Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Cosmic Love and The Alchemy of Chance

Cosmic Love

I took the stars from my eyes, and then I made a map
And knew that somehow I could find my way back
Then I heard your heart beating, you were in the darkness too
So I stayed in the darkness with you**

My daughter and my husband are very keen on a song called Cosmic Love, by Florence and the Machine. It’s on both their ipods so I hear it in the kitchen while my husband is cooking, and in the car. In the song the narrator has been blinded by a star falling from an un-named someone’s heart, and left in the dark, so he or she makes a map, all of which reminds me, on more than one level, of The Alchemy of Chance. Aurelie, who is actually blind, meets Dafydd, who is symbolically blind, at least where love is concerned. You might think I’d be comparing Aurelie to the narrator of Cosmic Love, but Dafydd is a closer match. When he meets Aurelie he’s immediately struck by her and the book is much more about his long journey, sharing her darkness, than it is about any issues she has with finding her way around. She was once a mapmaker but blindness has reduced her, bizarrely enough, to the position of navigator, and it’s Dafyyd who makes the literal maps of their journey.

... she needed the whole picture, and preferably one with a frame. She needed relief and spatial accuracy, signs and symbols that spoke to her of landscapes natural and man-made, rivers hills and towns, the odd church and burial mound, the relationship of one place to another, accurate to the kilometre… well maybe ten, at this scale…
“You understand, don’t you?”
“Of course.”
“You’ll need another Michelin, a piece of board, some fuse-wires, drawing pins…”
“I’ll make you a map, OK.”

Early in the book Aurelie’s father, Didier sticks pins into a map of the London Underground, so she can visualise the route through it, and then makes her a map of sorts, of the stars - a book of blank astrological charts with each segment lined with fuse wire. “Some jewellery-maker friends fashioned a brooch for each of the star signs. He made a tactile protractor himself. A small toolbox housed more lengths of fuse wire, locating-pins and lumps of plasticine to help keep the delicate operations stable.” All of this made it possible for Aurelie to find her way amongst the stars, and to do astrological readings. But Didier too is caught in the darkness, in “a sombre dusk” that “fell on his soul” after the death of his wife and Aurelie’s loss of sight.

His eye was taken by a box of pins, the kind with multi-coloured plastic heads like little chess pieces, and he suddenly saw them, these commonplace trivia, in a different light. He bought a few boxes and, while Aur√©lie was out, dashed up to her old apartment for the London Undergound Map they’d left behind. He re-mounted it on corkboard, hung it in the hallway and stuck a pin in every station. On her return, he took her arm and led the middle finger of her left hand to the Western edge.
“I’ve brought your map back. Here.”
She boarded at Uxbridge on the Metropolitan Line, appearing perplexed at first. But she soon got the hang of it. She headed for Hillingdon. Bump… Ickenham. Ruislip. Bump… Bump… “Faster!” Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. By the time she hit the Circle Line, she was whizzing along. She went all the way round and then again. Bump. Bump. Bump. Bump. Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack… Then she shot off up the Central Line... Clackety-clack. Clackety-clack… and alighted at Epping.

The plot of The Alchemy of Chance is structured around Aurelie’s and Dafydd’s search for Dafydd’s brother, Sean, who has been out of touch for years, and the search itself follows a cryptic set of directions Sean wrote on the backs of a few postcards. More maps, of sorts. Sean is another man wandering in darkness. When Aurelie reads his star charts she discovers he’s prone to “moments of darkness, where he is best left alone,” but those moments seem to have spread to cover too much territory.

So The Alchemy of Chance is a book about, among other things, the literally blind attempting to lead the figuratively blind out of the darkness, and one of the questions it raises is whether this is a possibility. Florence’s narrator, when he discovers that the mysterious someone who blinded him is also trapped in darkness, decides to stay there and keep her company. That’s one option.

**Cosmic Love, by Florence and the Machine
The London Tube in Darkness is by S. Mairi Graham-Shaw

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