Ch’oe In-ho - The novel begins with a series of seemingly minor juxtapositions of the familiar and the strange, as a result of which the protagonist, K, gradually finds himself inside a Matrix-like reality populated with shape-shifting characters

Ch’oe In-ho, Another Man's City, Trans. by Bruce Fulton, Ju-Chan Fulton. Dalkey Archive Press, 2014.

An excerpt from Another Man’s City in Asymptote

Another Man’s City is structured as a virtual-reality narrative manipulated by an entity referred to variously as the Invisible Hand or Big Brother. The scenario is reminiscent of Peter Weir’s 1998 film The Truman Show and Kazuo Ishiguro's novel The Unconsoled. The novel begins with a series of seemingly minor juxtapositions of the familiar and the strange, as a result of which the protagonist, K, gradually finds himself inside a Matrix-like reality populated with shape-shifting characters.

This lightly Kafkaesque fable from a South Korean writer presents a man who suddenly finds his world not quite right in increasingly strange ways.
Known only as K, the hero wakes up one morning to find his alarm ringing on a Saturday, his pajamas missing and his favorite aftershave changed from brand V to Y. They’re small, almost explainable alterations, especially given the heavy drinking he performed the previous night. Soon, though, it’s clear that many things aren’t what they should be or what they seem to be, and that includes his wife and daughter and most of his relatives. More deceptions, illusions, masks and role-playing arise as K embarks on what’s at first a simple quest to find his lost mobile phone. Something that reads like a butcher’s promotion is an ad “from a purveyor of human organs.” A psychiatrist could be a “fruitcake.” A girl for hire, wonderfully named Sailor Moon, the Moon Nymph, is a “Pinocchio-like figure.” The whole situation could be a “mammoth conspiracy,” an “elaborate production that Big Brother was staging.” Like the almost-boy, Choi’s imagination is also loose-limbed, at times seeming to scramble through a grab bag of ideas, allusions and narrative elements, and ultimately succumbing to some unsatisfying gimmickry. Yet he has a knack for the sinister moment, and one fine and funny sustained passage takes K the devout Catholic through Confession and Mass. Most impressive is the consistency of K’s voice, sometimes comical, ever skeptical, oddly acquiescent—more Beckett than Kafka and a real achievement.
Choi may be straining for postmodern effects, but there’s a lot of charm to his anxious novel, as if Thurber and Orwell had gotten together for a skull session. - Kirkus Reviews
God often plays an outsized role in science fiction, if only by not showing up. In H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, for example, the narrator encounters a deranged curate—that’s an assistant to an Anglican priest—in the turmoil following a Martian invasion. The two hide in a ruined house, where the holy man rants on how the extraterrestrials are God’s punishment for a fallen world. The narrator must incapacitate him with a shovel to prevent the enemy from detecting them. Later, as the Martians fall prey to a virus benign to humanity, the irony becomes clear: Matter, not spirit, drives the universe.
But the genre can’t quite leave Christianity, and many SF writers have speculated in ways much more commodious to the religion. In November 1974, Philip K. Dick received a mystical vision that would later become a legendary episode in the history of the genre. At home, recovering from an operation on an impacted wisdom tooth, he received a visit from a strange and beautiful woman wearing an ichthys, the Christian symbol of the fish, as a gold pendant on her neck. Dick then described a “pink laser” shooting from the symbol directly into his mind and imbuing him with divine logos. This included the author catching a glimpse into a parallel life as Timothy, a persecuted Christian living in 1st-century Rome. The vision set off a torrent of creative activity, which included Dick’s later novels VALIS, The Divine Invasion, Radio Free Albemuth, as well as an 8,000-page journal of philosophical speculations, selections of which were published in 2011 as The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick.
Intimations of the divine can also be found in Another Man’s City, a short novel by the late Korean writer Ch’oe In-ho (excerpted in Asymptote here). The book follows K, a middle-aged banker, as he attempts to reconstruct missing memories following a night of heavy drinking. Things are, of course, not what they appear to be. His domestic life, tranquil on the surface, begins to exhibit cracks. Wife and daughter begin to treat him differently, as if they were becoming different people. K wanders the streets of Seoul in search of answers. He encounters a wide range of sinister or eccentric characters who aid or thwart his efforts respectively. As he progresses on his quest, K comes to realize that a vast intelligence, inhuman but capable of taking human form, is guiding events.
From the summary, you would be forgiven for thinking Another Man’s City to be the work of Haruki Murakami, and the similarities between Ch’oe’s novel and those of his famous Japanese contemporary deserve some further attention. First of all, there’s K. Like many of Murakami’s protagonists, he’s a rather colorless figure. And his crisis of identity, however mysterious, is firmly rooted within the drab realities of a middling professional man, a type recognizable in Seoul, Tokyo, New York, or wherever.
And also like Murakami, Ch’oe generously borrows elements from popular culture, not only as a way of rooting the narrative in contemporary life but as a crucial element in the plot itself. It may seem perverse, having existential questions hinge on details from Sailor Moon and the Power Rangers, but in that regard K seems quite plausible. It’s a distinct fact of contemporary life that grown men and women will use children’s entertainment as a key to deciphering their lives.
Where Ch’oe and Murakami diverge sharply is on matters of faith. The Japanese novelist prefers to investigate its more sinister aspects, especially in Underground, his investigation of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and their 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. In contrast, Ch’oe’s protagonist is conventionally religious. He attends Catholic mass and believes in the teachings of the Church regarding sin and absolution. And though K does not narrate, his faith tints the perspective of the novel with Christian values, which form the negative and positive poles of the book.
The bad first: the protagonist’s distinct revulsion toward sex. As a more or less conventional believer, K is disturbed by unrestrained carnality. Yet the narrative tone doesn’t quite work, with its moralizing bent sliding too easily into scolding. Early in the novel, the protagonist finds himself in an empty movie theater where a man and a woman are copulating in the darkness. K’s own antipathy spills over into poorly stated condemnation of social license in general. “They were like drug addicts seeking a place to inject the poison of artificial pleasure—a public toilet, an alley, a fire escape, a rooftop, seat H15, seat J23. Or like gay men looking for a place to plant themselves in each other’s rosy sphincters.” This ugly priggishness rears its head at points elsewhere, often enough to trigger doubt as to what’s at issue. Is it K’s position as believer in a liberal, secular society? If so, one would do better in reading other Catholic conservatives like Walker Percy, Muriel Spark, or Shūsaku Endō.
For the good, let’s return to the theme of mystical communion, where Ch’oe follows in Philip K. Dick’s tradition. K is on a spiritual rather than material journey, and this raises the stakes of the novel, becoming more than just another tale of an aimless, middle-aged man trying to solve the riddle of himself. After attending mass, K thinks of what an accurate representation of his soul might look like. A Möbius strip, he decides, but that’s not quite all.
And the cross is exactly the same—can’t tell inside from outside, beginning from end, or right from left—it’s a Jesus strip. The two members of the cross intersect, but the image of Jesus has no boundary between inner and outer, beginning and end, alpha and omega. But doesn’t the anti-Christ also use that cross as his trademark? Just like counterfeiters focus all their efforts on faking the authenticity of a brand?
K then epitomizes what the psychologist William James called “the sick soul” who yearns to be made whole again. Missing memory is the least of his problems. As he approaches the truth of what happened to him while having a night on the town, K realizes that the people around him, his family and friends, even K himself, are merely elements in an artificially created environment. The simulacra he encounters represent elements in a spiritual machine, which exists outside time and space. K’s encounter with the divine might not resonate with too many readers, but it vividly shows the strange directions that religious belief might take in a world of omnipresent technology and globalized popular culture. - Matthew Spencer

 Another Man's City covers barely more than a single weekend, describing what the character K experiences, feels, and thinks as he finds his world slightly (and then increasingly) out of whack.
       As the opening headings suggest, the story closely tracks unfolding events, down to the exact time as K progresses through his days:

       7 a.m.

       And as the parenthetical 'Power on' might suggest, this isn't entirely an everyday story, on any level. Exactly how far those levels reach isn't immediately clear, but it won't come as a surprise that the book's closing words are:
       For all the precision, Another Man's City finds K in a bit of a daze. It begins when his alarm goes off at 7 in the morning -- on a Saturday, when it shouldn't. His memories of the previous evening are hazy, and include a whole block of lost time -- and he seems to have forgotten his phone somewhere along the way. Small details are wrong, too: he wakes up naked, despite never having slept without his pajamas his entire married life, for example, and his aftershave -- V, whose: "scent defined him" -- has inexplicably been replaced by aftershave Y. There's something off about his wife, too and all sorts of other small and larger details. Adding injury to confusion, his daughter's puppy bites him.
       K feels like:
everyone was plotting to turn his life upside down. Behind a façade of peace and tranquility they were deceiving him, they were preying on his frailties.
       Things get stranger, as K sees people he vaguely recognizes -- more and more -- but generally can't quite place them, or if he can, their presence doesn't add up. And in trying to piece together what happened the night before, he tries to retrace his steps, but the paths he follows raise more questions than they answer.
       "Familiarity was a deception", he finds, as everything familiar is off kilter. It feels like some greater force, some 'Big Brother' is staging life for him, but isn't getting the smaller details just right. K tries to reason his way through what's happening -- "I think, therefore I am. I am, therefore I am not deceived", he tells himself -- but the world around him becomes more surreal the more he engages with it. K encounters his old brother-in-law, who reveals an unusual but still plausible other side to his identity, and then his sister, whom K hasn't been in touch with for ages, now a bloated woman out of the spotlight she once enjoyed.
       From the wife, who doesn't seem quite like the woman he has long been married to any longer, to a variety of characters who have assumed new roles -- some only part-time, in forms of what can seem like play-acting -- the boundaries between familiar reality and this seemingly slightly different world K finds himself navigating remain mostly vague. K feels things are wrong, but he finds it hard to put his finger on exactly what's wrong -- and some of the explanations he reaches for, like that the woman now posing as his wife is some substitute, seem far-fetched even to him.
       Ch'oe leads the reader along with K through this odd, off-kilter world, and he doesn't disappoint with the final twists in this reality of doubles and of assumed roles. An unusual speculative philosophical-existential story, Another Man's City takes the very grounded K for quite a ride, and the reader along with him. Ch'oe's narrative veers towards the science-fictional, but is -- unsurprisingly, given the protagonist's identifying name and the focus on both the mystifying and ineffable circumstances he is confronted with and on physical change (i.e. metamorphosis) -- closer to Kafka in atmosphere and feel. (Kafka does get an incidental mention in the story, too.)
       The danger with a novel such as this is of course that it can sink in its own willful murk. For the most part, however, Ch'oe's close description of K's progress over these few days is readily followed. Only in some of the deeper issues that surface -- questions of intimacy and sex, or his family-relations going back to his childhood -- can it feel like the reader is left in a bit of a lurch; indeed, the K outside these pages and this time-span -- such as at work (he works in banking) -- arguably remains too little-known.
       Ultimately, Another Man's City is perhaps stretched just a bit too far -- without the adequate foundations to support that -- but in the unpredictable and unusual turns it takes is an intriguing examination of contemporary life and identity -- the roles we play and the ones forced on us -- that allows for myriad interpretations. - M.A.Orthofer

As I’m writing this, the rain is beginning. The spattering sounds of drops hitting the fat, broad maple leaves on the tree outside my window catch my ear like static. The rain turns on the rich, dirt smell of the ground and dampens the sound of passing traffic. My neighbor, who plays the piano for the Portland Opera, is practicing some Brahms and singing out the notes as he plays them.
This is my place. Do I think I belong here because my senses interpret it as “mine,” and I’m attached to the reality I identify as “mine,” or do I belong in any old place, whether I recognize my surroundings or not?
This impossible question is the crux of Choe In-Ho’s novel Another Man’s City. I walked into it expecting something bizarre, futuristic, and possibly a bit whimsical. But this is not The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Instead, I ended up in one of Philip K. Dick’s amphetamine dreams. “Every train station displays a timetable,” he writes,

For the public, it’s a kind of civic contract, it’s the way things work. Likewise, weren’t all K’s thoughts and actions following a sequence, a meticulous computerized program? Hadn’t K become a human train, an automaton, coming and going as programmed?
For K, the unmoored hero of Another Man’s City, the universe collapses on a Saturday, around 7 a.m. He wakes up, shakes off his hangover, and after a few bilious heaves, comes to terms with the strange, fleshy creature who sulks at him in the mirror. Last night went poorly; he came home drunk, couldn’t get an erection, and forgot to turn off his alarm clock. And another thing: “And then, for the first time in his fifteen years of married life, he had risen from his bed naked, his bedclothes having vanished like a magician’s dove. And finally his aftershave had disappeared, replaced with a brand he wouldn’t be caught dead with.” Curiouser and curiouser. K, it seems, has woken up on the wrong side of someone else’s bed, next to someone else’s wife. Even his dog fails to recognize him and sinks its puppyish fangs into his ankle. Can it get worse? Absolutely.
Bitter, bare, and oppressive in its tone, Another Man’s City is a claustrophobic story about a man going to pieces. Convinced that he has somehow been replaced by a clone of himself—or maybe he is the clone?—K whips himself into a paranoid lather. Is his wife really his wife? Is his wife the same woman as his best friend’s wife? His suspicion seems to center totally around women, their inherent untrustworthiness. He seems to think they’re interchangeable, and in fact one woman easily becomes the surrogate for another.
On top of this, Choe, who converted to Catholicism in the 1980s, layers on a thick frosting of Catholic imagery. Original sin, cheating wives, and unpredictable lust bubble through the crust, adding a creepy logic to K’s unwieldy thinking. “He remembered passing his hand across the cheek of his mother just before she was encoffined—his wife had felt even colder. The frigidity of marble, of ice, of an inanimate object—that’s how his wife’s body had felt.”
Choe is one of South Korea’s most famous writers. Decorated with literary awards from a young age, he often wrote in a way that criticized Korea’s totalitarian regime, and his signature, surrealist style is credited for breathing new life into modern Korean fiction. 19 of his works were made into films, and his novels were serialized in the magazine Saemto for more than 34 years, a record in South Korean publishing. He was so famous that his book covers were adorned with his face—no author photo hidden on the back jacket flap. He pushes the envelope in every way, challenging us to change our minds about everything we know (or think we know) about ourselves.
In Another Man’s City, Choe’s fifth novel to be translated into English, we’re led by a master storyteller through the maze of our own minds. As K doubts his reality, the reader begins to doubt K. Who’s the crazy one here, I wondered. If K’s madness is so accessible, is mine, too? Is his paranoia the symptom of a mental illness, or is it the natural consequence of realizing that there are larger, darker forces at work, pulling the strings that underlie every aspect of human life?
These are big questions, and they push Another Man’s City beyond the genre parameters of science fiction. This is the novel that Choe In-Ho, who died in 2013 at 68, wished to be remembered by: according to the translators, “he finished the first draft in two months, writing as usual by hand, but with thumb and fingertip thimble guards, his fingernails and hair having been lost to chemotherapy and radiation treatments.” Reading, I imagine the author bending over his notebook, a man so pale that his extremities are nearly transparent, doing the work of transmitting his final story. I wonder if the rain distracted him; if, like K, he felt so much fear that he wanted to leap out of his skin.
Maybe, like K, he felt like an ant on a Mobius strip, “on an infinite journey, from inner to outer and back to inner, a journey without beginning or end,” with no goal in mind except making it through the next day. Or maybe he was like any of us, ill at ease in the world even as he claimed it for his own. Maybe there is no moral, no punch line. Maybe we can hear the single footfalls of the rain.  - Claire Rudy Foster

João de Melo - Cadete the Healer and Sara the Saint; Barbaro the Pilgrim and the syphilitic priest, His Holiness Father Governo; the death and resurrection of Joao-Lazaro...all on the island in the middle of the ocean...

João de Melo, My World Is Not of This Kingdom. Trans. by Gregory Rabassa, Aliform Publishing, 2003.

Read two chapters excerpted from My World Is Not Of This Kingdom.
This stunning novel, first published in the early 1980s in Portugal, is, according to Katherine Vaz’s fine introduction, “the most astonishing novel [translator Gregory Rabassa] had read since One Hundred Years of Solitude.” João de Melo is an Azorean-born writer apparently well-known in Portugal—according to Vaz, his work has been made into a TV mini-series and a movie and won major prizes there. But My World is Not of This Kingdom took many years to find its way into publication in English. To read de Melo now felt like a belated American discovery of yet another European writer we should have known already. To read him was also to feel the pleasure of reading a new classic of magical realism which both works and matters. And yet it is a book so wild in other ways that the magical realist or fantastic sequences read almost like a comfortingly conventional device. 
For an American reader (if not others), My World is Not of This Kingdom takes some acclimation, for reading this book is a submersion, a wonderful, worthwhile confusion, a volcano of rage and luxuriant profusion of images. The confusion might stem from the racing pace, the surging emotion, occasionally unpunctuated dialogue, or perhaps from something larger--from an unfamiliar worldview that the author holds up and challenges. This novel is tearing at the fabric of something.
The story starts with a presumed shared understanding of a very un-American, fatalistic narrative, one of Biblical scourges, far removed from modernity and ideas of progress. “There had been the year of the plague and the ninety-nine day rains, the year of deadly hunger, the year of earth tremors, the year of the American locusts, and during those years the escalator of death had passed across the Island, because a kind of circular trip was turning life like a carrousel that spun forever on its axis.” Lives consist of a constant grinding down, a cycle of disaster.
My World is Not of This Kingdom takes place in a lost parish in the northeast of the island of São Miguel in the Portuguese Azores, islands about 900 miles off of Portugal in the mid-Atlantic. (Discovered in the 15th century, they were populated over time by groups of Flemish settlers, Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Portuguese mainlanders, and others.) A sense of timelessness pervades in the beginning, as we read a kind of localized creation myth based on the story of original settlers, shipwrecked explorers who came upon this spot and stayed, and forgot the rest of the world. They bury their captain, and: “After that they went to bathe in the gloomy water of the craters, they observed from which side the sun, the stars and the rain came up and they retrieved time, beginning with crude hourglasses made from earthen pots. Then they felled trees and cut the wood with axes made from sharp pieces of lava. Opening clearings, they guided water into the first garden patches, and that was how they spent the six days of the creation of the world.” We are rapidly lost in the centuries as the inhabitants are. As the action progresses, it often seems it could be anytime from the 18th to the 20th century. The people of Rozário lose their connection to the other side of the island and the outside world. But this timelessness is not that of some legendary past of heroes and noble ancestors. This is the past as bad dream. The village that grows here is not so much enchanted as bedeviled.
The characters blend together at first, then become more distinct as we begin to follow João Maria and his family. All of the villagers are suffering under the control of a corrupt mayor as his position solidifies, and of a corrupt priest. João Maria suffers worst of all. He loses his land on which he would have farmed, then slowly retreats into despair, losing his mind, his wife. His children go to work on another man’s farm. Hunger reduces the wife and children, left alone in the main house, to this: “When everything was used up she cooked kale and greens and began killing the hens. She was going to do the same with the pig when she remembered that the dog had died a month earlier…” João Maria lives like an animal in the barn, waiting to die. That he becomes a rat there—“he saw, without any surprise, that his body was changing into a gigantic, yellow-ish rat. His hands and feet were cased in velvet, his face was snout-shaped and a little worried…”—is not, by this point, exactly magic. It’s understandable, it could even have come sooner. Magical realism is almost the more conventional, usual motif here.
Other characters include a charlatan healer, who sadly believes in himself and his cures, and a village idiot. That the idiot is resurrected in another form, later, is perfectly reasonable too, considering what all of them go through: “the earth began to breathe with life, heaving up like a set of bellows and slowly going back down, and it opened up with a boom. It was an enormous forgotten and magical chest that opened up with a sound of rotted fittings, and from its bottom they saw a short man with a long and sumptuous red beard woven into threads and yarn emerge.”
The most vivid descriptions are reserved for the evil characters, and they are so vengeful they seem inspired by something even beyond the rage of this story: “[Goraz] had something of a frog about him, his jowls puffy as they were and his hair twisted about the top of his head, as well as the fact that his eyes bulged out over the outline of his cheekbones. In addition, his body was completely like a toad’s and his way of walking, always in heavy oscillating strides, made his trunk float frontward, while his misshaped hands were like those of a famished crane, making one think as well of the leaps of a frog. It was necessary to look at him crosswise or simply look away and keep on going forward.” These descriptions continue unrelentingly, in revolt against society, the powers that be, and the church: “death would take charge of the sea monster that dwelt in the body of Goraz, the wife-killer, son of a priest, son of a million priests.”
De Melo’s imagination is outrageous, earthy, and over-the-top in a good way. The imagery within his long sentences and descriptions of the sea, especially, have a mixture of light and dark, love and hate, the lovely and the ugly. “It was a sea of dishrags, an asthmatic sea of lye on a threadbare cloth with no design, and its thin water, rocky and salty, gave off to the earth the breathing of a sleep that had no eyelids—and yet the eyelashes of its death burned with a fire of tiny animals loose inside that fat, mortal, white sea.” This too boils over, less with rage here than with a luxuriant imaginative art that prevails over the agony in the story, transcending hatred.
The book’s rant is, in the end, wonderful because it is just so outrageous, and more because it is bundled like kindling with rich imagery, characters and setting. The writing stands with that of António Lobo Antunes (to whom this novel happens to be dedicated). Compared to Antunes, de Melo’s imagination doesn’t travel quite as far into its strange visions. Its imagery rises directly from rural and island life, as opposed to the more cosmopolitan settings of The Natural Order of Things and The Inquisitor's Manual, where people travel farther, taking off and floating above the rooftops of Lisbon, for example. De Melo doesn’t even need such events here.
The poisonous bubble of the world of Rozário finally breaks in a series of events including the crash of an American airplane into the mountain above the village, and the deaths of the mayor and priest. The resurrected João Lázaro returns to life filled with news of the modern world and its inventions. “The people were startled by the revelation of so many hidden things missing from their knowledge.” The change brings an overdue taste of freedom from ignorance and self-appointed overlords, but it is also a release from a way of thinking: the fatalism that held João Maria and the other villagers back, that left them to go off to die like animals in a barn simply because they decided it was time. At the end, João Maria sees “the silent men of the soil, the same as always with the only difference that they were no longer the downcast creatures of days gone by, nor had their lungs been hardened by breathing rock-strewn sand wet with tears. They were THE DIGGERS and they had finally lost the listless movements of someone who’d learned to walk all by himself without the protection of a mother, or even the habit of walking eternally weighted down with possibly imaginary burdens. ” The tale of Rozário is one of the collision of worlds, and in this case, unlike in so many others, it is for the better. - OONA PATRICK

Jean-Luc Benoziglio - the monologue of a man, disoriented by the gaping void of not knowing his own nationality, recounting the final remnants of his own sanity and his life. In this buffoonish, even grotesque, yet deeply pitiful man, Benoziglio explores, with a light yet profound touch, weighty themes such as the roles of family, history, one’s moral responsibility towards others, and the fragility of personal identity

Jean-Luc Benoziglio, Privy Portrait, Trans. by Tess Lewis, Seagull Books, 2014.

The narrator in Jean-Luc Benoziglio’s Privy Portrait has fallen on hard times. His wife and young daughter have abandoned him, he has no work or prospects, he’s blind in one eye, and he must move into a horribly tiny apartment with his only possession: a twenty-five-volume encyclopedia. His neighbors, the Shritzkys, are vulgar, narrow-minded, and racist. And because he has no space for his encyclopedia in his cramped room, he stores it in the communal bathroom, and this becomes a major point of contention with his neighbors. The bathroom is also the only place he can find refuge from the Shritzkys’ blaring television, and he barricades himself in it to read his encyclopedia, much to the chagrin of the rest of the residents of the building.
Darkly amusing, Privy Portrait is the monologue of a man, disoriented by the gaping void of not knowing his own nationality, recounting the final remnants of his own sanity and his life. In this buffoonish, even grotesque, yet deeply pitiful man, Benoziglio explores, with a light yet profound touch, weighty themes such as the roles of family, history, one’s moral responsibility towards others, and the fragility of personal identity.

Privy Portrait begins with the narrator in a communal toilet, shared by the tenants on the same floor, but it's not a novel that has him barricaded in this retreat for its entirety. The English title, a clever variation on the original French Cabinet portrait, does suggest the toilet, which he does admittedly retreat to with greater frequency and for longer duration than physical requirements would demand, but moving beyond that the book is very much a personal, intimate portrait of a man unmoored we're made privy to, the vagueness and uncertainty about the protagonist's past seeming to catch up with him as he loses all hold in the present.
       After the short opening privy-scene, the story moves on to the narrator arranging his move, from his apartment to a considerably humbler (or downright pathetic) single room, and then the actual move. There's considerable banter with the two movers, whom he calls Asparagus and Brick House (because that's what their physiques respectively resemble) -- two men with whom he'll cross paths again, when they have moved on, employed in other transporting capacities.
       His new domicile is definitely a move down, his new room much too small for all his books -- which is why he ends up trying to store his encyclopedia-set in the communal toilet (and spends much of his time there, looking for answers in it). He's not a particularly neighborly sort -- an amusing scene when he moves out of his apartment has his neighbor there mistake him for the incoming tenant, not even recognizing him as her longtime-neighbor -- but he can't evade his new neighbors (or their loud television), more burdens to bear. But he does find a retreat of sorts on his floor -- even if he does have to vacate it when others need to pay a visit (something that becomes easier once he figures out some of their schedules): 
The peace and quiet that reigned in the john more than made up for the relative discomfort of the seating.
       The narrator never identifies himself by name, but resembles the author in many respects, down to the family name that is incidentally mentioned. He almost always refers to his psychiatrist-father, born Jewish in Turkey, who had settled in Switzerland, as 'the man in the white coat', a man who changed his: wife, nationality, religion, and name. There's not much sense of connection between father and son here; indeed, the narrator reveals that all the papers of his father's he has are: "four documents and four different spellings of his name", Nissim David Benosiglio transformed into Norbert Benoziglio -- documenting only the man's nominal transformation, while actual memories of the man himself are otherwise distant and elusive.
       The narrator is down on his luck. He was married, to Stérile, and even has a daughter, Stephanie. He used to have a decent bank job, but has been downwardly mobile for a while; he's now lost an eye in a workplace accident -- symbolic of his increasingly limited vision, as he seems to have lost almost all perspective.
       For ages, he had simply thought: "I was Swiss and Switzerland's past was my only real past". But now, after years when: "the question of my origins never even occurred to me", it now comes down on him like a ton of bricks: his, and his father's, past clearly haunt him, and he's not very good at working through it, whether in meeting his only remaining relatives or looking for answers in his encyclopedia. Echoes all around -- notably from his loud anti-Semitic new neighbors, the Sbritzkys, who eventually even sic 'Commisioner Stalun' and 'Bailiff Hiltler' on him -- don't help either.
       There's considerable comic relief in Privy Portrait, as the narrator recounts his sadly amusing efforts to get by and find his place -- not very good efforts, which are marked by missteps and bad decisions all along the way. The humor leavens and distracts from what's an otherwise very dark tale, a mix Benoziglio manages quite well, helped by his sharp, wry writing which Tess Lewis captures nicely in her translation.
       While Privy Portrait doesn't really feel dated, its impact is perhaps no longer as strong given the proliferation of novels over the decades since its original publication covering similar ground, dealing with the various forms of guilt surrounding the Second World War, as well as Swiss (and general) anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and issues of personal and national identity. - M.A.Orthofer

For ten days, I was so thoroughly absorbed in Jean-Luc Benoziglio’s Privy Portrait that I remained torn between devoting an afternoon to finishing the darkly droll novel and continuing to read it in snatches in order to prolong the particular emotion it provoked. Every day, I chose the latter solution, all the while wondering how I had managed to overlook Cabinet portrait—the original title — when it appeared in French in 1980 and won the Médicis Prize. Tess Lewis has provided an invigorating translation that captures the amusingly colliding layers of diction in the French prose.
In a plot that artfully flits between past and present, Benoziglio (1941-2013) combines joyfully bleak introspection, lively dialogues (or shouting matches), troubling nightmares, absurd or sordid mini-events, oblique yet telling flashbacks, funny asides about writing, and inserted passages taken from the encyclopedia volumes perused by the narrator in the common toilet used by him and other tenants in a Parisian apartment building.
The novel begins with the narrator’s move into a tiny room in that run-down building. He is now estranged from his wife Stérile and young daughter Stéphanie, is blind in one eye, and suspects that he has rectum cancer because of violent pains that assail him.
The concierge assures him that he will eventually get used to the behavior of the other tenants on his floor. It is a real “circus” — a recurrent word. There are gruesome groans behind a door. One neighbor is a somewhat alluring single mother with a mentally retarded, psychologically disturbed son whose behavior can be worrisome. Above all, the narrator must live alongside the Sbritzkys, a vociferous couple who keep their television blaring all day long and who lord over every single detail of the other tenants’ daily life.
Besides their overall vulgarity and aggressiveness, the Sbritzkys are anti-Semitic, whereas the narrator has reached a point in his life when he must come to terms with his Jewish heritage. He has little information about his paternal ancestors, most of whom perished in the Shoah. He knows that his father, chillingly designated throughout the novel as “the man in the white coat” (for he was a psychiatrist), was a descendent of Sephardic Jews who had settled in Turkey after the expulsion of the Jews, in 1492, from the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella; and he is aware that his father had emigrated to Switzerland for his medical studies two years before the outbreak of the Second World War. Settling in the country at the time, he escaped the Holocaust. Passages reveal the extent to which the father-son relationship remained remote—to say the least—during the narrator’s childhood.
In its broad outline, Benoziglio’s own life parallels that of his narrator: the Francophone writer was also born in Switzerland, of a Turkish father and an Italian mother, and he moved to France in 1967. In the novel, the narrator harbors no special attachment to, nor repulsion for, his native country. He has also lived in France for several years, an expatriation by no means implying that he has become “French.” Essentially without a country, he has other doubts about his personal identity as well.
This Wandering Jew theme, which is introduced discreetly into the novel and grows in intensity, is especially compelling. Ever with clownish humor not without twists of poignancy, Benoziglio describes a man who has lost his stability in the world. This is not only due to the break up of his immediate family or to the loss of his job, but also to this unsettling family history, on his father’s side, which is enveloped by a “ghostly and glacial fog.”
Although the narrator mocks his own feelings of existential insecurity, they eat away at him. This angst becomes increasingly clear in a novel that occasionally discloses disturbing and haunting elements within an otherwise farcical — desperately farcical — atmosphere. Beneath the narrator’s playful cynicism lies a sort of yearning. Signs of his sensitivity to his incurable rootlessness include his imaginary conversations with a “cousin” in Turkey and his attempts to catch bits of news about the country by listening to the television broadcasts roaring out from the Sbritzkys’s apartment.
“According to my neighbors’ television set,” he notes for example, “things don’t look good in my cousin’s country. It’s so bad, in fact, that if I took up arms and went I wouldn’t know whom to shoot.” And he muses, now and then, about the few surviving family items that offer clues to his vague, lacunary, Turkish-Sephardic background.
Jean-Luc Benoziglio --
Author Jean-Luc Benoziglio — with clownish humor and twists of poignancy, he describes a man who has lost his stability in the world.
However, as a key flashback reveals, the narrator actually feels only part Jewish, if Jewish at all. Recalling a time when he “was earning money by the shovelful” at the “Bank of Thingy & Co,” he remembers a conversation with a Jewish colleague. The colleague was baiting him, in a bar, to acknowledge his religious heritage:
“For God’s sake,” I whispered furiously enough to strike water from a stone, “try to understand that I’m not interested in the religious side of the issue. I don’t give a shit about religion. Besides, for all I know, my ancestor back there could well have been a communist or a freemason or an atheist or an Islamic convert or a sun worshipper, what difference does it make? Does it change anything?”
“Precisely,” he said. “It doesn’t change a thing. Whether you like it or not he was and he remained a Jew. Like you.”
“Only part,” I said.
“Now really,” he began, “why do you always have to renounce, play down. . . What do you mean by ‘only part’?”
“What I mean is, my mother isn’t one.”
He choked on his drink.
“Your mother’s not Jewish?”
“But then,” he spluttered, “if your mother isn’t, then you. . . Then you, sir, are not one of us at all? Do you know what Solomon said?”
I wasn’t even sure who Solomon was. …

Beyond the particularities of the Jewish existential condition, which are conjured up with wit and subtlety, Privy Portrait portrays a contemporary human being who has lost all handholds, all footholds, all practical, moral, and metaphysical support—except for that provided by the articles of his beloved encyclopedia. The recorded knowledge of the world provides a last mainstay, a final refuge: he locks himself in the privy for hours until the thunderous knocks of the Sbritzkys or some other tenant draw him out.
But even the encyclopedia might well disappear. The Sbritzkys sabotage the volumes in grievous ways and pressure the narrator to remove them. There are no redeeming characters in the novel except, perhaps, the hapless retarded boy to whom the narrator is kind on a couple of occasions. Even Asparagus and Brick House, the two more or less friendly movers, eventually cheat him out of some money through their “Second to Last” drinking game. Can writing somehow save him? It is the narrator who is writing this deep-probing, grotesquely entertaining novel. - John Taylor

Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert - the autobiography of Davi Kopenawa, one of Brazil’s most prominent and eloquent indigenous leaders. It is the most vivid and authentic account of shamanistic philosophy I have ever read. It is also a passionate appeal for the rights of indigenous people


Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman, Trans. by Nicholas Elliott and Alison Dundy. Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2014.

The Falling Sky is a remarkable first-person account of the life story and cosmo-ecological thought of Davi Kopenawa, shaman and spokesman for the Yanomami of the Brazilian Amazon. Representing a people whose very existence is in jeopardy, Davi Kopenawa paints an unforgettable picture of Yanomami culture, past and present, in the heart of the rainforest—a world where ancient indigenous knowledge and shamanic traditions cope with the global geopolitics of an insatiable natural resources extraction industry.
In richly evocative language, Kopenawa recounts his initiation and experience as a shaman, as well as his first encounters with outsiders: government officials, missionaries, road workers, cattle ranchers, and gold prospectors. He vividly describes the ensuing cultural repression, environmental devastation, and deaths resulting from epidemics and violence. To counter these threats, Davi Kopenawa became a global ambassador for his endangered people. The Falling Sky follows him from his native village in the Northern Amazon to Brazilian cities and finally on transatlantic flights bound for European and American capitals. These travels constitute a shamanic critique of Western industrial society, whose endless material greed, mass violence, and ecological blindness contrast sharply with Yanomami cultural values.

Anthropologists and other specialists will find much to relish in this beautifully crafted evocation of Yanomami culture and philosophy. Based on hundreds of hours of interviews taped in native language, it is enriched by almost a hundred pages of footnotes, ethnobiological and geographic glossaries, bibliographical references, detailed indexes and, last but not least, an essay by Bruce Albert on how he wrote the book. While the book resonates with current Western metaphysical angst about finitude, it is written principally as a long shamanic chant that opens up a multitude of interior journeys and provides a new consciousness of the world as a whole… The Yanomami have suffered the effects of deadly epidemics, land dispossession and aggressive missionary evangelism. The resulting break in the flow of knowledge between older and younger generations, a lack of communication between indigenous and nonindigenous interlocutors, and a general loss of connection with the natural environment, are common problems. Despite remarkable political gains in the past thirty years, including the adoption of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2007, a health and social crisis is deepening within many indigenous communities. As The Falling Sky makes plain, this crisis is rooted in the symbolic violence exercised by the dominant society, which fails to recognize the value (rather than just the right) of being different and of living in a distinct human collectivity… It is, above all, a splendid story told by an exceptional man, who barely knows how to read and write. That the story was written down by an ethnographer who elected not to adjust his research to the canons of academia adds to its importance. The use of the first-person singular to tell the tale involves a fusion of authorial voices, a sign of mutual recognition and true friendship if ever there was one; it lends a musical quality to the resulting ‘heterobiography.’ Through their sonorous presence, the numerous beings evoked in the shamanic chant usher in the fertility of life as shamans see and feel it. What better way to entice readers away from everyday forgetfulness than to invite them to hear the forest’s vast and timeless symphony?Laura Rival

One of the first and best autobiographical narratives by an indigenous lowland Amazonian… The book is a mix of autobiography, history, personal philosophy, and cultural criticism of whites for their destruction of the world, worship of the material, and lack of spirituality and vitality… The book is not only finely detailed and full of challenging philosophical points, it also contains much humor… Ultimately, it is Kopenawa’s voice that tells us who he is, who his people are, and who we are to them. It is complex and nuanced; I’d go so far as to call The Falling Sky a literary treasure: invaluable as academic reading, but also a must for anyone who wants to understand more of the diverse beauty and wonder of existence.Daniel L. Everett

Kopenawa provides a fascinating glimpse into his life as well as into Yanomami cultural beliefs and practices, setting his story against the various threats the Yanomami people and their forest have faced since the 1960s… Kopenawa’s story is eloquent, engaging, and thought-provoking, exuding heartfelt wisdom. This extraordinary and richly detailed work is an outstanding explication of the Yanomami worldview as well as a plea to all people to respect and preserve the rain forest.Elizabeth Salt

This engaging text, the autobiography of Yanomami shaman and activist Davi Kopenawa, translated with some prefatory remarks, appendixes, notes, and additional biographical comments by anthropologist [Bruce] Albert, offers a valuable insider perspective on a much-studied Amazonian society, with rich details on myth and religious practices, including shamanic initiation. Albert frames this story with a half-century-long history of exploitation by Westerners, ranging from anthropologists to government officials and developers. Kopenawa’s direct experiences with, and assessment of, his white interlocutors is often charged with a well-justified anger, but through the course of his personal history the need for mutual respect and, where appropriate, collaboration is likewise made evident. The text offers a trenchant critique of the characterization of the Yanomami as humanity’s primordial ‘fierce people,’ highlighting the beauty and virtues of these people while reminding readers of Western cultural and ecological destruction in the Amazon (an exceptionally virulent brand of fierceness).C. J. MacKenzie

I have just read your manuscript and am enormously impressed by this work of such powerful methodological interest and prodigious documentary richness. It wholly captivates the reader yet is simultaneously so complex, raising so many questions.Claude Lévi-Strauss, letter to Bruce Albert, July 10, 2006

The words of the Yanomami shamans are powerful: they conjure up another world responsible for this one. Davi Kopenawa proves it for us. Not only do his words give us an unparalleled experience of the life of the Yanomami, but his moving description of their struggle to save the forest and themselves from destruction by the whites reveals the modern tragedy of indigenous peoples in ways we never imagined.Marshall Sahlins

Amazonas/Contact Press Images Shaman Davi Kopenawa in the Yanomami village of Demini, settled in the late 1970s near a FUNAI ­outpost that occupied a barracks from the abandoned Perimetral Norte road project, Yanomami territory, ­Roraima state, Brazil, April 2014; photographs by Sebastião Salgado, whose exhibition ‘Sebastião Salgado: Genesis’ is at the International Center of Photography, New York City, until January 11, 2015. The catalog is edited by Lélia Wanick Salgado and published by Taschen.
The Falling Sky, by the Yanomami shaman Davi Kopenawa and the French anthropologist Bruce Albert, takes its title from a creation myth of the Yanomami people, who live in the border region between Brazil and Venezuela. The primordial world was crushed by the collapse of the sky, hurling its inhabitants into the underworld. The exposed “back” of the previous sky became the forest where the Yanomami emerged, and where they remain to this day; they still call the forest “the old sky.” A new sky was erected, held in place by metal foundations set deep in the ground by the demiurge Omama. Yet the new sky is under constant assault by the forces of chaos, and Yanomami shamans work tirelessly with their spirit allies, the xapiri, to avert a new apocalypse. A diaphanous third sky already lies waiting, high above, in case the current one collapses and the world once again comes to an end.
Numbering 33,000, the Yanomami are one of the Amazon’s largest indigenous societies, occupying a vast territory centered on the Parima mountain range dividing the Amazon from the Orinoco basin. Isolated until the early twentieth century, their first regular contacts with missionaries and government agents in Brazil began between 1940 and 1960. These relations brought them metal tools and other desired trade goods as well as fatal disease epidemics.
In the 1970s, the Brazilian government began cutting the northern leg of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, causing deforestation and new disruptions to Yanomami life. Highway construction was abandoned after several years but a huge gold rush in the mid-1980s inflicted tremendous suffering and ecological devastation. In 1992 international campaigns by anthropologists and indigenous and nongovernmental organizations resulted in the demarcation of a contiguous territory for the Yanomami totaling 192,000 square kilometers (slightly larger than Florida) shared between Brazil and Venezuela. Both authors of this book, Kopenawa as international Yanomami spokesman and Albert as cofounder of the nongovernmental organization CCPY (Pro-Yanomami Commission), were central figures in this important victory, and both remain active in the ongoing struggle against mining incursions and other threats.1
The Falling Sky is several things. It is the autobiography of Davi Kopenawa, one of Brazil’s most prominent and eloquent indigenous leaders. It is the most vivid and authentic account of shamanistic philosophy I have ever read. It is also a passionate appeal for the rights of indigenous people and a scathing condemnation of the damage wrought by missionaries, gold miners, and white people’s greed. The footnotes alone harbor monographs on Yanomami botany and zoology, mythology, ritual, and history.
Most of all, The Falling Sky is an elegy to oral tradition and the power of the spoken word. We take for granted the superior fidelity and durability of the printed word over speech in transmitting knowledge through time. In his singular voice Kopenawa, talking of xapiri spirits, turns this notion on its head:
I do not possess old books in which my ancestors’ words have been drawn. The xapiri’s words are set in my thought, in the deepest part of me…. They are very old, yet the shamans constantly renew them…. They can neither be watered down nor burned. They will not get old like those that stay stuck to image skins made from dead trees. When I am long gone, they will still be as new and strong as they are now.
The book was transcribed, translated, and edited from a hundred hours of taped interviews Albert conducted with Kopenawa in the Yanomami language from 1989 through 2001. The project began in late 1989 (the two had already known each other for a decade) when Kopenawa, in an anguished reaction to the invasion of Yanomami lands by gold miners, left Albert an extended audio message on three cassette tapes. Their collaborative translation and publication of this material, “joining shamanism with ethnopolitics,” brought the Yanomami cause to international attention. Continuing the process, Kopenawa asked Albert to help him write this book, setting his spoken words on paper (what he calls “image skins” or “paper skins”) in the white man’s language (“ghost talk”) to spread them throughout the world.
As both narrator and first author, Kopenawa addresses the reader directly: “You don’t know me and you have never seen me. You live on a distant land. This is why I want to let you know what the elders taught me.”
Davi Kopenawa was born around 1956 on the upper Rio Toototobi near Brazil’s border with Venezuela, which at the time had not yet been formally demarcated. His Yanomami name is known to his kinsmen but cannot be repeated in polite company: for the Yanomami, pronouncing a person’s name, especially that of a dead family member, is offensive and infuriating. Annoyed by outsiders who constantly pester the Yanomami about their names, Kopenawa says simply, “We want to protect our name. We don’t like to repeat it all the time.”
His Christian name, Davi (David), was given by evangelical “New Tribes” missionaries who built an outpost at Toototobi in 1963. The surname Kopenawa he acquired himself, years later, during shamanic initiation. The name refers to kopena, a fierce wasp species whose warrior spirits help him battle illness and evil forces.
The Falling Sky is organized thematically rather than chronologically, shifting between details of Kopenawa’s life, observations about Yanomami culture, digressions on myth and cosmology, and accounts of dreams and shamanic visions. Though repetitive and sometimes rambling, the reiteration of particular facts and phrases provides rhyme and meter to a text that originated as an oral performance.
The first section of the book describes Kopenawa’s initiation as a shaman in the early 1980s, when he was already disenchanted with the white people’s world. Yanomami shamans use a powerful hallucinogenic snuff, yãkoana, made from the resin of the nutmeg relative Virola elongata. By taking it, the shaman “dies” or “becomes other” and experiences the spirit world firsthand. Kopenawa renders these visions with images of haunting beauty:
The xapiri float down through the air from their mirrors to come protect us… Their mirrors arrive from the sky’s chest, slowly preceding them. They suddenly stop in the air and remain suspended… When they arrive, their songs name the distant lands they came from and traveled through. They evoke the places where they drank the waters of a sweet river, the disease-free forests where they ate unknown foods, the edges of the sky where, without night, one never sleeps.
The xapiri, enumerated encyclopedically as spirit beings who are identified with particular biological species, are as exuberant and diverse as the rainforest itself:
Once the parrot has finished his song, the tapir spirit begins his, then comes the turn of the jaguar spirit, the giant armadillo spirit, and all the animal ancestors’ spirits… The agouti, acouchi, and paca spirits tear out the harmful things that the evil beings stuck in [the sick person’s] image…. The wasp spirits arrow them, the spirits of the witiwitima namo kite lacerate them with their sharp blades, and the coati spirits knock them out with their clubs…. The spirits of the aro kohi, apuru uhi, komatima hi, and oruxi hi trees bump into them and knock them over. Those of the wari mahi tree thrash them. With their skulls split and their bodies covered in wounds, the stunned evil beings eventually stumble.
Kopenawa elucidates the philosophy underlying the Yanomami worldview. The relationship between “image” (spirit essences that shamans perceive and manipulate) and “skin” (physical manifestations) is reminiscent of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. The concept në rope, which Albert glosses as “value of growth,” can be understood as a Yanomami alternative to Adam Smith’s theory of capitalist markets. Në rope is the “invisible hand” that regulates Yanomami economy, ecology, and spirituality:
The value of growth remains abundant in the forest and if our gardens take the value of hunger [i.e., do not grow well], our shamans drink the yãkoana to bring it back home. And if need be we can also borrow the forest’s fertility from a friendly house…. When the forest’s richness runs away, the game becomes skinny and scarce, for this richness is what makes game prosper…. To live, their images must feed on the image of the forest’s value of growth. This is why shamans also bring down the image of the game’s fat with that of the forest’s fertility.
Kopenawa’s elaboration of shamanic concepts goes beyond ethnography and becomes a new genre of native philosophical inquiry. When an indigenous narrator this articulate produces an original exegesis of his own worldview, anthropology and anthropologists have become almost obsolete. Almost: for it is Bruce Albert’s deep knowledge of Yanomami language and culture and his subtle skill as a translator that allow Kopenawa’s voice to come through with such directness and power.
The second section of the book comes chronologically first, describing Kopenawa’s early life. His father died when he was very young; the death was blamed on sorcery by an enemy warrior, an accusation as serious as homicide. Had he learned of this fact sooner, Kopenawa might have killed the sorcerer to avenge his father according to Yanomami custom. “But today a long time has passed, and I am no longer angry. Anyhow this man already died of malaria when the gold prospectors arrived.”
His mother died in a measles epidemic that was brought to the village unwittingly in 1967 by the American missionary Keith Wardlaw, whose infant daughter was infected en route. The missionaries did their best to treat the sick, but the disease spread quickly, leaving 165 stricken, including Kopenawa himself, and seventeen dead.
In Yanomami funerals, the corpse is suspended up a tree within a protective lattice until it decomposes. The bones are then gathered, cremated, pulverized, and consumed in banana porridge in order to release the spirit. Christian burial is considered a “revolting practice”: “We think that white people like mistreating their own deceased. They shut them up underground and insult them by mentioning their names at any opportunity.”
Yet the missionaries were equally appalled by Yanomami customs, and took advantage of the villagers’ physical exhaustion to bury the dead secretly:
I was never able to learn where my mother was buried. The people of Teosi [“God,” from the Portuguese Deus] never told us, so that we could not gather the bones of our dead. Because of them, I was never able to mourn my mother the way our people usually do. It is a very bad thing.
In part fearing that the epidemic was retaliation for their resistance to Christian teachings (one Yanomami term for measles is Teosi a wai, “God’s epidemic”), most in the village soon converted. Wardlaw and his wife published excerpts from their diaries in a missionary journal with the disconcerting title Brown Gold. They appear more concerned with the fact that “many of our friends had passed on to eternity without knowing Christ” than with the tragedy of the epidemic; indeed, they seem to revel in its power in persuading the Yanomami to accept Christian faith: “God never makes a mistake and now that the crisis is passed we can see how the Lord is working in hearts through the things that have happened…. The power of God is at work and it is a great and marvelous thing to behold.” Indeed.

Amazonas/Contact Press Images Yanomami protectors of the sacred mountain Pico da Neblina (Mist Peak), which was overrun by gold miners in the late 1980s, Maturacá, Yanomami territory, Amazonas state, Brazil, April 2014
Yet the villagers’ adhesion to Christianity was short-lived. Kopenawa’s stepfather, a powerful leader who had been among the first to convert, encountered hypocrisy and logical contradictions in the missionaries’ teachings. He and most others returned to the old ways. They were especially disappointed by Teosi’s inability to prevent further epidemics despite their fervent prayers. Drawing on his later shamanic experiences, Kopenawa refutes Christian doctrine with practical reason:
The missionaries deceived us long ago! Too often, I listened to them tell us…“[Jesus] will come down to you! He will come soon!” But time has passed and I still haven’t seen him! I finally got tired of hearing these lies. Do shamans vainly repeat this kind of thing all the time? No, they drink the yãkoana and instantly bring down their spirits’ image.
Kopenawa declares, “[God] is dead and his ghost disappeared beyond the sky.”
After his mother’s death, Kopenawa became restless. At age fifteen he began working for Brazil’s federal Indian agency, FUNAI, as a native guide. Thus began a decade-long period, from the early 1970s through the early 1980s, of extensive travels in Yanomami territory and neighboring indigenous lands, and to cities like Manaus and Boa Vista. He makes fun of his own youthful enthusiasm “to become a white man”: “When I saw the white people slip on their pants, I thought: ‘I am going to hide my legs just like them!’” Upon first arriving in Manaus, he sees bustling activity in the market and muses, “All this to barter…for some old pieces of paper skin [money].” He observes with innocent candor, “I had never seen so many white people! They were really everywhere! I told myself they must never stop copulating to be so numerous.”
His fascination with this world ended when he contracted tuberculosis. After a lengthy stay in a hospital he returned home and “little by little the desire to become a white man disappeared from my mind.” He went back to work for FUNAI in the mid-1970s, witnessing the senseless destruction caused by the ill-fated Perimetral Norte road project. No longer naive about white people’s ways, he began to understand the threat they pose to the existence of the Yanomami and the forest: “The white people’s thought is full of ignorance. They constantly devastate the land they live on and transform the waters they drink into quagmires!”
In the early 1980s, Kopenawa married the daughter of a traditionalist shaman and began the initiation recounted in Part I of The Falling Sky. During the late 1980s, however, Yanomami territory was overrun by tens of thousands of gold prospectors, bringing new waves of epidemics and unprecedented cultural and environmental devastation. Kopenawa, drawing on his shamanic insights and unique experience among whites, emerged as the main spokesman for the Yanomami cause.
He remarks: “The things that white people work so hard to extract from the depths of the earth, minerals and oil, are not foods.” Drawing on myths and shamanic experiences, Kopenawa develops his own understanding of the destructive forces unleashed by mining. Digging deep underground threatens to “tear out the sky’s roots,” the metal foundations erected by the creator god Omama to hold up the cosmos. He concludes that minerals are in fact “fragments of the sky, moon, sun, and stars, which fell down in the beginning of time.” These hot, dangerous “sorcery substances” were hidden by Omama in the cool depths of the earth. “Tearing these evil things out of the ground” and smelting them unleashes disease-ridden vapors. Epidemic illnesses are represented in the spirit world as cannibal beings living in “houses overflowing with merchandise and food, like gold prospector camps.”
These illnesses make not only the Yanomami sick, but the sky itself:
The sky…is getting as sick as we do! If all this continues, its image will become riddled with holes from the heat of the mineral fumes. Then it will slowly melt, like a plastic bag thrown in the fire…. If the sky catches fire, it will fall again. Then we will all be burned, and we will be hurled into the underworld like the first people in the beginning of time.
The third part of the book recounts Kopenawa’s international travels, beginning in the late 1980s, to conferences and events in the US and Europe to represent the Yanomami cause and receive numerous honors, among them Spain’s Bartolomé de las Casas Award. Kopenawa examines these experiences to explore the deep cosmological and philosophical divide between his own worldview and that of white people.
Of the “Merchandise Love” that he sees at the root of white people’s greed and destructiveness, he states with prophetic moral clarity: “Merchandise does not die…. When a human being dies, his ghost does not carry any of his goods onto the sky’s back, even if he is very greedy.” Kopenawa also perceives how the shamanic path has set him apart from ordinary Yanomami: “If you do not become other with the yãkoana, you can only live in ignorance. You limit yourself to eating, laughing, copulating, speaking in vain, and sleeping without dreaming much.”
The anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, author of Yanomamö: The Fierce People,2 is mentioned briefly at the end of the book. However, especially in Chapter 21, where Kopenawa contrasts Yanomami traditional revenge killings with the Western phenomenon of total war, Chagnon’s controversial legacy3 looms large, as does Albert’s own editorial hand. This chapter seems to recapitulate, in Kopenawa’s voice, the same arguments Albert has raised against Chagnon in heated scholarly debates.4 As a cultural anthropologist, Albert sees Yanomami warfare from the native point of view: an integral part of mourning practices that aim at erasing all traces of the dead person (including cremated bones) and quickly sating grief-fueled rage through revenge on the individual killer or sorcerer. Chagnon’s widely cited sociobiological theory reduces Yanomami warfare to a Darwinian contest among males to capture women and procreate.5 Albert and others6 have used Chagnon’s own data to refute his central claim that the “fiercer,” more homicidal Yanomami men have more offspring.
Yet the overall picture Chagnon paints of Yanomami society during the 1960s in his notorious ethnography is not altogether different from that described by Kopenawa for the same period: “At that time, our elders did not hesitate to kill the enemies who had eaten [a Yanomami expression for ‘killing in warfare’, not actual cannibalism] their kin. They were very valiant.” Albert quibbles about the nuances of the Yanomami term waithiri, glossed by Chagnon as “fierce” but qualified by Albert as “ambivalently…both ‘aggressive’ and ‘valiant.’” There is little doubt from Kopenawa’s own words that the Yanomami value bravery, revenge, and the warrior ethos, though many other things besides. In his frank language, Kopenawa refers often to his kinsmen’s preoccupation with “eating vulvas”; the fact that the verb “to eat” is a euphemism for both intercourse and killing suggests that the Yanomami, like many people, see sex and violence as somehow related, if not in the casual sense suggested by Chagnon’s hypotheses.
Kopenawa concludes by reflecting on the profound cultural changes that have turned this warrior ethos outward toward new threats: “The words of warfare have not disappeared from our mind, but today we no longer want to harm ourselves this way.”
He describes with sincere regret how he lost an especially powerful bird spirit after a long airplane flight: “Some of my xapiri were carried away as down feathers by the blast of the airplane motors… The paths of my new ayokora cacique bird spirits must have been severed without my knowledge.” And yet various uncanny experiences and dreams during overseas trips reinforced his conviction that the xapiri are indeed present in these distant lands, and that they “also work to protect the white people who live under the same sky.” He finds echoes of Yanomami notions in Western environmental thought, but with an important caveat: “Since the beginning of time, Omama has been the center of what the white people call ecology…. In the forest, we human beings are the ‘ecology.’”
Absorbing global discussions of climate change and the environment, Kopenawa finds a universal application for his shamanic calling: “There is only one sky and we must take care of it, for if it becomes sick, everything will come to an end.”
The hybrid “written/spoken textual duet” Albert has created with his Yanomami friend rescues what Marshall McLuhan calls the “resonating diversity of spoken words” on the typographic page. Like his ancestors, whose voices will continue to echo in shamans’ songs after his death, Davi Kopenawa has made sure that his own powerful words will be preserved:
Even if they do not listen to my words while I am alive, I am leaving the drawings of these words on this paper skin so that their children and those who are born after them can one day see and understand them. - Glenn H. Shepard Jr. 

Shaman Davi Kopenawa Yanomami is an advocate for his people and president of the Hutukara Yanomami Association.

"I Fight Because I Am Alive": An interview with Davi Kopenawa Yanomami

Watch Alison Dundy discuss the complex process of retaining Kopenawa’s original voice during the translation process

Watch a 2009 interview with Kopenawa on the threat posed to South American Indians by loggers, miners, and climate change


Yanomami: The Fierce Controversy and What We Can Learn from It By Robert Borofsky