What is it that makes me collect these animal models, wherever I go in the world, whether they be hand-carved wooden shapes of exquisite beauty, a water bird sculpted from whale bone, a tatty and cross-eyed Mexican coyote made from God knows what, or these cheap plastic creatures picked up in a Banff tourist store? The animal world predominates in the imagination, and constantly invades my dream life – this I share with much of humanity . . . but there is more, and it relates back – at the risk of sounding either grandiose or ridiculous – to the cave paintings of our ancestors. The term sympathetic magic leapt out at me when I first came across it, and seemed to serve as a comfort, almost a cure for so many of my own, interior afflictions. It seemed to answer a fundamental question about being in the world.
Helen Macdonald, in her coruscating reflection on loss and grief, H for Hawk, writes: ‘I remember a teacher showing us photographs of the cave paintings at Lascaux and explain that no one knew why prehistoric people drew these animals. I was indignant. I knew exactly why, but at that age was at a loss to put my intuition into words that made sense even to me.’
Something I wrote years ago, in Walking on Bones, comes close to speaking to the subject, but I feel the need to revisit the theme, as we (humans) become more and more distant from the environment we inhabit and the animals we share it with. It has something to do with the search for congruity, both in our interior lives, and in our relationship with the planet. My stay at Banff, amongst other things, has allowed me to re-think that relationship, and perhaps the semi-conscious purchase of some plastic toys, however trivial, and their residency here on my desk, serves as a reminder.
The soul travels at the speed of a trotting camel. Nowadays, when humans venture any distance, they choose a mode of transport significantly faster. The result? Lost souls, everywhere. Once when I flew from Athens to London, stayed ten days, and then returned, I reckoned that I passed my camel over Serbia, going in the opposite direction.
From the parched membranes of a feigned amnesia we conjure cowled faces against a starlit sky, folds of black silk, tufts of animal fur, dried blood, stale sweat, the cold night air of the desert crossing. The rhythm of this memory is that of a human heartbeat. The images retained by the eye are formed at exactly the right speed, and fade in time for the next one. Food is chewed and digested in the recommended way. Water only is drunk, and preciously conserved. The pernicious attributes of a godless world are simply unimagined. Animal images predominate. The deeper you dig, more beasties come at you. Everything has its animal corollary.
Following the death on the 2nd January of John Berger, a favourite writer and an inspirational human being, I was led to read (or re-read, if the annotations in pencil were truly in my hand, even if my memory of reading the book itself has vanished) his essay and our faces, my heart, brief as photos; and I was reminded, with a degree of both joy and relief, that reading and writing form a continuum, and that the one almost inevitably begets the other.
While lying in bed, reading John Berger’s strange and arresting essay, I began to drift off, as happens all too frequently when reading at night (or in the day, for that matter) and the words I read took on other shapes, that is, the eye, even though closed or half open, conjures phrases, lines, sentences; I see them, they are relayed to my brain in half sleep as though they were print on the page, but when I return my gaze to the page, no such line exists; it has been pure invention on my part, and I have taken the story off at a tangent, into a kind of dream zone, in which I rewrite the text not as image, specifically, but as words on the page which are not in fact there. I have, while drifting off, re-written the text on which my eyes were resting before I was overtaken by sleep so that it takes a new departure, unrelated to what precedes it or what the author actually wrote.
Now, this is something, as I say, that I do quite regularly when tired; it involves a shifting from what is ‘real’ – on the page – to something which I have invented, which comes from me (I imagine) or to which I am distracted or called as if by a force outside myself or the text itself.
This happened when I was reading Berger. Waking, and reading on, I find, on page 52 of his book, the following lines. Berger is in the post office collecting a post restante letter from the woman he loves, and to whom the essay appears to be addressed, as a love letter of sorts, and he says this:
A voice belongs first to a body, then to a language. The language may change but the voice stays the same. I recognise your voice before I know in what language you are speaking. In the post office you pronounced the name you had written on the envelope, yet it was not the two words which I heard, it was your voice.
And when I read that, I thought ‘Ah yes, that is exactly what happens to me!’ In other words, I saw Berger’s comment as a direct correlation – or confirmation – of the thought I had just had about superimposing my imagined words onto the words of the text. Berger is in the post office; he hears the young women clerks talking, and he superimposes the voice of his beloved onto the text of their words. It echoes, analogously, what I have just written: the text (any text) is there in front of you, but you see (or hear) something quite distinct, authored by some(one) other.
The strangeness of this world, and all its symmetries! Reading Orhan Pamuk’s autobiography of his early years in Istanbul – which also serves as a biography of the city in which he has lived all his life – he comments that:
‘. . . what is important for a painter is not a thing’s reality but its shape, and what is important for a novelist is not the course of events but its ordering, and what is important for the memoirist is not the factual accuracy of the account but its symmetry.’
Is this what guides the writer of memoir – a questing after symmetry? Or of synthesis?
To be continued . . .
We were told some months ago about the boulder in the tree, by Lluís Serrano of Cantallops. So we made an excursion of it, trekked up past the castle of Requessens (of which more in a future blog) and up early autumnal paths to view the wonder. Lluís is a great source of information about local history – both cultural and natural – but even he does not know for sure how a rock estimated to weigh up to 100 tonnes landed in a tree. It can only be assumed that it came rolling down the hill behind the tree and was caught in the branches. The impact must have damaged the tree, as there is a fissure running down the trunk, but it survived.
Another strange feature of the tree is the dinosaur head formed by one of the lower branches:
A year ago I posted about the grape harvest in the village, and this account would not be complete without a reminder that the vendimia has been again, and gone. A very wet early summer made wine producers fear the worst for the 2016 vintage in the Empordà, but the proof will be in the . . . bottle. Before we started picking, we had to make some space, so a couple of thousand of the last batch but one were corked and stored, prior to labelling.
And then, on a warm September morning, we ambled down to the fields to fill our buckets. It is a timeless ritual, and one which is so much more enjoyable now than it was 35 years ago, when you did it for pay.
Even Bruno the Dog joined in, robbing grapes from everyone’s buckets and chewing up kilos of the fruit, only to disgorge much of it in dramatic fashion once we had returned home.
Autumn is the mushroom season, and at weekends, if you take a walk outside the village, you will encounter the mushroom hunter, a basket slung underarm, scanning the ground with an expert eye. King of the mushrooms is the rovelló, (Lactarius deliciosus) – pictured above, large and fleshy funghi that appear around the roots of pines, which grow abundantly along the tracks through the Alberas leading north and into France.
The picture includes one of the largest specimens I have ever encountered (or eaten). I’d recommend them cooked in olive oil or butter with some garlic and parsley, and spread over toast, or with spaghetti or linguine, if you have any.
Another – perhaps the other – defining feature of autumn is the Tramuntana – a wind that heads down off the Pyrenees and sweeps all before it. It makes its way to the coast of Menorca (200 miles due south from here), and who knows how far beyond . . . It is a wind invested with powerful psychological or emotional qualities.
This wind, the mountain wind, infiltrates every corner like a spinning incubus, growing inside each perception, every mundane act, taking them over utterly. Eventually you become aware only of the immediate and hallucinatory impact of whatever stands before you: the silent apparition of the dog waiting expectantly in the doorway; a dead sheep lying beside a roadside elm. The wind sucks out everything from you, leaving you exhausted and chastened. People have been known to commit murder on account of the mountain wind, or else go slowly insane over several seasons. (Colour of a Dog Running Away)
The wind needn’t affect everyone in quite this way; but the dogs, they notice, and flocks of starlings appear as you drive along the road to Garriguella and swerve and dive and bank away in a thick black cloud over the recently ploughed fields.
I have noticed, in myself and others, particularly after a full week of the wind – a tendency towards dreaminess or abstraction, a withdrawal into a state in which the structures of the phenomenal world have a tendency to dissolve. When this happens, conversations about the village take a strange turn, and the person with whom one thinks one has been speaking turns out to have been dead for a hundred years (the teenage girl who disappeared into the mountains with her illegitimate and stillborn child in 1912), and the postman mistakes you for Andreu the beetle-crusher, and the Butane delivery driver’s assistant refuses to let you take in the heavy gas cylinder that you use for cooking and hot water, mistaking you for the old man you must appear to him to be, and tells you to take care now, to wrap up warm, it’s cold.
Late September: the tourists have abandoned the beaches, and only a few resolute locals and French day-trippers can be found on a Sunday at Colera’s platja dels morts, where we spend a delightful couple of hours reading and swimming. The temperature has dropped to a comfortable mid-20s and there are occasional overcast days, even rain. The vendimia draws to a close, country roads still dotted with tractors pulling trailers overladen with purple grapes (mostly garnatxa, although more farmers are experimenting with different varieties now, including the ever-popular cabernet sauvignon and merlot).
In the midst of all this activity, we have elections, purportedly to declare an independent Catalan state.
The plastic hoarding that Bruno the dog is so fond of urinating against – Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), a coalition of parties promoting a vote for independence at the elections held yesterday – was installed at the top of the village around a month ago. The result of yesterday’s election – with all the votes not yet counted – is that while the pro-independence parties have gained a majority of seats in the Catalan parliament, they did not receive 50% of the actual vote. Which means that if this were to be treated as a de facto referendum – and the Independentistas claimed it was – then they have failed (even though they are, of course, claiming otherwise).
I have three main concerns about Catalan independence. The first is whether Catalunya will remain a member of, or be automatically admitted to, the EU. From the threats offered by both Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish president and – on a recent visit to Madrid – David Cameron, the same attitude is being taken by the larger states as was taken over Scottish independence: that there is no automatic entry and Catalunya will have to join the queue for EU membership.
Secondly it’s disappointing, although not surprising, that all of the faces of the candidates – 135 of them – are white. There are a lot of non-white people in Catalunya, especially in Barcelona, with its large Asian, Maghrebi and Latino population. In the country areas there are many sub-Saharan Africans, working almost exclusively in agriculture. Many of them do not have papers. They are politically invisible. And frankly there doesn’t seem to be much hope of the new Catalan state, if or when it exists, embracing pluralism to any significant degree. ‘Race’ is likely to take on major significance in the Iberian countries over the next 20 years. Which is all a bit worrying within the context of the independence movement: do we really need more nationalism at a crucial time like this, when European countries should be embracing a more internationalist and pluralistic identity? Does regional and linguistic identity really need to be framed as ‘nationalism’?
Thirdly and perhaps of greater concern to most Spaniards of all denominations: what would happen to Barça football club in an independent Catalan state? It would not be able to stay in the Spanish Liga, as it would not be in Spain. Would a new ‘Iberian league’ come into being, to include teams from Portugal, perhaps? Or would the great Barça be reduced to weekend features with the likes of Vilanant, Vilafant, and Vilajuïga?
Or how long should a piece of writing be? Reflecting on this, in relation to a piece I am working on, I haphazardly check into an article in The New Yorker and am reminded by John McPhee that “ideally, a piece of writing should grow to whatever length is sustained by its selected material—that much and no more”. He is talking about non-fiction, but of course the same applies to poetry or to fiction: some might say it is even more crucial that fiction writers learn how to discern what length can be reasonably sustained by the selected material so as to avoid rendering the reader senselessly bored. Why, as Borges asked – and I often ask myself – succumb to the laborious and impoverishing madness . . . “of composing vast books—setting out in five hundred pages an idea that can be perfectly related orally in five minutes.”?
And while on the subject of contraction, here’s a lesson to learn about how to save time in storytelling by presenting several ideas at once. In Mavis Gallant’s short story ‘Grippes and Poche’, her protagonist, the solitary and sardonic writer, Grippes, witnesses a quartet of plain-clothes police beating up a couple of pickpockets, and escapes into a café. He has been out to collect some offal from the butcher’s to feed his cats. Rather than have Grippes ‘find’ his idea about realism – or ‘writing about real life’ – while seated at the café reading a newspaper; or even allowing the thought to present itself to him through internal monologue, reverie, or conversation with a literary adversary, Gallant allows her character to discover it on the newspaper in which the butcher has wrapped a sheep’s lung.
Returning on a winter’s evening after a long walk, carrying a parcel of sheep’s lung wrapped in a newspaper, he crossed Boulevard de Montparnasse just as the lights went on – the urban moonrise . . . Grippes shuffled into a café. He put his parcel of lights on the zinc-topped bar and started to read an article on the wrapping. Someone unknown to him, a new name, pursued an old grievance: Why don’t they write about real life any more?
Because to depict life is to attract its ill-fortune, Grippes replied.
And that ‘attracting of ill-fortune’, uttered to no one in particular by a man reading from a newspaper in which rests a sheep’s lung, while outside – in the ‘real’ world – the police exercise some casual violence on a couple of petty criminals, achieves a marvellous contraction of idea and imagery, without spoiling the effect by any explanation or commentary.
More translation – literary and the other, everyday kind – and more thoughts on being a foreigner: “Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics” writes Alastair Reid. “The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might be a place – and a self – instantly recognisable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live. From there, if they are lucky, they smuggle back occasional undaunted notes, like messages in a bottle, or glimmers from the other side of the mirror.”
He wonders whether Valaparaíso might be that place into which he could “sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh”. He suspects it might be. And yet.
The foreigner walks for an hour in the vicinity of the bus station looking for a comfortable place to sit and scribble: something like a café, or a clean well-lighted place that might offer up a drink and a sandwich, one of those sandwiches that contain a variety of colourful food: a completo or an italiano.
He does not much care for his current state of mind. He has returned to Valparaíso, after a brief visit to the capital. In Santiago the temperature was 35 degrees centigrade; here it has dropped to around 19, and is overcast. He came dressed for the sun, and looks ridiculous. To make matters worse, he has a suitcase, albeit a small one, which he does not wish to lug around. He wonders if he should check into a hotel, but it is a weekend in high summer, and the two he has called are full (and expensive). He has killed the first hour in pointless perambulation, so leaves his case at the left luggage office of the bus station and tries again to orient himself, calmly. He sets off towards a covered market, often useful places for one in search of food, but the stalls are shutting up and the little shacks selling food also, and the place has the forlorn aspect of closing time, and the street outside smells of fish, urine and rotting fruit.
He continues further out of his way before finding a more promising street and following it. Something about the open-fronted shops selling herbs and fruit and meat reminds him of Greece, specifically the smell of Chania market. He tries to identify precisely what the smell is, and fails to name it, the ingredient tantalisingly out of memory’s reach. It is a smell that combines thyme, coffee and something else, something that will not be recalled. He begins to feel nostalgia for people and places he will never recover, but that too fades. Eventually he spots a likely café and crosses the road. He takes a table half way down the room. When he orders, the waitress turns her head to one side, as some people do when confronted by a foreigner, as though the presumption of their foreignness will necessarily involve not understanding them. When she realises that there are no imminent communication issues, she smiles. Despite his command of the language, he is still a foreigner, and perhaps she feels a degree of pity, or something approximating it to it. He has seen the other waitress carrying a plate with the kind of sandwich he requires: meat, tomato, avocado, mayonnaise. He requests the same. It doesn’t take long to clock the fact that not only is he the only non-Chilean in the place; he seems also to be the only person not personally known to the staff. The sandwich arrives. It is pretty much what it sets out to be, and settles threateningly in his stomach.
The following night, by which time he has shed the tourist garb of shorts and brightly coloured shirt and put on a disguise of tracksuit trousers, black tee shirt and cardigan, he goes downtown with his friend, Enrique, who remarks afterwards that to any onlooker they might just have appeared to be father and son, taking a turn out to the bar together. His foreigner identity has briefly been supplanted – to the outside world, at least – by another. He wonders how much longer it would take for his identity to be usurped forever. He thinks, probably, never. But he suspects there is always another, his other, or his other’s other, in waiting, biding its time.
But that thing about the place into which he could sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh? That has receded again; that, he fears, will always be an illusion.
“Anonymity is peculiarly appealing to a foreigner: he is always trying to live in a nowhere, in the complex of his present.” With this thought in mind I come to the end of re-reading Alastair Reid’s essay, and start on the next one, called ‘Other People’s Houses.’ Despite the fact that to the outside world, my foreigner-status remains intact, with friends in Chile, my confused identity is – peculiarly – tolerated with extreme goodwill.
It is with particular interest that I read the opening of ‘Other People’s Houses’, the next essay in Reid’s excellent collection. It is worth citing the first paragraph is full:
“Having been, for many years, an itinerant, living in an alarming number of countries and places, I am no stranger to other people’s houses. I am aware of a certain disreputable cast to this admission; I can almost feel my wizened little ancestors shaking their heads and wringing their hands, for in Scotland, people tend to go from the stark stone house where they first see the light to another such fortress, where they sink roots and prepare dutifully for death, their possessions encrusted around them like barnacles. Anyone who did not seem to be following the stone script was looked on as somewhat raffish, rather like the tinkers and traveling people who sometimes passed through the village where I grew up. I would watch them leave, on foot, over the horizon, pulling their worldly belongings behind them in a handcart; and one of my earliest fantasies was to run away with them, for I felt oppressed by permanence and rootedness, and my childhood eyes strayed always to the horizon, which promised other ways of being, a life less stony and predictable.”
Alastair Reid, then, prepared himself for his life as a foreigner, by aspiring to the strange life of the transients who passed through his village. This rings a bell for me, also.
Sometimes a person’s foreignness is something that can be put on or removed, like a second skin. Sometimes, too, the façade of foreignness can be a convenience. Take as a hypothetical example my friend, K. He has resided in Chile for thirty years, enjoys citizenship, and takes a keen interest in the culture and politics of his adopted country, but as a true foreigner he would not be so facile as to believe that his identity has somehow been re-calibrated as Chilean. Negotiating the fragmentary landscape of foreignness, only an idiot would claim a national identity on such spurious grounds.
For a certain class of foreigner, foreignness is something that can be deployed strategically. One can even turn it into a kind of game, or make oneself the butt of jokes on account of one’s own foreignness. One can intentionally mislead, intentionally mispronounce, intentionally misunderstand. But these are beginners’ tricks, at the amateur end of Being a Foreigner. People like K. are adepts, and have decades of practice, sidestepping their interlocutor by playing the foreigner card to their own advantage. It doesn’t always work of course, especially with policemen and parking attendants, but it is a strategy to which I have at times reverted myself.
So, my stay in Valdivia is coming to an end: pleasant days of working on translation of Chilean poets; a weekend spent walking in the coastal reserve at Chaihuín, and yesterday a long hike through the spectacular Huerquehue park to the north, where we climbed, sweating, through temperate rainforest until we reached the zone of the Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle trees) – which only grow above 1,000 metres – amid bursts of outlandish birdsong from the chucao and the huet-huet (or hued hued).
I will miss this place, but, as a foreigner, I will not dwell on the insubstantiality of belonging here, even if, as places go, there are few I would rather stay. I will haul my big blue suitcase – laden with books of poetry that I need for the journey but would rather carry in my head – and move on to the next place.
Staying for any extended period of time in a country where one is obliged to speak a language other than one’s own inevitably results in reflection about core identity. Core identity, if there is such a thing, presumes that there is an ideal and comfortable state of mind, in which one is most fully at home, inside his or her own in-group, probably speaking an idiomatic form of the mother tongue among fellow-speakers, who follow the contours and references of conversation in a more or less fluent fashion, and with whom one shares beliefs, principles and occasionally political beliefs.
The foreigner, as Alastair Reid so succinctly observed, does not share this happy resource – the true foreigner, it could be argued, will feel as much a foreigner at home as anywhere else, but that is a discussion for another day – and today I returned to Reid’s essay with renewed insights. Living almost entirely within another language for most of the day, the foreigner begins to notice how language carries with it such a quantity of associative and historical luggage that merely understanding the words only accounts for a part of the fascinating, and at times frustrating problem of making oneself understood. Some of this can be accounted for by the fact that every word of a language has a personal history of association that a native speaker can trace back to childhood. Every phrase or idiom has a personal history, is laden with a particular taste or smell or music for the native speaker, and though the learner – even the fluent speaker – may acquire a series of associations of their own with the individual words of a language, it will never contain an entire universe, as does the memory of a native speaker. Moreover, the problem does not end there: as Reid wrote, “I am . . . aware of having, in Spanish . . . a personality entirely different from my English-speaking one – nor is it simply me-in-translation . . . I have often listened to simultaneous translation between two languages I know well. The meaning? Oh yes, the meaning is there; but it is just not the same experience.”
In the end, we have to arm ourselves with the anonymity of the foreigner, to prepare for disappointments and misunderstandings, and to accept that very rarely are these simply linguistic. To allow the late lamented Mr Reid the final word: “To travel far and often tends to make us experts in anonymity – but never quite, for we always carry too much, prepare for too many eventualities. One bag could have been left behind. We are too afraid of unknowns to ignore them.”
On Sunday we visit Los Colmillos de Chaihuín, which contain, among other trees, canelo, alerce (larch) and eucalyptus. The first two are indigenous, the last a moisture-hogging outsider, the villain of the piece in the local ecology, imported from Australia and now being slowly replaced by the older indigenous varieties. The eucalyptus grows very quickly and apparently self-regenerates once it has been chopped down. It can do this five times, and, given the chance, will grow to full height between each growth. South America’s only marsupial, the monito del monte (little mountain monkey) may be found here but we are unlikely to see one as they are very shy, as is the pudú, a squat deer-like creature with a cute face.
The big larch in the photo is 3,500 years old. They calculate this by the girth and of the tree, which is three and half metres in diameter (and 45 metres tall). The oldest recorded alerce was four and a half thousand years old, according to our guide, although Wikipedia establishes the age as 3,622 years. This is some achievement when we consider that the Minoan civilization was still intact when the tree was young. The forests hereabout were once filled with these trees, but the wood is good for making boats and houses, and when the Spanish came they cut a whole lot down to furnish their navy. Now the trees are protected by law, but they grow so slowly that it will be a long time before they ever repopulate the forests of Valdivia.
Walking through the forest I notice a bright yellow fungus, the size of a tennis ball, growing at the base of a tree, almost luminous in the dark of the woods. It is known, I am told, as caca de duende. Of course there is some difficulty in rendering ‘duende’ into English, as translators of Lorca have discovered over the years: it can mean ‘spirit’, or ‘creative force’ as well as referring to a sprite, fairy or elf. Elf shit sounds the most evocative, so I’ll go along with that.
Many and varied are the approaches to translation, and numerous its unsought consequences. There are those who become obsessed by the process even at the cost of progressing to the end of a piece of work. It doesn’t matter: before very long, everything becomes an act of translation.
So, after four days, we translate ourselves to the coastal park, the Reserva Costera Valdiviana, for the weekend. The land is given over to the Mapuche people and building is prohibited within the park zone. There are eight of us on the trip, and the plan is to rent cabins for the weekend. We arrive on Friday evening where we are greeted by our hosts, Teodora and Julio, who prepare pulmay, a dish cooked in layers of pork, chicken, sausage, chorizo, potatoes, and topped off with a thick layer of a shellfish called cholgas and choritos. This is a very good start.
In the morning we drive to Chaihuín, then south towards Laguna Colún along an unmade forest road for an hour, having to stop several times to move logs across the track, where the mud has piled thick. When the road runs out we walk through the forest, curving down towards a broad expanse of high dunes, overlooking the sea. There is practically no one here. Miles of unspoiled, empty beach. But what I hadn’t counted on were the cows, grazing, it would seem, on the beach, except that there is no grass, only sand. They come there for the algae, of which there are two main kinds hereabouts, cochayuyo (the large octopus kind) and lugo. The cows look pretty relaxed on the beach, even though they don’t seem to be making much effort to find the seaweed, of which there is plenty along the shore.
The only inconvenience is the flying insect known as the tábano negro, and colloquially as coliguacho. You must not wear dark clothes: if you do they will hunt you down and harass you for the whole journey. If you wear white, they will ignore you altogether. Almost every beautiful place seems to harbour some resident bug whose only purpose is to persecute and sting people. I have foolishly brought a navy blue fleece, but I take it off soon enough, and my pale t-shirt holds no interest for them.
We turn inland in the direction of an inland lagoon named Colún, where the plan is to swim, although, in the event, it is far too cold and windy. So our self-appointed guide tells us we have to cross more dunes – a frustrating and exhausting venture in which you slide down two metres for every one you climb, then – after a traipse along the summit of the dunes – towards green pastures; in fact, towards a grotto, somewhat alarmingly called the cave of the vulvas. The cave turns out to be more or less what it says on the label: a dark cavern filled with fissures carved into the rock and some aboriginal art. A battered lectern outside surprisingly provides information in both Spanish and English translation, but omits to inform who originally made the drawings and carvings inside the cave, or why. The place has not yet been properly researched or carbon dated. One of my companions says it was used as an initiation chamber by the indigenous people of these parts in pre-Hispanic times, but I no longer know what to believe. Climbing the dunes and sliding down the other side only to enter the cave of vulvas has made me dizzy. And there is still a long walk back, past the still motionless cows.
In a recent review of The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, I learn that in a creation myth of the Yanomami people, the original world – the world that was here before – was “crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed ‘back’ of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged.” A new sky was set up and “held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.”
The fragility of the known world is a theme that emerges also in Juan José Saer’s book The Witness (see post from 30 November). The nameless cabin boy who is adopted by a tribe living on the banks of a South American river is returned to the invading Spaniards ten years after his capture. Eschewing public attention, he holes up in a Spanish monastery for several years, under the tutelage of a sagacious monk, who teaches him Latin, Greek and Hebrew. On his protector’s death, he leaves the monastery and lives as a vagrant, before eventually he joins up with a group of actors, and – to great public acclaim – tours the cities of Europe, performing a drama of his ‘life among the savages’, in which he acts himself. It is only in his old age that he settles down to write his account of those years.
And here he returns to the theme of the precariousness of the world, and all that is in it. The Indians among whom he lived all those years ago considered themselves and the world they inhabited to be coterminous. Outside they do not feel on safe ground.
“Even though they [the Indians] took for granted the non-existence of others, their own existence was in no way irrefutable . . . For them the main attribute of all things was precariousness.” This belief has a linguistic base: there is no equivalent word in their language for ‘to be’. The closest equivalent they have means ‘to seem’. “But ‘seems’ has more of a feeling of untrustworthiness than sameness. It is more a negative than a positive. It implies an objection rather than a comparison. It does not refer to a known image but rather tends to erode perception and diminish its force. The word used to designate appearance also means exteriority, a lie, an eclipse, enemy. Everything that presented itself clearly to the sense was for them formless and had a vague and sticky underside against which the darkness beat.” The people among whom our narrator lives, nevertheless, regard themselves as the custodians of this fragile and terrifyingly insubstantial world. “In their hands lay the precarious fate of all perishable life. It would take only a moment’s inattention for it all to collapse, taking them with it.”
I do not regard this attitude towards the imminent collapse of all reality to be that unreasonable. After all, those of us who grew up in the sixties came to consciousness under a not entirely dissimilar mythology of imminent extinction: in our case it was thermonuclear war. Now it is the destruction of the ozone layer and climate change. It is no surprise that environmentalists have adopted the Shaman Davi Kopenawa, co-author of The Falling Sky, as a spokesperson for those many peoples whose habitat is under constant environmental threat from loggers and miners, or from the effects of climate change. Davi Kopenawa has taken on this mantle, appearing at events worldwide on behalf of his people, and others like them. According to the New York Review article, “he finds echoes of Yanomami notions in Western environmental thought, but with an important caveat: “Since the beginning of time, Omama has been the center of what the white people call ecology…. In the forest, we human beings are the ‘ecology.’”