“Now let´s leave that city and begin talking about a certain country called Dagova. Whoever departs from that city I told you before could ride for twelve days between Levant and Greece. Nevertheless one won´t find any habitations because the towns people have left the plains for the mountains. There they live in fortresses out of fear of the wicked, the thieves, the bandits, and the armies. All of these cause such big damages and losses, that they provoke constant displacements of the people all throughout the land.” This is how Marco Polo expresses himself in the § 21 of his Book of Marvels: “Notice about the Great and Noble City of Balc.”
It´s the second half of the 13th century, and Marco Polo has just left Venice. He is barely seventeen years old. He travels together with his father and uncle, all of them anxious to see the remotest lands, willing to open routes where routes don´t exist, in search of dangerous and rustic lands, risking life in the intent. He has already tasted both sweet wines and bitter loaves; he has known the palace of the Great Khan and the huts of his poor subjects. He has seen valleys and cities that at the time had different names, names really enigmatic: Turkmenia, Valley of the Darkness, Rossia, Ciorcia¼
Together with present-day Turkey, Siberia, Russia or Manchuria, then bearing names so different and full of memories, the Venetian traveler has also visited other mysterious lands. Their names, still in use today, evoke the greatest glories of the past, such as Samarkand, the city of carpets and commerce and the imperial court of the Mighty Tamerlane. Its immortal fame continue to stir up a sudden wish to be there, among its magic carpets and its magnificence of the past. The Venetian traveler describes the place as full of the “most beautiful gardens” with “all the fruits that man can desire”.
Even today, Samarkand will not disappoint the traveler, for he will find there everything that appeals to him. Or, at least, he might find something which, because he wanted it so much, he will finally create it out of his own imagination.
Perhaps a city – or a landscape – is sort of a text that we already carry within ourselves every time we depart toward an unknown destiny, a text that has been imprinted by hot iron in our mind and that contains everything we were told that we could discover with our eyes. That´s why Columbus, upon arriving to the New World, believed he had finally reached the coasts of China, the Cathay that Marco Polo had described as being full of carpets, forbidden fruits, luxurious strangeness
Systematizing the world, reducing it, such would be the aspiration of any western traveler, as if each itinerary was the only necessary toll for taming the whole planet. Giving a name to a range of mountains, drawing them on a piece of paper… Such repeated maneuvers have obsessed our Western world since the beginnings of great adventure trips, finally establishing an order for the world´s systematization itself, so that nothing will be out of classification, even cataloguing mere conjectures or plants not yet discovered. So it was with Linné´s ambition in his Systema Naturæ, a botanical catalogue that appeared in 1735 and was designed to include all the species of the planet with which the Europeans might or might not be familiar. Certainly, it was a strategy to get rid of the anxiety generated by the unknown: scenting out the familiar in everything that was strange.
However, giving the world an order and naming its elements is an endless task. The Encyclopedia is the project condemned to not ever having an end, for in spite of many efforts, this infinite world will never be completely named. Instead, the West, imprisoned in its taxonomic obsession, will continue to confuse the lands in its absurd need to establish that all be identical to what is already known, such as adjusting each plant to a family or an order already divulged. In such a search for resemblance we do not see what is already there, but rather what should´ve already been. Columbus was looking for China, and China was what he found upon arriving in America.
Places are what we believe they are, and this is where the paradox arises, i.e. when one leaves for a trip in the hope of confirming the suspicion of the similar, believing that the world has to be similar to itself or, at least, similar to the stories we have been told about it. At any rate, adventurous trips, even those that seem to be manipulated tourist routes, do always reflect something about the fascination concerning the unclassifiable, even if landscapes are more and more cultural representations, including those that are uninhabited, provided such thing could exist at all. Even those landscapes deprived of human presence maintain some semblance of it through the implicit human eye behind a camera, or through the painter´s eye. The fact that somebody was there confersa status of habitability or, in another words, it contaminates those landscapes with an imprint called “we.”
Yes, “we” or rather our desire: we need it to be there. A China, mythical and unique, that will be Cathay for ever. And that China is the one that García Cano portrays in his landscapes, a China that is narrated as our imagination demands, as it was narrated to us so long ago that it had almost vanished in our imagination.
“Et je vis ce conte byzanthin / publié par les pluies / sur les fortes épaules de la montagne / dans l´alphabet fantasque de l´eucalyptus. / et de vrai / au nom du baobab et du palmier / de mon cœur Sénégal et of mon cœur d’îles / je saulai avec pureté l’eucalyptus / du fin fond scrupuleux de mon cœur végétal.” (Such is the beginning of Aimé Césaire´s “Ethiopia,” a poem belonging to Noria, a collection appeared in 1974 as a book, but first published ten years before on a special issue of Présence Africaine that celebrates the independence of the African nations).
Césaire, the great poet, wrote those verses in Martinique, his native country, with the purpose of praising a continent that, from the Caribbean perspective, is the mythic place of his roots: “I saw the byzantine history published by the rains.” His island is the territory of the crossroads par excellence: “My heart of Senegal and my heart of the island.” That space, because of its strange beauty, is comparable to Césaire´s strange scripture: “Belle comme ton écriture étrange,” i.e., the scripture that edits the history among the natural spaces and over the plants, “published by the rains/ in the strong shoulders of the mountains/ in the strange alphabet of the eucaliptus.”
Yet the poet, as the owner of a “green heart”, writes from the depths of that viscera of branches and leaves, while creating a new alphabet that has something of a magic altar for an improvised voodoo rite, making the readers face a conflict –or rather an appearance of conflict– arising from the mythical past and the imposed present.
Such is the conflict made patent by the Martinican poet, but so is the conflict each of us has to face when looking at the world and clumsily trying to determine which of the many realities should be counted as the reality itself.
Therefore, maybe such is the reason why García Cano´s landscape –as he proposes it– turns out to be so familiar, despite being something more dreamed that seen.
It would sufice with extending the hand and savoring the sweetness of those paradoxical fruits –freshness and poison–almost emerging from Marco Polo´s stories : “In those lands wine is made from dates and spices and is very good. When drunk by those not used to it, at the beginning it is like a real purge, giving you a bad time, but after, it won´t do you but good.”
It would sufice entering those landscapes existing in a secret land in order to experience a lot of sudden surprises. Lands of Cathay, for ever engraved in the powerful retinas of our imagination, always ready to incarnate our fantasy as we read any book of marvels! Marvel landscapes, as painted by García Cano, luminous and clear as dreams! Cathay landscapes– moons, dates and silver, red sun that shines briskly, very northwards– now so familiar! Lands apparently nearby, valleys like we had seen before, like those we would see as we pass by when driving a car.
But once again it is just an impression. The powerful gust of darkness has invaded the domestic landscape just as the vermillion light dies in the Cathay lands, then revealing themselves once more with something unreal, dreamlike, as in a trip of wonders, as the unresolved conflict between familiarity and exoticness represented by García Cano.
At the end, if the notion of the uninhabited landscape in his painting is something impossible, the ideas of a familiar landscape is something as fragile and ever changing as the clouds. Just a sudden storm, and the landscape we had contemplated from our window becomes another one, like a Valley of Darkness, like Cathay, any Cathay. Had you foreseen it?
Translation: Manuel García Castellón