Ricardo Blanco's Blog

Who do we think we are?


The birthday card I received from Mrs Blanco this year shows a partly hidden figure reclining in an armchair, cats in attendance, dwarfed by an enormous bookcase that, it is suggested, continues into the vastness of infinity.

She tells me this is how she sees me, which is interesting, and although I would not mind turning into the gentleman on the card at some point in the future, I still have a vague notion of myself as a passionate man of action, albeit with literary leanings. The fact that I have never, in actual fact, ever been a passionate man of action seems to make no impression on the part of me that decides on who I think I am. Like most people, who I think I am does not necessarily coincide with the way others see me.

Pursuing the theme of who we think we might become I have for some years now nurtured an image for my retirement – should such an event ever arise – that I once encountered in a poem (see below) by Jaime Gil de Biedma. I quoted this to a friend, the Scottish poet Tom Pow, a few months ago. He burst out laughing, and told me “But you’ve already lived like a derelict nobleman among the ruins of your intelligence. You did that in your twenties. You might be thinking of doing something differently in your retirement.” He is probably right. Nevertheless, I still like Gil’s poem, caught somewhere between irreparable nostalgia and a melancholy pleasure in the present, as reflecting an ideal way to finish one’s days on earth.



In an old and inefficient country,

something like Spain between two civil

wars, in a village next to the sea,

to have a house and a little land

and no memories at all. Not to read,

nor suffer; not to write, nor pay bills,

and to live like a derelict nobleman

among the ruins of my intelligence.


From Jaime Gil de Biedma, Las Personas del Verbo (1982) tr. R. Gwyn


Life in a Day



This is, in its way, a very contemporary film: a kind of visual equivalent of flash fiction. Based on thousands of hours of video recordings from a single day – 24th August 2010 – the editors have created a 90 minute collage of moments, some more extensive than others. Certain of the characters are seen once only, others are revisited several times over the course of the film, among which are a Korean man who has been cycling around the world for seven years (he has been knocked off his bike six times and had surgery five times: some drivers are very careless, he remarks, generously) and a trio of goatherds from somewhere in eastern Europe, who swear at their goats and are troubled by the prospect of wives and of wolves.

It could have been called ‘youtube: the movie’ but the point about all the mini-narratives being set within the frame of a single day gave it more coherence than might otherwise be expected. We do retain a sense of global village life with the weird juxtaposition of footage from a New York coffee shop being followed by African women preparing cassava while singing and a South American shoeshine boy stuffing his pockets with sweets. I left the cinema with the sensation that for so many people, desperately attempting to assert their own experience and their own lives, social networks and new media such as Facebook and youtube might provide a constant if imperfect means to an end. We all do it, especially if we blog, twitter and facebook (is that a verb?). Everyone can be Montaigne in the digital age. In a way, too, the film reflects the fetishization of travel familiar to us from ‘gap year’ philosophy, whether of the youtube variety, or the more polished, but equally nauseating version proposed to its readers every Saturday in the Guardian travel section.

A recent article by Christopher Tyler in The London Review of Books mentions how Colin Thubron, in his Shadow of the Silk Road imagines ‘conversations with a sceptical trader resurrected from antiquity. “I’m afraid of nothing happening,” he tells him, “of experiencing nothing. That is what the modern traveller fears . . . Emptiness.” In the current era, the notion of pseudo-travel has become available to all of us, emerging nervously from our terror of nothing happening.

Back home, I eventually retire to bed, to read. I have been reading poetry at night for a few months, but I also read fiction, and am currently with Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields, stories of profound clarity, steeped in the Irish storytelling tradition. While reading, I drift in and out of sleep. I wake at three in the morning with the book still in my hands, sitting up in bed and wavering in the space between sleep and non-sleep, though not yet wakefulness. This has become familiar territory. I have spent a long time being sleep-deprived, and am acquainted with this place, the zone. Drifting between sleep and not-sleep I am confronted by a person, standing at the foot of my bed. I am accustomed to this kind of intervention. Some call them hallucinations, but I know better.

This time he wears a cowboy hat. I ask him who he is.

“Calvin Bucket,” he says.

A likely story.

“Andy Coulson?” He suggests.

That’s better. I like the way these episodes meld with the fantasy that we call reality.

“Now, here’s how it is, Calvin, Andy, Cyrano, whatever.” I say. “You want to validate your existence? Fuck off and do it somewhere else, with someone who believes in you.”

And pouf. He vanishes.

The only ones validating their existence around here are me and my dog.

Dog on a Blog


What is this? A picture of a dog? But hey, it’s Blanco’s birthday, as well as mine – we share so many things; underwear, shirts, an inability to remember names – and you can do what you want on your birthday.

I never really intended getting a dog. Indeed have always felt quite hostile to the urban dog, and its owners. And as for those groups of dog owners who congregate eagerly in the park discussing the various merits of their canine companions, I give them a wide berth. But like other humans, I have a deep, cave-dwelling canine affinity and in my drinking days was known to befriend and hug many a stray and confide inebriated nothings into their doggy ears, when everyone else had long since stopped listening to me. The dog doesn’t mind, he thinks you’re just being friendly, even if you smell of mustard gas he doesn’t mind, because he probably does as well.

A German Shepherd once saved my life, when I slipped in the snow and started rolling down an Alp. Honestly. It was in Haute Savoie.  He bounded down the hill through the snow and lay cross-ways in my path to stop me from rolling over a precipice. He had followed me from my friends’ remote home on a winter’s evening when, already well-oiled, I just had to walk five kilometres to the nearest bar. So on arriving in the village I  took him to the Bistro instead and ordered him a raw steak. A group of local firemen eating their dinner were well impressed. That dog was called Flambard.

So, when I was ill, five years ago, and vegetating at home, unable to concentrate for long periods of time, and therefore read or write, because of a nasty condition called encephalopathy, I decided that a dog would be a good thing, and would force me to get more exercise. So I found a puppy, long since grown into a 25 kilo mad rollicking slavering beast, quite incapable of rational thought for even a moment, desperately affectionate, extremely fond of rolling in horse shit and insanely OCD where balls and sticks are concerned. Bruno Blanco, now approaching fifth birthday, pictured above in characteristic pose, quite mental, full-on, full-speed, even features in a literary work, albeit briefly. Still has a set of bollocks, even though Mrs Blanco has more than once suggested he might be better off bereft of them. I am fond of long walks in the hills, and for that reason alone a dog is a good thing. I wonder if I might cite a poem by Jane Kenyon? Let’s see. Thanks to John Freeman for passing it on.



After an Illness, Walking the Dog

Wet things smell stronger,

and I suppose his main regret is that

he can sniff just one at a time.

In a frenzy of delight

he runs way up the sandy road-

scored by freshets after five days

of rain. Every pebble gleams, every leaf.


When I whistle he halts abruptly

and steps in a circle,

swings his extravagant tail.

Then he rolls and rubs his muzzle

in a particular place, while the drizzle

falls without cease, and Queen Anne’s Lace

and goldenrod bend low.


The top of the logging road stands open

and bright. Another day, before

hunting starts, we’ll see how far it goes,

leaving word first at home.

The footing is ambiguous.


Soaked and muddy, the dog drops,

panting, and looks up with what amounts

to a grin. It’s so good to be uphill with him,

nicely winded, and looking down on the pond.


A sound commences in my left ear

like the sound of the sea in a shell;

a downward vertiginous drag comes with it.

Time to head home. I wait

until we’re nearly out to the main road

to put him back on the leash, and he

– the designated optimist –

imagines to the end that he is free.


Jane Kenyon

Otherwise: new and selected poems (Graywolf, 1996)


The acrobats were packing up the show. They untied the high-wire, collected hoops, poles, buckets, horses, dogs, a lion, two seals, the bearded lady, sand, fire and water. They emptied all of these into one enormous bag, coloured blue, like the sky. The largest acrobat zipped it up. The girl in the tutu and the red-nosed clown massaged it into a rucksack, which the strongman hoisted on his shoulders. They set off, at a quick pace. They could not see me. I had been hiding in an old shoe, behind a rock. I could see the rucksack on the strongman’s back. It seemed to shudder and breathe, and made the sound that a thousand starlings make every autumn evening in a certain coastal town in another country.

From Sad Giraffe Café (Arc, 2010)

‘Acrobats’ at Granada International Festival, Nicaragua, February 2011.

Roberto Bolaño, disappearances, and the Welsh

“To the south they discovered rail lines and slum soccer fields surrounded by shacks, and they even watched a match . . .  between a team of the terminally ill and a team of the starving to death, and there were two highways that led out of the city, and a gully that had become a garbage dump, and neighborhoods that had grown up lame, or mutilated or blind, and sometimes, in the distance, the silhouettes of industrial warehouses, the horizon of the maquiladoras.”

That is an extract from Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, the epic novel that is largely concerned with a series of murders in ‘Santa Teresa’ – in actual fact Mexico’s Ciudad Juárez, the city which is now the world’s undisputed capital for murder, kidnapping and extortion. Bolaño’s book is eerily prophetic in fingering Juárez as the hell-hole of the universe, and exploring its grisly origins in that role as the place where hundreds of women – many of them workers in the maquiladoras, or sweatshops referred to above – were murdered or ‘simply’ disappeared. And yet the truth is that Bolaño never visited Ciudad Juárez.

There is a fascinating article by Marcela Valdes, titled  ‘Alone Among the Ghosts: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666’ in which the author traces the way in which Bolaño, while terminally ill, pursued his research for the novel by email correspondence with the journalist Sergio González Rodríguez, who had himself come close to being murdered – or ‘disappeared’ – for getting too close to some key people while investigating the murders for a Mexico City newspaper.

Disappearance is for Bolaño (pictured below), a recurring theme – the recurring theme of his fiction. In 2666 a running motif of the novel is the search for the novelist Benno von Archimboldi, who has ‘disappeared’ himself. More generally, the disappearance of young, gifted poets, like the Venegas sisters in Bolaño’s  Nazi Literature in the Americas or the Garmendia twins in Distant Star, or the Font sisters in  The Savage Detectives, becomes, by 2666, the disappearance of anonymous wage-slave immigrants knocking at the door of America with their shitty jobs in the charnel houses of international capitalism, their mutilated bodies slung out in the desert, left abandoned by roadsides and in ditches: this, we are told, is what has happened to the dreams of those Latin Americans, like Bolaño, born in the 1950s, who grew up amid dreams of poetry and revolution, and who saw their countries, in a series of interjections spearheaded by the CIA and Chicago School Economists, used as testing grounds for Shock Doctrine policies and oppressive regimes of the right.

A couple of years ago I had decided to write a piece on the theme of disappearance in the work of Roberto Bolaño when I received an email from the Argentine novelist Andrés Neuman (whose wonderful novel, The Traveller of the Century, will be published in the UK next year) which included, as an attachment, an essay he had written for a Buenos Aires magazine. In it Andrés considers Bolaño’s death as a disappearance, which is not so strange as it sounds since the two writers were close friends, and Andrés’ theme was that, five years after Bolaño’s death, it still felt to Andrés as though – with the huge posthumous fame that Roberto had accrued – he was the victim of some kind of macabre practical joke. The title and content of his article makes much use of the term ‘disappearance’ which for Latin Americans of Roberto’s generation, holds so much significance.

‘Disappearance’: it was a legacy from which Bolaño never escaped, and even though he had effectively become domiciled as a European by the time of his death, he carried that essential Latin American sensibility towards social injustice and radical change that marked his generation.

As a PS, and with all the best will in the world – I am, after all, a proud Welshman – I must share the lines from 2666 that made me almost haemorrhage with laughter when I first read them, and with which I will sign off today’s blog. They are from the fifth part of 2666, in which the young Hans Reiter learns about the people of Britain from his father, a World War One veteran:

“The Welsh are swine” said the one-legged man in reply to a question from his son. “Absolute swine. The English are swine, too, but not as bad as the Welsh. Though really they’re the same, but they make an effort not to seem it, and since they know how to pretend, they succeed. The Scots are bigger swine than the English and only a little better than the Welsh”.

Makes you wonder what the question was.

The Black Heralds

There are some books – and some poets – you come to when you are no longer young, but with a sort of recognition, as though they were travelling companions with whom you share a memory or two, but do not know well. The Black Heralds was such a book for me, stirring a vague awareness of something that lay just beyond my grasp or understanding.

César Vallejo (1892-1938) was a poet of utter authenticity and wholesale transgression: by which I mean he transgressed both in a spiritual and a literary sense. The former, a convoluted animism and solidarity with the oppressed peoples and creatures of the earth, and especially with the indigenous American notion of identity as being intrinsic to place, fomented the desire to practice in the latter a re-visioning of Castilian vocabulary; both tendencies which allows us to see him as an exacting and tortured example of postcolonialism long before the coining of the term. Born in a small mining town in northern Peru into a predominantly Indian family, Vallejo struggled to get an education, but did manage to complete his studies at the University of Trujillo, then supported himself as a primary school teacher while writing his first two books, Los Heraldos Negros (1918) and Trilce (1922). Robert Bly, an earlier translator of Vallejo, has called The Black Heralds “the greatest single collection of poems I have read.” That is quite a commendation. A troubadour of angst and spleen, fuming and bleeding like Verlaine, he lost his teaching job in Peru and moved to Paris, where he remained until his death in 1938, impoverished, hungry, and a committed communist.

His poetic consciousness is more complex, invert, pained and explosive than his near-contemporary, Neruda’s, and he has never been embraced by translators in the same way as the Chilean because, firstly he does not have access to the same seductive exoticism, and secondly because he is relatively difficult. Where Neruda’s metaphors (more usually similes) are astonishing and transformative, the literary equivalent, at times, of performing seals, Vallejo launches metaphor at the reader with a sense of frenzied restlessness. His habitual juggling with Castilian syntax (as though it represented the logos of Empire, and was a legitimate target for his guerrilla tactics) oddly parallels the insistence within the poetry on a pre-Columbian anima that seethes and writhes and brews its sticky alloys beneath the crisp white sheets of European hegemony. Rebecca Seiferle suggests that in the poetry Vallejo “disarticulates the Spanish language in order to disarticulate many of the dominant assumptions of Western culture” and even goes on to say that Vallejo is always “replying to the language of empire.” This would partly explain why the Americanism that Vallejo expounds is not shared by North American writers of the same era: by the end of World War One, the United States was already an imperial power. Vallejo’s driving force is more akin to Whitman’s: authochthonic, primeval, pre-logical, inspirational. If Vallejo has to write in the language of the enemy, the occupiers, he can at least lay claim to a diverse cosmology: he can interject from Inca beliefs, confounding the dualisms and even the symbology of Western thought, such as by introducing the figure of Mamá Cápac, the mother of the people, the Mamacona, the women who served the Sun, the native weaver-crone, spinning the yarn of human folly, also the Muse, or put more searingly, “the bitter grandmother / of the outcast’s neurasthenic epic – “ (in which the “outcast” is the poet and the “neurasthenic epic” his work). At the same time, Vallejo finds himself a prisoner of the very dualism he seeks to undermine, orphaned between Spanish and indigenous culture: he occupies Spanish, the language of the conquistadores, and can adopt that Hispanic voice both in contradiction too, as well as in elaboration of, the Indian identity that he idealizes. He was, it has been suggested, doubly othered. He is, moreover, always addressing someone who isn’t there. He speaks from absence and into absence. We can perhaps find a precise image for this in the poem ‘Nervous fit of Anguish’, with the lines:


It’s eight o’clock in the morning, in witch cream . . .

It’s cold. . . A dog goes by gnawing the bones of another

dog that used to exist. . . And a match that I smothered

with capsules of silence begins to cry out in my nerves.


Vallejo comes across most strongly as an articulate disemboweller of hegemonic thinking. His complaint is of the vast lack, the void, that this cultural hegemony leaves in its wake. Like St John of the Cross, he carries a wound suffered at the hands of Christ, but unlike St John of the Cross he cannot lift himself to a Christian transcendence, seeing rather the incomprehensibility of human identity and the absolute nothingness, the great nada, that lies behind it.

It pleases me that there is so much rain in Vallejo’s work: the almost constant presence of rain rouses the scepticism (and something approaching joy) that I experience on learning that anywhere is as wet as Wales. But rain there is in Vallejo, aplenty. Again, Vallejo harks back towards his Inca heritage, and the father-god Viracocha, bringer of rain. That the Catholic Church should figure as one of the main targets of Vallejo’s assault on hegemonic values comes as no surprise. Death shrouds every line in Vallejo; never more so than when he writes of love. In The poet to his beloved we get the theme of a sundering, rendering passion (and passion here extends into its meaning as the ‘Passion of Christ’) that reminds me of John Donne without the dualism:


Beloved, tonight you’ve been crucified

on the two curved timbers of my kiss;

and your pain has told me that Jesus has cried.

And there’s a Good Friday sweeter than that kiss.


The voiding of religious faith from the poet’s lines confines his hopes to a state of sleep, rather than redemption, as we are given, in the same poem, the liebestod refrain that “both of us will die together, so together;/ it will dry up our lofty bitterness / and our dead lips will have touched in shadow.” As it turned out, Vallejo died in Paris, in the rain, just as he had predicted years before in his poem Black stone lying on a white stone:


I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,

on some day I can already remember.

I will die in Paris – and I don’t step aside –

perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.


If you don’t know César Vallejo’s work, try reading The Black Heralds, which is excellently translated by Rebecca Seiferle in a bi-lingual edition, from Copper Canyon Press. Alternatively, Shearsman have a 2007 edition, together with some of the early poems.

Map of Venice


Here you are in the cerebral cortex, one fictional street leading into another campo of the imagination, the calli lined with deceit, each turning an extenuating circumstance into an invasion of the blind. No rabbit holes, no fox dens here, only the supercilious scrutiny of the gulls, and an exhausting labyrinth in which one false turning leads to another, and you have entered an unknown place where the sun has no welcome. You take another turning, glance at the name of the alley which bears no relation to the name on your or any other map, continue with a sense of desolate determination, long ago having lost all sense of your eventual destination, only to come across it unawares, as though the city had ensnared you, laid an ornate trap. You are forever the victim of your own confidence in finding the way. You propose a direct route – according to the map, of course – only to find that the phenomenal agglomeration of stone and water gets in the way, and you appreciate once again that the map describes instead a fictional version of the island, a kind of alternative city, one of many. Later, seated by a canal, staring at the reflection of the water on the side of an illuminated building, you come to another understanding; that what is being described in all these false turnings, dead ends, abrupt descents to water, intended paths, projected destinations, humorous asides and double bluffs, is a map of yourself, or of anyone else you care to name, and the city you are attempting so desperately to navigate likewise remains unknowable.


Patagonia, the film


Imagine my surprise, on a crisp and cloudless day in March this year, sitting down to lunch outside a restaurant in Toledo, when I discovered that the young couple at the next table were speaking Welsh. I was skiving off from a rather dull conference in Madrid, and Toledo, less than an hour away, seemed an ideal distraction. It was one of those moments of apparent disconnect, when you need to make a quick inventory of your surroundings, pinch yourself, do some sums, listen doubly hard to make certain you are not hallucinating the sounds. We fell into conversation – this is almost inevitable if you happen to speak a minority language, however badly, and meet compatriots in foreign parts – and the talk came around to Welsh cinema. The film Patagonia had just been released: I had been away from Cardiff and unable to go and see it.

So I finally got around to watching it last night, and, on balance, I enjoyed it. Although I had reservations about the script, including the rather cheap trick of withholding vital information that undermines our response to the central protagonists’ relationship, the cinematography and acting were excellent. Nia Roberts gave a strong performance as a woman who wants more from life than she can reasonably expect; her boyfriend Rhys (Matthew Gravelle’s irritatingly dour and uptight photographer) goes through a minor epiphany on finding the body of a dead dog on the road, and later, in a redemptive act, befriends the dog’s shambolic, alcoholic tramp of an owner. Matthew Rhys, as their Patagonian guide, is an effective and powerful presence onscreen, subtly pitched the right side of brooding. This Patagonian part of the story comes close to being Big Cinema, but somehow just falls short. It was the Welsh adventure of the young Argentinian, Alejandro, cajoled out of his virtual life of sci-fi novels by his elderly neighbour Cerys (played by Marta Lubos) that most captivated. For both myself and Mrs Blanco, Alejandro (Nahuel Pérez Biscayar) was the star turn of this film, and we were most entertained by the scenes in which he appears, even his puppyish romp with Duffy, with whom he is improbably reunited after first meeting her when she passes out at a Cardiff nightclub.

But why do I always endure that nervousness, or painful sense of resistance, whenever Welsh artists (and that includes many of our writers, visual artists and film-makers) attempt to make a statement about contemporary Wales or any articulation of ‘Welshness’. However hard they try, there always seems to be some frantic element at work, as though we, as a nation, still have something to prove to the world. No one is interested. Certainly no one outside of Wales gives a shit, and many of us who live here just want to get on with our work without having to make continuous self-reflective reference to our Welshness. As if a Swiss writer had to pepper his stories with references to cuckoo clocks and dairy milk chocolate. So there seems to be something desperate about having to bring Blodeuwedd into the story as kind of smash and grab raid on the Mabinogion. It’s like stating outright: ‘Look, we have these early medieval antecedents, this embedded narrative mythology.’ I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t wash, and nobody cares anyway. And if you’re going to do it, do it in such a way that isn’t bloody obvious. Likewise the farcical pseudo-Celtic water burial ceremony awarded to Marta Lubos, poor thing – Health and Safety would have been down on that like a ton of bara brith.

Given my own self-confessed prejudices, I ended up enjoying this film far more than I had intended to. Er, four stars?

The Decapitated Counts

The Counts of Besalú and Olot formed a coalition to overthow the Count of Vic and take his lands. After several bloody encounters the hired mercenaries they had employed held out for more pay. The peasant footsoldiers grumbled that there would be no harvest that year and how would the Counts of Besaú and Olot feel about that? The skirmishes continued into autumn in a lackluster way, but the Count of Vic showed no signs of weakening. One morning, while breakfasting in their striped pavilion, the Counts of Besalú and Olot were interrupted by a messenger from the Count of Vic, who carried a letter proposing that the two conspirators cease their futile attempts to overthrow him, and return to their lands. If they did not, the letter continued, the Count of Vic would overrun both their estates, and subjugate the vanquished Counts to the most terrible indignities, culminating in the loss of their castles, their lands, and their lives. The Counts of Besalú and Olot laughed merrily and had the messenger impaled on sharp stakes, just for fun.

That night, their hired mercenaries left, but not without paying a visit to the Counts’ respective homes, ransacking their riches, raping their women, and slaying whoever crossed their paths. The peasant footsoldiers returned to their valleys and their farms. The Counts of Besalú and Olot, who had drunk too much wine the previous night, while entertaining themselves with the impalement of Vic’s mesenger, woke up to find the camp deserted. Even their servants had fled. A quantity of crows feasted on the remains of the messenger. The two counts contemplated their total dereliction. They decided to fight a duel, and whoever won, would seek refuge with the Count of Vic, blaming the other for the conspiracy. They set about each other with long-handled axes and, in the way of these things, managed to decapitate each other at precisely the same instant. Their two heads rolled a small distance and then came to rest, noses practically touching. Miraculously, the heads could still speak. “You know what?” said Besalú. “I never liked you anyway. It would have come down to this sooner or later, even if we had taken Vic.” “Precisely”, replied Olot, who was rather dim-witted. “In fact we’ve saved ourselves a lot of trouble, by getting this part over with first.” The Count of Besalú’s head rolled its eyes.

Later that morning, the two heads were found by scouts of the Count of Vic. They were still arguing. The soldiers stuck them on poles and displayed them in the town square, one at either end, so as to avoid having to listen to their interminable dispute.

Cartoneros of Buenos Aires

It is not my intention to post a load of poems on this blog, but I am currently working on translations of the Argentinian poet Joaquín O. Giannuzzi (1924-2004). None of his work, as far as I know, has yet been published in English. This poem reminded me of the cartoneros of Buenos Aires, an impoverished, nocturnal tribe who make a meagre living by collecting and selling discarded cardboard and other rubbish left out on the street.

Incidentally, as Jorge Fondebrider has pointed out, the poem was written 30 years before the cartoneros became an everyday sight, but the ideas in the poem linked to my own memories of them, so I added the images.


At dawn today, out in the street

possessed by a kind

of sociological curiosity

I rummaged with a stick in the surreal world

of garbage bins.

I realized that things don’t die but are murdered.

I saw outraged papers, fruit peel, glass

of an unknown colour, strange and tortured metals,

rags, bones, dust, inexplicable substances

that rejected life. My attention was caught by

a doll’s torso, with a dark stain,

a sort of rosy meadow death.

It seems that culture consists in

the thorough tormenting of matter

and pushing it through an implacable intestine.

Almost a comfort to reflect that not even this excrement

is obliged to abandon the planet.


Stendhal and Borges

Silvestro Valeri-Stendhal


In Stendhal’s Charterhouse of Parma the young protagonist, Fabrizio, is locked away in a prison tower, but is able to spy on his beloved through a slit in the shutter as she feeds her birds. His days are made meaningful only by these interludes of light in a life otherwise confined by darkness and solitude. He conjectures an idyllic existence lived with the obliging object of his gaze, and is kept in a state of ecstatic anticipation merely by her daily appearance in the courtyard. In Borges’ story, The Writing of God, the prisoner in his cell is kept in darkness throughout the day, excepting a single visit from his jailer, in which water and food are lowered down by rope, through a small door high above him. In the time it takes for this to take place, light enters the cell, allowing the prisoner to observe, for a few seconds, the jaguar in the neighbouring cell, and to attempt to decipher, on the cat’s black and yellow coat, the writing of God. For both these prisoners, the attainment of their respective goal is an irrelevance, since it is not fulfilment that matters, but the prolonging of hope, the feeding of illusion in that one moment of revelation.

The Liver Transplant

The Blanco torso, two weeks after transplant, with 51 metal clips. What surgeons refer to admiringly as 'a beautiful scar'.

When I told people I was going to write about my experiences of liver disease and the transplant that followed my terminal diagnosis, it should not have come as a surprise that many readers were interested to hear about the process of the operation itself. So – with apologies to those of you who have already read ‘The Vagabond’s Breakfast’ – I am reproducing part of the section when I have been summoned to the hospital for the transplant.

Incidentally, I was recently asked to write a magazine article on the question of ‘presumed consent’ – whereby citizens are required to ‘opt out’ of the organ donor scheme, rather than the current system, where they ‘opt in’, by acquiring a donor card, thereby making known their availability as a potential donor. This is a fascinating and complex matter, with far-reaching ethical ramifications, and one that I will be addressing in this blog at a later date.

At this point in the narrative, I have been introduced to the anaesthetist and the surgeon who is to carry out the eight-hour operation, and I am being wheeled towards the theatre on a trolley bed:

Being manoeuvred down hospital corridors on a trolley bed has little to recommend it: you are now indisputably cast in the role of subject – you have become the one to whom things are done. This sense of utter helplessness is a challenge both to dignity and identity: you are simply the poor sod on the trolley whom passers-by will avoid looking at too closely. In the lift the other passengers stare at the ceiling, and I think of Hannibal Lecter. And then, the thought occurs to me that I spent ten years studying and writing about the subjectivity of the patient, that I have a PhD in the narrative construction of illness experience, have published in learned journals and even written a couple of books on the subject. None of this can help me now. I am in a post-discursive zone. I have reached the End of Theory.

Once inside the operating rooms, the situation becomes increasingly non-negotiable: the anaesthetist greets me by name but I have difficulty recognising him, transformed as he is by mask and surgical overalls. The surgeon too pops up with a consoling reminder: “I realise this is a big thing for you, but just remember that for us here, this is what we do every day.” He smiles. I do not panic. I am calm. I reason that if something does go wrong, I probably won’t know about it. Then the anaesthetist approaches once more, gives me an injection, and as he pulls away, the world goes with him.

I thought I had woken from a dream of the sea, but the waking was a part of the dream and instead I found myself upon a makeshift raft, the ocean swelling placidly around me, sharing tuna sandwiches with my dog. We rock unsteadily on the raft. I scour the horizon for any hint of land. Night is falling. I can hear nothing, and the gravity of silence makes me turn: a massive liner is bearing down, a million lights ablaze along the bows, lights that flicker into knowledge of something vast, unstoppable.

Coming to in Intensive Care, I nudge close to the surface several times before breaking through the last waves of sleep and opening my eyes. It is the afternoon of the next day. I am parched and my throat hurts, but I am evidently alive. I ask for water from the patient and fastidious Filipino male nurse who hovers at my bedside. My intake is restricted to occasional sips, which I swill around my mouth before swallowing for maximum lubrication, but I am impatient to drink, and inevitably take in more water than I am permitted. My nurse chides me gently, tells me again to take small sips.

I have often wondered, prior to the operation, how it would feel to be in a hospital bed immediately post-op, knowing that another person’s liver lies inside my body. At this same hospital, in February, I met successful, long-term transplant patients, and in spite of their apparent normality and good health, in spite of what I had been told about the advances made in transplant surgery, I could not help but regard these survivors as freakish cyborgs; insubstantial beings held together by pins and tape – and now I was one of them. Awkwardly, I pull back the bedclothes to look at my torso. Below the gauze bandage I follow the contours of a ridge that snakes across my stomach where the metal clips are planted (later, when the bandage is removed, I count fifty-one). Even more than during recent weeks, I feel at a remove from my own physical person, this immovable object to which I am attached and which now contains a large element of the not-me. The singularity of this sensation is perhaps due to the fact that nothing in my experience has been remotely similar: I have nothing to gauge it by. This lump inside my body is almost palpable otherness, and yet, if I did not know that I had received another man’s liver, would I feel any different? Would I know? Because of the drugs I am being fed, the only area of real discomfort in my body centres on my sore throat and the intolerable dryness of my mouth. Otherwise, it is too early for me to register any emotion other than relief that I have come through and am being told the operation has been a grand success.

I endure my thirst with a martial, dogged humour. Rose sits by my side, a warm and subtle presence, and I enjoy the visit of the surgeon, Professor W, and ask him when the monstrous battery of farts that issues forth from me might ease up. He tells me – and this is a little alarming – that the new liver was uncommonly large, coming in at 1.2 kilogrammes (the average liver weighs 0.7 kg). He says that with time it will shrink to accommodate to my body size, just as, if I had received a smaller organ – or half an organ, which is commonly the case – it would grow to fill the designated space. I have a sudden desire to mourn my old liver. It served me well, I think, sentimentally, before it finally gave up the ghost. Professor W says he had a hell of a job getting it out, which, quite apart from serving as a metaphor for the extinction of a past life, evokes some horrible imagery. I like the Prof – he has a nice sense of the macabre which he can’t quite keep in check, like his smile when discussing my prolific flatulence, marking him out as someone I might get along with well in civilian life.

At night, my temperature rises suddenly and I feel the onset of fear for the first time since entering the hospital; a dense fear, cloudy and dull, loitering, it seems, just to the back and to the left of me, like the devil. I am feverish. I fear I might have contracted some iatrogenic infection such as MRSA; I fear my body might be rejecting the new liver. I do not manage to sleep much that night, in spite of the medication, anxious in case my temperature continues to rise, putting me at threat of I know not what. There is a remote possibility of having to undergo more surgery if things go wrong, even a chance that I might require another new liver, for which an emergency, Europe-wide call would have to be sent out; but when my temperature is taken the next morning, it has fallen. I am off the critical list. That evening I am transferred to the Special Care unit, a half-way house between Intensive Care and the general ward. The following afternoon I manage to get out of bed and into an armchair. My father and sister visit, and they bring my daughters, Sioned and Rhiannon, who never take their eyes off me. I am tired and in considerable discomfort, but am overjoyed to see them.

Only a day later I am in a two-bed room on the liver ward and learning to walk with a Zimmer frame. That first night on the ward, I sleep a full eight hours, wake the next morning with a sense of levity and grace, and walk to the bathroom without assistance. A week to the day after surgery, I leave the hospital. The consultant who signs me out tells me this equals the record for turnaround on a liver transplant. I am irrepressible and quite barking: mad as a hatter, says the ward sister, Julie, approvingly. On leaving, I thank all the staff who have tended me. I vow to myself that I will never again complain about the National Health Service. As a parting gift they give me a blue plastic container for all my pills, with sections designating the days of the week. I take my pills four times a day. I swallow them down with water, tea or apple juice. They make me whole again. No, that’s a lie; they suppress my immune system in order to prevent me from rejecting the new liver. Before long I will have forgotten life without pills, but that is a small price to pay.

From ‘The Vagabond’s Breakfast’ (Alcemi, 2011)