Sunday, 15 February 2015

Language lessons

Julio C Tello
photo from the Tello Archive

Museo de Arqueología y Antropología de San Marcos 
Tello was already in his fifties by the time of the Upper Marañon river basin expedition. Hernan was still a youngster – in some ways the baby of the group. You can see it in his idealism, in the way he defers to el sabio, in his small gestures of rebelliousness, his irreverent tales about stuffy local gentry, his cheerful playing of the charango. Above all you can sense the delight and pride he took in his work.

Hernan Ponce Sanchez
the artist as a young man
Hernan published the Anecdotes in 1957, when he was forty. He had long left his earlier adventures behind him, and settled down to teaching and running the small art supplies shop he owned in downtown Lima. As it turned out he was to die prematurely only two years later from a kidney infection. 

Sadly I was never able to meet him. But when I first came across his stories I could feel in the pages how special it had all been to him.  In spite of all his gripes about being underpaid and overworked, in spite of the hardships and the frustrations for a young man far from the bright lights and comforts of the city, Hernan had felt he was part of something spectacular.

Tello, for all his capricious temper and punishing demands, inspired that in him. I would go as far as to say that he continues to inspire many Peruvians in the same way today. It´s clear too I think that the middle aged archaeologist felt a genuine affection for his young aide-de-camp. 

In this story Hernan is a fresh faced twenty year old. And he´s about to get some … 

Language lessons
In which 'el sabio' slips ever so slightly from his pedestal

One day the doctor was dictating to me at Mojeque when we were interrupted by a visitor to the camp. It was the manager of the local hacienda whom the archeologist had met a few days before. Tello indicated to me all the drawings that I should make in the campaign log whilst he attended to the visitor and they sat down to chat for a while.
I noticed from the beginning that the fellow was very friendly. He struck me as someone who opened up easily and didn’t mince words, but I got back to work without giving the matter any further thought and before long I had forgotten all about them both.

After about an hour, I had completed all the drawings Tello had asked for and made my way over to where the two of them were seated, having what I could see was a very animated conversation.

It was then that I got the shock of my life. It wasn’t the liveliness of the banter, but the language that I heard coming from the archaeologist’s lips. He had a large expansive smile on his face, and his conversation was peppered with obscenities - words that I had never heard him utter before in my life. Every line was punctuated by some kind of coarseness. Every phrase was seasoned with the oaths and expletives that only the lowest class of people used.

The administrator took my approach as a sign that Tello needed to get back to work and, cutting the animated conversation short, he got up and left. I looked at Tello. My involuntary eavesdropping had left me astonished. Not even in the rough and ready atmosphere of the site camps had I ever heard him let loose a single word of bad language.

He seemed to understand why I was bewildered. As we settled back into position, ready for him to restart his dictation, he said to me, “You heard me talking.” I smiled. I didn’t know quite how to reply.

“Let me explain something”, Tello continued, acknowledging my confusion. “I had to adapt myself to this gentleman’s vernacular. If I had spoken to him in any other way, I would’ve lost all that warmth and intimacy, and I wouldn’t have been able to take advantage of our acquaintance. He has offered to send us all the peons we need. Maybe they’re not essential right now, but at least we know that in any eventuality that men are scarce, the problem is already solved. In exchange for my foul mouth I have secured us our work force. ”


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