Thursday, July 10, 2008

The Resonance of History

A note of explanation: This was written many years after 1969, when I lived about a year in Paraguay and travelled some in South America. The story for many years had a home on a University of Texas computer which very recently was taken out of service, and without much warning. So in the next few days I will be uploading to this blog the various stories (non-fiction, more or less) that I had on the deceased server. Photos of Yaguarón from the time of my stay there can be found here.

Cerro Yaguarón, Paraguay

Once I lived in Paraguay, in a village called Yaguarón, meaning big jaguar, which lay beneath a height called Cerro Yaguarón which had a cross on top. Every Easter the people of Yaguarón had a great procession up the steep path to the top marked by the stations of the cross.

I was there a year. Avocados grew in Yaguarón larger than grapefruits, and you had to catch them, cradled, as if they were giant eggs when you prodded them out of their tree with bamboo poles, or else they would smash into green butter on the warm red sand and the wandering cows would eat them. The village was laid out on a Spanish grid with streets 50 feet wide wherein the actual track of the oxcarts would wander like the channel of a braided stream. Most of the "street" was pasture, a village common for cows and pigs and chickens. The cattle ran loose and ate avocados and grapefruit by preference to grass, all of which grew in greater abundance than all the combined people and livestock could devour; leaving a residual odor, even yet in my mind, a sweet smell of citrus flowers and rotting fruit and eucalyptus leaves.

I am not especially religious, myself, unless you count an experience I had there, a moment when for some reason I still can't explain I lost my faith in science. One morning there in Paraguay, I was slung in a hammock across the porch watching the dust motes in shafts of light below the mountain cross, specks turning like one imagines diatoms in the sea, and a breeze came up that blew my mind away like the dust. It was like someone breathing, a movement like the passage of some kind of invisible weather, and everything seemed different after that.

I said nothing about it to anyone. Now here I was, a totally secular man, secular as only a Texas Methodist upbringing can make someone (if there is a vaccination against religiosity, it is the Methodist Church), suddenly cast loose from the great faith of the present world, our utterly heartfelt belief that the world and every thing in it is applied physics. It was like being bitten by a dog and realizing pain was not the same thing as the sub-atomic static of electrons across the nerve endings.

Fortune had provided me with grant money, and I stayed there in Paraguay, spent eight months translating the poems of Sextus Propertius into English, watching the dust glitter in the rays of subtropic afternoon light, 100 miles south of the Tropic of Capricorn, gazing at night at the twin luminous smears of the Magellanic clouds, our companions, and sleeping at night under a mosquito net on account of vampire bats and the kissing bug, vector of Chagas disease, possibly the source of Charles Darwin's lifelong debility-- Darwin records he was bitten by one.

At that point I should have put a cockleshell on my hat and taken up the staff. These were formerly badges of the pilgrim.

So I went to Buenos Aires, an odd place to go, where I had the feeling that time had stopped, a city with old, decayed, stone-bound streets like the capital of some unknown clone of the Austro-Hungarian Empire so remote that it survived because nobody knew about it. The air smelled like I imagine the fossil air of an Egyptian crypt, but somehow mixed with diesel fumes.

I had not read anything in English for many months. I started reading religious marginalia I bought in the small ultra-Britannic bookstores in Buenos Aires, stuff like Madame Blavatsky and D.T. Suzuki, found in among the Kipling and Hardy. I took my books to a German sidewalk beer place full of elderly, jovial refugee Nazis wearing lederhosen, and I ordered a stein of beer and started reading this stuff. I lost track of time. When I looked up it was 3 hours later and my beer was untouched, and not only was I as spiritually benighted as when I started, I was also being stared at; the Germans had gotten sour-looking and resented my sitting there with my mouth open and my eyes glazed over, and a full tankard of beer. Their discomfiture was because of the inappropriateness of it, like the congregation feels with a mumbling wino in a front pew.

For some reason I thought of the old joke of Voltaire's, and laughed, "if God made us in his image, we have certainly returned the compliment." My path seemed to be lit by the torch of chaos and doubt, as well as the flicker of lightning out beyond the darkness over the Rio de la Plata.

The Argentines I met were concerned mostly with politics and the quality of the vast steaks they all seemed to eat once or twice a day.

I remember one guy asking me, "How do you like Buenos Aires?" Which is a question every Porteño asks every foreigner, every day. I was tired of mincing words on this matter, so I replied that overall I preferred Paraguay.

He was appalled. "How barbaric!" he said. "Paraguay is so...backward. And it's full of Indians!" He clearly considered Paraguayans to be savages.

I tried to say, in a Spanish not necessarily up to the task, "But the Paraguayans are happier than Argentines. They don't feel deprived. They aren't full of grudges. They work three or four hours a day growing manioc, and spend the rest of their time drinking maté from a gourd while telling jokes about Porteños." I am not sure that I succeeded in saying all this, but he excused himself, and left, angry, not listening to my equivocation, that all the unhappy Paraguayans had emigrated to Buenos Aires to work.

I left Buenos Aires and saw the towns of the Pampas. There were no more real gauchos there, but in the northern towns in Argentina some of the men of the leisured classes still sat through the long afternoon siesta wearing fancy accordion-pleated boots, baggy pants, and the wide belt, drinking little cups of coffee in the outdoor cafes, drugstore cowboys. Martin Fierro, the great gaucho epic, was displayed in all the bookstores, a national monument. I never saw a copy that was not covered with dust.

Northern Argentina looked like South Texas, very poor and profoundly provincial, and so I felt at home there. You could feel the confining ignorance, and a kind of stiff-necked pride, just like where I grew up. And they all knew instinctively that it was better once, before the seedy factories and before Perón and before the omnipresent Communist and Peronist slogans scrawled on public walls. So the gaucho was very important to them, even to the semi-cultured Porteños who worshipped only the Tango, and Steak, and Politics.

I think the Disappearances, a decade later, may have sprung from a kind of fury when they realized the gaucho was gone for good.

The longer I stayed in South America the more unsettled I became.

I went by train across the Pampas up into the Andes, to La Paz, traveling in pukka sahib splendor on a stunningly slow train brought from England 75 years earlier and which had been rolling more slowly every year. But you could still sit under the crystal chandeliers in the dining car and look at yourself in mirrors framed in flaking Victorian gilding; I suppose you could have ordered champagne in a bucket of ice and gotten it, but at the altitude of the altiplano it would have been like asking for a stick of dynamite. Mainly I looked out the window at a world gliding by at 5 miles per hour that was stranger than any world I had ever imagined, the high lunar plateau of Bolivia, and I first heard the haunting melodies of the altiplano played on a guitar, a flute, and a bass drum.

I think it was because of the empty distances in the shadow of the Andes that I have since been fascinated by the accounts of the Spaniards, the few who could write; their attempts to put into words their discovery of the mountains and deserts of the new world. Eventually I found myself reading all the accounts of Spanish exploration and conquest I could get my hands on. I had acquired an unease about the world they discovered that has, if anything, grown over the years. The seeds of unease were there at the beginning, 450 years ago.

Those Spanish explorers of both the Americas, those few who were literate, left us scraps of description of alien places so crazy no one can understand much of it any more. I read in one account, of an epidemic of terrible and fatal warts which decimated the Spanish army one year, a story which I thought could not be true, but in a manual of tropical medicine I learned that there is in fact a lethal contagious disease of warts found only in the 8000 foot Andean valleys of Peru and Bolivia in our times secluding the remote haciendas of cocaine barons.

The word "army" is actually inappropriate when talking about a few hundred plunderers and religious fanatics who marched up from the unmapped margins of the continent against unknown mountain empires.

I can't help but admire them, especially the forgotten unsuccessful ones, who marched off into oblivion claiming great deserts and flowered jungles for king and church, and were never after heard from.

I began then to read about Cabeza de Vaca, perhaps only because in the course of his wanderings he lived in places I have lived, and was the first European to see sights I have later seen. I grew up on the Texas coast, where Cabeza de Vaca was marooned.

When I lived in El Paso I knew that in his trek across the continent he had passed by a few miles to the south. I often hoped I might find his signature scratched on the rock in the company of more modern graffiti defacing remote barren Indian shelters in the mountains of northern Chihuahua, among the painted images of the gods of the Indians. But no such luck.

The hill of Yaguaron must have looked to Cabeza de Vaca as it did to me.

In all of Cabeza de Vaca's adventures, in all the things he saw and did, his faith in God and Spain never wavered. More than anything else, this faith seems amazing and distant today.

When I lived in Paraguay I learned of the adventures of Aimé Bonpland. It was about two hundred and seventy five years after Cabeza de Vaca was deposed as governor in Paraguay that Bonpland was held there a prisoner for ten years.

Bonpland was a distinguished botanist, who had earlier explored the Orinoco with Humboldt. On the Orinoco expedition Bonpland had showed signs of going native nearly at once. He had disappeared into the jungle with an Indian woman and was gone so long, weeks, that Humboldt gave him up for lost and was ready to move on when Bonpland finally reappeared out of the forest. The explorations of Humboldt and Bonpland were productive and successful, and the adventurers returned to Europe to great acclaim.

Humboldt never returned to South America.

Bonpland, however, was unhappy in Europe, and was soon on his way to Buenos Aires. Eventually his search for new plant species took him to the Misiones region on the borders of Paraguay, where he settled down to do serious collecting and botanical research in the wilderness on the banks of the Paraná river. He established a yerbamate plantation there. He seems to have had a family, at that point. The xenophobic dictator of Paraguay, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia, heard about the botanist's activity, and believing the famous naturalist to be a spy, ordered Bonpland seized. A team of Paraguayan commandos paddled canoes across the river one night and kidnapped Bonpland. They returned him in their canoes to Paraguay. Francia detained him there beyond the mighty barrier of the Paraná for ten years, causing more outrage in the civilized world than the detention of hostages in Iran did in Europe and America in 1979.

Dr. Francia may have been the first modern Third World revolutionary. Fevered by his theological studies at a remote Argentine Jesuit university and by the spirit if not the ideas of Rousseau and Robespierre and Marat, and by paranoia and nationalism, Francia seized power in Paraguay and ruled ruthlessly with an iron hand and tried, with success, in his own lifetime, to seal Paraguay off from the world, and return the country to a utopian Guaraní Indian communalism, a beatific vision backed by police spies and the garrote, like most such visions.

Bonpland did not idle away his time during his Paraguayan captivity. He renewed his botanical researches, and once again started a mate plantation and a farm, and acquired a reputation as a doctor. His services were much in demand. Francia once unaccountably allowed a foreign writer to enter Paraguay and interview Bonpland. Asked if he was content, Bonpland replied that he was as happy as a man can be who has been deprived of a home and family and friends.

In 1829 Francia suffered an attack of rheumatism which resisted all treatment. A doctor named Estiguerribia, Francia's personal physician, consulted Bonpland on the dictator's illness. Bonpland recommended that the dictator drink an infusion of turibí root and use a plaster of queraya leaves as a poultice. After three weeks Francia was well, and immediately ordered the botanist expelled from the country. It is not known whether Francia did this as a reward for the alleviation of his rheumatism, or as a punishment for the rigors of the treatment. In any case, Bonpland was once again abruptly removed from his botanical and horticultural research.

Bonpland never returned to Europe, and lived to a fairly old age on his farm across the Paraná river from Paraguay where he continued his research while living in a house which, according to one source, was made out of straw and mud. For 28 years after his captivity he lived there primitively with his wife and his children. Supposedly he never used a knife and fork again, though he maintained a large botanical garden and herbarium until his death. I have read that Bonpland made a pilgrimage to Paraguay after Francia died, not to see his old enemy dead, but to pay his respects.

In his last letter to Humboldt, Bonpland said that he would like to bring his collections back to Europe, and return just once to Paris to catch up on the literature and the current state of science, and buy books. Then, Bonpland said, he could return to his home in the forests "surrounded by the splendor of nature" to die.

But Bonpland never saw Europe again.

Lost between the primitive world and the modern world to the very end, Bonpland directed that when he died his body be embalmed by the latest scientific techniques. His wish was carried out so well that a gaucho entering the room courteously greeted the corpse lying in state. When the apparently preoccupied old scientist disdained to reply, the gaucho became enraged and drew a long knife and plunged it into the dead man's heart.

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