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River Crossing

10 Sep

chicas

So, we were just on Santa Fe (the main thoroughfare connecting Palermo to the centre of Buenos Aires) trying to hail a taxi, when these young people, on the way back from a night out – or rather, still on a night out – at 7.15 in the morning, approached Pedro and me as we unsuspectingly pulled our suitcases towards the road. Pedro, informing them he was Mexican, proved of little interest, but they engaged me enthusiastically in alcohol-infused conversation on a range of interesting topics, and at full volume: my favourite Argentine food (I went for medialunas rather than raw steak, obviously to their disapproval); my favourite Argentine beverage (theirs was Fernet with coke, which I have never tried and almost certainly never will); and lastly, with considerable ardour, my opinion on the political status of the Falkland Islands or Malvinas (in the opinion of their most vocal spokesperson, there was no doubt on this issue, although I expressed scepticism, recalling – though not mentioning – something that Borges said about two bald men fighting over a comb). When pressed on the issue of whether the Malvinas were Argentine on a purely geographical basis, I suggested that the islands should probably belong to Antarctica. These kids can’t have been much more than eighteen; they weren’t anywhere near being born when the Falklands war was on; why is this even an issue?

In order to get from Buenos Aires to Uruguay, you take the ferry to Colonia del Sacramento. I’ve done this before, en route to Montevideo, but today we are going to the town of San José de Mayo, where there is a Book Fair and Poetry Festival, and where we will be presenting, as a part of the festival’s opening ceremonies, and for the third time on this whistle-stop tour, following our events in Buenos Aires and Valdivia, The Other Tiger, with readings by a range of poets included in the book, from Uruguay and Colombia, as well as those from Argentina and Mexico who have been on tour with me over the past week.

The weather is frightful, though obviously not as bad as in parts of the Caribbean. From my seat on the ferry I watch a grey sea against a slowly unfurling grey sky.

 

 

It seems timeless, and perhaps it is. I don’t know. I watch Carlos taking a film of the grey sea and the grey sky and ask him what he is doing, and he tells me he is making a film of the sea, so I do the same as I can’t think what else to do. Perhaps if you put the video on loop you might achieve lasting wisdom, though I doubt it. Once we hit terra firma we pile into a mini bus and, as the rain hammers down, we pass green fields and scattered woods.

 

 

I curl up in the back with my hood over my head and listen to music. At one point I look up and wonder if the driver is watching me, or watching out – but it seems like a David Lynch moment, or is it a Hitchcock moment, and although I cannot remember making the decision to take a photo, one appears on my iPhone.

 

retrovisor

 

After a very long wait for lunch – everything in Uruguay, I am reminded, takes place very slowly, which can be nice sometimes, but not when you are hungry –  the food finally arrives, and almost immediately a piece of meat, a piece of meat from a famous Uruguayan asado, goes down the wrong way, and I know at once that I am in trouble. I go to the bathroom, try to rack my brains for a memory of what to do, to find an auto-cure for this thing that won’t go down, but all I can think of is the Heimlich manoeuvre. And I know, without considering it for very long, that of all the people in the dining room, of whom I know around ten personally, Andy is the one to ask, so I do. And he does know, although he didn’t know he knew, and hadn’t done it before. And so I breathe again, my brush with mortality over almost as quickly as it began. What a way to begin a poetry festival.

Here, in case you find yourself in a similar position, with a chunk of Uruguayan beef, or something equivalent, choking your airways, are the instructions on doing it yourself.

Performing the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself

  • Make a fist and place the thumb side of your fist against your abdomen, below the ribcage, and just above the navel.
  • Grasp your fist with your other hand and press into your abdomen with a quick, upward pressure.
  • Repeat until object is expelled.

Alternatively, you can lean over a fixed horizontal object, such as a table edge, chair, or railing and press your abdomen against the edge to produce a quick, upward pressure. Repeat until the object is expelled. Like this fellow in the grey pullover:

 

heimlich-maneuver-on-oneself

 

After lunch I return to my hotel room, ring home to let my loved ones know that I survived, even though they didn’t know I might not, and then watch the rain through my window, and in the distance there is the almost continuous sound of thunder.

 

 

Medialunas

5 Sep

medialuna

For any visitor to Buenos Aires, the first thing to address is the breakfast medialunas issue.  These delightful creations (like croissants, but sweeter and more doughy) are placed in front of you, or find a way of leaping onto your plate – accompanied by an individual portion of dulce de leche –  and they look so innocent and appetising. Surely one won’t do any harm. And to be sure, one probably doesn’t. The problem, as with so many things in life, is sticking at one.

Returning to the city at the end of winter, or what passes for winter here – in the high teens celsius, but dropping to around 8 at night – I am struck by what can only be described as a strange melancholy, a vague sense of nostalgia that has been written about peerlessly by Borges in the early poems, and in countless blogs by awestruck visitors in relation to smoky tango bars, the flowering of the jacaranda trees in springtime or the ghostly deserted summer streets; but I was not expecting it last night, as Andy drove us – Jorge, Carlos and me – on a drive from Palermo around the city centre and back again – taking in Belgrano, Recoleta, Plaza de Mayo, the Casa Rosada, en route. There was a light drizzle in the air and it seemed that nearly everyone had decided to stay in, the streets around the centre, usually gridlocked, were practically empty. Where was everyone?

On our return to the apartment, there was an electricity cut, so my friends were unable to cook an evening meal. We set out on the streets again, in what seemed, to me at least, an even more melancholic mood – maybe I was just jet-lagged, having only arrived from Heathrow at eight o’clock in the morning – until we found a friendly parrilla, La Popular de Soho, and were served platefuls of grilled meat, including glands from somewhere on the beast which I didn’t know it had, and perhaps would rather not know. Vegetables, needless to say, are something of a rarity in these parts, but you can’t really criticise a place for something it doesn’t set out to do . . .

Spanish Gold

30 Nov

Yesterday evening in my native town, or village, as I still think of it (although it has grown since my departure to something more town-sized), I went into the corner shop that I used throughout my childhood for buying sweets –fruit salads and blackjacks (four a penny); barley sugar sticks; and best of all, those thin wormlike strands of sweet coconut-flavoured pretend tobacco, wrapped in waxy paper, called Spanish Gold –which I am certain could not be sold to children today. Old Mr J, the shopkeeper, had very bad teeth and no doubt had been on the Spanish Gold all his life. But the stuff obsessed me, and moreover fitted in perfectly with my career plans: to be a pirate, to ride wooden ships on the Spanish Main and do other exciting pirate stuff. Spanish GoldSpanish GoldSo yesterday, after the Wales-South Africa rugby match, which I have watched at his home with my elderly father, I go back to the shop for the first time in many years, to be served by a man a little younger than myself (the original Mr J’s grandson), and I am at once inside a time warp. I am six years old and using up my entire shilling allowance on sweeties. Old Mr J is leaning over me with his blackened stumps and national health specs and calling me ‘the young doctor’, while stuffing a white paper bag with teeth-rotting goodies. Driving back to Cardiff I am in a kind of self-induced trance, in which I am trying to distinguish between the things that actually happened in that (by now mythical) sweet shop, and the things that my memory has conferred upon it over the interceding years. I realise then that the shop has also entered my personal dreamscape.

And later, as so often happens, a kind of answer arises in the book that I am reading. Or else, I contrive to find a corresponding thesis in what I am reading that maps almost perfectly onto my experiences in my childhood home town.   witness1Propped up in bed on Sunday morning, reading The Witness, a novel by Juan José Saer originally published in Spanish as El Entenado, or ‘The Stepson’ – and beautifully translated by Margaret Jull Costa – I follow the hazardous experiences of the young narrator, an unnamed cabin boy on a sixteenth century Spanish expedition, who is captured by Native Americans on the River Plate. The Native Americans (or Indians, as they prefer to call themselves in Latin America), while exceptionally courteous to the cabin boy himself, are about to cook and eat his shipmates, when he experiences a moment of clarity:

I think that was the first time – aged all of fifteen – that an idea with which I am now familiar first occurred to me: namely that the memory of an event is not sufficient proof that it actually happened, just as the memory of a dream that we believe we had in the past, many years or months before the moment in which we remember it, is not sufficient proof that the dream took place in the distant past rather than the night before the day on which we recall it, or even that it occurred before the precise moment we state that it has occurred.

And how often has that happened? You dream a dream, and are certain that you have dreamed it before: or else, even as you are dreaming it, you have the sensation that you are re-dreaming a dream you had many years before? It then seems almost as if the world you enter in dreamtime is a continuum that exists with or without your participation, and when you dream you simply dip into it, witness (that word again) whatever happens to be occurring at that precise moment. But – and this is important – you remember part of the dream landscape from previous dreams, and you waken with a feeling of déjà vu that makes you feel as if you had just returned from a familiar place. Sometimes, like yesterday evening in the sweetshop, it is as if that place exists neither in reality nor in dream, but some place in between.

Patagonian People

4 Sep

gaucho and horse

Driving with Hans Schulz towards the Alerces National Park on Monday, we passed this gaucho, who allowed us to take his photo. He was accompanied by four large dogs, who sniffed me respectfully but, like the horse, knew exactly who was boss. He gave his name as Muñoz, and looked after cattle belonging to a landowner from Bariloche.

LunedLuned González, above, great-granddaughter of one of the original Welsh settlers, EdwinRoberts. A formidable personage, and the individual who got the machinery into gear for our visits to Trelew and Gaiman.

AzdinI met this market stallholder, who gave his name as Azdin, in the Andean town of El Bolsón, a town colonised as a hippy settlement in the 1970s, and still carrying a distinctly alternative flavour. Azdin came to Argentina as a refugee from the Algerian civil war and was ‘adopted’ by a Welsh family in Trelew. He sold herbal remedies for ailments ranging from constipation to madness, but refused to accept payment because, he said, he loved the Welsh people, who had taken him in and looked after him when he first arrived in the country.

 Hans Schulz 1Argentine anthropologist and writer Hans Schulz, pictured above, a ridiculous optimist, and all-round good egg. Hans drove us all the way across Patagonia with incorrigible good humour, was a wonderful source of stories and useful information, as well as somehow managing to negotiate free board and lodging for all eight members of the Writers Chain expedition at one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, the Llao Llao, near Bariloche.

And, as further evidence of our intrepid journey to the heart of all things:

Blanco working undercover as a wax model, with a simulacrum of Famous Argentine author in La Biela café, Buenos Aires.

Blanco working undercover as a wax model, with a simulacrum of Famous Argentine author in La Biela Café, Buenos Aires.

Karen 'Chuckie' Owen considers the copulatory behaviour of the Ballena Franca (Southern Right) Whale at the Peninsula Valdes Information Centre.

Karen ‘Chuckie’ Owen considers the copulatory behaviour of the Ballena Franca (Southern Right) Whale at the Peninsula Valdes Information Centre.

Billionaire fashion guru Mererid Hopwood poses for the press at Llao Llao Hotel, Bariloche.

Billionaire fashion guru Mererid Hopwood poses for the press at Llao Llao Hotel, Bariloche.

Presidential candidate Natasha Atkhinovich in the Eisenhower suite at Llao Llao Hotel.

Presidential candidate Natasha Atkhinovich in the Eisenhower suite at Llao Llao Hotel.

International cultural events coordinator Nia Davies pondering the exchange rate, El Bolsón.

International cultural events coordinator Nia Davies pondering the exchange rate, El Bolsón.

Verónica Zondek endures the interminable wait for coffee, somewhere in Patagonia.

Verónica Zondek endures the interminable wait for coffee, somewhere in Patagonia.

 Explorer and hired secret agent Jorge Aulicino with entrepreneur extraordinaire Jorge Fondebrider, prepared for penultimate leg of Patagonian trip in Casa de Piedra, Trevelin.


Explorer and secret agent Jorge Aulicino with entrepreneur extraordinaire Jorge Fondebrider, prepared for penultimate leg of Patagonian trip in Casa de Piedra, Trevelin.

Crossing Patagonia

2 Sep

Writers Chain tour of Argentina & Chile, continued:

After three days of readings, lectures and tea parties in Puerto Madryn, Gaiman and Trelew, yesterday we made the long trip across the Patagonian meseta to Trevelin, in the foothills of the Andes. We travelled in two cars, laden down with suitcases, snacks and literary confabulation. Our car was driven by Argentinian anthropologist Hans Schulz and contained myself, Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson. We endured two punctures, the first in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the second after dark on the outskirts of Esquel. The first puncture proved problematic as we could not remove the tyre despite our manly efforts. We flagged down a truck, driven by a local farmer, Rodolfo, who kindly took Tiffany and myself to the small settlement of Las Plumas, where we had arranged to meet the other vehicle, driven by Veronica Zondek, and with instructions to find a mechanic, or at least to borrow the right tools from the garage there. Having acquired these, a relief party (Zondek and Aulicino) was sent back to the stranded Schulz and Fondebrider, and the flat tyre changed, while the contingent of Welsh poets and our coordinator, Nia, waited in a roadside canteen and ate empanadas and pasta.

During the rest of the journey across the prairie, the landscape began to change. The endless flatlands of sparse bush began to erupt into extraordinary outcrops of sandstone, stalagmites of sharp russet pointing skyward, or else solid slabs of sediment rising against the backdrop of an enormous sky, across which were layered fabulous accumulations of cloud. We arrived at Trevelin at midnight, where the hospitable proprietors of the Nikanor restaurant served us leek soup and homemade ravioli, washed down with an organic Malbec wine. Around us, the snowcapped mountains provided the sensation of having arrived in a place encircled by sleeping dragons. The casa de piedra, our hotel, is done up like a Tyrolean ski lodge, with a huge fireplace in the lounge, and carved wood furnishing. We slept the sleep of the just.

Leaving Puerto Madryn

Leaving Puerto Madryn

Two hours into the journey we had a flat. Nearest settlement, Las Plumas, 50 km away.

Two hours into the journey we had a flat. Nearest settlement, Las Plumas, 50 km away. We were, in fact . . .

 . . . in the Middle of Absolutely Nowhere.

. . . in the Middle of Absolutely Nowhere.

For much of the journey we followed the River Chubut

For much of the journey we followed the River Chubut

journey 5

journey 6

journey 7

The finger of destiny

The finger of destiny

journey 9

journey 10

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Hans makes a point, eyes clearly fixed on the road ahead.

Hans makes a point, eyes clearly fixed on the road ahead.

journey 14

The endless open road

The endless open road

Sandstone sierra, early evening.

Sandstone sierra, early evening.

journey 16a

last light, approaching Esquel

last light, approaching Esquel . . .

Second tyre change, jist outside Esquel.

Second tyre change, just outside Esquel, Tiffany by now wild-eyed, if not demonic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgetting Chatwin

30 Aug

Day five of the Wales Writers Chain tour of Argentina and Chile. We began in Buenos Aires on Monday, at the Spanish Cultural Centre, where Mererid Hopwood and I gave lectures on, respectively, the Welsh and English literary traditions of Wales. On the Tuesday, Tiffany Atkinson and myself launched new collections in Spanish, published by the innovative and excellent imprint Gog y Magog – at what might well be my favourite bookshop in the world, Eterna Cadencia. We flew south on Wednesday, to Puerto Madryn, where the first Welsh settlers arrived on the Mimosa in July 1865, and were ourselves received by a small delegation of the Argentine Welsh community, where we were served soft white bread sandwiches, Malbec wine, teisen and tarts in a little hall used for Welsh and cookery classes. Incredibly hospitable and welcoming people.

Puerto Madryn reception

Puerto Madryn reception

            The tour was organised by the Argentine poet, critic and translator, Jorge Fondebrider along with Sioned Puw Rowlands, and sponsored by various city councils in Patagonia, the ministry of culture of the city of Buenos Aires, Wales Arts International and Wales Literature Exchange. Jorge has christened the tour ‘Forgetting Chatwin’ in refutation of the English author’s semi-fictitious account of Patagonia.

            In spite of a heavy schedule of readings, lectures, translation workshops, informal talks, school visits etc, we were able yesterday to have an excursion. Puerto Madryn happens to be very close to the natural reserve of the Valdes Peninsula, so yesterday we travelled along the isthmus to Puerto Pirámide – a charming and dilapidated frontier settlement on the beach – and took a boat trip to see the whales (all of them are the Southern Right Whale, called ‘right’ because of the ease of hunting them in the days of harpoon whaling). The trip to the peninsula allowed us to take a look at the blasted landscape of the interior, the endless bare scrub falling away into the distance under an enormous sky. We passed llama and guanaco – a smaller version of the llama – one of whose characteristic features is the particularly touching way in which the males decide who is to become the paterfamilias. According to our guide, Cesar, the males run at each other and bite their competitor’s testicles, thereby rendering him incapable of reproduction (as well, one imagines, of immediately converting him from tenor to soprano). How terrifying is nature in its simplicity.

Guanaco family

Guanaco family

            And then the whales, which leave me speechless. I heard one sing, truly.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

Mimosa crew

The crew of the Mimosa, from left: Nia Davies, Karen ‘Chuckie’ Owen, Tiffany Atkinson, Jorge Fondebrider and Mererid Hopwood.

Today, more lectures and poetry readings in Trelew, where Mererid Hopwood and Karen Owen will visit a Welsh school, followed by a reading at the University of Patagonia with myself, Tiffany, Karen, Mererid, alongside Jorge Fondebrider, Marina Kohon, Jorge Aulicino (Argentina) and Veronica Zondek (Chile).

A Patagonian dog, chilling out.

A Patagonian dog, chilling out in Puerto Pirámide.

Of Nooteboom, Jünger, Céline, and assorted literary gossip

13 Dec

I can confess without shame that occasionally I am persuaded to buy a book on the strength of the cover, and it was certainly a factor in selecting Cees Nooteboom’s collection of stories, published by the superb Maclehose Press. This was before I met Nooteboom and, since I was told I would be doing an event with him at the Translator’s Club in Buenos Aires, thought I had better read at least something by the man, who is very highly regarded in continental Europe and elsewhere, if not in the United Kingdom. Not that this counts for much, as there are many writers who are well-known in the rest of the world but are far less well-known in Britain than our own great authors like Katie Price or Russell Brand, to name but two, or say, more realistically, than Geoff Dyer or Tom Raworth, but hell, who cares. In the end I never got around to reading the book until the weekend just past, and can reveal that – unless I missed something important – none of the stories has anything to do with foxes or with Gauguin (from whose painting the cover picture is taken).

But back to my main gripe, our misguided isolationism, which is reflected in the inability of publishers to translate great works of literature what are writ in the foreign, and that most hideous of ailments, little-Englandism.

Since David Cameron has now put the interests of his chums in the City of London ahead of anyone or anything else, and has decided that the bankers are so good at making things happen that they might as well be given a free hand; and since the rest of Europe is, sensibly, in disagreement, it seems likely that within a couple of decades, our islands will be floundering in mid-Atlantic, spurned both by Europe and our North American cousins (what special relationship?), a non-productive, antisocial wasteland, with a tiny privileged elite and a humungus underclass of the poor and unskilled, and little in between. A bit like Latin America in the seventies. Britain will then have to re-invent itself as a ‘developing country’.

Ernst Jünger

Now where was I? Nooteboom told me he once met (or rather crept up on) Ernst Jünger in the Prado, and introduced himself, at which Jünger made a joke about his (Nooteboom’s) surname. The joke was in German though, and involved wordplay which I, as a non-German-speaking non-Dutch-speaker, did not understand. Such trifles do not concern Nooteboom however, who continued with his story regardless. If you speak six or more languages with apparent ease, as Nooteboom does, you tend to get flippant. Ernst Jünger: a truly fascinating character, who has a cameo role in both Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, thus I have been reminded of his existence twice in recent times. Is that a sign? (Normally I would interpret that as a message that I need to look him up and read something by him, but since I am not reading novels right now will have to hang on, unless I want to read his essay on On Pain, which I don’t fancy. Or perhaps I will, pain being quite a salient topic.) Needless to say his work is pitifully hard to find in English, considering he is rated as one of the most important German authors of the 20th century. Nearly all of his 52 books are available in French, but only five could I find in English translation. Apparently this is largely to do with the fact that Jünger – although not a member of the Nazi party, and peripherally involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 – served as an officer in the German army, held strongly Nietzschean views promoting the model of an heroic masculinity, and was an anti-semite, at least during the 1930s. I’m not saying he was a good person; undoubtedly he had issues, don’t we all, but he was not half as bad as the Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for example, an out-and-out Jew-hating fascist maniac, and yet Céline is held in high regard as a literary figure – by those who have read him – in both Britain and the USA, in spite of his despicable opinions, and much of his work is translated

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline was definitely a prize shit, and no doubt deserves our opprobrium, but less specifically I often wonder how come we are so ready to condemn how others behaved in times that we cannot begin to understand, when, as we have seen before on Blanco’s Blog, complicity is just another way of getting on with life, and avoiding persecution? We might perhaps take the trouble to ask ourselves just how we would have behaved. It is easy to bask in the safety of the present and cast aspersions on those who came before.

So, where were we? Is digression really such a good thing, when you lose your place so frequently, and so thoroughly? I was going to write about Nooteboom’s collection of stories. So here we go. He is superb at evoking the peculiar world of northern European expats (Dutch and British) living out their blinkered lives under the Spanish or Italian sun. He writes with an understated, poetic prose, that suits the topic which surfaces at some point in most or all of these stories, which is that of a lost and, at times barely remembered love. The theme is addressed in soft focus in nearly all these stories, and present through its absence in the longest one, ‘Heinz’, which accounts for a third of the pages in the book, and describes the slow alcoholic decrement of its eponymous protagonist. Heinz was once married to Arielle, whose flower-adorned grave the narrator discovers one day, four decades after her death. Apart from learning that Arielle died in 1962 at the age of 22, we know practically nothing about her, yet she inhabits the centre of the story with a stubborn grace, unavoidable in her absence. This is pretty masterfully achieved by Nooteboom, and I was impressed by the fluency of Ina Rilke’s translation, but nonetheless, despite the dictum that less is more and Hemingway’s iceberg theory, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have liked to get to know Arielle a bit, as she could not have been less interesting than the other members of the cast.

Nooteboom at the Dutch Embassy, Buenos Aires, September 2011

My two favourite stories were ‘Thunderstorm’, set on an out-of-season Spanish island (perhaps Menorca, as that is where Nooteboom lives), in which a couple are having a spectacular row in a café: the man walks out in a strop and is struck by lightning; and ‘Late September’ – another story set in a windswept rainy resort on a Spanish island – in which Suzy, a 79-year old British widow (smokes Dunhill, drives into town every day for the Daily Mail) has a desultory, what shall we call it, affair, with a 63 year old waiter, Luis, for whom she always leaves something out for him to ‘find’ on his nocturnal visits, except on this night, when:

All that remained was to wait for the creak of the door, the smell of whisky on his breath, those strange, halting grunts accompanied by sudden thrusts of astonishing vigour, which had more to do with rage and endemic disappointment than with anything else.

Christ. An afterthought. As life expectancy continues to grow, and third-age sex lives thrive, can we expect an upsurge in geriatric porn? Does it already exist? Do I want to find out?

The strange and displaced lives of Brits in exile under the sun has been explored in different ways by Graham Greene, J.G Ballard (in Cocaine Nights) and now Nooteboom, a non-Brit but most astute observer, makes a valid contribution. It is a world that no doubt contains untold fictional riches, but first, I guess, you have to do the fieldwork.