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Authors: Norman Lewis

View of the World

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A View
of the World

Selected Journalism

NORMAN LEWIS

MOST OF THESE PIECES were originally written at the instigation of the
New Yorker
, the
Sunday Times
, the Observer and the
New
Statesman
, to whose editors I make grateful acknowledgement. The first ten pieces were included in
The Changing Sky
(first published in 1959), the next eight are collected within a book for the first time; the final two have never previously been published.

Since the time of writing, changes of political direction have taken place in one or two countries about which I wrote. Occasionally, where it may interest the reader, I have added a date in square brackets; but I have made no attempt to bring the accounts up to date by reference to recent happenings, because what interested me was the background, and the style of life in a country, rather than the colour of threads in the political web.

TRAVEL CAME BEFORE WRITING. There was a time when I felt that all I wanted from life was to be allowed to remain a perpetual spectator of changing scenes. I managed my meagre supply of money so as to be able to surrender myself as much as possible to this addiction, and charged with a wonderful ignorance I went abroad by third-class train, country bus, on foot, by canoe, by tramp steamer and by Arab dhow.

My travels started with Spain, where in the early thirties a
fonda
would furnish a windowless cell and an austere meal of bread, sausage and wine for the equivalent of a shilling; when Pedro Flores Atocha, last of the flamboyant bandits of Andalusia, was receiving the first of the Spanish film actresses in his mountain hideout, and you sometimes saw a picture of Lenin, or of the bullfighter Belmonte, in the places later occupied by a portrait of General Franco. In this then relatively incorruptible country, where merely by leaving the main road you could plunge immediately into Europe’s prehistoric past, I spent – divided over a number of visits – a total of about three years, and I still go there to get away from the insipidity of modern times whenever I can, although the Spain of old has only survived in a few relatively inaccessible parts of the interior.

After Spain it was the African
meridionale
of Italy, the Balkans, the Red Sea and Southern Arabia (in the dhow, thirty tons, undecked, crew of five, without lifeboat: a lifeboat would have been impiously calling into question God’s providence), then Mexico, North Africa, three winters in the Far East, Central America, Equatorial Africa, and the less travelled areas of South America: Amazonian Brazil, the Savannahs of Venezuela, Bolivia and Paraguay. At first I believed in pure travel, and that it was necessary never to have a purpose. I arrived, watched a little, and when
my amazement began to subside, my impressions to dull, I moved on. When I began to write it was probably, at least in part, in an attempt to imprison some essence of the experiences, the images which were always slipping, fading, dissolving, taking flight. Later I found that the discipline of writing compelled me to see more, to penetrate more deeply to increase my understanding and to discard a little of my ignorance. Still later I began to weave the background and the incidents of travel into my novels, and now, as I observe the change that has taken place over the years, I wonder if I am any longer capable of enjoying travel for its own sake.

Insurgents and bandits, malaria, curtains of various kinds, whether lowered by politicians or by the priest-kings of their day, like the Imam of the Yemen – I am reminded that those parts of the world where I have travelled most happily, those countries which had most preserved their peculiar style and character, always seemed to suffer from these
disadvantages
, and that on the other hand those that seemed to me hardly worth a visit and certainly not worth writing about were those that had succumbed to a flaccid and joyless prosperity which they were doing their best to export to the rest of the world. Ironically, so much that is of value has been protected by poverty, bad communications, reactionary governments, the natural barriers to progress of mountain, desert and jungle, colonial misrule, the anopheles mosquito.

The pieces in this collection are mostly about places to escape to when one has had a surfeit of the amenities of the modern world. Belize (colonial neglect) is a living museum, a wondrous survival of a Caribbean colony of the last century. Liberia (bad communications plus bad
government
) offers an extraordinary example of what can be done in the names of Freedom and Democracy when released slaves are turned loose on native Africans, who until the said released slaves appeared on the scene, had had the good fortune to remain free. Guatemala (colonial misrule plus reactionary governments plus endless revolution) is the last home of the uncontaminated Red Man – the Mayan Indian – living, to be sure, in much reduced circumstances, but still defending himself with fair success from all the overtures of the West.

N
ORMAN
L
EWIS
, 1959

THE FOREGOING was written a quarter of a century ago, and whatever validity my theories about the protective properties of bad government, bad communications etc. may have possessed at that time, it has certainly been lost, and I now repudiate them. The great divide in my writings, the swing round in my viewpoint, followed a visit in 1968 to Brazil on behalf of the
Sunday Times
to investigate the atrocities committed against the Indians of that country which, had they not been halted, would have long since meant their total extermination. The ensuing article (reproduced in this book) I regard as the most
worthwhile
of all my endeavours, and I have reason to believe that it at least saved some lives, and probably even benefited the long-term prospects of the Amerindians.

Bad governments preserve nothing, and even good ones have a mediocre record in this direction, and I cannot think of any single place that I have written about that did not appear to have gone down hill – sometimes disastrously so – on a subsequent visit. The war in Vietnam put an end to all the ancient glories of the Indo China I knew. Guatemala, which I used to think of as the most beautiful country in the world, has become after thirty years of puppet military government, imposed from without, the cemetery of its indigenous population. In a single year alone – 1979 – when I wrote of the destruction of the Amazonian forests of Brazil, three million hectares were ‘cleared’ (with all the teeming wildlife they contained) by the now classic method of defoliants followed by napalm. Flying over the jungle for a thousand miles – almost from one end of Brazil to the other – all one saw of it was smoke. The vanished trees will be replaced by cattle ranches, in the certain knowledge that their ‘life’ will average ten years, and that the desert will follow.

At the present rate of clearance the Amazonian forest will have ceased to exist somewhere between the years 2000 and 2010, terminal dates also applicable to the great rainforest of South-East Asia, sacrificed in this case not to ranching but to timber extraction interests. It is not possible in the face of such calamities to keep silent, to remain a perpetual spectator.

N
ORMAN
L
EWIS
, 1985

I
N THE BLEAK DEPTHS
of an interminable English winter, I was suddenly seized with an almost physical craving to write a novel having as its background the tropical jungles and volcanoes of Central America. Having succeeded in persuading my publishers that this would be a good thing from both our points of view, I boarded a plane at London Airport one morose evening in January, and two days later I was in Guatemala City. I chose Guatemala because I had been there before and knew something about it, but also because all that one thinks of as typical of the Central-American scene – primitive Indians, Mayan ruins, the wrecks of grandiose Spanish colonial cities – is found there in the purest concentration.

For three weeks I did my best to absorb some of the atmosphere of life in seedy banana ports of the Caribbean and the Pacific, where bored men in big hats still occasionally pull guns on each other. I went hunting in jungles said to abound with jaguars and tapir without shooting anything more impressive than a species of giant rat. I talked with wily politicians of the country, survivors of half a dozen revolutions, and took tea with exiled fellow-countrymen on isolated coffee plantations, who had lived so long among the Indians that they sometimes stopped in mid-sentence to translate their very proper English sentiments from the Spanish in which they now thought.

My final trip was to the far north of the country, the remote and mountainous area beyond Huehuetenango, which lies just south of the Mexican state of Chiapas and is reached after three hundred miles of infamous roads and stupendous scenery. Here under the Cuchumatanes,
the ultimate peaks of Guatemala, even the onslaught of the Spanish conquistadors faltered and collapsed. And here the mountain tribes were finally left in peace, to live on in the harsh but free existence of the Stone Age, touched only by the outward forms of Christianity, consoled in secret by the ancient gods, and rejecting with all their might all the overtures of Western civilisation.

In the early afternoon of the fourth day, my taxi, driven by a town Indian from Guatemala City called Calmo, reached the top of the
12,000-foot
pass overlooking the valley of Huehuetenango. We stopped here to let the engine cool, and noticing that the trees in this wind-swept place were covered with orchids, I astounded Calmo by suggesting we should pick some. ‘Flowers?’ he said. ‘Where? They don’t grow at this height!’ I stumbled, weak and breathless from the altitude, up the hillside towards an oak, loaded with vermilion-flowered bromeliads. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘you mean the
parasitos
. Well, certainly, if you like, sir. When you said flowers, I didn’t realise… We call these weeds – tree-killers.’ Calmo was not only an intrepid driver, but a qualified guide supplied by the State Tourist Office. He spoke a version of English which so effectively stripped the meaning from his remarks that I steered him back to Spanish whenever I could. For the rest, he was gentle, sad-looking and pious, dividing his free time between visits to churches and – although well into middle life – running after girls.

We got into Huehuetenango at four in the afternoon, and it turned out to be an earthquake town, with corrugated-iron roofs on fine churches, squat houses iced over with multicoloured stuccoes, and a great number of pubs having such names as ‘I Await Thee on Thy Return’. We went into one of these, each of us carrying an armful of orchids, Calmo probably hoping that no one he knew would see him bothering himself with such contemptible weeds. The woman who brought the beer had a Mayan face, flat-featured but handsome, and full of inherited tragedy. Calmo told her in his most dignified way, ‘This I say with all sincerity. I want to come back to this place and marry you.’ The woman said, ‘Ah bueno,’ shaking off the compliment as if an invisible fly had settled on her cheek. She wore a massive wedding ring, and there were several children about the floor.

After that, Calmo wanted to go into the cathedral to pray for success in that week’s lottery. The cathedral had just been freshly decorated for the pre-Lenten festival with huge bouquets of imitation flowers, their stiff petals varnished, and dusted over with powdered glass. Indians were lighting candles among the little separate patches of red and white blossoms they had spread out on the flags to symbolise the living and the dead. Hundreds of candles glimmered in the obscurity of the cleared space where the Indians worship in their own way in the Christian churches, grouped in whispering semicircles round the candles, while their shamans passed from group to group, swinging incense-burners and muttering magical formulas. The Indians were dressed in the frozen fashions of the early sixteenth century; the striped breeches of Castilian peasants, the habits of the first few Franciscans who had scaled the heights to reach their villages, the cod-pieces of Alvarado’s ferocious soldiery. They had left their babies hidden in the old people’s care in the mountain caves, still remembering the days before the conquest, when at this season the rain god had taken the children for his annual sacrifice. These Indians were still surrounded by a world of magic and illusion, living characters in a Grimm’s fairytale of our day in which the whites they see when they come down to the towns are enchanters and werewolves, who can kill with a glance, but are themselves immortal.

 

We went out into the sunshine again. A meteorite shower of parakeets fell screeching across the patch of sky stretched over the plaza. Soldiers, shrunken away in their American uniforms, were fishing in space with their rifles over the blood-red balustrade of the town hall, which was also their barracks. The green bell in the cathedral tower clanked five times, and the sleepers on the stone benches stirred a little in the vast shade of their sombreros. Calmo woke up an ice-cream vendor, bought a cornet, then said, ‘I cannot eat it. The hot for my teeth is too great.’ When speaking English he found special difficulty in distinguishing between opposites such as heat and cold.

We sat down in the car to decide what to do with the evening. The sleepiness of the place was beginning to paralyse us. Nothing stirred but
the vultures waving their scarves of shadow over the flower beds. Calmo said, ‘Yesterday a market-day, tomorrow a procession; so that today we have no prospect but an early night. There is really nothing to do.’ As he spoke, a man came riding into the plaza on a tall, bony horse. The man looked like an Englishman on his way to a fancy-dress ball: he was lean, pink-cheeked, mildly aloof of expression, and his improbable costume of black leather with silver facings had clearly been hired out too often and was on the loose side for its present wearer. He was carrying a bundle of what looked like yard-brooms wrapped up in coloured paper. Calmo explained that these would be rockets for use in the next day’s celebrations. The clip-clop of the hooves died away, and the silence came down like a drop-curtain. Huehuetenango was a place of apathetic beauty, built out of the ruin of a devastated Indian city. There was a sadness, a sense of forgotten tragedy in the air; and here it seemed that silence was a part of the natural condition. As Calmo had so often said, ‘We Indians are a reserved people. Even in our fiestas. Our joys and our weepings are hidden away inside: for us only, you understand – not for the world.’

 

There was a notice over the hotel door that said, ‘Distinction,
Atmosphere
and Sympathy’. The atmosphere was all-pervasive. The garden had been turned into a floral jungle encircled by borders of Pepsi-Cola bottles stuck neck-down in the earth. Quite ordinary flowers like stocks and hollyhocks were throttling each other in a savage struggle for living space, and humming-birds like monstrous bees zoomed about the agonised sea of blossom. Goldfish bowls containing roses hideously pickled in preserving fluid, stood on every table-top. The bedroom towels were embroidered with the words, ‘Sleep My Beloved’.

Food in this hotel was
American Plan
– words which have now been accepted into the Spanish vocabulary of Central America and no longer refer to the system of charging for accommodation inclusive of meals, but describe a special kind of food itself – the hygienic but emasculated fare supposed to be preferred by American visitors, and now generally adopted on the strength of what are believed to be its medicinal and
semi-magical properties. This time
American Plan
meant tinned soup, spaghetti, boiled beef and Californian peaches. The whole loaf of bread and a half-pound of butter of a generation ago had wasted away to two slices of toast and a pat of margarine. The milk was the product of Contented Cows, served in the original tin as a guarantee of the absence of dangerous freshness. We got through the boring ritual of dinner as soon as we could. The other guests – business men drawn from the elite ten per cent of pure white stock – were still inclined to congratulate one another on the downfall of the last government, which had not been approved of in commercial circles. ‘A minimum wage. And why not? – I’d be the first. But when all’s said and done, friends, what happens when you give an Indian more than forty cents for a day’s work? You know as well as I do. He doesn’t show up the next day – that’s all. They’ve got to be educated up to it.’

 

After dinner I resigned myself to an early evening, and went to bed under a religious picture consisting of an eye projecting rays in all directions, and beneath it the question: ‘What is a moment of pleasure weighed in the scales against an eternity of punishment?’ I had hardly dozed off when I was awakened by an explosion. I got up and opened the window. The street had filled up with people who were all going in the same direction and chattering excitedly. A siren wailed and a motorcycle policeman went past deafeningly, snaking in and out of the crowd. There was another explosion, and as this was the homeland of revolutions it was natural to assume that one had started. I dressed and went out into the courtyard, where the hotel boy was throwing a bayonet at an anatomical chart given away with a Mexican journal devoted to home medicine. The boy said that so far as he knew there had been no
pronunciamento
, and the bangs were probably someone celebrating his saint’s day. I then remembered the lean horseman.

As the tumult showed no signs of abating I walked down to the plaza, which had filled up with blank-faced Indians moving slowly round in an anti-clockwise direction as if stirred up by some gigantic invisible spoon. There were frequent scuffles and outcries as young men singled out girls
from the promenading groups and broke coloured eggs on their heads, rubbing the contents well into the thick black hair. The eggs were being sold by the basketful all over the plaza, and they turned out to have been emptied, refilled with some brittle, wafer-like substance, repaired and then painted. When a girl sometimes returned the compliment, the gallant thus favoured stopped to bow, and said: ‘Muchas gracias.’

Calmo, whom I soon ran into, his jacket pockets bulging with eggs, said it looked as if there were going to be a fiesta after all. He couldn’t think why. There was really no excuse for it. The fashionable
town-Indians
, most of them shopkeepers, had turned out in all their finery, headed by the ‘Queen of Huehuetenango’ herself – a splendidly beflounced creature with ribbon-entwined pigtails down to her thighs, who was said to draw her revenues from a
maison de rendezvous
possessing
radioactive baths. There was a sedate sprinkling of whites, hatted and begloved for the occasion.

Merchants had put up their stalls and were offering sugar skulls, holy pictures, plastic space-guns, and a remedy for heart-sickness which is a speciality of Huehuetenango and tastes like inferior port. We found the lean horseman launching his rockets in military fashion from a wooden rack-like contraption. They were aimed so as to hiss as alarmingly low as possible over the heads of the crowds, showering them with sparks, and sometimes they cleared the building opposite and sometimes they did not. Other enthusiasts were discharging
mortaretes
, miniature flying bombs, which leaped two or three hundred feet straight up into the air before exploding with an ear-stunning crack. The motorcycle policeman on his scarlet Harley-Davidson with wide-open exhaust, and eight front and six rear lights, came weaving and bellowing round the plaza at intervals of about a minute, and a travelling movie-show was using part of the cathedral’s baroque façade as the screen for a venerable Mexican film called
Ay mi Jalisco
featuring a great deal of gunplay.

A curious hollow structure looking like a cupola sliced in half had been built on the top of the town hall, and about this time powerful lights came on in its interior and nine sad-faced men in dark suits entered it by an invisible door, carrying what looked like several grand pianos. A
moment later these pieces of furniture had been placed end to end to form an enormous marimba, under an illuminated sign that said ‘Musica Civica’. A cosmic voice coughed electrically and then announced that in response to the esteemed public’s many requests the municipal orchestra would have pleasure in rendering a selection of notable composers’ works. Eighteen hammers then came down on the keys with a responding opening flourish, and the giant marimba raced into an athletic version of ‘If You Were the Only Girl in the World’.

Calmo and I took refuge from the torrent of sound in a tavern called The Little Chain of Gold. It was a place of great charm containing a shrine and a newly installed jukebox in addition to the usual accessories, and was decorated with beautiful calendars given away by Guatemalan bus companies, and a couple of propaganda pictures of mutilated corpses put out by the new government after the last revolution. The Little Chain advertised the excellence of its ‘hotsdoogs’. Most of its customers were
preparados
, Indians who had done military service and had rejected their tribal costumes in favour of brightly coloured imitations of American army uniforms. Some of them added a slightly sinister touch to their gay ensembles of reds and blues by covering the lower part of their faces with black cloths, a harmless freak of fashion which I was told had originated in a desire to breathe in as little dust as possible when foot-slogging along the country roads.

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