Arid lands, riven by ravines and cut by cracks. Thin cattle, with downcast eyes, were here and there, with a barely believable desperation, licking at the slopes and wastelands of this sad spot. On the ground the skeletons of those that had already succumbed were bleaching, sacrifices of the saltpeter earth which had seized them until starvation, forgetting food; and great flocks of turkey vultures hovered over the stench of the carrion.
This is the classic novel of the Venezuelan Llanos (plains, prairies, steppes). It is one of those novels where the landscape seems to be the main character. But the grasslands are peopled by several memorable characters (even if their names seem a bit TOO obvious to contemporary ears) – the saintly would-be moderniser Dr. Santos, his nemesis the barbarous Doña Bárbara, the evil cardboard-cutout gringo with the unlikely moniker of Mr. Danger, and the ’child of nature’ Marisela, on whom Santos performs an Eliza Doolittle-like transformation into a polished lady. The setting is the lawless (yes, that includes the judges and lawyers) cattle country where rustling is a way of life, sanctioned by tradition and ubiquity. There is a Machiavellian power struggle between the great landowners, especially the cousins Dr. Santos and Doña Bárbara, by fair means and foul (and fowl!) Santos’ plan to fence off the llanos is inevitable but will see the llaneros’ way of life fade into history.
Doña Bárbara is an alpha female who dabbles in magic. No doubt if it was written today we would find a more sympathetic portrayal of the women (and city folk). We shouldn’t fall into the trap of extracting a work from the time when it was written. Nevertheless, both of the women are powerful (Doña Bárbara as much so as any of the men) in what must have been a man’s world.
While Gallegos sees the inevitability of progress, he is deeply nostalgic for the disappearing way of life of which he has a profound understanding. His attitude towards the burghers of Caracas reminded me of “Clancy of the Overflow” by the Australian bush poet Banjo Paterson:
“…And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy
ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall…”
While I think it would be wrong to see this as an early work of magical realism – there is plenty of magic, as practised by Doña Bárbara, in an overwhelmingly superstitions cultural world – the fact that this seminal work is so largely ignored by English readers is a tragedy that leaves a big hole in their knowledge of Latin American literature. The plot is not at all unrealistic.
The author himself is a fascinating character who became President of Venezuela.
GALLEGOS, Rómulo (1884 – 1969), Doña Bárbara, Madrid: Cátedra, 2014 [originally published 1929], ISBN 978-83-376-1539-4
Light from the burning city filled the sky as far as human eye could reach. The moon rose large and full from behind the mountains, and inflamed at once by the glare took on the colour of heated brass. It seemed to look with amazement on the world-ruling city which was perishing. In the rose-coloured abysses of heaven rose-coloured stars were glittering; but in distinction from usual nights the earth was brighter than the heavens. Rome, like a giant pile, illuminated the whole Campania. In the bloody light were seen distant mountains, towns, villas, temples, mountains, and the aqueducts stretching toward the city from all the adjacent hills; on the aqueducts were swarms of people, who had gathered there for safety or to gaze at the burning.
I found it surprisingly hard to decide what to read for Poland! Finally I defaulted to Sienkiewicz (1846-1916), who justly won the 1905 Nobel Prize for Literature. Quo Vadis (Latin for ‘Where are you going?’) is his best-known work, except perhaps in Poland itself, where his trilogy on 17th Century Polish history, With Fire and Sword, is more famous.
Now normally I try to choose a novel which will teach me as much as possible about the country it represents here. This majestic tale of the Roman Empire under the emperor Nero (in the first few years of the Christian Era) might seem to have nothing to say about Poland, which didn’t even exist at the time (and was one part of Europe which the Empire never reached), but you can see the persecution of the early Christians as a symbol of the suffering of this most Catholic of countries under the boots of its surrounding empires. Like the Christians under the Roman Empire, the Poles have had to fight long and hard to maintain their distinct culture, language and religion under constant occupation (or threat) by their neighbours, and have miraculously succeeded.
The main characters are the true-life novelist and courtesan (and finally victim) of Nero, Petronius, who seems able to control him for a time; the mad mercurial emperor himself who is infamous for having set his city alight and blaming the Christians for his crime; and the fictional young lovers Lygia and soldier Marcus Vinicius – she converts him to Christianity. If you know anything about Roman or early Christian history you know that this is not going to end well…
You get a fine feeling for the precariousness of life lived under a dictatorship (or even democracy?) under the whims of a demented despot, even for those close to the source of power. Perhaps not so irrelevent to our times after all? What a pity that this great, majestic work isn’t read enough any more.
SIENKIEWICZ, Henryk (1846 – 1916), Quo Vadis: a tale of the time of Nero, translated by Jeremiah Curtin, Mineola NY, Dover, 2011, ISBN 978-0-486-47686-5 (originally published in Polish 1896)
Book 32: Spain (English/Spanish) – (El ingenioso hidalgo) Don Quijote (de La Mancha) (Miguel de CERVANTES)
In a place in La Mancha, whose name I have no desire to recall, lived not long ago an hidalgo, one of those with a lance in the rack, an old leather shield, a skinny nag and a greyhound…
Having lost his wits, he stumbled upon the strangest thought that has ever occurred to anyone in the world, and he fancied that it was just and fitting, both for the furthering of his honour and for the service of his country, to make of himself a knight errant, going forth into the whole world with his arms and horse in search of adventures, and to put into practice all that he had read of what knights errant did – righting wrongs, and putting himself in peril and danger, and from these, having accomplished them, he would cover himself in eternal renown and fame.
I read this through in English, and also in Spanish (which I’m still plodding through – the Spanish is not too difficult, but it’s a big work).
How often does it happen that the beginning of a new endeavour seems to remain the greatest? Don Quijote is one of the first novels, and is still one of the best. It seems like a miracle that this work was written at the time it was. Though it looks back the dying age of chivalry (to the extent that it ever existed), in some ways it seems an incredibly modern (even Post-Modern) work. I love the way Cervantes does not take himself, or his creation, too seriously – there’s a lot of fun in the way he editorialises and sends up all and sundry.
The basic plot, where the eccentric would-be knight sallies off seeking adventures and is dragged home by his more prosaic friends, is too well-known to go into here. It is a satire of the chivalric romances which were on their last legs, but this spoof turned out to be the greatest of them all. Courtly love, which was really a ridiculous conceit when all is said and done, was just begging for a send-up. There is still the danger of taking literature too seriously (I have to plead guilty in the case of Tolkien) and living in a dream world which is more colourful and beautiful than the reality (instead of just visiting it), of seeing world as we want it to be.
Here the narrator can see all points of view, like us he clearly loves Don Quijote despite making fun of him, and takes him seriously. There’s a lot of tension between the narrator’s editorialising and the exciting tale. For example he cheekily interrupts the thrilling duel between Quijote and the Basque traveller in full flight because, he tells us, the narrative breaks off there. Fortunately for us, he does ‘find’ the ending later!
Cervantes has created three of the loveliest characters in literature. Though he lives in a dream world, is impractical and crazy, it’s impossible not to love and feel compassion for Quijote, the man who dares to dream the impossible dream. His page, Sancho Panza, is steady and steadfast, the mascot for all those priceless people in the world who sacrifice themselves to care for someone unable to look after themselves. And lastly, there is the ennobled nag Rocinante.
It is funny, touching, very clever. The main question I kept asking myself as I read this wondrous work was, why did I wait so long? If you haven’t tackled it yet, don’t deny yourself the pleasure any longer!
CERVANTES, Miguel de (1547-1616), El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, Ediciones Cátedra (Letras Hispánicas), Madrid, 1982, ISBN 84-376-0116-9 (2 vols.)
China (English) – Journey to the West /Monkey = Xi You Ji 《西游记》
by (WU Cheng’en) (吴承恩)
The old man was at the same time delighted by Sanzang’s fine appearance and alarmed by Pig’s and Friar Sand’s remarkable ugliness. Inviting them in, he told the younger members of the family to bring tea and cook a meal. Hearing all this Sanzang rose to his feet to thank the old man and ask, “Could you tell me, sir, why it has turned so hot again although it is autumn now?” “These are the Fiery Mountains, the old man replied. “We don’t have springs or autumns here. It’s hot all the year round.” “Where are the mountains?” Sanzang asked. “Do they block the way to the west?” “It’s impossible to get to the west,” the old man replied. “The mountains are about twenty miles from here. You have to cross them to get to the west, but they’re over 250 miles of flame. Not a blade of grass can grow anywhere around. Even if you had a skull of bronze and a body of iron you would melt trying to cross them.” This answer made Sanzang turn pale with horror; he dared not to ask any more questions.
Probably the greatest of the ancient Chinese classics is the Hong Lou Meng (Dream of the Red Chamber, amongst other alternative titles). Since I had already read it, I chose another classic to kick off this project, the Xi You Ji.
This is a mythologised Ming version of the (Tang Dynasty) pilgrimage to India by one of my heroes, the monk Xuanzang, to bring back the true versions of the Buddhist scriptures (which had become corrupted in China, due to distance from the source and difficulties in translation into a very different language). It is one of the great classics of my beloved Silk Road. When I was in Xi’an I was excited to see the Big Wild Goose Pagoda (Dayanta) where Xuanzang spent years translating them to Chinese, and also the Flaming Mountains (Huozhou Shan) near Turpan in far western Xinjiang where he had one of his adventures. The Xi You Ji is a send-up, and its Xuanzang (called Sanzang in this edition) bears no resemblance to the historical figure! He is accompanied by some mythological animals, Monkey, Pig, and Friar Sand and the poor pilgrim is just a figure of fun who wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for Monkey (who is like Sancho Panza to Cervantes’ Don Quijote). It’s such a shame that while the Xi You Ji is well known to Chinese people, the account by the real Xuanzang, who deserves to be as well-known as Marco Polo, both by them and the outside world, is almost forgotten nowadays. Even so, the fairy tale is a good romp!
Wu Cheng’en (c. 1500 – c. 1580): Journey to the West, translated by W.J.F. Jenner, Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 2008 (originally published 16th Century), 3 vols., ISBN 7-119-01663-6
Monkey, translated by Arthur Waley, London: Penguin Classics, 1994, 1942, ISBN 9780140441116