Barbecued Husbands: And Other Stories from the Amazon

By 28 August, 2013

Barbecued Husbands: And Other Stories from the Amazon, edited by Betty Mindlin (translated by Donald Slatoff) and published by Verso, is a collection of wonderful stories from the Macurap, Tupari, Ajuru, Jabuti, Arikapu and Aruá tribal people, who live in Rio Branco (Rondonia) and the Guaporé Indigenous Areas, close to Brazil’s border with Bolivia. The stories, which have been narrated, interpreted and translated from Portuguese, Tupi-Tupari, Tupi-mondé or the isolate languages, Jabuti and Arikapu, are a revelation.

The lore of the land

To those familiar with Greek, Norse and Teutonic legends, myths, fairytales, fables or even Harry Potter, these stories will come as no surprise. Indeed, one of humanity’s shared characteristics is that, wherever it is, it contrives similar narratives as a means to explain and explore its existential predicament.

Here heads move of their own volition (as in Akarendek, the flying head, or the ravenous wife), shape-shifting is the norm, the inanimate moves and the corporeal and spiritual intermingle. The stories are often cautionary tales which expose human weaknesses and strengths, among them, vengeance and atonement but at other times you’ll find transcendence, redemption and resurrection.

A cast of thousands

The stories are full of actors: spirit-human, animal-human and human-material. In some they are reified as mythological beasts, half women, half snake, half man, half tapir; spirits like the often (but by no means always) sinister Txopokods, who move easily between domains; a woman who tranforms into a pot or a jungle brought to a wholly different life like Great Birnam Wood in Macbeth or the Forest of Fanghorn in Lord of the Rings, by the agency of wish fulfillment.

Cocksure and not

Is a man with three penises (Akaké, a groom with three cocks) too dissimilar from people who slip into and out of the human and animal domains or who exhibit a duality which is both spiritual and corporeal at the same time? Is the story of Leda and the Swan too dissimilar from a man (Ateab) with a hard-on, The Unlucky Hunter or the tree lover, who rogers a tropical hardwood? There really is a ying-yang yong where the cocks go boing and the hardwoods are taboo – and here it is. Similarly, in the Ghost Lover of the Girl with the Giant Clitoris, the slow hand with the easy touch, which doesn’t come and go in a heated rush, comes to a sticky end. But the Txopokod lover, relieved of his arm, leaves his paramour with a major burden and the villagers in darkness for three days until it is returned.

Eroticism and its enjoyment in many of the stories, such as The Clay Pecker, The Tapir’s Wife or The Offended Wife, The Flight to a Macaw Husband, and The Height of Brazil Nut Trees, comes at a cautionary price, especially if you are female. It doesn’t do to enjoy yourself too much unless you are married and faithful.

Trials and tribulations

Many of the stories are immediately redolent in their narrative devices. The tobacco leaves which are deliberately pointed in the wrong direction; the incestuous relationship where the boy is so ashamed he goes off to become Urí, the moon; the wicked witches; the great warriors who are plucked from safety by monstrous man-eating spectres; first causes; the loss of innocence; the made-to-measure tapir’s skin and the Stubborn One, whose curiosity or intrigue pivots the story from fantasy back to reality. It is familiar turf to those who know Hansel and Gretel, Beowulf, Artemis and Actaeon, Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood or even Goldilocks.

Mind’s eye

All stories have the potential for such allegorical narratives, bridges from the metaphorical to the real. Shapeshifting is the norm in this world. Form is as plastic as our desire to understand it and give shape to it. In The Woman Who Made Love to her Son-in-law, a black wasp (cavalo do cão) intercedes to save a wronged women by pulling her out of pit using the end of a botxatô, a rainbow. In Pawatü, The Headhunter, the hero, Haüwud, brings a beautiful women to life from a laranjinha tree and a city emerges from the relative quiet of the forest and is described as being “full of the ceaseless murmur of conversation and children’s games”.

There’s no place like home

There is also the asymmetrical, the symmetrical, revenge, unrequited love, ménages à trois, meddling mother-in-laws, greed, gluttony, treachery and incest – it is all here. It really is a vast piccolo mundo whether you view it through the filter of luxuriant vegetation or if you can see to the vanishing point in all directions.

The other point which comes across strongly is the inventiveness and the extraordinary ability of these tribal people to adapt to their circumstances. Whilst the jungle has obvious and myriad dangers, its human inhabitants co-exist with it a relationship borne out of knowledge and respect.

Txopokods, stars and rainbows

The remarkable thing about these stories, apart from their beguiling eloquence, is how similar we all are in our differences. It’s fascinating stuff.

Barbecued Husbands: And Other Stories from the Amazon is available from Amazon

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