Our twelve-hour flight from Barcelona to Bogotá’s El Dorado airport landed softly, gliding along the puddle covered tarmac. We were on our way to the Bogotá Book Fair to launch the new issue of Granta en Español dedicated to Colombian writing and spend some time getting to know journalists, booksellers and the literary scene. A chaotic stream pulled us through customs and spilled us out into the chilly, humid air. By Spanish hours it was dinner time but Bogotá follows a new-world schedule where natural light is a box that is ticked on their list of virtues. Bogotá sits on a high plateau in the Andes Mountains at over 2,600 meters above sea level, so people tell you to take it easy, drink plenty of water, avoid sorocho, or altitude sickness. The hotel had booked us in separate rooms, but I was allowed to move in with Aurelio Major, co-editor of Granta Espanol, since he had been given the larger one.

My first peep of landscape came early the next morning, when the jet lag and sounds of traffic pulled me out of bed at first light. The mountains loomed menacingly from the crack in the curtains, a wispy line of cloud hanging just below their lush green crowns, like an old monk’s pate. I sleepily remembered Port’s dream in The Sheltering Sky: ‘It was daytime and I was on a train that kept putting on speed. I thought to myself: We’re going to plough into a big bed with the sheets all in mountains.’

The first day began with the presentation of the issue with Carolina Sanin, Juan David Correa and Nayla Chehade. After the event, a few hip young journalists told us they had been particularly surprised by diaspora writer Nayla Chehades’s fiction on the Lebanese colonies that settled along Colombia’s Magdalena river, because it was a complete discovery for such a strong voice. The excitement of the evening brought us to throw back some Tesoro de Don Julio, mostly because it was there, tequila being such a universal symbol of joy.

The next day saw a conversation with writers Carlos Yushimito, Samanta Schweblin and Andres Felipe Solano from the Best of Young Spanish Language Noveslists issue to a packed house. I was in the throes of a feverish sorocho swoon (I had entertained all the wrong kinds of liquids) when kindness in the form of Juan David Correa brought some coca tea. I followed this up quickly with the equation that two teabags are better than one, without knowing that the other effect of coca tea is that it relaxes the vocal chords . . . Luckily, my occasional fish-out-of-water grunts punctuated a very lively conversation in what I like to think of as an ‘original’ way, although Samanta had kept an eye on me the whole time. I was certainly grateful for a little gender solidarity in a city surrounded by mountains that looked like monk heads.

Later, we headed over to a collective reading by Latin American poets. It had been raining nonstop for a month and though the day had been bright, the sky now felt as if it had moved in closer somehow, full of heavy black roiling clouds. Gargantuan raindrops fell here and there, not with a ‘plop’ or ‘plunk’, but a full on thud! They hurt. In Bogotá they call this kind of rain espantaflojos . . . The lack of air and the closeness of the clouds gave a strange feeling of being pushed up against the world’s ceiling. The squishing sky, I thought, embellishing Paul Bowles and smiled to myself.

The poets read impressive work to a full auditorium, but when Max Rojas, a Mexican poet in his sixties, emaciated, tinker toy legs, slow and deliberate in movement as if at any moment he could just collapse into a pile of dust, began to read I was shocked to hear such a potent voice from such a wasted frame. Poetry can grab you unawares, overwhelm you. The tears came like a hard rain falling. The room buzzed and sniffed. Just like that. He read Elegy as a Scream for a December Afternoon.

nobody waits for you to say goodnight, I am sad, I am looking for Helena
I have looked for her in all the crevices of the afternoon, I can’t find her,
I touch ash and I can’t find her,
I look for Helena, she’ll never come, tell her to come, she will never come,
call her until the moss grows over your throat
call her until your throat becomes moss, she’ll never come,
say her name, repeat it until your tongue falls off,
say it until your teeth fall out, she will never come,
only the silence creaking in the stairway accompanies you,
the sound that comes suddenly to say that nobody is there . . .

 

*

 

In town, we visited a vintage bookstore called La torre de Babel. There was a flawless mirror placed in a way that it looked like Borges’s infinite library. The owner, sixty-something, with a white mushroom-cap pouf of hair and yellow teeth, came to greet us. Surrounded by a bevy of rubicund choir-boy clerks, he said he had something to show us. Aurelio and I were with a few other men who had accompanied us. With a strange expression on his face that didn’t bode well for me, the owner introduced us to a dusty eighteenth century Italian book of aphorisms.‘They are so interesting’, he smiled coyly, ‘they show the way a culture thinks. For example (the punchline after his fifteen minute setup that I will spare you all): ‘women are much more attractive when they keep their mouths shut.’ Perhaps I should have been flattered over such hard work for such a commonplace insult? I didn’t say what I was thinking, lest I prove him correct, and so quipped: ‘You know what they say in Spain: men, like bears, the uglier, the more attractive.’

look at your body sinking in the mirror,
look at your body sinking behind your scream in the mirror,
you will sink after your body and after your scream, in the body of Helena,
hidden in the mirror


In hindsight what I would have liked to do was quote Max Rojas, pointing at the mirror in the infinite library: I wasn’t able to do so at the time because his poetry anthology had sold out at the fair. Despite the news that came of the frivolous ‘Bourbon’ King Juan Carlos of Spain hunting elephants as his country collapses, despite the impending doom that was the elephant in the room – our conversations with poet Darío Jaramillo and poet Rafael Cadenas and Venezuelan editors both in exile and living in Caracas about what will happen after Chavez; despite everything, poetry still has power. There is comfort in that thought. As I was writing this, Samanta sent a note to say that she had dreamt about me. In her dream she had a fever but didn’t know how high it was and so she asked me and I told her, ‘Your fever is very high. You see? We all come down with things . . . ’

 

Photograph by Laurel F

Sean Borodale | Podcast
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