Let There Be Light
MacKenzie Warren reviews Jessica Sequeira’s A Luminous History of the Palm
If you find yourself intrigued by the title of Jessica Sequeira’s A Luminous History of the Palm, consider this: the most ambiguous word in the title is “of”. How to get at its meaning? Is it synonymous with “about”, so that the palm is the subject of Sequeira’s luminous history? Or is it attributive — as in “the paintings of Vincent van Gogh” — so that the history, as a created document, has somehow been made possible by the palm? In truth, it’s probably a bit of both: each one of Sequeira’s two-dozen prose fragments does indeed feature the appearance of a palm tree, and Sequeira’s particular assemblage of fragments without the creative impetus that the palm tree provides.
Sequeira defines her terms on page one: a “luminous history”, she writes, is an account of historical personages that “seeks to make connections beyond the surface level of great events and statistical data. To do so it takes a symbol, any symbol, as a seed to create anecdotes.” A little later, she adds: “What does it mean to be luminous? To glow from within, one might say. … Historical glow: The repetition of a symbol, personally chosen. A microcosm iterated with contextual variations to illuminate larger material.” And later still, more self-revealingly: “Luminous history prefers to take as its premise a playful first move, an arbitrary selection that one can then follow through. Not one that is randomly generated (as in an Oulipo experiment) but one that is felt to be important by the historian herself.”
These passages make Sequeira’s Luminous History much more complex than it initially appears. Coming in at under sixty pages, it’s a slim book made up of many slim pieces of prose. Twenty-four flash fictions give voice to twenty-four people from various points in human history, identifying each person only by a job title or social function and a location: ‘Healer, Yemen’, ‘Duchess, France’, and so on. Some of these people are connected to famous historical actors: the narrator of ‘Prince, between Estonia and Russia’ seems to be the thirteenth century ruler Alexander Nevsky, while the narrator of ‘Mosaic Maker, Italy’ is working on the Chigi Chapel under the instructions of Raphael. Others, like ‘Plastic Surgeon, Australia’ and ‘Partygoer, Spain’, have no lasting effect on public affairs, or at least no obvious one. The fictions are arranged roughly in chronological order, beginning with testimonies from around the time of the Icelandic sagas and the early Abbasid Caliphate, and ending close to the present day, in a world bursting with guns, bicycles, X-rays, surfboards, Santa Claus mannequins, and a displaced guru. Each short entry features a palm tree in some capacity, although the tree’s capacity varies from making a background appearance in one sentence of someone’s monologue to being embraced as the central subject of someone else’s. In this respect, A Luminous History sets in motion Sequeira’s explicit theoretical operations. The palm is a playful symbol, chosen arbitrarily, whose permutations string together a series of stories that would otherwise have little or no relation to one another. As a result, it gives each individual story a dash of a collective immanence; it allows us, as readers, to imagine relationships between historical situations even though the people involved in them can’t do the same. It strikes resonances and encourages speculation. These are, I guess, the effects of the symbol’s luminosity.
But then there’s Sequeira herself, or a narrator who presents as Jessica Sequeira. The twenty-four fictions in A Luminous History are broken into eight groups of three, and each group is preceded by an italicised passage in which the author-narrator offers notes on her aims and ambitions, her methods and motives. A final italicised passage ends the book with the author-narrator “set[ting] aside the lantern of my explanations, to dwell in the stories which give off a soft glow of their own”. These aspects of A Luminous History give pre-eminence to the admissions they contain, as quoted above. When the author-narrator defines “[h]istorical glow” as the effect of “the repetition of a symbol, personally chosen”, doesn’t she make the resulting work primarily personal, and only secondarily historical? If a symbol is selected because it is “felt to be important by the historian herself”, doesn’t a “luminous history” then cast more light on the historian than on either the meaning of the symbol or any historical events? To the extent that the symbol represents “[a] microcosm iterated with contextual variations to illuminate larger material”, isn’t the subject of that “larger material” actually Jessica Sequeira? What becomes visible when we take a step back from the pieces of the work to take in a view of the whole? Although the palm tree is a symbolic premise for the connection of these flash fictions, might it be that the totality of those connections reveals the face of the author-narrator, much as the fragmentary tiles of the mosaic maker assemble a vast depiction of the creation of the world?
I am drawn to this mosaic maker. He has a beautiful way of speaking, both presumptuous and humble. As he pieces together the mosaic according to Raphael’s design, he speaks on behalf of his colleagues, as “we”, but only to affirm their collective anonymity in the annals of history: “We know that we will be remembered as followers and disciples, ‘the school of’. Yet we are not bothered. … For now we spread stucco, place tiles and fill the gaps between them, before we carefully clean away the excess.” And the light that glints in the mosaic maker’s pages seems to be refracted throughout A Luminous History as a whole. By way of his regard for his work, the book reveals a self-conception shared by many other characters. The narrator of ‘Train Driver, South Africa’ is a lowly officer of the Cape Government Railways, a company of the Cape Colony, but views his functional employment as a contribution to a “greater glory”. The narrator of ‘Surfer, California’ is an ageing woman who feels her youth “long gone”, but still values the hard labour of waxing her board because it finally allows her to take to the waves and experience the bliss she calls “my truth”. The narrator of ‘Opera Singer, Germany’, having been cast in the first ever performance of Mozart’s Idomeneo, comes to a new consciousness of how to inhabit her role, though only after she accepts that she will be overshadowed on stage. Even the desultory narrator of ‘Plastic Surgeon, Australia’ finds, as he works with his “shears and loppers”, daily moments of a beauty that appear to him as “dazzling… celestial”.
Throughout A Luminous History, then, characters take part in endeavours far larger than they can conceive of, while being distinctly aware that their individual work will go little noticed by others, either diminished or taken for granted. And no matter whether these endeavours are artistic, political, or cultural — or, for that matter, spiritual or metaphysical — most of the characters take exquisite care in performing their work, attending to the perfection of its details, because they feel that the greater achievement of the project is able to redeem their lack of personal recognition. Does the continuity of this behaviour across multiple fictions allow readers to glimpse the author-narrator beneath the surface of any one piece? Does the mosaic of the book reveal an author-narrator who shares the self-conception of these characters as they reflect on how they spend their days?
Maybe. Sequeira has made a career as a literary translator, mostly attending to the works of Latin American authors, and this fact is not merely background material to A Luminous History of the Palm. In an italicised passage entitled ‘Translator’, Sequeira writes: “The translator works to create the luminous. She works to draw out the radiance of the material as she moves between periods of time, between languages. She soothes and coaxes as a healer or priestess.” One might say that the translator performs her labour with almost palpable materials — consider the felt qualities, rather than the lexical or acoustic qualities, of a phrase like “soothes and coaxes” — but also that her labour is destined to go almost unrecognised, certainly subordinate to the authors whose texts she translates. Does the greatness of these originary texts then impart something meaningful to her labour, something innately rewarding, perhaps transcendent? Something to compensate her for the comparative anonymity she faces? Regardless of whether there can be a firm answer to such questions — either in reality or in Sequeira’s Luminous History — mightn’t the questions alone speak to the private anxieties of the translator?
Then again, perhaps this is a bridge too far. I don’t want to be reductive; I don’t want to suggest that the art of translation is the true subject of A Luminous History of the Palm, approached by circumlocution through the voices of Sequeira’s historical narrators. I also don’t want to leave readers with the impression that the fictions in A Luminous History should be read, or scrutinised, for suppressed meanings beyond themselves. It’s in the nature of a book like this that each reader will have his or her selection of favourite stories, and most of them are satisfying on their own terms. Sometimes that’s because of the voice of the narrator, as in the case of the mosaic maker. Sometimes it’s because of what’s at stake in a situation, as in ‘Sea Captain, Iceland’, whose narrator prepares to give his life to the ocean for the safety of his homeland. Sometimes it’s because of Sequeira’s skills with suggestion and implication, as in ‘Rice Farmer, Thailand’ — a story not even fifteen lines in length, yet dense enough to hint at dramas and passions on a grand scale in a way that is equal parts delightful and dangerous. In any event, as standalone texts, Sequeira’s stories are often intriguing enough to satisfy the few minutes it takes to read one. They’re also artfully evasive of historical certainties, as if clarity of circumstance is a cheap convenience to be denied, and they’re conspicuously stylised, too; they tend to affect an eloquence that rarely rings true to the conditions of the narrators, using anachronism as a currency with which to purchase uncanniness. There’s something small to appreciate in each entry, and there’s no value in downplaying these pleasures for readers who are drawn to them.
For me, though, there’s more to A Luminous History of the Palm when one reads it on the terms of “luminosity”, as Sequeira defines it, and when one also considers that it may have a source of luminosity other than Sequeira’s chosen symbol of the palm. No doubt the book amounts to a luminous history “of” the palm insofar as the palm is both its historical subject and the symbol that makes possible its form, but the work in its totality also amounts to something else, less clearly identifiable. Call it a portrait of its narrator-author, brought into being through the history of the palm, taking the form of a literary mosaic — each prose fragment a tile, “subtly differ[ing] in its color and angle”, composing an artistic vision larger than itself and imbuing its central figure with the “shimmering gleam” of its own luminosity.