The Whiskey: Powers – John’s Lane 12 years
The Books: Dublinesque by Enrique Vila-Matas and The Dubliners by James Joyce
Literary Dublin of a century ago calls for a dram to which James Joyce himself would give the nod.
Bright gold, with a darkened orange glow and looking very smart in the glass. A dried fruit-filled nose — sweetish, dense and lively. On the palate, smooth yet chewy, sun-dried spice and caramel. Warm, intense, purposeful, an altogether superior dram. Lingers long, and with the best of intentions. (non-chillfiltered, 46% abv)
Powers whiskey dates to 1791, when innkeeper James Power opened the John’s Lane Distillery on St. Thomas Street in Dublin. Over time it prospered, and by 1871, rebuilt in a grand Victorian style, it occupied seven acres, employed 300 people, and distilled nearly a million gallons a year. It was a Dublin landmark, renowned for its pot still whiskies.
When Alfred Barnard, author of the monumental “The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,” visited in 1886 he was more than impressed. Of the kilns he wrote: “. . .indeed elegant buildings. . .with open groined roofs, lined with wood and stained oak, like small English parish churches, in fact superior to many we have seen.” And so the spirit moved him. “The old make… was delicious and finer than anything we had hitherto tasted. It was as perfect in flavour, and as pronounced in the ancient aroma of Irish Whisky as dear to hearts of connoisseurs, as one could possible desire…”
In 1966 Powers, together with Jameson and Cork Distilleries, joined forces under the umbrella of Irish Distillers Ltd. Within a few years Powers’ Dublin operations had closed and was moved to County Cork. Over time the question arose as to what was the taste of the best spirit of the old John’s Lane Distillery. In other words, what had gotten Barnard so fired up?
Hence, the John’s Lane, first released in 2011. Whiskey in the style that made Powers famous — a special mash of malted and unmalted barley that is triple-distilled in traditional copper single pot stills, aged for 12 years, mostly in first-fill American bourbon casks, with a small amount in Spanish oloroso butts.
The result is a fine, historic example of single pot still whiskey that feels like it could have come straight off the production line in 19th century Dublin.
Samuel Riba, the anxiety-driven Spaniard at the centre of Dublinesque, is obsessed with Dublin. Unfortunately for him he lives in Barcelona and speaks no English. A newly retired literary publisher, he’s sorely disillusioned with the state of literature, prone to continuously grieving that he had never published a writer of genius. In what he conceives as a grand gesture, Riba gathers a disparate group of male friends and plans a pilgrimage to the city of James Joyce’s Ulysses, to coincide with Bloomsday, June 16, the day Joyce’s novel unfolds. It will be a funeral for the printed page.
It does not go well. His cohorts are unpredictable and veer from what Riba has in mind. They are prone to drinking sprees while Riba has sworn off alcohol, having solemnly promised his wife he would under no circumstances slip off the wagon. More disconcerting is the roaming, mysterious figure of a thin, bespectacled young man in a trench coat, looking all to much like Joyce’s protégé, Samuel Beckett.
If all this resembles metafictional play with an underlying seriousness, then take comfort that you are in the hands of Enrique Vila-Matas. He is a contemporary master of the genre-bending novel, who long ago eschewed traditional plot and character development as outdated and no longer of any real service to the reader.
Other approaches achieve more interesting ends. To Vila-Matas the author is as much a part of what he has read as he is of personal experience. Literary references abound, far beyond Joyce and Beckett — to Philip Larkin, Nabokov, Paul Auster, Tom Waits, David Cronenberg, Coldplay. The list goes on. Dublinesque is a contorted travelogue, a narrative essay somewhat in the shape of a novel. It is also great fun.
In the end it is about one man coping with the world in which he has found himself, plowing through, oscillating between joy and despair, making what he can of a wife who has turned to Buddhism, parents he can never satisfy, and companions who seem one unspannable step from deeper friendship.
Vila-Matas has written, “We are amazed by writers who believe that the more empirical and prosaic they are, the closer they get to the truth, when in fact the more details you pile up, the further that takes you away from reality.”
In his view reality cannot be “trapped and narrated.” Writers should give up trying. Vila-Matas has written dozens of books, translated into some thirty languages, to support his argument.
Vila-Mantas returns again and again to James Joyce. He is a founding member of a group calling itself the Order of the Finnegans, whose members venerate Joyce’s Ulysses. He is likely less taken with Joyce’s first book and its multi-layered realism (or in Vila-Matas mind, what passes for realism).
The Dubliners, despite how far some authors, including Joyce himself, have veered from its approach to fiction, is a stunning collection of short stories, as memorable as any set to print in the hundred years since it was published. Again and again it sets language adrift from the story itself, universal in its simplicity and depth, taking the reader, as the sequence of the stories do, from childhood to old age.
“The cold air stung us and we played till our bodies glowed.” (Araby)
“She respected her husband in the same way as she respected the General Post Office, as something large, secure and fixed: and though she knew the small number of his talents she appreciated his abstract value as a male.” (A Mother)
“One by one they were all becoming shades.” (The Dead)
To which I would add, “The light music of whisky falling into glasses made an agreeable interlude.” (Grace)
The book was written when Joyce was in his early 20s, about the Dublin that he knew, its streets and dwellings holding secrets only the most keen observer of human nature could capture with such unobtrusive insight. The stories give their characters space to be who they are without judgement, almost without authorial direction. They are who they are, our entry into their lives often cut abruptly, as if to say, you had your look, move on. Life goes on.
The manuscript of The Dubliners was rejected by a total of fifteen publishers. Some thought parts crude, sacrilegious, libellous, (twice it got as far as the printer, who refused to bring it to press). No one, however, would deny its mastery of language. By the time it was published, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was in print and Ulysses was already taking shape. The Dubliners sold a few hundred copies and fell out of view.
Only to come to light years later as the ground-breaking work that it is. Maybe for postmodernists, it can’t capture reality. But for the rest of us it connects to our own reality and that is meaningful and very good.
The Rum: El Dorado – 21-year-old Special Reserve
The Book: The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Bhattacharya
I know very little about Guyana, other than it was once called British Guiana and is the only English-speaking country in South America. I need to broaden my horizon line.
The impact of El Dorado 21 is immediate. From the bronzed mahogany hue in the glass, to the dried fruit and spice on the nose, to the smooth blend of spice and oak and the touch of smoke on the palate, this rum has exceptional written all over it. It has to be one of the very best widely-distributed aged rums in the world. Sip neat and treasure, and share with the closest of friends. (43% abv)
In the 1700s Guyana could boast of more than 300 independent rum producers. Over the centuries the number waned through closures and mergers, until, by 1998, only one remained — Demerara Distillers Limited at the Diamond Estate on the East Bank of the Demerara River.
Home to El Dorado rums, it can point to over three centuries of rum-making history. One need go no farther than its exceptional range of stills to comprehend just how important that long tradition is to present-day production.
The 21-year-old has been blended from the products of three heritage stills: the Wooden Continuous Coffey, the last working example of this type of still in the world, active since 1880; the Single and the Double Wooden Pot Stills, over 250 years old, constructed of local green heartwood; and the tall, four-column 18th century French Savalle Still. DDL has several more stills and under Master Distiller George Robinson produces a remarkable 9 distinct rum styles (marques), carefully aged, offering Master Blender Amar Seweda an unprecedented inventory from which to choose.
The sugar cane used in the rum production is grown along the fertile banks of the Demerara River. Once harvested, it is taken by barge to a sugar factory where the canes are crushed and the juice extracted. The molasses by-product, produced from boiling the juice, is known for its unique profile. Transported to the distillery, it is pumped into huge storage tanks, awaiting the start of the fermentation process.
The various stills deliver their signature rums which are matured in 45-gallon, hand-coopered oak casks, some for as much as 30 years, bearing in mind that Guyana’s tropical climate speeds the aging process considerably. Warehouse capacity will soon reach an amazing 85,000 casks.
Eventually casks are chosen and the fine art of blending is undertaken. In the case of our rum, the minimum barrel age is 21 years. Slow and steady is the route to bottling. Not a race, but absolutely a winner.
If the author, Rahul Bhattacharya, didn’t deny it, you might swear this is a travelogue, a rich and entertaining one, but at its heart an account of the author’s year-long stay in Guyana. He is, after all, an Indian national and a cricket writer, like the narrator, and the two are roughly the same age. Both were overwhelmingly captivated by the country. But in interviews Bhattacharya assures the reader the book is a novel. And doesn’t it say so right on the front cover?
A conventional novel it is not. The storyline is loose and meandering. A reader is not left on the edge of any seat, in anticipation of a gripping turn in the plot, with the exception of wondering if the unnamed narrator’s visa will expire before he makes it out of the country.
But, like any book, The Sly Company of People Who Care is better described for what it is than what it is not. It is an exhilarating exploration of a little-appreciated country and its people. It is an all-consuming encounter with what multicultural isolation can do to language. It is at once tender and abrasive, a characher-rich, landscape-rich delight of a “novel.”
At the end of the first chapter Bhattacharya says this of Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city: “It was a lovely raining day, the kind of Georgetown January day that would singe me forever. Clothes flew on the line against a palm. Wooden houses cried on corners. A frangipani dripped over a crook paling. A goat bleated through thick slanting drops. The trenches were aglimmer darkly. Guyana was elemental, water and earth, mud and fruit, race and crime, innocent and full of scoundrels.”
Battacharya has a soft spot for scoundrels and eccentrics, of which there are more than a few in the book. When he ventures into the country’s interior as a “porknocker” (a prospector for diamonds and gold) it is in the company of Baby, an irascible scamp who repeatedly claims he once slashed someone to death with nine strokes of his cutlass.
He’s a forewarning of local colour. Baby declares at one point: “You make what you make so when you dead you can tell the big man you enjai you life.” Then there’s Dr Red, and the Siddiques, and Ramotar Seven Curry (“an extremely short man…with a belly like a perfectly formed vat”), whose mission in life would seem to be to attend as many weddings as humanly possible, his record being nine in one weekend.
The story is woven through with Guyanese history, politics, and music, all with an edge of the surreal. There’s the inevidable mix of drugs. And a misadventure of a love affair towards the end of the book, the closest we have to a storyline. No reader need be surprised when the passion dissipates, and the underlying humour of the situation takes hold. (Rich and unpredictable, humour is a constant charm through the book.)
I suspect there is much of Guyana that escapes this book, including a determined segment of the middle class out to make a better life for themselves and their children, citizenry who speak without a trace of creole. But that is not where the writer’s interest lies. And his perspective, after all, is that of an outsider, an interloper.
It’s one with a deep respect for the characters who truly call Guyana home, for the rhythm and texture of their dialect, for their insight into the ways of the incredible world that surrounds them. It delivers a captivating, generous novel of high order.
The Whisky: Abhainn Dearg – Single Malt
The Books: The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, The Chessmen by Peter May
When the best whisky for the job is too darned expensive by the bottle, then you resort to miniatures. Three wee ones for a trilogy of books.
A three-year-old that’s showing pale, pale straw in the glass. Yet surprisingly strong on the nose. Dominated by maltiness and dried grass, with hints of fruit. Limited wood influence. On the palate, malt-driven, still a bit raw. Honey and spice beginning to work through. Unfinished business with plenty of potential. More time in the barrel should settle it down into a mature, distinctive dram. (46% abv, no added colour, non-chillfiltered.)
Abhainn Dearg (Gaelic, pronounced AV-in JERR-eg) generates interest by its location alone. Founded in 2008 near the remote hamlet of Uig on the Scottish Isle of Lewis, it is the first legal distillery in the Outer Hebrides in two hundred years. The idea of local entrepreneur Mark Tayburn, it turned the premises of a derelict salmon hatchery into the most westerly distillery in Scotland.
It draws water from the mountain streams that converge in their lower reaches as Abhainn Dearg (in English “Red River”). It is pristine. mineral-rich, untouched by human habitation, let alone industry. The barley is sourced locally, some of which has been planted especially for the distillery, the first grown in Uig in living memory.
The emphasis is on traditional production methods, “from field to bottle,” as Tayburn is fond of saying. So much so that the design of Abhainn Dearg’s two stills is reminiscent of the illicit stills once common on the island.
Production amounts to 400 to 600 litres per year. Most of it ends up in ex-bourbon American oak. The plan is to release a standard bottling after 7+ years. Hopefully it will be released at a decent price. Heads were shaking when the three-year-old hit retail outlets at £150 for a 50cl bottle. For an unproven dram, many found the price point baffling, something aimed directly at collectors. This whisky deserves a wider audience.
No problems with audience size for Peter May. His trilogy of novels set in the Outer Hebrides continues to sell very well.
Peter May has spent most of his working life as a script writer for television. When he gave it up in favour of writing crime novels, it was only natural to draw upon the setting of a TV series he co-created as a locale for his literary efforts. The series was Machair, a subtitled Gaelic drama and an unexpected hit for Scottish television in the 1990s. May’s first novels were set in China and France, but with The Blackhouse he returned to the Scottish islands he had grown to know and love during the six years he spent working on the TV shows.
The strength of the novels is in the characters that populate them — fiercely proud, independent people eking out an existence in an inhospitable but ruggedly beautiful landscape, where religion and weather hold unusual sway. The folks are tough, but the natural environment is very much tougher.
The central character of all three books is Fin Macleod, a native of Lewis who has returned to the islands from police detective duties in Edinburgh. In each book there is a gruesome murder and Fin, of course, is at the centre of the investigations into solving them. His return to the islands dredges up old memories, the past lives proving to be as interesting as the present ones.
There are various family members, his boyhood pals, and the young woman Marsaili, the love of his life whom he left behind. Upstanding citizens share the stage with the ne’er-do-wells. All vividly portrayed. As vividly as the setting. For the Outer Hebrides themselves garner as much of the writer’s attention as the people who inhabit them. Rarely is crime fiction so atmospheric, rarely is the setting so important to understanding the characters.
These are much more than crime novels. May himself places them in the tradition of the French roman noir. They stand as literary fiction within the crime genre, which is perhaps the reason the first in the series failed to find a UK publisher, until translated versions became bestsellers in other parts of Europe. If you like crime fiction that sticks to the crime, beware. If you like well told stories in which character often supersedes the crimes, settle in and enjoy.
Although May hadn’t intended to write a trilogy, the success of the first led to The Lewis Man, and then to The Chessmen. While each can be read as a standalone, the story of the second book expands on the first. The third less so, veering in a different direction. It takes us less into the fascinating, longstanding traditions of the islands and the often eccentric individuals who live there. Likely it was May’s intention to pull our perception of Outer Hebrides into the 21st century. Yet to supplant characters whom readers have grown attached to through two books, with, among other things, the self-centred antics of a rock band (Gaelic though it is) seems a miscalculation.
Nevertheless, the final book in the trilogy did give May the opportunity to reference the emergence of a brand new whisky distillery on the islands — Abhainn Dearg, the first since 1844, as he tells the reader. And to Fin Macleod he hands a very positive tasting note. Indeed, “It’s a fine whisky.” A character reference hardly to be disputed. Slàinte!
The Whisky: Hibiki – 12 Years old
The Book: Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata
Considering its title, the book might seem a bit out of season, but the weather’s not been the warmest this June. The cherry blossoms arrived late, and the sight of them invariably turns this whisky drinker’s thoughts to Japan.
The glass holds amber gold. A luxuriant nose combining a wealth of subtle aromas, integrated layers of flowers and fruit, laced with caramel and honey warmed with citrus zest. On the palate, a host of malty fruit flavours, a little sweet, a little creamy, but with enough fire and spice to keep it unpredictable. Lingers very nicely indeed. Blending at its best. (43% abv)
Part of the experience of this well-crafted whisky is the vessel which holds it. The glass bottle has 24 facets, corresponding to the 24 seasons of the old Japanese lunar calendar. The word Hibiki means ‘resonance’; it embodies harmony. The philosophy of its parent company Suntory is “In Harmony with People and Nature.” Worthy then of the book.
Suntory dates from 1899. In 1923 its owner, Shinjiro Torii, founded Japan’s first whisky distillery, Yamazaki, not far from Kyoto. His inspiration came from the best Scotch and, on a practical level, he employed Masataka Taketsuru, who had travelled to Scotland and gained considerable distilling experience there. Fifty years later Torii’s son, Keizo Saji, expanded Suntory with the construction of a second distillery, Hakushu, in the forests of southern Japan.
Hibiki 12 is a blend of more than 30 whiskies, malt from these two distilleries, as well as grain from Suntory’s lesser known Chita Distillery. Some have been aged in Mizunara, a rare Japanese oak, others in casks previously used to mature plum liqueur, umeshu. The whiskies have been aged a minimum of 12 years, some as much as 30 years. The blended whisky undergoes a process of bamboo charcoal filtering.
Hibiki 12 and its kin, the Hibiki 17, 21, and 30 year olds, have taken blending to a high art in Japan, and their cache of awards from global competitions means they often outclass whatever the rest of the world, including Scotland, has on offer. Japanese whisky is far from a novelty any longer. Hibiki is clear, harmonious evidence of that.
Snow Country, Nobel winner Yasunari Kawabata‘s 1947 novel, is a story encased by its setting, a mountainous hot springs resort located to the west of the Japan Alps and noted for its heavy snowfalls. Today it is an hour by train from Tokyo. At the time of the story the town was much more isolated, offering a distant escape for a Tokyo man seeking a sensuous respite from his wife and family.
Shimamura is making his second visit there when the novel opens. He is anxious to reunite with Komako, a young geisha still in training, who is both attracted to and wary of the man. She remembers how much she hated to see him leave the first time he visited. But theirs is a tumultuous relationship that never seems to settle long enough to satisfy them both. It allows the reader moments of great tenderness contrasted with impetuous anger fuelled by the woman’s drinking.Through it all we are never certain of Shimamura’s motivation. Does he want companionship or something more? Does he even experience love, either towards his wife or Komako? Why does he return to visit Komako a third time? A distinctly Japanese sensibility overrides the narrative. Admirers of the book often compare it to haiku. Kawabata is not so much telling a story as he is defining a space in which characters and nature interact, slowly unveiling some inner truths.There are exquisite visual moments, all the more powerful for their restraint. The novel deliberately slows the reader and encourages absorbing the narrative one sentence at a time. Think of it as sensual uplift, rather like fine Japanese whisky in a beautifully crafted bottle.
The Whisky: Mackinlay’s Blended Malt – The Journey
The Book: Shackleton’s Whisky by Neville Peat
If there was ever a spirit and a book destined for pairing, it would be the recreated “Shackleton whisky” and the book that tells the extraordinary story of how it came to be.
Surprisingly, a light golden yellow in the glass, with near delicate nose of fruit and vanilla. Peat a definite but unobtrusive presence. On the palate is warming spice, a honey caramel richness that lingers nicely. A beautiful piece of blending and well worth the wait of over a hundred years. (47.3% abv)
In 1907 Ernest Shackleton and his 14-man shore party set forth on the famed Nimrod expedition to Antarctica. His goal – to be the first person ever to reach the South Pole. They built a substantial base hut at Cape Royds on Ross Island, stocking it with more than enough provisions to last their year-long stay. Among the comforts were 25 12-bottle cases of Mackinlay’s Rare Old Highland Malt from the Glen Mhor Distillery of Inverness.
Shackleton came within 112 miles of the Pole before abandoning his attempt. He eventually abandoned the hut as well, in a rush to escape the onset of winter ice, leaving behind an array of food and equipment. Under the floor boards were the cases of whisky that hadn’t been consumed. The boxes were frozen in time, but the whisky at 47.3% alcohol remained stable, waiting for the time future visitors to the site would discover it.
That didn’t happen until a hundred years later. In 2007 conservationists doing restoration work on the hut for the New Zealand Antarctic Heritage Trust came upon three ice-covered crates beneath the floor boards. Three years later one of the cases was removed and transported in its frozen state to the Canterbury Museum in New Zealand. There, over a two week period, its temperature was very slowly raised to the thawing point. Eleven of the bottles were still perfectly intact, inside their paper covering and straw.
Whyte & Mackay, Glasgow owners of the Mackinlay brand, were stunned to hear the news. Would it be possible, they wondered aloud, and in the ears of the NZ Antarctic Heritage Trust, to return a couple of the bottles to Scotland for analysis by the experts at Whyte & Mackay? And if, by chance, it proved to be a reasonably good dram still, would be possible for a master blender to replicate it, and bring it to market in a limited edition, a portion of the retail price going back to the Trust? Indeed so. After much negotiation, and much experimentation by master blender Richard Paterson, The Discovery edition was released in 2011, to much acclaim. It sold very well, so well in fact that late the following year a second, slightly different version, The Journey edition, hit the market, again in a replica bottle. This time each bottle was covered in a sheath of straw, as were the originals, and packaged together with a collection of maps and photographs, and an account of the expedition and the story behind the bottle.
It’s an impressive presentation. And a very impressive dram, not at all what you might expect of a whisky from a century ago. And just what went into it? Glen Mhor 1980, cask number 1909, Glenfarclas, Mannochmore, Tamnavulin, Ben Nevis, Aultmore, Fettercairn, Pulteney, heavily peated Dalmore, Jura aged in Limousin oak casks.
Sounds like a deft bit of blending to me.
Neville Peat had already written four books on Antarctica when he was commissioned to write the story of the Shackleton whisky. It appears to have been a labour of love from the start. He combines a vivid account of the 1907 expedition, with the story of the order for Mackinlay whisky that Shackleton had sent off to the distiller. Shackleton himself had no great fondness for alcohol (in his youth he had led temperance marches), but correctly anticipated there would be times when 15 men together in a hut of 58 square metres, especially in the total darkness of the Antarctic winter, could do with a little cheering up.
The gripping tale of polar exploration (roughly two-thirds of the book), unfolds with one eye always on the whisky. And when the book turns to the rediscovery of the bottles a century later and the efforts to replicate it for public consumption, the story, if a little less dramatic, is no less exciting. Peat has done a marvellous job. And to hold the replicated whisky in hand while reading the book is rather fun. And the next best thing to going back in time to sit on one of the hut’s bunks and raise a dram to Shackleton and his intrepid mates.
The Tequila: Don Agustín – Añejo
The Books: Pedro Páramo and The Plain in Flames by Juan Rulfo
If the drink in one hand was distilled in the state of Jalisco in Mexico (as almost all the best tequilas are), then it only makes sense that the book in the other hand was written by Jalisco’s best writer ever. (Some would argue Mexico’s best writer, ever.)
Pale gold in the glass, from where its aromas arise — spicy, oak-tinted, honey. Toasted warm on the palate, with a creamy, balanced mix of spice. Lovely on its own, or with a thin wedge of lime. (40% abv)
Don Agustín añejo is made from premium blue agave grown in the eastern Los Altos (The Highlands) region of Jalisco. Here, at elevations nearing 2,500 metres, there is less rain and cooler temperatures, allowing the plants to mature more slowly and resulting in more intense flavours. Harvesting is done by experienced “jimadores” who extract the weighty, rounded core of the plant, the piña, using a special circular blade on a long pole. The piñas are split and slow roasted in wood and clay ovens for several days, using a traditional steam method, then shredded and the juice extracted. Diverted to vats, the juice ferments over several days, before ending up in stainless steel pot stills where a double distillation takes place. It is the middle distillate, the corazon, that makes up the body of the tequila. Don Agustín is aged in American white oak barrels for 12 months. It is estate bottled at the distillery in Arandas, the town co-founded by the Camarena family 250 years ago.
The distillery itself dates from 1938, the vision of Don Augustín Camarena (that’s his picture on the bottle). It has grown to the fourth largest in Mexico, with over one thousand hectares and three million agave plants under cultivation. Don Augustín is its limited, reserved line of tequila.
First published in Mexico in 1955, Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo is considered one of the greatest works of Latin American literature. It proved to be a profound influence on major writers who followed, including Gabriel García Márquez. The book is set in the Mexican village of Comala, to which Juan Preciado arrives, having made a promise to his dying mother that he would search out his father whom he has not known since he was a young child. In the mother’s words, “Make him pay, son, for all those years he put us out of his mind.” His father is Pedro Páramo, but Comala, where he lived, is literally a ghost town.
The people who walk the streets and inhabit the houses have been long dead, though they remain as real as if they still breathed the stifling hot air. Their worlds circle around Pedro Páramo, the chief land owner and, by all accounts, a tyrant. Their voices swirl over the memorizing landscape, and on occasion we are not sure who they belong to, creating a novel of fragments that come together loosely, hauntingly, an ephemeral mélange of history and violence that formed the fabric of rural Mexico.
Pedro Páramo is unlike any Latin American novel that came before it, although at the time of its publication it made barely a ripple in literary circles. In subsequent years the novel was rediscovered and has come to be much revered. In the thirty years of his life that followed its appearance, Rulfo would not publish another work of fiction. He had said all he wanted to say in two short books.
A collection of short stories, The Plain in Flames, had been published two years earlier.
This book is even more remarkable. There are some stories among them that will stay with a reader a lifetime.
Set in rural Jalisco in the 1930s and 40s, these are stories of peasants scarred by government neglect, by poverty and violence, fighting to retain their dignity against the realities of post-revolutionary Mexico. Many are close to monologues, confessionals by characters whose Catholic religion has betrayed them, who struggle against bitterness to find meaning in their lives.
One might expect such stories to be rife with anger, mired in grim description. Rulfo was too skilled a writer to take that route. His stories are relatively short, his language distilled to something at once genuine and deeply layered, without being stylized or self-important.
In “It’s Because We ‘re So Poor,” while a flood rages, a young boy sits with his sister who has just seen her cow washed away, a present from father, something he had hoped would attract a husband and prevent her from becoming a prostitute like her sisters. In “You Don’t Hear Dogs Barking” a father carries overland on his back his injured son, in an attempt to reach a doctor, all the while trying to find reasons why his son has turned against his family and allowed himself to be lured into crime. Summaries do no justice to The Plain in Flames, to the nuance and astuteness in their telling. Rulfo died in 1986. His short stories stand with the best in any language.
The Rhum Agricole: Distillerie La Favorite – La Flibuste
The Book: Solibo Magnificent by Patrick Chamoiseau
I’ve just returned from Martinique, where I sipped the island’s superb rhum agricole, La Flibuste, while reading books by its outstanding contemporary writer, Patrick Chamoiseau.
THE RUM (RHUM AGRICOLE)
This Vintage Cuvée 1984 brings a dark mahogany glow to the glass. To the nose, honeyed spice layered with caramel, oak, dried fruits. To the palate, an intricately rich but smooth amalgam of dark spice and fruit, with a quiet edge that lingers long and warm. I’m in awe of this exceptionally well-crafted rhum agricole. The rum (rhum) gods are smiling. (40% abv)
On our second day in Martinique we found our way to Distillerie La Favourite. The site was chosen in 1842 for its water supply, Rivière La Jambette, now not far outside what became the island’s capital, Fort de France. The visit proved a step back in time, an all-senses encounter with the long tradition of rum-making in Martinique. There was the ancient steam engine (the only one still in use in any of the island’s ten distilleries), the workers raking mounds of the sugarcane fibre waste (bagasse) used to fuel it, the bubbling, fermenting vats and their intoxicating aromas, the long lines of aging casks, and the relatively few holding La Flibustre, a collection of distinctive bottles nearby, waiting to be filled.
In 1905 the distillery was purchased by the Dormoy family, and four succeeding generations have taken charge of it. Today La Favourite is one of only two independent, family-owned and operated distilleries remaining in Martinique.
It was André Dormoy who fought for two decades to get the AOC (Appellation d’Origin Contrôlée) designation for the rhum agricole of Martinique. In 1996, the authorities in France finally agreed.
AOC designation protects the reputation of French regional food and drink by ensuring they are produced using standards that maintain their quality. In this case it designates the area of the island the sugarcane can be grown; bans the use of any substances that promote maturation of the cane; specifies restrictions on cultivation yields, irrigation, time of harvest, sugar content, as well as the methods of juice extraction and fermentation.
AOC Martinique Rhum Agricole is made from sugarcane juice obtained by grinding and pressing the freshly cut sugarcane, unlike most rums which are made from molasses. Its standards of production have allowed it to carve out a unique place in the rum world. The best of the Martinique aged rums are highly prized and La Favorite’s La Flibuste is a stand-out among them.
La Flibuste (translation: buccaneer) carries one of the oldest age statements of any commercially produced rum in the Eastern Caribbean. Our Vintage Cuvée 1984 has spent 30 years in ex-cognac oak barrels. Only 5,000 bottles of La Flibuste are available each year, making it a rarity among rums, and leading me to think I must get a second bottle to take home.
Author Patrick Chamoiseau was born in 1953 in Fort de France, where he still lives. He has worked for years with young offenders, and has still found time to write several much-lauded books, including the masterful, Prix Goncourt-winning novel Texaco. An earlier novel Solibo Magnificent, published in 1988, appeared in English a decade later, expertly translated by Rose-Myriam Réjouis and Val Vinokurov.
Translation could not have been an easy task, for the novel is all about language and the role it assumes in present day Martinique. The language here, a French – Creole mix, highlights the vigorous linguistic interplay on the island and its impact on the survival of Creole as a distinct culture.
In 1989 Chamoiseau was one of three writers to issue the literary manifesto “Elogé de la créolité” in which forceful argument was made for the use of Creolese, the language of the ordinary people, if the island’s literature is to truthfully capture its culture.
Solibo Magnificent exuberantly reinforces that argument. The title character, a renowned Creole storyteller, lies dead in the first few pages, “throat snickt by the word” under a tamarind tree in the Savanne, the large park in downtown Fort de France.
It is to the Savanne that I took the book to photograph it, and it is here I imagined the parade of the 14 witnesses to the death, all suspects in what the police presume is murder. Chamoiseau takes the form of the crime novel and transforms it into an entertaining, verbally robust, earthy reflection on the survival of Creole customs and language.
The police probe is led by Chief Inspector Evariste Pilon, with Sergeant Bouaffess and an inept pair of subordinates, doing the legwork. The witnesses demonstrate the diversity of Martinique society and include the author himself, “the word snatcher,” as he prefers to be thought of. The interrogations are intense, often brutal (two of the witnesses die), and in the end prove nothing. As much as it defies reality, the Chief Inspector is forced to conclude that Solibo succumbed to “word-strangulation.”
Is the novel suggesting that the island’s rich Creole oral tradition is destined to fade away entirely? Can the work of writers such as Chamoiseau help preserve it? It can at least capture it, hold the taste of it, echo the acoustic charms of it. Even if it is transposed to a different, a written, form.
Once the bulk of the story is told, Chamoiseau writes his “After the Word.” Here Solibo himself takes centre stage, in what is the book’s “tour de force.” It’s best to leave the last words to the storyteller, to the word snatcher.
“so kids if you see Solibo dead and Gwadloup comes to furrow his body bury him under a barrel of rum no crying kids ’cause under the barrel Solibo will be partying every drop of rum of the barrel of rum will flow down his throat for rum bury him under the barrel kids bury him under the barrel and when the priest comes to give him rum for his sprinkler Sobibo will be happy every drop of rum from the rum sprinkler will flow down his rum snout and if the priest says ‘et spiritus sanctus’ will you reply with the song?
SECULARUM IS RUM!”