Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Staying with Relations by Rose Macaulay

As she trotted round the room in the arms of Adrian, Catherine felt again the comic strangeness of this handful of modern western persons tripping with their ordered steps to mechanical music round a rococo ballroom erected on a Spanish monastery, on an Indian palace, in the heart of the primeval forests.  Round the villa jungle creatures prowled and roared, Indians and Spaniards and half-breeds slept and waked, and a strange stone army crowded up against the house, Maya gods, sixteenth century Spanish missionaries and saints, and eighteenth century beings in togas or cocked hats.

But it was not really stranger than anything else, thought Catherine.  All the world is strange.  Strange looks passed from eye to eye, strange touches, strange half-phrases.

Rose Macaulay's Staying with Relations emerges from the same Anglo fascination with the non-Anglo world as The Towers of Trebizond, which was my favorite surprise read of last year.  Like that novel, Relations skewers the provincialism of the English traveler, who skips halfway round the world to drink the same tea, read the same books, and talk to the same white people as in London; trading only the Turkey of Trebizond for Guatemala.  In that way both books are comedies, but they simultaneously recognize that the obsession with travel emerges from something near horror; we are fascinated by the Other but terrified to embrace it.  The alienation of the traveler, for Macaulay, is a stand-in for all kinds of alienation: from others, from ourselves, from God.

Catherine, a young popular novelist goes to visit her aunt, uncle, and cousins in Guatemala, where they live in the renovated hacienda of the Imperial Spanish.  Guatemala is a wild place; the jungle is dotted with Spanish ruins that speak of Nature's power over Western civilization.  Her uncle is a dilettante archaeologist, constantly poking around his own residence for the mysteries it might contain.  Her cousins are blithe, cultured, and utterly bored by Guatemala.  The jungle's threatening nature becomes suddenly literal when Catherine's cousin Isie is kidnapped by native Guatemalans in return for a mysterious "treasure" which the hacienda may or may not contain.  Until this point the book seems like little more than a bland travelogue; once the kidnapping is proved to be a ruse by an untrustworthy white friend, the novel veers again, as Catherine and her cousins pursue the culprit through Mexico.

The villain had to be white in the end.  It's okay, in the latter half of the twentieth century, to write about white heroes in a non-white world, but the only permissible subtext is we were the monsters all along.  That's probably a fair standard, and as Conrad proved, even that is enough to save your narrative from being morally questionable.  For Macaulay, the perfidy of the white neighbor shows that we cannot trust each other, because we do not know each other.  Even the relations of the title, are, in the end, unknown to us.  Catherine, who is known as a novelist with an eye for character, is constantly misjudging her own family--surprised that this one is having an affair, or that that one isn't, etc.:

Catherine thought, perhaps if we travel together, I shall get to know them at last, for so far I have been all wrong, and they have turned out different to what I thought.  How is one to know what people are like?  I wonder what Julia would say.  Perhaps one can never know; perhaps people are uncapturable, and slip away like water from one's hand, changing all the time. 
But still, as a novelist of human character, she felt that she must try to understand it.  After all, there it is; people must be like something, if only one can discover what.  How does one penetrate through the idea that they give of themselves into the elusive spirit behind?  Can it be that one never can do that?

The Guatemalan jungle becomes, rather than merely a symbol of unknowability, a source of misdirection for human bewilderment.  In the end, the jungle is what it is; it is other people who contain mysteries.  Conrad's error was that he mixed up people and the jungle; the Londoner, the African, and the jungle were each as inscrutable, and possibly evil, as the other.  It's only the Londoner he expected to surprise you.  The native Guatemalans turn out to be as banal and ordinary as anyone else, but even banality proves not to be penetrable.  As Catherine notes, "All is strange."

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