Features & Columns

A Visit to Authors' Graves
Leads Anti-Man to Next Chapter

On a soul-searching expedition in Switzerland, the anti-man-about-town
found himself at the gravesites of two literary giants.
PLACE TO REST: The grave of legendary author Jorge Luis Borges is located in the heart of Geneva. Photo by Gary Singh

On a soul-searching expedition in Switzerland, the anti-man-about-town found himself at the gravesites of two literary giants: James Joyce and Jorge Luis Borges. In Zurich and Geneva, respectively, I made desperate pacts with them, just as I had done with Hermann Hesse on my last trip to Switzerland.

This time, Zurich was immersed in the 100th anniversary of Dada, while Geneva unfurled itself as an international nexus of peacemaking. Both environments were fertile ground to make psychic accords with Joyce and Borges.

Baptized in Zurich, Dada was a transnational web of radical creative perspectives that forever altered the course of 20th century art and the avant-garde. Back in 1916, as the butchery of World War I and the ensuant zoological nationalism began to reconfigure Europe, a cadre of interdisciplinary artists, performers and troublemakers fled their respective countries for neutral Zurich, where they collectively set Dada in motion at the Cabaret Voltaire. A network of self-exiles, the Dadaists were the original anti-men-about-town. For the 2016 centenary, Zurich's museums, galleries, hotels and bars staged exhibitions related to Dada. Creatively speaking, I felt like an adopted child finally discovering his real parents.

Even crazier, the original Cabaret Voltaire building reopened about 12 years ago. Right now, as you read this, every morning for 165 days in a row, a particular Dadaist is being honored at 6:30am with an "offizium," a prayer of sorts. I showed up to catch the one for Tristan Tzara, which took place on his birthday. Cabaret Voltaire director Adrian Notz stood there and read Tzara's entire 1918 Dada Manifesto, in English. It was moving.

Also moving was the gravesite of James Joyce. Such visits are regular highlights of my travels, so a trek to Friedhof Fluntern was necessary before finally leaving Zurich. At Joyce's grave, I stood there and made a desperate pact with him. I said: "Alright old man, I will keep writing. You just show me how to pay the freakin' bills. Gimme a sign. Anything."

With that, Geneva emerged next, appearing before me as a global capital of humanitarianism and a transnational radiator of peacemaking vibrations. The United Nations, the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross are all headquartered in Geneva. Unfortunately, our tour of the UN was canceled because the Syria talks were commencing that very second, so all individual visits were a no-go. But in the Red Cross Museum, we saw stockhouses of records on international prisoners of war, along with life-size projections of people talking about war-ravaged lands around the globe. Peacekeeping and all things international seemed synonymous with Geneva, its history, and its overall vibe.

And then there was CERN, a global powerhouse in of itself. At CERN, the legendary visitors' center is a giant dome 90 feet high and 130 feet in diameter. It had been closed for about a year, but coincidentally opened back up on the day I arrived. Inside we saw the very first World Wide Web server built by Tim Berners-Lee on a NeXT Machine.

Everything about Geneva seemed to exemplify connectivity across language barriers, creative disciplines or matrixes of thought, which made it all the more logical for the multilingual literary genius Jorge Luis Borges to be buried in a small cemetery, in the middle of town. As I had done with Joyce a few days earlier, I made a desperate pact. I said to him: "Alright old man, I will keep writing, just show me how to make a living. Give me a sign. Anything."

Sure enough, Joyce and Borges eventually came through and answered my call. On my way back home, I was sitting in the Zurich Airport when I received an email, offering me a Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing at San Jose State University to work on my next book over the 2016/17 academic year.

Blown away, I let it sink in and then flew back home before officially accepting the offer. I already owe a very great deal to SJSU, but now I can list James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges and the neutral matrix of Swiss peacemaking to my list of thank-yous. Everything is connected.