Juan Villoro – Holding Pattern
The narrator of Juan Villoro's Holding Pattern (trans. Lisa M. Dillman) lives best in artificial environments. On the ground, while socialising, or working, or being with his partner, he feels a certain sensation of disconnection. But on a plane, where everything is regimented, structured, ordered and far, far away from reality, he feels comfortable. He relaxes. His life coalesces into a single point – land. And then after that – make the connecting flight. And then after that – land. As soon as he leaves an airport, the crush of a million possibilities overwhelms. He isn't very good at living.
I’m so uneasy with reality that I find planes comfortable. I surrender myself, resigned, to movies I don’t want to see and food I don’t want to eat, as if practicing a disciplined spiritual routine. A samurai with headphones and plastic knife. Suspended, my cell phone off, I enjoy the nirvana of having nothing to decide. That’s what flying is to me: a way to postpone the numbers that get through to me.
Up in the air he can think. Sometimes he reads, sometimes he doesn't, but invariably, he thinks. Not about much, no, but it in the air that he feels he is able to think. Life on the ground is too chaotic, too hectic. He has a girlfriend. A cat. A (one time) mistress. A (potential) rival for his girlfriend's affections. A job (he sells the lightest water in the world). On the ground, they matter, and in the air, they don't. Simple.
If I harp on about the point well, so does he. The narrator's life is, for him, a blank page, and he doesn't, won't, and perhaps can't, write on it. He'd be miserable if he could feel enough, but he can't, so – no harm done. Life goes on, and happily, without him.
You have to wonder if the perpetually travelling businessman comes from a stable of people who can't quite function in the normal world. Airports are so artificial, so supremely structured around their primary goal, that spending even a couple of days in them forces your perception to form to the outcome required and nothing else. You become the race to the next Terminal, you are the five-hour wait between connecting flights. For someone like the narrator, and for all people who constantly travel, is there some truth to the idea that they can't quite live an ordinary life?
I’ve had to sleep in hotels where you feel like you’re wasting a good opportunity to commit suicide. You go from the seductive provisional order of the airport to the filth of what should never endure. A rented bed in a place where no one is hoping to see you again.
I myself recently travelled from Brisbane, Australia to Spain, and back again; both journeys took between 35 – 40 hours, and by the end of it, through tiredness and the general discomfort of different people and different places, my life became focused, or at least it seemed to me, almost entirely upon the next flight, the next takeoff, the next flight at cruising altitude, the next landing, the next baggage check... I wanted to be home, but that desire became abstract and distant compared with the more immediate and pressing desire to achieve my next concrete goal. Indeed, when I returned home, the first feeling I experienced was an overwhelming sense of having nothing specific to do. I could do anything – so I did nothing. I went to sleep.
Similarly, the narrator seems to come alive when exploring the ins and outs of travel, while his narrative vibrancy dwindles to a small flame when contemplating his partner or his work. He muses dispassionately about the possibility of her having an affair, and recounts with even less passion his own brief fling with a fellow travel. After all, for him, what does it matter? It doesn't – it's not flying.
The narrator's inner self is going nowhere while his body travels thousands of miles. And that's fine – or at least it seems to be. Villoro accurately captures the odd ennui of international travel well; while nothing exactly occurs during the story, it is in fact a pretty damning examination of a man who is, deep down, nothing at all. He exists in the shadows of immense metal machines and enormous, clean, sterile buildings, flitting about in an unreal world where nothing greater than catching the next flight can ever be achieved, where one's greatest desire revolves around passing through passport control quickly and quietly. An international man, then.
Holding Pattern by Juan Villoro (trans. Lisa M. Dillman) is a short story from Words Without Borders' January 2012 edition, Apocalypse issue. All of the work reviewed is freely available online.
Other stories from the Words Without Borders January 2012 edition, Apocalypse issue include:
---Xerxenesky, Antônio - Seizing Cervantes
---Adamek, André-Marcel - The Ark
---Paiva, Fernando - God's Obituary
---Elíasson, Gyrðir - House No. 451
---Mrożek, Sławomir - Ketchup
Words Without Borders review series:
---May 2011: Writing From Afghanistan
---January 2011: The Work Force
---October 2010: Beyond Borges: Argentina Now
---August 2010: Writing From Hungary
Index of short stories under review