Today’s column reaches you from what must be the most child-friendly cafe in Antwerp. Every table is occupied by a baby. Three of the babies are crying, two have just finished crying, and one is taking a quick break from crying in order to consider his options with regard to further crying. Everyone, babies and parents alike, is looking at me as if I am slightly mad even to attempt to work in here, but actually the atmosphere seems strangely appropriate to what I wanted to write about.
If Friday was a day of music, Saturday was a day of literature, beginning in the afternoon with an extraordinary, and very moving, talk by Andrew Solomon.
Solomon’s latest book, Far From The Tree, deals with the challenges of parenting children who are, for whatever reason, ‘different,’ be this through disability, mental illness, criminality or even prodigious talent. His focus, primarily, was on parental love: its power; its limits. How can we love a person who has made our lives so difficult? A person who is not the person we had hoped them to be?
For me, Solomon’s most memorable remarks focused on the notion of difference. He talked about the idea of ‘curing’ disability, or autism, or deafness, and made the point that not all people with autism, for example, regard it as something that needs to be cured in the first place. He pointed out that even though we live in an ever more tolerant society, we also blindly accept the developments in science and medicine that seek to erase any trait we regard as unwelcome. As a result, we are moving towards the ability to create societies where difference and diversity are eradicated.
In the evening, before our first performance, I met my Dutch publisher for the first time. He told me of a friend of his: a person who, for most of her life, had felt the continual urge to analyse and discuss her every feeling. Some years ago she began a new relationship with a man who told her he just wasn’t as capable of discussing what he felt. He suggested, rather counterintuitively, that they talk less, and have a little more faith in each other. They have been together for six years. She has, he said, never been happier.
When I first began these columns, based around the idea of the Crossing Border festival, my natural instinct was to think in terms of transgression. The idea of a border, a boundary, seems to carry the implicit invitation, at least for me, to cross it. The idea of division, of separation, even of categorisation, strikes me as both oppressive and repressive; limiting and self-limiting.
But if we try to imagine a world without boundaries, be they emotional, as in the case of the relationship I described above, or physical, as in the idea that through science we can make each new generation more self-similar, we quickly realise that the issue is not as simple as just erasing boundaries, or crossing every border that presents itself to us.
Around me, in this cafe, borders and boundaries are being explored in ways that to me, as an adult without children, are unimaginably complicated. Each baby, in his or her own way, is testing the peripheries of their world. One has tipped over a chair. Another is banging their bowl with a spoon. It seems an obvious point to make that, as adults, we risk losing this sense of curious exploration, this sense that borders are something to be sought and explored rather than passively, obediently obeyed. But perhaps we also take for granted something else: that boundaries are reassuring, and that they are the only way in which we are able to give meaning to what is, essentially, a chaotic, pointless existence.
So perhaps the most important thing is that we continue the process of mapping, of redefining. In that, I think, we novelists have an important role to play. Novels map space: emotional and physical. They can press at borders that would feel uncomfortable if crossed in real life.
But a novel without borders would not be a novel. Like the borgesian map so accurate that it exactly covers the territory it is supposed to represent, a novel without edges would be a counter-productive endeavour. Narrative is, after all, an attempt, however inexact and unsatisfactory, to bring shape and definition to the sprawl of our existence. Writers must cross borders, yes, but they must do so, paradoxically, by creating them.