January 24, 2016
Busker, by Nisha Coleman
I picked up Nisha Coleman’s Busker on the recommendation of Isabel Huggan, so it wasn’t surprising that I loved it. It begins with Coleman, fresh out of university, following a man to Paris with romantic Parisian intentions, but the romance turns out to be more of an awkward misunderstanding. Leaving Coleman stuck in France without a visa, or money, or even a home, but what she does have is a violin. So she begins busking on the streets of Paris, and finds her way into the city through a kind of back door, and also finds a way into her truest self and the kind of life she wants to lead—a coming of age, of sorts. And from her perspective on the fringes—she’s in France illegally, busking itself is illegal in Paris although tolerated, and street performing is inherently fringey, sidewalks begin marginal as they are—she is able to tell a Paris story that’s very different from those we might have read before, those that are all Shakespeare and Company and Mavis Gallant. Busker is something different entire, a rich and generous portrayal of misfits and weirdos and the rhythms of urban life.
I kept laughing out loud, which is a mark of literary achievement. Though I also cringed—as one who has never mastered air-kisses, I recoiled at Coleman’s recounting of her first bisous and how she actually made cheek contact. She writes about being asked to play her violin in a hair salon, but how her own unruly do caused a great upset when she arrived. Or the man she met who wanted to perform songs he’d written, which turned out to be “sex songs” with lyrics like, “The horny bull wants a bouncy ride.” And she meets a lot of men, Coleman, and in the beginning, being lonely, takes them up on their invitations, until she realizes that she’s setting herself up for a lot of awkward interactions. She longs for the company of women friends as well, but these kind of relationships are harder to find. Not to mention that at the beginning of her time in Paris, Coleman hardly speaks French.
It is interesting to read a book about a character as solitary as Coleman is throughout much of the time she writes about. The stories she tells are of people she encounters, other characters who come and go, so there is little interpersonal development throughout the narrative. What sustains the narrative and brings all these stories together then is the development Coleman shows in her own character and understanding of it. She’d previously studied violin in university, but after suffering from performance anxiety she quit to do a major in psychology instead. Busking in Paris, however, Coleman finds her way back to the violin, and writes fascinatingly about how busking is not a performance, but about being part of a bigger scene. She writes compellingly too about the politics of street performance, scoping out prize spots, getting shut down by the police, engaging with other musicians and performers. About balance too—that her lifestyle is a kind of freedom and she’s brave to pursue it, but it’s also a method of avoidance: “I can’t fail at this because busking is an ongoing condition, not a means to an end.” And perhaps she gets a bit too comfortable in her Paris life, something that needs to be checked. “After all, Buscar is a Spanish word that means to search.”
What makes Busker so compelling is that Coleman is usually searching, is open to experience, and curious and wondering. She’s also funny, her prose is impeccable, and not she’s not afraid to make herself vulnerable in the narrative. Though it’s impossible could she ever hope to avoid seeming vulnerable in a book that begins with her in such a precarious situation, but the her faith in a city, its people, the world, pays off. In a time when we’re constantly being urged to harden ourselves against a cruel world, Coleman’s book reminds us of the miracles that can happen when we instead open up wide.