The airport in Saltillo closes because of the fog, so I miss my lunchtime flight back to Mexico City. Julián is laid low by a mystery bug and Mónica offers to drive me to the airport, after picking up little Leo from nursery. We exchange my plane ticket for another, from Monterrey airport, and then set off to the bus station for the two hour journey to Mexico’s third biggest city – and according to Wikipedia the ninth biggest city in the world. I don’t see much of it, however big the place is. The plane leaves at 6.20 pm and I am back into Under the Volcano, picking up with the hideous bull-baiting in Tomalín and the Consul’s vicious set-to with Hugh and Yvonne in the Salón Ofelia (todos contentos y yo también), owned by Señor Cervantes, who carries a black cockerel under his arm: “Nobody come here, only those who have nobody them with.”
Outside the plane passes through a good deal of disturbance as we approach Mexico City, a blood-red sun falling over the mountains and a big storm brooding close by to the north-west, the sky black there with jagged flashes of lightning. The pilot announces – I swear – “With the resounding egg, we make the descent to Mexico City” – and when we are leaving the plane another announcement reminds us: “Please ensure you take with you all your obsessions on leaving the plane.”
At ground level (of course Mexico City is nowhere near sea level, at 2,500 metres) I find a taxi easily enough and we drive through the hammering rain. As usual we overshoot the hotel: this happens all the time, not out of a desire to cheat the customer – the price is arranged beforehand – but because the layout of the streets in this area is pretty complicated and because no taxista can be expected to know his way around a metropolitan area containing twenty-five million inhabitants. So my driver, who is one of those very correct and well turned-out Mexican gentlemen of a certain age does a rather indiscrete U-turn at a big junction, and we are immediately pulled over by a pair of traffic cops, who were lurking under nearby trees.
The driver is asked to step out and negotiations begin. I can hear the young cop citing the precise name and number of the traffic regulation we have infringed, but I suspect that this is an irrelevance. After some discussion the driver returns inside the cab and reaches inside the glove compartment for money. How much? I ask him. One hundred and fifty, he replies (just under seven pounds sterling). Here, I say, take a hundred. After all, I am at least partly responsible for this, as I allowed him to take a wrong turning. He thanks me, pays the cop and gets back in the cab.
This is not a fine, but a pay-off. Most drivers pay the police rather than go through the rigmarole of following through with an infraction of a minor kind. The police officers’ argument goes like this: it’s easier for both of us if you just cough up. In fact I’m doing you a favour, because you’d have to pay more if we went through the proper process. When I ask the taxi driver if he ever refuses to pay a bribe he says something about the pervasiveness of corruption and shrugs. This is how the law works in this country, he says.
Back at the hotel and back into Lowry. Cervantes, the owner of the Ofelia is offering the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh some dinner – eggs is evidently a recurring theme of the evening: “ . . . You like eggs, señora? Stepped on eggs. Muy sabrosos. Divorced eggs? For fish, sliced of filet with peas. Vol-au-vent à la reine. Somersaults for the queen. Or you like poxy eggs, poxy in toast. Or veal liver tavernman? Pimesan chike chup? Or spectral chicken of the house? Youn’ pigeon. Red snappers with a fried tartar, you like?”
Hungry now, I borrow an umbrella and head for the nearest restaurant, El Califa, in Condesa, where the waiter, who seems to know me, greets me warmly. They are not serving spectral chicken, and nor do I order poxy eggs, but a bowl of broth and a couple of veal tacos. At the table in front of me two young people – he in a very shiny suit, she laughing too enthusiastically at everything he says – share a dessert, spooning ice cream into each others’ faces. On the way back the sky cracks with thunder and the heavens open once again. In El Califa they have given me some little sweets with my bill. I open the packet with difficulty and am confronted by some tiny things that resemble hundreds and thousands. I have not met with these before, so I give them a try. There is an explosion of sugar and chilli pepper inside my mouth, which is not at all agreeable. I throw the remaining sweets in a bin and head back to the hotel, prepared for the Consul’s disastrous denouement.
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.