A green parrot in a defenceless season


A green parrot in a defenceless season

MARELI STOLP read Sigrid Nunez and looks back on a lonely time of meditation and introspection.


A WHILE ago, I discovered the “memories” feature on Facebook. As a result, I'm addicted to it, opening my phone early in the morning to seeing what happened on this day.

In 2008, I was on my way to Mozambique for a camping holiday (you look so young in your twenties); in 2012 I wrote, “Another 2000 words of my PhD thesis, done"; May 2017 is full of photos from a trip through Iceland. Often my page offers only one or two retrospectives, or none, because (and yes, I'm glad I can admit it) I don't post on social media every day.

But May 2020 … every day hordes of posts, reposts, tags, likes, comments, the whole caboodle. Because I was home alone. We were all home. Worried. Lonely. Bored. Facebook and other platforms were a salvation for many of us: a thread, albeit thin and fragile, that connected us to other people. Especially if you had to isolate on your own.

Sigrid Nunez's The Vulnerables takes us back to that confused world of spring (north) and autumn (south) 2020. The author is in Manhattan, a metropolis suddenly transformed into something from a science fiction movie set: empty, quiet streets where you can walk from park to park for hours on end, without ever having to make room for a fellow wanderer; no traffic, no noise. The world is frozen, like a Zoom call with bad bandwidth. Yet behind the scenes, the world stuttered and spluttered on.

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The Vulnerables is a winding road through Nunez's experiences of the first months of lockdown, and as is often the case, she presents her reader with a complex book. She never describes an experience in isolation: each one is a link in the chain of her mind, meandering through philosophical musings, feminism and violence against women, history and literature, all with razor-sharp humour.

The author is classified as “vulnerable" because of her age. She's obviously exploring this theme because that's how Nunez's brain works: self-perception is central to her aesthetic.

Descriptions of flowers beginning to sprout from the winter soil all over Manhattan — chrysanthemums, popular name “old lady flowers" — segue to deeper thoughts about age, successful and unsuccessful book titles, other authors' ideas about age. And while my description may make the book sound bumbling and incoherent, Nunez keeps the reader by her side throughout.

An important theme is introduced by the author's unexpected lockdown companion: a majestic green parrot. She is asked to stand in as a carer for Eureka, the pet of friends stuck in California: an eccentric bird with its own room, beautifully decorated with jungle murals and plants; also its own diet, toys and climate management system.

In typically sophisticated Nunez style, she explores her reaction to the parrot, placing the scenario in a larger context: when there is no physical closeness to other people, when all your interactions with other breathing beings happen only virtually, the relationship with an animal becomes that much more meaningful. You become emotionally dependent on this sentient being, even though you have neither language nor emotional landscape in common.

Nunez has delved deep into the trope of human-animal relationships before: her 2018 book The Friend (which won the US National Book Award) offers a poignant glimpse into the relationship between a woman whose friend committed suicide and his dog who, like the author, mourns for the deceased. Raw in different ways, but equally intense. Nunez's description of the relationship that springs up between her and the parrot becomes a launching pad for profound misgivings about the types of connections between humans and animals. But ultimately The Vulnerables is a sophisticated novel (on the verge of autofiction) about manifold human relations, and especially about how these relationships were affected by the lockdown, limitations, fear and loneliness.

“It was an uncertain spring." Nunez begins her remarkable book, with another author's words: it's the first sentence in Virginia Woolf's last book, The Years. Nunez constantly interweaves other writers' words with her own.

She confesses that she found it almost impossible to read during the lockdown; concentration for the length of a paragraph is like pushing Sisyphus's rolling stone up the mountain. And yet she finds words that resonate with legions of scenarios (obsessive readers like me will probably have a long reading list by the end of this book). The words of others help her make sense of the uncertain 2020 season, and her words can also help a 2024 reader squeeze meaning out of the brutal and horrific time the pandemic was for so many.

It's four years later but my response to Facebook memories of May 2020 is still forceful. The trauma of that year remains with us. And  Nunez's words shed light on many of its dark turns. Her honest accounts of her experiences, doubts, madnesses, anger, triumphs, frustrations and endless acceptance of her own defencelessness touch you deeply.

May that season never hit us again. May we also learn to recognise the good it brought.

The Vulnerables by Sigrid Nunez was published by Little, Brown and costs R430 at Exclusive Books.

♦ VWB ♦

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