I wanted to go to La Perla to verify or refute those parts of Days of the Jungle that referred to it. If anything would provide me with the golden key to Guatemala, I thought, this investigation would. The light aircraft was waiting at the airport: the other passengers were Mike Shawcross and Don Enrique, the present owner. The pilot was a young man who did not tell me until much later that he crashed the first time he landed at La Perla, broke both his legs and spent several months in hospital. A short time after I departed from the finca, he crashed again, or at least came to the end of the landing strip there without taking off. I remember feeling relief at his air of quiet confidence and technical competence. Another thing he did not tell me until much later was that he had once landed at La Perla to find the guerrillas waiting for him. They burned the aircraft and made off with the workers’ wages he had brought from Guatemala City. For neither of these actions did they earn the gratitude of the people of La Perla, whose wages were already low enough without being made non-existent, and for whom the aircraft was literally a lifeline. This happened in the early eighties.Our first attempt to reach the finca was abortive. Although a radio link to La Perla had told us the weather was fine when we started out, by the time we reached the highlands there was complete cloud cover, and our little craft could fly only very slightly higher than the mountains themselves. Without navigational aids, we had little alternative but to return to the city.The next day we tried again, without Don Enrique, in another small aircraft. I had thought the first one rickety enough, but the second was absurdly decrepit, a thing of rags and patches. There were no seats inside, except the pilot’s. We sat on plastic tanks of aviation fuel: it was like flying in a Molotov cocktail. So overladen with cargo was it (no one bothered about weight) that I sat with my face against the cockpit window, my neck craning horribly. The automatic starter did not work, and the pilot, a different one who struck us as somewhat insouciant about life and death, got out to crank the propeller by hand. We took off and wobbled in the crosswind. ‘Oh Lord,’ I prayed, ‘I didn’t mean it when I said You didn’t exist.’ There’s nothing like flying on a gas tank for taking Pascal’s bet.We climbed slowly. I remembered all those news bulletins about aircraft that crashed five minutes after take-off. Unnoticed by the pilot (the only one of us, of course, with a seat belt) his door opened somewhere over Guatemala City. Mike leaned forward to close it, but the mechanism was faulty, so he held it shut for the rest of the journey.Again we did not reach our destination. We saw the clouds rolling down the mountainsides like theatrical smoke and returned once more, though not until the pilot had made a couple of kamikaze dives through supposed gaps in the cloud.The third day we didn’t even set out, but sat at the airport’s aero club awaiting a radio message from La Perla about fine weather. It never came, but it was interesting enough watching the dark windowed station wagons come and go, delivering and collecting finca owners on their way to and from their fincas. Pilots sat in the clubhouse swapping tall stories. It was here that I heard that Don Enrique owned his own aircraft which he used to fly to his finca in the south, where there was no danger of its destruction by guerrillas; he hired aircraft to go to La Perla.On the fourth day the sky was brilliantly clear and once more we climbed aboard our single-seater Molotov cocktail. Soon we were flying over (or rather through) a magnificent landscape of forested mountains, deep ravines and white water. The mountain peaks were high above us; it was exhilarating to fly in the valleys. How tiny was our aircraft, how small our lives! I thought of the brief but beautiful ball of orange flame we should make against the mountain if the pilot made an error. Would anyone see it? I was surprised that even in the most inaccessible valleys, where there was not so much as a truck, rectangles of forest had been cut down. Was this for the timber (but how could it be transported from so inaccessible a place?), or was it to clear the land for a milpa, a corn field?If the latter, for whom was the corn destined? Guerillas? Refugees from the war? I could not tell.We swung left into another valley and ahead of us was La Perla, the Pearl. It was indeed beautiful. The village clung to the dark green hillsides, a small white church dazzling by contrast. The landing strip ran up a small hill and between flights served as a playground for the children of the finca. On our left as we landed was the coffee processing plant of whitewashed wood, built on pillars of cement. In front of it was a large and perfectly flat concrete yard where the coffee beans, having been separated from the red husk of the berry and soaked in tanks beneath the plant, were laid out to dry, raked by workers into patterns resembling those of the pebble gardens of Kyoto. Above the processing plant was the house in which Don Luis used to live, but now it was the headquarters of La Perla’s garrison of 160 men, with a flagpole flying the sky-blue, white and sky-blue flag of Guatemala, and, a little way beyond, a helicopter landing pad on the top of a hillock. On the other side of the valley, atop another hill, was a small graveyard, and it was here that Luis Arenas was buried in a simple tomb among those of his workers, the inscription giving only his name and dates of existence.Waiting for us at the landing strip was La Perla’s only vehicle, an open and battered jeep that looked and sounded as though it might at any moment disintegrate into a heap of parts. How had it reached La Perla? There were only mule tracks there. The only road went to a distant part of the finca called Santa Delfina, a road which the workers had built by hand in defiance of threats by the guerrillas. The jeep had been flown to La Perla by helicopter, and was therefore a precious vehicle. It drove us the few hundred yards down the muddy track to the processing plant, in the quarters of which we were to live.The rooms were large and airy and wooden shutters opened on to a view of green hills. Below us we could hear the grinding and slurping of coffee bean extraction. We were served lunch by a motherly servant of the family, Dona Caterina: soup, meat and tortillas, accompanied by a pickle of burnt-tasting chillies, to which I soon grew addicted. While talking to Dona Caterina, she let slip that her husband had been murdered by the guerrillas, for reasons that she did not understand. Not long after we arrived she was called to Guatemala City, where Don Enrique’s mother was ill and needed Dona Caterina as a nurse. The woman who replaced her was short, a ladina who spoke no Indian language yet dressed half in the Indian way. She told me that her husband also had been killed by the guerrillas, and her son. The guerrillas burst into their hut one night and shot them. She had no idea why; we were poor people,
she said.Were they military commissioners, I asked? No, she replied. After the killings, she had fled to Nebaj, a day or two through the mountains, and there, gracias a Dios, she had heard an evangelist preach and she had ‘accepted Christ’, as she put it.But why, I asked, had she changed from her ancestral Catholicism?‘Por mucha tristeza,’ she replied. Because of much sadness.When later I recounted this to assorted journalists and solidarity workers, they said it was impossible; the women had mistaken the soldiers for guerrillas, or they were afraid to say it was the army. But when I told them the women were well able to distinguish, and were moreover unafraid to acknowledge the army’s killings in the area, in the course of which whole villages had been destroyed and scores of people murdered, they remained incredulous. No, they insisted, the women were afraid to speak . . .Later, the pilot told me the guerrillas would have known of my presence in La Perla. How he knew, I did not inquire; presumably there were guerrilla orejas (ears) in the village.
Mike Shawcross had only two or three days to spare, and so we set out to see something of the nearby villages. We had a guide and two mules and a pony, though it was not clear whether these latter made our journey any the easier. Unused to riding, at the end of several hours in the saddle my thighs ached and my buttocks felt like those of a masochist after a good night out. But it was worth the travail a hundred times over, for the steep and muddy mule tracks over which the beasts fastidiously picked their way, at their own pace and no other, passed through scenes of astonishing loveliness, always to the accompaniment of the sound of running water. The dark green coffee bushes on the more accessible slopes were hung with crimson berries. From the sides of ravines grew huge and noble trees, ceibas with hundred foot trunks that suddenly opened up into broad canopies of foliage. All around were wild dahlias, tall as a man standing on another man’s shoulders, bearing mauve flowers; and white trumpet lilies, perfect in form, that seemed to call for the loving work of a Victorian flower painter to capture them on the page of an exquisite volume. Vistas opened up of green mountains against blue sky. I drew my mule up sharply just so that I could drink with my eyes.….And we continued, too, until we reached a mountain meadow of great size and lushness, where horses and cattle grazed. At the far end of the meadow ran a river, of limpid water crushed into foam by rocks. On the banks of the river hosts of brilliant butterflies played in the sun, as if for joy of living. If ever there were an earthly paradise, I thought, this was it.Across the river was slung a suspension bridge of wire and wooden slats. Many of the slats were broken or missing, the wire was worn and looked as though it might snap at any moment. When one stepped on to the bridge, it began to oscillate with considerable violence, like a dog shaking off water. To reach our destination, the village of La Estrella (the Star), we had to cross the river, but the animals clearly could not use the bridge and we sent them across what we mistakenly thought was a ford. But the water was deep and the current strong, and within a couple of minutes the terrified animals were struggling for their lives. One of them would neither go forward nor return, and when at last he tried to go up river, it was into deeper water still. His eyes stared wildly, as in a painting by Gericault, and we thought we had lost him, but, with what seemed his very last strength, he managed to drag himself ashore. I watched the drama from the bridge, to the centre of which I had gone to conquer my fear, and so absorbing was the drama that I did not notice until it was over that the bridge swung with almost every breath I took.So we did not reach La Estrella, but it happened that we met a few men from there on their way to La Perla. We sat by the riverside and talked to them. Oh yes, they had known disaster: the army had attacked their village, burned their houses, killed scores of people.They had gone to live in the mountains until it was safe to return. They were no longer afraid of the army, but before . . . We heard similar stories in other villages. One of them had once consisted of more than 600 households but now there were only 97. It was true that people were still coming down from the mountains, but it would never return to its former size.Whenever I heard these stories, what struck me was the great dignity with which they were told. The people were neither self-pitying, nor asking for pity. Neither were they thirsting for revenge, at least to all outward appearances. Yet they were not apathetic either: there was something about them more positive than that, as though they were in possession of a philosophy that put them above the world of dreadful appearances. Perhaps it was the old Mayan idea that all that happens goes in cycles. At any rate, something must have given them the strength, the desire, to go on living, the ability still to laugh after having witnessed the scenes that their laconic descriptions of events implied. Still they wanted children. And they even took part in village football matches with enthusiasm. I remembered my rage at life when a telephone number I had rung was busy, and was ashamed.
‘The miseries of a vacant life were never known to a man whose hours were insufficient for the inexhaustible pleasures of study’. Edward Gibson. ‘When we read, we thereby save ourselves the greater part of the trouble of thinking. This explains our obvious sense of relief when we turn from our own thoughts to reading’. Arthur Schopenhauer. Using these quotes as a starting point, journalist and prison psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple writes a light-hearted memoir of his lifelong addiction to thinking and how serendipity led him on a journey of discovery.
Monday Books blogs another entertaining excerpt from their excellent Dalrymple collection Second Opinion:
Recently while travelling on the London Underground, the opening words of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ran through my mind like a refrain:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world historic events and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.Why, you might ask, did this passage insinuate itself into my brain on the District Line between West Brompton and Earl’s Court?
Standing opposite me was a young man badly dressed in black, on whose baseball cap was inscribed the word ‘Victim’. On his black T-shirt were the words, ‘I wish I could be you’, which implied self-pity on an industrial scale. On his right forearm (from which, Sherlock Holmes-like, I inferred he was left-handed) were a series of parallel scars from self-inflicted injury. On his right forearm was tattooed a simplified reproduction of a picture by Gustav Klimt. All paintings appear twice: the first time as art, the second time as kitsch.
A new, very short Dalrymple book, Mr Clarke’s Modest Proposal: Supportive Evidence from Yeovil, has been published by the Social Affairs Unit. In truth, it seems to be more of a pamphlet – measuring 26 pages and costing only $2.99. This link offers access to both the paperback version (although it is already showing up as “Out Of Print–Limited Availability”) and the Kindle version, as converted by the good folks at Monday Books.
The book analyzes the prison reform plan proffered by British Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke. We haven’t yet read the book, and will do so this weekend. But from the Amazon description, it sounds as though Dalrymple praises Clarke’s attempt at reform, while criticizing some of its details:
The British criminal justice system taken as a whole, then, is not working very well. It is both costly and ineffective: the taxpayer gets the worst of both worlds. It therefore stands in need of reform and Mr Clarke has boldly seized the bit between his teeth. He thinks we ought to imprison fewer people and rehabilitate more. Dr Dalrymple recently spent six weeks in Yeovil, in Somerset, a normal English town. This is an account of what he found there, and how well it supported Mr Clarke’s reforming zeal. He discovered that there was indeed a need for reform; the system was not working. Whether Mr Clarke’s reforms are the right ones is, perhaps, another question. If Dr Dalrymple is right, they will at least have the merit of making sure that policemen, lawyers, probation officers, insurance loss adjusters, hospital casualty officers and trauma surgeons will have plenty to do for the foreseeable future. There will be full employment and an expanding market for them, if for no one else.
Word comes to us from Monday Books publisher Dan Collins that the second of Dalrymple’s 21 books, Fool or Physician: The Memoirs of a Sceptical Doctor, is now available as an e-book. It can be downloaded from Amazon to just about any e-reader.
SCRATCH THE SURFACE and there is always tragedy, mixed, of course, with wickedness.Because of the economic crisis, I was waiting at the bus station: £2.80 for a bus instead of £28 for a taxi home. I had 50 minutes to wait and was reading a book by Richard Yates. I was wondering why the literature of so optimistic a country as America was so deeply pessimistic (awareness of death is the answer, of the bust after the boom of life from which there is no upturn), when a lady in her eighties sat down beside me. She was tired. Her cheeks puffed and her lips pouted as one with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.‘I prefer to take taxis,’ she said to me, ‘but I took one yesterday and I can’t do it all the time. I’ve got a little in the bank, but you never know how long you’ll last.’
Monday Books’s latest excerpt from Second Opinion begins: “I prefer alcoholics to drug addicts. They are more often people of character and are much more amusing.”
Dalrymple’s third book, Zanzibar to Timbuktu, offers an account of his 1986 journey across Africa, before returning to England after two years working in rural Tanzania. Here is a brief, lighthearted excerpt from his stay in Dar Es Salaam. We hope you find it as funny as we do.
Much of my time in Dar was taken up with my application for a visa to Zaire. Apart from a valid passport, current vaccination certificates for cholera and yellow fever, photocopies of one’s traveller’s cheques, a letter of recommendation from one’s embassy, an air ticket out, three passport photographs and a form to be filled out in triplicate without use of carbon paper, all one needs for a visa to Zaire is patience. A loss of temper would probably be fatal to one’s chances.
In all, I went to the embassy ten times. It was not an impressive place. It had been a respectable house once, but it had not been repainted and the windows were cracked and dirty. The eaves were disintegrating. The garden was mainly of gravel and dust, into which the garden boy poured a jet of water from a hosepipe. He aimed it at a single spot, creating a pond of mud. He kept his aim for minutes at a time. What was he doing? What, if anything, was going through his mind? I gave up the question as insoluble. Meanwhile, the ambassador’s Mercedes was polished and repolished until it gleamed.
I was interviewed by the consul. He seemed to find the whole idea of my going to Zaire faintly ridiculous. But he assured me my visa would be issued next day; but next day the embassy was closed. I was told to come back tomorrow, at two o’clock. I pointed to the notice stating that the embassy closed at one. Nevertheless, I should come at two. The embassy was closed.
When at last my passport was handed to me, on my tenth visit at the precise time stated the day before, there was not a flicker of recognition of my previous nine visits.
I felt as though I had achieved something so worthwhile, admirable even, that it almost made the journey itself superfluous.
Outside the embassy was a Frenchman, an aid worker in Mali, who had so far been to the embassy three times without even obtaining the application form.
Zaire’s national motto was inscribed on the wall: Peace, Justice, Work.
Good news for those of you who have enjoyed our excerpts of Fool or Physician, and indeed for all Dalrymple admirers. Dan Collins of Monday Books informs us that he will reissue the book sometime in the next few months. One of our readers (h/t Matthew W.) has pointed out that copies are selling online for more than $200, so anyone we have successfully browbeaten into wanting to read it will soon be able to do so for a reasonable price.
Furthermore, Monday Books will republish all of Dalrymple’s previous work as e-books.
It is too early to give timetables for any of this, as these decisions have only just been made, but if this brings the man’s life, output and ideas to a broader audience, so much the better for all of us. Monday Books describes its mission as publishing “strongly-written non fiction”, and the Dalrymple oeuvre certainly qualifies.
UPDATE: We originally misidentified the reader who alerted us to the steep prices the book is drawing online as Andrew W., rather than Matthew W. Sorry, Matthew.