O cruel!

Michael Mason

  • Far Away and Long Ago by W.H. Hudson
    Eland, 332 pp, £3.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 907871 25 9
  • W.H. Hudson: A Biography by Ruth Tomalin
    Faber, 314 pp, £13.50, November 1982, ISBN 0 571 10599 8

In W.H. Hudson’s autobiographical study, Far Away and Long Ago,[*] there is a passage which it is hard to make oneself read. The subject is the gaucho method of slaughtering a cow or bullock.

One of the two or three mounted men engaged in the operation would throw his lasso over the horns, and, galloping off, pull the rope taut; a second man would then drop from his horse, and running up to the animal behind, pluck out his big knife and with two lightning-quick blows sever the tendons of both hind legs. Instantly the beast would go down on his haunches, and the same man, knife in hand, would flit round to its front or side, and, watching his opportunity, presently thrust the long blade into its throat just above the chest, driving it in to the hilt and working it round; then when it was withdrawn a great torrent of blood would pour out from the tortured beast, still standing on its fore-legs, bellowing all the time with agony. At this point the slaughterer would often leap lightly on to its back, stick his spurs in its sides, and, using the flat of his long knife as a whip, pretend to be riding a race, yelling with fiendish glee. The bellowing would subside into deep, awful, soblike sounds and chokings; then the rider, seeing the animal about to collapse, would fling himself nimbly off. The beast down, they would all run to it, and throwing themselves on its quivering side as on a couch, begin making and lighting their cigarettes.

The effect here is not all in the subject-matter: the use of a vocabulary that is, so to speak, friendly to the gauchos and their values – ‘flit’, ‘lightly’, ‘nimbly’ – much enhances the feeling of a community almost insanely indifferent to suffering.

Such passages, though their skill confirms the interest of Hudson, pose more than one problem for those who try to write about him. Hudson’s South American background is a shadow that accompanies the idea of him as inevitably as Conrad’s seafaring, or Borrow’s gypsies, and with good reason. He was born on a ranch near Buenos Aires in 1841, and he lived in the region, chiefly in Argentina, until he came to England at the age of 32. Perhaps a third of his subsequent writing concerns South America. But the facts about Hudson’s South American years that can be gleaned outside his own autobiographical writings are extremely scanty. And these works, though necessarily the main evidence, are not consistent in their vision. For example, the great cruelty, or alleged cruelty, of Argentinian rural life does not come completely into focus until Far Away and Long Ago, which Hudson wrote during the First World War. Also new in that work, or newly emphasised, is a grotesque element, handled in a manner that has its affinities with Marquez. There are bizarre events in the natural environment: a storm of brick-shaped hailstones which kills fifty sheep and leaves hundreds more stunned for days afterwards, or occasional years when thistles on the pampas grow to ten foot, so densely that firebreaks have to be cut by dragging the carcasses of animals through them. A Marquez-like figure called ‘the Hermit’ enters the first chapter: he wears an overcoat a foot thick, lined with fragments of hide and ‘stuffed with sticks, stones, hard lumps of clay, rams’ horns, bleached bones, and other hard objects’.

Hudson knew that Far Away and Long Ago was different, but the way he explains this – as due to a sudden veridical recall of his youth in old age – compounds the problem for his biographer. The book was written in the course of a six weeks’ illness, on the second day of which Hudson had his ‘wonderfully clear and continuous vision of the past’; it became like a landscape over which ‘my eyes could range at will, choosing this or that point to dwell upon, to examine in all its details.’ The notion of the pattern of his life which he had entertained hitherto was, he saw, a ‘delusion’. These are imperative and undoubtedly sincere claims by Hudson on behalf of this particular book, but how believable are they (especially as he concedes in his penultimate chapter that he had occasionally got his chronology wrong)?

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[*] Also available from Dent at £5.95.