Patent Leather and Solitude

Gabriel García Márquez was not the first writer I read in Spanish. That was Rosario Castellanos and her novel, Balún Canán, that I read over long bus journeys in Chiapas and Guatemala. But Gabo was the first who I read deeply and widely. At some point towards the end of university, perturbed by the far-off glint that Hispanists had in their eye, I got a copy of Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) and spent the summer months sniffing around it, measuring myself up to it. There was an English translation of No One Writes to the Colonel in the house, that had been sitting unread on one of my parents’ bookshelves for at least a decade. El coronel no tiene quien le escriba was hidden at the back of one of mine. I started in English. At the second or third repetition of “patent leather”, I went and dug out the Spanish to see why. The word is charol (cuero is real leather). The rhythm was different. I took a dictionary.

As a reader, that was my completist phase. I had worked through most of Kafka’s complete works for my dissertation and the habit took me years to shake. Thomas Mann, Hermann Hesse, Hemingway, Graham Greene, Orhan Pamuk were some of the writers I tried to exhaust during that time. From that moment, Gabo joined them. My hand gripped a dictionary. The books gripped me. Soon enough, I was onto Cien años de soledad and much of the rest.

Now, a decade on and Gabo is gone.

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One Map Can Hide Another: Marília Garcia’s “Engano geográfico”

I first visited the street where I now live a night arrived from Europe before flying off for the south of Brazil the next day. The streets I walked along that night opened in different ways to how I now know possible; traffic came channelled through what now are decades-old buildings. I still wonder if the real world can be twisted back to fix that memory in reality. Return journeys always create a palimpsest of memory: of the place you’ve just left, the place you’re returning to, the mirror image of the journey that you’re making.

As she sits on a train from Barcelona to Toulouse, perhaps fleeing the end of a relationship, the persona in Brazilian poet Marília Garcia’s book-length poem, Engano geográfico (probably best translated as Trick of Geography, literally Geographical Mistake—there isn’t a translation I could find, so this an any mistakes of translation are mine) thinks back on a journey to a Pyrenean village years (?) before. Thought and memory, things remembered and seen, multiple times and geographies swim effortlessly together, creating both an incredible richness to the text, but also an engrossing vagueness: the verse is unpunctuated and uncapitalized; thought and vision run into one another; there are very few personal pronouns (impossible in English, but I was often unsure if the traveller was she, he or you); memory repeats itself along the journey in echoes of lines or the banality of the train company’s jingle. This lack of fixity makes for a strangely impersonality, an intensely personal, and also incredibly beautiful poem: Read more of this post


Now, this person has just two places—this world and the other world. And there is a third, the place of dream where the two meet. Standing there in the place where the two meet, he sees both those places—this world and the other world, and as he moves through that entryway he sees both the bad things and the joys.

This is how he dreams. He takes materials from the entire world and, taking them apart on his own and then on his own putting them back together, he dreams with his own radiance, with his own light. In that place this person becomes his own light. In that place there are no carriages, there are no tandems, and there are no roads; but he creates for himself carriages, tandems, and roads. In that place there are no joys, pleasures, or delight; but he creates for himself joys, pleasures and delights. In that place there are no pools, ponds, or river; but he creates for himself pools, pools and rivers—for he is a creator.

— Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (translated by Patrick Olivelle)

Why do we read anything? How do books deposit themselves somewhere within our field of vision and itch on the eyes and mind until they’re read? That’s where the Upanishads have been sitting for the last couple of months. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the first in my OUP copy, means the “great-wilderness-upanishad” or “great forest of knowledge”. Journeys through real forests can be impenetrable and metaphysical, then open out into a clear vista: when you look closely, you can see the smallest parts of the smallest insects of the forest.

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