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.
At the kind invitation of the Mexican Embassy in Chile we attend a Halloween celebration in the municipal cemetery of Santiago. Having arrived in the Chilean capital only a couple of hours earlier, it is as if I have been suddenly and unexpectedly returned to Mexico. There are speeches by ambassadors, civil dignitaries and other big cheeses, and displays of cultural artefacts relating to the Day of the Dead, the usual paraphernalia of skulls and trinkets and macabre dolls, some of them edible. Gradually the dead appear among us, filtering through the crowd: a young married couple, a family group, and a very elegant group of dancers from Guadalajara. After music and dances, we are led on a candlelit tour of the cemetery, which holds the earthly remains of the most illustrious figures in Chilean history, including Salvador Allende, whose leftist government was crushed by the military of General Pinochet in the coup of 1973, and who died in circumstances which still remain unclear – and so will remain until the end of time. Time which, as the Mexicans know so well, passes too rapidly for us, until we too join the great silent hordes of the deceased, who once a year mingle with us, are permitted to sit at table and witness earthly pleasures, to sing and dance and drink tequila, and to envy the living; while we look on with a mix of terror and fascination at these spectral figures, so elegant in their finery, yet so devoid of substance, knowing that we will one day be them; that in a certain sense, we already are.
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.
Perhaps nowhere on earth is the contiguity of past and present more strikingly evident than in Mexico. An ancient wall, cracked from an earthquake, stands before a pair of ascending high rise towers, from one of which emanates a constant hammering and pounding that echoes across the hot afternoon. Through the crack in the ancient wall modernity surges skyward, oblivious.
My last night in Mexico City I watch the Mexican cup final in a taqueria with some friends. The match is between Leon and Pachuca. The second of these is known as Pachuca la airosa (Pachuca the windy) and its football team has a curious history. It is the oldest club in Mexico, having been formed in 1901 by Cornish miners who had arrived in the area to work in mines owned byWilliam Blamey at the end of the nineteenth century. The team was augmented with locals who took to the game, and became one of the country’s leading clubs. It is in the Mexican Premier League and has won five championships as well as four CONCACAF Champions’ Cups, the 2007 SuperLiga and one Copa Sudamericana. One detail that truly impressed me was that the dish for which Pachuca cuisine is famed – harking back to those miners – is a variety of Cornish Pasty, known locally as pastes. On Thursday night, despite the howls of disapproval around me (I was evidently in a hotbed of Leon supporters), the pasties won 3-2.
Next day, at the airport bar in Mexico City a very besoffen German with a shaved head engages me in conversation in unstable English. Europe is finished, he tells me, thanks to the dictatorship of Brussels. Ve haf many dictators in Europ, ze last was Hitler, and before that ze Swedish Gustavus Adolphus and ze other was, er, er . . . – he seems in actual physical pain, struggling to remember another European dictator. Napoleon? I suggest. Ja, ja, Napoleon, he says, relieved at what is evidently a gargantuan struggle against alcohol’s tendency to obliterate memory. But now ve haf Brussels and all is finished.
The gist of his argument, as far as I can make out, is that Europe was better off as a collection of independent nation states with their own laws and their own currencies. So you are against any idea of a federal Europe? Ja, he says, nodding his shiny pate with extraordinary vigour. I want to point out that it was precisely because of the continual warmongering between these independent nation states – his own in particular – that the idea of a Federal Europe emerged, but I fear that his grasp of such a concept is imperilled by the dispatching in rapid succession of two more tequilas. What has he been doing in Mexico? I ask. I haf been doing my work, which I do, he tells me, helpfully. He explains that his plane to Geneva leaves at 9.00 pm and he likes to be the last on board, in order to make the others wait. This amuses him greatly and he guffaws into his empty glass. I leave to catch my own plane. I glance at the departures board on the way. There is no 9.00 pm flight to Geneva listed.
So, I’ll start with the serious stuff, and work downhill towards the frivolous.
Yesterday I was taken by the poet (and translator of Seamus Heaney), Pura López Colomé to see an impressive and moving exhibition at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia organised by the Movimiento por la paz con justicia y dignidad (Movement for peace with justice and dignity), whose motto is estamos a la madre meaning, approximately, ‘we have had enough’. This group was set up by the poet, writer, academic and activist Javier Sicilia, following the torture and murder of his son Juan Francisco, along with six others, by drug gang assassins in March 2011.
Following this, Sicilia has developed a formidable organisation that calls for an end to the drug wars, withdrawal of the military presence from the streets, the legalisation of drugs, and an end to political corruption. He has led demonstrations – at huge personal risk to himself – as well as marches across the whole of Mexico and much of the United States. In 2011 he was named Person of the Year by TIME magazine. His influence in starting up a popular, non-aligned movement directly confronting the perpetrators of violent crime and political corruption in Mexico represents an act of immense personal courage. His organisation has found followers in every walk of life, precisely because so many people have been affected by the drug wars – whether as victims themselves, or else as having lost family members to the violence. Furthermore, unlike the many ‘self-defence’ groups that have sprouted up across the country in opposition to the terror perpetrated by drug gangs – which simply promotes a never-ending cycle of violence met by more violence – Sicilia’s movement is based on entirely peaceful means of protest. I am posting a few images below from the exhibition, with apologies for the quality of the photographs, my camera having developed a mysterious and inexplicable blur on the lens over the past few days.
At a considerable remove from the foregoing, and my head filled with disturbing images, which I have not reproduced here, I bade farewell to Pura and wandered alone through the derelict remains of the Templo Mayor, the Aztec temple at the centre of the city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), destroyed by Cortés in 1521. Much of this area was entirely buried for centuries. The conquerors built a church over part of the precinct – the present cathedral – and other parts were used for housing and other civic buildings. I found it extraordinarily haunting to walk around this area, directly after witnessing the sufferings endured by present-day Mexicans, as if – and this is by no means an original thought – the cycle of violence, destruction and waste were part of some terrible continuum from which there can be no escape, only temporary respite.
Inside the museum, having stood before the astonishing Tzompantli, or wall of skulls, I am confronted by a statue of Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the underworld and of death.
Unfortunately, he reminds me of the ogre in the first Harry Potter film, who was rather an inept type. Intertextuality gone awry. The museum’s English description below the statue is worth reproducing:
Mictlantecuhtli is conceived by the Aztecs as a half-gaunt being in a position of attack with claws and curly hair . . . The liver hangs out from his thorax because according to Aztec beliefs this organ was closely related to Mictlan or the underworld.
I’ll forever be on the look-out for half-gaunts from Mictlan, with their livers hanging out.
Which leads me – not through any direct path – to another sight witnessed in the Zócalo, which had me confused for a minute: what appeared to be a bishop, protesting against child abuse in the Catholic church, and which transpired to be a person disguised as a bishop. Shame, really.
And from the tragic, via the bizarre, to the frivolous, as promised:
After a hot weekend, the temperature drops by twenty degrees overnight and the morning brings a discernible chill and a fine rain. Saltillo has been the surprise of my Mexican trip, a kind of ugly, lovely town, as Dylan said of Swansea. However, the comparison is not to be taken seriously: Saltillo has a population of nearly 800,000, and serves as the capital of the desert state of Coahuila, which stretches all the way to the US border. Yesterday, after doing a radio interview, I walk around the historic centre with Julián and Mercedes, and pass a rather striking building of Colonial aspect, which Julián informs me was once the Hotel Arizpe Sáinz – now defunct – the favoured residence of Edward Hopper, during his visits to Saltillo in the 1940s. Attracted by the desert and the extraordinary light, Hopper made three visits, painting watercolours from the roof of the hotel. According to testimonies from ex-employees of the Cine Palacio, and others who knew Hopper during this period, he developed a love-hate relationship with the northern Mexican city, admiring the architecture, but not the climate or certain aspects of the ‘local character’ or city life, which he found noisy and congested. In fact, it sounds as though he didn’t really like the place much at all, and complained about the walls and towers and electric signs that obstructed the views. Nor could he find the right sort of blue-green oil paint for the mountains, which must have been a bummer. In fact this is the reason he settled on watercolours.
Having become disillusioned with Saltillo, Hopper abandoned the place, returning however for a final visit in 1951, although apparently not producing any new work.
Saltillo has proved the most hospitable and generous city I have visited in Mexico. It seems to be filled with people who love books and actually read them, in spite of being the centre for Mexico’s automobile industry. Yesterday the temperature soared to 38 degrees by midday and my hosts Monica and Julián put on an asado – the Latin version of a barbecue – and many of the people who attended our reading on Saturday night at the wonderfully named Cerdo de Babel (Pig of Babel) turned up. The Pig of Babel, incidentally, for anyone who intends travelling in northern Mexico, is officially Blanco’s favourite bar, seamlessly marrying the themes of Pork and Borges, and taking over from Nick Davidson’s now defunct Promised Land as the most congenial hostelry in the Western Hemisphere (although I realise such a term is entirely relative and depends on where you are standing at any given moment).
The culture section for the state of Coahuila produced a beautifully designed pamphlet of five of my poems, for which I have to thank Jorge and Miquel. I would also like to offer my thanks Mercedes Luna Fuentes, who read the Spanish versions of my poems in Jorge Fondebrider’s fine translation, and Monica and Julián for the use of their and Lourdes’ home – especially since Julián had to endure my garbled Spanish explanation of the rules of Rugby Union last night, which may well have been a bewildering experience for a Mexican poet, but which I considered an essential duty of a Welsh creative ambassador.
On a different theme entirely, the fifth issue of that very fine magazine The Harlequin is now online, and it contains three new poems by my alias, Richard Gwyn, including this one, reflecting on an entirely different – but inevitably similar – journey to the one currently being undertaking.
From Naxos to Paros
Of the journey from Naxos to Paros
all he could remember
were the lights of one harbour
disappearing into the black sea
and the lights of another
emerging from the same black sea
and he thought for a moment
that all journeys were like this
but that many were longer.