The Condor and
A South American
In an early edition of RALPH, we reviewed Graham Greene's Lawless Roads. It told of his solitary adventures going about through southern Mexico in 1938, traveling by bus, boat, burro, and on foot. We wrote that as travelers
to the nether reaches of the world, we want to tell all (after we're safely home) ... how painful our journey was, how much we suffered, the indignities we put up with. Greene is no exception. With an artist's sense of progression, he slowly ups the agony-ante --- from a noisy train, to a tiny, hot boat, to a rump-busting mule, and the final stage, where, desperately sick with diarrhea, in the middle of nowhere, in a jam-packed Mexican bus --- he knows he is going to die, and he just wants to get it over with. As with all travel horror stories, the very misery creates a point of ecstasy, in this case, the memory of an earlier ecstasy.
Greene conconcluded that it was "weariness shot through occasionally with flashes --- not exactly of beauty, but of consciousness, consciousness of something simple and strange and uncomplicated, a way of life we have hopelessly lost but can never quite forget."
There was a moment at a little brown pebbly river when the guide took a bowl from his saddle-bag and filled it with water from the steam and made himself a kind of gruel with a ball of corn --- the mules drank and I stood on a stone and washed my face and hands and the shadow played on the stream, and it was like peace and natural happiness.For most of us in those days, the world "south of the border" was an area well off the radar screen. If you asked us what we knew about South America, we'd think of singer Carmen Miranda and her funny fruited hats. We had no idea of the originality and vitality of her music: we only knew she came from someplace in the southern hemisphere, that maybe she was the source of the Andrews Sisters' song that we heard on the radio ... endlessly, "Drinking Rum and Coca-Cola / Workin' for the Yankee Dollah."
We knew that there was a country called Argentina somewhere down there where they had lots of cows because we ate canned corn-beef from there that came in funny trapezoidal cans with a key soldered on the bottom and when you opened the can up there'd be a great rush of sharp, fat, hunger-inducing salted meat smell and the thick juices would leak out on your hands or shoes because they didn't open at the top nor at the bottom but an inch mid-way between the two and never opened worth a damn, anyway.
We also knew that several Nazis had settled somewhere around there having fled Germany at the end of WWII and that the President for Life, Juan Peron, was Not a Good Man because he permitted them to live on there. That would probably be it for South America. If you asked us to name the names of the countries nine out of ten of us would draw a blank after Argentine, Brazil, Venezuela and, maybe, wasn't Honduras down there somewhere? Or was it Guatemala? And how do you spell Guatemala, anyway?
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So possibly because of this or maybe because he was sleeping with one of the Random House editors, in 1947 Christopher Isherwood was hired on to travel around South America and write a book about it. What a lark, eh? Random House at the time was one of the premier publishing houses in America, and Isherwood was not without fame as a result of his story out of Weimar Germany, Goodbye to Berlin --- and also because he was friend to that rumpled, amiable, cigarette-smoking eccentric butt-fuck poet W. H. Auden.
Random House anted up a budget for Isherwood and his light-of-love photographer William Caskey to spend a winter in a part of the world for which Americans had zilch knowledge. A plum job, and because Isherwood could write it was presumed that whatever he managed to get down on paper should be worth our time to read.
But there are here a few technical problems. Number One being, from what I came up with before giving up halfway through (on page 108 to be exact), traveling for Isherwood and Caskey means going to some town in Columbia or Ecuador or Peru, visiting the United States consulate, hanging out with the folks there for awhile, going to those famous American or British Embassy parties where people stand around drinking Scotch brought from home and complaining about the locals' laziness, filthy toilets, and dirty ways.
And if there happened to be a giant American-run oil-drilling operation in town --- like Shell-Mera in Ecuador --- Isherwood and Caskey were happy to accept an invitation to spend a few hours at the refineries or at the drilling grounds, flying around in company planes, marvelling at how well the company treated the natives, how nice their complexes with the clean homes and the paved streets and the flowering begonias.
It is obvious here that Isherwood doesn't mind at all being a patsy for whoever is in charge of his entertainment, such as when he visits the "Manicomio" --- the looney-bin --- in Quito and gets invited by the doctor in charge to watch some of the patients be zapped with an "Offner machine, an apparatus not much larger than a typewriter," used for electro-shock therapy. What does Isherwood think of all this?
You might say that there are some kinds of mental illness which represent the ultimate degree of sulking. And sulking can sometimes be cured by a hard kick in the pants.
So much for those who think that depression may come from being poor or beat-up on as a child; so much for those who complain that electro-shock was the equivalent of a medieval mental torture machine.
Instead of being curious like Greene, going out and getting up to your gazoo in this strange, dusty, dirty part of the New World, Isherwood and friend spend their paid vacation as a shill for the Embassy cocktail party circuit or for Shell. These folks damn well know why he's here. They pick up on the fact that if they show him a good time with enough booze and free trips that there won't be any pointed comments in the contract book to upset the State Department and the stockholders back home.
In addition, because Isherwood is traveling with Caskey, and since neither of them speak Spanish, not even a word, you can be sure that when they aren't being partied by ex-pat Americans, they'll be hanging around with each other, drinking and fighting. And when they get bored with that, they'll seek out other English-speakers and in general, remain as ignorant as possible of the reality of what the hell is going on in the heart of Columbia, or Ecuador, or Peru, or Argentina.
Isherwood may be, as he famously observed, a camera --- but it's a camera owned by the company store. In his introduction, Jeffrey Meyers tells us that The Condor and the Cows is "one of the very few classic travel books on South America." He compares it favorably to works by W. H. Hudson, Paul Theroux, and Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia.
Fuchi! And not so! William Henry Hudson was a romantic, and his tales were lush and rich, filled with a lusty style that conveys his passionate affection for South America. Theroux is notoriously testy, and the fun of his writing is the fact that he is perpetually angry with himself and the people he comes across and depends on. And Chatwin's book on Patagonia is so weird it's hard to put down, much less compare to any other travel book (much less this gumball).
Graham Greene didn't know squat about the Spanish language, but he traveled alone and his lack of language managed to feed his in-built paranoia so that the journey --- and the resulting novel --- were heavy with the willies of being alone in a place where whenever people open their mouths, out comes this gibberish which could be a note of welcome or a threat on your very life.
Isherwood is too lazy to make the most of what could have been an adventure into the depths of South America. His writing is rote --- I did this, I saw that. His fans would have to wait another decade for him to produce a travel book worth the candle ... that is, his notable journey into the heart of Yoga under the direction of Master Swami Prabhavananda.--- Lolita Lark