Ricardo Blanco's Blog

Fire damage

 

The land is unholy. It starts to the south east of the village, a kilometre or so along the road where the earth smells of burning metal, an acrid carbon overlay not carried on any breeze but dense within the pigment of the air, the soil a black and ash-smeared crust. No birds. Then, intermittently, bewildered trees, their snowy leaves incongruous under the August sun, shades of grey and copper, magenta, and colours that do not have names except in an alchemist’s almanac, colours that exist only in the immediate aftermath of fire and which still cast out a dead heat. To walk out into this, to step on this unholy ground would be wrong: this wasteland needs to be uninhabited by creature forms. This is the burned-out anteroom to some terrible memory. A couple of years ago, not far from here, a bush fire like this claimed the lives of eight firefighters, cut off and encircled by flames that move faster than a charging bull, swifter than a running deer. When fire comes this close the balance of mortality tilts.

In the top picture the village is visible in a gap between the trees; the bell tower, a few red roofs.

 

Relative Speed

Japan Cup Cycle Road Race 2009.

Image via Wikipedia

When driving around the country roads of the Ampurdan, one is likely to pass two species of cyclist. The first type travels in groups, is brightly clad in Lycra shorts and shirts emblazoned with the logo of their sports club. They wear aerodynamically designed helmets that make them look vaguely extraterrestrial. They are generally, though not exclusively, white, male and sufficiently well off to own a lot of fancy gear.

The second type of cyclist is solitary, drably garbed in the cast-off clothing of the rural poor, though sometimes he sports hard-earned or fake Adidas or Nike shoes and hoody. He will generally be on his way to, or returning from, a day of menial labour in the fields. At other times he may be sighted rummaging through the municipal garbage and recycling dumps outside local villages. He will be looking for scrap metal, discarded cookers and fridges, even the aluminium from a broken deckchair. This cyclist is invariably African, male

Photo by Hector Conesa

and very poor. He will almost certainly be an illegal immigrant.

The relative speeds at which these distinct cyclists progress along the country roads appears to be in direct proportion to their socio-economic status. The ones who do it as a leisure activity or hobby travel very fast up the winding mountain roads. They are dosed up on multivits and pep pills and nutritive hydrating beverages. On their slick and shiny machines, they push themselves to the limits of sweaty exhaustion. They do this out of choice. They are not going anywhere in particular but are always in a hurry. In other words, their destination doesn’t matter, so long as they get there fast.

The second type of cyclist has a defined and specific destination, but rarely seems in a hurry to get there on his old, recycled machine. He selects a speed best suited to sustain minimum energy loss. The destination matters, and he will get there in as much time as it takes.

 

 

 

Good Things about Being Welsh: No. 2

 

We inhabit a fictional country. The photograph lies. EMBAJADA DE GALES means ‘Embassy of Wales’ in Spanish. It was on a banner displaying the sponsors of a poetry festival in Central America. Reference to such an entity proves beyond all reasonable doubt that we come from an imaginary country, something like Ruritania.

But what, I ask you, gentle reader, distinguishes a real country from an imaginary one? When I was last at Buenos Aires airport in 2005 there was a huge display in the arrivals lounge announcing ‘Argentina – un país de verdad’ (Argentina – a real country). This was not long after the collapse of the Argentine economy and the massive devaluation of their national currency. Who, other than those in a state of serious self-doubt, needs to proclaim to the world the status of their own reality?

Argentina needn’t have worried. But we in Wales are used to such a predicament. We are never sure whether or not people in the rest of the world believe in us or not, so we are permanently checking our self-made reality gauges. It is well-documented by academics that the Welsh are sociolinguistically more Welsh the further they travel from Yr Hen Wlad. There is even a Welsh proverb to that effect. But does that mean we become less fictional when we travel, or more?

In most of the world, if they have heard of us at all, we are ‘a part of England.’  I have also heard that Wales is ‘in Scotland’, and on ‘the other side of Ireland’ and once ‘in Finland’. These assertions, while showing a frail grasp of geography, do in fact have a whiff of the truth, placing Wales somewhere on the periphery of something else.

Frequently of course, there is a situation where an individual Welsh celebrity has raised international awareness of our existence. A footballer – Mark Hughes in the 80s, followed by Rush, Giggs and now Gareth Bale – will assist bar-room conversation. In rugby-playing nations a Welsh identity usually provokes commiseration, and pitying remarks of how a once-proud team can now only compete in the second tier. Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Catherine Zeta Jones and Charlotte Church have done their bit. Among literary types (other than specialists) only Dylan Thomas ever seems to pop up.

While no one has yet suggested to me (as apparently George W Bush did) that Wales was one of the states of the USA, our provenance and exact status remains a mystery to the great mass of the world’s population, but our invisibility has one overriding benefit: no one has had the time to form a negative impression of a place they have never heard of.

To come from a land with nominal but invisible embassies, with a government but without a constitution or a state, with a fictional creature on its flag and a population whose sense of national identity grows in direct proportion to distance from the homeland, now that is what I call a wondrous paradox. We are the ghouls of historical destiny, forever seeking ourselves in the space left between a phantom nationhood and other people’s perceptions of us. All compounded by the concept of everlastingness – Cymru am byth – so that when all the planets have been sucked back into the sun, when the dust of what was once our solar system is distributed at random across the vast wastes of the universe, the idea of Wales will live on.

 

 

 

The Discovery of Slowness

Tortoise of the Alberas, sunning himself

Met up with this tortoise on a walk in the Albera range yesterday morning. The Alberas are home to the last natural population of the Mediterranean tortoise (Testudo h. hermanni) in the Iberian Peninsula, and they are a protected species.

One of my walking companions, a friend and local farmer with family affiliations to the land around here that go back many generations says that its size indicates it is at least a hundred years old. Its markings suggest it is a male. This means Tortoise was wandering along these paths when our chaps went over the top on the first day of the Somme, when Lenin’s revolutionaries stormed Petersburg. By the time of the Spanish Civil War, when these hills were teeming with refugees and war-wounded, Tortoise would have marked out his territory and become familiar with every ditch and rock and bush on his patch.

Tortoise with human hand (female)

Tortoise makes getaway

He was sunning himself when we approached, and retreated into his shell to avoid the attentions of our dog. But once the dog was kept away he re-emerged to take a look at us. Then, having determined that we didn’t pose a threat, he set off down a bank, at considerable speed – well, relatively speaking – negotiating stones and clumps of bush with clumsy determination. He moved, I would say, with deliberation and with definite purpose, although he was not going to be hurried.

Which brings me neatly to the point. I am reading Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness. The book is about the life of John Franklin, the nineteenth century polar explorer. John had issues as a child, and as a young man, concerning his slowness. The novel catalogues his subtle protest at the institutionalised imposition of quickness or speed. He struggles single-handedly to legitimize his own slowness, and in his own fashion, he succeeds. It is a wonderful novel, beautifully translated by Ralph Freedman. To press my recent argument in this blog about literature in translation, I should point out that the novel was published in German in 1983 and had to wait twenty years before appearing in English in 2003. In the meantime two hundred thousand crap novels were published in English, which no one will ever remember.

Some of my favourite lines from The Discovery of Slowness so far:

“A good story doesn’t need a purpose.”

“John was in search of a place where nobody would find him too slow. Such a place could still be far away, however.”

“He wandered through the town and pondered man’s speeds. If it was true that some people were slow by nature, this should remain so. It was probably not given to them to be like others.”

“There are two kinds [of seeing]: an eye for details, which discovers new things, and a fixed look that follows only a ready-made plan and speeds it up for the moment. If you don’t understand me, I can’t say it any other way. Even these sentences gave me a lot of trouble.”

And, of course, Achilles and the tortoise: John’s old schoolmaster, Dr Orme, attempts to explain one of the Paradoxes of Zeno:

“‘Achilles, the fastest runner in the world, was so slow that he couldn’t overtake a tortoise.’ He waited until John had fully grasped the madness of this assertion. ‘Achilles gave the tortoise a head start. They started at the same time. Then he ran to where the tortoise had been, but it had already reached a new point. When he ran to the next point the tortoise had crawled on again. And so it went, innumerable times. The distance between them lessened, but he never caught up with the tortoise.’ John squeezed his eyes shut and considered this. Tortoise? he thought, and looked at the ground. He observed Dr Orme’s shoes. Achilles? That was something made up.”

That was something made up. The whole ‘Achilles and the tortoise’ thing is made up. It’s a nonsense, and I remember thinking the same thing as a boy myself. It is the kind of idiot sophism upon which Western Philosophy seems to be founded. Who believes this stuff anyway? I had the same feeling as John Franklin when I came across Zeno’s Paradox – no doubt via Aesop’s fables – which provides the prototype of the tortoise story.

As Aristotle summarized: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.”

But who says the pursuer must reach the point whence the pursued started? Why? Why does everyone accept these assertions as though they were a given when they read these ancient texts, whether Greek or Chinese, the kind ‘steeped in ancient wisdom’? Why can’t the pursuer avoid the point at which the pursued started? Why does no one ask these obvious fucking questions? Is it some kind of convention, by which we all suspend our critical faculties and pretend to be idiots so as to have someone’s pet theory proved right, be it Zeno, Aristotle or Christopher Columbus?  But I digress.

It’s no longer useful, as a universal principle, to assume that fast is necessarily better than slow. Fast food, fast sex, fast money, faster death. I rest my case. We all know we can do speed, and what is costs.

I believe that in an era where speed is probably a more highly-valued commodity than love, The Discovery of Slowness delivers a salutary message.

 

Wildfire

We leave the village for a day and the place nearly burns down. Within hours of our departure I receive a text from a friend saying there is a bush fire encircling the village and everyone has been instructed to stay indoors, behind closed doors and windows. Many fire engines, seven helicopters and two planes converge here in an attempt to control the flames, and for a few hours it is a highly dangerous place to be. As the afternoon wears on the reports improve. The fire has been contained, with minimum damage to the vines, but considerable destruction of forest – largely cork, but also some olive – and all the hillsides to the south and east of the village are covered by a thick pall of smoke. When the smoke has lifted and we return, the next day, the bare outlines of the hills creates an entirely new landscape.

There is something about the spread of fire in a hot dry climate that cannot easily be conveyed to our wet green consciousness.

The fire brigade reckon the blaze was started by someone tossing a lighted cigarette from a car on the road at Delfiá, a couple of kilometres away. I wonder whether the cretin responsible has any notion of the destruction they caused. Hundreds of hectares of damage to trees, plant life and all the animals that live there. Unbelievable what idiots people can be.

Traditionally, local councils employ ‘firewatchers’ in the summer months, a handy summer job for local students. Because of the cuts in public spending this luxury has been sacrificed. Delays in the reporting of a fire allow it to break out of control long before the fire services arrive, and are consequently far more expensive in the use of resources. Another false economy.

The impressive photographs were taken by our neighbour, Maia Castelló. Ricardo Blanco thanks her for allowing their display on his blog.

An Aleph in my hand

'Aleph Sanctuary' by Mati Klarwein

Drove up to the Gers, in France, to visit the brother. It is a four-hour drive in our old Citroën, which starts rattling if required to exceed about 75 mph. It is hot, and the car has no air conditioning, so we leave early. The autoroute up to Toulouse is very dull, but once you get on the B roads west of the city the countryside is fine and lovely, with rolling hills and great fields of sunflower and of maize unravelling to the horizon.

A corn field in Liechtenstein. Keywords: Field...

Image via Wikipedia

Now maize, or corn, has a special place in Blanco’s heart. For two summers, in 84 and 85, I worked in the maize fields of the Gers on the annual castrage, or castration The picture on the right, incidentally, is of a maize field in Lichtenstein, not the Gers, but one maize field looks pretty much like any other). The odd practice of castration, which was explained to me countless times but which I never fully understood, involves ripping the male part from its socket high on the plant’s stem, and casting it away, which ensures that the next year’s crop will not be contaminated with bâtards, or bastards. Little bastards, or salauds, I used to call them. Back in the day, the work would be done by teams of migrant workers or else down-and-outs like myself eager for a few days work in the fields in convivial company and with good pay. Often the work would come with board and lodging. The Gers is also a wine (and Armagnac) producing region, so there was always plenty to drink. I have very fond memories of those two summers castrating maize, even though the work could be very dull, walking down those interminable rows, ripping out all those male genitals and tossing them away. Of all the most meaningless jobs I have done, the castration is pretty high up on the list. Because of the utter tedium it inspired, I once had a fantasy of discovering an aleph while working on the maize. Of feeling my toes come into contact with something cold and hard and round, stooping to pick it up, and finding I held an aleph in my hand.

Aleph is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. An aleph, for those of you who have not read Borges, is a small and miraculous construct that contains within it the entire content of the universe (and all possible universes). Put another way, an Aleph is a point in space that contains all other points. Within it can be seen everything in the universe from every angle simultaneously, apparently without distortion, overlapping or confusion. It is, as you might imagine, incredibly heavy to hold in one’s hand. As you might also imagine, finding an aleph is a pretty rare thing, certainly not an everyday affair. Finding one in a field of maize, then, would have constituted a considerable improvement to the outcome of a day’s work. But it never happened. Maybe, one day, I will have to put it in a book instead. I have however, written a piece about working on the maize, which I reproduce below, with apologies to those who were listening when I said I was not going to use the blog simply to flaunt my own literary creations – Did I say that? Am I imagining it? – but since I am in the Gers this fine Sunday morning, and since Riscle is a real town in this département, I thought I should include it.

 

Riscle

The maize fields are vast and sad in the wind. The tops of the plants bend unwillingly. I know what happens here. It has always remained a secret until now. But for the sake of friendship I will tell you. In July, the castrators will come. They will rip out the genitals of the male plants, so that the females cannot be impregnated and raise bastards. At least, that is what the locals tell the workers. The real story of the maize is more violent still. Groups of young men and women meet after dark, drink absinthe, and fuck beneath the summer moon. In the morning, tired and spent, they retire to the Café D’Artagnan for coffee with milk and croissants. They are recruited by farmers, who drive them to the maize fields. There they begin the tedious task of le castrage. The young men begin to feel uncomfortable with this de-seeding of the male plants. Their discomfort translates into physical symptoms: aching sides, persistent headaches and vomiting. Later they will complain of spontaneous ejaculation, green sperm, and will participate in outbreaks of frenzied violence towards other males. In early spring the babies are born: little maize-people, with an obsolete immune system inherited from Aztec forebears. The babies all die before July, when the castration begins again.

 

From Sad Giraffe Café (Arc, 2010)

 

 


The Wind

A wind-beaten tree by Vincent Van Gogh

 

 

There is a wind here called the Tramuntana, which swirls down from the Pyrenees. There is no end to the wind, though there is a discernible beginning to it, that is, there have been days before the wind: Monday for the sake of argument. Or Thursday. The wind had been before, and then gone, after having stayed for an eternity, after having evoked the kinds of comments that we hear when it is around, comments that resound with the lifetimes and inherited memories of a people inundated with this mountain wind. And though we know that it will go away (or die down, or diminish, or seep into the masonry, the woodwork, the skin, the pores, the cell structure) the wind is so much an article of the present moment, of the now, that there is little sense in considering a prospective time of no-wind. Stillness is a remote memory, and cannot really be conceived of during days of wind. It spends these several days infiltrating every corner, becoming absorbed in our furniture and in our minds and bodies: it acts like a swirling incubus, growing inside each perception, every mundane act, and takes them over utterly. So that my knowledge of these crooked olive trees will change; my understanding of the cypresses become distinct; as will the silent apparition of the postwoman at the doorway, of the dead fox lying by the roadside elm, and of my own reflection in the mirror. The truth is, I feel diminished by the eventual departure of the wind. It takes a part of me with it.

 

 

 

The Black Lake of Antonio Machado

Laguna Negra, Vinuesa, Spain

 

El ojo que ves no es

ojo porqué tú le veas

 es ojo porqué te ve.

 

The eye you see is not

an eye because you see it

but because it sees you.

 

This morning, reading some poems by Antonio Machado, I am reminded of a trip we took to the province of Soria one July a few years back. Machado was for many years a schoolmaster in Soria, and wrote many fine poems about the place. I saw the trip as a kind of homage, but a purely literary excursion was out of the question, so we combined it with a visit to Navarra, and made a round trip.

We had driven down from the fiesta at Pamplona, and as we entered Soria after a two hour drive the temperature was registering forty-three degrees. Too hot to stagger around the town, we set out to Vinuesa, the nearest village to Machado’s Laguna Negra (Black Lake). This is walking country, between 1500 and 2000 metres in altitude: woods of dense beech and cedar, streams, waterfalls and lakes, in stunning contrast to the interminable dust-blown expanses of the meseta.

Antonio Machado 1875-1939

Machado´s narrative of the Laguna Negra concerns a local farmer who was murdered by his greedy sons in anticipation of their inheritance, and subsequently thrown into the lake, with weights attached to his body. The parricides themselves suffer an ignominous retribution, losing their way in the mist one night, falling and drowning in the very lake in which their murdered father was dumped. Wolves are said to surround the lake at night, symbollically howling out the bad sons’ shame. Machado’s poetry conjures this desolate and otherworldly landscape to grim perfection.

It was already dusk by the time we reached the lake, and we wandered among the huge boulders that mark its circumference. There were more beech woods and glades that centred on a pair of massive rocks. I thought of native Austrailian beliefs that a person can become incorporated into the landscape on their deaths, and began to consider the parricidical sons in a new way. Scrambling around this silent expanse of black water as the light fails, one could sense the presence of the legend like a virus on the air. Gazing up at the high rim of the volcanic crater the occasional tree juts out at an impossible angle. The stench of murder, the pervasive notion of return to the same deathly reserve of water, unmoving now except for a shimmering of ripples when a long black snake zig-zags between two small promontories. I like the place, but something tells me we should leave. Tripping over exposed tree-roots in the darkness we find the path again and descend to the car.

Machado has a more local significance, here in the borderlands of the Alt Empordá. In 1939, as the Civil War came to a bloody close, Machado, who had been active in support of the Republican cause, made his way to the frontier, very ill, and accompanied by his elderly mother. He tried to cross into France, but was held up because his papers were not in order. His attempted escape to France was echoed, in reverse, a year later by Walter Benjamin, fleeing from the Nazis. I tried to capture this near-synchronous flight in a prose poem once, see below. In actual fact Machado died in Collioure, a few kilometres north from Cerbére, while Benjamin made  the seven kilometres south across the mountains to Port Bou (see post for 7 August).

 

Synchronicity

Here’s what happened. Antonio Machado, celebrated Spanish poet, was fleeing Spain and the advancing Francoist army. After a desperate journey through a defeated Catalunya, he arrived at the French border village of Cerbère. It was raining heavily. The authorities would not let him into France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Drenched by the rain and sick, Machado took refuge in a small hotel. He left the building once only, to watch the fishing boats in the small harbour. Shortly afterwards, he died. It was Ash Wednesday, 1939.

The following year, Walter Benjamin, the noted German polymath and essayist, arrived in the same village, coming from the opposite direction. He was fleeing the Nazis, trying to get to Spain. From Spain he hoped to catch a boat to America. The authorities would not let him leave France. His papers, they said, were not in order. Despairing at the state of the Europe he could not leave, while eluding the holocaust of which he would no doubt have been a victim, Benjamin chose to take his own life, using poison.

Antonio Machado was born on the same day – July 26th 1875 – as Carl Jung, the originator of the theory of synchronicity. Walter Benjamin had a low opinion of Jung, considering him to be a supporter of the Aryan myth, and accusing him of doing ‘the devil’s work’.

 

From ‘Walking on Bones‘ by Richard Gwyn (Parthian, 2000)

 

If you would like to read more on Machado, there is a useful article by Derek Walcott in the New Yorker, although you may have to pay, depending, like so many things, on who or where you are.

 

 

 

Rant

 

The Rant is in three parts:

Firstly: in Spain, the reporting of the riots in England has uniformly emphasised the racial nature of the disturbances. I am not in a position to comment objectively, having only read the reports in The Guardian online and the BBC, in neither of which race has been presented as a dominant theme.

However, yesterday in El Mundo  – the Guardian’s sister paper in Spain – I read:

‘Fortunately, in Spain, the social tensions that have erupted in the United Kingdom and France are absent, probably because the underlying racial component in those countries does not exist in our country.’ This is tantamount to saying there is no racism in Spain, which is clearly nonsense, as any social study taken over the past twenty years will prove. Spain is rife with insidious as well as overt racism. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a cretin, or else in denial.

 

 

Second: following enthusiastic reports on Facebook, I bought a DVD of the Korean film Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter . . . and Spring before coming on holiday. Actually, I should add that the FB discussion of the film was unanimously approving, emphasizing said film’s transcendent qualities etc. and, not an irrelevance, all the discussants were women. We watched the film the night before last. It goes like this (look away if you don’t want to know what happens): A monk lives with a small boy, his apprentice. The apprentice tortures animals so the monk tortures the boy in order to make him learn about karma. The boy grows to early manhood. A young woman and her mother turn up at the hermitage (set idyllically in the centre of a lake), hoping to find a cure for the girl’s mysterious malady. We know at once what is going to happen: it is in the eyes of the young man and the young woman. I say to Mrs Blanco – unnecessarily, I admit – that the novice monk will shag the girl and she will get better. It was hardly insightful. So, he takes her to his favourite pool (the one in which he tortured animals as a child) and they do it up against a rock, with requisite although not excessive vigour. Miraculously, the young woman is cured.

The young monk can no longer stay with his master. He longs to marry the young woman and live with her in the real world, where they can do what they did in the rock-pool all day long, without having to break off for spiritual exercises. ‘Desire leads to attachment and attachment leads to murder’ says the old geezer, or something similar. But the young man’s mind is made up. He follows his girlfriend out into the real world (Summer). The years pass. The old man is sweeping out his hermitage when he comes across a scrap of newspaper. How did the newspaper get there? No matter, but it does beg a few questions: ‘Man in his thirties murders wife and flees’. Sure enough, his protégé turns up, on the run, looking much the worse for wear, and sporting a scoundrel’s moustache. He weeps and weeps and tells the old geezer that his wife was unfaithful and loved another man, the hussy. The police are in hot pursuit, and arrive at the sanctuary in the lake. The old man hands the murderer over to the police, but first insists that he carry out some penitence, which involves inscribing a very long mantra on the floor overnight. Then, in the morning, off he goes to prison. Next season however he is back, looking not much older (murdering a woman is obviously not a major offence in Korea). In the meantime the old geezer has incinerated himself, so the young geezer becomes the new old geezer, in fact in the film he is replaced by the same actor. You get the picture; eternal return et cetera. Then in ‘Winter’ a woman turns up, her head entirely covered in a cloth, and deposits a baby with the monk, before falling through a hole in the ice on her way back across the lake from the hermitage and conveniently drowning. In the final sequence, the second ‘Spring’, the new little boy is growing up to be as much of a brat as the first one, and we see him setting off to torture a few frogs. And so it goes.

‘This is one of the very few films which has a real spiritual dimension; it bears that dimension lightly, and persuasively transmits a Buddhist conviction that time, age and youth are an illusion. A charming and rewarding film” writes Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian. “A charming and rewarding film . . . delightful, meditative, serene and gripping” trills another Guardian review; “A work of transporting beauty”, says The Times; “Thoroughly enjoyable and magical” goes the Sunday Mirror.

What a pile of dross. Why do we continue to be sold this kind of Art Film as though it were ‘spiritually uplifting’, when it is simply medieval, repressive, misogynist tripe of the kind that religious fundamentalists have been flogging forever and are flogging still? We hang onto a bizarre fantasy in the West that Buddhism is exempt from this kind of attitudinizing. Moreover, the film is neatly packaged, beautifully shot – and because it is ‘exotic’ everything else – content, dialogue, moral compass, is excluded from judgement.

As far as I could tell the moral of the story is threefold:

1) female illness can normally be cured by male sexuality (aka: a ‘proper seeing to’)

2) men who wish to follow a ‘spiritual path’ will only ever meet with trouble and strife from women, so it is much healthier for the men concerned if the women are a) murdered, or b) fall into holes in the ice.

3) all these things can happen without any qualms so long as they take place in an exotic setting, reflect ‘local’ religious or cultural values and have an ‘uplifting’ or ‘spiritual’ message, and are thereby exempted from the critical criteria we would normally apply to any home-grown cultural artefact.

Third: In August the dogs in this village bark most of the day, and all night. Normally I am oblivious to this, but last night I was not. Last night it drove me to distraction, and eventually, to sleeplessness. It begins as a single, righteous statement of self-assertion on the part of some bonzo, but within seconds he is contested by another, who thinks he can bark louder than the first. A third joins in, invariably some yappy specimen who cannot really compete with the first at all, but has half a mind to follow on the heels of the second woofer . . . and so it goes in a spasmodic but inevitable crescendo. Before long there is total bloody cacophony as terrace after terrace explodes in a fury of barking, and I get up, scribble down something on a notepad which in the morning will be unintelligible, take two tramadol, or two diazepam, or two of whatever is going, and return to bed. Or else just sit on the roof, as I did last night, and watch the waxing moon.

 

 

 

Coetzee’s Foe

 

‘When I was young there were degrees of certainty’: these words I quoted the other day from Anne Carson evoke a sense of certainty instilled by the repetition of known stories. In childhood, if the world makes sense at all it does so because the stories we hear about it cohere. The ‘storied world’ takes on new meaning when applied to the central character of J.M. Coetzee’s Foe, one Susan Barton, who, having travelled to Brazil to search for her kidnapped daughter, is cast adrift by mutineers, and washed up on an island inhabited by a dull and grumpy ‘Cruso’ (who after briefly becoming her lover, dies on her) and a mute Friday, whose tongue has been cut out, according to Cruso, by slavers.

Coetzee’s book is a story about the making of stories. Susan, on her rescue and return to England, writes an account of her adventure and sends it in instalments to the famous writer Mr Daniel Foe, while living in penury with Friday, first in rented accommodation in London, then on the open road as vagrants. She convinces herself – what a common fantasy – that the telling of her story will make her fortune:

“The Female Castaway. Being a True Account of a Year Spent on a Desert Island. With Many Strange Circumstances Never Hitherto Related.” Then I made a list of all the strange circumstances of the year I could remember: the mutiny and murder on the Portuguese ship, Cruso’s castle, Cruso himself with his lion’s mane and apeskin clothes, his voiceless slave Friday, the vast terraces he had built, all bare of growth, the terrible storm that tore the roof off our house and heaped the beaches with dying fish. Dubiously I thought: Are these enough strange circumstances to make a story of? How long before I am driven to invent new and stranger circumstances: the salvage of tools and muskets from Cruso’s ship; the building of a boat, or at least a skiff, and a venture to the mainland; a landing by cannibals on the island, followed by a skirmish and many bloody deaths; and, at last, the coming of a golden-haired stranger with a sack of corn, and the planting of the terraces? Alas, will the day ever arrive when we can make a story without strange circumstances?

Thus Susan Barton is unwittingly made the mouthpiece for the story Defoe actually wrote (but she cannot). How poor Susan needs to satisfy the need to tell and tell, and yet not to cross that invisible line into mere ‘invention’. How curious that the confection of her story demands such truth-telling; and yet all around her are those whose very lives depend on the invention of fictions.

This is a book rich is allusion, and in stimulating reflection on the writer’s life. Here is Foe speaking to Susan: “You and I know, in our different ways, how rambling an occupation writing is; and conjuring is surely much the same. We sit staring out of the window, and a cloud shaped like a camel passes by, and before we know it our fantasy has whisked us away to the sands of Africa and our hero (who is no one but ourselves in disguise) is clashing scimitars with a Moorish brigand. A new cloud floats past in the form of a sailing-ship, and in a trice we are cast ashore all woebegone on a desert isle. Have we cause to believe that the lives it is given us to live proceed with any more design than these whimsical adventures?”

And here is the crux of it: all our lives are story; much of that story is conjecture, the rest invention. A tale heard in passing between sunrise and sunset. There is room for many more such stories. Or, as Coetzee’s Susan tells the mute servant Friday, after being confronted by a strange girl who insists she is Susan’s long-lost daughter:

“It is nothing, Friday . . . it is only a poor mad girl come to join us. In Mr Foe’s house there are many mansions. We are as yet only a castaway and a dumb slave and now a madwoman. There is place yet for lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores to join our menagerie.”

Even without the lepers and acrobats and pirates and whores, Coetzee has the patience to furnish a story that is both intriguing and beautifully crafted. And my copy now carries the invisible traces of a thousand other stories, and of a hot day in August.

 

 

Translation

 

All your stories are about yourself, she said, even when they seem to be about other people. I was not going to deny this, nor give her the pleasure of being right. So I quoted Proust, who said that writers don’t invent books; they find them within themselves and translate them. This seemed to do the trick, and she fell silent. I dipped my fingers into a bowl of scented water and started on the rice. An aftertaste of clay and leaves and metal took me by surprise. What is in this rice? I asked her. Mushroom stock? Shotgun cartridge? Earthworm? No, she said, peering at me through the candlelight, the stories that you haven’t written yet are in the rice. You must be tasting them.

 

 

 

Reading ‘Translation’ at International Poetry Festival of Granada, Nicaragua, February 2011.

 

Spanish version by Sadurní Vergès, read by Melisa Machado.

 

From ‘Sad Giraffe Cafe‘ by Richard Gwyn (Arc, 2010).

The Glass Essay

This morning, with the first light, I read Anne Carson’s long poem The Glass Essay, 38 pages and not a word wasted. Now every line feels engraved in my consciousness. What a rare occurrence this is. I sit up in bed, propped by a few cushions. Bed is a euphemism. We haven’t got around to buying a bed, in seven years. A mattress on the wooden boards, and a view across red rooftops to the bell-tower of the church. Early swallows skimming and diving. From time to time, while reading, I drift off, and occasionally it happens that I dream the words I have been reading, only to waken and find they are not the words on the page at all, but my own. So, reading Carson’s poetic discourse on Emily Brontë I drift into a dream where I am at the northernmost point of the north of a northern territory. Then I wake and continue to read. That way, reading is even more than usually a kind of collaborative experience.

I used to write quite a lot of poetry, but these days I find that the effort it takes to ‘make verse’ – as though straining towards a truth more profound or more lasting than the truth of prose – is not necessarily justified, or justifiable. By whom do I mean justified? By what measure justifiable? I do not know, I really don’t. But, mainly, I write prose.

And then how good it feels, and how rare, to sink into and absorb a poem as fine as this one. There are three themes to it: the

Emily Brontë

aftermath of a love affair between the narrator and a man she calls Law (he has his echo in her therapist, a woman called Dr Haw), a theme which constitutes the near past. Then there is an account of the life of Emily Brontë, author of Wuthering Heights (the distant past). Finally, the poem is cast in a present tense in which the poet (or narrator) is paying an extended visit to her mother, who lives on a moor in ‘the north’. The majesty of the poem is the way in which Carson threads the three narratives in and around one another, guilefully working each one so as best to extract the full flavour of the other two. There is such skill (and yes, it does appear effortless, which means it was hard-earned) in the composition of the poem. I stand in awe of this writing. To give some impression of the quality, here are three short passages from a single page:

‘When I was young

there were degrees of certainty.

I could say, Yes I know that I have two hands.

Then one day I awakened on a planet of people whose hands

occasionally disappear –’

 

also:

 

‘It is stunning, it is a moment like no other,

when one’s lover comes in and says I do not love you anymore.

I switch off the lamp and lie on my back.’

 

also:

 

‘Emily had a relationship on this level with someone she calls Thou.

She describes Thou as awake like herself all night

and full of strange power.’

 

Earlier in the poem she writes:

 

‘I have never liked lying in bed in the morning.

Law did.

My mother does.

But as soon as the morning light hits my eyes I want to be out in it –

moving along the moor

into the first blue currents and cold navigation of everything awake.’

 

I too like to be awake at first light, but some days it is good to lie in with it, and read poetry as good as Carson’s.

 

‘The Glass Essay’ appears in Glass, Irony and God, published by New Directions (1995).