Dins del silenci de Chauvet

Diari Ara, January 2017

I first met John Berger over twenty years ago, when he had already long been an essential author for me. It was coming up to Christmas 1995. He was launching the Spanish translation (beautifully done by his faithful translator Pilar Vázquez) of his novel To the Wedding at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània/Centre for Contemporary Arts in Barcelona and I, then working at the Museu d’Art Contemporani/Museum of Contemporary Art, wanted to respond to his magnificent reading by inviting him to see the museum, which was about to be inaugurated.

We toured the galleries, as yet without visitors, with little comments, long silences and questions that, suddenly, became paths we began to explore together.

Since then, our friendship has been full of shared projects and respected silences. He gradually acquired the habit of asking me what I thought of particular people from Barcelona who got in touch with him asking for his collaboration, or of Catalan writers or artists he wanted to know more about.

I, in turn, asked his advice on my own projects and on aspects of the life of the arts that I seemed to be discovering. That was how I met some of his friends, read authors I had not known of or revisited works of art with new eyes.

It was from this fertile ground of relationships that the idea arose for the publication in Barcelona of the correspondence on colour that John Berger had maintained for some time with John Christie and that I still consider the best guide for anyone starting out on an aesthetic education. I Send You This Cadmium Red came out in Barcelona thanks to the faith of Ramon Prat and the publishers Actar.

Over the past few days the newspapers have carried many reviews of the life and work of John Berger. As I read them, I have recalled again and again the image of John, sitting on some old chair in the garden of his home, as special envoys from the British Library, with their white gloves on, collected the mountains of boxes of the originals of his work, stored in the old stable, to transfer them to a van with temperature and humidity control that was to take them to their final destination.

The newspapers keep describing his blue eyes, his hands, those of a farmworker and sculptor, the force of his presence, the intensity of his embraces, his inseparable bond with his motorbike as he crossed Europe in search of some little treasure yet to be drawn…

And in the silence as I read them, I find myself wondering what he must have been thinking, that day in 2009, as he saw his papers departing forever. He never told me. Maybe he felt the relief of letting go of the past to open up new possibilities in his present life or maybe, with his eyes closed, he saw again a notebook where a word lay hidden, the key to a story never written but never forgotten.

He may have viewed the formality of the scene with irony, the white gloves and the climatised van, or he may have felt a ferocious desire to stop the exodus of the pages that contained his life better than he himself.

What must have happened when the van finally set off? Did he remain sitting still in his chair, did he go straight off to light the fire or did he prefer to get on his motorbike and drive till his heart told him it was enough?

The silences in my relationship with John have always been a large part of our conversation. When he described the scene to me on the telephone, he left it at that, as though it were a photo open to all kinds of interpretation.

In fact, we never discussed the story of his life. Except, perhaps, the day he told me about the project that in time would become the book Here Is Where We Meet. In this collection of short stories he allows people he now knows to be vital for his life to return to the foreground and meet him in a particular place, though they have been dead for a long time. He rescues them from their silence to turn them into characters who, perhaps, help him learn a little better who he himself has become.

“How sad it would be to lose the sense of loss, don’t you think?”, I remember him saying to me as he imagined, in his faltering speech, always agitated by the desire to find the right word, how this collection of moments he had begun to conceive might take shape.

I think now that we found it easy to share silences because we always had in common the special silence that inhabits the paintings of the great masters and that possibly links them, seamlessly, with the drawings scratched in the heart of prehistoric caves. “When I found myself almost alone among the paintings in the cave at Chauvet, the hand inscribed in the mud seemed to me to be my neighbour’s hand,” he wrote to me.

Something makes me think that the silence my mentor and great friend John Berger has just entered may be very similar to the silence of the animals of Chauvet: the silence of an old bear, full of life, strength and purpose, who can wait forever to be discovered.


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