The first Borges story I ever read was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, while living in a derelict shepherd’s hut on a Cretan hillside. A couple of years later, like so many others readers, I underwent a kind of epiphany while reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I was twenty years old, and from that point on, Borges’ fictions, alongside García Márquez’s recreation of the semi-fictional world of Macondo, forced me to re-evaluate almost everything that I had been reared to believe about literary fiction.
Thinking back, I had never had much truck with either realism or naturalism – the antagonists, in their way, of so-called ‘magic realism’ – and since my exposure to Borges and García Márquez, I never quite trusted them again. These two writers, followed by other discoveries, such as Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Augusto Monterroso, opened the doors to different perceptions of reality, in which the frail membrane separating one world, one mode of understanding, from another, was always permeable, subject to movement and interpenetration. Everything was a fiction. This was a model, I believed, that could be applied to almost anything: culture, language, philosophy . . . it was almost, but not quite, a religion.
Last July I was reminded of this lifelong struggle with the false dichotomy between fiction and reality, when I travelled to Dumfries and Galloway to meet Alastair Reid himself. The Scottish poet – friend as well as translator of Borges, Neruda and García Márquez – spent a large part of the day talking with me about Latin America and its literatures, especially Borges. I recorded the conversations, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to do this as, just over a month following my visit, Alastair passed away, at the age of eighty-eight.
One of the things he told me – which also crops up in one of his essays – was the reluctance of Latin Americans in general (not just authors) to discriminate between what ‘actually’ happened, and what might have happened under other circumstances. Thus life (and storytelling) is a continuous weave of memory, confabulation and invention. In one of his essays, Reid cites the American diplomat George F. Kennan, who, after an investigatory trip through several Latin American countries in 1950, wrote, in a tone of exasperation:
Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe . . . a highly personalised, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process.
While the sentiments expressed here might be familiar to many as a symptom of European or North American ethnocentrism, the diplomat had a point. Reid himself lived for many years among villagers in the Dominican Republic, and describes a ‘fictive’ cast of mind, in which the vague boundary between history and invention is blurred beyond recognition. This is not simply a case of the ‘objective’ European mind critiquing the supremely subjectivist world-view of those in ‘the third world’: it is a truth (if such a word has any meaning) borne out by Reid’s experience, and one described most succinctly by Borges himself. For Borges, everything put into language is a fiction, whatever ‘literary’ or non-literary’ form that might take. Thus a poem, a newspaper article, or a letter from the bank manager all fit the category of ‘fiction’ as each uses language as their mode of expression. As Reid says:
A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.
And it is with this in mind that we must think of Fiction Fiesta; not in the limited sense of a festival that celebrates the genre of literary fiction. FF is a platform for building fictions that give shape to reality. On one level, FF complements work that I am doing, alongside others – with the invaluable support of Wales Literature Exchange and Wales Arts International – in taking Welsh writing out into the wider world; at the same time we are helping Welsh readers discover more about contemporary Latin American writing.
Fiction Fiesta started out in early 2012 as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’
Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala, Inés Garland and Andrés Neuman from Argentina, alongside writers from Wales and elsewhere in the UK, and The Independent covered the event, with a feature on one of our guests, Angharad Price, which attracted more attention.
Through Fiction Fiesta, we set out to pay particular attention to literature in translation and, by extension, to explore the larger idea of translation as a concept that, to some degree, governs all our lives. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. And Octavio Paz goes further: ‘in writing a poem we are translating the world, transmuting it. Everything we do is translation, and all translations are in a way creations.’
It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed by readers, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. In addition, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which, as I explained at the start of this piece, is where a lot of my own literary interests are centred.
This year’s Mexico-themed Fiction Fiesta teamed up with Wales PEN Cymru and the British Council to hold an event at the Wales Millennium Centre on Friday 17th April. Owen Sheers hosted the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, along with Francesca Rhydderch, while I was in conversation with Pedro Serrano and the Scottish poet W.N. Herbert. FF is hoping to maintain the partnership with Wales PEN Cymru, and bring many more writers from Latin America to Wales over the years to come.
This piece first appeared in the New Welsh Review, 1st July 2015
When travelling, how do we begin to learn when someone is wearing a mask, with intent to deceive, given that we all wear masks much of the time?
We all know, as Hamlet says, that ‘one may smile, and smile, and be a villain’, and so I am thinking about how one goes about making judgements in another culture with people whose ideas about what qualifies as ‘sincerity’ is, perhaps, at a remove from one’s own culturally engendered version. And how, I wonder, do ‘I’ appear, the person who passes as myself (my own current person impersonator) with my own pretensions at ‘sincerity’, when for all my interlocutor knows, I am wearing a mask too, perhaps one more efficacious in design than his or her own.
These things trouble me. Should they? And how much does any of this matter, if, as Javier Marías reminds us in his novel The Infatuations (Los Enamoramientos), we are all novice ghosts: ‘whatever we do, we’ll only be waiting, like dead men on leave, as someone once said’.
A mask conceals, but to wear death on the outside conceals nothing, nada: it only reveals what we wear on the inside, what we carry inside us – our own eventual death – because we are ‘dead men on leave’ and one cannot conceal what can never be erased. So the mask of death, the grinning skull, is a double bluff, it is a way of anticipating our status as fragile ghosts, a way perhaps of trying to con or cheat or temporarily delay Death into thinking we are already dead, so he cannot choose us, he needn’t waste his time with us. This is not the same as the rather simplistic explanation I have read in tourist guides, namely that Mexicans like to display images of death and the skull in order to familiarise and trivialise it, to make it commonplace, to deny it real significance by flaunting it through macabre displays, even to the extent of eating chocolate skulls and skeletons. That, surely, would only constitute a bluff (a single bluff). And Death would not be fooled by that, surely?
How does a people – according to Claudio Lomnitz in his extraordinary book, Death and the Idea of Mexico – come to have death as its national icon? This question was addressed at length by Octavio Paz in his seminal study on the Mexican character, or what I am coming to think of as Mexicality, which manages to carry an almost-reference to mescal, the national liquor (usurped for many years by the Jalisco version, tequila, but making a fierce comeback among the middle classes, who previously eschewed it as a poor man’s drink). It is a view corroborated in Mexican culture by the prevalence of further imagery of death: not just in the ‘national icon’, as Lomnitz would have it, but in the extraordinarily graphic pictures (which would never be publishable in a UK newspaper) that accompany headlines of the latest narco-murder, and which, significantly, also accompany the paraphernalia of Christian death – exemplified by Christ’s death on the cross – here represented in a crucifixion scene I photographed yesterday in a Coyoacán church.
None of this will be new to anyone who knows anything at all about Mexico, but for me the whole symbology of death, celebrated so vividly in fiestas such as the Day of the Dead – well, all fiestas in fact, as the essence of a fiesta is to defy death, to celebrate a momentary explosion in time, thereby provoking an attraction of opposites: the fiesta beckons death by celebrating life with fanatical and joyous hubris – is a topic definitively at odds with our Western denial of death, our sterilising and alienating distancing of everyday life from any possible contact with the unspeakable void that death represents. But these are only preliminary thoughts on the topic, to which I may one day return.
At the Festival of the Book and the Rose, which I attended yesterday, as a guest of the Periódico de Poesía, the celebrations were adjusted at the last minute to make way for an homage to Gabriel García Márquez, pictured below, on a placard, flanked by yellow roses. I also learned that the University (UNAM) is home to 325,000 students: the same population, give or take a few dozen, as the city of Cardiff.
Good things about being Welsh: No. 6 – beating Germany at football, meeting Ian Rush (and becoming a father).
Blanco, not renowned as a great footballing fan, more of a rugby man, must confess to having had a little thrill last night meeting and having a drink with Ian Rush, Liverpool and Wales footballing legend. We were introduced by mutual friend, owner of The Promised Land and general good chap Nick Davidson at the Park Plaza Hotel in Cardiff. (Rushy’s hand is actually on my left shoulder, which means we are kind of mates, no?)
Among his many achievements, Rushy scored the winner in Wales’ 1991 defeat of reigning World Champions Germany in a European Championship qualifying match played at Cardiff Arms Park on the evening of 5 June, the only occasion, as far as I know, on which Wales have beaten Germany at anything. I happen to remember the date particularly well as it was the night our first child, Sioned Maria, was born. In fact – as I let Mr Rush know last night – it was because of his goal that the obstetrician was late arriving on the ward, coming into the room in which Mrs Blanco was at the closing stages of a difficult 10-hour labour. The doctor burst in proclaiming ‘Rush has scored’. ‘What’s he on about? mumbled Mrs Blanco, in a slightly medicated drawl, ‘and who the hell is Rush?’ Well, his spectacular goal, shown below, provides the answer to that one.
We won, Sioned was borned (yes, borned) and Cardiff went bonkers. Dazed, I wandered into the hospital car park at 2.00 a.m. and could not remember where I’d put the car. A security guard approached me, and when I said I couldn’t remember where the car was, for some reason assumed I was inebriated, and asked whether I was sure I should be driving. I wasn’t drunk, but driving through the city centre – very carefully, due to the inconsiderate presence of so many citizens – to get back home, most of the rest of the city was in a state of great exuberance. Truly, amigos, a night to remember, and one to bore the grandchildren with when I start repeating myself incessantly. When I start repeating myself, incessantly.
We met up in Nick’s bar, The Promised Land, to discuss literature in translation with some friends, editors, writers and such luminaries from the field of literary translation as Christopher MacLehose and Boyd Tonkin, chaired by the erudite and perennially entertaining Charles Boyle. By the end of the day I had the impression that we had achieved what we set out to do: we had talked about interesting stuff in good company; we had provided a forum for our guests to listen to and discuss literature in translation, and we had introduced to a Cardiff audience – for the first time but definitely not for the last – the prodigiously talented Argentinian novelist and poet, Andrés Neuman. More than that, most of us seemed to have enjoyed ourselves.
The day began with a reading and discussion with Andrés, who led us on a merry dance through Russian Jewish migration of the early 20th century, German Romanticism, the music of Franz Schubert, European identity in the 21st Century, an hilarious impersonation of Jorge Luis Borges, and an account of a chess game with Roberto Bolaño, in which the Chilean author plied his young admirer with whisky while playing Mexican heavy metal at full volume as a way of gaining tactical advantage.
There followed a delightful reading by the poets Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson, their lines bouncing off the walls with a playful (and sometimes darker) exchange of ironies.
The Fiesta was made by its participants, especially our Argentinian guests, and the fine writers who made the afternoon come alive: Des Barry, Zoe Skoulding, Tristan Hughes and the superb Philip Gross.
In the end it all went swimmingly, although afterwards I wondered – rather like a medieval adventurer returning from the Forest of Enchantments – whether it had all been a mysterious dream. But that was probably just the lack of sleep.