Upon seeing this picture I was instantly transported back to Valparaiso, Chile where wall art is a dominant feature of the houses which climb up away from the ocean to the hills. The ribbons flowing from the old man’s hands out onto the street, as if he is spilling his soul, take me back to the first Isabel Allende book I ever read, Hija de la fortuna, recommended to me by my dear friend and colleague Solange.
The novel begins in this colourful town at the time of the great gold rush, when the port was a stopping point for spectators on their way to California. The mix of people coming into the town and going on their way to a new life, mixing traditions, cultures, stories and histories were just like those ribbons.
That book started a love affair of mine with Allende’s writing. It keeps me connected with a country in which I loved living and some of the nicest people I have had the fortune to meet. Now that I no longer live there her books keep it alive in my mind. I often find myself self-consciously thinking, ‘am I boring people?’ when I enter conversation with, ‘When I was in Chile…’ I find myself rushing through the words, not wanting to be compared to those people who start every conversation with, ‘When I was travelling…’ People become bored when they cannot relate.
That said, it does not stop me from eagerly giving my friends and family Allende books for any special occasion. However, none of them really rave about them with as much enthusiasm as I do. It isn’t a case of ‘lost in translation’, it’s the lack of an added dimension: memory.
For me books are like perfumes and scents. They can instantly evoke memories of places and feelings. I know where each and every one of my Allende books were acquired and read. La isla bajo el mar, bought at a book fair in Cusco with my friends Louise and Mike (I gate-crashed their honeymoon) brought me a lot of solace on an extremely long journey back down to Santiago with not nearly enough toilet breaks for me and my travelling companion Sarah. Granted, I do realise I did not make the best choice when booking the bus from Cusco to Arequipa. A local lady cutting up a dead animal in the aisle of the bus as we hurtled along really did nothing for poor vegetarian Sarah.
El cuaderno de Maya, my parting gift from Solange at Santiago airport reduced me to tears in the departure lounge. Well, it was either that or the relief of getting to the airport after being pulled over by the police for making an illegal right turn. Paula, bought in one of the most beautiful bookshops on the archipelago, Chiloé is by far my favourite. Apart from the emotional aspect of the book, it links Chile’s history with the author’s daughter’s present location, Madrid. The connection to the country where I have spent almost half of my adult life makes that novel an inextricable part of my life.
There are books such as these that take you back to specific moments. My mum always jokes that if she wants me to remember a place we visited when I was a child she only has to tell me what I ate there and everything comes flooding back. (The fact that she remembers too makes me think we are not so different!) While food might be vital fuel for the body and mind, reading and the art of telling stories are fuel for the soul, something we sometimes forget to keep nourished. It is something we cannot leave to wilt and wither as quick fix entertainment takes over. I am the first to admit I have a penchant for trashy TV programmes, but do they enhance my life? Most probably not. I do not know if I am the only one to sometimes feel guilty for sitting down with a book these days. I doubt I am. It’s a shame we don’t value reading for its cathartic properties in our hectic day to day lives.
There is a growing number of people who claim not to like reading. What is there not to like? As a child I never really liked Alice in Wonderland. If you are silly enough to go down a rabbit hole you really shouldn’t expect everything to be normal down there. However, as I have got older I think we all need a rabbit hole to escape to and we are in charge of what we find at the other end. It worries me to think that in generations to come reading and literature will not just be undervalued, but extinct. It leads me to believe that people will be just that little emptier and memories will get lost in the ether, never to be shared.
I read a quote this week, coincidentally posted by another Chilean colleague, that contrary to scientists’ beliefs that we are made up of cells and DNA, we are in fact built up of stories. I couldn’t agree more. My original response to the picture was that the man’s stories, his life, were flowing out into the world, but maybe he is carefully weaving the strands of his life in, towards himself.