Translation of an article that appeared in El País on 14th July last year, when we were in Madrid: I’ve not quite spent the whole year translating it, but just about! Starting with the title, any Spanish speakers will recognise I’ve opted for style over literality in the translation. You can read the original here.
Photos courtesy of my friend and colleague Manicpopthrills, who’s just back from Canada.
Thanks as always to my utterly wonderful Spanish teacher, Ana Maria Duffy, for her help with the translation. The infelicities are all mine.
It’s difficult to imagine that anything, beyond the ding of the paper boy’s bell, changes the Pax Americana that reigns in the gentle slopes of Westmount. Leonard Cohen, who died a year past November, was born here in 1934 amongst anglified houses and perfect flowerbeds; in a city set apart, in a minority set apart. Westmount is a Jewish quarter in Catholic Montreal, an Anglophone enclave in a city where above all else French is spoken; a wealthy pool surrounded by difficulties of financial and other sorts.
By the side of the St Lawrence
When Leonard was 8 years old, the most vibrant avenue in the city, St-Laurent, caught alight with an anti-Jewish gathering. In full cry, the far right had chosen the street that separates the French-speaking quarters from the English, to accuse the Jewish shopkeepers of selling ‘indecent’ clothing to girls, as if, instead of the beatific Montreal, they were in sacrilegious New York.
The demonstration ended with smashing of shop windows. Meanwhile, in his privileged redoubt, Leonard, a clothes shop owner’s son, was reading his Spiderman comics peacefully. In Westmount, the sole contact with the Catholic, French, population which flows like lava round it on all sides, were the Quebecois women who arrived, daily, to work as domestics.
But this security didn’t last long. At 9 years old, he lost his father. And it’s possible that, in the garden of his then house at 599 Belmont Avenue, one of his ties still lies buried. When he heard of the death, Leonard took a tie from the wardrobe, opened it, and put a piece of paper inside it he had written on. Then he buried it beneath the snow.
This ritual, in changing form, would repeat itself in the future with one constant: writing as liberation from sadness. And Westmount would always be the place where a tie was buried beneath the snow.
The rest of the world awaited, and close to home gave him his first opportunities. As an adolescent he reached out into his city as far as St-Catherine (the street map of Montreal is very saintly), the seat of night life, jazz, cafés with marble topped tables, the underworld, and men who wear raincoats even in summer. The far-right fanatics were right only in one thing: the city, much to their chagrin, is the Canadian New York, the difference being that the Montrealese give three kisses when greeting each other.
Montreal by night
Today, St Catherine Street has completely lost the clandestine air it had in Cohen’s youth, and stirs with the spirit of businesses, and the multiple points of entry to the Subterranean City: kilometres of shops beneath the surface, taking refuge from the 30 below zero temperatures which can hit in winter.
In an old bookshop, you can find a translation of the Gacela del Mercado Matutino by Garcia Lorca, and coming across a reference to Arco de Elvira de Granada, you find yourself for the first time in Andalucía.
After a while, you buy yourself a second hand guitar. At the back of your house, on a tennis court on Murray Hill Park, you get to know a Spanish lad surrounded by girls – the mechanism of seduction, the seduction itself, always urged upon Cohen – the strumming of a guitar.
In broken French, Leonard asked him for lessons. The Spanish boy only turned up three times to Cohen’s home, but it was enough to teach him 6 flamenco melodies. On the fourth the teacher failed to show, and when Leonard called at his pensión to find out what happened to him, the landlord told him he had committed suicide.
‘Those six tunes … have been the basis of all my songs and all my music,’ he confessed, moved, on collecting a prize in Asturias in 2011.
His world grew bigger when he entered McGill University, the main academic destination for English speakers. It coincided with the climax of the conflict between the two communities. Cohen began to be known as a poet, but expressed himself in a language that, for the majority of his countrymen, is foreign. Refusing to speak French, in that period one could hear in the shops ‘speak white!’ (also expressed as ‘speak Christian!’) Today, in the businesses that locate on the ancient frontiers between languages, you can hear a crossbred ‘Bonjour hi!’ greeting customers without distinction.
The politics of language underlies the smallest public message in Montreal life. French is the only official language of Quebec since 1977, but Montreal, the most populous city in the region, is a bilingual universe, with two universities and various hospitals English-speaking. Even so, on notices, English will appear in second place and in appreciably smaller lettering.
Although some of his lyrics, his own or adopted, exude political flavours (The Partisan, Democracy, First We Take Manhattan) Cohen always skirted around the political conflict between communities that has shaken Quebecois life during the last few decades, including the toughest years, of attacks by the Quebec Liberation Front. When, at the end of the Seventies, a Francophone journalist pressed him to pronounce on why he hadn’t supported the region’s struggle for independence, he replied with some sharpness: ‘I’m for the Free State of Montreal. I don’t live in a country, I live in a neighbourhood, in a universe completely set apart from the others. I’m neither Canadian nor Quebecois. I am, and always will be, from Montreal.’
His political positions were always, like his dress sense, elegant. He crossed all fashions on tip toe because he always knew that although they had their moment in the sun, at some point they would reach the shade.
His music doesn’t lay claim to the city, except in the sense of the shadow it casts in the resonances of litanies and choirs of his synagogue. He loved Montreal, and yet also hated it, and, in either case, as he confessed in his early twenties, he had to return to it now and again to, as he put it, renew his neurotic allegiances.
Even so, one of his most famous songs deals with a subtle journey; and it is Suzanne (Suzanne Verdal, a platonic relationship) who leads him by the hand to her ‘place by the river.’ She goes dressed in the ‘rags and feathers,’ of the Salvation Army store in Notre-Dame, near the Cathedral. It’s Suzanne who offers him tea and oranges that come, all the way from China, to the port, long ago one of the most important entry points for trade and immigrants in North America.
The song mentions ‘our lady of the harbour,’ which in truth is Our Lady of Good Help, a 17th century church, built and rebuilt several times since, which served as a safe place of pilgrimage for Catholics alarmed by Iroquois aggression, and which also acted as a meeting place for the small community of anglophone Catholics. A sculpture of Christ, crowned, tops the church (on a solitary wooden tower, the song asserts) and turns its back on the faithful entering by the front door; he is turned instead towards the river, with arms spread, blessing the departing sailors.
The beatific Montreal
A walk around the area of Vieux-Port, the old port, offers the possibility of attending a Cirque du Soleil spectacle, in their permanent site in Quebec, or simply to enjoy the views, at the bottom of Jacques-Cartier, a majestic bridge, currently illuminated for Montreal’s 375th anniversary in 2017.
The whole of Montreal is a gift of the St Lawrence River, which splits Canada’s geography in a gigantic breach. The majority of Quebec’s inhabitants arrived across it, like the Cohens, fleeing the Russian pogroms. From the rest of the world, people got off the boats and travelled along the street above to found, at some point, their little Italy, their tiny slice of Greece, their piece of Portugal. In the Seventies, precisely in the ancient Jewish quarter reconquered by the Portuguese, Cohen staked his claim on a Montreal refuge from the harvest of his successes in the rest of the world. In front of the three storey house he built, the Portuguese park opens out, small and timid. A plaque and some tiles record the origins of its inhabitants. In the middle, a roofless kiosk serves as a refuge for musicians.
Following in Cohen’s footsteps in this Montreal that he never stopped leaving, but, with age, each time more sporadically, is as easy as imitating those of any other neighbourhood. You can buy bagels that, unlike those of New York, are smaller, malted, with honey and egg, and are therefore sweeter and more substantial. Leonard’s choice was the café-restaurant Bagel Etc. (St Laurent, 4320). For takeaway, it’s possible to get bagels direct in Fairmount Bagel (Fairmount Avenue, 74) not far away, and in St-Viateur Bagel (St Viateur 263).
For something to eat, treat yourself with a sandwich of delicious meat, smoked for days, which melts in the mouth when you sink your teeth in. There are many places to try a taste, but Cohen used to prefer Main Deli Steakhouse (St Laurent, 3864). A good alternative is Schwartz’s (St Laurent, 3895) where they keep, without any concession to interior design, the same atmosphere of years ago: bright frozen refreshments from previous decades; formica counters; veteran waiters threading conversations one with the other. For dinner, the musician would be seen at Moishe’s Steakhouse, an elegant, copper-toned, restaurant. Following the singer’s death, the back of the restaurant carries an enormous mural of his face and hat.
The area of Plateau de Montreal, joins alongside Vieux-Montreal, that flanks the river, the oldest story in his city, told in this enormous extension of reticular streets.
A few years ago the cost of living in these ancient immigrant quarters went up massively, and, in part, it’s the fault of the last wave of ‘foreigners:’ that of well-off French who are transforming it into the perfect destination for the bohemian bourgeois (the naïve bourgeois boheme).
Already, they have domesticated St Denis Street with their craft ice-cream parlours and clothes shops, decorated with perfectly interchangeable ‘vintage’ items. In parallel, the main street, St-Laurent, keeps running wild, the true main artery of this Montreal, shabbier but more surprising with its Hungarian, Jewish, and Spanish spice shops (La Librairie Espagnole, on St Laurent, 3811, that in spite of its name is a grocery) its coffee shops and old bookstores like Westcott Books (St Laurent, 4065) where the books are so numerous and disorganised that it’s impossible to discover, after spending a short time there, where the bookseller is.
In a city overflowing with music, there is no lack of clubs, like the Pink Room, that occupies the upper floor of the Centro Social Español de Montreal (St Laurent, 4848), a meeting point for the tiny expatriate Spanish community.
It’s agreeable to get away from the brouhaha of the main streets, and to go into the outskirts and discover old synagogues, coquettish brick and wood houses, and a sight as Montrealese as the boats crossing the Saint Lawrence: the orange traffic cones of public works. These are, for the summer streets, like Christmas decorations: they arrive with the heat, because in the winter cold the asphalt dissolves like sugar, and therefore the good weather is the chance to repair it quickly.
Wandering through the streets, the visitor will discover the epicentre of Montreal’s poetry in the tranquil St-Louis, which for years hosted one of the most active creative movements in the city. The writers’ gatherings seethed beneath ceilings of buildings so Victorian and gloomy that they would have delighted Tim Burton.
In his own way, Leonard Cohen had taken Manhattan, and then Berlin, but for all his dwellings round the world, at the end he only owned his main residence in Los Angeles, where he died, and the house on the Plateau. Always, a Westmount neighbour of his testified, he maintained his connections with his community of origin. Knowing perhaps that his end was approaching, he entrusted his synagogue’s choir, Shaar Hashomayin, to record with him the songs on his last album, You Want It Darker.
The cemetery on the outskirts is an appendix to Mont-Royal, a mountain of the dead invaded by lawn and headstones, with a roll-call of alphabets and surnames that forever displays the cosmopolitan nature of the city. Lost between solid blocks of marble with the family names recorded on them, the difficulty of finding Leonard’s tomb tells you that the Cohen name is everywhere. To the eternal fan’s good fortune, there is a trail to identify the clothes shop owner’s son.
Placed in the earth, in the trail there is a small painting of a hand’s breadth with a black bird sitting still on a cable, like that of his song Bird on a Wire.
A Cohen tribute, this time in Toronto.
All pics copyright Mike Melville
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