January 21, 2021
The famous Diego Rivera mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931), at the San Francisco Art Institute, is in mortal danger.
The Art Institute’s financial difficulties are well known in San Francisco, and the reasons for them are justly decried. The transformation of one of the warehouse buildings on the docks below Fort Mason into a second facility a few years ago was a mistake, both financially and aesthetically. It is an artistically pointless boondoggle that cost millions, and therefore a prime source of the Art Institute’s current troubles.
To alleviate the debt, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors has proposed selling the mural, assessed at a value of fifty millions dollars, to George Lucas, to be placed eventually in his Los Angeles museum. (For the details of the situation, click here.) Were that to happen, what is perhaps the most important single piece of art in San Francisco would leave the city. San Francisco and those here who place deep importance on the emotional and intellectual worth of fine art would be deprived forever. Mind you, I’m not speaking just of the well-fixed who sit on boards and contribute large sums to maintain San Francisco’s place as an art center. I am speaking of the many viewers one always sees looking at the mural (during non-Covid times, of course.) This includes the enormous Latinx community that lives in the city, and those other communities of color and ethnicity who find in the mural a staunch reminder of why it has such importance in the city’s remarkable racial history, good and bad.
Little can diminish the importance of the Art Institute to San Francisco, and to the city’s future. The Rivera mural itself symbolizes that importance. But also, a brief look at who studied or taught here establishes it as a major font of important American art. A few of those? Annie Leibovitz, Imogen Cunningham, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Ansel Adams, Linda Connor, Manuel Neri, and David Park, among many, many others.
Without the Art Institute, San Francisco would take a major step backward. San Francisco State University, from which I received a master’s degree in English Literature, remains an important center for the visual, musical, and literary arts. But the Art Institute is its own deeply important entity and deserves the opportunity to save itself and to be reborn as the major arts institution it has so prominently been.
Here is a modest proposal…. The University of California recently bought the Institute’s debt. That purchase includes the ownership of the Institute’s building. The Institute itself now has a six-year lease on the building, which gives it a window to raise the funds to save itself without selling the mural. But, if that is unsuccessful, the property will become a permanent possession of the University of California.
And that would include the Rivera mural.
My proposal is that the University actively step in now and make the Art Institute of San Francisco a separate campus in the University of California system. Of course, it would be a place devoted to the visual arts, but I would also make it a principal home for dramatic writing as well as creative writing in general, film, video, acting, media arts, recorded music, performance studies, and other essential arts.
Something like the Tisch School of The Arts in Manhattan, part of New York University.
The current leadership of the Art Institute must also be relieved of their duties…immediately. For the last twenty years, the Institute has been diminished by poor decision-making and bad management. When the University of California takes over, this is the first change that must take place.
All this is pie in the sky, perhaps. But I don’t think so. The Institute can be remade into a vital center for the creative arts, as is Tisch, and a major source of those arts into the future. It needs fine, insightful management with a true business sense and the kind of major emotional commitment to the arts that, if the Art Institute disappears, will sink into real decline in this city.
The Institute and Diego Rivera’s remarkable mural are too important to San Francisco for that to happen.
Terence Clarke lives on Russian Hill, two blocks from the San Francisco Art Institute. The Rivera mural was a principal inspiration for his novel The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro.
January 5, 2021
Compared to the artists, critics remain in the back seat. Yet a very few have written marvelously about the graphic arts. When I first read E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art, I thought that being an art historian would be something to which I could aspire. The book is still a must for anyone who knows little about the history of Western art and wants to know a lot more. At the time, I knew almost nothing about that history, having survived university without ever taking the time to go to the school’s art museum. (That would be U.C. Berkeley.)
The trouble was that, by the time I did read Gombrich, I was in my mid-20s and married to an artist who had insisted that I read his book, maybe to make myself less embarrassing at art openings. I had also written a couple of unpublished novels. Those agonizingly arrived-at works nonetheless had convinced me that, really, I would be happier making my own art. The only disappointment was that my art would be made of the ever un-beautiful, gracelessly utilitarian words with which novelists have to work.
The tools—and the talent—that resulted in Velásquez’s portrait of Juan de Pareja were not to be mine.
I was able eventually to read sufficient criticism and history—John Ruskin, Robert Hughes, Kenneth Clark and others—to have serviceable enough knowledge to write about art. But it required my own imaginative powers to express how I truly felt about what I was viewing. I simply did not have the technical chops to explain how a painting works, either in terms of its shapes or the materials and tools used to make it. In the time-honored phrase, I knew what I liked.
The Mexicans interested me tremendously. For one, they weren’t Europeans, a single fact that goes a long way to explaining why they are so special. The unique mixture in Mexico of the vernal, myth-fueled sensitivities of the indigenous peoples and the crazy otherworldly enthusiasms of the Spanish conquistador artists made for something entirely unique. When I saw the great Rivera murals in the National Palace in Mexico City and the heart-chilling Orozco depictions of The Conquest at the then-orphanage in Guadalajara, I realized a more earth-bound pagan-animist consciousness than what I had read about in so much of western European, heaven-touring art.
Diego Rivera’s earth-mothers and and Jose Clemente Orozco’s flame-wrapped, man-angel swirling into the Guadalajara universe struck my heart.
I wrote a novel in which I created a fictional Mexican artist whose work has the same combination of fruitful grit and celestial transformation of these and so many other Mexican artists. He comes to San Francisco, California and determines to paint murals across the entirety of the outside of the Cathedral of Saint Mary in that city (which actually exists, at the corner of Gough and Geary Streets). The local archbishop thinks the artist and his ideas crackpot, and therein lies the tale. Jesús Lázaro is the artist, and The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro is the book I wrote about him.
When I started it, I knew that I would have to describe Jesús’s fictional art. What I had always thought necessary in writing about actual art became, precisely, the task at hand. But while the Mona Lisa has qualities that are abundantly evident, in my case the paintings I describe do not exist at all. So, my writing took on all the responsibility of providing for the reader’s emotional response. The reader of my book can only imagine the painting, and I have to give him/her the words that bring that imagining to flower.
That’s difficult enough when you’re presenting some sort of social scene, which is the basic stuff of almost all fiction. But describing an entire individual piece of art that is so ephemeral as to not be there at all is a different task. Luckily for me, it was a lot of fun, which lightened the burden considerably. But nonetheless, I would love to view Jesús Lázaro’s paintings, wherever they may be, to see if I got them right.
AND… I’m at it again! I’m in the middle of writing a novel titled The Moment Before. The main character, Yvette Roman, is a renowned Parisian artist who suffers from a rare form of severe epilepsy. In the moments before a seizure, she encounters exotic visions so important to her heart that she feels she must paint them. One day, though, a masterful forgery of her work shows up at her New York gallery. She has no memory of having painted it. So it must be a forgery, mustn’t it? But could a forgery actually be the best piece she has ever done?
Yvette’s affliction itself is based on the fact that my father was, and my son is, epileptic. I am not, so that here too I have to imagine what Yvette is going through. If you would like to know about the importance of this in my own life and work, you can read my essay titled “Fathers, Sons, and Seizures.”
The novel will come out in 2022.
(The Notorious Dream of Jesús Lázaro was published in 2015. It is available in bookstores everywhere and at all the usual online sites.
“Tinta roja” is a much-loved tango that was written in 1941 by Sebastián Piana and Cátulo Castillo. It has been recorded by most of the important tango orchestras with singers of equal distinction. Here are three versions of it, by three different singers, in three very different styles.
The first, by the orchestra of Anibal Troilo with the voice of Francisco Fiorentino, has an old-fashioned sweetness that, although beautiful, does not for my money represent the disaster that is told by the lyrics. I think Troilo was trying for the kind of heartfelt nostalgia for a lost youth that is featured by so many tangos. But it doesn’t work for me here because, in the second half lyrics of the song, the feelings express such barren loss. Here it is.
The second version is sung by Roberto Goyeneche, the famous “Polaco.” A man of the streets (before he was discovered, he was a Buenos Aires municipal bus driver who would sing tangos without accompaniment while driving. That’s how a record producer found him.) Goyeneche’s version of “Tinta roja” has a harder heart. His sadness in this version is much more authentic than that presented by Fiorentino. The orchestra behind him (also that of Anibal Troilo) surges through the song with almost Hollywood-style over-arrangement. But for me, Goyeneche’s voice saves the day. This man ‘s anger is lined with sadness.
The third version is a very contemporary one, sung live by Ruben Juarez, who accompanies himself on bandoneon. I believe Juarez, in both his playing and singing, catches the despair and fury of “Tinta roja’s” lyrics. The man walking about in the dark alleyway of this tango is coming apart. He suffers quietly sometimes, angrily at other moments, enraged finally. For me it is the most authentic version of this tango I’ve ever heard. See if you agree.
Here are the lyrics to “Tinta roja,” first in Spanish, followed by my translation to English:
tinta roja en el gris
de ladrillo feliz
sobre mi callejón
con un borrón
pintó la esquina…
Y al botón
que en el ancho de la noche
puso el filo de la ronda
como un broche…
Y aquel buzón carmín,
y aquel fondín
donde lloraba el tano
su rubio amor lejano
que mojaba con bon vin.
¿Dónde estará mi arrabal?
¿Quién se robó mi niñez?
¿En qué rincón, luna mía,
volcás como entonces
tu clara alegría?
Veredas que yo pisé,
malevos que ya no son,
bajo tu cielo de raso
trasnocha un pedazo
de mi corazón.
tinta roja en el gris
de mi sangre infeliz
que vertí en el malvón
de aquel balcón
que la escondía…
Yo no sé
si fue negro de mis penas
o fue rojo de tus venas
Por qué llegó y se fue
tras del carmín
y el gris,
donde lloraba un tano
sus nostalgias de bon vin.
Colored red in the grey
Of the happy brick
In my alleyway,
With a smudge
Coloring the corner…
And to the cop’s badge
That in the thickness of night
Celebrates the end of its beat
Like a simple brooch…
And that carmine-colored mailbox,
And that little tavern
Where the Italian guy weeps
For his faraway blonde amor,
Washing it down with a glass of good wine.
Where will my neighborhood be?
Who took my youth away?
In which corner, my moon,
Were you emptied, as you were,
Of your clear happiness?
On the sidewalks that I walked,
The bad guys now no longer there,
Beneath your flattened sky,
There walks in the night
A piece of my heart.
Colored red in the grey
The boiling over
Of my sad blood,
Shed on the little geranium
On that balcony
That hid her…
I don’t know…
Was it the blackness of my pain
Or the red of your veins,
Blood of mine?…
Why did she come and then go,
Passing the carmine
And the grey,
And the faraway tavern
Where the Italian wept away
His wishful longings with a glass of good wine?
The translation to Spanish of Terence Clarke’s novel, The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the central character, was published on December 1. Titled La espléndida ciudad, is available in bookstores worldwide and at all the usual online sites.
December 1, 2020
I’ve always had faith that I could write, which I began doing seriously when I was in my early twenties. A couple of my books were published in the late 1980s and early 90s. But after that, I couldn’t get anyone interested. This was pre- or early-internet time, and we had not yet seen the founding or early struggles of a couple of important businesses: Amazon particularly, Facebook, Twitter, et.al. In those times, the road to publication lay through a series of bottlenecks that made publication very difficult indeed. Those would be the community of literary agents and then the publishers themselves. Both these groups had a kind of monopoly on who would get published and who wouldn’t.
For the majority of fiction writers in the United States, if not all writers, the bottlenecks became the bloodied fields of failure. There are thousands and thousands of writers with completed manuscripts, and a few hundred who get published every year. Those few are the ones selected by literary agents (most of whom are in New York City) for representation. Established publishers will not look at any projects that are not represented by an agent. So, if you write and wish to be published in that system, your chances of success are slim to none. (I read a statistic once that, on any given day, there are 120,000 manuscripts in the U.S. postal system, making their ways from the authors to some publishing person or another. Of those, few will indeed be published. The rest lose.)
It has been this way for many, many years.
For the first few years of my writing with serious intent, I put myself firmly in the middle of it all by following the rules. I wrote earnestly and often to agents. I followed their stringent rules to the letter, for submission to their agencies. I waited the de rigueur two to six months for a response, which was almost always “Thank you, but we find your fine work not quite right for us,” or some such. Those responses, of which there were hundreds…many hundreds…put me completely out of the running for establishment publishers, for years.
In the past twenty years or so, however, we’ve seen the advent and growth of viable publishing possibilities that circumvent this self-important and ruinous system. The possibilities came about with the advent of the internet and those companies I mentioned above, with some others. Prior to those events, if you were an author and self-published your books, you would be committing professional suicide, even if your books had real value. Agents and publishers, once they learned that you had self-published, would not look at your work at all, since self-publishing was viewed as an instance of authors accepting their own failure. Also, as a side-issue, the companies that did do self-publishing expected the author to carry the entire burden of producing and distributing the books. They charged the author handsomely for both those services. The reading public for such books was made up of the author’s family and a few friends. Otherwise the author was sunk.
But now, all this has changed. Books can be tastefully designed, produced, and sold using all the tools of online marketing that we now know so well. Also, because of Amazon (and Apple Books, BN.com, and other companies) the author has an open door to the world book-reading market, in printed and digital products. Also, the author will usually make a per-copy royalty that is twice or three times the amount he/she would receive from the established publishers. So, if you get $1.50 per copy sold as a royalty from Houghton Mifflin, you’ll receive a royalty of three or four dollars for each copy produced and sold outside the established publishing system. The established publishers used to carefully edit, market, and publicize their products. Budgets for those things have been uniformly slashed by all the established publishers, especially since most of them have been taken over by corporate conglomerates.
So…there is that expense that the author must shoulder himself/herself. The good news is that the author gets to control what’s happening there, in ways not even imagined just a few years ago.
With all this, the influence of the long-established publishing community, which is still gigantic and worldwide, has lessened. But the fact is that now, for the first time in publishing history, the means of production are in the hands of the author. One noted literary agent of my acquaintance said this to me two years ago: ”Terry, the great literature of the 21st century will have been self-published. Don’t even consider wasting your time with the New York crowd.” A very noted editor with years of experience in the New York trade, who worked with me on two of my novels, said this to me: “Having your book come out these days from a huge publishing house is like having played on the 1947 New York Yankees team. Who cares?”
Of course, Amazon is not perfect, as we all know. But that is another story.
(Terence Clarke’s new novel, The Moment Before, will come out in 2021. The translation to Spanish of his novel about perilous events in the life of Pablo Neruda, The Splendid City, is being published today, December 1, and is available everywhere worldwide. The title? La espléndida ciudad.)
October 6, 2020
I speak Spanish, which I learned as an adult, and I write in English. But to write a full novel in English about one of the principal Spanish-speakers and writers of the last hundred years does present a challenge. This despite my having translated three of that author’s books to English.
I had read about the very dangerous passage that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda made in 1949, escaping from Chile to Argentina on horseback through the Andes Mountains. He had been barred from his senator’s seat in the Chilean Congress, and there was a warrant out for his arrest…all due to grave political disagreements with then-president Gabriel González Videla. It was decided by the Communist Party in Chile, of which Neruda was a member, that the only way to get him out of the country safely was on horseback through the Andes. It was a very dangerous undertaking in which Neruda was led through the cordillera by trackers familiar with the territory. Despite very rough conditions and a couple of close brushes with death, they completed the trek, and Neruda was able to move on to Paris, where his wife Delia del Carrill was awaiting him. He went on to even greater international fame and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973.
I succeeded in finishing the novel, which has the title The Splendid City, and it was published in 2019. I’ve always thought that there would have to be a Spanish-language translation of the book, Neruda’s fame and readership in Spanish-speaking countries being of legendary proportions. Through a friend of mine, a prominent Chilean novelist living in the United States, I made the acquaintance of Jaime Collyer, who is himself a noted novelist and short story writer, and a prominent figure in contemporary Chilean writing. We talked. Jaime read my novel (he is remarkably fluent in the English language) and liked it. We decided to work together.
So…La espléndida ciudad will come out in its Spanish-language edition on December 1, 2020 in the translation by Jaime Collyer. It will be available in bookstores everywhere (especially, of course, in Central and South America) and online at the usual sites.
Despite all this, which was pretty fast-moving for me and exciting, I worried that because the original is in English, a Spanish-language translation wouldn’t have the kind of authenticity that such a book would have, had its author been hispanic. English has such a northern European twist to it (a combination of Celtic, Britannic, Germanic, Danish and who knows how many other frozen-tundra linguistic elements) that a rendering of it into Spanish may not have the sunny, warm-breezes, wine-induced, olive-oil Mediterranean flow that such a story deserves.
You realize that this is a real possibility once you’ve studied the two languages and understand the difference in feel, one from the other. For me, a romantic tale is not the same in English as it is in Spanish. (I’m talking about the languages here and the cultures they represent. To talk about the more carnal differences between the two peoples is another matter altogether.)
Luckily, I have read many, many Neruda poems in Spanish as well as his very entertaining memoir, Confieso que he vivido (I Confess That I Have Lived). So, I have a ready sense of his often breezy and very adventuresome writing style. Neruda is a poet who goes out on a limb almost constantly. You have to pay attention to what he’s doing, while at the same time relaxing and flowing with it. That attention is often super-rewarding, although not always. (To punish yourself a little, read Neruda’s political poetry, most especially his odious “Oda a Stalin.”)
I decided to go out on a limb myself. Neruda describes his escape in Confieso que he vivido, but in just thirteen pages. It’s cursory and quick, hardly satisfying if the reader wants to know everything about this extraordinarily dangerous trek. In his account and those of his biographers, there are place names or hints about the weather, the mountains, and occasional dramatic moments. But not enough to give us the real story in detail.
Realizing that Neruda is himself a fantasist in so much of his work, I decided to be one in my novel. I put him and the others in the situations that he describes; but then I made up what happens in those situations mostly out of whole cloth. For example, the trackers lead Neruda into a lava tunnel (a common result of volcanic activity when hot lava makes a stream for itself through the volcano’s rocky structure.) Neruda and his helpmates did indeed encounter such a tunnel (by now millions of years old and, thankfully, free of the searing lava flow) and passed up it. But what they see in that tunnel, as described by me, is complete fantasy. No such visions have ever been found in South American caves as far as I know. There are several other very unlikely events in the novel, including conversations with long-dead gauchos condemned to wander through these terrifying mountains forever.
To my great pleasure, Jaime understood what I was trying to do in those sequences, and his translation honors the adventure that is presented in them…adventure both historically accurate and thoroughly made up, fantasms and all, by the author.
My hope is that I’ve written a South American-Mediterranean novel, despite my own rainy, teeth-rattling, Irish-English, cold weather antecedents.
Fiction doesn’t come from nowhere. Every piece of fiction finds its beginning in the author’s direct personal experience, humble as it may be. The fiction that results is seldom just a fact-by-fact narration of the experience, although the experience does provide the basic starting point. It’s the storyteller’s verve that brings the final fiction to full flower. Dickens, Cervantes, Austen, Morrison…the works of all of them have such simple roots. Yours can come from a whiff of a rose’s petal or a dream vision of the beginning of the universe…and everything in between. But it has to start somewhere in your day-to-day.
I served in the Peace Corps in Sarawak, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, from 1965 through 1967. I was twenty-two when I arrived. I had seldom set foot outside of Oakland, California (well, I did go to Berkeley for five years, a distant few miles from Oakland) and I left the United States with my father’s words ringing in my ears. “Terry, why are you doing this?” I was originally supposed to go to Côte d’Ivoire, mainly because I had studied French in university. But the Peace Corps notified me that they had enough volunteers in that nation for the moment, and would I consider Malaysia? I did not know where Malaysia was. I didn’t look it up. I simply said yes, and some months later I arrived in Kuching, Sarawak, a city on the island of Borneo.
Malaysia is in Southeast Asia, to the south of Vietnam. (I did know where Vietnam was, of course. What American didn’t, in those times?) Malaysia was a new nation, an agglomeration (at least for the while) of the Malay peninsula south of Thailand, the island city of Singapore at the tip of Malaya, and the territories of Sarawak and Sabah, which together take up about a quarter of the island of Borneo, three hundred miles to the east across the South China Sea. All former British colonies, they had recently been abandoned by their Limey overseers, cobbled together as a nation, and sent off on their own.
My job was to help set up an English-language primary school system in the upriver regions where Iban tribesmen lived. (The English-language use was the Malaysian government’s idea, and I’d be glad to tell you about it some other time.) A war was going on at the moment between Malaysia and Indonesia, along the north-to-south border that separates the two nations in Borneo. The Ibans were much affected by all this and had abandoned many of their jungle longhouse villages because of that war. The new Malaysian government had set up downriver refugee camps for these Ibans, and I lived in one for the year and a half that I was going up and down the Skrang River setting up schools.
Many of these camps were being run by British officials, leftovers from the recently abandoned colonies. I met one, a man named Craft, who was in charge of a government rubber plantation near the refugee camp in which I was stationed. We had met because a Scotsman who had been in Sarawak since the Second World War and was married to an Iban primary school teacher introduced us.
Craft, the Englishman, was a singularly offensive man who embodied all the clichés that we’ve seen in British movies that feature self-congratulatory Brits lording it over the natives. He wore the de rigueur tan British walking shorts, white shirt, tan long socks, and brown leather shoes. He spoke some brand of the King’s English that would fool you with its elegance, even as the ideas being expressed were self-important, silly, and frequently violent. Craft’s white skin was actually red, rather like a new brick, I thought. The cause was a combination of the years of strong sunlight in which he had worked and the strong whiskey that he seemed to imbibe all day long. You consulted with Craft, if you had to at all, before noon on a given day. After that hour, you could expect whining, racist complaint for the rest of the day, fueled by the alcohol.
McGregor, the Scot, was well known in Sarawak for his complete understanding of the Iban language and its culture as well as being a fine rubber man who knew his trade. He always had the respect of the Ibans whom he trained and who worked for him. He also had a very thick Edinburgh accent that made conversation between him and me almost always comic. We made fun of each other’s strange manner of talk. My Californianisms often brought him to glee. “How is it, laddie,” he once asked me, “that anything gets done in that bloody place when you talk so strange?” We occasionally had to give one another vocabulary lessons.
One Saturday, while I was visiting with Craft and his wife, who was also British and red-skinned and, I had learned, could not bear her husband, an Iban came to their house in a panic. One of the Iban workmen had slashed his right leg with a machete and was bleeding badly. Swearing, Craft went into the house to get the keys to his Land Rover. I knew that he spoke no Iban, which I did, and I asked if I could come along to help. I had invaded Craft’s territory, I guess. He told me drunkenly to mind my own fucking business, Yank, and then held up a moment, to tell me that all my innocence and sobriety was just a ruse out here in this goddamned swamp where you couldn’t trust a bloody Iban to even know how to swing a goddamned machete. “So what help could a fool American be?”. He climbed into his Land Rover and was gone.
So was I. That was the last conversation I ever had with Craft.
Many years later, when I was finally writing stories based on what I’d seen in Sarawak, I remembered him and a scene I had witnessed in his office between Craft and McGregor’s then seven-year-old son. The boy spoke an amalgam of Scots English and Iban, a lingo that I and McGregor enjoyed quite a bit, but that was insulting to Craft. He had once said to me in private that English was bloody English, and that Iban was gargle, and “that boy can’t seem to negotiate either one.”.
I wrote a story titled “The Wee Manok,” in which all these characters appear in fictional form. It is one of several in the first book of mine ever published, titled The Day Nothing Happened. It came out from Mercury House in San Francisco (sadly now defunct) in 1988, and was edited by the wonderful Alev Lytle Croutier, with whom I am still close friends.
The Day Nothing Happened will be published in a new edition next year.
“The Wee Manok” ends rather differently from how I just described my experience with Craft himself. That’s okay with me, though, since his form of self-serving cruelty is of little interest and would make for bad fiction. He’s far more interesting to me in the way that I re-invented him for “The Wee Manok”, because I gave him a conscience. That ability to change one set of expectations (i.e the basic facts) into quite another (i.e. the final written story) is one of the great pleasures of doing fiction.
“The Wee Manok “ is available in digital form on Amazon. (Note: you’ll need the Kindle app, which is available at no cost for all devices.)
August 11, 2020
No one wishes to be frivolous about the current pandemic. It’s real and should be respected. Wear the mask. Don’t stand close. Pay attention to who is around you. Etc.
There is an aspect of the virus, though, that for me is no problem at all. I spent many years in corporate business, an endeavor that I did not much enjoy and am glad to have left, a departure that took place about fifteen years ago. Business did allow me to make some money, which very much helped in raising a family. It also enabled me to hone my skills as a conversationalist, skills that were always with me anyway, even without business. (Although, these days, business is so often done with computer engineers, with whom it is almost impossible to carry on a conversation. They know so little—I mean, what can you say with just a zero and a one?—and have few tools to clearly express that vacancy. But that’s another subject, for another day.)
I’ve been pursuing a different profession since I left business, which is to write fiction. One can argue that that’s hardly a profession, since it is close to impossible to make enough money to support yourself and a family on creative-writing-wages. But the one thing you must have to make that pursuit fruitful is time alone. I suspect no one has ever completed a novel while working in one of those workplace offices that have been the rage for the last few decades. Everybody in one room, long tables, workstations everywhere, noise and blather everywhere, and no privacy.
For the writer, solitude is the requirement for doing fiction. You are always alone and, if you have talent, are always involved in a complicated conversation with yourself. This sort of thing can often be difficult, which I think explains the bad fiction being written today, which, as far as I can see, is most of it. In a turmoil-ridden, dark world, many fiction writers fall into the trap of being driven into that darkness. So, these days we have buckets of novels written about how featureless life is. They are often slim volumes about small lives, in the manner of, say, Camus’s The Stranger, as in this, written by Camus himself: “She wanted to know if I loved her. I answered the same way I had the last time, that it didn’t mean anything but that I probably didn’t.” It may be that Camus was a good writer…maybe. At least he’s interesting in his character Meursault’s emotional dismissal of himself and everyone around him. But most of the contemporary novels that I’ve attempted reading that try to explain the current emotionally plain, viewless atmosphere are themselves viewless. Plain, as well. Yes, they give you an idea of what it is to live in these times of Corona virus shutdown and braggart presidential cluelessness. But, to get that, all you need do is look around. To write well about it is another matter. Simply spelling out the emotional failure that is the main subject of contemporary fiction —- one novel after another —- isn’t enough.
But, of course, the fine novel, rare as it is, is out there. You must keep looking. At least for now, García Márquez will have to do. His work still has it in spades, although his time has passed. Edith Wharton too, although even she would have trouble these days, since so much of her work depended on fascinating conversation between compelling women. Wharton’s characters were unhappy, but very much more than just unhappy.
It’s out there, that novel. It’s being written now…somewhere. We mustn’t give up. We’ll find it.
Terence Clarke’s novel The Splendid City, with Pablo Neruda as the central character, has been translated to Spanish by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. It will be published as La espléndida ciudad later this year.
#fiction #writingfiction #literaturaenespañol
August 8, 2020
As everyone knows, we’re in the midst of a pandemic. Tango itself was affected by another plague that took place in Buenos Aires in the nineteenth century.
The mosquito, and the Yellow Fever that it brought to Buenos Aires, killed eight percent of the population of the city in 1871 and reduced the overall population by one-third of its previous number as masses of people fled to safety.
This wasn’t the only such scourge to visit Buenos Aires. There had been other, smaller outbreaks of the Yellow Fever in 1852, 1858, and 1870. But 1871 was the worst year of the lot when, at its worst, five hundred porteños a day were dying from the disease.
A war on the part of Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil versus Paraguay (known as The War of The Triple Alliance) had been fought between 1864 and 1870. It was a particularly difficult struggle. Paraguay was defeated entirely and suffered what some estimates put at two hundred thousand deaths. Bad as that certainly was for paraguayos, the aftermath of the war was also a singular disaster for citizens of Buenos Aires. Argentine soldiers returning from the war brought the Yellow Fever with them, and the rest is history. Polluted drinking water, untreated human waste, and the hot, wet summer climate so welcoming to mosquitos were singular elements in the spread of the disease. The major one was that of the overcrowded conditions caused by the enormous influx of immigrants during that time from everywhere in the world to Buenos Aires.
This immigration story is one of the most famous of this storied city.
As in New York City, Buenos Aires was the arrival point for hundreds of thousands of impoverished immigrants from across Europe and countries farther to the east. Mostly packed into the famous conventillos, which were large tenement blocks built both privately and by the government, these people suffered enormously from the Buenos Aires epidemic. They had nowhere to go and no money to get there even if they could escape.
The black population of former slaves, although small by comparison to most of the immigrant groups arriving in the port, lived south of the city in generally miserable, poverty-stricken, and overcrowded conditions. Better-to-do white citizens began building neighborhoods in the northern part of the city, in order to distance themselves from the black and immigrant peoples. A 2013 article in the International Business Times says this: “It has been alleged that the president of Argentina from 1868 to 1874, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, sought to wipe out blacks from the country in a policy of covert genocide through extremely repressive policies (including possibly the forced recruitment of Africans into the army and by forcing blacks [by military means] to remain in neighborhoods where disease would decimate them in the absence of adequate health care.)”. That word “alleged” does little to reveal the truth of whether blacks were so treated, and I have not yet been able to determine the truth of what happened. What we do know is that the black population of Buenos Aires was reduced to almost nothing by the pandemic, whether or not they were surrounded by the army.
These losses account directly for the fact that one encounters so few black people today in Buenos Aires.
So…what does this have to do with tango? The basic rhythms of tango came to southern South America with black slaves from Western Africa, beginning in the sixteenth century. As with jazz in the United States, tango derived from those rhythms. Despite the many considerable elements in tango that came with other nationalities during the times of immigration, the basis for the music and dance forms is black. (Please see my recent piece, “Tango Negro”, for more of the details.)
We can only speculate about what tango music and dance would be like in our own time had the black population of Buenos Aires not been so decimated in the nineteenth century. My guess is that it would be much different from what we see today, in many important ways.
Terence Clarke’s non-fiction book, An Arena of Truth: Conflict in Black and White, is available in books stores everywhere and online.
July 15, 2020
In 1883, an Argentine writer named Ventura Lynch, who studied and wrote about tango and all its variations, described tango’s older relative, the milonga: “It is so universal in the environs of Buenos Aires that it is an obligatory piece at all the lower-class dances (in Lynch’s Spanish, “bailecitos de medio pelo”), and it is now heard on guitars, on paper-combs, and from the itinerant musicians with their flutes, harps and violins. It has also been taken up by organ-grinders…It is danced in low life clubs, and also at the dances and wakes of cart-drivers, the soldiery, and compadres and compadritos (i.e. streetwise ruffians and gangsters).”
This was written well before the tango’s own development in the twentieth century. But the milonga was already an ancient term, and referred to music and dance that was, in the days long before Lynch, not Argentine at all.
The famous early gauchos from the Argentine pampas and elsewhere in southern South America…lonely cowboys wandering from place to place in search of work…also sought entertainment. They found it in their own “payadas,” which were verse-competitions in which a gaucho, with his guitar, would sing a verse of his own making, and a second gaucho would respond with a competing verse, an answer to the first payador’s offering. Inventive rhyming language back and forth was the goal, accompanied by guitar, with quick thinking and improvisation the method.
Some of these gauchos were black, and before 1861, the year slavery was outlawed everywhere in Argentina, many of the servants and country working class were black slaves. They had been brought to Argentina from the Niger-Congo regions of Africa, where the many Bantu languages and dialects are spoken. One theory has it that these slaves, not understanding the Spanish in which the payadas were sung, and noting how much language there was in the competitions, referred to them with the word mulonga, which is the Bantu for the Spanish palabra, or the English “word.”
So these payadas were a lot of talk, and with time, the competitive gatherings became known more universally throughout Argentina as milongas.
Dance was not far behind, and at first it was an individual expression, in which a gaucho (probably bottle in hand, his movements fired by drink) would dance to the payadores’ music by himself. Simple, a step to every beat of the music, rough-and-ready solo moves were the earmarks of the early milonga dance.
Sometimes, the men would dance with each other…milonga’s earliest appearance as a couples event. Later, as the music and dance moved toward the city in the nineteenth century, the presence of women became a reality (usually women of not much virtue). The phenomenon was deeply influenced by the black former slaves, whose presence in Buenos Aires made a permanent mark on the music and, especially, the dance. The best-known rhythms were the habanera and the traspié, the syncopations that we now always hear and see in contemporary milonga. Both are of African origin.
With time, the milonga became not only a music form in its own right, but also the single word that would describe a gathering of people coming together to dance. So,—¡Vamos, chicos, a la milonga! “Let’s go, guys, to the milonga!”
Terence Clarke’s novel, The Splendid City, with the great Pablo Neruda as the central character, will be published later this year in a Spanish-language translation by noted Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. Titled La espléndida ciudad.
July 3, 2020
Few black people live in Buenos Aires. This has not always been so. As in other countries, black slaves were brought to Argentina from the 16th century well into the 19th, a total of about four million people. Some became gauchos in the pampas, the great, flat plains that take up so much of the center of Argentina. Most others were sent to cities, towns and farming regions in the hinterland provinces. In Buenos Aires itself through those centuries, there was an ongoing population of about eight thousand black Africans who worked as domestics or in various craft labors.
If you ask a porteño why there are so few blacks in Buenos Aires now, you’ll get a few different answers, all of which are evasive. My favorite came from a well-born Buenos Aires society matron whom I met who was visiting an Argentine friend in San Francisco, where I live. “Oh, they didn’t care for it and decided to go somewhere else,” she explained. I think she actually believed what she was saying, especially given the air of wealth-bound cluelessness that her entire conversation exhibited. (But that’s another, and comic, story.) It is true that, for porteños in general, most of the black experience in Buenos Aires has simply been forgotten, erased or denied.
But, indeed, the blacks who lived in Buenos Aires didn’t “decide” to go somewhere else. Thousands were forcibly recruited into the Argentine army, to fight in the terrible war between Argentina and Paraguay from 1865 through 1870. A very large number of black soldiers died in that endeavor. Also, and famously, yellow fever infested the shores of the Rio de La Plata, on the southern bank of which Buenos Aires is located. It is generally thought that the fever was introduced by Argentines returning from the war with Paraguay. The pandemic invaded all the poorer neighborhoods of the south of the city, and thousands of blacks died from it. The current north of the city of Buenos Aires includes a few still quite wealthy neighborhoods that were first built by more moneyed whites trying to escape that plague. They left the blacks behind, for the most part convinced that blacks were the carriers of the disease and should be abandoned.
Through inter-marriage with whites, those blacks left were subsumed into the larger population and, in effect, black people per.se. almost literally disappeared from Buenos Aires.
But not their influence.
Most of the slaves came from west Africa. As in the United States, they brought their forms of music with them, particularly in the rhythms that later became known in Argentina by such names as habanera, milonga, traspié, murga, candombe, chacarera and others. European immigrants by the many thousands also brought their forms of music to Buenos Aires, and tango is surely a melting together of all these traditions. But it goes without saying that tango’s rhythmic base is African in origin. (For a more detailed description of the African influence on South American music in general and, more specifically, tango, click here.)
In 2013, Angolan filmmaker Dom Pedro made a documentary titled Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango. You can find it on PrimeVideo.
Basically it has two parts. The first is an ongoing conversation with the stellar Argentine pianist and vocalist Juan Carlos Cáceres (who was to die in 2015.) Cáceres lived in Paris for decades but devoted much of his spirited music and deep scholarship to studies of the influence of blacks on the history of tango. He explains here many of these different rhythms, where they came from, and where they can be found in tango. His knowledge is encyclopedic, and his musicianship is terrific.
The second half of the film features many black musicians still living in Argentina and just across the river in Uruguay, who well understand the rhythmic basis of tango and are attempting to keep those rhythms alive. The music they play in this film provides a clear demonstration of where tango came from, and is wonderful.
For a look at the Tango Negro trailer, click here.
(Terence Clarke’s 2019 novel, The Splendid City, has been translated to Spanish by Chilean novelist Jaime Collyer. Titled La espléndida ciudad, it will be published later this year.)