“a memory of Arequipa that I will cherish” | Cees Nooteboom

“a memory of Arequipa that I will cherish” | Cees Nooteboom

Arequipa. You have read about it, so you knew where you were going. Airports are airports, somebody from the festival is waiting, during the ride he will fill your head with encyclopedic knowledge about Incas and colonial history, you share the car with a young woman from Granada, Spain, no clue whether she is a novelist or a poet. I recognize the landscapes from earlier trips to Bolivia, and more recently, a long ride through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile, bare, majestic, immensely old. And then you fall into Arequipa, it lies like a small ship under the shadow of immense volcanoes, and as soon as you enter the ship you notice that it is not small at all, it is wide, the buildings are low, except for those that the Spaniards have built 500 years ago. The city wide, the streets narrow and full of never stopping traffic, a million small taxis that will just let you cross, you have a feeling that you are all the time in mortal danger, until you realise that they are not going to run you over, the drivers make an almost imperceptible movement with their hands meaning that you can cross. I was warned bout the thin air but thought nothing of it, after all I had been in La Paz, Bolivia, which is much higher, but then I was much younger, now it hits me, a feeling of at the same time floating with my head above me, and my poor feet who have to drag me along.

So yesterday I had my first public interview, for Hay Joven, the young Arequipeños from the Catholic University of San Pablo. The interviewer is Christian Pastor Cervantes Bautista. The Spanish world has provided its authors with magnificent names.

After the interview he gives me two of his books. At home in Amsterdam I could start a library with all the books I have brought back from festivals. His questions are good, we talk about poetry, not an easy subject. He has read my book Luz en todas partes (Light Everywhere in the English Seagull edition). I remember that I gave him my definition of what poetry essentially is for me: speaking about general things, the things that concern everyone, in a highly personal matter, but I am surprised when during question time a young woman, sitting first row, asks a long question that I at first did not fully understand, but then quotes my own poems to me from her mobile phone. It was a moving experience, first I did not understand what she was saying – she was given a hand mike, I did not immediately catch her peruvian spanish, but then I recognised my own words: “if the days of the week have names, why not the minutes of the hour” and somehow the sight of her, bent over her mobile phone, and at the same time the audience sitting there still and listening, is a memory of Arequipa that I will cherish.

Cees Nooteboom is a Dutch novelist, poet, and journalist. He appeared at Hay Festival Arequipa 2017.