Ricardo Blanco's Blog

The mosaics of Torcello

 

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In an essay by Kathleen Raine on ‘Yeats’ Holy City of Byzantium’, there is a quotation from A Vision in which Yeats speaks of mosaicists as being at the heart of a community of philosophers and craftspeople and painters:

‘I think if I could be given a month of Antiquity and leave to spend it where I chose, I would spend it in Byzantium a little before Justinian opened St Sophia and closed the Academy of Plato. I think I could find in some little wine-shop some philosopher worker in mosaic who could answer all my questions, the supernatural descending nearer to him than to Plotinus even  . . . . I think that in early Byzantium, maybe never before or since in recorded history, religious aesthetic and practical life were one, the architect and artificers – though not, it may be, poets, for language had been the instrument of controversy and must have grown abstract – spoke to the multitude and the few alike. The painter, the mosaic-worker, the worker in gold and silver, the illuminator of sacred books, were almost impersonal, almost perhaps without the consciousness of individual design, absorbed in their subject matter and that the vision of a whole people.’

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Santa Maria de Assunta, central apse

 

Kathleen Raine, in her essay, suggests that the dome of the old Aghia Sophia in Constantinople ‘would have been inlaid with those mosaic figures who seem to stand in an optical space outside, not behind, the surface on which they gleam’. Of course, the mosaics of Aghia Sophia are gone now, and Constantinople is – and has been since 1453 – Istanbul. But I am wondering whether the mosaics of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, Venice, which I visited last month, don’t have that same quality of occupying a space beyond their immediately visible surface. The effect of these images, which we observed for only ten or fifteen minutes on a quick visit to the island, was dramatic and lasting. My own photos were not very good, so I have downloaded some that I found on the Italian Ways website.

We had taken a boat tour of three islands (Murano, Burano and Torcello), but I was only really interested in Torcello, which was the first of the islands in the Venetian lagoon to be occupied, in the sixth century or so. It was – and is – an island of low lying marshland, but it grew to sustain a population of around 20,000 between the 7th – 11th centuries, when its inhabitants started moving to the island that constitutes modern Venice, almost certainly as the result of a malaria epidemic. The island became depopulated, its buildings raided for materials and stone to be rebuilt in the new place. All of its great buildings and palaces have utterly vanished, and its population now is around 75. Only a few buildings and two churches remain, one of which is the Assunta.

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View of Torcello with the Basilica of the Assunta in foreground

We walked along the bank of the single canal that divides the island as far as the church and then returned straight back to our waiting launch. It was a cold and rather bleak winter’s afternoon. I cannot remember there being any birds, though I imagine there must have been. Once inside the church, I felt an immediate sense of familiarity with the place – one of those rare sensory responses that you cannot quite identify, and which afterwards strike you as carrying a message you cannot decipher. Something like déjà vu, but not exactly. Afterwards it occurred to me that perhaps I visited with my parents as a young child; I cannot remember (and doubt whether my siblings will either, and both my parents are dead) but I had a strong sense that I had been there before.

Thinking back to the basilica of Santa Maria Assunta in Torcello, reflecting on the mosaics we found there . . . and reading the essay by Kathleen Raine on Yeats’ ‘Holy City of Byzantium’ I am reminded of the way the mosaic makers of Byzantium, and early Venice, were philosopher-craftsmen or women – and the mosaic makers’ art was something assimilative, in the sense that mosaic synthesizes from the world and makes concrete, fixes in time ideas and emotions and colours and pieces of stone and ceramic and other shapes from the material world, creating something shapely and beautiful and somehow, at the same time, apart, looking in on us as though ‘outside, not behind the surface on which they gleam . . .’

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Landeg White

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It was with shock that I learned last week of the death of the poet Landeg White, at his home in Portugal. He was seventy-seven years old. Landeg, who was born in Taff’s Well, near Cardiff, published around a dozen poetry collections, three of them with Parthian, and I had a lot of fun working with him on his Selected Poems, Where the Angolans are Playing Football (2003). He went on to publish two further collections with Parthian and did two historical novels with Cinammon: Livingstone’s Funeral (2010) and Ultimatum (2018). He is also the author of scholarly works in the area of African Studies. Perhaps he is best known for his superb translations of Camões, including Portugal’s national epic, The Lusíads, which won the TLS poetry translation prize in 1998. Although I did not know Landeg especially well, I certainly counted him as a friend and we spent time together in Cardiff, and later, in 2003, on a rather strange British Council tour of Portugal, which was scheduled to terminate in a reading at the glorious Lello bookshop in Porto (made famous as the inspiration for the shifting staircases in the Harry Potter stories). The reading never took place, as the bookshop was about to close when we turned up, not having been informed of our event by the BC. Instead we retired to a restaurant on the banks of the Douro and had a memorable evening of good food and wine and conversation, at each of which Landeg was an adept.

Landeg lived much of his life in Africa, during the era that followed the final collapse of imperial rule and he was a thorn in the side of more than one African dictator. Deported from Malawi in 1972, he lived and worked in several African countries before settling in Portugal, where he spent the latter part of his life.

His poetry addresses both the political and the personal in equal measure, usually in poems with a disciplined approach to form but bursting with colour and visceral energy.

Now that he is gone I wish I had known him better.

An obituary appeared in The Guardian on 22 January, written by his friend Hugh Macmillan. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/jan/22/landeg-white-obituary

Below is one of my favourites from Landeg’s work, in the style of a West African praise poem, addressed – with a dollop of gleeful irony – to himself:

 

Self-Praises

(for my African age-mates)

 

I climbed the old elm tree and read William books in the rook’s nest,

My knee stuck in the pulpit rail: for once the congregation laughed,

The missionary told of the poison ordeal. I was spellbound in the cub hut,

I won the match by slicing a six off the back of the bat over backward point,

I cycled a hundred miles precisely to Nettlebed and back to town,

I planted crotons, a whole hedge in thirty-two varieties,

I scored Sparrow’s Melda for the steelbands’ Panorama,

I made love to the circuit-minister’s wife in a dark corner of the canefield,

I decamped from the island under an arch of leaping dolphins,

Baboons jumped on my steaming bonnet as I stalled on the escarpment,

I crossed the longest bridge at dusk, reading of a new country,

I found her on a sand dune where a coconut palm strained at its bole,

She to whom all metaphors return was outlined with chevrons,

She stretched like a tigress, adorned with her stripes,

I watched the Beetle spinning downstream, swept from the flooded causeway,

My dugout parted the hyacinths in search of the hidden history,

When the armed guerrillas ambushed us, I said Oh, there you are,

From four jobs I resigned,

From the fifth the President deported me, without rhyme or explanation,

I helped at my son’s birth: he came out looking dumbfounded,

My proudest expedient, bribing our baby on to the plane!

The professor rang at midnight: my poem was a masterpiece,

I designed and built a kitchen to a millimetre’s calculation,

I knuckled down to fifteen years of mortgages and pension,

I campaigned for my dear friend to step forth like Lazarus,

My vine, in Viking territory, was a miracle of survival,

My garden exploded in poppies and cornflowers: autumn blazed in nasturtiums,

He wrote marvellously of his resurrection: it was I gave the writing space.

They shook hands, enemies to the vein,

They shook hands and reminisced across my conference table

(The student wrote: thank you, who else could we have got drunk with?).

As a scholar, I set the paradigm: as a poet, I found my niche.

Let these praises float from my window, setting fires where they will.

 

 

 

 

By the Loire

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Orléans lies precisely half way between the dual fixed points of home. We stay the night, and in the morning there is a thick mist over the great river that flows past the bottom of the hotel grounds. I like to take a turn down the river with Bruno the Dog before breakfast. The river, like its name, perhaps because of its name, feels like a constant, an unalterable fact: Loire. But it is not the name, merely. Something else emerges in the conjunction of landscape and water, whether in memory or in imagination, I cannot be sure: the two are fused in a single process. As the mist lifts, walking west, we pass empty villas, which, when I first came this way, years ago, I thought might only be closed up in winter. This has proved not to be the case. However, it is winter now. One of the villas reminds me of Le Grand Meaulnes, sometimes translated into English as The Lost Domain – but also, variously, as The Land of Lost Contentment,  The Wanderer, The Lost Estate and The End of Youth – a novel I read at around the age of fourteen, and which, at the time, made as much of an impact on me as any book I had read. It was the only novel by Alain-Fournier, who was killed in the first month of World War One, aged twenty-seven.

The villa in question has been boarded up for as long as I can remember, apart from the window under the gable, behind which, even from the distance of the riverside path, one can sense life. Once, a couple of years ago, when we passed this way in the summer, the window was open. It is not open now.

The villa, with its single unshuttered eye, evokes a world that has been left behind – perhaps the Lost Domain itself – the same domain that, like Proust’s, was buried beneath the rubble of The Great War. The house with its otherwise boarded windows evokes a sense of imminent departure, or else of disappearance, of something so longed for or regretted that it became material, before fading into the texture of the walls. Perhaps all that is needed on a day like this is to see past the torn fabric that separates my world from that other one, and I will lean so far over as to tumble through, onto the other side . . .

Meanwhile, in the river, in a small boat nudging the island that lies midstream, a man stands erect. He appears to be doing nothing at all.

France

Whatever they had been told was lies: there was no kind of deal awaiting them, no siren call. The armistice was signed but the war had been lost years before and nobody had told them. Indigo night interrupted by orange explosions on the horizon, great sweeping clouds of dust making everything invisible for hours on end, the spotlights bearing down on them the length of the assault line. We will never know defeat, they repeated; the words of their leader an idiot’s mantra in their throats. They spent the whole day waiting for news: when should they expect the enemy? In the evening, a small group sat by the linden tree and passed a bottle around. The dusk obliterated memory. One of the men dreamed of France, a country he had never been to. People’s lives there are almost perfect. Something small and forgotten in his soul told him France was a better place in which to die; that there, eternity has brushed its sleeve against the land.

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Joan Ponç at La Pedrera

 

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Joan Ponç was a Catalan surrealist painter who seems to have lived – to a greater extent than most – almost entirely in and through his imagination. It is probably not an easy way to live, and it does cause certain logistical problems, not least for the protagonists and those who choose or are forced (in the case of children) to live by their side.  Ponç is not well-known in the Anglo-Saxon world, and I had been looking forward to visiting this major retrospective of his work at La Pedrera in Barcelona.  Follow this link for a video tour of the exhibition itself.

 

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I spent a couple of hours wandering around the rooms, marvelling at some of the images, the startling use of rich colours and the bizarre and terrifying creatures that find their way into his narratives. I had reservations, however, about figures that reminded me of the kind of hippy art that used to adorn the night clubs of my youth, and was left cold by the quantity of flying phalluses, which I haven’t reproduced here. I guess, in a way, such imagery was of the era, and although he would probably have denied he was a surrealist painter, in the strict sense (is there even a ‘strict’ sense?) he was – as his friend and fellow member of the artists’ group dau al set Arnau Puig observes – a surrealist through and through ‘as a person’.

 

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The remaining members of dau al set (seven-faced dice, in Catalan) were the poet Joan Brossa and the artists Antoni Tàpies, Modest Cuixart and Joan-Josep Tharrats. As far as I know, Puig is the only one still living. The group was supported by the poet J.V. Foix and Joan Miró, and constituted a bravely defiant statement of intent in the darkest years of Franco’s dictatorship. As the exhibition leaflet tells us in rather wobbly language: ‘This [his output during the late 1940s and 50s] was a period of oracles and spells, magicality and demonism, heightened by nocturnality and the blend of highbrow literary sources of Surrealism and popular culture. Ponç often represented himself as a harlequin and his paintings became magical and surreal, night landscapes filled with strange creatures: fauns, top hats, harlequins, fantastical ruins, geometrical shapes and imaginary zoomorphic forms in denuded and metaphysical landscapes.’

 

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Ponç’s work leans to a large extent on the precedent of surrealism, but it is significant that in his diaries he speaks with admiration of painters such as El Greco, Velasquez, Goya, and most importantly, Cézanne. At times his painting seem almost devoid of the kind of technical skill exemplified by those painters, and one has to wonder at what level he internalised their lessons. I am not really in a position to say. Perhaps the fact that he always painted at night, by the light of a single stark lightbulb, is a clue. However, having bought a very attractive edition of his writings, I was struck his obsessiveness, by the dedication to his art that is in many ways remarkable, especially considering the severe ill-health he endured towards the end of his life. He also refused to exhibit for long periods, and was hostile to the idea of the art world as a market-place.

 

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Ponç, almost inevitably, fell out with the other members of dau al set, and in 1953, armed with a letter of recommendation from Miró, set off for Brazil, where he stayed for ten years. He radically revisioned his own art, became fascinated by science, especially physics, an interest that he pursued further on returning to Europe, settling first at Bruc, near to Barcelona, and then in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in an area he began to regard as his spiritual home (he referred to the Pyrenees as ‘the ground zero of the universe’). After living for a while in Cadaquès, then Collioure, and then Ceret, he eventually moved to La Roca de Pelancà, after spotting a house on hilltop that had been struck by lightning, and deciding make it his home (after the judicious placing of lightning conductors).

Reading Ponç’s diaries and notebooks I was reminded at times of Leonora Carrington’s writing, not only by some of the themes that obsessed them both but also by the shared capacity to dwell, as I stated at the outset, so thoroughly in their own imaginations. On Leonora, incidentally, I would refer the reader to Bill Herbert’s excellent blog.

Two anecdotes stood out for me in his short autobiography, which I read on the train home, and have reproduced here (Ponç’s journal entries are written in Castilian Spanish, although the book’s introduction and footnotes and commentary are in Catalan). The first concerned a visit to an antiquarian shop while Ponç was living in São Paulo, Brazil. He spends some time admiring a display of strange-looking angels, ‘some of them hanging by strings, their faces seeming to express a terrible fury’ and a wooden marionette with fully articulated limbs. As he turns to leave the shop, the owner calls out to him:

– Are you Joan Ponç?

– Yes, I answered.

– Don’t you remember me?

– No.

– Two years ago – he went on, – I bought one of your paintings. There was a black goat in it, against a dark red background.

I remembered the work in question.

– I want to talk to you about this work – he said, and continued. I was broke, I didn’t have any money to buy more pieces, and I decided to bring to the shop some of the works I had at home, among them your painting, which upset me, as I had given it to my mother. The day that I brought it here, someone was waiting for me at the shop. He bought all my merchandise and told me, as he went on his way: “the thing that interests me most is that goat, but you must never sell it.” From that moment onwards, my business began to prosper. A short time afterwards – the antiquarian continued – a friend who was on the verge of bankruptcy, and to whom I had told my story, came to see me, and begged me to lend him your painting. He hung it in his office and his business began to change for the better at once.

In spite of finding the story supremely interesting, I couldn’t stop myself laughing, never mind the sincere gaze of the narrator.

– It’s important that you believe what I’m telling you, and I’m going to give you proof. These things I’ve told you have spread around, and people come here often to ask me for the painting. Fearful of losing it, I’ve taken various photographs. Look.

He opened a box, inside of which were a good number of photos.

– Another proof. Choose from my shop the object that you most like.

Without wanting to, I let my gaze fall on the wooden marionette.

– Is that what you want? Then take it. It’s yours.

I didn’t want to accept it, but he told me that if I didn’t accept the gift, he would take it out on the street and leave it there for any passer-by to pick up.

– Please take it with you, it would bring me relief.

I know that some people will laugh, as I did, at this. Others will attempt to reduce it to something comprehensible. It doesn’t matter, we are all free to interpret things in accordance with our own manner of thinking. For my part, I can affirm – in the face of accusations of ingenuousness or dishonesty – that I have narrated these things exactly as they occurred and that anyone who had lived through the chain of events that over years have accompanied my life, would react in the same way. I remember a marvellous phrase from Saint John of the Cross: “The true way for man lies in believing less in what can be seen, but does not exist, and more in that which cannot be seen, and does.”

The other story in Ponç’s autobiography is altogether more trivial, but none the less entertaining. It concerns the artist’s time in Cadaquès, where Salvador Dalí was a neighbour. Ponç writes that he frequently dropped by on Dalí in his studio, that while he admired the older artist’s prodigious mental ability and profound sense of humour, the visits often terminated in a fierce argument. ‘One of these’, he writes ‘acquires huge proportions after he [Dalí] attacks van Gogh in an extremely violent fashion. He tells me that I am defending him because I am a madman like him [van Gogh], to which I respond that at least we have the papers to certify that we spent time in the lunatic asylum, and that we are, in any case, professional madmen. “You, Dalí”, I tell him “will never be more than an amateur madman.”

I left his house, determined never to return. The following day, we were both at the beach. I pretended not to see him, but to my great surprise, he called out to me, and began a conversation as if nothing at all had happened. It was an important lesson.’

 

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The visibility of beggars

 

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On the subject of beggars in Venice, I came across this offering in Javier Marías’ essay Venice: An Interior, which is also available in a new collection of essays, Between Eternities.

‘There is in Venice a beggar (oddly enough, despite all those tourists, you don’t see many, which is why they’re easy to recognise) who begs for alms in all six sestieri. He’s rather chubby and getting on in years; he wears a hat that is a tad too small for him, plays the panpipes – an instrument that betrays his southern origins – and displays to the compassionate gaze of passers-by a pale, plump plastic calf that emerges from a very short white sock. It is the cleanest leg I have ever seen, and I always stop to look at it. I give him a few coins to reward such cleanliness as well as the pleasant sound of his pipes. This eminently recognizable man, however, is quite different depending on whether he’s in San Marco, San Polo, Cannaregio, Santa Croce, Dorsoduro or Castello. In the first of these sestieri, he seems like a fraud or local con man preying on tourists; in the second, his ‘foreign’ terrone aspect seems more pronounced and he looks out of place; in the third he blends in so well that no one even notices that he’s begging for alms with his impeccable leg. It’s the setting that dictates how things appear, and so it isn’t the same seeing a tourist crossing the Rialto Bridge as it is seeing him cross one of the various Ponte delle Tette.’

The essay was first published in the late 1980s, but Venice is still not overpopulated with beggars. There is a growing number of single young African males, who tend to do their begging away from the main tourist centre (presumably to avoid the police), but as for the other, more traditional kind, they tend to be found near churches, and adopt the classical, abject kneeling stance, arm outstretched, a pose intended to arouse the deepest feelings of Christian shame and, hopefully, charity, and one which is shocking to witness in the twenty-first century.

I would argue that, contrary to Marías’ presumption, tourist zones are not good begging zones in general. Ask any indigent about this, or take my word for it. TOURISTS ARE NOT GIVERS.  Beggars are far more likely to receive generosity from locals than from tourists in almost any of the tourist centres of Europe. The only exceptions to this rule are performers – and I am not talking about the bog-standard buskers or ‘perroflautas’ as the charming Spanish term has it (which can be translated literally as ‘dog and flute’, i.e. those beggars accompanied almost everywhere by a penny whistle and a mangy hound) – but magicians and jugglers and tightrope-walkers and fire-eaters (if there are any of these last remaining).

Marías’ second point, about setting being all, is worth picking up on. His itinerant beggar, who appears in slightly differing guises in different locations, is one I have met in various cities across Europe. But on reflection, doesn’t this mutability apply not only to beggars, or to tourists (on the Rialto or one of the Ponte delle tette), but to all who fit in between? That is, everyone? We all have the capacity for self-reinvention or re-assembly, of appearing in different guises, speaking in different voices, of being someone else depending on the place and context. Beggars such as the one Marías encountered in Venice, do not have a monopoly on this, they are just more easily noticed than the rest of us.

All of this must have seeped in on at some deep level, as I dream of a post-apocalyptic world, in which each group or family is allocated a space or island of the Venetian lagoon to settle: my group was allocated an islet, or part of a section of Cannaregio, which pleased me. But this pleasure was short-lived. When we landed there, all the alleyways and squares were empty, and we had to choose a house to live in, and once we broke in we had remove the bodies of the owners, who had perished during the disaster. There were no beggars in my dream. After the apocalypse, we will all be beggars.

 

 

 

Inverted City

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Here in the city of water, our hotel has a sign in the bathroom: ‘Water is a very scarce natural resource of immense value.’ No doubt this is true, but how strange that we should be reminded of it here, of all places.

An afternoon spent visiting islands. On returning from the sad island, Torcello, we sail past Murano in the dark, the bells tolling across the water from a church tower, the swash of the water against the hull as we pass, a sense of departure foreshadowing that of the definitive journey, and I am reminded that – as Peter Ackroyd notes in his book Venice: Pure City – ‘the endless presence of water breeds anxiety. Water is unsettling. You must be more alert and watchful in your perambulations. Everything shifts. There is a sense of otherness . . . it is shapeless. It has depth but no mass.’

Venice is a place of doubleness and of inversions. The watery essence of the city seeps into every thought, every perception, and then replicates it in a reflection. Stone and water; water and stone. Ackroyd again: ‘When you look down upon the water, Venice seems to have no foundations except for reflections. Only its reflections are visible. Venice and Venice’s image are inseparable.’

The inversion of one world in another: if you get to visit below the Doge’s Palace you can see how the reflection of the upper world in the lower finds expression in inscriptions outside the prison cells set at canal level, which are numbered in inverted Roman numerals: Λ, ΛΙ, etc. Apparently this was done to remind the prisoners that they were now in a shadow zone, a place in which the normal rules of the surface no longer held sway; that they had entered another, upside down world – had themselves become other.

 

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Venice story

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It is cold in Venice. I arrive late at night and go straight to bed. In the morning a mist hangs over the city when I go for my coffee at the corner café. Outside, a small white dog chases a blue ball around in circles. I see a derelict man, sitting hunched over on the bench in the nearby square. There are not many rough sleepers in Venice, in fact there is not normally a vast number of beggars. I sit down on the bench. The man asks me for money.  He has a somewhat battered appearance. I give him some coins. He gets up and leaves, but returns a few minutes later with a bottle. He offers me a drink, which I decline. It occurs to me that he is a character in a story I didn’t write, about a man who achieves most of the things that matter to him, then loses interest in them and goes to Venice and is reduced to sleeping rough: I could even tell him – if he were interested, which I rather doubt – that he is living my life in reverse. But I think better of it. He might not take it well. Besides, the morning mist is beginning to lift and the man is telling me an incredibly long and convoluted story about how he once achieved almost everything he set out to achieve, but then lost interest in his life, and came to Venice, but he tells the story in such a drab and uninteresting way that I drift off, begin thinking of other things, such as what I might do with the day now that the mist has lifted, and then he says something about living my life in reverse – ‘it’s as though I were living your life in reverse,’ he says, or I think he says, as I stare at some graffiti on a wall facing me: ‘Rose is a Rose is a Rose’ – and when I turn to reply to the man on the bench next to me, he is gone.

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The Idiot

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I have just finished reading The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and realise that, for a change, I have something to say about a contemporary novel in English. Not that I read many, and finish far fewer, especially since devouring Pierre Bayard’s excellent How to talk about books you haven’t read.  Why would one bother? But I had read various of Batuman’s essays and decided to give The Idiot a swirl, despite its somewhat daunting bulk.

Batuman writes very well, and has a rather particular sense of humour (or rather, humor) – or perhaps it isn’t a sense of humour in any conventional sense, but just the way she reads the world. This is a nicety of her style, and of the narrator, Selin’s, personality. Like Elif, Selin is an American of Turkish parentage who attends university in the late 1990s and encounters the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which teaches (broadly speaking) that perception is to a large extent defined by the language one speaks. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis actually explains a lot of what the book does, as Selin negotiates the tricky terrain of learning, infatuation (wonderfully muted and neurotic) and travel.

The story begins with Selin’s discovery, as a teenager, of the internet and the possibility of receiving emails: ‘Insofar as I’d had any idea about it at all, I had imagined that email would resemble faxing, and would involve a printer. But there was no printer. There was another world.’ Now I cannot even remember when I first encountered email, no doubt at the university where I worked (and still work); but I do remember how these messages seemed to emerge from a distinct or parallel world, and were significantly different in style and register from other forms of communication. Many – from people you knew – were like letters with their hair let down, and were generally composed with an absence of upper case letters. Batuman, who is a lot younger than me, remembers perfectly:

‘You could access it [the other world] from certain computers, which were scattered throughout the ordinary landscape, and looked no different from regular computers . . . Some messages were formally epistolary, with “Dear” and “Sincerely”; others were telegraphic, all in lower case with missing punctuation, like they were being beamed straight from people’s brains. And each message contained the one that had come before, so your own words came back to you – all the words you threw out, they came back. It was like the story of your relations with others, the story of the intersection of your life with other lives, was constantly being recorded and updated, and you could check it at any time.’

How clever is that ‘all the words you threw out, they came back’! Is that not the absolute essence (and horror) of email? But not only your own words; the endless deluge of other people’s (and institutions’) words emanating from this other world that can seemingly never be stanched or silenced . . .

Batuman’s range of registers is not extensive, and she is not an experimental writer in any conventional sense, but in the way she approaches her subject matter indirectly – at a slant to the universe – she manages to incite curiosity about the world like few other contemporary writers. Consider this passage, which occurs quite late in the book:

‘It was cold for swimming, but there were two people in the water: a barrel-chested man and a tiny little girl in a blue bikini. The girl was almost exploding with delight. The man stood awkwardly, like the first guest at a party, shifting his weight in the knee-deep water and rubbing his arms. Then he squatted so that only his head stuck out of the water. Then he vanished altogether, reappearing nearly a minute later with a perplexed expression. The girl clapped and shrieked, turned the man around by his shoulders, and climbed onto his back. The man stood up, his torso plastered with leaves. Overwhelmed by happiness, the girl began to sing. She was so happy – but she didn’t know what anything really was. She didn’t know what anything meant. She knew even less than we did.’

Notice how the narrator doesn’t say of the tiny singing girl that ‘she knew nothing’, but rather ‘she didn’t know what anything really was.’ This is a pointer towards the way Elif Batuman unpacks the world for her readers, not stating the expected, or at least not using linguistic constructions that are at once familiar or complacent. She prefers to present the girl’s ignorance, her ‘not knowing what anything [really] was’ almost as a threat, or an accident waiting to happen. And not only to her, the girl, but to the rest of us – whoever ‘we’ are. As though through ‘our’ ignorance we too might allow ourselves to be ‘overwhelmed by happiness’. With a fine tuning to différance the writer manages to do something quite unusual: exhibit her own bewilderment at the world in a manner at once subtle and strange. This trait is manifested early in the book when Selin is attending her first lecture as a freshman at Harvard:

‘The professor was talking about the difference between creative and academic writing. I kept nodding. I was thinking about the structural equivalences between a tissue box and a book: both consisted of slips of white paper in a cardboard case; yet – and this was ironic – there was very little structural equivalence, especially if the book wasn’t yours. These were the kinds of things I thought about all the time, even though they were neither pleasant nor useful. I had no idea what you were supposed to be thinking about.’

Selin is amazed by the way her friend, Svetlana, has so many opinions on things – how everything that happens, in fact, provokes some kind of intellectual reaction. She, by contrast ‘went from class to class, read hundreds, thousands of pages of the distilled ideas of the great thinkers of human history, and nothing happened.’ She is reminded of Olenka, the protagonist of Chekhov’s story, ‘The Darling’:

‘She saw objects round her and understood everything that was going on, but she could not form opinions about anything and did not know what to talk about. How awful it is not to have an opinion! You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand roubles.’ (47)

In many ways, this is a classic coming of age novel, but with significant differences. Ivan, a Hungarian mathematician Selin meets at Harvard, fulfils the role of love interest with as much awkwardness as Selin herself engages in the student activities which her peers perform unthinkingly: drinking large quantities of beer, for instance, holds no appeal for her. Her experiences as an EFL teacher in rural Hungary, to which she has travelled over the summer in vague pursuit of Ivan, might come across to some readers as anti-climactic, and it’s true that the plot, such as it is, drifts somewhat. But that isn’t what you read a book like The Idiot for. It is to be read for the skill of the writing and for the sharp and funny insights about growing up in a world that makes very little sense.

 

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Elif Batuman

Fists held high in Mexico: Juan Villoro and ‘El puño en alto’

El puño en alto

The earthquake in central Mexico has produced startling and heartrending images, but perhaps none so powerful as those of rescue workers poised with fists held high – the sign for silence – so that any sounds from the rubble and ruins might be heard.

Yesterday the writer Juan Villoro published a poem in the Reforma newspaper called El puño en alto which has captured the imagination of many readers in Mexico and elsewhere. Here is my translation:

 

Fist held high

You’re from the place where you

pick up garbage.

Where two sunbeams fall

on the same spot.

Because you saw the first,

you wait for the second.

And you stay on here.

Where the earth opens up

And the people come together.

*

Another time you arrived late:

you’re alive because you’re not punctual,

because you didn’t show up for

the appointment that at 1.14 pm

would have killed you,

thirty two years after

the other appointment, to which

you didn’t arrive on time, either.

You are the victim who wasn’t there.

The building swayed and you

didn’t see your life pass

before your eyes, like

in the movies.

You had a pain in a part of the body

that you didn’t know existed.

The skin of memory,

that didn’t bring scenes

of your life, but of

the beast that can be heard

crunching up matter.

Also the water remembered

what it was when it

owned this place.

It shook in the rivers.

It shook in the houses

that we concoct in the rivers.

You gathered up the books of another

time, the one you were

long ago

before those pages.

*

The weather went from bad to worse

after the national holidays.

More of a party than a grand occasion.

Is there still room for heroes

in September?

You are afraid.

You have the courage to be afraid.

You don’t know what to do,

but you do something,

You didn’t found the city

nor defended it from invaders.

*

You are, at best,

history’s beggar.

Who picks through rubble

after the tragedy.

Who shifts bricks,

gathers stones,

finds a comb,

two shoes that don’t match,

a wallet with photographs.

Who puts together loose parts,

bits of bits,

remains, only remains,

what fits in the hands.

*

Who doesn’t wear gloves,

Who shares out water,

Who gives away their medicine

because they’re cured of fright.

Who saw the moon and heard

strange things, but didn’t know

how to interpret them.

Who heard the cat miaow

half an hour before and only

understood it with the first shudder,

when water burst from the toilet.

Who prayed in a strange language

because they’d forgotten how to pray.

Who remembered who was where.

Who went to the school

for their children.

Whose battery ran out.

Who ran out onto the street to offer

their cell phone.

Who broke in to rob

an abandoned shop

and repented in

a food bank.

Who knew that they were

one too many

Who stayed awake so that

others could sleep.

*

Who is from here.

Who has just arrived

and is already from here.

Who says ‘city’ so as

to say you and me and Pedro and Marta

and Francisco and Guadalupe.

Who goes two days without electricity or water.

Who still breathes.

Who held a fist high to ask for silence.

Those who paid attention.

Those held up their fist.

Those who held up their fist.

to listen

if anyone was living.

Those who held up their fist

to hear if anyone was living and heard

a murmur.

Those who didn’t stop listening.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then, everyone leaves  . . .

 

On Tuesday, after all the poetry and talk was done, we were taken to see a Uruguayan folk dance group of superior talents: in the second half of the show the men produced these steel balls called boleadoras (I forget how, if at all, they relate to any aspect of cattle husbandry) and whizzed them around their heads on ropes. Truly impressive. Then we had a group photograph – in fact I took a ‘groupie’ – as it should, or may, be called –  in which I do not appear, though I attach another taken earlier in the day outside our favourite San José restaurant, the self-explanatory roti-parilla: in the foreground, in black, our hostess or maître d’ – Maria.

 

faves roti

Next morning, back in Buenos Aires, the world is too loud and large objects move around quickly, dangerously. Crossing the road from the ferry terminal with two suitcases in order to track down a taxi demands a certain degree of skill and agility. The distilled lethargy of small town Uruguay now resembles the leftover dross of a dream from which you have recently awaken and cannot quite piece together: the dream’s debris holds you back in this Brave New World. We take a taxi to Palermo and I check into the same hotel I stayed in on first arriving in Buenos Aires 10 days ago, and again four days ago, after the trip to Chile. It’s becoming a habit, and I’m beginning to feel at home in these streets what with all the recent yo-yoing and after five visits in as many years. The staff at the hotel greet me as though I were a regular, and I suppose I am, albeit accidentally. Despite my work as a writer and translator of poetry from Spanish, there is little real sense of contrivance or intention in my returning trips to Buenos Aires and other Latin American cities: it is more as if I were fulfilling a destiny that was decided for me when, in my teens, I bought a big map of South America and stuck it on the wall of my bedroom, which now seems like a determining moment.

People asked me about that map back then, and I was never really clear about why I had chosen to put it on the wall. It felt like a challenge to myself of sorts; a possibility that might be made to happen when the time was right, and it was able to turn itself into a plan. I had no idea it would take so long. And then, around ten years ago, I start thinking about Latin America in a new way, less linked to the past and influenced by my reading and by some serendipitous meetings with Latin American writers, who subsequently become friends, and some of whom I would translate. And I’m tempted to say that I knew this would happen, but that would be an exaggeration, of course. However, if I consider the archaeology of the thing, and work backwards from the present, is it really all that strange to think that my placing of that map on the wall acted as the trigger to where I am now, in relation to my work and most of my friendships?

Below are a few photos, in no particular sequence or order of importance:

 

faves w Andy Marina and Jorge at Goethe Institut

Left to right: Andy Ehrenhaus, Blanco, Marina Serrano, Jorge Fondebrider; Goethe Institut, Buenos Aires

faves blanco with blanco

Blanco perplexed before an image of the alleged Richard Gwyn, Catedra Bolaño, Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago

faves fab four w carlos as benny from crossorads circa 1976

The Fab Four, from left: Jorge Aulicino, Carlos López Beltrán (whose expression and headwear bring to mind the character Benny from Crossroads, circa 1976), Pedro Serrano, Andy Ehrenhaus.

Escritores, traductores

Pedro and Blanco, Santiago

faves vero blanco and Auli

Vero, Blanco and Auli discuss the benefits of smoking

faves reading at San Jose with Marina and Laura

Reading at San José with Andy Ehrenhaus, Marina Serrano & Laura Wittner . . .

faves random dog

Random Dog, San José

faves don quixote

Random Quixote, San José

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

faves boneless pig

faves last morning

Farewell breakfast, with Pedro, Jorge and Carlos.

An evening walk to the Rio San José, with dogs

blanco 1

 

San Jose 2

San Jose 3

San Jose 5

San Jose 8

jose pink house

Jose dog

 

 

 

jose 4.jpg

 

jose 5

 

jose 7

 

 

 

 

 

 

carlos and pedro by the rio san jose

IMG_0798

San José de Mayo

san jose trees

A cold evening: walking in this strange amber light towards the theatre in San José’s main square. Everything seems to happen in slow motion here. Even the dogs are pensioners, shuffling arthritically down the pavement; they make some effort to accompany you on your way before giving up and slumping to the ground.

I want to find a reason for being here, other than the fact of having being invited, but draw a blank. This is what continuous travel does after ten days or so: each new displacement presents a minor ontological crisis – nothing serious, just the sense of being nowhere in particular, a feeling which is precisely so: we could be almost anywhere, provided it was a so-called backwater – market towns in Wales and Catalunya come to mind; places that might, under other circumstances, or to other people, feel like home. And I remember a town like this in rural Colombia, driving past two dogs glued together by their rear parts, yet facing in opposite directions, an eight legged Janus. One of the dogs turned its head to follow me down the road, eyes laden with infinite sorrow, pleading: please help me come unstuck, or even: take me with you, help me get the hell out of this place.

Later, inside the theatre, the lights fail, the sound system packs up, and for a full three minutes we are left in silence, in the dark. Only then do I feel comfortable; only then do I feel as though I’ve arrived.

theatre san jose

Antonin, sure enough, there are no more masterpieces. / But your hands trembled as you said it, / and behind every curtain there is always, as you / knew, a rustling.

 

San Jose lectura
Blanco flanked by Andrés Ehrenhaus and Darío Jaramillo (right)