Book of the Week: ‘Sidewalks’ by Valeria Luiselli

The writer who walks for inspiration: it’s hardly a new trend, and it certainly predated humans’ ability to hop into a motorized vehicle and go wherever they wanted — attaining that gratification of traveling without all the physical work. Thoreau is American literature’s iconic walker, traversing the woods in Massachusetts, dodging taxes, flipping the bird to the Industrial Revolution. Sometime after that, Americans stopped walking as much; we started sitting more and experiencing less. Yet when we leave America — or at least American books — we find that our fellow humans from all points on the globe still tend to get a lot out of meandering. And if we ever needed a better textbook to show what walking (and in some cases cycling) around a city can help accomplish in the modern age, Valeria Luiselli’s collection of essays, Sidewalks,would be the perfect choice.

Although we don’t do as much walking as we once had to, Gideon Lewis-Kraus writing about his many pilgrimages in A Sense of Direction and, of course, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild come to mind as recent American examples of people walking with a purpose. But Luiselli doesn’t seem bent on accomplishing anything through her journeys; she isn’t running from any ghosts or trying to find something she lost. Instead, she explains, “We are in the process of losing something,” in the essay “Stuttering Cities.” “We go round leaving bits of dead skin on the sidewalk, dropping dead words into conversation.” Walking is part of the process, not a means to an end. 

Deeply philosophical and poetic, Luiselli starts by exploring an Italian cemetery, searching for Joseph Brodsky’s grave. Among the dead and quiet, Luiselli fruitlessly searches out the poet’s final resting place, telling us within a page that after several hours of looking, she was close to giving up. Before she does, she “sat down in the shade of a tree and smoked a cigarette.” It’s there where the essay really starts taking off, thinking about the other residents of the cemetery as she continues her search, past the graves of Igor Stravinsky and Ezra Pound, who Luiselli walks past to get to her main destination of Brodsky’s grave, “without even nodding, as if marking out my territory.”

The essays in Sidewalks don’t connect or come together, and they aren’t commenting on a single thing; what we have is the Mexico City native (the book was lovingly translated from Spanish by Christine MacSweeney) distilling observations from her walks and the thinking she does on them. Handled any other way, that sort of thing could render any book of essays tedious and ultimately boring, but Luiselli turns it into something illuminating and delightful.