The docks as a non-place

Francisco Goldman and Jean-Claude Izzo speak to each other through their respective novels, The Ordinary Seaman and The Lost Sailors.  Both are stories about waiting in the docks, literally, in a floating metal tub full of holes.  Both tell stories within stories within stories – which is what you do when you are waiting.  And waiting.  When you are on the sea “only leaving has any meaning. Leaving and coming back.”  That is what Izzo writes.  Goldman’s sailors don’t so much wait as endlessly labour for no pay at all. Izzo’s boat, Aldebaran, owned by Greek crook, is crewed by a broad mixture of people when it is impounded at the port of Marseille.  Only three people remain onboard, the Lebanese captain, Abdul Aziz, the Greek first mate, Diamantis, and a young Turkish sailor, Nedim. Goldman’s boat, Urus, is owned by a mysterious owner, with a crooked captain and first mate, and crewed by many a first time sailor from Nicaragua and other Latin American countries, with Esteban (a former Sandinista soldier) and Bernardo (a one-time ship’s waiter who has returned to sea with romantic memories and unreasonably high opinion of British captains) the most memorable among them. Both books portray the ports at which their boats are beached affectionately, generously, expansively, and with a great deal of inside knowledge.  The Marseille of Izzo is often -no, always- the prime protagonist of his books.  The Brooklyn of Goldman is the borough most people don’t often see: of proyectos, working class neighbourhoods, and wind-blown and debris-strewn abandoned docks:

Here and there masts, derricks, and the bristling tops of monumental ships’ superstructures protruded over the roofs of numbered terminal buildings.  Motionless cargo cranes against the sky.  Parked truck cabs. Sheds and warehouses with aluminum siding.  A man driving an empty forklift out from behind a long row of containers.  It was Sunday evening; perhaps that was why there didn’t seem to be much going on.  But El Pelos kept on driving for a surprisingly long time, deep into what seemed to be a deserted and apparently defunct  end of the port, where the buildings were much older, abandoned looking, made of crumbling brick and concrete.  Sandy wastes of weeds and built-up earthworks suddenly opening on a patch of beachfront fronting a long, broken pier. A smashed, hollowed-out car chassis in a rubble-filled lot.  They passed a small, listing old freighter apparently resting in eternal dry-dock inside a fenced-in, overgrown, scraggly-treed yard, leafy squirrel nests in the conning tower and a squat black dog barking at them from the bridge, an inner tube hung with rope from a bridge wing.  An elephantine warehouse built of tattered gray wood, an emptiness of darkening sky and water glowing like a movie screen through huge, gaping doorways (pp 18-19).

The stunningly evocative passage comes from Goldman’s novel, and he manages to convey a sense of the place so incredibly well.  There were bits of this which reminded me of the older break-bulk and ro-ro part of the Beirut port.  Anthropologist Mark Augé has a little essay called Non-places which Goldman’s description (and my memory of Beirut) recalls.  Augé’s essay is as much about the object of anthropology as about the non-place places upon which he reflects, but he describes non-places as “formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure)” (94),  and though they are the generic spaces of the transnational, they are directly in relation to the ever concrete imaginations of a heimat, “of the land and roots” (35).  {I should mention at this point, that Augé has a second designation for non-place in mind which is just as relevant to Goldman’s Brooklyn docks: non-place also designates not just the spaces defined as above, but also “the relations that individual have with these spaces.”} If Goldman and Izzo sketch a Brooklyn and a Marseille that are alive; heaving, violent, capitalist, bloody, smelling, dirty, but alive; the desolate docks Goldman beautifully draws are non-places.  Augé’s primary non-places are in fact spaces associated with transport:

The installations needed for the accelerated circulation of passengers and goods (high-speed roads and railways, interchanges, airports) are just as much non-places as the means of transport themselves, or the great commercial centres, or the extended transit camps where the planet’s refugees are parked.  For the time we live in is paradoxical in this aspect, too: at the very same moment when it becomes possible to think in terms of the unity of terrestrial space, and the big multinational networks grow strong, the clamour of particularisms rises; clamour from those who want to stay at home in peace, clamour from those who want to find a mother country (34-35).

And both Izzo and Goldman convey this tug and pull of particularism of a place (of homes in Greece and Turkey and Lebanon and Central America) and of the non-place this is the ship, or the interstitial no-man’s-land of being literally between borders in a non-place. The books work very differently.  Izzo’s story is a bit like his police procedurals, full of mysteries whose resolution is bloody and devastating.  Goldman’s novel proceeds slowly, and is as much a story of home as it is a story of homelessness on the sea (or at the docks).   They are both political novels though, with the leftist inclinations of both authors clear in the way they account of political cataclysms of their time.  And the villains in both are crooked shipowners perpetrating frauds on insurance companies but even more horrifically on their crew and officers. Rather strikingly, both Izzo and Goldman don’t have distant villains. We learn enough about the villains either directly or through the swirl of stories that they are not two-dimensional baddies, but quite complex CAPITALISTS.  Because that is also what both authors manage to convey: the enmeshment of ordinary bodies in the machine and the machine’s overwhelming ability to wipe out friendship, and loyalty, and virtue, and honour. The books are also about other things however.  Inevitably, stories whose main protagonists are male sailors are also going to be about masculinity.  And there is a lot of thinking through and describing of a broad range of masculinities here.  There are ways in which both Izzo and Goldman are alive to the way manhood is understood and performed, and its nuances and variations that feels both pleasurable and ethnographic (and I mean that in a very complimentary sort of way).  Here, in both stories, are men who have been soldiers and mechanics and cooks and waiters.  Men who are lovers and fathers and fighters.  Men who have been jilted, who are desperate for love, who are comfortable in a fight – or humiliated in the throes of a beating.  There are so many ways to be manly in these stories – and the authors are gentle, probing,and leaving enough to imagination and sympathy as to allow ways of thinking about how class, race, and geopolitics shape the contours of masculine sentiment and practice. But the books are also ultimately about loneliness.  There is a sense of solitude pervading both stories, a kind of melancholic reflection on the world of work in a non-place, of abandonment and precarity by a ravenous and rapacious economic system of exploitation.  And here again, Augé:

A person entering the space of non-place is relieved of his usual determinants. He becomes no more than what he does or experiences in the role of passenger, customer, or driver. . . . The space of non-place creates neither singular identity nor relations; only solitude, and similitude. There is no room for history unless it has been transformed into an element of spectacle, usually in allusive texts (103).

Although, I suppose, it is ultimately the wonder of both Izzo and Goldman that they rescue their wonderful characters from the ignominy of facelessness that Augé writes about, assigns them stories and histories, and allow them to breathe the sea air, however polluted it may be.