Title: Welcome to Christiania
By: Fred Leebron
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
I spent years working with homeless women in Baltimore. Isolated, drug addicted, and abused, they focused their energies on the minutia of life and seemed impervious to its tragedies. One woman was called by excited neighborhood children to come quickly and see something. When she did, she found her 15 year old daughter dead from a drive-by shooting. In the weeks that followed she talked so much about the memorial service her relatives claimed they would hold and what she would wear to it that her dead child seemed like less than an afterthought. Her anxious and tedious search for the dress and stockings and shoes she couldn’t afford was interrupted only by a an emergency trip to the hospital. At some point when she was alone, she had used her fingernails to tear at the eyes that had witnessed her little girl’s bloody corpse.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. There is no safety in denial, and the people who are least able to confront the hardships in their lives directly are the ones who are the most ruled by them. So it is with the narrator of Welcome to Christiania, a novella of hallucinatory beauty by Fred Leebron. The narrator is a homeless dope peddler in Christiania, which is a self-styled “free zone” in Denmark, founded by squatters in the 1970s. We learn in the first two paragraphs that our hero has grown tired of Christiania.
These people who think they are something, they are really not. They come
and go wrapped like gypsies at a carnival, sounding like artists, smelling of mildew. I can’t take them anymore.
Yesterday, I sat at the bakery eating bread. Everyone kept coming in: Jens and Vincent and Carla and Flavia and people whose names I didn’t even know. Their pants had pockets on the thighs and shins and buttocks. Their skirts swished over flowered long johns. I couldn’t take it, so I left.
He has searched the world in “the usual places: the Andes, Ledakh, Katmandhu, the Bush,” but nothing is “incredible.” His paranoia is a “mud pit” that swallows him. Driven by unexamined desires, habit, and circumstance, he stays in Christiania where he has no home; he is economically exploited by “Big Man,” and his longest and closest relationship is with Otto, who can not form sentences. “‘Disgust Sin Devil The Fun Is,'” Otto says.” He describes his bed in much the same way as he tries to make sense of the world.
The mattress is an old friend’s who left me a long time ago, and who I never think about. The old friend is God. God gave me this mattress when he was in Copenhagen one day. It is shaped like God’s hand, and I lie on it whenever I get the chance.
All right. I stole the mattress. But no one misses it. Except me when I’m not on it.
When he falls in love with a woman, he suspects she is an illusion.
I pinch her and she squirms, but makes no effort to escape or dissolve or do whatever it is apparitions do. I crush her to me. She smells of mildew and animals. “Give me your troubles,” she whispers again, “And I will eat them.” The pain in my ribs has vanished.
A brief period of contentment and even joy ensues before nature and bureaucracy combine to frustrate them both. When asked a question for which he should be able to give abundant good answers, he can only shout that he wants to soar and not belly flop down all the time, that he wants to feel like a bird and not a sailboat. He has the same ferocious desires that most of us share but is almost helpless to act on them. Inevitably, their love ends, and he “fights,” wordlessly and alone on his big mattress. Big Man sends him off for a vacation where for a time he exploits the local children the way Big Man exploits him.
He returns to Christiania, of course; it is the place that is waiting for him, the place that requires the least reflection. it is the place he will never be able to leave, and it is a state of mind shot through with fragmented moments of great beauty and even genuine companionship. Welcome to Christiania is a perfect and inexorable voyage that ends in the dreamy acceptance of the only life many people will ever know.