It's winter in New York. I live in Manhattan, Upper West Side, two blocks from Central Park. The window in my room faces the back of the building, a gray concrete wall to be exact, which I covered with plastic glass to prevent the cold from seeping into the corners. When I wake up that morning I can see, through the glass, the shadow of something falling. By the speed at which it is going I realize that it is snow: something slightly thick, falling slower than rain, generating a seesaw movement depending on how the wind blows.
When I am about to leave, the doorman of the building, who is also Latino but has lived here for years, asks me: are you going to leave like this?
I am wearing the snow jacket that my mother bought to go skiing in Bariloche, it is the most prepared-for-snow item that I have. He tells me that I need to wear a hat, that I will end up with my hair all wet, and that I would also need waterproof boots because with the sneakers I have on, I am going to slip off.
Reading Deborah Levy in Things I don’t want to know takes me to that moment.
‘Do you not understand what it is like to be a stranger in your country?’ (…)
‘I do not have even one pair of shoes that are right for this wet cold place.’
That’s what happened to us too. When we first arrived in England we never had the right clothes. In January we wore duffle coats and flip-flops. February was the month of the wellingtons and a sleeveless polka-dot dress.’
After walking four blocks on Amsterdam I realize what he wanted to tell me. Snow seems magical to me. I had never cared so much about it until now. But it's cold, I'm wet, and as beautiful as it is, this discomfort makes me feel like I don't belong here. As usual with the uncomfortable, we try to make it invisibile, we push it into the background of memory.
The beauty of this book starts with its title making so much sense. It invites the reader to travel with Levy during traumatic periods of her life in an almost painless way, because of the light but firm way in which she constructs the story. They are four essays that address her fragmented life in different countries, full of vivid images of her childhood, uncomfortable memories that she does not usually visit, things she does not want to know, but also of her call to write, to be a woman and to be a writer. Each fragment is named based on the four motives for writing proposed by George Orwell in his essay Why I Write.
There is a kind of fragile magic in these four passages: we resonate with that girl, with how still without understanding very well what the world is about, she had to adopt different dynamics to survive. We resonate with those things we prefer to remember and those others we try hard to let go, although they never fade out completely.
I have been visiting images from the past for days, images from when I was a girl, memories that I think would have been better to keep them, leave them sealed in a box, that they stay there indefinitely.
Deborah is less than ten years old and she crushes an orange with her foot to make it soft. She then makes a hole on it and drinks all the sweet juice. She is a girl but she already knows that the smallest oranges are the juiciest. This memory that should be purely beautiful is a bit tainted, because it hides the context. A land where you are born but from which you have to flee, the absence of a father who disappeared on an ordinary day in a white car, while the snowman they had built together melted in the garden of the house.
Deborah now lives in London, she does not crush the oranges to eat them, but she admits that she misses that girl who did so; the girl growing up in Johannesburg. That girl is still present, she sneaks into her words, she is probably the engine by which she writes and is capable of building new worlds.
‘What do we do with the knowledge that we cannot bear to live with? What do we do with the things we do not want to know?’ ‘I did not know how to get the work, my writing, into the world. I did not know how to open the window like an orange.’
Reading this book made me feel part of something bigger than myself, almost like in a meditation, reminding me that this is one of the callings for which I write. It left me with the wish that some time passes, so I can be able to visit it again and have it as a reminder that we all carry with things we would rather not know and not remember.