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Patagonian People

4 Sep

gaucho and horse

Driving with Hans Schulz towards the Alerces National Park on Monday, we passed this gaucho, who allowed us to take his photo. He was accompanied by four large dogs, who sniffed me respectfully but, like the horse, knew exactly who was boss. He gave his name as Muñoz, and looked after cattle belonging to a landowner from Bariloche.

LunedLuned González, above, great-granddaughter of one of the original Welsh settlers, EdwinRoberts. A formidable personage, and the individual who got the machinery into gear for our visits to Trelew and Gaiman.

AzdinI met this market stallholder, who gave his name as Azdin, in the Andean town of El Bolsón, a town colonised as a hippy settlement in the 1970s, and still carrying a distinctly alternative flavour. Azdin came to Argentina as a refugee from the Algerian civil war and was ‘adopted’ by a Welsh family in Trelew. He sold herbal remedies for ailments ranging from constipation to madness, but refused to accept payment because, he said, he loved the Welsh people, who had taken him in and looked after him when he first arrived in the country.

 Hans Schulz 1Argentine anthropologist and writer Hans Schulz, pictured above, a ridiculous optimist, and all-round good egg. Hans drove us all the way across Patagonia with incorrigible good humour, was a wonderful source of stories and useful information, as well as somehow managing to negotiate free board and lodging for all eight members of the Writers Chain expedition at one of the world’s most exclusive hotels, the Llao Llao, near Bariloche.

And, as further evidence of our intrepid journey to the heart of all things:

Blanco working undercover as a wax model, with a simulacrum of Famous Argentine author in La Biela café, Buenos Aires.

Blanco working undercover as a wax model, with a simulacrum of Famous Argentine author in La Biela Café, Buenos Aires.

Karen 'Chuckie' Owen considers the copulatory behaviour of the Ballena Franca (Southern Right) Whale at the Peninsula Valdes Information Centre.

Karen ‘Chuckie’ Owen considers the copulatory behaviour of the Ballena Franca (Southern Right) Whale at the Peninsula Valdes Information Centre.

Billionaire fashion guru Mererid Hopwood poses for the press at Llao Llao Hotel, Bariloche.

Billionaire fashion guru Mererid Hopwood poses for the press at Llao Llao Hotel, Bariloche.

Presidential candidate Natasha Atkhinovich in the Eisenhower suite at Llao Llao Hotel.

Presidential candidate Natasha Atkhinovich in the Eisenhower suite at Llao Llao Hotel.

International cultural events coordinator Nia Davies pondering the exchange rate, El Bolsón.

International cultural events coordinator Nia Davies pondering the exchange rate, El Bolsón.

Verónica Zondek endures the interminable wait for coffee, somewhere in Patagonia.

Verónica Zondek endures the interminable wait for coffee, somewhere in Patagonia.

 Explorer and hired secret agent Jorge Aulicino with entrepreneur extraordinaire Jorge Fondebrider, prepared for penultimate leg of Patagonian trip in Casa de Piedra, Trevelin.


Explorer and secret agent Jorge Aulicino with entrepreneur extraordinaire Jorge Fondebrider, prepared for penultimate leg of Patagonian trip in Casa de Piedra, Trevelin.

Crossing Patagonia

2 Sep

Writers Chain tour of Argentina & Chile, continued:

After three days of readings, lectures and tea parties in Puerto Madryn, Gaiman and Trelew, yesterday we made the long trip across the Patagonian meseta to Trevelin, in the foothills of the Andes. We travelled in two cars, laden down with suitcases, snacks and literary confabulation. Our car was driven by Argentinian anthropologist Hans Schulz and contained myself, Jorge Fondebrider and Tiffany Atkinson. We endured two punctures, the first in the middle of absolutely nowhere, the second after dark on the outskirts of Esquel. The first puncture proved problematic as we could not remove the tyre despite our manly efforts. We flagged down a truck, driven by a local farmer, Rodolfo, who kindly took Tiffany and myself to the small settlement of Las Plumas, where we had arranged to meet the other vehicle, driven by Veronica Zondek, and with instructions to find a mechanic, or at least to borrow the right tools from the garage there. Having acquired these, a relief party (Zondek and Aulicino) was sent back to the stranded Schulz and Fondebrider, and the flat tyre changed, while the contingent of Welsh poets and our coordinator, Nia, waited in a roadside canteen and ate empanadas and pasta.

During the rest of the journey across the prairie, the landscape began to change. The endless flatlands of sparse bush began to erupt into extraordinary outcrops of sandstone, stalagmites of sharp russet pointing skyward, or else solid slabs of sediment rising against the backdrop of an enormous sky, across which were layered fabulous accumulations of cloud. We arrived at Trevelin at midnight, where the hospitable proprietors of the Nikanor restaurant served us leek soup and homemade ravioli, washed down with an organic Malbec wine. Around us, the snowcapped mountains provided the sensation of having arrived in a place encircled by sleeping dragons. The casa de piedra, our hotel, is done up like a Tyrolean ski lodge, with a huge fireplace in the lounge, and carved wood furnishing. We slept the sleep of the just.

Leaving Puerto Madryn

Leaving Puerto Madryn

Two hours into the journey we had a flat. Nearest settlement, Las Plumas, 50 km away.

Two hours into the journey we had a flat. Nearest settlement, Las Plumas, 50 km away. We were, in fact . . .

 . . . in the Middle of Absolutely Nowhere.

. . . in the Middle of Absolutely Nowhere.

For much of the journey we followed the River Chubut

For much of the journey we followed the River Chubut

journey 5

journey 6

journey 7

The finger of destiny

The finger of destiny

journey 9

journey 10

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Coffee stop

Hans makes a point, eyes clearly fixed on the road ahead.

Hans makes a point, eyes clearly fixed on the road ahead.

journey 14

The endless open road

The endless open road

Sandstone sierra, early evening.

Sandstone sierra, early evening.

journey 16a

last light, approaching Esquel

last light, approaching Esquel . . .

Second tyre change, jist outside Esquel.

Second tyre change, just outside Esquel, Tiffany by now wild-eyed, if not demonic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Forgetting Chatwin

30 Aug

Day five of the Wales Writers Chain tour of Argentina and Chile. We began in Buenos Aires on Monday, at the Spanish Cultural Centre, where Mererid Hopwood and I gave lectures on, respectively, the Welsh and English literary traditions of Wales. On the Tuesday, Tiffany Atkinson and myself launched new collections in Spanish, published by the innovative and excellent imprint Gog y Magog – at what might well be my favourite bookshop in the world, Eterna Cadencia. We flew south on Wednesday, to Puerto Madryn, where the first Welsh settlers arrived on the Mimosa in July 1865, and were ourselves received by a small delegation of the Argentine Welsh community, where we were served soft white bread sandwiches, Malbec wine, teisen and tarts in a little hall used for Welsh and cookery classes. Incredibly hospitable and welcoming people.

Puerto Madryn reception

Puerto Madryn reception

            The tour was organised by the Argentine poet, critic and translator, Jorge Fondebrider along with Sioned Puw Rowlands, and sponsored by various city councils in Patagonia, the ministry of culture of the city of Buenos Aires, Wales Arts International and Wales Literature Exchange. Jorge has christened the tour ‘Forgetting Chatwin’ in refutation of the English author’s semi-fictitious account of Patagonia.

            In spite of a heavy schedule of readings, lectures, translation workshops, informal talks, school visits etc, we were able yesterday to have an excursion. Puerto Madryn happens to be very close to the natural reserve of the Valdes Peninsula, so yesterday we travelled along the isthmus to Puerto Pirámide – a charming and dilapidated frontier settlement on the beach – and took a boat trip to see the whales (all of them are the Southern Right Whale, called ‘right’ because of the ease of hunting them in the days of harpoon whaling). The trip to the peninsula allowed us to take a look at the blasted landscape of the interior, the endless bare scrub falling away into the distance under an enormous sky. We passed llama and guanaco – a smaller version of the llama – one of whose characteristic features is the particularly touching way in which the males decide who is to become the paterfamilias. According to our guide, Cesar, the males run at each other and bite their competitor’s testicles, thereby rendering him incapable of reproduction (as well, one imagines, of immediately converting him from tenor to soprano). How terrifying is nature in its simplicity.

Guanaco family

Guanaco family

            And then the whales, which leave me speechless. I heard one sing, truly.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

Three ballena franca (southern right whales) close to.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

A whale tail, courtesy of Nia Davies.

Mimosa crew

The crew of the Mimosa, from left: Nia Davies, Karen ‘Chuckie’ Owen, Tiffany Atkinson, Jorge Fondebrider and Mererid Hopwood.

Today, more lectures and poetry readings in Trelew, where Mererid Hopwood and Karen Owen will visit a Welsh school, followed by a reading at the University of Patagonia with myself, Tiffany, Karen, Mererid, alongside Jorge Fondebrider, Marina Kohon, Jorge Aulicino (Argentina) and Veronica Zondek (Chile).

A Patagonian dog, chilling out.

A Patagonian dog, chilling out in Puerto Pirámide.

Of Nooteboom, Jünger, Céline, and assorted literary gossip

13 Dec

I can confess without shame that occasionally I am persuaded to buy a book on the strength of the cover, and it was certainly a factor in selecting Cees Nooteboom’s collection of stories, published by the superb Maclehose Press. This was before I met Nooteboom and, since I was told I would be doing an event with him at the Translator’s Club in Buenos Aires, thought I had better read at least something by the man, who is very highly regarded in continental Europe and elsewhere, if not in the United Kingdom. Not that this counts for much, as there are many writers who are well-known in the rest of the world but are far less well-known in Britain than our own great authors like Katie Price or Russell Brand, to name but two, or say, more realistically, than Geoff Dyer or Tom Raworth, but hell, who cares. In the end I never got around to reading the book until the weekend just past, and can reveal that – unless I missed something important – none of the stories has anything to do with foxes or with Gauguin (from whose painting the cover picture is taken).

But back to my main gripe, our misguided isolationism, which is reflected in the inability of publishers to translate great works of literature what are writ in the foreign, and that most hideous of ailments, little-Englandism.

Since David Cameron has now put the interests of his chums in the City of London ahead of anyone or anything else, and has decided that the bankers are so good at making things happen that they might as well be given a free hand; and since the rest of Europe is, sensibly, in disagreement, it seems likely that within a couple of decades, our islands will be floundering in mid-Atlantic, spurned both by Europe and our North American cousins (what special relationship?), a non-productive, antisocial wasteland, with a tiny privileged elite and a humungus underclass of the poor and unskilled, and little in between. A bit like Latin America in the seventies. Britain will then have to re-invent itself as a ‘developing country’.

Ernst Jünger

Now where was I? Nooteboom told me he once met (or rather crept up on) Ernst Jünger in the Prado, and introduced himself, at which Jünger made a joke about his (Nooteboom’s) surname. The joke was in German though, and involved wordplay which I, as a non-German-speaking non-Dutch-speaker, did not understand. Such trifles do not concern Nooteboom however, who continued with his story regardless. If you speak six or more languages with apparent ease, as Nooteboom does, you tend to get flippant. Ernst Jünger: a truly fascinating character, who has a cameo role in both Roberto Bolaño’s By Night in Chile and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones, thus I have been reminded of his existence twice in recent times. Is that a sign? (Normally I would interpret that as a message that I need to look him up and read something by him, but since I am not reading novels right now will have to hang on, unless I want to read his essay on On Pain, which I don’t fancy. Or perhaps I will, pain being quite a salient topic.) Needless to say his work is pitifully hard to find in English, considering he is rated as one of the most important German authors of the 20th century. Nearly all of his 52 books are available in French, but only five could I find in English translation. Apparently this is largely to do with the fact that Jünger – although not a member of the Nazi party, and peripherally involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944 – served as an officer in the German army, held strongly Nietzschean views promoting the model of an heroic masculinity, and was an anti-semite, at least during the 1930s. I’m not saying he was a good person; undoubtedly he had issues, don’t we all, but he was not half as bad as the Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline, for example, an out-and-out Jew-hating fascist maniac, and yet Céline is held in high regard as a literary figure – by those who have read him – in both Britain and the USA, in spite of his despicable opinions, and much of his work is translated

Louis-Ferdinand Céline

Céline was definitely a prize shit, and no doubt deserves our opprobrium, but less specifically I often wonder how come we are so ready to condemn how others behaved in times that we cannot begin to understand, when, as we have seen before on Blanco’s Blog, complicity is just another way of getting on with life, and avoiding persecution? We might perhaps take the trouble to ask ourselves just how we would have behaved. It is easy to bask in the safety of the present and cast aspersions on those who came before.

So, where were we? Is digression really such a good thing, when you lose your place so frequently, and so thoroughly? I was going to write about Nooteboom’s collection of stories. So here we go. He is superb at evoking the peculiar world of northern European expats (Dutch and British) living out their blinkered lives under the Spanish or Italian sun. He writes with an understated, poetic prose, that suits the topic which surfaces at some point in most or all of these stories, which is that of a lost and, at times barely remembered love. The theme is addressed in soft focus in nearly all these stories, and present through its absence in the longest one, ‘Heinz’, which accounts for a third of the pages in the book, and describes the slow alcoholic decrement of its eponymous protagonist. Heinz was once married to Arielle, whose flower-adorned grave the narrator discovers one day, four decades after her death. Apart from learning that Arielle died in 1962 at the age of 22, we know practically nothing about her, yet she inhabits the centre of the story with a stubborn grace, unavoidable in her absence. This is pretty masterfully achieved by Nooteboom, and I was impressed by the fluency of Ina Rilke’s translation, but nonetheless, despite the dictum that less is more and Hemingway’s iceberg theory, I couldn’t help feeling that I would have liked to get to know Arielle a bit, as she could not have been less interesting than the other members of the cast.

Nooteboom at the Dutch Embassy, Buenos Aires, September 2011

My two favourite stories were ‘Thunderstorm’, set on an out-of-season Spanish island (perhaps Menorca, as that is where Nooteboom lives), in which a couple are having a spectacular row in a café: the man walks out in a strop and is struck by lightning; and ‘Late September’ – another story set in a windswept rainy resort on a Spanish island – in which Suzy, a 79-year old British widow (smokes Dunhill, drives into town every day for the Daily Mail) has a desultory, what shall we call it, affair, with a 63 year old waiter, Luis, for whom she always leaves something out for him to ‘find’ on his nocturnal visits, except on this night, when:

All that remained was to wait for the creak of the door, the smell of whisky on his breath, those strange, halting grunts accompanied by sudden thrusts of astonishing vigour, which had more to do with rage and endemic disappointment than with anything else.

Christ. An afterthought. As life expectancy continues to grow, and third-age sex lives thrive, can we expect an upsurge in geriatric porn? Does it already exist? Do I want to find out?

The strange and displaced lives of Brits in exile under the sun has been explored in different ways by Graham Greene, J.G Ballard (in Cocaine Nights) and now Nooteboom, a non-Brit but most astute observer, makes a valid contribution. It is a world that no doubt contains untold fictional riches, but first, I guess, you have to do the fieldwork.

 

 

 

 

Hunger for Salt

13 Oct

from left to right, Blanco’s stuntman and sometime collaborator Richard Gwyn, Carlos Pardo, Juan Dicent and Niels Frank.

 

A post from Pablo Makovsky, director of the Rosario International Poetry Festival, and a video of us reading ‘Hunger for Salt’ in English and Spanish (translation by Jorge Fondebrider). Also on the festival website a very good quality recording of our rendition of ‘Dusting’.

 

 

 

Hunger for Salt

 Will I remember you in the dull yellow light,

as a fish that enters my mouth, as a virus

that enters my blood, as a fear that enters my belly?

Will I remember you as a catastrophe

tearing between my legs, fine teeth slitting my lip,

tongue touched with salt my tongue was crazy for?

You never confessed to those little thefts:

my mother’s ring, the statue from Knossos,

the locket I kept for the hair of children

we never had. I see you, come to steal my bones,

small teeth so white, a necklace of coloured stones,

clams and mussel shells around your waist,

an ankle chain of emeralds. But now you have gone

back to the sea, I can forgive your cruelty,

your violent moods, your plots of revenge,

remembering instead the brush of your skin

on mine, the way you looked at me that afternoon

in the sea cave, gulls clamouring outside,

a crowd of angry creditors in a world otherwise

gone terribly quiet. And you, nestling in

the white sand, caught in the nets I wove

with a devout sobriety, turned utterly to salt.

 

 

 

Hambre de sal

¿Te recordaré en la luz insulsa y amarilla,

como a un pez que me entra en la boca, como un virus

que me entra en la sangre, como un miedo que me entra en la panza?

¿Te recordaré como una catástrofe

desgarrándome entre las piernas, dientes minúsculos que me hienden el labio,

lengua tocada con sal por la que mi lengua estaba loca?

Nunca reconociste esos pequeños robos:

el anillo de mi madre, la estatua de Knosos,

el medallón que yo guardaba para el cabello de los chicos

que nunca tuvimos. Te veo, ven a robar mis huesos,

dientecillos tan blancos, un collar de piedras coloridas,

valvas de almejas y mejillones alrededor de tu talle,

una cadena de esmeraldas en el tobillo. Pero ahora te has ido

de vuelta al mar. Puedo perdonar tu crueldad,

tus humores violentos, tus tramas de venganza,

recordando en lugar de eso el roce de tu piel

sobre la mía, el modo en que me viste aquella tarde

en la cueva marina, las gaviotas chillando afuera,

una multitud de airados acreedores en un mundo distinto,

vuelto terriblemente silencioso. Y tú, anidando

en la arena blanca, atrapada en las redes que tejí

con devota sobriedad, por completo convertida en sal.

 

From Being in Water (Parthian, 2001).


 

River Song

7 Oct

Río Riachuelo at Barracas, Buenos Aires

 

In my post of 14 September, Villa Miseria, I wrote, among other things, of the state of the Riachuelo, allegedly the most polluted river in the western hemisphere, as it passes through the slum of Barracas 21/24 to the south of Buenos Aires.

At the invitation of FILBA, the Buenos Aires International Festival of Literature, of which I was a guest last month, I was invited to write a short piece on my visit to Barracas, to be read on the final evening of the festival, along with other pieces composed during the course of the festival  by fellow writers, which can be found at the FILBA Blog.

What I wrote was a poem about the river, in what is an unusually hectoring voice, as I was affected by a strong sense of outrage – quite apart from the social conditions of the people living in the slum – at how a river, which is traditionally such a potent symbol of live-giving purity, can become so vile and corrupt a thing as to breed ‘monsters of the mind’. I wondered what it would be like for a child to grow up by the side of such a river. I wrote this draft of the poem – which is clearly still unfinished – at short notice, specifically for performance at the event, and have not revised it, so it has a raw and unpolished feel to it. It is written in a mixture of English and Spanish because I liked the idea of a poem that played the two languages off against each other.

A ‘medialuna’ is a cartwheel as well as the small sweet croissants eaten for breakfast in Argentina (though certainly not by the inhabitants of Barracas 21/24).  The lines ‘Do you like this garden which is yours? / Make sure your children don’t destroy it // ¿Le gusta este jardín que es suyo?/ ¡Evite que sus hijos lo destruyan!’ are from Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, and his character, Geoffrey Firmin, becomes obsessed by the broader connotations of the phrase. The other Spanish phrases are either variations on this line or else echo the English.

 

 

River song/Canto del río


The reflected sky

burns blue

viscous and putrid effluvia

journey lethargically towards

any possible destination

and no one cares

no one cares

whether the detritus

on this sickly tide

reaches anywhere at all

battery acid sulphuric acid mercury

whatever it takes

anything at all

¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?

its journey

a sickly progression

from one place to another

a gelatinous insult

inverted by forgetting

dreary with forgetting

and we deal with forgetting

by forgetting more

 

¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?

Evite que

Evite que

¡Evite que sus padres lo destruyan!

 

A man emerges from the river

covered in a pall of flies

he pulls a pistol from his belt

calls out

¿Les gustan estas moscas?

I’ll teach those bastard flies

and blasts off his own arm

his wrist and hand explode

leaving a bloody stump

I’ll teach the little bastards

he tells no one

he tells the world

he tells his children

aunque nadie lo escucha

and all the people stare

and all the people stare

though no one listens

and the man does a cartwheel

on his single arm

y el hombre hace la medialuna

y el hombre hace la medialuna

stands up straight

and shoots himself in the face

the words sliding

from the remains of his mouth

 

I’ll teach the little bastards

Voy a enseñar a los pequeños bastardos

this is what the river spawns

Eso es lo que produce el rio

this is the ineluctable truth

of a Wednesday in September

this is how we deal with

remembering the things

we left behind

just as we deal with forgetting

by forgetting more

 

This is the river song

the river song

the river song

and from the river rises

an inestimable sadness

into the void of poverty

into the sullen entrails

of forgetting

in the place where

no birds sing.

 

¿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.

But you cannot blame your children

for the things that you forget to do

forgetting the future

just as you forgot the past

¿Le gusta este rio que es suyo?

Evite que

Evite que

Evite que . . .

 

 

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 . . . .

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Dissolving

16 Sep 'Dissolving' by Lluís Peñaranda

 

It’s always an education to read in unusual locations. The organizers of FILBA appear to be steering me towards a socially engaged role that I am not normally associated with back in the UK. But that’s fine with me. The reading last night took place in a cobbled courtyard next to a rehabilitation centre for women recently released from jail, and behind an abandoned market, a steel-girdered hangar that resembles a nineteenth century railway station. Outside, the place was covered in graffiti and creeping vines, and in the darkness a wind began to stir, causing a few paper cups to scuttle across the cobbles like the rats that you knew were there, but were sitting out the poetry reading in a nearby drain. The perennial smell of the Buenos Aires night – barbecued meat, with an overlay of almonds  – wafted by, and an engaged and enthusiastic audience sat alongside the vendors of bags, table-cloths and other artefacts made by the women prisoners.

I am posting a poem that I read last night, as well as at the Club de Traductores on Monday, because it seems to be popular here – probably due to the excellence of the translation – but which I don’t think I have ever performed back home. My Spanish reader on this occasion was the poet and journalist Jorge Aulicino. Strange how on a reading tour there is usually one piece that gets more attention than the others, for no particular reason. It is followed by the Spanish translation by Jorge Fondebrider, since Blanco’s blog has acquired an encouraging following in Argentina and Spain, perhaps because they think I am someone I am not.

 

Blanco reading with Jorge Aulicino


 

Dissolving

 

When you spoke of dissolving in my arms

I realised it was not a figure of speech

that in a sense (in any sense), you meant it

to be just so, that you would disintegrate in me,

I in you, and both of us in water. Could this be

what is meant by marriage, in which both parties

disappear entirely, leaving only ripples

on the water’s quiet surface? But marriage

was a curious fantasy for us, and who could

possibly officiate? You were promised to another,

a dark figure stalking alleyways at night,

an ever-busy debt-collector, and I knew

my thin credentials would never count for much

with your imaginary father. So I led you

to a pond instead, with lilies and an oriental bridge,

a bench named for a local shopkeeper,

the path which circumscribed the water

shaded by hydrangeas and a vast magnolia.

The place was known to me, but since

the I that remembered things was by now

already dissolving in the you that forgot things,

the memory might well have been a false one.

You walked around the pond, around my island,

diminished with each circuit, each time drawn by

the gravity of the island’s green intelligence,

around and around, while I waited, an idiot

in a drama with no plot, no foreseeable conclusion.

 

from Being in Water by Richard Gwyn, with drawings by Lluís Peñaranda

 

 

 

'Dissolving' by Lluís Peñaranda

 

 

Disolverse

 

Cuando hablaste de disolverte en mis brazos

advertí que no era una figura retórica,

que en un sentido (en todo sentido), lo decías en serio

que así fuera, desintegrarte en mí,

yo en ti, y ambos en agua. ¿Será eso

lo que se llama matrimonio, cuando ambas partes

desaparecen completamente, dejando apenas ondas

sobre la quieta superficie del agua? Pero para nosotros

el matrimonio era una curiosa fantasía, ¿y quién quizás

podría celebrarlo? A otro estabas prometida,

una figura oscura que acechaba de noche en callejones,

un cobrador de deudas siempre ocupado, y yo sabía

que mis escasas credenciales jamás servirían de mucho

con tu padre imaginario. Así que en cambio te conduje

a un estanque, con lirios y un puente oriental,

un banco bautizado con el nombre de un comerciante local,

el camino que circunscribía el agua

sombreado por hortensias y una vasta magnolia.

El lugar me resultaba conocido, pero desde que el yo

que recordaba cosas para entonces ya estaba

disolviéndose en el tú que se olvidaba cosas,

el recuerdo bien podría haber sido falso.

Caminaste alrededor del estanque, alrededor de mi isla,

disminuida con cada vuelta, cada vez atraída

por la gravedad de la inteligencia verde de la isla,

una y otra vez, mientras yo esperaba, un idiota

en un drama sin argumento, sin previsible conclusión.

_

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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