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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.

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 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.’

 

 

 

 

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