On China and other niceties

Epictetus in the garden: Hay Festival 2020

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At the Hay Festival in Segovia 2020: Aurora Luque, winner of the XXXII Loewe Poetry Award 2019, The Ambassador of the Neederlands, The Ambassador of Portugal, The Ambassador of Austria and the Portuguese Tourism Office Director recited poetry at El Jardín del Romeral.

Juan Carlos Galindo of El País opens his coverage of the 2020 Hay Festival Segovia (Una arcadia cultural en el corazón de la pandemia) recalling that the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus said that what causes suffering in life it is not so much what happens to us but what we say about what happens to us.

Or, as the Spanish theologian and success writer Pablo d’Ors might say, this year’s event, staged against all the odds, amid uncomfortable but necessary hygiene, is not so much about welfare, but well-being.

For our well-being, the instincts of the body and the desires of the mind must be satisfied, as well as the longings of the soul. After all, longing is what all culture, all poetry, addresses.

As we do every year during the Hay Festival, we’ve addressed those longings, telling stories and reciting poetry in the Jardín del Romeral, not so much in tongues, but certainly in several languages, and not just with the invitees who were on the program (Maria Vale Portuguese Tourism Office Director, Joao Mira-Gomes  Ambassador of Portugal, Jan Versteeg Ambassador of the Neederlands, Christian Ebner Ambassador of Austria), but with impromptu guests I like to take the liberty of joining us, who this year included Aurora Luque, winner of the XXXII Loewe Poetry Award 2019, Amanda Kelly, a specialist in art communication, Dutch poet Bärbel Geijsen and Raphael Minder, The New York Times’ correspondent for Spain and Portugal.

Epictetus is recorded as saying in The Discourses that the rational animal is only unbearable for the irrational… Each of us understands in our own way what is rational and irrational, as happens with good and bad and useful and useless.

But reality is contradictory. So much depends on how we talk about reality, our distance from it, and what it tells us. I’ll leave you with some videos and one of the poems I recited at the festival, Distance, from my collection The Geography of the Sea Urchin.

Distance

There is a point
at which pain and joy
are equidistant,
and beyond which,
mine, yours,
the spines,
hurt more than they bring joy.
There’s nothing sad about them.
There’s no pain in things.
It’s the gaze.
Keep your distance.

Journey to the Canary Islands – Juan Cruz Ruiz

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A casual encounter in Madrid’s Rafael Alberti bookshop with El País journalist and writer Juan Cruz leads to a conversation via Journey to the Canaries with Mercedes Pinto, Luis Buñuel, Lola Larumbe…

The Canarian Garoé tree was believed by some to be sacred, filled with water, it would cry for scorned lovers. Others believe the Teide bird to be the most beautiful of its kind, which nests inside the volcano of the same name, as black as the blackbird, so black that it is blue, while the song says that it is the second star on the right, the path that leads to the island that does not exist (L’isola che non c’è), just as it leads us to see that tree, and that bird, which has only flown in the verses of poets. Everything is magua, melancholy, the feeling of the islands in the magnificent Journey to the Canary Islands, a sentimental portrait of our islands that Juan Cruz wrote at the suggestion of the late Peter Mayer.

Today, a travel book seems anachronistic, almost dystopian. But a book of travels, or of something else, is the story of a horizon, of a hope, and tells of a way of seeing things. And as we travel through life, the question is always how we continue that journey, for which the story of other lives and other journeys, helps.  I understand then that we must seek hope to continue living, says Cruz, citing the Canarian poet José Luis Pernas.

I would never have imagined myself reading a book like this in late July. However, it seduced me, just like the Rafael Alberti bookstore in Madrid, where I went for my weekly hit of dopamine from Lola Larumbe. But instead, I ran into Juan Cruz, who had just arrived to sign books. An encounter between Canarians in the land of the Goths, far from the fish tank of the archipelago, aroused the camaraderie that all encounters do between outsiders who are far from home.

I told him that during lockdown I had met Lola Larumbe by chance one Saturday, out looking for tobacco, and seeing movement from within the closed bookstore, I knocked on the door, only to be politely told the shop was closed to customers. But when I told her that I simply wanted a book of poetry, whichever she thought best, she selected one, and since then I have gone back, to be there again, like the poem Volver from Eloy Sánchez Rosillo’s Confidencias, the book she initially chose.

-Well, I can recommend this book – from the only poet who made Vargas Llosa cry, offered Juan Cruz.

-No, thanks,” I said, ignoring the book he was showing me. I want something recommended by that lady over there. Lola Larumbe, whose name I still didn’t know at the time, had just appeared at the back of the bookstore. And amid the laughter, she asked me mine.

That day, from the many books that Cruz was due to sign, I chose Journey to the Canary Islands, over the course of which, he  explores what the islands are, and what they have been and inspired by. The reader is grateful he avoids the affectation of so many, if not all, of referring to Gabriel García Márquez as Gabo. That said, in balance, what’s missing among so many fine literary allusions are some quotes by women, such as Cruz’s prodigious fellow Canarian Mercedes Pinto Armas de la Rosa y Clós, whose novel, El (Him), was made into a film of the same name by Luis Buñuel in 1953. Thirty years earlier, during the dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera, she gave a lecture in Madrid entitled Divorce as a hygienic measure. She went into exile, as did Miguel de Unamuno, whom Cruz, along with Aldecoa, Humboldt, Breton, and so many others, does cite at every opportunity.

Pablo Neruda, who was deeply impressed by her, wrote the words below during her lifetime, and which were put on her tombstone after she died in 1976.

Mercedes Pinto lives in the wind of the storm.
With her heart facing the air.
Energetically alone. Urgently alive.
Sure of successes and invocations.
Fearful and kind in her tragic garment of light and flames.

In conclusion, I loved this Journey to the Canary Islands. As a travel book, it does exactly what Ariana Basciani says: a unique device, neither expensive, nor heavy, that does not require a suitcase or a passport, to take you to discover…the Canary Islands, or any of the places in the travel books that she reviews in Viajar por las ciudades: las otras formas de conocer y conocerse leyendo.

Slowly agitated

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Foto lentamente agitados

Slowly agitated by chance, As Slow As Possible by Kit Fang and  Agitación by Jorge Freire make a perfect mix in explaining why this world is so troubled (La Geografía del erizo).

If pressed, I would probably venture that chance was responsible for the recent appearance on my desk of two books, which while from different genres and perspectives, want the same thing: a slow and careful explanation of why this world is so troubled. This may not be the occasion to point out that nothing happens by chance (nihil fit casu in mundo), but nevertheless, that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

The first is As Slow As Possible, a collection of poems by the award-winning Hong Kong poet Kit Fan. I met Kit Fan online last month, at the IE Foundation’s Prizes in the Humanities, and his way of speaking immediately aroused my curiosity about his work.

The second is an essay entitled Agitación by Jorge Freire. Santander-based lawyer Pilar de la Hera, recommended the award-winning philosopher from Madrid last weekend. By the way, Pilar took part in Spain’s first post-lockdown case by videoconference, as The New York Times’ Raphael Minder writes in Spain’s Courts, Already Strained, Face Crisis as Lockdown Lifts.

When I say that both books want the same thing, I mean that they both want to provide a space for reflection in this runaway world, one in which we not only run incessantly, like hamsters in a wheel, but also forget that There was a time when we were not here, as one of his poems reminds us.

We would do well to remember the words of the Buddhist poet Hanshan, written 1200 years ago: we humans live in blinding dust, like insects in a bowl. All day w go around and around and never get out of the bowl (人生在塵蒙 恰似盆中蟲 終日行繞繞 不離其盆中).

Fan writes from his guts, slowly, driven by the fire in his heart, tempered by the power of his words and intellect. I was captivated by how As Slow As Possible brings together, slowly, steadily, personalities from Eastern and Western culture, ranging from Zurbarán to apocryphal haikus attributed to the enigmatic Chinese painter Fan Kuan (范寬, 960-1030), and on to Brueghel, Banksy, and Sancho Panza (the latter is ironically quoted in the poem Don Kowloon).

In contrast, Freire embarks on a frenetic race of quotes and references, illustrating how the epidemic of agitation, the disease of our era, not only swallows up our entire life thanks to the adrenaline we create (running, being Zen, vegan, rafting in Indonesia…), but also any kind of cultural product at our disposal. When we become agitated we move, but we don’t advance,” he argues. All this agitation seems rooted in our horror of the home. (La grande maladie de l’horreur du domicile diagnosed by Baudelaire).

In short, if, by chance you’ve taken the time to read this text, I can only hope that my words have been sufficient to lure you to explore these two magnificent books slowly and carefully.

The Geography of the sea urchin – The Distance

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I don’t remember exactly when I wrote La distancia. It must have been between March and June 2019.  Back then, not even the wise men had any idea what was coming. As Constantine Cavafy wrote (Σοφοι δε προσιόντων), the mystical clamor of approaching events was never heard.

I can’t help feeling that everything has taken on another meaning and that distances have grown longer.

 

la distancia - ilustracion

Illustrations by Miguel Panadero – The Distance

Romain Gary: A lust for life

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Few writers can claim to have led a life as intense as Romain Gary’s. Few writers can claim to have written under so many pseudonyms. A few writers can claim to have loved as much as he did. But no other writer can claim to have won the Goncourt Prize twice.

I’ve just finished reading The Life and Death of Émile Ajar, by and about one of my favorite writers, or should I say two of my favorite writers: Émile Ajar was one of Gary’s many aliases, which is how he managed to break the Goncourt Prize rule that it can’t be awarded to the same writer twice, after winning it first in 1956 with Roots of Heaven, and then again as Émile Ajar with Life Before Him in 1975.

Born in 1914, by his sixties, and with a distinguished literary career behind him, Romain Gary simply got tired of being himself, unhappy with the image the public and the intelligentsia had bestowed on him, and more specifically by the all-seeing, all-knowing Jean-Paul Sartre’s comment that it would take 30 years to find out whether Gary’s 1945 A European Education was the best novel about La Résistance or not. Gary was not about to accept that he was finished.

He was fed up with people describing his various lives as an aviator, diplomat, writer, polyglot, as symbols of a full life, when he simply saw himself as an adventurer, driven by an irresistible lust for life. “The truth is that I was deeply touched by man’s oldest temptation: the multiplicity of Prometheus,” he wrote in The Life and Death of Émile Ajar.

So he reinvented himself again, convincing a friend to send the manuscripts of a certain Émile Ajar to the Gallimard publishing house. He wrote four novels under this pseudonym, and one of them won him the Goncourt again, the jury unaware of Ajar’s true identity. Other nom de plumes included Fosco Sinibaldi and Shatan Bogat, along with his real name, Roman Kascew.

There’s no point in discussing Sartre’s opinion of A European Education, but there is no denying that Gary’s The Kites is not only one of the best books about the Second World War, it is also an unforgettably bitter-sweet love story, perhaps drawing on his time married to Jean Seberg, mother of his only son.

Both lives ended tragically. Seberg committed suicide in 1979 at the age of 41. She was found dead in Paris in her car with a note in her hand, addressed to her only son, Diego: “Dear Diego: I can’t stand the pressure anymore. Forgive me. Be strong.” Her support for the Black Panther movement had angered the FBI, which for more than a decade had put all its efforts into making her life impossible.

A few months later, at the age of 66, Romain Gary blew his brains out with a Smith & Wesson. “Anybody who has created himself has the right to destroy himself,” wrote Nuria Barrios in 2008. With Gary died a host of other writers: Roman Kacew, Shatan Bogat, Fosco Sinibaldi, and of course Émile Ajar. “What no one knows is which of them pulled the trigger,” concludes Barrios, who has just published Todo arde, a powerful reworking of the myth of Orpheus set in Madrid’s drug underworld.

I have to say, having read the works of most of Gary’s alter egos, I still don’t know which is my favorite.

China through Vermeer´s eyes

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By analyzing the objects in 5 of Vermeer´s paintings, sinologist Timothy Brook shows the importance of international trade in XVII century between China and the West.

In his magnificent Vermeer´s Hat, sinologist Timothy Brook (Chinese name 卜正民) has produced an impressive and unusual piece of research work: has chosen not to focus on the beauty and technical perfection of Vermeer’s paintings, nor his mysterious personal life, nor why one of the greatest painters ever was only recognized two centuries after his death—thanks largely to 19th century French art critic Théophile Thoré. Instead, Brook has produced a meticulous analysis of the objects that appear in five of his paintings, to show us the importance of international trade in the seventeenth century between China and the West, and particularly, Vermeer’s home town of Delft, which played a hitherto largely unknown role until recently.

The first thing Brook does is to challenge the way we look at paintings, telling us to stop seeing them as windows to other times and places. “Chief among these habits is a tendency to regard paintings as windows opening directly onto another time and place. It is a beguiling illusion to think that Vermeer’s paintings are images directly taken from life in XVII century Delft. Paintings are not “taken”, like photographs; they are “made”, carefully and deliberately, and not show an objective reality so much as to present a particular scenario,” argues Brook. Through a careful analysis of these scenarios, Brook creates a map of the world of the time.

With the future of international trade, and particularly with China, a hot topic, Vermeer’s Hat offers a highly stimulating and cosmopolitan perspective of the world.

More faces?

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Story based on a graffito photographed in Beijing´s 798 art district. “However bad things may seem, if you’re positive, you’ll feel like Cleopatra, even without high heels or anything… –says Marina”.

She says she really wants to talk to me and that I’ve called her at exactly the worst time, with all the noise there, in the restaurant where she’s eating. But it doesn’t matter. She says she’s happy, even though things aren’t going so well—she doesn’t understand why—but in the end what does it matter if she’s happy. My friends, she continues, if they’re not unemployed they’ve got health problems or their parents are on their last legs, so whoever I talk to, there are always problems… Nevertheless, I feel good, even with the allergy after coming back from my travels, and I can’t breathe without sneezing. But as I said, things look good, I’m positive. And that’s the main thing.

However bad things may seem, if you’re positive, you’ll feel like Cleopatra, even without high heels or anything… And you should see the week I have ahead of me… But all in all, it seems as though life smiles at me, or maybe I smile at life, but say what you like, and eating with my friend, the one I’ve told you about, who’s like one of the living dead, it’s been very nice and we’ve laughed and I also laughed with my friends having a drink earlier, and I really enjoyed reading the text of the Faces this morning while I ate my breakfast. So I thought that today I would give you the nicest face I have, and I also thought that we have a few faces of our own, that sometimes we show the world, and other faces we’ve learned, like the hipsters and the jihadists you were talking about…

It’s just that there are faces or flags we find on the floor and that we unfurl, even if we don’t totally believe in them, because these are the faces or flags the tribe demands from us. The number of times I haven’t been me because of the tribe! By the way, I didn’t understand the last sentence in Faces, the one about the many declentions of the face, or maybe I did understand, like those verbs in Arabic that have different forms depending on their function, and each form represents a function, the second emphasizes the idea of the verb, the fifth is reflexive and the fourth inchoative, so maybe faces are like that, each with a function… Yes, I say to her, and also that in Beijing, in a place called 798, that’s a kind of huge arts center with walls where it’s legal to paint graffiti, I’ve seen these faces that you’d love. Don’t get carried away, she says, before hanging up and reminding me of my function: I mustn’t forget to buy her the silk handkerchief she asked me for.

I also wanted to tell Marina that I really wanted to talk to her.

more faces grafiti

The wall of ignorance

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How Berlin East Side Gallery graffiti can help to speed up our de-donkeyfication process.

During a visit this weekend to Berlin, I was hoping to continue with my plan (Inhshallah) to write about the Chinatowns I come across during my travels, but there isn’t one in the German capital: the best-laid plans… The closest Berlin comes to a Chinatown is in Kantstrasse, in Charlottenburg, but in reality, Berlin is a graffiti town. Wherever you go, you’ll find a wall or some corner that’s been painted.

I’ve chosen these graffiti from the East Gallery, painted on one of the last remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall along Warschauer Strasse in Kreuzberg, both for their message and their esthetic. If I had to choose one in particular, I’d go for The Persistence of Ignorance, which sadly is the worst photograph, because I’m not such a great photographer, and so part of the graffito is missing. Ignorance manifests itself in so many ways: as lack of knowledge or ability.

As is well known, we come into this world as donkeys, and it is only after a great deal of hard work that education de-donkeys us. It’s a long process, as summed up by the Chinese proverb Live to be old, learn until you are old (活到老, 学到老 huó dào lǎo, xué dào lǎo. Also see The civilizing influence of Lady Gaga).

In short, de-donkeyfication takes a long time; there are few walls as big as the wall of ignorance, although there are many other walls that need to be knocked down, as another of these graffiti points out.


P.S: We would like to thank the authors of the graffii, whose authorship we know: The persistence of ignorance by Karsten Wenzel, Tolerence by Mary Mackey, Pal Gerber

The Poet

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The incredible story of Andrés Mirón and how in an irony of fate, right before being killed in a road accident, he won the Villa de Aoiz International Poetry Competition in 2004 with the poem When nothing matters any more.

Most of the time in the IE China Center’s blog On China and Other Niceties I write about China, but just as we can’t eat our favorite dish every day, to hell with China this time, and instead here’s a nicety as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: “the small details or points of difference, especially concerning the correct way of behaving or of doing things.”

On June 14, while enjoying a coffee together, my colleague Soledad Mirón told me the story of the renowned poet Andrés Mirón, who was killed in a road accident two days before winning the Villa de Aoiz International Poetry Competition in 2004. In an irony of fate, the poem that earned him the prize was called When nothing matters any more. His death brought an illustrious career to an end, with more than 30 collections of poetry published, along with numerous prizes. Soledad collected the Villa de Aoiz prize on behalf of her father.

This October will be the 15th anniversary of Andres Mirón’s death and Soledad wants to pay tribute by reading one of her father’s poems on September 22 in the Jardín del Romeral at 11 am during the Segovia Hay Festival.

P.S.: We are grateful to the Segovia Hay Festival Director Sheila Chremaschi and the Managing Director of IE Fund Geoffroy Gerard for their help on this matter.

andres-miron-pinturas

Watercolours by Painter Manuel Chaves, a friend of the poet Andrés Mirón

 

THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF FORGETTING, a sonnet from the book AUTUMN IN BENALIXA

You ask me to forget you and what I forget
is to do just what you ask me.
In the ice of my life, you decide.
I decide in the honey of what’s been lived.

Forget you, why? What hurt you so
that you say goodbye to me with such indifference?
If perhaps my fire doesn’t suit you,
then neither does your ice suit me.

I fear hurting you by saying that I still kiss
the silk of your voice and am enraptured
remembering the brilliance of our story.

and this is how I forget to forget you.
Now, while I live, I will live to love you,
because you live forever in my memory.

Made in God

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French street artist Combo has become a symbol of diversity, celebrating co-existence and encouraging us to “Fear no one, fear nothing”. He has plastered Hong Kong with Google advertisements banned in China and been beaten up while at work in Paris, but undeterred, he continues to spread his message. 

  
Combo is the nom de plume of a young French artist who in 2012 burst onto the international arts scene by, in the opinion of some, damaging the image of Made in China by plastering Hong Kong with Google advertisements banned by the Chinese Communist Party. But it wasn’t until early 2015 when his name really hit the headlines after, according to others, he damaged the image of Made in God.

Combo photographed himself wearing a djellaba and then pasted the portrait on a wall at the Porte Dorée alongside the word coexist writing the c with the crescent symbol of Islam, the x with the Star of David, and the t with a Christian crucifix. It looked more or less like this:

Coexit textThe outcome was that four young guys, whose identity Combo has not revealed so as not to fan the flames, beat him up after he declined to remove the graffito, leaving him off work for a week. “FEAR NO ONE. FEAR NOTHING,” reads his defiant Twitter profile.

Combo, who pays attention to detail and says his work is designed to surprise and to be found where least expected, painted the graffito above, in the Place Émile Goudeau. Goudeau was the founder of the Hydropathes poetic movement, whose aim was to propagate poetry in the same way that Combo propagates art. It wouldn’t have escaped his attention that the hydropathes named themselves thus because of their phobia toward water and their affinity for wine. Others say the name is a pun on the name of the founder of the movement, Goudeau: goût d’eau, which means “a taste for water” in French.

Combo is the son of a Lebanese Christian father and a Moroccan Muslim mother, but he himself isn’t religious. The problem is that the identity crises prompted by the attack on Charlie Hebdo has not only obliterated nuances, but also forced people to take sides. So when Combo wrote in Chatelet, “Did you know Muslims end their prayers with Amen, like the Jews and the Christians”, he was criticized for not writing Je suis Charlie. My guess is that Combo simply wants to be French, an artist, himself, and not be obliged to choose between two sides that are increasingly fractious. (1)

For reasons unknown the world is being deprived of its symbols of co-existence. One of the few remaining examples is The Hanging Monastery (Xuankong Temple 悬空寺in simplified Chinese; 懸空寺traditional Chinese), in Shanxi Province, China. Built more than 1,500 years ago, this temple is notable not only for its location on a sheer precipice, but also because it is the only shrine where China’s three traditional religions live alongside each other: Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. In December 2010, Time magazine listed it among the world’s most-precarious buildings. If you have the time and don’t suffer from vertigo, it’s certainly worth a visit!

made in god - monasterio


(1) I took the photo of the Made in God graffito in Paris, June 3, 2015. I don´t know if the graffito is still there. God knows!!! I have not had the opportunity to meet Combo. The quotes are taken from an article by Laurent Carpentier, published in Le Monde on February 4, 2015.

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