The use and abuse of similitude: the case of Pnin (continued)

19 Oct

Pnin 2

After the party at his house, and being informed that is being fired by Waindell College and replaced by another Professor of Russian – who is in fact the nefarious narrator of the novel we are reading – Pnin retires to his kitchen and slowly begins to wash the dishes and glasses and cutlery left behind by his guests:

‘He prepared a bubble bath in the sink for the crockery, glass and silverware, and with infinite care lowered the aquamarine bowl into the tepid foam. Its resonant flint glass emitted a sound full of muffled mellowness as it settled down to soak. He rinsed the amber goblets and the silverware under the tap, and submerged them in the same foam. Then he fished out the knives, forks, and spoons, rinsed them, and began to wipe them. He worked very slowly, with a certain vagueness of manner that might have been taken for a mist of abstraction in a less methodical man. He gathered the wiped spoons into a posy, placed them in a pitcher which he had washed but not dried, and then took them out one by one and wiped them all over again. He groped under the bubbles, around the goblets, and under the melodious bowl, for any piece of forgotten silver – and retrieved a nutcracker. Fastidious Pnin rinsed it, and was wiping it, when the leggy thing somehow slipped out of the towel and fell like a man from a roof. He almost caught it – his fingertips actually came into contact with it in midair, but this only helped propel it into the treasure-concealing foam of the sink, where an excruciating crack of broken glass followed upon the plunge.’

During a discussion of free indirect style (discours indirect libre) in his book How Fiction Works, James Wood comments on this passage as follows:

‘Nabokov writes that the nutcracker falls from Pnin’s hands like a man falling from a roof; Pnin tries to grasp it, but ‘the leggy thing’ slips into the water. ‘Leggy thing’ is a terrific metaphorical likeness: we can instantly see the long legs of the wayward nutcracker, as if it were falling off the roof and walking away. But ‘thing’ is even better, precisely because it is vague: Pnin is lunging at the implement, and what word in English better conveys a messy lunge, a swipe at verbal meaning, than ‘thing’? Now if the brilliant ‘leggy’ is Nabokov’s word, then the hapless ‘thing’ is Pnin’s word, and Nabokov is here using a kind of free indirect style, probably without even thinking about it.’

However, the narration is being ventriloquized via Vladimir Vladimirovich N., Nabokov’s narrator. Whose word then is ‘leggy’? Pnin’s, Nabokov’s, or VVN’s? Whom should we applaud for this fancy bit of writing? Clearly, as Wood suggests, the accolades fall at Nabokov’s feet.

A few years ago the London Review of Books published an admirable article by Iain Sinclair in which he compared, among other things, a piece of writing about a bird by Tom Raworth with a similar avian anecdote by Martin Amis:

‘From the hill the road sloped down and to the right. A dark grey bird with an orange beak skimmed across, paused on a wooden fence, shat, then continued its curve as the blob fell. All the way on the tube he kept      thinking of the line ‘And we walk through the valley of fables where the eagles lie.’ It was going to rain. The colours of the flowers hurt his eyes.’  (Tom Raworth: A serial biography)

Compare and contrast Raworth’s bird with the anachronistic London sparrow (gone, vanished) which puts in a rather showy appearance in the opening sequence of Martin Amis’s ‘Yellow Dog’. Amis is working so hard, as is the sparrow, to be live, engaging, on-the-money; the throwaway charm is so affected, so sub-Keatsian, that the inevitable violence that follows makes for a very pretty natural break.

‘A sparrow, a feathered creature of the middle air, hopped onto the     bench beside him and, with eerie docility, began to ventilate itself, allowing its wings to thrum and purr, six inches away.’

Good, yes? But too much of a stand-out cameo, a guest-star ‘bit’. The Amis sparrow is significant where Raworth’s generic ‘bird’ behaves in its curious way and flies, immediately and without waiting for applause, out of the story. There is much more to tell. Amis can’t leave the canal fauna alone, the nature stuff of Camden. There is a minatory ‘dead duck, head down with its feet sticking up like the arms of a pair of spectacles.’ Another vivid apercu (stopping the drift), like . . . like . . . a well-turned simile from a Martian verse-maker. Raworth and those who have learned from him don’t do similes. Similes diminish narrative integrity by suggesting that this work, this map, is not in itself convincing, or true, and that a parallel world of unsubstantiated ‘likeness’ runs alongside. The simile says: applaud my witAnd, from my prejudiced point of view, the faultline in English literary culture begins here.’

Sinclair alerts us to an element at work within, not simply ‘English’ or ‘literary’ culture, but intrinsic to our whole way of thinking about writing, that is, intrinsic to our entire creative process, in which metaphorisation, the substitution of one thing for another, is a central concern. Susan Sontag, perhaps most notably, warned of the dangers of this in her study of Illness an Metaphor. But there are broader and more generic ramifications: is writing a sort of fancy tricks activity, in which the clever guys get to invent the smartest similes and most alarming metaphors? How do we respond to the clever use of metaphor and simile in writers like Nabokov and Amis? With admiration? With irritation? Or a bit of both?

 

 

Pnin’s double

15 Oct

 

Pnin

 

Reading Nabokov’s Pnin, I spend a while deliberating over a passage in which the hapless Pnin, who teaches Russian in an American university with no requirement for a Professor of Russian, meets a Professor Wynn – a name, in Welsh, that comes about through the soft mutation of my own:

On the day of his party, as he was finishing a late lunch in Frieze Hall, Wynn, or his double, neither of whom had ever appeared there before, suddenly sat down beside him and said:

       ‘I have long wanted to ask you something – you teach Russian don’t you? Last summer I was reading a magazine article on birds – ‘

        (‘Vin! This is Vin! said Pnin to himself, and forthwith perceived a decisive course of action) . . . .

At the party which follows, held at Pnin’s rented house, it transpires that ‘Wynn’ is not who Pnin thinks he is, but a Professor T. W. Thomas. T Wynn. Or Twynn. Or twin. Or a doppelganger for Pnin.

Since Pnin’s story is being narrated by someone who only makes an appearance in the final chapter – and who, moreover, is someone Pnin is eager not to meet (they have known each other, according to the narrator, since their childhood in St Petersburg, a detail which Pnin denies).

All this is most distressing, for reasons I cannot quite ascertain. But what strikes me is the symmetry with which Nabokov casually drops in the Pnin/Wynn/Twin motif, and then abandons it. After the party:

         ‘Good-bye, good-bye, Professor Vin!’ sang out Pnin, his cheeks ruddy and round in the lamplight of the porch . . .

          . . . . ‘Now I wonder why he called me that,’ said T.W. Thomas, Professor of Anthropology, to Laurence and Joan Clements as they walked through the blue darkness toward four cars parked under the elms on the other side of the road.

        ‘Our friend,’ answered Clements, ‘employs a nomenclature all his own. His verbal vagaries add a new thrill to life. His mispronunciations are mythpoeic. His slips of the tongue are oracular. He calls my wife John.’

Mythopoeic his slips of the tongue may be, but it strikes me as only natural that a character whose existence lies in the hands of an unreliable narrator should himself create his own erroneous double (Vin! Vin!), while ignorant of the fact that one’s double, of course, has a double of his (or her) own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Montaigne and the power of the imagination

10 Oct

Montaigne

 

Reading Montaigne’s essay ‘On the power of the imagination’ I am struck by how differently the imagination was viewed in the early modern period. Indeed, understanding of the term is confined to its more negative associative powers. ‘I am one of those who are very much influenced by the imagination’, writes Montaigne, ‘[And] my art is to escape it, not to resist it . . . I do not find it strange that imagination brings fevers and death to those who give it a free hand and encourage it.’

It is only in the Romantic period, when the imagination is associated by Wordsworth and Coleridge with creative power or the poetic principle – the link between the visible and invisible worlds – that the word accrues the significance we attach to it today.

But for Montaigne, imagination is nothing but trouble. Impotence, every manner of psychosomatic disorder, even the tendency to fart, all are blamed on the dreaded imagination. ‘The organs that serve to discharge the bowels have their own dilations and contractions outside of the control of the wishes and contrary to them . . . Indeed I knew one [such organ] that is so turbulent and so intractable that for the last forty years it has compelled its master to break wind with every breath. So unremittingly constant is it in its tyranny that it is even now bringing him to his death.’ The implication is that the imagination works on the individual who wields it– or rather is wielded by it – in the same tyrannical fashion as the bizarre ‘organ’ located in the bottom acts upon its owner.

The French flatulist and entertainer Joseph Pujol, known as Le Pétomane.

The French flatulist Joseph Pujol, known as Le Pétomane.

What is strange in this essay is the to-ing and fro-ing between the pre-modern associations Montaigne makes with acts of witchcraft and other psychic and psychosomatic disturbances for which the imagination is blamed, and the task he sets himself as a writer. In a particularly lucid moment towards the end of the essay, we begin to hear the more familiar voice of the essayist at his best, extolling the virtues of brevity:

‘Some people urge me to write a chronicle of my own times. They consider that I view things with eyes less disturbed by passion than other men, and at closer range, because fortune has given me access to the heads of various factions. But they do not realise that I would not undertake the task for all the fame of Sallust; that I am a sworn foe to constraint, assiduity and perseverance; and that nothing is so foreign to me as an extended narrative.’

 

 

 

 

Tyrannical Prehension

8 Oct
Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003)

Maurice Blanchot (1907-2003)

Half-preparing a class for my MA module ‘The Creative Process’, but actually taking time to enjoy the material – something that happens far too infrequently these days, especially in busy October – I stumble across a strange passage in Blanchot, on something referred to, perplexingly, as Tyrannical Prehension. It sounds like a stomach disorder, but is, in fact, far more sinister:

‘Sometimes, when a man is holding a pencil, his hand won’t release it no matter how badly he wants to let it go. Instead, the hand tightens rather than open. The other hand intervenes more successfully, but then the hand which one might call sick makes a slow, tentative movement and tries to catch the departing object. The strange thing is the slowness of this movement. The hand moves in a tempo which is scarcely human: not that of a viable action, not that of a hope either, but rather the shadow of time, the hand being itself the shadow of a hand slipping ghostlike toward and object that has become its own shadow. This hand experiences, at certain moments, a very great need to seize: it must grasp the pencil, it has to. It receives an order, an imperious command. This phenomenon is known as “tyrannical prehension.”’

The urgency of writing, the need to write right now, becomes pathologised. But we write, according to Blanchot, only when we have already begun to write:

‘Writing begins with Orpheus’ gaze. And this gaze is the movement of desire that shatters the song’s destiny, that disrupts concern for it, and in this inspired and careless decision reaches the origin, consecrates the song. But in order to descend towards this instant, Orpheus has to possess the power of art already. This is to say: one writes only if one reaches that instant which nevertheless one can only approach in the space opened by the movement of writing. To write one has to write already. In this contradiction are situated the essence of writing, the snag in the experience, and inspiration’s leap.’

I find among my papers some notes I took from a lecture given by Hélène Cixous at Cardiff University ten years ago. The talk was called ‘The Unforeseeable’, and I remember enjoying it a lot. Ms Cixous was extremely elegant and spoke manicured English. She said that the title of her lecture referred to the unexpectedness of what one writes, which is unforeseeable, even to oneself.

You reach the point where the book, not the author, is writing the book.

With writing you go in one direction and find yourself forced in another direction.

But paradoxically, the strength of the writer lies in his or her helplessness. Why might this be?

She cited her friend Derrida as saying: ‘The work starts by itself.’ He used to say: ‘It’s started,’ when asked about a new piece of writing (rather than ‘I have started it’).

The book is unexpected, unforeseeable.

I’m not sure what to make of all this.

In another class this week, an undergraduate nonfiction class – not the MA class in which I discuss Blanchot – a student turns in a piece about trying to hold onto a pencil, against the odds, while a force beyond her control seizes control of the hand with which she tries to hold the pencil. This is very strange. Unaccountable coincidence or tyrannical prehension? Synchronicity? Unforeseeable, certainly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gabo and the drunks

20 Sep
Wall painting, Cartagena.

Wall painting, Cartagena.

On Tuesday at five I do a reading in the library of the University of Cartagena – whose most famous alumnus was Gabriel García Márquez – and learn from one of the Profs that there is a crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel that appears in the author’s novel Love and Other Demons. The Santa Clara is in the old quarter, not far from the university. After a drink with the Profs I decide to go and investigate. The Santa Clara was once a convent, and has been converted into one of the most luxurious establishments in the city. A tribute to Gabo by Boyd Tonkin puts it thus:

‘The lovely 16th-century convent, once also a hospital, has a crypt. In 1994, by then living again in the city of his youth and his dreams, Garcia Marquez published Of Love and Other Demons. That novel, as much an impassioned evocation of Cartagena as the better-known Love in the Time of Cholera, tells of a young journalist sent in 1949 to the newly excavated site of Santa Clara. He has to investigate the miraculous skeleton of a child marquise, dead 200 years but now exhumed with a 22m “stream of living hair the intense colour of copper”. A mood of febrile gothic menace pervades the tale, although the walled city it conjures up could hardly be more topographically exact . . .’

When I arrive at the Santa Clara, a white-coated lackey, with top hat to match, opens the door for me. I tell him I’ve come to see the famous crypt. He shows me it. Here it is.

Crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel Cartagena

Crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel Cartagena

The drinks in the Santa Clara are Chelsea prices. But the bar is vast and cool, so I sit there for a while and soak in the wealth. When I leave, I pass other, smaller, boutique hotels and very chic eateries with exotic names. I walk past a group of six young English tourists – three of each gender – who resemble the cast of, well, Made in Chelsea. ‘Oh don’t let’s do the walking game, Fiona,’ says a boy with a kiss curl. He wants to sit down. Fiona wants to go on, see if they can find somewhere more to her liking. I wander down the street a while, marvelling at the extent this part of town has been gentrified. I return past the group. They have sat down. The boy with the kiss curl has got his way.

Manic Street Preacher, Cartagena

Manic Street Preacher, Cartagena

When I walk back into Getsemaní, where my humble B &B, Casa Relax, is located, the difference is striking. There is much more shit in the street. More dogs too. The square at La Santisima Trinidad is packed with a different sort of company: Colombians – both locals and tourists – and budget backpackers. Perhaps a few middle aged men, like me, with nostalgie de la boue.

On the southwest corner of the Plaza a man sits outside a bar. A discreet bar, I might add, which looks kind of empty. I’ve seen the man sitting here before. I couldn’t help but notice him. He bears a keen resemblance to Leonardo di Caprio. He sits outside in an armchair, pulling on a fat cigar. At his feet lies a British Bulldog. The dog looks like he might fancy a cigar as well.

We nod a greeting to each other the second time I pass. The third time I stop and speak to him.

‘Are you the owner, or do you just look like it?’

He smiles. ‘I am the owner, yes.’ He is of medium build, blonde hair with a side parting, friendly face, perhaps too innocent looking for this game, but I might be mistaken. He stands up to shake my hand.

‘Hi, I’m Nicholas. Pleased to meet you.’ The accent is very slight, Nordic, possibly German, but possibly Swedish.

‘Richard. And who is your friend?’ I gesture down at the pooch.

‘Ha ha. He is my partner. His name is Socio. Which in Spanish means partner.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Five years.’

‘How does he handle the heat?’

‘He does OK.’

I want to ask what the local strays make of Socio, but it’s too early for that.

‘Looks like a nice bar,’ I say. ‘Thanks,’ he says. I peer inside. There are three tourist on stools at the bar. I’ve been past here half a dozen times and it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone inside.

‘I’ll come and have a drink, but need to get some food first.’

‘Ah, we do food normally, but with this electricity cut, it’s not possible.’

‘That’s okay. I’ll see you later’

I go to eat at Trattoria di Silvio, at a table on the pavement across the narrow street, fifty metres up from the square. I have just finished my pizza when the second electricity cut of the evening strikes. You can’t see much at all. I have a candle at my table. The three Portuguese at the next table do not and are still eating so I pass them my candle. A few minutes later the waitress brings me another. Nicholas walks past with Socio. I wave at him and he calls back a valediction. I guess the second power failure has proved too much for him. Pity. I would have liked to have heard his story.

Like the other up-market bar across the square, his business is unlikely to fare well while the shop next door sells beer for 2,000 pesos (60p) and half bottles of rum or aguardiente for a couple of quid apiece. But if, as seems likely, Getsemaní eventually becomes more gentrified, following the lead of the historic centre, Nicholas will be in business. At the moment that seems a long way off.

I sit on the edge of the square and soak in the spirit of the place. The smell of marihuana sits heavy on the air. I will be leaving Cartagena in the morning. Three old aguardiente drinkers sit to my right. The black one has two teeth, perched at opposite corners of his mouth. He laughs wheezily and without cease, and on one occasion bursts into raucous song, which his two companions applaud ecstatically. The thinnest one – they are all three skin and bone, but this one is so thin he could snap – is shaped like a question mark and drags his foot when he moves, in the manner of someone with terminal liver disease. He calls out every few minutes for música música, looking around the square desperately to see whether his plea will be heeded in some quarter; and the third, the most desperate of these three musketeers, is too far gone to do anything but gurn like a cretin at the world passing by – if indeed he can see it. The three eventually stagger off into the night, moving with extreme difficulty, as though struggling against the tide of life, towards a sea of oblivion. I have a sudden vision of Macbeth’s three witches, and imagine the crones reincarnated as these three Caribbean drunks, wrecked beyond pity or purpose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thunderstorms and a dead dog alibi

19 Sep

Tuesday 4.30 a.m. William is outside the hotel with the pick-up truck for the return journey to Cartagena. This time I get to sit in the front. I must have earned the privilege somehow, or else he is feeling guilty about the Sunday lunch invitation. Rumblings of approaching thunder.

We are barely out of Mompox when the storm hits us with apocalyptic intensity, the rain crashing down like stair rods. We edge forward along the mud road, which has become a slow-moving river. Visibility is down to a few metres. At one point, an hour out of Mompox, the rain has not diminished. It is still dark, and I glimpse a cyclist, dressed only in a vest and pants, utterly stuck in the mud, drenched, balanced immobile on his bike.

When we hit the ferry at Santa Ana de la Magdalena, we are escorted down the slippery approach by a man clad in a bin liner. Around 6.30 daylight filters through and the rain begins to ease. We hit a covered road and begin to make progress. Casualties of the storm begin to appear along the roadside: mainly dogs that have been hit by cars driving blind through the storm. I count six dead dogs on the return trip. A (live) dog is tearing at one of the canine corpses, pulling at a leg, as if dismembering a chicken. A disturbing image. Dog eat dog. Further on, vultures are feasting on another. The body of a donkey on the verge comes as a vision from Chagall: how did they hit that? Where is the owner? There is plenty of other random roadkill, unidentified, and whenever our truck approaches the vultures scatter. The weather has cleared up and we look set for another warm day. At our breakfast stop, a parakeet hops onto the railing by my table, stares at me intently and then wolf-whistles loudly. It continues to stare at me while I finish my coffee, and when I get up to leave, it flies off.

 

aa parakeet friend

 

Just after eleven we descend into Cartagena, as another rainstorm hits from the Caribbean. William drops me off at my hotel, the aptly named Casa Relax. It rains for two hours and the streets are flooded. When I emerge to try and find some lunch, the sun is finally attempting a breakthrough.

 

Rain in Cartagena

Rain in Cartagena

 

As I set off down the street toward the Plaza, someone calls out ‘Oyé, Blanco’. I wonder how they can possibly know my name, and then I register this a regular form of address for a white man. A street vendor is beckoning me over: ‘Hey, Whitey!’ In similar fashion, black men are addressed as ‘Negro’ in a friendly, inoffensive way that would be unthinkable at home – although not, I guess, in the U.S. portrayed in The Wire and elsewhere – but then strictly black on black, whereas in Colombia white and black call each other ‘negro’ and ‘blanco’ indiscriminately. I recall that the footballer Luis Suárez referred to this familiar usage of ‘Negro’ as a defence when accused of using racist language against Patrice Evra in October 2011. His claim that this was a normal and friendly form of address was rejected by the FA enquiry, because it was not delivered in a friendly or familiar manner.

 

 

 

 

 

Of iguanas and aguardiente

18 Sep

 

aa iguana

Saturday evening in Mompox. I bump into our driver, William, and he invites me to come for a bite to eat with some members of his family. We sit out in the Plaza next to the church of Santo Domingo. William’s brother-in-law, Carlos, finds it extremely amusing that the family is seated around a table with a foreigner, and occasionally leans over in an attempt to speak a word or two of pidgin English. I have no idea why he does this. I speak perfectly good Spanish. But there is a certain type of individual who finds foreigners inherently funny (perhaps to deflect from the fact that he finds them threatening) and it comes as no surprise to discover he is a member of the Colombian police. A rather junior member, I would hope, but you can never tell.

We eat several plates of meat and potatoes – a variety of potato with a thick fibrous taste, which William tells me is called papa yucca. It is accompanied by Aguila light, a practically alcohol-free beer. Although Colombians like to drink, like the Russians they do not really consider beer to be a form of alcohol. The favourite tipple of Carlos and William – indeed of Colombians in general – is aguardiente, an aniseed based firewater. When, after supper, we retire to the discoteca – a forlorn establishment, in which couples of a certain age dance in each other’s arms – William and Carlos put away a bottle of aguardiente between them within an hour. At the end of the evening William refuses to let me walk home – although we are only three blocks from my hotel – and we hail a mototaxi – basically a motorbike with a small bench for two passengers attached, and six of us pile on. This is quite illegal, but we have the police with us, so I guess it’s all right.

When we get to my hotel Carlos leaps out and hammers on the thick wooden door with the iron knocker, invoking all the authority of the law. William has invited me to lunch with the extended family (and parents-in-law) after mass the next day. I say I would be happy to come but will skip mass. Whether for this reason or another (Carlos’ suspicions that I may be an intellectual and therefore probably a leftist – or the fact that while in Cartagena I was staying in the comparatively disreputable barrio of Getsemaní rather than the historic centre –where hotels cost from three to six times as much) I do not know, but William doesn’t come to pick me up at the arranged time (I later find out he had to make an unscheduled chauffering trip to Cartagena at midday). It would have been nice, but I think I garnered enough of the conservative, Catholic agenda to have predicted the course of the lunchtime conversation.

First and foremost on this agenda is an unshakeable faith: churches in Colombia are packed and religious paraphernalia everywhere. William crosses himself every time he passes a church, and at random other moments while driving his truck. Secondly, and not surprisingly given the country’s recent past, a deep hostility to both drugs and drug users. In a certain sense, the drug trade and all who sail in it are seen by the Catholic right as responsible for the multiple woes that Colombia has suffered. The following evening, sitting in the park, I am approached by a young dreadlocked type who taps me for a few coins. I give him a few pesos – the equivalent, literally, of around 20 p – and he goes off happy. Two drunks sitting nearby, sharing a bottle of aguardiente tell me off, explaining that the boy will spend it on la droga. This incenses them. They wave the bottle around in their rage at the very thought, and they are clearly oblivious to any inconsistency between their attitude to drugs and their own benighted state. But it has always been this way: the ‘legal’ drug of the Christian West somehow fuels people with moral indignation about other intoxicating substances. With Islam it’s the other way round.

On Sunday I try to arrange a boat trip up the Magdalena. The banks are thick with wildlife – especially birds. I know very little about birds, but it seems a shame to be on the river and not take the opportunity to explore a little. A young entrepreneur, Lazaro, offers to find a boat for me. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a mobile phone, and has to borrow mine to speak to his contacts. This seems like a poor start, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. He tells me to meet him at 3 pm in the Plaza de la Concepión. He finds me having lunch at the nearby Comedor Costeño and waits for me to finish. When we leave he tells me that paying 14,000 pesos (about £4.50) for a meal of oxtail soup, fresh fish, rice, plantain and salad, and a home made fruit juice was excessive. I think I have his measure. He borrows my phone to speak to his contact again, and the price I was promised this morning – 25,000 for three hours on the river – has gone up to 35,000 – he hands me the phone to speak to the boat owner just to prove he is not making it up. We stop a mototaxi and set off for the outskirts of town, downriver. When we get there, there is no boat. Lazaro, a little frantic now, borrows my mobile again. He furrows his brow. I can tell this is not going to be good news. The boat trip is off: the other two passengers that were lined up have postponed until tomorrow. I have a friend, begins Lazaro, with a boat, good price . . .

I have given up, lost all interest, but we have to return to town anyway, so off we go in the same mototaxi. When we get to the Plaza San Francisco, Lazaro strides to the bank and yells across the river to a single farm building on the other side. Miraculously, a couple of minutes later I see a man come to the shore. He is accompanied by a man in a red shirt and a young girl of around ten. After considerable discussion between the two men, they unrope the launch – little more than a canoe with a small outboard attached, and cross the river. We fix a price, a quarter of which goes to Lazaro, who then departs, happy. I am not sorry to seem him go.

aa girl on boat

 

Pedro, the boat owner, introduces himself. He is courteous and sober. His companion, Edgar, seems exceedingly dim, until I realise that his exaggeratedly slow speech and movements are due to the fact that he is completely off his face. The girl sits on the prow at first, but is deposited on the far bank before we set off, first down river, then upriver. Pedro is fairly astute and good at pointing out animals and birds. Edgar is completely vacant, occasionally turning to me and asking if I speak Spanish, and when I reply in the affirmative saying no more but simply nodding to himself sadly. He even ventures to ask me where I am from, and when I tell him he clearly has no idea what on earth Wales is, and I can’t be bothered with an explanation – so he again nods to himself sadly, perched precariously on the edge of the launch, a position he maintain majestically throughout the trip. There are no further attempts at conversation, except when Pedro calls out the name of an animal or bird and Edgar waves his arms frantically in the requisite direction, of which the only effect is to scare the creatures away. The biggest thrill comes with the iguanas, which I cannot see at first – they are so well disguised – and Edgar rouses himself from his moribund state to gesture frantically at the river bank. Unfortunately there is a lot of riverbank, and by the time I have got the iguana in focus, it moves. Same thing happens the second time. Fortunately I am luckier the third time.

 

aa edgar

 

aa canoe + 4

That evening, my last in Mompox, I wander around the town. I can pick up something of the mystery of the place, especially along the old riverside buildings, which once served as warehouses and workshops. Some of them look as though they are being turned into bars, but haven’t quite opened. My unhelpful guidebook tells me the ‘zona rosa’ is a pleasant place to take a nightcap, but I can neither agree not disagree, because it doesn’t seem to exist. However I have a flavour, I think, both of what Mompox once was, and what it might become if tourism gets a firmer toehold. Certainly there were properties for sale that could well appeal to a certain kind of nostalgic and world-weary European or North American with an urge to sink into timeless reverie on the banks of the Magdalena.

aa house for sale

 

aa mompox juice shop

 

aa mompox night

 

 

 

 

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