Title: Bolero (Bolero)
Author: Ardian Vehbiu
Place of publication: Tirana
Year of publication: 2015
© all rights reserved to the author and “Dudaj” Publishing House
The plot: “Bolero” is a novel about the hidden joys and thrills of commuting. It takes place in the New York subway and its narrative is the textual equivalent of a broken record – the same story, or non-story, is cycled from chapter to chapter, as subtle changes in the premises and characters reveal the essence of everyday urban life in a modern metropolis, in which the subject has to negotiate his or her identity through a practically endless series of repetitions. The hero is shown as he/she is waiting for a train; but an accident that has happened somewhere far away is announced by the public speaking system and the trains are temporarily not running. This little catastrophe, this glitch in the system, this interruption of routine opens the doors to the unexpected – as a breach in the urban space-time continuum allows for the meaningful to rush in. With the subway network being a labyrinthine map of the city above, the commuter can only make sense of it by re-reading his or her own experience through the cues provided by pop culture: crime fiction, science fiction, noir, horror and apocalyptic fiction. The small disruption of the commuting routine and the emptied platform becomes a portent of the end of the world, at least of that world that is based on the mechanical and the mindless. The many short chapters of the novel replay many tropes of contemporary life in the west, as they are mediated by the mass media, in an atmosphere were close surveillance and blind indifference go hand in hand. There is no classical narrative in the novel, as the adventure occurs to the narrative itself, through its many jazz-like variations.
Let’s start with the simple premise of having a man wait for an uptown train, in a deserted subway station in midtown Manhattan. I know, all this will seem absolutely unremarkable. It can happen to all of us, it’s a problem of missing synchronization. What we should do, though, is overblow the scenario, that is, take the banality and transform it into an auto-ironic monument of itself. So, our man waits. The train doesn’t come, a delay has been announced, due to an incident somewhere in Brooklyn; the man won’t move, won’t leave the platform, stubborn in his resignation, or maybe just incapable of changing his plans. He wants to go uptown: how prosaic this sounds! And here resides the image’s strength, so to say, because the absurdity is never enough: it should be a banal absurdity of sorts. Other people come and go, service personnel strategically placed at the platform’s entries discourage other commuters from accessing it, but they are impotent in front of our hero’s resoluteness to wait. Attention here: this waiting isn’t total passivity, because the man is actually doing something, instead of withering away in abandonment. He’s an acting subject. No one can reasonably say that the waiting is imposed on the man as an unwelcome burden, which he is somehow sustaining. On the contrary, he’s well aware of using his own time for a certain justified purpose. If in the beginning he’s just willing to go uptown, now he’s just willing to wait. The factual world seems to plot against this decision of his: there won’t be any trains in the nearest future, the line is closed for maintenance, the Brooklyn incident has raised serious questions about the safety of that particular track. He knows all this, but it doesn’t seem to make a difference in his decisional process. He waits. At this moment the monumentalization sets off, and our man doesn’t even need to be a real hero any longer, in order to impersonate one. He lives there, in the empty platform, with people sporadically bringing him lunch or dinner in cardboard boxes, or the ubiquitous Coke in a paper cup; with other people offering him the daily newspaper. The garbage collection service on the platform is still working only because of his unwanted, but matter-of-factly presence. Later on, we learn that the line will be closed for thorough reconstruction, but also because it is underutilized. The authorities make sure that the man is informed about this development, but they still can’t drag him forcefully out of the station. Not because the law forbids it (the law is intentionally vague about these cases), but simply because the public opinion in New York won’t allow it. Associations mushroom throughout the city, using our guy’s cause partly as a banner for furthering their own political agendas: civil liberties are at issue, and the man isn’t flagrantly breaking any kind of explicit rule or principle. His determination to keep waiting against all odds is a source of respect. After all, many would say, wasn’t America itself born this way? At this point everyone is pro our hero, and celebrates the waiting as a surprising symbol of free will. Let him wait, this is the slogan. Don’t touch the waiting man. Some timid commercial exploitation has already started: toys, books, bumper-stickers. Among those involved, it is unanimously decided that a percentage of profits will be devolved to the man’s family. Because he must have a family, of course. Maybe uptown. Or upstate. Somewhere up, to put it straight. The police and other law enforcement agencies are strangely reticent about this: no one seems to know the guy’s name. He is the waiting man, and the implied monumentality excludes all attempts to closer identification. Something like an urban version of the proverbial Unknown Soldier in his Tomb. Curious journalists pursue their independent research, while the man’s photos, shot through the platform’s still-functioning security cameras, circulate on the web. Still, the mystery thickens. There is now the risk is that the public opinion will forget about the monument, and will start dealing with the event as they would with a cheap tabloid mystery. So the decision to demolish the section of subway tracks, (purposefully) including our man’s improbable residence, seems to arrive in the right moment. What? The City can’t proceed with that while there’s still someone down there, say the associations, the spokespersons for the cultural circles, and the TV talking heads. On the other hand, lawyers are already studying possible ways of how to evict the man from the doomed platform, or convince him to leave, or make him leave, or even have him evaporate. All in vain. A spontaneous watch is mounted around the street entries to the abandoned station, with public speakers denouncing all efforts to a quick solution to the dilemma. A human wall, in plain daylight, against the institutional surreptitiousness. The lawyers refrain from legal action; the authorities take a step back. A whole city roots for the man: not with the hope that some solution will be found, but simply believing that waiting is an underrated human activity that, if done properly, assures astonishing insight into one’s awareness of the deep. Suddenly there is a provocation: what if the man doesn’t exist, or better, what if he doesn’t exist anymore? What if he has left the platform a long time ago, after it became clear that no trains will be running on that track? The implication is that, ever since, certain sectors of the media, along with associations, and renegade branches of the workers unions, have pushed the cause forward, creating a myth out of nothing, and keeping it alive through uninterrupted feed with blatant lies. The public opinion is shaken. Is there a waiting man or not? Show us the truth. Special permits are released; cameras from all the principal nationally-broadcasting TV chains are lowered to the abandoned platform. Of course, our man is still there, waiting: he is tired, almost exhausted, closely watched by a team of volunteer nurses and doctors, but it can’t be denied that he is there, and waiting. The City, though, can’t take any more of this story. With everyone sympathizing with our man, the hostility against institutions can’t but grow from day to day. A group of remarkably smart people prepares the counterstrike: one day the decision to restore the train traffic on the famously empty track is announced. Reconstruction is carried out in record time: less than a week of work and the line is almost ready to restart running. Our man learns about this from the newspapers, but otherwise nothing changes, as if the authorities’ backpedaling represents for him nothing more than a logical link in the normal chain of events. Finally D-Day comes, and after a short informal ceremony in Penn Station – with joyful jazz bands, majorettes, and some sprinkled gospel – the first train merrily enters the platform. From the front of the first car, the torrent of light washes the waiting man’s heroic face, opportunely turned to the right direction. The train stops, the doors open with the musical sound that joyfully flies through the dead spaces of the station. The City’s Mayor is in the car, to welcome the waiting man with a large smile, and an iron handshake. Our man doesn’t look very much surprised: he only quickly glances at his watch, enters the car, and takes a seat. Apparently he doesn’t recognize the mayor, or maybe the long waiting has taught him a lot about futility. The train heads uptown.
The extract is translated from the Albanian from Elona Pira