Daily Archives: 15 May 2010

Another tiny adventure in reading

At the risk of making it absolutely clear that I’m a total pain in the neck, here’s another little confused-reader moment. John Bryson’s essay, ‘Panama, a Pantomime‘, in the current issue of Heat, is structured as a conversation a Panamanian bar in 1990. This is our introduction to the bar:

The place is well known to cab drivers as El Parvo Real on Calle 51, set between the hotels and office blocks of Via Espana and the classy condominiums of Campo Alegre. But to those inside the bar it is called the Royal Peacock.

My knowledge of Spanish is minuscule, but it was enough to set me wondering just what point was being made here. Parvo has something to do with smallness; real means royal. Perhaps the taxi drivers nicknamed the place because it was tiny but opulent.  But wait, pavo (in Latin) means peacock. I looked it up, and sure enough the Spanish for peacock is pavo real. So perhaps the taxidrivers here represent the Spanish-speaking majority of Panamanians, the Parvo is a misspelling, and the point of the two different names is that those inside the bar are English speakers. The next sentences remove all doubt:

A barmaid pulls brown ale from the keg. Ayrshire roses stands in a window vase, and someone can tell you the result of the soccer draw between Crystal palace and Manchester United.

The bar is a haven for the British/English, then. But what about that misspelling? Is it a subtlety – those English speakers, including the narrator, know the bar’s Spanish name only from the taxi drivers (possibly the only Spanish speakers they deal with) and disdain to read the name as written over the door. If so, this single misplaced r sends ripples through the whole story: we no longer take the narrator’s voice to be that of the author; the conversation in the pub, an effective device for conveying some of the complexities of the 1989 US invasion of Panama, now resonates with the silence of the absent, disdained majority population, and the essay invites us to be wary of the point of view of the wealthy expat characters, as well as that of the narrator and his excursions into history.

Or is it just a slip of the pen that slipped through the editorial net? Given the gage/gauge slip a few pages earlier, this seems the most likely reading. But it makes me sad.