Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting, ‘Las Meninas’
Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting, ‘Las Meninas’ © The Gallery Collection/Corbis

Everything is Happening: Journey into a Painting, by Michael Jacobs, Granta, RRP£15.99, 240 pages

Ever tried iguana eggs? No, I thought not. Luckily for us Michael Jacobs did, and reported that the tiny things tasted “of bitter cod’s roe with a texture of sand”. They were a must, he was told, for anyone like himself about to travel up the Magdalena river, Gabriel García Márquez’s fateful stream. Jacobs was expecting, as he wrote in The Robber of Memories, his book about the journey, that the eggs would have been laid, complete with yolk. But the practice in the Colombian town of Mompox was to slit open the iguanas, remove the eggs in utero and throw the rest away. “No one along the Magdalena eats iguana meat,” he was told emphatically. Next day, the progress of his canoe was monitored by swarms of the creatures “who slithered in and out of the water, darting at me what I was convinced were hostile glances. The knowledge that I had condoned their pointless killing weighed on me, and I sensed that this environment I had violated would eventually demand its revenge.”

The passage is classic Jacobs: fretful, vivid, sweetly self-mocking, loaded with portent. Food features prominently in his work and, since his mission in life, cut short in January 2014 by renal cancer, was to try anything offered by anyone, how could he turn down the sweetened jelly made from bull penis by one of the kindlier Farc guerrillas who had captured him, or the appetiser of grilled guinea pig innards served with popcorn and washed down with a nice glass of rodent blood? Jacobs did have some trouble in Timbuktu when the plat du jour was rotting fish cured in cow’s dung. His queasiness was as nothing, though, compared with the disgust of his hosts when they saw Jacobs drink his instant coffee without sugar.

Jacobs, one of the great non-fiction writers of this and the last century, is usually found shelved under “travel writing”, which is the truth but certainly not the whole truth, any more than it adequately describes the books of Bruce Chatwin or Patrick Leigh Fermor. Wherever they happened to go, the travel all these writers undertook was essentially a journey through themselves, and the reports they made drew their power from the geography of their memories. It was their imaginations that roamed as much as their boats or mules.

Memory, too, is the central strand of Jacobs’ last book, Everything is Happening, about his long obsession with Diego Velázquez’s elaborate mirror-game of truth and illusion, “Las Meninas” (The Maids of Honour). All too often, incomplete works are posthumously published as acts of friendship, piety or curiosity rather than for their intrinsic value. This is emphatically not the case with Everything is Happening. Ending as it does just with Jacobs on the verge of entering the royal palace in Madrid where Velázquez’s painting originally hung, the broken narrative is tantalising (though supplied with an excellent coda and introduction by his friend Ed Vulliamy) since one has the impression that, for all the oceans of print that have been expended on the notoriously enigmatic picture, Jacobs is about to give us a decisive revelation.

Among the many pleasures of the book is the way Jacobs sets about the pretensions of art history methodologies. To the dismay of his parents (his father a Jewish-Irish lawyer; mother an Italian actress), the youthful Jacobs wanted to be an artist but settled instead for an art history degree at the Courtauld Institute, under the guidance of Anthony Blunt, whose later exposure as a spy did not put off his former student in the least. What did alienate him at the time, though, were “my Courtauld peers who were then mainly focusing their highly praised minds on the generally prosaic task of reconstructing the historical and architectural context for which a work had been created”; worse still for him was the “pseudo-Marxist” new orthodoxy in which “people who might once have become connoisseurs in tweeds reinvented themselves as boiler-suited proselytisers dedicated to exposing in art revealing traces of the social conditions of a period”.

Ritual incantations of “discourses” and “the gaze” made Jacobs feel ill. When a senior scholar concluded that “Las Meninas” was, in essence, all about Velázquez’s long struggle to win recognition as a noble, Jacobs wickedly notices a photograph of the art historian “standing next to the present Spanish king and queen, looking like a Spanish grandee of old . . . which was perhaps what he really meant when he wrote that all those who try to interpret ‘Las Meninas’ are only doing so in the hope that something of the artist’s genius will rub off on them”.

None of this was for Jacobs; nor formal art history itself, which he abandoned to lead the life of the wandering writer and above all for total immersion in the Hispanic world, his sovereign passion. Through the years, he stayed unrepentantly committed to what he calls the “childlike illusion that in studying a work of art I would be following a detective trail that might lead to some ultimate illumination”. This little book is the case history of a last journey down that trail; back to his school days at Westminster where, even with better exam results, he felt he would have been excluded from the scholars’ table by his “non-Protestant blood”, and to his epiphany upon reading a book on Velázquez by Robert “Bob” Stevenson, the cousin of Robert Louis, which asked that the experimental progress of techniques (both optical and textural) be taken seriously as an organising principle of analysis.

Writer Michael Jacobs
Michael Jacobs © Dan Phillips/Writer Pictures

Jacobs was reproached by a Spanish friend for “always turning your life into a novel” and in this one he features as the sleuth, initially triggered in a Holmesian moment by a schoolmate (whom he had disliked) resettled in Madrid, who sent him a jigsaw puzzle of “Las Meninas”. “Nothing in life happens by chance alone” was a Jacobsian truism, so he follows his memory path, first to the school trip during which he had pontificated before the unimpressed schoolmate; then to a second journey made on his own, seen off by his anxious mother with bags of tuna sandwiches, when he falls irreversibly in love with Spain, a passion somehow concentrated in the inexhaustible richness of the painting in which his old “dithery” lecturer at the Courtauld had said: “Nothing is happening, but in a sense everything is happening.”

Its countless ambiguities and teases; its play on what is seen and what is reflected became for Jacobs a game of life as well as art. What do we see in the mirror image at the back of the room? The king and queen to be sure, but as a reflection of their painted version on the canvas hidden from us or of their physical presence, standing in the position outside the painting occupied by ourselves as we look at it? Are the maids, the dwarf and the midget, the elusive figure framed in the doorway and the Infanta Margarita looking at us or at royal visitors who have stopped by? What is real and what illusion?

The romance continues; the mystery thickens. A meeting is arranged with the sometime schoolmate who is suffering, he is told, from “a wasting disease”; but he fails to show. Jacobs talks to the deputy director of the Prado, Gabriele Finaldi (the incoming director of London’s National Gallery), who speaks about frames and the changing history of its installation; other Madrileños — all captured with Jacobs’ brilliant feel for character — talk to him about the fate of the painting during the Spanish civil war. But as usual, the story twists and turns back on Jacobs: the boyish humanity and exuberance, his deep-rooted, optimistic conviction that by engaging with others uninhibitedly he would discover himself; the happy carousing and uncoordinated dancing; the wide-eyed openness to wonder; his altogether un-English rush of enthusiasm — is all on show in the book as he stands again before the frozen conundrum of the painting.

Jacobs never saw a book contract he didn’t like enough to sign, so in the end there were 30 of them but, since none made him much money, he muddled through by taking millionaire tourists around Spain. Some of the volumes, such as his exhaustive guide to Andalucía, rise far above the guide book genre. His history of the Alhambra is especially brilliant when he revisits the Alhambrist romantics — Washington Irving, Théophile Gautier and Alexandre Dumas, and Owen Jones, who illuminated the mathematical matrix from which the decoration flowered and later recreated the palace’s Courtyard of the Lions in the Great Exhibition of 1851.

The great work, though, is The Robber of Memories, worthy of Márquez who triggered the adventure by gripping Jacobs’ wrist tightly at a fancy party in Cartagena and exclaiming that he remembered “everything about the river, absolutely everything . . . the caimans, the manatees . . . ” Jacobs listened to people who spoke of going upriver as if it were a way to defeat time, to return to a place as yet uncontaminated by pollution and violence. The robber of memories, he discovers, is not some trope of magical realism but believed to be an actual person who rides at night to steal them.

The book then weaves together three threads of recollection. There is his actual journey upstream on the Catalina, hauling two enormous cylindrical tanks; past places called Big Fanny, The Snorer, Such is Life and Sausages; encountering the inventor of the Biblioburro, a travelling library pulled by donkeys called Alpha and Beto; surviving endless heavy lunches invariably of rice, plantain and mystery meat (lunch at 10, supper at 4.30); while the bloated carcases of pigs float by, pecked at by vultures. The Afro-Caribbean captain is called Diomidio, so fleshy that his eyes disappear into the cushions of his cheeks: “At times he reminded me of an orchestra conductor . . . so fat he could barely move but managing to keep going by taking repeated rests on a high stool and getting up only in moments of significantly increased tempo or to receive the applause of the audience.”

At the same time, the memory of his mother, confined to a nursing home, is being stolen from her. While he is drifting past banks of herons and egrets, Jacobs gets reports of her dementia, imagining him to be her husband. On the third stream of time the discovery of a diary kept by his father while he was serving in military intelligence in Italy during the war reveals to him all the passions kept entirely buttoned up through the years of family life. His father, too, had slipped into Alzheimer’s and, towards the end of his own journey, Jacobs discovers to his horror a peculiar strain of the disease afflicting a district of the upper river, where 40-year-olds lie in bed prematurely senescent, lost to the world.

Terrors close in as he moves towards the jungle-hidden source of the Magdalena. But an encounter with the Farc turns into farce when their deputy commander tells Jacobs that he had been captured so that he might spread the word that the organisation was committed to improving tourism, shockingly neglected by the government. Mountain trails would be widened. A visitors’ centre would be opened. The book gets darker and scarier as it moves to its climax but for Jacobs the most daunting prospect was “the uphill slog” of old age, accumulating difficulties and lingering fears leading to “an ultimate nothingness”. It is not much consolation for his loss that he was spared this long trudge. But at least through his luminous prose, we will not have our own memories of this imperishably magnificent writer stolen from us.

Simon Schama is an FT contributing editor

Photographs: The Gallery Collection/Corbis; Dan Phillips/Writer Pictures

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