“The dawn light revealed a ship marooned in the canopy of a vast forest”.
I IMAGINE a publisher might throw a party for Miguel Bonnefoy’s lesser characters who only get a walk on part in the novels, somewhere Miss Venezuela can meet up with the pirate Captain Henry Morgan for a quiet daiquiri perhaps. Bonnefoy discards his creations like an old skin once they have served their dramatic purpose because he alone is the story teller. His voice is louder than theirs. Their existences are controlled, reined in by a minimum of dialogue, not allowed to stray too far into their own worlds. Bonnefoy talks like an old school Celtic storyteller, like he is telling a joke really through all the 215 pages or perhaps more relevant like a ship wrecked beachcomber sitting on a log on a shore with all the time in the world to whittle out his yarn.
There are heady descriptions. These are remedies for dropsy – “pomegranate-bark infusions, vinegared pine broths and preparations of goat’s milk mixed with ten ounces of cider”.
His text is the emergence of Venezuela the nation herself – for which the very simple opening line – see above – provides one image – starting with its discovery. The first arriving pirates are barbecuing a sloth and singing sea shanties. ”They served it with a few mangoes picked straight from the tree and a pair of fairly fleshy parrots caught in their migration south, marinated in lemon juice for two hours and cooked in banana leaves”.
His heroine here is Serena Otero, an only child of elderly parents so her home was “filled with outdated objects and old furniture and inhabited by a couple drained of all strength”.
The colours are vivid. The Otero family house has “ruby-red roof tiles”, the front door knocker is “shaped like like an open hand in welcome” and inside is ”bathed in warm light the colour of leather or aged oak.”
There is a joy in the telling. The central iconic story is the quest for pirate Henry Morgan’s buried treasure and the different people who come looking for it in the remote rain forest 300 years after his death. And there are other treasures too, newer ones – the sugar of the title, the cane, the rum, the oil – but Serena is not interested. Her wealth is the forest around her.
She is captivated by the small ads on the radio and grows into a lavish, rich symbol of a post colonial world.
Where Bonnefoy’s first Book Octavio’s Journey has sub themes of self expression and literature, here these are replaced with ideas about value, wealth and greed, told in a similar fable style, an allegory even. There are a couple of ambivalent reviews on Amazon about Octavio’s Journey, which are best avoided. Both books are wonderful, hugely enjoyable masterpieces, each sentence a delight, cogs in a bigger wheel of an original vision. Here is the French cover:
By way of an aside: Morgan himself is an interesting starting point in that he is often credited as the inspiration for many fictional pirate figures, a real life governor of Jamaica who sacked Panama, and sued his shipmate and biographer Exquemelin for alleging treason and torture. Wikipedia assures me he was the inspiration for Rafael Sabatini’s 1922 novel Captain Blood and John Steinbeck’s first novel Cup of Gold written in1929, and even Ian Fleming’s 1954 novel Live and Let Die. Portraits tend to show him as quite the rogue He is also the inspiration for the rum. Historians have tended to change their minds about him. Early biographies used Exquemelin’s salacious references to discredit him but over time he has come to be seen more as a modern, popular privateer.