Jack Kerouac – Tristessa: Love, Frenzy and Sadness in Mexico City

13 Aug

Even though I always proclaim On the Road as my favourite novel by Jack Kerouac, it is the novella Tristessa that most often comes to mind when thinking about Kerouac because the story of his wild impossible love, decaying souls in seedy streets of Mexico City where “a soul eats another soul in a never ending void”, addiction, prostitution and poverty is so damn haunting, poignant and beautiful, from a literary point of view.

The novel starts in a chic Kerouac way, with him driving in a taxi with Tristessa, drunk, with a bottle of Juarez Bourbon in his hand, in a Mexico City on a rainy Saturday night. “Tristessa” is Kerouac’s name for a young prostitute and a morphine addict whose real name was Esperanza Villanueva.

It always puzzled me why he decided to change her name from Esperanza (“hope” in Spanish) to Tristessa (“tristeza” meaning “sadness” in Spanish), but the change, admittedly, makes the title sound cooler. Beauty of Kerouac’s writings often contrasts with the gritty reality he is describing, but he lived among that low-life and misfits and that gives his book a genuine flair. For example, he describes Tristessa as a beautiful, enchanting girl with high cheekbones and a sad face expression that speaks of resignation. In real life, she looked like a drug addict; ill, frail and weary. Other characters are also morphine addicts, pimps and thieves. In that shabby room where a hen, a dove, a rooster and a cat walk freely, a room with a leaking roof, posters of Mexican pin-ups on the wall, a dirty mattress, and candles on the little altar of virgin Mary, there Kerouac realises that birth and death are the same empty dream. There is too much restlessness in him to fully accept the idea, but Tristessa’s soul is full of beautiful resignation, she has nothing and wants nothing, choosing to walk through life mute on every suffering that comes. There’s something beautiful in that fragility, life stripped to its essence; painful and pointless without any pretending that it’s not true. Reading about Tristessa’s suffering is poignant, it makes you feel you want to reach out and help her, but you can’t. Kerouac’s novels burst with characters of sad, lost, vulnerable souls, fragile as poppy flowers that gently dance in the wind and yet, if you pick them, their petals fall, too fragile to live anywhere apart from the meadow. So, leave them there, on a vibrant green meadow, leave them to dance their short waltz and die in silence, you cannot help them.

In Tristessa, Kerouac describes with his typical vibrant, at parts poignant and sad, at parts fun and wild rock ‘n’ roll writing style a fragile period in time. Even though he returned to Mexico City two years after, nothing was the same. The mystical flair from the first few pages, that of candlelight and statue of Madonna, leaking roof, morphine and a hen, disappear quickly and turn into grey hopelessness and poverty of the slums. Kerouac drunk, Kerouac sober. Glamour stripped away. Sadness lingers. I’ve never been drunk in my life, and yet I feel “drunk” after reading Kerouac.

And now a few quotes:

It starts raining harder, I’ve got a long way to go walking and pushing that sore leg right along in the gathering rain, no chance no intention whatever of hailing a cab, the whiskey and the Morphine have made me unruffled by the sickness of the poison in my heart.

***

I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery.

***

She is giving me my life back and not claiming it for herself as so many of the women you love do claim.

***

And a wonderful, inspiring sentence to end the novel:

I’ll go to the south of Sicily in the winter, and paint memories of Arles – I’ll buy a piano and Mozart me that – I’ll write long sad tales about people in the legend of my life – This part is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours

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