What Gets Lost
Few more irritating quotations are cited more frequently than Robert Frost’s famous old saw about poetry being ‘what is lost in translation.’ For the unconverted, and in honour of a recent re-reading of Reid’s poem in Edith Grossman’s excellent Why Translation Matters, here is Alastair Reid’s poem on the subject.
Incidentally, as if the ghost of Alastair were intentionally confounding the matter, there are two versions of this poem about the translation process: one can found in Grossman’s book (and which I reproduce below); the other, in the otherwise excellent Inside Out, edited by Douglas Dunn, contains variations in the English and typos in the Spanish. I am therefore going with the other. Both versions, needless to say, can be found online.
What Gets Lost
I keep translating traduzco continuamente
entre palabras words que no son las mías
into other words which are mine de palabras a mis palabras.
Y, finalmente, de quién es el texto? Who has written it?
Del escritor o del traductor writer, translator
o de los idiomas or language itself?
Somos fantasmas, nosotros traductores, que viven
entre aquel mundo y el nuestro
between that world and our own.
Pero poco a poco me ocurre
que el problema the problem no es cuestión
de lo que se pierde en traducción
is not a question
of what gets lost in translation
sino but rather lo que se pierde
what gets lost
entre la ocurrencia – sea de amor o de desesperación
between love or desperation –
y el hecho de que llega
a existir en palabras
and its coming into words.
Para nosotros todos, amantes, habladores
as lovers or users of words
el problema es éste this is the difficulty.
Lo que se pierde what gets lost
no es lo que se pierde en traducción sino
is not what gets lost in translation, but rather
what gets lost in language itself lo que se pierde
en el hecho, en la lengua,
en la palabra misma.
Alastair Reid (1926-2014)
A new poem by Pedro Serrano, translated from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn.
The tiger leaps
from a cloud of smoke into transience.
Falls on the devastating corral with an idleness
corresponding to the haste of his victims,
not to his elasticity.
He brushes past the bars of his cage
swinging his tail, rattling, tac, tac, tac, tac.
Crackling, he licks the circus sands
and raises ripples of dust,
traces of an approaching wake.
The motive for his observation
journeys in the smooth rhythm of his stomach,
velvety, gluttonous, elastic.
He turns circles before the spectators,
ears cocked, instincts fixed
on the excitement in the air.
He walks by the tables, propitious,
exudes substance and style.
The head sinks between the shoulders,
swells in the rail that encircles him.
The claws are extended
in the animal body that awaits him.
In the mirror of midday
the night’s end was taking shape,
El tigre salta
de la humareda a la fugacidad.
Cae en el aplastante corral con una pereza
que alude a la prisa de sus victimas,
no a su elasticidad.
Pasa rozando las rejas de su jaula
meneando la cola, golpeteando, taq’, taq’, taq’, taq’.
Restallante lame las arenas del circo
y levanta espejuelas de polvo,
huellas de una estela aproximándose.
La razón de su observación
viaja en el suave ritmo de su vientre,
afelpado, glotón, elástico.
Da vueltas a los espectadores,
las orejas prestas, su olfato
en la agitación que se respira.
Pasa propicio por las mesas,
se enjundia, se estiliza.
Sume la cabeza entre los hombros,
crece en el riel que lo circunda.
Deja las uñas puestas
en el cuerpo animal que lo acecha.
Desde el espejo del mediodía
se apuntaba el final de la noche,
Information overload on the beach
There was a time when a beach was simply a beach. You took your clothes off, and if you were so inclined donned a bathing costume (or swimming suit) and splashed around in the sea. Upon exiting the waters, you might want to dry off – always bearing in mind the well-advertised health hazards – by basking in the sun. Even fifteen years ago that was all there was to it. Not now. Over the past few years, going to our nearest beach has turned into an educational and communicative experience in which we are alerted to:
- a map of all the beaches in the Llança municipality, and how to find them;
- a map of Grifeu beach, with accompanying symbology of all the activities encouraged, facilitated or prohibited thereon;
- the history of the beach, and fishing methods carried out historically in the zone;
- the etymology of its name: this is disappointing. Grifeu, we learn, is an old Catalan surname, but doesn’t tell us what the surname means. I want it to mean ‘Griffin’ but have found no evidence that it might.
- swimming routes encouraged by the municipal authorities, including an evening group swim at 7 pm each day following the buoys along the coast to Llança harbour, the so-called vies braves, or ‘brave routes’, not for the faint-hearted;
- a description of the tamariu (tamarix) tree that lies in the middle of the beach and under which cool shade may be sought; also informing us that the tamarix (or tamarisk) was the favourite tree of the Greek god Apollo;
- a monument to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008), and a sample of his verse concerning the beach itself, in recognition of the fact that the poet used to come here. (I once read alongside Palau i Fabre, already in his 90th year, at a local poetry festival, and was struck by his noble visage and penetrating gaze).
But does one need all of this on a visit to the beach? Information overload afflicts us everywhere we go, and quite frankly I don’t need it at the seaside. All this labelling, signalling, categorisation and the all-embracing bureaucratisation of everything, even so-called ‘leisure time’. Even poetry. Fortunately, however, one can just turn one’s back on it all and swim out to those buoys. At least out at sea there are fewer distractions.
At the bottom of all this sleeps a horse
At the bottom of all this sleeps a horse
by Gonzalo Rojas (1917-2011)
At the bottom of all this sleeps
a white horse, an old horse
long in the ear, lacking in
by the situation, the pulse
running through him is speed: the children
mount him as if here were a ghost, mock him, and he sleeps
sleeping as he stands there in the rain, hears
everything while I sketch out these eleven
lines. He has the look of a thing crazed,
he knows that he is king.
Al fondo de esto duerme un caballo
Al fondo de todo esto duerme un caballo
blanco, un viejo caballo
largo de oído, estrecho de
por la situación, el pulso
de la velocidad es la madre que lo habita: lo montan
los niños como a un fantasma, lo escarnecen, y él duerme
durmiendo parado ahí en la lluvia, lo
oye todo mientras pinto estas once
líneas. Facha de loco, sabe
que es el rey.
From El alumbrado.
‘Story’, by Rómulo Bustos Aguirre
I ask myself: why write poetry?
And from some place in the mysterious forest
(in that other story that I am trying in vain
to write with this poem)
the wolf replies
moving his bushy tail Socratically:
– The better to know you.
Me pregunto: ¿Por qué escribo poesía?
Y desde algún lugar del misterioso bosque
(de ese otro cuento que en vano estoy tratando
de escribir en este poema)
responde el lobo
moviendo socrático la peluda cola:
– Para conocerte mejor
Copyright with the author
The Cure, ‘Killing an Arab’, and The Others
Sometimes the past just won’t leave you alone.
When I lived in London – a long, long time ago – I went to a lot of gigs and occasionally had walk-on roles as a ‘poet’ with bands at insalubrious venues in the punk and immediate post-punk era. My most stellar performance took place alongside The Cure at a gig in Walthamstow. I don’t have a clear memory of the circumstances – in those days most social interactions took place in a frantic haze of amphetamines and alcohol – and so I am unclear now whether the things that I remember are the things that actually took place, or whether some other version of events has taken their place, perhaps a version enacted or modified by the person I refer to as my Other, who has been responsible for many of the things I would rather not remember over the years.
Because I foolishly mentioned it in a blurb when I was short of ideas, the ‘Cure gig’ has become a recurrent incident about which I am required to give an account at various events in different places in the world where, for reasons quite beyond my understanding, I happen to be interviewed by a Cure fan. This morning was possibly the worst example yet.
I was introduced to the sound of ‘Killing an Arab’ pounding over the speakers, in front of over a hundred Colombian schoolchildren, who, I was almost certain, would have no idea who The Cure were, and a few jaded poets of my own generation, who probably did. I was then asked to give an account of what happened that fateful night in 1980 when somebody introduced me to Robert Smith, and I ended up on stage spouting all kinds of drivel dressed up as performance poetry (and was, I seem to recall, asked back by Mr Smith to do another set).
I then have to talk to the kids about How to Be a Writer. I am in the process of delivering my usual reply, of reading a lot and learning to lie with impunity, when it occurs to me that the whole Cure story might just as well be a lie. Did I in fact make this story up? Perhaps it would be easier to claim that I have, and then I wouldn’t need to recount what happened when I can’t really remember. I could just say Sorry guys, that was just a lie. I made it up. Or else I could recount it anyway, on the understanding that what I was saying was not necessarily the truth; that these things happened, but happened to my Other.
However, after the event, these beautifully turned out and well-behaved Colombian school kids, to whom I assumed I was talking of matters as remote as The Magna Carta, turned out to know as much about the British punk scene of the late 1970s as I do (or can remember). Did I know the Sex Pistols? How about The Clash? Was I friends with Johnny Rotten? Johnny, I tell them, makes commercials for a popular brand of butter these days. They seem a little bewildered by this reply.
Which brings me to the post of two days ago: ¿Donde están los otros? ‘Where are the others?’ I have a feeling this graffiti is going to pursue me for the duration of my Colombian trip. And I wonder if there is another wall, in a parallel Bogotá, in which the others have written an identical message, referring of course to the ones who put the graffiti there in the first place, making them the others’ others.
And as I watch the TV after the reading, with its footage of mass shootings in Iraq, I begin to imagine how this question, ‘Where are the others?’ could keep recurring in an infinite series of parallel Bogotás, to the soundtrack of The Cure playing a song with a horribly contemporary title.
The Pig of Babel
Saltillo has proved the most hospitable and generous city I have visited in Mexico. It seems to be filled with people who love books and actually read them, in spite of being the centre for Mexico’s automobile industry. Yesterday the temperature soared to 38 degrees by midday and my hosts Monica and Julián put on an asado – the Latin version of a barbecue – and many of the people who attended our reading on Saturday night at the wonderfully named Cerdo de Babel (Pig of Babel) turned up. The Pig of Babel, incidentally, for anyone who intends travelling in northern Mexico, is officially Blanco’s favourite bar, seamlessly marrying the themes of Pork and Borges, and taking over from Nick Davidson’s now defunct Promised Land as the most congenial hostelry in the Western Hemisphere (although I realise such a term is entirely relative and depends on where you are standing at any given moment).
The culture section for the state of Coahuila produced a beautifully designed pamphlet of five of my poems, for which I have to thank Jorge and Miquel. I would also like to offer my thanks Mercedes Luna Fuentes, who read the Spanish versions of my poems in Jorge Fondebrider’s fine translation, and Monica and Julián for the use of their and Lourdes’ home – especially since Julián had to endure my garbled Spanish explanation of the rules of Rugby Union last night, which may well have been a bewildering experience for a Mexican poet, but which I considered an essential duty of a Welsh creative ambassador.
On a different theme entirely, the fifth issue of that very fine magazine The Harlequin is now online, and it contains three new poems by my alias, Richard Gwyn, including this one, reflecting on an entirely different – but inevitably similar – journey to the one currently being undertaking.
From Naxos to Paros
Of the journey from Naxos to Paros
all he could remember
were the lights of one harbour
disappearing into the black sea
and the lights of another
emerging from the same black sea
and he thought for a moment
that all journeys were like this
but that many were longer.
Yesterday I came back into Mexico City from Puebla, the massive form of Popocatépetl (5,426 metres) to my left – caught fuzzily on my phone camera – passing the misty woodlands and broad meadows that gather around its base. It impressed on me the extraordinary diversity of the Mexican landscape, that within a few hours one can pass through prairie, forest and the high sierra. The only constant is the truly terrible music being played full volume wherever you go, including on this bus.
On Monday night in Puebla, as I was walking back to my hotel, an indigenous woman, utterly bedraggled, with long grey hair and in filthy clothes came running past me, apparently chasing after a big 4×4, crying out, at volume and with some distress ‘Don Roberto, Don Roberto . . .’ She carried on at pace up the street (Don Robé . . . Don Robé . . . ) for an entire block, and I could see the vehicle turning at the next set of lights. When I got to the junction, she had stopped, and was resting, hands on knees, her crevassed face fallen into a kind of resigned torment. She seemed elderly, although poverty and struggle probably accounted for an additional twenty years. I can hardly imagine what her story was – or the cruel, uncaring Don Roberto’s – but it was timeless, and seemed to sum up, more than any social analysis, the discrepancy between want and privilege, the honorific ‘Don’, gasped out as her spindly legs carried her in desperate pursuit at once implying his status and her subjugation. The image has stayed with me.
I returned to the city yesterday evening to attend a tertulia, a cross between a poetry discussion group and a workshop organised by the poet and short story writer Fabio Morábito and friends, where I was invited to read. Afterwards I visited the barrio of Mixcoac with Pedro Serrano and Carlos López Beltrán, passing by Octavio Paz’s family home, before returning to the more familiar confines of Condesa and supper at Luigi’s.
But today, back on the bus, the perennial Mexican bus. The clock at the front says 7.05. It is 12.50, but who cares? We pass through the sprawling shanty outskirts of southern Mexico City and back into the mist. Daily travel awakens in the traveller a kind of constant dislocation, which is not surprising considering the word means just that – a state of being displaced, an absence of locus. I never believed, as some of my generation seemed to, that travelling of itself was a kind of means of discovering oneself. I have absolutely no interest in discovering myself, nor anybody else for that matter. But I am drawn to Cuernavaca, not only for its alleged beauty, for the fact that it lies Under the Volcano and is the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s magnificent novel of that name, but in part at least because my late friend, Petros Prasinaki, aka Igbar Zoff, aka Peter Green came here sometime in the mid to late 197os in order to spend his inheritance, search for Lowry’s ghost and drink mescal, an example I will not be following. But I have a copy of Under the Volcano with me, just in case.
Jaguars, snakes, rabbits
If you travel, Blanco thinks, if you just travel, go from place to place, walk around, you should never get bored and you should never lack for things to do or write about, if this happens to be your thing. At least that is the theory. Blanco has a minor epiphany: he must go to Coatepec (the accent is on the at): it fulfils the single major criterion he has always employed when deciding whether or not to visit a place: he likes the sound of it; it carries the resonance of something remote – in time and culture – and yet somehow reassuring. He is walking down the hill from the Xalapa museum of anthropology, and after an entire morning within its confines he has become saturated with Olmec images of human figures and jaguars and serpents, and he flags down a taxi driven by a man with stupendously fleshy earlobes; earlobes that remind him of small whoopee cushions or rolled dough or moulded plasticine. The taxi driver chats about corruption in Mexican politics. It is raining. It has been raining all morning and all last night, and throughout the previous evening, and as far as we know it has never not been raining. Outside of Xalapa there is a roadblock. The young policeman carries an automatic rifle and wears black body armour, leg armour, the works. He inspects the taxi-driver’s I.D. and stares at Blanco for several seconds. It continues to rain.
We arrive in Coataepec and get stuck in a traffic jam. Nothing moves. The taxi driver asks directions, but that doesn’t help the traffic move. Blanco spots an interesting-looking restaurant, pays the taxista, and gets out. The restaurant has a nice inner patio with a garden area, and tables around it, out of the rain. In the garden there are roses and other flowers. A large family group are finishing their meal and then spend at least twenty minutes taking photos of each other in every possible combination of individuals, so that no one has not been photographed with everybody else. They have commandeered the only waiter in order to help them in this task. Every time Blanco thinks they are about to leave and release the waiter they reconvene for a new set of photos. One of the men (a Mexican) has very little hair but a long grey ponytail, which cannot be right. One of the women – I suspect Ponytail’s sister – is married to a gringo, it would seem. He has long hair also, but not arranged in a ponytail. He speaks Spanish well, with a gringo accent. Blanco orders tortilla soup and starts leafing through a magazine he bought at the anthropology museum. His phone makes a noise that tells him he has received a message. It informs him, in Spanish: Health: Adults who sleep too little or too much in middle age are at risk of suffering memory loss, according to a recent study. He looks at the message in consternation. Too little or too much? So, hey– you’re bolloxed either way. Who sends this stuff? The screen says 2225. Then another one: Japanese fans of Godzilla were very upset with the news trailer of this film to find that Godzilla is very big and fat: read more! 3788. Then a link. Blanco shakes his head sadly.
Coatepec is full of interesting buildings with courtyards. Blanco heads down to the Posada de Coatepec, a nice hotel in the colonial style, and goes in for a coffee. A slim man with fine features, a neat little moustache, dressed in polo gear, greets him in a friendly fashion, and Blanco greets him back, once again under the impression that he has been mistaken for someone he is not. A blonde woman, also in white jodhpurs, follows the man. There must have been a polo match. How strange. The hotel offers a nice shady patio, but we don’t need shade, we just need to be out of the rain. Blanco sits on the terrace outside the hotel cafe and writes in his notebook. Before long, the man who was in riding gear comes and sits on the terrace also. Immediately three waiters attend him, bowing and scraping, one of them is even rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee at the opportunity to serve this evidently Very Important Person. Mr Important takes off his sleeveless jacket, his gilet, and immediately one of the waiters – like a magician with a bunny – produces what appears to be a hat-stand for midgets, but is, presumably a coat-stand. Clearly the Important Person cannot do anything as vulgar as sling his coat over the back of a chair. Another waiter opens a can of diet coke at a very safe distance, and only then brings it to the table, along with a glass filled with ice. He is bending almost double, as if to ensure that his body doesn’t come into too close and offensive a proximity to the Important Person. It is one of the most extraordinary displays of deference I have witnessed in my life. Then all three waiters – the one who brought the coat-stand, the one with the coke, and the one who was rubbing his hands, a kind of maître d’ – vanish inside like happily whipped dogs. Left alone, the Important Person makes a phone call in a loud voice. He is barking instructions to some underling. He is clearly someone who is used to being obeyed, like an old school Caudillo. Must be a politician. When he has finished his call, he looks around and gets up to go inside the restaurant, where his company – family and friends, I guess – are seated. He walks inside with his drink, and within seconds one of the waiters appears out of nowhere, grabs the coat-stand, and follows him in with it.
We have to go. I have arranged to meet a poet back in Xalapa and discuss literary matters. He is called José Luis Rivas and has translated T.S. Eliot and Derek Walcott into Spanish.
Every night for a month he wakes at a fixed time between the hours of three and four, perplexed by the routes he took around the eastern Mediterranean years ago, following sea-tracks or mountain paths or those alleyways between tall decrepit buildings that hide or reveal a dome or minaret, glimpsing moments of a half-remembered journey. Or else he is mistaken, and it is not the journey that wakes him but the need to write about it, and his alarum is this hypnopompic camel, trotting over memory’s garbage tip: intransigent, determined. How is it that we reach that state in which the thing remembered merges with its remembering, the act of writing with the object of that need to tell and tell? And so he wakes again at a quarter to four, another dream-journey nudging him tetchily into wakefulness like a creature in search of its soul, and this time he is peering from a terrace on the milky heights at Gálata, or else gazing eastward from the battlements at Rhodes, and wondering whether he has always confused the journey with the writing of it, whether the two things have finally become one.
A taster from Mexican poet Pedro Serrano’s collection, Peatlands, translated by Anna Crowe and fresh off the press from Arc, who are to be congratulated, yet again, for bringing another fine writer to the attention of the English language reader.
There is also an introduction by W.N. Herbert, where we find these lines, which seem so apposite with regard to the poem I have chosen: “The intention [is] to transform us through language, compelling us to rethink, re-imagine and re-envision the world and our place in it; and to break down our unconsidered assumptions about opposed categories like thought and feeling, human and animal, by continually returning us to the matrix of the body . . .”
Feet clench, make themselves small, run away,
creasing their wretchedness and fear in lines
identical to those on our palms and different.
Feet are extensions of God
(which is why they are low down),
hence their distress, their rounded bulk, their lack of balance.
Feet are like startled crayfish.
Such vulnerable things, feet.
When they make love they clench and huddle together
as though they were their own subjects.
So feet are not made, then,
to cling, like wasps
to every pine-needle pin,
to every branch of the soul that makes them there.
They are more wings than feet,
tiny and fragile and human.
However much we overlook them.
Los pies se doblan, empequeñecen, huyen,
curvan su miseria y su miedo en unas líneas
que son las de la mano y no lo son.
Los pies son extensiones de Dios
(por eso están abajo),
de allí su angustia, su volumen redondo, su desajuste.
Los pies son como crustáceos asustados.
Tan sensibles los pies.
Se doblan y apeñuscan al hacer el amor
como si ellos fueran sus sujetos.
Los pies, así, no están hechos ahora
para prenderse como avispas
a cada aguja,
a cada rama del alma que allí los haga.
Son más alas que pies,
chiquititos y frágiles y humanos.
Tan desconsiderados que los tenemos.
Mexican Masks: the ambassadorial posts
What is a creative ambassador? According to the blurb from the Arts Council of Wales, ‘The Creative Wales Ambassadors Awards are made by nomination and recognise . . . individual achievement in the arts along with the aim to raise the profile of Welsh culture outside of Wales.’ My application was called Unfinished Journey and in it I wrote the following (forgive me reproducing this paragraph in full, but I thought it fair to present what I aim to do):
‘Modern journeys often awaken in the traveller a sense of ‘travelling without seeing’, an idea that is perhaps uniquely contemporary. The title suggests that rather than having a fixed point of departure and arrival, all travel is a continuum, and that the only valid objective is to sustain the exquisite tension of the unfinished journey. My project is to research and write an account of the process of travel as a work in progress. Reports will initially appear as journal entries, posted on the blog written by my alter ego, Ricardo Blanco, as we tour Latin America in search of its poets and its wanderers; but this will only be a part of the narrative, as the project will also take us through journeys past, as well as across a very personal Latin America of memory and the imagination. Unfinished Journey is linked to, but discrete from, preparation of my forthcoming anthology of Contemporary Latin American Poetry (Seren Books, 2016), and the Cardiff-based Fiction Fiesta, and it builds on friendships with writers, and alliances with cultural organisations across Latin America. Unfinished Journey is sponsored by Wales Literature Exchange and the Club de Traductores Literarios de Buenos Aires, Argentina, with supporting partners at the Universidad Austral, in Validivia, Chile; the International Poetry Festival of Medellín, Colombia; and the Periódico de Poesía, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City.’
It seems only fitting, in Octavio Paz’s Centenary year (yes, it’s not all about Dylan) that I should begin this journey in the country of, quite possibly, the 20th century’s finest ambassador for poetry. Paz, following the admirable tradition of Latin American countries in giving jobs to their poets, was also a real ambassador, to India, during which time he wrote some extraordinarily perceptive essays on Indian art and culture.
I first became interested in the literature of Mexico through the poetry of Paz and the fiction of Carlos Fuentes (I discovered years later that the two men detested each other). At a tangent, I also read the weird, apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda with great enthusiasm, until at some point I felt he had gone off somewhere I was unable to follow. But Paz, whose Labyrinth of Solitude I encountered when I was 20, and which made a lasting impression, says this: ‘The European considers Mexico to be a country on the margin of universal history, and everything that is distant from the centre of his society strikes him as strange and impenetrable.’
I am not certain this is as true today as it was when it was written half a century ago: Europe has changed too, manifesting a slow but steady willingness to embrace minority or ‘peripheral’ perspectives (although this is not to say the work does not remain to be done, not least in the unravelling of an archaic class system based on an established white male elite). Likewise, as the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon reminded me last year, the history and present of Latin America is as much based on race today as ever it was. This and other considerations, specifically those relating to Mexico, will occupy my attention, along with – I hope – more quotidian observations about the places I go and the people I meet.
So it is that today I am headed to the University in Mexico City, to meet students celebrating the festival of the book and the rose (Fiesta del libro y la rosa).
This celebration takes place on St George’s day, across the Hispanic world. I first became familiar with it during my time in Catalunya (of which St Jordi [i.e. George] is also the patron saint), a day in which lovers present each other with gifts of a book and a rose (in olden times the woman gave the man a book and the man gave the woman a rose, as women who read books were presumably not be trusted, but thankfully that part of the tradition has now been abandoned).
Later in the week, and in keeping with my brief of ‘raising the profile of Welsh culture outside of Wales’, I will be giving a lecture on Dylan Thomas in Spanish (a first for me, but given his Centenary, and given the abundance of translations of his poetry – he is, I discovered with some shock, after T.S. Eliot, the most translated 20th Century English language poet – I’m prepared to give it a punt); and I will seek to bring him into some kind of historical context, alongside R.S. Thomas and David Jones in a breakneck survey of Welsh poetry in English. Otherwise, over the next 24 days, I will be giving talks and readings of my own stuff (in the meticulous translations of Jorge Fondebrider) and travelling around the central part of Mexico, finding things to Blanquiloquise about.
‘Mexico is a country of many faces’, a teacher from Yucatán told me two and a half years ago on a previous visit to Mexico, as he drove me to the high school at Zapotlanejo where he taught history (please see Blanco’s blog about that trip in the post Dog-throwing in Zapotlanejo and other rare feats). These many faces, as in any other place, frequently appear as masks. It is something to bear in mind, as Octavio Paz reminds us in his ‘Mexican Masks’ chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude, casting as harsh an eye on his own countrymen as R.S. Thomas ever did on the Welsh:
‘The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo, general or labourer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defence: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation. He is jealous of his own privacy and that of others, and he is afraid even to glance at his neighbour, because a mere glance can trigger the rage of these electrically charged spirits . . . his language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats . . . The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.’
PS. I should note that in my last minute preparations for the Mexico leg of my ambassadorial journeyings, I read several essays from a collection of pieces on Art and Literature by Paz, in a book loaned to me, I realised with some horror, by Iwan Bala in 2001, and which, shamefully, I never returned (the non-return of loaned books stands out for me as a cardinal sin, so I am guilty of vile hypocrisy). The book is covered in Iwan’s entertaining annotations, in both Welsh and English, an added bonus, to which I have now added my own (in pencil). Iwan, if you are reading this, I will get the book back to you on my return to Wales, 13 years on, but hey, better late than never.