On China and other niceties

Love to return

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Pastron#7 says he painted CALLE (street) because in the graffiti world, the talk is always about the “street”, “street art” here, “street artist” there, ad nauseam. So he chose the Spanish word for street, calle, to protest the predominance of English in the arts, as well as in other areas.

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Street

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Pastron#7 says he painted CALLE (street) because in the graffiti world, the talk is always about the “street”, “street art” here, “street artist” there, ad nauseam. So he chose the Spanish word for street, calle, to protest the predominance of English in the arts, as well as in other areas.

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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