European memories

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When I was a child, the dining room table at my home in Barcelona was divided into two opposing bands:

The English side, led by my grandmother —whose greatest pride was, as a student in England, to have attended the Jubilee of Queen Victoria— and the French one, my father’s. He could have commanded other sides but he elected the French one because French was his first language, the one in which he had been raised and in which he spoke to us at times, although he wasn’t French in the sense of having a French passport. I suspect that he also chose this side, above all, for that healthy and immemorial pleasure of contradicting one’s mother-in-law.

And I chose that side not only because I liked my father more than my grandmother —he was a bon vivant and a traveler, and my grandmother was prey to all the Victorian superstitions— but because my brother and rival was on the English side. This was because they sent him to a school in England, while I stayed in Barcelona studying at the french school.

In any case I stayed home because I had a very weak throat and would not have been able to resist the rigors of a boarding school, or at least that’s what my mother claimed. I recall this language thing because it seems the most graphic way of reflecting a world that has disappeared today, and nevertheless it’s the world I come from…

My parents, for example, refused to have a television, and the most immediate consequence was that my childhood began with a boredom that today would be inconceivable. The word boredom is one of our great taboos: we hide it away almost as much as we hide our dead or our good manners. And yet without boredom, fantasy is impossible, and without fantasy there can be no imagination and without imagination reading is impossible. In other words, it was literature that saved me from the tedium of a chronical sore throat and from the emptiness of a world without television.

The absence of television was the most decisive factor in my young life, and allowed me to make my childhood, in that slow provincial Barcelona of the 1950s, into something interesting; without that background, I obviously wouldn’t be here today.

It wasn’t easy. Because, contrary to what might be thought, fantasy demands a certain effort. Something we might call dream engineering, so as to be able to fill the empty spaces with the most real things in the world, the imaginary ones. But access to reading and literature didn’t come easy: the child was thrown into the pool, like in the art of swimming, and it was hoped that he wouldn’t drown.

Such a severe method had nothing to do with family sides, but the struggle was nevertheless fierce and no holds were barred. The same confidence was held in Oliver Twist as in Don Quixotteor Pinoccio, and also in Les Miserables and War and Peace. And in Tintin. I know it’s not normal to mention Tintin in a supposedly serious meeting of writers, but I wouldn’t be honest —or serious— if I didn’t recognize my debt to Prince Valiant, the best traveled of the Knights of the Round Table, in his magnificent comic book version drawn by the canadian Hal Foster, and to Tintin, who, it will be recalled, was a globetrotting journalist —although we still don’t know what exactly he wrote about.

It’s also a living debt. Because when I was eleven years old my grandmother died, which had two effects: it marked the beginning of my family’s ruin, and we left Barcelona. And as a result I strengthened my character as an exile and a traveler.

We decided on that trip thanks to my father. One day the question came up, after lunch, and he proposed we go live in Madrid. “No way,” said my mother, who feared the night life in that city, my father’s birthplace.

“Madrid or Brussels,” he widened his offer.

“Barcelona or Bogotá,” my mother replied.

And so it was that, at the age of eleven, I got on a ship, not to return to Colombia, the country of my mother and where I was born, to leave very early, but to begin a literary life.

In the first place because of the trip, since literature and travel are the same thing, as I have come to understand. As long as the trip takes us to a place that’s really different —an other words if it’s an adventure— and if what we leave behind fills us with nostalgia. Almost the same thing as literature.

And that’s what happened in my case. And not because of the lishes of dangers in Colombia but because it really was a different country: For an endless number of reasons that would require abook —as is clear in some of my novels— but especially because of the space -in the Americas the sky is higher and longer- and because of the experience of freedom, which is more intense there.

I recognized those values right away because in a way they were already part of my language:space; freedom. There were other values I didn’t recognize. But that’s what adventure means, doesn’t it? In that we can’t recognize things?

On the afternoon I arrived, for example, I was walking through the garden of a large hotel with an Italian girl whom I had met on the ship, when suddenly, shouting, she quickly took off her clothes and stood there in her underwear. And from her dress on the ground there emerged an inoffensive baby iguana, more frightened than her, that had fallen from a tree we had just walked under. There had been nothing, in my extensive readings to prepare me for something like that.

Or anything like that intense melancholy I felt upon arriving in Bogotá, an eagle’s nest almost three thousand meters which Dostoyevsky calls it somewhere the most distant point on earth. Is it? Naturally, the Bogotá natives think it’s the center of the world. Maybe they don’t understand that, to Europeans, the light in the Andes creates disturbing, tragic effects. They also are not very much aware that the expressions on the faces of idle people in the bustling center of the city have little to do with the glances of the petty thieves of Dickens or the rascals of Quevedo, or those in films from Hollywood, which was already colonizing the world. Neither did those glances of inequality and rancor have to do with the quiet Spain at that time, although I now know that the impression of calmness came from the fact that in Colombia, in spite of everything, there was a certain freedom in those eyes, whereas in Spain there wasn’t. In Spain, dissident eyes were dead, had been obliged to leave, or were on vacation because money had begun to arrive from the sale of the Spanish coast, which was then still a paradise.

And the same thing happened in my first political arguments. They weren’t so much about the inequality and injustice that could be seen in the street, which is where politics is born. Or the Cuban Revolution that was then beginning in a country located right in front of Colombia. Or the death of Ché Guevara a few years later, in another country. No: my first political arguments were about the arguments then under way on the other side of the Atlantic between Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus about the way in which intellectuals should be committed to their times. And also about the Revolution of May of 68, which essentially failed because of a lack of clientele: the youngsters who roamed the streets of the Quartier Latin didn’t have enough proletarian masses to save. We in Colombia did but we didn’t go into the street, occupied as we were in following european discussions.

As can be seen, I’m talking about drama: tragic light, unsettling characters and the remote causes of a plot that, in spite of developing right before our eyes, we still didn’t understand. Paradoxically, we understood it all through works that first seemed enigmatic, such as Waiting For Godot, or other works by Ionesco, which we staged at school. And in some way or another —like the prisoners at Alcatraz, who are said to be the first to have understood that enigmatic work— in one way or another we knew that it spoke of us in that city at the end of the world, and we felt ourselves to be no less mysteriously close to an Irish author who lived in Paris in an apartment without furniture.

Not everything was this tragic. Earlier, Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island had made me understand certain dangerous mysteries in my chemistry class. And it was after listening to a passage from Memoires d’Outre Tombe by Chateaubriand, that I decided to be a writer. “I want to do that,” I said when hearing a passage in which the author spoke of me, except that he did so almost two centuries earlier from a castle in Normandy.

Only Conrad, along with some Latin American authors, like José Eustaquio Rivera, provided me with the language to speak about nature in Latin America —nature that makes European nature seems like a domestic garden. And only Saint-Exupéry gave me the keys to understanding the Andes, where I was living. It was Camus, with his golden cult to bodies lying in the sun on Algerian beaches, who provided a travel guide to the bodies that I was beginning to explore at dances: dancing in Colombia is like a second language or perhaps the first one. Specially with Constanza, a girl with whom I shared a passion: while we dance the cumbia, we spoke about Le Grand Meaulnes or Jean Christophe.

Because of these stories and colors, and hundreds of others, I really wonder what people mean when they talk about ‘European’ or ‘Spanish’ or ‘Latin American’ or ‘woman’ literature, or any of the other many small boxes that serve only to maintain a little longer those nationalist industries of which political correctness is only one kind. The nationalist industry, the business of identity, is by far the biggest in history of mankind.

In the case of European literature, making these distinctions is specially difficult, and I don’t know very well where the process ends. Does it perhaps end at the door of the Argentine writer Cortázar, who would be the most European of writers were it not for the fact that this position is already occupied by Borges?

I once attended a meeting in Beijin and, trough my thick ignorance of chinese, I observed that the oriental authors constantly refered to a colleague named Shi Kes Pir. It was Shakespeare, of course, who was considered by them as a chinese author. And you know what? It worked. As we don’t know very well Shakespeare’s origins, maybe he was. A chinese author, I mean.


Amsterdad, october 2006