Ricardo Blanco's Blog

J.M. Coetzee in Buenos Aires

14. J.M. Coetzee. Oleo sobre tela. 2006

Coetzee came to Buenos Aires to deliver the final reading of the festival last night. I am not really authorized to write at length about Coetzee, having only read two of his novels, which I found admirable, and a collection of his essays. However, I will certainly read more of his work now, and am particularly keen to read his own account of his life, of which there are now three volumes.

There were, of course, the introductions in Spanish: the first brief, the second rather long, both of them adulatory, then Coetzee emerged from the wings like a tall and elegant rock star (think a slightly more reverend Clapton with a tie). I was sitting in the front row, and had been approached by a security guard who told me that the first two rows were reserved for guests of the funding organisation. I told him I was an invited guest of the festival and stayed in my seat. He moved off, unsure what to do about me. Half the seats in the front two rows then remained empty, even though there were dozens of people outside who had been refused tickets, and others sitting on the steps in the foyer watching the proceedings on a big screen and possibly hundreds who had been told the event was sold out. The photographers had clearly been instructed that they could snap away only during Coetzee’s  introduction, and not in the reading proper. In any case, I was able to take a few pictures of my own, and they came out rather well.

Coetzee made a brief introductory statement in faltering Spanish, and then he read a story, set in a house in Spain (perhaps he chose one with an Hispanic theme for the occasion, believing there is not a lot of difference between one Spanish speaking country and the next, one with a few Spanish words in, like ‘vaya con dios’, which no one ever says unless they’re about a hundred years old). The story lasted half an hour, or forty minutes, I’m not sure, I think I drifted off briefly, and it was about a man called John (which is Coetzee’s name) visiting his mother, who lives in a village in Castille, and keeps a lot of cats and the village flasher (yes, that’s right, she has made her home available to the village pervert, because he was going to be taken away by social services and she stepped in and said she would look after him. I’m not sure this is how things work in Spain, but I guess we can let that go in the name of poetic licence). The story was okay, but did he need to fly thousands of miles to read it? Because that was all he did: read a story, then sit down and sign books for his abundant fans, who queued patiently (a very difficult task for Argentinians, or at least for Porteños) who came onto the stage one at a time, were allowed to exchange a few brief words with the great man, then trundled off clutching their books like they were holy relics. I wonder how much he got paid to do this. I wonder if he is doing any sightseeing while he is here. He certainly won’t be tasting the wonderful Argentinian steaks as he is a vegetarian; nor can I imagine is here much of a drinker, so will not be tasting the fine Argentinian wines. Coetzee is however a rugby fan, and since the world cup is on, the festival president tells me, he was able to talk to him about rugby on the drive back from the airport. If it had been me I would have expressed my opinion that his team (assuming he still supports the Springboks and not the Wallabies, after adopting Australian nationality) was extremely lucky to get away with a one-point victory over my team last week, but of course that is done and dusted now and we must press on. At least the world cup curse of Samoa has now been lifted, and if things go well against Fiji and Namibia we will most likely meet the Irish in the quarter-finals, which is do-able.

Coetzee stands in a very upright manner. There is, in fact, something quintessentially upright about him. Someone who know him expressed the view to me that this is related to a self-abnegating Afrikaaner protestant streak (although he did attend a Catholic school, so presumably got the worst of both worlds). This is not a man who will let his scant hair down. According to a reliable source (i.e quoted on Wikipedia) he lives the life of a recluse, and “a colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” In fact he is so reclusive that the Flash player did not want to upload my photo of him, so I am using a picture provided by Flickr instead. In the Wikipedia picture (which also refused to upload) he is wearing the same tie as last night, or appears to be, unless of course he has several editions of the same tie. The Wikipedia entry also informs me he has expressed support for the animal rights movement. Because he rarely gives interviews and so forth, signed copies of his books are highly valued.

Despite his saying that he was pleased to be here, he did not really give the impression of being overjoyed about the occasion. He was more like a pontiff bestowing a blessing on his devotees, with great dignity and reserve. And the ridiculous notion occurs to me that there are two Coetzees, one of them here in Buenos Aires, reading his story like a monk reading from the sacred text to his silent admirers, the other scribbling away, locked in his cell wherever it is he lives, Adelaide or thereabouts. The one I saw last night is the phantom Coetzee, the one that the real Coetzee very occasionally sends out to commune with his public, a doppelganger Coetzee who is dressed like a banker, reluctantly engaged in the contemporary phenomenon of the Book Signing, that strange ritual in which members of the reading public are able to pretend that they have a personal relationship with the author, and walk away clutching their books tight to their chests as though some of his greatness were now trapped in the trail of ink on the title page, that they have absorbed some of the fallout of his ascetic majesty, and will now, through some mystical process not unlike transubstantiation, be the richer for it.

 

 

 

 

Cándido Lopez

http://www.unlp.edu.ar/bellasartes/pano/candid...

Image via Wikipedia

A walk down to the Museo de Bellas Artes here in Buenos Aires and a discovery that leaves a deep mark of weirdness on the Blanco brain.

Cándido Lopez (1840-1902) was an Argentinian painter who took part in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) and lost his right arm in the conflict. Although right-handed, he taught himself to paint with his left hand and produced a number of sprawling battle scenes, developing a naïf style that pre-empts L.S. Lowry, many of his pictures depicting the regimented lines of troops preparing for battle, and the horrific aftermath of the conflict, bloody corpses littering wide and desolate spaces.

The War of the Triple Alliance pitched Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay. Something of an uneven contest, you might think, although at the start of the war Paraguay actually had a larger army than the other three put together. It was the bloodiest of all the bloody wars to afflict South America in the nineteenth century and when it was over Paraguay was utterly devastated. Some estimates calculate that Paraguayan losses alone, due to the conflict and disease were as high as 1.2 million (90% of its prewar population) though a more conservative estimate suggests a mere two thirds of the male population – a gender imbalance that had a significant impact on the country’s socio-political development.

 

The causes of the war are still disputed by historians but their dictator at the time, one Francisco Solano López, had aggressive and expansionist ideas, and one of the main arguments is that the British encouraged him to develop an Atlantic coastline in order to supply their Empire with cotton, which was in high demand due to the American Civil War. A not unfamiliar story.

 

 

 

The last hundred days

 

Within weeks of publication Patrick McGuinness’s debut novel, The Last Hundred Days found itself on the Man Booker long list, and deservedly so, although it failed to make the shortlist on the 5th September. Whatever. Set in Bucharest, the novel reawakens in the reader that state of stunned disbelief in the autumn of 1989 as successive Soviet bloc countries underwent bloodless revolutions, until there was only Romania there at the end of the queue, making a bloody hash of it. The novel describes the despicable oppression and deprivation of the Romanian people in the build-up to that coup, and paints a sordid picture of the corruption and hypocrisy of their rulers.

At the same time it feels oddly contemporary, especially in the way that a grasping elite escape the consequences of their actions and rise above the chaos that they perpetrate. Not that the Ceausescu’s themselves did, of course, their messy trial and execution can still be viewed on youtube, and it provides a resonant coda to the reading of this novel.

The opening chapter is superb, its discourse on the state of boredom offering a kind of conceptual counterpoint to the unfurling narrative, with its cast of impressively drawn characters, that is almost Tolstoyan in scope: “In the West we’ve always thought of boredom as slack time, life’s lift music sliding off the ear. Totalitarian boredom is different. It’s a state of expectation already heavy with its own disappointment, the event and its anticipation braided together in a continuous loop of tension and anti-climax.” McGuinness is an accomplished poet and writes with superb clarity. The novel is littered with aperçus of a brilliance that has the reader reaching for a pencil. Here is Bucharest: “a heat-beaten brutalist maze whose walls and towers melted like sugar, and where the roots of trees erupted through the pavements.” And here is the unctuous consular attaché Wintersmith (straight out of Greene-land) and the British expat community, “where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably”; here is the Boulevard of Socialist Victory: “a vast avenue that didn’t so much vanish into the distance as use it up, drawing everything around into itself.” And here is the grim Stoicu, interior minister and Ceausescu sidekick, with the “eyes of a man who sought in those around him the lowest motivation and always found it.”

I was fascinated to learn that Ceausescu was so paranoid that he would duplicate, no, triplicate his daily motorcade through Bucharest with simultaneous decoy performances in other parts of the city: “sirens, cars, Ceausescu’s motorcade – the real one and its decoys hurtling through Europe’s saddest dictatorship. One of the cars was for the Ceausescu’s dog, and he even had two doggy decoys, a punchline to a joke no one could any longer bear to tell about a world whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity.”

McGuinness was himself in Bucharest just prior to the fall of the regime, and his observations appear to have the scent of authenticity. This is a novel that rages and flows by turn, but rarely disappoints, tugging caustically towards its inevitable denouement.

 

A version of this review appeared in The Independent on 8 September 2011.

 

 

 

 

It’s always an education to read in unusual locations. The organizers of FILBA appear to be steering me towards a socially engaged role that I am not normally associated with back in the UK. But that’s fine with me. The reading last night took place in a cobbled courtyard next to a rehabilitation centre for women recently released from jail, and behind an abandoned market, a steel-girdered hangar that resembles a nineteenth century railway station. Outside, the place was covered in graffiti and creeping vines, and in the darkness a wind began to stir, causing a few paper cups to scuttle across the cobbles like the rats that you knew were there, but were sitting out the poetry reading in a nearby drain. The perennial smell of the Buenos Aires night – barbecued meat, with an overlay of almonds  – wafted by, and an engaged and enthusiastic audience sat alongside the vendors of bags, table-cloths and other artefacts made by the women prisoners.

I am posting a poem that I read last night, as well as at the Club de Traductores on Monday, because it seems to be popular here – probably due to the excellence of the translation – but which I don’t think I have ever performed back home. My Spanish reader on this occasion was the poet and journalist Jorge Aulicino. Strange how on a reading tour there is usually one piece that gets more attention than the others, for no particular reason. It is followed by the Spanish translation by Jorge Fondebrider, since Blanco’s blog has acquired an encouraging following in Argentina and Spain, perhaps because they think I am someone I am not.

 

Blanco reading with Jorge Aulicino


 

Dissolving

 

When you spoke of dissolving in my arms

I realised it was not a figure of speech

that in a sense (in any sense), you meant it

to be just so, that you would disintegrate in me,

I in you, and both of us in water. Could this be

what is meant by marriage, in which both parties

disappear entirely, leaving only ripples

on the water’s quiet surface? But marriage

was a curious fantasy for us, and who could

possibly officiate? You were promised to another,

a dark figure stalking alleyways at night,

an ever-busy debt-collector, and I knew

my thin credentials would never count for much

with your imaginary father. So I led you

to a pond instead, with lilies and an oriental bridge,

a bench named for a local shopkeeper,

the path which circumscribed the water

shaded by hydrangeas and a vast magnolia.

The place was known to me, but since

the I that remembered things was by now

already dissolving in the you that forgot things,

the memory might well have been a false one.

You walked around the pond, around my island,

diminished with each circuit, each time drawn by

the gravity of the island’s green intelligence,

around and around, while I waited, an idiot

in a drama with no plot, no foreseeable conclusion.

 

from Being in Water by Richard Gwyn, with drawings by Lluís Peñaranda

 

 

 

'Dissolving' by Lluís Peñaranda

 

 

Disolverse

 

Cuando hablaste de disolverte en mis brazos

advertí que no era una figura retórica,

que en un sentido (en todo sentido), lo decías en serio

que así fuera, desintegrarte en mí,

yo en ti, y ambos en agua. ¿Será eso

lo que se llama matrimonio, cuando ambas partes

desaparecen completamente, dejando apenas ondas

sobre la quieta superficie del agua? Pero para nosotros

el matrimonio era una curiosa fantasía, ¿y quién quizás

podría celebrarlo? A otro estabas prometida,

una figura oscura que acechaba de noche en callejones,

un cobrador de deudas siempre ocupado, y yo sabía

que mis escasas credenciales jamás servirían de mucho

con tu padre imaginario. Así que en cambio te conduje

a un estanque, con lirios y un puente oriental,

un banco bautizado con el nombre de un comerciante local,

el camino que circunscribía el agua

sombreado por hortensias y una vasta magnolia.

El lugar me resultaba conocido, pero desde que el yo

que recordaba cosas para entonces ya estaba

disolviéndose en el tú que se olvidaba cosas,

el recuerdo bien podría haber sido falso.

Caminaste alrededor del estanque, alrededor de mi isla,

disminuida con cada vuelta, cada vez atraída

por la gravedad de la inteligencia verde de la isla,

una y otra vez, mientras yo esperaba, un idiota

en un drama sin argumento, sin previsible conclusión.

_

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Villa Miseria

Barracas 21/24

 

In immaculate contrast to yesterday’s trip to the rarefied air of Villa Ocampo, today I visited a slum (or a Villa Miseria) to the south of the city in the barrio of Barracas 21/24. It is an area without running water or electricity, and with only the most basic provision of what we in the UK would consider to be essential social amenities. I went as a guest of Pablo Braun, a co-founder with Paz Ochoteco of Fundación Temas.

This organization, with Paz at the helm, attempts to provide at least some encouragement to the children and young adults of the barrio, help in the provision of schooling, a kitchen with free meals, and a boxing club. The idea for the boxing club was inspired by the work of the sociologist Loïc Wacquant who wrote about a similar club in Chicago (and no doubt influenced the makers of the HBO series The Wire). As Pablo explained to me on the drive back into town, Wacqaunt argued that the discipline of boxing, within a defined context where the rules were clear, channeled a good deal of the natural aggression of deprived and ghettoized kids, and provided a focus away from the easy distractions of drugs and crime.

There is very little infant schooling for the children here because the facilities do not exist. Forty per cent of the children in this barrio receive no pre-junior education, and a half of them never reach secondary school.

I didn’t want to take pictures inside the boxing club but the images from the nearby streets give some idea of the kind of place it is. The Riachuelo that flows – no, flow is not the word for the sluggish progress of this viscous and putrid effluvia towards the River Plate and the sea – is supposedly the most polluted river in the western hemisphere. Upstream, a leather factory producing luxury goods spews out contaminant chemicals. A railway line runs between the shacks.

 

Rio Riachuelo . . .

. . . and its contents

Dwellings backing onto the river Riachuelo

Diego Maradona grew up in a place like this, so you can appreciate why the people love him. He is one of theirs.

And in the tiny office of Fundación Temas beside the gym where the boys and girls were boxing – up to a half of the members of the club are girls – was a poster of Che Guevara: the only time I have seen this poster in a place where it makes any sense.

When they asked the kids in this barrio where they would like to go one day, or what they would be interested to find out about, they replied ‘Buenos Aires’. They do not consider themselves a part of the city to which they allegedly belong: it is a foreign world to them and most of the kids have never been there, even though it is only a few miles away.

I have promised to write something for the festival about my impressions of Barracas 21/24 but will find it very hard. Apart from the fact that such places exist – itself a crime against humanity – I have difficulty comprehending the extent of the poverty and deprivation in a place like this, and the effect it must have on a young person as he or she grows up and sees no way out other than through crime or drugs. Western Europe and North America have a problem of obesity among the children of the socially disadvantaged. Here they are lucky to get enough to eat. But strangely the two things – hunger and the excessive consumption of fats and sugars – are not so far removed from one another. Paz tells me that problems of obesity are already on the rise among the poor. Unhappily, capitalism knows this, and the multinational food corporations and outlets such as McDonalds only profit from it.

 

 

 

 

Villa Ocampo

Victoria Ocampo was one of the great patrons of the arts of the first half of the twentieth century. She first published Borges in her magazine Sur and she hosted and promoted writers and artists from around the world on their visits to South America. Among others Igor Stravinsky, Aldous Huxley, Albert Camus, André Malraux, Indira Gandhi, Drieu La Rochelle, Antoine de Saint Exupéry,  Rabindranath Tagore, Albert Camus and Graham Greene were guests at the Villa Ocampo, and Lorca’s Romancero Gitano was published by her.

 

Yesterday, along with Cees Nooteboom and his wife Simone, Minae Mizumura, and the Argentinian novelist Inés Garland (who kindly drove us there), I was a guest at the Villa Ocampo. We had lunch, and then received a guide from the house manager, the exteremely well-informed Nicolás Helft, who presented me with a 1961 issue of Sur that contains the Spanish translation of a short story by Nabokov ‘Scenes from the life of a double monster’ (which appears, in English, in Nabokov’s Dozen) as well as poems by Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

 

The piano that Stravinsky played, with his picture

The house itself is spectacularly lovely, even if the interior veers towards the state of a mausoleum, with rooms kept intact from the era in which they enjoyed their greatest glory. The grounds, filled with great trees and green lawns, once spread down to the River Plate, several blocks away, but is now considerably smaller (though still ample). The odour of privilege wafts around the corridors and up the stairwells. I would not have liked to have got the wrong side of Victoria (and those who crossed her often lived to regret it). So I sat in her chair and meditated on the state of being Victoria Ocampo for a minute or two, and for a brief moment felt the thrill of something like victory. This was quite alarming, although not unpleasant.

Blanco tries out Victoria Ocampo's chair (photo by Simone Sassen)

 

For those who understand Spanish, here is a link that connects to Jorge Fondebrider’s website Club de Traductores de Buenos Aires and a video of my interview and reading from Monday evening.

 

 

 

 

Dancing man to man

Tango was danced between men from the very beginning, since it was considered too immoral for women, although clearly this is only a part of the explanation of man-to-man dancing, and a fuller account is given here .

I cannot vouch for its accuracy, but the site at least has some nice videos of men dancing with men.

The street where I took the photograph is the Calle Florida, which, apart from being the most famous street in the city of Buenos Aires, is closely associated with Borges and all things Borgesian – he lived nearby for many years and was frequently to be seen taking a stroll here. In fact a number of anecdotes about bumping into Borges take place in this street, which also boasts a version of Harrods, smaller than the one in Knightsbridge and currently closed down, but a famous landmark of the city. It opened in 1914 and closed in 1998, but has long been expected to re-open, subject to an extended lawsuit, following its acquisition by Swiss investors.

After taking a couple of pictures I was pursued down the street by a woman who was collecting donations for the dancing men. Since it is a common courtesy to give some money on such occasion, I was happy to donate the loose change I had in my pocket. The woman was clearly not impressed, and snarled at me: ‘is that all?’

What do you say to such a person? That the world is wicked; that dancing in the street never made anyone an honest crust; that we are all destined to be dust; that there is no afterlife? I despair. I continued on my way, to give my talk at the Translator’s Club, and answer questions on topics which, as always, I felt utterly unauthorized to speak about. But this is one of the hazards of being a person impersonator: your grasp of reality is frail and you often forget who it is you are meant to be impersonating; and although yesterday Blanco claimed to be the poet and translator Richard Gwyn, tomorrow he might just as easily turn into an extra from a Nazi zombie movie or invent a cure for hiccups.

A Very Fine Cake Shop and the Palace of Ducks

Pastry Bistro, Plaza William Morris, Buenos Aires

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.

Brazilian cafe in Palermo

Viejo Teodoro in Calle Arenales

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.

Georgina of Pastry Bistro with one of her creations

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.

The Eterna Cadencia bookshop

Blanco taking a rest in the Eterna Cadencia bookshop

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.

Palacio de los patos

 

 

 

Good things about being Welsh: No. 3

We are so kind and noble we allow other teams to beat us at our national sport. I am not absolutely certain this is an asset, but it indicates true strength of character and I am sure the Japanese have a word for this kind of motiveless self-sacrifice.

In today’s Rugby match against South Africa (which I watched at 5.30 a.m. local time despite only returning to my hotel at 2.oo following a reception at the Dutch Embassy in honour of the novelist Cees Nooteboom), the Welsh team played with a conviction and courage that was barely recognizable, and they probably deserved to win, whatever that means. (It means nothing in sport actually, which is the whole point). Ych a fi.

On another note, I was chatting with the Dutch ambassador’s wife last night (I really wanted to use that line, please forgive me) and it seems the British Ambassador is a Welsh woman.That must surely count for something, honouring the bardic tradition etc.  However nothing at all has been set up at the fabulously impressive British Embassy to celebrate Blanco’s arrival in Buenos Aires,  which Blanco feels is rather remiss.

British Embassy, Buenos Aires

But then Cees Nooteboom is famous (as well as seeming a very nice man) and Blanco is not. Apparently when Hanif Kureishi came over they gave him a proper bean feast. Blanco is clearly not important enough. I am not sure how I feel about this, but probably it doesn’t compare with what our national Rugby team will be feeling today

We don’t want your semen here thank you

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.

 

 

 

Joaquín O. Giannuzzi

Illustration of Giannuzzi by Soledad Calés

 

Having written about illness in various media over recent years – principally as a so-called academic and the writer of a memoir, The Vagabond’s Breakfast, I am alert to the ways that other writers approach the subject, and am usually interested in what they have to say (so long as their writing does not launch into tedious new-age rage at the incompetence of ‘Western’ medicine, or degrade itself by spurious claims to the kind of quackery familiar to devotees of certain ‘wellness’ manuals).

 

For Some Reason

I bought coffee, cigarettes, matches.

I smoked, I drank

and faithful to my personal rhetoric

put my feet on the table.

Fifty years old with the certainty of the damned.

Like almost everyone I messed up

without making too much noise;

yawning at nightfall I muttered my disappointment,

and spat on my shadow before going to bed.

This was all the response that I could offer to a world

that claimed from me a character that possibly

didn’t suit me.

Or maybe something else is at stake. Perhaps

there was a different plan for me

in some potential lottery

and my number was lost.

Perhaps no one settles on a strictly private destiny.

Perhaps the tide of history settles it for one and all.

This much remains to me:

a fragment of life that tired me out in advance,

a poem paralyzed halfway towards

an unknown resolution;

dregs of coffee in the cup

that for some reason

I never dared drain to the last drop.

 

On the Other Side

Someone has died on the other side of the wall.

At intervals there is a voice, hemmed in by sobbing.

I am the nearest neighbour and I feel

slightly responsible: blame

always finds an outlet.

In the rest of the building

no one seems to have noticed. They talk,

they laugh, they switch on televisions, they devour

every last scrap of meat and every song. If they knew

what had happened so close by, the thought

of death wouldn’t be sufficient

to alter the cardiac rhythm of the

building’s occupants.

They would push the deceased into the future

and their indifference would have its logic:

after all, no one dies any more than anyone else.

 

Intensive Care

In the bed opposite

the man woke up snoring

his open mouth set

in desperate conviction.

The serum was dripping

into his veins. From my belly

sprouted two plastic tubes

in which a pink foam bubbled

as if it were the definitive language

of my entrails. To one side

someone coughed up

the last of his viscera.

A springtime branch swayed

behind the window’s glass

flaunting the life owed us

in exchange for the disorders

that laid waste to our pale bones.

Everything seemed suspended

between universal infirmity

and the opportunities offered to death.

In the corridor a nurse fluttered by

and we followed her with eyes intent on

laying bare the fermented secret

of our clinical notes:

but we didn’t manage to reach

her distant and weary heart.

 

 

 

The riots: an afterword

Having just read Ken Clarke’s facile, vacuous and pompous account of the recent riots in English cities, Blanco feels moved to chip in.

Clarke makes three points in his article in Monday’s Guardian. The first is that the full force of the law should come crashing down on the ‘feral underclass’ who were responsible for the disturbances and the looting and who now are facing the ‘cold, hard accountability of the dock’. The second is that just about the right degree of ‘robust punishment’ has been exacted on the said feral underclass by the judiciary; and the third is that such individuals – in his opinion ‘the criminal classes . . . who haven’t been changed by their past punishments’ – continue to receive robust punishment in prisons where they learn the ethics of ‘productive hard work’ and where the ‘scandal of drugs being readily available’ is wiped out by paying prison staff by the ‘results’ they achieve rather than by fulfilling ‘processes and box-ticking’.

So far, by my reckoning, he has made more or less the same point, three times.

Finally ‘we need to continue to put rocket boosters on our plans to fix not just criminal justice but education, welfare and family policy’. Wow. How easily that little triptych – education, welfare and family policy – is trotted out. I am bedazzled.

Clarke talks of ‘addressing the appalling social deficit that the riots have highlighted’ but says nothing of the appalling social inequality that ensure the UK remains the most class-ridden and – ironically – the most apolitical nation in Europe.

Another take on the riots comes from Slavoj Žižek in this week’s London Review of Books. Žižek, like a true idealist, bewails the fact that the rioters had no agenda for change, only acting as slaves to a consumer culture that is forever dangled before their eyes but of which they cannot partake: “You call on us to consume while simultaneously depriving us of the means to do it properly” (presumably ‘doing it properly’ would be engaging in what Mr Clarke calls ‘hard graft’ – but alas there are no jobs, or if there are they are total shit and therefore taken by immigrants and would certainly not provide enough remuneration to purchase the goods more easily acquired by lobbing a brick through a shop window and nicking them).

This aspect of things was explored most succinctly in an article in the Argentinian newspaper Clarín, in a report from María Laura Avignolo: “Social inequality divides the poor from the rich, while a ridiculous culture of media celebrity provides a lifestyle model to aspire towards, and ‘reality shows’ a means of salvation and social respectability in a society stratified by a very Victorian vision of class.” Looters, she continues, not only tried on the most fashionable designer clothes for size and fit and chose the best plasma TVs in the store, but destroyed what they could not carry with them “in an attack on the consumer society to which they aspire and cannot belong. The images did not show a social rebellion, but a chilling consumer revenge.”

Such detail is depressing for an idealist such as Žižek, even such an articulate one. One wishes there were something to celebrate about the riots, but sadly there is not. Just a sense of depression, of loss, and of disgust: “And this is the fatal weakness of recent protests: they express an authentic rage which is not able to transform itself into a positive programme of sociopolitical change. They express a spirit of revolt without revolution.”

The most interesting point for me in Žižek’s argument – and at least there were points of interest, unlike the garbage coming from Clarke – was the reference he made to Herbert Marcuse, a philosopher of the 1960s whom I remember reading avidly as a sixteen year old, high on dreams of revolution. Marcuse argued that human drives could be desublimated (the term he used was ‘repressive desublimation’) but still remain subject to capitalist control. “On British streets during the unrest” writes Žižek, “what we saw was not men reduced to ‘beasts’, but the stripped down form of the ‘beast’ produced by capitalist ideology.”

How far we have come since the days of Che.