First in an occasional series…
The Brothers Karamatzov is on my top nine list of books. (It is not the ninth book; there are only nine books on the list.) Sometimes when and how I read a book imprint themselves on me so deeply that they are almost inseparable (for me) from the book itself. My best friend recommended The Brothers Karamatzov to me just before I left for Tunisia on an adventure that was to span several continents and half a dozen countries. “It’s a really compelling murder mystery,” she said, I remember. We were sitting in the car, parked outside of my house, because I didn’t want to go in and she didn’t want to go home. “The thing about it, though, is that I don’t even remember who the murderer was because it didn’t matter.” I like to remember who the murderer is, in general, but she’s one of the few people who generally shares my taste in reading, so I trusted her. Plus the book was big and fat and I knew it was going to be hard to fins anything in English, where I was going.
My first or second weekend in Tunis, I packed it in my back pack and took it to the beach. I took the subway – I remember that car very vividly: it was white and packed with people and it was air conditioned, which pleased me because the day outside was very, very hot. I remember pressing my hot face up against the cool metal pole – there weren’t any seats – and fumbling with the top of my back pack to get my book. And then I read and I read and I read. At some point I must have sat down, because I remember looking up and realizing that I was going the wrong way. Yes, I had gone all the way out to the beach – at least a half hour ride – and was so engrossed in my book that I didn’t even realize it.
I decided to go back to the hostel to finish my book. I came out of the subway station with my finger marking my page. I was walking with the crowd down the wide Tunisian boulevard, sun shining off the pavement, sandals slapping on the sidewalk, but it was as though I was caught in a blizzard in deepest Russia. When the sun blew the hair off my neck I thought, for just a minute, that it was the first few pellets of snow. And then someone called out, “Boston! Boston!” It was so divorced from where I was and from where my head was – two completely different places – that I didn’t know he was talking to me until he grabbed my arm. “I forgot your name,” he said. “But I remember you told me you’re from Boston.” It was my friend from the museum gift shop, the journalist with the half written novel. “Come,” he said, “Let’s go to a cafe, let me buy you a coffee.”
“No,” I said. I remember that clearly, because I hardly ever said no those first few days in Tunis. “I want to go home and read.” I held up my book, which was still in my hand.
“Come back to my place and read,” he said. “I want to read too.” So I did. Not the wisest move, perhaps – I wasn’t the wisest person in those days – but I went back to his house and all was fine. We drank red wine on the floor, reading together in silence.
And so every time I think of the Brothers Karamatzov, I think of Tunis, I think of the heat and the sunshine, I think of a quiet room on a winding Arab alley.