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In an account that is both living history and historical document, a now-vanished tribe of Paraguayan Indians is described as it lives out its last few years of existence. This document was unearthed some 20 years after novelist Auster translated it from the French, through a serendipitous encounter with one of his fans who had purchased a bound galley from a used bookstore. Clastres, who died before the translation was to have been published, lived with this tribe for two years in 1963 and 1964 in a compound that was under the protection of a white Paraguayan. The arrangement for the Indians was through necessity; their numbers had diminished from constant harassment by white settlers. Although their benefactor siphoned off food and other supplies given by the government, this last remnant was at least safe from the encroaching 20th century. As Clastres gained their confidence, he began piecing together the rituals of their daily lives. The Guayaki permitted him to witness birth, which to the Indians was a dangerous cosmic imbalance; the father is sentenced to death by his child’s birth and can only escape his immediate fate by killing an animal in the forest. Clastres observed the physically painful initiation rites for young men, after which they were permitted to have sexual relations with women. The anthropologist also followed the tribe into the forest where it searched for honey and grubs or hunted monkeys or coati. Forest existence was precarious: The Guayaki faced danger from jaguars (an old woman was taken by one during Clastres’s stay) and in earlier days from neighboring but related tribes, whose long-simmering feuds would lead to periodic violence. But Clastres saves the best for last: The Guayaki were cannibals, eating not only the bodies of enemy warriors but also their own dead. The account is anything but dry and didactic; Clastres wrote a vibrant but inescapably poignant study about one more doomed tribe of indigenous people. (photos, not seen)

Pub Date: April 2nd, 1998
ISBN: 0-942299-77-9
Page count: 352pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998