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.
I have long admired the poetry of Joseph Brodsky – although with reservations – since hearing him read at Cardiff’s County Hall alongside Derek Walcott (a veritable pairing of poetic satyrs). Before travelling to Venice last Friday I purchased his Watermark, to see what he had to say about the city, where he spent a four-week vacation from his job as a U.S. college professor every winter for seventeen years. In the past I have read Jan Morris’ famous book on Venice, which I could not get on with, and Peter Ackroyd’s Venice: Pure City, which by contrast I enjoyed very much, and I approached Brodsky’s essay with trepidation. One hundred and thirty pages of large double spaced print, it is published as Penguin Modern Classic, though how it qualifies for this status is quite beyond my comprehension. It is a minor work by a once significant poet, who was the youngest ever recipient of a Nobel Prize (he was 47), perhaps awarded as much for his status as political opponent to the USSR – this was 1987 – as for his literary achievements. Early in the book, we accompany the young Brodsky on his first arrival at the city’s railway station, where he is to be met by a woman for whom he harbours amorous thoughts (his sentiments are not reciprocated). Then this: ‘The boat’s slow progress through the night was like the passage of a coherent thought through the subconscious.’
When I first read that line I thought it sounded interesting, but something nagged at me, because a thought does not really become coherent until after it has passed through the ‘subconscious’. But I didn’t wish to be unnecessarily antagonistic, so let it go. It sounds pretty, after all. Then some pages on, another nice passage: ‘The fog is thick, blinding, and immobile. The latter aspect, however, is of advantage to you if you go out on a short errand, say, to get a pack of cigarettes, for you can find your way back via the tunnel your body has burrowed in the fog; the tunnel is likely to stay open for half an hour.’ A nice conceit, I thought, which complements the earlier line well – but why spoil it with the literalism of that ‘likely to stay open for half an hour’, which sounds like the answer to a request made of a pub landlord. And here: ‘Every surface craves dust, for dust is the flesh of time, as a poet says, time’s very flesh and blood.’ My response to ‘Every surface craves dust’ was one of admiration, even if it is what “a poet” says (irritating, as we want to know which poet), but why ‘flesh and blood’? Dust is flesh, but not blood. Dust is decidedly bloodless, and dry. Dried, desiccated flesh.
The essay is self-regarding and repetitive (not a woman enters these pages without Brodsky’s lecherous gaze resting on her, however peripheral her appearance). Then there is the prose: I realise English was not Brodsky’s first language, but there is too much in this short essay that is merely confusing: describing unenthusiastic meetings with the ex-pats he comes across in the city, he begins to fantasise about ‘some local solicitor’, and inevitably, as it is Brodsky, ‘his secretary’ (yawn): “Disparity of pursuits compromised by tautology of net results, if one needs a formula, that is.” Pardon me?
And this, of Pasiphaë, the mother of Ariadne and Phaedra, who famously enjoyed the attentions of a bull while sheathed in a cow-outfit: “perhaps she yielded to those dark urges and did it with the bull precisely to prove that nature neglects the majority principle, since the bull’s horns suggest the moon. Perhaps she was interested in chiaroscuro rather than in bestiality and eclipsed the bull for purely optical reasons?” What?!
And so on. I don’t wish to disparage the dead, but this is a very meagre piece of work, and is by no means a ‘Modern Classic.’ As a book set in Venice it comes ahead of Hemingway’s catastrophic Across the River and into the Trees, but not by a long way.
Perhaps it is a warning though. If you travel to Venice, be careful what you read. I have been to the city six or seven times, but it is only in the past few years that I have become interested in the literature about the city, from Casanova, who spent a while locked in upper reaches of the Doges’ Palace, to Régis Debray, who loathed the place and saw in it a reflection (and the source) of all the evils of Western Capitalism. On this last visit I dipped into Hugo Pratts’ Secret Venice of Corto Maltese, which came highly recommended from a friend. I was not familiar with the graphic stories, but you don’t really have to be to enjoy the itineraries around the city’s less visited corners that this anti-guide book offers, describing seven walks that lead you off the beaten track, into hidden nooks and across secret portals. Don’t take it with you around the city, but jot down a few notes first, otherwise you will end up like the perennial Venice tourist, leaning on the parapet of a bridge, trying to figure out why the map of the city you hold in your hands does not correspond to the physical actuality of the place around you.
Perhaps the best book about Venice is Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which does not set out to be a guide at all, except for the imagination.
I like vultures. No, let me start again: I think they are vile creatures, but they are a useful reminder of our mortality, and of what might happen if we are careless enough to die in a public space at which these birds are attendant. During my brief stay in Delhi last week I had the opportunity to do very little apart from attend the First Sabad World Poetry Festival, where I was surprised (as a very minor poet) to be representing the United Kingdom – as opposed to my usual country of affiliation, Wales – alongside George Szirtes, a poet I have long admired. But, to return to my point, on the one opportunity that we were allowed out on a coach trip organised by our hosts (Sahitya Akademi, an offshoot of the Indian Ministry of Culture), I took five or six photos on my iphone in the fading light, and in two of these I inadvertently snapped vultures in flight (see below). Was this foreshadowing?
For an account of the festival itself, I can do no better than refer readers to George Szirtes’ website, where he gives a pretty full (and generous) account of what went down, especially in his analysis of the differences between the performance-oriented oral traditions of poetry and the page-oriented, European style of a one-to-one encounter between poet and reader:
“The oral tradition is rooted in the following: the community, the concept of the many and the sharing of an essentially conservative, traditional and ritualist space. The voice is public. It is heard by any within earshot. It moves into the individual’s space and occupies it, asserting its confidence in shared communal values. It can talk of private matters . . . but it does so on hallowed public ground. There is an implication of physical proximity, a swaying or flowing. The collective is greater than the individual. The poet performs a priestly role, mediating between the mass and the transcendent.
The page tradition depends on the one-to-one contract between writer and reader. The book is, most of the time, read silently and reorientated as voice in the reader’s imagination. The loud and the public are suspected of being rhetorical intrusions, acts of demagoguery, The poem is a meditated space that creates an internalised physicality that may produce a faster heart-rate, tears, finger tapping and so on but within the confines of individual sensibility. It values the individual more highly than the collective. It is to some degree, or so I suspect, an extension of the protestant sense of God as someone addressed directly without mediation. Inevitably I think of Rembrandt’s self-portraits or of the monasticism of Mondrian’s abstractions.”
I recommend anyone interested to read the whole account, and indeed to subscribe to George’s blog, which he does not call a blog, but ‘News’.
Other than attend many poetry readings, some of them good, others exceptionally dull, other still (my own session, in fact) infused with the kind of spontaneously robust anarchism at which India excels, I took notes, and I ‘networked’, but I saw very little of Delhi. There was not time. My one free day, I managed to spend shopping and chasing up an exchange dealer on the black market. I did however make several observations. I realise that none of these will be of much interest to practised India wallahs, and may even appear naive or disingenuous, but they are first impressions. The first was that I am unaccustomed to, and dislike, the sense of obligatory self-abasement or servitude imposed on the vast majority of Indians, which results in you, the European visitor, being treated with ridiculous and unearned deference. A second was that I had mistakenly expected the understanding and speaking of English to be of a higher level, especially in the service industries. But I realised after a short while that proficiency in English is pretty much limited to the professional middle classes. Taxi drivers and waiters by no means routinely speak or even understand English, as the following sample illustrates:
Blanco: Can I have a large beer please?
Waiter: Yes sir. Is that being small or big?
The third thing was vultures, which I have mentioned, and a fourth was the hell that is shopping. I will never again enter a shop in Delhi to buy anything more complicated than a packet of fags. Stress levels unacceptably high. Several people at once attempt to sell you goods you do not want, and at quite exorbitant prices, unless one is prepared to haggle, which after a couple of sleepless night, I was not. Fifth, and finally, I have always tried to avoid poverty tourism, for which reason I never went to India when most my friends did, back in the 1970s. As the Sex Pistols noted, there has always seemed to be something immoral about holidays in the sun – even under the convenient guise of the gap-year experience – when the great majority of a country’s residents live in a state of abject poverty. I know there are more ethical approaches to travel nowadays, and I attempt to follow them as best I can, but India, I fear, with its lasting resonances of Empire, will always be a difficult place for a British visitor.
On a more positive note, I mentioned in my last post the musicians from Rajasthan, who played for us last Sunday evening. I was transported by their music into a zone of almost perfect bliss. It would have been worth the airfare just to listen to them, never mind the poets. Unfortunately the sound quality of my video does not do justice to the music, so I am just posting a couple of pictures instead.