Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary--it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum. I was born on the 27th February 1906 in Montevideo, Uruguay, the sea-girt city on its bay in that small country wedged between beefy Argentina and broiling Brazil. The "Switzerland of South America" it is sometimes dubbed and the land-locked associations of that comparison are apt, for, despite their country's long coastline--the republic is surrounded on three sides by water: the Atlantic, the vast estuary of the Río Plata and the broad Río Uruguay--the Uruguayans themselves are defiantly non-seafaring, a fact that has always warmed my heart, divided as it is between seadog Briton and landlubberly Uruguayan. My nature, true to its genetic heritage, is resolutely divided: I love the sea, but I love it viewed from a beach--my feet must always be planted on the strand.
My father's name was Francis Mountstuart (b. 1871). My mother's was Mercedes de Solís. She claimed to be descended from the first European, Juan Díaz de Solís, who set his foot on Uruguayan soil early in the sixteenth century. An unfortunate move on his part as he and most of his band of explorers were swiftly killed by Charrua Indians. No matter: my mother's preposterous boast is unverifiable.
My parents met because my mother, who spoke good English, became my father's secretary. My father was the general manager of Foley & Cardogin's Fresh Meat Company's processing plant in Uruguay. Foley's Finest Corned Beef is their most famous brand ("Foley's Finest": we have all, we British, eaten Foley's corned beef at some stage in our lives), but the bulk of their business was in the exporting of frozen beef carcasses to Europe from their huge frigorífico--a slaughterhouse and massive freezing unit combined--on the coast a few miles west of Montevideo. Foley's was not the biggest frigorífico in Uruguay at the turn of the twentieth century (that honour went to Lemco's at Fray Bentos), but it was very profitable--thanks to the diligence and perseverance of Francis Mountstuart. My father was thirty-three years old when he married my mother in 1904 (she was ten years younger than he) in Montevideo's pretty cathedral. Two years later I was born, their only child, named Logan Gonzago after my respective grandfathers (neither of whom was alive to meet his grandson).
I stir the memory soup in my head, hoping gobbets of Uruguay will float to the surface. I can see the frigorífico--a vast white factory with its stone jetty and towering chimney stack. I can hear the lowing of a thousand cattle waiting to be slaughtered, butchered, cleaned and frozen. But I didn't like the frigorífico and its chill aura of mass-produced death*--it made me frightened--I preferred our house and its dense and leafy grounds, a big villa on the chic and swanky Avenida de Brasil in Montevideo's new town. I remember a lemon tree in our garden and lobes of lemon-coloured light on a stone terrace. And there was a lead fountain set in a brick wall, with water spouting from a putto's mouth. A putto who looked, I now remember, just like the daughter of Jacob Pauser, the manager of the Foley estancia, 30,000 acres of the Banda Oriental, the purple-flowered flatlands where the beef herds roamed. What was this girl's name? Let's call her Esmerelda. Little Esmerelda Pauser--you can be my first love.
* 80,000 cattle a year were slaughtered at the Foley frigorifico and numberless sheep.
We spoke English in the house and from the age of six I went to a church school run by monoglot nuns on the Playa Trienta y Tres. I could read English but barely write by the time Roderick Poole arrived in 1913 (fresh from Oxford with a pass degree in Greats) to take my slipshod education by the scruff of its neck and make me fit for St. Alfred's School, Warwick, Warwickshire,
Excerpted from Any Human Heart by William Boyd Copyright© 2003 by William Boyd. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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