18 November 2010

The South America Programme

We’ll get to the Great Novels another day. What I have to offer you today is a voyage to South America in the form of three favourite works of non-fiction. If you will read them in succession, and in chronological order, I think I can promise you a fascinating and remarkably affecting experience.

Galapagos finches' heads
 drawn by Charles Darwin
The first of these is The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. It is a scientific traveller’s diary, but there is nothing dry and academic about it; it is so rich and bursting with life one almost disbelieves that it flowed from the same hand which wrote On the Origin of Species and a voluminous treatise on earthworms. Also unexpected is Darwin’s youthful boldness and courage, setting out through unknown and dangerous country with only a few matelots for company, often trusting his life to people he had met only a few days earlier. Highlights of the book include Darwin’s passionately-expressed antipathy to slavery, of which he adverts at length after witnessing the institution at first hand in the Canary Islands and Brazil; an account of the Beagle crew’s encounters with the natives of Tierra del Fuego, human beings so primitive they could barely be said to have entered the Stone Age, and the mutual culture shock resulting from them; and an eyewitness account of the earthquake that destroyed the city of Conçepcion and altered the landscape of Chile. There are also his Galapagos explorations and discoveries, some interesting social commentary about Australians, and much more besides, but it is the South American sections of the book that make the best reading. 

There is a further treat in store for those who know a little about geology: Darwin’s Lyellian speculations are hilarious.

The second book is a curiosity: Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson tells the story of the author’s life from infancy to manhood among the pampas of Argentina, and later (and tragically) in its cities. Hudson was a kind of nature-mystic, though he didn’t write of his experiences in specifically spiritual terms—he just thought that was the way everyone perceived the world, that it was normal. And reading him, you can almost believe that once upon a time, out on the plains of Africa before sowing and reaping were invented, it was normal. People talk about ‘luminous prose’, but Hudson’s writing seems to describe a landscape that is itself luminous, that does not merely reflect light from the sun and moon but glows with its own. But in truth this light is also a reflection; it’s soul-light, and Hudson himself is the source. Far Away and Long Ago is no namby-pamby pastoral, though; some of the scenes are bloody, violent and terrifying, and towards the end of the book the author’s struggles to make sense of human society (of which his childhood on the pampas has taught him nothing) are heart-rending. This is a very strange book, written by a very odd man, that made its place in English literature purely on its merits and despite being unlike anything else that had ever been written. John Galsworthy described it as ‘a vision of natural beauty and of human life as it might be, quickened and sweetened by the sun and the wind and the rain, and by fellowship with all other forms of life.’ He called its author ‘a very great writer... the most valuable our age has possessed.’

Bruce Chatwin, taking
a hike as usual
My final recommendation is Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. Chatwin, a maverick writer of novels and travel books, was one of the coming men in English literature during the 1980s; sadly, he died of AIDS in 1989. His literary speciality was faraway places and states of mind, which he could bring to life as few other authors could. He was a great walker, and many of his books, most notably Songlines, came out of that. In Patagonia, an earlier work, did too. The thing about Chatwin’s journeys is that they are internal as well as external (actually, all journeys are), and he writes lucidly and convincingly about both. In Patagonia offers some incredible landscapes, people and stories both contemporary and historical, and by the end of it, you feel as if you truly have been Bruce Chatwin’s walking companion through these wild, windswept, extremaduran places, and have come, on the journey, to know him almost as well as you know yourself.

Of course, it is all illusion; Chatwin was a complex and very urbane man who lived his life in compartments and enjoyed generating an air of mystery. And in fact, he seems to have had much to hide. Even his long hikes have a certain improbability about them, as he mysteriously appears on the road to so some Patagonian village or Aboriginal settlement in Australia as though beamed down from a Culture starship, walks up to the first front door he sees and knocks on it. As Paul Theroux, another great traveller, complained, ‘life was never so neat as Bruce made out.’ But that goes back to my earlier remarks about the habitual untruthfulness of fictioneers. You should never really trust us, however convincing our stories may be. In fact, the more convincing the story, the less you ought to believe it.

Taken together, these three books make up my basic literary geography of South America. It is a mystic land, but in a Spinozan kind of way its numinosity inheres in the material reality of it, its rocks and hills, its plains and forests, its plants and animals and the seasons that govern their lives. It possesses the inhabitants of the land and makes them one with it. And it is a country of the mind, not of the earth. Whether or not the real South America resembles it I have not the slightest idea, and perhaps I will never find out. But this does not really matter. Imaginary countries are the most hospitable of all.

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