I’ve read some excellent Charco Press titles in the past; Carla Maliandi’s The German Room, Margarita Garcia Robayo’s Fish Soup and recently Claudia Piñeiro’s Elena Knows are ones that particularly come to mind. Sebastián Martínez Daniell from Argentina is a new author to join the Charco stable, and his book Two Sherpas, translated by Jennifer Croft, is among the first titles from Charco’s 2023 catalogue. My verdict – I thought it was excellent.
In the beginning, two Sherpas peer over the edge of a precipice staring at the depths below where a British climber lies sprawled among the rocks. Almost near the top of Mount Everest, the silence around them is intense, punctuated by the noise of the gushing wind (“If the deafening noise of the wind raveling over the ridges of the Himalayas can be considered silence”). Wishing to emulate the feat of many others before him, the Englishman had aimed to ascend the summit but that ambition now is clearly in disarray. Assisting him in the climb are two Sherpas, one a young man, the other much older, but with this sudden accident, the Sherpas are in a quandary on how to best respond.
Thus, in a span of barely ten to fifteen minutes and using this particular moment as a central story arc, the novel brilliantly spins in different directions in a vortex of themes and ideas that encompass the mystery of the majestic Mount Everest, its significance in the history of imperialist Britain, the ambition of explorers to ascend its summit, attitudes of foreigners towards the Sherpa community to Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and Rome.
Interwoven with these swirling eddies of facts and snippets of information is a character study of the two Sherpas – an examination of those immediate seconds before the Englishman’s fall to dramatic forays into their pasts giving the reader a glimpse of their thoughts and their worldviews.
Referred to as the young Sherpa and the old Sherpa throughout the text, we are also privy to their opinions of each other. While their vocation is the common factor that binds them, it becomes apparent that the two Sherpas barely know each other and don’t necessarily share their inner thoughts and feelings.
The fact that there’s not much trust between the two is revealed in the unfurling of those moments before the British climber’s fall, an accident that none of the two Sherpas witness. We are told that the old Sherpa led the way, the British climber was in the middle and the young Sherpa brought up the rear. Approaching a bend in the mountain and looking ahead, the young Sherpa sees his older colleague and the Englishman disappear. The young Sherpa has those brief seconds all to himself until he comes around the bend and sees his compatriot leaning over and staring into the abyss. With no knowledge of the real chain of events, the young Sherpa is left to wonder whether it was a genuine accident or a deliberate push by his partner.
With this locus of the immediate present, the novel reaches dizzying heights with its detours and digressions into a range of topics that cover history, topography, drama, Impressionism (“If the two Sherpas were Impressionist painters, the older man would be Renoir, and the younger Monet”)and so on. In terms of structure, the book comprises 100 chapters in the form of vignettes and snapshots that either displays a number or a title. As far as length goes, most chapters are either a single paragraph or a couple of pages long, while a few run into 4-5 pages when they are delving into the protagonists’ pasts.
A TALE OF TWO SHERPAS
At its very core, the book dwells on the personalities of the two Sherpas. The young Sherpa is tormented by academic uncertainty, first contemplating a career in naval engineering, maybe even law only to subsequently veer towards thoughts of a diplomatic career. He is hesitant about discussing these options with the old Sherpa fearing the latter’s likely cynicism or even patronizing advice. The other thought that occupies the young Sherpa’s mind is his impending role as Flavius in the Shakespearean play Julius Caesar to be dramatized by his school. His role is not necessarily significant but his lines open the play, a fact that petrifies him.
Memorising the lines of two or even three different characters is no small feat for a teenager with rudimentary training in acting. But the young Sherpa has been shown some mercy here. Being the newest student in the workshop and the only one who has to face making his stage debut, he has had the good fortune to land a very simple role: Flavius, a less-than-supporting character who appears in just one scene. There is, however, a catch. That exclusive intervention occurs at the opening of the first scene of the first act. The moment the curtain is drawn and, in the dark, the audience falls into the most ominous of silences.
This role of Flavius forms a pretext that allows the novel to devote a few chapters to ancient Rome and the dialogues between Flavius and the common people; the former criticizing the latter for celebrating Julius Caesar’s victory following Pompey’s defeat (“Home, you idle creatures, get you home!”); a section that is probably a reflection on the theme of empire and servitude and also mirrors some of the feelings of the Sherpas themselves towards their unfortunate client and foreigners in general.
“And so we have an outline of our Flavius already: elitist, demanding, authoritarian. Why? Where did he get such a feeling of impunity? Who does he think he is to talk to the plebeians that way? How dare he expel these citizens from the very streets of Rome?”
Meanwhile, the old Sherpa has his baggage to deal with. While the young Sherpa is a symbol of youth, optimism and aspiration, his older compatriot is world-weary, cynical and maybe even a tad defeated. While his younger peer has scaled the summit twice, the old Sherpa has yet to achieve that feat even once. That his latest expedition has also come to naught only fuels his contempt for the fallen Englishman. What’s more, the old Sherpa wasn’t born a Sherpa; he elects to be one much later. And that thought keeps nagging him. Why did he choose the mountains? Why not the prairies, the tropics, or even the sea? It seems that subconsciously his heightened desire to get away from the sea has formed the basis for the path he has chosen. This is explored through his strange experience as a youth on a beach resort on an unnamed island; he encounters a young woman called Rabbit, a cashier at the resort’s supermarket, whose persistent crying buries deep into his brain, its sound and his inability to help keep tormenting him through his nights.
THEMES AND IDEAS – SCALING NEW HEIGHTS
In its many asides and excursions, the novel first explores the mystique of Mount Everest. The allure of its conquest reigns supreme till the time it is first scaled by New Zealander Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, only to see that aura gradually fade when a slew of climbers subsequently go on to scale its summit.
The themes of colonialism and empire make their way to the mountains too. Snippets of history give a flavour of Britain’s persistence in turning Mount Everest into a symbol of its superiority and its imperialist leanings. Two Sherpas also touches upon the themes of servitude and exploitation, particularly in the doleful manner the Sherpa community is treated. The old Sherpa gives us a first taste of this when he laments at how the Sherpas are labeled porters rather than equals on foreign shores. There’s also a sense of the Sherpa community being taken for granted by climbers, explorers and their governments. Non-Sherpas ascending the summits are feted for their achievements and heavily lauded, but the Sherpas go unnoticed on the fallacy that since mountaineering is ingrained in their psyche, scaling the summits is a matter of course for them and not a feat.
On the one hand, a reproduction of Turner, the Tibetan songs, the polished parquet of a spacious apartment in Amsterdam, or Zurich. Almost all of what’s wrong with this world. ‘Porters’, they call us when they’re there, these people. What people? These people: the people who visit the mountain. These people: self-indulgent visitors, thinks the old Sherpa. Those who see themselves as ‘mountaineers’, or ‘climbers’. A few, aware of their limitations, add a direct modifier, something adjectival, that limits their scope: ‘amateur mountaineer’, for example. Or ‘fledgling mountaineer’. But for the Sherpas, anyone who comes to the mountain with the intention of ascending is a visitor, plain and simple, an undesirable. A tourist. That much can be taken for granted. We are Sherpas; they are tourists.
In the immediate present, the attitude of the two Sherpas towards the fallen Englishman gives an inkling of their views. The young Sherpa is largely indifferent to the plight of his client, who is probably dead. Maybe so many climbers had perished earlier on the mountains that this Englishman is also now relegated to the ignominy of another statistic. And yet, a part of him feels that maybe his response is not correct, some empathy is required although it does not come easy. The old Sherpa seems contemptuous of the Englishman’s sorry fate, even derisive, inwardly commenting on the absurdity of flitting expressions on his client’s face in those split seconds before his fall.
But foreigners are not the only ones to treat the Sherpas unfairly; they are also prey to the Nepalese government which is lured by the money to be made from commercial tourism. A deadly avalanche in the mountains that kills sixteen Sherpas hardly elicits much empathy or thoughtful response from the cultural ministry.
The quest to reach the top of Mount Everest is also a meditation on ambition and exploration. What is it about the Himalayas that draws so many aspiring climbers and mountaineers? Why does the need to reach the summit run so deep? What drives people to achieve this feat despite the dangers involved? Is it a personal milestone or a yearning for wider fame and acclaim?
LANGUAGE AND TRANSLATION – A DUAL FEAT OF IMAGINATION
What’s remarkable about Two Sherpas is the language and Daniell’s descriptive powers; a linguistic feat that fuels an explosion of vocabulary that can sometimes confound but is mostly dazzling. The prose is detailed and carefully articulated in the way each idea, theme, or thought is presented; often giving the impression of looking through a magnifying glass to gaze at every facet of the story and the interiority of its characters. While Daniell’s writing is truly unique and original, credit must also go to Jennifer Croft’s brilliant translation of a prose style that is sumptuous and intricate but must have been a challenge to translate.
In a nutshell, Two Sherpas is a brilliant, vividly imagined, richly layered novel that gives the reader much to ponder and think about. Highly recommended!