Someone bought me, or recommended that I buy – I forget precisely – Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station, and it’s been a long time since I laughed so much while reading any book; so thanks, whoever you are. The novel is especially good at describing the kinds of mental contortions a language learner goes through when sufficiently advanced to understand most linguistic items in a foreign language, but who nevertheless often comes unstuck on more complex or controversial items in the host culture.
Lerner’s protagonist is an appallingly self-conscious and calculatingly mendacious young American poet with an addiction to little white and yellow pills (presumably to help address his pathological nerdiness) and to hashish (he is a keen adherent of the ‘wake and bake’ philosophy). On a research fellowship to Madrid – the use of the word ‘research’ in the novel is disarmingly disingenuous – he meanders between affairs with two Spanish women, never managing to fall in love, but desirous of being loved. Although sleeping with Isabel, he is obsessed with Teresa, a glamorous translator, who comes from money (there are suggestions of a family association with the Franco regime) and who now embodies radical chic politics – indeed, appears to support the kind of political commitment of which the chronically uncommitted narrator is entirely incapable. However, Adán (Adam, in Spanish), as the American is known by his Madrileño friends, wants Teresa to fall in love with him, so that he can let go of his painful inhibitedness just a fraction, but she is too cool by far. Or something.
There is a nice passage in which Adán has been observing Teresa’s actions and, impressed, says:
“You are the most graceful and protean person I know. The way you handed me the coffee right when I awoke or the way just now you took the tequila from me or,” I paused to think of an example not involving drinks, “the way you can move without apparent transition from your stylish apartment to a protest.” . . .
. . . “All you’re describing,” she said in Spanish, “is the personality of a translator. From apartment to protest, From English to Spanish.” If she had spoken in English, I would have found it a little grand; in Spanish I experienced it as profound. I wondered if she’d weighed the sentence in both languages before selecting the one that would produce the desired effect.
In short, what Lerner’s character is describing as a ‘translator’ is someone who is able to adapt to circumstances with ease, a kind of chameleon who uses their own innate multiplexity of self to their advantage: a skilled reader of human ‘texts’.
But it is the next comment that stands out, and makes me wary, about how his character considers Teresa’s comment profound in Spanish, whereas he might have found it ‘a little grand’ in English. This is a sensation with which I am well familiar. Often, when I read a text in another language – a piece of political or philosophical, or literary analysis, I find it more ‘profound’ than its word for word (if there were such a thing) equivalent might be in English. Why is this? What is going on here? Is it a way of congratulating oneself for being able to process the material in a language other than one’s own – and therefore, as a kind of projection – or reward – investing it with greater value than it might otherwise merit?
Or is it something more insidious: that certain languages – and I am thinking specifically of Romance languages – appear more ‘profound’ than English to the native anglophone ear because their syntax is more systematically consistent, which in turn leads to a more gratifying sense of grammatical coherence – and thence of understanding – which, even if it is a false one, and the meanings conveyed are no more ‘profound’, leads the non-native reader to believe that they are.
Or is it that Lerner’s character is in love with Teresa, and therefore wants her words to be ‘profound’ even if they are comparatively commonplace?
In El País, Javier Cercas writes on the qualities of silence. He tells a story about a meeting between Borges and the famously reserved Italian novelist Italo Calvino in Seville in 1984, at a conference they were attending. Calvino’s wife, Chichita was an Argentinian, and an old friend of Borges, who was, by this time, completely blind. The two of them, like true porteños, dived straight into conversation, and it was a while before Chichita mentioned to Borges that her husband, Italo, was also present. Yes, replied Borges, I know. But how, said Chichita, when he hasn’t said a single word? I recognized him by his silence, said Borges.
I read this last month, while spending a few days in Spain, where I visited the beach near Llança quite late most afternoons. At this time of year, mid-June, most of the beachgoers are locals, and I was alarmed to notice the numbers of obese Spanish children and teenagers. Whereas, living in Britain, we have become accustomed to this, and have lived with it continuously since the nineties at least (if not from the days of Billy Bunter) in Spain it has been a radical and a rapid transformation. When I first visited Spain in 1959 (where I spent my third birthday at the house of the Langdon-Davies’s in Palamós) it was still in the cycle of post civil-war poverty, before the influx of mass tourism. Then there was the transition, after 1975, and the hedonistic explosion of social life in the cities; then the property boom, and the rocketing of house prices. When I returned to Spain in the mid 1990s every other car was a BMW or a 4 x 4, and everyone was up the gunnels with debt (as they still are) and now, inevitably, the country has reached the final and definitive stage in the establishment of a global economy: the children are fat.
So, as I read the newspaper, I cannot avoid the sight of a group of pudgy 11 year olds, munching Pringles and gobbling Magnum ice creams, all washed down with cans of Red Bull. How depressing this sight is. Ten years ago, when we lived here and my children went to the local school, these same kids would have been content with a ham or cheese sandwich, an orange and a bottle of water. I acknowledge there is a massive tendency for people to overrate the benefits of the past, but this is no exaggeration. The change towards childhood obesity is visible and has been incredibly swift. I cannot see the Spanish footballers of the future emulating Xavi, Iniesta et al, if they follow a diet of this kind.
Yesterday was the last day my younger daughter Rhiannon spent as a teenager. She and I went shopping at the supermarket together and she chose a few items, which she kept separately, in her own basket. As she went to pay I saw that in it were two cartons of Pringles, half a bottle of Gordon’s gin (a birthday present for her best mate) and two packets of Jelly Tots. Could the paradoxical state of being a teenager ever be more eloquently expressed, caught between the comforts of childhood and the terrors of adulthood?
An email from my Chinese translator in quite extraordinary English reminded me of the following article, brought to my attention by my friend Hugo Pooley last year. It is the report of a corrida that appeared in the Spanish newspaper El País on 22 May 2010. I had not realized computerized translation from google could offer such pleasures. Readers with a knowledge of Spanish will probably understand how some of the errors took place (e.g. cogida, from the verb ‘coger’ (to get, catch, gore etc) is ‘a fuck’ in South American usage, but not in European Spanish, and after all El País is a European newspaper). The odd thing, as Hugo pointed out at the time, was that the machine should have latched on to that usage, as machines are usually quite prudish:
“The severity of the goring not perceived in the plaza at the time of the fuck. Gestures of pain were the bullfighter, who ran to the burladero for help, those who betrayed it seemed, in principle, a blow to the face, was, in fact, something more serious. Moments later, while still unaware of the extent of the wound, the horrifying photo published by the website of this newspaper ran like wildfire through the stands, and reassurances from the infirmary.”
La gravedad de la cornada no se percibió en la plaza en el momento de la cogida. Fueron los gestos de dolor del torero, que corrió hacia el burladero en busca de ayuda, los que delataron que lo que pareció, en principio, un golpe en la cara, era, en realidad, algo más serio. Momentos después, cuando aún se desconocía el alcance de la herida, la espeluznante foto publicada por la web de este periódico corrió como la pólvora por los tendidos, y también noticias tranquilizadoras desde la enfermería.
Then the subheading:
“Julio Aparicio is “conscious and stable” after he suffered serious fuck in Sales goring”
Julio Aparicio está “consciente y estable” tras la grave cogida que sufrió en Las Ventas
(‘Las Ventas’, the stadium in Madrid can also mean ‘The sales’ (as in shopping), which accounts for the anomaly in the last line of the English.)
Having now received three emails from China (of which more anon, gentle reader, if you can still bear to read Blanco’s blog after the shock of that horrifying photo), which have left me fearing the worst for the eventual outcome of one of my books in the world’s most populous country, I have been left wondering about the relative advantages of an automated translation, and whether it might not do a better job with my novel in Chinese than the current translators. Although inaccurate, it could actually be as effective in gaining the reader’s attention, and certainly more amusing, than the text it claims to translate.
I simply love the passage below, translated as: “hair soap, beautiful sheet, noble as they come, with a left peg luxury if he had accompanied the forces”. Found poetry.
For those interested in reading on, the automated google translation of the El País article continues below. For those able to read the Spanish, the original article can be found here:
The right-hander Julio Aparicio Seville has received this evening in a serious goring sales when faced with the first bull of your lot. The bullfighter has encountered and the bull rammed him with the horn right on the chin Toros de Juan Pedro Domecq, fourth-and fifth-back, well presented, disabled and very noble. Hats, Gavira, the second back and replaced by another of Camacho, outcast. Julio Aparicio: caught by his first bull. Morante de la Puebla: half cocked and perpendicular (silent) media (silent), two punctures and almost entire perpendicular. El Cid: two punctures and a half (applause), almost entirely fall (applause), thrust (ear). Plaza de Las Ventas. Friday, May 21. Sixteenth run of the fair of San Isidro. Full.
Everything happened seen and unseen. Actually, it was an unexpected event under the condition of the bull, named Sumptuoso, 530 kilos in weight, hair soap, beautiful sheet, noble as they come, with a left peg luxury if he had accompanied the forces. Aparicio drew out two splendid veronicas topped with half bursting with aroma. The animal showed their disability in the horse, where it was stung, came in the third of gay flags, and came to the crutch with the strength very fair. The right-hander in the media began its work with a faint first round of right hands, and continued at that hand with a lower weight. He left, and in the first stake, ran into the hindquarters of the bull, which made him lose verticality. Once on the ground instead of running away from the face of the bull, the bullfighter tried to get up pretending to wipe away the crutch. It was at that moment when the bull is found Aparicio’s face, with such bad luck that drove the peg over his chin and pulled him by the mouth. That moment that appears in the photos are not perceived in the ring, because, fortunately, the bull dropped its prey quickly. Thank goodness.
The bullfighter can tell which is the big news of the day. And it was also clear that the danger is always present in a square, but the bull has, as Sumptuoso, odor of sanctity.
It was not the only time grief. Minutes later, when El Cid crutches with his left hand to another good-natured, was hooked and tossed to the point it seemed that the horn had penetrated the right thigh up to the groin. It did not, and needed a satchel broken only under emergency sewing.
The returns that can give a bullfight … Perhaps this unknown file your exciting mystery. Who could imagine that a festival so nice on paper was about to end in tragedy. But this big-game life and death, is this party.
Haunted by the image of the python’s mouth out by Julio Aparicio, but with the quiet encouragement, continued a celebration featuring bulls Juan Pedro invalid Domecq, which, unfortunately, is no longer news. This farmer has found true, the sweetness the highest degree, to the same extent that it has lost power and greed. Two were returned, but could be more. All, yes, kind, loving, kind and affectionate. But that is a substitute for the bull. In the end, triumphed Manuel Jesus El Cid with the best of the afternoon, the sixth, but first, bullfighting was the high school veronica, great gift of the proposed lists, so many times drought hood.
She excelled, that is, Aparicio, then Morante received his first with a sweetest veronicas, pregnant packing, and, again, returned to infuriate the square with the second hat made fifth, which forced him to charge in a cape fans who knew a holy glory. And also starred in El Cid veronicas remove two extraordinary in its first, and returned to show off at the exit of the sixth.
The rest of the celebration just had the story of Manuel Jesus with the latter, which rammed and fixity length, and which understood by the right side with muletazos deep and emotional, in a work hardening and chaired by the connection. He missed the greed of the bull by the left side for the victory would have been great.
Anyway, the big winner yesterday Julio Aparicio, and with it, we win them all because the party is glad his good fortune.
Don’t go in there, kiddo. To climb in there would just be wrong. There’s a whole world out here waiting to be explored without having to resort to Deep Throat here. Its ravening scarlet depths offer no safe haven, and while vagina dentata is almost certainly a paranoid delusion of the male psyche I know that for once I am right – both as a role model and as a caring individual – when I say that going back in there is simply not an option.
If this were simply a dare – the kind of challenge we set ourselves as children: “would you rather have your face eaten off by ants or your bum chewed up by a crocodile” – I might, if I were in your shoes, even be tempted to climb inside the Great Maw, especially after considering the alternative, squarely enclosed beneath the paraphernalia of the State and the chilling motto TODO POR LA PATRIA: EVERYTHING FOR THE FATHERLAND.
I am caught in a dread panic: the all-consuming maternal maw or the brutalising paternal state? Help me please, Western Psychotherapy, help me Father Freud and Professor Lacan, for caught between the twin realities of the Civil Guard and the Great Shark-Mother, I have lost all inclination to make choices, and for this have (a) lost the will to carry on, (b) become an addict and fallen into hopeless ways, (c) joined a paramilitary outfit, or something official-sounding that promises travel and a good pension,
These, my lad, are the choices we have to take before beginning the definitive journey. So think a little, before climbing into that thing. And remember to wear a hat in the sun.
When driving around the country roads of the Ampurdan, one is likely to pass two species of cyclist. The first type travels in groups, is brightly clad in Lycra shorts and shirts emblazoned with the logo of their sports club. They wear aerodynamically designed helmets that make them look vaguely extraterrestrial. They are generally, though not exclusively, white, male and sufficiently well off to own a lot of fancy gear.
The second type of cyclist is solitary, drably garbed in the cast-off clothing of the rural poor, though sometimes he sports hard-earned or fake Adidas or Nike shoes and hoody. He will generally be on his way to, or returning from, a day of menial labour in the fields. At other times he may be sighted rummaging through the municipal garbage and recycling dumps outside local villages. He will be looking for scrap metal, discarded cookers and fridges, even the aluminium from a broken deckchair. This cyclist is invariably African, male
and very poor. He will almost certainly be an illegal immigrant.
The relative speeds at which these distinct cyclists progress along the country roads appears to be in direct proportion to their socio-economic status. The ones who do it as a leisure activity or hobby travel very fast up the winding mountain roads. They are dosed up on multivits and pep pills and nutritive hydrating beverages. On their slick and shiny machines, they push themselves to the limits of sweaty exhaustion. They do this out of choice. They are not going anywhere in particular but are always in a hurry. In other words, their destination doesn’t matter, so long as they get there fast.
The second type of cyclist has a defined and specific destination, but rarely seems in a hurry to get there on his old, recycled machine. He selects a speed best suited to sustain minimum energy loss. The destination matters, and he will get there in as much time as it takes.
We leave the village for a day and the place nearly burns down. Within hours of our departure I receive a text from a friend saying there is a bush fire encircling the village and everyone has been instructed to stay indoors, behind closed doors and windows. Many fire engines, seven helicopters and two planes converge here in an attempt to control the flames, and for a few hours it is a highly dangerous place to be. As the afternoon wears on the reports improve. The fire has been contained, with minimum damage to the vines, but considerable destruction of forest – largely cork, but also some olive – and all the hillsides to the south and east of the village are covered by a thick pall of smoke. When the smoke has lifted and we return, the next day, the bare outlines of the hills creates an entirely new landscape.
There is something about the spread of fire in a hot dry climate that cannot easily be conveyed to our wet green consciousness.
The fire brigade reckon the blaze was started by someone tossing a lighted cigarette from a car on the road at Delfiá, a couple of kilometres away. I wonder whether the cretin responsible has any notion of the destruction they caused. Hundreds of hectares of damage to trees, plant life and all the animals that live there. Unbelievable what idiots people can be.
Traditionally, local councils employ ‘firewatchers’ in the summer months, a handy summer job for local students. Because of the cuts in public spending this luxury has been sacrificed. Delays in the reporting of a fire allow it to break out of control long before the fire services arrive, and are consequently far more expensive in the use of resources. Another false economy.
The impressive photographs were taken by our neighbour, Maia Castelló. Ricardo Blanco thanks her for allowing their display on his blog.
El ojo que ves no es
ojo porqué tú le veas
es ojo porqué te ve.
The eye you see is not
an eye because you see it
but because it sees you.
This morning, reading some poems by Antonio Machado, I am reminded of a trip we took to the province of Soria one July a few years back. Machado was for many years a schoolmaster in Soria, and wrote many fine poems about the place. I saw the trip as a kind of homage, but a purely literary excursion was out of the question, so we combined it with a visit to Navarra, and made a round trip.
We had driven down from the fiesta at Pamplona, and as we entered Soria after a two hour drive the temperature was registering forty-three degrees. Too hot to stagger around the town, we set out to Vinuesa, the nearest village to Machado’s Laguna Negra (Black Lake). This is walking country, between 1500 and 2000 metres in altitude: woods of dense beech and cedar, streams, waterfalls and lakes, in stunning contrast to the interminable dust-blown expanses of the meseta.
Machado´s narrative of the Laguna Negra concerns a local farmer who was murdered by his greedy sons in anticipation of their inheritance, and subsequently thrown into the lake, with weights attached to his body. The parricides themselves suffer an ignominous retribution, losing their way in the mist one night, falling and drowning in the very lake in which their murdered father was dumped. Wolves are said to surround the lake at night, symbollically howling out the bad sons’ shame. Machado’s poetry conjures this desolate and otherworldly landscape to grim perfection.
It was already dusk by the time we reached the lake, and we wandered among the huge boulders that mark its circumference. There were more beech woods and glades that centred on a pair of massive rocks. I thought of native Austrailian beliefs that a person can become incorporated into the landscape on their deaths, and began to consider the parricidical sons in a new way. Scrambling around this silent expanse of black water as the light fails, one could sense the presence of the legend like a virus on the air. Gazing up at the high rim of the volcanic crater the occasional tree juts out at an impossible angle. The stench of murder, the pervasive notion of return to the same deathly reserve of water, unmoving now except for a shimmering of ripples when a long black snake zig-zags between two small promontories. I like the place, but something tells me we should leave. Tripping over exposed tree-roots in the darkness we find the path again and descend to the car.
Machado has a more local significance, here in the borderlands of the Alt Empordá. In 1939, as the Civil War came to a bloody close, Machado, who had been active in support of the Republican cause, made his way to the frontier, very ill, and accompanied by his elderly mother. He tried to cross into France, but was held up because his papers were not in order. His attempted escape to France was echoed, in reverse, a year later by Walter Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis. I tried to capture this near-synchronous flight in a prose poem once, see below. In actual fact Machado died in Collioure, a few kilometres north from Cerbére, while Benjamin made the seven kilometres south across the mountains to Port Bou (see post for 7 August).
Here’s what happened. Antonio Machado, celebrated Spanish poet, was fleeing Spain and the advancing Francoist army. After a desperate journey through a defeated Catalunya, he arrived at the French border village of Cerbère. It was raining heavily. The authorities would not let him into France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Drenched by the rain and sick, Machado took refuge in a small hotel. He left the building once only, to watch the fishing boats in the small harbour. Shortly afterwards, he died. It was Ash Wednesday, 1939.
The following year, Walter Benjamin, the noted German polymath and essayist, arrived in the same village, coming from the opposite direction. He was fleeing the Nazis, trying to get to Spain. From Spain he hoped to catch a boat to America. The authorities would not let him leave France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Despairing at the state of the Europe he could not leave, while eluding the holocaust of which he would no doubt have been a victim, Benjamin chose to take his own life, using poison.
Antonio Machado was born on the same day – July 26th 1875 – as Carl Jung, the originator of the theory of synchronicity. Walter Benjamin had a low opinion of Jung, considering him to be a supporter of the Aryan myth, and accusing him of doing ‘the devil’s work’.
From ‘Walking on Bones‘ by Richard Gwyn (Parthian, 2000)
– What country is this foreigner from?
– I don’t know.
– What’s his name?
– I don’t know.
– What does he do? What language does he speak?
– I don’t know.
– What’s your name, my good man?
– . . .
– What country do you come from? Where are you going?
– I’m from here. I’m a foreigner.
Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008) tr. from Catalan by D. Sam Abrams
I have travelled many roads
and have opened many paths.
I have sailed a hundred seas
and been shipwrecked on
a hundred shores.
Everywhere I’ve seen
caravans of sadness
proud people sad people
drunks in the dark, dark shade.
Lecture hall pedants
watch on in silence
thinking they’re smart
because they do not
drink wine in humble places:
bad people who carry on
like pests polluting the earth.
And everywhere I’ve seen
people who dance and play
when they can
and work the skin
from their four palms.
If they arrive exhausted in a place
they’re never asked
from where they come.
When they travel
they ride on the shanks
of an old mule
They never hurry
not even on fiesta days.
Where there is wine
they drink wine;
where there is no wine
they drink fresh water
Good people who live
and work, get by and dream.
And one day like any other
they go into the ground
Antonio Machado (1875-1939) tr. from Spanish by Richard Gwyn