REVIEW by Jonathan Edwards

NWR Issue r2

1519: A Journey to The End of Time

by John Harrison

When the award-winning Welsh travel writer John Harrison set out to write a book about the Aztecs, in which he would travel the route along the Mexican coast taken by Hernán Cortés in 1519, he could little have suspected the real journey that awaited him. Halfway through the research for this book, he discovered that he had throat cancer (the treatment for which he explored in an essay, 'My Year as an Island’, for New Welsh Review 103). 1519: A Journey to the End of Time combines his original intention for the book with a meta-narrative of his journey through cancer, so that the completion of the journey through Mexico became a key part of his recovery.

1519: A Journey to the End of Time, then, is a multi-faceted book, and deserves consideration from a range of angles. Firstly, there is Harrison the established travel writer. His style is elegant and sophisticated; he is a charming guide and travelling companion, as this view onto the Yucatán peninsula shows:

Magnificent frigatebirds posted unmistakable silhouettes: a long, deeply forked tail, and angular wings, longer than those of all but the greatest albatrosses, which jut forward at the central joint on the leading edge of each wing. They streaked past at eye-level, pterosaur shapes slipping through time cracks to cast Jurassic shadows on the earth. Below me boats were bumping each other and the stocky wooden piers, but when I went onto the terrace the wind was warm, and chinks of sun were wedging open the low clouds and prising them apart, lighting up strips of ripples on the lagoon.

Equally importantly, Harrison knows how to construct a coherent and page-turning narrative, his skills in structure sometimes even resembling those of the thriller writer. Here is one chapter ending, which finds him, late at night, on a quiet Mexican backstreet. What follows means there’s no way you’ll put this book down before the next chapter:

A single vehicle came into earshot behind, sidling slowly closer through the murk. It was hard to tell how far away it was, as the engine was muffled. It seemed to be at my shoulder. It suddenly braked and pulled close to me.
I jumped. A solidly built man I had never seen before was staring at me from the passenger seat. He turned to his companion, hidden from my sight. I looked up and down the street. It was just me, the big American pick-up truck, two men, and the sleeping dogs.
‘Yes, that’s him.’ They got out. One carried a long knife wrapped in cloth.

If Harrison is a travel writer, he is also a historian, filling you in on the background of the area he visits. Though his writing is always beautiful, in the first section of the book, ‘The Anvil in the Sea,’ I found, as someone with no particular pre-existing interest in the Aztecs, the historical material to be a little dry and unengaging. In the book’s second section, though, when Harrison’s journey gets going, there is some lovely writing about history. Harrison shows himself to be adept at selecting information about the Aztecs’ everyday lives which reveals so much about their culture and thinking. Here is Harrison on an Aztec ball game, revealing fascinating things about attitudes to leisure, time and competition, making us think carefully about those of our own society:

The game operated a little like real tennis, but with a line on the ground instead of a net. In the classic version, the ball was served by hand, then kept in play by arms, hips and thighs. When a team failed to return the ball before the second bounce, they lost the point. It weighed up to eight pounds, so protective hip guards and leg guards were developed to prevent broken pelvises. It is likely that two players from each side were engaged on the court area, while the rest of the team protected the end zones. Scoring was complex. Some courts had stone rings set high on the side of the court, one either side of the centre. If the ball was passed through one, which was extremely difficult to do, the game was won. Other events could take a score back to zero, so games went on for hours, sometimes days. The longest on record took a full week.

So Harrison is a great travel writer and an illuminating historical one. But arguably the greatest achievement of 1519: A Journey to the End of Time, and the most valuable in human terms, lies in Harrison’s account of his battle with cancer. In the book’s first section, chapters on Aztec history alternate with chapters detailing Harrison’s diagnosis, and at this stage one wonders whether Harrison would be better writing a book of only the more personal material, as it is more compelling than the historical material, and I found myself rushing through the Aztec chapters to get to the next piece of personal memoir. Ultimately, though, Harrison’s journey through Mexico becomes heroic evidence of his survival, the strands of the narrative becoming movingly integrated. As he notes when moving through a Mexican village:

I was very happy…A year ago, I had stood at a sixth-floor window in the main tower block of Charing Cross Hospital overlooking the Thames at Hammersmith, gripping my drip stand to steady myself, and watching fireworks drop from parks and gardens, sparkling the sky and the river…. Now I was self-sufficient, an autonomous human being again, not a patient attached through tubes to a hospital. I relished my soul’s content.

On reaching the end of the book, the only question that remained for me was whether Harrison had picked the right subject. An impressive prose stylist, I think I would happily read him writing about a blank wall, but is Mexico and Aztec history the best subject for him? For those with a pre-existing interest in the topic, the book will no doubt be a must, but what does this book offer the rest of us? As I reached the book’s end, I was left wondering whether this brilliant and versatile travel writer finds in this book the best subject or location to match that brilliance.

My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards (Seren) this year won the Costa prize for poetry.

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previous review: The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream
next review: Judas


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