I have been busy with Goya for many years. When I was a child there was a paperback edition of his etchings, tucked small and unobtrusive in the bookcase in my mother's painting studio. The white spine of the book had been broken and partially torn away, exposing the intimacy of the stitches that bound the pages together.
On the cover a young woman sat on a low stool and challenged me or any other stranger with an unblinking gaze. Her long hair was being brushed by a smiling woman who was almost concealed in the shadows, while a third woman, terrifying and ancient and dressed in white robes, was crouched on the floor like a heap of pale stones, turning the beads on her rosary and the dangerous thoughts in her head.
The artist's signature, Fran de Goya, appeared underneath the picture, printed in a bright red that looked to me like fresh blood, the final 'a' twirling its tail downwards with the wild energy of a spinning top.
I used to steal this book from its shelf and take it quietly to my room. I would stare at the cover and try to understand what secret things had just happened and were about to happen here. I would open the pages at random so that the other dark and interrupted stories could play before my eyes. People becoming animals and animals becoming people. Masks to hide a face and faces turning into masks. Leathery old skin next to soft young skin and a thick blackness on all sides out of which monsters could emerge like rabbits pouring in an endless stream from a magician's hat. I was terrified by what I saw and yet I felt brave and somehow invincible because I had dared to look at it.
I have the same book lying on the table beside me now. It is more battered than before. The broken spine is held together by strips of Sellotape that have become dry and brittle. A blot of ink has fallen in a little explosion on the delicate fabric of the seated woman's dress. A corner of the cover is missing. But when I turn the pages the shivering intensity of those images is as sharp as ever and as vivid as memory itself.
So that is the first root of my connection with Goya. He seemed to belong to me like a member of my own family, distant, but sharing the same blood. For a long time he sat quietly in the back of my mind, stirring occasionally, but not making any demands until the day when I went to the Prado Museum in Madrid and entered the two big rooms that hold his so-called Black Paintings. It was the noise of them that struck me first: an echoing reverberation of savage human voices all competing with each other and demanding to be heard. It was only later that I began to notice the silences as well, the great pools of silence that were every bit as powerful as the noise.
The person standing next to me explained that Goya was deaf when he made these pictures; he was stone deaf from the age of forty-seven until he died at the age of eighty-two. And that was when I decided I wanted to find out more. I wanted to know what sort of world this deaf man had inhabited and how he had managed to live with the isolation of deafness and how it had changed the way he used his remaining senses.
Finding out about him has been an odd task. I can speak a sort of fluent pidgin Spanish, which means I can talk to people at length if they are patient with me, but even with the help of a big dictionary I can only struggle through a few pages of written Spanish, and so for the most part I have had to depend on what has been published in English or in French. But whenever I lost courage I would remind myself that even someone much more qualified than me could only try to piece together the narrative of Goya's life from the fragments of information that have survived him. The inventory from the sale of a house might prove when a particular painting was done; a drawing of a naked woman might suggest a love affair; a passing comment in a letter might indicate a political opinion. Or not. Goya leaves everyone free to make their own interpretation of the kind of person he was; what he believed in or did not believe in; who he loved and did not love; and whether he was tormented by savage nightmares that brought him close to madness or was simply a witness to a time in history when nightmares of one sort or another were being enacted on the streets and in the open countryside every day of the week.
In order to try to see what Goya saw, I have visited the places he knew well: the village of his childhood, the farmhouse where he stayed with the Duchess of Alba, the cities of Zaragoza, Madrid, Cadiz and, finally, Bordeaux. In my mind's eye I can now look across the landscapes that he once travelled through, I can walk the same streets, I can gaze out of the window of the house in which he was born and the house in which he died. Maybe that is another way of meeting a man who is dead.
In the telling of this story I have concentrated on what happened to Goya after the illness which made his world turn silent and forced him to depend upon his eyes for everything. Instead of illustrations of his drawings or paintings I have included some photographs of his etching plates. I wanted to use them because here you can see what he saw while he was working; you can see the huge energy of the man as he scratched and scraped and burnt the images he was creating on the surface of the metal.
Not long after I had started finding out about Goya, my mother became very ill and nothing could be done to hold back the process of her dying.
She stayed with me for a while in a room in which I had hung some of her smaller paintings on the walls and had put photographs from the story of her life along a shelf facing the bed.
She lay there very quietly. She was not in any pain, nor did she appear to be afraid of the many changes that were taking place as step by step her body ceased to work for her. She observed it all with a curious detachment. She made jokes and did her best to comfort the people she had been close to.
Over the years she and I had always swung between rage and love, between tenderness and resentment, but now for the first time we were able to talk about the complexity of the past without the confusion of blame. We talked a great deal during the days and the long nights.
She had already given me the paperback of the Goya etchings that I knew from my childhood, and some old postcards she had bought from the Prado Museum were tucked among its pages. I now placed the still life of a heap of dead but golden fishes on the shelf in the company of my mother as a smiling girl with dimples in both her cheeks. And then she and my father were standing side by side in a mountain landscape and you could see that they still loved one another. Then she was holding me as a baby on her lap and she was with my two children in a garden. There was also a postcard of that mysterious painting of a dog who peers out of the darkness into a shimmering yellow light and the self-portrait that Goya made when he was about seventy years old, the white shirt open at the neck to reveal the softness of his ageing skin.
'How is Goya?' my mother asked in a voice that had become a whispering monotone, her eyes busy in a face that was impassive and almost without expression.
'Oh, he's fine,' I replied, very matter of fact, as if he was a friend who lived nearby. 'I've just been reading about him when he was eighty years old and living in France. He wears three pairs of wire-framed spectacles, one on top of the other like a tangle of long-legged insects, because his eyes are so bad. He eats quantities of dark chocolate.'
'Still painting?' asked my mother, for whom painting had always been an essential part of survival.
'Yes, he goes to the market and looks at the fruit and the vegetables on display there and then he comes back and makes a painting in the time that it takes him to smoke two cigarettes. And he's making those miniatures with black ink on little pieces of ivory, but he has not got much ivory and so he keeps rubbing them out in order to do another one.'
'Do you talk to him?' my mother asked me vaguely, as if there was nothing odd about talking to a man who had been buried for a hundred and seventy-two years.
I said yes, I did talk to him until I remembered that he was deaf and so he could not hear me. Then I sat and stared at him instead and, if I was lucky, he stared back.
In order to find a beginning I went to see the little village of Fuendetodos where Goya was born in 1746.
I arrived at the start of Easter Week, when that region of the province of Aragon is caught up in a five-day festival called the Tamboradas, and crowds of men, women and children gather together to beat upon drums as if their lives depended on it.
For the first ceremony, which is known as 'the breaking of the hour' and takes place at midnight on the Thursday before Good Friday, I was in a town a few miles from Fuendetodos. About five thousand people were crowded in a tight, dense pack in the town square. Most of them, even the children, were carrying drums and were dressed in long purple robes that looked slippery under the liquid light of the streetlamps. The pointed hoods of the Inquisition were thrown back to hang between their shoulders like a loose flap of reptilian skin. On some of these hoods you could see the eye-shaped holes cut into the cloth, as empty and threatening as the eyes of ghosts.
As the moment of the hour approached the crowd seemed to go through a chemical change; it solidified and became one single body, tense with anticipation. Just before the stroke of midnight a priest on a raised platform called for silence through a loudspeaker. A few whispered hisses moved like a wind across the bobbing sea of heads. Then there was a hush followed by the terrifying sound of all those drums bursting into one long, rolling hammering of noise.
It was as if the world and everything in it had been given a single, reverberating heartbeat. The paving stones under my feet were answering the drums. The pillar against which my hand was leaning, pulsated. The door behind me trembled like a live animal. The air had become as thick as water with the weight of the noise it carried and my body was hollow and full of it.
Time passed and I became aware of an anthill ripple of activity as the first of the drummers managed to turn to face the narrow street that was the only way out of the square. They began to push steadily towards it and bit by bit the long line of a procession took shape as everyone joined in the march.
The stretched skin on many of the big drums was decorated with pictures: I saw the crown of thorns tipped red on each spike, the weeping and wounded face of Christ, a bleeding heart stabbed through by a sword. Some of the drums were also decorated with great splashes of old blood, sprayed out like the petals of a chrysanthemum. The new blood would come later when people had battered the palms of their hands sufficiently to make it flow.
The crowd was busy throughout the night, walking up and down the streets, gathering and separating and always drumming, the noise loud and anarchic with no particular rhythm to hold it steady. It was like being caught up in a battle.
I left before the dawn. Down by the river two nightingales were singing among the branches of the poplar trees. Their voices rose and sailed above the roar of the drums as if they were the souls of the dead taking leave of the bodies for which they had no more use.
The processions began on Good Friday. I went to a different town a few miles further south where the people wore robes of black, not purple. Men drinking beer and drumming; women nursing babies and drumming; children in their Inquisition costumes eating ice cream and drumming; a baby sleeping peacefully in his pram, oblivious to the noise, with a little drum resting on the black satin of his gown.
I saw a thin and dangerous man, smiling with a mad contentment as he examined the wounded palms of his hands which were sticky with blood. I saw a mongoloid man wiping the tears that streamed down his face with a big white handkerchief, while beating his drum with such fierce and heavy strokes I thought he would topple to the ground like a felled tree. I saw a little girl dressed as Salome, running to join the procession and holding the severed head of John the Baptist swinging from her hand. I saw the figure of Thin Death, carrying a scythe and shuffling forward, a hood of sacking covering his face and his serpent eyes flickering through the holes cut into the cloth.
And I saw Goya watching it all. I saw him grinning in an ecstasy of participation because even though he was deaf he could feel the noise seeping into the palms of his hands, rising through the bones of his feet, and he could see it in the contorted faces of the people, their arms flailing with energy. He could make a drawing of the thin and dangerous man smiling to himself, of the mongoloid weeping, of two old people dancing, three young girls whispering, four old men sitting in a row. He could make a drawing of the one body that is a crowd of human beings united by a single purpose. He could show that crowd when it was gentle, the men and women laughing together, taking pleasure in the sunshine. He could also show it when the switch was pulled the other way and these same people were transformed by fear or hatred into a monstrous shape, the black holes of their mouths wide open and filled with terrible noises.
Excerpted from Old Man Goya by Julia Blackburn. Copyright © 2003 by Julia Blackburn. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.