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The young gypsy took his place in the middle of the circle, which the previous performers had left vacant. His long, copper-tanned fingers began thrumming his guitar. The prelude continued for some time and the shouts, clapping of hands and stamping of feet worked his audience up to a state of rhythmic excitement. Suddenly, in a convulsive movement, his features contracted into a mask of agony. He closed his eyes and lifted one hand to his forehead as he broke into a long, tragic high-pitched cry – ‘Aye … Aye … Aye … Ayeeeeee!’ He repeated this lament a few times against the frenzied accompaniment of his guitar, the open strings of which he played with the other hand. Then he began singing in a deep masculine voice as if telling the world of his sorrows and misfortune. He sang in Caló, the language of the gypsies, which Luz did not understand. Despite the tension of feeling in the full, vigorous notes, he sang with an air of dignity that the young woman had never witnessed before and she had listened to many Flamenco singers in the clubs of Cádiz.

Like the rest of the audience Luz stood breathless, spellbound, stirred to her innermost fibres. Tears in her eyes; the music awakened a fierce impulse that sent her heart hammering. He sang one song after the other, seemingly oblivious to his audience and of anything save the notes, which formed themselves in the air before him as if independent of his body. Some of the songs were passionate, heart-wrenching ballads about faithless or separated lovers, unending longing, death, prison and revenge, which he appeared to be improvising. Those few songs in Caló remained frustratingly mysterious to Luz but the words of his closing song she understood, though she found them strange. He sang in a kind of trance, as if reaching deep down into his soul to uproot the pain, drawing out the final notes in a prolonged, descending strain, with seemingly never-ending turns and tremolos. It was a haunting sound, so poignant Luz had great difficulty in controlling her urge to reach out to him.

This is an excerpt from my latest novel, Masquerade, and it brings forth an important theme in the book: the music of the gitanos – gypsies – of Andalucía. Since I first visited Andalucía as a young woman I have been entranced by songs such as these, and none more so than those performed by the queen of Flamenco, Pastora Pavón Cruz.

Here is a glimpse of her musicality:

So beautiful and moving, don’t you think?

Pastora was born in the Alameda de Hércules in Seville way back in 1890 with music in her blood. Her siblings and her aunt were very involved in the Flamenco scene, and Pastora made her debut at the Seville Fair aged just eight (when her brother got inebriated and she had to replace him on stage!). Her family was impoverished, and so Pastora sang for their supper in Seville, and then in Madrid and Bilbao, in cafes dedicated to showcasing singers.

Early on, Pastora acquired a new name: La Niña de los Peines. It means ‘The Girl of the Combs’, and was inspired by lines she sang referring to her hair combs. Although she never loved the name herself, it stuck and that is how she is remembered to this day, along with two other names: the Empress of Cante Flamenco, and The Fierce, which was what the great Flamenco singer Chacón called her.

Pastora built a very inspiring career in Flamenco. In 1922 she was one of several professional performers invited to sing at the Concurso de Cante Jondo, a festival that went along to promoting and reimagining Flamenco. Federico García Lorca, director and poet, later said of her: ‘This woman’s voice is exceptional. It breaks the moulds of all singing schools, as much as she breaks the moulds of any built music.’

Through her long career, Pastora sang with many of the greatest Flamenco artists of her time, and she married one, Pepe Pinto. She died in 1969, and has been revered ever since as the most iconic and influential Flamenco singer of the 20th century – a ‘sombre, agonizing angel, who surpassed all measure, who embraced all emotions’ (Álvarez Caballero) and ‘the incarnation of flamenco singing, as Bach was of music’ (Ricardo Molina).

While writing the gitano scenes in Masquerade, I often played the following CD in the background. I had to work hard to concentrate on my writing, though, because Pastora’s singing is so arresting! I pictured my gypsy queen Marujita sounding like an older Pastora, with a wonderful richness and huskiness of tone.

La Nina CD art

Today I’m inviting you to take a musical interlude, and step back in time with a version of ‘This Masquerade’ by the Carpenters, which dates to the era of my novel Masquerade.

It’s such a haunting and melancholic song; I thought of it while writing my new novel – of Luz lost in a world of masquerade.

Searching but not finding
Understanding anywhere
We’re lost in this masquerade

When I was a little girl, nothing was more exciting than a trip to the theatre. Dressing up in my Sunday best, travelling across town with my parents, gazing up at the architecture of the theatre, mingling with the crowds, taking my seat and then… the lights, the music, the spectacle. Encore! To this day, I love the theatre, that place where all is sensational and romantic and breathtakingly dramatic.

I love plays. I love musicals. I love ballets. I really love operas. Carmen is one of the most well known in the world, of course, but it is genuinely one of my favourites also. In fact, it was one of my inspirations for my novel Indiscretion.

First, a little about the opera. The story is set in Seville and tells of a soldier, Don José, who falls in love with a gypsy, Carmen. She is so seductive that José leaves his sweetheart and deserts the army in order to be with her – only for Carmen to scorn him and declare her love for a toreador, Escamillo. In a jealous rage, as Escamillo conquers the arena, José stabs Carmen: one of the most powerful theatrical death scenes of all time.

Carmen was composed by Frenchman Georges Bizet back in the 1870s, based on a novella by Prosper Mérimée. It was not initially well received; the immorality and murder and sensuality were controversial for a stage show at the time, and Bizet did not live to see it be acclaimed. Only once it began to find audiences outside of Paris, where it was debuted, did the opera build a reputation, so that by the early 1900s people all over Europe were humming the ‘Toreador Song’.

For me, what stands out in Carmen is the passion and stark emotion in every line of dialogue and every verse of song. Carmen’s song is her weapon of seduction, from her habanera on how love is untameable…

… to her seguidilla about dancing with her lover. Carmen is the perfect tragic heroine: beautiful, alluring and yet cruel, as fatally flawed as naive Don José, driven mad by his possessive love for her so that he descends from honourable soldier to vagabond to, ultimately, murderer. Each of the characters so aptly characterises elements of the Spanish spirit; although the opera is in French, there is no escaping the very Spanish flavour when you watch it.

I have watched Carmen many times, on stage and on this DVD version, which stars Placido Domingo, Julia Migenes, Faith Esham and Ruggero Raimondi, and was filmed on location so has an amazing backdrop:


Watching Carmen and listening to the opera on CD were the perfect activities to get me in the mood for writing my novel Indiscretion. The book is set in Spain, in the same area as the story of Carmen takes place ­– indeed, Salvador and Alexandra spend a day in the city of Seville. Indiscretion also includes a swaggering toreador, and a stunning, seductive gypsy girl with a manipulative streak; these are the characters who would wreak tragedy on the hero and heroine and their blossoming love. There the similarity in setting and characterisation ends, but I hope that I have infused in Indiscretion something of the stirring passion and intrigue and edge-of-the-seat drama that is to be found in Carmen. I so love gripping, emotional stories!

If you have not seen Carmen, I recommend the DVD. But if you can see the opera live, so much the better. For those in the UK, Carmen will run from 19 October to 30 November of this year at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. The Royal Opera promises to ‘capture the sultry heat of the Spanish sun, while ranks of soldiers, crowds of peasants, gypsies and bullfighters bring 19th-century Seville to life’. More details are available at http://www.roh.org.uk/productions/carmen-by-francesca-zambello.



Recently on this blog I wrote about books as a legacy, reflecting on the story of a writer who realised after his mother’s death how important her books were for him and the generations of his family to come (‘Passing on books’). With this concept in mind, have you heard of the Future Library project?

It’s the brainchild of Scottish artist Katie Paterson, who explains on her website:

A forest has been planted in Norway, which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed in one hundred years time. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unpublished, until 2114.

The texts will be held in a specially designed room in the New Public Deichmanske Library, Oslo. Tending the forest and ensuring its preservation for the 100-year duration of the artwork finds a conceptual counterpoint in the invitation extended to each writer: to conceive and produce a work in the hopes of finding a receptive reader in an unknown future.

The following film offers more detail on the project.

Future Library, Katie Paterson from Katie Paterson on Vimeo.

Each year, a panel of literary experts and the artist, for as long as she is alive, will pick an outstanding writer for the project. The writer has freedom to write how and what s/he chooses, while reflecting ‘something of this moment in time, so when future readers open the book, they will have some kind of reflection of how we were living in this moment’.

This week, highly respected writer Man Booker prize winner Margaret Atwood was the first to contribute to the Future Library. After a brief ceremony, she handed over a manuscript of special archival paper, which has now been sealed by the library for publication in a century. Other than the book’s title, Scribbler Moon, Margaret will share nothing of the work. She has, however, spoken of her enthusiasm for the project. She told the Guardian:

‘It is the kind of thing you either immediately say yes or no to. You don’t think about it for very long… I think it goes right back to that phase of our childhood when we used to bury little things in the backyard, hoping that someone would dig them up, long in the future, and say, “How interesting, this rusty old piece of tin, this little sack of marbles is. I wonder who put it there?”’

The project has opened the door to speculation on what the world will look like when these ‘the messages in the bottle’ are published in 100 years. Language will have changed; Margaret suggests a paleo-anthropologist may need to translate her work. Will printing even be possible? In case not, the library contains a printing press to make sure those in charge in 2114 can print the books on paper.

For literature, this is an important and far-reaching project. Imagine: some of the contributors have not even been born yet. Imagine: all of the readers of the 100 books have not even been born yet!

For me, there is something beautiful about the legacy – about giving a creative work to your children’s children’s children, and not needing any recognition for it in the now; about having such a sense of hope and faith in the future of humanity that you’ll make a gift in this way. In a culture of ‘I want it now’, this is wonderfully maverick – and I can understand why Katie has said, ‘It’s very exciting as an artist.’

As for the writers involved, it is amazing that they are prepared to toil so hard for a work for which they will receive no recognition and acclaim ­– amazing and liberating. As Margaret explained: ‘What a pleasure. You don’t have to be around for the part when if it’s a good review the publisher takes credit for it and if it’s a bad review it’s all your fault.’

I wonder which of their works the writers involved in this project will ultimately feel the most for – the most pride and pleasure: those they (to coin Churchill) ‘flung out to the public’, or those they quietly put away as a legacy for future readers…

Did you watch the video of JK Rowling’s 2008 speech at Harvard University?

I found her words very poignant, especially such points on imagination and empathy as:

  • “We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.”
  • “Many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are.”

Without remotely attempting to ‘sell’ reading, she does: we should all be reading, and thinking, and imagining, and empathising. She also makes some important points on failure that will resonate with anyone.

This month Little Brown are releasing a book edition of the speech, entitled Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination. All proceeds will go to Lumos, a charity for disadvantaged children founded by Rowling, and to a financial aid programme at Harvard. If you’re looking for some inspiration, it’s worth a read.

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