Monday, March 26, 2012

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories
By Luis Sepúlveda

I would entitle this book: The Shuar Survival Guide to the Jungle.

This novella tells the story of Antonio José Bolívar, an Otavalo native of the town of San Luis, Ecuador, came to the jungle as part of a government plan to colonize the Amazon, in the company of his young wife at the age of 19. His wife Dolores Encarnación succumbed to malaria during her second year. "Antonio José Bolívar Proaño knew he couldn't return to his village in the mountains. The poor forgive everything but failure" (p. 33). He wants to hate the jungle for defeating him and taking away his wife, but "in his helplessness he discovered he didn't know the jungle well enough to hate it" (p.34).

The Shuar, natives of the Amazon, took pity on Antonio José Bolívar and taught him how to work with the land (p. 32-33). He learned their language and joining their hunting expeditions (p. 34). He told them about the farming life in the mountains of the Andes: "They work. From sunrise to sunset." "What fools, what fools!" pronounced the Shuar.

After surviving being bitten by a poisonous equis snake, Antonio José Bolívar is given the hallucinogenic natema beverage during the Shuar Festival of the Serpent. He befriends Nushiño, who washes up in his canoe after being hit in the back by a bullet from the Peruvian military (p. 38). Antonio José Bolívar learns to know the jungle, to track like a Shuar, to swim like a Shuar. "He was like them, yet was not one of them" (p.40). He had to go away from time to time, "so that they could miss him."

Antonio José Bolívar lives peacefully in the town of El Idilio on the Nangaritza River for many years. He accidentally rediscovers that he can read and finds that he has a predilection for sentimental love stories, which are supplied by the traveling dentist who plies the river trade.

One day as Antonio José Bolívar is pushing 70, the Shuar bring the body of a foreigner who has been killed by an ocelot. A hunter has killed the ocelot's litter and wounded her mate. The Shuar and the townspeople realize that the female feline is now on a rampage for revenge. Despite his misgivings, Antonio José Bolívar becomes involved in the hunting party that is sent to kill the animal.

The book is a vision of the encounter between two worlds: that of the Shuar who live their traditional lifestyle in the jungle, and the Andean settlers, trying to bend the world to their way. The moralism is simplistic, but the descriptions of the Shuar traditions are magnificent, and particularly vivid if you have ever visited the Amazon.

Catching monkeys
Take a coconut and make two holes in it, a larger one and a smaller one. Run a string through and tie a knot inside that will not go through the smaller hole. Tie the other end of the string to a tree. Place some pebbles inside the coconut. The curious monkeys, who have been watching this process, will come down from the trees, pick up the coconuts and hear something rattling inside. They will thrust their hands in through the larger hole, grasp what is inside, and then be trapped because the greedy monkeys will not give up their prize. They will struggle all night, and the next day can be collected easily because they are exhausted (p. 56).

Camping in the jungle
If you must sleep out in the jungle, set up camp near a burnt or petrified tree because bats roost there, and if they are startled they will shower you with guano, warning you that danger is near (p. 97).

Passing on
When the Shuar elders decide to pass on, they drink themselves into hallucinatory ecstasy on natema. When they have drunk themselves unconscious, they are carried to a distant hut and anointed with sweet palm honey and left there so that the jungle ants will do their work. The following day the clean white bones are gathered (p. 41).

Antonio José Bolívar recounts the experience of sex with the Shuar woman, shared as part of Shuar hospitality. The Shuar women prefer to remain on top, because that is a more powerful position for her lovemaking, and she narrates the action, putting it into words to make the experience more sacred and powerful. The Shuar do not kiss.

Shuar customs
Spitting repeatedly to show you he's telling the truth (p. 117).
Fart noisily, so no lazy tazantzas (sloths) will hear you (p.117).
The Shuar always leave at the end of a story, to avoid questions that might lead to lies (p. 118).

The Old Man Who Read Love Stories only takes a couple of hours to read. The strangeness can be overwhelming. Sepulveda provides an apt vehicle to tell his story through the eyes of a man who arrived in the jungle as an outsider and then learns to understand and love it. It is a romanticized view of a world, in which animals embody the spirit of nature.

Antonio José Bolívar reads corny love stories. We, the readers, are not meant to take him too seriously, but at the same time, he hits upon a grain of truth and captures something essential which is the fact that this world existed and, to a considerable extent, still exists to this day.

One of the book's strongest points is its catalogue of Shuar practices, that range from the practical to the peculiar; things that may seem absurd to us and yet make perfect sense within the Shuar cosmovision.

This is a lovely book and a gorgeous glimpse of a world that most readers will never experience except through the printed word. I was reminded of the small towns I saw in 1992 while traveling on rickety cargo boats down the Amazon River from the Colombian port of Leticia, where Colombia borders with Brazil and Peru, to the mouth of the Amazon in Belem, Brazil.

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