Reading over the third set of entries, from May, the events described already appear distant, dreamlike, as though they happened in an adjacent or parallel world. Did Trump really suggest we inject ourselves with detergent? It seems like the kind of thing that would happen in only the most abject of dreams, but then again, much of what has happened these past few months would have been unthinkable last New Year’s Eve. I don’t know whether I will continue my journal. Like everyone else I’m pretty sick of the whole damn thing now. And whether we ‘return to normality’ in any recognisable way is another question engaging media pundits. I offer only the merest commentary on that.
The pandemic in the USA takes a dive to new depths of absurdity when Donald Trump, the World’s Most Important Human, recommends injecting detergent as a cure for COVID-19. We are all aghast at the stupendous ignorance of this claim. Here in the UK, George Monbiot’s tweet summed it up: ‘Two million years of hominid evolution, and it comes to this.’ Trump continues to blame China for the virus, whether it came from their nasty chiroptophagia, or else the nasty people in the famed research facility in Wuhan. ‘Nasty’ — a word infrequently used by English speakers above the age of eight —remains the President’s favourite descriptor for anything he does not like.
Whatever its source of COVID-19, the market in Wuhan does sound like a grim place, reminiscent of the public market in Las Animas bay, in Love in the Time of Cholera, where ‘. . . the offal from the adjoining slaughterhouse was . . . thrown away there — severed heads, rotting viscera, animal refuse that floated, in sunshine and starshine, in a swamp of blood.’
But China-hating and the bullying of Sino-American journalists won’t get Trump through this disaster, however hard he tries to shift the blame. The laggardly way in which the US government, and its counterpart in the UK, came to respond to the pandemic will no doubt be exposed to scrutiny, although I do wonder whether those responsible will ever be held to account. Despite plenty of warning, the UK government, under its floundering buffoon of a Prime Minister, refused to take the advice of the WHO, and put business invests before people’s lives.
Yesterday, in Parliament, the new leader of the Labour opposition, Keir Starmer, questioned the Prime Minister’s claim that ‘many people were looking at the “apparent success” of the Government’s approach only to learn that, tragically, at least 29,427* people in the UK have now lost their lives to this dreadful virus. That is now the highest death toll in Europe and the second highest in the world. That is not success, or apparent success, so can the Prime Minister tell us: how on earth did it come to this?’ Johnson replied that it was not straightforward comparing death statistics and added that there will be a time to look at what went wrong. Starmer replied that ‘many people are concluding that the answer to my question is that the UK was slow into lockdown, slow on testing, slow on tracing and slow on the supply of protective equipment.’ Johnson blustered in non-response; he had clearly found the floundering and intellectually challenged Jeremy Corbyn a much easier opponent that Starmer, an internationally acclaimed human rights lawyer. Starmer then asked why has it taken so long to improve the situation in care homes? Johnson responded that there had been a ‘palpable improvement’. But there has been nothing of the kind; and if the number of deaths has fallen, it is because in many care homes most of the residents have died.
A local effect of the COVID Pandemic is that hostilities between the Scottish and Welsh governments on the one side, and the English administration on the other, have become increasingly perilous. It has emerged that the UK has stopped its Foreign & Commonwealth Office and overseas networks from helping Scotland and Wales to access PPE. Even the New York Times reports that Scottish and Welsh officials have raised concerns that the NHS in England is being prioritised for personal protective equipment, though Downing Street denies the accusations.
* This figure continued to mount. On the 20 May it had risen to 35,704; as I post this, it is over 45,000.
Last week Prime Minister Johnson changed the UK Government’s tagline from ‘Stay at home’ to ‘Stay alert’. The problem is that no one knows what that means. Should one be alert while going out to work, or alert while working from home? Who can go to work and who should stay at home? Must everyone be equally alert, or should some be more alert than others? The Welsh and Scottish Governments do not pursue the ‘Stay alert’ policy, telling their citizens to continue to ‘Stay at home’. The Welsh government then announces that English people, however ‘alert’ they might be, are not welcome to come and take their exercise (walking and cycling) in Wales, or to visit beauty spots in Snowdonia and other of our national parks. The Welsh rural police are delighted: this is their dream scenario. They can now go around with impunity telling visitors from Liverpool and Birmingham to ‘bugger off and stay at home’.
Meanwhile, traditional British values are maintained: sales of alcohol rocket and eating disorders flourish. Thousands of people attempt to acquire a dog or other pet; they want company in their solitude during the lockdown. Animal welfare groups are concerned that when the lockdown ends, many of these pets will simply be abandoned. A female transport worker in London dies after being spat at by a man who claimed he had the virus. It is revealed that BAME people are more susceptible to COVID-19 than others, though no one yet knows why.
President Trump, the World’s Most Important Human, announces that he is taking the anti-malarial hydroxychloroquine as a prophylactic against COVID-19. ‘I’m taking it for about a week and a half now and I’m still here, I’m still here,’ was his surprise announcement. There is no evidence hydroxychloroquine can fight coronavirus, and regulators warn the drug may cause heart problems. The Donald doesn’t care. Besides, since he lies about most things as a matter of course, why would anyone believe him now? He might be taking it, but then again, he might not. And who cares anyway? Well, millions of Americans do, because if the President recommends it, many will follow his example. Although The Donald has a small investment in Sanofi, one of the companies that manufactures hydroxcholoquine, it is really very small, and has nothing to do with his promoting the drug.
Back in the UK, Captain Tom Moore, who vowed to walk 100 laps of his garden in order to raise money for National Health Service charities, has been granted a knighthood by the Queen. ‘Captain Tom’, as he is universally known in the UK media, captured the minds and hearts of the British people by his valiant walk around the garden. The occasion of his 100th birthday was marked with an RAF flypast as well as birthday greetings from the Queen and Prime Minister. He has been made an honorary Colonel by the 1st Battalion, The Yorkshire Regiment, in which he served during World War Two, and he has received an estimated 140,000 birthday cards. In all this jollity, you might be forgiven for forgetting that the NHS, ravaged by cuts imposed by successive Conservative governments, should not require charitable donations to keep its doctors and nurses safe and its hospitals in working order. My father dedicated his life to working in an NHS that provided care ‘from the cradle to the grave’ and my daughter is currently following in his footsteps. I am sure Captain Tom is a very fine fellow, but must his story be accompanied by proclamations of gung-ho jingoism, and the lavishing of praise on our National Health Service from a government that has spent the past ten years undermining it?
I am not convinced by the argument put forward at the outbreak of the pandemic that the quality of life might improve afterwards; that our citizens will have been so positively affected by the quiet streets, the clean air, the slow incursion of the natural world into city life, a respect towards others’ personal space and a greater awareness of the benefits of silence — that they will insist on retaining those benefits when the plague has run its course. I am fairly certain that everything will revert to the way it was before, but because of certain restrictions and the necessary intrusion of the state into our private lives during the pandemic — which no doubt will continue, with a repression of certain liberties under the guise that they are no longer safe — things will all be a little bit worse.
Continuing with my journal entries over the first three months of COVID-19, here are two entries for the month of April. During this period the roads around the city were gloriously silent, and many more birds appeared in the garden; indeed, it seemed to me that birdsong was louder than before, though perhaps that was due to the absence of nearby traffic. At this stage we didn’t know quite how bad things were going to get, although it was soon apparent that the UK was overtaking Italy and Spain to become the worst-affect country in Europe, despite having had more time to prepare for the pandemic.
Daughter no. 2 lives in London and works as a fundraiser for several London hospitals, including St Thomas’s, where Boris is laid up. Since just before the lockdown, she has been with us here in Cardiff, working from home, and she receives hundreds of messages every day from companies and individuals wishing to donate to the hospitals administered by her employer. One man wants to donate something specifically to Saint Thomas’s, because that is where Boris is, but my daughter tells him this cannot be done, you can only donate to the NHS Trust of which St Thomas’s is a part. The man doesn’t like her reply. Other companies ring in with offers of gifts, specifically for the Prime Minister. How can they be certain their gift gets to Boris? Can the hospital send a photo of Boris (with nurses) consuming their gift? Can they send a photo of the prostate Boris being spoon-fed their gift?
Daughter no 1, a junior doctor who was at the time of the outbreak working in paediatrics, is re-assigned to a general medical ward at another, bigger hospital, where she will begin to treat COVID patients. But she is given three days off, then another three days off, before she starts. There isn’t enough protective equipment; there aren’t enough masks; there aren’t enough gowns. There aren’t enough tests being carried out, and the tests that exist don’t seem very accurate. The tests show a 30% rate of false negatives, which means patients are being sent back out into the community with the virus. The Welsh government order 5,000 test kits from Roche Diagnostic but they don’t turn up. The Welsh government gets angry, makes accusations. Roche Diagnostics say they never had a contract with the Welsh Government for any test kits. You did; we didn’t; you did; we didn’t. This goes on for a couple of days. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh Independence party, attacks the Welsh government for failing to locate the missing test kits and refusing to say where they are. There is reason to believe that the 5,000 test kits have been appropriated by Public Health England. The Scottish also claims that orders for protective equipment have been waylaid by the English. How we love to stoke the fires of old enmities.
On the 12th of April, Boris is released from hospital and retires to the Prime Minister’s official country residence at Chequers, in Buckinghamshire. He admits that while in intensive care things ‘could have gone either way’ and heaps praise on the staff who looked after him. He singles out two nurses, who stood by his bedside night and day, so he says, and saved his life. One is Jenny, from New Zealand, and the other Luis, from Portugal. I cannot help but wonder whether Luis is looking forward to being kicked out of the UK once we ‘Get Brexit Done’, according to Boris’ wishes.
The metaphors of war and battle are being bandied about as though we were re-living the Blitz of 1940. However, we could do without the military metaphors. This is not a war. A BBC documentary on the virus takes us into a COVID ward in London’s University College Hospital, where the correspondent presents his report unequivocally in terms of war: “This is the frontline in a war,” he begins. “Every day some battles are won and some are lost.” During his hospitalisation reports on the Prime Minister’s illness are riddled with metaphors of conflict: “He is a fighter and will beat this virus.” Together, “we will be able to win this battle”. “You fight for a swift recovery.” “You are a fighter, and you will overcome this challenge.” Visitors to London parks have been branded ‘traitors’, which is the same taunt used against Remainers in the Battle of Brexit.
By heaping up the metaphors of violent struggle and resistance, language creates a template, or a cut-out in the mind for an enemy to step in, and once we have an enemy — in this case, the virus — we tend to link it with particular groups of people or individuals. The Chinese. The incomers. The second home owners. The foreigners. The others. It feeds beautifully into the UK’s obsession with Brexit, and Trump’s current discourse on China. On 14th April Trump announces that he will stop US funding of the World Health Organisation, for the alleged crime of being China-centric. In the UK, COVID-19 and Brexit have something in common: both of them target the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
As the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the world, the Argentine writer Jorge Fondebrider wrote to friends and fellow writers around the world, asking for contributions to a Journal of the Plague Year (in homage to Defoe’s work of that title). Most of the contributors were from Latin America, but others lived in Europe or Asia. Jorge, an old friend, is indefatigable in organising people; all of the pieces were translated into Spanish, and will eventually be published in a single volume. The criteria were simply that the entries be under 500 words, and the resulting work, tracking the pandemic and the ways that different governments responded in diverse countries, makes for fascinating reading. Over the next three days, I will be posting my own contributions to the collection, made over the months of March, April and May as a record of my own experience of living with the pandemic in Wales.
As soon as the news broke that the plague had arrived in Europe, it was obvious it would come to Brexit Island, but our government was in denial. They gabbled on about the globally repudiated tactic of herd immunity. They refused to join forces with their EU counterparts in focus groups dedicated to resisting the pandemic, and they ignored the World Health Organisation recommendations for immediate lockdown. However, none of the efforts of Prime Minister Johnson or his pals to distance themselves from the place they fondly call ‘the continent’ was ever going to stop this thing from crossing the Channel — and with a vengeance, given the head start our leaders had allowed it. The extent of our Prime Minister’s lack of interest during the weeks before the lockdown is shocking: he didn’t turn up at five consecutive key COBRA meetings to discuss policy on the pandemic, and one senior government adviser told The Sunday Times that Boris ‘didn’t work weekends’ and ‘there was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning.’ For Boris, resistance to the plague was merely a hindrance to the more pressing agenda of Brexit. However, it became apparent to many observers that the government’s laggardly approach was likely to have serious repercussions on the British population, such that the UK might turn out to be the European country most affected by the pandemic, and with the highest number of casualties.
On 20th March Boris announces the closure of the pubs. ‘We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub,’ he said. The right-wing, Brexit-loving newspaper The Sun reports this rather differently: ‘Mr Johnson said it went against what he called ‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub’. In this version, as Fintan O’Toole points out in an article in The Guardian, ‘the freedom to go to the pub was conferred by genetics and history, not on the “people of the United Kingdom” or “the British people”, but on “people born in England”. It does not apply to Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish people and certainly not to the 9.4 million people living in the UK who were born abroad. It is a particular Anglo-Saxon privilege.’ So, we — or rather, the English — are not going to the pub. I don’t care. I don’t drink any more. But that is not the point: as O’Toole reminds us, this outburst of Johnson’s was about something else: ‘What Johnson was really evoking was a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity.’ He was flagging up the fact that ‘we’ (the English) are special and different, not like those ‘continentals’. So we will, reluctantly, stay at home and not go to the pub, but we won’t impose a full lockdown just yet. We will wait and see, and Boris will continue to shake hands with whoever he likes because he is Boris, who at the age of five told his sister Rachel that his ambition was to be ‘king of the world.’
As the recipient of another man’s liver, I knew I would be one of those persons deemed ‘at risk’. I take immunosuppressants and therefore, in theory, am more susceptible to catching nasty things. I email my consultant and ask his advice. He tells me to follow government guidelines, and that I will shortly receive a letter with instructions about ‘shielding’, a new term to me, but one that will soon become very familiar.
I live in a house close to Cardiff city centre with my wife and daughter no. 1, who is a junior doctor, and living with us while saving to buy her own place. I am a university professor and walk into work most days, up the river and across the park. A pleasant walk. I am reasonably fit and visit the gym frequently. I walk my dog in the park. We get out at weekends. We live an active life.
When the plague comes to our island I decide not to go into work. I tell my Head of School that I will work from home as from 16th March. Daughter no. 2 visits us from London just before the lockdown is announced. Her employers there tell her she can work from home, and since she is here, she stays with us in Cardiff. We are all four at home then, for a few days. On Sunday 22nd March we drive to the mountains near my natal village and go for a long hike. We do not realise it will be our last excursion of this kind for a long time. On Monday 23rd March the university announces that it will close, and that if anyone wants to retrieve anything from their office they should do so now. I drive in and collect my plants, drive home. In the evening Boris announces to the nation in an evening broadcast that the lockdown has begun. He is in Churchillian mode, trying very hard to do serious and sober. The next day daughter no. 1 leaves home and moves in with a medic friend. She works in a local hospital and doesn’t want to infect me or her mother with the plague.
On the 1st April, as foretold by my consultant, I receive a letter from the Welsh Government telling me that as a person with ‘an existing health issue’ I need to take extra steps to avoid catching the plague. If I live with other people (i.e. my wife or daughter no. 2) I should ‘try to keep away from them as much as you can. Try not to be in the same room. If you have to be in the same room try and keep a window open. Keep three steps away . . . Do not sleep in the same bed if you can avoid it . . . Use different bathrooms if you can. If you share a bathroom, clean it after every use. Avoid using the kitchen at the same time as others and eat your meals in separate rooms. Clean all cups, plates and cutlery thoroughly.’
We are still allowed to exercise, and to take the dog for walks. I take my ancient dog, Bruno, for an early stroll by the River Taff, which divides the city in two. The path along the Taff doubles as a cycle track. As we climb onto it from the river bank, where we have been watching the swans, a cyclist, speeding towards us at thirty metres’ distance yells: ‘Get out the bloody way!’ I am so astonished at his rudeness that I am temporarily lost for words. The cyclist has swished past and is heading for the bridge. All I can see of him are his taut, jigging buttocks and his pumping legs. ‘Fuck off, you lycra-clad Nazi’ I yell, finally enunciating a phrase I have been dying to utter for some years now. Passers-by stop and stare, and follow my gaze upstream towards the cyclist. I am willing him to stop. I want him to return so we can have a proper confrontation. The adrenaline is racing through me. I want to rough him up, show him what’s what. The image of a 63 year old man wrestling with a wiry young sporting type on the sidewalk is not very becoming, I’ll admit, but I am fuming. What has come over me? Plague madness? Fortunately the man doesn’t return in response to my taunt. I shuffle home, pondering what might have been.
Boris comes down with the plague. Hardly surprising, considering the way he’s been ignoring his own advice about social distancing and shaking hands with everyone. Why’s it called social distancing anyway? Why isn’t it called personal distancing? He falls ill, and then, dramatically, gets taken into hospital, and onto an intensive care unit. The nation holds its breath.
‘Once near a border, it is impossible not to be involved, not to want to exorcise or transgress something. Just by being there, the border is an invitation. Come on, it whispers, step across this line. If you dare. To step across the line, in sunshine or under cover of night, is fear and hope rolled into one . . . People die crossing borders, and sometimes just being near them. The lucky ones are reborn on the other side.’
Borders define us and deny us; they carve out entire tracts of the planet, reward those born by chance within certain territories, and condemn others to a condition of otherness and anomie. Crossing borders is, for much of the world’s population, an act of transgression and often involves huge risk.
Borders not only shape lives; they serve a political purpose by promoting a sense of insider and outsider, of belonging and of exile. But perhaps exile itself is a kind of belonging, the forging of an outsider identity that involves, as Kassabova notes, being reborn.
Roberto Bolaño said – rather ungraciously, perhaps – on being invited to speak on the theme of Literature and Exile: ‘I don’t believe in exile, especially not when the word sits next to the word ‘literature’.’ And I can see his point: unless you are Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn or Taslima Nasreen (or even Ovid) few writers are threatening or influential enough to be exiled specifically for what they write, although they may – and in some parts of the world still are – beaten to death or poisoned or imprisoned for long years. A brief scan of PEN International’s register of imprisoned or missing writers will confirm that.
But exile? When and how do writers find themselves in exile? Wole Soyinka has written: ‘When is exile? . . . Where is exile? Is there a state of exile? For surely even an exile must exist in some space physical and mental.’ There is even, he claims, a strong temptation to describe exile as simply a state of mind.
And here it is useful to reflect on the voluntary exile associated with writers such as James Joyce, Lawrence Durrell, Robert Graves and many others, whose self-banishment might be expressed in terms of a kind of disgust born of over-familiarity with aspects of the homeland that make it impossible to remain. Exile of this kind might be explained in the terms chosen by Solinka – by his own admission, whimsically and only half-seriously – as ‘the true temperament of the writer or the artist tribe in general: a creature in a permanent state of exile, since his or her real vocation is the eradication of the barriers of reality.’ In a strange way, this reminds me of Alastair Reid’s concept of the ‘foreigner’ – of which anonymity is a crucial component: ‘Anonymity is peculiarly appealing to a foreigner: he is always trying to live in a nowhere, in the complex of his present’. The anonymity of the foreigner is cognate with the detachment of the exile: ‘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.’
There is little doubt that for Robert Graves, exile from his home in Deía during the period of the Spanish Civil War and World War Two was a far greater wrench than leaving England had ever been. As he writes in the autobiographical short story ‘God Grant Your Honour Many Years’:
Thus we became wretched refugees, and wretched refugees we continued to be for ten years more until the Civil War had been fought to a bloody close, until the World War had broken out and run its long miserable course, and until the Franco Government, disencumbered of its obligations to the Axis, had found it possible to sanction our return. Reader, never become a refugee, if you can possible avoid it, even for the sake of that eventual happy homecoming . . . [stay] where you are, kiss the rod and, if very hungry, eat grass or the bark off trees. To live in furnished rooms and travel about from country to country . . . homesick and disorientated, seeking rest but finding none, is the Devil’s own fate.
But Graves’ exile was, ultimately, a choice. The enforced exile of the refugee, the flight from terror and from war, the fear of armed men appearing in one’s street with intent to harm or murder, is today a plight which, sadly, seems as inevitable as ever it was if you happen to live in Syria, or any one of a dozen other countries. However, I would like to focus on a very different part of the world: a zone that extends from Collioure in France down the coast to Portbou, just inside Spain, and inland a little to the village of Rabós d’Empordà, nestled among the Alberas, where the Pyrenees descend toward the Mediterranean. This roughly triangular zone constitutes a region that the Catalan surrealist painter Joan Ponç referred to portentously as the ‘ground zero of the universe’. The area is sometimes known as ‘Greek Catalunya’ and there is a topographical resemblance to the Greek landscape: sheer rockfaces, isolated headlands, an agriculture based on olives and vines, and from many vantage points a view of the sea.
Rabós is part of a landscape that might serve as a trope for transit; it is surrounded on all sides by markers of the past, most notably dozens of Neolithic dolmens and burial chambers that are scattered over the ridges and hillsides, commanding views of the Bay of Roses to the east, the snow-covered peaks of Mount Canigó to the north-west, and the extensive plain of the Ampurdán, stretching towards Girona in the south. Hannibal passed this way with his elephants – elephant remains have been found nearby and dated to the second century BC – and the serial civil wars of Spain have made the place a crossing point in more recent centuries. Traffic has also come the other way, as we shall see. Travelling north out of Rabós, one can walk to France in an hour and a half; by car you can drive there in twenty minutes. The trail past the 9th Century monastery of Sant Quirze, which only became a covered road in the late 1990s, used to be known, in Catalan, as el camí dels contrabandistes – the smuggler’s trail – and from Sant Quirze it snakes over the Col de Banyuls into France. The place resonates with the echo of night crossings, of rushed departures, of struggle and of loss.
This region was a focal point of movement in and out of Spain at the end of the Civil War and throughout the World War that followed. My account describes the experiences of three individuals, two of them well-known writers, the third an unknown teenage girl who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Antonio Machado has long been one of my favourite poets, and the victim of some of my earliest efforts at translation – a mistake, since Machado is a poet fiendishly resistant to translation, as others have discovered. He left Spain in late January 1939. He had been an active participant in and spokesperson for the Republican cause and exile seemed the only sensible course of action. His elderly mother needed medical care that she was unable to receive in Spain, and Machado, along with mother and brother, José, headed for France; the ultimate destination was Paris.
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 Portbou. They 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 seemingly deserted, but adorned with a plaque that states, simply: ‘Antonio Machado, poète espagnol, est mort dans cette maison le 22 février, 1939.’
Two years ago, after reading an article by Javier Cercas in El País, I drove to Collioure to visit Machado’s grave. I knew much of history already, but in Cercas’ piece, he is given a strange account by two elderly English residents of Collioure, named the Weavers: according to them, Cercas tells us, 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. He died three weeks after arriving in Collioure, victim to an undisclosed illness, probably pneumonia, although in popular legend he died of heartbreak at the fall of the Republic. His mother died three days later.
In the account given by Cercas, the story of Machado’s last suit suggests that there are certain individuals who will not accept a loss of dignity even in the face of the worst of defeats, and that Spain will only have removed the last remaining anguish of its Civil War when, in Cercas’ words, one is able to stand before Machado’s grave without having to restrain one’s tears for his sake, and on that day the war will truly be over.
Fifteen minutes down the coast from Collioure by car, Portbou lies just inside Spanish territory. I first walked this coastline on a baking June afternoon in 1984, arriving dehydrated and exhausted at the crossing, where the border guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the adjacent bar for a beer. That night I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up. But I have always felt an attraction to this ugly, shy little town. Today it exudes a strange, sad energy; a place that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its purpose as a centre for customs control. All that remains of its past glory is its vast and cavernous railway station.
Portbou was the final destination of the German philosopher and polymath, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years’ exile in France and numerous changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers, the photographer Henny Gurland and her son Joseph, was guided across the Alberas from Banyuls and arrived in Portbou. Benjamin, suffering from a heart condition, found the crossing extremely arduous. Nowadays, in a display of cultured tourist chic, there are signposts on the mountainside offering instructions on how to follow in his tracks: the Walter Benjamin Trail, which continues with key landmarks into Portbou itself, terminating at the spot where the hotel once stood in which he died (next door to the recently demolished Guardia Civil barracks). Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was valid for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. There, he hoped to join his friends Horkheimer and Adorno and resume the work of the Frankfurt School in America.
However, Benjamin was prevented entry to Spain because he had no French exit visa. Perhaps because of his evident ill-health, perhaps because of a border guard’s Republican sympathies, his return to France was postponed until the next day and he was allowed to spend the night in a pension, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room. He had taken an overdose of morphine.
According to a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin in Portbou, ‘The Last Passage’:
‘If they [Benjamin and his companions] had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in.’ The Gurlands, at any rate, were permitted to continue their journey, and a few days later, Henny and Joseph boarded a ship for America. Benjamin, apparently, carried on him a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as ‘a leather suitcase, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown . . .’, a tragic list that successfully conveys the essence of rushed and involuntary departure – exile, in a word.
After seven years of wandering, Benjamin’s suicide in Portbou can been seen as an act of defiance against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of the modern era. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis even holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the argument for this hypothesis is summarised by Stuart Jeffries in his Observer article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin?’). In an intriguing turn, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to ‘the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure.’ Was this a different suitcase from the one referred to in the judge’s report? Unlikely, as the refugees were limited by their guide to one piece of luggage each. Were the ‘few papers’ referred to in the judge’s report his final manuscript, or did this go missing? The authors of ‘The Last Passage’ seem not to know, and conclude that ‘the suitcase was never found and its fate is unknown’, which would contradict their earlier reference to the judge’s report. However, another account, cited by Stuart Jefferies in his Observer article, records that Benjamin’s briefcase, containing the elusive manuscript, was entrusted to an unnamed fellow refugee, who ‘lost it on a train from Barcelona to Madrid.’
The extraordinary memorial Passages at Portbou was created by Israeli artist Dani Karavan, and sits next to the cemetery where Benjamin was buried. It comprises an enclosed staircase of 87 rusty steel steps down which one can walk, terminating in a thick transparent glass wall that protrudes thirty metres above the blue waters of the bay. An inscription reads that ‘it is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.’ Puzzling, that last sentence, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. Perhaps the translation from the German is at fault. But the memorial itself is memorable.
My third account is more personal.
I was visiting a friend, Ramona, and her mother, Victoria, in Castelló d’Empúries, twenty minutes’ drive from Rabós. I’d last seen Victoria at the funeral of Ramona’s husband, Lluís Peñaranda, a Catalan artist with whom I had been friends since the mid 1980s. Victoria was ninety years of age, and the meeting took place in 2012, two years after Lluís’ death. As though making an announcement, Victoria, who was delicate-boned and frail, but alert and inquisitive in her manner, said ‘I have a story for you, Richard.’ I am transcribing this from notes that I took immediately afterwards.
In the final weeks of the Civil War, Rabós provided a staging post for the shattered remnants of the Republican army, and these stragglers were provided with food and shelter before crossing into France. The soldiers slept in the church, in the village hall, and in the narrow, cobbled streets. It was February, 1939, and the nights were cold. A soup kitchen was set up and Victoria, then aged seventeen, along with other volunteers, was able to provide a little nourishment to the exhausted men. The soldiers killed whatever mules remained for meat, hunted rabbits, and might, if they were lucky, shoot the occasional wild boar, though most of these had already been taken by hungry locals. The war was lost, and Victoria, in speaking of those days, evoked the utter devastation of this rag-tag army, but also, I noted, a sense of pride in her teenage self, an excitement at having been able to do something to help by working at the kitchen and caring for the soldiers, many of whom were wounded. Her father was a member of the Guardia Civil in nearby Figueres, and one of the few who had remained loyal to the Republic. Although she was able to cadge a lift home to her parents most nights, sometimes she had to sleep over in Rabós and it was on such a night that the news came through that a large detachment of enemy troops was on its way, and she became caught up in the mass exodus from the village without being able to get a message home. Perhaps she felt obliged to remain with the team of nurses tending to the wounded, or simply got caught up in the general panic, but one way or another she found herself a refugee in France, hoarded into the encampment at Argelès-sur-Mer. No one knew what was going to happen next, what was to become of them. Rumours abounded and food was scarce. The French gendarmerie didn’t seem particularly welcoming, that much was certain. However, she remained only two weeks in the makeshift camp at Argelès before being transported by train to a large camp near Clermont Ferrand, where the refugees were given basic accommodation and food. At this point, her story became rather vague; it seemed as though the passage of the years had transformed her memory of the camp at Clermont into an indeterminate blur of days and nights with no foreseeable conclusion. Many died of malnutrition and dysentery. But Victoria was a resourceful young woman and she got lucky. Among the refugees, she happened into a man, a member of the Guardia, who knew her father, and this man acted as some kind of go-between with the French authorities. Somehow – she was elusive as to the exact nature of its acquisition – she managed to secure a pass to travel by train to Biarritz, and from there crossed over into Irún, the frontier town close by San Sebastian. Six months had passed since her flight from Rabós, and she had not been able to get word to her family. She realised that they probably assumed she was dead. In San Sebastian, she knew no one, but was determined to get home. She begged from strangers, cajoled, insisted that she had to get back to Catalunya. ‘You can’t go there’ one person told her, ‘they [the fascists] are killing everyone.’ But others were willing to help. Someone gave her money and she managed to board a train for Barcelona, and from there – because the rail tracks had been bombed by the Luftwaffe – a bus to Girona, and from there another to Figueres. At this point, she paused in her story, perhaps because its conclusion was so unlikely. ‘When I stepped off the bus in the market place at Figueres the first person I saw was my mother.’ Her father has been detained by the fascists in Girona prison, where he was tortured and would die shortly after his release. The news of her father’s imprisonment soured her return, but the journey itself had been something of a miracle, a round trip of eight months, in which she had escaped, encountered the deprivations of two refugee camps, escaped again, and come back home across a war-torn country.
Victoria’s story seems to me exemplary in so many ways: how the innocence of a teenager can unravel within the space of a few short months, how refugees were welcomed by the French authorities in 1939 and are treated still today across Europe, and the way – in spite of her given name – in which her round trip serves as a kind of elaborate trope for Spain’s defeat. She arrived home an adult, her father imprisoned, the land laid waste, and her language forbidden.
Living again in an era of mass exodus and of refugees being turned away by unsympathetic governments, an era which the veteran war correspondent Patrick Cockburn described recently as one of War without End across an entire swathe of the planet – in which even the relative comforts of European unity are threatened by fragmentation thanks to the resurgence of nationalism and a political tunnel vision almost inconceivable to anyone with even the vaguest sense of history – make the experiences of Machado, Benjamin and Victoria seem only too real. A border might be an idea wedded to a geography, but that idea has teeth and claws. If we take the memorial to Benjamin seriously, we must also take to heart the plight of those nameless hordes who each week become refugees, and whose nameless shadows we find mirrored in ourselves.
‘Borders and Crossings: Varieties of Exile’ was presented at the 14th Robert Graves Conference in Palma, Mallorca, on 12th July 2018. A version of this essay was published in PN Review no. 244 (Nov-Dec, 2018).
Kapka Kassabova, Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Granta, 2017. pp xv-xvi.
Roberto Bolaño, ‘Literature and Exile’, in Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles, and Speeches, 1998-2003, translated by Natasha Wimmer. New Directions, 2011.
Wole Soyinka, ‘Voices from the Frontier’, The Guardian, 13 July, 2002.
Alastair Reid, Notes on Being a Foreigner’, in Outside In: Selected Prose, Edinburgh: Polygon, 2008, pp. 147-158.
Robert Graves, ‘God Grant Your Honour Many Years’ in Complete Short Stories, (ed. Lucia Graves). Penguin, 1995.
Javier Cercas, ‘La leyenda del ultimo traje d Antonio Machado’. El País Semanal, 25 Sept. 2016
Ajuntament de Portbou: Walter Benjamin in Portbou: The Last Passage. www.walterbenjaminportbou.cat/en/content/portbou-anys-d’exili?q=en/content/el-darrer-passatge
Stuart Jeffries, ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. The Observer, 8 July, 2001.
Patrick Cockburn, The Nick Lewis Memorial Trust Lecture, Cardiff University, 25 May 2017.
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.