This story of a bird-obsessed explorer springs from a collection of Hebe Uhart’s crónicas, translated from the Spanish by Robert Croll. Uhart, famed for her razor-sharp humor and observational skills in her native Argentina, tells of a nomad much-mocked in mid-twentieth-century British society, obsessively hunting for a mythical bird who can “perfectly speak” 400 languages.
Out from Archipelago Books on June 22, 2021.
The Bird of a Thousand Songs
Colombia produces surprising books, for instance this bilingual edition of The Fantastic Aviary of Sir William McCrow. The book includes some beautiful illustrations of birds and a map on that uses birds to indicate all the parts of the world where this McCrow has gone: Europe high and low, the United States, and Canada; in Latin America, Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Uruguay, and Southern Chile; he’s been to Asia and Australia too. He traveled for fifty years in search of the Bird of a Thousand Songs, whose existence had been mentioned by an indigenous man from Guyana. What can such a strange book be? A treatise on ornithology? No, for it invents imaginary birds such as the golden mockingbird, which “can perfectly speak Russian, Arawak, French, Quechua and 396 other languages.” Then there’s the trumpet bird, which he discovers in New Orleans: “Today I have discovered a new bird who was perched on the head of a young black man named Louis Armstrong. This bird, which I have named the Trumpet Bird, has made his nest on this man’s head.”
Not all the birds are imaginary, because he does, for example, deal with a toucan he saw in Colombia, and he collects the observations of Comte de Buffon and Charles Darwin. Buffon called the toucan’s bill monstrous, and Darwin wondered what such a large apparatus could be for. McCrow says: “Tucans use their long beak very much like painters use their palette of vivid and festive colours. It is where they combine, mix and prepare the most beautiful shades with which they paint the tropics.” Throughout the fifty-year span of his travels, leaving Europe and coming back again, whenever he draws near to the continent he thinks of his colleagues in the ornithological society, believing they will condemn him and scorn him for his discoveries. Is this author crazy? Yes and no. Who would travel for fifty years in search of something he never finds? Yet has discovered over twenty new species of birds along the way. And why did he spend so much time away from Europe? Initially because of the death of his father, and later, as he says: “I wish to distance myself from the madness of the wars led by the ambitious British Empire and instead, lose myself in the songs of birds and find the Bird of a Thousand Songs, even if it is the most inefficient labor ever initiated by a son of the British crown.” In 1935 he goes to Germany and can sense the coming war, and he says: “I don’t like this one bit.” Is he really a Sir? No, the title was given to him by a member of the London ornithological society, mockingly, because of his vagrant appearance. Were his journeys in vain? No, because he did discover new species. Is this written seriously or in jest? In the text “Levitating Hummingbird,” he tells of how he encountered a new species of that name. And he says: “My colleagues from the British Academy of Sciences have been mistaken in thinking that their quickly flapping wings cause their hearts to beat so rapidly. Now I am convinced that their hearts beat one thousand times per minute because of the love they feel for the birds of paradise.” And didn’t the pre-Socratic Greeks say, “Eros bleated like a lamb, bellowed like a bull, and cawed like a crow?”
The whole thing has a philosophical undertone: beyond visible appearances, there is a potent force that moves the world and the beings who live upon it: Eros. And couldn’t the hummingbird’s attraction toward the bird of paradise be called Eros?
In 1928, still looking for the Bird of a Thousand Songs (he’s been searching for close to twenty-seven years by now), he returns to London, where he submits his work for the consideration of the Academy. They say: “The research (if it can be called this) carried out by Sir William McCrow lacks scientific foundation. It presents no proof of the existence of such ‘mythical creatures’ with the exception of a few poorly drawn illustrations. His notes resemble more closely to a proof of the insanity caused by one who is obsessed with finding a figment of his own imagination.” McCrow transcribes the Academy’s verdict in his book. But now why would the Academy call him “Sir” if it is a facetious nick- name? And if he knows the Academy will reject his work, why does he submit it to them? And why would the Academy give a verdict for something like that? In 1934, he says: “Tomorrow, I will leave Germany, I do not like what seems to be coming.” And he goes on inventing birds of the strangest kinds. One of these is the little paper bird, which panda bears taught the people of Japan how to make: “But no man has learned to do exactly as the pandas. They say that once they finish making a little paper bird, they place it on their embossed and gracious paws. Then they softly blow on the little bird which comes to life and flies away toward the golden sun of the oriental sky.”
In 1956, on his final voyage, before leaving for New Guinea, McCrow writes: “No paper, no pencil, no binoculars, no compass, no maps, no binnacle, I will not need these this time. I am leaving this unfinished sketch as the only proof of his existence.
I will not waste the little time I have in proving his existence as I am eighty-one years old and no one believes me anymore.”
They say he pays for his voyages by doing portraits of children in return for room and board.
Translated by Robert Croll
Born in 1936 in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, Hebe Uhart is one of Argentina’s most celebrated modern writers. Her Collected Stories won the Buenos Aires Book Fair Prize (2010), and she received Argentina’s National Endowment of the Arts Prize (2015) for her body of work, as well as the Manuel Rojas Ibero-American Narrative Prize (2017). Mariana Enríquez recalls, “Enrique Fogwill once called Uhart Argentina’s greatest writer, a gesture that she found condescending. She felt that she was a very fine writer, but the legitimization from this bold and irate man bothered her. She had no need for it. Hebe Uhart lived intensely.”
Robert Croll is a writer, translator, musician, and artist originally from Asheville, North Carolina. He first came to translation during his undergraduate studies at Amherst College, where he focused particularly on the short fiction of Julio Cortázar.
In our eighteenth issue, we feature the work of beloved Cuban poet Reina María Rodríguez alongside that of João Cabral de Melo Neto, renowned Brazilian poet and third Latin American winner of the Neustadt Prize. We also highlight Latin American women poets, indigenous literature from Brazil, new works in translation, and a return to the essay through the words of Mariano Picón Salas.