Again, Luigi Ugolini is a name new to me, but ‘The Vegetable Man’ seems to fit very squarely into a late nineteenth-, early twentieth-century fascination with South America and what might lie hidden in the forests of the Amazon – lost civilisations, lost cities, lost tribes, lost knowledge. there is an interesting tension at the outset between the narrator, Benito Olivares, the self-styled young scientist and pioneer, educated, urban, and the uncharted jungles of the Amazon. The Amazon is ‘impenetrable’, but he ‘penetrated the virgin forests’; it is not difficult to see that Olivares is out to prove himself, forcing himself onto the forests, in order to wring ‘countless secrets out of that vegetable environment’. [S]cience’, he says, is ‘a matter of faith and martyrdom’ (97). Olivares’ engagement with his environment is one of struggle, and violence, against a jungle that not surprisingly fights back. The religious and sexual undertones point to forcible conversion and rape rather than any mutual engagement. Olivares’ scientific endeavour is a single-handed recapitulation of the explorations of early European visitors, enacted this time against the plant kingdom. The alert reader knows already that this encounter is not going to end well for Olivares. The question is, given the fact that he is narrating, how is it going to end?
Olivares can see beauty in his surroundings, describing them as ‘inexpressible spectacle, that triumph of plant life and sunshine, of the wonderful contrast of cold shadows and dazzling color,’ yet he quickly turns to note ‘the silent and titanic struggle made of indestructible embraces and horrendous tangles’ (98). Whatever he may feel about the forest, and about his discoveries, there is this constant underlying image of ensnarement, a sense of being ill-at-ease with his surroundings, suspicious of their fertility and abundance. He is not at one with the forest at all. In fact, Olivares’ great discovery is made while he is entangled in some lianas.
Olivares’ response to the new plant he has discovered is perhaps even more revealing than his obsession with the smothering properties of lianas. On the one hand:
What delight, what triumph, what delirium it is for a botanist to make such a discovery. Trembling with emotion I approached this new specimen and began to study it minutely and lovingly. (98)
It’s difficult not to imagine Olivares as the inexperienced young lover, alone at last with the girl of his dreams, not entirely sure what to do next but willing to make up for inexperience with urgency. And yet, annoyingly, the plant won’t play nicely. It resists his taxonomic advances:
Great God, that plant seemed to have been created deliberately to upset all of my botanical science. It was in fact a living contradiction. As soon as I tried to give it the particular characteristic of a species, another detail diametrically opposite jumped out, and then another, until my mind became lost in that futile work of classification. (98)
It is also very disquieting in its appearance: ‘Its branches had a reddish meat color to them that almost filled me with a feeling of disgust’ (98). That use of the word ‘meat’ suddenly pushes the story in a different direction; this plant is something different, transcending botanical boundaries. It even appears to have eyes. Yet when it bites Olivares, it is with thorns that are ‘like the teeth of a viper’ (98), suggesting that the plant, or whatever it is, has crossed a good many boundaries. Needless to say, this does not deter Olivares from taking specimens, further violating the sanctity of the forest. However, the plant seems to have a strange effect on Olivares, who fears he has been poisoned by the plant, although the symptoms pass. More disquieting is the response of the Guarani Indians whom he questions about the plant: ‘It is the Inhuacoltzi, the great spirit of the plants’ (99).
The reader can already guess what has happened, from the fact that the story begins with a single sentence: ‘The following is the story told to me by the green man’ (97), and has worked its way to its logical conclusion. When Olivares takes off his gloves, it is to reveal a transformation that is perhaps less surprising than it might have been. For me, what is interesting at this point is the way in which he verifies the nature of the ongoing transformation, by examining his own blood under a microscope, while the doctors he consults, scientific man to scientific man, cannot do anything to help. There is that tension again between science and nature, though I think the most revealing moment comes when Olivares explains how he fled abroad, hoping a change of air would help, and ‘a few months ago I came to your wonderful Italian soil’ (100). The extent of the transformation is so perfectly caught in those few words.
Is it a weird story? I think so. It, like several of the stories to come, is told in a very rational way, with the marshalling of data, the appeals to science, the narrator as scientist even, and the emphasis is on that rather than on any ideas about unknown jungle creatures or arcane Indian knowledge – I think Ugolini does well in not overplaying that aspect of things; the Indians know as much as Olivares, effectively, except they also know to steer clear rather than to take samples. Is he being punished for his curiosity? Yes, but not necessarily in the terms we might think of. Olivares’ crime, as much as anything, lies in his failure to step back and think harder before taking samples from something so unusual, perhaps unique. If anything, his curiosity is rather vulgar, not driven by a desire to determine the nature of the gods, or any such elevated notion.
An afterthought: it is my habit, as you’ll have noticed by now, to pick an illustration for the head of the page that in some way reflects on or counterpoints the content. For this entry, I thought first of Arcimboldo’s vegetable people, but when I looked at them, I decided they were actually too damn cheerful, literally apple-cheeked in one or two instances, so I turned to looking at representations of green men, only to notice that recent depictions of foliate heads tend to be rather benign and majestic. It’s some of the older heads which are more disquieting, particularly those where the tree branches seem to force their way out of the unfortunate man’s mouth, which is why I’ve opted for this carving. There is that sense of agony and resistance I think this story needs.