JOHN MASEFIELD'S CENTRAL AMERICA.
If it wasn't for this landscape, these novels might well be written off as little more than a beautifully-written compost of Joseph Conrad, Arthur QuillerCouch, W. H. Hudson and Robert Louis Stevenson, but Masefield brings his scenery to life with extraordinary power and vividness. Yet apart from a couple of weeks in the Chilean nitrate port of Iquique, followed by a period in the British Hospital at Valparaiso, a day or two in Lima between boats, and a forty-mile rail journey from Panama to Colon across the Isthmus of Panama, all when he was aged only sixteen, Masefield had no personal knowledge of Latin America. Iquique was, and is, a town laid out on a geometric plan on an arid peninsula hemmed in by highlands that rise to 3000 feet only a few miles from the sea. Here, or further along the coast when on his way by ship from Lima to Panama, Masefield might have seen the sun rising over the mountains:
Far beyond the city, in a line like an army, were the high Sierras of the Three Kings. Their peaks rose up out of the clouds like mountains in another world. As they were now catching the dawn they seemed made of jewels. Mount Gaspar was golden, Mount Baltazar was like a bubble of blood, and Mount Melchior a blue and evil finger glistening. (ODTAA p.21)
Here too, and during his voyage by coaster to Panama, Masefield may have seen something of the extraordinary variety of people that had come to South America in the second half of the nineteenth century to seek a livelihood, though it is doubtful whether he ever encountered the originals of the longshoremen at Santa Barbara city:
They were wild-looking men of enormous stature. All were almost naked; all shone as though the life in them made them radiant. All were a rich red-golden colour like new pennies. Even the smallest of them looked a match for two strong Europeans ... All wore gold, ivory or copper placques, shaped like new moons, which hung from their noses and covered their mouths. They looked curiously like the lids of letter-boxes.
'See those fellows, Mr Ridden?' said the captain on the bridge. 'They're Pitubas from up-country and they're cannibals to a man'. (ODTAA p.22) Apart from the short rail journey across the Isthmus, Masefield never was in, never walked on foot through, never (apart from distant mountains) even saw any inland region of South or Central America.
As with all the best imaginary realms, it is not even clear quite where Santa Barbara is supposed to be. Both novels open with a brief description of the country:
Santa Barbara lies far to leeward, with a coast facing to the north and east. It is the richest of the sugar countries. Plantations cover all the lowland along its seven hundred miles of seaboard. (Sard Harker p.1)
Santa Barbara, being the most leeward of the Sugar States, is at the angle of the Continent, with two coasts, one facing north, the other east. The city of Santa Barbara is in a bay at the angle where these two coasts trend from each other. (ODTAA p.1)
Except for the oddity of referring to Central America as a continent, this sounds exactly like a combination of Honduras and Nicaragua, or at least of their Caribbean coast. In ODTAA however, the protagonist wakes in the middle of the night: 'There were the stars overhead, in all those odds and ends of constellations of the southern heaven which have no easy guides for the wanderer like King Charles's Wain'. (ODTAA p.198) Since Honduras and Nicaragua are just north and south of latitude 15[degrees]N this doesn't fit. But the only South American location in the southern hemisphere that faces both north and east is the easternmost part of Brazil, also sugar country, and that is not far to leeward but far to windward.
Masefield's botany is also confusing. Azaleas (Sard Harker p.129) and poison ivy (ODTAA pp.233, 237), though conforming to popular expectations that tropical flora should be either lurid or toxic, are North American rather than Central or South American plants. The house occupied by the people whom Sard Harker visits to give his warning is called Los Xicales:
Nobody knew at first hearing what the xicales were. They were not jicales nor jicaras, as many thought, but trumpet-shaped flowers, with blue and white stripes, which General Martinez had brought there from the Indian territory ... They were just 'xicales', which is as near as the Spaniards could come to the Indian name for them, which means, simply, 'flowers'.
Xicales is in fact a variant form of jicara, the Spanish word for the gourd plant which also, as it happens, has a trumpet-shaped flower, though a light green one with purple streaks. In fact it is not beyond the bounds of possibility that there is a sub-species with blue and white stripes. What is unlikely is that the Indians as far south and east as where Santa Barbara seems to be should have the same word as the Aztecs: the terms xicales and jicara derive from the Nahuatl word sikalli. Usually folk-terms for plants are about the most localized component of any vocabulary, and the Aztecs inhabit a region eight hundred miles from Honduras, with Indian populations speaking Lenca, several different Mayan languages and a couple of Mixezoque languages living in-between. Goodness knows where Mase- field got the word xicales from: but he didn't get it from the original of General Martinez's gardener.
It is the azaleas which give the clue to the whereabouts of the landscape Masefield is describing. One finds them even in the northern United States. In his book, In the Mill (1941), Masefield recalled his experiences as a factory worker in Yonkers arid his rambles through the New Jersey countryside at weekends back in the mid-1890s:
I found the Jersey shore almost untouched by man; no-one seemed to have trodden those screes or broken through that scrub. I found a place by which I could scramble to the cliff-top: there I found what seemed to be primitive woodland stretching away into Jersey. I walked for a while inland, till I came to a track and a little farm; it might have been hard to find anything lonelier in Wisconsin, and this was a dozen miles from New York City. I saw no-one, heard no-one ... I could walk almost at once into primitive woodland on leaving my lodgings. I had but to walk fifty yards, then I was in the woods, I had but to go a hundred yards more, up a hill, then I was deep in the woods, Out of sight of any house, shut in by scarlet sumach bushes, hundreds of them, redder than blood, and apparently belonging to nobody. (In the Mill, pp.40-41)
One is reminded of a sentence in Sard Harker: 'In those days you could walk ... in less than an hour from the heart of the city into primeval forest.' (Sard Harker, p.8)
At the beginning of his wanderings the main character in Sard Harker is almost engulfed in a swamp:
Flowers like enormous flags shot up on firm fleshy stalks among the morass. Some, which were very tall, had whitish blossoms as big as faces, splotched with darkness like faces; these seemed to lean forward and mow at Sard; they were like ghosts, lean and intense, but very beautiful.
All that place of death, thick as death, sickly with the forms and the smell of death, with that evil, low, over-abundant life that brings death, had a sort of weltering chuckle as though it exulted in its rottenness. (Sard Harker, p.119)
In ODTAA the protagonist rides his horse through a forest during a heavy downpour of rain:
There was no undergrowth and little light in this forest. He rode in a gloom full of sighing like voices and full of dropping like footsteps. The rain seeped in films and streaks through this wood: mists of it paused in places, like ghosts looking at him from behind trees. Sudden gusts sent rushes of water to the ground with the noise of the steps of beasts. (ODTAA p.189)
There are no such morasses, no such forests, in England: but there are, or were, in the eastern United States, where even in the neighbourhood of great cities vast tracts remained virgin and untouched till the twentieth century. Masefield would have seen such woods again from the train, when he toured the north-eastern United States in 1916 to give lectures in support of Britain's war effort.
One simply assumes, picking up a book about an imaginary Latin American country, that since it obviously is not Patagonia or the southern section of Chile, it must be somewhere hot or at least sub-tropical. Since Masefield was writing fiction, not a record of his travels, he could permit himself to describe what he had only read or heard about:
On his left side, the bill, which had always been steep, changed suddenly to crag, over which a brook was falling in white, delaying mists, for some seven hundred feet. At the foot of the fall some long distant collapse had made an undercliff, nearly flat, across which the water loitered in a broad shallow rock basin, till it reached another fall. What he had been hearing was the noise of the falls ... All the crags, as well as the rocks of the pool, were of a pale blue colour, like lapis lazuli. Mists from the falling water made rainbows all down the cliff. White birds cruised among the rainbows and changed colour in them. (ODTAA p. 179)
But it is only a partly imaginary landscape that he is describing. The second-hand details are fixed firmly on a solid framework of first-hand memories: but memories of another continent.
Of course, nobody nowadays is much interested in the raw materials which imaginative writers rework in order to create their fictions. That kind of thing belongs to the era of John Livingston Lowes's The Road to Xanadu, published more than seventy years ago, rather than to the era of Terry Eagleton and Jacques Derrida. However as John Livingston Lowes wrote at the beginning of his examination of Coleridge's imagination: 'The story which this [treatise] essays to tell was not of the teller's choosing. It simply came, with supreme indifference to other plans'. Come to think of it, Lowes's book and some of Masefield's are still in print, whereas it is difficult to believe that anything by either Eagleton and Derrida will still be available in bookshops in seventy years' time.
A. D. Harvey's latest book, Arnhem, is published by Cassell.
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|Author:||Harvey, A. D.|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2001|
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