Government Canoe

“… the pilot of the Government Canoe which had called at Santa Eulalia on May 2nd, 1966, reported that he was in the best of health and spirits.” –¬†Geoffrey Household, Dance Of The Dwarfs (1968)

The Government Canoeist, or his pilot, checked on Dobson pretty regularly while he was holed up in an estancia twelve miles south of Santa Eulalia. Notes in the canoe log indicate that the pamphleteer was visited not only on May 2nd, but also on the 4th, 6th, 7th and 15th. Each time he was said to be in “the best of health and spirits”, except on the final visit, when he was apparently “cranky and cantankerous and possibly possessed by the evil spirits which haunt the jungle”. It was, of course, on May 15th, 1966 that Dobson was dragged on to the Government Canoe and taken upriver to the capital city, where he was interrogated by Captain Vargas.

But what was he doing in that remote estancia on the edge of the jungle for two weeks? He had neither pencil nor notepad with him, so he was certainly not working on a pamphlet. He shunned the few families who scrabbled a living in the village of Santa Eulalia, and when any of them approached the estancia he hid in one of its many cubbies. And yet he did not hide when the Government Canoe came by. Indeed, he was uncharacteristically welcoming, inviting the canoeist and his pilot ashore and regaling them with anecdotage. It is a pity no record was made of the tales he told them, for then we might have a better idea of his state of mind.

Captain Vargas got nothing out of him, for by the time he was shoved into the interrogation room, Dobson was raving and bellowing. Vargas himself had once been the Government Canoeist, but after an accident with a paddle in which he injured a riverbird he was demoted. Confined to the large important building in the capital city’s most spacious plaza, Vargas hankered for the river, and the canoe, and the companionship of the canoe pilot. He was hoping that if he could crack the Dobson case, he might be rewarded by being reappointed as Government Canoeist. After all, his successor had bonked many a wading riverbird on the head with his paddle, deliberately, and there was talk of demoting him, too. Vargas heard the unofficial chatter in the canteen on the ground floor of the large important building, as he sipped his pilgar and stared out of the window at the spacious plaza.

Yet Dobson defied him. All Vargas could glean was that the out of print pamphleteer had shown up in Santa Eulalia on May 1st, in hiking gear, mapless and famished. He stuffed himself with pancakes, told a couple of anecdotes, and carried on down the river until he reached the abandoned estancia, where he stopped, and stayed, seemingly in the best of health and spirits, for a fortnight. There were many bats at the estancia, and Vargas wondered if he had come to study them. But after a flurry of correspondence with experts, the captain concluded Dobson knew nothing of bats, or at least no more than a child would be expected to know.

The whole point of the Government Canoe was that it was meant to keep tabs on foreign pamphleteers. In this instance, it had signally failed to do so. Vargas felt sure that, had he still been the Canoeist, his reports on Dobson would have been more forthright. He would have questioned him more closely, rather than just suffering his anecdotage. He decided to go rogue, to commandeer the Government Canoe under cover of night and to search the estancia for clues. And he took a heavily sedated Dobson with him.

It is this nocturnal river trip on the Government Canoe that was the subject of Dobson’s remarkable pamphlet, written many moons later, entitled All About My Nocturnal River Trip In The Government Canoe With Captain Vargas, During Which I Was Heavily Sedated (out of print). The prose is hallucinatory, and strangely stilted. It is actually quite difficult to wring any sense out of it. But close reading, in the stupor of half-sleep, allows us to understand that Vargas took the Government Canoe in the wrong direction, bashed innumerable riverbirds on the head with his paddle, and eventually ended up in open sea, having inexplicably navigated his way through the delta. The pamphleteer and his interrogator were hoisted to safety by the Government Chopper, and the Government Canoe was allowed to drift away into the vast and pitiless ocean. Vargas spent the rest of his life trying to find it. Some say he is still alive, an old and wrinkled wreck, roaming the coastlines of the world.

As for what Dobson got up to in those two weeks in the remote estancia, the only clue we have is in the title of another late pamphlet, An Anecdote About Channelling Jungle Demons Wearing A Copper Cone Atop My Head While Hiding In A Cubby Full Of Bats (out of print). Unfortunately, this is written in prose even more hallucinatory and stilted, and it makes no sense whatsoever.

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