The trek hadn’t been under way more than an hour before one of the blacks began to complain about his feet. They were bleeding, he said. His overseer brought Firefly close in and looked: so they were. Hardly would the blood soak into the sand than the prisoner behind would kick it invisible. Not long after that the same prisoner complained that the sand was working its way into the cuts on his feet and the pain was making it difficult for him to walk. No doubt that was also true. He was told either to be quiet or forfeit his share of water when they outspanned for the noon rest. The soldiers had learned on previous treks that if one native was allowed to complain the others soon took it up and this for some reason slowed everyone. They wouldn’t sing or chant; that perhaps could have been borne. But the wailing, self-indulgent babel that would go up – God, it was awful. Silence, for practical reasons, was the rule and was enforced.
In the chapter “Mondaugen’s Story” in his first novel, Thomas Pynchon describes the colonial German and later British occupation of what is now Namibia (and was then German Southwest Africa followed by its consummation into British South Africa). The 1904 German massacre of the Herero and Hottentot (or Nama) populations is now an occasion for nostalgia on the part of the guests at a ‘siege party’, thirsting back to a more brutal time.
As I was reading V, the German parliament rejected a bill which aimed to recognise this slaughter as an attempt (and a fairly successful one) at genocide, probably in part due to the financial liability this would entail. This is despite the fact that General Lothar von Trotha – an offstage character in Pynchon’s novel – gave the order that “every Herero on German territory, with or without rifles, with or without cattle, will be shot. I’m not taking in any more women and children, drive them back to their people or have them shot.” Goebbels’ father served in a senior role in the occupation.
The narrator in this section pins at least some of the bloodlust (which it undoubtedly was) on this ‘wailing, awful babel’ of tongues, the fallen nature of man’s inability to speak unto man and be understood. Or else, to listen and to understand – this is the final image of the chapter, a Bondel (a rebel Hottentot) singing in his own language, with the section’s principal character, and the reader, unable to understand.
(As an aside, the author admitted in a letter to having taken much of his material from a British propaganda pamphlet produced towards the end of World War 1, named The Report on the Natives of South-West Africa and their Treatment by Germany. This surely held a lot of truth, but was based on the idea that the British were the kinder occupiers, greater in understanding, perhaps).
I was reading with an eye towards more references to the Babel myth, and though they never materialised, a later section plays heavily with the transmission of ideas between languages, or the failure of this, specifically between Maltese and English.
Fausto Maijstral has had his mental processes corrupted by the institutions of the island; as he says, “I think our education in the English school and University alloyed what was pure in us. Younger, we talked of fear, love, motherhood”. This is a depiction of the rise of English through the instruments of power, subsuming the technical, commercial and governmental spheres of a country, becoming a necessary requirement for individuals to enter into the public sphere. As Pynchon puts it, this replaces the more heartfelt or sentimental uses of previous, community-specific languages, which were somehow richer (see my responses to Edward Saïd’s take on this here).
This is a view I’m pretty sceptical of, although it should be said that it comes out the mouth of a narrator in a parody of or tribute to a more heroic, epic style of writing (his name is Fausto, after all), with all the romanticism that entails. He goes on:
Can I explain “love”? Tell her my love for her is the same and part of my love for the Bofors crews, the Spitfire pilots, our Governor? That it is love which embraces this island, love for everything on it that moves! There are no words in Maltese for this. Nor finer shades; nor words for intellectual states of mind.
There is a distinction that needs to be made between the trauma of having a language imposed on the one hand and some inherent feature of English as a set of words on the other. This attitude of “the curse of knowing English and its emotional nuances” places the occupying and occupied languages in a pretty clear-cut relationship: one cognitive, one felt, a kind of dissociation of sensibility betraying a Babel-like explosion in the early (or perhaps ‘primitive’) human brain.
So, total. The chapters of the book set in Namibia, Florence, Alexandria, Paris and Malta are fantastically good; it’s a shame, I suppose, that everything that happens in New York and with those that live there is much less interesting, but I guess that’s America’s fault.
Finally, here is one of the greatest passages in the book, unabridged, one enormous paragraph:
V. at the age of thirty-three had found love at last in her peregrinations through (let us be honest) a world if not created then at least described to its fullest by Karl Baedecker of Leipzig. This is a curious country, populated only by a breed called “tourists”. Its landscape is one of inanimate monuments and buildings; near-inanimate barmen, taxi drivers, bellhops, guides: there to do any bidding, to various degrees of efficiency, on receipt of the recommended baksheesh, pourboire, mancia, tip, more than this, it is two-dimensional, as is the Street, as are the pages and maps of those little red handbooks. As long as the Cook’s, Travellers’ Clubs, and banks are open, the Distribution of Time section followed scrupulously, the plumbing at the local hotel in order (“No hotel,” writes Karl Baedecker, “can be recommended as first-class that is not satisfactoryin its sanitary arrangements, which should include an abundant flush of water and a supply of proper toilette paper”), the tourist may wander anywhere in this coordinate system without fear. War never becomes more serious than a scuffle with a pickpocket, one of the “huge army … who are quick to recognise the stranger and skilful in taking advantage of his ignorance”; depression and prosperity are reflected only in the rate of exchange; politics are of course never discussed with the native population. Tourism thus is supranational, like the Catholic Church, and perhaps the most absolute communion we know on earth: for be its members American, German, Italian, whatever, the Tour Eiffel, Pyramids, and Campanile all evoke identical responses from them; their Bible is clearly written and does not admit of private interpretation; the share the same landscapes, suffer the same inconveniences; live by the same pellucid time-scale. They are the Street’s own.
[pellucid: reflecting light evenly; clear]
Perhaps through a completely misplaced sense of ego this reminded me very strongly of my own writing, paragraphs I’ve written, storylines and recourses. Tourism as a world-view, as an international language based in its own texts and practices (Baedecker for Pynchon, Facebook photo galleries and forums on language learning and sex tourism for me). Something to aim towards at least, in future work.