His childhood and adolescence are connected with Ukraine, his work with the Prague office of Radio Liberty, his home with Germany and Britain, his poetry and prose with the Russian language. Poet, writer and journalist Igor Pomerantsev talks to Your City about how he perceives Barcelona, a city at a crossroads of cultures – how it sounds, tastes, feels
– You’ve been to Barcelona more than once, what brought you here this time?
I came to give a reading of my poetry and prose, and while I was here I took the opportuniy to record half a dozen Barcelonians, mainly ‘new’, Russian-speaking Barcelonians, for my radio programme Over The Barriers. People think of a radio interview as a lightweight genre, but if you have an interesting interviewee you begin to feel like a sociologist and allow yourself to make some generalisations. And I noticed that Barcelona, the Mediterranean, is of course a culture of wine. Those Russians and Ukrainians who had any kind of connection with wine at home feel more natural here. But northeners, who grew up in a vodka culture, find it harder to adapt.
– As a connoisseur of wine, as author of the book Dry Red, how do you feel here?
I have a British passport, so I’m used to pounds, inches and shillings. When I go to America, I get used to degrees Fahrenheit, and then I come back to Centigrade. But for me wine, and the borders of wine, are a very important point of reference. There are areas where the vine grows and there are soils where it yields to potatoes, wheat or beet. I feel at home where the grape grows. So, Barcelona is ready to hear a declaration of love and is ready to share this love with people who don’t find the culture of wine alien.
– No doubt you meet this city as old friends?
You develop different relationships with cities. There are cities where you will always be a stranger. And there are the cities where the cemeteries hold your loved ones. For example, I have an intimate relationship with Chernovtsy, because my parents, my grandmother, my aunts are buried there, and this connection is deep, approximately two metres. I also feel close to cities where I wrote something. I first came to Barcelona when I was comparatively young, in my thirties. I wrote poetry and prose, experienced the little joys of authorship. After all, writing, especially poetry, is an intimate experience. Which means that Barcelona has a place in my emotional world. You can find its fingerprints in my books. And this is not a criminal dossier, it’s the dossier of my sensory life. So I am partial to Barcelona. It’s a complex, intimate relationship. And it’s not an indiscriminately happy one. When you look at a city you love close to, you begin to notice the cracks, the mould on the walls, the mourning under the finger nails. I think intimacy embraces both low and high, close up and distance.
– If you were asked to create a sound map of the city, what would it be like?
Actually, a sound map has already been created by other people. There’s a small group of outstanding Catalonian radio producers involved in Ars Acustica, the art of sound. They took part in a cycle of programmes Voices of World Cities, and the Barcelona project was one of the best. I included excerpts in one of my own Over The Barriers programmes. The acoustic image of Barcelona is insprirational, at least for me as a person sensitive to sound (in that sense dolphins and bats are my allies). So, I, the dolphins and the bats like very much the sibilant consonants of breaking waves, the whispers and shouts of the city streets and squares, the fragile ripples of children’s voices and the sinister coo of the pigeons.
– All the same, let’s suppose you had taken part in that project, what would be the dominant voice or sound?
I would look out to sea and record everything connected with the sea. And in the night I’d record Barcelona dreaming, the way it mutters in Arabic, ancient Jewish, Spanish, Catalonian. I’d record these ‘dream mutterings’ in the Gothic quarters. You know, mediaeval alchemists, astrologers, magicians had their own way of reading cities. They read them with their feet, walking the streets, because every cobble stone says something, remembers something. I love that kind of anthropomorphic attitude to that part of the natural world which gives no appearance of life. For the city is not just a heap of stones, asphalt, cement, concrete, glass. The city is animated by human breath, voices, touch. Barcelona, like every serious city, has its own body, hands, feet, eyes, ears, its shouts, whispers, crashes, musical themes and grace notes ‘pitting its air’, to quote Pasternak.
– But if we speak of an anthropomorphic image of Barcelona, how do you see it?
I once wrote a story in which my hero is sitting on a hillock and touches moss, green, soft moss. And a line of verse comes into his head, ‘mine is leather, yours is velvet’. Barcelona is velvet for me. I touch it and I remember green, fresh moss. It’s a circle of tactile associations. I have a love affair with Barcelona. There are masculine, virile cities, and I couldn’t have a love affair with them. Friendship, at best. But with Barcelona I have an affair, love.
– They say that the basis of any sympathy and even love, is childhood experience, which finds resonance for us in something else. What experience from your childhood spent in Chernovtsy resonates here in Barcelona?
I call Chernovtsy a ‘slipstream of tongues’. From childhood it was natural for me to hear several different languages, to switch on the radio at home and hear Romanian, Ukrainian, Russian. It was a natural linguistic polyphony. In this sense there are parallels with Barcelona, of course. It also stands on a crossroads of cultures: Spanish, Catalonian, the South of France to an extent, Provence, Italy. I think that this ‘slipstream of tongues’ is culture. From the start, from childhood you are immunised against monotony,homogeny. There are many such crossroads, slipstreams in Europe.
– And what music do you associate with Barcelona?
Soon I will be going back to Prague, to my radio station, Radio Liberty, going back with my collection of voices, and I’m already thinking what music to use in my program. I discovered urban folk, found distinctive rock, a group called the Barcelona Klezmer Orchestra, met a Catalonian singer who sings in Russian. She gave me her album. But all the same, the musical leitmotif running through Barcelona is the music of the winds. You hear it on the shore, in the port. Mediterranean breezes breathe on this city, they breathe differently at different times of the year. If I was a composer, I would weave the music of Barcelona from their voices.
Igor Pomerantsev was born in 1948 in Saratov, and grew up in the region east of Lake Baikal and Chernovtsy. In 1978 he emigrated to Germany and received British citizenship the same year. His first experience working for radio came at the BBC Russian Service in the 1980’s. Today he is well known as the long-time host of Over The Barriers on Radio Liberty. Among his guests on the programme were the poet Joseph Brodsky, the translator Dmitry Nabokov, the philosopher Alexander Pyatigorsky, the writer Lawrence Durrell, the opera singer Cecilia Bartoli and many others. And anyone who follows contemporary Russian poetry and prose naturally knows Pomerantsev as an inimitable essayist and poet. His latest book of poetry, Death in the Best Sense of the Word, came out in 2015.