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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mexico, violence and random bad luck

8 May

Caminar en esta zona no le recomiendo: es muy peligroso, said the guy on the evening shift at my hotel. ‘I don’t recommend walking in this area: it’s very dangerous’. So much for my after dinner stroll. I retire to my room with Under the Volcano, just as astonished – more so perhaps, because better able to acknowledge the scope of the achievement – by Lowry’s novel as I was when first reading it half a lifetime ago. I took it with me to the hotel restaurant, first consuming Michael Schmidt’s Introduction alongside the chicken consommé – intrigued to discover he grew up in the same streets that encompass Lowry’s narrative – and reading the first few chapters (alongside the steak and nopales – edible cactus – and avocado) with delight and a degree of – is it envy or humility or readerly watchfulness, or a concoction of all three?

Earlier there was a massive storm, rocking the trees outside my room, which shed leaves like thin leathery hands and a quantity of other solid matter, along with a downpour of such intensity that I put off heading downtown, settling instead for the more local comforts of the hotel restaurant: hence my attempt to set out after eating. But I defer to the night-watchman’s concern, and it was past eleven after all. One hears so many contradictory tales about what is safe, and where it is safe to walk, especially at night, that in the circumstances I tend to err on the side of caution, something I would never have done a quarter of a century ago. But twenty-five years ago, perhaps, Mexico was not such a dangerous place, and I was a more reckless person. I remember saying to someone last week, who asked me why I hadn’t travelled to Mexico during my youthful journeys, that if I had done so I would probably have ended up getting killed, as I was such a pain in the arse back then and frequently looking for trouble. Some would say I am still a pain in the arse, but I don’t go looking for trouble any more.

In Xalapa, which seemed a reasonably safe place, there was a formidable police presence when I visited last week. Apparently this kind of thing happens in waves, following some tip-off or other. On the day I left, as I was packing my suitcase I hear an explosion on the street. I looked outside and saw people running, looking around as if not knowing quite from which direction it had come. Then, two minutes later, it is as if nothing has happened. I never find out what it was.

A writer I had arranged to meet there tells me of the corruption in local government: businesses close down, not because of any economic crisis, but because of extortion and their inability or unwillingness to pay the protection money to gangsters, who in turn are in league with crooked politicians and bent police officers. The police presence, as I mentioned, is an offence in itself – the same evening, as I took a walk through a busy Xalapa street, a truck pulled past with four police, heavily armed, black armour and helmets, their automatic rifles aimed in readiness at the civilians passing by on the sidewalk: what is this? Who exactly is posing the threat? Why are they aiming their guns at the very people they are supposed to be protecting?

In terms of everyday violence, Mexico gets a bad deal from the press, especially the US press. This itself is a paradox – most violence in Mexico is drug-related and the USA is the place these drugs are marketed – that verges on the hypocritical. One website I looked at cites UN-sourced evidence that you are more than five times more likely to be the victim of an assault in the USA than you are in Mexico, and that in terms of homicide, the murder rate in Mexico is way down the league of tourist destinations: within Latin America and the Caribbean alone, you are much more likely to get yourself killed in (descending order) Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, St Kitts and Nevis, Belize, Bahamas, Dominican Republic, Brazil, St Lucia or Ecuador than you are in Mexico. The murder rate in Washington D.C is more than double that of Mexico City (21 per 100,000 as opposed to 9 per 100,000) and in New Orleans it is more than five times greater than in the Mexican capital.

But in terms of everyday security, beyond taking reasonable precautions – i.e. there are some barrios in any city that you simply don’t visit if you can avoid them – bad stuff happens, as elsewhere, mainly because of chance (i.e bad luck). A Mexican couple told me soon after my arrival here that the only time they had ever experienced violence directed against themselves was in Europe: she was mugged in Paris; he was beaten up in a North London pub. Come to think of it, so was I.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

The Zapatistas’ breakfast

6 May

Zapatistas

Last night, in the city of Puebla – the setting for the first battle of the the 1910 Revolution – I stopped off at a street corner kiosk and recognised, among the picture postcards, a famous image that had caught my attention on a visit to the same restaurant in which the photograph was taken, in Mexico City.

The gentlemen are Mexican revolutionary soldiers, snapped having breakfast in the exclusive Sanborns coffee house, Mexico City, apparently on the 12th of May, 1914, when Zapata brought his army to town for a meeting with Pancho Villa, who had been leading the revolution in the north of the country. A google search identifies them as the Generals Feliciano Polanco Araujo y Teodoro Rodriguez, and they are enjoying hot chocolate. I had not imagined for one second that they might be officers of such elevated rank, but appearances can indeed be deceptive. Their inscrutable expressions hypnotize the onlooker, at a distance of one hundred years, but how must they have appeared to the waitresses serving them, accustomed as they were to a rather more sophisticated, urban clientele? The waitress in the foreground seems to be keeping her distance, and wears a stony expression, perhaps evincing curiosity as well as understandable fear. The rabble of soldiers around and behind the generals in the top picture seem to be enjoying themselves just a little: perhaps the ceremony of the photograph amuses them.

 

Zapatistas and waitresses

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Xalapa

2 May

cactus road

Leaving behind the poets of the monstrous metropolis that is Mexico City, Blanco catches a bus and crosses the wide plain strewn with cacti upon which perch enormous dark birds. Did he actually see them, those birds? It is so hard to distinguish at times between the things we see and the things we remember and the things we think we remember and the things we never saw but read about and the things we wish we had seen and so retrospectively invent, and the things we will never see but have experienced vicariously in a story recounted by someone else, a friend, or possibly a stranger. And then a mist falls upon the plain and the next time he looks there is a forest, barely visible through the thick cloak of fog, and the windows of the bus have steamed up with the change in temperature.

trees in mist

 

He arrives at Xalapa in the rain, catches a taxi, and finds that the route across town is cordoned off for a Mayday demonstration. The taxi driver curses, finds a way around, drops him off. He is hungry and sets out up the street, finds the Callejon Diamante, though it has been renamed, and enters La Sopa canteen. An older man with a white moustache, white shirt and white cowboy hat is playing the harp. Blanco clocks the harpist clocking him. He heads towards the back of the cantina and orders food; chickpea soup, pork in salsa verde with pasta, and a beer. The food arrives, along with tortillas wrapped in a cloth. The cowboy harpist stops playing the harp and makes his way down to the washroom. When he passes Blanco’s table he nods and says buenas tardes, as though he has known him for years. This is not so strange, thinks Blanco, a friendly old fellow who plays the harp in a cowboy hat. He finishes the chickpea soup and awaits the arrival of the second course. The harpist comes out of the men’s room, stops by Blanco’s table and says in Spanish, ‘Around here they call me the ambassador.’ Now this Blanco does find odd, as he is under the impression that he, Blanco, is the Ambassador, or at the very least a variety or version or improvisation upon the theme of Ambassadorship. Perhaps ‘The Ambassador’ is the harpist’s stage name, he thinks. Or perhaps he is a retired drug baron  nicknamed ‘The Ambassador’ for his talent in negotiating his associates’ passage to the next life, and who has since mended his ways and taken up playing the harp in Xalapa cantinas, where no one knows of his sinister past and his reputation for dealing out summary justice. Nonsense, I reply, he is a nice old man who plays the harp. Don’t be fooled, says Blanco. He has dangerous contacts, just consider those birds perched on the cacti, back on the plain. Who do you think you’re kidding?

When we leave the cantina it is still raining.

 

 

 

 

 

The people of Teotihuacán

29 Apr

 

Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacán

Temple of the Sun, Teotihuacán

It is not known who built and occupied Teotihuacán (pronounced tay-oh-tee-wah-kahn): the Totonac, Otomi or Nahua peoples have all been put forward. The site was established before 100 B.C and building of the vast pyramids continued until around 250 A.D. The city reached its zenith over the next three centuries, with a population in excess of 125,000, making it one of the largest cities in the world at the time. It was sacked and burned in the middle of the 6th century and was abandoned by 700 A.D. The fortunes and whereabouts of the people who built and occupied this city vanish alongside numerous Mesoamerican cultures with the rise of the Azteca-Mexica people, but we know that evidence of Teotihuacano influence can be seen at sites in the Veracruz area. And it was here, in 1519, that Hernán Cortés made his first inroads towards the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (modern day Mexcio City), a city which he effectively destroyed two years later.

Temple of the Moon

Temple of the Moon

 

Temple of the Moon, as seen from Avenue of the Dead

Temple of the Moon, as seen from Avenue of the Dead

The site at Teotihuacán covers a huge area, of which only about a quarter has been excavated. The principle monuments, the Temples of the Sun and Moon, and the Temple of Quetzalcóatl, are joined by the Avenue of the Dead. The configuration of these building has been subject to intense speculation, ranging from the more scientific to New Age Bonkers (while I was at the top of the Temple of the Sun a European-looking woman, dressed in flowing gowns, opened her arms to the sun and started chanting some gobbledygook which she obviously believed was connecting her to something or other). In the 1970s heyday of New Age enthusiasts, a survey was carried out by Hugh Harleston Junior, who found that the main structures lined up along the Avenue of the Dead formed a precise scale model of the solar system, including Uranus, Neptune and Pluto (not discovered until 1787, 1846 and 1930 respectively). There is plenty more of this kind of stuff around, and every Spring Equinox morning thousands of people climb the Temple of the Sun with arms outstretched facing the sun on the eastern horizon. According to the Wikipedia article on this phenomenon:

Some New Age sources claim that at the point of the equinox, man is at a unique place in the cosmos, when portals of energy open. Climbing the 360 stairs to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun is claimed to allow participants to be closer to this “energy”.

Although recent research suggests that Teotihuacán was a multi-ethnic state, we do know that the Totonac people, who may have lived there, later bore a mighty grudge against their conquerors, the Aztecs, who regularly took tribute from them of slaves, many if not all of whom would be sacrificed. But the people who lived in Teotihuacán certainly practised human sacrifice also. I don’t know how far the New Agers go along with that kind of thing, but who knows, perhaps they secretly want to be sacrificed.

As part of my background reading into Mexican history I am currently immersed in the 19th century Hispanist William F. Prescott’s fascinating account The Conquest of Mexico (published in 1843). I know there are more up-to-date and scientific studies of the period, but none are as entertaining (and Prescott’s study can be downloaded onto a Kindle for only 99 pence). It is written in a style that wavers between the deferential and the ornate, which was no doubt intended to convey the maximum sense of verisimilitude, but which to a modern reader– and possibly, who knows, to the Victorians also – seems almost to verge into parody. Here is Prescott on Cortés’ arbitrary method of convincing the Totonacs that their religious and dietary preferences (i.e. worshipping wooden idols and eating people) were wrong, and they would be much better off serving the True Cross):

‘Fifty soldiers, at a signal from [Cortés], sprang up the great stairway of the temple [at Cempoala], entered the building on the summit, the walls of which were black with human gore, tore down the huge wooden symbols from their foundations, and dragged then to the edge of the terrace. Their fantastic forms and features, conveying a symbolic meaning, which was lost on the Spaniards, seemed in their eyes only the hideous lineaments of Satan. With great alacrity they rolled the colossal monsters down the steps of the pyramid, amidst the triumphant shouts of their own companions, and the groans and lamentations of the natives. They then consummated the whole by burning them in the presence of the assembled multitude.

The Totonacs, finding their deities incapable of preventing or even punishing this profanation of their shrines, conceived a mean opinion of their power, compared with that of the mysterious and formidable strangers. The floor and walls of the teocalli were then cleansed, by command of Cortés, from their foul impurities; a fresh coating of stucco was laid on them by Indian masons; and an altar was raised, surmounted by a lofty cross, and hung with garlands of roses. A procession was next formed, in which some of the principal Totonac priests, exchanging their dark mantles for robes of white, carried lighted candles in their hands; while an image of the Virgin, half smothered under the weight of flowers, was borne aloft, and, as the procession climbed the steps of the temple, was deposited above the altar. Mass was performed by Father Olmedo, and the impressive character of the ceremony and the passionate eloquence of the good priest touched the feelings of the motley audience, until Indians as well as Spaniards, if we may trust the chronicler, were melted into tears and audible sobs.’

This sprightly conversion was guided, in part at least, by the Totonac cacique’s knowledge that only with the support of the Spaniards could he gain revenge on his real enemy, the Aztec.

Back in Teotihuacán, I complete my ascent of both the Temple of the Moon and the Temple of the Sun (exhausting and at times perilous) and make my way along the Avenue of the Dead, to the visit the Temple of Quetzalcoatl (ket-sal-kwaht-uhl) – the plumed serpent deity – which is far smaller, but equally impressive in its way. Its façade is adorned with huge sculptures of a plumed serpent and of the rain god Tlaloc. A series of tunnels were found beneath the structure in 2010. They are thought to house the remains of the ruling elite.

Temple of Quetzalcóatl (the plumed serpent)

Temple of Quetzalcóatl (the plumed serpent)

Nearby is the site of several mass graves, discovered in the 1980s. The remains of around 200 people who had been sacrificed were found, the victims’ hands tied behind their back (perhaps dispelling the notion that some Mesoamerican sacrifice victims were volunteers). Whichever version is true (and we know that sacrificial victims were most commonly captured enemies), we return again to the cult of death, which I have remarked upon in previous posts during this trip, and to which I will return.

Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent deity

Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent deity

 

Stone jaguar on wall of Temple of Quetzalcóatl

Stone jaguar on wall of Temple of Quetzalcóatl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of Dogs and Death

26 Apr

 

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

 

I wrote once before about Juan Rulfo and his novel Pedro Paramo, which has unparalleled status in Mexican literature and was a major influence on the young Gabriel García Márquez on his arrival in Mexico City in 1961.

I recently spent an evening reading Juan Rulfo’s short stories El llano en llama (translated into English both as The Plain in Flames and The Burning Plain). The stories were written in the long wake of the Mexican revolution, which coincided with Rulfo’s own childhood in an orphanage in Jalisco where, he said later, he often saw corpses hanging from posts, and that he spent all his time reading, “because you couldn’t go out for fear of getting shot.” These stories lead the reader into a space of silence and mystery, where reality breaks down and we enter a world that might be the antechamber to the afterlife, if the afterlife you have in mind is bleak, featureless, devoid of anything that could pass as life at all. But there are ghosts, at least.

The rhythms of Rulfo’s prose remind me of what Octavio Paz wrote about his archetypal Mexican: “his language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats . . .” There are threats aplenty, but they are unformed, vaguely defined and usually at some distance from the place of narration – yet always getting closer. Events take place in a half-light, as characters stumble towards yet another failure, or else death.

In the first story in Rulfo’s collection, ‘They have given us land’, a group of four landless men trudge across an arid plain. They have been promised land by some government official, but the ground beneath them is dry, stony, utterly unsuitable for planting anything that might grow. There had been more than twenty in their group, and they had horses and rifles, but now there are only four, and they have nothing, apart from a hen, which one of them keeps hidden inside his coat. “After walking for so many hours without coming across even the shadow of a tree, even the seed of a tree, nor the root of anything, we heard the barking of dogs.”

In another story ‘Don’t you hear the dogs barking’, a man carries his adult son on his back to try and find a doctor in the town of Tonaya. The younger man is wounded. It is night-time and the old man cannot see where he is going. As the pair draw near to the town we learn through the father’s faltering monologue that his son is a thief and a murderer, and he is only carrying him out of respect for the boy’s dead mother.

In these two stories, the barking of dogs indicates the existence, if not of hope precisely, then of some form of life, of human dwellings at the very least. But perhaps that is a false reading. In Mesoamerican cultures dogs were considered to have the powers to guide the dead to a new life after death, which explains why dogs have frequently been found buried with people in pre-Columbian sites.

And of course, at the end of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under the Volcano, a dead dog is thrown down the ravine after the dead body of the unfortunate consul.

To come full circle, I discovered today that Rulfo had a bit-part in a Spanish film based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez. The film is called En este pueblo no hay ladrones (In this town there are no thieves), and is exceptional in that the cast is made up of notable writers, visual artists and film directors, including Luis Buñuel (clearly relishing his performance as the town priest), Leonora Carrington, Arturo Ripstein, Alfonso Arao, Abel Quezada, and Gabriel García Márquez himself.

 

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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