IVÁN BRAVE — THE SUMMER ABROAD, A NOVEL — EL VIAJE DE EGRESADOS, UNA NOVELA –FIRST EDITION 2018
This book is amazingly bizarre and fascinating. The main hero, Mikail, who speaks in the first person and tells the story from his point of view exclusively is supposedly from Austin, Texas. But before entering his story let me say a few words about the author Ivan Brave who lives and teaches English in New York City, where he earned a Master’s in Fine Arts from The New School. He has traveled extensively throughout Europe, North and South America, with experience in Southeast Asia. We’ll see that this experience is fundamental to understand this novel, not so much the particular countries he is going to cross but the general experience of traveling. He apparently writes and speaks Spanish too, though he did not mention when in Barcelona that everything is in two languages there, Spanish and Catalan. He also speaks some French and declares his favorite book is “Le Petit Prince” by Saint Exupéry. I taught this novel in North Carolina a long time ago.
But we have to be patient when starting to read the book because for these travelers (Mikail, Rick, Alex) to be adventurous is also to have no real pattern, Gestalt in mind or behavior, though a sort of small number of motifs appear slowly out of the mist in our own minds and we wonder if we are projecting that Gestalt onto the story or if the story contains this Gestalt. It is so much in total agreement with the commonplace banality of the vision we have of these binging students who cannot do anything but in an excessive way and what they do anyway is always alcohol, drugs and physical intercourse in, around, before, and after binging parties in some fraternities. Maybe it is just like some syrup on a plate to attract flies. But then what is the “form” of this syrup? Plain sugar dissolved in some water, with a pinch of salt?
These young people, before leaving for Europe and then all along in Europe up to the disappearance of Rick in Amsterdam on the way back with only one mention later that he is in Paris, like alcohol (being drunk like hell), music and drugs, mostly marihuana, though they do not seem to reject some kind of acid or ecstasy. Mikail appears all the time as if he preferred his friends to be more mature than he is, himself not being able to take the initiative of renewing their apartment contract (which is under Rick’s control and will not be done since Rick disappeared in Europe eaten up by the voracious Loc Ness Monster I guess) and when back in Austin after his trip he will share Alex’s apartment and once again will be second in command (if that is command), shotgun if you want. But that is absolutely normal since he is a rather ranting and raving, raving especially, drug addict lost in the music as if the lyrics were the real world.
The last interest they have in life is physical love that has to be absolutely straight and dominant or even for Mikail dominantly dominated. He is a child who is looking for a mummy in his girl acquaintances since he has no father and lives with his mother and his sister. But for Mikail love is very vague as for what it means really: physical intercourse maybe, at least until he reaches Barcelona: passion probably but always as a transient short episode he will run away from eventually; getting high for sure on anything and when he is deprived of any means to get some drug in Barcelona he will then get high up in the mountains though he will not reach the top of them, not even the big boulder he is contemplating. Too bad. Love is a drug of a different sort that is yet so similar to alcohol and drugs, at least for Mikail. He is a teenager in mind and a college student the rest of the time, certainly not an adult planner for his life, if his life has any future beyond the next few minutes.
So, when he says, at the moment when he steps through the airport gate, “there we were, not yet drunk, yet full on life, time to fly, at gate something-something with our carry-on dreams and pockets full of hope,” he is just totally misleading himself and us. There is some truth which is at the same time some illusion. The feeling he expresses here could be seen as true when you embark onto a plane or a craft, vessel, ship of any sort and definition, including a train. The plane is extreme in the shortness of the transition. You embark, you sit, you do whatever you can do in this crammed and cramped place, you disembark, and you are somewhere else which looks so much like where you are coming from since all international airports are so much alike. You see Mikail has a point, but it is in a way an illusion: all airports are just the same, including taxis and buses and transportation out of these airports. He must have been brainwashed by too much song lyrics like “Touch” featuring Paul Williams. And yet later on in the novel, he is going to speak of four senses to seize the world: eyesight, hearing, taste, and smell, but not touch that got lost along the way, in translation. But that is just the point, would I say, he lost the sense of touch and thus his sense of belonging to any place, any profession, any circle of people or action. He is alone because he is unable to touch, hence, to feel, because you can touch with your hands, that’s easy, or feel with your mind and that’s called empathy. Mikail seems to have no empathy for people.
“Touch, I remember touch
Pictures came with touch
A painter in my mind
Tell me what you see
A tourist in a dream
A visitor it seems
A half-forgotten song
Where do I belong?”
And he amplifies this feeling and meaning of non-belonging, of rootlessness, of social touristic unattached aloofness with a reference to “Giorgio” by Moroder speaking of his time in Europe in 1969–1970, 30 to 40 years earlier, and this vision of Europe is so unrealistic about the present time that it is a way to get lost in translation.
Europe is seen as an adventure, and yet our three musketeers do not seem to be up to it for a long period of time, for at least maybe more than two weeks. Mikail seems to be willing to just delve into the slump of this careless, aimless and target-free enterprise but his friend Rick is not willing to lose the tempo of his own music and so he has to move on, as planned, as scheduled, more or less, and Amsterdam is only three days. What did they see? Nothing. Who did they meet? Perambulating ghosts embodied by their own desires (the ghosts’ and our trio of travelers’), and puppets that work with their own strings and do not really want their strings to get messed up in other puppets’ rods. If you go with one or several friends, you do not experience anything where you are because you are drowned in your small group, who by the way all speak English and they never went to an English-speaking country. And Mikail will only reach the point when he wants to have his real own personal experience in Barcelona, an epiphany of some sort, after leaving without any explanation his friend Stephanie who he has just met and retrieved from the airport after having left Aleida behind in the Netherlands without any good-bye or explanation. What a dork! And yet he finally reaches in the last few days of his month in Europe this understanding that you have to be alone in the foreign country to really experience it, and it would even be better to have a job and thus experience real life in these foreign countries. If you go alone without any stable position where you are that enables you to stay and experience real local life, you just accumulate nice pictures, impressions, sensations that you may process into perceptions, but you will never get to the concept of life the way it is really is where you are, just circumstantial existential superficial emotions including disappointment and the feeling you are getting nothing of any interest apart from drugs, physical love, and solid or fluid fodder.
In other words, he experiences the same kind of deprivation and the same attraction to get lost in some surreal experience that is perfectly well described in the old film “More” by Barbet Shroeder (1969). When you are thus lost in this touristic superficial and artificial swamp, you are unable to drain it and you end up going back — if you do not die of an overdose of this touristic drug in the meantime — to what was your situation before going. You will, of course, philosophize on all you have learned, but yet you will fall back into the pattern you had left behind, and by the way, it is Mikail’s uncles who pay for the ticket back to Texas. That was his insurance policy: the certitude that one phone call would enable him to get his return plane ticket paid for. The passion experienced in every episode of this pathetic picaresque à-la-Don-Quixote trip has to be terminated because the next episode might bring something better that I could not experience if I abandoned myself to the present passion which is only physical intercourse heavily soaked in alcohol and drugs anyway. This Mikail is a 15-year-old child who has not yet reached — and he will not at all reach it in the novel — adult age, self-pride, self-accountability, self-serendipity, and this last concept is sustainable since what happens by chance is in fact brought to life by the inner logic of the person who thus develops himself or herself with the means of her or his own psyche and reserves, including financial reserves.
When he says, “the answer you seek is inside of you,” we seem to be dreaming along with the flat and empty character we have been dealing with. Mikhail, the philosophy graduate, got traumatized in Milan’s cathedral and came out lost in words he could not find, in a soul, he could not define, in a faith he could not experience, in a god or whatever he could not assess and measure. Unable to find any answer to what he is looking for he has only one reaction: rant, then rave and then want to touch someone, but even that does not feel right and anyway an alarm-clock rings and the girl has to run to the station.
This adventure, this trip is, in fact, a folly because they discover nothing. They only experience something in themselves, the total void inside, and the desire to find something there though they seem to know there is nothing. then they only have gestures to fill up the gap, the hole, the emptiness: simple and alienated gestures like drinking too much, ordering rounds and rounds, making love on the run as an escape from real life, and yet it is a trap and they cannot escape this one. Their escape is the trap in which they find no escape. At best the words Mikail finds are quotations, words from someone else outside. He has no heart, he has no self, he has no soul, he has no mind because he does not have the words to empower this mind to become something real. Without words the mind is nothing. That’s why soul believers invented prayers, just plain set words that come from outside, learned by heart but with no heart from outside, repeated from memory without any thought or even consciousness, and then believed to be the language of your soul, the language of your mind, though it is only the language of the institution that educates and alienates you. Pure mottoes, animal calls that have nothing to do with your “anima” or soul, the noise of some wind in your vocal cords. Therefore, consequently, and wherefore, it is a lie. It is a crime against God, hence against humanity because God is humanity, and nothing or no one else. Nostalgic loss of oneself into the vacuity of life reduced to remembering what is not to be remembered then because it solves nothing, remembering to be a drinking mate and nothing else, and just being a gaucho far, far away from Argentina. Poor Gaucho. Poor Cowboy. Poor Lucky Luke, who is not lucky at all.
And the world is reduced to being nothing but a mic-mac mishmash of “silhouettes of letters.” The drug cocktail they are taking is making Mikhail regress to the first articulation of language around three years of age, the rotation of consonants and vowels but with endlessly rotating meanings on the basis of the eternally rotating words. He regresses to rotating words and meanings, like brain machine-code, like perceptions that are brain-coded but to which he attaches words that become rotating calls, rotating signifiers cut off from their rotating signifieds. And yet we could think it is the reverse at times: rotating signifieds cut off from their rotating signifiers. This is probably the linguistic game of a three-year-old child, or maybe of a hominin who has just reached the level and use of rotating consonants, vowels and brain machine code signifiers and signifieds some 300,000 years ago. Desperate calls in an empty universe, desperate creative calls of God to His spirit and of God’s spirit to God himself, which has a genetic creative secondary effect, as if the universe was created as an unidentified collateral side-effect of God’s absorption of some Ex or Speed or whatever cocktail of such mind-raking drugs. The world was created by a God high on a blended mixture of drugs.
Girls and boys are like consonants and vowels. They pair when their surrounding society agrees but the two sexes are two circles and the pairing is only temporary and, hence, rotating. Mikhail is seeing the world as a couple of big merry-go-rounds that are, in his head, words and calls, and in his surrounding environment the two sets of males and females trying to mate. Totally heterosexual. Of course, would I say, because a vowel can only pair with a consonant. And yet Mikail could have imagined, seen that a consonant can pair with a consonant (Brrrr!) and a vowel with a vowel (Aooo! Archive Of Our Own), and definitely even imagine triads or quartets, but in his male-gestalted mind there can only be a triad of males hungry for common hunting objectives and women are the only targets envisioned, and only in a pairing procedure, with a very slight evolution at the end since he will be the third individual of a triad that will be built — by and with him — based on a heterosexual couple, Alex and his girlfriend.
And he reaches the end of his blind-alley and bangs his head against the wall and “I beat my chest red as the song “Emotion” played, again and again, singing the lyrics.” And note how the genders of the two characters are not specified. But no problem since Mikail is so clearly informed by some sense of straight normalcy.
“It’s over and done
But the heartache lives on inside
And who’s the one you’re clinging to
Instead of me tonight?
And where are you now, now that I need you?”
And I would like to finish with a remark that becomes over-present and heavy at the end when he has come back home when he tries to summarize some kind of balance for this trip. He is so back in his own self that he is entirely locked up in his music. Rick, the tempo-man is gone, but Mikail the music temperer is working for two pages with all sorts of rhythms he builds the way Shakespeare used to: by repeating words in crisscrossed clusters. Just try to enjoy it in this very short sample:
“Keep moving, keep dancing, keep singing. ¡Siempre para Arriba! Departures. Arrivals. Love. Humanity. Travel. Wisdom. Motivational Posters. Auto-correct. Sweat. Sweet. Wonderer. Wanderer. Warrior. Three-hundred-sixty minus forty plus one,” which is three-hundred-twenty-one, which is three times one-hundred-and-seven, which has to be a meaningless oversized prime number.
He is finding in his final summary a tempo of his own:
“Moreneta … in Monistrol de Monserrat … Rick, where art thou, primo? Were you the rose, thorny and wet, hungry and faded — beautiful but gone? Whereas I was the dandelion, wistful and whimsy, scattered and ready — yet every day rooted? Aleida Anholts, my home away from home, your hospitality, your inn to keep me warm. … Sing the seed sound … Aum, A+you+M … Elén. You reckless Valkyrie. You promised…, you promised …”
You may appreciate the Buddhist and Tibetan final reference. Count the number of ternary elements, triads and compare with the other clusters of four or five elements. This ternary form is what emerges best about this character. He is like Chopin’s little dog, running after his own tail. He is like Jacques Brel’s song about a waltz with one thousand beats. He turns around and around like a prayer mill repeating those triplets of elements eternally, endlessly and sempiternally.
That Ivan Brave has something in him that his character does not really have, but this deeper truth emerges little by little, and there is some hope, might be some hope, though none at all for Mikail. He is a dork, a buffoon, a clodhopper hopping over his mental clods with his song-lyrics clogs. The end of the American century is programmed in these disoriented and disparaged, dismissible young people. Some may call them Millennials. Pathetic.
Dr. Jacques COULARDEAU