Thursday, 29 May 2008

Magellan's Journey

Just finished reading Magellan's Voyage. A Narrative Account of the First Voyage, last night in fact. This is a diary of the first circumnavigation of the globe, written by Italian Antonio Pigafetta who was a travel companion of Magellan (access ebook here). The expedition set out from Seville in Spain on August 10, 1519, travelled to South America, Brazil, the Rio de la Plata (January 1520), found a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific in November 1520, which was to become known as Strait of Magellan. The fleet carried on to cross the Pacific and reached the Marianas and the Philippines by March 1521. Magellan himself was killed in a battle in Cebu, in the Philippines, in April. The fleet carried on to Borneo by June and the Spice Islands by November of the same year where they bought spices, cloves and cinnamon. Although this was the initial aim of the voyage (with the intention of heading back east and round America in their return), the new captain decided to head west and by rounding the Cape of Good Hope head north and reach Spain that way. As one of the two ships, the Trinidad, was too damaged to make the journey back to Spain, the Victoria departed alone in December. It rounded the Cape of Good Hope in May 1522 with only rice for rations. Between the Cape and the Cape Verde islands 20 crew died of starvation and disease. On September 6, 1522 the Victoria arrived to Spain, three years after its departure.

Pigafetta's description is very graphic, with beautiful depictions of a world previously unknown to Europeans of this time. It includes exact descriptions of locations, names, produce and economies, along with very useful vocabularies of languages encountered in the journey. We have useful information on spices and the cultivation of cloves and cinnamon. At the same time, it slips into exaggeration, such as when describing native tribes of Patagonia as 'giants', and many other examples where European imagination, prejudice and ignorance prevailed. As an account it is very useful, especially when one comes to consider the conditions of early modern travel and exploration with the practical issues that accompanied it, such as provisions, communication with various linguistic groups and so on. A beautiful, savage and, at times, dreamy account.

Magellan's route (click for large version)

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Macondo sunsets

"Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice."

Gabriel Garcia Marquez-A Hundred Years of Solitude

One of the greatest literary achievements, this book is surely a must. I don't like to praise such things too much, as when other people do it I get put off (I didn't watch, listen to or read many good things because of this obstinacy). However, with this one I must insist. You see, this Book (with a capital B) is one of those that people should read. Set in the depths of time, in the Colombian forests, it tells the tale of seven generations of the Buendia family who founded the town of Macondo. It's a life full of events: wars, disasters, miracles, obscenities, love, hate, death. It's a full life. This one of only two books I have ever read twice (the other one to be reviewed here in the future). I usually adopt a 'why read something twice when there's so much you haven't read?' approach to life.

What makes this book special? Marquez's ability to weave a tale of fiction, full of both truths and fiction itself, a magical web of natural and supernatural, normal, abnormal and paranormal, make it compulsory reading. Such a book could only have been written by a South American author. It carries the result of centuries of interaction between Europeans and natives, Christians and 'heathens' etc etc. From Rebeca's earth-eating, to Jose Arcadio's enormous tattooed body and Colonel Aureliano's constant fight against the conservative government forces, the Book is full of promise, surprise and disappointment. I don't want to give more away. Find it and read it. Now. And tell me what you think. I am expecting your response (friends, Romans and all the rest of it).