Page 23


Sylvia Iparraguirre and spirit, with respect for life in all its forms, whom I had not known before and would not know again.” Such a statement from the pen of Sylvia Iparraguirre is no surprise. Well known in Argentina for her human rights activism, she writes here in the voice of a 19th century sailor. Today’s readers know that the devastation Guevara predictedthe systematic destruction of the environment, the violation of individual liberties and the breakdown of aboriginal societieshas come to pass. But the narrator’s prophetic and highly credible voice makes the story all the more timely, its message more poignant. While the outcome is inevitable, Iparraguirre whets our curiosity and leads us on.We read to discover not what will happen, but how it will happen. From its inception, her account, like Tierra del Fuego itself, is shrouded in mystery and fog. From the safety of their ship, the British sailors swap stories about naked cannibals, their bodies smeared with paint and foul-smelling fish oil. “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilized man,” writes Darwin in Voyage of the Beagle. “It is greater than between a wild and domesticated ani mal, in as much as in man there is greater power of improvement.” Nights in this inhospitable setting are pitch-black, impenetrable but for the tall fires, kindled by the natives, which illumine the shore and give the place its name, “Land of Fire.” The sailors call Button’s land “Teke uneka” but, as Jemmy explains to Guevara, the words actually mean,”I don’t understand what you say” which was the natives’ response to the strangers’ interrogations. Against the background of a land called “I Don’t Understand What You Say,” anything is possible. Events repeat themselves. Characters disappear and reappear. The story reels back and forth in time over a period of 35 years, crossing and re-crossing the globe from Argentina to England to Tierra del Fuego to the Falkland Islands. \(A small distinguishes the novel are its ironies, enigmas and omissions, the techniques used to convey its message. The protagonist, who has “unknowingly adopted a double identity” is the son of two traditional enemies, an Argentine and an Englishman, who are at odds to communicate with each other. He uses his mother’s last name, rather than his father’s, and directs his letter to an Englishman, “Mr. MacD owell or MacDowness,” in response to a request that had been sent to “the Major.” same time, he confesses to drinking heavily, which casts doubt on his credibility. He ignores the questions he has been asked, writes in Spanish, a language the letter’s recipient would be unlikely to understand, and, as we soon learn, has no intention of sending his reply. Yet despiteor perhaps because ofthe double meanings, his account is not only convincing, but moving as well. We are struck by the speaker’s determination to reach the truth. As is often the case in seafaring stories, the protagonist is searching for somethingsometimes many thingsand Guevara is no exception. At the beginning, as a young sailor, he sets off on a quest for his past, his heritage and his dead father’s story. Thirtythree years later he tracks down Button, on trial in the Falklands for allegedly slaughtering a group of missionaries, in order to discover Button’s fate and the outcome of that first doomed voyage to Tierra del Fuego. Guevara’s last quest takes place in his 52nd year. He is driven from somewhere deep inside himself to give voice to the horrors he has seen in order to reach some sort of understanding and vindication. “One thing I know, the words good or bad that I set down on these sheets of paper without being forced to by anyone, have turned to me and are staring at me, waiting for an answer I don’t have.” He will find his answer, not to what happened, but to what must be done. Thus, the narrator’s voyages entail not only actual journeys from place to place, but also the passing from one realm of understanding into another. While Guevara is a product of Iparraguirre’s imagination, the historical events are not, so one cannot help but ask whether the book recreates them faithfully. \(I found several unimportant However, in its portrayal of the evil men do, Tierra del Fuego comes closer to grasping the terrible outcome of the forces of civilization than could any chronological retelling of events. This brilliant and beautifully wrought work deserves to become a classic. It shares with all great literature the ability to capture the universal truths behind what really happened and will leave its mark. Diana Anhalt is a writer and poet in Mexico City. 1/6/01 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 21