July 29, 2006

Turn and live

We cannot stay in our flat. The air is damp, the dehumidifier hums away but the ceilings are measled with fresh mould. Homeless, temporarily, we are staying with a friend in her house in the Old Town. She teaches English and her shelves reflect the fact: in the original language she has Austen, Dickens, many more. I spotted Swift, Gulliver's Travels, which I read many years ago. When I think of Swift I think of Orwell, as I do when I think of Dickens: I read Orwell on them both before I read much of either. My reading of the criticism preceded my reading the text. This is not the way it should be - acquire that habit and the criticism will, sooner or later, substitute for the text. It will save you the trouble of reading it and a bluffer's knowledge will do instead. It's been a long time since I found the time to read a proper book, but instead I read the London Review of Books, which they post fortnightly to Spain. I know books: all about them, without the bother of actually reading them. The Review has read them for me.

Besides, my books are in hiding or in transit camps. Most of them are still stuck in a storage unit a thousand miles away: even the others, those I managed to take to Huesca, have been evacuated, taken from the flat for fear of damp. They are sitting in the basement of the house, living in a suitcase, refugees.

They include several volumes by Orwell. I think of Orwell often. Huesca is a good place for thinking about Orwell, though he was never here, not in the town itself. As far as I can tell he never got closer than Siétamo, a small town few kilometres to the east, where we sometimes go for spring water, which gushes from a fountain in a small plaza in the middle of the town. Most of the time he was further to the south, closer to Zaragoza than to Huesca. The town is in Alto Aragón, Upper Aragon, the northern part of which consists of mountains: Huesca has a view of mountains to its north, and if you pass through them, you then see many more, and larger. The Pyrenees, covered in snow most of the year, are only about thirty kilometres from here. Yet go where Orwell was, much the same distance in the other direction, where Huesca province ends and Zaragoza province starts, and you find yourself, instead, in semi-desert.

Water and its absence is everything. Spanish water is sparse and precious. Even in Alto Aragón the villages all share the same two features - the church, as one might guess, and the water tower, which one might not. But lower down, southwards, the landscape is parched, almost bare of trees. Scrubby, a series of low, circular mounds of dry, unfertile earth, to which cling small, rough bushes and some heather. The circular pattern may have been formed by the wind which sweeps towards Zaragoza with such intensity that its inhabitants are known as "the hunchbacks"- and from the air, when the plane descends towards the city and its airport, it appears as a bizarre, inexplicable pattern, a series of brown circles. But south of Zaragoza, in Lower, Bajo Aragón, one would be lucky to see as much life as that. The earth becomes rock, from which the sun reflects with such intensity that at its peak, one cannot cross the street, such is the heat. Buñuel - who was raised here - wrote of the sky:
Podía pasar un año y hasta dos sin que se viera congregarse las nubes en el cielo impasible. (A year, or even two might pass without seeing clouds gather in that impassive sky.)
He goes on to relate that if a single cloud came over the mountains the neighbours would rush up to the roof and watch it, before predicting, rightly, from experience, that it would pass to the south of them and no rain would be forthcoming. It is a life and a landscape defined by the heat. In England, when it is hot, we open the windows: here, we close them, hide behind shutters and try and sleep until it is more bearable. Heat and the absence of water: and yet I am temporarily homeless because of the water in our flat.

A small thing, in the great scheme of things. But small things become more prominent when there are no longer great things and great schemes of things to fight about. Spain is reluctant even to remember the Civil War, though some, pace Orwell, are more reluctant than others - but even in my exile and retirement from political activity I find it easier to remember Orwell than forget him. Because of the exile, no doubt. Because he was here, or nearly here, or tried to be here. Huesca withstood a Republican siege for twenty months. There will be people here who would wish the Fascist past forgotten, because they were part of it. I see older people, sometimes, and wonder - what did they do? Did they inform? Or hide?

Orwell came to Spain as an idealist: what happened to him here caused him permanent disillusion. I came to Spain disillusioned but still some sort of idealist, still inclined to the Quixotic, still inclined to believe that worlds can be changed for the better, though preferring it be someone else that does it. Disillusioned with people more than principles, perhaps. Swift was disillusioned with people: his Gulliver goes to live among the Houyhnhnms, horse-creatures, rather than stay any longer among human beings.

Orwell, though he wrote against Swift's seeming misanthropy, went to live on Jura, as far away as he could get from people. Though ostensibly the reason was his health, a cure for the malady of people must have been somewhere in his mind. And here am I in Huesca, having escaped, in some way or another, from something or other. Gulliver returned from his exile, but found people intolerable to be with:
At the time I am writing it is Five Years since my last Return to England: During the first Year I could not endure my Wife or Children in my Presence, the very Smell of them was intolerable, much less could I suffer them to eat in the same Room. To this Hour they dare not presume to touch my Bread, or drink out of the same Cup, neither was I ever able to let one of them take me by the Hand. The first Money I laid out was to buy two young Stone-Horses, which I keep in a good Stable, and next to them the Groom is my greatest Favourite; for I feel my Spirits revived by the Smell he contracts in the Stable. My Horses understand me tolerably well; I converse with them at least four Hours every Day. They are Strangers to Bridle or Saddle; they live in great Amity with me, and Friendship to each other.
It may be a few years before my misanthropy can be compared to Gulliver's. I stay away from people, sometimes, but I can still manage their presence, in small doses, for short periods of time, provided I can see the exit door and use it when I wish. The world is not so bad, not always. I might be in a country where fascism triumphed, but also in one where it was dismantled. I might have had my home half-destroyed by an incompetent and liar, but it will dry, I trust. I hope. I trust.

But I had meant to start writing again, writing properly, in the very week I found I had to leave: I cannot begin, cannot get going, cannot do the things that I need to do, not in the flat, not with the damp and the dehumidifier and the disruption. I can neither try to read nor try to write.

It is a small thing, but it is the small things which test the patience most. Our lives are composed of small things, the small things are the routine by which we live. Small things comprise our world. Sometimes, it is so hard to keep one's patience with the world. But cats, that is a different matter. There are two cats in our temporary house, both called Mimi, the one because she says nothing but mimi and the other one for want of an alternative. They understand me tolerably well; I converse with them for several hours a day. I think about it sometimes: if I could get away from other people, if it were just cats and me. Six billion cats and me. They would not live in friendship to each other. But they would live in great amity with me.


At July 30, 2006 1:26 pm, Anonymous Chris said...

reading of the criticism preceded your reading the text, eh? Ray Bradbury would have a field day.

At July 31, 2006 12:14 am, Anonymous jason said...

Do you read any other authors from the 21st century...? You might find some that are optimistict. More importantly, you might find some that are relevent...!


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