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.
The Guadalajara Book Fair closes today and Blanco is back in Wales. A friend emails from Mexico that they (meaning the assassins referred to in Friday’s post) ‘have still not shot any writers yet, even the bad ones.’ I am relieved, as I would certainly like to go back to the feria del libro, if I am invited. Now that The Vagabond’s Breakfast has been accepted by Argentinian publisher Bajo la Luna, there is a possibility that I might be. For those who read Spanish, an account of Blanco’s performance (and a suitably haggard representation of the author) entitled ‘La mirada del vagabundo/The gaze of the vagabond’, which was hosted quite delightfully by Jorge F. Hernández last Tuesday can be found here.
Although I claimed last during the week that I would not be reading any novels for a year, I cheated, since I was already reading David Enrique Spellman’s Far South when I started the immense The Kindly Ones, and finished it off in Atlanta airport while waiting for my change of plane. Far South is an intriguing experiment in genre writing by a novelist (Spellman is a nom de plume and it is not for me to reveal his identity) who has changed style and theme with each of his four novels. This latest offering is pacey and political, with a fairly representative hard-boiled private dick narrator, subverting the detective novel genre at the same time as subscribing (mostly) to its format. This subversion of a particular mode of telling (or of reading) extends far beyond the book itself: it presumes an invented world – like all fiction – but one which leads into labyrinthine tunnels of consequence, if one takes up the challenge. Spellman is, essentially, questioning the way we invent and receive stories, and his several narrators are all dependent on each other to secure a sequential unreliability. And there is more: as I mentioned in my post from Montevideo, ‘Far South’ is itself a larger project – or collective – consisting of videos and audio clips and installations, to which punters can subscribe and add comments. It might well be a direction that narrative fiction will follow in the near future, particularly well-adapted to e-readers/online reading, as one can switch from written text to videoclip to audio as and when one wishes. I am fascinated to see what ‘Spellman’ comes up with next.
As I still had the onward flight to London to look forward to, I read 24 for 3 by Jennie Walker (another alias, this time for poet and publisher Charles Boyle), which doesn’t really break my commitment as, at 138 sparsely populated pages, it is a short novella or long story, therefore not falling within the prohibited zone. I thoroughly enjoyed 24 for 3, which I finished on the train from Gatwick to Cardiff. It is a delicious story, told with classical economy and a real delight in its subject matter – cricket, sex, parenthood, love – which teases the pleasure points and inspires the reader to drift into secondary or tertiary digression. Surely one of the more neglected benefits of reading, this, the capacity of a piece of writing to inspire creative daydreaming. A gorgeous, elevating read.
I heard the Mexican poet Luis Felipe Fabre read the poem below at an open-air reading in Rosario, Argentina at the end of September. Later that night I went out with him and a few other poets from the festival to a rather poor transvestite show. I never quite got the idea of men dressing up as women. I mean, I don’t get what’s supposed to be funny about it. It seems to particularly affect Latin cultures, which traditionally have a strong macho streak. Perhaps I’m missing something, but if so cannot imagine what it might be. Luis didn’t seem particularly interested either, and we went along because our friends – Los Gays – were going and we were a part of their gang so went along too.
Luis’ poetry engages with social and political issues of the everyday while drawing back from the more overt banalities of social realism. His poetry collections are Vida quieta (2000), Una temporada en el Mictlán (2003) and Cabaret Provenza (2007). Anyway, here is my translation of the poem he read that midday in Rosario, which gives a flavour of the quotidian presence of violence in Mexico, in which a TV commercial is imagined that reflects the irrepressible logic of consumer culture, flogging a cosmetic product that can wipe away even the most corrosive traces of everyday murder.
Infommercial Luis Felipe Fabre
Señora Housewife: are you sick and tired
of scrubbing night and day
clots of impossible-to-remove blood
from the clothes of all your family?
Do the entrails spattered on the walls of your house
prevent you from sleeping?
Have you found yourself exclaiming like a sleepwalker:
“Out, damned spot, out I say!”?
Now you can buy
Lady Macbeth Stain Remover
and put an end to those viscous nightmares!
Lady Macbeth Stain Remover
is made up from a base of scavenger micro-organisms
that will do your dirty work for you
without damaging the surfaces to which they are stuck:
Señora, you know it: killing
is easy. The difficult part comes later.
Lady Macbeth Stain Remover offers you
an incredible solution that will revolutionize domestic hygiene:
Say goodbye to the trace of brains from your favourite armchair!
Say goodbye to those bloodied rugs!
Take a note now of the number that appears on your screen
or call 01800 666
and receive along with your purchase
a multifunctional applicator and a packet of body bags
With the Lady Macbeth Stain Remover
you will be able to sleep
like a true queen.
One of the great pleasures of the Guadalajara Feria del Libro is the spirit of festivity and celebration. Being a Latin affair, the partying is intense and persistent. Fortunately for his readers, Blanco is a restrained sort of chap these days, and since time is limited, would prefer to have a quiet meal with friends rather than to go off on reckless jaunts into the rosy-fingered dawn. However on Tuesday night there was a big do at the house of the Book Fair President, Raúl Padilla, and I went along, easing past the ranks of some very frightening bodyguards into the fabulously well-furnished salón, to enjoy a buffet of epic proportions, and to eavesdrop on the spirited banter of the guests. There is a bit of a bun fight as to who will be invited to be the host country (this year it is Germany’s turn, and next year Chile). There has never been an English-speaking nation, but Ireland are working on a bid for 2013, which might be fun.
Blanco was also able to meet up, quite fortuitously, with two of his favourite Spanish-language writers, both of whom he recently translated for Poetry Wales, the enchanting Cuban Wendy Guerra (who has just brought out a fictionalised account of Anaïs Nin’s time in Cuba called Posar desnuda en La Habana) and the no less gorgeous – and brilliant – Andrés Neuman, whose prize-winning novel Traveller of the Century will be available in English translation in February (published simultaneously by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Pushkin Press in the UK).
While talking of favourite writers, I must confess to having met two of my literary heroes, neither of them well enough known in the Anglo-Saxon world, but giants in Latin America. I was introduced to Juan Gelman, the finest Argentinian poet of his generation and a strong contender for the Nobel Prize. Gelman’s is a complicated and tragic story, the essentials of which can be read here, but if you have not read him, please try the excellent translations by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodríguez Nuñez in The Poems of Sidney West, published by Salt.
The novelist Sergio Ramírez – who was vice-president of Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution of 1979, but has since seriously fallen out with the corrupt regime of his onetime-comrade, Daniel Ortega – is perhaps best known for his own powerful and moving account of the revolution, Adiós muchachos but his short stories and a couple of his novels are available in English also. The two of them were enjoying a few tequilas, so I didn’t hang around, but Gelman was very genial, and seemed genuinely pleased when my friend told him I was working on a selected poems of Joaquín Giannuzzi into English (forthcoming with CB Editions).
Strangely enough, I didn’t find out Wednesday night, but the week before the Book Fair there was a mass execution carried out in the city, and the bodies of 26 men, bound and gagged, were found in three trucks only a mile from the Expo Centre where the Book Fair was held (read more here).
Since the Book Fair was celebrating its 25th anniversary the joke was going around that they had chosen to murder 25 and one for luck. Or something. Just to give a signal. It illustrates perfectly the precarious balance of daily life in Mexico today; the contrast between the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Mexican people and the horrific and appalling violence that erupts with such regularity, and which so profoundly colours the outside world’s perception of this fascinating, dangerous and beautiful country.