The land is unholy. It starts to the south east of the village, a kilometre or so along the road where the earth smells of burning metal, an acrid carbon overlay not carried on any breeze but dense within the pigment of the air, the soil a black and ash-smeared crust. No birds. Then, intermittently, bewildered trees, their snowy leaves incongruous under the August sun, shades of grey and copper, magenta, and colours that do not have names except in an alchemist’s almanac, colours that exist only in the immediate aftermath of fire and which still cast out a dead heat. To walk out into this, to step on this unholy ground would be wrong: this wasteland needs to be uninhabited by creature forms. This is the burned-out anteroom to some terrible memory. A couple of years ago, not far from here, a bush fire like this claimed the lives of eight firefighters, cut off and encircled by flames that move faster than a charging bull, swifter than a running deer. When fire comes this close the balance of mortality tilts.
In the top picture the village is visible in a gap between the trees; the bell tower, a few red roofs.
Met up with this tortoise on a walk in the Albera range yesterday morning. The Alberas are home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a protected species.
One of my walking companions, a friend and local farmer with family affiliations to the land around here that go back many generations says that its size indicates it is at least a hundred years old. Its markings suggest it is a male. This means Tortoise was wandering along these paths when our chaps went over the top on the first day of the Somme, when Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed Petersburg. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, when these hills were teeming with refugees and war-wounded, Tortoise would have marked out his territory and become familiar with every ditch and rock and bush on his patch.
He was sunning himself when we approached, and retreated into his shell to avoid the attentions of our dog. But once the dog was kept away he re-emerged to take a look at us. Then, having determined that we didn’t pose a threat, he set off down a bank, at considerable speed – well, relatively speaking – negotiating stones and clumps of bush with clumsy determination. He moved, I would say, with deliberation and with definite purpose, although he was not going to be hurried.
Which brings me neatly to the point. I am reading Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness. The book is about the life of John Franklin, the nineteenth century polar explorer. John had issues as a child, and as a young man, concerning his slowness. The novel catalogues his subtle protest at the institutionalised imposition of quickness or speed. He struggles single-handedly to legitimize his own slowness, and in his own fashion, he succeeds. It is a wonderful novel, beautifully translated by Ralph Freedman. To press my recent argument in this blog about literature in translation, I should point out that the novel was published in German in 1983 and had to wait twenty years before appearing in English in 2003. In the meantime two hundred thousand crap novels were published in English, which no one will ever remember.
“A good story doesn’t need a purpose.”
“John was in search of a place where nobody would find him too slow. Such a place could still be far away, however.”
“He wandered through the town and pondered man’s speeds. If it was true that some people were slow by nature, this should remain so. It was probably not given to them to be like others.”
“There are two kinds [of seeing]: an eye for details, which discovers new things, and a fixed look that follows only a ready-made plan and speeds it up for the moment. If you don’t understand me, I can’t say it any other way. Even these sentences gave me a lot of trouble.”
And, of course, Achilles and the tortoise: John’s old schoolmaster, Dr Orme, attempts to explain one of the Paradoxes of Zeno:
“‘Achilles, the fastest runner in the world, was so slow that he couldn’t overtake a tortoise.’ He waited until John had fully grasped the madness of this assertion. ‘Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. They started at the same time. Then he ran to where the tortoise had been, but it had already reached a new point. When he ran to the next point the tortoise had crawled on again. And so it went, innumerable times. The distance between them lessened, but he never caught up with the tortoise.’ John squeezed his eyes shut and considered this. Tortoise? he thought, and looked at the ground. He observed Dr Orme’s shoes. Achilles? That was something made up.”
That was something made up. The whole ‘Achilles and the tortoise’ thing is made up. It’s a nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing as a boy myself. It is the kind of idiot sophism upon which Western Philosophy seems to be founded. Who believes this stuff anyway? I had the same feeling as John Franklin when I came across Zeno’s Paradox – no doubt via Aesop’s fables – which provides the prototype of the tortoise story.
As Aristotle summarized: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.”
But who says the pursuer must reach the point whence the pursued started? Why? Why does everyone accept these assertions as though they were a given when they read these ancient texts, whether Greek or Chinese, the kind ‘steeped in ancient wisdom’? Why can’t the pursuer avoid the point at which the pursued started? Why does no one ask these obvious fucking questions? Is it some kind of convention, by which we all suspend our critical faculties and pretend to be idiots so as to have someone’s pet theory proved right, be it Zeno, Aristotle or Christopher Columbus? But I digress.
It’s no longer useful, as a universal principle, to assume that fast is necessarily better than slow. Fast food, fast sex, fast money, faster death. I rest my case. We all know we can do speed, and what is costs.
I believe that in an era where speed is probably a more highly-valued commodity than love, The Discovery of Slowness delivers a salutary message.
Yesterday an excursion to Portbou and a picnic on a nearby beach to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend Juliette. As usual our large and straggling international party effectively turned a section of the beach into an ever expanding occupied zone, and a feast of fresh fish, chickens, salads, melon, cake, wine, coffee and cigars unravelled, the younger hooligan element ensuring total isolation from other beachgoers, which, on this particular beach was no problem, as it is not easily accessed except by the more adventurous or robust sun-seeker.
I do not know Portbou all that well, but have always felt drawn to it in a strange way. It is a shy place, giving off a sad, mysterious energy; a border town that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its role as a centre for customs control. All that remains is its vast and cavernous railway station.
We once ate here, late at night, about ten years ago, and Mrs Blanco and I fell into conversation with the young Moroccan waiter, no doubt an illegal, who had got this close to France in search of a better life, and had decided to stay. We left the restaurant as it was closing up, and headed for the car, which was parked a few streets away. We were about to pile in, when the young waiter appeared, panting, with our younger daughter’s jacket, having run down the streets searching for us. That reassuring incident helped formulate my ideas about the place, of a small, neglected border town with heart, where people end up by chance rather than by choice.
The coast road runs down the final miles of France’s ‘côte vermeille’ from Collioure, a charming and now very chic resort, for fifty years the home of the English writer of historical fiction Patrick O’Brien. In my vagabond days I once walked this frontier road on a baking June afternoon, arriving bedraggled and exhausted on the Spanish side, where the friendly guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the nearby bar for a beer, which turned into many. He dropped me off in Portbou later that night after a hair-raising 7 km descent in his old Simca, and I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up.
But Portbou is mostly famous as the final destination of the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years exile in France and 28 changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers and their guide, arrived exhausted at Portbou after a trek across the mountains from Banyuls. Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was permissible for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. However, he was prevented entry to Spain since he had no French exit visa. Perhaps because of his evident ill-health, perhaps because of a border guard’s Republican sympathies, his return to France was postponed until the next day and he was allowed to spend the night in an hotel, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room.
I didn’t realise that Benjamin killed himself by taking an overdose of morphine (he had a supply with him, for this eventuality): I had read elsewhere that he took poison, surely some kind of euphemism. If you’re going to go, morphine must be preferable to having some hideous acid gnawing through your guts.
The following account is taken from a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin at Portbou, The Last Passage:
‘If they had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in. The Gurlands, at any rate, Benjamin’s travelling companions, were permitted to continue their journey, although perhaps this was due in part to the impact made on the local authorities and police by the death of ‘the German gentleman’. A few days later, Henny and her son Joseph boarded a ship for America.
Benjamin left a suitcase with a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as a suitcase leather, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown, and some money. . .
. . . In Portbou Walter Benjamin put an end to seven years of exile and the possibility of a new future in America. For the local people, the death of the mysterious foreigner became shrouded in legend, but for others it was a freely chosen exit, an authentic rebellion against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of modernity. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the full arguments of this hypothesis is collected by Stuart Jeffries in his ‘Observer’ article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. What is more, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure. Did it contain his final manuscript? The suitcase was never found: its fate is unknown, and in the judge’s report of the property of the deceased there is no mention of any manuscript.’
The memorial ‘Passagen’ at Portbou was designed by Israeli Artist Dani Karavan, and an inscription reads that “it is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” Puzzling, that last sentence, and possibly meaningless, certainly untrue, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. But the memorial itself is spectacular, and a video clip, attached below, gives some idea of the approach and setting, enclosed by the mountain landscape and opening out onto the sea.
In the nearby gated cemetery, on Benjamin’s gravestone, there is a quotation from Thesis VII of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism‘.
- Other than an early family holiday and a single trip to Barcelona in my early twenties, my first real taste of Catalunya was in 1984. Penniless and without purpose, I was walking down the coastal road from Port Bou to Llança on a June afternoon, when I was caught in a terrific rainstorm. A car pulled in and gave me a lift. The driver was the painter Lluís Peñaranda. So began a friendship that lasted until his death last December.
- I went to an exhibition of paintings by Lluís the year that we met and was astonished by his representations of the landscape of the Ampurdan, that rocky edge of the Pyrenees that flattens out into a plain flanking the Costa Brava. His work is pervaded by an elemental iconography of dark cypresses, multicoloured fish, silver moons. It is a parallel, but distinct landscape to the one the world knows through the work of another son of the Ampurdan, Salvador Dalí.
- Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. I returned to live in Catalunya in 1988, and settled in Barcelona. The city was preparing for the Olympic games, held in 1992. There was a chaos of excitement that little more than a decade after emerging from the dictatorship of Franco, Barcelona was presenting the new Spain to the world, or rather, the new Catalunya.
- Catalunya used the Olympics to inform the world that it was not Spain. Its policies of linguistic ‘normalization’ (the term used for the dominance of Catalan in all public documents and undertakings) and the fact that all state-funded education took place through the medium of Catalan created a new atmosphere: perceived as legitimate self-assertion by the Catalans; regarded less favourably by many other Spaniards.
- I left Barcelona in 1990, but returned many times over the summers that followed, staying with my young family at different houses in the Ampurdan area.
- In 2002-3 we moved to a small hill-village in Ampurdan near the French border (picture above). My daughters attended the local Catalan School and I worked on my novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away. The following year we bought an old and run-down property in the village. Linguistically and culturally, this area is very proudly Catalan (in contrast to the international and largely Spanish-speaking city of Barcelona). Since I had been coming to the area for twenty years, I had made friends with Catalan writers and artists and got to discover more about the history and culture of this small corner. The Albera Mountains, that extend from the High Pyrenees towards the sea, falling away towards the coast at the northern end of the Costa Brava, are home to many Neolithic remains, notably standing stones (menhirs) and a profusion of burial chambers. I am very fond of a burial chamber, although I have no wish to be buried in one.
There were many Jews in this part of Spain before the expulsions of 1492. Many of them converted at that time, and there is a widespread belief that Catalans carry a significant charge of Sephardic blood, whatever that means. Blood is blood. There are no races, only ideas about races, which are mostly based on wrong information or the contrasting prejudices of boastfulness (e.g. a proud Celt) and bigotry (too many examples to cite) . In any case, I like the idea of a dedicated ‘Village of Jews’ in the heart of the Alberas, on the edge of the Cap de Creus.
- Further back in time, Hannibal must have crossed these hills on his way to Rome from Carthage. With his many elephants. I find the thought staggering. How did the Celto-Iberian tribespeople view these enormous lumbering beasts and their fierce drivers? The thought led to notes towards a poem a few years ago, not one that I have ever thought to publish, but perhaps it contains the germ of another, better poem, which I will write one day:
Elephants passed this way. The children, once their initial terror had passed, stared big-eyed, while clutching their mothers’ skirts, pointing at the swinging trunks as the beasts lumbered across cornfields.
Warriors rode on the elephants, but paid scant attention to the villagers who lined this section of their route.
What were the elephants doing in this well-tended land? Where were their riders’ leading them?
It was said by some that they were heading towards a distant war.
Why would an elephant go to war?
Because they are driven there by the riders.
But how? The elephants are so big and strong. The riders are so puny.
The elephants go where they are driven because that is what they are accustomed to.
The elephants so large.
The riders so small.
The children of this hillside village will tell the tale of the elephants to their grandchildren. It will become myth.
The elephants will never be seen again. They will cross the mountain pass and head into the plains beyond, until they become an improbable vision on the horizon. Specks on a vast green canvass.
The elephants will not return.
– What country is this foreigner from?
– I don’t know.
– What’s his name?
– I don’t know.
– What does he do? What language does he speak?
– I don’t know.
– What’s your name, my good man?
– . . .
– What country do you come from? Where are you going?
– I’m from here. I’m a foreigner.
Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008) tr. from Catalan by D. Sam Abrams
I have travelled many roads
and have opened many paths.
I have sailed a hundred seas
and been shipwrecked on
a hundred shores.
Everywhere I’ve seen
caravans of sadness
proud people sad people
drunks in the dark, dark shade.
Lecture hall pedants
watch on in silence
thinking they’re smart
because they do not
drink wine in humble places:
bad people who carry on
like pests polluting the earth.
And everywhere I’ve seen
people who dance and play
when they can
and work the skin
from their four palms.
If they arrive exhausted in a place
they’re never asked
from where they come.
When they travel
they ride on the shanks
of an old mule
They never hurry
not even on fiesta days.
Where there is wine
they drink wine;
where there is no wine
they drink fresh water
Good people who live
and work, get by and dream.
And one day like any other
they go into the ground
Antonio Machado (1875-1939) tr. from Spanish by Richard Gwyn