Part two of Tom Lynham's attempts to find the meaning in a poem by the Colombian writer Rubén Darío Flórez Arcila.
I wake up to a dazzling day which inspires me to investigate various leads in Highbury and Hornsey. On the way to Old Street tube I remember a coffee bar in Hoxton Square called Macondo - the name of the town in One Hundred Years. This feels like a suitably Márquezian omen, but I become inexplicably tongue-tied as I chew over my opening line: I am looking for some Colombians. Or maybe Are any of you Colombians here? Or even I need to get a poem translated by some Colombians. Every iteration sounds increasingly ridiculous. The staff are busy with paying customers. I obviously exude indecision because no one knows what to make of me. To justify my presence, I explain the Márquez connection in a kak-handed way but they are oblivious to it. They are Brazilians and know no Colombians.
I take the Northern Line to Holloway Road. The Latin American sunshine makes this thankless London artery look swankier than I ever remember it. I hit lucky with a father and daughter who run a cafe called El Rincon Quiteño. It serves English breakfast mornings, Ecuadorian, Bolivian and Colombian food during the day and Italian food in the evenings. It has the provenance of the classic British greasy spoon but the walls are plastered with pictures of Pacific and Caribbean paradises and thumping dance music rattles the cutlery. The young woman behind the counter is pleased to see me and although baffled by my request invites me to sit at a table. She is the daughter of the owner and needs to ask him if it’s okay to be interviewed. Dad appears from upstairs and is understandably suspicious. Who am I? What is it about? What is it for? I show them International PEN literature and talk about Free the Word. They introduce themselves. Jackie becomes even more enthusiastic. Luis becomes less protective. I switch on the tape recorder and Luis launches into the last 20 years of his life. His accent is strong and vocabulary limited but he has incredible recall for the dates and times of places he has lived and worked. From Ecuador to Paris to make a better life for himself and his family. Working long days and nights in restaurants. Then to London in 1980, and senior positions in smart establishments with Belgravia addresses, and finally to his own premises. Jackie was born here to a Colombian mother and she helps out in the café between caring for her 6-year old son. She looks very Latin and Spanish ripples off her lips, but her English is fluent North London with all its mongrel inflections and multi-cultural references. She is happy to be both; to be in the middle.
I have printed out AMAZONAS, EL CIELO Y LA TIERRA on folded sheets of A4 card in the same configuration Rubén typed it. The text is centred in short lines with wavy edges like the evocative ink patterns of the Rorschach Test. I tell Jackie and Luis that I am not interested in a word-by-word translation, but what the poem means to them. They sit opposite me and hold their cards like prayer books but struggle with the poetry of it. This is my first inkling that Rubén’s poem is not going to be an easy read. I scan the inverted shapes of the Spanish phrases which suggest spinning dancers with flaying skirts, the symmetry of totems, and visible conversations filling the air between jabbering profiles. Jackie is called away several times to deal with customers and Luis’s eyes skit uncomfortably from one paragraph to another. Language is my daily bread. Linguistic devices and figures of speech are the tools I use to add other dimensions to the stories I tell. I suddenly realise how much I take them for granted. Jackie and Luis blink at each other. Jackie says It’s very hard to translate. She searches for meanings between the lines and says What I understand about the poem is that it could be someone like my mother or father…they came to this country…and they go back to their country…like if someone came and never succeeded and goes back without success. I am struck by the closeness between father and daughter. They depend on and support each other in ways I never experienced with either of my fathers. For them, this poem is not just an exercise in transaltion, but goes to the heart of their origins and identity. It tries to express things which are almost inexpressible. Jackie offers some words to her dad. Coming to the earth, looking for a better life, then they go back to the sky. She looks at me. It’s so sad…the one you take in your heart.
Jackie reads through the last section of the poem in Spanish, constantly glancing at her father as he thumbs the document and stares at the tabletop. Then she translates; an incisive and perceptive analysis of the part she identifies with - on this busy day in this noisy café with all the demands on her time. The plane takes me to heaven and I am nearly touching the sky. At the bottom is the earth where the population lives, and the humanity and the lovers are infested like you and me, the fury of the war against the sweet love there is. Down at the bottom is the earth and I am touching the sky. At the top I take the bad, but the love still stays down which keeps my heart pumping. In the sky comes the fanatic, the people that are there in their country believe there is something big, but there is just love and bad love disrespectful, and people that don’t want to have that love. Jackie and Luis are visibly moved. She puts her hand on his arm and says Because I have come from my parents who came here and got somewhere in life I appreciate that. And they have succeeded. I know the people who have not, and I am every grateful that my parents have been a success in life. Luis sighs and says I am very pleased that I came to this country. I am very happy in this country. I do love this country. Jackie gets up to get on with her job.They offer to feed me but I have to go.They thank me for coming.Jackie says Good food and good people and good love is the most important thing. It’s what we all need.