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.
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. At the time of writing, 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 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).
María Rivera (Mexico)
Here they come
the torn into pieces,
the women with their coccyx split apart,
those with their heads smashed in,
the little ones crying
inside dark walls
of minerals and sand.
Here they come
those who sleep in buildings
that house secret tombs:
they come with their eyes blindfolded,
their hands tied,
shot between their temples.
Here come those who were lost in Tamaupilas,
the woman they gang raped before killing her,
the man who tried to stop it and received a bullet,
the woman they also raped, who escaped and told the story
comes walking down Broadway,
consoled by the wail of the ambulances,
the hospital doors,
light shining on the waters of the Hudson.
Here they come
the dead who set out from Usulután,
from La Paz
from La Unión,
from La Libertad,
from San Salvador,
from San Juan Mixtepec,
from El Progreso,
from El Guante,
those who were given the goodbye at a karaoke party,
and were found shot in Tecate.
Here comes the one they forced to dig his brother’s grave,
the one they murdered after collecting a four thousand dollar ransom,
those who were kidnapped
with a woman they raped in front of her eight year old son
Where do they come from,
from what gangrene,
Here they come,
the dead so alone, so mute, so much ours,
set beneath the enormous sky of Anáhuac,
they drag themselves,
with their bowl of horror in their hands,
their terrifying tenderness.
They are called
the dead that they found in a ditch in Taxco,
the dead that they found in remote places of Chihuahua,
the dead that they found strewn across plots of crops,
the dead that they found shot in la Marquesa,
the dead that they found hanging from bridges,
the dead that they found without heads on common land,
the dead that they found at the side of the road,
the dead that they found in abandoned cars,
the dead that they found in San Fernando,
those without number they cut into pieces and have still not been found,
the legs, the arms, the heads, the femurs of the dead
dissolved in drums.
They are called
remains, corpses, the deceased,
they are called
the dead whose mothers do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose children do not tire of waiting,
the dead whose wives do not tire of waiting,
they imagine them in subways, among gringos.
They are called
baby clothes woven in the casket of the soul,
the little tee shirt of a three-month-old
the photo of a toothless smile,
they are called mamita,
they are called
in the tummy
and the newborn’s cry,
they are called four children,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
and a widow (a girl) who fell in love at primary school,
they are called wanting to dance at fiestas,
they are called blushing of hot cheeks and sweaty hands,
they are called boys,
they are called wanting
to build a house,
giving food to my children,
they are called two dollars for cleaning beans,
houses, estates, offices,
they are called
crying of children on earth floors,
the light flying over the birds,
the flight of pigeons in the church,
they are called
kisses at the river’s edge,
they are called
in the scrubland,
in the gardens of ranches,
in the gardens of ‘safe’ houses,
in some forgotten wilderness,
and in secret,
they are called
secrets of hitmen,
secrets of slaughter,
secrets of policemen,
they are called sobbing,
they are called mist,
they are called body,
they are called skin,
they are called warmth,
they are called kiss,
they are called hug,
they are called laughter,
they are called people,
they are called pleading,
they were called I,
they were called you,
they were called us,
they are called shame,
they are called sobbing.
Here they go
their bodies burned to a crisp,
their bones polished by the sand of the desert.
They are called
the dead women that no one knows no one saw being killed,
they are called
women who go out alone to bars at night,
they are called
working women who leave their homes at dawn,
they are called
they are called meat,
they are called meat.
without an age,
without a name,
they sleep in their cemetery:
its name is Temixco,
its name is Santa Ana,
its name is Mazatepec,
its name is Juárez,
its name is Puente de Ixtla,
its name is San Fernando,
its name is Tlaltizapán,
its name is Samalayuca,
its name is el Capulín,
its name is Reynosa,
its name is Nuevo Laredo,
its name is Guadalupe,
its name is Lomas de Poleo,
its name is Mexico.
Translated by Richard Gwyn
This poem, along with 155 others by 97 Latin American poets, selected and translated by Richard Gwyn, will be published in October 2016 in The Other Tiger: Recent Poetry from Latin America, from Seren Books.
A video of the poet reading ‘The Dead’ can be found here:
a las que les partieron el coxis,
a los que les aplastaron la cabeza,
los pequeñitos llorando
entre paredes oscuras
de minerales y arena.
los que duermen en edificios
de tumbas clandestinas:
vienen con los ojos vendados,
atadas las manos,
baleados entre las sienes.
Allí vienen los que se perdieron por Tamaulipas,
cuñados, yernos, vecinos,
la mujer que violaron entre todos antes de matarla,
el hombre que intentó evitarlo y recibió un balazo,
la que también violaron, escapó y lo contó viene
caminando por Broadway,
se consuela con el llanto de las ambulancias,
las puertas de los hospitales,
la luz brillando en el agua del Hudson.
los muertos que salieron de Usulután,
de La Paz,
de La Unión,
de La Libertad,
de San Salvador,
de San Juan Mixtepec,
de El Progreso,
de El Guante,
a los que despidieron en una fiesta con karaoke,
y los encontraron baleados en Tecate.
Allí viene al que obligaron a cavar la fosa para su hermano,
al que asesinaron luego de cobrar cuatro mil dólares,
los que estuvieron secuestrados
con una mujer que violaron frente a su hijo de ocho años
¿De dónde vienen,
de qué gangrena,
los muertos tan solitos, tan mudos, tan nuestros,
engarzados bajo el cielo enorme del Anáhuac,
con su cuenco de horror entre las manos,
su espeluznante ternura.
los muertos que encontraron en una fosa en Taxco,
los muertos que encontraron en parajes alejados de Chihuahua,
los muertos que encontraron esparcidos en parcelas de cultivo,
los muertos que encontraron tirados en la Marquesa,
los muertos que encontraron colgando de los puentes,
los muertos que encontraron sin cabeza en terrenos ejidales,
los muertos que encontraron a la orilla de la carretera,
los muertos que encontraron en coches abandonados,
los muertos que encontraron en San Fernando,
los sin número que destazaron y aún no encuentran,
las piernas, los brazos, las cabezas, los fémures de muertos
disueltos en tambos.
restos, cadáveres, occisos,
los muertos a los que madres no se cansan de esperar
los muertos a los que hijos no se cansan de esperar,
los muertos a los que esposas no se cansan de esperar,
imaginan entre subways y gringos.
chambrita tejida en el cajón del alma,
camisetita de tres meses,
la foto de la sonrisa chimuela,
se llaman mamita,
en el vientre
y el primer llanto,
se llaman cuatro hijos,
Petronia (2), Zacarías (3), Sabas (5), Glenda (6)
y una viuda (muchacha) que se enamoró cuando estudiaba la primaria,
se llaman ganas de bailar en las fiestas,
se llaman rubor de mejillas encendidas y manos sudorosas,
se llaman muchachos,
se llaman ganas
de construir una casa,
darle de comer a mis hijos,
se llaman dos dólares por limpiar frijoles,
casas, haciendas, oficinas,
llantos de niños en pisos de tierra,
la luz volando sobre los pájaros,
el vuelo de las palomas en la iglesia,
besos a la orilla del río,
en jardines de ranchos
en jardines de casas de seguridad
en parajes olvidados,
secretos de sicarios,
secretos de matanzas,
secretos de policías,
se llaman llanto,
se llaman neblina,
se llaman cuerpo,
se llaman piel,
se llaman tibieza,
se llaman beso,
se llaman abrazo,
se llaman risa,
se llaman personas,
se llaman súplicas,
se llamaban yo,
se llamaban tú,
se llamaban nosotros,
se llaman vergüenza,
se llaman llanto.
los pechos mordidos,
las manos atadas,
calcinados sus cuerpos,
sus huesos pulidos por la arena del desierto.
las muertas que nadie sabe nadie vio que mataran,
las mujeres que salen de noche solas a los bares,
mujeres que trabajan salen de sus casas en la madrugada,
se llaman carne,
se llaman carne.
duermen en su cementerio:
se llama Temixco,
se llama Santa Ana,
se llama Mazatepec,
se llama Juárez,
se llama Puente de Ixtla,
se llama San Fernando,
se llama Tlaltizapán,
se llama Samalayuca,
se llama el Capulín,
se llama Reynosa,
se llama Nuevo Laredo,
se llama Guadalupe,
se llama Lomas de Poleo,
se llama México.
This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.
At the kind invitation of the Mexican Embassy in Chile we attend a Halloween celebration in the municipal cemetery of Santiago. Having arrived in the Chilean capital only a couple of hours earlier, it is as if I have been suddenly and unexpectedly returned to Mexico. There are speeches by ambassadors, civil dignitaries and other big cheeses, and displays of cultural artefacts relating to the Day of the Dead, the usual paraphernalia of skulls and trinkets and macabre dolls, some of them edible. Gradually the dead appear among us, filtering through the crowd: a young married couple, a family group, and a very elegant group of dancers from Guadalajara. After music and dances, we are led on a candlelit tour of the cemetery, which holds the earthly remains of the most illustrious figures in Chilean history, including Salvador Allende, whose leftist government was crushed by the military of General Pinochet in the coup of 1973, and who died in circumstances which still remain unclear – and so will remain until the end of time. Time which, as the Mexicans know so well, passes too rapidly for us, until we too join the great silent hordes of the deceased, who once a year mingle with us, are permitted to sit at table and witness earthly pleasures, to sing and dance and drink tequila, and to envy the living; while we look on with a mix of terror and fascination at these spectral figures, so elegant in their finery, yet so devoid of substance, knowing that we will one day be them; that in a certain sense, we already are.
Lord, protect us from the wise old men of literature
Though in fact, the Lord may be the last person to do this protecting. At the literary festival I am currently attending, and at every such conference or festival I have attended to date in various parts of the world there has been a celebration of some great writer, living or dead. All, with a single exception, have been men.
Last night, a Mexican poet was celebrated here in Bogotá. During the sycophantic introduction to this venerable and ancient poet, I was alarmed to be told that he was responsible for one of ‘the three great works of misogyny’ of the 20th century.
How can it be acceptable to make a statement of that kind, especially in the context of a society like Mexico, in which violence against women is of epidemic proportions? (You do not need to have ploughed through Bolaño’s 2666 to be aware of this fact, although it helps). How can it be acceptable for educated men to make jokes about this, and to laugh amongst themselves, as they did at the event last night? Would it be OK to laugh at an announcement that such and such a book was one of the ‘great racist novels of the twentieth century’? And yet somehow, in too many places, it is perfectly OK to derogate women in a way that would be considered unacceptable if a similar derogatory comment were directed at people of another race or colour.
And here is where we get to the ‘maestro’, the great man of literature, whose sonorous tones must be heard, whose opinions must be listened to, even if those opinions are self-regarding pap and without conceivable value. It is one of the dangers associated with the prestige given to writers in certain societies, as compared, say, with Great Britain, where no one gives a toss what writers think, and where the prestige of the poet is somewhere on a par with that of a refuse collector – but well beneath that of a pest control operative.
European writers might at first be impressed or flattered by the respect afforded writers elsewhere, and the bowing and scraping that goes on in the presence of so-called ‘great’ writers, especially old ones, however decrepit, lecherous or boring they might be. However, the problem is that the stereotype of the wise old man is, to put it crudely, a bit of a bollocks.
The fact of the matter is that many people simply get stupider as they get older; their prejudices atrophy, their most disagreeable characteristics come to the forefront, and they are only interested in talking (or hearing) about themselves.
Perhaps nowhere on earth is the contiguity of past and present more strikingly evident than in Mexico. An ancient wall, cracked from an earthquake, stands before a pair of ascending high rise towers, from one of which emanates a constant hammering and pounding that echoes across the hot afternoon. Through the crack in the ancient wall modernity surges skyward, oblivious.
My last night in Mexico City I watch the Mexican cup final in a taqueria with some friends. The match is between Leon and Pachuca. The second of these is known as Pachuca la airosa (Pachuca the windy) and its football team has a curious history. It is the oldest club in Mexico, having been formed in 1901 by Cornish miners who had arrived in the area to work in mines owned byWilliam Blamey at the end of the nineteenth century. The team was augmented with locals who took to the game, and became one of the country’s leading clubs. It is in the Mexican Premier League and has won five championships as well as four CONCACAF Champions’ Cups, the 2007 SuperLiga and one Copa Sudamericana. One detail that truly impressed me was that the dish for which Pachuca cuisine is famed – harking back to those miners – is a variety of Cornish Pasty, known locally as pastes. On Thursday night, despite the howls of disapproval around me (I was evidently in a hotbed of Leon supporters), the pasties won 3-2.
Next day, at the airport bar in Mexico City a very besoffen German with a shaved head engages me in conversation in unstable English. Europe is finished, he tells me, thanks to the dictatorship of Brussels. Ve haf many dictators in Europ, ze last was Hitler, and before that ze Swedish Gustavus Adolphus and ze other was, er, er . . . – he seems in actual physical pain, struggling to remember another European dictator. Napoleon? I suggest. Ja, ja, Napoleon, he says, relieved at what is evidently a gargantuan struggle against alcohol’s tendency to obliterate memory. But now ve haf Brussels and all is finished.
The gist of his argument, as far as I can make out, is that Europe was better off as a collection of independent nation states with their own laws and their own currencies. So you are against any idea of a federal Europe? Ja, he says, nodding his shiny pate with extraordinary vigour. I want to point out that it was precisely because of the continual warmongering between these independent nation states – his own in particular – that the idea of a Federal Europe emerged, but I fear that his grasp of such a concept is imperilled by the dispatching in rapid succession of two more tequilas. What has he been doing in Mexico? I ask. I haf been doing my work, which I do, he tells me, helpfully. He explains that his plane to Geneva leaves at 9.00 pm and he likes to be the last on board, in order to make the others wait. This amuses him greatly and he guffaws into his empty glass. I leave to catch my own plane. I glance at the departures board on the way. There is no 9.00 pm flight to Geneva listed.
So, I’ll start with the serious stuff, and work downhill towards the frivolous.
Yesterday I was taken by the poet (and translator of Seamus Heaney), Pura López Colomé to see an impressive and moving exhibition at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia organised by the Movimiento por la paz con justicia y dignidad (Movement for peace with justice and dignity), whose motto is estamos a la madre meaning, approximately, ‘we have had enough’. This group was set up by the poet, writer, academic and activist Javier Sicilia, following the torture and murder of his son Juan Francisco, along with six others, by drug gang assassins in March 2011.
Following this, Sicilia has developed a formidable organisation that calls for an end to the drug wars, withdrawal of the military presence from the streets, the legalisation of drugs, and an end to political corruption. He has led demonstrations – at huge personal risk to himself – as well as marches across the whole of Mexico and much of the United States. In 2011 he was named Person of the Year by TIME magazine. His influence in starting up a popular, non-aligned movement directly confronting the perpetrators of violent crime and political corruption in Mexico represents an act of immense personal courage. His organisation has found followers in every walk of life, precisely because so many people have been affected by the drug wars – whether as victims themselves, or else as having lost family members to the violence. Furthermore, unlike the many ‘self-defence’ groups that have sprouted up across the country in opposition to the terror perpetrated by drug gangs – which simply promotes a never-ending cycle of violence met by more violence – Sicilia’s movement is based on entirely peaceful means of protest. I am posting a few images below from the exhibition, with apologies for the quality of the photographs, my camera having developed a mysterious and inexplicable blur on the lens over the past few days.
At a considerable remove from the foregoing, and my head filled with disturbing images, which I have not reproduced here, I bade farewell to Pura and wandered alone through the derelict remains of the Templo Mayor, the Aztec temple at the centre of the city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), destroyed by Cortés in 1521. Much of this area was entirely buried for centuries. The conquerors built a church over part of the precinct – the present cathedral – and other parts were used for housing and other civic buildings. I found it extraordinarily haunting to walk around this area, directly after witnessing the sufferings endured by present-day Mexicans, as if – and this is by no means an original thought – the cycle of violence, destruction and waste were part of some terrible continuum from which there can be no escape, only temporary respite.
Inside the museum, having stood before the astonishing Tzompantli, or wall of skulls, I am confronted by a statue of Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the underworld and of death.
Unfortunately, he reminds me of the ogre in the first Harry Potter film, who was rather an inept type. Intertextuality gone awry. The museum’s English description below the statue is worth reproducing:
Mictlantecuhtli is conceived by the Aztecs as a half-gaunt being in a position of attack with claws and curly hair . . . The liver hangs out from his thorax because according to Aztec beliefs this organ was closely related to Mictlan or the underworld.
I’ll forever be on the look-out for half-gaunts from Mictlan, with their livers hanging out.
Which leads me – not through any direct path – to another sight witnessed in the Zócalo, which had me confused for a minute: what appeared to be a bishop, protesting against child abuse in the Catholic church, and which transpired to be a person disguised as a bishop. Shame, really.
And from the tragic, via the bizarre, to the frivolous, as promised:
After a hot weekend, the temperature drops by twenty degrees overnight and the morning brings a discernible chill and a fine rain. Saltillo has been the surprise of my Mexican trip, a kind of ugly, lovely town, as Dylan said of Swansea. However, the comparison is not to be taken seriously: Saltillo has a population of nearly 800,000, and serves as the capital of the desert state of Coahuila, which stretches all the way to the US border. Yesterday, after doing a radio interview, I walk around the historic centre with Julián and Mercedes, and pass a rather striking building of Colonial aspect, which Julián informs me was once the Hotel Arizpe Sáinz – now defunct – the favoured residence of Edward Hopper, during his visits to Saltillo in the 1940s. Attracted by the desert and the extraordinary light, Hopper made three visits, painting watercolours from the roof of the hotel. According to testimonies from ex-employees of the Cine Palacio, and others who knew Hopper during this period, he developed a love-hate relationship with the northern Mexican city, admiring the architecture, but not the climate or certain aspects of the ‘local character’ or city life, which he found noisy and congested. In fact, it sounds as though he didn’t really like the place much at all, and complained about the walls and towers and electric signs that obstructed the views. Nor could he find the right sort of blue-green oil paint for the mountains, which must have been a bummer. In fact this is the reason he settled on watercolours.
Having become disillusioned with Saltillo, Hopper abandoned the place, returning however for a final visit in 1951, although apparently not producing any new work.
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.
Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the guy on the evening shift at my hotel. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. So much for my after dinner stroll. I retire to my room with Under the Volcano, just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was when first reading it half a lifetime ago. I took it with me to the hotel restaurant, first consuming Michael Schmidt’s Introduction alongside the chicken consommé – intrigued to discover he grew up in the same streets that encompass Lowry’s narrative – and reading the first few chapters (alongside the steak and nopales – edible cactus – and avocado) with delight and a degree of – is it envy or humility or readerly watchfulness, or a concoction of all three?
Earlier there was a massive storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant: hence my attempt to set out after eating. But I defer to the night-watchman’s concern, and it was past eleven after all. One hears so many contradictory tales about what is safe, and where it is safe to walk, especially at night, that in the circumstances I tend to err on the side of caution, something I would never have done a quarter of a century ago. But twenty-five years ago, perhaps, Mexico was not such a dangerous place, and I was a more reckless person. I remember saying to someone last week, who asked me why I hadn’t travelled to Mexico during my youthful journeys, that if I had done so I would probably have ended up getting killed, as I was such a pain in the arse back then and frequently looking for trouble. Some would say I am still a pain in the arse, but I don’t go looking for trouble any more.
In Xalapa, which seemed a reasonably safe place, there was a formidable police presence when I visited last week. Apparently this kind of thing happens in waves, following some tip-off or other. On the day I left, as I was packing my suitcase I hear an explosion on the street. I looked outside and saw people running, looking around as if not knowing quite from which direction it had come. Then, two minutes later, it is as if nothing has happened. I never find out what it was.
A writer I had arranged to meet there tells me of the corruption in local government: businesses close down, not because of any economic crisis, but because of extortion and their inability or unwillingness to pay the protection money to gangsters, who in turn are in league with crooked politicians and bent police officers. The police presence, as I mentioned, is an offence in itself – the same evening, as I took a walk through a busy Xalapa street, a truck pulled past with four police, heavily armed, black armour and helmets, their automatic rifles aimed in readiness at the civilians passing by on the sidewalk: what is this? Who exactly is posing the threat? Why are they aiming their guns at the very people they are supposed to be protecting?
In terms of everyday violence, Mexico gets a bad deal from the press, especially the US press. This itself is a paradox – most violence in Mexico is drug-related and the USA is the place these drugs are marketed – that verges on the hypocritical. One website I looked at cites UN-sourced evidence that you are more than five times more likely to be the victim of an assault in the USA than you are in Mexico, and that in terms of homicide, the murder rate in Mexico is way down the league of tourist destinations: within Latin America and the Caribbean alone, you are much more likely to get yourself killed in (descending order) Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, St Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Brazil, St Lucia or Ecuador than you are in Mexico. The murder rate in Washington D.C is more than double that of Mexico City (21 per 100,000 as opposed to 9 per 100,000) and in New Orleans it is more than five times greater than in the Mexican capital.
But in terms of everyday security, beyond taking reasonable precautions – i.e. there are some barrios in any city that you simply don’t visit if you can avoid them – bad stuff happens, as elsewhere, mainly because of chance (i.e bad luck). A Mexican couple told me soon after my arrival here that the only time they had ever experienced violence directed against themselves was in Europe: she was mugged in Paris; he was beaten up in a North London pub. Come to think of it, so was I.
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.