Of my grandparents generation — and the dwarf rhinos of Borneo

August 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

“I had to go to a library today, which obliged me to travel into those parts of the city which I normally avoid in the summer months.  And there, predictably, I saw what one normally sees there in August:  hordes of unbelievably ugly, badly-made people, with deformed limbs, surprisingly short and entirely lacking any definition – certainly, none with any defined joints — hands like bread-loaves with stubby fingers, with faces which looked like they had been shaped out of some kind of primordial goo with the blunt edge of stone ax, faces blooming with eczema, rashes and pimples; people opening their mouths in unbelievably vulgar ways in order to emit from them some kind of mumbling, or short, thundering yells, or chewing gum; dressed to look like the dog has dragged them in from the dump, over especially sharp-edged cobble-stones, amply and bravely displaying for general appreciation and approval their total absence of midriff, their armpits, nipples, and the hairy tectonic crack of their massive bums; pushing ruthlessly their prodigious bodies, dripping with sweat, in order to stake out for themselves, at any cost, a seat on the electric tram, the electric tram, you know, one of those ten things you must all absolutely do when you come to this city, which are clearly numbered and spelled out for you in the dumbest guidebook I have ever seen called “Top Ten XX”, which absolutely everybody holds in their sweaty palms; all ten points of which they must of course all score in the three days they are here, since otherwise it would not count; and speaking to each other in a variety of tongues, which were all one tongue really, a toneless, intonationless Italianofrench, the ugliest of either language I have ever heard — I could never have imagined that such a thing could exist, ugly French — composed of telegraphic sentences of three words, total vocabulary of seven, if you include ahhh and naahhh, unconjugated, all in the present indicative infinitive – I go he go – and no one, absolutely no one speaking one word about what they have just seen.

And all the way I clutched in my hand a book containing photos dating to ca. 1920 — photos of gentlemen – gentle men – beautiful, impeccably dressed and combed, with beautifully manicured hands and a kind of profound spirituality in their thoughtful faces; men who thought about Greek gods and Greek drama, spoke in full sentences about Tertulian and Gracian, who listened to Scarlatti, composed mazurkas, and poems in measured meter; and, in this book there were proofreader’s notes made about 1970, I should guess, in that calligraphic hand which all children of a certain class schooled about 1900-1920 had to master, my grandparents’ hand; and looking at this handwriting one could see that the hand had been well trained, but by the time it came to make those notes it had grown weaker and uncertain with age; and I suddenly realized that the book, the essays and letters within it, and those marginalia in that beautiful hand, were the last thread connecting me to these people, people like my grandparents, my people – people now gone.

And I remembered suddenly a story about an explorer ca. 1986 traveling in the jungles of Borneo in search of the Bornean dwarf rhino; of which of course he found none; except that towards the end of his trip, while he was attending an amplifier-driven dance party at a long-house in the back of beyond, a party whose youthful participants were eagerly learning to dance Abba, an old man came to look at his notebooks and coming across a drawing of the rhino suddenly became animated and began to speak quickly, with urgency. One of the fashionable playboys present at the party translated: “this old man says that he has not seen this animal in a long time – many, many years – but once, when he was young and strong, on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, he killed three of them in the course of one afternoon”.

When I got home, I went straight to bed, buried my face in my pillows and cried long and bitterly.”

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