(Excerpt from the novel)
#1 In her brood skirt, she was riding a mule. Her feet were hanging at the side, pole, lightly wrinkled, as if pulled out of water. Between the toe and the ankle there was that characteristic extended line that some times, particularly in mortals covered in cold sweat, could excite compassion all by itself, moisten our eyes as if we were looking at a dear face that had had its expression stolen from it by sorrow, and not just a bare foot in which life on the move had inscribed a furrow. The patterned roll with the round bobble on the top, that tall, pointed head covering that we might today describe as being in the form of an upside-down corner pressed down on a shaved female head instead of a scoop of ice cream. The tip of this unusual cap stabbed into the implacable blue of the Spanish sky, its brilliant colours, not just scattered around anyhow, creating a meaningful pattern, appealing to as many people as possible. The mob gathered round, and the mule found it hard to push its way through. The bared breasts of the middle-aged rider were separated by a bar around which her fingers were curled on the bottom end. The upper part with its iron hoop strengthened the neck of the woman, gripped by on affliction that there was no helping, so that it seemed she was as dependent on this garrotte as the cripple on his crutch, that she would have collapsed without this brace, as the heads of black-skinned tribal beauties give way as soon as they are freed of the necklace that have kept the vertebrae of their swanlike necks apart ever since their birth. In moments that lead to no way out, when everything is brought down to its ending in some irremediable manner, the position of the lids on the drooping eye and the angle of the pursed lips create some distinctive geometry of descent. The lines of dumb despair at once depart from the circles that they have themselves described, forsaking the oval of the anguished face.
If there had been no metal ring to keep her chin up – I thought, looking at the scene that the hand of Goya had incised in copper – perhaps the face of this woman on the mule would have remained a blank, deprived of traces of humanity. From it, the eyes, brows, nose and mouth would have gone. All the lines of her face would hove lengthened in pain, dissolved, drained away from under this upturned cornel of that ridiculous hat crammed down by force on the woman’s head. She would have died before her execution. As it was, there was dignity in her humiliation. When the hoop of the garrotte was pulled tight, she would expire with head held high.
* * *
In one of the side corridors of the British Notional Gallery, modestly and unassumingly, was located a celebrated collection of prints that the artist called Caprichos, following the goat track along which the human spirit climbs in its cognition of the world, in the steps of the book that appeared in Madrid in 1665 entitled Diàlogos de la pintura, su defensa. An ancestor of mine on my mother’s side, a man called Vincencio Carducho, the writer of these dialogues about pointing, set the great Goya off on a brilliant work of social criticism. In 1793, when the artist started this cycle, Spain was riven by conspiracies. Carlos IV, then in power, had hoodwinked the people, abetted by the duplicity of an array of toadies, various vulgarians and sausage-makers that had exercised the art of flattery and had thus achieved position and fortune. They were very well aware of how to handle the multitude. After every scandal, there would be a celebration, a feast in which the resources were used to the point, for the silencing of the by now fairly impatient and disappointed rabble. Anyway, you know the way it is. The Inquisition was always ready to delve into the general language of the artistic message, and would easily have been able to uncover Goya’s idioma universal hiding behind the mask of madness. Bats and owls flew around the head of the sleeping master, as can be very distinctly made out on the forty third sheet of the Caprichos. Political spectres and moral monsters, like other mockeries of spirit and body, it is known, depart at dawn. The mass of freaks whose nakedness is illuminated by the stars are ready to announce: “We are gone at dawn”. Goya notes their promise on the paper of the print, but the embarrassing presentiment still hangs in the air. Will they really go? I ask you, my dears – will they ever go? – and I would leave you with this doubt when, in the best possible company, that is, my own, I walk around this London shrine of the arts once again. This time in memory.
My recollection is deliberate. It is not without reason, and is connected with an event that might interest you. If, of course, you have the will and the patience, if you are inapt to draw your conclusions independently, if life is so pleasant for you that you would change nothing, then leave it to others to share this despondency with me.
* * *
#2 I was walking down the broad marble staircase, with a rapid step, aware that the bell that marked closing time would soon ring. It was that period of autumn when dark cart swoop down early and unexpected. And then I noticed them; all the eighty black pearls of Goya’s febrile imagination were there, under a weak light, on some wall where they seemed to be out of place, as if they had come in the back way, as if the person who had placed them there had taken care they should be in no one’s way. I approached the scenes that opened up in front of my eyes in a thousand lines and dashes scratched into the copper and immersed in the profound dark of aquatint. And yet, this was not black and white world.
“In nature there are as few colours as there are lines, there are only the sun and the shadows, and I see closer and further only planes, convexities and concavities. Give me a piece of charcoal, and I shall make you an image,” said Goya to a friend.
I had often thought about this sentence. Looking at the Caprichos I realised its meaning. Hidden in the grooves of the metal that the hand of the master had scratched upon were the harsh colours of the Mediterranean sun. Perhaps I was even then drawing certain parallels, noting forbidden similarities, observing the print on which Goya showed the leader of the donkeys that followed him uncomplainingly if sadly. Who knows whose unkempt grey hairs and hooked nose you would recognise in the figure of the parrot at the rostrum being listened to by the enthralled mass of lamebrains, hardly understanding what he was telling them, faces all distorted in sheer flattery and ingratiation. Perhaps there really is “something of the academic milieu in this”, as Goya wrote under his depiction of the parrot and his listeners.
Immersed in the world of the Caprichos, it took me some time to realise I had company, that there was someone else by my side amused in observation. Large sized sneakers did a gentle exercise: toe lo heel, toe to heel. The quiet rhythmic squeaking of the rubber attracted my attention, but only for a moment. Well, good lord, we are all different. One person will absently tug a lock of hair, another scratch his chin, a third tap her foot, the body will never be still. When the spirit a concentrated on some object, and starts delving into the depths of something new, interesting and unknown, the body is at it were overcome by angst, as if suffused with fear of being abandoned and left alone, and starts pulling off all kinds of silly movements to remind the spirit, its absent-minded master, that it is still here, that it is faithful and a little bit restive like some dog that waits leash in mouth for its master to fake it out few walkies. Well, so a person had the right to squeak with his sneakers while he was looking at artworks, didn’t he? Toe to heel, toe to heel.