The black whore of Mombasa
My memories are vanishing. There is a rat’s nest in my head, a snarl of rabid recollections. They eat each other, these memories. Because of this it is no longer clear to me where I have been or what I have done. It is true that I can look at my old passports, and even old notebooks, but without attached memories the information they contain is meaningless. What does it matter, for instance, that I entered Kenya—at Mombasa, disembarking from a ship on Jan 31, 1964—if in my memory there is no harbor, no frowning immigration official, no rows of ramshackle buildings? The memories that do exist—the images I can extract from the rat’s nest in my mind—are suspect. There was a black whore, for instance. I spent the night with her. This was cheaper, and probably safer, than a hotel. She had taken a fancy to me, it seemed, as we drank together in a bar. Yes, now I remember: there were British soldiers there also, tough looking men in khaki. There had been a rebellion nearby—disgruntled Kenyan soldiers, I believe. The Brits had suppressed it without much difficulty. Yet today I remember little more. Was the bar dark and steamy? The beer cold? The whore, I think, was plump and sleepy, but this may not be true. In the morning I took a train to Nairobi. I am sure of this, but I remember nothing of the journey. In Nairobi I stayed at the YMCA. Later I hitchhiked south. What madness was that? Alone. Young. Unruly blond hair. Nearly penniless—I think I had twenty dollars in my pocket. I remember hunger. Not bodily hunger—I ate little, I seemed careless about food—but a deeper hunger. Can I call it a soul-hunger? I can argue that this hunger, wherever it resides, has disfigured me. It has certainly disfigured my life.
I believe the whore in Mombassa appeared later in one of my novels, Orifice. It seems almost no one has read this novel, however, so her appearance—if it is her—is of no moment to anyone.
Arrivals are curious events in our lives. I did not like to fly so my arrivals were usually by land or by sea. In 1960 I arrived in Sydney on a ship, the Orcades. A friend was with me, DeForrest. We stayed a few nights with a man we chanced to meet. He had a house in the suburb. The toilet was in back, in the yard I mean, in a separate building. He had just left his wife for another woman: a young girl with pale and unblemished skin. He loved her because of her skin, he told me. Indeed her skin was amazing, as lucent as porcelain. Otherwise she seemed uninteresting: a sullen girl, already bored with life. Men, I thought, fall in love for the strangest reasons. Imagine falling in love with a woman’s skin!
I arrived in Tahiti on another boat, the Cape Falcon, a fishing boat. When we dropped anchor girls paddled out to greet us. But that was 1959. Many years later I flew there, with my bicycle, an old French Follis. No one greeted me. Alone, I rode my bicycle around the island, spent one night in a tiny hut in the jungle, another in a flimsy hotel full of drunks and whores, and then continued west, to other islands, other continents.
Arrivals are perhaps beginnings. Is that why they interest me? One can arrive again and again. Every new place offers the possibility of a new life. If that is true, then I have been reborn hundreds of times. I cannot remember all these rebirths. Their memories have been eaten by the rats in my head. Perhaps I can also say that each of my novels has been an arrival. That is, I arrive at the beginning of a novel just as I arrived at Mombassa harbor. A continent of sorts lies in wait for me, just as Africa lay in wait for me. I do not know exactly what is there. I may have a general idea of the geography, the language—in Brazil they speak Portuguese, in Kuala Lumpur it is Malay—but nevertheless the continent, the country, the isthmus, the sprawl of islands that lie ahead are unknown to me. I can explore the novel, just as I explore a country, with whatever resources I have to command. Sometimes the novel defeats me. I end up, shall we say, a corpse in the desert. This book—the one I am writing now, here, with these words—is not a novel but autobiography. But it too is a kind of arrival. The continent of my past is unknown to me just as Africa was unknown. I cannot say what surprises are in store for me, what discoveries I shall make, or even if I will survive this journey. I am an old man, after all. Perhaps this is my final defeat. Perhaps my faltering memory will lead to death. The rats—the rats will eat me too.
It is customary in a book to establish identity, time, place.
I am an obscure American novelist.
I sit here surrounded by four adobe walls. I built them myself, that is, I dug up the earth, mixed it with water and pine needles, then poured it between forms—pushing my wheelbarrow up ramps, dumping the mud between thick boards. The walls dried in our unrelenting sun. That was a summer some years ago. The roof is metal. During our occasional rains the sound is a continuous but muted thunder.
The time: clearly the end of my life. These are certain to be my last years. I shall have to hurry.