Sport 21: Spring 1998
An English translation of the fourth volume of Blaise Cendrars's memoirs, Sky, appeared in English in 1992. The book is, for the most part, a memorial to the author's son, an aviator who, having been shot down by the Germans then imprisoned, survived World War II only to die in a plane crash shortly after the end of hostilities. As was the custom for a pilot, Cendrars's son was buried wrapped in a parachute.
As a means of copying with his loss and commemorating the tragic descent of his son, Cendrars devotes much of Sky to recounting the lives of Catholic saints who, during their lives, were supposedly capable of feats of weightlessness, of levitation. To this end, Cendrars quotes verbatim lengthy passages from Olivier Leroy's aptly titled tome La Levitation (1928). It's a puzzling literary strategy, although perhaps a necessarily circuitous and distanced one given the immensity of Cendrars's grief. Incapable of finding his own words, he appropriated those of someone else—the saints' lives providing a supporting structure for his largely unspoken elegy.
Sky is, in effect, an attempt to populate the vast empty spaces between people, as well as the space through which the author's son fell. It embodies the emptiness into which the author plummeted page 31 upon hearing of his son's death.
Central to Cendrars's book is the figure of St Joseph of Copertino, the ‘New Patron Saint of Aviation’. Coincidentally, a few years before coming upon Sky, I had written two compressed lives of St Joseph of Copertino in my novel Diesel Mystic, which appeared in 1989. In my book (a work much preoccupied with weightlessness and flight) two adjacent churches with the same name—Saint Joseph's—have erected billboards on facing sides of the highway. The two identically named churches use these billboards to compete for new parishioners, constantly trying to outdo each other with miraculous tales, most often of a levitational manner. In Catholic saintology, levitation is one of the more common proofs of sainthood; another is bilocation—the ability to be in two places at once (a quality I have St Joseph manifest literally in Diesel Mystic by living his ‘life’ simultaneously on the two opposing billboards).
Some years after Diesel Mystic appeared, a friend of mine related an interesting story involving the book. My friend works in the library of a provincial New Zealand city, where the husband of one of her workmates is a prominent land rights activist. She tells me that while this fellow doesn't care much for books, he does carry a copy of Diesel Mystic around with him. It surprised me that someone involved in land rights should be, according to my friend, so ‘involved’ in a book which has as one of its central premises the whole business of levitation, of escaping from the land, the ground.
Calling to mind Patricia Grace's story collection The Sky People and the vaporous bird-humans of the painter Hariata Ropata Tangahoe, in my imagined postscript to the story of my friend's friend's husband, the activist becomes as interested in Air Space as he is in Land Rights and accordingly devotes a sizable proportion of his activism towards that end. ‘Where would we be without our air,’ he points out. ‘We are the people of the sky above the land.’