Yesterday, intending to do my civic duties and pay my annual dues (known as the Xaloc) at the village ajuntament, I plodded up the hill, Thursday being one of the two days on which the village hall opens its office to deal with citizens and their affairs. Once inside the ajuntament complex, I notice that on the door of the office itself, a scrap of paper is pinned to the woodwork, declaring that during the months of July and August, office hours will take place on Monday afternoons and Friday mornings instead of Monday mornings and Thursday afternoons. Fair enough.
So today I take myself up the hill, and once again the office is closed. A friendly face at the village shop tells me that today is the assumption of the most Holy Virgin, the day on which the Virgin Mary was allegedly scooped up to heaven. For this reason the whole country must stop in its tracks. However, as a regular visitor to Spain and other Latin countries, I am used to this, and do not so much as flinch a northern European muscle.
Digression: Xaloc, the name of the tax, sounds like a Mexican god, but is in fact, I recall, the Catalan name of one of the sea winds (it comes from the Arabic word shaluq, meaning south-east). A Catalan fisherman’s saying goes: Vent de Xaloc, mar molta i peix poc / Xaloc wind: big sea and few fish. Is this how the term came to be adopted to refer to a form of taxation?
My adventure in trying to pay my civic dues could be represented as a flow chart, or else in bullet points, as follows:
i. Ajuntament office hours are on Mondays 10-12 and Thursdays 16-18.30,
ii. in July and August, when they will take place between 14.30-16.30 on Mondays and 10-12.30 on Fridays,
iii. on Fiesta days during those months, when they will be cancelled altogether.
These are the kinds of qualifications that would send Angela Merkel and any self-respecting northern European Eurocrat into palpitations. It is exactly this kind of thing, don’t you know, which causes these idle Mediterranean countries to crash their economies. No sense of civic duty, no sense of Hard Graft.
On my way down through the village, I see something on the wall that I have never before noticed (and I have been coming to this village, on and off, since 1988). Now, the changing of place names is a well known phenomenon in all countries with an historical tendency to regime change: we once spent an afternoon in La Línea de la Concepción trying to track down my mother-in-law’s birthplace, before realising that the street names had undergone at least two revisions since 1926. Here is what I saw:
What would the Generalisimo have made of it all? Well, the answer is clear: it was with the dictatorship that my little tale begins. Franco was directly responsible for both maintaining a crippling adherence to Catholic dogma and a ludicrously top-heavy bureaucracy that Spain has been struggling to free itself from over the past 40 years. And the more feast days, clearly, the more devout your subjects.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
I cannot vouch for the accuracy of this statement, which reminds me briefly (of course) of a novel I read a while ago, Eternity is Temporary, which started well, but fizzled out by exploding the sexual tension too quickly. Is that an allegory for something? Is that what eternity is really like? Very exciting for the first half hour or so and then immensely tedious? Or should we go along with Bob Dylan, who no doubt wrote the song Death is Not the End in one of the religious phases that have speckled his career, thereby launching a host of cover versions. Another sly allegory.
The version here is performed by Nick Cave, with guests Kylie Minogue, Shane MacGowan and a chap with a very fetching accent. I recall driving around Europe with this on the car CD player a decade or more ago, the young Blanco daughters singing along merrily in the back seat. How pungently ironic. The mind begins to boggle at the prospect of an eternity spent with the motley crewage of miscreants and addicts assembled in this video But then again, the performance has a unique charm, and serves as Blanco’s contribution to the end of year festivities.
Deaths of Vaclav Havel and Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens I don’t know much about as he rose to prominence in the 1980s, a decade that largely passed me by unawares. Havel I was aware of in the late 70s and read a couple of his plays, and then later, at the time of the Velvet Revolution, but not much since. Both seem to have had a character of rumbustious contrariness that I normally admire, even though I am certain Hitchens and I would have numerous areas of intense disagreement.
But how is it that the loonies come out of the woodwork whenever someone’s death hits the news? Following a link to the youtube clip of Hitchens on Death, in the long list of viewers’ comments I find one by ‘ravenelvenlady’:
Rest in Peace Mr. Hitchens. You probably know for yourself now that we continue on, disembodied, and that this is all death really is.
Raven Elven Lady (to break down her moniker a bit) is clearly something of an expert on the beyond (perhaps she got an Arts and Humanities Research grant to take a fact-finding tour of the hereafter, or is dead herself and therefore writing from the other side: if not I am fascinated that she writes about the state of being dead with such carefree authority).
What is it that incites certain individuals to quack on about the afterlife as if they were in possession of secret information which no one in the history of human endeavour has ever been able to prove – in spite of the millions of efforts that have been made, from cranks with crow’s intestines to Ouija boards to Christ raising Lazarus from the tomb? You would have thought if there were an afterlife of any kind at all that there might be some way of getting a message back that laid all doubt to rest, but this has never happened, not once in thousands of years of recorded history.
So just why are the loonies out there, cheering on (or blasting to damnation) Hitchens’ eternal soul? Probably because Hitch himself can’t answer them back now.
What he does say in his interview is: “My strongest allegiance is to a group of people whose main interest is in the uncertainty principle.”
I think I know what he means, but he isn’t talking about Heisenberg, strictly speaking, rather a more generous application of uncertainty, on behalf of those of us who don’t know what exactly is going on in the universe, and can live with that, rather than having to impose infantile explanatory models onto life – one’s own and everyone else’s.
Anyhow, I think I’ll read his book. It isn’t a novel so I’m not cheating.
What are the chances of bashing your head on the protuberant arm of the TV bracket twice in your hotel room in the space of ten minutes? The second time my head bled so profusely by the time I got to the bathroom I looked like an extra from a zombie/slash/horror movie. Never mind. I’ve moved the table where I type away from the wall now. As far as it can possibly go.
Today I was taken to lunch in El Santo Coyote restaurant, and in the shady garden (where, as usual, according to the sign, invasion is prohibited – please see my post from Montevideo on this recurrent theme) complete with waterfall, your man comes to the table with mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock and, after asking if you like your salsa hot or what, he begins to pummel it into shape before your eyes. With chilli, garlic, some variety of parsley, and then tomato. And hell, yes, it works.
The blurb on the menu of The Holy Coyote tells of the thirteen Sioux tribes and all that shamanistic stuff. I love it. All my Carlos Castaneda comes flooding back: I will meet my ally soon, or dance with coyotes into the dark chasms of forgetting. But probably not tonight. After the bump on my head I’m half way there anyway, forgot just about everything today, including my ticket for the Herta Müller dramatization/reading at the theatre. I’ve forgotten what else I forgot but will probably find out tomorrow if I manage to sleep.
As for the food from the north of Mexico – so not, strictly speaking, indigenous to Guadalajara – I take off my hat, the hat that would, if it existed, cover my poor skull. But since my literary activities don’t begin in earnest until tomorrow, and the sun is shining, it was good to look around and see what is what.
But without invading anything or anyone, if possible.
I am listening to a Chopin nocturne here in my attic, as the rain falls on the city. It is evening and it is autumn. Tomorrow I am going into hospital where someone will poke around in my liver with a sharp instrument. This combination of factors could make for quite a melancholy mood, but instead I am reasonably jolly because I have just confirmed a longstanding suspicion: according to my Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, the word ‘cretin’ is derived from the French Alpine dialect crétin meaning a ‘kind of dwarfed and deformed idiot . . . from Latin christianus CHRISTIAN.’ It goes on to inform me that ‘In many Romance languages the equivalents of Christian have the general meaning of human being, but as a euphemism carry the sense of poor fellow. A parallel sense of development is found in French benêt simpleton, from Old French benoit blessed . . .’
I was also interested to discover there is a French video game called Les Lapins Crétins (the cretinous rabbits), surely one of the more outstanding Gallic contributions to world culture.
The Argentinian poet Jorge Fondebrider, playing with the familiar writerly notion that worldly success is almost entirely a matter of luck, has a poem on the subject, which I reproduce below, as a spin-off from my reflections on cretinism, followed by another of Jorge’s pensées on literary matters.
While translating a biography of Gershwin
and reading again of his successes,
the many testimonies of his contemporaries,
I realise that I too know illustrious people
and a few who are genuinely talented,
who bear the load of the world’s debts and bitterness.
But later I go back to work.
What I really want to say is that talent is not enough,
is never sufficient
that you have to be born in the right place, at the right time,
you have to be lucky and be noticed.
And whoever claims otherwise is a cretin.
Like Plato, chuck them out,
send them packing with a kick in the arse.
Worse still are novelists who don’t read poetry.
Translations from the Spanish by Richard Gwyn, first published in Poetry Wales, Vol 47 No 1, Summer 2011.