Ricardo Blanco's Blog

False Bravado and the Stone of Revenge

On New Year’s Eve we climb the Ffwyddog ridge, that separates the valley of Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas. It is warm for the time of year, but not so warm, nor so dry that we do not need extra layers and raincoats. The sun makes an effort to break through layers of cumulus, but to little avail. Once there is the glimmer of a rainbow, but the particles that form it dissolve almost as quickly as they assemble, or more correctly speaking, we are standing in the wrong place to see it. Everything is in motion; everything is a part of the spiral.

The contours of these hills shift with each change of the light, and with every turn of a story. Let’s imagine that the course of the earth’s trajectory shifts by a fraction of a millimetre, almost imperceptibly. You are a Norman baron on a journey across Wales, and you make the decision, at a given moment, to send your men-at-arms home, keeping only a bard and a fiddler and a clown. You are advised by your trusted companion that this might not be best idea when travelling through hostile territory, but the day is bright and it is springtime. What could possibly go wrong?

On the Ffwyddog ridge stands Dial Garreg, the stone of revenge. Here, on 15 April 1136, Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare and his small retinue were cut down in an ambush led by Morgan ap Owain, Lord of Caerleon, his brother Iorwerth, and their men. De Clare was en route to Ceredigion after returning to Wales in the company of his friend Brian Fitz Count de Wallingford, who held the Barony of Abergavenny. The two men had probably spent the night at Brian’s castle there.

Gerald of Wales, in his Journey Through Wales, written fifty years after the event, takes up the story:

‘A short time after the death of Henry I, King of the English, it happened that Richard de Clare, a nobleman of high birth who, in addition to the Clare estates, held Cardiganshire in South Wales, passed this way . . . He was accompanied by a large force of men-at-arms led by Brian de Wallingford, then overlord of this area, who was acting as his guide through the pass. When they reached the entrance to the wood, Richard de Clare sent back Brian and his men, and rode unarmed into the forest, although this was much against Brian’s wishes, and indeed, against his express advice. Richard was foolish enough to imagine the trackway was safe. Ahead of him went a singer to announce his coming and a fiddler who accompanied the singer on his instrument. From then onwards things happened very quickly. The Welsh had prepared an ambush for Richard. All of a sudden Iorwerth, the brother of Morgan of Caerleon, and others of their family, rushed out from where they were hidden in the thickets, cut down Richard de Clare and most of his men, and made off with their baggage which they had seized in this savage way. Just how ill-advised and foolhardy it is to be presumptuous is made only too obvious by disasters of this sort. We learn to be careful about the future and to exercise caution even when all seems to be going well. To rush on regardless is simply false bravado. It is at once rash and inconsiderate to take no heed at all of the advice given by those who are trying to help us.’

Despite this the sanctimonious advice after the event, I do find it strange that Gerald tells us that Richard entered the woods ‘unarmed’ — which would have been unheard of for a man of his position at this time.

The Welsh were mightily peeved by the intrusion of the Norman marcher barons, such as de Clare, onto their territory, what with their tithes and taxes, their habit of lording over the locals, a habit which has been pursued by the English towards the Welsh ever since. This assassination was but a small item in the period of unrest that followed the death of Henry I of England, prelude to a gruelling litany of betrayals and bloodbaths that took place over several centuries on these borderlands between the Norman, and later Anglo-Norman barons, and their Welsh (and sometimes Cymro-Norman) neighbours. 

After the killing of de Clare, Morgan went on to capture Usk castle, and thus ruled over the area now known as Monmouthshire, calling himself King of Gwent. His lordship of Caerleon, at least, was recognised by Henry II, but only until 1158, when Morgan and his bard Gwrgant ap Rhys were, in their turn, murdered by Ifor Bach, the Welsh lord of Senghenydd, famous for scaling Cardiff Castle with a ladder and kidnapping its incumbent, William Fitz Robert, Earl of Gloucester, along with his wife and child. Ifor carried out his abduction in retaliation for Fitz Robert’s theft of land that Ifor claimed as his own, and he succeeded in this mission. 

A well-known Cardiff night club is named after Ifor Bach. Nothing much is named after Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, but the stone of revenge stands as testament to his recklessness. The story suggests that this area was once densely wooded, as were other swathes of these hills.

Following the lane back down the Grwyne Fawr valley, we pass a corrugated iron shed, on one side of which are the words BEWARE DOG, and on the other, in the photo, THIEVES AGAIN. This message could be read in several ways.

On the Cat’s Back

Sometimes our reading maps onto our walks. Or vice versa. The night before I had been reading in Raymond Williams’ People of the Black Mountains how Glyn goes in search of his Taid one evening, when the older man fails to return from a long walk in the hills. He has left a note for this daughter, Megan, and grandson Glyn, which includes the lines: 

‘It is such a lovely day, so still and bright, that I’m taking a lift back . . . so that I can go once again along the best of all walks through these mountains: what you’ve heard me call its heart line. I shall go up by Twyn y Gaer and along its old pastures to the Stone of Vengeance, then to the old circle at Garn Wen and the Ewyas tower, along the ridge above the reservoir . . . across Gospel Pass and along the ridge to Penybeacon, then as always above Blaen Mynwy and past Llech y Ladron to our spot height above Blaen Olchon and so along the Cat’s Back to the Rhew and the lane to the house.’

A conversation has just taken place between Glyn and his mother, Megan, in which Megan has expressed concern about her father’s late return:

‘Has he been well?’ Megan asked, forcing her voice.

‘Yes, as usual. He’s got so much more energy than the rest of us.’

‘Seems to have more energy.’

‘Yes, because he lives in one piece.’ ‘

‘He’s sixty-eight, Glyn.’

‘In one piece, in one place. It makes all the difference.’

So that is the opening premise, and like Glyn, who sets out to do his Taid’s walk in reverse, we ventured up Crib y Gath (the Cat’s Back) in his footsteps. Given that it was a day of low hanging cloud in late December, our expectations were limited, but I was also deeply conscious of my own investment in these mountains, and of what I have learned about them, and continue to learn, over many years. Williams also had thoughts, which he expressed, via his protagonist Glyn, in another passage:

‘Solid traces of memory! The mountains were too open, too emphatic, to be reduced to personal recollection: the madeleine, the shout in the street. What moved, if at all, in the moonlit expanse was a common memory, over a common forgetting. In what could be seen as its barrenness, under this pale light, there might be the sense of tabula rasa: an empty ground on which new shapes could move. Yet that ideal of a dissident and dislocated mind, that illusion of clearing a space for wholly novel purposes, concealed, as did these mountains, old and deep traces along which lives still moved. An empty and marginal land, in which the buried history was still full and general, was waiting to be touched and to move.’

Over the past month, over several excursions, I have become accustomed to a very particular light in which these hillsides bathe when the cloud is thinning and the sun is about to drop behind the western skyline. The effect of this densely filtered sunlight — beginning about an hour before sunset — is to cast an amber wash over everything, so that the whole spread of the upland; the peat bogs, the wide expanse of tussock grass and sphagnum, all of it, is luminescent with an understated warming glow. Unfortunately, this light does not translate.

The state into which I plunge is paradoxical; both deeply present and yet strangely detached, as though, like Williams’ protagonist, with ‘dissident and dislocated mind’ I too were ‘moving over an empty ground on which new shapes could move’.

For a moment, then, I consider this steep-sided ridge, Crib y Gath, as a mighty ship, plying the deep pasturelands, into a sea of mist. At the far prow, on a rocky outpost, can be seen a single figure — my daughter Rhiannon — unwittingly performing the lead role in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. To the right, the cloud covers the Olchon valley and creeps  up the walls of Hatterrall Hill. In that moment everything lies fully within view, circumscribed by mist and as improbable as the hawthorn that sprouts at right angles to the rock. In fact the entire landscape creates its own rules of harmony, lives by its own innate rhythms. There is a symmetry to it all, which I cannot fathom, but which, as the years pass, seems ever more deeply to resemble a kind of consciousness.

The distant glow of somewhere

Walking along the ridge that separates Cwm Grwyne Fawr from the Vale of Ewyas, I am attentive to the details, and enter a familiar state of watchful trance. But the details are relatively few when walking in a cloud, which swirls around me, as though I were on the deck of a great liner plying the folds of the sky. Far off to the south, a mysterious light beckons, the distant glow of somewhere. I know exactly where I am headed, but am aware that if I go the way I had planned when I set out I will be walking down much of the mountain in the dark: I decide to take a short cut, despite all the received and accepted wisdom about not taking shortcuts. But there are times when it is necessary, and this route is familiar. You remember the line from Roethke’s poem ‘I learn by going where I have to go’ but not necessarily, not always.

I cross paths with a wandering pony, a grey, but of such a strange hue as though stained with blue dye. I call her Ceridwen, I’m not sure why, and tell her I have an apple, but she isn’t listening. Another ambient mortal taking a shortcut over the marsh, talking to horses, imagining I am someone I am not. It is difficult enough surviving on this moor without having to conform to the fantasies of some passerby. And I too am having difficulty negotiating the exceedingly lumpy and boggy terrain, but the shortcut is effective and I cut a chunk off the circuit, and eventually descend though rock and moss to sit by the stream, y grwyne fawr, though it is hardly big, even in comparison with its sibling, y grwyne fechan (the little grwyne), and I sit and eat my apple and then a cheese sandwich, under the curious gaze of another blue pony. I pour coffee from my flask and watch as nothing much takes place. Here there is no mist; the cloud begins in a sheet around thirty metres above the stream, hugging the sides of the mountain above my head; due to the meteorological conditions it has no choice to be anything other than a cloud, but there is no ‘it’, I tell myself, just billions of tiny water droplets, visible water vapour, crowding around the upper reaches of the mountain. A few late crows harass the gibbous moon. As I descend the path past the reservoir, dusk is falling, and by the time I am past the dam, the darkness has settled, or rather, the accumulation of black air is complete. It is also noticeably cooler. A light shines from the window of a solitary farmhouse, the only dwelling in the upper reaches of the valley. There is always, in that descent towards human habitation at nightfall, a sense of safe return, something as primordial and as reassuring as a fire, a hearth, the company of kin.

Dead pony, Y Fan, Grwyne Fawr

Before the sheep, there were horses. People always associate sheep with these hills, and for good reason. The sheep have been here for three thousand years, but before the sheep, there were horses. Always there were the horses, for as long as there were men and women. Sheep became widespread on the Black Mountains during the Bronze Age, and their wool was one of the first textiles to be spun here. In Roman times the wool from these lands became famous for its quality. But the horses were here before the sheep. Tough, hardy, agile, less fussy eaters than the sheep, the horses formed a part of the landscape and the landscape formed the horses, and for much of the neolithic period, along with red deer, they were the most common large mammals living on these hills, which they shared with their two major predators, men and wolves. Both wolves and men hunted them in packs. There were brown bears too, of course, and lynxes, though the lynxes wouldn’t have hunted ponies. Nor the bears, for that matter. Later, in the first millennium BCE, the smaller Caspian breed of horse from Iran arrived, and they were certainly the dominant breed after the arrival of the Romans; they interbred with the indigenous stock to create the Welsh mountain pony of today. In this dead pony are all the dead ponies I have ever come across on these moors. The sadness of horses is immeasurable, cannot be sought in these pitiful blind eyes.

In his novel People of the Black Mountains (Volume 1: the Beginning) Raymond Williams imagines a neolithic horse hunt:

‘The five horses had stopped at the edge of the shale. The first had ventured in, then slipped and retreated. The men closed steadily. A red mare, facing them, turned suddenly and went in, slithering, on the shale. The others stood uncertainly, but as the men still advanced they turned and followed her, heaving and scrambling for a footing. The men ran to the edge of the shale, and suddenly Maran and his two were standing in the notch of the pass. They had loose stones for their slings and aimed them down at the legs of the horses, which were scrambling, terrified, in the deep shale. There were several hits on the legs. Maran and the others lifted their spears. But now the men also were scrambling. A young stallion, bleeding from a leg, broke back and ran through the line. Seran threw and missed. Then the red mare was down. Marod and Piran ran close and speared her. The big eyes rolled as she threshed her bleeding legs. Then Maran was above her, driving a last, deliberate thrust to the heart. She was dying but the others had broken, two back down the valley, one through and over the pass to the plateau. Piran began a chase but came back. Maran finished the mare with a stone.’

Raymond Williams, People Of The Black Mountains Vol.I: The Beginning v. 1 . Random House. Kindle Edition. 

This sleeve of land

Following the hilltop path, there is a warm patina, almost a glow, to the afternoon, despite the chill. You look down on this sleeve of land that is Cwm Grwyne Fechan. You have been walking here your entire life. The autumn colours on the hills, ranging from gold to russet to purple, the gradations of light, and the untamed horses, many of them the descendants of those abandoned by their owners over the years, left to breed in the wild, so that a new race has emerged from the stock of indigenous ponies and the incomers. You have a half-eaten apple, but you know they will not approach, so you show it, and toss it gently towards the nearest horse. He stares at you, unblinking. You shudder with the fleeting memory of something, then it is gone. The valley is small, and yet so vast. You experience the moment like a shaft of joy, even though there is something else, something that brings you to the edge of tears. You know so little. Back home, you watch the short video and the view across the valley brings to mind the final lines of ‘The Sleeping Lord’ by David Jones – who once lived not far from here – lines that now read as extraordinarily prescient:

yet he sleeps on
                                         very deep is his slumber:
how long has he been the sleeping lord?
are the clammy ferns
                                          his rustling vallance
does the buried rowan
                                          ward him from evil, or
does he ward the tanglewood
                                          and the denizens of the wood
are the stunted oaks his gnarled guard
                                          or are their knarred limbs
strong with his sap?
Do the small black horses
                                           grass on the hunch of his shoulders?
are the hills his couch
                                           or is he the couchant hills?
Are the slumbering valleys
                                           him in slumber
                                           are the still undulations
the still limbs of him sleeping?
Is the configuration of the land
                                           the furrowed body of the lord
are the dark ridges
                                           his dented greaves
do the trickling gullies
                                           yet drain his hog-wounds?
Does the land wait the sleeping lord
                                            or is the wasted land
that very lord who sleeps?
                                             
                                     

With Malcolm Lowry in Cuernavaca

The following is an extract from my as yet unpublished travel memoir, Ambassador of Nowhere. It concerns a trip to Mexico in 2014.

Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the security guard on the graveyard shift at my hotel in Cuernavaca, as I set out for a midnight stroll. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. I am staying at the Hacienda Cortés, a sugar mill built in 1530 by the conquistador, Hernán Cortés, for the son he had with his mistress, La Malinche, and worked by the family – or rather, their slaves – until it fell into disuse and was, much later, reinvented as a hotel. Guests are housed in small bungalows, each with its own tiny patio garden.

Earlier there was a storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant.

On the latest leg of my Mexican journey, I have just spent a day and a night in Mexico City, returning to the capital from Veracruz to attend a tertulia, a literary discussion group organised by the poet Fabio Morábito and friends. Afterwards I visited the barrio of Mixcoac, passing Octavio Paz’s family home en route, before returning to the more familiar territory of Condesa, and dinner at Luigi’s with Pedro Serrano and Carlos López Beltrán.

Back on the bus to Cuernavaca, the perennial Mexican bus, we pass through the sprawling shanty outskirts of southern Mexico City and into the mist again. Daily travel awakens in the traveller a sense of permanent dislocation, which is of course what the word means; displacement, an absence of locus. I am drawn to Cuernavaca, not only for its alleged splendour, lying as it does, under the volcano – “plumed with emerald snow and drenched with brilliance” – and the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s magnificent, terrible novel of that name, but also because my friend, Peter, who died destitute on the streets of Athens thirty years ago, came here sometime in the 1970s in search of Lowry’s ghost, and to drink mescal.

The night before, I broke the journey from Veracruz by stopping off at the town of Puebla, where I had made vague plans to meet up with yet another poet. There, I witnessed an incident, insignificant in itself, which I could not shake off. As I was walking into town, an Indian woman – ‘Indian’ is not considered to be an offensive term in Mexico and Central America – utterly bedraggled, with long grey hair and dressed in rags, came running past me, chasing after a huge SUV, crying out, at volume and with some distress ‘Don Roberto, Don Roberto . . .’ She carried on at pace up the street calling out Don Robé . . . Don Robé . . .  for an entire block, and I followed her until I could see the vehicle turning at the next set of lights. When I got to the junction, she had stopped, and was resting, hands on knees, her crevassed face fallen into a state of resigned torment. She seemed elderly, although poverty and stress and struggle probably added twenty years to her features. I asked her if she needed help, but she seemed not to see me. I asked again, are you all right? And she stared at me as if I were mad, as though the question – estás bien? –  were so idiotic as to defy rational consideration. I cannot imagine what her story was, or what she felt she was owed by the object of her chase, the cruel, oblivious Don Roberto. Quite possibly, of course, she was delusional, and there was no ‘Don Roberto’ in the car that had driven away, only a random stranger, but the quality of her distress convinced me that some terrible injustice had been committed against her. The scenario was timeless, and her gasping of the honorific ‘Don’, as her spindly legs carried her in desperate pursuit somehow epitomized the gulf between want and privilege; his status and her subjugation. The image stayed with me as I rode the bus to Mexico City the following day, the massive form of Popocatépetl to my left caught fuzzily on my phone camera above the misty woodlands and broad meadows that gather around its base. The journey impressed on me the extraordinary diversity of the landscape; that within a few hours one can pass from the coast, across prairie, forest and the high sierra. The only constant is the truly terrible music being played full volume wherever you go.

Man sleeping on sidewalk, Puebla.

I plan to read Under the Volcano in its proper setting, and I take my copy along with me to the dining room. Within an hour or so I am just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was the first time I read it, half a lifetime ago. I digest Michael Schmidt’s Introduction along with the chicken consommé, intrigued to discover that Schmidt grew up in the same streets that backdrop the story; and so I proceed to consume the first few chapters with my steak, nopales and avocado, washed down with a bottle of Chilean red, and I linger over dessert (fig tartlet and pistachio ice cream), then order coffee and a tequila. I have not eaten so much in months, and certainly not since my arrival in Mexico. By eleven, I have been reading for over three hours, having forgotten enough of the story for it to read like new.

In Lowry’s novel, we accompany the ex-Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, as he lives out the last day of his life – which also happens to be the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, 1938 – in Cuernavaca, which Lowry calls by its Nahuatl name, Quauhnahuac. Much of the novel is recounted in a stream of consciousness, describing the lurid visions of a man in the throes of alcoholic meltdown. The novel also narrates the events of the day in the external or material world, in which Geoffrey’s estranged wife, Yvonne, returns to him after a separation of several months. Others present – for at least a part of the Consul’s final day – are his half-brother Hugh, who has been intimately involved with Yvonne in the past, and is still attracted to her, the film director Laruelle (another of Yvonne’s ex-lovers), and a cast of minor characters who inhabit the actual town, as well as the infernal multitudes that populate Geoffrey Firmin’s increasingly haunted imagination as the story unfolds with steadily measured suspense – but with all the digressions of a mind in the throes of disintegration – towards its hallucinatory and terrifying climax. This duality, between the inner and the outer, between the spectacular writhing of Firmin’s tortured soul and the quotidian events that need to be negotiated if he is to have a function as a human being – an ‘animal with ideas’ – lies at the heart of the novel, and reflects a fundamental paradox in the life of the Consul, a tortuous, self-loathing self-portrait of his creator. ‘Function’ – not at all incidentally – is a word that is uttered with sinister insistence in the closing chapter by the police officer who will kill the Consul.

The novel has attained mythic stature for readers, its fans including numerous writers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, as well as from the English-speaking world, since its publication in 1947, after a strenuous, decade-long gestation.

Despite filmic potential – as a classical tragedy set against a dramatic landscape – it has only made it to the cinema once, in one of John Huston’s last ventures, and although Albert Finney’s Consul is superb, the film fails to convince in its portrayal of the other lead characters, Yvonne and Hugh, perhaps for the very reasons that the novel fails: they are really not that interesting. Essentially, Lowry was only concerned with character: the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin.

                                                                            *

Foiled in my plans for a late night constitutional by the watchman’s warning – I tend to err on the side of caution these days – I return to my room. I am a long-term insomniac, and although optimistically convinced that at some point I will ‘catch up’ on all the sleep I have missed, that rarely happens, and I suspect I will remain in a state of lack for the rest of my days. Instead, I read, drifting in and out of slumber on occasion, a rhythm that especially suits the reading of this book.

At one point, quite early in the novel, the Consul insists, with typical grandiosity, that he is involved in a ‘great battle’, although he is, at that moment, doing nothing more than discussing whether to go on a visit to the bullfight in a neighbouring town or to stay at home with Yvonne. That notion of ‘the battle’, the sense of carrying a massive burden, of suffering this great responsibility to ‘come through’ in a struggle for survival, is drawn upon by the Consul when he resists the opportunity of going home, of calling off the trip, of simply spending some time with poor, exhausted Yvonne. Laruelle, his friend, reminds him: ‘you’ve got her back . . . you’ve got this chance”, to which the Consul replies, with magnificent self-importance, “You are interfering with my great battle” – and again, rhetorically: “You deny the greatness of my battle?” At the end of this passage the Consul continues speaking, taking Laruelle’s part in the conversation as well as his own: “even the suffering you do is largely unnecessary. Actually spurious.” But Laruelle isn’t there anymore. The Consul is talking to himself. For much of the book, if he is not talking to himself, he is addressing one of his inner demons or ‘familiars’, which amounts to the same thing.

One of the best examples of the Consul’s mind at battle with his familiars appears in Chapter Five, when he leaves Yvonne sleeping inside the house – or so he thinks (in fact Hugh has taken her riding) – in order to venture into the garden and retrieve a bottle of tequila he has kept hidden in the shrubbery. The chapter picks up on some of the novel’s main themes or ‘useful debris’, in which we find references to film and to cabalistic philosophy, varieties or brands of alcohol, the local geography, horses, flora and fauna, and we meet with dogs, which, in different forms, appear fifty-eight times over the course of the novel. The passage is worth citing in its entirety:

‘We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable – .’ He recognised the tone of one of his familiars, faint among the other voices as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind. ‘ – condition,’ the voice went on severely, ‘you have to do something about it. Therefore we are leading you towards the accomplishment of this something.’ ‘I’m not going to drink,’ the Consul said, halting suddenly. ‘Or am I? Not mescal anyway.’ ‘Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up.’ ‘I can’t,’ he objected – ‘That’s right, take just one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks.’ ‘God,’ the Consul said. ‘Ah, Good. God. Christ.’ ‘Then you can say it doesn’t count.’ ‘It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal.’ ‘Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another.’ ‘Thanks, I will.’ The Consul palsiedly readjusted the bottle to his lips. ‘Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary . . . Horror,’ he added. ‘ – Stop. Put that bottle down, Geoffrey Firmin, what are you doing to yourself?’ another voice said in his ear so loudly he turned around. On the path before him a little snake he had thought a twig was rustling off into the bushes and he watched it a moment through his dark glasses, fascinated. It was a real snake all right. Not that he was bothered by anything so simple as snakes, he reflected with a degree of pride, gazing straight into the eyes of a dog. It was a pariah dog and disturbingly familiar. ‘Perro,’ he repeated, as it still stood there – but had not this incident occurred, was it not now, as it were, occurring an hour ago, he thought in a flash. Strange. He dropped the bottle which was of white corrugated glass – Tequila Añejo de Jalisco, it said on the label – out of sight into the undergrowth, looking about him. All seemed normal again. Anyway, both snake and dog had gone. And the voices had ceased . . .’

The familiar speaks to the Consul amid the din of other voices ‘as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind.’ This arresting image presents the Consul as a man awash in a sea of phantasmagoria, the idea of ‘being shot from behind’ heavily foreshadowing the novel’s ending. Moreover, the brisk discussion being carried out by the Consul with his familiar carries a toxic, comic – or toxically comical – element that will persist over several such scenes. Its insistent, hectoring tone both incites the Consul to drink (‘Pick it up’; ‘You might have another’) and at the same time to back off (‘horror’ . . . ‘Stop. Put that bottle down’), an argument that the Consul has with himself throughout the first half of the book, after which he is too drunk to care. The snake, cunningly disguised as a twig, appears as a symbol both of the Fall, and of man beguiled by woman. Not, of course, that the Consul was concerned ‘by anything so simple’ as snakes – and here again we are confronted by the man’s grandiosity; he, who has stared into the very mouth of hell (the book has close parallels with Dante’s Inferno), is not concerned by a mere serpent, and on this account he feels pride, before ‘gazing straight into the eyes of a dog,’ which recalls the ancient Mexican belief that these animals acted as guides to the underworld. The dog is ‘disturbingly familiar’, which is not surprising as we met this very dog a few pages earlier, when the Consul and Yvonne entered their property on Calle Nicaragua, and its ‘familiarity’ has an explicit double meaning also. The Consul’s reaction to it, too, is identical to the previous encounter, and he utters the word ‘perro’ (dog) as much in recognition as in description, thus iterating one of the central themes of the novel, that of perpetual repetition, or endless return.

I am not sure if the proliferation of animals in Under the Volcano has been given full critical treatment but it strikes me as one of the central features of the novel. One writer who has paid attention is Javier Marías. There is a section in his Written Lives in which Marías lists some of the disasters of Lowry’s own life as recounted by Lowry himself. The strange thing is that the three stories he tells all concern animals: (i) a pair of elephants allegedly spotted by Lowry and his friend John Sommerfield hanging out on a street corner in Fitzrovia in the 1930s; (ii) the occasion when Lowry, convinced that a passing horse had snorted at him ‘derisively’, punched the poor creature so hard (just below the ear) that it ‘quivered and sank to its knees’; and (iii) the time that Lowry, stroking a pet rabbit with his ‘small, clumsy hands’ accidentally broke the animal’s neck, only to be consumed by remorse, and ‘wandered the streets of London for two days carrying the corpse . . . consumed by self-loathing’.

In Under the Volcano, it is when the Consul is at his most lubricated and fluent that the animals begin to pile up in abundance, as in Chapter Five. If this is the case, it reflects that the mind –  especially, perhaps, the alcoholic mind – thinks in terms of animals because animals provide a natural metaphoric filter. Animals, as Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, are good to think with.

The references to animals are almost too many to name, but it is interesting to reflect on the peculiar term the Consul employs to refer to animals: ‘people without ideas’ (in contrast to his term for humans as ‘animals with ideas’). ‘Earlier it had been the insects; now these were closing in on him again, these animals, these people without ideas.’ They include a pariah dog with three legs ‘with the appearance of having lately been skinned’ (clearly a xolo), as well as, in Chapter Five alone, ponies, a snake, a tiger, scorpions, leafcutter ants, Quincey, his neighbour’s, cat; (pink) elephants, a lizard, humming-birds, butterflies, ants with petals or scarlet bloom, an unnamed insect (caught by Quincey’s cat); a snake in the grass and ‘a procession of thought like little elderly animals’; various birds, a bull, three black vultures, a caterpillar, a large cricket (with a face like a cat); a scorpion and some ‘murdered mosquitoes’. Indeed, ‘the whole insect world had somehow moved nearer and now was closing, rushing in upon him.’ Throughout the book flutter a host of birds, in their capacity as omens: in Chapter One alone we encounter ‘sleepy vultures’; ‘small, black, ugly birds, something like monstrous insects’; ‘a frantic hen’; ‘fowl roosting in apple trees’, and another vulture for good measure. In the book as a whole, I counted 153 references to mammals, insects and birds, and no doubt missed a few.

Lowry’s own ‘great battle’ with alcohol has been well documented, and not least through critical analysis of his masterpiece. He was never able to replicate the success of his singular, most powerful novel, and the reason is clear: he was too drunk, too much of the time. One of the best studies of Lowry and his writing is by the American writer and rock musician, David Ryan. In his intimate, exacting essay, Ryan says that Lowry, like most addicts, never developed a healthy self-identity, remaining wrapped in a state of infantile narcissism. Drawing on Lacanian theory, he claims that Lowry’s behaviour as an adult, his mammoth drinking binges and voluntary disappearances suggested an inability to distinguish between himself and the world around him, resulting in chaos with every misconceived utterance and histrionic gesture. That would certainly be true of his Consul, Geoffrey Firmin. And the ‘mirror’ theme is supported by a couple of instances recorded by those who knew Lowry.

Lowry at Burrard Inlet

One of Lowry’s biographers, Douglas Day, provides an anecdote from an old friend of the author, James Stern, who ‘recalled how fascinated he [Lowry] was with mirrors’, and recounts one episode at a party when Lowry disappeared, and Stern found him in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, snorting blood from his nose, which he caught in his hands and ‘thrust up to the ceiling , so that the whole place was red and white’, all the while staring at himself in the mirror and laughing. Lowry’s French translator, Clarisse Francillon, remembered his ‘habit of slyly watching for audience reaction whenever he was behaving outrageously’.

Among the many photographs of the writer posing, glass or bottle in hand, one shows him holding a mirror, reflecting his own image as he is being photographed; and this inevitably leads to the question: why do so many of the photos of Lowry – including those on the dust jackets of books about him – show the writer shirtless, dressed in bathing shorts, staring at the camera in a manner at once glazed and pompous, trying to make an impression with his meagre moustache and his chest pushed out like a bantam cock, as in the often-reproduced photo of Lowry at Burrard Inlet? Why so many photos of a half-naked Lowry? And when we get past the bared torso and the chest hair and the focus on the face – the one on the back cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Under the Volcano – there is something both arrogant and vapid and fearful in those cold, clear eyes. The gaze is, we might surmise, intended to be piercing and riveting, but our attention is distracted by the sparse filaments of the faint moustache, the suggestion of vulnerability in the chin and the plump cheeks, a vaguely satyric pointedness to the ears; in fact what the portrait suggests more than anything else is that the sitter knows that he is meant to be there, but is unfortunately elsewhere, unobtainable, or more likely nowhere, waiting for this to be over with so he can go get another gin. More gin, buckets-full if at all possible, rivers-full, oceans-full of gin. This fantasy, which I am attributing to Lowry, originates in the Consul’s delirious outburst in Under the Volcano, when he attempts to recall an earlier life in Granada, Spain:

How many bottles since then? In how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses – towering, like the smoke from the train that day – built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill . . . bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean . . . the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal . . . How indeed could he hope to find himself to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, for ever, the solitary clue to his identity?

Oh, that beautiful tequila and beautiful mescal! The simplicity of the descriptor reminds me of Hemingway’s choice of adjectives when writing to his friend Archie MacLeish in June 1957. Having been restricted by his doctor to a single glass of wine per day with his evening meal, he looks forward, with euphoric anticipation, to ‘a nice good lovely glass of Marques de Riscal’. This is an impossible utterance in the mouth of anyone except a crazed devotee, but as expressed by a writer who avowed a parsimonious approach to adjectives, the collocation of ‘nice’, ‘good’ and ‘lovely’ must be regarded with deep suspicion.

Malcolm Lowry’s grotesque diminution, his descent into the wretched, querulous, occasionally violent individual who choked to death on his own vomit in a rented house in Hove, England – a place epitomising parochial English decorum – represents a pathetic shadow death compared to the Consul’s fictional passing, flung down a Mexican ravine after his drunken debacle in the El Faro bar, followed by a dead dog that someone throws after him.
                                                                            *

It always seemed to me that what literature and alcohol had in common was that they both allowed, momentarily, the ability to watch the world from a place of enhanced perception, or even to provide the illusion that you were really engaging with the stuff of life at a heightened level. Lowry summarises this clairvoyant state perfectly in Under the Volcano, when the Consul attempts to explain to his wife, Yvonne, why he is the way he is:

‘But if you look at that sunlight there, ah, then perhaps you’ll get the answer, see, look at the way it falls through the window: what beauty can compare to that of a cantina in the early morning? . . .  for not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy as the iron screen that rolls up with a crash, as the unpadlocked jostling jalousies which admit those whose souls tremble with the drinks they carry unsteadily to their lips. All mystery, all hope, all disappointment, yes, all disaster, is here, beyond those swinging doors.’

And a little further on: ‘how, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?’

I am tempted to compare this passage with Ronnie Duncan’s account of a visit to Crete with the Scottish poet W.S. Graham, in which Graham expresses an idea that would be familiar to Lowry’s Consul. Duncan is trying to get Graham to come out for a walk, to visit a museum, rather than continuing to drinking himself into oblivion – as he has done every day of the trip thus far – on the balcony of his hotel room:

So I held on like a terrier and eventually he gestured around the balcony – at the sea, mountains, beach and the tumble of houses on either side – and said that his task was to turn all these into words. ‘It is all’, he said, ‘better than I could ever have hoped’ – reminding me that he’d said this on arrival. And then it came to me that there was really nothing else he wanted or needed: this one experience of a Cretan setting, supplemented by visits to some all-Cretan tavernas, was all he could encompass or wished to encompass.

Lowry and his early morning cantinas, just as Graham and his Cretan tavernas; both of them are relaying an idea that promotes a kind of epiphany – what alcoholics are reputed to call ‘a moment of clarity.’ Compare ‘not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy’ with ‘all he [Graham] could encompass or wished to encompass.’ And again, consider this eulogy to Lowry, written by his close friend Earle Birney, and cited in Schmidt’s Introduction: ‘. . . his whole life was a slow drowning in great lonely seas of alcohol and guilt. It was all one sea, and all his own. He sank in it a thousand times and struggled back up to reveal the creatures that swam around him under his glowing reefs and in his black abysses.’ Both Lowry and Graham shared the conviction that alcohol might open the gates of perception. How extraordinary that so much can be invested in an alcohol-enhanced vision of this kind, in which you are – or else believe you are – seeing more sharply, engaging more profoundly, empathising more absolutely, feeling more deeply; in other words, it might be said, replicating the aims of great literature.

How well I recognise this joyous, delusional state. During the most intense periods of my own drinking career this was all I wished for: to watch it all, to bathe in it, to sink into the sun-dappled splendour of the world. Perhaps – eventually – to turn it into words. I started serious early morning drinking while living in Hania, Crete, in my early twenties. It had always been taboo, I guess – recalling the story from my schooldays of a boy whose mother slept with a bottle of Scotch at her bedside – but once I started round-the-clock drinking, the chips were in; even I understood what it signified.  And for my friend Peter, who lived in a tin shack next door, but who had once lived in Cuernavaca, intoxicated absorption in the beauty of the moment was his creative mission; but long ago he had lost the impetus that originally drove him – to turn it into paintings – and now the drinking was simply an everyday necessity, and he had stopped painting, working instead as a comedic or parodic waiter at the once notorious To Diporto fish restaurant in Odos Skridlov, the street of leather, until he was too dissolute even for that place, whereupon I took over the job. How pervasive is this terrible myth among the artists I grew up amongst, the ones I read and admired, the ones whose pictures I watched being made in the Slade School of Art when I was an undergraduate in London and where I spent more of my social time than among my fellow-students at the LSE; how prevalent this delusion that drink and drugs would somehow help us experience life more ‘deeply’. Those rakimornings with Peter, when the morning sun flooded the ramshackle square in the Splanziaquarter, where we lived, with its pots of red geraniums and the sheets hanging out over the railings of the brothel next door, the sounds of the town waking, the glorious sense of detachment too – to be a part of it and yet apart from it – these are the things I felt in regard to both my Cretan and, much later, my Mexican sojourns, until a final, catastrophic visit to Guadalajara put an end to this bright and beguiling fiction . . .

I am so comfortable in my whitewashed room that I don’t want to sleep, and I read almost until dawn, completing the first half of the book, before drifting into fitful slumber. I wake at nine, utterly distressed and worn out, the fan above my head whirring insistently with a regular click at each revolution.  Outside there is absurdly loud birdsong, and the sun is struggling to break through thick rainclouds. I drink a coffee, smoke a cigarette, and order a taxi into town, where I have arranged to meet up with the poet Pura López Cólome, Seamus Heaney’s Spanish translator, who will be my guide to Cuernavaca for the day, and we will visit Cortés’ palace to see the Diego Rivera murals, and walk the streets that furnish Lowry’s novel. But already I am less concerned with the reality of Cuernavaca than I am with the one conjured by Lowry in his parallel city of Quauhnahuac. The actual place has been spoiled for me by its fictional double.

First published in PN Review 255, Sept-Oct 2020

This One Sky Day (revisited)

Yesterday we enjoyed a virtual visit from the fabulous Leone Ross: she took a class with students on the Creative Writing MA at Cardiff University and in the evening we had a chat about her new novel.

The attached review was originally published in Wales Arts Review on 10 May this year, and a link posted on this blog shortly thereafter. I am re-posting the review in celebration of Leone’s visit.

In her new novel, fifteen years in the making, the British-Jamaican author Leone Ross offers the reader an imagined island, like Coleridge’s caverns, measureless to man. The novel, taken as whole, is an infectious celebration of life, and especially of love, in all its divergent glories and sorrows, as well as a timely reminder of the perils of judgmentalism and prejudice.

On Popisho, a Caribbean nation in which the inhabitants are blessed with unique attributes, ‘a little something-something’ called ‘cors’— for example, the ability to talk with animals, or walk through walls — the ruthless Governor Intiasar controls the local economy with his monopoly of the toy factories, staffed by woefully underpaid workers, through which the island gains its revenue, and its leaders their fortunes. In response to this injustice, among others, a mysterious graffiti artist has daubed the walls of the factories with exhortations in orange paint, notably THERE IS AN ALTERNATIVE, while a group of scavenging indigents, reviled and outcast, who inhabit the nearby Islands of the Dead, serve as a collective scapegoat for all the failures and frustrations of the population at large.

The island of Popisho is itself a wondrously unreliable narrator, a place that harvests stories as readily as its supply of edible and intoxicating butterflies, and it evoked, for me, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the fictional worlds that serves as a precursor for this equally inventive novel. There are other influences: the author herself has mentioned Tony Morrison and Roald Dahl, among others, but I was reminded also of Alejo Carpentier and Jean Rhys, also Caribbean writers with a sharp eye for the follies and foibles of humankind.

The novel follows a single day in the life of three characters and their interlocking stories: one is Anise, whose ‘cors’ is to heal others, although she is unable to heal herself of whatever ailment causes her own babies to be stillborn. Anise has a cheating husband, but her quest to track him down and confront him leads her somewhere far more interesting, as she joins the riotous residents of a brothel in their resistance to a group of overly pushy punters.

Romanza Intiasar, the disowned teenage son of the Governor, whose cors is the facility to tell truth from lies, has fled the family home to live among the indigents with his male lover, Pilar. During the course of the day he comes across Xavier Redchoose — the novel’s central character — gifted with the ability to impress flavour into food, with the mere touch of his fingers. This awesome endowment has earned him the title of ‘macaenus,’ which carries with it the obligation to feed every citizen, once, and at an opportune time, in his restaurant — aptly called The Torn Poem. On the day in question, Xavier has been asked by the Governor to prepare the wedding feast for his daughter, Sonteine, and the request, more especially the man who has made it, vexes him greatly.

One of the features of island life is the preponderance of butterflies, which can be grabbed in mid-flight and eaten, offsetting a brief but glorious intoxication. If butterfly-quaffing is the equivalent of a fine wine or a spliff of quality ganja, the consumption of moth is something darker, shameful and more dangerous: a Popisho version of crystal meth. Xavier is a conflicted man, haunted both by the ghost of his dead wife and his addiction to moth. He has been in recovery for quite some time, but when a young fisherman gifts him a prize moth, he secretes it carefully away in a cloth pouch and carries it with him, just in case.

Popisho is a wonderfully sensuous island, and its qualities are those of abundance: fruit orchards, vines and resplendently coloured flowering bushes that border and encroach upon the human dwelling places. The scents of green pepper, ginger and cardamon float dense on the air. This sensory abundance is so all-encompassing that one is not surprised when things get out of hand, as they do, in the course of the day — the inevitable consequence, one feels, of ‘too-muchness’ — houses bend and shudder, an avalanche of scarlet physalis flowers fall from the sky forming immense puffy snowdrifts, and, alarmingly, women’s vulvae, or ‘pum-pums’, drop from their prescribed places and have to be snatched up and hidden from harms’s way, or better still, reattached, before being lost and picked up by the wrong owner. To rack up the tension a little more, a hurricane is on its way.

But just as mayhem threatens to overwhelm the narrative, there are moments of exquisite tenderness and beauty, one of which involves the emerging friendship between Xavier and Romanza, when, in the course of a short sea crossing to the Dead Islands, Romanza steps from the canoe and appears to walk on water, beckoning Xavier to follow. The notion has a famous biblical precedent, of course, but on this occasion walking on water seems simply to be the natural course of things; rather than a show of divine intervention, their feat is merely an emanation of the island, whose colours, scents and music permeate the lives of its inhabitants in magical ways. As Romanza comments to Xavier, while the two stroll across the coral reef and look down on yellow sea anemones and smiling runner fish, ‘I hear some places in the world prettier than Popisho, but I can’t believe it.’ I, for one, was converted, and relished my brief time as a guest on Leone’s enchanted island. I’m suggesting a sojourn there to everyone I know, as a refreshing and subversive tonic for the times we live in.

This One Sky Day is available now from Faber in the UK and as Popisho, published by Farar, Straus and Giroux in the USA.

Hide & Seek

My short story ‘Hide & Seek’ is now out with the Three Impostors Press, the fifth publication in their Wentwood Tales series, inspired by the works of Arthur Machen. You can order it HERE.

‘Wentwood, the largest forest in Wales, undulates across the low-lying Gwent hills overlooking the coastal plain and the silver slash of the Severn estuary beyond. To the traveller entering south Wales it forms a mysterious green smudge along the northern horizon, and to the young Arthur Machen gazing east from the windows of his childhood home in the rectory at Llandewi Fach, north of Caerleon, it was a sinister and disturbing presence which lodged in a corner of his imagination for the rest of his life, emerging later as the setting for a number of his dark and unsettling stories. Machen walked the woodland trails and Roman roads of the forest many times, and was familiar with its ancient remains, old houses and farms and sheltered villages, but he concluded that it was ultimately unknowable.’

‘Hide & Seek’ is my own modest foray into Machen’s wooded netherworld. In it, an unsuspecting man finds his own reality turned inside out when his children disappear in the forest:

He sees only an image, or replica, of a life played out by others who – although they might resemble the figures, his own included, that make up his life, his world – are nonetheless figments, ghosts, a fleeting apparition. He is spellbound, but knows, at the precise moment of recognising the blankness of his mind, that he must break the spell, and whatever it costs him, he must return to his real life, return to the real nursing home, the car park, the Audi, his wife and kids. His decision is made; to assert the reality of the real.

Many thanks to the Three Impostors for making such a lovely object, to have and to hold (whatever you might make of the story).

The continuing recurrent image

A couple of weeks ago, in the town of Figueres, as I was about to cross the road by Plaça Catalunya, I spotted a van which bore a familiar motif.

The design was strongly reminiscent of the cover of my book The Vagabond’s Breakfast in its Argentine edition, translated by Jorge Fondebrider and published by Bajolaluna:

I am intrigued, no, obsessed, by the recurrence of patterns, moments of repetition, serendipitous instances that incite one to reflect on the seeming perpetuity of certain images. Especially when those images evoke patterns that have emerged as a consequence of one’s own actions, or, worse, one’s own mistakes.

When the editor at Bajolaluna, Miguel Balaguer, first proposed this design for the book cover I was pleasantly surprised (if a little concerned that it might misrepresent or exaggerate what the book was actually about) that the image already had a precursor in a photograph I had taken around that time. The photo captured a wall of bottles in the celebrated bar Poesia (Poetry) in the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires, the shelves stacked with a fabulous arrangement of spirits and wines; row upon row of colourful bottles, ascending to the ceiling in a most picturesque and alluring way; a display to delight any dipsomaniac. 

The tableau brought to mind a fantasy voiced by Lowry’s Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, in Under The Volcano, sunk in the depths of his own, self-driven desolation. The outburst occurs as the Consul attempts to recall an earlier life in Granada, Spain, and terminates with the terrible realisation – hyperbolic, no doubt, but nonetheless alarming – that somewhere, in one of those innumerable bottles, was the very thing that he had lost, and would never retrieve:

‘How many bottles since then? In how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses – towering, like the smoke from the train that day – built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill . . . bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean . . . the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal . . . How indeed could he hope to find himself to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, for ever, the solitary clue to his identity?’

What can a novelist learn from a nomadic reindeer herder?

In Wayfinding, by Michael Bond, a fascinating account of how people find their way in and around the world (and the perils of GPS on our innate navigational systems), the author quotes a Siberian reindeer herder on how to avoid getting lost in the wilderness:

When you travel in the tundra, you always think ‘Have I taken the right direction?’ And ‘Have I not missed the place I am going to?’ Everyone has these fears, especially if you believe that you should have already reached a place but you cannot see any sign of it around, these fears become really strong. Now, you should not surrender to these fears. You should be brave! It is not easy, especially when you are alone in the darkness. You can think, for example, ‘I have probably gone too far to the left, I should go a little bit to the right of the course I am taking now.’ You can even eventually become completely sure about this, especially if you do not see the place when you think you should already be there. Still, you should not change the course. If you keep on the same course, you will eventually come somewhere, maybe not the place you wanted, but still to a place you know . . . If you change course just once, you will get lost, because if you change it once you will want to change it again . . . If you start changing course, you will be unable to stop, believe me, nobody can. Then you will start to go in circles until your reindeer drop down . . . All the people who have become lost in the tundra and died did so because they were not brave enough and surrendered to their fears. *

More than anything else, the passage cited by Bond reminded me of writing a novel. Everything about it: the need to continue in a predetermined line, not to be distracted by detours to the left or to the right (with its echoes of Wallace Stephens’ firecat in ‘Earthy Anecdote’); the fact that if you change course once you will do so again; and the final catastrophe of going around in ever diminishing circles until your reindeer (or your ideas) lie down and die . . .  It is such a salutary tale! Even if I had never made the association between writing fiction and wandering in the wilderness before, I would now, and it will never leave me. 

*Cited from Kirill V. Istomin (2013) ‘From invisible float to the eye for a snowstorm: the introduction of GPS by Nenets reindeer herders of western Siberia and its impact on their spatial cognition and navigational methods’. In Judith Miggelbrink et al, eds Nomadic and Indigenous Spaces: Productions and Cognitions (Routledge, 2013).

My New British Passport: Made in France, Printed in Poland

I never asked for a new passport, but last month I received a demand from the Passport Office to renew my old one. This came as a surprise, since the passport is (was) valid until March 2022, but was being withdrawn due to something called ‘Brexit’.  As I later discovered, passports of a certain vintage were to be deemed invalid even if they had many months to run before their expiry date.

I was more than a little sad to send in my old EU passport, filled with many interesting stamps and visas. I had become quite attached to it. As for this ‘Brexit’, I am told it is a famous and well-known thing which has beset the times, wreaking havoc upon man and beast alike (many creatures being stranded in transit between this land and others, even as I write).  All of this has been impressed rudely upon me since returning to my home in Wales in early December.

I had been living, since August, in a small and remote Catalan village — my family home from home for nearly twenty years —which has no cases of COVID, and in which the neighbours look out for one another, by and large. It is a close community, and despite the typical village hazards of everyone knowing everyone else’s business, it feels like a safe place to be in these hazardous times. There is a genuine sense of community, something almost unheard of in UK cities nowadays. So Mrs Blanco and I weighed up the pros and cons of returning to Cardiff. 

Pros were: (a) we would get to see our daughters for Christmas and (b) we would stand a chance of getting a COVID vaccine far more quickly than if we stayed in Spain. 

Cons were: (a) we would have to follow quarantine rules, despite moving from a place with no COVID to an area with more COVID per head of population than anywhere else in Europe — see diagram below indicating COVID rates in Wales as compared with UK and Europe, BBC Wales 14 December, 2020; (b) we would almost certainly have to go into a further period of lockdown — there seems to be a glorious indifference to safety here in the UK and, unlike in Spain, face masks are a rarity except inside shops and offices — which, inevitably, occurred just as we were emerging from quarantine; (c) we would, as a consequence of (b) be restricted to taking exercise and walking our aged dog, Bruno, in a city park near our house. But I don’t want to whinge . . . millions of people have it far, far worse than us. At least we have a roof over our heads, food, a warm house, a loving family . . .

Long story short, the Pros won out, and here we are.

Much has been written about British exceptionalism in recent times, including by me, and I don’t especially wish to add to the growing literature, but I must mention just one thing: it strikes me as rather odd when a police chief announces on national radio that it would be ‘un-British’ of his officers to set up road-blocks in order to question and fine persons found to be breaking the regulations on correct behaviour with regard to COVID, as I heard on BBC Radio 4 on Monday’s Today programme. The man in question was the chief of a Northern English police force, I forget his name. I can find no discussion of this in the media, and yet it seems to me an astonishing pronouncement. Does this man think the COVID virus gives a shit about British exceptionalism? 

In Catalunya, if you were found out and about in your car at the weekend without a valid reason — and had failed to fill out an appropriate form detailing that reason — you would be fined 300 €, no questions asked. The system works. Numbers indicate that a relatively large fine is something of a deterrent when trying to contain a widespread and potentially deadly virus. How very un-British.

But this laxity has been the attitude of our leaders since the beginning of the outbreak, when Boris blathered on about the God-given right of the Englishman to go to the pub, and look where it’s gotten us, what with much of the UK in lockdown over Christmas, including the whole of Wales.

Back to the passport.

The new thing arrived this morning. I am in two minds about it. Firstly, and against my better judgement, I approve of the colour on a purely aesthetic, if not a symbolic level. It works better with the golden Royal Arms: a lion wearing a crown and quite possibly laughing (or yawning) — and a unicorn, an appropriately fictional beast. Plus ça change.

Welsh

Scots Gaelic

Irish

My photo — in which, as Mrs Blanco helpfully pointed out, I resemble a criminal gang member, possibly even a Mexican cartel boss — does not flatter, but when do passport photos ever achieve more than a passing resemblance to their subjects? In ten years’ time, when the passport expires, and I am a wizened and decrepit old maniac, I may well find it flattering. Indeed, when that time comes, who knows what the alignment of our nation will be? Almost certainly the United Kingdom will be no more. Scotland will be an independent country and Ireland will be united, and I very much doubt that, as a Welshman, I will want to be a citizen of the residual mess of a nation, torn apart by the regressive fantasies of the Little Englanders, and the associated qualities of prejudice, ignorance and racism that their belief system upholds.

Back to the passport.

A new feature is that the title of the document is written, as you can see, in six languages. English, obviously, and then, in descending order:

Welsh

Scots Gaelic

Irish

French

Spanish

French

SpanishThe first three are indigenous languages of these islands, and that’s fair enou

The first three are indigenous languages of these islands, and that’s fair enough. French is (or was) the official language of diplomacy, but is it still? I doubt it. And besides, for many Brexiteers, it is the French, as much or even more than the Germans, that they object to on principle. Especially Nigel Farage, whose surname, of course, is French, whichever way you pronounce it.

Spanish, ahead of English, is the most widely spoken first language in the world (discounting Mandarin Chinese, which is spoken by more than either of them, if not across so wide an area of the world’s surface). So I guess that would explain the inclusion of the language of Cervantes. All told, it strikes me as a generous and inclusive list, which, given the generally monoglot and monocultural attitude of those who demanded the new passport in the first place, strikes me as somewhat counter-intuitive.

Finally, considering the fuss made by the Brexiteers about ‘taking back control’ — that idiotic phrase: take back control of what precisely? — and asserting the UK’s ‘independence’ from those dastardly continentals, it is deeply ironic that my new passport, rather than being an all-British affair, was actually produced by a French company and printed in Poland.

It transpires that in 2018, following open tender under public procurement rules, the Franco-Dutch security firm Gemalto was selected over British banknote and travel document printer De La Rue to produce the new passports. Hurrah for the free market! I hear you exclaim. However, the success of Gemalto in winning the contract proved highly controversial — after all, we took back control, didn’t we? — and the production of British passports subsequently moved from Tyneside to Tczew, in Poland, resulting in the loss of 170 jobs at De La Rue’s Gateshead factory. For the record, Gateshead voted Leave by a 57%-43% majority in the 2016 EU referendum. Gemalto, meanwhile, has since been taken over by the French multinational Thales, a leading manufacturer of advanced weapon systems and munitions (share price 73.36 €). 

The blow to De La Rue employees in Gateshead did not prevent the constituency from undergoing an 11% swing towards the Tories at the 2019 general election. Apparently the lure of ‘Independence’ from Europe was too cheering a proposition to be flushed down the toilet by a vote for anyone other than BoJo, despite the shambles of the new contract for the manufacture of UK passports, and the job losses it inflicted on the local community.

It has become almost a cliché in recent years to remark on the conflation of reality and fiction in the post-truth world — both here on Brexit Island, as well as in Trumpland — but  really, you couldn’t make this stuff up. 

As we creep towards the New Year, and the promise of further months of lies and dithering from an incompetent government, intent on handing out lucrative contracts to their chums for the running of Test and Trace (remember that?) and much else besides, and the unrolling of the various COVID vaccines, and a seemingly inevitable crashing out of Europe, most likely without a deal, I cannot help but reflect on how this royal shitshow might end, and when, if ever, we might recover from the shame and idiocy evoked by those words, British exceptionalism; or whether indeed those words suffice for a condition that seems to be more adequately described as a sort of collective death wish, inflicted upon them by their Etonian overlords, and readily embraced by a significant proportion of the British people.

Contagious Fictions: Love in the Time of Cholera

I never fully appreciated Love in the Time of Cholera when it first appeared, back in the 1980s. I was still in thrall to the García Márquez of One Hundred Years of Solitude,and while acknowledging the meticulous skill of its composition, was confused that he had written what seemed like a nineteenth century novel. Looking back now, I can see that my reaction said more about me than about the book itself. One Hundred Years of Solitude is a young person’s novel, written in an explosion of creative energy over eighteen months and a million cigarettes, and Love in the Time of Cholera is a novel of maturity, or at the very least, of middle age. Its premise is the unfashionable concept of eternal love, involving a trio of characters: the eighteen-year old Florentino Ariza falls for the schoolgirl Fermina Daza, and courts her throughout her adolescence, before eventually being ditched when, at the age of nineteen, Fermina marries the far more eligible and somewhat older Dr Juvenal Urbino. The doctor, returning from Paris, where he has worked with the leading physicians of the day, first meets Fermina during the time of cholera, when she is suspected of having the disease (it turns out to be only a mild intestinal infection).

Dr Juvenal Urbino, the scion of one of the city’s great families, rises to even greater eminence for bringing the epidemic under control, imposing strict rules of cleanliness and  quarantine for the infected. In the meantime, far from being defeated by the seemingly irreversible obstacle of Fermina’s marriage, Florentino views it as a temporary setback, settles (but never settles down) and waits: he waits — as we are reminded on several occasions — 51 years, 9 months and 4 days, before proposing to Fermina at the funeral following Dr Urbino’s death in a fall from a ladder while chasing an irksome parrot up a mango tree. Understandably, she tells him to get lost. This much — Urbino’s death and Ariza’s proposal — is covered in the long opening chapter, after which we flash back more than half a century to the time of cholera itself. But cholera, as Thomas Pynchon pointed out in his New York Times review of the book, has two meanings in Spanish: ‘In their city, throughout a turbulent half-century, death has proliferated everywhere, both as el colera, the fatal disease that sweeps through in terrible intermittent epidemics, and as la colera, defined as choler or anger, which taken to its extreme becomes warfare. Victims of one, in this book, are more than once mistaken for victims of the other. War, “always the same war”, is presented here not as the continuation by other means of any politics that can possibly matter, but as a negative force, a plague, whose only meaning is death on a massive scale. Against this dark ground, lives, so precarious, are often more and less conscious projects of resistance, even of sworn opposition, to death.’

In this novel, however, cholera  — or disease in general — is also cognate with love.

Perversely, in light of the novel’s overarching themes of love and disease, by the end of the story it is only by concealing the more extreme and obsessive dimensions of his character, which have sustained him over half a century of longing, and offering her instead a more rational, reflective version of himself, does Florentino ultimately succeed in his goal of seducing Fermina. This is achieved by wearing a mask, the mask of rational ‘Old World’ wisdom and culture, rather than the raw, impassioned (New World) persona which she rejected five decades before. There is no suggestion in the novel that beneath this mask, Florentino does not continue to harbour the same romanticised fantasy of Fermina that he always has.

 I am taken with the idea that the novel’s ending — the reunited lovers ploughing the waters of the River Magdalena for eternity in an almost-empty river steamer — while suggesting that Florentino’s love for Fermina has finally overcome all resistance, also reveals that their relationship succeeds because it can only take place in a hypothetical  world in which they are free from the quotidian responsibilities of life: ‘It was as if they had leapt over the arduous calvary of conjugal life and gone straight to the heart of love. They were together in silence like an old married couple wary of life, beyond the pitfalls of passion, beyond the brutal mockery of hope and the phantoms of disillusion: beyond love.’ They are both at ‘the heart of love’ and ‘beyond love’— a seemingly contradictory predicament. They are like ‘an old married couple who have lived together long enough to know that love was always love, anytime and anyplace, but it was more solid the closer it came to death.’ Their love is a third age re-enactment (or parody) of young love, but at the same time they both know they are play-acting at being their younger selves, and they both know they are not. The affair works because they are at ease with this ambivalence and can appreciate that it is perfectly suited to their narrative present; two characters living out the remainder of their lives, which, however, is what we are all doing, one way or another.

The novel illustrates how love can take on multifarious forms and serve different purposes over the course of a person’s life, or as Nicholas Shakespeare observes, in his Introduction to the acclaimed translation by Edith Grossman in the Everyman edition: ‘It might appear in conventional frills parading the stock clichés of undying love, but underneath that lace it proposes, in all seriousness, something more subversive, more affirming. We can have what we want, says García Márquez. But we may have to wait a lifetime to appreciate properly its worth.’ I find this summary oddly unsatisfactory. And I know why, because finishing the novel, this time around, I cannot help thinking: but what of América Vicuña?

América Vicuña is a minor character in the novel. She is only fourteen when she first meets her legal guardian, Florentino Ariza, who initiates a sexual relationship with her. Florentino considers sex to be exempt from moral obligations, and chooses to ignore the power dynamics in a relationship foisted by him — a man now in his seventies— on an adolescent. It is a relationship that elsewhere (outside of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, that is) would be termed paedophilic, and he remains oblivious to América’s anger, sadness and self-loathing when, after a couple of years of forbidden sexual liaisons, which he closely manages and controls, he abruptly terminates their relationship to devote his energies to Fermina Daza.

Here is the way that García Márquez introduces América: ‘She was still a child in every sense of the word, with braces on her teeth and the scrapes of elementary school on her knees, but he saw right away the kind of woman she was soon going to be, and he cultivated her during a slow year of Saturdays at the circus, Sundays in the park with ice cream, childish late afternoons, and he won her confidence, he won her affection, he led her by the hand, with the gentle astuteness of a kind grandfather, toward his secret slaughterhouse. For her it was immediate: the doors of heaven opened to her.’ And as if this account of grooming were not creepy enough, the narrative insists that América, rather than being the victim of abuse, begins to ‘take the initiative’. The details are presented in their full ickiness: ‘She was no longer the little girl, the newcomer, whom he had undressed, one article of clothing at a time, with little baby games: first these little shoes for the little baby bear, then this little chemise for the little puppy dog, next these flowered panties for the little bunny rabbit, and a little kiss on her papa’s delicious dickey-bird. No: now she was a full-fledged woman, who liked to take the initiative.’

Whose fantasy is this, we wonder, of a ‘full-fledged woman’, with América now all of sixteen? It goes on, in the episode with the typewriter upon which Florentino has embarked on his second series of daily letter to Fermina: ‘She continued typing with just one finger of her right hand, and with her left felt for his leg, explored him, found him, felt him come to life, grow, heard him sigh with excitement, and his old man’s breathing became uneven and labored. She knew him: from that point on he was going to lose control, his speech would become disjointed, he would be at her mercy, and he would not find his way back until he reached the end. She led him by the hand to the bed as if he were a blind beggar on the street, and she cut him into pieces with malicious tenderness; she added salt to taste, pepper, a clove of garlic, chopped onion, lemon juice, bay leaf, until he was seasoned and on the platter, and the oven was heated to the right temperature.’ The reader will observe how this culinary vignette echoes the earlier reference to América being ‘led to the slaughterhouse’ by her guardian.

Of course, América never becomes ‘the kind of woman she was going to be’ because she dies by her own hand, in heartbreak at Florentino Ariza’s desertion of her. Having deflowered her as a child, taken her innocence and used her to gratify himself in his grotesque self-pity, Florentino Ariza callously dumps her once he has decided to focus all his amorous intention on wooing the widow Daza. After news of América’s death, when Florentino Ariza is on his pleasure cruise with Fermina, we learn that: ‘At a certain moment, the pangs of grief for América Vicuña made him twist with pain, and he could not hold off the truth any longer: he locked himself in the bathroom and cried, slowly, until his last tear was shed. Only then did he have the courage to admit to himself how much he had loved her.’

Considering how love and cholera are so intertwined in this novel, and the fact that this symbiosis of love and disease — or love as a kind of disease — is flagged up throughout, it seems to me significant that the innocent América falls victim to the outrages of the much older, sophisticated figure of Florentino (whose name derives from the city that, more than any other, evokes the European Renaissance), just as the native Colombians fall victim to the plague of cholera, brought about, in large part, by passenger ships from Europe, in an epidemic that persists throughout the novel, even re-emerging at the very end — in spite of official denials — when Florentino and Fermina are enjoying each other on their way to the city of La Dorada, on the banks of the river Magdalena.

América’s teenage suicide, while Florentino and Fermina are slipping into a second adolescence on the river boat, seems to have been neglected by critics; perhaps it is considered too ‘uncomfortable’ an area to address in the work of a writer as lionised as Gabo, as he is known to Colombians and his devoted readers worldwide. But my objection to this oversight is based not merely on the sexual exploitation and subsequent dismissal América receives at the hands of her guardian; it is more that by minimising this part of the story we might miss something critical. Might it be that there is a deeper message here than merely pointing out the tragedy in which Florentino is implicated, and is found so severely wanting? I scour the internet for articles about América Vicuña and find very little of any significance, and then I stumble across a piece by the Venezuelan writer Federico Vegas, who has an essay in El Nacional about this very subject, titled, promisingly ‘De Lolita Haze a América Vicuña’, in which he draws comparison between the two nymphets (Nabokov’s term). In his essay, he is at pains to point out the seismic importance of Lolita in Humbert Humbert’s life, the fact that she is the focal point of his obsession from start to finish. On the other hand, the episode with America Vicuña is, in the context of Love in the Time of Cholera, nothing more than an anecdote near the end of a long novel. Indeed, as Vegas points out, Florentino’s happiness that América has left no clue of his role in her death seems to occupy more space than the sorrow he endures as a result of it.  

Vegas, like me, is returning to Love in the Time of Cholera half a lifetime after his first reading of it. He is a self-confessed fan; Gabo, he says, is one of his four favourite writers, the others being Cervantes, Nabokov and, a little strangely, perhaps, Truman Capote. Like me, he is shocked by the lack of attention paid by critics to the episode with América Vicuña. How, he asks, did he not take in this episode the first time round? While not suggesting that the novelist shares the moral turpitude of his protagonist, ‘he is responsible for the consequences of his actions, or of the effect that they produce on his readers.’ The episode with América seems abhorrent to him — the rape and corruption of a child, effectively and in fact. But there is more than one way of reading the América Vicuña story: one of these reflects a major shift in the treatment of and intolerance towards sexual abuse over the past forty years; another is, rather shamefully, the veneration in which García Márquez was held, and which, in the machista culture of Latin America, allowed such unsavoury details to be swept under the carpet, especially as an author of ‘magical realist’ novels — that is, novels in which the bar for the suspension of disbelief is raised indefinitely. However, this latter explanation doesn’t convince me any more than the first. A third, more appealing possibility is that the episode is there for another purpose entirely, and that seems bound up, among other things, with her name.

García Márquez always chose the names of his characters with great care, and it seems to me no coincidence that the two main protagonists, Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza, have names that begin and end with the same letters, and when uttered together produce a particular sort of music, a pleasing symmetry of rhyme and assonance.

América Vicuña — another name that echoes around the vowel ‘a’ — is remarkable in that it bears the name of the continent, as well as almost containing the Spanish word for a cradle (cuna). A vicuña or vicuna, is the name of a species of small camelid ruminant, similar to the guanaco, which might also be significant, in the context. While América is not an uncommon first name in Latin America, deriving from Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512) the Italian navigator who made three voyages to the Caribbean and South America between 1499 and 1504 and whose name was thereafter appropriated to refer to both continents, North and South, it is certainly no accident that the author uses it here to refer to the child who is dumped by her protector-abuser and who, ‘in the grip of mortal depression . . . swallows a flask of laudanum stolen from the school infirmary.’

Once again, towards the end of the book, we witness the interjection of the Old World on the New, as a second wave of cholera brings with it death and corruption, echoing the systematic unleashing of diseases such as smallpox — not to mention the blight of slavery — on the indigenous peoples of the continent. How significant, then, that as Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza are reunited in love, the approach to the city whose name was taken from the ‘El Dorado’ of legend, fabled as the target for all of Europe’s lust for gold, should also provide the setting for the sudden appearance of bodies floating in the murky waters of the river: ‘At night they were awakened not by the siren songs of manatees on the sandy banks but by the nauseating stench of corpses floating down to the sea. For there were no more wars or epidemics, but the swollen bodies still floated by. The Captain, for once, was solemn: “We have orders to tell the passengers that they were accidental drowning victims.” Instead of the screeching of the parrots and the riotous noise of invisible monkeys, which at one time had intensified the stifling midday heat, all that was left was the vast silence of the ravaged land.’  The sinister way in which the epidemic is denied by the authorities (‘We have orders . . .’) foreshadows the increasingly shrill denials of Jair Bolsonaro — nicknamed the ‘Tropical Trump’ — that COVID is a hoax, and that he personally, would have no qualms about contracting the disease: ‘In my particular case, because of my background as an athlete, I wouldn’t need to worry if I was infected by the virus. I wouldn’t feel anything or at the very worst it would be like a little flu or a bit of a cold.’

Back on the river boat, Florentino and Fermina have become intimate, though Fermina takes the precaution of imbibing regular drafts of anisette to prepare the way. Kissing her, Florentino recognises ‘the sour smell of old age’ but ‘consoled himself with the thought that he must give off the same odor, except that he was four years older, and she must have detected it in him, with the same emotion.’     

Still reeling from that fervent and malodorous kiss, they take the leap, and become lovers. This is achieved with admirable directness on Fermina’s part, who, a glass of anisette in one hand and a cigarette in the other, allows Florentino ‘to explore her withered neck with his fingertips, her bosom armoured in metal stays, her hips with their decaying bones, her thighs with their raging veins.’ No doubt bored by the half-century’s dead weight of his anticipation, she tells him: ‘If we’re going to do it, let’s do it . . . but let’s do it like grownups.’ The description of their lovemaking is not pretty, as Florentino surveys the woman he has waited for all this time: ‘Her shoulders were wrinkled, her breasts sagged, her ribs were covered by a flabby skin as pale and cold as a frog’s.’ He tells her he has remained a virgin for her. She doesn’t believe him, but likes the spirited way in which he says it. This is all very well, but consider that he then remembers the way ‘he had often taken care of América Vicuña, whose diaper smell awakened maternal instincts in him, but he was disturbed at the idea that she disliked his odor: the smell of a dirty old man. But all that belonged in the past.’

I find it significant that it is only after the news of América’s death comes through that the couple finally attempt to make love; significant, again, that after his well-documented sexual adventures with six hundred and twenty-two women, and after half a century of anticipating this precise moment, Florentino cannot get it up. ‘She searched for him where he was not, she searched again without hope, and she found him, unarmed. “It’s dead,” he said.’

After all the waiting, Florentino’s impotence — temporary though it is — comes almost as a relief. The paradox is not lost on the attentive reader, especially in the light of his last seduction by the sixteen-year-old América, in which he was forced to play the passive role.

And at the end of the book, the themes of love and cholera are reunited once more, as the river boat flies the yellow flag of contagion, and the lovers ply up and down the Magdalena. ‘How long,’ the captain asks Florentino Ariza — who is in fact the general manager of the river boat company, and therefore his boss — ‘can we keep up this goddamn coming and going.’ ‘Forever,’ he replies.

I would suggest that three related themes permeate this novel: love as contagion, as exemplified by Florentino Ariza’s lifelong affliction; the corruption of innocence, as boatloads of Europeans bring the plague of cholera to the once virgin lands of America, just as América Vicuña is plundered and then abandoned; and cholera as rage: rage at the exploitation and neglect of the native population, when the fatalities caused by war and disease are made invisible, and the statistics of death merged.  Elsewhere in García Márquez’s work, most famously at the massacre of workers at the banana plantation in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the statistics of death are foregrounded. The incident is based on actual events, when, in December 1928, under threats from the US government to ‘send in the marines’ in support of the United Fruit Company, who owned the plantation there, the Colombian army murdered an unknown number of workers in the town of Ciénaga. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, a total of 5,000 dead is mentioned. The Wikipedia entry on the massacre suggests fewer, but no one knows the real number of deaths.         

Now, does that sound familiar?