Where the Wild Things Are

by Peter Canby

Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians
by Pierre Clastres Translated by Paul Auster Zone Books 352 pp $25.50 April

In late February 1963, a young French anthropologist named Pierre Clastres arrived by oxcart in Arroyo Moroti, a tiny ranch on the edge of the Paraguayan rain forest. A year or two earlier, word had filtered out to Parisian anthropological circles of an enigmatic tribe there, known as the Guayaki. Virtually nothing was known about them, except that they were rain-forest nomads who hunted tapirs, coatimundi, and capybara with skillfully wrought bows and arrows. Clastres, a student of Claude Lévi-Strauss, had promptly set out for Paraguay and, after arriving in Arroyo Moroti, spent more than a year living with the Guayaki, first learning their language and then traveling with them through the rain forest. Clastres's beautifully written account of his sojourn, Chronique des indiens Guayaki, appeared in 1972 and caused a stir among French anthropologists with its macabre depictions of such Guayaki practices as infanticide and "endo-cannibalism" (eating one's own dead). Like Lévi-Strauss, Clastres evoked an intact, self-reliant indigenous community. Yet he projected a much darker vision of such a world, and, in doing so, he seemed to be implicitly throwing down the gauntlet to his distinguished mentor.

As it turned out, Clastres undertook his study just in time. On his arrival in Arroyo Moroti, he found a hundred or so Guayaki, the remnants of two formerly hostile bands. By the time he left, a little over a year later, only seventy-five remained. The others had died--"eaten away by illness and tuberculosis, killed by lack of proper care, by lack of everything." Within a few years of Clastres's departure, the Guayaki ceased to exist altogether, leaving Clastres's book as their chief monument. Although the Chronicle has been available in French for years, it has not been published in English until today, due to a curious chain of events. In 1972, while living in Paris, the novelist Paul Auster came across Clastres's Guayaki book and was immediately taken by its exotic subject matter, its humor, its compassion, and the fact that it was written, as Auster observes, with "the cunning of a good novelist." When Auster returned to New York City, he translated it into English. Not long afterward, the house that had promised to publish the book went bankrupt, the translation vanished (Auster having neglected to keep a copy), and Clastres perished in an automobile accident in France. As Auster puts it in the foreword to this edition, "The entire project had collapsed into a black hole of oblivion." Things stood thus until October 1996, when a bibliophile friend presented Auster with a set of the yellowed galleys, which he'd found in a secondhand bookstore's remainder bin.

The Guayaki whom Clastres found at Arroyo Moroti had been neither exposed to missionaries nor contacted by the government in any significant way. They were, as Clastres explains, "hardly contaminated by the breezes of our civilization." Nevertheless, Clastres did not portray them as uninfluenced by white intrusion. By his own account, whites had been encroaching on Guayaki lands since the 1940s. The Guayaki sometimes lurked in the forest at the edge of white settlements, watching the intruders and occasionally shooting their livestock with arrows. The whites were, in turn, aware of the Guayaki (although they seldom saw them) and gradually developed a business hunting them down, stealing their women and children, and selling them into domestic slavery. In 1953 a gang of bounty hunters surrounded and captured an entire Guayaki band. Even though the Guayaki eventually escaped, this event led to an escalation of hostilities, with retaliatory murders on both sides, Guayaki heads mounted on stakes, and, finally, the Guayaki abandoning the forest for Arroyo Moroti.

It is a testimony to Clastres's narrative skill that he reveals the Guayaki as slowly as they revealed themselves to him. At first, his story is propelled by the sheer otherness of the Guayaki's lives. He hears of a hunter killed by the swipe of a giant anteater's claw, and of another hunter killed bizarrely by a great river otter, his totemic animal. He learns that the Guayaki catch tapirs in concealed pits because their hides are too thick to be penetrated by Guayaki arrows. Gradually, however, his revelations take on a more ghoulish cast, as when he is told of an older woman who is dispatched by a hatchet blow to the back of the head when she is unable to keep up with the rest of the tribe. And the greater number of Guayaki boys than girls leads Clastres to realize that the Guayaki practice infanticide--usually on girls, but occasionally on boys as well.

Clastres's most startling discovery, however, comes late in his investigations when an old woman named Jygi, or "Frog," casually mentions that one of her daughters was eaten by the Guayaki after her death. Clastres knew that accounts of Guayaki cannibalism went back as far as the early Jesuit missionaries, but his native informants vigorously denied these accusations. (Indeed, Clastres had asked the Guayaki about the subject for so long that they had begun to think he was a cannibal.) And so he concluded that Guayaki cannibalism was a myth, a shameful practice attributed--by whites and Indians alike--to an enemy Other. But when he confronts his main informants with Jygi's revelation, they admit that, yes, they'd lied to him "a little." Their Paraguayan ward has forbidden them to discuss their cannibalism because he's embarrassed at the prospect of being seen as a cannibal chief. Jygi had seemed such a peripheral tribe member that no one had ever bothered to notify her of the prohibition.

But once the subject has been broached, the Guayaki become quite voluble. They are endo-cannibals, which is to say they eat their own dead. (They don't hunt their enemies in order to eat them, they tell Clastres, but neither do they pass up an opportunity if one comes along.) Human flesh, they say, is sweet, like wild pig--only better, because humans are the only creatures in the forest that are always covered with a layer of fat. They grill human flesh with the marrow or the bud of the pindo palm and, if they are eating a man, boil the penis and give it to the women first, because it means they will give birth to a male. The Guayaki, moreover, are delighted at the prospect of being eaten by their fellows, since it represents a kind of communion in death with their tribe. They believe that the Ove, or soul, will terrify the living unless the body that contains it is consumed. Only if it is eaten will the Ove climb up into the sky "to be lost in the upper world, the Invisible Forest...the land of the dead."

Despite Clastres's painstaking effort to explain the meaning of these practices, he recounts them in a way that seems almost deliberately provocative, and it is tempting to look at his account of Guayaki life as a disavowal of the French romance with the idea of the noble savage, which goes back beyond Lévi-Strauss, beyond Rousseau, all the way to Montaigne. However, Clastres's rejection of this idea seems to have been less than complete. He was working on his Guayaki book during the Paris events of May 1968, when he became known as an anarchist, hostile not only to Gaullism but to the Marxist promise of fulfillment through the state. His political involvement had striking effects on his subsequent work. In Society Against the State and Archaeology of Violence, his final two books, Clastres seemed to revive a version of the old Rousseauism, holding up the egalitarian, centrifugal qualities of primitive societies against the oppressive, centralizing aspects of the modern state.

This, however, is getting ahead of the game. The most distinctive feature of Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians--written at the height of anthropological structuralism--is Clastres's defiantly anti-ideological decision to embrace pure narrative. Writing in the first person and forgoing methodological discussion, he assumes a readership capable of situating itself in the anthropological process and willing to let the evidence speak for itself. Eloquently, without apologizing or moralizing, he presents to us a world with values startlingly different from our own. One can only imagine how exasperating his reports on Guayaki cannibalism will be to the participants in the "great cannibalism debate." (Despite overwhelming anecdotal evidence of cannibalism, Clastres never actually witnesses it.) But one can also see how the book would appeal to a novelist of dark urban mysteries such as Auster. It's like a taxi cab that picks us up on a street corner, carries us to a dangerous part of town, and leaves us there.

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