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Gabo and the drunks

20 Sep
Wall painting, Cartagena.

Wall painting, Cartagena.

On Tuesday at five I do a reading in the library of the University of Cartagena – whose most famous alumnus was Gabriel García Márquez – and learn from one of the Profs that there is a crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel that appears in the author’s novel Love and Other Demons. The Santa Clara is in the old quarter, not far from the university. After a drink with the Profs I decide to go and investigate. The Santa Clara was once a convent, and has been converted into one of the most luxurious establishments in the city. A tribute to Gabo by Boyd Tonkin puts it thus:

‘The lovely 16th-century convent, once also a hospital, has a crypt. In 1994, by then living again in the city of his youth and his dreams, Garcia Marquez published Of Love and Other Demons. That novel, as much an impassioned evocation of Cartagena as the better-known Love in the Time of Cholera, tells of a young journalist sent in 1949 to the newly excavated site of Santa Clara. He has to investigate the miraculous skeleton of a child marquise, dead 200 years but now exhumed with a 22m “stream of living hair the intense colour of copper”. A mood of febrile gothic menace pervades the tale, although the walled city it conjures up could hardly be more topographically exact . . .’

When I arrive at the Santa Clara, a white-coated lackey, with top hat to match, opens the door for me. I tell him I’ve come to see the famous crypt. He shows me it. Here it is.

Crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel Cartagena

Crypt in the bar of the Santa Clara Hotel Cartagena

The drinks in the Santa Clara are Chelsea prices. But the bar is vast and cool, so I sit there for a while and soak in the wealth. When I leave, I pass other, smaller, boutique hotels and very chic eateries with exotic names. I walk past a group of six young English tourists – three of each gender – who resemble the cast of, well, Made in Chelsea. ‘Oh don’t let’s do the walking game, Fiona,’ says a boy with a kiss curl. He wants to sit down. Fiona wants to go on, see if they can find somewhere more to her liking. I wander down the street a while, marvelling at the extent this part of town has been gentrified. I return past the group. They have sat down. The boy with the kiss curl has got his way.

Manic Street Preacher, Cartagena

Manic Street Preacher, Cartagena

When I walk back into Getsemaní, where my humble B &B, Casa Relax, is located, the difference is striking. There is much more shit in the street. More dogs too. The square at La Santisima Trinidad is packed with a different sort of company: Colombians – both locals and tourists – and budget backpackers. Perhaps a few middle aged men, like me, with nostalgie de la boue.

On the southwest corner of the Plaza a man sits outside a bar. A discreet bar, I might add, which looks kind of empty. I’ve seen the man sitting here before. I couldn’t help but notice him. He bears a keen resemblance to Leonardo di Caprio. He sits outside in an armchair, pulling on a fat cigar. At his feet lies a British Bulldog. The dog looks like he might fancy a cigar as well.

We nod a greeting to each other the second time I pass. The third time I stop and speak to him.

‘Are you the owner, or do you just look like it?’

He smiles. ‘I am the owner, yes.’ He is of medium build, blonde hair with a side parting, friendly face, perhaps too innocent looking for this game, but I might be mistaken. He stands up to shake my hand.

‘Hi, I’m Nicholas. Pleased to meet you.’ The accent is very slight, Nordic, possibly German, but possibly Swedish.

‘Richard. And who is your friend?’ I gesture down at the pooch.

‘Ha ha. He is my partner. His name is Socio. Which in Spanish means partner.’

‘How old is he?’

‘Five years.’

‘How does he handle the heat?’

‘He does OK.’

I want to ask what the local strays make of Socio, but it’s too early for that.

‘Looks like a nice bar,’ I say. ‘Thanks,’ he says. I peer inside. There are three tourist on stools at the bar. I’ve been past here half a dozen times and it’s the first time I’ve seen anyone inside.

‘I’ll come and have a drink, but need to get some food first.’

‘Ah, we do food normally, but with this electricity cut, it’s not possible.’

‘That’s okay. I’ll see you later’

I go to eat at Trattoria di Silvio, at a table on the pavement across the narrow street, fifty metres up from the square. I have just finished my pizza when the second electricity cut of the evening strikes. You can’t see much at all. I have a candle at my table. The three Portuguese at the next table do not and are still eating so I pass them my candle. A few minutes later the waitress brings me another. Nicholas walks past with Socio. I wave at him and he calls back a valediction. I guess the second power failure has proved too much for him. Pity. I would have liked to have heard his story.

Like the other up-market bar across the square, his business is unlikely to fare well while the shop next door sells beer for 2,000 pesos (60p) and half bottles of rum or aguardiente for a couple of quid apiece. But if, as seems likely, Getsemaní eventually becomes more gentrified, following the lead of the historic centre, Nicholas will be in business. At the moment that seems a long way off.

I sit on the edge of the square and soak in the spirit of the place. The smell of marihuana sits heavy on the air. I will be leaving Cartagena in the morning. Three old aguardiente drinkers sit to my right. The black one has two teeth, perched at opposite corners of his mouth. He laughs wheezily and without cease, and on one occasion bursts into raucous song, which his two companions applaud ecstatically. The thinnest one – they are all three skin and bone, but this one is so thin he could snap – is shaped like a question mark and drags his foot when he moves, in the manner of someone with terminal liver disease. He calls out every few minutes for música música, looking around the square desperately to see whether his plea will be heeded in some quarter; and the third, the most desperate of these three musketeers, is too far gone to do anything but gurn like a cretin at the world passing by – if indeed he can see it. The three eventually stagger off into the night, moving with extreme difficulty, as though struggling against the tide of life, towards a sea of oblivion. I have a sudden vision of Macbeth’s three witches, and imagine the crones reincarnated as these three Caribbean drunks, wrecked beyond pity or purpose.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mompox

16 Sep

mompox river view

 

Travel is often a matter of balancing a desire for control and a willingness to abandon that control when it serves no purpose. If one finds oneself in a place where timetables and commitments are loosely treated and made on the spur of the moment without too much forethought – well-meant but never likely, in reality, to materialise – and you find yourself fighting this attitude as though it were an aberration, then you are in trouble. If, when travelling you are always trying to be in control of the uncontrollable – especially in a country like Colombia that resists any kind of ulterior control – then you are doomed to misery and failure.

I tried for a couple of days to find the best way to travel to the old colonial town of Mompox -also known as Mompós (population 30,000). It is to be found 249 km up the Magdalena river from Cartagena, and was founded in 1540 by Don Alonso de Heredia, whose elder brother settled Cartagena. An absence of functioning travel agents, as well as the complications of getting reliable information together contributed to a delay in my arrangements. I knew that there was a daily bus service from Cartagena that took eight hours, but did not wish to lose so much of the day. Alternatively I could take a colectivo to an intermediary town five hours south, catch a taxi to a riverside settlement and then a launch upriver for the remainder of the journey –which would again take up most of a day: two days, there and back. In the end, by chance, I came across the Toto Express, run by the eponymous Toto, who organises a pick-up truck for four or five passengers, and who asked me to be ready at 4.30 a.m. on Saturday morning. The truck takes an hour or so to pick up passengers, and arrives in Mompox at 11.00. – in theory at least.

My companions on the trip were William, the driver, and three Colombian ladies, Momposinas on their way home. They talked more or less incessantly, so I was able to catch a flavour of the town they came from. The señora in front was very concerned about William’s driving, although I thought he was rather good, considering the hazards of the journey, and the tendency of other drivers to drive on the wrong side of the road because of the caked mud trenches and potholes (although much of the route is covered, there are long stretches of mud track to negotiate).

At one point we are taking a number of curves on a particularly poor stretch of road, with a lot of traffic. We are stuck behind a lorry. A car passes us at speed, and William edges out carefully to see if it is safe for us to go also. ‘Such imprudence’, says the señora in front, speaking with extraordinary formality. ‘And for what? Just to get ahead! I would rather be wise than imprudent, wait for an opportune moment to pass, and thus keep my life.’ A chorus of agreement from the two señoras in the back with me. William appears to take this personally and turns up the Ranchera music so loud the ladies cannot hear each other speak. The music is pretty awful, but his feelings have been hurt already, so I don’t complain. William then takes what he claims is a shortcut and we encounter a lorry stuck in the mud, completely blocking the narrow uncovered road. We do a three point turn and take the long way around, crossing the River Magdalena by an ancient ferry, consisting of planks attached to three metal boats, and powered by an invisible motor. On the bank a pair of dogs are glued together by their hindquarters, determinedly facing away from each other but unable to move. They appear bored and indignant.

Mompox is a town strongly referenced in the work of Gabriel García Márquez, whom I am currently reading in a pirated – and very badly printed – Spanish edition of Love in the Time of Colera. (It seems obligatory to read García Márquez in Mompox, just as I was compelled to read Lowry in Cuernavaca). Neither this book, nor, apparently, Chronicle of a Death Foretold, are actually based in Mompox (although the latter was partly filmed here) and the settings for Gabo’s fictions tend to be an amalgam of places, real and imagined. If his literary vision is of a certain type of Caribbean town, hopelessly locked into its past, apparently forlorn and yet inherently joyful – such paradoxes are essential to any understanding of Colombian sensibilities, and Colombians are supposedly the second happiest people on earth – then Mompox is as good a place as any to begin to understand the novelist’s sense of habitus. It is a quintessentially Marquesian place, in which the improbable – not to say the fantastic – seem to be woven into the fabric of everyday life. And there are a lot of colourful birds, iguanas and snakes, just to add to the atmosphere.

Iguana in a tree

Iguana in a tree

 

Dead deadly snake

Dead deadly snake

 

Solitary stork

Solitary stork

Yellow bird

Yellow bird

A random google search came up with ‘the very aristocratic and sorrowful city of Mompox’. The Spanish colonial authorities had the Royal Mint here, supposedly out of reach of the English pirates who made frequent raids on the regional capital, Cartagena. Aristocratic it might well once have been, and sorrowful, at times. It was a site of many confrontations during Colombia’s serial civil wars following independence from Spain. More recently it was a no-go area, changing hands between FARC rebels and government forces over a period of years. Since Colombia’s big clean-up a few years back, it has been – and is being – readied for tourism. But tourism, you might be warned, of a particular kind. It reminds me a little of Greece in the 1970s, in which tourism was taking off, but was still in its fledgling, puppy-love stage. There is the same unawareness of ‘service’ – you often wait until whoever is behind the till/counter to finish what they are doing before they attend to you. This is done entirely without malice: it is simply the pace of life telling you what’s what. There is a lot of smiling and a lot of mutual incomprehension. My question about the wifi in my hotel – which I was assured was available in every room – is answered by a shrug, and when pressed, the explanation: oh, you know, it comes and goes. Foreigners are still a novelty, and therefore quite amusing. The hotels, or rather pensions, are extremely cheap and mine is decorated with the kind of bad hippy art that I thought had died in the 1970s also.

On the first evening I wander around the cemetery – often a good place to start – and am delighted to find the grave of one Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. You couldn’t make it up. It goes into the catalogue of great names, just pipping that of the Baron Ferdinand Edgar Percival de Frutigen, whose memorial I once encountered in the Pyrenean town of Prats de Mollo.

 

Tomb of Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. Mompox

Tomb of Juan de Dios Wooggle Boivié. Mompox

 

mompox cementery

Mompox Cemetery

mompox cementery 2

 

Mompox cementery cats

Mompox cementery cats

mompox old market

 

mompox flowers and street

 

mompox 2 cyclists

 

 

Man at window, residence for the elderly, Mompox.

Man at window, residence for the elderly, Mompox.

 

 

 

 

‘Story’, by Rómulo Bustos Aguirre

14 Sep

Story

I ask myself: why write poetry?

And from some place in the mysterious forest

(in that other story that I am trying in vain

to write with this poem)

the wolf replies

moving his bushy tail Socratically:

– The better to know you.

 

 

Cuento

Me pregunto: ¿Por qué escribo poesía?

Y desde algún lugar del misterioso bosque

(de ese otro cuento que en vano estoy tratando

de escribir en este poema)

responde el lobo

moviendo socrático la peluda cola:

– Para conocerte mejor

 

 

 

Copyright with the author

Necktie

13 Sep

 

She is talking

about the violence

in her country

while peeling

an orange

these guys

she says

are not assassins

they are artists

of death

they slit the throat

(she gestures)

and pull the tongue

out front

like so

they call it

the necktie.

 

 

 

Cities Unvisited

5 Sep

Although he never lived in Alexandria, he had read all the books. As a young man, he visited enough of the Levant to think he knew what to expect, and concocted the rest from Cavafy, Forster, Durrell and Pynchon. Sitting outside a café in the port of Paros he fell into conversation with a specialist in unforeseen events and together they dreamed up a delivery of illicit merchandise from Lebanon to Piraeus, with a storage facility on Cyprus. His interlocutor, a Russian who in former times had skippered a cruise liner, ordered champagne. It started to grow dark. Was it there, or somewhere else, that he decided he was never happier than in an island port, as the sun goes down? Later, when he was the international figure of intrigue he was destined to become, he finally visited the city he had fantasized about so many years before. His disappointment was both intense and contradictory. Suffering suicidal thoughts, he experienced an epiphany: it was not Alexandria he was looking for, but another city, a place that he would have to invent. This almost came as a relief.

 

 

First published in New Welsh Review 103, Spring 2014

The Cure, ‘Killing an Arab’, and The Others

4 Sep

 

Sometimes the past just won’t leave you alone.

When I lived in London – a long, long time ago – I went to a lot of gigs and occasionally had walk-on roles as a ‘poet’ with bands at insalubrious venues in the punk and immediate post-punk era. My most stellar performance took place alongside The Cure at a gig in Walthamstow. I don’t have a clear memory of the circumstances – in those days most social interactions took place in a frantic haze of amphetamines and alcohol – and so I am unclear now whether the things that I remember are the things that actually took place, or whether some other version of events has taken their place, perhaps a version enacted or modified by the person I refer to as my Other, who has been responsible for many of the things I would rather not remember over the years.

Because I foolishly mentioned it in a blurb when I was short of ideas, the ‘Cure gig’ has become a recurrent incident about which I am required to give an account at various events in different places in the world where, for reasons quite beyond my understanding, I happen to be interviewed by a Cure fan. This morning was possibly the worst example yet.

I was introduced to the sound of ‘Killing an Arab’ pounding over the speakers, in front of over a hundred Colombian schoolchildren, who, I was almost certain, would have no idea who The Cure were, and a few jaded poets of my own generation, who probably did. I was then asked to give an account of what happened that fateful night in 1980 when somebody introduced me to Robert Smith, and I ended up on stage spouting all kinds of drivel dressed up as performance poetry (and was, I seem to recall, asked back by Mr Smith to do another set).

I then have to talk to the kids about How to Be a Writer. I am in the process of delivering my usual reply, of reading a lot and learning to lie with impunity, when it occurs to me that the whole Cure story might just as well be a lie. Did I in fact make this story up? Perhaps it would be easier to claim that I have, and then I wouldn’t need to recount what happened when I can’t really remember. I could just say Sorry guys, that was just a lie. I made it up. Or else I could recount it anyway, on the understanding that what I was saying was not necessarily the truth; that these things happened, but happened to my Other.

However, after the event, these beautifully turned out and well-behaved Colombian school kids, to whom I assumed I was talking of matters as remote as The Magna Carta, turned out to know as much about the British punk scene of the late 1970s as I do (or can remember). Did I know the Sex Pistols? How about The Clash? Was I friends with Johnny Rotten? Johnny, I tell them, makes commercials for a popular brand of butter these days. They seem a little bewildered by this reply.

Which brings me to the post of two days ago: ¿Donde están los otros? ‘Where are the others?’ I have a feeling this graffiti is going to pursue me for the duration of my Colombian trip. And I wonder if there is another wall, in a parallel Bogotá, in which the others have written an identical message, referring of course to the ones who put the graffiti there in the first place, making them the others’ others.

And as I watch the TV after the reading, with its footage of mass shootings in Iraq, I begin to imagine how this question, ‘Where are the others?’ could keep recurring in an infinite series of parallel Bogotás, to the soundtrack of The Cure playing a song with a horribly contemporary title.

 

 

 

 

 

Deconstructing the Wise Old Man

3 Sep

The Wise Old Man

 

Lord, protect us from the wise old men of literature

Though in fact, the Lord may be the last person to do this protecting. At the literary festival I am currently attending, and at every such conference or festival I have attended to date in various parts of the world there has been a celebration of some great writer, living or dead. All, with a single exception, have been men.

Last night, a Mexican poet was celebrated here in Bogotá. During the sycophantic introduction to this venerable and ancient poet, I was alarmed to be told that he was responsible for one of ‘the three great works of misogyny’ of the 20th century.

How can it be acceptable to make a statement of that kind, especially in the context of a society like Mexico, in which violence against women is of epidemic proportions? (You do not need to have ploughed through Bolaño’s 2666 to be aware of this fact, although it helps). How can it be acceptable for educated men to make jokes about this, and to laugh amongst themselves, as they did at the event last night? Would it be OK to laugh at an announcement that such and such a book was one of the ‘great racist novels of the twentieth century’? And yet somehow, in too many places, it is perfectly OK to derogate women in a way that would be considered unacceptable if a similar derogatory comment were directed at people of another race or colour.

And here is where we get to the ‘maestro’, the great man of literature, whose sonorous tones must be heard, whose opinions must be listened to, even if those opinions are self-regarding pap and without conceivable value. It is one of the dangers associated with the prestige given to writers in certain societies, as compared, say, with Great Britain, where no one gives a toss what writers think, and where the prestige of the poet is somewhere on a par with that of a refuse collector – but well beneath that of a pest control operative.

European writers might at first be impressed or flattered by the respect afforded writers elsewhere, and the bowing and scraping that goes on in the presence of so-called ‘great’ writers, especially old ones, however decrepit, lecherous or boring they might be. However, the problem is that the stereotype of the wise old man is, to put it crudely, a bit of a bollocks.

The fact of the matter is that many people simply get stupider as they get older; their prejudices atrophy, their most disagreeable characteristics come to the forefront, and they are only interested in talking (or hearing) about themselves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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