Saturday, 29 December 2012

a brief account of the destruction of the indies [bartolome de las casas]

Bartolome De Las Casas wrote this short, savage book in 1542. The urgency of the writing makes it feel as though it might have been written last week. With a disgusted brevity he moves around the continent of the Americas, from Florida to the River Plate, outlining the horrors that have followed in the wake of the white man’s wake relentless search for gold, the substance which, writes the author, is their true god.

Without going into the history, his account has retrospectively been questioned. He writes of the death of millions, the destruction of vast cities, whole regions being depopulated. This is the post-apocalypse made real, without the help of global warming, nuclear bombs or meteorites. No doubt there is some dramatic license in his depiction of events. Although he had extensive knowledge of the New World, much of what he writes about is second-hand, or hearsay. Yet his own experiences clearly established a benchmark, where the use of torture to extract information was normative, where subjugation was considered to be a violent imperative.

All of which makes one wonder what it must have been like, to have landed on these shores, as a man of god, sent from the civilised world to witness the savages, only to find the true savages are your own ‘civilised’ countrymen. De Las Casas talks of fifty cities in Mexico alone “more ample and more spacious than Seville”. Perhaps in his vituperative denunciation there is a hint of his own amazement, echoed in Garcilaso’s words, that these wonders could be so wantonly destroyed. It must have been impossible not to feel as though your system of values was inside out,  when confronted by the brute realities of history.

This bewilderment is captured in De La Casas’ outraged prose. A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies is as powerful a text as the Communist Manifesto. One of the first trumpets at the walls of Jericho, decrying the terrible truths that underpin the European invasion and its barbaric paradoxes. The book is still shocking and vital today, half a millennium later. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

the purple land [w h hudson]

On the face of it, as an Anglo who has spent more of his days in this country than anyone could have predicted 20 years ago, I should have read Hudson's tome long ago. 

It recounts the adventures of an Englishman in Uruguay during the mid c19. Richard, as the hero is called, leaves Montevideo in search of work on an estancia, gets caught up in a Blanco revolution, breaks the hearts of various Latin beauties, kills a man, works his way through a dozen horses and drinks a lot of rum. 

To be honest, I don't quite know what to make of the book. So many people have spoken to me about it that I expected it to encapsulate in its pages the ageless charms of a country which is not so very different now, in the "interior" at least, from what it was like 150 years ago. Perhaps it does, but the narrator keeps getting in the way. In this sense, the book is like travel literature the world over: impinged upon by the difficulties of the traveller in truly gaining a grip on the society he or she is describing.

Hudson, to be fair, seeks to make this point. His intention is to chart a gradual transformation on the part of the narrator as he comes to respect the unsophisticated ways of these noble, warlike young Americans. The penultimate chapter features a eulogy to the humble provincial Uruguayan: “may the blight of our superior civilisation never fall on your wild flowers, or the yoke of our progress be laid on your herdsman—careless, graceful, music-loving as the birds”. The contradictions inherent in the passage are obvious; on the one hand celebrating a prelapserian world, on the other redolent with a benign condescension.

When I first came back from Uruguay I was interviewed by a now eminent theatre director for a job as an assistant director. I was asked about Uruguay and I answered fulsomely, talking about culture and uses of time and such like. Somewhat sniffily he sought to puncture my enthusiasm with a remark about the country's impoverished economy. As though this was enough to consign the box marked Uruguay (and perhaps the one marked "Latin America" too) to the cupboard marked "Nice to visit but not that important". This attitude remains predominant in the UK, Spain, and much of Europe and the Anglophone world. For all his obvious affection for the country, this would also appear to be the attitude Hudson adopts. In the end, the narrator leaves, the world goes on, he will have other fish to fry.

This is the downside of the book. The upside is that it offers a colourful insight into a world of gauchos, revolutionaries and their molls. It's the stuff of a John Buchan novel, with larks aplenty and tall tales to be enjoyed. Most of the Uruguayans who have recommended the book have told me they came to know it as children, which makes sense. For an impression of what the c19th equivalent of backpacking might have been like, The Purple Land works a treat. For an insight into the growing pains of a young American nation, (the land is purple as a result of the blood spilt in the battles which rage on its soil), Hudson's novel leaves something to be desired. 

Monday, 24 December 2012

the incas (garcilaso de la vega)

Your mother was an Incan princess. Your father was a conquistador. You're bilingual. You grow up in the ruins of a civilisation that has been annihilated in the space of a generation. 

When you're 23 years old you leave your home country, never to return. You go to Spain and fight. For year after year. You're always going to be the black sheep. No matter what you achieve.

The more you fight in what the Spaniards call the old world, the more you value your own old world, which now has been subsumed by what the Spanish, of whom you are one, call the new world. 

The memories are stuck in your brain. Perhaps you have some of the details wrong but they're there. You're sitting in a tent in a dusty plain. About to fight the infidel yet again. And you realise what you have to do with the rest of your life. The only thing you can do. You have to write it all down.