Sunday, March 26, 2017

`The Most Enlightening Guide'

In America Comes of Middle Age: Columns 1950-1962 (Little, Brown and Co., 1963), Murray Kempton includes a piece titled “Castro’s Cuba Today,” dated Feb. 21, 1960. Thirteen months earlier, the Communists had taken over the country. In Havana, Kempton meets a young Communist poet who asks him to help with some lines in English he wishes to insert into a new poem. A sample: “Do you hearing me, Mr. North American . . .” And: “I am a new man.” Kempton comments: “What could be sadder than to think of yourself as a new man when the first words you write are a Spanish translation of Jack Kerouac, whom you have never read and yet to whom you are bound by a sort of telepathy of the demi-talented?”

Kempton, unlike many American observers in the early days of Castro’s reign, admits his ignorance of Cuba, past and present. Then he says something interesting that I would like to believe is true:

“I have no hope of understanding Cuba. The only way to understand a country is to read its novels; I should not suppose there is such a thing as a Cuban novel.”

The final phrase is not fair, though it may have been when Kempton was writing. The Cuban novelists I read long ago are José Lezama Lima, Alejo Carpentier, Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Severo Sarduy. All did much of their work after the Communist takeover and none is memorable. To varying degrees they have been lumped together as part of the multi-national Boom in Latin-American writing and the blight of so-called magical realism.

What interests me is Kempton’s other observation: “The only way to understand a country is to read its novels.” Is this just another empty phrase tossed out by a journalist or would-be intellectual? With adjustments for time and place, it carries some respectable weight. Most of what little I know of nineteenth-century Portugal I owe to the novels of José Maria de Eça de Queiroz; and of nineteenth-century Spain, Benito Pérez Galdós. And so on from Balzac and Melville through Musil, Joseph Roth and V.S. Naipaul. Almost thirty years after the Cuban column, in “As the World Turns,” published in New York Newsday on Dec. 10, 1989 (annus mirabilis) and collected in Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events (1994), Kempton writes:

“The most enlightening guide I have found to Central America is not the product of a social scientist’s research but Nostromo, the novel Joseph Conrad published in 1904 when his direct experience with the neighborhood was nearly thirty years past and had never extended beyond a tarrying or so in ports when he had sailed as a schooner deck officer in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Kempton continues, narrowing his vision:

“Yet, here as nowhere in the reports of embassies and the monographs of researchers, is the El Salvador of last week where, in Conrad’s words,`the cruelty of things stood unveiled in the levity and sufferings of that incorrigible people.’”

And concludes:

“We must look to the novelist if we hope to understand. His is the matter of fact. Social science and intelligence reports are the mere poor stuff of an unadorned imagination.”

1 comment:

rgfrim said...

As a counterweight to the judgment that social science fails to bear honest and sympathetic witness to the human nature of a place I strongly recommend you read Matthew Desmond's " Evicted". Its portrait of the movements, emotions, needs and fates of people and their landlords who rent properties in Milwaukee does justice to these people and literary excellence.