Archives: November 2016

John Berger: The Art of Looking

Documentary on BBC FOUR

The BBC are showing a documentary on acclaimed art critic, novelist, poet and painter John Berger. It is available until 6 December:

Art, politics and motorcycles – on the occasion of his 90th birthday John Berger or The Art of Looking is an intimate portrait of the writer and art critic whose ground-breaking work on seeing has shaped our understanding of the concept for over five decades. The film explores how paintings become narratives and stories turn into images, and rarely does anybody demonstrate this as poignantly as Berger.

Berger lived and worked for decades in a small mountain village in the French Alps, where the nearness to nature, the world of the peasants and his motorcycle, which for him deals so much with presence, inspired his drawing and writing.
The film introduces Berger’s art of looking with theatre wizard Simon McBurney, film-director Michael Dibb, visual artist John Christie, cartoonist Selçuk Demiral, photographer Jean Mohr as well as two of his children, film-critic Katya Berger and the painter Yves Berger.

The prelude and starting point is Berger’s mind-boggling experience of restored vision following a successful cataract removal surgery. There, in the cusp of his clouding eyesight, Berger re-discovers the irredeemable wonder of seeing.
Realised as a portrait in works and collaborations, this creative documentary takes a different approach to biography, with John Berger leading in his favourite role of the storyteller.

On Fidel Castro’s Relationships with Literary Giants

The Good, the Fake and the Ugly

The divisive Cuban leader Fidel Castro died last week at the age of 90. Emily Temple examines his relationships with some of the top literary figures of the twentieth century. The full article can be read on the Literary Hub website:

Notorious Cuban revolutionary and long-term leader Fidel Castro died on Friday at age 90 after a long illness, leaving a complicated legacy—some heralding him as a liberating hero and others decrying him as a ruthless dictator. Whatever else he may have been, it seems that Castro was an avid reader—“ours is an intellectual friendship,” Gabriel García Márquez once said—and he has been tied to a number of literary figures over the years, with varying degrees of importance, not to mention veracity. Below, a brief history of Castro’s relationships, whether good, bad, or not actually very real, with some of the most famous writers of our time.

Fidel Castro + Ernest Hemingway

It’s a widely known fact that Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway were friends. Just look at all those cozy pictures of them, right? Well, the truth is that all of those cozy pictures were taken on the same day, because that was the only day they met—and they didn’t even say much to each other.

As Jacobo Timerman explained in The New Yorker: “The revolutionaries never viewed Hemingway sympathetically; he had taken little interest in Cuba… Although it’s never stated explicitly, the tourist gets the impression that Hemingway supported Fidel Castro, that the writer is part of the Revolution. The truth is that… the regime never managed to establish a solid link between Hemingway and Castroism.”

And all those pictures? They all come from one day in May of 1960, when a fishing contest was held in Hemingway’s honor. “There are numerous photographs of that meeting,” Timerman writes, “but nothing noteworthy in the words that were exchanged before witnesses—mere formalities, really.” In fact, Hemingway was probably mostly trying to get Castro to keep from confiscating his land.

So when you visit, remember: all that Hemingway + Castro stuff is just tourist bait (read: money). That shouldn’t keep you from enjoying your mojitos, though.

Fidel Castro + Pablo Neruda

This is a case of a friendship that could have been—should have been, even—but, well, wasn’t. Pablo Neruda, himself a communist (he was even, briefly, a Senator for the Chilean Communist Party) was a major admirer of Fidel Castro—and an ardent lover of Cuba in general. In 1959, he visited the country and met the newly powerful Castro in Caracas. As he writes in his memoirs:

Fidel spoke for four uninterrupted hours in the huge square of El Silencio, the heart of Caracas. I was one of the 200,000 people who stood listening to that long speech without uttering a word. For me, and for many others, Fidel’s speeches have been a revelation. Hearing him address the crowd, I realized that a new age had begun for Latin America. I liked the freshness of his language. Even the best of the workers’ leaders and politicians usually harp on the same formulas, whose content may be valid, though the words have been worn thin and weakened by repetition. Fidel ignored such formulas. His language was didactic but natural. He himself appeared to be learning as he spoke and taught.

Later, Neruda describes a secret meeting he had with Castro:

He was a head taller than I. He came toward me with quick strides.

“Hello, Pablo!” he said and smothered me in a bear hug.

His reedy, almost childish voice, took me by surprise. Something about his appearance also matched the tone of his voice.

Fidel did not give the impression of being a big man, but an overgrown boy whose legs had suddenly shot up before he had lost his kid’s face and his scanty adolescent’s beard.

Brusquely, he interrupted the embrace, and galvanized into action, made a half turn and headed resolutely toward a corner of the room. I had not noticed a news photographer who had sneaked in and was aiming his camera at us from the corner. Fidel was on him with a single rush. I saw him grab the man by the throat and start shaking him. The camera fell to the floor. I went over to Fidel and gripped his arm, frightened by the sight of the tiny photographer struggling vainly. But Fidel shoved him toward the door, making him disappear. Then he turned back to me, smiling, picked the camera off the floor, and flung it on the bed.

In 1960, Neruda published Canción de gesta, a collection that included the poem “ A Fidel Castro,” which to my eyes at least appears to be a strong-voiced message of support for the leader.

But in 1966, after Neruda visited the United States (and the anti-Castro Peru), Cuba turned its back on him. In July, a group of Cuban intellectuals—on orders, it was said, from Castro himself—published a scathing public letter condemning Neruda for betraying their Communist principles by associating with the enemy. According to biographer Adam Feinstein, Neruda felt that the letter had been written because “Castro had not taken kindly to his only half-veiled warning [in his poem “A Fidel Castro”] to the Cuban leader to avoid making a cult of his public persona.” Neruda, insulted, angry, and feeling that Castro hated him personally, never went back to Cuba, though he was invited only two years later.



Zadie Smith

Joanna Biggs reviews Zadie Smith’s latest novel, Swing Time, for the London Review of Books- ‘throughout the book, there are moments when the narrator pauses the story and tells us instead about the Nietzschean moral of the Zong case or the wedding of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s black goddaughter. History is no longer one thing after another but available to all of us, all the time’:

‘The ends of great fiction do not change, much,’ Zadie Smith wrote eight years ago in an essay about David Foster Wallace. ‘But the means do.’ She was between novels: three years had passed since her most traditional, On Beauty, was published; NW, her most experimental, wouldn’t appear for another four. But, as sometimes happens, the changes on the surface only served to emphasise what was already there. James Wood coined the term ‘hysterical realism’ to describe her first novel, White Teeth, but it only really applied to what was most on display – the foisonning, punning, teasing, literary surface. The surface changed for each of Smith’s novels, but the underlying message, about compassion, warmth, strength, forgiveness, the Forsterian-by-way-of-the-Beatles one about love being all you need, persisted, and even grew louder. It was a message with considerable political force, especially coming from someone who has crossed the boundaries Smith has crossed (Willesden-Cambridge-Rome-Greenwich Village), but it wasn’t necessarily original or grown-up. I think of a moment from one of her more recent personal essays in the New York Review of Books, when she is trying to define joy by thinking about pleasure:

The persistent anxiety that fills the rest of my life is calmed for as long as I have the flavour of something good in my mouth. And though it’s true that when the flavour is finished the anxiety returns, we do not have so many reliable sources of pleasure in this life as to turn our nose up at one that is so readily available, especially here in America. A pineapple popsicle. Even the great anxiety of writing can be stilled for the eight minutes it takes to eat a pineapple popsicle.

Pleasure comes of the smaller things in life, Smith tells us. Something about the linguistic liveliness of the alliterative object of desire, the plosive ‘p’s along with the imagined high-vis yellow of the wooden-sticked ice lolly, is too rhetorically effective, too reminiscent of childhood summers and the sound of the approaching ice-cream van. The personal essays, unlike her sharp and funny pieces on literature, have an undergraduate feel to them, often following the formula: difficult philosophy + anecdote with cute children + contemporary cultural artefact = consoling insight. But perhaps that’s no accident: Smith told the FT recently that her essays – ‘very English, quite heavily constructed’ – are a legacy of her training at Cambridge. In Smith’s writing, it often seems like even the most specific detail will be elevated into proof of some great, essentially comic truth.

No other British writer of Smith’s generation (or since) has had her early, extreme fame. This has meant both that she has had to serve her novelistic apprenticeship in public, trying out ideas and seeing them fail or succeed in front of everyone, and that she has been protected from the hard knocks of a writing life, and so allowed to retain a certain childlike freshness in her relationship to the world. There is also a sense that we must protect her: we feel her anxiety in her movement among styles, and we sense that she is trying to say the right good thing, and as she holds out her hand, we grip it and carry her on. I am invested in Zadie’s story, susceptible to the Bildung in all this: White Teeth came out the year I went up to Oxford, and became a symbol of all that a nerdy girl from a state school might do under meritocracy; The Autograph Man was given to me by my mother when I was on my year abroad in Paris, and reminded me of the importance of going beyond oneself even at the price of failure; On Beauty appeared the year I came to London and began working for the LRB, and I bought it in hardback and discussed it at a book group and even stole a placard of its very pretty cover from a Booker Prize party I snuck into; NW I read in a proof passed around the LRB office, and I tried out my thoughts on her experimental turn with colleagues in the same tentative way that she played with numbered paragraphs and their juxtaposition. This is just my story, but others of my generation have similar ones, and it’s a problem: we want her to pay back our emotional investment. With each new novel, the hope rises: is this finally the great book that was always coming? The handsome mustard-yellow proof of Swing Time arrived on my desk in the summer, but I put off opening it until October.

We don’t know the name of the character telling us her story in Swing Time, but she is telling it to us and that in itself is new: Smith has never used the first person to narrate a novel before. She has tended to use many voices in her fiction, overseen by a benevolent intelligence that both mocks and indulges her characters. Now that she has chosen a single voice, what might it be possible to say? But Smith’s narrator, it turns out, isn’t as interested in her own story as in telling those of others, primarily that of her childhood friend Tracey, but also those of her mother and her boss.


Swing Time is published by Hamish Hamilton (£18.99)

Part-time publishing internship (2 days a week)

Deadline for applications: 30 November 2016

Fitzcarraldo Editions is looking for a part-time (2 days a week) publishing intern for a period of 8 weeks, starting on 5 December. Providing support to Fitzcarraldo Editions’ staff, the publishing intern will be involved in every aspect of the publishing process. The position will suit someone interested in a career in publishing. An interest in contemporary literature is essential. To apply, please send your CV and cover letter to by 2 December 2016. Interviews will be held soon afterwards. The position is unpaid, although we offer a fixed payment of £25 a day to cover expenses. 

The Clown and the Caliphate

Jennifer Percy for Guernica

Jennifer Percy recounts her encounter with ‘a man so bizarre ISIS wouldn’t keep him.’ The full article can be read on the Guernica website:

In the northern Iraqi city of Erbil, in the lobby of the Tangram hotel, my interpreter Salar and I watched the newest ISIS execution videos. Salar had access to videos that weren’t public. “The Chinese thought of this one,” said Salar, a fifty-year-old Sunni from Kurdistan. Four men in a cage were lowered into a swimming pool and held underwater until they drowned. They were raised wet and limp. A prisoner’s mouth oozed foam. “It’s not very nice actually,” he said.

A restaurant on the third floor of the hotel overlooked a detention center for terrorists. In the front lobby there were free apples, but not many customers. Our waiter, Basim, a young Iraqi Christian, served us coffee.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

“Bartella,” he said.

“I was just there,” I said.

“Did you see my house?” he asked. “Did you see if my things were still there?”

Salar and I laughed. But Basim was blinking. “Did Daesh take my stuff?” he asked. We didn’t know. Bartella was still under the control of ISIS, I said. We were close enough to see the village through the lens of a telescope.

In the next video, ISIS fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a car soaked with fuel and packed with prisoners. The men burned alive. Another video, called “The Reality of the American Raid,” was a response to an American raid on a prison in Hawija. It began with an ISIS fighter sawing the head off a Kurdish prisoner while three other prisoners watched. The camera zoomed in on the men’s faces while they watched the beheading. The executioner set the severed head on the body. Though the head was no longer attached to the body, the mouth opened and gulped for air.

After that we saw a video of a Kurdish peshmerga soldier and a young ISIS fighter in a ditch. The peshmerga soldier gave water to the ISIS fighter, and the fighter kissed the peshmerga soldier’s hand. “Who are you?” the fighter asked. “We are humans, just like you,” the peshmerga soldier said. Then the peshmerga soldier climbed out of the ditch and shot the ISIS fighter. No news outlet would publish the second half.

Basim sat down next to us on the couch. “Tomorrow I’m leaving,” he said.

“You are fleeing ISIS?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I’m trying to find love.”

He had been in love with a woman in Bartella. They dated for many years and planned to marry, but her family didn’t like Basim because he wasn’t from a wealthy family. They tried again and again, but the family wouldn’t approve the marriage.

“I’m going to take the boat to Greece,” he said. “I hope I don’t die.”


Fascinated, Repelled, But Not Bored

Mika Ross-Southall on Marina Abramović

Following the recent publication of Marina Abramović’s memoirs, Mika Ross-Southall examines the life and work of the artist- ‘there is something admirable, if sociopathic, in Abramović’. The full article can be read on the London Review of Books website:

When Marina Abramović dies, she wants three graves. One in Belgrade, one in Amsterdam and another in New York (the three places where she’s lived the longest), she tells us in her compelling memoir Walk Through Walls. Her body will only be in one of them, though, and no one is to know which. To turn her own death into a kind of performance piece is no surprise from Abramović, whose performance art over the past half-century has been saturated in autobiography. At the Venice Biennale in 1997, for example, she sat in a basement on top of hundreds of bloody cow bones, scrubbing them clean with water and a metal brush for four days, six hours a day. Still images of her mother and father flashed on two screens in the background, while a video showed Abramović in a white laboratory coat and glasses telling a story about starving a rat so much that it turns on its own family; she then did a striptease, pulled a red scarf from between her breasts, and danced a jig. The smell was repulsive, but the audience were transfixed by “Balkan Baroque” and she won the Golden Lion.

With this memoir comes another performance. “I come from a dark place”, she tells us, describing her childhood in Communist post-war Yugoslavia. Her parents had a tumultuous, tense marriage: they both slept with loaded guns on their bedside tables. “I used to think my birth destroyed the symmetry”, she writes several times. But her family was privileged; her parents were favoured war heroes, high up in the Party, and they lived in a grand apartment. Here Abramović had a bedroom as well as a painting studio, when the majority of families in Belgrade in the 1950s were crammed into single rooms (art was one of the few luxuries encouraged by her mother, who was the director of the Museum of the Revolution). “Later I discovered [the flat] had once belonged to wealthy Jews, and had been seized during the Nazi occupation”, she says. A revelation followed immediately in the book by a black-and-white photograph of her young parents smiling in their military uniforms. “Our home was really a horrible place.”

Her mother beat her – punishment she was expected to endure “without complaint”. “I think that, in a certain way, my mother was training me to be a soldier like her” with “walk through walls determination – Spartan determination”, she says. But her father had named her after a Russian soldier he’d been in love with: “My mother resented this old attachment deeply – and, by association, I think she resented me, too”. On Marina’s fourteenth birthday, her father gave her an ivory-engraved pistol and took her to a strip club.


Walking Through Walls is published by Fig Tree (£20.00)

Interview with William Trevor

In the Paris Review

We are saddened to hear of the passing of the Irish novelist, playwright and short story writer William Trevor, aged 88. Here is an extract from his interview with Mira Stout for the Paris Review in 1989: 

William Trevor first achieved prominence with the publication of his second novel, The Old Boys (1964); but perhaps he is best known for his volumes of short stories, including The Day We Got Drunk on Cake (1968), Angel at the Ritz and Other Stories (1976), winner of the Royal Society of Literature Award, and The News from Ireland (1986). His other novels include The Children of Dynmouth (1977), winner of the Whitbread Prize for Fiction, Fools of Fortune (1983), and most recently Silence in the Garden (1988).

Trevor met me at the Exeter railway station on a chilly, drizzly February morning, cutting a rather startling figure on the platform in his matching tweed greatcoat and deerstalker hat. Although my train had kept him waiting for nearly an hour, he was smiling when I arrived, and even apologized ambassadorially for British Rail’s inefficiency.

Trevor lives in a ruined mill in the green countryside of Devon, with his wife, Jane. They also spend a few months of the year in Tuscany and go back regularly to Ireland, where he was born. The interview took place in the sitting room of their Victorian farmhouse, where a small fire burned in the hearth. Books lay neatly stacked on a side table amid fringed lampshades, and the walls were bare with the exception of a few Redouté prints. Windows curtained in Wedgewood-blue velvet opened out over rolling downs. Trevor settled languidly into an armchair, crossed his long legs, and bore the expression of a man who had just fastened his seat belt for a long and possibly perilous airplane ride.

Nearly sixty, William Trevor is youthfully slender. In his brown cardigan, tweed tie, and corduroy trousers he resembled a kindly country schoolmaster. Sunk deep into the velvet cushions, Mr. Trevor spoke for nearly four hours—sometimes rambling generously, and at other times shutting down completely if the question was too personal. He was so detached in speaking about himself one might have thought he was discussing someone he vaguely remembered meeting at a party. After several hours we broke for a hearty luncheon of turkey pie, homemade vegetable soup, cheese and fruit, and a delicious bottle of Montepulciano chianti.

By the end of the interview it was dark, and we had a celebratory drink. It was only after the tape recorder had been put away that Mr. Trevor, clutching a brimming glassful of sherry, laughingly admitted that twenty years previously he himself had been dispatched to conduct a Paris Review interview. He had failed, in fact, to get the formidably taciturn Anthony Powell to do any talking whatsoever. They admitted defeat almost immediately, he recalled, and spent most of the afternoon stalking the estate grounds in an uncomfortable silence. Although I sympathized with his predicament, I was nonetheless grateful that the memory prompted him to be so dutiful a subject.


What did you do after leaving university?


When I left Trinity Dublin, I tried to get a job, and it was very difficult in those days—in the 1950s in Ireland. Eventually I found an advertisement in a newspaper that said someone’s child needed to be taught. “Would suit a nun” it suggested at the end of it, which was interesting, and I actually got that job. So I used to leave Dublin every day on the bus, go about twenty-five miles into the country, and teach this rather backward child. Her mother brought in the neighbor’s children, and a little academy was formed.


Why had they asked for a nun?


Because nuns sometimes have time on their hands. It was half a day’s work, which was enough to live on, and this went on for about a year. I wasn’t interested in writing in those days. I left that job when I got married, and then worked in a school in northern Ireland for about eighteen months, before the school went bankrupt. We had to leave Ireland after that because I couldn’t get another job. I taught in a school in England for two years or so—in the Midlands near Rugby—before deciding to try and make a living as a sculptor. I came down to the west country and set myself up, rather like Jude the Obscure, as a church sculptor, and existed like that for seven years. Then, when our first child was about to be born, it was clear that the money couldn’t be spread between three people, so I gave that up, and got a job writing advertisements—which I was very lucky to get because I knew nothing about it. I was thirty. We moved to London, and I wrote advertisements for some years, always on the point of being sacked.




Because I was extremely bad at it. It was then that I began to write short stories. I was given a typewriter and endless cups of tea. I was always allowed to spend days and days over an advertisement, because they were regarded as so very important. If I was writing, for instance, four lines about paint, they wouldn’t expect to see any copy for two days. I couldn’t take that seriously so I began to write stories. I wrote The Old Boys while I was there, and two other novels I think.

On company time?


Not entirely. But I did photocopy one of my novels on the company machine. The poet Gavin Ewart, who also was at the agency, refers to that in one of his poems: “Later we both worked at Notley’s—where no highbrow had to grovel / and I remember Trevor (with feminine help) xeroxing a whole novel. / ‘I see you’re both working late,’ the Managing Director said / as he went off to his routine gin and tonics and dinner and bed.” In the end I persuaded them to allow me to work two days a week, but I abused that privilege. Jane and I went to Bruges one weekend and didn’t come back. I’d left some firm in the Midlands in the lurch. I resigned just as I was on the point of being sacked. I’ve always had an uneasy relationship with employers.


Chloe’s Scene

Jay McInerney on Chloë Sevigny for the New Yorker

Jay McInerney, writing in 1994, on the It Girl of the day- Chloë Sevigny. The actress ‘can speak with some confidence about what’s happening in the street. Some say Chloe is what’s happening in the street.’:

 It’s weird, this happens all the time. Chloe Sevigny is sitting at one of the outdoor tables at Stingy Lulu’s, on St. Mark’s Place just off Avenue A, absorbing a mixed green salad and devouring the just-out September Vogue. A black girl and an Asian girl huddle anxiously on the corner a few yards away, checking her out. The two are about Chloe’s age, which is nineteen, and they seem to be debating whether or not to approach. Do they recognize her from the Sonic Youth video—the one filmed in Marc Jacobs’ showroom, which was kind of a spoof of the whole grunge thing—or did they catch her modelling the X-Girl line last spring? Maybe they saw her photos in Details, the ones taken by Larry Clark, who has just cast Chloe in his new movie, “Kids.” The girls pass by once and walk halfway up the block before they turn back, clinging to each other, and stop just behind Chloe’s right shoulder.

“Excuse me.”

Chloe looks up, wrapping her arms tight around herself in an instinctive gesture of protection, as if to reduce the exposed surface area of her body even as she manages a smile that is shy and skeptical and indulgent all at the same time. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before, but it’s still a little, you know, weird.

“Can you, um, tell us where you got your, uh, shoes?” the black girl asks.

Chloe giggles with relief. She looks down at her jellies—transparent plastic sandals. Now that practically everybody’s wearing big, chunky, cleated boots and platform sneakers—even people who shlump every day to offices uptown—Chloe has moved on. She’s already gone. And the two girls standing on the sidewalk in their big black Doc Martens want to follow her. Chloe tries to remember where she got the sandals.

“I think it’s right around the comer, on Avenue A. I can’t think of the name. Something Something.”

“Like, that way? Over there?”


The girls thank her and practically run up the street. Chloe fires up a Camel Light and resumes her study of Vogue. Watching Chloe read a fashion magazine makes you think of Alexander Woollcott devouring a ten-pound lobster à l’américaine or Casanova undressing a servant girl. “This Marc Jacobs dress is beautiful. . . . Helmut Lang is my absolute favorite. . . . God, Armani is so old-ladyish. . . . Lagerfeld ruined the house of Chanel; Coco would never have done miniskirts. I watched this documentary about her. She was so great. . . . I’m like a fashion-magazine junkie. I love them, but they’re usually pretty lame. By the time they print it, it’s already happened. The British magazines are much further ahead in terms of what’s happening in the street.

Chloe can speak with some confidence about what’s happening in the street. Some say Chloe is what’s happening in the street. In addition to her jellies Chloe is wearing a very short white dress made of a shiny, flame-friendly space-age synthetic. It looks sort of familiar (Gaultier? X-Girl?), although you won’t see anyone else on the street wearing one, at least not yet, with eight weeks to go till Halloween. Maybe you saw it a few years back on the little girl from the next building who came around with her father and held her pillowcase open for the mini Snickers bars. It says “Cinderella” in floral-pink letters across the chest, above an image of a magic slipper and a cheerful pink-and-blue rendering of the fairy-tale princess inside her pumpkin carriage. All that’s missing is the plastic mask. The funny thing is, it looks really good on Chloe. Several people have already asked about it today, and she’s told them she scavenged this number in a Brooklyn thrift shop. Two dollars. She accessorizes it with a fake Chanel bracelet from Canal Street, which she wears around her biceps. At this moment, she is five feet eight, weighs a hundred and ten pounds, and looks, in her current short coif, quite a bit like a skinny Jean Seberg. Her nose is perhaps a bit blunt, and she points out the crookedness in her posture, which is the result of childhood scoliosis, but this doesn’t prevent downtown style-chieftains and scenesters from comparing her to Twiggy and Audrey Hepburn and Edie Sedgwick.



Sarah Palin Night

Agustín Fernández Mallo

Agustín Fernández Mallo’s story ‘Sarah Palin Night’ appeared in The White Review in 2012.  With a potential upcoming position for Palin in Trump’s new Cabinet, it seems an apt time to revisit it: 

IT WAS A SUNDAY AFTERNOON, SIESTA TIME: MY PHONE BUZZED in my pocket. ‘Is this Agustín Fernández Mallo?’ ‘Yes, who is this?’ ‘The Republican Party Department of Lotteries and Prize Draws, Washington DC, we are calling to inform you that you have won.’ ‘Won? Won what?’ ‘Isn’t this Agustín Fernández Mallo, a Spaniard residing in the city of Chicago?’

I know I should have told the truth to that female, Puerto Rican-inflected voice, I know I should have told her that that was a different Agustín, that I was not currently vacationing in Spain, that I did not work as a teller at Bank of America branch no. five in the city of Chicago, that I was not 34 years old, the fact is, I should have said many things I did not say because, following my reply in the affirmative, the Puerto Rican woman informed me that I had won a trip to accompany the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin on the campaign trail. It’s not that I have anything against accompanying a potential US Vice President, but rather that I would all of a sudden be obliged to request my one month vacation allowance. I was at that time bogged down in the writing of a blow-by-blow account of Great Britain in the seventies, focusing on sitcoms and the onset of punk, and I had set that month aside to watch the six seasons of George and Mildred back-to-back (available at EL CORTE INGLÉS, on sale right now).

Long story short: seven days later I found myself loading my suitcase into the black Citroën C5 waiting outside my front door.


At 8 o’clock on a Friday morning I was dropped off at the entrance to the San Francisco Hilton, a hotel I already knew from the tv show THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO (1972, Michael Douglas and Karl Malden), the weekly adventures that fueled my childhood gunslinger fantasies.

The Hilton lobby was a sort of amphitheatre, which could be accessed via the upper stands, while below, a collection of fifteen box offices served as check-in desks. The wafer-coloured doors, the copper banisters, the fake Persian rugs and precisely that odd amphitheatre shape seemed to conceal the fact that all of this had at one time been a college-sized basketball arena. But, if so, how to explain my childhood memory of the hotel in THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO? It was then that I thought that, in America, even the most ancient things always call to mind something modern, and not the other way round. For instance, to the left and right, large satin-hued posters displayed Palin’s face, half-seen from the side over the Stars and Stripes. It was quite clear that Palin was an old-fashioned woman who recalled something from the here and now: Zara outfits modeled on SEX IN THE CITY. Two black concierges led me over to desk no. 10. At all times, Jesse made sure that nothing strayed from the plan. It’s just dawned on me that I haven’t yet mentioned Jesse: dressed in a loose-fitting, foot-length coat, very dark Ray-Ban Wayfarers and leather gloves, he was the Republican Party PR Officer for Foreign Affairs, four rungs down from Sarah Palin’s personal adviser. I placed my suitcase on the almost Persian rug and Jesse, without fuss, checked me in. Passport, smoking room, 5-mega’ internet connection. From his replies to the data-gathering-girl, it did not take me long to figure out that Jesse had been on the force. The young woman’s questions set him on edge, made him awkward, accustomed as he was to asking all the questions, he was all yeses and nos; a multiple choice test. Jesse took his leave with a handshake, not without first making it clear that I should be in the lobby at 8am the following day, ready to set off. ‘It’s a long trip son. One city and five towns tomorrow. You’ve got the whole day to yourself today, twenty-four hours, rest up but get some air. I recommend you get yourself down to the bay to see the seals and eat three pistachio ice-creams.’ He took me by the shoulders and said, ‘Those are fine ice-creams, son, mark my words, real fine. If you have any problems, here’s my number.’ He scribbled a cell number on the back of his card, from which I gathered that this was his ‘plan B’, the one you give out so as not to pick up when the phone rings. His handwriting linked jagged numbers. I thought of badly-tied shoelaces.


I placed my card in the slot and there was light. To the left, the bed. A table at the back, next to the tinted window. In the bathroom, two identical wash basins were embedded in a single, off-white piece of marble. I washed my hands; the airline food had left them in a foul state. The faucet called to mind an abstract, metaphysical dolphin, as if sculpted by Oteiza but Made in China. I threw water on my face. Jet lag. I was filled with curiosity at the thought that the following day I would shake the hand of Sarah Palin (maybe even a kiss on the cheek, who knows?). In the days leading up to the trip I had gathered plenty of information about the candidate online, to familiarise myself; I don’t like to be caught with my pants down.

I dressed for comfort, a white Knicks tracksuit, bought specifically for the trip, and took out a handful of books from my suitcase, nothing special, miscellany on the history of America. I turned on the TV and headed over to the window. On the small, round (but almost Elizabethan) table, I found a note addressed to me, on paper bearing the Hilton letterhead. As a welcoming gesture, someone had taken the trouble to write down by hand the hotel’s telephone directory, the menus, the city’s top sights, everything, word for word, copied to the letter from the hotel’s standard, printed directory, which was placed symmetrically to the right. The one addressed to me had been signed by the hotel management in impeccable handwriting. It was headed by the phrase ‘one hundred years of solitude’; this last detail baffled me, although I found it moving.

I threw myself onto the bed, one of those royal models from which the canopy has been axed, and lay there flat out. The TV roared; a jungle of pixels and photosynthetic electrons unfurling at my feet. I lost myself awhile in the stuccoed ceiling.


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