Blesok no. 53, March-April, 2007
(Excerpt from the novel)
In her brood skirt, she was riding a mule. Her feet were hanging at the side, pole, lightly wrinkled, as if pulled out of water. Between the toe and the ankle there was that characteristic extended line that some times, particularly in mortals covered in cold sweat, could excite compassion all by itself, moisten our eyes as if we were looking at a dear face that had had its expression stolen from it by sorrow, and not just a bare foot in which life on the move had inscribed a furrow. The patterned roll with the round bobble on the top, that tall, pointed head covering that we might today describe as being in the form of an upside-down corner pressed down on a shaved female head instead of a scoop of ice cream. The tip of this unusual cap stabbed into the implacable blue of the Spanish sky, its brilliant colours, not just scattered around anyhow, creating a meaningful pattern, appealing to as many people as possible. The mob gathered round, and the mule found it hard to push its way through. The bared breasts of the middle-aged rider were separated by a bar around which her fingers were curled on the bottom end. The upper part with its iron hoop strengthened the neck of the woman, gripped by on affliction that there was no helping, so that it seemed she was as dependent on this garrotte as the cripple on his crutch, that she would have collapsed without this brace, as the heads of black-skinned tribal beauties give way as soon as they are freed of the necklace that have kept the vertebrae of their swanlike necks apart ever since their birth. In moments that lead to no way out, when everything is brought down to its ending in some irremediable manner, the position of the lids on the drooping eye and the angle of the pursed lips create some distinctive geometry of descent. The lines of dumb despair at once depart from the circles that they have themselves described, forsaking the oval of the anguished face.
If there had been no metal ring to keep her chin up – I thought, looking at the scene that the hand of Goya had incised in copper – perhaps the face of this woman on the mule would have remained a blank, deprived of traces of humanity. From it, the eyes, brows, nose and mouth would have gone. All the lines of her face would hove lengthened in pain, dissolved, drained away from under this upturned cornel of that ridiculous hat crammed down by force on the woman's head. She would have died before her execution. As it was, there was dignity in her humiliation. When the hoop of the garrotte was pulled tight, she would expire with head held high.
In one of the side corridors of the British Notional Gallery, modestly and unassumingly, was located a celebrated collection of prints that the artist called Caprichos, following the goat track along which the human spirit climbs in its cognition of the world, in the steps of the book that appeared in Madrid in 1665 entitled Diàlogos de la pintura, su defensa. An ancestor of mine on my mother's side, a man called Vincencio Carducho, the writer of these dialogues about pointing, set the great Goya off on a brilliant work of social criticism. In 1793, when the artist started this cycle, Spain was riven by conspiracies. Carlos IV, then in power, had hoodwinked the people, abetted by the duplicity of an array of toadies, various vulgarians and sausage-makers that had exercised the art of flattery and had thus achieved position and fortune. They were very well aware of how to handle the multitude. After every scandal, there would be a celebration, a feast in which the resources were used to the point, for the silencing of the by now fairly impatient and disappointed rabble. Anyway, you know the way it is. The Inquisition was always ready to delve into the general language of the artistic message, and would easily have been able to uncover Goya's idioma universal hiding behind the mask of madness. Bats and owls flew around the head of the sleeping master, as can be very distinctly made out on the forty third sheet of the Caprichos. Political spectres and moral monsters, like other mockeries of spirit and body, it is known, depart at dawn. The mass of freaks whose nakedness is illuminated by the stars are ready to announce: “We are gone at dawn”. Goya notes their promise on the paper of the print, but the embarrassing presentiment still hangs in the air. Will they really go? I ask you, my dears – will they ever go? – and I would leave you with this doubt when, in the best possible company, that is, my own, I walk around this London shrine of the arts once again. This time in memory.
My recollection is deliberate. It is not without reason, and is connected with an event that might interest you. If, of course, you have the will and the patience, if you are inapt to draw your conclusions independently, if life is so pleasant for you that you would change nothing, then leave it to others to share this despondency with me.
I was walking down the broad marble staircase, with a rapid step, aware that the bell that marked closing time would soon ring. It was that period of autumn when dark cart swoop down early and unexpected. And then I noticed them; all the eighty black pearls of Goya's febrile imagination were there, under a weak light, on some wall where they seemed to be out of place, as if they had come in the back way, as if the person who had placed them there had taken care they should be in no one's way. I approached the scenes that opened up in front of my eyes in a thousand lines and dashes scratched into the copper and immersed in the profound dark of aquatint. And yet, this was not black and white world.
“In nature there are as few colours as there are lines, there are only the sun and the shadows, and I see closer and further only planes, convexities and concavities. Give me a piece of charcoal, and I shall make you an image,” said Goya to a friend.
I had often thought about this sentence. Looking at the Caprichos I realised its meaning. Hidden in the grooves of the metal that the hand of the master had scratched upon were the harsh colours of the Mediterranean sun. Perhaps I was even then drawing certain parallels, noting forbidden similarities, observing the print on which Goya showed the leader of the donkeys that followed him uncomplainingly if sadly. Who knows whose unkempt grey hairs and hooked nose you would recognise in the figure of the parrot at the rostrum being listened to by the enthralled mass of lamebrains, hardly understanding what he was telling them, faces all distorted in sheer flattery and ingratiation. Perhaps there really is “something of the academic milieu in this”, as Goya wrote under his depiction of the parrot and his listeners.
Immersed in the world of the Caprichos, it took me some time to realise I had company, that there was someone else by my side amused in observation. Large sized sneakers did a gentle exercise: toe lo heel, toe to heel. The quiet rhythmic squeaking of the rubber attracted my attention, but only for a moment. Well, good lord, we are all different. One person will absently tug a lock of hair, another scratch his chin, a third tap her foot, the body will never be still. When the spirit a concentrated on some object, and starts delving into the depths of something new, interesting and unknown, the body is at it were overcome by angst, as if suffused with fear of being abandoned and left alone, and starts pulling off all kinds of silly movements to remind the spirit, its absent-minded master, that it is still here, that it is faithful and a little bit restive like some dog that waits leash in mouth for its master to fake it out few walkies. Well, so a person had the right to squeak with his sneakers while he was looking at artworks, didn't he? Toe to heel, toe to heel.
“Well? And so what?” I thought when out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the feet of a man.
Like me, he too had halted in front of one of the prints hung upon the wall, no frame, just glazed. There would have been nothing out of the ordinary about it if the feet had not been in such large sizes. It wasn't just any ordinary sneakers tapping, rather the kind that basketball players are forced to buy. I raised my glance and … he really was tall.
I was riveted. I had never seen such a thing in my life. This vast, powerful black man in his skiing cap jumping up and down. It was no longer hopping. He was jumping as if he were on a springboard. I caught his glance, Up to then, I had not been afraid. In eyes that were vainly looking for some focus the strength of some concrete mixer ready to obliterate the walls and me with them, crush me, stamp me into dust were gathering. It occurred to me he had noticed me, and I was at last gripped by fear. And he kept on leaping. He did it measuredly, more slowly, each time increasingly close the ceiling. The initially fairly quiet whoops were becoming louder. In the pauses between the strenuous leaps upwards, his two-metre body would shudder on the spot, muscles flickering, while a muttering more and more like some snarling in rhythmic phrases would emerge from this throat. Every part would end with a gulping of air, after which two intelligible words would follow. He would utter them as he breathed out, sending their sound back into the abdominal cavity: Papa Legba. When the deepest baaa reached the bottom of the man's diaphragm, then came the jump, and after it the final liberation of power in a yell that was this time so piercing and powerful that my legs fled down the stairs all by themselves. Even several floors lower, right in front of the exit, I could still hear the shrieks that the security men were running towards.
I left this majestic edifice of British national shrine of art in which this discipline of some unknown cultural policy had gone wild. Outside, a cold violet dusk was falling, the kind that wraps some cities at the transition of autumn into winter. It was only at the crossing of two very busy streets that lay a whole block off that I felt my jaws slowly losing their cramp, and my limbs being slowly left by that uncomfortable feeling of high tension that had made me run, although at no time was it real fear, rather some primordial spiritual and physical shock al the encounter with on inexplicable phenomenon. I pressed the button al the traffic light, waiting for it to go green.
Everything went on its own way again: passers-by, cars. A stretch of pricey shops had already closed their doors to customers. In the shallow entrance in front of a lighted shop-window defended by bars a London street-person was making his bed. He was just getting ready for rest while I was crossing the road. I could see him sitting on his blanket and yawning, and then unscrewing his wooden leg. He lay on his side, covered himself with a coat, and put a bag underneath his head. He drew his artificial limb up to himself, so as to have it at hand, just in case it occurred to anyone to attempt to nick it. The old man with the wooden leg was calm, And he had reason to be, after all he had found a covered spot like a box before the other street-people. And peace came back to me too. I was overcome by a melancholy calm, a feeling close to apathy that overcomes the inhabitants of the great cities, even the most sensitive, the most spiritual, people like us, whom we wouldn't dream of calling insensitive. Still, fear must have been lurking in me since my encounter with the dark-skinned jumper and just been waiting for some reason to come out on the surface, however slight. This occasion bore the shape of a man. He had a woollen cap on his head, jeans and a leather jacket, and was not particularly tall, but he was young and black, and looked dangerous. I was walking down a street that did, it is true, belong to a quiet neighbourhood, but in the evening it seemed deserted, particularly on a stretch with a few chestnut trees that kept out the lighting. When I realised that this young man was coming towards me, with the swaggering walk typical of street thugs, it was already too late to run. It would only have spurred his hunting instinct. I paced evenly towards trouble, my look downwards, not raising it even when he stood in from of me. I put my arm down by my body, and he had nothing else to do but push the leaflet in the pocket of my coat. For he was handing out advertising materials, which I realised only at this close encounter. I was ashamed. He went on, yelling back: “Read it, and you won't have to walk the street with your head down any more!”
The flier said:
“It's not important that you are weak. Not important that you are a woman. Don't be afraid. Take things into your own hands. Call, or just show up for the night training. Rope Yard Rails 47”.
Alongside the address, in the south east of London, were two telephone numbers, and the name of the Grand Master of some skill that I heard of for the first time was written. He was called Papa Legba.
Several years have passed since that event. I don't find things easy. Vincencio warns me from the grave:
“An educated person is unwilling to follow instructions, finds it hard to walk in the column of the asses. He likes the harder route, and is keener on jumping like a chamoix along the crocked paths of the spirit.”
Am I too walking in the parade of the greys? Have I betrayed my forebear? The Caprichos will come to my town sooner or later and when they do, by the lord, I shall ring those two numbers. Perhaps it is not too late for some night training.
Translated by: Graham Mc Master