He wrote me that only one film had been capable of portraying impossible memory—insane memory: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. In the spiral of the titles he saw time covering a field ever wider as it moved away, a cyclone whose present moment contains motionless the eye.
In San Francisco he had made his pilgrimage to all the film's locations: the florist Podesta Baldocchi, where James Stewart spies on Kim Novak—he the hunter, she the prey. Or was it the other way around? The tiles hadn't changed.
He had driven up and down the hills of San Francisco where Jimmy Stewart, Scotty, follows Kim Novak, Madeline. It seems to be a question of trailing, of enigma, of murder, but in truth it's a question of power and freedom, of melancholy and dazzlement, so carefully coded within the spiral that you could miss it, and not discover immediately that this vertigo of space in reality stands for the vertigo of time.
He had followed all the trails. Even to the cemetery at Mission Dolores where Madeline came to pray at the grave of a woman long since dead, whom she should not have known. He followed Madeline—as Scotty had done—to the Museum at the Legion of Honor, before the portrait of a dead woman she should not have known. And on the portrait, as in Madeline's hair, the spiral of time.
The small Victorian hotel where Madeline disappeared had disappeared itself; concrete had replaced it, at the corner of Eddy and Gough. On the other hand the sequoia cut was still in Muir Woods. On it Madeline traced the short distance between two of those concentric lines that measured the age of the tree and said, “Here I was born... and here I died.”
He remembered another film in which this passage was quoted. The sequoia was the one in the Jardin des plantes in Paris, and the hand pointed to a place outside the tree, outside of time.
The painted horse at San Juan Bautista, his eye that looked like Madeline's: Hitchcock had invented nothing, it was all there. He had run under the arches of the promenade in the mission as Madeline had run towards her death. Or was it hers?
From this fake tower—the only thing that Hitchcock had added—he imagined Scotty as time's fool of love, finding it impossible to live with memory without falsifying it. Inventing a double for Madeline in another dimension of time, a zone that would belong only to him and from which he could decipher the indecipherable story that had begun at Golden Gate when he had pulled Madeline out of San Francisco Bay, when he had saved her from death before casting her back to death. Or was it the other way around?
In San Francisco I made the pilgrimage of a film I had seen nineteen times. In Iceland I laid the first stone of an imaginary film. That summer I had met three children on a road and a volcano had come out of the sea. The American astronauts came to train before flying off to the moon, in this corner of Earth that resembles it. I saw it immediately as a setting for science fiction: the landscape of another planet. Or rather no, let it be the landscape of our own planet for someone who comes from elsewhere, from very far away. I imagine him moving slowly, heavily, about the volcanic soil that sticks to the soles. All of a sudden he stumbles, and the next step it's a year later. He's walking on a small path near the Dutch border along a sea bird sanctuary.
That's for a start. Now why this cut in time, this connection of memories? That's just it, he can't understand. He hasn't come from another planet he comes from our future, four thousand and one: the time when the human brain has reached the era of full employment. Everything works to perfection, all that we allow to slumber, including memory. Logical consequence: total recall is memory anesthetized. After so many stories of men who had lost their memory, here is the story of one who has lost forgetting, and who—through some peculiarity of his nature—instead of drawing pride from the fact and scorning mankind of the past and its shadows, turned to it first with curiosity and then with compassion. In the world he comes from, to call forth a vision, to be moved by a portrait, to tremble at the sound of music, can only be signs of a long and painful pre-history. He wants to understand. He feels these infirmities of time like an injustice, and he reacts to that injustice like Ché Guevara, like the youth of the sixties, with indignation. He is a Third Worlder of time. The idea that unhappiness had existed in his planet's past is as unbearable to him as to them the existence of poverty in their present.
Naturally he'll fail. The unhappiness he discovers is as inaccessible to him as the poverty of a poor country is unimaginable to the children of a rich one. He has chosen to give up his privileges, but he can do nothing about the privilege that has allowed him to choose. His only recourse is precisely that which threw him into this absurd quest: a song cycle by Mussorgsky. They are still sung in the fortieth century. Their meaning has been lost. But it was then that for the first time he perceived the presence of that thing he didn't understand which had something to do with unhappiness and memory, and towards which slowly, heavily, he began to walk.
Of course I'll never make that film. Nonetheless I'm collecting the sets, inventing the twists, putting in my favorite creatures. I've even given it a title, indeed the title of those Mussorgsky songs: Sunless.
On May 15, 1945, at seven o'clock in the morning, the three hundred and eighty second US infantry regiment attacked a hill in Okinawa they had renamed 'Dick Hill.' I suppose the Americans themselves believed that they were conquering Japanese soil, and that they knew nothing about the Ryukyu civilization. Neither did I, apart from the fact that the faces of the market ladies at Itoman spoke to me more of Gauguin than of Utamaro. For centuries of dreamy vassalage time had not moved in the archipelago. Then came the break. Is it a property of islands to make their women into the guardians of their memory?
I learned that—as in the Bijagós—it is through the women that magic knowledge is transmitted. Each community has its priestess—the noro—who presides over all ceremonies with the exception of funerals.
The Japanese defended their position inch by inch. At the end of the day the two half platoons formed from the remnants of L Company had got only halfway up the hill, a hill like the one where I followed a group of villagers on their way to the purification ceremony.
The noro communicates with the gods of the sea, of rain, of the earth, of fire. Everyone bows down before the sister deity who is the reflection, in the absolute, of a privileged relationship between brother and sister. Even after her death, the sister retains her spiritual predominance.
At dawn the Americans withdrew. Fighting went on for over a month before the island surrendered, and toppled into the modern world. Twenty-seven years of American occupation, the re-establishment of a controversial Japanese sovereignty: two miles from the bowling alleys and the gas stations the noro continues her dialogue with the gods. When she is gone the dialogue will end. Brothers will no longer know that their dead sister is watching over them. When filming this ceremony I knew I was present at the end of something. Magical cultures that disappear leave traces to those who succeed them. This one will leave none; the break in history has been too violent.
I touched that break at the summit of the hill, as I had touched it at the edge of the ditch where two hundred girls had used grenades to commit suicide in 1945 rather than fall alive into the hands of the Americans. People have their pictures taken in front of the ditch. Across from it souvenir lighters are sold shaped like grenades.
On Hayao's machine war resembles letters being burned, shredded in a frame of fire. The code name for Pearl Harbor was Tora, Tora, Tora, the name of the cat the couple in Gotokuji was praying for. So all of this will have begun with the name of a cat pronounced three times.
Off Okinawa kamikaze dived on the American fleet; they would become a legend. They were likelier material for it obviously than the special units who exposed their prisoners to the bitter frost of Manchuria and then to hot water so as to see how fast flesh separates from the bone.
One would have to read their last letters to learn that the kamikaze weren't all volunteers, nor were they all swashbuckling samurai. Before drinking his last cup of saké Ryoji Uebara had written: “I have always thought that Japan must live free in order to live eternally. It may seem idiotic to say that today, under a totalitarian regime. We kamikaze pilots are machines, we have nothing to say, except to beg our compatriots to make Japan the great country of our dreams. In the plane I am a machine, a bit of magnetized metal that will plaster itself against an aircraft carrier. But once on the ground I am a human being with feelings and passions. Please excuse these disorganized thoughts. I'm leaving you a rather melancholy picture, but in the depths of my heart I am happy. I have spoken frankly, forgive me.”
Every time he came from Africa he stopped at the island of Sal, which is in fact a salt rock in the middle of the Atlantic. At the end of the island, beyond the village of Santa Maria and its cemetery with the painted tombs, it suffices to walk straight ahead to meet the desert.
He wrote me: I've understood the visions. Suddenly you're in the desert the way you are in the night; whatever is not desert no longer exists. You don't want to believe the images that crop up.
Did I write you that there are emus in the Ile de France? This name—Island of France—sounds strangely on the island of Sal. My memory superimposes two towers: the one at the ruined castle of Montpilloy that served as an encampment for Joan of Arc, and the lighthouse tower at the southern tip of Sal, probably one of the last lighthouses to use oil.
A lighthouse in the Sahel looks like a collage until you see the ocean at the edge of the sand and salt. Crews of transcontinental planes are rotated on Sal. Their club brings to this frontier of nothingness a small touch of the seaside resort which makes the rest still more unreal. They feed the stray dogs that live on the beach.
I found my dogs pretty nervous tonight; they were playing with the sea as I had never seen them before. Listening to Radio Hong Kong later on I understood: today was the first day of the lunar new year, and for the first time in sixty years the sign of the dog met the sign of water.