Infidels in Paradise


Infidels in Paradise

DOMINIQUE BOTHA, latest winner of the Ingrid Jonker debut poetry prize for her collection Donkerberg, writes about an earthly utopia in the Tyrrhenian Sea where sinners are content.


I HAVE spent days on this island and wasted most of them. I have let myself go, like Melodia’s peach orchard.  

Stunned by the heat and rendered useless in this archipelago named after the god of winds Aeolus, but haunted by the maleficent god of subterranean fire, Vulcan, I intended to write, but Sicily is like the Mona Lisa. Because too many people are looking at her, she has become invisible. So I lie in bed, waiting to be attended to by the gods, old and new.

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A blue pilot flame gasps in the silence. The coffee gurgles in the pot, quickening to a whistle. Two mugs are taken off the rack. Milk from the small fridge. Languid footsteps sound over the terrace. The god of good things walks over the threshold with sunrise in his hands. A songbird warbles a melodic miracle into the figs, sounding like a madrigalist trained in Vienna, blown off course. It’s too far south for her. And for us. WH Auden understood Protestants: “To go southern, we spoil in no time, we grow flabby, dingily lecherous, and forget to pay the bills.”


You were wrong, DH Lawrence

The Lipari islands lie on the furthest outskirts of literature. Ulysses sailed past. The Moor Ibn Jubayr was shipwrecked here in 1185 and diarised his admiration of the orchards of the infidel with the covetous rejoinder: “May God restore it to the Muslims.

DH Lawrence sweated through some summers across the bay, but his observations are layered in a coating of frost: “Ghosts of the unpleasant-looking Lipari islands standing a little way out to sea, heaps of shadow deposited like rubbish heaps in the universal greyness.

Lawrence was wrong.

These islands are an earthly paradise, where God came on his off days when he longed for simplicity. The mountain is clouded in jasmine and delirious with butterflies. The beach is black. The houses mother-of-pearl. Terraced gardens cascade towards the cerulean sea with a view of exploding volcanoes. The ocean a secret source of sparkling stars.

A Milanese friend who owns a holiday house further up the cindery footpath considers anything south of Milan the third world. He is avvocato, specialising in the labyrinthine law of contracts. The children call him The Avocado.

He came past late last night and joined us for some malvasia on the terrace. The walls of the house are still hot to the touch long after sunset. He was furious because his boat engine is broken and the mechanic says “domani, domani". Tomorrow, tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes.

Instead, the mechanic rushed to the festival of San Pietro as one of the penitents bearing an effigy of Saint Peter, the patron saint of fishermen, in a procession serenaded by an epauletted brass band and led by the priest and the mayor through the boiling town down to a festooned ship that they boarded with holy water and floated around the island entreating bounty for its fishermen;  for those few who are left, not driven out by phylloxera and pyroclastic flows to Australia and Argentina like previous generations, whose relatives now own valuable real estate one once could not give away.

The avvocato disapproves of the pageantry, considers it primitive and would prefer the mechanic to be in his workshop rather than carrying a wooden statue around the village in the hope that it will improve the squid haul.

August’s heaving discotheque

In August the whole of Europe goes on holiday and the Mediterranean turns into a heaving discotheque. The bay fills up with motorboats and yachts. Every now and then an orca glides into view. The port is full of speculation. It’s Bill Gates. It’s Michael Jordan. It’s Beyoncé.

The avvocato decries the sordidness of it all. “August is ridiculous. The so-called jet set, they are all Berlusconi’s mistresses. And the locals become bandits, fleecing us all.

He pushes back his glasses. “And that terrible transvestite television presenter! I saw him drinking at the bar, topless with his enormous new breasts, wearing only a miniskirt. He is a very vulgar woman.”


Tectonic time and cicadas

I pour the avvocato another malvasia. After the frenzy of August the island slips back out of the temporal into tectonic time, with only 50 inhabitants in winter when the sea grows restless. The locals are barefoot with open hearts. Stripped of pretence. They know they have inherited paradise, but it was hard won.

Down at the port the boat masts' lights sway imperceptibly, like the pope does at parties. The avvocato smiles. “A northern Italian cries twice when he goes to Sicily,” he says. “First when he arrives, and then when he has to leave.Then he dawdled up the path in the dark shouting “Guarda la luna! Guarda la luna!” The moon. Goddess of the night.

The brief dawn is already a fierce morning outside the shutters. The lone island donkey baulks in the heat. The cicadas’ chorusing could dislodge rocks. I finish my coffee. Breakfast is hanging from the branches of the fig tree that is as old as Italy.

Beyond the terrace the sea is dotted with pretty boats that can be hired from the port for a song and used to explore the bays and inlets. Young and old loll about in the sun, stupendously tanned and more often than not half naked. The Germans and Dutch bring their small sailing boats in from the Atlantic, wind and sun whipped and docile and dopily happy. Philip Ward explored the archipelago in the early 1970s. I pick up his book.

“Tourists began to gather on the quayside. As they are English they invent a queue, and then join it. They disapprove of the grimacing, gesticulating, singing, shrugging, chattering, and clattering Italians who caddishly discovered Italy before them and ignore not only the Italians, but each other.”

The orderly English have me perplexed. Our son cannot graduate because British lecturers are on strike and refuse to mark exam papers. The students sympathise with the lecturers.  Stockholm syndrome. He wants to come home, out of the gloom of stunted, mined-out, coal- emptied, industrial-revolution-wearied northern England.

My friend the philosopher told me that whenever there were really talented students in his class, he would tell them: “Fuck off out of my class. Go and work on a ship. Go and walk the streets. Understand real life, then you will have something to write about.” Mathematics is of course an entirely different matter.


Dantean sulphur hell

I pick up another book.  Apparently, the whole of Sicily was forested once. Everyone wanted a piece. The vast dry interior became the granary of the Roman empire and its feudal underpinnings linger. 

Carlo Levi writes of a strike at a sulphur mine in the Lercara in the 1950s. “A seventeen-year-old boy, Michele Felice, was working in the mine when he was crushed by a boulder that dropped from the roof of a gallery and was killed. This is a common occurrence: the dead boy’s father had had his leg crushed in a sulphur mine collapse. A deduction was made to the dead boy’s final pay packet because, by dying, he had failed to complete his working day; and the five hundred miners each had an hour’s pay deducted too — the hour in which work had been halted to remove the boulder from the boy’s body and carry it up, from the bottom of the mineshaft, into daylight."

Before Sicilian boys were sent into the pits, Roman slaves laboured in the Dantean hell that is the sulphur belt.

Paradise lies in the embrace of a ring of fire. To the east, Mount Etna rises over the city of Catania to a height of 3,000 metres. On a clear day her plume of smoke trails as far as Africa.


The ‘Alhambra’ and love

Vincenzo Bellini, the swan of Catania, was born in the lee of the volcano and his winged bel canto arias carried him close to the sun before he died from an overdose of genius in his 30s, like Mozart. Bellini wrote out a rule for his librettist to follow: “Carve into your head in adamantine letters: opera must draw tears, terrify people, make them die through singing."

The avvocato comes past on his way back from the port. Mollified by a fresh catch of squid and clams that his mechanic brought him as peace offering, he insists we must come for dinner. He plans to stuff the squid with mint and chillies and make spaghetti vongole and we must bring figs. 

I protest that all this food is going to kill us. 

He nods and smiles. “Yes, yes. But what a way to die!"

Suddenly, emanating from one of the courtyards behind us, the cascading chords of Recuerdos de la Alhambra swell from a hidden guitar. The guitarist plays the same piece every day and over and over again. Faultlessly. Sometimes in benediction of the hummingbird moth-fig smeared-olive silvered dusk. Sometimes at dawn. He plays and plays, and his lady lies naked in the sun. Where love is at hand, so are minstrels.

And prayers. Please Lord, I don’t ask for more. Just what we already have.

Over and over again.

♦ VWB ♦

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