Pablo Neruda: Don Asterio Alarcón, timekeeper of Valparaíso

16 Nov

Valparaiso 2

 

To Don Asterio Alarcón, timekeeper of Valparaíso

 

Valparaíso has the smell

of a crazy port,

the smell of a shadow, of a star,

of moon-scale

and fish-tail.

The heart shudders

on the harrowing stairways

of the bristling hills:

grave poverty and black eyes

dance there in the fog

and the flags of the kingdom

hang from windows:

patched sheets,

old shirts,

long undershorts

and the sea sun salutes the banners

while the white clothes wave

the sailors a poor farewell.

 

Sea streets, windy streets

of the hard day wrapped in air and waves,

alleys that sing upward

in a spiral like snails:

the commercial afternoon is transparent,

the sun visits the merchandise

in order to sell the warehouse smiles,

showing windows and sets of teeth,

shoes and thermometers, bottles

that hold a green night,

unreachable suits, golden clothes,

awful socks, mild cheeses,

and so I come to the point

of this ode.

 

There is a shop window

with its glass

and inside,

between timepieces,

the clockmaker don Asterio Alarcón.

The street boils and turns

burns and batters,

but behind the glass

the clockmaker,

the old curator of timepieces

stands immobile,

with a protruding eye,

an extravagant eye

which guesses the enigma,

the cardiac arrest of the clocks

and scrutinizes with one eye

until the obscure butterfly

of timekeeping

alights on his brow

and the hands of the clock move.

Don Asterio Alarcón is the ancient

hero of minutes

and the boat sails on the wave

measured by his hands

that add

responsibility to the minute hand,

neatness to the beat:

Don Asterio in his aquarium

watched over the sea clocks,

oiled with patience

the blue heart of the seascape.

For fifty years,

or eighteen thousand days,

the river of children and men and women

flowed by

up the shabby hills or down to the sea,

while the clockmaker,

amidst clocks,

stopped in time,

softened like a pure vessel

against the eternity of the current,

his timbers appeased,

and little by little the wise man

emerged from the artisan

working

with magnifying glass and oil

cleansed of envy, fear discarded,

fulfilled his job and destiny,

until time itself

in its fearsome passage

made a pact with him, with don Asterio,

and he awaits his hour.

 

So when I pass by

the frantic street,

the black river of Valparaíso,

I only hear one sound

among the sounds,

among so many clocks one only:

the exhausted, gentle, murmuring

and ancient movement

of a great pure heart:

the distinguished and humble

tick-tock of Don Asterio.

 

 

Translation by Richard Gwyn

 

 

 Val BBC

 

  

A Don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista de Valparaíso

 

Olor a puerto loco

tiene Valparaíso,

olor a sombra, a estrella,

a escama de la luna

y a cola de pescado.

El corazón recibe escalofríos

en las desgarradoras escaleras

de los hirsutos cerros:

allí grave miseria y negros ojos

bailan en la neblina

y cuelgan las banderas

del reino en las ventanas:

las sábanas zurcidas,

las viejas camisetas,

los largos calzoncillos,

y el sol del mar saluda los emblemas

mientras la ropa blanca balancea

un pobre adiós a la marinería.

 

Calles del mar, del viento,

del día duro envuelto en aire y ola,

callejones que cantan hacia arriba

en espiral como las caracolas:

la tarde comercial es transparente,

el sol visita las mercaderías,

para vender sonríe el almacén

abriendo escaparate y dentadura,

zapatos y termómetros, botellas

que encierran noche verde,

trajes inalcanzables, ropa de oro,

funestos calcetines, suaves quesos,

y entonces llego al tema

de esta oda.

 

Hay un escaparate

con su vidrio

y adentro,

entre cronómetros,

don Asterio Alarcón, cronometrista.

La calle hierve y sigue,

arde y golpea,

pero detrás del vidrio

el relojero,

el viejo ordenador de los relojes,

está inmovilizado

con un ojo hacia afuera,

un ojo extravagante

que adivina el enigma,

el cardíaco fin de los relojes,

y escruta con un ojo

hasta que la impalpable mariposa

de la cronometría

se detiene en su frente

y se mueven las alas del reloj.

Don Asterio Alarcón es el antiguo

héroe de los minutos

y el barco va en la ola

medido por sus manos

que agregaron

responsabilidad al minutero,

pulcritud al latido:

Don Asterio en su acuario

vigiló los cronómetros del mar,

aceitó con paciencia

el corazón azul de la marina.

Durante cincuenta años,

o dieciocho mil días,

allí pasaba el río

de niños y varones y mujeres

hacia harapientos cerros o hacia el mar,

mientras el relojero,

entre relojes,

detenido en el tiempo,

se suavizó como la nave pura

contra la eternidad de la corriente,

serenó su madera,

y poco a poco el sabio

salió del artesano,

trabajando

con lupa y con aceite

limpió la envidia, descartó el temor,

cumplió su ocupación y su destino,

hasta que ahora el tiempo,

el transcurrir temible,

hizo pacto con él, con don Asterio,

y él espera su hora de reloj.

 

Por eso cuando paso

la trepidante calle,

el río negro de Valparaíso,

sólo escucho un sonido entre sonidos,

entre tantos relojes uno solo:

el fatigado, suave, susurrante

y antiguo movimiento

de un gran corazón puro:

el insigne y humilde

tic tac de don Asterio.

 

 

From Plenos Poderes, first published by Losada, Buenos Aires.

A short walk in Valparaíso

7 Nov
Neruda's house, 'La Sebastiana'.

Neruda’s house, ‘La Sebastiana’.

I first came across the name Valparaíso via Neruda’s poem dedicated to Don Asterio Alarcón, the clockmaker of that city, many years ago. Neruda’s house is a fabulous creation, built on five stories, most of the rooms having large windows that look out over the bay. Not to be missed, whatever you think of the poet (or bis personal life).

val seaview

Valparaíso was the most important port on the Pacific seaboard of the Americas until the creation of the Panama canal. It lies on several hill, or cerros, cluttered with houses of every shape, many of them built from adobe covered with tin sheeting salvaged from ships, and painted in bright colours. I had the good fortune to be shown around town by the young poet Enrique Winter, and walking is the only way to see Valparaíso as it is a labyrinth of alleys and stairways – and also boasts a series of antique lift or elevators, some of them actually working.

Valaparaíso is still a working port, and the main base of the Chilean navy. In the early evening we visited a place where old sailors come to die, called Liberty. We had not been there long when a French TV film crew came in and wanted to film two gentlemen (depicted below) sing a couple of songs. They wanted us to move tables. ‘Why’, asked Enrique, ‘don’t we look Chilean enough for you?’ The French TV producer very kindly offered to pay our bill, so we acceded to his request and moved to another table. When the music ended there was a lot of hooting and rowdy behaviour from the local clientele, which included a 1970s football star from the town’s once glorious team (football was introduced to the city by British sailors).

val libert 2

After dinner, returning to Enrique’s house, I acquired an escort of four black dogs, of varying sizes. All I needed was a cape and I could have stepped straight out of an Iron Maiden song.

Val kennels

Valparaíso is a slice of paradise, however obvious the statement. Even the French TV crew could be forgiven. Later yesterday evening, back in Santiago, we were invited to a party in a swish part of town and I ended up having a long chat with the film director Miguel Littín, subject of the Gabriel García Márquez book Clandestine in Chile.  His opinion was different.French TV film crews’, he confided, ‘they are the worst.’

Val orgasmos

 

val brecon

 

val view

The art of kissing

5 Nov

Portada – El desayuno del vagabundo

The principal purpose of this trip – to Buenos Aires and Santiago de Chile – is to attend the launches in those two cities of The Vagabond’s Breakfast in Spanish. This is being undertaken by Argentine publishers Bajo la luna, and the Chilean outfit LOM.

tapa el desayuno

The book covers show a certain consistency of theme, which, at least in part, reflects the content of the book, although the Argentinian cover, while attention-grabbing, perhaps gives a misleading impression of irreversible dipsomania. Strangely, our first full day in Buenos Aires, we walked into a café, coincidentally called Poesía (poetry) to be met by a wall with a very similar façade.

bottles

So, on Monday I was picked up by LOM’s publicity person, Patricia, and taken to the University of Santiago to give a lecture – or so I thought – on Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas and David Jones. Having prepared this lecture, and given a version of it for the British Council in Buenos Aires (in English) I was not too worried about giving the same talk in Spanish. However, as often happens, there was a degree of confusion on the part of the university as to what exactly I was going to talk about, and when I arrived at the lecture hall I was confronted by a poster featuring a photo of myself wearing a straw hat, under the heading ‘Cómo un escritor se transforma en traductor’ – ‘How a writer turns into a translator’; an act of metamorphosis that I had never consciously given any thought to (but perhaps easier to tackle than ‘How a writer turns into a gardener’), which the hat might suggest, and since I was accompanied by my translator, the excellent Jorge Fondebrider, I thought: what the hell, why not. We’ll do it as a conversation, suggested Jorge. You’ll cope, he added, encouragingly.

poster

In the hall, having successfully managed a sound check, the students and their lecturers filed in, rather a lot of them. They were extremely kind and attentive (only two of them actually fell asleep), while I wittered on about things that I hoped made sense, and which no one directly contradicted, all the while being prompted and prodded into acts of self-revelation by the industrious Señor Fondebrider. Questions followed, of a most informed kind – the students were studying for degrees in either translation or English, and when it was over, I walked out into the warm sunshine with the sense that another challenge had been overcome, another milestone passed.

After lunch, I took a walk in the nearby park – situated on a steep hill, named Santa Lucia – directly opposite my hotel. It was here that Pedro de Valdivia, the conquistador and founder of Santiago, first pitched camp. Today, however, it is filled with courting couples, dotted like coupling worms across the hillside, all of them kissing as though it were the national sport. For obvious I couldn’t take any photos: it would have been hard to justify as an act of research, but I have never witnessed such dedicated kissing; a wholesome, almost spiritual act of collective union; something like a Korean mass wedding, all entwined on the grass of the hill where Pedro de Valdivia once made camp with his 500 battle-weary conquistadores.

park

 

dogs

 

 

 

 

 

 

The things we leave behind

2 Nov

The things we leave behind, or set apart, are usually left behind or set apart because they serve a purpose different from the one we have currently in mind. A walk around Santiago’s La Vega and Central markets yesterday morning, followed by a stroll in the Yungay district confirmed this notion. An illuminating and educational way of passing the morning before the arduous business of attending the city’s annual book fair.

  1. Fish heads are left behind because people often feel as though they are not intrinsic to the preparation and cooking of said fish, since, unless they are very small fish, the heads are unlikely to be eaten. However this does not take into consideration the aesthetic qualities of presentation. If you are going to bake a large fish and place it on a serving dish in the middle of a table, you want it with its head attached, surely? Many people, nevertheless, leave their fish heads with the fishmonger, who will display them in a basin or bucket.

market 1

  1. Pigs have been known to lose their heads. Or, put another way, the heads get left behind in the general process of butchery. The three unfortunate specimens in this photograph, snouts pressed up against the glass of their cold grave, are sad examples of human carnivorousness. But if the situation were reversed, and pigs were left in charge, would humans fare any better? If the HBO series Deadwood is any guide, decidedly not.

market 2

3. Someone seems to have left a backpack filled with dead chickens on the pavement. This questionable practice is apparently an acceptable way to dispose of one’s unwanted chickens in Santiago.

market 3

  1. Bicycles are left outside the barber’s or the restaurant as they would be an encumbrance inside. There would be no space. However, they are far more likely to be stolen if left outside. Therefore their owners attach the bicycle to a fixed object by the use of a chain or similar locking device.

market 4

  1. A cardboard box, once used for the packaging of roses, is left out in the flower market, and provides a handy resting place for a couple of market dogs. Dogs, it should be noted, are everywhere in Santiago de Chile. They are often quite large specimens, such as the black one here, and roam the streets with a marked sense of propriety. People appear to be generally indulgent of them, and consequently the dogs are a constant presence: a Santiago street scene is not complete without a canine in view.

market 5

5a. Sometimes a clever street dog overcomes the lack of manual dexterity that affects species without an opposable thumb, and learns to paint. Below is a self portrait by ‘Blue Dog’, in the barrio of Yungay.

market 5a

  1. Back in the fish market, I discover the most bizarre species of seafood I have yet encountered: picorocos. They are pictured below, their little claws gesturing feebly in the blind air. They live inside their tunnel-like log homes (not logs, but crumbly rocks), and they wait. They wait, their little claws gesturing blindly in the empty air. And they wait . . .

market 6

  1. Finally, Laszlo and Koqoshka, who got left behind when the circus moved on, and are wanted for charlatanry. One wonders what particular crimes this offence entails, but Laszlo’s moustache certainly gives the impression that he might not be a chap to whom one would entrust the family silver. Koqoshka, as I have just now been reminded, bears a distinct resemblance to W.N. Herbert’s Murder Bear. But did he really get left behind? And. as this is a ‘Wanted’ poster, would any sane booty-hunter really wish to find Koqoshka and his ‘keeper’?

market 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day of the Dead in Santiago de Chile

1 Nov

 

halloween 7

The Creative Ambassador of Wales is made welcome by the Mexican Dead

At the kind invitation of the Mexican Embassy in Chile we attend a Halloween celebration in the municipal cemetery of Santiago. Having arrived in the Chilean capital only a couple of hours earlier, it is as if I have been suddenly and unexpectedly returned to Mexico. There are speeches by ambassadors, civil dignitaries and other big cheeses, and displays of cultural artefacts relating to the Day of the Dead, the usual paraphernalia of skulls and trinkets and macabre dolls, some of them edible.  Gradually the dead appear among us, filtering through the crowd: a young married couple, a family group, and a very elegant group of dancers from Guadalajara. After music and dances, we are led on a candlelit tour of the cemetery, which holds the earthly remains of the most illustrious figures in Chilean history, including Salvador Allende, whose leftist government was crushed by the military of General Pinochet in the coup of 1973, and who died in circumstances which still remain unclear – and so will remain until the end of time. Time which, as the Mexicans know so well, passes too rapidly for us, until we too join the great silent hordes of the deceased, who once a year mingle with us, are permitted to sit at table and witness earthly pleasures, to sing and dance and drink tequila, and to envy the living; while we look on with a mix of terror and fascination at these spectral figures, so elegant in their finery, yet so devoid of substance, knowing that we will one day be them; that in a certain sense, we already are.

 

halloween 2

 

halloween 3

 

 

halloween 4

 

halloween 5

 

 

halloween 6

 

Let the Great Hullaballoo begin

Let the Great Hullaballoo begin!

dia de los muertos manic

Taken!

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,674 other followers