I love this quote. It comes from the Ndebele tribe in the north-eastern part of South Africa and was quoted by Bryce Courtenay in his story in the Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction travel writing collection.
Courtenay goes onto explain that ‘Translated, this simply means that we only recognize and get to know ourselves, who and what we are and may become, by the presence, experiences and observations of other people.’
The other night, my father poured me a glass of whisky
And amid a longer conversation, he expressed his discomfort with correcting my writing, and I found myself wanting to laugh at him. Because of my work, I find myself constantly providing corrections to people’s language. I have done a fair amount of red penning my father’s texts. Heavy-handedly. I tend to ignore his ego and get on with stating my thoughts. If he’s asked me for my opinion, then I’m going to give him it. Obviously, there’s a difference between criticizing and providing constructive criticism and I wouldn’t want him to feel that a criticism of his word choice was a criticism of him. Sometimes, of course, we get a bit defensive and blur the distinction between the criticism of our work and ourselves. This isn’t unusual. Some people aren’t ready to receive criticism of their work because they have confused the two and need to first develop better recognition of the value of themselves before they can embrace feedback. Sometimes in teaching, corrections are ignored because accuracy isn’t the imminent goal. There are times when, as a teacher, I will encourage a student to keep producing language regardless of its accuracy because they need to build confidence and get used to the sound of their own voice.
When my father expressed his discomfort at correcting my writing, I smiled at him and tried to explain that his feedback (even when it was negative) was valuable to me. I wasn’t going to be offended because he points out I’ve used a word entirely wrongly or that my sentence doesn’t make sense. I’m not going to hold it against him if he provides criticism constructively.
What doesn’t work is a vague adjective describing what isn’t likeable about my personality, anything that comes from a place of defence rather than care, anything that comes from a place of jealousy – and pointing out my spots. That much I’m sure of. Some cultures are more direct about feedback, others create indirect ways of getting the message across, but we have to get feedback from each other to grow. Imagine a student whose teacher never provides feedback. How much are they ever going to learn? How well are they going to be motivated?
People are people because of other people
We grow and learn who we are through the interactions we have with the people around us. We need people to learn from and understand ourselves through. Other people show us who we are, and I’m a firm believer in the value of being self-aware.
We all wondered what the Mother would do when she retired, but none of us imagined that she would become an exercise fanatic. It was inevitable that she would become a fanatic of something, she isn’t someone to do things by halves, but exercise… It’s not that the Mother didn’t exercise, she used to cycle to work every day, but it wasn’t an obsession like it is now.
I am very grateful for the Mother’s current enthusiasm. If I lived alone, or with just my father, I would probably be a lot less fit than I currently am. It’s not my great self-discipline. It’s not my immense will-power. Nope, it’s down to the presence of the ever-yogaing Mother.
By the time I wake up in the morning, she has done three yoga routines
This is because instead of occasionally changing up her routine, the Mother merely adds to it. She started, reluctantly, with a single yoga class when she was still working a normal everyday kind of job, in a normal fashion, as normal people who get advised to strengthen their body or tackle their inflexibility or posture… and then time passed until now, in lock-down, she has become an index of yoga classes and other Eastern traditions.
I have this great idea that one day I am going to wake up energetically and do ten sun salutations as I used to when I lived in Spain, and it rarely ever happens. But I mention it to the Mother and lo and behold, she does them. When I mention them again three months later, she’s still diligently doing them.
It’s very important to not constantly compare oneself to other people
We all have different bodies. We have different skills and abilities and strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes though, I look at the Mother and instead of thinking ‘I hope I’m in as good a shape as you when I’m your age’, I think ‘why can’t I do that?’ as sometimes I’m the one on my knees in a plank arriving to it late and leaving it early, while she’s holding a beautiful full plank, looking the picture of serenity.
But I am seriously grateful that she’s there, enthusiastically suggesting more videos to do and coming up with stretches and activities that I find myself doing, and therefore find myself becoming capable of.
At the age of 12, I couldn’t touch my toes
And I mean by some considerable distance. But under the Mother’s influence, I can sometimes get my hands flat on the floor. That’s with my legs straight. It’s amazing what you can change with a huge amount of persistence (or a mother like mine).
Having no travels to go on other than to the dentist or the supermarket, I am occasionally flicking back through the past, jealous of the sunshine that once pinched my skin. I have kept a journal for many years and I vary in what fascinates me enough to be worth writing about. On my walk in Portugal along the Rota Vicentina with the Grump for company, it’s clear that there was one thing on my mind: food.
These extracts are taken from my journal covering March 2017. They begin early into our trip when I still had faith that the Grump knew how to navigate. He’s an excellent walking partner as he’s always willing to carry more than 50% of the weight, is willing to walk at my slow and steady plod and tolerates me even when my feet hurt and I’m blaming him for everything going wrong. He’s also much more organized than I am.
Italics are my commentary.
Breakfast was very enjoyable
… bread, ham, tomato chutney and apricot jam. I presume I didn’t consume the jam and the chutney together. The coffee machine provided a little challenge but a kindly lady provided assistance and I had both an americano and an espresso, making up for the previous day’s lack of coffee. Today I would be more adept at the coffee machine, I have learnt a few tricks over the last four years. I would also be better prepared; how did I get myself into a situation where I didn’t have coffee for a whole day?
It is wonderful to be surrounded by green
We debate the benefits of being out here in the open in contrast to the grey city and its pollution. I bite my tongue and try to say: The environment which surrounds you is your own choice. Sometimes my tongue becomes quite sore. I eye-roll too. With age, you might have thought I’d grow more tolerant of the human tendency to ‘gruntle’ along rather than act. I haven’t.
The evening is recorded in food
Salad, bread, olives, bread, pate. Beef, rice, grilled pineapple, black beans and homemade vegetable crisps. But the account is written as a backwards glance the next day during a breakfast of a croissant and a half, coffee and orange juice. In the village, nobody seems to have realised that it is morning. The shops have not yet opened. Time wanders free, only occasionally called to attention by the chime of the bells in the church tower. Maybe we should have asked for toast. The lady sitting near us has toast and a latte or something similar. Although the croissants were brioche, not pastry. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a proper lunch in Rogil.
Rogil doesn’t fulfil all my desires
… a long, straight and uninspiring street. We bought bread, ham, fruit and a replacement packet of biscuits since I’d almost finished the packet I’d bought in Faro. No doubt this is a true use of the singular pronoun and it was I, not we, who ate all the biscuits. Normally I’m reasonably controlled about my diet, but when I’m walking I tend to simply eat. If pudding is on offer, chances are that I’ll want it.
The way out of Rogil continues along the irrigation channel and so we stepped up from the path into a crop of pine trees and sat ourselves down on a trunk of a fallen (or felled) tree to make and eat our sandwiches. We’d upped the quantity to three each which was probably a good thing seeing as how long it was before we got to the hostel.
From Rogil we walk to Aljezur
You might think that this meant that I ate nothing until I reached the hostel, but no. In Aljezur, I had a sweet potato and coconut roll. Somewhat like a jam roly-poly. And I drink coffee and we visit a supermarket. Then we took a walk up to the castle to admire the view before finally setting off to Arrifana at 4 pm.
At this point, it’s worth pausing because the map and the address for the evening’s accommodation didn’t all add up and things got a little stressful…
If I had been in a bookshop, I wouldn’t have bought this book. I might have picked it up off the shelf, but if I had looked at the language, and tried to understand any paragraph at random, I would have felt stupid and popped it straight back on the shelf.
As it was, I was looking for something by Alejo Carpentier in an online second-hand bookshop and typed in the name ‘Octavio Paz’ because I’d come across the name a few times and knew that he’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I knew he was a poet, but I wasn’t sure what else he’d written. I wanted to just check and see if there was anything cheap going that would give me a taste for his work and tell me if I would like to read more of it, after all, I was already making an order and one more would do no harm. On reflection, one couldn’t exactly describe the blurb as the most faithful depiction of what was to come – it suggested a history of humankind, and so I expected a history book.
Then again, having read the book, I still couldn’t write an accurate blurb
Furthermore, even though I have now read this book, I have no more idea whether or not I like his writing. I’m not even sure how to describe what the book was about. I had expected something about Mexico and instead I found myself reading about the contrast between Asian religions and Christianity. Mix this with some of Freud’s ideas and a surrealist infatuation, and you get a history of mankind which is quite unlike anything that I have ever come across before.
Sometimes, I felt completely lost, like he was trying to make a point, but I had lost the starting position and couldn’t quite step beyond my own perspective into the wider one he was offering. Like trying to walk on clouds. The language wasn’t exactly easy going. There were philosophical or historical references which I could make no connection with. What would make this book better, I concluded, would be a detailed glossary of the terms and individuals referenced in the book. A version heavy with footnotes could guide the modern ordinary reader through the jargon and possibly more accessible for the ordinary reader. But would the ordinary reader really want to read this?
Yet, something made me continue reading
I found the second half of the book much easier going than the first, although maybe that was because, by the time I was reading the final two essays, I was also investigating who exactly this Octavio Paz chap was.
I headed to the London Review of Books and searched through their archive for references to the poet. First, I came across a recent article (November 2019) which talked about the problems resulting from the fact that when they died, neither Octavio Paz nor his wife had a will or a clear descendant.
The article outlined the couple’s romance, from their meeting in India where Paz was stationed as the Mexican ambassador, until he left diplomatic service following the October 1968 massacre in Mexico City. Hundreds of protesting students were killed by soldiers and police. Paz and his wife first went to Cambridge, where he worked at the university, and then Mexico.
Knowing that he lived and worked in India and took interest in the cultures and religions of the region, gives a context to the writing of Conjunctions and Disjunctions.
I continued my research
Real isn’t real, an article by Michael Wood in July 2013, reviews the translation of The Poems of Octavio Paz edited and translated by Eliot Weinberger. This article shares some of Paz’s poetry in both languages, and it was interesting to get a taste of how clear his poetry reads in comparison to Conjunctions and Disjunctions. But mostly it was useful to comprehend the relationship Paz’s work has with the surrealist movement. Wood talks about how ‘the ghosts of literary otherness never quite go away’ and mentions how the unconscious and the dreamworld shape the poet’s work.
My reading helped me understand the context for the book but gave little illumination regarding the actual content. I find myself unable to describe quite what I read. There were sentences impossible to comprehend followed by lines which hit you and made you think.
The truth is that contemporary art has not given us an image of the body: this is a mission that we have turned over to couturiers and public-relations men. This is not a defect of today’s art, but of society.
Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz
Couturiers, for anyone like me who doesn’t use this word every day, are the people of the fashion industry who design and sell clothes, especially high-end women’s fashion.
Then there is the popularity of sports, which has created a confusion between vigor and beauty, physical skill and erotic wisdom.
Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz
And touching on the art of writing:
Tantric metaphors are not only intended to hide the real meaning of rites from intruders; they are also verbal manifestations of the universal analogy that is the basis of poetry. These texts are governed by the same psychological and artistic necessity that caused our Baroque poets to build a language of their own within the Spanish language, the same necessity that inspired the language of Joyce and the Surrealists: the conception of writing as the double of the cosmos.
Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz
So it’s a book which I wouldn’t have ordinarily read
And yet, somehow it has sunk its strange claws into me. It’s a different sort of read, one which I can’t entirely follow, but which feels like it stretches my brain a little in a way that is good for it. I wonder if The Labyrinth of Solitude and Other Writings, which is supposedly about Mexico, would be quite as challenging.
Conjunctions and Disjunctions, Octavio Paz, translated by Helen Lane, 1969
Real isn’t Real, Michael Wood, London Review of Books, 04 July 2013
On Octavio Paz and Marie-José Tramini, Homero Aridjis, translated by Chloe Aridjis, London Review of Books, 21 November 2019
I might drive the Father mad with all my constant talk about sitting up straight, elbows off the table and can I please have a cake fork? He’s doing remarkably well given the circumstances; I cannot be an easy person to live with. I will most likely become one of those elderly folks who, having seen things and done things, have stubbornly decided that they know best. Although, I figure if our biggest arguments are about the butter knife, maybe with all these months of confinement in these walls, we’re doing pretty well.
I guess most readers will agree with the Father that the butter knife is not an essential implement and its use does not make our lives measurably better. I accept that my preference for the old-fashioned method for avoiding crumbs and jam in the butter dish is unpopular. The Midget probably doesn’t get why we’d use a butter dish, and I’m guessing she would hold the majority view on the matter.
I am similarly obsessive about posture
It’s not that I have perfect posture, far from it, I have somewhat flat feet, am pigeon-toed, a little knocked knee-ed, have a lordotic tilt to my pelvis which exaggerates the curvature of my spine, in addition to its minor curve of scoliosis, oh and my head tilts to the left. In other words, I’m pretty normal for a human being. I’m just a human being who has been measured and advised and told I was doing it wrong, then further confused and unexpectedly educated. Most of the postural education came from my Chilean yoga teacher who instructed me how to stand, but a significant proportion has come from the Mother who is nearly as obsessive as me.
I think that bad posture gives me migraines
The tension mounts in the back of my neck and shoulders and then bursts out in the form of pain in my forehead. Bad posture makes me feel tired. It’s a vicious loop, the more tired I am, the more I slouch and the more I slouch the more tired I feel. Bad posture feeds bad posture, ingraining it as habits, over-exerting some muscles while letting others get away with doing nothing and therefore cementing an in-balance.
I don’t know at what point I really understood that so much sitting down, desk work and a sedentary lifestyle was bad for my body and its posture. It’s knowledge I assume I have known forever, although obviously this isn’t true. It’s now embedded in our modern societies collective knowledge bank. We know things are bad for us and do them anyway because it’s what everyone does and doing differently would be hard work. Although I knew it and I complained occasionally about it, I did very little about it.
I sit down to write; not writing isn’t an option
Plus, when I was working part-time teaching, I was prancing about classrooms with occasional histrionic re-enaction of Guy Fawkes falling off the gallows which kept me moving. Already conscious of how I stood and making an effort to not slouch so much, I vainly felt my posture to be better than the average anyway.
The pandemic happened
I returned to my desk, hunched my shoulders and slumped. Sometime in the autumn, however, I had a bit of an awakening. One evening, the Father, wanting to talk about video quality, pulled up a remastered video of a streetcar trundling along the main street in San Francisco, filmed in 1906. I was surprised at the incredible amount of advertising along the street, in my imagination such advertising shouldn’t have existed in such ancient times, but I had been to Herculaneum and there you can see the evidence of old Roman advertisements painted on the walls, so I should have known better.
Mostly though, I stared at how people stood
They stood so straight that they looked like they had splints on their spines. I hadn’t known that a crowd could all be so upright, that people could run so elegantly and dart so graciously across the road between the horses and the trams.
Today my posture may be considered reasonable but take me back a hundred years, and they’d think I had some serious medical issues. I realized, in thinking about what my posture should be, I was comparing myself to the wrong groups of people. Of course, mine although not exactly an ‘unpopular opinion’ is an opinion that many people take decisive action on. They may supplement their day with a few stretches or take an occasional call while standing up instead of sitting down at their desk, but these are minor adjustments with minor impact.
A little is better than nothing.
Which takes me onto Paulo Coelho’s Like the Flowing River
Reading this book, I was amused to find an essay entitled On Elegance which spoke straight to me and my cake-fork-loving, posture-obsessive self.
Elegance is usually confused with superficiality and fashion. That is a grave mistake. Human beings should be elegant in their actions and their posture, because the word is synonymous with good taste, graciousness, balance and harmony.
Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River
Does moving in an elegant fashion not make you feel better about yourself and your body?
And please do not confuse it with arrogance or snobbery. Elegance is the right posture to make our every gesture perfect, our steps firm, and to give due respect to our fellow men and women.
Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River
I think it comes down to respect and dignity
How you carry yourself matters. My posture is a symbol of my self-respect and my sense of inner dignity. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I value it so dearly, I have had to work hard to repair the relationship between my mind and my body. Fundamentally, it’s what all the therapy came down to… Was I caring for my body? Was I showing myself respect? With all I’ve learnt, I’m led to believe that if you stand up straight and move with grace then it’s much easier for all those difficult things like setting boundaries and staying true to yourself to fall into place.
This text was written and edited at a standing desk.
I can see why Paulo Coelho might be an author that people either rate one star or five. He is, perhaps, a bit didactic. He comes across as knowing that he knows things. That’s all very fine, you might think, for someone as ‘enlightened’ as Coelho, but what about me. He regurgitates ideas which strike one at once as both simple and complex: in that they strike one as being simple, his voice might hit as a little patronizing; in that they are complex, he is frustratingly vague about their application. His language is neither flowery nor poetic, or if it is poetic it’s a modern style made up of everyday words that reads something like a shopping list. If this leads to many harsh criticisms (and you can find many criticisms of his work online) then so be it. The world needs variety. And, when you’re on your commute or in the family living room where nobody manages to remain quiet for more than five minutes this plain accessible text is readable.
As to whether his claim to all this wise knowledge is true, a brief scan through the biographical section at the back suggests that much of it was earned first-hand through that old-fashioned form of education: suffering.
His book, Like the Flowing River, is a collection of anecdotes and thoughts, like feel-good slogans scribbled on post-it notes and stuck on the bathroom mirror but with a little more context. For me, I felt a lot of it was too short and could have been further developed. There’s a risk that if you tell things too straight the reader doesn’t pause to think and reflect but skips from one section straight to the next.
Sometimes though a section sets off a spark
In one anecdote, the author meets a happy lady and asks her the secret to her joy.
“I have a magic calendar. If you like, I can show it to you.”
The following day, I went to her house.
The woman invites the author back to her house and shows him a calendar filled with good things that happened on the same date of previous years.
“Right, today is the day they discovered a vaccine against polio,” she said. “We must celebrate that, because life is beautiful.”
Paulo Coelho, Like the Flowing River
Within my family, this solved the problem we had to do with our advent calendar. Our calendar is one of those with little pockets which you fill and then day-by-day open throughout advent. The problem was that we hadn’t got anything to put in the pockets. Serendipity intervened and just in time I realized that what we could do was place little notes in each pocket, making our own ‘magic calendar’.
I took the odd dates, the mother the even ones, and we went off to find feel-good facts. As we counted down advent each day, at lunchtime, we unrolled the scraps of paper and read out something splendid about the world.
Small talk: the poor thing’s got a poor reputation despite being a vital part of our social dynamics. It gets classified along with gossip which doesn’t do it much good. After all, small talk doesn’t necessarily mean unkind whispers behind someone else’s back, nor even the more well-intentioned rather preachy words said because we care, but because we also have a sense of self-righteousness, and well… she did bring it on herself, didn’t she? If only she hadn’t…
A distinction must be made.
I’m not sure gossip adds value to our lives, but I’m pretty sure small talk is essential to them. Conversations typically begin with small talk.
If you don’t believe me, imagine this situation. You’re the language assistant in a big university, who started work a few weeks into the term. It’s your second day of work. You enter the staff room uncertain of where to sit. Nobody looks up at you because people are correcting their students’ assignments, preparing their classes or deep in conversations which you feel to listen to would be to infringe on their privacy.
Someone looks up, says hello, asks how you are
If you can’t do small talk, if you can’t navigate the social signals which are so often conveyed by these seemingly meaningless words, you don’t get as far as the more meaningful conversation that we all need to feel properly listened to.
Here’s an experiment
Think of a few different people you know and consider who among these people seem the most comfortable around strangers. Now when you meet* each of these people, note how long it takes before they ask a direct small talk question about you and your life. Do they comment on the weather or some common knowledge? Maybe it’s something simple like how are your parents/children, or what are you doing for the holidays. It’s a ‘safe’ question with no particular transactional purpose.
People who don’t find social interaction all that easy often take a long time to ask these questions and when they do ask these questions feel hellishly awkward about doing so, like they’re aware they’ve missed the beat of the conversation where the question might normally be asked and now don’t quite know how to the rescue the situation. Sometimes they suddenly become aware that they’ve been conducting a monologue for a while and then don’t know how to rebalance the conversation. These same people might love silence within their intimate relationships, but find it excruciating elsewhere. They may spend the conversation thinking about themselves either because they’re feeling a tad awkward or they’re busy answering the other person’s questions and focusing on what to say next.
Small talk, can be really hard but without it, how do we go from meeting for the first time to becoming friends?
I think that sometimes we develop idiosyncratic small talk repertoires
Being English, mine involves the weather. One student, after asking me three times a week at the beginning of each class, ‘how are you?’ commented: When I ask how you are, you always reply by telling me what the weather is. Until that point, I hadn’t realized that I use the weather as a technique for moving the conversation on.
“How are you?”
“I’m okay, how are you?”
“Fine, but it’s been raining all day and the sky is so grey.”
Some people can manage this small talk business with ease, but then get stuck in it
If I’m spending an hour on the phone to someone, I’d rather have a conversation that branches into the emotional, the ethical dilemmas, the political, scientific, historical causes and consequences. I love discussing society as a concept because I struggle to understand it. I want to understand your discomfort with your own ideologies because I’m learning to critique my own. And I want the conversation where you wrestle with your own beliefs because it forces me to wrestle with mine. And, thanks to my lifestyle and my work, I get the opportunity to have lots of such conversations.
But occasionally someone mentions to me how such a conversation can be difficult to get into. They become fed up with small talk or talking about meaningless matters because they seem to go on and on in a circle. They don’t want to offend (small talk is entirely about social bonding) but their intellects aren’t being stimulated. Then they get bored and don’t know how to take the conversation forward.
I have found this happening to me more often during lockdown because there is such monotony to the day and so little that is new. There is only so much conversation about grammar my parents can stomach.
I can feel it happen sometimes in class
If I have a new, intermediate level student then there is a pause somewhere in the second or third conversation class where we have exhausted the small talk that they are comfortable with, and rather than skim across a subject we need to switch to going deeper into a subject. It’s the point where I switch to trying to entice the student to tell me a story. Tell me more? But why? How come? Maybe a few classes later, we might hit on something that they deeply care about. A sense of emotion colours their stories. Their grammar slips, and they might physically seem to shake off the bounds of grammar because they’re determined now to make their point or tell their story. They lean forward and repeat phrases, this is the point that the student becomes the teacher. What we’re talking about is more important to them than the English. My job is to subtly prompt the correct grammar and supplement their vocabulary as is needed without upsetting their flow of thought. It’s a challenge I adore.
In a class, I have the power to push for more depth because I’m the teacher, and they have the power to say no because they’re paying. In a purely social environment, it can be trickier. When you’ve landed in a different culture and don’t have a huge amount of background knowledge, it can be terrifying knowing whether you can ask a question or not. You may make assumptions which then cause you embarrassment – like making a joke about marriage to the couple you’re living with… who it turns out might have two children and religious parents, but who aren’t themselves married. Or you might not dare make any assumptions whatsoever because you’re frightened of putting your foot in it. That said, in a foreign culture, you’re also afforded a tad more forgiveness when you get it wrong.
Small talk builds the relationship
But at some point, you need to ask the question that takes things a little deeper. On this topic, a friend of mine recently defined deep as having an emotional aspect. This makes it a dangerous step. Take for example the middle-aged man who wants to criticize feminism without causing offence, or the person who wants to make the connection between social inequality and race and just as they are about to state something about skin tones realizes, they don’t know the ‘right’ words.
It’s me, every time I open my mouth on the subject of colonialism. It’s the question of the impact of scientific inquiry and tourism in the area where a total solar eclipse is visible, an area which happens to be the indigenous heartland and the indigenous peoples believe fiercely that such a wonder represents a time for deep silence.
Sometimes, the beginning of this unravelling is to show my confusion and discomfort. I want to say that I don’t understand, but I’m trying to. It’s to position myself as curious, open-minded and non-judgemental. Nobody is going to tell me anything if they don’t feel both safe and listened to.
“I can see that a three-pence rise in a metro fare is really important to people here, but I don’t get why.”
“Because it’s not about three pence, it’s about a history of aggressive social inequality…”
If you don’t dare ask the hard questions, you don’t get to see beneath the surface.
Magic’s just science that we don’t understand yet.
Arthur C. Clark
Alejo Carpentier is described, in The Penguin History of Latin America, as one of the originators of the literary genre magic realism, although for him, it was less of the magic and more of the marvellous. The novel of his which I’ve recently finished, The lost steps, is chock-a-block full of the marvellous. Although it doesn’t exactly have magical happenings infiltrating its reality, the perception of the characters is swayed by a sense of the magical spirit originating in indigenous culture. As the protagonist goes from the hustle and bustle of his North American city routine to the Latin American jungle, he feels like he’s travelling backwards through time. The author explores the contrast of pace, the emphasis of the moment, and plays with the history of humankind. He’s writing from experience. The dramatic but often florid descriptions of jungle fauna come straight from the author’s own journeys in the Venezuelan wilderness, up the Orinoco river.
While living in Paris, two novelists who had previously written on nativist themes, the Guatemalan Miguel Angel Asturias and the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, came into contact with surrealism and saw how the use of primitive myths and beliefs could evoke a sense of the marvellous in fiction while also serving to represent the heterogeneous cultural reality of Latin America.
The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson (pg 542)
Magical Realism is a genre I initially associated with Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende and, at the other side of the world, Haruki Murakami. It’s not fantasy, because it keeps a tight grip on reality, but nor is it literary realism – it’s often coarse realism is softened with magic. I want to say that Gabriel García Márquez met Alejo Carpentier in Cuba, but I gained this belief through listening to Solitude and Company: The Life of Gabriel García Márquez Told with Help from His Friends, Family, Fans, Arguers, Fellow Pranksters, Drunks, and a Few Respectable Souls by Silvana Paternostro and because it’s an audiobook I can’t locate the reference.
I hadn’t considered surrealism’s impact on literature before
It’s interesting to reflect upon The lost steps from the perception of surrealism because surrealism has at its heart an exploration of the unconscious and a desire to unite the unconscious with the conscious. In a European sense, perhaps this primarily focuses on the dream world versus the world of the awake. You can imagine Picasso and Dalí at this point. It’s heavily influenced by Freud. Yet, moving to the society of the indigenous peoples of Venezuela and other similar places, where an attitude of let us measure it, analyse it and give it a label has a lesser grip, you can see the difference between conscious and unconscious might not be so black and white. The influence of earth on man (and the respect of earth by man) leaves room for everyday marvels, even with both eyes open and the mind awake. I was reminded of meeting an indigenous lady in the Atacama Desert who read the oncoming storm painted in the skies and marvelled at how we couldn’t.
I believe in the future resolution of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.
Carpentier… presented the pursuit of a unified consciousness as a problem. … His entire work, therefore, represents a search for a point of synthesis between reason and instinct, matter and spirit.
The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson (pg 545)
In the book we slip between the analytical and the instinctual, time trundles backwards, the head argues, the heart pulls, yet at the end of the novel, the protagonist who has floundered within his own uncertainty has to face that his reality is disjoint from the marvellous journey he’s experienced. He isn’t Odysseus. He is, whether he accepts it or not, of his own time and culture.
It was as though I had been hit over the head. My skin felt as though a thousand cold needles were coming through it. With an immense effort I reached for the bottle, and the touch of it seemed to burn me. I slowly filled my glass, poured the liquor into a throat that could no longer swallow, and broke into an agonizing cough. When I recovered my breath, I looked at myself in a mirror, black with fly specks, in the rear of the room, and what I saw was a body sitting at a table, looking hollow, empty. I was not sure that it would move and walk if I ordered it too. But the being that moaned within me, lacerated, flayed, its wounds filled with salt, finally dragged itself to my throat, and I began a stuttering protest. … the Greek looked at me in surprise that turned to pity.
The lost steps, Alejo Carpentier (pg 276)
The language also played the same game
I read it in English, and my gut feeling was that the translation was rather Latin focused, or perhaps merely enthusiastically literary, but that at times, a shuffle from the Latin to the Germanic might have brought some of the descriptions down from the treetops and made it easier to follow. The dense descriptions were solidly from the protagonist’s mouth, rather than some omniscient narrator, and so made him harder to empathize with. There were many words I skipped, often adjectives or specific references to some Venezuelan fauna or flora… such as lepiosiren (which is a South American lungfish – a fish with lungs). Lepiosiren perhaps sounds more fittingly Homeric; the novel plays a game of cat and mouse with the Odyssey, assuming its reader is well acquainted with the classical text.
However, I think it’s worth acknowledging the book’s translator
Illinois-born Harriet de Onís was the sort of woman who accepted, and could afford to accept, being paid in literature. They gave her books. She translated out of love, and belief in, the importance of Latin American literature. She was lucky in that she could afford to do so. We are lucky that had such a compulsion.
The novel is furthermore weighed down by musical jargon
Carpentier’s protagonist is a pianist, like Carpentier himself, and left me with no doubt that if the writing life didn’t quite work out for him, Carpentier could have busied himself teaching music theory. He clearly knew it. With its reference to music theory jargon, the text reminded me of Jan Morris’ Spain, which I had struggled with due to the heavy littering of architectural terms. I normally mark vocabulary that I don’t know, but in this case, there was no point underlining the words I didn’t know, because, like the construction of catholic churches, music theory makes no sense to me. I don’t understand the dictionary definitions.
That said, if you are a lover of music theory, this might be a good book for you. There must be something interesting about all those chapters dedicated to writing about music which I was much too ignorant to appreciate. If I were taking a stab at it, I’d say that I think Carpentier contrasts modern attitudes to technical composition with the indigenous connection to nature through sound, and mocks the naïve way in which modern society, in labelling indigenous customs, fails to comprehend them.
Moving onto Carpentier’s ‘lost’ protagonist
Lost is an adjective which fits. He is, undoubtedly, male character number one: the self-centred soul who falls into a deep infatuation with a woman he doesn’t know how to have an honest conversation with, generally spends most of his time being rude to the people around him, and who could have saved himself a lot of bother by at any point in the novel thinking of anyone but himself. He’s deeply intellectual, has a unique creative gift and yet is (or feels himself to be) deeply misunderstood. Likewise, he’s the same character as Julio Cortázar’s jazz-loving Horacio Olivera in Hopscotch (Rayuela) or, if my memory serves me correctly, William Stoner in John Williams’ Stoner. Women fall for him because he is aloof and mysterious; he makes a terrible partner and won’t wash the dishes because he is too busy having an existential crisis.
I don’t dislike this type of character on principle, but I do feel that he ought to occasionally feel embarrassed or nervous and that sometimes the writer would convey a more believable character by being willing to step closer to some of those tricky to write emotions. In this case though, I did dislike the actual protagonist in the novel because he is the exemplar of that insidious machismo attitude that is so grating to the modern woman.
Overall, it’s a book I’m glad to have read
It was worth the slow start and occasionally confusing language. Despite its extensive descriptions, it managed to maintain a pace which made it quite a quick read, and although I’m not going to be immediately hunting out another book by the author, I’m not averse to reading one. It did however prompt me to reflect on the impossibility of letting go of your own time and culture and how interactions between cultures always have to be a compromise. In my own life, acknowledging this is essential.
The lost steps, Alejo Carpentier (1953)
The Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson, revised edition (2009)
I heard the kettle begin to boil and as I battered my way into consciousness tried to recall where I was, somewhere south of Santiago I thought, but the letters of the name of the town were shuffling around in my mind and I couldn’t focus on the word. I heard the Mother, I knew it was the Mother, and I tried to connect the dots… I struggled, the name of the town seemed important somehow and my mum was there.
What was the Mother doing there?
Surprised, I realized that I was in my parents’ house, which is not south of Santiago in Chile, but in Yorkshire in England. I remembered it was winter. How had I forgotten? Maybe the sun was shining in my dreams. It’s not unusual for me to wake up and not immediately know which city I’m in. But now? Here? I am not just passing through; I’ve been here since May. The kettle finished its boil and I fell back asleep, dreaming now of cheese and pickle sandwiches.
This time last year it was hot
I wandered the streets of Santiago hiding in the shade during the midday heat and always carrying my flask filled with cold water. Last year was a year of two summers, the first was wondrous, the second a constant downpour. Bless England, it knows how to do wet. This year, if I’m lucky, will be a year of two winters, or perhaps I will winter it out here and move into the land of eternal spring. It’s now out of my control.
Some years ago, I read Victor Frankl’s book on surviving the holocaust, Man’s Search for Meaning, and it’s been that book which has frequently popped into my mind as lockdowns are announced, reduced, increased, reduced again. There is good news and bad news, and both hope and fear, but attaching ourselves too strongly to any date or announcement doesn’t serve us well. A new quarantine is announced but we mustn’t despair. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl, who was a psychologist observed that the people who started out positively with the belief that things would be over, and they’d be freed within a matter of months, before Christmas, invariably were less likely to survive. Once Christmas had come and gone, their resilience crumbled.
We just have to hold out until…
The people who, however, had something or someone external to themselves to live for were much more resilient. I have to go back to Chile because I’ve left my coffee pot there. I have to go back to Chile because I owe a friend a hug. I have to go back to Chile because I’m owed a drink. It seems it’s easier to be resilient for a purpose beyond yourself, and when monotony takes hold, where we might not be sure of what day of the week we’re on, having that external purpose matters even more.
For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as a by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl
You have to let it happen, but you can’t just expect it to happen
When I was in Germany in the autumn, my dear friend, the Glass-blower, suggested that each day we ought to do something for our future selves. This could be something as simple as saving a little money for a rainy day* or it could be an act of studying or learning something that would better equip us to take advantage of future opportunities. A lot of my motivation for doing yoga comes from my desire to have a physically capable body at the point in the future when I can make use of it. Maybe I’m going nowhere today, but on some tomorrow I want to go hiking in some hills and smell the nature all around me.
Today, therefore, I roll out my yoga mat and put the time in
A lot of resilience I think comes from switching the mind from thinking about the ‘done’ to thinking about the ‘doing’. What am I doing today to look after myself? What am I doing to protect myself? What am I doing to grow? It’s not a counting game. There can be no comparison with either yourself or another individual. Measurement is irrelevant because it’s all about how you think and how you perceive your situation. Are you doing what you need to be doing?
The sun may be shining in my dreams, and elsewhere it may be summer, but here it’s winter and time to get up and have breakfast. The Mother’s making porridge.
* In a country where almost every day is rainy, isn’t this a stupid idiom?
Don’t ever pray for love and health, Mother said. Or money. If G-d hears what you really want he will not give it to you. Guaranteed. When my father left my mother said, get down on your knees and pray for spoons.
Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement
Say a prayer for spoons…
This is a book about young girls being stolen from their families by drug cartels and then sold on to the highest bidder. It’s not a true story, in the individual sense, but it’s based on true stories. These girls, like Paula in the book, really do exist. They are systematically kidnapped, but they never come back. They are voiceless.
After reading the book, I read in an interview a line where Jennifer Clement states, “I know if cars were being stolen there would be greater outrage.” She points out how single dramatic events hit the news, but the everyday silent plight of these women fails to gain attention. These girls come from poor, vulnerable communities with limited educational resources and may only speak their indigenous language, not Spanish. Clement has decided to speak on their behalf, through a young Mexican girl with the unlikely name of Ladydi (Lady Di).
Say a prayer for ladders…
I bought the book because I’m making an effort to read more by Latin American women, but then I left it on the bookshelf for a while as its content seemed rather frightening. I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a novel, even a 222-page short novel, about systematic sex-abuse. It seemed unlikely to be a comfortable read and I doubted that it would make me laugh. On the laughter part, I was wrong.
Say a prayer for punctuation…
The book is the work of Jennifer Clement whose life has been split over the two sides of that troublesome border of Mexico’s north. Her book is set entirely in Mexico where she lives, but was written in English with an English sense of style. This is noticeable as the paragraphs and sentences are super short. It stands in contrast to the other books I’ve been reading by Latin American authors. Paragraphing is out of fashion in Latin America.
However, like many Latin American authors, Clement doesn’t use quotation marks to frame speech. Previously, if you’d asked me if quotation marks were important, I’d have said yes. However, since reading a few books without them, I’ve come to think of them as a stylistic choice. Your pedants might complain, but it doesn’t interrupt the flow. You seem to know when someone is speaking.
Based on my wider reading and a conversation with a fellow book lover, it seems that these punctuational deviations stem from the pen of James Joyce. Read a little around the topic of Latin American literature and you’ll stumble over Ulysses.
Say a prayer for mockingbirds…
Prayers for the Stolen reminded me of reading To Kill A Mockingbird in school. Ladydi reminded me of Scout and I found myself reflecting on the choice of a child protagonist. How do you persuade the reader that the narrator is a child, without the writing itself being simplistic? Clement does this particularly well. Her sentences are often simply structured, and you can read a few paragraphs without coming to a comma, not because she’s missing out commas, but because her structures don’t require them. She’s generous with the simple words like ‘and’ and ‘but’ and so creates an easy flowing text, but with surprising quirks that keep you alert. Ladydi’s voice is naive and uneducated, but never boring: child-like, but never childish.
The very next morning Julio, the gardener, walked through the front door and I fell in love.
He walked right into my body.
He climbed up my ribs and into me. I thought to myself, Say a prayer for ladders.
I wanted to smell his neck and place my mouth on his mouth and taste him and hold him. I wanted to smell the smell of garden and grass and palm tree, smell of rose and leaf and lemon flower. I fell in love with the gardener and his name was Julio.
Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement
Say a prayer for shelves…
You know instinctively that Clement reads and writes poetry. This childlike voice of Ladydi reminded me of The God of Small Things and how Arundhati Roy also creates the innocence of childhood linguistics with playful rewriting of the dictionary and a throwaway tumbling of images, metaphors crammed into adjectives.
Though you couldn’t see the river from the house anymore, like a seashell always has a sea-sense, the Ayemenem house still had a river-sense.
A rushing, rolling, fishswimming sense.
The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
Because I loved Julio, the cars and trucks outside on the street sounded like rivers. … Cement walls became mirrors. My small ugly hands turned into starfish.
Prayers for the Stolen, Jennifer Clement
And it’s this innocence, this flavour of pictures, this childlike perspective which makes the book so readable. In an interview, Clement said:
Even in doing the research for Prayers for the Stolen, I was also always looking for the poetic experience and how the divine coexists with the profane or beauty with ugliness. I also wanted the novel to have enchantment.
And she succeeded.
Say a prayer for magazines
Before writing the book, Clement spent a decade researching. She interviewed women in hiding: the wives, daughters and girlfriends of drugs traffickers. And she interviewed women from Mexico City’s Santa Martha Acatitla Prison during art therapy sessions. The inmates used collage as a way of giving voice to their own stories – a scene enacted towards the end of the novel.
So, although I picked it off my shelf, out of curiosity – I’d been thinking about punctuation – I must have forgotten my intention… I sat down on the bed below my shelf and kept reading until I was halfway through. It was the style that kept me there, the rhythm of Ladydi’s tale flowed and despite the context, I didn’t find myself recoiling and turning away (as I had in Laura Restrepo’s Delirium a few weeks earlier).
Pray for the stolen…
I loved how Jennifer Clement reaches out her gentle hands in a gesture of humanity to sections of society typically treated so inhumanely. Her characters weren’t playing at being likeable, some were drug traffickers or murders, some were painfully naive and others criminally deluded, and yet… although they’d all broken the law, you couldn’t help but find your heart aching for them.
It’s a true skill, I think, to maintain such tenderness.