Ryzsard Kapuściński was a Polish writer who spent most of his working life as a roving foreign correspondent for the Polish state news agency (PAP) during the Communist era, but his own writings, in the form of personal journals, mix reportage with a more allegorical and subversive style, resulting in a powerfully idiosyncratic perspective. For long periods he lived in India, China, Latin America and, especially, Africa. He remains a controversial character, as much for his personal life as an adventurer and spy – as an article in the Financial Times explains – as for his abundant literary talents.
I have just finished his wonderful book, Travels with Herodotus, in which Kapuściński summarises a lifetime of travel with Herodotus as his literary companion, employing the Greek historian as both a template and a torch, from which to cast light on the events that he, Kapuściński, is witnessing in the turbulence of the twentieth century. This book has been on my ‘to read’ list for quite a while now, and the long winter evenings have given me time to fully savour it. I read slowly (unfortunately, I know no other way) and scribble in pencil on the pages, and sometimes stop to write something down, usually a digression based on whatever has been jolted into life by a story or idea in the text.
While reading Kapuściński’s book, there were many such pauses.
Consider, for instance, this reflection on the nature of the journey, and I don’t mean the jerr-nee – that all-purpose metaphor that has been foisted on us by wellbeing gurus and life coaches – but the fact of travelling from one place to another:
‘A journey, after all, neither begins in the instant we set out, nor ends when we have reached our doorstep once again. It starts much earlier and is never really over, because the film of memory continues running on inside us long after we have come to a physical standstill. Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.’
The idea of travel as a continuum, as a coherent yet fragmented idea, is one that resonates powerfully with me. The analogy with film is also apposite; we are constantly running over the same movies of our lives, with the effect – or at least this seems to be the case with me – that these are episodes from a life lived by several different selves. It is an idea that I find strangely comforting, and fits in with my understanding of the ‘episodic’ versus the ‘narrative’ as described by Galen Strawson in his essay ‘Against Narrativity.’
At one point in the book, Kapuściński is stuck in the Congo during some long, drawn-out war, unable to leave, and in a dangerous place. He finds refuge with a Dr Ranke, who runs a small hospital. He is obsessed, as was Herodotus, by the way that people define themselves according to the differences they perceive to exist between themselves (or their ‘group’) and others. ‘I know my nearest neighbours, and that is all; they know theirs; and those know others still. In this way we will arrive at the ends of the earth. And who is to gather up all these bits and arrange them? No one. They cannot be arranged.’
And he goes on, wandering around the hospital, where the patients, displaced by the war, having walked about the country for weeks without food, are allocated rooms according to tribal affiliation:
‘Discreetly, I try to infer the differences. I walk around the little hospital, look into the rooms – not a difficult thing to do, because in this hot and humid climate everything is wide open. But the people all seem alike, invariably poor and listless, and only if one listens carefully does one notice that they speak different languages. If one smiles at them, they will respond in kind, but a smile such as theirs will take a long time forming and will remain upon the face for only a moment.’
He ends the book with a reflection on temporal provincialism, a concept I had never given much thought to, at least not in the way that Kapuściński describes it:
‘There were times when journeys into the past appealed to me more than my present-day journeys as correspondent and reporter. I felt this way especially in moments of fatigue with the present. Everything in the present kept repeating itself: politics – always perfidious, unclean games and lies; the life of ordinary man – unrelenting poverty and hopelessness; the division of the world into East and west – eternal duality.’
His conclusion on this other type of provincialism:
‘So there are spatial and temporal provincials. Every globe, every map of the world shows the former how lost and blind they are in their provincialism; similarly, every history – including every page of Herodotus – demonstrates to the latter that the present existed always, that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of presents, that what for us are ancient events were for those who lived them immediate and present reality.’
I particularly like the expression of that last sentiment; that history is merely an uninterrupted progression of present moments; there is really no such things as time: we live in a present that is on a continuum with other presents; there is no beginning and no end, just as there are no dividing lines or cut-off points in the perpetual flow of the present. The past and the future co-exist within the continuum of the present.
This reminds me of Einstein’s letter to the family of his friend Michele Besso, shortly after Besso’s death. He writes: ‘Now he [Michele] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing . . . People like us who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.’
The connection between Kapuściński’s reflections on temporal provincialism and Einstein’s ideas about the physics of time might not be obvious, but it seems fitting that two individuals who between them witnessed much of the devastation of the 20th century should arrive at similar conclusions, if through very different means.
Someone once told me, and it’s not an unreasonable assumption, that children who spend hours poring over maps are destined to become travellers. I remember spending rainy afternoons immersed in an ancient atlas when I was still very young, and in my late teens I pinned a map of South America to my bedroom wall, even though I wouldn’t actually go there until I was nearly fifty. Delayed gratification, perhaps, of a self-preservatory kind.
When I was asked, a few months ago, if I had any ideas for the cover of my new collection of poems, Stowaway: A Levantine Adventure, published this month by Seren, I knew that I wanted a map of the eastern Mediterranean, the area in which the miscreant stowaway of the title ploughs his watery furrow. I wanted an old map, and conducted some online research, eventually finding a series of prints from the Catalan Atlas, which was published in 1375, and attributed to Abraham Cresques, a Jewish map-maker from Mallorca, who, along with his son Jafudà, was responsible for some of the most beautiful maps of the period. In an interesting twist, considering the subject matter of Stowaway, Jafudà became a converso following the persecutions of 1391, and changed his name to Jaume Riba.
After some initial resistance, the publishers eventually accepted my idea of a map, and found a way of adapting the one I had in mind for the cover of the book. And that, I thought, was that.
In July this year, we visited Palma de Mallorca to attend the International Robert Graves Conference, and on the first day, after visiting the Cathedral and the Almudaina Palace in the morning, we ambled through the city with no particular destination in mind. Lunch was a couple of hours away, and there was no hurry. The day was hot, and the lanes overlooking the bay offered shade. I noticed a museum, the Museu Fundación Juan March, and we went in. The place was completely empty. An series of Dalí prints, an exhibition of pessebres (nativity scenes, but expanded into extraordinarily detailed arenas of daily life in a medieval town, with all the craftsmen and merchants and peasants at work, which are called Neapolitan Pessebres). And upstairs, to my delight, a small collection of medieval maps – of the same appearance, I thought, as the one I had found for the cover of Stowaway – but not, however, from the Catalan Atlas of Abraham and Jafudà Cresques: these, I since learned, are held in the Bibliothèque National de France (such as the one in the image above) and the Maritime Museum, close to where I once lived in Barcelona.
In one of these photos I accidentally caught a reflection of Mrs Blanco, standing behind me, mirrored by the glass of a map, in a place we hadn’t intended going, but into which, by that strange reflective symmetry that governs the universe, we had unwittingly wandered.
After reading an article by Javier Cercas in El País, we decide to visit Collioure, just over the border in France. I want to visit the cemetery that hosts the earthly remains of Antonio Machado, who crossed over to France in exile toward the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1939. The small group travelling with the poet had to leave most of their luggage when they abandoned the car in the bottleneck of escaping vehicles during a violent rainstorm at Port Bou. Machado, along with his brother José and their terminally ill mother, were refused food or even water in Cerbères by the French authorities because they could not pay. They made it along the coast as far as Collioure and, after receiving financial help from the Spanish novelist Corpus Barga, they stayed at the hotel Bougnol Quintana, now deserted, but with plaque (see below).
I knew much of the story already, but in Cercas’s account, he is told the following story by two elderly English residents of Collioure: in the days before the poet’s death, Machado and José would never appear in the hotel dining room together, but always separately. Nobody could understand why this was, other than to put it down to some bad blood between the two, brought on by the hardships of exile. Only later was the truth discovered: they only had one suit between them, and took it in turns to come down to eat. Antonio left the hotel only once, to visit the harbour, and sit for a while by the sea. The poet died three weeks after arriving in Collioure, on 22nd February 1939, victim to an undisclosed illness, and an interminable sorrow for his country’s defeat. His mother died three days later. But it was the anecdote of the suit, whether true or apocryphal, and the tearful reaction to it described by Cercas – whom I met once at a dinner and who seemed a genuinely agreeable person – that made me decide to take the forty minute drive across the mountain at Coll de Banyuls, and up the coast to Collioure. However, I was so tired, after yet another insomniac night, that before we even reached the town of Banyuls, I had to pull over, and Mrs Blanco took the wheel.
At Collioure, we left our ancient peppermint Citroën by the railway station; Bruno the dog helpfully watered the tauntingly upright meter as I paid for our parking ticket, and the three of us, led by the impatient hound, walked down into the pretty, touristy town, with its art shops and overpriced boutiques, and soon found both the ex-hotel and the nearby cemetery. It was all attractive and relaxed, in that comfortable, provincial, southern French way, but the reason for our visit added a tinge of melancholy to the evening. Afterwards we went and sat outside a café by the harbour and had an apéro, because the waiter said they didn’t serve coffee at that hour, which struck me as a bit strange, but then remembered this was France. It’s easy to forget, when you live near the border, how customs vary.
I read a lot of Machado when I came to live in Spain, and during the 90s he became, and remains, one of my favourite poets. He was the first Spanish poet I attempted to translate, fifteen years ago. His language is extraordinarily ‘rooted’ in Spanish, in a way that is hard to describe. He doesn’t translate comfortably, which is why a better introduction to the non-Spanish reader might be via Don Paterson’s ‘versions’ of Machado, The Eyes (1999). This, however, was my first effort at one of his poems, before abandoning the idea of translating him:
I have walked down many roads
and cleared many paths.
I have sailed a hundred seas
made fast to a hundred shores.
Everywhere I’ve seen
caravans of sadness,
proud people sad people
drunks in black shadow,
and pedants offstage
who watch on, keep silence, think
they know better, because they don’t
drink wine in humble bars.
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
their four palms of earth.
If they arrive somewhere
they never ask where they are.
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 cold water.
Good people who live
and work, get by and dream.
And one day like any other
they go under the ground.
And in the original:
He andado muchos caminos,
he abierto muchas veredas;
he navegado en cien mares,
y atracado en cien riberas.
En todas partes he visto
caravanas de tristeza,
soberbios y melancólicos
borrachos de sombra negra,
y pedantones al paño
que miran, callan, y piensan
que saben, porque no beben
el vino de las tabernas.
Mala gente que camina
y va apestando la tierra…
Y en todas partes he visto
gentes que danzan o juegan,
cuando pueden, y laboran
sus cuatro palmos de tierra.
Nunca, si llegan a un sitio,
preguntan a dónde llegan.
Cuando caminan, cabalgan
a lomos de mula vieja,
y no conocen la prisa
ni aun en los días de fiesta.
Donde hay vino, beben vino;
donde no hay vino, agua fresca.
Son buenas gentes que viven,
laboran, pasan y sueñan,
y en un día como tantos,
descansan bajo la tierra.
(from Soledades, 1903).
A couple of weekends ago we had the opportunity to visit the Anselm Kiefer retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Quite apart from its power, scope and integrity – and in spite of its overwhelmingly dark subject matter – the exhibition filled me a similarly paradoxical and devastating faith in humanity that can be glimpsed in the work of Kiefer’s compatriot, W.G. Sebald. Kiefer, incidentally, was born one year after Sebald, on 8 March 1945, at the time of the massive allied air raids on his native Germany documented by Sebald in The Rings of Saturn and elsewhere. Much of Kiefer’s work reflects openly on the legacy of Nazism, a tendency that brought him intense criticism from German critics at the start of his career. As he himself has written:
‘After the ‘misfortune’, as we all name it so euphemistically now, people thought that in 1945 we were starting all over again . . . it’s nonsense. The past was put under taboo, and to dig it up again generates resistance and disgust.’
His undaunted gaze on the past of Germany – and Europe at large – struck me as overwhelmingly pertinent now, as Europe faces a humanitarian crisis in the shape of millions of refugees, and the German and European Right flexes in indignation, while in the United States Donald Trump begins to stir up the same kind of populist xenophobia that made the whole experiment of the Third Reich possible. However, Kiefer does considerably more than reflect on historical contingencies, and his oeuvre, massive in range as well as intellectual breadth, explores the idea of a collective mythology – not only the specifically Germanic, Romantic imagination with which much of his work is imbued – but the entire project of the human condition, and of how to live humanely under inhumane conditions, if that is at all possible.
I would need several months to reflect in depth on the emotions generated by this extraordinary exhibition. It is the third time I have visited a major Kiefer show, but the Pompidou have excelled themselves in the attention to detail and the fantastic range of work exhibited. Unfortunately, the exhibition only runs until 16 April, but if you have any chance at all of getting there, it is very much worth it.
I have chosen to consider reproductions from two of the most powerful paintings in the exhibition, titled Margarethe and Sulamith, a thematic that Kiefer has explored exhaustively following Paul Celan’s famous poem ‘Todesfuge’ (Death Fugue), concluding with the famous lines that reflect on the murder by immolation of the Jewish girl Sulamith (Shulamite in The Song of Songs) and contrasted with the golden-haired Aryan Margarethe, whose hair, represented in the painting by straw, according to Sue Hubbard in The Independent ‘symbolises the German love of land, and the nobility of the German soul, allowing Kiefer to play with complex notions of racial purity.’
According to Rebecca Taylor, ‘all of the canonical elements of Kiefer’s work’ are present in the painting Sulamith (or Shulamite): we find ‘a thick impasto resulting from a hardened mixture of oil, acrylic, emulsion, and shellac; a brittle, textured surface infused with commonplace materials (in this case, straw and ash); mythological or biblical references . . . and a historical subject or location (a Nazi Memorial Hall in Berlin).
‘ . . . Kiefer’s hall is not a memorial to great men with patriotic flags waving boldly, but a gateway to damnation, a dark and foreboding road to hell, enclosed by low arches and paved with massive stones —the whole mise-en-scène . . . suggestive of an oven (immediately bringing to mind the hyperactivity of the crematoria at the Nazi death camps).’
Kiefer has stated that he would have liked to have been a poet – though it seems strange to me that an artist whose work is so imbued with its own poetry would consider language to be somehow a ‘higher’ attainment than that which he has achieved through his extraordinary visual creations. But it seems only appropriate to close with Christopher Middleton’s marvellous translation of Paul Celan’s poem ‘Todesfuge’, which inspired Kiefer in these paintings.
Fugue of Death
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he
whistles his dogs up
he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in
he commands us strike up for the dance
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at nightfall
drink you and drink you
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the
sky it is
ample to lie there
He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others
you sing and you play
he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue are
stab deeper your spades you there and you others play on
for the dancing
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall
we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at
drink you and drink you
a man in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents
He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a
master from Germany
he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you
shall climb to the sky
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie there
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death comes as a master from Germany
we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you and drink you
a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are blue
with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit you
a man in the house your golden hair Margarete
he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a grave
he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a
master from Germany
your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith.
Translated by Christopher Middleton
A couple of months ago, walking the dog on a hill track beyond the cemetery, I nearly walked into a quite hideous nest-like construction, hanging from a pine tree at head level, looking like something from a science fiction film, where a very dark secret is about to be unleashed. Or, less dramatically, like dirty white candy floss. I had no idea what it was.
Last week, on exactly the same stretch of path I nearly trod on a procession of caterpillars, which seemed to follow one another along, the head of one – as far as it is able to discriminate with caterpillars – touching the rear of the the other, in a long chain. Since the caterpillar line was directly beneath where the nest had been, I googled ‘caterpillar chain’ and discovered that I had been witness to an appearance by the pine processionary moth, or Thaumetopoea pityocampa.
Apparently the moth lays its eggs in summer, high in a pine tree; the young caterpillars make their nest for the winter – which I witnessed when it had grown to a considerable size in January. As the weather gets warmer they descend to ground level and form processional chains in order to find a place in the soil to pupate.
I looked out for the caterpillars on my way back along the path half an hour later, but they had gone to ground.
The image of these creatures following one another, as if being led blindly by a single caterpillar who seemed to know the way put me in mind of the story of the blind men of Bram.
Bram is a small commune in the Rousillon, not far from Carcassonne. At the time of the Catholic French crusades against the Cathar heretics, Bram was a Cathar stronghold. It fell to the crusade of Simon de Montfort in 1210. The crusaders saved 100 men from the general slaughter, cropped their noses, cut off their lips, and gouged out their eyes. They left one man with one eye intact, to guide the others. The procession of the blind men of Bram roamed the countryside as far as the fortress at Lastours, apparently as a demonstration of the Crusading army’s Christian clemency.
There was a time when a beach was simply a beach. You took your clothes off, and if you were so inclined donned a bathing costume (or swimming suit) and splashed around in the sea. Upon exiting the waters, you might want to dry off – always bearing in mind the well-advertised health hazards – by basking in the sun. Even fifteen years ago that was all there was to it. Not now. Over the past few years, going to our nearest beach has turned into an educational and communicative experience in which we are alerted to:
- a map of all the beaches in the Llança municipality, and how to find them;
- a map of Grifeu beach, with accompanying symbology of all the activities encouraged, facilitated or prohibited thereon;
- the history of the beach, and fishing methods carried out historically in the zone;
- the etymology of its name: this is disappointing. Grifeu, we learn, is an old Catalan surname, but doesn’t tell us what the surname means. I want it to mean ‘Griffin’ but have found no evidence that it might.
- swimming routes encouraged by the municipal authorities, including an evening group swim at 7 pm each day following the buoys along the coast to Llança harbour, the so-called vies braves, or ‘brave routes’, not for the faint-hearted;
- a description of the tamariu (tamarix) tree that lies in the middle of the beach and under which cool shade may be sought; also informing us that the tamarix (or tamarisk) was the favourite tree of the Greek god Apollo;
- a monument to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008), and a sample of his verse concerning the beach itself, in recognition of the fact that the poet used to come here. (I once read alongside Palau i Fabre, already in his 90th year, at a local poetry festival, and was struck by his noble visage and penetrating gaze).
But does one need all of this on a visit to the beach? Information overload afflicts us everywhere we go, and quite frankly I don’t need it at the seaside. All this labelling, signalling, categorisation and the all-embracing bureaucratisation of everything, even so-called ‘leisure time’. Even poetry. Fortunately, however, one can just turn one’s back on it all and swim out to those buoys. At least out at sea there are fewer distractions.
Continuing my readings of Alastair Reid, while travelling in Chile, I find the following: “The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness; and since reality is shifting and changing, our fictions must constantly be revised.”
‘Fictions’ here has the broadest meaning possible, and should not be confined to those things that are written down and sold in the Fiction Section. Fictions, following Borges, are anything – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality. A piece of theatre, for example.
Arriving in Santiago from the south of Chile yesterday evening, I was invited by friends to attend a performance of Exhibit B, showing as part of the Santiago a Mil theatre festival. Exhibit B is a theatre installation that replicates the grotesque phenomenon of the human zoo during the 19th Century, in which Africans were put on display like circus freaks “for the titillation of European and American audiences under the guise of ‘ethnological enlightenment.’” The show created something of an outrage when performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year. There were complaints that the actors were being to subjected to a similar form of exploitation as the people whose lives they were reproducing, and its run at the Barbican in London was cancelled, on the grounds – according to the sociologist and activist Kehinde Andrews, writing in The Guardian – “that it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it stands as a commentary on.”
Holding the performance in the baroque and excessive setting of the nineteenth century Cousiño Palace in central Santiago was a stroke of genius. The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned coal and silver mines, as well as the Cousiño-Macul Vineyards. The nouveau riche glitz of the palace set off by classical music, provided a sinister but peculiarly fitting locale.
The experience of Exhibit B was painful, as I expected it to be, and my emotions as I walked slowly round the exhibits were complex, and included a degree of shame in experiencing discomfort of any kind, given the extremes of discomfort, abuse and torture suffered by the subjects whose pained existences were being recreated by the actors. I was confused, as I was doubtless meant to be: should I make eye contact with the exhibits, for instance? Would I not be replicating the white man’s gaze that the performance so vehemently questions? The actors weren’t avoiding my gaze, that was for sure, and even on occasion followed my passage across the space in front of them, especially the replica of the man adopted by some Austrian prince in the 18th century who, when he died, had been skinned and stuffed (and blanched) and put out on display for visitors to admire.
My confusion – and the residual sense of shame which I had no power to resist – was exacerbated by a string of questions to which I had no answers. I think the most powerful message to come from this important work is that the objectification and exploitation of society’s others – and our continuing projection of otherness onto immigrants and asylum seekers – continues and will continue. We cannot change the past, but we can at least help shape the future. That is why I cannot support the position taken by the protesters who forced the closure of the Barbican show. A discussion between one of the black performers, Stella Odunlami, and Kehane Andrews (who was active in getting the show shut down, despite never having seen it) provides valuable arguments on both sides. Essentially though, I feel that censorship cannot be justified simply because a work of art chooses a difficult subject and questions reality in a way that some might find offensive.
By the criteria presented at the start of this post, that the fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it, and that the ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness, I can only say that in the case of Exhibit B, its effectiveness was not in doubt. It was both effective and a deeply moving testament to human cruelty and human suffering. As the performer Stella Odunlami writes in response to Kehane Andrews : “my fellow performers and I chose to be part of a production that exposed racism then and now. We have had to defend our decision to exercise our freedom of creativity to those who call us puppets. It is not your job to decide what is or isn’t good for me; I am capable of doing so for myself.” Brett Bailey’s own defence of the work can be found here.
At the very end, when we were standing around in the courtyard about to leave, I caught sight of the actors smoking and chatting by the side entrance of the palace. I was relieved that the company included the taxidermically conserved dead man whose gaze I had failed to meet. It was as if, with the actors out of role, no longer being the people they represented in fiction, their humanity had been restored to them, and with theirs, my own.
Saturday evening in Mompox. I bump into our driver, William, and he invites me to come for a bite to eat with some members of his family. We sit out in the Plaza next to the church of Santo Domingo. William’s brother-in-law, Carlos, finds it extremely amusing that the family is seated around a table with a foreigner, and occasionally leans over in an attempt to speak a word or two of pidgin English. I have no idea why he does this. I speak perfectly good Spanish. But there is a certain type of individual who finds foreigners inherently funny (perhaps to deflect from the fact that he finds them threatening) and it comes as no surprise to discover he is a member of the Colombian police. A rather junior member, I would hope, but you can never tell.
We eat several plates of meat and potatoes – a variety of potato with a thick fibrous taste, which William tells me is called papa yucca. It is accompanied by Aguila light, a practically alcohol-free beer. Although Colombians like to drink, like the Russians they do not really consider beer to be a form of alcohol. The favourite tipple of Carlos and William – indeed of Colombians in general – is aguardiente, an aniseed based firewater. When, after supper, we retire to the discoteca – a forlorn establishment, in which couples of a certain age dance in each other’s arms – William and Carlos put away a bottle of aguardiente between them within an hour. At the end of the evening William refuses to let me walk home – although we are only three blocks from my hotel – and we hail a mototaxi – basically a motorbike with a small bench for two passengers attached, and six of us pile on. This is quite illegal, but we have the police with us, so I guess it’s all right.
When we get to my hotel Carlos leaps out and hammers on the thick wooden door with the iron knocker, invoking all the authority of the law. William has invited me to lunch with the extended family (and parents-in-law) after mass the next day. I say I would be happy to come but will skip mass. Whether for this reason or another (Carlos’ suspicions that I may be an intellectual and therefore probably a leftist – or the fact that while in Cartagena I was staying in the comparatively disreputable barrio of Getsemaní rather than the historic centre) I do not know, but William doesn’t come to pick me up at the arranged time (I later find out he had to make an unscheduled chauffering trip to Cartagena at midday). It would have been nice, but I think I garnered enough of the conservative, Catholic agenda to have predicted the course of the lunchtime conversation.
First and foremost on this agenda is an unshakeable faith: churches in Colombia are packed and religious paraphernalia everywhere. William crosses himself every time he passes a church, and at random other moments while driving his truck. Secondly, and not surprisingly given the country’s recent past, a deep hostility to both drugs and drug users. In a certain sense, the drug trade and all who sail in it are seen by the Catholic right as responsible for the multiple woes that Colombia has suffered. The following evening, sitting in the park, I am approached by a young dreadlocked type who taps me for a few coins. I give him a few pesos – the equivalent, literally, of around 20 p – and he goes off happy. Two drunks sitting nearby, sharing a bottle of aguardiente tell me off, explaining that the boy will spend it on la droga. This incenses them. They wave the bottle around in their rage at the very thought, and they are clearly oblivious to any inconsistency between their attitude to drugs and their own benighted state. But it has always been this way: the ‘legal’ drug of the Christian West somehow fuels people with moral indignation about other intoxicating substances. With Islam it’s the other way round.
On Sunday I try to arrange a boat trip up the Magdalena. The banks are thick with wildlife – especially birds. I know very little about birds, but it seems a shame to be on the river and not take the opportunity to explore a little. A young entrepreneur, Lazaro, offers to find a boat for me. Unfortunately he doesn’t have a mobile phone, and has to borrow mine to speak to his contacts. This seems like a poor start, but I give him the benefit of the doubt. He tells me to meet him at 3 pm in the Plaza de la Concepión. He finds me having lunch at the nearby Comedor Costeño and waits for me to finish. He borrows my phone to speak to his contact again, and the price I was promised this morning – 25,000 for three hours on the river – has gone up to 35,000 – he hands me the phone to speak to the boat owner just to prove he is not making it up. We stop a mototaxi and set off for the outskirts of town, downriver. When we get there, there is no boat. Lazaro, a little frantic now, borrows my mobile again. He furrows his brow. I can tell this is not going to be good news. The boat trip is off: the other two passengers that were lined up have postponed until tomorrow. I have a friend, begins Lazaro, with a boat, good price . . .
I have given up, lost all interest, but we have to return to town anyway, so off we go in the same mototaxi. When we get to the Plaza San Francisco, Lazaro strides to the bank and yells across the river to a single farm building on the other side. Miraculously, a couple of minutes later I see a man come to the shore. He is accompanied by a man in a red shirt and a young girl of around ten. After considerable discussion between the two men, they unrope the launch – little more than a canoe with a small outboard attached, and cross the river. We fix a price, a quarter of which goes to Lazaro, who then departs, happy. I am not sorry to seem him go.
Pedro, the boat owner, introduces himself. He is courteous and sober. His companion, Edgar, seems exceedingly dim, until I realise that his exaggeratedly slow speech and movements are due to the fact that he is completely off his face. The girl sits on the prow at first, but is deposited on the far bank before we set off, first down river, then upriver. Pedro is fairly astute and good at pointing out animals and birds. Edgar is completely vacant, occasionally turning to me and asking if I speak Spanish, and when I reply in the affirmative saying no more but simply nodding to himself sadly. He even ventures to ask me where I am from, and when I tell him he clearly has no idea what on earth Wales is, and I can’t be bothered with an explanation – so he again nods to himself sadly, perched precariously on the edge of the launch, a position he maintain majestically throughout the trip. There are no further attempts at conversation, except when Pedro calls out the name of an animal or bird and Edgar waves his arms frantically in the requisite direction, of which the only effect is to scare the creatures away. The biggest thrill comes with the iguanas, which I cannot see at first – they are so well disguised – and Edgar rouses himself from his moribund state to gesture frantically at the river bank. Unfortunately there is a lot of riverbank, and by the time I have got the iguana in focus, it moves. Same thing happens the second time. Fortunately I am luckier the third time.
That evening, my last in Mompox, I wander around the town. I can pick up something of the mystery of the place, especially along the old riverside buildings, which once served as warehouses and workshops. Some of them look as though they are being turned into bars, but haven’t quite opened. My unhelpful guidebook tells me the ‘zona rosa’ is a pleasant place to take a nightcap, but I can neither agree not disagree, because it doesn’t seem to exist. However I have a flavour, I think, both of what Mompox once was, and what it might become if tourism gets a firmer toehold. Certainly there were properties for sale that could well appeal to a certain kind of nostalgic and world-weary European or North American with an urge to sink into timeless reverie on the banks of the Magdalena.
On my second evening in Cartagena I take a stroll around the old walled city, which despite its colonial style and nostalgic elegance is sadly heading in the same direction as every other tourist destination in the developing world. The old triangular square that contained the slave market for over 200 years is now used by the descendants of those slaves working in the sex trade (female, as far as I could determine but, I have been informed, you can never be sure until the moment of truth). They congregate in little groups and totter around on heels, checking mobile phones sheathed in brightly coloured holders.
But even watching the rituals of the night unfold can be exhausting in this heat, so I head back to my small hotel in Getsemaní, just outside the old walls.
I arrived the day before yesterday and had been in Cartagena for three hours and been through as many changes of shirt. The air was like hot soup, and, once settled in my room, with the air-conditioning finally working, I foolishly left my haven to wade through the soup on a shopping mission. I went to one of the many stalls selling phones and electrical accessories in Getsemaní market to buy batteries. The girl serving me broke into a smile, told me to wait, and went to the back of the shop, returning with half a dozen tissues, gesticulating towards my face. I thanked her nervously. I remember that I was once referred to as a ‘sweaty Welshman’, but that was a scurrilous euphemism and I do not think I perspire more freely than most. But this heat is something else.
And air-conditioning, for all its ecological hazards, is a blessing. Last night I stayed up writing and at 2.30 a.m. stepped out onto the veranda running past my room to be wrapped at once in sweetly florid heat. The flowers and creeping plants had taken over the air, and the streets outside were silent apart from the barking of an insomniac dog.
This is the Caribbean, and there is a more laid-back and open attitude among the locals than one generally finds among the rather dour highlanders in Bogotá. People are immediately welcoming, and this is done in such an entirely guileless way that early suspicions are soon erased. A young man wants to show me where to get a charger for my camera: he leads me down an alley, across a park, into a shopping mall, introduces me to the shopkeeper and then leaves, shaking my hand and wishing me well.
On my first evening, strolling in the old town, I had noticed a strange little window in the side of an old palace. An inscription plate informed me it was at this spot that informers could report the misdeeds of their neighbours to the inquisitors, for this was the Palace of the Inquisition. So, any grudge against the person next door, I imagine – or if one’s cow stops giving milk, for instance – might be twisted into an accusation of witchcraft. The next day I visit the museum that now occupies the Palace. It is a chamber of horrors, peculiarly filtered through rhetoric which claims that the Inquisitors were nicer to people here than they were elsewhere, and that although their methods were not always pleasant, their ultimate intention was a good one: to help heretics make peace with god before meeting with him in person. My guide book tells me that over 800 were executed by the Inquisition between 1776 and 1821. The museum information mitigates this by saying that ‘only five’ heretics were burnt to death and the ‘the Inquisition did not oppress the Indigenous population.’
The commonest accusations were concerned with heresy and specifically, witchcraft. A list of the 33 questions routinely asked in the interrogation of suspect witches hangs on the wall of the museum. Examples include: ‘What animals have you killed or put under a curse and why have you done it? ‘On which children have you cast the spell of the evil eye, and why have you done it?’ ‘Why does the devil strike you blows at night?’ ‘How do you fly through the air at night?’ I am not a lawyer, but I believe that these might be termed leading questions.
Some of the instruments of torture used to extract confessions are also on display. They include the two devices shown below. The first, called in Spanish the Fork of Heresy, prohibited all movement of the head but offered the victim the chance to murmur his or her confession; the second, an invention horribly called the ‘Breast Piercer’, was used on women ‘who had committed heresy, blasphemy, adultery, or other libidinous acts such as provoking abortions, practising erotic magic and other crimes.’
As though to cleanse myself of these horrors, I wander down to the Convent of the good priest San Pedro Claver. For almost forty years, this Jesuit from the Catalan village of Verdú, a contemporary of Shakespeare and Cervantes, worked in Cartagena, apparently defending, protecting and nursing newly arrived African slaves in the city. His munificence was legendary, at a time when black people were regarded as little more than beasts of burden by their dealers and owners. Here he is, the great white guardian, a placebo against all the terrors and ignominies of slavery:
The museum that honours him in the old convent reconstructs his modest cell, his living quarters, and houses an exhibition of the most terrible paintings imaginable – so terrible they are fascinating – celebrating his good deeds among the slave population – who are here depicted as almost imbecilic caricatures:
But at least there is a way out. On a wall, apparently unrelated to anything around it, I find the sign ‘Portal de las Animas’: Portal of Souls. Now, where’s the damn switch . . .
Yesterday, intending to do my civic duties and pay my annual dues (known as the Xaloc) at the village ajuntament, I plodded up the hill, Thursday being one of the two days on which the village hall opens its office to deal with citizens and their affairs. Once inside the ajuntament complex, I notice that on the door of the office itself, a scrap of paper is pinned to the woodwork, declaring that during the months of July and August, office hours will take place on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings instead of Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. Fair enough.
So today I take myself up the hill, and once again the office is closed. A friendly face at the village shop tells me that today is the assumption of the most Holy Virgin, the day on which the Virgin Mary was allegedly scooped up to heaven. For this reason the whole country must stop in its tracks. However, as a regular visitor to Spain and other Latin countries, I am used to this, and do not so much as flinch a northern European muscle.
Digression: Xaloc, the name of the tax, sounds like a Mexican god, but is in fact, I recall, the Catalan name of one of the sea winds (it comes from the Arabic word shaluq, meaning south-east). A Catalan fisherman’s saying goes: Vent de Xaloc, mar molta i peix poc / Xaloc wind: big sea and few fish. Is this how the term came to be adopted to refer to a form of taxation?
My adventure in trying to pay my civic dues could be represented as a flow chart, or else in bullet points, as follows:
i. Ajuntament office hours are on Mondays 10-12 and Thursdays 16-18.30,
ii. in July and August, when they will take place between 14.30-16.30 on Mondays and 10-12.30 on Fridays,
iii. on Fiesta days during those months, when they will be cancelled altogether.
These are the kinds of qualifications that would send Angela Merkel and any self-respecting northern European Eurocrat into palpitations. It is exactly this kind of thing, don’t you know, which causes these idle Mediterranean countries to crash their economies. No sense of civic duty, no sense of Hard Graft.
On my way down through the village, I see something on the wall that I have never before noticed (and I have been coming to this village, on and off, since 1988). Now, the changing of place names is a well known phenomenon in all countries with an historical tendency to regime change: we once spent an afternoon in La Línea de la Concepción trying to track down my mother-in-law’s birthplace, before realising that the street names had undergone at least two revisions since 1926. Here is what I saw:
What would the Generalisimo have made of it all? Well, the answer is clear: it was with the dictatorship that my little tale begins. Franco was directly responsible for both maintaining a crippling adherence to Catholic dogma and a ludicrously top-heavy bureaucracy that Spain has been struggling to free itself from over the past 40 years. And the more feast days, clearly, the more devout your subjects.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Last night, in the city of Puebla – the setting for the first battle of the the 1910 Revolution – I stopped off at a street corner kiosk and recognised, among the picture postcards, a famous image that had caught my attention on a visit to the same restaurant in which the photograph was taken, in Mexico City.
The gentlemen are Mexican revolutionary soldiers, snapped having breakfast in the exclusive Sanborns coffee house, Mexico City, apparently on the 12th of May, 1914, when Zapata brought his army to town for a meeting with Pancho Villa, who had been leading the revolution in the north of the country. A google search identifies them as the Generals Feliciano Polanco Araujo y Teodoro Rodriguez, and they are enjoying hot chocolate. I had not imagined for one second that they might be officers of such elevated rank, but appearances can indeed be deceptive. Their inscrutable expressions hypnotize the onlooker, at a distance of one hundred years, but how must they have appeared to the waitresses serving them, accustomed as they were to a rather more sophisticated, urban clientele? The waitress in the foreground seems to be keeping her distance, and wears a stony expression, perhaps evincing curiosity as well as understandable fear. The rabble of soldiers around and behind the generals in the top picture seem to be enjoying themselves just a little: perhaps the ceremony of the photograph amuses them.
It is not known who built and occupied Teotihuacán (pronounced tay-oh-tee-wah-kahn): the Totonac, Otomi or Nahua peoples have all been put forward. The site was established before 100 B.C and building of the vast pyramids continued until around 250 A.D. The city reached its zenith over the next three centuries, with a population in excess of 125,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time. It was sacked and burned in the middle of the 6th century and was abandoned by 700 A.D. The fortunes and whereabouts of the people who built and occupied this city vanish alongside numerous Mesoamerican cultures with the rise of the Azteca-Mexica people, but we know that evidence of Teotihuacano influence can be seen at sites in the Veracruz area. And it was here, in 1519, that Hernán Cortés made his first inroads towards the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexcio City), a city which he effectively destroyed two years later.
The site at Teotihuacán covers a huge area, of which only about a quarter has been excavated. The principle monuments, the Temples of the Sun and Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, are joined by the Avenue of the Dead. The configuration of these building has been subject to intense speculation, ranging from the more scientific to New Age Bonkers (while I was at the top of the Temple of the Sun a European-looking woman, dressed in flowing gowns, opened her arms to the sun and started chanting some gobbledygook which she obviously believed was connecting her to something or other). In the 1970s heyday of New Age enthusiasts, a survey was carried out by Hugh Harleston Junior, who found that the main structures lined up along the Avenue of the Dead formed a precise scale model of the solar system, including Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (not discovered until 1787, 1846 and 1930 respectively). There is plenty more of this kind of stuff around, and every Spring Equinox morning thousands of people climb the Temple of the Sun with arms outstretched facing the sun on the eastern horizon. According to the Wikipedia article on this phenomenon:
Some New Age sources claim that at the point of the equinox, man is at a unique place in the cosmos, when portals of energy open. Climbing the 360 stairs to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun is claimed to allow participants to be closer to this “energy”.
Although recent research suggests that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic state, we do know that the Totonac people, who may have lived there, later bore a mighty grudge against their conquerors, the Aztecs, who regularly took tribute from them of slaves, many if not all of whom would be sacrificed. But the people who lived in Teotihuacán certainly practised human sacrifice also. I don’t know how far the New Agers go along with that kind of thing, but who knows, perhaps they secretly want to be sacrificed.
As part of my background reading into Mexican history I am currently immersed in the 19th century Hispanist William F. Prescott’s fascinating account The Conquest of Mexico (published in 1843). I know there are more up-to-date and scientific studies of the period, but none are as entertaining (and Prescott’s study can be downloaded onto a Kindle for only 99 pence). It is written in a style that wavers between the deferential and the ornate, which was no doubt intended to convey the maximum sense of verisimilitude, but which to a modern reader– and possibly, who knows, to the Victorians also – seems almost to verge into parody. Here is Prescott on Cortés’ arbitrary method of convincing the Totonacs that their religious and dietary preferences (i.e. worshipping wooden idols and eating people) were wrong, and they would be much better off serving the True Cross):
‘Fifty soldiers, at a signal from [Cortés], sprang up the great stairway of the temple [at Cempoala], entered the building on the summit, the walls of which were black with human gore, tore down the huge wooden symbols from their foundations, and dragged then to the edge of the terrace. Their fantastic forms and features, conveying a symbolic meaning, which was lost on the Spaniards, seemed in their eyes only the hideous lineaments of Satan. With great alacrity they rolled the colossal monsters down the steps of the pyramid, amidst the triumphant shouts of their own companions, and the groans and lamentations of the natives. They then consummated the whole by burning them in the presence of the assembled multitude.
The Totonacs, finding their deities incapable of preventing or even punishing this profanation of their shrines, conceived a mean opinion of their power, compared with that of the mysterious and formidable strangers. The floor and walls of the teocalli were then cleansed, by command of Cortés, from their foul impurities; a fresh coating of stucco was laid on them by Indian masons; and an altar was raised, surmounted by a lofty cross, and hung with garlands of roses. A procession was next formed, in which some of the principal Totonac priests, exchanging their dark mantles for robes of white, carried lighted candles in their hands; while an image of the Virgin, half smothered under the weight of flowers, was borne aloft, and, as the procession climbed the steps of the temple, was deposited above the altar. Mass was performed by Father Olmedo, and the impressive character of the ceremony and the passionate eloquence of the good priest touched the feelings of the motley audience, until Indians as well as Spaniards, if we may trust the chronicler, were melted into tears and audible sobs.’
This sprightly conversion was guided, in part at least, by the Totonac cacique’s knowledge that only with the support of the Spaniards could he gain revenge on his real enemy, the Aztec.
Back in Teotihuacán, I complete my ascent of both the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun (exhausting and at times perilous) and make my way along the Avenue of the Dead, to the visit the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (ket-sal-kwaht-uhl) – the plumed serpent deity – which is far smaller, but equally impressive in its way. Its façade is adorned with huge sculptures of a plumed serpent and of the rain god Tlaloc. A series of tunnels were found beneath the structure in 2010. They are thought to house the remains of the ruling elite.
Nearby is the site of several mass graves, discovered in the 1980s. The remains of around 200 people who had been sacrificed were found, the victims’ hands tied behind their back (perhaps dispelling the notion that some Mesoamerican sacrifice victims were volunteers). Whichever version is true (and we know that sacrificial victims were most commonly captured enemies), we return again to the cult of death, which I have remarked upon in previous posts during this trip, and to which I will return.