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Murder Bear

30 Aug

murder bear

 

I dreamed last night that American intelligence operatives were investigating the poet WN Herbert, allegedly because, according to dream-logic, he was responsible for – dream quotation marks – ‘blocking up areas of cyberspace that the US security forces deemed particularly sensitive’. In the dream a homeland security spokesman announced on television that the subversive Prof was under suspicion because his online activity was in danger of provoking a conflict with Russia. Bill was in trouble. I decided I had better call him, although I can hardly imagine he would need warning when the CIA had already made such a meal of announcing their investigation on TV. And besides, according to the previous day’s FB posts, Bill was in Crete: would he have signal there? And his phone was bound to be bugged. Perhaps I had better email. Same problem. Poor Bill. What would he do? What could I do to help?

On waking, I wonder where this particular dream has come from. I suspect it may relate to Murder Bear, Herbert’s horrifying ursine trope, perhaps interpreted by the spooks as a code matrix relating to Russian mobilisation on the Ukrainian border. But more likely, on reflection, would be Dogbot Borstal. This bizarre online association, or secret society, clearly harbours individuals of dangerously paranoid leanings, such as Goat Dog, Dumbo Octopus, and other cyphers.

goat dog

 

 

 

 

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, let alone 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?

 

 

 

Fictions and Foreigners: Borges and Alastair Reid

19 Aug

borges in library

The first story I read by Borges, at the age of eighteen, was Tlön, Uqbar, Tertius Orbis. Although the name would have meant nothing to me at the time, the translation was by Alastair Reid. Forty years later, I get to meet the man, now 88 years of age, a little frayed around the edges, but alert and bright eyed as a moorland bird. He lives in New York but spends part of every summer in the Dumfries and Galloway region where he was born and raised. I have been advised that Alastair would prove an invaluable repository of experiences and anecdotes for my researches into Latin American literature, concerning, among others, Borges, Neruda and Gabriel García Márquez, all of whom he knew well – Borges, best of all. And so it was that one bright July morning I set out with my friend Tom Pow across the Dumfries countryside towards our rendezvous.

I have yet to transcribe the recording, but two things stood out in our conversation. Neither of them will be surprising to those who are familiar with the work of Borges, but they are fascinating to me nonetheless.

Alastair Reid

Alastair Reid, July 2014.

Translating Borges was, according to Alastair Reid, at times like re-translating something that had originally been written in English, and subsequently translated into Spanish. This, apparently, was due to Borges’ own familiarity and long use of the English language (he had an English grandmother, was brought up bilingual, and learned to read in English at an early age). The task of the translator, then, felt like rendering the story back into its original language, which Alastair described as a somewhat unsettling or daunting experience, and quite unlike translating other Spanish language writers.

The other thing that stood out for me in our talk was Alastair’s insistence that for Borges everything was a ficción, a fiction. As he puts it in his essay ‘Fictions’ (in the wonderful collection Outside In): ‘Borges referred to all his writings – essays, stories, poems, reviews – as fictions. He never propounded any particular theory of fictions, yet it is the key to his particular lucid, keen, and ironic view of existence.’ I was dimly aware of this, but not to the extent that this infiltrated his approach to literature and the world. In his essay, Alastair Reid elaborates:

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

Reality, that which is beyond language, functions by mainly indecipherable laws, which we do not understand, and over which we have limited control. To give some form to reality, we bring into being a variety of fictions.

A fiction, it is understood, can never be true, since the nature of language is utterly different from the nature of reality.

And so on.

Alastair Reid’s essays contain so many observations and aperçus about the writers he has worked with (the 1976 essay ‘Basilisk’s Eggs’ is another gem) it would do them little justice to summarize. And that is only half the story: some of Reid’s most impressive writing concerns his own reflections on travel and identity: on the one side his Scottish beginnings, or ‘roots’ (a word he treats with caution), on the other the years of wandering. Perhaps my favourite is ‘Notes on being a Foreigner’ in which the author makes astute and (to my mind) accurate observations on that state or condition – one that a person is probably born to – as opposed to, say, a tourist or an expatriate.

‘Tourists are to foreigners as occasional tipplers are to alcoholics – they take strangeness and alienation in small, exciting doses, and besides, they are well fortified against loneliness . . .

. . . An expatriate shifts uncomfortably, because he still retains, at the back of his mind, the awareness that he has a true country, more real to him than any other he happens to have selected. Thus he is only at ease with other expatriates . . .

. . . The foreigner’s involvement is with where he is. He has no other home. There is no secret landscape claiming him, no roots tugging at him. He is, if you like, properly lost, and so in a position to rediscover the world, form outside in.’

As for being ‘properly lost’ – this is a theme to be continued ( if I make it back to Wales).

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Popocatépetl

7 May

Popcatapetl

Yesterday I came back into Mexico City from Puebla, the massive form of Popocatépetl (5,426 metres) to my left – caught fuzzily on my phone camera – passing the misty woodlands and broad meadows that gather around its base. It impressed on me the extraordinary diversity of the Mexican landscape, that within a few hours one can pass through prairie, forest and the high sierra. The only constant is the truly terrible music being played full volume wherever you go, including on this bus.

On Monday night in Puebla, as I was walking back to my hotel, an indigenous woman, utterly bedraggled, with long grey hair and in filthy clothes came running past me, apparently chasing after a big 4×4, crying out, at volume and with some distress ‘Don Roberto, Don Roberto . . .’ She carried on at pace up the street (Don Robé . . . Don Robé . . . ) for an entire block, and I could see the vehicle turning at the next set of lights. When I got to the junction, she had stopped, and was resting, hands on knees, her crevassed face fallen into a kind of resigned torment. She seemed elderly, although poverty and struggle probably accounted for an additional twenty years. I can hardly imagine what her story was – or the cruel, uncaring Don Roberto’s – but it was timeless, and seemed to sum up, more than any social analysis, the discrepancy between want and privilege, the honorific ‘Don’, gasped out as her spindly legs carried her in desperate pursuit at once implying his status and her subjugation. The image has stayed with me.

I returned to the city yesterday evening to attend a tertulia, a cross between a poetry discussion group and a workshop organised by the poet and short story writer Fabio Morábito and friends, where I was invited to read. Afterwards I visited the barrio of Mixcoac with Pedro Serrano and Carlos López Beltrán, passing by Octavio Paz’s family home, before returning to the more familiar confines of Condesa and supper at Luigi’s.

But today, back on the bus, the perennial Mexican bus. The clock at the front says 7.05. It is 12.50, but who cares? We pass through the sprawling shanty outskirts of southern Mexico City and back into the mist. Daily travel awakens in the traveller a kind of constant dislocation, which is not surprising considering the word means just that – a state of being displaced, an absence of locus. I never believed, as some of my generation seemed to, that travelling of itself was a kind of means of discovering oneself. I have absolutely no interest in discovering myself, nor anybody else for that matter. But I am drawn to Cuernavaca, not only for its alleged beauty, for the fact that it lies Under the Volcano and is the setting for Malcolm Lowry’s magnificent novel of that name, but in part at least because my late friend, Petros Prasinaki, aka Igbar Zoff, aka Peter Green came here sometime in the mid to late 197os in order to spend his inheritance, search for Lowry’s ghost and drink mescal, an example I will not be following. But I have a copy of Under the Volcano with me, just in case.

 

 

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