East End

Bel has rented the only David Cronenberg film I haven't seen. It's about "the breakdown of communication between a loner and an inhospitable world." In the first scene, young Spider, the protagonist, is the last to get off a train, and we can see immediately that he's different from the other passengers. Something seems to have clouded his mind, he stumbles as he steps down with his small, odd suitcase. He's attractive, but it's clear he's mentally disturbed, a solitary man completely disconnected from an indifferent world. Bel asks me if I've noticed that despite the fact it's summertime Spider is wearing four shirts. Actually, no, I hadn't. I apologize and explain that I haven't had time to focus on the movie yet. Besides, I don't pay attention to those kinds of details. But it's true. He's wearing four shirts in high summer. And what about his suitcase? It's tiny and old and when Spider opens it we see it contains useless objects and a small notebook where he makes illegible notes in miniscule print.

Bel asks me about Spider's writing, and then she asks if I've noticed there's no one on the gloomy streets of the East End neighborhood that Spider's wandering around. In fact, Bel hasn't stopped asking me questions since the movie started.

"Has someone asked you to confirm that I can still communicate with the world at large?" I ask her.

Bel doesn't answer. Spider appears to be listening to, even eavesdropping on our conversation, even my thoughts. Am I Spider? I watch as he looks at the camera, shuts his suitcase, and walks through the cold, deserted streets. He acts as though he's entered our living room. He moves as though one of London's dicier neighborhoods is right outside. Spider is en route from a mental institution to a theoretically gentler place, a halfway house or psychiatric institute, coincidentally located in the same London neighborhood where he spent his childhood, and this will spur him to a fatal reconstruction of those early years. While Spider revisits years gone by, the scenes and memories that he reconstructs with supposed (only supposed) bases in fact, I wonder whether one's tangled mental life ever escapes the neighborhood of childhood.

"The insane are so strange," says Bel. "But interesting, don't you think?"

It strikes me again that she's trying to see how I react to Spider, and thereby measure my own degree of dementia. The film is a mental journey, a deranged man's travels through the East End. We see life as Spider experiences it, through the filter of the miserable mental framework of this young man with the strange suitcase and little notebook of microscopic handwriting.

"Have you seen what he's writing in the notebook?" Bel asks next.

If I were home alone watching Spider, I would put on Bob Dylan, maybe "Most Likely You Go Your Way," a song that always stimulates me.

"I've only seen the notebook," I answer.

Bel freezes the frame to try to make out what Spider is writing in said notebook. They're runes, sticks or toothpicks, bent, or so unfinished that they don't even look like scratches, and naturally they don't belong to any alphabet or hieroglyphics. They're scary. No matter how you look at them, these scratchings compose a perfect portrait of the absurdity of madness which terrifies me. Perhaps there's something of Spider in all of us. Sometimes I identify with Spider, who in turn reminds me of Il deserto rosso, the 1964 Antonioni film in which Monica Vitti plays a wanderer, a feminine version of Spider avant la lettre, a woman lost in a hermetic industrial landscape, unable to connect with her surroundings.

From what I've seen, in Spider the frame of mind makes subtle reference—especially through Peter Suschitzky's cinematography—to the style of Il deserto rosso. And just as in that film, it seems that every futile attempt to connect with the outside world indicates the inability to define a personal identity. Am I Spider? In the most memorable scene of the movie Spider weaves a tangle of strings in his room, a mental spiderweb that illustrates the terrifying workings of his mind. Regardless, these difficult attempts to recreate his identity prove useless. He walks the inhospitable streets of the East End, the cold, old paths of his lost childhood: he's lost any connection to the world and has no idea who he is.

Am I Spider? The anguish I feel casts me adrift in the dangerous territory of childhood memories, a place where I could lose myself forever. But at the last moment I escape, saved by Monica Vitti's line in Il deserto rosso, a line almost as dangerous as my own East End.

"My hair hurts."

I could say the same right now. Spider will. Spider, who wanders lost through life, doesn't know he could do what I have, and reconstruct his identity using other people's memories, he could become a unique voice, representative of a character with multiple personalities and nomadic tendencies. Am I Spider? I know only that stinking summer has arrived and, as she always does this time of year, Bel is acting like she thinks everything I do—what I say and what I eat and what I think and what I watch and what I drink, everything—I do to lose myself in the periphery of that dangerous place.

Translation of "East End." Copyright Enrique Vila-Matas. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2009 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.