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14 August 2019

Postcards Home: Haunted by the scent of cologne

A trip to Barcelona, on a hot summer day, sparks thoughts on Orwell, nationalism and a shellfish lunch with an old lover. 

By Deborah Levy

When I arrived in Barcelona directly from the June rains of Dublin, all my clothes were damp. How did that happen? It was true that on Bloomsday, I had walked the beach at Sandycove in the drizzle to stare at “the snot green sea” as described by James Joyce at the start of Ulysses, but that did not explain why the garments in my suitcase, if not exactly wet, were not dry either. I unpacked two dresses and hung them on the balcony of the hotel.

The sky was a deep, fierce blue. Looking down into the square below the balcony, I glimpsed a striped cat sleeping under a palm near an old-fashioned wrought iron lamppost. A cable car made its way on a vast wire stretched above the glittering Mediterranean Sea. Everyone strolling the pavements wore light summer clothes and sandals. Yes, it was summer at last, and yes, even in winter there was an “invincible summer” inside me, as Camus had put it, but now I had to have lunch inside me.

I made my way through the crowds of tourists and flower sellers towards La Boqueria Market on La Rambla because my hotel was nearby. A friend had instructed me to find one particular tapas bar inside it. Apparently, it was the best venue for an authentic Catalan lunch so I had written its name on the inside of George Orwell’s essay, “Notes on Nationalism”, which I carried with me.

Obviously, I had bent down to stroke the sleeping cat under the palm tree before I set off, just a light tickle between its ears. It seemed to like that so I spent a bit of time stroking its mangy but endearing fur. Soon I became crazed with my power to make it love me. Oh no, was I going to become the sort of woman who carried a bag of sardines to feed international stray cats in her old age? Probably. Especially with the sun beating down on my shoulders while rain lashed down on poor Brexit-battered Britain. Maybe, when I was truly ancient, I would buy myself a big sea bream and grill it on the beach. I had some more details to add to this image. I would lie flat out on the warm sand, sip icy cold beer and listen to Eskorbuto, a Basque punk band from the 1980s.

I was still nostalgic for the scent of a particular cologne that both men and women wore when I was in my twenties travelling through Spain and Portugal. It smelled of lemons and drains.

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All those years ago, I had bought a bottle of it home to the UK with me. Every time I dabbed a few drops on my wrists, it took me back to southern Europe, which was still new to me; the blaze of bougainvillea, plates heaped with fish bones, large extended families arguing around an unsteady table (a wedge of paper placed under one of its rickety legs), lizards scuttling through cracks in walls, big heat, sweaty siestas, silver olive trees. I secretly hoped to find that cologne again in Barcelona.

When I eventually located the recommended tapas place at the end of the market, it turned out that I’d been there before. It was popular with local workers and a few tourists in the know, so I had to wait for a while to get a seat at the counter.

When I was last here I had been accompanied by a stylish and interesting companion. We had eaten fresh clams hauled in from the ocean that morning. They were steamed in a copper pan in front of us while we knocked back white wine made from grapes grown on the steep slate hillsides south of Barcelona.

Something odd had happened. My companion had placed his spectacles on the food counter. The elderly waiter (white apron, black bow tie) suddenly snatched them up, walked over to the stainless-steel coffee machine and held the lenses under a jet of steam. He then polished the lenses with the cotton cloth draped over his shoulder and said something to my companion, who translated on my behalf: “He says all the better to see the senora” (me), but that might not really have been true.

The waiter was on to something though. To put it politely, my companion was emotionally reserved, perhaps in the way Salvador Dali once described Marcel Duchamp as being “so detached” that sometimes Dali felt that he was “talking to his shadow”. According to Dali, the eternally ironic Duchamp “had the cold eye of his ‘ready-mades’”.

So now, sitting in this somewhat haunted place, but lucky to have at last bagged a stool in the lunch rush-hour, I wondered why I was thinking about Dali while I ate a dish of steamed spinach with raisins and pine nuts. At the start of the Second World War, Dali had written, “I felt the blind forces of fury, destruction and death rising to convulse all of Europe.” I thought that was quite a good description of war.

But hang on, didn’t he revere General Francisco Franco? The man whose regime is believed to have murdered his friend, the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca?

Stop thinking about Dali, I told myself. Return to Orwell who actually signed up to fight again fascism and gave the world his Homage to Catalonia, in which he concluded: “There are occasions when it pays better to fight and be beaten than not to fight at all.”

I was here in Catalonia to launch the Spanish editions of my two works of memoir, The Cost of Living and Things I Don’t Want to Know. As both books quote from Orwell’s various essays and collected journalism, I had been invited to talk about his influence on my newly translated memoirs. So there in the bustle of this iconic market (haunches of jambon hanging from every rafter) I finally opened Notes on Nationalism.

In this prescient essay written in 1945, Orwell attempts to identify some of the characteristics or “mental habits” that “are common to all forms of nationalism”, in particular an inability to see reality.

“The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”

Yes, selective hearing is an interesting subject. For example, the last time I heard the phrase “send her back” was from the lips of a loser on a London bus who was harassing a woman with brown skin. Some of us called him out. Other passengers stared out of the window – which seemed to me to be what most of the Republican Party were doing in America, too.

“Some nationalists are not far from schizophrenia, living quite happily amid dreams of power and conquest which have no connexion with the physical world.”

On the theme of power and conquest, one of the quotes I had used in The Cost of Living was from Orwell’s essay, “Shooting an Elephant”. In his view the imperialist “wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it”.

 I had flipped this startling image to make the point that the patriarchy – which, after all, is made up of the founders and leading actors of imperialism – has long been wearing a mask. His eyes stare through the peepholes, fearful the world will find him out. He knows that the mask of the patriarchy is abnormal and perverse, but it is useful to protect him from the power and pain of the people he subjugates. At its most decorated, the mask is there to help him appear to be rational while he intimidates women, children and other men.

How would all this go down with the audience who would attend my lecture? After all, Orwell was not exactly the leading feminist of his generation. I finished the spinach and ordered a langoustine the size of my hand. This made me miss my emotionally reserved companion. He enjoyed ripping the heads off shellfish.

After my talk, I signed books and talked to a young female goth from Sweden who was not that keen on Orwell. I encouraged her to give him a chance. After all, he wrote very personally about politics. Consider, I said, this unusual Englishman, a scholarship boy educated at Eton, signing up to become a colonial policeman in Burma. Imagine his thin white body inside that khaki uniform. The goth shuddered, but I valiantly continued. Consider what it took for him eventually to know that he would never step into the costume of empire again, a decision that meant he would cast off some of the privilege and entitlement it bestowed on his class and gender.

The goth nodded. She wore lots of eyeliner and a ripped black T-shirt. We talked about our admiration for the Spanish film director Pedro Almodóvar for a while and then shared various remedies for mosquito bites.

When I arrived back at the hotel late that balmy night, the cat sleeping under the palm tree had been replaced by two seagulls. They looked like feathered spectres under the light from the lamp-post. I had not found the cologne that reminded me of lemon and drains, which was probably just as well. Any attempt to recreate the past (whether it be empire or a plate of steamed clams shared with a former lover) is doomed to fail. But at least my clothes were now dry from the healing Catalonian sun. They smelled of Irish seaweed with a lingering note of Guinness. That was all right with me. 

Deborah Levy’s forthcoming novel “The Man Who Saw Everything” (Hamish Hamilton) has been longlisted for the 2019 Booker prize. For the next article in this series she will visit Greece