The world would be more reassuring if we could feel evil

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In Pinochet’s Londres 38 detention centre, an estimated two thousand people – mostly leftists in their twenties – were detained and tortured. They were blindfolded the entire time they were there, apart from when they used the toilet. They were burned and disfigured, mutilated. Ninety eight of them, including two pregnant women, were never heard of again.

I walked around Londres 38 the other day and felt nothing. It’s not the first time it’s happened. When I was in school, we went on a trip to Rome. I remember my history teacher at the time saying that you could feel the evil emanating off the Colosseum, but when I got there I didn’t feel anything.

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I didn’t feel anything in the S21 centre in Cambodia, where 20,000 people were tortured and killed in the Kyhmer Rouge’s wave of insanity and terror. I didn’t feel it in My Lai, the Vietnamese village preserved as it was when American soldiers gang-raped and mutilated the women who lived there and killed up to 504 unarmed civilians.

And I didn’t feel it in Auschwitz either. I visited the concentration camp on a blisteringly warm day, alongside hundreds of tourists and school groups. Certain sights shocked me – the piles of hair and glasses, for instance – but I stood in the ruins of the gas chambers and I just couldn’t access the emotional place the location demanded of me.

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I really liked our tour guide that day. When one visitor suggested that this is what happens when extremism goes unchecked, she replied: “This wasn’t about extremism. Only conformity can explain what happened here.” I thought it was very beautiful and true. But later, just before we broke up, she said that visiting the camp shouldn’t be about feeling sad, that it should instead reconfirm our love of life. She advised us to go out that night, eat well, drink wine, and savour it. I spend much of my life doing precisely those things, so I thought honestly that it might be more appropriate to allow the sadness and horror of that place to sink in, to try to give it some of the recognition it deserved. But honestly I didn’t feel that horror or even that sadness. My feelings about the holocaust, like everyone else’s, were well developed by the time I visited. Being in one of the places where it happened to take place did not add or subtract from them.

This is not some protracted admission that I’m dead inside (I’ll write that later). Show me a film about the holocaust and I’ll start crying pretty much the exact second the director intends me to. But locations themselves don’t seem to have any impact on me.

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Our culture presumes that some things are so terrible they soak into the walls of the places where they happen. It is what almost all horror films are based on. And why not? Rooms take on all sorts of aspects for us, positive as well as negative. They are bigger than the sum of their part. My teenage bedroom, where so many of my formative experiences took place, has an almost mystical presence in mind.

A few months ago I watched workers demolish the house next door. One man with a hammer took about an hour to completely destroy a room, breaking down the walls with each swing. And I thought: is that all it takes to destroy a room? For someone, that room he just ended has the same significance as my teenage bedroom. Rooms take on this grand meaning for us, but they are no more resilient than anything made of material. They are as meaningful as school chairs or drain pipes. They are like god: Everything we imagine they contain is in fact an expression of ourselves.

So I walked around Londres 38, in the pebble-stoned, sun-kissed heart of Santiago, and I felt nothing. The rooms could quite easily be converted into a normal house and someone would sit and watch telly in them and eat popcorn and they would be none the wiser that this was a place of despair and injustice and death.

There’s something even more disturbing about that. Evil of that sort is not this great spiritual darkness which taints the physical world in which it is expressed. It is more chaotic and meaningless. It happens and no-one is any the wiser. The place is not haunted. The darkness does not lurk in corridors. It is as if it never happened. I kept on thinking of a Grant Morrison quote, which ran something along the lines of: “Every room can be the worst room in the world.”

It’s that banal. I wish Londres 38 was more upsetting. It would ultimately be reassuring if it was.

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Why Chile has such fat stray dogs

The stray dogs say a lot about Santiago. Just like everywhere in Latin america, they have stray dogs here. But unlike anywhere else in Latin america, they are fat.

They’re fat because the people feed them. This makes them behave quite unusually. They’re basically like free citizens of the city.

They seem to recognise and use zebra crossings. This morning one walked confidently into the road, only for the driver of an oncoming car to dutifully stop and let him pass. He had right of way, after all. And Chileans, unlike any other Latin people I’ve ever encountered, respect the rules of the road.

At the pedestrian crossings, the stray dogs stop and wait with the people, then cross like everyone else when it turns green. It is incredibly odd.

The stray dogs are like everything else in Santiago: Latin, but not. In most Latin countries they’re skeletal, traumatised things, clawing a life out of the scraps of food on the street. Only in Chile would this bit of Latin chaos exist, but be smoothed out and made palatable.

They say the Chileans, like the Argentinians, consider themselves europeans in Latin America. If anything, that may be an understatement. In so many ways they seem completely misplaced. Chileans proudly tell you that, as a nation, they can’t dance. “We’re like you guys,” my dinner companion told me last night, rather cheekily. I wanted to argue back, but I knew they were speaking the truth. They also hate spicy food. On this point at least I suffered no national comparison. “Actually, in our Indian restaurants, English people order the spiciest thing on the menu,” I said proudly. She looked at me like I was an idiot.

The young professionals here are worried about the exact same things young professionals worry about in London. They don’t earn enough, wages aren’t keeping up with prices, they’re going to have move further out from the centre. They consider this evidence of Chile’s continued economic hardships. To my ears, it sounded like the comparative privilege of Western economic hardship.

None of them would even look out of place in Europe, either ethnically or in their clothing. Most of them look like characters in a Pedro Almodovar film: beautiful, well groomed, tucked in.

Someone was explaining why there was so much Chilean slang yesterday, especially around sex (their slang for masturbation, rather wonderfully, is ‘five against one’). “The thing is, as Chileans, we find it very hard to say what we really mean. So we have to find our around it.” I mean, they might as well just go ahead and call themselves Brits.

The men in particular are fascinating. The machista culture which poisons the rest of Latin America doesn’t seem to be present here. Or if it is, it is less demonstrative and more surreptitious. Men are less aggressive, women are more confident. A woman could even walk home alone at night here without it being considered suicide.

One Chilena told me about her troubles living with a Colombian flat mate. Everything was a drama, she said – who was friends with who, who was paying for what, even when you chose to go to bed. She had to throw her out in the end. “I couldn’t handle the drama.”

I found this phrase baffling. My only experience of Latin life is drama – endless arguments, over subjects as small as groceries and large as revolution – followed by genuine and theatrical declarations of love and friendship. Saying ‘I couldn’t handle the drama’ in Latin America is like saying I no longer wish to speak to Latin Americans. But not in Chile.

But amid all the European habits, little sparks of Latin life break out. Yesterday I watched workmen put up scaffolding in La Plaza de Armas while singing a song and clambering and sliding their way down the steel bars they’d just erected. Groups of men will walk by with one man singing loudly and his other friends ignoring him in a way you would never see in Europe.

It is undoubtably a much nicer place to live than anywhere else I’ve seen in this continent. You could, for instance, own a car or a TV here without spending every minute of the day wondering when it will be stolen. There is none of the background hum of suspicion you get in Mexico or Guatemala, say, where crime and violence have become so common that they pollute the way peaceful people treat each other.

But Chile also lacks some of the exuberance of Latin countries. It is calmer, but less powerfully, viscerally alive. Sometimes it feels almost docile, much like Madrid, the city it so clearly models itself on.

For me, it brings up strange, contradictory emotions. I’m half Guatemalan, and that part of me sort of resents them. It looks at Chileans and instinctively feels they are not Latin. They’re too calm, too restrained, too professional, too… white, both physically and emotionally. As a white Latino, that’s laughably hypocritical, but there it is.

I suppose there is a sense of inferiority. I never saw this side of Latin America before. All these Almodovar characters walking around in suits and chequered shirts and expensive glasses. If Latin America was a country, they would be the boss class and Guatemalans would be the proles.

But the Brit in me views them from the other direction, like some mad transplant: as fellow Europeans somehow placed at the bottom of a foreign continent, well away from… well from anywhere really.

Or perhaps, as a half-European half-Latino, Chile is just a bit too close to comfort. Sometimes it feels like I’m walking around in my own background.

The life and ideas of Amir Espat

“New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend. In the magnificent fierce morning of New Mexico one sprang awake, a new part of the soul woke up suddenly, and the old world gave way to a new.”

DH Lawrence, an Englishman, wrote that in the late 1920s. He was suffering from the bouts of tuberculosis which would eventually take his life and had travelled to the American south-west in search of clean air, altitude and freedom from the censors of Europe.

Not so many years later, my uncle, Amir Espat, whose lineage ran from Lebanon to Guatemala to Belize, travelled up to the United States and made his way to New Mexico.

Like Lawrence, he was taken with the light. New Mexico has very big skies. They are not like the skies of England, the skies of a man content to describe what’s in front of him. They are vast. They are skies for dreamers.

He arrived with little to his name. But over the decades that followed he would build a life there. And he would paint, endlessly, using the dusty, quixotic colours of New Mexico.

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A few months ago, just after his funeral, I stood in my uncle’s studio. His glasses – dreadful, oversized beige frames from the 1970’s – were still on the desk. His paint was still smudged together in new exploratory mixtures on the pallet, a last unfinished work still on the stand. There was the latest copy of Time magazine, carrying a front-page report on Syria, which he would never read.

We are not in the things we leave behind. Even the objects we associate with our loved ones feel empty and stale once they are gone. They are just artefacts; debris of life. These objects did not love him. The sheets he slept in did not love him, nor did his favourite chair. Even the paintings he made did not love him.

Without him, they are relics.

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Marx said that you could define humankind by its ability to adapt the world around it. Our ‘species essence’ lay in our desire and ability to remould the world, to labour upon it. Man built bridges and sewage systems, mined oceans and designed cities. And man also devised poetry and politics. Man arranged his habitat around his life rather than the other way round. He impacted on the world.

My uncle was a short man, but under Marx’s conception he was very big. He moulded the world to how he wanted it.

He went to New Mexico and he built a life. In the end, it turned out he was the advance party for a family which would set down roots: my family, a very big and difficult and generous family.

He built a business, with a mind that was no less entrepreneurial simply because it was also artistic. He became wealthy. He designed and built homes. He was a very accomplished architect, carrying with him that great American preoccupation with space and air.

He stamped his homes with his personality. He carved statues onto the rocks in the garden of his house in Albuquerque. One of them is of his wife lounging in the sun, a testament to his timeless fixation with her beauty.

At the front of the house, visible to anyone driving by, stands a statue of a tall couple gazing out to the horizon. They look old, haggard and distinctly indigenous. But more than anything they look proud. They are a tribute to his abiding sympathies: with the immigrant, the outsider, the labourer. With he who aspires.

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Inside the house, his paintings would fill every wall. He produced so many that other family members would take them for their own homes and eventually they became so ubiquitous they turned into totems. You would find them whenever you were in a house of the family. They are there now: in houses in Guatemala, Belize, America and Britain. But they are not just expressions of family. They are tiny Amir Espat machines. They leave impressions. They mould people.

They are hallucinatory and unreal. Glances of beautiful – almost supernatural – women melt into solitary visions of old men closing back doors, paramilitary thugs with guns, stricken widows gazing up at the sky, couples dancing in the night time.

They formed part of my childhood subconscious – a malleable place, like cooling wax, where early ideas are formed. They were immersive, restless and exotic. They attracted and they confounded.

His paintings were like him: open.

He was a man of the left, but also a man who had found wealth. He was an American patriot. No matter how furious he became with the rightward drift of the country, he never lost faith in the American ideal. He was a rationalist and a humanist. He despised religion.

His politics were not ideological. They were a way of looking at things: an enthusiasm for knowledge, a reflex towards compassion. They were an instinct, more than a destination.

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A few years ago, his sister – my grandmother – died. It left him the last-but-one of a generation of eight – the first generation of the family to grow up in Central America.

I had been with my grandmother when she died and it had a severe effect on me. The world felt fragile and unreliable.

Once the well wishers had left the house, he started digging around in his sister’s ashes. My mother and I were horrified, but he had this childlike smile on his face. “It’s not really ashes,” he said. “They just call it that to make people feel better. It’s really tiny bits of bone.” He held one piece between his fingers and showed it to me. “See?”

He knew she was not there.

He was profoundly unsentimental. For a man with a warm smile he was never misty eyed. He did not give much thought to niceties or expectation.

But he had dragged that which was unspeakable into the daylight. He took something which was big and scary and heartbreaking and approached it with childlike curiosity. He recognised that love did not need to be protected by superstition and taboo.

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Being unsentimental isn’t about limiting your feelings. It’s about not going through the motions. It is ultimately about being true to your feelings.

He was always smiling when he saw me. He used to hold me firmly at arms’ length, look me up and down, nod and then embrace me. But he always took a look at me first. It was never by custom. It was never theatrical. It was always genuine, always considered.

The smile he gave me was one of those big smiles you get from people who are genuinely pleased to see you. Consciously or subconsciously, we can all tell the difference. We know how eyes look when they find themselves gazing upon something they truly value. Now there is one less person in the world who looks at me like that. And I have one less person to look at that way.

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He loved England, probably as the result of a Belizean education. No-one could say a bad word about the place. He thought of it as somewhere that was civilised and humane. I always wanted it to live up to his expectations.

The last time he visited – a few months back – we spent a summer afternoon drinking and eating in Hyde Park. People were talking but he had stopped listening. He was lying on his back, perhaps a little tipsy, staring up at the leaves in the tree above him.

“Have you ever written about trees?” he asked.

I’ve never written about trees. I find them comforting in the daytime and ominous in the night time.  That is all I’ve ever thought about trees. But I realised that even in his mid-eighties he could still see the beauty in simple things. He knew how things were put together, but that did not stop him from experiencing wonder.

‘I must write about trees,’ I thought. ‘I must write about trees so he can read it.’

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We are all engaged in a conspiracy against the dead. We mourn them, we miss them, but in general we do not speak of them. Those closest to them – the mother, the wife, the daughter – cannot help but do so. But when they do, you can see the people around them tense up. Everyone wishes it would go away.

It is not their fault. It is easy to upset someone who is mourning. Attempts to cheer them up can seem flippant and disrespectful. Attempts to console them can seem cloying and insincere. One is never sure when the bereaved wants to talk about it and when they would rather distract themselves. There is a lot of anger in those who mourn and it can quite easily be directed at whoever happens to be nearby.

But we don’t just tense up because of our fear of social upset. We tense up because we are being confronted with something which we pretend is not true: That life ends. That death is.

Many people berate Western culture for refusing to look death in the face. I am not sure I agree. After all, what is there to see? The abyss. Nothing more. There is so little to say about death. It cannot be problem-solved or managed, it cannot be traded or bought off. It is not a subject. It is the un-subject, the opposite of things. It is ending.

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Very little of us survives death. We do not remain in the objects we leave behind, or even in our arts or constructions. We do not remain in the money or the houses.

Dozens of my family members live in New Mexico because he arrived one day, like DH Lawrence, and admired the sky. But he does not live on in this fact any more than he would die again if someone leaves.

We do not even live on in memory. That which is past is past. It is not now. Memory is not living.

We live on only in one crucial aspect: in how far we have become a part of the living.

We live on if we embed ourself in the personalties of those we leave behind. In how we make them think or act.

We live on by moulding the world after we are gone.

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Amir Espat was a short man, but he was very big.

He believed in the hand which reaches out to help rather than take for itself.

He believed in things that were bigger than money, better than money.

He believed in colour and materials, in giving people somewhere beautiful and dignified to live.

He believed in America and its better nature.

He believed in reason.

He believed in ideas and those confident enough to measure them.

He was as big and as vast as the skies of New Mexico.

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