Ricardo Blanco's Blog

Of Nooteboom, Jünger, Céline, and assorted literary gossip

I can confess without shame that occasionally I am persuaded to buy a book on the strength of the cover, and it was certainly a factor in selecting Cees Nooteboom’s collection of stories, published by the superb Maclehose Press. This was before I met Nooteboom and, since I was told I would be doing an event with him at the Translator’s Club in Buenos Aires, thought I had better read at least something by the man, who is very highly regarded in continental Europe and elsewhere, if not in the United Kingdom. Not that this counts for much, as there are many writers who are well-known in the rest of the world but are far less well-known in Britain than our own great authors like Katie Price or Russell Brand, to name but two, or say, more realistically, than Geoff Dyer or Tom Raworth, but hell, who cares. In the end I never got around to reading the book until the weekend just past, and can reveal that – unless I missed something important – none of the stories has anything to do with foxes or with Gauguin (from whose painting the cover picture is taken).

But back to my main gripe, our misguided isolationism, which is reflected in the inability of publishers to translate great works of literature what are writ in the foreign, and that most hideous of ailments, little-Englandism.

Since David Cameron has now put the interests of his chums in the City of London ahead of anyone or anything else, and has decided that the bankers are so good at making things happen that they might as well be given a free hand; and since the rest of Europe is, sensibly, in disagreement, it seems likely that within a couple of decades, our islands will be floundering in mid-Atlantic, spurned both by Europe and our North American cousins (what special relationship?), a non-productive, antisocial wasteland, with a tiny privileged elite and a humungus underclass of the poor and unskilled, and little in between. A bit like Latin America in the seventies. Britain will then have to re-invent itself as a ‘developing country’.

Ernst Jünger

Now where was I? Nooteboom told me he once met (or rather crept up on) Ernst Jünger in the Prado, and introduced himself, at which Jünger made a joke about his (Nooteboom’s) surname. The joke was in German though, and involved wordplay which I, as a non-German-speaking non-Dutch-speaker, did not understand. Such trifles do not concern Nooteboom however, who continued with his story regardless. If you speak six or more languages with apparent ease, as Nooteboom does, you tend to get flippant. Ernst Jünger: a truly fascinating character, who has a cameo role in both Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, thus I have been reminded of his existence twice in recent times. Is that a sign? (Normally I would interpret that as a message that I need to look him up and read something by him, but since I am not reading novels right now will have to hang on, unless I want to read his essay ‘On Pain’, which I don’t fancy. Or perhaps I will, pain being quite a salient topic.) Needless to say his work is pitifully hard to find in English, considering he is rated as one of the most important German authors of the 20th century. Nearly all of his 52 books are available in French, but only five could I find in English translation. Apparently this is largely to do with the fact that Jünger – although not a member of the Nazi party, and peripherally involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 – served as an officer in the German army, held strongly Nietzschean views promoting the model of an heroic masculinity, and was an anti-semite, at least during the 1930s. I’m not saying he was a good person; undoubtedly he had issues, don’t we all, but he was not half as bad as the Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for example, an out-and-out Jew-hating fascist maniac, and yet Céline is held in high regard as a literary figure – by those who have read him – in both Britain and the USA, in spite of his despicable opinions, and much of his work is translated

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline was definitely a prize shit, and no doubt deserves our opprobrium, but less specifically I often wonder how come we are so ready to condemn how others behaved in times that we cannot begin to understand, when, as we have seen before on Blanco’s Blog, complicity is just another way of getting on with life, and avoiding persecution? We might perhaps take the trouble to ask ourselves just how we would have behaved. It is easy to bask in the safety of the present and cast aspersions on those who came before.

So, where were we? Is digression really such a good thing, when you lose your place so frequently, and so thoroughly? I was going to write about Nooteboom’s collection of stories. So here we go. He is superb at evoking the peculiar world of northern European expats (Dutch and British) living out their blinkered lives under the Spanish or Italian sun. He writes with an understated, poetic prose, that suits the topic which surfaces at some point in most or all of these stories, which is that of a lost and, at times barely remembered love. The theme is addressed in soft focus in nearly all these stories, and present through its absence in the longest one, ‘Heinz’, which accounts for a third of the pages in the book, and describes the slow alcoholic decrement of its eponymous protagonist. Heinz was once married to Arielle, whose flower-adorned grave the narrator discovers one day, four decades after her death. Apart from learning that Arielle died in 1962 at the age of 22, we know practically nothing about her, yet she inhabits the centre of the story with a stubborn grace, unavoidable in her absence. This is pretty masterfully achieved by Nooteboom, and I was impressed by the fluency of Ina Rilke’s translation, but nonetheless, despite the dictum that less is more and Hemingway’s iceberg theory, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have liked to get to know Arielle a bit, as she could not have been less interesting than the other members of the cast.

Nooteboom at the Dutch Embassy, Buenos Aires, September 2011

My two favourite stories were ‘Thunderstorm’, set on an out-of-season Spanish island (perhaps Menorca, as that is where Nooteboom lives), in which a couple are having a spectacular row in a café: the man walks out in a strop and is struck by lightning; and ‘Late September’ – another story set in a windswept rainy resort on a Spanish island – in which Suzy, a 79-year old British widow (smokes Dunhill, drives into town every day for the Daily Mail) has a desultory, what shall we call it, affair, with a 63 year old waiter, Luis, for whom she always leaves something out for him to ‘find’ on his nocturnal visits, except on this night, when:

All that remained was to wait for the creak of the door, the smell of whisky on his breath, those strange, halting grunts accompanied by sudden thrusts of astonishing vigour, which had more to do with rage and endemic disappointment than with anything else.

Christ. An afterthought. As life expectancy continues to grow, and third-age sex lives thrive, can we expect an upsurge in geriatric porn? Does it already exist? Do I want to find out?

The strange and displaced lives of Brits in exile under the sun has been explored in different ways by Graham Greene, J.G Ballard (in Cocaine Nights) and now Nooteboom, a non-Brit but most astute observer, makes a valid contribution. It is a world that no doubt contains untold fictional riches, but first, I guess, you have to do the fieldwork.

 

 

 

 

And Borges too

What makes a piece of critical writing ‘creative’? How do we distinguish between ‘creative’ and ‘critical’ writing? Does anyone care?

Is the literary world divided between ‘creative’ writers and ‘critics’ or is this a fantastically outdated model? Who writes the best criticism of fiction; literary critics or other fiction writers?

If you read Tuesday’s post about Roberto Bolaño and what he had to say about good, creative criticism being an integral part of literature, then I suggest you take a look at what Bolaño’s fairy godfather, Borges had to say on the same theme:

. . .  as to Eliot, at first I thought of him as being a finer critic than a poet; now I think that sometimes he is a very fine poet, but as a critic I find that he’s too apt to be always drawing fine distinctions. If you take a great critic, let’s say, Emerson or Coleridge, you feel he has read a writer, and that his criticism comes from his personal experience of him, while in the case of Eliot you always think – at least I always feel – that he’s agreeing with some professor or slightly disagreeing with another. Consequently, he’s not creative. He’s an intelligent man who’s drawing fine distinctions, and I suppose he’s right; but at the same time after reading, to take a stock example, Coleridge on Shakespeare, especially on the character of Hamlet, a new Hamlet has been created for you, or after reading Emerson on Montaigne or whoever it may be. In Eliot there are no such acts of creation. You feel that he has read many books on the subject – he’s agreeing or disagreeing – sometimes making slightly nasty remarks, no?

(from The Paris Review Interviews, Vol 1 p. 137)

So when Borges says about a critic’s words needing to be based on a ‘personal experience’ of a writer, that is, as a reader, then we are on precisely the same ground as Bolaño saying that a critic needs to be a reader, and that if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, [they] are also throwing everything overboard.

Again, back to reading. I am a writer, that is to say, a reader who writes. Sometimes, the acts of reading and writing become contiguous, such as now, and I forget where the one ends and the other begins. But essentially I have learned this through the process of reading and writing, and what both Borges and Bolaño write only serves to confirm it: a good writer, a certain kind of good writer, always leaves me wanting to drop the book and start writing. A good critic, by which I mean a creative critic, almost always has the same effect. Bad writing, by contrast – either bad fiction or bad criticism – simply sucks energy from its reader, before the book is cast aside with a curse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bolaño and criticism

My last night in Mexico, after a quiet dinner with a friend, I dreamed a strange and involved kind of dream that, when I awoke, left an aftereffect of mystery and sadness. Bolaño was there; my friend also (who in fact knew Bolaño far better than I ever did) and we were in a city that felt like Barcelona, but might have been Guadalajara. It was cold. We were walking back from a party at dawn; myself, my friend and Bolaño. A car pulled up. The driver and the passengers all wore masks; wolfmask, pigmask, V for vendetta, something else. They offered us a ride to the next party, we said we’d rather walk. I don’t think we were going to a party. Near the cathedral a river was flowing and in the dirty brown, fast-flowing water was all the furniture of the city: desks, bookcases, refrigerators, lampshades, sofas, kitchen tables, dishwashers. I remember thinking it was important to remember all this, but when I woke could not think why it might be important, nor what happened next.

So when I get home I start reading through a book of interviews with Bolaño, interviews I have read before in Spanish and am now reading in English. There are a few silly mistakes in the translation of one of them. And then I notice a passage that I remember from before, I mean remember having noted it the first time I read in, in the original. Bolaño is answering a question about the relationship of writers to critical writing:

Literary criticism is a discipline that represents more for me than literature. Literature is prose, novel and short story, dramaturgy, poetry, and literary essays and literary criticism. Above all, I think it is necessary that there be literary criticism – without accident – in our countries, not ten lines about an author the critic will probably never read again. That is to say, it’s necessary to have criticism that mends the literary landscape along the way . . . I view criticism as a literary creation, not just as the bridge that unites the reader with the writer. Literary critics, if they do not assume themselves to be the reader, are also throwing everything overboard. The interesting thing about literary critics, and that is where I ask for creativity from literary criticism, creativity at all levels, is that he assumes himself to be the reader, an endemic reader capable of arguing a reading, of proposing diverse readings, like something completely different from what criticism tends to be, which is like an exegesis or a diatribe. For me, Harold Bloom is an example of a notable critic, although I am generally in disagreement with him, and even enraged by him, but I like to read him. Or Steiner. The French have a long tradition of very creative critics and essayists who are very good, who illuminate not just one work but a whole era of literature, sometimes committing grave mistakes, but us narrators and writers also commit errors.

If we ignore a couple of mistranslations (what can he have meant by “without accident”?; “narrators” is better translated here as storytellers or even novelists) this passage reflects a fairly radical approach whereby Bolaño sees critical writing as not simply an extension of (or a parasite upon) ‘creative writing’ but as an essential component of it. His writing is full of writers and of critics (one thinks especially of the four literary scholars in Part One of 2666) and there is throughout his work a sense of a writer observing himself at work. This accounts in part for his apparent indifference, at times, to the actions of his protagonists – the kind of utterances that populate his work, that go like: “he might have said so-and-so but equally he might have said such-and such”; “she took the book from the table, or was it the photograph, I forget, and held it tightly to her chest”  (no, these aren’t precise examples, I don’t have time to search, I have to go to work, but you get my drift): it seems at times as if Bolaño is a writer observing himself ‘doing writing’. I am not sure if this is the same as meta-fiction, it probably is, and there is certainly an element of detached self-criticism. (I should find genuine examples if I am to do this properly, otherwise I will end up writing a blog that consists of a dream and a series of suppositions about Bolaño’s writing that uses examples I have made up). But what strikes me more than anything is Bolaño’s generosity of spirit towards criticism, of viewing it as being part and parcel of the same enterprise upon which we are embarked as writers, and to which he urges us to return. This is why he emphasises that critics should “assume themselves to be the reader”, something which is clearly not the case in a lot of academic criticism. When writers write criticism there is, it seems to me, a greater consideration of the work as something to be read rather than, for example, as a statement of intent, a reflection of a particular cultural factor such as the exploitation of women by men, or an examination of social class in 19th century London. This is not to say that these considerations are not important, but as a part of the whole, as a part of the reading experience itself, which tends to get neglected in a focus on the particular.

Bolaño’s comments on Bloom and Steiner are particularly interesting, since these two critics have been the object of sustained attacks by the mafia of literary and critical theory, and yet, in my experience, are the kind of critics (along with Blanchot and Bataille, for example, from the French contingent) favoured by many writers of my acquaintance, at the expense of scholars more favoured by the academy. But maybe this is not the case, I’m not sure.

 

 

 

 

The Lady Macbeth Stain Remover

The Guadalajara Book Fair closes today and Blanco is back in Wales. A friend emails from Mexico that they (meaning the assassins referred to in Friday’s post) ‘have still not shot any writers yet, even the bad ones.’ I am relieved, as I would certainly like to go back to the feria del libro, if I am invited. Now that The Vagabond’s Breakfast has been accepted by Argentinian publisher Bajo la Luna, there is a possibility that I might be. For those who read Spanish, an account of Blanco’s performance (and a suitably haggard representation of the author) entitled ‘La mirada del vagabundo/The gaze of the vagabond’, which was hosted quite delightfully by Jorge F. Hernández last Tuesday can be found here.

Although I claimed last during the week that I would not be reading any novels for a year, I cheated, since I was already reading David Enrique Spellman’s Far South when I started the immense The Kindly Ones, and finished it off in Atlanta airport while waiting for my change of plane. Far South is an intriguing experiment in genre writing by a novelist (Spellman is a nom de plume and it is not for me to reveal his identity) who has changed style and theme with each of his four novels. This latest offering is pacey and political, with a fairly representative hard-boiled private dick narrator, subverting the detective novel genre at the same time as subscribing (mostly) to its format. This subversion of a particular mode of telling (or of reading) extends far beyond the book itself: it presumes an invented world – like all fiction – but one which leads into labyrinthine tunnels of consequence, if one takes up the challenge. Spellman is, essentially, questioning the way we invent and receive stories, and his several narrators are all dependent on each other to secure a sequential unreliability. And there is more: as I mentioned in my post from Montevideo, ‘Far South’ is itself a larger project – or collective – consisting of videos and audio clips and installations, to which punters can subscribe and add comments. It might well be a direction that narrative fiction will follow in the near future, particularly well-adapted to e-readers/online reading, as one can switch from written text to videoclip to audio as and when one wishes. I am fascinated to see what ‘Spellman’ comes up with next.

As I still had the onward flight to London to look forward to, I read 24 for 3 by Jennie Walker (another alias, this time for poet and publisher Charles Boyle), which doesn’t really break my commitment as, at 138 sparsely populated pages, it is a short novella or long story, therefore not falling within the prohibited zone. I thoroughly enjoyed 24 for 3, which I finished on the train from Gatwick to Cardiff. It is a delicious story, told with classical economy and a real delight in its subject matter – cricket, sex, parenthood, love – which teases the pleasure points and inspires the reader to drift into secondary or tertiary digression. Surely one of the more neglected benefits of reading, this, the capacity of a piece of writing to inspire creative daydreaming. A gorgeous, elevating read.

I heard the Mexican poet Luis Felipe Fabre read the poem below at an open-air reading in Rosario, Argentina at the end of September. Later that night I went out with him and a few other poets from the festival to a rather poor transvestite show. I never quite got the idea of men dressing up as women. I mean, I don’t get what’s supposed to be funny about it. It seems to particularly affect Latin cultures, which traditionally have a strong macho streak. Perhaps I’m missing something, but if so cannot imagine what it might be. Luis didn’t seem particularly interested either, and we went along because our friends – Los Gays  – were going and we were a part of their gang so went along too.

Luis’ poetry engages with social and political issues of the everyday while drawing back from the more overt banalities of social realism. His poetry collections are Vida quieta (2000), Una temporada en el Mictlán (2003) and Cabaret Provenza (2007). Anyway, here is my translation of the poem he read that midday in Rosario, which gives a flavour of the quotidian presence of violence in Mexico, in which a TV commercial is imagined that reflects the irrepressible logic of consumer culture, flogging a cosmetic product that can wipe away even the most corrosive traces of everyday murder.

 

Infommercial                                                                  Luis Felipe Fabre

 

Señora Housewife: are you sick and tired

of scrubbing night and day

clots of impossible-to-remove blood

from the clothes of all your family?

 

Do the entrails spattered on the walls of your house

prevent you from sleeping?

Have you found yourself exclaiming like a sleepwalker:

“Out, damned spot, out I say!”?

 

Now you can buy

Lady Macbeth Stain Remover

and put an end to those viscous nightmares!

 

Lady Macbeth Stain Remover

is made up from a base of scavenger micro-organisms

that will do your dirty work for you

eliminating

cadaverous remains

without damaging the surfaces to which they are stuck:

scientifically proven!

 

Señora, you know it: killing

is easy. The difficult part comes later.

 

But now

Lady Macbeth Stain Remover offers you

an incredible solution that will revolutionize domestic hygiene:

 

Say goodbye to the trace of brains from your favourite armchair!

Say goodbye to those bloodied rugs!

Take a note now of the number that appears on your screen

or call 01800 666

and receive along with your purchase

a multifunctional applicator and a packet of body bags

absolutely free!

 

With the Lady Macbeth Stain Remover

you will be able to sleep

like a true queen.

 

 

 

 

Books and guns in Guadalajara

One of the great pleasures of the Guadalajara Feria del Libro is the spirit of festivity and celebration. Being a Latin affair, the partying is intense and persistent. Fortunately for his readers, Blanco is a restrained sort of chap these days, and since time is limited, would prefer to have a quiet meal with friends rather than to go off on reckless jaunts into the rosy-fingered dawn. However on Tuesday night there was a big do at the house of the Book Fair President, Raúl Padilla, and I went along, easing past the ranks of some very frightening bodyguards into the fabulously well-furnished salón, to enjoy a buffet of epic proportions, and to eavesdrop on the spirited banter of the guests. There is a bit of a bun fight as to who will be invited to be the host country (this year it is Germany’s turn, and next year Chile). There has never been an English-speaking nation, but Ireland are working on a bid for 2013, which might be fun.

 

Blanco with Wendy Guerra and Andrés Neuman

 

Blanco was also able to meet up, quite fortuitously, with two of his favourite Spanish-language writers, both of whom he recently translated for Poetry Wales, the enchanting Cuban Wendy Guerra (who has just brought out a fictionalised account of Anaïs Nin’s time in Cuba called Posar desnuda en La Habana) and the no less gorgeous – and brilliant – Andrés Neuman, whose prize-winning novel Traveller of the Century will be available in English translation in February (published simultaneously by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the USA and Pushkin Press in the UK).

While talking of favourite writers, I must confess to having met two of my literary heroes, neither of them well enough known in the Anglo-Saxon world, but giants in Latin America. I was introduced to Juan Gelman, the finest Argentinian poet of his generation and a strong contender for the Nobel Prize. Gelman’s is a complicated and tragic story, the essentials of which can be read here, but if you have not read him, please try the excellent translations by Katherine Hedeen and Victor Rodríguez Nuñez in The Poems of Sidney West, published by Salt.

The novelist Sergio Ramírez – who was vice-president of Nicaragua after the Sandinista revolution of 1979, but has since seriously fallen out with the corrupt regime of his onetime-comrade, Daniel Ortega – is perhaps best known for his own powerful and moving account of the revolution, Adiós muchachos but his short stories and a couple of his novels are available in English also. The two of them were enjoying a few tequilas, so I didn’t hang around, but Gelman was very genial, and seemed genuinely pleased when my friend told him I was working on a selected poems of Joaquín Giannuzzi into English (forthcoming with CB Editions).

Strangely enough, I didn’t find out Wednesday night, but the week before the Book Fair there was a mass execution carried out in the city, and the bodies of 26 men, bound and gagged, were found in three trucks only a mile from the Expo Centre where the Book Fair was held (read more here).

Since the Book Fair was celebrating its 25th anniversary the joke was going around that they had chosen to murder 25 and one for luck. Or something. Just to give a signal. It illustrates perfectly the precarious balance of daily life in Mexico today; the contrast between the genuine warmth and hospitality of the Mexican people and the horrific and appalling violence that erupts with such regularity, and which so profoundly colours the outside world’s perception of this fascinating, dangerous and beautiful country.

 

 

 

 

 

Dog-throwing in Zapotlanejo and other rare feats

Blanco is renowned for his benevolent nature and willingness to engage in Good Works, especially the healthful encouragement of youth (or what employers insist on calling ‘community engagement’, or even worse, in the university sector ‘impact factors’ – I can barely believe I am saying this) so it will come as no surprise to learn that my visit to the Zapotlanejo High School was a resounding success.

Despite admitting to a certain nervousness in my last post, once the nettle was grasped – or the cactus, more appropriately – everything went swimmingly. First I had to meet the mayor of this small provincial town for handshakes and the obligatory photo session, and received a gift of a history book detailing the beginnings of the Mexican revolution – the war of independence against the Spanish – which was fomented in this region, we set off for the school, where, escorted by two stunningly elegant pupils garbed in regional costume, and to a deafening fanfare of trumpets, such as greets the toreador entering the bullring (I kid you not dear reader) I was introduced to my audience of 16-17 years olds..

Blanco with escorts

The reality was far more pleasant than a corrida, and less bloody. After the usual embarrassing introduction, from the headmaster, I managed to blather on fitfully in Spanish for twenty minutes on the theme of ‘being a writer’ or ‘how I became a writer’, and read a couple of poems, which the English teacher, Carlos, delivered in translation. By which time I felt I’d said enough and opened it up to the floor, rather a dangerous move considering the reluctance of teenagers to be seen to respond positively under these strenuous circumstances. But they reacted marvellously, humouring me – or perhaps even taking pity – by bombarding me with civil, intelligent and even (from one gangster youth near the back) with considerable wit. The most astute question came from a young fellow in a hoodie who asked, more or less, ‘how do you know, when you get to the end of a page, that the words you have chosen are the right ones?’ Most of the kids laughed at him, but I thought it was rather perceptive, and said dammit, that’s what bothers me all the time, jolly good question my lad. So all the kids who had laughed were then booed by the kids who liked the hoodie kid. And so on. We all had a grand time. They had even made a Welsh flag especially for the occasion and some of my new fans posed with me for a picture afterwards.

El Puente de Calderón

My hosts insisted on taking me to a nearby Place of Historical Importance, where the first major battle of the war of independence took place, at Puente de Calderón. There, beneath the blazing Jalisco sun, I found out about the details of the conflict, explained to me by Carlos, and when I clambered through the scrub to take a picture of the bridge wondered if there were rattlesnakes – I was assured there were – and wondered yet again at the indefatigable capacity of our species to slaughter one another without respite. I also discovered a new addition to my collection of weird signs, which reads ‘Se prohibe tirar perros’, literally, ‘it is forbidden to throw dogs’, or less literally, to take them to the park and leave them there, a horribly cruel thing to do in any case, but one which encourages the formation of packs of feral dogs who then start to become a menace, as well as shitting everywhere, as Carlos explained. While there, we bumped into the local captain of police, a short but very well-built gentleman with many gold teeth. We fell into conversation and he explained to my hosts about a recent raid that he had led, and which had featured in the news. It involved an organised assault on a drug manufacturing laboratory and resulted in many arrests and a number of deaths. When they had finished, he told us, without any sense of false modesty or exaggeration, the ground outside the laboratory was carpeted with thousands of empty cartridges. He actually seemed a mellow-mannered, thoughtful fellow, but I wouldn’t want to get into a gunfight with him. ‘Mexico is a country of many faces’, said the history teacher, as we walked back to the car.

it is forbidden to throw dogs

So, my respects to local culture completed, we set out to eat at a fabulous restaurant where great slabs of meat and half sheep were skewered and cooked around a blazing fire of oak. We ate and drank to the tuneful accompaniment of a mariachi band. Then it was all over and I had to return to Guadalajara to conduct Literary Affairs and to star in an event called La Mirada del Vagabundo or ‘The Gaze of the Vagabond’. It was only when the event had ended and people started to queue up to buy signed copies of said book that I realised I ought to have brought some with me. Oops.

The Kindly Ones

Well, I finished The Kindly Ones on the way here, actually at a little eatery called One Flew South in Atlanta airport, the only place that wasn’t a McDonalds or a Dunkin’ Donuts. The ending was a bit of a let down: I won’t spoil it for you, but it is set in the Berlin zoo as the Russians finally take the city centre. The zoo has taken direct hits from Soviet artillery, all the animals are either wounded and bellowing or else roaming free, and Max, our narrator, gets himself into a bit of a pickle with the two rather odd Thompson and Thomson-style detectives who have been tracking him for half the book, on and off, for the alleged murder of his mother and step-father. Max conducts himself particularly badly, even by SS standards, but then he is a Lieutenant-Colonel by now, as well as quite barking. In fact his last memorable act – and this I must reveal, so stop here if you intend to read the book – is at a medal-giving ceremony in Hitler’s bunker, no doubt the last such ceremony the Führer officiated at. Max has been awarded other medals (he already has an iron cross first class for being bravely shot through the head at Stalingrad) but since he is one of the few senior officers not to have fled Berlin, they think he deserves another one:

As the Führer approached me – I was almost at the end of the line – my attention was caught by his nose. I had never noticed how broad and ill-proportioned this nose was. In profile, the little moustache was less distracting and the nose could be seen more clearly: it had a wide base and flat bridges, a little break in the bridge emphasised the tip; it was clearly a Slavonic or Bohemian nose, nearly Mongolo-Ostic. I don’t know why this detail fascinated me, but I found it almost scandalous. The Führer approached and I kept observing him. Then he was in front of me. I saw with surprise that his cap scarcely reached my eyes; and yet I am not tall. He muttered his compliment and groped for the medal. His foul, fetid breath overwhelmed me: it was too much to take. So I leaned forward and bit into his bulbous nose, drawing blood. Even today I would be unable to tell you why I did this: I just couldn’t restrain myself. The Führer let out a shrill cry and leaped back into Bormann’s arms. There was an instant when no one moved. Then several men lay into me.

The effect of this passage is shocking to the reader, in part because up to this point (we are on page 960) everything that has happened has been feasible, if not historically authenticated; Max’s experience of the massacre at Babi Yar, the battle of Stalingrad, the shenanigans among the leadership, the ostracism of Speer by elements of the SS because he wanted to deploy concentration camp inmates as armaments factory workers rather than killing the lot – most everything is the book, other than the character of Max himself, is historically based: and then this marvellous touch, with Max biting Hitler’s nose. I was so surprised I nearly fell off my chair – Demay (or was it Demaine or Deraine?) who was ‘looking after me today’ in One Flew South, was discreet enough not to ask why it took me two hours to eat a portion of sushi – and I truly thought this was an audacious move on the novelist’s part, to have his character bite Hitler’s nose. After all this tension, the massive build up of suffering and terror and slaughter, to have the whole thing brought into close-up: the suggestion that Hitler was far from a perfect example of the Aryan race he sought to perpetuate; that indeed his proboscis indicated Slavic, possibly even more degenerate racial roots, was to Max, ‘scandalous’, serves to explode the tension in a surprisingly effective way. “Trevor-Roper, I know, never breathed  a word about this episode, nor has Bullock, nor any of the historians who have studied the Führer’s last days. Yet it did take place, I assure you.” I will not reveal how Max manages to get himself out of this final indiscretion, but it is quite reasonable that he does: and by this point anyway, you just want to get to the end.

Reading Jonathan Littell’s book, however, knowing how slow a reader I am, and the amount of time it has taken me while I might usefully have been employed reading other things has helped bring me to a decision: that for the next year I will only be reading short fiction and poetry. I don’t know if I can stick to it but we’ll see. If nothing else, I will acquire a new acquaintanceship with the short story, which will be fun, and certainly less exhausting.

But right now I must prepare some notes to deliver a talk to a hundred or so Mexican High School kids, on the theme of ‘How I became a writer’. Gulp. Why did I agree to this? I had the choice and could have said no. The truth is, I said it to accommodate the person who asked, at the time a distant and unknown Book Fair official. But what does it take to back out now? In future I  think I will cultivate a Beckettian or Pynchonesque silence on matters of self-disclosure – not easy if one is the author of a ‘memoir’. Truly, why put oneself through this kind of thing? But then again, after The Kindly Ones, it’s bound to be a doddle.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Holy Coyote

What are the chances of bashing your head on the protuberant arm of the TV bracket twice in your hotel room in the space of ten minutes? The second time my head bled so profusely by the time I got to the bathroom I looked like an extra from a zombie/slash/horror movie. Never mind. I’ve moved the table where I type away from the wall now. As far as it can possibly go.

Today I was taken to lunch in El Santo Coyote restaurant, and in the shady garden (where, as usual, according to the sign, invasion is prohibited – please see my post from Montevideo on this recurrent theme) complete with waterfall, your man comes to the table with mortar and pestle made from volcanic rock and, after asking if you like your salsa hot or what, he begins to pummel it into shape before your eyes. With chilli, garlic, some variety of parsley, and then tomato. And hell, yes, it works.

The blurb on the menu of The Holy Coyote tells of the thirteen Sioux tribes and all that shamanistic stuff. I love it. All my Carlos Castaneda comes flooding back: I will meet my ally soon, or dance with coyotes into the dark chasms of forgetting. But probably not tonight. After the bump on my head I’m half way there anyway, forgot just about everything today, including my ticket for the Herta Müller dramatization/reading at the theatre. I’ve forgotten what else I forgot but will probably find out tomorrow if I manage to sleep.

As for the food from the north of Mexico – so not, strictly speaking, indigenous to Guadalajara – I take off my hat, the hat that would, if it existed, cover my poor skull. But since my literary activities don’t begin in earnest until tomorrow, and the sun is shining, it was good to look around and see what is what.

But without invading anything or anyone, if possible.

And before they serve you any lunch you must first answer the riddle posed by the two sacred dollies of the coyote shrine

 

 

 

 

 

Down Mexico Way

Over the next few days, the International Book Fair of Guadalajara will be taking place in Mexico.

Guadalajara is noteworthy for actually inviting numbers of that marginal group in the production of the book, the writer – rather than just the important figures, the publishers and literary agents, for whom these affairs are generally designed. Blanco’s previous visits to Book Fairs (London, twice, and Istanbul, once) apart from being immensely tedious, impressed on him the fact that writers merely represented the messy, grubby end of the publishing process, and if it were at all possible, the agents and publishers would prefer to dispose with them altogether.

Anyhow, the rather novel idea of inviting writers as a major feature of the thing has, contrary to expectations, meant that Guadalajara has gained the reputation of being far and away the most interesting of the world’s book fairs, so that is where Blanco is headed after receiving an invitation from the kind festival administrators back in September. It will involve giving a couple of readings, talking about The Vagabond’s Breakfast (if anyone is interested) and making a visit to a local High School where the students will be waltzed around Blanco’s eerily vacant warehouse of wisdom on literary matters.

Blanco was also told, by an informant who would prefer to remain anonymous, that on arrival at the Book Fair, participants are directed towards a discrete figure who will sell them peyote, the fiercely hallucinogenic recreational drug favoured by Carlos Castaneda’s guru Don Juan, and, with a markedly less spiritual dimension, the late lamented Hunter S. Thompson. This is in order to prevent the punters at the festival from getting hold of the wrong stuff, which I am assured can be very bad for the head.  But before anyone starts to fret, or worries that Blanco’s posts from Mexico might become a little, shall we say, confused over the next few days, let me assure you that he is in Guadalajara strictly for professional duties. Indeed, he will leave the recreational side of things to agents and other ne’er-do-wells.

But before packing my toothbrush, just take a look at Mr Scott Pack’s review of Holly Howitt’s unjustly neglected short novel The Schoolboybetter still, buy it yourself. It is, quite simply one of the most impressive first novels (written when the author was 22) that I have read in a long and grizzled career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An inspirational woman

As readers of The Vagabond’s Breakfast might recall, just over thirty years ago I stood trial at a crown court in London, charged with theft and fraud. I had been working as a milkman, and in the freezing winter of 1978-9 I drove my little milk float from the depot in Dalston, along the icy roads of north London to Highbury and up the Holloway Road, delivering milk and butter and eggs and bread to the good people of Finsbury Park. Alas, from time to time my customers would be short of a few quid to pay their bill; alas, from time to time the odd few pints of milk and a half-dozen eggs went walkies from the back of the float. The outcome was, after several frozen weeks, what with my bad hand and one thing and another, I chucked the job in. A few days later I was picked up by plainclothes cops while returning from breakfast at my local cafe in Shoreditch, and hey presto, I’m in the nick being charged with this that and the other. A ‘milkman of ill repute’, quipped my arresting officer, introducing me to a colleague in the charge office of Dalston police station, before threatening me with a good kicking and telling me he was going to send me down. That I did not go down was due principally to the good offices of my barrister, a young Glaswegian with a cheeky face and a bit of an attitude by the name of Helena Kennedy. The details of the events in court are still etched in my memory, especially the way she turned one of the prosecution witnesses, effectively, into one of ours, in a moment of staggeringly inspired guesswork.

Last evening I met up with Helena again, for the first time since our appearance in court and my unconditional discharge in January 1981. I did not think for a moment that she would remember me, but – quite unaware that we would meet – she greeted me like an old friend, kissed me on both cheeks, and recited one or two details of my trial that only someone with a phenomenal memory could possibly have retained. Then she told me that mine was the only case of fraud she had ever taken on, which made me feel rather special.

Helena was in Cardiff as a guest of the University, where she delivered the Haydn Ellis memorial lecture. She purportedly spoke on Globalisation and the Individual, but in fact covered just about everything: the Human Rights Act, the erosion of democracy in our national institutions, the dismantling of legal aid, the diluting of the founding principles of the national health service, the role of workers in helping decide the salaries of corporate directors, the increasing social divide, the obscenity of the banks, and her support for the Occupy movement. It was an inspirational lecture, and for once I felt proud to be associated with the institution at which I work, for having invited her. Helena is a national treasure. If only there were more like her.

 

 

 

 

 

Radio Bards and an Homuncular Misfit

Saturday Morning Porridge

Few things are quite so guaranteed to make me come out in a rash as a BBC Radio 4 poet blathering on in rhyming couplets while I’m attempting to stir the porridge. This morning I almost fell over the cat as I hurled myself across the kitchen to switch off some dementedly cheerful bard on Saturday Morning Live.  I don’t think it was Wendy Cope or Pam Ayres (though I really have no way of discriminating between these people, they are all equally awful). In fact Roger McGough is not much better, or (yawn) Andrew Motion or any of the other so-called interesting poets who jolly along in a British sort of way. I can’t say I enjoy listening to poetry on the radio at all, it’s something about the terribly twee way the BBC goes about presenting the stuff, and the awfully selfconscious way that poets go about reading their work, as though they were reciting from the Bible – or worse, were super-selfconsciously reading from the Bible when pretending NOT to read from the Bible, with all those awful Eliotesque or Churchillian High Rising Tones at the end of lines that actually make me want to barf, make me want to have nothing to do with the stuff. Toxic, it is.

Which might strike you as kind of odd coming from a poet, or one who writes and performs poetry, like myself.

The problem is, I don’t really enjoy poetry readings either. Maybe one in a hundred, and then I absolutely love them. But they are incredibly rare events and I can never predict when it is going to happen. I managed to truly enjoy a joint reading by Derek Walcott and Joseph Brodsky in Cardiff County Hall back at the beginning of the 1990s. I heard an amazing reading by Sharon Olds in Stirling in 2004. I listened to a hugely powerful reading by the revolutionary poet priest Ernesto Cardenal in Nicaragua last year. But granted these were practitioners of excellence (and I have heard Walcott read on other occasions when he has not been that clever). And occasionally I enjoy cosy, informal readings by people who understand that poetry does not have to be a form of display behaviour, such as my friends Patrick McGuinness and Tiffany Atkinson, who both read very well. And a handful of others. But even the ones I like I can only abide in small doses, and even then am not certain I would be able to sit out a full-length radio performance without beginning to fidget.

The truth is, I suppose, that, unfashionably, I prefer to read poetry, in the quiet solitude of my darkened room. I prefer to read it to myself, and imagine its sounds, sometimes out loud, sometimes in my head, but in solitude: just me and the poet. Then, if I don’t like what I’m hearing I can just turn the page, or close the book; something which is not so easily achieved at a poetry reading. Even when the poetry (as at most public Open Mics) is so appallingly bad as to promote immediate self-immolation, it is difficult to leave without drawing attention to oneself. Even propelled by an immediate need to leave the room, to breathe fresh air, if not to commit some terrible violent crime or murder an innocent bystander, one risks the condemnatory glances of audience members (all of whom are aspiring bards themselves). The awful, depressing truth is that every one of the participants at these gloomy affairs believes, at heart, that they are touched by genius. If only others could see it, the world would be a better place. It makes me want to weep, honest: it is such a tragic expression of doomed human endeavour. But still.

David Greenslade is an extraordinary, shamanistic, performer of his work; and a writer of a different order. One of the most startling and memorable readings I can recall was his performance at Hay-on-Wye some years ago, surrounded by an array of glorious vegetables, items of which he would produce from time to time during the course of the event – leek, radish, rhubarb, beetroot, soil-encrusted carrot – in sequential explosions of purposeful poem-making.  And his latest book, Homuncular Misfit is, true to form, both bonkers and brilliant. It is, en passant, both an evocation of the alchemical reality of the everyday, as well as a profund, and at times searing account of personal dissolution and nigredo. The sequence of poems relating to the poet/narrator’s adoption by a crow while living at a mysterious Oxfordshire manor house, or indeed a hospice, inhabited by invisible Taoist swordsmen and Chakra cleansers, the kind of place one goes for an ontological enema, is particularly impressive:

 

. . .  For a moment I thought

it might be the same bird that flew

from the glove of Mabon son of Modron

into the mouth of a shepherd

known to Henry Vaughan.

It had appeared as effortlessly as

a piece of clothing I never knew I had

until I bent to pick it up . . . .

. . .  Why Crow had come, I couldn’t explain

but it didn’t go away and it did change everything

about that retreat I’d planned, considered

and thought I’d carefully arranged.

As so often occurs in Greenslade’s work, the phenomenal world intercedes in the poet’s life, seeming to take things in hand of its own accord. In his other works vegetables (as we have seen), animals (check out an article of his Zeus Amoeba here), bugs, articles of stationery, random broken things, all break in on the alchemy of the everyday and cast rationality in doubt. This time the crow follows the narrator around whenever he emerges from the house. In one poem, he contacts the RSPB and RSPCA, who both advise to scare the bird off,

But it wouldn’t go. I tried

to be as fierce as a vixen

driving off her cubs.

Defied, the crow would glide into the trees

but return within an hour.

Soon it started waiting near my window.

 

Unsurprisingly, the bird begins to acquire mythic status in the poet’s mind, taking on the appurtenances of a famous bird from the Mabinogion:

 

One night, with the hostel

all asleep, I waited mesmerised

beneath the fig tree where

Brân the Blessed perched,

Both as Bendigeidfran

and as Branwen

son and daughter

of their liquid father Llyr,

whose half-speech I now learned.

While soft, slow, pearls of rain

sparkling by kitchen light

fell in glistening strings,

dollops of scintillating guano

puddled freshly opened oysters

on the courtyard’s medieval tiles.

 

The crow persists, of course, and acquires an increasingly menacing aspect. But we never know how much is in the narrator’s head or how much is (ever) verifiable, because this is the borderland, the zone, the place where weird stuff happens, as Greenslade’s not inconsiderable pack of avid readers have by now learned. Elsewhere the poetry invites favourable comparison with the very best of British poetry currently being published, with a hybrid strain of influence from North American and classical Japanese poets (Greenslade lived in Japan in his twenties and is an ordained Zen monk) as well, of course, as that recurrent dipping into Welsh language and mythology. It might, gentle reader, serve as a fitting stocking-filler for an erudite beloved homunculus of your acquaintance, and is available here.

Dog waiting for Blanco to stop blogging and take him for a walk, finally.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More mind manure plus Dylan Thomas

Here is someone trying to set up house under the bridge that runs between Tudor Street and Taff’s Mead Embankment in Cardiff, known – until the council decided to light it up in pretty colours – as Scary Bridge. Actually, my loyal readers will know that this bridge has already featured in Blanco’s Blog before – remember the swan in a bag story? But hang on a minute ….. how on earth are these big people going to fit inside this little house? And why is the man – who looks a little like Stan Laurel, or Rob Howley – wielding the roof in this ferocious manner? Really, I have no idea what is going on here, and that’s the way it should be. It kind of gives me space to improvise.

Sometimes don’t you just want to celebrate all the things you don’t know? Celebrate and give thanks for one’s own incalculable ignorance? What is this incapacity of the human brain to enter into and accept a blissful state of unknowing? After a day of meetings, in which colleagues (as one’s co-workers are nowadays known) struggle to trap mercury snakes, ceramic scorpions and slithering fat pandas, dissect, label and bottle them, so they can be sent to human resources and invested in an FTA progamme (subject to CPR approval), when I am surrounded by people pretending to know stuff that you wouldn’t want to know even if you were paid to know it, stuff that would bore the arse off blue-arsed monkeys, I return home with my head spinning, and in a state of vertigo. Am I exaggerating? Do other people share my feelings about meetings? Or is there simply an as-yet-undiscovered medical condition that specifically attacks the attendees of meetings at institutions of higher education (and no doubt elsewhere) whereby the victims are afflicted by a trance-like state with symptoms including torpor, displacement, excessive irritation (including itching) and possibly distemper (or does the last only affect dogs?). Why does my brain turn to jelly whenever we have a meeting at work? What is the purpose of meetings? Why is it whenever you phone people, there is someone at the other end telling you that the person you wish to speak to is at a meeting? Why can they never simply be having a chat in the next room, or taking a coffee break, or a dump? Why do people constantly lie  about ‘being at a meeting’ in order to make themselves sound more important than they are? Who do they think they are fooling? And as for so-called real meetings, they tire a person out so. I almost always know less when I leave them than when I begin them and I usually feel as though my brain has been sat upon by a particularly well-nourished diplodocus to boot.

Finally, here – on display last week at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea –  is a picture of the suit that Dylan was wearing in the last week of his life, presumably including the day that saw the downing of the famous 18 whiskies, or however many it was. Who, other than a complete wanker, would count the number of drinks he was downing? I was always suspicious of that story. Not that 18 whiskies is a lot, considering. Anyhow, apparently Dylan borrowed the suit off some fellow called Jorge Fick in the Chelsea Hotel before going off and dying in it. ‘Borrowing’ clothes was one of DT’s preferred activities. He was always ‘borrowing’ shirts after puking all over his own, and as for underwear etc, etc. An ex-girlfriend’s aunt used to go out with Clement Freud circa 1950 and they bumped into Dylan whilst queuing for the cinema in Soho. Dylan, whom they knew slightly, tried to blag the price of a seat from them but they didn’t have enough money. On another occasion, turning up at an acquaintance’s house to bum money/drinks/smokes, Dylan was answered at the door by the owner, who said ‘Sorry, we’re entertaining.’ ‘Not very’, quipped Dylan. Boom boom.

Nice suit though.