A few weeks ago more than a hundred people holding up signs squeezed into Montreal’s Norman Bethune Square to protest the acquittal of a white farmer for killing a young native Canadian. Perhaps the organizers of the protest chose the site of Bethune’s statue because they felt a symbolic kinship with a Canadian who fought in his own way for human rights, even though long after his death his movement would later be discredited as a major violator of human rights.
Did they know Dr. Bethune was a communist who left Montreal in 1938 to enlist in the Chinese struggle against the Japanese, and that he died of septicemia while operating on wounded soldiers in Mao Zedong’s Red Army? Did they know that Bethune was turned after his death into the most revered Westerner in China—right after Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin—an icon commemorated by several generations of Chinese schoolchildren who were required to recite by rote Mao’s “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” from The Little Red Book—a book whose print distribution would have dwarfed that of Harry Potter if the latter had been published in the 1960s or 1970s?
Most likely the protesters chose the spot because it was meters away from an entrance to the Metro through which thousands of people pass every day, maximizing exposure for their cause. A short piece in the Montreal Gazette doesn’t elaborate.
Bethune has nearly been forgotten in Canada and perhaps now, long after the passing of Mao, he is fading from memory in China as well. But he was a lifelong obsession for the Chinese-Canadian writer Xue Yiwei, who, now 53, was among the last generation of Chinese who had to memorize Mao’s eulogy to the Canadian doctor. Bethune’s eminence still haunts the writer, years after the Cultural Revolution ran its course, after the Great Leader died, and after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 disabused youths of the notion that the country might see a more democratic future.
Xue, who has a degree in English literature and a doctorate in linguistics, feared official reactions to his writing would land him prison, so in 1990 he escaped by way of Hong Kong, and in a reversal of Norman Bethune’s path he eventually landed in Montreal, where he was an unknown famous writer because all of his work was available only in Chinese. That is until last year, when Dr. Bethune’s Children was published in English translation by Darryl Sterk. It had first been published in the Chinese in Taiwan in 2012 and read surreptitiously on the mainland. No publisher in China has so far dared to publish it. He returned 1997 to teach Chinese literature at Shenzhen University and in 2009 and 2010 was a visiting scholar at City University of Hong Kong, but he now considers himself a Canadian.
Xue had long wanted to write a book about the mysterious figure who had loomed so large over his life. What he had known growing up was that Dr. Bethune died in 1939 while serving with the communist 8th Route Army, and immediately after his death Mao made him a martyr, inducting him into the pantheon of spiritual avatars of Chinese Communism. Mao’s letter, titled “In Memory of Norman Bethune,” would be incorporated into the Little Red Book and become required reading for schoolchildren for succeeding generations, culminating in that of Xue and his contemporaries. At first he considered writing a biography and was given access to Bethune papers and letters in Canada and China. One letter stood out. He wanted to try to understand the statement in Bethune’s last letter to his girlfriend in Montreal: “I must go to China.” Why, Xue wondered, did he use the word “must”?
Why did the doctor have to go to China? Why would anyone have to go halfway around the world to a country where he didn’t speak the language to fight for an ideal? In Bethune’s case the ideal was the worker’s paradise promised by communism.
Xue says that as he looked through the archives he decided that he particularly wanted to write about the young people who were his contemporaries, those of whom the mother of one of the characters in the book says: “You are all Dr. Bethune’s children.”
This book is complicated because Xue calls it a novel, yet many of the events closely parallel those in his own life, and even in his author’s note—is it the author Xue who is speaking, or the fictional author of the book?—he speaks of himself writing the book while talking about characters in the book as though they were people in his own life. He says most of the children of Dr. Bethune are still living in China, except for the three main characters in his novel. Two, he says, “died an unnatural death for reasons related to their spiritual father [Bethune].” The narrator says, “I am the only survivor of the three, and I fled China in the early 1990s, taking these memories of pain and loss with me.” Is this the character who is the narrator? Is it the author? Perhaps both?
It’s a remarkable book and one in which we are looking into a hall of mirrors, never knowing for sure when we are in the fictional world or the real world. I won’t say it is split between “fiction” and “truth” because I think Xue believes that fiction can aim for a higher truth that nonfiction. He says—Is it Xue or the fictional author?—“I feared the cruel limitations of reality would confine my imagination and restrict my freedom of expression.” In an interview, Xue said that reality (sticking to facts) is confined by space and time. He wanted to dispense with those restrictions.
He chose to write the “novel” in epistolary form. Each chapter is a letter to Dr. Bethune in which he asks the doctor questions, which of course he can never answer. We wonder if the author of the letters is the narrator in the novel or Xue himself.
What we know is that the narrator, who is never named, has a friend named Yangyang, with whom he shares a dark secret, and later on in the story a wife, Yinyin, whose life ends tragically. The names of the characters are among the whimsical touches in a book that is humorous and disturbingly grim—sometimes in the same paragraph.
While struggling to come to terms with the deaths of the two people closest to him he concludes that Dr. Bethune was complicit in both their deaths. We find out why as in the end we come to see why Bethune used the word “must” in his letter to his lover. Who was Bethune?
Norman Bethune was born into a wealthy family in Gravenhurst, Ontario on March 4, 1890. Following in his paternal grandfather’s path, he enrolled in the University of Toronto with the goal of becoming a doctor. He apparently bounced in and out of school, and in 1915, at the start of World War I, he took leave from his studies to serve in a field ambulance corps in France. A shrapnel injury sent him back home. After recuperating and completing his medical training he returned to the war serving as a lieutenant-surgeon in the Royal Navy. As a practicing surgeon in Canada over the next two decades he fought hard for universal healthcare. The failure to make this happen may have fed his decision to volunteer in Spanish Civil War. In 1935 he became a combat physician for the Loyalists; it was the same year he joined the Communist party. While in Spain he developed mobile blood banks that were reported to have saved many lives on the battlefield. He took some of those same tools with him when in 1938 he went to China to serve as a field surgeon in the Second Sino-Japanese war.
Bethune either volunteered or was ordered by the Communist party to go to China—this may be where the “must” in the letter lies—to aid the Communist faction in the war against the Japanese, a war that was complicated by the civil war between Chang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Red Army. The doctor was said to have worked tirelessly performing numerous surgeries, some in the midst of battle. In one his final operations he cut a finger and an infection led to his death from septicemia on November 12, 1939. The Canadian Medical Hall of Fame says, “Canada remembers Bethune as a medical genius. China reveres him as a saint.” It also says: “He was an idealist. He was a dreamer.”
(I confess that I was one of those idealists back in my callow youth. I was among the young people growing up in the 1950s and 1960s who imagined, without knowing better, that Mao was a heroic figure. And that Fidel Castro and Che Guevara were champions of freedom. Of course, what they really were, were hardcore Stalinists.)
The irony is that Mao would eventually imprison or kill all the idealists, the dreamers, the intellectuals, the artists, whoever didn’t cleave to the party line. But early on, before the purges, before the bloodbaths, Mao was a cunning strategist. It didn’t take long for him to figure out how to use Bethune’s death to great advantage. He would make him a martyr. He would use him to demonstrate that communism had universal appeal, proven by the fact that even a prominent Canadian doctor would join the cause. Just six weeks after Bethune’s death, on December 21 Mao published his epitaph, which would be included in the red book and would become part of the DNA of future generations.
He says in the memoriam, “What kind of spirit in this that makes a foreigner selflessly adopt the cause of the Chinese people’s liberation as his own? It is the spirit of internationalism, the spirit of communism, from which every Chinese Communist must learn.”
In the novel Mao seems to be our main source of knowledge about Bethune. And Mao is often referred to in the narrator’s letters to Bethune as “your great friend” or “your dear friend.” In the Little Red Book, the epitaph says: “Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warm-heartedness towards all comrades and the people.”
“I have many things to tell you,” the narrator says in one letter to Bethune. He writes: “You would find the way China has evolved unimaginable. In today’s China, money, which you despised, has become the symbol of ability and happiness. Doing things ‘without any thought of self,’ as your great friend described your own spirit, is now seen as either idiocy or hypocrisy.”
The narrator’s neighbor in Montreal calls China “the biggest capitalist country in the world ruled by communists.” And he hates capitalism (although he is a lifelong Canadian). Bob’s father, the narrator explains, died in Spain. At first Xue, or the narrator, brushes this off as the words of someone who doesn’t really understand China. But in the end, he decides that maybe he was right. If you could have socialism without democracy, why not capitalism without democracy?
A character in the book is given the nickname of “Dumb Pig” by one of his teachers because he can’t remember the words in Mao’s Bethune tribute. The name sticks, and it becomes the only name he goes by. But his school chums know that he is actually smarter than the teachers. He knows how to use his label to skirt the rules and gain personal advantage. In the 1990s Dumb Pig becomes a major entrepreneur in the new economy—a capitalist within the “socialist” system, the narrator says. Dumb Pig never learned to recite “In Memory of Norman Bethune” because he thought it was bunk. No one really acts selflessly and survives.
The characters closest to the narrator, Yangyang and Yinyin, are too fragile to survive in the world of Dr. Bethune’s dear friend. Yangyang is a suicide, and Yinyin enters the narrator’s life after he has found a teaching position in a university. She is a promising young writer with a short story about to be published and is carrying their first child when she becomes an accidental victim of the Tiananmen Square massacre. It is 1989, and in one night the narrator finds his life destroyed. In retrospect, after he has fled to Montreal, he decides that Dr. Bethune is culpable for the deaths of the two people closest to him. Without the martyrdom, then sainthood of Dr. Bethune, Yanyang and Yinyin would not have been erased from his life.
Xue/the narrator suggests that the must in Bethune’s letter meant that he had to go to China for the history of China of the mid and late 20th Century to play out as it did. Mao, the puppet master, pulled the strings of his dead comrade to design a China in which the narrator’s best friend and his wife and millions of others would be swallowed up by history.
I’m glad that Xue wrote this book rather than the biography he started out to write. We get closer to the truth here than we do in most biographies.
In many ways I am reviewing myself because I have one of the conversations in this book. For me, this marks the third time that one of my conversations with creative writers have ended up in this series. The other two were Conversations with Ernest Gaines, and Conversations with Albert Murray. Both books were published in the ‘90s.
John A. Williams is one of the most prolific black writers in our short history as Americans. His novel, The Man Who Cried I Am, and his provocative non-fiction book, The King God Didn’t Save, became best sellers. In addition, he was written ten other novels, seven volumes of nonfiction, a play, a book of poetry and an opera libretto. He is also one of the least known American writers.
But before I get to him, I want to say a few words about the University Press of Mississippi’s Literary Conversation series. The University Press of Mississippi was founded in 1970 and is supported by Mississippi's eight state universities.
Starting the Literary Conversation series was a stroke of sheer genius by an unknown person I was unable to identify. What I love most about what they have done is how inclusive they’ve been. Blacks, Jews, Asians, WASPS—the entire American family like Ishmael Reed, E.L. Doctorow, Maxine Hong Kingston, S.J. Perelman and Anais Nin—are all included. I also like the fact that they market their products to universities and public and private libraries all over the world.
The current Series editor is Monika Gehlawat, Associate Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies at The University of Southern Mississippi.
Over the years, the Press has published more than 1000 titles and distributed more than 2,600,000 copies worldwide, including the Literary Conversations series. They have given the world a great showcase for American writers, and I am damn glad to know that I can walk into almost any major university and public library in the world and find a book, thanks to them, with one of my articles in it.
Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like that?
As I read the interviews in the newest book from the Conversation Series, a few things jumped out at me. One is that Williams was an unapologetic radical in his novels. Over and over he seems to be saying that blacks should pick up the gun and wage war against whites.
One reviewer even asked him if he had ever been “accused of incitement through your writings at all?”
He answered, “Not yet, but I wish I had. I say that with much pride because I would like to feel that my writings were important enough to in many ways influence the course of not only my country’s history, my people’s history, but the world. I suppose every writer would like to be a Dostoyevsky, a Dickens, a Balzac, a Herman Melville, and to this end I feel that I failed.”
Now I can see why I title my Conversation, John A. Williams: Agent Provocateur. Another thing I noticed rereading the essay I wrote as an undergraduate at NYU and published in my first magazine, the now historic Arts and Letters magazine, Black Creation, and many of the other conversations in the book—was how many times he blamed the media for most of the ills facing this country.
I poop pooped him in my conversation.
It was 1971 when I wrote it. I was in my senior year at NYU, about to graduate with a degree in journalism. I had also successfully launched a magazine, Black Creation, a few years prior that was now a national magazine. Needless to say, I loved being a journalist.
Little did I know that when I got out into the real world, that this business, that I loved so much, was a racist, sexist, nationalistic, tribal business. There was no such thing as American journalism. All you can do is the best you can, as the tribal and racial leaders gave us little to remind us that there as such a thing as an American.
No wonder there was such loneliness in America. There did not exist yet a narrative.
This was what Williams was trying to tell me in our brief encounter—and I was to find out that his message wasn’t pretty.
This book was released with another conversation worth reading, Conversations with Joan Didion.
Around the world, many young scribblers preparing to enter the world of international reportage pay tribute to the provocative Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, the truth-teller who wrote political commentary, novels, war dispatches, and ambush celebrity interviews. She did it all.
In this new biography on Fallaci, journalist Cristina De Stafano attempts to capture the passion, versatility, and ambition of the writer in this very brief volume. Fallaci deserved better with such a long, honored literary career, but this is the only authorized view of her that we have for now.
“La Fallaci,” as she was called by her peers, was born in Florence, Italy, in 1929 to modest beginnings. She was the eldest of three sisters. Her father made cabinets and was zealous about opposing the rise of the fascist movement. He joined the resistance when Il Duce teamed with the Fuhrer in a non-aggression pact to conquer all Europe. His daughter, too young to be stopped by the black-shirted fascists, carried messages for the rebels and often grenades amid baskets of produce.
“I live on tragedy,” Fallaci once said to a reporter in 1981. “Tragedy is in everything I say and write. My moral and political education was completed by the time I was 10 or 11, when I accompanied my father to small villages where he was fighting Nazi fascism. When they tortured my father, he never screamed, he laughed. Laughing, he said, was the same thing as crying.”
During the war, her father hid two British soldiers, who had escaped from a POW camp. Fallaci kept an old letter from one of them, thanking the patriarch for what he did. The war left a lasting impression on her as she saw Florence reduced to rubble with no water or power from the Allied bombing. These images would imprint her view of war for the rest of her life.
Other than courage, Fallaci showed a fascination with the written word, reading every chance she got. Her first role model was Jack London, whose style, imagination, and intellect she admired. When she announced her intention to write, her parents opposed the idea. Her mother, who thought was brilliant, even slammed her notion: “A writer! Do you know how many books you would have to publish to make a living?”
Still, nothing eased her obsession with writing. “I sat by the type writer for the first time and fell in love with the words that emerged like drops, one by one, and remained on the white sheet of paper,” she said. “Every drop became something that if spoken would have flown away, but on sheets as words, became solidified, whether they were good or bad.”
Bowing to family pressure, Fallaci compromised with a choice to go to medical school. Her teachers thought the girl to be very serious, disciplined, introverted, and driven to be the best. At 16, she conned the editor of a newspaper to give her a try-out. Soon she began covering police and hospital topics, then graduating to work as a regular columnist for Il Mattino, covering the evening shift. She was known to the staff as “the Kid.”
Even her fellow staffers marveled at her enormous talent. They couldn’t believe these sophisticated articles were being produced by a girl barely out of high school. In time, she went to work as a writer for Epoca, a new weekly in Milan. For the first time, she was allowed to write about politics, a topic reserved for males, and she thrived in the job. Although the post lasted for less than a year, she got the bug to do more serious subjects, especially politics.
However, this was not the time. In 1954, she left Florence with one suitcase, bound for Rome. A colleague told her that she would have more opportunities to her print work, but this is “the start of the Hungry Years,” where she survived on bread and crackers. There were not many female journalists in Italy. Landing a job with L’Europeo’s meager entertainment section, she dreamed of politics and power plays, yet she was relegated to shallow society figures and soirees.
“I felt lonely as a bastard dog,” she later confessed. “I defended myself like a bastard dog and attacked like a bastard dog, and that’s how I became the equivalent of a black man invited to the White House.”
Later that year, Fallaci maneuvered her way on a press junket with the first flight from Rome to Tehran. It was a highly organized trip with tours of familiar tourist sites and museums. After landing, she bought a black chador and visited a mosque, which was off-limits to infidels. Not content to submit to the packaged tours, she arranged to do an interview with Soraya, the Shah of Iran’s second wife. Rumors circulated the Empress was barren. Also, there was the matter of the political coup that had occurred months before. Still, the Empress agreed to see Fallaci because she was the only woman in the Italian delegation. The interview followed such pomp and circumstance, but when the writer forgot to bow as instructed, the Empress started laughing. Everything went well after that slip of protocol. Some say this was the start of the Fallaci interview style of bold questions, vivid descriptions, and a sense of urgency and conflict.
“I owe everything to journalism,” Fallaci was quoted years later. “As a child, I was poor; because of journalism I didn’t grow up to be poor. I was full of curiosity, hungry to see the world, and I was able to do this because of journalism. I had grown up in a society that oppressed and mistreated women; because of journalism I was able to live like a man.”
Following her return to Italy, she maintained her gig for L’Europeo, covering the antics of the film business and high society. She was bored. That next year, she moved to Milan and worked for L’Espresso, where she again worked hard. She handled any topic her editor sent her way: a meaningless suicide, a con artist swindling orphans in her care, a Brit in transition with a sex change, and the tawdry romantic lives of Italian starlets.
But something occurred on the world stage that caught her eye. On October 23, 1956, the citizens revolted against the might of the Communist regime in Hungary. Fallaci sensed this was the story she was waiting for, the little guy versus the powerful Soviet-backed army. Once the Soviets invaded and the borders were sealed, she knew she had little time to get the capital before it was isolated. She tried to get a taxi there, but it was stopped. She tried to hitch a ride with a Red Cross convoy, but it was stopped.
There in the remote parts of Hungary and later in Austria, she was confronted with the brutality of the Russians and their Hungarian puppets, and the flood of the damaged people entering the refugee camps. As the carnage of the revolt continued, she sat with a radio operator broadcasting rebel messages: “How can you ignore the cries of our women and children who are being murdered? People of the world. Hear the desperate cries of a small nation!” Her series of articles from the front were shattering, but the last one ended with the lasting image of a student’s demolished face with his tongue severed because he would not name the name of his comrades.
America was a dream for Fallaci since the Yank troops marched into Italy during the World War II. She always described Americans as “angels dressed in khakis.” In 1955, she toured as a press member to Hollywood, Washington, and New York. On that trip, she tried to interview Marilyn Monroe, but the search was fruitless.
Hollywood suited her. In her profiles, she recreated every facets of their personality down to the fine detail. She identified Judy Garland as a young girl who just wanted to sing yet her talents were misused. She called Loretta Young a lonely woman clinging to her rosary. She described Elvis Presley as an idiot. She carried a grudge against Frank Sinatra because he refused to meet her in Rome. Still, she detested the “falseness and arrogance” that was infested Tinsel Town.
An eager student of the celebrity game, she probed the techniques of the leading publicity mavens, Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper and Sheila Graham. Hopper, a former actress and national gossip columnist, advised her: “Don’t spare anyone. Speak ill of everyone. Take pleasure in being known as a snake.”
In the mid-1950s, her profiles in Hollywood appeared in several Italian newspapers, where she was gaining a large following. The celebrity articles are revealing, bold observations without missing any detail, full-blown narratives with warts and all. Soon her popular list included Yul Brynner, William Holden, Kim Novak, Arthur Miller, Hugh Hefner, Sammy Davis Jr., Clark Gable, Joan Collins, Jayne Mansfield, Sean Connery, and Cecil B. DeMille. She also counted Ingrid Bergman, Maria Callas, and Orson Welles, who wrote the preface to her first book.
Writing was her life. If there was down time, she would start to be restless, to crave activity. To be certain, there was always a hot spot or a personality at the heart of a percolating news story. “If I do nothing, I feel guilty,” she said. “If you want to see me fade like a dry flower, just leave me in one place, even if it is in the best house, the best circumstances.”
In 1963 and 1964, Fallaci became mesmerized by the NASA space program and spent quite a lot of time with the astronauts. They permitted her to full access with them, dancing and drinking and dining with the boys. Astronaut Charles Conrad took a photo of Fallaci as a baby with him on the second trip to the moon. Two very successful books about NASA, astronauts, and space travel, If The Sun Dies and That Day On The Moon, were published in 1966 and 1970 respectively.
Nevertheless, covering hard news and politics were her first loves. She linked it to her father, who taught her when she was 13 that “politics is the highest form of human activity.” Eventually, the writer learned that politics corrupted, veered into dark spaces of vice, betrayal, fraud, and sometimes war.
“If you want to see me all lighted up, just show me a little piece of politics, any politics,” Fallaci said. Her observations were published in many influential European and American publications, including Le Nouvel Observateur, Der Stern, Life Look, New York Times, Washington Post and The New Republic.
During the space craze of the mid-1960s, Fallaci noticed the full-scale American intervention into the Vietnam conflict, with thousands of combat troops posted alongside the military advisers. The writer, drawn to the flame of war like a moth, left for Vietnam in November 1967 with a photographer. She was open-minded and would chat to anyone, filling up notebooks with leaders and soldiers from both sides, including the Vietcong.
Fallaci spent seven years in Vietnam, both North and South, all on the front lines each time. Her most harrowing experience occurs in Hue, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war, defended by the Viet Cong against GIs and elite South Vietnamese soldiers. She was stunned by the once beautiful city, with its traditional palaces and temples, smashed into rubble with corpses stacked in the streets.
Highlights during the war included an exclusive interview with General Vo Nguyen Giap, an enemy commander of the anticolonial rebellion against the French and “a living legend.” She was granted forty-five minutes with him. After the Tet Offensive, he assured the Americans will be beaten and their Dien Bien Phu would happen. She also interviewed two captured American pilots and South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, who denied he was an American puppet.
“Interviews are direct and effective and dramatic,” Fallaci said during an interview at Harvard. “They are beautiful because they are theater.”
Whereas the writer could be bored with talking with a celebrity, a politician or military figure would intrigue her. She acted like a brazen infidel when she interviewed the Ayatollah Khomeni for six hours and suddenly tore off her chador and tossed it at him.
Henry Kissinger felt Nixon’s wrath when she got him to say: “I see myself as a cowboy leading the caravan along astride his horse.” Golda Meir called Arafat “an animal” for his plan to destroy Israel. Indira Gandhi dismissed regrets and fear as a waste of time both in life and politics. Her subjects also included Ali Bhutto, Yasir Arafat, Archbishop Makarios, Willy Brandt, Hussein of Jordan, and the Dalai Lama.
Fallaci loved confrontations. Other than Hungary and Vietnam, she reported revolutions in Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, and the infamous Tlateloloco Messacre in Mexico City, where she was shot by the police, suffering wounds in the shoulder, back and knee. Also, she covered the Lebanon civil war and the Kuwait War.
She was the author of 15 books, all but three translated into English. They have been translated into 26 languages and published in 32 countries. The books have included: The Seven Sins of Hollywood (1958), The Useless Sex (1964), Penelope At War (1996), If The Sun Dies (1966) The Egotists (1968), Nothing And So Be It (1972), Interview With History (1976), Letter to a Child Never Born (1976), A Man (1980), Inshallah (1992),and The Rage and the Pride (2001).
What can you say about a legend? De Stefano described her as very pretty, very feminine, somewhat small at five feet one and 92 pounds. “Her face is expressive and always in motion, illuminated by her curiosity and inner vitality.” She had bad teeth from too much smoking, and her voice was low and slightly hoarse from three packs of cigarettes daily. She hated fools and loathed to be edited. She loved airplanes but didn’t trust elevators. She never married but had many long, passionate love affairs. She loved her solitude.
In the final years of her life, Fallaci lived between Italy and Manhattan. In 1992, she had a tumor in her breast removed and lived to complete more work. She died in 2006 in her beloved Florence.
Author De Stefano could have probe much deeper into the inner workings and achievements of Fallaci, who many considered “the greatest political observer of our time.” There are several more detailed, comprehensive biographies of La Fallaci in European bookstores. We’ll have to wait for them. This is a “clip job,” politely packaged, designed to skim the surface. Still, we’re lucky to have this small glimpse of her.
Of her journalism and books, Fallaci, the hell-raiser, thought history would treat her well: “To leave the children I did not have, to make people think a little more, outside the dogmas that this society has nourished us with through centuries. To give stories and ideas that help people to see better, to think better, to know a little more.”
Desperate for something interesting to read, I was pursuing the shelves of a well-known bookstore in Pasadena when my eyes fell upon a book called The Lost City of the Monkey God. With a title like that at first I thought this must be adventure fiction like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but this proved not the case, as it is in fact a true story about finding a lost civilization in the mountainous jungles of Honduras, a civilization whose remains were so covered by overgrown jungle vegetation that it had remained untouched for the past five hundred years!
Imagine! A civilization rivalling the Mayans in terms of sophistication unknown to civilization until the modern technology helped uncover it! This is the true story of the brave men and women who ventured into Mousquitia to unearth the biggest archeological find of the 21st Century, as admirably told by Doug Preston.
Mr. Preston has worked as a writer and editor for the American Museum of Natural History and taught writing at Princeton University. He has written extensively including contributing to The New Yorker, Natural History, National Geographic, the Smithsonian, and The Atlantic.<
In 2012 Preston joined a team of scientists on their quest to find the White City, climbing aboard a rickety plane whose historic flight would change everything. Using a space-age technology called LIDAR they were able to map the terrain under the dense jungle canopy that revealed the remains of a lost civilization. <
Actually, they discovered several sites. In order to explore them, they—the team of scientists, journalists and some soldiers from the Honduran army—were required to fly helicopters in, drop men with machetes to clear the forest before they could build camp. Once they had done this the first team stayed in the area for three weeks and reported their finding to the scientific community.<
During this time Preston slept in a hammock strung across two trees. He was bothered, as the rest of the team were, by bug bites during the night. When they returned to their headquarters along the coast of Honduras, they congratulated themselves because of having survived the wiles of the primitive jungle no worse for wear. They spoke too soon
The archeologists involved with the expedition were able to determine that the people who lived in Mousquitia had vanished about five hundred years ago, so the question was, what had caused them to disappear?
Let me remind the reader that five hundred years ago at the end of the 15th Century, beginning in 1492, Columbus discovered the New World. In October of 1493, he set sail on his second voyage to the New World. The aim of the first journey had been exploration; that of the second was of subjugation, colonization and conversion. One of the places to which Columbus’s flotilla visited was the coast of Honduras.
“Columbus’s enormous flotilla,” Preston writes, “on that second voyage consisted of seventeen ships carrying fifteen hundred men and thousands of head of livestock, including horses, cattle, dogs, cats, chickens, and pigs. But on board those ships was something far more threatening than soldiers with steel arms and armor, priests with crosses, and animals that would disrupt the New World ecology. Columbus and his men unwittingly carried microscopic pathogens, to which the people of the New World had never been exposed and against which they had no genetic resistance.”
The genocide experienced by the indigenous communities exceeded the worst horror show imaginable. “It was disease, more than anything else, that allowed the Spanish to establish the world first imperio en el que nunca se pene el sol, ‘empire on which the sun never sets,’ so called because it occupied a swath of territory so extensive that some of it was always in daylight,” Preston writes.
On that voyage Columbus himself became ill. In a few years, fully half of his 1500 soldiers would be dead of disease. But that was nothing compared to what happened to the native populations. By 1520, epidemics merged into a plague—measles, mumps, yellow fever, malaria, chicken pox, typhoid, diphtheria, whooping cough, tuberculosis, and, deadliest of all, smallpox—had decimated 85% of the Indian populations of Mexico and Central America. Small wonder that Cortes was able to conquer Tenochtitlan and murder Moctezuma. “The worst effect of smallpox was the complete demoralization of the Indians.” Therefore, Preston concludes that the probable cause of the desertion of the Indian population of Mousquitia was that they had fled in the face of this powerful enemy.
But Moctezuma’s revenge was to come to the explorers of Mousquitia. After they returned to the states many were to find that the bites they had received from the sand flies while they were camping would not heal. They, including Preston, had contracted a mysterious, and incurable, parasitic disease—leishmaniasis, which had been injected into their bloodstreams from the bites of the sand flies. Some died from their wounds. Preston did not or has not yet. He even paid a returned to Mousquitia on a second voyage of exploration but this time was better equipped to protect himself from the deadly sand flies.*
I found The Lost City of the Monkey God to be a fascinating story and would highly recommend it to anyone seeking to inform himself or herself concerning the findings of modern expeditions to areas of the world previously unknown.
*Belize and Honduras are notorious in the Caribbean for their sand fly populations and travels pages frequently warn tourists to bring bug spray containing high concentration of DEET.
;©Copyright - Website Designs by rdobrien.com, 2016.