Monday, February 2, 2015

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago. 
“THE VORTEX” by Jose Eustasio Rivera (“LA VORAGINE” first published 1924;
English translation by E.K. James published 1928)

            Never judge a book by its cover. Of course not. But you can have a relationship with the cover of a book for years before you get around to cracking the book itself. This was my experience with Jose Eustasio Rivera’s The Vortex (La Voragine). A copy of the book sat on my father’s bookshelves from the time I was a very small child, its dust-jacket spine browned, as so many other book spines were, by my father’s pipe smoke. The copy was printed by Putnam’s in England in 1935. The spine showed a South American Indian kneeling before a tree, cutting notches in it (to tap rubber). The front cover showed a European man wearing a straw hat, standing in the depths of the jungle, covering his face with his hands in a pose of anguish and despair. This registered with me as an exotic scene before I could properly read. Much later, I read the blurb, and was told that this was a novel about the exploitation of rubber workers in the depths of the South American jungle. And later still, I noticed the other books that were being advertised by the publishers on the back of the dust jacket. A novel by Hans Fallada (best known for Little Man, What Now?). A novel by Mikhail Sholokhov (best known for And Quiet Flows the Don). So, seen by me as a publishing artefact before I had read it, I could easily categorise The Vortex as the type of foreign-language novel that “serious” English-speaking novel-readers once wanted to read to inform themselves of the world beyond Britain and the United States.
            But, once I had placed it neatly in the card-index system of my mind, what of the novel itself?
The fact is that, after all the years in which the selfsame copy has sat on my own shelves, I got around to reading it only very recently.
What I found was a novel that is in equal measures melodramatic, over-the-top, romantic, lyrical, rhetorical, overblown, sordid, angry, incisive, evasive, documentary and descriptive. In short, a novel with the type of lumpiness and self-contradictions that assure you it is some sort of masterpiece, even as you sometimes laugh at its overstatements.
In the usual ham-fisted way for which I am notorious on this blog, let me say a few words about the author, which I now know after doing some hasty research ahead of writing this notice. Jose Eustasio Rivera (1888-1928) was a Colombian lawyer and politician, the eldest son of a very large Catholic family, who had served on the Colombian-Venezuelan Boundary Commission, travelled extensively in the Amazon rainforest, was appalled by the exploitation of peons and rubber-workers and wrote numerous newspaper and magazine pieces of protest. La Voragine was his only novel, and was immediately hailed as a great work – virtually “the great Colombian novel”, at least before Gabriel Garcia Marquez came along. Rivera died young (only 40), while on a trip to the United States, negotiating translation rights to his novel. Apparently La Voragine figures prominently in all histories of South American literature and is often credited with starting a South American genre of the “jungle novel”. I unearthed one article which told me that it is regularly made a set text in Colombian high schools.
Now, in my equally ham-fisted way, here is the “plot”, inasmuch as this episodic novel has a plot.
The Vortex is narrated on the first person by one Arturo Cova. In Part One of the novel (“The Plains”) it is established that he has run away from Bogota, Colombia’s capital, with his pregnant and young girlfriend Alicia, whom he sees himself as having rescued from an arranged marriage into which she was unwilling to enter. In the first part of the novel at least, this running-away and evasion appear to be his only motive. Arturo wants to hide out on Colombia’s fertile plains, far from urban civilization. There follow a series of random adventures as he finds himself in the company of ranchers, pedlars and “cowboys” (many of mixed race – partly indigenous Indian or partly Negro – and therefore socially inferior to urban caballero Arturo). There is something almost surreal about the randomness of events. Arturo’s horse and saddle are stolen by bandits. There are encounters with corrupt local officials. Cattle stampede. Wild horses are captured and tamed by poncho-clad cowboys who are experts with the lariat. Bulls are rounded up and corralled by experienced riders who know how to pacify a bull by twisting its tail. There is the extreme violence of cock-fighting and of a bull running wild and goring its pursuers by impaling them on its horns. There is also extreme violence between human beings – theft and cattle-rustling are endemic. On the plains, men cheat one other and are aggressive sexual rivals for the few women. An old man is tortured and killed by criminals who want to find out where he has hidden his wealth.
If anything unifies these diverse events, it is the voice of the first-person narrator Arturo Cova, and here we strike one of the novel’s most engaging features. Arturo is a romantic egotist, very self-pitying as romantic egotists often are, and subscribing to a distinctly Hispanic code of machismo. He is what feminists would later call a male chauvinist. He sees himself as noble for having “rescued” pregnant young Alicia, yet he also sees her as a burden and a nuisance who impinges on his dignity. When other men are attracted to her, however, she suddenly becomes his desired ideal once more. His “love”, then, consists of competition and possessiveness. And all the time he is chronicling his changing feelings for Alicia, he does not hesitate to dally and have sexual intercourse with other women whom he “conquers” – a plainswoman called Griselda and the whore Clarita. That Clarita should eventually leave him brings out one of his great flights of self-pity. Arturo gets drunk frequently, becomes involved in gambling and fist-fights, and gives long poetic justifications of his behaviour. These attitudes persist throughout the novel (in the third and final part, Arturo seduces a woman nicknamed La Madona, and then rapidly tires of her once the conquest is done).
So what is Jose Eustasio Rivera doing with such a first-person voice? While the material details that Arturo records are things that Rivera observed in his own travels in his country, it is hard to believe that the novelist endorses or identifies with the very flawed narrator. If he did, he would be subscribing to all Arturo’s self-pity, machismo and romantic excess. In other words, this is a real case of the “unreliable narrator”. I can only read the mode of narration as a means of deflating any tendency to idealise or make heroic the endeavour of “taming” the land and exploiting it. I am only guessing here, but I suspect that The Vortex is in some respects an “answer” to earlier, more “heroic” accounts of how Europeans had an impact of the South American wilderness.
And yet the effect of the narrative voice is more complex than this. Arturo Cova is as flawed as I have painted him, but the human things which he observes are truly tragic and he himself is eventually caught up in them and destroyed. Even a man as flawed as this, the novel implies, deserves our sympathy when he is confronted by real injustices. As readers we ride with Arturo, distrust his moral judgments, but still accept the reality of his narrative. It would have been less credible had the narrator been a paragon of virtue.
The mechanism of the “plot” (and of Arturo’s egotistical machismo) has Arturo drawn deeper and deeper into Colombia’s eastern jungle that borders the plains. In terms of imagery, the jungle is the irresistible “vortex” (or whirlpool) that sucks people in. A criminal called Barrera recruits naïve peasants to work at rubber-tapping in the jungle with the promise of great rewards. As Barrera departs with his recruits, he takes Alicia with him, she having been too often stung and spurned by Arturo. His pride once again pricked, Arturo and some confederates give chase in the hope of regaining Alicia. This quest sucks Arturo into the jungle. But in Part Two (“The Jungle”), we get a very different atmosphere.
Lush and idyllic descriptions proliferate in the first part of the novel. The following over-orchestrated description of a sunrise is typical:
            And dawn came up before us. Without our being able to observe the precise moment of its arrival, a roseate vapour came floating up over the long grass, quivering like tenuous muslin. The stars paled and faded, and in the opaline distance just above the broad horizon appeared a streak of fire, a violent brush-stroke of flaming pigment, a splash of coagulated ruby. Cutting the crystalline air in the glory of the morning swerved flocks of shrieking ducks, slow moving egrets that seemed soaring cotton pods, emerald parrots of tremulous wing-beat, red, blue and yellow macaws. And everywhere in grassy plain and vast spaces, in lush pastures and in the palms, was born a breath of joy that was life, light, palpitation. Then, through the scarlet clouds sweeping open like mighty curtains, darted the first stabbing rays of the sun. Slowly it rose like a huge dome, pouring itself over the plains before astonished bull and beast, glowing red before it climbed into the blue.” (Part One, Chapter 1)
There are also accounts of squalor in life on the plains, such as the following:
            The first day I found myself strong enough to get up, I hung my arm in a sling made from my handkerchief, and went out to the veranda. Clarita was shuffling a deck of cards near the hammock, where the old fellow was taking his siesta. The place, made of pal-leaf thatching and only half-built, was dirty and unkempt as none I had ever seen. The room I occupied was the only one that was passably liveable. The kitchen, of wattle and daub partitions covered with soot and grease, had a muddy puddle gracing its entrance, accumulations of dish-water and dregs thrown out by slatternly, dirty, and sweaty cooks. In the unlevelled yard, cattle hides hung drying in the sun, swarms of flies buzzing over them; and from one of the skins a black carrion vulture tore of bloody strips. Indolent cowboys dawdled around the caney, guarding the fighting-cocks tied to pegs; and dogs and pigs drowsed in sluggardly comfort.” (Part One, Chapter 6)
By and large, however, the plains are open and a place of possibilities.
But once we begin Part Two, the scene becomes enclosed, threatening and nightmarish. The jungle enfolds human lives, cuts them off from the sky and contains all manner of hidden terrors. Part Two is prefaced with a “proem” that is compounded in equal parts of lush description, purple prose and Arturo’s self-pity. Yet, over-the-top though it is, it does announce the novel’s core theme. The following extract gives the flavour:
O jungle, wedded to silence, mother of solitude and mists! What malignant fate imprisoned me within your green walls? Your foliage, like an immense vault, is between my hopes and the clear skies, of which I see only glimpses, when the twilight breeze stirs your lofty tops. Where is the loved star that walks the hills at evening? Where are those cloud-sweeps of gold and purple? How often have I sighed as I pictured the sun – far beyond your tangled labyrinths – steeping the distant spaces in purple, there where my native land lies, where the unforgettable plains stretch, where rise mountains on whose foothills I could feel as high above the world as their white-crowned peaks. Where is the moon hanging her silver lantern? You stole from me the dreams that spring from the broad horizons. You offer my eyes nothing but the dull monotony of your green roof. Over it flows the peaceful dawn, but never lighting the depths of your humid bosom. You are a cathedral of sorrows. Unknown gods speak in hushed voices, whispering promises of long life to your majestic trees, trees that were the contemporaries of paradise, old when the first tribes appeared on the face of the earth, and which impassively await the sinking of future centuries….”
            There are still in Part Two long descriptions of birds with bright plumage and verdant vegetation, but the fauna are now threatening or maddening – mosquitoes, crocodiles, carnivorous fish like piranha, vampire bats. The jungle is a place of hallucination and mental disturbance as Arturo and his companions become disoriented breaking virgin trails, stumbling over meshed tree roots, skirting swamps and fearing dim rushing rivers that hide lethal wildlife. Again, much that happens is in the form of random encounters and interpolated narrative, such as the story of Maripana, the Indian witch who drives men mad.
            It is in the novel’s second part that Rivera’s expose of early 20th century rubber extraction kicks in, in earnest. Arturo and company meet Clemente Silva, a pitiable old wretch with ulcerated ankles from all the leeches which have sucked at him in swampy country. Old Clemente is in quest of his son, who has been abducted to slave for the rubber-extraction companies. He tells of peons forced into debt so that they have to work in rubber plantations. Of peons going mad in the jungle, contracting beri-beri and in their fever seeking to cool themselves by sucking the latex they are extracting, dying, and being eaten by ants and rats. Of Indian women being captured and shared among the peons as sexual conveniences. Of the ease with which government inspectors, investigating mistreatment of workers, are deceived by overseers.
To Arturo, this is still hearsay until Part Three of the novel, “The Vortex Triumphs”, in which he is himself deep in the rubber-extraction country and viewing squalor, exploitation and atrocity with his own eyes. In Part Three, there are still accounts of the natural terrors of the jungle, the most ferocious of which is signalled in the following quotation:
Tambochas! That meant suspending work, leaving shelter, throwing barriers of fire across the trail, and seeking refuge elsewhere. An invasion of carnivorous ants, born who knows where, emigrating to die as winter comes, sweeping the hills for leagues and leagues with the rustle and crackle of a distant forest fire. Wingless wasps, with red heads and lemon-coloured bodies, scattering terror in their path because of their venomous bite and swarming multitudes. Every cave, every crevice, every hole – trees, shrubs, nests, beehives – everything suffers from the overpowering flow of that heavy and fetid wave that devours young birds, rodents, reptiles and puts to flight whole villages of men and beasts.”  (Part Three, Chapter One).
Old Clemente gets to tell the novel’s single most frightening story, of plantation workers trying to escape the jungle, getting lost, and being devoured by armies of ants. (If this novel really is read in Colombian schoolrooms, then Colombian teenagers must have strong stomachs.)
Yet there is a huge irony here – perhaps the very thing that Rivera has been working towards since the novel’s opening. No matter how terrifying nature is, human beings are more malignant and only human beings are capable of being morally corrupt towards their own kind. The “proem” to Part Three suggests that human coercion is more lethal than the jungle itself:
Slave, do not complain of your fatigue! Prisoner, do not regret your jail! You know nothing of the torture of wandering unfettered in a prison like the jungle, a green vault walled in by immense rivers. You don’t know the torment of the shadows, when one may see a glimpse of sunshine on the opposite shore of a river, but a distant bank one can never reach. The chains that gnaw your ankles are more merciful than the leeches in these swamps. The keeper who torments you is not so cruel as these trees, who watch you without ever speaking.    I have three hundred trees to take care of, and it takes me nine days to lacerate them. I have cleaned them of creepers and lianas. I have opened a path toward each of them. On trudging through this army of giants, to fell the ones that don’t shed latex, I often find tappers stealing my rubber. We tear each other with fists and machetes; and the disputed latex is splashed with red. But what does it matter if our veins increase the supply of sap? The overseer demands ten litres a day, and the lash is a usurer that never forgives.”
For Arturo there is a conclusion to his egotistical quest – a confrontation with Barrera and the working out of his pride concerning Alicia. But it is pitiable and futile for, in the novel’s closing words “the jungle swallowed them up”. Ultimately, their personal drama is almost trivial. What sticks in the mind are the accounts of rubber-tappers living in virtual slavery and unable to escape because of the jungle’s impenetrability; of Indian children as young as 12, sold into prostitution to service the overseers; of the whole exploitative mess that was created in the rainforest by the young car industry’s hunger for rubber in the early 20th century.
I have seen attempts to interpret The Vortex as an ancestor of South American “magical realism”, in its hallucinatory moments and in the mythologisation that creeps into some of the interpolated narratives. I have seen attempts to see it as early “eco-novel”, warning of nature’s revenge on those who exploit it. There may be some truth in these views, but more than anything, and in spite of Rivera’s poeticism (for which he was criticised when the novel was first published) The Vortex is a protest novel, damning man’s inhumanity to man in ways comparable with the greatest Holocaust or Gulag novels.
English-language readers should know it better.

Footnote: To the best of my knowledge, E.K.James’ 1920s translation of this novel is the only English-language translation. The novel has largely been forgotten in the English-speaking world. I do not speak Spanish, but I must admit that occasionally I found the English rendering a little stilted. According to James’ translation, Arturo Cova calls to men who have ridden out hunting without him: “Egotists! Why didn’t you invite me?” (Part One, Chapter 3). Surely “Egotists” should be rendered as something like “You selfish buggers”? I have no way of knowing how mangled other moments in the novel may have been by the translator, but I am sure that E.K.James has been true to Rivera’s lyricism.

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