But does history look like history while it is in the making? Isn’t it true that the common names are always expunged? For surely history is about ideas, vested interests and celebrated names (later to become street names), the names listed in indexes and encyclopaedias? Because no matter how much oral history is set down, the victims of world-shattering events are doomed to disappear. Their interchangeable names appear on monuments and memorials that hardly anyone notices any more, not only their bodies but also their identities are relegated to oblivion.
Pero ¿aparece la historia, mientras sucede, ya como historia? ¿No ocurre que los pequeños nombres siempre se obscurecen? ¿Se trata de las ideas, los intereses y los grandes nombres, los posteriores nombres de calles, los nombres de los índices y las enciclopedias? Porque por muchos libros que hayan aparecido llenos de oral history, todavía es normal que las víctimas desaparezcan tras los acontecimientos. Ves sus nombres cambiantes en monumentos de piedra que ya nadie contempla, no han desaparecido sólo sus cuerpos, también han desaparecido sus nombres.
(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago / El desvío a Santiago)
Scholars from all over the world come here [the Archivo de las Indias in Seville] to sniff around, to browse, to conduct secret investigations, because these portfolios contain everything to do with the colonies – per geographical region, per historical period, everything. EVERYTHING: cadastres, letters of supplication, custodial sentences, decrees, financial accounts, reports of military campaigns, letters from governors overseas, negotiations, plans for the layout of new cities, maps. That must be what God’s memory looks like: every centimetre, every second of every man and every spot on the face of the earth, described and recorded.
Eruditos de todo el mundo vienen aquí [el Archivo de las Indias en Sevilla] a buscar, a rastrear, a realizar el trabajo de detective secreto, porque en estos carpetones está, por épocas, por colonias, todo, TODO: catastros, súplicas, sentencias, órdenes, proyectos, informes de campañas, cartas de gobernadores, partes de navegación, censos o como se llamaran entonces, negociaciones, planos de ciudad, mapas. A algo así debe de parecerse la memoria de Dios, cada centímetro y cada minuto de cada lugar y cada hombre descrito y conservado.
(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago / El desvío a Santiago)
Today, we pay homage to a famous teenage diarist, Anne Frank (a Jewish girl who was hiding from the Nazis for several years in a flat with her family). If you have never read her diary, you should. (In my opinion, it should be compulsory reading in every school: but for its historical value and for the way it captures the difficulties of growing up.)
The finest thing of all is that I can at least write down what I think and feel, otherwise I would suffocate completely.
(The Diary of Anne Frank, 16 March 1944)
Saturday, 7 November 2020 Got up in the morning to sunshine outside and feeling better than I’ve felt in days. I’m sure the fact that it’s a day of leisure for all of us helps to raise my spirits too (and everybody else’s in the family).
I wondered what to write for the Lockdown Diaries II today and in the end I decided on continuing to work with some famous diarists in history. I looked up Anne Frank’s diary entry for this day, in 1942: after months in hiding, tempers in her family were fraying and sibling rivalry seemed to be in full flow. Anne’s words display classic teenage angst. And yet, despite the difficult circumstances she endured, she was not without hope and continued to strive to become a better person. She could be an example to us all.
I think of the middle-aged man who pushed me in the supermarket yesterday. I’m sure he has many problems to cope with; I’m almost equally sure he hasn’t got not as many as I’ve got (but I’m not ready to talk about that yet here). But no matter how many problems we’ve got – does that justify any of us forgetting basic human consideration for each other?
With that, I’ll hand the word to Anne:
Saturday, 7 November 1942
Mother’s nerves are very much on edge, and that doesn’t bode well for me. Is it just a coincidence that Father and Mother never scold Margot and always blame me for everything? Last night, for example, Margot was reading a book with beautiful illustrations; she got up and put the books aside for later. I wasn’t doing anything, so I picked it up and began looking at the pictures. Margot came back, saw “her” book in my hands, knitted her brow and angrily demanded the book back. I wanted to look through it some more. Margot got madder by the minute, and Mother butted in: “Margot was reading that book; give it back to her.”
Father came in, and without even knowing what was going on, saw that Margot was being wronged and lashed out at me: “I’d like to see what you’d do if Margot was looking at one of your books!”
I promptly gave in, put the book down and, according to them, left the room “in a huff”. I was neither huffy, nor cross, but merely sad.
It wasn’t right of Father to pass judgment without knowing what the issue was. I would have given the book to Margot myself, and lot sooner, if Father and Mother hadn’t intervened and rushed to take Margot’s part, as if she were suffering some great injustice.
Of course, Mother took Margot’s side; they always take each other’s sides. I’m so used to it that I’v become completely indifferent to Mother’s rebukes and Margot’s moodiness. I love them but only because they’re Mother and Margot. I don’t give a darn about them as people. As far as I’m concerned they can go jump in a lake. It’s different with Father. When I see him being partial to Margot, approving Margot’s every action, praising her, hugging her, I feel a gnawing ache inside, because I’m crazy about him. I model myself after Father, and there’s no one in the world I love more. He doesn’t realise that he treats Margot differently than he does me: Margot just happens to be the smartest, the kindest, the prettiest and the best. But I have a right to be taken seriously too. I’ve always been the clown and mischief maker of the family; I’ve always had to pay double for my sins: once with scolding and again with my own sense of despair. I’m no longer satisfied with the meaningless or the supposedly serious talks. I long for something from Father that he’s incapable of giving. I’m not jealous of Margot; I never have been. I’m not envious of her brains or her beauty. It’s just I’d like to feel that Father really loves me, not because I’m his child, but because it’s me, Anne.
I cling to Father because my contempt of Mother is growing daily and it’s only through him that I’m able to retain the last ounce of family feeling I have left. He doesn’t understand that I sometimes need to vent my feelings for Mother. He doesn’t want to talk about it, and he avoids any discussion involving Mother’s failings. And yet Mother, with all her shortcomings, is tougher for me to deal with.
I don’t know how I should act. I can’t very well confront her with her carelessness, her sarcasm and hart-heartedness, yet I can’t continue to take the blame for everything.
I’m the opposite of Mother, so of course we clash. I don’t mean to judge her; I don’t have that right. I’m simply looking at her as a mother. She’s not a mother to me – I have to mother myself. I’ve cut myself adrift from them. I’m charting my own course, and we’ll see where it leads me. I have no choice because I can picture what a mother and a wife should be and can’t seem to find anything of the sort in the woman I’m supposed to call “Mother”. I tell myself time and again to overlook Mother’s bad example. I only want to see her good points, and to look inside myself for what’s lacking in her. But it doesn’t work, and the worst part is that Father and Mother don’t realise their own inadequacies and how much I blame them for letting me down. Are there any parents who can make their children completely happy?
Sometimes I think God is trying to test me, both now and in the future. I’ll have to become a good person on my own, without anyone to serve as a model or advise me, but it’ll make me stronger in the end.
Who else but me is ever going to read these letters? Who else but me can I turn to for comfort? I’m frequently in need of consolation, I often feel weak, and more often than not, I fail to meet expectations. I know this, and every day I resolve to do better.
They aren’t consistent in their treatment of me. One day they say that’s Anne’s a sensible girl and entitled to know everything, and the next that Anne’s a silly goose who doesn’t know a thing and yet imagines she’s learned all she needs to know from books! I’m no longer the baby and spoiled little darling whose every deed can be laughed at. I have my own ideas, plans and ideals, but am unable to articulate them yet.
Oh well. So much comes into my head at night when I’m alone, or during the day when I’m obliged to put up with people I can’t abide or who invariably misinterpret my intentions. That’s why I always wind up coming back to my diary – I start there and end there because Kitty’s always patient. I promise her that, despite everything, I’ll keep going, that I’ll find my own way and choke back my tears. I only wish I could see some results or, just once, receive encouragement from someone who loves me.
Don’t condemn me, but think of me as a person who sometimes reaches the bursting point!
Zaragoza. Apart from two nuns and an old lady, I am the only visitor in the Bellas Artes Museum, which has a section devoted to archaeology. The nuns overtake me at the rate of one century a minute and then I am truly alone in the prehistory of Spain.
(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago)
Zaragoza. Junto a dos monjas y una anciana, soy el único visitante en el museo de Bellas Artes, que albergaba también un departamento de arqueología. Las monjas me adelantan a una velocidad de un siglo por minuto y entonces es cuando estoy realmente sólo en la prehistoria española.
El carácter español tiene algo monacal, incluso en sus grandes reyes hay un dejo de anacoreta: Felipe y Carlos construyeron monasterios para ellos mismos y vivie- ron durante mucho tiempo de espaldas al mundo que debían dirigir. Quien ha viajado mucho por España está acostumbrado y espera en medio de la nada un enclave, un oasis, un sitio vuelto hacia dentro, amurallado, a modo de fortaleza, en el que el silencio y la ausencia de los demás causa estragos en las almas.
(Cees Nooteboom: El desvío a Santiago)
The Spanish character has something monastic about it, even in their great monarchs there is a touch of the anchorite: both Philip and Charles built monasteries for themselves and spent much time in seclusion, turning their backs to the world they were required to govern. Anyone who has travelled widely through Spain is accustomed to such surprise encounters, and indeed anticipates them: in the middle of nowhere an enclave, an oasis, a walled , fortress-like, introverted spot, where silence and the absence of others wreak havoc in the souls of men.
Today’s quote is much longer than usual but it gives you a flavour of Cees Nooteboom’s style of travel writing – and a feel for the Spanish town of Soria. Enjoy!
Quote of the Week:
Génie de lieu is the phrase used by the French when a particular site emanates something very special and remarkable.
There are no Knights Hospitallers of of Saint John of Jerusalem in Soria today, but a vestige of the cloister they built in 1100 still stands, a sketch, a hint of what was once the arcade around the inner courtyard. It is early in the morning, wisps of mist float over the river, which is narrow here and courses swiftly and darkly along the banks lined with reeds and tall greenery. The pointed arches are interlaced and look like arabesques suspended in a void. It is a truly secluded courtyard, a tangle of roses against the walls of the little church, gladioli and man-high daisies sway under the poplar trees, but the square space between the four walls is unoccupied. That is what makes thecourtyard so enigmatic: it is open to all sides, wind and air and voices blow through the apertures, it is free-standing, it is out of doors, and yet I am inside a Moorish courtyard. The shape of the ruins indicates what it must have been like, the walls of that long-vanished cloister still surround me. I enter the small church. I see several tombstones with Hebrew lettering, the arch over the apse is Arabic. There are two curious canopy-like structures, one domed, the other conical, next to and in front of the spot where the main altar must have stood; the canopies are Christian, and so in this small deathly-quiet space the three worlds of Judaism, Christianity and Islam come together in a symbiosis that is unique in the world today.
Why are some places famous and not others? Why does everyone talk of Autun and Poitiers and you never hear a word about Soria, while it has one of the loveliest and most moving Romanesque portals of medieval Christianity? Every true lover of Romanesque art should see the façade of the Santo Domingo and the cloister of San Pedro. They are, with the San Juan de Rabanera and the San Gil, treasuries with the most wondrous details. Florid capitals crown pillars with plant motifs, to which such subtle irregularities have been introduced as to make the stone come alive, Arab influences, the artful manner of showing nudity (by depicting vices), winged lions with birds’ heads which remind me of Persepolis – all those stories and admonitions and decorations that were carved a thousand years ago by master craftsmen and that survive here in the dry, harsh climate of Soria, they are truly worthy of pilgrimage. You find yourself wishing you had an outsize magnifying glass through which to study the carvings: a capital-scope. The decorations oare often miniatures in stone, and if you want to read what the images have to say, you must come armed with a dictionary of Biblical and Christian icons and symbols. I confess to a heartfelt irritation when I cannot interpret precisely what the pictures are trying to tell me. What used to be common knowledge is now the reserve of experts and scholars.
What, I wonder, is so attractive about all this? I am standing in front of the Santo Domingo. Not famous, so there is no tourism, a quiet corner in a quiet town. Is it the simplicity, if that word is at all justifiable? The piety? The unshakeable totality of a world view? The idea that it was made by people and for people to whom this was not “art” but reality? That a story was being told in stone which everyone already knew by heart but wanted to see and hear again and again – just as Greeks (and Japanese) still flock to see their ancient tragedies? I don tknow. What I do know is that this low, almost squat façade, in which the tympanum takes up relatively little space, exudes great force and emotion. The idea that this was ever new. New! Just finished, hewn out of those almost golden blocks of hard stone! How proud the makers were, how everyone in the province crowded to see the sight!
The figures in the tympanum are so small that you have to get up close to see them. Even then you must crane your neck, because the four rows into which they are crammed are straight up above you, not in front of you. With the four ascending registers on the archivolt securely fixed in your gaze, each made up of a variety of scenes, you find that they lack that rigid and hieratic quality which, for the sake of convenience, we tend to label “primitive”. Indeed, they are both lavish and droll, with their oversize, pious gnomes’ heads protruding from richly pleated garments. And everything happens the way it is described in the Good Book and has been preserved in countless surviving images and no doubt in countless others long since lost: the head of teh Baptist is severed, God fashions the body of Adam from clay, the Annunciation, the adoration of the Magi, the same old stories, only this time not in paint, not in silver, not by Rembrandt, not by Manzú or Rouault, but carved, unsigned, by vanished hands in the hard stone of a barren Spanish province, where serenely they await the end of time.
In 1453, Don Álvaro de Luna, grandmaster of the Military Order of Santiago and prime minister under King Juan II of Castile, received the title of Count of San Esteban de Gormaz. That title still exists – Spaniards don’t like throwing things away, not corpses and not titles either…
En 1453, se le otorgó a don Álvaro de Luna – gran maestre de Santiago y primer ministro de Juan II de Castilla – el título de San Esteban de Gormaz. El título existe todavía – los españoles no tiran las cosas tan fácilmente, ni cadáveres ni títulos…
(Cees Nooteboom: Roads to Santiago / El desvío a Santiago)
…the historian, not even the history philosopher, no, just the academic, a drone as big as a man, working his life away in archives and monastery libraries which he leaves briefly once every so many years to announce, with modest jubilation, the discovery of another piece of the puzzle hitherto missing, a piece that expands the puzzle even further.
Ten years ago I resolved to drive to Santiago, and so, eventually, I did – not once but several times — but because I had not written about it, I still hadn’t really been there. There was always something else that needed thinking or writing about, a landscape, a road, a monastery, a writer or a painter, and yet it seemed as if all those landscapes, all those stories of Moors and kings and pilgrims, all my own memories as well as the written memoirs of others pointed steadily in the same direction, to the place where Spain and the oceanic west come together, to the city which, in all its Galician aloofness, is the true capital of Spain.
Pizarro leaves Trujillo with 130 men, forty cavalry and two small cannons…
Pizarro captures Cajamarca during the Inca’s absence and sends a messenger with an invitation to Atahualpa. The latter arrives with 6000 men, and within thirty-three minutes a centuries-old empire lies in ruins. The divine Inca is carried to the main square of the city on a golden litter, the feet of the son of the Sun are not permitted to touch the ground. Servants sweep the street ahead of the procession. But Pizarro has ordered his soldiers to take up positions in the surrounding buildings and he himsef, a towering figure on his horse (an animal unknown to the Incas), rides towards the Inca. The Dominican monk Valverde holds out a Bible to Atahualpa; he doesn’t know what it is and lets the holy book fall to the ground. This is the signal for attack. The two small cannons are fired, the Indians panic, 2000 unarmed Incas are massacred, Atahualpa is taken prisoner.
But it is only in our minds that he was defeated by fewer than 200 Spaniards and forty horses. He, however, was defeated by beasts with feet of silver, creatures that were semi-human, centaurs. Or in the shape of a legend of white gods who were fated to return. His downfall was not brought by the power of his adversary, but by an interpretation, and by the time the Incas realised that it was too late.
…during the Second World War he [Jorge Luis Borges] had considered giving up his habit of not reading the papers (because it made more sense to read the classics), but had decided instead to spend some time every day reading Tacitus on a different, early war. In a world like his, in which events repeat themselves ad infinitum, his decision was not without logic and Tacitus had the advantage of a superior style while, in his view, the content remained essentially the same.
What can one do when the temperature rises to 40°C? Do as the Sevillans do: sigh, and wait until the sun has set to go out in search of coolness in gardens and churches to stroll along the Guadalquivir, but at a slow pace, until night spreads itself out like a black cloth over the city and the river, over the twelve-sided tower where the merchant ships set sail for the Indies, over the palm trees and the rose bushes, the lilies and the cypresses in the gardens of the Alcázar.
The pink walls of the Alcazaba are tinged with a different shade each hour, the disciplined gardens around me, the eroded brick of the fortifications which seem to bleed in places, the gates and patios I saw that day, the excruciating intricacy and refinement of the decorations in corridors and pavilions and then suddenly, in the midst of it all, rises Charles V’s Renaissance palace like an intruder clinging to the remains of that vanished Orient, a proclamation of power and conquest.
A severe statement, a massive square enclosing a magnificent circle, a courtyard the size of a town square, one of the most lovely open spaces I know, as if even air could express the advent of a new era and a new might. Columns are curiously akin to trees, the multicoloured chunks of rock that nature once pressed into these marble thunks to make a superior kind of brawn, bear witness to a new military caste deploying its forces worldwide to destroy empires and amass the gold with which armies are fed, palaces built, and inflation generated. Skulls of oxen, stone tablets commemorating battles, iron rings decorated with eagles’ heads that once served to tie up horses, winged women of great beauty reclining dreamily on the pediments, their broken wings half spread, there is no more tangible evidence of the confrontation that took place here than those two intertwined palaces: the one extroverted, out to seduce, the other haughty, self-absorved; over and above the hedonistic bloom of the sultans the imperial edifice points to the might of the other, earlier caesars who ruled Europe long before the armies of Islam came and went.
There is an old route of pilgrimage, or rather I should say several routes, leading to the town of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Northern Spain. It is known as the Camino de Santiago, St James’s Way, and it is actually a whole network of routes starting in various parts of Spain; the most popular and famous remains the camino francés, the French Way, which starts in France and climbs over the Pyrenees before traverses Northern Spain. The Camino continues to be a very popular walking route and not just for religious pilgrims.
If you complete the walk, at the end you can obtain a certificate, as you can read in today’s quote below by Dutch author, Cees Nooteboom.
Quote of the Week:
Everyone who had completed the journey on foot or on a bicycle, could, if they wished, obtain a rubber-stamped document from him and have their names registered in the great book. “Many times people burst into tears right here,” he had told me, pointing in front of his desk. He had shown me the ledger, too, a sort of account book, written in longhand.
He had turned the pages until he spotted a Dutchman, a chemistry teacher, “not a believer”, motive: “thinking”.
He had appreciated that, he said, people came up with the oddest motives, but “thinking” was seldom among them.
Perhaps that is the travellers deepest melancholy, that the joy of return is always mixed with a felling that is harder to define, the feeling that the places you have ached for since you first saw them simply went on existing without you, that if you really wanted to hold them close you would have to stay with them for ever.
But that would turn you into someone you cannot be, someone who stays at home, a sedentary being.
The real traveller finds sustenance in equivocation, he is torn between embracing and letting go, and the wrench of disengagement is the essence of his existence, he belongs nowhere. The anywhere he finds himself is always lacking in some particular, he is the eternal pilgrim of absence, of loss, and like the real pilgrims in this city he is looking for something beyond the grave of an apostle or the coast of Finisterre, something that beckons and remains invisible, the impossible.
But not in the form of the sickeningly familiar, glossy pictures of crowded beaches on the Mediterranean coast with their ugly hotel developments serving as backdrop, nor those of flamenco and bull-fights, nor yet the image that we receive through the daily news of RTE of a corrupt political and business élite, the pollution over Madrid or the meaningless posturing over the status of Gibraltar or Catalonian independence.
The images of Spain presented to us by the Dutch author Cees Nooteboom in his book Roads to Santiago go far deeper than the stereotypes that we are all familiar with. He searches for – and finds – a different Spain: one that is more ancient, more elemental, more real, if you will. A Spain that would take a lifetime of living there to get to know, even just a little.
As you can guess, Roads to Santiago is not a guide book, although you could do much worse than follow in the author’s footsteps.