26 Exchanges: A place where nothing is what it seems
In part three of Tom Lynham's attempts to find the meaning in a poem by the Colombian writer Rubén Darío Flórez Arcila.
I get a call from Dr Michael of the Helen Bamber Foundation asking if I can help them prepare a funding application for the United Nations. The Foundation rescues some of the most abused and marginalised people in the world. What they fight for is not furry, friendly or feelgood. It’s unpopular, unfashionable and misunderstood. They need a Sunday morning session at Michael’s flat. It’s urgent. It always is. Helen, Michael, Elizabeth and Me hunch around a table nibbling cake, supping tea and squeezing words until they yelp. We are searching for a form of words that will crystallise how the Foundation works with victims of torture, asylum seekers and trafficked women. We claw words from the air and blurt out hamstrung sentences. Many are crude, clumsy or hopelessly inadequate. Others acquire a meaningful volition and dance off our tongues. We strain every intellectual and emotional sinew to find words that do justice to the clients who have been violated, but also tick the boxes of decision makers at the UN. These sessions are always draining because no words on any page can come near to expressing the anger and frustration we feel. And that’s just us; safe & sound in Hampstead Village. We are not banged up in Belmarsh waiting to hear if we are to be returned into the loving arms of the political police we fled from; we are not just landed from Guantanamo and besieged by the press demanding to know if we really were subjected to extraordinary rendition with the blessing of Her Majesty’s Government; we have not been sold for a few hundred pounds at Heathrow and driven to a suburban massage parlour, stripped of our passport, clothes and identity and forced to fuck punters until we exceed our sell-by-date. By mid-afternoon we have generated pages of words that are beginning to make sense but we need to get some oxygen. As we hug goodbyes, I trot out my Do you know any Colombians? appeal and tell them about 26 Exchanges and Free the Word. Helen scribbles down Perico’s number. You must call him she says. You must…
A few days, emails and phone calls later and I am heading for the Medical Foundation where Perico works. My route skirts Arsenal football stadium. This fortress of dreams built with Arabian gold could have been a major character in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It silently oozes memories of epic entanglements. On match days it shudders with life & death loyalties, tribal anthems and nail-biting power struggles. Generalissimos and foot soldiers in blood-brother uniforms spar for the affections of the proletariat. The beautiful game is a true religion; not worshiping some jumped up deity designed by man to control other men, but a democratic adoration of what it is to be human.
Perico greets me in the foyer. His wife (Luz) and son (Emiliano) are joining us for lunch and we go to his office to await their arrival. In this calm place of safety looking over a peaceful garden with babbling brook, clients from over 90 countries struggle to tell horrific stories of unspeakable acts of violence, and express the heartache of forced exile. Perico was a political prisoner in Argentina 30 years ago and was freed largely through supporters in the UK who cared enough to make their voices heard. He appears immensely calm, smiles frequently and talks in a low soft voice. I was taken to the plane handcuffed with guns and it ended 3 years in prison after the coup d’état with the military junta that was ruling the country. At the time I was arrested, I imagined there would be a lot of repression…but I never imagined that it would be such a feast of cruelty in a country that was used to dictatorship. They were even crueller than the Spanish and the English. Perico’s crime was to demand equality for South American indigenous Indians who were oppressed by regimes and treated like outcasts on their own land. He wanted to right the wrongs inflicted on Latin Americans forced into poverty across a bountiful continent. Perico paints a horrifying picture of the Latin American Dictators Club. They had developed a doctrine of national security that gave an ideology to the repression.A person could be kidnapped in Chile, tortured in Ecuador, and disappeared in Argentina.
We meet up with Luz and Emiliano and make our way to a Spanish tapas bar on the main drag to Archway. We crowd round a small table and good food comes thick and fast. Traffic thunders past the window. Sirens threaten to shatter it. An English sales reptile scoffing lunch with a friend in a far corner has the loudest voice in the universe. He drowns the spirited ambience with a booming monologue about corporate policy and motivational strategy. He uses words like six inch nails. I sit next to Emiliano who is a bright 16-year old in the middle of GCSE year. Luz and Perico support each other with subtle gestures and affirmations. I discover Luz is a special needs teacher from a city called Medellin in northern Colombia. I was not involved with political activity; I was scared to be a part of it. But my brother was very involved, and it was safer for him if I was out of Colombia. It was very frightening. She met Perico and they settled in London. Perico adds - It is the dream of any foreigner, they intend to stay for a while but the new country becomes the whole of their life. I ask Emilianowhat sense of identity he feels. It’s normal being who I am. I would love to say I feel Latin but I don’t really. In Latin America they call me the English boy. Here I am the Latin boy.
I hand round the poem. The family read as they eat. Long silence. Perico looks up from the words. I learned that when in England you hear or read something you don’t understand you say - ‘it is very interesting’. We laugh. Luz tells us she finds it difficult because it has so many things to say. Perico continues - He uses a lot of metaphor. There are many things going on beneath the surface. He’s says that the jungle is like a woman, when you penetrate her you are in a warm good place. He is talking about flying in a plane and touching the clouds. Down on earth are killers and addicts.He is talking to someone saying - you and I are infected, but he’s talking about the senseless war…the sickness. The waitress bringsbowls of chips and rice. Mr Bottom-Line in the corner guffaws with laughter at his own jokes. Luz raises her voice to be heard. The poet writes about the factories of cocaine. He jumps from one thing to another. It is a good poem. Poetry is not easy to read and write. There are so many things happening. If he had been simpler it would be easier to understand. Perico’s responses are measured and considered. I think he is trying to reflect the Colombia of a third world country with its shopping centre and beautiful cars, but round the corner is a shantytown of poverty. The policeman can talk to you in an extremely friendly way, but then in the night he could be torturing people. Nothing is what it seems…and that is a good description of Colombia. More food arrives and I ask Luz about her relationship with Colombia. I do go back because my family is there. But I think home is wherever you make it. Being Colombian does not mean anything special. I am not nationalistic. Perico talks about their experiences of exile. We are very much aware that we live in a country that is not ours. And although we are very happy here, there is always someone who will make sure we know we are not from here. Luz tells me I am not eating enough. I am too busy listening. Emiliano says - To be honest with you I did not understand it much. The Spanish is too hard. Luz backs up her son. Even though it is very simple and he has not used any strange vocabulary, the metaphor is very difficult.
We talk about being Latin American. Luz observes - We are such a mixture of people from different origins - blue eyes in a dark boy. The media give us such a bad reputation. We are blamed for the cocaine, but the major consumers are the US and UK. There are lots of very nice people working hard but they just pick up on the criminals. There is terrible poverty, and if someone is extremely ill and they have no money people are tempted to do wrong.
We talk about Márquez and how powerfully One Hundred Years translates into English. Luz enthuses - You can SMELL IT! We agree that the meaning of words is important, but books like this are about the visceral stuff - ideas, identity, emotion, place and history. Perico says dreamily I love the bit where the Indians from the jungle see the ice that is steaming like fire and they can’t resist touching it!
We move onto living under oppression. Emiliano remembers. When I was four we went to Colombia and my mother did not let me speak English. And even now when I am visiting and someone I am with says something I know is dangerous I feel very anxious. Luz says - There is still heavy censorship in Colombia, newspapers, television everything. But Emiliano demurs - It’s not so much government censorship – it’s self-censorship. Perico gives it a context. Read a newspaper here and you can see different angles to the same news. In the Latin American world information is one of the elements of power. It is censorship…but it’s the manipulation of your brain. Luz tells us a story. I remember a family outing and we were all gathered round expecting my brother to join us but he was late. We were waiting and waiting. It was around 1988, which was the worst of the times with kidnapping and disappearances. The longer we waited, the more we thought the worst had happened. So we went home and nobody dared to say anything, but then he appeared and said I was just playing chess! Everyone burst into tears. I was so scared because I knew that if I was arrested I would give the name of my brother, even more, anything! Perico underscores it. When I was in Argentina, if they did not come home we immediately assumed they had been kidnapped. People automatically feel fear. They control you to control yourself.
I ask how a country gets better. Luz is emphatic. You show by example that other ways of living are possible. People become so sick and tired of the violence and aggression. You just want the best for your children. I turn to Emiliano. What’s his answer? He laughs and shouts - LOVE!