The following is an extract from my as yet unpublished travel memoir, Ambassador of Nowhere. It concerns a trip to Mexico in 2014.
Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the security guard on the graveyard shift at my hotel in Cuernavaca, as I set out for a midnight stroll. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. I am staying at the Hacienda Cortés, a sugar mill built in 1530 by the conquistador, Hernán Cortés, for the son he had with his mistress, La Malinche, and worked by the family – or rather, their slaves – until it fell into disuse and was, much later, reinvented as a hotel. Guests are housed in small bungalows, each with its own tiny patio garden.
Earlier there was a 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.
On the latest leg of my Mexican journey, I have just spent a day and a night in Mexico City, returning to the capital from Veracruz to attend a tertulia, a literary discussion group organised by the poet Fabio Morábito and friends. Afterwards I visited the barrio of Mixcoac, passing Octavio Paz’s family home en route, before returning to the more familiar territory of Condesa, and dinner at Luigi’s with Pedro Serrano and Carlos López Beltrán.
Back on the bus to Cuernavaca, the perennial Mexican bus, we pass through the sprawling shanty outskirts of southern Mexico City and into the mist again. Daily travel awakens in the traveller a sense of permanent dislocation, which is of course what the word means; displacement, an absence of locus. I am drawn to Cuernavaca, not only for its alleged splendour, lying as it does, under the volcano – “plumed with emerald snow and drenched with brilliance” – and the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s magnificent, terrible novel of that name, but also because my friend, Peter, who died destitute on the streets of Athens thirty years ago, came here sometime in the 1970s in search of Lowry’s ghost, and to drink mescal.
The night before, I broke the journey from Veracruz by stopping off at the town of Puebla, where I had made vague plans to meet up with yet another poet. There, I witnessed an incident, insignificant in itself, which I could not shake off. As I was walking into town, an Indian woman – ‘Indian’ is not considered to be an offensive term in Mexico and Central America – utterly bedraggled, with long grey hair and dressed in rags, came running past me, chasing after a huge SUV, crying out, at volume and with some distress ‘Don Roberto, Don Roberto . . .’ She carried on at pace up the street calling out Don Robé . . . Don Robé . . . for an entire block, and I followed her until 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 state of resigned torment. She seemed elderly, although poverty and stress and struggle probably added twenty years to her features. I asked her if she needed help, but she seemed not to see me. I asked again, are you all right? And she stared at me as if I were mad, as though the question – estás bien? – were so idiotic as to defy rational consideration. I cannot imagine what her story was, or what she felt she was owed by the object of her chase, the cruel, oblivious Don Roberto. Quite possibly, of course, she was delusional, and there was no ‘Don Roberto’ in the car that had driven away, only a random stranger, but the quality of her distress convinced me that some terrible injustice had been committed against her. The scenario was timeless, and her gasping of the honorific ‘Don’, as her spindly legs carried her in desperate pursuit somehow epitomized the gulf between want and privilege; his status and her subjugation. The image stayed with me as I rode the bus to Mexico City the following day, the massive form of Popocatépetl to my left caught fuzzily on my phone camera above the misty woodlands and broad meadows that gather around its base. The journey impressed on me the extraordinary diversity of the landscape; that within a few hours one can pass from the coast, across prairie, forest and the high sierra. The only constant is the truly terrible music being played full volume wherever you go.
I plan to read Under the Volcano in its proper setting, and I take my copy along with me to the dining room. Within an hour or so I am just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was the first time I read it, half a lifetime ago. I digest Michael Schmidt’s Introduction along with the chicken consommé, intrigued to discover that Schmidt grew up in the same streets that backdrop the story; and so I proceed to consume the first few chapters with my steak, nopales and avocado, washed down with a bottle of Chilean red, and I linger over dessert (fig tartlet and pistachio ice cream), then order coffee and a tequila. I have not eaten so much in months, and certainly not since my arrival in Mexico. By eleven, I have been reading for over three hours, having forgotten enough of the story for it to read like new.
In Lowry’s novel, we accompany the ex-Consul, Geoffrey Firmin, as he lives out the last day of his life – which also happens to be the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, 1938 – in Cuernavaca, which Lowry calls by its Nahuatl name, Quauhnahuac. Much of the novel is recounted in a stream of consciousness, describing the lurid visions of a man in the throes of alcoholic meltdown. The novel also narrates the events of the day in the external or material world, in which Geoffrey’s estranged wife, Yvonne, returns to him after a separation of several months. Others present – for at least a part of the Consul’s final day – are his half-brother Hugh, who has been intimately involved with Yvonne in the past, and is still attracted to her, the film director Laruelle (another of Yvonne’s ex-lovers), and a cast of minor characters who inhabit the actual town, as well as the infernal multitudes that populate Geoffrey Firmin’s increasingly haunted imagination as the story unfolds with steadily measured suspense – but with all the digressions of a mind in the throes of disintegration – towards its hallucinatory and terrifying climax. This duality, between the inner and the outer, between the spectacular writhing of Firmin’s tortured soul and the quotidian events that need to be negotiated if he is to have a function as a human being – an ‘animal with ideas’ – lies at the heart of the novel, and reflects a fundamental paradox in the life of the Consul, a tortuous, self-loathing self-portrait of his creator. ‘Function’ – not at all incidentally – is a word that is uttered with sinister insistence in the closing chapter by the police officer who will kill the Consul.
The novel has attained mythic stature for readers, its fans including numerous writers from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America, as well as from the English-speaking world, since its publication in 1947, after a strenuous, decade-long gestation.
Despite filmic potential – as a classical tragedy set against a dramatic landscape – it has only made it to the cinema once, in one of John Huston’s last ventures, and although Albert Finney’s Consul is superb, the film fails to convince in its portrayal of the other lead characters, Yvonne and Hugh, perhaps for the very reasons that the novel fails: they are really not that interesting. Essentially, Lowry was only concerned with character: the Consul, Geoffrey Firmin.
Foiled in my plans for a late night constitutional by the watchman’s warning – I tend to err on the side of caution these days – I return to my room. I am a long-term insomniac, and although optimistically convinced that at some point I will ‘catch up’ on all the sleep I have missed, that rarely happens, and I suspect I will remain in a state of lack for the rest of my days. Instead, I read, drifting in and out of slumber on occasion, a rhythm that especially suits the reading of this book.
At one point, quite early in the novel, the Consul insists, with typical grandiosity, that he is involved in a ‘great battle’, although he is, at that moment, doing nothing more than discussing whether to go on a visit to the bullfight in a neighbouring town or to stay at home with Yvonne. That notion of ‘the battle’, the sense of carrying a massive burden, of suffering this great responsibility to ‘come through’ in a struggle for survival, is drawn upon by the Consul when he resists the opportunity of going home, of calling off the trip, of simply spending some time with poor, exhausted Yvonne. Laruelle, his friend, reminds him: ‘you’ve got her back . . . you’ve got this chance”, to which the Consul replies, with magnificent self-importance, “You are interfering with my great battle” – and again, rhetorically: “You deny the greatness of my battle?” At the end of this passage the Consul continues speaking, taking Laruelle’s part in the conversation as well as his own: “even the suffering you do is largely unnecessary. Actually spurious.” But Laruelle isn’t there anymore. The Consul is talking to himself. For much of the book, if he is not talking to himself, he is addressing one of his inner demons or ‘familiars’, which amounts to the same thing.
One of the best examples of the Consul’s mind at battle with his familiars appears in Chapter Five, when he leaves Yvonne sleeping inside the house – or so he thinks (in fact Hugh has taken her riding) – in order to venture into the garden and retrieve a bottle of tequila he has kept hidden in the shrubbery. The chapter picks up on some of the novel’s main themes or ‘useful debris’, in which we find references to film and to cabalistic philosophy, varieties or brands of alcohol, the local geography, horses, flora and fauna, and we meet with dogs, which, in different forms, appear fifty-eight times over the course of the novel. The passage is worth citing in its entirety:
‘We warned you, we told you so, but now that in spite of all our pleas you have got yourself into this deplorable – .’ He recognised the tone of one of his familiars, faint among the other voices as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind. ‘ – condition,’ the voice went on severely, ‘you have to do something about it. Therefore we are leading you towards the accomplishment of this something.’ ‘I’m not going to drink,’ the Consul said, halting suddenly. ‘Or am I? Not mescal anyway.’ ‘Of course not, the bottle’s just there, behind that bush. Pick it up.’ ‘I can’t,’ he objected – ‘That’s right, take just one drink, just the necessary, the therapeutic drink: perhaps two drinks.’ ‘God,’ the Consul said. ‘Ah, Good. God. Christ.’ ‘Then you can say it doesn’t count.’ ‘It doesn’t. It isn’t mescal.’ ‘Of course not, it’s tequila. You might have another.’ ‘Thanks, I will.’ The Consul palsiedly readjusted the bottle to his lips. ‘Bliss. Jesus. Sanctuary . . . Horror,’ he added. ‘ – Stop. Put that bottle down, Geoffrey Firmin, what are you doing to yourself?’ another voice said in his ear so loudly he turned around. On the path before him a little snake he had thought a twig was rustling off into the bushes and he watched it a moment through his dark glasses, fascinated. It was a real snake all right. Not that he was bothered by anything so simple as snakes, he reflected with a degree of pride, gazing straight into the eyes of a dog. It was a pariah dog and disturbingly familiar. ‘Perro,’ he repeated, as it still stood there – but had not this incident occurred, was it not now, as it were, occurring an hour ago, he thought in a flash. Strange. He dropped the bottle which was of white corrugated glass – Tequila Añejo de Jalisco, it said on the label – out of sight into the undergrowth, looking about him. All seemed normal again. Anyway, both snake and dog had gone. And the voices had ceased . . .’
The familiar speaks to the Consul amid the din of other voices ‘as he crashed on through the metamorphoses of dying and reborn hallucinations, like a man who does not know he has been shot from behind.’ This arresting image presents the Consul as a man awash in a sea of phantasmagoria, the idea of ‘being shot from behind’ heavily foreshadowing the novel’s ending. Moreover, the brisk discussion being carried out by the Consul with his familiar carries a toxic, comic – or toxically comical – element that will persist over several such scenes. Its insistent, hectoring tone both incites the Consul to drink (‘Pick it up’; ‘You might have another’) and at the same time to back off (‘horror’ . . . ‘Stop. Put that bottle down’), an argument that the Consul has with himself throughout the first half of the book, after which he is too drunk to care. The snake, cunningly disguised as a twig, appears as a symbol both of the Fall, and of man beguiled by woman. Not, of course, that the Consul was concerned ‘by anything so simple’ as snakes – and here again we are confronted by the man’s grandiosity; he, who has stared into the very mouth of hell (the book has close parallels with Dante’s Inferno), is not concerned by a mere serpent, and on this account he feels pride, before ‘gazing straight into the eyes of a dog,’ which recalls the ancient Mexican belief that these animals acted as guides to the underworld. The dog is ‘disturbingly familiar’, which is not surprising as we met this very dog a few pages earlier, when the Consul and Yvonne entered their property on Calle Nicaragua, and its ‘familiarity’ has an explicit double meaning also. The Consul’s reaction to it, too, is identical to the previous encounter, and he utters the word ‘perro’ (dog) as much in recognition as in description, thus iterating one of the central themes of the novel, that of perpetual repetition, or endless return.
I am not sure if the proliferation of animals in Under the Volcano has been given full critical treatment but it strikes me as one of the central features of the novel. One writer who has paid attention is Javier Marías. There is a section in his Written Lives in which Marías lists some of the disasters of Lowry’s own life as recounted by Lowry himself. The strange thing is that the three stories he tells all concern animals: (i) a pair of elephants allegedly spotted by Lowry and his friend John Sommerfield hanging out on a street corner in Fitzrovia in the 1930s; (ii) the occasion when Lowry, convinced that a passing horse had snorted at him ‘derisively’, punched the poor creature so hard (just below the ear) that it ‘quivered and sank to its knees’; and (iii) the time that Lowry, stroking a pet rabbit with his ‘small, clumsy hands’ accidentally broke the animal’s neck, only to be consumed by remorse, and ‘wandered the streets of London for two days carrying the corpse . . . consumed by self-loathing’.
In Under the Volcano, it is when the Consul is at his most lubricated and fluent that the animals begin to pile up in abundance, as in Chapter Five. If this is the case, it reflects that the mind – especially, perhaps, the alcoholic mind – thinks in terms of animals because animals provide a natural metaphoric filter. Animals, as Claude Lévi-Strauss insisted, are good to think with.
The references to animals are almost too many to name, but it is interesting to reflect on the peculiar term the Consul employs to refer to animals: ‘people without ideas’ (in contrast to his term for humans as ‘animals with ideas’). ‘Earlier it had been the insects; now these were closing in on him again, these animals, these people without ideas.’ They include a pariah dog with three legs ‘with the appearance of having lately been skinned’ (clearly a xolo), as well as, in Chapter Five alone, ponies, a snake, a tiger, scorpions, leafcutter ants, Quincey, his neighbour’s, cat; (pink) elephants, a lizard, humming-birds, butterflies, ants with petals or scarlet bloom, an unnamed insect (caught by Quincey’s cat); a snake in the grass and ‘a procession of thought like little elderly animals’; various birds, a bull, three black vultures, a caterpillar, a large cricket (with a face like a cat); a scorpion and some ‘murdered mosquitoes’. Indeed, ‘the whole insect world had somehow moved nearer and now was closing, rushing in upon him.’ Throughout the book flutter a host of birds, in their capacity as omens: in Chapter One alone we encounter ‘sleepy vultures’; ‘small, black, ugly birds, something like monstrous insects’; ‘a frantic hen’; ‘fowl roosting in apple trees’, and another vulture for good measure. In the book as a whole, I counted 153 references to mammals, insects and birds, and no doubt missed a few.
Lowry’s own ‘great battle’ with alcohol has been well documented, and not least through critical analysis of his masterpiece. He was never able to replicate the success of his singular, most powerful novel, and the reason is clear: he was too drunk, too much of the time. One of the best studies of Lowry and his writing is by the American writer and rock musician, David Ryan. In his intimate, exacting essay, Ryan says that Lowry, like most addicts, never developed a healthy self-identity, remaining wrapped in a state of infantile narcissism. Drawing on Lacanian theory, he claims that Lowry’s behaviour as an adult, his mammoth drinking binges and voluntary disappearances suggested an inability to distinguish between himself and the world around him, resulting in chaos with every misconceived utterance and histrionic gesture. That would certainly be true of his Consul, Geoffrey Firmin. And the ‘mirror’ theme is supported by a couple of instances recorded by those who knew Lowry.
One of Lowry’s biographers, Douglas Day, provides an anecdote from an old friend of the author, James Stern, who ‘recalled how fascinated he [Lowry] was with mirrors’, and recounts one episode at a party when Lowry disappeared, and Stern found him in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, snorting blood from his nose, which he caught in his hands and ‘thrust up to the ceiling , so that the whole place was red and white’, all the while staring at himself in the mirror and laughing. Lowry’s French translator, Clarisse Francillon, remembered his ‘habit of slyly watching for audience reaction whenever he was behaving outrageously’.
Among the many photographs of the writer posing, glass or bottle in hand, one shows him holding a mirror, reflecting his own image as he is being photographed; and this inevitably leads to the question: why do so many of the photos of Lowry – including those on the dust jackets of books about him – show the writer shirtless, dressed in bathing shorts, staring at the camera in a manner at once glazed and pompous, trying to make an impression with his meagre moustache and his chest pushed out like a bantam cock, as in the often-reproduced photo of Lowry at Burrard Inlet? Why so many photos of a half-naked Lowry? And when we get past the bared torso and the chest hair and the focus on the face – the one on the back cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition of Under the Volcano – there is something both arrogant and vapid and fearful in those cold, clear eyes. The gaze is, we might surmise, intended to be piercing and riveting, but our attention is distracted by the sparse filaments of the faint moustache, the suggestion of vulnerability in the chin and the plump cheeks, a vaguely satyric pointedness to the ears; in fact what the portrait suggests more than anything else is that the sitter knows that he is meant to be there, but is unfortunately elsewhere, unobtainable, or more likely nowhere, waiting for this to be over with so he can go get another gin. More gin, buckets-full if at all possible, rivers-full, oceans-full of gin. This fantasy, which I am attributing to Lowry, originates in the Consul’s delirious outburst in Under the Volcano, when he attempts to recall an earlier life in Granada, Spain:
How many bottles since then? In how many bottles had he hidden himself, since then alone? Suddenly he saw them, the bottles of aguardiente, of anís, of jerez, of Highland Queen, the glasses, a babel of glasses – towering, like the smoke from the train that day – built to the sky, then falling, the glasses toppling and crashing, falling downhill . . . bottles of Calvados dropped and broken, or bursting into smithereens, tossed into garbage heaps, flung into the sea, the Mediterranean, the Caspian, the Caribbean . . . the bottles, the bottles, the beautiful bottles of tequila, and the gourds, gourds, gourds, the millions of gourds of beautiful mescal . . . How indeed could he hope to find himself to begin again when, somewhere, perhaps, in one of those lost or broken bottles, in one of those glasses, lay, for ever, the solitary clue to his identity?
Oh, that beautiful tequila and beautiful mescal! The simplicity of the descriptor reminds me of Hemingway’s choice of adjectives when writing to his friend Archie MacLeish in June 1957. Having been restricted by his doctor to a single glass of wine per day with his evening meal, he looks forward, with euphoric anticipation, to ‘a nice good lovely glass of Marques de Riscal’. This is an impossible utterance in the mouth of anyone except a crazed devotee, but as expressed by a writer who avowed a parsimonious approach to adjectives, the collocation of ‘nice’, ‘good’ and ‘lovely’ must be regarded with deep suspicion.
Malcolm Lowry’s grotesque diminution, his descent into the wretched, querulous, occasionally violent individual who choked to death on his own vomit in a rented house in Hove, England – a place epitomising parochial English decorum – represents a pathetic shadow death compared to the Consul’s fictional passing, flung down a Mexican ravine after his drunken debacle in the El Faro bar, followed by a dead dog that someone throws after him.
It always seemed to me that what literature and alcohol had in common was that they both allowed, momentarily, the ability to watch the world from a place of enhanced perception, or even to provide the illusion that you were really engaging with the stuff of life at a heightened level. Lowry summarises this clairvoyant state perfectly in Under the Volcano, when the Consul attempts to explain to his wife, Yvonne, why he is the way he is:
‘But if you look at that sunlight there, ah, then perhaps you’ll get the answer, see, look at the way it falls through the window: what beauty can compare to that of a cantina in the early morning? . . . for not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy as the iron screen that rolls up with a crash, as the unpadlocked jostling jalousies which admit those whose souls tremble with the drinks they carry unsteadily to their lips. All mystery, all hope, all disappointment, yes, all disaster, is here, beyond those swinging doors.’
And a little further on: ‘how, unless you drink as I do, can you hope to understand the beauty of an old woman from Tarasco who plays dominoes at seven o’clock in the morning?’
I am tempted to compare this passage with Ronnie Duncan’s account of a visit to Crete with the Scottish poet W.S. Graham, in which Graham expresses an idea that would be familiar to Lowry’s Consul. Duncan is trying to get Graham to come out for a walk, to visit a museum, rather than continuing to drinking himself into oblivion – as he has done every day of the trip thus far – on the balcony of his hotel room:
So I held on like a terrier and eventually he gestured around the balcony – at the sea, mountains, beach and the tumble of houses on either side – and said that his task was to turn all these into words. ‘It is all’, he said, ‘better than I could ever have hoped’ – reminding me that he’d said this on arrival. And then it came to me that there was really nothing else he wanted or needed: this one experience of a Cretan setting, supplemented by visits to some all-Cretan tavernas, was all he could encompass or wished to encompass.
Lowry and his early morning cantinas, just as Graham and his Cretan tavernas; both of them are relaying an idea that promotes a kind of epiphany – what alcoholics are reputed to call ‘a moment of clarity.’ Compare ‘not even the gates of heaven, opening wide to receive me, could fill me with such celestial complicated and hopeless joy’ with ‘all he [Graham] could encompass or wished to encompass.’ And again, consider this eulogy to Lowry, written by his close friend Earle Birney, and cited in Schmidt’s Introduction: ‘. . . his whole life was a slow drowning in great lonely seas of alcohol and guilt. It was all one sea, and all his own. He sank in it a thousand times and struggled back up to reveal the creatures that swam around him under his glowing reefs and in his black abysses.’ Both Lowry and Graham shared the conviction that alcohol might open the gates of perception. How extraordinary that so much can be invested in an alcohol-enhanced vision of this kind, in which you are – or else believe you are – seeing more sharply, engaging more profoundly, empathising more absolutely, feeling more deeply; in other words, it might be said, replicating the aims of great literature.
How well I recognise this joyous, delusional state. During the most intense periods of my own drinking career this was all I wished for: to watch it all, to bathe in it, to sink into the sun-dappled splendour of the world. Perhaps – eventually – to turn it into words. I started serious early morning drinking while living in Hania, Crete, in my early twenties. It had always been taboo, I guess – recalling the story from my schooldays of a boy whose mother slept with a bottle of Scotch at her bedside – but once I started round-the-clock drinking, the chips were in; even I understood what it signified. And for my friend Peter, who lived in a tin shack next door, but who had once lived in Cuernavaca, intoxicated absorption in the beauty of the moment was his creative mission; but long ago he had lost the impetus that originally drove him – to turn it into paintings – and now the drinking was simply an everyday necessity, and he had stopped painting, working instead as a comedic or parodic waiter at the once notorious To Diporto fish restaurant in Odos Skridlov, the street of leather, until he was too dissolute even for that place, whereupon I took over the job. How pervasive is this terrible myth among the artists I grew up amongst, the ones I read and admired, the ones whose pictures I watched being made in the Slade School of Art when I was an undergraduate in London and where I spent more of my social time than among my fellow-students at the LSE; how prevalent this delusion that drink and drugs would somehow help us experience life more ‘deeply’. Those rakimornings with Peter, when the morning sun flooded the ramshackle square in the Splanziaquarter, where we lived, with its pots of red geraniums and the sheets hanging out over the railings of the brothel next door, the sounds of the town waking, the glorious sense of detachment too – to be a part of it and yet apart from it – these are the things I felt in regard to both my Cretan and, much later, my Mexican sojourns, until a final, catastrophic visit to Guadalajara put an end to this bright and beguiling fiction . . .
I am so comfortable in my whitewashed room that I don’t want to sleep, and I read almost until dawn, completing the first half of the book, before drifting into fitful slumber. I wake at nine, utterly distressed and worn out, the fan above my head whirring insistently with a regular click at each revolution. Outside there is absurdly loud birdsong, and the sun is struggling to break through thick rainclouds. I drink a coffee, smoke a cigarette, and order a taxi into town, where I have arranged to meet up with the poet Pura López Cólome, Seamus Heaney’s Spanish translator, who will be my guide to Cuernavaca for the day, and we will visit Cortés’ palace to see the Diego Rivera murals, and walk the streets that furnish Lowry’s novel. But already I am less concerned with the reality of Cuernavaca than I am with the one conjured by Lowry in his parallel city of Quauhnahuac. The actual place has been spoiled for me by its fictional double.
First published in PN Review 255, Sept-Oct 2020
A recent article by travel writer Simon Calder has launched a small blaze of controversy about the use of the Welsh language on aircraft landing in Wales. The offending piece begins: “In the unlikely event you find yourself aboard a plane flying to Wales before the end of April, you should discover the Welsh terms for “a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a loss of, or change in, normal sense of taste or smell”.
Strangely enough, around the world, announcements are frequently made in languages other than English. Mr Calder, a seasoned traveller himself, must surely have noticed this. For example, English persons on flights landing in Spain might be inconvenienced by announcements in Spanish; likewise in France, China, Ukraine – anywhere in fact where commercial flights land, there are announcements made in the language of that country.
For Calder, however, Welsh doesn’t count. He writes that its abandonment would unlikely cause any harm and suggests that burdening the sensitive ears of passengers and crew with “guff” is not only pointless, but might well contribute to one’s plane meeting with a serious accident. This notion is backed up with a story about an Air Canada flight from Toronto to San Francisco in which garbled instructions from airport control nearly caused the pilot to collide with a packed Philippines Airlines plane, a salutary tale, no doubt, but one that bore no relation to announcements made to passengers in a language other than English. It makes one wonders what the target of Calder’s complaint really is. And it would appear that his real problem is with that pesky irrelevance, the Welsh language.
Gareth Ceidiog Hughes, writing for the news site Nation Cymru, suggests that indeed, this appears to be the case, and goes on to say: ‘Implicit in such tropes is that the Welsh language is inferior, and that it can therefore be casually disregarded. Unlike ‘real’ or ‘proper’ languages, it is not essential. It is characterised as merely an indulgence, not as something fundamental to the lives of those who speak it. Instead, it is a ‘waste’ of resources or as Calder puts it, a “burden”.’
Interesting, to say the least, that someone dedicated to travel and travel writing should show such astonishing lack of cultural awareness, or even basic intelligence. His attitude doesn’t seem to be any different from that of so many Brits abroad who moan about the inconvenience of having to put up with those irritating natives who have the gall to speak their own languages rather than English.
When I check in for my flight to Santiago at Buenos Aires aeroparque, the young woman at the Aerolineas Argentinas desk, who I assume must be new to the job, stares long and hard at the cover of my passport. She screws up her face. I can tell she doesn’t like what she sees. Immediately three possibilities come to mind: she believes the Malvinas belongs to Argentina and disapproves of my passport on principle; she disapproves of its faded state, the extremely faint image of the lion and unicorn, not to mention the words accompanying them; she disapproves of me. Or a combination of these. She asks her colleague – as though I’m not there – whether the bearer of such a document (which she waves beneath the other’s nose) requires a visa to travel to Chile. Her colleague shakes her head. The first woman seems disappointed, but checks in my luggage and dismisses me. Haughtily.
I am beginning to think about the state of my passport as a metaphor of some kind. Following on from Alastair Reid’s theory of ‘Being a Stranger’ (see selected previous posts), I start wondering whether whatever is happening to my passport can be made to happen to me, so that I too – my identity, that is – might gradually fade to a point of being barely discernible, thus achieving the ideal state of the stranger: of not belonging to anywhere. Which reminds me – though I would rather not be reminded – of Teresa May’s comment that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
I cannot, at this moment, with all the shit that is going down around the globe, think of an statement with which I agree less, or a mindset capable of producing such an utterance with which I could feel more at odds.
For any visitor to Buenos Aires, the first thing to address is the breakfast medialunas issue. These delightful creations (like croissants, but sweeter and more doughy) are placed in front of you, or find a way of leaping onto your plate – accompanied by an individual portion of dulce de leche – and they look so innocent and appetising. Surely one won’t do any harm. And to be sure, one probably doesn’t. The problem, as with so many things in life, is sticking at one.
Returning to the city at the end of winter, or what passes for winter here – in the high teens celsius, but dropping to around 8 at night – I am struck by what can only be described as a strange melancholy, a vague sense of nostalgia that has been written about peerlessly by Borges in the early poems, and in countless blogs by awestruck visitors in relation to smoky tango bars, the flowering of the jacaranda trees in springtime or the ghostly deserted summer streets; but I was not expecting it last night, as Andy drove us – Jorge, Carlos and me – on a drive from Palermo around the city centre and back again – taking in Belgrano, Recoleta, Plaza de Mayo, the Casa Rosada, en route. There was a light drizzle in the air and it seemed that nearly everyone had decided to stay in, the streets around the centre, usually gridlocked, were practically empty. Where was everyone?
On our return to the apartment, there was an electricity cut, so my friends were unable to cook an evening meal. We set out on the streets again, in what seemed, to me at least, an even more melancholic mood – maybe I was just jet-lagged, having only arrived from Heathrow at eight o’clock in the morning – until we found a friendly parrilla, La Popular de Soho, and were served platefuls of grilled meat, including glands from somewhere on the beast which I didn’t know it had, and perhaps would rather not know. Vegetables, needless to say, are something of a rarity in these parts, but you can’t really criticise a place for something it doesn’t set out to do . . .
I have always had a thing for borders; grew up on one, and chose eventually to live on another. So it was no surprise that Kapka Kassabova’s account of lives in the Strandja forest – yes, half the size of Wales – which straddles Bulgaria and Turkey, stirred something in me that I have often sensed but sometimes struggled to articulate.
My borders, however, are both ‘soft’ now, and the borders in Kassabova’s book have in their time been – and for some travellers continue to be – as hard as they come.
A border, as someone once said, is an idea wedded to a geography; and borders, more specifically, are places where the dead not only outnumber, but outlive the living.
Kassabova’s border has more than its fair share of ghosts, and she introduces us to them intermittently, until they crowd the pages of her book: the ghosts of Zeus and Europa; the ghosts of pagan fire dancers whose descendants still attend ceremonies in the forest night; Soviet-era ghosts gunned down or captured, tortured and disappeared while attempting to escape the alarmed barbed wire fence – klyon in the argot of the border guards – between Bulgaria and the NATO states of Turkey or Greece; the ghosts of Greek andartes, partisan fighters holed out in the Rhodope Mountains at the end of their country’s attritional civil war and, finally, the apprentice ghosts of Syrian refugees, many of them children, pouring across the border from Turkey into Bulgaria or Greece, seeking the dream of a better life in Germany or Great Britain (fat chance of that).
Kassabova’s skilful interweaving of her own story – two years spent travelling along the borders and their environs – and the stories that she found along the way, is a triumph of synthesis; and yet there is no false sense of completion, of a circle having been squared; no temporarily satisfying but ultimately flawed notion of telos. She knows there are no easy fixes for the devastating mess that is our present tense, and as we struggle with new-found or resurgent nationalisms, new walls, and old lies dressed up as new truths, that – in her words – ‘[n]ew borders will fail just as old borders failed. In the wretched meantime, they will not make our world freer or fairer. Only harder, costlier, and more haunted.’
In an article that was published to coincide with her book’s publication, Kassabova wrote:
“When an inner situation is not made conscious, it appears outside as fate,” said Carl Jung of the psyche. This is the principle of hauntings, time warps and tragedies. In this remotest of border mountains, a poignant form of tourism is practised by the three border nations: ancestral tourism. More than 100 years after the Balkan wars of 1912 to 13 and the politely phrased and brutally executed “exchange of populations” that followed, the Greek, Turkish and Bulgarian grandchildren of the displaced still travel to their ancestors’ villages in Thrace, to the ruined houses, the blackened kitchens where pots and pans were abandoned as people ran for their lives across new borders. It is here that the locals have, for generations, claimed to see a mysterious ball of fire. It may be a freakish phenomenon of light, but it is richly imagined in legends of flying dragons. It appears in liminal spaces – at the entrance of old mines, over the border river, near curative springs – and always after dark, at the witching hour, the hour of the border and its inevitable transgression.
I loved this book, and the way in which its story, although fixed in multiple pasts, kept returning the reader to the present, and the plight of those refugees now desperate to make the journey in the opposite journey to those Soviet-era refuseniks.
A quotation from Neal Ascherson prefaces the middle section of the book: ‘All human populations are in some sense immigrants’. In these strange times it is worth remembering that.
More translation – literary and the other, everyday kind – and more thoughts on being a foreigner: “Foreigners are, if you like, curable romantics” writes Alastair Reid. “The illusion they retain, perhaps left over from their mysterious childhood epiphanies, is that there might be a place – and a self – instantly recognisable, into which they will be able to sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh. In the curious region between that illusion and the faint terror of being utterly nowhere and anonymous, foreigners live. From there, if they are lucky, they smuggle back occasional undaunted notes, like messages in a bottle, or glimmers from the other side of the mirror.”
He wonders whether Valaparaíso might be that place into which he could “sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh”. He suspects it might be. And yet.
The foreigner walks for an hour in the vicinity of the bus station looking for a comfortable place to sit and scribble: something like a café, or a clean well-lighted place that might offer up a drink and a sandwich, one of those sandwiches that contain a variety of colourful food: a completo or an italiano.
He does not much care for his current state of mind. He has returned to Valparaíso, after a brief visit to the capital. In Santiago the temperature was 35 degrees centigrade; here it has dropped to around 19, and is overcast. He came dressed for the sun, and looks ridiculous. To make matters worse, he has a suitcase, albeit a small one, which he does not wish to lug around. He wonders if he should check into a hotel, but it is a weekend in high summer, and the two he has called are full (and expensive). He has killed the first hour in pointless perambulation, so leaves his case at the left luggage office of the bus station and tries again to orient himself, calmly. He sets off towards a covered market, often useful places for one in search of food, but the stalls are shutting up and the little shacks selling food also, and the place has the forlorn aspect of closing time, and the street outside smells of fish, urine and rotting fruit.
He continues further out of his way before finding a more promising street and following it. Something about the open-fronted shops selling herbs and fruit and meat reminds him of Greece, specifically the smell of Chania market. He tries to identify precisely what the smell is, and fails to name it, the ingredient tantalisingly out of memory’s reach. It is a smell that combines thyme, coffee and something else, something that will not be recalled. He begins to feel nostalgia for people and places he will never recover, but that too fades. Eventually he spots a likely café and crosses the road. He takes a table half way down the room. When he orders, the waitress turns her head to one side, as some people do when confronted by a foreigner, as though the presumption of their foreignness will necessarily involve not understanding them. When she realises that there are no imminent communication issues, she smiles. Despite his command of the language, he is still a foreigner, and perhaps she feels a degree of pity, or something approximating it to it. He has seen the other waitress carrying a plate with the kind of sandwich he requires: meat, tomato, avocado, mayonnaise. He requests the same. It doesn’t take long to clock the fact that not only is he the only non-Chilean in the place; he seems also to be the only person not personally known to the staff. The sandwich arrives. It is pretty much what it sets out to be, and settles threateningly in his stomach.
The following night, by which time he has shed the tourist garb of shorts and brightly coloured shirt and put on a disguise of tracksuit trousers, black tee shirt and cardigan, he goes downtown with his friend, Enrique, who remarks afterwards that to any onlooker they might just have appeared to be father and son, taking a turn out to the bar together. His foreigner identity has briefly been supplanted – to the outside world, at least – by another. He wonders how much longer it would take for his identity to be usurped forever. He thinks, probably, never. But he suspects there is always another, his other, or his other’s other, in waiting, biding its time.
But that thing about the place into which he could sink with a single, timeless, contented sigh? That has receded again; that, he fears, will always be an illusion.
Staying for any extended period of time in a country where one is obliged to speak a language other than one’s own inevitably results in reflection about core identity. Core identity, if there is such a thing, presumes that there is an ideal and comfortable state of mind, in which one is most fully at home, inside his or her own in-group, probably speaking an idiomatic form of the mother tongue among fellow-speakers, who follow the contours and references of conversation in a more or less fluent fashion, and with whom one shares beliefs, principles and occasionally political beliefs.
The foreigner, as Alastair Reid so succinctly observed, does not share this happy resource – the true foreigner, it could be argued, will feel as much a foreigner at home as anywhere else, but that is a discussion for another day – and today I returned to Reid’s essay with renewed insights. Living almost entirely within another language for most of the day, the foreigner begins to notice how language carries with it such a quantity of associative and historical luggage that merely understanding the words only accounts for a part of the fascinating, and at times frustrating problem of making oneself understood. Some of this can be accounted for by the fact that every word of a language has a personal history of association that a native speaker can trace back to childhood. Every phrase or idiom has a personal history, is laden with a particular taste or smell or music for the native speaker, and though the learner – even the fluent speaker – may acquire a series of associations of their own with the individual words of a language, it will never contain an entire universe, as does the memory of a native speaker. Moreover, the problem does not end there: as Reid wrote, “I am . . . aware of having, in Spanish . . . a personality entirely different from my English-speaking one – nor is it simply me-in-translation . . . I have often listened to simultaneous translation between two languages I know well. The meaning? Oh yes, the meaning is there; but it is just not the same experience.”
In the end, we have to arm ourselves with the anonymity of the foreigner, to prepare for disappointments and misunderstandings, and to accept that very rarely are these simply linguistic. To allow the late lamented Mr Reid the final word: “To travel far and often tends to make us experts in anonymity – but never quite, for we always carry too much, prepare for too many eventualities. One bag could have been left behind. We are too afraid of unknowns to ignore them.”
Although he never lived in Alexandria, he had read all the books. As a young man, he visited enough of the Levant to think he knew what to expect, and concocted the rest from Cavafy, Forster, Durrell and Pynchon. Sitting outside a café in the port of Paros he fell into conversation with a specialist in unforeseen events and together they dreamed up a delivery of illicit merchandise from Lebanon to Piraeus, with a storage facility on Cyprus. His interlocutor, a Russian who in former times had skippered a cruise liner, ordered champagne. It started to grow dark. Was it there, or somewhere else, that he decided he was never happier than in an island port, as the sun goes down? Later, when he was the international figure of intrigue he was destined to become, he finally visited the city he had fantasized about so many years before. His disappointment was both intense and contradictory. Suffering suicidal thoughts, he experienced an epiphany: it was not Alexandria he was looking for, but another city, a place that he would have to invent. This almost came as a relief.
First published in New Welsh Review 103, Spring 2014
Reading the final ‘long awaited’ – which in this instance meant waiting for the Death of the Author in 2011 at the age of 96 – third volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his 1934 trek across Europe, three questions occur to me about the inability of PLF to complete and publish the book while still alive.
1) the accumulation of digressions (both of writing and in life); indeed what amounted to PLF’s compulsion to digress (of itself no bad thing);
2) his failure of memory, aided and abetted by the loss of certain of the relevant notebooks;
3) an inability to contemplate the end of his journey which must, by some not-so-strange interior logic, also mean the end of his life.
An article by Daniel Mendelsohn in the current issue of The New York Review of Books also suggests a combination of factors, most particularly the digressions that formed such a substantial part of Paddy’s life and work. “We shall never get to Constantinople like this,” the author announces in a meta-textual aside, which constitutes “a humorous acknowledgement . . of a helpless penchant for digressions literal and figurative . . .”
Indeed, “the author’s chattiness, his inexhaustible willingness to be distracted, his susceptibility to detours geographical, intellectual, aesthetic, and occasionally amorous constitute, if anything, an essential and self-conscious component of the style that has won him such an avid following.”
The naivety and sheer joy of unfettered travel; the “ecstasy” that Paddy describes on “realising that nobody in the world knew where he was” – a sensation, as Mendelssohn points out, that would be practically impossible for travellers today, but which I recall from my own wanderings in the 1980s as having provoked a similarly feverish sense of total liberation; the wonderful lists that pepper his writing, eliciting new tastes and new sensations and a constant hunger to celebrate life as fully as possible; his unerring ability to stir in the reader a desire to write – which to me constitutes a failsafe criterion of all good writing; and finally – almost because of its flaws – and certainly because of what we know to have transpired in the two earlier volumes, and the unbearable anticipation of the thing – which was like a Sword of Damocles for PLF in later years – all of these help to make this book one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year thus far. While reading it too, I am more conscious than I was during the preceding two volumes of Paddy’s tendency to confabulate. At more than one point Paddy confesses that he cannot truly remember what happened next, but continues anyway, and even interjects passages of outrageous fantasy to spice up the story. A quotation from Javier Marías’ novel, The Infatuations, comes to mind:
“Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention. Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.”
Like Mendelsohn, I found The Broken Road’s incompleteness, paradoxically, to be more fitting than any neatly circumscribed ending that the author might have engineered. After so much deep description, after so many early mornings waking by the roadside with a sense of the sheer limitless possibility of the unfinished journey, after so much continuous pointless peregrination, any kind of ‘arrival’ would only have been a let-down.
While listing, above, the three reasons for the unfinished nature of the trilogy, a fourth, not entirely facetious option came to mind. Paddy famously never referred to the ultimate destination of his journey as Istanbul, but as Constantinople. Since ‘Constantinople’ did not exist under that name (nor had it, strictly speaking, since 1453), Paddy was never going to arrive. Instead we are allowed to share with him the nostalgia (which he shares with Cavafy) for a broken Hellenic world, for the ghosts of Byzantium, and a burgeoning sense of the terror that was about to descend on Europe in the years immediately following his journey.
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.
If you travel, Blanco thinks, if you just travel, go from place to place, walk around, you should never get bored and you should never lack for things to do or write about, if this happens to be your thing. At least that is the theory. Blanco has a minor epiphany: he must go to Coatepec (the accent is on the at): it fulfils the single major criterion he has always employed when deciding whether or not to visit a place: he likes the sound of it; it carries the resonance of something remote – in time and culture – and yet somehow reassuring. He is walking down the hill from the Xalapa museum of anthropology, and after an entire morning within its confines he has become saturated with Olmec images of human figures and jaguars and serpents, and he flags down a taxi driven by a man with stupendously fleshy earlobes; earlobes that remind him of small whoopee cushions or rolled dough or moulded plasticine. The taxi driver chats about corruption in Mexican politics. It is raining. It has been raining all morning and all last night, and throughout the previous evening, and as far as we know it has never not been raining. Outside of Xalapa there is a roadblock. The young policeman carries an automatic rifle and wears black body armour, leg armour, the works. He inspects the taxi-driver’s I.D. and stares at Blanco for several seconds. It continues to rain.
We arrive in Coataepec and get stuck in a traffic jam. Nothing moves. The taxi driver asks directions, but that doesn’t help the traffic move. Blanco spots an interesting-looking restaurant, pays the taxista, and gets out. The restaurant has a nice inner patio with a garden area, and tables around it, out of the rain. In the garden there are roses and other flowers. A large family group are finishing their meal and then spend at least twenty minutes taking photos of each other in every possible combination of individuals, so that no one has not been photographed with everybody else. They have commandeered the only waiter in order to help them in this task. Every time Blanco thinks they are about to leave and release the waiter they reconvene for a new set of photos. One of the men (a Mexican) has very little hair but a long grey ponytail, which cannot be right. One of the women – I suspect Ponytail’s sister – is married to a gringo, it would seem. He has long hair also, but not arranged in a ponytail. He speaks Spanish well, with a gringo accent. Blanco orders tortilla soup and starts leafing through a magazine he bought at the anthropology museum. His phone makes a noise that tells him he has received a message. It informs him, in Spanish: Health: Adults who sleep too little or too much in middle age are at risk of suffering memory loss, according to a recent study. He looks at the message in consternation. Too little or too much? So, hey– you’re bolloxed either way. Who sends this stuff? The screen says 2225. Then another one: Japanese fans of Godzilla were very upset with the news trailer of this film to find that Godzilla is very big and fat: read more! 3788. Then a link. Blanco shakes his head sadly.
Coatepec is full of interesting buildings with courtyards. Blanco heads down to the Posada de Coatepec, a nice hotel in the colonial style, and goes in for a coffee. A slim man with fine features, a neat little moustache, dressed in polo gear, greets him in a friendly fashion, and Blanco greets him back, once again under the impression that he has been mistaken for someone he is not. A blonde woman, also in white jodhpurs, follows the man. There must have been a polo match. How strange. The hotel offers a nice shady patio, but we don’t need shade, we just need to be out of the rain. Blanco sits on the terrace outside the hotel cafe and writes in his notebook. Before long, the man who was in riding gear comes and sits on the terrace also. Immediately three waiters attend him, bowing and scraping, one of them is even rubbing his hands together in anticipatory glee at the opportunity to serve this evidently Very Important Person. Mr Important takes off his sleeveless jacket, his gilet, and immediately one of the waiters – like a magician with a bunny – produces what appears to be a hat-stand for midgets, but is, presumably a coat-stand. Clearly the Important Person cannot do anything as vulgar as sling his coat over the back of a chair. Another waiter opens a can of diet coke at a very safe distance, and only then brings it to the table, along with a glass filled with ice. He is bending almost double, as if to ensure that his body doesn’t come into too close and offensive a proximity to the Important Person. It is one of the most extraordinary displays of deference I have witnessed in my life. Then all three waiters – the one who brought the coat-stand, the one with the coke, and the one who was rubbing his hands, a kind of maître d’ – vanish inside like happily whipped dogs. Left alone, the Important Person makes a phone call in a loud voice. He is barking instructions to some underling. He is clearly someone who is used to being obeyed, like an old school Caudillo. Must be a politician. When he has finished his call, he looks around and gets up to go inside the restaurant, where his company – family and friends, I guess – are seated. He walks inside with his drink, and within seconds one of the waiters appears out of nowhere, grabs the coat-stand, and follows him in with it.
We have to go. I have arranged to meet a poet back in Xalapa and discuss literary matters. He is called José Luis Rivas and has translated T.S. Eliot and Derek Walcott into Spanish.