Ánxel Fole- Charon

After spending  two years in the mountain village, I arrived in Lugo one rainy afternoon in February.  I ensconced myself in the foyer of the España cinema on the old Rúa do Progreso.  Two old friends were there: Vicentiño and Nis.

There was a building with many storeys just opposite.  From the first floor windows light was flooding out.  The music of a dance tune came to our ears.

The building, with its marble-dressed facade, had not been there when I left Lugo.  I looked at Vicentiño and, indicating the building, said:

“I’d like to go in there.  I think they’re playing a Chopin waltz.”

Vicentiño looked sideways at Nis.

“Well, I can see you’ve come back from the village with lots of courage, saying you dare go over there…”

“And why not?”

With no more ado I headed off.

I went into the entrance hall of that building: white and dark marble like you get in family tombs.  A great big, gilded bronze lamp with rock crystal.  I climbed up the steps, which had bronze and marble banisters as well. I found myself in front of the door of the main apartment, all made of dark walnut.  It was closed.

The doorman was truly imposing.  Two metres tall, bald and with a snowy beard.  If it weren’t for the beard he would have looked like the singer on the double-bass in the Cossack choir of Kuban I heard play in Lugo in the Art Centre, in April 1924.  They said of him that when he hit the C from the chest a crystal glass would shatter.

He was wearing a black frock coat and white shoes and, no matter how much I spoke, he wouldn’t reply.  I tried in French, Portuguese, German and English.  He smiled.  Irritated, I asked him in Latin if I could go in.  He assented with his head.

I was almost too embarrassed to hand over my overcoat that was all worn at the elbows, but I gave it to him.  The tip.  I remembered I was carrying an old silver peso, out of circulation now, in my waistcoat pocket.  And I gave it to him.  He smiled at me.

I noticed that he left the peso on top of a green marble side table supported by two twisted ebony legs.  And I went into the room.

What a spectacle in that hall.  Even if I live longer than my grandfather, who lived to be one hundred and six, I will never forget it.  An orchestra was playing the Valse Triste by Sibelius.

On top of a pink granite plinth you could see a mastiff sculpted in jet-black marble.  It was a fine statue.

The imposing doorman pointed out the dancing partners with a cane or vine stalk in the shape of an oar.  There were up to forty couples dancing in the ample salon: the women in evening gowns; the men in tuxedoes.  A wide variety of people: blonde, black, brown and red-haired.

The hall was more than six metres high.  The piano was a grand and much bigger than any I have ever seen.  It was all ebony.  The pianist had hair as white as snow.  The floor was all coloured marble, so shiny it seemed wet.

A very pale woman danced in front of me.  Indeed, all the women, and the men they were dancing with, were pale.  She looked at me with a sad expression.  They were dancing to Chopin’s Tristesse.  Then they danced the waltz Last Pain of Separation  by a Czech musician.

I asked for a dance several times but no one took any notice of me.

Some women had the complexion of a tea rose.

I asked the doorman if it was possible to dance, in four languages as before.  Then with his little baton in the shape of an oar he pointed out a card attached to one side of a pillar with writing on it.  I read the card.

It clearly referred  to the dancing partners.  These are the names and surnames written there:

Duchess of Walford, 1888
Duke of Manzanares, 1890
Marchioness of Blodin-Terry, 1877
Baron de Rothschild, 1901
Countess of Guimarães, 1899
Archduke Ferdinand of Styria, 1919
Viscount of Padua, 1908
The pianist was Jan Paderewski, who died in New York in 1901.  [Strangely enough Paderewski died in 1941 in New York.]

It was a dance of ghosts.  The dates that were written by their names were the dates of their deaths.

I don’t know how but I looked at the sculpted mastiff on the plinth of the enormous hall.  It started to move as though it wanted to jump and instead of one dog I saw three.

It was Cerberus of Avernus, who prevents the dead leaving the dark realms of Pluto!  His barking made the house rattle.

Luckily for me the doorman did not put away the peso I had given him when I went in.  It was still on top of the counter.  My obolus!  I kicked out the feet from under it  and screamed at the doorman.

‘Now I know who you are, you old goat!  You are Charon.  Charon!’

The devil take me!  That scream of Charon’s exploded like a blast hole.  I went down the stairs four steps at a time.

That was my dream.

Three weeks before…


   It was getting dark, night was closing in.  It was about seven o clock on a February evening.  It snows once every two or three years in Quiroga.  It was snowing softly on the orange trees in the yard which already had fruit.  How sad it was to see the oranges covered with snow.

I found myself in the workman´s kitchen.  Over there in Santa Cubicia, in the beautiful valley of Queiroga.  A good wood fire of birch and vine was burning.  We were cooking chorizo sausages on skewers.  Cacharulo was downing big cups of local wine from the winery.  Slices and slices of bread kept coming, cups and cups of wine.  Fizz, fizz, fizz went the chorizos as they melted in the flame.

A child was playing there, who had gone that summer to the beach in La Coruña.  He was filling a tin bucket with ash with a little shovel that was the same one he had used to dig in the sands in Riazor.  The shepherd Costante, deaf and half stammering, was occupied with I don’t know what.  The father of the child was talking to his wife.  I ate a couple of chorizos with rye bread and still managed to drink four of five big cups of wine.  Night had closed in for over an hour now.

So much drinking made me want to go out, if you will excuse me, to take a piss.

The kitchen door gave onto an earth floored passage, onto which the doors of the servants’ quarters also gave.  The wooden partition wall of the stairway was three steps from the exit of the workhouse and at the end of it there was a pilaster with worn away edges covered with wooden slats.  So that if you hit your head against the pilaster you would not hurt yourself.

The door was a stable door.  As it was dark there, I turned on my electric torch.  I remember very well that I suddenly opened the top part of the door and vaulted out.  It was snowing heavily.  The light from my torch turned the swirling snow into sugar.

I took a piss, if you will excuse me again, at the foot of the stairway of the big south room of the big house.  I went in and closed the door hard.  And I don’t know what happened then…

I felt that my legs went weak.  I could feel my back sliding down the rotten corner of the pilaster,  where it was covered in wood slats.  My hand holding the torch loosened its grip and it fell onto the earth.  I found myself sitting.  I started to lose consciousness.

I am going to die, I said to myself.  But if death is like this, death is pretty sweet, indeed.  It is not true that you suffer a lot when you die, when the soul is released from the body, in the last moments.  I felt a happiness, a sweet and serene peace.  I am living- I thought- my own experience of death.  Once I am past the brink I will find myself in the other world…

My view of the people who were in the kitchen went distant as though I were looking at them through a telescope the wrong way round, something I had often done as a child.  They suddenly went distant  until they became tiny.  I felt they were talking to me:

“Are you that drunk then, that you have to sit on the ground? Come and have another.”

The shepherd was puffing on his pipe stuffed with tobacco.  The wood was spitting in the fireplace.  Next to the fire was the mastiff, Tor, so big and dark. The child was playing with the ash and the shovel.

I could not reply.  As though my tongue had gone missing from my mouth.

But a few moments later I noticed my vision coming back, with a painful feeling, at the same time as my memory started to return.  At first small, then bigger and bigger…  It trembled like the cinema screen and then became steady.

I picked up the torch, raised myself and sat down on the bench next to the fire without saying  a word.  Another cup.  I listened to the sputtering of the sausages in the fire.

When I went to bed I felt a pain above the nape of my neck.  I had one hand in the lower pocket of my waistcoat, just two fingers, and was fingering a silver peso that I had had there for years.  And I remembered that, when I was a child and hurt my head, they would put a silver peso on the lump to make it go down.

That’s what I did, tying a girl’s kerchief round my head.  And I fell asleep.

This is what brought on the dream of Charon.

I remember very well that that summer I felt a pain in my liver and went to the spa in Guitiriz.  Whilst I was taking the medicinal waters I remembered what Farruco of Ameixande would say:

“Mineral water? Healthy?  Hell, wine is healthy!”

That’s just what Cacharelo of Campos de Vila said in that same workers’ kitchen.

“Wine is healthy and so is fear.  Fear, at times, can cure you.”

At the spa in Guitiriz I lost that peso.  But my liver was cured.

This story by Ánxel Fole comes from the collection Contos da Néboa–  Tales from the Mist (Vigo: Galaxia, 2004) first published in 1973.  http://bit.ly/tlLDrV


In the introduction the author gives an apology for his Gallego (Perdón Polo Meu Galego) in which he draws attention to the variety in the spoken language, contrasting that with the increasingly standardised language of the ‘academy’.  He compares Gallego in the twentieth-century with Castilian in the fifteenth century and says that it will be hard for the language to preserve this diversity for long with the encroachment of Castilian Spanish.

As I walk through Lugo and A Coruña on the Camino de Santiago, I frequently stop and talk to locals in the villages.  I usually speak in Castilian because, although I enjoy reading and listening to Gallego, I have yet to master speaking the language.  In Catalunya this would cause some difficulties as national pride makes that Catalans insist that their language should be the lingua franca in their territory.  In Galicia this is not the case.

It is not only that there is a broad tolerance for the stranger who wants to communicate.  There is also a sense that the region is genuinely bi-lingual.  Gallego is the language in which you talk to your friends and family, but a lot of business is done in Castellano.  This is in part because there is such a broad variety within the language itself.  George Borrow commented on this is in The Bible in Spain (http://amzn.to/w2YeMi) written at the beginning of the nineteenth-century.  It frustrated him that there were so many terms in the same region for the same thing.  Castilian became the language of communication beyond the village; Gallego was for a long time rooted in the day-to-day experience of villages.

Ánxel Fole argues that this is the Gallego that needs to be preserved.

There is an excellent clickable map on the website of the University of Santiago (http://ilg.usc.es/ago/)  which can give you a good idea of the diversity of the spoken language in Galicia.  I played with something similar in the anthropology museum in Zamora a couple of months ago, which shows that this diversity is common across Spain, but in Galicia it is truly remarkable due to the density of villages in a smallish territory.   Fole’s territory is around Lugo and Guitiriz.  Guitiriz is the hometown of Xosé María Díaz Castro, who I have also translated on these pages.

This story has two locations: Lugo and the village of Quiroga a mountain village on the banks of the river Sil.  The theme is death.  It is a theme that runs through the collection of stories: in ‘The Photograph’, for example, there is a similar equation of an episode of near-death in the past with a dream that turns out to be premonitory.

The fantastic building in Lugo with Charon as the bookkeeper brings to mind the famous creation of Vicente Risco, Doctor Alveiros, who through his science and learning is able to go to the Dance of Death in the company of an Egyptian mummy (http://bit.ly/vAaAym).  Popular tales and legends in Galicia are well-populated with young knights discovering skulls in hedgerows, lost souls that wander the lanes at night and skeletons that knock on your door in the small hours.  Both Risco and Fole are tapping into a deep vein of popular culture.

When I am walking along the Camino de Santiago I often reflect upon Galicia as the ‘land of the dead’.  Walking ever westwards, one is walking towards death, following the path of the setting sun.  Located at the far western end of the known world, the ancients associated this land, where the sun can be seen going down into the endless sea, with the gateway to Hades, the land of the dead.  Fantastic islands were said to lie off the coast: the Blessed Isles, Avalon, the Hesperides.  Álvaro Cunqueiro has explored this in his unique manner in Fábulas y Leyendas del Mar (http://bit.ly/ujr4Ny).

They say that when the Roman general Decimus Brutus came with his legions to invade Galicia, the soldiers refused to cross the river Limia.  For them it was the River Lethe, the first of the rivers of Hades, to step into which leads you to lose all memory of your life.  Brutus swam across the river and called his officers to him by name to prove that this was not the case.

Fole obviously knows a lot about popular tales and superstitions.  His writing style is terse and brief like a fairy tale and the events unfold with the inevitability of a legend.  This apparent simplicity should not blind us to the considerable art in the construction of the tales.  Consider, for example, the use he makes of the cinema in this tale as a metaphor for a reality that is not real.  I have gone away with this flickering image in my mind and find myself asking, “What is real?”  I suppose that is one of the writer’s intentions.  Although this is prose, it takes its place rightly here amongst translations of poetry because it handles images and metaphor in a way that is genuinely poetic.

About Jason Preater

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