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 . . .
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:
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).
Of Nooteboom, Jünger, Céline, and assorted literary gossip
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 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.
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 . . .
J.M. Coetzee in Buenos Aires
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.
It’s always an education to read in unusual locations. The organizers of FILBA appear to be steering me towards a socially engaged role that I am not normally associated with back in the UK. But that’s fine with me. The reading last night took place in a cobbled courtyard next to a rehabilitation centre for women recently released from jail, and behind an abandoned market, a steel-girdered hangar that resembles a nineteenth century railway station. Outside, the place was covered in graffiti and creeping vines, and in the darkness a wind began to stir, causing a few paper cups to scuttle across the cobbles like the rats that you knew were there, but were sitting out the poetry reading in a nearby drain. The perennial smell of the Buenos Aires night – barbecued meat, with an overlay of almonds – wafted by, and an engaged and enthusiastic audience sat alongside the vendors of bags, table-cloths and other artefacts made by the women prisoners.
I am posting a poem that I read last night, as well as at the Club de Traductores on Monday, because it seems to be popular here – probably due to the excellence of the translation – but which I don’t think I have ever performed back home. My Spanish reader on this occasion was the poet and journalist Jorge Aulicino. Strange how on a reading tour there is usually one piece that gets more attention than the others, for no particular reason. It is followed by the Spanish translation by Jorge Fondebrider, since Blanco’s blog has acquired an encouraging following in Argentina and Spain, perhaps because they think I am someone I am not.
When you spoke of dissolving in my arms
I realised it was not a figure of speech
that in a sense (in any sense), you meant it
to be just so, that you would disintegrate in me,
I in you, and both of us in water. Could this be
what is meant by marriage, in which both parties
disappear entirely, leaving only ripples
on the water’s quiet surface? But marriage
was a curious fantasy for us, and who could
possibly officiate? You were promised to another,
a dark figure stalking alleyways at night,
an ever-busy debt-collector, and I knew
my thin credentials would never count for much
with your imaginary father. So I led you
to a pond instead, with lilies and an oriental bridge,
a bench named for a local shopkeeper,
the path which circumscribed the water
shaded by hydrangeas and a vast magnolia.
The place was known to me, but since
the I that remembered things was by now
already dissolving in the you that forgot things,
the memory might well have been a false one.
You walked around the pond, around my island,
diminished with each circuit, each time drawn by
the gravity of the island’s green intelligence,
around and around, while I waited, an idiot
in a drama with no plot, no foreseeable conclusion.
from Being in Water by Richard Gwyn, with drawings by Lluís Peñaranda
Cuando hablaste de disolverte en mis brazos
advertí que no era una figura retórica,
que en un sentido (en todo sentido), lo decías en serio
que así fuera, desintegrarte en mí,
yo en ti, y ambos en agua. ¿Será eso
lo que se llama matrimonio, cuando ambas partes
desaparecen completamente, dejando apenas ondas
sobre la quieta superficie del agua? Pero para nosotros
el matrimonio era una curiosa fantasía, ¿y quién quizás
podría celebrarlo? A otro estabas prometida,
una figura oscura que acechaba de noche en callejones,
un cobrador de deudas siempre ocupado, y yo sabía
que mis escasas credenciales jamás servirían de mucho
con tu padre imaginario. Así que en cambio te conduje
a un estanque, con lirios y un puente oriental,
un banco bautizado con el nombre de un comerciante local,
el camino que circunscribía el agua
sombreado por hortensias y una vasta magnolia.
El lugar me resultaba conocido, pero desde que el yo
que recordaba cosas para entonces ya estaba
disolviéndose en el tú que se olvidaba cosas,
el recuerdo bien podría haber sido falso.
Caminaste alrededor del estanque, alrededor de mi isla,
disminuida con cada vuelta, cada vez atraída
por la gravedad de la inteligencia verde de la isla,
una y otra vez, mientras yo esperaba, un idiota
en un drama sin argumento, sin previsible conclusión.
Victoria Ocampo was one of the great patrons of the arts of the first half of the twentieth century. She first published Borges in her magazine Sur and she hosted and promoted writers and artists from around the world on their visits to South America. Among others Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Indira Gandhi, Drieu La Rochelle, Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Camus and Graham Greene were guests at the Villa Ocampo, and Lorca’s Romancero Gitano was published by her.
Yesterday, along with Cees Nooteboom and his wife Simone, Minae Mizumura, and the Argentinian novelist Inés Garland (who kindly drove us there), I was a guest at the Villa Ocampo. We had lunch, and then received a guide from the house manager, the exteremely well-informed Nicolás Helft, who presented me with a 1961 issue of Sur that contains the Spanish translation of a short story by Nabokov ‘Scenes from the life of a double monster’ (which appears, in English, in Nabokov’s Dozen) as well as poems by Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The house itself is spectacularly lovely, even if the interior veers towards the state of a mausoleum, with rooms kept intact from the era in which they enjoyed their greatest glory. The grounds, filled with great trees and green lawns, once spread down to the River Plate, several blocks away, but is now considerably smaller (though still ample). The odour of privilege wafts around the corridors and up the stairwells. I would not have liked to have got the wrong side of Victoria (and those who crossed her often lived to regret it). So I sat in her chair and meditated on the state of being Victoria Ocampo for a minute or two, and for a brief moment felt the thrill of something like victory. This was quite alarming, although not unpleasant.
For those who understand Spanish, here is a link that connects to Jorge Fondebrider’s website Club de Traductores de Buenos Aires and a video of my interview and reading from Monday evening.
Dancing man to man
Tango was danced between men from the very beginning, since it was considered too immoral for women, although clearly this is only a part of the explanation of man-to-man dancing, and a fuller account is given here .
I cannot vouch for its accuracy, but the site at least has some nice videos of men dancing with men.
The street where I took the photograph is the Calle Florida, which, apart from being the most famous street in the city of Buenos Aires, is closely associated with Borges and all things Borgesian – he lived nearby for many years and was frequently to be seen taking a stroll here. In fact a number of anecdotes about bumping into Borges take place in this street, which also boasts a version of Harrods, smaller than the one in Knightsbridge and currently closed down, but a famous landmark of the city. It opened in 1914 and closed in 1998, but has long been expected to re-open, subject to an extended lawsuit, following its acquisition by Swiss investors.
After taking a couple of pictures I was pursued down the street by a woman who was collecting donations for the dancing men. Since it is a common courtesy to give some money on such occasion, I was happy to donate the loose change I had in my pocket. The woman was clearly not impressed, and snarled at me: ‘is that all?’
What do you say to such a person? That the world is wicked; that dancing in the street never made anyone an honest crust; that we are all destined to be dust; that there is no afterlife? I despair. I continued on my way, to give my talk at the Translator’s Club, and answer questions on topics which, as always, I felt utterly unauthorized to speak about. But this is one of the hazards of being a person impersonator: your grasp of reality is frail and you often forget who it is you are meant to be impersonating; and although yesterday Blanco claimed to be the poet and translator Richard Gwyn, tomorrow he might just as easily turn into an extra from a Nazi zombie movie or invent a cure for hiccups.
A Very Fine Cake Shop and the Palace of Ducks
After lunch in a cheerful Brazilian place in Palermo (the one in Buenos Aires, not Sicily) we walk through the sunny streets in search of dessert and coffee. Our destination turns out to be one of the finest cake shops in the world. I don’t mean showy and pretentious like the cake shops of Vienna, but one with extremely good cakes. The display, like so many places in this city, makes imaginative use of the impact of colour. In fact both of my favourite eating places so far are spectacularly colourful, the modest Brazilian café, and El Viejo Teodoro (Old Theodore’s) which is my local, where I first ate six years ago.
They are also inexpensive. But the cake shop here, run by Georgina (in photo, with one of her creations) is something else. After considerable deliberation, we went for macaroons (red, green and blue ones) and I shared a slice of banana chocolate cake, washed down with coconut tea. It is to be found in the Plaza William Morris.
Palermo is a bohemian, bustling barrio, with many bars and bookshops. It is also where Jorge Luís Borges lived as a small child, before his family moved to Europe. There is a street named after him, which conveniently crosses the Plaza Cortazar. The bookshops often have bars, so customers can spend hours browsing, drinking coffee and chatting. Perhaps the most spectacular is Eterna Cadencia (also a publishing house of the same name), with its oak-paneled rooms, sofas, patio and upstairs terrace. A beautiful place to enjoy books.
However I had been up most of the night due to the rugby (see previous post) so did not appreciate the long traipse around the bookshops as much as I might have. But I did pass a store with four large fish tanks, and cushioned seats. Here you can sit with your feet in the tanks and dozens of little fish will eat the flaky bits off your feet and nibble your toes. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Since this week I actually have to get down to some work – my tour is not simply for pleasure – perhaps I should have gone for some xthiliopathic therapy, as it calls itself, but to sit there in full view of the passing pedestrians while fish feast on your skin, well, that’s just wrong.
On another theme, my friend Jorge told me, on our walk through another part of the city on Saturday evening, as we passed the Palace of the Ducks (Palacio de los Patos), that the phrase ‘quedarse pato’ which literally translates as ‘to be left a duck’ refers to a person who has come down in the world, or lost a fortune. The Palace of Ducks was divided into numerous apartments, many of which were taken by formerly aristocratic or wealthy families who had ‘come down in the world’ – largely as a consequence of the economic crash in the late 1920s. In other words, it was the collective home of people who had lost their properties, and could no longer afford to own a place. However, the surroundings were glamorous enough to remind them of their former glory, and to forget their penurious circumstances.
I wonder whether there is a connection with the term ‘to score a duck’ to be out for nought, to score no runs – in cricket. What is it with ducks that relates to poverty or the idea of zero? Any suggestions welcome.