Ricardo Blanco's Blog

 

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.

 

Blanco reading with Jorge Aulicino


 

Dissolving

 

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

 

 

 

'Dissolving' by Lluís Peñaranda

 

 

Disolverse

 

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.

_

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Villa Miseria

Barracas 21/24

 

In immaculate contrast to yesterday’s trip to the rarefied air of Villa Ocampo, today I visited a slum (or a Villa Miseria) to the south of the city in the barrio of Barracas 21/24. It is an area without running water or electricity, and with only the most basic provision of what we in the UK would consider to be essential social amenities. I went as a guest of Pablo Braun, a co-founder with Paz Ochoteco of Fundación Temas.

This organization, with Paz at the helm, attempts to provide at least some encouragement to the children and young adults of the barrio, help in the provision of schooling, a kitchen with free meals, and a boxing club. The idea for the boxing club was inspired by the work of the sociologist Loïc Wacquant who wrote about a similar club in Chicago (and no doubt influenced the makers of the HBO series The Wire). As Pablo explained to me on the drive back into town, Wacqaunt argued that the discipline of boxing, within a defined context where the rules were clear, channeled a good deal of the natural aggression of deprived and ghettoized kids, and provided a focus away from the easy distractions of drugs and crime.

There is very little infant schooling for the children here because the facilities do not exist. Forty per cent of the children in this barrio receive no pre-junior education, and a half of them never reach secondary school.

I didn’t want to take pictures inside the boxing club but the images from the nearby streets give some idea of the kind of place it is. The Riachuelo that flows – no, flow is not the word for the sluggish progress of this viscous and putrid effluvia towards the River Plate and the sea – is supposedly the most polluted river in the western hemisphere. Upstream, a leather factory producing luxury goods spews out contaminant chemicals. A railway line runs between the shacks.

 

Rio Riachuelo . . .

. . . and its contents

Dwellings backing onto the river Riachuelo

Diego Maradona grew up in a place like this, so you can appreciate why the people love him. He is one of theirs.

And in the tiny office of Fundación Temas beside the gym where the boys and girls were boxing – up to a half of the members of the club are girls – was a poster of Che Guevara: the only time I have seen this poster in a place where it makes any sense.

When they asked the kids in this barrio where they would like to go one day, or what they would be interested to find out about, they replied ‘Buenos Aires’. They do not consider themselves a part of the city to which they allegedly belong: it is a foreign world to them and most of the kids have never been there, even though it is only a few miles away.

I have promised to write something for the festival about my impressions of Barracas 21/24 but will find it very hard. Apart from the fact that such places exist – itself a crime against humanity – I have difficulty comprehending the extent of the poverty and deprivation in a place like this, and the effect it must have on a young person as he or she grows up and sees no way out other than through crime or drugs. Western Europe and North America have a problem of obesity among the children of the socially disadvantaged. Here they are lucky to get enough to eat. But strangely the two things – hunger and the excessive consumption of fats and sugars – are not so far removed from one another. Paz tells me that problems of obesity are already on the rise among the poor. Unhappily, capitalism knows this, and the multinational food corporations and outlets such as McDonalds only profit from it.

 

 

 

 

Villa Ocampo

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 piano that Stravinsky played, with his picture

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.

Blanco tries out Victoria Ocampo's chair (photo by Simone Sassen)

 

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

Pastry Bistro, Plaza William Morris, Buenos Aires

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.

Brazilian cafe in Palermo

Viejo Teodoro in Calle Arenales

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.

Georgina of Pastry Bistro with one of her creations

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.

The Eterna Cadencia bookshop

Blanco taking a rest in the Eterna Cadencia bookshop

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.

Palacio de los patos

 

 

 

We don’t want your semen here thank you

Forgive me for the poor quality of the photo, but I was slightly concerned about taking pictures in the immigration zone of an airport, and used my phone. Here, if you can read them, are the rules about what you cannot import into Argentina. I draw your attention, gentle reader, (and if you blush, I will not see) to the item that prohibits the importation of semen. Now I am not the kind of person who would wander around from country to country with my pockets filled with test-tubes of spermatozoa, so I was not initially concerned, but then it struck me that most males visiting the country are carriers of semen, at least in its potential or unexpressed form, and should, if any sense of logic prevails, be prohibited from entering (how fraught with double entendre every word, every verb, suddenly becomes under these circumstances) the country at all, just to be on the safe side. But they let me in, and I promise I will be keeping my semen to myself.

I flew in – no, that gives the wrong impression of my physical attributes – I arrived on a British Airways Boeing 777, to attend a couple of literature festivals here, with the generous support of Wales Arts International. And I travelled Business Class, following an interesting exchange with the man who collected my boarding pass at Heathrow.

To start with, things were looking very peculiar at Terminal 5. The place was swarming with uniformed soldiers, who were clearly not in the service of Her Majesty The Queen. I picked out that they were speaking Spanish with Argentine accents long before going to the boarding gate. There were around fifty of them, wearing the blue berets of the United Nations. But what were they doing on a scheduled flight? Don’t they have their own planes? And when did you last see the uniformed soldiers of another nation state marching around in Blighty? Can’t have happened since the failed French invasion of Pembrokeshire in 1797.

Anyway, the soldiers were allowed to board first, along with the rich, the infirm, and the children. Then it was my turn. The man looked at a screen, told me to wait for a moment and then asked me if I was happy with the seat I had been allocated. I felt wary, as I had already, luckily, been upgraded to a seat in the more roomy Economy Plus (which I had not requested as I am not an MP but a responsible citizen who will not take advantage of public funds). So I certainly did not want him to take my seat away and plonk me amid a phalanx of Argentinian soldiers, however nice they might be. “Yes,” I said, “I am. It is an aisle seat, which I would prefer.” (I am a restless traveller). I hesitated. “Is that the right answer?”

“No, Mister Blanco” said the British Airways man: “That is not the right answer.” “Oh?” said, I, a little confused by his technique. “What, may I ask, is the correct answer?” He kept a straight face. “The right answer, Mister Blanco” he said, “is No, I am not happy with my seat. I would like another. You have an upgrade to Club World (starting price one-way £2699). Have a nice flight.” And he smiled, pleased with himself at his munificence. I acted cool (of course), as though travelling Club World was my natural due, and made my way onto the plane.

In Club World you have personal service and are ushered into a very comfortable seat inside a kind of cocoon with miles of leg room, and offered champagne or a soft drink to settle you in.  Later, they bring you a menu, with a very appetizing range of dishes, and a wine list. I was planted between two beautiful young Argentinian people who I decided were a supermodel and a star polo player. Apparently in these circumstances you don’t greet each other or speak at all, except to order things. I tried hard to divine the correct mode of behaviour, while, of course, pretending that it was all second nature to me.  I felt like an anthropologist on a field trip. I also sensed that for many of the thirty or so people in this luxurious compartment, a trip to Economy would provide similar challenges. I could easily imagine that close association with the plebian world – and the kind of person travelling economy to Buenos Aires is a far cry from your usual Ryanair type – would throw most of them into a fit of severe culture shock. Poor dabs.

When I had feasted on the beautifully prepared dinner, and declined the offers of this or that vintage beverage, the lights went down, the seat turned into a bed, and I lay in my little cubicle watching the film Hanna, about a sixteen-year old psychopathic killer with an elfin face, very untidy hair, and (it transpires) a heart of gold, sort of. Then I slept, which I hardly ever manage to do on long flights, for five or six hours.

The problem for me now, is that having tasted Club World, it is going to be a pain returning to Economy.

One day I will tell the story of the misogynist Rabbi and the appallingly drunken Ukrainian I had the pleasure of observing on another recent long-haul flight (in Economy), but it can wait.

 

 

 

Joaquín O. Giannuzzi

Illustration of Giannuzzi by Soledad Calés

 

Having written about illness in various media over recent years – principally as a so-called academic and the writer of a memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I am alert to the ways that other writers approach the subject, and am usually interested in what they have to say (so long as their writing does not launch into tedious new-age rage at the incompetence of ‘Western’ medicine, or degrade itself by spurious claims to the kind of quackery familiar to devotees of certain ‘wellness’ manuals).

 

For Some Reason

I bought coffee, cigarettes, matches.

I smoked, I drank

and faithful to my personal rhetoric

put my feet on the table.

Fifty years old with the certainty of the damned.

Like almost everyone I messed up

without making too much noise;

yawning at nightfall I muttered my disappointment,

and spat on my shadow before going to bed.

This was all the response that I could offer to a world

that claimed from me a character that possibly

didn’t suit me.

Or maybe something else is at stake. Perhaps

there was a different plan for me

in some potential lottery

and my number was lost.

Perhaps no one settles on a strictly private destiny.

Perhaps the tide of history settles it for one and all.

This much remains to me:

a fragment of life that tired me out in advance,

a poem paralyzed halfway towards

an unknown resolution;

dregs of coffee in the cup

that for some reason

I never dared drain to the last drop.

 

On the Other Side

Someone has died on the other side of the wall.

At intervals there is a voice, hemmed in by sobbing.

I am the nearest neighbour and I feel

slightly responsible: blame

always finds an outlet.

In the rest of the building

no one seems to have noticed. They talk,

they laugh, they switch on televisions, they devour

every last scrap of meat and every song. If they knew

what had happened so close by, the thought

of death wouldn’t be sufficient

to alter the cardiac rhythm of the

building’s occupants.

They would push the deceased into the future

and their indifference would have its logic:

after all, no one dies any more than anyone else.

 

Intensive Care

In the bed opposite

the man woke up snoring

his open mouth set

in desperate conviction.

The serum was dripping

into his veins. From my belly

sprouted two plastic tubes

in which a pink foam bubbled

as if it were the definitive language

of my entrails. To one side

someone coughed up

the last of his viscera.

A springtime branch swayed

behind the window’s glass

flaunting the life owed us

in exchange for the disorders

that laid waste to our pale bones.

Everything seemed suspended

between universal infirmity

and the opportunities offered to death.

In the corridor a nurse fluttered by

and we followed her with eyes intent on

laying bare the fermented secret

of our clinical notes:

but we didn’t manage to reach

her distant and weary heart.

 

 

 

Good Things about Being Welsh: No. 2

 

We inhabit a fictional country. The photograph lies. EMBAJADA DE GALES means ‘Embassy of Wales’ in Spanish. It was on a banner displaying the sponsors of a poetry festival in Central America. Reference to such an entity proves beyond all reasonable doubt that we come from an imaginary country, something like Ruritania.

But what, I ask you, gentle reader, distinguishes a real country from an imaginary one? When I was last at Buenos Aires airport in 2005 there was a huge display in the arrivals lounge announcing ‘Argentina – un país de verdad’ (Argentina – a real country). This was not long after the collapse of the Argentine economy and the massive devaluation of their national currency. Who, other than those in a state of serious self-doubt, needs to proclaim to the world the status of their own reality?

Argentina needn’t have worried. But we in Wales are used to such a predicament. We are never sure whether or not people in the rest of the world believe in us or not, so we are permanently checking our self-made reality gauges. It is well-documented by academics that the Welsh are sociolinguistically more Welsh the further they travel from Yr Hen Wlad. There is even a Welsh proverb to that effect. But does that mean we become less fictional when we travel, or more?

In most of the world, if they have heard of us at all, we are ‘a part of England.’  I have also heard that Wales is ‘in Scotland’, and on ‘the other side of Ireland’ and once ‘in Finland’. These assertions, while showing a frail grasp of geography, do in fact have a whiff of the truth, placing Wales somewhere on the periphery of something else.

Frequently of course, there is a situation where an individual Welsh celebrity has raised international awareness of our existence. A footballer – Mark Hughes in the 80s, followed by Rush, Giggs and now Gareth Bale – will assist bar-room conversation. In rugby-playing nations a Welsh identity usually provokes commiseration, and pitying remarks of how a once-proud team can now only compete in the second tier. Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Catherine Zeta Jones and Charlotte Church have done their bit. Among literary types (other than specialists) only Dylan Thomas ever seems to pop up.

While no one has yet suggested to me (as apparently George W Bush did) that Wales was one of the states of the USA, our provenance and exact status remains a mystery to the great mass of the world’s population, but our invisibility has one overriding benefit: no one has had the time to form a negative impression of a place they have never heard of.

To come from a land with nominal but invisible embassies, with a government but without a constitution or a state, with a fictional creature on its flag and a population whose sense of national identity grows in direct proportion to distance from the homeland, now that is what I call a wondrous paradox. We are the ghouls of historical destiny, forever seeking ourselves in the space left between a phantom nationhood and other people’s perceptions of us. All compounded by the concept of everlastingness – Cymru am byth – so that when all the planets have been sucked back into the sun, when the dust of what was once our solar system is distributed at random across the vast wastes of the universe, the idea of Wales will live on.

 

 

 

Cartoneros of Buenos Aires

It is not my intention to post a load of poems on this blog, but I am currently working on translations of the Argentinian poet Joaquín O. Giannuzzi (1924-2004). None of his work, as far as I know, has yet been published in English. This poem reminded me of the cartoneros of Buenos Aires, an impoverished, nocturnal tribe who make a meagre living by collecting and selling discarded cardboard and other rubbish left out on the street.

Incidentally, as Jorge Fondebrider has pointed out, the poem was written 30 years before the cartoneros became an everyday sight, but the ideas in the poem linked to my own memories of them, so I added the images.

GARBAGE AT DAYBREAK

At dawn today, out in the street

possessed by a kind

of sociological curiosity

I rummaged with a stick in the surreal world

of garbage bins.

I realized that things don’t die but are murdered.

I saw outraged papers, fruit peel, glass

of an unknown colour, strange and tortured metals,

rags, bones, dust, inexplicable substances

that rejected life. My attention was caught by

a doll’s torso, with a dark stain,

a sort of rosy meadow death.

It seems that culture consists in

the thorough tormenting of matter

and pushing it through an implacable intestine.

Almost a comfort to reflect that not even this excrement

is obliged to abandon the planet.