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.
At the bottom of all this sleeps a horse
by Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011)
At the bottom of all this sleeps
a white horse, an old horse
long in the ear, lacking in
by the situation, the pulse
running through him is speed: the children
mount him as if here were a ghost, mock him, and he sleeps
sleeping as he stands there in the rain, hears
everything while I sketch out these eleven
lines. He has the look of a thing crazed,
he knows that he is king.
Al fondo de esto duerme un caballo
Al fondo de todo esto duerme un caballo
blanco, un viejo caballo
largo de oído, estrecho de
por la situación, el pulso
de la velocidad es la madre que lo habita: lo montan
los niños como a un fantasma, lo escarnecen, y él duerme
durmiendo parado ahí en la lluvia, lo
oye todo mientras pinto estas once
líneas. Facha de loco, sabe
que es el rey.
From El alumbrado.
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.’”
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. So 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. Propped 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.