La Muchacha De La CochinchinaMonday, July 06, 2009
My Sevillan grandmother would have said, “She has the map of Jerusalem on her face.” In retrospect I can see what drew me to Madeleine when I first spotted her face – the pale skin made even whiter by the contrast with her red lips – in the summer of 1985.
As a boy growing up in Mexico City, I would stare at the darkish faces yelling a strange archaic Spanish from the inside or the orange school bus that passed by every day. On its side was the enigmatic message “Colegio Hebreo Sefardita”. Ever since Sefardites, or Spanish Jews, have been a mixture of the exotic and the mysterious to me.
Madeleine’s face is a magician’s ball in which apparitions of the past hover and dance for me. In the deep shadows behind her eyes, I see the little girl peering out from the left corner of El Greco’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, hanging in the church of Santo Tomé in Toledo. In the noble lines of her cheekbones l see her ancestors praying in a tiny white synagogue in Granada. Nearby, in an ornate cathedral, lie the tiny lead caskets of the Catholic Kings who would exile them forever from Spain in 1492.
Madeleine was raised in Spain, and she always makes it a point to remind me of the source of her power over me in her throaty and impeccable Castilian. As I photographed her in her tub, she said, while carefully pulling down the top of her yellow and black ‘50s bathing suit, “I had to wear something, after all. It has to do with my Jewish sense of morality.”
Things have changed for Madeleine since I last photographed her in 1985. She now lives in Vietnam where she has somehow superseded her Jewish sense of morality. She writes:
I live in exile in southern Vietnam, where I do my level best not to disgrace my family by staying as far away from them as possible. However, once a year or so, I just can't help myself; I make the trek back to England.
I live in a small house with a giant mango tree in the front yard and a cat called "Seven". In the back, I have a covered orchid garden, which I tend to with an obsession that most people would consider unhealthy. I find that orchid growing and sex have a great deal in common. I hold a masters in writing and am agonizing over a PhD. This has made me a good deal more critical about my own writing and, sadly, less productive.