The Eel – A literary obsession

Paris, France: ca 1925. Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), French writer. ©Henri Martinie / Roger-Viollet / The Image Works NOTE: The copyright notice must include "The Image Works" DO NOT SHORTEN THE NAME OF THE COMPANY
Paris, France: ca 1925. Blaise Cendrars (1887-1961), French writer. ©Henri Martinie / Roger-Viollet / The Image Works

He saved me. Cendrars, that is. Not for what he was – one-armed legionnaire, millionaire three times over, bankrupt, tracker of African and Brazilian tales, inventor of French modern poetry. Thief of Chagall’s paintings, drinking pal of Modigliani. Vagabond.

Ah, wait … vagabond. That word begins this story. Vagabond. That came like a message from afar. There was a way out of this shit. This impossible problem of being alive. If you were serious about breaking the shackles, you didn’t plan. You went into a trance. You surrendered to voodoo, or you were just rattling your chains.

Cendrars the legend. A friend of gypsies and gangsters. A whaler. A warrior. Leave that for literature. When you’re lying down, forced into the supine position, when illness has removed your very manhood – the ability to move, to fuck, the ability to fight and to fend for yourself – in other words what a man is meant to do … when the world leaves you as a rotting carcass, and then finishes the job off with Christian pity, you don’t need a legend, you need to go into a trance. You need fugue.

To be sure, Blaise Cendrars was a legend. He exuded the deep, unfathomable mystery of the Sargasso Sea and the Amazonian jungle. But that’s not why I owed him my life, and now as I look back at the tumult of my own existence, a flash. 1989. The middle of the night in Macau, in the year that China prepared to swallow up Hong Kong – a spit in the South China Sea – the way that Stanley Ho’s Dragon Mouth entrance at the Kingsway Casino, where I was headed that evening swallowed up its patrons and emptied their pockets of a lifetime’s earnings. Where suicide and murder and whores and windowless VIP rooms and toothless millionaires and one-armed bandits mixed with the chack-a-chack staccato of the baccarat tables that was the governing drumbeat of those islands in those days. And, where the easy purchase of a stiletto-heeled hooker gave an unworthy sod a brief taste of the vices of the gods.

I had just finished a bottle of Vino Verde and half a dozen plates and bowls of seafood in an open door café with a dirt floor. Lee Fook Lam and I were moving along the rue de la felicidad. The air was thick with an acrid vapour that enveloped us and the baked dirt alley we turned onto littered with mini-skirted whores, the lights of Friday night junks and floating restaurants illuminating the South China Sea, and Kowloon marking the dark silhouette of the mountain passes leading into Guangdong province. And, I felt so alive, voluntarily abducted as I was from that cocoon of certainty that had nearly asphyxiated me with its policy of love and morality. And I felt that my lungs had been pre-designed to feed off the fumes and the stench of whores trampled upon by other men before I too would leave my imprint. And I felt that I couldn’t get enough of this corruption, and lit up a cigar to stoke the cauldron within that was my soul, ready for every sin under god’s hemisphere, if only I first got a taste of life, this accelerated life, where every minute contained an eon, and where the China night sky regularly exacted human sacrifices to appease the untamed passions of those in the ether watching the theatre being played out beneath.

Cendrars dead twenty-seven years, now safely in Orion, the realisation of his secret right there for the taking – within his name – and that knowledge blinding me with gratitude. But to burn the old self to the ground and rise as a phoenix, one first had to flee. Fugue. The inseparable trinity. Flight, death and rebirth.  Simultaneous, not sequential. For a man to tear up his roots and to flee, you must burn your past to the ground, you must surrender to the trance, move into it, be swallowed up into the fly-trap as you were surely swallowed up by China, when you flew the precarious last descent into old Kai-Tek airport.

Escape! I was the one in a million. So what if one billion Chinese moved in the opposite direction. Danger was everywhere, and yet death’s vice-hold had never been so weak. The man who walked the old Macau lanes with me that evening – a man operating under his fourth name, and from whom lies sprinkled the air like petals from a dying flower, was gesturing at the Friday night lights of the boats and the Friday night visible stench of the putrefying cloud of sin, and me realizing in a flash the acute scintillating beauty of the industrial smoke, and the sounds of gunshots and rolling dice and the cacophonic chatter of street whores, and the scythe like sharpness of the Vino Verde slicing into my own corruptible psyche.

Lee Fook Lam smiled, not knowing my thought, but understanding perfectly the emotion that lay beneath.

“You are now part of all of this. This can all be yours.”

I laughed, and sucked deep on my cigar, and saw in the mind’s eye an image from the past, eight decades old, Cendrars in Beijing, stuffing old copies of Le Mercure into an old stoking oven to keep warm.

“It is already mine, Lee Fook Lam. It is already mine.”

Orion appeared out of nowhere, God too impatient to remain invisible in the firmament, but Cendrars’ silhouette clear against the skies. I swore that if the opportunity ever arose, I would pay him back. It must seem a strange thing to make a vow to a dead man you’ve never met, but I knew for a fact that the gods would call upon me to make good on my promise. So, to me, none of this was stranger than the carnivorous, eight-gated path of life itself. Everything crumbled before that reality and until this moment I had been unable to crack the logarithm of the puzzle.

This moment came from nowhere and all at once, like a sword out of the sky. I was glad of the neon night and secure in my privileged position as gweilo barbarian in the dying days of the Empire and the ever-present dangers of 1989 China. Within that hair-fracture second that split celestial heaven and infernal earth, I made my sacrifice and felt instantly the trance of fugue take hold, and I willingly pissed my soul into the gutters of the Macau netherworld. Let anything be visited upon me, I recall thinking, give me the teat of the succubus, that I may suckle upon her myself.

I was drinking of the same fountain as Faust, in full knowledge that the debt would be called in with interest at a time least expected. I knew equally that the flames of hell would engulf me via a woman, and teach me that hubris is not a consummation devoutly to be wished, because the final payment exacted teaches you that your mistake in playing beyond the constraints of human boundaries brings upon the wrath of those whose power we can barely fathom, and by then it is too late.