Magazine article Contemporary Review

John Masefield's Central America

Magazine article Contemporary Review

John Masefield's Central America

Article excerpt

During the 1920s John Masefield, the future Poet Laureate, published two novels set in the imaginary Latin American republic of Santa Barbara, Sard Harker (1924) and ODTAA (1926). Both novels touch on the career of the supposedly legendary dictator, Don Manuel, and both have similar story lines. In Sard Harker the eponymous hero, returning from delivering a warning to two expatriate Britons whom he believes to be in danger, becomes lost and wanders for days through a haunted, hallucinatory landscape, thinly populated by what seem to be rejects from the French Foreign Legion and deserters from the army of the Mexican Pancho Villa. In ODTAA, the protagonist, carrying an urgent message to Don Manuel, wanders for days through a haunted, hallucinatory landscape etc.

If it wasn't for this landscape, these novels might well be written off as little more than a beautifully-written compost of Joseph Conrad, Arthur QuillerCouch, W. H. Hudson and Robert Louis Stevenson, but Masefield brings his scenery to life with extraordinary power and vividness. Yet apart from a couple of weeks in the Chilean nitrate port of Iquique, followed by a period in the British Hospital at Valparaiso, a day or two in Lima between boats, and a forty-mile rail journey from Panama to Colon across the Isthmus of Panama, all when he was aged only sixteen, Masefield had no personal knowledge of Latin America. Iquique was, and is, a town laid out on a geometric plan on an arid peninsula hemmed in by highlands that rise to 3000 feet only a few miles from the sea. Here, or further along the coast when on his way by ship from Lima to Panama, Masefield might have seen the sun rising over the mountains:

Far beyond the city, in a line like an army, were the high Sierras of the Three Kings. Their peaks rose up out of the clouds like mountains in another world. As they were now catching the dawn they seemed made of jewels. Mount Gaspar was golden, Mount Baltazar was like a bubble of blood, and Mount Melchior a blue and evil finger glistening. (ODTAA p.21)

Here too, and during his voyage by coaster to Panama, Masefield may have seen something of the extraordinary variety of people that had come to South America in the second half of the nineteenth century to seek a livelihood, though it is doubtful whether he ever encountered the originals of the longshoremen at Santa Barbara city:

They were wild-looking men of enormous stature. All were almost naked; all shone as though the life in them made them radiant. All were a rich red-golden colour like new pennies. Even the smallest of them looked a match for two strong Europeans ... All wore gold, ivory or copper placques, shaped like new moons, which hung from their noses and covered their mouths. They looked curiously like the lids of letter-boxes.

'See those fellows, Mr Ridden?' said the captain on the bridge. 'They're Pitubas from up-country and they're cannibals to a man'. (ODTAA p.22) Apart from the short rail journey across the Isthmus, Masefield never was in, never walked on foot through, never (apart from distant mountains) even saw any inland region of South or Central America.

As with all the best imaginary realms, it is not even clear quite where Santa Barbara is supposed to be. Both novels open with a brief description of the country:

Santa Barbara lies far to leeward, with a coast facing to the north and east. It is the richest of the sugar countries. Plantations cover all the lowland along its seven hundred miles of seaboard. (Sard Harker p.1)

Santa Barbara, being the most leeward of the Sugar States, is at the angle of the Continent, with two coasts, one facing north, the other east. The city of Santa Barbara is in a bay at the angle where these two coasts trend from each other. (ODTAA p.1)

Except for the oddity of referring to Central America as a continent, this sounds exactly like a combination of Honduras and Nicaragua, or at least of their Caribbean coast. …

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