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The Tourist and the Fisherman

12 Sep

Boquilla beach

The Tourist (A) is perturbed by the amount of dissembling he has to indulge in when confronted by awkward situations. He defines awkward situations as those times when he feels he cannot act freely, and is accommodating to someone else’s agenda rather than following his own. This happens, incidentally, much of the time, even when he is alone.

A. meets a fisherman (B) on the beach at La Boquilla. He has gone to La Boquilla for some quiet time, a swim, and to read and possibly settle down with notebook and pencil and do some writing. He is not seeking out distractions even though at some point he will be seeking out some food. And there’s the rub. The restaurant recommended in his guidebook – actually a palm thatch shack – appears to be closed and B. has started his pitch by telling A. he will provide him with a lunch of fresh seafood and rice. Lobster, langoustine, crab.

I am a fisherman. Langoustine, crab, fresh fish. All fresh. I dive for lobster. B. has decided to speak in Pidgin Spanish, perhaps because he thinks that A. might understand him more easily. In this respect, B. believes that tourists resemble children and animals, and should be spoken to with care.

B. also tells A. he has a canoe and that he can take A. for a ride through the mangrove swamps, the very same mangrove swamps, A. knows, that were used in the filming of a novel by Gabriel García Márquez. I take you in my canoe, says B., and you look at the birds.

A. also knows from the guidebook – or thinks he might know, as the guidebook has already coughed up several inaccuracies –  that these particular mangrove swamps are home to, amongst other birds, Wilson’s plover, red-knot, gull-billed and large-billed terns, grey kingbird, lesser kiskadee, cattle tyrant, Wilson’s phalarope, collared plover, semi-palmated sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, semi-palmated plover, black, least and brown-throated parakeet, Louisiana and little blue herons, reddish egret and ringed kingfisher.

Although ornithology is not B’s strength, he feels he should offer some examples. Seagulls, he suggests, and falters. Storks. He’s making an effort, but A. guesses B. doesn’t know or care much about the birds. After all, as a fisherman (if indeed he is a fisherman) they are his direct competitors. But B. does know that other tourists come to see the birds, so why shouldn’t this one.

A. does not see any other tourists, however, and this is a little worrying. He feels like the only tourist in Colombia. No, no, says B. Many tourists here. Italy, Spain, Gringos. He points to a half-built house back from the beach. This house people of Italy, people of Spain.

At this point they are standing by a group of eight or nine dilapidated wooden canoes. Three of them are waterlogged, and half-submerged in the swamp. The others look suspect. A. is thinking: I’ve known this man for three minutes and he wants me to get into an antique wreck with him and paddle into the mangrove swamps, alone. A. isn’t overly concerned about the possible dangers of this. The guidebook states that local fishermen offer canoe trips through the mangroves and this man seems safe (though you can never tell), and besides, A. feels (perhaps foolishly) that he can look after himself. No: A’s problem is that he knows, if he sets off in a canoe with B., he will be insanely bored, and more than a little uncomfortable at having to make light conversation while being paddled through the swamp.

All of these canoes are mine, B. lies. All of them. You choose. Half an hour. You look at birds. I paddle. I give you good price.

A. decides it is time to speak out.

B., he says, using the fisherman’s name to assert his authority and intention. I do not want to get into a canoe with you. I do not want to get into a canoe with anyone, however agreeable the mangrove swamp. Nor do I wish to watch the birds, however gracious they may be. I simply wish to take a walk along the beach and later, when I return, I will eat the food that you have promised to cook in your restaurant.

B. thinks about this, brightening.

But, he says, you cannot walk down there (nodding away from the thatched huts).

Why not?

It’s dangerous.

How is it dangerous?

The water. Down that way the water is dangerous. And the rocks. This way (gesturing back towards the thatched huts) this way is not dangerous.

B. can scent victory. He points at a couple of canvas sunshades pitched near the shoreline. These small shelters dot the entire length of the beach. You walk, you rest, you swim, says B. I make you food for two o’clock.

A. looks at the sunshades. The sun is not shining. It is not yet ten thirty and it is overcast but hot. He could sit in a chair under the shade and read and write, which is what he intended to do by coming to the beach. He might swim in the warm surf. B. will have won, but at least A. will probably be left alone, and he will not have to go looking for lunch. Besides, there doesn’t appear to be another restaurant, at least not one that is open.

Which sunshade will you take? asks B.

 

 

Cities Unvisited

5 Sep

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

The last digression of Patrick Leigh Fermor

7 Jun

 

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pig of Babel

12 May

 

El Cerdo de Babel, some letters having dropped off.

El Cerdo de Babel, some letters having dropped off.

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).

 

Blanco with Julián Herbert

Blanco with Julián Herbert in the Cerdo de Babel

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jaguars, snakes, rabbits

3 May
Jaguar duality

Jaguar duality

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.

More duality

More duality

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.

A White Rabbit

A white rabbit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A white rabbit taking his leave

A white rabbit taking his leave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

Carriage in foyer of the Posada de Coatepec, used by formerly Important People.

Carriage in foyer of the Posada de Coatepec, used by formerly Important People.

 

 

Coatepec Church

Coatepec Church.

 

 

El Caporal, Coatepec.

El Caporal, Coatepec.

 

 

Brodsky’s Venice

15 Apr
Colleoni statue with bird, evening.

Colleoni  (he of the three testicles) and bird, evening.

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 loathed, 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.

 

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

Below San Zaccharia, Venice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on a first visit to Delhi

30 Mar

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?

Delhi_Humanyun's tomb

Humanyun’s tomb with vulture, Delhi.

 

Qutub Minar tower, with vulture, Delhi

Qutub Minar tower, with vulture, Delhi

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.

Delhi_musicians

Delhi_band 1

 

Lorna Shaughnessy, George Szirtes, Moya Cannon

Lorna Shaughnessy, George Szirtes, Moya Cannon