W. H. Hudson
(Wisconsin)For some reason, we had Hudson pegged as a "romantic" writer, and his novel Green Mansions as just that --- romantic 19th Century trash. Yet The Purple Land is anything but.
Written in 1885, it is the tale of "Richard Lamb's Adventures in the Banda Orientál, in South America, as told by Himself." Having just married the lovely Paquíta without family permission, Richard spirits her off from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, leaves her with an aunt, and --- presumably seeking employment --- takes off in a circumambulation around what is present-day Uruguay. In the process, he encounters dozens of young ladies who sorely tempt him, meets thieves, rustlers, con-men, and out-of-
work generals, stays in a variety of estancias in the midst of families that are loving, distressing, doting, doubtful, and mad. He ends up in a revolutionary army.Ho-hum, we think as we start out --- another picaresque novel. But this one has such spirit and fun and pacing that by page 50, one is hard-pressed to lay it down. One typical adventure comes about in Tolosa, where he runs into a band of English ex-pats: "I very soon discovered that the chief object of our visit was to vary the entertainment of drinking rum and smoking at the 'Colony,' by drinking rum and smoking at Tolosa."
They seemed to be a rather listless set in Tolosa, and when I asked them what they were doing to make a livelihood, they said they were waiting. My fellow-
countrymen and their visit to the town was the principal topic of conversation. They regarded their English neighbors as strange and dangerous creatures who took no solid food, but subsisted on a mixture of rum and gun-powder ... The day's experience convinced me that the English colony had some excuse for its existence, since its periodical visits gave the good people of Tolosa a little wholesome excitement during the stagnant intervals between the revolutions.
Critics compare The Purple Land to the very first picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes but that slim volume is rather dry and ill-formed, while Hudson's work is more like Tom Jones meets The Canterbury Tales, with a bit of Cervantes and Ovid thrown in for spice.
One of the great delights of The Purple Land is the author's obvious affection for the people of the Orientál area of South America --- their hospitality, wit, sagacity, loyalty, spirit and, sometimes, their exasperating need to talk and talk and talk. Lamb is an unpaying guest in many of these places, so he must be polite:
It was dull work talking to those two women in the kitchen. They were both great talkers, and had evidently come to a tacit agreement to share their one listener fairly between them, for first one, then the other would speak with a maddening monotony. Alday's wife had six favorite, fine-
sounding words --- elements, superior, division, prolongation, justification, and disproportion. One of these she somehow managed to drag into every sentence, and sometimes she succeeded in getting in two.
Here, he puts one in mind of Mark Twain:
The duet between these two confounded barrel-organs, one grinding out rhetoric, the other chronology, went on all the morning, and often I turned to Monica [with whom he has fallen in love] ... in hopes of a different tune from her more melodious instrument, but in vain, for never a word dropped from those silent lips.
The great joy of The Purple Land comes not only from the mini-stories that pop up each time he moves onto another estancia, but the loving detail of a writer who knows and loves a whole obscure culture, that of the Rio Plate area of the late 19th Century:
She then led me to the kitchen at the end of the house. It was one of those roomy, old-fashioned kitchens still to be found in a few estancia houses built in colonial times, in which the fireplace, raised a foot or two above the floor, extends the whole width of the room. It was large and dimly lighted, the walls and rafters black with a century's smoke and abundantly festooned with sooty cobwebs, but a large, cheerful fire blazed on the hearth, while before it stood a tall, gaunt woman engaged in cooking the supper and serving the maté.
Hudson's innocent delight with women of all ages brings him to consider Anita, whom he meets at one of the estancias: "She was a most forlorn little thing, with a white, thin face and large, dark, pathetic eyes. Her mean little cotton frock only reached her knees, and her little legs and feet were bare ... I drew her to me, and tried to soothe her tremors and get her to talk." By means of a tale he invents a character named Alma, who has just lost her last friend, and retires to the river to weep:
There were two very big willow-trees growing near the river. By and by the leaves rustled in the wind and the trees began talking to each other, and Alma understood everything they said.
"'Is it going to rain, do you think?' said one tree.
"'Yes, I think it will --- some day,' said the other.
"'There are no clouds,' said the first tree.
"'No, there are no clouds to-day, but there were some the day before yesterday,' said the other.
"'Have you got any nests in your branches?' said the first tree.
"'Yes, one,' said the other. 'It was made by a little yellow bird, and there are five speckled eggs in it.'
"Then the first tree said, 'There is little Alma sitting in our shade; do you know why she is crying, neighbour?'
"The other tree answered, 'Yes, it is because she has no one to play with...'"--- Louis d'Almeida