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Captive Readers and Tellers of Tales

Evelyn Waugh hated Brazil. In 1933 he entered the country over its northern border with Guyana, travelling on horseback to the desolate frontier town of Boa Vista. It was hell. He’d forgotten to pack both bug-off and block-out, and his biographer Selina Hastings describes the heat of the savannah “glaring up off the earth so that even under a broad-brimmed hat the skin of his face and neck was burned raw.” The insects were a torment—

“mosquitoes, fleas, ticks, which had to be burned off with a cigarette end, jiggers, whose eggs had to be dug out of the soles of the feet with a pin, and bêtes rouges, a minute red creature which brushes off the leaves of the bush onto one’s clothes and finds its way belong one’s skin where it causes unendurable itching. Worst of all were the clouds of tiny cabouri fly whose bite left a savage irritation, and which unfailingly found their way to any exposed flesh, making necessary the wearing of cotton gloves and towels to cover the face.”

But something worse was in store—the terrible boredom of the jungle frontier when you got there. A thinking man might have anticipated this, and as this month’s Spiked shows, Waugh was assuredly a thinking man. But he was also on the run from a broken marriage, a writer seeking any kind of geographical distraction that could feed his imagination and dull the pain. Boa Vista, however, was not the place.

I am already nearly crazy. There are no books except an ant-eaten edition of Bossuet’s sermons and some back numbers of a German pious periodical for children. One cannot get drunk as the only liquor in the village is some very mild, very warm beer, which I can drink at a table in the store in a cloud of flies stared at by Brazilians in pyjama suits and boaters. There are of course no cars or boats for hire and nowhere to go in them if there were. No amount of fun compensates for this sort of misery… However, I have been able to brood a bit in solitude and discern solutions to some of my immediate problems.

Brooding, loneliness, and depression combined to produce in Waugh a paranoid fear that one might be trapped for ever in such a place, going from “nearly crazy” to completely insane: and this is the morbid mental state that culminates in the last scenes of A Handful of Dust, where a lost and captive Englishman is forced to read Dickens, over and over, to a madman named Mr Todd.

Could anything exceed this ordeal? Of course it could—real captivity in Africa is worse by far. In Addis Ababa Paul Theroux met an educated Ethiopian imprisoned by the Marxist thugs of the Dergue for seven years. A man used to reading and writing, he was not formally charged with anything or brought to trial, “just tossed in jail and left to rot.” Both books and writing were forbidden, and after a year he was on the brink of despair. Then one day a worn copy of Gone With the Wind arrived mysteriously inside the walls:

We were so happy! We were all educated men. We took turns reading it—of course we had to share it. There were 350 men in my section, and so we were allowed to have the book for one hour at a time. That was the best part of the day in Central Prison—reading Gone With the Wind.

But for this prisoner that was just the beginning. In Dark Star Safari Theroux tells how he next decided to translate the book. With no paper available, he used the reverse side of the smoothed-out foil from cigarette packs: it took two years on 3000 sheets of foil wrapping, each sheet being folded up and bundled and smuggled outside by prisoners on their release. Then, after his own sentence was completed, the translator himself got out of jail. Two more years of travel and inquiry were spent finding the scattered ‘pages’, but when that was done, “he published his translation of the novel, and this is the translation Ethiopians read today”.

The story of this man translating Gone With the Wind with such single minded passion reminded Theroux of A Handful of Dust. But neither Theroux, nor Evelyn Waugh, who was in Ethiopia twice in the 1930s and wrote about it in three books (Black Mischief, Remote People, Waugh in Abysinnia), seem aware of the even more remarkable story of the 30-year-long Ethiopian captivity of Pêro de Covilham—adventurer, spy, diplomat, traveller incognito in Islamic lands, and multilingual representative of both Ferdinand and Isabella (in one incarnation) and of John II of Portugal (in another).

It was 1487, and the spice trade with India was up for grabs. The Italian monopoly with its route through Cairo and Aden looked vulnerable. For fifty years the Portuguese had been working their way down the west coast of Africa: now men like Batholomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama were ready to sail round its southern cape into the Indian Ocean and beyond. But what would they find? Were there any Christians along the way? Which rulers might help their cause? And where, asked King John II of Portugal, was the fabled kingdom of Prester John?

In May 1487 two accomplished Arabic-speaking spies, Alfonso de Paiva and Pêro de Covilham (also Covilhan, Covilhã, or Covilhão), were sent from Lisbon to Cairo to make their way eastwards and find whatever answers they could. At Aden they separated and Paiva eventually died. But Covilham made his way across to Cannanore on the southwest coast of India, and the places and scenes he then saw and witnessed had never been seen by any cultivated European before. He went north to Calicut where all sorts of spices were traded, to Goa, and still heading up India’s western coast, to the textile trading centers in the Gulf of Cambay, and from there back to Cairo via Persia and Hormuz.

Then he overreached himself. The king of Portugal had asked that every effort be made to verify those tales about Ethiopia and Prester John, so Covilham next made his way into Ethiopia through the Red Sea port of Massawa—and that was it. He never, ever, got out. According to Richard Hall in Empires of the Monsoon:

Having entered this mountainous land, a lonely bastion of Christianity surrounded by Muslim foes, he was told he could never leave. It was a rule the Ethiopians imposed on all who entered their country, to guard the secrets of their defences. Even Covilham’s resourcefulness was now defeated. Seemingly reconciled, he became a close friend of Helena, dowager empress of Ethiopia, who saw to it that he was given a wife and large tracts of land. He settled down to live like an Ethiopian nobleman, far removed from the intrigues of the Portuguese courts.

A likely story! Anyone with imagination can see what happened. The only social milieu more boring than a frontier town in Brazil is a feudal prince’s court, and the backward and illiterate Ethiopian court around 1500 must have been downright unbearable. The bards had sung every song they knew. The cooks had rung all the changes on boiled goat they could think of. Day followed day, month followed month, one comely slave-girl after another had been escorted to the ruler’s boudoir; but for months a dreadful lassitude had overwhelmed him—for to tell the truth the king had enjoyed more women and more song than he could bear.

Then out of nowhere came Pêro de Covilham. He might have been a man from the moon. If he’d had two heads he couldn’t have seemed more remarkable. Delighted by this unexpected Portuguese novelty, the Emperor pressed him to talk about his travels. And it was then, in a fateful desire to propitiate his host, and never imagining the consequences, that Covilham began telling tale after tale—how in exchange for pepper the dealers of Calicut demanded gold ducats from Venice, ashrafis from Egypt, or dinars from Arabia; how diamonds and pearls, sapphires and tiger’s eyes could be found; how in the Malabar region there were Christian communities living alongside Hindus; how the fierce princes of India insatiably demanded war-horses from Arabia; how (as Henry H. Hart writes in his Sea Road to the Indies)

The Hindu city of Calicut was a strange mixture of barbarism and civilization, simplicity and opulence. The dress of the Zamorin (the ruler of Calicut) was a perfect example. Naked from the waist up, and barefoot, he wore garments of cloth of gold, and on his fingers were heavy gold rings set with rubies. Surrounded by bodyguards, he reclined on a couch of gold and silver, while the perfumed women—always near him—were almost naked.

Now imagine the effect these sensual visions of royal splendor would have had on the ruler of Ethiopia, a man who might indeed have anointed himself with some very grand titles—Alexander, Lion of Judah, and King of Kings—but whose people were poor, backward, and verminous. In contrast, Pêro de Covilham was a man described as “one who knows all the languages that can be spoken, both of Christians, Moors, Abyssinians and heathens, and who got to know all the things for which he was sent by King John II of Portugal.” Even more important, as a Portuguese priest who met him observed—and this is crucial—“there was no one else like him” at the Emperor’s court.

My guess is that Covilham was the most interesting man to hit Ethiopia in decades, bar none, and was kept there to serve forever as scholar, jester, diplomatic advisor, historian, geographer, honorary vizier and masterly teller of tales—a literate man among the illiterate, a wise man among fools, and the kind of person the Lion of Judah desperately needed in his threadbare retinue.

We know that he repeatedly sought to leave in the early years, just as the man who was forced to read Dickens in A Handful of Dust tried to slip away from his captor in the Brazilian jungle. But in both cases all attempts to escape failed. The services he rendered were too important to be dispensed with; his person was too valuable to be let go. After the first ten years of his captivity, I can hear a pleading conversation between the Portuguese and his Ethiopian captor being politely terminated by the Lion of Judah along these lines:

Can a whole decade have passed since you first entered the gates of our palace? Indeed! Was it ten years ago, sitting before our throne, that you first told your enchanting tales?

That must explain why some episodes have grown hazy in the royal memory, the names of cities sadly obscure, the kings and ambassadors and courts more ghostly than we might have hoped.

Our memory must be refreshed. Butler! Bring wine and dates. Cook! Kill a goat or two. Most esteemed Sir, we must hear once more of your adventures. Let us begin at the beginning—and what better time to begin than tonight!

Posted in Arts and Letters, Notes.

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