Tag Archives: Eduardo Halfon

Fiction Fiesta, reality, and Alastair Reid

26 Sep

borges in library

The first Borges story I ever read was ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’, in the translation by Alastair Reid, while living in a derelict shepherd’s hut on a Cretan hillside. A couple of years later, like so many others readers, I underwent a kind of epiphany while reading One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I was twenty years old, and from that point on, Borges’ fictions, alongside García Márquez’s recreation of the semi-fictional world of Macondo, forced me to re-evaluate almost everything that I had been reared to believe about literary fiction.

Thinking back, I had never had much truck with either realism or naturalism – the antagonists, in their way, of so-called ‘magic realism’ – and since my exposure to Borges and García Márquez, I never quite trusted them again. These two writers, followed by other discoveries, such as Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Augusto Monterroso, opened the doors to different perceptions of reality, in which the frail membrane separating one world, one mode of understanding, from another, was always permeable, subject to movement and interpenetration. Everything was a fiction. This was a model, I believed, that could be applied to almost anything: culture, language, philosophy . . . it was almost, but not quite, a religion.

Alastair Reid, who died in 2014

Alastair Reid, last year.

Last July I was reminded of this lifelong struggle with the false dichotomy between fiction and reality, when I travelled to Dumfries and Galloway to meet Alastair Reid himself. The Scottish poet – friend as well as translator of Borges, Neruda and García Márquez – spent a large part of the day talking with me about Latin America and its literatures, especially Borges. I recorded the conversations, and consider myself incredibly fortunate to do this as, just over a month following my visit, Alastair passed away, at the age of eighty-eight.

One of the things he told me – which also crops up in one of his essays – was the reluctance of Latin Americans in general (not just authors) to discriminate between what ‘actually’ happened, and what might have happened under other circumstances. Thus life (and storytelling) is a continuous weave of memory, confabulation and invention. In one of his essays, Reid cites the American diplomat George F. Kennan, who, after an investigatory trip through several Latin American countries in 1950, wrote, in a tone of exasperation:

Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe . . . a highly personalised, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process.

While the sentiments expressed here might be familiar to many as a symptom of European or North American ethnocentrism, the diplomat had a point. Reid himself lived for many years among villagers in the Dominican Republic, and describes a ‘fictive’ cast of mind, in which the vague boundary between history and invention is blurred beyond recognition. This is not simply a case of the ‘objective’ European mind critiquing the supremely subjectivist world-view of those in ‘the third world’: it is a truth (if such a word has any meaning) borne out by Reid’s experience, and one described most succinctly by Borges himself. For Borges, everything put into language is a fiction, whatever ‘literary’ or non-literary’ form that might take. Thus a poem, a newspaper article, or a letter from the bank manager all fit the category of ‘fiction’ as each uses language as their mode of expression. As Reid says:

A fiction is any construct of language – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality.

And it is with this in mind that we must think of Fiction Fiesta; not in the limited sense of a festival that celebrates the genre of literary fiction. FF is a platform for building fictions that give shape to reality. On one level, FF complements work that I am doing, alongside others – with the invaluable support of Wales Literature Exchange and Wales Arts International – in taking Welsh writing out into the wider world; at the same time we are helping Welsh readers discover more about contemporary Latin American writing.

Fiction Fiesta started out in early 2012 as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’

Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala, Inés Garland and Andrés Neuman from Argentina, alongside writers from Wales and elsewhere in the UK, and The Independent covered the event, with a feature on one of our guests, Angharad Price, which attracted more attention.

Through Fiction Fiesta, we set out to pay particular attention to literature in translation and, by extension, to explore the larger idea of translation as a concept that, to some degree, governs all our lives. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. And Octavio Paz goes further: ‘in writing a poem we are translating the world, transmuting it. Everything we do is translation, and all translations are in a way creations.’

It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed by readers, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. In addition, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which, as I explained at the start of this piece, is where a lot of my own literary interests are centred.

This year’s Mexico-themed Fiction Fiesta teamed up with Wales PEN Cymru and the British Council to hold an event at the Wales Millennium Centre on Friday 17th April. Owen Sheers hosted the Mexican writer Juan Villoro, along with Francesca Rhydderch, while I was in conversation with Pedro Serrano and the Scottish poet W.N. Herbert. FF is hoping to maintain the partnership with Wales PEN Cymru, and bring many more writers from Latin America to Wales over the years to come.

 

Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year's Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Juan Villoro, Owen Sheers and Francesca Rhydderch at this year’s Fiction Fiesta, held at the Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

 

Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta

Blanco (centre) with Pedro Serrano (left) and Bill Herbert at Fiction Fiesta

 

This piece first appeared in the New Welsh Review, 1st July 2015

Fiction Fiesta 2015

15 Apr
Preview | Fiction Fiesta 2015

PREVIEW | FICTION FIESTA 2015

Fiction Fiesta started out three years ago as a conversation in a pub between myself and Nick Davidson, landlord of the now defunct Promised Land in Windsor Place, Cardiff. I was expecting a visit from two Argentinian writers, Andrés Neuman and Jorge Fondebrider, and Nick and I decided to hold a small celebration to welcome them to Wales. However, we got a little excited and ended up inviting all kinds of people, including the publishers Christopher MacLehose and Charles Boyle, and the literary editor of The Independent, Boyd Tonkin, and then a load of people from closer to home got involved. Nick got some money from the San Miguel brewery and I managed to secure some from Cardiff University and the thing was on. We followed up in 2013, with an Arts Council of Wales small festivals grant, inviting Eduardo Halfon from Guatemala and Inés Garland from Argentina to join several writers from Wales and elsewhere, and The Independent again covered the event, which attracted some attention.
My idea for Fiction Fiesta was simple: to team up writers in both the languages of Wales with writers from Latin America, and initiate a discourse between us and them, with the aim – among other things – of dismantling such notions as ‘us’ and ‘them’. The way we set out to approach this was to pay particular attention to literature in translation, and explore the whole idea of translation as a concept that to some degree governs our lives. After all, we are translating from the moment we are born: early childhood is the acute phase of translation, and of being translated. Those moments in which every gaze, every enraged instinct on the part of the infant meets with either incomprehension or else with a tentative, and then a more assured translation. As parents we are constantly engaged in acts of translation, as are friends and lovers and enemies and strangers of all variety. In literature, even without being translated into other languages, we are translating emotions and thoughts into words. ‘Reading poetry is itself a kind of translation,’ commented Andrés Neuman during a discussion at Fiction Fiesta in 2013. We are all translators, just as we are all, to some degree, writers. ff-e-flyer 2015
The novelist and essayist Ali Smith, in her preface to English PEN’s report on literary translation, Taking Flight, wrote:  ‘If we value literature at all, we know the worth of literary translation. If we want language to be as subtle and supple and layered and resonant as language can be, we know the worth and the work and the subtlety of literary translation. If we care at all about looking beyond our back yard and our own dominant narratives, we know the worth, the work, the open border, open mind, open eyes and ears of literary translation. If we belong to a culture which rates the word literary, we know the value, the scope, the touchstone, the creativity, the generosity that exist in this fusion of literary and translation.’
Engaging with the literature of another country, another culture, enables us to understand not only the world as it is now, but also the shared history that brought us here, which will be our legacy.
As Edith Grossman, the modern translator of Cervantes’ Don Quixote puts it: ‘[Translation] permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.’
It was never our intention to put on a big festival. We always wanted Fiction Fiesta to retain a sense of intimacy that came from holding the first edition of the fiesta in the upstairs room of a local pub. And we wanted to keep a sense of celebration, of literature as something to be savoured and enjoyed, like food and drink, which the large-scale corporate festivals cannot provide. Above all, we wanted Fiction Fiesta to help develop contacts and friendships between Welsh writers and writers from Latin America, which is where a lot of my own literary interests happen to have sprung from.
I was fortunate enough to spend some time in Mexico last year on an Arts Council of Wales project, and part of my task was to familiarise myself with the wide expanse of literary culture there as well as trying – within a month – to gauge as much as I could of the wider cultural climate within that country. I came away with my head filled to bursting, but enthusiastic about the task of developing closer relationships with individual Mexican writers, of translating the poems of some, and of reading the work of many others.
This year Mexico and the UK are teaming up for two big events: the London Book Fair, running this week from Tuesday to Thursday, where Mexico is the guest nation, and at the Guadalajara Book Fair, in November, where the UK is the invited country. We thought that Cardiff should see a slice of the action, so together with the newly formed Wales PEN Cymru, and with the support of the British Council, we decided to hold a small event here with two of the Mexican writers whose work I discovered last year, and who are visiting for the Book Fair. As is the usual pattern with FF, we teamed them up with local writers – or in this instance a Welsh writer and a Scottish Poet – to see what happens.
file-page1
The event takes place on a Friday night, at the Wales Millennium Centre. In the first session, which begins at 5 pm, Owen Sheers will be in conversation with Juan Villoro, a contemporary and friend of Roberto Bolaño, and an extraordinary writer of short stories in the broad lineage of Borges, alongside Francesca Rhydderch, who achieved widespread recognition last November with her shortlisting for the BBC Short Story Award. In the second half, following a wine reception, I will be talking with Pedro Serrano along with the Scottish poet WN Herbert, and they will be reading from their work. The event takes place in the Preseli Room at WMC and entry is free of charge, with donations to Wales PEN Cymru welcome.
This year Fiction Fiesta is supported by the British Council and Cardiff University School of English, Communication and Philosophy.

This post also appears on the website of WALES ARTS REVIEW today. The new re-vamped Wales Arts Review serves as a media platform where a new generation of critics and arts lovers can meet to engage in a robust and inclusive discussion about books, theatre, film, music, the visual arts, politics, and the media.

Eduardo Halfon’s Monasterio and those salacious Romans

29 Aug
Eduardo

Eduardo Halfon, Tintern, May 2013.

The problem with reading so many books at a time, so many, indeed, that the piles beside the bedside totter and sway; the problem, I think to myself in one of those everyday moments of realisation that seem to link up everything in the universe in a sublime act of synthesis, is that the themes, the plots, the characters, all start to form a single continuous entity, and one’s reading begins to resemble the world, infinite in association and connotation . . .

Reading Eduardo Halfon’s sublimely nuanced new offering, the novella – for want of a better word – Monasterio, I am struck once again by the simple fluency of Halfon’s prose, indeed slightly envious that he carries off acts of complex suggestivity with such grace and clarity of expression. I do not wish to get bogged down in a fallacious argument about the meaning of ‘clarity’ or ‘simplicity’ in prose writing: readers of Spanish will already have the opportunity to sample what I mean, and the author’s growing legion of English readers have a real treat to look forward to when the book appears in that language. The story follows Eduardo Halfon, a cypher, or perhaps a version, of Eduardo Halfon, but one who smokes a lot of cigarettes, whereas the real Halfon ‘seldom smokes’ (as my uncle once remarked to a German parachute officer surrendering to him at Monte Cassino, while simultaneously offering him a fat cigar). Not smoking is not the only difference between Eduardo and Eduardo, but let’s not confuse perception and representation. For a long time I thought this particular author was magnificently moustachioed, whereas in reality it is the way his little finger nestles to the side of his mouth on the sleeve photo of his books . . . but let’s move on . . .

The book begins with Eduardo and his brother arriving at Tel Aviv airport to attend the wedding of their sister, who has joined a fundamentalist Zionist group and is due to be married off to a fellow fanatic selected for her by the Rabbi. It is hot and our protagonists are not in the best of moods. Neither of them are practising Jews and they have serious reservations, to say the least, about both their sister’s faith and her prospective spouse, whom none of the family has met. A man who was on the flight with them, and is waiting by the carrousel, is suddenly set upon by security and bundled away. It happens in an instant. Eduardo thinks he recognises one of the Lufthansa flight attendants near the man as an ex-flame, Tamara, but he is not certain . . . Within the seven opening pages the essential matrix of the story is laid out. But the mastery of Halfon’s style lies in the way the story unfolds. He takes his time. There is nothing wasted in his prose. Everything counts, and everything holds our attention.

Late in the book (it is only 120 pages, but its density makes it seem longer) we go for a dip in the Dead Sea, and there is an extended discussion on the theme of salt. One of the most interesting nuggets to come out of this passage is that “the Romans called a man in love ‘salax’, which means to be in a salty state, and which is . . . . the origin of the word salacious.”

A salty dog, anyone?

 

 

 

Mexican Masks: the ambassadorial posts

23 Apr

Octavio Paz centenary

Day 1

What is a creative ambassador? According to the blurb from the Arts Council of Wales, ‘The Creative Wales Ambassadors Awards are made by nomination and recognise . . . individual achievement in the arts along with the aim to raise the profile of Welsh culture outside of Wales.’ My application was called Unfinished Journey and in it I wrote the following (forgive me reproducing this paragraph in full, but I thought it fair to present what I aim to do):

‘Modern journeys often awaken in the traveller a sense of ‘travelling without seeing’, an idea that is perhaps uniquely contemporary. The title suggests that rather than having a fixed point of departure and arrival, all travel is a continuum, and that the only valid objective is to sustain the exquisite tension of the unfinished journey. My project is to research and write an account of the process of travel as a work in progress. Reports will initially appear as journal entries, posted on the blog written by my alter ego, Ricardo Blanco, as we tour Latin America in search of its poets and its wanderers; but this will only be a part of the narrative, as the project will also take us through journeys past, as well as across a very personal Latin America of memory and the imagination. Unfinished Journey is linked to, but discrete from, preparation of my forthcoming anthology of Contemporary Latin American Poetry (Seren Books, 2016), and the Cardiff-based Fiction Fiesta, and it builds on friendships with writers, and alliances with cultural organisations across Latin America. Unfinished Journey is sponsored by Wales Literature Exchange and the Club de Traductores Literarios de Buenos Aires, Argentina, with supporting partners at the Universidad Austral, in Validivia, Chile; the International Poetry Festival of Medellín, Colombia; and the Periódico de Poesía, at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in Mexico City.’

It seems only fitting, in Octavio Paz’s Centenary year (yes, it’s not all about Dylan) that I should begin this journey in the country of, quite possibly, the 20th century’s finest ambassador for poetry. Paz, following the admirable tradition of Latin American countries in giving jobs to their poets, was also a real ambassador, to India, during which time he wrote some extraordinarily perceptive essays on Indian art and culture.

I first became interested in the literature of Mexico through the poetry of Paz and the fiction of Carlos Fuentes (I discovered years later that the two men detested each other). At a tangent, I also read the weird, apocryphal books of Carlos Castaneda with great enthusiasm, until at some point I felt he had gone off somewhere I was unable to follow. But Paz, whose Labyrinth of Solitude I encountered when I was 20, and which made a lasting impression, says this: ‘The European considers Mexico to be a country on the margin of universal history, and everything that is distant from the centre of his society strikes him as strange and impenetrable.’

I am not certain this is as true today as it was when it was written half a century ago: Europe has changed too, manifesting a slow but steady willingness to embrace minority or ‘peripheral’ perspectives (although this is not to say the work does not remain to be done, not least in the unravelling of an archaic class system based on an established white male elite). Likewise, as the Guatemalan writer Eduardo Halfon reminded me last year, the history and present of Latin America is as much based on race today as ever it was. This and other considerations, specifically those relating to Mexico, will occupy my attention, along with – I hope – more quotidian observations about the places I go and the people I meet.

So it is that today I am headed to the University in Mexico City, to meet students celebrating the festival of the book and the rose (Fiesta del libro y la rosa).

This celebration takes place on St George’s day, across the Hispanic world. I first became familiar with it during my time in Catalunya (of which St Jordi [i.e. George] is also the patron saint), a day in which lovers present each other with gifts of a book and a rose (in olden times the woman gave the man a book and the man gave the woman a rose, as women who read books were presumably not be trusted, but thankfully that part of the tradition has now been abandoned).

Later in the week, and in keeping with my brief of ‘raising the profile of Welsh culture outside of Wales’, I will be giving a lecture on Dylan Thomas in Spanish (a first for me, but given his Centenary, and given the abundance of translations of his poetry – he is, I discovered with some shock, after T.S. Eliot, the most translated 20th Century English language poet – I’m prepared to give it a punt); and I will seek to bring him into some kind of historical context, alongside R.S. Thomas and David Jones in a breakneck survey of Welsh poetry in English. Otherwise, over the next 24 days, I will be giving talks and readings of my own stuff (in the meticulous translations of Jorge Fondebrider) and travelling around the central part of Mexico, finding things to Blanquiloquise about.

‘Mexico is a country of many faces’, a teacher from Yucatán told me two and a half years ago on a previous visit to Mexico, as he drove me to the high school at Zapotlanejo where he taught history (please see Blanco’s blog about that trip in the post Dog-throwing in Zapotlanejo and other rare feats). These many faces, as in any other place, frequently appear as masks. It is something to bear in mind, as Octavio Paz reminds us in his ‘Mexican Masks’ chapter of The Labyrinth of Solitude, casting as harsh an eye on his own countrymen as R.S. Thomas ever did on the Welsh:

‘The Mexican, whether young or old, criollo or mestizo, general or labourer or lawyer, seems to me to be a person who shuts himself away to protect himself: his face is a mask and so is his smile. In his harsh solitude, which is both barbed and courteous, everything serves him as a defence: silence and words, politeness and disdain, irony and resignation. He is jealous of his own privacy and that of others, and he is afraid even to glance at his neighbour, because a mere glance can trigger the rage of these electrically charged spirits . . . his language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats . . . The Mexican is always remote, from the world and from other people. And also from himself.’

 

PS. I should note that in my last minute preparations for the Mexico leg of my ambassadorial journeyings, I read several essays from a collection of pieces on Art and Literature by Paz, in a book loaned to me, I realised with some horror, by Iwan Bala in 2001, and which, shamefully, I never returned (the non-return of loaned books stands out for me as a cardinal sin, so I am guilty of vile hypocrisy).  The book is covered in Iwan’s entertaining annotations, in both Welsh and English, an added bonus, to which I have now added my own (in pencil). Iwan, if you are reading this, I will get the book back to you on my return to Wales, 13 years on, but hey, better late than never.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Midday: story of a kidnapping

5 Jul

Bogotá is the kind of place designed to make you feel conspicuous if you are toting a camera around. I have heard and read too many bad things, even if the place is considerably safer than it has been for many years. So I pootle down the main drag with my Argentinian bodyguard, drop into the national museum and see a few relics of pre-Columbian society (the Muisca, who lived in this region before the Spanish conquest, had a great love of gold, thereby giving rise not only the emergence of the myth of El Dorado, but also to their own extermination). In my conversations with Colombian writers and taxi drivers, I encounter a state of general uncertainty, of not knowing what exactly constitutes the New Colombia, or which way the wind will blow. With respect to the taxi drivers, this uncertainty seems to extend to their knowledge of the city, because they never seem to know their way around, and are obliged to ask directions of their customers, or else stop and ask one of the many patrolling police and military. This, in fact, is the most noticeable feature of the city at night: the fantastic quantity of military and police personnel on the streets. Like living in a city under occupation. But for many Colombians this actually comes as a relief, after so many years of lawlessness. Colombia has lost its pole position as the murder, kidnap and extortion capital of the world, but like other south and central American states lives with its legacy of such crimes, carried out on a massive scale. The balance of terror in this part of the world seems to be shifting elsewhere: Mexico we know about already, and yesterday I listened to a long account of the emergence of horrific acts being carried out by juvenile crime gangs in El Salvador.

            All this brings me in a roundabout way to the story of a kidnap, or abduction. The latter term in generally used to describe a politically motivated sequestration, while a kidnapping suggests a demand for ransom. But in English ‘kidnap’ still retains the general flavour of being taken against one’s will whether for political reasons or for financial gain. So we’ll stick with kidnap.

            I reproduce the story that follows with the kind permission of its Guatemalan author, Eduardo Halfon. It is taken from the collection Elocuencias de un tartamudo published in Spain by Pre-Textos in 2012.

MIDDAY

We were lying beneath the branches of a fig tree, watching a group of sailing boats as they crossed the shining, almost breezeless lake, when he told me that the only time that he had wanted to do drugs was after his kidnapping.

             – Mushrooms, in particular.

            He slapped himself on the neck, inspecting his fingers to see if he had got the mosquito.

              – I couldn’t remember the details of the kidnapping. Imagine that! And I reckoned that maybe a psychotropic drug like mushrooms might help me to remember something.

            Voices and laughter drifted towards us from the house and from the Jacuzzi, which was fed by volcanic waters.

               – I could remember, for example, that they had taken me one morning as I was arriving at my clinic. I could remember that a woman helped me out at night, loosening the ropes and shackles so that I was able to sleep better. But not much more.

              He was lying in a deckchair, dressed only in his navy blue Speedo. His skin glistened with oil.

              –  Then I went to see a psychoanalyst in Alabama, and I told him I wanted him to prescribe me some drug, in order to remember.

            A swallow skimmed the pea soup coloured water. It seemed to be hunting something.

               – And the psychoanalyst told me no, that he wouldn’t do that, but was I willing to allow him to hypnotize me.

            A cheerful shout from someone in the Jacuzzi interrupted him.

               – Once I was hypnotized the first thing I remembered was waking up naked on the floor of a darkened room, and not recognising myself. Do you understand? I didn’t recognise myself. An atrocious thing. Everything was so alien to me I had even lost all notion of my self.

            A motor launch was pulling a lone water-skier.

               – I didn’t know who I was.

            He paused, as though wanting to remember something else. On the other side of the lake, between misty green mountains: a burning purple jacaranda.

            – And then I recognized my Kickers.

            He had said this in a relaxed tone, almost a sweet tone, and I laid off looking at his bare feet, his tanned and grey-haired chest, his opaque gaze, his immaculate, old hands trying to shoo away another mosquito.

            – I didn’t know anything. I didn’t even know who I was. But all of a sudden I recognised my Kickers in a corner and then I recognised myself as well, on account of or thanks to my Kickers.

            We heard the splashing of wet people as they left the jaccuzzi.

             – But look, it’s midday already – he said, checking the time on his digital watch –,  and the bar opens at midday.

            I watched him get up calmly. At four foot nine, he seemed like a giant.

             – Martini?

© original text: Eduardo Halfon 2012   © translation: Richard Gwyn 2013

A story always tells two stories

4 Jul

Ed with sign

‘A story always tells two stories . . . the visible narrative always hides a secret tale’. Attempting an overhaul of my laptop’s photo collection, I come across a picture of Eduardo Halfon, standing across the road from Coffee a Gogo in Cardiff, in front of a makeshift sign that (miraculously) cites the opening lines of his book, The Polish Boxer. No one is sure how the signs got there, but we have our suspicions. Tellingly, the word ‘tells’ is missing. It reappeared by the evening of that day. I wonder where it went in the meantime, and what it told.

Meanwhile, from Bogotá, a photo from my hotel bedroom on the 13th floor, overlooking Avenida Septima. This distorted image – taken through a rather dirty window framed by outside bars – captured for me the fuzziness of arrival, and waking to a morning in the capital of a country whose catastrophic history tells so many secret tales that the visible narrative has almost disappeared entirely.

 

Bogota hotel

 

 

 

 

What reality, where?

27 Nov

Moments after seeing nothing at all, failing to see what was beyond their conceptual grasp, the native people began to see figures recognizable, perhaps, as men.

 

For as long as I can remember I have wondered at the stupid commonplace representation of what an alien might look like. You know the kind of thing; the eggheaded bug-eyed ET figure, the slimy green tentacled version, or the ectoplasmic ooze version. Why would an alien ‘look like’ anything, at least like anything that is familiar to our way of seeing, or that can be grasped by our cognitive filters and interpreted as a recognizable visual image.

So it was interesting to read the following in Eduardo Halfon’s fabulous collection of interlinked stories, The Polish Boxer:

And I suddenly remembered a legend Lía had told me, studious and devoted to quantum physics as she was. The legend says that as Columbus’s fleet was approaching the shores of America, the native Indians didn’t see it because they couldn’t see it, they literally couldn’t see it, since the concept of galleons in full sail was so alien to them, so unimaginable, that it didn’t enter their version of reality, and as such, their minds simply decided not to register it. There’s nothing there, I remember Lía saying to me, with her hand on my forehead, as though she was watching the horizon. I construct my reality solely on the basis of what I know, she said. Or something like that.

And on the subject of aliens, I couldn’t resist posting this delightful rendition of William Shatner and the crew of Star Trek doing a cover of Pulp’s ‘Common People’. Look out for the alien playing the lyre.