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The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca


The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca, Haniel Long, Souvenir Press ed., 2007

The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca is a slender thing; it unfolds gracefully over the course of a mere thirty-nine pages, and then finally fragments into nothingness, leaving a lingering impression of its moral implications. First published in 1939, and long out of print since then, one could almost believe it a distant echo of the sixteenth-century adventurer it treats, so slight is its redolence. Standing in contrast, and perhaps of most interest to the contemporary reader, is an extensive preface by Henry Miller.

The old master is not shy about treating this delicate work with his characteristic robustness; on the contrary, Miller burdens Long’s elegant narrative with more than the brief novella’s wispy frame can bear. One can see the appeal of Cabeza de Vaca to Miller, exhibiting as it does a sense of mysticism and social conscience found in his own work. Moreover, Haniel Long’s interest in Walt Whitman – which found fullest expression in his academic career – is certainly evident here, and equally so in Miller’s novels; yet for all the common ground the two contemporaries shared, Miller’s effusive praise encumbers the book more than it illuminates it. Long deliberately collapses the historical narrative into his own poetic Interlinear, but Miller’s willingness to buy in to the interpolation wholesale can at times seem simply daft: to read that Cabeza de Vaca “puts to nought the whole democratic experiment of modern times” makes the subsequent work feel somewhat anticlimactic.

This is a shame, since the book is a pleasure, if more unassuming than Miller holds. Despite the novella’s length, the narrative never feels abrupt, and this is testament to Long’s poetic skill. Short paragraphs wash in and out languidly, and frequently drift, unfinished, into the ether. The technique of course evokes Whitman’s mystic, dreamy tone, but also serves Long’s narrative purpose; the text on the page looks like a simple series of extracts from the original Naufragios text written be Cabeza de Vaca himself, on translations of which Long based this book. Long’s primary concern with de Vaca, however is not with introducing the Spaniard’s then little-known writing to a contemporary audience – and still less with asserting his place in history: “at a certain point he ceases to be a historical personage and becomes a symbol.” The point at which this occurs, amongst de Vaca’s sparse snatches of tribulation and exotic fear, is entirely unclear, and all the more powerful for it. For Long and Miller both, the fascination with de Vaca’s story comes as the text and European societal norms slowly fragment, in metronomic parallel.

Perhaps the modern reader might see this didactic interpolation of de Vaca’s experience as a less worthy exercise than Long or Miller did; this is particularly the case since the explorer’s own text is now far more widely available than when the book was first published. This is clearly a work of poetry, not history. The Marvellous Adventure of Cabeza de Vaca does not sustain Miller’s hyperbole, still less the comparisons to The Prophet proclaimed on the jacket; to shine such a bright light on this modest classic may obscure its considerable literary appeal entirely.

Andrew Fleming
is a recent graduate. He lives and works in London.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 16th, 2007.