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.
Pursuing the porcine theme, I recall a couple of weeks spent slumming it in the city of Carcassonne, and being much amused by the legend of Dame Carcas, which goes something like this: In 760, Pepin the Short (love those medieval sobriquets), King of the Franks, re-conquered most of southern France from the Saracen invader. But Carcassonne held out. There was a long siege. The enterprising Dame Carcas, widow of the Lord of the castle, devised a strategy to save the city. She fed the last remaining pig with the last remaining sack of grain and had the unfortunate beast tossed from the ramparts, to indicate to the besieging army that food was plentiful within the city walls. According to the Carcassone city council’s tourist office pamphlet: “the astonished assailants concluded that the inhabitants still had enough food in stock to stave off famine and weren’t about to surrender any time soon. And so they gave up and quickly lifted the siege. Dame Carcas rang all the bells of the city all day long to celebrate the victory. Legend has it that Dame “Carcas sonne” (Dame “Carcas rings”) is where the name of the city came from.”
The only other incident I know relating to an airborne pig takes place in Graham Greene’s short story ‘A shocking accident’, in which an English schoolboy, Jerome, is summonsed to the study of his housemaster, Mr Wordsworth, to be told that his father has had a terrible accident. Assuming, wrongly, that his father has been shot – Jerome worships his father and has fantasised a life for him in the British Secret Services – he is disappointed to discover that he met with a rather more exotic end:
‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’
‘I beg your pardon. What did you say, Jerome?’
‘Did they shoot him through the heart?’
‘Nobody shot him, Jerome. A pig fell on him.’ An inexplicable convulsion took place in the nerves of Mr Wordsworth’s face; it really looked for a moment as though he were going to laugh. He closed his eyes, composed his features and said rapidly as though it were necessary to expel the story as rapidly as possible. ‘Your father was walking along a street in Naples when a pig fell on him. A shocking accident. Apparently in the poorer quarters of Naples they keep pigs on their balconies. This one was on the fifth floor. It had grown too fat. The balcony broke. The pig fell on your father.’
Mr Wordsworth left his desk rapidly and went to the window, turning his back on Jerome. He shook a little with emotion.
Jerome said, ‘What happened to the pig?’
I am sure there must be third airborne pig, somewhere in history or legend or literature, but cannot bring it to mind. If anyone knows what it is, please do post.
Day five of the Wales Writers Chain tour of Argentina and Chile. We began in Buenos Aires on Monday, at the Spanish Cultural Centre, where Mererid Hopwood and I gave lectures on, respectively, the Welsh and English literary traditions of Wales. On the Tuesday, Tiffany Atkinson and myself launched new collections in Spanish, published by the innovative and excellent imprint Gog y Magog – at what might well be my favourite bookshop in the world, Eterna Cadencia. We flew south on Wednesday, to Puerto Madryn, where the first Welsh settlers arrived on the Mimosa in July 1865, and were ourselves received by a small delegation of the Argentine Welsh community, where we were served soft white bread sandwiches, Malbec wine, teisen and tarts in a little hall used for Welsh and cookery classes. Incredibly hospitable and welcoming people.
The tour was organised by the Argentine poet, critic and translator, Jorge Fondebrider along with Sioned Puw Rowlands, and sponsored by various city councils in Patagonia, the ministry of culture of the city of Buenos Aires, Wales Arts International and Wales Literature Exchange. Jorge has christened the tour ‘Forgetting Chatwin’ in refutation of the English author’s semi-fictitious account of Patagonia.
In spite of a heavy schedule of readings, lectures, translation workshops, informal talks, school visits etc, we were able yesterday to have an excursion. Puerto Madryn happens to be very close to the natural reserve of the Valdes Peninsula, so yesterday we travelled along the isthmus to Puerto Pirámide – a charming and dilapidated frontier settlement on the beach – and took a boat trip to see the whales (all of them are the Southern Right Whale, called ‘right’ because of the ease of hunting them in the days of harpoon whaling). The trip to the peninsula allowed us to take a look at the blasted landscape of the interior, the endless bare scrub falling away into the distance under an enormous sky. We passed llama and guanaco – a smaller version of the llama – one of whose characteristic features is the particularly touching way in which the males decide who is to become the paterfamilias. According to our guide, Cesar, the males run at each other and bite their competitor’s testicles, thereby rendering him incapable of reproduction (as well, one imagines, of immediately converting him from tenor to soprano). How terrifying is nature in its simplicity.
And then the whales, which leave me speechless. I heard one sing, truly.
Today, more lectures and poetry readings in Trelew, where Mererid Hopwood and Karen Owen will visit a Welsh school, followed by a reading at the University of Patagonia with myself, Tiffany, Karen, Mererid, alongside Jorge Fondebrider, Marina Kohon, Jorge Aulicino (Argentina) and Veronica Zondek (Chile).
In the old days the notion of noblesse oblige demanded that the privileged and powerful act responsibly toward their underlings. In theory, at least. In practice things were not quite so sweet. Watching Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End, I am reminded of these finer sentiments by the character of Christopher Tietjens, played with a superbly quivering lower lip by the actor Benedict Cumberbatch. A landowner or other employer, says Tietjens (more or less), must treat his staff fairly, and if he doesn’t – if he abuses them or cheats them – he should be sent to prison. It strikes me as a wonderfully anachronistic point of view, and in the story – which at this point is just prior to World War One – Tietjens admits as such. He knows he is an anachronism, but that doesn’t stop him believing what he believes.
How we have moved on. The triumph of capital in the face of worldwide wage slavery, of base greed over pride in one’s work, of mass-produced baubles over craftsmanship, the love of filthy lucre over all other considerations, finally exploded in an orgy of fervor in the Thatcher-Reagan years, and has never looked back, even after the so-called financial crisis of 2008. Well, it took a short break, but many of its worst practitioners simply saw the crisis as an opportunity, and nothing of any significance has changed. The poor have got poorer and the same politicians and gangsters are in place, the same pigs spoiling for the best spot at the trough.
However flawed the society mourned by Christopher Tietjens in Madox Ford’s great novel, and the recent TV series, it sustained the quaint notion that power comes with a responsibility towards others. The grab-it-all, get-rich-quick free-for-all that got properly underway in that awful decade, the 1980s, shows no sign of abating. You do well, therefore everyone else can go to hell. Watching TV’s Made in Chelsea the other night alerts me to the likelihood that none of these young millionaires seems to have any concerns other than his or her own self-promotion or self-interest. None display any concern about the plight of people less privileged or less lucky than themselves, or even to mix with such types, unless they are servants. I guess they have been brought up that way. Or perhaps it just makes better television if they are displayed, almost unvaryingly, to be selfish, preening fuckwits. Who knows. Who, indeed, cares.
All of which I am thinking, abstractly, while reading in bed, when I come across a passage in an essay (on another theme entirely) by Phillip Lopate: “The least we can do . . . is to register the expectation that people in a stronger position be kind and not cruel to those in a weaker one, knowing all the while that we will probably be disappointed.” I guess that is the least, the very least, we can do.
For as long as I can remember I have wondered at the stupid commonplace representation of what an alien might look like. You know the kind of thing; the eggheaded bug-eyed ET figure, the slimy green tentacled version, or the ectoplasmic ooze version. Why would an alien ‘look like’ anything, at least like anything that is familiar to our way of seeing, or that can be grasped by our cognitive filters and interpreted as a recognizable visual image.
And I suddenly remembered a legend Lía had told me, studious and devoted to quantum physics as she was. The legend says that as Columbus’s fleet was approaching the shores of America, the native Indians didn’t see it because they couldn’t see it, they literally couldn’t see it, since the concept of galleons in full sail was so alien to them, so unimaginable, that it didn’t enter their version of reality, and as such, their minds simply decided not to register it. There’s nothing there, I remember Lía saying to me, with her hand on my forehead, as though she was watching the horizon. I construct my reality solely on the basis of what I know, she said. Or something like that.
And on the subject of aliens, I couldn’t resist posting this delightful rendition of William Shatner and the crew of Star Trek doing a cover of Pulp’s ‘Common People’. Look out for the alien playing the lyre.
In El País, Javier Cercas writes on the qualities of silence. He tells a story about a meeting between Borges and the famously reserved Italian novelist Italo Calvino in Seville in 1984, at a conference they were attending. Calvino’s wife, Chichita was an Argentinian, and an old friend of Borges, who was, by this time, completely blind. The two of them, like true porteños, dived straight into conversation, and it was a while before Chichita mentioned to Borges that her husband, Italo, was also present. Yes, replied Borges, I know. But how, said Chichita, when he hasn’t said a single word? I recognized him by his silence, said Borges.
I read this last month, while spending a few days in Spain, where I visited the beach near Llança quite late most afternoons. At this time of year, mid-June, most of the beachgoers are locals, and I was alarmed to notice the numbers of obese Spanish children and teenagers. Whereas, living in Britain, we have become accustomed to this, and have lived with it continuously since the nineties at least (if not from the days of Billy Bunter) in Spain it has been a radical and a rapid transformation. When I first visited Spain in 1959 (where I spent my third birthday at the house of the Langdon-Davies’s in Palamós) it was still in the cycle of post civil-war poverty, before the influx of mass tourism. Then there was the transition, after 1975, and the hedonistic explosion of social life in the cities; then the property boom, and the rocketing of house prices. When I returned to Spain in the mid 1990s every other car was a BMW or a 4 x 4, and everyone was up the gunnels with debt (as they still are) and now, inevitably, the country has reached the final and definitive stage in the establishment of a global economy: the children are fat.
So, as I read the newspaper, I cannot avoid the sight of a group of pudgy 11 year olds, munching Pringles and gobbling Magnum ice creams, all washed down with cans of Red Bull. How depressing this sight is. Ten years ago, when we lived here and my children went to the local school, these same kids would have been content with a ham or cheese sandwich, an orange and a bottle of water. I acknowledge there is a massive tendency for people to overrate the benefits of the past, but this is no exaggeration. The change towards childhood obesity is visible and has been incredibly swift. I cannot see the Spanish footballers of the future emulating Xavi, Iniesta et al, if they follow a diet of this kind.
Yesterday was the last day my younger daughter Rhiannon spent as a teenager. She and I went shopping at the supermarket together and she chose a few items, which she kept separately, in her own basket. As she went to pay I saw that in it were two cartons of Pringles, half a bottle of Gordon’s gin (a birthday present for her best mate) and two packets of Jelly Tots. Could the paradoxical state of being a teenager ever be more eloquently expressed, caught between the comforts of childhood and the terrors of adulthood?
If ever you are trapped in a hotel or hospital room and feel too ill-disposed or lethargic to read or write or engage in profound conversation with visitors (if anyone is foolish enough to visit you), you may wish to tune into one of several channels available to TV viewers that dish up potted histories of the twentieth century and are aimed, no doubt, at pensioners, or those of us who are infirm or bedridden or terminally idle, and who grew up in the shadow, even the distant shadow, of World War Two. Given that the Brits in general are morbidly obsessed with their performance in said war (I don’t think the Russians, for example, are so confused about their actual contribution), and given that it was the last occasion in which the citizens of these islands ‘pulled together’ as my mother was fond of reminding us, I personally have no difficulty in enduring hour upon hour of such documentary, especially those that delve deeply within the dark underworld of the Nazi party and its extraordinarily mediocre and sinister leadership. Perhaps this paradox is what most intrigues us. A favourite topic of these programmes seems to be ‘the plot to assassinate Hitler’, and the various theories about the involvement in such activities of the Desert Fox, General Erwin Rommel, who was ‘urged’ to commit suicide by Adolf Hitler, in order to avoid the negative publicity that would doubtless have redounded on the leadership if it were known that a war hero of Rommel’s stature were involved in the assassination attempt.
The other day, watching a programme about German POWs in England at the end of the war, I was reminded of an anecdote of my father’s. He was, for a while, medical officer at the POW camp based in Dover Castle. One morning, during surgery, a German soldier asked, through the interpreter, whether my father thought the state of his uniform befitted an officer of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces. My father, for whom sartorial matters were never of paramount importance, was rather taken aback by the audacity of the question, and asked the soldier why he thought it appropriate to comment on his state of dress. The soldier replied that he was simply trying to be of service, that he had served as personal tailor to Field Marshal Rommel, and was willing to make the Herr Doktor the most presentable officer in the British army, for the price of only two packs of cigarettes. My father, who didn’t smoke, reckoned this was a good deal, and handed over his uniform to the man, who duly returned it, immaculately re-tailored. He was so pleased with the result that he remained, for the duration of his stay at Dover, in the care of Rommel’s tailor for all matters of couture.
Many of my readers will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s writing, and have translated some of his poetry and several of his short stories over the past two years, including for the ‘Best of young Spanish language novelists’ issue for GRANTA, and two for the innovative new mag The Coffin Factory. Having read this novel when it came out in Spanish, I was aware that there was quite a challenge in store for whoever took on the task of translating this big book, with its sweeping philosophical themes, for readers of English. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García have made a grand success of the task and talk about their translation here.
I was asked to write about the book for the New Welsh Review and The Independent, so I did two different reviews. I would really have preferred to do one long one, and could have got more said. The NWR version will be available at the end of May, but the following, for The Indie, will give an idea. It is a wonderful novel, and Pushkin Press have done a great job with presentation and cover design. The edition also includes, as a kind of Preface, an article written by Roberto Bolaño about the young Neuman after the publication of his first novel, back in 1999 (but first collected in book form in 2004, a year after Bolaño died). And below is a youtube interview with Andrés, talking about the novel in London a couple of months ago:
One cold winter’s night, Hans, a traveller and translator, arrives by coach in the fictional German city of Wandenburg, intending to break his journey en route to somewhere that actually exists on the map. With him he carries a mighty trunk, packed with books. “What have you got in there, a dead body?” asks the coachman. “Not one dead body,” answers Hans, “several” – an answer that the novel proceeds to unpack.
Our hero takes lodgings in an inn, and the next day, walking around the town, befriends a mendicant organ grinder, who takes him to his cave in the idyllic countryside outside the city. Hans sups with the organ grinder and his dog, enjoying the sort of bucolic reverie familiar to poets of the early Romantic period. Returning to the town, he stays a second night and begins, almost by accident, to be drawn into its comfortable and bourgeois circle of socialites and intellectuals, and falling in love with Sophie Gottlieb, the daughter of a local merchant. Alas, Sophie is betrothed to Rudi Wilderhaus, a local aristocrat and scion of the ancien régime. Those readers with even a fleeting knowledge of Schubert’s song cycle Die Winterreise will already have cottoned on, and it might be of more than passing interest that Andrés Neuman, the novel’s Argentinian author, has translated Wilhelm Müller, author of the Winterreise poems, into Spanish.
But these hints towards a reconstruction of the beginnings of the Romantic movement, and of the challenges presented to Hans in his exploration of the city are misleading. Although set in post-Napoleonic Germany, Traveller of the Century is by no means an historical novel. Its author has described it as a “futuristic novel that happens in the past, as science fiction rewound.” It is, among other things, a romance, an adventure story, a survey of literature and politics in the 1820s, a pseudo-historical study of feminism, and a brilliant (although largely allegorical) analysis of Europe at the start of the 21st century. Over the course of the book’s 584 pages, we partake in magisterial synopses of entire swathes of literature and philosophy, and enjoy sparkling dialogues with the denizens of Wandenburg, a sleepy and conservative version of Fortress Europe, and a place in which the geography will not stay still, even the architecture given to fleeting, shifting behaviour, the church steeple “slanting perceptibly . . . as though it were about to topple forward.”
Sometimes something stirs and shifts in the substrata of world literature: a book appears which has the potential to change what will follow. Sometimes it just so happens that people pick up on the ideas and emotions generated by that book and it becomes a classic and sometimes it becomes instead a cult book enjoyed, or even revered, by a few, but never catching on with the many. Traveller of the Century has already achieved impressive things for its young author in Spain and elsewhere, but this by no means guarantees its success in the litmus test of the English-speaking world, famously resistant to literature in translation. We cannot predict how this book will be received in the months and years to come, but there is little doubt in my mind that it deserves its place in the sun, a work of true beauty and scintillating intelligence by a writer of prodigious talents. On the evidence of Traveller of the Century we might well be convinced by Bolaño’s much-vaunted prediction that the literature of the twenty-first century will belong to Neuman and a handful of his blood brothers. Whatever one’s opinion of such elevated claims, books as stimulating, erudite and humane as this do not come along very often.
This review was first published in The Independent on 20 April 2012.
Of all countries of the world, there is a special place for those that have endured a suffering and a struggle for definition against powerful enemies both from within and without. Some of the struggles and mortifications that a people endure have become almost mythic and have come to stand as an example of human suffering that stretches beyond the countries concerned: they become, in a sense representative and definitive. Over the past couple of centuries there have been countless examples of the extremes of human conduct, in which small groups of people inflict their will on the majority. Nicaragua, although relatively small, must be counted among the most afflicted of countries in this respect. A series of dictatorships here have condemned the bulk of the population to obscene levels of poverty over generations, but less well known is the role played by influential foreigners. Few can compare in this respect with William Walker, the subject of an epic poem by Nicaragua’s great poet Ernesto Cardenal.
William Walker, the American son of a Scottish banker, exemplified a type of expansionist vision of what North Americans might make of their back yard, and he was evidently a scoundrel of the first order. He set out for Nicaragua in June 1855 with a small force of mercenaries and his plan was to colonise the country as a new slave state, to be settled by North American Anglos, who would own the land and the plantations, and import black slaves – who would do all the work. Eventually he planned to settle and colonise all of Central America as a slave-based empire to compensate for the abolitionist tendencies that were to drive the United States towards civil war a few years later.
His plans went well at first, his well-armed battalion of troops taking on the local army from Granada, which he made his base, before launching attacks into Leon and other regions. Walker declared himself president, invented a new flag for the country, confiscated all the lands owned by those who opposed him, made English the official language of business, and gained the recognition of the US government as head of an official state. His apparent invincibility came to an end when the Nicaraguans decided they’d had enough and rose up against him. After several bloody battles, he fled Granada by steam-boat, across Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean, but not before his mercenaries had raped and massacred to their fill in a drunken killing spree, and burned Granada to the ground.
According to the plaque, the church of San Francisco was re-built in 1867, twelve years after the filibuster (delightfully, filibustero in Spanish) William Walker left Nicaragua. He had another throw of the dice in Honduras, but was captured by a British naval officer, Captain Salmon, and handed over to the Honduran authorities, who had him shot, an action that was long overdue.
I receive an email from Médecins Sans Frontières saying that the Libyan National Army Security Service in Misrata are sending them people to treat who have been tortured, simply to patch them up into a state where they can be tortured some more. This is shocking, but I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised. The fact that people who have endured violent oppression are likely to inflict exactly the same kind of treatment on their oppressors – now they have become their captives – seems sad but horribly predictable.
According to The Guardian:
The aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières has added its voice to the chorus of concern by announcing that it had halted work in the coastal city of Misrata because staff were being asked to patch up detainees during torture sessions. “Patients were brought to us in the middle of interrogation for medical care, in order to make them fit for more interrogation,” said MSF’s Christopher Stokes. “This is unacceptable. Our role is to provide medical care to war casualties and sick detainees, not to repeatedly treat the same patients between torture sessions.”
I rarely use this blog for notices of this kind, but because I support MSF this captured my attention, and I thought I would share it. Not that there’s a lot anyone can do.