The big picture

The Americas: the history of a hemisphere

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 235p

One of the most formidable political explicators of our time is undoubtedly Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, if only because of his extraordinary gift for arrangement. He habitually deals in the most unmanageable of subjects - civilisation, world history, food - but manages to give them shape, pattern and apparent logic by ordering them within his own chosen disciplines.

I, on the other hand, am a graduate of the "sound and fury" school of history, in the faculty of chaos, and this makes it all the more instructive for me to observe Fernandez-Armesto's virtuoso marshalling of his materials to fit his art. This new book is far shorter than some of his works, dealing as it does only with the history of the American continents, but is no less fascinating in its techniques. It really does manage to give a kind of narrative conviction to the whole story of the western hemisphere, prehistory to 2001, from blank on the map to world dominance.

I read every word of it with admiration, but in the end I thought the least interesting part of it was its declared purpose - "to trace a common history that embraces all the Americas". Since colonial times, this has boiled down essentially to a relationship between gringo and Latino, with the indigenous peoples of the hemisphere either absorbed into one or the other, or sidelined, and with the gringos of the north in the ascendant. Fernandez-Armesto makes the suggestion that the balance may presently shift, as economic and technological circumstance enables the volatile republics of the south to catch up with the stable giants of the north, but the general picture he paints is more or less what we might have imagined for ourselves.

His theses are never dull; indeed, they are sometimes surprising and often memorably expressed - for example, he dismisses the old theory that the very first Americans were a go-getting nomadic race of hunters as "a dry run for manifest destiny". He tells us that the influence of the south upon the north has been as powerful as the other way round. He says Anglo-American democracy has been no more individualistic than Hispanic-American hierarchy - and, indeed, that individualism is a delusion in a modern United States whose society is "cloyingly gregarious, profoundly communitarian, boringly conformist" and "glutinously embedded" in its innumerable communities.

He draws parallels between the 18th-century Creoles of the Spanish-American colonies and the revolutionaries of Bri-tish America - Crevecoeur's "new race of men". He suggests that the influence of different kinds of American colonists upon each other was stronger than the influences of their respective European founders (and while he seems to think Canada the best country in the modern Americas, he forebears to surmise that this might have something to do with its heritage of Britishness).

But much more striking is the baroque profusion of ancillary detail, sometimes declining into ephemera, with which he ornaments this Bauhaus sort of construction. What fun he has with the incidental, when he is not immersed in the monumental. Did you realise the influence the Huron people had on the French revolution? Did you know that you could not hear all the Beethoven symphonies in Chile until 1913? Did it ever occur to you that one of the biggest environmental changes in the history of humanity was the taming of the American prairie, or that the British colonies of pre-revolutionary America were among the richest societies per capita on earth?

Gold and silver peanuts in the art of the Moche civilisation; macaw-feather warehouses among the Aztecs; plans for a Brazilian overseas empire; an independent black slave kingdom, up-country from Pernambuco, with black slaves of its own - these are the sort of asides and allusions that give this book life far beyond the grave of academe. And its vocabulary, too, displays an almost comical profligacy of unfamiliar words, idioms and usages: equipollant, catechesis, exceptionalism, chiliastic, mimesis, advocations, biota - these are only a few of them, and although their use may sometimes seem like showing off, I think they are a genuine expression of this scholar's irrepressibly learned exuberance.

The big picture is his purpose here. It is far easier to illustrate his gifts by the profligacy of his research than by the reiteration of his themes. Who really needs a history of the entire American hemisphere in 230 pages anyway? It seems to me that, in this book, Fernandez-Armesto transcends his own intentions, and has given us an anthology of enthral-ling historical observations when he (or perhaps his publishers) had in mind a declaration of heavyweight historical conclusions. But then I am a "sound and fury" person, and for me, historical conclusions signify nothing.

Jan Morris's A Writer's World: travels 1950-2000 is published by Faber & Faber in September

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2003 issue of the New Statesman, How fat became a political issue

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide