As the Fuego Volcano near Antigua continues erupting with beautiful violence, I am reminded of a passage from White Teeth, the captivating novel by Zadie Smith. It describes the life of immigrants in a foreign land and the inevitable clash of cultures. In one section, the main character divides the world’s citizens into two very different groups: those who live at the mercy of the earth’s capricious quirks, and those who do not.
Guatemala’s volcanoes, mudslides, earthquakes and hurricanes serve as a constant reminder of how fragile and precarious existence can be. Life here is, indeed, a midnight thing.
From White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
To Alsana’s mind the real difference between people was not color. Nor did it lie in gender, faith, their relative ability to dance to a syncopated rhythm or open their fists to reveal a handful of gold coins.
The real difference was far more fundamental. It was in the earth. It was in the sky. You could divide the whole of humanity into two distinct camps, as far as she was concerned, simply by asking them to complete a very simple questionnaire, of the kind you find in Woman’s Own on a Tuesday:
(a) Are the skies you sleep under likely to open up for weeks on end?
(b) Is the ground you walk on likely to tremble and split?
(c) Is there a chance (and please check the box, no matter how small that chance seems) that the ominous mountain casting a midday shadow over your home might one day erupt with no rhyme or reason?
Because if the answer is yes to one or all of these questions, then the life you lead is a midnight thing, always a hair’s breadth from the witching hour; it is volatile, it is threadbare; it is carefree in the true sense of that term; it is light, losable like a key ring or a hair clip.
And it is lethargy: why not sit all morning, all day, all year, under the same cypress tree drawing the figure of eight in the dust?
More than that, it is disaster, it is chaos: why not overthrow a government on a whim, why not blind the man you hate, why not go mad, go gibbering through the town like a loon, waving your hands, tearing your hair?
There’s nothing to stop you—or rather anything could stop you, any hour, any minute. That feeling. That’s the real difference in a life. People who live on solid ground, underneath safe skies, know nothing of this.
Dedicated to three amazing Js:
Jennifer Trowbridge: For first sharing this with me.
Julia Pimentel: This is the text I promised to send so long ago.
Stephanie Jolluck: For allowing me to share her gorgeous photograph of the Volcan de Fuego!