Friday, April 14, 2017

I Just Can't

On the death of Fidel Castro last November, I read a story published in The Paris Review about George Plimpton that shed new light on an old subject - the atrocities attributed to Ernesto "Ché" Guevara in Cuba after the revolution in 1959. Written by James Scott Linville, who worked on Plimpton's staff of editors at the magazine in the 1990s, it reveals a sore spot in Plimpton, and about how being allowed a glimpse of the unadorned truth at the right moment in one's life can permanently affect one's views of certain subjects.

Linville described how he first came across Diarios de Motociclete (The Motorcycle Diaries), a piece of autobiography ostensibly written by Guevara describing his trans-continental journey by motorcycle from the home of his parents in Buenos Aires to Venezuela. Since the book concerned itself with a time in Guevara's life long before his political convictions inspired him to join Castro's band of revolutionaries in the mountains of Cuba, it allows one to assume a degree of neutrality about its content. Of course, its publication relied on the legendary image of Ché as an enemy of tyranny and a hero of the downtrodden. The book hadn't yet been published in translation when Linville saw its potential for interest in the pages of The Paris Review. But when he took the completed manuscript to George Plimpton, he was surprised at his refusal to even look at it.

'A sad look overtook his face, and he began to explain: “Years ago, after we’d done the interview, Papa invited me down again to visit him in Cuba.” (In the fifties, George had interviewed Hemingway for the magazine on the Art of Fiction, and now he always referred to him as Papa, as Hemingway encouraged his young friends to do.) “It was right after the revolution,” George continued. After he arrived in Havana, he settled in at a hotel room above a bar. One afternoon, at the end of the day, Hemingway told him, “There’s something you should see,” and to come by the house.

'When he arrived at Hemingway’s house he saw they were preparing for some sort of expedition. Before they ventured forth, the elder writer made shakers of drinks, daiquiris or whatever, and packed them up. This group, including a few others, got in the car and drove for some time to the outside of town. Arriving at their destination, they got out, set up chairs, brought out the drinks, and arranged themselves as if they were going to watch the sunset. Soon enough, a truck came, and that, explained George to me, was what they’d been waiting for. It came, as Hemingway explained to them, the same time each day. The truck stopped and some men with guns got out of it. In back were a couple of dozen others who were tied up. Prisoners. The men with guns hustled the others out of the back of the truck and lined them up. And then they shot them. They put the bodies back in the truck and drove off.'(1)

At first expressing his disbelief in the story, Linville repeatedly asked Plimpton to at least read the piece on The Motorcycle Diaries. “James," Plimpton wearily protested, "I’m sorry, I just can’t.” Linville concluded that "In the twenty years I knew him, this remained the only time George refused to look at a piece of writing."

The Motorcycle Diaries went on to become an international bestseller and was made into an excellent film by Walter Salles in 2004. I mentioned the film and the controversy it provoked when it was released in a piece I published on this blog in 2009 called "A Pound of Flesh." I argued in the film's defense against the howls of execration heaped upon it by people who were eager to remind us of Ché's later incarnation as a revolutionary whose commitment to the cause gave him no qualms about killing members of the former Batista regime en masse. It all seems to hinge on which idealogue one consults on the subject. While I am perfectly prepared to accept Plimpton's story as factual, I wonder how people who disagree with Ché's tactics expect such a revolution as that in which he participated to be prosecuted?

But just as George Plimpton was rendered incapable of appreciating the story of Ché Guevara's youthful journey across South America on a motorcycle by his witnessing an act of brutality carried out on his orders, I have been rendered incapable of appreciating any story about dogs that attempts to portray them in a favorable light, especially in a manner that tries to justify their elevated status as animals in our midst, by an incident that took place in 2010.

Having lived in a small island province of the Philippines for two years, I was visited by Marcelina, the mother of my girlfriend, at a house among the swaying palms that I was renting. Then in her seventies, she was a quite indomitable woman, not least because she was the mother of twenty-five children, eighteen of whom, I was told, survived infancy. Staying in the nearby house of an older son, the old woman got up early one morning and went for a walk. I was sitting in the living room of my house later that morning when there was an unexpected knock at my front door. When I opened it I discovered Marcelina was standing barefoot in a puddle of what could only have been piss in the middle of my terrace with a puzzled look on her face. Realizing that something was seriously wrong with her, I called out to my girlfriend and together we helped the old woman back to her son's house, which was only a stone's toss away.

By that afternoon my girlfriend told me that her mother couldn't speak nor control her bowels. With some experience of these symptoms, I guessed that she must be having a stroke and I explained that we needed to get her to a hospital. Once at the nearby provincial hospital Marcelina was examined by a doctor as she listened to us describe what had happened. As I feared, the doctor diagnosed a possible stroke, but she told us that she couldn't make a proper diagnosis without the results of a catscan. Unfortunately, the provincial hospital wasn't equipped with any such sophisticated machinery. Marcelina would have to be taken by ambulance to a bigger hospital in the city of Tacloban for the procedure. When asked the price tag for such a long (two hour) trip by ambulance and the catscan procedure, it became obvious to Marcelina's two children who were present that it was well beyond the family's resources, even if distant relatives were contacted. My girlfriend's brother, as the acting head of the family, after learning from the doctor the grim prospects for his mother if her stroke were to go untreated, made the decision that she should simply be taken home and cared for as best the family could. In the following months, my girlfriend and I were told of her steady decline and her eventual demise.

A few months after Marcelina's stroke, I happened to be watching a television program on Animal Planet in which a woman in California had taken her young dog to an animal hospital because it had been having seizures. A veterinarian examined the dog but found nothing wrong that would explain the seizures. So he recommended to the woman that the dog be given a catscan to determine if there was perhaps something wrong with the dog's brain. The woman was told the cost of the procedure and thought it was acceptable as long as it resulted in a positive diagnosis. Sadly, the catscan showed that half the dog's brain was missing. The vet explained that, in such an extreme condition, the dog's seizures would worsen until it finally died. He recommended that the dog be euthanized. The woman, evidently more upset by the cost of the catscan than the condition of her dog, agreed to have it put down. I was, to put it mildly, bemused by the woman's reaction to the catscan results. It made me wonder if anyone would've considered it "humane" to euthanize Marcelina if we had somehow come up with the money for her catscan.

But because of Marcelina's stroke and her family's inability to pay for proper medical treatment that might have prolonged her life, I simply cannot countenance television programs or news reports that display the altogether privileged position that so many Americans bestow on their dogs. Nor can I bear to look at the "cute" photos of their dogs that people routinely post on social media. As I have said before, people who repeat the old saying that dog is man's best friend have clearly got it backwards: man is obviously dog's best friend.

I, however, am not a friend of dogs. I'm not presenting my view of dogs as a kind of dogma that I think everyone should share. It's clear to me that dogs occupy a space in many people's lives that would otherwise be a void that nothing else can fill. Just as George Plimpton did nothing to prevent another publisher from handling The Motorcycle Diaries and made no objections to its publication and its success among readers who were perhaps oblivious of Ché Guevara's brutalities, I don't seek to disabuse dog lovers of the pursuit of their passion or deprive them of even a moment's pleasure or to prevent them from expressing their love by posting cute photos or videos on social media. I simply won't share it or take any part in it. I just can't.

(1) "Plimpton, Papa, and Cuba" by James Scott Linville, The Paris Review, November 28, 2016.


Anonymous said...

I gotta ask you one question - why didn't YOU pay for the old lady's medical treatment?

Dan Harper said...

Thanks for the question. I should've made it clear in my piece that I am almost as poor as an average Filipino. When Marcelina took ill I was already supporting four people on a modest VA pension. I chipped in, however, with something every month for her support for the length of her illness. My mother had a very bad stroke at the age of 40 but after months of physical therapy (in which she had to learn how to speak, how to write, and how to walk all over again) she returned to her normal life - wife and a mother of four. She lived another 40 years until another stroke killed her.