I don’t find that my children want to hear what things were like when I was young. Publishers, who are sometimes also parents, must find that their families don’t want to listen to them either, and yet they are right in thinking that childhood reminiscences make seductive books. Michael Schmidt was brought up in Mexico, and in his ‘not strictly autobiographical novel’, The Colonist, he turns with brilliant and painful concentration to his early years.
No doubt he was in search of himself, and the making of what he now is – a poet. In fact, through his collections over the last ten years I have the feeling, or perhaps the illusion, that I know Michael Schmidt quite well. I know that he has a great capacity for hero-worship and a belief in the power of dreams, that he falls asleep at the opera, that he was once a grave-digger at Highgate Cemetery, and that when his lover departed he was unable to sew on his own buttons. I may, of course, have been misled to some extent, because Schmidt talks of ‘imaginary landscapes’. However, in Desert of the Lions, which he published in 1972, he certainly describes a visit to a real place, the Mexico he once knew but where he now feels himself half a stranger. ‘We can move near,’ he wrote, ‘but cannot touch.’
In The Colonist, he has cautiously avoided giving his narrator a name, but he will not mind, I hope, if I call him M. M is the delicate little son of a deeply respectable Jewish-American family turned Episcopalian. They live in Mexico City because they do business there, but when the child gets no better they send him down to their country place with his loving niñera, Doña Constanza. Because his parents appear only at weekends, they become figures of distant authority, and as soon as they leave he turns back with relief to Constanza’s world: the peaceful, hot kitchen, the hot candle-lit cathedral. Spanish is for communication; English only for duty. ‘The only language I spoke naturally was hers.’ Like other colonists’ children, but more thin-skinned and troubled than most, M grows up with the confusion of two languages, two (or perhaps three) religions, two systems of medicine – the foul-smelling, comforting herb teas and the advice of the European doctor – two standards of behaviour, and two mothers. The conflict, in M’s case, cannot be resolved. The need ‘to understand it at all costs’ has driven him to relive his story,
Because he is sickly, M scarcely leaves the huerta, the ‘green island’ created in barren San Jacinto for his rich parents, except to go to school. The view from his room, ‘across the deep barranca, where the river ran, past rice-fields opposite the faceted copper-coloured mountains of Parano, and beyond, ice-blue through the undulating heat, the great peaks of the volcanoes’, is one of the grandest on earth, but he sees it only through his bedroom window. One of the virtues of this novel is its economy. With so much opportunity to luxuriate, Schmidt never does so. Through the narrowness of M’s window he can imply the whole unease of privilege.
In Mexico the child is king and can do no wrong, but he abdicates at about the age of nine. At just this point, when he has grown beyond Constanza’s protection, M meets the gardener’s boy, Chayo. M is lying sick in bed through the sweltering afternoon:
I heard the clicking of secateurs at work on the vines outside my window, low down at first, and then gradually ascending, until the ficus shoots beneath my window began to twitch and drop away. The shoots trembled and dropped as of their own accord, but there was a low sound of whistling, light breathing, and clipping, clipping. The small crown of a hat appeared over the ledge; then the brim, and the clipping stopped. A face – a mere silhouette against the bright sky – peered in at the window stealthily. Within the silhouette I could detect only the shine of eyes – no feature at all.
My room was dim and his sight adjusted only gradually; the white sheet on the bed must have come clear to him. He must have seemed suspended there a long time, staring in, but it can only have been a few moments before he discerned eyes peering back at him, large with fear, out of the darkness. When he discovered himself watched, he dropped away as though he had not been there at all, so that I almost doubted that I was awake. Later, I heard the pruning secateurs at work further off, no longer near my window.
This passage shows how exactly Schmidt can convey an emotion, in this case fear, through minute indications – from the trembling of the shoots of the creeper, down to the separate consciousness of each boy. And although the relationship becomes, in time, first homosexual and then violent, the author, in describing it, never loses his delicate control.
The rage of love and hatred between the two of them is the substance of The Colonist. At first M acts as the Señorito, teaching his new friend to read, and offering him his first night in a bed with clean sheets. Then they become ‘brothers’, and ‘until I was fourteen I had not reflected that any distance existed between us.’ But Chayo matures faster, wants women, wants, also, higher wages, which he is never likely to get from M’s father. The balance of power alters. A decisive moment comes, and is felt to come, when they change clothes for a forbidden expedition to the town. M in the gardener’s trousers and battered straw hat, ‘carrying his smell on my body’, is recognised as a gringo by everyone they meet, while Chayo staggers along in a Sunday suit rather too small for him. After this excursion, Chayo turns relentless in his discontent. M becomes a follower only, ready to do anything, to steal money from his mother and even from Constanza, in order to keep his ‘brother’ from abandoning him. ‘I wanted not to be alien to him despite complexion, education, parentage; to persuade him that these counted for nothing if one willed them away. I wanted to make the choice.’
The outsiders in M’s life, his parents and the bland, lecherous English chaplain, seem to have walked out of some much simpler book; perhaps, though, we are to take them as distorted reflections of his obsession. Schmidt wants to narrow M’s story towards a ferocious climax, and in this he certainly succeeds. Chayo, who has left the house and is well on the way to becoming the town drunk, returns through the window with kerosene and matches to set fire to his friend’s bed. But his own hand catches light and ‘he held his torch of fingers before his face, illuminating an expression I cannot forget, where anger gave way to terror as he saw what he had done to himself.’
Yet even the fire solves nothing. Chayo escapes. ‘No one was cleanly punished.’ And M is left to make the most cruel discovery of all. It is neither race nor money nor upbringing which had separated him from Chayo, but temperament. In spite of all he had suffered,
I was unable to let myself go and enjoy release as he could, and as his kind could. I refused to trust the moment of experience, holding something back through fear or reticence... There was some cold core, unapproachable. It condemned me to difference by something intangible.
Their friendship, then, had been no more natural than the ‘green island’ itself, cultivated in the harsh surrounding soil. Nothing could have made it survive. This is the secret of the whole experience, and it may be conjectured that Michael Schmidt, in this poetic first novel, is still trying to come to terms with it. He suggests that The Colonist is a political allegory, but I can’t for the life of me see that it is. It impresses me as a sensitive and very personal record. The ‘Native Tourist’, as Schmidt sometimes calls himself, can revisit his past, but can never be accepted there. All he can promise himself is not to lose the meaning of the pain he felt. As he once put it:
Time is supposed to cure.
It has no business here.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.