Facundo, by Domingo F Sarmiento
This book was on my pile of books to be disposed of without reading (something of a necessity these days) – I think because it seemed, from the opening chapter, too much of a sociological / economic type history, rather than a kings and battles type history, which is the only kind of history Obooki likes. In reality it’s a mixture of both, and the sociological, and indeed geological, bit is of vast importance to Sarmiento’s ideas: – basically that Argentina is divided between a coastal area of European-influenced civilisation, and an interior area of barbaric pampas. Not that it’s that straight-forward, but essentially this is the conflict which Sarmiento sets up – the barbaric being personified in the character of Facundo Quiroga, brutal gaucho commander and ruler of some interior area of Argentina (where exactly anywhere in the hinterland of Argentina actually was, as described in this book, is beyond Obooki’s knowledge); and civilisation, pretty much, by the city of Buenos Aires (and such representatives as existed in other cities). Anyway, slowly Facundo, and other commanders such as Rosas, dismantle civilisation to replace it with their own barbarism.
It’s all interesting enough in itself, but what I found equally interesting was how much this book seeped into the other Spanish language books I was contemporaneously reading. The absolutism of Facundo, as a regional commander, over the people over whom he ruled – especially as regards any woman who took his fancy – reminded me remarkably of the position and attitude of the wicked commander in Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna – though without a king to restore order. Facundo’s ultimate death, in which his arrogance of his own prowess leads him to being incautious, is much the same of Don Alonso’s in Lope de Vega’s The Knight of Olmedo. Almost as if Facundo is merely a character born out of these earlier stories, a physical extension of old Spanish notions of honour and manliness.
And then there’s Borges. He has a quote on the back of my edition, claiming Facundo to be the “most memorable character of Argentine literature”. Maybe so, but I can’t help thinking Borges is even more influenced by Sarmiento’s juxtaposition of civilisation and barbarism, for he seems in his own stories to be obsessed by the idea (and the idea of contemporary events in reality seeming to be of different eras, and events in different eras being contemporary) – e.g. the story I read yesterday, The Story of the Warrior and the Captive (the reaction of a barbarous man coming into contact with civilisation; and a civilisation woman transported into a world of barbarism). Hopefully it will help me understand a bit more all his stories about gauchos and knife-fights.
Anyway, I’m glad I decided to read it, rather than give it away.
Reasons of State, by Alejo Carpentier
Already one of my favourite Latin American writers, especially for Explosion in a Cathedral (less so the books I’ve read since), I was very taken by the first half of this book, but I did get bogged down for a long time in the middle. It’s another of your typical Latin American dictator novels (as, in many ways, is Facundo). This time our hero is the dictator of an unnamed Latin American country around the time of the first world war, who spends as much of his time as he can living in France, only occasionally having to return to the world over there in order to suppress insurrections against his rule. But the world is changing; his brutal methods of suppression in his own country are being publicised in the US and Europe, and his friends in high society are increasingly refusing to see him. Now the spectre of communism too threatens his overthrow.
I liked all of Carpentier’s rich language, but to me his downfall is his obsession with lists, in which he perhaps could challenge the great Emile Zola.
In Spanish the book’s title is El Recurso del Metodo, which I take to mean “recourse to the method” (a phrase which appears in the book) – the method in this case being the one of retaining power, which works repeatedly, as they say, right up to the moment when it doesn’t; but also seems to have reference to Descartes, whose quotes appear constantly as chapter headings (though I don’t really remember Descartes being so political). On the other hand, bearing in mind the subject matter, Reasons of State is an equally sensible title. I’m just left wondering why they changed it. It was also published by an organisation called The Writers and Readers Publishing Co-operative – a name which makes me think of some sort of anarcho-syndicalist publisher – and yet I wonder if this book espouses exactly the ideology they imagine: – I don’t know Carpentier’s affliation, but to my mind he spends far too much time in the book describing the Parisian life of decadence and wealth, for any reader to think he was wholly opposed to it. You’d hardly mistake it anyway for socialist realism.