By Gregory Barrett
A Review of by Gaither Stewart’s Short Story Collection, SIGNS OF THE TIMES.
Gaither Stewart is an expatriate American writer who lives in Rome and knows Europe well. Mr. Stewart’s agile intellect and life-tuned, refined aesthetic sensibilities will most interest those who refuse to be confined in a single identity, preferring rather to cross at will between the parallel worlds of historical awareness, omniculturalism, art brought to life in (at least) three dimensions, sensuality seasoned with the appropriate dose of spiritualism, and the frankly unembarrassed metaphysical consciousness of a multilingual modern nomad.
And for all of those whose imaginations do not yet reach that far, Stewart’s entertaining stories just may provide the proper stimulus.
Like their creator, Stewart’s protagonists are drawn to other countries outside the modern American bubble of their origins. While becoming acquainted with cities in Europe and Latin America they fall in love or make friends with foreigners who seem to represent a life which is deeper and more meaningful than what passes for life back home, and gradually the prospect of returning to the bubble fades into the realm of the boring and eventually unacceptable, as the world outside that bubble unfolds and reveals ever more of its mysteries and altered perspectives.
As is often the case with expatriates and others who manage to escape the confines of their original cultural assumptions, such modern nomads cross a crucial boundary when they begin to develop a facility for one or more foreign languages. An object or an action or a descriptive term with at least two different names can be seen from at least two different angles, and once one begins to feel somewhat at home with the new language, the pitifully limiting nature of one’s original single word for that thing is exposed – that is, it is exposed as pitifully limiting to a mind which is not afraid of expanding and exploring the unknown.
But not all minds fall under this heading. Among all of the criteria we can use to differentiate between the various natures of various humans, perhaps no criterion is more directly related to what we might generally call a person’s “politics” than her response to the unfamiliar and the unknown.
Conservative instincts, in general, can be said to be related to fear of (and/or contempt for) the unfamiliar. Conservatives prefer their “own kind” and tend to favor distinct borders between distinct categories, distinct regions, distinct cultural traditions, and what they often regard as distinct social classes.
The “progressive” mind, however (to employ a currently fashionable label), is far less likely to feel threatened by that which is less familiar, and may even welcome and enjoy excursions out of the psychological hiding place. On the physical level this exploration may take the form of spending time in actual foreign environments, learning new languages, and – at its most radical – leaving one’s native soil to live elsewhere. But even many of those non-conservatives who have never taken that deep plunge may have at least found the thought of doing so to be intriguing, and may find that these stories speak to them. Gaither Stewart has been there. In fact, he is still there.
And so, while wandering through the elegant and worldly attractions of München (Munich), a traveler—who may perhaps bear some resemblance to the author who has cast him in the role—encounters a stylish and attractive Swedish woman in one of the city’s great museums, and indulges a fantasy of spontaneous contact that many of us may have entertained at least once in comparable situations. His courage is rewarded, the fantasy solidifies, and a roguishly rapid romance ensues, accelerating until its sudden shocking surprise ending.
After the briefest of pauses we find ourselves in “Coyoacán, Place of Coyotes”, otherwise revealed as Mexico City and apparently another city familiar to this wandering writer. As Stewart declares in his introduction,
“ … Like lost empires—British, Hapsburgian or Aztec—ghostly voices from the past resurface from the imperialistic underworld and merge into some form of consciousness. Secrets from that past do not remain forever secrets, one of my protagonists thinks. Everything in our world, every object and every person, point back toward the revelation of the mystery of existence and its one common origin. Thus everything is a copy of something else which is a replica of a replica of a copy of an original as in the story Melancholy. Existence becomes repetition—and nothing is lost.
“ Therefore, my characters search for something different. Although I accept that I am locked in the white race for which I hold little hope, my personae want to be ‘out there’ where I believe we all should be. In the same way the characters in these stories may never find that which they are seeking; they may never even find the perfect replacement for what they think of as their permanent place, somewhere beyond their obsessions for that one place and one person that will be the end of the search—the result of the injudicious weight I, the writer, give to place. I respect the past but like the narrator-hero of Coyoacan-Place of the Coyotes, I never intend a return to it. …”
And indeed, a vision of the lost Aztec culture which pervades the story is never far below the surface of modern Mexico City, although it is a far cry from thence to the dark slums visited by the narrator and Stewart alter-ego in one part of the tale. This writer’s mind is adept at finding connections between the ancient and the modern, the glorious and the decrepit. And the role played by a certain modern empire in the degradation of the particular ancient empire in the story’s background is considered worthy of fleeting mention. An auditory cameo appearance by the great transformative musical figure Dave Brubeck may not be completely irrelevant among the network of spiritual and historical connections associated with this stop on the book’s spatial/temporal odyssey.
But the action moves through a shifting array of human dramas, as well, over the course of the ensuing stories—which include love affairs, dependence, psychiatry, drinking and altered consciousness, aging, obsession with sex, uprooted vagabond migration, and other adult maladies and pleasures. Malcolm Lowry, author of “Under the Volcano”, might have felt a certain familiarity with the surroundings in some of Gaither Stewart’s fine tales. Those who have refused to be confined within the bubbles of expected and pre-programmed behavior will catch glimpses of themselves in the reflected images. And those who have long felt tempted to join them, but have never succumbed, may welcome a voyeuristic perusal of what might lie ahead.
GREGORY BARRETT is an American musician, writer and translator who lives in Germany.