A Sight of the Bright Life

The Book of Counsel: The Popol Vuh of the Quiche Maya of Guatemala

translated and with an Introduction by Munro S. Edmonson
Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, 291 pp., $10.50 (paper)

Every approach to the indigenous literature of the Americas, and in particular to those works whose forms and main or entire impulse antedate the European conquest, is troubling, and this is so in close proportion to the degree to which the reconstruction evokes the life and excitement of the original. The fact that the reconstructions are indispensable to us common readers—that our knowledge of these words out of the past of the Americas in which we were born and learned to speak depends (entirely, in most cases) on their representations in languages brought from Europe by the same conquest that overran the American natives—is and should be a part of what troubles us, as it is part of the uneasy elusive richness of our cultural lives, and of the bad conscience and sense of inherited deprivation which these works stir in us.

We come to them as to remnants salvaged from the burned-out libraries of the East, and even as our means of comprehending some of the surviving works appear to improve, they shed light as well on the surrounding void, making clearer how much has been lost. They remind us that the libraries are still burning, in Vietnam and Cambodia, in Latin America, and in our own West, under the auspices of the same unleashed rapacity and self-righteousness that engineered the destruction of our Indies from the beginning.

For unless our concern with these works is nothing but dilettantism, vanity (amateur or professional), the collector’s disguise of idleness, one thing that troubles us in their presence is the growing certainty that what has been lost was rightfully ours, a part of ourselves not only in so far as we are Americans, but in so far as we are a people—or people—at all. As for being Americans, the dead (if only in Blake’s sense) who have acted in our name, the speculators, the exploiters, the Andrew Jacksons, the Nixons, seem never to have had any doubt that the designation meant simply belonging to an immense enterprise for the unlimited bloating of the members’ egos, and they still call this pathetic club their dream. Whereas many of the best of the invaders and their descendants have spent much of their lives trying to determine, for their own sakes and ours, just what, in fact, it might mean to be American. The inquiry, more often than not, has bespoken a painful awareness of something missing, of a handicap inherent in the unhealing rawness of their—and our—situation.

There must be few instances in history of a population telling itself as often and as piously that it was a “people,” and with as vague and ill-imagined a notion of what the term entails, as we have done, and do. Yet we have only to open the Popol Vuh, the sacred book of the Quiche Maya Indians—even transposed into another language—to recognize that the voice that is speaking to us is that of “a people …

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