Ricardo Blanco's Blog

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).

 

 

 

Walter Benjamin at Portbou

Portbou, with its cavernous and now largely useless station

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Yesterday an excursion to Portbou and a picnic on a nearby beach to celebrate the birthday of our dear friend Juliette. As usual our large and straggling international party effectively turned a section of the beach into an ever expanding occupied zone, and a feast of fresh fish, chickens, salads, melon, cake, wine, coffee and cigars  unravelled, the younger hooligan element ensuring total isolation from other beachgoers, which, on this particular beach was no problem, as it is not easily accessed except by the more adventurous or robust sun-seeker.

I do not know Portbou all that well, but have always felt drawn to it in a strange way. It is a shy place, giving off a sad, mysterious energy; a border town that, with the cessation of European frontiers, has lost its role as a centre for customs control. All that remains is its vast and cavernous railway station.

We once ate here, late at night, about ten years ago, and Mrs Blanco and I fell into conversation with the young Moroccan waiter, no doubt an illegal, who had got this close to France in search of a better life, and had decided to stay. We left the restaurant as it was closing up, and headed for the car, which was parked a few streets away. We were about to pile in, when the young waiter appeared, panting, with our younger daughter’s jacket, having run down the streets searching for us. That reassuring incident helped formulate my ideas about the place, of a small, neglected border town with heart, where people end up by chance rather than by choice.

The coast road runs down the final miles of France’s ‘côte vermeille’ from Collioure, a charming and now very chic resort, for fifty years the home of the English writer of historical fiction Patrick O’Brien. In my vagabond days I once walked this frontier road on a baking June afternoon, arriving bedraggled and exhausted on the Spanish side, where the friendly guard, who was about to be relieved from his shift, took pity on me and suggested we adjourn to the nearby bar for a beer, which turned into many. He dropped me off in Portbou later that night after a hair-raising 7 km descent in his old Simca, and I slept on the beach. The border post no longer exists and the bar is boarded up.

Portbou 1939, after the final battle of the Spanish Civil War

But Portbou is mostly famous as the final destination of the German philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin. On 25th September 1940, following seven years exile in France and 28 changes of address, Benjamin, along with two other asylum-seekers and their guide, arrived exhausted at Portbou after a trek across the mountains from Banyuls. Benjamin carried a provisional American passport issued by the US Foreign Service in Marseilles, which was permissible for land travel across Spain to Portugal, where he aimed to catch a ship to the USA. However, he was prevented entry to Spain since he had no French exit visa. Perhaps because of his evident ill-health, perhaps because of a border guard’s Republican sympathies, his return to France was postponed until the next day and he was allowed to spend the night in an hotel, the Hotel de Francia, rather than in police custody. The following day he was found dead in his room.

I didn’t realise that Benjamin killed himself by taking an overdose of morphine (he had a supply with him, for this eventuality): I had read elsewhere that he took poison, surely some kind of euphemism. If you’re going to go, morphine must be preferable to having some hideous acid gnawing through your guts.

The following account is taken from a dedicated website on Walter Benjamin at Portbou, The Last Passage:

‘If they had arrived a day earlier, they would not have been refused entry to Spain: a change of orders had been received that very day. If they had arrived a day later, they would probably have been allowed in. The Gurlands, at any rate, Benjamin’s travelling companions, were permitted to continue their journey, although perhaps this was due in part to the impact made on the local authorities and police by the death of ‘the German gentleman’. A few days later, Henny and her son Joseph boarded a ship for America.

Benjamin left a suitcase with a small amount of money in dollars and francs, which were changed into pesetas to pay for the funeral four days later. In the judge’s documentation the dead man’s possessions are listed as a suitcase leather, a gold watch, a pipe, a passport issued in Marseilles by the American Foreign Service, six passport photos, an X-ray, a pair of spectacles, various magazines, a number of letters, and a few papers, contents unknown, and some money. . .

. . . In Portbou Walter Benjamin put an end to seven years of exile and the possibility of a new future in America. For the local people, the death of the mysterious foreigner became shrouded in legend, but for others it was a freely chosen exit, an authentic rebellion against the Nazi terror by one of the most lucid thinkers of modernity. However, no aspect of Benjamin’s death is definitively closed. One hypothesis holds that Benjamin was killed by Stalinist agents (the full arguments of this hypothesis is collected by Stuart Jeffries in his ‘Observer’ article ‘Did Stalin’s killers liquidate Walter Benjamin’. What is more, his guide across the mountains, Lisa Fittko, who died in 2005, referred on many occasions to the suitcase with a manuscript that Benjamin jealously guarded as a valuable treasure. Did it contain his final manuscript? The suitcase was never found: its fate is unknown, and in the judge’s report of the property of the deceased there is no mention of any manuscript.’

The memorial ‘Passagen’ at Portbou was designed by Israeli Artist Dani Karavan, and an inscription reads that “it is more arduous to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the renowned. Historical construction is devoted to the memory of the nameless.” Puzzling, that last sentence, and possibly meaningless, certainly untrue, since history forgets the nameless masses, definitively. But the memorial itself is spectacular, and a video clip, attached below, gives some idea of the approach and setting, enclosed by the mountain landscape and opening out onto the sea.

 

 

 

In the nearby gated cemetery, on Benjamin’s gravestone, there is a quotation from Thesis VII of his ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’: ‘There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism‘.

 

 

Naked Man with Pit-Bull

Imagine my surprise yesterday, when visiting one of our favourite beaches with friends (where I intended doing a little underwater fish-gazing with mask and snorkel) I spied a naked man washing his pit-bull in the shallows. Bending over it, lovingly washing its flanks in the plankton-rich waters of the western Med.

This is not a nudist beach, and while I have no objections to nakedness in principle, I do believe it has its proper place in civilized society. I know that many people think differently and they are entitled to set up their own recreational centres where nudism is de rigueur and you can even spend your summer holiday in such places, renting a chalet or a luxury apartment, surrounded by other nude persons. You can go shopping in the site supermarket with nothing on, and sit in the bar bollock-naked sipping your evening cocktail. Michel Houellebecq, once known as the enfant terrible of French Literature (and actually quite a decent poet, as his recent collection ‘The Art of Struggle‘ impressed on me) has written about such places at tedious lengths in his fiction.

But on a regular, costumed beach, it is my belief that bathers should wear a swimming suit. I have no particular objection to bikini tops being removed, but even that is probably only a matter of having become accustomed to it over many years. In the final analysis, I do not mind too much about public nudity either way, and it is really not my business what consulting adults prefer to do. But to have fully grown men parading with all their tackle hanging free, when there are young children roaming the sands around them peering inquisitively at the exposed genitalia, is  – while filled with comic potential – not a vision I relish or one in which I wish to share. Nor are beer bellies and sagging tits, and heaving folds of cellulite, but here again I might stand accused of some kind of aesthetic fascism, and should probably stop there.

So, gentle reader, rather than offend your sensibilities by showing the perpetrator of this act of aggressive nudism (who I suspect was French), I have appended a picture of the stretch of beach an hour or so after he had left.

Personally, I like donning mask and flippers and swimming down, peering beneath the surface of the sea, at the underwater flora and rock formations, the hundreds of brightly coloured fish, starfish, octopi and the many other wondrous sights so gloriously described in the films of the late Jacques Cousteau.

PS Mrs Blanco has pointed out that this comes across as a rather pompous and stuffy post. I think, therefore, that I cannot have conveyed my point about the man with the pit-bull very well. To be blunt, there was something fishy about both his ostentatious nudity and the manner in which he washed his dog, as if, not to put too fine a point to it, he were accustomed to more intimate relations with the beast. I find it hard to put concisely: but there was an insalubrious quality to his washing of it that had to be observed in order to be appreciated.

And finally, as Alessandra has pointed out, dogs are not allowed on Catalan beaches in the summer. A fair point.

 

 

 

Elephants in the Alberas

 

  • Other than an early family holiday and a single trip to Barcelona in my early twenties, my first real taste of Catalunya was in 1984. Penniless and without purpose, I was walking down the coastal road from Port Bou to Llança on a June afternoon, when I was caught in a terrific rainstorm. A car pulled in and gave me a lift. The driver was the painter Lluís Peñaranda. So began a friendship that lasted until his death last December.
  • I went to an exhibition of paintings by Lluís the year that we met and was astonished by his representations of the landscape of the Ampurdan, that rocky edge of the Pyrenees that flattens out into a plain flanking the Costa Brava. His work is pervaded by an elemental iconography of dark cypresses, multicoloured fish, silver moons. It is a parallel, but distinct landscape to the one the world knows through the work of another son of the Ampurdan, Salvador Dalí.
  • Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter. I returned to live in Catalunya in 1988, and settled in Barcelona. The city was preparing for the Olympic games, held in 1992. There was a chaos of excitement that little more than a decade after emerging from the dictatorship of Franco, Barcelona was presenting the new Spain to the world, or rather, the new Catalunya.
  • Catalunya used the Olympics to inform the world that it was not Spain. Its policies of linguistic ‘normalization’ (the term used for the dominance of Catalan in all public documents and undertakings) and the fact that all state-funded education took place through the medium of Catalan created a new atmosphere: perceived as legitimate self-assertion by the Catalans; regarded less favourably by many other Spaniards.
  • I left Barcelona in 1990, but returned many times over the summers that followed, staying with my young family at different houses in the Ampurdan area.
  • In 2002-3 we moved to a small hill-village in Ampurdan near the French border (picture above). My daughters attended the local Catalan School and I worked on my novel, The Colour of a Dog Running Away. The following year we bought an old and run-down property in the village. Linguistically and culturally, this area is very proudly Catalan (in contrast to the international and largely Spanish-speaking city of Barcelona). Since I had been coming to the area for twenty years, I had made friends with Catalan writers and artists and got to discover more about the history and culture of this small corner. The Albera Mountains, that extend from the High Pyrenees towards the sea, falling away towards the coast at the northern end of the Costa Brava, are home to many Neolithic remains, notably standing stones (menhirs) and a profusion of burial chambers. I am very fond of a burial chamber, although I have no wish to be buried in one.
  • Portly man by Burial Chamber

    There were many Jews in this part of Spain before the expulsions of 1492. Many of them converted at that time, and there is a widespread belief that Catalans carry a significant charge of Sephardic blood, whatever that means. Blood is blood. There are no races, only ideas about races, which are mostly based on wrong information or the contrasting prejudices of boastfulness (e.g. a proud Celt) and bigotry (too many examples to cite) . In any case, I like the idea of a dedicated ‘Village of Jews’ in the heart of the Alberas, on the edge of the Cap de Creus.

  • Further back in time, Hannibal must have crossed these hills on his way to Rome from Carthage. With his many elephants. I find the thought staggering. How did the Celto-Iberian tribespeople view these enormous lumbering beasts and their fierce drivers? The thought led to notes towards a poem a few years ago, not one that I have ever thought to publish, but perhaps it contains the germ of another, better poem, which I will write one day:

 

Elephants

Elephants passed this way. The children, once their initial terror had passed, stared big-eyed, while clutching their mothers’ skirts, pointing at the swinging trunks as the beasts lumbered across cornfields.

Warriors rode on the elephants, but paid scant attention to the villagers who lined this section of their route.

What were the elephants doing in this well-tended land? Where were their riders’ leading them?

It was said by some that they were heading towards a distant war.

Why would an elephant go to war?

Because they are driven there by the riders.

But how? The elephants are so big and strong. The riders are so puny.

The elephants go where they are driven because that is what they are accustomed to.

The elephants so large.

The riders so small.

The children of this hillside village will tell the tale of the elephants to their grandchildren. It will become myth.

The elephants will never be seen again. They will cross the mountain pass and head into the plains beyond, until they become an improbable vision on the horizon. Specks on a vast green canvass.

The elephants will not return.

 

The Foreigner

 

The Foreigner

 

– What country is this foreigner from?

– I don’t know.

– What’s his name?

– I don’t know.

– What does he do? What language does he speak?

– I don’t know.

– What’s your name, my good man?

– . . .

– What country do you come from? Where are you going?

– I’m from here. I’m a foreigner.

 

Josep Palau i Fabre (1917-2008) tr. from Catalan by D. Sam Abrams


 

 

The Traveller

 

I have travelled many roads

and have opened many paths.

I have sailed a hundred seas

and been shipwrecked on

a hundred shores.

 

Everywhere I’ve seen

caravans of sadness

proud people sad people

drunks in the dark, dark shade.

 

Lecture hall pedants

watch on in silence

thinking they’re smart

because they do not

drink wine in humble places:

bad people who carry on

like pests polluting the earth.

 

And everywhere I’ve seen

people who dance and play

when they can

and work the skin

from their four palms.

 

If they arrive exhausted in a place

they’re never asked

from where they come.

When they travel

they ride on the shanks

of an old mule

They never hurry

not even on fiesta days.

 

Where there is wine

they drink wine;

where there is no wine

they drink fresh water

 

Good people who live

and work, get by and dream.

And one day like any other

they go into the ground

 

Antonio Machado (1875-1939) tr. from Spanish by Richard Gwyn