El Laberinto del Fauno

Dragon-flies chased me through the city as I wandered from a gathering of male church officials (about democracy, but clearly for men only) to a meeting with a monk. They stayed with me when I finally became confused trying to find a building which I later discovered no longer exists. They darted about, up and down, zig-zagging through the air above the yellow sand and puddles. They tried to tell me but I wouldn’t listen. Later, they led me to the entrance to the underground world. Gates made from mahogany table-legs propped up broken tarmac at the roadside, and a pool of the clearest water, led the way to a world of secrets. I wondered if it meets at any stage with the US tunnel that is rumoured here to take you down to the bay and far away. I wanted to go through the entrance – I’ve seen so many different gateways tempting me down there – but I was late for a meeting between the cemetery and what I call the brown blamange (a very big country’s embassy). I wish I could escape, and dart into the underworld with the dragon-flies right now, but instead, I have to prepare for tomorrow morning – to join the great queue for visas.

It will be awful.

Things happen around me all the time which I want to write down. I get very frustrated because I know I don’t remember everything, but there’s also a part of me that doesn’t want to write it all down. It’s a bit like my philosophy on photographs. I rarely take snaps of any country I visit or live in, or of events that happen, or people I meet, preferring instead to remember the moments as they wax and wane in my brain. I don’t care if I mis-remember them, or re-imagine them, or exaggerate them. Who cares? Does this come back to my increasingly unnerving lack of interest in absolute accuracy? Soon I’ll be writing myself out of a job. The authorities here should be reading this: they could have a field day in court when I make even the slightest mistake. ‘She admits she makes mistakes! She’s not interested in the truth!’ I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on. Anyway, there’s some stuff that I’ve seen and heard that I want to get down before I do forget. Here’s something to chew on, told to me by a very good friend who was a very long time ago a member of the Josef Stalin Group here. ‘We all used to think that marxism was the solution. Now we think democracy is the solution. But I am sure that democracy will prove not to be the answer. It will, in the end, be like marxism. It won’t work. It will cause us many, many problems.’

It already is.By the way, try saying Josef Stalin Group to yourself. It always makes me laugh. I went to talk to a politician, a member of the main opposition party UNITA. I walked to his house. I knew it would take a good half-hour on foot – still no car – so I set off early. It was very hot. Incredibly hot. The sun got to me because I took a wrong turn and ended up twisting in and out of Luanda’s streets so much, I must have done double the distance that any good crow would have flown. As I finally entered the area in which he lived, I realised that I didn’t know which street he was on. Actually that’s not true: I knew this before I’d left but I have a loathing for maps and certainty when going anywhere. I like to just get to the area and then poke about. Something interesting always happens. Today was no exception. Here, in Luanda, security guards are all over the place. If you are going to an area of the middle-classes or above, you are pretty much guaranteed that there will be huddles of men (dressed in green and orange or fawn and brown outfits, booted and capped) every five to ten metres. One of them is bound to know the place you are looking for. Except today they didn’t. They just looked at me rather blankly. One got rather annoyed. ‘These are all ministers houses here!’ he barked, and then pointed ahead down the street. Marching orders.As I wandered on, I noticed a young man with a red and green T-shirt, and the letters U-N-I-T-A running from nipple to nipple. He was glad to show me to the house of his ‘favourite politician’ and so we strolled together for a good ten minutes. We discussed the party’s presidential elections, coming up in June, and the country’s general and presidential elections, due (well forever, but let’s be optimistic) next year and the year after. He was about 19 years old, articulate, passionate, thoughtful and engaging. I wondered how many 19 year-olds I might meet in London who could have, or would even want to have, that sort of conversation with a stranger. Quite frankly, I wonder how many 39 year-olds in London would be that interested. But forget the comparisons: what really struck me was that I was having such an open and frank chat with someone about UNITA in Luanda, in public, just five years after the war between UNITA and the MPLA ended. Shame it can’t happen everywhere. My hands were swollen by the time I arrived. My arms were starting to expand. My head was thumping. I tried to wipe the sweat off my face and hands but I had forgotten to bring any tissues. I must have looked a bit of a mess. I must have looked a bit of a mess. I must buy a motorbike soon. I can’t stand the heat. I can’t stand the heat. It took two hours off my afternoon today. I had to recover. I was drained dry, like a shrivelled raisin. I have blisters on my silly soft feet. That lady with the bananas. She’s out there all day. A pyramid of bananas stacked on a tray, on her head. Out there all day, marching under bananas. They tasted great. So good I gave two away to people who looked as impressed by the yellow as me. We agreed: the bananas were delicious. I sent one back to the politician too, with his driver. All politicians should eat bananas.
Someone sent me these words from famous people: ‘It is tragic how few people ever possess their souls before they die’, and
‘Nothing is more rare in any man than an act of his own.’ How gloomy.


gaps & silences

Even admitting to being unsure about what you can say and what you cannot, what you should say and what you should not, is probably a bit of a risk. The doubt itself is an admission of opposition, and therein lies the great conundrum – in fact, it’s a trap – for me (and maybe, any writer). If I were a fiction writer, and God knows, I fantasise about it, this task would be so much easier. At least I think it would. First of all you could make things up. Secondly, and most appealingly, things that are true could be written about as if they were made up. Writing fact is altogether more complicated because there is nothing to hide behind, other than that which is omitted. Omission is a dangerous space to enter. It plays tricks with your mind and soon you don’t know whether you omitted what was just a dream or what was true. You don’t know whether you are frightened of the truth or your imagination. I’ve imagined some very odd things this year.

In early January, I was staying with friends in Muswell Hill. One night, I was in the house with one other person. But during the evening, I seemed to lose that other. So, after about an hour of worrying, I searched the house. He was nowhere to be found. A while later I noticed that one of the doors to one of the main rooms was locked, and immediately concluded that this other had locked himself in there for the evening to have some peace and quiet. But I started imagining all sorts of awful things. The following day, I told J this story and he encouraged me to go take a look at the locked door again, a door, he insisted, had no lock. So I went and looked very closely and, well, it was true. There was no lock. This made me think about all those ‘witnesses’ who had seen the ‘terrorist’ running into Stockwell tube with a heavy jacket on and a rucksack… Well I won’t go there now. We all know what happened. But it’s unnerving as a journalist. I wonder how much I see and how much I think I see.

Fatal, probably, to admit this to any public, but I do wonder.


I saw a beautiful yellow thong this morning, lined with small curls of thread that followed the curves of the bottom on which they sat. I saw a large black bra too, and a single earring, hanging like a chandelier from the right lobe. Nothing particularly strange about any of this, except that it was all upon the body of a young boy who kicked his leg gently up and down, ever so slightly provocatively, from behind a dirty metal door. A young woman selling mangos from her head caught me gazing and smiling. “Don’t worry yourself, senhora,” she said, “it’s carnival.” We both giggled, and the boy came out from behind his door to give us our very own twirl. It was 8 am. The streets were empty. Our very own preview to carnival. I felt very honoured. And it made me think: I’m doing a small programme on the carnival for the BBC’s Africa service. Perhaps I should dress up myself, as a man, in a suit and tie, with a wig, and a suitcase full of fake dollars. That’s the beauty of radio. I could be naked for all you know.

an american in luanda

Believe me, I wasn’t looking for advice. I just tapped in ‘luanda traffic’ and it came up, this hilarious page. It’s probably very important and I probably should take it more seriously but you really have to giggle at the matter-of-fact manner in which the US tries to protect its citizens from anything which might break the dull and safe routine of their lives. This paragraph is particularly amusing:

Motorists should stop at all police checkpoints if so directed. Police officers may solicit bribes or request immediate payment of “fines” for alleged minor infractions. Americans asked for bribes by the police should politely ask the traffic police to write them a ticket if the police are alleging a moving violation. If the police officer writes the ticket, then the motorist would pay the fine at the place indicated on the ticket. If no moving violation is alleged and the officer is asking for a bribe, the motorist should, without actually challenging the officer’s authority, politely ask the officer for his/her name and badge number. Officers thus engaged will frequently let motorists go with no bribe paid if motorists follow this advice.

And also this phrase, which comes up several times:

Police and military officials are sometimes undisciplined, but their authority should not be challenged. Their authority should not be challenged… yes, well, no surprises there then.

Many Westerners working in Angola, or trying to come to work in Angola, will readily moan about their visa problems. Either they can’t get one, or getting one takes too long, or replacing one feels impossible. I’ve had a moan myself, let it be known. However, I also want to balance out the visa argument. We all know that for Angolans to get into the UK is not easy – that’s no secret – but what about Europeans trying to get into the United States, not even to work, but for a holiday. Have a look at this blog for a small insight into the US visa process.

telling secrets and lies

A couple of years ago I went to a talk about travel writing. Several travel writers sat on the stage and discussed their various successes. I was keen to lap up their experience, breath in their confidence, and think about how perhaps one day I would become someone sitting on that stage. As the discussion progressed, however, I became increasingly annoyed and unhappy. One of them boasted about how she never asks anyone for permission to write about them, even if she is in a country where a local could easily be put at risk if his or her critical views are made public. Apparently Bruce Chatwin held the same view – just write, don’t think about the consequences. But the consequences for the writer are one thing. Consequences for the subject are surely another matter entirely. It’s a great shame. I really liked Bruce Chatwin until that evening, and then I felt I had to revise my opinion of his work. It was said, for example, that someone was actually killed as a result of something Chatwin had written about them. They were identified in one of his books. Can this be true?

I think a lot about the potential betrayal of people I write about or simply want to write about. Should I? Shouldn’t I? Often, I find myself saying, ‘No, you shouldn’t.’ And so I never do. I know that I would hate to be written about without the author gaining my consent. Although, come to think about it, that’s not quite true. Someone did once write about me – as the protagonist in their novel – and all I felt was anger that I never received a copy. The author was, I think, a Dutch man, writing about diamond smuggling around Angola. So if that rings a bell to anyone out there, please let me know. I’m egotistical enough to want to be written about (good or bad).

Yesterday, someone said: ‘If other people want to keep their secrets, that’s their problem. But, Lara, the job of the journalist is not to protect other people’s secrets, it is to tell those secrets.’

‘Any secrets?’

‘Yes! Just write them.’

I think that’s probably bad advice, tempted though I am. I wouldn’t want to be talked about after my death as a journalist who left a trail of bodies behind her. I wouldn’t want to leave one body behind me, or my work. Did Chatwin really care so little?

talking with budgies

Four fluorescent budgerigars woke me up this morning. I told my landlady and she answered, ‘They’re happy budgies because they were born in a cage.’ If their talking is any indication of their happiness, then she must be right. It’s now four in the afternoon, and they’re still at it.

I remember hearing a story about a Rwandan woman. She had lived through the genocide but had lost most of her family. Arriving in the UK, she was offered counselling. She accepted. She liked her doctor, a sympathetic middle aged man, and he liked her. Each week he encouraged her to talk about her experiences, her feelings and thoughts. If she had nothing to say, they would sit in silence until she did. But each week, it became clearer to the doctor that his methods weren’t working. His patient was becoming increasingly unhappy, and spoke less and less. Eventually he decided to ask her what the problem was. Promptly, she told him, ‘It’s the talking. In my country, we talk when we have something good to talk about and to celebrate. We don’t talk about our sadness. How can I get better by talking?’

I wonder if it is a mistake to admit to this thought-linkage: the chattering budgies and the silent Rwandan lady. It just came up in my head.

anxiety of freedom

On the 38 bus, I read this piece – part profile, part interview – about the Argentinian novelist and journalist, Tomás Eloy Martínez. I want to quote a few things he said here.’A large part of Argentinian history concludes with an act of violence. The dictatorship ended with a war – the Malvinas – with 30,ooo desaparecidos in the concentration camps. All stories are contaminated with violence.’
‘If you hear a tango, the whole country comes back to you.’
‘To write a novel is to be free – with all the anxiety of freedom.’
‘Most crimes happened because people were afraid and protected themselves instead of defying and challenging power. I left because I could leave – most Argentinians weren’t so lucky.’ Although the Review section of the British newspaper, The Guardian, has failed to maintain the depth and stimulation it originally promised, it does still offer the odd gem. I must get a copy of The Tango Singer.