The four tribes of the now-extinct native Americans that once inhabited the Tierra del Fuego archipelago--that ships' graveyard along the land's end, southern tip of South America--were among the most primitive and hardy peoples encountered in the New World. In this fine piece of historical fiction cum- exemplary story, French novelist Jean Raspail explores the sad fate of the Alacalufs (who called themselves Kaweskar, "The People"), the lesser known of the two tribes of sea-nomads or "canoe Indians."
Raspail reconstructs the history of the Alacalufs through their own eyes and those of Magellan, Drake and other historical figures. In this noble quest of the "other" (those whose languages and customs seemed so alien to Europeans that they refused to admit that they belonged to the human species), the view from "within" is attempted through a synopsis of generations, of millennia, in the mind of the character Lafko, a kind of collective memory of the Alacalufs. The view from "without" reveals a shameful history of smug disdain: From Magellan on, Europeans judged the Alacalufs to be "ugly," "stinking," "disgusting," "brutish," "beasts," "animals"; they kidnaped them, enslaved them and, at worst, their genocidal instincts unleashed, they turned their guns and cannons on them for sport, exterminated them; in the end, they were hunted for bounty or herded into missionary stations where they died of white man's diseases or the despair of captivity, and the last stragglers were reduced to bartering and begging in the shipping lanes of the Strait of Magellan. The complicity of scientists (like Darwin) in fostering this outcome is addressed in a couple of the chapters.
The other side of the coin--that our survival, too, depends on our ability to embrace others not as a function of our own ideal but of theirs--is seen in the tragic fate of the inhabitants of Name of Jesus and the City of King Philip, Spain's first settlement communities in Tierra del Fuego,who went mad or starved to death. The English privateer Cavendish rechristened the latter city Port Famine.
The point is brought home in the moving chapter, "A Civilized Gentleman." Sir John Byron, shipwrecked in the Strait in his youth and rescued by the Alacalufs, returns to the scene years later and ponders the legacy of European contacts: "What an endless history of contempt is unraveled! And yet . . . ." An instinct for survival had not saved his fellow castaways. He alone had survived by crossing the cultural abyss and living with the Alacaluf clan for six months, and the clan had braved the seas and their fears of the world beyond their territory to set him down on an island from which Chilotan seal hunters returned him to Puerto Montt.
But when Raspail attempts to give us a glimpse from within (the inner life of the Alacalufs), the reader is aware of a European mind wedged between him and the "other." The Alacalufs are "endlessly fleeing," "forsaken" pariahs, "commanded by fate to survive, not to live" in a land shrouded in "an eternally black sky," "a witches' dance of cruel winds," "a hell of snow and winds."
But this area is also stunningly beautiful, and Father Martin Gusinde has compared the Yamana, a sister tribe, to 'fidgety birds of passage who were happy and inwardly calm only when they were on the move'). In two recent works, Bruce Chatwin ("The Songlines") and Mario Vargas Llosa ("El Hablador" ("The Speaker") ) convincingly draw the reader into the soul-life, the Earth-bound myths and legends of the Australian Bushmen and the Peruvian Machiguengas, respectively. Raspail is far less successful in a parallel attempt with the Alacalufs, and the fault is not in Jeremy Leggatt's translation, which is excellent.
Despite that limitation, Raspail's story, inscribed in the dialogue of cultures so characteristic of our age, is a fine version in historical fiction of a true story loud with ethical reverberations. As First-World nations, we are collectively responsible for the fate of colonized and subjugated peoples in the Third World, but we have hardly begun to address those responsibilities.