Running with the wild bulls
AWISE teacher once told me that nothing memorable can be written without the writer taking some kind of risk. I knew instantly what he meant, in a broad sense — including that the risk need not be physical — but have spent a lot of time over the years thinking through the details.
Now, for me at least, the circle has been closed, with one of my former students producing a wonderful work of nonfiction that demonstrates the point about writing and risk in all its raging glory. In My Colombian Death ( published by Picador), Matthew Thompson describes how, at 35, he abandoned his wife and young daughter to descend into the badlands of Colombia, there to discover himself, more truly and more strangely.
Feeling an onset of spiritual fatigue, as an upand-coming young journalist, and fearful lest it come to define him, Thompson decides he must test himself in adversity. Previously, most of what he’s known of places less cosy than Sydney has been gleaned by sifting through the foreign wires in the airconditioned offices of The Sydney Morning Herald . Having heard about Colombia — its corruption, its militias, its drugs, its street crime — Thompson decides the place is mean enough to satisfy his criteria. ( He’s almost the reverse of your conventional tourist.) Ignoring my repeated advice to the contrary — though that bit does not make it into the book — he quits his day job and commences Spanish lessons.
One newspaper described My Colombian Death as ‘‘ a hell-ride through South America’s deadliest melting pot,’’ and it’s not a bad summing up. Thompson runs with the bulls, comports with drug barons and ingests numerous drugs himself, including, in the book’s climax, the fabled hallucinogen, yage . It is this mother-of-all-trips, followed by a sense of rebirth, that leads Thompson, finally, to the reverse of a conventional piece of Australian wisdom: ‘‘ Death was not meant to be easy.’’
Just because nothing great can be written without taking a risk doesn’t mean every risk taken leads to great writing. The achievement of My Colombian Death is not the risk, which any idiot could have taken, but the writing, which is humorous, reflective and ironic: qualities without which the whole thing could have become an empty exercise in machismo.
The point of Thompson’s journey, and of his book, is the existentialist one that a life lived entirely within a defined role, and in which we are not redefining ourselves every instant, is barely life at all:
‘‘ It has been valuable beyond measure to come here and run with bulls and murderers and dance in rubble. I know in my bones now that the raw shocks of life — even as they wound, or threaten to — shake existence into its essence. It’s a lack of impacts that undoes a man.
‘‘ Of course I’m not drawn to death or grievous bodily harm, but when life revolves around their avoidance there’s not much life to preserve.
‘‘ I am alive here, whereas I was on the fade back home.’’
The two most obvious precursors to My Colombian Death are Among the Thugs ( 1991), Bill Buford’s account of a year spent among British soccer hooligans, and Hell’s Angels ( 1966), by Thompson’s namesake, Hunter S. Thompson.
All three books are about a descent, via stages, into bad places populated by bad people, with a wrenching or violent climax followed by a sense of emergence and release: it may well be Dante’s Inferno that is the archetype for all three. They are, to some extent, studies of the behaviour of crowds or mobs. Buford and Hunter Thompson get the shit kicked out of them at the end of their experiences, Buford by riot police in Sardinia and Thompson by the Angels he has been hanging out with.
In all three books, a key part of the adventure involves the writer striving to meet the leader of the pack, who turns out to be a variety of manipulator or puppet master. For Matt Thompson it is militia supremo and ‘‘ death lord’’ Salvatore Mancuso ( who was deported to the US seven months ago); for Buford it is the elusive Steamin’ Sammy, who always seems to have a wad of cash and a private means of transportation; and for Hunter Thompson it is Angels leader Sonny Barger, a kind of poet-philosopher and more than a match for the cops.
In this kind of writing, description and dialogue are everything. Here is Buford, describing the mouth of one of the soccer louts:
‘‘ There were many gaps, the raw rim of the gums showing where once there must have been teeth. Of the teeth still intact, many were chipped or split; none was straight: they appear to have grown up at odd, unconventional angles or ( more likely) been redirected by a powerful physical influence at some point in their career.
‘‘ All of them were highly coloured: deep brown or caked with yellow or, like a pea soup, mushy-green and vegetable-soft with decay. This was a mouth that had suffered many slings and arrows along with the occasional thrashing and several hundredweight of tobacco and Cadbury’s milk chocolate.
‘‘ This was a mouth through which a great deal of life had passed at, it would appear, an uncompromising speed.’’
As this passage suggests, there is a degree of patronising in Buford, a habit neither Thompson falls into. The true masterpiece among these three books is Hell’s Angels , largely because of the quality of the character sketches. Here’s Hunter S.’ s description of Buzzard from San Bernardino, an ‘‘ Angel from central casting’’:
‘‘ He is a weird combination of menace, obscenity, elegance and a genuine distrust of everything that moves. He turns his back on photographers and thinks all journalists are agents of the Main Cop, who lives in a penthouse on the other side of some bottomless moat that no Hell’s Angel will ever cross except as a prisoner, and then only to have his hands chopped off as a lesson to the others.
‘‘ There is a beautiful consistency about Buzzard; he is a porcupine among men, with his quills always flared. If he won a new car with a raffle ticket bought in his name by some momentary girlfriend, he would recognise it at once as a trick to con him out of a licence fee. He would denounce the girl as a hired slut, beat up the raffle sponsor, and trade off the car for five hundred Seconals and a gold-handled cattle prod.’’
Doesn’t that remind you of how well Hunter S. could write before he turned into a drugaddled parody of himself?
rearview@ theaustralian. com. au