The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Wednesday, December 14, 2005


From Iain Finlayson’s The Scots (Oxford, 1987):

The Highlanders want less, generally, while the Lowlanders want considerably more. Moray McLaren in The Scots, published in 1951, analyses the Highlanders’ character with some subtlety, claiming that they march to a different tempo to the rest of the British, that their apparent idleness is in fact due to a different [and, I’d argue, more humane] concept of time. [See also “Repent, Harlequin!” said the Ticktockman] […] People of the mountains and those who live by the ocean are peculiarly prone to this sort of faith in the slow, undying movements of nature that heal all things and reshape them according to ineffable laws that tend towards the balance of all things. Their apparent apathy, therefore, can be explained and excused by the Highlanders’ sense of fatalism. As McLaren puts it: ‘his greatest temptation when faced by crude, cruel material, men and circumstances, over which his bravery cannot, or does not seem likely to, prevail, is to withdraw too easily into an inner world of his own thoughts, inactive, dignified, and doomed.’ [p. 39]

Compare this to Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (Penguin):

As I listened I thought once again how precarious was the existence of the Bedu. Their way of life naturally made them fatalists; so much was beyond their control. It was impossible for them to provide for a morrow when everything depended on a chance fall of rain or when raiders, sickness or any one of a hundred chance happenings might at any time leave them destitute, or end their lives. They did what they could, and no people were more self-reliant, but if things went wrong they accepted their fate without bitterness, and with dignity as the will of God. [pp 226-7]

I might also add an anecdote from Thomson’s Nairn in Darkness and Light about a family who had been flooded out of their black house; this was the third time that this had happened to one of them, an old man in his seventies, but somehow he remained resigned and even cheerful. At least, I’d add it if I could find it.

The key factor here, of course, is poverty. If you don’t have the resources to change things, you accept them. But it has an interesting corollary, which is the vendetta. Thesiger again:

Vindictive as this age-old law of a life for a life and a tooth for a tooth might be, I realised none the less that it alone prevented wholesale murder among a people who were subject to no outside authority, and who had little regard for human life; for no man lightly involves his whole family or tribe in a blood feud. [p. 107]

This comment follows a story about one of Thesiger’s companions, who had come across a fourteen year-old boy from the Saar tribe and murdered him, in revenge for the loss of his son during a raid. The boy was completely innocent, but the fact that he was from the same tribe was enough to render him fair game. This same attitude can be found in accounts of Corsica and Sicily, along with a suspicion, even contempt, for the law as administered by the State:

His had been a human, intellectual curiosity that could not, and should not, be confused with the interest of those whom society and State paid to capture and consign to the vengeance of the law persons who transgress or break it. At play in this obscure pride were the centuries of contempt that an oppressed people, an eternally vanquished people, had heaped on the law and all those who were its instruments; a conviction, still unquenched, that held that the highest right and truest justice, if one really cares about it, if one is not prepared to entrust its execution to fate or God, can come only from the barrels of a gun. [To Each His Own, Leonardo Sciascia, NYRB 2000, p. 120]

This comment about not being prepared to rely on fate or God is curious, because the law of the vendetta was seen, historically, as so overwhelming that there was no alternative. It might as well carry the weight of God and fate working in cahoots:

D’Agostino always expected to be asked whether he would commit his crime [five vendetta murders] again cold the clock be put back, and his reply was always the same: ‘Surely you don’t imagine I had any choice, one way or the other? Honour’s honour and a vendetta’s a vendetta. You might say that destiny put its big fat thumb in my neck and squashed me like a beetle.’ The warders nodded their sympathy and their agreement. That was the way it was. [The Honoured Society, Norman Lewis, Eland 1984, p. 27]

It should be added that D’Agostino was treated with immense respect, the only prisoner, not excluding a general, in the whole of Naples’ Poggio Reale prison to be addressed by the warders in the third person singular lei, rather than with the familiar and slightly contemptuous tu. Yet he was not a mafiosi.

Thesiger’s belief that the blood-feud acted as a stabilising force, preventing wholesale massacre out of fear, doesn’t appear to hold up, at least not in the Sicilian context:

By 1960, nearly one-tenth of the population of Godrano had become casualties as the feud developed and spread, the latest victim - in the absence of eligible adults - being a boy of twelve. [The Honoured Society, p. 24]

Moreover, this form of justice, if one can call it that, is not only nearly unstoppable, it is indiscriminate:

In Abu Dhabi we had met a Rashid lad who had been shot through the hand while raiding the Bani Kitab. Muhammed told him, ‘As soon as Umbarak [Thesiger] has gone off to his country we will avenge you. We will catch a boy of your own age from the Bani Kitab, hold his hand over a rifle, and blow it off.’ [Arabian Sands, p. 268]

While in Corsica, according to Dorothy Carrington’s Granite Island, a vendetta might be launched over an offence which we would regard as trivial. Of course, in a culture which is materially poor, one’s honour and reputation count for everything. It’s all one has to show, or defend, and not just in Corsica:

As a rule Bedu do not nurse a grievance, but if they think that their personal honour has been slighted they immediately become vindictive, bent on vengeance. Strike a Bedu and he will kill you either then or later. It is easy for strangers to give offence without meaning to do so. I once put my hand on the back of bin Kabina’s neck and he turned on me and asked furiously if I took him for a slave. I had no idea that I had done anything wrong. [Arabian Sands, p. 163]

All of the above throws an interesting sidelight on clan warfare and feuding in the Highlands. It also raises the question, just how long has this been going on for? How deep do its roots run? The answer is that it may be be very old indeed, but I’ll come to that.


At 14 December 2005 at 09:51 , Blogger Yvonne said...

Interesting thoughts. You could also quote Mani by Patrick Leigh Fermor. (Highly recommended if you haven't read it.) Another mountainous region, not particularly fertile, where blood feuds were common, and when a son was born, the family rejoiced in the birth of another gun for the family. Honour was massively important.

At 14 December 2005 at 17:07 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

No, I haven't, and I'm not sure I was aware of it - thanks for the tip! Keep thinking now and then (usually when I spot his books) that I must take a look at Patrick Leigh Fermor, but you've just moved him up the ladder. Also want to take a look at Broken April by Ismail Kadare, which centres on a vendetta in Albania.

At 15 December 2005 at 22:19 , Blogger Joe said...

Star Trek the Next Generation once had a blood feud carried to ridiculous lenghts, with the last survivor of a clan genetically altered to remain young, healthy and strong to track down every single member of the opposing clan. Since some had moved off-world over the century or so she shows quite a bit of determination in trying to finish her mission of 'honour' When one of our heroes discovers the truth and tries to convince he she has a choice, she simply replies, no, I haven't...

The interesting thing about most examples of honour killings and vendettas are they are principally relegated to rural, isolated or what we'd often refer to (sometime unfairly, sometimes justly) as primitive communities. In a way it exemplifies the division between the rural and the uran, the 'civilised' and the 'barbarian', a division still exploited to this day by writers and movie makers (horror especially uses this difference between civilised, law-abiding city dwellers and strange country folk with their bizarre superstitions, beliefs and rituals).


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