It’s an honest question. I have “The White Bird” quite literally taped up in my room, so I was happy to see him on the back page of my Monday El País, where they have a ‘lunch with so-and-so’ feature that I think the Guardian does too, something between a short interview & voyeuristic glimpse of eating habits. No sooner do we sit down, writes the correspondent, than Berger has something profound to say — in this case, in response to a question he was apparently asked bullfighting, after ‘sitting in silence for almost a minute’:

Que si me gustan los toros? No tengo nada en contra, desde luego. Detrás de cada tradición hay un enorme sistema de valores y creencias que no se pueden borrar teniendo en cuanta uno solo de sus aspectos. En ese sentido las protestas civiles contra ellas suelen ser superficiales. El sufrimiento de los animales es algo a tener en cuenta, pero sólo se refiere a un pequeño aspecto. Es como el vento contra el velo de las mujeres musulmanas que ignora las nociones sobre lo secreto, lo privado y lo público en esas sociedades. La vida es cruel. Y en todos los continentes hay mayores vejaciones que éstas contra los oprimidos.

It’s an interesting enough statement taken on its own, and I more or less agree with it (that is, I’ve said myself, in Spanish, I don’t have anything against it, and for roughly the same reasons — that it’s a ritual, it enacts a whole system of values & beliefs, it is something akin to religious sacrifice, and that, to add something that Berger didn’t say, as cruelty it’s nothing compared to the invisible processes of industrial meat production & agriculture, which are far more immoral) — although the quick, easy shift Berger executes in comparing (as missing the point) protests against bullfighting because of animal cruelty to protests against the veil in Muslim countries because of Western feminism makes me instantly wary.

Berger, incidentally, is eating in Casa Salvador: a plate of lentils, merluza in green sauce, some house wine, coffee for desert. This is Madrid, so it’s on the order of 35€ per person.

But putting aside what Berger said, I’m left with the question of in what language, exactly, he said it. El País publishes translated op-eds from newspapers in Britain & the States, usually crediting, if I remember correctly, the original publication & maybe even the translator. Berger’s sitting in a restaurant in Madrid, of course, and in the lovely elegaic essay “The company of drawings: For Marie Claude” I just read in Harper’s, he mentions as an aside talking to a Zapatista subcomandante named Marcos in Chiapas in ’07, & writing letters to him. (1)

You think that a person who’s eating in Madrid & traveling through southeastern Mexico probably can get around in the language, but, of course, as I know to my perpetual disappointment, that is not the same thing as fluency, if fluency exists. John Berger probably speaks Spanish, yes. (A cursory google search in English & Spanish tells me nothing.) But was he interviewed in Spanish? Did he offer an opinion on toreo in castellano? Would his opinion in English have been the same? Nothing about the article says.

One of the unexpected entertainments (last year, at least, when I watched a lot of Spanish television; this year, hardly any at all) of living here, wherever ‘here’ is, is knowing which American celebrities speak Spanish. Bryan Singer, for instance, knows enough to say ‘hablo un poco’ in a maladroit California accent. Will Smith gets by o.k.  on talk shows, although he answers in English the questions he’s asked in Spanish. Viggo Mortensen sounds like a native speaker (edit — oh. He is. Lived in Argentina when he was a kid.)

Anyways. If John Berger, answering in Spanish, makes a small mistake in gendering a noun, is it transcribed in the article or silently corrected? What if he uses a false cognate, doesn’t shade the meanings as well as he’d like? Or does he speak so well that this isn’t an issue? If he’s answering in English, who’s translating, & where’s the original? I don’t know. At some point this dissolves into questions. But it interests me, in part because it’s something I have to deal with every day & is usually suppressed into silence in conversations or articles like these, and maybe too because my American monolingualism is showing, my eyes pop out at anything more.

It ends with a nice bit on cooking:

Me gusta cocinar. La pintura y la cocina tienen muchas coasas en común. El color, la improvisación, las texturas. Entre los pintores hay muy buenos cocineros.

Which is to say (and am I retranslating something he already said, or translating it into something he could have said?):

I like to cook. Painting & cooking have many things in common: Color, improvisation, the use of texture. Among painters there are some very good cooks.

(Andrew Bird, who I saw live in Paris in November, & who reconstructs his songs alone onstage, rushing around playing snatches of things on the violin, singing for a beat, playing with loop pedals: “Just cooking, up here.”)


1. The last few paragraphs of that piece I like very much, both for the way they illustrate process & seem to say something about writing, as well:

Then the days of working at home on it. The image in my head was often clearer than the one on the paper. I redrew and redrew. The paper became gray with alterations and cancellations. The drawing didn’t get better, but gradually she, about to stand up, was more insistently there.

And today, like I said, something has happened. The effort of my corrections and the endurance of the paper have begun to resemble the resilience of María’s own body. The surface of the drawing, its skin, not its image, makes me think of how there are moments when a dancer can make your hairs stand on end.

We who draw do so not only to make something observed visible to others but also to accompany something invisible to its incalculable destination.

“La banda terrorista”

24 January 2010

Opening my morning paper today in the café-bar, past Haiti & an article on immigration, I find a small article summarizing a new book, Vidas rotas (Broken Lives) — which (I cannot help but think — the article is filed out of Madrid) in the very Spanish El País is summarized by the headline as “Una niña, primera víctima de ETA” — a little girl, ETA’s first victim, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) being, of course, the Basque separatist group that has carried out bombings & assassinations since the 60s — or, I should say, since the article gives the name of the girl & the date, since June 27th, 1960, when a child named Begoña Urroz Ibarrola died in the bombing of the train station in San Sebastián.

Vidas rotas, then, is a book that records every single person killed by ETA over the last 50 years, in chronological order, as well as, if known, the people who killed them, & in what manner.

Its 1,310 pages, say the article, “contribuyen a recordar, en carne viva, que la histora y la política del País Vasco no pueden entenderse sin aceptar el vasto coste humano del terrorismo.” The history & politics of Basque Country cannot be understood without accepting the vast human cost of terrorism. This is, of course, true — & yet writing it makes me nervous, ties my tongue. Of course, it’s true that the murder of a little girl for political ends is unspeakably ugly.

The article lists:  361 civilians, 209 Guardia Civil, 149 national police, 97 soldiers, 16 special police & 25 city cops. A murder every year except for 1999, 2004, & 2005. The book closes with the two Guardia Civil killed in Calviá (Islas Baleares) last July.

I’m not sure how this story would be told if I were reading it in something aside from El País, if I were hearing someone from here tell it, & part of that is what makes me hesitant, nervous — I’m reading this in a café-bar, after all, in public, & in public you just don’t talk about these things, particularly if you’re a foreigner. The rest of Spain, as far as I can tell from the reaction of friends of mine in Jaén when I told them where I was going — “You’re going where?” — views Basque Country with a kind of irrational, ignorant fear tinged with exoticism, as though I weren’t living 4 & a half hours by car from Madrid but in some kind of magical land on the far end of the earth, or rather, not magical but wartorn. It feels like talking to college freshmen in Boston about living in Jamaica Plain.

You can’t argue with the weight of the dead. But of course here the relationship between the kind of political sentiment that ETA represents & a rejection of the violence they carry out is much more contingent & embroidered. Yes, I can hear someone saying, yes, this was wrong, this was horrible. But — and I don’t know what would follow. Something, assuredly. All I have after four months here are bare fragments, & maybe I’d be better off keeping quiet until I know what I’m talking about, but part of me wants you, dear reader, to share my confusion.

I wasn’t planning on writing about this this morning.