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We are all immigrants

20 Apr

I have always had a thing for borders; grew up on one, and chose eventually to live on another. So it was no surprise that Kapka Kassabova’s account of lives in the Strandja forest – yes, half the size of Wales – which straddles Bulgaria and Turkey, stirred something in me that I have often sensed but sometimes struggled to articulate.  

My borders, however, are both ‘soft’ now, and the borders in Kassabova’s book have in their time been – and for some travellers continue to be – as hard as they come.

A border, as someone once said, is an idea wedded to a geography; and borders, more specifically, are places where the dead not only outnumber, but outlive the living.

Kassabova’s border has more than its fair share of ghosts, and she introduces us to them intermittently, until they crowd the pages of her book: the ghosts of Zeus and Europa; the ghosts of pagan fire dancers whose descendants still attend ceremonies in the forest night; Soviet-era ghosts gunned down or captured, tortured and disappeared while attempting to escape the alarmed barbed wire fence – klyon in the argot of the border guards – between Bulgaria and the NATO states of Turkey or Greece; the ghosts of Greek andartes, partisan fighters holed out in the Rhodope Mountains at the end of their country’s attritional civil war and, finally, the apprentice ghosts of Syrian refugees, many of them children, pouring across the border from Turkey into Bulgaria or Greece, seeking the dream of a better life in Germany or Great Britain (fat chance of that).

Kassabova’s skilful interweaving of her own story – two years spent travelling along the borders and their environs – and the stories that she found along the way, is a triumph of synthesis; and yet there is no false sense of completion, of a circle having been squared; no temporarily satisfying but ultimately flawed notion of telos. She knows there are no easy fixes for the devastating mess that is our present tense, and as we struggle with new-found or resurgent nationalisms, new walls, and old lies dressed up as new truths, that – in her words – ‘[n]ew borders will fail just as old borders failed. In the wretched meantime, they will not make our world freer or fairer. Only harder, costlier, and more haunted.’

In an article that was published to coincide with her book’s publication, Kassabova wrote:

 “When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate,” said Carl Jung of the psyche. This is the principle of hauntings, time warps and tragedies. In this remotest of border mountains, a poignant form of tourism is practised by the three border nations: ancestral tourism. More than 100 years after the Balkan wars of 1912 to 13 and the politely phrased and brutally executed “exchange of populations” that followed, the Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian grandchildren of the displaced still travel to their ancestors’ villages in Thrace, to the ruined houses, the blackened kitchens where pots and pans were abandoned as people ran for their lives across new borders. It is here that the locals have, for generations, claimed to see a mysterious ball of fire. It may be a freakish phenomenon of light, but it is richly imagined in legends of flying dragons. It appears in liminal spaces – at the entrance of old mines, over the border river, near curative springs – and always after dark, at the witching hour, the hour of the border and its inevitable transgression.

I loved this book, and the way in which its story, although fixed in multiple pasts, kept returning the reader to the present, and the plight of those refugees now desperate to make the journey in the opposite journey to those Soviet-era refuseniks.

A quotation from Neal Ascherson prefaces the middle section of the book: ‘All human populations are in some sense immigrants’. In these strange times it is worth remembering that.

Leaving the Atocha Station and the personality of the translator

26 Mar

 

Leaving the Atocha Station

Someone bought me, or recommended that I buy – I forget precisely – Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, and it’s been a long time since I laughed so much while reading any book; so thanks, whoever you are. The novel is especially good at describing the kinds of mental contortions a language learner goes through when sufficiently advanced to understand most linguistic items in a foreign language, but who nevertheless often comes unstuck on more complex or controversial items in the host culture.

Lerner’s protagonist is an appallingly self-conscious and calculatingly mendacious young American poet with an addiction to little white and yellow pills (presumably to help address his pathological nerdiness) and to hashish (he is a keen adherent of the ‘wake and bake’ philosophy). On a research fellowship to Madrid – the use of the word ‘research’ in the novel is disarmingly disingenuous – he meanders between affairs with two Spanish women, never managing to fall in love, but desirous of being loved. Although sleeping with Isabel, he is obsessed with Teresa, a glamorous translator, who comes from money (there are suggestions of a family association with the Franco regime) and who now embodies radical chic politics – indeed, appears to support the kind of political commitment of which the chronically uncommitted narrator is entirely incapable.  However, Adán (Adam, in Spanish), as the American is known by his Madrileño friends, wants Teresa to fall in love with him, so that he can let go of his painful inhibitedness just a fraction, but she is too cool by far. Or something.

There is a nice passage in which Adán has been observing Teresa’s actions and, impressed, says:

            “You are the most graceful and protean person I know. The way you handed me the coffee right when I awoke or the way just now you took the tequila from me or,” I paused to think of an example not involving drinks, “the way you can move without apparent transition from your stylish apartment to a protest.” . . .

            . . . “All you’re describing,” she said in Spanish, “is the personality of a translator. From apartment to protest, From English to Spanish.” If she had spoken in English, I would have found it a little grand; in Spanish I experienced it as profound. I wondered if she’d weighed the sentence in both languages before selecting the one that would produce the desired effect.

In short, what Lerner’s character is describing as a ‘translator’ is someone who is able to adapt to circumstances with ease, a kind of chameleon who uses their own innate multiplexity of self to their advantage: a skilled reader of human ‘texts’.

But it is the next comment that stands out, and makes me wary, about how his character considers Teresa’s comment profound in Spanish, whereas he might have found it ‘a little grand’ in English. This is a sensation with which I am well familiar. Often, when I read a text in another language – a piece of political or philosophical, or literary analysis, I find it more ‘profound’ than its word for word (if there were such a thing) equivalent might be in English. Why is this? What is going on here? Is it a way of congratulating oneself for being able to process the material in a language other than one’s own – and therefore, as a kind of projection – or reward – investing it with greater value than it might otherwise merit?

Or is it something more insidious: that certain languages – and I am thinking specifically of Romance languages – appear more ‘profound’ than English to the native anglophone ear because their syntax is more systematically consistent, which in turn leads to a more gratifying sense of grammatical coherence – and thence of understanding –  which, even if it is a false one, and the meanings conveyed are no more ‘profound’, leads the non-native reader to believe that they are.

Or is it that Lerner’s character is in love with Teresa, and therefore wants her words to be ‘profound’ even if they are comparatively commonplace?

John Berger and ‘bearing witness’

19 Mar

and our faces

On page 29 of and our faces, our hearts, brief as photos, Berger describes a landscape that lies before him as he is raking hay in a field: a small hillock on which stand three neglected pear trees – two in leaf, one leafless and dead, the dead tree flanked by the two living ones – and behind them the blue sky with large white clouds. The sight catches his eye and, he says, it pleases him.

I have often wondered at these glimpsed moments; of observing a landscape in a state of almost absolute clarity; a mode of perception that nonetheless has something almost dreamlike about it.

He goes on:

Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests.  The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.

Curious about this paragraph, and remembering a phrase from an article by Geoff Dyer written shortly after Berger’s death, I look up the original 1984 interview (from Marxism Today) to which Dyer alludes. The interview closes – one gets the impression that the young Dyer is extraordinarily excited at being able to interview his hero (an impression confirmed by the later Guardian article) – with the impossible question: What do you see as the job of your life? To which Berger answers, modestly:

I don’t think I can answer that … Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories—and I often think now that even when I was writing on art, it was really a way of storytelling—storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.

In order to be a witness of the kind Berger is describing, one has to be in a certain state of receptiveness in the first place. You have to be porous enough to ‘let it in’; whatever it is. In Berger’s case it was the landscape of the three pear trees on a hillock, in this instance. But it might be anything. In a post from August 2015 – Sleepwalking near the Río Orlina –  I too was struck by an otherwise unremarkable landscape, ‘a small cliff or outcrop, framed by dusty green vegetation’, and I wonder now whether I was doing something similar: sleepwalking into a physical landscape that seemed somehow to correspond with images originating in the inner world. For that is what is happening: that particular landscape comes alive because it fits into the wider puzzle of one’s life; maps onto some inner template that is ordinarily inaccessible to us, but which helps to provide a symmetry of sorts. And here’s the thing: you will probably never know why that image or that landscape fits.

To take it one step further, I wonder whether this state of being a witness, of deep immersion in – and recognition of – a locale or landscape, is akin to what is commonly known as ‘inspiration’, and that one has already to be receptive to such a state in order to enter into it. As Picasso said: “Inspiration exists but it has to find you at work.” You don’t simply happen upon inspiration. You have to be in a state of mind in which it finds you. You might be raking hay, or sitting at your desk looking though old photographs (another way of raking hay), but in some manner you will always be the observer – even the unwitting observer -bearing witness.

tree in alberas

John Berger and symmetries

7 Mar

John Berger

Following the death on the 2nd January of John Berger, a favourite writer and an inspirational human being, I was led to read (or re-read, if the annotations in pencil were truly in my hand, even if my memory of reading the book itself has vanished) his essay and our faces, my heart, brief as photos; and I was reminded, with a degree of both joy and relief, that reading and writing form a continuum, and that the one almost inevitably begets the other.

While lying in bed, reading John Berger’s strange and arresting essay, I began to drift off, as happens all too frequently when reading at night (or in the day, for that matter) and the words I read took on other shapes, that is, the eye, even though closed or half open, conjures phrases, lines, sentences; I see them, they are relayed to my brain in half sleep as though they were print on the page, but when I return my gaze to the page, no such line exists; it has been pure invention on my part, and I have taken the story off at a tangent, into a kind of dream zone, in which I rewrite the text not as image, specifically, but as words on the page which are not in fact there. I have, while drifting off, re-written the text on which my eyes were resting before I was overtaken by sleep  so that it takes a new departure, unrelated to what precedes it or what the author actually wrote.

Now, this is something, as I say, that I do quite regularly when tired; it involves a shifting from what is ‘real’ – on the page – to something which I have invented, which comes from me (I imagine) or to which I am distracted or called as if by a force outside myself or the text itself.

This happened when I was reading Berger. Waking, and reading on, I find, on page 52 of his book, the following lines. Berger is in the post office collecting a post restante letter from the woman he loves, and to whom the essay appears to be addressed, as a love letter of sorts, and he says this:

A voice belongs first to a body, then to a language. The language may change but the voice stays the same. I recognise your voice before I know in what language you are speaking. In the post office you pronounced the name you had written on the envelope, yet it was not the two words which I heard, it was your voice.

And when I read that, I thought ‘Ah yes, that is exactly what happens to me!’ In other words, I saw Berger’s comment as a direct correlation – or confirmation – of the thought I had just had about superimposing my imagined words onto the words of the text. Berger is in the post office; he hears the young women clerks talking, and he superimposes the voice of his beloved onto the text of their words. It echoes, analogously, what I have just written: the text (any text) is there in front of you, but you see (or hear) something quite distinct, authored by some(one) other.

The strangeness of this world, and all its symmetries! Reading Orhan Pamuk’s autobiography of his early years in Istanbul – which also serves as a biography of the city in which he has lived all his life – he comments that:

‘. . . what is important for a painter is not a thing’s reality but its shape, and what is important for a novelist is not the course of events but its ordering, and what is important for the memoirist is not the factual accuracy of the account but its symmetry.’

Is this what guides the writer of memoir – a questing after symmetry? Or of synthesis?

To be continued . . .

Reasons for his Absence

30 Oct

jaramillo

 

Reasons for his Absence

by Darío Jaramillo Agudelo (Colombia)

 

If anyone asks after him,

tell them that perhaps he’ll never come back, or else

on returning no one will recognise his face;

tell them also that he left no one any reasons,

that he had a secret message, something important to tell them

but he’s forgotten what it was.

Tell them that he is falling, in a different way, and in another

part of the world,

tell them he is still not happy,

and if that makes some of them happy, tell them also that he left

with his heart empty and dry

and tell them that this doesn’t matter, not even for pity or pardon’s sake

and that he himself doesn’t suffer on this account,

and that now he doesn’t believe in anything or anyone, far less

in himself,

that from seeing so many things, his sight dwindled, and now,

blind, he needs touch,

tell them that once, on a sunny day, he had the faint glimmer

of a faith in God,

tell them that once there were words that made him believe in love

and that later he learned love lasts

as long as it takes to say a word.

Tell them that like a balloon punctured by gunshot,

his soul plunged toward the hell within,

and he isn’t even in despair

and tell them that sometimes he thinks this inexorable calm

is his punishment;

tell them that he doesn’t know what sin he has committed,

and that he considers the blame he drags around the world

just another aspect of the problem

and tell them that on certain insomniac nights and even on others

during which he believes he has dreamt it,

he is afraid that the blame might be the only part of himself

that is left

and tell them that on certain luminous mornings

and in the middle of afternoons of merciful lust and also

on rainy nights drunk with wine

he feels a certain puerile joy in his innocence

and tell them that on these blissful occasions he talks to himself.

Tell them that if some day he returns, he will come with two cherries

for eyes

and a blackberry bush seeding in his stomach and a snake coiled

around his neck.

And nor will he expect anything from anyone and he will earn his living

honourably,

as a fortune-teller, reading the cards and celebrating strange ceremonies

in which he will not believe

and tell them that he made off with some superstitions, three fetishes,

a few misunderstood instances of complicity

and the memory of two or three faces that always come back to him

in the darkness

and nothing.

 

Razones del ausente

Si alguien les pregunta por él,

díganle que quizá no vuelva nunca o que si regresa

acaso ya nadie reconozca su rostro;

díganle también que no dejó razones para nadie,

que tenía un mensaje secreto, algo importante que decirles

pero que lo ha olvidado.

Díganle que ahora está cayendo, de otro modo y en otra parte del mundo,

díganle que todavía no es feliz,

si esto hace feliz a alguno de ellos; díganle también que se fue con el

corazón vacío y seco

y díganle que eso no importa ni siquiera para la lástima o el perdón

y ni él mismo sufre por eso,

que ya no cree en nada ni en nadie y mucho menos en él mismo,

que tantas cosas que vio apagaron su mirada y ahora, ciego,

necesita del tacto,

díganle que alguna vez tuvo un leve rescoldo de fe en Dios, en un día de

sol,

díganle que hubo palabras que le hicieron creer en el amor

y luego supo que el amor dura lo que dura una palabra.

Díganle que como un globo de aire perforado a tiros,

su alma fue cayendo hasta el infierno que lo vive y que ni siquiera

está desesperado

y díganle que a veces piensa que esa calma inexorable es su castigo;

díganle que ignora cuál es su pecado

y que la culpa que lo arrastra por el mundo la considera apenas otro

dato del problema

y díganle que en ciertas noches de insomnio y aun en otras en que cree

haberlo soñado,

teme que acaso la culpa sea la única parte de sí mismo que le queda

y díganle que en ciertas mañanas llenas de luz

y en medio de tardes de piadosa lujuria y también borracho de vino

en noches de lluvia

siente cierta alegría pueril por su inocencia

y díganle que en esas ocasiones dichosas habla a solas.

Díganle que si alguna vez regresa, volverá con dos cerezas en sus ojos

y una planta de moras sembrada en su estómago y una serpiente

enroscada en su cuello.

Y tampoco esperará nada de nadie y se ganará la vida honradamente,

de adivino, leyendo las cartas y celebrando extrañas ceremonias en las

que no creerá

y díganle que se llevó consigo algunas supersticiones, tres fetiches,

ciertas complicidades mal entendidas

y el recuerdo de dos o tres rostros que siempre vuelven a él en la

oscuridad

y nada.

 

A note on ‘Reasons for his absence’

I was attracted to this poem by its epistolary style, and by the device of news being relayed about an absent party. The lack of clarity surrounding the reasons for the man’s absence holds particular poignancy in a country such as Colombia, where ‘disappearances’ were – at the time of the poem’s composition, in the late 1970s – already becoming an everyday occurrence. The slightly elevated or ‘baroque’ language and incantatory style creates a strange juxtaposition with the content, which describes a life of sensual dissolution. The curiosity is stirred by the profound sense of loss or lack with which the absentee seems infused, wherever he is. Whether his exile is literal or metaphoric is never made clear.

My principal concern with the translation of this poem concerned the title. The Spanish noun ‘razón’ can mean a range of things, including ‘reason’ or ‘information’, or even ‘explanation’, depending on context. Similarly ‘ausente’ – here a noun, but commonly an adjective – could be translated in a number of ways: ‘the absent one’ sounded too much like translatorese, ‘the missing person’ subject to over-interpretation in the context of recent Latin American history. In the end I chose ‘his absence’, which deviates from the original in a grammatical sense but conveys the meaning of the phrase accurately. A second concern was the repetition in the Spanish of ‘díganle’ (literally: tell him), which, since it refers back to ‘alguien’ (anyone) in line 1, I chose to translate as the generic ‘tell them’.

 I attempted to re-create the long, rolling cadences of the original in my translation, alongside the reiteration of the introductory ‘tell them that . . .’.

I have also tried to reproduce the bereft tone that reflects the absentee’s solitude, and the distance he has chosen to maintain from those he left behind.

 When I read this poem out loud at an event – as I do from time to time – it still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I can’t say that happens with many poems, but with this one it happens every time.

About Darío Jaramillo Agudelo is an internationally acclaimed poet, novelist and essayist. He graduated in law and economics from the Universidad Javeriana of Bogotá, and worked for many years in various roles with state cultural and arts organisations. He has been shortlisted or winner of several awards for his work, including the Colombian National Eduardo Cote Lamus prize for poetry (1978), and the José María de Pereda Prize for the short novel (2010). The most recent edition of his Selected Poems is his personal anthology Basta cerrar los ojos (México DF: Era, 2014).

Notes from a Catalan village: full circle

4 Oct

We were told some months ago about the boulder in the tree, by Lluís Serrano of Cantallops. So we made an excursion of it, trekked up past the castle of Requessens (of which more in a future blog) and up early autumnal paths to view the wonder. Lluís is a great source of information about local history – both cultural and natural – but even he does not know for sure how a rock estimated to weigh up to 100 tonnes landed in a tree. It can only be assumed that it came rolling down the hill behind the tree and was caught in the branches. The impact must have damaged the tree, as there is a fissure running down the trunk, but it survived.

boulder-in-treeboulder-in-tree-1

Another strange feature of the tree is the dinosaur head formed by one of the lower branches:

boulder-tree-face

A year ago I posted about the grape harvest in Rabós, and this account would not be complete without a reminder that the vendimia has  been again, and gone. A very wet early summer made wine producers fear the worst for the 2016 vintage in the Empordà, but the proof will be in the  . . . bottle. Before we started picking, we had to make some space, so a couple of thousand of the last batch but one were corked and stored, prior to labelling.

bottling

And then, on a warm September morning, we ambled down to the fields to fill our buckets. It is a timeless ritual, and one which is so much more enjoyable now than it was 35 years ago, when you did it for pay.

vendimia-rose

vendimia-rose-and-bruno

Even Bruno the Dog joined in, robbing grapes from everyone’s buckets and chewing up kilos of the fruit, only to disgorge much of it in dramatic fashion once we had returned home.

 

The last days of Antonio Machado

2 Oct

antonio_machado_por_leandro_oroz_1925

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).

collioure-plaque-2

 

collioure-1-october-2016-machado-hotel

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.

collioure-1-oct-2016-machado-grave

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).