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Marc Gulezian

Human Castles

The writer Paul Auster came to Barcelona last week. He’s huge here. [1] 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.[2] 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,[3] 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[4] 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[5], 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[9]. 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[10] 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.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] Saint James’ Square.

[4] Who was responsible for the impressively nearly error free string of subtitles that showed up on the eight big screens placed within the hall.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

[8] Is it? I wonder which universe the riffraff wearing an anti Ivy League t-shirt is from?

[9] 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.

[10] 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

Marc Gulezian lives and writes in Barcelona.

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