In the south of Chile, early September means late winter, and the weather is cold and damp. This comes as a shock to the system, if your body still thinks it’s summer. Driving from the airport into Valdivia, the fields and surrounding woods are draped in mist, and the melancholy that I described on the Sunday evening streets of Buenos Aires returns in pastoral mode, following a single day’s break in Santiago, where I deliver a talk at the Diego Portales University on Roberto Bolaño, at the Catedra Roberto Bolaño. Coals to Newcastle.
The drop in temperature – not that Santiago was warm – is accompanied by an appreciable increase in humidity. Chileans with any knowledge of Wales sometimes joke that I must like Valdivia because the weather reminds me of home. But last time I was here it was January, and considerably warmer than the average Welsh summer.
We walk through the early morning mist, past the fish stalls being set up along the riverside, to the Pedro de Valdivia bridge, named after the conquistador of that name (1497-1553) who was first governor of Chile. Valdivia met with resistance from the Mapuche Indians when attempting to conquer the south and, his army defeated, was captured. Stories about how he met his death vary, but one contemporary account suggests that offers of a ransom – and the return of all occupied lands – was rejected by the Mapuche, who cut off Valdivia’s arms, roasted them, and ate them in front of him before dispatching him.
A pair of sea lions lounge on a floating jetty; as we pass the male rises awkwardly on his forepaws and roars at a passing heron.
From the bridge the river appears to dissolve into a wall of mist, beyond which I imagine a world, entirely hidden from view, in which strange and terrible things might happen. It is a vision from The Heart of Darkness, or Juan José Saer’s great novel El Entenado (which means a foster child, but has been translated into English as The Witness) – which, while taking place on the other side of this continent, up the River Plate, is, like Conrad’s, a novel of European paranoia and dissolution: the reader is warned in both books that the view ahead presents possibilities that are as terrible as anything that can be imagined in a wide river shrouded in white mist.
At the University Austral, a long day of presentations, literary discourse and performance, much of it concerning our anthology The Other Tiger. In the evening, the poets Jorge Aulicino, Marina Serrano, Carlos López Beltrán, Jaime Pinos, Jorge Fondebrider, Pedro Serrano, Verónica Zondek and Damsi Figueroa read poems and students from the university read my English versions from The Other Tiger with great intelligence and fine dramatic emphasis.
After dinner as guests of the University Rector, Óscar Galindo, we return through a freezing downpour to the hotel. I go to sleep with the sound of the rain pattering on the glass dormer window above my head, a strangely comforting sound: percussive entry to a dream of rivers.
Imagine my surprise, on a crisp and cloudless day in March this year, sitting down to lunch outside a restaurant in Toledo, when I discovered that the young couple at the next table were speaking Welsh. I was skiving off from a rather dull conference in Madrid, and Toledo, less than an hour away, seemed an ideal distraction. It was one of those moments of apparent disconnect, when you need to make a quick inventory of your surroundings, pinch yourself, do some sums, listen doubly hard to make certain you are not hallucinating the sounds. We fell into conversation – this is almost inevitable if you happen to speak a minority language, however badly, and meet compatriots in foreign parts – and the talk came around to Welsh cinema. The film Patagonia had just been released: I had been away from Cardiff and unable to go and see it.
So I finally got around to watching it last night, and, on balance, I enjoyed it. Although I had reservations about the script, including the rather cheap trick of withholding vital information that undermines our response to the central protagonists’ relationship, the cinematography and acting were excellent. Nia Roberts gave a strong performance as a woman who wants more from life than she can reasonably expect; her boyfriend Rhys (Matthew Gravelle’s irritatingly dour and uptight photographer) goes through a minor epiphany on finding the body of a dead dog on the road, and later, in a redemptive act, befriends the dog’s shambolic, alcoholic tramp of an owner. Matthew Rhys, as their Patagonian guide, is an effective and powerful presence onscreen, subtly pitched the right side of brooding. This Patagonian part of the story comes close to being Big Cinema, but somehow just falls short. It was the Welsh adventure of the young Argentinian, Alejandro, cajoled out of his virtual life of sci-fi novels by his elderly neighbour Cerys (played by Marta Lubos) that most captivated. For both myself and Mrs Blanco, Alejandro (Nahuel Pérez Biscayar) was the star turn of this film, and we were most entertained by the scenes in which he appears, even his puppyish romp with Duffy, with whom he is improbably reunited after first meeting her when she passes out at a Cardiff nightclub.
But why do I always endure that nervousness, or painful sense of resistance, whenever Welsh artists (and that includes many of our writers, visual artists and film-makers) attempt to make a statement about contemporary Wales or any articulation of ‘Welshness’. However hard they try, there always seems to be some frantic element at work, as though we, as a nation, still have something to prove to the world. No one is interested. Certainly no one outside of Wales gives a shit, and many of us who live here just want to get on with our work without having to make continuous self-reflective reference to our Welshness. As if a Swiss writer had to pepper his stories with references to cuckoo clocks and dairy milk chocolate. So there seems to be something desperate about having to bring Blodeuwedd into the story as kind of smash and grab raid on the Mabinogion. It’s like stating outright: ‘Look, we have these early medieval antecedents, this embedded narrative mythology.’ I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t wash, and nobody cares anyway. And if you’re going to do it, do it in such a way that isn’t bloody obvious. Likewise the farcical pseudo-Celtic water burial ceremony awarded to Marta Lubos, poor thing – Health and Safety would have been down on that like a ton of bara brith.
Given my own self-confessed prejudices, I ended up enjoying this film far more than I had intended to. Er, four stars?