Saturday, 4 July 2009

Myths and Plants

Myths are only important if they’re relevant to the present somebody said recently. And it strikes me that people live in all kinds of different times, belied maybe by our everyday conversations and when the focus is on who is winning at Wimbledon and who is fighting who in what part of the world in other words when the focus is on something in the external world. But it seems to me that there are all kinds of myths that are part of our history or stories, pasted onto the inside of our skins. Whether we believe in them or not is incidental. They exist as stories and they adhere to us whether we adhere to them or not. If a story has slipped inside us, there it is, provoking thoughts and daydreams and a kind of backdrop to our lives, the way the garden has taken up its place in mine, a variety of greens, with little maroon flashes (the lettuces) and bunches of cream (an odd kind of flower whose name I don’t remember, but beloved of the bees). Poppies whizz in and out of electrifying reds, oranges and pinks, bursts of colour that flare and vanish fast.

But stories….I am immersed in various periods of time, relating to the Balkans – early 19th century – Byron’s visit there, 200 years ago, mid 19th, Dora d’Istria, whose work I’m translating, and who relates stories that have their origin in the 14th century, other epic songs and stories from the same date, Edward Lear’s visit to Albania, also in the 19th century, Fatos Lubonja’s prison memoir of the 20th century, and Sašha Stanišić’s beautifully written How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone, a novel based on his own experiences as a child in the most recent Balkan war, in the last decade of the 20th century. The Balkans have a way of folding time that feels familiar to anyone who reads about the past and tends, like me, to become involved in what they read, to the extent that it feels just as alive as the present – the evening birdsong, and yes, the garden where the birds are singing and the plants in the ground and in pots visibly growing every day, encouraged by my exclamations of praise and delight at the incredible variety of leaf shapes and the way new ones simply appear, when I’m not looking.

Ismail Kadare said that the Greek myths reglènt toute la vie – they rule our lives, these 21st century lives of ours, full of photographs and internet images and text messages and plants in gardens and singing birds. Where does Troy and Ithaca and the blue and purple Adriatic fit in here?

Fiona Sampson in On Listening has written a fascinating essay where she argues that since we Brits have grown up on classical myths the landscape of the Mediterranean is deep in our early experience, of reading or being read to and has now become installed in our unconscious. It is ailleurs, elsewhere, the 'other' place, faintly remembered and deeply longed for.
Faintly remembered and deeply longed for. Ah yes.


I emerge occasionally from the 14th and 19th centuries into this one, and go swimming. After being immersed in tales of supernatural events, I immerse myself in greeny-blue water, today wearing my new swimming hat (blue) and new goggles ( greeny-blue) and cut a dash in the empty pool, emerging with red rings round my eyes because the goggles are made for midgets. The hat too fails to cover all of my hair but I believe that with a bit of practice I can stretch it to fit.

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