MAIRA by Darcy Ribeiro
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Only 200 of the Maira Indians are left living on the banks of Brazil's Ipanana River, as primitive and ""uncivilized"" a people as can be imagined. Their society and its mythology feed Brazilian novelist Ribeiro his story in this finely orchestrated novel. Isaias, an ex-seminarian, a Mairan Indian himself, returns to his people not as a missionary but as a seeker; Catholicism has not provided all the answers he needs. With him is Alma Friere, a young but jaded Rio libertine now determined to redeem herself by working with a group of nuns serving in the jungle. Both Isaias and Alma arrive with intention not quite yet jelled, though--only to find themselves being welcomed differently than they imagined. Isaias is immediately taken by the Mairans as their prophesied-to-come new chieftain, and Alma his ""yellow macaw"" consort, called the Canindejub. They find themselves demigods rather than pilgrims. And, finally, Alma will easily adjust to the sensuality and naturalness. . . while Isaias cannot. With some of the political/allegorical acerbity of a V. S. Naipaul novel, Ribeiro's book is more spellbound and spellbinding in its fluency with the ethnology of the Maira. He vividly evokes their bacchanales, their voices, their psychology, their rituals: young warriors offering to an anaconda-bite; disinterred bones of the newly dead embroidered with feathers, then re-buried; the ""couvade"" or protective convalescence of a baby's father after a birth. Furthermore, the frailty of the civilization (as well as its beauty) rustles behind each scene--all woven so skillfully as not to hector or propagandize. A difficult, absorbed book--but a substantial one.

Pub Date: March 31st, 1984
Publisher: Random House