Going South for the Winter

Novelist and World Traveler Paul Theroux

Paul Theroux has had an immense influence on my life. When I first read The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas in 1981, I knew that I wanted to travel as he did. But I couldn’t: I was stuck in a demanding job, and many of the places I wanted to visit, such as Guatemala, Peru, and Argentina, were undergoing hard times; and travel there was not recommended by our State Department.

But the years have passed, and travel to Latin America is not so problematic any more. (Though, now, parts of Mexico are dangerous—including many cities, such as Veracruz, which I have visited.)

After writing books about traveling by rail through Asia and China, about traveling around the coasts of Britain and the Mediterranean, and about island-hopping in the South Pacific, Theroux spent four winters traveling through the Deep South, concentrating on poor small towns in Georgia, the Carolinas, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. His book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, opened my eyes to why Trump won in 2016. Theroux’s South was a place where people were more civil to strangers than in other parts of the country. Yet there is a great deal of poverty, and many of its people feel they have been shunted aside by history, large corporations, and general neglect.

Theroux, the world traveler, spent those four winters dealing with people who, for the most part, never traveled abroad. He spent more time with Black Americans than with Whites. Both racists are as far apart as ever, yet there are glimmers of hope. And the hope is not from Washington and New York, where all the money is concentrated, but from local people who bring about incremental improvements rather than global change.

He is older and wiser after his forty-odd years of travel. “The greatest advantage to being an older traveler is being invisible, unregarded, ignored. This allows one to eavesdrop and to see much more of a place or a people. There is a detachment, too, in being older: You’re not looking for a new life, not easily tempted. So you see a place clearly. Perfect for writing.”

The travels that went into the making of this book took place before the electoral debacle of 2016, but one could see the widespread willingness to try something new, to talk to somehow who promised to “Make America Great Again.” Not that this administration will anything to help them. A trade war with China would hurt voters in Trump country far more than voters in the Northeast and West.

 

My Best of 2017

German Author W. G. Sebald (1944-2001)

Below is a list of my favorite books from 2017. Most are fiction, with some occupying the in-between zone, and only two are outright non-fiction. The only name which is repeated from 2016 is that of Patrick Modiano, about whom I posted yesterday. The 14 books listed below are in alphabetic order by the names of their authors. This year, I have also included the country of origin.

  • Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (US). I was tempted to also include The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols, but of the two New Mexico novels, I think Anaya’s is the better.
  • Teju Cole, Open City (US). Cole’s Nigerian-American viewpoint is incredible. I am keeping my eye on this writer.
  • Ry Cooder, Los Angeles Stories (US). Granted, Cooder is a great musician; but he’s also got the makings of a great writer. I would love to see more from him.
  • Antonio di Benedetto, Zama (Argentina). This New York Review title introduces a writer unknown to Americans, but well known to South Americans. A Spanish government official in Paraguay finds his ambition is constantly being thwarted.
  • Joan Didion, South and West, From a Notebook (US). This is an old title that is just now being released. Didion’s 40-year-old observations of Dixie are still relevant.
  • David Goodis, Dark Passage (US). A noir masterpiece, far better even than the Bogart movie based on it.
  • Indriðason, Arnaldur, Reykjavík Nights (Iceland). Indriðason is a world-class mystery writer, and he seems to be getting better and better.
  • Patrick Modiano, After the Circus (France). A young man falls for an older woman he first sees at a police interrogation.
  • Natsume Soseki, The Gate (Japan). A real find: This quiet writer is a deep one. Even if he died early in the 20th century, his books read as if they were written yesterday. (This writer is not outside of alphabetic order: Natsume is his family name)
  • Raymond Queneau, The Last Days (France). A coming-of-age story with seven characters set in the 1920s.
  • Jonathan Raban, Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings (US). Ostensibly a travel book, but a great one. Real life intervenes twice in the author’s solo sailing voyage up Alaska’s Inside Passage.
  • W G Sebald, The Emigrants (Germany). A book about people who have for various reasons emigrated from their home countries (like Sebald himself), and find themselves in a strange in-between place.
  • Marina Tsvetaeva, Selected Poems (Russia). By far the best poems I have read last year.
  • John Williams, Stoner (US). No, nothing to do with drugs. Professor Stoner is an English instructor at a Midwestern college, and we see how his life plays out.

 

Serendipity: “A Pretty Girl with an Arid Heart”

Patrick Modiano in 1968, the Year His First Novel Was Published

I have just finished reading the book whose cover is shown above. It is an autobiographical essay by a Nobel-Prize-winning (2014) author that covers the years from his earliest childhood to the publication of his first book in 1968. I believe I have mentioned elsewhere that Patrick Modiano is by far my favorite living French author. He is approximately the same age as I am, and I feel a unique kinship with him and his work. So far I have read six books by him, and I am just getting started.

His autobiographical essay Pedigree: A Memoir is painful to read. The author was raised—or I should rather say neglected by—two parents who did not particularly care to see him and shunted him off to various boarding schools, the farther apart from Paris the better. Below is a savage description of his mother, who was a small-time actress:

She was a pretty girl with an arid heart. Her fiancé [after her divorce from Patrick’s father] had given her a chow-chow, but she didn’t take care of it and left it with various people, as she would later do with me. The chow-chow killed itself by leaping from a window. The dog appears in two or three photos, and I have to admit he touches me deeply and that I feel a great kinship with him.

 

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris

It was almost twenty years ago that Martine and I were wandering through Paris’s gigantic Père Lachaise cemetery in the 20th Arrondissement. There were a number of surprises, one of which was the grave of Miguel Ángel Asturias, who died in 1974. Rising above a bronze funerary plaque is a Maya stela similar to the ones found at the ruins of Quiriguá in his native country. To this day, he is Central America’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, which was awarded to him in 1967.

I have been interested in visiting Guatemala for many years. During the time I was most available to go, Guatemala was in the middle of fighting an armed insurrection by a mostly Maya peasantry who were tired of being forced off their land, enslaved, or massacred. Between 1960 and 1966, some 200,000 Guatemalans died fighting, mostly Maya campesinos. I have just finished re-reading Asturias’s first major novel, El Señor Presidente, set during the presidency of Manuel Estrada Cabrera, who ruled from 1898 to 1920. I have been a big Asturias fan since 1975.

Miguel Ángel Asturias

Now that I am pretty much decided on Guatemala as my next vacation destination, I will add at least two or three more Asturias novels to the ones I have already read. To date, I have finished:

  • El Señor Presidente (1946), his most famous novel
  • Men of Maize (1949)
  • Strong Wind (1950), the first volume of the United Fruit Company trilogy
  • Mulata (1963)

I plan to finish the other two volumes in the trilogy—The Green Pope (1954) and The Eyes of the Interred (1960)—both of which were translated by Gregory Rabassa, one of my favorite translators from the Spanish.

Although Asturias is so identified with the Maya, it is interesting to note that he comes from a well-to-do Creole family that could trace its origins back to 1660.

B Traven and the Jungle Novels

British Arrest Photo for Ret Marut (B Traven?)

One of the mysteries of 20th century literature was the identity of B Traven, who is probably best known for having written the novel that the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1947) was based on. In the late 1960s I first ran into the subject from a leftist magazine, probably Ramparts, which in the 1960s speculated that Traven was a German author and anarchist named Ret Marut who fled to Mexico in the early 1920s.

While in Mexico, B Traven wrote a series of novels that dealt with the exploitation of the Indian population by Europeans and Ladinos (Europeanized Mestizos). In addition to The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927) and The Bridge in the Jungle (1929), which I think is his masterpiece, he published six Jungle Novels:

  • Government (1931)
  • The Carreta (1931)
  • The March to the Monteria, a.k.a. The March to Caobaland (1933)
  • Trozas (1936)
  • The Rebellion of the Hanged (1936)
  • A General from the Jungle (1940)

To date, I have real all but Trozas, but I am about to remedy that within the next few weeks.

Traven lived in Mexico until his death (at the age of 87?) in 1969.

 

“Perhaps the Most Interesting Book of Travel Ever Published”

Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849)

As soon as I saw that one of the fans of travel writer John Lloyd Stephens was none other than Edgar Allan Poe, I was intrigued. Although I have the lengthy Library of America collection of Poe’s Essays and Reviews, I could not find any mention of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán among the reviews, I did find this intriguing note on the Internet. It is from an 1841 issue of Graham’s Magazine:

We are not prepared to say that misunderstandings of this character will be found in the present “Incidents of Travel.” Of Central America and her antiquities Mr. Stephens may know, and no doubt does know, as much as the most learned antiquarian. Here all is darkness. We have not yet received from the Messieurs Harper a copy of the book, and can only speak of its merits from general report and from the cursory perusal which has been afforded us by the politeness of a friend. The work is certainly a magnificent one — perhaps the most interesting book of travel ever published. An idea has gone abroad that the narrative is confined to descriptions and drawings of Palenque; but this is very far from the case. Mr. S. explored no less than six ruined cities. The “incidents,” moreover, are numerous and highly amusing. The traveller visited these regions at a momentous time, during the civil war, in which Carrera and Morazan were participants. He encountered many dangers, and his hair-breadth escapes are particularly exciting.

I find it interesting that Poe committed himself so far without actually having a copy of the book in hand. Perhaps he saw the proofs or an advanced copy, as he hints above. I will continue to search to see whether Poe actually did write a more comprehensive review of the book.

 

Letters of Transit

Prop from the Film Casablanca: The Letter of Transit

I have just finished reading a magnificent novel by Anna Seghers entitled Transit (1944). At the time it was being written—around 1942—a film entitled Casablanca was being made starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. The film’s “maguffin,” as Alfred Hitchcock would have called it, are certain letters of transit that have been stolen from Nazi authorities allowing the bearer to leave Morocco for any desired destination.

Such was the film’s premise. Above is the prop used as the Letter of Transit, duly filled out in the name of Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) and wife. Note, however, that the issuer is the “State of France.” At the end of the film, the Laszlos fly to Lisbon from Casablanca, en route to the United States. Strictly speaking, the so-called Letter of Transit is only an exit visa and does not bear the stamp of the Portuguese consul, let alone the American one.

Transit by Anna Seghers

Anna Segher’s novel tells the tale of refugees from the approaching Nazi terror gathered in Marseilles, trying vainly to collect the series of official papers that would:

  1. Allow them to leave Marseilles legally. The document above appears to be an exit visa rather than a letter of transit.
  2. Pass through other countries en route to their final destination. These are the actual letters of transit, and must be stamped by the consular authorities for each country along the way.
  3. A visa allowing entry to their final destination.
  4. Tickets for transportation along each leg of the journey.

Transit follows various Europeans frantically trying to collect the necessary paperwork before any of the stamped legal papers in their possession expire, which would require them to re-start the process.

Quoted in Segher’s novel is this passage from 2 Corinthians 11:25-26:

Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often; in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils of the city, in perils of the wilderness, in perils of the sea, in perils among false brethren.

More Props: The Passports of Victor Laszlo (Here Misspelled) and Ilsa Lund

The hero of Transit is a German worker and prison camp escapee named Seidler who has assumed the identity of a writer named Weidel who, despairing, had committed suicide in Paris. Curiously, he has no desire to leave Marseilles, finding the city to be a destination in its own right. (It wasn’t: The Germans eventually occupied it.) He runs into Weidel’s wife, is attracted to her, and finally merely helps her to leave, deciding to stay behind:

It’s true, I realized. Everything just passes through me. And that’s why I was still roving about unharmed in a world in which I didn’t know my way well at all. Indeed, even the fit of anger that had decided my life back then in my own country was only temporary. I didn’t stay angry; I wandered around afterward, my anger gone. What I really like is what endures, that which is different from me.

I was so blown away by this book that I regard Seghers as the peer of Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse, and behind only Franz Kafka (who wrote in German). She is probably best known for The Seventh Cross, which was filmed in 1944 by director Fred Zinnemann starring Spencer Tracy and Signe Hasso. During the Second World War, she lived in Mexico, having escaped Marseilles like some of her characters in Transit. She ended up after the war living in East Germany.