Places: South Iceland 2001 and 2013

Looking South from the Island of Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar

These are my oldest image files. They were converted from my Kodachrome slides from a trip I took to Iceland in 2001. Before I went to Iceland, there were parts of Europe that fascinated me. After Iceland, I was fascinated only by Iceland. Was it that I have an inborn need for wastelands like Patagonia or the Southwestern Deserts of the United States or the Peruvian Altiplano? I think so.

With the above photo, I was trying to see if I could find Surtsey, the island that was created by a recent volcanic upheaval beneath the sea. (The island still exists, but it is gradually getting smaller.)

The Ice in Iceland

The Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon Near Skaftafell

One of the most incredible sights in South Iceland is the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon visible from the Ring Road on the way to Höfn in Hornstrandir. On one side of the road are these incredible chunks broken off from the giant glacier Vatnajökull; on the other, is a black sand beach dotted with tiny chunks of transparent ice like diamonds in a black satin setting.

The lagoon and beach are so spectacular that it is almost impossible to just pass on by. Even the bus to and from Höfn stops for a half hour or so. It’s not long enough for a boat ride on the lagoon—but it makes you want to come back, as I did in 2013.

Ice like Diamonds on a Black Sand Beach (Breiðamerkursandur) 2013

Why I Want To Return

My two visits to Iceland have merely whetted my appetite. I have read all the major Medieval Icelandic sagas, most of the novels of Iceland’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Halldor Laxness), and the superb books by Jesse L. Byock on Medieval Iceland. Plus there are parts of Iceland I have not seen, such as the Eastfjords, the stretch between Bru and Akureyri, Siglufjörður, and the Sprengisandur route through the middle of the island.

Literature from the Hutongs of Beijing

A Colorful Hutong in the City of Beijing

In Northern Chinese cities, such as Beijing, hutongs are usually narrow alleys formed by adjoining sineyuan, or traditional courtyard residences, squeezed together. Over the last few years, I have enjoyed reading contemporary Chinese literature, which gives me an altogether different view of the Chinese people than I get from contemplating the actions of the Xi Jinping government.

I thought I would list here a few of the best Chinese novels of the latter half of the 20th Century:

  • Geo Xingjian’s Soul Mountain, probably the best Chinese novel I have read, winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize
  • Mo Yan’s Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh, a collection of novellas
  • Ma Jian’s Red Dust, a novel that is also a fascinating travel guide as the hero escapes Beijing to discover his country
  • Ge Fei’s The Invisibility Cloak, a delightful comic novella
  • Su Tong’s Rice, the most serious book of the bunch with its villainous main character

After reading these books, I have a strong feeling for the essential humanity of the Chinese people. I would have no trouble interacting with them—except for the simple matter of the language barrier.

You Can’t Stop the Change

Walter Mosley, Author of the Easy Rawlins Mysteries

Yesterday afternoon, I “attended” the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books symposium entitled California Dreamin’: Los Angeles in the 1960s and 1970s. Actually, the event was virtual, so I tuned in with my computer for what turned out to be an excellent discussion. The moderator was USC Professor David L. Ulin, and the guest speakers were novelist Walter Mosley and political analyst Ron Brownstein.

One of the most interesting points made was about political mobilization against cultural change. Irrespective what the hippies tried to do in the 1960s, enough voters were freaked out to elect Republicans like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump. As Mosley said at one point, the voters’ response was along the lines of “T don’t want to hear the truth; I want to hear what makes me feel good.” However, cultural change eventually wins out. For example, today’s youth do not tend to oppose homosexual marriage or transgender identification.

The Atlantic Editor Ron Brownstein

This was an interesting conclusion to someone like me, who is amazed that a shrinking demographic like that of the Republican Party can still win elections. For now, anyhow.

After the one-hour discussion ended, I immediately ordered the featured books by Mosley and Brownstein shown in the above photographs.

I arrived in Los Angeles at the tail end of 1967. One would have had to be deaf and blind to recognize the ferment that was taking place—only to be replaced by the 1970s and the onrush of a paranoid political conservatism.

In the Court of the Lion of Judah

The Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah

He was short and somewhat frail, yet Haile Selassie managed to reign as Emperor of Ethiopia for some 44 years, from 1930 to 1974, when his government was toppled by a revolution. Although his book about Selassie, entitled The Emperor, has come under fire for certain inaccuracies, Ryszard Kapuściński leaves us an unforgettable portrait which is probably mostly true. Take, for instance, the following excerpt:

His Majesty spent the hour between nine and ten in the morning handing out assignments in the Audience Hall, and thus this time was called the Hour of Assignments. The Emperor would enter the Hall, where a row of waiting dignitaries, nominated for assignment, bowed humbly. His Majesty would take his place on the throne, and when he had seated himself I would slide a pillow under his feet. This had to be done like lightning so as not to leave Our Distinguished Monarch’s legs hanging in the air for even a moment. We all know that His Highness was of small stature. At the same time, the dignity of the Imperial Office required that he be elevated above his subjects, even in a strictly physical sense. Thus the Imperial thrones had long legs and high seats, especially those left by Emperor Menelik, an exceptionally tall man. Therefore a contradiction arose between the necessity of a high throne and the figure of His Venerable Majesty, a contradiction most sensitive and troublesome precisely in the region of the legs, since it is difficult to imagine that an appropriate dignity can be maintained by a person whose legs are dangling in the air like those of a small child. The pillow solved this delicate and all-important conundrum.

I was His Most Virtuous Highness’s pillow bearer for twenty-six years. I accompanied His Majesty on travels all around the world, and to tell the truth—I say it with pride—His Majesty could not go anywhere without me, since his dignity required that he always take his place on a throne, and he could not sit on a throne without a pillow, and I was the pillow bearer. I had mastered the special protocol of this specialty, and even possessed an extremely useful, expert knowledge: the height of various thrones. This allowed me quickly to choose a pillow of just the right size, so that a shocking ill fit, allowing a gap to appear between the pillow and the Emperor’s shoes, would not occur. I had fifty-two pillows of various sizes, thicknesses, materials, and colors. I personally monitored their storage, constantly, so that fleas—the plague of our country—would not breed there, since the consequences of any such oversight could lead to a very unpleasant scandal.

A Prickly Individual

Trinidad-Born Author V.S. Naipaul (1932-2018)

What happens when one of your favorite authors forms a friendship with another of your favorite authors and then writes a book about that friendship? That’s the case when Paul Theroux came out in 1998 with Sir Vidia’s Shadow: A Friendship Across Five Continents. Both authors wrote not only novels but travel books. IMHO, Naipaul was the better novelist (by a long shot); but Paul Theroux’s travel books are far better—to the extent that they have played a major role in the way I lived my life over the last forty years.

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was born in Trinidad of a Hindu Indian family. He parlayed his colonial background into a brilliant series of novels which eventually gained for him a knighthood (in 1990) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (in 2001). He encountered Paul Theroux in Uganda, where both were living for a while. They became fast friends even before Theroux published his first novel.

That friendship became an instrumental part of Theroux’s life. Even when separated by thousands of miles, they wrote to each other frequently. He was even sexually attracted to Naipaul’s first wife, Patricia, who died in 1996.

Patricia and Vidia Naipaul

Throughout the long friendship, Vidia Naipaul turned out to be a rather prickly individual. Some of it was due to his Brahmin fastidiousness:

“I can’t sleep in that bed,” he said. “It’s tainted. Why did he do it? The foolish, ignorant man!”

“What happened?” I asked.

“One of the workmen in Vidia’s bedroom was explaining something,” Pat began.

His face twisted in nausea, Vidia said, “And he sat on my bed…. He put his bottom on my bed.”

What would have bothered me more than it seemed to bother Theroux was that Naipaul was notorious about not picking up the check when they went out for dinner. And this was at a time when Paul was at the beginning of his career and constantly short of funds.

When Patricia died, the friendship suddenly came apart. Shortly after the funeral, Vidia married an Indian woman named Nadira, whom he had met previously in Africa. Quite suddenly, all of Paul’s attempts to contact Vidia were intercepted by Nadira, who was highly critical of the American writer.

The coffin nail was driven into the friendship when Paul and his son were taking a walk in London and suddenly encountered Vidia, who did not acknowledge him. When Paul addressed him, Vidia finally recognized him. When asked if he had received a recent fax from Paul, Naipaul was reluctant to discuss the matter further. When Paul asked what was to be done, Naipaul answered, “Take it on the chin and move on.”

Theroux was shocked:

He knew. It was over. It never occurred to me to chase him. There would be no more. And I understood the shock of something’s being over, like being slapped—hurt as the blood whipped through my body. “Like being hit by a two-by-four,” my friend had said when Vidia insulted her in Oregon.

This exchange takes place on the last page of the book. Theroux could have done a job of character assassination on his old friend, but he chose not to. After all those years, the friendship had meant a great deal to him, even if it ended badly.

I, too, have had prickly friends. Some I walked away from. Some I took up with again after a number of years had transpired. Would I have done differently than what I wound up doing in the end? Probably not.

In the end, I really liked Theroux’s book, which demonstrated that—for a time—his friendship with Vidia had great value in his life.

“I Am Everything I Have Already Lost”

Argentinean Poet and Writer Silvina Ocampo Aguirre (1903-1993)

I’m not about to call her a poetess, because she could hold her own in the literary world of women and men. She was a great writer who was married to another great writer, Adolfo Bioy Casares, friend of Jorge Luis Borges. I understand she is buried in Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, which I have visited three times without finding her grave. I will have to make another visit and try harder to find her so that I can pay homage to her beauty and talent.

The following poem is from her collection Poemas de amor desesperado (Poems of Desperate Love, 1949).

Song

Oh, nothing, nothing is mine,
not the tone of my voice, nor my absent hands,
nor my distant arms!
I have received it all. Oh, nothing, nothing is mine.
I am like the reflections of a gloomy lake
or the echo of voices at the bottom of a blue
well when it has rained.
I have received it all:
like water or glass
that turns into anything,
into smoke, into a spiral,
into a building, a fish, a stone, a rose.
I am different from me, so different,
like some people when they are in society.
I am all the places I have loved in my life.

I am the woman I hated most.
and the perfume that wounded me one night
with decrees of an uncertain destiny.
I am the shadows that entered a car,
the luminosity of a port,
the secret embraces hidden in the eyes.
I am the knife of jealousy,
and the aches red with wounds.
Of the long eager glances I am the sparkle.
I am the voice I heard behind the blinds,
the light, the air above the cypress trees.
I am all the words that I adored
on the lips, in the books that I admired.
I am the greyhound that fled in the distance,
the solitary branch among the branches.
I am the happiness of a day,
the whisper of the flames.
I am the poverty of naked feet,
with children going silently away.
I am what they did not tell me and I knew.
Oh, I wanted everything to be mine!
I am everything I have already lost.
But everything’s elusive like the wind and the river,
like the golden summer flowers
that die in your hands.
I am everything, but nothing, nothing is mine,
not the pain, nor the joy, nor the terror,
not even the words of my song.

 

This poem can be found in the excellent edition of Silvina Ocampo’s poetry published by NYRB/Poets and translated and edited by Jason Weiss.

The Eyes of the Inca

The Peru of a Hundred Years Ago Through Peruvian Eyes

Martín Chambi Jiménez (1891-1973) was a Peruvian photographer who was active until a 1950 earthquake destroyed much of his beloved Cuzco. In his studio, he took pictures like the above musical group with their traditional instruments. But he also traveled around, photographing the altiplano of Peru, the city of Cuzco, and such sites as the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Cuzco Street Scene

In 1979, the Museum of Modern Art in New York displayed an exhibition of Chambi’s photographs, which traveled to other cities and inspired other shows displaying his work. Chambi was a native-born speaker of Quechua, the language of the Incas, and he saw the people and the landscape as only a native could see them.

Quechuan Woman Chewing Coca Leaves

Below is one of the many images he shot at the ruins of Machu Picchu.

Machu Picchu As It Was 100 Years Ago

Photographers like Chambi are a rare link to the past in faraway places that were not in the mainstream of Western European Civilization.

Social Distancing Follies

The Adventist Health.White Memorial Medical Plaza in East Los Angeles

Today, I drove Martine for an ophthalmologist appointment in East Los Angeles. I went up to the waiting room with her, but was asked to leave because of social distancing requirements. So what happened? I had to stand in the corridor, which was full of other family members who weren’t really social distancing. And there wasn’t any seating to be had.

There is a bridge over César Chavez Boulevard (visible in the above photo), which would be an ideal place to sit—except it was posted all over with signs saying that, because of social distancing, no one may sit down there.

Perhaps one cannot catch the ’Rona when one is on one’s feet. At least, that seems to be the prevailing assumption. If the medical receptionist can’t see you in the corridor, then presumably you are, by definition, social distancing. ¡Que idiota!

Places: Puerto Montt, Chile 2015

Puerto Montt in the Fog

This is the beginning of a new series based on places I have visited since 2001 and always illustrated by my own photographs. In common with all the places I decide to feature is my desire to go back and spend more time in the vicinity. I visited Puerto Montt briefly in 2015 on a trip I started in Buenos Aires, going on to Iguazu Falls (on the Argentina side), San Carlos de Bariloche, Puerto Varas, Valparaíso, and Santiago.

In her book Among the Cities, Jan Morris describes Puerto Montt as the southern terminus of the Pan American Highway. Actually, it continues on the Island of Chiloé across Reloncavi Sound as far as the town of Quellón, from which one could travel by ferry to Chaitén. The port was named after Manuel Montt, who was President of Chile from 1851 to 1861.

The Cathedral of Puerto Montt, Built Entirely of Native Alerce Wood

The Sea Creatures of Puerto Montt

The highlight of my visit to Puerto Montt was the incredible fish market, which Jan Morris described very picturesquely back in 1961:

And wettest, strangest, most southern, most remote, more alien than any melon-flower are the sea creatures of Puerto Montt, dredged through the rain out of the Pacific. There are heavy eels with muscular flanks, big flat fish like slabs of fat, giant clams, crinkled oysters by the million, mountains of spiky urchins, glistening and globular.

If I weren’t on a bus tour, I would have loved to stay for a giant seafood dinner, but I was scheduled to take an all-night TurBus sleeper to Valparaíso.

Unfinished Business

I would dearly love to go back to Puerto Montt for that seafood dinner, and then head across the sound to the Island of Chiloé, which is famous for its UNESCO-recognized wooden churches and wet forests. The Chilotes dispute with the Peruvians the development of the potato, which grows extensively on the island, and which is served with seafood in a local stew known as curanto.

How May I Hinder You?

At My Friend Bill’s House in Altadena

Today, for the first time in over a year, I visited with one of my friends. And you can see the joy in my face in the above photo. I had no idea that Bill Korn would post the image on Facebook, but he did. So I thought I would share the sunshine with you.

Ever since I was a boy, I hated posing with a pleasant smile. Somewhere I have a photo of me as a ten-year-old trying to wreck one of my mother’s pictures. I got even with her years later when we visited Marineland of the Pacific (long since closed) posing her next to a huge sign with an arrow pointing at her and the words, “To the walrus exhibit.”

As you can see, I am not a good subject for pleasant posed pictures. Sure you can pose me next to a beautiful view, but I’ll be giving you the ol’ stink-eye.