‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ The Biblical phase ran through my un-Biblical mind as I walked under the arcades of the Plaza Mayor and saw the lines of men asleep in grey sleeping bags sheltering from the February rain. They had long beards, their clothes overwhelmed them, hiding their shame, wiping out their history; as evening fell the rising darkness claimed them as their own.
And there is no greater queens amongst capitals than Reina Madrid.
‘The meek shall inherit the earth.’ I went into the Plaza Mayor, watched Abercrombie tourists blend in with the Zara locals and I craved a piece of that human zoo. But I wanted it, the Mahou, the seafood omelettes at the Botin, the flamenco in the Plaza Sant Ana – I wanted it animalistically. Like the meek homeless men and women asleep early under the arcades.
Happiness has a ceiling. Think of the Sistine Chapel: the ceiling is high and paradise grand, but once you get to that paradise, you’ve nowhere left to go. On our first day in Madrid, as we walked towards the Cerveceria 100 Montaditos just off the Puerta del Sol, we saw a protest carried out mostly by affluent young people demanding greater wealth equality and more employment for those worse off than they. And I realise happiness too has classes.
Madrid is a Surrealist city. In the Reina Sofia you will find great masterpieces of Dali and Miro, along with books and letters of Breton and Lorca. There are Miro sculptures in the street and shop windows with images of Frida Kahlo dominant like the Virgin Mary in church. And the Surrealists were important, even if you don’t like what they did. Most of them, like those protesters, were affluent men and women, but they were attracted to the lower echelons of life and politics, they were Communists and they took a Freudian, crass-elite interest in dreams.
That’s the way I want to write, I think as I try a white chocolate montadito looking out at the Puerta del Sol as the siesta hour comes to an end and the moon rises above the grand Tio Pepe sign. I owe nothing to the Surrealists, to be sure, but I do think that the greatest beauty, happiness and miracles can be found among men and women like those asleep under the arcades of the Plaza Mayor. Where there is a bedrock of strife there blooms the most beautiful bonsais: a short, stunted tree, but packed in with more beauty than any towering redwood.
All my novels, I realise, feature generally working-class men and women with very little opportunities in life wanting to dream and wanting to enjoy life. Most of them dream big throughout most of the novel. It’s to be expected, you’re born with a little you learn to want a lot. And they very often get what they want. Then they feel cursed. It’s as Oscar Wilde wrote: “when the gods wish to punish us they answer our prayers.”
Thinking of Oscar Wilde makes want to go back to the Plaza Sant Ana (the best place to be in Madrid at night), to go past the statue of Lorca and his neon halo, and to the Irish pub that has a portrait in tiles of Oscar Wilde outside its doors. Being in an Irish pub in Madrid is like going to mass in Iran, I guess. I order a pint of Guinness, because I have to, even though I contemplated a glass of sangria; and the diversity in the pub, its unlikeliness, creates something similar to adversity. There’s the element of surprise, novelty, curiosity. Writing should have that too. It should take you to surprising new places, new landscapes, new hearts, minds and times: and the most surprising thing you’ll find there is familiarity. Emotions and complex feelings that you yourself, the literary tourist, have always felt.
Writing is travelling. It should make no apologies for that. Fiction is as much about the landscapes as it is about characters. After the pub we go around the corner to a busy cerveceria and order some calamari fritti, Mahou and montaditos. It’s good to eat in Spain, because you’ll never eat like that anywhere else again. I don’t want to be a revolutionary writer. I’ve gone past that. When I was young I wrote like a Joyce or Breton; every new poem or piece of prose had to be innovative in some impossible way. I’m over that. Maybe because I’ve come to know too many so-called avant-gardists. They tend to be snooty, up-their-own-asses and very very pretentious.
I don’t belong, or don’t want to belong, to the writer’s class. I’d rather be one of my characters. I don’t have time for writers, I’d prefer to go out for a drink with waiters, chefs, hard-working men and women, who know how to live and are militaristically dedicated to what they do. Chefs in particular are the greatest people to know; those are artists. Not because of what they do but because of they’re dedication to it and the good life. They are machines of living. Despite it all. Despite it all!
I’d rather be an Impressionist than a Surrealist. We see some fine Impressionist paintings in the Museo Thyssen. Van Goghs. Monets. Manets. Good lot. But I like to look at Impressionist art not from a modern perspective, but from a pre-Impressionist vantage point. Nowadays we look upon the soft, smooth, thick-brush artworks as nice, nostalgic, tranquil. That’s because we are used to seeing women using menstrual blood as art, or dead sharks, or Jesuses in electric chairs. I’d rather look at it the way people who first saw Impressionism looked at it. In its time Impressionism was revolutionary, artists began focusing on light, started painting plein air, their subjects were natural, Van Gogh painted workers in the fields and lonely cafes; art was being opened up to light and people, was no longer stuffy and dark.
We spent a day, as you must, doing the Museum triangle, visiting that trinity of museums that can rival even Paris’ best: the Prado, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen. It was inspiring, and I of course am not against high art, how can I be, after a morning looking at Goya and Velazquez? In life, everything has its place. I compare the likes of Velazquez to Cervantes. But that’s too easy: maybe Balzac or Melville. Writers and novelists who wrote being novels full of massive details, subplots; entire worlds unto themselves. Contemporary authors in that genre you could mention perhaps Donna Tartt and Jeffrey Eugenides. Important writes for sure (a few years ago I would have ranted against them – but that’s an irrational position to cling to). But somehow, not me.
It might not seem like it, but I am a simple writer. As simple as an Impressionist. I want to do justice to the simple men and women of life, those who are oppressed by war, religion, famine and even their own wills, their own minds. Those people who despite their oppression crave nothing more than pleasure; be it a drink, a smoke, a holiday, a good book, an affair, something kinky, you know.
Walking around the leafy, marbled Gran Via and towards the Plaza Cibeles I wonder how to integrate complex metaphysical thoughts and lyrical writing into a working-man’s novel. Working men think too, they have complex thoughts, they just might not know how to express them. Like the Cibeles fountain: an exquisitely ornate and sophisticated monument that nonetheless serves as backdrop for the city’s greatest, basest celebrations. Beautiful.
Maybe the key is in the landscape. Like Impressionism. Show the character’s thoughts through how they feel towards their surroundings. Make them talk, too. Working-men and women talk remarkably. They debate, argue, philosophise in a manner that is addictive, un-refined, but meaningful. Then use lyricism, poetic writing, to marry their talk and thoughts with the infinite, ever-changing backdrop.
Something like that. I’d rather stop thinking. Tonight we’re going to the Botin. The oldest restaurant in the world, so the sign says. Goya used to work there as a waiter. Inside, surrounded by dollhouses and ornate walls, we have seafood omelettes, tender chicken, and desserts to share topped up with the obligatory Fernet Branca. Afterwards we go to a flamenco show down the road. Never far from the Plaza Mayor. We pay the entry tickets and get a complimentary drink. I have beer in a rustic, clear-white mug. The show is exquisite. We have ringside seats. We’re dead tired but motivated and happy.
It’s time to go to bed. On our way back to the hotel we stop for a Haagen-Dazs ice-cream from a shop right next to our hotel in the Plaza Canalejas. In the hotel we look at our souvenirs, all sorts of leaflets, books, and figurines from the museums. We go to sleep, looking forward to a more relaxed day of flanerie the next day. I have dreams. Dreams I can’t remember because they don’t interest me.
I’m not interested in what my subconscious has to tell me. I’d rather go out and listen to the world and maybe, somewhere in its chaotic, soft midst, I might just find myself. The meek writers shall inherit the literary earth.