Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Tarahumara and a Lost Opportunity

Tarahumara Runners. Souce Norawas de Raramuri
The next day we played a very fierce game of volleyball with the nuns, really serious, they almost killed us. I've played volleyball but this was like all their sexual aggression coming out.

I picture the nuns in full garb jumping, smashing and aggressively intimidating their opponents puts a smile on my face. Maybe I am remembering the leaping nuns of the order of St Beryl but nevertheless the image deserves a place in my collection of sporting descriptions.

The quote is from the photographer David Montgomery who accompanied Norman Lewis on a journey to Mexico to write about the Huichol tribe and comes from the biography Norman Lewis by Julian Evans. Norman Lewis was one of the great travel writers of the Twentieth Century whose subjects included the Mafia in Sicily and the the VietCong as well as the tribal societies of South America.

One of the tantalising what-ifs of our knowledge of Mexican Indians is that in the 1970s he heard about a tribe who ran up mountains and wanted to make contact. Unfortunately because it was a serendipitous idea and he did not have enough time to wait, he never found them. I assume this tribe were the Tarahumara, recently made famous in Christopher McDougal's book Born to Run.

Over the past couple of years Born to Run has been a best seller and a phenomenon in the running world, given huge impetus to the barefoot running movement. One would therefore assume that Norman Lewis's failure to meet-up the tribe was unimportant because Christopher McDougal has now done the job. But I do not feel that; I regret the lost opportunity.

The reason is mainly one of style and sharpness of perception, i.e. the core of the writers craft. Although I am interested in the subject of 'Born to Run' I have not finished it as I could not get past its hyperbolic style and the desperate straining for similes. An example: early on he described watching a video of his own running -
"In my mind's eye, I'm light and quick as a Navajo on the hunt. the guy on the screen, however, was a Frankenstein's monster trying to tango. I was bobbing around so much my head was disappearing from the top of the frame. My arms were slashing back and forth like an ump calling a player safe at the plate, whist my size 13s clumped down so heavily it sounded like the video had a bongo backbeat."
I read it and thought "No! You may not have been elegant but you were not at all like that". The odd bit of overindulgence I can accept and might even enjoy but in this book every paragraph was the same and all the time I was pushing against it.

Towards the end of his career Norman Lewis worried about the "attentioncalling" style of the new generation of travel writers represented by Paul Theroux. I don't know what he would think now, now that the general level of volume has been cranked up to 11.

Norman Lewis's prose was not simple but his style was modest and underplayed, as if it had faith in the extra ordinariness of what he was describing. I wish Christopher McDougall had had the same faith. The Tarahumara are certainly a extraordinary tribe.

I need to put my squeamishness aside and finish the book. However I can still regret that story was not written by  Norman Lewis 30 years ago.

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