The Green House
On its polite and somehow always politic annual round, the Nobel Prize was given in 1967 to Miguel Angel Asturias, who is known as an important Guatemalan diplomat and a sensitive novelist of the older generation. Strong Wind is the first volume, the publisher tells us, of his Banana Republic trilogy. It is nervously described as “controversial”—surely no one is still frightened of upsetting American fruit companies! How far the story of colonialist finance, etc., is ultimately analyzed, we can’t yet tell in the English version. In the present volume, the theme appears to be that the early planters did something bold, romantic, epic, and humanly valuable; but that their successors, the American financial operators, have dehumanized an economy and reduced human beings to the condition of a crop that has the mere precarious value of a foreign investment. To guarantee the steady return from a product liable to disease or glut there must be monopoly: the foreign worker is strapped to the machine and is supposed to like this as much as people in Chicago do. He doesn’t, because he has lost control of his own way of life. If some eccentric rebels—as occurs in this book—and tries to break the monopoly, gangster action is introduced to stop him. The only force stronger than all parties is Nature, in the form of tropical disease, ruinous heat, and hurricane.
Strong Wind is a very Thirty-ish novel of sensibility and indignation. It doesn’t seem possible for any novelist working on the colonialist subject to present exploiters and exploited in the same idiom and equally well. The wretched Americans from the States who run the monopoly and have to bear the burden of most of the serious discussion are novelistically not up to it. They talk like “think” extracts from The Reader’s Digest and are mainly concerned with their meaningless divorces and remarriages, and are plastered regularly every evening. It is true there is one lady who likes Mozart and “the natives.” Also—with I’m afraid rather conventional Latin-American malice about American women—we are presented with a tennis-playing Lesbian. Since Keyserling’s days no South American believes there is such a thing as an American female heterosexual. In short, the portraits of the North Americans are simply like the glad, null, clothes wearers and whiskey drinkers of the New Yorker advertisements.
The Guatemalan peasants on the plantation are a different matter. Here the novelist is writing about what he knows. They are close to pain and fatality and are ten times more alive. Here, in his descriptions of the scene and his sudden Faulkner-like skids into sensation images, Señor Asturias shows his painterly and perhaps secretly religious quality:
The movements of the cutting crew at the foot of a banana tree which looked like a green cross resembled those of Jews with ladders and spears as they tried to lift down a green Christ who had been changed into a bunch of bananas which descended among arms and ropes and was received with great care, as if it were a case of an over-delicate being and being carried off in small carts to receive its sacramental bath and be placed in a bag with special cushions inside.
Señor Asturias is one of the many Latin Americans who have been influenced by Joyce and Faulkner. This dates him, but in a way that is interesting and not at all to his discredit. As an artist he is a very conscious, visual cosmopolitan, at once a skeptical aesthete and a man of deep social conscience. As a novelist he will cut his scenes sharply, move adroitly from mind to mind, stand outside his material and watch it closely. So to Joyce and Faulkner he goes for the sudden swoops into the images of consciousness, but not for its rigmarole. He is at his best when he does a serious long scene in the classical fashion. There is a very moving account of the wake for a young mother in which every gesture is noted and beautifully placed. It is an unforgettable short story. It is in short things that Latin Americans do well.
Mario Vargas Llosa is a young Peruvian novelist in his thirties who, after leaving the university in Lima, took the classic Grand Tour to Madrid and Paris. He has written a volume of short stories and two novels: the last, The Green House, got the Romulo Gallegos Award in 1967. The great geographical mess as the traveler who had the energy and curiosity would see it in its raw intimacy is of great importance to novelists like Llosa: they also feel they are establishing the raw history of a region, waking up the thousands of lives that might otherwise never be known about, but not in the manner of historical record. The novel is reckoned to be a living archives. The country Llosa has chosen lies at the extreme north of Peru, inland from Piura in the coastal desert. He is an excellent descriptive writer.
As it crosses the dune region the wind that comes down off the Andes heats and stiffens; reinforced with sand, it follows the course of the river, and when it gets to the city it can be seen floating between the earth and the sky like a dazzling layer of armour. It empties out its insides there: every day of the year, at dusk, a dry rain, fine as sawdust, ceasing only at dawn, falls on the squares, the roofs, the towers….
The wind suffocates, the sand pricks the skin and in Piura rubs peoples’ faces raw. When they pass through the Andes into the upper Amazon there is another torture; in fact Nature is always the torturer. Damp, rotting heat, rain, knee-deep mud will knock out, for example, a group of soldiers who are taking nuns up to the mission at Santa Maria de Nieva. A botfly is sucking away at Sister Patrocino’s forehead, the river banks give off a burning, sticky mist; the launch with its load of half-naked soldiers and leathery nuns is, almost comically, escorted by butterflies, gnats, wasps and horseflies and parrots. (“But they gave you diarrhea, sister, that is they loosened up a person’s stomach.”)
The characters are (first of all) this suffering posse of soldiers who are frightened of the Indians, but who would like to get hold of some Indian girls if they dared. The nuns have a terrible time stopping the mission girls running away to be prostitutes: increase of status! You stop being savage, become less bored, and wear shoes. The troops are also after a Japanese smuggler—this is wartime, but which war we are in is not clear—who has the art of getting the Indian rubber. (Is he smuggling it into Ecuador?) Down from regions like this an indescribable collection of wanderers filters into Piura where the money is good. Soon the need for drink and women, gaiety, cards, drives them to the Green House, the brothel outside the city; for criminals, the typical shack town population, there is the Mangacheria quarter.
The theme of the novel? It has none that I can discern, and one has very much the sense of being a drifting traveler. But there is a purpose: to instill tolerance and get into the mind of the outcast or mass population which is culturally stagnant, dumb, and numerically dominant, to catch what they are saying. Llosa gives himself up to the habits of speech and narration of his people and abandons a good deal of the classic bourgeois belief in imposing an order; he shows a people sustaining themselves on private mythology, the primitive rigmarole of their pasts, their daydreams, passions, dreads, and interests. One is made to live in the interminable dish-washing chatter of primitive minds and one is forced to work out for oneself who is thinking or saying what. One might write off the following passage in which Lalita waits for her smuggler as that of the innumerable progeny of Molly Bloom or Malone or Molloy; but you do gradually discern a picture, and once you’ve learned the Beckett trick of reading in mouthfuls, things are clearer.
He came back the same as when he had left, his head shaved, annatto stripes that were like lash marks, and she they went off on an expedition, they needed him so much, for up there, why didn’t you say goodbye? towards Lake Rimachi did he know the Rimache? are they fierce? would they fight with the boss or would they give him their rubber willingly? Jum. The Huambisas went to look for him, and Pantacha they probably killed him, boss, they hate him, and Nieves the pilot I dont think so, they’ve become friends, and Fushia they’re capable of it, those bastards, and Jum they didn’t kill me, I went back there and now I’m here, was he going to stay? yes. The boss would scold him, but dont leave, Jum, he would get over it soon, and besides, deep down, didn’t he like him? and Fushia a little crazy, Lalita, but useful, he was a good convincer. White men really devils. Aguaruna, agh? would he talk to them? Jum, boss tricking, lying agh? Lalita, if you could see how he works with them, he shouts at them, begs them, dances for them, and they yes, yes, Aguaruna agh, with their hands and their heads, agh, and always they are willing to give them the rubber. What do you tell them, Jum, tell me how you convince them, and Fushia but someday they’d kill him and who the fuck would take his place. And she are you sure you dont want to go back to Urakusa? do you really hate white men so much? us, too? and Pantacha yes, Ma’am, because they beat him, and Nieves then why doesn’t he kill us in our sleep, and Fushia we’re his revenge, and she is it true they hung him from a capirona? and he he’s crazy, Lalita, not stupid, did you scream when they burned you? and very good at making traps, there’s nobody better at hunting and fishing, did he have a wife? did they kill her? and if there’s no good Jum goes into the woods and comes back with cashew birds, wild turkeys, partridges, did you paint yourself up to remind yourself of the whipping? and once they saw him kill a chuchupe snake with his blowgun, Lalita, he knows those people are his enemies, right, Jum? the ones that Fushia leaves without any good, dont think that he’s helping me because of my pretty face.
Llosa is an impressionist of sorts, who is trying to seem inside his material, breathing it, smelling it, sweating it out. He has a burning eye for detail. I suppose one merit of his difficult and exhausting allusiveness is that it saves him from standard Latin American rhetoric in his big scenes. But, as I have said earlier, there seems no particular reason for his narrative beyond the pathos of record; and anyone who has seen South American wretchedness will see the importance of that. It is really a relief not to have the underworld or the outcast preached at one from this point of view or that. Faced by subject matter like his, a Latin American novelist does something important when he makes the voices of jungle or desert ghettos audible to us.