PsychoGeography #67: A letter from (South) America

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The Independent Online

Winter bites, yet without the necessary severe frosts I find myself dreading the prospect of two-year-old flies; how these ancient infants will toddle drunkenly about, butting into windowpanes and soiling at will!

Winter bites, yet without the necessary severe frosts I find myself dreading the prospect of two-year-old flies; how these ancient infants will toddle drunkenly about, butting into windowpanes and soiling at will! I hunker down in my study in Stockwell, with a pale view of the crack dealers who conduct their trade in the narrow alley opposite my house. For weeks now I've been trying to find the energy to go to Iceland - not the country but the freezer-food centre next to the tube.

Not for Mr and Mrs Ralph such pusillanimous torpor; they set sail for the far side of the world and saw December in the Land of Fire at the very felt tip of South America. I've never been to Chile at all, although I did once read a book about it by Sara Wheeler called Travels in a Thin Country. Not a bad book - and the title is pleasingly literal. Increasingly, I am leaving the more adventurous travelling to the Steadmans. I perceive them as my agents, moving, observing, collating their impressions of the wider world and sending them back to me in a collection of unnerving dispatches. Let me share a couple with you.

Depicted below is Elal, the Shoe Spirit. Ralph discovered it in Patagonia on a tiny beach in the shadow of Torres del Paine. He decided to decorate it and invent a legend to go with it. As Ralph painted the driftwood he began to realise how closely it resembled South America itself. I'll let Ralph tell the legend in his own inimitable words:

"Elal, the Good Spirit of the earth, sewed Chile firmly on to the Andes' backbone, so that it may never float away without its heart. Elal used a needle to achieve this miracle. It has one eye - the other became separated and rests in Brazil. Argentina hasn't got one and relies on both Chile and Brazil to see; part of its facial expression has bled through from Chile. But Elal wishes all the countries of South America to be harmonious and generous. There has been some dispute between Peru and Chile about who has the left eye. They have now learned to share the eye's wisdom."

Except he didn't tell me that he'd invented this legend, so I asked him to clarify the matter: is Elal a "real" god? The reply came by e-mail as follows: "We had just been to the Socio-Geographic Museum of Salesiano in Punta Arenas, which was fascinating but because of the missionary record around that area, I got very angry. So a God was born. Elal is in fact a mythological being of the Aoniken or Tehuelches who inhabited the Patagonian Steppes from the Santa Cruz river in Argentina in the north down to the Strait of Magellan in the south. They dressed in the skins of the Guanaco Llamas as long coats - very fashionable! - and lived in tents of Guanaco called Kau, rather like Native Americans with Buffalo. They took to horses when the Spanish came and were remarkable horsemen. What they could not withstand or survive was the intrusion of the Catholic missionaries who gave them every filthy disease and wretched civilising habit known to man. The last pure Tehuelches person, a woman of 93, died in Punta Arenas in 1982."

As you can see, this clarification on Ralph's part is distinctly bewildering. On the one hand he excoriates the genocidal missionaries, while on the other he appears to be embracing not simply the magical realm of the Tehuelches but even taking up residence there as some kind of tutelary spirit in his own right. This hypothesis is confirmed by the scrawl on the reverse of Ralph's photograph of Elal: "It's like South America and it's a piece of driftwood. I gave it as an offering to a Chilean Indian who thought I am a GOD!" Note the "am" here, suggesting that if Ralph is a god he is immanent rather than imminent.

While I was pondering this disturbing development, further clarification came: "The piece of wood I found simply took the role of the good spirit. Whatever I embellished simply came to mind and I often think it was meant to be known just like that. I like to think that the 'message' was there to be found. Unfortunately, it found me and I am prone to romanticise - so are you, and don't try to deny it!!" Humph! While delighted that my collaborator has pulled back from the brink of auto-messianism, I must still take issue with him. Far from inventing shoe spirits and giving them to Chilean Indians, I've had profound difficulty in even getting my shoes on all month - let alone polishing them. Still, on the back of a second snap of Elal, Ralph had scrawled: "I must finally find the llamas fucking for your interest." That's more like it - watch this space.