|Alice | Tin.it | Foto album | Disco remoto | Community|
The Purple Land that England Lost, 1885
Reissued under the shorter title of The Purple Land when it was justly rescued from nigh twenty years of oblivion in 1904, this is the first literary venture of William Henry Hudson, the eccentric Anglo-Argentine naturalist now recognized--especially by writers--as one of the finest craftsmen of prose in English literature, as well as a thinker on ecological matters who was far in advance of his time. When he oversaw the new edition, Hudson wisely suppressed an interesting but lengthy historical introduction, replacing it with a condensed appendix, and in addition to minor revisions also excised one of the more dramatic chapters, the Story of a Piebald Horse, which is now to be found in his El Ombù collection. Except for correspondence about ornithology printed in newspapers, the 44-year-old Hudson, a notebook-keeper of long standing, had not sought publication before and despite its lively freshness and original content his novel failed to attract the attention and regard it merits, or to reward its financially straitened author with an income. Even today it tends to dwell in relative dusty-shelf obscurity, far less often read than the famous Green Mansions or Hudson's lyrical autobiograpy of his childhood, Far Away and Long Ago. Like the haunting Green Mansions, with which Hudson finally achieved high-visibility success, this is a South American romance with tragic undercurrents, but in its sprightly tone it compares more readily with his essays and factual reminiscences than with his other brooding fiction. Indeed, to Hudson's sparse original audience it was even unclear whether this was fiction rather than an exotic travelogue.
The Purple Land is the exuberant, often wryly comic, first-person account of a young Englishman's imprudent, roving adventures, set against a blithely chaotic background of political strife in nineteenth-century Uruguay, a territory once invaded by England and lost again, to the initial chauvinistic displeasure of the novel's protagonist. Richard Lamb is a happy-go-lucky young man who "lived in and was led by the passions and illusions and unbounded self-confidence of youth," which have recently led him to run off with Paquíta, an entrancing Argentine girl he carried away in the face of her family's disapproval, making an implacable enemy of his teenage bride's unforgiving father. After a clandestine marriage, the fleeing couple has fetched up across the river in Montevideo where a few harsh facts of life begin to hit home: Richard's resources are slim and he lacks the means of supporting himself, to say nothing of providing for a wife. Parking Paquíta with a sour-tempered aunt long estranged from her kin, he goes cheerfully and ignorantly forth into the interior of the country, then called the Banda Orientál, to seek his fortune.
Hudson's framing narrative for Richard's tale is succinct, but convoluted. Richard is writing his memoir some years after the "rambles" he describes, dividing his eventful life into three periods "beginning when I had not yet completed twenty-five years and finishing before thirty." He matter-of-factly relegates the first of these, his love affair and elopement with Paquíta, to a few hasty paragraphs, but the reader easily extracts the essence of what those episodes must have been like from his later conduct, falling just short of surrender to temptation, with a series of alluring females he discovers in the course of his travels. The third and longest period, "all black disaster," during which he is imprisoned and persecuted by Paquíta's vengeful father, also goes untold; Richard's stoic allusion to his "frenzy and grief" at Paquíta's heart-broken death is almost all he chooses to divulge. But it is this punishing interlude that grants him a fresh perspective on his picaresque vagabondage in the Purple Land, now a font of "pleasant and peaceful memories" despite its frustrating, up-and-down quality at the time, and induces him to take up his pen to preserve the chronicle for posterity. Yet not before setting off on still another impetuous quest, its object casually left by Richard for the reader to identify on his own and the outcome of which is anyone's guess:"For I had no sooner begun to play with the idea [of writing] when something came to rouse me from the state I was in, during which I had been like one who has outlived his activities, and is no longer capable of a new emotion, but feeds wholly on the past. And this something new, affecting me so that I was all at once myself again, eager to be up and doing, was nothing more than a casual word from a distance, the cry of a lonely heart, which came by chance to my ear; and hearing it I was like one who opening his eyes from a troubled doze unexpectedly sees the morning star in its unearthly lustre above the wide, dark plain where night overtook him--the star of day and everlasting hope, and of passion and strife and toil and rest and happiness."
The brief passage quoted above is a characteristic example of Hudson's prose style and of the effortless rhythms which make his work particularly gratifying to read aloud. As in Joseph Conrad's often cited observation, "one can't tell how this fellow gets his effects--he writes as the grass grows." Although told in plain, straightforward language, The Purple Land abounds with striking passages, including Hudson's notorious invective: "O civilisation, with your million conventions, soul-and-body-withering prudishnesses, vain education for the little ones, going to church in best black clothes, unnatural craving for cleanliness, feverish striving after comforts that bring no comfort to the heart, are you a mistake altogther?" Beneath callow young Richard the mature Hudson constantly stirs, shredding the Lamb disguise to crusade in the wilderness with the naturalist's distinctive cry, yet never losing control over his narrator's doings or failing to keep faith with Richard's winsome personality.
Richard's back-country wanderings plunge him into a round of entertaining encounters with a wide assortment of sharply delineated characters: peasants, cattlemen, drunkards, provincial officials, rascals, soldiers, and a surfeit of attractive women. He gains something from everyone, be it only a pot-luck supper in a smoky hovel, a piquant story, or a stimulating emotional experience--but never his livelihood. Constantly crossing his path, twice in scruffy incognito, is the charismatic General Santa Coloma, who co-opts the foot-dragging Richard into his ragtag rebel army for a futile assault on the central government. Wending his roundabout way back to the city, as empty-handed as he left and his situation more compromised than before, Richard still exudes vitality and enthusiasm; the deeper significances of the incidents he experienced have only begun to strike into his heart and temper his mind, but he is already aware of having fallen in love, this time with the gloriously anarchic Banda Orientál itself. As he and Paquíta prepare to sail across to Buenos Aires to seek a difficult reconciliation with her enraged parent, and go down to defeat, Richard takes his temporary leave in Hudson's own voice:"Farewell, beautiful land of sunshine and storm, of virtue and of crime; may the invaders of the future fare on your soil like those of the past and leave you in the end to your own devices; may the chivalrous instinct of Santa Coloma, the passion of Dolores, the loving-kindness of Candelaria still live in your children to brighten their lives with romance and beauty; may the blight of our superior civilisation never fall on your wild flowers, nor the yoke of our progress be laid on your herdsmen--careless, graceful, music-loving as the birds..."
© Wordreign, March 2000
Home Recent Books
Images from Myst © 1993 Cyan, Inc. All rights reserved. Myst® is a registered trademark of Cyan, Inc. Used by permission.