Tag Archives: Don Paterson

The last days of Antonio Machado

2 Oct

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After reading an article by Javier Cercas in El País, we decide to visit Collioure, just over the border in France. I want to visit the cemetery that hosts the earthly remains of Antonio Machado, who crossed over to France in exile toward the end of the Spanish Civil War, in 1939. The small group travelling with the poet had to leave most of their luggage when they abandoned the car in the bottleneck of escaping vehicles during a violent rainstorm at Port Bou. Machado, along with his brother José and their terminally ill mother, were refused food or even water in Cerbères by the French authorities because they could not pay. They made it along the coast as far as Collioure and, after receiving financial help from the Spanish novelist Corpus Barga, they stayed at the hotel Bougnol Quintana, now deserted, but with plaque (see below).

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I knew much of the story already, but in Cercas’s account, he is told the following story by two elderly English residents of Collioure: in the days before the poet’s death, Machado and José would never appear in the hotel dining room together, but always separately. Nobody could understand why this was, other than to put it down to some bad blood between the two, brought on by the hardships of exile. Only later was the truth discovered: they only had one suit between them, and took it in turns to come down to eat. Antonio left the hotel only once, to visit the harbour, and sit for a while by the sea. The poet died three weeks after arriving in Collioure, on 22nd February 1939, victim to an undisclosed illness, and an interminable sorrow for his country’s defeat. His mother died three days later. But it was the anecdote of the suit, whether true or apocryphal, and the tearful reaction to it described by Cercas – whom I met once at a dinner and who seemed a genuinely agreeable person – that made me decide to take the forty minute drive across the mountain at Coll de Banyuls, and up the coast to Collioure. However, I was so tired, after yet another insomniac night, that before we even reached the town of Banyuls, I had to pull over, and Mrs Blanco took the wheel.

At Collioure, we left our ancient peppermint Citroën by the railway station; Bruno the dog helpfully watered the tauntingly upright meter as I paid for our parking ticket, and the three of us, led by the impatient hound, walked down into the pretty, touristy town, with its art shops and overpriced boutiques, and soon found both the ex-hotel and the nearby cemetery. It was all attractive and relaxed, in that comfortable, provincial, southern French way, but the reason for our visit added a tinge of melancholy to the evening. Afterwards we went and sat outside a café by the harbour and had an apéro, because the waiter said they didn’t serve coffee at that hour, which struck me as a bit strange, but then remembered this was France.  It’s easy to forget, when you live near the border, how customs vary.

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I read a lot of Machado when I came to live in Spain, and during the 90s he became, and remains, one of my favourite poets. He was the first Spanish poet I attempted to translate, fifteen years ago. His language is extraordinarily ‘rooted’ in Spanish, in a way that is hard to describe. He doesn’t translate comfortably, which is why a better introduction to the non-Spanish reader might be via Don Paterson’s ‘versions’ of Machado, The Eyes (1999). This, however, was my first effort at one of his poems, before abandoning the idea of translating him:

 

I have walked down many roads

and cleared many paths.

I have sailed a hundred seas

made fast to a hundred shores.

 

Everywhere I’ve seen

caravans of sadness,

proud people sad people

drunks in black shadow,

 

and pedants offstage

who watch on, keep silence, think

they know better, because they don’t

drink wine in humble bars.

 

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

their four palms of earth.

 

If they arrive somewhere

they never ask where they are.

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 cold water.

 

Good people who live

and work, get by and dream.

And one day like any other

they go under the ground.

 

And in the original:

He andado muchos caminos,
he abierto muchas veredas;
he navegado en cien mares,
y atracado en cien riberas.

 En todas partes he visto
caravanas de tristeza,
soberbios y melancólicos
borrachos de sombra negra,

 y pedantones al paño
que miran, callan, y piensan
que saben, porque no beben
el vino de las tabernas.

 Mala gente que camina
y va apestando la tierra…

 Y en todas partes he visto
gentes que danzan o juegan, 

cuando pueden, y laboran
sus cuatro palmos de tierra.

Nunca, si llegan a un sitio,
preguntan a dónde llegan. 

Cuando caminan, cabalgan
a lomos de mula vieja,

y no conocen la prisa
ni aun en los días de fiesta.
Donde hay vino, beben vino;
donde no hay vino, agua fresca.

Son buenas gentes que viven,
laboran, pasan y sueñan,
y en un día como tantos,
descansan bajo la tierra. 

(from Soledades, 1903).