We are so kind and noble we allow other teams to beat us at our national sport. I am not absolutely certain this is an asset, but it indicates true strength of character and I am sure the Japanese have a word for this kind of motiveless self-sacrifice.
In today’s Rugby match against South Africa (which I watched at 5.30 a.m. local time despite only returning to my hotel at 2.oo following a reception at the Dutch Embassy in honour of the novelist Cees Nooteboom), the Welsh team played with a conviction and courage that was barely recognizable, and they probably deserved to win, whatever that means. (It means nothing in sport actually, which is the whole point). Ych a fi.
On another note, I was chatting with the Dutch ambassador’s wife last night (I really wanted to use that line, please forgive me) and it seems the British Ambassador is a Welsh woman.That must surely count for something, honouring the bardic tradition etc. However nothing at all has been set up at the fabulously impressive British Embassy to celebrate Blanco’s arrival in Buenos Aires, which Blanco feels is rather remiss.
But then Cees Nooteboom is famous (as well as seeming a very nice man) and Blanco is not. Apparently when Hanif Kureishi came over they gave him a proper bean feast. Blanco is clearly not important enough. I am not sure how I feel about this, but probably it doesn’t compare with what our national Rugby team will be feeling today
Having written about illness in various media over recent years – principally as a so-called academic and the writer of a memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I am alert to the ways that other writers approach the subject, and am usually interested in what they have to say (so long as their writing does not launch into tedious new-age rage at the incompetence of ‘Western’ medicine, or degrade itself by spurious claims to the kind of quackery familiar to devotees of certain ‘wellness’ manuals).
For Some Reason
I bought coffee, cigarettes, matches.
I smoked, I drank
and faithful to my personal rhetoric
put my feet on the table.
Fifty years old with the certainty of the damned.
Like almost everyone I messed up
without making too much noise;
yawning at nightfall I muttered my disappointment,
and spat on my shadow before going to bed.
This was all the response that I could offer to a world
that claimed from me a character that possibly
didn’t suit me.
Or maybe something else is at stake. Perhaps
there was a different plan for me
in some potential lottery
and my number was lost.
Perhaps no one settles on a strictly private destiny.
Perhaps the tide of history settles it for one and all.
This much remains to me:
a fragment of life that tired me out in advance,
a poem paralyzed halfway towards
an unknown resolution;
dregs of coffee in the cup
that for some reason
I never dared drain to the last drop.
On the Other Side
Someone has died on the other side of the wall.
At intervals there is a voice, hemmed in by sobbing.
I am the nearest neighbour and I feel
slightly responsible: blame
always finds an outlet.
In the rest of the building
no one seems to have noticed. They talk,
they laugh, they switch on televisions, they devour
every last scrap of meat and every song. If they knew
what had happened so close by, the thought
of death wouldn’t be sufficient
to alter the cardiac rhythm of the
They would push the deceased into the future
and their indifference would have its logic:
after all, no one dies any more than anyone else.
In the bed opposite
the man woke up snoring
his open mouth set
in desperate conviction.
The serum was dripping
into his veins. From my belly
sprouted two plastic tubes
in which a pink foam bubbled
as if it were the definitive language
of my entrails. To one side
someone coughed up
the last of his viscera.
A springtime branch swayed
behind the window’s glass
flaunting the life owed us
in exchange for the disorders
that laid waste to our pale bones.
Everything seemed suspended
between universal infirmity
and the opportunities offered to death.
In the corridor a nurse fluttered by
and we followed her with eyes intent on
laying bare the fermented secret
of our clinical notes:
but we didn’t manage to reach
her distant and weary heart.
I began translating, in a very amateur sort of way, when I first discovered the poetry of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos at the beginning of the 1980s. Not only was my Greek inadequate to the task and I lacked any kind of self-discipline, but I was up against the superb existing translations of Edmund Keeley. I became easily disheartened by my feeble efforts and never stuck with it. It was much more fun to decode the English on restaurant menus, as many a traveller to Greece has discovered. Among the culinary delights I have encountered, both seen and unseen, are:
The Baked Thing
Greek with cheese
Bowel stuffed with spleen
Bait smooth hound
Custard of the Aunt.
All of these items of food have suffered the indignity of an over-literal translation by a scribe with faulty understanding of the target language (English), and while their entertainment value might be high, you are never sure what it is you are likely to be eating, unless of course you can read the Greek.
Some years later, I started a translation of Jean Giono’s novel Les Grands Chemins (which as far as I know has still not appeared in English) but was put off both by my frail grasp of French grammar and by the quantities of argot and slang. As with most of my endeavours at that period of my life, I had an unrealistic grasp of my own abilities.
However, I am nothing if not persistent, and having tried Greek and French and been found wanting, like a serial re-offender I thought I should try my hand at Spanish. When I had acquired enough of the language to read poetry without constant referral to the dictionary, I set about translating (or should I say despoiling) Antonio Machado – a bad choice, not only because he had been a challenge to far better translators than myself, but because his Spanish is, well, utterly embedded in the thought and landscape of Spanish – and I did not really appreciate or understand this at the time and thought that I was just not very good at translating poetry. However Machado really is more untranslatable than most, and perhaps this is the reason Don Paterson opted to go for much looser versions or interpretation in his collection The Eyes.
But with another Spanish poet, Jaime Gil de Biedma, I felt my translations begin to ‘work’ and moreover I could
sense an affinity with this writer that extended beyond the act of translation. There were English translations of his poems available but they seemed weak to me, and I wanted to make something better, do justice to his work in a way that his American translator had not: such is the arrogance of the beginner. So I worked on a few, sent them to a magazine, and they were accepted.
Later I was asked by the editor of the same magazine to work on skeleton or ‘crib’ versions of poems from Lithuanian and Slovakian, and make English poems of them. I agreed to do it, but it seemed a very risky affair, and nothing much to do with translation, more like playing darts with the lights off. I didn’t much enjoy the experience, but I have since taken part in workshops, working with poets who write in a language I do not speak, and if their English is good enough, it is possible to hammer out a good poem using an intermediary version – this is what the organization Literature across Frontiers manages to such good effect: in addition practitioners use a ‘bridge’ language, so that poets who speak distinct languages but share a third language in common (English, German, Spanish) can combine forces with a native speaker of the bridge language to make new versions of their work. It sounds complicated but it can be a very rewarding (as well as a tiring) process, and it must be said that a lot depends on the individuals gathered together on these occasions, and whether or not they happen to gel as a team.
But the kind of work done by Literature across Frontiers is at a far remove from the sort of translation done by individuals who work directly from a language which they know well into a language in which they are fluent, which is the daily round of the professional translator. I do not claim to be any such animal, but three years ago I became so interested in the act of translation that I put myself through the ordeal of preparing for and sitting the Institute of Linguists’ Diploma in Translation, the gold standard qualification for translators in the UK, and one with an astonishingly high failure rate (which I suppose keeps the Institute’s coffers topped up). I passed, so am now legitimately able to call myself a translator, although like nearly all the achievements I have realised over the years, all the hurdles I have overcome, there is always a sheen of scepticism about my own status, and I never quite manage to believe that the person with all the qualifications (and the nice suit and the office), the one called ‘Dr Blanco’, is actually me, but rather, he is an illusion.
What I am trying to say is that, like many people who do not admit it publicly, I think of myself as an impostor, a person impersonator, for many hours of the working day, and for this reason, ‘translator’ seems a very appropriate occupation. And why is this? Is there an association with the trickster, the coyote figure, or the dissembler? I think – and hope that I am not alone in thinking this – that there is something intrinsically fraudulent in the act of translation. You are trying to pretend that something is what it is not. So the trick is to make it sound as though it were not something that it is not, otherwise you end up writing translator-speak, with which we are all familiar from the study of Greek menus and garden furniture assembly kits.
The idea of translating into English is to make the words sound as though they were composed in English, which of course they were not, in the first instance. So we pretend, and share the pretence. If the translation is any good then we forget we are pretending. Simples.
But more than that, there is the profound satisfaction for the translator – something akin to the breaking of a code or the unravelling of a puzzle – when the correct phrase or expression slots into place, which makes translation, when it is going well, such a rewarding occupation. In Tim Parks’ absorbing essay ‘Prajapati’ (to be found in the collection Adultery and Other Diversions) he describes the pleasures and torments of translating Roberto Calasso’s Ka, on a very hot day. And at one point, as he kicks off his sandals to feel the cool of the tiled floor, he begins to spin off into the kind of meandering meditation that the act of writing often incites:
“I realise I am fascinated by models of the mind. By consciousness and representations of consciousness. Prajpati’s, Mahidasa Aitareya’s, Calasso’s, they are all hugely different minds from each other and from mine. I was never convinced by Leopold Bloom. And I sense that translation has something to do with this, this constant attempt to grasp difference, to overcome it, if only for a few moments, if only in the slippery surface of a text, to appropriate, but also to expand, to be there in Calasso’s study, understanding Calasso understanding Mahidasa Aitareya understanding the Rg Veda understanding Prajpati. Did they all find flies as irritating as I do?”
Norman di Giovanni, in his essay ‘A Translator’s Guide’ quotes Borges as saying “The translator is a very close reader; there is not much difference between translating and reading.” Di Giovanni finds this simple, clear approach to be in stark contrast to much of the talk, and theorizing about translation, which takes place, he says, on a “dizzyingly rarefied plane.”
The most helpful advice I have read on the craft of translation always keeps it simple, like Borges’ thing about being a close reader: understand the source text (decode it) and put it into language as clearly as possible (encode it). Working from these simplest of principles, and with the minimum of self-deception, are the kinds of rules even an inveterate self-doubter should find easy enough to follow.
And yet there is more, there is a twinge of excitement, almost a sense of vertigo, closely related to the type of exhilaration experienced when one’s own writing is going well (it is practically the same thing after all) which makes translation such a worthwhile occupation. Tim Parks finds this grappling with meaning to be like a constant exchange between the inchoate and the specific, between the undefined and the defined:
“Translation too is this, leaving the definition, the apparent definition, of the original, going through a state of indefinition, perhaps more original, in the Prajpati sense, than the original, where ideas are somehow held wordless, or almost, in my mind (I wish I could decide whether those ideas actually do become wordless) thence to reappear, gradually recompose themselves, from fuzz to clarity, or almost, in my own language.”
So much is contained by that ‘or almost’. Returning to Borges and simplicity, returning to the idea of an approximation. Perhaps that is the crux of all translation: it is an expression of the almost.
The motif of the ouroboros appears in the ancient cultures of Egypt, India, Greece and Mexico, and was of particular interest to European alchemists in the early modern era. Conventionally it depicts a serpent or a dragon eating its own tail, from the Greek oura/voros = tail-eater. To the alchemists the symbol came to signify cyclicity, and thus, in a human context, self-reflexivity. In my beginning is my end. The idea of eternal return and intrinsic self-renewal. I am not quite a mystic, but many of my favourite poets were.
Now, the other day I wrote about labyrinths, another favourite topic, and quoted myself (although, ironically, I had forgotten from where): “an exit to the labyrinth marked entrance to the labyrinth”. Moreover, in the
catalogue to an exhibition on labyrinths that I attended in Barcelona last year, there is a short essay by Umberto Eco, in which, after discussing the difference between the uni-cursal labyrinth (in which there is only one route in and out, as in the illustration above) and the multi-cursal labyrinth or maze or Irrweg (in which there are alternative paths, all leading to dead ends: you can make mistakes, and may have to retrace your steps, but you will always be able to get out) he proposes a third type of labyrinth, the network, in which each point can be connected to any other point, which makes it possible to travel around for ever. And you never get out of the network: you keep going round and round inside.
This is all good, because leafing, as I am, through Marie-Louise von Franz’s excellent Alchemy, I come across the following:
“One must remember the Ouroboros, the tail eater, where the opposites are one: the head is at one end and the tail at the other. They are one but have an opposite aspect and when the head and the tail, the opposites, meet, a flow is born, which is what the alchemists meant by the mystical or divine water, which is described as the meaningful flux of life.”
So, both the ouroboros and the labyrinth have served as representations of energy, of flow, and of the questing human soul, or at the very least as symbols of regeneration. They are linked in profound and deeply sympathetic ways.
And then, as if to confirm the last happy thought, I come across this fabulous video, titled Ouroboros. It seems a good place to leave these thoughts hanging.
The howling of the village dogs has calmed down over the past week, due to the passing of the canícula (named for the dog star, Sirius, and its associated theme of mad dogs/midday sun, hence also ‘dog days of summer’) – that period of extreme heat that peaks here at some point between late July and mid August; and while it is now still hot, it is not unbearably hot. With this in mind I suggest to my friend and neighbour Joan Castelló that we might profitably do a hike from the monastery of Sant Quirze, near the village, across the mountains to Portbou. It seems a reasonable proposition, given an early start. We reckon we might even get to Portbou by lunchtime.
So, Joan, my daughter Sioned and I set off at 6.30, deposited at the monastery by Mrs Blanco, who has decided to sit this one out (on the beach, and somewhat later than 6.30), and we begin the calf-wrenching ascent to the first pass, Coll de Pallerols. Despite the mist, we arrive at the pass an hour later drenched in sweat, and I already feel as though I have spent an uninterrupted week in a Turkish bath, but having got this far there is no option but to press on. I keep wanting the mist to clear, as there are magnificent views across the peaks, and although the Alberas are small mountains compared with the Pyrenees of the interior, they are still dramatic in juxtaposition with the sea.
We pass small circular shepherds’ huts, a variation on a theme found all around the Mediterranean as well as in the British Isles, and just over half way, as the sun finally breaks through the cloud, we find ourselves in an enchanted deciduous woods, remarkable for those of us who live on the south-facing flanks of the Pyrenees, but common enough on the north-facing French side.
Following the border between the two countries for much of our walk, we start descending towards a point where the sea spreads ahead of us, spearheaded by a final mountain ridge, with Cerbère on the French side, and Portbou on the Spanish. The landscape provides a natural frontier, supposedly, (but not to the Catalans, who feel that both sides belong to them, rather than to either nation state).
It is at this point that a new feature has been added to the landscape: a large placard informing walkers in four languages that the renowned German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin passed this same way on his flight from the Nazis in 1940 (see post for 7 August). The route has been renamed ‘Passage of Liberty’. Fine words, but confusing too – since the passage to liberty was traversed in the opposite direction often enough during and after the Spanish Civil War. They must mean a flexible passage of liberty, bi-directional, depending on your fancy or the pressures of historical necessity.
I applaud the honours due to Walter Benjamin, but cannot help feeling the Portbou civic administration might be milking this one, perhaps in pursuit of a new strain of intellectual tourism, no doubt attracting Euro-funding at the same time as raising the little town’s profile considerably, especially compared with the cultural paucity of the resorts further down the Costa Brava. In fact ‘Literary Landmarks of the Costa Brava’ might have considerable market potential: already there is a new statue to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre at nearby Grifeu beach. How long before Blanes starts selling itself as the home of Roberto Bolaño, and turning the Botanical Gardens there into a Santa Teresa theme park with 2666-themed dodgem rides and a Savage Detectives Treasure Hunt?
Our walk ended, as we might have predicted, far later than we wanted it to, in far too much heat. Seven hours after setting out we staggered onto the beach at Portbou and fell into the sea.
A couple of days ago I blogged about John Franklin’s moment of clarity while listening to a late Beethoven sonata in 1845, less than twenty years after it was composed. The music had – according to Sten Narodny’s account in The Discovery of Slowness – an epiphanic effect on the explorer, and in the novel he is made to endure a sublime moment of self-realisation.
Then yesterday, reading J.M. Coetzee’s essays, I come across an autobiographical anecdote of how Coetzee, at fifteen years of age, heard harpsichord music drifting across the garden fence from a neighbour’s open window in his Cape Town suburb, and the effect this had on his life. The music was from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier and, writes Coetzee: “As long as the music lasted, I was frozen, I dared not breathe. I was being spoken to as music had never spoken to me before.” This despite the fact that his family home was bereft of music, that he received no instruction in music, that classical music above all was “sissy” and regarded by Coetzee in a “somewhat suspicious and hostile teenage manner”.
But somehow Bach’s music breaks through to the boy, “speaks to” him, as Coetzee puts it. And in his essay ‘What is a Classic’ the adult author wonders whether his adolescent response to the music back in 1955 was “truly a response to some inherent quality in the music rather than a symbolic election on my part of European high culture as a way out of a social and historical dead end.” Since the essay’s title marks it out as a response to T.S. Eliot, and Coetzee is concerned about the emergence of the term Bach as a touchstone, and a classic as being, in at least one sense, ‘that which survives’, we end up depending (argues Coetzee) on criticism to define and sustain notions of the classical.
Which is all true, but by resorting to an argument about the nature of the classic (and for perfectly valid reasons) Coetzee rather avoids answering the question that he originally posed, about whether Bach ‘spoke to him across the ages’ or whether he, Coetzee, was (unwittingly perhaps) choosing high European culture and the codes of that culture in order to escape his class position in white South African society, and the historical dead-end represented by his immediate environment.
But despite the excellence of Coetzee’s writing and argumentation, I remain puzzled.
Somewhere in his writings, possibly The Curtain – I am away from my library right now and cannot check – Milan Kundera speculates on the kind of reception that would be given to a work of Beethoven’s were it written by a contemporary composer and performed as though it were a new composition. Kundera asserts that such a piece of music would be subject to ridicule. No one would take the music or its composer seriously. Since all cultural artefacts are a product of their historical and cultural moment, a ‘contemporary’ writing of the opus 111 piano sonata by a modern composer would fail to have the effect on a latter-day John Franklin, or by extension, on you or me.
How does this play out in relation to Coetzee’s adolescent experience? What if The Well-Tempered Clavier was the work of a brilliant but geeky composer of the 1950s who despised the tendencies of Romanticism and Modernism and elected to write ‘like’ J.S. Bach? The sequence of sounds would be identical, but would the effect be the same? Does this mean that young Coetzee’s response to Bach’s quintessentially classical music had its profound effect– even though he did not know what he was listening to?
How can this come about? Are our responses to music entirely subject to cultural and historic provenance? Is a particular arrangement of sounds only a cipher, a means by which a listener measures him or herself as a participant-observer in cultural experience?
This raises many other questions, including obvious ones such as the way we ditch and discard some music – even find it unlistenable – over the course of years, while other music we can listen to almost any time. But for the moment, Kundera’s question and Coetzee’s musical awakening in 1955 present a paradox that I am struggling to reconcile.
Any comments welcome.
The blog is founded on the idea that Blanco never spends too much time writing a post, unless it is an article, review or poem that has already been prepared or published elsewhere (i.e. recycled work, of which there is an irregular smattering). In other words the motivating principle is of spontaneity, of always allowing myself, in my writing, to move where the mood takes me, so I do not necessarily end up in a place where I thought I was going: I would go so far as to say that was the whole point of the blog – to begin a thought process and see where it takes me. This will sometimes mean that the title of the piece only makes sense in terms of something that appears towards the end, or is a fleeting thought that arises as a consequence of something in the blog that is not fully explored.
So what we have is a kind of diary, alongside a series of reflections – precisely as the subtitle proclaims – on the mutable universe. Like most things concerning the genesis of the blog, the words came without conscious forethought: but ‘mutable’ is key here: I want the blog to act as an archive – very much in the spirit of the work of my friend, the painter Lluís Peñaranda – of mutability, of fleetingness, of transience. The transience of those things that we explore, and the transience of ourselves.
Actually, the most apt description of what we have is labyrinth. A labyrinth is not only a metaphor for the questing self, and a means of self-transcendence: it is also a way of getting purposefully lost, of going up blind alleys, of plunging deeper into one’s own lack of knowledge and coming back with something unknown, of finding surprising routes to places we never intended going. Of noting that the exit to the labyrinth is sometimes marked Entrance to the Labyrinth.
And of observing what goes on inside the labyrinth when the geography will not stay still.
To be continued.
I set out on a journey, but the geography would not stay still, and I ended up somewhere I hadn’t intended going.
‘Restless Geography’ from Sad Giraffe Café (2010)
In Sten Nadolny’s fine novel The Discovery of Slowness, the polar explorer John Franklin attends a recital of Beethoven sonatas on 9th May 1845. During the performance of the opus 111 sonata, “John felt he was actually meeting the fine skeleton of all thought, the elements, and the ephemeral nature of all structures, the duration and slippage of all ideas. He was imbued with insight and optimism. A few moments after the final note sounded he suddenly knew, There is no victory and no defeat. These are arbitrary notions that float about in concepts of time invented by man.”
While it might not be a realistic objective for most of us to achieve this state of immaculate insight very often – supermarket shopping, tax statements, the MOT, and for some of us the basic dignity of finding work, all this stuff gets in the way – we are all gifted these moments of clarity, we all catch the occasional glimpse, and if we are lucky we build up a store of such experiences, an archive of rare encounters with the transcendent. Normally such moments are not instructive to others, nor in fact are they easy to elucidate or express. But cumulatively they create a cluster, form a chain reaction, each epiphany linked mysteriously to all those that have come before, in a steady act of making. I am reminded of the words of the pianist Glenn Gould that I quoted in The Vagabond’s Breakfast: “The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenalin but rather the gradual, lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.”
Sometimes it swings this way, and sometimes the world has other plans.
Met up with this tortoise on a walk in the Albera range yesterday morning. The Alberas are home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a protected species.
One of my walking companions, a friend and local farmer with family affiliations to the land around here that go back many generations says that its size indicates it is at least a hundred years old. Its markings suggest it is a male. This means Tortoise was wandering along these paths when our chaps went over the top on the first day of the Somme, when Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed Petersburg. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, when these hills were teeming with refugees and war-wounded, Tortoise would have marked out his territory and become familiar with every ditch and rock and bush on his patch.
He was sunning himself when we approached, and retreated into his shell to avoid the attentions of our dog. But once the dog was kept away he re-emerged to take a look at us. Then, having determined that we didn’t pose a threat, he set off down a bank, at considerable speed – well, relatively speaking – negotiating stones and clumps of bush with clumsy determination. He moved, I would say, with deliberation and with definite purpose, although he was not going to be hurried.
Which brings me neatly to the point. I am reading Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness. The book is about the life of John Franklin, the nineteenth century polar explorer. John had issues as a child, and as a young man, concerning his slowness. The novel catalogues his subtle protest at the institutionalised imposition of quickness or speed. He struggles single-handedly to legitimize his own slowness, and in his own fashion, he succeeds. It is a wonderful novel, beautifully translated by Ralph Freedman. To press my recent argument in this blog about literature in translation, I should point out that the novel was published in German in 1983 and had to wait twenty years before appearing in English in 2003. In the meantime two hundred thousand crap novels were published in English, which no one will ever remember.
“A good story doesn’t need a purpose.”
“John was in search of a place where nobody would find him too slow. Such a place could still be far away, however.”
“He wandered through the town and pondered man’s speeds. If it was true that some people were slow by nature, this should remain so. It was probably not given to them to be like others.”
“There are two kinds [of seeing]: an eye for details, which discovers new things, and a fixed look that follows only a ready-made plan and speeds it up for the moment. If you don’t understand me, I can’t say it any other way. Even these sentences gave me a lot of trouble.”
And, of course, Achilles and the tortoise: John’s old schoolmaster, Dr Orme, attempts to explain one of the Paradoxes of Zeno:
“‘Achilles, the fastest runner in the world, was so slow that he couldn’t overtake a tortoise.’ He waited until John had fully grasped the madness of this assertion. ‘Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. They started at the same time. Then he ran to where the tortoise had been, but it had already reached a new point. When he ran to the next point the tortoise had crawled on again. And so it went, innumerable times. The distance between them lessened, but he never caught up with the tortoise.’ John squeezed his eyes shut and considered this. Tortoise? he thought, and looked at the ground. He observed Dr Orme’s shoes. Achilles? That was something made up.”
That was something made up. The whole ‘Achilles and the tortoise’ thing is made up. It’s a nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing as a boy myself. It is the kind of idiot sophism upon which Western Philosophy seems to be founded. Who believes this stuff anyway? I had the same feeling as John Franklin when I came across Zeno’s Paradox – no doubt via Aesop’s fables – which provides the prototype of the tortoise story.
As Aristotle summarized: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.”
But who says the pursuer must reach the point whence the pursued started? Why? Why does everyone accept these assertions as though they were a given when they read these ancient texts, whether Greek or Chinese, the kind ‘steeped in ancient wisdom’? Why can’t the pursuer avoid the point at which the pursued started? Why does no one ask these obvious fucking questions? Is it some kind of convention, by which we all suspend our critical faculties and pretend to be idiots so as to have someone’s pet theory proved right, be it Zeno, Aristotle or Christopher Columbus? But I digress.
It’s no longer useful, as a universal principle, to assume that fast is necessarily better than slow. Fast food, fast sex, fast money, faster death. I rest my case. We all know we can do speed, and what is costs.
I believe that in an era where speed is probably a more highly-valued commodity than love, The Discovery of Slowness delivers a salutary message.
Drove up to the Gers, in France, to visit the brother. It is a four-hour drive in our old Citroën, which starts rattling if required to exceed about 75 mph. It is hot, and the car has no air conditioning, so we leave early. The autoroute up to Toulouse is very dull, but once you get on the B roads west of the city the countryside is fine and lovely, with rolling hills and great fields of sunflower and of maize unravelling to the horizon.
Now maize, or corn, has a special place in Blanco’s heart. For two summers, in 84 and 85, I worked in the maize fields of the Gers on the annual castrage, or castration The picture on the right, incidentally, is of a maize field in Lichtenstein, not the Gers, but one maize field looks pretty much like any other). The odd practice of castration, which was explained to me countless times but which I never fully understood, involves ripping the male part from its socket high on the plant’s stem, and casting it away, which ensures that the next year’s crop will not be contaminated with bâtards, or bastards. Little bastards, or salauds, I used to call them. Back in the day, the work would be done by teams of migrant workers or else down-and-outs like myself eager for a few days work in the fields in convivial company and with good pay. Often the work would come with board and lodging. The Gers is also a wine (and Armagnac) producing region, so there was always plenty to drink. I have very fond memories of those two summers castrating maize, even though the work could be very dull, walking down those interminable rows, ripping out all those male genitals and tossing them away. Of all the most meaningless jobs I have done, the castration is pretty high up on the list. Because of the utter tedium it inspired, I once had a fantasy of discovering an aleph while working on the maize. Of feeling my toes come into contact with something cold and hard and round, stooping to pick it up, and finding I held an aleph in my hand.
Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. An aleph, for those of you who have not read Borges, is a small and miraculous construct that contains within it the entire content of the universe (and all possible universes). Put another way, an Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Within it can be seen everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, apparently without distortion, overlapping or confusion. It is, as you might imagine, incredibly heavy to hold in one’s hand. As you might also imagine, finding an aleph is a pretty rare thing, certainly not an everyday affair. Finding one in a field of maize, then, would have constituted a considerable improvement to the outcome of a day’s work. But it never happened. Maybe, one day, I will have to put it in a book instead. I have however, written a piece about working on the maize, which I reproduce below, with apologies to those who were listening when I said I was not going to use the blog simply to flaunt my own literary creations – Did I say that? Am I imagining it? – but since I am in the Gers this fine Sunday morning, and since Riscle is a real town in this département, I thought I should include it.
The maize fields are vast and sad in the wind. The tops of the plants bend unwillingly. I know what happens here. It has always remained a secret until now. But for the sake of friendship I will tell you. In July, the castrators will come. They will rip out the genitals of the male plants, so that the females cannot be impregnated and raise bastards. At least, that is what the locals tell the workers. The real story of the maize is more violent still. Groups of young men and women meet after dark, drink absinthe, and fuck beneath the summer moon. In the morning, tired and spent, they retire to the Café D’Artagnan for coffee with milk and croissants. They are recruited by farmers, who drive them to the maize fields. There they begin the tedious task of le castrage. The young men begin to feel uncomfortable with this de-seeding of the male plants. Their discomfort translates into physical symptoms: aching sides, persistent headaches and vomiting. Later they will complain of spontaneous ejaculation, green sperm, and will participate in outbreaks of frenzied violence towards other males. In early spring the babies are born: little maize-people, with an obsolete immune system inherited from Aztec forebears. The babies all die before July, when the castration begins again.
From Sad Giraffe Café (Arc, 2010)
El ojo que ves no es
ojo porqué tú le veas
es ojo porqué te ve.
The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it
but because it sees you.
This morning, reading some poems by Antonio Machado, I am reminded of a trip we took to the province of Soria one July a few years back. Machado was for many years a schoolmaster in Soria, and wrote many fine poems about the place. I saw the trip as a kind of homage, but a purely literary excursion was out of the question, so we combined it with a visit to Navarra, and made a round trip.
We had driven down from the fiesta at Pamplona, and as we entered Soria after a two hour drive the temperature was registering forty-three degrees. Too hot to stagger around the town, we set out to Vinuesa, the nearest village to Machado’s Laguna Negra (Black Lake). This is walking country, between 1500 and 2000 metres in altitude: woods of dense beech and cedar, streams, waterfalls and lakes, in stunning contrast to the interminable dust-blown expanses of the meseta.
Machado´s narrative of the Laguna Negra concerns a local farmer who was murdered by his greedy sons in anticipation of their inheritance, and subsequently thrown into the lake, with weights attached to his body. The parricides themselves suffer an ignominous retribution, losing their way in the mist one night, falling and drowning in the very lake in which their murdered father was dumped. Wolves are said to surround the lake at night, symbollically howling out the bad sons’ shame. Machado’s poetry conjures this desolate and otherworldly landscape to grim perfection.
It was already dusk by the time we reached the lake, and we wandered among the huge boulders that mark its circumference. There were more beech woods and glades that centred on a pair of massive rocks. I thought of native Austrailian beliefs that a person can become incorporated into the landscape on their deaths, and began to consider the parricidical sons in a new way. Scrambling around this silent expanse of black water as the light fails, one could sense the presence of the legend like a virus on the air. Gazing up at the high rim of the volcanic crater the occasional tree juts out at an impossible angle. The stench of murder, the pervasive notion of return to the same deathly reserve of water, unmoving now except for a shimmering of ripples when a long black snake zig-zags between two small promontories. I like the place, but something tells me we should leave. Tripping over exposed tree-roots in the darkness we find the path again and descend to the car.
Machado has a more local significance, here in the borderlands of the Alt Empordá. In 1939, as the Civil War came to a bloody close, Machado, who had been active in support of the Republican cause, made his way to the frontier, very ill, and accompanied by his elderly mother. He tried to cross into France, but was held up because his papers were not in order. His attempted escape to France was echoed, in reverse, a year later by Walter Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis. I tried to capture this near-synchronous flight in a prose poem once, see below. In actual fact Machado died in Collioure, a few kilometres north from Cerbére, while Benjamin made the seven kilometres south across the mountains to Port Bou (see post for 7 August).
Here’s what happened. Antonio Machado, celebrated Spanish poet, was fleeing Spain and the advancing Francoist army. After a desperate journey through a defeated Catalunya, he arrived at the French border village of Cerbère. It was raining heavily. The authorities would not let him into France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Drenched by the rain and sick, Machado took refuge in a small hotel. He left the building once only, to watch the fishing boats in the small harbour. Shortly afterwards, he died. It was Ash Wednesday, 1939.
The following year, Walter Benjamin, the noted German polymath and essayist, arrived in the same village, coming from the opposite direction. He was fleeing the Nazis, trying to get to Spain. From Spain he hoped to catch a boat to America. The authorities would not let him leave France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Despairing at the state of the Europe he could not leave, while eluding the holocaust of which he would no doubt have been a victim, Benjamin chose to take his own life, using poison.
Antonio Machado was born on the same day – July 26th 1875 – as Carl Jung, the originator of the theory of synchronicity. Walter Benjamin had a low opinion of Jung, considering him to be a supporter of the Aryan myth, and accusing him of doing ‘the devil’s work’.
From ‘Walking on Bones‘ by Richard Gwyn (Parthian, 2000)
‘When I was young there were degrees of certainty’: these words I quoted the other day from Anne Carson evoke a sense of certainty instilled by the repetition of known stories. In childhood, if the world makes sense at all it does so because the stories we hear about it cohere. The ‘storied world’ takes on new meaning when applied to the central character of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one Susan Barton, who, having travelled to Brazil to search for her kidnapped daughter, is cast adrift by mutineers, and washed up on an island inhabited by a dull and grumpy ‘Cruso’ (who after briefly becoming her lover, dies on her) and a mute Friday, whose tongue has been cut out, according to Cruso, by slavers.
Coetzee’s book is a story about the making of stories. Susan, on her rescue and return to England, writes an account of her adventure and sends it in instalments to the famous writer Mr Daniel Foe, while living in penury with Friday, first in rented accommodation in London, then on the open road as vagrants. She convinces herself – what a common fantasy – that the telling of her story will make her fortune:
“The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related.” Then I made a list of all the strange circumstances of the year I could remember: the mutiny and murder on the Portuguese ship, Cruso’s castle, Cruso himself with his lion’s mane and apeskin clothes, his voiceless slave Friday, the vast terraces he had built, all bare of growth, the terrible storm that tore the roof off our house and heaped the beaches with dying fish. Dubiously I thought: Are these enough strange circumstances to make a story of? How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances: the salvage of tools and muskets from Cruso’s ship; the building of a boat, or at least a skiff, and a venture to the mainland; a landing by cannibals on the island, followed by a skirmish and many bloody deaths; and, at last, the coming of a golden-haired stranger with a sack of corn, and the planting of the terraces? Alas, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?
Thus Susan Barton is unwittingly made the mouthpiece for the story Defoe actually wrote (but she cannot). How poor Susan needs to satisfy the need to tell and tell, and yet not to cross that invisible line into mere ‘invention’. How curious that the confection of her story demands such truth-telling; and yet all around her are those whose very lives depend on the invention of fictions.
This is a book rich is allusion, and in stimulating reflection on the writer’s life. Here is Foe speaking to Susan: “You and I know, in our different ways, how rambling an occupation writing is; and conjuring is surely much the same. We sit staring out of the window, and a cloud shaped like a camel passes by, and before we know it our fantasy has whisked us away to the sands of Africa and our hero (who is no one but ourselves in disguise) is clashing scimitars with a Moorish brigand. A new cloud floats past in the form of a sailing-ship, and in a trice we are cast ashore all woebegone on a desert isle. Have we cause to believe that the lives it is given us to live proceed with any more design than these whimsical adventures?”
And here is the crux of it: all our lives are story; much of that story is conjecture, the rest invention. A tale heard in passing between sunrise and sunset. There is room for many more such stories. Or, as Coetzee’s Susan tells the mute servant Friday, after being confronted by a strange girl who insists she is Susan’s long-lost daughter:
“It is nothing, Friday . . . it is only a poor mad girl come to join us. In Mr Foe’s house there are many mansions. We are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman. There is place yet for lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores to join our menagerie.”
Even without the lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores, Coetzee has the patience to furnish a story that is both intriguing and beautifully crafted. And my copy now carries the invisible traces of a thousand other stories, and of a hot day in August.