Archive | September, 2011

Drinking mate

30 Sep

I began drinking mate six years ago, on my first trip to Argentina, and liked it immediately, even though many find it rather bitter. The picture, Mate, in which the woman drinks from the gourd while two gauchos look on admiringly, is by Juan Manuel Blanes, taken with a flash (unfortunately visible in the centre of the picture) from a book of prints of his works in the library of the National Museum of Visual Arts (Museo Nacional de Artes Visuales) in Montevideo, where last Thursday I spent a couple of hours researching Blanes’ work, with the kind assistance of two librarians, after hearing about him from Diego Vidart during a lunch of pizza and warm chickpea bread.

Blanes is the most influential Uruguayan painter, and to a large extent, the creator of the myth of Uruguayan national identity. In fact he deserves a post of his own, and one day he may get one. He did many paintings of rather glamourized gauchos, frequently drinking their national beverage, lassoing horses et cetera (the word lasso is from the Spanish ‘lazo’, a knot, bow or loop). In Uruguay everyone drinks mate, all of the time. In Argentina and Brazil it is also popular, but the Uruguayans are nuts about it. Everywhere they go they carry a flask and a gourd, and a mobile phone. They wear dark glasses too, when the sun is out, which is most of the time. This site tells you all you need to know about drinking mate, especially its many health benefits (it is, among other things, a powerful antioxidant) but the site is, I would venture, somewhat partisan.

All I know is that it tastes like supercharged green tea, delivers a healthy-feeling kick, keeps me alert, and takes the edge off my appetite, so must be good for dieting, and might eventually relieve some of the circumference of the Blanco belly. Plus it is somehow very comforting, sucking on a silver straw.

Montaigne and the acceptance of uncertainty

28 Sep
Portrait of Michel de Montaigne

Image via Wikipedia

The essay, we are being told, is back. An editorial in The Guardian on 5 May celebrates the alleged event and announces a new specialist publisher, Notting Hill Editions, which has released a range of cloth-covered hardbacks, ranging from Samuel Rogers to Georges Perec. However, many of us never suspected that the essay had gone away. This discursive genre, in which the author is given space to explore a more or less impressionistic or apparently random cascade of ideas rather than provide a detached and critical analysis of a particular topic, has a considerable history, but can be traced – unlike any other literary genre – to a single individual, a minor French aristocrat of the sixteenth century named Michel de Montaigne (1533-92).

Sure, there had been comparable examples of introspective or speculative prose writing before him, notably by the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch (1307-74) and, at a stretch, Machiavelli (1469-1527), but Montaigne was the first modern essayist in two very particular ways. He was the first to apply the word ‘essai’ from the French verb ‘essayer’, and from which the English assay – meaning an ‘attempt’ – was a simple step; and his unique contribution to world literature was that he made himself the subject of his own work: he was the first to bring the spotlight onto himself as the topic of his writing, or, as Aldous Huxley put it in the preface to his own collected essays, to deliver ‘fragments of reflective autobiography’ and to ‘look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description’. Nearly five hundred years on, we find that the genre that Montaigne began, of self-reflexive prose in which the thoughts and actions of an individual constitute the subject matter and determine the direction of the writing, marks out a lineage that leads directly to the contemporary infatuation with autobiographical writing; the glut of misery memoirs, ‘sick lit’, confessional and celebrity memoirs with which the publishing industry is obsessed, not to mention the contemporary trends of blogging, social networking and twittering. By no means should Montaigne be blamed for these terrible things, but we might consider that in some important ways he started it all.

Montaigne has thus become extremely interesting to publishers, and the two books I have before me reflect the wide appeal that this Renaissance gentleman has to a twenty-first century readership. Both books have long and unwieldy titles. But Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: a life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer is very good indeed, while Saul Frampton’s When I am playing with my cat, how do I know she is not playing with me: Montaigne and being in touch with life, although not without virtues, is filled with unfortunate and confusing turns of phrase, as well as numerous errors of editing and proofreading, and falls far behind Bakewell in both content and prose style.

Montaigne has had a long and interesting relationship with posterity. While his works brought him instant fame in sixteenth-century France, and were translated into English shortly after the author’s death, he fell foul of the Catholic church on account of his libertarian attitudes and relaxed morality, upsetting major French philosophers of the seventeenth century such as Pascal and Descartes. His work was placed on the Catholic Church’s Index of Prohibited Books in 1676, remaining banned for nearly two hundred years. Although the French libertins adopted him and he was praised by Voltaire (and plagiarised by Rousseau), it was not until Nietzsche that Montaigne found a true descendant, one who called him ‘this freest and mightiest of souls’ and who would write: ‘That such a man wrote has truly augmented the joy of living on this earth.’ Montaigne lived, says Bakewell, as Nietzsche would have liked to live, questioning everything and yet managing to live his own life in a way that held no regrets – ‘If I had to live over again, I would live as I have lived’ is a favourite and enviable quotation. Everything, says Bakewell, that ‘most repelled Pascal about Montaigne – his bottomless doubt, his ‘sceptical ease’, his poise, his readiness to accept imperfection’ were precisely those things that appealed to Nietzsche and which impress Montaigne’s fans today. At the man’s centre lay a pervasive scepticism, allied to a warm and humane engagement with the day-to-day; a hatred of cruelty; a profound but unsentimental love of nature and of animals, and an irrepressible curiosity about other societies and their customs. Montaigne is also known as an epicurean and a stoic in the mould of Marcus Aurelius (to which, as both authors point out, he adhered less stringently as the years went by).

His brand of philosophy – preferring to offer details wrapped in anecdote rather than expounding abstractedly – has a distinctly un-French edge to it that has always been popular in Britain, and his fan base ranges from Thomas Browne to Virginia Woolf, who admired him above all for his insistence on perpetually observing his immediate environment, his emotions and his interactions with the world.

The influence that Montaigne may or may not have had on Shakespeare has generated a considerable amount of speculative scholarship, based largely on a speech of Gonzalo’s in Act Two of The Tempest, which repeats, almost verbatim, an extract from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’. Shakespeare almost certainly knew John Florio, Montaigne’s English translator, and Montaigne’s influence has not only been discerned on the soliloquies of Hamlet – which would suggest that Shakespeare had sight of Florio’s translation before publication – but with greater assurance in the general tendency of Shakespeare’s later work towards a reflexive mode centred on the ever-questioning interlocutor. The uncertain or bewildered protagonist, suffering (or flaunting) a surfeit of experiential anxiety, was an entirely new phenomenon in literature, and according to Bakewell locates Montaigne and Shakespeare as ‘the first truly modern writers, capturing that distinctive modern sense of being unsure where you belong, who you are, and what you are expected to do.’

A further similarity between Montaigne and Shakespeare is what the critic Jonathan Dollimore has called ‘a form of self-consciousness which implies simultaneous awareness of experience and the experiencing self’ as well as in the kind of relativism, according to Richard Wilson, which arises in both writers ‘from their sensation of the contingency of beliefs’. This is encapsulated, in both men’s work, in their interiority. In Montaigne, it takes a pronounced, monological turn at times:

I turn my gaze inward. I fix it there and keep it busy. Everyone looks in front of him; as for me, I look inside of me; I have no business but with myself; I continually observe myself. I take stock of myself, I taste myself… I roll about in myself.

And yet this is not solipsism – the state in which only the self exists or can be know – but something closer to Hamlet’s self-observation in the famous soliloquies. The image of Montaigne ‘rolling about in himself’ is nicely a propos, especially given his fondness for dogs (and indeed his love of animals of all kinds). Montaigne famously refers to his cat in one of his essays (and in the title of Frampton’s book), but his weakness in giving in to his dog’s playfulness earned him Pascal’s disdain:

I am not afraid to admit that my nature is so tender, so childish, that I cannot well refuse my dog the play he offers me or asks of me outside the proper time.

Montaigne also displays an unusually compassionate rapport with others – an identification with otherness that extends not only to the Protestant ‘enemy’ within sixteenth-century France (for which he was rebuked and mistrusted by fellow-Catholics during the long period of civil conflict through which he lived) but also to other human tribes. He was struck by the beliefs of the Brazilian Indians whom he encountered at the king’s court in Rouen, who ‘spoke of men as halves of one another, wondering at the sight of rich Frenchmen gorging themselves while their ‘other halves’ starved on their doorstep.’ Furthermore, beyond his interest in cats and dogs, there is an almost pagan feel for, or identification with the natural world and animal life, something which provides Bakewell with one of her most interesting asides. While discussing Montaigne’s influence on Virginia Woolf, and both writers’ insistence on ‘paying attention’ in a way that eschews habitual modes of perception and categorisation, she cites Woolf’s diary of 1919:

I remember lying on the side of a hollow, waiting for L[eonard] to come & mushroom, & seeing a red hare loping up the side & thinking suddenly ‘This is Earth Life.’ I seemed to see how earthy it all was, & I myself an evolved kind of hare; as if a moon-visitor saw me.

Bakewell observes that this ‘eerie, almost hallucinatory moment’ enabled Woolf to see herself as part of a continuum, as essentially nature-bound – this is Earth Life – in a way that would not be remotely possible to an observer whose eyes were ‘dulled by habit’. The overcoming of habitual responses lies at the heart of Montaigne’s challenge. ‘Habit’ according to Samuel Beckett, ‘is the ballast that chains the dog to his vomit’: and it is precisely what Montaigne seeks to uncover and dismantle in his essays. He does this in various ways, but one of his favourites is to run through apparently marvellous and diverse customs from distant cultures in order to convince his readers that what they take for granted is only a matter of what they are accustomed to. As he himself put it: ‘Everyone calls barbarity what he is not accustomed to.’ His essay ‘Of Custom’ discusses, by turn, the question of whether or not one should blow one’s nose into one’s hand or into a piece of linen; how in a certain country no one apart from his wife and children may speak to the king except through a special tube; how in another land ‘virgins openly show their pudenda’ while ‘married women carefully cover and conceal them’; how in other (unspecified) locations the inhabitants ‘not only wear rings on the nose, lips, cheeks and toes, but also have very heavy gold rods thrust through their breasts and buttocks’; how in some nations ‘they cook the body of the deceased and then crush it until a sort of pulp is formed, which they mix with wine, and drink it’; where it is a desirable end to be eaten by dogs; where ‘each man makes a god of what he likes’; where flesh is eaten raw; where they live on human flesh; where people greet each other by putting their finger to the ground and then raising it to heaven; where the women piss standing up and the men squatting; where children are nursed until their twelfth year; where they kill lice with their teeth like monkeys; where they grow hair on one side of their body and shave the other. By blasting his reader with these numerous examples of apparent strangeness, Montaigne makes them question the practices which they habitually regard as unquestionable and normal in a new light. Indeed, he raises many of the issues that cultural anthropology began to tackle four centuries later, and he can safely be regarded as an early relativist. When he had the opportunity to speak with some American Indians from Brazil, the Tupinambá tribe, of which a delegation was brought before the court at Rouen, he was not simply concerned with ‘observing’ them, as though they were rare specimens of primordial life: he was much more interested in recording their amazement at their French hosts. ‘Watching them watch the French’ says Bakewell, ‘was an awakening, like Virginia Woolf’s on the hillside’.

Bakewell’s interpolation of the life story with aperçus of the kind with Woolf, and elsewhere with Nietzsche, adds considerably to the weave and texture of her account. I finished her book feeling as though I had thoroughly shared in a deeper understanding of Montaigne’s work. Hers is a rare achievement. It is a shame then that I cannot similarly compliment Frampton’s book. An example of their distinct approach to subject matter might be illustrative.

All commentators are agreed that Montaigne’s awakening as a writer came about through his friendship with a colleague and fellow counsellor in the Bordeaux parliament, Etienne de La Boétie. The two men were inseparable friends for four years, and then La Boétie died. Montaigne’s grief was intense and long-lasting, and he would write of their friendship: ‘If pressed to say why I loved him, I feel that it cannot be expressed, except by saying: because it was him; because it was me.’ The line is a unique and moving testimony to friendship. But while Bakewell is content to regard La Boétie as Montaigne’s ‘literary guardian angel’, looking over his shoulder during the composition of the essays, Frampton tediously – and without any evidence – insists on the possibility of a sexual relationship between the men. Not that it matters, of course: but really, why should we care? Why can’t we simply accept that this is at least a possibility, rather than having to indulge this prurient and weary conjecture that amounts to little more than anachronistic gossip-mongering?

But this, alas, is only one of Frampton’s failings: on page 29 we learn that the town of Agen is to the south-west of Bordeaux (placing it firmly in the Bay of Biscay), but on the next page it has moved (correctly) to the south-east of Bordeaux; on page 33 a painting is being described in which ‘One of [the men] is dressed as a Roman solder (sic), the other wearing the gown of a dying man.’ What, one wonders, is ‘the gown of a dying man?’ Must one know that one is dying before wearing such a garment? Or does the wearing of such a gown somehow condemn one? And there is more: discussing how plague ravaged the countryside in the 1580s, we are suddenly and randomly informed about an alleged event that took place at the opposite end of France: ‘At Ales near Lille in 1580, a young man called Jehan le Porcq died of a contagious illness, spending his final days in a shed at the bottom of his father’s garden.’ And on page 83 we learn that ‘a fog descended over northern Europe… It covered the Rhine… scaled the high walls of Oxford and surrounded Aristotle.’ There is far too much of this kind of nonsense. Moreover, the text is littered with failures of meaning, failure of tense agreement, errors of punctuation, and missing words. Frampton must take a large chunk of the blame, but surely Faber and Faber employ editors and proofreaders?

We should therefore be doubly grateful that Bakewell’s book provides an articulate and sympathetic introduction to the man and his work; but for anyone seriously wishing to make the acquaintance of a writer renowned for his self questioning rebuke ‘What do I know?’ – pre-empting postmodernity’s chronic self-doubt, but with a leavening of subtle humour, even at times hilarity – the Essays are a delight in store.

 

 

This post first appeared as a review article in the latest issue of New Welsh Review, a magazine full of good and interesting things. In fact why not subscribe here.

 

 

 

 

Thoughts of Che in Rosario

24 Sep

The house where Che was born

There’s no point in being sentimental about these things, I realize. Music that, when it first appears, seems to say something new, gets murdered with repetition, besides being absorbed into the great maw of consumer culture. I remember a coach journey from Athens to London, back in the seventies, when Neil Young’s album Harvest, was played on loop, continuously, along with The Best of Simon and Garfunkel. I never cared for Simon and Garfunkel, and my dislike turned to a raging phobia during the course of that journey, but I couldn’t listen to Neil Young for at least a decade afterwards either.

Hostel Che, Rosario

So on the related theme of yesterday’s post – erstwhile rebels being turned into toothless icons – I went to see the house where Che Guevara was born, here in Rosario, and the building now houses the offices of MAPFRE, a Spanish-owned insurance and finance group. I have a particularly strained relationship with insurance companies, and I am sure Che’s admiration for them would have exceeded my own. Opposite the building, a rather run-down hostel is named after him.

Che at five years old

Che was not really from Rosario, he was just born here, by accident, before the family moved to Cordoba, where he grew up. But the city claims him as its son as it is good for tourism and the building where he was allegedly born has been declared a national treasure or some similar term. In fact he was born in a local hospital and only spent a few weeks in this rather luxurious building (both his parents were members of the Argentine aristocracy, and they inherited considerable wealth). Moreover Che’s parents falsified the date of his birth from May to June 1928, as his mother was pregnant when she married Che’s father, and the false birth date looked a little more respectable. The fruit of pre-marital passion was poorly regarded in those times, at least among the social class that Che’s parents inhabited.

In his teens – despite his severe asthma, which he always stoically resisted – and as a student of medicine in Buenos Aires, Che became a keen rugby player, a sport very much associated with the Porteño upper classes.

Che at seventeen

Che’s social conscience was awakened by his reading of Marx and by travelling. He set out on long excursions, first by bicycle, later by motorbike –  as shown in the film The Motorcyle Diaries – driven by an insatiable curiosity about the way that others lived.

The Spanish Wikipedia entry on Che is rather good, the English one less informative, but still interesting.

Rosario has a reputation for a kind of good-natured bohemianism (is that a word?). I find it relaxed and friendly, the kind of place a person ends up without thinking about it too much, and forgets to leave. There are too many places like this. However, wandering around the shops, looking for gifts, is a thankless task: everything is Made in China or Indonesia, and I could be in Cardiff or Stockholm or Cape Town for the variety of consumer goods available. Which, I suppose, in a roundabout way, leads us back to the question of a global village, and all the bullshit associated with being a consumer in the 21st century. Che would be disgusted, I guess, but as we all know, capitalism is the perfect system.

Unexpected lions, Rosario

Poetry and the nation

The way it is

Yet another insurance company: 'Where other see risks, we see solutions'. O yeah . . . .

 

 

 

 

Mood Music

23 Sep
24/03/09 El cantante y activista social Manu C...

Image via Wikipedia

I find it incredible that Manu Chao is used as hotel lobby music in the Ibis Hotel, Montevideo (a stone’s throw from the American Embassy). Manu, who stands for everything that a global hotel chain opposes – the rights of the dispossessed, the homeless, illegal immigrants, the excluded. So I sit in the lobby, astonished at the incongruity between this rebel music and my shiny day-glo surroundings. And who’s next up? Manu’s hero and inspiration, Bob Marley, who has been given this kind of treatment for decades now.

Of course this is how capitalism works: it sucks in all opposition, chews it up and spews it out in its own image: in this instance as a once familiar but now curiously transformed musak - and although these recordings are exactly the same as the ones I listened to and loved when they were first released, they have somehow become re-configured, re-stated, recycled as hotel mood music and I am once again bereft, and my experience of being in the world has become cheapened and sullied and I will no longer be able to listen to these songs without the memory of this new, emasculated version superimposed on the songs I hold in memory.

 

 

 

 

A short walk in Montevideo

22 Sep

The infinite has no accent

 

So yesterday I was talking about how people often judge a speaker by the way they speak, my point being that some listeners go into a kind of paralysis when confronted by a strange or foreign accent. So I wander into the centre of Montevideo and find graffiti that puts an interesting slant on the discussion. It translates as:

THE INFINITE HAS NO ACCENT

This made me very pleased. I am not sure the phrase means anything, but it sounds pretty.

A wide road called the Rambla curves around the south edge of the city, bordered by the vast River Plate, which you would be forgiven for thinking of as the sea. In the midday sun (it is the start of spring here, but like a July day in the UK) people are sunbathing on the low parapet at the edge of the pavement: there is a drop of a few metres and then a narrow beach and the river. Most people are clutching mate and a flask (Uruguayans are always drinking mate). I am walking quite briskly, but begin to absorb waves of lethargy from the sun lizards.

Eugen Millington-Drake

Half way into town the Rambla Argentina turns into the Rambla Gran Bretaña and to my considerable suprise, there is a large bust, on a plinth, of the onetime British ambassador, Sir Eugen Millington-Drake, described in Spanish as ‘a loyal friend of Uruguay’. Millington-Drake was ambassador during the battle of the River Plate, when the German cruiser the Admiral Graf Spee was scuttled in Montevideo harbour. The Graf Spee posed a major threat to Atlantic shipping in the early days of World War Two and had already sunk numerous vessels in 1939-40. Convinced by false reports of superior British naval forces approaching his ship, the Graf Spee’s commander, Hans Langsdorff, ordered the vessel to be blown up and on 20 December 1940 laid himself out on the ship’s ensign togged out in full dress uniform and shot himself . Apparently part of the ship still remains visible above the surface of the water in the harbour.

Three cheers for Millington-Drake, cast now on a stony plinth.

I wander through the old town, which reminds me of parts of Lisbon, but apparently also resembles Santiago de Cuba, but more than anything else resembles itself. Two boys are collecting rubbish on a horse and cart. It feels laid-back and gentle after the hectic whirl of Buenos Aires.

Diego Vidart

For lunch I meet the photographer and film-maker Diego Vidart and his colleague Martin Herrera. We eat in a restaurant above a very handsome bookshop. Diego and Martin have an exhibition opening today, part of an ongoing project that links Uruguay, Finland (and Wales) in a rather complex but ingenious narrative devised by Diego and which I first heard about last year in the back garden of Des Barry’s house in Cardiff. An account of the exhibition, titled Diario de un retrato can be accessed here. An unrelated, but parallel narrative can be found in David Enrique Spellman’s new novel Far South, which comes recommended by Des and which Blanco will be reviewing in due course.

The narratives that Diego, David and Des have respectively devised explore the tensions between our understanding of portraiture (and therefore of individuality), the blurred zone between biography and fiction (a favourite of Blanco’s) and the capacity of an audience to absorb and then unravel – in the manner of a detective – events which may or may not have happened. It is a fascinating exhibition based on the trope of an abandoned suitcase, a slide projector, and two simultaneous and overlapping videos, filmed in Finland and Uruguay. The show is on until the end of October.

Diario de un retrato

 

In the same square under which the exhibition takes place, there is a lovely sign, reminiscent of the one in Malcolm Lowry’s novel, Under the Volcano. In Lowry’s book the sign says:

¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?

¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!

Do you like this garden which is yours?

Make sure your children don’t destroy it.

 

The one here says ‘Montevideo is your home: this square also’.

Uruguay and Wales: Wales and Uruguay. I can see where Diego, Martin, David and Des have found so much to share between their respective countries and I think their ongoing projects are tantalizing. The problem – if it is a problem – is that the possibilities seem endless, or rather, infinite. Outside the gallery, on the Avenida 18 de Julio, my attention is caught by a neon sign advertising a financial service called GALES. Gales, of course, is the Spanish word for ‘Wales’. I waited for the red light before taking the picture. It seems to go with the sign better than the green.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scattergun Rant

21 Sep

This extraordinarily helpful poster can be found, not in a hospital or a school, but in the men’s washroom in the MALBA museum in Buenos Aires. I applaud the administrators of this institution for their interest in my personal hygiene. And we thought we had issues with the nanny state in the UK?

One thing I have never been able to abide is someone wagging a finger at me, or prodding said finger in my direction as they speak. There is a specific Porteño variant of this finger-wagging movement, which seems to comprise three sideways movements. A woman delivered it to me when I approached to ask a perfectly innocent question of her, imagining, I suppose, that I was about to ask her for money, or importune her in some manner. Do I look like a tramp? Do I look like some random maniac?  Actually there is another explanation. Some people, on hearing a foreign accent, even if the speaker manages perfectly well to convey the sense of what they wish to say, simply freeze up. They go into a state of shock, as though their little brains send out a message: PANIC: FOREIGNER, followed by an utter failure to process language, as they are not listening to what you say because they are so distracted by the way you say it. I am certain there are other applications of this theory, and suspect it may be extended to many everyday life situations. As always, Blanco welcomes contributions on this theme.

How I loathe the casual conversations between travellers that one overhears in airport waiting areas, on ferries etc, the idiotic things people talk about in their quest to present themselves as accomplished globetrotters. I hope that doesn’t apply to me. But if it did, could I rant against myself? Probably.

 

 

 

A visit to the islands and ‘mal del sauce’

20 Sep

No sooner had I finished writing yesterday’s blog, than I walked into the hotel dining room (earlier than usual, as I had planned an excursion) and the first person I see is Coetzee himself, sitting in the corner with his back to the wall, dressed in jeans and one of those flak-jacket things, reading the newspaper.

I immediately felt as though I had intruded (which in a sense I just had, by writing about him) although there were two or three other early risers taking breakfast. I sat down a couple of tables away and observed him,  discreetly, like a spy. He licked his finger, delicately, cat-like, and slowly turned the page of his paper. I resisted the temptation to go over and tell him that the Springboks were jammy bastards beating us by just one point last week. In fact I behaved with decorum, as though he were not there.

And this morning I am off to Uruguay for a couple of days.

The high spots of my stay in Buenos Aires? I would go for the concert/interview in the Ateneo bookshop last Friday given by the singer Barbie Martinéz, accompanied by (although this hardly does her playing justice) Paula Shocrón.

Between songs, Barbie was interviewed by Jorge Fondebrider with his inimitable mix of wit and candour. I recorded a couple of their songs, but the sound quality really does not do them justice, so I would recommend instead that you listen to their CDs. Barbie has only one so far, Swing, and a second forthcoming. Paula Shocrón has several CDs out; solo, with a trio and with a big band.

The other most enjoyable event was a trip up the Paraná delta yesterday on a river boat. This web of riverways and estuaries is the graveyard of centuries’ worth of shipwrecks and abandoned dreams. As late as the 1870s it was the haunt of pirates, many of them women. Setting out from Tigre, the trip took around three hours and we passed dozens of islands, the ones nearer Tigre were quite densely populated, but further out, and across the Paraná itself, the island homes became more and more eccentric and isolated. It was like entering a lost and enchanted world, and I would like to find out more about it. Inés Garland’s novel Piedra, papel o tijera might be a good place to start. The island people are almost entirely dependent on the delivery of goods by boat, and the children go to an island school. They have a reputation for a kind of wistful lethargy, a condition known locally as ‘Mal del sauce’ or ‘weeping willow sickness’ (willows are abundant along the riverbanks). It is the kind of condition that afflicts a person who spends too many hours gazing at the slow passage of water.

River Boat

Island homes with dog

Green and yellow barge

Crossing the Paraná river

Red island home

River dog

Finally my visit to the Villa Miseria at Barrancas 21/24 (see post of 14th September) made a lasting, if very different impression on me. So much so that I wrote a poem about it, in a kind of Spanglish, which I read at the Bitácora, the closing forum of the festival on Sunday evening, before Coetzee’s reading.

Those who have read The Vagabond’s Breakfast will know that my last visit to Buenos Aires was rather fraught, to say the least. It was wonderful to spend some time in good company and find out more about this fabulous city, and I am grateful to my hosts, especially Jorge Fondebrider, Pablo Braun, Inés Garland and Jorge Aulicino for providing the opportunity to replace earlier memories with ones of an altogether more helpful and agreeable kind.

 

 

 

 

J.M. Coetzee in Buenos Aires

19 Sep
14. J.M. Coetzee. Oleo sobre tela. 2006

Coetzee came to Buenos Aires to deliver the final reading of the festival last night. I am not really authorized to write at length about Coetzee, having only read two of his novels, which I found admirable, and a collection of his essays. However, I will certainly read more of his work now, and am particularly keen to read his own account of his life, of which there are now three volumes.

There were, of course, the introductions in Spanish: the first brief, the second rather long, both of them adulatory, then Coetzee emerged from the wings like a tall and elegant rock star (think a slightly more reverend Clapton with a tie). I was sitting in the front row, and had been approached by a security guard who told me that the first two rows were reserved for guests of the funding organisation. I told him I was an invited guest of the festival and stayed in my seat. He moved off, unsure what to do about me. Half the seats in the front two rows then remained empty, even though there were dozens of people outside who had been refused tickets, and others sitting on the steps in the foyer watching the proceedings on a big screen and possibly hundreds who had been told the event was sold out. The photographers had clearly been instructed that they could snap away only during Coetzee’s  introduction, and not in the reading proper. In any case, I was able to take a few pictures of my own, and they came out rather well.

Coetzee made a brief introductory statement in faltering Spanish, and then he read a story, set in a house in Spain (perhaps he chose one with an Hispanic theme for the occasion, believing there is not a lot of difference between one Spanish speaking country and the next, one with a few Spanish words in, like ‘vaya con dios’, which no one ever says unless they’re about a hundred years old). The story lasted half an hour, or forty minutes, I’m not sure, I think I drifted off briefly, and it was about a man called John (which is Coetzee’s name) visiting his mother, who lives in a village in Castille, and keeps a lot of cats and the village flasher (yes, that’s right, she has made her home available to the village pervert, because he was going to be taken away by social services and she stepped in and said she would look after him. I’m not sure this is how things work in Spain, but I guess we can let that go in the name of poetic licence). The story was okay, but did he need to fly thousands of miles to read it? Because that was all he did: read a story, then sit down and sign books for his abundant fans, who queued patiently (a very difficult task for Argentinians, or at least for Porteños) who came onto the stage one at a time, were allowed to exchange a few brief words with the great man, then trundled off clutching their books like they were holy relics. I wonder how much he got paid to do this. I wonder if he is doing any sightseeing while he is here. He certainly won’t be tasting the wonderful Argentinian steaks as he is a vegetarian; nor can I imagine is here much of a drinker, so will not be tasting the fine Argentinian wines. Coetzee is however a rugby fan, and since the world cup is on, the festival president tells me, he was able to talk to him about rugby on the drive back from the airport. If it had been me I would have expressed my opinion that his team (assuming he still supports the Springboks and not the Wallabies, after adopting Australian nationality) was extremely lucky to get away with a one-point victory over my team last week, but of course that is done and dusted now and we must press on. At least the world cup curse of Samoa has now been lifted, and if things go well against Fiji and Namibia we will most likely meet the Irish in the quarter-finals, which is do-able.

Coetzee stands in a very upright manner. There is, in fact, something quintessentially upright about him. Someone who know him expressed the view to me that this is related to a self-abnegating Afrikaaner protestant streak (although he did attend a Catholic school, so presumably got the worst of both worlds). This is not a man who will let his scant hair down. According to a reliable source (i.e quoted on Wikipedia) he lives the life of a recluse, and “a colleague who has worked with him for more than a decade claims to have seen him laugh just once. An acquaintance has attended several dinner parties where Coetzee has uttered not a single word.” In fact he is so reclusive that the Flash player did not want to upload my photo of him, so I am using a picture provided by Flickr instead. In the Wikipedia picture (which also refused to upload) he is wearing the same tie as last night, or appears to be, unless of course he has several editions of the same tie. The Wikipedia entry also informs me he has expressed support for the animal rights movement. Because he rarely gives interviews and so forth, signed copies of his books are highly valued.

Despite his saying that he was pleased to be here, he did not really give the impression of being overjoyed about the occasion. He was more like a pontiff bestowing a blessing on his devotees, with great dignity and reserve. And the ridiculous notion occurs to me that there are two Coetzees, one of them here in Buenos Aires, reading his story like a monk reading from the sacred text to his silent admirers, the other scribbling away, locked in his cell wherever it is he lives, Adelaide or thereabouts. The one I saw last night is the phantom Coetzee, the one that the real Coetzee very occasionally sends out to commune with his public, a doppelganger Coetzee who is dressed like a banker, reluctantly engaged in the contemporary phenomenon of the Book Signing, that strange ritual in which members of the reading public are able to pretend that they have a personal relationship with the author, and walk away clutching their books tight to their chests as though some of his greatness were now trapped in the trail of ink on the title page, that they have absorbed some of the fallout of his ascetic majesty, and will now, through some mystical process not unlike transubstantiation, be the richer for it.

 

 

 

 

Cándido Lopez

18 Sep
http://www.unlp.edu.ar/bellasartes/pano/candid...

Image via Wikipedia

A walk down to the Museo de Bellas Artes here in Buenos Aires and a discovery that leaves a deep mark of weirdness on the Blanco brain.

Cándido Lopez (1840-1902) was an Argentinian painter who took part in the War of the Triple Alliance (1864-70) and lost his right arm in the conflict. Although right-handed, he taught himself to paint with his left hand and produced a number of sprawling battle scenes, developing a naïf style that pre-empts L.S. Lowry, many of his pictures depicting the regimented lines of troops preparing for battle, and the horrific aftermath of the conflict, bloody corpses littering wide and desolate spaces.

The War of the Triple Alliance pitched Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay against Paraguay. Something of an uneven contest, you might think, although at the start of the war Paraguay actually had a larger army than the other three put together. It was the bloodiest of all the bloody wars to afflict South America in the nineteenth century and when it was over Paraguay was utterly devastated. Some estimates calculate that Paraguayan losses alone, due to the conflict and disease were as high as 1.2 million (90% of its prewar population) though a more conservative estimate suggests a mere two thirds of the male population – a gender imbalance that had a significant impact on the country’s socio-political development.

 

The causes of the war are still disputed by historians but their dictator at the time, one Francisco Solano López, had aggressive and expansionist ideas, and one of the main arguments is that the British encouraged him to develop an Atlantic coastline in order to supply their Empire with cotton, which was in high demand due to the American Civil War. A not unfamiliar story.

 

 

 

The last hundred days

17 Sep

 

Within weeks of publication Patrick McGuinness’s debut novel, The Last Hundred Days found itself on the Man Booker long list, and deservedly so, although it failed to make the shortlist on the 5th September. Whatever. Set in Bucharest, the novel reawakens in the reader that state of stunned disbelief in the autumn of 1989 as successive Soviet bloc countries underwent bloodless revolutions, until there was only Romania there at the end of the queue, making a bloody hash of it. The novel describes the despicable oppression and deprivation of the Romanian people in the build-up to that coup, and paints a sordid picture of the corruption and hypocrisy of their rulers.

At the same time it feels oddly contemporary, especially in the way that a grasping elite escape the consequences of their actions and rise above the chaos that they perpetrate. Not that the Ceausescu’s themselves did, of course, their messy trial and execution can still be viewed on youtube, and it provides a resonant coda to the reading of this novel.

The opening chapter is superb, its discourse on the state of boredom offering a kind of conceptual counterpoint to the unfurling narrative, with its cast of impressively drawn characters, that is almost Tolstoyan in scope: “In the West we’ve always thought of boredom as slack time, life’s lift music sliding off the ear. Totalitarian boredom is different. It’s a state of expectation already heavy with its own disappointment, the event and its anticipation braided together in a continuous loop of tension and anti-climax.” McGuinness is an accomplished poet and writes with superb clarity. The novel is littered with aperçus of a brilliance that has the reader reaching for a pencil. Here is Bucharest: “a heat-beaten brutalist maze whose walls and towers melted like sugar, and where the roots of trees erupted through the pavements.” And here is the unctuous consular attaché Wintersmith (straight out of Greene-land) and the British expat community, “where largely identical people fuck each other interchangeably”; here is the Boulevard of Socialist Victory: “a vast avenue that didn’t so much vanish into the distance as use it up, drawing everything around into itself.” And here is the grim Stoicu, interior minister and Ceausescu sidekick, with the “eyes of a man who sought in those around him the lowest motivation and always found it.”

I was fascinated to learn that Ceausescu was so paranoid that he would duplicate, no, triplicate his daily motorcade through Bucharest with simultaneous decoy performances in other parts of the city: “sirens, cars, Ceausescu’s motorcade – the real one and its decoys hurtling through Europe’s saddest dictatorship. One of the cars was for the Ceausescu’s dog, and he even had two doggy decoys, a punchline to a joke no one could any longer bear to tell about a world whose brutality was matched only by its absurdity.”

McGuinness was himself in Bucharest just prior to the fall of the regime, and his observations appear to have the scent of authenticity. This is a novel that rages and flows by turn, but rarely disappoints, tugging caustically towards its inevitable denouement.

 

A version of this review appeared in The Independent on 8 September 2011.

 

 

 

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