Chère Colette

AT IRREGULAR INTERVALS of between twenty and thirty years came great floods which were afterwards remembered as one remembers insurrections or wars and were long used as a date from which to reckon time, to calculate the ages of citizens or the term of men's lives.

– Ivo Andri´c, The Bridge Over the Drina


FERNEY, FRANCE, 14 January 2009

Chère Colette,

The bust of Voltaire greets me when I open the shutters and look down on the little square. To his right, the bakery where I buy my breakfast; to his left, the bistro where I sometimes drink or have my dinner; and, adjacent to the bistro, the bookshop where I have been buying books every day since I arrived in Ferney. What a wonderful bookshop! Yesterday I bought the complete works of Nicolas Bouvier and Lorsque l'enfant paraît by Françoise Dolto.

My suitcase will be full of books. These books will be my French reading for the year. I plan today to buy the biography of Saint-John Perse I saw in the window when I left the shop yesterday.

My annual trip to Geneva is much shorter this year and I am leaving this Saturday; I won't have time to come up to Paris. I am sorry.

Some friends, superstitious and optimistic, said, ‘It is about time 2009 comes; 2008 was a terrible year!' Of course, on 1 January, everything changed (superstition) and changed for the better (optimism).

Are my optimistic friends as candid as Candide was optimistic – until the end, at least? Why wouldn't 2009 be filled with diseases, disasters, daughters being raped by their fathers in basements, unjust executions, mass displacements, crushing poverty in the streets of Manila, and general, profound ennui towards all these diseases, disasters, rapes?

Now we have Obama, I guess. He will get us out of the financial crisis and stop the wars. He will save us. He is so full of charm and intelligence, isn't he? You and I, though, know that charm and intelligence only save those who have it. But he seems determined to help and work hard; he seems to listen and to understand.

I am trying to think of something Voltaire said about financial crises, wars or Obama, but I can't think of anything...

2008 was for me a normal year, but 2009 frightens me. It will be the other way around for you.





Chère Colette,

When I told an Australian diplomat visiting Manila of our friendship, he asked me if you had known Proust. I had told him of your editing job. You and the diplomat are about the same age. I said, had he been born in France, he could have not met Proust. Even as a child. Proust had died a decade or so before he and you were born.

People seem surprised you and I are friends. Cross-generational friendships, within families, are rare animals, think the people I meet. The stuff of novels, some say. (Novels would talk about physical love between the great-aunt and the nephew or at least someone from the family, or some sort of awakening of the nephew and revitalisation of the great-aunt. None of that between you and me. A simple friendship, mostly an epistolary one.)

I told the Australian diplomat that you worked with Emmanuel Berl and Jacques Laurent, but they have not been dead long enough to be known in Australia the way Proust or Gide are.

To answer your question, yes, Filipinos are happy people. That is why the cleaner working in your building and many other Filipinos sing to themselves. I find the singing irritating; like you, I like silence. I also think people should not sing out loud unless they are singers performing.

Some local banks are closing down. Smaller ones. Several colleagues fear losing their savings. Deposits are now insured up to 250,000 Philippine pesos (or about €3,900), so if you have more in the account and the bank collapses, the government will only give you 250,000 pesos.

The owners of local banks are usually the rich Filipino families. The banks are often part of a family-owned conglomerate of companies that can include airline, telecommunication, media, real estate and retail businesses.

Other owners are rich individuals. A colleague recently lost his children's education savings in a rural bank ‘going on holidays'. (A bank becoming insolvent ‘goes on holidays'.) The owner managed to protect his personal and other businesses' assets, and the government's Philippine Deposit Insurance Corporation is now managing the bank's affairs. It is likely that many small savers will lose their money despite deposit guarantees, as not all savers know about the guarantees and how to make a claim.

The international banks featured in the news see – since the news is bad – their customers lining up early in the morning to withdraw their money. One bank near my office offered the concerned customers in the queue doughnuts and coffee to sweeten them and make them forget why they came to the branch in the first place. On my way to work the other day, I stopped at the bank and joined the queue. I was offered breakfast by the branch manager. I thanked her, left the queue and went to my office with the breakfast. The doughnut was very sweet, as was the coffee. I felt awful not enjoying the breakfast offered by the bank where I didn't have an account.

Still, everyone sings, despite banks going down and the price of fuel and rice going up. The Filipinos' happiness is resilient.

The ‘jolly jeeps' are street food stalls. Some of them are covered with advertising posters. The other day, I saw on a jolly jeep a poster depicting a little Filipina girl laughing, her arms in the air. Around her, doughnuts were falling from the sky. The slogan on the poster said, ‘One day it will rain donuts'; and below, in smaller letters, like a childish whisper, ‘And I'll be there.'

I am glad this man – whose name you won't reveal – calls. I am glad his calls make you happy. You are right not to ask him questions. You listen to him and he listens to you smoking over the phone and your little voice. I imagine you also listen to the silence between you. If you like his calls it is because they are filled with silence. I remember how you once said you dislike people who are afraid of silence.

I am flying to Myanmar tomorrow, then Thailand. Will write.





Chère Colette,

Have you read Burmese Days, by Orwell? I haven't. In the streets near my hotel, a boy is selling second-hand copies of the book.

I wanted to go down south but I am confined to Yangon, where my duties keep me. The south was devastated by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Many villages in the delta of the Irrawaddy River were washed away, with their inhabitants, by heavy rains and floods. Now we still see the precarious tarpaulin tents in the guise of houses, my colleagues tell me, which we usually only see for weeks and not months after a cyclone... But I don't want to talk about things I haven't seen.

The pace of poverty reduction is slowing. We don't see this in the field but read it in reports. Sometimes you wish reports didn't exist, so you could continue working in optimism. Reports on poverty have a way of killing the poetry of the humanitarian's work. But reports speak to policymakers.

A recent report says, ‘Poverty will decline in 2009, but the World Bank estimates that around fifty-five million more people will live on less than $1.25 a day.' I don't understand how these two things can happen at the same time, how these two trends do not contradict each other.

The point, though, is that the financial crisis is ineluctably affecting poor countries. (1) Developed countries are investing less in developing or low-income countries. (2) As demand in developed countries shrinks, so do exports from developing countries. And I am not talking about how the fluctuation of currencies affects poorer countries – I don't understand its mechanism. But what started and what is happening in developed countries spread to, and is also happening in, developing countries.

There is also fear that foreign aid from developed countries might start decreasing this year, because of the resources being directed towards domestic economies. The Obama Administration, though, will increase the amount of US aid, an American diplomat told me. More than the previous administration, it believes foreign aid to be an effective diplomatic tool to develop new or restore old and sour relationships with certain countries. The US directs its aid to regions concerning its security. (France often directs its aid where it wishes to expand its cultural and commercial influence, mostly in West Africa.)

The lion's share of US foreign aid goes to Iraq – by far – then Afghanistan, Sudan, Colombia, Egypt, Pakistan. Almost half is in education, health and building social infrastructure. The current US administration seems to consider foreign aid as a tool to mitigate the effect of the financial crisis on poorer countries... Its potency will depend on the quality of the recipient country's governance and a minimum level of economic functionality.

I wonder whether the American government, now that it appears to have a bit more of a conscience, feels some sort of guilt. That they have to make up to other countries for their country's financial practices having been the main contributor to the global financial crisis.

Did you follow some of the debates at the US Congress on the stimulus packages? Were they reported in the French press? The Republicans reminded me of Pangloss. Pangloss stops Candide from saving Jacques the Anabaptist from drowning, to demonstrate that the Lisbon harbour was made for the Anabaptist to drown in. Later, when caught in the Lisbon earthquake, Candide is buried under rubble. He asks Pangloss to get him ‘a little wine and oil'. Instead of helping Candide, Pangloss responds: ‘This concussion of the earth is no new thing...the city of Lima in South America experienced the same last year; the same cause, the same effects; there is certainly a train of sulphur all the way underground from Lima to Lisbon.'

‘Nothing is more probable,' Candide says, ‘but for the love of God a little oil and wine.'

‘Probable!' the philosopher replies. ‘I maintain that the thing is demonstrable.'

Candide faints away, and Pangloss fetches him some water from a neighbouring spring.

To me, it is folly not to respond to a crisis. Republicans are arguing for free markets, capitalism against socialism, decreasing the size of government; but such a dialectic is abstract in the face of a crisis. Republicans say, ‘This concussion of the economy is no new thing...'

Americans, remembering the 1930s and '70s, say, ‘Nothing is more probable, but for the love of God may the government help us keep our homes and our jobs.'

‘Probable!' the Republicans reply. ‘We maintain that the thing is demonstrable!'

They are focusing on economic arguments rather than positive action.

I was saying all this to the American diplomat passing through Yangon and, oddly, he asked me whether I knew Candide by heart. I said that I could never know by heart a text as long as Candide. I could probably learn parts of it and remember them for a day or two, but would not be able to recite them if I had not learned them a few hours before. I told him that I was not reciting a passage but recalling what was in a chapter. I added that, as a matter of fact, I didn't remember the place of the chapter in the book, though I recalled that the final chapters had to do with Candide losing his optimism and cultivating his garden.

This evening, I went to the magnificent Shwedagon Temple. I was told that on sunny days the gold layer on the immense bell-shaped pagoda reflects the sunlight to blind pilgrims and tourists. Today was a sunny day. When the sunlight softened at about five or five-thirty, the pagoda took on a warm glow.

François Nourissier has been left in a mouroir, you tell me. I have read about his condition in the French papers. Most articles by writers and friends do not talk about the mouroir or Parkinson's. They talk about his writing, his place in French literature. It is strange to me to read about his dying, from someone at his bedside, when I only have been a reader of his literary work. I am now a witness to your friendship with him and a spectator of his dying. He saved you after your divorce, you told me once.

I have just opened the copy of Burmese Days I bought from the boy 
this morning. The pages are very dirty and seem to disintegrate between my fingers, like an old parchment. I don't think I will read the book in bed.

Does this man who called you still call?



MAE HONG SON, Thailand, 2 February

Chère Colette,

I am sorry that the man who called you doesn't call anymore. I will not worry, because you have told me it's fine. One cannot call forever. When in high school I would call Karine in the evening, even though we had spent the day sitting together in class. Or she would call. We would spend hours on the phone, before and after dinner. Often we said nothing. Often we would fall asleep. I would wake up in the middle of the night and turn off the light and place the phone back on its hook. We were not romantically involved. At one point she stopped calling and her line was always busy when I called. She had become romantically involved with a boy called Loïc. I guessed that she called him instead. In the evenings, I started to call my friend François again. Though we spent time at school together, he and I had not spoken on the phone for a long time, probably because I had stopped calling him when I started calling Karine and he must have found that my line was always busy when Karine and I were talking.

Before I left for Sri Lanka in December, F and I made love. For the first time, it was to...I am not sure how to say...procreate, I guess. We made love though the calendar said it was pointless. So on Saturday, when I passed the child-granting Celestial in my circular walk around the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, I could not resist whispering something, since F and I have only spent four days together since my trip to Sri Lanka and the timing had never been right. I didn't really ask for anything, since I am not of Buddhist (or any) persuasion, but hoped that we would be together at the right time and eventually have a healthy baby.

This morning F called. She said there were two parallel lines, though it remains to see a doctor and have a blood test to confirm the pregnancy. Are other religions as effective as Buddhism in exhausting timid prayers? The timing must not have been so bad after all. The catch is that now I have to go back to Yangon and thank the Celestial in person.

I have been visiting refugee camps at the border (with Myanmar). Today I was at the Baan Mai Naison Temporary Shelter Area, near the small town of Mae Hong Son.

I noticed that people in camps walk a lot. Adults and children walk from one side of the camp to the other, for whatever reason: to meet humanitarian workers at their camp offices; to get things, such as water, food and small goods, or to gather firewood for cooking and heating. In the morning, when we drove up the long and rutted track, we saw men and women walking towards the camp, carrying wood on their shoulders, and sometimes bundles of wood held by material wrapped around their heads and resting on their backs. When we left the camp and drove down the track, in the afternoon, the same people were slowly advancing. They seemed barely to have progressed. Most of them looked too old to carry such burdens.

We arrived at the camp just after trucks had delivered freshly cut bamboo trunks, which are used for the walls of the huts and fences. An orderly distribution was taking place. I thought of the people who I had seen walking up the track, kilometres away from the camp, some with these three-to-four-metre-long bamboo trunks on their shoulders. I told the person who seemed in charge of the distribution about the people I had seen carrying the same bamboo back to the camp. Should we tell them not to bother, I asked the Thai NGO worker; should we pick them up and have them help themselves to some of the trunks lying here? He responded that these trunks were for residents of a particular block of the camp. He added that the people I saw were probably not from the camp, as people from the camp are usually not allowed to leave unaccompanied – they were probably Thai people from the area.

Most of the people in the camp are Karen and Karenni people. They have come from remote parts of Myanmar. Out of the jungle. Most of them are refugees, meaning that they have been granted refugee status under international law; they are no longer asylum seekers. And most of the refugees in the camp are ‘transiting': they have been accepted by the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other countries, and while in the camp they are being medically examined, and assisted if they are unwell. The main diseases checked are tuberculosis and HIV. They also undergo classroom inductions to their new home country and new lifestyle. They are shown pictures of the food, places, landmarks, important people in their new country. They are trained to use the style of toilet used there; they are shown the warm clothes they will need to wear in winter; they are told about customs and politeness. They are presented with pictures of the kinds of faces they will see in their new country – invariably they are surprised to see that some faces look just like theirs.



After lunch, I quickly visited the Phra That Doi Kong Moo temple with two of my colleagues. The temple is perched on top of a mountain. It is a very small temple compared with Shwedagon. The two small chedis are of a bright white which, like the gold of Shwedagon, forces you to squint. Below the temple, at the foot of its mountain, lies Mae Hong Son, in the valley, cut through by an airstrip.

My colleagues – a Bosnian-Austrian working in Bangkok and a Mace­donian based in Mae Hong Son – and I sat on a wall overlooking the town. I commented on how Mae Hong Son was pleasant and its infrastructure – hospital, roads, airport – functional and modern, despite its geographical isolation and small size.

‘The King of Thailand,' said our Macedonian colleague, ‘is the Development King. He has funded many development projects in rural Thailand. For over sixty years he has helped the poor of Thailand, has built hospitals, roads...'

Many people in Mae Hong Son wear yellow shirts (the King's colour) with the royal cipher on their breast on Mondays (the King was born on a Monday).

Mae Hong Son was beautiful. The valley was – the town, too, almost lost in a valley. We could see a small temple near the small lake near the hospital; the restaurant where we had dinner, the office, our guesthouse. The only thing was the airstrip, like a gash, an amputation. It seemed to have taken out a third of the town. But then, thanks to the airstrip, the modern hospital was provisioned – the town, too. And humanitarian workers could arrive and depart every day of the week: fly to Chiang Mai, then Bangkok, then wherever...




Chère Colette,

If only I could put in my letters the sweet smell of the almost-rotten fruit, of the meat that has just been separated from the carcass and the meat that was hung the day before under the blue tarpaulin; the smell of the motor vehicles' exhaust, of human and animal urine on the wall; the smell of open sewers – you would realise the attack on the senses that a stroll downtown can cause.

One gets used to everything. We even come to desire this state of alertness. The never-ending concert of klaxons in narrow streets, the whistles of the ridiculous traffic officers, the jeepneys that come out of nowhere. The children who run and scream. People everywhere, lying down, sitting, standing; people walking, people talking to you, people talking to others, who demand, who harangue. We come to want this, to want to be on the qui vive. To want the smells and dust and not mind the pollution.

Manila is an uncontrollable city.

You say you get angry when you watch the news. You ask what one can do, believing the answer is nothing. That there is no answer. The atrocities, you say: how can they happen? The poverty! The corruption! You kick your heels and smoke more. (I wonder how your voice managed to stay so soft with all the smoking you have done.)

I have been reading about Orwell in Burma since my trip to Yangon. I have also read some of his texts (Hôpital X in the fifteenth arrondissement of Paris, in ‘How the Poor Die', made me think of Nourissier's mouroir). Orwell says that the central problem is how to prevent power from being abused, and that this problem hasn't been solved yet. I think this is why you get angry when you watch the news, and why you smoke more.

One text I particularly connected to is ‘Shooting an Elephant'. Human-itarian workers from developed countries based in the field must often feel like Orwell about to shoot the elephant. Like the ‘conjurer about to perform a trick'. They often carry the weight of expectations from those they are working with or helping. The obligation not only to solve the problems but to solve them by impressing. In the 1920s, Orwell was a police officer in Burma and saw himself and other white men in Burma as a ‘sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalised figure of a sahib', spending their lives trying to impress the locals by demonstrating decisiveness and resolution – what the locals had come to expect from the white men. The truth is, the developed countries gave themselves this role of conjurer but cannot live up to it.

One thing you should know is that most humanitarian workers are from developing countries. Any organisation working in any poor country would employ most of its workers from the local workforce. Only a few expatriates (not always from developed countries) would pose as the conventionalised figure of thesahib.

I am wondering why you have not seen for a while the singing Filipina cleaner working in your building. Did you ever talk to her? Do you know where she is from?

In the past weeks, I have been opening and closing and opening Candide. Because of Voltaire's bust in Ferney, which I seem to have photographed in my mind. His cheeky smile. I think there is something Candidesque about the Filipino overseas worker. The travels, for one thing. The search for a better life. The optimism and excitement when they leave Manila.

Candide becomes immensely rich in El Dorado. With this richness, he thinks that he will no longer face the problems he has been facing (unfair arrest, beating). He thinks he will be happy. Of course, he is not. He worries about how his money is trickling away to rather unsavoury characters, such as the merchant Vanderdendur, who sails away with most of it. His wealth brings him friends with motives. Wealth is one of the things that turned Candide away from optimism.

Money earned in developed countries, and the need to keep earning that money, has kept Filipinos away from their families. The cleaner in your building was probably sending most of her pay back to her family in the Philippines.

The Filipino overseas workers often come across the unsavoury kind of characters you read about inCandide. Remind me to one day tell you the story of Flor Contemplacion. Perhaps the cleaner in your building has returned to the Philippines. We have seen many overseas Filipino workers return in the past few months.

Do you remember what Candide says about optimism when he comes across a half-naked slave with no left leg and right hand? He says, ‘Alas! It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.' I wonder if the Filipina cleaner working in your building, along with the singing, has maintained her optimism. Or if she now says that everything is for the worst.

I have been reading about the financial crisis. People in government are not often the reflective kind. And I suppose you do not have time to stop and think when you are running a country. You have to react, constantly. But Australia's Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has stopped what he was doing for a moment – I assume he had to stop – and in writing an essay thought about the global financial crisis. I do believe that in facing problems of certain magnitude, one sometimes has to analyse and ponder. Sometimes brilliant instinct and swift action are not enough to deal with complex problems. (The US Republicans are not analysing or pondering the stimulus packages or alternative solutions; they are still arguing for neo-liberalism.) Mr Rudd's essay is not a plan of action but a reflection. Perhaps it helped him (and will help his readers) get to the core of the matter. It outlines a direction – which, frankly, seems to be the right direction. It is also the politico-economic direction of the moment, which most democracies seem to now follow: social capitalism. Rudd is rather intellectual; he is an intellectual but also a politician; his essay is unavoidably a political essay. I will translate it into French and send it to you.

You haven't told me yet how you feel about the financial crisis. Did you get angry? Are you optimistic? You tell me about the seasons coming and going. The birds on your balcony. And Nourissier.

Perhaps, after all, it might not be worth my while translating the Rudd essay. You have never mentioned the global financial crisis in your letters, and if I am going to translate something from the English into French, it should be something literary. I will translate some of my friend Frank's stories that have not been translated into French and will send you a summary of the Rudd essay.




Ma très chère Colette,

It took me a long time to decide to go Garbage Mountain. I was afraid. I was afraid to catch something, afraid of the smell, afraid of the mountain collapsing on me, as it happened a few years ago on people who scavenged there. But I wanted to meet the people who live there, to see what I thought was the worst that can happen to a human being who doesn't have a job or a home or a family to look after him or her, so I went. It has now been several weeks and I have not visibly caught anything. Perhaps I was never to catch anything. I did not sieve through the rubbish, I did not sleep at the bottom of the mountain; I didn't shake any hands – I think I didn't – I just looked around. I was a simple tourist though without a camera but with a readiness for astonishment.

Garbage Mountain, a mythical mountain in my mind, was many very big piles of garbage – a range of hills, if you like – with humans, insects and animals sieving through the formless mass, a moveable ground, and hundreds of trucks coming and going. It was a buzzing hive of activity. A large chain of sorting and recycling garbage...

I have been thinking and writing about the financial crisis. The world was in an endemic phase of economic crisis; the credit crunch triggered the pandemic. The Philippines and many other countries are, it seems, in a permanent state of economic crisis. They were before the current crisis and will remain so after the ‘recovery'. Poor countries are in economic crisis whether the economic trends are positive or negative. ‘The world was in an endemic phase of economic crisis; the credit crunch triggered the pandemic' is a cliché, isn't it? I don't think I understand what is happening and what will happen. I can only ask questions.

I am sometimes inhabited by a tremendous and horrifying uncertainty: what is going to happen; what will happen to my child?

I was born during the early '70s oil crisis; my child will be born during the global financial crisis. I remember the year the oil crisis hit France because I was born that year. I will remember the year the global financial crisis hit us all because my child will be born that year – the crises ‘used as a date from which to reckon time, to calculate the ages of citizens or the term of men's lives'.

Independently from the crisis, I don't feel I am more in a crisis than before, meaning in a world in more trouble than before.

Your last letter said it is unlikely that those who have lost their optimism will find it again. I think I did. I want to ask you if you think those who have children can lose their optimism. Did Candide become a father? I cannot remember. I think he wasn't into Cunégonde in the end. After looking for her all around the world, he was greatly disappointed when he finally met her again...

My friend Frank started his first book with the following line, as if setting out the problem developed in the book's stories: ‘The central dilemma is that of giving birth, of creating new life.' You probably have to be an optimist to create new life.

You say people – beings is the word you used – don't have a civic spirit; they only think of themselves, they are rotten, they possess too much; it is even so for the blue-collar worker who you can't feel sorry for anymore. Perhaps living in a first-world country numbs our compassion. We have become stoics.

I remember thinking like you when I was twenty and living in Paris. The repetitive demonstrations by teachers, civil servants, truck drivers, public-transport workers made me despise their causes. How dare they prevent others, us, from getting to work, getting on with our lives? How does their cause justify such an inconvenience to us? Why are their problems obstructing our lives? I thought, because I was reading Nietzsche, that the demonstrators were conspiring against those who had no problems to obtain their compassion and support. Those with problems created problems for those who didn't have any. And I resented them for this.

In On the Genealogy of Morals Nietzsche warns that the failed and the weak might one day inject their misery into the conscience of those who are happy and strong. One day, he says, because of the failed and the weak, we, the happy and the strong, will feel ashamed of our happiness. This is done through compassion. Compassion spreads suffering; it is a vector of unhappiness.

The first world has a Neitzschean, stoic attitude towards the poor of the third world and their suffering. It sees the third world as the weak that can undermine their happiness, wealth; in the end, their superior value.

I see in France strikers now lock up managers in factories and ransack their employers' offices. You regard the vulnerability of the French blue-collar worker as somewhat ‘bourgeois' because a blue collar of the first world is not a poor or a weak being, and therefore not worthy of compassion or pity. The original vulnerability that leads them to strike is not as primal as those of the poor and weak you read about or see in the news, those without the basic resources to live, without what you might think is dignity.

It is also hard to feel sorry for people who exert violence to solve their problems. A group of angry grévistes, numerically superior to those who are not angry and those who are managers, storm a factory, strong by their number with blood boiling, use – abuse, to you and me – their power to take over the premises and incarcerate the managers in their offices. What do they achieve? A counter-imbalance of power. They are now too powerful and a period of status quo begins, where no just, meaningful negotiation can take place because a party is now abusing its power to oppress another.

The grévistes I am talking about not only broke criminal laws but also what you or I would consider moral laws. They are wrong to have behaved in such a way. We cannot feel compassion for those who do not behave morally. We cannot feel sorry for those who are angry and powerful.

We should; we often do. We feel sorry for poor, sick individuals. For vulnerability. For power that has evaporated into vulnerability. For suffering. For Nourissier.

Suffering doesn't disappear with power, though. Compassion is not something that depends on whom one directs it to; it is something innate. A disposition. One has it, in different quantities; some have more than others. (Because he considered it detrimental to those who have it, Nietzsche didn't want to have compassion; he only had pity.)

We should demonstrate compassion to those who have and are powerful. For one, power takes away freedom. Expectations are placed on the powerful with very little chance that they will meet them. The grévistes didn't keep their jobs, didn't get their indemnities. They became powerful and behaved immorally – I feel sorry for those who will spend time in jail for not appreciating how to use their power wisely.

You tell me about your death. You tell me about Nourissier. He is your powerless friend. He is not the poor stranger in the news. He is someone like you. Nourissier's predicament is soliciting your generosity, your energy, your time. He presses your hand, smiles to you gratefully, asks you to come back. His suffering assails you. And you go back every week. You expose yourself to his suffering, to some extent you share a little of it; you are compassionate. You have compassion for Nourissier and pity for the poor people in the news.

You visit Nourissier to reassure yourself, you say – but to reassure yourself of what? That the injustice of sickness inflicted upon him will not be inflicted upon you? You visit him every week, as if to say that you are not part of the injustice and horror. But you do fear his suffering; you do not desire it. You descend somewhere, I don't know where, but you go down somewhere when you visit your dying friend. Like a walk in the rain, your head is bowed and you are humble.

I went to Garbage Mountain with the thousand arms of compassion, but they were unnecessary. No one there needed compassion. No one was on their deathbed wanting to press my hand. No striker made demands. Certainly no one or nothing needed my pity. All I did by going to the mountain was reassure myself, I hope with humility.

I wish you could see the apocalyptic blackness of the clouds and the relentless force of the rain and wind. They are frightening. Exciting. I want to leave my office and walk in the powerful rain and then go to bed, wet, having been assaulted by the elements.

Will you let me take you to the gardens and temples of Kyoto after Nourissier's passing?




OVER THE SOUTH China Sea, 18 May

I would like to ask you this: can noise, heat bring peace to someone?

You are lying down. You hear motorcycles – in this place there are no cars – and hundreds of other noises. Motorcycles backfire. You hear the cries of daily activities. You are lying down almost naked in a small, dark and humid room. It is very hot. There is a ceiling fan that is shuffling the hot and humid air. You are stuck to your bed by sweat. A book is open on your stomach, like a small tent. In this torpor, you doze off. You are resting. You are at peace. If by whatever magic all the noises were to stop, you would wake up in extreme panic.


Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review