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)
But one day I shall find a land corrupted and depressed beyond all knowledge, where the children are starving for lack of milk, a land unhappy, although enlightened, and cry: “I shall stay here until I have made this place good.” Malcolm Lowry.
With The Reef (Arrecife, in Spanish) Juan Villoro has achieved something quite remarkable: a novel that offers a microcosm of the state of modern Mexico – perhaps, by extension, the entire postmodern world – within a luxury hotel. The activities for residents of the hotel include extreme sports, fake kidnappings and beatings, excursions to the jungle and encounters with poisonous snakes; all intended to stimulate a state of excitement that always runs the risk of – and sometimes tips over into – violence. Tourists from the USA and Europe, an international leisure elite who are bored with more conventional touristic fare, flock to the hotel in Kukulcán, on Mexico’s Caribbean coast, a hotel whose head offices are, of course, in London, the money-laundering capital of the world.
At the centre of it all, as if by accident, is our narrator, a lame, hard-drinking 53-year old ex-rocker with a missing finger and a very poor memory. Tony Góngora is an amiable sort who has dropped too much acid (and much else besides) over the years, and lost a few marbles en route. Early in the story, we are offered this elemental insight into Tony’s soul:
‘Walking back, I spotted a little transparent gecko. I have a certain weakness for lizards: they’re great company for drug addicts. When you’re high, even the presence of an insect feels intolerable and nearly all other animal species seem to pose a threat. But lizards move so gracefully, and they glow in the dark. I liked to watch them scurrying around like colourful embodiments of my ideas. Back then I rarely had any ideas, but the lizards, electric blue, bright yellow and green, made me think I did.’
Mario Muller was the lead singer in their old band Los Extraditables – who once infamously opened for The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, “a walking skull in dark sunglasses” looks at Tony “like he’s the next piece of trash”) – and Tony played bass. Mario is now manager of The Pyramid, and his labyrinthine scheming and manoeuvring amply justify his moniker of ‘Der Meister’, originally applied in homage to the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart. Tony, meanwhile, sets the fish in the hotel’s aquarium to music: his job is “to line the sand of the aquarium with sensors that would translate the fish’s movements into sound.” The two have known each other since they were young kids, and having teamed up again at The Pyramid, Mario helps Tony to remember things that Tony’s errant brain cells made off with long ago. He is only partly successful in this endeavour but we, as readers, share in Mario’s colourful reconstruction of their shared past lives in the process. During insomniac nights in his office, Mario fills in the gaps in Tony’s memory with things that may or may not have happened, interspersed with helpful advice: “The man who fails and makes amends is braver than the man who has never failed.” Tony isn’t so sure. He struggles to remember anything at all, even a seemingly crucial event from their early teens when, drunk on cheap vodka, they were chased through an abandoned building by a dishevelled, bearded giant in a long black coat, covered in “infinite layers of filth” and flaunting a massive red erection. Of this and other ‘memories’, Tony wonders: “Was it a dream or some delusion emerged from fragments of memory.”
Near the start of the novel a friend of Tony’s, a diver by the name of Ginger Oldenville, is murdered – ‘Even in death he wore the dreamy look of a man gazing up at seagulls’. This event serves as the device by which we examine the different characters involved in running, and policing, The Pyramid. This being Mexico, it is no surprise to encounter cartel capos, corrupt policemen, violence against women, (real) abductions and trails of dirty money lining the way. The story is set in the southern country of the Maya, and the hotel itself, as its name indicates, takes the form of a pyramid, a structure which, a long time ago, served as a place of interment for the dead. By contrast, in the novel, the descendants of the Maya, the hotel’s employees, “didn’t appreciate the culture of their ancestors. What they appreciated was that they came from outer space.” One of the sales gimmicks of the hotel is a ‘pop cosmology’ approach to Mayan history and culture, playing on this version of alien visitation, which complements the other faddish accoutrements of the hotel; for instance, Tony’s sometime girlfriend, Sandra, is an instructor of Ashtanga yoga and Tibetan kung fu who enjoys being pleasured by the stump of Tony’s phantom finger. She is from the USA, living in Mexico without a visa (a nice retort to Trumpian xenophobia) and her teeth are responsible for one of Tony’s best one-liners: ‘I don’t like the aggressive teeth of gringas’.
But the real triumph of the story, to my mind at least, is the compassion and integrity that lies at the core of the relationship between Mario, Tony, and two vulnerable inmates of a ‘shelter for ruined lives’, one of them a child. While the friendship between Tony and Mario offers a journey into the past, the novel also offers the prospect of a tentative journey into the future, laden with all the doubts of an individual – or a country – embarking on a process of recovery from terrible abuse and violence. In this way, however small, the novel manages to raise a glimmer of hope in humanity’s capacity for self-repair. I carried that away with a degree of gratitude, in spite of everything else that we know, or suspect.
The Reef is published by George Braziller, New York, and translated with admirable fluency by Yvette Siegert. Thus far, readers of English need to purchase US editions of Villoro’s work, as – incredibly for a man regarded by many as Mexico’s most compelling and original writer – he thus far remains unpublished in the UK, apart from a couple of his (excellent) essays in The Sorrows of Mexico (MacLehose, 2015) . Also highly recommended are his collection of short stories, The Guilty (Brazillier, 2015) and his masterful, probing and philosophical study of football, God is Round (Restless Books, 2016).
Now in its sixth year, the fiesta celebrates literature and football with events in Cardiff over 31st May and 1st June.
In The Latin American Short Story, acclaimed international writers Juan Villoro (Mexico) and Andrés Neuman (Argentina) will be in conversation with Cardiff University’s Director of Creative Writing Richard Gwyn. Both writers are acknowledged masters of the short story, and will read excerpts of their work, and discuss the form and the influences on their writing in an evening event: 31 May, 6.00pm, Council Chamber, Main Building, Park Place, Cardiff University CF10 3AT.
There will be a wine reception at this event, and donations collected for Wales PEN Cymru. Entry is free but it is recommended that you reserve tickets here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/fiction-fiesta-2017-the-latin-american-short-story-tickets-34619051515
On the second day, Villoro and Neuman kick off Football Fiction Fiesta in the Japan Room of the Wales Millennium Centre with Writing Football. Inspired by the UEFA Champions League final, writers respected internationally for their football writing will discuss the craft of writing about the beautiful game in the literary genre.
Journalist and prolific writer Juan Villoro has been by turns a cultural attaché and a DJ. He is Mexico’s greatest living writer of short stories, following that country’s great tradition of the genre. Passionate about football, he is perhaps best known for his book God is Round.
Poet, writer, translator and blogger Andrés Neuman is author of Traveller of the Century, selected as a Book of the Year by The Guardian, the FT and The Independent in 2013. His award-winning work has led to nominations as most outstanding Latin American author (Hay Festival), as well as inclusion in Granta magazine’s special edition on emerging Spanish language authors, with a short story translated by Richard Gwyn, who will be chairing the event.
Football Fiction Fiesta completes its hat-trick of events with Liverpool and Wales legend Ian Rush in conversation with Niall Griffiths.
Ian Rush, who, amongst other notable deeds, scored the winning goal in Wales’ only victory against Germany in Cardiff in 1991, is this year’s ambassador for the 2016/17 UEFA Champions League final in Cardiff. Niall Griffiths is a Welsh novelist and journalist, author of Grits, Sheepshagger, and Kelly + Victor. He is also a life-long Liverpool fan.
Creator of Fiction Fiesta, Cardiff University’s Director of Creative Writing, Richard Gwyn is excited about the creative mix of football and writing: “The UEFA Champions League Final provides the perfect opportunity to bring three great writers to Cardiff. Juan Villoro, with God is Round, has written what is possibly the greatest book ever about football, while Andrés Neuman writes regularly in the Spanish media on football. Both are passionate advocates of the belief that football and great literature can mix. Niall Griffiths and Ian Rush make that fusion a living reality.”
I have always had a thing for borders; grew up on one, and chose eventually to live on another. So it was no surprise that Kapka Kassabova’s account of lives in the Strandja forest – yes, half the size of Wales – which straddles Bulgaria and Turkey, stirred something in me that I have often sensed but sometimes struggled to articulate.
My borders, however, are both ‘soft’ now, and the borders in Kassabova’s book have in their time been – and for some travellers continue to be – as hard as they come.
A border, as someone once said, is an idea wedded to a geography; and borders, more specifically, are places where the dead not only outnumber, but outlive the living.
Kassabova’s border has more than its fair share of ghosts, and she introduces us to them intermittently, until they crowd the pages of her book: the ghosts of Zeus and Europa; the ghosts of pagan fire dancers whose descendants still attend ceremonies in the forest night; Soviet-era ghosts gunned down or captured, tortured and disappeared while attempting to escape the alarmed barbed wire fence – klyon in the argot of the border guards – between Bulgaria and the NATO states of Turkey or Greece; the ghosts of Greek andartes, partisan fighters holed out in the Rhodope Mountains at the end of their country’s attritional civil war and, finally, the apprentice ghosts of Syrian refugees, many of them children, pouring across the border from Turkey into Bulgaria or Greece, seeking the dream of a better life in Germany or Great Britain (fat chance of that).
Kassabova’s skilful interweaving of her own story – two years spent travelling along the borders and their environs – and the stories that she found along the way, is a triumph of synthesis; and yet there is no false sense of completion, of a circle having been squared; no temporarily satisfying but ultimately flawed notion of telos. She knows there are no easy fixes for the devastating mess that is our present tense, and as we struggle with new-found or resurgent nationalisms, new walls, and old lies dressed up as new truths, that – in her words – ‘[n]ew borders will fail just as old borders failed. In the wretched meantime, they will not make our world freer or fairer. Only harder, costlier, and more haunted.’
In an article that was published to coincide with her book’s publication, Kassabova wrote:
“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate,” said Carl Jung of the psyche. This is the principle of hauntings, time warps and tragedies. In this remotest of border mountains, a poignant form of tourism is practised by the three border nations: ancestral tourism. More than 100 years after the Balkan wars of 1912 to 13 and the politely phrased and brutally executed “exchange of populations” that followed, the Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian grandchildren of the displaced still travel to their ancestors’ villages in Thrace, to the ruined houses, the blackened kitchens where pots and pans were abandoned as people ran for their lives across new borders. It is here that the locals have, for generations, claimed to see a mysterious ball of fire. It may be a freakish phenomenon of light, but it is richly imagined in legends of flying dragons. It appears in liminal spaces – at the entrance of old mines, over the border river, near curative springs – and always after dark, at the witching hour, the hour of the border and its inevitable transgression.
I loved this book, and the way in which its story, although fixed in multiple pasts, kept returning the reader to the present, and the plight of those refugees now desperate to make the journey in the opposite journey to those Soviet-era refuseniks.
A quotation from Neal Ascherson prefaces the middle section of the book: ‘All human populations are in some sense immigrants’. In these strange times it is worth remembering that.
Someone bought me, or recommended that I buy – I forget precisely – Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, and it’s been a long time since I laughed so much while reading any book; so thanks, whoever you are. The novel is especially good at describing the kinds of mental contortions a language learner goes through when sufficiently advanced to understand most linguistic items in a foreign language, but who nevertheless often comes unstuck on more complex or controversial items in the host culture.
Lerner’s protagonist is an appallingly self-conscious and calculatingly mendacious young American poet with an addiction to little white and yellow pills (presumably to help address his pathological nerdiness) and to hashish (he is a keen adherent of the ‘wake and bake’ philosophy). On a research fellowship to Madrid – the use of the word ‘research’ in the novel is disarmingly disingenuous – he meanders between affairs with two Spanish women, never managing to fall in love, but desirous of being loved. Although sleeping with Isabel, he is obsessed with Teresa, a glamorous translator, who comes from money (there are suggestions of a family association with the Franco regime) and who now embodies radical chic politics – indeed, appears to support the kind of political commitment of which the chronically uncommitted narrator is entirely incapable. However, Adán (Adam, in Spanish), as the American is known by his Madrileño friends, wants Teresa to fall in love with him, so that he can let go of his painful inhibitedness just a fraction, but she is too cool by far. Or something.
There is a nice passage in which Adán has been observing Teresa’s actions and, impressed, says:
“You are the most graceful and protean person I know. The way you handed me the coffee right when I awoke or the way just now you took the tequila from me or,” I paused to think of an example not involving drinks, “the way you can move without apparent transition from your stylish apartment to a protest.” . . .
. . . “All you’re describing,” she said in Spanish, “is the personality of a translator. From apartment to protest, From English to Spanish.” If she had spoken in English, I would have found it a little grand; in Spanish I experienced it as profound. I wondered if she’d weighed the sentence in both languages before selecting the one that would produce the desired effect.
In short, what Lerner’s character is describing as a ‘translator’ is someone who is able to adapt to circumstances with ease, a kind of chameleon who uses their own innate multiplexity of self to their advantage: a skilled reader of human ‘texts’.
But it is the next comment that stands out, and makes me wary, about how his character considers Teresa’s comment profound in Spanish, whereas he might have found it ‘a little grand’ in English. This is a sensation with which I am well familiar. Often, when I read a text in another language – a piece of political or philosophical, or literary analysis, I find it more ‘profound’ than its word for word (if there were such a thing) equivalent might be in English. Why is this? What is going on here? Is it a way of congratulating oneself for being able to process the material in a language other than one’s own – and therefore, as a kind of projection – or reward – investing it with greater value than it might otherwise merit?
Or is it something more insidious: that certain languages – and I am thinking specifically of Romance languages – appear more ‘profound’ than English to the native anglophone ear because their syntax is more systematically consistent, which in turn leads to a more gratifying sense of grammatical coherence – and thence of understanding – which, even if it is a false one, and the meanings conveyed are no more ‘profound’, leads the non-native reader to believe that they are.
Or is it that Lerner’s character is in love with Teresa, and therefore wants her words to be ‘profound’ even if they are comparatively commonplace?