S: I want to begin by asking about two mysterious lines in your book that stayed with me long after the initial reading: “The dead man has a locust in his skull. The Sphinx has a dead man in her skull.” Can you talk a little about what you’re referring to here?
T: Firstly, I want to say I’m glad we’re talking about lines and not narratives or pages or even paragraphs. I think lines are the best I’ve got at the moment—certainly in this book. I think in any creative act it’s crucial to have one eye on what is next—what comes after this. Transmission Press and I have worked long and hard on getting this right, but on the level of the sentence. The whole time I’ve been putting this book together, I’ve also been thinking about what I want to do next. I think this is a critical mode of being for the artist.
As for the lines. I wonder what the Sphinx has seen. What she thinks. What art she would make. Surely she is haunted by the dead man. In the same way the dead man is haunted by the locust. We all have things—memories, dreams, anxieties, regrets—that, for better or worse, buzz around inside our skull and prevent us from being able to focus. Indeed, maybe we don’t want to focus. But the dead man doesn’t only haunt the Sphinx, as it turns out, he haunts every story in the collection.
T: Yes… We are talking about Letter here? Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father?
S: The book that I speak of is about the dead man. Just the dead man.
T: Ah. My apologies. The line is in both books. Well, OK, we will talk about the dead man. In some ways I am always talking—and writing—about the dead man anyway…
The Book About the Dead Man is being published by Gracchus Books, a small English-language publisher out of Italy. I suppose it’s OK to talk about it—it’ll be out in due course. The title is taken from ‘The Waste Land’ by TS Eliot, which I loosely used as a model for the narrative. I guess you could say the poem’s motifs and shifts between voices seemed to fit well. But more than that, it created a landscape in which the dead man, and I, could play. Eliot writes: “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.” In the novel I ask the reader to consider the dead man—the dead man of the text, and the dead man in their skull.
S: You remind me of Marco Polo in Calvino’s Invisible Cities who says, “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” When you say that you want the reader to consider the dead man in their skulls, you seem certain that in each of us lies the ruins of someone former, someone that was once like Phlebas but is no longer.
Why does the dead man obsess you? To the point where you have written an entire book about him.
T: I am certain we all contain the ruins of someone who was but is no longer. These ruins are more commonly known as memories. But some of us are more haunted by them than others. As to your question: does the obsessed know he’s obsessed? It is more that, like Marco Polo, there are things we cannot escape. Things that we take with us and make a part of us.
I should start from the beginning: for a time, I forgot how to sleep. Long days turned into even longer nights. Writing and insomnia would seem like a useful combination but it’s not. What you’ve written in a stupor during the night looks different in the light of day, it has a nebulous feeling of wrongness. Soon you are doubting whether you could write at all. Ever. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read. The only useful thing that came from that period was my discovery of the dead man. He kept appearing in my texts and he had a way of persisting. Not in a forceful way – that is not the dead man’s nature. He was simply there, sitting in the dark with me.
The thing about the dead man is that he doesn’t demand much. Just that you remember and acknowledge him. Nod at him when you see him, even when you are holidaying by the seaside. Light a candle or pick a flower for him. As you see in the book, he is not fussy.
So I wonder if it is even possible to obsess over something as simple as the dead. Your question is my question, and I hope with this book finished that I will get an answer.
S: Like you, I find it impossible to work at night, memories, or ruins, float up in front of the retina clouding the vision and the work. Though, the method works better for some than others. Kafka famously used insomnia as a literary tool, as a way of accessing that part of our minds that we forget, maybe he, too, was haunted by the dead man, maybe it was the same dead man. But let’s come back to your latest book—how is it structured? Is it a novel? A collection of short stories? Fragments? Poetry? Something new? Something dead?
T: I’m glad you mentioned Franz. He’s never far from my own writing and thoughts—indeed, the title of my first book, my story collection, refers to him! I addressed it to Kafka because we are ultimately haunted by the same man—our fathers—but while mine is dead, his was living.
Anyway, to the rest of your question, and to the book we are discussing. On one of my sleepless night, I put the pen and notebook away and went for a walk around my neighbourhood. It had been raining, so the streets were wet, slick. I set off in a direction I hadn’t been before and soon lost track of where I was. I live in an old part of town and I came across a disused cemetery, eerie, of course, in the dark, but it, the sight of damp headstones in the night, clarified a few things for me. While it had been retained, and the council had clipped the grass and swept it of litter, it was a wasteland of sorts. What landscape is more of a wasteland than that of the forgotten dead?
In my story collection, the dead man appears a number of times. Not always under the same guise, but he is there, omnipresent, both dead and a man. Once the collection was complete and ready for publication, I realised I’d needed the dead man. That there probably wouldn’t have been a collection without him (or, for that matter, without Franz…).
After a short break, I tried to go back to work. I had ideas and impulses but all of them tapered off. They seemed hollow and, ironically, lifeless! I realised soon that it was because I was denying the dead man. In fact I was ignoring him, not giving him the slight acknowledgment he needs. The dead man knows the dead are forgotten. It dawned on me that he wanted his story told in full—or a portion of his story told in full—so a novel was necessary.
S: It’s fascinating—this description of a forgotten cemetery, the forgotten dead. This really interests me, especially as someone who grew up in a Hindu culture where the dead are (usually) not buried—I hesitate to make this statement because there is, at the moment, a kind of Hindu fascistic movement that is trying to homogenize Hinduism, so I feel like I must clarify that this is a limited and by no means the only practice in Hinduism—so the dead are not buried but burnt to ashes. There are no palpable things to commemorate the dead—no graves, and hence no gravestones, no inscriptions, even the ashes are not kept. The dead can only be encountered with rarely, as ghosts. Each death must be forgotten.
You say that the dead man appears under different guises in the story. How do you recognize him? Who is the dead man?
T: I think there is something to that too. In Hinduism life and death are cyclical, no? And this western idea of commemorating the dead—who visits the graves of loved ones anymore anyway. While necessary, the act of burying also seems to me to be a way of suppressing, or erasing—a literal covering over. Maybe that’s why the dead man finds us in our weaker moments.
The dead man is many men. He began as my father, when he died (he was cremated, and his ashes poured into the harbour where my grandfather diead). He is Kafka. He is Phlebas the Phoenician. He is Kabid Farooque, a mere student—a kid I never met. They are each the dead man—with this novel I have tried to tell their stories, the dead man’s stories. That’s why he appears in different places throughout history, cycling through his many deaths. Then he multiplied further.
So he is many dead men, but here is a secret: the living man is many men too. At home, he is one thing, at work another. With friends, his doctor, his mistress. A man for every occasion. Who tells a polite joke to a group of old ladies with pearl earrings at a ball then slaps his wife in the car. This is the nature of the living man so why would it be any different for the dead man?
So the dead man has lived many lives. Naturally, because he is many men. There will be more books on the dead man. Not sequels, because that term is vulgar, but parallel stories. There has to be.
S: So, the dead man is your father, is Kafka, is Kabid, is Phlebas—is Tristan, too? And yes, I know all too well how each man is many men. As a woman, I know it deeply. Perhaps even more than you. This brings me to something I am curious about: you talk about men, about their varying relationships with their wives, mistresses, colleagues, children, etc. What about women? Is your dead man a dead woman, too?
T: I will be the dead man one day. I think that’s where my fascination comes from: knowing that one day I will be him. I wonder what it is to be him. When I will become him. How. What of this life I will take with me. The curious thing for me is that the dead man knows he is dead. And his deadness fills him with a profound melancholy that may very well be eternal; it probably goes without saying but The Book About the Dead Man is a melancholy book! In many ways, the dead man is a pathetic figure in the sense that many living men are pathetic figures. But pathetic men have afterlives too and some don’t take that well. Some spend their death sitting in the dark, smoking and watching the world turn. Others try to right wrongs. Others are addicted to trouble. Some, many in fact, know they are dead but don’t want to admit it. Think of Kabid and his attempts to go home to his heartbroken mother. Kabid wants to walk into their apartment and take a seat on the carpet and have his mother serve him soup as if nothing has happened. As if that night he was by the seaside he wasn’t murdered. He tries and tries. It is very selfish—he is not thinking of his poor mother. Time passes—it wouldn’t be fair for him to return.
And so maybe too that it is where men and women—living and dead—differ. Men know they are many men, they live with this knowledge, and they do not know what to do with it or how to shake it off. Whereas women find this out in pivotal moments. They find this out the hard way and, very often, must find a way of dealing with it. I’m sure there is a dead woman, but I have not yet encountered her.
The dead man is a coward.
S: The dead man is a coward, and in this he is like the living man. The dead man is a pathetic man, in this, too, he is like the living man. The dead man is profoundly melancholy about the absence of life, in this, too, he is the living man. Is the dead man a living man, or is a living man the dead man? Is there any difference between the two? When you see a man on the streets, or in the mirror, are you sure that he is not dead? Besides, you plan to write the parallel stories of this dead man—if there is no end to death, can there be any end to his story? We know that life can end. Is there an end to an afterlife?
T: Some of the dead go where the dead finally go. Getting back to the Hindu mythology you mentioned earlier—maybe that place is Nirvana. But the dead man remains behind because he has left something undone. He has unfinished business. He denies his state. The Book About the Dead Man is not a redemption story. It is about the conversations and interactions we have with the dead man. The places we meet him. I’m quite certain that when all the vegetation has been burned off the earth and the oceans have dried and the planet is a bald, salty pebble hurtling around a swollen sun, the dead man will still be here.
S: He will be, as he should be. It’s a strange thing to suddenly move from death to life, but these transitions are almost always unexpected and entirely too sudden. In the memory of a Sufi patient, could you please define life in two words?
T: Silly miracles.
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. His short story collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is forthcoming from Transmission Press. He is co-editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine.
Saudamini Deo is a writer and photographer from India. She edits RIC Journal.