Stefan Zweig Befriends Magellan

His friendly, literature-as-life approach keeps Magellan’s daring spirit alive.

Literature as life—the claim has become cliché among quality book addicts, but to read Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) really sparks a live adventure loaded with its own share of risks. The absorbency of his pen tempts readers to wonder afterward if there is indeed no difference between one and the other. As if bothered by a stubborn crust on the pillow, Zweig often lost a night’s sleep for conceiving verbal showcases that featured reality to its utmost minutiae. Nothing better, he used to quip in his angst, than a truth that seems farfetched.

Conversely, little in the domain of amply proven skills can be worse than to overlook this author from Austria whose works in the hands of delighted translators once earned him worldwide fame. In hard times, he decocted the golden rule of his writings from Erasmus, “the most eloquent advocate of the human ideal of friendship.” To validate another cliché, the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Zweig’s biography of Magellan.

Honoring Ferdinand Magellan

An eventful flash of this much needed ideal of friendship today led him to publish in 1938 the biography on the seemly swashbuckler who dared to navigate the world, in full circle, with two hundred and fifty men of which only eighteen returned to their homes with life. Zweig headed for South America in a luxurious liner equipped with all the modern facilities.

After a week of monotony at sea, he suffered a “flagrant impatience.” Then he quickly snapped to himself: “Remember, you unhappy brat, remember, how it was before your times! Compare a moment of today with the voyages of past years, especially with the first of those temerarious men that discovered, to our benefit, this immense ocean and a new world. You should be ashamed in their memory!”

He wanted to learn more about that audacity and came across Ferdinand Magellan, who with five sturdy fishing boats (their smaller size favored for their maneuverability) performed the greatest odyssey in history. Zweig researched the topic, always commanded by his fine lyric intuition pepped with what he knew from his early interest in psychoanalysis (he currently regains some popularity for his so-called psychological novels).

Zweig’s Fatality

The sharp and prolific writer was also a world trotter, a highly learned pacifist and moral envoy for the European Union. He cultivated a wide range of genres among which biography stands out. His greatest trusts recur for those willing to stand against any vicissitude that compromises their dignity. Zweig possessed the gift for in-depth contextualization by spotting and tessellating secondary haps in an eased style.

As a Jew from a well-to-do family, Nazi persecutors drove him to the verge of paranoia. Zweig blamed above all Martin Luther’s frenzied anti-Semitism for having extolled such hatred. Before falling into the claws of a delirious fascist, he chose instead to commit suicide jointly with his young wife shortly after seeking refuge in the magical land of Brazil. While cruising away from the already disillusioned existence of the old continent, the poetic sorcery of this country motivated him to write the book about Magellan.

Tasteless Europe

This is how his readers return to the Europe of the insipid palate, when sugar and lemons as flavor enhancers had never been tasted; further north, the boost of tea and coffee were yet unknown. The today common garden-produce—potatoes, corn, tomatoes—had not received their naturalization cards. In order to fuel their incense burners, the Catholic mass favored the aromatic substances brought from Arabia. Persian and Hindustani perfumes flattered vanities. Those who lay sick craved for the balms of opium, camphor, and the resins imported from Orient. To enliven the tasteless medieval diet, a pinch of ground pepper, nutmeg, ginger, or cinnamon would suffice.

As the appetite for exotic spices grew, so did the intermediaries—up to twelve, each adding to the haulage of goods from places as far as the extreme islands of the Pacific. At times, desert pirates armed with scimitars robed the camel caravans and got away with huge amounts of the valued commodity. The inversion nevertheless continued to be profitable. A sack of pepper in the fifteenth century cost more than the life of a human being. Control of the commercial routes, laments Zweig, would engender the Crusades and the colonization hecatombs for which people still cry today.

Magellan and Spain

From this setting emerges the “royal Portuguese offshoot” of some twenty-four years of age, a Fidalgo of a background as dark as his beard. The great nobody who barely distinguished himself in the fleet at the service of the Spanish Crown would erect the most intrepid guidepost of the Modern Age. As Zweig wrote about him, he “continuously had the singular sensation of narrating something that was invented, something of a wished higher order, something that belonged to the sacred legends of humanity.”

Until then the Colombian enterprise had not been able to extend a commercial bridge with the Asiatic kingdoms. A continent of formidable dimensions stood in its way. Thanks to a treaty, Portugal blockaded the African circumvallation and monopolized the Indian market.

Spain hurries to trace an alternative line to these regions. Magellan suspects that at the hemisphere’s lower austral cone a passage opens to the Spice Islands. When the King of Portugal drops him, he seeks support from the Spanish Court. Magellan proposes to reach the sands at the other side of the world by navigating in the opposite direction. Spain, the Plus Ultra nation (Further Beyond), falls for his calculated derangement, and closes the contract.

New Horizons

Early in 1520, Magellan’s flagship sounds out with increasing fraught the American Atlantic coast. Here the reader witnesses through the captain’s judicious determination and watchful eye, so closely as to smell his pungent whiff, how he handles mutinies, losing ships, desertions, and marshal executions for treason. Once the marine ruler without frontiers overcomes the Strait of a Thousand Accidents, the never before plied ocean awaits the crew with days, weeks, and months during which they make it on rancid lard and a sip of stench water from the casks.

The readers have left behind the Antarctic winds, the nearest of galaxies, the incomprehensible Patagonian giants, one of which ate before their eyes two raw rats “without skinning them.”

In 1521, the reduced and exhausted navigator skirts the Philippines. He disembarks, but the indocility towards the intruders picks up. In a quarrel with the natives of Mactan, Magellan dies pierced by a bamboo spear. “The dead of triumph”— at a mere few days before rounding up three years, the only vessel that survives from the expedition anchors again in Seville without the Captain.

For the backstage dedication of this biographer, for the nocturnal urge of his conscience, for his material faith before the incredible, page after page, readers recap the achievement of a major pilot and bear out the new horizons great friends of humanity can reach when they too risk to ignore the difference between literature and life.

[October 10, 2011]

Top image: Two Heads by Paul Klee, 1932

Photo: Jason Steger, undated