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A blog post in which I come to the realisation that my last post was a beginning and not and ending. That I must go deeper still.

The Red Triangle II

Continuing to make my way through Jorge Semprún’s Literature or Life (English translation, Viking Books 1997), I find that  I am gazing into a new space in the abyss of memory and trauma.

I don’t now mean the actual horrors of Buchenwald (how can one ever grasp them) but rather the traces of that horror – the “death” that is survival as Semprún puts it. I’m also absorbing the unavoidable logic that the barely fathomable Nazi evil to which he was both witness and subject was humanly perpetrated, and thus it was inarguably human. That we cannot take refuge in it’s inhumanity is a philosophical proposition woven through every page of this remarkable book. It’s a terrible truth but one I am more than willing to swallow however much it will keep me up at night. I am already wiser.

So I pick up Literature or Life after a short pause in which the necessary hum of daily life intervened providing me with enough oxygen to carry on. I find Semprún in conversation with Claude-Edmonde Magny. She reads out excerpts from her letter to him about his poetry dating from before his internment. They discuss the halting, problematic book he is trying to write about Buchenwald. We will presently learn that it was too soon to begin to address the horror and a period of amnesia will be sought. As ever Semprún spins the narrative reel back and forth, building in layers of association and meaning.

As I tune in I shrink to allow a coin the size of the London Eye to drop into my brain. It’s a little bit Alice in Wonderland but I feel I must become smaller to accommodate knowledge of such proportions. As I turn each page my mind also begins to work like the ferryman of old, back and forth across the rivers of memory and association, and I know I must write again. Of so many things. My grandmother’s flat perched in a building with two winding marble staircases at either side, this mirror image holding for the child me the fascination of identical twins. My first “art perfomance” – the moment aged seven I released my pyjamas from their pegs on the balcony of that fifth floor apartment and watched them sail down onto the roof of a passing taxi never to return. All must be recalled. Rescued. This way I am certain not to falter in my task. Unravel the post memory tangle I shall.

Often words serve to skate over the surface of our understanding, and we must wait for time to deepen the cut of blade on ice to take us further under. My father was not at Buchenwald or any other German concentration camp, and his internment in the French camps of Argelès sur Mer and Barcarès were in duration but a third of Semprún’s incarceration. Held captive behind barbed wired on the beaches of France, the forms of death encountered would also be different to that which engulfed Semprún at Buchenwald. These were not death camps but more truly camps of indifference and neglect – their function as holding centres for Dachau and Mauthausen deportees would come later. Conditions were punishing and insanitary, and many  of the exiles did not survive.

There are scant details of my father’s work as a reporter with a Republican tank regiment, and his passage from Spain, but we can guess at the most probable combination of luck, death, terror and comradeship.  An emotional melange, a pic ‘n mix – without choice. No pic and all mix.

So I wait for the coin to drop – Semprún is about to reveal the unspoken mysteries of my father’s condition. In addition to acquiring the term exile and slowly garnering the substance beneath it, I must add something else.

I had known officially since the age of 13 that my father was ill. A bewildering and secret malady. A plethora of pill bottles, an often withdrawn father who resided with us in England, and the one who seemed to brighten significantly in Spain. Prone to anxiety and disappearing behind a book he was also affectionate and funny – delighting in acute observations of British eccentricity and the many quirks of his adoptive home. But the English winters conspired against him, and even our trips to Spain could not relieve his homesickness for the other Spain – the golden days of his childhood and the sweetness of his schooldays at the Instituto Escuela in Madrid. He bumped along not knowing how loveable he was – a bewildered and absent presence. I remember the silences which I now think aped forgetting. His bitterness was tempered by his gentle soul.

This in time was understood by the older me as clinical depression, and a lifelong battle with a serious cycle of mental illness. Exactly how serious I would find out much later. Recently in fact. Very recently. And now somehow Semprún has come to help me make sense of it, to allow me to give it a new name – exile plus. My skin crawls, I plug Vaughan Williams in on a loop, and my skittish mind turns to triple A batteries and platinum bank cards. Exile plus.

My primary source for insider knowledge on the emotional texture of Spanish exile has been the writer Max Aub who lived his exile in Mexico City. No-one has taught me more in a shorter space of time than Aub, about it’s acid bite, and the compulsive nature of his creative output. What I mean in simple terms was Aub’s need to create in order to “make soil.” To recreate lost territory with memoirs, journals, plays, and novels. He even invented an artist and faked his monograph, works and all – this was a land from which to launch mischief, satire and bile. Forced into self publication in Mexico, and lacking a profile in Spain he was further embittered.  In Aub I discern the urgency of mark making. Of leaving traces of existence. And it’s gone a long way in explaining the extraordinary importance to my father of his creative project to become a playwright of note.  It was not ego it was survival.

Through Aub I had come to know that writing was country. It was a haven. But the writing project was also my father’s nemesis, falling on deaf ears as it did.  It seemed to mock him and give Franco his ghastly victory anew. A painful re-enactment of loss.

With Semprún I track the indelible traces of trauma – not just the long haul of permanent exile but the effects of war and imprisonment. What I hadn’t absorbed until now was the detail. The existential horror of the every day which may have driven dad’s illness.  A life quite possibly punctured by searing traumatic memory, which would now be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And a life medicated thus, with the old fashioned psychiatry of electric shocks and tricyclic antidepressants.

Of course there is a simple way to frame Jorge Semprún’s distress and say he was  haunted by Buchenwald, but we must avoid such language as it skims the surface and won’t yield the complexities. The following excerpts allow us to go deeper.

“I’d woken up with a start.”

“Awakening had not brought comfort, however, had not swept away the anguish – on the contrary. It deepened the distress while transforming it. Because the return to wakefulness, to the sleep of life, was terrifying in itself. That life was a dream – after the radiant reality of the camp – is what was terrifying” p155

“Everything would begin all over again as long as I was alive, or rather, as long as I was revenant. As long as I was tempted to write. The joy of writing I was beginning to realise would never dispel the sorrow of memory. Quite on the contrary: writing sharpened it, deepened it, revived it. Made it unbearable.

Only forgetting could save me.” p161

This the agonising  “death life” of the survivor, with the nightly bind, a scratched disc of all too vivid awakenings. With no escape, as the writer’s balm is the rub of remembrance and a wretched site of re-traumatisation. Forgetting is the only salvation he says, but Buchenwald would surely be seared on the psyche. Etched on the emotional retina for good.

My father, like Semprún, paused a goodly while before attempting his returns to the trauma site in his early plays. He was busy finishing his education and gaining a university lectureship, and trying to get on with the business of living. Perhaps he was also busy trying to get on with the business of forgetting.

But many exiled writers like Aub and my father were ultimately compelled to write as a form of existential return. The alternative was to accept a living death – erasure from both contemporary and historical memory. We know too that traumatic experience also draws one on a loop to return, but the perils are obvious.  In these circumstances writing and memory create a psychologically fatal paradox – damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Trapped as a fly in the spider’s web – the only psychological certainty is a form of living death. When you put it like this, the wonder is that dad was able to recover and chose life many times over, and that ultimately writing as a pleasure and a sanctuary could be found in places.

I think like Semprún that my father moved between memory and amnesia. The briefcase of pills, the journeys to the ECT suite and my mother’s loving and sustained ministrations kept him with us. I’m not a fan of old style psychiatry nor the modern brand if I’m honest – but I’m so grateful for the years together. I just wish I had understood him more.  The struggle he faced now that I grasp it takes my breath away.

 

 

 

 


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Oh blimey! It’s not often I begin with such an exclamation but I am honestly feeling a bit Kate Aidie. Thanks to the wonders of soundcloud a whole day wrestling with voice memos, garage band and mp3 has not been in vain. I can’t do any sound editing yet – that’s a skill I’ll have to pick up later (there’s only so much I can process in one day) – so there is one very obvious mistake in my audio blog. I say nasty for Nazi and have to correct myself “on air” as it were.

What I love about audio blogging is the freedom it can give the listener to have the post on in the background, rather than taking all their time up with reading.  Also those who can’t access text can join the party – how wonderful is that! I even don’t mind my voice – surprised that I sound quite this posh but actually it’s an okay voice. I’m a comprehensive school kid, daughter of a Spanish refugee, brought up a Brummie, so I didn’t expect to sound so Radio 4, but hey I guess all these years spent down south have rubbed off on me.

So here it is. Ta-daa! My first audio blog – thank you soundcloud for making it so very easy in the end. We’re off. Cuppa to the ready, get the ironing out and click on the link…oh before you do. The Kate Aidie bit refers to the content – it’s a war piece so be warned.

 

https://soundcloud.com/sonia-boue/the-red-triangle-audio-26-06-2015-1524


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Bear with me on the red triangle motif for this blog. I come to it at the end but if you can stick with me you’ll see why. This image comes from the studio – a tableau showing a game of blind man’s buff (gallina ciega) and a painting in which I invoke the multi-layered gallina ciega (literally blind chicken – here the triangle reads as beak), the red triangle which formed part of the identification system for certain prisoners in Nazi camps and the Catalan hat.

N.B. Blind in this blog post is not used in relation to people with actual impaired vision, nor is it employed as a pejorative term.

A chance encounter in a bookstore has brought Jorge Semprún into my life. I’m now reading Literature or Life (English translation: Viking Books 1997) Semprún on Buchenwald, to which he was deported in 1943 at the age of 20 for his part in the French Resistance, turned in by a double agent working for the gestapo. He was in fact a Spanish exile, whose diplomat father brought the family to France at the fall of the Second Republic. The family had left Madrid when Semprún was eight years old to take up a diplomatic post – vitally his father had taught him German one factor which was to help spare his life in Buchenwald. The other being a clerk receiving prisoners at Buchenwald reassigned this Spanish political prisoner’s status from student to craftsman – even though Semprún not realising the implications for his survival at the time had insisted on the truth that he was a student – a student of philosophy at the Sorbonne.

These two chance occurrences (the Buchenwald clerk – a German communist risked his own life in committing this clerical “error”) were key. A German speaker could understand instructions, know what was happening and be useful, a craftsman of higher value than a student, and the camp needed skilled workers. Semprún landed an administrative post and “survived”, although in reality he says he underwent a collective death in Buchenwald despite the enduring and sustaining fraternalism among those who were also witness and subject to it. His book is part memoir and part meditation on the impossibility of testimony and transmission of this memory to those who have not “lived” or rather also died through it. Yet art, as he and his brothers in death discuss on liberation, must be the mediator for dissemination and through which others might also witness. Literature or Life also contains within it the acknowledgement of a near impossibility of memory and the act of transmission for the victim of this collective death experience – thus the act of writing for those who famously did often led to suicide – Semprúm himself observes in an extended interview for Spanish TV – Primo Levi being perhaps the most notable example.

Semprún waited a long time to begin this process, understanding that a period of amnesia was vital to him – though in truth the smell of the Buchenwald crematory could invade his nostrils at any time without warning. The awkwardness of others around his camp survival was soon evident on liberation – death, that death, that truth and it’s traces in Semprún’s eyes were rarely met with openness or indeed the permissive silence he needed to bring forth the torrent of words held within.

So much wisdom. Semprún both takes one by the hand and spares nothing. My reading is accompanied by Ralph Vaughan Williams – a newfound auditory obsession. I find this helps my skittering mind to focus, and as I plough deeper in to this text, the beautiful clarity of Semprún’s voice, and it’s non-linearity begin to unfurl his tale to reveal a string of pearls from which we must learn – we must. Golden nuggets. Clusters of words, configured just so, to reveal at once the bare bones (excuse the indelicacy of such an allusion) of the matter. The four metre high pile of yellowing twisted corpses with their strangled death-crazed mask-like faces never leaves the building, as it were. It is mentioned often – the elephant in the room. That which cannot adequately be counted or documented, that which must be felt, died through even though we were not there. Memory he says dies with the first hand witness in a further YouTube interview.

One night, three months after liberation Semprún is woken by the german cry over the camp tannoy. Unable to discern that he is rousing to freedom he feels he is waking from his dream of liberation to the truth of camp life once more – but truly he is in Paris and it is 2am. Staggering to a friend’s house at 3 O’clock in the morning he is offered coffee and silence – permissive silence. His friend’s daughter is beyond anxiety for news of her lover whose destiny is unknown and is yet to return from Buchenwald and beyond. Semprún at last finds a voice.

“Jeanine had sunk to her knees on the carpet. Pierre-Aimé Touchard was huddled in his armchair.

I was not to speak of such things again for sixteen years, at least not in such excruciating detail. I talked until dawn, until my voice faltered and grew hoarse, until I lost my voice completely. I told of sweeping despair, of death in it’s slightest twists and turns.

I did not speak in vain apparently.

Yann Dessau finally did return from Neuengamme. Clearly, we must sometimes speak in the name of the missing. Speak in their name, in their silence, to give them back the power of speech.”

There have been so many excerpts I could have chosen although I am only beginning to touch on Part Two of this extraordinary work. Yet this remembrance is especially pertinent – written more than 40 years after these events took place it must of course have become shaped by time, the evolution of character and Semprún’s self-evidently reflexive personality, and as ever in the literary process sculpted into this very configuration of words and no other. It is the time passed, the death after life (as Semprún would have it) in the camps, and the vessel of language honed, which enables transmission beyond the life-saving moment in which Semprún was able to eject his suffering, open the door of both death and hope to his companions, and summon his missing compatriot.

The truth of his observation that we must speak in the name of the missing to give them back the power of speech goes a long way to answering the question put to me at a recent conference. I was asked about an article for Palette Pages written in May 2014, in which I describe mine as a healing project. Could I expand on this? I was not too coherent in the moment.

http://www.thepalettepages.com/2014/05/04/art-healing-sonia-boue/

What I would have like to have said is this. My project in a nutshell is to invoke the missing – undo the process by which the exiles were silenced and erased from history by Franco’s deliberate policy of suppression and to restore the power of speech. I speak mainly of my father – the only exile I am truly qualified to invoke. Through Semprún I begin to unpick the mechanisms of silence in the great chasm between experience and non-experience. The substantial problem of how and what to say and the ultimate inadequacy of language to convey it. In this sense the exile’s silence in life tells us more than words. Her/his literature is the ultimate source for our remembering.

I have also recently reread a brilliant and fascinating article by Eric Dickey entitled, “Voices from Beyond the Grave: Remembering the Civil War in the Work of Max Aub.”

http://hispanicissues.umn.edu/assets/doc/08_DICKEY.pdf

Here I found Aub’s reflection that:

“La gente existe mientras vive. Luego, empieza lentamente a morir en los demás. Desaparece, teñida de sombras, en el olvido” (Soldevila Durante 207) (People exist as long as they are living. Then, they begin to die slowly in everybody else. They disappear, tinged in shadows, in oblivion).

The imperative is then with the living containers of the memory of the dead to respond; speak, write, create. That then is me – I am at present a living though metaphorical defibrillator. And this is my obligation. Until I die, I must speak in order for my father’s voice to be heard – and he is not yet thus truly forgotten. Not that I speak for him (he is more than capable of speaking for himself) but rather of him.

Returning now to the red triangle – a motif which appeared suddenly in my work about three weeks ago. A figure, a tree, a chicken’s beak, a symbol? Apart from the beak which felt most true I was puzzled until I turned to the Nazi system of identification and classification of prisoners and found that Spanish prisoners were marked by an inverted red triangle with a black S for Spanien. Only after this discovery did I recognise the dashing line in burnt umber as a potential S in flight, billowing or breaking free. The Catalan hat came to me somewhere in-between beak and fascist badge. This allusion is strong too – I had been slowly working my way towards the Catalan conference, Artistic Interventions in the Virtual Space, for quite some time – Míro’s Head of a Catalan Peasant, spied at the Tate retrospective some years ago, an almost conscious reference danced before my eyes.

And here is a Catalan hat I made earlier when in March 2015 I converted two Polish dolls into a Catalan couple for a video which is yet to be made.

I don’t want to read too much into this. I naturally abhor too tight an interpretation of any work, yet it is important to uncover the layers that float within it always, and marvel at the unconscious, that wise act of following your nose (or in this case beak) and abandoning reason to the gods of process when making. It is often when we are most lost that we can find our way. This much I learn each time I am working, but the knowledge becomes more secure each time and one can risk more and delve deeper.

But how can my unconscious have registered prior information about the red triangle as camp symbol, which became obvious later on, through an obsessive tracking of Semprún’s online presence on YouTube. I needed to hear his voice, I need to see him. A video interview in which Semprún talks about the red triangle in some detail (and we see one) provided a eureka moment with my triangle. These are precisely the unknowables – of when unconscious material becomes lodged in the brain. Of course I first came across the camps aged 15 – this information could have been encountered then when repulsion and fear were the limits of my understanding. It must further be linked to the sudden conscious knowledge gained in February 2014 that my grandparents evaded the Mauthausen camp roundup of 1940 when they hid overnight in a nearby forest. They had been tipped-off and saved themselves along with my great grandmother Mery. Otherwise they too would have worn the red triangle with the S for Spanien. Yet they might not have. It is entirely possible that they would have been among those “liquidated” on arrival – my grandfather and great-grandmother were older and none knew german, had a craft or stand out practical skill, being civil servants. I flinch as I write this truth. The forest and the loose tongue that warned them, spared them.

I am indebted to both Max Aub and Goya for the Gallina Ciega motif in recent work, which has included two short video pieces photographed on the post memory set in the studio. And the painted backdrops.

https://youtu.be/Ecmj6_aO7M0

https://youtu.be/iehQwr7nfKQ

Aware of the multiple layers within the game of Gallina Ciega in relation to Spanish history I have begun to realise that it might also allude to the leap of faith in the creative process into the unconscious, and a renewed focus on the  importance of art as healing in this process. It’s never too far from my mind. It can thus be both emblematic of the current Spanish government’s foolish policy of fudging memory and the wisdom of the movement to exhume it – a game played to national detriment in one sense and also with potential for reconstruction in another.

It is surely art which has the potential to swing the balance away from our most feared negative outcomes – a lack of resolution, a history on a loop destined to repeat it’s mistakes. Doesn’t art allow us to look at truths less flinchingly and with more courage. Through the Gallina Ciega work I can allude to blind policy, I can point to the camps and I can say that Spanien died and lived the collective death of a holocaust there. All because there are only dolls at play, only me with my camera and a sand tray. All because a red triangle can be so many things.

Literature or Life, suggests that there is a choice to be made – or that in writing about Buchenwald Semprúm must die again that collective death. I think he must, but that it is nonetheless redemptive. How can such beautiful writing not be so – he “dies” so that we can witness. I am beyond astonishment at the very thought of it and I can’t stop myself from reading on, earphones in on a Vaughan Williams loop.

 


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“In Spanish there is a very pretty word that describes this – ensimismarse: to lose yourself in thought, by reciting a poem.”

Spanish Republican exile, Jorge Semprún, on his one escape from the constant contact with others enforced in Buchenwald concentration camp. I am reading his book, Life or Literature, his account of this experience, but this quote comes from a fascinating interview with him in The White Review:

http://www.thewhitereview.org/interviews/interview-with-jorge-semprun/

This blog post begins to explore the Spanglish identity of my inherited second generation (second hand – I’m tempted to say)  exile.

A hole-ridden jumper of sorts. A garment of dropped stitches. Hecho con las patas, if you will. Hand crafted if you won’t.

I will also allow my usually constrained (or well behaved) visual non linear brain to graze freely on the pastures of association. Buckle up for the scenic route!

Bien portado dices? ¡Jaja!

Lo que me gusta del asunto Spanglish es la libertad que siento al pasar de una lengua a la otra. Para mi no hay dos, sino una sola lengua y yo escojo la palabrita que sea, y nadie me puede decir que no vale.

There are no borders. No passports.

“Unlike Thomas Mann, I cannot say: ‘Language is my fatherland’, because then I would have two homelands…I do think that it is important to say that language does not constitute a homeland, but rather that it transcends the limits and the charms of the mother tongue.” Jorge Semprún

I choose only the word, the phrase that fits. If the resulting sweater is wholly hole-ridden I’ll deal with the draughts.

Apropos of which a Spanglish conversation in pictures:

Barbara and Pablo. Male and female. English and Spanish.

Sometimes my grasp of each language is approximate – here the visual thinker. Uff!

El encanto del Spanglish en todo caso es el permiso de jugar, inventar y pasarlo como pig in clover. Sorry, no hay otra frase que me sirva. Allí pondremos el pobre puerco. O en este caso, el puerco feliz.

Quizas, aunque nadie y nada podría empezar a aproximar esa necesidad absoluta de ensimismarse que describe Jorge Seprúm, el ensimismarse es en buena medida la experiencia que puede buscar el exiliado para salir de los limites geográficos y temporales que lo enjaulan donde sea que se encuentre, o que los hayan dejado suspendido en el aire sin sentido de tierra propia.

Antes podia yo caminar por esas calles, por esas calles! Ahora recito los romanceros de Lorca, escucho música de aquellos tiempos,  apunto mis memorias, pinto, o leo – me pierdo un rato. Me pierdo. Me busco. No reconozco a quien encuentro.

I loose myself. To loose oneself, in a dream, in a book, in a town or in a city, in a country, in the WORLD. My world.

Esimismarse – for good or evil, better or worse. To preserve oneself one must become quite lost. Pretty word. Pretty. Lost.

The trick, el truco, is to find yourself once more.

Yo por primera vez, hace poco, empece a pensar el el cuento de Hansel and Gretel para describir el proceso de mi padre de dejar las migas del pan literario por el camino de su exilio. Mi triste, lindo y sabio padre exiliado – quien en su puesto universitario en Birmingham empezó poco a poco durante muchos años a adquirir obras de autores Republicanos i exiliados, obras teatrales, novelas, poesía y que también escribió sobre la Residencia, y sobre literatura y el teatro, y sus propias obras. Estas migas las deposito en su biblioteca de casa y la de su departamento en la universidad. Sus grandes pasiones – sus “ensimismators” – las cosas que le ensimismaban también fueron las cosas en que (aunque fuera en pedacitos) se sentía reflejado – en que el podia encontrar quizás un eco de si mismo – el joven de antes o el hombre de ahora? Seria siempre la pregunta, no? Su pregunta, haciendo mirada hacia el espejo roto, viendo el hombre fragmentado.

As this was not truly bread it is not stale – far from it! Life gleams from every carefully gathered page. The signals are good. Transmission complete. I hear you dad.

The torch is on. The search party in full swing. Para mi no cabe duda. The father I find on the pages of his plays. Las paginas de sus obras. That father is whole, was whole. Momentarily, fragmentarily whole. El e-Spanglish nos permita este oxímoron.

Y cada vez que encuentro una voz de esa generación encuentro en ella un eco de mi padre, un compañero de el, un espíritu en común, una sabiduría colectiva, un patron. Y allí, allí mismo me encuentro reflejada. De manera fragmentaria tu pensarías, no? Pero no – el espejo roto es lo mío – los fragmentos repletos triangulares como el queso aquello de mi niñez –  laughing cow – y las migas de pan dulce – las palmeras de la pastelería de mi paseos agarrada de la mano de mis padres.

Jorge Seprúm cuando te leo me ensimismas – I am transfixed. Sobre todo porque escribes sobre Buchenwald. This is a gaze which must not turn. Lo leo en Inglés, pero lo entiendo en Spanglish. Tu eso lo vas a entender.

 


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Yesterday I was once again artist conferencee, one of my absolute favourite manifestations of this ever expanding research-based artistic practice. In preparation for this role I found myself last week describing how I was over the past two years overcome by an emotional tidal wave on inheriting my grandmother’s handbag, from which my current entirely immersive project, Barcelona in a Bag, originated. I no longer recognise myself or my output – although of course I do. It is simply that I have gone deeper and become specific about my subject matter. With artists there is usually the “I” at the heart of things no matter if they protest otherwise.  Ironically this inwards thrust, has also increased the outward reach of my work and forms a curiously symbiotic and symmetrical network of connections –  like roots and branches spreading from the trunk of me.

An hour spent talking “in conversation” about my work during the Artistic Interventions in the Virtual Space conference (Birmingham University Hispanic Department) has proved most stimulating. As an artist you have to love the attention academic eyes and minds can bring to what you do, not only the intelligence of their questions and the doors they can open on new lines of thought but also their expertise in your subject/s, your theme/s.

The challenge was to speak in Castilian for the hour – oh how aware I was that I am above all a Spanglish speaker and my technical vocabulary lags behind when forced to choose “only” Castilian. UNi-English is uncomfortable but a breeze by comparison to uni-Castilian. Uni-English is like the difference between slippers and heels. Uni-Castilian is barefoot on gravel. For me the “mother” tongue consists of kicking back into the zone where the distinction between Castilian and English blur and they are allowed seamlessly to merge and emerge recreated – as individual as I and my circumstances and very much of the moment – yet wholly comprehensible to a fluent speaker of both. The fun and games begin in this zone – this is where invention can be found. A zone in which parlour or parlez games (excuse my French!) make a delight of the everyday. As I write this I am smiling with warm association – for some time I have been saying that Spanglish is the language of my exile and know this theme too must develop and strengthen and become a thing. Language, identity and rights are extraordinarily current of course in Spain, and also ran through the conference.

So why did I feel like the kid at the party yesterday? It was because I walked into another zone in which another language, which had been repressed and marginalised was out to play! I was in point of fact treated to a day of Catalan, of which I am neither a speaker nor a listener (usually). The entire conference, papers, speakers, questions and performers (aside from my slot and the final paper of the day in English spoken by a Spaniard) was conducted in Catalan.

A child of a certain age I reasoned grasps about 40% of adult language and communication – this is obviously a sliding scale mostly although for some of us language processing is different and remains a challenge. Autism and extreme visual processing skills for example can keep the percentage of received auditory language in the lower figures. As the morning progressed I settled in to the knowledge that Catalan, while sounding quite Castilian is not reliably comprehensible to a Spanglish speaker. No matter, I said to myself early in. There was really not much difference in my predicament to the usual state of affairs. A visual, non-linear thinker among academics I often find 40% is the upper limit of what I can follow of the average verbal presentation – slides boost the figure but too many words will simply crash in on me and get in the way. Zoning out is common, letting the words wash over me as pure sound is awfully soothing at times, and coming in and out of the room at will is a skill I have honed over my many years of formal studies. I find I don’t need all the extra information – my brain is perhaps quite selective and knows when to swoop on a juicy idea. My post-it notes soon filled up with fragments of excitement as the occasional film clip or visual cue filtered through nicely.

The Catalan voices were a joy and a delight. What gorgeous sounds these speakers made, seeming to bend words I thought I knew and suddenly pronouncing whole phrases I absolutely recognised only to sink again into unknown mellifluousness. Flooded with this music, divining meaning as I could, I bumped into another self I recognised, a smaller me in a corner of some other room concealed beneath the table listening in safety and quite unobserved. How small children (I guess not only me) love such spaces and the game of listening, watching and absorbing the mysteries of adult talk.

Later in the day at a marvellous performance by Ester Xargay and Carles Hac Mor, brimming with wit and mirth and redolent of the party game, I felt the child again. The verbal language interposed came and went leaving traces of meaning and I was left with the actions alone. At the close of the afternoon I spoke with Ester and told her how much I enjoyed the performance and how it made me feel like the kid at the party. Exactly that! she exclaimed, exactly that!

 


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