency of fiction.” Near the end of the speech, he recalled Coetzee’s words on the project that would later become Here and Now, when the author claimed its mission was to “strike sparks of each other.”
At 6.43, the crowd received Auster and Coetzee with frenzied rounds of applause and loud rock-concert-like screams. The authors took a seat and Auster began reading. At this point, young Florencia might have wondered what was going on — she went there to hear them talk freely and, instead, they were reading some of the letters included in Here and Now. Not to worry though, everyone was in for a surprise as a sort of third speaker enters the conversation, a most unwelcome guest: technical difficulties.
What started with some random noises soon turned into a high-pitched oozing sound, interrupting Auster’s reading. “We are having a concert here …it sounds like a science fiction movie” he says. The microphone dies. Then it revives. “Ok, we’re back,” Auster says, and he resumes his reading. Suddenly, the translator’s voice — which should have only been heard by those wearing special headphones to hear the live translation — started overlapping Auster’s.
“Who was that?” he first asks. As the translator’s voice keeps overlapping, Auster wittingly turns it into part of the anecdote, “But, what can I do? I was the translator.” The auditorium bursts into laughter. He adds “we have to fix this” and walks away, leaving a baffled Coetzee sitting all alone until he leaves too. Luckily, only five minutes later, both writers return. “Let’s hope for the best,” Auster says before resuming his reading, without further complications.
In a New York Times magazine article titled The Perfect Substitute for War (1999), Paul Auster claimed that “Countries now wage their battles on the soccer field with surrogate armies in short pants… for once it seems that the vast majority of Europeans have found a way to hate one another without hacking one another to pieces. This miracle goes by the name of soccer.”
During the reading, Coetzee narrated a letter in which he disagreed. He said that he doesn’t “like forms of sports which model themselves too closely on warfare, in which all that matters is winning and winning becomes a matter of life and death.”
While reading a letter dated December 3, 2010, Auster pondered the effect that this epistolary exchange has had on him. “We have been at it for close than three years now and in that time you’ve become what I would call an ‘absent other,’ a kind of adult cousin to the imaginary friends little children invent for themselves. I discovered that I often walk around talking to you on my head.” He went on describing how much he would like to share life’s trivialities with him (pointing out a funny-looking stranger that walks past him, for instance). It is important to point out the obvious: writers are people too, in fact, Coetzee’s response to Auster’s thoughts was a critique on the “romanticized life of the writer,” which he feels is all but a lie.
At the end of the reading, a lot of the previously eager and overexcited audience members looked disappointed. “I was expecting something else” — a comment that echoed many times while exiting the auditorium. Both writers later went to a book signing inside a white tent near the Sarmiento entrance to the fair. An enormous cue was already in place there, hundreds of people waiting, like a gigantic coiled snake waiting for the chance to sink its fangs into an autograph.
The Herald asked some people if they had enjoyed the reading, the echo arose yet again, though some of them liked it, most of them were definitely expecting something else.
So Auster and Coetzee didn’t have the conversation most people expected, but in the long run their letters are just that: a conversation. And the opportunity to hear and see the authors of a book replace one’s own mental voice — the one that recites inside our heads when we read — is also valuable. In last year’s book Here and Now, Coetzee wrote that “friendship is what it seems to be. Friendship is transparent.” And through that transparency, a whole auditorium was able to see and hear what friendship looks like between two highly renowned authors. It looked familiar; as if the underlying universality of affectionate human relations trespasses any kind of status, or titles. And that’s precisely the moral this encounter has to offer — friendship couldn’t care less about distance, status or titles.