Search results for 'On not getting it'

On Not Getting It

12 Mar

 

cat watching goldfish

Curiosity can sometimes be more satisfying, more enhancing, than the mere consolation of achievement.

A while ago I wrote here on Kafka’s claim that in spite of knowing how to swim, he had not forgotten what it feels like to not know how to swim – and consequently the achievement, or consolation of ‘being able to swim’ was only of any value when weighed against the state of curiosity and mystery of not knowing how to swim.

Or something like that.

Adam Phillips, in his excellent book Missing Out, says something very close to this. In the chapter ‘On Not Getting It’ he writes that sometimes ‘not getting it’ (whatever ‘it’ might be – knowing how to swim, or winning some straightforward or else obscure object of desire) is more interesting than ‘getting it’. He imagines a life ‘in which not getting it is the point and not the problem; in which the project is to learn how not to ride the bicycle, how not to understand the poem. Or to put it the other way round, this would be a life in which getting it – the will to get it, the ambition to get it – was the problem; in which wanting to be an accomplice didn’t take precedence over making up one’s mind.’

There is something very appealing about this notion of ‘not getting it.’ Here’s more:

‘What I want to promote here is the alternative or complementary consideration; that getting it, as a project or a supposed achievement, can itself sometimes be an avoidance; an avoidance, say, of our solitariness or our singularity or our unhostile interest and uninterest in other people. From this point of view, we are, in Wittgenstein’s bewitching term, ‘bewitched’ by getting it; and that means by a picture of ourselves as conspirators or accomplices or know-alls.’

For now, I am surprisingly happy to be bewitched by the notion of not getting it; to remain enhanced if occasionally bewildered by my inability or disinclination to get it.

 

 

 

Notes from a Catalan village: summer on its way

18 May

goat

 

The weather has been cloudy, windy and wet for much of May – validating the Catalan proverb, Al maig, cada dia un raig (in May, a shower every day) – with just the occasional day of glorious sunshine, when we take off for a walk, just to reassure ourselves that summer is really coming. On one of these occasions, wandering round the lanes near Rabós, we came upon this goat, standing in proprietorial fashion in the doorway of a caravan. She stared at us as we passed, not remotely deterred by the dog, who wisely stayed away.

Spring started a long time ago now, announced by the cherry blossom in February. It always seems to me that the summer is on its way when the first shoots appear on the vines, in early April. The poppies shoot up at the same time, bestowing on the olive groves a scattering of scarlet.

 

vineyard april

poppies and olive tree

 

The first tourists start to appear then too, almost exclusively French at this time of year, driving in the middle of the road on country lanes, and getting lost in the medieval labyrinth of the village.

One of the walks we took a couple of weeks back was to the Santuari de la Mare de Deu, near Terrades. A half hour’s climb to a tiny chapel rewards with views of Canigou and beyond.

 

Santa Maria

Chapel on mountain at Santuari de la Mare de Deu, near Terrades

 

Another of my favourite places, all year round, which still provides unspoiled beaches out of season, is Cap Norfeu – named after Orpheus – on the Cap de Creus peninsula, where, if you listen carefully, you can hear strains of song from below the cliffs. But don’t venture too close. Or go stepping on any snakes. You might end up in the underworld.

 

Cala Pelosa etc

Cala Pelosa and Cala Montjoi from Cap Norfeu

Knausgaard’s Struggle, or How forgetting stuff can help you remember it more honestly

1 Sep
Jarl Ove Knausgaard

Karl Ove Knausgaard

I have had Karl Ove Knausgaard’s work on my reading list for a while, particularly as some of the better critics have sung his praises (for example James Wood, writing in The New Yorker, or Boyd Tonkin, in The Independent). Now that I’ve read the first volume, dealing with his adolescence and the death of his father, I have to admit I’m a little bewildered at all the fuss. I don’t think I’ll be reading the second volume, in which he famously deconstructs his first marriage.

So much of Knausgaard’s story seems to be saying things simply to fulfil his own obsessive need to say them, to ‘record everything’. But he isn’t – thank god – ‘recording everything’; he is merely giving the spurious impression of thoroughness. I’m not convinced that much of it needs saying. It serves no purpose and is filled with tedious blather: ‘I dried my hair with the small towel’ . . . ‘I swallowed the last morsel and poured juice in my glass’. The ‘detail’ comes replete with set phrases and cliché: ‘I was as hungry as a wolf’ . . . ‘two sides of the same coin’, ‘seeing is believing’, etc. He piles on astonishingly boring reams of information, as though simply filling a page will do. Much of this book is typing, rather than writing, as though the author wanted to get the series of six volumes out as soon as possible – given his sales in Norway this might have been reasonable motivation. His work has received startling and adulatory comparisons with A la recherche du temps perdu. But Proust it ain’t.

There is some strong writing in the early pages when the author reflects on death in general and his relationship with his father (referred to throughout as a lower case ‘dad’) but the intensity of these opening pages is lost as we sink into the larger litany of the exhausting details of everyday life. Anyone who writes knows there is no such thing as ‘total honesty’: everything is, to a large degree, confection and elaboration, a weaving around or manipulation of some essential fragment of reality. There is not a writer alive who would claim to reproduce events from their own lives with a rigorous adherence to the truth because, as we all know, a writer can only ever present a version of events to the world: if you want to call that ‘corruscating truthfulness’ you’re welcome, but – as Bob Dylan once said – I don’t believe you, man.

Besides, as ‘Karl Ove’ confesses on page 387 of the Vintage edition: I usually forgot almost everything people, however close they were, said to me. This is an alarming confession, if we are being asked to consider the work as an example of corrosively truthful writing, or a “scorchingly honest, unflinchingly frank, hyperreal memoir” (The Guardian) – especially after 386 pages containing extensive tracts of dialogue with people who were ‘close’ to him. But perhaps ‘forgetting’ helps Knausgaard to remember in a more ‘honest’ way.

After a fashion, I can see this series of books as emerging from and resonating with the narcissistic tradition of Facebook and twitter, a constant attention-seeking and a wanting-to-be-noticed in a world in which everything is on display for all to see. Just as the young Karl Ove desperately needs, and fails to receive, his father’s attention. Knausgaard tells us he “wanted so much to be special” as an awkward teen who played in a heavy metal band (but dreamed of greater things, and had “the ambition to write something exceptional”).

It would be invidious to pick out one of the many examples of frankly bad writing in this first volume. Besides, I get it: I see what he’s doing with the self-consciously unedited prose style. But this thinly veiled autobiography (no, let’s stick with ‘novel’ – the old boundaries no longer count for anything) is not breaking new ground, as so many critics seem to be claiming. Apart from the strong opening and some isolated aperçus on death, it is pretty dull for the most part, with some legitimate seasoning of ‘profound thoughts’ edging their way in on occasion:

She glared at me. I swallowed the last morsel and poured juice in my glass. If there was one thing I had learned over recent months it was that everything you heard about pregnant women’s fluctuating and unpredictable moods was true.

‘Don’t you understand that this is a disaster?’ she said.

I met her gaze. Took a swig of juice.

‘Yes, yes, of course’, I said. ‘But it’ll be all right. Everything will be all right.’

And this description of rolling as fag:

I drained my drink and poured myself a fresh one, took out a Rizla, laid a line of tobacco, spread it evenly to get the best possible draught, rolled the paper a few times, pressed down the end and closed it, licked the glue, removed any shreds of tobacco, dropped them in the pouch [dropped what in the pouch?], put the somewhat skew-whiff roll-up in my mouth and lit it with Yngve’s green, semi-transparent lighter.

Does any of this matter? Who cares if the writer’s brother had a ‘green, semi-transparent lighter’? Who cares, even, what he dropped in the pouch. I cannot agree with James Wood’s assertion that “the banality is so extreme that it turns into its opposite, and becomes distinctive, curious in its radical transparency.” To my mind, the banality simply remains banal. And the writing, sloppy.

But perhaps I’m being unfair. Knausgaard clearly writes in a hurry, producing 10 to 20 pages a day, according to one account. Perhaps he should slow down a bit, do some editing even. But I guess it’s too late for that now. Or perhaps I should try again, and read him in a different way, accepting that, as Wood writes: “the writer seems not to be selecting or shaping anything, or even pausing to draw breath.” But then again, why should I? Life is short enough as it is, and I’d rather re-read Proust.

The relentlessness of his descriptions does serve a purpose, I’ll concede that: the deluge of ordinariness is meant to elicit in the reader a stronger consciousness of whatever we consider to be ‘reality’, but then again, this is all rendered with a naivety and dedication to ‘honesty’ that I find deeply suspicious. Maybe the resistance to – or outright rejection of – ironic detachment as a strategy in this writing is what I find most unsettling. For all the words, all the typing, there seems to be very little, if any, self-awareness here. And as with reality TV, I cannot quite take that world of written ‘reality’ seriously – especially when being asked to consider the ‘merciless frankness’ of an author who ‘can’t remember a single conversation’ – but who nonetheless has managed successfully to achieve that longed-for fame and specialness which he so craved as a teenager.

On getting lost

24 Aug

wandering

‘For [Virginia] Woolf, getting lost was not a matter of geography so much as identity, a passionate desire, even an urgent need, to become no one and anyone, to shake off the shackles that remind you who you are, who others think you are.’

Having finally got around to reading Rebecca Solnit’s fine book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, I am left wondering how come it took me so long. Not only to find the book, but to find a writer who has reached conclusions – or striven towards them, because a conclusion closes things off and Solnit likes to leave things open to mutation and redirection – that are so much in harmony with my own. I am reminded of that sense of excitement described (in an earlier post) by Patrick Leigh Fermor of ‘realising that nobody in the world knew where he was’, echoed in Solnit’s words: ‘Nights alone in motels in remote western towns where I know no one and no one I know knows where I am’. This is not solipsism, nor even a desire to escape; it is, properly speaking, a contentment merely to be where one is, when one is, without roots, without identity, without destination. Something very attractive to anyone who has ever suffered inclinations for the state that Buddhism calls unbeing, but wants to get there without putting in the long hours of back-straining, balls-breaking meditation.

Wandering, being lost, is a way of losing yourself. As Solnit reminds us, it’s not about being lost but about trying to lose yourself:

‘“Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more,” says . . . Walter Benjamin. “But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” To lose oneself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography.’

 

 

 

 

That obscure object of the author’s desire

21 Aug
Proust MS (a)

From draft of A la recherche du temps perdu.

Three and half years ago on this blog I wrote about Adam Phillips’ book ‘Missing Out’, which explains how not getting what you think you want might actually be what you want. In the current issue of the LRB, Phillips reviews a new biography of Proust (Proust: The Search, by Benjamin Taylor), and we discover that for the author of A la recherche, the act of desire is what matters, not the attainment of the object of desire. Maybe we shouldn’t bother with trying to fulfil our desires, or achieve our dreams: maybe the beauty of harbouring a desire is simply that – it fills our hearts and minds while it is a potentiality, but the moment we achieve it, win it, possess it (in Proust’s diction), its lustre falls away and we are, more often than not, left bereft, and in mourning for something we we never truly possessed. In other words, the slow burn of unfulfilment is preferable to fulfilment itself.

In the review, Phillips writes:

‘Marcel often intimates with his preachy irony, that we should actually work as hard as we can not to get what we think we want. We do this automatically, it seems, but we need to put our minds to it, because the one belief we appear to be unable to give up on is the belief in the importance of satisfaction. We can’t think what else to do with our wishes other than try to satisfy them.’

And furthermore:

‘The desire to make your dreams come true is a fatal misunderstanding. You have to find something you really want to do and find ways of not doing it. You have to find someone you really want in order to get over wanting them.’

But here’s the interesting part: what is being ‘reached for’ in Proust – the obscure object of the author’s desire, if you will –  is, according to Phillips the invisible book within the book – the one that is being described in the writing, and which is and is not the book that we are reading.

Phillips expresses the idea as follows:

‘. . .Proust’s readers never get to read the book Marcel is going to write; we only get to read the book about the book he may write. Marcel’s book, as opposed to Proust’s, is an emblematic object of desire; we are curious about it, but we can never have access to it.’

Let me elaborate: in Proust’s book, the character of ‘Marcel’ describes himself as writing a book, or as wanting to write a book, which describes the social world with which he is obsessed. ‘Marcel’, needless to say, is a fiction – composed as an adjunct or alternative to the ‘real’ Proust. The book the fictional Marcel is writing will never be written or read. It is the invisible book at the heart of Proust’s fiction. Not the book we hold before us, but its shadow. In another sense, it is the book that Proust ‘desired’ to write, rather than the book he in fact wrote. What resonance this has in marking the distinction between the books we set out to write, the books we might have written, and the books we actually complete; the books we experience as unfulfilled desire, and the books which are, however unsatisfactorily, ‘fulfilled’.

Anselm Kiefer at the Pompidou

17 Mar

Kiefer Margarethe 2

A couple of weekends ago we had the opportunity to visit the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Quite apart from its power, scope and integrity – and in spite of its overwhelmingly dark subject matter – the exhibition filled me a similarly paradoxical and devastating faith in humanity that can be glimpsed in the work of Kiefer’s compatriot, W.G. Sebald. Kiefer, incidentally, was born one year after Sebald, on 8 March 1945, at the time of the massive allied air raids on his native Germany documented by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and elsewhere. Much of Kiefer’s work reflects openly on the legacy of Nazism, a tendency that brought him intense criticism from German critics at the start of his career. As he himself has written:

‘After the ‘misfortune’, as we all name it so euphemistically now, people thought that in 1945 we were starting all over again . . . it’s nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up again generates resistance and disgust.’

His undaunted gaze on the past of Germany – and Europe at large – struck me as overwhelmingly pertinent now, as Europe faces a humanitarian crisis in the shape of millions of refugees, and the German and European Right flexes in indignation, while in the United States Donald Trump begins to stir up the same kind of populist xenophobia that made the whole experiment of the Third Reich possible. However, Kiefer does considerably more than reflect on historical contingencies, and his oeuvre, massive in range as well as intellectual breadth, explores the idea of a collective mythology – not only the specifically Germanic, Romantic imagination with which much of his work is imbued – but the entire project of the human condition, and of how to live humanely under inhumane conditions, if that is at all possible.

I would need several months to reflect in depth on the emotions generated by this extraordinary exhibition. It is the third time I have visited a major Kiefer show, but the Pompidou have excelled themselves in the attention to detail and the fantastic range of work exhibited. Unfortunately, the exhibition only runs until 16 April, but if you have any chance at all of getting there, it is very much worth it.

I have chosen to consider reproductions from two of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition, titled Margarethe and Sulamith, a thematic that Kiefer has explored exhaustively following Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), concluding with the famous lines that reflect on the murder by immolation of the Jewish girl Sulamith (Shulamite in The Song of Songs) and contrasted with the golden-haired Aryan Margarethe, whose hair, represented in the painting by straw, according to Sue Hubbard in The Independent ‘symbolises the German love of land, and the nobility of the German soul, allowing Kiefer to play with complex notions of racial purity.’

According to Rebecca Taylor, ‘all of the canonical elements of Kiefer’s work’ are present in the painting Sulamith (or Shulamite): we find ‘a thick impasto resulting from a hardened mixture of oil, acrylic, emulsion, and shellac; a brittle, textured surface infused with commonplace materials (in this case, straw and ash); mythological or biblical references  . . . and a historical subject or location (a Nazi Memorial Hall in Berlin).

Funeral Hall

Wilhelm Kreis, Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldier  (Berlin, 1939)

‘ . . . Kiefer’s hall is not a memorial to great men with patriotic flags waving boldly, but a gateway to damnation, a dark and foreboding road to hell, enclosed by low arches and paved with massive stones —the whole mise-en-scène  . . . suggestive of an oven (immediately bringing to mind the hyperactivity of the crematoria at the Nazi death camps).’

Kiefer Sulemith 2

Kiefer has stated that he would have liked to have been a poet – though it seems strange to me that an artist whose work is so imbued with its own poetry would consider language to be somehow a ‘higher’ attainment than that which he has achieved through his extraordinary visual creations. But it seems only appropriate to close with Christopher Middleton’s marvellous translation of Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, which inspired Kiefer in these paintings.

 

Fugue of Death

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall

we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night

we drink it and drink it

we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he

whistles his dogs up

he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in

the earth

he commands us strike up for the dance

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at nightfall

drink you and drink you

A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes

he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden

hair Margarete

Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the

sky it is

ample to lie there

 

He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others

you sing and you play

he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are

his eyes

stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on

for the dancing

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall

we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at

nightfall

drink you and drink you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

 

He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a

master from Germany

he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you

shall climb to the sky

then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death comes as a master from Germany

we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and drink you

a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue

with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit you

a man in the house your golden hair Margarete

he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a grave

he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a

master from Germany

 

your golden hair Margarete

your ashen hair Shulamith.

 

Translated by Christopher Middleton

Engrained confusion and Freudian typos

20 Nov
A porpoise with purpose

A porpoise with purpose

Are there words that you always seem to mis-type? I don’t mean mis-spell when writing longhand, but mis-type, when typing in a hurry, when the words are coming out faster than the fingers can organise them into print on the screen, and the mind, as it were, stumbles. Is there any point in analysing these moments?

The question I am getting to, rather clumsily, is whether or not there is an element of the ‘Freudian slip’ involved in the kinds of words that we habitually mis-type when typing faster than we can comfortably manage.

Let me give two examples. One word which I often type incorrectly is ‘purpose’. It occurs to me that this is because I lack purpose, that I have always lacked purpose. I am quite good on intention, and energetic in pursuing obsessive goals, but purpose can floor me. No doubt I spent too much time immersed in the novels of Samuel Beckett as a teenager, but I can hardly blame him. I over-identified with Beckett’s forlornly comic protagonists, mostly because, like my teenage self, they lacked purpose, and this coincided with a time in life when I and those around me were being encouraged to acquire and develop Purpose above all things.

Puprose or porpuse (which of course gets auto-corrected to ‘porpoise’)is how I spell it, and once or twice pusproe. I find it hard to ‘get’ purpose, and have to slow down, pause, and seek out the keys.

The other word I almost invariably type incorrectly is ‘because’ (becuase, beacuse, beacuase etc) – but most commonly beacuse .

My analyst friend, Alphonse, perched on his Freudian stool, says: purpose, sure, Blanco: you lack purpose. Because, surely, because you lack a sense of causality. You refuse to believe that one thing happens as a direct consequence of another thing, and prefer to follow your misguided and mystical faith in Sympathetic Magic.

And there’s the rub. Causality (or actually, I kid you not, cuaslity, which sounds rather like ‘casualty’ is as much of a stumbling block as ‘purpose’ and ‘because’ – the latter as a subordinating conjunction (I hate you because you are a liar) or compound conjunction (the concert was cancelled because of the rain). Either way ‘because’ is a concept whose very existence depends on an acceptance of causality.

But to reinforce this confusion, I have a final repeat slip-up to confess to: when speaking Spanish I consistently confuse the word casualidad (chance, coincidence) with  causalidad (causality)– it is an engrained error, but one which must surely have deep psychological roots, in which I regard all causality as, essentially, a matter of chance or coincidence.

 

 

 

Exhibit B in Santiago de Chile

17 Jan
A Place in the Sun, from Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”. This installation was based on an account of a French colonial officer who kept black women chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services.

From Brett Bailey’s “Exhibit B”. This installation was based on an account of a French colonial officer who kept black women chained to his bed, exchanging food for sexual services.

 

Continuing my readings of Alastair Reid, while travelling in Chile, I find the following: “The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness; and since reality is shifting and changing, our fictions must constantly be revised.”

‘Fictions’ here has the broadest meaning possible, and should not be confined to those things that are written down and sold in the Fiction Section. Fictions, following Borges, are anything – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality. A piece of theatre, for example.

Arriving in Santiago from the south of Chile yesterday evening, I was invited by friends to attend a performance of Exhibit B, showing as part of the Santiago a Mil theatre festival. Exhibit B is a theatre installation that replicates the grotesque phenomenon of the human zoo during the 19th Century, in which Africans were put on display like circus freaks “for the titillation of European and American audiences under the guise of ‘ethnological enlightenment.’” The show created something of an outrage when performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year. There were complaints that the actors were being to subjected to a similar form of exploitation as the people whose lives they were reproducing, and its run at the Barbican in London was cancelled, on the grounds – according to the sociologist and activist Kehinde Andrews, writing in The Guardian “that it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it stands as a commentary on.”

Holding the performance in the baroque and excessive setting of the nineteenth century Cousiño Palace in central Santiago was a stroke of genius. The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned coal and silver mines, as well as the Cousiño-Macul Vineyards. The nouveau riche glitz of the palace set off by classical music, provided a sinister but peculiarly fitting locale.

The experience of Exhibit B was painful, as I expected it to be, and my emotions as I walked slowly round the exhibits were complex, and included a degree of shame in experiencing discomfort of any kind, given the extremes of discomfort, abuse and torture suffered by the subjects whose pained existences were being recreated by the actors. I was confused, as I was doubtless meant to be: should I make eye contact with the exhibits, for instance? Would I not be replicating the white man’s gaze that the performance so vehemently questions? The actors weren’t avoiding my gaze, that was for sure, and even on occasion followed my passage across the space in front of them, especially the replica of the man adopted by some Austrian prince in the 18th century who, when he died, had been skinned and stuffed (and blanched) and put out on display for visitors to admire.

My confusion – and the residual sense of shame which I had no power to resist – was exacerbated by a string of questions to which I had no answers. I think the most powerful message to come from this important work is that the objectification and exploitation of society’s others – and our continuing projection of otherness onto immigrants and asylum seekers – continues and will continue. We cannot change the past, but we can at least help shape the future. That is why I cannot support the position taken by the protesters who forced the closure of the Barbican show. A discussion between one of the black performers, Stella Odunlami, and Kehane Andrews (who was active in getting the show shut down, despite never having seen it) provides valuable arguments on both sides. Essentially though, I feel that censorship cannot be justified simply because a work of art chooses a difficult subject and questions reality in a way that some might find offensive.

By the criteria presented at the start of this post, that the fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it, and that the ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness, I can only say that in the case of Exhibit B, its effectiveness was not in doubt. It was both effective and a deeply moving testament to human cruelty and human suffering. As the performer Stella Odunlami writes in response to Kehane Andrews : “my fellow performers and I chose to be part of a production that exposed racism then and now. We have had to defend our decision to exercise our freedom of creativity to those who call us puppets. It is not your job to decide what is or isn’t good for me; I am capable of doing so for myself.” Brett Bailey’s own defence of the work can be found here.

At the very end, when we were standing around in the courtyard about to leave, I caught sight of the actors smoking and chatting by the side entrance of the palace. I was relieved that the company included the taxidermically conserved dead man whose gaze I had failed to meet. It was as if, with the actors out of role, no longer being the people they represented in fiction, their humanity had been restored to them, and with theirs, my own.

 

 

 

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. My pension is decorated with the kind of bad hippy art that I thought had died in the 1970s.

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.

 

 

 

 

Mexico, violence and random bad luck

8 May

Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the guy on the evening shift at my hotel. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. So much for my after dinner stroll. I retire to my room with Under the Volcano, just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was when first reading it half a lifetime ago. I took it with me to the hotel restaurant, first consuming Michael Schmidt’s Introduction alongside the chicken consommé – intrigued to discover he grew up in the same streets that encompass Lowry’s narrative – and reading the first few chapters (alongside the steak and nopales – edible cactus – and avocado) with delight and a degree of – is it envy or humility or readerly watchfulness, or a concoction of all three?

Earlier there was a massive storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant: hence my attempt to set out after eating. But I defer to the night-watchman’s concern, and it was past eleven after all. One hears so many contradictory tales about what is safe, and where it is safe to walk, especially at night, that in the circumstances I tend to err on the side of caution, something I would never have done a quarter of a century ago. But twenty-five years ago, perhaps, Mexico was not such a dangerous place, and I was a more reckless person. I remember saying to someone last week, who asked me why I hadn’t travelled to Mexico during my youthful journeys, that if I had done so I would probably have ended up getting killed, as I was such a pain in the arse back then and frequently looking for trouble. Some would say I am still a pain in the arse, but I don’t go looking for trouble any more.

In Xalapa, which seemed a reasonably safe place, there was a formidable police presence when I visited last week. Apparently this kind of thing happens in waves, following some tip-off or other. On the day I left, as I was packing my suitcase I hear an explosion on the street. I looked outside and saw people running, looking around as if not knowing quite from which direction it had come. Then, two minutes later, it is as if nothing has happened. I never find out what it was.

A writer I had arranged to meet there tells me of the corruption in local government: businesses close down, not because of any economic crisis, but because of extortion and their inability or unwillingness to pay the protection money to gangsters, who in turn are in league with crooked politicians and bent police officers. The police presence, as I mentioned, is an offence in itself – the same evening, as I took a walk through a busy Xalapa street, a truck pulled past with four police, heavily armed, black armour and helmets, their automatic rifles aimed in readiness at the civilians passing by on the sidewalk: what is this? Who exactly is posing the threat? Why are they aiming their guns at the very people they are supposed to be protecting?

In terms of everyday violence, Mexico gets a bad deal from the press, especially the US press. This itself is a paradox – most violence in Mexico is drug-related and the USA is the place these drugs are marketed – that verges on the hypocritical. One website I looked at cites UN-sourced evidence that you are more than five times more likely to be the victim of an assault in the USA than you are in Mexico, and that in terms of homicide, the murder rate in Mexico is way down the league of tourist destinations: within Latin America and the Caribbean alone, you are much more likely to get yourself killed in (descending order) Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, St Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Brazil, St Lucia or Ecuador than you are in Mexico. The murder rate in Washington D.C is more than double that of Mexico City (21 per 100,000 as opposed to 9 per 100,000) and in New Orleans it is more than five times greater than in the Mexican capital.

But in terms of everyday security, beyond taking reasonable precautions – i.e. there are some barrios in any city that you simply don’t visit if you can avoid them – bad stuff happens, as elsewhere, mainly because of chance (i.e bad luck). A Mexican couple told me soon after my arrival here that the only time they had ever experienced violence directed against themselves was in Europe: she was mugged in Paris; he was beaten up in a North London pub. Come to think of it, so was I.