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.
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:
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.
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 . . .
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. So 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. Propped 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.
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.
Luned 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.
I 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.
Argentine 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:
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.
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.
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.
And then the whales, which leave me speechless. I heard one sing, truly.
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).
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’.
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
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.
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.
A post from Pablo Makovsky, director of the Rosario International Poetry Festival, and a video of us reading ‘Hunger for Salt’ in English and Spanish (translation by Jorge Fondebrider). Also on the festival website a very good quality recording of our rendition of ‘Dusting’.
Hunger for Salt
Will I remember you in the dull yellow light,
as a fish that enters my mouth, as a virus
that enters my blood, as a fear that enters my belly?
Will I remember you as a catastrophe
tearing between my legs, fine teeth slitting my lip,
tongue touched with salt my tongue was crazy for?
You never confessed to those little thefts:
my mother’s ring, the statue from Knossos,
the locket I kept for the hair of children
we never had. I see you, come to steal my bones,
small teeth so white, a necklace of coloured stones,
clams and mussel shells around your waist,
an ankle chain of emeralds. But now you have gone
back to the sea, I can forgive your cruelty,
your violent moods, your plots of revenge,
remembering instead the brush of your skin
on mine, the way you looked at me that afternoon
in the sea cave, gulls clamouring outside,
a crowd of angry creditors in a world otherwise
gone terribly quiet. And you, nestling in
the white sand, caught in the nets I wove
with a devout sobriety, turned utterly to salt.
Hambre de sal
¿Te recordaré en la luz insulsa y amarilla,
como a un pez que me entra en la boca, como un virus
que me entra en la sangre, como un miedo que me entra en la panza?
¿Te recordaré como una catástrofe
desgarrándome entre las piernas, dientes minúsculos que me hienden el labio,
lengua tocada con sal por la que mi lengua estaba loca?
Nunca reconociste esos pequeños robos:
el anillo de mi madre, la estatua de Knosos,
el medallón que yo guardaba para el cabello de los chicos
que nunca tuvimos. Te veo, ven a robar mis huesos,
dientecillos tan blancos, un collar de piedras coloridas,
valvas de almejas y mejillones alrededor de tu talle,
una cadena de esmeraldas en el tobillo. Pero ahora te has ido
de vuelta al mar. Puedo perdonar tu crueldad,
tus humores violentos, tus tramas de venganza,
recordando en lugar de eso el roce de tu piel
sobre la mía, el modo en que me viste aquella tarde
en la cueva marina, las gaviotas chillando afuera,
una multitud de airados acreedores en un mundo distinto,
vuelto terriblemente silencioso. Y tú, anidando
en la arena blanca, atrapada en las redes que tejí
con devota sobriedad, por completo convertida en sal.
From Being in Water (Parthian, 2001).
In my post of 14 September, Villa Miseria, I wrote, among other things, of the state of the Riachuelo, allegedly the most polluted river in the western hemisphere, as it passes through the slum of Barracas 21/24 to the south of Buenos Aires.
At the invitation of FILBA, the Buenos Aires International Festival of Literature, of which I was a guest last month, I was invited to write a short piece on my visit to Barracas, to be read on the final evening of the festival, along with other pieces composed during the course of the festival by fellow writers, which can be found at the FILBA Blog.
What I wrote was a poem about the river, in what is an unusually hectoring voice, as I was affected by a strong sense of outrage – quite apart from the social conditions of the people living in the slum – at how a river, which is traditionally such a potent symbol of live-giving purity, can become so vile and corrupt a thing as to breed ‘monsters of the mind’. I wondered what it would be like for a child to grow up by the side of such a river. I wrote this draft of the poem – which is clearly still unfinished – at short notice, specifically for performance at the event, and have not revised it, so it has a raw and unpolished feel to it. It is written in a mixture of English and Spanish because I liked the idea of a poem that played the two languages off against each other.
A ‘medialuna’ is a cartwheel as well as the small sweet croissants eaten for breakfast in Argentina (though certainly not by the inhabitants of Barracas 21/24). The lines ‘Do you like this garden which is yours? / Make sure your children don’t destroy it // ¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?/ ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!’ are from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and his character, Geoffrey Firmin, becomes obsessed by the broader connotations of the phrase. The other Spanish phrases are either variations on this line or else echo the English.
River song/Canto del río
The reflected sky
viscous and putrid effluvia
journey lethargically towards
any possible destination
and no one cares
no one cares
whether the detritus
on this sickly tide
reaches anywhere at all
battery acid sulphuric acid mercury
whatever it takes
anything at all
¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?
a sickly progression
from one place to another
a gelatinous insult
inverted by forgetting
dreary with forgetting
and we deal with forgetting
by forgetting more
¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?
¡Evite que sus padres lo destruyan!
A man emerges from the river
covered in a pall of flies
he pulls a pistol from his belt
¿Les gustan estas moscas?
I’ll teach those bastard flies
and blasts off his own arm
his wrist and hand explode
leaving a bloody stump
I’ll teach the little bastards
he tells no one
he tells the world
he tells his children
aunque nadie lo escucha
and all the people stare
and all the people stare
though no one listens
and the man does a cartwheel
on his single arm
y el hombre hace la medialuna
y el hombre hace la medialuna
stands up straight
and shoots himself in the face
the words sliding
from the remains of his mouth
I’ll teach the little bastards
Voy a enseñar a los pequeños bastardos
this is what the river spawns
Eso es lo que produce el rio
this is the ineluctable truth
of a Wednesday in September
this is how we deal with
remembering the things
we left behind
just as we deal with forgetting
by forgetting more
This is the river song
the river song
the river song
and from the river rises
an inestimable sadness
into the void of poverty
into the sullen entrails
in the place where
no birds sing.
¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?
¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!
Do you like this garden which is yours?
Make sure your children don’t destroy it.
But you cannot blame your children
for the things that you forget to do
forgetting the future
just as you forgot the past
¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?
Evite que . . .
There’s no point in being sentimental about these things, I realize. Music that, when it first appears, seems to say something new, gets murdered with repetition, besides being absorbed into the great maw of consumer culture. I remember a coach journey from Athens to London, back in the seventies, when Neil Young’s album Harvest, was played on loop, continuously, along with The Best of Simon and Garfunkel. I never cared for Simon and Garfunkel, and my dislike turned to a raging phobia during the course of that journey, but I couldn’t listen to Neil Young for at least a decade afterwards either.
So on the related theme of yesterday’s post – erstwhile rebels being turned into toothless icons – I went to see the house where Che Guevara was born, here in Rosario, and the building now houses the offices of MAPFRE, a Spanish-owned insurance and finance group. I have a particularly strained relationship with insurance companies, and I am sure Che’s admiration for them would have exceeded my own. Opposite the building, a rather run-down hostel is named after him.
Che was not really from Rosario, he was just born here, by accident, before the family moved to Cordoba, where he grew up. But the city claims him as its son as it is good for tourism and the building where he was allegedly born has been declared a national treasure or some similar term. In fact he was born in a local hospital and only spent a few weeks in this rather luxurious building (both his parents were members of the Argentine aristocracy, and they inherited considerable wealth). Moreover Che’s parents falsified the date of his birth from May to June 1928, as his mother was pregnant when she married Che’s father, and the false birth date looked a little more respectable. The fruit of pre-marital passion was poorly regarded in those times, at least among the social class that Che’s parents inhabited.
In his teens – despite his severe asthma, which he always stoically resisted – and as a student of medicine in Buenos Aires, Che became a keen rugby player, a sport very much associated with the Porteño upper classes.
Che’s social conscience was awakened by his reading of Marx and by travelling. He set out on long excursions, first by bicycle, later by motorbike – as shown in the film The Motorcyle Diaries – driven by an insatiable curiosity about the way that others lived.
The Spanish Wikipedia entry on Che is rather good, the English one less informative, but still interesting.
Rosario has a reputation for a kind of good-natured bohemianism (is that a word?). I find it relaxed and friendly, the kind of place a person ends up without thinking about it too much, and forgets to leave. There are too many places like this. However, wandering around the shops, looking for gifts, is a thankless task: everything is Made in China or Indonesia, and I could be in Cardiff or Stockholm or Cape Town for the variety of consumer goods available. Which, I suppose, in a roundabout way, leads us back to the question of a global village, and all the bullshit associated with being a consumer in the 21st century. Che would be disgusted, I guess, but as we all know, capitalism is the perfect system.
No sooner had I finished writing yesterday’s blog, than I walked into the hotel dining room (earlier than usual, as I had planned an excursion) and the first person I see is Coetzee himself, sitting in the corner with his back to the wall, dressed in jeans and one of those flak-jacket things, reading the newspaper.
I immediately felt as though I had intruded (which in a sense I just had, by writing about him) although there were two or three other early risers taking breakfast. I sat down a couple of tables away and observed him, discreetly, like a spy. He licked his finger, delicately, cat-like, and slowly turned the page of his paper. I resisted the temptation to go over and tell him that the Springboks were jammy bastards beating us by just one point last week. In fact I behaved with decorum, as though he were not there.
And this morning I am off to Uruguay for a couple of days.
The high spots of my stay in Buenos Aires? I would go for the concert/interview in the Ateneo bookshop last Friday given by the singer Barbie Martinéz, accompanied by (although this hardly does her playing justice) Paula Shocrón.
Between songs, Barbie was interviewed by Jorge Fondebrider with his inimitable mix of wit and candour. I recorded a couple of their songs, but the sound quality really does not do them justice, so I would recommend instead that you listen to their CDs. Barbie has only one so far, Swing, and a second forthcoming. Paula Shocrón has several CDs out; solo, with a trio and with a big band.
The other most enjoyable event was a trip up the Paraná delta yesterday on a river boat. This web of riverways and estuaries is the graveyard of centuries’ worth of shipwrecks and abandoned dreams. As late as the 1870s it was the haunt of pirates, many of them women. Setting out from Tigre, the trip took around three hours and we passed dozens of islands, the ones nearer Tigre were quite densely populated, but further out, and across the Paraná itself, the island homes became more and more eccentric and isolated. It was like entering a lost and enchanted world, and I would like to find out more about it. Inés Garland’s novel Piedra, papel o tijera might be a good place to start. The island people are almost entirely dependent on the delivery of goods by boat, and the children go to an island school. They have a reputation for a kind of wistful lethargy, a condition known locally as ‘Mal del sauce’ or ‘weeping willow sickness’ (willows are abundant along the riverbanks). It is the kind of condition that afflicts a person who spends too many hours gazing at the slow passage of water.
Finally my visit to the Villa Miseria at Barrancas 21/24 (see post of 14th September) made a lasting, if very different impression on me. So much so that I wrote a poem about it, in a kind of Spanglish, which I read at the Bitácora, the closing forum of the festival on Sunday evening, before Coetzee’s reading.
Those who have read The Vagabond’s Breakfast will know that my last visit to Buenos Aires was rather fraught, to say the least. It was wonderful to spend some time in good company and find out more about this fabulous city, and I am grateful to my hosts, especially Jorge Fondebrider, Pablo Braun, Inés Garland and Jorge Aulicino for providing the opportunity to replace earlier memories with ones of an altogether more helpful and agreeable kind.
Coetzee came to Buenos Aires to deliver the final reading of the festival last night. I am not really authorized to write at length about Coetzee, having only read two of his novels, which I found admirable, and a collection of his essays. However, I will certainly read more of his work now, and am particularly keen to read his own account of his life, of which there are now three volumes.
There were, of course, the introductions in Spanish: the first brief, the second rather long, both of them adulatory, then Coetzee emerged from the wings like a tall and elegant rock star (think a slightly more reverend Clapton with a tie). I was sitting in the front row, and had been approached by a security guard who told me that the first two rows were reserved for guests of the funding organisation. I told him I was an invited guest of the festival and stayed in my seat. He moved off, unsure what to do about me. Half the seats in the front two rows then remained empty, even though there were dozens of people outside who had been refused tickets, and others sitting on the steps in the foyer watching the proceedings on a big screen and possibly hundreds who had been told the event was sold out. The photographers had clearly been instructed that they could snap away only during Coetzee’s introduction, and not in the reading proper. In any case, I was able to take a few pictures of my own, and they came out rather well.
Coetzee made a brief introductory statement in faltering Spanish, and then he read a story, set in a house in Spain (perhaps he chose one with an Hispanic theme for the occasion, believing there is not a lot of difference between one Spanish speaking country and the next, one with a few Spanish words in, like ‘vaya con dios’, which no one ever says unless they’re about a hundred years old). The story lasted half an hour, or forty minutes, I’m not sure, I think I drifted off briefly, and it was about a man called John (which is Coetzee’s name) visiting his mother, who lives in a village in Castille, and keeps a lot of cats and the village flasher (yes, that’s right, she has made her home available to the village pervert, because he was going to be taken away by social services and she stepped in and said she would look after him. I’m not sure this is how things work in Spain, but I guess we can let that go in the name of poetic licence). The story was okay, but did he need to fly thousands of miles to read it? Because that was all he did: read a story, then sit down and sign books for his abundant fans, who queued patiently (a very difficult task for Argentinians, or at least for Porteños) who came onto the stage one at a time, were allowed to exchange a few brief words with the great man, then trundled off clutching their books like they were holy relics. I wonder how much he got paid to do this. I wonder if he is doing any sightseeing while he is here. He certainly won’t be tasting the wonderful Argentinian steaks as he is a vegetarian; nor can I imagine is here much of a drinker, so will not be tasting the fine Argentinian wines. Coetzee is however a rugby fan, and since the world cup is on, the festival president tells me, he was able to talk to him about rugby on the drive back from the airport. If it had been me I would have expressed my opinion that his team (assuming he still supports the Springboks and not the Wallabies, after adopting Australian nationality) was extremely lucky to get away with a one-point victory over my team last week, but of course that is done and dusted now and we must press on. At least the world cup curse of Samoa has now been lifted, and if things go well against Fiji and Namibia we will most likely meet the Irish in the quarter-finals, which is do-able.
Coetzee stands in a very upright manner. There is, in fact, something quintessentially upright about him. Someone who know him expressed the view to me that this is related to a self-abnegating Afrikaaner protestant streak (although he did attend a Catholic school, so presumably got the worst of both worlds). This is not a man who will let his scant hair down. According to a reliable source (i.e quoted on Wikipedia) he lives the life of a recluse, and “a colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” In fact he is so reclusive that the Flash player did not want to upload my photo of him, so I am using a picture provided by Flickr instead. In the Wikipedia picture (which also refused to upload) he is wearing the same tie as last night, or appears to be, unless of course he has several editions of the same tie. The Wikipedia entry also informs me he has expressed support for the animal rights movement. Because he rarely gives interviews and so forth, signed copies of his books are highly valued.
Despite his saying that he was pleased to be here, he did not really give the impression of being overjoyed about the occasion. He was more like a pontiff bestowing a blessing on his devotees, with great dignity and reserve. And the ridiculous notion occurs to me that there are two Coetzees, one of them here in Buenos Aires, reading his story like a monk reading from the sacred text to his silent admirers, the other scribbling away, locked in his cell wherever it is he lives, Adelaide or thereabouts. The one I saw last night is the phantom Coetzee, the one that the real Coetzee very occasionally sends out to commune with his public, a doppelganger Coetzee who is dressed like a banker, reluctantly engaged in the contemporary phenomenon of the Book Signing, that strange ritual in which members of the reading public are able to pretend that they have a personal relationship with the author, and walk away clutching their books tight to their chests as though some of his greatness were now trapped in the trail of ink on the title page, that they have absorbed some of the fallout of his ascetic majesty, and will now, through some mystical process not unlike transubstantiation, be the richer for it.