Travel Essay on Chiaroscuro Writing


The Gran Via, the Plaza Mayor, Puerta del Sol – these are places that dwarf you, make you feel like an ant standing at the threshold of the cosmos. It’s not just their size that makes you feel miniscule; it is their splendour, the regality, the life and living they can host, coliseums of urban activity.

It’s one thing, however, seeing these places in idealised, hyped-up photographs on flickr or tripadvisor, and another thing exploring them.

None of those Baroque photos show you the homeless people sleeping in boxes under the arches of the Plaza Mayor, mummies in their cardboard sarcophagi, they don’t show you the gaunt and overweight hookers trolling the Gran Via, and they leave out the protesting Peruvian women giving a voice to those women who are victims of machismo and domestic violence.

Madrid is breath-taking on many levels, but it is shocking to see the amount of homeless people and beggars out on the street; a wide spectrum of desolation from moaning gypsies to young homeless men asking for at least a smile. There is a clear contrast here between the Royal Palaces, lush avenues, regal squares, and the poverty that is clearly here. Madrid is an affluent city with a good income and lifestyle – just, hell, not for everyone.

The term chiaroscuro comes to mind. And, how can it not, I am Maltese, born and raised with Caravaggio’s artwork, his foreboding, ambiguous Beheading of St. John the Baptist. For those unfamiliar with Mannerist and Baroque art, chiaroscuro is a term that describes a technique artists used to create strong, bold contrasts between dark backgrounds and bright figures. It not only gives figures, usually religious or mythological, boldness, but also, in the right hands, a certain three-dimensionality. It is a term applied to art and in modern times photography and cinema. But Spain is a country-wide chiaroscuro!

Look at two of its most iconic, souvenir-able traditions: flamenco and bullfighting. Start with the latter, the more gruesome. Think of the bright red bullrings, the golden sand, the iridescence of the matador’s clothing and their crimson capes – all that to mask the darkness of the action itself, the death of the bull. It is a tradition laced in death – yet so full of light!

Flamenco is also colourful, the costumes, the music, the bright groans and guitars – but really, this is a gypsy art-form that sings about isolation, marginalisation, pain, death, sorrow. It brightens over its dark core, like so many things in Spain. Chiaroscuro is everywhere here.

And this reflects a truth I have always suspected: the best people are found in the worst places, and the poorest people are found in the richest places. The people who have the best fun are those that need to. The un-spoilt, the downtrodden and upbeat. Those who appreciate the value of even the simplest things. But this is a political digression. No: call it a Segway. Into literature.

We’ve heard of Baroque literature, Gothic, Modernist and Postmodernist, but not, as far as I know and as far as I have looked, Chiaroscuro literature. Literature that reflects this reality, this contrast one finds in Spain and all over the world, where lower-income people live rich lives and the richest places hide the greatest suffering. I’m thinking and thinking about Chiaroscuro and what it means. I don’t think it’s been labelled yet, but the more I think about it the more I realise that the novels I appreciate most are Chiaroscuro novels. How? – I’ll try and explain.

Take the example of one of the 20th century’s greatest novels, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. It is set, a la Ulysses, over one day, the Day of the Dead, an important celebration in Mexico. A celebration that is as bright and profound and dark as any bullfight. The day when Mexicans welcome the spirits of the dead into their homes, where altars are set up, more Aztec than Catholic, where children eat sweets in the shape of bones and entire floats of skeletons are carried throughout the streets. People go to the cemetery to pray and speak with their loved ones, and in some villages the dead are actually carried around in a procession through the streets.

In the midst of this Lowry sets us a story of a former consul dealing with debilitating problems of alcoholism and depression. His travails are really emboldened by the brightness of his environment adding to the novel’s profundity.

Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises is another example of Chiaroscuro literature. Amidst the exuberant fiesta of San Fermin in Pamplona, full of heavy-drinking, bullfights and bull-running, Hemingway subtly slides in a story of a loose femme fatale and the havoc she wreaks on the men who adore her, including the narrator, Jake Barnes, a man made impotent by an accident he suffered during the war. Even the closing line is beautifully Chiaroscuro: in Madrid, in the back of a taxi, Brett tells Jake what a wonderful time they could have had together, to which Jake replies: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

These are novels, I’m realising, with more of a focus on the Chiaro than the Oscuro. Or at least, it’s Chiaro-first, Oscuro later. But there are others that work just as well on the flip-side.

Writers like Nadine Gordimer and Khaled Hosseini write lilting, uplifting stories set in violent, impoverished, marginalised places like apartheid South Africa and war-torn Afghanistan. Graham Greene did this beautifully in The Power And The Glory, based on a priest on the run from the law (priests were banned in this dark period of Mexican history) who tries, in miserable climes, to find redemption. Ben Okri’s Booker-prize winning The Famished Road is also set in a poor, destitute Nigerian town, but the main character, a spirit-child, goes on supernatural adventures, and the story is transcendent despite, or even because of, the dire poverty of its surroundings. And even that other modern masterpiece, Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, is a modern-day Shakespearean love-story set in cholera-ridden, unequal, 19th century Colombia.

What Chiaroscuro writing really highlights is the tenacity and adaptability of human nature. Maybe we don’t need New York’s and Dubai’s – maybe a small town, a family, a decent setting, is enough. And maybe, hell, we don’t have to be so fantastically greedy that we drain up all the planet’s resources. If those who have no right to be happy can be happier than anyone else, aren’t we missing something?

It is shameful that a large city like Madrid, capital of a first-world nation, has so many homeless people and beggars on its street, whilst the inequality that afflicts humanity is still disgusting and we will have no right to be truly proud as a species until the wealth gap is narrowed, let us not ever lose our joie de vivre, our simple happiness; let us make everyone richer as long as our lust for life doesn’t get any poorer.

And maybe writing can help in that. Whilst literature cannot make people rich, it can help those who are moving up, progressing, fighting, not lose touch with what makes life worthwhile.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Good to see these great books grouped together by an illuminating concept

    Liked by 1 person

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