After lunch in a cheerful Brazilian place in Palermo (the one in Buenos Aires, not Sicily) we walk through the sunny streets in search of dessert and coffee. Our destination turns out to be one of the finest cake shops in the world. I don’t mean showy and pretentious like the cake shops of Vienna, but one with extremely good cakes. The display, like so many places in this city, makes imaginative use of the impact of colour. In fact both of my favourite eating places so far are spectacularly colourful, the modest Brazilian café, and El Viejo Teodoro (Old Theodore’s) which is my local, where I first ate six years ago.
They are also inexpensive. But the cake shop here, run by Georgina (in photo, with one of her creations) is something else. After considerable deliberation, we went for macaroons (red, green and blue ones) and I shared a slice of banana chocolate cake, washed down with coconut tea. It is to be found in the Plaza William Morris.
Palermo is a bohemian, bustling barrio, with many bars and bookshops. It is also where Jorge Luís Borges lived as a small child, before his family moved to Europe. There is a street named after him, which conveniently crosses the Plaza Cortazar. The bookshops often have bars, so customers can spend hours browsing, drinking coffee and chatting. Perhaps the most spectacular is Eterna Cadencia (also a publishing house of the same name), with its oak-paneled rooms, sofas, patio and upstairs terrace. A beautiful place to enjoy books.
However I had been up most of the night due to the rugby (see previous post) so did not appreciate the long traipse around the bookshops as much as I might have. But I did pass a store with four large fish tanks, and cushioned seats. Here you can sit with your feet in the tanks and dozens of little fish will eat the flaky bits off your feet and nibble your toes. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Since this week I actually have to get down to some work – my tour is not simply for pleasure – perhaps I should have gone for some xthiliopathic therapy, as it calls itself, but to sit there in full view of the passing pedestrians while fish feast on your skin, well, that’s just wrong.
On another theme, my friend Jorge told me, on our walk through another part of the city on Saturday evening, as we passed the Palace of the Ducks (Palacio de los Patos), that the phrase ‘quedarse pato’ which literally translates as ‘to be left a duck’ refers to a person who has come down in the world, or lost a fortune. The Palace of Ducks was divided into numerous apartments, many of which were taken by formerly aristocratic or wealthy families who had ‘come down in the world’ – largely as a consequence of the economic crash in the late 1920s. In other words, it was the collective home of people who had lost their properties, and could no longer afford to own a place. However, the surroundings were glamorous enough to remind them of their former glory, and to forget their penurious circumstances.
I wonder whether there is a connection with the term ‘to score a duck’ to be out for nought, to score no runs – in cricket. What is it with ducks that relates to poverty or the idea of zero? Any suggestions welcome.
Forgive me for the poor quality of the photo, but I was slightly concerned about taking pictures in the immigration zone of an airport, and used my phone. Here, if you can read them, are the rules about what you cannot import into Argentina. I draw your attention, gentle reader, (and if you blush, I will not see) to the item that prohibits the importation of semen. Now I am not the kind of person who would wander around from country to country with my pockets filled with test-tubes of spermatozoa, so I was not initially concerned, but then it struck me that most males visiting the country are carriers of semen, at least in its potential or unexpressed form, and should, if any sense of logic prevails, be prohibited from entering (how fraught with double entendre every word, every verb, suddenly becomes under these circumstances) the country at all, just to be on the safe side. But they let me in, and I promise I will be keeping my semen to myself.
I flew in – no, that gives the wrong impression of my physical attributes – I arrived on a British Airways Boeing 777, to attend a couple of literature festivals here, with the generous support of Wales Arts International. And I travelled Business Class, following an interesting exchange with the man who collected my boarding pass at Heathrow.
To start with, things were looking very peculiar at Terminal 5. The place was swarming with uniformed soldiers, who were clearly not in the service of Her Majesty The Queen. I picked out that they were speaking Spanish with Argentine accents long before going to the boarding gate. There were around fifty of them, wearing the blue berets of the United Nations. But what were they doing on a scheduled flight? Don’t they have their own planes? And when did you last see the uniformed soldiers of another nation state marching around in Blighty? Can’t have happened since the failed French invasion of Pembrokeshire in 1797.
Anyway, the soldiers were allowed to board first, along with the rich, the infirm, and the children. Then it was my turn. The man looked at a screen, told me to wait for a moment and then asked me if I was happy with the seat I had been allocated. I felt wary, as I had already, luckily, been upgraded to a seat in the more roomy Economy Plus (which I had not requested as I am not an MP but a responsible citizen who will not take advantage of public funds). So I certainly did not want him to take my seat away and plonk me amid a phalanx of Argentinian soldiers, however nice they might be. “Yes,” I said, “I am. It is an aisle seat, which I would prefer.” (I am a restless traveller). I hesitated. “Is that the right answer?”
“No, Mister Blanco” said the British Airways man: “That is not the right answer.” “Oh?” said, I, a little confused by his technique. “What, may I ask, is the correct answer?” He kept a straight face. “The right answer, Mister Blanco” he said, “is No, I am not happy with my seat. I would like another. You have an upgrade to Club World (starting price one-way £2699). Have a nice flight.” And he smiled, pleased with himself at his munificence. I acted cool (of course), as though travelling Club World was my natural due, and made my way onto the plane.
In Club World you have personal service and are ushered into a very comfortable seat inside a kind of cocoon with miles of leg room, and offered champagne or a soft drink to settle you in. Later, they bring you a menu, with a very appetizing range of dishes, and a wine list. I was planted between two beautiful young Argentinian people who I decided were a supermodel and a star polo player. Apparently in these circumstances you don’t greet each other or speak at all, except to order things. I tried hard to divine the correct mode of behaviour, while, of course, pretending that it was all second nature to me. I felt like an anthropologist on a field trip. I also sensed that for many of the thirty or so people in this luxurious compartment, a trip to Economy would provide similar challenges. I could easily imagine that close association with the plebian world – and the kind of person travelling economy to Buenos Aires is a far cry from your usual Ryanair type – would throw most of them into a fit of severe culture shock. Poor dabs.
When I had feasted on the beautifully prepared dinner, and declined the offers of this or that vintage beverage, the lights went down, the seat turned into a bed, and I lay in my little cubicle watching the film Hanna, about a sixteen-year old psychopathic killer with an elfin face, very untidy hair, and (it transpires) a heart of gold, sort of. Then I slept, which I hardly ever manage to do on long flights, for five or six hours.
The problem for me now, is that having tasted Club World, it is going to be a pain returning to Economy.
One day I will tell the story of the misogynist Rabbi and the appallingly drunken Ukrainian I had the pleasure of observing on another recent long-haul flight (in Economy), but it can wait.
The howling of the village dogs has calmed down over the past week, due to the passing of the canícula (named for the dog star, Sirius, and its associated theme of mad dogs/midday sun, hence also ‘dog days of summer’) – that period of extreme heat that peaks here at some point between late July and mid August; and while it is now still hot, it is not unbearably hot. With this in mind I suggest to my friend and neighbour Joan Castelló that we might profitably do a hike from the monastery of Sant Quirze, near the village, across the mountains to Portbou. It seems a reasonable proposition, given an early start. We reckon we might even get to Portbou by lunchtime.
So, Joan, my daughter Sioned and I set off at 6.30, deposited at the monastery by Mrs Blanco, who has decided to sit this one out (on the beach, and somewhat later than 6.30), and we begin the calf-wrenching ascent to the first pass, Coll de Pallerols. Despite the mist, we arrive at the pass an hour later drenched in sweat, and I already feel as though I have spent an uninterrupted week in a Turkish bath, but having got this far there is no option but to press on. I keep wanting the mist to clear, as there are magnificent views across the peaks, and although the Alberas are small mountains compared with the Pyrenees of the interior, they are still dramatic in juxtaposition with the sea.
We pass small circular shepherds’ huts, a variation on a theme found all around the Mediterranean as well as in the British Isles, and just over half way, as the sun finally breaks through the cloud, we find ourselves in an enchanted deciduous woods, remarkable for those of us who live on the south-facing flanks of the Pyrenees, but common enough on the north-facing French side.
Following the border between the two countries for much of our walk, we start descending towards a point where the sea spreads ahead of us, spearheaded by a final mountain ridge, with Cerbère on the French side, and Portbou on the Spanish. The landscape provides a natural frontier, supposedly, (but not to the Catalans, who feel that both sides belong to them, rather than to either nation state).
It is at this point that a new feature has been added to the landscape: a large placard informing walkers in four languages that the renowned German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin passed this same way on his flight from the Nazis in 1940 (see post for 7 August). The route has been renamed ‘Passage of Liberty’. Fine words, but confusing too – since the passage to liberty was traversed in the opposite direction often enough during and after the Spanish Civil War. They must mean a flexible passage of liberty, bi-directional, depending on your fancy or the pressures of historical necessity.
I applaud the honours due to Walter Benjamin, but cannot help feeling the Portbou civic administration might be milking this one, perhaps in pursuit of a new strain of intellectual tourism, no doubt attracting Euro-funding at the same time as raising the little town’s profile considerably, especially compared with the cultural paucity of the resorts further down the Costa Brava. In fact ‘Literary Landmarks of the Costa Brava’ might have considerable market potential: already there is a new statue to the Catalan poet Josep Palau i Fabre at nearby Grifeu beach. How long before Blanes starts selling itself as the home of Roberto Bolaño, and turning the Botanical Gardens there into a Santa Teresa theme park with 2666-themed dodgem rides and a Savage Detectives Treasure Hunt?
Our walk ended, as we might have predicted, far later than we wanted it to, in far too much heat. Seven hours after setting out we staggered onto the beach at Portbou and fell into the sea.
‘When I was young there were degrees of certainty’: these words I quoted the other day from Anne Carson evoke a sense of certainty instilled by the repetition of known stories. In childhood, if the world makes sense at all it does so because the stories we hear about it cohere. The ‘storied world’ takes on new meaning when applied to the central character of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one Susan Barton, who, having travelled to Brazil to search for her kidnapped daughter, is cast adrift by mutineers, and washed up on an island inhabited by a dull and grumpy ‘Cruso’ (who after briefly becoming her lover, dies on her) and a mute Friday, whose tongue has been cut out, according to Cruso, by slavers.
Coetzee’s book is a story about the making of stories. Susan, on her rescue and return to England, writes an account of her adventure and sends it in instalments to the famous writer Mr Daniel Foe, while living in penury with Friday, first in rented accommodation in London, then on the open road as vagrants. She convinces herself – what a common fantasy – that the telling of her story will make her fortune:
“The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related.” Then I made a list of all the strange circumstances of the year I could remember: the mutiny and murder on the Portuguese ship, Cruso’s castle, Cruso himself with his lion’s mane and apeskin clothes, his voiceless slave Friday, the vast terraces he had built, all bare of growth, the terrible storm that tore the roof off our house and heaped the beaches with dying fish. Dubiously I thought: Are these enough strange circumstances to make a story of? How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances: the salvage of tools and muskets from Cruso’s ship; the building of a boat, or at least a skiff, and a venture to the mainland; a landing by cannibals on the island, followed by a skirmish and many bloody deaths; and, at last, the coming of a golden-haired stranger with a sack of corn, and the planting of the terraces? Alas, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?
Thus Susan Barton is unwittingly made the mouthpiece for the story Defoe actually wrote (but she cannot). How poor Susan needs to satisfy the need to tell and tell, and yet not to cross that invisible line into mere ‘invention’. How curious that the confection of her story demands such truth-telling; and yet all around her are those whose very lives depend on the invention of fictions.
This is a book rich is allusion, and in stimulating reflection on the writer’s life. Here is Foe speaking to Susan: “You and I know, in our different ways, how rambling an occupation writing is; and conjuring is surely much the same. We sit staring out of the window, and a cloud shaped like a camel passes by, and before we know it our fantasy has whisked us away to the sands of Africa and our hero (who is no one but ourselves in disguise) is clashing scimitars with a Moorish brigand. A new cloud floats past in the form of a sailing-ship, and in a trice we are cast ashore all woebegone on a desert isle. Have we cause to believe that the lives it is given us to live proceed with any more design than these whimsical adventures?”
And here is the crux of it: all our lives are story; much of that story is conjecture, the rest invention. A tale heard in passing between sunrise and sunset. There is room for many more such stories. Or, as Coetzee’s Susan tells the mute servant Friday, after being confronted by a strange girl who insists she is Susan’s long-lost daughter:
“It is nothing, Friday . . . it is only a poor mad girl come to join us. In Mr Foe’s house there are many mansions. We are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman. There is place yet for lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores to join our menagerie.”
Even without the lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores, Coetzee has the patience to furnish a story that is both intriguing and beautifully crafted. And my copy now carries the invisible traces of a thousand other stories, and of a hot day in August.
Yesterday an excursion to Portbou and a picnic on a nearby beach to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend Juliette. As usual our large and straggling international party effectively turned a section of the beach into an ever expanding occupied zone, and a feast of fresh fish, chickens, salads, melon, cake, wine, coffee and cigars unravelled, the younger hooligan element ensuring total isolation from other beachgoers, which, on this particular beach was no problem, as it is not easily accessed except by the more adventurous or robust sun-seeker.
I do not know Portbou all that well, but have always felt drawn to it in a strange way. It is a shy place, giving off a sad, mysterious energy; a border town that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its role as a centre for customs control. All that remains is its vast and cavernous railway station.
We once ate here, late at night, about ten years ago, and Mrs Blanco and I fell into conversation with the young Moroccan waiter, no doubt an illegal, who had got this close to France in search of a better life, and had decided to stay. We left the restaurant as it was closing up, and headed for the car, which was parked a few streets away. We were about to pile in, when the young waiter appeared, panting, with our younger daughter’s jacket, having run down the streets searching for us. That reassuring incident helped formulate my ideas about the place, of a small, neglected border town with heart, where people end up by chance rather than by choice.
The coast road runs down the final miles of France’s ‘côte vermeille’ from Collioure, a charming and now very chic resort, for fifty years the home of the English writer of historical fiction Patrick O’Brien. In my vagabond days I once walked this frontier road on a baking June afternoon, arriving bedraggled and exhausted on the Spanish side, where the friendly guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the nearby bar for a beer, which turned into many. He dropped me off in Portbou later that night after a hair-raising 7 km descent in his old Simca, and I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up.
But Portbou is mostly famous as the final destination of the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years exile in France and 28 changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers and their guide, arrived exhausted at Portbou after a trek across the mountains from Banyuls. Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was permissible for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. However, he was prevented entry to Spain since he had no French exit visa. Perhaps because of his evident ill-health, perhaps because of a border guard’s Republican sympathies, his return to France was postponed until the next day and he was allowed to spend the night in an hotel, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room.
I didn’t realise that Benjamin killed himself by taking an overdose of morphine (he had a supply with him, for this eventuality): I had read elsewhere that he took poison, surely some kind of euphemism. If you’re going to go, morphine must be preferable to having some hideous acid gnawing through your guts.
The following account is taken from a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin at Portbou, The Last Passage:
‘If they had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in. The Gurlands, at any rate, Benjamin’s travelling companions, were permitted to continue their journey, although perhaps this was due in part to the impact made on the local authorities and police by the death of ‘the German gentleman’. A few days later, Henny and her son Joseph boarded a ship for America.
Benjamin left a suitcase with a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as a suitcase leather, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown, and some money. . .
. . . In Portbou Walter Benjamin put an end to seven years of exile and the possibility of a new future in America. For the local people, the death of the mysterious foreigner became shrouded in legend, but for others it was a freely chosen exit, an authentic rebellion against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of modernity. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the full arguments of this hypothesis is collected by Stuart Jeffries in his ‘Observer’ article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. What is more, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure. Did it contain his final manuscript? The suitcase was never found: its fate is unknown, and in the judge’s report of the property of the deceased there is no mention of any manuscript.’
The memorial ‘Passagen’ at Portbou was designed by Israeli Artist Dani Karavan, and an inscription reads that “it is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” Puzzling, that last sentence, and possibly meaningless, certainly untrue, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. But the memorial itself is spectacular, and a video clip, attached below, gives some idea of the approach and setting, enclosed by the mountain landscape and opening out onto the sea.
In the nearby gated cemetery, on Benjamin’s gravestone, there is a quotation from Thesis VII of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism‘.
This is, in its way, a very contemporary film: a kind of visual equivalent of flash fiction. Based on thousands of hours of video recordings from a single day – 24th August 2010 – the editors have created a 90 minute collage of moments, some more extensive than others. Certain of the characters are seen once only, others are revisited several times over the course of the film, among which are a Korean man who has been cycling around the world for seven years (he has been knocked off his bike six times and had surgery five times: some drivers are very careless, he remarks, generously) and a trio of goatherds from somewhere in eastern Europe, who swear at their goats and are troubled by the prospect of wives and of wolves.
It could have been called ‘youtube: the movie’ but the point about all the mini-narratives being set within the frame of a single day gave it more coherence than might otherwise be expected. We do retain a sense of global village life with the weird juxtaposition of footage from a New York coffee shop being followed by African women preparing cassava while singing and a South American shoeshine boy stuffing his pockets with sweets. I left the cinema with the sensation that for so many people, desperately attempting to assert their own experience and their own lives, social networks and new media such as Facebook and youtube might provide a constant if imperfect means to an end. We all do it, especially if we blog, twitter and facebook (is that a verb?). Everyone can be Montaigne in the digital age. In a way, too, the film reflects the fetishization of travel familiar to us from ‘gap year’ philosophy, whether of the youtube variety, or the more polished, but equally nauseating version proposed to its readers every Saturday in the Guardian travel section.
A recent article by Christopher Tyler in The London Review of Books mentions how Colin Thubron, in his Shadow of the Silk Road imagines ‘conversations with a sceptical trader resurrected from antiquity. “I’m afraid of nothing happening,” he tells him, “of experiencing nothing. That is what the modern traveller fears . . . Emptiness.” In the current era, the notion of pseudo-travel has become available to all of us, emerging nervously from our terror of nothing happening.
Back home, I eventually retire to bed, to read. I have been reading poetry at night for a few months, but I also read fiction, and am currently with Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields, stories of profound clarity, steeped in the Irish storytelling tradition. While reading, I drift in and out of sleep. I wake at three in the morning with the book still in my hands, sitting up in bed and wavering in the space between sleep and non-sleep, though not yet wakefulness. This has become familiar territory. I have spent a long time being sleep-deprived, and am acquainted with this place, the zone. Drifting between sleep and not-sleep I am confronted by a person, standing at the foot of my bed. I am accustomed to this kind of intervention. Some call them hallucinations, but I know better.
This time he wears a cowboy hat. I ask him who he is.
“Calvin Bucket,” he says.
A likely story.
“Andy Coulson?” He suggests.
That’s better. I like the way these episodes meld with the fantasy that we call reality.
“Now, here’s how it is, Calvin, Andy, Cyrano, whatever.” I say. “You want to validate your existence? Fuck off and do it somewhere else, with someone who believes in you.”
And pouf. He vanishes.
The only ones validating their existence around here are me and my dog.
Here you are in the cerebral cortex, one fictional street leading into another campo of the imagination, the calli lined with deceit, each turning an extenuating circumstance into an invasion of the blind. No rabbit holes, no fox dens here, only the supercilious scrutiny of the gulls, and an exhausting labyrinth in which one false turning leads to another, and you have entered an unknown place where the sun has no welcome. You take another turning, glance at the name of the alley which bears no relation to the name on your or any other map, continue with a sense of desolate determination, long ago having lost all sense of your eventual destination, only to come across it unawares, as though the city had ensnared you, laid an ornate trap. You are forever the victim of your own confidence in finding the way. You propose a direct route – according to the map, of course – only to find that the phenomenal agglomeration of stone and water gets in the way, and you appreciate once again that the map describes instead a fictional version of the island, a kind of alternative city, one of many. Later, seated by a canal, staring at the reflection of the water on the side of an illuminated building, you come to another understanding; that what is being described in all these false turnings, dead ends, abrupt descents to water, intended paths, projected destinations, humorous asides and double bluffs, is a map of yourself, or of anyone else you care to name, and the city you are attempting so desperately to navigate likewise remains unknowable.