Monday, November 21, 2005

Meeting the Indians

It takes Claude Levi-Strauss until half way through Tristes Tropiques to arrive at the Indian camp. His journey to arrive there is described in length, sometimes travelling all day downriver in a steamboat, following great bends so that the boat docks only a short distance downstream from where it set out, at other times man-hauling a truck across terrain so inhospitable that he only manages to travel a few yards in a whole day and falls asleep next to the embedded wheels. Frequently he describes unforgettable scenes, such as the children encountered in the middle of nowhere, playing at sailors in the boat-like carcass of a recently slaughtered cow.

The arrival at the Bororo camp on page 278 of my edition, is therefore a long-imagined encounter. The natives are shy, slipping in and out of the forest. There is a lovely description of the houses in which the Indians live:

"majestic in size in spite of their fragility, the result of the utilization of materials and techniques which we in the West are acquainted with in small-scale forms: they were not so much built as knotted together, plaited, woven, embroidered and mellowed by use; instead of crushing the occupants under an indifferent mass of stones, they adapted to their presence and their movements; they were the opposite of our houses in that they remained always subordinate to man. The village rose round its occupants like a light, flexible suite of armour, closer to Western women's hats than to Western towns... the nakedness of the inhabitants seemed to be protected by the grassy velvetiness of the outside walls and the fringe of palm trees; when the natives slipped out of their huts, it was as if they were divesting themselves of giant ostrich-feather wraps.

The social division of the village is fascinating. A ring of houses surround a central men's lodge where women are well advised not to stray (Levi-Strauss says they risk being raped if they venture there). The ring is divided into quarters and members of each quarter can only marry into certain other quarters. In the central lodge the men mix religious and everday life into a continuous round of eating, smoking, dancing and decorating themselves. Levi-Strauss describes the men thus:

" You have to go inside the men's house to realize how much energy these great strapping fellows devote to titivating themselves: in every corner someone is busy cutting, shaping, carving or sticking; river shells are being broken up into fragments and vigorously polished on grindstones to be made into necklaces and lip-plugs; fantastic constructions of bamboo and feathers are gradually taking shape. With the meticulous care of theatrical dancers, burly stalwarts are transforming each other into fluffy chickens, by means of down stuck straight on to the skin."

After half a book documenting his arduous journey, there is a sense of joyous release in these descriptions of his first encounters with the Indians. And as a reader, one also feels refreshed.

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