Sunday 26 January 2020

Crossing the Tramuntana to Deià

Both names have such a magical ring about them, as of remote places, but Valldemossa in the Sierra de Tramuntana can be reached in half an hour by bus from the wonderful city of Palma, and Deià in 50 minutes. I'm glad we devoted one full afternoon to Valldemossa - covered here - and the next to Deià, for both need savouring (and for longer, in fact, than we had -we even thought we could live there for part of the year). I'm sure that in the summer these places become unbearable, but they were almost eerily quiet on the winter solstice days.

Had not intended to visit Robert Graves's home here, and could not in any case because it was closed, with elusive opening hours throughout the winter, but I did go straight back to the glossy bookshop in Palma's Gran Hotel and pick up the copy I'd seen of William Graves's Wild Olives. Plainly but clearly written, it leaves us in no doubt that growing up in Deià with locals for friends was bliss, that the fascination with this enclosed demi-paradise remained lifelong (though family complications and upsets soon multiplied).

It also reminds us that the unspoilt area owes much, if not everything, to the poet's intervention. Somewhat paradoxical, since in the 1920s his partner Laura Riding had planned for a university to be built above the unique cove, the Cala, development prevented by a landslide, and that Graves himself had thought of letting the land be built on at various stages. But there it sill is, this miraculous small harbour reached by a path and a road through a ravine, with nothing down there open on the shortest day of the year when we visited.

My original plan had been to walk up over the mountain from Valdemossa via es Caragoli at 945 metres and down the steeper side - which the very friendly owner of the Bar-ristorante es Roquissar i that lovely town's main square said he thought was still the best of the many he'd done in the Tramuntana - but J's torn hamstring prevented; he was brave to join me in the walk down one side of the valley to the Cala from Deià and back up the other. Even so, the change of light and atmosphere as we descended from the high plains around Valldemossa to the seaward side was spectacular - clouds and mists were still rolling around at that time in the morning. And the sun only just stayed above the rockface of the Teix beyond Deià, casting sharp angles of light and shadow both at the time of our arrival

and as we waited for the bus back, when the sun was about to retreat behind the mountain.

We couldn't quite work out the centre of the village at first; the few fellow tourists who got off the bus with us dispersed, and there was no-one, seemingly nothing open. We made our way up es Puig, the hill in the southern part of Deià, to the church, past the plaques marking the stations of the cross which William Graves mentions in his description of one memorable Easter. A few well-dressed folk were chatting inside the church after the Sunday service. Its interior, originally from 1497 but much rebuilt after a fire in the mid-18th century, has a much-loved feel about it. Its nominal saint, John the Baptist, has a special chapel with a curious font and a not unpleasing 19th century painting on its apse.

Never seen a crucified Christ in a skirt before.

Otherwise, Christmas decorations lightly adorned a decent altarpiece

and the crib here had been assembled with much love, and a kind of post-Impressionist representation of the Serra de Tramuntana behind it.

Robert Graves has a simple stone in the graveyard, naming him simply as 'poeta',

and the cemetery gives Deià inhabitants the best views in the entire place.

From here we descended via a row of houses with an unruffled cat on a roof

to find a path through the olive groves down to the Cala.What infinite fascination and variety there is in the forms of the olive. I'll revert to George Sand in A Winter in Majorca:

The forceful yet bizarre shapes of these olive trees, these Majorcan foster-fathers, are unequalled. The islanders swear that no olive plantation is more recent than the time of the Romans. Even if I wished to, I cannot dispute this, for I have no way of proving the contrary. After one look at their daunting appearance, the incredible size and frenzied attitudes of these mysterious trees, my imagination voluntarily accepted them as contemporaries of Hannibal. 

In the evening, when walking in their shade, you have to remind yourself that they are trees; for if you believe your imagination and what your eyes see, you would be terror-stricken by these fantastic monsters, some bending over towards you like enormous dragons, with gaping jaws and wings outspread; others coiled up on themselves like boa-constrictors; others, like giant wrestlers, locked together in furious combat. Here, a galloping centaur carrying a hideous monkey on his rump; there some nameless reptile devouring a panting doe; further on, a satyr dancing with a he-goat a little uglier than himself; and often a single tree, split, gnarled, twisted and deformed, which you mistake for a group of ten different trees, passes off as all these different monsters and unites once again to form a single head, as horrible as an Indian fetish, crested with a single green branch...

In order to convey the splendour of these sacred trees, from which one expects to hear the sounds of prophetic voices, and the glittering sky against which their sharp silhouettes are drawn, nothing less than Rousseau's bold and impressive brushstrokes are needed.

Brief pausa with an oak in the foreground now, olive trees only distant here.

Let's also not forget the lines from Graves's poem 'The Oleaster', quoted as epigraph to his son's memoir:

No, here they never plant the sweet olive
As some do (bedding slips in a prepared trench),
But graft it on the club of Hercules
The savage, inexpugnable oleaster
Whose roots and bole bunching from limestone crannies
Spout impudent shoots born only to be lopped
Spring after Spring.

Plentiful bees and butterflies flanked our route, until we joined the traffic-free road

down through the narrower rocky defile to the harbour, following the stream which eventually comes out alongside the resting boats.

I'd brought my bathing trunks, but the sea was too swelly and splashy

so we sat in the sun on the terrace of the now-closed cafe-restaurant for half on hour, looking down on the bay and south-west to more pine-capped cliffs

before walking back up to the lunch we'd hoped to find here. I took an alternative route to the right, passing donkeys on the loose and passing a father and daughter who were out walking with a baby lamb, which they were helping over a stile. Other views opened up here, of the olive terraces below the church

and beyond, the Puig des Teix

which was also framed helpfully by lemon trees back in town.

I came back via the main drag, where there were several cafes and restaurants open, but J failed to materialise; he had reached Graves's house, Ca N'Alluny, and thought he was already in town, so another half hour of precious lunching time passed. When he appeared, we bought the most sensational slices of spinached bread and sandwiches from the local store - full of wonderful things - and sat on the wall outside in the last of the late afternoon sun, witnessing the formation of huge numbers of seabirds which I've pictured here already - another shot won't do any harm -

before catching the bus back to Palma, and a last sunset on the stupendous cathedral. But the wonders of the old town are for another post.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

Ryszard Kapuściński: angles and ambiguities

'What angle are you going to take?' some folk asked when I was working on Prokofiev volume one. To which the only answer could, rather primly, be: 'there is no one angle, only multiple angles'. No biography I've ever read has been more scrupulous in weighing up the complexities of its subject than Artur Domosławski's fascinating study of his more-than-journalist colleague Ryszard Kapuściński.

Immortal throughout the world above all for his takes on Haile Selassie in The Emperor and on the last of the Pahlavis in Shah of Shahs (the singular covers of my old paperback copies pictured below), Kapuściński's facts in these very individual masterpieces seem to have been essentially true but deliberately loose in detail, sometimes simply fictional. 'You can rebuild reality,' he told another Polish reporter, 'but taking authentic elements from that reality', concluding 'Reportage as a genre is going through an evolution from journalism to literature'.

Yet neither when reading those key texts nor watching the compelling Kathryn Hunter in the stage adaptation of The Emperor - in which she plays multiple characters at the court of Selassie - did I take on board their roles as metaphors for the regime under which Kapuściński lived in his native Poland, which he supported as loyal socialist - as distinct from a Soviet Communist - for so many years but developed an ambiguous attitude towards in later years (it was only with some reluctance that he eventually took sides with the Solidarność movement, understanding that it was more about the 'human dignity' he wrote so much about than about wages. This is a compelling story in itself which takes up the larger part of Domosławski's Chapter 30.

Some things are clear: crucially, that wherever he travelled on the continents where popular, anti-colonial uprisings were multiplying, he wanted to live among ordinary people, to see the conflict from their points of view. This quotation, from an interview in the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, sums it up well:

I do not believe in impartial journalism. I do not believe in formal objectivity. A journalist cannot be an indifferent witness, he should have the capacity for what in psychology is called empathy....So-called objective journalism is impossible in conflict situations. Attempts at objectivity in such situations lead to disinformation. 

He never changed in that stance. His evasiveness over so much else, however, provokes some murky grey areas, and here Domosławski's untiring quest for different voices, other points of view is so impressive. The biographer is wry about the absence of women in his writing - 'Kapuscinski the man may love the female half of humanity more, but Kapuściński the reporter rarely notices it' - and the inequality in the relationship with his marvellous wife Alicja.

Domosławski adopts Kapuscinski's notion of collecting diverse apercus under the title of Lapidaria, and the fifth of these in the biography, asking 'Was Kapuściński a Thinker?', touches one special essence. The journalist Wiktor Osiatyński, who raised the question with his friend abut why he didn't write a serious book about the observations in the Lapdaria, opines that 'a thinker makes generalizations, creates syntheses and looks for similarities. Rysiek was the opposite - he looked for differences, his world was he world of detail, and he was brilliant at showing those details, the various colours of the world'. Osiatyński adds that 'what he said about globalisation was an intellectual discovery for me: that here we are watching globalisation on CNN, but meanwhile, vast stretches of the world are going through the opposite process - de-globalisation, which means separating themselves from the rest'.

From our alarming perspective, eight years after the biography was published (and translated, it would seem excellently, by Antonia Lloyd-Jones), Kapuściński's thoughts on the drawbacks of liberal democracy in the west, which meant for him that Marx was still pertinent, make potent reading:

Our entire world has become a great big amusement centre. Entertainment has become the main content of culture. And as both consumption and entertainment demand peace and a pleasant atmosphere, the media have started to create this atmosphere for us, by shifting the world's real problems out of our sight: poverty, hunger, diseases and wars.

Thanks to this we have forgotten that we, the people of the West, are only a small part of mankind on our planet, and that our entertainment and amusement are accompanied by a deepening division in the world, growing inequalities.

How we now see that this ignorance brings the problems boomeranging back on us. A later correlation observed by Kapuściński is that 'everywhere the strength and wealth of the centre are growing, while the outskirts are getting weaker and poorer'. That's certainly one of the roots of the mess that we in Britain find ourselves now. The American present, too, is foreshadowed in the book he wanted to write about Idi Amin, Donald Trump with a much higher body-count, requiring 'a climate of universal mendacity...The truth cannot be just a little twisted, it must be completely reversed'. He notes Popper's observation that 'ignorance is not just a simple lack of knowledge, but an ATTITUDE, an attitude of refusal, an attitude of dissent against accepting knowledge. The fool REFUSES to know...' And here we are at the grim beginning of 2020, facing problems which Domosławski did not necessarily foresee, but which Kapuściński had already begun to prophesy. Ultimately, yes, a very great man.

Saturday 11 January 2020

Chopin and George Sand in Valldemossa

They came here on 15 December 1838 because they'd been kicked out of their lodgings near Palma. News had spread of Chopin's tuberculosis - a condition which Sand, his lover and devoted carer, refused to believe - and when the rains came, water had poured into the sick room. The 14th century charterhouse in Valldemossa had recently been de-monked and turned over to the authorities during the civil war which had left Mallorca in turmoil; it would offer them isolation, peace and a better climate in the Tramuntana mountains.

The Mallorcan sojourn was not going so well, and Sand's anti-clerical stance, along with the fact that she dressed herself and her daughter in men's/boys clothes and smoked cigars, alienated them from the local populace. Chopin's worsening condition and the wretched weather meant they left after 59 days in Valldemossa. Sand's account of a very mixed time,  A Winter in Mallorca, has been pilloried for her high-handedness and mockery of the island people, but I love its spirit and energy. Discussing the destroyed Dominican Monastery in Palma, she rails against the horrors of the Inquisition carried out there, and she is scathing about the Catholic cult of Valldemossa's holy girl Catalina Tomás, whose chapel we came across when we walked around the lower town (the plaques marking the stations of the cross around it are on houses in showcase condition, though we saw no-one apart from a couple of old ladies visiting the shrine and a singular cat - see lower down).

At no time has the Roman Church refused to honour in the Heavenly Kingdom the humblest children of the people, but times have come where she has condemned and rejected those of her apostles who try to improved their existence in this earthly kingdom. The pagesa [peasant girl] Catalina was obedient, poor, chaste and humble; but the Valldemossan pagès have profited so little from her example, and understood so little of her life, that one day they tried to stone my children, for they regarded as desecration the fact that my son was sketching the ruin of the Charterhouse. They behaved exactly like the Church, with one hand they kindled the auto-da-fé pyres, and with the other hand they burned incense before the effigies of her saints.

George's 15-year-old son Maurice has left very flavoursome pictorial documents of that time - there's a reproduction of one in the cell-museum which I hadn't seen before, of Chopin, mama and the children being informed by the Valldemossa priest about the nature of snow (as if we didn't know, Maurice wryly adds).

Having read tales of rival claims to 'the Chopin/Sand cell' from the monastery proper and Chopinesque competition, I was dubious about the gaudy claims outside to the 'real' lodgings, for which you have to pay separately. But it seems that 'Celda No. 4' is the right one, and since it had the Pleyel piano shipped from France which arrived rather late in their sojourn there, it had to be seen. And I was glad I took the plunge. What they don't publicise is the beauty of the garden terrace and one of those views which, Sand wrote, 'completely overwhelm one, for it leaves nothing to be desired and nothing to the imagination. All that a poet or painter might dream of, Nature has created here'.

The 'cell' is not as austere as you might imagine, even though Chopin compared his room to a tall, upright coffin with vaulting. Approached - the entrance is along from the cloister gateway -

via a lugubrious passageway

and heralded with various letterings - I've cut out the gaudy gold proclamation above here -

it's a suite of three rooms, all with windows and doors giving out on to the terrace.

There are facsimiles of Chopin's manuscript for the Preludes and original letters concerning the procurement and delivery of the Pleyel, and yes, there is the piano itself.

Until it arrived, Chopin allegedly played and composed on a specially constructed Mallorcan pianino, which if Paul Kildea is correct in his recent book on the subject, passed into the hands of Wanda Landowska. What he composed on which piano is never going to be known, but it is certain that some of his darkest inspirations were penned there, spooked as he so seriously was by his surroundings: the central juggernaut of  the D flat major Prelude, nicknamed "Raindrop" because of its incessant A flats turning into G sharps in the middle section; the wild outburst which shatters the trotting composure of the F minor Ballade; and the C sharp minor Scherzo.

We got to Valldemossa in little more than half an hour on a morning bus from Palma. Our host at the Bar-Ristorante es Roquessar in the main square told us that the week before Christmas was unnaturally quiet this year, and that there was no point in staying open of an evening. This was the equal-first-best meal we had in Mallorca - alongside those in our Palma regular, l' ambigú - and we spent longer than planned just sitting watching the sporadic activity in the square (a kid playing delightedly with the leaves dancing in the wind, a couple that swept through photographing everything, an ugly and persistent cat with a very odd meow). Mostly, though, it was deserted. This is the view across to the restaurant from the entrance to the cell-museum.

J wasn't going to see the cell, but once I'd been I insisted he did, which gave me another 20 minutes sitting in the late afternoon sun.

After that we wandered down to the lower part of town,

conversed with a very leonine cat by the chapel to Catalina.

peered down various alleys giving views to the verdant hills beyond

and I took a bigger loop around because I wanted to see the monastery terraces from below (hence the lead picture here). The next day was marked out for Deia, 20 minutes further on by bus, and that offered wonders of another sort, to be chronicled anon.