I first came across Gabriel Garcia Marquez in 1977/78. That year, I had just graduated from medical school and was completing my house jobs at University College Hospital Ibadan. At last I was able to read for fun and I was earning some money and was able to spend on books. So, I read Pablo Neruda, Dennis Brutus, Anta Diop, Rabearivello, Camus, Hemingway, Sartre, some more Solzhenitsyn. Iyabo Bolarinwa introduced me to Marquez. I read both One Hundred Years of Solitude and The General in his Labyrinth one after the other and then Innocent Erendira and other stories soon after. Later, I heard Marquez talk about his surprise that anyone thought that “Innocent Erendira” was magical realism when it was a true story. Marquez had come across a grandmother prostituting her own 12-year granddaughter in a tent. And, Marquez had observed the line of men waiting patiently to have sex with this mere child. Out of this tragic event Marquez immortalized the child. “Innocent Erendira” shows how literature takes what is mundane in a time and place, elevating it to the state of myth, making art of what is ordinary. That is not to say that the prostitution of a twelve-year old girl can ever be ordinary. But it is the degree to which events of this kind can go on without any revolt or revulsion that mark out the ordinariness. It is Marquez’s genius that he was able to see the event clearly, to note how unremarkable it was in time and place, and then to distil the essence of it into a story that is at once memorable and terrible!
Marquez has now died. Towards the end of his life, he was afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease. This was an awful ending for a brilliant mind, one that lived off language and memory. Even to imagine that his natural and immediate response to human life, human commerce, the rendering into language and narrative whatever he saw had ceased was itself awful. His mind had exhausted the rich veins of allegory and metaphor. He had become to himself and others a man without memory. How tragic and desolate an ending.
Marquez’s death was announced early on in our holiday to Tuscany. We arrived in Florence by direct flight from Birmingham, flying over the Alps, over black granite roofs with snow glistening in the Spring light. The drive from Florence to Stigliano was uneventful, if driving in Italy can ever be uneventful. The countryside was dun brown but there was everywhere that incredibly fresh green of early Spring, a virginal, delicate verdant color that each year surprises the senses.
We were staying at the Palazo Stigliano, a medieval castle with two towers. We were on the fourth floor of the main tower and in the dying evening light, we looked over a hill and in the far distance, cypresses, dark green, bordered the horizon. The light, yellowish red and then mauve, a sliver of an aperture between the sky and the land.
Our flat was small, a living room with just about enough space to live in, and a bedroom, like an inner sanctuary. It even has a desk set in a recess in the wall, perhaps for a monk to sit and pray, perhaps even for a form of penance since it is dark and withdrawn from life.
On the same evening of our arrival, the abduction of over 200 girls from a school in Nigeria was announced. A most bizarre event. Two hundred girls abducted from a school! Nobody except from Nigerians seemed to be interested in this story. There was no response from the Nigerian government. This story formed a kind of background to our holiday.
We had arrived on Thursday. On Friday morning, we walked through the woods from Stigliano to Torri, a settlement that has a well-preserved monastery with a Romanesque heart to it. The arches, pillars, the courtyard and garden a throw back to a period of exquisite beauty and elegance. There were carvings of leopards, dogs, Celtic crosses, etc on the pillars. The narrow cobbled paths, the doorways and bells, even the mobile bakery, speaking to a town that time had left behind but that was appealing nonetheless. The sun was out, the light had that strange haze that bathed everything as a filter does, softening the glare and giving opacity to what might otherwise have seemed translucent.
Lunch was at the local restaurant. Cold meat: salami, prosciutto, Parma ham, handmade pici with black pepper and cheese. Poisonous double espresso to finish off. The wine was a local red. Then, the uphill walk back through the woods to Palazzo Stigliano. The countryside is dominated by cypress and olive trees. There are Lebanon cedars in the hills above, butterflies, crickets, lizards, and wealth of cyclamen, buttercups, poppies, in meadows along the footpath. This was as rural in Italy as you can get.
Last night a nightingale sang and sang. The bedroom was dark, thickly and impenetrably black. There was not a sound except for the nightingale and an anachronistic clock that ticked and tocked all night. When did I last hear a clock that was alive with sound? Probably not since the radioactive Westclox of my childhood, purveyors of leukaemia, that shone at night, radiating a glow mysterious and evil (but we didn’t know it then)!
On Saturday we went to Siena. We walked into Il Campo from the Via Giovanni Dupre, even on a day like this Saturday, overcast, dull and miserable, the shell shape of the plaza and brownish red of the buildings, arches and oblong louvered windows was magnificent! The Ambrogio Lorenzetti frescoes in the Palazzo Publico about good and bad government, stressing the virtues of the government of the nine in Siena, at least demonstrates a mission statement, a desire to do good, a recognition of what constitutes bad government. This lesson is still not learnt in Nigeria. The need for justice, for harmony, for security, for freedom, and the prosperity and welfare of citizens, these ideals of good government are not part of the diet of the current government in Nigeria. In Lozenretti’s fresco, there is representation of what tyranny is, and what its consequences are. These frescoes were completed in 1337, but yet in 2014, the Nigerian government has no real interest in the security of its people. It has yet to make a statement about the abduction of its children, but there is utmost silence.
It had been rainy all day. Annoying and irritating. But worse, it was cold too. We were sheltering in a cafe and having cappuccino. There was an elderly family of three, a man and two women talking loudly. The man was excited about Roma playing Napoli. His singsong voice even more musical and passionate. The froth on the cappuccino was light and smooth. Glorious. And the dark coffee roast very Italian suits the inclement clime. We were slowly warming up.
In the Duomo, the Liberia Picolomini, is the most extraordinary room I have ever been in. Light suffuses the interior as if it was lit by special effulgence, an unknown quality that both trembles but is yet lustrous, frescoes the color of egg shell, translucent like egg white. Simply magnificent.
In the following week we travelled to Murlo, a walled city, but off the beaten track. Small in size, you can walk the whole circumference of the wall in 10 minutes. Outside the city wall grew lilac, and in the fields just below olives, grapes and figs. We had capuccino in a restaurant with a veranda overlooking the surrounding hills. Across the aisle from us, two women in their sixties, out for lunch and sharing a carafe of red wine between them, waiting for their first course. Locals. To get into the restaurant, I had bent over double so as not to hit my head. That’s saying something about the average height here. A young woman sat directly in front of us but had no English. She pointed to the bar where we ordered two capuccino in faltering Italian. The owner of the house said “for as long as you’re not in a hurry”. So we waited half an hour for our coffee! The view was breathtaking. And the coffee exactly as capuccino ought to be, smooth, dark and a bitter roast.
Next was Montalcino, another walled city. We had our picnic lunch sitting next to the commemorative tiles of Montalcino Brunello wine made by the likes of Missoni, Salvatore Feregammo, Pierluigi Olla, and others: witty, abstract, subversive, decorative or not, but always exceptional art. The world and its mother walked past us, dressed for an outing and walking their fashion accessory dogs. The Italian are truly stylish and fashion conscious.
At the market, whilst standing in queue to buy cheese, the couple in front turned to greet us, familiarly: “We saw you at San Gimiagno yesterday. You won’t recognize us, I said look at the professor!” Jan said you’re correct he is a professor. The couple was Viennese, he was an engineer and I didn’t quite catch what she did. An interesting, exceptional encounter.
On our way to Castiglioni D’Orcia we arrived at Rocco D’Orcia instead. A rock set on a hilltop with views as far as the eye could see. Two elderly gentlemen, far into their 80s walked in opposite directions, taking their constitutional. One bent over a walking stick and singing an operatic aria in a lustrous voice. Both with old world manners of courtesies, greetings, and dressed for dinner in jacket and tie. The local church was more Protestant than Catholic. There were few ornate paintings, minimal effigies of the Madonna and Child, an absence of religious relics. You could have been in a Wesleyan chapel in Bangor! This was an example of the people’s church.
The drive back to our flat took us through countryside not that different from England: fields of wheat and even more fields, green and fresh in the sunlight. Bare and tilled soil waiting to be sown, falling away from a central tree, in this case almost always cypress. There was the occasional Lebanon cedar, a profusion of wisteria, pregnant with their purple bloom. Then lilac, hawthorne, cherries, verges of poppies, of thistle, of daisies too.
Earlier at Murlo, walking back to the car along a back route, we came upon a snake, still on the path. I hadn’t seen a snake outside of a zoo since my childhood in Lagos, when in the evening, just at dusk, snakes would slither across our lawns, past the Frangipani tree and then into the tall grass on the verges. This snake at Murlo meandered across the path into the bushes and we moved briskly to get away from the serpent. Lawrence’s poem “Snake” echoed in my mind but I think he was in Taormina Sicily not Tuscany, when he wrote it. It was the poem that gave me confidence to write blank verse in the knowledge that blank verse after Lawrence had the potential to be beautiful and moving but more importantly that the rhythm was in the gift of the poet and determined by how he wished to tell his story. I hadn’t thought how influential Lawrence was to my development as a poet for many years that’s despite the fact that he is not generally known as a poet.
We’ve been back in Birmingham almost 4 weeks now. The story of the Nigerian girls has grown into a global story. Barack Obama and Michelle Obama have made powerful statements. Goodluck Jonathan’s mumbled his words on tv. How extraordinary it is that a politician is unable to string words together. Being elected to parliament is to be elected to the speaking place. But Jonathan is not fluent in language or ideas. Jonathan’s wife harangued the mothers of the girls and accused them of lying, she claimed that no girls had been abducted. Boko Haram claimed that they had abducted the girls and threatened to sell them on as slaves. Slaves! Nigeria is like a strange land where the government and Boko Haram are both aberrations. The girls are yet to be found.
Marquez’s “Innocent Erendira” freezes an absurd situation and makes it eternal. A young pre-pubertal girl prostituted by her grandmother and a queue of men waiting to have sex with her. This simple story making visible what is commonplace and unremarkable. The abduction of mere girls by Boko Haram and the irresponsible indifference of the Jonathan government is exactly what “Innocent Erendira” is about: the exploitation of innocence for carnal pleasure; the betrayal of trust by a grandmother (that is by parental authority & by government); and the deep-seated absence of conscience betokened by indifference. Literature is this gift that allows us to stand outside ourselves, to see things crisply, to be properly humane.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
My journey back from Hebden Bridge this past Monday was eventful. I had risen early for me, at 6:15 am, in time to get to the train station catch the 07:08 for Manchester. This part of the journey went well. I hurried from Manchester Victoria station to Manchester Piccadilly station and was just in time for the 08:03. By now I was very pleased with myself. For once I was going to be in work for 10 am and that’s good going. Usually when I make this journey either by car or train I’m into work at the earliest, 11:15 am.
I was sitting in the quiet zone at the front of the train. We set off. I hardly glanced at any of the other passengers. I was immersed in the latest Phillip Kerr novel ‘Prayer‘, definitely not his best. I was close to the surprising end when I felt the train hit something. There was a thud, then a loud sound of metal falling off something and somewhere and in quick succession, the feeling as of a car going over a speed bump, a rattling metal or something hard against the undercarriage of the train and a juddering and an uncommon disturbance difficult to pin down or describe. What was that, I thought? The train slowed and stopped, 400 yards or so away from the site of the incident. The coach was in silence for a while. I texted Jan about the unusual state of affairs, and saying how surprised I was that we had not been derailed. The woman across the aisle from me, about my sort of age (that is not young), with highlighted hair, brown with faint hints of blond asked “What was that that, did we hit something?” I replied “I’m surprised that we weren’t derailed”.
After some 10 minutes of no communication whatsoever, a period that seemed endless, and felt like a century had passed, the driver came over on the Tannoy and said “Ladies and gentlemen I’m afraid I have to inform you that we have hit a person!” He went on “I’ve never been involved in this kind of situation before, I have to let the authorities know and speak to my control station”. His voice was tremulous, and full of emotion. Not surprising, it’s not every day that you run a person down and kill them. Poor man. You could tell by his voice that he was in his late 20s or early 30s. It’s surprising how accurately one can judge age by voice quality. And I suppose also by smell and visual assessment. Surely he would be marked by this event for the rest of his career: a sudden and unexpected confrontation with Azrael, the fallen angel, minister of death and other uncommon tragedies!
I have never witnessed a suicide before. My early experience of suicide was walking across the railway lines at 06:30 am in Lagos on the way to catch the bus to school. At that age, at dawn, when it was still relatively dark, the body parts strewn across the line did not symbolize suicide but rather accidental death. Not that I had any clear idea what death was. It was much later that I realized that these were suicides. That footpath across the Lagos-Abeokuta line at Maboju was directly ahead of where a headmaster of my previous school lived. He was said to have killed himself. This was muttered and whispered by adults in euphemistic language with face cast away from us children and with nods and winks as the English would say. We understood that he had risen from bed in the middle of the night, had supposedly gone to the toilet and had not returned to his bed. He was found the next morning hanging from the roof beams, in the lavatory. Many years later I read A Alvarez’s The Savage God to discover that like me his headmaster too had committed suicide.
The euphemisms used and mutterings by the adults, of course, spoke to the notion of death by hanging in Yoruba culture: “Oba waja”. Shango the fourth Yoruba king, in direct succession from Oduduwa had hung himself on shea butter tree and this event that occurred at Koso was referred to as “Oba waja”, the king has entered the rafters! Or, Oba Koso (The King has not hung himself). And there is a long Yoruba tradition of kings committing suicide at the behest of their chiefs because the population had lost faith in the king or had come to resent his tyrannical rule. When matters came to this, the chiefs would send a covered calabash bowl of parrot’s eggs to signal the decision of the populace that the king commit suicide and this was referred to as “Oba shigba”- the king has opened the calabash bowl. Ritual suicide was integral to Yorubaland princely and kingly culture, hence the euphemisms for describing the act of suicide.
Since becoming a psychiatrist I have had a number of suicides of patients under my care. But never witnessed suicide. The incident on Monday, on my journey back south from Hebden bridge, drew and focused my attention to the enormity of suicide. The notion of a person standing or lying on the tracks, in sight of an oncoming train, with the clear and indubitable certainty of death was startling. The disruption to our travel plans that resulted from this incident paled in significance and impact to the effect that this death was likely to have on a large number of others, parents, siblings, spouse, children and friends. A three-hour journey lasted six hours. There was inconvenience as we had to be taken by coach from Macclesfield to Stoke to catch ongoing train to Birmingham. But, imagine waking to find a son or husband missing and later discovered to have died. Imagine what the remains would look like and the issues that family would have to face at the funeral directors and before that for identification purposes at the morgue. No matter how one looks at it, it is horrendous and extremely unnerving and troubling. Unimaginable, actually.
I have in the past seen a patient, who told me in passing, that she has a noose in her wardrobe and that she frequently shuts herself in this wardrobe, puts the noose over her neck and has the other end secured to a well fixed hook. She avoids abrasions (friction burns) by covering the rope with a soft plastic covering. I warned her about the risk of accidental death from fainting and then asphyxiation and of accidental but devastating damage to her voice box rendering her voiceless but alive. The point is that these revelations need to be listened to, understood, examined in detail and discussed. Like the doctor in Chekhov’s “On Official Duty” encounters with the subject of suicide can often be experienced as part of an undesirable duty, yet it is important to retain compassion and understanding. The fear and disquiet that the subject of suicide introduces has to be tolerated and accepted. The risk always is that the clinician will respond with callous disregard, definitely an undesirable outcome.
One of my colleagues, George Tadros had focused on suicide for his doctorate degree. He had studied suicide notes and messages amongst other things. Some of the notes were dispiriting, some evinced compassion for their relatives but others were cruel and accusatory. There was so much variety in these messages. I was most struck by those that tried to ensure that partners or children did not walk in, unprepared, for the sight of a father or husband dangling on the end of a rope at the foot of the stairs.
Death by suicide goes to the very heart of what it means to be alive and to value and cherish life just for its own sake. It challenges notions of the sanctity of life. It contradicts religious codes. It casts a shadow on the life of disabled people who live around their disability yet whose lives might be deemed of poor quality and hence expendable. And it raises profound questions about the nature of autonomy and the limits of liberty in JS MIll’s terms. And ultimately it strikes at the core of that nexus of relationships with all other sentient beings, our common humanity and the regard we have for one another and the indefinable but definite sense of loss at the senseless death of another. For a brief moment on Monday all these matters went through my mind.
Photos by Jan Oyebode