Part five of Tom Lynham's attempts to find the meaning in a poem by the Colombian writer Rubén Darío Flórez Arcila.
I have arranged to meet Miriam on the heaving pavement outside Borders bookshop in Oxford Street. I tracked her down through an organisation based in London called Colombiage that celebrates and promotes Colombian culture. I am getting used to these literary blind dates now. Today I am suspended in a torrent of humanity dashing to lunch. I try to imagine what Miriam might look like. I lock eye contact with several hopefuls but they rush on by. My head wiggles from side to side as if I can’t decide anything in my life. Miriam materialises from the crowd and asks if I am me. We duck around the corner into the Photographer’s Gallery café.
In tandem with these interviews I am journeying through One Hundred Years of Solitude. In its early years, the emerging settlement of Macondo is stricken with a plague of insomnia and one of the side effects is memory loss. Gabriel Garcia Márquez writes that first to go is the recollection of childhood, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of his own being. The citizens of Macondo combat the viral dementia by writing the names of things - on things. Table is scrawled on tables; bed is painted on beds. Even farm animals are labelled with their identity (cow) and purpose (milk for coffee). But of course even a name is useless if you forget the values of the letters that make up the words. Oppressive regimes deny people the alphabet of life – liberty, security, equality and freedom of expression – to engineer a dysfunctional society that is easily managed. The collective memory can become highly selective in what it chooses to admit and deny what did or did not happen. The father of Macondo - José Arcadio Buendía – decides the remedy is to build a memory machine with a spinning dictionary at its heart that could refresh one’s memory on a daily basis, but without computer technology, it is a hopelessly unrealistic contraption. Miraculously, the populace is cured by a visiting gypsy who dishes out potions that restore their memory, but he also introduces them to the magic of photography and sets up a daguerreotype laboratory. When José Arcadio Buendía saw his whole family fastened onto a sheet of iridescent material for an eternity, he was mute with stupefaction. But he worries that people will slowly wear away while his image endures untarnished. Márquez’s writing - like photography – explores how we translate our past into our present, and our present into our future. At the heart of 26 Exchanges, is the question of what we bring to someone else’s communication, and how we translate the output of the encounter to others. In writing up and editing an interview, I manipulate the truth on the tape and embellish it with subjective interpretations. The founders of Macondo are troubled by the relentless illusion of change; the railroad outrunning the horse; the cinema eclipsing the theatre; the phonograph usurping live music. They are kept in a permanent alternation between excitement and disappointment, doubt and revelation…an intricate stew of truths and mirages. Our hero José Arcadio Buendía becomes so obsessed with the incorruptible ‘truth’ promised by the daguerreotype, he tries to use it to establish scientific proof that God exists.
The gallery is light and bright in a newly refurbished building. The café includes a small kitchen, communal tables and a counter selling postcards, limited edition prints and photographer’s monographs. Miriam is English and studied Art History and Hispanic Studies at Nottingham University. She spent her gap year in Latin America teaching English in Peru and travelling. In her final year she went to Mexico and Brazil to get my Spanish and Portuguese up to scratch. Now she works at Christies the auctioneers, loves using her languages in the art world, and is plugged into various Latin American cultural organisations. She spent time in Colombia - A few days in Bogotá - a bit like Mexico City but slightly more manageable - then to Armenia, a beautiful town in the coffee growing area. The culture in every region is so different - dance, music and background. Lots of African influence on the coast. Ask people about their roots and you discover their ancestors came from amazing mix of indigenous and Spanish origins.
Because Miriam does not have the formative cultural influences, I wonder how her translation will differ from the Colombians I have met. Her cappuccino grows cold as she soaks up the poem. A long musical hmmmmmm… tells me she has finished reading. Her version of the opening line takes me by surprise. The earth is a blue point from the dark coal of the universe. No one else has used the word coal and it strikes a grittier image. She continues - It’s a sign that becomes the final point after the deep comas of the author. This is first mention of coma, and suggests a profound journey from a difficult place. In just two lines, my perception of Rubén’s writing is richer. Miriam is disarmingly modest and peppers her translations with bubbles of laughter - as if the words are tickling her. The insight like sex penetrating that the forest brings, on entering its boiling darkness of sweat and there I am one who devours her. Her direct translation - as opposed to interpretation - gives the lines an edgy momentum. The words sit oddly but spark off each other. The coca leaf started with the word. It was like earth is to sex, to the mouth, to saliva, and the word in the saliva was like sky. Like a metaphor, the cocoa was white like the sand of the sea, the earth of a dream. The coca leaf was the sky and the earth every night. Now it’s a digital image, the madness of the Shaman without metaphors. The collision of the immaculate digital image with the ambiguity of the Shaman is jarring. There is no earth without unearthing and to come back is to regress or go back to the sky without stars; the sky that you take in your heart. The simple word is enough. The earth is enough without phrases just to return to your sky again. She pauses for breath and to say how beautiful it is. The plane takes me to your sky and I can nearly touch the white clouds. Below the earth is populated with… bajezas… She’s not sure about this word but thinks it will be something negative …of homicides of addicts, of lovers, infested like you and I. Of new pests without meaning from the furore of war to the sweetness of your love. Below us is the earth and I touch the sky, but above I take…la pest… she knows pest is not correct but leaves it hanging …and love that comes from the earth below and makes my heart beat. The sky comes from a fanatical jealousy to splendidness is there in the ground they burn in your jealousy and the sky of flames the believers. Several new words leap out at me – furore introduces a vortex of turmoil, and splendidness makes it soar.
I ask what the poem means to her. It’s VERY romantic…she hoots with laughter…which is very Latino! But he mentions parts of the world below which are so apart from the romantic idea, the world of the Amazon and the less developed Colombia. The digital image - that’s a completely different world. The negative imagery links to the problems in Colombia…and there are many. She thinks it through. But the love is even sweeter because the negatives exaggerate it. I ask if Rubén is writing the poem to somebody - a love poem? Miriam sighs dramatically. Maybe I am just such a romantic I want it to be. He begins the poem addressing HER, but then goes to YOU and I, as if it is directed to a person. Or it could be written to the Amazon and his love for its roots.
I ask about the last verse and mention that others have struggled to resolve it. He’s talking about jealousy and burning. The jealousy you always associate with a relationship. He is personifying his roots by using such strong phrases associated with humans. It does relate to the poem. There is sense of intensity all the way through, the sweat…and earth…and penetrating, and building up to end on such an amazing climax. Miriam has to get back to the office. We have been counting the minutes. She grabs her bag, rises to leave, beams at me and giggles - Work will be very dull compared to this!
Read part four of this exchange.