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Triste Trinidad

The Loss of El Dorado

by V.S. Naipaul
Knopf, 334 pp., $7.50

I swear that this tobacco
It’s perfect Trinidado
By the very Mass
Never was
Better gear
Than is here….

The words floated down from the minstrels’ gallery during a feast at a Cambridge University college last December. They come from the Airs or Fantastic Spirits to Three Voices of Thomas Weelkes, and date from 1608. At the time of their composition, both tobacco and “Trinidado” had only quite recently impinged on the collective consciousness of Englishmen, many of whom may well have instinctively associated them with the name of the last of the great heroes of Elizabethan England, Sir Walter Raleigh. It was he who had helped to popularize the new craze for smoking; and he, too, who had introduced them to Trinidad in his best seller of 1596, The Discoverie of the Large and Bewtiful Empire of Guiana: “This iland of Trinidado hath the form of a sheep-hook and is but narrow; the north part is very mounteynous, the soile is very excellent…”

Tobacco, Trinidado…the association was automatic. But so, too, thanks to Raleigh, was another—Trinidado, El Dorado. For what else was Trinidad but the gateway to that fabulous realm, now believed to be located somewhere in the large and beautiful empire of Guiana, the realm of El Dorado? The legend was an old one—far older than Sir Walter Raleigh, who gave it an enhanced European currency and a new lease of life. Some time in the past, well before the first Spaniard has set foot on the mainland of South America, the Indians in the uplands of Bogotá had been accustomed to cover the body of one of their number with powdered gold and throw him into a sacred lake. The Spaniards first heard the story in the 1530s, and the search for El Dorado, the gilded one, was on.

From the first, it was a curiously unsatisfying search, for no one was quite sure what he sought or where it was to be found. The adventurers—Germans as well as Spaniards—who toiled over the hot plains of the vast stretch of land between the coasts of Venezuela and the banks of the Amazon struggled on in faith and hope, but were very short on charity. As was to be expected, frightened Indians told them what they wanted to hear—how, somewhere to the east (it was always to the east), there was not only a golden man, but even a golden city. It lay, they said, on the shores of a lake, ringed by high mountains. Its exact location was never quite clear, but eventually it acquired a name—the city of Manoa.

It was an elderly Spanish captain, Antonio de Berrio, a veteran of the European wars of Charles V and Philip II, who switched the direction of the quest from the central plains to the uplands of Guiana. Marching from Tunja he at last glimpsed a great cordillera, which must surely be the mountain range that hid the golden city. He devoted the rest of his life to heroic attempts to skirt the cordillera and penetrate to El Dorado.

His search took him down the Orinoco to the waters of the Atlantic, and it brought him, in September 1591, to the isle of Trinidad, which he perceived to be an ideal base for further expeditions along the Orinoco. In the following year his lieutenant, Domingo de Vera, formally settled the island, and Berrio laid his plans for a great new expedition. But Berrio proved to be one of those men who dream of great things and stumble over little ones. His life was dogged by ill luck, and in April 1595 fate played another cruel trick when Sir Walter Raleigh put in at Port of Spain with four ships, overpowered the garrison, and took Berrio into custody. At the same moment as Vera was triumphantly recruiting soldiers and colonists in Seville, Raleigh was quietly appropriating Berrio’s one remaining legacy, the secret of El Dorado.

It was Raleigh who preserved Berrio’s name for posterity, but it was not until the late Professor Harlow discovered his original reports to Philip II, and published them in 1928 in his edition of Raleigh’s Discovery of Guiana, that Berrio acquired a historical personality. What more can be said about Berrio beyond Harlow’s documents and commentary? Not, it must be confessed, very much. But Berrio, that last, obsessed relic of the age of the conquistadors, is as much a symbol as a person; and it is the symbolic elements in his strange story which have provided Mr. V.S. Naipaul with a theme to illuminate his own personal quest—the quest for Trinidad.

Mr. Naipaul is known as one of the most sensitive and imaginative novelists writing in the English language today. But, in The Loss of El Dorado, his gifts are turned in another direction, toward a kind of historical re-creation, which is neither exactly a novel nor exactly history, but which partakes of elements of both. The book, indeed, defies classification, and yet demands description, although it is simultaneously indescribable, idiosyncratic, and unique. Even to suggest that it is essentially concerned with Mr. Naipaul’s quest for his own homeland of Trinidad is, at best, a half-truth, for this suggests the kind of self-conscious exploration of a national soul that one might expect of the ordinary expatriate author. But there is nothing ordinary about Mr. Naipaul, and The Loss of El Dorado is a very extraordinary book indeed.

There was, perhaps, nothing very out of the ordinary in choosing to write about Berrio, Raleigh, and the search for El Dorado. Rather less obvious is the choice of subject for much of the second half of the book—the story of Colonel Picton, who became governor of Trinidad after the British seized the island from Spain in 1797. Picton, an irascible authoritarian who died a hero’s death at Waterloo, became the central figure in a famous London trial, in which he was accused of torturing a young girl in Trinidad, Luisa Calderón. Mr. Naipaul first came across this trial when perusing the Newgate Calendar, and then embarked on an exploration of the documentary sources which would reveal the background to the trial and illuminate the character of Picton’s fierce regime. This section of the book, therefore, is at once more intensively researched and fresher in its detail than the section devoted to Berrio and Raleigh.

The retelling of Picton’s story, well enough known during his lifetime and then quickly forgotten, would seen at first sight a straightforward piece of historical reconstruction, although concerned with a rather offbeat subject. The extraordinary character of the book lies not in its retelling of the El Dorado story alone, nor of the Picton story alone, but in the conjunction of the two. For the two stories, linked by a brief section on the island under Spanish rule, are ultimately interwoven into a kind of historical tapestry, designed to evoke life in Trinidad under colonial domination.

It is hard to imagine a professional historian ever conceiving of, and still less undertaking, such an apparently hopeless enterprise, for there seems little enough at first sight to connect Berrio’s search for El Dorado with the torture of a slave girl by a callous British officer two centuries later. But for a novelist, the imaginative leaps are more easily made. The themes and motifs which Mr. Naipaul handles so sensitively repeat themselves mysteriously. Parallels and antitheses constantly suggest themselves, like the differences and similarities between the English and Spanish temperaments, as represented by Raleigh and Berrio, Picton and the revolutionary conspirator, Miranda.

There is, too, the recurring theme of El Dorado, as glimpsed from Trinidad—an El Dorado whose character varies according to the hopes, ambitions, and temperaments of the men to whom Trinidad provided at least a temporary home. To Berrio, the conquistador, El Dorado meant fabulous wealth and a title of nobility. To Raleigh, the Elizabethan patriot, it meant a British empire in the heart of Spanish America. To Miranda it meant Colombia, an independent nation freed from Spanish tyranny. To hardheaded English merchants it meant a vast new market for British manufactures, and its Liverpool was Trinidad.

Trinidad a Liverpool, and a springboard to El Dorado…. This, for Mr. Naipaul, is the real irony, for he knows his Trinidad. In the end, he implies, all these dreams were vanity, for Trinidad is—Trinidad. In a key passage he writes that “Miranda was applying the concepts of Europe as words alone, accurate but misleading, to a simpler world: the Negro-worked plantations of Venezuela, the low wooden houses of Port of Spain, the muddy shore, the rough Spanish shops, the one printery.” This is the underlying theme of the book—the gulf between the European vision and the colonial reality. Nothing, he seems to suggest, was quite as it seemed from the outside; and all those who came to Trinidad—Berrio, Miranda, Picton himself—found themselves equally and inextricably involved in the same process, in “the local resentments, the colonial cutting-down-to-size.” Even Fullarton, the high-minded Scot who persecutes Picton, cannot escape. Trinidad defeats him as it defeats them all. But what is Trinidad? A dim, corrupt little society, bedevilled by racialism; an accidental potpourri of nationality, caste, and color, on the forgotten edge of the world.

There is an atmosphere of gentle hopelessness about Mr. Naipaul’s Trinidad, and it is an atmosphere which he re-creates with wonderful skill. The hopelessness is the hopelessness created by a colonial situation, but Mr. Naipaul is too subtle and too sensitive to indulge in tendentious denunciations of colonial officials, as if they were all tainted by the same degree of original sin. If anything, he displays a greater sympathy for Picton, the torturer, than for Fullarton, the do-gooder, who remains a shadowy figure, imperfectly achieved.

But in general it is the human sympathy of the book which is its most distinguishing, and distinguished, characteristic. The governors, the captains, the planters, the slaves—these characters are alive and described with deep feeling. Mr. Naipaul knows their foibles and their idiosyncrasies, and he laughs gently at them; but his capacity for gentle laughter never obscures a greater gift, the gift of compassion. The sense of what it was like to be a slave, the human suffering that slavery imposed, has nowhere been more sharply evoked than in The Loss of El Dorado.

In this capacity to enter imaginatively into a situation and to appreciate the supreme complexity of men and events, Mr. Naipaul shows the sensitivity which is the hallmark of the real historian. There are, however, certain other characteristics of his approach which a professional historian is likely to find disturbing. The professional attempts to impose a structure on the inchoate mass of facts. He is concerned with clarity of exposition and with a developing chronological sequence. Mr. Naipaul’s history is not structural history of this kind but, rather, history by free association; and its chronological framework is uncertain. Where the professional allows himself to be amused, but never seduced, by the tricks played by time, Mr. Naipaul, if anything, likes to play the tricks himself. The reader is never quite sure what is happening, or when and where it is happening. Mr. Naipaul might well reply that to impose a structure on the past is itself to distort the past, which is no more than a crazy mosaic pavement of events unfolding through the passage of time. He might reply, too, that the very non-sense of the past eventually makes its own kind of sense, and that this is the only sense worth having.

The argument is plausible, although it could be held to represent an abdication of the historian’s responsibility to give meaning to the past within a firm chronological frame. Evocation, like patriotism, is not enough. Nor does empathy of itself preclude the need for analysis. This is a book which should be read, and, in the end, each reader must decide for himself the measure of Mr. Naipaul’s success. When The Loss of El Dorado was first published in England, it was widely praised, and it delighted Mr. Naipaul’s admirers. For my part, I found it suggestive, often moving, and yet, for all its quality, ultimately unsatisfying. The clipped sentences become monotonous; the constant shifts of focus grow bewildering; the lack of structure makes the book at times hard going, and even slightly dull. But then, colonial Trinidad itself was no doubt pretty dull. Mr. Naipaul himself would be the first to see the irony.

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