That important insight fed the literary imagination of Norman Lewis, perhaps the last century's greatest travel writer, yet it has seemingly slipped past Kwame Anthony Appiah who made The Case For Contamination in last Sunday's New York Times magazine: An article described by the Consumerist as "stellar". It is certainly thought provoking.
The Princeton philosopher's argument can be summarised as follows:
- Yes, globalisation can increase worldwide homogeneity but it also has the potential for creating new cultural blends
- It would be wrong to trap people(s) within islands of traditional homogeneity that they long to escape and which in many cases no longer make economic sense
- Much of what we take to be authentic traditional culture is simply the result of earlier mixtures
- There are two basic approaches to international culture today: cosmopolitanism and counter-cosmopolitanism, aka fundamentalism. (Though I'd say there's a case for recognising laissez-faire free market capitalism as a powerful third option.)
- Fundamentalists are universalist without being tolerant. Cosmopolitans believe that there are many values worth living by and nobody can live by all of them. (Though it might be worth trying...)
I doubt that Norman Lewis would have been greatly enthused by this Rushdie-like call for accelerated intermingling and hybridity. An article he wrote in our own Sunday Times magazine in 1968 about Amazonian massacres led to the formation of Survival International, an organisation which seeks to protect tribal peoples and their often unique pre-modern lifestyles.
After several business careers involving cars and cameras, Lewis worked as an intelligence office for the British government before settling down as a man of letters. In all he wrote 13 novels and 14 travel books. He had a natural gift for going incognito: "I'm the only operson I know who can enter a room, stay there 5 minutes, and leave without anyone having noticed I was there." Colin Thubron once described him as "the most anonymous person in the room".
In Voices of the Old Sea his narrative presence on the page is characteristically elusive, which at first I took to be one of the many literay devices which distinguish this work from the less remarkable kind of travel journalism.
In 1948, citing obscure medical reasons Lewis sought to share the confined life of an isolated community and picked the fishing village of Farol on the Costa Brava, "drawn by its reputation of being the least accessible coastal village in north-east Spain." (I couldn't find it on a modern map of Catalunya. Perhaps Lewis changed the name to avoid furthering the contamination.)
Farol's inhabitants were "non materialistic, generous, poetic and superstitious in the extreme". Not religious in the usual sense however. The only time the local priest was ever likely to see the male members of his flock in church was when they arrived with a bride, and even then they would often mutter counter charms throughout the wedding ceremony. Anyone that attended confession was regarded with deep suspicion by the rest of the community.
Lewis spent three successive seasons in Farol and his account of the first, where incipient modernity was just a nagging itch, was for me the most enjoyable. The first to feel the logic of modern "economic sense" were the neighbouring peasants of the dying cork forest. Lewis paints a sad picture of their attempts to pick up basic fishing skills as their traditional livelihood vanished remorselessly.
The fishing community of Farol was run along largely matriarchal lines and inundated with cats. The peasants were stoutly patriarchal and supported a famished pack of man's best friends. Lewis affectionately nicknamed them the Cat People and the Dog People respectively. Both had long looked up to the family of Don Alonso, the local landowner. Now a marginalised figure, Lewis reports how the old don spends his days cutting out obituary notices attended by a stunted old crone who was once a celebrated beauty who sat for portraits in Madrid. He informs Lewis (Appiah please note) that his people want "strong leadership and limited horizons".
At the start of season two one of the largest of the abandoned cork mansions had recently been occupied by the corpulent and effective former black-marketeer Muga, who made no secret of his determination to turn Farol into a tourist destination. One of the first manifestations of the forthcoming makeover was a road along the beach, which the fishermen feared outsiders would use to stare out to sea, thereby bringing ill fortune to the catch.
Muga appreciated that visitors from the wider world "had to be protected from the unpleasant facts of life" which meant that many aspects of coastal life, starting with the food, had to be made gradually more tasteless. When Lewis first arrived in the village the returning fishermen would sit in small groups in the bar beside a massive carved figure of a mermaid and recount the day's adventures in blank verse (in Castellano, deemed more poetic than their native Catalan.) By the time he bid farewell to Farol for the last time the bar has fallen under Muga's management and the mermaid has been packed off into storage somewhere. Yet the fishermen were still hoping that the tourist 'plague' would follow the course of all epidemic diseases and die off leaving them to return to their pescas.
It's a wonderfully well-written account of localised social change charged with Lewis's disarming humour and plenty of strange Spanish customs - such the local vinicultural tradition of drowning of a mouse in the first barrel of newly-pressed grapes. It's hard to tell how much embelishment Lewis allowed himself; I would say a fair bit. (He wrote the book many years later from old notes.)
"I am looking for people who have always been there", he once observed, but ultimately it is the uniqueness and the taste of confined lives that Lewis appears to regret the loss of, not necessarily their unsullied authenticity. (However it's probably a good thing that the inhabitants of Villanueva are no longer burning out the brains of live bulls according to their own ancient customs!)
There are many values living by and you cannot live by all of them - such is Appiah's cosmopolitan creed for the globalised world. It's just a shame that the "many" might be becoming a few without the need for further intervention by the massed ranks of the intolerant.
Incidentally, during the 50s Lewis misplaced his first wife Ernestina in Guatemala when she commenced an affair with a relative of the then president. His (now sadly out of print) novel about indigenous insurgency in Guatemala The Volcanoes Above Us sold 6m copies in the USSR, for which he recived a country dacha in lieu of royalties.