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Book Review: Antonio Muñoz Molina

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  In a world of climate change, political extremism, wars, mindless violence, and disconnection from our fellow human beings Antonio Muñoz Molina travels into an alternative reality of literature, music, and art. He writes: “I like literature that has the disruptive and intoxicating effect of wine or music, making me forget myself, forcing me to read it aloud and to give in to its contagion, explaining the world to me while setting me at war with it, giving me shelter even as it reveals the horror of everything around me as vividly as its beauty.” Yet the written and spoken word can both be liberator and captor. The words of advertising slogans, newspaper headlines, news reports, and overheard conversations on the streets and on the Madrid metro at times seem to reach an unbearable crescendo. “I become aware of the full volume and intensity of the endless noise that I failed to notice even as it was drowning out my voice and everything else around me,” he writes. For him the world seem

Have Murcia on me

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Tony Bailie hikes through the lunar landscape of Murcia's badlands, climbs a forest-covered mountain, visits 'snow wells' and peeks into a former TB sanatorium to see if any ghosts turn up... An ancient sea floor pushed upwards over millions of years formed Barrancos De Gebas which lies about an hour's drive out of Murcia city. Barrancos means ravines and dozens of them – chalky white, rising and falling away from one another – give this place an other-worldly feel. Despite the sparse vegetation, earning it the title of The Badlands, it is a rich habitat for hundreds of butterflies and moths. It has been a protected area since 1995 and its unique desert landscape shimmers with an eerie whiteness in the morning sun. The barrancos form a hinterland for Sierra Espuña, which in contrast sees lush green forests rising along a series of not-too-high but impressive mountains. The greenery of this area is thanks to an early 20th century environmentalist called Ricardo Codorníu

Time to bring back the bears

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  AS EVENING turns into night a bat flits just above my head through the darkening sky. Nothing too remarkable about that, you might think – but then this is Transylvania. On top of a hill overlooking the village is an eerie-looking fortress but I decide not to venture in – not out of fear, you understand: What could there be to fear about entering a creepy building in Transylvania as bats swoop overhead and night falls? The reason is actually much more banal – a sign on the wall says opening hours are between 10am and 6pm and it is nearly eight. As for the bats, there are actually 32 species of bat in Romania, one of the most diverse populations in Europe – we have just nine species here in Ireland. However, despite such a variety of these winged creatures of the night there are no vampire bats in Transylvania; they are native to South and Central America. The village of Viscri dates from the 12th century when Saxons from Germany settled in the area. Cattle and geese roam the main str

Manchán Magan's is out standing in his field

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THE churning water rears and foams and then drops away as if a plug has suddenly been pulled from the rocky confines in which it had become trapped. The rectangular hollow on a fossil-covered limestone outcrop looks as if has been hewn by hand to create a swimming pool, but it is a natural feature on the Atlantic shoreline of Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands. Poll na bPéist is translated on the signs that guide visitors to it as 'The Wormhole'; however, on some maps it is named 'The Serpent's Lair'. 'Poll' is an Irish word for hole which can also be used to describe an animal's lair while 'péist' can mean worm, serpent or even monster, so both translations are valid. While the idea of a serpent's or monster's lair is more evocative, the word wormhole also has intriguing connotations – describing the underground channels through which the currents surge and retreat from the open sea into this deep rocky pool from which, if you jum

Book Review: The Woman From Uruguay by Pedro Mairal

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  “This is a short novel of subtle gear changes, where the seemingly obvious plot becomes a distraction to the true narrative that builds and builds and accelerates through a shifting geographical and psychological landscape.” When an Argentinian writer sets off on a day trip from Bueno Aires to neighboring Uruguay to collect $15,000 in cash and meet a young woman who he had a brief liaison with the previous year the reader has a fair idea of what is coming. You know this is not going to end well. But although you might guess what is coming down the line it is not through poor plotting by Pedro Mairal. He deliberately sets up the inevitable disaster that is about befall his narrator Lucas Pereyra from the very start. The real storytelling here is the story behind the story The narrative reads as if it is a written confession by Lucas to his wife Cata. He suspects that she is having an affair because she often returns to their apartment long after her work hours are over. He reveals his

A walk back through time

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The jagged rocks poking out of the Irish Sea have a scaly look about them, as if they are the encrusted remains of an ancient giant lizard. The sea crashes on to them about 30 metres below where I stand on a grassy pathway which looks inland towards some of the best-known landmarks in Co Down. This spot was once the shore on to which the sea would have washed but over the past 10,000 years has risen to is present elevation. Before that, for around 20,000 years, this area and most of the rest of Ireland would have been buried beneath a massive ice sheet rising to at least 1km.  The sheer weight of this pushed down on the landmass but when it melted Ireland literally began to rise out of the sea again creating this coastal feature. It is believed that Ireland first became an island around 125,000 years ago when sea levels rose to pretty much similar to where they are today, but the landscape of that first version of Ireland as a separate entity from other land masses has changed dramatic

Into the Atlas Mountains

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 “If you climb to that ridge and keep walking south you will reach the Sahara Desert, but it will take you a week,” says the guide. Tempting as the thought is, I decide that a half bottle of tepid water and the apple in my rucksack won’t get me through such a trek and it would need a bit more planning. The guide instead leads the way up through a small cluster of Berber market stalls selling carpets, tagine dishes and the inevitable collection of beads and necklaces that seem to populate markets the world over. The temperature is in the mid-20s, but that is cool relief from the searing average of 32C in nearby Marrakech. Coming out of the city, the Atlas Mountains rise on the horizon as you approach and the road deteriorates as the car begins its ascent. It is a lush green landscape of willow, cherry and pine trees, with cactus plants scattered among them. From the village of Sti Fadma, set at around 1,500 metres above sea level, the trek is a brisk and sharp hike along well-trodden pa