I cannot smell juniper without thinking of small bones. I have very strong smell memories, sometimes stronger than visual memories. I can still call up in my mind the smell of the north rim of the Grand Canyon, the myriad smells of different deserts, the scents of tamarack and black spruce as you get near the Wînipâkw, the smells of the blessed neem trees in Kano, the spring lilacs in Canadian towns, the comforting scents of freshly-sawn lumber, the many smells of snow in different settings.
Hold that thought, for I must digress.
I just re-read Edgar Pangborn’s A Mirror for Observers for the eighth time. The only other novel I’ve read as many times is Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Regular rereadings of Carroll’s masterpiece would not surprise anyone — I’m sure there are people who have read it dozens of times — but you might find it puzzling that I would give equal loyalty to a science fiction novel written in 1954, by an author who was respected in his day, but never a high-profile celebrity in the field. A Mirror for Observers is not even his best known book (though it is his best). I read the book in childhood, and it imprinted itself on my mind so vividly that I hardly needed to reread it, for I could play out every scene in my mind at will. But, at regular intervals throughout a lifetime, I have read it with full attention.
Edgar Pangborn was an American writer who went to Harvard at the age of fifteen, then trained at the New England Conservatory with the intention of becoming a concert pianist and composer, but ended up writing pulp fiction. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, he wrote a series of stories and novels that were well-received, but probably had more impact on the next generation of writers in the field than on the general readership. He lived much of his life reclusively in Bearsville, New York, a tiny hamlet in the Adirondack mountains, and died in 1976. His best known work was the novel Davy (1964), a fine work. But A Mirror for Observers did not always remain in print, and I had various crumbling paperback copies until it was re-issued in hardcover in 2004.
So why am I so devoted to this low-profile book, and why did I reread it this time?
Some recent events, both public and personal, have forced me to think about things that I experienced decades ago, which I have never been able to properly articulate, but which will be quite understandible to those who know me. A Mirror for Observers addresses the moral issues these events embody. The book is about, among other things, personal responsibility for public, collective evil. Pangborn was unusually sensitive to this issue, as few writers have been. Look at the parade of renowned writers and artists who have kissed the asses of tyrants and devoted their skills to propagandizing for Conservatism, Communism, Fascism, and all the other Isms that have unleashed suffering and horror on the human race! Pangborn was absent from that gibbering and screaming crowd, and he could eloquently express why. The “mirror” in the novel is an archaeological artifact, a bronze hand mirror from the ancient Aegean. He understood that the issues are old, and that one must look into a mirror to solve them. But much as I take pleasure in rereading that fine book, since the 1980’s, I could not read it without the smell of juniper obtruding in my mind. So to read A Mirror for Observers is, for me, a strange mixture of comfort and discomfort, familiarity and alienation, all keyed to my experience, and the smell of juniper.
I don’t wax nostalgic when I smell juniper. Juniper makes me angry, bitter, and forlorn. The memory of it leaps up and spoils things for me at odd times. When I was in Iceland, for instance, I carefully avoided going to the Höfði. The Höfði is a house in Reikjavik that is promoted as one of the city’s tourist sites. It’s nothing more than a rather nice house built in 1909, but Reikjavik has few old buildings, and even fewer things with international historical significance, so the fact that Ronald Reagan and Mikhael Gorbachev held their summit meeting there in 1986 looms large in the local imagination. Anyone who is dumb enough to think that the Soviet Empire collapsed because of the actions of Reagan no doubt would be interested. But I avoided it, and had no interest in setting foot in it. I have always held a special contempt and hatred for Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, the Höfði is on the waterfront of Reikjavik, dramatically visible from Borgartún and only four short blocks from the main drag of Laugavegur, so it is imposible to avoid passing it if you spend any time in the town. They say that there’s a ghost in the Höfði. It supposedly came into the hands of Icelandic Government because the previous owner, the British Consul, was driven out by her haunting. But for me the ghosts were more numerous, and less charming. The Höfði reeked of invisible juniper, making me think of Guatamala. No place could be less like Iceland than Guatamala.
Central Guatamala is a maze of undulating hills, with very steep sides descending into u-shaped valleys. The lowest land is cleared, farmed and dotted with scruffy barillas of flimsy houses with dark rust-brown corrugated metal roofs. But the hills are forested with a mixture of pine and juniper called huitales by the locals. Very fragrent. The hills once held many villages, but most are now abandoned. In the hill country, Spanish is seldom heard. The people speak a dozen or so languages, among them Kiche, Kakchikel, Mam, Pocomam, Pocomchi, Ixil, Kekchi, Sakapultek, Kanjobal, etc., related, but mutually unintellible. In the countryside, most people are nominally Catholics, but preserve a deep core of ancient Mayan religion. The cities, and the upper classes, however, are predominantly followers of Evangelical and Pentacostal Protestant churches that originate in the U.S.A. The country’s sporadic attempts to function as a democracy have systematically, over many decades, been sabotaged by the C.I.A., which has time and again staged coups and installed bloodthirsty and corrupt dictators, usually to please the financial interests of the United Fruit Company and other global corporate powers. These dictators waged constant war against the poorest and the most helpless. By far the most corrupt and bloodthirsty of these monsters was José Efraín Ríos Montt. Ríos Montt, an ardent Pentacostal who was a lay preacher in the California-based Church of the Word, announced that “the true Christian has the Bible in one hand and a machine gun in the other,” and commanded horrors identical to those of the most brutal Communist regimes — in the name of “anti-Communism.” His regime, of course, was in all ways absolutely identical to a Communist dictatorship, except in name. In rural societies, the peasantry are the backbone of resistance to totalitarian dictatorships, which are usually created by city-bred elites. Just as the Khmer Rouge, Mao, Lenin and Stalin strove to break their peasantries with mass executions, mass deportations, and planned famines, Ríos Montt oversaw a planned program of genocide. More than three quarters of the victims were ethnic Maya, the rest Spanish-speaking ladino peasants, who were, in Ríos Montt’s system of racial classification, only slightly above the Maya.
This was the method, dubbed Operación Ceniza: The Government forces would surround a village, then conduct house-to-house searches. First, all females between puberty and the age of twenty were separated out and repeatedly gang-raped. Then, usually, their arms and legs where broken so that they would suffer to the maximum degree when they were later executed. At first, many adult men fled into the forest, thinking that their families would remain unharmed, until experience taught them better. Those who were rounded up usually were forced to witness wives, daughters, and often their mothers gang-raped, then tortured and executed. The elderly were particularly subjected to torture, but the fiercest savagery was saved for small children. These were usually clubbed to death with batons (supplied by the American taxpayer) or burnt alive. Most of the remaining men, after being forced to dump the shattered corpses of their families into hastily dug pits or ditches, were then herded into huts and either machine-gunned or blown to bits with hand-grenades. In the western highlands, in the area of Huehuetengo, for example, this was done in more than six hundred villages. The mountains still have many empty villages.
Bodies decay quickly in hot, moist climates and bones dissolve in Guatamala’s luvisolic forest soil. But in 1984, there were still plenty of abandoned villages surrounded by trenches and hummocks of visibly disturbed soil, decorated with the fragments of thousands of children’s bones. Usually, there was the smell of juniper. Villagers would say nothing, even if they could speak Spanish. Mentioning these events to outsiders would quickly lead to “disappearing.” But it was essential that each village have survivors, and where it was uncertain that enough men had fled into the forest, some were spared on purpose. That was part of the policy. You can’t spread terror unless everyone knows. There was also a systematic program of scorched earth. Crops were burned, roads to markets sealed, all food controlled. Those who submitted meekly, and handed over their youth for brainwashing in the militias, might get the handful of dried beans necessary to avoid starvation. “Frijoles y fusiles” Ríos Montt called it.
This was the doctrine of Operación Ceniza, determined not in Guatamala, but by those who had trained the soldiers and death squads in special camps in the United States, who paid for everything, and who had planned and organized every step of the operation: the Administration of Ronald Reagan. Reagan personally overode Congress in order to dispatch millions of dollars worth of helicopters, arms, and amunition to Ríos Montt. Many millions more were handed over in secret. Visiting the dictator in 1982, Reagan anounced that the mass-murderer was “a man of great personal integrity and commitment.” And Ríos Montt was only one of a long list of mass-murdering monsters that Reagan cultivated, financed, publicly praised, and loved to be seen with socially.
All of this horror was completed by the time the Republican National Convention ushered in Reagan’s second term. The Reagan Revolution was triumphant in the United States, and even his strongest political opponents babbled inanely about what a gosh-darn loveable fellow he was. Nevertheless, the Reagan Revolution’s marching men required the services of a vast number of prostitutes, hustlers and drug dealers to keep up their morale. That’s when I got to know quite a few Republican Party officials, some of them fairly high up the ladder. In the strip joints and bars, they were not particularly secretive about their views, and about what they knew. “Family Values” Republicans were notorious among the hookers and hustlers. “Some of them are real sickos,” one lad told me, “I mean, not just guys out for some fun, I mean real disgusting perverts.” Whenever I talked to some of these exemplars of Republican Family Values, the self-styled “revolutionaries” of the Conservative movement, the same pattern repeated itself: after drink #1, absolute denial that any attrocities had occurred in Guatamala, it was all just lies told by “pinkos” and “leftists” and “dirty hippies”; by drink #4, yeah, nudge-nudge wink-wink, sure of course there were attrocities, can’t be helped if some of “our friends” get carried away; after drink #6 it was a different story. Killing women and children was a jolly good thing. “Best thing in the world. Exterminate the little niggers,” was how one coke-snorting slob put it.
That taught me everything I needed to know about the Conservative movement, just as intensive study of the past, reading all of Karl Marx’s disgusting racist and genocidal writings, and some terrifying experiences in Africa had taught me what I needed to know about the Communist movement. Among other things, that they were the same thing.