Emeric Toth’s Recurring Nightmare (Repost)

Chamula Girl with Plastic Bucket

This is a repost from my Blog.Com site on January 26, 2009:

It was a recurring dream that I would have at least once a week. In November 1980, I spent a week at San Cristóbal de Las Casas in the State of Chiapas, Mexico. The town was known as a market town for the Highland Mayan peoples from San Juan Chamula, Zinacantán, Tenejapa, and other villages. In the city market, tourists are besieged by little Chamula girls selling crude handmade dolls. They come up to you, caress the doll, and coo to it softly. It was hard for anyone to resist. My Chamula doll is still propped up in my library in the Latin American literature section.

My revised edition of Michael Shawcross’s San Cristóbal de Las Casas City and Area Guide (San Cristóbal: Guadalupe de la Peña, June 1979) made reference to a local restaurant called Normita’s. In it, Shawcross wrote: “1E and 1S on Av. Benito Juárez. Pleasant, candle-lit atmosphere. Friendly owner (fine classical guitar-player). Try the Jalisco-style Pozole. The Huevos Motuleños are particularly fine. Beer/wine. Open afternoons and evenings only.” The 1E and 1S placed the restaurant one block southeast of the Zócalo.

Except, it wasn’t there. I had crawled all around the southeastern part of the city until I finally stumbled upon it. I spent all my small bills on the Jalisco-style Pozole, which was quite good and very filling. (If you’ve never had pozole, I suggest you try it on a cold day—and make sure it has a lot of hot chiles in it.)

When I emerged from a restaurant, I was accosted by a little Indian girl in tears carrying an empty plastic bucket. I could not give her anything because the smallest bill I had at the time was a 100-peso note, at the time worth about $12.00. Even if I were so warm-hearted as to have given it to her, her parents would probably have thought she stole it or did something nasty with one of the tourists, and then beaten her for her pains. I shook my head sadly and walked down the street, followed by the little girl, crying as if her world had tumbled down about her head. Had she lost something? Had she lost the money her parents had given her? I never knew.

That is my dream, being followed down a dark Mexican street by a poor little Indian girl with an empty plastic bucket, beseeching me for a few pesos which I didn’t have while drenched in tears.

La Difunta Correa and Other Saints

Some Saints You’ve Never Heard Of Before

This is a repost from Multiply.Com which I wrote some ten years ago:

Oh, oh! I’ve been thinking about Argentina again, and that means you’re going to hear about some more really obscure (but, IMHO fascinating) stuff.

To begin with, Argentina is such a Catholic country that it had to create additional saints native to its own soil. Let’s begin with La Difunta Correa, which means, literally, the Dead Correa:

According to popular legend, Deolinda Correa was a woman whose husband was forcibly recruited around the year 1840, during the Argentine civil wars. Becoming sick, he was then abandoned by the Montoneras [partisans]. In an attempt to reach her sick husband, Deolinda took her baby child and followed the tracks of the Montoneras through the desert of San Juan Province. When her supplies ran out, she died. Her body was found days later by gauchos that were driving cattle through, and to their astonishment found the baby still alive, feeding from the deceased woman’s “miraculously” ever-full breast. The men buried the body in present-day Vallecito, and took the baby with them. [from Wikipedia] All over the country, there are roadside shrines to La Difunta Correa, many surrounded by gifts left by truck drivers and travelers in a hope for a safe journey to their destination. Remember that Argentina is the eighth largest country on earth, and that distances can be farther than one ever imagines, especially on unpaved ripio roads.

There are two other popular saints with shrines all across the nation: Gauchito Gil (“Little Gaucho Gil”) and El Ángelito Milagroso, a.k.a. Miguel Ángel Gaitán.

Gauchito Gil hails from the state of La Rioja. A farmworker, Gil was seduced by a wealthy widow. When the police chief, who also had a thing for the widow, and her brothers came after Gil, he joined the army in the War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay (perhaps the bloodiest war ever fought in the Americas, with the exception of our own Civil War). When he returned home, the Army came after him to join in one of Argentina’s many civil wars. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Gauchito deserted. He was discovered by the police, who wanted to execute him. Whereupon Gil prophesied to the head of the police detail that if he were merciful, the officer’s child, who was gravely ill, would get better. Instead of being shown mercy, Gil was executed.

When he returned home, the police officer found that his son was indeed very ill. So he prayed to Gauchito Gil, and his son got better. It was this police officer who returned to the scene of the execution, gave Gil a proper burial, and built a shrine in his memory. Today there are hundreds of such shrines scattered throughout the country.

By the way, the Gauchito is not the only deserter hero in Argentina’s past. Perhaps the national epic is Martin Fierro by José Hernández, about a gaucho who deserts from the so-called “Conquest of the Desert”—really a war of genocide against the native tribes of the Pampas—and is pursued by the police militia.

The Nineteenth Century in Argentina was unusually bloody, what with civil war, wars against the native peoples, and wars against other countries such as Paraguay and Brazil. So it is not unusual to find deserters as heroes, which is unthinkable in Europe and North America.

Finally, there is another La Rioja “saint” named Miguel Ángel Gaitán, El Ángelito Milagroso, who died at the tender age of one in 1967. When his body didn’t rot, the locals thought that meant it was supposed to be exposed for veneration—and so it was.

The Great Yes and the Great No

This posting originated on Blog.Com on August 16, 2009.

Today, as I was walking along the beach in Venice, I started thinking about sand castles. Then I saw this gem of a poem by Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933). If you have ever read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, you will remember Cavafy as the “poet of the city” who is not named but whose spirit pervades Alexandria, the city where he was born and lived much of his life. In his own words:

I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria—at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French, and a little Italian.

Here is one of my favorite poems of his:

Che fece …. il gran rifiuto

 

To certain people there comes a day
when they must say the great Yes or the great No.
He who has the Yes ready within him
immediately reveals himself, and saying it he goes

against his honor and his own conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Should he be asked again,
he would say no again. And yet that no—
the right no—crushes him for the rest of his life.

Never the Twain Shall Meet

Thomas Hart Benton Mural of Huck with N-Word Jim

This is a re-post from my January 7, 2011 blog for the late unlamented Multiply.Com.

As one who has frequently been accused of speaking in an “inappropriate” way, I am still grateful that no one has attempted to apply a muzzle to my face. (Not that some haven’t been thinking about it.) If someone tried, I would resist—which is more than poor Mark Twain can do a hundred years after his death.

Unless you have spent the last few weeks visiting the moons of Jupiter, you’ve probably heard that some publisher has attempted to bowdlerize Huckleberry Finn by giving the slave Nigger Jim a more respectable name, and I don’t mean Reginald or Percival. It’s the first word of his name—the so-called N-word—that many find objectionable.

So be it! While I would never venture to call a person of color a nigger under any circumstances, I find any attempt to tinker with a great author’s work objectionable on the face of it. If the name “Nigger Jim” is objectionable, I suggest that the offended parties restrict themselves to reading kiddie books written by the oh-so-politically-correct.

You can’t wipe out the sins of the past as if with an eraser on a clean board: People thought and wrote differently then. The past, they say, is a different country.

Yet it has not stopped people from trying. In the Eighteenth Century, Shakespeare’s plays were substantially re-written before being put on the stage—just to make them more acceptable. As soon as the powder fell out from peoples’ wigs, the changes were canned and the original was restored.

So you PC types can get all het up about this nonsense. Me, I’m going to go home and read Joseph Conrad’s The Afro-American of the Narcissus.

The picture above is a detail from a mural by Thomas Hart Benton of Huck Finn and Colored-Person James from the Missouri State Museum.

The Unthinking Detective

Belgian-Born Mystery Writer Georges Simenon (1903-1989)

The following is a slightly modified reprint of a posting from March 3, 2013. I have just finished reading Georges Simenon’s Maigret and the Killer and decided to look up a five-year-old review of an earlier Maigret novel.

Sometimes I am surprised that Georges Simenon’s work is not part of the university literature curriculum. After all, he did for France what Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and James M. Cain did for the United States and what G. K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James, and Josephine Tey did for Britain. Although he was a more prolific mystery writer than all the other above mentioned authors put together, his work could stand comparison with the best.

Inspector Maigret is a mystery in his own right. Unlike Edgar Allan Poe’s notion of a tale of ratiocination, Inspector Cadaver gives us a detective who absorbs with the help of intuition more than he reasons from dry facts. In fact, his case comes together when one of the characters, Alban Groult-Cotelle, quite unnecessarily, presents a receipt as alibi that he was not involved in a murder—before it was ever suspected that he was involved. Maigret’s response is classic: “Don’t you know … that there is a saying in the police force that he that has has the best alibi is all the more suspect?”

That starts the Inspector on a train of thought:

The minute he left the house, an idea had occurred to him. It was not even an idea, but something vaguer, so vague that he was now striving to recapture the memory of it. Every now and then, an insignificant occurrence, usually a whiff of something barely caught, reminds us in the space of a second of a particular moment in our life. It is such a vivid sensation that we are gripped by it and want to cling to this living reminder of that moment. It disappears almost at once and with it all recollection of the experience. Try as we might, we end up wondering, for want of an answer to our questions, if it was not an unconscious evocation of a dream, or, who knows, of some pre-existent world?

I love reading about Maigret’s train of thought, because it is not only unique in the genre, but fascinating as an expression of the French concept of débrouillage, working one’s way through a mental fog.

In a few pages more, we see some progress has been made:

At such moments, Maigret seemed to puff himself up out of all proportion and become slow-witted and stodgy, like someone blind and dumb who is unaware of what is going on around him. Indeed, if anyone not forewarned was to walk past or talk to Maigret when he was in one of these moods, he would more than likely take him for a fat idiot or a fat sleepyhead.

“So, you’re concentrating on your thoughts?” said someone who prided himself on his psychological perception.

And Maigret had replied with comic sincerity:

“I never think.”

And it was almost true. For Maigret was not thinking now, as he stood in the damp, cold street. He was not following through an idea. One might say he was rather like a sponge.

Try to get Sherlock Holmes or Philip Marlowe to admit to something like this! He never thinks, and the facts come to him the way a sponge absorbs water. What Maigret does is allow the patterns to form by themselves in his mind. Then, he is ready to pounce!

Inspector Cadaver was published in 1944 during the War in a France under German occupation, and its atmosphere of grimness partakes of the time. And yet, and yet, Simenon, whenever he sets a tale in the provinces, creates an intriguing combination of ugly weather and pompous, ugly characters.

 

Very Old Water

Lower Emerald Pool at Zion National Park

This is a re-post from the visit Martine and I made to the National Parks of Utah in 2007. Minor changes have been made to this post originally dated October 4, 2007.

We were on a walk and ride with one of Zion’s park rangers when we learned an interesting fact. As we stood at a viewpoint looking at little-visited Menu Falls, the ranger explained that the water seeping from the sandstone cliffs had taken a long journey from the top of the cliff down to where it descended to the Virgin River. In fact, it took 2,000 years.

When the water that poured out of the cliffs along their base appeared as rain on the Colorado Plateau, Caesar Augustus was Emperor of Rome and Jesus Christ still walked the earth.

The sandstone that formed the cliffs of Zion National Park was formed from massive dunes that once covered the area. Then the area was under water some 260 million years ago, part of prehistoric Lake Claron. Calcium carbonate from the water seeped down to the sand and helped cement it into sandstone, along with the massive weight of the lake itself, so that millions of years later, it served as a slow and massive sponge that soaked up rainfall and sent it on a long, slow journey until it reached the base of the cliff two millenia later.

Illustrated above is another one of those falls, at Lower Emerald Pool. In the extreme heat of Zion, Martine and I rested on a boulder with the deep shade and stray drops of cool (and very old) water helping us keep comfortable. The ranger had also mentioned that the sandstone purified the water in the process, but Martine and I had cool water in our canteens. I always take the precaution of leaving our canteens in the freezer so that we can be refreshed later in the day during our hikes.