Ghosts on the Pampas

Mapuche Indian Women

Mapuche Indian Women

One doesn’t hear much about the aboriginal population of Argentina. That is because, for the most part, the Indians of Argentina were done away with. Those who didn’t die of the white man’s diseases were rounded up and either executed or imprisoned during the 1870s under the “Conquest of the Desert” fomented by President Julio Argentino Roca (pictured below on the Argentinian 100 peso note).

Two Argentinian writers, however, did a fair job resuscitating the original peoples of the land. In The Witness, Juan José Saer writes of the fictional Colastiné who inhabited La Litoral along the Rio Paraná. A Spanish cabin boy is one of several prisoners from his 16th century landing party. His mates are all cooked and eaten in a cannibal feast. Yet there is a strange beauty to them:

For the Indians everything seems and nothing is. And the appearance of things is situated above all in the field of non-existence. The open beach, the transparent day, the cool green of the trees in spring, the otters with their smooth, rippling skin, the yellow sand, the golden-scaled fish, the moon, the sun, the air and the stars, the tools they skilfully and patiently fashioned from recalcitrant materials, in short everything that presented itself clearly to the senses was for them formless, and had a vague and sticky underside against which the darkness beat.

Saer’s Colastiné are true primitives, whereas César Aira’s Mapuche in The Hare are subtly ironic. Fortunately for them, the Mapuche survive today on the Chilean side of the Andes. (Unlike the Argentineans, the Chileans frequently intermarried with their tribal peoples.)

Argentine 100-Peso Note

Argentine 100-Peso Note

In The Hare, the narrator, Clarke, is an Englishman in search of the legendary Legibrerian Hare, which can not only run and leap, but fly when necessary. The Mapuche chief Calfucurá tells Clarke:

We have a word for “government” which signifies, in addition to a whole range of other things, a “path,” but not just an ordinary path—the path that certain animals take when they leap in a zigzag fashion, if you follow me; although at the same time we ignore their deviations to the right and left, which due to a secondary effect of the trajectory end up of course not being deviations at all, but a particular kind of straight line.

Both Saer and Aira are superb writers, and both capture in their own ways the peoples who came before them.