The Island of Second Sight
Praise be to Heaven and all the Saint
for bestowing upon us finlly an Adventure
that shall yield us Profit!
Don Quixote de la Mancha
Puta la madre, puta la hija,
puta la manta que las cobija.
Old Spanish Proverb
Everyone receives his inner sense
of North and South at birth.
Whether an external polarity comes with it
is not terribly important.
Round about us the grey veils of night were lifting as we stepped upon the afterdeck, disheveled and weary from lack of sleep, lightly shivering in the breeze that was now sweeping in from the horizon to reveal the gorgeous spectacle of the approaching steep coastline of Mallorca. On the previous evening a smudging of the heavens had obscured a spectacle lauded in every travel guide: the fabled Monserrat Range sinking into the sea. Now we were being abundantly compensated, and I in particular, for as a rule I take little enjoyment in landscape or the supposed marvels of nature. It is only fitting that the world should display before me now and then, by means of its laterna magica, one of its exemplary picture postcards, for my standpoint is that of a person who can never regard his existence as a little pleasure trip in tweeds and parasol. I am not a parvenu; I have no idea from whence or by what means I might have socially “arrived.” But there at the ship’s rail, standing next to Beatrice, I was your typical conceited snob who has already witnessed, a thousand times more gorgeous and sublime, the scene that was greeting us. During my lifetime I had in reality seen next to nothing. A few trips in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Holland, and Switzerland—that was the sum of it. And yet that would have remained more than sufficient had I not constantly focused my gaze inward upon my own inner landscape. To be sure, the scenery there offers few memorable vistas to compare with the Loreley Cliff, the tulip fields at Lisse, the Hradchin, or a glacier- eroded escarpment near Lucerne with on-site explanatory lecture by Professor Heim. In view of my own inner glacial escarpment even the most garrulous cicerone would stand there in utter silence, since all there is to see is a slag-heap, one that could never on this earth become the site of an Escorial.
Beatrice’s thrill was intense and undivided. No comparisons with the sights she had witnessed on earlier extensive journeys could diminish the joy she felt here at each new emanation of color, at a gull snatching up a bit of bread in screeching mid-plunge, at the gamboling of porpoises, or even at our ship’s wake, expanding as it neared the horizon where it became one with an upward drift of light. But just as I am completely unmusical, Beatrice, in keeping with her musical sensibility, is incapable of expressing such experiences with a pen. Otherwise I would ask her right here and now to insert a description of our sunrise, one that would do justice to the excitement she felt at the time, since one reader or another might well be grateful for just such a passage. It would indeed be fitting, even more so when one considers that each passenger must have regarded as unique an event that, given the proper meteorological conditions, takes place each and every morning with a punctuality guaranteed by the captain’s chronometer. Be that as it may, the sight transported Beatrice repeatedly into audible rapture—a truly astonishing acknowledgment of Mother Nature’s accomplishments by a person who is otherwise so reticent. There are places in the world where The Mother of Us All salves her conscience—a faculty peculiar to Her alone and hardly to be called maternal—by showing off beautiful things that in other places She keeps carefully concealed. A sunrise, for example, at 39º45’16”N and 2º8’28”E could reward me for 365 consecutive solar eclipses in the poor section of Amsterdam’s Derde Helmersstraat— assuming that the rising of that celestial body meant anything to me at all. As far as I am concerned the sun can stay below sea level to all eternity, so long as I can scrape up enough money to stoke my coal stove and put some oil in my lamp.
A superabundance of verbiage, I’ll grant you, to avoid describing a Mediterranean fiat lux that in the meantime has achieved sufficient completeness, midst radiations, irradiations, and transradiations, for it to be said with confidence: “It is Day!” Even the stick-in-beds are now awake and have scrambled up on deck. Topside is now teeming with passengers, shouts go back and forth, and many a mouth goes silently agape, the words of amazement simply defying vocal expression. Such is the most childlike way of reacting to a feature of the world around us, and thus probably the most godlike way as well. We simply lack the courage to react in this manner every time, for an open mouth is considered poor form. Those lacking such courage start describing the scene out loud—without a trace of silent veneration. A host of languages vie with one another, but to my ear Spanish seems to prevail, no doubt because it is still foreign to me. British and American, which I had already learned to distinguish, join the chorus celebrating this Feast of Light, and then German.
The latter was spoken by a quaint young couple next to us, trying with forced casualness to conceal a state of affairs that normally shies from illumination, especially in a setting such as the present one, which had the rapidly ascending solar orb showering light upon us all in majestic abundance. These two, as yet quite ill at ease amidst their obvious bliss, probably hadn’t reckoned on the parasites that held sway below-decks. He called her Lissy, and she called him Heiner. Today, provided that they are still among the living, they are doubtless regaling each other with “Elisabeth” and “Heinrich.” They were unable to hold my attention any longer than it is taking me to commemorate them here. I’m doing it only for the sake of my cosmopolitan canvas, onto which I shall now quickly daub an oldish British lady who struck up a conversation with Beatrice, and who was ecstatic at hearing her native-born touristic clichés meet with Beatrice’s relaxed, polite attention. She was about to “do” the island—yes, alone, and with her floppy cotton stockings and her unshaven chin it’s hard to imagine her finding a partner who would ever be willing to add more than conversational “yesses” and “nos” to her life—neither externally (her pension was apparently meager) nor inwardly, where despite her wrinkly smile there was a musty air of petty complacency. Yet never fear: the British are never and nowhere alone, so long as their Empire accompanies them like the proliferating heads on a tapeworm. Since the moment in question I have met many more of these spinsters. They are ageless. Like the English sparrows they are bound to no single place, and they will outlive the era of their arch-enemy, the nylon stocking.
* * *
Just as in the compartment of the train that brought us from Port-Bou to Barcelona, here too on shipboard the Spaniards had the big say, though what they were saying escaped my comprehension—and more’s the pity, for by nature I am inquisitive. Inordinately shy and a stay-at-home possessed of Sitzfleisch in quantities enviable even among brothers, enabling me to become the long-distance translator that I am to this very day, I have made virtue out of necessity: whenever I am forced to enter the company of other people, something positive usually happens to me. Never enough, mind you, to suppress my congenital aversion to contact with the external world, but just enough to catch me up, as in a safety net, in my tumble from solitude. Afterwards I waver like a stand-up doll, until I come to rest in the company of my own sheltered self.
Coils of rope, cardboard boxes, battered steamer trunks, wooden crates and wicker-encased jugs—anything that could serve as a seat had been commandeered like a kind of wagon train by a very numerous Spanish family. This was their house and home, as if they had been preparing for a voyage of weeks rather than ten hours by the clock. The kids were brattish. The womenfolk, varying in age and in any imaginable contest outdoing each other in feminine charm, yakked and griped with tireless verbal energy. One man in particular, to all appearances father and brother, grandfather, brother-in-law, and uncle— in a word the entire clan in one and the same person, dominated the group by reason of physical stature and an authoritative mien that extended to all the four winds.
This was a spectacle more fascinating to me than the wordless matrimonial urges of the young German couple forced out of their fleabag, or the chatty desperation exuded by our English spinster friend—not to mention sun and seascape. As in a provincial theater, I had before me a scene from Spanish domestic life; all I had to do was take my place in standing-room. One thing I noticed right away: all these goings-on were utterly different from anything I had experienced in my parents’ home—this joy and anger at the open hearth, louder, freer, more unbuttoned in every respect. If my own father had only been like this man, who with instinctive nonchalance and amazing aim dispensed ringing hand-slaps around the entire circle of his loved ones, without once making the ridiculous impression our Northern bullies always do. Our native variety of father lacks the Quixotic realization that a swipe on the mouth, even one that lands on target, is a swipe into the void.
As he went about dispensing justice in such casual fashion, our Spanish chieftain squirted red wine down his gullet from a very special kind of squeeze bottle, the porrón—about which more in a moment. Suddenly a young male offspring, clearly demonstrating little respect for the older generation and hence hardly destined for a long life, shoved the pater familias from behind, in the process diverting the stream of wine in its trajectory. With exemplary aplomb the paternal gorge parried the thrust, catching a portion of the flow as a toad tongues a fly. The remainder sprayed out into the audience, precisely to my standing-room location. Vociferous huzzahs greeted the foreigner’s crimson baptism. Having observed the patriarch’s astounding agility in the handling of discoloring liquids, it was mysterious to me how his shiny black suit had received all of its thousand disfiguring stains. I was of course as yet unfamiliar with the Spaniards’ maxim about not letting oneself be the victim of one’s own wardrobe (no hay que ser víctima de su traje), though I was later to observe its appropriateness with respect to the jacket, vest, and trousers worn by a limping character to be encountered soon enough in this chronicle of mine.
Just imagine the heights of achievement I might have attained had I been coddled and spoiled by a mother like the one who now confronted the despotic father with the chastised youngster. She too flailed about with whacks to the cheeks, hitting seldom but drawing forth yowls of pain nonetheless. Her swats had different emotional origins—perhaps they came from the heart—and were the practical application of some rather different principles of child-rearing. Parental division of authority is apparently an international phenomenon, and this could make it seem almost humane. In any case, compared to the dynamics of tonality and coloration in this Spanish family, my own had been totally wrong. That is why I have become what you are confronting here in these pages: not a conquistador, not a cathedral-steps beggar with the trappings of a Spanish grandee, not an open-air cobbler with more wisdom in the tip of his awl than Vigoleis has inside his skull. This is not intended as a gripe against destiny, much less against Our Beloved Creator, who surely knew what He was about when He failed to set me into His quotidian world as this Spanish brat from the maritime wagon train who, I now notice, is pissing demonstratively against the mast. The eating that went on in this improvised settler’s camp was prodigious. Items I didn’t even know the names for emerged from baskets and suitcases. Oil got poured on dark bread, onions and a green vegetable were diced on top. Olives, chickpeas, and small crabs were handed around, a chicken was torn apart and distributed among famished relatives. The rest of the menu was to me anonymous, at least at the time, for then I had scarcely peered beyond my mother’s saucepan—whose contents were not all that bad, though emphatically echt deutsch, and based patriotically on a certain ubiquitous tuber about which the nutritionist Moleschott, to this day unjustly maligned as a materialist, once wrote that a person fed for two weeks on nothing but the item in question would no longer be physically capable of affording its purchase. That is precisely my opinion, for I dislike intensely this mindless root-plant that has succeeded in undermining all of Western civilization. Perhaps the beetle named after it can now terminate its hegemony once and for all. “Without phosphorus there can be no thought”—I cite Moleschott once more. And without the potato? At the very least it has been able to divert my attention momentarily from an Iberian picnic based on a cuisine far beyond my ken.
People ate differently here, talked differently, scolded differently. I would have to adapt. I realized this within the hour during which I was the wideeyed observer of this nation’s domestic mores, as the Ciudad de Barcelona rounded the northwest coast of the island, passed the Cape of Calafiguera, and entered the Bay of Palma. Meanwhile Beatrice lent our British travel companion her ear, an ear well practiced in convenient deafness through experience with dowagers. But she didn’t pass up the sight of the island darting ever more rapidly toward us.
From The Island of Second Sight Copyright © 1953 by Albert Vigoleis Thelen, translation copyright © 2010 by Donald O. White. Published in 2012 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. www.overlookpress.com. All rights reserved.