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CHRONICLE OF THE GUAYAKI INDIANS. By Pierre Clastres . Translated from the French by Paul Auster . Zone Books: 352 pp., $25.50

March 29, 1998|DAVID RAINS WALLACE | David Rains Wallace is author of several books about Latin American natural history and conservation, including "The Monkey's Bridge: Mysteries of Evolution in Central America" (Sierra Club Books)

Savages have fascinated civilization at least since Herodotus. The Rousseauian idea that they are freer and happier than civilized people has played a part in this fascination, but that idea probably isn't fundamental to it. The civilized have despised the uncivilized, on the whole, and they still do despite modern cultural relativism. (The poor box-office returns from the 1992 film of Peter Matthiessen's Amazon novel, "At Play in the Fields of the Lord," perhaps reflect this.) French anthropologist Pierre Clastres probably comes much closer to explaining the fascination's true source in his splendid "Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians."

Clastres' book is an unexpected echo of a time that seems at once close and distant. Hardly any peoples like these South American Indians exist today, yet they lived and died only four decades ago. Many indigenous groups persist, of course, but very few are as innocent of civilization as the Guayaki were. Such innocence has not survived. By the time of "Chronicle's" original French publication in 1972, the tribe Clastres had studied already had declined from 100 individuals to 30, mostly because of diseases caught from whites (including Clastres, presumably). By the time Clastres died in a car accident in 1977, they probably were extinct. Their fate might never have come to North America's attention if novelist Paul Auster, who translated "Chronicle" as a penniless unknown in 1976, hadn't become bankable enough in 1996 finally to get it published here.

Reading "Chronicle" is like opening a time capsule containing a once-familiar image--the savage--that has assumed a strange, unsettling aspect after its virtual disappearance from the living world. I say unsettling because Clastres' fine book is not quite the nostalgic view of primitive life that now prevails in literary circles.

Clastres spent most of 1963 with two Guayaki groups that recently had contacted civilization. He noted that the Paraguayan farmers who lived near them--farmers who themselves spoke a native language, Guarani--regarded them with mingled hatred and awe as "superhuman in the sense that they were spirits of the forest with fearful powers and knowledge." People who live settled on farms and in towns feel alien to those who wander around hunting and gathering, no matter what their genetic or cultural kinship to them.

Yet Clastres posed a paradox when he offered this insight. A major theme in his "Chronicle" is the superficiality of regarding the savage as a "spirit of the forest," a being closer to nature than other humans. To be sure, the Guayaki could move through the Chacoan forest and exploit its resources with skills no Guarani or beeru (white man) could match, yet as Clastres described them, those skills did not give them any special power over or kinship with nature, particularly not in the realm most important to them, that of spirits. They seemed to regard nature spirits--the blue jaguar of night, the great serpent of the rainbow--with a hatred and awe not unlike that of their Guarani-speaking neighbors and spent much of their time performing rituals to deflect the spirits' malignancy.

According to Clastres, the savages were as clear in their sense of a fundamental separateness between culture and nature, as determined to "get rid of everything that might be a disagreeable reminder of the ugliness and stupidity of animals," as the most etiolated urbanite. "One preoccupation is shared by all Indians," he wrote, "to keep reaffirming their humanity and protecting it from the natural world, protecting themselves from being swallowed up by the savagery of nature, which is always on the lookout for human beings, always eager to reclaim them." The common Indian practice of removing all animal-like body hair is a basic example of this. Indeed, the Guayaki saw the hairy Paraguayan whites who invaded the forest to kill or enslave them as akin to, or having power over, the baleful nature spirits.

Clastres' interpretation of Guayaki thought seems almost counterintuitive at a time when many Westerners automatically regard uncivilized cultures as environmentally positive alternatives to an ecosystem-destroying global marketplace. On the one hand, this is a refreshing antidote to much sentimentality that has grown up around the politically correct version of noble savagery. On the other, it has apocalyptic implications. If the savage--the original human being--hated and feared nature, what does that say for civilization's chances of developing a less hostile and destructive attitude toward the Earth?

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