Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The telegraphist (conclusion)

All was quiet the next morning. There were a few heavy clouds along the horizon that he thought might portend a storm, but the next time he looked in that direction, a few moments later, they had vanished without a trace and the air around him was as searing as ever. He didn't even bother to look in on the mule, of whose existence he had by now in any case forgotten. He had lost track of time and only occasionally remembered how he had come to be stranded in such an isolated, godforsaken place. The thought occurred to him that he might in fact be dead, but after trying to get his head around that notion for some time he decided that he couldn't form a conclusion one way or another and so put the matter out of his mind. He opened a fresh can of beans -- there weren't many left but he wasn't eating very much anymore -- mouthed a few spoonfuls, and set it aside. The telegraph bell rang now and then, but he paid no attention to it.

He passed two or three days in a state of intermittent delirium, shaking with fever and too weak to get up, until in a brief lucid moment he realized that he must soon drink something or die. Filling a bucket from the wooden barrel, he drank steadily for several minutes until he felt himself about to retch. He returned to his cot and almost immediately fell asleep.

When he awoke -- it could have been the next morning, or the day after, he wouldn't have been able to say -- he felt much better and his appetite had revived. He grabbed the same can of beans, brushing away the flies that had congregated around it, and sat up at his desk. As he was pushing the first spoonful through his cracked and blistering lips he heard the alarm ring. Seconds later the message came down:
Nesabap alaba barababaranap mana ba STOP Palaba banabarep arefep ber erabet geret nasefaterabat gret bara basarep
He carefully wrote the words down, then examined them at length. Their significance was as inscrutable as ever, and yet the longer he looked the more there seemed to be something in them -- some delicate gesture, some faint hint of tenderness -- that desperately longed to be conveyed. He read them backwards and forwards and out of order, anagrammatized them and spent at least an hour simply staring at the forms of the letters as if the shapes alone bore some critical message that had nothing to do with any language known to man, a message that arose from some other realm where nothing was arbitrary symbol, where every communication was a direct encounter with some truth so profound and absolute that it couldn't be expressed in anything as insignificant and arbitrary as language but only as itself. Before he even knew he was doing it, he began to tap out a response:
Qa balaqa STOP Barabasabaraq qaraq ablababap STOP Balap rabelaba perap salap balarepareb na nabap
The reply was almost instantaneous:
Gasap beragera aramerabap STOP Beragabaragap blagap gasa berarqaraba basaraba berap asanta nabep rebasapar raba berabasep
He sat back, contemplating the words. At that moment they seemed to him as soothing as the freshest spring rain, as deep as a desert well, as tender as a mother's love for the infant at her breast. Weeping with gratitude at their beauty, he stood up and spoke the message aloud, chanting it over and over as he circled the room, kissing the paper on which he had written it out. Trembling with joy, he leaned over the key and tapped out a response that he knew, with complete certainty, would be received and understood as his irreversible declaration of utter and undivided submission:
Garaqasap abamaba maserab berasseraber STOP Asarabageram merasapa aba basapa mergaraga berasaperaba STOP Meragerabarap birab qaru nagraba barasabar
With one motion he swept everything off the desk -- his books, his water jug, and his lamp, which shattered onto the floor -- and awaited the answer that he knew would soon be forthcoming.


When the relief party arrived at the oasis they found the mule still barely clinging to life in its stall. Out of mercy they shot it. The body of the telegraph operator was slumped over his desk, surrounded by page after page of incomprehensible scribbling. At the orders of the officer in command of the party they buried him just beyond the edge of town; then they gathered all of his papers in a pile and set them ablaze. After that they cut the telegraph wires and stripped them off the poles; the copper, at least, could be used again. When they were done, right before they left, they dynamited the command post, just to be sure.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Of empires and dreams

At first glance, the life of Roger Casement, the British diplomat turned Irish nationalist who was executed for treason in 1916, might not seem an obvious subject for a Peruvian novelist, even one as cosmopolitan as the winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature. But after narrating, in the first third of what is at times as much a novelized biography as a biographical novel, how Casement's investigations of atrocities in the Congo led to the unraveling of Leopold II of Belgium's empire in Africa, Mario Vargas Llosa begins a new chapter and a likely explanation emerges:
When, on the last day of August 1910, Roger Casement arrived in Iquitos after some seven weeks of exhausting travel...
Iquitos, where Casement, after the conclusion of his mission to the Congo, was dispatched by the Crown to investigate similar abuses and atrocities on the part of a British-incorporated rubber company, is of course familiar territory for Vargas Llosa, who set parts of several of his earlier novels in that hub of the Peruvian Amazon. But though the chapters devoted to Casement's activities in Peru make up the longest section of the book, they don't overshadow the rest. Tying the novel together, and alternating with the narration of Casement's activities, in the Congo, South America, and Europe, are scenes from Casement's last days, as he awaits execution in a cell in a British prison and reflects on the events of his life.

Born to an Irish Protestant family (his mother retained Catholic sympathies and secretly baptized Roger in the faith), Casement shipped out to Africa as a young man and worked for a time alongside the famous explorer Henry Morton Stanley. Over the course of the twenty years he spent in the Congo he became increasingly disturbed by the ruthlessness with which Leopold's colonial enterprise was being conducted. Ostensibly in the name of civilization and Christianity -- but in fact almost entirely in the service of greed -- the African inhabitants of the Congo Free State were subjected to a pattern of kidnappings, forced labor, savage whippings, amputations, and outright murder, all to ensure that the flow of rubber continued unabated. The number of victims, directly or indirectly, of Leopold's reign is reckoned in the millions. Casement's report to the British government, published in 1904, was instrumental to the successful international campaign to wrest the Congo from the king's control.

Subsequently posted on routine consular duties to Brazil, Casement was soon sent to Iquitos to verify reports of atrocities committed by the Peruvian Amazon Company. During his mission he traveled to remote areas of the Amazon basin that lay well beyond the reach of the government in Lima. His investigations revealed not only abuses at times more horrific than those in the Congo, but also a pattern of official collusion and of persecution of those few journalists and officials who were brave enough or foolhardy enough to try to document the atrocities. As Casement began to name names his own life began to be at risk, and during his second visit to Peru he was dissuaded from venturing into areas that were effectively under the Company's control.

If Casement had withdrawn from public life after presenting the findings of his Peruvian report to the Crown, he would probably be universally regarded as a hero of the anti-colonialist and human rights movements. But there was one more chapter in his eventful life. Increasingly identifying himself with his heritage, he retired from the British Foreign Office and was drawn into the Irish nationalist movement, becoming a friend and ally of militant leaders like Patrick Pearse and Eoin MacNeill, and when war broke out in 1914 he was dispatched by the nationalists as an emissary to the Kaiser's Germany. After attempting with little success to organize a corps of pro-independence soldiers from among the ranks of Irish POWs, he arranged for the delivery by Germany of a shipload of guns and ammunition intended for use during the Easter Uprising of 1916. Infiltrated into Ireland by a U-boat just before the uprising, Casement was quickly captured by the British and subsequently convicted of treason and hanged. His remains were buried in an unmarked grave within the prison grounds, and only repatriated to Ireland in 1965.

Any novelist or biographer depicting Casement's life must deal with the vexed question of the "Black Diaries," ostensibly in Casement's hand, portions of which were revealed by the British government as he awaited execution. The diaries, which describe a series of furtive sexual encounters with other men, were used to help discredit Casement at a time when a number of British and Irish intellectuals (among them George Bernard Shaw, but not Casement's old friend Joseph Conrad) were urging clemency. The controversy over whether or not the diaries are genuine has never been fully settled; Vargas Llosa takes a compromise position, suggesting in an Epilogue -- and perhaps not entirely convincingly -- that though the diaries are genuine some of the events that they narrate may not be.
My own impression -- that of a novelist, to be sure -- is that Roger Casement wrote the famous diaries but that he didn't live them, at least not entirely, that in them there is much exaggeration and invention, that he wrote certain things because he wanted to but could not live them.
El sueño del celta ("The Dream of the Celt," "the Celt" being a nickname given by some of Casement's friends because of the passion he came to develop for Irish history and culture) has just been published by Alfaguara. As the novel would seem to pose no major obstacles to translation (unlike some of the author's earlier works), an English-language version can probably be expected in a year or so.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The telegraphist (II)

At the beginning of the seventh week all communication with Z---- was broken off again, this time for three days. It resumed promptly and without explanation on the fourth morning at 0600 hours, but two days later it ceased and did not resume. A slave to protocol, he submitted no daily reports, since none had been requested. To break the monotony he began to make his morning rounds in a counter-clockwise direction. He was struck by how different an aspect the oasis revealed when examined in this fashion, but after a few days the novelty wore off. He began to alternate, walking clockwise one day and counter-clockwise the next, and this seemed to be the most tolerable arrangement.

After the second full week of silence he caught himself softening his steps, listening for the engines of the relief party that by now was overdue. He heard none, nor were there any unexpected visitors, suspicious or otherwise. The worst of the heat of the dry season, suffocating and blinding, lay upon the desert, and he spent as much time as he could asleep with wet rags over his eyes. Scarcely animate, the lethargic mule stared at him from its stall with unblinking and (he half suspected) unseeing eyes, and barely summoned the energy to eat.

He was writhing on his cot in a semi-delirious state, somewhere between night and morning and between sleep and waking, when the alarm rang. He leapt up and rushed to the telegraph. It wasn't the operator at Z---- but the outward post, and the message, as ever, was incomprehensible:
Ba bara sabara rebapara azera ba STOP Sarabara berisa seribisarabisa serata bezera razara ra STOP Berisol sorisoriso bazara sarisarasarisab STOP
He transcribed this seeming gibberish into his logbook, returned an acknowledgement, then relayed the message to the operator at Z----. There was no response.

The following day, at around the same hazy hour of dawn, another message came down:
Saraba barisaserisab azarasaraza bazirazep STOP Azirasora sarizap borisoq qrabba oraseraborisep prebanamarasarasap STOP Azapep STOP
Again he acknowledged, transcribed and forwarded the message, and received no response from Z----. To his surprise, however, an hour later an identical message arrived. Perplexed, he carefully compared it with the previous one and acknowledged it, but almost immediately a third came, and then a fourth. He duly forwarded each transmission, but when the fifth and sixth arrived he held back. Clearly the operator in the hinterlands was not receiving his acknowledgments and was repeating himself in the mistaken belief that his messages were not getting through. There was no point in annoying the authorities at Z----, if they were indeed listening, with obvious repetitions. For several hours the wires carried message after identical message, dozens, scores, eventually hundreds. He transcribed each one, for a while, then simply gave up, walking away and returning every hour or so to see if the incoming transmission was the same as the others. It always was.

The messages trailed off in late evening, then sputtered to a halt. He was awakened once during the night, then again around 0500, and after that the pace began to pick up again until the incoming transmissions had become a virtually continuous stream of characters. He walked away from his desk and went outside. The wind had gathered and a sandstorm was obscuring the horizon, but the heat was as relentless as ever. The mule stood motionless and he wondered whether it had died standing up during the night and had simply neglected to fall. He threw it some hay regardless.

When he went back inside the telegraph was still chattering. He recorded a few lines, then threw his chair back in a huff and started to walk away, rage rising within him. On the verge of losing control completely, he was about to smash the instrument and put an end to his torment once and for all when he caught himself, finding that a greater fury was welling up inside him, and coldly and meticulously typed out a message to the operator on the other end:
Raberaparabep barabap parabarabagarap garap baregatarat top barop roparaoparop bererep qrabab STOP Garep arepabap gop STOP
These syllables, though they meant nothing to him, he transmitted without a single pause. To his surprise, the machine did not pick up where it had left off. Instead there was silence for a few moments, then a brief acknowledgment, and then it lay still.

No further transmissions arrived until late that evening. He was dozing in the cot, his spoon rattling in the empty can of beans beside him with every labored breath, when the alarm woke him and a message trickled out:
Garabarep farabara barana marabap amar raba raba barabaramop STOP Garabananana badarap badar badar badarap bada STOP
He wrote out the message, then tore it roughly out of the logbook and paced the room, reading it over and over. He had been instructed in the making and cracking of basic ciphers during his initial training, but this fit the pattern of nothing he had ever seen. He leafed through his logbook, carefully examining old entries. There seemed to be too few unique letters, too much obvious repeated filler, for the messages to contain any but the most rudimentary communication. No doubt there was a key, known to the operator on the other end and also at Z----, or maybe not even there, maybe the transcriptions were referred to another operator at some distant headquarters, perhaps even all the way to the home country, to some intelligence officer in the national palace, who perhaps decoded them for the eyes of M. le Président himself. One way or another it was clearly beyond his ken.

While he was considering this the alarm sounded again, and another string came through, this one identical to the last:
Garabarep farabara barana marabap amar raba raba barabaramop STOP Garabananana badarap badar badar badarap bada STOP
And then it seemed to wait, patiently, expecting an answer. He put his hand on the key and tapped, hesitantly at first, then fluently:
Morarerabap aramara marabeparepamar berererapap STOP Beraqraba garab megaraba babap babap babap ma garabarap STOP Serabep arbaraba barapep a pep perapebabep merera baramabap STOP
A brief acknowledgment followed, and then nothing for the rest of the night.

(To be continued.)

Monday, November 15, 2010

The telegraphist (I)

He was the last one left. Just before decamping the legionnaires loaded up the barrels of gunpowder that remained onto carts, piled on all the old carbines and anything else that was portable, and blew it all up at the edge of the desert. The shock wave whipped the overhead wires that hung slack between the weatherbeaten poles and blew out two windows of the command post, but the adobe walls held firm. The little generator in the next room, after skipping a single beat at the initial concussion, resumed its steady chugging, brushing off the aftershocks that echoed, ever more faintly, for the better part of an hour.

They left him a mule and some fodder, a rifle and cartridges, and enough fuel and food and water for two months, three if he was careful with it, and not very much rum at all. By the time his provisions ran out, if he was lucky, he would be relieved; in the meantime his presence would be essential to communication along the line, sporadic though it might be. In the absence of the lieutenant, who had never returned from a reconnoitering expedition the year before and was assumed to be among the casualties of war, the sergeant formally transferred his authority in a brief ceremony several times interrupted by boisterous outbursts on the part of his subordinates, all of whom were in varying states of drunkenness and immune to the sergeant's halfhearted rebukes. They wished him good luck, embraced him one by one in turn, and clambered into the back of the hulking, wheezing truck just as the driver, who perched alongside the sergeant was by no means the soberest of the lot, ground on the gears until he managed to cajole the reluctant vehicle into lurching forward, blowing up clouds of dust and sand as it lumbered haltingly to the edge of the oasis. He watched them drive off for a moment, waved his cap three times over his head, and returned to his desk.

During the first few weeks his duties kept to their normal routines. He slept in a cot in the office within earshot of the alarm. Each morning, at precisely 0600 hours, the office at Z---- would transmit an identical message inquiring for his report. He would respond that all was well and await instructions. A few moments later the machine would jigger into life again, with a one-line order to expect a further communication at 1800 hours. After breakfast and coffee he would make a brief circuit of the immediate environs of the command post in order to stretch the kinks out of his legs, he would feed and water the mule, and then go back to sleep until evening, when there would be a similarly terse exchange with the operator on the other end. He would warm up a few more spoonfuls of canned rice and beans, knock back a single precisely measured shot of spirits, and call it a night. On rare occasions and at unpredictable hours a brief message came down from further up the line, transmitted by an operator in some even more isolated and woebegone outpost. When that happened he tapped out an acknowledgment and promptly relayed the information; as these messages were usually encrypted and he had not been entrusted with the key this entailed the careful replication of a string of apparently meaningless syllables, a task for which, he decided, he was particularly suited.

Only twice did he see any sign of life other than the vacant and imperturbable mule. One morning, during his constitutional, he discovered the faint traces of hoof prints across his path. That the marks were visible at all, considering the incessant drifting of sand over every square inch of the oasis, proved that they had been made the previous night, perhaps just before dawn. He traced their origin back as far as the last palms, but no further, then reversed course and followed them to the point at which they trailed off into the desert. He determined that there had been three camels, that their riders had never dismounted, and that they had found nothing of interest to detain them or even to cause them to veer from their course. A week later, by chance, on one of the few relatively windless days, he spied a small caravan -- twenty riders or so, from the look of it -- very far off, but it never approached and he lost sight of it, even with his binoculars, after an hour. His report of each incident was duly noted and acknowledged, but nothing more was said of either one.

It was somewhere near the end of the fourth week, or perhaps the beginning of the fifth -- he had become increasingly indifferent to the calendar -- that his orders failed to arrive on schedule for the first time. He wasn't alarmed by this. Interruptions along the line, due to downed poles or balky generators, weren't particularly unusual or unexpected. The lack of communication posed no imminent danger, as the front lines -- to the extent that those could be defined in a guerrilla conflict in inhospitable and poorly charted terrain -- lay hundreds of miles off, and even the odd raiding party, should it by chance happen to break through, would have no reason to venture into a region that offered little in the way of opportunities for pillage. The telegraph remained dormant through the evening, but when at 0600 the next morning the alarm sounded and the operator at Z----, making no reference to his silence of the previous day, inquired for an update on local conditions, the telegraphist neither sought an explanation nor gave it a second thought.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Night piece (North)

Possibly it's the end of the world, she's not the one to say, but if so as luck would have it the end of the world finds her in a city far from where she was born, where they speak a different language she never quite masters though no one seems to mind, where it's lovely along the lake in summer but winter comes hard and fast. She meets a man who has many friends but no ties and before long they find they are bound by love and she moves her things into his apartment three flights up and two blocks down a crooked alley from the center of town. In the evenings, when they come home from their jobs, he browns stew meat and onions on an old gas stove and she settles into a chair in a corner underneath a lamp where she can continue to draw after the sun goes down. He leaves the radio on while he cooks, too low for her to decipher the words but she likes the music, the strains of accordion and fiddle that bend around the singers' voices. After dinner they disconnect the phone, sometimes they put a record on and dance slowly and silently for a while but mostly they just sit by the window. In the beautiful chill night, above the muffled sounds of the city, the vault of heaven is filled with uncountable stars.

Monday, November 01, 2010


Until about ten days ago I had no idea that Andy Irvine had a new record in the works, and now here it is, whisked over the seas from Ireland to drive away the oncoming November chill. Andy jokingly refers to Abocurragh as "the album of the century," meaning it's his first solo album since Way Out Yonder, which was recorded in 1999. Old friends are on board -- Dónal Lunny and Liam O'Flynn from Planxty, Bruce Molsky, Nikola Parov, and Rens van der Zalm from Mozaik -- but there are some new sounds in the mix this time (new to me at least), including Hardanger fiddler Annbjørg Lien and guitarist Lillebjørn Nilsen from Norway.

Andy's in fine mettle and voice and the selection of songs is a strong one, maybe his best solo set except the wonderful Rain on the Roof. There are no strictly instrumental tracks this time (three of the ballads segue into instrumentals), but as you would expect there's some great mandola and bouzouki playing by Andy and plenty of support from his mates on accordion, uilleann pipes, fiddle, and guitar, not to mention Nikola Parov on more exotic instruments like the nyckelharpa and kaval. No record from Andy would be complete without a couple of rousing songs about the Wobblies of the IWW, and this one has two, of which "The Spirit of Mother Jones" is more successful than the Balkan-flavored "Victory at Lawrence" (though the latter piqued my curiosity enough to induce me to dig out my copy of Bruce Watson's Bread and Roses). The heart of the album, though, is in the ballads, both original and traditional. Andy's got a wry sense of humor, so it's no surprise if the lyrics here stray a bit into unexpected territory, whether the eventual outcome is tragic or comic. (In both cases, there seems to be a common cautionary theme about the dangers of picking up strange women!)

The final cut, "Oslo / Norwegian Mazurka," is one of Abocurragh's best, with some delicious Hardanger fiddle by Annbjørg Lien and some earthy, off-kilter humor. The song narrates the events of an excursion through Norway some years back, after which, Andy says:
I was completely knackered when I got home to Ireland and decided to write a song about it. Unfortunately I could remember nothing, so this may or may not be true! No one will ever know.
True or not, the story is hilarious and provides Andy with a chance to spin some of his best lyrics:
In the Dubliner we played a gig, though we were all a bit hungover
A man got up and tried to dance a jig it looked more like a Bossa Nova
I had some beers and I began to flirt
And very soon I was on blonde alert
You're too late you know, thirty years or so,
she laughed and went home to her mammy
The song's best lines come later on, and concern the origin of clouds, but for that you'll have to buy the record.

Abocurragh, which is expertly produced by Dónal Lunny, is probably not available in stores in the US but can be ordered directly from Andy through his website or through various online sources.