Gen­er­ous de­fender

Gen­uine writ­ing is a form of truth that makes the world richer be­cause it makes it more en­durable

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Peter Craven

The City of Words: Un­der­stand­ing Civil­i­sa­tion Through Story ( The Massey Lec­tures) By Al­berto Manguel Univer­sity of Queens­land Press, 180pp, $ 24.95

LBERTO Manguel wrote a fine novel 20- odd years ago, News from a For­eign Coun­try Came, very much in the South Amer­i­can tra­di­tion of fire and des­o­la­tion and in­cor­po­rat­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of po­lit­i­cal atroc­ity. He was as a young man a kind of ap­pren­tice to the great Jorge Luis Borges. In his more re­cent books he has tended to fol­low through the labyrinths that, al­though imag­ined, are rec­ol­lected rather than in­vented: Manguel has con­cen­trated on writ­ing books about books rather than nov­els, as if he were fol­low­ing in the wake of Borges’s des­tiny and be­com­ing a li­brar­ian and cus­to­dian of lit­er­a­ture, rather than an abra­cadabraist of the un­dreamed of.

Just a few months ago we had his book about Homer, and be­fore that his very beau­ti­ful His­tory of Read­ing and that Borges- sound­ing work of con­nois­seur­ship, A Dic­tionary of Imag­i­nary Places .

Manguel went to Canada 25 years ago and is a cit­i­zen of that coun­try, even though he lives in France. This new book, The City of Words , was de­liv­ered as the 2007 Massey Lec­tures on Cana­dian ra­dio and is be­ing broad­cast here on ABC ra­dio. It is an im­pres­sive defence of lit­er­a­ture against its en­e­mies and shows a for­mi­da­ble range of mind. Manguel goes back to what­ever spirit it was that brooded over the Baby­lo­nian Epic of Gil­gamesh ; he goes as far for­ward as the late Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and the cre­ation of Hal, made so fa­mous by film­maker Stan­ley Kubrick.

Part of the broadly po­lit­i­cal bur­den of The City of Words is that the ram­pant com­mer­cial­ism hard­wired into con­tem­po­rary civil­i­sa­tion and coded too into the world of pub­lish­ing is a bar­bar­ian within the gates li­able to de­stroy the ci­tadel. Manguel takes some time to reach this point of pes­simism. He treats the story of Gil­gamesh, the man of blood and iron, and Enkidu, the mild man who is part beast, and the way in which they be­come like brothers, as a par­a­digm of the way lit­er­a­ture shows that ev­ery self needs an other in or­der to be him­self.

As Michel de Mon­taigne said of a beloved friend, mourn­ing the loss and mea­sur­ing the depth of af­fec­tion with a hu­man­ist’s sense of

Ahow words must fail if they are to mean any­thing at all, ‘‘ Be­cause he was he and I was I.’’

Manguel in this thought­ful and deeply hu­mane med­i­ta­tion on how lit­er­a­ture finds it­self in a world full of abom­i­na­tions as well as deso­la­tions is ev­ery­where sen­si­tive to what Wal­ter Ben­jamin meant when he said that the his­tory of civil­i­sa­tion was al­ways at the same time the his­tory of bar­barism.

He is also, as be­fits a ben­e­fi­ciary of Borges, al­ways cog­nisant of the strange­ness of the his­tory of cul­ture as well as its bat­tle- axe of a cut­ting edge. The English­man who first stum­bled on and de­ci­phered the Epic of Gil­gamesh thought it proved the his­toric­ity of Noah’s flood. The elab­o­rate ruse by which Cer­vantes, an­tic­i­pat­ing Borges, claims that his work is a trans­la­tion of an Arab orig­i­nal by Cide Hamete Be­nen­geli it­self takes its place in the rich, sad, com­plex story of how deep the Moriscos go in Span­ish his­tory and how bru­tally ( but im­per­fectly) they were ex­pelled.

Manguel is par­tic­u­larly adept in trac­ing the nar­ra­tive of cul­tural his­tory and bring­ing alive, en­gross­ingly and with the soft­est pos­si­ble tread, some­thing like the Sacromonte fakes, which very con­vinc­ingly — good fiction is like that — placed a Moor­ish Chris­tian­ity at the heart of Span­ish Catholi­cism. The claims that cen­tred on prophe­cies were first up­held, then re­pu­di­ated by the In­qui­si­tion.

Manguel thinks they were prob­a­bly right. The prophe­cies seem to have been a scheme to con­vert Span­ish Catholi­cism to Is­lam.

It all reads like Sher­lock Holmes re­con­fig­ured to the gar­dens of Granada and an­no­tated by . . . well, by Borges. On the other hand, Manguel jux­ta­poses it with the ter­ri­ble fact that, be­tween

1609 and 1614, 300,000 Span­ish Moors, loyal to the house of Castile and the Church of Rome, were ex­iled to North Africa, from whence they had come nine cen­turies be­fore.

It is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Manguel’s thought­ful­ness and his warmth that he finds the Moor­ish side of the great­est work of the Span­ish imag­i­na­tion. Don Quixote is also the apoth­e­o­sis of the Mon­taignean ( and Shake­spearean) ap­pre­hen­sion of the soul mate.

Were there ever such friends as that most ar­che­typal of comic duos Don Quixote and San­cho Panza and is the wis­dom of the earth and the tears in things less writ­ten into the lines of their faces be­cause they are ridicu­lously funny? Is there a greater mon­u­ment to the ho­li­ness of fools and tragic po­etry?

Some en­ter­pris­ing pub­lisher should get Manguel to write a whole book about Don Quixote , to match his Homer study. He has the Span­ish, the heart and the sense of au­tos- da- fe in spec­tral cor­ri­dors.

Of course he fears that pub­lish­ing is in the hands of At­tila the mar­ket­ing man­ager and all his goth girls, and pub­lish­ers’ edi­tors ho­mogenis­ing manuscripts into sell­able pap.

Manguel ad­mits that a good pub­lisher’s ed­i­tor taught him to write, but he is no wor­ship­per at the shrine of Amer­i­can ed­i­tor Max Perkins and he would de­spise the present wis­dom that it has to be able to sell if it’s good.

For him this is the logic of Hal, the com­puter, who de­cided that the brutes who had to be ex­ter­mi­nated were hu­mans.

One of the im­pres­sive things about th­ese lec­tures is the way Manguel can com­bine stark or pes­simistic views with a mild, un­ex­ag­ger­ated man­ner. At the cen­tre of his view of lit­er­a­ture is the be­lief that gen­uine writ­ing is a form of truth that makes the world richer be­cause it makes it more en­durable. There is a fine dis­cus­sion of a William Trevor story about a wo­man’s re­sponse to po­lit­i­cal out­rage, and Manguel is never more im­pres­sive — and this must, in part, be the fruit of his Ar­gen­tinian ex­pe­ri­ence — than his re­fusal to politi­cise lit­er­a­ture in a cheap way, even though he is quite ca­pa­ble of reach­ing for a dis­tinc­tion from Ge­org Lukacs, the great Marx­ist critic, when he wants it.

It says some­thing for Canada, a coun­try rather like our own but with great theatre com­pa­nies and a height­ened sense of an im­per­illed cul­tural her­itage, that it can want a pub­lic lec­ture se­ries on such an aes­thetic plat­form. It was only a few years ago that the Massey Lec­tures were de­liv­ered by Hugh Ken­ner, the supreme in­ter­preter of James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, and one of the great­est mod­ern crit­ics.

But read ( or lis­ten to) th­ese lec­tures of Manguel. They are gen­tle, ur­bane and wise.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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