It was with shock that I learned last week of the death of the poet Landeg White, at his home in Portugal. He was seventy-seven years old. Landeg, who was born in Taff’s Well, near Cardiff, published around a dozen poetry collections, three of them with Parthian, and I had a lot of fun working with him on his Selected Poems, Where the Angolans are Playing Football (2003). He went on to publish two further collections with Parthian and did two historical novels with Cinammon: Livingstone’s Funeral (2010) and Ultimatum (2018). He is also the author of scholarly works in the area of African Studies. Perhaps he is best known for his superb translations of Camões, including Portugal’s national epic, The Lusíads, which won the TLS poetry translation prize in 1998. Although I did not know Landeg especially well, I certainly counted him as a friend and we spent time together in Cardiff, and later, in 2003, on a rather strange British Council tour of Portugal, which was scheduled to terminate in a reading at the glorious Lello bookshop in Porto (made famous as the inspiration for the shifting staircases in the Harry Potter stories). The reading never took place, as the bookshop was about to close when we turned up, not having been informed of our event by the BC. Instead we retired to a restaurant on the banks of the Douro and had a memorable evening of good food and wine and conversation, at each of which Landeg was an adept.
Landeg lived much of his life in Africa, during the era that followed the final collapse of imperial rule and he was a thorn in the side of more than one African dictator. Deported from Malawi in 1972, he lived and worked in several African countries before settling in Portugal, where he spent the latter part of his life.
His poetry addresses both the political and the personal in equal measure, usually in poems with a disciplined approach to form but bursting with colour and visceral energy.
Now that he is gone I wish I had known him better.
An obituary appeared in The Guardian on 22 January, written by his friend Hugh Macmillan. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/22/landeg-white-obituary
Below is one of my favourites from Landeg’s work, in the style of a West African praise poem, addressed – with a dollop of gleeful irony – to himself:
(for my African age-mates)
I climbed the old elm tree and read William books in the rook’s nest,
My knee stuck in the pulpit rail: for once the congregation laughed,
The missionary told of the poison ordeal. I was spellbound in the cub hut,
I won the match by slicing a six off the back of the bat over backward point,
I cycled a hundred miles precisely to Nettlebed and back to town,
I planted crotons, a whole hedge in thirty-two varieties,
I scored Sparrow’s Melda for the steelbands’ Panorama,
I made love to the circuit-minister’s wife in a dark corner of the canefield,
I decamped from the island under an arch of leaping dolphins,
Baboons jumped on my steaming bonnet as I stalled on the escarpment,
I crossed the longest bridge at dusk, reading of a new country,
I found her on a sand dune where a coconut palm strained at its bole,
She to whom all metaphors return was outlined with chevrons,
She stretched like a tigress, adorned with her stripes,
I watched the Beetle spinning downstream, swept from the flooded causeway,
My dugout parted the hyacinths in search of the hidden history,
When the armed guerrillas ambushed us, I said Oh, there you are,
From four jobs I resigned,
From the fifth the President deported me, without rhyme or explanation,
I helped at my son’s birth: he came out looking dumbfounded,
My proudest expedient, bribing our baby on to the plane!
The professor rang at midnight: my poem was a masterpiece,
I designed and built a kitchen to a millimetre’s calculation,
I knuckled down to fifteen years of mortgages and pension,
I campaigned for my dear friend to step forth like Lazarus,
My vine, in Viking territory, was a miracle of survival,
My garden exploded in poppies and cornflowers: autumn blazed in nasturtiums,
He wrote marvellously of his resurrection: it was I gave the writing space.
They shook hands, enemies to the vein,
They shook hands and reminisced across my conference table
(The student wrote: thank you, who else could we have got drunk with?).
As a scholar, I set the paradigm: as a poet, I found my niche.
Let these praises float from my window, setting fires where they will.
Orléans lies precisely half way between the dual fixed points of home. We stay the night, and in the morning there is a thick mist over the great river that flows past the bottom of the hotel grounds. I like to take a turn down the river with Bruno the Dog before breakfast. The river, like its name, perhaps because of its name, feels like a constant, an unalterable fact: Loire. But it is not the name, merely. Something else emerges in the conjunction of landscape and water, whether in memory or in imagination, I cannot be sure: the two are fused in a single process. As the mist lifts, walking west, we pass empty villas, which, when I first came this way, years ago, I thought might only be closed up in winter. This has proved not to be the case. However, it is winter now. One of the villas reminds me of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes translated into English as The Lost Domain – but also, variously, as The Land of Lost Contentment, The Wanderer, The Lost Estate and The End of Youth – a novel I read at around the age of fourteen, and which, at the time, made as much of an impact on me as any book I had read. It was the only novel by Alain-Fournier, who was killed in the first month of World War One, aged twenty-seven.
The villa in question has been boarded up for as long as I can remember, apart from the window under the gable, behind which, even from the distance of the riverside path, one can sense life. Once, a couple of years ago, when we passed this way in the summer, the window was open. It is not open now.
The villa, with its single unshuttered eye, evokes a world that has been left behind – perhaps the Lost Domain itself – the same domain that, like Proust’s, was buried beneath the rubble of The Great War. The house with its otherwise boarded windows evokes a sense of imminent departure, or else of disappearance, of something so longed for or regretted that it became material, before fading into the texture of the walls. Perhaps all that is needed on a day like this is to see past the torn fabric that separates my world from that other one, and I will lean so far over as to tumble through, onto the other side . . .
Meanwhile, in the river, in a small boat nudging the island that lies midstream, a man stands erect. He appears to be doing nothing at all.
Whatever they had been told was lies: there was no kind of deal awaiting them, no siren call. The armistice was signed but the war had been lost years before and nobody had told them. Indigo night interrupted by orange explosions on the horizon, great sweeping clouds of dust making everything invisible for hours on end, the spotlights bearing down on them the length of the assault line. We will never know defeat, they repeated; the words of their leader an idiot’s mantra in their throats. They spent the whole day waiting for news: when should they expect the enemy? In the evening, a small group sat by the linden tree and passed a bottle around. The dusk obliterated memory. One of the men dreamed of France, a country he had never been to. People’s lives there are almost perfect. Something small and forgotten in his soul told him France was a better place in which to die; that there, eternity has brushed its sleeve against the land.
‘There is in Venice a beggar (oddly enough, despite all those tourists, you don’t see many, which is why they’re easy to recognise) who begs for alms in all six sestieri. He’s rather chubby and getting on in years; he wears a hat that is a tad too small for him, plays the panpipes – an instrument that betrays his southern origins – and displays to the compassionate gaze of passers-by a pale, plump plastic calf that emerges from a very short white sock. It is the cleanest leg I have ever seen, and I always stop to look at it. I give him a few coins to reward such cleanliness as well as the pleasant sound of his pipes. This eminently recognizable man, however, is quite different depending on whether he’s in San Marco, San Polo, Cannaregio, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro or Castello. In the first of these sestieri, he seems like a fraud or local con man preying on tourists; in the second, his ‘foreign’ terrone aspect seems more pronounced and he looks out of place; in the third he blends in so well that no one even notices that he’s begging for alms with his impeccable leg. It’s the setting that dictates how things appear, and so it isn’t the same seeing a tourist crossing the Rialto Bridge as it is seeing him cross one of the various Ponte delle Tette.’
The essay was first published in the late 1980s, but Venice is still not overpopulated with beggars. There is a growing number of single young African males, who tend to do their begging away from the main tourist centre (presumably to avoid the police), but as for the other, more traditional kind, they tend to be found near churches, and adopt the classical, abject kneeling stance, arm outstretched, a pose intended to arouse the deepest feelings of Christian shame and, hopefully, charity, and one which is shocking to witness in the twenty-first century.
I would argue that, contrary to Marías’ presumption, tourist zones are not good begging zones in general. Ask any indigent about this, or take my word for it. TOURISTS ARE NOT GIVERS. Beggars are far more likely to receive generosity from locals than from tourists in almost any of the tourist centres of Europe. The only exceptions to this rule are performers – and I am not talking about the bog-standard buskers or ‘perroflautas’ as the charming Spanish term has it (which can be translated literally as ‘dog and flute’, i.e. those beggars accompanied almost everywhere by a penny whistle and a mangy hound) – but magicians and jugglers and tightrope-walkers and fire-eaters (if there are any of these last remaining).
Marías’ second point, about setting being all, is worth picking up on. His itinerant beggar, who appears in slightly differing guises in different locations, is one I have met in various cities across Europe. But on reflection, doesn’t this mutability apply not only to beggars, or to tourists (on the Rialto or one of the Ponte delle tette), but to all who fit in between? That is, everyone? We all have the capacity for self-reinvention or re-assembly, of appearing in different guises, speaking in different voices, of being someone else depending on the place and context. Beggars such as the one Marías encountered in Venice, do not have a monopoly on this, they are just more easily noticed than the rest of us.
All of this must have seeped in on at some deep level, as I dream of a post-apocalyptic world, in which each group or family is allocated a space or island of the Venetian lagoon to settle: my group was allocated an islet, or part of a section of Cannaregio, which pleased me. But this pleasure was short-lived. When we landed there, all the alleyways and squares were empty, and we had to choose a house to live in, and once we broke in we had remove the bodies of the owners, who had perished during the disaster. There were no beggars in my dream. After the apocalypse, we will all be beggars.
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.