Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Thoughts on the Madeleine McCann case

Two days ago I went to Lagos, which is on the other side of the Algarve from where I live. There is a pleasant English-language bookshop there called The Owl Story, and I bought a small book, How the Algarve has Changed, by Brian J. Evans. It is an insightful and often funny account of the life that he and his family have lived in Portugal since buying their holiday home in 1984. Curiously enough, it was in that very year that my mother had built for her the house where I now live, and which has caused me as much unhappiness as the Evans family have had pleasure here.

There is a curious uniformity to the life of Portugal, despite its strong regional and local differences. The steep white towns with their red roofs all have vast numbers of identical cake-shops and restaurants serving what one guidebook calls "the joyfully humble national cuisine". Near the chaotic town-centres and elsewhere, there are always many patches of wild waste ground, the product of the endless inheritance disputes, breaking up the landscape of crumbling old buildings, spaghetti-junction roads and newly triumphant supermarkets.

Lagos, for instance, is very like Tavira, much nearer where I live, in the eastern Algarve. Both have a broad, lazy river with boats, a group of churches and forts amid ancient alleys, and a strong connection with the time of the Discoveries. Both are attractive places, which would be very quiet were it not for the animation provided by foreign tourists and residents. Both have very near them a place called Luz, Luz de Tavira and Luz de Lagos (also known as Praia da Luz, because there is a beach there). It is, of course. from the latter place that Madeleine McCann disappeared.

The life I live here is as quiet and relaxing as was the holiday of Kate and Gerry McCann before May 3rd 2007, and on that day and for some time afterwards I was in prison awaiting sentence for having tried to murder a Portuguese and could spare no thoughts for their loss. But, as the years have gone on, and especially since moving to this somnolent region, I have become obsessed with the story of Madeleine and the possibility that behind any large white house in the countryside where I walk, with its huge green gates topped with Golden spikes, lack of doorbell, and ferociously barking dogs, she might be living. If the people in these houses are rich enough, no one ever disturbs them. They come to their gates only if they wish.

If you ask anyone in Portugal what they think might have happened to Madeleine McCann, they will unanimously say they believe the parents to be guilty. But how could anyone believe this, I continually ask myself, looking at the stiff, anguished, desperately sincere faces of Kate and Gerry? Perhaps the Portuguese cannot interpret the body language of foreigners. More likely they are playing dumb. But even English people often believe the parents guilty. Do they realise how strong the chances are of being detected if you have committed a crime and then fall under the media spotlight? Were the McCanns experienced criminals? Did two well-paid doctors need to profit from the sale of their daughter? If they had found her dead, would they not have immediately sought help in their overwhelming sorrow?

The official Madeleine website says that the McCanns and their investigating team believe that Madeleine is no longer in Portugal. I would not be so sure. For a complex series of historical reasons, the social, political and legal system in Portugal, and even its system of personal relations, rely heavily on the regimentation and belittling of the individual. This is only superficially a Western-style democracy. It is not even like Spain. Portugal has no tradition of civil courage or love of liberty. There are no campaigning investigative journalists. All real power is in the hands of the lawyers, and their power rests on the universal belief among the citizens that justice is totally impossible in this country. The Portuguese language is totally unintelligible to outsiders. And the Portuguese are used to keeping their mouths shut. Three hundred people could know something vital here and not of them would speak a word. They would probably suffer a fatal accident if they went to the authorities about Madeleine McCann.

The police, who work on commission, are more interested in endlessly checking cars for minor infractions, or swooping down on English people playing Bingo, than in investigating anything important. All Portuguese have the utmost respect for people of property, unless they are foreigners, as in the case of the McCanns, when they are doubly resented on the grounds of affluence and being British. But a rich native person or family could hide a child here indefinitely, and particularly in the case of Madeleine McCann, because national pride hardly allows the Portuguese to tolerate any solution to the case in which they themselves might be to blame.

There are four places in Portugal called Luz.. The third is a small place in the Alentejo which has been covered by the Alqueva Dam and re-sited elsewhere, and the last is a former parish in the north-western suburbs of Lisbon, the site of the Benfica stadium, the Stadium of Light. They are named after (as far as I know, anyway - perhaps there is also a connection with the Bethel of the Old Testament - or Torah - which was previously called by the Canaanite or Aramaic word, Luz, which means "almond", -  the almond is a symbol of the Algarve) - but I repeat, these are named, as far as I, or anyone else, knows anyway, after churches dedicated to Our Lady of Light, Nossa Senhora da Luz.

She first appeared in about the early fifteenth century, the time of the Discoveries, and she has become a saint particularly venerated in the Portuguese-speaking world. Besides the places in Portugal called Luz, you also find this toponym in the Azores and Brazil. The main railway station in São Paulo is Luz. Also the whole coastline of the south west Iberian Peninsula that is washed by the Atlantic rather than the Mediterranean, the Algarve Coast and that of the adjoining and culturally related area of Spain, is sometimes known as the Costa da Luz (Costa de la Luz in Spanish), perhaps because of some connection with the Virgin Mary.

Could Madeleine have been taken, or ordered to be taken, by some person desperate for a child and suffering from a misplaced devotion to the Virgin? Or to Portuguese nationalism and anti-British feeling? Or, more remotely, to Jewish tradition?

But, of course, the symbolism of light is infinitely various. For instance, the main aesthetic feature of the Nuremberg rallies held between 1934 and 1938 was the so called Cathedral of Light, a dramatic arrangement of searchlights borrowed from the Luftwaffe, so that by this reasoning one could posit that people of Nazi antecedents had been involved in the kidnapping of Madeleine McCann.

Oddly enough the actual apparition of the Virgin is said to have taken place not at the place where the church is, but at a small village much nearer where I myself live, within walking distance in fact, an otherwise unremarkable place called Fonte Santa, which is a little inland and to the west of Altura, beyond the deathly quiet small town of Cacela Nova and north of the railway line.

If you cross this line going towards Pocinho, and go past some land and a cottage in the distance along a road called the Estrada do Monte Madeira which belongs to the family of the man I tried to murder, after a while you reach a fork in the road, and there is a turning towards Fonte Santa, and in the other direction a very small road, almost a track, goes towards Portela, Horta and the Torre dos Frades, a fine eighteenth-century mansion owned by a rich family, some of whose members I vaguely know.

Also, a little way along this road, to the north, along a track called the Estrada dos Pirinéus, there is another house of the eighteenth century, half-ruined and pink, and beyond that, to the north, in the area called Coutada, I see what must be just a farm, but which is all yellow and looks like a large, entirely deserted and heavily fortified modern compound, with high walls, barbed wire, security cameras, the lot, but silent, because this time there are no dogs.

And going beyond the Torre dos Frades to the east, just before you reach a small t-junction and an old-fashioned windmill on a height, exactly at the place called Horta, there is a long low white house that is lived in by someone I have made a friend, but whom perhaps I shall betray.

This unexpected small region fascinates me. And why? What really can lie here? In the café in Fonte Santa I am served in silence. They have never heard of the Virgin of Fonte Santa, or say they have not. Then I walk  towards the places I have mentioned. Cars drive past me at speed. The houses sizzle in the sun. The dogs bark and rush to the gates. If they come out, I have to stop. But in the real country roads I never see a soul.

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