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Authors: David Stacton

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BOOK: A Signal Victory
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David Stacton is a prime candidate for prominent space in the Tomb of the Unknown Writers. His witty and
accomplished novels failed to find an audience even in England, where readers are not put off by dazzle. Had he been British and had he been part of the London literary scene, he might have won some attention for himself and his work in an environment that is more centralised and more coherent than that of the US where it is even easier to fall through the cracks and where success is much more haphazard. I am delighted by these flickers of attention to the wonderful flora of his hothouse talents.

At the end of 1957, having settled the sequencing of the ‘Invincible Questions’ trilogy, Stacton advised Charles Monteith by letter that his next novel would concern ‘Guerrero’s adventures in Yucatan: joining the Mayas and helping defeat the Spanish for a while,
and all that
…’ The italics are mine. Note, too, the presumption (or affectation?) that Monteith would know precisely whom Stacton was talking about. And yet Gonzalo Guerrero was an obscure historical figure, the evidence of his existence based on patchy sources. The legend as Stacton must have known it described a shipwreck that brought the Spaniard Guerrero to the Yucatán in the early 1500s: there he would renounce his Spanish identity, marry a princess, father the first
mestizo
children and, finally, take arms in resistance against the advances of conquistadors from his native land. Whomever Guerrero might have been, though, the lineaments of this account were undeniably useful to an imaginative historical novelist, offering the example of a doomed but noble hero interposed between the steel-helmeted colonisers from Europe and the indigenous peoples of the Americas.

Stacton promised Monteith that
A Signal Victory
would be ‘fairly short … concise, anyway, and rather explicit’. Though he could at times be disingenuous in issuing such assurances, he was, on this occasion, as good as his word. The novel flows fast, Stacton as assured as ever of the epoch and terrain and human character that he is re-imagining into life on the page. You sense, as usual, his conservative-minded confidence that all lives have been lived before, all achievable truths established, and available
as such to the questing author of fiction. And Guerrero’s story is no way impeded by Stacton’s penchant for ruminating upon history even as he restages it.

With the work done and dusted in May of 1960 Stacton would confess to Monteith that
A Signal Victory
was ‘a book I feel squeamish about … it’s a book
about
, whereas a book should
be
its subject’. But here Stacton was only belatedly setting himself a bar that he never truly tried to clear: he is always a presence in his work, his choice of subject just as revealing of him as his work is in revealing that subject. He need not have offered the self-criticism:
A Signal Victory
is among Stacton’s most compelling productions, and draws the reader into his vision of history as engrossingly as any.

Richard T. Kelly
Editor, Faber Finds
April 2014

 

Sources and Acknowledgements
This introduction was prepared with kind assistance from Robert Brown, archivist at Faber and Faber, from Robert Nedelkoff, who has done more than anyone to encourage a renewed appreciation of Stacton, and from David R. Slavitt. It was much aided by reference to a biographical article written about Stacton by Joy Martin, his first cousin.

I

I
f you live close to the end, as today we all do, you want to see the course by which the eagle makes his swift descent. Unlike the dove, he leaves a trail of smoke, somehow, in the air. Not that there will not be a new world, but this is the end of ours. And being selfish, we are concerned with that.

Against the air of Yucatan one sees that trail very well, even after 400 years, for the sky down there is indelible. Nothing that has ever happened under it has ever been erased.

Wandering round those serene ruins, from which the jungle has by science been temporarily protracted, climbing those fatiguing stairs, looking at those toothy and imperturbable processions carved on stone, one finds oneself baffled and anxious, as usual, in civilization’s historic consulting room. Diagnostics, as we know, proceed by parallels. What, then, will the judges of the secret court make of our case?

The ruins of Yucatan impose sobriety. They were a world. They are a world. Like the ruins of Angkor, they have something to teach which no one would ever be fool enough to learn. And there, often, one cannot help thinking, as the Mexicans sometimes think, of one who went down with them. In our time, for us, that is the only hero we can have: the one who tells us how to go.

No man would ever be defeated by himself. It is better, in that case, to go.

Yet though a taste for elegies is pleasing to the elegiac, it does not represent our true feeling, nor, 400 years ago, was Yucatan a ruin.

Instead, it was not a wilderness, but an Empire, a little broken, overwhelmed by flood and invasion, yet populous, orderly, and coherent with more than a thousand years of prosperous tradition. They knew how to live there, even if they had forgotten why.

Nor, in those days, was a young man so old as he is today. In those days he still had a choice.

White causeways ran through the forests and the fields, to connect the cities of that endless plain. At night the temple beacons lit up the lower sky, or shone above the flaccid sea.

There was nothing like it in Spain. There was nothing like it anywhere, divided though it was into a series of small warring states which only had the appearance of cohesion.

Among these states Chetumal was one of the most secure, and he had done his best to make it so. Loyalty and gratitude had seen to that. And perhaps love.

His name was Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spanish name, though he was not Spanish any more. Perhaps he never had been, though he had often wondered what he would do when at last the Spaniards came.

He was a gipsy. Under that definition he belonged anywhere, but now he belonged here.

Chetumal was half way down Yucatan, on the eastern coast, but news in that flat country could travel rapidly, and the ruler of Ecab had sent news. A great sea bird had appeared far to the north, at Cape Catoche. It contained white men in black clothes, perhaps those gods whom prophecy had it would one day walk back out of the sea. Some men believe in some gods and some men in others, but a realist believes in the present. In the present events do not have divine causes. Therefore the ruler of Ecab had driven them back into the sea, and waited for advice. A picture of both bird and men would follow.

Guerrero did not need a picture, nor had the men been driven away. Nor were they gods. The Spanish had come at last, as he had always feared they would. Greed, and its great goad, inefficiency, had seen to that.

Five years ago he might have hesitated, but not four, not three, and certainly not now. He would fight them, and there were reasons for that. He had always fought them, but now there was much to save, and he expected to win.

Why should he not?

He followed the messenger back to Nachancan, the ruler of Chetumal and his own father-in-law. There was nothing to say. They had talked of this for years. But there would be much to do.

He found Nachancan waiting in the cool inner rooms of the upper platform of his house, alone, and entered without ceremony, for there had never been any pomp between them. Nachancan was formal enough, he respected pomp, but he knew where it belonged, and equals provide their own ceremony.

If he had doubts, at this dangerous moment, he did not show them. Guerrero did not blame him for the doubts, but it was for the not showing of them that he loved him.

And looking at him now he saw, that yes, he did love him. That made things easier.

“So they have come,” he said. He did not really expect an answer. He watched. He was content to watch. He was content to be a pet dog, given such a master.

But there was nothing to watch. These people of oriental blood, they know better than we do how to control their features. Guerrero could see nothing but an alert calm. It was not stoicism exactly, for stoicism pretends to care nothing for events, and is passive. It was merely the best way of dealing with things.

There is a moment between the expected and its occurrence, when most of us would hesitate and find a way out through the slight dissimilarity between the prediction and the event. But Guerrero did not think like that. He had made his decision years ago. He was not a scholar. He knew what he liked and what he did not like. He had not that fear of being committed which tries to conceal its moral nakedness behind second thoughts.

“They will sail down the west coast,” he said. “We must warn Campeche and Champoton.”

Nachancan let out a little sigh. It was almost inaudible. But it showed what he had been wondering.

“We can expect nothing of Campeche,” he said, but he was a little less formal now.

It was the way they had always been together. Guerrero saw that his father-in-law was pleased behind that mask. If one man believed in another, that is enough. It had been for years. They understood each other.

Unfortunately Nachancan was old, and there was no one else to hold even Chetumal together, should he die.

That was in the future, and made no difference. At least Guerrero did not think it did. He would do his duty. It would be a pleasure to do so. Experience had etched the lines of his conduct upon his face. To do one’s real duty is always a pleasure.

All the same he was thoughtful. How could he help but be? Though he was not a literate, he was a thoughtful man. Those thoughts had no names, but they did have a nature, and they told him what to do. For seven years they had told him what to do, even though the man Aguilar had told him something else. He had not listened, knowing the man was a bigot. But a bigot must destroy everything he does not understand, out of inner uncertainty about the security of his own beliefs, and that must not be allowed to happen here, for about the goodness of this world Guerrero had no doubts.

He went back to his own house. Yes, the man Aguilar had much to do with it.

But for that, too, one must go back seven years. One must go back to the year 1511.

II

Like many such stories, his began with the weather; and it is as aspects of the weather, says Spinoza, that we must regard
the emotions of men, if we are to understand their politics, without his adding, as men once believed, that weather is the emotion of the world.

We are apt to forget that geography defines not the nature of the world, but only the extent of our knowledge of it. And in 1511 men knew very little of it, and of the Caribbean, not much more. So they were not prepared for the hurricane of that year, the worst since the national disaster of 1464, for to them the Caribbean was a dangerous darkness with an island coast, of which were inhabited only San Fernandina, which we call Cuba, Santo Domingo, which we call Haiti, and in Panama, the colony of Darien. To the west they expected the Indies, but no longer with much hope. Their greed had been frustrated there. In particular they knew nothing of that whorl of the Gulf Stream which, sweeping through the Straits of Trinidad, carries danger with it up past Yucatan.

Of Yucatan, of the ancient glories of Yucatan, no man had ever heard. Ancient glory, to them, if they thought of it at all, meant Rome, or something Ferdinand had captured from the Moors.

When the storm struck there was only one Spanish vessel on that sea, a caraval bound back from Darien, for the Spanish had not the art of navigation, and put to sea only of necessity. There had been a squabble in the colony, and the official Valdivia was going back to Santo Domingo to plead his case. He was a practical man, so that in addition to being by its nature unsuited to that sea, the caraval was doubly burdened with twenty thousand ducats of gold in the cargo, which were what he planned to plead his case with. And though gold is the best of bribes, it makes a poor ballast for eternity.

The boat was overpacked with the military guard from Darien, a posse of priests headed by a white-skinned, wincing Franciscan of the worst sort, named Jeronimo de Aguilar; with two women, who always bring sailors bad luck; and with cattle and goats for the voyage, as well as crates of chickens, pigeons, and fruit.

A storm in the Caribbean cannot be predicted unless you have lived long enough on those shores to recognize the approaching signs, the heat which makes men boil in their armour, the viscous calm, and the purple shimmer of something about to happen.

The pigeons recognized the danger first. They broke loose, rose like torn paper in a go-devil, and took off for the nearest land, though there was no landfall to be seen.

Then, with a sudden heave, the storm, twirling inconsequentially out of the horizon like a toy, grew bigger than a toy, and struck.

It was more than any of them knew how to handle. The ship could not be controlled. It pitched in the sudden darkness, was swept off balance, careened up and down gigantic hills of water, hit Los Viboras, smashed, split, and with a gurgle in the holds, began to sink.

The Spaniards did not know where they were. They had never heard of Los Viboras, or, for that matter, of Jamaica, off whose shore those razor shoals still lie. The two women and fifteen of the men managed to get away in the only boat. The fifteen men included Valdivia, who was a person of importance, and so went first; Aguilar, because a priest to save others must first save himself, which in those days was his perquisite; and a sailor from Nieto, Gonzalo de Guerrero, taken at the last moment, because priest to overweigh the boat or not, Valdivia wished one man with him competent, and Guerrero was competent. So competent, indeed, that Valdivia had mistrusted him until now. He did not know his station. But in a time of danger, fear means nothing, and neither does station. He was the best man, and Valdivia meant to reach land.

The question was, what land?

For fourteen days they drifted, they scarcely knew where, across the surface of that once more deceptive sea. The arm of the Gulf Stream carried them north, but they knew no more than that. Nor is their suffering a part of this story. Sufficient to say it was the women who died first.

They had given up all hope of land. Yet by a swerve in that cold river of whose existence they knew nothing, when they were ready for death, they began to approach a shore.

III

Nowadays a man shipwrecked and cast adrift is not so hopelessly at sea. He knows which waters these are, and where the shores are, that monsters are rare, currents certain, sharks timid without the lure of blood, so they say, and that to drink salt water will not kill him. There are other ships, he had time to send out an S O S, and he really does believe that he lives in a known world. He may suffer, but he is not doomed.

Of the men in that boat of 1511, some could retreat into delirium, some into faith, but the others had no comfortable knowledge to pull them through. It was only the will to survive itself that survived there, for the calm would not end and the sun was not the glorious light of heaven, but the Devil’s eye. The eye came closer and closer. It swooped crackling down, it became a coal, they felt the heat against their eyelids, were conscious of the hiss of steam, and went black blind.

Was the will to live then, only an impiety, that we are justly punished for?

Aguilar would have said so. He belonged to the heresy we take with us. He was a Manichee. That was the thing that made bigots out of Christians, nothing else, but then that was also the thing that made Christianity a slave religion and was essential to it.

Guerrero watched him. He was not a Christian, but a gipsy. He belonged to the older dispensation. He knew how dangerous to others your man of faith could be.

He was also an ordinary man, and an ordinary man learns a certain rule of thumb, which serves him well enough. He measures the world up into women, men, and real men, and that simplifies things. The women were gone. You couldn’t
keep a corpse in that sun. So they went back into the sea they came from, while Aguilar mumbled the office for the dead. Valdivia was a real man. He could depend on Valdivia. But Valdivia had a wound in his leg, it festered fast, and he wasn’t competent just now, only quarrelsome and almost motionless.

On the late morning of the fourteenth day they left that almost invisible current and were caught up by a little ripple thirty miles off the coast of Yucatan. But Yucatan is low and invisible from that far at sea, and though they heard the sound of surf, they had heard the sound of surf before. It only meant another reef.

And besides, the movement of this ripple was so slow.

There were only two erect in the boat now, one at the stern, the other at the prow. The one at the stern was the Franciscan, Aguilar, white, scrawny, and sacred. He had dealt so long with death, which was all of the world he understood, that he recognized the symptoms. His face glistened with stale sweat. He had assumed that mummified look the Spaniards like to see on their saints. He was prepared.

But Guerrero knew Aguilar was no saint. There were no saints. There were only brave men, the rest of us, and fools, and a brave man does not die that way, You may kill him, but he does not submit, to earth or heaven, in quite that self-deluded way.

In his lap the Franciscan held his breviary. He had not read it for days, but he kept turning the pages, as though looking for something that wasn’t in this volume at all, but in some other one, the same size and shape, that he had left behind by mistake.

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