CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Sweet Waist of America, excerpt (1990)

It’s been far too long since we posted another Dalrymple classic, and the last chapter of his fifth book, Sweet Waist of America, certainly qualifies. Summing up his 8-month stay in the country after the conclusion of its extraordinarily brutal civil war, he finds universal themes of progress, intellectual dishonesty, and the search for meaning in the particulars of one of Latin America’s most violent conflicts.

For anyone who has lived in Guatemala, other countries, by contrast, are lacking in savour. The problem confronting the people who want to promote a prosperous tourist industry is how to take out this over-strong flavour so that only the safely picturesque remains.

-Norman Lewis, The Volcanoes Above Us

I had spent eight months in Guatemala, and it was time to leave. The longer I stayed, the less certain was I that I understood the country I had chosen to write about; I left before the increasing intricacy of what I found there sapped my confidence altogether. Indeed, I began to wonder what it meant to understand a country. Did it mean to have a nodding acquaintance with all its social classes, to have interviewed its president, to know its past, to predict its future? Suppose a Guatemalan were to write a book about England after a stay of only seven months: should I not laugh at his errors, were I not angered by the presumption of his enterprise?

In Guatemala, the lives and beliefs of half the population remain opaque and mysterious to the other half, let alone to complete outsiders. The Indians are enclosed in an hermetic world of their own, and the visitor to Guatemala is condemned to see them entirely from the exterior, in a Technicolor but silent movie. Nevertheless, the visitor’s sympathy is now entirely with the Indian, though his sympathy is that of intellectual fashion rather than of genuine understanding, a reflection of the general loss of confidence in the superiority of Western civilisation (a word that now always appears in inverted commas in writing about Guatemala). Seventy years ago the fashion was for progress – roads, railways, sanitation, industry, and the export of bananas. Now the fashion is for Mayan cosmology, the simple life, and hand-woven textiles. Neither fashion was, or is, entirely honest.

Before I went to Guatemala, I never realized the great wisdom of the words inscribed over the entrance to the Academy in ancient Athens: know thyself. It seemed to me that many visitors (I am not talking about simple tourists) deceived themselves as to their own motives and emotions. They used Guatemala as a kind of psychotherapy, but not to achieve self-knowledge; rather, the country was for them a Disneyland of horror, where the attraction was not delight but moral outrage. Problems at home – with marriages, with crime on the streets, with the meaninglessness that material comfort brings – were insoluble, but there in Guatemala, at least, it was possible to be on the side of the angels.

Guatemala was the wish-fulfilment of the strangest of dreams: a country where everything that existed was utterly bad, yet where a capacity for infinite good awaited liberation by violence. It was not sufficient that the country had just lived through a horrifying civil war: every fact, every statistic, had to be adduced to prove that nothing had ever changed for the better. Otherwise the dream lay shattered, and Guatemala was as other countries are, a realm of dilemma and uncertainty.

In Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny, Jean-Marie Simon says that forty per cent of Guatemalan children die before the age of five. There can be little doubt of the impression with which she wishes to leave the reader, for she gives the figure not once but twice; it is no misprint. Alas, she fails to notice that it has the consequence, if the figure she herself gives for life-expectancy is correct, that the average age at death of the sixty percent of Guatemalans fortunate enough to survive childhood must be eighty-six. I have seen her figure for childhood deaths given elsewhere: in Ikle’s book, for example, about the involvement of the CIA in the plot to overthrow the Arbenz government. But there it referred to conditions before 1944. Jean-Marie Simon wants us to believe, as she herself wants to believe, that nothing has changed for the better in four and a half decades.

In this, she is at one with the great majority of Guatemalan intellectuals. They, too, need to believe that all is for the worst in this, the worst of all possible worlds. In numerous recent works by members of the Guatemalan intelligentsia, I do not recall a single reference to progress: progress that is writ as large upon the country as the continued existence of daunting problems. Nowhere, for instance, have I seen it mentioned that in the last thirty years the life expectancy of Guatemalans has risen by a third, or that the proportion of Guatemalans entering higher education has risen three times in twenty years. Yet these are facts in precisely the same way that statistics of hunger and deprivation are facts.

Of course, Guatemala is not the only country in which present problems loom larger than past progress; historical miseries never console for contemporary woes, and it is not only in Guatemala that intellectuals seek problems as Pooh Bear sought honey. Yet there is a peculiar, determined quality to this denial of progress by both foreign and Guatemalan intellectuals that throws light on the existential void in modern life that is felt in the rest of the world as much as in Guatemala.

Most people seek meaning and certainty in their lives, especially when they are young (and most Guatemalans are young). Once upon a time, religion would have sufficed: when empirical enquiry was despised, revelation provided truth, and divine providence explained the existence of evil when technical capacity to change the world was very limited. But if the answers provided by religion do not any longer command assent among intellectuals, the questions do not thereby go away. A meaning to existence that transcends the petty flux of daily experience is still ardently desired.

Where better to find this meaning than in social doctrines? The church itself, ever less certain of its dogmas, turns increasingly to politics and sociology. And what more attractive doctrine could there be than one which assures young intellectuals that upon them rests the salvation of their country? Here is meaning, purpose, certainty and self-importance all in one.

The acknowledgement that some improvement has taken place in Guatemala over the last four decades would threaten the foundations of the new faith. This is because such improvement has not been brought about by good government: for everyone is agreed there has been no good government in Guatemala. The question then arises – horrible, from the intellectual’s point of view – of whether progress is not possible without the activities of intellectuals to initiate and guide it. Questions even more subversive of the new faith present themselves: does not the humble teacher or vaccinator of children (both of whom I have seen at work in the remotest Guatemalan villages), or even the repairer of punctured tyres, contribute more to the welfare of humanity than the writer of revolutionary verses? And if progress has in fact occurred, largely as the result of the irresistible spread throughout the world of technical civilisation, is it not at least as much the duty of the intellectual to prevent deterioration as to promote improvement? Naturally, it is much easier for the intellectual not to think of these things, for him simply not to recognise that any progress has occurred. That way he has no existential void still to face: a void as unbearable as the sun to look at for very long.

This is not a problem that assails traditional Catholics, whose faith is staunch and whose ceremonies are splendid. During Semana Santa in Antigua, hundreds of thousands of people gather to watch the processions. On the night before Good Friday, Antiguanos decorate their cobbled streets with flowers and coloured sawdust, working them into exquisite but ephemeral patterns to be crushed underfoot as the processions pass. Their meticulous labour is half religious devotion, half municipal pride. They guard their creations with tender solicitude, keeping the flowers fresh and the sawdust from blowing away with a gentle spray of water, until the processions approach through swirling clouds of incense. First come the bronze-complexioned Roman Indian centurions with papier-mache breastplates and helmets surmounted by plumes that are obviously the heads of household brooms dyed red. Then come censer-bearers, adding to the odour of sanctity with fresh clouds of incense from censers that they swing lugubriously on long chains, and penitents in purple satin habits and white gloves, eighty of whom take it in turns to carry the several tons of statuary on wooden platforms, swaying from side to side as they go. On these platforms, angels weep as Christ carries the Cross on His knees. Behind them follow the clergy, gorgeously clad according to rank, protected from such sun as filters through the incense by silken canopies held over them by young boys. And finally come the brass bands, playing funeral music and dead marches that wrench the heart despite — or because of — their discordance.

Early in the morning of Good Friday, before dawn, two thieves are selected at the local prison. They are dressed in the costumes of plebeians and light wooden crucifixes are affixed to their backs. They spend the rest of the day following one of the processions, this time with their arms spread across the crucifixes, but with breaks from time to time for a rest, a chat and even a cigarette. At two in the afternoon, they are publicly pardoned on the steps of the cathedral and set at liberty.

On this Good Friday, a more villainous pair of thieves could scarcely have been imagined, a pair to delight Lombroso, the Italian physiognomist who thought criminals were detectable by their facial features and expressions alone. The thieves in the holy procession were short and wiry; they had long stubble on their chins; a few rotten pegs for teeth in the black hole of their mouths; low, sloping foreheads; eyes too close together and cunning grins. I should not have placed much faith in their abjuration of wrongdoing.

It would be easy, of course, to mock the ceremony of forgiveness on the cathedral steps. How were the thieves who were pardoned selected from among the others? Surely corruption must have been involved. And what could the ceremony have done to stem the rising tide of crime in Guatemala? Nothing. As for the Easter processions, were they not a commercial opportunity for the ladies who sold pork crackling, tortillas, ice creams and religious trinkets from scores of little stalls behind the crowds that lined the streets? Of the hundreds of purple­robed penitents, how many would not sin again on the very next day?

But Man, besides being a natural backslider, is a ceremonial animal; all societies have their symbols, even those that live by social doctrines claiming to be wholly rational. For myself, though not religious, I prefer sacred ceremony to profane, and not only for aesthetic reasons: for by acknowledging something greater than himself, Man accepts limits to his own power, at least in theory. The symbolic reenactment of universal forgiveness, hypocritical as it may be, is preferable in my eyes to the celebration of political power or military triumph.

In Guatemala, one learns to mistrust lovers of humanity. Too often, their conception of love is Nechaev’s: ‘to love the people is to drive it into a hail of bullets.’ Hatred of the rich is a stronger emotion than sympathy for the poor; and often this hatred is self-hatred. The leader of the Organisation of the People in Arms, for example, is the son of Guatemala’s only Nobel Prize winner, Miguel Angel Asturias. The New Jerusalem will not be builded there.

Nor anywhere else. The bravest and most noble are not those who take up arms, but those who are decent despite everything; who improve what it is in their power to improve, but do not imagine themselves to be saviours. In their humble struggle is true heroism.

Copyright 1990 Anthony Daniels. Reprinted with permission.

One thought on “CLASSIC DALRYMPLE: Sweet Waist of America, excerpt (1990)

  1. sd goh

    Theodore Dalrymple’s eloquence is, as always, exceptional and his profundity unsurpassed. He is truly a seeker of the truth and one of the greatest prose writers of the 21st Century. Thank you for posting this excerpt!


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