In Tuning up at Dawn, Tomás Graves’s splendid book about his life in music in Deià and beyond, he describes driving the great Latin American writer Jorge Luis Borges from Deià to Palma in 1981.
Borges had lived in Valldemossa a few decades previously but he was in Deià to visit Tomás’s father Robert.
As Tomás writes ‘the chauffeured car provided by a local publisher had broken down in the village. A couple of poets at the bar recognized the great man and escorted him and his secretary Maria Kodema to Ca n’Alluny. At this time Robert had begun inhabiting a different dimension and was beyond recognizing even some of his own family. Since my father was being uncooperative and the Argentinian writer was blind, I had to help them find each other’s hand, a handshake described by Borges as “mystical”.’
After the two writers had met, Tomás ended up having to drive Borges back to his hotel in Palma. ‘During the half-hour ride he recited long passages of the epic poem Beowulf to me in fluent Anglo-Saxon – his passion – which was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.’
On the face of it, this is the kind of momentous but mildly surreal encounter that one associates with Deià and which Tomás describes so well. But there’s rather more to it than that, as I found out from him.
Deià and the Latin American literary connection
My trawling through Deià’s literary history has largely been confined to British and American writers. I am, I must confess, woefully ignorant of Latin American literature, apart from having read the obvious classics translated into English. So, I was grateful when Tomás suggested he tell me a little about the village’s Latin American connection.
The first Latin American writer to live in the area was, as Tomás put it, ‘the dean of them all’, the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario who lived in Valldemossa in 1913.
In the early 1950s, Nicaraguan poet-priest-politician Ernesto Cardenal, later Sandinista Minister of Culture and author of ‘La Hora Cera’ (Zero Hour) and ‘Prayer for Marilyn Monroe’, visited Valldemossa, following in Dario’s footsteps. Cardenal also came to Deià to talk about The White Goddess cult and its equivalent in Central America with Robert Graves.
Although the first person to publish Lorca outside of Spain lived in Deià in the 1930s, the story really begins with the arrival of the Salvadorean poet Claribel Alegria in 1969.
Claribel had been living in Paris where she was at the centre of a group of expatriate Latin American writers who had fled their various repressive regimes. She settled first in Palmanova but, after her daughters discovered Deià and raved about it, Claribel moved to the village.
Tomás became friends with Claribel’s son Erik, with whom he made music.
Once Claribel was installed in Deià, the Parisian circle of Latin American writers reconstituted itself here. Over time, all the greats would visit Claribel and her American husband Bud. These included Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Peruvian Mario Vargas Llosa who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010 and Argentinian Julio Cortázar.
Cortázar’s ex-wife, the writer and translator Aurora Bernandez, loved Deià so much she built a house in the village. Vargas Llosa described the house as ‘half hidden among the olive trees, cypresses, bougainvillea, lemon trees and hydrangeas…[where it is]…a great pleasure to feel, on the small terrace next to the torrent, the decline of the day, the evening breeze, and see the horn of the moon appear at the top of the hill.’
Vargas Llosa wrote a short story set in Llucalcari when he was staying in the hotel there. In the 1990s, he also wrote a piece for El Pais called ‘El Trompetista de Deià’.
Rum and the daily tertulia
According to Tomás, the literary scene around the Latin American writers had none of the stuffiness sometimes associated with British and American writers. ‘People would write all day and then, when they stopped, they’d head for Claribel and Bud’s house. Bud would open up the rum, the house would be open for business and that day’s tertulia would swing into gear’.
A tertulia is described as a ‘social gathering with literary and artistic overtones’. Which barely begins to do justice to what it must have been like when all those giants of Latin American literature got together and the rum began to flow.
Another sort of nexus
When Tomás told me about the Latin American connection I was delighted to discover yet another link between Deià and global literary history. I find it fascinating that such a remarkable literary circle existed in this tiny village at the same time as Graves lived and worked here without there being much overlap.
There are easily explainable historical reasons why the Latin American writers came to Mallorca, to Deià, but somehow that still doesn’t quite explain why it happened. Perhaps there is simply something about this place that attracts rootless, displaced people, wherever they come from, especially those who write, paint or make music, and it becomes a kind of sanctuary.