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