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THE ELECTRONIC LIVEIBIZA

Weekly Edition 073: Saturday 20th July 2002

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Bibliomaniacs' Corner
by Martin Davies

 
Part Twelve:
The Great Healer
 

We began our last article with a look at the first great private library of antiquity - Aristotle’s - and the manner in which it disappeared from sight when a certain Roman bon viveur called Faustus disposed of it to clear his debts around the middle of the first century BC. It is tempting to speculate that a good number of those scrolls passed into the library of the Villa of the Papyri, which first came to the attention of latter-day booklovers in 1752. In that year the Swiss scholar Karl Weber began excavating a sumptuous seashore villa in Herculaneum which had lain below ninety feet of petrified mud ever since the famous volcanic eruption of 79 AD. In a small backroom he found some carbonised logs lying on wooden shelves, which the diggers (including several convicts) began to throw away. Closer inspection showed them to be priceless papyrus rolls, of which about eighteen hundred (of a total of two thousand) survived the preliminary spring-clean - the first and most remarkable ancient library to have been uncovered in modern times. A machine was devised which managed to unroll a few of the brittle objects, but because of their extremely fragile and blackened state, a proper technical solution has only been emerging in the past fifteen years. They turned out to be mainly works on Epicureanism by Philodemus of Gadara, a philosopher who lived in Rome at the time of Cicero. The villa itself - on which J. Paul Getty based his famous museum in Malibu - is now thought to have belonged to Philodemus’s patron, Lucius Calpurnius Piso, father-in-law to Julius Caesar. As Philodemus lived in Rome between 75 and 40 BC, what connection could there possibly be with the library of Aristotle (384-322 BC)? The answer comes from our old friend Faustus - something of an angel in disguise. If a scholarly and wealthy patron like L. Calpurnius Piso was collecting scrolls in the middle of the first century BC, he would probably have been highly interested in the sale of Aristotle’s collection. Two charred but lavishly-made doors have just been found at a lower level of his villa, which some believe lead into the main library. If this hypothesis is correct, then Aristotle’s scrolls might be just a few tantalizing metres (or even centimetres) from our grasp.

Whoever said books were dull? Payprus, by the way, has the same etymological root as bible - and bibliomaniac - but we’ll leave that for another day. Right now it is time to climb onto our magic carpet and fly straight from Herculaneum and Aristotle to Ibiza and Apollo.

Whatever ails you, our island cures you - provided it doesn’t make it worse. The eponymous heroine of Penelope Grogan’s The Mending of Cathlene (1995, 2nd  edition 2002), certainly needs a little of that special Pityusan magic: it all starts when husband Rob forces her to have an abortion and follows it up by announcing he’s in love with another woman; then a finicky brother-in-law denies access to two adorable nieces; barely has our protagonist drawn breath from this triple catastrophe when composer friend Graham commits suicide; for the final straw, Rob’s trade-in model is spotted pregnant. Therapy of some sort is clearly needed, but it comes from a rather unexpected quarter - ‘Apollo, wearing a very expensive silk jacket.’ The male muse is actually Edward O’Brien, Graham’s callous lover or rather ‘adopted son’. His manly voice comes in handy when dastardly Rob rings up to finalize the house-sale; his looks are suitably decorative both indoors and later on the road to Ibiza; his

gayness precludes romantic complications; and finally his financial and domestic ineptitude require round-the-clock vigilance. When Edward’s brother drops anchor in West London to become part of Cathlene’s work-cure, we know she’s in safe hands: how can anyone surrounded by total chaos have time to become depressed?

There is one piece of the puzzle, however, which remains missing: the heroine’s longing for a child. Which is where Ibiza comes in: schoolteacher friend Margaret knows someone with a flat to let in Ibiza town and before overdosing on pills, Graham paints a rather attractive picture of that perennial retreat for injured souls:

“Oh, Ibiza, it’s a lovely place, or used to be. I’ve got a friend there, a painter … He rents a large, old farmhouse on a hillside that looks out across the Mediterranean. I believe he has a little girl now. I spent a whole summer with him several years ago. They lead an extraordinary life, he and his women. They cook up fish heads with rice and eat figs off the trees. There were all sorts of strange people living there. I never found out who they were. When I first arrived at the house, a young woman in a long white cotton night-dress came out from what had been a pigsty, and wandered off down the hillside among the almond trees. I don’t think I ever saw her again … I’ll give you his name, but I can’t give you an address because in Ibiza there’s no such thing.”

 

The Mending of Cathlene, pp. 44-5

The Ibiza we know and love - or used to. Cathlene and Margaret head off south as soon as term ends and Edward tags along as the token man. It turns into a typical long car journey: endless tailbacks, pokey overnight stops, the occasional cultural snack and finally, at land’s end, the missed ferry. Although there is no prospect of a crossing until October at the earliest, Edward is on hand to successfully charm the ticket clerk - in the face of a ‘huge rugger scrum of violent Germans fighting for bookings.’ Useful chap that.

The set-up on the fabled island is far from promising: the flat is airless and cramped, Margaret’s back is playing up while Edward immediately waltzes off to join some new friends in Santa Eulalia. Left to her own devices, it is to the mysterious and little-known interior that Cathlene turns for a measure of consolation:

Every afternoon, while Margaret was asleep, I wandered out into the countryside. Of course, it was usually the hottest time of the day, but I was on the run from myself, so I had to do something. I walked past whitewashed, flat-roofed houses with beautiful circular threshing floors beside them. In some places the earth is red, the colour of blood. On one evening when the sun was setting and I was returning later than usual, I was passed by a mule cart. It was loaded with lucerne. The great wheels wobbled and jolted from rut to rut, the cart lurched and shook, but the small wizened, Ibicencan driver saluted me with noble charm. I wished we could have been staying in one of these farmhouses, where everything was beautiful, instead of in our dreadful flat where everything in sight was ugly. I wished I could talk to the people I saw, but then I wished a lot of things. I wished I had a child, I wished I had my husband. I wished I were anybody but myself.

 

pp. 114-5

With ten days left to go, Thelma-and-Louise (or Hinge-and-Bracket) decide to ferret out Graham’s painter friend, Steffan, in the far north. Their quest takes them to one of Ibiza’s wildest and most untouched corners:

To the right the ground fell steeply away in abandoned terraces, grown over by scorched weeds and scrub. After rounding another corner we came to a more cultivated hillside, planted with almond trees. To the side of the road was a covered stone well. Beside it grew a tall clump of bamboo, twittering with little birds, restlessly flittering about among the canes. An ancient olive tree cast a cool shadow from a terrace above. 

 

p. 119

That little well, incidentally, is still intact. I was picking enormous mulberries there last week (and stained my favourite polo-shirt). When the intrepid duo finally arrive at Steffan’s finca, his half-starved eight-year-old daughter informs them that “it won’t be any good to see him today, because they’ve gone on a trip” - a little psychedelic excursion. Little Clara is a vignette from hippy Ibiza which merits closer inspection: barefoot (‘toes so spread out they looked like monkey hands’), skinny and brown all over ‘like a dried nut’, she wanders across the sun-baked hillsides accompanied by her faithful podenco, ‘Perro’, both on the lookout for free food. A not untypical product of the flower revolution. The following evening Steffan and Clara turn up in Ibiza town and take the English ladies out to a trendy restaurant below the battlements (Es Quinques?). But the cheeky hippy is suddenly called off by another, who makes a snide comment they don’t quite catch - leaving the two ladies with a hefty bill. “What an extraordinary way to behave,” is all that Margaret manages to snort.

The last two chapters encompass a sort of resolution of the book’s principal theme, Cathlene’s longing for a child, but here we will draw a discrete veil over the manner in which this is achieved. There is also a settling of accounts with Rob and his new partner. This is a book which, on balance, has considerable riches to offer those who love a well-turned phrase. The author’s Anglo-Saxon understatement and her Celtic lyricism are so expertly handled that for this reviewer at least, they easily compensate for the heroine’s readiness to be the victim of every monster who crosses her path. The men, almost without exception, emerge unfavourably: adulterers, liars, spongers, acid-heads, fall-guys, manipulators and lawyers - rather an unedifying lot. The women come out little better: over-knowledgeable and overbearing Margaret, a nymphomaniac beer-heiress and a clutch of listless freaks who have shrugged off maternal responsibility like an unwanted garment; Rob’s new partner, adulteress Ella, is really the best of the bunch - excluding the long-suffering and saintly Cathlene. But is Cathlene really so perfect? I am not qualified to talk at length on the sensitive issue with which the book opens, but one or two female readers might take exception to the heroine’s decision on this score. Children, on the other hand, get an excellent press: Coppertop and Curly Wig, the adorable nieces; little Clara, whom we first saw running wild like a latter-day Diana; and two innocent little mites (girls, be it noted) who pass muster quite satisfactorily. If you love Ibiza, books and children the way they used to be, then I can heartily recommend this one.

The Mending of Cathlene was launched at Libro Azul on 12th June 2002. They say that London buses come in threes, but books about Ibiza’s recent past apparently come in sixes or sevens: the last week of April saw the publication of Dutch Writers and Painters in the Pityuses, translated by yours truly; a few weeks later Peter Kinsley’s Bogged Down in County Lyric (see Weekly Edition 071 Saturday 6th July 2002) with its ten chapters on Ibiza ca. 1970 hit the shelves; your correspondent then received a rare copy of The Pistolero (see Weekly Edition 069 Saturday 22nd June 2002), a book set largely in Ibiza Town around November 1977; Last Tango in Ibiza (2001) is also clamouring for my attention; Tristan Jones’s Yarns has just arrived, with ‘The Saga of the Dreadnought’, a delightful tale about the salvaging of an iron lifeboat in Ibiza harbour in November 1965; and finally, a lucky break has put the bibliomaniac onto a completely unknown novel about Ibiza in 1956 by one of the greatest names in modern English letters. In the next article, our exploration will focus on this unusual treasure, dredged up from the very bottom of the literary ocean. I shall leave you with a passage from it which ties in neatly with our exploration (Weekly Edition 071 Saturday 6th July 2002) of the emerald muse - suissé in local parlance. Beckett, incidentally, is a character who seems to have much in common with the painter Grimes:

Although Beckett had a weak stomach for strong liquor, this was the one time when he felt justified in ordering an alemana. Alemana was a local concoction of absinthe, so-called because it was supposed in Vedra to be a drink for which the Germans had formed a dangerous national addiction. The supreme virtue of an alemana was the speed with which it changed the face of the world. In a matter of minutes colours flowed into drab landscapes; mere noises rearranged themselves, with the slightest excuse, as music; the past ceased to admonish, and the future to threaten. But this was euphoria, too, that could be carried to unmanageable lengths. The alemana was served, with the usual half of a small, green lemon. Beckett squeezed the lemon into the clouded liquid and watched with anticipatory satisfaction, as the droplets sank and spread their oily ectoplasms ... Intoxicated? Beckett found it hard to believe it could be so. He tried to compare his present mood and sensations with those of a half hour before. The mental heaviness seemed to have lifted, that was all. Perhaps too he was abnormally conscious of what was going on round him. Possibly the special chemical - the ester or whatever it was - in the liquor possessed the power of neutralising the poisons of fatigue in the blood … Profoundly philosophical observations had begun to flow, on the slightest encouragement, in and out of his mind.

¡Salud!

 
Martin Davies
martindavies@liveibiza.com
 

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