The Lost Works of Pablo Müller-Wessely

The Lost Works of Pablo Müller-Wessely

Preliminary Report

N.B.: Pablo Müller-Wessely’s name is little known outside those arcane circles specializing in South American indigenous cultures, and even there he has always been considered somewhat of an exotic footnote—perhaps because his sublime, lyrical works were composed in a language and for a culture so obscure as to be practically unknown, even in South America. For this reason, the stubborn rumor about the existence of a substantial poetic corpus in his native German may seem even more uncanny—though as some readers know, just recently that claim has been corroborated by Witkins (cf. “Invisible Bards”). The vague possibility that there might be something to those speculations is what motivated us to set out on our own expedition to Yaoqui. The following report briefly summarizes the results of that investigation. [ag]

He has been described as “the man who almost never was.” In 1889, with a sound secondary school education and a modest inheritance under his belt, he hired himself out as a cabin boy and set sail on a merchant vessel from Bremerhaven to Salvador de Bahia. From there, he eventually snaked his way down the Amazon deep into the interior, occasionally finding the opportunity along the way to send his mother long, tightly crammed letters in which for pages on end he extolled, half philosophically, half mystically, but always seriously, the soul of the trees and the scrub, the marriage of heaven and earth and the consciousness of tropical rain. It’s easy to imagine the bewilderment—and consternation—of his family members. The photograph he enclosed in one of those letters is the last known image of him. It portrays a lanky youth with round, wire-rimmed eyeglasses. He is seen towering over a group of naked Indios. In the sepia half-tones of the image all parties seem like soft, sandstone statues, staring, as if down a long tunnel, into the faraway camera. Pablo is wearing kneesocks, a pair of sensible shoes, knee-length pants, a polo shirt and a pith helmet (v. Witkins, pp. 18-21). “I can speak their language pretty well, tu-i na tu-i na,” he wrote in neat letters on the back of the photo, his penchant for exotic languages clearly manifesting already then. The language quoted has still not been identified.

It will probably always remain a mystery how he got from the Amazon basin to Yaoqui, the village on the Pacific at the foot of the high Andes that he was to call home till the end of his life. In those days the only known route across the Andes was the treacherous Santa Benita Pass that cut directly across some of the most hostile mountain crests in all of South America. In an Ahuate song whose authorship has been unequivocally attributed to him, he invokes the “plunging dragon of the clouds, swallowed by no crags” (“ihua katumi bahuaru pilata ka nue”). Various researchers—J. Reaves, for example—have long surmised that this verse is based on an actual observation made during that dangerous trek across the pass.

Whether or not he settled in Yaoqui immediately upon arrival is still a moot issue. There is credible evidence that he may have spent some time at Taua, a Huayati village, still around today and located about thirty kilometers north of Yaoqui. This claim continues to be hotly contested—its veracity exacerbated by the absence of any reliable witnesses. Notwithstanding, certain elements typical of his style are found in various well-known Huayati songs. The image of nocturnal billows as bat wings eclipsing the moonlight is often cited as an example (cf. “aupi kehuaupi ni lomo”). Of course, alternative explanations have been posited for these stylistic congruities, the most prevalent being that some of his songs may have been adapted and translated into Huayati at a subsequent period, or that Huayati songsmiths may have copied the author’s lyric style. In preliterate cultures, emulating the works of a rival is commonly considered the highest compliment. Another possibility: the strong similarity between the Huayati and Ahuete dialects may indicate that Pablo Müller-Wessely was fluent in both languages and composed in both.

His woven grass hut still stands in Yaoqui, and is located on the outskirts of this hot and humid—and, I might add, mosquito-infested—Ahuate settlement within hearing range of the sea. One of his grandchildren, Viktor Mulauesseli (he printed this spelling of the family name on a page of my spiral notebook), is the current dweller. Over a cup of “ue-ue,” a bitter and practically unpalatable drink derived from the sap of the guata trees that surround the house (very beneficial as shade trees, he remarked), he spoke to us about his grandfather, especially about his final years, which is to say, the period concomitant and subsequent to his great crisis.

The interior of this hut is, according to Viktor Mulauesseli, “practically” unchanged since his grandfather’s lifetime. (We shall explain the significance of the quotation marks below.) In a space of approximately twenty square meters, one finds two hammocks (suspended from wooden supports), the grass mats we were seated on, and a low rough plank table. His grandson, tall by local standards though no less haggard in appearance than other contemporaries, could easily be mistaken for a European, i.e., for someone with a cultural heritage similar to our own. The impression is misleading. Repeatedly he emphasized how doggedly conservative the Ahuete are and how they show little interest in altering any element of their long tradition and its mythic origins. “But for Nina Pablo [i.e., ‘good Uncle Pablo,’ as he was generally called], we would have done anything—even shoot pua [note: a taboo bird] out of the trees.” This solicitude apparently increased during the poet’s great crisis, meaning: that period when he was struck by a manic urge to Europeanize the village (a wish that went unfulfilled . . . for reasons we shall explain below).

It was when I asked if Pablo Müller-Wessely had actually slept in one the hammocks hanging above us (a thought, I confess, that left me a little starstruck) that his grandson raised the topic of the local climate, an issue that informed the poet’s situation in ways I would never have guessed. Viktor Mulauesseli explained that the relentless heat and humidity in that mosquito-ridden environment caused practically every artifact to mold and decompose and ultimately to disintegrate, requiring anything man-made to be replaced approximately every seven years. In other words: no single object in Yaoqui manufactured through human ingenuity and craftsmanship is ever much more than seven years old. Hence: the survival of the past is totally dependent on its reproducibility.

Viktor Mulauesseli expounded on this phenomenon in great detail, pointing to the hammocks, the mats, the very walls of the hut as examples. Of course we were curious to find out how this climatic idiosyncrasy affected our special concern: the lost works. And that is when his grandson raised the subject of Nina Pablo’s notebooks and pencils, items that were previously unknown in the region. They were brought to him by the Monsignor of San Sebastiano, a great admirer of Nina Pablo. Once a year, on Good Friday, he’d visit Yaoqui “in order to remind us of our commitment to the Holy Church.” That seemed to be more or less a local joke.

It was in these notebooks, for whose sake we had made this arduous journey in the hope of saving them for posterity, that the poet used to write his German poems. Viktor Mulauesseli—it was impossible to estimate his age—patiently narrated their story. One had the feeling that he fully grasped their importance for us. He talked slowly and deliberately into the microphone of our tape recorder—an object that obviously made him uneasy and which he treated with visible mistrust—as we gagged down ue-ue while being mercilessly attacked by swarms of mosquitoes. Listeners to the tape of our interview with Viktor Mulauesseli will hear frequent slapping sounds in the background, a circumstance we apologize for, but it was our only option. Astonishingly, Viktor Mulauesseli seemed unfazed by the buzzing and biting, never once swatting at those frantic bloodsuckers. I intended to ask him how he managed to maintain his self-control. Unfortunately, in all the excitement, that important question continually slipped my mind. What follows is a transcription, intended to answer the most salient question and excerpted from the taped interview which will appear in its entirety in our monograph. I’ve translated it from the Spanish:

“Every year, Nina Pablo recopied his European songs into the fresh notebooks the Monsignor had most recently brought him, always adding the new ones to those he had written previously. Why did he keep copying them? He knew how our climate would affect those books, and he never gave up hope that someday Europeans—people like you—would come to Yaoqui and take his notebooks back to his land so that the people of his tribe would have an opportunity to sing his songs. He was very resolute about this. But he was also afraid something might happen to him and that his songs in your tongue would disappear—we say ‘in Jesus’s belly.’ That’s why he taught my grandmother and her sisters and brothers your writing. And they taught their children, who taught their children, meaning myself, my brothers and sisters, and our cousins. There were many people in our village who could write your words.

“I recall that when he was dying, he told us that he would die singing, knowing that so many of us were able to write your words. I was a boy when he died, maybe twelve years old. Nina Pablo was lying just about where I am sitting here. He was very weak, and he was singing: ‘Auna pali nimi, nema pana nula.’ It’s my favorite of his songs. It means in your language something like: ‘Go, my Dream, sleep without me, I am awake upon the path.’ His cheerfulness during those last days surprised us, because sometimes he could get very moody and only wanted to be left alone. You never could tell when those moods would strike. Of course, everyone knew why he got like that. It was no secret that the two tribes in his breast, yours and ours, were often at war. Sometimes he’d tell us wondrous tales about your land, about great iron snakes that slithered from city to city shooting smoke into the air from the tops of their head, about black sea shells that ate voices and spit them out in faraway places where other people would hear them. Is that really true? He said when he was a boy he lived in a great stone house with many rooms. He said it looked like a head with many eyes and that the eyes were made of clear quartz and glowed at night. And he told us that in the dark season snow drifted into the valleys and turned the stone cities white, and that the leaves of the trees turned into fragile, bright flowers that dropped to the ground, and that when the earth swallowed the snow they’d sprout from the branches again.

“Sometimes tears came to his eyes when he talked about your land. But you know, no matter how much he grumbled about our ‘mosquito heaven’—that is what he used to call Yaoqui and we knew he wasn’t joking—he was one of us. His soul was Ahuete—through and through. He knew that himself. And I swear to you by God’s mother that no one would have ever kept him here against his will. When he was going through what you call his ‘great crisis’ and decided to make furniture like the furniture you have in your big stone houses, we encouraged him, everyone did. He would draw pictures of your furniture in his notebooks so we could see what it looked like. No one really liked any of it, it was so strange—in fact we couldn’t imagine how your people used it or why—but everyone eager to help him. If nothing ever became of that project, it was not because anyone discouraged him. No one would have done that. We loved him, cherished his eccentricities, and we would have helped him any way possible to make your furniture. We always trusted his judgment. Only one thing stood in his way: himself, because he wasn’t skilled at cutting wood. Why should he have been? He was a songmaker. There were many Ahuete who could have helped him, but he never asked for help, and we only offer help when asked. Anything else would be impolite. That’s the way we are.

“I think it was when he became a grandfather that he finally started to understand once and for all that he was one of us. But really, I never would have imagined that he was one of yours. He spoke our words in a way that you knew they were also his words. When he lay here dying, I’m sure he was satisfied not just because everyone loved and respected him, but because right before he got sick he had just finished copying his European songs in fresh notebooks. I remember him telling me that it was only a matter of time before someone from far away would come to Yaoqui and take his notebooks back to your land. Nina Pablo looked to the future with confidence. He was sure that someday your people would sing his songs.

“But no one came, and every year we kept recopying his songs into the new notebooks the Monsignor brought on Good Friday, always making certain to use the freshest pencils, just like Nina Pablo had done. We copied them again and again—I don’t recall the exact number—to honor his memory, but still no one from faraway came to our village to pick up his songs. And then one day, the thing we most feared happened: the Monsignor from San Sebastiano stopped coming to us on Good Friday. Maybe the route had become too strenuous for him. He had gotten pretty old. Or maybe he died, or maybe he thought we were finally able to manage our religious affairs ourselves. Anyway, we heard nothing more from him and no replacement ever came to us after him.

“What were we supposed to do? Seven years passed, and we had neither fresh notebooks nor pencils to recopy Nina Pablo’s poems. For a long time, I stored all the notebooks in that corner behind you, covering them in guata leaves maybe for about eight or nine years, never giving up hope that someone from your land might come someday or that the Monsignor or his replacement would return. I think you say: ‘Hope dies last.’ Nina Pablo taught me that. But nothing could have prevented the inevitable. One by one, the notebooks started to mold and decompose before my eyes. And then the saui came in from the forest. Those are animals like mice, but larger and with a longer snout. They finished off the rest.”

“Are you telling me that Pablo Müller-Wessely’s poems no longer exist?” I fear I couldn’t hide my shock and disappointment.

“Yes, that is what I’m saying, Señor,” Viktor Mulauesseli answered. He was smiling tiredly.

“And no one made an effort to memorize even a few of his poems? Not even you?”

“No, there was no reason to. No one, not even my mother or my grandmother, knew very much about those words. Nina Pablo only taught us how to write, not how to read the letters, and nobody, not even I, wanted to learn his strange language. It was too difficult for us. Besides, Nina Pablo had written so many wonderful songs for us in Ahuete. We still sing them to our children, and our children sing them to their children. Sometimes he’d speak his words just for fun. People used to say they sounded like a machete cutting at bamboo. Hack hack, sh sh. Everyone used to laugh—and I think that made him a little grumpy.” (He used the Spanish word gruñón.) “But then he’d laugh too. Sometimes we’d ask him to say things using those words just so we could laugh. Anyway, he didn’t really have the patience to teach us his language. Sometimes he could get very testy. Once the notebooks were gone, we stopped writing his words altogether. What for? We didn’t need them. I’m one of the few people here who still uses them, but only when someone from the government comes to Yaoqui. They ask me to sign my name on pieces of paper, and I do. They tell me I am the representative for the village. But, thank God, they rarely find us or think of us . . .”

I share the above passage from our taped interview with the grandson of the immortal Pablo Müller-Wessely with heavy heart. The realization that our long and arduous journey had been in vain was, as you can imagine, terribly bitter. On the positive side: we had been able to confirm—definitively—that the lost works had indeed existed, that they were no figment of anyone’s imagination. We could now affirm with impunity that they were truly lost. Hardly a consolation. The verbal magic of that great poet will remain an object of speculation and mystery for all time—at least regarding those works he composed in his mother tongue. His fine ear for language will remain a feast and treasure for a mere handful of specialists who have studied Ahuete, and for an obscure tribe in a faraway culture. There is, however, an ironic postscript to all this.

By chance, a single fragment of the lost works has survived the hostile climate of their place of conception to this very day: namely the title of the collection, words that were recopied again and again on the first page of each fresh notebook. Pablo Müller-Wessely had the habit, when he began the task of recopying his poems, of proclaiming almost ceremoniously in a loud, clear voice and with obvious satisfaction: “Im weiten Felde der Welten” (“Far afield in the worlds”). There is no one today in Yaoqui not familiar with this phrase, albeit unaware of its meaning, because these words have taken on a function in this obscure culture no one could have anticipated. For the Yaoqui they have become an expletive, blurted out formulaically in fits of anger. We should explain that verbalizing rancor is looked upon very disparagingly among the Ahuete: except when expressed in these words which for them are merely nonsense syllables. Not even Viktor Mulauesseli is aware of their true meaning. Daily you hear Yaoqui cry out, “Im weiten Felde der Welten!” Yes, we heard that phrase quite frequently. And when these gentle people feel especially exasperated, they dash off to the beach, something apparently Pablo Müller-Wessely himself would on occasion do (in fact, many consider him the initiator of this practice), stamp their feet on the sand, stare out at the ocean, and bellow their meaningless curse into the wet wind.  




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