The fifth Hay Festival in Cartagena, Colombia’s jewel on the Caribbean Coast, has begun in style. The sun has shone brightly, drawing out the vivid yellows, pinks and blues of the colonial cit’s houses, churches, theatres and cafés; the breezes from the sea sweep through the streets; salsa and the sound of fruit-sellers bellowing out their wares adds a lilt to the air; and a flurry of linen-clad authors, readers and observers meander from one literary event to the next. The festival began on Wednesday evening in Colombia’s cosmopolitan capital, Bogotá (the “Athens of South America,” as it is sometimes referred to on the continent), with an hour’s conversation between Ian McEwan and Festival Director Peter Florence. Five hundred or so people listened with rapt attention as McEwan talked about his work, in particular On Chesil Beach: its composition, characters, influences, the melancholy of Florence’s disappearance from the last pages, the context of the time, their inability to overcome their traumatic experience.
It was a wide-ranging conversation, touching on the value of the novella as opposed to the novel; the mathematical structure with which McEwan begins the planning of each book that he writes; his experience writing screenplays and libretti, a humbling demotion in the case of screenplays from the role of God to a scribe whose work is subject to constant change at the whim of directors, actors and the rest; the celebrated passage in Atonement in which Briony contemplates the fingers of her hand, which the Colombian students present had found extraordinarily powerful; and the wider impact McEwan’s novels have had on his readers, here and worldwide. It was a fascinating hour and one could hear a pin drop in the packed public library in which the event was held.
Arriving in Cartagena, there is a buzz in the air. Octagenarian Gabriel García Márquez is here, a rare and exciting event as he spends most of each year in his permanent home in Mexico City. Your Prospect blogger made his perennial pilgrimage to the author’s forbidding but stylish house, built in the sixties by Colombia’s preeminent (late) architect Rogelio Salmona, to see if he might catch a glimpse of the great man. But Gabo has – surprisingly – left the city for a day or two: might this coincide with the presence of Mario Vargas Llosa, the great Peruvian novelist? As Gerald Martin’s biography of ‘Gabo’ explains, the two men have never spoken – despite an earlier strong friendship—since Vargas Llosa punched García Márquez, and almost knocked him out, outside a Mexican cinema in 1976. The cause of the punch has never been known, although conjecture abounds.
During the day, among a multitude of other events, Gillian Beer gave a magisterial account of Darwin’s appreciation of literature and art to a capacity crowd in the Plaza Santo Domingo, a 16th century colonnaded courtyard in the heart of the old town. Darwin seems to have been deeply moved by the music of Handel, and his love of music and art informed his work throughout his mature life in varying ways. Manu Dibango, the Cameroonian saxophonist whose exuberant, soulful tones graced the town in his concert the night before, spoke of his years in the sixties in the smoke-filled jazz clubs of Paris and New York, and of his subsequent humanitarian work for the UN, Ethiopia and – last week – for the stricken people of Haiti. And Peter Godwin, the Rhodesia-born journalist of English and Polish-Jewish ancestry, spoke compellingly of his father’s life, in which he suppressed until near his death his true identity as a survivor of the Holocaust (written about in When a Crocodile Eats the Sun), and of the decline and brutality experienced in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Michael Ondaatje is here and will talk tonight; and so, over the next two days, will we also hear from Mario Vargas Llosa, Ian McEwan (again), Helena Kennedy, Hector Abad Faciolince and Juan Gabriel Vásquez (two of Colombia’s most celebrated contemporary authors), a group of contemporary authors from the Arab world, Simon Schama, Sarfraz Mansoor, travel writer Michael Jacobs and many others. The city is alive with photographic exhibitions, booksellers, cafés and musicians. There’ll be a further blog on the rest of the Festival on Monday.
Read my second post here.