The writer Paul Auster came to Barcelona last week. He’s huge here. 
I seem to be the only person in this city that hasn’t read Auster’s New
York Trilogy. And I want to make a connection between this
and the fact that I was the worst dressed in the line that I waited an hour and a half in to hear Mr. Auster be interviewed, an event scheduled for live broadcast on a major Catalan television channel.
I wasn’t badly dressed or anything. I had on a big pair of confused shorts that
stopped right below my knees and had more pockets than I knew what to do with,
and a T-shirt that I swiped from the bottom of my brother the Cornell alumnus’
drawer that said “Harvard Sucks” on the front and “But Yale Swallows” on
the back. Every third guy on line was decked out in a suit, and every other
guy had at least twenty years on me. They were either academics or
affected that look by the way they casually held neat black portfolio-looking
folders in between their arms and sides while they stood straight up with their
hands in their pockets, jingling and jangling change and keys.
The women smelled nice, and the two behind me were speaking in Catalan about Nabokov.
This all took place in Plaça Sant Jaume, a stellar ancient-looking and official
square that presents itself as something of an oasis after one winds their way
through the maze that is Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, the oldest, most Roman part
of the city. I like these squares. I feel safe, surrounded, but can breathe. There’s
stone and sky everywhere. Plaça Sant Jaume is an especially Catalan place,
where the shops that pander to the tourists are more open to speaking English
than they are Spanish. “Catalonia is not Spain” is a not uncommon
semi-politico-cultural message with major linguistic and economic implications
that I’ve seen graffitied (in English) around the Quarters. I
have the option to not take this seriously, but some people do, especially
the ones who work in the Catalan Government building where Paul Auster
appeared before four-hundred fans, academics, reporters, and general riffraff.
My usual MO of sitting way back in the rear turned out to be a bad idea.
I sat back against the not totally soundproof soundproof-booth, which
was occupied by two
translators and a tele-typist, busily and seriously on-spot translating
the Catalan interviewer’s questions into English so they could be shot straight
into the right ear of Paul via headphone. And to complete the dialogue, Paul’s
answers and general comments had to be translated into Catalan
for us academics, riffraff, and television watching public. The translators
and the tele-typist took care of all the little behind the scene things
and everything got pulled off flawlessly without any hitches in communication,
and Paul and the interviewer and all of us felt that something really
important was happening. The ladies who’d been talking about Nabokov
outside in the Square were sitting next to me because we’d been herded
into the hall in a civilized and organized manner. They were still
talking about Nabokov, and somehow this led to being critical about
American culture, criticisms that I have heard before, and by this
time find either true or false but uninteresting either way.
A friend had taken me to this same Square just a week before to check out the
Castells, or Human Castles. It’s difficult to not feel part of something
bigger than yourself when stuffed into a small space with way too many
people witnessing bodies constructing something made of the same bodies
that are doing the constructing. A thoroughly human activity, obviously.
And one can’t help but recognize the strength and courage and frailty
and transience involved when people climb on top of each other in an
effort to reach to the skies with nothing more than their own matter.
A score of pretty big dudes climbed onto a mass of
what must’ve been even bigger dudes. A chico atop
his father’s shoulders dumped the last of his orange
Fanta on my head, which neither bothered me nor broke
the dream that I was sliding into the way I always
do when a ritual is being performed. None of that
cynical stuff I attribute to rituals even occurred
to me, or that I had a good amount of orange Fanta
on my head. And even though there’s nothing particularly
sexy (in that high-pitched sort of way), or machismo,
or testosterone-filled, about witnessing
Human Castles, thick clouds of cigar smoke hung
here and there over the crowd, blown from the
type of tough old men you’d think had been to
their share of bullfights. The third level
began to form, crawling first over the heads
of those leaning against the foundation and
then upon the backs of the score of strongmen,
a group of four with interlocking arms,
a model of purpose and posture.
A Human Castle can grow up to ten levels, although most
of them don’t go past eight. Apparently it can get
pretty complicated, and there’s a whole set of lingo
surrounding the making of the castle and each person’s
position within it. Not all the spectators know or
understand this lingo, but we all know the name for
the young girl who climbs to the top and completes the
castle: enxaneta (en-chan-eta). After a
terrible accident a few years ago, the
enxaneta is now required by law to wear
a helmet, which on this day seemed to be the
same helmet the young girl would wear
when she went horseback riding. The strain in
the faces of the large men at the bottom and
the skinnier men in the middle and the lighter
women toward the top was obvious. All of their
legs wobbled as the enxaneta climbed up the
backs of people that she had probably spent
countless hours practicing with and by now
had become like family. On this particular
day the enxaneta hesitated right before she
put her leg over the back of the penultimate
castler. She looked down and up and down
again; a frightened six-year old girl; high
and alone and unsteady. The crowd cheered.
The girl went to the top. The boy on his
father’s shoulders cheered louder than anyone.
Paul Auster is strong-featured and photogenic. When he took his place at the
table there was a good forty-five seconds of photo-op, which is really a long
time when you think about it. I thought that this was the closest I’ve ever
been to celebrity worship, and although I wouldn’t necessarily call this a
valid thought, considering that Paul Auster hasn’t had the impact on
our society as say a...Paris Hilton, nonetheless certain associations
and connections to celebrity worship couldn’t be helped. The constant
clicking of the cameras, the shuffling and bobbing of photographers,
the flashes, the general Paparazzi-ness of it all: a universally
recognizable scene. The Nabokovians both agreed that Paul
Auster was indeed one hell of a good looking guy. A well-dressed man
in front of me had one of those slick-looking tape recorders that use
tiny tapes on his lap and ready to roll.
Writers should interview writers; basketweavers, basketweavers. The first
question had something to do with whether Paul thought his audience was a
commercially-minded one or of a more literary bent. Paul, patient and unannoyed,
answered that who his audience might be doesn’t concern him. The second
question was something about how Paul thinks his audience received his
latest offering. Paul, a bit annoyed, answered the same as before,
but threw in an anecdote in an attempt to switch gears. Third question:
I forget exactly, something about the audience. Paul remained photogenic.
The interviewer was introduced as being the head of the Catalan Philological
Institute. He had thick-rimmed glasses and slicked-back black hair
and could have easily been an extra on Happy Days, one of those guys
The Fonz grabs by the lapels and discards from “his office.”
The microphone was eventually handed over to the crowd, and it was then I
realized another facet in Paul Auster’s hold over his European readership’s
attention: they came to hear graceful criticism against an American government
and culture that they are basically fed up with. I was mentally
psyched to not so much ask a question but maybe begin some banter
with Paul concerning jazz, or what DeLillo’s got brewing in the
typer, or how he feels about the void left inside and outside
so many of us by David Foster Wallace’s tragic death, but decided against
it, because I’ve never read any of his – Auster’s – books, and
didn’t want to be that non-fan directing the attention away from the
moment’s auteur. Of the eight questions asked, six of them concerned
American politics, and four of them were about 9-11, the fiercest from a
white-haired man who you could tell had a lot
of experience with microphones.. His English was proper, almost perfect, like a
character from a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie, a
hard-to-pin-down-villain who could be from any European country.
“Mr. Auster, I appreciate you being so forward and critical about
your country’s politics, but are you willing to accept that the
Bush Administration is directly responsible for 9-11?”
Thankfully it turned out Paul Auster hadn’t come to talk about
conspiracy theories. He tried his hardest to keep the interview
focused on his books and the writing process. At one point he mentioned
it wasn’t until his late thirties that he was even able to speak when
in the presence of more than two people, that he lived inside himself,
and to some extent always had and always will. He offered no excuses
or pointed any fingers at anybody for this being so, giving me one reason
to feel a little less lonely than before.
 So is the late great Bill Hicks, who’s possibly even a bigger of a
deal than Auster. Perspective: Jon Stewart admits that Hicks was the
biggest influence of his comedic career. Dennis Leary won’t
admit it though, and Leary is a more obvious and less funny (if the word
“funny” even applies) pastiche of Hicks. Leary’s latest offering,
“Rescue Me” is just so bad. It fakes reality and characterization with
its close-ups and shaky hand-held documentary-like filming techniques,
as well as playing up to our post 9-11 sensibilities/generalizations of how we
think a NY fireman walks and talks and acts, and NYFD popularity in general.
Point is this: Bill Hicks is the undeniable master of scathing social
criticism, and he’s funny, and cynical, and real. And little known in the
States. I’m pretty certain that if I never moved to Europe, I would’ve
never heard of Bill Hicks. And never would have attended a live broadcast
of a Paul Auster interview.
 Speaking of offensive t-shirts: one of a friend of mine’s favorite t-shirts in his collection reads: “I don’t give a fuck about your problems.” He told me the only time strangers have approached him in the Metro and started up friendly conversations had been when he was wearing this t-shirt.
 Saint James’ Square.
 Who was responsible for the impressively nearly error free string of subtitles that showed up on the eight big screens placed within the hall.
 Alright, enough with the foreign words. I included this last one, “castells,” so if you’re interested you can go to YouTube and check it out for yourself. It’s enough to know that it’s a Catalan word, a Catalan tradition.
 I.e. satisfies a main component of marketability. I’m in no way inferring Paul Auster’s writing doesn’t deserve to be praised, but just saying. There’s nothing nerdy looking about Auster. Or nerdy sounding. Which I’m thinking must have something to do with being a born and bred New Yorker, and no matter how educated or well read he’s become, he obviously hasn’t lost that edge.
 Have you ever seen movie stars get out of their limos and walk up the red carpet to the entrance of the Oscars (or even some middling event like the Venice Film Festival)? We’re talking 8-10 minutes of photo- op. Gwyneth, Gwyneth, over here Gwyneth. You almost can’t blame them for going under the knife to get all those unattractive wrinkles removed.
 Is it? I wonder which universe the riffraff wearing an anti Ivy League t-shirt is from?
 The bottom level of the Human Castle is technically the crowd; we’re all kind of leaning in that direction. But still, those guys in the center and on the bottom must be strong of body and will like I couldn’t even imagine.
 A self-deception. The real reason is a major fear of public speaking. I skipped the sport’s awards dinner senior year in high school (just one example) because my coach told me I was being given a trophy, and I had zero desire to give anything like a speech, or even get within ten miles of that or any other podium.
©2009 by Marc Gulezian