The Valley of the Latin Bear by alexander lenard with pen-and-ink sketches by the author Foreword by Robert Graves

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The Valley of the Latin Bear


with pen-and-ink sketches by the author

Foreword by Robert Graves

NEW YORK - 1965

Characters and events portrayed in this book represent a cross-section of people and happenings I have known throughout my life in Brazil and elsewhere, up to a few years ago. As reflections of my cumulative experiences, they are, I hope, accurate in essence. For obvious reasons, however, most names of living people and most place names used in the book are fictitious.

by Robert Graves

Alexander Lenard is Hungarian by birth and, like most educated Hungarians of his generation, a polyglot; writes a very lucid, unaffected English, speaks it without any discernible accent. He has a well-knit body, a quiet laugh, an iron-gray curly beard, and two dedicated professions: medicine and poetry.

Though a perpetually displaced person ever since the close of the First World War - when his family got swept homeless up and down the Balkans - he managed during a brief lull, from 1928 to 1932, to take his medical degree at Vienna. Soon afterward, diagnosing the imminence of a Second World War, he fled to Rome and there lay low until the storm had broken and passed.

He writes of that period:

One thing I knew: ...the dictators enslave their victims with chains of paper. I inscribed my name on no list and in no registry of tenants, took my expired passport to no consulate, and if I ate very little bread, I ate it without a bread-ration card.... I became a medical historian, and sheltered and concealed by library walls, wrote studies on such subjects as Renaissance research on the kidneys and hormone treatment in the ancient world.

After the Allied landings, Dr. Lenard joined the Italian Resistance and, when American troops entered Rome, worked first with the Psychological Warfare Branch of Allied Force Headquarters. He then became Medical Adviser to the U.S. Claims Service and Chief Anthropologist for the U.S. Graves Registration Service (“washing, measuring, and cementing the bones of American dead”). Later he refused a University chair in Hungary (“I foresaw that I should not make a good Communist”), and instead asked the IRO for a ticket to Brazil - though without any better reason than that “it looked large and green on the map.”

He has here given us an open-eyed, detailed and gently mocking account of the sequel. Sent as “male nurse” to a lead mine in the Interior, he supplemented his meager pay by teaching English, Latin and mathematics to the French engineers’ daughters. After a year of this, he was dismissed for advising his patients: “Get to hell out of this mine, or you’ll all die from lead poisoning.”

Then he became apothecary and obstetrician at Donna Irma - a village a long way inland from São Paulo, with a complex local patois, an equally complex morality, and very little government control. He has now lived there, elevated to the rank of physician, for thirteen years, and been accepted by its mainly farming population - descendants of Indian aborigines, Portuguese conquerors, African Negro slaves, and more recent Italian, German, Polish and Greek settlers. Close by lies unreclaimed jungle, where primitive Botocudo Indians still rove.

Since his patients have little money and prefer paying in food or services, the story of how he grew rich enough to buy land and build a house of his own is strange to the point of extravagance. It begins at Rome during the war, where he agreed to give Pietro Ferraro, leader of the Venetian Resistance, lessons in conversational English. Ferraro, who spoke only Italian, needed arms from the Allies. Dr. Lenard’s sole available textbook was A. A. Milne’s nursery classic Winnie-the-Pooh; but it proved a great success. Some months later, Ferraro was complimented on his English by the British staff, parachuted back into Venice with a supply of arms - and, having balked the retreating Germans’ attempts at sabotage, awarded a gold medal for valor.

Dr. Lenard used the same volume - he still owned no other - at the lead mine, while teaching the French engineers’ daughters. When one of them sighed for some equally readable Latin book, he translated parts of Winnie-the-Pooh into the rich, flexible, “humanistic” Latin that he had studied so long and lovingly while a medical historian. Completing the task at Donna Irma, some years later, he invested his last few pesos in ordering one hundred copies from a São Paulo printer. Through some inexplicable quirk of fortune, Winnie ille Pu was taken up by publishers in Sweden, England and the United States, and everywhere became a best seller. Since then, several other Latinists have exploited the trend with translations of Peter Rabbit, Peter and the Wolf and Alice in Wonderland; but all that I have read lack Winnie ille Pu’s audacious wit and stylistic felicities, doubtless because they are written in the wrong sort of Latin.

Both as a physician and a poet - he writes poems in German and Hungarian, but seems at his quintessential best in Latin - Dr. Lenard has felt bound to treat people solely as themselves, rather than as classifiable sociological specimens. And this is what makes The Valley of the Latin Bear a real book.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

To forestall any invidious comparisons between Dr. Alexander Lenard and Dr. Albert Schweitzer, let me add that almost the only peculiar trait shared by these two remarkable Central European jungle-physicians is their love of playing Bach on the local church harmonium.


The church is filled and the faithful listen to the sermon. The minister keeps explaining what Advent means and where its significance lies. When he has the impression that the congre­gation is not listening attentively enough, with his heavy riding boot he kicks the teacher’s desk that serves as a pulpit.

The congregation seems to regard listening as the least important part of divine service. What is really important is getting into one’s Sunday best and slipping the Book of German Hymns under one’s arm. What is important is harnessing the horses and driving to church in the farm cart or the green (or dark red) buggy, with the horses beautifully currycombed. What is important is that the little blonde girls shall wear well-ironed skirts and carry new parasols, even if they come barefoot. The divine service is much the same as a review, in the midst of peacetime, is for a soldier: an examination, a demonstration of what one is and what one has - everybody is actor and spectator at the same time.

The little girls in the left front benches whisper and tug their dresses smooth. The little boys in the right front benches hardly know what to do with themselves in their Sunday clothes. The old ladies in the left back benches nod as if they were assenting or falling asleep. The old men in the right back benches cough, clear their throats, and scratch their necks. A long drag at a corn-leaf cigar would be more welcome to them than a long Gospel lesson, but they must keep their dignity. In another quarter of an hour the minister will be discussing more under­standable matters: right after the service he is going to sell vegetable seeds.

All of a sudden the pastor’s big black boot crashes against the desk and he thunders: “And the Savior came into this wretched and miserable world! Or are you perhaps unaware that this world - this world of technical marvels, this world of our proud century - is filled with poverty and misery? Many of us deliberately close their eyes to the sufferings of their fellow men - and not one of you, for a single day in his life, has ever gone hungry!”

By this time the reader will have lost all confidence in my statements. Little German girls going to church barefoot on Advent Sunday! The minister selling cabbage seeds right before Christmas? His congregation singing from the Book of German Hymns, yet not one of them has ever known hunger? That’s just too many lies for these few paragraphs!

I humbly apologize. I should first have written, as playwrights do: Place: the Southern Hemisphere. More specifically, the village of Donna Irma in southern Brazil. Time: shortly before Christmas - in other words, deep summer.

There are cities like Rome whose names resound all over the globe. Twenty miles from here, only a few postal clerks know where the village of Donna Irma stands. It may be easier to explain if we start this way:

People in Europe shake their heads if one travels to Brazil. “Brazil? That’s really the end of the world! Rio de Janeiro? Isn’t that where the Negroes invented the samba and the Carnival lasts six months?” While the Carioca, or proud citizen of “the world’s most beautiful city,” smiles sympathetically when the conversation turns to São Paulo. “Yes, in the Interior,” he says. “The provinces. Here in Rio we still have the National Library, scientific congresses, the University, and - let’s be frank - the whole administration. What they call Brasilia is a cardboard city plastered up for photographers and foreigners. And São Paulo! That’s simply the end of the world.”

The man from São Paulo, however, though he calls himself a Paulista, and not a Paulinus, has the pride of a Roman officer guarding the imperial frontier. “São Paulo is a modern, realistic business center,” he claims. “We have more industry than the rest of Brazil put together.” (“And more immigrants,” the European quickly adds.) “There are Italian and German dailies published here,” says the Paulista, “Hungarian, Lithuanian, and Greek papers. You can live as well here as anywhere. The great artists give concerts here. We have an atomic reactor and the woman tennis champion of the world. But the paved highways stretch barely sixty miles to the east, a hundred and twenty-five to the west, and not very far to the south, and out there - that’s the end of the world!”

If you try, however, to reach this end that is so often cited, you never seem to find it.... You may fly some five hundred miles, ride for another hour in a bus, and you are in a small, friendly township named after the German physician Blumenau.

“This is the right place to live,” the Blumenauers say. “Especially after having been in Germany, a man enjoys getting home to Blumenau again. In Germany they sell bananas at so much apiece - so much apiece! One single banana costs as much as a whole cacho [bunch] does here. Blumenau has a music conservatory, three high schools, hospitals, movies, churches.... But, of course, if you want to go inland and ride that rattling bus for five hours along the whole length of the Itajai River, you will come to the end of the world!”

Strangely enough, however, the people in Münster, at the source of the Itajai - the village that during World War II had the misfortune of being rechristened Tenente Gregorio - consider themselves as residing at the center, not on the outer rim of the world.

“The Central Hotel, the Bear Hotel, Protestant church, Catholic church, hospital, with ceme­tery nearby, soft-drink factory, saddler, butcher, watchmaker - you’ve got a nice town to live in here! No pavement? There are street lights and he who is not stewed won’t stumble! Of course, if you want to drive for another hour up the mountain, through the forest, and along the Riesel brook - there, yes, there you will be right at the end of the world!”

That is where Donna Irma stands. How have I been cast up here?

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