A Journey into Memory

29 Jun

 

Bouillon: Panorama

Bouillon: Panorama

When I remember things from childhood or early adulthood, it often feels as though I am a passive subject, a receptacle or vessel, and the process of remembering becomes one in which memory is seeking me out, digging its way into my sense-making apparatus, rather than there being any sort of ‘I’ trying to make sense of the things remembered.

I am all too aware that as far as memories are concerned, it is the act of construction (more accurately reconstruction) that matters, of making the bits fit our self-narrativisation. In other words, as Gabriel García Márquez put it: ‘Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.’

Other People's CountriesIn his memoir, Other People’s Countries (subtitled A Journey into Memory), Patrick McGuinness asks fascinating questions about the way that identity is rooted in memory, more specifically in the way that we remember. “Trying to remember is itself a shock, a kind of detonation in the shadows, like dropping a stone into silt at the bottom of a pond: the water that had seemed clear is now turbid (that’s the first time I’ve ever used that word) and enswirled.” On reading this passage, which comes on Page 7 of the book, I found it noteworthy that McGuinness comments on the fact that he has not used the word ‘turbid’ before, which immediately casts suspicion on the observation, because one wonders whether, by commenting on memory’s cloudiness and turbidity, he has merely dislodged an existing memory, and is therefore, perhaps, not ‘using the word for the first time’ at all. And how telling that his use of the word ‘turbid’, and his comment on that usage, should immediately be followed by a neologism, ‘enswirled’.

These are nice illustrations of the way that language, our use of it, and its use of us, can be an element in the process of remembering. I am thinking in particular of those laden words which, when they crop up, immediately bring with them a sequence of memories and associations. I remember reading somewhere that our memory of language is the best reason why one should not translate into a language that is not our mother tongue. Words carry their own baggage with them: when you hear certain words, they spark off a whole sequence of associative meanings and memories, stretching back to childhood, that would simply not be available to an individual who has learned a language as an adult.

Childhood is the source of many of these word-memories. Like smells or taste (Proust’s oft-cited madeleine), words, long forgotten or unused, are capable of eliciting entire submerged worlds. But is it the memory of the word itself that achieves this, or the memory of a memory? As McGuinness speculates:

‘And as with so much of that childhood, I seem to remember not the things themselves but the memories of the things, as if the present I experienced them in was already slowing up and treacling over, fixing itself in a sepia wash.’

There are so many good things in this book, things that make you reach for a pencil, or else just stop in your tracks and reflect about the words you have just read. You can dip in, pick a page at random, and come out with some crystallized memory, or some jewel of detailed observation.

Other People’s Countries is, on one level, about a house in Bouillon, in the Ardennes region of Belgium. The house belonged to McGuinness’ family (his mother was Belgian) and was the author’s own childhood home. The book is divided into many short chapters: in this way they resemble the rooms of a large house, perhaps Quintilian’s House of Memory. I’ll conclude with one of my favourite chapters, titled ‘Keys’, which follows in its entirety:

‘Watching an old police procedural, probably a Maigret, sometime in the early eighties while convalescing from glandular fever (an illness I experienced more as convalescence than as actual illness: I felt as if I was simply recovering from something, rather than actually having the something to recover from in the first place), it came to me: a thief pushing a key into putty so that it’s outline would be caught in the relief and he could copy it, then burgle the house.

That was memory, I realised: a putty with which you make another key, which would open the same door, but never quite as well. In no time, you’d be burgling your own past with the slightly off-key key that always got you in though there was less and less to take.’

 

 

 

 

The last digression of Patrick Leigh Fermor

7 Jun

 

 

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

Patrick Leigh Fermor, circa 1934

 

Reading the final ‘long awaited’ – which in this instance meant waiting for the Death of the Author in 2011 at the age of 96 – third volume of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s account of his 1934 trek across Europe, three questions occur to me about the inability of PLF to complete and publish the book while still alive.

1)   the accumulation of digressions (both of writing and in life); indeed what amounted to PLF’s compulsion to digress (of itself no bad thing);

2)   his failure of memory, aided and abetted by the loss of certain of the relevant notebooks;

3)   an inability to contemplate the end of his journey which must, by some not-so-strange interior logic, also mean the end of his life.

An article by Daniel Mendelsohn in the current issue of The New York Review of Books also suggests a combination of factors, most particularly the digressions that formed such a substantial part of Paddy’s life and work. “We shall never get to Constantinople like this,” the author announces in a meta-textual aside, which constitutes “a humorous acknowledgement . . of a helpless penchant for digressions literal and figurative . . .”

Indeed, “the author’s chattiness, his inexhaustible willingness to be distracted, his susceptibility to detours geographical, intellectual, aesthetic, and occasionally amorous constitute, if anything, an essential and self-conscious component of the style that has won him such an avid following.”

The naivety and sheer joy of unfettered travel; the “ecstasy” that Paddy describes on “realising that nobody in the world knew where he was” – a sensation, as Mendelssohn points out, that would be practically impossible for travellers today, but which I recall from my own wanderings in the 1980s as having provoked a similarly feverish sense of total liberation; the wonderful lists that pepper his writing, eliciting new tastes and new sensations and a constant hunger to celebrate life as fully as possible; his unerring ability to stir in the reader a desire to write – which to me constitutes a failsafe criterion of all good writing; and finally – almost because of its flaws – and certainly because of what we know to have transpired in the two earlier volumes, and the unbearable anticipation of the thing – which was like a Sword of Damocles for PLF in later years – all of these help to make this book one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of the year thus far. While reading it too, I am more conscious than I was during the preceding two volumes of Paddy’s tendency to confabulate. At more than one point Paddy confesses that he cannot truly remember what happened next, but continues anyway, and even interjects passages of outrageous fantasy to spice up the story. A quotation from Javier Marías’ novel, The Infatuations, comes to mind:

“Everything becomes a story and ends up drifting about in the same sphere, and then it’s hard to differentiate between what really happened and what is pure invention. Everything becomes a narrative and sounds fictitious even if it’s true.”

Like Mendelsohn, I found The Broken Road’s incompleteness, paradoxically, to be more fitting than any neatly circumscribed ending that the author might have engineered. After so much deep description, after so many early mornings waking by the roadside with a sense of the sheer limitless possibility of the unfinished journey, after so much continuous pointless peregrination, any kind of ‘arrival’ would only have been a let-down.

While listing, above, the three reasons for the unfinished nature of the trilogy, a fourth, not entirely facetious option came to mind. Paddy famously never referred to the ultimate destination of his journey as Istanbul, but as Constantinople. Since ‘Constantinople’ did not exist under that name (nor had it, strictly speaking, since 1453), Paddy was never going to arrive. Instead we are allowed to share with him the nostalgia (which he shares with Cavafy) for a broken Hellenic world, for the ghosts of Byzantium, and a burgeoning sense of the terror that was about to descend on Europe in the years immediately following his journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mexican history, pasties, & the fall of Europe

18 May

wall

 

crack in the wall

Perhaps nowhere on earth is the contiguity of past and present more strikingly evident than in Mexico. An ancient wall, cracked from an earthquake, stands before a pair of ascending high rise towers, from one of which emanates a constant hammering and pounding that echoes across the hot afternoon. Through the crack in the ancient wall modernity surges skyward, oblivious.

My last night in Mexico City I watch the Mexican cup final in a taqueria with some friends. The match is between Leon and Pachuca. The second of these is known as Pachuca la airosa (Pachuca the windy) and its football team has a curious history. It is the oldest club in Mexico, having been formed in 1901 by Cornish miners who had arrived in the area to work in mines owned byWilliam Blamey at the end of the nineteenth century. The team was augmented with locals who took to the game, and became one of the country’s leading clubs. It is in the Mexican Premier League and has won five championships as well as four CONCACAF Champions’ Cups, the 2007 SuperLiga and one Copa Sudamericana. One detail that truly impressed me was that the dish for which Pachuca cuisine is famed – harking back to those miners – is a variety of Cornish Pasty, known locally as pastes. On Thursday night, despite the howls of disapproval around me (I was evidently in a hotbed of Leon supporters), the pasties won 3-2.

Next day, at the airport bar in Mexico City a very besoffen German with a shaved head engages me in conversation in unstable English. Europe is finished, he tells me, thanks to the dictatorship of Brussels. Ve haf many dictators in Europ, ze last was Hitler, and before that ze Swedish Gustavus Adolphus and ze other was, er, er . . . – he seems in actual physical pain, struggling to remember another European dictator. Napoleon? I suggest. Ja, ja, Napoleon, he says, relieved at what is evidently a gargantuan struggle against alcohol’s tendency to obliterate memory. But now ve haf Brussels and all is finished.

The gist of his argument, as far as I can make out, is that Europe was better off as a collection of independent nation states with their own laws and their own currencies. So you are against any idea of a federal Europe? Ja, he says, nodding his shiny pate with extraordinary vigour. I want to point out that it was precisely because of the continual warmongering between these independent nation states – his own in particular – that the idea of a Federal Europe emerged, but I fear that his grasp of such a concept is imperilled by the dispatching in rapid succession of two more tequilas. What has he been doing in Mexico? I ask. I haf been doing my work, which I do, he tells me, helpfully. He explains that his plane to Geneva leaves at 9.00 pm and he likes to be the last on board, in order to make the others wait. This amuses him greatly and he guffaws into his empty glass. I leave to catch my own plane. I glance at the departures board on the way. There is no 9.00 pm flight to Geneva listed.

 

hat seller DF

Hat-seller, Mexico City.

 

sleeping man Puebla

Man asleep, Puebla.

 

Snouts, gizzards, offal.

Snouts, gizzards, offal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The things he saw one day in May

15 May

So, I’ll start with the serious stuff, and work downhill towards the frivolous.

Yesterday I was taken by the poet (and translator of Seamus Heaney), Pura López Colomé to see an impressive and moving exhibition at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia organised by the Movimiento por la paz con justicia y dignidad (Movement for peace with justice and dignity), whose motto is estamos a la madre meaning, approximately, ‘we have had enough’. This group was set up by the poet, writer, academic and activist Javier Sicilia, following the torture and murder of his son Juan Francisco, along with six others, by drug gang assassins in March 2011.

Following this, Sicilia has developed a formidable organisation that calls for an end to the drug wars, withdrawal of the military presence from the streets, the legalisation of drugs, and an end to political corruption. He has led demonstrations – at huge personal risk to himself – as well as marches across the whole of Mexico and much of the United States. In 2011 he was named Person of the Year by TIME magazine. His influence in starting up a popular, non-aligned movement directly confronting the perpetrators of violent crime and political corruption in Mexico represents an act of immense personal courage. His organisation has found followers in every walk of life, precisely because so many people have been affected by the drug wars – whether as victims themselves, or else as having lost family members to the violence. Furthermore, unlike the many ‘self-defence’ groups that have sprouted up across the country in opposition to the terror perpetrated by drug gangs – which simply promotes a never-ending cycle of violence met by more violence – Sicilia’s movement is based on entirely peaceful means of protest. I am posting a few images below from the exhibition, with apologies for the quality of the photographs, my camera having developed a mysterious and inexplicable blur on the lens over the past few days.

photo 1

Screen design of protesters for peace, being addressed by Javier Sicilia.

 

photo 2

Javier Sicilia, on the left, superimposed on a map of one of his marches.

 

photo 6

Any family can find themselves a victim of the violence.

 

photo 3

Mementos of the disappeared, embroidered on handkerchiefs.

 

A 'wall' of such handkerchiefs

A ‘wall’ of such handkerchiefs: note the resemblance to the Aztec wall of skulls, below.

At a considerable remove from the foregoing, and my head filled with disturbing images, which I have not reproduced here, I bade farewell to Pura and wandered alone through the derelict remains of the Templo Mayor, the Aztec temple at the centre of the city of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City), destroyed by Cortés in 1521. Much of this area was entirely buried for centuries. The conquerors built a church over part of the precinct – the present cathedral – and other parts were used for housing and other civic buildings. I found it extraordinarily haunting to walk around this area, directly after witnessing the sufferings endured by present-day Mexicans, as if – and this is by no means an original thought – the cycle of violence, destruction and waste were part of some terrible continuum from which there can be no escape, only temporary respite.

Templo mayor, with cathedral behind.

Templo mayor, with cathedral behind.

 

Tzompantli, or wall of skulls.

Tzompantli, or wall of skulls.

Inside the museum, having stood before the astonishing Tzompantli, or wall of skulls, I am confronted by a statue of Mictlantecuhtli, the Aztec god of the underworld and of death.

 

Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec god of the underworld.

Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec god of the underworld.

Unfortunately, he reminds me of the ogre in the first Harry Potter film, who was rather an inept type. Intertextuality gone awry. The museum’s English description below the statue is worth reproducing:

Mictlantecuhtli is conceived by the Aztecs as a half-gaunt being in a position of attack with claws and curly hair . . . The liver hangs out from his thorax because according to Aztec beliefs this organ was closely related to Mictlan or the underworld.

I’ll forever be on the look-out for half-gaunts from Mictlan, with their livers hanging out.

Which leads me – not through any direct path – to another sight witnessed  in the Zócalo, which had me confused for a minute: what appeared to be a bishop, protesting against child abuse in the Catholic church, and which transpired to be a person disguised as a bishop. Shame, really.

bishop

 

And from the tragic, via the bizarre, to the frivolous, as promised:

 

sign swing at your own risk

Swimming pool sign, advising the visitor to ‘Swing at your own risk’. Lowry would have used this, for sure.

 

urinal

Self-explanatory. But why the past tense? And how did it ‘contribute’? And what of the environment now?

 

Signs Richard

Blanco’s associate ‘Richard’ – having undergone an astonishing transformation, and currently resident at ‘The Woman’s Club’ in Mexico City.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Storms, eggs, everyday corruption, and the Consul’s approaching end

14 May
Another blurry picture taken from a bus and featuring mist and cactus, taken on the road from Saltillo to Monterrey.

Another blurry picture taken from a bus and featuring mist and cactus, on the road from Saltillo to Monterrey.

 

The airport in Saltillo closes because of the fog, so I miss my lunchtime flight back to Mexico City. Julián is laid low by a mystery bug and Mónica offers to drive me to the airport, after picking up little Leo from nursery. We exchange my plane ticket for another, from Monterrey airport, and then set off to the bus station for the two hour journey to Mexico’s third biggest city – and according to Wikipedia the ninth biggest city in the world. I don’t see much of it, however big the place is. The plane leaves at 6.20 pm and I am back into Under the Volcano, picking up with the hideous bull-baiting in Tomalín and the Consul’s vicious set-to with Hugh and Yvonne in the Salón Ofelia (todos contentos y yo también), owned by Señor Cervantes, who carries a black cockerel under his arm: “Nobody come here, only those who have nobody them with.”

Outside the plane passes through a good deal of disturbance as we approach Mexico City, a blood-red sun falling over the mountains and a big storm brooding close by to the north-west, the sky black there with jagged flashes of lightning. The pilot announces – I swear – “With the resounding egg, we make the descent to Mexico City” – and when we are leaving the plane another announcement reminds us: “Please ensure you take with you all your obsessions on leaving the plane.”

At ground level (of course Mexico City is nowhere near sea level, at 2,500 metres) I find a taxi easily enough and we drive through the hammering rain. As usual we overshoot the hotel: this happens all the time, not out of a desire to cheat the customer – the price is arranged beforehand – but because the layout of the streets in this area is pretty complicated and because no taxista can be expected to know his way around a metropolitan area containing twenty-five million inhabitants. So my driver, who is one of those very correct and well turned-out Mexican gentlemen of a certain age does a rather indiscrete U-turn at a big junction, and we are immediately pulled over by a pair of traffic cops, who were lurking under nearby trees.

The driver is asked to step out and negotiations begin. I can hear the young cop citing the precise name and number of the traffic regulation we have infringed, but I suspect that this is an irrelevance. After some discussion the driver returns inside the cab and reaches inside the glove compartment for money. How much? I ask him. One hundred and fifty, he replies (just under seven pounds sterling). Here, I say, take a hundred. After all, I am at least partly responsible for this, as I allowed him to take a wrong turning. He thanks me, pays the cop and gets back in the cab.

This is not a fine, but a pay-off. Most drivers pay the police rather than go through the rigmarole of following through with an infraction of a minor kind. The police officers’ argument goes like this: it’s easier for both of us if you just cough up. In fact I’m doing you a favour, because you’d have to pay more if we went through the proper process. When I ask the taxi driver if he ever refuses to pay a bribe he says something about the pervasiveness of corruption and shrugs. This is how the law works in this country, he says.

Back at the hotel and back into Lowry. Cervantes, the owner of the Ofelia is offering the Consul, Yvonne and Hugh some dinner – eggs is evidently a recurring theme of the evening: “ . . . You like eggs, señora? Stepped on eggs. Muy sabrosos. Divorced eggs? For fish, sliced of filet with peas. Vol-au-vent à la reine. Somersaults for the queen. Or you like poxy eggs, poxy in toast. Or veal liver tavernman? Pimesan chike chup? Or spectral chicken of the house? Youn’ pigeon. Red snappers with a fried tartar, you like?”

Hungry now, I borrow an umbrella and head for the nearest restaurant, El Califa, in Condesa, where the waiter, who seems to know me, greets me warmly. They are not serving spectral chicken, and nor do I order poxy eggs, but a bowl of broth and a couple of veal tacos. At the table in front of me two young people – he in a very shiny suit, she laughing too enthusiastically at everything he says – share a dessert, spooning ice cream into each others’ faces. On the way back the sky cracks with thunder and the heavens open once again. In El Califa they have given me some little sweets with my bill. I open the packet with difficulty and am confronted by some tiny things that resemble hundreds and thousands. I have not met with these before, so I give them a try. There is an explosion of sugar and chilli pepper inside my mouth, which is not at all agreeable. I throw the remaining sweets in a bin and head back to the hotel, prepared for the Consul’s disastrous denouement.

 

 

 

 

Edward Hopper in Saltillo

13 May
The former Hotel Arizpe Sáinz, where Edward Hopper stayed on his visits to Saltillo

The former Hotel Arizpe Sáinz today, where the painter Edward Hopper stayed on visits to Saltillo

After a hot weekend, the temperature drops by twenty degrees overnight and the morning brings a discernible chill and a fine rain. Saltillo has been the surprise of my Mexican trip, a kind of ugly, lovely town, as Dylan said of Swansea. However, the comparison is not to be taken seriously: Saltillo has a population of nearly 800,000, and serves as the capital of the desert state of Coahuila, which stretches all the way to the US border. Yesterday, after doing a radio interview, I walk around the historic centre with Julián and Mercedes, and pass a rather striking building of Colonial aspect, which Julián informs me was once the Hotel Arizpe Sáinz – now defunct – the favoured residence of Edward Hopper, during his visits to Saltillo in the 1940s. Attracted by the desert and the extraordinary light, Hopper made three visits, painting watercolours from the roof of the hotel. According to testimonies from ex-employees of the Cine Palacio, and others who knew Hopper during this period, he developed a love-hate relationship with the northern Mexican city, admiring the architecture, but not the climate or certain aspects of the ‘local character’ or city life, which he found noisy and congested. In fact, it sounds as though he didn’t really like the place much at all, and complained about the walls and towers and electric signs that obstructed the views. Nor could he find the right sort of blue-green oil paint for the mountains, which must have been a bummer. In fact this is the reason he settled on watercolours.

Having become disillusioned with Saltillo, Hopper abandoned the place, returning however for a final visit in 1951, although apparently not producing any new work.

 

Saltillo Rooftops: a view from the hotel roof, apparently available now as an iphone cover.

Saltillo Rooftops: a view from the hotel roof, available now as an iphone cover (!).

 

Saltillo: El Palacio

Saltillo: El Palacio

 

Church of San Esteban

Church of San Esteban

 

Saltillo Mansion

Saltillo Mansion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Pig of Babel

12 May

 

El Cerdo de Babel, some letters having dropped off.

El Cerdo de Babel, some letters having dropped off.

Saltillo has proved the most hospitable and generous city I have visited in Mexico. It seems to be filled with people who love books and actually read them, in spite of being the centre for Mexico’s automobile industry. Yesterday the temperature soared to 38 degrees by midday and my hosts Monica and Julián put on an asado – the Latin version of a barbecue – and many of the people who attended our reading on Saturday night at the wonderfully named Cerdo de Babel (Pig of Babel) turned up. The Pig of Babel, incidentally, for anyone who intends travelling in northern Mexico, is officially Blanco’s favourite bar, seamlessly marrying the themes of Pork and Borges, and taking over from Nick Davidson’s now defunct Promised Land as the most congenial hostelry in the Western Hemisphere (although I realise such a term is entirely relative and depends on where you are standing at any given moment).

 

Blanco with Julián Herbert

Blanco with Julián Herbert in the Cerdo de Babel

The culture section for the state of Coahuila produced a beautifully designed pamphlet of five of my poems, for which I have to thank Jorge and Miquel. I would also like to offer my thanks Mercedes Luna Fuentes, who read the Spanish versions of my poems in Jorge Fondebrider’s fine translation, and Monica and Julián for the use of their and Lourdes’ home – especially since Julián had to endure my garbled Spanish explanation of the rules of Rugby Union last night, which may well have been a bewildering experience for a Mexican poet, but which I considered an essential duty of a Welsh creative ambassador.

On a different theme entirely, the fifth issue of that very fine magazine The Harlequin is now online, and it contains three new poems by my alias, Richard Gwyn, including this one, reflecting on an entirely different – but inevitably similar – journey to the one currently being undertaking.

 

From Naxos to Paros

Of the journey from Naxos to Paros
all he could remember
were the lights of one harbour
disappearing into the black sea
and the lights of another
emerging from the same black sea
and he thought for a moment
that all journeys were like this
but that many were longer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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