Historia de la sensibilidad en el Uruguay 1800-1860 - José Pedro Barrán

>> Wednesday, February 01, 2006

This probably won't interest anyone but me, so I'll keep it really short. The book's full title is Historia de la sensibilidad en el Uruguay. Tomo I: La cultura "bárbara" - 1800 - 1860, which I would translate as "A History of the Uruguayan Sensibility. Book I: The "barbarian" culture". That might not be a truly literal translation, but it describes the spirit of the book better.

Anyway, the book was written by José Pedro Barrán, a historian who, in the past few years, has been concentrating on a more intimate kind of History than the History of war and politics I learned in school. In this particular book, he analyzes the "evolution of the capability of feeling, of perceiving pleasure and pain that each culture has, and in relation to what it has it", concentrating on such aspects as the way people felt and experienced death, sex, fun violence or work.

I loved that he really paints a picture of a country I didn't know had existed. It would take too long to summarize, but the word "barbarian" is spot-on. The Uruguay in the first part of the 19th century was an almost empty country, in which violence was the only way through which the authorities (whether the State, parents, or teachers) could impose their will, one of the reasons being the extreme independence. The "lower orders" didn't really need to work to be able to subsist. Food was plentiful, especially red meat (cows were slaughtered for their hides, and most of the meat, since this was long before meat could be frozen and exported, was de trop, so it was just handed around freely) and ambitions were low, so people lived easily working only a couple of times a week.

Mortality was high, sexual mores weren't particularly strict, and when these people played, they played hard: Carnaval (Mardi Gras?) was long, and the play so uninhibited and lacking in limits that the authorities actually had to forbid people to pelt each other with ñandú eggs. Ñandúes are large, ostrich-like birds, so those eggs had to do some big damage!

And these are just a few of the fascinating things I learned reading this book. It's just chock-full of priceless tidbits, and I kept breaking to read bits out loud to anyone who happened to be nearby. The only negative I found is that, while Barrán is a brilliant researcher and historian, he's not that good a writer. His writing's convoluted in a way that doesn't add any beauty to it, and he does get a bit repetitive. But that's minor, and I really enjoyed the book very much. A B+.

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