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6 2 8 A M E R I C A N A N T H R O P O L O G I S T V O L . 9 9 , N o .

3 S E P T E M B E R 1 9 9 7
T e x t u a l I n t e r p r e t a t i o n in t h e Amazon
E. JEAN LANCDON
Universida.de Federal de Santa Catarina, Brazil
Yumpari: Studies of an Amazonian Foundation Myth.
Geraldo Reichel-Dolmatoff. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Uni-
versity Press, 1996. 300 pp.
Cool Tobacco, Sweet Coca: Teachings of an Indian Sage
from, the Colombian Amazon. Hipolito Can dre an d Juan
Alvaro Echeverri. Devon, England: Themis Books, 1996.
294 pp.
Reichel-Dolmatoff s Yurupari an d Hipolito Can-
dre's collaboration with Juan Alvaro Echeverri in Cool
Tobacco, Sweet Coca are importan t con tribution s to
the an alysis of South American oral literature as com-
plex art forms an d symbolic expression s of n ative phi-
losophy. The work of tran slation is cen tral, Yurupari
in its deep seman tic in terpretation of four Eastern
Tukan oan texts, an d Cool Tobacco, Sweet Coca in its
preoccupation with U itoto poetics an d performan ce.
Both demon strate how the n atural world, observation s
of biological processes, an d subsisten ce activities pro-
vide key metaphors for n ative cosmology, social or-
gan ization , gen der relation s, an d rules for living. At-
temptin g to remain loyal to n ative expression an d
mean in g, they free n arrative from the last cen tury's
stereotypic vision that regards texts as simplistic or
in fan tile stories or as tran slatable accordin g to Euro-
pean literary stan dards. Despite parallel con cern s of
the two books, there are importan t differen ces in the
methods of tran slation an d in terpretation which result
in differen t con tribution s for South American ethn ol-
ogy as well as for the reader's experien ce.
Although Reichel-Dolmatoff (1912-1994) states in
the summary of Yurupari that the texts are in ten ded
as an in troduction to the gen eral field of Tukan oan
oral literature, the book is n ot an in troductory work
but represen ts the con tin uation of his scholarly an d
ethn ographic research amon g the Eastern Tukan oan s
of the Colombian Vaupes sin ce the 1960s. His focus of
in terpretation is con cern ed with mean in g an d values
in oral tradition . The texts are part of the Yurupari
complex, a wide ran ge of Amazon ian customs an d be-
liefs, in cludin g myths, rituals, sacred in strumen ts, se-
cret societies, an d heroes, which has been the focus of
ethn ographic an d literary in terest sin ce the last cen -
tury. He hopes that the tran slation s an d in terpreta-
tion s shed n ew light on the study of this complex sin ce
they con stitute "an all importan t statemen t on the
foun dation s of social organ ization , gen der, ideology
an d ritual orien tation " (p. 265).
Criticizin g earlier in terpretation s an d tran slation s,
his method is to examin e texts recorded in the n ative
lan guages (on e in Tukan o proper an d three in Desan a)
in the field an d commen ted upon in detail by the Indi-
an s. An ton io Guzman , his lon gtime Desan a in forman t,
aided in the in terviewin g, tran scription s, an d tran sla-
tion s. More promin en t than use of the n atives' com-
men ts is the use of comparative an alysis drawin g upon
his kn owledge of other Tukan oan lan guages, which
are closely related "in their metaphors, meton ymies,
an d other tropes," a fact that, in man y ways, poin ts to
similar "men tal processes" (p. xxiv).
A literal tran slation in prose form is first pre-
sen ted for each n arrative, the author admittin g that
they soun d stiff an d clumsy an d in evitably distort the
text. Exten sive n otes an d commen taries follow the
texts, explorin g ethn ographic, lin guistic, an d biologi-
cal in formation to reveal the multitude of association s
in volved with the tropes. The deep in terpretation con-
tain ed in the commen taries is n ecessary, due to the
un tran slatability of Amazon ian metaphors an d rheto-
ric from the texts alon e (p. 97), After a short summary
of these n otes an d commen taries, an in terlin ear tran s-
lation is presen ted remain in g faithful to n ative syn tax
but at times ren derin g the En glish in comprehen sible.
Reichel-Dolmatoff s ability to join lin guistic, bio-
logical, an d ethn ographic in formation is impressive, as
well as the sophistication of the Tukan oan s' use of
keen observation s of n ature to create texts loaded
with complex metaphors an d multiple mean in gs. As in
his past works, his elaborate commen taries highlight
the sexual an d erotic implication s of the lan guage, in-
terpretin g Tukan oan culture as in heren tly "pan -
sexual" an d con cern ed with male domin ation , primo-
gen iture, an d exogamy. The sex-food-allian ce analogy
is the cen tral con cern for the possessive, in dividual
adult male, an d as the core idea of the texts, it repre-
sen ts the philosophical, ethical, an d psychological
problems of Tukan oan men tal life.
Without in ten din g to detract from the importan t
con tribution s of this book, there are certain limita-
tion s to his method. Despite con stan t affirmation s that
Reichel-Dolmatoff is n ot usin g psychological theory to
an alyze the texts an d that the mean in gs are clear to
the n ative listen ers, the book's con tribution is a den se
scholarly elaboration of n ative texts based on lin guis-
tic, biological, an d ethn ographical in formation an d n ot
the presen tation of n ative exegesis. In part this is due
to the object of an alysis: recorded texts treated as in-
depen den t from the con text of their performan ce. At
times there are un justified in feren ces based upon
BOOK REVI EW ESSA YS 629
lin guistic comparison s between Desan a, Pira-Tapuya,
U an an o, Tukan o proper, an d Arawak. For in stan ce, in
his elaboration of phallic association s with an imals
based on lin guistic eviden ce, he states that emo
(Tukan o: howler mon key) is related to the Arawakan
ema (tapir) sin ce the two are seen as allies (p. 55). But
emo could just as well be related to emu, the n ame
for howler mon key used by the Siona, a Western
Tukan oan group located far from Arawakan in fluen ce.
The work is replete with statemen ts such as "abun dan t
salivation . . . is equated with sexual poten cy" an d
"weaving is metaphorically related to copulation " (p.
79), which suggest relatively un ivocal an d fixed meta-
phorical association s that provide a sin gle message for
the participan ts. He seems to ign ore the multivocalic
quality of symbols, in which mean in gs emerge from
the con text of performan ce an d its participan ts. In the
case of the Yurupari texts, on e won ders if both sexes
an d all ages hear the same message an d have the same
preoccupation s as the possessive adult male.
While Yurupari can be characterized as mon o-
logic, at least two voices are heard in Cool Tobacco,
Sweet Coca: that of n arrator Hipolito Can dre an d that
of tran slator an d commen tator Juan Alvaro Echeverri.
First published in Span ish an d win n er of Colombia's
National Prize for In dian Literature, the book man ages
to combin e a truly poetic tran slation with clearly con -
veyed metaphorical association s. Sixteen texts in Ui-
toto an d En glish are presen ted, n in e cen tral on es an d
seven that serve as commen taries. Followin g Hymes,
Tedlock, Sherzer, Swan n , an d Carden al, Echeverri
seeks to discover the n ative poetic form through
an alysis of performan ce. The resultin g tran slation is a
pleasurable an d highly in formative readin g in U itoto
oral poetry an d daily philosophy.
In addition to its con tribution to n ative poetics,
the book reveals the importan ce an d power attributed
to lan guage an d orality in Amazon ian groups. The
texts are the word of life an d presen t the right paths
for daily con duct. The power of the word is n ot in its
utteran ce but in the con sequen ces of bein g uttered. To
in voke the word is to search an d to in sure. Word is
action ; it actualizes an d tran sforms thin gs, from the
n amed to the real, from the n amed to the man ifest.
Can dre's words search for the right con duct in life,
en sure right con duct, an d teach right con duct. The im-
portan ce of the word gives clues to un derstan din g the
source of power of shaman ic healin g chan ts, for it
in vokes spiritual presen ce. Fin ally, the book in dicates
the poten tial of the performative approach to lan guage
for bilin gual In dian education , allowin g the in corpora-
tion of n ative socialization techn iques an d aesthetic
values as well as lin guistic an d subject con ten t.
Like the Tukan oan texts, metaphoric association s
between plan ts, hun tin g, food, domestic tasks, gen der,
an d social organ ization are cen tral to the mean in gs of
texts. The highlightin g of these metaphorswhich
represen t Amazon ian perception of the n atural, social,
an d cosmological worlddiffers from Reichel-Dolma-
toff s approach. Rather than viewin g them as un tran s-
latable, the focus is the tran slation of metaphors.
Rarely is the reader told directly that X represen ts or
symbolizes Y. Rather the mean in gs emerge from the
poetry of the lan guage an d succeedin g commen taries.
Equally importan t is the organ ization of the book as
metaphor. U sing the U itoto metaphor of basketry asso-
ciatin g weavin g with the flow of threads of thought
an d dreams, the join in g of allian ces in marriage an d
the production of n ew life, the book is a n ew basket,
in tertwin in g oral an d written forms an d resultin g in a
highly successful attempt to reflect the aesthetic an d
in tellectual con ten t of U itoto oral tradition .
The P r i m i t i v e s of Linguistic M e a n i n g
ROBERT E. MACLAURY
University of Pennsylvania
Semantics: Primes and Universal^. Anna Wierzbicka.
Oxford, En glan d: Oxford University Press, 1996. 500 pp.
Here is the latest of n in e books by which Wierz-
bicka has periodically summarized her progress in
identifying the primitives of lin guistic mean in g an d her
thin kin g on seman tic un iversals. The latter con sist of
any n amed con cept or process that recurs across most
lan guages, but in con trast, primitives are the irreduc-
ible an d in defin able stock of primary mean in gs with
which all other mean in gs are composed in an y lan -
guage. Primitives are cast in semiotic an d lexico-
graphic terms by an emphasis on the sign an d by the
method of reducin g a vocabulary to the smallest set of
sign s from which its other sign s are derived; the opti-
mal diction ary avoids circularity by atomizin g each
mean in g in to a few of these primes an d by expressin g
them as proposition s. Imagery, metaphor, scen arios,
scales, maxims, poin ts of view, compon en tial systems,
word fields, an d most other latter-day lexical seman tic
con structs do n ot con tribute. The search for primitives
descen ds from 17th-cen tury philosopher G. Leibn iz,