The collapsing world

4 Dec
Shaman Davi Kopenawa

Shaman Davi Kopenawa

In a recent review of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, I learn that in a creation myth of the Yanomami people, the original world – the world that was here before – was “crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed ‘back’ of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged.” A new sky was set up and “held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.”

The fragility of the known world is a theme that emerges also in Juan José Saer’s book The Witness (see post from 30 November). The nameless cabin boy who is adopted by a tribe living on the banks of a South American river is returned to the invading Spaniards ten years after his capture. Eschewing public attention, he holes up in a Spanish monastery for several years, under the tutelage of a sagacious monk, who teaches him Latin, Greek and Hebrew. On his protector’s death, he leaves the monastery and lives as a vagrant, before eventually he joins up with a group of actors, and – to great public acclaim – tours the cities of Europe, performing a drama of his ‘life among the savages’, in which he acts himself. It is only in his old age that he settles down to write his account of those years.

And here he returns to the theme of the precariousness of the world, and all that is in it. The Indians among whom he lived all those years ago considered themselves and the world they inhabited to be coterminous. Outside they do not feel on safe ground.

“Even though they [the Indians] took for granted the non-existence of others, their own existence was in no way irrefutable . . . For them the main attribute of all things was precariousness.” This belief has a linguistic base: there is no equivalent word in their language for ‘to be’. The closest equivalent they have means ‘to seem’. “But ‘seems’ has more of a feeling of untrustworthiness than sameness. It is more a negative than a positive. It implies an objection rather than a comparison. It does not refer to a known image but rather tends to erode perception and diminish its force. The word used to designate appearance also means exteriority, a lie, an eclipse, enemy. Everything that presented itself clearly to the sense was for them formless and had a vague and sticky underside against which the darkness beat.” The people among whom our narrator lives, nevertheless, regard themselves as the custodians of this fragile and terrifyingly insubstantial world. “In their hands lay the precarious fate of all perishable life. It would take only a moment’s inattention for it all to collapse, taking them with it.”

I do not regard this attitude towards the imminent collapse of all reality to be that unreasonable. After all, those of us who grew up in the sixties came to consciousness under a not entirely dissimilar mythology of imminent extinction: in our case it was thermonuclear war. Now it is the destruction of the ozone layer and climate change. It is no surprise that environmentalists have adopted the Shaman Davi Kopenawa, co-author of The Falling Sky, as a spokesperson for those many peoples whose habitat is under constant environmental threat from loggers and miners, or from the effects of climate change. Davi Kopenawa has taken on this mantle, appearing at events worldwide on behalf of his people, and others like them. According to the New York Review article, “he finds echoes of Yanomami notions in Western environmental thought, but with an important caveat: “Since the beginning of time, Omama has been the center of what the white people call ecology…. In the forest, we human beings are the ‘ecology.’”

Spanish Gold

30 Nov

Yesterday evening in my native town, or village, as I still think of it (although it has grown since my departure to something more town-sized), I went into the corner shop that I used throughout my childhood for buying sweets –fruit salads and blackjacks (four a penny); barley sugar sticks; and best of all, those thin wormlike strands of sweet coconut-flavoured pretend tobacco, wrapped in waxy paper, called Spanish Gold –which I am certain could not be sold to children today. Old Mr J, the shopkeeper, had very bad teeth and no doubt had been on the Spanish Gold all his life. But the stuff obsessed me, and moreover fitted in perfectly with my career plans: to be a pirate, to ride wooden ships on the Spanish Main and do other exciting pirate stuff. Spanish GoldSpanish GoldSo yesterday, after the Wales-South Africa rugby match, which I have watched at his home with my elderly father, I go back to the shop for the first time in many years, to be served by a man a little younger than myself (the original Mr J’s grandson), and I am at once inside a time warp. I am six years old and using up my entire shilling allowance on sweeties. Old Mr J is leaning over me with his blackened stumps and national health specs and calling me ‘the young doctor’, while stuffing a white paper bag with teeth-rotting goodies. Driving back to Cardiff I am in a kind of self-induced trance, in which I am trying to distinguish between the things that actually happened in that (by now mythical) sweet shop, and the things that my memory has conferred upon it over the interceding years. I realise then that the shop has also entered my personal dreamscape.

And later, as so often happens, a kind of answer arises in the book that I am reading. Or else, I contrive to find a corresponding thesis in what I am reading that maps almost perfectly onto my experiences in my childhood home town.   witness1Propped up in bed on Sunday morning, reading The Witness, a novel by Juan José Saer originally published in Spanish as El Entenado, or ‘The Stepson’ – and beautifully translated by Margaret Jull Costa – I follow the hazardous experiences of the young narrator, an unnamed cabin boy on a sixteenth century Spanish expedition, who is captured by Native Americans on the River Plate. The Native Americans (or Indians, as they prefer to call themselves in Latin America), while exceptionally courteous to the cabin boy himself, are about to cook and eat his shipmates, when he experiences a moment of clarity:

I think that was the first time – aged all of fifteen – that an idea with which I am now familiar first occurred to me: namely that the memory of an event is not sufficient proof that it actually happened, just as the memory of a dream that we believe we had in the past, many years or months before the moment in which we remember it, is not sufficient proof that the dream took place in the distant past rather than the night before the day on which we recall it, or even that it occurred before the precise moment we state that it has occurred.

And how often has that happened? You dream a dream, and are certain that you have dreamed it before: or else, even as you are dreaming it, you have the sensation that you are re-dreaming a dream you had many years before? It then seems almost as if the world you enter in dreamtime is a continuum that exists with or without your participation, and when you dream you simply dip into it, witness (that word again) whatever happens to be occurring at that precise moment. But – and this is important – you remember part of the dream landscape from previous dreams, and you waken with a feeling of déjà vu that makes you feel as if you had just returned from a familiar place. Sometimes, like yesterday evening in the sweetshop, it is as if that place exists neither in reality nor in dream, but some place in between.

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!

 

 

 

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