by Robert Graves
is Hungarian by birth and, like most educated Hungarians of his generation,
a polyglot; writes a very lucid, unaffected English, speaks it without
any discernible accent. He has a well-knit body, a quiet laugh, an iron-gray
curly beard, and two dedicated professions: medicine and poetry.
Though a perpetually displaced person ever since the close of the First World War - when his family got swept homeless up and down the Balkans - he managed during a brief lull, from 1928 to 1932, to take his medical degree at Vienna. Soon afterward, diagnosing the imminence of a Second World War, he fled to Rome and there lay low until the storm had broken and passed.
He writes of that period:
One thing I knew: ...the dictators enslave their victims with chains of paper. I inscribed my name on no list and in no registry of tenants, took my expired passport to no consulate, and if I ate very little bread, I ate it without a bread-ration card. ... I became a medical historian, and sheltered and concealed by library walls, wrote studies on such subjects as Renaissance research on the kidneys and horinone treatment in the ancient world.
After the AlIied landings, Dr. Lenard joined the Italian Resistance and, when American troops entered Rome, worked first with the Psychological Warfare Branch of Allied Force Headquarters. He then became Medical Adviser to the U.S. Claims Service and Chief Anthropologist for the U.S. Graves Registration Service (washing, measuring, and cementing the bones of American dead). Later he refused a University chair in Hungary (I foresaw that I should not make a good Communist), and instead asked the IRO for a ticket to Brazil - though without any better reason than that it looked large and green on the map.
He has here given us an open-eyed, detailed and gently mocking account of the sequel. Sent as male nurse to a lead mine in the Interior, he supplemented his meager pay by teaching English, Latin and mathematics to the French engineers' daughters. After a year of this, he was dismissed for advising his patients: Get to hell out of this mine, or you'll all die from lead poisoning.
Then he became apothecary and obstetrician at Donna lrma - a village a long way inland from Sao Paulo, with a complex local patois, an equally complex morality, and very little government control. He has now lived there, elevated to the rank of physician, for thirteen years, and been accepted by its mainly farming population - descendants of Indian aborigines, Portuguese conquerors, African Negro slaves, and more recent Italian, German, Polish and Greek settlers. Close by lies unreclaimed jungle, where primitive Botocudo Indians still rove.
Since his patients have little money and prefer paying in food or services, the story of how he grew rich enough to buy land and build a house of his own is strange to the point of extravagance. It begins at Rome during the war, where he agreed to give Pietro Ferraro, leader of the Venetian Resistance, lessons in conversational English. Ferraro, who spoke only ltalian, needed arms from the Allies. Dr. Lenard's sole available textbook was A. A. Milne's nursery classic Winnie-the-Pooh; but it proved a great success. Some months later, Ferraro was complimented on his English by the British staff, parachuted back into Venice with a supply of arms - and, having balked the retreating Germans' attempts at sabotage, awarded a gold medal for valor.
Dr. Lenard used the same volumehe still owned no other at the lead mine, while teaching the French engineers' daughters. When one of them sighed for some equally readable Latin book, he translated parts of Winnie-the-Pooh into the rich, flexible, humanistic Latin that he had studied so long and lovingly while a medical historian. Completing the task at Donna Irma, some years later, he invested his last few pesos in ordering one hundred copies from a Sao Paulo printer. Through some inexplicable quirk of fortune, Winnie ille Pu was taken up by publishers in Sweden, England and the United States, and everywhere became a best seller. Since then, several other Latinists have exploited the trend with translations of Peter Rabbit, Peter and the Wolf and Alice in Wonderland; but all that I have read lack Winnie ille Pooh's audacious wit and stylistic felicities, doubtless because they are written in the wrong sort of Latin.
Both as a physician and a poet - he writes poems in German and Hungarian, but seems at his quintessential best in Latin - Dr. Lenard has felt bound to treat people solely as themselves, rather than as classifiable sociological specimens. And this is what makes The Valley of the Latin Bear a real book.
I recommend it wholeheartedly.
To forestall any invidious comparisons between Dr. Alexander Lenard and Dr. Albert Schweitzer, let me add that almost the only peculiar trait shared by these two remarkable Central European jungle - physicians is their love of playing Bach on the local church harmonium.