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Posts Tagged ‘History’

Journey to the Alcarria

Saturday, March 13, 2010 @ 08:03 PM  posted by Mark

Camilo Jose Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria captured a glimpse backward into Old World Spain just before it vanished and provided a peek forward at the coming struggles of everyday people under Franco‘s fascist regime. The record of a walking tour through the central Spanish countryside in 1948, Journey to the Alcarria is a sharply observed picaresque, a portrait of a moment in time between Spain’s agrarian antiquity and its slowly emerging—and troubling—modernity.

Cela undertakes the journey (one in a series of vagabundajes that he would write about) in order to escape the stifling despair of city life under Franco’s new regime. His goal was to observe the changes wrought by long years of armed conflict in the Spanish countryside and find out how people were living in the freshly forged peace. The Spanish Civil War, and then the economic privations of the Second World War, had wreaked havoc on everyday life throughout the country, and no one was sure whom to trust or what exactly to believe in now that the wars were over—republicans distrusted fascists, fascists distrusted royalists, royalists dreamed of a new aristocracy—and everyone was still nursing the literal wounds of war and the figurative injuries of betrayal. As Cela walks from one village to another toward the Alcarria, he finds that the psychological tensions of conflict remain, but so do the age-old virtues of community, family and civility.

The rural villagers Cela encounters— farmers, beggars, shopkeepers, and shepherds—have no model of behavior to rely on in Franco’s new order. Cela himself was of mixed allegiances—in the civil war, he fought for Franco, and, after he was wounded, he worked as a government censor, yet his sympathies lie with average people who are simply trying to make a living, without regard to politics. His idiosyncrasies make him both querulous and generous: he shares his scant resources with vagabonds he meets along the way, and he often relies on the kindness of strangers for food, lodging, information and companionship. Poverty creates its own community along the road and in the rural towns through which Cela passes, and the picture that emerges is almost medieval in its lack of wealth and prospects.

Cela’s journey becomes comic and tragic by turns. His battles with a stubborn mule, his conflicts with thieves and naifs, and his warmth toward fellow travelers are all colored by extremely romantic sensibilities. Cela seems completely at home with his own mixed emotions, and he assumes that everyone else has internal lives as complex as his own, which makes his narrative rich in detail and emotion. Though the people Cela meets are poor in worldy goods, they’re rich in spirit and have complicated lives that come through the page with humor and vitality.

In Cela’s post-war Spain, alliances and politics still matter, and everyone is still quick to judge everyone else; but the people Cela encounters also sense intuitively that they cannot maintain their old ways of life and that they must rely on each other to create something new, beyond the politics that are now out of their control. The fact that a whole generation would be born and live half their lives under Franco’s repressive dictatorship was not yet clear, but in Cela’s walk to the Alcarria, it is clear that the Old Spain has passed from the face of the earth, and it won’t be coming back.

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The Lawless Roads of Southern Mexico

Thursday, March 11, 2010 @ 04:03 PM  posted by Mark

The British publishing company Longman commissioned Graham Greene to travel to the southern Mexican states of Tabasco and Chiapas in 1938, to investigate the anti-Catholic purges of President Plutarco Elias Calles. Greene’s assignment, more specifically, was to write a report about the reactions of the Catholic people there to the assassination of some 40 priests and the destruction of hundreds of churches, and to determine the state of the faith under the repressive regime. Greene had written eight novels, a book of poetry and an African travel book by this time, and he was a practicing Catholic himself, so he must have seemed an ideal candidate to take the lay of the land, but it’s hard to imagine that he completely grasped the difficulties he would encounter when he took the assignment. Granted, no one goes to a violent anti-clerical purge expecting a party, but Greene found the chaos in southern Mexico issuing from both the government and private organizations, and from right-wing and left-wing factions alike.

A more dour, grim, contemptuous travelogue than The Lawless Roads is difficult to imagine. The political instability puts Greene in many uncomfortable if not outright dangerous situations: the Calles government was pro-labor, and the United States called him a Bolshevik, yet the governors of Tabasco and Chiapas employed fascist paramilitary groups to enforce their own private orders, and Greene encounters more than one private citizen who identifies with Hitler and/or Franco. Corrupt generals in Mexico’s army also kept private armed forces to confiscate resources as they saw fit. While Greene is traveling south, Calles nationalizes the foreign oil companies exploiting Mexico’s new petroleum wealth, causing an international uproar and threats of war. The ordinary people Greene meets along the way seem resigned to their powerlessness in this atmosphere of unpredictable violence. However, Greene’s narrative concentrates as much on the strangeness of everyday life as it does on the revolutionary political events sweeping Mexico.

Greene spends much of his time waiting—waiting for a boat to take him by sea from Veracruz to Tabasco, waiting for a barge to convey him upriver to Villahermosa, waiting for a plane to carry him to Salto, waiting for a mule to ride to Las Casas, and he waits most of the time in torrential rains and stifling heat. When his waiting pays off, the travel is treacherous: the boat to Tabasco is barely seaworthy, overloaded and foul, and Greene spends the overnight journey vomiting; the barge to Villahermosa is incompetently piloted and runs aground three times; the plane has a faulty engine and is forced to fly between mountains instead of over them. Greene waits nearly a week for another plane to Las Casas, but it never arrives, so he is forced to hire an inexperienced mule guide to escort him on a four-day ride through the mountains, where he constantly encounters armed men of uncertain politics and where rains routinely wash out the trail. Oddly, factoring in the unreliable air traffic schedule, a mule ride from Salto to Las Casas costs more and takes less time than the plane trip would have.

Everywhere along the way, Greene meets hapless Americans, cynical Mexicans, a surprising number of Germans and Norwegians, and Catholics of all nationalities who have been driven to underground Masses by the religious persecution. Only in Las Casas, Chiapas, during Easter Week, do people worship openly—and most of the worshipers who defy the ban on celebrating Mass are Indians, who seem unaware of the ban in the first place. These Indians practice a hybrid of Catholicism and native religions that Greene finds both frightening and alluring.

Greene is openly reviled as a Gringo in Las Casas, yet he finds enough friends among the underground priests to escape serious confrontations. Despite Greene’s stature as an established author, it’s difficult to imagine that his fame had spread as far as southern Mexico by 1938, yet bishops and generals routinely grant his requests for interviews, and he seems to travel under a kind of magic protection, bestowed on him as much by his irrelevance as his journalistic credentials.

The Lawless Roads is witty and sour, and Greene involves you intimately and sympathetically with the everyday people he meets. He occasionally falls into colonial smugness, but most of his observations are keen and commiserative, and the portrait he paints—of people resigned to endure the whims of powerful tyrants that they have no hope of defying—is engaging. The Catholics, like everyone else in southern Mexico at that time (and now), carry on despite the oppressions and corruption of local government leaders.

When he left Mexico and returned to England, Greene found that the Mass in his home church felt curiously fictitious compared to the furtive, secret Masses he had celebrated in Chiapas. Later, he would describe this trip as the real beginning of his conversion to Catholicism, which he thought of ever afterward as a sustaining faith to people who have no other worldly place to turn for consolation.

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Library of Babel: My Friends

Thursday, February 4, 2010 @ 12:02 AM  posted by Mark

Emmanuel Bove’s slender first novel My Friends follows World War One veteran Victor Baton down some of the the seediest alleys in Paris in a futile search for companionship. The novel’s title is ironic because, in fact, Baton has no friends, and though his misery would love to find some company, Baton chooses potential friends poorly and is either betrayed by or alienates them each in short order. The novel is charming in its sympathy for the down-and-out, for characters who don’t fit into the obvious order of things, and it shines when it portrays the emotional complexities of well-intentioned but damaged and ultimately self-serving people. The wry glint and ironic humor of the scenes keeps them from becoming maudlin or depressing.

The highlight of the book is Baton’s encounter with Neveu, a friendless, depressed man who is collecting stones along the Seine. When Baton approaches to ask why Neveu is collecting stones, Neveu tells him that he is about to drown himself, and he needs ballast to drag him to the bottom of the river. Baton decides to help Neveu collect stones, and then he decides to throw himself into the river as well. By the time they’ve collected enough stones to do the job, Neveu and Baton have become friends, and they decide to go to a cafe instead of killing themselves; but Neveu takes advantage of Baton’s generosity, spends all of his money on wine and then disappears into a brothel with Baton’s last penny. Baton never sees him again. It is difficult to imagine from this description that the scene is funny, but it is.

The novel’s clarity, wit and emotional complexity save it from pathos, and Baton’s plight, like the plight of Gregor in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” represents the dilemma of the alienated modern individual. Baton is ambitious in his way but does not want the mind-numbing low-wage jobs he can get; he’s poor and lonely, but he can’t connect to the impoverished loners around him; and his war injuries make him both a hero and an embarrassment to his society, which can no longer understand him. My Friends is smart, droll and surprisingly companionable for a book about alienation; it makes you feel—just as Baton feels about his absent friends in the novel—affectionate toward its author and certain that you could never get along with him. Originally published in 1924, the English translation by Janet Louth appeared in 2000.

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Library of Babel: Waterland

Thursday, January 28, 2010 @ 12:01 PM  posted by Mark

Graham Swift’s Waterland brilliantly chronicles the mid-life crisis of high school history teacher Tom Crick, who makes sense of his life by placing his difficulties in the context of the lessons he teaches about the French Revolution. What are his difficulties? His wife has gone mad and kidnapped a stranger’s baby from a supermarket, which lands her in a psychiatric hospital; his school is cutting its History Department, forcing Tom into early retirement; and his students, led by the rebellious teenager Price, are becoming increasingly difficult to control, since they know that History will no longer be required as a separate course and Mr. Crick no longer has the power to discipline them. In response, Crick throws out the textbook and, in place of standard European history lessons, tells the children intimate stories of his own life, in part to show them how personal and national histories can influence each other, and in part as a way to make sense of his life to himself. Crick’s history lessons begin to swerve into personal therapy encounters, as he reveals details of the rise and fall of his family’s brewery, his childhood exploits in the fenland of East Anglia, and the development of his wife’s madness.

The resulting narrative blends European history with racy personal confessions, jumps back and forth in time to tell a family saga spanning 250 years, and draws connections between global politics and individual motivations, placing Tom Crick and his students at the center of a vast sweep of uncontrollable events.

The wit and energy of the writing, line by line, carry the reader from the most lovingly detailed scenes to the most abstract philosophical ruminations. The complexity of Waterland‘s narrative arc, the subtlety of its emotions and the mystery at its heart make it great. It is not a flawless book—its ending is unsatisfying—but it is a novel of great beauty, intellect and heart.

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