Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian or The Evening Redness in the West

I thought I'd mentioned Cormac McCarthy earlier, when my husband was reading his entire oevre, but a quick search reveals that I hadn't - another example of a blog entry only written in my mind... I have never doubted that the books were worth reading, but I didn't really feel in a rush to do so as I felt that they were probably quite demanding, mentally, and for a long time I haven't been up to more than Janet Evanovich. Blood Meridian is, according the the quote from the Irish Times review on the cover, a "violent lyrical masterpiece [ … ] It is a barbarously poetic odyssey through a hell without purpose" - not light reading then. You kind of have to be in the mood for the plunge, I reckoned. However, mr Bani really wanted to share his reading experience with me, so he forced me into a deal. I would read Blood Meridian, and he'd read anything I chose for him. I chose Annie Proulx, and so far he's read a few of the short stories I think but not an entire book so as deals go I lose - doubly so maybe, because I wasn't entirely in the mood for Blood Meridian, and have found it a bit hard to focus sometimes. It's not an easy book to read: more on that later. When I said as much to my husband he did say, to do him justice, that I didn't have to read it if I wasn't enjoying it, but by then it was too late, I was reading it. Hm. And my thoughts on it are a little confused, a little torn - I suspect it's the type of book that I'll have to come back to in a few years and re-read, just to get it. It's convoluted and heavy on the unsaid and implied, even though the language can be sparse and measured.

Blood Meridian is about a band of men who get contracted to kill Apaches in Mexico and the neighbouring American states. We especially follow "the kid", a sixteen-year-old from Tennessee who despite being the son of a schoolmaster can neither read nor write and has "a taste for mindless violence". He drifts towards the West and joins the company of Apache hunters as a means to get out of imprisonment in the city of Chihuahua. The company is led by Galton, but the most prominent figure in the book really is "the judge", a man named Holden, who is huge, completely hairless and very learned. He leads the band of slayers as much as Galton does. After leaving Chihuahua they embark on a tour of extreme violence, of utter descent into violence and cruelty. Wherever they go they bring this havoc with them, ruining everything they touch. The kid doesn't seem ever to show any remorse or to hesitate when the company massacre Indians, or, when no Indians can be found, any people whose scalps will pass for Apache. Yet towards the end the judge seems to imply that he alone was the one with a conscience, the one who felt any sort of sympathy for "the heathen". I'm not sure I followed this development… maybe because for a while the kid sort of fades into the background, while the narrative centers more on other members of the company.

About a third of the way through the book I started to wonder if I was being severely hampered by the fact that I had little or no previous knowledge of the historical setting and people and of the geography of the region, or if it was possible to understand the book without knowing this. When my husband read it he spent a lot of time looking things up, everything from the untranslated Spanish to information on the real, historical, Glanton. I understood the Spanish well enough to follow the book, but felt a little adrift in the whole context. For example, when the kid first sees the gang, riding through the streets of Chihuahua, Glanton and the judge are both described to us. Later the kid's companion, Toadvine, says that "his name is Glanton" and explains his plan to join the band - well, I read a good three of four pages more before copping on that Glanton wasn't the name of the judge; I'd simply gotten them confused. The sparse writing style mixed with longer paragraphs of a biblical, metaphorical style is quite demanding on the reader, and I hadn't been concentrating enough. Now, had I known my history of North and Central America in the 19th century (beyond what I remember from Lucky Luke) I might not have made that error, since the name Glanton would have meant something directly. I also didn't first understand that "the Delawares" meant Native Americans from the East, possibly Lenapes. And so on and so on - the names of famous Apache chiefs, the places they go to, references to renegade American officers... if most if this is unfamiliar to you you have to concentrate that little bit harder to understand what's going on. Basically, I'm going to have to re-read this some time in the future, because now I got better and better at understanding as the book went on, and I'd like to see what I think if I'm with it all the way.

However, I don't read this as a historical novel, in fact I was surprised to see that McCarthy has based a lot on real historical events, not to mention the writings of Samuel Chamberlain, who was a member of the real Glanton Gang. Although I understand that there is fact in this fiction, the point isn't whether or not things happened as they are described, just as the point isn't assigning roles of victim-villain or good-bad. Although Glanton and quite a few others we meet are more or less ideological, hardened racists of the genocidal sort, the kid and his companions are just killing. There is a black man in the gang, casually referred to as "the nigger" but otherwise not much different. So they kill, and the Apaches kill... a clue I think is one of the quotes from the beginning of the book, a news report
from 1982. In this the members of an archeological expedition claim that they have found evidence of scalping on a 300,000-year-old human skull. We are humans, and we kill and always have killed. Although we don't have to - quite a lot of the people the gang or the kid encounter on their travels seem to be ordinary, non-murderous, peaceful; but they are almost all killed and overrun by the violence and by war. Is that what it all must come to? And between bashing the brains of infants against rocks the gang sit and discuss morals and ethics, bizarrely enough, and most of them seem to know that they are committing heinous acts, that they are doomed if there is any such thing as a God. All except the judge who holds forth on his idea that war is God, the greatest, or possibly that he is God, and war. (These were my husband's favourite bits, the philosophical discourse, while I tended to drift more than a little here - in my defense I was reading at work.) Incidentally, I have no idea how they're planning to film this. Leave it alone I say.

It's pretty much a must-read.. oh before I finish I have to state my one huge quibble: there's an awful lot of spitting. Spitting into the fire, spitting dryly on the desert sand etc etc etc. Every single page almost. Does my head in a bit. Maybe I'm the only one who gets distracted by that? Anyway, I do like this. And it falls into a cathegory of books I'm very fond of, a cathegory Annie Proulx also falls into, namely tales of America. There's something about reading these tales of people who have no context, who have uprooted themselves (by choice, force or chance) from their European or other roots, and are now drifting on an alien continent that they try to make theirs - drifting not only in person but also in mind or in morals. I think it helps us understand a lot about the modern US - but that's a topic for a whole other post.

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