Reviewed by Jane Tompkins
The other night I was lying in bed unable to sleep. I began thinking about the book I’d been reading and realized I wanted to get up and read it some more. It was The Blind Masseuse, by Alden Jones, a young woman who loves to travel, loves the adventure of being in foreign places and writes about her experience with insight and panache. She’s not just a person who recorded what she did on the road and managed to get it published. Her book was a finalist for the 2013 PEN award in non-fiction. Deservedly so.
Over a period of several years, Jones travelled to Costa Rica, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Cambodia, Burma, Italy and Egypt. Mostly, she led student groups or taught English while she was abroad. What a great life that would have been, I thought: to take students to far-off places, to live and teach in some of them, returning home from time to time, only to set off again for foreign parts. What’s most appealing about the book is not so much the people and places the author encounters as the way in which she uses her experience as a springboard for getting to know herself. As a result, we get to know her, too.
When Jones is in Cambodia and Burma, she takes a lot of pictures with her new Nikon D200. She’s possessed by a desire to use it, even if she uses it in the wrong way. She shoots through the window of the tour bus and later exhibits the fuzzy results. She chases three naked Burmese boys who don’t want their picture taken and takes it anyway. She photographs young female dancers in costume as they rest between performances; they see her taking their picture and resent the intrusion. Watching herself doing these things, Jones doesn’t approve but she doesn’t beat up on herself, either. She simply notes what happened and then somehow manages to be both critical and generous toward herself at the same time. I admire her for this. As an inveterate self-critic I envy her buoyancy and spiritedness in the face of her own shortcomings. She treats herself good-naturedly. It tells me she’s a safe person to be around.
And that’s the best part of this book: the author is game and fun to be with. The focus is not on the history of the country she’s in, its politics or architecture—though these can and do enter in. It’s her experience we get, which is generally interesting and lively—her visit to a zoo created and then neglected by the Sandinistas in Leon, Nicaragua, where the alligators have moss growing inside their mouths; being met at the airport in Cuba by her friend Darwin who’s holding two beers–he still can’t leave the country and has started drinking again. There are no detailed portraits of landscape or interiors, but enough description to put you right there with her wherever she happens to be–in the courtyard in Leon drinking coffee with her Spanish teacher who loved revolutionary poetry; enjoying white wine and TV in her room in the San Jose Marriott after sleeping on the floor of a shack with twelve people for a month. In those moments, I know what it felt like to be her. Just thinking about her book as I lay there in the dark made me want to get up and write. She energized me. Her book had an aura that I wanted to live and move in for as long as possible. When such books end, I go through something like withdrawal. Jones had been such an excellent companion, her writing full of verve, her self-observation keen and her attitude mellow; I’d become addicted to her company.
I got up and re-read first one chapter, then another and another, ostensibly to see if I could decipher the title’s meaning and get straight the author’s relationship with her boyfriend Andres (it was not exactly what she’d thought). But the real reason was that I wanted to spend more time hanging out with Alden. On the third reading of the chapter on her visit to a blind masseur I did figure out the title. The answer is in the last paragraph of that chapter. It’s about blindness—not physical blindness, but our reluctance to give up clinging to ideas we absolutely KNOW are right, no matter what the evidence. I leave it to you to find out the rest. Curled up on your sofa when the thermometer’s in the 20s and it’s dark at five o’clock, you’ll be happy you did.~