Salt Lake City Congo

Two months after I visited Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I went to Salt Lake City, in Utah, to give a reading. The reading was held at a gallery called the Art Barn, a handsome space whose walls were hung with photographs taken on a variety of themes and, if memory serves, using a variety of approaches. There was a nice turn out for the reading. I was sharing the stage with a Jamaican poet, Ishion Hutchinson, a graduate of Utah’s creative writing program, and his presence no doubt helped make for a respectable crowd. Ishion read and then I read and then there was a pleasant reception in the room next door. Apparently the comestibles of the reception had been available before the reading as there wasn’t much left when I got there. I took this as a good sign. Plus I was able to have the last possible full glass of wine.

In Kinshasa we pretty much just drank beer. When we were drinking, I mean. When we weren’t drinking we drank bottled water, Schweppes sometimes. Or Fanta. Grenadine flavored Fanta was both good-looking and tasty. I had drunk great quantities of Fanta in the Netherlands when I was a boy but it had always been orange. Grenadine flavored Fanta was another thing entirely. Just as Kinshasa was another thing entirely.

Sometimes of course we also drank coffee. I drank coffee in Salt Lake City too. The coffee I drank in Salt Lake City was respectable but the coffee I drank in the Congo was excellent. Or seemed excellent. Perhaps because I had not been expecting much on the coffee front in the Congo. I had likely said to myself, before the trip, don’t get your hopes up about the coffee. You know the way you take yourself aside. Offer observation/counsel unasked for. Even if coffee is grown in Africa, which I first learned by reading Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa. A book that is now widely understood to be a bit of a colonialist fantasy. Little credibility. Except that Dinesen was a hell of a writer. Which is something. Surely. It will probably be Nescafe, I counseled myself. If you are lucky. If you aren’t it will be like that stuff you drank in Beijing in 1984 that was supposed to be coffee but was actually old, oversteeped tea. I think it may well be true that I did not think even once of Out of Africa while I was in Africa. I read it when I was an undergraduate studying abroad in Strasbourg, France and liked it very much. Recently, when I was working on a novel that involved early aviation, I reread the passages where Dennis Finch-Hatton takes Dinesen up in his biplane. There is actually very little description of what it was like to be in a biplane but a great deal of description of the landscape. Maybe description of the landscape is description of what it was like to be in a biplane. My copy of Out of Africa sat on my little bookshelf in my apartment on the Rue des moulins in Strasbourg near and/or next to a never-read biography in French of Bismarck. One of the coffee beverages I had in Kinshasa was a cappuccino that they had asked me if I would mind having without milk. I wouldn’t mind at all, I told them, not entirely sure what I was being asked. Or sure but not quite up to speed with the implication. This was in a bakery frequented by staff from the many international organizations and governmental delegations that have a large presence in the city.

Outside in the bakery’s parking lot, women were selling mangosteen, which they carried in large piles on their heads. The piles were on platters of course. One of us bought some of these mangosteen. By us I mean members of a delegation organized by the International Writing Program of Iowa. The IWP frequently organizes such trips, taking American writers to far-flung places to share their work and ideas and to meet and learn from local poets and novelists and playwrights. In a week, Eleni is going to Vietnam and Cambodia with the IWP. Of course now I mean she has already gone. Will have already gone by the time I’m finished first drafting this. I have not yet finished drafting this and she is gone. I am reading through this again and it has been months since she went and came back. One of the goals of the program is to present another side of American culture to the world. The side that has become hidden, all but illegible, in the face of the onslaught of American music and sport and television. The side that sits in cafes or at dining room tables quietly first-drafting things.

Salt Lake City’s main thoroughfares are generally very wide. The city is built on a grid. The grid, I was told, was put in place so that at the moment of the rapture the faithful would know immediately where they stood in relation to the temple where they must now run. The wideness of the streets was related to the space required to turn a horse-drawn wagon around. It became stuck in my mind that this turning around of the wagons was related to the need to get to the temple at the moment of the rapture but I can not remember if I was told this or not. I am thinking about this but as I think I find myself troubled, troubled to register that the wide streets I walked and that wagons perhaps once did u-turns on, have now been reduced to whatever meager allotment of neurons I have to offer them.

Reduced for me, I mean. The wide streets are still wide, there in Salt Lake City. Presumably.

In her journals, Susan Sontag was careful to note that what she happened to be thinking about something, even if she set it down on paper or said it aloud, should not be confused with what she thought about it. Imagine holding everyone to their thinking and their talking. Kids for example. All that crazy stuff they come up with. “Dad, my wish car is a limousine,” Eva said this morning/quite some time ago on the way to school. Forever pin them down. “Ah, yes, I see that on May 20th or 21st of 2012 you said that your wish car was a limousine, so now you must either be executed or go to jail and stay in solitary confinement for 50 years.”

You know, right, that I know that that kind of thing happens? All the time even.

Kinshasa also has some wide streets. I’m guessing this has to do with traffic control. I’m really just guessing. Maintenance of these few wide streets is a problem. As is maintenance of Kinois infrastructure more generally.

The Mormon dead make for the temple too. They roll down the broad, sloping avenues, heading home.

Kinshasa has its own ghosts. So does Brazzaville, across the river, but when I think now of ghosts in Africa I think of Kinshasa and the drive in from the airport past miles of storm lamps lit for the night markets and of the people walking quietly through the pools of shadow the storm lamps created. Never mind that they were only silent because we had the windows of our car rolled up. I know they weren’t really silent. I’m not silent even when I’m alone and not saying anything. I don’t know why they would be either. The road from the airport was a mix of dirt and smooth asphalt. The dirt portion was not smooth. The first thing we were struck by, besides the storm lamps, was the smell of charcoal fumes, which came without any difficulty into the car we were riding in and made our eyes water. In much the same way they watered when I visited Shenyang, where they also used charcoal to cook with and heat their houses, in the North of China, in the 1980s.

But this is not a story about Shenyang.

Or is it?

Fiction is a thought. Thought is a register of thinking. A thought is never more than one thing among many. Nothing is ever more than one thing among many. Fiction is a thinking.

In Kinshasa: Tales of the Invisible City, a man who has converted to Christianity tells the story of how for a long time he was a demon named Kinshasa and both embodied and terrorized the city. In another section a boy tells of his gradual possession by a sorcerer in his neighborhood and about the many people he and this man and the other sorcerers around them devoured.

When I was in Salt Lake City, lying on my bed, I thought of being in Kinshasa, lying on my bed and watching a French movie about a woman who falls under the spell of a sorcerer. The woman is young and very beautiful and the sorcerer is young and very ugly. Old story. He bewitches her and leads her deep into the forest. Sometimes she runs from him but always returns. They have sex all the time. In one scene she burns herself on the shoulder with a red-hot tong. I can’t remember what I was thinking when I lay on my bed in Kinshasa and watched that movie. There were young men playing soccer on a field below my hotel room. There was a view of the Congo River and of Brazzaville burning its own storm lamps in the distance. Downstairs at the front desk the hotel employees counted money and did their best not to be helpful. At our security briefing we had been told never to walk in any direction but left out of our hotel.

Driving out of Salt Lake City with a group of graduate students, D, A, and A, I fell to describing how actually quite unkempt certain neighborhoods in the Japanese cities I had lived in or visited had been. Soda and iced-coffee cans were dropped whenever and wherever they were finished and lay everywhere. At the end of one day, beaches often had to be bulldozed to get them ready for the next. I can’t remember why my thoughts went in this direction or if I said much more than this, but as we sped along the highway to the Spiral Jetty an enormous bag of aluminum cans, some of which had spilled and were beginning to be scattered across the highway, appeared before us, memory made suddenly too real.

Maybe it is memory that is thinking and thought just thought. Yes, that is what I think.

The direction we were authorized to follow out of our hotel in Kinshasa, as I’ve just said, was left. Walking left, then straight, took you down to the embassy district and a promenade along the Congo river. Diplomats and international workers used this stretch of river-front to jog and stroll and conduct quiet conversations. There were clumps of debris floating in the river. Or do I mean was? A group of sporty youths were being drilled by a coach of some sort. There was an albino in their number. They were drilling behind the Ugandan embassy. The Congo River did its disturbing thing behind them. It was wider than I had imagined it would be although I had been told it was wide. Somewhere, out there, floating just below the surface, were crocodiles, quite probably. Crocodiles and hippos. By disturbing I mean it was doing what all rivers do at least most of the time, pushing mind-stopping amounts of water through itself without running dry. I do not know what to make of the fact that, despite understanding the controlling concept, I cannot feel, when I am feeling it, anything but troubled when I look at a river and see it not running dry.

Later, in Brazzaville, we heard a story about a hippo gone rogue. He had been kept in an enclosure and had for some time suffered the attention and even caresses of visitors who had paid some small fee to be allowed to administer them. One day recently however he had grown tired of this nonsense and killed a few people. Clearly, ran the explanation we heard, he had been bewitched.

Never mind that as a matter of course hippos kill and maim more people in Africa than lions, elephants or crocodiles.

The Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga has a great poem about zebras and crocodiles. Part of what I suddenly think I love about it is it gives no indication that it was taken from direct observation or experience. It is the sort of poem that someone who has never been somewhere (except, as far as we can verify, to the mysterious somewhere of the poem) writes. In Atxaga’s poem, zebras want to cross a river and they are happy and galloping and then they see that there are crocodiles and are scared and keep galloping and are happy again.

No doubt I have seen a good number of hippos in zoos. Where I have also seen zebras and lions and crocodiles.

For all I know Atxaga lived for years in Africa.

For his part, the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski is very open about his desire, in writing about Africa, where he did live for many years, not to make his work be about the bush, about the animals, about the villages and the sorcerers. Animals come up in his writing though. Like the man he sits next to on the bus who believes he has actual animals running around in his head.

Here is a story set in Nigeria told by the photographer Pieter Hugo. A man flags down a cab. The cab stops and a price is negotiated. Then out of the bushes pop another man, two leashed hyenas, monkeys and a python, who all pile into the cab. The cabdriver, horrified, drives them to their destination.

Dominique, the man who shined my shoes in JFK on the way to Kinshasa, had a story about an alligator. Dominique was from Guyana. Our interaction started when he asked me if I was married as by the state of my shoes he thought it was safe to say that I was not. He then told me, as he worked on my shoes, using clear polish in order not to darken the white threads, that if I ever went to Guyana I should drink water from a coconut beforehand, that this would keep me safe from diarrhea. He himself had not followed his own advice on his last trip home and had paid the price. Finding himself in urgent need, and without indoor plumbing, he had had to “go to outhouse.” The outhouse was over a stream and when he had let loose an alligator leapt up out of the water to catch it. He added that each time one went “to outhouse” one had to shine a flashlight up into the rafters to make sure there weren’t snakes dangling down. When he had finished both his work and his stories I told him that he had brought my shoes “back from the dead.” I was already visibly on the way to tipping him generously, which may or may not have been the reason he gave this compliment a nice chuckle.

I remember little about Seoul, Korea, where I went briefly with my friend M., who is now an ever more famous chef, in the summer of 1990, although I’m guessing that there must have been a hippo or couple of hyenas somewhere in one of its zoos. I do remember that it was very hot and that it rained a great deal and it was the sort of rain, like the rain I had known in Taiwan and Hong Kong, that made things very wet but did not cool them. We went to a covered market in Seoul where I believe I bought some very cheap American hightops, because in those days I still liked to play pick-up basketball, and we ate very spicy food in a small restaurant, and browsed in a bookstore where I bought an anthology of “great poetry” in English that I still have. The shoes are long gone. I don’t think I ever wore them very much. They were a little big. Probably I left them behind somewhere.

Which memory/thought makes me wonder what I will still have in twenty years from my trips to Kinshasa and Brazzaville and Salt Lake City. Not to mention from my recent trips to Saint Louis and Jacksonville and Chicago and New York. As I write this I am wearing a metal bracelet I bought in a covered market in Poto-Poto. I bought two such bracelets on our trip and a number of other souvenirs.

Sorcerers in Kinshasa travel in airplanes they make from the skin and bones of their victims. They fly around in these airplanes and find other victims.

The plane we flew in down to Kinshasa stopped once, on its long journey, in Doualla, which I afterward, though I am not sure why, thought was in Mali, not Cameroon. I thought to myself, I have been in Mali now. Even if it was just in the airplane. The guy I was sitting next to was heavyset and took up quite a bit of space. The jungle seemed endless as we flew over it. Like you could write 100,000, 200,000, 300,000 words about it. If you could figure out where to start and were brave enough to try to end. And although when we were in Kinshasa and Brazzaville we did not go into the jungle, not even for a minute, it was very easy to remember it, spooling past us as we flew.

Today I am listening to Fleet Foxes as I write. They are singing about strangers. The song right now is called “Battery Kinzie”. Earlier I listened to the Nausicaa track from a contemporary opera about the Odyssey. It is about strangers and strangeness too.

In Kinshasa I was the stranger. I do not know how strange I was in Salt Lake City. I mean it seems more difficult to calculate. When I saw her standing at the front desk of the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa, Dark Charlie, who is becoming a kind of recurring character in my stories, at first seemed like a stranger and then like an old friend. She was holding a wad of dollar bills in her hand, one larger than the wad held by the woman behind the counter. Sometimes the woman behind the counter and her colleagues held wads even larger than the one Dark Charlie was holding and gesticulating with but on this occasion it seemed petit to the point of insignificance. Then I understood that the woman behind the desk had just given up some of the wad she was holding to make Dark Charlie’s wad larger. They both waved their wads at each other once more then Dark Charlie put her wad in the pocket of the turquoise jean jacket she had on and turned around.

She did not recognize me.

Or seemed not to.

So I smiled and she did not smile back and I followed her.

It was nighttime in Kinshasa. I was not supposed to leave the hotel. Or rather, I had been told, like the other members of my group had been told, that I was not to leave the hotel and expect to be safe if I did so. I might be safe but I should not expect to be. These were two different things, each one speaking to the other. The taxi I got into smelled of sweat and mildew. “Follow the taxi in front of us,” I said. “Sure,” the taxi driver said. Off we went down bad roads through flecks of light and swaths of dark. Our destination, it turned out, was a restaurant, la Cocotte. I knew about this restaurant because I had read about it in a book that followed the exploits of a former rebel commander who had fought in the East of the DRC for many years then relocated to Kinshasa when Mobutu fell. He had often held meetings or blown off steam at La Cocotte.

 The book I had read was written by a Belgian travel writer I had met the previous summer at a literary festival in Saint Malo in France. Her name was Lieve Joris. The book was called The Rebels’ Hour. The book was to be considered a work of nonfiction even though many details in it had been adjusted, said a note from the publisher at the book’s outset. Although in many ways it was a work of fiction. Clearly. La Cocotte had a buffet. After I had been seated I went up to the buffet. Dark Charlie was already there, helping herself to a peanut and manioc stew. She had taken off her turquoise jacket and was now wearing just an orange tank top. Her arms had grown a little slack and her breasts were larger. I looked to see if she had any fighting bruises, since in my other stories fighting had been her thing, but could see none. I ladled up some of the manioc and a large helping of goat onto a pile of steaming fufu.

The restaurant was empty except for us. I took a couple of pictures with the Instagram program on my then new Ipod Touch of a statue of an old man wearing a skull cap. Some mosquitoes buzzed me but I had on great quantities of Deep Woods Off so they kept their distance. At a certain point in the meal Dark Charlie stood up from her table, walked the length of the restaurant and out through a back door.

Curiously enough, in the nature of these things, after we arrived at Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, I saw Dark Charlie coming up the road. She was riding an “on-off” road motorcycle, exactly the kind I had for a time hoped to one day own, and when she pulled up near us, she took off her helmet and shook out her hair. It had grown quite a bit since I had seen her step out of the back door of the restaurant (a waiter and two waitresses had converged on me when I had tried to follow so I had been obliged to return to my table, where I ordered a nice large bottle of Primus beer, and went back to worrying, as I contemplated my creamed manioc, just the tiniest bit about coming down with some intractable stomach virus). I suppose my own hair had grown a bit too but not that much. Far from not recognizing me, or seeming not to recognize me, on this occasion she came straight over, so quickly that it alarmed the graduate students I was with, especially the A who was an expert on conceptual poetry, and took me by the arm.

“Walk with me,” she said.

We went up the steep hill behind the Spiral Jetty. As we walked, she raged a little loudly against the Jetty. Made jokes about how it might as well have been a Heart Jetty. Or Question Mark Jetty. What was the big deal, etc. Who the fuck could care less if there were lightning fields or thunder fields or whatever made by Smithson’s wife kind of nearby. I did not answer her. When we had gotten as high up the hill as would still afford us a view of the Great Salt Lake and of Smithson’s Spiral, which did, she was quick to acknowledge, look rather lovely against the enormity of the lake, she told me a story, first apologizing for having pretended not to know me in Kinshasa, then for giving me the slip in La Cocotte.

“I have for some years been a Bible saleswoman,” she said.

“I don’t believe you,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter one fuck what you believe or don’t believe,” she said. “Because it is true.”

“All right,” I said.

“I went out that back door of that restaurant because my contact had texted me while we were at that restaurant that that was what I needed to do. When I got out that back door there was a black Hummer waiting for me. It conveyed me to a zoological enclosure.”

“This was night time, it was dark out,” I said.

“Accurate-o,” she said.

She was quiet then and we looked out a minute at the Great Salt Lake. One of the graduate students, D, had followed us up the hill and had stationed himself nearby. He was a good writer and had a bright future ahead of him and I hoped he wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to interfere with Charlie if things got tricky. As she was starting up her story again I was imagining D. getting tossed down the hill, D. rolling down end over end and finishing far out in the lake, his writing career barely started and already through.

“The zoo was all lit up,” Charlie said.

“I wanted to go to the zoo,” I said.

“It was mostly storm lanterns but they had some klieg lights burning off a generator and the kliegs had the monkeys all heated up. There were kids up close to the cages tossing rocks at them and making it worse.”

“Were there any polio-victim musicians there?” I said.

“Musicians?” she said. “Anyway, they sat me down on a padded bench that looked like it had been ripped out of an old car and by and by my contact came along. He was a hefty old boy, looked like he needed to lay off the fry daddy for a while and with him were two others about as big and holding guns. My contact apologized to me for the awkward nature of the circumstances, or some way he put it, and then he asked me if I had brought the plans. Well you know that if I was there I had and I had and I handed them over and he looked at them carefully and even had one of the boys holding the hardware take a look at them and then they all three of them smiled and some others showed up with a cooler and we cracked open some beers.”

Dark Charlie was from Texas.

“I thought you were selling Bibles in this story,” I said.

“Plans for a Bible distribution business,” she said. “You work at it long enough you start to see the angles. I’m in it on a percentage. Bibles are hot. There’s a lot of competition.”

“You were a girl fighter the last time I saw you.”

“And you were a 1980s wanna-be-writer looking to score chicks with your drunk-ass friend.”

“It was 1990 when we met,” I said.

“Give a fuck,” she said.

“Tell me more about the zoo,” I said.

“What’s to tell about it?” she said.

“I’m asking because I wanted to go there but it wasn’t possible, it wasn’t part of our brief. We did go to a couple of markets and I bought some masks. There were so many masks for sale that it was hard to know which one to choose. I gave one of the masks away to the poet Anne Waldman upon my return to the States. The one I kept reminds me of the numerous albinos we saw in both cities, not least the one I saw exercising behind the Ugandan Embassy. I also saw a pygmy, but just one. He was wearing a neat grey suit and sweeping outside the hotel we stayed in in Brazzaville. I took many walks around Brazzaville. It was very, very hot on those walks and whenever you stepped out of the sun and into the shade of one of the great trees it felt as if you had just leapt into a swimming pool. There were little birds in the air. Turquoise, teal. More than once I passed an establishment called Dreams Hotel. Not everyone in Brazzaville was entirely friendly. But most were kind and I never felt afraid. At a bar, later today, one of the graduate students, A, not to be confused with the other A, will tell me about how her brother was almost killed by a baboon in Tanzania. I will return home after she tells this story to teach my class at the University of Denver. My daughter, Eva, will make a yellow and turquoise owl face out of clay. She will also make a dog and a ball for the dog out of clay. People will repeat themselves a great deal for emphasis. I will undertake a cleanse involving limited caffeine and no alcohol and will come across the aerochrome DRC photos of Richard Moss, which transform the death zones of Kivu in the east into hot pink and purple outtakes from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I will read some of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Soccer Wars. I will also read more of Emmanuel Carrere’s Limonov, remarking, as I do so, that it is harder and harder for me to finish reading long and very long novels. One afternoon I will be sent an email by a former student attached to which will be a photo of a city in a suitcase, a pop-up skyscape that will move me deeply. I will be critiqued for my defensiveness around issues related to household cleaning chores and will deserve it. I enjoy sitting here beside you, Dark Charlie, looking down at the Spiral Jetty and out at the Great Salt Lake, with those huge clouds floating in the distances, but I do wish that we were younger, were in fact completely young again and that we were standing close to each other in a bar in Texas and that the story you told me today, interesting as it was, had not been about Bible distribution but about fighting other girls in a wood.”

“You don’t sound like you’re talking. You sound like you’re writing,” said Dark Charlie.

“I am,” I said.

I was.

Late one night in Boulder then early one morning long after the visit to Salt Lake City was over.

“The zoo was full of unhappy animals and people sleeping on cardboard,” Dark Charlie said. “That’s what the zoo looked like.”

The next day our delegation left Kinshasa, got on a speedboat and crossed the Congo River to Brazzaville. Spray from the river got on my face. I tried to take pictures with my pinhole camera. I tried to take pictures of the Spiral Jetty with my pinhole camera. Across the river we went. Faster and faster and faster. All this happened 1,000 years ago. 

Contributor

Laird Hunt

LAIRD HUNT is a graduate of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He lives in Boulder and, when not day-jobbing, writes.

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