Letters to Pzazulanan
By Christopher Woods
These letters were recently discovered among the papers of the late South American poet, Genaro Ramon Benavente. The papers were acquired by the Humanities Research Institute of the Hemisphere, located in Mexico City.
Written to Benavente over a number of years from the novelist-in-exile Juan Cabaldo, the letters are the only records extant of their close, if far flung, relationship. Curiously, and although both writers were natives of Pzazulanan, the two men never met in person.
12 October, 1947
Dear friend and countryman,
Please accept my sincere apologies for taking so long to answer your kind letter. As you might be aware, the mail from Pzazulanan to Vienna is a lengthy process. Usually it takes many months, though several years is not altogether surprising if the Pzazulanian regime is feeling especially devilish.
I see by the postmark, the beloved cocoa leaf, that your letter was written two years ago. In it you mention that you are seventeen, and therefore subject to military service. Certainly by now you must be an officer.
While it is true that our Pzazulanan has not been at war since the battles with the Incas, there may be some benefits to your service. Discipline will serve you well later in life. As well, drawing a regular salary, however meager, has benefits.
I am pleased that you enjoyed The Maize Circle. You must have read a copy smuggled in from Argentina, as I know my novel is not allowed in the homeland.
It heartens me to know that another Pzazulanian plans to become a writer. No, I have no advice. It seems that each of us is condemned to learn, or not, at his given pace.
You acquaint an editor or two with your work. I hope so.
It is my opinion that the future of literature belongs to writers like yourself from the smaller countries. Once the great powers have either eliminated themselves, outwardly or inwardly it hardly matters, who else will be left? You must send me some of the poems you mentioned. I am thought of very highly here in Europe, and perhaps I might be able to help.
Again, excuse my tardiness. Even after the long trip here, your letter was forced to await my return from a trip to Eastern Europe. I enjoyed the vacation, but so little here can compare with our own special wonders. Our River of Mice and the Plains of Bees remain for me the greatest spectacles of the natural world. I miss them dearly.
Yours most sincerely,
22 August, 1951
My dear friend Genaro,
Again, please excuse my long delay in replying to your very welcomed letter. Evidently the current regime in Pzazulanan City is more adept at dispensing with their enemies than delivering the mail. Thank you for the beautiful poems, which only arrived on my doorstep a week ago. By now you must have written one hundred more!
Of the three, I admit a personal preference for the long one, “Memorias de Maria Barranos.” I was born in the Rose Province, very near the Bird of Paradise province where your poem takes place. I am quite familiar with the setting. And unfortunately I am also familiar with the infamous day of stones which you describe.
I find it uncanny that your grandmother died on that fateful day along with so many other Rosians. I myself lost two cousins that same day. Who could have ever imagined that the sky, a serene ceiling of blue and white weightless clouds as in a passage from Hesse, could have stored such wrath? I am told that more than a mountain of boulders rained down on those tiny villages.
Several summers ago, while on a brief trip to Edinburgh, I learned that Scottish skies have several times opened to unleash cats and dogs on the unsuspecting populace. Until then I had known the expression, but I had never attached a literal interpretation to it. Such things usually occur, as if by divine mandate, in our dear Pzazulanan. The world is much wider than imagination, my young friend.
Please send more of your work. An editor friend of mine in Paris would like to publish “Maria Barranos” in his journal. I hope this pleases you. Aware that it may be a long time before I hear from you, I have authorized him to do so as soon as possible. I shall send you a copy this autumn.
All good wishes.
With many handshakes,
16 June, 1952
It distresses me to hear of your painful injuries. I am enraged to think that General Cruz would consider a military attack on the Plains of Bees. It is yet another example of an illogical regime at work. I assume you have recovered from the scores of stings you suffered in those fruitless attacks. It is good that you have received an honorable discharge. I quite agree with you regarding the uselessness of military medals in a country that never goes to war unless it is to do battle with nature itself.
My own opinion is that the attack on the Plains of Bees was rooted in impotence. Men of war fear the loss of virility more than the battle itself. In our Pzazulanan, there has been no war in over two thousand years. Imagine the frustration of the generals!
Oddly enough, when I was your age another regime also sought to do away with the Plain of Bees. It was, I know, their way of attempting to shift attention from our pressing domestic problems. They requested, and received, aid from the United States to eradicate the bees.
No doubt our noble leaders admired that odd American concept of Manifest Destiny. Whatever can that mean? Our illustrious leaders believed they could conquer the Plains and bring about a new frontier mentality to our national thought. How good it is that they were so mistaken.
They miscalculated the power of the Indians who worshiped the bees, and who comprise three-fourths of the population. When the inevitable conflict arose, the regime was rightfully butchered. Today, we do not even remember their vile names. The Indian despots who rule modern day Pzazulanan eradicated them from memory! I suppose in the end it does not matter so much. That the bees endure is enough for me.
I am not trying to avoid your question, Genaro. You wish to know why I remain here in Europe, why I do not try to return to the homeland. I shall tell you why in my next letter. As the present regime will not allow me to speak to my countrymen under any circumstances, perhaps you will spread the word for me. This will be my way, as the Americans say, of coming clean. A strange expression, don’t you agree? But such strange people!
No new poems?
With good cheer,
2 May, 1953
The mail improves, but now it is my health that suffers. Hence my delay in answering your wonderful letter. Late last year I began to suffer from gout. This year, while in Paris, I slipped in the Luxembourg Gardens and broke my left leg. I am slow to mend, and I wonder if it is my body or my spirit that is more reluctant to heal.
I owe my partial recovery to your warm words and the moods inspired by your first book, POEMAS DE LOS LLANOS. Since the volume arrived, I have shown it to all who visit my bedside. My Italian friend Bassani wants to publish the opening sequence, the pastoral narrative about childhood in Pzazulanan. The tonal qualities remind him of Ferrara. In any case, it will appear in the next issue of BOTTEGHE OSCURE. I hope this sits well with you, my friend.
Yes, it is ironic that your book would be published in Buenos Aires, and not in the homeland. But it is also to be expected. Unless the despots are removed someday, our own culture will be little more than the myths we remember from the time of Christ.
But do not let any of this deter you. I myself have labored with this knowledge all my life. The time since coming here has only hardened my resolve. Persevere!
Now, on to other matters put off long ago. It was my decision, made in 1940, which prevents me from returning home. The regime would have my countrymen think I no longer care for them. Or that I have somehow forgotten them. Nothing could be further from reality.
Briefly, allow me to describe the events that took place in Stockholm, as I believe they speak for my mind and soul at that time. I have never regretted my actions, though it goes without saying, my heart has never been the same for it.
Several weeks before the official announcement was to be made, I was told, rather surreptitiously I might add, that I had won the great prize for literature. As I had been nominated for several years before the Second World War, this news came as no surprise. I assumed it was only another rumor. Yet when I learned that I indeed won, I was filled with joy. But it was not meant to be, as you well know.
Several days before the official announcement, I went to Stockholm to visit my good friend, Per Hallstrom, a leading member of the Swedish Academy. After a spirited discussion with other members, I graciously declined the prize I had sought for so many years.
This was most painful for me. But I could not in good conscience accept the honor at a time when the world seemed bent on destroying itself. Even in our own country, another coup was taking place, another changing of the guard from one set of animals to another.
No, to accept the Nobel would be to say that all was right with the world. That I, so hopeful of bettering the world with words, had been successful. And I had not. Words are only words. So, with the approval of the Academy, I then delivered my now infamous “Stockholm Manifesto.” It set the precedent, as no other prizes were awarded for the remainder of the war. I do not need to tell you how my speech went down in Pzazulanan City.
I do not return to the homeland because my life is worth nothing there. I do not speak of this publicly because a part of me still lives in Pzazulanan, in the form of several maiden aunts. I do not wish to see them endangered. And then there are the repeated threats by the regime to defile the graves of my mother and father.
Perhaps, in your own lifetime, all this will change. You will be allowed to speak freely, without fear of repression. As for me, it is already too late. I am an old, inconsequential man. Only halfway alive in the city of Mozart, I pretend not to hear the sorrow that rides every musical note entering my aural universe.
Take care, my friend. You are the future in a world that tries to deny its own future.
Tonight, I shall think of you as I sing our national anthem, “The River Of Mice.” And probably I will not be able to sleep.
20 July, 1953
Through an Austrian envoy, I have just received the news of your fate. I have also received your new book, A DROWNING MAN IN A RIVER OF MICE. It is nothing less than stupendous! But you do not need the toothless praise of an old man.
Genaro, I do not know for certain if a God presides over all this. But if there is indeed any lasting fairness in the world, I know that your work will be read as long as the great Plains produce their honey.
I am told that I can do nothing to help you, that any action I might take could only hasten your death. For you to distribute these poems, these golden kernels I call them, was an act of bravery. And defiance, of course, but the two are often siblings. By writing these poems, you must have known you were asking for political martyrdom.
I hope the regime grants you one final wish, to float on a bier in the River of Mice. I am reminded what our great poet, Carrera, once said of the river.
“Our people live in a land surrounded by heaven, but only the mice can get to it. Only the mice know the border song. The rest of us shuffle from one border station to the next, no song in our heads. But distantly, from the other side, we can hear the sounds of happiness.”
By now, Genaro, you must know this border song. Two nights ago, thinking about you, I became certain of this. I dreamed that I was standing on the bank of the river, watching your flowered bier ride on the backs of the mice. When I awoke, I knew you were in heaven.
If you are there, and if it is allowed, could you write to a fellow countryman and let him know if that place is a just one? And, dear friend, are the bees there the same as those on the Plains?
With love and envy,
Christopher Woods is the author of a prose collection, UNDER A RIVERBED SKY, and a collection of stage monologues for actors, HEART SPEAK. His plays have been produced in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York. He lives in Houston and in Chappell Hill, Texas.