Sunday, August 28, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Columbus!

Some Penguin Classics, despite everything, just don't feel like classics. A perfect case-in-point is surely the 1969 Christopher Columbus volume The Four Voyages. Of all the Tudor-era voyages of discovery, those made by Columbus are the most emblematic and the most world-changing - you can't read about them without thinking they surely deserve - and must have generated - the discoverer's equivalent of the Principia, or On the Origin of Species. This impression is only strengthened by the knowledge that Columbus held it too: his voyages were the focus of energetic literary attention from the moment they began. The royal historian, Columbus' son Hernando, and the man himself were only the principal note-takers - sometimes it seems like their already-voluminous accounts were augmented by every single literate officer on the Nina, the Pinta, or the Santa Maria. Surely the makings of an epic are here?

And yet, the volume Penguin produced half a century ago is unexceptional reading. Not dull - not at all - but somehow lacking the emotional payoff we expect from the European discovery of the New World. This isn't the fault of J. M. Cohen, who did the painstaking job of assembling bits of a dozen sources and forming them into this single narrative; his translation is smooth and readable throughout. And it's certainly not the fault of the various chroniclers, including Columbus' nerdy book-worm of a son, who tries his hardest to invest every moment of his account with drama:
On leaving the island of Jamaica, on Wednesday, 14 May, the Admiral reached a cape on the coast of Cuba which he named Santa Cruz. As he followed the coast he was overtaken by a heavy thunderstorm with terrible lightning which put him in great danger. His difficulties were increased by the many shallows and narrow channels which he found, and he was compelled to seek safety from these two dangers which demanded opposite remedies. To protect himself from the storm he should have lowered the sails; to get out of the shallows he had to keep them spread. Indeed, if his difficulties had continued for eight or ten leagues he would never have escaped.

No, the problem, I suspect, is the star of the show, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Despite the best efforts of translators, commentators, and white-washers, Columbus always comes across as ... well, a bit of a putz. He has none of the dash of a Drake or a Frobisher, nor any of the romance of a Raleigh or a Champlain. And as Cohen remarks in his refreshingly acerbic Introduction, reports of the Admiral's skills have been greatly exaggerated:
But even on his third voyage, Columbus was theorizing wildly about the apparent deviations of the Pole Star, which he could only explain by the crazy supposition that the earth was pear-shaped and he was sailing uphill. Columbus's theoretical knowledge of navigation was clearly not exceptional.

And it's worse than that (crazy ideas about the world's natural ways being no exclusive property of the 15th century, after all). Stories of the man's grandiose assumptions and unbridled greed abound, of course, and are grist for the mill of post-colonial axe-grinding. But whatever the Admiral's role as horizon-broadener or agent of cultural genocide might be, the reader can't escape the feeling that he wouldn't have been pleasant to know. Virtually every passage he wrote of his own travels is a passive aggressive psycho-drama of nightmare proportions. At random:
I have established warm friendship with the king of that land [Hispaniola], so much so, indeed, that he was proud to call me and treat me as a brother. But even should he change his attitude and attack the men of La Navidad, he and his people know nothing about arms and go naked, as I have already said; they are the most timorous people in the world. In fact, the men that I have left there would be enough to destroy the whole land, and the island holds no dangers for them so long as they maintain discipline.

See that? The king is proud to call Columbus his brother - but Columbus isn't proud of the honor, he can scarcely wait a sentence before covering the king and all his people with condescension. And then there's that bit about his men: he no sooner finishes saying the people of the island can't possibly represent any kind of danger to his soldiers than he's pre-condemning those same men, implying with a sly look that if they do get themselves overrun and slaughtered, it was because their discipline was lax. It's the same throughout The Four Voyages: on every page, but especially on the pages written by Columbus himself, you get the impression the thing's real title should be Nothing - and I Mean NOTHING - was My Fault. That can get a bit tiresome, even when decked out in Penguin's customary first-rate scholarly apparatus.

Name recognition sells, so we'll always have some variation of this book with us. But still: Penguin Classics of all the other great exploration texts (especially if handled as lovingly as Cohen handles this stuff) would be a good thing too.

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