A Theory of Tsunami

by Norman Lock


From a stall at Les Puces, pungent with mold, dust, and sun-scorched canvas awning, Michel Tanguy brought home to his room on rue Saint-Martin a book, whose author, Maurice Leblanc, a forgotten resident of Paris during the previous century, had passed the studious hours of a lengthy and obscure retirement, immersed like a diver in the shadowy alcoves of the reading room in the Bibliothèque nationale, searching English, German, and French newspapers for instances of the marvelous. Attracted by the volume's adherence in its physical dimensions to the Golden Section and by a sumptuous binding conspicuous even in the sprawling diversity of the Paris flea market, Tanguy knew nothing of its contents, intimated not at all by so general a title as Recrudescence, until, several months later, he cut apart its thick pages and began to read.

That book, which he described for me one afternoon in Charleston, was devoted to the uncanny recurrence of phenomena; and it was this that had brought Tanguy from Paris to the South Carolina coast in that catastrophic year 1886. I had arrived from New York the previous day, together with an illustrator, to record for the New York Herald the ravages of an earthquake that had killed sixty people and toppled 10,000 brick chimneys and then had spawned a massive wave that sent an avalanche of granite water to Bermuda.


"In his book, Recrudescence, Maurice Leblanc wrote of a drowned man washed ashore in the West Indies after the 1755 Cape Ann, Massachusetts, earthquake," Tanguy told me over dinner in one of Charleston's few remaining inns. "He had been a colonial American customs officer."

"I don't believe a body could have been carried so great a distance, across so much water."

"Nevertheless, it is the case."

"According to Leblanc."

Tanguy gave a Gallic shrug as if to dismiss all contrary opinion. "But that," he continued, "is not the exceptional point."

I waited for him to finish his restorative port and go on.

"What is truly miraculous is that the man was lost, originally, not in 1755 at Cape Ann but in 1737 during a powerful earthquake whose epicenter was New York City."

"You mean to tell me that not only did this customs officer cross the Atlantic on a tidal wave but that he took eighteen years to do so?"

"Precisely," Tanguy said, leaving on the linen napkin a tawny imprint of his lips.


Michel Tanguy believed in a single, massive wave of infinite duration that has been, since the beginning of Earth's geological history, roaring down the black jetties of time to manifest itself — now here, now there — at the will or caprice of a titanic, inscrutable engine of fatality. For him as for Leblanc, whose chief and perhaps sole apostle Tanguy was, the tidal wave was a metaphysical construct — an idea occurring in the Universal Mind, which may or may not belong to God.

According to Tanguy, the monstrous wave produced by the Charleston earthquake was only a recent manifestation of "the primal wave that had been thrust into our time signature" at New York in 1884, to the west of the city in 1783, at Cape Ann in 1755, and at New York in 1737. (To speak only of those few instances that have a geographical interest for me; other regions were also beset during this same period.) By his theory a tidal wave, which the Japanese call tsunami, does not in actuality subside, having spent itself, but continues its fierce accumulation and discharge — unseen and unfelt — in a universe unavailable to us or our instruments. Time is a tsunami of which we are scarcely aware until it jumps its banks and in a moment of seizure changes all our days, or ends them.

"To ride such a thing as that," Tanguy said, "what wouldn't I give?"


In September, 1923, I was in Japan on assignment by The New York Times to report on the aftermath of the Great Kanto earthquake and tsunami. Among the dead on Yuighama beach was an Occidental man who, according to various proofs (garment manufacturers' labels, a legible fragment of a letter written in French found in a wallet along with a ticket for a 1908 Paris production of Prince Igor by the Ballets Russes), had resided in Paris and was thought to have drowned in the earthquake and tidal wave that swept through Messina on December 28, 1908. This Frenchman, whom I knew at once to be Michel Tanguy, had disappeared from a steam launch overwhelmed by the great wave in the Strait of Messina – his body, until now, lost.

Le Figaro had carried stories of unusual seismic activity in the province of Messina as early as November 1st, devoting generous column-inches of text and engravings to the lesser December 10th quake, which damaged buildings in Novara di Sicilia and Montalbano Elicona. Tanguy would certainly have been aware of these overtures to disaster. What is more, he had time enough to travel from the Gare de Leon to the port of Villa San Giovanni in Calabria and, from there, cross the Strait of Messina by ferry to Sicily before December 28th closed on the lives of 200,000 victims of time's upheaval.


As I write this account, an old man wearing out his last days in a boarding-house that looks out onto the Atlantic, I wait for the tsunami to rise up in me at last — an immense and magisterial wave in whose shroud I was, at birth, by birth consigned — wait for it to course through my body's deep places and, having engulfed the islands of what I had called my life, to carry me across time's momentous ocean toward a distant beach.

Rockaway, N.Y.  
December, 1937

Norman Lock has written novels and short fiction as well as stage, radio and screen plays.  He received the Aga Kahn Prize, given by The Paris Review, and the Literary Fiction Prize, given by The Dactyl Foundation of the Arts & Humanities, fellowships from the New Jersey Council on the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  His latest literary fictions are the novels Shadowplay and The King of Sweden, the novella Escher’s Journal, and the short-fiction collections Grim Tales and Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions.  Earlier works include A History of the Imagination, Land of the Snow Men, The Long Rowing Unto Morning, Émigrés/Joseph Cornell’s Operas, Cirque du Calder, and the acclaimed Absurdist drama The House of Correction, produced widely in the U.S., in Germany, at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, and, later this year, in Istanbul.  Four of Lock’s hour-long radio dramas were broadcast by Germany’s largest radio network, WDR.  A script was produced by the American Film Institute.  A Turkish-language edition of Grim Tales, a book-length poem In the Time of Rat, and a short-story collection Love Among the Particles are all due in 2013 (the third work from Bellevue Literary Press). This is the eighth time that Norman's work has appeared in The Cafe Irreal.