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Only a game: football and identity politics

22 Jun

 

Madrid y nada mas

So much has happened since the Champions League Final held in Cardiff on June 3rd: the London Bridge attacks (that same night); the general election; the Grenfell Tower fire and the Finsbury Park attack. A football game is a mere trifle. But the issues that struck me on the evening of the European Champions Final in Cardiff are perhaps not entirely irrelevant, and the corporate, globalised nature of top-level football – along with its often incorrigibly corrupt officials (stand up Michel Platini) – raised some questions of identity and alienation, even in this anecdotal form.

What is in a name? Walking through my home city towards the Principality Stadium, once the Millennium Stadium, and renamed the National Stadium of Wales at the insistence of UEFA for tonight’s event, I could feel myself, just like the stadium itself, undergoing an identity crisis.

I have been overtaken by a sort of acute cognitive dissonance, in which the knowledge that, while I am in my own city, in a street I walk down every day on my way home from work, I am at the same time elsewhere, in a city of strangers, all of them football fans – which I am not – in a parade (typically, if not stereotypically) of shouting and gesticulating Italians, all adorned with shirts and scarves of the Juventus tribe, followers of the fortunes of the football club that will shortly be pitched against the might of Real Madrid, their ‘Spanish’ opponents. They are passionate in their support, and many of them would do almost anything – and have already done a great deal and paid a lot of money – to travel to this game.

My overall neutrality is a serious marker of difference, here amongst fanatics. I am both a native and a neutral, and it feels as though I have entered a parallel world, in which my familiar surroundings have been ripped away and replaced by a replica city, in which I am the alien. And I am walking down Wood Street the wrong way.

Normally, in order to enter this end of the stadium, I would leave my home in upper Grangetown, cross the bridge at the end of Tudor Road and, turn left. This evening, though, Wood Street has become a one-way system for pedestrians, and we are channelled up towards the railway station, underneath the vast and towering construction that will soon be the new home of the BBC, doubling back down towards Wood Street from the Mary Street end. It is a small matter, but one which adds to the general sense of being cast adrift within familiar surroundings. And the fact of being herded the wrong way down this road, surrounded by strangers, seems laden with metaphoric possibility. I am a little disoriented, to say the least.

But as I have started thinking about my own identity in this huge crowd of fanatics, and felt the painful onset of anomie, and an almost total disconnect from my surroundings, I begin to think, in turn, what it means to support a football club. We all know, nowadays, that support of a particular club has nothing at all to do with geographical or even cultural affinity. The reasons for supporting a club can be as fleeting as the colour of their strip or the design of their logo, or a schoolboy crush on a particular player. It isn’t like in my grandfather’s day – that’s how far you have to go back – when the players in a side were actually from the place they played for. Nowadays these specimens are rare – Stephen Gerrard of Liverpool was a notable recent case, along with Rooney when he played (briefly) for Everton, and I’m sure there are a few more, but they are not plentiful, and certainly not in the Premier League. Such characters are invariably local heroes, until they move to a bigger, richer club.

So, the notion that supporting a club may have anything to do with affiliation by country or culture or geography applies equally to playing for such a club. How many of the Juventus players starting tonight come from Turin? And how many of the Madrid players are from . . . As I write this, I realise it is not a remotely original question, but let’s check, starting with Juventus.

There is not a single player from Turin or even thereabouts in the Juventus team; of the four Italians starting for Juventus, three are from Tuscany and one from the Lazio region. I find it interesting that the actual Italians are, true to form, all defenders, as though the back line must, at least, live up to the Italian reputation for ruthless, murderous defence, and therefore be comprised of those most loyal, even at a distance, to the Italian (though strictly speaking, it should be Lombard) cause. There are even fewer Spaniards in the Real Madrid side: of the three starting, two are Andalusians, and there is one, yes one from the autonomous community of Madrid, Dani Carvajal (also a defender). I like the way the nationals (Ramos, too, is a defender) make up the defence, as if to say “we at least are loyal Spaniards/Italians and will defend the goal-line to the last”. A nice touch. There were, in total, 4 Brazilians (two apiece), 4 Italians, 3 Spaniards, 2 Germans, 2 French, 2 Croatians, 2 Argentinians, and a single representative of Bosnia, Portugal and Costa Rica out on the pitch at the start of the game.

Clearly, then, in this globalised era of sport, what these fans are following are brands, not to be confused by loyalties of birth or geographical affiliation. And the notion of 76,000 fans baying on behalf of a brand that in reality has nothing in common with themselves as a defined cultural group from a defined place (Madrid, Turin) is a distinctly postmodern notion.

As if to prove a point, I am in the company of a Mexican and an Argentinian (invited to Cardiff to take part in Fiction Fiesta events on football and literature) and both have declared their allegiance to the cause of Juventus, while I myself am strictly neutral. A., the Argentinian – who lives in Granada – is an Atlético Madrid supporter, and therefore despises Real on principle. J.’s family on his father’s side is originally from Barcelona, and he has lived in the Catalan capital for extended periods, so he is even more contra Madrid than A. And me? Despite my protestations of neutrality, I lived in Barcelona myself for a while in the 1980s, and I am loath to see Real Madrid win anything, but there is the Gareth Bale factor, and even though Bale is not in the starting line-up, he is, after all, a Cardiff boy, and may come on as a sub (which he does, late in the game, but to no great effect). So, you see, one can get caught up in this nonsense even if one doesn’t really care. But the brand thing? The gazillions spent on players’ salaries, the products, the strips; the millions of little girls and boys who dream of getting a Messi 10 shirt in their Christmas stocking, or whatever . . . what the fuck is this all about?

hooligans

Earlier in the day I had picked up our Argentinian friend, A., from his hotel. J. and I had waited in the foyer. A group of men were on their way into reception from their rooms, also on their way to the game. There was about them a brashness, and a brittle sense of propriety that seemed presumptuous, here in a foreign city. They exuded insider knowledge and, I suspected, the potential for extreme violence. They wore sharp suits to match their hatchet faces. ‘Romanian Mafia,’ J. muttered to me; ‘they turn up at every big match.’ J. would know; he is one of the world’s great football writers. The renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, once said: ‘If you want to know about soccer, go speak to J.’ So if J. says these guys are mafia, I’m pretty sure they are. And it seems to be almost as if these guys are at the bloody heart of globalised football: the obvious crooks, milking the UEFA machine (on this occasion) – though it might as well be FIFA or any other of its world tributaries –  for personal profit in whatever deals come in this event’s trashy wake. And they are only one step away from the ones we might consider the ‘insider’ crooks – the repulsive Sepp Blatter and his cronies.

As we approach the turnstiles, the tension mounts. We have to pass through three separate rungs of security and ticket checks. At the third turnstile, a young man attempts to flash a pass, or a ticket, at security, and this is found wanting. He has no ticket. The guard immediately calls for help and the guy is ushered away by two uniformed colleagues. I wonder how on earth he got through the first two levels of security. Two weeks prior to the match, we had to provide details of our passports and – in my case – national insurance number. The form from the Welsh FA stated that this information would be shared by the South Wales and Greater Manchester Police forces. We received this request four days before the Manchester Arena bombing of 22nd May. This was odd. Why did Greater Manchester Police need our data? Did they have intelligence on a likely attack? It would seem so, and I haven’t been offered any other explanation.

photographers

The game itself, even for a non-fan, offered a great spectacle. I am used to attending rugby internationals at the Millennium stadium, so the atmosphere was not a shock, but I did admire the extraordinary skills of the players, their control of a ball moving at speed, their balance and precision of movement. The Juventus goal, an overhead strike by the Croatian, Mandzukić, was a staggering piece of athleticism.  I was particularly entranced by Ronaldo, a man with possibly the strangest skin colour on earth, after Donald Trump. And he was certainly the most reviled player on the pitch, which was fun. We were seated pitchside – our complimentary tickets were excellent (thank you, Nick) – near the Juventus fans at the south end of the stadium, and every time Ronaldo had the ball, a terrible hissing began. On a couple of occasions he was near enough to be spat upon. This radiantly dark orange gladiator ignored the taunts in magisterial fashion, peacocking his way across the pitch and, after his opening goal, embarked on a trademark piece of preening, flexing his muscles in a comically macho pose after first dashing to the corner to answer the taunts of the Juve fans with shaking fist. Great theatre, I guess, but such an odious fellow. I remembered reading somewhere that Ronaldo never celebrates the goals of his team-mates with them, but demands their adoration when he scores himself. If true, which I suspect it is, it struck me as the most incredibly narcissistic gesture, in what is, after all, a ‘team game’. But, then again: perhaps Ronaldo is simply being true to himself. Why would narcissism, a trait which defines contemporary celebrity culture, be out of place here, in a game that obediently tows the global capitalist line of cynical identity manipulation and idiotic self-love? It kind of follows that in such a relentlessly competitive and cash-driven arena, you wouldn’t really give a shit about anyone else in your team – even to the point of resenting them the smallest taste of glory. Team spirit? What have you got in common with these guys other than your obscenely inflated pay packet?

But despite Ronaldo’s prima donna antics, he wouldn’t be a great player without the rest of the team, and most people – in football as in life – seem compelled to form teams, to take sides, however tenuous the commonalities they share. In many ways, football at this level is the embodiment of postmodern identity politics. It is compellingly entertaining, even if the structure that supports it is rotten.

 

The players, by origin:

REAL MADRID

Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)

Dani Carvajal (Madrid, Spain)

Rafael Varane (France)

Sergio Ramos (Seville, Spain)

Marcelo (Brazil)

Casemiro (Brazil)

Toni Kroos (Germany)

Luka Modric (Croatia)

Isco (Malaga, Spain)

Karim Benzema (France)

Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)

 

JUVENTUS

Gianluigi Buffon (Tuscany, Italy)

Giorgio Chiellini (Tuscany, Italy)

Leonardo Bonucci (Lazio, Italy)

Andrea Barzagli  (Tuscany, Italy)

Alex Sandro (Brazil)

Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia)

Sami Khedira (Germany)

Dani Alves (Brazil)

Paulo Dybala (Argentina)

Mario Mandzukić (Croatia)

Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)

 

endgame selfie

The Funhouse at Hell’s Edge: The Reef by Juan Villoro

18 Jun

 

juan villoro

Juan Villoro

But one day I shall find a land corrupted and depressed beyond all knowledge, where the children are starving for lack of milk, a land unhappy, although enlightened, and cry: “I shall stay here until I have made this place good.” Malcolm Lowry.

With The Reef (Arrecife, in Spanish) Juan Villoro has achieved something quite remarkable: a novel that offers a microcosm of the state of modern Mexico – perhaps, by extension, the entire postmodern world – within a luxury hotel. The activities for residents of the hotel include extreme sports, fake kidnappings and beatings, excursions to the jungle and encounters with poisonous snakes; all intended to stimulate a state of excitement that always runs the risk of – and sometimes tips over into – violence. Tourists from the USA and Europe, an international leisure elite who are bored with more conventional touristic fare, flock to the hotel in Kukulcán, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, a hotel whose head offices are, of course, in London, the money-laundering capital of the world.

At the centre of it all, as if by accident, is our narrator, a lame, hard-drinking 53-year old ex-rocker with a missing finger and a very poor memory. Tony Góngora is an amiable sort who has dropped too much acid (and much else besides) over the years, and lost a few marbles en route. Early in the story, we are offered this elemental insight into Tony’s soul:

‘Walking back, I spotted a little transparent gecko. I have a certain weakness for lizards: they’re great company for drug addicts. When  you’re high, even the presence of an insect feels intolerable and nearly all other animal species seem to pose a threat. But lizards move so gracefully, and they glow in the dark. I liked to watch them scurrying around like colourful embodiments of my ideas. Back then I rarely had any ideas, but the lizards, electric blue, bright yellow and green, made me think I did.’

Mario Muller was the lead singer in their old band Los Extraditables – who once infamously opened for The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, “a walking skull in dark sunglasses” looks at Tony “like he’s the next piece of trash”) – and Tony played bass. Mario is now manager of The Pyramid, and his labyrinthine scheming and manoeuvring amply justify his moniker of ‘Der Meister’, originally applied in homage to the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. Tony, meanwhile, sets the fish in the hotel’s aquarium to music: his job is “to line the sand of the aquarium with sensors that would translate the fish’s movements into sound.” The two have known each other since they were young kids, and having teamed up again at The Pyramid, Mario helps Tony to remember things that Tony’s errant brain cells made off with long ago. He is only partly successful in this endeavour but we, as readers, share in Mario’s colourful reconstruction of their shared past lives in the process.  During insomniac nights in his office, Mario fills in the gaps in Tony’s memory with things that may or may not have happened, interspersed with helpful advice: “The man who fails and makes amends is braver than the man who has never failed.” Tony isn’t so sure. He struggles to remember anything at all, even a seemingly crucial event from their early teens when, drunk on cheap vodka, they were chased through an abandoned building by a dishevelled, bearded giant in a long black coat, covered in “infinite layers of filth” and flaunting a massive red erection. Of this and other ‘memories’, Tony wonders: “Was it a dream or some delusion emerged from fragments of memory.”

Near the start of the novel a friend of Tony’s, a diver by the name of Ginger Oldenville, is murdered – ‘Even in death he wore the dreamy look of  a man gazing up at seagulls’. This event serves as the device by which we examine the different characters involved in running, and policing, The Pyramid. This being Mexico, it is no surprise to encounter cartel capos, corrupt policemen, violence against women, (real) abductions and trails of dirty money lining the way. The story is set in the southern country of the Maya, and the hotel itself, as its name indicates, takes the form of a pyramid, a structure which, a long time ago, served as a place of interment for the dead. By contrast, in the novel, the descendants of the Maya, the hotel’s employees, “didn’t appreciate the culture of their ancestors. What they appreciated was that they came from outer space.” One of the sales gimmicks of the hotel is a ‘pop cosmology’ approach to Mayan history and culture, playing on this version of alien visitation, which complements the other faddish accoutrements of the hotel; for instance, Tony’s sometime girlfriend, Sandra, is an instructor of Ashtanga yoga and Tibetan kung fu who enjoys being pleasured by the stump of Tony’s phantom finger. She is from the USA, living in Mexico without a visa (a nice retort to Trumpian xenophobia) and her teeth are responsible for one of Tony’s best one-liners: ‘I don’t like the aggressive teeth of gringas’.

But the real triumph of the story, to my mind at least, is the compassion and integrity that lies at the core of the relationship between Mario, Tony, and two vulnerable inmates of a ‘shelter for ruined lives’, one of them a child. While the friendship between Tony and Mario offers a journey into the past, the novel also offers the prospect of a tentative journey into the future, laden with all the doubts of an individual – or a country – embarking on a process of recovery from terrible abuse and violence. In this way, however small, the novel manages to raise a glimmer of hope in humanity’s capacity for self-repair. I carried that away with a degree of gratitude, in spite of everything else that we know, or suspect.

 

The Reef is published by George Braziller, New York, and translated with admirable fluency by Yvette Siegert. Thus far, readers of English need to purchase US editions of Villoro’s work, as – incredibly for a man regarded by many as Mexico’s most compelling and original writer – he thus far remains unpublished in the UK, apart from a couple of his (excellent) essays in The Sorrows of Mexico (MacLehose, 2015) . Also highly recommended are his collection of short stories, The Guilty (Brazillier, 2015) and his masterful, probing and philosophical study of football, God is Round (Restless Books, 2016).

Fiction Fiesta welcomes Andrés Neuman, Juan Villoro and Niall Griffiths to Cardiff

26 May
foto Neuman 2015_Antonia Urbano

Andrés Neuman, author of Traveller of the Century

Now in its sixth year, the fiesta celebrates literature and football with events in Cardiff over 31st May and 1st June.

In The Latin American Short Story, acclaimed international writers Juan Villoro (Mexico) and Andrés Neuman (Argentina) will be in conversation with Cardiff University’s Director of Creative Writing Richard Gwyn. Both writers are acknowledged masters of the short story, and will read excerpts of their work, and discuss the form and the influences on their writing in an evening event: 31 May, 6.00pm, Council Chamber, Main Building, Park Place, Cardiff University CF10 3AT.

There will be a wine reception at this event, and donations collected for Wales PEN Cymru. Entry is free but it is recommended that you reserve tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/fiction-fiesta-2017-the-latin-american-short-story-tickets-34619051515

On the second day, Villoro and Neuman kick off Football Fiction Fiesta in the Japan Room of the Wales Millennium Centre with Writing Football. Inspired by the UEFA Champions League final, writers respected internationally for their football writing will discuss the craft of writing about the beautiful game in the literary genre.

juan

Journalist and prolific writer Juan Villoro has been by turns a cultural attaché and a DJ. He is Mexico’s greatest living writer of short stories, following that country’s great tradition of the genre. Passionate about football, he is perhaps best known for his book God is Round.

Poet, writer, translator and blogger Andrés Neuman is author of Traveller of the Century, selected as a Book of the Year by The Guardian, the FT and The Independent in 2013. His award-winning work has led to nominations as most outstanding Latin American author (Hay Festival), as well as inclusion in Granta magazine’s special edition on emerging Spanish language authors, with a short story translated by Richard Gwyn, who will be chairing the event.

Football Fiction Fiesta completes its hat-trick of events with Liverpool and Wales legend Ian Rush in conversation with Niall Griffiths.

niall griffiths_pic

Niall Griffiths, author of Kelly + Victor

Ian Rush, who, amongst other notable deeds, scored the winning goal in Wales’ only victory against Germany in Cardiff in 1991, is this year’s ambassador for the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff. Niall Griffiths is a Welsh novelist and journalist, author of GritsSheepshagger, and Kelly + Victor. He is also a life-long Liverpool fan.

Creator of Fiction Fiesta, Cardiff University’s Director of Creative Writing, Richard Gwyn is excited about the creative mix of football and writing: “The UEFA Champions League Final provides the perfect opportunity to bring three great writers to Cardiff. Juan Villoro, with God is Round, has written what is possibly the greatest book ever about football, while Andrés Neuman writes regularly in the Spanish media on football. Both are passionate advocates of the belief that football and great literature can mix. Niall Griffiths and Ian Rush make that fusion a living reality.”

 

fiction-fiesta-poster-2017-latin-america-web

fiction-fiesta-poster-2017-football-web

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 . . .