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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Will Self and the ghouls of literature

5 May

 

Like most people with an interest in the subject, I read Will Self’s article in last Saturday’s Guardian on the Death of the Novel  with a strong sense of déja vu. The novel has ‘died’ so many times already it must be truly sick and tired of being dead. Following the Washington Post’s recent revelation that poetry is dead also, should we be concerned?

Readers of Blanco’s Blog will be familiar with the writer’s various tussles with the novel, not simply the discomfort imposed on the reader by having to wade through so much baggy stuff in order to consume the kernel, so to speak – if there is one – but also the demands made on the author in struggling to keep the damn thing fresh and alive, when it should just lie down and die.

Will Self’s argument, fluently expressed – although, as usual, not only hyperbolic, but perhaps a tad Thesaurus-retentive (e.g. Most of it is at once Panglossian and melioristic) – moves towards its expected conclusion with unerring certitude: the novel is dead; long live the novel:

The form should have been laid to rest at about the time of Finnegans Wake, but in fact it has continued to stalk the corridors of our minds for a further three-quarters of a century. Many fine novels have been written during this period, but I would contend that these were, taking the long view, zombie novels, instances of an undead art form that yet wouldn’t lie down.

Insistence on the death of the novel (never mind of its author) was once answered quite superbly by a character in Don Delillo’s The Names (my favourite of his), who expresses the idea of the novel’s zombiehood thus, and I cannot think of a greater or more delicious challenge to any would-be novelist:

“If were a writer,” Owen said, “how I would enjoy being told the novel is dead. How liberating, to work in the margins, outside a central perception. You are the ghoul of literature. Lovely.”

 

 

 

 

Juan Rulfo and the terror of the blank page

4 Jan

 Juan Rulfo and accomplice

Juan Rulfo and accomplice.

This morning, after a restless night, I spent a couple of hours picking up books from the shelves around my room, almost at random, dipping into them, dropping them on the floor, where I will find them later and replace them, equally randomly, between new and often unsuitable neighbours. Sometimes I stop and write down a line or two in a notebook, then move on. When I look at the notebook some days from now, I will be curious to know what the point of all this is.

Following a recent discussion about writers who stop writing, and of writers who kill their darlings (see last post, 1 Jan), I start thinking about the Mexican writer and photographer Juan Rulfo, and return, in my grazing, to Pedro Páramo, a brilliant and perplexing short novel, which, on its appearance in 1955 made such a profound impression on the Hispanic literary world, from Borges to Asturias to García Márquez. (Readers of Spanish can find the latter’s account of his discovery of Rulfo’s book here).

I read Pedro Páramo some years ago and return to it now with curiosity, because my memory of it, I discover, is as vague and dreamlike as the book itself.

According to Susan Sontag, in her introduction to the English translation, by Margaret Sayers Peden:

Rulfo has said that he carried Pedro Páramo inside him for many years before he knew how to write it. Rather, he was writing hundreds of pages and then discarding them. He once called the novel an exercise in elimination.

“The practice of writing the short story disciplined me,” he said, “and made me see the need to disappear and to leave my characters the freedom to talk at will, which provoked, it would seem, a lack of structure. Yes, there is a structure in Pedro Páramo, but it is a structure made of silences, of hanging threads, of cut scenes, where everything occurs in a simultaneous time which is a no-time.”

Rulfo’s life, as well as his book, has become legendary. He left behind only around 300 pages of writing; but those pages, according to García Márquez, are as important to us as the 300 or so extant pages of Sophocles – an extraordinary claim, you might think. Rulfo published his books in early middle age (there is a collection of short stories, translated as The Burning Plain, and another short novel, Ell gallo de oro), but for the next 30 years he did not publish anything, although he had taken up photography in the 1940s and continued taking (and occasionally publishing) pictures throughout his life. He was an inveterate traveller, and drinker. He destroyed the long awaited second novel, La Cordillera, a few years before his death at the age of 68 in 1986. Since his death his widow has overseen the publication of his notebooks, and fragments from the unfinished novel, although, as she confesses in her introduction to the notebooks, Rulfo would not have approved, and that she felt she might be doing “something awful” in publishing them.

Juan Rulfo explained his long literary silence in an interview as follows: “Writing causes me to undergo tremendous anxiety. The empty white page is a terrible thing.”

 

 

 

 

 

Killing your darlings

1 Jan

2014

For the past few years, whenever people ask me the dread question of ‘what are you working on’ I have mumbled something about a novel called The Blue Tent. The truth is, I have been writing TBT, on and off, since 2006, although the process has been interrupted by other projects, including a memoir  and a couple of volumes of translation. However, the writing and completion of the novel has always re-emerged as a pressing need, like an addiction, or (I imagine) a particularly demanding affair with a psychotic lover. I had to get the book done. I needed to have completed another novel (note the pseudo-retrospective quality of this thought). I finished the first full draft in September 2012 and have been revising, when time allows, ever since. The Blue Tent became my secret life. My closest friends even knew it by name, but none of them had read a word of it. I became irritable when not working on it, and fractious when I was. At times I would resort to talking the book up: writing it, I told myself, I would discover what kind of a writer I really was: it would even, after a fashion, make me whole.

The Blue Tent started out as a modern fairy tale about the attempt of an individual to understand the weird and incomprehensible events that begin to overtake his life after a tent appears in the field next to his house. But in the end the activity of writing the novel became contiguous with the inability of the protagonist to act within the story; his torpor began to mimic my own. It was a mess.

Yesterday, in the early hours of New Year’s Eve, I was lying awake, as so often occurs, pondering yet again the structural perversions wrought by the unruly novel, and I realised, after an hour and a half of twisting and turning, that I would have to get up and write things down.  This is a familiar pattern. At a quarter to five I made tea, and then ascended to my study in the loft.

But this time, rather than work on the novel, I read through the notes I had made on it over the years and realised that the book was fucked. FUBAR. I didn’t love the story any more; the characters didn’t interest me (and even if they interested other people, I was not inclined to keep working with them); the premise was interesting but essentially it was just an idea that could have been developed in any one of a thousand ways. The way that I had chosen to develop the idea had brought me to a dead end, and I was stuck. The feeling in my gut told me, without hesitation: Stop it, just Stop.

Feeling a little dizzy at the ease with which I had reached this decision (such moments come with the force of a revelation, even if, when you think them over afterwards, the thought has actually been on a slow burn for months, or even years) I googled ‘abandoned novels’ and the first article to come up was Why Do Writers Abandon Novels? – by Dan Kois in the New York Times. It begins as follows:

“A book itself threatens to kill its author repeatedly during its composition,” Michael Chabon writes in the margins of his unfinished novel Fountain City — a novel, he adds, that he could feel “erasing me, breaking me down, burying me alive, drowning me, kicking me down the stairs.” And so Chabon fought back: he killed “Fountain City” in 1992. What was to be the follow-up to his first novel, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, instead was a black mark on his hard drive, five and a half years of work wasted.”

I felt better already. Schadenfreude. I hadn’t wasted that long. Not five and a half years. Not really. I’d written 60,000 words and done numerous drafts, some of them longer, but Chabon had written 1,500 pages, and was probably working on it full time.

Kois’ article surveys a number of writers’ views and experiences of abandoning a novel – or rather, putting it out of its misery. If something is making your life a misery, “erasing” or “burying you alive”, isn’t it merely an instinct for survival to kill it before it gets you?

Stephen King (as so often) had useful advice on the topic: “Look, writing a novel is like paddling from Boston to London in a bathtub,” he said. “Sometimes the damn tub sinks. It’s a wonder that most of them don’t.”

And then of course, while acknowledging that the book is not turning out as you might have wished – feel it sinking, to follow King’s analogy – you start making compromises with yourself. If you have a publisher and agent waiting for you to deliver, the pressure is on. You begin looking for arguments to convince yourself to let the book go, to just finish it, find a vaguely unsatisfactory resolution (one less unsatisfactory than all the others), publish it – if anyone wants it – and be damned.

But this is not an option. It would plague me forever to let a book go out in that state. While, on the other hand, the sense of liberation that has accompanied the killing of my darling is something to be cherished. This ‘failure’ feels, in fact, nothing like failure at all: it feels like being unchained from a madman.

In the meantime I will take Samuel Beckett’s advice, and learn to fail better next time.

 

 

 

 

 

Short story versus novel

13 Oct

Every story encompasses a world. Every story accounts for a series of actions, whether experienced or imagined. The story, if it is any good, also contains within it a substratum, or an undertow, through which the reader is guided towards some underlying truth – or the possibility of a truth. This may consist of a paradox or even a seeming contradiction, but it will, in some way, be traced or suggested by the contours of the outer story.

This notion, at least, can be applied to the short story. When it comes to anything longer I tend to balk.  Today on the Guardian website, I read an article about the new novel by the admirable Donna Tartt, a monster of a book at 771 pages, and I recall what Italo Calvino once wrote:

‘Long novels written today are perhaps a contradiction: the dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears. We can rediscover the continuity of time only in the novels of that period when time no longer seemed stopped and did not yet seem to have exploded, a period that lasted no more than a hundred years.’

I don’t know whether or not I entirely agree with this, but the idea of time progressing as a linear continuum does seem to be tied to a social structure where roles (including that of the author) were more fixed, sedentary things. The author proclaimed his (and it was usually a his) authority through texts permeated with the authorial voice, and which sustained that voice, gave it credibility as a constant over a period of calculable time.

And who wants that authority? Not me. Not I, even. Which is why, on days like today, the simple rigour of the short story seems so much more appealing, and far less tiring.

Ways of Going Home

8 Mar

Ways of going homeAlejandro Zambra’s first novel, Bonsai, won awards and brought the young Chilean poet international fame.  Bonsai is an elegantly-turned story which can be read in an hour, but is hardly, as some claimed on its publication, a classic destined to revitalize Chilean literature. It was followed by The Private Lives of Trees, which received comparatively less favourable reviews, but retained international interest in the author.

In this, his third and longest – but still very short – novel, translated by Megan McDowell, Zambra uses the ploy of describing the author at work on his new book, which, needless to say, is the one we are reading. Zambra adopted similar metafictional devices in its two predecessors and has evidently decided to stick to the formula.

As in his previous works, the new novel – strictly speaking a novella – evokes a wry and somewhat precious romanticism reminiscent of Murukami, with the central love affair subject to the corrosive influences of memory. But in Zambra’s world, this theme alone does not stand up to sustained scrutiny, and he shifts between the narrative present and revisiting the circumstances of a comfortable upbringing during difficult times. The most powerful passage concerns a meeting with his parents around the time of the 2010 Chilean elections, when the narrator’s father comes out with the line his son most dreads hearing: “Pinochet was a dictator and all that, he killed some people, but at least back then there was order.”

The most provocative idea in the book is the claim that the generation of Chileans born, like Zambra, in the years immediately following the coup of 1973, is composed of ‘secondary characters’. Our young hero suffers a vague sense of guilt at having been felicitously spared a personal legacy from those years of torture, disappearances and exile. And the narrator’s confounded utterance: “I’m the son of a family with no dead” is almost identical to one used by the protagonist of his previous novel, The Private Lives of Trees.

But Zambra’s narrator seems muddled as to what precisely his generation’s anomie actually involves: at one point he describes his peer group as:

“deserters, I think. We’ve become war correspondents, tourists. That’s what we are, I think: tourists who arrive with their backpacks, their cameras, and their notebooks.”

This leaves the reader wondering, well, which are you exactly: a deserter, a war correspondent or a tourist? There is a hell of a difference between the three, and the author’s unwillingness to differentiate indicates either laziness or a worrying lack of interest in his own thesis.

Zambra at his best offers an intimate recognition of his central characters, and he can evoke a setting with succinct brevity. He is a writer who works confidently from within his preferred metafictional formula, but we cannot escape the conclusion that Ways of Going Home is overly self-referential, and lacking in real depth or acuity. It is a readable but ultimately frustrating story aimed, like Bonsai, at a young adult market.

 

This review first appeared in The Independent on Tuesday, 29th January 2013.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The itch

5 Jan

scratching

 

Wikipedia’s entry on itching goes as follows:

Itch is a sensation that causes the desire or reflex to scratch. Itch has resisted many attempts to classify it as any one type of sensory experience. Modern science has shown that itch has many similarities to pain, and while both are unpleasant sensory experiences, their behavioral response patterns are different. Pain creates a withdrawal reflex while itch leads to a scratch reflex.

My own scratch reflex has been horribly over-employed these last two nights. I wonder if it has anything to do with a change of climate, being currently in a temperate dry place rather than the cold wet place where I normally reside? I came here to do some work, and while I have managed to do a fair bit of writing, I have probably done just as much scratching, often in the more personal or inaccessible zones of the body. I haven’t scratched like this since having scabies a long time ago.

The doctor back home told me it might be a side-effect of the medication I am on (great, I thought, another side effect to go with the fatigue, loss of appetite, anaemia, depression and rage). He also told me – get this – to try not to scratch.

Well, as you can imagine, I laughed like a cretin, since the very essence of having an itch is – as the Wikipedia entry makes clear – to activate the scratch reflex. You think, I’ll just give it a little scratch, and the next thing you are at it like a monkey. When you use your fingernail to scratch the spot where the irritant is, you not only remove the irritant but you irritate a whole shedload of other nerve endings. This means your itch itches more, hurts more, and you consequently scratch more. So my doctor’s advice was actually very helpful, if only I was able to heed it.

All I could do last night was take a valium and keep my hands clenched together under the pillow, in an attempt to exercise the kind of self-control that would do credit to a monk dedicated to obliterating the demands of the flesh.

There is, I suspect, a literary aspect to this scratching business. In fact the whole thing reeks of metaphor, if only because writing itself at times resembles an act of scratching. Initially one writes in order to relieve an itch. However once the process has begun, the initial itch is replaced by something quite monstrous. Then we find it impossible to stop scratching. I wonder if this has anything to do with being on the seventeenth draft of a novel?

 

 

 

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