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.
Taken to task by a reader over the complicated etymology of vagabondage, I realise the need for another post on the subject.
In an earlier post I referred to the cirujas of Buenos Aires, otherwise known as cartoneros, those nocturnal seekers-out of trash bins, whose primary task is to find materials for recycling (plastic, cardboard, paper etc). Cartoneros are a sub-category of ciruja, a professional scavenger of all types of object for which a use or purpose can be made. That is why I likened the ciruja to a kind of street alchemist, seeking out base metal to transmute into gold. But I can see, as I was chided, that there is nothing especially poetic about this.
Whereas with the linyeras, there is. The definition of linyera given in my dictionary of lunfardo (Buenos Aires slang) is: “Persona vagbunda, abandonada y ociosa (idle), que vive de variados recursos (living off a variety of resources).” The word originally comes from the Piedmontese linger, which meant “a posse of tramps”. These fit the more romanticized notion of the classical vagabond, moving around the country (or the globe) without direction or purpose, usually associated in North America with the hobo, whose preferred means of travel was jumping trains, an occupation which was until not so long ago manageable in Europe also, but which has now become as obsolete as hitchhiking.
One still sees a posse of tramps drinking from bottles or flagons in any French town or city. These, of course, are clochards. A clochard or clocharde is a person “without fixed domicile, living from public charity and handouts.” The term clochard allegedly means ‘one who limps’ from the Late Latin cloppus (lame), but I have also heard that the term comes from the ringing of a bell (cloche) which in earlier times – when most cities in France were fortified – signalled that it was time for the indigent and poor, who could not afford lodging in town, to leave the city and go sleep in a field or a barn. To my mind, a clochard is somewhat different from a vagabond. A clochard might not venture from a known neighbourhood, while for a vagabond, the world is his lobster (sic).
To be continued. Any contributions welcome.
The gentleman depicted here is a vagabond, from the Latin vagari, to wander.
In English the term has almost disappeared in its original sense, although a quick internet search identifies the popularity of the term to help sell niche products, for example: a wine shop in London’s West End; a Swedish shoe manufacturer; an chic boutique in Philadelphia.
A Spanish Wikipedia entry on the word vagabundo (vagabond) begins like this:
“A vagabond is a lazy or idle person who wanders from one place to another, having neither a job, nor income, nor a fixed address. It is a type familiar from Castilian literature, which contains many examples of vagabond pícaros . . .”
In the dialect of Lunfardo, which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among the lower classes of Buenos Aires, the term ciruja is applied to vagabonds who collect rubbish and sort through it in search of something useful. The term derives from the word for a surgeon, cirujano. Popular wisdom has it that these vagabonds were compared to surgeons because of the way in which they carefully sought out objects of interest, picking them from trash containers and municipal tips, rather than from inside a human body. This last attribute – the meticulous extraction of some unexpected treasure from amid the rejected dross of the everyday – seems rather fitting.
In French chanson, vagabonds are typically depicted as materially impoverished characters possessed of an irresistible allure. The singer Lucienne Delyle (1917-62), one of the most popular French singers of the 1950s (her greatest hit was Mon amant de Saint-Jean) also had a song called Chanson vagabonde, which can be heard here.
Driving with Hans Schulz towards the Alerces National Park on Monday, we passed this gaucho, who allowed us to take his photo. He was accompanied by four large dogs, who sniffed me respectfully but, like the horse, knew exactly who was boss. He gave his name as Muñoz, and looked after cattle belonging to a landowner from Bariloche.
Luned González, above, great-granddaughter of one of the original Welsh settlers, EdwinRoberts. A formidable personage, and the individual who got the machinery into gear for our visits to Trelew and Gaiman.
I met this market stallholder, who gave his name as Azdin, in the Andean town of El Bolsón, a town colonised as a hippy settlement in the 1970s, and still carrying a distinctly alternative flavour. Azdin came to Argentina as a refugee from the Algerian civil war and was ‘adopted’ by a Welsh family in Trelew. He sold herbal remedies for ailments ranging from constipation to madness, but refused to accept payment because, he said, he loved the Welsh people, who had taken him in and looked after him when he first arrived in the country.
Argentine anthropologist and writer Hans Schulz, pictured above, a ridiculous optimist, and all-round good egg. Hans drove us all the way across Patagonia with incorrigible good humour, was a wonderful source of stories and useful information, as well as somehow managing to negotiate free board and lodging for all eight members of the Writers Chain expedition at one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, the Llao Llao, near Bariloche.
And, as further evidence of our intrepid journey to the heart of all things:
Writers Chain tour of Argentina & Chile, continued:
After three days of readings, lectures and tea parties in Puerto Madryn, Gaiman and Trelew, yesterday we made the long trip across the Patagonian meseta to Trevelin, in the foothills of the Andes. We travelled in two cars, laden down with suitcases, snacks and literary confabulation. Our car was driven by Argentinian anthropologist Hans Schulz and contained myself, Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson. We endured two punctures, the first in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the second after dark on the outskirts of Esquel. The first puncture proved problematic as we could not remove the tyre despite our manly efforts. We flagged down a truck, driven by a local farmer, Rodolfo, who kindly took Tiffany and myself to the small settlement of Las Plumas, where we had arranged to meet the other vehicle, driven by Veronica Zondek, and with instructions to find a mechanic, or at least to borrow the right tools from the garage there. Having acquired these, a relief party (Zondek and Aulicino) was sent back to the stranded Schulz and Fondebrider, and the flat tyre changed, while the contingent of Welsh poets and our coordinator, Nia, waited in a roadside canteen and ate empanadas and pasta.
During the rest of the journey across the prairie, the landscape began to change. The endless flatlands of sparse bush began to erupt into extraordinary outcrops of sandstone, stalagmites of sharp russet pointing skyward, or else solid slabs of sediment rising against the backdrop of an enormous sky, across which were layered fabulous accumulations of cloud. We arrived at Trevelin at midnight, where the hospitable proprietors of the Nikanor restaurant served us leek soup and homemade ravioli, washed down with an organic Malbec wine. Around us, the snowcapped mountains provided the sensation of having arrived in a place encircled by sleeping dragons. The casa de piedra, our hotel, is done up like a Tyrolean ski lodge, with a huge fireplace in the lounge, and carved wood furnishing. We slept the sleep of the just.
Strange that in one’s memory a house takes on a different shape, a different context, becomes a dream house.
When I was living rough, a quarter of a century ago, I spent a couple of months in Granada. Along with some other homeless travellers we squatted a house on a sidestreet off Carerra del Darro, across from the Alhambra. It was a miserable building, known among those of us unfortunate to live there as ‘the house of a thousand turds’, for reasons that do not require too much explanation. But it provided some protection from the rain, and from the cold nights.
The point in this digression into my personal past is that I have often wondered about the house – or palace, as it became in my retrospective imagination: I have even wondered whether indeed it actually existed. I described its location in the vaguest of terms to Andrés, who has lived in Granada for over twenty years, and he could not think where such a palace might be. Surely it would be well-known, a palace on a hillside facing the Alhambra? It was bound, he said, to be somewhere on the Albaicín. He even mentioned consulting a local historian, who would be able to identify the mighty house from my description of it. I nodded assent, not really caring: the palace of my imagination would suffice.
It was just as well no one investigated my claim. I would have been heartily embarrassed. Last Wednesday, while walking up the hill from the Carrera del Darro (a river – actually a stream – celebrated in Lorca’s Baladilla de los tres ríos de Granada), I came face to face with a boarded-up building that immediately took me back through the years to 1988, and an appalling period of penury, sloth, craziness and some profound melancholy, living from hand to mouth – more often from bottle to mouth – through one Andalucian winter. I knew at once it was the building where I had slept. When I had stayed there, the building was already in a parlous state. It would seem that its role of providing a sleeping place for the homeless continued long after I had left the city. As one of my daughters pointed out however, the plans for restoration are well overdue. The sign apparently says the renovations are due for completion in the year 2008.
I stood back from the house and wondered at the capacity of the human brain to convert such a building into a palace. I find no answer. I have dreamed about the house, although it keeps shape-shifting. I have written about it, or versions of it. It is the opening setting for my short story ‘The Handless Maiden’, and provided the inspiration for a prose poem, which I reproduce below. But a palace it is not.
It was my first and only visit to the artist’s apartment. He lived on the top floor. His studio offered a sensational view of the Alhambra. But first, he said, we had to negotiate dogshit alley. The artist spoke of it like one describing a secret shame. There was nothing he could do. On the third floor lived a resident who kept a wolfhound. She never exercised the dog, and let him use the landing as a toilet, which he did, prolifically. Formerly, the top flat had been empty, and no one came to visit the woman and her gawking beast. Now the artist was installed above her, and the woman had adopted the stance of long-term resident with rights. The dog, she said, harmed nobody. She seemed oblivious to the smell. The artist could not confront her. Each time he passed the landing he felt like vomiting. He tried speaking with the woman. She would stand in the doorway, the hound slavering and growling at her side. ‘Look’ she said, smiling meekly: ‘he wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s an old softie’. She ruffled the grey fur on his head, and an incredibly long tongue flicked out and caressed the underside of her wrist. The woman smelled of gin, had white hair, parchment skin, and the smile of a ten year old. ‘He hates going out, see. He gets so scared’. The artist was lost for words. He told me: ‘I don’t know what to say to her’. When we climbed the stairs to the third floor the stench suddenly hit me. I held a handkerchief to my nose. We navigated the landing, stepping over mountainous turds. I didn’t breathe until we reached the attic studio, and walked out into the clean December air. The Alhambra stood magnificent against the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada: an impeccable statement that made me realise that it is the reproduction of a cliched image that renders a cliche, and not the original. ‘You see’, said the artist, ‘I just don’t know how to deal with her at all.’ He lived in the house of a thousand turds with a dying woman and an agoraphobic wolfhound for neighbours. This was the artist’s quandary and he could not resolve it.
(from Walking on Bones, Parthian, 2000)
Finally, on a trip to the coast, we have a modest lunch at Almuñecar, in the Manila bar-restaurant. On the way back to the car, we pass a vending machine, selling worms. That’s right: worms. Fisherman apparently puts money in the slot and a bag of live bait comes out. Who the hell thought this one up? These worms, they live inside the machine, possible for months on end. What do they do? What on earth can they do? What would you do, packed in plastic inside a vending machine? Have you ever heard of anything so extreme? Who would be a worm?
I’m not sure if there’s a suitable analogy in human terms, but imagine if ninety-five per cent of your perceptual faculties were concentrated in your snout, and then someone came along and stuck a bloody great fence around said snout, detaching your sensory facilities from the rest of your body and from the world. You would be distraught, would you not?
This is what occurred to Bruno the dog yesterday, following an operation on his front paw for an infected nail. Once the bandage was removed it was imperative that he refrain from licking his foot, the only task that interested him in the world now that he was unable to leap around and chase things.
Once we had secured the monstrous apparatus, the giant cone, around Bruno’s neck, he was so bewildered, so outraged at what had befallen him that he remained standing in the same position for three hours, without moving a muscle. For a creature that is normally a frenzied mover, an animal that proceeds with life at ninety miles an hour during all waking hours, this was some achievement. It was as if, cut off from everything that he knew and could identify, he were suddenly suspended in a kind of isolate hell. I had to go out to deliver some papers to the university, and have a swim, and when I came back, he was still there, stock still, waiting for the world to return to a recognizable form, for this ghastly hiatus to be terminated, for normal time to resume.
During the night a mournful howling awakened us, the embodiment, in sound, of infinite sorrow, and I stumbled downstairs to find Bruno in a state of abject misery. This is a dog that has never howled at night, even as a puppy. I grabbed a spare duvet and came and slept on the sofa, to keep him company, and he calmed down. I guess it must seem like some kind of torture to him. What is more, today he has to go to kennels, and quite obviously all the other dogs are going to laugh at him, I mean it’s only natural. They are like humans in that respect; mock the afflicted.
I woke up at a quarter to six after a few hours’ poor quality sleep, knowing that at four o’clock tomorrow morning Mrs Blanco and I are due to set out on a twenty-four hour trip, involving flights from Cardiff to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Panama – what kind of person flies the dodgy-sounding Panama-Amsterdam route? I will tell you some time, but it’s not pretty – and finally Panama to Managua: I’ve done it before and it’s a bastard of a journey, though it beats going through the US homeland security farce.
So, I woke up at stupid o’clock obsessing about the giant cone attached to my dog’s neck. During my slumber, the appalling encumbrance had become an allegory, had taken on almost spiritual dimensions, and once you begin obsessing there’s nothing to do, of course, other than sit up and start writing about it.
I realise that not all my readers are going to be interested in canine matters, but that is not the point; this is not about dogs, this hideous appendage is a metaphor for just about every encumbrance we put between ourselves and self-realisation. It is about ontological crisis, a state of pure existential terror. Think about it. Pity poor Bruno.
Not unrelatedly – everything seems related some days, don’t you think? – I found myself watching a Top of the Pops from 1977 last night. Musicians featured included Thin Lizzy, David Soul and the hideous Gary Glitter, gurning and winking at the camera as he implored someone (no doubt a nine-year old Vietnamese) to hold him close. I shuddered. And how weird everyone looked: did we all look like that back then? Did 1977 really happen? Now, Gary Glitter, he would look good in one of those collar contraptions, and a padlocked gold glittering jockstrap . . . and there’s an image to travel with . . .
There’s no point in being sentimental about these things, I realize. Music that, when it first appears, seems to say something new, gets murdered with repetition, besides being absorbed into the great maw of consumer culture. I remember a coach journey from Athens to London, back in the seventies, when Neil Young’s album Harvest, was played on loop, continuously, along with The Best of Simon and Garfunkel. I never cared for Simon and Garfunkel, and my dislike turned to a raging phobia during the course of that journey, but I couldn’t listen to Neil Young for at least a decade afterwards either.
So on the related theme of yesterday’s post – erstwhile rebels being turned into toothless icons – I went to see the house where Che Guevara was born, here in Rosario, and the building now houses the offices of MAPFRE, a Spanish-owned insurance and finance group. I have a particularly strained relationship with insurance companies, and I am sure Che’s admiration for them would have exceeded my own. Opposite the building, a rather run-down hostel is named after him.
Che was not really from Rosario, he was just born here, by accident, before the family moved to Cordoba, where he grew up. But the city claims him as its son as it is good for tourism and the building where he was allegedly born has been declared a national treasure or some similar term. In fact he was born in a local hospital and only spent a few weeks in this rather luxurious building (both his parents were members of the Argentine aristocracy, and they inherited considerable wealth). Moreover Che’s parents falsified the date of his birth from May to June 1928, as his mother was pregnant when she married Che’s father, and the false birth date looked a little more respectable. The fruit of pre-marital passion was poorly regarded in those times, at least among the social class that Che’s parents inhabited.
In his teens – despite his severe asthma, which he always stoically resisted – and as a student of medicine in Buenos Aires, Che became a keen rugby player, a sport very much associated with the Porteño upper classes.
Che’s social conscience was awakened by his reading of Marx and by travelling. He set out on long excursions, first by bicycle, later by motorbike – as shown in the film The Motorcyle Diaries – driven by an insatiable curiosity about the way that others lived.
The Spanish Wikipedia entry on Che is rather good, the English one less informative, but still interesting.
Rosario has a reputation for a kind of good-natured bohemianism (is that a word?). I find it relaxed and friendly, the kind of place a person ends up without thinking about it too much, and forgets to leave. There are too many places like this. However, wandering around the shops, looking for gifts, is a thankless task: everything is Made in China or Indonesia, and I could be in Cardiff or Stockholm or Cape Town for the variety of consumer goods available. Which, I suppose, in a roundabout way, leads us back to the question of a global village, and all the bullshit associated with being a consumer in the 21st century. Che would be disgusted, I guess, but as we all know, capitalism is the perfect system.
I find it incredible that Manu Chao is used as hotel lobby music in the Ibis Hotel, Montevideo (a stone’s throw from the American Embassy). Manu, who stands for everything that a global hotel chain opposes – the rights of the dispossessed, the homeless, illegal immigrants, the excluded. So I sit in the lobby, astonished at the incongruity between this rebel music and my shiny day-glo surroundings. And who’s next up? Manu’s hero and inspiration, Bob Marley, who has been given this kind of treatment for decades now.
Of course this is how capitalism works: it sucks in all opposition, chews it up and spews it out in its own image: in this instance as a once familiar but now curiously transformed musak – and although these recordings are exactly the same as the ones I listened to and loved when they were first released, they have somehow become re-configured, re-stated, recycled as hotel mood music and I am once again bereft, and my experience of being in the world has become cheapened and sullied and I will no longer be able to listen to these songs without the memory of this new, emasculated version superimposed on the songs I hold in memory.
So yesterday I was talking about how people often judge a speaker by the way they speak, my point being that some listeners go into a kind of paralysis when confronted by a strange or foreign accent. So I wander into the centre of Montevideo and find graffiti that puts an interesting slant on the discussion. It translates as:
THE INFINITE HAS NO ACCENT
This made me very pleased. I am not sure the phrase means anything, but it sounds pretty.
A wide road called the Rambla curves around the south edge of the city, bordered by the vast River Plate, which you would be forgiven for thinking of as the sea. In the midday sun (it is the start of spring here, but like a July day in the UK) people are sunbathing on the low parapet at the edge of the pavement: there is a drop of a few metres and then a narrow beach and the river. Most people are clutching mate and a flask (Uruguayans are always drinking mate). I am walking quite briskly, but begin to absorb waves of lethargy from the sun lizards.
Half way into town the Rambla Argentina turns into the Rambla Gran Bretaña and to my considerable suprise, there is a large bust, on a plinth, of the onetime British ambassador, Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, described in Spanish as ‘a loyal friend of Uruguay’. Millington-Drake was ambassador during the battle of the River Plate, when the German cruiser the Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled in Montevideo harbour. The Graf Spee posed a major threat to Atlantic shipping in the early days of World War Two and had already sunk numerous vessels in 1939-40. Convinced by false reports of superior British naval forces approaching his ship, the Graf Spee’s commander, Hans Langsdorff, ordered the vessel to be blown up and on 20 December 1940 laid himself out on the ship’s ensign togged out in full dress uniform and shot himself . Apparently part of the ship still remains visible above the surface of the water in the harbour.
Three cheers for Millington-Drake, cast now on a stony plinth.
I wander through the old town, which reminds me of parts of Lisbon, but apparently also resembles Santiago de Cuba, but more than anything else resembles itself. Two boys are collecting rubbish on a horse and cart. It feels laid-back and gentle after the hectic whirl of Buenos Aires.
For lunch I meet the photographer and film-maker Diego Vidart and his colleague Martin Herrera. We eat in a restaurant above a very handsome bookshop. Diego and Martin have an exhibition opening today, part of an ongoing project that links Uruguay, Finland (and Wales) in a rather complex but ingenious narrative devised by Diego and which I first heard about last year in the back garden of Des Barry’s house in Cardiff. An account of the exhibition, titled Diario de un retrato can be accessed here. An unrelated, but parallel narrative can be found in David Enrique Spellman’s new novel Far South, which comes recommended by Des and which Blanco will be reviewing in due course.
The narratives that Diego, David and Des have respectively devised explore the tensions between our understanding of portraiture (and therefore of individuality), the blurred zone between biography and fiction (a favourite of Blanco’s) and the capacity of an audience to absorb and then unravel – in the manner of a detective – events which may or may not have happened. It is a fascinating exhibition based on the trope of an abandoned suitcase, a slide projector, and two simultaneous and overlapping videos, filmed in Finland and Uruguay. The show is on until the end of October.
In the same square under which the exhibition takes place, there is a lovely sign, reminiscent of the one in Malcolm Lowry’s novel, Under the Volcano. In Lowry’s book the sign says:
¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?
¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!
Do you like this garden which is yours?
Make sure your children don’t destroy it.
The one here says ‘Montevideo is your home: this square also’.
Uruguay and Wales: Wales and Uruguay. I can see where Diego, Martin, David and Des have found so much to share between their respective countries and I think their ongoing projects are tantalizing. The problem – if it is a problem – is that the possibilities seem endless, or rather, infinite. Outside the gallery, on the Avenida 18 de Julio, my attention is caught by a neon sign advertising a financial service called GALES. Gales, of course, is the Spanish word for ‘Wales’. I waited for the red light before taking the picture. It seems to go with the sign better than the green.
This extraordinarily helpful poster can be found, not in a hospital or a school, but in the men’s washroom in the MALBA museum in Buenos Aires. I applaud the administrators of this institution for their interest in my personal hygiene. And we thought we had issues with the nanny state in the UK?
One thing I have never been able to abide is someone wagging a finger at me, or prodding said finger in my direction as they speak. There is a specific Porteño variant of this finger-wagging movement, which seems to comprise three sideways movements. A woman delivered it to me when I approached to ask a perfectly innocent question of her, imagining, I suppose, that I was about to ask her for money, or importune her in some manner. Do I look like a tramp? Do I look like some random maniac? Actually there is another explanation. Some people, on hearing a foreign accent, even if the speaker manages perfectly well to convey the sense of what they wish to say, simply freeze up. They go into a state of shock, as though their little brains send out a message: PANIC: FOREIGNER, followed by an utter failure to process language, as they are not listening to what you say because they are so distracted by the way you say it. I am certain there are other applications of this theory, and suspect it may be extended to many everyday life situations. As always, Blanco welcomes contributions on this theme.
How I loathe the casual conversations between travellers that one overhears in airport waiting areas, on ferries etc, the idiotic things people talk about in their quest to present themselves as accomplished globetrotters. I hope that doesn’t apply to me. But if it did, could I rant against myself? Probably.
No sooner had I finished writing yesterday’s blog, than I walked into the hotel dining room (earlier than usual, as I had planned an excursion) and the first person I see is Coetzee himself, sitting in the corner with his back to the wall, dressed in jeans and one of those flak-jacket things, reading the newspaper.
I immediately felt as though I had intruded (which in a sense I just had, by writing about him) although there were two or three other early risers taking breakfast. I sat down a couple of tables away and observed him, discreetly, like a spy. He licked his finger, delicately, cat-like, and slowly turned the page of his paper. I resisted the temptation to go over and tell him that the Springboks were jammy bastards beating us by just one point last week. In fact I behaved with decorum, as though he were not there.
And this morning I am off to Uruguay for a couple of days.
The high spots of my stay in Buenos Aires? I would go for the concert/interview in the Ateneo bookshop last Friday given by the singer Barbie Martinéz, accompanied by (although this hardly does her playing justice) Paula Shocrón.
Between songs, Barbie was interviewed by Jorge Fondebrider with his inimitable mix of wit and candour. I recorded a couple of their songs, but the sound quality really does not do them justice, so I would recommend instead that you listen to their CDs. Barbie has only one so far, Swing, and a second forthcoming. Paula Shocrón has several CDs out; solo, with a trio and with a big band.
The other most enjoyable event was a trip up the Paraná delta yesterday on a river boat. This web of riverways and estuaries is the graveyard of centuries’ worth of shipwrecks and abandoned dreams. As late as the 1870s it was the haunt of pirates, many of them women. Setting out from Tigre, the trip took around three hours and we passed dozens of islands, the ones nearer Tigre were quite densely populated, but further out, and across the Paraná itself, the island homes became more and more eccentric and isolated. It was like entering a lost and enchanted world, and I would like to find out more about it. Inés Garland’s novel Piedra, papel o tijera might be a good place to start. The island people are almost entirely dependent on the delivery of goods by boat, and the children go to an island school. They have a reputation for a kind of wistful lethargy, a condition known locally as ‘Mal del sauce’ or ‘weeping willow sickness’ (willows are abundant along the riverbanks). It is the kind of condition that afflicts a person who spends too many hours gazing at the slow passage of water.
Finally my visit to the Villa Miseria at Barrancas 21/24 (see post of 14th September) made a lasting, if very different impression on me. So much so that I wrote a poem about it, in a kind of Spanglish, which I read at the Bitácora, the closing forum of the festival on Sunday evening, before Coetzee’s reading.
Those who have read The Vagabond’s Breakfast will know that my last visit to Buenos Aires was rather fraught, to say the least. It was wonderful to spend some time in good company and find out more about this fabulous city, and I am grateful to my hosts, especially Jorge Fondebrider, Pablo Braun, Inés Garland and Jorge Aulicino for providing the opportunity to replace earlier memories with ones of an altogether more helpful and agreeable kind.