My Lesson in Spanish

OF ALL MY HEROES, from those who fought on the battlefields, to those who elevated sport from the banal to the artistic, to those who wrote prose and poetry that attacked my sensibilities, perhaps the greatest of them is Christopher Hitchens. For me, he stands in a small elite group beside Marco Pantani, George Orwell, Bruce Lee and Napoleon Bonaparte as those with whom I would most like to spend an evening. It is an eclectic group. I would hazard, however, that if we were all to sit down for dinner, it would be Hitchens who would dominate conversation.

Never short of an opinion, usually at the blunt end of the reactionary rod that would prod insistently at our preconceptions. He was perhaps the greatest essayist and polemicist of the last fifty years. He died bravely facing cancer square-on and never wavered from defending his position or those of his friends, not least Salman Rushdie’s over his decade-long fatwah. He stood for free speech, democracy in its purest form, the rights of the individual, and was by far the most intelligent and resistant of both the ogre of Stalinism as well as the kitsch of the Western Capitalist phenomena amongst his peers.

But like Marco Pantani, he had his faults. In a literary vein, for one thing, he never chanced his arm at fiction. For another, his early writing in particular can be unsavoury and sneering. There is something unbecoming in his writing at times. His more or less persistent hatred of Clinton and Mother Theresa can also easily pass from being logical and penetrative in its insights to being merely bilious in its tone. His brutal attack on Henry Kissinger was met by the Literary Review with the following: ‘This book is so studiedly defamatory that if Kissinger values his reputation, he really must sue.’

Aside from his acerbic tone, however, he had also two other, less obvious faults. The first is that he insisted boastfully that he had no interest in sport. To my mind this makes for a less useful polemicist, and one who lacks a particularly important dimension. Is sport not the very apex of human civilization – allowing the battles that were once fought bloodily between two opposing perspectives to be waged in the safe environs of a contrived arena.

The second is that he showed little interest in any literature not written in the language of English. Once again, to my mind, this detracts from his work. In the preface to one of the collections of his essays – a book called Unacknowledged Legislation – he specifically addresses this blind-spot. ‘I cannot apologise,’ he writes, ‘For the fact that my subjects are almost all English or American or Anglo-American. For one thing, I am mainly English and have no competence in any other tongue. For another, the Anglo-American idiom is well on its way to being what Kipling and others always hoped for, albeit in a different guise: a world language. A world language, that is, without being an imperial one.’

Here is precisely the sort of dismissive arrogance that has detracted so much from his arguments on more rational topics. Whilst Kipling was an important colonial writer of his time, one can hardly compare him to a Dostoyevsky or to a more contemporary writer such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It would be equivalent to choosing the Sun newspaper over the New York Times for one’s reading matter on a transcontinental flight. It is a barren notion that the canon of Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, or Swahili literature should be more or less utterly ignored because of an aversion that Hitchens had to dabbling in other languages.

In contrast, I have always been an avid admirer of JM Coetzee, who, as legend would have it, taught himself fluent Russian, just so that he would be able to read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in its original tongue. As a graduate student at a school he was teaching at, I can confess there were many stories that surrounded his mystical presence at the university. He grew his own vegetables by a window-sill and ate only vegan foods. He refused to make use of motor vehicles for transport and either walked or cycled everywhere he needed to be. And not only did he read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in Russian, he read Mario Vargas Llosa in Spanish, and he read Guy de Maupassant in French.

I can remember as crisply as if it were yesterday him reading a passage from The Master of Petersburg, a particularly moving piece in which the character of Fyodor Dostoyevsky has left Switzerland to visit the gravesite in Petersburg of his own son Pavel, who has died in mysterious circumstances, possibly through suicide. In the scene he read from, Dostoyevsky is standing by the grave itself, thinking: … so this is how it feels, one week after. Knowing that Coetzee himself had lost his own teenage son to suicide, this choice of passage seemed to me to be inviolably brave and it was this thought that was going through my head when the absolute stillness of the room was interrupted by an elderly and irritated lady who stated that she would expect the reader to read more loudly since no-one in the room could hear him. Granted: the reading was part of the winter plus program at the university. It had over the years become populated with a predominantly octogenarian set, who would wander down, after each lunchtime break, to the coffee shop that I and my peers had commandeered from the first week of first-year studies – regarded by us as ground zero for cutting-edge thinking. To our minds, our coffee habit had, as had the reading itself, been frontally attacked by the banality of latter-life learners.

It was right then, if I recall accurately, whilst impatiently waiting for a particularly jittery old lady to skirmish her purse for the precise change she needed to pay for her piece of red velvet cake, that I decided categorically that I would make it one of my life’s great purposes to learn fluently another language. Sufficiently fluently that is, to read one of the great canonised works in that chosen language. At the time I had been reading a great deal of what was known as magical realism and had particularly fallen in love with the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. One Hundred Years of Solitude was to me a warm, beautiful, flowing river of delectable reading experience when compared with the harrowing formality and obscure complexity of, for example, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo. Both were set on the continent of South America, and both had an historical novel feel to them. However, whereas Conrad preferred English over all other languages, famously teaching himself English aboard merchant ships in his late teens and unlearning his Polish mother tongue, Marquez chose Spanish, his mother tongue.

And so, there was nothing further to be discussed. When asked what I would do in my gap year it was quite simple – I would go to Central America, I would learn Spanish, I would read all of Marquez, and Llosa, and all of the others, even Cervantes. There was the small matter of my girlfriend at the time, and her desire rather than traipsing through the Central American jungle to visit Eastern Europe just post the collapse of the Soviet machine. In retrospect, and at the time, it was to me a depressing prospect. I was compelled, after only a week in Prague, to leave her and Eastern Europe in haste for the heat and lure of Mexico. When she was in Sofia, I was in Chihuahua, and by the time she had visited Bucharest I was in the jungles of the Chiapas. When she got back to Budapest, to fly via Athens back to South Africa, I was only just starting, having discovered the ancient city of Antigua Guatemala. It is a gorgeous town with cobble-stoned streets, coffee shops, book shops, and local bars. The smell of chocolate and cinnamon wafts through the narrow streets that surround the zocalo as women boil the dark sauce in brass drums in hidden courtyards.

I holed up in a single room with a shared bathroom in an old decrepit building in the oldest part of town, and decided I would stay, here, for some time, until I mastered Spanish. To make the most of my time there, and to ensure success, I decided to enlist in an immersion school. Daily lessons, no English at all, eating and cleaning and living with elderly local folk in town who had no other option economically. They let into their homes a cornucopia of young foreigners to be immersed in Spanish. Generally, the rules were strictly followed – no English. But of course we met outside after dinner at a bar nearby and we immediately reverted to English.

I was three weeks in when, out of jealousy for another traveller who I had seen ride into town on a chopper, I made the sudden decision that life had become overly sedentary and that it was imperative to buy a motorcycle and travel through the Darien Gap to South America. I bought the first bike I saw for sale, a 750cc shaft-drive Yamaha. I asked a young American violinist woman whom I had met at a coffee shop to join me, and off we set for the Honduran north coast. Because that is where the Mosquito Coast is, I told her when she asked. Why would we want to go to the Mosquito Coast, she asked. Because that is where Paul Theroux’s book is set, The Mosquito Coast. Ah, she said, and off we set.

And so it was that my Spanish was lost. Or more precisely, it was not properly gained. A conversation with a taxi driver here or there, a short visit to Spain for a conference or a sporting event, even a relatively substantive conversation on local Castilian politics with a well-meaning waiter – but never enough Spanish to even think of reading El Principito, never mind wading through something as dense and complex as Cien Anos de Soledad.

At the realisation that my 44th birthday was looming, and facing some time alone in Johannesburg, I decided that it was a perfect idea to take off five days for a quick sojourn to Buenos Aires, with a determination to speak not a word of English for the entire trip. There would be no excuse – English was banned, and when spoken to me by a taxi driver or a waiter, I would gently remonstrate against them by saying the equivalent in Spanish of: look, I am trying here, and you can practice your English on the next tourist.

Now, to be clear, it was not as if I had learnt nothing during those three weeks of immersion in Antigua, Guatemala. And it was not as if I had never touched the language since. In the twenty years between Guatemala and my 44th birthday I had frequently found myself in a South American country for one reason or another: Peru to see the western reaches of the Amazon, El Calafate to get to see the Torres del Paine. I had also visited Spain on several occasions, Madrid and Barcelona several times. I had visited Gaudi’s amazing cathedral, the Picasso museum, and most impressively the Joan Miro museum. To get there I had taken the telepherique that carries one surprisingly precariously from the port, across the industrial harbour, over the super-yachts and the oil tankers, and then up the slopes that ring the city. One is given the sense of ascending the Mount, rising above the fish, and the beach and the bustling quaintness of the barrio of Barcelonetta, above the hotels and the old statues and the beautiful eighteenth century buildings.

Nevertheless, none of these previous trips had had the prior conviction and sole purpose of shoving Spanish into my head, at the specific exclusion of English. I pondered on the flight to Sao Paolo – a necessary lay-over to get to Buenos Aires from South Africa – that a measure of success would be to wake up on day five of my sojourn having dreamt a dream in Spanish. A lofty thought and unlikely, but the idea was solid. I would resign myself to the difficulties and loneliness of restricted communication because I would then be properly immersed. A switch would flick in my head, and I would suddenly, albeit poorly, be speaking Spanish.

Over the years I had also practiced my conjugations from a Collins handbook. I had learnt to conjugate at least fifty verbs in the present tense, including many of the irregulars. Yo vengo y voy for I come and go, as an example. I knew enough to know that whereas in English there is only one concept for the notion of ‘having’, there are two ways of ‘having’ in Spanish. I had also learnt to say ‘I am drunk’, limited to the present tense, to say that ‘he is an arsehole’, again limited to the present tense, and ‘where are the toilets’, quite reasonably and once again, in the present tense.

I had also come across some subtle differences between the two languages. There are words in English that have a single meaning irrespective of context, that in Spanish require different words to convey their intrinsic meaning. As an example, whether it is my mother, or it is my lover to whom I refer, I will say ‘I love you’ at the end of a letter. In Spanish the direct translation would be to use the verb amor. However, it would perhaps be more passionate to end one’s letter to one’s lover by using a conjugation of the verb querer – to want, as in t’quiero, rather than the dour verb amor. In Spanish there is love in the Victorian sense, and then there is love in the sense that Arthur Rimbaud might have meant it. And they are different. One does love one’s mother, but hopefully not too passionately.

But these differences in the language of passion I already knew before landing in Buenos Aires. I had visited Argentina three years earlier and I had seen quite a bit of social disruption and civil disobedience, from the burning of tyres in streets – a demonstration against poor electricity delivery in that case – to petty crime, begging, and unemployment. What I had not yet seen in Argentina, and what I had only ever before seen in Cuba some ten years previously, was the complete failure of the monetary and banking system. The meaning itself of the credit note, that is the note of exchange backed by the central bank as a convenient means by which one can exchange goods, had become an undermined concept. It was impossible, I discovered on day two, to buy a ticket to a movie with a bank card. Foreign bank cards were not accepted, the reason given being excessive fraud rates. The actual reason was in fact the punishing effect of the government-imposed pegged exchange rate to the dollar at nine and a half. The street rate was more like sixteen. In order to buy a leather jacket at Zara I needed to exchange dollar notes for pesos since neither dollar notes nor credit cards were accepted. I became in fact genuinely concerned that I would run out of dollar notes and would be restricted to eating and drinking only in my hotel room or at the hotel bar because of an inability to pay. And this was a nation that at the turn of the twentieth century was the seventh most powerful economy on earth.

Nevertheless, motivated to engage in Spanish in spite of any challenge, and chomping at the bit with excitement with the Rugby World Cup fever that I expected to find throughout Buenos Aires, I went in search of a decent bar at which I could watch the South Africa versus New Zealand semi-final match to be played at Twickenham. Argentina themselves – Los Pumas – had qualified handsomely for their own semi-final match that would be played the next day against Australia. So, given the time zone difference, I was to be engulfed in daytime rugby watching in one of my favourite cities on earth, fully immersed in Spanish commentary, and surrounded by Argentine fans. As fate would have it, when I finally found a bar in Recoletta that I liked, I was surrounded by Uruguayan fans who had a cursory interest in how South Africa would fare against the might of the greatest rugby team the game has ever seen, the current All Blacks side. I found a bar stool, made friends, and insisted on being addressed in Spanish.

‘Cinco dias solo espanol,’ I explained. They smiled. I hope, I thought, against all hope, that somehow the gods smile upon our young South African side and let the odd-shaped ball fall our way so to speak. ‘Como dice en espanol?‘ I asked. ‘Como dice hope?’ ‘Esperanza,’ was the answer. ‘Como dice I hope? Espero?’ ‘Si’ was the answer. ‘Bueno,’ I said and watched in hope as the South African fly-half paused significantly before taking yet another long range penalty.

Later, after the Springboks had lost the game, I walked to the park and watched a pair of dancers tango on the cobbled-stoned square and they were good and I felt sort of happy and peaceful.

I went back to the hotel and decided to make something of my Saturday night and go off well-dressed and manicured to the Faena hotel. Now, if one has never been to the Faena hotel, then one should imagine a beautiful, ornately and eclectically furnished modern hotel built in open-brick semi-industrial style, whose entire focus is on a single large wading depth pool with an enormous gold crown ‘floating’ in its centre. It is known to host fantastic pool parties with deep house DJs, populated by well-heeled thirty-something tourists mainly from the US. On arrival I made my way straight to the glorious library bar. A grand piano, the long black marble bar, and a series of deep buttoned cream couches make up the room. I ordered a double Glenfiddich eighteen year-old and went to the pool deck to smoke a cigarette. The hotel, the hallway, the restaurant, and the bar were all silent, no music at all was playing and there were only a few foreign guests. It was a paradox for a Saturday night.

I asked in my poor Spanish whether they might recommend a nearby bar or club where there would be more activity. ‘No hay lugares abiertos esta noche,’ I was told. ‘Porque?’ I asked perplexed. ‘Porque manana hay elecionnes.

Now, to be clear, I had been diligently watching CNN and Fox News for a half an hour a day, just to keep up, but in breach of my five day only Spanish rule. I had seen that a hurricane of tremendous magnitude but of relatively small diameter was approaching the west coast of Mexico at great pace. And I had seen Hillary Clinton grilled by a formidable group of Republicans for a period of over nine hours during the Senate House Committee investigation into the death of the US ambassador in Benghazi. But I have to admit that I had not seen a single reference to the forthcoming general election that was to take place the very next day in the country that I was now visiting. And to boot: a general election in a country that had frequently defaulted on sovereign debt in the last decade.

A pang of deep embarrassment washed over me as I was looking over my cigarette at the earnest young olive-skinned face of the waiter. He was patiently explaining this most fundamental of local facts. I knew, I told him – again in poor Spanish – that their rugby team, Los Pumas, had made the semi-final and I knew too the names of several of their players. I was to learn that there were six candidates running for president but only three should be taken seriously. I was to learn also that voter turn-out would be very high and that he himself would be voting. This was not necessarily an instance of democracy at work, but rather it was a case of it being obligatorio throughout Argentina, meaning that up to thirty million eligible voters would potentially turn out. Anyone eighteen years in age or over must vote, I was earnestly told. There is a fine of one hundred pesos if one doesn’t vote. We had moved to English without me realising.

‘But seriously,’ I asked. ‘Where is a cool nightclub where I can get a drink? Some folk can vote in the afternoon,’ I jokingly suggested. ‘No,’ he said. ‘You don’t understand. ‘Everywhere is closed. It is illegal to serve alcohol the night before an election.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Because then people won’t vote.’ ‘Surely drunk people can vote,’ I sparred. ‘Not here,’ he said very sternly. ‘Here it is illegal.’ ‘But surely it is your own choice,’ I pressed him. ‘Surely that is the point of democracy. Como dice en espanol? How do you say in Spanish? Choice?’ He looked at me with infinite patience and sincerity in his eyes, not a smoker I thought glibly.

And he said: ‘Eleccion. Choice. That is the word for choice. Eleccion.’

Waiting for the taxi to take me back to Recoletta I unconsciously used the infinitive verb esperar, meaning to wait. ‘Yo espero por un taxi’, I told the bellman. He hailed me one and we were off through the streets back from the harbour just across from La Boca where Diego Maradona grew up and first kicked a football. To wait in Spanish is the equivalent word that one would use for hope. To hope conversely is to wait, I thought. The streets were still movie-set quiet. To hope, I thought, is to wait, it is true. The action of hoping is precisely that, it is inaction. It is expecting something to happen over which one has no control.

When first I had set off to travel the world some twenty years previously, first to Central Europe and then to escape to Central America, my parents had seen me off at the airport. The scene took place at what is now known as O.R Tambo, but what was then, and still largely remains a uniquely ugly example of apartheid-era anxiety architecture. My mother handed me a wrapped book which I unwrapped once through customs. It was Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss. In it was a full page note she had written to me on the inside cover and I cherish it to this day.

If one remembers, the book is a beautiful story of a little character who spends much of his time in his pajamas searching for something – happiness, his place in the world, contentedness, something that is never defined. The story is rare in its structure in that it is told entirely in the second person: ‘Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away!’ Our little pajamas-wearing guy makes a great set of bold decisions that lead him down certain paths and not others and to all sorts of places. At a certain point, mid-book, he comes upon The Waiting Place, a place so significant that Dr. Seuss capitalises the definite article.

It is a most useless place, he tells us. Like all excerpts from most great literature, it is worth quoting in full: ‘The Waiting Place … for people just waiting. Waiting for a train to go or a bus to come, or a plane to go or the mail to come, or the rain to go or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow or waiting around for a Yes or No or waiting for their hair to grow. Everyone is just waiting. Waiting for the fish to bite or waiting for wind to fly a kite or waiting around for Friday night or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake or a pot to boil, or a Better Break or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants or a wig with curls, or Another Chance. Everyone is just waiting.’

How very true, I thought, as we toiled down the freeway that parallels the harbour, the city slothful. Centuries of Anglo-Saxon thought, the invention and cynical proliferation of psychoanalysis, the demystification of the soul in avant-garde bohemian literature of the nineteen-sixties, the overwrought teenager of the new century addicted to creating avatars, identities, and the projection of the self in the simulated world of social media – whilst the answer is right here, right in front of me. To hope is to wait, and to wait is to be in The Waiting Place, which goes nowhere, and where one’s company is only the others who are waiting. Hope, to abuse a phrase, is the opium of the people.

My taxi driver and I did not speak on the way back from Faena to Recoletta. I took a break from Spanish immersion. I was thinking about Christopher Hitchens and an essay I had read of his about the Irish. In it he references Oscar Wilde, and what Hitchens calls ‘his imperishable confrontation with Sir Edward Carson’. Carson and Wilde had both been students together at Trinity College in Dublin and Carson had gone on to become a judge and would later go on to become the leader of the Irish Unionist Alliance. Oscar Wilde had gone on to become Oscar Wilde and aside from writing plays had become involved in an ongoing relationship with the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. She left him a nasty note with the reception at Wilde’s club accusing him of sodomy and he sued for criminal libel, owing of course to the seriousness of an accusation at the time for homosexuality. Carson took up the case for the Marquess and defended her, crushing Wilde and destroying him more or less forever. But Hitchens makes a significant point about carnations that each of them, Wilde and Carson, wore during the trial. Wilde wore a green carnation and Carson wore an orange carnation. ‘But one of them – I submit,’ writes Hitchens, ‘was a votary of irony and would have seen irony in the other’s dilemma, while the other was not and could not.’ Hitchens writes further: ‘My other interest in that court case is that I believe it to be one of the clearest written records, since the indictment of Socrates, of the confrontation between the ironic and the literal mentality.’

Classic Hitchens: Oscar Wilde’s trial to defend his denial of homosexuality is described as ‘imperishable’ as if it were a diamond in the rough that is made up of historical legal discourse; and he later references the indictment of Socrates as a similarly ‘imperishable’ document. But, I thought as I pondered my illegal whisky sitting alone in my hotel room on my Saturday night in Buenos Aires, he is right. I could feel that something was missing or at least something was very different in my interactions in Spanish. And that it was not a result specifically of the paucity of my Spanish. But rather it was a function of language itself. There was a lack of irony in Spanish. It was a less cynical tongue, less jaded, more sincere. There was something very refreshingly sincere in all of the people I had interacted with, and without stretching my point too far, there was perhaps a general lack of irony in magical realism, Marquez and Llosa and Cervantes and in the Latin world in general. The lecture I had had on semiotics at age twenty, whilst pompous and arrogant in delivery – a professor I loathed – came to some significant use whilst I stared at my lonely ice cubes wanly: we do not speak through language, rather language speaks through us.

The next day I found myself slightly depressed walking the streets of Argentina on an oddly cold and dreary day for early summer, whilst thirty-one million nine-hundred and ninety-six thousand Argentines were voting. It was with some irony I asked the day after, learning my flight back to Sao Paolo had been delayed indefinitely, whether they thought – that is the folk at the GOL desk – that the flight would ever depart. For solace, on the plane, I turned to Dr. Seuss: ‘And you will succeed? / Yes! You will, indeed! / (98 and ¾ per cent guaranteed.)’


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