What is it that is so beguiling about silence? Retreating for nine days has only made me value it more. It wasn’t really silent. My listening was, if anything, more acute than usual. Feeble though they are, my little mole-ears became fine-tuned to the sound of birds cooing, cawing crowing, chortling; wallaby tails thumping; gravel under paws; ticking; traffic hums, roars and screeches; corduroy rubbing against pelt; bubbling, lid-clattering boiling water; dogs barking; toast-crunching; my neighbour filling a watering can, and wind straining the hinges of the window. The kind of silence the retreat provided was a wordlessness. I neither spoke nor got spoken to, I listened to no wireless programmes. I admit that once or twice I lifted my pen, allowing a word or two to escape into my journal. On the other hand, I eschewed all reading – all except one book, that is. I allowed myself to leaf through and absorb Warnscale,* one landmark at a time. It is a book that uses words in a painterly way, sparingly interwoven with drawings and maps, peepholes and photographic vignettes – each word inviting layers of thought rather than pace of progress. When my retreat came to an end and with it the book, I felt bereft on both counts. But a retreat cannot exist without its counterpart, a re-engagement with life, and that was also what the book was working towards.
When I emerged I felt no inclination to read, could not imagine what might be as nourishing. But then I felt a weight as I swung open the back door. My neighbour had hung a bag on the handle. In it was a book she had borrowed from the library: Shaun Tan’s Sketches from a Nameless Land.* Perfect.
The Nameless Land is a country Tan evolved for his book The Arrival* about a decade ago. The two words in the title are the only ones used. And it is crucial to the impact of the story that this should be so. The story is very simple. A refugee lands in a strange place and has to makes sense of it. In a series of exquisite drawings, some grounded in familiar photographs of forced migration, some fantastical – with strange codes, animals, foods, and transport systems of the new world. The wordlessness and strangeness forces a reader into the same bewilderment as the refugee.
It is a bewilderment that clutches at me somewhere between my chest and my throat, and hurls me back to a time when I was plucked from a life in which I was quite an articulate wee mole, and deposited into one that was completely incomprehensible. At the school in this new place I understood none of the rules, had no idea about codes of conduct. I knew none of my fellow pupils nor their language or the language in which were being taught. A blank sheet placed in front of me remained blank. I did not understand the instructions, nor had I the means to express any thoughts. The playground customs were baffling, the games a mystery. The only thing clear to me was my position at the bottom of the pecking order. It was terrifying. Too terrifying to even to pique my curiosity in the way the refugee in The Arrival takes in his new world.
But The Arrival calms me, too. Deeply calms me. I feel understood by it. Because it has no words there is an egalitarianism about the experience. Its depth was enhanced even further a few years ago. Lying on a beanbag in a wharf shed – the kind that refugees and emigrants are corralled into like cattle, – I watched images of the drawings projected onto screen while Ben Walsh & the Orkestra of the Underground played an especially composed accompaniment.*
Why is it that I spend my life at a desk wrestling with words when it is images and music and movement through the landscape that move me?
Is this what is so alluring about the silence – that it quietens my word-heavy world and allows my other senses to surface?
*Louise Ann Wilson. See my post Paw Prints, 2 October 2015
*Shaun Tan, The Arrival (2006), Sketches from a Nameless Land (2010)
*The Arrival – Shaun Tan, Ben Walsh & the Orkestra of the Underground http://youtu.be/ZSV3T3X_IHY