Monday, February 4, 2013

Eros Mexicano

 The Colonist

by Michael Schmidt

Of late I’ve grown weary of the standard Bildungsroman, the often highly autobiographical, nearly always confessional coming-of-age-style story set in some quaint, typically southern town, complete with its cast of local eccentrics, its folksy wisdom, and its often shrink-wrapped epiphanies about innocence, race, and sex. While the tradition in this country is a rich one and not to be disparaged (one has only to think of Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, McCullers’ The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye), and while my favorite novel in the world, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, is nothing if not a protracted and supremely self-indulgent Bildungsroman, it was nevertheless with reluctance that I picked up a copy of Michael Schmidt’s novel The Colonist in a second-hand bookstore last winter. Three things had alerted me to a possible difference: the novel's  setting (Mexico), its publisher (The Gay Men’s Press) and the language (original, poetic, adroit).  Intrigued, I bought the book for $3.95, though it took me nearly a year to actually read it.  I am happy I did.

Set in the town of San Jacinto in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, The Colonist tells the story of a sickly English boy growing up in Mexico (in the de facto absence of his aloof and wealthy parents) in the nurturing company of the family’s devoted housekeeper, Doña Constanza, and a handsome local orphan named Chayo, the narrator’s friend, ‘brother,’ and romantic obsession. Remarkably, there is nothing hackneyed, nothing saccharine, in Schmidt’s treatment of the fraught and tender affinity between these boys. While clearly autobiographical, and every bit a story about the painful disenchantment of youth, The Colonist offers readers a fresh and moving exploration of the seemingly intractable divisions of class, race, religion, and sexual orientation, as the narrator is driven to act with increasing desperation to safeguard his relationship with Chayo, to fend off time itself in order to keep their little ‘green island’ intact.  Told in retrospect, from the vantage of an older man now settled in England, the novel is a compelling portrait of one’s man’s attempt to find completion in the past.

Here, to conclude, to entice you, is the novel’s very fine first page:

     Often even now when I wake up I think I’m there.  I retain the error of a few moments, half-consciously—seem to smell the conflicting scents and hear the bristling of tropical foliage, pretend that I am not alone in bed, extend my hand—into vacancy, and let my eyes fall open on English daylight.
     I still keep the habit of sleeping with the curtains drawn back and the windows thrown wide, even in winter.  I explain it as a hunger for fresh air.  But it is more a chronic expectation, as I lie gazing at the blue or cloudy blank framed by pelmet, curtains and sill.  It’s futile as the childhood prayers of an atheist, which recur to him instinctively and are half said before he catches himself out.  Sometimes an inert white moon lies against a daylit sky like a tiny cloud without a drop of water.
     In the disorientation of early morning I return there—because the events were incomplete.  It was a place and time alive as little has been since.  I spend hours interrogating it, like an historian puzzling at a fragmentary chronicle, who takes the problems home because they will not let him go.  Finally he decides to understand it at all costs, if only to be shut of them at last; he packs away his books, travels backwards in time, takes boat to the place where the lost events occurred;-- and there, in a suggestive climate, among ruins and citrus trees, in the dusty roads, among high white-washed rooms, in the cafés and bars of the descendants—there in the very face of change—he creates the matter missing from the text.  It is not a form of evidence his professional colleagues would countenance, but something better, whose truth the pulse acknowledges, the body understands uncritically, regardless of disciplines of mind.  As he approaches, it recedes, drawing him further on—and into it, so that in the end he finds an absence, or himself, or perhaps in a rare moment (and only for a moment) the thing he sought.  He has discovered that nothing but detail is ever lost for good.  The forms survive in present forms—flawed, as years pass, the flaws grow deeper. Nothing changes, each thing becomes in time more itself, defined, uniquely broken.

Michael Schmidt OBE FRSL is a Mexican-British poet, novelist, scholar, and publisher who was born in Mexico City in 1947. He is founder (1969) and editorial and managing director of Carcanet Press and a founder (1973) and general editor of PN Review.

Peter Adam Nash

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