Saudades Do Brasil

Claude Levi-Strauss, translated from the French by Sylvia Modelski


When I barely open my notebooks, I still smell the creosote with which, before setting off on an expedition, I used to saturate my canteens to protect them from termites and mildew. Almost undetectable after more than half a century, this trace instantly brings back to me the savannas and forests of Central Brazil, inseparably bound with other smells—human, animal, and vegetable—as well as with sounds and colors. For as faint as it now is, this odor—which for me is a perfume—is the thing itself, still a real part of what I have experienced.

Is it because too many years have elapsed (the same number of years for both, though) that photography does not bring any of that back to me? My negatives are not a miraculously preserved, tangible part of experiences that once engaged all my senses, my physical strength, and my brain; they are merely their indices—indices of people, of landscapes, and of events that I am still aware of having seen and known, but after such a long time I no longer always remember where or when. These photographic documents from sixty years ago prove to me that they did exist, but they do not evoke them for me or bring them materially back to life.

Upon re-examination, the photographs leave me with the impression of a void, a lack of something the lens is inherently unable to capture. I realize the paradox of offering them again to the public, in greater number, better reproduced, and often displayed differently from what was possible within the format of Tristes Tropiques, as if I thought that, in contrast with my own case, the pictures could offer something substantial to readers who have never been there and who therefore must content themselves with this silent imagery, especially since, if they went to see it for themselves, this world would be unrecognizable and would in many respects have simply vanished.

Decimated by smallpox epidemics in 1945 and again in 1975, and reduced in numbers to seven or eight hundred, the Nambikwara today lead a precarious existence close by the religious missions and government posts that watch over the Indians; or else they camp by the side of a road traveled by heavy trucks; or again on the outskirts of Vilhena, the city of 60,000 inhabitants (that was ten years ago; the figure must be higher now) that is rising in the heart of their territory, where in my day the only signs of civilization left after an abortive attempt at penetration were a dozen shanties made of mud-plastered wattle in which a few mixed-blood families languished, dying of hunger and disease.

Nevertheless, it would seem that even quite recently tiny groups of Nambikwara managed to remain, as far as possible, faithful to their traditional life, hunting with bows and arrows in areas not yet invaded by the giant agricultural conglomerates that have taken over the region.

Yet when, in 1992, on the occasion of the five-hundredth anniversary of the…

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