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Don Roberto – Scottish Review of Books
by Brian McCabe

Don Roberto

March 3, 2012 | by Brian McCabe

In his preface to the series, Alan McGillvray rightly maintains that Cunninghame Graham’s work as a writer has often been obscured by his larger-than-life reputation as a man:

‘the apparent flamboyant persona of “Don Roberto”, the Spanish hidalgo, the Argentine gaucho, the Scottish laird, the horseman-adventurer’. Editors have tended to select from his work to reinforce this exotic image rather than to focus on the full range of his literary output. It is understandable, given his extraordinarily colourful life – and one could add “firebrand politician” to the above list of epithets. Perhaps the exotic nature of much of his material has made him difficult to fit neatly into a Scottish literary context, but Graham deserves to be considered and valued more seriously as a writer. A series of new editions of his writings brings together Graham’s separate collections of stories and sketches intact as he intended them to be read and present them in chronological order, retaining Graham’s own footnotes.

Photographed on the Brain (Vol. 1) contains three of Graham’s earliest published books, the first being ‘Notes on the District of Menteith’, where Graham’s family estate Gartmore was situated. It is subtitled ‘For Tourists and Others’ but it is hardly a travel guide, more a personal account of the area’s history and the changes it was going through at the time of writing. It sows the seed of a recurring thematic concern – transience and the vanishing of old ways of life. Occasionally we also glimpse the fiction writer beginning to emerge from these sketches and reflections, as in the splendidly realized portrait of a local poacher ‘Trootie’, to whom Graham dedicated the book:

‘A little shilpet, feckless-looking body, dressed in a sort of moss-trout coloured and much patched coat of various shades of troutiness and stages of decay; summer and winter a grey woollen comforter resembling a stocking, such as farmers used to wear in the dark ages, round his throat; his “cadie”, for I cannot call it a hat, a cross between a beehive and a pudding bag, and girt about with casts of fuzzy home-made flies; over his shoulder a dilapidated fishing basket, always well stuffed with trout …’

The smattering of Scots here would also be developed into something more purposive and sustained in certain later narratives, either set in Scotland or featuring Scottish characters abroad. Though Graham’s habitual language was a highly erudite English, enlivened with Spanish vocabulary, his later uses of Scots display a relish of its rhythms, idiosyncrasies and expressive qualities.

Most of the earliest work are sketches rather than stories, and it’s really in Living With Ghosts (Vol. 2) that Graham comes into his own as a fiction writer, though many of the narratives draw on his wide experience of other countries and cultures, as in the semi-autobiographical ‘Cruz Alta’, in which a group of men set out to drive a company of horses from Uruguay to Brazil in order to sell them to the Brazilian army, which closely mirrors Graham’s own experience as a horse trader in South America. The venture is unsuccessful, and the story becomes a meditation on the nature of failure, though something redeeming and enduring is salvaged from the experience – a theme explored in other stories here. ‘The Gold Fish’, set in Morocco, tells the story of a humble runner who is engaged by the Khalifa to deliver a fine glass bowl of goldfish imported from the East to the Sultan. It is a long journey over desert lands and it ends in failure – both the messenger and the goldfish perish of thirst. Miraculously, however, the fine glass bowl survives intact. The theme of failure takes centre stage in the second book in this volume, ‘Success’. The title is ironic: ‘For those who fail, for those who have sunk still battling beneath the muddy waves of life, we keep our love, and that curiosity about their lives which makes their memories green when the cheap gold is dusted over, which once we gave success.’

One of the most memorable stories collected here, ‘Los Seguidores’, is set in Graham’s beloved Argentina, and tells of two brothers, Cruz and Frailan, who are opposite in terms of temperament and moral attitudes. Both fall in love with their half-sister, become enemies and rivals, and the story moves towards its inevitably horrific conclusion. The inseparable, antithetical brothers are symbolic of a deep moral schism, and in this respect the story is reminiscent of Hogg and Stevenson.

Graham is just as intrigued by Scottish customs and culture as by those of Spain, Morocco, Mexico and Argentina, albeit with a more critical and sardonic eye. In the darkly comic tale ‘Beattock for Moffat’, a terminally ill man attempts to return from London to his home town of Moffat, only to expire at the last leg of the journey, in Beattock station. Yet he has experienced the patriotic comfort of having crossed the border into Scotland once more, and his brother salvages some further solace from the situation when he observes: ‘He’ll hae a braw hurl onyway in the new Moffat hearse.’

We move from ‘Success’ to ‘Progress and Other Sketches’, the third book in the volume. The full irony of ‘progress’ is brought out in the title story, in which almost the entire population of a Mexican village is slaughtered for refusing to pay their taxes: ‘Of the one hundred men of Tomochic fit to bear arms none had escaped, and of a thousand soldiers only four hundred now remained. About a hundred women and some children had been spared, and the great cause of progress and humanity had gained a step.’ Again and again in these stories, Graham points up the futility of such ‘progress’ and the hypocrisy of the supposedly civilized world’s moral stance when it comes to less advanced peoples.

So in Ice House of the Mind we find a story called ‘Dagos’. The ethnic slur of the title is used by a Scottish sea captain in response to another captain’s story of two shipwrecked Chilean sailors who had become, by the time they were rescued, mad with hunger and isolation to the point of becoming mortal enemies, and the broader implication is that racism is used to conveniently dismiss matters of the human heart which require a deeper understanding and compassion. Similarly ‘Niggers’ is a satirical meditation on persecuted peoples throughout history, which ends by focusing on the racist imperialism of the English and the belief that all non-English peoples are ‘niggers’ of one sort or another.

Indeed, though he does not make politics itself the meat of any of the stories, Graham’s liberal progressive beliefs often lead to a tolerant understanding of people who are discriminated against by the society they live in. As a Member of Parliament he was an outspoken supporter of women’s rights and his empathy with their position is clear in many stories such as ‘Un Monsieur’, narrated by a French prostitute who is regularly visited by a dull, rich businessman. One day his wife calls on her, shows her a photograph of her husband and asks if she knows him. Even when the lady offers her a thousand pounds ‘if you but choose to recollect’, the prostitute denies ever having met him, because ‘every métier has its etiquette and mine, just like a lawyer’s or a priest’s, is, or should be, discreet’. Similarly in ‘Buta’, an Arab widow with two children is forced to become a prostitute for English clerks. Graham is pointedly critical of men here, particularly his fellow countrymen, revealing their moral hypocrisy in the eloquent narration of the Arab Moslem who recounts Buta’s sorry tale: ‘You are, above all, a commercial nation, and the soul is cheap …’

Many of the stories are character-centred, and celebrate human resilience and dignity in the face of daunting circumstances. In ‘Mektub’, a poor blind man in Tangier who acts as a kind of stable hand at a hotel is promised the restoration of his sight by a German surgeon keen to try a new technique. The operation fails and when the surgeon buries his head in his hands and sobs aloud, ‘with a grave smile the patient got out of his bed, and having felt his way to where he heard the sobs, laid his rough, freckled hand upon the shoulder of his friend, and said as unconcernedly, as if he had not suffered in the least, “Weep not; it was not written”.’ The story illustrates that the blind man’s true faith does not so much lie in his belief that his sight might be restored, but in his dignified acceptance of his fate when it is not.

Both the English and the Scots abroad are often the targets for satire, and that satire might still be applicable today, as in ‘A Renegade’. A Scots renegade, Graham tells us, who converts to another faith in another land, even if he rises in his new society to become a Vizier or a King, ‘would remain a Scot of Scots no matter how he changed his faith, his dress, his habits, or increased the number of his wives’. The particular renegade he focuses on is from the north of England ‘and spoke Arab abominably, and with the burr of Newcastle-on-Tyne’ and ‘his haik and caftan hung upon him as rags hang on a scarecrow, and his red beard and freckled face showed him as European half-a-mile away.’ Sounds familiar.

The first three volumes of this series are a testament to Graham’s skill, originality and versatility as a writer, offering the reader a rich and wide-ranging experience of the diverse characters and cultures he brings to life. The complete series will be an invaluable resource for the future study and proper assessment of Graham’s work, but there is also a wealth of material here which will be stimulating and enjoyable for the general reader.

R B Cunninghame Graham
KENNEDY & BOYD, £16.95
PP330 978-1849211000

R B Cunninghame Graham
KENNEDY & BOYD, £16.95
PP426 978-1849211017

R B Cunninghame Graham
KENNEDY & BOYD, £16.95
PP456 978-1849211017

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