Friday, March 6, 2009

Aimless Reading: The B's, Part 56 (William S. Burroughs)

Naked Lunch
Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Burroughs, William S.
Naked Lunch

This battered first edition paperback, now held together as a single unit by a couple of pieces of scotch tape, was purchased for 8000 sucres at Confederate Books in Quito, Ecuador. At the time, that was about $3.50, as the exchange rate was about 2500 sucres to the dollar. Ecuador now uses the dollar for its currency, and the sucre is no more.

A quick google search tells me that Confederate Books, which actually uses a confederate flag as its logo, still exists. Part of me feels as though the store opened while I was in Ecuador. When I first arrived, there seemed to be only one bookstore that sold books in English, all of which came from great Britain, all of which were new, and all of which were exceedingly expensive. Then at some point I discovered Confederate Books, which sold used books in several languages. My recollection gets a little hazy here. Either it was new or it took me a while to find it. I guess what I remember is the fact that I found it later in the year that I was there and wished that I had known about it all along.

The store, as I recall, was within a block of Calle Amazonas, which was the main tourist strip in Quito. There were all kinds of outdoor cafes where the maître d's all stood outside trying to lure you in for a bite to eat.

Amazonas was also where they held the new year's eve celebrations, which were probably the most memorable of my life. The new year is brought in by exorcising the demons of the old year. Here is a description I just plucked off the web that accounts the whole tradition accurately:

In Ecuador, Año Viejo is a fiery tradition that symbolically burns up the failures, regrets and anger of the old year in order to usher in the hopes and resolutions of the new one. On the last day of the year, people construct effigies that might represent an irritating person, a disliked political figure, or even disappointment about past mistakes or unachieved goals. A handwritten note is pinned to the dummy explaining why it must be burned and what changes and improvements are desired for the coming year. Then, to a chorus of cheers and clapping, the effigy is thrown into the street and burned to ashes. Although the origins of this custom are murky, many believe it dates back to a particularly virulent yellow fever epidemic that required the mass burning of corpses.


For the big celebration, float-sized effigies line Calle Amazonas from one end to the other, diorama-like paper scenes representing political figures, social ills, etc. At midnight, they torch them all simultaneously. The entire avenue is lit up with 20 foot high fires on both sides of the street. There are no fire trucks, no ambulances, no safety cordons, and just enough police to keep a riot from breaking out.

I found it incredibly exhilarating to take part in a celebration whose only boundaries were dictated by the tradition itself and not by insurance rules or litigation fears. One of the things I became highly aware of living in Ecuador was the extent to which insurance company rules determine the boundaries of everything in the "developed" world. The element of danger, which breathes so much life into celebrations elsewhere, has been completely snuffed out of public celebrations in American life.

There were so many moments in my year in Ecuador where I found myself someplace -- on the side of a volcano, or on the roof of a grand old church, or in the midst of a new year's celebration -- where I expected there to be restraints that were not there, and how freeing that felt.

I had the same feeling traveling in Guatemala a few years ago. On the first or second day there, we climbed to the top of a volcano. When we got to the top, we discovered that the crust on the top had broken open and that small amounts of lava were belching forth. We were less than 200 feet from the lava -- so close that we could see it and feel the heat. Were that volcano in America, we would never have been allowed near the top. Fear of lawsuits and so forth would have shut the park down the minute something happened that might endanger the safety of the tourists.

What was I talking about again? Oh yeah, Naked Lunch. I've tried reading it a few times. I can't say I am a fan. I just don't derive much pleasure from reading about junkies dying from botched asphyxial orgasms and so forth. 

Here a link to an excerpt:

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