I run along la Rambla as the sun is setting. Past people holding fishing lines, waiting for the hook to catch on something far down below in the pale green-grey Atlantic sea. They’re talking, smiling, chuckling at each other’s quiet stories. The sea wall has become a long park bench where couples sit, sipping mate (mah-tay) through their stylised metal straws. The drink is an infusion of a bitter leaf and an acquired taste, a plant somehow related to the holly, but the Uruguayans drink it with a frequency reminiscent of how the English drink milky black tea. And like tea, it’s a caffeinated drink. Although perhaps they sip when we gulp.
And English tea is drunk when seated, whereas the Uruguayans drink mate while standing at the bus stop or crossing the road. Glance down at any passer-by’s hands, and they’ll be carrying a flask and their cup, perhaps in a special mate bag (these are so popular you can buy then in the corner shop).
I pass a park where a couple of young men are doing exercises with the outside gym equipment. They look like they work out very frequently. Two dogs bound back and forth, barking playfully. Children run around chasing each other while parents and grandparents lounge nearby. A car drives past with white and blue balloons floating in its wake. The police officer pulls up at the petrol station to fill up his car. A guy doing interval sprints overtakes me, then I overtake him, and then he powers past.
I am in Montevideo. It takes me by surprise to wake up here. I’m living, albeit temporarily, in the beautiful Palacio Salvo, a 1920s hotel on Plaza Independencia. If you do an image search for London, you get Big Ben. If you do the same for Montevideo, you get the Palacio Salvo.
But I wake up here, teach a class, wander down to the café on the square, or café idoneo which is my current favourite – the food is good, and the staff look like they enjoy their work – and I have a cappuccino or splash out on a second breakfast while reading with my fountain pen cocked in my hand. I cross the square, pass José Artigas’ mausoleum, and sometimes pause to read a chapter of my book while sitting on a bench. I return home, teach some classes and cook some food. Sometimes I head out for a run. Sometimes I wander through the city and see couples dancing on the street.
I am in Montevideo by myself, which, even ignoring the complications of the pandemic, is no small achievement. It’s a fact that I was reminded of recently when a friend said that he hadn’t needed to be told to know that I’d fought a battle. He said that it showed through the bravery of my lifestyle, though this attitude to life. From my perspective, I’m cautious, focused on my safety, classifying as tiny moments, such as when I ask the waitress the difference between a media luna and a croissant, as courageous acts. I receive a thousand messages about my safety in Latin America, but not living is also a danger, not seeing, not experiencing. And I say this less naive than I would like to be.
I’ve sculpted a life that follows my whims, unconstrained, curious of the world, introspective and calm, but full of delights. Not so long ago, this felt impossible. So, every time I pause, look out at the sky and see the sun settling down beneath the horizon, out on some great sea, when my cheeks are rosy and my mind alert, I am beyond grateful.
Children are in the dustbins across the street from the café where I am drinking my coffee. The sun is warm, it’s summer, so the kids presumably don’t have school. I’m conscious of how easy it would be for my skin to burn, but the avenues are shaded by big old trees, trees whose roots have pushed up the pavements, crumpled the paths. I feel someone planned this city, planned streets wide enough for cars to park, planned broad pavements to place café chairs and heavy green dustbins. I like this corner, where I return to drink coffee most mornings and quite frequently indulge in a croissant. Today I planned to come, to sit here at the crossroads, drink my coffee and read. Yet I am distracted from my reading by the children in the dustbins.
I’m supposed to be reading Tim Park’s book The Novel, A Survival Skill. This is part of my chosen reading for my master’s degree. But it’s not my first book by Tim Parks, a long time ago I read Italian Neighbours, an account of his life in Verona. An account which probably mentioned dustbins. I can imagine Parks writing about waste disposal. I’ve never read his novels, but I’ve been delighted by The Novel, which isn’t about how to write a book, but why people write the books they do. And, it explains why I don’t get on with Borges.
Or that’s not fair. It’s not that I don’t get on with Borges, I feel a polite acquaintance with him and a lack of curiosity in his work, yet despite this, a vexation, a sense that I ought to see something which I can’t, that I ought to be impressed when I’m not, and that it ought to generate meaning for me, it doesn’t. I’m bemused as to why his oh-so-clever labyrinths are so adored.
Tim Parks talks about how writers, whether they intend it or not, write, and rewrite, what feel to them to be the essential conflicts of their lives, particularly those initial childhood family conflicts, which I think fundamentally comes down to self-identity. The same goes for readers. Readers read, reread and recommend those books which have touched on these inner conflicts. Hence, Tim Parks likes to read books with tense moral dilemmas because of his intensely religious and somewhat whacky family. Similarly, he writes novels where morality is played with, tossed around and torn apart. He’s trying to resolve his own unease about being good and being bad through the words he puts on the page.
As for me, your literary likes and dislikes are part of the wider pattern of your relationships, and not unconnected with the kind of family you have, the kind of life you lead.
The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks
I think a certain intellectual swaggering turns me off. What I want in a book is a glimpse into humanity, I want to see the human condition from a fresh perspective, but I want to see up close. I read from my heart, not my over-trained brain.
While I want to like clever books, at the end of the day, my favourites are those that made me cry, like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things and Carla Guelfenbein’s The Rest is Silence. Books which use language in a clever way, but do not swagger.
But I’m not reading, I’m too busy watching the children in the dustbins. They are scavenging for sheets of cardboard and plastic bottles. I am alarmed by this. One of them wears a baseball cap, the other has had his hair highlighted, maybe imitating some footballer? One wears pumps on his feet, the other plastic flip-flops. I imagine this boy’s feet, there in the bin, coming into contact with… No, I don’t want to think about it. Yet, despite my worries, these teenage boys look healthy. They’re nimble, lithe, coordinated and industrious.
When I later mention this to Latin American friends, they accept my astounded account without alarm. A kind of ‘so what?’. I can see their point. It is a fact that children climb into these dustbins – I later see adults doing the same – and this is part of life. I’m unsettled by the discomfort this brings. Even as a young child, I was aware that I was better off than my peers. Yet I also know that there is nothing I am going to do about it, unless we count my various conversations on the matter or this small piece of writing. To these boys, I too am irrelevant. Just another tourist.
Climate change. Recycling. Children in dustbins.
The boys toss the bottles from the bins, the bottles bounce and scatter across the pavement. Like children in a playground, the boys vault over the lip of the bin, out, back onto the street. One grabs a plastic bag and pops the bottles in, while his friend folds the cardboard flat. Beside them, on the road, beside the bins, is a docile pony and cart. The cardboard is laid in the cart and the bottles are put in a huge green bag tied on the back, the size of a small tent. Maybe there are hundreds of bottles already inside.
The younger generation cleaning up after the old.
My fear for these boys is joined by admiration.
Would Tim Parks be analysing the moral conundrum of this situation? If he were in this coffee shop with me, would he be criticizing this world for having children scavenging in dustbins. Would he be, like me, panicking about the health consequences? Would his thoughts be broken glass and disused needles? Would he notice that these boys are children, barely old enough for a paper-round? Might he shrug it off as just part of how things are here. Would he note that their skin is darker than most of the people who walk past, people who pay no attention to these children, as if children climbing in dustbins were normal? Would he link this to Spanish conquest, ancient caste systems, political dysfunction and the consequent immigration?
And would Parks, like a friend of mine, ask whether the children looked fed? Fundamental survival question. They looked fed, I explained, and showered, and their clothes looked like they’ve been washed. Would the contradiction sit as uneasily with him as it does with me? We might think of such boys as the victims of the system, but they hardly appear like victims. Would it reassure him that this is the school holiday and so maybe they do this for pocket money? Perhaps, when the new semester begins, they’ll be holding pens and writing.
I find myself thinking how if they study with the same attitude as they collect bottles, they’ll deserve to go to good universities.
For the novelist the text is absolutely integrated in his life and circumstances; what he writes comes out and rebounds back on his mental life, his private life, his professional life.
The Novel: A Survival Guide by Tim Parks
Am I admiring them for the display of self-sufficiency and independence? Inevitably, since I am reading Parks’ book, I find myself wondering at my own intrigue. Am I drawn to the situation because it reflects an internal conflict of my own? Do I admire them for their independence, self-sufficiency and hard work because these were values drilled into me as a child?
Is this why am I compelled to write about them?