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?’
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).
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.
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?
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.
* * *
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.
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.
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.
In these dark times many people are unable to bury their dead, or even attend to their dying relatives. Fabio Morábito’s devastating poem captures the irony of grief and loss through the eyes of one mourner, whose histrionic appearance at the funeral turns all the attention on himself.
Here is a video recording I made of the English version, in strange morning light.
I always arrive late
when the eyes
of those attending
and some have already forgotten
the face of the deceased,
how old he was,
the cause of his death.
Then I arrive
with my anachronistic weeping,
in my mourner’s black
with its sincerity intact,
and like a conflagration
I offer out hugs,
clasp the hands of the widow
and of the orphans
between my hands,
the whole cortège witnesses
no one dares refute it,
people are embarrassed
and crowd together again
around the dead man,
the widow caves in
and breaks into sobs,
the orphans also
and the sound of weeping grows once more,
those who have not yet wept,
those who are there
who observe that it is the weeping of a returning tide
of considerable magnitude,
and they enter into it,
they forget about their dead
or remember them with greater clarity,
and the weeping flows faster,
dragging with it the weeping of other occasions,
its roar warns of a great weeping
which broadens out
and detaches itself from the dead,
for this I arrive late
at the weeping of others,
I come with another weeping
in my throat
which I let loose among the damp bodies
and I see how it clings to every tear
crackles in each of them,
and I am the only one who knows
it is my misfortune
they are weeping for,
that they are weeping for my dead
and bestow their weeping on me.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Yo siempre llego tarde
a los entierros,
cuando los ojos
de los concurrentes
se han secado
y algunos ya olvidaron
la cara del difunto,
qué edad tenía,
de qué murió.
Entonces llego yo
con mi llanto anacrónico,
con el negro de mi luto
en todo su candor aún,
retengo entre mis manos
las manos de la viuda
y de los huérfanos,
todo el cortejo asiste
a mi dolor,
nadie se atreve a contrariarlo,
la gente se avergüenza
y vuelve a apretujarse
alrededor del muerto,
la viuda no resiste
y rompe a sollozar,
los huérfanos también
y el llanto crece nuevamente,
alcanza a todos,
a los que no habían llorado aún,
a los que andan por ahí,
que advierten que es un llanto de reflujo,
y entran en él,
se olvidan de sus muertos
o los recuerdan con más claridad,
y el llanto se hace caudaloso,
arrastra llantos de otras épocas,
se advierte su bramido de gran llanto
que se expande
y se desliga de los muertos,
por eso llego tarde
al llanto de los otros,
vengo con otro llanto
en la garganta
que suelto entre los cuerpos húmedos
y veo cómo se prende en cada lágrima,
crepita en cada uno,
y soy el único que sabe
que es mi desdicha
la que están llorando,
que están llorando por mis muertos
y me regalan sus sollozos.
Fabio Morábito was born in Alexandria in 1955 and has lived in Mexico City since the age of fifteen. His award-winning poetry, short stories and essays have established him as one of Mexico’s best-known writers over the past 25 years. He is also a translator from Italian. Much of his work has appeared in translation, to growing international acclaim. Three of his poems appear in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America.
This great and terrible poem of witness is now ten years old. The poem has become a symbol of resistance to state and narco gang violence and has in turn brought death threats to its author, María Rivera. It offers testament to a pandemic of murders in Mexico, many of them the gratuitous and brutal killings of women. It is a poem that never loses its power.
Here is a video of the poet Clare E. Potter reading ‘The Dead’ in English.
For an interview with María Rivera by Dylan Brennan, in which she speaks of the origins of the poem, please click here.
A video of the poet reading ‘Los Muertos’ can be found here:
Here they come
the torn into pieces,
the women with their coccyx split apart,
those with their heads smashed in,
the little ones crying
inside dark walls
of minerals and sand.
Here they come
those who sleep in buildings
that house secret tombs:
they come with their eyes blindfolded,
their hands tied,
shot between their temples.
Here come those who were lost in Tamaupilas,
the woman they gang raped before killing her,
the man who tried to stop it and received a bullet,
the woman they also raped, who escaped and told the story
comes walking down Broadway,
consoled by the wail of the ambulances,
the hospital doors,
light shining on the waters of the Hudson.
Here they come
the dead who set out from Usulután,
from La Paz
from La Unión,
from La Libertad,
from San Salvador,
from San Juan Mixtepec,
from El Progreso,
from El Guante,
those who were given the goodbye at a karaoke party,
and were found shot in Tecate.
Here comes the one they forced to dig his brother’s grave,
the one they murdered after collecting a four thousand dollar ransom,
those who were kidnapped
with a woman they raped in front of her eight year old son
Where do they come from,
from what gangrene,
Here they come,
the dead so alone, so mute, so much ours,
set beneath the enormous sky of Anáhuac,
they drag themselves,
with their bowl of horror in their hands,
their terrifying tenderness.
They are called
the dead that they found in a ditch in Taxco,
the dead that they found in remote places of Chihuahua,
the dead that they found strewn across plots of crops,
the dead that they found shot in la Marquesa,
the dead that they found hanging from bridges,
the dead that they found without heads on common land,
the dead that they found at the side of the road,
the dead that they found in abandoned cars,
the dead that they found in San Fernando,
those without number they cut into pieces and have still not been found,
the legs, the arms, the heads, the femurs of the dead
dissolved in drums.
They are called
remains, corpses, the deceased,
they are called
the dead whose mothers do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose children do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose wives do not tire of waiting,
they imagine them in subways, among gringos.
They are called
baby clothes woven in the casket of the soul,
the little tee shirt of a three-month-old
the photo of a toothless smile,
they are called mamita,
they are called
in the tummy
and the newborn’s cry,
they are called four children,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
and a widow (a girl) who fell in love at primary school,
they are called wanting to dance at fiestas,
they are called blushing of hot cheeks and sweaty hands,
they are called boys,
they are called wanting
to build a house,
giving food to my children,
they are called two dollars for cleaning beans,
houses, estates, offices,
they are called
crying of children on earth floors,
the light flying over the birds,
the flight of pigeons in the church,
they are called
kisses at the river’s edge,
they are called
in the scrubland,
in the gardens of ranches,
in the gardens of ‘safe’ houses,
in some forgotten wilderness,
and in secret,
they are called
secrets of hitmen,
secrets of slaughter,
secrets of policemen,
they are called sobbing,
they are called mist,
they are called body,
they are called skin,
they are called warmth,
they are called kiss,
they are called hug,
they are called laughter,
they are called people,
they are called pleading,
they were called I,
they were called you,
they were called us,
they are called shame,
they are called sobbing.
Here they go
their bodies burned to a crisp,
their bones polished by the sand of the desert.
They are called
the dead women that no one knows no one saw being killed,
they are called
women who go out alone to bars at night,
they are called
working women who leave their homes at dawn,
they are called
they are called meat,
they are called meat.
without an age,
without a name,
they sleep in their cemetery:
its name is Temixco,
its name is Santa Ana,
its name is Mazatepec,
its name is Juárez,
its name is Puente de Ixtla,
its name is San Fernando,
its name is Tlaltizapán,
its name is Samalayuca,
its name is el Capulín,
its name is Reynosa,
its name is Nuevo Laredo,
its name is Guadalupe,
its name is Lomas de Poleo,
its name is Mexico.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
a las que les partieron el coxis,
a los que les aplastaron la cabeza,
los pequeñitos llorando
entre paredes oscuras
de minerales y arena.
los que duermen en edificios
de tumbas clandestinas:
vienen con los ojos vendados,
atadas las manos,
baleados entre las sienes.
Allí vienen los que se perdieron por Tamaulipas,
cuñados, yernos, vecinos,
la mujer que violaron entre todos antes de matarla,
el hombre que intentó evitarlo y recibió un balazo,
la que también violaron, escapó y lo contó viene
caminando por Broadway
se consuela con el llanto de las ambulancias,
las puertas de los hospitales,
la luz brillando en el agua del Hudson.
los muertos que salieron de Usulután,
de La Paz,
de La Unión,
de La Libertad,
de San Salvador,
de San Juan Mixtepec,
de El Progreso,
de El Guante,
a los que despidieron en una fiesta con karaoke,
y los encontraron baleados en Tecate.
Allí viene al que obligaron a cavar la fosa para su hermano,
al que asesinaron luego de cobrar cuatro mil dólares,
los que estuvieron secuestrados
con una mujer que violaron frente a su hijo de ocho años
¿De dónde vienen,
de qué gangrena,
los muertos tan solitos, tan mudos, tan nuestros,
engarzados bajo el cielo enorme del Anáhuac,
con su cuenco de horror entre las manos,
su espeluznante ternura.
los muertos que encontraron en una fosa en Taxco,
los muertos que encontraron en parajes alejados de Chihuahua,
los muertos que encontraron esparcidos en parcelas de cultivo,
los muertos que encontraron tirados en la Marquesa,
los muertos que encontraron colgando de los puentes,
los muertos que encontraron sin cabeza en terrenos ejidales,
los muertos que encontraron a la orilla de la carretera,
los muertos que encontraron en coches abandonados,
los muertos que encontraron en San Fernando,
los sin número que destazaron y aún no encuentran,
las piernas, los brazos, las cabezas, los fémures de muertos
disueltos en tambos.
restos, cadáveres, occisos,
los muertos a los que madres no se cansan de esperar
los muertos a los que hijos no se cansan de esperar,
los muertos a los que esposas no se cansan de esperar,
imaginan entre subways y gringos.
chambrita tejida en el cajón del alma,
camisetita de tres meses,
la foto de la sonrisa chimuela,
se llaman mamita,
en el vientre
y el primer llanto,
se llaman cuatro hijos,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
y una viuda (muchacha) que se enamoró cuando estudiaba la primaria,
se llaman ganas de bailar en las fiestas,
se llaman rubor de mejillas encendidas y manos sudorosas,
se llaman muchachos,
se llaman ganas
de construir una casa,
darle de comer a mis hijos,
se llaman dos dólares por limpiar frijoles,
casas, haciendas, oficinas,
llantos de niños en pisos de tierra,
la luz volando sobre los pájaros,
el vuelo de las palomas en la iglesia,
besos a la orilla del río,
en jardines de ranchos
en jardines de casas de seguridad
en parajes olvidados,
secretos de sicarios,
secretos de matanzas,
secretos de policías,
se llaman llanto,
se llaman neblina,
se llaman cuerpo,
se llaman piel,
se llaman tibieza,
se llaman beso,
se llaman abrazo,
se llaman risa,
se llaman personas,
se llaman súplicas,
se llamaban yo,
se llamaban tú,
se llamaban nosotros,
se llaman vergüenza,
se llaman llanto.
los pechos mordidos,
las manos atadas,
calcinados sus cuerpos,
sus huesos pulidos por la arena del desierto.
las muertas que nadie sabe nadie vio que mataran,
las mujeres que salen de noche solas a los bares,
mujeres que trabajan salen de sus casas en la madrugada,
se llaman carne,
se llaman carne.
duermen en su cementerio:
se llama Temixco,
se llama Santa Ana,
se llama Mazatepec,
se llama Juárez,
se llama Puente de Ixtla,
se llama San Fernando,
se llama Tlaltizapán,
se llama Samalayuca,
se llama el Capulín,
se llama Reynosa,
se llama Nuevo Laredo,
se llama Guadalupe,
se llama Lomas de Poleo,
se llama México.
María Rivera was born in Mexico City in June 1971. She is a poet and peace activist. She was awarded the Premio Nacional de Poesía Joven Elías Nandino in 2000 with her first book, Translación de dominio. In 2005 she received the Premio Nacional de Poesía Aguascalientes with the poetry collection Hay batallas (2005). She is an active member of the Sistema Nacional de Creadores de Artes in Mexico. This poem appears in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America.
For some of us, life during lockdown has sometimes seemed like one continuous screen session, interacting virtually with people we barely know. How strange, then, to read Paula Piedra’s poem about coming home to a TV screen filled with familiar faces, after a day spent among strangers.
Sure, there’s an American Dream
I like pretending,
I go out without make-up,
hair in my face,
wearing whatever clothes
to walk down some street
and arrive at a building.
There I am remunerated for doing nothing
and talking with people I don’t know
despite recognising their voices.
The conversations are over quickly,
more skimmed over, mechanically,
while time passes.
Eager for something to happen
after the working day,
I return home
and there – finally! –
I find familiar faces
on the television.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Sí hay sueño americano
Me gusta disimular,
voy sin maquillaje,
el pelo en la cara,
con cualquier ropa
para andar por alguna calle
y llegar a un edificio.
Allí soy retribuida por no hacer nada
y hablar con personas que no conozco
a pesar de reconocer sus voces.
Las conversaciones transcurren rápido,
mecánicas, más repasadas
mientras pasa el tiempo.
Con ansias de que suceda algo,
después de la jornada,
regreso a casa.
Encuentro ¡al fin!
caras conocidas en la televisión.
Paula Piedra was born in San José, Costa Rica in 1976. She studied interior design, and published her first book of poetry, Ejercicios Mentales, in 2003. In addition to her own poetry collections she has been included in a number of anthologies published in Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Argentina and Guatemala. She has written articles and columns for magazines in Costa Rica. She currently works as a curator of contemporary art projects.
We know that feeling, of stepping out into the street in flames, and without ourselves. The peculiarity of drinking tequila or mescal in some darkened den, followed by that lurch into sunlight – or as here – into the night. Everything takes on a dizzying vibrancy, and one’s vision amidst the glare, fuzzy though not actually impaired, turns as much in upon oneself as outward, and both worlds are equally bewildering. Thanks to Mexico’s Julio Trujillo for the insight, and for the poem, which can be found in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America.
I went out into the street in flames
and without myself,
what was left were shreds of gazes:
the world was my eyes
and my eyes
seeking and at the same time
willing to be found,
striding down there below,
gasp and echo,
a flow without direction that wants
What sea awaits the man who brims over?
But the instant doesn’t ask questions,
it advances and remains standing,
straightens up to full height,
that in this blue night
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
A la calle salí en llamas y sin mí,
lo que restaba eran jirones de miradas:
el mundo era mis ojos
y mis ojos
buscando a la vez
dispuesto a ser hallado,
zancadas allá abajo,
resuello y resonancia,
caudal que va sin rumbo y que desea
¿Qué mar espera al hombre desbordado?,
pero el instante no pregunta,
avanza y se mantiene,
se yergue a toda altura,
que en esta noche azul
Julio Trujillo was born in Mexico City in September 1969. He studied Hispanic language and literature at UNAM. He has been editor of the Revista Universidad de México and Lectura, director of the Revista Mexicana de Cultura and El Nacional, editorial coordinator of El Huevo, and chief editor of Letras Libres. He was awarded an INBA grant in 1993 and a FONCA grant in 1994 and 1996. He has been a member of the SNCA since 2004. He won the Premio de Poesía Punto de Partida in 1991 and the Premio Nacional de Poesía Joven Elías Nandino in 1994 for Una sangre. His latest book, Atajos y rodeos (Ediciones Cal y arena, 2015) is a hybrid collection of essays and reflective pieces.
Let’s spare a thought for the beach poets, that ‘handful of geniuses’ who hang out on the sands, ‘making poetry with the waves’. Like the Dominican poet Frank Báez, perhaps, whose poetry does more than merely spread the sunshine of his native island. Frank, according to one critic, on the Poetry International archives, inhabits ‘the universe of the young man who wants to live a grand and buoyant life but cannot get his beloved Caribbean island out of his system. Again and again Báez returns to the quay, the pier, the waves . . ‘
The Beach Poets
Now I will take the opportunity of telling you the legend
of the beach poets.
A handful of geniuses who live on the beaches
making poetry with the waves:
writing odes, sonnets and elegies on the pages of the sea.
Beach poets do not need to go to university,
nor to work, nor belong
to the national federation of surfers.
It is enough for them to have an ear for the ocean.
The beach poets paddle and mount
their boards with a Spartan discipline,
ready to tame the tumult of wild and deafening waves.
When the weather forecast announces a hurricane
they are the first to arrive at the beaches.
Firemen and civil defence gendarmes with megaphones
beg them to leave.
At thirty, like the Romantic poets, they retire.
Some of them die by drowning.
Others are attacked by sharks and lose
their legs or arms.
Others become lawyers.
But believe it or not, their works endure.
And night and day, if you come close enough to the sea you can hear wave after wave reciting them.
(Translated by Richard Gwyn)
Los Beach Poets
Ahora aprovecho para contarles la leyenda
de los beach poets.
Un puñado de genios que viven en las playas
haciendo poesía con las olas:
escribiendo odas, sonetos y elegías en las páginas del mar.
Los beach poets no necesitan ir a la universidad,
ni trabajar, ni pertenecer
a la federación nacional de surfistas.
Les basta con tener oído para el océano.
Los beach poets reman y se suben
en las tablas con disciplina espartana,
dispuestos a domar la manada de salvajes y estruendosas olas.
Cuando meteorología anuncia un huracán
son los primeros que llegan a las playas.
Los bomberos y la defensa civil con megáfonos
les ruegan que salgan.
A los treinta, al igual que los poetas románticos, se retiran.
Algunos mueren ahogados.
Otros son atacados por tiburones y pierden
sus piernas o sus brazos.
Otros se hacen abogados.
Pero créase o no sus obras perduran.
Y noche y día, si uno se acerca lo suficiente al mar
puede escuchar como este ola tras ola las recita.
Frank Báez, born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1978, is a poet, editor and writer. He has published four books of poetry, one book of short stories and three books of chronicles. His poetry collection Postales has been published in five countries and was awarded the Salome Ureña National Prize for Poetry in 2009. In 2014 a selection of his poetry was published in English, titled Last Night I Dreamt I was a DJ (Miami: Jai-Alai Books, 2014). His work is included in the anthology El canon abierto: última poesía en español (Madrid: Visor Libros, 2015), brings together many of the most relevant Spanish- language poets born after 1970. Báez also forms part of the multidisciplinary collective El Hombrecito, combining performance in music, literature and visual arts. Two of his poems appear in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America. In 2017 Báez was the only poet included on the Bogotá39 list of the best Latin-American writers under forty.