This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.
Lydia Davis, in inimitable style, consolidates the elements of reading, writing and travel in a short piece from her 1997 collection, Almost no Memory:
Michel Butor says that to travel is to write, because to travel is to read. This can be developed further: To write is to travel, to write is to read, to read is to write, and to read is to travel. But George Steiner says that to translate is also to read, and to translate is to write, as to write is to translate and to read is to translate. So that we may say: To translate is to travel and to travel is to translate. To translate a travel writing, for example, is to read a travel writing, to write a travel writing, to read a writing, to write a writing, and to travel. But if because you are translating you read, and because writing translate, because traveling write, because traveling read, and because translating travel; that is, if to read is to translate, and to translate is to write, to write to travel, to read to travel, to write to read, to read to write, and to travel to translate; then to write is also to write, and to read is also to read, and even more, because when you read you read, but also travel, and because traveling read, therefore read and read; and when reading also write, therefore read; and reading also translate, therefore read; therefore read, read, read and read. The same argument may be made for translating, traveling and writing.
More translation – literary and the other, everyday kind – and more thoughts on being a foreigner: “Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics” writes Alastair Reid. “The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might be a place – and a self – instantly recognisable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live. From there, if they are lucky, they smuggle back occasional undaunted notes, like messages in a bottle, or glimmers from the other side of the mirror.”
He wonders whether Valaparaíso might be that place into which he could “sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh”. He suspects it might be. And yet.
The foreigner walks for an hour in the vicinity of the bus station looking for a comfortable place to sit and scribble: something like a café, or a clean well-lighted place that might offer up a drink and a sandwich, one of those sandwiches that contain a variety of colourful food: a completo or an italiano.
He does not much care for his current state of mind. He has returned to Valparaíso, after a brief visit to the capital. In Santiago the temperature was 35 degrees centigrade; here it has dropped to around 19, and is overcast. He came dressed for the sun, and looks ridiculous. To make matters worse, he has a suitcase, albeit a small one, which he does not wish to lug around. He wonders if he should check into a hotel, but it is a weekend in high summer, and the two he has called are full (and expensive). He has killed the first hour in pointless perambulation, so leaves his case at the left luggage office of the bus station and tries again to orient himself, calmly. He sets off towards a covered market, often useful places for one in search of food, but the stalls are shutting up and the little shacks selling food also, and the place has the forlorn aspect of closing time, and the street outside smells of fish, urine and rotting fruit.
He continues further out of his way before finding a more promising street and following it. Something about the open-fronted shops selling herbs and fruit and meat reminds him of Greece, specifically the smell of Chania market. He tries to identify precisely what the smell is, and fails to name it, the ingredient tantalisingly out of memory’s reach. It is a smell that combines thyme, coffee and something else, something that will not be recalled. He begins to feel nostalgia for people and places he will never recover, but that too fades. Eventually he spots a likely café and crosses the road. He takes a table half way down the room. When he orders, the waitress turns her head to one side, as some people do when confronted by a foreigner, as though the presumption of their foreignness will necessarily involve not understanding them. When she realises that there are no imminent communication issues, she smiles. Despite his command of the language, he is still a foreigner, and perhaps she feels a degree of pity, or something approximating it to it. He has seen the other waitress carrying a plate with the kind of sandwich he requires: meat, tomato, avocado, mayonnaise. He requests the same. It doesn’t take long to clock the fact that not only is he the only non-Chilean in the place; he seems also to be the only person not personally known to the staff. The sandwich arrives. It is pretty much what it sets out to be, and settles threateningly in his stomach.
The following night, by which time he has shed the tourist garb of shorts and brightly coloured shirt and put on a disguise of tracksuit trousers, black tee shirt and cardigan, he goes downtown with his friend, Enrique, who remarks afterwards that to any onlooker they might just have appeared to be father and son, taking a turn out to the bar together. His foreigner identity has briefly been supplanted – to the outside world, at least – by another. He wonders how much longer it would take for his identity to be usurped forever. He thinks, probably, never. But he suspects there is always another, his other, or his other’s other, in waiting, biding its time.
But that thing about the place into which he could sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh? That has receded again; that, he fears, will always be an illusion.
Continuing my readings of Alastair Reid, while travelling in Chile, I find the following: “The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness; and since reality is shifting and changing, our fictions must constantly be revised.”
‘Fictions’ here has the broadest meaning possible, and should not be confined to those things that are written down and sold in the Fiction Section. Fictions, following Borges, are anything – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality. A piece of theatre, for example.
Arriving in Santiago from the south of Chile yesterday evening, I was invited by friends to attend a performance of Exhibit B, showing as part of the Santiago a Mil theatre festival. Exhibit B is a theatre installation that replicates the grotesque phenomenon of the human zoo during the 19th Century, in which Africans were put on display like circus freaks “for the titillation of European and American audiences under the guise of ‘ethnological enlightenment.’” The show created something of an outrage when performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year. There were complaints that the actors were being to subjected to a similar form of exploitation as the people whose lives they were reproducing, and its run at the Barbican in London was cancelled, on the grounds – according to the sociologist and activist Kehinde Andrews, writing in The Guardian – “that it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it stands as a commentary on.”
Holding the performance in the baroque and excessive setting of the nineteenth century Cousiño Palace in central Santiago was a stroke of genius. The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned coal and silver mines, as well as the Cousiño-Macul Vineyards. The nouveau riche glitz of the palace set off by classical music, provided a sinister but peculiarly fitting locale.
The experience of Exhibit B was painful, as I expected it to be, and my emotions as I walked slowly round the exhibits were complex, and included a degree of shame in experiencing discomfort of any kind, given the extremes of discomfort, abuse and torture suffered by the subjects whose pained existences were being recreated by the actors. I was confused, as I was doubtless meant to be: should I make eye contact with the exhibits, for instance? Would I not be replicating the white man’s gaze that the performance so vehemently questions? The actors weren’t avoiding my gaze, that was for sure, and even on occasion followed my passage across the space in front of them, especially the replica of the man adopted by some Austrian prince in the 18th century who, when he died, had been skinned and stuffed (and blanched) and put out on display for visitors to admire.
My confusion – and the residual sense of shame which I had no power to resist – was exacerbated by a string of questions to which I had no answers. I think the most powerful message to come from this important work is that the objectification and exploitation of society’s others – and our continuing projection of otherness onto immigrants and asylum seekers – continues and will continue. We cannot change the past, but we can at least help shape the future. That is why I cannot support the position taken by the protesters who forced the closure of the Barbican show. A discussion between one of the black performers, Stella Odunlami, and Kehane Andrews (who was active in getting the show shut down, despite never having seen it) provides valuable arguments on both sides. Essentially though, I feel that censorship cannot be justified simply because a work of art chooses a difficult subject and questions reality in a way that some might find offensive.
By the criteria presented at the start of this post, that the fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it, and that the ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness, I can only say that in the case of Exhibit B, its effectiveness was not in doubt. It was both effective and a deeply moving testament to human cruelty and human suffering. As the performer Stella Odunlami writes in response to Kehane Andrews : “my fellow performers and I chose to be part of a production that exposed racism then and now. We have had to defend our decision to exercise our freedom of creativity to those who call us puppets. It is not your job to decide what is or isn’t good for me; I am capable of doing so for myself.” Brett Bailey’s own defence of the work can be found here.
At the very end, when we were standing around in the courtyard about to leave, I caught sight of the actors smoking and chatting by the side entrance of the palace. I was relieved that the company included the taxidermically conserved dead man whose gaze I had failed to meet. It was as if, with the actors out of role, no longer being the people they represented in fiction, their humanity had been restored to them, and with theirs, my own.
“Anonymity is peculiarly appealing to a foreigner: he is always trying to live in a nowhere, in the complex of his present.” With this thought in mind I come to the end of re-reading Alastair Reid’s essay, and start on the next one, called ‘Other People’s Houses.’ Despite the fact that to the outside world, my foreigner-status remains intact, with friends in Chile, my confused identity is – peculiarly – tolerated with extreme goodwill.
It is with particular interest that I read the opening of ‘Other People’s Houses’, the next essay in Reid’s excellent collection. It is worth citing the first paragraph is full:
“Having been, for many years, an itinerant, living in an alarming number of countries and places, I am no stranger to other people’s houses. I am aware of a certain disreputable cast to this admission; I can almost feel my wizened little ancestors shaking their heads and wringing their hands, for in Scotland, people tend to go from the stark stone house where they first see the light to another such fortress, where they sink roots and prepare dutifully for death, their possessions encrusted around them like barnacles. Anyone who did not seem to be following the stone script was looked on as somewhat raffish, rather like the tinkers and traveling people who sometimes passed through the village where I grew up. I would watch them leave, on foot, over the horizon, pulling their worldly belongings behind them in a handcart; and one of my earliest fantasies was to run away with them, for I felt oppressed by permanence and rootedness, and my childhood eyes strayed always to the horizon, which promised other ways of being, a life less stony and predictable.”
Alastair Reid, then, prepared himself for his life as a foreigner, by aspiring to the strange life of the transients who passed through his village. This rings a bell for me, also.
Sometimes a person’s foreignness is something that can be put on or removed, like a second skin. Sometimes, too, the façade of foreignness can be a convenience. Take as a hypothetical example my friend, K. He has resided in Chile for thirty years, enjoys citizenship, and takes a keen interest in the culture and politics of his adopted country, but as a true foreigner he would not be so facile as to believe that his identity has somehow been re-calibrated as Chilean. Negotiating the fragmentary landscape of foreignness, only an idiot would claim a national identity on such spurious grounds.
For a certain class of foreigner, foreignness is something that can be deployed strategically. One can even turn it into a kind of game, or make oneself the butt of jokes on account of one’s own foreignness. One can intentionally mislead, intentionally mispronounce, intentionally misunderstand. But these are beginners’ tricks, at the amateur end of Being a Foreigner. People like K. are adepts, and have decades of practice, sidestepping their interlocutor by playing the foreigner card to their own advantage. It doesn’t always work of course, especially with policemen and parking attendants, but it is a strategy to which I have at times reverted myself.
So, my stay in Valdivia is coming to an end: pleasant days of working on translation of Chilean poets; a weekend spent walking in the coastal reserve at Chaihuín, and yesterday a long hike through the spectacular Huerquehue park to the north, where we climbed, sweating, through temperate rainforest until we reached the zone of the Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle trees) – which only grow above 1,000 metres – amid bursts of outlandish birdsong from the chucao and the huet-huet (or hued hued).
I will miss this place, but, as a foreigner, I will not dwell on the insubstantiality of belonging here, even if, as places go, there are few I would rather stay. I will haul my big blue suitcase – laden with books of poetry that I need for the journey but would rather carry in my head – and move on to the next place.
Staying for any extended period of time in a country where one is obliged to speak a language other than one’s own inevitably results in reflection about core identity. Core identity, if there is such a thing, presumes that there is an ideal and comfortable state of mind, in which one is most fully at home, inside his or her own in-group, probably speaking an idiomatic form of the mother tongue among fellow-speakers, who follow the contours and references of conversation in a more or less fluent fashion, and with whom one shares beliefs, principles and occasionally political beliefs.
The foreigner, as Alastair Reid so succinctly observed, does not share this happy resource – the true foreigner, it could be argued, will feel as much a foreigner at home as anywhere else, but that is a discussion for another day – and today I returned to Reid’s essay with renewed insights. Living almost entirely within another language for most of the day, the foreigner begins to notice how language carries with it such a quantity of associative and historical luggage that merely understanding the words only accounts for a part of the fascinating, and at times frustrating problem of making oneself understood. Some of this can be accounted for by the fact that every word of a language has a personal history of association that a native speaker can trace back to childhood. Every phrase or idiom has a personal history, is laden with a particular taste or smell or music for the native speaker, and though the learner – even the fluent speaker – may acquire a series of associations of their own with the individual words of a language, it will never contain an entire universe, as does the memory of a native speaker. Moreover, the problem does not end there: as Reid wrote, “I am . . . aware of having, in Spanish . . . a personality entirely different from my English-speaking one – nor is it simply me-in-translation . . . I have often listened to simultaneous translation between two languages I know well. The meaning? Oh yes, the meaning is there; but it is just not the same experience.”
In the end, we have to arm ourselves with the anonymity of the foreigner, to prepare for disappointments and misunderstandings, and to accept that very rarely are these simply linguistic. To allow the late lamented Mr Reid the final word: “To travel far and often tends to make us experts in anonymity – but never quite, for we always carry too much, prepare for too many eventualities. One bag could have been left behind. We are too afraid of unknowns to ignore them.”
On Sunday we visit Los Colmillos de Chaihuín, which contain, among other trees, canelo, alerce (larch) and eucalyptus. The first two are indigenous, the last a moisture-hogging outsider, the villain of the piece in the local ecology, imported from Australia and now being slowly replaced by the older indigenous varieties. The eucalyptus grows very quickly and apparently self-regenerates once it has been chopped down. It can do this five times, and, given the chance, will grow to full height between each growth. South America’s only marsupial, the monito del monte (little mountain monkey) may be found here but we are unlikely to see one as they are very shy, as is the pudú, a squat deer-like creature with a cute face.
The big larch in the photo is 3,500 years old. They calculate this by the girth and of the tree, which is three and half metres in diameter (and 45 metres tall). The oldest recorded alerce was four and a half thousand years old, according to our guide, although Wikipedia establishes the age as 3,622 years. This is some achievement when we consider that the Minoan civilization was still intact when the tree was young. The forests hereabout were once filled with these trees, but the wood is good for making boats and houses, and when the Spanish came they cut a whole lot down to furnish their navy. Now the trees are protected by law, but they grow so slowly that it will be a long time before they ever repopulate the forests of Valdivia.
Walking through the forest I notice a bright yellow fungus, the size of a tennis ball, growing at the base of a tree, almost luminous in the dark of the woods. It is known, I am told, as caca de duende. Of course there is some difficulty in rendering ‘duende’ into English, as translators of Lorca have discovered over the years: it can mean ‘spirit’, or ‘creative force’ as well as referring to a sprite, fairy or elf. Elf shit sounds the most evocative, so I’ll go along with that.