The Peripatetic Reviewer

In the classic description of the surrender at Appomattox the two heroes stand in sharp contrast: General Lee, handsome, marble-cool, and statuesque in his dress uniform and gauntlets, towering over the stubby, casual General Grant, tunic half-buttoned and cigar half-lit. But Grant’s magnanimity became him, as when he told Lee that the Army of North Virginia would need their mounts for the plowing back home, and one’s final impression is that Lee is the more heroic, Grant the more human. Geography dictates our response to these great Americans, but not geography alone, for my grandfather, a lieutenant colonel of the 2nd New Jersey cavalry and a staff officer under Meade and Burnside, shared with other officers in the Army of the Potomac only a kind of grudging respect for Grant, the general who had come out of the West to lead them so doggedly to victory.
Grant Takes Command
by Bruce Catton (Little, Brown, $10.00)
Strong Wind
by Miguel Angel Asturias (Delacorte, $6.95; a Seymour Lawrence book)
The Lowest Trees Have Tops
by Martha Gellhorn (Dodd, Mead, $4.95)
In his best book to date, Grant Takes Command, Bruce Catton tells of the persistence, the political patience, and the military skill with which Grant won the war. It is a dramatic story, and it has in it the appeal of the underdog, for this officer, known as the most fearless horseman of his time at West Point, known also to drink more than the situation required, was nearly passed over before he ever knew the power of being commander in chief. Mr. Catton, a nonacademic historian, has grown to be a first-rate narrator: his battle scenes—as, for instance, the assault on Missionary Ridge—are magnificently graphic. He is acute in describing the troubled arguments at headquarters and the muttered reaction in the ranks, and in speculation over the roads not taken, he seems to me eminently fair. He is partisan, of course, just as Dr. Freeman was about Lee, and fortunately for the book his hero, Grant, writes a clear, virile prose which is almost as much fun to read as Mr. Catton’s.
Grant Takes Command opens with John A. Rawlins, Grant’s chief of staff, on his way to Washington to explain to Secretary Stanton and the President how Vicksburg was won. Rawlins also has to clear up a mess, for in Catton’s words, “Grant had put a heavy foot straight through one of Abraham Lincoln s most delicate political deals,”in short, he had fired Major General John A. McClernand of Illinois, to whom Lincoln had half promised the top command in the Vicksburg campaign. McClernand had been of value in raising recruits in the Midwest, but on the battlefield he was nil; Grant gave him his chance, and when he muffed it, the politico was sent angrily back to Washington, talking big about Grant’s drinking and demanding an investigation. Fortunately for the country, Grant’s victory put a quietus to all that.
What is so praiseworthy is the understanding which Grant himself soon established with Lincoln and the candid affection with which it was maintained by both principals. There is much in this book which comes to me in a surprisingly fresh light: Grant’s dependence on Sherman, and Grant’s conviction, unshakable after Missionary Ridge, that “the enemy have not got army enough” when he and Sherman applied the pressure to Atlanta and Richmond. Grant’s reluctance to take command of the Army of the Potomac is perhaps not surprising because he well knew how suspicious the officer corps was of any Westerner, but the slowness of that army to respond to the openings he gave it, as in the first assault of Petersburg, is surprising, and so is his long patience in putting up with the ineptitude of General Butler.
s (“No,” he remonstrated to a staff officer who was complaining, “I can’t afford to quarrel with a man whom I have to command.”) Grant’s tension during the perilous move of his army to the south bank of the James is well portrayed, for had Lee been aware of it, there might have been hell to pay. The characterizations of Baldy Smith and Hancock, Joe Hooker and Burnside, of Meade, and best of all, of Phil Sheridan and Sherman are admirably drawn, and home comes the truth, as Mr. Catton well says, that “army command in the Civil War was no job for a political innocent.” Nor is it today.
When in 1967 Miguel Angel Asturias was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was the first writer of his country, Guatemala, and one of the very few Latin Americans, to be so honored. A novelist and a diplomat—he is presently Guatemala’s ambassador to France—he is somewhat older than most recipients, turning seventy later this year, but his vigor is undiminished as he approaches the completion of his most controversial work, a Banana-Republic trilogy, denouncing the domination of a merciless North American fruit company whose fleet of white ships makes it not too hard to identify. Strong Wind, the first novel in the sequence, has been translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, and one turns to it with the heightened curiosity and critical expectation which attend the newly translated work of any Nobel Prize winner.
Strong Wind begins in the early days of the vast green plantations, when the peasants had been drawn down from their mountain villages like flies to molasses, and when “the cold jerked-beef flesh of the mountain people” was beginning to soften under the broiling heat of the delta. In those days bananas were said to be worth their weight in gold, and management, from the inspectors in the field to the president in the home office in Chicago, referred to as “the Green Pope,” was remorseless in driving the workers to the limit of their endurance, and beyond. Rebellion against such harsh servility was inevitable, and the more astute of the gringos on the spot knew it; but meantime, fortunes were in the making and the more enterprising natives were permitted to cultivate their own small plots of fruit—until the day came when, with the market glinted, the Green Pope cut off all purchases and began dumping millions of bananas into the sea.
In this exploitation, the deterioration of the natives—their drinking and despair, their superstition, and the sex urge which drives them loony in the green hell—is knowingly described, and in the single most powerful passage in the book, Asturias tells of how caged and desperate they felt in what he calls “their quadrilateral lives"—the banana trees set in geometric rows, the identical wooden houses set on stilts, and the sweaty monotonous labor leading at last to the wooden coffin. One weakness of the writing, as is so often the case in a didactic novel, lies in the characterization. There are two and only two commendable North Americans: Lester Mead and his beautiful blond wife, Leland. Mead is a half-plausible adventurer, a peddler turned planter who with boldness and bribery bands together the more resourceful natives in defiance of Mr. Big. His shrewd, Robin Hood resistance is a relief in the midst of the brooding Latin emotionalism which hangs like a gathering overcast until the operatic hurricane crashes down at the close.
The translation by Mr. Rabassa is erratic, especially throughout the first six chapters. The pronouns are constantly confused, and the reader is left to guess at their antecedents. The effort to translate the peasants’ speech into idiomatic English is stiff rather than colloquial. And again and again there are sentences which simply do not make sense. “At dawn her arm hung down from the canvas cot, she was moaning in her sleep, and Lucero’s head, with her hair in his face.”(Page 16, and why did no one edit that head?) Page 22: “And he came with the same story. People. No matter where they got them from. Because if they didn’t, the results.”(Why not simply “no result"?) Page 41: “the ones of you who’ve come to fight this climate.”(Why not “those of you”?) Page 47: “. . . at the same time as he cast on him a pair of eyes that hung from the cornice of a narrow forehead.” (Does the author realize how laughable that is?) There are two score of such crudities in the first 89 pages, and they make the text forbidding; Mr. Asturias’style is now staccato and now lush, but there is no excuse for its being reproduced in non-English. It’s a pity that this book was not more ably edited before it came to the public.
Martha Gellhorn, like Alec Waugh, is an expatriate who resorts to comedy in a warm climate. Her new novel, The Lowest Trees Have Tops, is set in a Mexican mountain village whose beauty resembles that of Cuernavaca and whose colony of refugees, British, Spanish, Polish, Swedish, and German, have lived there long enough to resent the intrusion of others, especially American escapees and tourists. The story begins at the time of the Korean War when Senator Joe McCarthy was responsible for quite a few displaced persons and when guilt-by-association was a national disgrace. The types who momentarily poison the dreamy atmosphere of San Ignacio del Tule, the self-righteous Mrs. Hatfield and the Jew-baiting Englebacks, are recognizable and repulsive, and when they have been sent packing, Tule returns to its proper preoccupation with love, scandal, and drinking.
Suzanna, a clear-eyed, fancy-free expatriate of forty-two, and a standin for Miss Gellhorn, is the narrator and the fixer. We are never told about her past—presumably she is a childless divorcee— but she adores the village, is respected by the Indians, knows the foibles and the strengths of the foreign colony, and is trusted by everyone. She also has enough money to play the fairy godmother, a liberal disposition, and a riotous sense of humor—in short, the kind of American we ought to send more of abroad. It is Suzanna who explains the hidden peccadilloes of the expatriates, of how they prey on each other and of how, when danger threatens—as in the near death of the Honorable Frederick James Arthur Winyard, the elegant, oversexed remittance man, who has taken to eating strange mushrooms to restore his potency—they rush to each other’s rescue. It is Suzanna who assists in the hate affairs, and in the love affairs of the Junoesque Raquel and her Indian silversmith, and of the impeccable Sarah and the elusive artist, Abe. Best of all, it is Suzanna who appreciates how stolidly the Indian preserves his deeply rooted traditions despite the influence of transients.