I have a penchant for rereading books I like. A variation of the errant tendency that makes me repeatedly listen to the same song or watch the same movie till it becomes a part of my DNA. The thing is, I like the comfort of returning to a familiar space, no unpleasant surprises in store. And there is also the thrill of finding interpretations and nuances that were missed the first time round.
Recently, though, I have developed a new habit. I return to the same book just hours after I have finished reading it the first time. I think it started with The Pilgrim’s Bowl. I was so unwilling to put it down that I went back quite a few times, revisiting random lines, paragraphs and chapters. Now I find myself doing it with other books too. Maybe my reluctance to part is growing with age.
When I finished reading No Fixed Abode, I knew I had to read it again, and urgently. The reasons were very different from those that made me return to The Pilgrim’s Bowl. If that one was about poetry and nostalgia, this was because it left me – for want of a better term – restless. The kind of restlessness one feels when one is not able to decipher the last couple of clues in a crossword puzzle.
No Fixed Abode is not a book that would ordinarily have crossed my path or mind. I got it at the recommendation of a friend, one with similar taste in words. The name itself was intriguing to me. For someone who lost count of the number of times she has moved homes, such a name would automatically ring a bell.
Then of course there is the seductive charm of a hardbound, beautifully produced book batting its eyelashes at you through its prim grey jacket. There’s no book-lover alive who can resist that kind of temptation. I couldn’t.
A confession: It’s rarely that I read a book blurb before I’m through with the book itself (I know it doesn’t make sense, but then, that’s me – I hardly make sense), but this time the terms ‘ethnofiction’ and ‘fictional ethnography’ on the inside flap of the jacket caught my attention. Certain polysyllabic words are so irresistible that it is hard to leave them behind and walk away. You have to bend down, pick them up and hold them to the light.
So I did my usual back and forth with Google and came up with this definition by Tobias Hecht, an American anthropologist, ethnographer, and translator:
Ethnographic fiction is a form that blends the fact-gathering research of an anthropologist with the storytelling imagination of a fiction writer. It is not a true story, but it aims to depict a world that could be as it is told and that was discovered through anthropological research.
I warmed up to the term – and to the genre itself – immediately. Marrying anthropology and imagination seemed like the perfect situation, leading to endless possibilities. The rest of the blurb actually piqued my interest further: urban poverty and the resultant isolation is not a topic I come across very often, except in essays and activist Tweets.
No Fixed Abode, however, did not fit into any slot I had created for it. In fact, it couldn’t have been further from all of them.
Narrated as irregular diary entries made by Henri, a retired tax inspector who can no longer afford to maintain a home in Paris, No Fixed Abode explores the growing distance between an individual and the wider society he has been a part of, in a personal yet curiously objective manner.
I’ve always dreamt about escaping. It’s a recurrent night time scene. The scenario’s never entirely the same, but each time I find myself surrounded by enemies who’ve miraculously failed to notice my presence(…) I wake up suddenly, shaken and upset, and the relief at having escaped my demons – those demons I can’t identify but which return regularly to haunt me – soon gives way to anxiety at having to face the tedium of the daily round.
Henri’s ‘escape’ from domesticity, and subsequently his identity, happens by degrees: a slow transition from being an ordinary citizen to one that veers off the expected course, warily treading the unfamiliar paths of homelessness. In relinquishing his possessions, Henri is also leaving behind everything that has thus far been integral to his existence. To him, being alone is no longer an imposition, it is something he accepts without resentment.
Loneliness — it’s best to call it by its name — has nothing unbearable about it. Silence is less annoying than the efforts aimed at overcoming it, and it’s infinitely less painful to be quiet on your own than when there is two of you.
As his grip on everyday social requisites loosens, Henri finds himself faltering at the fringes of the normal, unsure of the way ahead. The ties that bind him to the community are fraying, and even being with friends is no longer what it used to be.
It’s difficult to play a role when there are no grounds for that role anymore, difficult to stay in your place when you’ve lost that place, or to exist in another person’s dwelling when you yourself have no fixed abode, are without hearth or home, are almost nameless.
Henri’s defining moment comes when Dominique, an artist who drifts into his life, invites him into hers, once again offering a chance to return to society. As Henri makes his choice, his readers are faced with the vagaries of a culture that has rendered their choices and priorities questionable at best.
To me, No Fixed Abode is a rather dispassionate introspection of urban isolation in the form of a deceptively simple narrative. Written by Marc Auge and translated by Chris Turner for Seagull Books, the book poses questions that are both cultural and anthropological, leaving the reader a little disturbed – as if suddenly confronted with an uncomfortable truth.
They say books appeal to us because we find bits and pieces of ourselves in there. Or because we find in them answers we have been seeking. In which case, I’m not sure why I felt compelled to immediately reread No Fixed Abode: whether I was looking for fragments of the self, or trying to find answers.
Perhaps I was merely attempting to understand the questions themselves better.
All I can say is that the book left me just as ruffled the second time too. Some truths remain uncomfortable regardless of how many times you confront them.
The cover of No Fixed Abode has been designed by Sunandini Banerjee from a photograph by Bishan Samaddar.
*Images courtesy Google Images