Let me tell you about the flamenco dancer. The flamenco dancer sits in the cafe against the white-washed walls, slouched in his wooden chair. While the women dance, a guitar player, his feet oddly stolid and flat-foot on the small platform, leans his ear against the back of his instrument as if he is tuning it. Another gazes impassively across the fretted fingerboard of his guitar as though he were blind. The family—it is impossible to know relationships here, to distinguish husbands from brothers, sisters from wives a mysterious consanguinity undefined as the complicated connections in circus; only the standing, hand-clapping man in the suit, shouting encouragement like commands, seems in authority here, or the woman, her broad, exposed back and shoulders spilling her gown like the slipped, toneless flesh of powerful card players. Even the slouching brother? husband? nephew? son? is attentive but demure, the women’s hair pulled so tightly into their comb tiaras you can see the deep, straight furrows of their scalps. Their arrhythmic clapping is not so much on cue as beside it, beneath it, random as traffic, signaled by some private, internal urging like spontaneous pronouncement at a prayer meeting. Yes. Like testimony, like witness. Except for this – the finger snapping, the hand claps never synchronous as applause, the occasional gutturals of the men and the abrupt chatter of the women like a musical gossip—they do not seem absorbed, or even very interested, their attention deflected, thrown as the voice of a ventriloquist, loss of affect like a dominant mood. Inside the passionate music and performance they are rigid, distracted as jugglers. The men and women, patient in their half circle of chairs as timid Johns, polite whores in a brothel, seem even less aware of each other than they are of the performers, kinship and relationship in abeyance, whatever of love that connects them dissolved, intimacy stoicized, the curious family in the cavelike room suddenly widowed, suddenly widowered, orphaned, returned to some griefless condition of independence.
And now the bailora completes her turn. Like some human beast, she seems to rise from the broad, tiered flounces of her costume as from a package of waves at a shoreline, the great, fabric petals of her long train swirled, heaped as seawater at her feet, her immaculate ass, hips, thighs, and tits a lesson in the meaty rounds of some mythic geometry, her upper arms spreading from her shoulders like wings, angled to her forearms, her forearms angled to her wrists, her wrists and hands and fingers and long Latin nails a squared circle of odd, successive dependencies, the stiff, queer displacement of the askew fingers like some hoodoo signal to charm the bright arrogance of the dance.
The man in the suit—when did the cigarette, burned out now, only a dead ash longer than the intact paper that supports it, go into his lips?—beats an asyndeton, paratactic, ungrammatical applause. It is that same deliberate offbeat accompaniment that earlier had almost but not quite violated the heel clicks and toe taps of the bailora. No matter how studiously the audience in the cafe tries to keep up with it, they cannot fall in with this artful dodger.
Now the flamenco dancer rises from his chair. Slim and grave as a bullfighter he moves in his gypsy silks and gabardines, his trapezist’s pasodoble entrances and heroics. Alone, it is as if he marches in a procession, deadpan as a saint, solemn as Jesus. He looks like a condemned man leading an invisible party of executioners and priests to his gallows, the host at his own murder feast. There is nothing epicene or hermaphroditic in his bearing, yet he could almost be the embodiment of some third sex, or no, some sexual specialist, a fucker of virgins, say, of nymphets and schoolgirls and all the newly menstrual. In his tight, strange clothing, the trousers that rise above the waist and close about his spine, the small of his back, the narrow jacket and vest that just meet them, leaving off exactly where the trousers begin, not a fraction of an inch of excess material, sausaged into his clothes as the girls’ hair had been into their comb tiaras, the bulge of his genitals customized, everything, all, all bespoke, fitting his form, seamless as apple peel, the crack in his ass, the scar on his hip, he seems dressed, buttocks to shoulders, in a sort of tights, some magic show-biz gypsy latex.
And now he is in position on the platform, conducted there by the asyncopatic hand claps of the man in the suit.
At first he appears the perfect flamenco analogue of a bull-fighter. If the women, with their elaborate hand and arm movements, had seemed to flourish banderillas and brandish lances, the flamenco dancer with his minimal upper-body gestures and piledriver footwork, seems to wield capes, do long, stationary passes, slow-motion veronicas, outrageous down-on-one-knee rodillas. Indeed, with his furious heel-toe, heel-toe momentum, he seems at times to be the actual bull itself, pawing the ring of platform in flamenco rage. Bull-fighter and bull, as the dancing woman had seemed an extension of the actual sea.
This is what the flamenco dancer looks like.
He has the face of a cruel, handsome Indian and looks insolent as a man in a tango. There are layers of indifference on his face like skin, like feature itself, some fierce inappetency and a listlessness so profound that that itself might almost be his ruling passion, some smoky nonchalance of the out-of-love. Not cold, not even cool, for these words at least suggest an idea of temperature, and the flamenco dancer seems to have been born adiabatic, aseptic. What, on someone else’s face, might look like sneer, snarl, contempt, may, on his, signify no more than the neutral scorn and toughness on the face of a bulldog.
Now the flamenco dancer is possessed by his duende, his musical dybbuk. His is jondo, profound—death, anguish, tragedy. The larger issues. (Music is hard. In prose, music is very hard to do, unconvincing as lyrics, a cappella on a page. Avoid trying to render music. Avoid the sensations of orgasm. Steer clear of madmen as protagonists, and likewise eschew a writer as a hero of the fiction. And it’s swimming at your own risk in the stream of consciousness. “Knowing believes before believing remembers,” says Faulkner in a Joe Christmas section in Light in August. What the hell does that mean?) And the guitarist is singing his serious soleares, calling his cante like a ragman, whining his tune like a cantor. Davvening despair.
I am no longer what I was [he sings,
calls, whines, davvens]
now will I be aga-ain
I am a tree of sadness
in the shadow of a waa-aal…
A woman was the cause
of my first downfall;
there is no perdition in the world
that is not caused by women . . .
In the neighborhood of Triana
there is neither pen nor ink
with which to write my mother,
whom I haven’t seen for . . . ye-ars.
“¡0le!”s pour in from the satellite performers half an orbit behind the flamenco dancer. “¡0le!”s like an agreement, a deal, an oral handshake, a struck bargain. The done/done arrangements of serious negotiation.
And now it happens. Just now. The flamenco dancer is doing a particularly difficult riff. This murderous tango of a man whose body is one taut line of mood, who, touched at one end of that body should, by the laws of physics if not the conventions of his trade, like the strings on the musician’s guitar, vibrate at the other, but whose art it is to defy physics, to drive his feet like pistons without ruffling a ruffle of his shirt, who does that, whose ruling second skin of costume, revealing still that inch and a half of scar, the material caught in it, in the scar, the magic show-biz gypsy latex, stuck there like the long, dark vertical of a behind snagged in the pants of a fat man rising from a chair on a hot day, does not, does not, display a single qualm of muscle, not one quiver, tremor, shiver, flutter, not one shake, not even his trousers which, snug as they are from mid-thigh to the small of the back, are cut like normal men’s beneath that and actually hang like a gaucho’s in a sort of a flare below the knee, not even his damn trousers jump! It is as if he is the ventriloquist (you must come back; you must return and use everything; you must use up your material; you must move the furniture around); it is as if he is the ventriloquist, only what he throws is not his voice but his feet, his shoe leather; it is as if he is the ventriloquist, has exactly on the physical plane the ventriloquist’s schizophrenic detachment, straight man and comic all together all at once, only it ain’t only his lips that don’t move, it’s everything! His hands are stilled, his calves are quiet, his knees, the ruffles on his shirt, all his torso, and it’s as if he really is detached, actually separated from the interests of his body, only his feet going on about their business like steps drawn on a dance chart.
Except, as I say, now it happens. The dark fandango of a fellow is grinning. He is grinning; not smiling, grinning; not pleased as punch; probably not even happy; but grinning, grinning. And not just grinning, not simple human cheer or the Cheshire risibles of pleased teeth, but the original, paradigmatic, caught-out, pants down, caught-in-the-act, shit-eating smirk of grin itself!
Because that is how the flamenco dancer must be rendered, I think. A man who never grins, whose profession it is to keep a straight face, who earns his bread by artful scorn, whose squared back, poseur, gypsy bearing is by ordinary the stately four-four time of toreros and graduating seniors, must be shown with his face naked, his bared teeth and grinning lips like private parts. There must be crossover, what joke writers call the “switch.” There must, that is, be a grafting of one condition upon another, the episodic or eventful equivalencies of pun and slogan, the schizophrenic tensions and torsions of all discrepant allegiance.
It’s like this. A flamenco dancer, a tinker, a tailor, a candle-stick maker, any human being, cannot be shown in fiction without quirk, wrinkle, slippage—the fall, I mean, from the photographic, all, I mean, the strictly realistic and correct dictionary parameters and ideals of grace. Which explains whiskey priests, golden-heart whores, hung-over surgeons, cowardly soldiers, misers who tithe, mercenaries who develop some long-haul loyalty they cannot understand or even very definitively or coherently explain.
from Performance and Reality
published in Pieces of Soap
TIN HOUSE BOOKS, 2016