‘Industry in the Country of the Blind’ is forthcoming in Land of Change, an anthology of Welsh radical prose edited by Gemma Howell (Culture Matters, 2021), and in Pugnacious Little Trolls by kind permission of the editor.
Industry in the Country of the Blind
‘Three hundred miles and more from Chimborazo, one hundred from the snows of Cotopaxi…’
H. G. Wells
1. Something to read on the way
There is a sculpture outside the train station which serves the Country of the Blind. Cast in bronze, it shows the valley’s discoverer, standing almost at the crest of a crag with a young woman by his side. He gazes southward, past the station towards the mountains into which he made his escape, one hand raised to shield his eyes from the sun, the other holding the woman’s arm in guidance or support. The woman, bare-footed, is nursing a child. Her face is turned towards the ground, while surrounding them both is a sea of uplifted hands, grasping their ankles in supplication or treachery. A plaque in Roman script and Braille commemorates their names, Ricardo Núñez and Medina-Saroté, his lover, after whom the town is named.
The statue is regularly vandalised, and as regularly repaired. The nationalists, the Serenos, paint their slogans over the plinth or hammer them into the bronze in a kind of inverse Braille; they lock fetters round the wrists of those upturned hands, or they cover Núñez’s eyes with goats’ blood as though they have been gouged. The staff in the tourist cafés whose glass fronts line the square will disavow the Serenos. They are not from Medina-Saroté, they will claim, but from Las Piñas or Cien Fuegos to the north; they are blind, and come to Medina-Saroté to drink their disability pensions; they are fanatics, who have hijacked the cultural heritage of the Valley as a pretext for their hate. In some of the cafés a few blocks to the north, or on the pavement outside the Casa Rosada where there are poetry readings on Thursday nights, the condemnations will seem more measured. Enucleation is a thing of the past, people will say, just as forced labour is a thing of the past. Because of gold, Núñez enslaved the people and broke their ways, and because of gold, they are building the old ways again. Perhaps some waiter will take a liking to you. He will mention Senderisma, the philosophy of the Ways, he will direct you to one of the bookshops, or the museum. He will suggest you take one of the walking tours of the perimeter wall or the parts of the Ways that have been restored; he will smile in dismissal or touch your arm as he peers at you in the sunlight.
When Ricardo Núñez discovered the valley, the ways ran the full forty-seven miles from the meadows where Medina-Saroté stands to the rocky landscape of the far north, intersecting to form a grid which every child began to memorise as soon as it could walk. Alongside the goat-bells and the plough, the bagpipes and alpenhorns, the milk churns and butter presses and simple children’s toys, the museum displays a man’s letter-staff and a woman’s girdle with the Ways encoded in knot-work. A piece of old film, digitised and displayed in cycle on a screen, shows the Valley’s last cantor, Enrique González, sitting in a windowless room as he chants the ways and their waymarks, their landmarks and their natural histories, a complete cosmography of the Blind. The gift shop sells fragments of the old chants set to ambient music, walkers’ and bird-watchers’ guides, and books on Senderisma. Buy one from the woman behind the counter who has watched you browsing with goat-like eyes. It will be something to read on the way.
The visiting lecturer at Cardiff University is an exile from the Valley, nicknamed The Cord. He sits on the podium, a tanned, spare man with a powerful brow and eye-sockets in shadow, and declines when invited to come forward to the podium, giving his lecture still seated, his head turned a little sideways as he reads from the letter-staff in his hand. The lecture is a curious network of accidents and associations: the discovery of coal in the Rhondda, and Ricardo Núñez’s discovery of gold; Maredudd Ddall, the captive prince sent home to Wales blinded by Henry II, and Núñez’s Breaking of the Ways; the Welsh Not; Wounded Knee, and the text that Núñez carved on the hand-rails that guided his slaves through the mines: In the country of the blind, every man is a king.
The landslide that enwombed his people in their valley came about by accident, without warning, just as Núñez’s arrival was so unexpected that they concluded that he had been born of the rocks. But the thin air and fierce light that caused the settlers to go blind, and the genetic quirk by means of which they were eventually born without eyes, made themselves felt over generations, so that his ancestors had time to prepare. When Núñez came among them, they had adapted to life without sight; they had built the wall that protected their meadows from rockfalls, and the system of roads that forms the Wayland, the Matriz, so that when Núñez and the prospectors and mercenaries who came with him opened the mines at Cien Fuegos, their slaves were able to learn and navigate its tunnels as easily as they had moved around the valley above their heads.
The history of the Wayland can be told as the elevation of a disability into the basis of a culture, and the degradation of that culture into a disability. The achievements of the Blind as a people are the Ways as a means of giving shape to the land, the knot-work girdle and the letter-staff as systems of writing, and the chants of the cantors as philosophy and literature; while their humiliation is expressed in the disability cheques that they draw from the government every week, the televisions that they buy, yet cannot watch, their widespread addiction to alcohol; yet the humiliation begins in Núñez’s time, and in his mines. The slave-workers who died there died for gold, a metal that has no value except to the sight, whose very name is meaningless to the blind; so that the foremen tormented their slaves with the taunt that they could never even know why they must die. During the uprising at Cien Fuegos, seven captured foremen were blinded in the town square, and left to grope their way home to their blind wives as best they could. And when Medina-Saroté gave birth to Núñez’s son, she gouged out his eyes so that he would never succumb to that cruel and grasping madness called sight.
2. Souvenirs for the tourists
Senderisma, an attitude of staying on the Ways, of understanding oneself as a part of the cosmos. A reliance on the knowledge of the Ways that one has been taught, bringing with it a sense of respect for one’s forebears and kinship with one’s neighbours, and an obligation to help maintain the Ways without which one is lost. As you read your book, the bus takes the modern road north-east, following the former route of Núñez’s railroad, past modern houses with bay windows facing south; past retail parks and hayfields; past a village of blank stone walls where a wide-eyed child guides her grandfather onto the bus, his eye-sockets shadowed by the rim of his hat; past a water-bottling plant and a private spa, until jettied houses of black pinewood and grey stone show that you are entering Las Piñas, and the driver turns the engine off outside the Longhouse in the main square.
The valley narrows here. A mountain ridge covered with pine forests runs down to meet the river, and where the air is filled with the roar of waterfalls and the rumbling of the glaciers, Ricardo Núñez made his home, and later adventurers founded a sanatorium or two. There are guided tours. The oldest of the blind guides, known as The Goat, will take you up through pine forests to listen to the songs of the birds which once, he explained, were revered as the Spirits of the Air, towards that mingling of forest and scree where Núñez dismantled the boundary wall to use the stone for the Longhouse. In Núñez’s time the Longhouse contained a courtroom, a garrison and prison, the apartments where Medina-Saroté was installed with her child; but now it offers a benefits office, a public library, legal advice. Signs brightly painted on wood in the square point the way to river rafting, hostels and bunkhouses, restaurants, forest walks. There is a tourists’ office on the other side of the square. A relief map shows the mountains surrounding the Valley, the three main towns, and sections of wall. Other displays, and much of the merchandise, represent the wildlife of the Valley and the folklore of the Blind, especially concerning their national hero, Hernando.
a. Hernando and the Spirits of the Air
Hernando, guided by the Spirits of the Air, taught the people to clear their pastures of the stones and use the stones to build their houses. Hernando, inspired by the Spirits of the Air, taught the people to bell their goats, so that wherever they wandered, they could find them. Hernando, taught by the Spirits of the Air, showed the people how to dry meat in the sun and how to turn hide into leather; yet when he saw that the people needed metal for agriculture and cooking, he turned his back on the spirits. He made his north from his home in Las Piñas along the riverbank, even as the wind grew bitter with cold, and the clear and joyful songs of the spirits turned harsh and dark and menacing. He dug the ground at the place which is now called Cien Fuegos, and built furnaces to refine the ore, but the spirits were offended by his presumption, and so they never taught their language to a human being again.
b. Hernando and the making of the ways
Hernando followed the riverbank south from Cien Fuegos, gathering pebbles as he went, until the sound of the river was the sound of his home, and he knew that he was at Las Piñas. Hernando called his name and the name of his farmstead, as the custom was, and let shouted voices guide him, but once home, he did not rest. He called out his name and the name of his neighbours until they called him in, leaving pebbles from the river behind him on the way, and so the first of the Ways was laid from farmstead to farmstead, from man to man.
Whoever Hernando met, he asked them who were their neighbours, what rocks or streams lay in the way, and what was the feel of the land. He carried a staff, on which he recorded the places he had been, and he began to chant as he went to remind him of where he was going. Behind him he always left heaped stones as waymarks, and the people made them larger, cut symbols and numbers into their sides, dug paths and levelled them and made their boundaries firm, so the space that had been unknown and nameless between the farms came to be the home of Hernando’s people: the Wayland, the Matriz.
3. Hernando fights the Men of the Rocks
When they heard the valley being filled with the ways, the Men of the Rocks became afraid of the people, and the land resounded with their roaring and groaning, and the rocks they hurled from the high, cold places panicked the flocks and terrified the people. The making of ways would have stopped, and the Wayland would have been lost, but Hernando chose men and led them up into the high, cold places to fight them, and the Men of the Rocks were pacified for a time.
As Hernando grew older, he came to understand that he would not always be with the people to defend or guide them, and so he appointed cantors to travel the ways and teach the people the chants, and he took the strongest men once again and set them the task of building the wall. When it was finished, it stood so tall that a man could barely reach the top of it with his arms up-stretched, and its foundations were as deep as a man’s feet are from his chest, and it circled the valley from its southern tip to the furthest north and back again, so that there was nowhere for the Men of the Rocks to break through. When the work was done, Hernando departed from his people and was reconciled with the Spirits of the Air, but if they care for the wall and keep to the paths, the people can be sure that he hears them and keeps the Wayland safe.
Who hears the Blind today, asks the Cord; who keeps the Wayland safe? The way from Cien Fuegos to its seat of government is the way of the sighted young when they leave: by bus through Las Piñas to Medina-Saroté, by train through the tunnel gouged through the mountains to bring Núñez’s workers to the mines and export Núñez’s gold, to San Martin or Puente Angosto where they will be told that if they are looking for work, there is no work there, and they must go on to the capital city, where one could sit for a year in the legislature without hearing the Wayland mentioned.
Could the people of the Wayland rebuild the Ways? The blind and ill-sighted who stay in the valley have their disability payments, their drugs and alcohol, their sense of themselves and their history as an accident and a curse. They can pick up work in the craft shops making souvenirs, or as tour guides in the gold mines; they can join the Serenos to firebomb some new hotel or deface a statue or two. Others know that if it is pointless to fight, it is pointless also to reason. For if we speak of the dignity of the Blind, we are heard to be calling for enucleations; if we speak of the heritage of the Matriz, we are accused of rejecting all progress. It was after the blinding of the foremen in Cien Fuegos that Núñez broke the Ways. He tore up the waymarks, he flattened the verges, he heaped the ways with slag from his mines and laid landmines made by his slaves, not merely to take ownership of the valley or isolate the people, but to break their spirit. Yet Senderisma and the stories of Hernando commodify and infantilise the Wayland’s culture to serve the tourist trade, while Medina-Saroté, blinding her child, becomes a rebuke to all those who reject the state’s view of progress. That the sighted must protect and care for the blind, who in Núñez’s case protected and cared for the sighted, becomes proof that our heritage is a weakness and a burden, just as here in this national capital the language is cited as proof that you are unworthy to be a nation, that to desire to be so is divisive and backward, proof of a sickness of mind.
3. Close enough for a day out
As the bus heads north from Las Piñas it begins to rain. The driver plays light classics, and the family in front of you eat chorizo and hard-boiled eggs as the harsh light of the mountains dims under heavy cloud, and the road passes straight through sombre alps and past windowless farm-houses crouched in the shelter of spruce trees. You stop at Agua Sucia, and the road begins to climb. Pastures give way to moorlands heaped with slag tips and checked with polluted streams; the valley begins to die in a muddle of gorge and ridge, and glaciers grey with soot rise above chimney-stacks venting flame. There is a smell. Something thick in the air snags at the throat. Disembark at the bus station, and walk through snow and rain past the law court and the police station, up windowless streets, past the blind feeling their way with their sticks as the sighted young slouch past them, past loan companies, past vendors of repossessed goods, past a Pentecostal church where the Blind are promised sight, towards the memorial in the main square where the foremen were blinded.
The figures are cast in bronze on a shallow plinth. Two lines of seven are depicted walking barefoot over broken ground, those behind with their hands on the leaders’ shoulders, the blind with their eye-sockets covered over with flesh, the blinded wrapped in rags where their eyes have been gouged out.
Steps behind them lead onto the plinth. To the side, modern shoes are cast in bronze, and you take the hint, bending down to undo your laces so that like the statues themselves you will walk barefoot. The rough bronze will bruise your feet. You will likely trip. You will put out a hand for support.