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.
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.
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.
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:
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?
Contagious Fictions: tracing truths in Saramago’s Blindness
During the opening weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic many of us tuned in every evening to hear the latest statistics of the newly infected and the dead. As the figures mounted, this morbid need to know became a habit, fed by a convention of news reporting in which any tragedy, any disaster, is measured by the number of its casualties.
This televised event was interesting for a number of reasons, not least because we now know that the statistics released each day in the solemn pantomime enacted by the Health Secretary, flanked on one side by the ghoulish Chris Witty and on the other by whoever was unfortunate enough to be dragged along for the press pummelling, were inaccurate, as there was not — and is still not— any reliable way of measuring the fatalities: no one has produced an algorithm to accurately record which of the ‘excess deaths’ are related to COVID and which are not (the term ‘excess deaths’ refers to those deaths above the figure normally to be expected for a given period among a population). Figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics indicated that the coronavirus was to blame for more than two-thirds of the excess deaths in England and Wales, based on the number of confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 reported on death certificates. According to an article in the New Scientist on 29 April, that left approximately a third of excess deaths unexplained. Some of these may have been coronavirus cases without obvious symptoms, or cases where doctors weren’t confident enough to mention COVID-19 on the death certificate, and these were left off the statistics for release by the government. A Financial Times analysis suggested that the virus had led to 45,000 deaths in the UK by 21st April, more than twice the official figure at that time, of 17,000. The statistics of death are confusing, and we may — and no doubt will — argue about them for a long time to come.
Now, imagine a world in which that situation is turned on its head, and no one, but no one, dies. Death takes a holiday. The statistics would then report on the absence of death. The round figure zero of those who have died, day after day. Such is the opening scenario of José Saramago’s Death At Intervals, his 2005 novel in which an epidemic of immortality strikes an unnamed country.
Among writers of the past fifty years, Saramago’s claim to fame might be made on the strength of his imaginative repertoire alone, but it is not only as a conjuror of ‘what if’ scenarios that he is remarkable: the writing too is masterful, with long twisting sentences and slyly perturbing dialogue, such as the conversation near the start of the novel, when, in this Catholic land, a cardinal berates the prime minister for a speech he has just made, in which he stated that the country will accept the challenge of the body’s immortality, if that is God’s will. The cardinal is profoundly shocked, since ‘without death, there is no resurrection, and without resurrection, there is no church.’ God, he suggests, would not commit the mortal sin of suicide. With deft irony, Saramago then has the cardinal suffer an acute attack of appendicitis: he is rushed to hospital for an emergency operation, and as he is sucked down the the tunnel of anaesthesia, ‘in the fleeting moment that precedes a total loss of consciousness . . . he thought that if, despite everything, he did die, that would mean, paradoxically, that he had vanquished death.’
In a recent article on reading Camus’ La Peste in the context of the current plague, Jacqueline Rose writes that the statistics of death hold a grip over us because such knowledge delivers the false impression of being on top of a situation that we know to be out of control, exacerbated in certain countries by government incompetence. ‘Counting,’ she writes, ‘is at once a scientific endeavour and a form of magical thinking’, and this may be so, but it does not help, since having the numbers in front of us does nothing to allay our sense of impotence. In Camus’s novel, we are reminded, certain people begin questioning the statistics, wondering if they are all, in fact, attributable to the plague. What, they ask, would be the normal rate of death for a city of this size? Questioning the accuracy of the official statistics in this way was precisely the route chosen by Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in their attempts to make the pandemic ‘go away’.
However world leaders minimised the threat at the start of the outbreak — including Boris Johnson famously suggesting that the British people ‘take it on the chin, take it all in one go and allow the disease, as it were, to move through the population, without taking as many draconian measures’ — the people themselves, faced with a lack of available information about Coronavirus, wanted to find out what might be coming to them. During those early weeks, sales of Camus’ novel rose exponentially, as did lesser works such as Stephen King’s The Stand and Dean Koontz’s The Eyes of Darkness. Netflix recorded massive numbers watching movies such as Outbreak and, especially, Contagion, one of those top-heavy Hollywood flops that labours so frantically to crank up the tension that the viewer is beset by a fatigue as deadly as any virus long before the closing credits have started to roll.
Early on in the pandemic, I was invited by the Argentine writer Jorge Fondebrider to contribute to a joint global venture, involving mostly Latin American writers, but also a handful from Europe and other parts of the world, all of us sending in diary entries over the three months of March-May, 2020. The entries written in other languages were translated into Spanish and all of the pieces will eventually be published, in homage to Defoe, as a Journal of the Plague Year (Diario del año de la peste). The exercise of writing and sending my reports about the situation in Wales to Jorge, as well as the general obsession with plague and contagion that was rife at the time — but which already seems to be receding, no doubt prematurely — caused me to re-visit a couple of other works about contagion, written by authors other than Camus.
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Contagion was a recurring theme in José Saramago’s oeuvre. Ten years before Death At Intervals, he published Blindness — which was later made into a well-crafted and underrated Hollywood film, directed by Fernando Meirelles and starring Julianne Moore. Blindness is about an epidemic in which the entire population loses their sight. It is a truly terrifying novel, which also offers a devastating exploration of human depravity and human resilience.
The first victim of the plague is struck blind while sitting behind the wheel of his car, waiting at traffic lights. The lights turn to green just as the man loses his sight, and begins shouting: ‘I am blind, I am blind.’ Amid the furious blasting of horns, a few pedestrians come to lend assistance. One of these offers to drive him home, and after helping the blind man into his flat, steals his car. The contagion is underway: the car thief becomes infected, as does the ophthalmologist the first man visits with his wife the next day. Overnight, the doctor, and everyone who was in his waiting room when the first man appeared, turns blind. There is no pathology to the blindness; no lesions, no signs of ocular infection. The eyes of the blind appear normal. The only person not affected by blindness is the doctor’s wife, but when this first group of infected cases are rounded up and escorted to an empty mental hospital on the outskirts of the city, to be kept in quarantine, she feigns blindness so as not to be separated from her husband. This act of selflessness proves crucial, both to the well-being of the small group that becomes the focus of Saramago’s story, but also to our understanding of the disease as the symptom of a deeper affliction, a blindness embedded within the wider society. No explanation of the blindness is offered at this stage but, this being a novel by Saramago, we might infer the loss of a coherent moral compass, the absence of all direction not dictated by material greed. The epidemic, which spreads through proximity to an infected person, becomes known as ‘the white evil.’
Sequestered in the cavernous hospital, the small group of blind struggle to make sense of their new environment. No one in the novel is named, only described as they are initially introduced: the first blind man, the thief, the doctor, the girl with the dark glasses, the boy with the squint, the man with the eye patch. In the hospital, the inmates receive food, which is delivered by the soldiers who guard them, but they risk being shot if they venture too near to the gate, since the soldiers are terrified of becoming as blind as their charges. Inevitably, the numbers of infected grow, and the hospital fills up. The new arrivals tell of catastrophe and social breakdown; of aeroplanes and buses crashing, of all government collapsing as the country’s leaders succumb to blindness.
Among the newcomers are a group of men for whom incarceration provides the opportunity for personal gain through the exploitation of others, a familiar practice across human history, and the starting point, we might reflect, of all expansionist and colonial regimes. (In the The Walking Dead, before it jumped the shark, the oppressive micro-empire founded by Negan reflects the same impulse towards explicitly gendered domination and abusive control). The men arm themselves — one has smuggled in a pistol, and the others take apart beds and furniture to provide iron rods — and impose a regime of subjugation, or slavery by any other name. They confiscate the daily food deliveries, for which they demand payment from the other inmates, first through the handing over of jewellery and money, and later through the supply of sexual favours by the women of the other wards. During a night of sexual violence, one of the women in the first ward is killed, and the one sighted person in the hospital, the doctor’s wife, takes a decision that will change the course of all their lives. She also reveals that she can see, a fact that has already been surmised by the sharper members of her little troupe.
Saramago’s trademark narrative style, embedding dialogue within the main body of the paragraph, superimposing multiple voices amid descriptive and reflective passages, takes some getting used to, but is remarkably well suited to the kind of story he chooses to tell. There are numerous occasions in which things taken for granted by those who can see unravel when attempted by blind men and women. The chaos incited by greed (or ‘blind self-interest’), the brutal conflict over food, the squalor of the latrines occasioned by the inability of the blind to clean themselves, all of these are described mercilessly, as Saramago sketches a society gone to hell, the corridors of the hospital crowded with bodies crashing into one another, or else crawling along the floor amid the rising tide of filth, fingers feeling for the walls.
When a fire breaks out, the surviving blind escape into a world which is now utterly sunk into ruin and desperation. Led by the doctor’s wife, the group wander through the city, in a fashion reminiscent of those World War One film clips, in which the victims of a poison gas attack shuffle forward, each with his hands on the shoulder of the one in front. Finding refuge in an empty shop, the doctor’s wife leaves the others behind and goes in search of food. Most of the stores have been looted, but in the underground storeroom of one supermarket, she stocks up on chorizo sausage, black bread and water. Driven by hunger, she takes a few bites of the sausage. In the frantic passage that follows, she starts back through the supermarket, three shopping bags slung over each arm, and the blind, though they cannot see her, smell the goods she is carrying, ‘and in no time a blind man was shouting Who’s eating sausage around here’. The doctor’s wife is mauled by the grasping arms of the blind, and she ‘broke into flight, colliding, jostling, knocking people over, with a devil-may-care attitude that was wholly reprehensible, for this is not the way to treat blind people who have more than enough reason to be unhappy’, and is pursued breathless and stumbling out into the street, out into the pouring rain, where the scent of sausage now attracts a pack of feral dogs, who, however, soon disband (the streets, after all, provide enough cadavers to keep them going) save one, which licks her face, licks her tears away, and which she befriends after collapsing in rage and terror at the side of the road.
The human pack is subsequently joined by this ‘dog of tears’ in their trek across the city towards the doctor and his wife’s apartment, where they eventually settle, as an extended family of sorts, including the owner, the first man and his wife, the girl with the dark glasses, the old man with the eye patch, the boy with the squint, the litany of characters seemingly comprising all of humanity within the confines of the apartment. And it is their camaraderie and gentleness towards each other that redeems them, setting them apart from the desperate hordes of the blind who forage, fight and fornicate in the streets below.
Throughout the novel, there is an extraordinary awareness of language, and the way in which everyday speech is rooted within the visual. Sometimes this is done in such a way as to remind the reader how the normal order has been turned upside down; how things that have always been done a certain way must now be done differently. How familiar this is to us all now, in lockdown; perhaps most poignantly by the absence of touch or embrace, our inability to hug our loved ones — even, tragically, the impossibility, for many, of visiting their dying relatives in hospital. In Saramago’s novel, we are encouraged to reflect on the inversion of normality through those everyday sayings that take sight for granted: ‘Just imagine,’ says the girl with the dark glasses, stumbling on the staircase to her family apartment, on a return visit with the doctor’s wife, ‘stairs that I used to go up and down with my eyes closed.’ Then, the narration continues, segueing into the voice of an invisible commentator: ‘clichés are like that, they are insensitive to the thousand subtleties of meaning, this one for example, does not know the difference between closing one’s eyes and being blind.’ This sort of meta-commentary is not unusual in Saramago, who sometimes introduces an omniscient observer as an additional perspective to that offered by the doctor’s wife, whose vision, as the only sighted character, is otherwise the main point of view on offer. These subtle shifts of perspective are offered throughout, adding a kind of displacement, as though the reader is both inside the movement of the narrative and outside, looking in.
A shift in perspective is adopted again, when, shortly after arriving at her apartment, the doctor’s wife and the two other women in the group step out onto the balcony and wash away ‘the unbearable filth of the soul’ under the torrential rain in an act of ablution that, in less skilful hands, might appear too crassly symbolic, but here deftly captures and celebrates the miracle of their survival:
Perhaps in the building opposite, behind those closed windows some blind people, men, women, roused by the noise of the constant beating of the rain, with their head pressed against the cold window-panes covering with their breath on the glass the dullness of the night, remember the time when, like now, they last saw rain falling from the sky. They cannot imagine that there are moreover three naked women out there, as naked as when they came into the world, they seem to be mad, they must be mad, people in their right mind do not start washing on a balcony exposed to the view of the neighbourhood . . . my God how the rain is pouring down on them, how it trickles between their breasts, how it lingers and disappears into the darkness of the pubis, how it finally drenches and flows over the thighs, perhaps we have judged them wrongly, or perhaps we are unable to see this the most beautiful and glorious thing that has happened in the history of the city, a sheet of foam flows from the floor of the balcony, if only I could go with it, falling interminably, clean, purified, naked.
So much of what we say and do in the normal run of life comes under question when confronted by a turnaround in everyday circumstance. The cretinous appeals of Boris and his pals to come together with a ‘wartime spirit’ were brought into sharp perspective in the early days of the pandemic. Once, in mid-March, my wife visited our local Asda, in search of toilet rolls, to be confronted by row upon row of empty shelves. Ditto pasta and tinned tomatoes. At checkout, she commented in friendly fashion to the young man on the till, that it was a shame people took it upon themselves to ransack the place, rather than simply take sufficient for their needs. ‘It’s every man for himself, love,’ came the swift and hostile retort. So much for the spirit of the Blitz.
In subtle ways, Blindness challenges our preconceived notions about community and the individual. The underlying message of the novel, if it is not banal to speak in such terms, is one that suggests the obligations of the individual towards the wider society. Born to landless peasants, who were too poor to send him to grammar school, Saramago entered technical school at the age of twelve and worked for many years as a car mechanic. It was barely surprising, therefore, that he was for most of his adult life active within the Communist Party of Portugal. He remained unapologetic for the communist regimes of the twentieth century, claiming that, as an historical fact, the church’s history was more deplorable still, and that he was ‘hormonally’ committed to a communist ideology. How this seeps into Blindness is not difficult to see. The society that breeds the pandemic of sightlessness is steeped in greed and intolerance. In an interview from 2008, Saramago claimed: ‘I don’t see the veneer of civilisation, but society as it is. With hunger, war, exploitation, we’re already in hell. With the collective catastrophe of total blindness, everything surfaces — positive and negative. It’s a portrait of how we are.’ The crux is ‘who has the power and who doesn’t; who controls the food supply and exploits the rest.’ These sentiments recall those he uttered in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1998: ‘This same schizophrenic humanity that has the capacity to send instruments to a planet to study the composition of its rocks can with indifference note the deaths of millions of people from starvation. Going to Mars seems easier than going to visit one’s neighbour.’
The underlying belief in human goodness evident at the close of the book might appear at odds with the overtly pessimistic tone of much of the rest, but this paradox surely reflects the ambivalence present in the lives of ordinary people under duress. A similar ambivalence and accompanying unease provoked questions among many people during the COVID lockdown. How are we going to emerge from all this? Will we learn anything from the process? Will we begin to change our habits, be more respectful of the environment, and of each other? Speculation seems pointless, and the question of ‘how will we emerge from this’ brings to mind an enigmatic minor character in Blindness, a writer who has squatted the home of the first blind man and his wife, and who occupies himself by writing, in ball point pen, an account of all that he cannot yet see. He writes even though he cannot see what he has written, perhaps because ‘a writer manages to acquire in life the patience he needs to write.’ His parting words to the doctor’s wife, after showing her his work, are: ‘Don’t lose yourself, don’t let yourself be lost’, which, we are told, ‘were unexpected, enigmatic words that did not seem to fit the occasion.’
The redemptive power of love is a recurrent theme in Saramago’s work, and Blindness, in spite of everything, ends on a note of hope. The role of the female protagonist in leading the group to safety stands in marked contrast to the moral indigence of some of the male figures, especially during the novel’s bleaker moments, of which there are many. I would stop short of suggesting that she is meant to personify saintly self-sacrifice, but she certainly rises above the petty concerns that preoccupy most of her blind companions. When her husband sleeps with the girl with the dark glasses, she readily forgives them both; in contrast, she responds to the outrages committed against the women in the hospital with swift and deadly vengeance. Certainly, the love and tenderness the individuals in the group feel for each other provide a release from the relentless misery into which they have fallen, but it is a release based on the scraps of humanity the group is able to muster, thanks, in large respect, to the doctor’s wife ability to see. Does this suggest a sort of messianic role for her? Does she exemplify what Christians refers to as Grace? I am not sure, and it would be strange if it were so, at least in the work of an atheist such as Saramago; but her own words perhaps serve best to provide an answer, when, having regained his sight, she responds to her husband, the doctor’s, question: ‘Why did we become blind, I don’t know, perhaps one day we’ll find out, Do you want me to tell you what I think, Yes, do, I don’t think we did go blind, I think we are blind, Blind but seeing, Blind people who can see, but do not see.’
This essay first appeared in Wales Arts Review on 14 August under the title of ‘Contagious Realities’. Part Two, in which I consider Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera will follow.
Journal of the Plague Year (i)
As the coronavirus pandemic began to sweep the world, the Argentine writer Jorge Fondebrider wrote to friends and fellow writers around the world, asking for contributions to a Journal of the Plague Year (in homage to Defoe’s work of that title). Most of the contributors were from Latin America, but others lived in Europe or Asia. Jorge, an old friend, is indefatigable in organising people; all of the pieces were translated into Spanish, and will eventually be published in a single volume. The criteria were simply that the entries be under 500 words, and the resulting work, tracking the pandemic and the ways that different governments responded in diverse countries, makes for fascinating reading. Over the next three days, I will be posting my own contributions to the collection, made over the months of March, April and May as a record of my own experience of living with the pandemic in Wales.
As soon as the news broke that the plague had arrived in Europe, it was obvious it would come to Brexit Island, but our government was in denial. They gabbled on about the globally repudiated tactic of herd immunity. They refused to join forces with their EU counterparts in focus groups dedicated to resisting the pandemic, and they ignored the World Health Organisation recommendations for immediate lockdown. However, none of the efforts of Prime Minister Johnson or his pals to distance themselves from the place they fondly call ‘the continent’ was ever going to stop this thing from crossing the Channel — and with a vengeance, given the head start our leaders had allowed it. The extent of our Prime Minister’s lack of interest during the weeks before the lockdown is shocking: he didn’t turn up at five consecutive key COBRA meetings to discuss policy on the pandemic, and one senior government adviser told The Sunday Times that Boris ‘didn’t work weekends’ and ‘there was a real sense that he didn’t do urgent crisis planning.’ For Boris, resistance to the plague was merely a hindrance to the more pressing agenda of Brexit. However, it became apparent to many observers that the government’s laggardly approach was likely to have serious repercussions on the British population, such that the UK might turn out to be the European country most affected by the pandemic, and with the highest number of casualties.
On 20th March Boris announces the closure of the pubs. ‘We’re taking away the ancient, inalienable right of free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the pub,’ he said. The right-wing, Brexit-loving newspaper The Sun reports this rather differently: ‘Mr Johnson said it went against what he called ‘the inalienable free-born right of people born in England to go to the pub’. In this version, as Fintan O’Toole points out in an article in The Guardian, ‘the freedom to go to the pub was conferred by genetics and history, not on the “people of the United Kingdom” or “the British people”, but on “people born in England”. It does not apply to Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish people and certainly not to the 9.4 million people living in the UK who were born abroad. It is a particular Anglo-Saxon privilege.’ So, we — or rather, the English — are not going to the pub. I don’t care. I don’t drink any more. But that is not the point: as O’Toole reminds us, this outburst of Johnson’s was about something else: ‘What Johnson was really evoking was a very specific English sense of exceptionalism, a fantasy of personal freedom as a marker of ethnic and national identity.’ He was flagging up the fact that ‘we’ (the English) are special and different, not like those ‘continentals’. So we will, reluctantly, stay at home and not go to the pub, but we won’t impose a full lockdown just yet. We will wait and see, and Boris will continue to shake hands with whoever he likes because he is Boris, who at the age of five told his sister Rachel that his ambition was to be ‘king of the world.’
As the recipient of another man’s liver, I knew I would be one of those persons deemed ‘at risk’. I take immunosuppressants and therefore, in theory, am more susceptible to catching nasty things. I email my consultant and ask his advice. He tells me to follow government guidelines, and that I will shortly receive a letter with instructions about ‘shielding’, a new term to me, but one that will soon become very familiar.
I live in a house close to Cardiff city centre with my wife and daughter no. 1, who is a junior doctor, and living with us while saving to buy her own place. I am a university professor and walk into work most days, up the river and across the park. A pleasant walk. I am reasonably fit and visit the gym frequently. I walk my dog in the park. We get out at weekends. We live an active life.
When the plague comes to our island I decide not to go into work. I tell my Head of School that I will work from home as from 16th March. Daughter no. 2 visits us from London just before the lockdown is announced. Her employers there tell her she can work from home, and since she is here, she stays with us in Cardiff. We are all four at home then, for a few days. On Sunday 22nd March we drive to the mountains near my natal village and go for a long hike. We do not realise it will be our last excursion of this kind for a long time. On Monday 23rd March the university announces that it will close, and that if anyone wants to retrieve anything from their office they should do so now. I drive in and collect my plants, drive home. In the evening Boris announces to the nation in an evening broadcast that the lockdown has begun. He is in Churchillian mode, trying very hard to do serious and sober. The next day daughter no. 1 leaves home and moves in with a medic friend. She works in a local hospital and doesn’t want to infect me or her mother with the plague.
On the 1st April, as foretold by my consultant, I receive a letter from the Welsh Government telling me that as a person with ‘an existing health issue’ I need to take extra steps to avoid catching the plague. If I live with other people (i.e. my wife or daughter no. 2) I should ‘try to keep away from them as much as you can. Try not to be in the same room. If you have to be in the same room try and keep a window open. Keep three steps away . . . Do not sleep in the same bed if you can avoid it . . . Use different bathrooms if you can. If you share a bathroom, clean it after every use. Avoid using the kitchen at the same time as others and eat your meals in separate rooms. Clean all cups, plates and cutlery thoroughly.’
We are still allowed to exercise, and to take the dog for walks. I take my ancient dog, Bruno, for an early stroll by the River Taff, which divides the city in two. The path along the Taff doubles as a cycle track. As we climb onto it from the river bank, where we have been watching the swans, a cyclist, speeding towards us at thirty metres’ distance yells: ‘Get out the bloody way!’ I am so astonished at his rudeness that I am temporarily lost for words. The cyclist has swished past and is heading for the bridge. All I can see of him are his taut, jigging buttocks and his pumping legs. ‘Fuck off, you lycra-clad Nazi’ I yell, finally enunciating a phrase I have been dying to utter for some years now. Passers-by stop and stare, and follow my gaze upstream towards the cyclist. I am willing him to stop. I want him to return so we can have a proper confrontation. The adrenaline is racing through me. I want to rough him up, show him what’s what. The image of a 63 year old man wrestling with a wiry young sporting type on the sidewalk is not very becoming, I’ll admit, but I am fuming. What has come over me? Plague madness? Fortunately the man doesn’t return in response to my taunt. I shuffle home, pondering what might have been.
Boris comes down with the plague. Hardly surprising, considering the way he’s been ignoring his own advice about social distancing and shaking hands with everyone. Why’s it called social distancing anyway? Why isn’t it called personal distancing? He falls ill, and then, dramatically, gets taken into hospital, and onto an intensive care unit. The nation holds its breath.
Poems for staying at home (Day 40)
Quarantine means forty days, so Poems for staying at home is coming to an end, for now. Nearly all of the poems published here since April 20th can be found in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America. The final poem in the series, ‘Walking Backwards’, by the Guatemalan K’iche’ Maya poet Humberto Ak’Abal, is like a koan, self-explanatory in its simplicity, and yet not.
From time to time I walk backwards:
it’s my way of remembering.
If I were to walk only going forward,
I could tell you
what forgetting is.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Camino al revés
De vez en cuando camino al revés:
es mi modo de recordar.
Si caminara sólo hacia delante, t
e podría contar
cómo es el olvido.
Humberto Ak’Abal was born in 1952 in Momostenango, Guatemala, of the K’iche’ Maya people. He started out as a shepherd and weaver before leaving to find work in Guatemala City as a street vendor. He wrote in Maya-k’iche and Spanish, and his work has translated into many languages, including French, English, German, Arabic and Italian. Ak’Abal published twenty books of poetry, as well as three books of short stories, and two books of essays. Ak’Abal died suddenly in January 2019.