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A 350th-Anniversary ‘Paradise Lost’ Reading List

Before John Milton could be a visionary writer, first he had to be a visionary reader. All poetry is supported by the accumulated scaffolding of tradition and defines itself in part by subverting that tradition. Milton was simultaneously partisan for and a rebel against tradition. And if it’s true that every writer is first and foremost a reader, then Milton arguably had a greater command of that corpus than anyone in the 17th century. Fluent in 12 languages ranging from Latin and Hebrew to Syriac, Milton was among the last of the true polymaths. His mind was a veritable wonder cabinet, and Paradise Lost was an expression of that—capable as it was of making “a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” From Tasso and Aristo he took a certain baroque stateliness, from Spenser a sense of mythic proportion, and from Shakespeare an appreciation of history and of lines well wrought. And, of course, he took his story from The Bible. Paradise Lost, across 10,000 lines of poetic blank verse ultimately assembled into 12 books, was famously a project “unattempted yet in prose or rhyme,” and the result was a consummate reimagining of scripture—an act not just of revolutionary writing but of radical reading.

Milton took the few chapters in Genesis devoted to Eden and the fall and spun a maximalist, erudite, learned, fully realized drama. Narratively exciting, religiously wise, metaphysically deep, and just ambiguous enough to keep the critics writing about him for more than four centuries. In Milton’s hands, Lucifer was configured as a new type of anti-hero, and scholars have long argued as to whether Milton’s sympathies lie with that attractive and beguiling character or with God. But as Milton was influenced by past greats, so he in turn became spectacularly influential. Paradise Lost is often more respected than read, obscuring the fact that for generations Milton was regarded as the ultimate of English poets. Writers have continued to explore those ever-regenerative concerns about the most profound things: creation, fallenness, redemption, sin, and salvation. If Milton was a reader first, then through his example we are all readers in his stead. I present my own idiosyncratic and subjective reading list of some of those readers.

The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) by John Bunyan
Bunyan’s tongue may have been rougher than Milton’s, yet his Victorian biographer, James Anthony Froude, observed, “Bunyan was a true artist, though he knew nothing of the rules, and was not aware that he was an artist at all.” Nobody would accuse Milton of that. Both men suffered for their religion and politics; prison stints are in their biographies, and both ultimately went blind. The Pilgrim’s Progress may be a very different text than Milton’s poem, but the task of explaining the divine lay at the center of both their missions. An unapologetically didactic and evangelical work, Bunyan’s book reduces all of the nuance of character that we celebrate in Paradise Lost in favor of the broadest possible allegory. Milton’s poem is rightly celebrated for his use of blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter, but Bunyan also departs from conventional expectations in presenting his religious dream vision in a similar aesthetically radical way by using a new narrative form whose very name signaled its novelty–the novel. The Pilgrim’s Progress, once profoundly popular in the English-speaking Protestant world and holding pride of place next to The Bible itself, has never reached the critical acclaim that Paradise Lost has. And yet even if Bunyan’s name is less famous today, arguably more people have read his proto-novel than ever read Milton’s work (even if most of Bunyan’s readers are in the past). He certainly would have known of Milton, and his reputation as the Reformation’s answer to Dante would have provided a crucial model to the creation of Protestant art.

Milton: A Poem in Two Books (1805-08) by William Blake
As Vergil was to Dante, so Milton is to Blake, with both poets considering questions about inspiration and creation. Blake erroneously saw Milton as a steadfast Calvinist, but in that biographical error (made by many) Blake was able to generate a consummate drama by having his imagined version of Milton repudiate Calvinism in favor of what Blake viewed as the hidden, subversive sympathies implicit within Paradise Lost. As a result, that visionary heretic’s confident declaration that Milton “was of the devil’s party without knowing it” has in many ways remained the most popular understanding. For Blake, Paradise Lost was a revolutionary work by a revolutionary poet who advocated regicide and rebellion against injustice. Milton is a strange mystical vision every bit worthy of its biographical subject written in Blake’s unique prophetic voice and illustrated with the water colors that made him one of the great artists of the 19th century in addition to being one of its most sublime poets. In Blake’s retelling of biblical history from creation to apocalypse, he argues against Calvinism’s division of humanity into the elect and condemned, rather positing that the truly chosen are the latter. As his strange theology is explicated, he gives an “unfallen” Milton in heaven the opportunity to redeem himself of the life-denying Puritanism that Blake associates with Milton, thus finally making the author of Paradise Lost worthy of that revolutionary spirit that Blake associates with him, so that both can fully take up the injunction to “Rouze up, O Young Men of the New Age!”

Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Shelley
Victor Frankenstein is placed in that lineage of fire-stealers who dangerously animate the world with forbidden knowledge. Dangerous creation has a long history; before Frankenstein could stitch together decomposing flesh into his industrial age monster, before Rabbi Judah ben Lowe could bake clay from the banks of the Danube into his golem, before Prometheus could mold man from soil, there was God himself breathing dust into life. Adam is the original created monster, a point made clear by Shelley herself in what is arguably the first and still the greatest science fiction novel ever written.. Shelley’s original creature’s sutured tongue could have been from Milton’s corpse itself, for the creature acquired language from a copy of Paradise Lost. As he recounts to Dr. Frankenstein, he “read it, as I had the other volumes which had fallen into my hands, as a true history. It moved every feeling of wonder and awe … Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existences… but I was wretched, helpless, and alone.” Shelley’s erudite monster intuits that Adam is “a perfect creature, happy and prosperous, guarded by the especial care of his Creator,” but the subversive brilliance of Frankenstein is the suggestion that perhaps we’re not so different from the monster. Consider the novel’s epigraph, a selection from Paradise Lost in which Adam asks God, “Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay/To mould Me man? Did I solicit thee/From darkness to promote me?” The implications are unavoidable: for Adam’s lament to the Lord, a cry as to why creation should be chosen for us the unwilling, is also the monster’s plea.

The Voyage of the Beagle (1839) by Charles Darwin
In a century with George Eliot, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen, perhaps the greatest novel was that non-fiction account of the naturalist Charles Darwin’s journey to the Galapagos Islands. I am not claiming that the biologist’s account is fiction; rather that in the evocative, nascent stirrings of his theory of evolution through natural selection Darwin was also telling a literary story of the greatest drama. While noting his observations, Darwin often had a particular literary story chief in mind. He writes, “Milton’s Paradise Lost had been my chief favourite…and in my excursions during the voyage of the Beagle, when I could take only a single small volume, I always chose Milton.” Darwin approached natural grandeur through a type of biological poetry, explaining that his biological observations instilled in him “feelings of wonder, astonishment, and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.”  As a young man aboard the Beagle, he was simply another pilgrim observing, categorizing, classifying, and naming the creatures in his tropical paradise as surely as Adam did in Eden. Although Darwin was a dutiful and careful interpreter of fact, he couldn’t help but think in the idiom of myth.

Shirley (1849) by Charlotte Brontë
Charlotte, Emily, and Anne’s father, Rev. Patrick Brontë, made Paradise Lost a mainstay of family reading. Milton’s influence runs through the women’s work, but never more obviously than in Shirley, Charlotte’s novel after Jane Eyre. Written a year after the tumultuous revolutions of 1848, Shirley took place in that similarly revolutionary year of 1812 when Luddites smashed the machinery of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills,” which had begun to crowd and pollute the Yorkshire countryside where the novel takes place. With the backdrop of both Romantic revolution and the postlapsarian machinations of industry, Shirley calls to mind Hell’s capital of Pandemonium, where the demon Mulciber tends the “fiery Deluge, fed/With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d.” The master of Brontë’s Pandemonium is Robert Moore, a northern English textile factory owner, whose livelihood has been threatened by the ban on exportation of cloth to America due to the War of 1812. Moore courts the wealthy and headstrong Shirley as a potential solution to his economic woe, and in their conversations Brontë provides a defense of Eve, while recognizing the emancipatory kernel at the core of Paradise Lost. Brontë was a keen reader of Dr. Johnson’s literary criticism, in particular his contention that Milton “thought woman made only for obedience, and man only for rebellion.” With Milton’s chauvinism in mind, Shirley inquires, “Milton was great; but was he good?” Shirley revises Milton’s myopic portrayal of Eve, preferring to see her as a “woman-Titan,” claiming, “Milton tried to see the first woman; but… he saw her not.” But despite that myopia, Brontë discerns a subversive thread underneath the surface of Paradise Lost. When Eve is deciding to partake of the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, she reflects that it shall “render me more equal, and perhaps, /A thing not undesirable, sometime/Superior; for inferior who is free?” For the royalist Dr. Johnson, the republican Milton’s chauvinism may seem irreconcilable to any true conception of liberty, but as Brontë discerned within the poem itself, Eve has a keen awareness that freedom without equality is a fallacy. And thus in one of the great poems of liberty, by one of its most ferocious advocates, the accuracy of Eve’s reasoning becomes clearer.

Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (1851) by Herman Melville
If Paradise Lost was a poetic consideration of the darker things in the psyche, of a megalomaniacal single-mindedness that pushed its antagonist into the very bowels of Hell, then Herman Melville’s obsessed Captain Ahab is our American Lucifer. As Lucifer stalks Paradise Lost, so Melville’s novel is haunted by Ahab, that “grand, ungodly, god-like man.” Melville claimed, “We want no American Miltons,” but it was an unconvincing declaration, considering that he basically became one himself. Just as Lucifer would struggle with God and be cast into Hell, and Ahab would wrestle with Moby-Dick and be thrown into the Pacific, so would Melville grapple with Milton, though the results were perhaps not quite damnation. Yet he did write a letter to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, “I have written a wicked book, and feel as spotless as the lamb,” and that his novel had been “broiled” in “hell-fire.” Melville, it would seem, was of the Devil’s party, and he very much knew it.

Moby-Dick, of course, drew from seemingly as many sources as Paradise Lost, from literature, myth, and scripture, not to speak of the tawdry sea accounts that provided the raw materials of his narrative. Moby-Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, claims that he has “swam through libraries,” and so too did Melville, but it was Paradise Lost that floated upon those waves as his white whale. Scholar William Giraldi describes his discovery of Melville’s 1836 edition of the Poetical Works of John Milton in the Princeton University library, with the volume lined by “checkmarks, underscores, annotations, and Xs.” Giraldi concludes that it was in rereading Milton late in 1849 that made his Great American Novel possible. The whale, of course, has always been configured as more than just a mere symbol, variously and ambiguously having his strange, great, empty white hide as a cipher potentially standing in for God, or the Devil, or America, or the very ground of Being. But where Lucifer is so comprehensible in his desires as to almost strike the reader as human, Melville’s whale is inscrutable, enigmatic, sublime—far more terrifying than the shockingly pedestrian God as depicted by Milton. These two texts in conversation with one another across the centuries provide an almost symphonic point and counter point; for what Melville gives us is an atheistic Paradise Lost and is all the more terrifying for it. 

Middlemarch (1871-72) by George Eliot
George Eliot’s Victorian masterpiece has affinities to Milton’s epic in presenting a tableau of characters in her fictional provincial English town on the verge of the Reform Act, as Eden was once on the verge of the fall. Reverend Edward Casaubon, an eccentric and absurd pseudo-intellectual who is continually searching for his Key to all Mythologies, is believably Eliot’s satirical corollary to Milton. Casaubon is a parody of the Renaissance men who existed from London to Paris to Edinburgh to Geneva and of which Milton was certainly a prime example. But more than any narrative affinity with the poem, what Eliot provides is conjecture on the circumstances of Paradise Lost’s composition. Milton was middle-aged by the time he began composition of Paradise Lost, as was Casaubon who was a prematurely grayed 45 in Middlemarch. And as Casaubon relied on the support of the much younger wife, Dorothea, so too did Milton rely on the assistance of his daughters: Mary and Deborah. As Dorothea says to Casaubon in a pose of feminine supplication, “Could I not be preparing myself now to be more useful? … Could I not learn to read Latin and Greek aloud to you, as Milton’s daughters did to their father?” In his late 50s, Milton was completely blind (most likely from glaucoma), and he was only able to complete Paradise Lost by enlisting (or forcing) his daughters to act as his amanuensis. The labor of writing the epic was very much only made possible through the humdrum domestic labor of his daughters, forced to work as his scribes in between cleaning, cooking, and all the rest of Eve’s duties. 

Perelandra; or, Voyage to Venus (1943) by C.S. Lewis
Both were adept apologists for Christianity and masters of the mythic idiom that moderns elect to call “fantasy.” But there are profound differences as well. Politics for one: Milton was a fire-breathing republican; Lewis was a staid, traditional conservative. Religion for another: Milton, as revealed in the anonymously penned iconoclastic and heretical treatise De Doctrina Christiana, denied the Trinity, embraced materialist metaphysics, and considered the ethics of polygamy; Lewis’s faith ran to High Church affectations that embraced kneelers, stain-glass, and hymns, his theology one of sober minded Anglican via media. But Lewis couldn’t help but be moved by the poetry of Paradise Lost, even if in its particulars it strayed from orthodoxy. One of the greatest Milton scholars of the 20th century, though he remains far more famous for his justly celebrated children’s novels like The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-6), Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941) counts as arguably the most important work of criticism about the poem until Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin (1967). Facing the specter of Adolf Hitler just across the channel, Lewis was perhaps not in the mood to consider Lucifer’s impassioned monologues in Paradise Lost as being that of a romantic rebel, rather arguing that his single-minded, narcissistic, sociopathic ranting is precisely that of an evil madman. A Preface to Paradise Lost stands as the great rejoinder to Blake’s arguments; Lewis claims that Milton is no crypto-partisan of Lucifer, but rather one who warns us precisely about how dangerous the attractions of such a rebel can be.

Thoughts of paradise and the fall were clearly in his mind when two years later he published the second book of his science fiction “space trilogy,” Perelandra. Lewis’s hero is Elwin Ransom, who like his creator is a Cambridge don (Milton’s alma matter incidentally), a philologist who undertakes an aeronautic mission to tropical Venus, a prelapsarian land of innocent nudity and sinlessness—a planet without the fall. While there, Ransom fights and defeats a demonically possessed scientist who threatens to once again infect paradise with sin. As Milton’s Lucifer had to travel through “ever-threatening storms/Of Chaos blustering around” so as to get from Hell to Eden, Lewis’s Professor Weston must travel by space ship to Venus to tempt their queen in much the same manner that Eve had once been seduced. It’s a Paradise Lost for the age of telescopes, V1 rockets, and soon nuclear weapons.

Howl and Other Poems (1956) by Allen Ginsberg
What could the beat “angelheaded hipster” possibly have in common with one of God’s Englishmen? Milton with his Puritan Hebraism and that Jewish boy from Newark spoke in the same scriptural idiom. In both poets that prophetic voice thunders, whether in blank verse or free, condemning the demons who represent what enslaves the minds of humans. From Canaan to Carthage the descendants of the Phoenicians constructed massive, hollow, bronze statues of a bull-headed human; outrigged them with mechanical, spring loaded arms; tended a fire within their bellies; and then projected their children into the creatures’ gapping mouths so that they could be immolated within, as a sacrifice to the god which this sculpture represented: Moloch. In Milton’s day, theologians concurred with both the authors of The Talmud and the Church Fathers that these ancient pagan gods were not fictions, but rather represented actual demonic beings who had once tricked people into worshiping them. The first book of Paradise Lost presents a huge pantheon of the fallen, diabolical creatures, including such once-luminaries as Beelzebub and Belial. Moloch, whose smoky furnaces puffed out the cries of infants and the smell of burning flesh all across the southern Mediterranean, has an important role in Lucifer’s Pandemonium. He is the “horrid King besmear’d with blood/Of human sacrifice, and parent’s tears.” For Ginsberg, the anti-deity is associated with “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! Children screaming under the stairways!” For in the entire second section of the Beat masterpiece Howl, Ginsberg condemns “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war! Moloch the stunned governments!” From Canaan to England to America, Moloch was a signifier for the consumptive, cannibalistic, vampiric, rapacious appetites of those systems that devour and dispose of human beings. Milton associated it with the absolutist dictates of illegitimate kings; Ginsberg saw Moloch as an embodiment of the military-industrial complex, but what both poet-prophets decried was exploitation and injustice.

The New York Trilogy (1985-6) by Paul Auster
Self-referential, digressive, and metafictional—in many ways, “post-modernism” is a term that is less about periodization and more about aesthetics. Thus Paradise Lost, with its breaking of the fourth wall and its massive body of references, is arguably a post-modern poem, which is perhaps what drew the experimental novelist Paul Auster to it. As a student he was “completely immersed in the reflections on language that come out of Milton,” which directly led to the writing of his most famous novel. City of Glass, the first volume in Auster’s The New York Trilogy, examines the intersecting reality and fictionality of identity, with the author himself a character (as indeed Milton as narrator is a character within his own poem). A rewriting of the generic conventions of noir, City of Glass follows Auster-the-detective reporting to Auster-the-writer about his investigations of a writer named Quinn, who is trailing a man named Stillman trying to murder his father. Stillman was abused by his father, a linguist who hoped that by raising his son without language he might in turn naturally become fluent in the tongue once spoken in Eden. Milton was interested in the relationship between language and reality. When it came to the inhabitants of Eden, Adam named them “as they passed, and understood/Their nature, with such knowledge God endued.” Renaissance scholars were obsessed with what the primordial tongue may have been, arguing that it was everything from the predictable Hebrew to the long-shot Swedish, and they sometimes purposefully deprived a child of language in the hopes that they would reveal what was spoken before the fall. What is revealed instead is the ever shifting nature of all language, for even if Eden’s tongue remains unspoken, the significance of speech and writing is reaffirmed. In “the good mystery there is nothing wasted, no sentence, no word that is not significant. And even if it is not significant, it has the potential to be so – which amounts to the same thing.” Mystery was of course a theological term before it was the provenance of detectives, and as partisans of the inexplicable Milton and Auster both bend language to imperfectly describe ineffable things.

Milton in America (1986) by Peter Ackroyd
Some have argued that Paradise Lost is a potent anti-imperial epic about European colonialism, for what is the literal story save for that of natives under attack by a powerful adversary who threatens their world? Perhaps following this observation, Peter Ackroyd audaciously imagines an alternate literary history, in which a Milton escaping Restoration chooses not to write his famous epic, but rather establishes a colony based on godly principles somewhere in Virginia. Ackroyd’s novel explores this American aspect of Milton’s thinking, remembering that Milton’s nephew John Philips was the translator of the Spanish Dominican Bartolomé de las Casas’s classic account of Spanish atrocities in Mexico, The Tears of the Indians. For Milton, before the Luciferian arrival of Europeans to America’s shores, these continents were of “that first naked glory! Such of late/Columbus found the American, so girt/With feathered cincture; naked else, and while/Among the trees on isles and woody shores.” While Milton was writing, his fellow countrymen and coreligionists were beginning their own belated colonial expeditions on New England’s rocky shoals; Paradise Lost published almost a half-century after the Mayflower set sail. The Pilgrims and Puritans who defined that “city on a hill” held Milton in high esteem, and throughout her history, Americans have hewed to a strongly Miltonic ethos. As Ackroyd’s imagined version of the bard tells his apprentice aboard their evocatively and appropriately named ship the Gabriel, “We are going far to the west…We are travelling to a land of refuge and a mansion house of liberty.” Not one to simply genuflect before literary idols, Ackroyd presents a zealous, authoritarian, tyrannical Milton, who wandering blind among the woods of America and hearing visions from his God decides to wage war on both a group of peaceful Catholic colonists who’ve settled nearby, as well as the Native Americans. Ackroyd presents an audacious reimagining of the very themes of Paradise Lost, the original tragedy of America’s genocidal beginnings told with Milton himself as a surrogate of Lucifer.


The Satanic Verses (1988) by Salman Rushdie
Somewhere above the English Channel an Indian jetliner explodes from a terrorist’s bomb, and from the flaming wreckage, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha “plummeted like bundles.” The Bollywood actors are both miraculously condemned to an “endless but also ending angelicdevilish fall,” which signaled the “process of their transmutation.” What follows in Salman Rushdie’s fabulist novel of magical realism are a series of dream visions, where along the way Farishta, true to his given name, begins to resemble the archangel Gabriel and Chamcha finds himself transformed into a devil. The fall of these angels conjures the losing war against God before creation, when “headlong themselves they threw/Down from the verge of Heav’n,” and as Chamcha becomes a devil, the formerly beautiful Lucifer transformed into Satan. Milton’s theology could be strident, as indeed so is that of the post-colonial, secular Islamic atheist Rushdie. The latter famously found himself on the receiving end of a fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini concerning perceived blasphemy regarding depictions of the prophet Muhammad, precipitating a decade of self-imposed hiding. An anxiety that Milton knew well, as he could have easily ended up on the executioner’s scaffold.

Any author with their own visionary theology risks being a heretic to somebody, illustrating the charged danger of religion. Scripture, after all, is simply the literature that people are willing to kill each other over. Many partisans for the parliamentary cause certainly found themselves victims of political retribution upon the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. The anti-republicans had long memories; in his 1646 tract Eikonoklastes Milton described royalists as an “inconstant, irrational, and Image-doting rabble,” a veritable “credulous and hapless herd.” Restoration would not bode well for the poet who had once mocked the circumstances of the death of the new king’s father. Charles II returned to his throne from exile in France, and Milton’s name was included on a list of those to be arrested. Ultimately he was spared the hangman’s noose because of the intercession of the fellow poet and political chameleon Andrew Marvell, who unlike his friend was an adept at altering his positions with the changing eddies of power. Milton’s threat of persecution was largely political, while Rushdie’s was explicitly religious, but that’s just to quibble. Religion and politics are two categories which are inseparable, both in Milton’s era and our own. Both men illustrate how writers can be the weather vanes of society, sensitive towards the changing fortunes of potential tyranny, and often victim to it as well. Rushdie once said in an interview, “Two things form the bedrock of any open society—freedom of expression and rule of law,” a hard-won bit of wisdom and a sentiment that is a worthy descendent of Milton’s argument for free-speech in his 1644 pamphlet Areopagitica, where he wrote that “he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”

His Dark Materials (1995-2000) by Philip Pullman
His Dark Materials is sometimes characterized as atheistic fantasy. Pullman has claimed that the books were written in direct response to the Christian fantasy of Lewis, who he disdains as bigoted and misogynist. Pullman aptly explains that he just doesn’t “like the conclusions Lewis comes to,” and he is similarly dismissive of that other titan of fantasy writing, J.R.R. Tolkien. But rather than reject fantasy completely he asks why the genre shouldn’t be as “truthful and profound about becoming an adult human being?” He continues by claiming, “There are a few fantasies that are. One of them is Paradise Lost.” And so Pullman ironically repurposes Milton to write a specifically anti-Christian apologetics. His Dark Materials takes place in a counter-factual history where the contemporary day seems vaguely Victorian steam-punkish, the Magisterium of the Catholic Church exerts absolute control over knowledge (even if in this world John Calvin became a pope and moved the papacy to Geneva), and a type of magic exists. Pullman depicts movements between parallel realities of the “multiverse,” the existence of “daemons” (a type of animal familiar used by the characters), and the actual death of God—not to speak of the talking polar bears. Who the villains are in the trilogy is not ambiguous. One character explains, “What is happening, and who it is that we must fight. It is the Magisterium, the Church. For all of its history… it’s tried to suppress and control every natural impulse.”

But perhaps “Gnostic” might be a more accurate description of the theology of His Dark Materials than simply either anti-Christian or atheist. Pullman’s religious imagination is profound, if heterodox, but it certainly has the concern with ultimate things that are the hallmark of all great, visionary religious writing. Rather, Pullman has followed that injunction of Blake’s that claims that one “must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Arguably that was exactly what Milton had done as well, taking the narrative of scripture and fashioning his own new story. And so, in that fashion, all great authors must work from the raw, dark materials of the traditions that have come before us, using that substance as the ever malleable base for our own systems. The story is not just long—it never ends.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Racism, Natural History, and Fiction

1.
The natural history museum is a buffet of symbolism that writers of fiction find it difficult to resist: shelves upon shelves of animals, rocks, and plants are primed for metaphor, while the gruesome behind-the-scenes drama of pickling, skinning, and other acts of specimen preparation provide copious fodder for allegory. It should come as no surprise then that writers are mining the displays for material, and that the public is enthusiastic about the results. Anthony Doerr’s mega-hit novel All The Light We Cannot See, published in 2014, owed much of its charm to the young Marie-Laure, who follows her locksmith father to work everyday at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. There she wanders the halls learning about mollusks, geodes, and fossils before losing her eyesight to cataracts shortly before the start of World War II. Suddenly the boon of bringing a blind child to a natural history museum everyday becomes clear: with her father “continually placing some unexpected thing into her hands: a lightbulb, a fossilized fish, a flamingo feather,” Marie-Laure’s other senses grow stronger until she is capable of navigating through the museum, and then her Parisian neighborhood, completely blind.

All The Light is one of two books published recently in which the natural history museum plays a crucial role in the characters’ developing identity. The other, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, allots only 20 pages to the natural history museum, but it nonetheless plays a pivotal and altogether different role; Whitehead’s natural history museum is embedded with political messages about the dark past of natural history itself. Both books made The New York Times bestseller list, meaning both reached a large audience with their very different messages about the role of natural history in fiction: one inviting the natural history museum into the discourse of the novel, skeletons and all, and the other allowing natural history to remain as so much window dressing, despite copious evidence of its role in perpetuating the violence at the heart of the novel.

2.
The oldest, most venerable institutions devoted to studying natural history have long histories of exploiting human subjects in the name of knowledge; the same museum in Paris where Marie-Laure learns about mollusks was the site of Georges Cuvier’s hypersexualized examination and dissection of Saartjie Baartman (also known as the “Hottentot Venus”) roughly a century prior. In the United States, natural history museums have been instrumental in constructing the narrative of an upstart country with copious natural resources poorly defended and cared for by indigenous tribes—resources that were only properly named, catalogued, and displayed upon the arrival of Europeans. One highly publicized story from the turn of the century—natural history’s boom years— involved Minik, an Inuit boy, who was nine years old when he and his father, Kishu, were delivered to the American Museum of Natural History by arctic explorer Robert S. Peary in 1901. Minik’s father soon died of tuberculosis after living sequestered in the museum’s attic, and curators lost no time in dissecting and preparing Kishu like a specimen, going so far as staging a fake funeral to dupe Minik into thinking they had buried his father with traditional Inuit rites on museum grounds. In reality, the museum kept his bones and, the story goes, young Minik stumbled upon his father’s skeleton mounted in a display case.

Baartman and Minik are just two of the more notorious instances of natural history museums exploiting indigenous people and people of color in the name of science, to say nothing of the hundreds upon thousands of nameless bones that have traveled the world in the satchels of grave robbers cum physical anthropologists. Such histories are latent within every literary natural history museum, whether or not the author consciously engages with them.

In The Underground Railroad, Whitehead confronts the racism of the 19th-century natural history museum head on, and uses it to make a point about the African-American subject in the popular American imagination. Cora, who’s living in a South Carolina boarding house for black women after escaping enslavement on a Georgia plantation, is recommended for employment in the Museum of Natural Wonders by her house proctor (an institution apparently imagined by Whitehead as an amalgam of various 19th-century natural history museums) because she has “adapted” better than her housemates. But Cora isn’t wanted at the museum for her manual labor, as she assumes, but as a “type” to be employed by Mr. Fields, the curator of “Living History.” As a living exhibit, Cora pantomimes an imagined version of her history for a white public in three dioramas: “Scenes from Darkest Africa,” “Life on the Slave Ship,” and “Typical Day on the Plantation.” For hours at a time she plays her part, sometimes across from white mannequins (the white people on display are always dummies, never real people) while museum-goers file past. Having lived the horrors of a plantation while in bondage, Cora questions Mr. Fields on the inaccuracies of his exhibit:
Mr. Fields did concede that spinning wheels were not often used outdoors, at the foot of a slave’s cabin, but countered that while authenticity was their watchword, the dimensions of the room forced certain concessions. Would that he could fit an entire field of cotton in the display and had the budget for a dozen actors to work it. One day perhaps.
Mr. Fields’s use of the word “actors” is an interesting shift away from “types,” one that indicates an attempt to rephrase Cora’s job description as one of pure theater. But Mr. Fields cannot shed the discourse of the natural history museum so easily, as day after day Cora endures the “white monsters on the other side of the exhibit […] pushing their greasy snouts against the window, sneering and hooting.” The white public, for whom the exhibit is intended, observes Cora as a specimen, which, despite her signs of life, shares more in common with the taxidermied animals and mannequins from “plaster, wire, and paint” than a living person with emotions. Mr. Fields’s employment of black women as living exhibits, coupled with the lack of white types, indicates clearly to Cora, the white public, and the reader that black specimens are to be observed without the veneer of human dignity or respectability, even outside the museum’s walls. Indeed, the logic went, because curators saw African-Americans as more “natural,” and therefore closer to mankind’s shared animal relatives, they were more deserving of display within a natural history museum.

Whitehead’s Museum of Natural Wonders may have been imagined, but Mr. Fields’s practice of displaying people was not. Human zoos were popular sites at World’s Fairs throughout the later half of the 19th century and well into the 1900s, often meant to demonstrate to the public the supposedly uncivilized nature of indigenous and non-white people. Humanity’s position within the pantheon of natural history museum displays has long been fractured along racial lines. Museums are largely products of colonialism and European cultures that sought to dominate “exotic” cultures by harvesting archeological treasures and human remains for the edification and amusement of the general white public. Throughout the late 1800s and early 20th century, eugenics masqueraded under physical anthropology as figures like Aleš Hrdlička erected exhibits of human remains to demonstrate the separation of the races at the American Museum of Natural History and the San Diego Museum of Man.

Whitehead makes the connection explicit; while working at the Museum of Natural Wonders, Cora learns that white doctors are making sterilization mandatory for black women with intellectual disabilities or more than two children. This kind of bodily control is enabled by the politics of display inside the natural history museum, a logic that allowed white doctors and curators to dehumanize the black subject to the point of denying them autonomy over their own reproduction.

Consider the moment when Mr. Fields “gives his types a proper tour of the museum.” As she’s shown around the different exhibits, Cora occupies the position of the white public looking at dioramas depicting scenes from American history: Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock, the Boston Tea Party, and the supposedly peaceful seizure of indigenous lands. Cora comes to her own conclusions about the history these exhibits portray: “Stolen bodies working stolen land. It was an engine that did not stop, its hungry boiler fed with blood.” It’s a moment of the black subject functioning as both critical museumgoer and “type” specimen; the living exhibit returning the gaze and critiquing. Cora’s position does not allow her to be behave as a passive observer like the white visitors; having been categorized by Mr. Fields as a member of the collection herself, she has a far more personal stake in the interpretation of said collection. Her taxonomy becomes one of “how are these things positioned in relation to me, and what does it say about my selfhood?” Yet despite all this, Cora’s is never allowed behind a microscope or to give any input on her own display.

3.
For Doerr’s Marie-Laure, it would seem the natural history museum’s politics of display are irrelevant; in fact by the end of Doerr’s novel she has gained considerable agency over the natural history museum’s holdings she once wandered about blindly. Marie-Laure returns to Paris after the war to work in the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, where she establishes her own laboratory to study mollusks. Doerr informs us that she has published monographs on “the evolutionary rationale for the folds in the West African cancellate nutmeg shells” and an “oft-cited paper on the sexual dimorphism of Caribbean volutes.” Marie-Laure is given authority over an entire subset of African mollusks by virtue of the many hours she has been able to devote to the study of the creatures over her career—a career only made possible by many long hours spent in laboratories and traveling to collect specimens, both activities that Cora, as a “type” whose value only registers within the confines of the museum exhibit, is unable to participate in.

Much separates the experiences of Marie-Laure and Cora within their respective museums, not least of which is a roughly 80-year period during which many of the more grisly activities of natural history museums were curtailed and swept under the rug (although grave robbing remained in good health). Anthropologists have for awhile made their names in softer ways: Franz Boas, who often paid Hrdlička for the skulls he brought back from the southwest and Latin America, gradually moved away from seeking out racial logic in physical anthropology, becoming more interested in the customs and traditions of different cultures. Today, many anthropologists look to philosophy and the social sciences for their conclusions, like Donna Haraway, whose The Cyborg Handbook points out the many ways in which humans and technology are both “natural.” But this is not a comparison of ‘”had it worse,” Cora or Marie-Laure. Rather, I want to examine the choices these writers made in depicting the natural history museum, and how this impacts the message behind both novels.

Take, for example, the treatment of Charles Darwin in All The Light. When the Nazis swoop in and occupy the French town of Saint-Malo, Marie-Laure and her great uncle endure de facto home imprisonment inside his chateau. To pass the time they recite passages from Voyage of the Beagle—“the variety of species among the jumping spiders appears almost infinite”—and act out exchanges with Darwin himself, whom Maire-Laure loves to imagine “at night, leaning over the ship’s rail to stare into bioluminescent waves, watching the tracks of penguins marked by fiery green wakes.” It’s a whimsical picture of a naturalist at work, understandably appealing to a child under stress, but one that curiously overlooks the connections between Adolf Hitler’s drive toward racial purity and the mission of many early naturalists and natural history museums. It’s no secret, for example, that the Nazis found inspiration in American eugenics of the sort that permitted Cora’s encounter with forced sterilization; even the eye color charts used by the Nazis can be traced to charts displaying the separation of the races in the American Museum of Natural History’s Darwin Hall in a 1926 exhibit curated by Hrdlička for the International Congress of Eugenics.

If Doerr intends to draw this connection between natural history, eugenics, and Nazism, it’s ultimately smothered by the overwhelming sentimentality of the novel’s dependence on the natural history museum’s role in preserving Marie-Laure’s sense of wonder at the world. Doerr’s description of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, in which “fossilized dinosaur femurs” sit across the hall from “two-hundred-year-old herbarium sheets bedecked with orchids and daisies and herbs” and “a meteorite on a pedestal […] as ancient as the solar system itself,” sounds strangely similar to Mr. Fields “holding forth on the cross-sections of pumpkins and the life rings of venerable white oaks, the cracked-open geodes with their purple crystals like glass teeth, the tiny beetles and ants the scientists had preserved with a special compound.” Both descriptions collapse time and space and generally confirm the view of the natural history museum as infinite, a place where all corners of the universe, from the depths of the ocean to deep underground, can be intimately known. The natural history museum reduced to a grocery list of specimens to be plucked off the shelf abdicates all responsibility for horrors committed in its name; if just anyone can come along and make their own selection from the vast collections, then it’s no fault of the museum and the curators and anthropologists who built the institutions if those selections are used to fatal ends. But natural history is not just a grab bag; it’s not neutral, and it’s important that in fiction it not be allowed to become a playground where white people, characters, and authors can retreat into an allegorical fantasy land, as it has functioned in real life for hundreds of years with extreme consequences.

4.
Museums of all kinds play their specific role in constructing the broader understanding of the human subject by housing, displaying, and labeling the residue of humanity in a delicate hierarchy. You’ll never find a Jackson Pollock exhibited alongside a woolly mammoth skeleton, just like you rarely find indigenous beadwork or sculpture in the main halls of the Louvre or MOMA, even though they are equally products of humanity’s ingenuity. We assume that anthropologists and curators are more sensitive now regarding framing and positioning, but as I write this, there are articles being published in The New York Times in which scientists are quoted saying that a recent hominid fossil discovery has the face of “somebody you could come across in the Metro.”

Interestingly, Whitehead writes that “the stuffed coyotes on their stands did not lie, Cora supposed. And the anthills and the rocks told the truth of themselves. But the white exhibits contained as many inaccuracies and contradictions as Cora’s three habitats.” Cora backs away from a sweeping statement about the the discipline of natural history in general, even though it’s highly suspect that even a taxidermied coyote, after being killed, skinned, preserved, stuffed, and displayed, has not acquiesced to the great white lie of American domination of nature.

It’s Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who in the early pages of the novel sounds a more complex note:
She knew that the white man’s scientists peered beneath things to understand how they worked. The movement of the stars across the night, the cooperation of humors in the blood. The temperature requirements for a healthy cotton harvest. Ajarry made a science of her own black body and accumulated observations. Each thing had a value and as the value changed, everything else changed also. A broken calabash was worth less than one that held its water, a hook that kept its catfish more prized than one that relinquished its bait. In America the quirk was that people were things.
Ajarry comes to her own conclusion, both philosophical and material, that people and nature occupy a muddy space together, but for different reasons than Hrdlička or Darwin. Ajarry’s perspective is born of watching the white man’s scientists carry out their experiments on her very body, the same as they would on cotton and cows. It’s an embodied knowledge born from the experience of being treated as chattel and object, and it’s a perspective that natural history museums, and the books about them, would be wise to explore further.

Country of Quakes

1.
Around noon on February 20, 1835, Charles Darwin was lying down in a forest outside of the southern Chilean town of Valdivia when a massive earthquake jolted him upright. Appropriately for someone who had spent the past three years voyaging on the H.M.S. Beagle, Darwin related the vertiginous experience to seasickness, as if the earth were undulating over ocean waves.

When the ground stabilized, Darwin returned to Valdivia, where panicked villagers were inspecting their damaged homes and bracing for the inevitable aftershocks. In his journal, which would later be included in the travelogue, The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin wrote: “A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid.”

Over the following week, Darwin journeyed through several coastal towns where tsunamis had crashed through neighborhoods clustered along the shore, scattering boats about the streets. According to villagers, cows that had been grazing near the beaches had simply rolled into the ocean. Shortly thereafter, Darwin arrived in the devastated city of Concepción, where entire rows of houses had been reduced to rubble, and looters roamed the streets after dark. For Darwin, it was evidence of how much earthquakes affect not only the economics of a country but also its citizens’ worldviews. As Darwin mused: “If beneath England the now inert subterranean forces should exert their powers…how completely would the entire condition of the country be changed!”

Darwin’s journals fit into an eclectic group of writings that take as their subject matter an occurrence that has been constant through Chile’s long history: the earthquake. It is, in many ways, an alluring topic—a cataclysmic incident that can kickstart a plot or ratchet up a story’s emotional levels; but it also can function as an almost irresistible metaphor of instability, rupture, or suppressed memories or emotions that rumble unexpectedly to the surface.

2.
I learned the Spanish word for earthquake before the word for thunderstorm. But that’s not uncommon for someone who learns the language in a country where thunder rumbles infrequently but the earth shakes every few months.

In 2004, I lived in a three-room bungalow behind a stately, turn-of-the-century house in a middle-class neighborhood of Santiago. By the end of the first month, the family that owned the estate already had fallen into the nightly habit of buzzing the speakerphone that connected our two living spaces to invite me to dine with them. During the weekends, we would sit down to a midday, three-course meal with members of their extended family, after which the father, a reticent government employee who had grown up in the Atacama Desert, would pluck cedrón leaves off a backyard tree for us to mash into boiled water for tea. Pretty soon, I started to think of them as my Chilean family.

Several times throughout the year, while sitting down for either lunch or dinner, a family member would ask me if I had felt the tremor the night before. Invariably, I slept through these bits of seismic activity, which were too weak to even register in the morning news. Still, the idea of Chile being a country whose ground shook remained ever-present in my thoughts, and became a frequent topic of mealtime chitchat.

Over a dessert of flan and quinces that summer, I remember talking with one of the grandparents about the earthquake that rocked the country in 1960, registering a 9.5 on the Richter scale, the most powerful on record. She spoke of it as though it had happened only the week before, the awe still palpable in her voice. Many years later, while living in Chile again, I took a trip to Argentina and struck up a conversation with a tour guide there. When I asked her what she thought of Chile, she said, in a manner that is typical of the sibling rivalry between the countries, “Well, we’re just waiting for Chile to fall off into the ocean.” Even though the line was spoken in jest, there was still something slightly uncomfortable about it, as if behind its hyperbole was a sliver of plausibility.

When the next big one struck Chile during the early morning hours of February 27th, 2010, I thought immediately of my good friend Felipe, who works on a vineyard near the southern Chilean town of Talca, which was close to the quake’s epicenter. Luckily, Felipe had spent that weekend in Santiago with his fiancée. Upon feeling the rumbling, they leaped out of bed and rushed to the front door, the tremors knocking them repeatedly against the walls of the narrow hallway. Furniture toppled over and glass smashed onto the floor. But they came out unscathed.

While communicating with them over the next several days, I was reminded of the opening lines of Pablo Neruda’s poem, “Earthquake,” which was included in the author’s magnum opus, Canto General:

I awakened when dreamland gave way beneath
     my bed.
A blind column of ash tottered in the middle
of the night,
          and I ask you: am I dead?

The power of these lines derives largely from their lack of context; they’re almost purely experiential. One moment the anonymous speaker is asleep, and the next an earthquake upends his life, plunging him into a terrestrial inferno. Upon recovering his senses, the speaker asks: “Why does the earth boil, gorging on death?” This question frames the earth—and, by extension, the natural world—not as indifferent but as ravenous, gluttonously feeding on the destruction it’s caused. But perhaps the most haunting image comes in the closing lines, when the sun rises:

And today you dawn, O blue day, dressed
for a dance, with your gold tail
above the listless sea of debris, fiery
seeking the lost faces of the unburied.

Following a night of death, the dawn incongruously arrives in full splendor, its clear blue skies seeming to mock the ruins below. There’s an eerie, impersonal silence at the end of the poem. The speaker has retreated, and all we’re left with is the illuminated aftermath—heaps of rubble and unclaimed bodies.

Overall, Neruda’s poem treats the earthquake as lived experience—a natural incident that indiscriminately and terrifyingly transforms the physical and human landscapes.

3.
Of course, there are numerous lenses that literary works have applied to Chilean earthquakes over the centuries. For the protagonists in Heinrich von Kleist’s short story, “The Earthquake in Chile,” the earthquake, oddly enough, offers salvation and redemption.

Even though the German writer never visited Chile during his brief and tempestuous life (1777-1811), von Kleist nevertheless became inspired by an account that he read of the 1647 earthquake that devastated the Chilean capital of Santiago. He opens his short story in a prison cell where a young Spanish immigrant named Jerónimo Rugera is preparing a noose from which to hang himself. Earlier that year, he had fallen in love with Doña Josefa, a wealthy Chilean noblewoman whose father had forced her to join a convent. Undeterred, Jerónimo snuck into the convent and consummated his relationship with Josefa. When she gave birth to a baby boy nine months later, the Archbishop of Santiago sentenced her to death by beheading for their transgression. Jerónimo, who also had been imprisoned, vowed to take his life at the same time his lover’s was taken from her.

Immediately before Jerónimo slips the noose over his neck, violent tremors send him toppling backward. The prison walls collapse, allowing him to crawl through the debris to safety. He sprints out of the chaotic city and climbs a nearby hill, falling on his knees once he reaches the summit and weeping “with rapture to find that the blessing of life, in all its wealth and variety, was still his to enjoy.” Later that day he spots Josefa giving a bath to their infant son in the overflowing Mapocho River. After a tearful reunion, she tells him that the ground shook before she had reached the guillotine, burying the Archbishop in a pile of rubble. With nothing but destruction in sight, they abscond into the woods and reflect on “how much misery had to afflict the world in order to bring about their happiness.”

In their exhilarated solipsism, the lovers interpret the earthquake as both a rebuke to the institutionalized religious order and a divine miracle, as though the earth had intervened to spare their lives. In other words, they succumb to the all too human tendency to regard the earthquake as a personal event—a slightly mystical omen or verdict about one’s own individual fate. For Josefa and Jerónimo, the earthquake not only redeems their actions but also destroys those that had used their authority to keep them apart. It also serves as a societal leveler, for the world that the couple awakens to the next day is one where the rigid Chilean class system has been temporarily suspended, where noblepersons rush to the aid of beggars, “as if the general disaster had united all its survivors into a single family.”

As expected, this illusion does not last long. Overconfident in their interpretation of God’s will, Josefa and Jerónimo decide to return to Santiago to beg forgiveness at the church that had originally sentenced them. Once they enter the congregation, however, they discover that the priest has an alternate interpretation—namely, that the earthquake was divine retribution for the moral depravity of Santiago. When Jerónimo and Josefa are recognized, members of the church revolt and strike them both dead. Thus, the story is a sort of cautionary tale about the pitfalls of interpreting an earthquake as anything more than the seismic activity of an indifferent earth, and of assuming that a lone cataclysmic event can permanently alter culturally constructed power structures. In other words, an earthquake may affect the fate of humans, even positively so in rare instances, but human nature is another matter altogether.

4.
Unlike von Kleist’s story, there’s nothing redemptive about the earthquake in “Pandora,” an untranslated short story by the celebrated Chilean writer Ana Maria del Rio. In a manner reminiscent of Neruda’s poem, “Pandora” immediately plunges the reader into the experience of the earthquake: “The tremor didn’t come little by little. In reality, nothing in this life does. Everything happens just as it does in an earthquake: all at once. We are those who live one day at a time.”

The narrator, a teenage girl staying with her wealthy family at their country estate outside of Santiago, is still awake when the earthquake strikes, after which her father orders the family to spend the night in an oversize playhouse. The next morning, while surveying the damages, the mother, whom the narrator describes as a depressive woman whose youthful beauty had faded, falls to her knees and begins to dig into the earth with her bare hands. Unsure of how to respond, her children bend down and dig as well. Sobbing, the mother turns to her husband and exclaims, “Strange things emerge when you dig deep, Carlos.” The father quickly whisks her away from the children, who continue the excavation.

As the narrator turns up clumps of dirt with her hands, repressed memories emerge in her mind: her first menstruation that occurred when her cousin was performing oral sex on her, her mother’s unexplained decision to attend confession twice a week at the National Cathedral in Santiago. Soon, she enters a trance-like state: “By this time I was digging in a disorganized frenzy without quite knowing the objective of my search. I only knew that things kept appearing that were buried in the layers beneath words.”

Finally, the narrator’s fingers hit on something solid. After burrowing around it, she unearths a small white box with flowers decorating the sides. Inside is the decayed body of an infant. The narrator’s sister comes over to inspect, and states flatly that it was the child that their mother had presumably aborted after she found out that her husband was having an affair.

In this case, the metaphor of the earthquake becomes literal: what was once hidden beneath layers of earth rumbles back to the surface. But it’s more than just a geological excavation; the characters are also digging into the strata of their unconscious, sifting through the memories that they’ve repressed in order to keep their family together. It’s no surprise that, at the end of the story, after the narrator reburies the casket, she reflects on a feeling that she experienced during the initial seconds of the earthquake: that the world was coming to an end. And while the physical world didn’t dissolve, in many ways the imaginary world that the characters had constructed for themselves did.

5.

Despite the considerable seismic activity in Chile throughout the past centuries, it can be argued that the earthquake is under-explored in the country’s literature. At least, that’s the argument made by Alberto Fuguet, the enfant terrible of the Chilean literary scene, whose provocative novels mix urban realism, U.S. pop culture, and youthful malaise. In an interview with the Chilean newspaper La Tercera, Fuguet opined that “in Chile, neither our literature nor our people take earthquakes seriously.” Fuguet, who spent part of his childhood in Los Angeles, remarked that he was always aware of living in one of the most fault-ridden cities in the United States. But once he returned to Santiago, he was surprised that “nobody talked about the fact that the country was extremely seismic. Seismology as a science and as a concern ranked very low.”

Fuguet’s most recent novel, The Movies of My Life, directly addresses this perceived incongruity. The narrator, Beltrán Soler, is a middle-aged seismologist who relates nearly everything in his life to earthquakes. Before he catches a flight, he estimates how much damage a violent quake would inflict on the tarmac; when he looks at high-rise buildings in Santiago, he ponders their sustainability. As he tells it: “This is one of the drawbacks to being a seismologist: I always look deeper, I search for the cracks, I scan for flaws and resistances.” His profession has transformed him into a blunt realist. After a strong earthquake in 1997, Beltrán, as a representative of the country’s Seismological Institute, tells the President of Chile:

“The question, Señor Presidente, is not if it will happen again, but when. This is the question that no one in this country can or wants to ask. Every Chilean is going to die, yes, for this is the fate of every human being, but we bear an additional cross: we all will endure an earthquake that may either kill us or destroy everything we’ve fought to have.”

The novel opens with Beltrán preparing to fly to Tokyo, where he will spend a semester as a visiting professor at Tsakuba University. Unmarried, disconnected from his family, and depressed about the recent death of his grandfather, who also was a seismologist, Beltrán strikes up a conversation with the woman sitting next to him on the flight about movies that have sentimental value in their lives. When the plane lands in Los Angeles, Beltrán impulsively decides to skip his connecting flight, rent out a hotel room, and write his autobiography based on the movies that he watched during his childhood.

This rather forced contrivance threads throughout the novel, but it is the metaphor of the earthquake that ties it all together. For Beltrán, the earthquake is neither salvation nor rupture; it is an inevitable reality, an intrinsic attribute of the country. Or, as his grandfather tells Beltrán: “Everything moves in [Chile], from the ground to the hilltops to the people. They all change, they all hide things. Such instability can be really disturbing.”

In this sense, the country’s peoples, politics, and cultures become inextricably intertwined with the metaphor of the earthquake, so much so that, at least according to Beltrán, inhabitants measure their lives according to past bits of seismic activity: “Everyone remembers at least one earthquake, everyone has a particular angle or distinct detail that gives them the right to tell us a story that we know like the back of our hand, a story whose ending we already know full well.”

Overall, then, earthquakes form a part of the national identity, which holds especially true for the most recent quake. These are events that are collectively shared, even if the circumstances in which individuals experience them vary drastically. They unite generations and fuse the present with the past. Or, as Beltrán so poignantly puts it: “Earthquakes and aftershocks: the things that turn us into brothers, the glue that binds our broken country together.”

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