Here in the city of water, our hotel has a sign in the bathroom: ‘Water is a very scarce natural resource of immense value.’ No doubt this is true, but how strange that we should be reminded of it here, of all places.
An afternoon spent visiting islands. On returning from the sad island, Torcello, we sail past Murano in the dark, the bells tolling across the water from a church tower, the swash of the water against the hull as we pass, a sense of departure foreshadowing that of the definitive journey, and I am reminded that – as Peter Ackroyd notes in his book Venice: Pure City – ‘the endless presence of water breeds anxiety. Water is unsettling. You must be more alert and watchful in your perambulations. Everything shifts. There is a sense of otherness . . . it is shapeless. It has depth but no mass.’
Venice is a place of doubleness and of inversions. The watery essence of the city seeps into every thought, every perception, and then replicates it in a reflection. Stone and water; water and stone. Ackroyd again: ‘When you look down upon the water, Venice seems to have no foundations except for reflections. Only its reflections are visible. Venice and Venice’s image are inseparable.’
The inversion of one world in another: if you get to visit below the Doge’s Palace you can see how the reflection of the upper world in the lower finds expression in inscriptions outside the prison cells set at canal level, which are numbered in inverted Roman numerals: Λ, ΛΙ, etc. Apparently this was done to remind the prisoners that they were now in a shadow zone, a place in which the normal rules of the surface no longer held sway; that they had entered another, upside down world – had themselves become other.
It is cold in Venice. I arrive late at night and go straight to bed. In the morning a mist hangs over the city when I go for my coffee at the corner café. Outside, a small white dog chases a blue ball around in circles. I see a derelict man, sitting hunched over on the bench in the nearby square. There are not many rough sleepers in Venice, in fact there is not normally a vast number of beggars. I sit down on the bench. The man asks me for money. He has a somewhat battered appearance. I give him some coins. He gets up and leaves, but returns a few minutes later with a bottle. He offers me a drink, which I decline. It occurs to me that he is a character in a story I didn’t write, about a man who achieves most of the things that matter to him, then loses interest in them and goes to Venice and is reduced to sleeping rough: I could even tell him – if he were interested, which I rather doubt – that he is living my life in reverse. But I think better of it. He might not take it well. Besides, the morning mist is beginning to lift and the man is telling me an incredibly long and convoluted story about how he once achieved almost everything he set out to achieve, but then lost interest in his life, and came to Venice, but he tells the story in such a drab and uninteresting way that I drift off, begin thinking of other things, such as what I might do with the day now that the mist has lifted, and then he says something about living my life in reverse – ‘it’s as though I were living your life in reverse,’ he says, or I think he says, as I stare at some graffiti on a wall facing me: ‘Rose is a Rose is a Rose’ – and when I turn to reply to the man on the bench next to me, he is gone.
I have just finished reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and realise that, for a change, I have something to say about a contemporary novel in English. Not that I read many, and finish far fewer, especially since devouring Pierre Bayard’s excellent How to talk about books you haven’t read. Why would one bother? But I had read various of Batuman’s essays and decided to give The Idiot a swirl, despite its somewhat daunting bulk.
Batuman writes very well, and has a rather particular sense of humour (or rather, humor) – or perhaps it isn’t a sense of humour in any conventional sense, but just the way she reads the world. This is a nicety of her style, and of the narrator, Selin’s, personality. Like Elif, Selin is an American of Turkish parentage who attends university in the late 1990s and encounters the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which teaches (broadly speaking) that perception is to a large extent defined by the language one speaks. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis actually explains a lot of what the book does, as Selin negotiates the tricky terrain of learning, infatuation (wonderfully muted and neurotic) and travel.
The story begins with Selin’s discovery, as a teenager, of the internet and the possibility of receiving emails: ‘Insofar as I’d had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing, and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world.’ Now I cannot even remember when I first encountered email, no doubt at the university where I worked (and still work); but I do remember how these messages seemed to emerge from a distinct or parallel world, and were significantly different in style and register from other forms of communication. Many – from people you knew – were like letters with their hair let down, and were generally composed with an absence of upper case letters. Batuman, who is a lot younger than me, remembers perfectly:
‘You could access it [the other world] from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers . . . Some messages were formally epistolary, with “Dear” and “Sincerely”; others were telegraphic, all in lower case with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.’
How clever is that ‘all the words you threw out, they came back’! Is that not the absolute essence (and horror) of email? But not only your own words; the endless deluge of other people’s (and institutions’) words emanating from this other world that can seemingly never be stanched or silenced . . .
Batuman’s range of registers is not extensive, and she is not an experimental writer in any conventional sense, but in the way she approaches her subject matter indirectly – at a slant to the universe – she manages to incite curiosity about the world like few other contemporary writers. Consider this passage, which occurs quite late in the book:
‘It was cold for swimming, but there were two people in the water: a barrel-chested man and a tiny little girl in a blue bikini. The girl was almost exploding with delight. The man stood awkwardly, like the first guest at a party, shifting his weight in the knee-deep water and rubbing his arms. Then he squatted so that only his head stuck out of the water. Then he vanished altogether, reappearing nearly a minute later with a perplexed expression. The girl clapped and shrieked, turned the man around by his shoulders, and climbed onto his back. The man stood up, his torso plastered with leaves. Overwhelmed by happiness, the girl began to sing. She was so happy – but she didn’t know what anything really was. She didn’t know what anything meant. She knew even less than we did.’
Notice how the narrator doesn’t say of the tiny singing girl that ‘she knew nothing’, but rather ‘she didn’t know what anything really was.’ This is a pointer towards the way Elif Batuman unpacks the world for her readers, not stating the expected, or at least not using linguistic constructions that are at once familiar or complacent. She prefers to present the girl’s ignorance, her ‘not knowing what anything [really] was’ almost as a threat, or an accident waiting to happen. And not only to her, the girl, but to the rest of us – whoever ‘we’ are. As though through ‘our’ ignorance we too might allow ourselves to be ‘overwhelmed by happiness’. With a fine tuning to différance the writer manages to do something quite unusual: exhibit her own bewilderment at the world in a manner at once subtle and strange. This trait is manifested early in the book when Selin is attending her first lecture as a freshman at Harvard:
‘The professor was talking about the difference between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet – and this was ironic – there was very little structural equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.’
Selin is amazed by the way her friend, Svetlana, has so many opinions on things – how everything that happens, in fact, provokes some kind of intellectual reaction. She, by contrast ‘went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.’ She is reminded of Olenka, the protagonist of Chekhov’s story, ‘The Darling’:
‘She saw objects round her and understood everything that was going on, but she could not form opinions about anything and did not know what to talk about. How awful it is not to have an opinion! You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand roubles.’ (47)
In many ways, this is a classic coming of age novel, but with significant differences. Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician Selin meets at Harvard, fulfils the role of love interest with as much awkwardness as Selin herself engages in the student activities which her peers perform unthinkingly: drinking large quantities of beer, for instance, holds no appeal for her. Her experiences as an EFL teacher in rural Hungary, to which she has travelled over the summer in vague pursuit of Ivan, might come across to some readers as anti-climactic, and it’s true that the plot, such as it is, drifts somewhat. But that isn’t what you read a book like The Idiot for. It is to be read for the skill of the writing and for the sharp and funny insights about growing up in a world that makes very little sense.
The earthquake in central Mexico has produced startling and heartrending images, but perhaps none so powerful as those of rescue workers poised with fists held high – the sign for silence – so that any sounds from the rubble and ruins might be heard.
Yesterday the writer Juan Villoro published a poem in the Reforma newspaper called El puño en alto which has captured the imagination of many readers in Mexico and elsewhere. Here is my translation:
Fist held high
You’re from the place where you
pick up garbage.
Where two sunbeams fall
on the same spot.
Because you saw the first,
you wait for the second.
And you stay on here.
Where the earth opens up
And the people come together.
Another time you arrived late:
you’re alive because you’re not punctual,
because you didn’t show up for
the appointment that at 1.14 pm
would have killed you,
thirty two years after
the other appointment, to which
you didn’t arrive on time, either.
You are the victim who wasn’t there.
The building swayed and you
didn’t see your life pass
before your eyes, like
in the movies.
You had a pain in a part of the body
that you didn’t know existed.
The skin of memory,
that didn’t bring scenes
of your life, but of
the beast that can be heard
crunching up matter.
Also the water remembered
what it was when it
owned this place.
It shook in the rivers.
It shook in the houses
that we concoct in the rivers.
You gathered up the books of another
time, the one you were
before those pages.
The weather went from bad to worse
after the national holidays.
More of a party than a grand occasion.
Is there still room for heroes
You are afraid.
You have the courage to be afraid.
You don’t know what to do,
but you do something,
You didn’t found the city
nor defended it from invaders.
You are, at best,
Who picks through rubble
after the tragedy.
Who shifts bricks,
finds a comb,
two shoes that don’t match,
a wallet with photographs.
Who puts together loose parts,
bits of bits,
remains, only remains,
what fits in the hands.
Who doesn’t wear gloves,
Who shares out water,
Who gives away their medicine
because they’re cured of fright.
Who saw the moon and heard
strange things, but didn’t know
how to interpret them.
Who heard the cat miaow
half an hour before and only
understood it with the first shudder,
when water burst from the toilet.
Who prayed in a strange language
because they’d forgotten how to pray.
Who remembered who was where.
Who went to the school
for their children.
Whose battery ran out.
Who ran out onto the street to offer
their cell phone.
Who broke in to rob
an abandoned shop
and repented in
a food bank.
Who knew that they were
one too many
Who stayed awake so that
others could sleep.
Who is from here.
Who has just arrived
and is already from here.
Who says ‘city’ so as
to say you and me and Pedro and Marta
and Francisco and Guadalupe.
Who goes two days without electricity or water.
Who still breathes.
Who held a fist high to ask for silence.
Those who paid attention.
Those held up their fist.
Those who held up their fist.
if anyone was living.
Those who held up their fist
to hear if anyone was living and heard
Those who didn’t stop listening.
On Tuesday, after all the poetry and talk was done, we were taken to see a Uruguayan folk dance group of superior talents: in the second half of the show the men produced these steel balls called boleadoras (I forget how, if at all, they relate to any aspect of cattle husbandry) and whizzed them around their heads on ropes. Truly impressive. Then we had a group photograph – in fact I took a ‘groupie’ – as it should, or may, be called – in which I do not appear, though I attach another taken earlier in the day outside our favourite San José restaurant, the self-explanatory roti-parilla: in the foreground, in black, our hostess or maître d’ – Maria.
Next morning, back in Buenos Aires, the world is too loud and large objects move around quickly, dangerously. Crossing the road from the ferry terminal with two suitcases in order to track down a taxi demands a certain degree of skill and agility. The distilled lethargy of small town Uruguay now resembles the leftover dross of a dream from which you have recently awaken and cannot quite piece together: the dream’s debris holds you back in this Brave New World. We take a taxi to Palermo and I check into the same hotel I stayed in on first arriving in Buenos Aires 10 days ago, and again four days ago, after the trip to Chile. It’s becoming a habit, and I’m beginning to feel at home in these streets what with all the recent yo-yoing and after five visits in as many years. The staff at the hotel greet me as though I were a regular, and I suppose I am, albeit accidentally. Despite my work as a writer and translator of poetry from Spanish, there is little real sense of contrivance or intention in my returning trips to Buenos Aires and other Latin American cities: it is more as if I were fulfilling a destiny that was decided for me when, in my teens, I bought a big map of South America and stuck it on the wall of my bedroom, which now seems like a determining moment.
People asked me about that map back then, and I was never really clear about why I had chosen to put it on the wall. It felt like a challenge to myself of sorts; a possibility that might be made to happen when the time was right, and it was able to turn itself into a plan. I had no idea it would take so long. And then, around ten years ago, I start thinking about Latin America in a new way, less linked to the past and influenced by my reading and by some serendipitous meetings with Latin American writers, who subsequently become friends, and some of whom I would translate. And I’m tempted to say that I knew this would happen, but that would be an exaggeration, of course. However, if I consider the archaeology of the thing, and work backwards from the present, is it really all that strange to think that my placing of that map on the wall acted as the trigger to where I am now, in relation to my work and most of my friendships?
Below are a few photos, in no particular sequence or order of importance:
A cold evening: walking in this strange amber light towards the theatre in San José’s main square. Everything seems to happen in slow motion here. Even the dogs are pensioners, shuffling arthritically down the pavement; they make some effort to accompany you on your way before giving up and slumping to the ground.
I want to find a reason for being here, other than the fact of having being invited, but draw a blank. This is what continuous travel does after ten days or so: each new displacement presents a minor ontological crisis – nothing serious, just the sense of being nowhere in particular, a feeling which is precisely so: we could be almost anywhere, provided it was a so-called backwater – market towns in Wales and Catalunya come to mind; places that might, under other circumstances, or to other people, feel like home. And I remember a town like this in rural Colombia, driving past two dogs glued together by their rear parts, yet facing in opposite directions, an eight legged Janus. One of the dogs turned its head to follow me down the road, eyes laden with infinite sorrow, pleading: please help me come unstuck, or even: take me with you, help me get the hell out of this place.
Later, inside the theatre, the lights fail, the sound system packs up, and for a full three minutes we are left in silence, in the dark. Only then do I feel comfortable; only then do I feel as though I’ve arrived.
Antonin, sure enough, there are no more masterpieces. / But your hands trembled as you said it, / and behind every curtain there is always, as you / knew, a rustling.
One of the things that delights me about the work of John Berger is that you can dip in at random and find something that provides context to almost anything you care to name. This morning I try the trick with Confabulations, a gathering from his late notebooks published last year:
‘What has prompted me to write over the years is the hunch that something needs to be told and that, if I don’t try to tell it, it risks not being told. I picture myself not so much a consequential, professional writer, as a stop-gap man.
After I’ve written a few lines I let the words slip back into the creature of their language. And there, they are instantly recognized and greeted by a host of other words, with whom they have an affinity of meaning, or of opposition, or of metaphor or alliteration or rhythm. I listen to their confabulation. Together they are contesting the use to which I put the words I chose. They are questioning the roles I allotted them.
So I modify the lines, change a word or two, and submit them again. Another confabulation begins.’
What a concise and wonderful way of summarising the process of writing. Firstly, the notion that if you don’t write something, it risks not being told. This might not be the greatest of losses to humanity, but then one never knows what one wants to say, as E.M. Forster nearly said, until one has said it.
Secondly, the notion of ‘letting the words slip back into the creature of their language’: Berger considers language as an animate being, back into which words can mysteriously slide. This idea of the creature of language is much more attractive, as a metaphor, than the ‘virus’ of language which fascinated Burroughs (and which might be traced to a reading of Chomsky).
And thirdly, the notion of words forming a community, a host of other words lying there in wait, to align themselves or dissociate from those returning: a fluid body of words, a jostling mass of word-molecules, contesting the writer’s choice, questioning the decisions of their creator, but not their creator, as the writer only ever borrows words, and – as an animate body – confabulating among themselves as to where they want to go, what they intend to mean.
So, we were just on Santa Fe (the main thoroughfare connecting Palermo to the centre of Buenos Aires) trying to hail a taxi, when these young people, on the way back from a night out – or rather, still on a night out – at 7.15 in the morning, approached Pedro and me as we unsuspectingly pulled our suitcases towards the road. Pedro, informing them he was Mexican, proved of little interest, but they engaged me enthusiastically in alcohol-infused conversation on a range of interesting topics, and at full volume: my favourite Argentine food (I went for medialunas rather than raw steak, obviously to their disapproval); my favourite Argentine beverage (theirs was Fernet with coke, which I have never tried and almost certainly never will); and lastly, with considerable ardour, my opinion on the political status of the Falkland Islands or Malvinas (in the opinion of their most vocal spokesperson, there was no doubt on this issue, although I expressed scepticism, recalling – though not mentioning – something that Borges said about two bald men fighting over a comb). When pressed on the issue of whether the Malvinas were Argentine on a purely geographical basis, I suggested that the islands should probably belong to Antarctica. These kids can’t have been much more than eighteen; they weren’t anywhere near being born when the Falklands war was on; why is this even an issue?
In order to get from Buenos Aires to Uruguay, you take the ferry to Colonia del Sacramento. I’ve done this before, en route to Montevideo, but today we are going to the town of San José de Mayo, where there is a Book Fair and Poetry Festival, and where we will be presenting, as a part of the festival’s opening ceremonies, and for the third time on this whistle-stop tour, following our events in Buenos Aires and Valdivia, The Other Tiger, with readings by a range of poets included in the book, from Uruguay and Colombia, as well as those from Argentina and Mexico who have been on tour with me over the past week.
The weather is frightful, though obviously not as bad as in parts of the Caribbean. From my seat on the ferry I watch a grey sea against a slowly unfurling grey sky.
It seems timeless, and perhaps it is. I don’t know. I watch Carlos taking a film of the grey sea and the grey sky and ask him what he is doing, and he tells me he is making a film of the sea, so I do the same as I can’t think what else to do. Perhaps if you put the video on loop you might achieve lasting wisdom, though I doubt it. Once we hit terra firma we pile into a mini bus and, as the rain hammers down, we pass green fields and scattered woods.
I curl up in the back with my hood over my head and listen to music. At one point I look up and wonder if the driver is watching me, or watching out – but it seems like a David Lynch moment, or is it a Hitchcock moment, and although I cannot remember making the decision to take a photo, one appears on my iPhone.
After a very long wait for lunch – everything in Uruguay, I am reminded, takes place very slowly, which can be nice sometimes, but not when you are hungry – the food finally arrives, and almost immediately a piece of meat, a piece of meat from a famous Uruguayan asado, goes down the wrong way, and I know at once that I am in trouble. I go to the bathroom, try to rack my brains for a memory of what to do, to find an auto-cure for this thing that won’t go down, but all I can think of is the Heimlich manoeuvre. And I know, without considering it for very long, that of all the people in the dining room, of whom I know around ten personally, Andy is the one to ask, so I do. And he does know, although he didn’t know he knew, and hadn’t done it before. And so I breathe again, my brush with mortality over almost as quickly as it began. What a way to begin a poetry festival.
Here, in case you find yourself in a similar position, with a chunk of Uruguayan beef, or something equivalent, choking your airways, are the instructions on doing it yourself.
Performing the Heimlich Maneuver on yourself
- Make a fist and place the thumb side of your fist against your abdomen, below the ribcage, and just above the navel.
- Grasp your fist with your other hand and press into your abdomen with a quick, upward pressure.
- Repeat until object is expelled.
Alternatively, you can lean over a fixed horizontal object, such as a table edge, chair, or railing and press your abdomen against the edge to produce a quick, upward pressure. Repeat until the object is expelled. Like this fellow in the grey pullover:
After lunch I return to my hotel room, ring home to let my loved ones know that I survived, even though they didn’t know I might not, and then watch the rain through my window, and in the distance there is the almost continuous sound of thunder.
Before leaving Valdivia, I am able to take a final walk down to the river, where the pleasure boat Neptuno is tied up to the dock, guarded by a pair of old dogs who bark selectively at passers-by. The light is magical after a cold, sunny day.
The overnight bus from Valdivia to Santiago covers 850 kilometres and, including a couple of unexplained stops, lasts 11 hours. On the plus side, the seats convert into quite comfortable beds, and with a warm blanket, a blindfold, noise cancelling headphones and a little white pill, the night can pass in a perfectly pleasant manner.
We pose outside the publishing house where there is anteresting example of literary graffiti that says 2666 huevos (eggs), which might be a commendation, of sorts.
Without the time to commit to a serious excursion before our flight back to Buenos Aires, we drop off our bags at the LOM publishers office and meander – a posse of poets – without aim or purpose, around the streets of the city.
In the south of Chile, early September means late winter, and the weather is cold and damp. This comes as a shock to the system, if your body still thinks it’s summer. Driving from the airport into Valdivia, the fields and surrounding woods are draped in mist, and the melancholy that I described on the Sunday evening streets of Buenos Aires returns in pastoral mode, following a single day’s break in Santiago, where I deliver a talk at the Diego Portales University on Roberto Bolaño, at the Catedra Roberto Bolaño. Coals to Newcastle.
The drop in temperature – not that Santiago was warm – is accompanied by an appreciable increase in humidity. Chileans with any knowledge of Wales sometimes joke that I must like Valdivia because the weather reminds me of home. But last time I was here it was January, and considerably warmer than the average Welsh summer.
We walk through the early morning mist, past the fish stalls being set up along the riverside, to the Pedro de Valdivia bridge, named after the conquistador of that name (1497-1553) who was first governor of Chile. Valdivia met with resistance from the Mapuche Indians when attempting to conquer the south and, his army defeated, was captured. Stories about how he met his death vary, but one contemporary account suggests that offers of a ransom – and the return of all occupied lands – was rejected by the Mapuche, who cut off Valdivia’s arms, roasted them, and ate them in front of him before dispatching him.
A pair of sea lions lounge on a floating jetty; as we pass the male rises awkwardly on his forepaws and roars at a passing heron.
From the bridge the river appears to dissolve into a wall of mist, beyond which I imagine a world, entirely hidden from view, in which strange and terrible things might happen. It is a vision from The Heart of Darkness, or Juan José Saer’s great novel El Entenado (which means a foster child, but has been translated into English as The Witness) – which, while taking place on the other side of this continent, up the River Plate, is, like Conrad’s, a novel of European paranoia and dissolution: the reader is warned in both books that the view ahead presents possibilities that are as terrible as anything that can be imagined in a wide river shrouded in white mist.
At the University Austral, a long day of presentations, literary discourse and performance, much of it concerning our anthology The Other Tiger. In the evening, the poets Jorge Aulicino, Marina Serrano, Carlos López Beltrán, Jaime Pinos, Jorge Fondebrider, Pedro Serrano, Verónica Zondek and Damsi Figueroa read poems and students from the university read my English versions from The Other Tiger with great intelligence and fine dramatic emphasis.
After dinner as guests of the University Rector, Óscar Galindo, we return through a freezing downpour to the hotel. I go to sleep with the sound of the rain pattering on the glass dormer window above my head, a strangely comforting sound: percussive entry to a dream of rivers.
So much has happened since the Champions League Final held in Cardiff on June 3rd: the London Bridge attacks (that same night); the general election; the Grenfell Tower fire and the Finsbury Park attack. A football game is a mere trifle. But the issues that struck me on the evening of the European Champions Final in Cardiff are perhaps not entirely irrelevant, and the corporate, globalised nature of top-level football – along with its often incorrigibly corrupt officials (stand up Michel Platini) – raised some questions of identity and alienation, even in this anecdotal form.
What is in a name? Walking through my home city towards the Principality Stadium, once the Millennium Stadium, and renamed the National Stadium of Wales at the insistence of UEFA for tonight’s event, I could feel myself, just like the stadium itself, undergoing an identity crisis.
I have been overtaken by a sort of acute cognitive dissonance, in which the knowledge that, while I am in my own city, in a street I walk down every day on my way home from work, I am at the same time elsewhere, in a city of strangers, all of them football fans – which I am not – in a parade (typically, if not stereotypically) of shouting and gesticulating Italians, all adorned with shirts and scarves of the Juventus tribe, followers of the fortunes of the football club that will shortly be pitched against the might of Real Madrid, their ‘Spanish’ opponents. They are passionate in their support, and many of them would do almost anything – and have already done a great deal and paid a lot of money – to travel to this game.
My overall neutrality is a serious marker of difference, here amongst fanatics. I am both a native and a neutral, and it feels as though I have entered a parallel world, in which my familiar surroundings have been ripped away and replaced by a replica city, in which I am the alien. And I am walking down Wood Street the wrong way.
Normally, in order to enter this end of the stadium, I would leave my home in upper Grangetown, cross the bridge at the end of Tudor Road and, turn left. This evening, though, Wood Street has become a one-way system for pedestrians, and we are channelled up towards the railway station, underneath the vast and towering construction that will soon be the new home of the BBC, doubling back down towards Wood Street from the Mary Street end. It is a small matter, but one which adds to the general sense of being cast adrift within familiar surroundings. And the fact of being herded the wrong way down this road, surrounded by strangers, seems laden with metaphoric possibility. I am a little disoriented, to say the least.
But as I have started thinking about my own identity in this huge crowd of fanatics, and felt the painful onset of anomie, and an almost total disconnect from my surroundings, I begin to think, in turn, what it means to support a football club. We all know, nowadays, that support of a particular club has nothing at all to do with geographical or even cultural affinity. The reasons for supporting a club can be as fleeting as the colour of their strip or the design of their logo, or a schoolboy crush on a particular player. It isn’t like in my grandfather’s day – that’s how far you have to go back – when the players in a side were actually from the place they played for. Nowadays these specimens are rare – Stephen Gerrard of Liverpool was a notable recent case, along with Rooney when he played (briefly) for Everton, and I’m sure there are a few more, but they are not plentiful, and certainly not in the Premier League. Such characters are invariably local heroes, until they move to a bigger, richer club.
So, the notion that supporting a club may have anything to do with affiliation by country or culture or geography applies equally to playing for such a club. How many of the Juventus players starting tonight come from Turin? And how many of the Madrid players are from . . . As I write this, I realise it is not a remotely original question, but let’s check, starting with Juventus.
There is not a single player from Turin or even thereabouts in the Juventus team; of the four Italians starting for Juventus, three are from Tuscany and one from the Lazio region. I find it interesting that the actual Italians are, true to form, all defenders, as though the back line must, at least, live up to the Italian reputation for ruthless, murderous defence, and therefore be comprised of those most loyal, even at a distance, to the Italian (though strictly speaking, it should be Lombard) cause. There are even fewer Spaniards in the Real Madrid side: of the three starting, two are Andalusians, and there is one, yes one from the autonomous community of Madrid, Dani Carvajal (also a defender). I like the way the nationals (Ramos, too, is a defender) make up the defence, as if to say “we at least are loyal Spaniards/Italians and will defend the goal-line to the last”. A nice touch. There were, in total, 4 Brazilians (two apiece), 4 Italians, 3 Spaniards, 2 Germans, 2 French, 2 Croatians, 2 Argentinians, and a single representative of Bosnia, Portugal and Costa Rica out on the pitch at the start of the game.
Clearly, then, in this globalised era of sport, what these fans are following are brands, not to be confused by loyalties of birth or geographical affiliation. And the notion of 76,000 fans baying on behalf of a brand that in reality has nothing in common with themselves as a defined cultural group from a defined place (Madrid, Turin) is a distinctly postmodern notion.
As if to prove a point, I am in the company of a Mexican and an Argentinian (invited to Cardiff to take part in Fiction Fiesta events on football and literature) and both have declared their allegiance to the cause of Juventus, while I myself am strictly neutral. A., the Argentinian – who lives in Granada – is an Atlético Madrid supporter, and therefore despises Real on principle. J.’s family on his father’s side is originally from Barcelona, and he has lived in the Catalan capital for extended periods, so he is even more contra Madrid than A. And me? Despite my protestations of neutrality, I lived in Barcelona myself for a while in the 1980s, and I am loath to see Real Madrid win anything, but there is the Gareth Bale factor, and even though Bale is not in the starting line-up, he is, after all, a Cardiff boy, and may come on as a sub (which he does, late in the game, but to no great effect). So, you see, one can get caught up in this nonsense even if one doesn’t really care. But the brand thing? The gazillions spent on players’ salaries, the products, the strips; the millions of little girls and boys who dream of getting a Messi 10 shirt in their Christmas stocking, or whatever . . . what the fuck is this all about?
Earlier in the day I had picked up our Argentinian friend, A., from his hotel. J. and I had waited in the foyer. A group of men were on their way into reception from their rooms, also on their way to the game. There was about them a brashness, and a brittle sense of propriety that seemed presumptuous, here in a foreign city. They exuded insider knowledge and, I suspected, the potential for extreme violence. They wore sharp suits to match their hatchet faces. ‘Romanian Mafia,’ J. muttered to me; ‘they turn up at every big match.’ J. would know; he is one of the world’s great football writers. The renowned Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes, once said: ‘If you want to know about soccer, go speak to J.’ So if J. says these guys are mafia, I’m pretty sure they are. And it seems to be almost as if these guys are at the bloody heart of globalised football: the obvious crooks, milking the UEFA machine (on this occasion) – though it might as well be FIFA or any other of its world tributaries – for personal profit in whatever deals come in this event’s trashy wake. And they are only one step away from the ones we might consider the ‘insider’ crooks – the repulsive Sepp Blatter and his cronies.
As we approach the turnstiles, the tension mounts. We have to pass through three separate rungs of security and ticket checks. At the third turnstile, a young man attempts to flash a pass, or a ticket, at security, and this is found wanting. He has no ticket. The guard immediately calls for help and the guy is ushered away by two uniformed colleagues. I wonder how on earth he got through the first two levels of security. Two weeks prior to the match, we had to provide details of our passports and – in my case – national insurance number. The form from the Welsh FA stated that this information would be shared by the South Wales and Greater Manchester Police forces. We received this request four days before the Manchester Arena bombing of 22nd May. This was odd. Why did Greater Manchester Police need our data? Did they have intelligence on a likely attack? It would seem so, and I haven’t been offered any other explanation.
The game itself, even for a non-fan, offered a great spectacle. I am used to attending rugby internationals at the Millennium stadium, so the atmosphere was not a shock, but I did admire the extraordinary skills of the players, their control of a ball moving at speed, their balance and precision of movement. The Juventus goal, an overhead strike by the Croatian, Mandzukić, was a staggering piece of athleticism. I was particularly entranced by Ronaldo, a man with possibly the strangest skin colour on earth, after Donald Trump. And he was certainly the most reviled player on the pitch, which was fun. We were seated pitchside – our complimentary tickets were excellent (thank you, Nick) – near the Juventus fans at the south end of the stadium, and every time Ronaldo had the ball, a terrible hissing began. On a couple of occasions he was near enough to be spat upon. This radiantly dark orange gladiator ignored the taunts in magisterial fashion, peacocking his way across the pitch and, after his opening goal, embarked on a trademark piece of preening, flexing his muscles in a comically macho pose after first dashing to the corner to answer the taunts of the Juve fans with shaking fist. Great theatre, I guess, but such an odious fellow. I remembered reading somewhere that Ronaldo never celebrates the goals of his team-mates with them, but demands their adoration when he scores himself. If true, which I suspect it is, it struck me as the most incredibly narcissistic gesture, in what is, after all, a ‘team game’. But, then again: perhaps Ronaldo is simply being true to himself. Why would narcissism, a trait which defines contemporary celebrity culture, be out of place here, in a game that obediently tows the global capitalist line of cynical identity manipulation and idiotic self-love? It kind of follows that in such a relentlessly competitive and cash-driven arena, you wouldn’t really give a shit about anyone else in your team – even to the point of resenting them the smallest taste of glory. Team spirit? What have you got in common with these guys other than your obscenely inflated pay packet?
But despite Ronaldo’s prima donna antics, he wouldn’t be a great player without the rest of the team, and most people – in football as in life – seem compelled to form teams, to take sides, however tenuous the commonalities they share. In many ways, football at this level is the embodiment of postmodern identity politics. It is compellingly entertaining, even if the structure that supports it is rotten.
The players, by origin:
Keylor Navas (Costa Rica)
Dani Carvajal (Madrid, Spain)
Rafael Varane (France)
Sergio Ramos (Seville, Spain)
Toni Kroos (Germany)
Luka Modric (Croatia)
Isco (Malaga, Spain)
Karim Benzema (France)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal)
Gianluigi Buffon (Tuscany, Italy)
Giorgio Chiellini (Tuscany, Italy)
Leonardo Bonucci (Lazio, Italy)
Andrea Barzagli (Tuscany, Italy)
Alex Sandro (Brazil)
Miralem Pjanic (Bosnia)
Sami Khedira (Germany)
Dani Alves (Brazil)
Paulo Dybala (Argentina)
Mario Mandzukić (Croatia)
Gonzalo Higuain (Argentina)