“The ancient powers have already fallen: the power of gods and elves, of secret forest dwellers and goblins. The glory of haughty animals has fallen: the magnificent masters of woods and mountains, the slippery lunar fishes of river and sea, all constituting just one bit of evidence that likewise the kingdom of man, victim and tyrant of the world, is about to pass away.”
So narrates the fictional but visionary Rosaura dos Carballos in the opening lines of Passionate Nomads (Aliform Publications, 2011: www.aliformgroup.com), my translation of Buenos Aires master wordsmith María Rosa Lojo’s award-winning historical fantasy La pasión de los nómades (Atlántida, 1994). Rosaura, though present in the novel principally in her human form, is a water fairy, daughter of the famous Morgan Le Fay and “a plebeian Galician goblin of no standing whatsoever, one of those vagabonds (trasnos to my Galician compatriots) who like to roam about playing practical jokes on people.” The Galicia she speaks of is Spanish Galicia, which lies in Spain’s green northwestern Celtic country where Rosaura was to be raised by her political uncle Merlin the Magician. Merlin, you see, after the ultimate fiasco of the Knights of the Round Table, has retired in privacy to a rural estate in this land so reminiscent of the Irish countryside. Until, found out by tourists who afflict his solitude and litter up the surroundings, he and Rosaura end up emigrating (via Switzerland) to Buenos Aires.
It is there, on the Argentine pampas, that the færie world of Western Europe meets that of indigenous Argentina, where Rosaura confronts her own destiny on those rolling pampas. She travels in the company of an old military man, writer, globetrotter and dandy named Lucio V. Mansilla who has escaped from Paradise and now, restored with Rosaura’s and Merlin’s help to the physical form of his youthful glory, returns to the land of his most famous adventure among the Ranquel Indians – whom he immortalized in a book that has never fallen out of print in the Spanish language – to face the judgment of History.
The novel is narrated, alternately, by Rosaura and Mansilla. Lojo re-creates Mansilla’s voice with remarkable fidelity to the historical voice set down in his writings, but Rosaura’s voice with which the novel begins is pure invention and among the greatest imaginative achievements of a prolific and well-regarded literary career. Rosaura’s charming account of the circumstances of her birth and approximately 200 years of youth is by itself almost worth the price of the book. But that is not what I would focus on at the moment. I am more interested, immediately, in the environmental theme suggested in the above-cited warning about the demise of the ancient powers and “the kingdom of man, victim and tyrant of the world, [which] is about to pass away.”
I have had this topic in mind for some time, but it is made even more pertinent by New York Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of Barack Obama last week for environmental reasons. I understand that this comes too late to much influence this coming Tuesday’s election, but it has long seemed particularly terrifying to contemplate the possibility of a President Romney who has aligned himself with the global-warming deniers and made fun of President Obama’s efforts to promote alternative forms of energy. Granted, the President has not gone far enough in this direction, and has indulged with nearly everyone else in touting the benefits of a “clean” coal that does not really exist, but he has been moving in the right direction. There is at least reason to hope that he might accomplish bolder strides in a second administration.
But my interest, as is often the case in these essays, is in the rhetorical power of literature to direct the reader’s attention, to persuade toward attitude which is the necessary prelude to action. I would not say that Passionate Nomads is an environmental treatise – for one thing, it is not a didactic work; what “message” there may be is sublimated to the detail of image and story – but the convergence of Old World and indigenous American mythologies paints a picture that the thoughtful reader will pick up on.
Below I will excerpt, from later in this first chapter, a serious-humorous interview between Rosaura and Merlin on the subject of that environmental theme. For another excerpt, see my earlier blog of October 8, 2011. And if this one and that other seem compelling – if you haven’t already done so – I hope you’ll consider supporting the literary arts (not to mention the career of this struggling literary artist! :) by purchasing a copy of the translation from the publisher’s website (www.aliformgroup.com). If not for yourself, perhaps as a gift (during the upcoming holiday season) for someone you love.
Pardon the crass appeal to self-interest, but this website does exist in the first place to promote my literary work. Though in my defense, I have spent more time promoting others’ work. The interest in the literary arts, in any case, is (I hope) mutual. If I were just in it for the money I would have long ago given up in despair.
But enough of that. I hope you will enjoy the following excerpt. Pleasant and profitable reading!
One fine day Merlin called me to his office-laboratory. He had lit his pipe of aromatic herbs and the air was a deep blue.
“My dear niece,” he began, “things are getting worse. I didn’t feel so worried even at the time of Spain’s civil war or this century’s second European war, which after all were human matters: crazy, foolish, unjust, and cruel, like all of men’s struggles for power. But now they’re destroying the world for us, our world, in an even more serious way.”
He took hold of a thick book of archives crammed with jumbled newspaper clippings.
“Look: the North Sea polluted, the Mediterranean going the same way, crystalline German rivers turned into drainage ditches, the beaches of Galicia adorned with corks, broken bottles, and beer cans. Thousands of factories dirtying mother waters and eternal forests everywhere. Surely you’re not going to tell me you don’t know.” And he planted an accusing finger almost on my nose. “To top it all off,” he continued, giving me no time to respond, “just take a look at these idiots who come here day after day, invading the grounds with cookie wrappers and plastic baggies, trampling like hogs on the new pansy blossoms. All because a reckless fellow had the blasted idea of divulging that this is Merlin’s residence. The truth is they couldn’t care less about me. They would come just the same if someone told them Jack the Ripper or Spiderman lived here. Probably even more. They’re only interested in taking a few bad photos, filling a little bottle with dirt, and when they get home saying that the mansion was very curious (a mixture of Galician manor and Scottish castle, with Gothic touches) but that the owner was an old lunatic and eccentric who refused to perform a single magic show of any sort despite the fact they had unfailingly paid their tour fares to the last cent.”
My uncle sat down and flung all of the embers from his pipe at a tender little plant that adorned the corner of his great sculpted desk, which was a sign of the most severe, uncontrollable indignation.
“Well, aren’t you going to answer me?”
“But uncle, you won’t let me get a word in edgewise.”
Merlin’s gray eyes grew calm. He smiled with an expression of slight annoyance.
“That’s true, lass. But it’s been almost fifty years since I’ve been so upset. Can’t I allow myself the luxury twice a century of getting worked up?”
I stood, attempting a courtly reverence.
“Milord, you are the master, you are in your own house. I kiss your archiepiscopal hand and your foot shod with silver buckle.”
“Clearly, niece, you’ll always be the same impudent mocker! And unobservant besides. I replaced the silver buckles and cork soles years ago with these very stylish suede boots.”
By now my godfather’s brow had relaxed, and the fleeting interest in fashion had erased from his mind, for a moment, his obsession with the Destiny of the World. He had returned to being the usual Merlin: that jovial and good-humored gentleman who governed his house with silken hands and steely lucidity.
“Come on, uncle, tell the truth. Don’t you already have a solution for this mess?”
“Not the broad solution, far from it. We ceased having dominion over men many years ago, too many. In Europe especially, whom would we convince? At most we’re objects of curiosity or derision, but not respect. Besides, since the law of the human world is – as I have repeatedly told you – governed by gold, you know very well I don’t have enough to be really powerful. And you also know we’re forbidden from making it.”
That left me pondering. I was sure my uncle was lying about the size of his fortune. It is extremely unlikely that a Scot (or a Galician) will proclaim that he’s rich. Rather, he will shed tears over the very place where his possessions (generally coins or ingots of the purest gold) lie buried, and foreswear himself to say that in so many years of work and/or enterprising speculation he has only been able to accumulate a modest little income, barely enough to live on. But I thought that if Merlin was lying, he was only lying a little. Unfortunately for us he was neither Onassis nor Getty nor Rockefeller. Just a well-to-do gentleman (an ordinary millionaire with only a few zeros) who had made some appreciable investments in Switzerland. This last thought was confirmed by his next words:
“I’ve been thinking, and I take your approval for granted, that it’s in our interest to sell this property, now visited by so many unpleasant people (which will no doubt increase its value in the ridiculous hotel market), and move for the time being to a peaceful country like Switzerland, where we’ll certainly have enough to eat.”
The reference to eating is not a metaphor. We do eat. We don’t need to but have become accustomed to it. It’s one of the pleasures of life. And as I have said already, we finally did leave. We installed ourselves comfortably in a little town in the Alps, located at such an altitude that it was not reached by atmospheric or any other sort of pollution. We might have remained there for several years, for Merlin was tired and had become very sedentary.