Of friends and strangers

GETTING TO KNOW WAI WAI: An Amazonian Ethnography by Alan Tormaid Campbell, Routledge pounds 40/pounds 12.99
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THIS is a wonderful book - a book of wonders and wondering. It is full of sophisticated scholarship but easily penetrable for anyone with enough curiosity. It is also beautifully written; there is not a trace of academic-speak in it. Rather than being published as an academic book, it could have been incorporated into that awkward, over-capacious genre, travel literature, and sold well.

"Over a spell of two years I lived in a remote area of the Amazon Forest with a people called Wayap," it begins, a la Blixen. By the third paragraph, the author is worrying, "in spite of an overwhelming conviction that this was the most fascinating enterprise that it was possible to undertake on this planet, who was going to pay any heed to anything I learned? Who would want to know?" There were already misgivings about turning his friendships with the Wayap into scientific reports to be delivered at seminars. "I would find myself addressing strangers about my friends as if I was addressing friends about strangers. How could I talk about them in that way - as patients etherised upon a table?"

He calms himself by imagining he is writing for surviving Wayap, 100 years hence (there are only 150 Wayap left now). "I think they will understand my thwarted curiosity about the future, just as I understand theirs about the past. I can get a sense of them, in their ruined Amazonia, looking back a century to our time, and I know how curious they will feel and how urgently they will want to grasp what's vanished." I doubt that, somehow. Mourning and recording are often all we are left with: there may, indeed, be no one who wants to know.

He enters the jungle and makes himself "available" to his hosts, a "mode of passive intensity where all sorts of images and experiences crowd in, pell-mell". He sets about learning the language, and is soon digressing exquisitely on the subject of language and translation. Back he comes from the scholarly meander to say, "The extinction of a language, like the extinction of a natural species, is an appalling tragedy. It's no romantic illusion to feel such regret. It is, on the other hand, just swaggering ignorance to be indifferent to such destruction."

That last comment is typical Campbell. He feels himself surrounded by swaggering ignorance, one suspects. Levi-Strauss did say that people become anthropologists because they are badly adjusted to their own society; certainly you get the sense that this one may have trouble readjusting to university life.

The book is crammed with things you did not know you wanted to know, and all sorts of enjoyable yarns. Descriptions of hunting, how anacondas catch their prey, how certain plants are used, what happens when communities go on drinking sprees, recipes for manioc, how the National Indian Foundation really works, what the missionaries are really up to.

But at the heart of the book lie the central questions of anthropology: not just who "they" might be, but who "we" are. (Our vision of them depends much on what we think of ourselves.) To what extent can "we" and "they" understand each other? How deep does "culture" go? Are there some chasms between ways of understanding the world that are so wide they can't be crossed? (For Campbell, one such chasm was the notion of paye, magic. Can you understand something if you can't believe in it?)

These are the doubts and questions which now follow scientists into the "field" and back again, and around which vitriolic debates rage in academe. To these vexed questions, Campbell presumes only contingent answers. His view, I think, is that les grands peut-etres provide antidotes to swaggering ignorance.

Perhaps, in 100 years time, there will be a human being who identifies him or herself as a Wayap. We can only hope so. In the meantime, such books may not save threatened communities, but they can certainly educate us: "The yarns can be interesting in themselves, but they're really only worthwhile if they're a way to ... make people see more connections: make them think and change."