Heidi – Johanna Spyri

I asked my Catalan friend Anna, who is an advocate for children and young adults reading around her country, to choose a children’s book from three titles that I have on my shelves, but have never read, for me to tackle this week and she chose Heidi. I have to say that I know very little about it other than it is Swiss, Heidi lives with her grandfather and she has a friend called Peter so it’s all going to be new to me. In fact I couldn’t even have told anyone the authors name until I looked it up for this blog, that is how little I know about it. The copy I have is by Puffin Books and was printed by them in November 1956, the translation from the original German is by Eileen Hall and the lovely cover illustration is by Cecil Leslie who also provided the drawings included within the book.

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Well that was an interesting read, I don’t know what I expected but this book definitely wasn’t it. For a start when we first encounter five year old Heidi she is being taken up the mountain by her aunt, whilst wearing most of her clothes on a hot summers day, so that she can be dumped on her grandfather who has no idea she is coming. Why is this happening? Well the aunt who has looked after her since she was orphaned at the age of one has been offered a job in Frankfurt which she wants to have and cannot take Heidi with her, so has to leave her with somebody, and the apparently cantankerous old man is the only option. He lives way up the mountain all alone, well away from the nearest village having distanced himself from them over the years so the villagers cannot believe that the aunt is planning on leaving Heidi there so far from anyone else, in the sole company of the man known to everyone (at least in this translation) as Uncle Alp. The handover does not go well…

“Good morning Uncle” said Detie. “I’ve brought you Tobias’s daughter, I don’t suppose you recognise her as you haven’t seen her since she was a year old”

“Why have you brought her here?” he demanded roughly.

“She’s come to stay with you Uncle” Detie told him coming straight to the point.  “I have done all I can for her these four years.  Now it’s your turn.”

“My turn is it?” snapped the old man, glaring at her. “And when she starts to cry and fret for you, as she is sure to do, what am I supposed to do then?”

“That’s your affair!” retorted Detie. “Nobody told me how to set about it when she was left on my hands a baby barely a year old. Goodness knows I had enough to do already looking after mother and myself. But now I’ve got to go away to a job. You’re the child’s nearest relative. If you can’t have her here, you can do what you like with her. But you’ll have to answer for it if she comes to any harm and I shouldn’t you’d want anything more on your conscience.”

Detie was really far from easy in her mind about what she was doing, which was why she spoke so disagreeably and she had already said more than she meant to.

The old man had got up at her last words. She was quite frightened by the way he looked at her, and took a few steps backward.

“Go back where you came from and don’t come here again in a hurry,” he said angrily, raising his arm.

Detie didn’t wait to be told twice.

And so the deed was done, and 12 pages into the 233 page book things were where I thought they should be, Heidi was on the mountain with her grandfather; although how we had reached this arrangement was a considerable surprise to me as I hadn’t known that she had just been abandoned there with him. However he turns out to be very kindly to her and all is well in the bucolic bliss that Spyri conjures up and I settled down to enjoy the tales of goat herding with Peter and descriptions of the high mountain pastures.  However just 35 pages later, two years in Heidi’s life have passed and Detie reappears to drag her away from the life she has come to know and love and dump her yet again on another unsuspecting household, this time in Frankfurt. Just what is going on with this book, and why isn’t Detie being investigated for child abandonment?? The well being and happiness of Heidi seems to be nowhere in her considerations and indeed once she has again abandoned Heidi and run away before anyone in the house could stop her she is never heard of again in the book.

Without giving away too much more of the plot there now follows roughly a hundred pages of Heidi having fun with Clara, the invalid girl she has been brought here to be the companion of, but at the same time getting more and more homesick and depressed about being trapped in the city far away from the Swiss mountainside and her grandfather whom she has come to love. Yet again this book is not what I expected. Eventually she becomes so unwell that she is sent back to Switzerland and the book finally takes the positive tone that I was looking forward to when I started it.

My one negative point about the book is that half way through religion really started to be pushed, the children have to say their prayers and later on when she gets back home hymns read to Peter’s blind Grandmother. I suppose it is a mark of the times when the book was written (1880) but equally I don’t remember other children’s books of the period being so proselytising to the point where it sometimes gets in the way of the narrative. This does seem to be an issue with her other books as well as the Deutsche Biographie states at the end of it’s summary of her life, translation below:

S.’s writings were already criticised during their lifetime because of the religious-conservative positions they represented as well as their tendency against women’s emancipation

Having raised the one negative that I found with the book I have to say that it was a great read, with more twists than I expected and I’m glad I have finally read it.

The Jaguar Smile – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is best known as a novelist, but he has written a few non-fiction books and this was his first. Originally published in 1987 and subtitled A Nicaraguan Journey even Rushdie in his new introduction to my edition written 10 years after first publication admits…

In the last ten years the world has changed so dramatically that The Jaguar Smile now reads like a period piece, a fairy tale of one of the hotter moments in the Cold War.

By the time I first read the book, almost a further 10 years on again in 2006, I was also in Nicaragua and the story was coming full circle although I didn’t know that when I arrived.

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But first a little history to set the book in its time and to provide background to the various characters. We need to go back to the US occupation of Nicaragua which lasted from 1909 to 1933 and which was opposed in a guerrilla war by a group led by Augusto Sandino. When the Americans left Sandino agreed a peace treaty with the new regime but on his way home from the signing banquet he was assassinated on the orders of the commander of the National Guard, Somoza who in 1937 took power himself and so began a 42 year brutal dictatorship led by his family. They siphoned off all the money they could from the country during their time in power especially the aid funds to rebuild the capital, Managua, following a devastating earthquake in 1972 this meant that when they were finally deposed in 1979 it was estimated the family wealth was in the region of $1 billion ($3.5 billion today) and all from a relatively poor small country of just three million people. They were overthrown by a rebel group who call themselves Sandinista’s in honour of the 1930’s rebel leader, whose profile now stands high above Managua.

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And this is where Rushdie comes in, he arrived in 1986 during yet another revolution, this time by a group called the Contra’s and financed by the Reagan administration in the USA in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government, even though the US Congress and the International Court of Justice in the Hague deemed such actions as illegal. The fighting was brutal with the Contra’s targeting the civilian population with kidnapping, rape and random murders being their main strategy to try to wear down the people rather than attacking the military forces of Nicaragua. That is not to say that the Sandinista’s were blameless and he makes a fair attempt to provide a balanced view of the situation. He had excellent access to almost all the government leaders and as a novelist he seems to have been able to talk to them (most of which were published novelists or poets themselves) as an equal and therefore get past the politics to be able to put issues regarding press freedom, food shortages, repression of the Catholic church and other items directly to even the president Daniel Ortega himself. There is a whole chapter detailing an interview with Ortega.

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The ruins of the cathedral in Managua

All of the leaders point out that they are at war and it is difficult to do things in such a context, and that the food shortages were mainly due to the US blockade and mining of the only deep water port in the country which was a fair point. They are however able to point to successes such as the reduction in child mortality, this would be halved by the time they lost power in 1990 and a significant increase in literacy (although this was not as big as they claimed), which was a priority for a government led in the main by writers. That the capital was still in ruins, and presumably still is, it certainly was when I was there twenty years after Rushdie, was not really a surprise either with the Somoza’s having emptied the country’s coffers when they fled into exile.

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Anti-CIA mural on a wall in Leon, presumably dating back to the 80’s when Rushdie was there as the CIA were heavily involved in the Contra revolution.

As well as having excellent access to the leadership Rushdie also manages to travel round the country to a certain extent, obviously the border areas, especially those with Honduras were too dangerous to enter, but he did manage to get over to the Caribbean coastal area of Bluefields which as usual was in the middle of storms throughout most of his time there and he memorably describes as

Bluefields was poor as mud (only dry places could be dirt poor)

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Bluefields

This is a really interesting section of the book. The Sandinista’s had completely messed up their control of this part of the country and were only then coming to recognise that the west (where they were) and the east were very different places, indeed there wasn’t even a road joining the two sides of the country and the east was (and still is) really really poor. There was slowly coming into place a new policy called “Autonomy” where the east would have more control over its own governance and the wildly mixed population could return to their own localities.

In Bluefields it was often difficult to remember I was still in Nicaragua. The west coast was, for the most part, homogeneous, but here, as well as Mestizos, there were Creoles, three different Amerindian tribes and even a small community of Garifonos, who shouldn’t have been there at all, according to the textbooks, but up in Belize. And that wasn’t the only difference. The majority of the inhabitants here were not Catholic, but belonged to the Moravian church. And a large proportion of them were English speaking to boot.

I had arrived in Bluefields via a small plane from The Corn Islands, a pair of islands about 70km (roughly 45 miles) off the coast from Bluefields where I was when the result of the elections that we had been following since arriving in Nicaragua were announced. These two islands are a tropical paradise and made the poverty in Bluefields even more striking.

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Procession of cars driving round and round Big Corn Island in celebration of the Sandinista win in the 2006 elections

In 1990 the Sandinista government lost the election and would be out of power for sixteen years. The government that replaced them was led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of a journalist who had been assassinated by the Somozo regime and whose paper had been closed down by the Sandinista’s so there was no love lost between her and Ortega. Rushdie also has a chapter interviewing her in the book and although he ends up being less than impressed by her she would be the person credited as bringing an end to fighting in Nicaragua after decades of various struggles.

Salman Rushdie makes a creditable attempt to understand Nicaragua and present as balanced view as was possible at the time. If he went there now I’m sure he would write a very different book, the Sandinista’s are still led by Daniel Ortega and he is still president thirteen years after the election I witnessed but for how much longer? There is considerable unrest in Nicaragua again and this time the Sandinista government are the ones putting down a rebellious populace. It’s a pity, it is after all a beautiful country with friendly people and a fantastic place to be and I thoroughly enjoyed this book whilst I was there and it’s subsequent rereading for this blog. Yes it’s dated but it’s still definitely worth a read.

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Brightly coloured buildings in Grenada

All photographs are by myself from my trip in 2006 and are © David Jackson 2019

The Evolution Man – Roy Lewis

Although my copy, published by Penguin in 1963 has the title ‘The Evolution Man’ this was not the original title; when the book was first published by Hutchinson in 1960 it was called ‘What We Did to Father’, it has also gone under the title of ‘Once Upon an Ice Age’. As far as I can tell it has been out of print since 1994 when it gained a further subtitle which because it rather gives away the ending I’m not going to repeat here.

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The book is written from the point of view of Ernest one of the sons of Edward, the Evolution Man of the title. The family are Pleistocene ape-men in Africa and recently down from the trees, which is where his Uncle Vanya thinks they should all still be but Edward is determined that they must evolve. Part of the conceit of the book is that he is aware of the time periods that we now assign to history and worries that they may still be in the early Pleistocene and so have a long way to go rather than the mid to late period so are well on their way. The other part is that father achieves all the steps needed to lift them from scavenging apes just venturing onto the plains to the cusp of becoming the dominant species dragging his protesting family behind him. His first discovery is fire for warmth and defence against predators.

Fire – ‘How did fire work?’ ‘what I wanted was a small portable volcano’ ‘my only hope of finding the sort of limited family sized fire I wanted was to go up a volcano and chip a bit off’

Whilst telling the tale of how he brought fire from the volcano he accidentally invents ‘the heavy duty hunting spear with the fire hardened point’ by not paying attention to where his spear was when engrossed in the story. The fact that he instantly names it correctly and understands what he has got is entirely typical of the character. He is determined that humanity will progress and he won’t tolerate any back-sliding

The secret of modern industry lies in the intelligent utilisation of by-products,” he would remark frowning, and then in a bound he would seize some infant crawling on all fours, smack it savagely, stand it upright, and upbraid my sisters: “When will you realise that at two they should be toddlers? I tell you we must train out this instinctual tendency to revert to quadrupedal locomotion. Unless that is lost all is lost! Our hands, our brains, everything! We started walking upright back in the Miocene, and if you think I am going to tolerate the destruction of millions of years of progress by a parcel of idle wenches, you are mistaken. Keep that child on his hind legs, miss, or I’ll take a stick to your behind, see if I don’t.

All the family get caught up in this drive for progress, the youngest son Alexander uses burnt stick to draw uncle Vanya’s shadow one evening so inventing representative art. A little later on as Edward instantly understands what he has done they work together to draw a mammoth and soon after that the family kill a mammoth.  As this is perceived as cause and effect by the family, if not Edward, is this the start of religion? In another part of the book he demonstrates a basic grasp of genetics, or at least the need to widen as far as possible the genetic pool and get away from the natural trend for a small tribe to inbreed.

I should point out that the Roy Lewis who wrote this book is very different from the crime writer of the same name who has written over sixty books. Roy Lewis of The Evolution Man wrote only two works of fiction, he was a journalist and worked for The Economist and The Times in his long career, he also founded The Keepsake Press, a small private press.

To summarise the book I can do no better than to quote Sir Terry Pratchett from a article he wrote for the Washington Post published 7th April 2002

I first read The Evolution Man by Roy Lewis (in and out of print all the time — a Web search is advised!) in 1960. It contains no starships, no robots, no computers, none of the things that some mainstream critics think sf is about — but it is the hardest of hard-core science fiction, the very essence. It’s also the funniest book I have ever read, and it showed me what could be done.

I can only say I heartily agree.