The second-to-last chapter of Two Sherpas is a fragment of dialogue, just thirteen lines long. These sixty-nine words frame the action and reflections of this exceptional 288-page novel. It’s a remarkable achievement: to turn some ten minutes of snatched conversation into a reflection on mountaineering, tourism, the cultural legacy of imperialism, the Sherpas and the role of contingency in life.
Sebastién Martínez Daniell is in his early fifties. He’s Argentinian and Two Sherpas is his third novel. To my knowledge, he has no particular, personal connection with the Himalayas, although he writes as if he’s known them all his life.
“Two Sherpas peer into the abyss. Eyes scouring the nadir. Bodies outstretched across the rock, hands gripping the precipice’s edge. They seem to be expecting something. But not anxiously. Instead, with a repertoire of serene gestures that balance between resignation and doubt.” p.1
There is a pivotal moment of real action in the novel. A party of three, two Sherpas and one English mountaineer, are ascending Everest. They are on what constitutes, relatively speaking, a safe part of their climb: a track which is neither dangerously narrow nor challengingly steep. They walk without ropes. The older Sherpa leads, the Englishman follows and the younger Sherpa is last. They come to a bend in the track. For a moment, the young Sherpa loses sight of the Englishman. He hears a single exclamation: ‘But…’ The Englishman falls to a lower ledge. The two Sherpas stand on the track, look down at their unlucky employer and consider what to do next. They both agree that the Englishman made the mistake of flailing his limbs as he fell. They can see him, but the ledge on which he has fallen is too far away for them to climb down to him.
They contemplate him and their internal reflections form the substance of the novel. A more classic ‘authorial’ voice intervenes to add context. We learn of the origins of the word Sherpa: sher means east—ie from the east—and pa means people. Some say the Sherpas were religious dissidents, others that they were commercial opportunists. The Sherpas acquired the role of assisting the assorted initiatives to ‘conquer’ Everest over the centuries, from blatantly imperialist ventures, led by figures such as Francis Younghusband, George Mallory and Edmund Hillary, through Lady Houston’s Everest flight expedition of 1931 and the Nazi-directed expedition of 1938-39, to today’s more egotistical searches for the immaculate and the pre-social in the white snows, during which the tourist-mountaineers take pictures of themselves to demonstrate their status as demigods. There are roughly eighty summit attempts every year.
“Tourists… thinks the old Sherpa, who isn’t old or, properly speaking, a Sherpa. They always manage to do something, these people – these tourists, he thinks. Then says. With an ambiguous gesture, he indicates the void, the ledge where the body of an Englishman lies prone and immobile, and he says:
And so he breaks the silence. If the deafening noise of the wind ravelling over the ridges of the Himalayas can be considered silence.” p.5
We learn about the lives of the Sherpas and the clash of 2014, when 16 Sherpas were killed in a lethal avalanche. The Sherpas considered that conditions were treacherous and called for a general cessation of climbing, the Kathmandu government insisted that climbing should continue. It offered families of the bereaved $350 to compensate for each death. In protest, the Sherpas went on strike, to the fury of the tourist-mountaineers who remained.
Finally, the book explores the lives of the two Sherpas after the Englishman falls. There’s more than a trace of humour in the account of the younger man. His first thought in the narrative is ‘statistics’. He is considering a change of career, and looking for a qualification. During the course of their ten minutes of contemplation of the fallen Englishman, he considers naval engineering, diplomacy and urban planning—the message seems to be, anything except mountaineering or tourism. He is also enrolled in a local theatrical group in which he plays the character of Flavius in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and thoughts about the play run through his mind.
The older Sherpa’s past is discussed in less detail, but he turned to his trade after an unhappy romance at a seaside resort. He came away with three postcards: Stonehenge, Teotihuacán and the Himalayes. His fate was sealed.
There’s no obvious end to this narrative. Is the Englishman lying on the ledge dead or alive? Perhaps the two Sherpas might get more assistance from a Base Camp, but it’s unlikely. The mountain is immutable; rich, foolhardy tourists will continue to arrive, and the Sherpa’s subordinate position, like “beasts of burden”, will be re-affirmed.
“The old Sherpa thinks: When they’re in their European rooms, releasing the barely perceptible vapours from their glasses of brandy, when they’re brushing their Afghan greyhounds, when they’re petting their Ankara cats… That’s when we stop being Sherpas and start being ‘porters’. Porters!
He pauses in order to give himself room to savour his resentment, to position the sound of the word in his inner ear. That’s what they call us when we’re not around: ‘Porters’. He goes further: Beasts of burden. As necessary and at the same time as interchangeable as pitons, as harnesses, as rope.” p.31
Jennifer Croft’s brilliant translation deserves a special mention. This is a subtle and demanding text, and she has rendered it into easy, mellifluous English. I’ve read plenty of competent translations in my time, but this is one of the rare occasions when I forgot that I was not reading one. Maverick independent publisher based in Edinburgh, Charco Press, which specialises in Latin American fiction, consistently publishes exciting and original writing in excellent translation. I look forward to reading more.
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