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Walk of Life

When I lived in downtown Oakland, California I used to walk from 12th and Broadway to Berkeley’s end of Telegraph Avenue.  I did this almost every day.  This was in the time before smartphones full of music existed.  Hell, it was before portable cassette players like the once ubiquitous Walkman existed.  The sights and sounds that accompanied me on my walk varied with the day and the time of day.  Early morning saw delivery trucks unloading beer, soda, bread and a multitude of other goods, police cars zooming by and buses full of passengers on their way to work an school.  Midday meant more pedestrians on the sidewalks.  Street dealers selling joints and talking shit.  Shoppers going in and out of stores and schoolkids running around in their schoolyard at recess.  Evening was more subdued.  A tired workforce heading home.  Teenagers looking for means to relieve their boredom and police cars zooming by on their way to either prevent or create trouble—one never knew.

Always present were the billboards on the sides of buildings and the posters pasted on poles and walls.  An endless onslaught of cajoling messages featuring smiling faces or threats of disaster personal and otherwise.  These messages were broken up by those in newspaper boxes shouting out news of war, crime and occasional hope.  The sheer volume of the messages could overwhelm the senses if one allowed them to.  My odyssey was never without reflection and often featured unforgettable events unfolding as I walked on by.  If I had had the mind to, I could have written a book just by writing down what occurred during those daily hikes through city streets.

This is the essence of novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina’s latest work.  Titled To Walk Alone in the Crowd, the book is a prosaic description of a wandering writer’s journeys through Madrid, Paris, and New York.  The flurry of advertising—written and audible—he passes by registers and repeats in his mind and on the page.  He observes individuals both curious and mundane and speculates as to the purpose of their journey and the meaning of their lives.  As he wanders, he remembers certain writers who wandered the same or similar streets.  Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin are the ones he considers most often and most deeply.

Written as a series of paragraphs and somehow connected thoughts, many of these snippets begin with an advertising slogan the author noted as he passed.  Or maybe a newspaper headline.  Sometimes, an entire paragraph is made completely from a series of those headlines.  In some museums one can rent a small mp3 player with a headset. The story told in the the recording on the device replaces a human tour guide.  The visitor hears descriptions of each exhibit as they move about.  This is similar to the narrative in this book. The reader is inside his mind, not necessarily understanding the connections made or unmade, but entertained nonetheless.  The despair of Baudelaire and his subsequent self-destruction are compared with Poe’s similar spiral.  The narrator and the reader search for connections between these two creators of story and myth.  The book begins with Thomas DeQuincey in London, searching for a girl named Ann and drowning in poverty and the opium pipe. There’s a ghostly presence of Walter Benjamin, fleeing Nazism while fearfully observing the dangers around him and yet to come, all the while composing sentences that say volumes about modernity, capitalism, humanity and its failings.  Theses on the philosophy of history.  Benjamin wandered in a time when reality surpassed the imagination.  Muñoz Molina wonders if we are in a similar time.  He provides no answers, just observations.  Very few humans are as prescient as Benjamin seemed to be.  There’s a place in the text where the author wonders about the shoes Benjamin wore on his endless walking with no place to go.  I was hit by a car while running across a highway when I was eleven years old.  My body went flying through the air.  My shoes stayed exactly where I had been wearing them when the car struck my small not even one-and-a-half meter body.  He then wonders about Lorca’s long journeys on his flat feet until the fascists killed him in 1936.

The final piece of the text involves a walk from South Ferry street in lower Manhattan to the Bronx and a visit to a house Edgar Allen Poe lived in for a while.  The visit becomes a biography of Poe’s last years and a reflection on the anonymity of writers known yet still invisible; writers whose works are known by many but whose lives of rumors become their essential persona in the minds of the masses.  It is a long journey up those Manhattan streets into the Bronx; one passes through a multitude of multitudes and a cornucopia of cultures.  The history of many worlds exist in the memory o fits streets and the soul of its sidewalks.  The ones Muñoz Molina reveals in his wonderfully paced and dreamily written book are other layers in the human adventure.