This is how the book opens (I’ve added the illustrations) …
It was 1972 and I was eighteen years old. I had jumped ship and watched while she sailed away. I left the docks and stood on the white beach while the Hanseatic Shipping Company’s freighter put to sea and headed for Cape Horn and Santiago, leaving me behind in Uruguay. I knew no one in Montevideo. I had no contacts in South America. I had a Spanish phrase book, about twenty pounds freshly converted into pesos, a slim volume each of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and nowhere to live. I realize now that this was my way of reinventing myself, something that every young person has to do sooner or later. But I hadn’t thought it through. And looking back I am amazed that I was such an extremist. I could have become a punk and found redemption in tartan and safety pins or joined an ashram in Goole. It wasn’t necessary to travel to the other side of the world.
That first day, when the ship had disappeared from view, I felt like Robinson Crusoe abandoned on his desert island. Somewhere out on the River Plate were a series of buoys marking the grave of the German pocket battleship, the Graf Spee. One of the old hands had pointed them out to me when we were crossing over from Buenos Aires. But they say that the whole area is littered with wrecks.
There was fear mixed with anticipation, but basically my view of the situation was romantic. I had no concept of having marooned myself on the shores of a country about to be ruled by a military dictatorship. My political consciousness was yet to be born.
Looking back, it is difficult to recall the young man that I was at that time. He was not someone I know. When I try to recall him I find myself with a character so much older than the me I now know. Or I find myself contemplating someone so shallow in experience that he is still a child.
Part of me wants to rush back in time to 1972 and try to save this old young man from his fate. But it is not possible to do that, and if it were possible it would not be right. He doesn’t know it, but he is reaching out for me.
If we could travel backwards and forwards in time and by some trick of linearity he and I could meet and compare notes it would be merely interesting for me, while for him it would be a terrible fait accompli. I have a vision of all of us meeting together, not just him in that year, but the me that I was as a child and all the mes I have been since. When I was twenty, and again when I was thirty, forty. We could have a conference, hire a hotel for a weekend, thrash it all out, apportion blame for the mistakes and make awards for the small victories. Then, late on Sunday evening we would say our goodbyes and return to our separate lives.
I left the beach and wandered in the district of Montevideo they call Ciudad Vieja, the old town. Children begging, some of them little more than toddlers trying to sell sweets on the corner of a street. Wealthy tourists, too, and middle class Uruguayan women draped in the latest fashions from New York and London. A few blacks; more than I’d expected; even more people of mixed race. I scored an olímpico, a huge club sandwich on toasted bread with mayonnaise and steak and about fifteen other ingredients. I sat on a low wall and looked around at the colonial buildings and ate until my jaws hurt. I only paid pennies for the olímpico but it kept me in food for the next twenty-four hours.
Montevideo was dusty in those days. The old buildings were baked in the sun and the tooth of time and neglect had worn away at the stones. There was always something in your eye, and when you ate outside there were pieces of grit in your mouth. They say it’s better now, that the buildings have been restored and the dust has disappeared.
There was a second-hand clothes shop with a huge Turk in the doorway eating something sticky with his fingers. He had a shaven head and tattoos on his forearms and his bull-neck was ridged at the back. I couldn’t tell if the ridge was from wearing a cap or if it was a flap of fat and I hung around the window too long trying to get a closer look at him. I must have made him nervous because he grunted and glared and disappeared inside.
Around the back of the Hotel Plaza Fuerte on Bartolomé Mitre I met Julio Ferrari. He must have been thirty years old at the time, a small man with black hair and a day’s growth of beard. He was framed in the doorway to the hotel’s kitchen, the butt of a cigarette deepening the nicotine stains on the fingers of his right hand. He wore a long apron which obscured his feet.
‘Hola. ¿qué desea?’
I dug the Spanish phrase book out of my pocket.
‘Americano?’ he asked.
‘English.’ He took a step towards me and stood very close.
He laughed. ‘Long way from home.’ He took a drag on his cigarette, pulling the smoke into his lungs and flicked the butt away from him, watching as it arced across the street. ‘You’re running away?’
It must have been written on my forehead. I stepped back, feeling uncomfortable by our proximity.
‘Don’t step back,’ he said. ‘In England you can keep your distance, here we get closer together.’
‘You can wash dishes,’ he said. ‘You get free food, a few pesos a day. We’re not going to make you rich. What’s your name?’
‘Frederick,’ I told him. ‘Frederick Boyle.’
‘No one’ll get it,’ he said. ‘We’ll call you Ramon.’ He thought for a moment. ‘Ramon Bolio. You have somewhere to stay, Ramon?’
I shook my head.
‘There’s a room in my conventillo. You don’t mind pigs.’
‘You keep pigs?’
‘Doesn’t everyone?’ That laugh again. Julio had large teeth with distinctive gaps around each of them. He seemed out of place in a town, the kind of character you would expect to meet in the countryside. I discovered later that he was a member of the Tupamaros, an urban guerilla movement and that many of his compatriots had been selectively ‘disappeared’ by the military. All the more surprising, then, that he was so open and helpful to me. On the other hand, I eventually came to believe that his survival owed as much to his naivety and honesty as it did to his clandestine lifestyle and the secret world in which his hopes and aspirations lay hidden.
Julio was a man of aphorisms, English, American, Australian as well as Uruguayan, and they would spill out of him, sometimes making sense but often seemingly devoid of context. Maxims which had had more reincarnations than the Dalai Lama. He poured them back into the world from which he had plucked them, a verbal recycler in a land of eucalyptus and lemon trees.
‘Middle-class is the definition of criminality,’ he would tell me. Or, ‘I don’t use drugs, my dreams are frightening enough.’ Another time he would say, ‘When the chips are down, the buffalo is empty.’
I’m still trying to work that one out.
And this is from near the end of Chapter 6, nearly halfway through:
Julio had a copy of Golding’s Lord of the Flies in Spanish translation which he insisted I read. It was the first book of fiction I read in Spanish and to this day I haven’t read it in English. Fanny, Julio’s girlfriend refused to read it because there were no girls on the island.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ Julio told her. ‘This is a book about the decay of civilization. It is concerned with the descent into barbarism.’
‘No,’ she told him. ‘It is another example of how men marginalize women. It is hurtful and wrong and untrue. How can women understand books like this when they are not allowed to appear in them?’
‘This is a book dealing with abstractions, symbolism, you understand?’
‘Yes, Julio, I understand. I live in your world.’
‘Not everything has to be about sex. It is possible to examine the structures of civilization by means of metaphor.’
‘What I’m saying is the metaphor isn’t adequate if it ignores half the population. I’ve only got time to read so many books in this life. I don’t want to waste time reading a book which doesn’t talk to me, doesn’t want to talk to me because it’s far too busy talking to my father and my brothers and all the guys who, by implication, really matter.’
‘Give it a try, Fanny. That’s all I’m asking.’
‘I’d give it a try if it had one girl in it. Even if the girl was one of the little ‘uns. She didn’t have to be a heroine, anything like that. Just a token girl would’ve done.’
‘I’m too old for this kind of thing,’ Julio said. ‘I always was.’
‘I don’t trust islands, either,’ Fanny continued. ‘Paradise was an island. At least there was a girl there, Eve, a woman. But it turns out she’s in league with the Devil. Spends all her time chatting with snakes, running around half naked and breaking all the boss’s rules. Now we’ve come full circle, got another paradise island and guess what, it’s populated with choir boys. Not a skirt in sight.’
‘Don’t read it,’ Julio said. ‘Your loss.’
‘I don’t lose anything, Julio. I already know what happens when everyone pretends there’s no women in the world and the men make all the rules. You think I need an English schoolteacher to tell me this?’
‘OK, OK, I already said don’t read it. I wish I never brought it up.’
‘I wish you’d never brought it up. I wish the guy had had the sense not to write it, or had the sense to write it about a plane-load of girls. That I would have read.’
‘OK, enough, Fanny. This is gonna drive me crazy.’
‘Not a long drive, then?’
Boys and girls. I had the little prig, Pablito, the son of Capitán Miguel García Ramírez, my employer. And back in England I had my brother, Stephen. Although he was only slightly younger than me, he would always be a boy.
There was Esther and Maria, my neighbour’s teenage daughters in the conventillo. They stalked my dreams then and have done for ever since. They were girls, but for ever poised on the verge of womanhood. And both of them were capable of making me feel younger than them.
When I replayed the tape of Fanny’s argument with Julio she seemed to be right. As a man I only really knew men and boys. Women and girls were other.
I tried to picture myself as William Golding back in the early fifties. It must have crossed his mind, in the planning stage, to have a couple of girls in there. I could see him unloading the idea as fast as he had it. The book would never have got written. It would have turned out far too complicated. Even one adolescent girl would have thrown everything into turmoil.
And Golding couldn’t have written about girls at that stage of his life. He’d been in the army. He knew men and boys. He didn’t know girls. Later maybe, towards the end of his life. But not when he was writing Lord of the Flies. He probably rationalised it, told himself that he wasn’t writing about gender, that it was all symbolic. But on reflection I could see Fanny’s point of view. It was a cop out.
There was a girl called Dorothy, about my age when I was around ten, eleven. She was the daughter of a policeman who lived along the street from us, an only child, a tomboy who climbed trees and wore shorts and a T-shirt and was as dirty and scruffy as the rest of us except she had long dark ringlets and black eyes so you could never really believe in her. And there was Cat Rouse from around the same time. Cat, another pubescent girl, lived on the estate and her father was disabled and her mother used to turn tricks to make ends meet. Cat wasn’t a tomboy, like Dorothy, but she was tough and she fought like a tiger if anyone said anything about her mother. I only said something once and got my nose bloodied as recompense.
I told my mates I could have beaten her easily if I hadn’t pulled my punches.
But the truth was I enjoyed it, that bloodied nose. It splayed out into a hundred erotic dreams.
I still relive it from time to time in the dance.
Dance is the repetition of patterns that are never allowed to become predictable; it can transform the mundane reality of consecutive steps into an essence of movement. The more I danced the more I became aware of pattern.
Teaching English to the young Pablito I witnessed the patterns of the Capitán’s house. The grounds consisted of five acres of garden and were tended by two gardeners and the lady of the house, Paola, Pablito’s mother. The overall design of the land, the planting plan and the sequence of flowering plants and bushes came from the imagination of Paola. The main physical work was left to the two men. Immersed in language, Pablito and I would watch as one or the other of these figures passed the french windows from time to time.
Shortly after I began work there they installed a sun dial, a copy, apparently, of a famous installation somewhere near Venice. It bore the legend: Horas non numero nisi serenas (I count only the hours that are serene), a phrase which has stayed with me throughout my life.
The elder gardener was a hunched dwarf of a man trapped in a posture that made it look as though he was being sucked back into the earth. He spoke little and was the colour of a ripe berry, his features gnarled equivalents of living bark. There were times he crouched at his work in the shade of a shrub and was absorbed into the surroundings as if invisible. I often heard him before I saw him, the chock of his trowel against a stone and he would swim into vision, his next-to-toothless grin emerging from the twisted branches and the whistling leaves. He was a true peasant, the very archetype of a land worker. I would fantasise that he had lived forever, since the conception of humanity. It was easy to imagine that he had emerged from the soil of Uruguay long before the birth of the nation. A kind of golem.
His young helper was a giant, a year or two older than me. He could lift and carry fallen trees and he would dig and replace the pipes in a twenty meter drainage culvert before the morning break, his biceps and triceps glistening with sweat. When he took a breather, leaning on the shovel, his deltoids would carry on flickering and shimmering with restless energy and he would glance from side to side, his huge face pitted with carnality. Fecundity hung around him like a cape.
Occasionally Capitán Miguel García Ramírez would join his wife in the garden and she would show him the changes she had made or point out what had come into flower. But he was usually away during the day and two or three times a week she would receive a visit from Bill Steel. She might take the American around the garden, but usually she would invite him into the house and that would be the last we saw of them until he left a couple of hours later.