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.
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.
When I wander into Getsemaní, 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?’
‘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.
“An alcoholic may be said in fact to lead two lives, one concealed beneath the other as a subterranean river snakes beneath a road. There is the life of the surface – the cover story, so to speak – and then there is the life of the addict, in which the priority is always to secure another drink.”
Nothing remarkable about this, you might think, except that it mirrors almost exactly what Ricardo Piglia writes about the structure of the short story: that the outer, surface narrative, always contains and conceals a parallel interior story. This is interesting because it poses the extraordinary thesis that a human life is always about (at least) two narratives, the overt and visible, and the covert or hidden. In the case of the addict, the duality of these narratives is especially extreme, because the parallel interior or subterranean story – even if initially concealed or invisible – eventually breaks out into awful visibility, affecting all those in the immediate vicinity.
Even if one takes the subtitle with a pinch of salt, Olivia Laing’s The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink, proves a fascinating read, exploring the relationship of six famously bibulous American writers with the bottle. The lives of Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, John Cheever, Raymond Carver and John Berryman are put under the microscope and – unsurprisingly – a lot of very messy stuff comes into view. However the book is beautifully written, and displays a profound understanding of both her subject matter and her subjects. Perhaps of all these cases, Fitzgerald’s was the greatest waste, while Berryman, with his astonishing grandiosity, provided the darkest farce. Of Berryman’s final years. Laing writes:
“That’s what alcoholism does to a writer. You begin with alchemy, hard labour, and end by letting some grandiose degenerate, some awful aspect of yourself, take up residence at the hearth, the central fire, where they set to ripping out the heart of the work you’ve yet to finish.”
The Trip to Echo Spring: Why Writers Drink is an excellently researched book on a difficult topic. It is filled with fascinating digressions and integrates the author’s findings with a journey she herself undertakes across the United States in pursuit of her subjects’ homes and histories.