Dark Beauty, Bright Terror
WHEN her first novel, "Ceremony," appeared in 1977, Leslie Marmon Silko, then not yet 30, was hailed in the New York Times as "without question ... the most accomplished Indian writer of her generation." Several years later she received a five-year "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and readers and fellow writers eagerly awaited an equally impressive second work from the young novelist.
It was a very long wait, indeed. The MacArthur grant ran out before she was half finished. In retrospective notes on the effort, Silko recalls that she "was still not sure how the novel would end or even if I could get control of these characters and force them to move toward an end."
At long last, "Almanac of the Dead" has been published, and it is apparent why it took 10 years - and why, coincidentally, it's appearance now is timely.
The book is a massive indictment of the impact of European discovery, exploration, and colonization of the Americas. It takes place for the most part in the not-too-distant future, when drought, corruption, and ecological damage due to overdevelopment have brought political and social instability to the southern border of the United States and the beginnings of a massive uprising of native Americans from Mexico and points south.
The cast of characters is long and their relationships are complex. Drug dealers and mafia types, corrupt police and judges (Mexican and American), homeless Vietnam vets and gun runners, reservation Indians, revolutionaries. They are almost without exception moral, emotional, or physical cripples.
Woven throughout are bits of archaeological evidence, myths, and conjecture showing how Indian tribes many hundreds of years ago predicted (some say to the day) the arrival of Europeans and - more intriguing - how "it was only a matter of time and things European would gradually fade from the American continents."
One of the main themes is how fragments of the history of natives from South America and the southwestern United States, particularly the record of indigenous native American uprisings, have been preserved and passed down, as well as the ability to foretell events.
Silko is a very skilled storyteller, and "Almanac" - which could have been divided into two or three lesser books - compellingly and hauntingly drives the reader along. Given the way things have turned out for native Americans and their culture 500 years after Columbus, it is inevitable that the end should not be happy.
One wonders why Silko's characters (Indians, as well as Anglos and those of mixed race) should be so dark, indeed perverted - to the point where some passages are exceedingly painful to read. It is to her credit that this is not a simple good-guys, bad-guys story. And Silko no doubt feels some ambiguity on questions of race, perhaps because while she grew up on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation in New Mexico, she is of Mexican and Anglo as well as Indian ancestry.
Still, it is clear in "Almanac" that those of European descent are primarily to blame. Says an old woman of one of the major institutions behind the exploration and exploitation of the Americas: "Even idiots can understand a church that tortures and kills is a church that can no longer heal; thus the Europeans had arrived in the New World in precarious spiritual health."
If there is one character representative of this moral and spiritual barrenness it is Seese, once dependent on drugs and on murderous homosexuals, who links up with the old bearers of the native history and the power of foresight to find her missing infant. Also symbolic are Angelita La Escapia, a woman descended from Mayans who makes what use she needs to of Karl Marx to foment the Indian revolution. And the Indian Sterling, who returns to the Pueblo seeking the ancient wisdom of his aunts.
But this is more than history or simple narrative and dialogue, although rich with all of these. It is primarily an allegory, a weaving of myth - which, in a culture that has a very different sense of time ("Sacred time is always in the Present."), intermingles past, present, and future. That is the strength of the story and its message, in all its dark beauty and bright terror.