Review by JR Foley
D.N. Stuefloten (whose "Apertures" and photography appear in FlashPoint #2) wrote The Wilderness during the 1960's while wandering Africa, Australia, and Asia much like his nameless protagonist. It's unimportant how close to or distant from the author's actual experience his story happens to be; although his remark in the preface that "in what was then called Southern Rhodesia" he was working for a magician hints that experience and story might be further apart than the reader would suppose. There is no magician in The Wilderness, unless that magician is the nameless one himself.
It might be. His prose certainly casts a spell. A traveler's tale and a quest tale -- two of the oldest forms of storytelling -- The Wilderness follows no conventional plot. I don't mean it's all tell and no show; it's mostly show. But what drives and shapes the telling is emotion -- emotion with several twists: grief, guilt, but also wonder. Above all, wonder -- at what has happened to the traveler's lover, and at the worlds they have wandered and lived in on the way to her death, and after.
It is the spell of the traveler's prose that draws the reader ever deeper into the mystery of what's not taking place on the page.
This is a novel of making closer and closer contact with what is happening around one in order to avoid what once happened elsewhere and cannot be made to unhappen. Yet the evasive action also inexorably circles in on what it wants to avoid. Certainly the wilderness of this narrative is more interior than otherwise, with exterior serving as dramatic metaphor. But the narrative never becomes solipsistic, no matter how driven in on himself the traveler becomes, because he is always genuinely fascinated by the alien circumstances in which he makes his way.
His second sentence reveals what haunts him:
I am confused by the woman who lies on my bed, dead after so many years of suffering, her skin turned purplish by the twilight.
Writing alone in a strange room in a strange city, he is not, however, a Malone amusing himself while dying: the presence of the woman, if only in memory or imagination, makes that clear. Yet the "woman on the bed" is not the woman in the traveler's memory, whose period of suffering was considerably shorter than "years". This simply underscores that writing is the traveler's essential action now, and the long way writing has to travel through its several wildernesses.
He is confused, the traveler says, but confused in a vivid, definite physical and geographical context. It is a "dry and discolored area in the south of India"; a nameless city, which might be Cochin where he first disembarked, but not far from Cochin at any rate, and near the coast. He does not know if he has placed himself here, "or if someone, with power greater than mine, has placed me here, imprisoned me perhaps." But it is a room in a house owned by an old couple and their son, who act as choral figures of a sort. They feed him, question him, laugh at him, and keep out of his way. (Much later he reveals that quite a bit of money saved from an odyssey of odd jobs pays everyone to put up with him.) Other fellow travelers through the dusty wilderness of this city are an old trishaw driver, a child whore, an English girl on a tour, the tour bus driver, a crippled albino ex-professor of languages, a priest whose favorite objects of pastoral concern are young homosexuals in the city park, and one of the many sidewalk dead waiting in a tavern alley to be heaved onto the nightly dead cart.
The Wilderness is full of stories of these fellow travelers, each of whom contributes to the writer's further exploration of what he does not wish to face but has no choice to.
The following passage echoes with a variation two earlier passages in the circling-in of the traveler's quest. Near book's end, it also recapitulates characters and episodes from all the preceding trek, with marvelous economy, while pointing toward the fatal destination.
My room is a dungeon; I have banished myself. But the decision was taken so long ago, it is difficult to remember the reasons. Outside, through my single window, I see only haze, and at times, late in the afternoon, the red dust that comes sweeping through the sky. There are never any birds, they do not come here; the land is dead. Only the persistent flies, the insects, flock around this city, in numbers that seem to grow each day. I stare through the yellow glass, and wander about the room with my eyes. On the walls I find a map of the world: the continents, the oceans, the inland seas; black rivers, icy mountains; the sandy hills around Aliminos Bay, the jungle around Lahad Datu, the flat, diseased land at Exmouth Gulf, the peaks of Nuku Hiva; they are written in the urine stains, the broken plaster, the long cracks that wind through valleys and gorges, along the discolored countries. What is there to say? I have been everywhere. I find the red-painted Masai plains. The endless mornings line up behind each other. Light comes through a single window: gray and yellow and red, cold and warm and hot. Outside I hear noises, bullock carts, buses, people talking, the slap of their feet. Ah, I say, I am here, I am safe. I feel my mind turning and twisting. Images and visions poke forward, they thrust themselves in front of me. The cripple says: You are well fed, pampered, and rich. But I feel my arms and legs and chest. I am wasting away. The son says: Why do you drink arak? Why not whiskey, in your own country? Why do you come here? He stands in the park, the wind whipping his long white shirt. It is easy to smile and move off. My eyes can slip past him, and look at the trees. So much blood! cries a woman, but there was no blood, only sand and pain. The whore looks at me. Her small body twists in her bed, one arm thrown out, here eyes hooded with sleep. Is too late, she says, why you come here? But I tell her to move over. I lie beside her and dream of the ocean that came leaping against the cliffs. I hunted for crabs beneath the flat rocks, in the little pools of water. The girl sat, trembling with the roar of the sea.
Suffice it to say, the traveler gets to where he doesn't want to go. It is on those red Masai plains of east Africa, and the haunting memory takes human flesh, her circumstances lose the dimensions of myth, become more banal and more poignant.
The Wilderness strikes me as the emotional as well as stylistic foundation of the three later novellas Stuefloten gathered as The Mexico Trilogy (FC2, 1996). The traveler, as I call him, seems clearly an earlier incarnation of the John Twelve of The Ethiopian Exhibition, who wanders on motorcycle through the wilderness of Ethiopia, only to arrive at an elaborate movie set and an unexpected role. In The Ethiopian Exhibition (to which "Journey to Ethiopia" in this issue is sibling), a Red Sea coastal town plays Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, as in Queen of Las Vegas Las Vegas, Mexico, plays Las Vegas, Nevada. The towns themselves, as wonderfully heterogeneous populations, constitute the main actors in the movies being shot in the novellas of the Trilogy. (The middle novella, Maya, is a movie shoot in a ruined church in the jungle-grown remains of an ancient Mayan town in the Yucatan, where real guerrillas re-enact the Vietnam war.) The very fact that these later tales involve movie-making (soft- to hard-core porno) indicates the multifaceted alienation (emotional, sexual, racial, economic, artistic) that is their focus. Like any movie set, these later wildernesses are densely populated, with the bigger and richer story going on behind the camera.
The Wilderness, in contrast, straightforwardly explores a humanity-crowded wasteland of grit and beauty. Indian city is Indian city, African bush African bush. The portrayal of alienation focuses on the living heart of the matter. And the beauty in the writing evokes beauty even in the grit.